The Challenge: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and the Fight Over Presidential Power, by Jonathan Mahler

Four stars (of five)

Mahler sets out not only to recount a wonderful legal thriller, but also to exemplify just how far-reaching and undemocratic the Bush Administration sought to be in their tyrannical War on Terror. Depicting a challenge of the military tribunal approach for Guantanamo captives, which makes its way to the US Supreme Court, JAG lawyer Charles Swift and constitutional lawyer Neal Katyal challenge the law and sue the President of the United States along with the Secretary of Defence. What follows is a tale that weaves through the legal system. It tries not only to clarify the rights of detainees, but pokes holes in the rash and undemocratic system the Bush Administration sought to implement, all in the name of ‘justice for those who died on September 11, 2001’. Mahler uses historical recounting to show the progression of events, including key legal arguments, to highlight for the layperson the extent to which democracy was being eroded under the noses of the electorate and, to some degree, even Congress. Powerfully written and full of ‘a-ha’ moments, Mahler captures the story quite effectively while offering his own spin on events. A must-read for constitutional and legal fans alike. 

While some have argued that Mahler’s book is overly one-sided, I must deflate this argument by agreeing entirely. The casual reader and news watcher will have been inculcated and choked with Bush-era spin, weighing in on the need for these sorts of military tribunals and how detainees should not be treated with the rights of Geneva Conventions or even basic human rights. This argument is not new and has been provided clearly through the memoirs of those in the den of thieves (Bush, Chaney, Rumsfeld), but it is inherently wrong from a legal perspective, as the US Supreme Court ruled in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. Mahler shows how the arguments made their way to the Supreme Court and Bush’s flagrant suspension of the basic rights owed to humans were suspended, all to fan the flames of the public outrage at al Qaeda. What is not expressly argued, but should be clear at the most basic level, is how a country that spouts democratic rights and constitutional protections summarily dismiss them when it suits their needs. If the US Administration chooses to suspend these rights when it is beneficial, how does this make them any better than those they seek to combat? Then again, that argument is too complex for Bush and his cronies to have grasped. It only goes to how that you cannot ‘colour by numbers’ such discussions for the politically remedial. And now I can step off of my own soapbox

Kudos, Mr. Mahler for this wonderful addition to the discussion of the constitutionality of Bush’s arguments surrounding his war-time dictatorship.

Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution, by Laurence H. Tribe and Joshua Matz

Five stars (of five)

Tribe and Matz delve into the always complex world of constitutional law and its varied recent interpretations by the US Supreme Court. Their focus is the Roberts Court, the collection of justices whose rulings came down after John G. Roberts Jr. was appointed as Chief Justice in 2005. Within the pages of their highly informative tome, Tribe and Matz argue that while the ideological leanings of the nine justices may be fairly apparent, when it comes to constitutional interpretation, anything goes. With a varied collection of justices–a  staunch originalist to a firmly grounded conservative to a die-hard liberal– the US Supreme Court’s rulings are ever-evolving and devised based on current understandings of the US Constitution’s articles and amendments. Tribe and Matz elucidate the Court’s varied opinions by discussing highly controversial and poignant topics such as gun control, same-sex rights, and privacy. The authors discuss the topics in a historical context, as they relate to judicial precedent, before presenting a key case that came before the Roberts Court. Tribe and Matz offer wonderful insights, touching on both rulings and dissents, to show the varied nature of the justices and the flavours they imbue in the larger discussion. Captivating and thoroughly educational, Tribe and Matz do a wonderful job presenting some legal interpretations on topics of great importance to Americans in a tumultuous decade and a half. A must-read for those with a keen interest in the law and constitutional interpretations.

Tribe and Matz have a wonderful way of touching on a handful of topics, but not boring the reader as they travel through the tome. Written in a seamless fashion to show just how important the Roberts Court has become in the last number of years, while also showing that the Court is anything but dull and filled with stuffed shirts. The themes are aptly placed at a time when these issues remain at the forefront of Americans’ lives, the cases are both telling and seem open to much interpretation, and the narrative flows effortlessly to permit the reader to sail from issue to issue and stop along the way to view how the nine justices staked their respective claims. Rarely have I come across a piece of non-fiction so full of energy that rises above the legal miasma that could have weighed it down in technical language and legal jargon. Powerfully presented and easy to read all at once!

Kudos, Messrs. Tribe and Matz for your wonderful tome. If only all in the legal profession could follow your lead.

