Some great discoveries in 2014

I’ve stumbled across some great novels and authors in 2014. While the collection below is by no means exhaustive, please enjoy these dozen reviews and perhaps you’ll find a new favourite author of your own:

1) The Hypnotist, by Lars Kepler
Four stars (of five)

In this debut novel, Lars Kepler lays out the groundwork for a stunning and highly intense thriller. A boy is found clinging to life at home with his family slaughtered all around him. Detective Joona Linna is called upon to solve the case and becomes convinced that, with a little probing, all can be revealed and the killer caught, as long as the sole witness remembers what he saw. Joona turns to hypnosis in order to unlock those horrific memories of the event. Calling upon Eric Maria Bark, a psychiatrist with experience in hypnosis, Joona reaches out to reveal the missing links of this multiple murder. Bark agrees to help and coaxes out some interesting information. When someone tips off the media that Bark is back using hypnosis, old scandals emerge of which Joona was not previously aware. While Bark rides the wave of this bad press, his family life takes a significant hit, with a wife who is looking outside her marriage for solace and a son who is wrapped up in his teenage life. After a horrific break-in and kidnapping leaves Bark with more questions than answers, the hunt is now on for another criminal, with Joona handling both cases. Just when one case seems to tie itself off, another pops up with mor suspects and fewer leads. Can Bark and Joona work together, armed with the knowledge that the former may be directly responsible for his own family’s deterioration? Kepler grabs the reader from the opening pages and cannot let go until the final pages. A truly captivating debut thriller well worth the time of anyone with a keen interest for the dark and sinister.

Kepler’s novel, though not penned in English, flows much better than many of those in the same genre I have read in the past. With a number of key storylines emerging throughout, one never knows where they will take the story, or if it is simply tangential. Use of layered storytelling, allowing the same events to be seen through the eyes of multiple people, is highly effective and curiously more dramatic than a simple chronological telling of the facts. Short chapters keep the reader intrigued and while there is a massive ‘throw back’ chunk two-thirds into the novel, its importance does become apparent, even if it might better be placed throughout the novel, or even partially in the preface. I look forward to diving into more Kepler and realising just how twisted these stories can be.

Kudos Lars Kepler for such an interesting story, which has hooked me into wanting to read the rest of your collection.

2) Gray Mountain, by John Grisham
Five stars (of five)
[While not a new author on my list, his work is always worth adding to a blog!]

Grisham returns to spin the tale of another young attorney who’s taken out of their element. Samantha Kofer is living the high life in New York, at the largest firm in the world. When the 2008 financial crisis hits, the firm takes drastic measures and tightens its belt, leaving Samantha on a loose furlough for a year. After reaching out to the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in Brady, Virginia, Samantha agrees to work an internship for no pay and great experience. There, she encounters the life of small-town America, deep in the heart of coal country. With the silver spoon firmly embedded in her mouth, Samantha has a difficult time adjusting to the lifestyle and looking at the law from the ‘little guy’ perspective. She is able to work at the clinic and gets her hands dirty from the get-go, seeking to help those who cannot help themselves. In a part of the country where Black Lung is more prevalent than any other illness, Samantha must navigate through the coal industry to save one of her clients, whose last hope comes from Mountain Legal Aid. When her attention is pulled towards a family with deep roots in the community, she must decide where her ethics end and lust begins. Grisham paints yet another wonderful story, complete with legal and social commentary, peppered with just enough down to earth dialogue to keep the reader hooked. One book you can’t pass up!

As the book progressed, I was sure Grisham would solidify a case against the coal company, pitting the ‘common American’ against big business, as he has done in the past. He chooses, however, to tackle the entire small-town mentality and struggling lawyers trying to do right for those they represent. The story is much more powerful than I thought it would be and offers strong connections to a number of characters. Grisham has a masterful way of pulling the reader in and caring about all those who play a role in the story. No doubts about why and how this one made its way to the top of all the fiction bestseller lists.

Kudos, Mr. Grisham for another powerful story and educational moments throughout.

3) The Masada Complex, by Avraham Azrieli
Five stars (of five)

Azrieli explodes onto the scene with a powerfully crafted first book that examines not only the power of the press, but also the relationship between the US and Israel, and the latter’s statehood. Masada El-Tal, a former Israeli soldier turned journalist, has just published a scathing article that links bribes to a US Senator by the State of Israel to promote a stronger and more all-inclusive alliance between the two countries. Outrage amongst US citizens boils over, that an outside country would meddle in US politics, leaving Jews as the number one enemy. While this plays out, Masada continues to undertake her own investigation as Congress begins drafting legislation to sever all aid ties to Israel; potentially the death knell for the State of Israel as its greatest ally turns a blind eye. Masada harbours a tragic and deep secret from her last days as a soldier and also must fend off numerous attacks for her reporting actions, almost killing her on countless occasions. While she tries this, many others around her fight their own demons and discover that the path on which they are walking might have twists that intersect and lead to destinations they could not have seen coming. A stellar first piece of work, any reader with a passion for politics, thrills, and a curiosity about the Israeli State cannot let this book go unread.

