Private Vegas, by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

Two and a half stars (of five)

Patterson takes a real gamble in shifting his Private series to the city of gaudy lights and glamour, hoping it’s not a bust. Jack Morgan is back with his original Private team, working their cases in Los Angeles (no, this is no typo). Two men with diplomatic immunity have been killing women and getting away with it, while Morgan and the LAPD can only look on in awe. In a case closer to home, a serial arsonist is blowing up high-end cars, including Morgan’s own, leaving Private to find the person behind the fires, especially after a body turns up in the wreckage. Meanwhile, one of the Private team is on trial for assault and things are not looking good. Could Private be on its last legs and what does Morgan’s brother have to do with recent goings-on? Remembering that the title speaks of Vegas, Patterson weaves a loose storyline where Morgan’s assistant investigates a man who lures women to Las Vegas to partake in a high-intensity (and costly) course aimed at marrying filthy-rich octogenarians, helping them along to their respective mansions in the sky, and cashing in on a substantial ‘cut’ in the action. A mislabelled novel with interesting ideas, but totally misses the mark on the Vegas nightlight and excitement. Drab and a tease that flops for Patterson and Private fans.

After a string of decent novels, Patterson is back to his old tricks, writing sub-par stories that use the author’s name to sell copies. This book is more aptly called Private L.A., The Second for its geographic sedentary nature in the City of Angels. Where are the craps tables, the Cirque shows, and the countless street vendors? Where are the lights and the wonderful hotel settings that could really sell the city and the storylines? Missing, like many of the other domestic Private books. It is almost as though Patterson’s only successes come from using authors off the North American continent to spice up the stories. And here I pined for a Private: Canada. Now, I am almost happy he has not gone that route (yet, at least). Patterson had better learn when to fold ’em, as he is on a losing streak that even Kenny Rogers cannot turn around.

For shame, Mr. Patterson on another silly attempt to line your pockets and leave your fans rolling snake-eyes.

Immortal: A Military History of Iran and its Armed Forces, by Steven R. Ward

Four stars (of five)

Ward offers great insight into the repeated rise and fall of what has become known as the Iranian military. Offering historical foundation spanning over 2500 years, Ward both depicts Iran as an ever-evolving military force and pinpoints its greatest foible in the ebb and flow of its military and political dominance of the region. Ward begins his examination with a thorough look at Persia and its wars with the Romans to wrestle empiric power away from Caesar and create the Persian Dynasty. While dominating strategic planning and territorial defence, Persia did eventually fold into the Ottoman Empire, where it remained settled for centuries, while Europe expanded and state sovereignty came to fruition. Persian troops continued to hone their skills and put them to the ultimate test when the Ottomans sides with Germany in the Great War, pitting Persia against the likes of Britain, France, and, eventually, the United States. This was surely a sobering experience for Persia, whose pleas in Paris in 1919 fell onto deaf ears and allowed Britain to take control of the region as a form of protectorate. Persia, now Iran, was permitted ongoing military development, though it was leashed and kept under control, but flourished in the region, staking its claim to part of the Middle East spoils. By the Second World War, Iran was in a prosperous location for both the Allies and Axis, with its oil and geographic location into the Middle East. When the Cold War fell, both American and Russian involvement in the region created a miniature Germany, with both superpowers trying to hold onto the region. The United States held its ground and supported the shah system of monarchical rule, with democratic government making the day to day decisions in the region. Each shah kept close ties to the Americans, which would become its downfall decades later. Shah-centric issues riddled Iran’s history and military until the forceful Islamic Revolution, historically significant and likely one of the major reasons the Western World knows anything about modern Iran. Ward is clear to show how embedded Iran and its military was with America, which likely led to the Shah’s downfall and the infamous hostage crisis of 1979-81. The book would not be complete without discussion of the Iran-Iraq War, where Iran’s military held the upper hand on numerous occasions, but would not take the final steps to ensure victory. Ward argues that, by creating a stalemate, both sides ended up where they began, wasting eight years of fighting. In the 21st century, Iran has emerged as a powerful military in the region, still run by theocratic despots who have their fingers on the nuclear button. However, one main reason America has not sought to strike and remove the current regime is that Iran is a military force to be reckoned with, unlike some of its neighbours. As such, Ward argues, the future remains unclear. Truly, Iran’s military history is highly complex and ever-evolving, as the curious reader will discover.

