When Evil Calls Your Name (Dr. David Galbraith #2), by John Nicholl

Eight stars

A vocal advocate for his debut novel, I was pleased when John Nicholl offered me the chance to read his follow-up by direct invitation. In this novel, the focus is primarily on Cynthia Galbraith (Jones), who now sits in prison for the murder of her husband. Nicholl splits the narrative between Cynthia’s direct accounts of time in prison with a memoir of her life and the years she and Dr. David Galbraith lived together. While Cynthia’s life seemed blissfully simplistic, she had her beloved Steven to fill her time. After Steven is killed in a freak auto accident, Cynthia is approached by a university lecturer (Galbraith) to take up studies in psychology, rather than her intended focus on law. Dr. Galbraith uses his penchant for persuasion to lure Cynthia away from her family while convincing her parents that he can offer her the best educational opportunities possible. Galbraith lays out his academic plan for Cynthia with isolation as its key tenet. This strict academic regimen proves foreboding, as the doctor soon dictates Cynthia’s every move and keeps her feeling downtrodden. Readers familiar with the debut novel will have seen the degree to which Cynthia was mentally and physically enslaved, down to being verbally abused for incorrect minutiae, which only goes to foster Dr. Galbraith’s ultimate control over all aspects of this young woman’s life. A pregnancy with no recollected conception, degradation at every turn, and elusive behaviour by her husband haunt Cynthia for a period, which is only worsened when Galbraith marries her and threatens to have his wife and daughter separated by social services. As the narrative progresses, the reader sees the turning point that sends the doctor’s secret life into a spiral and Cynthia’s brave move to save a boy from her husband’s clutches. With an interesting ending that allows Nicholl to update his reading base for whom WHITE was a stunning piece, the novel provides some insight and quasi-justification for Cynthia’s behaviour that seemed scatterbrained in the debut novel. Not to be dismissed by fans and a great follow-up for those who are just hearing about this talented writer.

After being stunned with the superior writing style and content of WHITE IS THE COLDEST COLOUR, I was unsure how a novel that set the threshold so high could be topped or equalled. I could not help heading into the reading project with some degree of scepticism and mild trepidation. As I started to read, I was left wondering if this subsequent novel, told solely in the first-person view of Cynthia Galbraith, would fall utterly short of its predecessor. The narrative is jilted, the sentiments less passionately expressed and the perspective offers only those analytical views held by Cynthia herself, all of which began to grate on me in the early chapters. The stories (both prison and Cynthia’s youth) seemed to drag, offering the reader less on which to grasp that I would have hoped. However, as the story continued and David Galbraith’s evil nature continued to develop, I had a reading epiphany. Nicholl wanted the reader to feel this discomfort and lack of connection, as the story is told from the perspective of a woman so broken and devoid of confidence in herself that it cannot hold water to the daring tale in WHITE. When I took that mental shift, I could not help but find new connections to the writing, from its short prison-based chapters to the slow and agonising vignettes of abuse Cynthia suffered. While the key moments in Galbraith’s paedophila ring come to pass and crash to the ground in a few short chapters, Nicholl offers Cynthia’s brief revelation, as well as some closure in her prison storyline. A decent second novel in this series, which leaves other avenues open for exploration.

Kudos Mr. Nicholl for this insightful piece. I wonder if you will continue with the theme, but distance yourself from this specific case, in order to create more powerful narratives that your debut introduced.

Monsoon (Courtney #10), by Wilbur Smith

Seven stars

Smith continues the final collection of Courtney novels, developing some of the early ancestry of the family he has made famous in nine previous novels. The novel opens with an adult Hal Courtney, who has taken up a life as a farmer in rural England. Courtney has four sons from a few marriages: William, twins Tom and Guy, as well as Dorian. These boys have their own quirky characteristics, which are exemplified throughout the novel. When the English summon Hal to take up a nautical voyage to contest an Arab pirate who has been plundering ships, the elder Courtney seeks the assistance of his sons, who have been told of their fathers many voyages from years before. Tom and Guy find themselves in love with the same woman, though she is unable to admit her love for them because of her caste in life. When Guy agrees to a mission in India, he follows the woman he loves, causing grief for the other twin. William, much older than his other siblings, also refuses the mission, choosing to continue his life in England, where he is fostering business and political contacts. This leaves Tom and Dorian, who become the central characters in the novel and whose lives prove fundamental. While on the high seas, Dorian and Tom help their father seek out the Arabs, but trouble befalls the ship and Dorian is captured by the Prince of Oman, who takes him back to his settlement off the African coast. Dorian’s appearance echoes a prophecy in Islam, leaving the settlement to believe he is a direct descendent of Muhammad. While in captivity, Dorian meets one of the Prince’s daughters, Yasmini, in whom he develops strong affections. This forbidden love is discovered and the Prince banshees Dorian to death for incestuous behaviour. He is able to escape with Yasmini, though the Arabs in the settlement choose to deem him dead and erect a tomb to substantiate the story. Meanwhile, Hal suffers a horrific fate, leaving Tom in charge of the English ship. The search for Dorian continues, though when Tom is convinced his brother died at the settlement, he agrees to stop looking. Years pass and Dorian has become extremely acclimated to the Muslim way of life, which does not bode well when Tom Courtney returns to finish the mission on which Hal was originally sent. Facing off, Tom and Dorian must fight for their respective honours, where only one side can prevail. Smith tells a powerful tale that develops the multi-generational flavour of the series and plants plots that are sure to be developed in novels to come. An interesting addition to the Courtney saga.