Azrieli uses this book not only to tell a powerful story, but also offer a wonderful narrative about Israel, its ties to the US, and the plight it has suffered since its inception. While neither completely pro- or anti-Israel, Azrieli’s novel explores the aforementioned roles and provides scenarios that leaves the curious reader all the more baffled as to what actually WOULD and COULD happen, should his fiction come to pass. Powerful examination of the Jewish religion and the Diaspora, as well as the creation of Israel amongst its enemies leaves the reader wondering if a State of Israel might have been a mistake. Before passing judgement on whether Azrieli is writing treasonously, the reader ought to invest time and effort to expand their mind and leave the option for change accessible thereafter. I have certainly finished this book feeling less certain than I did when I first picked it up.

Kudos, Mr. Azrieli for this wonderful book. While you chose not to create a series, per se, I am sure your other books on Israel and politics will be just as enlightening.

4) Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
Five stars (of five)

Isaacson has taken on the incredible task of documenting the life and times of Steve Jobs, a herculean venture if one did exist. Speaking in the introduction about how Jobs sought him out to pen the biography and wished to have no input in its creation (save for the hours of interviews he would give), Isaacson admits that the task was as unconventional as it was enthralling. Isaacson divides Jobs’s life into three major themes throughout the book: the man of countless ideas, the innovator, and the emotion-filled genius. Isaacson uses these themes to advance the book, but also details some of the most popular pieces of technology and cinematography attributed to Jobs to entertain and educate the reader alike. Isaacson succeeds at his task of telling this powerful story, which, at times, the unfocussed reader may think is a biography about APPLE. This only goes to show how Jobs had Apple woven into his moral fabric and took the company as seriously as anything he did in his life.

Steve Jobs was a man of countless ideas as early as his teenage years, where he build small gadgets in his father’s garage, always wanting to tinker and modify all that he found around him. Jobs, who grew up with a great deal of curiosity, sought to bring these ideas to fruition. From his early years, where he could not stay out of trouble, through to his passion for all things electronic, Isaacson presents Jobs as being a man whose curiosities fuelled his ideas. Some of these ideas proved (pardon the pun) fruitless, especially his fruitetarian lifestyle, while others sought to expand what was happening at the time, such as the introduction of Atari gaming consoles in the early 1970s. Jobs thought up ideas around making computers less of a cumbersome leviathan and more a means of catering to the consumer, both in the workplace and at home. Working with partners to develop some of the early Apple products, clunky and highly obsolete nowadays, Jobs sought to dream up new and imaginative ideas, all to make the consumer’s life more simple, even if it meant a larger financial investment at the time. Jobs made strides to bring these ideas to life, no matter the effort required. When at the height of his career at Apple, Jobs was forced out by those who thought profit should supersede ideal development to appease the consumer, he did not despair. Jobs chose to tap into more of his computer-centred ideas in cinematography, creating PIXAR and tried to move animation away from the literal drawing board and into the age of computer-generated drawing. These ideas helped to forge strong relationships with Disney, after some early disagreements, and exemplifying his imaginative success with a string of box-office hits. The coup that brought Jobs back into the Apple fold only fuelled his desire to be innovative and imagine the future one product at a time. From his early 1984 talking Macintosh to his slew of futuristic products, Jobs took the future into his own hands and let his ideas guide him along the path to technological success, while making Apple a household name.

Segueing from ideas to the innovative side of Jobs, applying his ideas brought about technological shifts never seen to that point and which proved to live outside the box. Isaacson makes this innovative side of Jobs a key theme throughout the book, as far back as his circuit board creation in the 1970s, through to his launch of the Mac line of Apple products, many of which are found in households today. Butting heads both with those within the Apple fold and its strongest competitors, Jobs sought to rise above all others and let the industry judge his successes. Throughout, Isaacson shows how the likes of Bill Gates and Michael Eisner flexed their business muscle, but Jobs continued to forge ahead, making the best of what he could, while also striving to outdo himself. Jobs never shied away from calling his competition ‘stupid’ or their duplicate products items that truly ‘suck’. Innovation and technology, which lacked in the dozen years was away from the company, returned in spades and left the competitors in the dust, at least according to market analyses. The innovative side of Jobs, and, in turn, Apple, spurned others to try to keep up in a market where one wrong turn can cost millions while making items obsolete in the blink of an eye. Isaacson throughly examines Jobs as innovator throughout the book and gives not only examples, but wonderfully narrated anecdotes to better understand the man behind the technology. These technological advancements have become so ingrained in the consumer’s psyche that they need no definition or explanation in daily parlance.

While stoking the fires of technological advances and doing battle with some of the top CEOs in the business world, Jobs could be known to show an emotional side to him that is sure to alarm the reader. He makes to qualms about showing his emotions, going so far as to justify some of his off the wall behaviours as being precisely what the person on the receiving end needed to strive higher thereafter. Throughout, Isaacson insists that Jobs’s passion for his work led him never to settle for second-best. He would not accept a half-ass effort, nor would he allow others to dilute his ideas. In the latter part of the book, when health concerns began to plague Jobs, the emotional roller coaster continued to play a role, sometimes as unpredictably as the ideas he brought to the table at APPLE. Not afraid to buck trends or offend others, Jobs used these emotions to his advantage. While portrayed as spoiled in his inability to let others imbue the conversation with ideas of their own, Jobs was quick to cut, only to take the ideas as his own in an emotional turnaround days later. While emotion surely fuelled his inventive side and the ability to forge ahead, Isaacson does not skirt the issue that Jobs was ice cold when it suited him and impassioned when the need arose.

