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!

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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.