Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach

Eight stars

Roach is back for another scientific look at the world around us, this time honing her attention on the US Military. In ways unique to her, Roach is able to look at various aspects of military life and explore the informative components while injecting little known (or considered) facts about the process. Consider, for example the depth to which the Department of Defence has studied various materials for uniforms, from their flammability, coolness (temperature) factor, and even lack of fashion-worthiness. The controversial world of camouflage does not elude Roach, as she examines just how much thought (and many tax dollars) goes into a decision. However, this only skims the surfaces of her analyses, as she ventures into the world of prostheses, which are common among the injured returning from the battlefield and wishing to hold onto some semblance of their previous abilities. The reader might not expect the significant amount of attention paid to penile prosthetic implements and the surgery around trying to handle injuries to the area. Of course, Roach does not shy away from this, nor does her exploration keep her from asking (and writing) about the wonderful world of diarrhea, particularly for those deployed to ‘non-first world domains’. Have you ever wondered what a sniper would do if they were hit with a bout of ‘the runs’ while scoping out an enemy? Roach has and writes about this, at length. From there, it is exploration of flies and maggots, both of whom have been the focus of numerous studies by the US Government. Of course, no examination of the military would be complete without discussion of weapons, though Roach chooses some less than expected armaments when she researches and talks about the odorous weapons that US Military brass chose to develop and deploy. Stink bombs, scents that would be displeasing to a cross-section of various ethnic communities, as well as the disturbing results of focus group studies (that many asked would actually consider wearing a vomit scent as a daily cologne/perfume!). While out of sights, Roach refuses to keep those aboard submarines out of mind as she examines sleep deprivation and circadian rhythms for the men and women prowling the deepest seas. Roach has outdone herself yet again and left me with tears in my eyes, trying to stifle a laugh in a subtle cough as I sat in public. Enjoyable for anyone, but preferably not read anytime near food consumption.

It could be Roach’s delivery or her refusal to find anything off limits, but she has gone to the margins of possible exploration and then forged ahead. Her discovery of the most random areas of research and highlighting them in major portions of her chapters shows not only a strong grasp of the material, but also that she is able to synthesize it effectively. The reader will, if they are anything like me, remain agog of all the minutiae that comes to the surface while also constantly asking just how far Roach will push the envelope to add fodder to her books. She seems to write so seamlessly and with such confidence that the reader can absorb all that is presented and feel it is highly useful at the next dinner party or family gathering. The chapters remain all-encompassing though the entire book remains under 300 pages, allowing the reader to leave the experience without being too weighed-down with facts. 

Kudos, Madam Roach for taking us into the world of the military through science rather than the incessant ISIS babble that fills the airwaves today.

The Advocate’s Daughter, by Anthony Franze

Nine stars

Returning with another crime thriller, peppered with legal undertones, Franze offers an explosive story that will rock the reader as the story unfolds. Sean Serrat is about to begin a new job in private practice, having recently left the office of the Solicitor General. Working in DC, he comes to realise that every lawyer is covered in politics, no matter how they try to protect themselves. He is also rumoured to be a nominee for the vacancy on the US Supreme Court, which creates an added buzz in a city that thrives on whispers. When Serrat’s daughter, Abby, goes missing, he turns to tracking her down, only to find her phone across town at the home of a friend. Things lead him to the Supreme Court Library, where Abby’s been murdered and stuffed in a corner. While Serrat tries to stomach what’s happened, he must also tell his family of his discovery. As they try to process what’s happened, a young man is charged with the murder. Awaiting trial, Malik Montgomery asserts his innocence and is willing to do anything he can to prove it. Serrat begins to explore what Abby had on her radar before her death, a law student and ambitious young woman. Serrat comes to discover she has been helping vet potential nominees to the Supreme Court, working on background research of the one man who may be better qualified than Serrat himself. This leads down a rabbit hole that forces Serrat to remember an event from his youth, one in a far away place he thought was buried long ago. However, as Serrat will come to learn, nothing remains a secret when there are witnesses. Is the Montgomery arrest the end of the Serrats’ concerns surrounding Abby’s murder, or could there be others harbouring additional motives, lurking in the shadows? Franze spins a tale that will keep readers wondering until the very end, and even then, questions linger. A powerful legal tinged thriller that is sure to garner significant praise.

Having read Franze’s previous novel, I see much improvement here. The story is much stronger an the narrative significantly crisper than before. Sean Serrat is a character that is not only relatable by the reader, but also intriguing for all he brings to the story. With a plot that is far from linear, Franze offers the reader many twists that take things in directions that are both unexpected, but also necessary. The further the narrative delves into the murder, the faster the pace, which forces characters to shape to their surroundings or be forgotten. Full of facts about the Supreme Court, legal methods, but also criminal activities, Franze educates readers while entertaining them with this story. His style and presentation make him memorable and this novel may pave the way to further success, should he keep writing in this genre. I will certainly recommend this novel and hope that it is not the end of Franze’s foray into criminal thrillers.

Kudos, Mr. Franze for your impressive reemergence on the scene. You took your critics’ comments to heart and shaped a much stronger effort this time around.

When Death Draws Near (Gwen Marcey #3), by Carrie Stuart Parks

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Carrie Stuart Parks, and Thomas Nelson for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

In her latest forensic thriller, Parks brings Gwen Marcey back for another adventure, well out of her comfort zone. After accepting a brief job in rural Kentucky, Marcey arrives to help the Pike County sheriff with a serial rapist. Marcey interviews the latest victim in hopes of getting enough to provide a forensic sketch, before they are able to secure enough information, the victim goes missing, as have the other rape victims. Sheriff Clayton Reed has another project on which he could use Marcey’s assistance and shuttles her over to visit a state senator, whose lavish home is both daunting and alluring. Marcey is asked to go undercover to identify key members of a serpent charming church, a local branch-off of the Pentecostals. A number of its members have turned up dead from snakebites, poison ingestion, and other incidents, all of which points to danger within the sect. Leery of how she will be able to keep her task away from the others, Marcey waffles, but is soon convinced that her artistic skills might be more useful than anything else that’s been tried. Marcey receives two pieces of poignant news before she makes her final decision: her daughter is being sent to stay with her for a time, and her cancer has returned. Working to digest both pieces, Marcey embarks on her adventure with daughter, Aynslee, alongside her. Aynslee exhibits typical teenage behaviour but turns out to be more interested in the religious experience than could have been imagined. Beginning with a service, Marcey and Aynslee are invited to a full revival, where serpents will appear and others acts of God presented. While Marcey does her best to focus on the ringleaders, she is intercepted by some who find her outsider nature to be more concerning. With a rapist still on the loose and a killer within the religious group, Marcey remains on guard and must find answers before she is revealed to be a skeptic. However, danger seems to find Marcey easily and she is pulled in deeper than she could have expected! which may leave her in dire straits before the cancer can ravage her body. A wonderfully compelling novel by Parks that tackles not only the forensics, but also struggles with religion, spirituality, and personal defeat. A must read by any reader whose interest strays into the forensics sciences.

Parks uses her Gwen Marcey character to emulate her own life experience, which shows in her writing. Detailed description of forensic artists and their techniques pepper the narrative as well as enrich the protagonist as she seeks to educate and undertake all tasks. This is an oft-forgotten aspect of forensics, so highlighting it appears to serve multiple purposes. Parks also ventures into the always-delicate area of religious groups for the second time, this time a Pentecostal sect whose use of serpents mirrors verses in the New Testament. Parks is able to present the idea as grounded in faith, even if Gwen Marcey’s character is skeptical of the whole thing, without being demeaning or dismissive. This is a strong theme throughout, as the reader explores the nuances of religious belief and is faced with some acts that may seem dangerous or outright silly. Parks turns inward on the Gwen Marcey struggle with the news that cancer is back and how she will handle her inevitable death. Marcey has been through this before, but its reemergence weighs heavily on her mind and loosely accepted soul. There are portions of the novel in which Marcey begins to have conversations with herself and others in her mind, which led me to wonder if these were less to rationalize events and more along the lines of delusions tied to the disease. How Parks is able to pull in so many characters who have touched Marcey without writing them into the story is quite smart, while also pushing the envelop with Marcey’s sanity and her grounded nature. The story plays out well and the characters support all needed aspects, allowing the reader to feel tied to everything, which not getting too bogged down in any single aspect. Parks shows her superior writing abilities in this regard and should be complimented for this approach. Truly a novel that has been well-crafted and succeeds in luring the reader in from the opening pages.

Kudos, Madam Parks for another stellar piece of writing. I cannot wait to see if Gwen Marcey returns for another adventure, should her health be up to it.

Private Rio: The Games (Private #11), by James Patterson and Mark Sullivan

Seven stars

In the weeks leading up to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, Patterson and Sullivan released this thriller from the Private series, shining a light on some of the major issues that have been reported by media outlets for years. When Jack Morgan attended the World Cup in 2014, Private did well at keeping the event secure in Rio. However, while everyone turned to the football (soccer) pitch, two poor Brazilian children died from a mysterious virus, Hydra, but received no coverage. At the World Cup’s Closing Ceremonies, one man was infected with Hydra, thanks to a doctor who sought to shine some light on the poor of Brazil, but even this was covered-up as Rio began its twenty-four month countdown to an even larger party. By the summer of 2016, Morgan is back in Rio, this time to enjoy the Olympics and provide some security consultation. However, when a rich benefactor contacts him after a family kidnapping, Morgan rushes to help and tries to keep things out of the media, days before the Opening Ceremonies. While he chases down an outrageous ransom demand, Morgan has hopes that this will not be a repeat of the drama he undertook in London four years before. Meanwhile, not feeling there was enough coverage of Rio and its poor, who are forced to live in slums, a virologist is prepared to unleash something that is sure to grab headlines. Having worked on Hydra, it is now more virulent than ever and has shown interesting results in experiments. As Morgan works alongside one of his Private Rio agents to deliver the ransom, the drop goes poorly, allowing the kidnappers to use their own political platform to expose some of the corruption the Olympics seeks to hide. However, it is the virus and plans to spread it during the Opening Ceremonies that sobers Morgan and forces him to rush to discover the ultimate plan. As the world watches, unaware of the major panic that could be unleashed, Private must reach a man who is past rational thinking. A fast-paced novel that leaves nothing in the tank and stirs up curiosity in the largest (and most expensive) sporting event(s) in the world.