As I mentioned above, some readers may get lost in the narrative, which recounts the life of Steve Jobs, and get caught up in the detail-heavy sections discussing upcoming product launches and the gizmos he sought to bring to the consumer. This attention to detail and smooth flowing narrative bring these items to life and help the reader to understand precisely what hurdles they overcame, even after product launch. Jobs was so wrapped up in the creation and development that Isaacson cannot pare the story away from iPods and iPhones to tell the Steve Jobs story. They are simply too interconnected.

Taking a step back and looking at Isaacson’s work on the whole, it is apparent that he took a great deal of time to bring the best possible take on Steve Jobs. His attention to detail and thorough interviews led to a wonderful biography that is sure to open the eyes to many with an interest in technology and those who want to know more about this mover and shaker. Leaving no stone unturned, Isaacson airs the dirty laundry (Jobs’ daughter at age 23) as well as his largest successes (toppling the Microsoft-cornered market), giving the reader a thorough and all-encompassing view of the man and the legend. Perhaps one of the most informative biographies I have read in years, Isaacson hooked me in the early chapters and left me wanting to know more, with his silky narrative style and wonderful anecdotes.

Kudos, Mr. Isaacson for this wonderful view of a man who shaped the future, putting the consumer before profit-margins and ease of use before stardom. I am hooked and will have to look for some of your other work to sate my ever-growing thirst for knowledge.

5) Audition, by Barbara Walters
Five stars (of five)

Barbara Walters presents a thrilling and revealing look into her life in this substantial memoir. Aptly titling the book AUDITION, Walters is able to effectively address three interconnected spheres of her life, all of which deal with forms of auditions. These spheres help shape the highly complex and competitive life that she has lived. Walters keeps her chronological narrative moving forward, all while she presents a plethora of anecdotes and stories about her rise to fame and the countless number of people she encountered along the way. Walters addresses auditions in her personal life, work life, and (seemingly repetitive) journalistic life, clearly defining their differences but weaving the larger narrative together in seamless manner so as to entice the reader from the opening paragraph through to the final credits. A gem in the memoir/biography genre, perfect for the reader who seeks entertainment alongside their learning curve.

Walters addresses personal auditions throughout the novel in a timely and effective manner. Her father, Lou, was ensconced in show business around North American throughout Walters’ young life, forcing her to move all over the United States. These moves required that she acquaint herself with people wherever she went. Walters laments having to ‘audition’ each time she went to a new location in order to fit in with those around her. As she grew older, Walters also had to audition herself and her family when allowing people to get close to her. With an intellectually challenged sister and a father whose primary focus was cabaret-style night life, Walters was never sure if she would ‘pass’ the test of her friends or face isolation, Throughout the book, even into their adult lives, Walters addresses the need to have her sister close at hand (or her mother’s plight of the same issue), which led to a new round of auditions, where she would only let a select number of friends into that inner circle, aware of everything going on in her life. Add to these auditions, Walters’ romantic and personal connections which required her to audition for attention outside of the public eye, both in her three marriages and the bond with her daughter, and the reader can see what she means as she bemoans needing to fulfil yet another audition throughout her life.

Walters also needed to undertake many an audition in her work life. By this, I mean her need to climb up many a ladder and cut through the glass ceilings placed before her. Walters made a name for herself in an era when television was emerging, and on-screen news was an American norm and ratings mattered. While a norm, television news was still a male-dominated industry, leaving few opportunities for women, save the weather and ‘tea pouring’. Walters illustrates her fight to make a name for herself, first as a writer and then as an on-air personality, on NBC’s Today, where she bucked many a trend. Battling top newsmen of the day, Walters faced them down and forge a key role as a daily member of the on-air team, where she undertook working on many special assignments before she was able to negotiate a co-host role on Today. Becoming the first female co-anchor of a national news program when she moved to ABC, Walters paved the way for others to follow suit, all after her audition to show that women were not only capable, but belonged in the position. This is not to say that things always went smoothly, for she suffered many setbacks and frustrations along the way. Working alongside the likes of Harry Reasoner and John Chancellor in her rise to fame, Walters was often left feeling second-rate and out of sorts. It was only her work, in those early days, with Hugh Downs, where she felt the true teamwork aura that kept her striving for more on a daily basis. Moving into her niche, on 20/20, Walters was able to corner the market for years and has used her interview technique to forge yet another name for herself in her workplace, leaving countless other women to strive to be just like her, or use her success as a stepping block to their own futures. In the latter portion of the book, no longer seeking to ‘audition’ for the American public, Walters created The View, which blossomed into a stellar piece of daytime television, all because of the hard work she undertook in the previous 30+ years.