Dallas, November 22, 1963, by Robert A. Caro

Five stars (of five)

Robert A. Caro is the preeminent Lyndon Johnson biographer, with his massive Years of Lyndon Johnson collection awaiting its fifth (and final?) volume. To this point, Caro has taken much of Johnson’s life into account leading up to his ascension to the White House, but no further. In this short piece of non-fiction, Caro takes the most talked-about ‘where were you?’ day in US history up to that point and turns the narrative onto Lyndon Johnson’s actions. How he was snubbed in his home state, was potentially to be dropped from the ticket in ’64, and the congressional investigation into one of his aides back in Washington. Caro expounds on the happenings of November 22, 1963 and shows the role Johnson played in it, as well as the actions he undertook in light of the tragedy. Powerfully written, just like the rest of the series, Caro places emphasis on Johnson’s reactions and sentiments on the day he rose to become POTUS, and its immediate aftermath.

Caro is a master, no doubt about that.That he’s crafted this short historical single-day biography only goes to show how well Caro captures the untold stories. While something of this length would never be kept from the editor’s pen in a full-length biography, it is a telling snapshot of the goings-on and sentiments of those closest to Lyndon Johnson. A perfect addition for fans of Caro’s multi-volume biography, this is both a telling historical set of events and a wonderful teaser for the next (and last?) volume for whom hardcore fans have patiently waited.

Kudos, Mr. Caro for this wonderful teaser. I am eagerly waiting to see what else you have for your fans in the next year or two.

The Hunting Dogs, by Jorn Lier Horst

Four and a half stars (of five)

Horst’s English translated novels keep getting better, filled with more character development and action with each passing chapter. After putting a child murderer away seventeen years earlier, Chief Inspector William Wisting is stunned to learn that he’s been blamed with a false arrest and the planting of evidence. Not only is the accused set free, but all eyes are now on him. The police begin an investigation to his handling of the case, while Wisting begins piecing together what might have gone wrong and who’s to blame. Wisting’s daughter, Line, a crime reporter in her own right, stumbles upon a murder scene of her own and begins trying to solve the case. Clues lead in many directions and leave Line wondering how random an event this might have been. When a teenage girl goes missing in the same manner as the case 17 years before, both Line and Wisting wonder if their respective cases might have a loose connection. With Wisting’s freedom and job on the line, any clue showing he was not complicit is essential, but it’s a race against time. A wonderful thriller to keep the reader on edge from beginning to end.

I have earlier lamented the lack of a thorough context for English readers, since Horst’s first five novels do not yet have English publication rights. How great it would be to see the full development of the William Wisting character, as well as those who surround him. Horst does a wonderful job in keeping his readers connected to the character (even though he’s been writing about Wisting for nine novels in the original Norwegian) and makes the avid reader want to learn a little more. The books, with their short chapters, offer wonderful teasers on a regular basis and lack nothing in their essential thriller creation. While I will admit I have no real connection to any of the other police or legal team with whom Wisting regularly engages, Horst’s focus on William and Line makes for a wonderful banter sure to keep the reader intrigued. 

 Kudos, Mr. Horst for another great novel. I cannot wait to get my hands on your next book and see what Wisting has in store for your loyal followers.

I am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes

Four stars (of five)

Terry Hayes emerges on the scene with a well-crafted novel that will keep readers talking for years to come. A woman is found murdered in her hotel room, her features scorched off with acid. No clear answer can be determined, nor can a killer be easily determined. Hayes introduces the reader to his elusive narrator at this point, serving as the story’s navigator while shielding his own identity, eventually choosing the moniker ‘Pilgrim’. In a series of flashbacks, the reader learns of a father’s public beheading in Saudi Arabia and the enucleation of a Syrian biotech expert at the hands of a young man whose life takes dramatic turns in a short period of time. Alternating between historic occurrences of both men, Hayes shows how their paths will soon intersect in a most dramatic fashion. While Pilgrim heads to Turkey, deep undercover for the CIA, the murder he uses as his cover story might be more important than it appears at first glance, only pulling the reader deeper into the story and leaving them more confused at every turn. In a highly-complex tale of espionage, political retribution, and murder, Hayes keeps the reader guessing while also demanding more with each passing chapter. A wonderful introduction to a new and talented author sure to keep readers discombobulated and sated simultaneously.

