Re-Read: Empire of Lies, by Raymond Khoury

Five stars

After having quite the hard time with this book as an ARC and marking it as unfinished, I felt as though I ought to at least try it in an audiobook format once it had been published. This is my re-read review, with some new sentiments, though I still struggled quite a bit.

Definitely a great fan of alternate history and keen when I see Raymond Khoury’s work pop up on the various book sites I use, I hoped to find great interest in this novel. That being said, things began to fall short from the beginning of this piece and remained troublesome for me. The premise, that the Ottoman Empire continued to gather strength and overtook much of Europe into the present day, sounded good on paper, but as Khoury wove his story, things never seemed to connect for me. A mysteriously tattooed man lurks in the shadows, only to be loosely revealed as a time traveller from ‘our history’, who sees the rise of America and the destruction of the Ottomans. He seeks to tweak history to further strengthen the Islamic influence in the world and to create a worldwide Islamic Empire—one that present-day ISIS would envy. However, when the secret to his abilities is revealed to two characters who have only ever known a Europe under Ottoman rule, they try to change their own history to ensure Vienna was truly the weakening of the Ottomans. Travels through time create much strain for them and the reorganisation of time comes with its own perils, but if it saves the world, why not?! Even this second time around, I found it hard to grasp onto themes that kept me intrigued, save for the promise to myself and fellow readers to write a review of the entire novel.

I am by no means the greatest reviewer or most lax Goodreads wordsmith. I hoped for some injected excitement, but even the information Khoury revealed left me wanting more and unable to find something upon which I could hang my proverbial cloak. While I hated to leave a book unfinished—particularly an ARC—and now return to offer little insight into the full novel recited to me by an audiobook narrator, I owe it to myself and others not to spruce up something that made me somewhat miserable. While some will surely love it, I cannot offer frilly comments. I did enjoy a little more about the premise of WHAT IF surrounding the Ottoman Empire and how a world under Islamic control might differ greatly from what we know today. That being said, there are a few dictators in countries that espouse democracy, that we might not be that far off from leaders drunk off their own power and Tweet abilities. I can only hope this was but a blip on the Khoury radar, not the new norm after a fairly lengthy time away from full novels.

Kudos, Mr. Khoury, for dreaming up an interesting premise. Delivery was off for me, so I hope others can see the empire for the castle walls, to poorly mangle a cliché!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Murder Off the Page (42nd Street Library Mystery #3) by Con Lehane

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Con Lehane, St. Martin’s Press, and Minotaur Books for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

In the latest novel of this series, Con Lehane spins another tale of a dedicated librarian who seems always to be in the line of fire when murder strikes. Raymond Ambler has been working hard within the 42 St branch of New York City’s Library. He remembers a patron coming in and spending hours reviewing a recently donated collection of writings and correspondence of a popular author. He also notices that she has made an appearance at the watering hole of library employees. Shannon Darling is completely different when plied with alcohol, turning into quite the seductress. Brian McNulty is not only a friend of Ambler’s, but also the bartender of this establishment and takes it upon himself to help get Darling back to her hotel room safely. When, a few days later, Ambler learns that his friend has disappeared, he cannot help but worry. McNulty soon reaches out and promises that he is safe, but needs to handle a few things. When the body of a man turns up dead in a hotel room, Darling’s face shows up on the security camera. McNulty admits that he was with her, but refuses to come out of hiding. Ambler begins trying to see if he can determine what’s going on and if the correspondence Darling was reading could have something to do with what is going on. Darling turns up dead and McNulty is the prime suspect, but this is only the beginning. Ambler must try to protect his friend from a likely murder charge while determining what truths he can uncover. Meanwhile, Ambler must juggle issues with his grandson that have come to the surface, as if he did not have enough to keep in order. A murderer is out there and these letters donated to the library could hold all the answers. Lehane does well to keep the series going, even if things got a little busy throughout. Recommended to those who enjoy Con Lehane’s work, particularly this series of library sleuthing.