The third sphere, which may appear to partially replicate the aforementioned section,is her audition in the world of journalism. Separate from her trying to climb the ladder within the news industry, Walters had to audition her reporting style to executives, the viewing public, as well as those she sought to interview. While many journalists find themselves focused on bringing the story home, Walters illustrates that, for her, the importance was the key interview, which helped begin the process of building a foundation on which the story can be told. Her interviews with the likes of Castro, Begin, Sadat, Lewinsky, Eastwood, Carter, and a plethora of others came at a price, whereby Walters auditioned her class and interview style such that she was the sought-after journalist. Walters opened many doors for herself and the two networks she called home through her poignant style and persistent nature. Walters illustrates this passion to journalism and the quiver full of connections she acquired over the years in order to present the most thorough and captivating interviews and news pieces. To this day, or at least to the point of the memoir’s publication, Walters has made it her promise to always bring the story to the viewer in the most unbiased manner possible. She was able, by winning over those with a story to tell, many ‘scoop’ interviews. These led to many a newsworthy story and she illustrated throughout the book that these, in turn, paved the way for future successes in her storied career.

Walters also treats the reader to so many wonderful stories, telling her side of historic events and revealing some of the antics to which she would go to get the story. Admittedly, I was not conscious of Walters’ journalistic life before 20/20, so much of what she told was insightful and new to me. I highly enjoyed her stories about the role she played, somewhat inadvertently, in Iran Contra and almost lost her job for passing secrets to Reagan. Additionally, her decisive role in the Middle East Peace talks between Begin and Sadat, both in the Middle East and Washington, played a pivotal role in presenting the news to the American public in a swift and objective manner. Her down to earth ability to relate to many of those she interviewed, making them feel important even when they inconvenienced her to no end, is not lost in the pages of this book and does allow the reader to sit back and marvel at the number of people whose lives she brought to the viewing public over the years.

Perhaps one of the most well-respected women in American journalism, Walters has done so much and sought to open new doors for herself and others. Juggling a less than calm personal life while the world continued to forge ahead, Walters took things in stride and faced adversity, rather than shy away from it. A stunning woman and an even more stunning read for any reader who wishes to invest the time into learning about the major events that shaped North American journalism in the 20th century.

Kudos, Madam Walters for inviting us into your life at such a personal level, all in the hopes of shaping our opinions objectively.

6) The Iron King, by Maurice Druon
Four stars (of five)

As Druon opens his series in the early 14th century, much is taking place in France. Philip IV has ultimate control of his subjects and has married his daughter, Isabella, to the King of England in hopes of holding some degree of control on the other side of the Channel. Philip has finally captured the leadership of the Knights Templar and is set to bestow the ultimate punishment, with the backing of the Church, to uphold his image as the Iron King. Even while Parisians support the religious group, an example must be made of them and those who seek to contradict the concentrated leadership in Paris and Rome. When Philip executes the Templars as heretics, a final prediction from the pyre sees three prominent men cursed with death by the end of the year. A pall spreads across the land and all eyes are on those named. Meanwhile, Queen Isabella learns that her sisters-in-law have been being anything but princess-like back in France and she sets a trap and watches the downfall. During a trip to see her father, Isabella lets the information come to light, which leads to a number of horrific events, all solidifying the Iron King’s moniker. While those in court continue to live high on the hog, their financial situations are precarious, balanced by a number of Italian money lenders, whose power could topple the monarchy at any turn. With a secret passed along from the Templars, these lenders hold more than monetary power over the political elite. Druon sets the tone for what will surely be a series full of intrigue, power, deception, and utter ruin.

While called a likely precursor to the Song of Ice and Fire series penned by series fan George RR Martin, the series remains fairly ensconced in history and its realistic portrayal. With a flair for the dramatic, Druon introduces the reader to a number of characters sure to play key roles throughout the series, even if their importance is not fully known at this point. Having not seen the mini-series and not being a historical buff of that period, I am eager to be surprised by much of what occurs and the characters whose lives become highly important over time. History and politics buffs, as well as those who find monarchical series (a la Tudors) will revel in the story lines and plot development.

Kudos, M. Druon for this wonderful opening novel. I hope my attention is kept with the next six instalments.

7) The Killing Floor, by Lee Child
Four stars (of five)

It all began with an arrest. Arriving in town anonymously, Jack Reacher is arrested at the local diner for a murder he could not have committed. Fingered for some reason by the Chief of Police, Reacher is detained, which is where all the fun begins. Before proving his alibi, Reacher faces a harrowing night in jail and soon learns that the quaint down of Margrave holds a darker side. As corrupt as it is a speck on the map, Margrave is full of secrets that the townspeople are more than happy to keep under wraps. Working with the local authorities, Reacher discovers the corruption holds a personal connection that only fuels his desire to find out those involved. With a blooming relationship and a desire to be somewhat sedentary, Reacher uses his military background to blow the lid of Margrave’s secrets, but at what cost? A stellar opening to the Reacher series that paves the way for what should be a great series.

With little background knowledge of the famed Reacher, I was curious to see how this man would present himself in full-length novels. Scraps of background knowledge related to Reacher, namely from Child short story ‘Second Son’ and Diane Capri’s HUNT FOR REACHER series, I was curious to see how it all would come together. This opening novel in the series was very well-written and powerfully captured in the first person. Child does an excellent job of laying some of the groundwork for what is sure to be a complex and evolving character. One additional comment that I cannot let pass; Child adopts a wonderful ‘Americanisation’ feel to his novel, even as a Brit. From its nuanced narrative style to use of language, slang, and idioms, Child left me wondering if he tapped into his alter-ego to pen this novel. Also, with Dick Hill at the narration helm, I was left to wonder if I was reading a Stephen White novel at times, with wonderfully detailed reflective narration.