I received numerous recommendations to try Hayes and his debut novel. Its mere size had me wondering how I would digest such a novel, but I am pleased that I took the leap. Hayes layers his novel in such a way that the reader must pace themselves so as not to miss any nuanced clues, but also to be able to digest the fast pace presented. Hayes does not write in a traditional fashion, whereby the story and its characters are spoon-fed to the reader. He challenges those who choose to embark on the adventure to work as well as entertain themselves. This may, alas, keep some peripheral readers out of the fray. However, those who cannot handle it can surely pick up a ‘just add water’ James Patterson novel!

Kudos, Mr. Hayes for this wonderful debut piece. Do keep them coming and not to scale back on the complexity.

Closed for Winter, by Jorn Lier Horst

Four stars (of five)

Another English translation of a Horst novel leaves the reader eager to dive into the action. After being ordered to take some time away from the job, Inspector William Wisting makes use of a recently inherited cottage in the Norwegian countryside. The off-season is just beginning, sure to leave him much peace and quiet. Ove Bakkerud likely had the same hopes, which are shattered when he discovers his own cottage has been ransacked and a dead body lies next door. Wisting begins his investigation back in Oslo, while his daughter, Line, chooses to use his cottage to regroup after some personal issues. Wisting’s investigation turns up more bodies in the area and no clear motive. Meanwhile, birds begin turning up dead, literally falling from the sky, and Wisting must ponder if there is a connection. Line’s issues might be key to a larger crime taking place, which leads Wisting to Lithuania to solve his case before Line’s personal life collapses in on her. A wonderful crime that sheds a little more light on Wisting’s backstory and the importance that Line plays therein. Wonderful addition to any mystery reader’s ‘newly discovered’ list.

Horst has made his mark in Scandinavian crime writer circles, but is only recently emerging on the English-language scene. This is unfortunate, as the very brief summary offered up ahead of the novel tries to put the characters in their place and catch readers up. There is surely much development to be had and Horst has a rich ability to offer insights and commentary missing from much of the English-language writers of the day. I am eager to read more and praise the well-founded work that Horst puts on offer.

Kudos, Mr. Horst for this wonderfully crafted novel. I wish someone would purchase the rights to all the novels and churn out English versions.

Dregs, by Jorn Lier Horst

Four and a half stars (of five)

In an attempt to expand my literary horizons, I took it upon myself to introduce myself to Jorn Lier Horst, acclaimed Scandinavian mystery writer. Chief Inspector William Wisting has a great deal of experience with police work in Norway, as well as its dark underbelly. After a shoe washes ashore with a left foot still inside, Wisting cannot tell if this is foul play or some horrible accident. When a second shoe turns up, also containing a left foot, Wisting must begin to wonder if there is a disaster out at sea, or is a murderer is dismembering victims and trying to destroy the evidence. Could these feet have anything to do with a number of recent disappearances in the area as well? As Wisting continues to probe, his daughter, Line, undertakes a project of her own, interviewing some of Norway’s most notorious killers to write news articles documenting their progress. Line sets out to dig deeper and offer the generl public insight into the role prison plays in rehabilitation. When Line’s interviewees have ties to those who have gone missing, Wisting cannot help but wonder if there is a larger, and more sinister, game at play. A wonderful English introduction to a well-established author is sure to make waves in the mystery genre.

Horst joins the ranks of Lars Keplar and Soren Hammer in creating an interesting mystery that surpasses the language barrier. He is able to present both the mystery, as well as a keen characterisation of Norway’s political and social lifestyle, unknown to many outside the region. Horst also aptly titles his book, drawing parallels between the severed feet and the criminal outcasts Line interviews, both the dregs of society. The story and the characters reflect both the unique Scandinavian flavour of a crime procedural, but also show ties with the more familiar Western judicial system, making the story easily digestible by the masses. The reader is in for a treat, with short chapters full of information and teasers, which propel the story forward in an easy manner. Bring on the second (English translated) novel, as I want to learn more about this Wisting character.

Kudos, Mr. Horst for this wonderfully crafted novel. I hope to see more action and character development as we proceed.