While this series has received some criticism for all the permutations it has taken, when Sullivan teams up to direct the plot, things seem to develop successfully. I have come to find that the characters are a little better presented, the plots a little quicker (even if they can get hokey), and the dialogue more along the lines of what I am used to seeing. While this is by no means a stellar piece of literature, it serves its purpose to entertain and keep Jack Morgan from becoming too stale. What is ahead for Private, no one knows for sure, but this could be another step towards Patterson’s rejuvenation, as he lends his name to something with a strong foundation.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Sullivan for creating another thriller that centres around a major event, while not shying away from some of the social issues that plague the background.

The Flip, by Michael Phillip Cash

Seven stars

Cash gives readers something else from the paranormal world in this highly entertaining novella. Brad and Julie Evans have an itch for flipping houses. While it has yet to flourish in to a profitable business, there is the potential, after a few ventures. After Julie insists they gamble on a Victorian home, Brad is leery because of all the work that it needs. He has become the contractor and handyman, keeping costs down, but even he feels that this might be more than he’s able to handle. While working one day, he is spotted by a ghost, the alluring Tessa, who has decided that he is her latest infatuation. Choosing not only to focus her attention on him, Tessa is also prepared to push Julie to the brink and keep Brad all for herself. After an incident costs Brad and Julie their home, they move into this old home as they try to regroup. This forces Brad and Julie to realise that there might be something haunted about this place, thought they are not able to determine its origin. As Tessa seeks to test her wiles, another ghost lingers closely, Gerard. He has long been interested in Tessa, as far back as when they lived during the Civil War. With Julie sensing they are not alone, Brad is left to experience some paranormal activity of his own before he will accept that there is something more to this house than dust bunnies and drafts coming from the attic. Cash tells a great story, meshing history with current events, which allows the reader to fully appreciate this story.

Cash always brings a paranormal aspect to his stories. While some might shy away from them due to their genre, they are more than beings who walk through walls and the living who struggle with an added presence. Cash seeks to use both past and presents narratives to build a common theme and offer the reader a thought-provoking story that explores countless ideas, entertaining and educating simultaneously. The stories flow well and the characters have a realistic flavour to them. While nothing that requires too much mental acuity, Cash does provide the reader with something they can ponder as they weave through the chapters and reach the climax of the paranormal revelation. Surely the theme works for Cash and can lure a curious reader into a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

Kudos, Mr. Cash for another great story that provides the reader with something that is neither corny nor overly chilling to the bone.

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

Nine stars

Garth Stein presents the reader with an interesting tale that spans years, both human and dog, to tell of a journey that will touch the heart and funny bone in ways not previously imaginable. Meet Enzo, who begins the story by announcing that he will die. This is nothing shocking as everyone’s life must end at some point. The reader ought not bat an eye, even when it turns out Enzo is a dog, for all creatures succumb to an eventual end. What follows is a story in which Enzo pulls the reader through a lifetime a memories and thoughts from his own perspective. With Denny Swift, Enzo’s owner, playing a central role, Enzo dashes through a narrative that commences on a farm and follows at a pace that only a dog could understand. Denny is a a race car driver of some renown, speeding along the tracks at breakneck speeds, something with which Enzo has some experience as he watches many a race on the television during his lonely days at home. When Eve enters the scene, Enzo must learn to share Denny’s affections, though he feels a closeness that no human could overtake when it comes to the master-dog relationship. From there, Zoë is born and Enzo struggles to come to terms with another new life in his surroundings, though his protective side permits him to share all the love the Swift household has to offer. At this point, the story spins in directions more dramatic than humourous, as Enzo faces such struggles as illness, custodial arrangements, and legal battles, all of which pull himself and Denny to the brink of collapse. However, nothing is more important than the relationship Enzo fostered with Denny all those years ago. Just as every race has its beginning, there is a checked flag to end the laps and call the drivers home. Enzo is not exempt from this and has to come to terms with his own mortality, though he is not ready to give it all up. He seeks to ease his way while protecting Denny from the hardship of loss, having seen so much with his master over the years. Stein offers a powerful story that touches the hearts of pet owners and mere reading enthusiasts alike with this exceptional piece.

Pitting an entire story from the perspective of a dog is a gamble that surely paid off for Stein when he wrote this. He is able to capture the reader and keep their attention for a few reasons, which resonated throughout the narrative. First and foremost, he mixes humour with serious issues to offer the reader an insight into the canine perspective and shows that it is more than just eat, sleep, repeat. Secondly, that the story was Enzo’s story without being Enzo’s Story proved highly effective. It offers the reader a look at everyday life and the struggles that others have without it being solely canine-centric. While I am sure there is a place for a story that depicts a dog’s slow struggle towards death, readers seeking that might want to flock to a book about an euphemistic cephalopod invasion of man’s best friend and an owner unable to cope with its reality. Thirdly, that Enzo can find his niche as a character in the aforementioned constant story and not as a sideline ‘third person’ or ‘omnipotent’ narrator allows the reader to feel that this story has complexities and that Enzo’s character is integral to the story’s progression. Yes, there is loss, struggle, and even death, but there is also life, vigour, and accomplishment peppered throughout these pages. Stein juggles these two emotional spheres so seamlessly that the reader does not realise the path down which they have travelled until the end, when it all comes together (and apart). For that, Stein deserves much credit. 

Kudos, Mr. Stein for this wonderful book. While I do not know how much was fiction, I applaud you for your creativity and you can rest assured, this book will come highly recommended to anyone I know.

The After House, by Michael Phillip Cash

Seven stars

Cash pens another story with a paranormal flavour in its plot, using both history and locale to entice the reader to forge onwards. Remy Galway thought she had it all when she had the man of her dreams and was motivated to make a name for herself. All this came into question after the birth of their daughter, Olivia, when Remy started to see a change in Scott. His tender moments were replaced with lies and his soothing embrace became fists to the face. Decimated, but refusing to accept her parents’ charity, Remy took Olivia and found a a place of her own, a rental property Cold Spring Harbor. As Remy and Olivia settle, they are not aware that the home was once inhabited by Captain Eli Gaspar, a famous whaler from the 19th century, whose ghost remains on the premises. Gaspar was none too pleased with the ladies living in his home and did all he could to push them out, in ways only a devious sailor could devise. However, Olivia was having none of it and kept the apparition in his place by refusing to scare and pushing back to mock the little man. While Remy could not see the Captain, she definitely felt the wrath he left around the house, still unsure what was going on. When the town historian comes to pay her a visit, more at her parents’ insistence than for any other reason, Remy begins to develop a connection with Hugh Matthews. They share a bond and he is able to enlighten her a little more about the house in which she lives and Gaspar’s past. After a series of incidents that the Captain swears were not of his doing, Remy is hospitalised and Hugh vows to do whatever he can to help her. Their bond becomes stronger and they soon realise they are meant to be together. Meanwhile, the Captain has been trying to make sense of his own life and the struggle of the family he lost in the 1840s when he was too busy at sea. With a little help from the paranormal world, Gaspar soon finds a pathway that has eluded him. A well concocted story that keeps the reader sailing through the pages with ease, Cash’s story is a sure investment to a contented afternoon of reading.

As Cash mentions in the early part of the book, the after house on a ship is a protected area where seamen can seek shelter from weather and other issues on ship. In this story, as far as metaphors go, Cash creates an after house of the actual house, allowing the likes of Remy, Olivia, and even Captain Eli to seek shelter from the torrential life that is rushing past them. While some may look at this story and say, ‘ghosts and haunting? I’ll pass!’ there is so much more to this story than that. The plot and characters ever surpass the syrupy lovey-dovey aspects it would seem are present throughout, especially with Hugh and Remy. Cash weaves a wonderful story that works on many levels and entertains all the while. This novella is well-researched and its movement between the present and Captain Eli’s past tells a double-barrel story that keeps the readers intrigued until the very end. I have always enjoyed Cash’s work, even if the paranormal has never been one of my subjects of greatest interest.

Kudos, Mr. Cash for another great story that pulls numerous genres together into something that can be read in a single sitting.

Deadly Medicine (Capital Crimes #29), by Donald Bain

Seven stars

Bain continues to carry the torch for Margaret Truman’s long-running series set in the American capital. Jayla King lives a quiet life in DC, working for a pharmaceutical company. When she learns of her father’s death in her native Papua New Guinea (PNG), King rushes back to discover that he has been murdered and the work he has been doing on plant-based pain medicines is ruined. Taking the documentation back with her, King is distraught and unsure if Dr. Preston King’s research could have a place in a drug-laden country like the United States. Dr. King’s assistant, Eugene Waksit, has the same feeling and stews over the fact that Jayla took all her father’s research, leaving him nothing, though he was a key player throughout the research gathering in PNG. Waksit begins an elaborate plan to make his way to Washington and peddle what he feels is rightfully his. Local authorities begin to piece together what might have happened to Dr. King, learning that an American company, Alard Associates, sent someone to commit the crime and burn the crops before they could be harvested. Back in DC, Jayla approached Mac Smith to assist her with the legal conundrums of moving forward with her father’s research and liaising with a PNG attorney surrounding her father’s probate. Private Investigator Robert Brixton, who works extensively with Smith, learns of Jayla’s concerns and agrees to help where he can. He is, however, in the middle of an investigation for a journalist friend of his, tracking down some leads related to a US Senator who procured an abortion for a teenage girl through a high-powered lobbyist with ties to the pharmaceutical community. The deeper that Brixton digs, the more he learns, both about the abortion and about a shady company, Alard Associates. When Smith and Jayla share their news about Dr. King’s killer, everything comes together and Brixton tries to package the two investigations together. Waksit arrives in DC and targets Jayla, stealing the research before trying to sell it to the highest bidder, though its primitive nature makes it harder to offload, which leads the researcher to take drastic actions. As the novel reaches its climax, Brixton takes a significant gamble in the investigation, one that could cost people their lives, as Washington elite will do anything to protect a precious reputation. Bain does a wonderful job at spinning this tale that takes the political drama of Washington and turns in on its ear. A decent addition to the long-running series that might even impress Margaret Truman herself.

I have been a fan of Truman and this series for as long as I can remember. I recall revelling in all the adventures that Mac Smith found himself. With the passing of Margaret Truman, I was sure the series would come to a close, but Donald Bain stepped in and took the reins. While he introduced Robert Brixton and wrestled the role of protagonist away from Mac Smith, the lawyer has not vanished from the pages of the series, but settled nicely into a more background position (though this novel defies that role). Bain is able to present cogent plots, still dripping wth political intrigue, and a cast of excellent characters, all of whom somehow befriend Mac Smith. The story moves effectively without dragging but keeping many storylines developing throughout. Even a personal angle on Robert Brixton as he continues to deal with the ‘murder’ of his daughter keeps the readers hooked on the backstories as they develop. The series is in good hands for the foreseeable future.

Kudos, Mr. Bain on another stellar piece of writing. I am sure Truman would applaud your effort as you pursue new and interesting perspectives for the reader to enjoy.

Cross Kill: A BookShot (Alex Cross #23.5), by James Patterson

Eight stars

Patterson takes the reins in this BookShot that tells a great story from the author’s longest-running series. While working at a local church to bring hot breakfasts to those in need, Alex Cross is confronted by a man firing a gun. When Cross and his partner, John Sampson, try to corner the man, Sampson is shot in the head and left for dead as Cross tries to pursue. Failing to do so, Cross cannot help but realise that his old nemesis, Gary Soneji, is the man doing the firing. Problem is, Soneji has been dead for over a decade and Cross saw him die. With Sampson clinging to life in the ICU, Cross must determine if it was Soneji he saw and where the criminal mastermind might be hiding. Working some leads puts Cross in the crosshairs and has him shot at on a few other occasions, with Soneji taunting from the shadows. When he eventually trips upon a sadistic Soneji fan club, Cross wonders if the group is idolising a dead man or harbouring a fugitive. Torn between sitting with Sampson as things take a turn for the worse and finding Soneji, Cross must make the ultimate sacrifice to save himself and those he loves. With an explosive ending that will leave the reader slack jawed, Patterson delivers something reminiscent of his writing of old. 

I have devoured the six BookShots on which I have been able to put my hands, finding each one a unique journey into stories that stir the mind and keep the heart pumping. This is the first BookShot of Patterson’s core series and he does not disappoint. Using the central Cross characters effectively, he is also able to instil a wonderful sense of dread with the reemergence of Soneji and how that is processed. The story flows effectively and Alex Cross is at his best, struggling between his job and those he loves in a way only he has mastered. If other BookShots fit as nicely into the Patterson series, readers are in for a wonderful treat over the next year or two.

Kudos, Mr. Patterson for rediscovering your niche and writing effective and superior pieces. I can only hope that this will continue, both in BookShots and full-length novels.

Break Point: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Lee Stone

Seven stars

Patterson serves up another great BookShot with the help of Lee Stone, setting this one in the cutthroat world of professional tennis. Kirsten Keller is at the top of her game as she continues a meteoric rise in the world of professional tennis. At match point in the French Open finals, Keller loses her concentration and collapses into a fit of tears before rushing off the court. Something and someone has her spooked, so much so that before she heads to London for Wimbledon, she hires former Metropolitan Police officer, Chris Foster, to protect her. Foster is keen to keep Keller safe from whomever is lurking in the shadows, but this stalker will stop at nothing to get under her skin and is happy not to let Foster stand in their way. While she is left letters, messages etched in blood, and hidden surveillance footage, Keller must stay focused while Foster continues the hunt. During the Wimbledon tournament, tragedy strikes close to home for Keller, which only pushes her closer to Foster, perhaps too close. As the finals approach, Foster is convinced that he must keep Keller on her game while tracking down this individual, who has taken bold risks in order to get the message across. There is not time for Foster to double fault this assignment, which forces him to pull out every option to deliver an ace and keep Keller alive. A fast-paced story that keeps the reader curious to the final serve.

Yet another BookShot that offers the reader something they can devour in short order. The story has a little of everything: great action, corny romance, a stalker scenario, and minor narrative errors to keep the attentive reader on their toes. Patterson has enlisted the help of Stone, who surely knows how to woo the reader with enough tennis lingo to keep it mostly realistic. One cannot expect in-depth dialogue, but what does appear remains highly realistic, as does the premise of the story. Who is this stalker and how have they been able to get so close to Kirsten Keller? It’s the hook that pulls the reader in, game, set, and match! 

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Stone for this great read that flows so smoothly and takes up such a short amount of time. I am eager to see if this is a partnership that shall be seen again, either with full novels or in the BookShot world.

Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Blake Crouch, and Crown Publishing for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

Every choice one makes leaves the residue of that decision not taken and fuels a ‘what if?’ mentality. Such is the premise of Crouch’s latest novel that forces the reader into a world of mental gymnastics and infinite possibilities. Jason Dessen is living a fairly uneventful life; teaching physics at the local second-rate college, with a wife and teenage son at home. While out one night, he is attacked by a man and eventually loses consciousness. Upon opening his eyes, Dessen comes face to face with men in HazMat suits who question him about his memories. Unable to piece together what has happened, Dessen tries to return home, finding nothing as he left it. The more he explores, the deeper his realisation that he is no longer in Chicago or the life he knows. He exists, at least some form of Jason Dessen does, but his sense of reality is obliterated. No wife, no two-bit physics job, and no son. Instead, he is a genius who has concocted a means by which one can revisit past realms of reality, able to look at the outcome of choices not made, had they been the path taken. This form of reality, called superposition, posits that there are actually five dimensions to reality, all of which work in concert and create not a single universe, but infinite multiverses. These multiverses proceed based on the collection of choices made and different paths taken at the infinite crossroads in one’s life. As Dessen seeks to find the world from which he was taken, through an invention of his own making, he comes to realise that there are other Jason Dessens out there, all of whom are form of himself at different points in time, seeking to find the same central reality. With a wife and child oblivious that the ‘real’ Jason is not the one inhabiting their home, Dessen must not only return to his own reality, but convince them of what has gone on, with a plethora of other forms of himself trying to attain the same prize. A powerful and thought-provoking novel that pushes the limits of reality, thinking, and anything the reader may surmise. Not for those who are seeking an easy fluff piece to pass the time.

Crouch has an uncanny way of pulling the reader into the depths of his novels with little effort. While I was unsure of what to expect as I pushed through the first third of the novel, I soon became addicted to the idea and the journey on which the author was leading me. Jason Dessen is by no means a hero that captivates, nor are any of the others who inhabit these pages. However, the pure determination to sift through countless realities and reach the core issue kept me going. There are sections of the book that remain dense with the philosophical and physics-based discussions of dimensions and alternate realities, all of which caused my eyes to glaze over, but I soon realised that this was Crouch’s way to pull the storyline away from something corny and base it in a form of reality that might be beyond my everyday comprehension. The story progressed nicely, or at least as well as it could under the circumstances, leaving the reader to wonder up until the final page what might happen to Jason Dessen and all his incantations. It left me thinking, which can be a good thing, and wondering what could be and how life does unravel at various points. It may give a new perspective to any reader who takes the time to synthesise the premise as well as the science found therein, leaving a residue or wonder rather than dull completion when finishing the final sentence.

Kudos, Mr. Crouch for pushing the limits on my thought processes in this novel. Without getting too far off the beaten path, you open up new paths, new superhighways of possibility, buried beneath a layer of discarded options. 

Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen (Six Tudor Queens #1), by Alison Weir

Nine stars

As she embarks on a new series, Weir pulls on much of her past research to create strong novels based on the six queens of Henry VIII. The focus of this first novel is Katherine of Aragon, who was betrothed to England’s Prince Arthur at a young age. When she arrived in England, Katherine found herself unsure of the decision negotiated by her parents, though she understood she was a pawn to forge a necessary political alliance. Upon meeting her future husband, Katherine began to sense the awkwardness of the situation, for this was a man who did not show the raw attraction or curiosity she was told to expect. Her marriage to Prince Arthur became one of a friendship rather than an amorous connection, as Weir supports in numerous instances. Additionally, the controversial ‘non-consummation’ of their wedding is a historical gem Weir explores in the narrative, a key piece of information that plays a central role in the latter portion of the story. When Arthur became ill and did, Katherine renewed her role as pawn, though not in the same fashion. Her hand was potentially pledged to King Henry VII, the French dauphin, and Prince Henry (the heir to the English Throne) at various points, all to secure alliances, but also to keep options open for both Spain and England. Eventually, she married Prince (now King) Henry and their union seemed full of love, especially after receiving a papal dispensation to unite. Here began the next struggle in Katherine’s life, trying to give England an heir. A number of pregnancies ended in miscarriage or death days after birth, including a few sons. When one child survived, Katherine was overjoyed with Princess Mary, though the Queen realised that she still bore the yoke of producing a male heir. Could this issue be founded in God’s displeasure with their union? When Katherine eventually succumbed to menopause, she knew that she has failed Henry, though held firm that she has done all in her power. Henry refused to show his disappointment outwardly, though plotted with his closest advisor, Cardinal Wolsey, to bring an heir to the throne. Weir does mention an illegitimate heir, from Henry’s philandering, but no son around which England could unite. Thus began the delicate shift of dissolving his marriage with Katherine so that he could turn to the young Anne Boleyn, a former lady of Queen Katherine and the new love interest of the King. As the Queen refused to admit her marriage was anything but legal and the King failed to convince her to divorce, Henry turned to Rome for the pope to invalidate it. Katherine held firm to the earlier dispensation, hoping it would save her and ensure that she and Mary would never become black marks in the English history books. Katherine was eventually pushed out of her place as Queen, even as Rome refused to recognize Henry’s wedding to Boleyn, which caused the largest of schisms and led Henry to create the Church of England to justify his actions. Vilified by her husband while being supported by the English people, Katherine fought with all she had to keep her name clear and allow Mary her rightful place as heir to the throne. Even in her dwindling years, Katherine found many who spoke in favour of her marriage and against Henry’s conniving nature to blot out their marriage, a veritable act of treason to verbalise. A masterful novel that allows English history buffs to bask in Weir’s superior writing style that flows so effortlessly, Katherine of Aragon emerges not as a saintly woman, but one of passion who held firm to her personal and religious beliefs during a tumultuous time at the English Court.