Kudos, Mr. Child for such a great opening book. I am hooked and will certainly continue reading and enjoying.

8) John Adams, by David McCullough
Five stars (of five)

McCullough dazzled with his depiction of Harry Truman and brings that passion now to look at the life of John Adams. As he tackles the more daunting task of bringing this Founding Father and former president to life, through a plethora of research and historical tomes, McCullough illustrates the varied life Adams lived and the complexities of his journey. Presenting Adams as both a man of the people and a politically-minded gentleman, McCullough shows how he shaped the formation of the United States and led it through its early years. Crossing paths with numerous greats, Adams not only took from them but also added some of his own ideas, which benefitted all who took the time to synthesise the discussion. Throughout the biography, McCullough shows three predominant sides to Adams, all of which play an important part in his entire personality: Adams the advocate, the political leader, and the family man, though not necessarily in that order of importance. Written in a clear and fluid manner, McCullough does an amazing job of showing John Adams to be more than a stuffy politician who signed the Declaration of Independence. I have new-found respect and admiration for Adams and took way so much from this one book, as I do whenever I give McCullough the chance to teach.

McCullough makes reference throughout that Adams enjoyed playing the role of advocate, especially for the underprivileged. In his early years as a lawyer, Adams handled defending those whom others would not assist, citing that he wanted to grow both in his knowledge of the law as well as strongly believing that everyone deserved a proper defence. McCullough shows that Adams sought to use his way with words (both the written and spoken) to present as strong a case as possible, no matter the defendant. One might extend this advocacy to Adams’ role in Philadelphia, where he acted as one of Massachusetts’ representatives at the Continental Congress. Adams planted the seed of formal independence from Britain in the minds of many, through speeches and shaped legislation. McCullough comments that Adams sought to advocate as vociferously as possible against the oppressive George III and tried to promote the idea of an independent country whose rights ought to be held in Congress, not some far-off parliament with no representation. McCullough illustrates Adams’ passion for independence and while some of the pre-conference happenings receive but a passing mention (Boston Tea Party, for example), the actual constitutional discussions at the Congress receives much attention and exemplifies how Adams shone repeatedly. After declaring their independent interests in 1776, Congress sent Adams abroad to advocate for treaties of support and commerce in France, as well as peace with England when it became clear that George III’s armies would be no match for Washington’s forces. Congress went so far as to appoint Adams as the first Ambassador to the Court of St. James’, an awkward honour in which Adams thrived. While these were by no means simplistic jobs, Adams took them as challenges in which personal growth was assured. McCullough depicts the trials and tribulations throughout these journeys, binding them together with the thread of intense interest to advocate for what Adams felt was right for all.

As a political leader, Adams looked past his own interests and pushed ideas of the greater whole while working in Congress and overseas. The oft stated belief that a leader ought to look outside themselves and seek what is best for the entire populace may have been based on Adams’ life, as he tried to lead others when little or no precedent existed. Working to create a constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Adams drew on some of the key aspects found within the Declaration of Independence (something he thought might be tasked to him before he passed it along to Jefferson), and added key tenets that he felt were best for all those living there, Adams tried to lead by example and to use his passion for his home state (province in the early years) to better everyone. As mentioned above, Adam sought also to lead in his roles as plenipotentiary minister to both The Netherlands (an interesting story told by McCullough about how Adams scored this post) and England, seeking to forge new alliances and political ground for the newly-born state. Through trials and tribulations abounded, Adams worked to foster needed relationships and climb the ladder of importance, which worked when Congress eventually named him the first vice-president of the United States in 1788. The role still new (and the constitution’s depiction of the job description lacking), Adams tried to lead from the dais of the President of the Senate, injecting himself into debate and offering up many opinions. Not used to the role well founded now, the vice-president is better seen and not heard, waiting for the demise of the president to assume any true role. Still, through his pamphlet writing, Adams sought to lead the country through his ideas and political commentary on world events, most especially the French Revolution, drawing parallels to the happenings in 1776.

Political leadership took on a new role when Adams narrowly defeated Jefferson (by a mere 3 votes) in the Electoral College in 1797. The presidential campaign of 1796 saw the birth of party politics in America. Tarred and feathered as a monarchist by many of those seeking to derail him, Adams had to shed the moniker in order to move forward and to keep him from the figurative (and perhaps literal) gallows. Forging ahead, Adams used a great deal of his political knowledge to act in as strong a capacity of president as he could. Faced with an openly volatile and confrontational vice-president, Jefferson, the nation faced its most strained administration. While Jefferson tried to set pitfalls for his president, congressional progress appeared glacial and the two parties (the Republicans and the Federalists) sought to stop the other from any crumb of success. McCullough presents much support for the argument that Adams’ presidency was ultimately shaped by the post-revolutionary French government, which began goading America into war. Adams built up the needed defences, should war become necessary and proposed two major pieces of legislation to define America for decades thereafter, the Aliens Act, and the Sedition Act. He argued that these pieces of legislation would defend honour and patriotism within America and let foreign potentates know with whom they were dealing. While McCullough posits that peace was Adams’ ultimate goal, this is hard to see amongst the military chest bumping. While making the ultimate decision to seek peace, Adams ruffled the feathers of many and may have cast himself in a poor light from thereon in in the eyes of Jefferson and other key Republicans. However, it is his prerogative to do so. This paved the way for the highly vicious campaign of 1800, pitting president against vice-president for the first and only time in history. McCullough presents a highly intriguing story surrounding this campaign and the dirty politicking for which America would eventually become known. McCullough further posits that the outcome of that election hinged greatly on Adams’ decision not to go to war with France.