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, by David McCullough

Five stars (of five)

In all my years of biography reading, this was the first time an inanimate object, the Brooklyn Bridge, took centre stage. Under the guidance of McCullough, the story of the Bridge’s conception and realisation emerged not only as an architectural feat, but as an exciting part of New York history. McCullough takes the reader through a historical adventure, similar to some of the other journeys he has undertaking in his biographical works, filling pages and chapters with the impact numerous characters played on the larger historical footprint. The ‘great’ moniker is aptly given to the Brooklyn Bridge because of the politics behind its inception, the creative ingenuity behind its building, and public response in its realisation. The attentive and patient reader is in for a classic tale, which highlights many worthy people, along an arduous and painstaking effort to build a single bridge. The symbolism of this one structure is not lost on McCullough, for which he gives his greatest effort. A wonderfully crafted tome, well worth a thorough exploration.

That the Brooklyn Bridge brought out politics at all levels is not lost on McCullough. As with any piece of public work, its essential nature runs parallel with the opportunity for politicians and businessmen to make decisions for the larger populace. Creation of a bridge executive committee allowed a few men to line their pockets while they oversaw its development. McCullough first tackles the political angle of the Bridge through a discussion steeped in ward and district bosses ready to capitalise on share development and ownership. McCullough spends much time outlining the role Boss Tweed played in the Bridge’s investment opportunities. Tweed was able to create a shareholders’ system that saw his own pockets lined, while also steering the Bridge’s conceptual passage though the state legislature. Tweed handled some of the red tape and benefitted greatly, as he argued for the need to create a direct route from Brooklyn into New York proper. Politics remained a thread of the rest of the biography, through the selection of builders and the reaction by the public to the choices made by the aforementioned select few. Even the debate among general contractors was rife with political infighting, to the point that illness and time away from the project became stepping stones to seeming greatness. Politics plays a central role in the creation of public works, and always has; a topic McCullough does not try to bury while discussing one aspect of the Bridge’s greatness.

The momentous nature of building the Brooklyn Bridge is not lost on McCullough. Early in the preface, McCullough mentions to the reader that he is no architect, engineer, or even well-versed in physics or construction. That said, even to those with an expertise in the field, building such a colossal structure in the 1860s and 1870s was by no means a small feat. Connecting Brooklyn and New York required passage over a significant waterway at a time when construction capabilities paled in relation to 21st century options. The Bridge was not only an architectural marvel, but also a piece of creative ingenuity. The concept came from John A. Roebling, whose life McCullough details in the early chapters. Roebling passed along this building passion to his son, Washington, who headed up the building process of the Brooklyn Bridge after his father’s conceptual idea had been approved. Roebling was by no means alone in his venture, working with a slew of engineers, builders, and architecturally-savvy men whose experience with bridges varied greatly. While the Bridge’s construction was filled with many wonderful feats, McCullough discusses the early use of caissons–a relative gamble by Roebling in those early days– to help ground the Bridge in the earth below the water. While the reader may not take the time to think about this feat, iron or cement posts could not simply fall from the sky and embed themselves in the ground, leaving only wires and roadway to complete the suspension bridge. Slow and methodical drilling and excavating took time and ingenious thinking. Caisson usage was still new and brought about the development of many detriments as well as benefits. Use of compressed air chambers helped bring to light the discovery of ‘the bends’ amongst those who worked for extended periods of time within the caissons, as well as the horrors of fire while trapped far below the surface of the water. McCullough does, however, show how use of this technology helped hone the skills of bridge-makers and those who died did not do so in vain. In the latter portion of the biography, McCullough moves on to the importance of wires, key to the Bridge’s suspension nature and exemplifies how Roebling developed his own patent for strengthening wire. Detailing tensile strength and material ruggedness, the builders had to factor in many variables to ensure the Brooklyn Bridge did not come apart and yet could withstand all that Mother Nature and Father Transportation threw its way. The technology advancements on offer laid the groundwork for many more public works all over the world, with the Brooklyn Bridge acting as a symbol of an architectural feat worthy of duplication.

The significant response by the public reveals McCullough’s third persona of the Bridge. As with anything, there will be those on both sides of the issue, some favourable and others highly critical. While McCullough has addressed those with financial and political investment in this structure, as well as those who took the time to erect it, the general public’s response plays a central role in its success. Some thought the best means to connect Brooklyn and New York might have been some form of tunnel, keeping the connection buried deep below the East River. Others took great pride in flocking to the bridge to traverse from one side to the other. When the passenger portion of the bridge opened to the public, people from all over the world sought to make their personal mark. When the Bridge opened to all forms of non-pedestrian traffic (from cart to livestock to equine), it became symbolic of New York much like its recently built Statue of Liberty. McCullough goes so far, in his updated preface, to discuss how the Brooklyn Bridge has become such an important part of New York’s skyline that as the World Trade Centre towers smouldered, the Bridge’s image in the foreground stood to reassure the world that the city remained intact. Public perception plays a central role in the success of the bridge, for it is the general populace whose investment in the final product that led to its long-term success and eventual greatness.