I remember stumbling on this series when perusing NetGalley a few years ago. The premise was intriguing and the narrative kept me wanting to know a little more. Ray Ambler proves to be an interesting protagonist, keen to work hard at his job and always the unwitting amateur sleuth on a murder investigation. Ambler must worry, as his friend is in the crosshairs of the police for a set of murders that are wrapped in an elusive seat of journals. He must also work hard to balance work and home life, both of which seem to be on shaky ground. Other characters work diligently to complement Ambler throughout the piece, serving their roles effectively as the narrative gains momentum. The story was slightly hokey, but one can expect that when a bumbling librarian is placed in the middle of a murder investigation, much like a Jessica Fletcher character in the 1980s mystery programme. Lehane keeps the story moving effectively and entertains the reader while keeping the characters developing throughout. I’ll surely tune in for the next book, though admit that it is lighter fare in the mystery department.

Kudos, Mr. Lehane, for a decent third novel. I am eager to see where you take things, as you left a number of crumbs that could be followed.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood

Nine stars

In the stunning and much anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood sheds light on the dystopia she created all those years ago and which resonates on televisions even today. Welcome back to Gilead, which has been running as its own theocratic dictatorship for over fifteen years. Life has been interesting, though the almighty power of the Commanders seems to have developed cracks—just don’t tell them that. Agnes is a girl who has lived her entire life under Gilead, knowing no different. She is a ‘child of the state’ and has now reached the age when she will need to be partnered off to become a subservient wife. She has her own ideas, but knows that she must work within the rules of Gilead. Daisy also has lived her entire life knowing nothing before Gilead, but on the other side of the border. She lives in Canada, where her parents have been fighting to free people from under the thumb of Gilead, protesting and helping those who are courageous enough to make it out. When terrorism strikes on the streets of Toronto, Daisy must make a decision that will surely change her life and many around her. These two girls are inextricably tied to a third woman, Aunt Lydia. The Founding Aunt of Gilead, Lydia tells her own story about living in Gilead and helping to found some of its pillars. As pressure mounts to locate the long-lost Baby Nicole, the people of Gilead turn to their leaders who are determined to exact revenge on those who caused such grief. Agnes, Lydia, and Daisy are at the heart of this, though their agendas are all their own. Brilliantly concocted, Atwood does what she promised, providing a great peek behind the curtain into the inner workings of Gilead, while drawing some parallels to current circumstances where leaders stand, sensing they are above the law. Highly recommended to those who are well-versed in all things Handmaid, as well as the reader who loves dystopian writing at its best.

I arrived late(r) to the Handmaid party, but am fully caught up with all the hype. I devoured the first book and have nothing but praise for the television adaptation, which left me very eager to read this sequel. While some books flop when they seek to add onto the original content, Atwood has worked with her original premise as well as themes found in the television programme to create a stunning piece of writing. The reader learns so much about all three protagonists, who come from different backgrounds but feel the power of Gilead all the same. Lydia tells of her capture as Gilead rose and how she became an Aunt, as well as the programs she created to keep the state running effectively. The reader will likely find this intriguing, as it fills holes left by both the book and television programme, while adding new and exciting tangents. Agnes lives a life of apparent piety as a Child of Gilead, something that has never been explored in either aforementioned medium. The reader can see some of intricacies of grooming the young girls for a life as wives to those in power. Daisy, who becomes Jade at one point, has been schooled on the evils of Gilead, though knows only what her textbooks and parents tell her. Now, she is given the chance to branch out on her own and make a difference for all she loves, even if she is still learning about herself. The premise of this piece is quite good and it seems as though Atwood did precisely what was asked of her, to delve deeper and offer answers to threads left blowing in the wind. The story moves forward through these three protagonists, told in journal entries (Lydia) and witness statements (Agnes and Daisy). These forms of first-person narratives offer the most insight into the goings-on of Gilead and the struggle to dismantle it. I could not have thought of a better way to do it and Atwood proves why she is a master of her craft.

As I am sure to get some general questions about this book, please see my Q and A below:

– Should I read The Handmaid’s Tale first? As a long-time proponent of reading a series in order, I would say yes. There is also much to be learned from the foundational novel before leaping into this one.

– Should I have seen the television programme before reading this? Not necessary, but it will make things a lot clearer. If the reader has a general understanding of the show’s premise, they will have an easier time.

– Is this book all about religion and praying? No, but Gilead is, so either hold your nose or skip this book!

Kudos, Madam Atwood, for a wonderful spin on things. I have tried to keep the spoilers out, but you did so much in this single book!