Ward encapsulates the history of the region and its military quite effectively, perhaps too much so. The detailed history can numb the reader whose interest lies in general information and not nuanced facts. However, his detailed discussions do prove highly effective in seeing the great progress and regression in Iran’s military might. Ward fills a gap for people like me, who know little about the region and how it made its way onto the top five Enemies of the Unite States of America. Ward effectively sells the point that there is much to know about Iran and that its military is not simply a mish-mash of Bedouins and knife-toting men. The advancements made by Persia/Iran and its numerous alliances helped to create quite the multi-faceted defence corp.

Kudos, Mr. Ward for your detailed analysis. Taking the time to share what you know has given me a better understanding of the region and its people, especially from a military perspective.

In God’s Name, by David Yallop

Four stars (of five)

Yallop shows how to make Vatican officials scatter like sheep with his tome that blows the lid off the untimely death of Pope John Paul I in the summer of 1978. The investigative report earned quick and negative feedback from within the Holy See shortly after its public release. However, as he outlines his arguments and supports them with numerous facts, Yallop makes a strong case that Albino Luciani, aka John Paul I, did not die by the hand of God, but with the assistance of his greatest enemies who lived and worked around him for his thirty-three day reign. While commencing with a detailed biography of Luciani, Yallop lays the groundwork to show how and why the Pope might have met much conflict when he assumed control of the Holy See. With his openness to birth control, dislike of the Vatican Bank policies, and desire to remove cardinals with known ties to Freemasonry from positions of power, Luciani set himself up for conflict and affixed crosshairs on his back. Yallop also details some of the insider knowledge of the highly secretive Conclave that brought Luciani to power and his open distain of the inner workings of Vatican rule. Luciani remained a selfless man and sought to bring that to his papacy, returning the Church’s message to professing Christ’s beliefs. Offering up not only motives, but numerous suspects, Yallop points fingers all over the Vatican’s inner circle, while also illustrating the extremely political side of the Vatican. Even in his discussion of the post-death events, Yallop shows how the cover-up sought to erase any possibility of foul play, though all the clues sit within the narrative. Stellar work with much information to support his assertions, Yallop has kept the Vatican on the defensive and created the greatest religious whodunit in Catholic Church history.

While there is much information through which the reader must sift to develop an adequate knowledge of the scene, Yallop lays much of it out through several detailed chapters. I do acknowledge that it is fairly inflammatory, but if the shoe does fit, one cannot simply deny its presence. By giving a multi-pronged theory and understanding all the areas in which Luciano might have developed enemies, Yallop offers the reader numerous theories and suspects on which they can ponder. Success comes from the reader’s inability to choose which one is the real one, and who might have caused the final demise. Riddled in controversy, Vatican officials not only had motive but opportunity to slay their leader. However, Yallop leaves the final determination in the reader’s hands as to who, what, and why it all went down.

Kudos, Mr. Yallop for this wonderful piece of work. I have heard about it for decades, and am glad that I finally took the time to read and open my mind to new conspiracy possibilities.

Die Again (Rizzoli and Isles #11), by Tess Gerritsen

Three stars (of five)

Gerritsen returns with the newest instalment of her popular Rizzoli and Isles series, already a sensation on television. Detective Rizzoli is called to the home of a popular taxidermist who’s found dead alongside the body of snow leopard on which he has been working. When Medical Examiner Maura Isles examines the body, she is able to draw parallels with a number of other deaths where the victims have been strung up like hunting spoils. Using their deductive reasoning, Rizzoli and Isles are able to tie the clues to a safari in Botswana that went horribly wrong. Tracking down the sole survivor from the safari might be the only way to stop a killer who stalks their prey like a jungle cat, with no regard for how much blood they spill. An interesting story that bring the crime fighting duo together for the eleventh time, sure to entertain the series regular.

