Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume 2, by Michael Burlingame

Nine stars

Returning for the second volume of Michael Burlingame’s monstrous biography of Abraham Lincoln, the reader is presented with a much shorter period of time. These presidential years, 1861-65, were perhaps some of the most important of the overall biography, both in Lincoln’s history and that of America. This second volume synthesises all the reader learned from the previous tome and moves forward into the most influential decisions that shaped a country in turmoil. Like its predecessor, this volume is chock full of stories and anecdotes, but also offers the patient and attentive reader three themes Burlingame uses to define the 16th President of the United States. Abraham Lincoln was an atypical politician, the Great Emancipator, and a hands-off Commander-in-Chief during wartime. Pairing the two volumes, the reader has a thorough and fairly all-encompassing view of the man whose humble upbringing led to one of America’s defining political figures. A stellar piece of biographic material that offers a truly educational and entertaining view for those with significant patience and a passion to learn.

Abraham Lincoln’s life up to the point of his presidency could not be described as normal or even typical, even for those who lived at the time. That he continued this atypical living is one thing, but that he also extended these oddities while wearing a political hat is even more baffling in an profession where one is always in the proverbial spotlight. Burlingame presents a man who, though a strong believer in the democratic process and allowing the public to lead the country at the ballot box, would not simply pander to majority opinion when making decisions. While some may have felt it a great shock that Lincoln could earn the right to sit in the Oval Office, he used this ascendancy to push forward with his strong views on slavery and the upcoming skirmishes with the secessionists in the South. Lincoln sought not to woo them with grandiose promises or bow to their demands, even if it would have curried favour with leaders and the general public. He looked above and beyond, forcing those who wanted his attention to follow his lead, as if his opinion mattered more than large segments of the populace, which Burlingame elucidates throughout the narrative. As his presidency ran parallel to the Civil War, Lincoln’s decisions were primarily made with the conflict in mind. As shall be seen below, while he did not engaged in the military campaign minutiae, he held firm to his views on man’s equality and did push presidential edicts to move the country away from racial servitude and towards a levelled field. While this might have been noble, it contradicted what many, even in the North, sought from their political leaders. Lincoln’s decision to offer compensated emancipation for the border states raised the ire of many, seen as a means of bribing some state governments to push through controversial legislation and yet spitting in the faces of those who voluntarily chose black emancipation in the past. From there, it was a collection of views, including complete emancipation, that pushed Lincoln into a re-election campaign that saw his strongest supporters seek to dethrone him. How a man who was so well-versed in the political process, as seen extensively in Volume One, could have snubbed the process to woo an electorate or supporters does not appear lost on Burlingame, who offers extensive narratives on this atypical behaviour. Lincoln did not seem to mind, though, as he would shrug and put the decision in the hands of those who wield the power, be they party leaders, state officials, or the electorate. What Burlingame subtly injects into both volumes in the selfless nature of Lincoln, a man who checked his ego at the door, which is perhaps his most atypical characteristic when lumped generally amongst the political masses. Lincoln’s atypical behaviour became not only the norm, but the expected behaviour of a man who thrived on leading from his own rule book, but was happy to cede the reins of power if that be the desire of the majority, if only they would take the legal action to assume control.

The moniker “The Great Emancipator” has been given to Lincoln throughout history, though Burlingame exemplifies just how deeply these sentiments ran in Lincoln’s presidential years. While some readers will remember from Volume One, Lincoln had a passion for banishing slavery and offered his personal views on this extensively and to anyone who would listen. Some might wonder if it cost him the 1858 senatorial election in Illinois, while others remain baffled as to how this gangly man ever made it as the Republican candidate, let alone tenant of the White House. However, it seems as though Lincoln used his presidency as a soap box to continue the slavery debate and pushed emancipation to the extreme, making it a cornerstone of his impetus to continue the Civil War. While some historians debate whether the War was fought to regain (or obtain) territory over a political stance on freeing slaves throughout America, one thing is clear in Burlingame’s biographical piece; Lincoln would not drop the issue of freeing all men. Using Thomas Jefferson’s words from the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln pushed ideas of emancipation at every turn, citing the need for all men, ALL MEN, to be equal under the eyes of the law. Dred Scott was incorrectly adjudicated by the US Supreme Court, laws promoting a racial caste system were problematic, and any means by which he could ensure states would pass laws to free slaves proved to be the only solution. As mentioned above, Burlingame shows how Lincoln stirred up trouble within his own party by offering financial incentives to those border states that would pass laws that favoured his sentiments. Lincoln would eventually go so far as to toss down the gauntlet and present the Emancipation Proclamation, ordering all slaves to be free under the federal powers he possessed. Lincoln would not let go of this belief and did jeopardise his chances at re-election in 1864, but felt it more important to hold onto his beliefs than pander to the will of the majority. Going one further, Lincoln orchestrated the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, the first of the Reconstructionist Amendments, to codify emancipation and enshrine it as a core American belief. However, the attentive reader and those with a great understanding of history will remember, his views on emancipation would not immediately remedy the situation, as they permeate the political sphere even today. Lincoln was surely the man who formally opened the emancipation discussion in the American political banter, though his greatness cannot extend to solving it completely.