Love/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at:

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, by Jessica McDiarmid

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Jessica McDiarmid, and Atria Books for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

There is a stretch of road in Northern British Columbia that connects the communities of Prince Rupert and Prince George. Formally known as Highway 16, the road has become known as the Highway of Tears, as scores of women—many indigenous— have gone missing or been murdered along it over the years. While well-known to locals, Jessica McDiarmid seeks to shed light on the issues here for the rest of the world, as Canada wrestles to address the thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women in the country, a group that has long been ignored. McDiarmid, a local of the town of Smithers, returned to her roots to explore the Highway of Tears and offer some of it victims the face they deserve. In telling the stories of these women’s pasts and the time leading up to their disappearances, McDermid seeks not to make them simple statistics, but victims with a voice who cannot speak up for themselves. With small Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) detachments, police efforts have not been what they should and cases are growing dust or going cold before any substantial leads can be developed. McDiarmid posits that there has been a difference in coverage and activity when the victim is caucasian, rather than indigenous, which might also tell the underlying narrative of what is (not) going on. While McDiarmid does not come out and say that there is a single killer on the loose, she offered examples about how there are surely connection crimes over the years, with culpability likely long-since passed. What can be done for the family and friends of these women whose lives were snuffed out too soon? The Federal Government created an inquiry, though even its commissioners have claimed that it is not being run in the traditional indigenous manner. McDiarmid has not answers and cannot assuage the pain families feel, but she has definitely shed light on this national embarrassment, as Canada tries to address all that has been going on. Highly recommended to those who enjoy true crime, as well as the reader interested in a unique piece within the larger non-fiction family.

While I had heard of the Highway of Tears, I was not aware of the extent of the deaths. This book shed some much-needed light onto the topic and helped to educate me about the issue, as well as some of the victims. The book seeks less to offer blame for those in authority than it does to show that there are so many broken cogs in the wheel. Racial discrimination surely plays a role in the police investigating, but resources are stretched so thin and the number of cases continues to grow. These were not an isolated few deaths, as the body continue to go missing and pile up, but little is being done to stop the ongoing safety concerns in the region, many of which McDiarmid addresses in the book. With photos to support the stories she tells, the book heightens its impact with the curious reader. A series of mid-length chapters address numerous issues with the overall investigation, as well as biographical pieces on the families, all of which pulls the tale closer together. Powerfully written and delivered, the reader will surely want to know a great deal more, tapping into McDiarmid’s vast list of cited sources. This is not a book to be missed by those who want to know more, either to educate themselves or advocate those in positions of authority to take action.

Kudos, Madam McDiarmid, for this wonderful piece. I will have to read a little more on the topic to get a handle.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The Colorado Kid, by Stephen King

Eight stars

Turning to another short piece by Stephen King, I found this piece calling out to me. As King can vary greatly in his writing, I was not entirely sure what to expect, but found this mystery pulled me in while remaining as laid-back as a Maine summer’s day. Stephanie McCann is a journalism intern in a small Maine community, working alongside the town’s two newspaper reporters, Vince Teague and Dave Bowie. While Stephanie is looking to learn the nuances of small-town reporting, she is also looking for a story to call her own. Teague and Bowie cannot offer much, though there is that incident down at the church picnic that left some dead. Teague and Bowie seek to teach their muse something about reporting that includes building a story on a truth and then filling the cracks with supposition. However, there is one unsolved case that seeks a story, even if there is no concrete truth to serve as foundation. Back in 1980 or so, two high school kids found a body on the beach, a hunk of meat lodged in the throat. Further investigation showed that this was no local—as if the lack of anyone knowing him was not enough—and James Cogan was eventually identified as the victim. However, no one could tell how or why he ended up on the East Coast, hailing from Colorado. Cogan’s wife could not explain it, though she knew something odd was going on a while back. As Stephanie seeks to posit her own theory, she is kept on track by the two old journalists, who fill in the cracks she finds in the story, to a degree. Who was James Cogan and what was this Colorado businessman doing in Maine, especially dead. King leaves the reader wondering as they seek to piece things together in this novella. Brilliant in its delivery and perfect for those who want a few hours to get the brain juices flowing. Recommended to novella fans, especially those who enjoy reading King’s less violent pieces.