As with the previous novel, the nautical flavour of the story left me less than enthralled, but the theme was not lost, nor was the character development built throughout the narrative. Smith effectively keeps the political and social actions of the day at hand as he develops a wonderful story that spans years and sees his sons grow into their own personalities. The battle of the twins over one woman foreshadows the storyline of Sean and Garrick Courtney in the first collection of novels, which will likely also play a role in future novels, should the child be raised in India under Guy’s tutelage. The ties and animosity developed throughout this novel between Tom and Dorian will play an interesting role in upcoming novels, especially as they head to the African continent. One other aspect worth noting is Smith’s use of the Muslim pirates as the central enemies of the novel. While the book was penned at a time when Muslim fundamentalism began to emerge as the new ideological war in the world, Smith is able to use this clash at a time when the high seas were the ultimate battleground. How nice to see this spin on the hero-aggressor storyline that does not include mention of al-Qaeda or suicide bombers. The subtle discussion of the religious beliefs and tolerances exemplifies that the seventeenth century was also a time when Christianity battled Islam and both tossed ‘infidel’ monikers on one another, while surviving together. Smith’s trademark use of Africa as a backdrop also comes to pass in small part throughout the novel, which will soon develop into a major setting for future novels, as the Courtneys settle on the continent and begin making a name for themselves.

Kudos, Mr. Smith for another interesting novel. Perhaps settling in Africa will allow the characters to make roots and settle, leaving seafaring storylines off the starboard side. 

Far From True (Promise Falls #2), by Linwood Barclay

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Linwood Barclay, and Berkley Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

From the author of well-crafted psychological thrillers comes another novel set in the bucolic town of Promise Falls. Picking up days after the previous novel ended, Barclay parachutes readers into a place still coming to terms with a collection of noteworthy events: a slain rapist on the university campus, a baby swapping scheme that went awry, and a downturn in the economy that has local business pulling out. After a freak event at the local drive-in theatre leaves four dead, the town is left to wonder if this was an accident or another item to add to the tragic narrative. Local private investigator, Cal Weaver, is approached by the daughter of one of the drive-in victims to explore a break-in at her father’s home. What begins as a crime without apparent motive (and loss of property) soon spins into the revelation of an alternative lifestyle group alive and well under the radar within Promise Falls. A collection of DVDs has been taken from a ‘secret room’ whose content leaves little to the imagination, but the rationale is anyone’s guess. As Weaver pieces the clues together, he cannot help but speculate that the contents of the discs contain vital information that surpasses their intrinsically erotic value. Detective Barry Duckworth wrestles with two unsolved murders that bear great similarities, though the prime suspect has an iron-clad alibi. Could there be something deeper that Duckworth cannot see, or is a murder still on the loose in Promise Falls? These and many other sinister storylines that include a host of characters, each with their own backstory, permits the reader to follow plot lines down the rabbit hole, only to realise how they link together, at the least expected moment. Barclay weaves a wonderful follow-up to his explosive BROKEN PROMISE, which grips the reader until the final pages and leaves them to wonder just how sure they are of where this narrative will end.

While Barclay is not new to the psychological thriller genre, this novel (and the others in the series) propel him into a league all his own. Placing the story mere weeks after BROKEN PROMISE, the reader has not yet had time to catch their breath or construct a viable explanation as to what they’ve just finished reading. With a large cast of characters, the story is able to expand on numerous levels and pushes the narrative boundaries, such that there are numerous plots worth exploring. Barclay sows the seeds for further exploration in the next novel, but also revisits some key aspects to past stories that keep the reader connection and on the ball throughout. Exploring the narrative from Cal Weaver’s perspective, as well as that of a passive overseer, the reader gains additional insight in the lead-up to what is sure to be an explosive next novel, where the ’23’ concept may finally be revealed. Only the attentive reader need indulge, as there are numerous references to the previous pieces, with only a sprinkle of reminiscent breadcrumbs to help the reader along. Novels of this calibre are gifts for the reader, though waiting for the next instalment could drive anyone around the bend!

Kudos, Mr. Barclay for such an addictive piece of work. I am hooked and can only hope that you will continue to dazzle and intrigue as you build on this series for your avid fans.

Arch Enemy (Dan Morgan #5), by Leo J. Maloney

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Leo J Maloney, and Kensington Publishing for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

In a novel full of action and thrills woven into every chapter, Maloney brings Dan Morgan back for another adventure sure to entertain readers. When a man dies in a freak elevator accident at Acevedo International, there seems to be more to it than meets the eye. Acevedo has been involved in international weapons and drug smuggling and on the radar of the FBI for some period of time. Enter Dan Morgan and the Zeta Group, who track the core of the smuggling ring to the African continent and seek to sever the ongoing shipments. While he is off dealing with this, Dan’s daughter, Alex, is limping her way through college, literally, and trying to find her niche. When she is approached by Ekklesia, a group seeking to promote social justice and undermine the corrupt world of business, she does all she can to help, in hopes of making a difference. As the elder Morgan receives his next mission, he learns that the Legion of Erebus, a collection of ultra-powerful hackers, has begun wreaking havoc, with America in its sights. Morgan is tasked with uncovering the Legion’s ultimate plan by interrogating their purported leader, Praetorian. However, something goes wrong and Praetorian is on the lam, controlling hacker cells all over the country. A master plan is in the works, but no one appears clear as to the event. When Alex learns that Ekklesia is but a distraction front for the Legion, she begins to work with her father and Zeta to bring the entire plan to its knees. However, nothing is a simple ‘plan and execute’ in the world of technology where hackers are involved. Maloney brings action, suspense, and just the right amount of humour to this piece and is sure to capture more fans after readers take the time devouring this novel. 