Perhaps his greatest role, seen as a major arc throughout the tome, is that of a family man. McCullough uses this role as an overarching one throughout the book. Abigail Adams plays a central role in the story of John Adams’ life and there is no section found therein that McCullough does not have some reference to her importance in his life. Adams valued his family above all others and tried to include them wherever he could. Granted, looking at things through the lens of the time, some might query his dedication to family and he and Abigail discuss stillbirths and deaths by letter, but there is no doubt that Adams did all he did to better the lives of his wife and children, going so far as to bring his sons with him to France and The Netherlands on various plenipotentiary missions. His constant letters to Abigail and the detail in which he discussed his adventures, as well as the poetic way in which he waxed wand waned about missing his brood shows how dedicated he was to their inclusion in his life. McCullough does a wonderful job illustrating this through the book’s numerous parts and keeps the theme of family predominant throughout the numerous segues. Bringing family along with him on his numerous political appointments, Adams sought to enrich their lives as much as his own, exemplifying his dedication to the family unit. McCullough shows a strongly supportive father and keen head of household whose determination to open new paths for his children as a central tenet of the biography. Even through his trying years as president, Adams always kept his family close at hand, especially Abigail’s near death at the hand of yellow fever. He juggled things as best he could, never shutting him family out to run the executive of the country.

Of interest, McCullough does not isolate the story to the life of John Adams and family. Numerous, detailed accounts of some of the other Founding Fathers and key actors in the rise of American independence whose interactions with Adams were central tasks undertaken by McCullough throughout. Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, and even Madison all receive great attention from McCullough and offer a teaser to the biographical backgrounds of each. Jefferson surely played a significant role in Adams’ life, even if they did eventually distance themselves when wearing their respective political hats. The executive clashes between Washington and Adams would likely be accentuated with an alternate perspective, making Ron Chernow’s biography of Washington essential. In the same light, Jon Meacham will surely help show Jefferson’s side to the numerous clashes with Adams, both as Founding Fathers and within the executive. Some great storytelling surrounding the difficulties Adams and Franklin faced while working ‘together’ in France may give the reader a new perspective on both, though surely that is to be expected in such a thoroughly documented tome.

One area I had hoped would receive more attention (though the length of the tome justifies its exclusion) is the debates surrounding the independence movement and eventual creation of the Constitution of the United States. Being an institutional reformer, I find it interesting to see where the constitutional seeds germinated and some of the important aspects arose. From his Truman biography, I know that McCullough does present electoral campaigns in a highly detailed fashion. While 1896 was a mere blink of the eye, the re-election campaign of 1800 proved highly entertaining.

Kudos do not seem to be enough to encapsulate how much I enjoyed this biography. Choosing a well-known president (by name, but not necessarily by background) appears to be a strength for McCullough as he weaves the detailed background of their lives, their successes and more certainly their demises. I learned more about early America (and the roots about some of the current goings-on) than I have in all my reading to date. Thank you so very much for this and I hope to dive into another McCullough classic soon.

9) The Mermaids Singing, by Val McDermid
Four stars (of five)

Choosing to tackle a new series, I was drawn to Val McDermid and the premise behind it. Pairing a police detective and a criminal psychologist is by no means new, but the British angle was a fresh approach for me and one that seems to work well. McDermid takes the reader down the path of numerous sub-plots while presenting a fascinating main tale to capture the attention of all who dare to explore. When men are found murdered in predominantly gay hangouts, the police are baffled as to where they ought to begin and with whom they are dealing. Add to that, the gruesome means by which the victims are killed, and the story takes on a whole other level. Could the means of torture be a religious way of scorning these men for their sexual proclivities, doubly so when none is a declared homosexual? While Carol Jordan is tasked with leading the investigation, she’s tossed a helper/hindrance in the form of Dr. Tony Hill, Home Office criminal psychologist whose tasked with creating a database useful to tracking serials murderers. Through their teamwork and respective expertise, Jordan and Hill begin to get a better idea of the cunning murderer they seek, but not before more bodies pile up and the killings become more and more gruesome. Paralleling the progress of the investigation, each chapter offers a journal entry of sorts from the killer, with subtle clues by which the reader can piece things together. Filled with stunning storytelling and interesting details, McDermid does well to hook the reader early and throughout this horrid tale, right through until the last page. A successful opening to the series.