Gerritsen is back and has brought a new take on her crimes for the latest novel. Series readers have been waiting a while, so the novel’s arrival is sure to bring about mixed reviews. Having become a great fan of the television series, it is hard not to draw comparative lines between the two, with the television actors burning their image and persona into the likes of Rizzoli, Isles, and Frost. For me, the novel and its ideas are sound, though there is a lack of excitement and real action. Surely, a murder and safari will have inherent excitement, but Gerritsen does not live up to the expectation I have for R&I stories, whether in book or television format. I found the safari narration to lack intrigue and interest, with a flimsy character taking the reins in those portions. Perhaps a trial effort by Gerritsen she’ll shelf in future tales.

Kudos, Madam Gerritsen for your return to the scene of the crime. Not my favourite of your novels, but you cannot win everyone over at each turn.

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, by Jeff Guinn

Five stars (of five)

Guinn tackles the extremely daunting task of presenting a cogent biography of one of the world’s most notorious serial killers of the 20th century. Charles Manson and his life are likely of keen interest to many, though the number who will admit it may pale in comparison. Guinn is left to explore Manson’s life before permanent incarceration, especially his development of The Family, the group he led by his amazing power of persuasion. Guinn sketches Manson out to be three distinct beings over his lifetime before incarceration: the two-bit criminal, the aspiring musician, and the all-controlling leader. These three personas do blend throughout the tome, though there are key points where their differentiation is clear to the attentive reader. Guinn’s work is not only stellar, but also highly informative, drawn on what can only been countless hours of interviews and correspondence with many to piece together the intricate and sometimes sadistic details of Manson and his followers. Including in-depth analysis of the trial that led to Manson’s permanent incarceration, Guinn spares no detail in presenting a piece of biographical gold.

Manson was a two-bit criminal for his entire life. Guinn opens the biography placing the larger family tree in front of the reader and showing how the various branches jetted off into their own directions. Manson was born to a teenage prostitute whose dalliances were more rebellious than filled with passion. His biological father departed before Manson was born and his mother left to spend years behind bars when Manson was but a toddler. Manson was always an awkward child and, according to Guinn, filled with trouble from an early age. Becoming an inhabitant of numerous boys reformatories in his youth, Manson’s life took a turn towards darker paths before he reached adulthood. Even during these incarcerations, Manson was able to develop key skills that he could use in his future criminal acts, including mechanical repairs, skillful negotiation, and sexual numbness. Guinn documents Manson’s numerous flitting relationships and how his life of crime did lead to those he wed disappearing as soon as he was behind bars. One skill he did pick up in his youth that might have led to a completely different path was music and the desire to make something of himself through musical stardom.

Guinn weaves an ongoing thread in the book to describe Manson as an ever-aspiring musician. Manson developed close relationships with many after he made the move out to Los Angeles and did cross paths with the likes of Dennis Wilson, drummer for the Beach Boys. Manson always touted himself as a decent musician whose messages, grounded in the counter-culture, would fit nicely into the rebellious age of the 1960s. Wilson, along with Terry Melcher (son of actress Doris Day) and Gregg Jakobson (young producer) became the focus of Manson’s revolving request to make him a star. Guinn depicts Manson as a tepid singer and sub-par guitar player, who had the contacts needed but lacked the talent. This musician persona is so important to the biography, as the age in which Manson saw his own star rise and the collection of ‘fame’ around which he was surrounded created more of a blessed nature for Manson and did fuel his all-powerful leader persona, which represents the best known side of Manson for most readers.