Stephen King knows how to write a captivating story, inserting twists few would likely predict. This novella had all the impact of a well-crafted piece, mixing mystery and narrative backstory in equal measure. King uses three loose protagonists in the piece—the journalists—who push the narrative along, with James Cogan acting as a decent, but distant, central figure. His presence in Maine remains a mystery, though the clues that come up during the discussion leave everyone trying to find an answer to this mystery. King develops some decent characters, with little known about this, though that might have been the point. The story was grounded and kept me wanting to learn a little more, though there were numerous threats left dangling. With short chapters and decent momentum, King fans may enjoy this one, full of tangential commentary on the smallest of details. While this was only a filler piece, I have always loved the full-length King novels, one of which awaits me in the near future. A great short piece without the gore or intense chills that some might find in King’s cornerstone pieces.

Kudos, Mr. King, for a nice novella that helped pass the time as my busy weekend progresses.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King

Eight stars

Seeking a filler before tackling more of my TBR pile, I turned to Stephen King for one of his shorter novels. I chose well, taken into the backwoods of the Appalachian Trail and a harrowing tale of a young girl. While out on a ‘forced hike’ with her mom and brother, Trisha McFarland strays from the path and finds herself lost. What starts out as an adventure of sorts soon turns nerve-racking and eventually into a terrible ordeal. Armed with only the lunch she packed for the hike and a few supplies, Trisha is left alone in the woods. Thankfully, she has her Walkman, allowing her to tune in and listen to the reports of her disappearance, as well as catch a few innings of her beloved Boston Red Sox, with dreamy relief pitcher, Tom Gordon. As the story progresses, King offers up views not only from Trisha’s perspective, but also her panicked family, pushing the narrative into moments of intensity. With only the sound of the game to ground her, Trisha cheers on her team and dreams of encounters with Tom Gordon to keep her relaxed. With help surely on the way, Trisha will have to navigate through the woods in hopes of hearing someone calling out for her, or die with Tom Gordon and his pitching heroics on her mind. A wonderful stroll through the less graphic side of King’s mind, this story is both engaging and highly entertaining. Recommended to those who love King’s creativity, as well as the reader who wants something to bide their time.

I have always said that Stephen King knows how to write a wonderful tale, while inserting twists I would not predict along the way. This story was no different, though offered some uniqueness that I have come to expect. The story moved along well, divided into ‘innings’ as the reader progresses through this larger game. Trisha McFarland proves to be a wonderfully entertaining protagonist, taking the reader into her young mind and all that passes through it while she tries not to panic. Much is revealed about her, particularly the struggles she has with her parents’ divorce and how she is trying to come to terms with it. The reader learns much of her backstory and some development here and there, which is essential to tie into the larger narrative. King is able to use others to help advance the plot as well, with vignettes focussed on the other family members as they worry, or flashbacks to events that define them. The plot was sound, as many are in a King story, though not always what I might have expected. King is always able to extrapolate on an easy idea and proves a master of his craft, helping to shape an already strong narrative. While only a filler for me, I did not feel the need to rush, as the story clipped along at a wonderful pace. I love a good King story and there are so many, I won’t ever run out!

Kudos, Mr. King, for another winner. I have your latest book to tackle soon, but this was a wonderful appetizer to tide me over until then.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Midwinter Mysteries: A Christmas Crime Anthology, by Various Authors

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, the writers in this collection, and Sapere Books for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

With the holiday season just around the corner, I was happy to receive this collection of mysteries. Filled with short stories by a number of authors—most of whom I have never read—this was sure to be a wonderful early gift that any lover of mysteries could enjoy. I’ll jot down a brief summary of each piece and provide an overarching sentiment about the collection thereafter, for those who are interested.

Away in a Manger, by Graham Brack

Graham Brack takes readers to Prague, where Lieutenant Josef Slonský is working on Christmas Eve. Wanting to help some of the other members of his team see crime in action, Slonský convinces them to head down to the town square. While he partakes in a cup of hot wine, the others watch a short nativity play. A thief makes a grab for a woman’s wallet and the chase is on. This will be one Christmas that Slonský will not soon forget.

Footprints in the Snow, by J.C. Briggs

In this J.C. Briggs piece, Charles Dickens is stuck in a winter storm with a household and chooses to tell an impromptu story to pass the time. When his tale of a ghost appears to cause one guest to react, Dickens is surprised, but does not make much of it. However, the following morning, the same guest seems to have put himself in quite the predicament, with only a trail of footprints in the snow to explain his actions.