While Maloney is surrounded by many other great authors in his covert-operative thriller genre, he is able to distance himself in a number of ways. By using this novel to propel three simultaneous storylines forward, only to have them eventually converge, he shows a strong ability to keep readers curious and seeking to learn more. His use of succinct chapters leaves the reader hanging, but also helps to push the story along, while not revealing too much in a short period of time. Use of multiple characters, who both converge and diverge through their various plots, keeps readers entertain and interested, while not splitting concentration too thinly in any single direction. Maloney does not focus solely on the ‘shoot ’em up’ variety of covert-operative thriller, but also a mystery of sorts and a race against the clock. It is refreshing to see some new and 21st century terrorism that does not mention 9/11, al Qaeda, or ISIS, but chooses to draw attention to something that technology has fostered and that could be worse, infiltration of highly specific computer programs. Maloney handles the topic with ease and does wonders at keeping his readers connected to the story, while not going overboard with the father-daughter connection found herein. A wonderful piece of work that is sure to impress many when it hits bookshelves. 

Kudos, Mr. Maloney for another great novel. I am a fan and hope you will keep writing such addictive pieces so that I can spread the word to many others.

Birds of Prey (Courtney #9), by Wilbur Smith

Seven stars

Smith begins the final collection of Courtney novels with an interesting historical journey. Transporting readers back to 1667, the Anglo-Dutch naval war is at its zenith as Sir Francis Courtney and his son, Henry (Hal), sail off the coast of southern Africa. They await the Dutch ships, full of riches, headed back from faraway lands. As they hold letters of permission from Charles II, both Courtney men seek to act as privateers at a time when playing pirates on the high seas was completely permissible with ‘rape and pillage’ an accepted means of overpowering the enemy. After being double-crossed, Francis and his entire crew are captured by the Dutch and the elder Courtney is executed before his son. After being sentenced to a prison camp, the entire crew find a means escape, but only after learning the extent to the Dutch punitive measures. The crew choose Hal to lead them back on the seas. With loose connections to the Knights Templar, Hal sails the seas to avenge his father’s death and uphold the Templar traditions. Hal soon learns that leading a crew is more complex than he first thought and that protecting the innocent, particularly his fellow Christians, is death-defying. As Hal Courtney finds himself protecting Ethiopia from Arab invaders, the man’s true mettle comes to light, which has previously been exemplified by subsequent generations of Courtney men. Smith opens this collection of adventures in exciting fashion, leaving nothing to chance as he entertains his readers.

While this was not the most exciting of Smith’s novels, I must offer him much praise for this wonderful spin. He moves the Courtney name to its earlier ancestors, tracing their strength and determination through the skills Hal exemplifies throughout the novel. Races and swashbuckling on the high seas differs greatly from some of the past narratives, but it is this unique approach that keeps readers coming back. The attentive reader will enjoy a character or two, in hopes of their reemergence in subsequent novels. One can only hope Hal makes as indelible a mark as the likes of Sean and Centaine Courtney have in earlier novels.

Kudos, Mr. Smith for your diligence and attention to detail. I am eager to tackle more of Hal’s adventures and learn of those who followed him, as South Africa became so important to this family.

Switcheroo (Gideon Oliver #18), by Aaron Elkins

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Aaron Elkins, and Thomas & Mercer Publishers for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

Elkins brings back his famed Skeleton Detective, Dr. Gideon Oliver, for another zany and highly entertaining case. When asked to investigate a cold case from the 1960s, Oliver jumps at the opportunity to head over to the Channel Islands. Once there, the tale of two linked by a common past comes to life, especially as they were discovered on the same day. As Oliver examines the bones left behind, he begins to poke holes in the original forensic findings and unravels a mystery that dates back to the time of the Nazi Occupation, involving young Roddy Carlisle and George Skinner. Using simple forensics and genetics, Oliver opens a chasm that causes new bodies to emerge and leaves those in Jersey wondering who is next to face the murderer’s wrath, as family members of both men posit how their ancestors died and what sinister motive could explain it all. Elkins offers up another of his interesting forensic pieces, using a quaint backdrop and some returning characters to pave the way to a successful mystery.

Before Jefferson Bass and Kathy Reichs made their marks, Aaron Elkins had the monopoly on good forensic anthropology mysteries. His stories utilise a loose set of characters, some of whom reappear, but others who make their presence known in a single mystery. While they are well-crafted and succinct, they do not probe as deeply into the case as other authors of the same genre. I have also found that readers of Elkins’ works, particularly the Gideon Oliver novels, must suspend chronology in order to fit the stories together. I know I have made this complaint when I read the series consecutively, in the past, but when Elkins seeks to use dates to place the characters in a certain timeframe, one cannot ignore the placement of chronology listed in some of the early novels, making Gideon an impossible forty-two, or his well-developed backstory possible. Still, the story is light and seems to flow effectively, perfect for a short read on holiday or over a rainy/snowy weekend.

Kudos, Mr. Elkins for another interesting mystery. I hope others enjoy your books as much as I have come to do over the years.

Violent Crimes, by Phillip Margolin

Seven stars

In another of his legal thrillers, Margolin places Amanda Jaffe at the centre of a number of high-intensity events. After a bar fight goes wrong, Tom Beatty comes to Jaffe for assistance in getting the charges dropped. Beatty returns to work as a paralegal and ends up embroiled in a heated argument with a colleague, Christine Larson. After Larson’s body is found in Beatty’s home, he’s taken into custody and Jaffe’s is retained once more. At a hearing, a legal technicality prevents a significant amount of evidence from being allowed and Beatty is released on conditional bail. Dale Masterson, senior partner in the firm that employed both Larson and Beatty is in cahoots with his fellow partner, Mark Hamilton, on a project Larson discovered before her death, one about which Beatty was also aware. Masterson is found dead in his home and Brendan Masterson, the disgruntled son, is seen fleeing the scene. Much evidence points towards Brendan and he does not deny killing his father. Jaffe is retained to Masterson at trial and seeks to get to the root of the slaying. Jaffe soon discovers that the murder has very close similarities to that of Larson, leaving her unconvinced that her new client is responsible. With Beatty nowhere to be found, his degree of guilt rises exponentially and Jaffe must find him to determine how all these murders tie together. Facing the need to put on the defence of a lifetime, Jaffe takes a leap of faith in hopes that she can save both her clients from death row. Margolin weaves a complex, yet highly entertaining, story into a compact novel and keeps the reader on the edge of their seat until the final sentence, literally.

I have often enjoyed the work that Margolin creates, as it is a wonderful mix of legal drama and nuanced character development. He gets to the root of the story and captures the writer’s attention while not getting too bogged down in legal minutiae. I was not sure where things were going, with Beatty’s initial charges under the Larson murder, but once things began developing, they fell nicely into place and created a mystery layered atop a wonderful legal thriller. While it has been a while since last I read any Amanda Jaffe, she is a refreshing character and one the reader will enjoy for a long time to come.

Kudos, Mr. Margolin for another great story. I enjoy how you can cram so much and keep things moving so effectively.

Blood on Snow (Blood on Snow #1), by Jo Nesbø

Seven stars

Moving away from the Harry Hole series, Nesbø offers up this novella whose protagonist sits on the other side of the law. Meet Olav Johansen, a criminal with a sordid past, who has come to learn that he is good at only one thing, being a ‘fixer’. He’s employed by Oslo’s drug kingpin, Daniel Hoffmann. When Olav is sent to dispose of Hoffmann’s wife, Corina, a purported adulteress, he thinks it will be as easy as his other ‘jobs’, but things turn problematic. Olav does his own reconnaissance, which leads him to fall for Corina and the plan changes. An abusive lover seems more worthy of killing, so Olav does what he feels is best. It is only then that Olav realises how problematic his decision has become. As he hides Corina, Olav approaches Hoffmann’s drug rival, willing to help create a monopoly in the drug market, should ‘The Fisherman’ want a fix of his own. As Olav sets his plan in motion, he begins to reflect on his life and choices he’s made, as well as what brought him to a life of crime. As events spiral out of control, Olav learns the importance of love, though he’s spent a lifetime dodging it and keeping at arm’s length from anyone who might offer it to him. A shift in Nesbø style from the Hole work, but just as interesting, in this novella format.

“This ain’t no Harry Hole novel,” is how I might preface my recommendation of this book to anyone who is curious. I thought I would expand my Nesbø reading and look at some of these other works. While Olav Johansen is no crime fighter, he does have a deeper and somewhat darker side that might interest readers. As he parallels his life struggles to Hugo’s protagonist in Les Misérables, Olav finds himself on a journey of self-reflection, all based on the one fix he cannot complete. As Nesbø takes readers down some of the seedier streets of Oslo, the narrative still moves effectively, though this first person point of view differs greatly from that of the Hole novels. Still, it is well worth the short time it will take to read. I am eager to see how the sequel (and third in the collection) match up, which appear to be as brief as this. 

Kudos Mr. Nesbø for a refreshing look at Oslo’s underbelly. Great ideas create highly entertaining pieces of fiction.

The First Hostage (J.B. Collins #2), by Joel C. Rosenberg

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Joel C. Rosenberg, and Tyndale House Publishers for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

Picking up where the previous novel ended, panic is at its height as ISIS has turned a Middle East Peace Summit into a bloodbath. Amidst the chaos, the President of the United States (POTUS) is missing and no one can reach anyone in the security detail. New York Times Foreign Correspondent, J.B. Collins, is set to file a fragmented story to let the world know of this monumental event, but is curtailed by his editors. After releasing the news on social media, outlets around the world are buzzing and Collins finds himself in the crosshairs of some high in the US Administration and various branches of security. Collins is airlifted out of the region alongside the King of Jordan, as they set about trying to locate POTUS and determine next steps in this war against ISIS. When a video is released, showing POTUS as a prisoner in an undisclosed ISIS location, Collins hopes to work from the inside and provide ongoing news to the outside world, though is banned from doing so by the King and those in the upper echelon of the Jordanian military. An investigation unveils an American mole feeding information to ISIS in hopes of assisting in the killing of POTUS, with Collins the purported source, and he is detained on charges of treason. However, deep intelligence sources reveal that Collins’ detention is a ruse to flush out the actual mole, whose identity will shock the world. As POTUS remains captive and a massive ransom is demanded by ISIS leaders, Collins must work with US Forces, Mossad, and the Jordanians to undertake a major rescue operation. Using lesser-known biblical passages and an expert within his own family, Collins seeks to determine the location of POTUS, while he wonders if this is a modern depiction of the End of Days, as recounted in both the Bible and Koran.With ISIS prepared to stop at nothing to embarrass the Great Satan and exemplify their power through acts of extreme violence, the clock is ticking with POTUS’ execution looming. Another wonderful political thriller by Rosenberg, who pulls ideas from the headlines, but offers a wonderfully balanced approach in his storytelling, while peppering the narrative with religious references throughout. Not to be dismissed by anyone who loves exceptionally detailed political works of fiction.

Since discovering Rosenberg, I have not been able to put down his novels. They are both highly entertaining and educational, while also offering a detailed examination of issues currently in the headlines. While political thriller writers of the past have used a black and white approach to their stories (Allies vs. Axis, Cold War Western World vs. Eastern Bloc, and even US vs. Islamic Terrorists), Rosenberg looks to blur lines and offer that grey area, whereby readers learn of the actors who are in the middle, with allegiance to one side while having religious and historical ties to the other. The ISIS issue is a newer and highly controversial topic, which Rosenberg could have pitted as an American against the Muslim World story, but he chose not to go that route. Identifying the Jordanians and some of the newer Iraqi and Syrian political forces that are not supporting ISIS allows the reader to pull off the blinders that media outlets may be trying to push onto the ignorant passive news junkie. Rosenberg fleshes out the complexity in the region while telling the political story that helps shape the region’s struggles and undermines the need for a better understanding ahead of knee-jerk presuppositions. As with all his novels, Rosenberg adds a biblical flavour to things, speaking of prayer, salvation, and referencing passages in the Bible itself, but this is not done to inculcate. These topics do need examination, as Rosenberg does pull out some interesting prophetic quotations that are applicable to current situations, while letting the reader decide what to believe. Political intrigue and a highly energetic story meets a wonderful cast of characters and thoroughly realistic narrative, which catapults Rosenberg to the top of his genre. Fans and new readers alike can only hope that there is more to come from this author, who has shown time and again that he knows the genre, the nuances of Middle Eastern politics, and how to craft a story that pulls readers in after the opening few sentences.

Kudos, Mr. Rosenberg for another stellar piece of work. I cannot get enough of this, the third addictive series that you have created. I can only hope you have more to share in the coming years with as much, if not more, gusto!

Shadow Tag, by Raymond Khoury and Steve Berry

Seven stars

In this quirky, yet highly entertaining piece, Khoury and Berry tell a story that will keep their fans smiling throughout. While attending the Thrillfest convention in London, Khoury and Berry are kidnapped by a collection of thugs highly interested in their creative ideas. The authors are tasked with creating the most devastating and unique act of terror to be unleashed on the world; one that no one has ever seen and would least expect. Meanwhile, Sean Reilly is contacted and summoned to London, using coded message about something Templar related. After contacting his old friend, Cotton Malone, they meet to track down these two Americans, before being caught in the web of the same thugs and imprisoned. Detained alongside the authors who created them on the written page, Malone and Reilly must determine how to get free before things get completely out of control. Can this foursome escape before a major act of terror comes to pass? In a way only Khoury and Berry could have devised, this short story packs action alongside moments of wonderful humour.

What brilliance, not only starring in their own story, but utilising characters that made them famous to help with the rescue attempt! Told with some background information about how Khoury and Berry developed their friendship, after both writing independently successful novels about the Templars, the reader can bask in this piece and see things come to life. As Malone and Reilly do what they do best, find a way out of any predicament, the story progresses nicely and keeps the reader wondering how it will all work itself out. While the reader must suspend reality a little and not expect too much in the way of character development or significant plot creation, the idea and delivery are wonderful and deserve much praise. If only life mirrored the world of fiction!

Kudos, Messrs. Khoury and Berry for this wonderful little piece of writing. I hope you consider doing a little more of this, as you left quite the cliffhanger for your readers to ponder.

The Athens Solution (Scot Harvath #14.5), by Brad Thor

Eight stars 

In this short story, Thor ramps up the action in only a few pages and offers readers a great literary piece to accompany a brief cup of tea. When the US Ambassador to Greece is shown a piece of technology able to manipulate sensitive information, he organises its purchase with the backing of the White House. During the transaction, a number of Americans are killed and the technology kept from the safety of US control. The terrorist organisation 21 August claims responsibility and is brokering a deal to sell the technology to the highest bidder. Enter Scot Harvath, who arrives in Greece to acquire the technology and ensure it does not fall into enemy hands. However, what Harvath discovers is anything but expected, placing him in the crosshairs and subject to becoming the hunted.

Brad Thor has built his protagonist over a number of novels and short pieces, creating a persona that entertains as well as educates. In this short piece, Harvath is sent on another of his harrowing missions with only minimal assistance, but with the safety of the Free World resting on his shoulders. This is a great story, which reads quickly, and is full of trademark Harvath wit. Perhaps too brief to fully appreciate any character development, but highly entertaining nonetheless, while showing the reader that things cannot always turn out as one can hope, even for the hero.

Kudos Mr. Thor. Great work as you help ardent fans bridge the time until the next full-length novel comes out.

Midnight Sun (Blood on Snow #2), by Jo Nesbø 

Eight stars

In his second novella, Nesbø offers new insight into the world of drug dealers and the redemption they seek, sometimes in places they’d least expect. Jon Hansen has lived a troubled life, at least since he began peddling hash. After a number of unfortunate events, Jon ends up working for the Fisherman, Oslo’s drug kingpin. Taking on the role of debt collector and fixer, Jon makes a calculated error and is on the lam with a large sum of drugs and money, with henchmen after him. When Jon shows up in Kåsund, he is not sure what to expect. Located in the far northerly regions of Norway, the area is vast and open, as well as being populated by the Læstadian, a branch of the Lutheran Church, who take their Bible very seriously and cast aspersions on those who frolic in an ‘unChristian’ manner. Befriended by Knut and Lea Eliassen, Jon is able to hide in a family hunting cabin just outside of town while taking on the name Ulf. However, as Jon tries to plan his next move, the Fisherman sends someone from Oslo to bring a mortal message. Jon must hide himself and gather his wits in a place that he does not belong. As the reader leans more of Jon’s backstory, Nesbø also tells of Lea’s struggles as daughter of the town’s minister and how she has shielded Knut from the harsh truths that many others know. As Jon begins to discover himself and the connection he’s developing for those around him, his executioners return to finish the job. Has Jon done enough to save himself, if not the soul that may not be found within him? Nesbø quasi-continuation of the Blood on Snow series is equally captivating as the first novella, though offers fresh and entertaining aspects the reader can appreciate.

There are many authors who are able to concoct and publish a number of novels under their name; even some who can get their work translated for larger distribution. However, Jo Nesbø has acquired a skill that few can profess to have in their quiver, the Midas Touch for fiction writing. Nesbø pushes the limits in all he writes and puts blood and sweat out on the page as he creates characters, plots, and locales that allow fresh ideas to flourish, while staying true to himself. In this novella, Nesbø taps into the devout religiosity that some have and how faith can fit alongside logic in formulating a life plan. He gets a little soft at times, but this only goes to show just how versatile the man can be. I have said it many times before and will do so again, Jo Nesbø is an author whose writing becomes highly addictive, even though it was never penned in English from the start. Not to be dismissed because of its short length, Nesbø can pretty much do whatever he attempts, with great success.

Kudos Mr. Nesbø for a unique spin on a successful collection of ideas. I am hooked and hope you’ll keep writing for years to come.

Headhunters, by Jo Nesbø 

Eight stars

Nesbø moves away from his police procedurals to offer this highly intriguing story that offers up excitement on par with any Harry Hole novel. Roger Brown has made a niche for himself as a corporate headhunter in Oslo’s business world. While his commissions pay him well, Brown finds himself living a luxurious lifestyle; one that requires a second and more lucrative paycheque. During interviews, Brown finds himself fishing for personal information about candidates, particularly surrounding their art collections. The reader soon learns that Brown is happy to use this knowledge to steal numerous pieces and replace them with forgeries. When Brown is introduced to Clas Greve at an art gallery, they hit it off and seem destined to work together. Greve has his eye on a Norwegian technology company and hopes Brown can work his magic and place Greve in the CEO’s chair. After learning that Greve possesses a rare piece of art, Brown proceeds with his plan. However, Greve may be more than Brown can handle and things soon spiral out of control, leaving Brown to scramble and try to make sense of this new reality. In a cat and mouse game that sees Brown and Greve dodging one another, the reader learns that this clash has less to do with art or headhunting, but a primal sense of survival. In this fast-paced novel that pushes the boundaries of the thriller genre, Nesbø captivates the reader as the story progresses and the truth about both men becomes clear. Certainly a step away from the dark world of police detectives, but a novel that Nesbø fans should not miss.

Having almost completed the entire Nesbø collection of novels (at least those gears to adults and translated into English), I can speak with some authority that there seems to be little the author cannot accomplish. This story is less ‘cops and robbers’ and more corporate espionage and personal headhunting. While it reminds me of another favourite author of mine, Nesbø is able to carve out his own niche and keep the story flowing effectively. There is no point at which I could say things lagged or the ideas seemed repetitive from the other work I have read. Nesbø knows his audience, but is also able to steer his writing in new and exciting directions. Roger Brown can be loved at some points and hated at others, never shying away from the cutthroat man that he appears to be in the opening chapters. Nesbø fans are in for a treat when they curl up to devour this piece of fiction.

Kudos Mr. Nesbø for another wonderful story. Formidable work, though that seems to be an understatement.

Police (Harry Hole #10), by Jo Nesbø 

Nine stars

Nesbø brings the Harry Hole series to a close with a thriller that keeps readers focussed until the final sentence. After the vague, yet horrible, end to the previous novel, the complete cast of characters remains in shock about how the Oslo Crime Squad will continue. When a number of police officers are murdered after returned to crime scenes of previously unsolved cases, there’s a struggle between the Squad and Kripos (the national police organisation) as to who will handle things. Newly-appointed Chief of Police, Mikael Bellman, defers to the national authorities, though does permit a loose collection of Squad members to run a covert investigation. Leaderless now, with Hole’s seat empty, the team tries to piece things together, with little success. Lingering over them is the Gusto Hanssen case, crux of the previous novel, which remains unsolved, though many feel Hole knew how it all came together. Some key players in the scheme, from criminals through to Bellman and his lackey, remain on high alert, as their futures could hang in the balance if such news were shared. As the Squad limps along, trying to solve the police murder, they face a devastating reality, and are hit with tragedy. At this point, they can no longer work alone. Harry Hole, now a full-time instructor at the Police Academy, is called upon to help as a consultant. Hole is tepid in his acceptance, but needs a distraction as he is badgered by an overly flirtatious student who cries wolf when things do not go her way. Hole works as best he can and traces down a few leads, with a focus on the killer from the original crimes, most of whom have a strong sexual component to them. Alibis preclude an easy arrest and the Squad is forced to return to the drawing board, with little to show for their work. As Hole is wont to do, he finds a thread and pulls, which causes everything to unravel to its bare basics and offers new insights that the Squad had not seen beforehand. With a Cop Killer on the loose, other storylines also ramp up, leaving the reader to split their interest along a few developing narratives. With nothing to lose, will Hole end his time as Nesbø’s protagonist on a winning note, or will the Crime Squad disappear onto the literary horizon with more unanswered questions and force readers to extrapolate on their own? Brilliant work, told in such a way that no Nesbø fan could complain.

Nesbø is a master at picking up where he leaves off, not always letting the reader breathe before pushing the drama that ended the previous novel into the forefront. His insinuations, at multiple points in the book, leave the reader to wonder what if rather than knowing how things will play out. Nesbø’s use of a sizeable character base allows multiple plots to develop without straining realistic expectations of those he uses as vessels to guide the narrative. Harry Hole may be central, but Nesbø shows how the story can progress without him, at least for a period, while installing fear and loathing in the reader. That the series had to come to an end is inevitable, though Harry Hole had an excellent run. With new and disturbing addictions or dark pathways, Hole remains a man with a number of struggles for which he has not found an answer. This ever-evolving character exemplifies how Nesbø is able to hold onto his ‘Master of the Art’ title without much opposition by readers.

When I began this Harry Hole journey, I was not sure what to expect. On the one hand, I love a good police procedural, particularly one that takes place outside of the normal ‘North American’ or ‘British-centric’ locales that many of the novels I have read find themselves developing. On the other, there is always a gamble to be taken when reading a collection of novels that were written in a language other than English. The translator must be stellar, as they represent the author’s ideas. As my Norwegian is as rusty as it could ever be, I relied on a translation and the hype Harry Hole had received to see if things could develop into an addictive for me. Like Harry Hole and bottle of Jim Beam, they did and I was ensconced in the series from the early stages. While it took three books to pull the story into Norway, once things got moving, there was no end to the wonders Nesbø placed before the reader. That Hole is an effective detective is even more surprising, based on the addictions and dark side he undertakes throughout the series. As I have mentioned at numerous points in past reviews, the alcoholism and drug abuse seem only to heighten Hole’s abilities, while pulling the reader into the dark world of drugs on Oslo’s streets. With a successful trilogy built into the larger series, Nesbø keeps the reader hooked and wanting more. Hole’s ongoing love interests seem to flit across the page, though Rakel’s emergence with her son Oleg remain a storyline that Nesbø does not end and Hole relies upon, no matter what he is doing. I cannot say enough about this series, this author, or the fact that Scandinavian crime novels seem better than much of the genre that is written in English at the outset.

Kudos Mr. Nesbø for a powerful piece to end the series. I have found a new favourite author and will recommend this series to anyone who will listen.

The Son, by Jo Nesbø

Eight stars

Nesbø treats his fans to another captivating piece of fiction, again tackling the seedy underbelly of Oslo and the clash between the police and criminal element. At the heart of it all is Sonny Lofthus, an apparently complacent young man whose spent almost half his life behind bars. With a serious heroin habit, Lofthus is sated as long as he gets his fix, so much so that he has agreed to confess to crimes he did not commit. Living in the shadow of his father, a corrupt cop who was a mole for a crime lord, Lofthus sees no glory on the horizon of his life. Many around him, from prison officials to cops, and even the prison chaplain are happy to feed him his drugs and pile more dreariness onto his plate. However, when Lofthus learns a deep secret about his father, he escapes from prison and begins a killing rampage directed at all those who sought to hold him under their thumbs. While the bodies pile up, DCI Simon Kefas, who has a myriad of personal issues with which he is wrestling, is tasked with finding Lofthus and bringing him back to jail. However, The Twin, the aforementioned crime lord who has been the puppet master to Lofthus’ demise, also seeks this young killer, wishing to scrub him out before he can reveal too much and remove the taint of his father’s history. As Kefas gets closer, the reader learns more about a hidden connection between two key players, as well as shared sorrows brewing for over a decade. A riveting piece of work that will lure new readers to become instant Nesbø fans as well as supporting those who have long loved anything Harry Hole. 

There is something about Nesbø’s writing that grabs the reader in the opening chapters and will not let go until the bitter end. Be it Harry Hole and his dark backstory or the lives of Kefas and Lofthus in this one-off novel. Nesbø pulls Oslo and the Norwegian way of life away from the frivolities of social democracy and happy living as he paints the dark and drug-riddled side that is left off the news reels sent to North America. Nesbø tells it like it is and is happy to let the reader wade through it all to find something upon which they can grasp. However, he spins a wonderful crime story along the way and the reader is left wanting more and forgetting how dreary things have been on the literary journey. What a gift this man has…and the novel was not written in English to begin with. How is it that Scandinavians are so advanced in their literary communication that the translation of their word supersedes much of what is churned out by those who commence the process in English? Stellar seems too light a word to use, but my awe has intoxicated me at the moment.

Kudos Mr. Nesbø another fabulous piece. I cannot get enough of your writing and scramble for more at every possible occasion.

A Time to Die (Courtney #8), by Wilbur Smith

Seven stars

In what has been labelled the seventh Courtney novel, but which sits more accurately as eighth in the chronological progress of the series, Smith depicts a tale that offers the reader an in-depth glance into the life of Sean Courtney, son of Shasa and Tara. Set around 1987, Sean is a veteran of the Rhodesian Bush Wars and has become a full-time hunter with his safari company in Zimbabwe. Coaxed by his clients to follow a legendary elephant across the border into Mozambique, Sean leads them on a treacherous hunt that sees one client die and the other, Claudia Monterro, kidnapped by anti-government forces. With no other means to free Claudia, Sean must work with the guerrillas to save the woman with whom he has fallen in love. General China, head of the Renamo rebels has high hopes of pushing out the Marxist leaders in Mozambique and taking over, before turning his eye on crushing Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, with the help of the white South African Government. However, in order to achieve this, Sean and the group of rebels must pose as Zimbabwean troops and steal a shipment of Stinger Missiles, sent by the Soviets, which can be used to quell the attacks of Hind Helicopters being used by Mozambique’s Frelimo forces. With the weapons in the General’s possession, Sean and Claudia sit in the middle of this bloody battle to topple African leaders, with high hopes that they will be able to make their way into South Africa and be protected by all those known to Sean and his family. Smith paints a heroic side to Sean and his battle-hardened nature as he pushes himself to the limits to save those close to him. An interesting way to end the second sequence of Courtney novels, which differs vastly from the other books that glimpse at life for the entire Courtney clan.

As mentioned above, this novel moves away from the family progression in the other books of the second sequence. Smith likely sought to shed some light on the grown-up Sean, whose troublesome nature was splashed across the previous narratives. That no other family members make an appearance (save for an extremely minimal Lothar De La Rey) leaves the reader isolated in the jungles of Mozambique and Zimbabwe, without that all-around progression. However, Smith continues to educated as well as entertain in the series. In this novel, he offers an in-depth exploration of elephant hunting and, for lack of a better word, a life-cycle of the African elephant. This ties in nicely with the hunting that takes place in the first half of the novel, before things shift significantly to the political and battle-centred second half. Smith also offers a social commentary on African states, which expands from the previous novel’s discussion of the Marxist take-over of the region. While many of the countries were colonial holdings until the end of the Second World War, the geographic lines were arbitrarily drawn to fix European ideals, rather than tribal layout. By pulling out, these ‘states’ had little ability to work on their own and one of two things happened, former colonial whites came in to rule with an iron fist (Smith in Rhodesia, numerous leaders in South Africa), or Soviet-backed puppet regimes came in during the height of the Cold War, in the sixties and seventies, which instilled a form of government that was equally problematic, in that it pitted states against one another while trying to push egalitarian policies. The corruption of the continent led to much blood-shed and neighbouring states waged war, not only on ideological platforms, but to remove stability of already shaky governments with foreign supported militaries. Smith offers up that these constant pendulum swings and corrupt leaders did little to help stabilise the region, but cast it into ongoing wars, which, truth be told, only propagated the desires of the colonial whites, as blacks killed blacks and weakened states. The two diametrically opposed stalwarts, South Africa and Zimbabwe, stood as firm as could be and watched transitions, while backing opposing rebel sides in this battle for control of the southern region of the continent. Fans of Smith and this series will be able to fully comprehend the struggles in ways that the layman may not. I can say that I have learned much since commencing this series, particularly the second sequence. Readers who have taken the time to delve into the Ballantyne series will also appreciate this novel a little more, as they have the Zimbabwe backstory and the political upheavals in that country.

As the second sequence comes to an end, I can see a strong connection to the multi-generational story that was pushed before I started. As I mentioned in an earlier review, I can see similarities to Follett, Archer, and Rutherfurd as I read, tying characters together as the decades meld together. It is this type of writing that is most effective and yet hardest to accomplish. Storylines must stay fresh and yet work on the foundation of earlier characters and generations, which can easily be impeded by an author going off on tangents and forgetting about where the story originated. Smith does not have this issue and has, quite effectively, made the second sequence successful. Readers can forego reading the first sequence and be fairly well-versed, though it is always nice to know about Sean and Garrick as Centaine begins her journey and has a passionate connection to Michael, as well as some of the political goings-on that occurred in colonial South Africa. However, that remains at the discretion of the reader. And what will the third sequence bring to the narrative? Apparently some back stories related to the historical Courtneys, though not entirely sequential or constant, from what I have heard. I suppose we will have to wait and see.

Kudos, Mr. Smith for an interesting end to the second sequence. I can only hope you have more political intrigue in store for readers, as well as additionally addictive characters. 

Phantom (Harry Hole #9), by Jo Nesbø

Nine stars

Building on the chaos of the previous novel, Nesbø leaves readers wondering how the series will continue without Harry Hole. It’s been three years since Hole left for Hong Kong, and Oslo has undergone many changes. When a tall, lanky man checks-in at the Hotel Leon, the clerk cannot help but wonder if he’s come face to face with the ever-talked about Harry Hole. Propelled back into the mix when he learns that he son of a woman he’s loved for ages is under arrest for murder, Hole resurfaces to get the truth and find the killer. After learning that Oleg has turned to a life of drugs, Hole must piece the story together and disprove what the authorities feel is an airtight case. Oslo is no longer the city that Hole remembers, with junkies and pushers no longer offering cheap heroin, but a new and more potent fix, Violin. Harry meets Oleg in prison and hears his side of the story, learning that he and Gusto Hanssen, the victim, have been recruited into a drug ring that has control of the city and its narcotics distribution. It becomes evident that there’s been a scapegoat put in place and that someone up the drug chain is trying to keep Oleg from spilling too much, which is supported when the young man is attacked in his cell after Hole leaves him. Working with Oleg’s lawyer, Hans Christian, Hole determines that there is a larger web of informants, some of whom populate the Oslo PD, with whom Hole no longer is associated. As Hole garners more information, he tries to bring the PD on board, but they choose to handle things they own way, forcing Hole to use his contacts and work on the sly. Hole is able to penetrate the core of the massive drug ring and to come face-to-face with its head, someone that no one can confirm having met, who meanders around as though he were a Phantom of sorts. By the time Hole gathers all the evidence, he comes to a crossroads, meeting the killer head on, where only one will survive. Has Hole sipped his last Jim Beam, especially now that he does not have the backing of the Oslo PD? A stunning look into Oslo’s underbelly and Harry Hole’s determination. Not to be missed by Hole fans, no matter the excuse.

Nesbø proves his abilities yet again with this powerful novel and role in which Hole plays to keep it moving forward. Exploring not only Oslo’s drug trade business, but also offering up an insight into the movement of drugs around Scandinavia and their chemical creation, Nesbø brings the reader into the heart of the matter. Also, working with a protagonist who is outside looking in proves harder in a police thriller, but Harry Hole captures the hearts of all readers and propels the story forward, doing what he does best while keeping the book from being a one-man vigilante plot. Using a variety of characters, some well-known to the reader and others new to the scene, Nesbø creates an effective story that pulls the reader in and will not let go until the true killer is revealed in ways that only Hole could do effectively. As well as touching on the issues on the streets, the story forecasts the added fallout to layers of corruption at the top, which Hole cannot ignore and about which the reader relishes to learn. Using his honed technique of alternate narratives, Nesbø offers not only the progression of the story, but a tale through the eyes of the victim (as well as one of a rat whose importance is revealed late in the novel). With one novel left in the series, it is exciting to see where Nesbø will take everyone, and how it will all tie off.

Kudos Mr. Nesbø for an exciting series to date. I keep telling myself the ideas will end, but you seem to have new and exciting plots constantly on a slow boil.