While some lament the treatment of homosexuality within the story, I feel it adequately reflects both the limited understanding and willingness to openly accept the lifestyle, both within the press and police (and perhaps society). While McDermid pulls no punches and does dive right in, making generalisations throughout, she presents it all in a tasteful way while not hiding some of the preconceived notions. Her great use of the giant flaws within both Jordan and Hill’s lives, McDermid shows that no one, no matter how important their jobs or settled they appear, is truly free from personal struggles. Of great interest is the way in which she portrays Dr. Tony Hill, who will surely return in all books, and his inner weaknesses with the opposite sex and his own missing sexuality. Powerfully done in this novel, whose central theme is discovery and presentation of one’s sexuality.

Kudos Madam McDermid for this wonderful introduction in the series. I am eager to see how some of the upcoming novels compare with this highly controversial opening.

10) The Dirty Secret, by Brent Wolfingbarger
Five stars (of five)

In his debut novel, Wolfingbarger impresses readers not only with the premise, but also the powerful narrative throughout the book. After casting votes on Election Day, the country turns to West Virginia, whose five electoral votes are up for grabs after a finish too close to call. The Republicans appear to have the upper hand, though many counties have results well within the threshold of required recounts. A handful of counties, usually turning one way appear to have inflated results in the opposite direction, leading many to wonder if there is something amiss. Add to that, numerous sub-plots involving all the key players in the novel that eventually lead to a single path; one that sees democracy enter the final stretch, bruised and weary. Wolfingbarger leaves the end result up in the air, with numerous political and legal quagmires to decipher along the way. Well worth the time of any election nut or even the reader who’s interested in a sensational thriller from beginning to end.

While I am a political and election nut, Wolfingbarger appeals to a larger audience by not immersing the reader in technical, legal, or political speak. While there are aspects of all of these areas, he keeps it clear for laymen and helps shape the plot using actual fact rather than a fiction to suit his needs. Tackling some of the nuances of electoral law, seen by many to have failed in 2000, Wolfingbarger shows the major loopholes present in West Virginia to allow (or disallow) parts of the electoral process to move forward. Add to that, the wonderful way in which he threaded the other story lines into the larger story and every reader will fly through the chapters just to see how it all plays out. Adultery, romance, scheming, and murder; all ingredients for a great book come together here with a strong political genre.

Kudos to this exceptional author, Brent Wolfingbarger. If this was your debut, I cannot wait to see what else you have in mind for readers.

11) The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris
Five Stars (of five)

TED OF ALL TRADES, MASTER OF ALL

Edmund Morris ought to consider this new title for his next revised edition of this jam-packed book, so full of information and anecdotes that the reader would surely agree to the change a short time into the literary adventure. As thorough as the beginning of this biography might be, its ease of reading entices many who might otherwise shy away from so long a tome.

As I seek to expand my knowledge of some key historical figures, I chose to tackle the three volume Morris biography of Theodore Roosevelt. I sought not only to learn from what Morris garnered in his extensive research, but also to examine some of the key themes on offer, drawing threads throughout to see how Roosevelt’s life developed and the way in which it was captured. Morris takes the reader through a thorough examination of the man from many facets, allowing those who digest the tales to attain a multi-dimensional picture of the man known to many a Teddy. Through his presentation of a few themes–the ongoing thirst for knowledge, dedication to family, and a passion for politics–Morris depicts Roosevelt as both a man of many complexities and one who is closely tied to those around him, and succeeds in selling this idea to the author in this first tome.

The first Volume, reviewed here, encompasses the life of Theodore Roosevelt from his birth in 1858 through to 1901. Morris lays the groundwork of the first theme, thirst for knowledge, early and often, by depicting young Teddy as an avid reader and naturalist whose young life was shaped by parents able to offer him many extravagances due to their wealth, including European vacations and tutored study. Young Roosevelt quenched this thirst by examining much around him and writing his own versions of tomes and reports, some of which he presented to family members while others he kept for himself. As he grew older and left home for Harvard, Roosevelt continued to dedicate himself to his studies, but also opened his mind to social clubs and the interaction with many of those around him, learning both from books and the lives of his acquaintances. His continual interest in new and exciting things led him to invest in cattle herds in the Wild West and piqued his interest enough to run for (and win a seat in) the New York State Assembly. There, Roosevelt’s social demeanour opened new doors as he sought to expand his knowledge and permitted his climb to positions of power swiftly and with ease. With the partisan nature of politics and the Ward bosses always confounded him, Roosevelt used what he knew and his ever-present desire to tackle new challenges to wrestle with the political beast from a young age. He was, as Morris explores in one poignant chapter, the youngest candidate for Mayor of New York at the time and had no qualms running in this election against well-founded opponents.