Lost and Found, by Keith Moray

In the small community of West Uist, Torquil McKinnon is hosting a small gathering, which includes a rag-tag group set to act as a band for the upcoming Hogmanay Dip and Nip. The following day, McKinnon learns that one of the group was found at his dining table, dead from an apparent attack of angina. Furthermore, the snuffbox in which he kept his pills was nowhere to be found. When someone commits a petty crime at the local police precinct, everyone begins to wonder if there is something to tie the death and crime together. Torquil and his fellow coppers will have to do some sleuthing before the Hogmanay Dip and Nip takes over their thoughts.

The Spirit of Christmas, by Cora Harrison

While doing some begging on the street, a young, blind boy hears his dog and minder being dragged away. Worried, Sammy tries to follow without seeing a thing and is barely saved from being killed. When his older brother, Alfie, arrives to collect him, there is much wrong with the situation. Not only is Sammy bruised, but someone has stolen a large amount of gold bullion. While Alfie processes this, he discovers a body. Alfie takes a moment to scan the scene and feels he may have an idea of what’s taken place.

The Stolen Santa Sack, by Seán Gibbons

Ben Miller enjoys driving his cab around Galway, even if he sometimes gets some odd requests. When a member of the police asks him to transport a man dressed as Santa to a hotel, he is happy to oblige. However, somewhere along the way, this Father Christmas ends up with a dagger in his chest and his sack is missing. Miller tried to stay out of it all, but cannot help sleuthing, as it seems all the coppers want is the contents of the sack. Lost in all of this is the question about what to do with the dead man in the red suit!

Will Power, by Marilyn Todd

Julia McAllister is great at her work, even if Victorian England is not ready to welcome a woman into the profession of photographer. Still, she runs her business as best she can, handling a handful of customers with a variety of requests. Julia dabbles into photography of both the living and dead, which only adds new and exciting wrinkles to her work, as well as a peppering of danger on the odd occasion. This holiday season is one of those times.

Christmas Spirits, by Gaynor Torrance

DI Jemima Huxley and her partner are on the lookout for a recently spotted murder suspect. While scanning the city, they come upon one of Cardiff’s most talked about toy stores, just in time for Huxley to ponder holiday gifts. When they find themselves being ignored by the staff, DI Huxley and her partner end up in the middle of a battle for that ‘must-have’ toy, though it is far from the scenario they might have expected. Forced to fend for themselves, DI Huxley must go above and beyond, while trying not to extinguish her holiday spark!

The Essex Nativity, by David Field

Jack Enright is in the holiday spirit, but has yet to be able to convince his mother to let him host the festivities. As Jack and Esther have come to realise, when Constance says something, you nod and go about your day. During a meal with his uncle, Percy, both coppers are called to the scene of a rural farm, where they discover a couple trying to stay warm and in the midst of delivering a baby. Percy takes up the leadership role and discovers that one of his active cases might have a new lead, forcing him to rush and make a call to Scotland Yard, while also seeking a doctor for the young couple. What follows is a feast and a touching revelation about the strength of the Christmas spirit.

Secret Santa, by Kim Fleet

Eden Grey is a hard-working private investigator with many resources at her disposal. When Eden receives an anonymous note at her office, she cannot help but begin a little surveillance effort, watching a man appear to stalk a much older woman. After confronting this mystery man, Eden learns his story, which only opens new avenues of investigation. Now, Eden must decide what to do and how to go about substantiating the claim made to her.

Stir Up Sunday, by M.J. Logue

Thankful Russell runs a popular printing shop in the 17th century. When he and his wife, Thomazine, are visited by a member of King Charles II’s Court, they agree to print a document said to be some of His Majesty’s recipes. However, it would seem someone wants the manuscript for themselves, breaking into the shop and trying to steal it. Thomazine, the brains of the family, posits that this could be more than a collection of hearty meal ideas, tied to the recent Cromwell uprising. What follows is a race to discover the truth so that Thomazine and Thankful can enjoy their Christmas together.

The Christmas Ghost, by Linda Strathman

Mina Scarletti has a way of communicating with those who have passed on and is summoned to the home of a grieving mother. Mina soon learns that the woman’s son died in a freak accident one past Christmas Eve and she hopes to be able to see her beloved boy. While Mina breaks the news that she cannot sense the boy in the house, she reveals an interesting piece of advice that might help salve the woman’s ongoing pain.