Guinn shows Manson as the all-controlling leader throughout the tome, repeatedly illustrating how the loner was able to shepherd so many hapless souls and have them follow his directives without question. This is a mixed inherent/learned behaviour that Guinn attributes to Manson’s obsessive reading of Dale Carnegie’s self-help manuals and applying these techniques. Manson preyed on those who lacked confidence or disliked mainstream rules by presenting an alternative that brought praise to those who invested in his teachings and accepted what he felt was the path destined for them. Manson developed key followers by breaking down inhibition through sex and drug use, as well as demanding total investment in his alternative lifestyle. Sometimes calling himself Jesus Christ, Manson presented biblical scripture as the sole answer and interpreted things in such a way that those who followed him felt as if the words spoke directly of modern happenings. Manson and his Family soon became a group whose dedication could not be matched, though Manson himself felt the need to reinvent himself to keep the message fresh and the followers from waning, most famously with his Helter Skelter mantra, a black-white race war. Guinn also illustrates the leadership role Manson took in the summer of 1969, which started the killing spree for which he and his Family are most notoriously known. I leave it to readers to determine what sort of leadership structure they feel Manson created, though I would not shy away from a Jonestown or Branch Davidian flavour.

Guinn’s meticulous detailing of the chronological story keeps the impetus flowing and allows the reader to better understand the man and his thinking. While more recent interviews likely depict Manson as a crazed killer who will never escape his incarcerated state, Guinn allows the reader to see, over time, how this mindset developed and how Manson used his own goals to fuel the Family’s actions. The book’s length should not scare a reader off, for it is completely digestible and keeps the reader wanting to know more. From foundational snapshots of the era, Guinn paints a better picture for the reader who may not have been around for free love or Haight-Ashbury’s most prominent time, but it also provides a powerful backdrop to elucidate WHY and HOW Manson was able to expand his flock with such ease and the culture he chose to rebel against, all as a means of presenting himself as a leader worth following. Manson is a genius as well as a sadistic man, a keen listener as well as a prophet of edicts. The reader will likely leave this novel sensing this as well and come away with a better understanding of the man and a respect for the larger picture. This is not to say that there will be an Manson compassion, but the knee-jerk “he’s a fu**ed up son of a bitch!” holds no water if the reader allows Guinn to present his complete argument.

Will this book help present a softer, more loving side of Charles Manson to the general public? Not likely, nor do I think that is what Guinn sought to do. He did try, and succeeded, to show that Charles Manson’s actions in the summer of 1969 are but an end result of a long and arduous set of actions that brought Manson and his followers to commence a killing spree to begin Helter Skelter.

Kudos, Mr. Guinn for opening my eyes and my mind to such a rich history as it relates to one of America’s most notorious serial killer masterminds. How can a man, whose criminal acts ended in 1969, still hold such sway and whose name has such an impact on generations later? I cannot recommend this book enough to those who seek to understand and speak more confidently about Charles Manson and his crimes that rocked the world.

Secret of the Templars (Templar #9), by Paul Christopher

Two stars (of five)

Christopher returns with a ninth novel in his Templar series that remains on perma-tepid, if not drifting towards cool. Lieutenant Colonel John “Doc” Holliday vows to find a long-lost Dead Sea Scroll that could have great implications for Christianity as a whole. During his search, Holliday also discovers a link between the Catholic Church and a number of art forgeries directly tied to the Nazis, putting these two unlikely groups in bed together. With this highly controversial information, Holliday embarks on his journey, teaming up with Interpol agent Peter Lazarus, to solve both mysteries and live to tell about his harrowing tale. With curious intensity, Christopher tells a story that has long-divorced itself from the Templar theme, but still rocks Christianity’s foundation.

As I have written of past Templar series novels penned by Paul Christopher, the wind has surely left the author’s sails and he is seeking only to propel himself forward with mediocre publications. The story, while sound, lacks depth or content to push it towards being a great novel. Christopher has left Templar queries behind in the dust and while he continues to push new and exciting mysteries, his dedication to the plot and thorough development of characters leaves the larger product lacking the needed content to make it worth the reader’s time. Should a reader wish to embark on this Templar journey, I can only recommend binge reading the entire series, so as to remember content from one novel to the next, as they become less memorable as the novels pile up.