McCullough is a masterful storyteller, bringing history to life with each book he writes. I have seen this in all the tomes penned by this great historian. McCullough seeks to go beyond simply amassing information together and letting the reader learn through what history books have on offer, he tries to tell a story behind the history and brings characters to life in such a way that their own personal journeys become a thread the reader wishes to follow as well. While the Brooklyn Bridge is a symbolic means of getting from A to B, McCullough makes it about those who played a role and build the bridge with their own blood, sweat, and tears. For that, the reader ought to be eternally grateful. Creating his own historical conduit, McCullough takes the reader on an adventure never told before at a time when written documents were likely not as plentiful or have lasted the test of time. Add to that, the free and detailed discussion of technical aspects of engineering and architecture provide the reader with some added knowledge. For over one hundred years the Brooklyn Bridge has served the greater New York area and McCullough chose to look onto the horizon and tell the story as he would any great historic figure.

Kudos, Mr. McCullough for yet another masterful tale that sheds light on those whose names or efforts I knew nothing about. I cannot thank you enough for all you have done.

The Geneva Strategy (Covert-One), By Jamie Freveletti

Three stars (of five)

Covert-One is back to delve into the world of bio-terrorism and disease dissemination. A number of high-ranking government officials are kidnapped without motive. Upon further examination, those who have key roles in America’s drone programming and strategy are among those taken, leading officials to wonder who or what they have on their hands. As the victims begin turning up, they show signs of brainwashing. Jon Smith and the Covert-One team begin an investigation that takes them to Dr. Laura Taylor, currently in custody, whose created a drug to remove memories related to post-traumatic stress syndrome. Her research could have haunting parallels to the brainwashing Smith has seen in these victims. Smith must not only determine an antidote for the brainwashing, but also recover the head of the drone project before someone begins carrying out drone strikes all over the world and uses these drugs to overpower countless innocent victims.

Freveletti expressed thanks in the acknowledgements for being asked by the Ludlum family estate to create another Covert-One novel. Her premise is actually quite interesting and, at times, the story flows well and keeps its momentum for the reader to enjoy. However, for some reason or another, the story loses its excitement, even as the action does not dissipate. Freveletti has kept a handle on her Ludlum series writing, unlike a certain James Bourne author whose slaughtered the foundation that Ludlum put into all his work. However, as seems quite common amongst all those who carry on the Ludlum torch, the adaptations fall short of the original product.

Kudos, Madam Freveletti for your ardent effort. While Robert Ludlum has left some large shoes to fill, you try to tromp around and do him justice.

Shock (Virals #0.5), by Kathy Reichs and Brendan Reichs

Four stars (of five)

The Reichs twosome offer up a great short story prequel to the Virals collection, a month ahead of the series finale. As Tory Brennan arrives in South Carolina, she is not sure what to expect; humid conditions, a father she’s never met, and isolated from the life she’s known. By the time Kit arrives to pick her up, Brennan’s tired and totally unsure what the future holds, still trying to come to grips with her mother’s death. Things begin awkwardly as Kit makes his first impression, which only gets worse as Tory discovers her new environs are nothing like Massachusetts. Exploring Morris Island, she stumbles upon a threesome of young boys who will become her Virals compatriots in the coming months. As Brennan and the boys grow closer, no one is fuy aware how important this group will be and how young adult readers will latch onto their every move. A great teaser to lighten the blow of the impeding end of the VIRALS series.

Backtracking on a well-established series can be a gamble for any author, especially those who write for the fickle young adult reader. Reichs succeed masterfully, laying some previously unknown storylines as they relate to Tory and the rest of the Virals crew. Even in this short story, the characters develop nicely and the setting suits the larger series well. This story fits nicely into the larger series and could easily have been added to the early part of the first book, effortlessly. Brennan makes her off-beat impression in the opening paragraphs, as she has through the entire collection. A perfect way to hold off antsy readers who want to see how Reichs and Reichs terminate the Virals, and what form that might take.

Kudos, Mr. and Madam Reichs. What a great treat you’ve served up ahead of closing the proverbial book on the VIRALS.