Having made my way through the collection, I must say that I am thoroughly impressed with what I read. These authors do know how to put together a wonderful set of stories, impressing the reader with a vast array of settings, characters, and approaches. While I know that I have read two of the full-length series hinted at above, there are now a number of others I am interested in finding and hopefully adding to my ongoing long list of series I follow. The publisher did well in gathering these authors together with the general Christmas theme running through their writings. I hope others are dazzled as much as I have been with this collection.

Kudos, writers of this collection, for a great set of short pieces. There’s nothing like a little mystery to heighten the excitement of the holiday season.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The Lake of Learning (Cassiopeia Vitt #3), by Steve Berry and M.J. Rose

Eight stars

Steve Berry and M.J. Rose return with another novella in which Cassiopeia Vitt is able to take centre stage. Exploring some of the older aspects of European based religions, the reader will learn much and be dazzled by the intricate detail. While excavating for her ongoing castle project, Cassiopeia Vitt and her team uncover an old book whose contents make it not only rare, but extremely valuable. When she is visited by an interested party, Cassiopeia gets a bad feeling about Roland Beláncourt, who insists that he needs this book. While Cassiopeia is able to dismiss him, Beláncourt persists, telling her all about the history of Catharism, something about which Vitt is familiar. It would seem this book not only speaks of the Cathars, but also speaks of an ancient relic and location that could be key to enlightened discoveries. As Vitt seeks some outside assistance to find this ‘Lake of Learning’, she continues to encounter trouble from Beláncourt, who will stop at nothing to ensure he gets his hands on the book. Vitt does not have Cotton Malone to help her, but she will need to find some way of staying ahead of the the trouble that awaits her. Berry and Rose have come up with an interesting tale here, mixing history with a female protagonist. Recommended to those who have long enjoyed Berry’s work (which includes Cassiopeia) and likely readers who are familiar with Rose’s style of writing.

I have long been a fan of Steve Berry’s writing, which has included minor roles for Cassiopeia Vitt. When I noticed that Berry had teamed up with M.J. Rose, I was interested to see how they would elevate this most interesting character without losing some of the intriguing history that is woven throughout each tale. This novella touches on an era that I suspect Rose uses regularly, which meshes well with some of what we know about Cassiopeia. This female protagonist does well guiding the story along. While she is away from the love of her life—Cotton Malone—she does well to keep the reader interested in her medieval building project, which spills into talk of the Cathars. She is by no means a damsel, but also does not seek conflict where she can help it. There are a few other characters whose presence add depth to the story, including the gritty Roland Beláncourt, whose determination helps fuel some clashes surrounding the possession of the book. The story gathers momentum in the early chapters and never loses its speed. I am happy to see an ongoing ability to mix history with action in yet another piece by these two authors. I can only hope that they continues an annual tradition of working together to develop some wonderful stories.

Kudos, Mr. Berry and Madam Rose, for an interesting piece that kept me curious throughout. This is a collaboration that is growing on me.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century, by Frank Dikötter

Nine stars

As a life-long student of political science and lover of history, I have always been fascinated about the world of authoritarian regimes, particularly those whose leaders roses from the ashes of a community in tatters. Frank Dikötter explores the position of dictators in his latest book, seeking to examine how the eight men he chose were able to obtain power and hold onto it while ruling their respective countries with an iron fist. While power was surely held by fear and brutal force, Dikötter posits that there was also a cult of personality that wooed the population to feel a connection to these men and all but paved their way to power. Mussolini and Hitler served to instil a sense of leadership through their communication with the masses during the inter-war years, vilifying the choices their respective governments made in the past and creating scapegoats of population groups. Joseph Stalin rode the coattails of his predecessor and tried to enamour the people as being a continuation of the great system, before turning out all those who spoke against them and secured power. These inter-war leaders worked a system and sought to build a connection when times were tough, while other dictators sought to rebel against the system and break free of the shackles that tied them down. Dikötter explores the emergence of Mao in China and Kim ill-sung of North Korea, both of whom were freedom fighters and who rallied the people with their heroic tendencies to toss off the yoke of oppression before brutally turning their country away from what it had known and, to a degree, isolating their people from the outside world. This cultish personality is shown to have worked, as the people of China and North Korea deified their leaders as they were starved or oppressed. In these cases, both leaders passed along the reins to others and the system continues to this day, in varying degrees. Dikötter creates a final group of men whose connection to the people came from denouncing long-held political rules that were in place and using their desire to change to connect with the masses. The reader will see some parallels to the aforementioned dictators, but with an added militaristic brutality that the world could see, but about which they did nothing. Much more could be said about these, and many other, dictators, but Dikötter seems to have whetted the appetite of the curious reader. Recommended to those who love learning about more gaffes in which the world stood idly by, as well as the reader whose love of political history is strong.