As you did with your last series, Mr. Christopher, you left these books to wander out to pasture. For that, I can only ask why you do not stop writing them and begin something new, where you might find new inspiration and not tasteless drivel.

The Third Target, by Joel C. Rosenberg

Five stars (of five)

Rosenberg presents yet another political thriller with aspects pulled from the headlines, sure to interest a large cross-section of readers. New York Times foreign correspondent J. B. Collins is given a once in a lifetime opportunity, to interview a high-ranking official of ISIS. Collins can use this exclusive as a means to learn much about the organisation and its structure. While the governments of Iraq and Syria have both been targets, Collins learns of a third target, one in which terror will precede complete territorial and government take over. After learning that ISIS might have captured a collection of chemical weapons from the Syrians, Collins seeks to confirm the story and share it with the world in a second and more dangerous interview. Attacked on US soil and captured when he makes it to the Middle East, Collins is shown just how deeply rooted ISIS has become and what it has in store for a secret peace announcement in the region. Pulling clues from his interviews and end-times biblical passages, Collins may have revealed the largest coup ISIS has in store for the world. Powerfully written, with a cliffhanger that will have readers begging for a sequel, Rosenberg pulls the reader in with his typical political writing, peppered with biblical foundations. Well worth the investment of those seeking to understand this new terror group emerging around the world.

After reading an academic book on ISIS last summer and being highly disappointed, I was unsure if Rosenberg would try to decorate this novel with the same superficial set of facts. Rosenberg defies these expectations, spinning a masterful tale, telling not only of the fluctuations in Middle East politics, but also presents ISIS history and future goals in a comprehensive manner. Pulling on many sources, as well as biblical predictions, Rosenberg debunks the lone image known to the general public, that ISIS is solely interested in kidnappings and public executions. Readers looking for a great piece of fiction while also learning a great deal should certainly give this book a chance, provided their curiosity comes with a tolerance for Christian semonising in a lukewarm form.

Kudos, Mr. Rosenberg for this wonderful novel. You know your stuff and tell things in such a credible way that I often wonder how much is simply fiction.

Day Zero, by Marc Cameron

Four stars (of five)

Cameron picks the action up where he left off, with Special Agent Jericho Quinn in a great deal of trouble. Quinn is in hiding from US officials, wanted for murder and with a White House sanctioned death squad out to eliminate him. He’s hiding in rural Alaska, but he is not safe there. Little does Quinn known, those close to him are under surveillance and all moves are being used to locate him. The newly minted vice-president will do whatever it takes to rid the world of Quinn and move forward with his master plan. Weighing all his options, Quinn enacts a plan to get out of the country, taking his daughter with him. Flying across the Bering Strait into Russia seems to be Quinn’s best option. While headed away from Anchorage, Quinn stumbles upon a terror cell keen to kill all aboard the massive Airbus A380. Working to dismantle the bomb on board, Quinn and an off-duty air marshal must ensure everyone on board makes it back to US soil safely before disaster strikes. Could the hijacking be part of a larger plot to push America into a new and dangerous war; one it cannot escape and may lead to its demise as an empire? Cameron uses this fast-paced story to advance some of Quinn’s backstory as well as keep the rest of the supporting characters in the forefront of the larger plot.

Cameron spins the Jericho Quinn story in a direction not-yet seen in the past novels. Using a two-day timeline, the story progresses at a quick pace and fills the pages with action, deception, and treason. While Cameron has never been one to hold back in his plots, this novel compartmentalises much of the story in different regions of the country, keeping them from spilling into one another. Jericho Quinn surely has become a great character up to now and the reader can only look forward to many adventures to come, if he can get off this bomb-filled plane.

Kudos, Mr. Cameron for this wonderful story. The action never stops and the characters are wonderfully developed.