While this is considered a piece of fiction, any reader who knows their history or has devoured much of Weir’s past work will realise that it is steeped in reality. As I read, I became aware that the ‘fiction’ moniker was placed there more to validate the detailed dialogue than a shuffling of facts to create a more dramatic story. Weir lays down a powerful narrative that flows effectively throughout Katherine’s life and shows that while she was isolated from her Spanish parents, she held firm to protect herself and her daughter from Henry’s self-centred approach to life. While long and highly detailed, Weir offers the reader an insightful look into the life of this first of Henry’s six wives, perhaps the strongest advocate of them all. Weir brings Katherine of Aragon to life in this opening novel and leaves readers itching for the next instalment, sure to be filled with as much drama, bridging from the narrative peppered throughout this book. There is surely crossover material to be explored more thoroughly within the second novel, though Weir is able to secure focus on events from Katherine’s perspective. This novel offers everything the reader could expect from perusing its title, with chapters full of anecdotes woven into powerful dialogue.

Kudos, Madam Weir for this exceptional piece of writing that piques the interest of readers from all walks of life. I look forward to the next book in the collection and how you tackle the Boleyn character. 

Black & Blue: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Candice Fox

Eight stars

Patterson teams up with acclaimed writer Candice Fox to create a new and exciting series, beginning with this explosive BookShot. Harriet Blue is a detective in the Sex Crime Unit of the Sydney Police Department. She has been trying to chase after the Georges River Killer (GRK) for some time, the most notorious and elusive serial killer in Australian history. When she is called to the Georges River after a body is discovered, it fits all the key aspects of a GRK victim. However, she is not the only detective on-scene. Tate ‘Tox’ Barnes is a detective with a sordid past, with rumours swirling around him. Having somehow made it onto the force after killing a woman and her child at the age of six, Tox is hated by everyone and vilified at every turn. Blue is forced to work with Tox on this crime and endures his unorthodox methods for solving crimes, which proves that the body before them is not part of the GRK’s collection, but rather a killing that happened on the open waters. While Blue grows to respect Tox and his methods, she remains a pariah and the target for childish retribution. As Blue and Tox continue to follow leads, a separate plot line sees a rich yachting couple being held captive by a woman who has financial aspirations. Hope Stallwood will stop at nothing to get what she wants and is willing to take anyone down how impedes her plans. The closer. Blue and Tox get to solving their crime, the more the investigation pulls Hope’s plans into the mix. Will Blue be able to find the thread that connects these cases and save those involved before it’s too late? A great addition to the BookShot collection, which will keep the reader flipping pages as fast as they can be read.

Using this BookShot idea to introduce new series seems like a smart idea on Patterson’s part. Harriet Blue, the newest member of Patterson’s crime thriller collection introduces herself nicely in this shorter piece, offering enough breadcrumbs to lure the reader in, while leaving much for the upcoming full-length novel. Patterson and Fox highlight some of the strengths Blue brings to the table alongside her new partner, as well as the cloud that floats above them both, individually and as a pair. The story flows nicely with strong characterization and decent narration, which can be compared to some of the other detectives that Patterson has in his quiver (Cross, Boxer, Bennett). How Blue will fit awaits to be seen, though her introduction surely will leave readers intrigued with what else there is to offer.

Kudos, Mr. Patterson and Madam Fox for this explosive beginning to the series. I look forward to what else you have to offer in the coming months.

The Hostage: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Robert Gold

Seven stars

This BookShot story pulls the reader into a high-octane thriller from the opening paragraph. At a private event to mark the opening of the elite Tribeca Luxury Hotel in London, VIPs come together to celebrate the company’s newest addition to a profitable company. During the gathering, all eyes turn upward, where someone is hanging from an upper-storey balcony. The struggle turns deadly and the body plummets to the ground, which turns out to be the owner, Jackson Harlington. The hotel’s Global Head of Security, Jon Roscoe, begins an investigation as the hotel is locked down, seeking to discover where the killer might be hiding on the premises. However, the body attracts the authorities and the London Metropolitan Police soon arrive to take charge. Roscoe comes face to face with his old nemesis on the force, leaving him pushed out of the way, though he refuses to give up searching for the killer. When a mysterious phone call comes, hinting that the killer is running the show from within the facility, Roscoe must manoeuvre around, trying to remain one step ahead. More bodies pile up, each killed in a unique way. It is only later that the thread connecting all three victims is revealed, which turns the hotel’s crime scene into a shocking mystery years in the making. A story that picked up the pace with each passing chapter, Patterson and Gold know how to tell a story and keep the reader guessing.

Yet another BookShot leaves me wondering where time went as I dove in and did not surface until I had all the facts. Patterson and Gold use the short chapter format and a telling story to keep everything running at breakneck speed. With a collection of contrasting characters and a mystery simmering below the surface, the reader learns little at a time, but when the entire picture is revealed, it should have been obvious from the beginning. While there is nothing concrete to substantiate this, I had the sense that there was a series in the making from the way the Roscoe character presented himself, though time will surely tell. Patterson may be onto something with these BookShots, offering teasers into the future of possible new series with successful possibilities. Could Gold be joining the crew of faceless co-authors used to help Patterson garner added riches?

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Gold for delivering a wonderful story to the awaiting audience. I am curious to see if this partnership will return again for more Jon Roscoe action.

Open Heart, Open Mind, by Clara Hughes

Nine stars

Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes offers readers a look at the woman behind the name, digging deeper than the strength and determination for which she was so well known. In this quasi-autobiography/memoir, Hughes offers a glimpse into her life as an elite athlete as well as the struggles she faced throughout her career. Growing up in Winnipeg, Hughes faced a number of obstacles at an early age, including an alcoholic father whose love was offset with a broken household. From this, Hughes drifted into a childhood filled with gang associations, drugs, and booze, a life that could have spiralled into despair. It was only when she caught a speed skating race from the Calgary Olympics in 1988 that Hughes became enthralled by a new possibility, a life as an athlete. Training for a few years, Hughes was able to find her passion at the speed skating oval and left the instability of her current life behind. She found herself intoxicated with the regimented life of skating and the power of the blade, where she could escape her home life, her parents now formally separated. However, this passion with speed skating soon morphed into a love of cycling, which became Hughes’ new focus. She took up competitive cycling and made a name for herself, competing at the highest levels. With this intense training came a coach whose unorthodox style pushed Hughes past her limits and into a life of self-doubt. Mockery and bullying may have pushed Hughes to strive further, but also left her hating herself and doubting the love others had to offer. The passion Hughes found on her bicycle led her to qualifying and winning a bronze at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. While she became a praised Olympian, Hughes began to develop (or rediscover) some painful issues that resulted in severe bouts of depression, masked behind that cutthroat training regimen that left little time for reflection. While she continued to excel in the cycling world, her exterior self became a facade, as Hughes recounts through poignant chapters hinting at dark demons dwelling deep inside her. When she met her future husband, Peter, Hughes found someone with whom she could relate; another person whose carefree nature and drive to excel led to numerous exploratory adventures. While separated a great deal, Hughes was able to foster a relationship with Peter, fuelled, perhaps, by their time apart. After a decade of cycling and much success on the podium, Hughes could no longer fathom the gruelling life of countless injuries. This caused her to rediscover her passion for speed skating, and a coaching approach based more on respect than attack. With a coach who respected her dedication to success, Hughes was able to focus her attention on what she felt mattered, while still using training to mask her other issues. Hughes excelled on the oval and brought more medals home, the first Canadian to medal in both Summer and Winter Olympic Games. However, with such fame comes a requirement to do something with it. Hughes sought to advocate for those less fortunate, heading to Africa to advocate for sport as play. Her passion to bring sport to all corners of the earth seeps out through the narrative and brings the reader closer to understanding the importance of sport outside of competing. Coming full circle, Hughes addresses the pains of her personal struggles with depression and masking the agony of her youth through excessive training when she had to hang up her skates (and bike) and lived in a permanent state of retirement. The reader is able to better understand the Hughes the cameras did not capture and the pains that this elite athlete faced, putting more of an ‘everyday person’ spin on her life. By finding herself, both immersed in and away from sports, Hughes offers the reader a raw insight into the struggles elite athletes face away from the field/track/oval. A must-read for anyone who wants to be touched as they learn about the wonders of Olympic athleticism.

Hughes pulls no punches in this book, allowing the reader to see behind the proverbial curtain. Hughes takes the time to focus on the training regimen she undertook in preparation for her numerous Olympic Games, as well as event-day preparation. Offsetting this with the struggles between the Games and the limitations that training offers to mask the struggles inside the mind or body, Hughes found herself pushed in directions she could not have forecast. Never forgetting her roots in Winnipeg, but refusing to use that as a crutch, Hughes exemplifies how hard work and determination can sometimes pay off, though it is not a certainty for Olympic glory. I found myself curious as to how Hughes could have been an Olympic caliber athlete in two sports that differed greatly, though the narrative explores this and shows the reader how she could master both sports at different points in her life. It is surely an amazing story, which flows through well-constructed chapters, offering just enough to sate the curiosity of readers. Hughes does not shy away from the abuse she faced, in many forms, throughout her life, though she did not feel strong enough to overcome it until later and with the help of many. Clara Hughes is not perfect, though perhaps that is the point of this book. This personal story is powerfully presented with a personal flavour that shows the larger picture of an Olympian who seeks not to be a god, but an ambassador of determination and hard work. If the reader takes but one thing from this book, it should be that no struggle is insurmountable. 

Kudos, Madam Hughes for this insightful story that passes the realm of simple biography or memoir and digs much deeper to show how even more biggest stars can live lives with flaws.

Private Royals: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Rees Jones

Eight stars

Another BookShot pulls readers into the world of Jack Morgan and his Private establishment. Back in London, Morgan is liaising with his London office and its head,Peter Knight. When a call comes from the Duke of Aldershot, Morgan and Knight follow-up, only to learn that the Duke’s daughter, Abbie, has been kidnapped. Abbie is a royal wild child, known for her headline-hogging antics, usually tied into alcohol and drugs, after a humble childhood. With a random demand of £30 million by 11 the following morning, Private has little time to act and Abbie’s bodyguard is also missing. With a significant amount of blood at the scene, there is a possibility that both are already dead, though Private cannot give up up. When the Duke receives another call from the kidnapper, they vow to kill Abbie and let her head roll during the famed Trooping the Colour parade, should there be any delays. The Duke is panic-stricken and Morgan calls on a potential Private new recruit to show her abilities. Major Jane Cook uses her military abilities to posit who the kidnapper might be, finding clues related to a member of the service. When Private begins piecing things together, there is something about this kidnapping that makes no sense, leaving Morgan to question the entire affair. With Abbie still missing, the hunt heats up and Private is racing against the clock to find Abbie and save the image of the Royal Family. Well worth the invested time, particularly for those who enjoy the Private series.

These BookShots are addictive, as this was the second one I completed in as many days. Patterson works with Rees Jones to spin this tale, using some interesting plo lines and a collection of characters who fit in perfectly. Peppering the narrative with mention of the previous Private novel set in London, the reader does not feel this story is disjointed from what has come before. Its quick chapters and to the point storyline, readers can easily devour this story in a single sitting, and most will want to as the pendulum of guilt keeps swinging. With a plethora of BookShots coming down the pipeline, readers should be able to devour stories of all shapes and sizes, no matter the time restrictions their days present. 

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Jones for an explosive story that fits perfectly within the Private series. A wonderful teaser to lure people into the Private series.

Zoo 2: A BookShot (Zoo #1.5), by James Patterson and Max DiLallo

Seven stars

As I leap into the foray of James Patterson’s BookShots, I thought it best to start with a story based on a full-length novel I read years ago. Zoo was quite the phenomenon when it was published, positing what the world might be like if animals turned on humans through a pheromone-triggering set of cerebral changes. In this story, Jackson Oz is living in quasi-seclusion with his family in Greenland. His wife, Chloe, and son, Eli, have been able to adapt, though they are far from pleased with the isolated living situation. When the US Department of Energy reaches out to Oz, he is intrigued by the new approach to the HAC (human-animal conflict), focussing on scientific rather than military options. Oz chooses to leave Chloe and Eli in Paris with her family while he jets around the world to various locations, gathering evidence and samples that might help reverse or minimalise the effects overtaking the world. While in South Africa, Oz and the rest of the scientific group discover a feral human, wondering if things have morphed into the human realm. Further proof emerges in other parts of the world, which is the newest concern and adds new urgency. When Chloe and Eli’s time in Paris is compromised, Oz does all he can to reunite with them at a rural laboratory, while dodging feral humans at every turn. With the President of the United States demanding answers, Oz must find a way to tame the feral human issue before the entire world is overrun, leaving the ‘healthy’ contingent as a minute minority. An interesting follow-up to the original novel and worth the few hours of invested time to read.

I remember when I read ZOO and how I had a hard time suspending enough reality to completely enjoy the book. When I saw this BookShot, I thought I ought to give the idea another chance, knowing that I would not need to invest too much time to see what I thought. Patterson and DiLallo present an interesting concept in the continual fight between animal and humans, seeking to approach things from a scientific perspective. With much action and a high degree of drama, combined with short chapters and some plausible characters, I found myself somewhat intrigued to see how things would play out. Still in that realm of science fiction, I am able to keep a mind open enough to muddle through this piece. The BookShots idea is interesting, as Patterson lures readers with a short story to whet their appetite or bridge things between two full-length novels. I can see this lining his pockets as he continues with more co-author pieces, though their quality remains something for readers to judge over the next year or two.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and DiLallo for this interesting idea. I may not be hooked on the HAC idea, but the effort leaves me curious to see what else might be on offer.

The Punishments, by JB Winsor

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, JB Winsor, and Boulder Digital Publishing for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

In this insightful and Orwellian novel, Winsor asks the reader to suspend some reality as he takes things down the rabbit hole and posits an America like no other. With terrorism taking a grip on the American psyche and those agencies tasked with protecting the nation incapable of doing their roles, something has to change. In a future where robots have replaced the common worker, there are stagnant amounts of unemployment and homelessness. The country has turned to fundamentalist Christianity to protect itself and elects officials to run all levels of government with this religious outlook. At the pinnacle of this is the Department of Virtue, which seeks to run America according to Biblical Law, interpreting things literally from the Good Book. With their power, Virtue is able to influence Congress. and the White House to pass legislation to solidify biblical practices. Laws are passed to curb moral inferiority and those who do not abide will soon face punishment. At the head of Virtue is Reverend John, whose theocratic leadership seeks to purify America ahead of the upcoming Rapture, will stop at nothing to minimise opposition through whatever means possible. Erecting neo-crosses in public, rumoured to be a means of spying on the people, Reverend John gathered information on everyone to use when and how he sees necessary. However, not all politicians are on-side, specifically Senator William Thatcher, who tries his best to dodge the all-encompassing Big Brother nature of Virtue. Thatcher is known as a rabble-rouser and his fate will be sealed if he acts on some of the ideas he has been espousing. In order to push forward and show the country (and the world) that Virtue is serious, Reverend John sets about a series of events that capture his most ardent enemies in compromising situations and organises a set of punishments, to instil fear and show what happens to those who violate Biblical Law. As Thatcher works to protect his family, he must bring Reverend John and Virtue to its knees before America and the world succumb to this madman and his antics. A tongue-in-cheek novel worth investigating with an open mind and a critical eye.

Winsor offers a twenty-first century Big Brother meets Animal Farm in this satirical novel. The story does not play out as a strict mockery, evident to the reader who can read between the lines and see how Winsor provides the gaping holes a theocratic approach to governing would lead to the demise of modern America. There is much worth exploring in the novel, from the duplicity of those at the top to the complicity of elected officials when money or favours shape decision-making, through to the shepherd-sheep duality between leaders and the electorate. Winsor goes so far as to show how fear through public scapegoating can bring many into line. The text refers at numerous spots to the parallels between Virtue and Hitler’s Germany, with complete power coming from indoctrination and fear of reprisal. While the story does drag at times, the cross-section of characters with varied backstories and the varied plot angles do provide the reader with much to digest and offers some insight into the horrors that might befall a democracy should religion subsume any and all decisions in order to offer a stronger moral foundation. At a time when the Religious Right seem to feel they are the only true answer to the moral ambiguity rampant in America, Winsor shows how problematic such a pendulum swing might be for all involved.

Kudos, Mr. Winsor for this novel that offers readers a chance to think rather than simply glance at the words on a page. 

Private Paris (Private #10), by James Patterson and Mark T. Sullivan

Seven stars

As the Private series continues to grow, Patterson and Sullivan dive into the always scandalous world of Paris and its seedy underbelly. While making a short stop to check on Private Paris, Jack Morgan is surprised to hear from one of his longtime friends in Los Angeles. The man’s granddaughter is in Paris and has been dodging some drug dealers, who have their sights set on her. Morgan and head of Private Paris, Louis Langlois, begin searching and are able to find Kimberly Kopchinski, using a pseudonym to secure her at the same hotel as Morgan. However, Morgan and Langlois are soon pulled into another case, when a man of some importance is found murdered. Playing a territorial two-step with La Crime, France’s National Police Force, Morgan is able to have Private work in conjunction with the authorities to capture the group identifying itself as AB-16. When another body turns up and the same graffiti tag is left, Morgan turns to a local graffiti art expert, who is able to offer some assistance. More bodies pile up, forcing Morgan and Langlois to come up with a motive of sorts tied to the cultural importance of those who have been slain. As the investigation progresses, young Kimberly is captured from her hotel room, forcing Morgan and Langlois to divide their attention between both cases. They are left juggling a great deal, working with La Crime, though also trying not to violate any rules or judicial procedures. When things come to a head, even Morgan admits that he could not have guessed the pent-up anger that led to AB-16’s plot or what its mastermind has in store for the city in his grand finale. A truly intriguing addition to the series that will keep readers curious to the end while offering some of the more political narratives in the series to date.

There is no doubt that current situations in Paris, France, and all of Europe helped shape the narrative Patterson and Sullivan offer to readers. Xenophobia and Islamophobia are rampant through the story, though it serves to educate the reader, rather than provide a platform for hatred and division. From what little I know of French culture or sentiments, these are true feelings echoed within some of the arrondissements around the city and within some of the upper echelons of French Government. As with any push, there is sure to be a shove back, which the authors illustrate through the central antagonists in this story and through the AB-16 movement. Capturing more the sentiment that has existed in the city over the past 20-30 years than the anti-Muslim rhetoric headed up by some within America, the story allows readers to understand the animosity from a new perspective. Using local police and a Private protagonist who can educate Jack Morgan, the story earns some gravitas and substantial foundation, where some past Patterson novels have been weak. The settings, dialogue, and plot all strengthen the larger story and push readers into the seedier aspects of this City of Love. I was highly impressed with the approach and the way in which Patterson and Sullivan laid out their arguments, offering both ‘sides’ a chance on the soapbox.  

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Sullivan for this novel. It adds credence to a series that has had moments of utter weakness and disarray.

Mr. Hockey: My Story, by Gordie Howe

Eight stars

At a time when the name Gordie Howe is surely splashed all across newspaper headlines, I wanted to take some time to better acquaint myself with the man and explore some of his fondest memories. Who better to take me on this journey than Gordon ‘Gordie’ Howe himself? Growing up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Howe took to hockey at at early age. With the Depression in full-swing around him in the middle of the Canadian Prairies, there was little to do on those long-winter days than to lace up a pair of used skates and hobble over to the open ponds for a day-long game. As he grew, so did his passion for hockey, going so far as to idolise some of the greats while curled up on Saturday nights in front of the radio. When the scouts emerged to lure him away, it was Howe’s bashful side at fifteen that almost derailed his time in the NHL. He had the talent, but was not used to being away from home (or so far away). Only later, when he took the plunge and entered the Detroit Red Wings organisation, did Howe begin to flourish. Recounting some of his early days on the squad with well-established stars, Howe paints a very different picture from the NHL of today. Contracts were negotiated every year, players were never safe from trades, and the travel conditions were much less ideal than today’s private jets and fancy hotels. When Howe met his future wife, Colleen, things took a major turn for him, as he became a more grounded man and the biography shows a more sentimental man. When they married and had children, Howe became a doting father, while still remaining a marquee hockey player. He recounts the juggling act between a family at home and an NHL career, which could not have been easy, though he seemed to make it work with a wonderful wife and determined children who loved him to the core. Even after his foray away from the game, Howe could not remain inactive. Though he was shafted with his first office position within the Wings organisation, Howe did not let this ruin his future as he left retirement and stepped up to play alongside two of his sons in a new league, the WHA. A second career in Houston and Hartford allowed the Howes to develop new rivalries and set records few thought possible. By the time that second round of professional play ended, Howe had permanently etched his name into the record book and onto the hearts of many hockey fans around the world. Told with such honesty and attention to detail, this is a wonderful book to read as the world celebrates the life of Gordie Howe. 

After his recent passing, I dusted off this book, having put it aside for just this occasion. I knew the day was coming and felt this was a worthwhile tribute for the man who was arguably the best all-around player ever to lace up his skates in the National Hockey League. While that title does waft around the pages of this book, Howe would be the first to dismiss it, as he is not the type of man who looks for praise. Instead, he wanted to play the game he loved and foster a passion for generations to come. The modern NHL star lacks modesty as he strives for more money in a game that has seen salaries skyrocket and owners push their way to the trough for a larger slice of the pie. Howe sought not to line his pocketbook, but to play for passion and the thrill of the game. This comes out in the succinct chapters that offer an overall view of his life in and out of the game. While the book is by no means a comprehensive biography or memoir, it does allow the reader a better insight into some of the key moments Howe felt worth mentioning in a time that saw him break records and earn his keep. The passion for family, particularly Colleen, spills forth at every turn and the reader is treated to more anecdotes than they might have thought could be found. The entire delivery is one of pure recollection and well-formed storytelling, such that anyone who might have been too young to have seen Howe play can bask in the glory of those memories and feel as close to him as their parents or grandparents. Howe will surely be missed by the hockey world, and this is a little piece that readers can take to honour him in their own way.

Kudos, Mr. Howe for the touching book. You are the one and true MR. HOCKEY in my books! 

Lily and the Octopus, by Steven Rowley

Nine stars

WARNING! Necessary spoilers peppered throughout in order to offer the thorough review this book deserves!

Rowley presents a heart-filled story about Lily the dachshund and her owner, Edward “Ted” Flask. As the novel opens, Flask introduces the reader to Lily and the ‘octopus’ that sits atop her head. This unwelcome cephalopod overtakes Flasks life as he ponders its intrusion into the daily joy he and Lily have created. There is also the undertone of necessary medical options to rid Lily of this most horrendous visitor. Flask switches between flashback moments that include all of his time with Lily and the current narrative that tells the increasingly daunting tale of living with the eight-legged storm cloud. Giving voice to both Lily and the ‘octopus’, Flask is able to vilify the latter while creating an angelic view of the former for readers to love from the safety of their own lives. As the ‘octopus’ takes a deeper hold on Lily, Flask becomes more adamant to exorcise things in the face of a blunt reality that pits an elderly dog against a ruthless killer that cares about nothing but itself. Using wonderful imagery tied to the moniker he chooses, Flask allows the readers to see the multi-faceted battles he has with this creature and the depths to which he will go to protect his best friend from any harm. As Lily remains somewhat naive to what is happening to her, Flask does all he can as a parental unit to soften the blow as he comes to terms with what the future holds. There is no easy road to travel, though Flask does not simply let this beat him, even if the ‘octopus’ does overtake his life before pulling Lily closer towards the brink. A story that even those without an attachment to a pet ought to read at some point in their lives, Rowley stuns readers with his brashness and honest presentation, injecting humour at those times where the tension seems to be too much. Superb seems too bland a word to describe this book, though surely a touched heart will use its own lexicon to express the missing sentiment.

I am not a pet owner, nor have I ever had the ability to fully understand the intricacies of this addition to anyone’s family. I always respected people with these sorts of connections and tried to comprehend the vast emotional investment associated with owning and loving a pet. When I met someone recently who touched my life, she introduced me to a small Lily-like dog, one whose passion for life was stilted when the surgeon’s knife came down to alter his being. While I was not there for the recovery, I had just been there, so I could sense the angst that this person felt for the most important being in her life. As I read more of this book, I grew to better understand her connection with the dog she has had for numerous years, as I did for Ted’s connection to Lily. I could finally wrap my head around the pain of seeing this family member pulled out of their comfortable niche and thrust into a world that we, as cognitive, synthesizing humans can only partially grasp. The complete cluelessness of the animal is only exacerbated by the pain that cannot be adequately explained to our pet and whose own sentiments cannot bear vocalized in anything other than whimpers or barks. Rowley captures this completely as he pushes the reader closer to his two characters, while presenting the indescribable task of trying to rationalize everything and personify the struggle. That Rowley chose never to have Ted utter the word ‘tumour’ is also quite noticeable, and somewhat telling. However, that he chose that name is even more interesting as he personified this thing throughout the novel. His description of it being multi-tentacled and possesses a powerful ink pouch that can blind aptly describes some of the symptoms that can overtake any victim. However, as the reader will discover, Ted also uses this moniker to rid his life of its presence, at least for a time. He can do nothing except watch as Lily is taken over by the tumour, but will not stand by and let its eight-angled grip suck the life out of his best friend, no matter the sacrifice to his own sanity. Gowley brilliantly explores this approach to medical phenomena that leave those afflicted (and affected) helpless to come to terms with the extensive realities that befall diagnoses of this nature.

I cannot put into words how this book moved me, which is shocking for many who know my love for books and lengthy chatter about their intricate nature. I simply read (listened) in awe as the novel progressed and sought to reach out to touch Lily, Ted, and anyone I knew with a pet of their own. I wanted to rush out and get a pet of my own while also cowering in fear as to whether I would become a Ted if I did. How Gowley has made such an impact on me, I will never know. That said, it is a book that is not just a recommendation for anyone I have ever or will ever cross paths with, but a definitely requirement.

Kudos Mr. Gowley for helping my eyes to water and my jaw to plummet to the floor. You are amazing!

The House of Secrets, by Brad Meltzer and Tod Goldberg

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Brad Meltzer, Tod Goldberg, and Grand Central Publishing for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

Returning to the world of writing for adults, Meltzer brings Goldberg along on the journey in another thriller with historical implications. Jack Nash is the star of The House of Secrets, a long-running television program that has him searching for the deepest mysteries from around the world. Nash recounts the most curious of mysteries to Hazel, his six year-old daughter; a dead man who turns up with Benedict Arnold’s Bible hidden inside his sternum, sealed with a wax covering. Thirty years later, Jack and Hazel are in a serious automobile accident, leaving him dead and Hazel with severe amnesia. As she tries to piece her life back together, Hazel uses her father’s popular television show to bring some sense as to what her father sought to do for so many years and some of the mysteries he uncovered. She finds it more daunting than she thought at first, forcing her into a larger state of confusion than she could have fathomed. When an FBI agent shows up at her hospital bed, Hazel can only wonder if she, or her father, had a major secret that intrigued the government and seeks to spin through her memory to determine what might lie on the other side of the murky shards of her past. As things become a little clearer, Hazel begins to realise that her father was not the man she once thought and the story of the Arnold Bible may have more significance than a fable told at her father’s knee. As bodies begin to pile up, with hints that Jack Nash might have had dealings with them, Hazel works to uncover the largest mystery of all; that of her father’s life and this television program that brought him such notoriety. What do the pages of this Benedict Arnold Bible mean and how can she keep herself safe as people lurk in the shadows? An interesting turn on Meltzer’s conspiracy novels which has the potential of interest to his fans, though at times not as recognizable as his stellar work from the past.

While the premise for a strong novel can be found throughout the story, Meltzer’s sharp edge seems to have dulled. It is unclear whether Goldberg’s addition is the reason or that Meltzer has spent too much time trying to reveal heroes of the world to the next generation. With a cast of interesting characters and a strong female protagonist, Meltzer and Goldberg build much potential for the narrative, though it seems to limp along at places, even in the most riveting historical revelations. The Benedict Arnold idea is brilliant, as is The House of Secrets angle, though I could not find myself as excited or curious as I have been with many of Meltzer’s previous novels. One can hope that Meltzer will decide which path he wishes to take, as some adult novelists have been able to juggle writing in both worlds while others dwindle as they try to attract fans across too many genres. Time will tell, though one can hope he need not use co-authors to keep an annual (or bi-annual) release to appease those wanting stimulating literature.

Kudos, Messrs. Meltzer and Goldberg for this interesting piece. While I am a harsh critic at times, I know there is much potential with some time and polish. Let’s hope readers embrace these historical novels and keep coming back.

15th Affair (Women’s Murder Club #15), by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

Eight stars

Patterson and Paetro offer up a wonderful story in this 15th instalment of the Women’s Murder Club series, showing the true vulnerabilities of protagonist, Lindsay Boxer. While finally enjoying a life of bliss at home, Boxer is soon rattled when she attends a crime scene of a man slain in bed and an elusive blond slinking into the room minutes before the crime. Upon further digging, she learns that the woman is one Alison Muller, a name which means nothing to her at the time. However, surveillance also catches Boxer’s husband, Joe, on the scene, for no particular reason. When a flight arriving from China explodes on approach to San Francisco’s airport, one passenger in particular act as a red flag for Boxer, tied in nicely to her hotel murder scene. Scrambling to make sense of it all, Joe disappears and will not communicate with her. Soon there is a strong tie between Joe and the mysterious Muller, as well as a long history between them. As the story progresses, Boxer learns more about Joe than she ever knew, putting her trust in him and their family unit in jeopardy. With a terrorist plot at the centre of the case at hand, Boxer must use all her resources while trying to keep calm as her life comes crashing down around her. Who is Alison Muller and can she be the key to solving both the professional and personal mysteries hanging over Boxer’s head? Wonderful addition for series fans with just enough suspense to keep the reader guessing.

This story shows that James Patterson has not lost his lustre, though one might posit it is Paetro that acts as the literary glue in this book. I have long struggled with subpar writing by the formidable writer, though he seems to have come back to his writing of old. The characters continue their forward progression with respective backstories as they play the needed roles in this storyline as well. The short chapters invite reading just a little more while continuing to push things in a forward momentum and allows the reader to devour large portions in a single sitting. Patterson and Paetro do well to inject some drama and a little uncertainty into the story, keeping Lindsay Boxer from getting too comfortable in her life and allowing readers to revel in what will happen next. Alas, it will be a year until the next full-fledged novel, but speculation never hurt anyone.

Kudos, Mr. Patterson and Madam Paetro for this refreshing novel in the series. You have a great handle on things and I hope to see more progress amongst Women’s Murder Club characters.

Roots: The Saga of an American Family, by Alex Haley

Nine stars

Alex Haley’s novel is more than just a piece of award-winning literature, but a glimpse into the soul of America’s lifeblood, even though it touches on areas that many would likely wish to see forgotten. In the opening portion of the novel, Haley introduces the reader to the small villages of Gambia, where one Kunta Kinte is born and raised. Kunta explores a life of simplicity but also relative complexity, as he grows up learning the ways of his people, always warned about the dangers of the white man lurking in the shadows. As he develops a better understanding of his culture and the plight of becoming a man, Kunta fosters a strong sense of self. While foraging in the forest one day, he is captured and dragged aboard a slave ship, destined for the American colonies. It is here that Haley takes the story in its heart-wrenching direction, complete with the horrors of slavery and their treatment. As Kunta acclimates himself to life as a slave (as best as one can), he learns that his horrors are only beginning. After trying to escape, he is punished severely and sent to live on another plantation, where he is able to develop more of a sense of self, while still refusing to adopt the ‘American’ slave mentality. Slowly, he is acclimated into the lifestyle of a slave and is able to advance on the plantation, to the point of marrying and having a child of his own. Young Kizzy learns of her African ancestry from her father, though does not have the same passion, even with his blood coursing through her veins. As Kizzy grows, she learns to love the African side of her heritage, though is also prone to living the life in America. A gamble of her own sees her punished and shipped to a new plantation, where she is never to see her father again. That is soon the least of her worries, as more horrors befall Kizzy and she soon has a son, young George, the third Kinte generation living in slavery. Raising her son as best she can while dealing with a less than pleasant slave owner, Kizzy tries to instil some of the same values she learned from Kunta. As he grows, George, too, develops his place on the plantation and becomes a valuable asset to his master. It is this relationship and the historical background told through the narrative that forges some of the most curious aspects of Haley’s story, not to be lost in the transition from Kunta to Kizzy and now to George and the family he raises. The subsequent four generations spin their stories in the latter portion of the book, with each collection of slaves (and eventually freed blacks) holding onto the oral history Kunta Kinte brought with him. Published at a time when America had to come to terms with its past to look ahead into the future, Haley strikes a necessary nerve as he explores a history only mentioned in passing on pages of school history books. A must-read for all readers, no matter their personal interests.

The book’s release coincided with America’s bicentennial, though Haley refuses to admit there is anything intentional there. The story, no matter when it was told, shaped America and the way slavery was seen, through the eyes of those who lived in chains. While the book served as the foundation to the topic in the late 1970s, it was the creation into a television phenomena that saw many more people learn truths they never wanted to discover. Haley paints a dour view of the slave trade and lifestyle, but does so with supported truths and a vivid narrative that tells a more complete story than many history texts might. Beginning well before any delivery to the shores of America, Haley facilitates a bond with Kunta Kinte before pushing the narrative into the darker and more sinister aspects of race relations and the acceptance of the slave trade and use of slaves on plantations across the colonial region. Using historical happenings as a backdrop, the reader can see the progression of the trade and how there was surely a clash between belief systems of the slaves themselves. Kunta’s strong Islamic beliefs do not coincide with the colonialisation of many slaves on the plantations, from their speech to their Christian beliefs and even onto their acceptance of the double standard as it relates to treatment by young whites. While Haley does touch on many of these areas, he does not downplay anything nor does he try to offer a one-sided approach that tries to paint blacks as solely victims. Spanning seven generations, the latter chapters pull Haley into the story’s narrative, forcing the reader to realise that this is not solely a piece of fiction. Kunta Kinte was, presumably, the four-time great-grandfather of the author and the stories spun within this book are oral recountings of lives lived. Complete with language and phraseology of the times, the story comes to life on so many levels, leaving the reader onto to choose which character they will affix themselves to through the journey. This is a seminal piece of literature that should not be left to gather dust on the shelf. That it took me so long to find and read it is shameful on my part.

Kudos, Mr. Haley for opening my eyes to something about which I always knew happened, but chose not to explore. You have captivated me (and the world) with this novel and surely helped shape many acquire a better understanding of slavery in the United States.

Indefensible, by Lee Goodman

Seven stars

In his debut novel, Lee Goodman offers the reader some interesting insights into Nick Davis, Assistant US Attorney. In the opening pages, the reader is parachuted into the middle of an investigation into one of Davis’s cases where a young man is found dead and buried in a shallow grave. Davis finds himself drawn to the eyewitness that offered a description that could lead to a solid arrest, though his precocious, teenage daughter, Lizzy, offers her own insight into this pairing. As the story progresses, Davis recounts some of the skeletons in his closet, including an ex-wife and a child who died in infancy, both of which shape his outlook on life. An accomplice to the original victim’s murder and the aforementioned eyewitness both turn up dead, forcing Davis to question whether there is a leak in his office and someone is trying to silence all potential witnesses. With a drug dealer at the centre of the murder investigation, he commences stalking Davis and making threats against Lizzy, only heightening concerns within the US Attorney’s Office as they try to capture him and deal with his less than cooperative attorney. While on the lam, the dealer is gunned down as well, opening a chasm with Davis at the centre of the mess with a strong motive to kill. All evidence points to him, leaving him forced to clear his own name as well as find the real killer before it’s too late. As Davis struggles with the case, he soon discovers that the leak might be closer to him than he first thought, forcing him to come to terms with the preconceived notions he has let guide him over the past several months. In this curiously complex legal thriller, Goodman offers readers a wonderful introduction into his writing and the life of Nick Davis. Worth a reading for those looking to think alongside absorb a legal thriller.

I first stumbled across Goodman and the Nick Davis series last summer when I was offered an advanced copy of the second book. In reading that novel, I pondered not only the cast of characters who developed on the page, but also the thorough backstory that Goodman offered. Reading this novel, I am left with some of the same sentiments; that much could have been written before this novel, as Goodman offers hints at many storylines and character branch-offs. The succinct narration that keeps the reader pushing forward and demanding more, while also offering a hint at the unspoken plots that might have shaped Davis’s younger years. Goodman knows his audience and is able to plant significant amounts of drama as well as some off-hand humour to keep the reader from straying. While not courtroom-based, I enjoyed what Goodman had to offer and can only hope there will be more Nick Davis in the years to come.

Kudos, Mr. Goodman for an interesting beginning to the Nick Davis saga. One can hope the critics are as pleased as I was with this effort.

First Strike (Dewey Andreas #6), by Ben Coes

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Ben Coes, and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

In a great addition to his Dewey Andreas series, Coes offers a somewhat unique take on the ISIS obsession in thriller novels. After the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tristan Nazir is approached by America’s Deputy Secretary of Defence with an offer he cannot refuse; accept a large sum of money to build a state to counter the radical efforts of the region and come out strongly pro-USA. However, after Nazir double-crosses the Deputy Secretary, he emerges with a strong fighting force to amass his own anti-American state, ISIS, which has made inroads into both Syria and Iraq. With the American money having gone to fund this group, there is no turning off the spigot, for fear of significant blackmail. A new shipment of a billion dollars’ worth of arms comes through some secret slush funds within the Department of Defence and ISIS remains strong as it fights the very nation supporting it. Dewey Andreas is sent into Syria to attempt to quell some of the fallout and kill the kingpin to the entire operation. However, rather than getting his man, Andreas finds himself being held by ISIS, ready to make him answer for the crimes of his country. Upon learning of the latest shipment headed for the region, the Americans intercept it and turn the ship back, which only ups the ante and forces Nazir to call for a plan of retribution. Using a cell within America, he organizes a hostage taking at Columbia University with students at the core. Will the President blink and openly negotiate with terrorists for the lives of Americans on their own soil, or will Columbia University turn into a bloodbath? With Andreas preparing for a public beheading, anything seems possible, even as the clock ticks down. Coes offers readers a wonderfully fast-paced thriller that will keep readers guessing and hoping until the last page. Not to be missed by Coes fans, new and old!

Coes proves yet again that he is the master of his trade as he constructs an Andreas thriller that pits his protagonist in his most dire situation yet. Building not only on his present storyline but also constructing more of the Dewey Andreas backstory, Coes offers his readers another glimpse into why there is always something new to offer. With a strong cast of characters whose own plots are built into the larger narrative, Coes advances much for fans who have keen interests in those who support the story. Infused with description when it proves necessary, but not too much to turn the reader away, there are many layers to the story that help present it in a factual manner. That said, the reader can suspend a little reality at times and sit back while enjoying the ride.

Kudos, Mr. Coes for another stellar piece of work. I never tire of your stories or how they play out on the page. As always, you keep the reader guessing just enough that they must come back for more.

The Scandal (Theodore Boone #6), by John Grisham

Seven stars

Grisham returns with another ‘Theo Boone: Child Lawyer’ stories, sure to entertain the young reader as well as those who are young at heart. As high school is on the horizon, so begins the onerous task of eighth grade standardised testing, something that Theo cannot stand. After a rigourous week of testing and waiting for the results, Theo fails to make the cut for high school honor classes by a single point. Devastated, he and his best friend, April Finnemore, wallow in their own self-pity. When April confides that she has learned about another of the middle schools fudging test answers in order to elevate their standing, Theo is outraged. April takes it upon herself to anonymously complain about the issue to the school board, sure that nothing will come of it. When fraud charges are levied against a number of teachers who changed test answers and their jobs are lost, Theo comes to realise that he cannot stand idly by, even if their actions are deplorable. Bringing his mother into the mix, Theo ensures the teachers receive legal counsel ahead of the trial. An interested party to the matter, namely because the revised results could change his academic standing in high school, Theo aptly watches the trial and has an epiphany of his own, rooted in his own dislike for the testing process. On the subject of trials, no Theo Boone novel would be the same without a trip to Animal Court, where Theo works his magic to save an otter from a potential capital sentence. A great story for the targeted audience that touches on a matter close to their hearts, Grisham dazzles yet again.

Grisham seeks not only to entertain, but also touches on issues of interest to youths and adults alike. Placing not only the testing process, but the actions taken based on results, Grisham forces the reader to think a little more about the subject at hand. Using a cast of characters familiar to series fans, Grisham offers the right dose of cheesy storylines that layer nicely with serious matters. He is able to touch on a new generation of readers, educating and enthralling them before they leap into the murky world of the law, where Grisham has been thriving with bestsellers for three decades. Even though the target is the young adult reader, any fan of Grisham’s work can surely enjoy this piece.

Kudos, Mr. Grisham, for another wonderful piece of writing. No matter your audience, as long as the law is your theme, you seem to captivate and succeed.

Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, by Jon Meacham

Nine stars

In this highly educational biography of George H.W. Bush, Meacham offers the reader an insightful look into the life and times of the 41st President of the United States. With scores of interesting anecdotes wrapped in a fluid narrative, the author brings to life a man who sought to influence American politics in the latter part of the 20th century, while trying to keep from being subsumed in the shadow of his presidential predecessor. Bush was a man of honour and dignity, but also held firm to his beliefs, which changed as life shaped them. Meacham depicts the elder President Bush as a man of numerous perspectives, three of which rise as themes throughout the tome. Bush was a passionate family man, an ever-ready compromiser, and the effective political figure, personas that spanned his entire life (at least up to the the publication of the book). Meacham helps personalize Bush to the reader while not shying away from the lustre garnered from a life of privilege in Connecticut that hung over the man for his entire public life. A wonderfully refreshing biography that will keep the reader enthused until the final pages, not to be missed by the curious and those willing to open their minds to rediscovering this man.

Family was the lifeblood of George Herbert Walker Bush, and proved to be a means of support his entire life. From his early years, Bush always had a strong relationship with his family, be they his parents, grandparents, or siblings. This love of family grew when he left to fight in the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War. Meacham explores the love Bush had for his fellow navy men and the pain of losing them during a Japanese bombing campaign late in the war. Bush began thinking of his own family when he married Barbara Pierce, a woman for whom he held as much regard. From the birth of George W. Bush, the elder Bush saw a new type of familial love, which only grew as more children joined the brood. It was the crippling illness and eventual death of his daughter, Robin, that the author uses to best personify the family. While the entire family was crushed, Bush did all he could to keep the family on track, but was devastated in private and away from prying eyes. As head of his own family, Bush sought to provide for them, which meant entertaining options out in Texas, where oil exploration and processing could garner a substantial wage. Bush never shied away from ventures that would foster a sense of upward mobility, producing a self-made man who chose not to ride on the coat tails of his family or its name. As his children grew, Bush continued to foster the passion of family, from grandchildren through to other non-blood relations, never forgetting the passion instilled in him by his mother, Dorothy, or the support his children were able to offer him. From his highest moments through to his worst feelings, Bush always turned to his family for support, and offered just as much to those who struggled and needed his shoulder. Even in his latter years, when the next generation took up the reins of political power, Bush sought to counsel and advise his sons, offering praise or a strong shoulder, when needed. Meacham depicts George Bush as a man whose reliance on family proved essential and who would never compromise on their importance.

Bush spent his entire life as a man of compromise, seeking to keep his options open as he sought upwards mobility. Bush proved himself the true negotiator from a young age, bartering with his family in order to win their approval. When he married Barbara, Bush sought to compromise with her as he took them out of their comfort in Connecticut and to the barren wasteland of Texas. Compromise ensued from here as the oil business had them move throughout the state, with Barbara acting in a firm but agreeable way. Even when Bush sought to run for political office he had to compromise on some of his beliefs, finding himself running as a Republican in a strong southern Democratic area. Appeasement outweighed personal beliefs, to a point, as Meacham argues throughout the political narrative embedded in the biography. Bush could not shake his rich-boy upbringing, but was able to cobble together enough support from business interests and the general public that he could make his way to Congress and represent his constituents effectively, namely by finding common ground. As shall be discussed below, Bush compromised from there, touted as an up-and-comer by Richard Nixon. By 1980, compromise helped him garner the presumably impossible role of vice-presidential running mate alongside Ronald Reagan, which did cement a friendship between the bitter rivals. It was after serving as second-in-command for a time that Bush realised that he had to reinvent himself again if he wanted to run for and capture the GOP nomination in ’88. His moderate views needed sharpening and his persona a strong polish ahead of the run for the White House. Meacham illustrates this compromising as being for the betterment of the party, while Bush allowed his own beliefs to evolve, or at least morph into something else, as politics and age shaped him as a more right-of-centre thinker. As president, Bush had to open new avenues of compromise, even though he led a military powerhouse. With the economy in a state of disrepair, compromise from his “Read my lips, ‘no new taxes!'” gaffe forced Bush to determine that he needed others, even at the zenith of his power. However, compromise proved a political downfall, when the electorate chose not to renew his time as POTUS in ’92, making room for the next generation. While some depicted Bush as a man who had little leadership material because of his lack of an iron-clad set of beliefs, this compromising manner fostered the sort of compassionate persona that Bush never wanted to lose.

With the power of a family foundation and the ability to compromise, Bush entered the world of politics well-armed for the trench battles ahead. Coming from a family where monetary influence could sway those in politics, Bush sought to follow his own father, Prescott, into the world of American politics. The elder Bush was a senator who, after some staggering, was able to find his way and sought to push George H.W. Bush towards the political promised land. After a move to Texas to pursue oil, Bush had to reinvent himself to the southern base. As a rich Republican from the New England, Bush had a difficult time making a name for himself in the Democratic south, home to the fiery Lyndon Johnson. Bush faltered, as his father had, but was able to secure a seat in the House of Representatives, where he began planting seeds of a political future. Even after a crippling loss in a Senate run, Bush caught the eye of Nixon, who brought him into the fold, first as Ambassador at the United Nations and then heading up the Republican National Committee. While life in Congress was a sobering experience, Bush found his political acumen when trying to steer the GOP through Watergate and worked hard to prove himself as he watched Nixon implode. President Ford rewarded him with a post in China, where he tried to strengthen the still-new relations with that Communist country. Meacham explores how Bush surmised that the next stop on his political journey might have been a means to ensure he suffered a slow political death, when Ford put him into the Director’s chair at Central Intelligence. An apolitical spot if ever there were one, Bush against tried to remain calm and do all he could to support the president, while wondering if his own presidential ambitions might be lost. Ford’s loss in ’76 to Carter left Bush in a position to rebuild his political acumen, as Carter sought to place Democrats in key positions. Bush used this time to help garner name recognition for the Republican primaries of 1980. Standing in his way was political Goliath, Ronald Reagan. Meacham builds up his narrative and uses this rivalry as a central part of the book, pitting the moderate Bush against the strongly conservative Reagan, the face of the new Republican Party’s values. The journey found the two men coming to a compromise (proof that Bush’s ways did bring him success) and leading America into a new decade of conservatism. By the time Bush took the helm in ’89, America was in a severe Reagan hangover, though Bush took it upon himself to differentiate his presidency. A military campaign against Iraq and economic struggles at home forced Bush to play a less than all-powerful role in the political realm, though Meacham does balance criticism with praise during this period. However, his single-term presidency may stymie some from offering too much positive outlook on his time in the White House. Still, he did not blame others, choosing to accept the decision and hold his head high. As politics ran through his veins, Bush attempted to shape his time in public eye with a mixture of compromise, strong family values, and a sense of leadership. History will judge how effective he could be.

Meacham offers an effective view of Bush in his retirement years, after leaving the public eye. A resurgence of popularity seemingly came when his son, George W. won two-terms in the White House, though no one offers that the elder Bush used his son’s power to act as puppet master. Bush remained respectful and even sanguine when press coverage of his son’s time in office came under scrutiny. By the time Obama made it to the White House, Bush was secure in his retirement and sought not to appear too often in the public eye. He did not need to be flashy to know that he made a difference. Humbleness was his means of steering his own ship in the waning years.

Meacham constructs a powerful biography of this 20th century political figure, mixing the public record with a collection of letter, interviews, reports, and diary entries. With such a tremendous collection of documentation, it would be easy to weave a narrative that relies too heavily on one thing or another. The author chooses more of a ‘leapfrog’ approach, never sitting too long on any one issue or time period. While there were formative events throughout Bush’s life, the reader is never stuck reading scores on anything, as the book offers a glance on the arc that was Bush’s life, stopping in to analyse some of the more important areas. With an easy to read format and enticing style, the reader wants to forge ahead, learning more with each chapter. Keeping said chapters somewhat succinct also fosters a desire to ‘read just a little more’, which can only help substantiate the readability of this biography. The lay reader should not shy away from the book’s length, for it is as fluid a read as it is education and entertaining.

Kudos, Mr. Meacham for this wonderful biography. As you have done with other presidential figures, you offer the reader much insight and a passionate interest in your subject.