While Frank Dikötter may have a long list of published works, this is the first of his tomes that I have had the pleasure to read. I must say that I am highly impressed with the content and the quality of the work. While I was expecting a highly sociological analysis of these men and a detailed political history of the countries they ruled, Dikötter offered up eight wonderful mini biographies. These biographical pieces highlight that cult of personality in the early stages, showing how a population could have latched on and how each of the men used this ‘connection’ to the people to then turn things to their advantage. As Dikötter mentions in the preface, there are many others who could have been included, as it seems the essential ingredient to a successful dictatorial state, as well as a peppering of fear. Each of the biographical pieces seems to tell the rise and fall (or death) of the man and his power, while also loosely linking themselves to the next leader in some way. Dikötter is to be applauded for his concise exploration of each man and his regime, while also providing enough detail to keep the reader wanting to know more. I was stunned at the amount of information presented and have decided to delve deeper into some of the lives of these brutal dictators. Some of the antics discussed herein surely were useful in some of the current dictatorships around the world, where brutality and oppression are almost expected to ‘keep the trains running on time’.

Kudos, Mr. Dikötter, for this enlightening and refreshing look at the world of authoritarian leaders. I will certainly be looking into reader more of your work in the coming months.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The Snow Killer, by Ross Greenwood

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Ross Greenwood, and Boldwood Books for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

I was eager to get my hands on this novel, having seen it being discussed all over Goodreads of late. New to the work of Ross Greenwood, I was also interested to see if this might be a new author to add to my ever-growing list of authors to follow. Fifty years ago, a family is gunned down in an apparent form of retribution. Left for dead in the snow, the one survivor plots revenge in an attempt to ensure the family did not die in vain. At present, DI John Barton is working in Peterborough, happy that the crime rate is much lower than in cities like London. As he plans to reconnect with his wife during a needed few days off, he is called to the scene of a crime. A local drug user is found stabbed multiple times in the back, his neck slit. Barton is a little shocked, as this community rarely sees a homicide, but he rushes into action. With few leads, Barton works with his colleagues to determine what must be going on. Meanwhile, the Snow Killer emerges with their own narrative, having exacted revenge for the deaths five decades ago. It would seem that the snow is a form of homicidal aphrodisiac, forcing new and needed victims to meet their end. As the Snow Killer continues to strike, DI Barton tries to piece the murders together, receiving a lead from a long ago ‘cold’ case of a family murdered in the snow. When the pieces fall into place, Barton cannot believe his luck, though there are still a few on the killer’s list and snow is expected in the forecast. A decent police procedural that keeps the reader flipping pages until the climactic ending. Recommended to those who love quick reads that are full of detail, as well as the reader who loves a British crime thriller with a twist.

Ross Greenwood does well with this series debut, pulling the reader into the middle of the story from the outset. The novel moves quickly and offers up a great deal of character development, hinting that the next few novels are in the works. DI John Barton proves to be a wonderful cop as well as a dedicated father. However, with these two jobs comes some needed sacrifices at times. With a wife he loves more than life itself, Barton has found a partner who is able to help him balance the rigours of work and three testy children. Barton reveals much in this debut, both personally and through his work, leaving his character development high and forcing the reader to pose many questions. Others within the book offer some slow development, hinting at the need to discover more in future books. Greenwood crafts his characters well and keeps the reader wanting more. The overall plot was well written and the theme proved useful as the narrative progressed. While it was not the most captivating or cliffhanging novel I have read this year, I found it highly entertaining. The mix of short and long chapters keep the reader pushing forward to learn just a little more before the final reveal and the race to the finish. I will return to follow the series, as I am eager to see what Ross Greenwood has in store for Barton and the rest of the Peterborough crew.

Kudos, Mr. Greenwood, on this series debut. The premise worked well and I hope to see more exciting adventures in the near future.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: