The Girl in the Ice (DCI Erika Foster #1), by Robert Bryndza

Eight stars

In his new series, Robert Bryndza introduces readers to DCI Erika Foster, a passionate cop with a sordid past of her own. After the body of Andrea Douglas-Brown turns up, encased in ice and floating in the frigid January water, South London police turn their Missing Persons alert to a full-fledged homicide case. DCI Erika Foster arrives to join the homicide team, having been seconded from Manchester after a less than honourable experience with the local constabulary. While Foster brings much to the team, her parachuting in as a leader rubs some the wrong way, though she has little time for office politicking. Before she is able to get her legs under her, Foster is pushed to solve the case, as Douglas-Brown’s father is an influential Labour Peer and demands full attention to hunt down his daughter’s killer. While Foster commissions her team to follow-up any lead, she is unaware of the kid glove treatment she’s expected to take when it comes to this family, something that does not happen outside the realm of the Met. The more she pushes, the more Foster is chastised by her superiors to follow protocol to the letter, even though her methods yield many more results. This does not dissuade Foster, who wants to solve the case more than pussyfoot around and genuflect, shoving her way in front of the cameras when necessary and pushing witnesses out of their comfort zones with crime scene photos meant to alarm statements of fact. Foster follows a promising lead that takes her to one of the seedier pubs in the region, where Douglas-Brown was seen on the night of her murder. Against the wishes of those above her, Foster pushes to determine if the murder matches any others in the database, learning that there are strong similarities between her victim and a number of Eastern European prostitutes of a similar age. Foster pushes forward and her unconventional techniques earn her a swift suspension. Like any good copper, Foster refuses to drop the case and pushes her team to continue the investigation, which brings the killer to her door and almost leaves her as another victim. As she recovers, Foster cannot help but recollect her arrival in the United Kingdom at eighteen and the time she spent on the force in Manchester, an equally troubling experience. There is still a killer on the loose and Foster will stop at nothing to lure them out from the darkest corners, even if that means putting herself in mortal danger. A wonderful beginning to a new series that pits a stubborn cop against the most wily of killers. A must read for all those who love crime thrillers with a twist!

Bryndza holds his own in this genre, especially when surrounded by some daunting authors who use England as their backdrop for sensational crime thrillers. This book (and series) has been recommended to me by many people and it did not fail to pique my interest. DCI Erika Foster has a rich backstory, some of which is revealed throughout this book. From her Slovakian childhood to the drug raid that went horribly wrong, killing her husband and other members of her team, Bryndza contrasts this nicely with the abrasive nature that Foster brings to her investigative style. The result is a detective keen on results, even if that means trampling over a few barriers to get there. With this story in particular, the cast of characters is also quite extensive, but Bryndza allows the reader to connect with most everyone who graces the page. Add to that, a wonderfully flowing narrative and a killer who is bound and determined to keep themselves hidden while facing off numerous times with Foster, both through crime scenes and directly. Dialogue rich with speech nuances and slang keeps the reader feeling that they are in the heart of South London, which is a technique for which Bryndza should be recognised. I found myself addicted to the story, the characters, and the premise from the get-go and am pleased there is more Erika Foster to come.

Kudos, Mr. Bryndza for this wonderful introduction to DCI Erika Foster. You have laid the groundwork for a great follow-up novel, which I am eager to devour.

The Lost Treasure of the Templars (Treasure #1), by James Becker

Six stars

James Becker is well-known for his religious symbolism series, which captivated readers for years. Turning things towards the Knights Templars, the author begins a new series that seeks to mix Templar lore and a fast-paced adventure, with just enough mystery to keep things unpredictable. After coming into a collection of old books, antiquarian bookseller Robin Jessop comes across a unique item with an odd Latin phrase stencilled on the front, Ipse Dixit. Jessop turns to the Internet for possible meanings, which might also help her learn how to open this book safe, which looks as if it might have survived many a century. While the phrase offers only a vague translation, Jessop works to uncover the contents of the safe, soon realising that there are significant safety measures to protect a small parchment, covered with a coded message. Turning to her buyers’ list, Jessop discovers David Mallory, whose personal interests might help with the decoding process. He agrees to meet her and is intrigued with the challenge he has for her. They begin looking into ciphers to decode the message, which becomes a complex game of trial and error. Meanwhile, the searches for Ipse has triggered much interest amongst a small group in Rome with ties to the Catholic Church, which turns the wheels in motion and makes Jessop a major target. Rome dispatches a group of tough-looking Italians, acting on behalf of a religious order, which creates a dust-up with Jessop and Mallory. Leaving a few bodies in their wake, the pair rush off, beginning a cat and mouse game as they seek to further decipher this parchment while bullets fly in their direction. After discovering an odd marking amongst the text, Mallory brings his experience with all things Templar to the parchment, and the code soon flows. The revealed message leads them out of England and back seven centuries, where a Templar treasure may be hidden. Jessop and Mallory seek to remain one step ahead of their pursuers, who will stop at nothing to get their hands on the treasure and kill anyone who may know too much about this secret. Intuition and determination lead the pair to discover a treasure trove, but they are not alone, as Rome has dispatched more sentries to do their bidding. This begins more explosive adventures, spanning centuries, allowing Jessop and Mallory to continue their partnership. A interesting start to a new series that is surely to take readers on many fast-paced adventures.

Interest in the Templars seems to have spiked in recent years, at least as I scan the titles of some of my favourite authors. I seem to have an affinity for the topic and have dabbled into some of their history, though most of it seems to repeat the same monumental tales of their capture and executions. Becker does a great job in this opening book, by opening up the Templar history to be more diverse and look further back. He utilises this history while allowing the reader to see that Templar lore extended outside of England and France. Additionally, there are significant discussions surrounding code breaking and cipher usage, both from the 14th century and up to the present day, which enriches the narrative and pushes the plot along. While there is nothing overly unique about either Robin Jessop or David Mallory, Becker does provide them with some interesting backstories, which will certainly become more useful as the series continues. I was concerned during parts of the novel, as the story seemed to focus primarily on an over-used theme, that of ‘person or persons with knowledge of a secret held by the Church are chased by individuals seeking to keep it under wraps’. While there is a significant portion of the book that turns into a collection of chase scenes, Becker is able to keep this from subsuming the larger narrative and does offer at least a little excitement, offset with code breaking within. Becker also keeps things interesting with a quasi-cliffhanger ending, which flows nicely into what is sure to come in the second novel.

Kudos, Mr. Becker for this interesting opening novel. I hope to see you keep exploring some of the Templar history and offsetting it with even more (though unique) excitement for Jessop and Mallory.

FDR, by Jean Edward Smith

Nine stars

Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) has been called one of the three most important US presidents of all time, by historians and political figures alike. Known best for his New Deal to help America and acting as one of the three Allies political leaders during the Second World War, Roosevelt’s legacy is thoroughly documented in the history books. But there is more to this man, as Jean Edward Smith argues in this lengthy biography. The leader behind these great acts helped shape America in ways known to fewer people, doing so with all the vigour he could muster. As Smith recounts throughout, FDR tried to better America in the only way he knew how, by forging ahead and changing some of its current practices. FDR sought to protect the common American, even if his upbringing did not mirror that of the large portion of the electorate. The man who feared little, pulled America out of its doldrums, and faced enemies on all fronts, FDR ought not be left remembered in the history books solely as the man of the Sunday night radio broadcast or he who was confined to a wheelchair. Smith takes up this challenge and delivers a stellar piece of biographical writing that is a must-read for the curious reader who thirsts for knowledge. 

Smith reserves the early portion of this biography to show the reader some of the foundational aspect of the man’s upbringing. That FDR was a silver-spoon socialite is by no means a shock to the reader who attentively sifts through these chapters. Born into a family of some wealth, FDR was the only child his parents had, permitting him to be doted upon like few others. Smith discusses in passing that FDR constantly lived under the shadow of his ever-popular relative Theodore, whose ascendancy in New York politics had yet to reach its climax in the late 19th century. After wading through life at Harvard and Columbia, FDR complained about not wanting to work for a living, which was supported by his mother and the significant monies amassed in the Roosevelt accounts. It was only when FDR began making a name for himself in the New York Democratic Party that he caught the eye of Woodrow Wilson, whose 1912 presidential victory paved the way for young FDR to make his first solid connection to the common American. His selection as Assistant Secretary of the Navy allowed him not only to oversee fleet production, but to liaise with the workers and those serving in the Navy, giving him a much needed dose of the plight the commoner faces on a regular basis. Smith recounts numerous anecdotes about this and how FDR did not isolate himself from others, as he tried to better understand the world around him. Smith accentuates the fallibility of FDR in a poignant event that led to the man’s diagnosis of infantile paralysis (polio), which would strike him down and force him to use braces, crutches, and a wheelchair for the rest of his life. This sobering experience could, as Smith hints at, have knocked the effervescent FDR down a rung or two, leaving him to suffer through a hardship he could not have predicted or auctioned away. These moments shaped the earlier years of FDR’s life, preparing him for some of the most exciting and harrowing years that lay ahead.

Smith utilises the central portion of the biography to focus on FDR’s political ambitions and how he successfully ensconced himself into the Democratic machine, having tasted some power while a senior bureaucrat. After the political bug bit him, FDR sought to transform running for elected office. Use of his wealth pushed the limit of how to reach the people and make a name for himself; driving in cars at a time when they were still luxurious or flying to Democratic Conventions to receive the nomination. Pretentious, perhaps, but Smith argues that this pushed FDR into the limelight and allowed the common American to see him and react. Success in a short-lived New York gubernatorial position (his ascendency echoes that of Woodrow Wilson), FDR tossed his hat into the ring for President of the United States and endured a battle to the end, which Smith illustrates brilliantly. After gaining the keys to the White House, FDR began dismantling the ‘woe is me’ mentality that the Depression had put upon America and dished out some much-needed legislative medicine. From a reorganisation of the banks to social programs supporting those who needed it most, FDR fought a Congress whose ideals were still firmly rooted in a laissez-faire mentality and proved that safety nets to protect the most vulnerable would better America, rather than make it a more socialistic beast. Surely, the Depression years were more about being ill-prepared than pushing a stronger class divide amongst its citizens, as Smith argues and FDR posited in his speeches around New Deal legislation. That FDR could inject hope into a crumbling economy in the first 100 days after assuming office is something that stands out and deserves much notice. Smith forges on in the narrative to look at other areas of the American system that FDR felt needed his intervention. The attempt to pack the US Supreme Court, which failed abysmally, proved that FDR was not always in the right and that his ideas could be driven by his own desires. Smith details the congressional struggles and clashes, which brings the events to life and allows the reader a better understanding of this controversial time in FDR’s presidency. 

FDR made a difference on the domestic front, but he came into his own internationally when unrest on the world scene in the form of build-up by the Nazis in Europe and Japanese imperialism pushed the the world back into military conflict. Smith uses the final chapters of the biography to illustrate FDR’s role on the international scene and illustrates some of his hardest decisions of all. Smith posits that FDR was too busy with domestic events to pay much attention to the Nazi chess playing in Europe before the 1939 Polish invasion, though he was not completely oblivious. Once European states began falling like dominoes, FDR faced increased pressure to enter the war and back American allies. Much like Wilson, FDR tried to stay out of the fray, though the latter president used antics to fund and arm the British rather than decry the need for outright diplomacy. Smith spins detailed narratives about the fall of Europe and the fight that FDR had with himself, Congress, and the GOP during the 1940 General Election, all of which pushed America closer to the precipice of war. When Japan did take major aggressive action, Smith argues persuasively that FDR knew of the military build-up in the region and that Japan had been playing the thorn in the side of many of those within the region. Repeated diplomatic attempts failed, to the point that America refused to continue passive actions. Sanctions and financial punishments only sought to goad Japan into pushing things to the brink of war. While Pearl Harbour was not known as the location of an attack, there was little doubt that Japan would take some form of retribution. The ‘infamy’ commentary that has covered history books for over six decades seems diluted after reading Smith’s narrative on the subject. With this attack, FDR pushed America into the war, using the Pacific Theatre to open their attack. Once the Axis Powers sought to formally declare war on America, FDR sent help to Europe and the bloodbath began. Smith uses much of the latter portion of the book to paint the horrors and muscle-flexing of America on two fronts in order to restore order. This is understandable, as FDR would not survive the end of the war. Still, the narrative and last-ditch efforts during the 1944 presidential campaign show that Roosevelt was invested in an Allied victory, so much so that he left America to run itself on the domestic front. As his health deteriorated, FDR soon slid backwards until his death early in 1945, with Allied victory imminent and Japan soon to play the role of nuclear whipping boy. Stunning description to the very last paragraph!

There is much more to this biography than is listed above, which is indicative that Smith did such a thorough job that any reader will have to sit down and enjoy the text to learn everything. Discussions surrounding the strained marriage between FDR and Eleanor highlight some of the early chapters, including the negotiation they made to act as a united front when needed and live in independent spheres otherwise. Smith is also masterful in his discussion of the dirty fights for nomination at Democratic National Conventions of ’32 and ’36, where the Democratic Party almost imploded as it sought to resolve the North and South with their divisive beliefs. Of greatest interest to me, was some of the back story leading up to the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbour, where Smith lays out the argument that the road to Japanese aggression was anything but shocking. That said, Smith is able to condense the life of a man who broke barriers of presidential longevity and yet still provide a captivating biography. Any reader who invests the needed time will surely appreciate that fact.

This is the first of at least a few presidential biographies that I will undertake with Jean Edward Smith at the helm. This has helped solidify my belief that I am in for a wonderful treat in the coming months. Rich in detail and poignant in choice of anecdotes to include, Smith is a masterful storyteller and presents his opinions with the greatest of foundational argument. 

Kudos, Mr. Smith, for you not only took us to Washington, but through the tumultuous life of a man who changed the world and America for the better, while not subjugating his detractors.

Hunted: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Andrew Holmes

Seven stars

Another BookShot means additional excitement for readers who enjoy a little something to keep the blood pumping. Patterson and Holmes offer up a grisy tale that pits money against pure wit. Former SAS David Shelley learns of the death of a friend and military veteran, whose body sustained injuries that do not match up with the official record. While the friend was homeless, these are not battle scars from life on the streets or the fisticuffs that might accompany the lifestyle. Approached by an MI5 agent with a theory and news of a potential suspect, Shelley agrees to go undercover to substantiate rumours of exclusive club that finds sport in killing homeless men. The Quarry Company entertains the richest of the rich, mixing the thrill of the hunt with the desperation of the hunted, all while reaping massive monetary fees for those wishing a chance to participate. Working in concert with MI5, Shelley takes on a new identity and is chosen to act as hunted, unsure how serious things could become. As he is primed for the special day, members of the Company learn of his true identity through sloppy work by MI5, turning this simple game of cat and mouse into one of foxes and hounds. Shelley is unaware of this and is released into the forested area around the Quarry Company compound, armed with only his brains and brawn. How Shelley will make it out is up to him, though the odds are stacked against him. A thrilling tale that keeps the reader wondering until the very end.

As with all BookShots, there is little time for introductions or true character development. Patterson and Holmes toss the reader into the middle of the madness and let things play out in a handful of chapters. However, the reader is permitted a little backstory as it relates to the Quarry Company and the role MI5 plays to bring it down, which adds some suspense and mystery to the narrative. David Shelley has a sordid past in Afghanistan, which is hinted at throughout the story, though it is only in the latter section that its importance comes to fruition. An intriguing piece of writing that differs from much of what I have seen come from Patterson, though surely Holmes used his literary influence to fashion something unique. A decent story that does not waste any time in ramping up the action.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Holmes on this collaboration. I was intrigued and would surely read some of your joint work again. Will we see another BookShot soon?

Heist: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Rees Jones

Seven stars

Another BookShot short story that matches the writing styles of James Patterson and Rees Jones pulls the reader into the middle of a high-impact thriller. It was the perfect crime, or so they thought. Planned and coordinated down to the last fact, the hapless robbery crew thought they’d have an easy go at stealing a sizeable number of diamonds before liquidating them on the market. However, little did they realise that another team had a similar idea, which turned the perfect crime into a bloodbath. Having secured the diamonds, the heist is now more complicated than imagined, as the authorities are on a manhunt alongside the group whose honour has been besmirched. Enter Detective Inspector Andrew Hill, who’s biding his time before accepting redundancy. Wanting to leave the Met with a bang, he asks to take on the case of the diamond heist. After poking around the district, he learns that this was a well-planned insurance scam, one that saw local coppers turn their heads and all evidence destroyed. DI Hill follows a lead, with the help of some facial recognition, and boards a train to Amsterdam, where the criminals are headed to sell their wares and bring the money back to help one of their own. Amsterdam proves to be more than just a place to sell the diamonds, as Hill remains one step behind those he chases. When push comes to shove, it will be up to Hill, working alone, to apprehend these criminals, who are working without a plan and fuelled by adrenaline. A great story that keeps the reader hooked until the bitter end!

Patterson and Jones have previously worked on a BookShot together, which was just as enticing as this piece. While offering a general impetus that fuels the crux of the heist, the authors portray the three criminals as acting with a purpose. The story’s plot is straightforward and somewhat predictable, but keeps the reader interested through to the final chapter. Patterson and Rees offer a decent collection of characters who have their own individual traits, though the focus is more on the trek than hashing out too much personal detail. A decent piece of writing, though surely a one-off tale, which opens the door to more collaboration between these two authors, perhaps with another BookShot.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Jones for another successful joint effort. This is a partnership that seems to work and should not be abandoned.

The Witnesses: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Brendan DuBois

Six stars

In another of the BookShot short stories, James Patterson and Brendan DuBois craft an interesting tale that will keep the reader wondering until the closing chapters. The Sandersons have been temporarily relocated from their California home to the small community of Levittown, New York. Their neighbour is leaving nothing to chance as he sits in his wheelchair and gawks at them, spinning outrageous tales. Inside their home, the family is miserable; unable to communicate with the outside world or connect to something as rudimentary as the Information Highway. It all stems from their recent time in Tunisia, where Mr. Sanderson was on an archaeological dig as part of his ongoing scholastic work with Stanford. Was something unearthed that was best left interred? Or, could it have been Mrs. Sanderson, whose experience writing guidebooks led her to snap some photos of a meeting she was not supposed to see? No one is sure, but their security agent runs a tight ship and they are herded around like cattle. There is a hit put out on the Sandersons and a trained killer is slowly pulling together leads to find them. After a single mishap, beacons are alerted on both side of the law and it’s a rush to get to Levittown to deal with the breach. Who gets there first is anyone’s guess, but either way, the Sandersons won’t be around for any town bake sales this autumn. A decent story that glides along well enough to keep the reader entertained and turning pages.

While not my first BookShot, this was the first collaboration between Patterson and DuBois that I read. The authors take an interesting premise, a family in some form of witness protection, and spin it into something a little more enticing. The nosy elderly neighbour with a history of police work, sure that ISIS has moved in next door; the hitman sent to get rid of the target as smoothly and efficiently as possible, but who encounters some roadblocks; and the agency that vows protection covering its assets as best it knows how. While the story did flow well, I was not left with an indelible feel for any of the characters or felt compelled to crack the mystery behind the central protectee, though it was interesting to see in the end. The pace was quick enough and the varied characters offered something to keep the plot moving. Would I read another of their literary concoctions? Likely, but I am not shifting this to the top of my BookShot favourites list.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and DuBois on crafting this short story. I look forward to see what you both can do in the future, either in the BookShot world or independently.

Liar Liar (Helen Grace #4), by M. J. Arlidge

Eight stars

The Helen Grace series continues to impress as Arlidge tackles yet another angle of the psychological thriller. Fire is the most elusive killer, as unpredictable as it is destructive. Sixteen months after her previous serial killer case, DI Helen Grace can only watch the horizon as Southhampton neighbourhoods burn, the black smoke billowing up and leaving eerie calling cards. Three simultaneous fires destroy parts of the city, including a family residence. As Grace and the team work in conjunction with the local fire brigade, the fallout of the blaze claims the life of one and a second clings to life. Grace is determined to find the arsonist and charge them with murder. However, the fire destroys much, including any evidence that might lead Grace towards finding a killer. After three more fires occur the following night, it becomes clear that there are two peripheral fires to distract the authorities and a central blaze, meant to kill, which it does as another residence is targeted and its inhabitant perishes. An eyewitness sighting leads Grace to pull someone into custody, which divides the police and fire teams when they must work together to trap this firebug. Tensions are high and no one can effectively handle the city that teeters on the edge. Grace is also working with a new Detective Superintendent, her third since the series began, and must tailor her work style to accommodate a new managerial approach. The stress of the job forces Grace to continue her unorthodox personal activities, which she hopes to keep away from the press and public eye. A third set of fires creates an alibi for some seen as potential suspects and opens up some new avenues with the discovery of a blog site, whose writer expresses an interest in the fires that is more than passing. Grace scrambles to put it all together while trying to prevent more murders and keep her ever-morphing team together. With an arsonist on the loose, it will only take one spark to give Grace the lead she needs, but all could go up in smoke if she shows her hand too soon. Perhaps the best of the series to date, Arlidge offers readers a wonderful story over which they can obsess.

There is no doubt that Arlidge has mastered the art of the psychological thriller, though does so from as many angles as possible. It would be easy to use the same approach, sadistic killer leaving bodies and awaiting the authorities to catch them, but this cookie cutter approach seems not to interest the author as he pushes the envelope with each publication. The obsessions that fill each novel are not strictly sexual gratification for the unknown subject, but a means of enacting some form of revenge over the helpless victims. This fresh angle contrasts nicely with a changing collection of characters to keep the reader always guessing and forced to adapt to new storylines. Changes both to the team and their overseer makes the dynamic ever-changing, which has its advantages and downsides as well. Small developments in the characters’ backstories helps balance out the horrors that fill each short chapter and allows the reader to feel better connected to the larger series. DI Helen Grace continues to evolve in both aspects of her life, showing sides that can only help flesh-out the character for the series reader. She has remained a staple in the series and someone on whom the reader can rely. I can only hope that Arlidge keeps the quick pace exemplified in the series as he writes more in this series. I am always shocked to see where he takes things, never sure what might occur or how to react.

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge for yet another entertaining piece, as you forge ahead and keep Helen Grace from becoming too predictable. That said, it is the psychological approach that lures the hapless reader.

The End Game (Templar #5), by Raymond Khoury

Six stars

Returning to his highly-acclaimed series, Khoury pulls the reader into one of his most fast-paced novels to date. While he is still trying to come to terms with the brief kidnapping of his young son, FBI Special Agent Sean Reilly wrestles with another memory buried deep in his mind. As a ten year old, Reilly returned home to find his father dead in his study, the apparent victim of a suicide. However, when an anonymous caller reveals that there may be more to it, Reilly is intrigued and sets up a meeting. Rather than learning more, Reilly is pulled into the middle of a trap, with a body of a CIA operative awaiting him and evidence that he committed the crime. Reilly is being hunted and must go on the lam, not only to discover the truth about his father, but to protect himself, while still chasing the CIA ghost that took his son. While he dodges the authorities, Reilly becomes the target of a secret collection of CIA assassins who work on the Dark Web. They may be responsible for a number of high-profile hits that were camouflaged to be accidents, all for reasons few understand. As Reilly digs deeper, he realises that his father might well have been involved in this organisation and his death a means of payback for a chink in his armour. Can Reilly sacrifice all that he holds sacred to uncover this group and get to its core, or will be end up being another man whose blood in spilled in the name of the cabal? Khoury knows how to spin a tale and keeps the reader panting as they seek to catch up with this explosive story. 

The series has morphed from being one whose focus fell within the Templar mysteries to this more action-packed Bourne-esque race for the truth. While I am fond of the former, some of the middle novels that tried to pull away were less than enthralling for me. I returned to give this one a shot and found myself interested, though the one man fighting the BIG MACHINE can sometimes get a little tiresome. That said, Khoury knows how to inject action into a plot and keeps the reader guessing where things will go. Peppering the story with some humour and just the right amount of drama, the reader feels balanced in the novel’s approach, yet there is something missing. I seek teamwork, action, historical drama when I think of the Reilly-Chaykin series, but this has the former racing around and calling in to touch base with the latter, who is also the woman he loves. It could be me, an likely is, but I had hoped for a more balanced, team-based approach.

Kudos, Mr. Khoury for this well-crafted novel. My tastes are not the only ones who matter and I hope others have a more electrifying sentiment when they complete this book.

The Doll’s House (Helen Grace #3), by M. J. Arlidge

Eight stars

Arlidge returns to offer readers another look into the world of psychological criminals and the ever-evolving life of DI Helen Grace. Set ten months after the harrowing end to the previous novel, everyone is still abuzz that Grace has nabbed two significant serial killers. When the body of a young woman is discovered buried in the sand at a semi-secluded beach, Grace wonders if there is another killer on the loose, but has little context. Authorities are baffled, especially when they discover the victim has been dead for over a year, but has kept up a strong social media presence in the intervening period. Meanwhile, when Ruby Sprackling awakens in a mysterious house, she cannot recall how she made it there. Remembering passing out after a night of partying, she is left to wonder what this windowless prison might be. Soon all becomes clear; she is being held captive by a man who continually refers to her as Summer and wants nothing more than to earn her affections. Like a doll trapped in a confined house, Ruby must learn more about her kidnapper and curry favour with him. However, this man must also learn more about Ruby, as he projects her persona out to the world, covering up her disappearance as a desire to get away from it all. The longer Ruby remains in custody, the more she learns about those who were detained before her. This is also something that DI Grace and the team discover, as they delve a little deeper into the past of their single murder victim. Grace is also juggling a personal search of her own, trying to locate and reconnect with her estranged nephew. Hitting a wall, she uses her persuasive power and desire to ignore a direct order from a superior to learn a little more. Grace comes head to head with her Detective Superintendent, leaving them at odds and Anti-Corruption to enter the picture. With little time to waste, a cat and mouse game ensues with a killer who is keen to cover his footprints and weasel his way into the lives of unsuspecting young women. Can Ruby be saved before it is too late, or will DI Grace have to face her fallible nature? Arlidge spins another great story that will keep the reader hooked throughout.

Arlidge has gambled significantly in this series. Not only has he chosen three very different sorts of crimes and built on them, but also has utilised a significant number of characters to push the plots forward. Fans of the series will realise that in this, the third novel, much of the Southampton squad has changed. The reasons for this are apparent throughout the previous two novels, which saw significant personal involvement of those under Grace’s command. This character merry-go-round forces the reader not only to develop new bonds, but to not feel the shift takes away from the larger narrative. Arlidge uses much of the book developing at least two of these new characters, while also forcing DI Grace and DS Harwood to come to a head, leaving one in utter ruins. This does not, surprisingly, take away from the story or its scintillating nature, as the reader forges on and demands to be entertained. As I have mentioned previously, DI Grace’s personal demons emerge in her secret personal life, which is addressed, though with less detail in this novel, as she makes some choices for her future. The thrills are embedded throughout these lightning-quick chapters and the story reaches a climax at just the right moment, keeping the killer masked until close to the end, another wonderful trait Arlidge uses in his stories. There is much to be said for the twists in the narrative, which leads readers to suspect a few possible characters until the kidnapper is uncovered. Arlidge does not shy away from presenting the horrid ways humans treat one another in the name of control, which remains evident throughout the pages of this novel. Just when you thought you had seen it all, or felt you were on firm footing…

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge for another great novel. I cannot get enough of these and I enjoy the varied nature of your crime-based approach. 

The Last Mile (Amos Decker #2), by David Baldacci

Seven stars

Returning to the Amos Decker series, Baldacci offers readers another look into the fantastic abilities of his protagonist while handling a case that is riddled with issues. Melvin Mars sits on death row, awaiting execution for murdering his parents. As he prepares to walk ‘the last mile’, that distance from his cell to the execution chamber, a stay is granted. It appears as though someone in Alabama has confessed to the crime, leaving doubt that Mars may have committed the crime. This news hits the airwaves and Amos Decker seeks to take up the case. Working with a newly-established task force as part of the FBI, Decker discusses the similarities to the crime he was previously charged with, able to win over a majority of the team. As they head to Texas to investigate, Decker uses his unusual mental capabilities to unravel some of the facts missed by authorities. After the execution of said criminal in Alabama (who had been on death row himself for other crimes), everything seems to fall into place. However, an explosion kills a woman Decker has been interviewing about the case, forcing the team to wonder if there is more to the case than meets the eye. Mars recounts stories about how his parents sought to remain out of the limelight under any circumstances, which begs questions of witness protection or a life in hiding. Decker pushes deeper and soon learns that there may be something questionable about the murders of Mars’ parents, where identities do not match official records. As the previously cut and dry case unravels, Decker, Mars, and the rest of the task force are pushed into the middle of a massive cover-up that spans decades. While escaping death in Texas before, Mars may still be executed by a vindictive group set on burying the past and its ghosts. Another great thriller that keeps the reader wondering until the very end!

Baldacci has successfully been juggling a few series, keeping his readers from getting bored. The Amos Decker series could prove to be very interesting, as the ‘powers’ offer cases a new edge and keeps the reader from sensing anything too repetitive. Baldacci introduces the idea of the FBI task force, which could also inject a collection of new characters on which the stories can build and this can only bode well, as long as Baldacci does not let any of them wither on the vine. The story flows nicely and does touch on recurrent themes when the South plays a role in the setting and plot lines. Baldacci works with what he has and builds a wonderful story on it, keeping the reader guessing for at least part of the novel. Add to that, significant dialogue and the story pushes forward with ease, while also allowing some banter to develop his handful of characters. I look forward to seeing what else Baldacci has in store for Decker and if he will ever do some crossover work with his other protagonists, which can always make for some entertaining possibilities.

Kudos, Mr. Baldacci for this piece of fiction that entertains as well as educates. Keep up the great work and your readers will return for more.

Pop Goes the Weasel (Helen Grace #2), by M.J. Arlidge 

Eight stars

In this sensational follow-up novel, Arlidge leads readers down the path with another psychological thriller that does not let up until the final sentence. Taking place a year after events in the previous novel, DI Helen Grace is back to work with a somewhat newly constituted team, as well as a new superior. When a man is found brutally murdered in a flop house, his heart cut from his body, Grace and the team commence their investigation. The organ is soon shipped to the family’s doorstep, where a distraught wife is left to discover how sadistic the killer really can be. Soon, another man is found murdered in the same fashion, which pushes the investigation into the world of prostitution and unsuspecting johns. In a form of reverse Jack the Ripper, it appears as though a prostitute is brutally killing men out for a dalliance, though no clear motive or clues emerge. While she juggles this case, Grace is forced to handle a new Detective Superintendent as her superior, one who seeks to hover and garner all the praise. If that were not enough, the press is hounding the authorities for answers, with one honing in on Grace and using her to gain exclusive access. Digging into the deepest secrets that Grace possesses, this journalist seeks to gain the upper hand. As the reader soon learns (if it were not apparent), no one messes with Helen Grace and gets away with it. As the investigation turns up some solid leads, choices are made amongst the team members to gain the advantage, some successful and others utterly disastrous. Chasing the best lead she has, Grace is all but certain to make an arrest before it comes crashing down on her. However, intuitive reasoning might help her catch a killer, unless her independent streak puts her in the crosshairs of a prostitute with nothing to lose. A must-read for those who loved Eeny Meeny and the reader who finds solace (or excitement) in a psychological thriller.

Arlidge uses a strong writing style to create a second novel that has parts that might be even more sadistic than the first. With a strong premise, the story flows extremely well and the short chapters force the reader to forge on, hanging at the end of every break and needing to learn just a little more. As with the previous novel, the characters presented herein come with their own backstories, most of which are developed as the case progresses and some of whom ever pull at the reader’s heartstrings. This allows the reader to feel invested in the process and those who push the plot forward. Building on some of the past secrets revealed about Helen Grace, the reader learns a little more and discovers how she cuts the pressure of her work life with something completely taboo, while also remaining invested in processing the fallout from the previous novel’s revelations. Arlidge does all this while ramping up the gore, the mind games, and the demand for more mental games to catch a killer. How a reader could walk away from this novel and not beg for more DI Helen Grace is beyond me. I am eternally grateful I can binge read them and have the third in the series all ready for quick consumption.

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge for crafting this series. I can see past the gore and into the darkest depths of where you want to take the reader, and I want a front row seat!

Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, by John Milton Cooper, Jr.

Nine stars

In his thoroughly-researched biography of Woodrow Wilson, John Milton Cooper, Jr. offers the reader a look into the life and times of a significant man in American history. Wilson not only shaped America and the world in the early 20th century, but also helped to push the parameters of the American political system, both from his academic ivory tower and within the Oval Office. As Cooper explores the nuances in Wilson’s life, the reader is treated to a wonderful narrative that rises above partisan rhetoric to permit all readers a fast-paced journey through a busy life. Rather than digesting the biography as a tale that spans from A to Z, Cooper offers three distinct characters of Woodrow Wilson with whom the reader can liaise. The keen academic emerges to expound on the need for change, the politician seeks to bring that change to fruition, and the world leader seeks to instil that change in the global political narrative, both within America’s borders and in the international political arena. Cooper successfully argues that these three characters are intertwined and did help produce a country and a world that had a better handle on events, heading into some of the most difficult years in modern history. A wonderful biographical piece that readers with a strong interest in politics and the American political system will surely enjoy.

‘Thomas’ Woodrow Wilson came about his academic prowess naturally. With a keen interest in all things educational from an early age, Wilson surrounded himself with those whose primary focus was to expound knowledge. While many of the men in his close family were preachers, Wilson sought a more conventional approach to academics and attended Princeton, where he read politics and found a passion in this educational endeavour. Even as an undergraduate student, Wilson sought to question the various institutional aspects of the American political system, arguing that it was less effective than the British parliamentary system. In his numerous essays and published work, Wilson felt that parliamentary systems had stronger checks and balances than the American republic, while also allowing a more hands-on approach to governing. This passion extended as he forged onward into deeper study and earned degrees not only from Princeton, but also Johns Hopkins. His essays caught the attention of many, though even armed with a superior writing style, Wilson could not always turn the minds of those in positions of power towards his ideals. As an academic, Wilson returned to Princeton, seeking to educate the next generation of learners, where he discovered changes afoot, as women and people of minority races peppered the student body. Cooper discusses how Wilson wrestled with this change and called for racial and gender segregation on campus, issues that would reemerge later in his presidential life. Wilson rose in the ranks and soon found himself as President of Princeton University, where he could affect outward change, including more faculties to accommodate the new and exciting realms of science, technology, and higher learning. Wilson’s downfall came when he tried to push too hard for a graduate building, coming up against strong-willed members of the faculty and board. Wilson would not be deterred, however, as he stood firm in his beliefs, trying to bring about the change he felt was necessary. This passion would prove highly useful in his future endeavours, which seemed to flow naturally from his presidency of Princeton.

Wilson’s political aspirations could be seen as inherent from his youthful obsession with the American political system. While not thumping for Democratic candidates alongside his family, as with some future presidents, Wilson had a passion for the machinery and knew that he would need to become a cog if he wanted to bring about concrete, rather than theoretical, change. One could argue, as Cooper does, that Wilson began exemplifying political tendencies while leading Princeton. The aforementioned lobbying for space and new faculty buildings forced him to barter with those around him. The university’s politics did instil in him some anger and frustration, but also helped shape him into the man needed for his next two posts; ones that would shape a larger electorate and determine major changes for decades to come. After leaving Princeton, Wilson was steered towards the 1910 gubernatorial race of New Jersey, which Cooper made sound like a veritable cakewalk. Wilson’s ideas helped stir the pot and forced those legislators to see that he was by no means a passive man, armed with his academic interests in the political system. Cooper does make Wilson’s time as governor appear to be a launching pad for a presidential run in 1912, which came to pass without much issue. While Wilson may have been seen by Democrats as their potential saviour, his march to Washington was by no means pre-ordained. In a raucous fight at the convention, Wilson had to fend off others for dozens of ballots before emerging victorious, only to face a hyperactive Teddy Roosevelt who sought to steal away Republican votes through a third-party in the form of the Progressives. Cooper illustrates the pains to which Wilson went to endure the ’12 campaign and his ultimate victory, though it was only then that things got a great deal more interesting. While acting as president, Wilson was forced to steer a domestic agenda for a country in dire need of navigation. He used his interests to steer things in a certain direction, but had to weigh his sentiments with both congressional leaders and a Cabinet, each with their own preferences. Wilson succeeded in placing financial legislation on the agenda and developing the Federal Reserve, but there were things outside the domestic realm, discussed below, that occupied his time and turned him from a President of the United States into a world leader prepared to look at a global political sphere. While Wilson did run again in 1916, he was encumbered with an isolationist stance while Europe and the Far East continued their bloody Great War. As Cooper mentions throughout one particular section of the biography, while Wilson did succeed in his second presidential election, said victory marked the end of any domestic presidency, though this is not entirely true. Wilson did oversee two significant amendments to the US Constitution, prohibition (which he tried to veto) and women’s suffrage. Cooper illustrates these fights effectively, painting America as a progressive power while the world turned its eyes on Europe and the Germans continued to goad America to join the bloodshed.

That Wilson succeeded as a politician was only the first step in the arduous process of becoming a stellar statesman. Wilson was not faced only with leading America during the Great War, but also had to balance his domestic policies with defending American borders and citizens. Mexico proved to be the first thorn in Wilson’s side, forcing him to use negotiating skills to prevent another US-Mexico War and keep the peace on the continent. Wilson adopted a ‘diplomacy over aggression’ approach, which became his niche for both presidential terms when looking to the international arena. Wilson kept America out of the Great War, as Cooper explains, for reasons not simply to steer clear of the European mess, but because there was no territorial infringement or investment. Cooper’s wonderful narrative not only depicts the struggles in Europe, but also Wilson’s hand-wringing as he watched from the outside, formulating his League of Nations idea. While America did eventually send troops into the fray, Cooper effectively argues that this was neither an easy choice for Wilson nor one the world should take lightly. Wilson began drafting his famous Fourteen Points address and was keen to get things started while the ink dried on the Armistice in 1918. Wilson was surely the key player in pushing the peace negotiations forward and Paris would surely not have been as effective without his invested time. Cooper echoes some of the other reading I have done on this subject (see Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919) and exemplifies the courage taken by the American president. That said, one might speculate this central role has caused future presidents to feel as though they are the essential cog in the wheel to any peace, and that things ought to be drafted along their own terms. In any case, Cooper argues repeatedly that Wilson shaped not only post-War Europe, but that other seasoned statesmen deferred to him, even as he entered their continental sphere and played chess with their respective geographic neighbours. However, when returning to America to instil this world leader persona on his congressional colleagues, they neutered him and refused to accept the Treaty of Versailles, which proved to be the bloodiest battle Wilson fought and led to the demise of the Democrats in the 1920 election, one in which Wilson could not convince the party faithful to allow him to lead. That Wilson was a statesman like no other cannot be discounted and Cooper does a masterful job at exploring this, though both Wilson and Cooper would likely admit that the former’s long-time lamenting of the republican system of government led to the downfall of the larger League of Nations and sullied some of the world leader ideals that the president held. 

One would be remiss not to mention the familial theme that flows throughout the book, all of which help shape the Woodrow Wilson who emerged in the public domain. Wilson was lucky enough to have met and married two women who acted not only as political wives, but could be seen to offer their own insight into the daily decisions that he made throughout his working life. Ellen Axson, while not the first woman to win his heart, was surely the first to take the time to fully understand him. She stuck by Wilson through the early years at Princeton and helped make the leap to both the Governor’s Office (no mansion at the time in New Jersey, for those who enjoy a little trivia) and White House. She bore him three children, all of whom played a significant role in Wilson’s life and whom Cooper mentions throughout the narrative. However, her untimely death caused Wilson much angst and he suffered greatly for a period of time during his first term because of this. Cooper offers a thread that Wilson was by no means a man out of touch with the allure of the feminine charm, hinting at potential affairs and dalliances before reaching Washington. Wilson was also able to meet and marry his second wife, Edith Bolling, not too long after Ellen’s passing. Edith Wilson was that rare second rock to keep him upright as he forged into the most difficult years as president and stood by him throughout his frustrations surrounding the League of Nations. She offered a strong and protective approach of Wilson, particularly in his twilight years and helped Wilson after his debilitating stroke during the latter time of his second term in office. Cooper’s personification of Wilson, showing that he was a man as well as a political beast, offers the reader a great counterbalance throughout the narrative and injects some lighter fare into the heavier topics discussed at length. 

Cooper’s attention to detail is not lost on the reader, as he weaves his way through these most important political and historical events. Wilson’s time in the White House alone were, arguably, some of the most important political years in the world. From the push to offer women’s suffrage through to the Great War and the Treaty of Versailles negotiations thereafter, Cooper presents the reader with a well-rounded collection of facts and arguments from all the players, allowing a well-grounded decision to be made, even if it differs from that of Woodrow Wilson. There is little within the tome that does not have a balanced counter argument, which is the sign of a superior writer, particularly one who tackles political issues. Cooper is to be commended for his analysis, as well as his luring the reader in with a detailed narrative that paints these historical events in way so as to bring them off the published page. If only all biographers had this passion in their writing!

Kudos, Mr. Cooper for such a wonderful biographical piece. Woodrow Wilson transcends the two-term presidency for which he is known and supports his position as one of the twentieth century’s greatest world leaders. 

Eeny Meeny (Helen Grace #1), by M.J. Arlidge 

Eight stars

In search of a new psychological thriller, MJ Arlidge came highly recommended. He did not disappoint with his ability to grab the reader and leave them gasping for air, even in this debut novel. Picture it, if you will: two people are confined in an area together with no way out, no food or water, and only a gun with a single bullet in its chamber. One must die so the other can live; the choice is theirs. When the first ‘victim/perpetrator’ is released, this story is presented to DI Helen Grace, who has a hard time fathoming this is anything but an elaborate cover-up for a murder. However, the emaciated body of this young woman who’s sobbing out this tale leaves Grace to wonder if there might be some truth to the matter. When a second twosome go missing, Grace and her team rush to the scene, with a similar story coming to light. Soon, more sets of victims disappear and Grace comes to the realisation that she has a connection to at least one of the pair in each case. She cannot find the motive or how the group ties all together, but she knows there is no time to lose. When a leak occurs within the team, Grace pursues a secondary witch hunt to draw them out and remove the rotten apple from the team, only to discover that it, too, is a game that she is ill-equipped to play. As the kidnappings continue and Grace learns of the strong connection, she must find this killer and end the madness before more people are left to make the most dire of choices in a world full of selfish beings. A debut novel that will have the reader recommending it as quickly as possible, while scrambling to find the next in the series.

Arlidge creates a wonderful thriller that has all the elements for success. His narrative abilities keep the reader on the edge of their seat as they delve deeper into the world of torture and depravity. Using short chapters, the reader cannot help but forge on, seeking “just a little more” to quell their curiosity, before realising that they are well past the point of putting the book down. The crimes themselves, pulling on the heartstrings are sick aspects of everyone, offer the reader something to be glad they are safe from experiencing, but it is the contrast between these crimes and the protagonist’s personal side that is truly the greatest lure. DI Helen Grace is anything but run of the mill when it comes to British police material. That Arlidge chose to take things down this path is by no means a mistake, nor is the development of a darker side to DI Helen Grace. The reader is subjected to this dark side from the start and things only become more complex. Arlidge pulls out all the stops at highlighting the struggle and depravity, though something leads me to believe that there is much more to come, with subsequent novels. The reader finds themselves locked away with the victims while also learning through a sub-plot about the killer’s backstory. Arlidge knows how to thrill, yet does so in the most macabre way if only to leave the reader demanding more, hoping for something exciting to end the madness. Unfortunately, sometimes the madness is the light and the tunnel’s darkness is all there is on offer.

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge for this powerful opening novel. I cannot wait to see how DI Grace handles subsequent cases and if the trauma that befell her is something from which she can heal.

Madame Serpent (Catherine de Medici #1), by Jean Plaidy

Six stars

Plaidy has been called one of the great historical fiction writers of the 20th century, particularly in her focus of European history and the female players that shaped its development. In this, the first of a trilogy, Plaidy invites the readers into the world of Catherine de Medici. As with many young women of the time, she was a pawn on the chessboard of European peacemaking, where marriages helped not only strengthen alliances, but allowed monarchies to oversee larger pieces of the European pie. Stuck in her native Italy, de Medici is soon betrothed to the King of France’s second son, Henry. Wary of this union, de Medici offers much resistance, but when the Pope is your suitor, there is little objection to be made. Heading to France, de Medici arrives where Henry and King Francis await her, only to discover that she is involved in a love triangle not of her own making. Henry is enamoured with another woman, said to be a sorceress of sorts, who has control over the prince and dictates his every move. After the heir to the French Throne is poisoned, all eyes turn to de Medici when the culprit is found to be an Italian. She professes no involvement, but is not forlorn at her advancement closer to the Throne. Now married to the Dauphin, the heir to the Throne, de Medici must worry about the next issue, being without children of her own. While she had a man with whom she was strongly enamoured, his death has led de Medici to turn her love towards her husband, who refuses to reciprocate. It is only when Henry shows her minimal affection to ensure she brings forth an heir that the Dauphine de Medici can rest easier. However, she has come to realise that no one will protect her other than herself. Dauphine de Medici’s sentiments sour and she becomes bitter about her life, turning to scheming and plotting her own revenge, for herself and Italy. Plaidy explores some of Catherine de Medici’s deep-seeded distrust in the French Court to fan the flames of evil buried deep inside her, vowing to right all the wrongs that have befallen her. A curious opening novel that introduces keen readers to the life of this most-cutthroat Italian princess. 

I will be the first to admit that I love these period pieces that surround themselves with European monarchies. That said, I was impeded from becoming strongly connected to this story, for reasons I cannot fully understand. I cannot criticise Plaidy, as I am sure her success and admiration by millions cannot be false in comparison to my sole struggle. I felt the same way when reading another author who wrote in this same genre, also from the 1950s, so there may be something on which we can build. Could it, perhaps, be a lack of narrative connection or perhaps something less scandalous as I am used to in today’s writers? That said, Plaidy successfully paints Catherine de Medici and those around her in brushstrokes that depict struggle, scandal, and the plight of European growth. I may, after a time, return to this series to see how de Medici fares in the second and third novels, though find myself in need of literary courage for that plunge. I admit, my rating of this book will not be as high as it might have been had I been more attached to the entire method, though I do counsel those who read this review to take my comments with a grain of proverbial salt.

Well done, Madam Plaidy, for your presentation. While it did not pull me in, many others have surely taken to you. For that, you have my respect, at least.

Blood Defense (Samantha Brinkman #1), by Marcia Clark

Seven stars

Launching her new legal series, Clark introduces the reader to defence attorney Samantha Brinkman. While she is hard-working, Brinkman struggles with a bare-bones staff; her best friend as receptionist and a recently-released criminal as investigator. Brinkman and Associates put their hearts into their cases, but cannot seem to find a way out of a sea of debt. After the murder of television star, Chloe Monahan, and her roommate, the city is abuzz with speculation. Who would want to kill such a sweet young woman in cold blood? Brinkman uses her time as a regular on some of the television legal shows to garner some personal attention by discussing the in passing. Her lack of prestige is dwarfed by her knowledge and leaves her wondering if she could ever net representing the accused. News leaks that the accused killer is a police officer, Dale Pearson, who surprises everyone when he arrives on the doorstep of Brinkman and Associates. They rush to sign him up and begin their own investigation, which is more difficult than first expected. Pearson’s past consistently butts up against media reports and Brinkman must succumb to the possibility that her client is guilty and it is only a matter of time before the truth comes out. It is not enough that Pearson had an unethical relationship with one of the victims, but his record with women leaves much to be desired. A shocking revelation forges a bond of sorts between Brinkman and Pearson, which helps to solidify their attempts to dismiss the charges. Working every angle on a shoestring budget, Brinkman begins to uncover some telling facts and discovers that there is more to these murders than simply an argument between Chloe and Pearson. However, proof is harder to acquire when dealing with those who wish to railroad an easy target. With the trial looming, Brinkman will have to bring more than speculation and a stellar opening argument to acquit her client. Clark presents this great legal thriller that does not slow down and keeps the reader wondering at every turn. 

Being a great fan of Clark’s Rachel Knight series, I had high hopes with this novel. However, it took a while for me to warm up to the story and its characters, as they were not as refined or driven by success. After taking some time to get acclimated, it is the contrast of the Samantha Brinkman character that makes her one the reader can enjoy. A strong protagonist who has little but her mental acuity and a thirst for justice, Brinkman chooses to run her practice above board and struggles at every turn. She rubs elbows with the lesser element, but is not sullied. The story is one not only of legal antics, but personal self-discovery, where Brinkman pushes back against a mother who expects her to forge a reputation based on money rather than integrity. A strong narrative and fast-paced dialogue helps the story to flow from initial investigation to a courtroom drama, pulling on many of Clark’s experiences as a trial attorney. Brinkman, like Knight, may be a force to be reckoned with, given time and a favourable reaction by readers. I cannot see how this could be an issue for those who enjoy entertaining fiction.

Kudos, Madam Clark for taking the time to develop a new character readers can enjoy. More women in legal thrillers who take charge will certainly add nuances to a male-saturated genre.

The Trial (Women’s Murder Club #15.5): A BookShot, by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

Eight stars

Patterson and Paetro extend their partnership with another entry in the Women’s Murder Club collection, this time a BookShot. As the story begins, readers are taken into events not long after 15th Affair, with Sergeant Lindsay Boxer still at odds with her husband, Joe. When Boxer receives word of a shootout at a high-end bar, she and her partner rush to the scene. More interesting than the shooting is the suspect, a drug kingpin named Kingfisher everyone thought perished the year before. As Boxer seeks to track down Kingfisher, she learns more about him and discovers that his estranged wife is living in San Francisco as well. After arresting Kingfisher and identifying him as being the man some witnesses saw killing two women in their twenties, Boxer chooses to remove his cloak of power and personalises him with his given name, Jorge Sierra. While Sierra awaits trial, he does not back down in his off-the-wall fury, promising to kill anyone who tries to convict him. As the threats mount, so does the body count and the gang Sierra ran seems to have arrived from Mexico to do his bidding. Boxer flees the city with her daughter, Julie, and keeps the little one in protective custody, promising to bring justice and peace to San Francisco with Sierra’s conviction. The trial proceeds and the evidence is strong, but one can never predict things in the justice system until the jury’s verdict is handed down. Boxer knows all too well that sometimes good does not triumph over evil and that bloodshed is inevitable. Perhaps the best BookShot of those released to date, Patterson and Paetro deliver for fans of the series and curious readers alike. 

The idea of BookShots has been a mixed bag up to this point. Patterson nails it with some co-authors and shows a flaccid lack of ingenuity with others. Paetro’s contribution, backed by one of the stronger series Patterson has on the go, makes this book a wonderful addition to both the Women’s Murder Club and the BookShots concept. While the three other Club members play a backseat role, Lindsay Boxer is front and centre in such a way that I could not help seeing her dashing and dodging as she has in the 15 previous novels. The story is quick, the chapters even faster, and the narrative keeps the reader wondering how the legal and police aspects will meld. The tie-in to the previous full-length novel goes to show that both authors care enough to keep series fans in line, but it is the next novel that might also prove interesting, as some of the breadcrumbs offered herein will certainly shape what happens in the 16th incantation of the Club. And now we wait to see how it all plays out until late next Spring.

Kudos, Mr. Patterson and Madam Paetro for this wonderful piece. I was hooked with the opening paragraph and am happy to keep reading anything you guys have to offer.

Little Black Dress: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Emily Raymond

Six stars

Patterson continues his literary experimenting, bringing Emily Raymond along for the ride. In this BookShot, Patterson ventures outside the genres for which he is known, waltzing onto a more romance/erotica pathway. More on this concept below and my sentiments on its success. Jane Avery is living the typical a 35 year old divorcée life, at least in her eyes; a slave to her work whose social time is filled with cookies and binge watching television. When she purchases a dress, black and slinky in nature, she finds herself filled with new confidence. While the dress does not possess any magical power, per se, Avery is pulled into a level of confidence she lacked up to that point. This confidence is primarily that of no strings attached sexual encounters with men, most of whom she has never met and all of whom will not get a second chance to unzip her. Patterson and Raymond layer this concept with parachuted visits that Avery makes to her therapist, who is unknowingly fuelling her nymphomania. Avery’s confidence reaches a climactic point when she visits a sex club and finds herself drawn to a man whose intrigue matches his prowess. However, Avery is eventually left to wonder if she will be able to continue her sexual gratification of meteoric proportions on her own, without the aforementioned dress as her crutch. Definitely an interesting and unique take for Patterson fans, though those familiar with Raymond may expect this on a regular basis.

I will admit, I have no experience with Emily Raymond or anything that she may have penned. I do not dive into the “his pulsing member” genre and will not be scouring websites to sign up for newest releases anytime soon. That said, the story was effective for what it was; not too smutty and yet nowhere near as sleuth-based as James Patterson tends to be. Jane Avery sought sex and she found it until she had an epiphany, short and sweet. The story was decent, its characters helped push it along (though this genre does not seem to thrive on strong characters other than the protagonist). That Patterson would put his name to this type of story does not sully him, but it does go to show that he will slap his name on most anything to sell it, which benefits the co-author in some form. That said, I am completely unsure why Patterson cannot stick to working with authors who fit into the genres of writing for which he has been popular for a while. Alas, I am but a small-time reviewer and not some filthy rich man whose prime can sometimes be said to have sailed when he churned out fluff. I do hope he returns to the BookShot family with something a little more substantive, at least that bears his name. 

Kudos, Mr. Patterson and Madam Raymond for this story, though I think our latter author could and should have peddled this piece under her own name alone.