Morris also explores a dedication to family, which stemmed from Roosevelt’s early years. A sickly child, weighed down with asthma and other ailments, the young Roosevelt remained bedridden for a time. This sedentary life surely stoked the fires of the aforementioned knowledge seeking, but also helped Teddy develop a strong foundational interest in family. As a young man, when he met and married young Alice Lee, Roosevelt dedicated himself to his bride and sought to keep her abreast of his activities. As with many politicians (even today), the need for a dutiful wife who allows a husband to also delve into the political world forced Lee to accept Teddy’s busy life. Teddy’s life took on a new direction when Alice announced she was with child, forcing the young Roosevelt to prepare for the busy life of fatherhood. When, two days after the birth of his daughter, Roosevelt suffered the double inequity of Alice’s death as well as that of his mother, Roosevelt entered a slump that no past familial foundation could cure. Morris explores how Roosevelt dedicated himself to new adventures, perhaps to bury the pain, in hopes of finding himself anew. An old flame, Edith Carow, returned to his life and soon they rekindle the love they shared, helping to pull Roosevelt from his slump. Married for a second time, Roosevelt soon becomes a father numerous times over and this rejuvenation helps him become the family man he strove to become, matching Theodore Roosevelt Senior (eventually ‘the first’ after Edith gives birth to a son). While the focus shifts away from family, Morris returns to the topic on occasion, perhaps to assure the reader that Roosevelt is not alone on this adventure, even if his family was not central in the numerous narrated activities.

As with many, the allure of politics was too strong for Roosevelt to ignore. Seeing its manifestation at an early age, Roosevelt watched his father negotiate through some of New York City’s power brokers and how the game was played, its rule constantly changing. Winning office at a young age, Roosevelt sought to effect change of his own with his quick wit and attention to detail. While not always successful in his political ventures, he made a name for himself and did persuade many to follow his lead. Morris explains that Roosevelt stepped out of his father’s shadow and forged new ground, all in an attempt to make a name for himself and better represent those within the GOP with strong ideas and reformist ways. His desire to look for new ways to tackle old issues helped develop his reform ideological stance, which was not always embraced openly by New Yorkers, voters and politicians alike. Yet, as Morris explores, these views never stopped gaining momentum and Roosevelt soon became a man to watch and a king maker in key state and national campaigns. As head of the Civil Service Commission under President Harrison, Roosevelt cut his teeth on the numerous issues of patronage riddling the federal bureaucracy. Butting heads with many in positions of power, Roosevelt forges ahead with his reform ideas and, oddly enough, is able to outlast the wave away from Harrison’s obliteration after one term in office and stays on to serve Grover Cleveland, a quasi-ally from his time as an assemblyman. Taking his reform ideas to a position on the NYPD, Roosevelt becomes a feared man by beat cops and locals alike. When President McKinley calls for his return to the upper echelon of the federal bureaucracy, Roosevelt relishes the chance, offered Assistant Secretary of the Navy. There, he helps formulate key policy on ridding Spain of its imperial gems (namely Cuba and the Philippines), while flexing the muscle of the American military. Morris posits all this helped the United States draw a line in the sand and exemplify its interest in playing a role as a hegemonic power. All this in an effort for Morris to depict Roosevelt as a political animal, building a stronger foundation as the path to the White House becomes a little clearer. The final chapter of the volume focuses on this struggle to give up the reins of power in Albany and consider playing McKinley’s running-mate in the 1900 election. Great storytelling by Morris depicts the frantic struggle of the Party, the potential candidate, and the delegates at the Convention. When Roosevelt agrees and eventually becomes VP, his rise to power, though deemed neutered, is only beginning.

Of note, it is highly amusing to see what might have been the first example of the United States backing a group who would eventually go on to seek its annihilation. Cuba, freed from Spanish control, would one day rise up and seek to push the United States out of its life, under the well-known dictator, Fidel Castro. One need only say bin Laden and Hussein to draw the other two parallels, both of which entangled the US Military in useless wars. Alas, two ranchers at the foundation… need I say more?

In this opening volume, one cannot offer enough kudos to Mr. Morris for his excellent work. I am eager to see where this is going and what lies in store for the reader and those figures who play a key role in Theodore Roosevelt’s life.

[All three parts of this biography are stellar and deserve reading!!]

12) The Crucifix Killer, by Chris Carter
Four stars (of four)

In Carter’s debut novel, the reader meets veteran LAPD Homicide Detective Robert Hunter and his new partner, Carlos Garcia. After being called to a murder scene, Hunter and Garcia discover the Crucifix Killer, thought to have been caught years before, is back and will stop at nothing to continue a gruesome rampage. By marking victims with a double crucifix, Hunter knows that this is no copycat, as he did not release this to the press when investigating years before. The Crucifix Killer is one case Hunter will not soon forget, having worked on the original file, when a suspect confessed to the crime. How will the new victims’ crime scenes help Hunter and Garcia crack this case wide open before the Killer continues a spree that leaves no one safe? A wonderful, edge-of-your-seat thriller that uses realistic dialogue, characters, and teasing language that leaves the reader wanting more.

Carter’s work should be commended, especially as this is his first published novel. He hooks the reader at the beginning and works through some of the old case info, while peppering the story with new and interesting facts. Creating a back story for the main character can be tough, though Carter does so very successfully and makes Hunter appear complex enough to have secrets worth learning about. The reader cannot help but speculate what will happen next, though Carter is smart enough to toss in a few storylines that leave the reader wondering what to expect next. Fabulous work and sure to be an interesting series, as I continue through it.

Kudos, Mr. Carter for your wonderful work. I am eager to see what else Robert Hunter has in store for you, for readers, and for the Homicide Division.
**
I hope these teaser reviews helped you find a little something you might want to place under the tree!

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