Of all the wartime presidents with whom I am familiar (some of whom through biographical pieces alone), Lincoln proved to be the most hands-off Commander-in-Chief when it came to military progress or strategy. While he did visit the troops and had a general understanding of movement across the country, he appeared more focussed on emancipation issues than political clashes with the likes of Jefferson Davis or those on the other side of the North-South divide. Burlingame does offer up a few stories of Lincoln engaging in some of the general information gathering meetings with top generals, especially Grant, whom he promoted to Lieutenant-General in an extremely awkward event for both men, but little of substantive strategy planning or extensive battle plotting. Allowing strategies to be handled by military personnel and his Secretary of War, Lincoln focussed his attention on social leadership and let his constitutional military role become more a figurehead position. Lincoln knew what he wanted done and chose to let those in better positions of power bring it to fruition, keeping troop movements and garrison capturing to those in uniform. He did his best to have men ready for the War with conscription decisions, a contentious issue that Burlingame discusses, making parallels to the efforts for both the Revolutionary War and that of 1812. Lincoln did profess a need to keep the number of Union troops high in order to repel the Confederates, though he wanted to keep the blood of the many lost on the battlefield from staining his hands. While at the helm during America’s most important military conflict, Lincoln was not a military president, even if historians will label him as one of the ‘war’ variety.

The review would be remiss without discussing at least a few other aspects of Lincoln’s life that did not fit easily into the aforementioned themes. Those readers who have read Volume One or at least perused my review, will remember that Mary Todd Lincoln was one of the oddest individuals of the time, albeit she was married to a man who could never be called ‘mainstream’. Burlingame’s mention of Mary is sporadic, but concentrated when she does grace the pages of the biography. Both early and later in this volume, Madam Lincoln was involved in a campaign to pad White House expenses to cover her exorbitant personal purchases, which President Lincoln did not condone whatsoever. She also tried to make a name for herself by operating a kickback scheme whereby she would take monies for lobbying her husband to appoint certain men to positions within the purview of presidential decision-making. This scandalous and scoundrel behaviour only goes to exemplify the horrid woman Mary Todd Lincoln may have been. It was only the death of Willie Lincoln that helped personify this woman, whose agony over the loss of her son paralleled that of her husband and could be seen as somewhat in line with what any parent might do. Burlingame does not make mention of her for large portions of the biography, even after laying the groundwork for a wonderful clash within the White House as her family chose to fight for the Confederates. The other item that comes up (and is an extension of the previous volume) is Lincoln’s extensive use of parables. Burlingame offers many vignettes in which Lincoln uses these parables to explore events in his life, developing them at the drop of a (stovepipe?) hat and yet always on point. Always succinct and sometimes lewd, Lincoln could offer a ‘teachable moment’ to anyone who needed it and would always leave his audiences shaking their heads, but better understanding his rationale. Burlingame does a masterful job in highlighting these within the biography and showing just how versatile Lincoln could be.

Burlingame has expended so much time in putting this biography together that it bears mentioning the attention to detail and wonderful narrative that act as pillars for this piece. Both volumes offer such a wonderful portrait and give the reader a better understanding of Lincoln and his life, shorted by an assassin’s bullet. Even in death, Lincoln’s greatness lives on, so much so that Burlingame posits that the true greatness of the 16th President will not be properly felt for a few centuries more, as time ferments his decisions against the backdrop of the civil and racial unrest that infiltrated the republic. What makes the biography even stronger is how seamlessly the volumes seem to fit together. There is so much information on offer that Burlingame was forced to split the pieces, though the end of one chapter flows so easily into the next, even as the volumes bridge. The narrative is so captivating that the long chapters are not daunting in the least, supported by scores of academic references and peppered with direct quotations from those who interacted with Honest Abe. Burlingame should be praised for his dedication to the significant effort he has put in to developing this stellar political biography. I have not been treated to such a detailed account of a presidential figure, complete with so many minor facts and vignettes, in years. Pairing both volumes will prove to be a feat that only the most dedicated of political biography readers will undertake, if only because of the crippling pain (either in holding the tome, electronically flipping pages, or spending hours with earbuds lodged in the canal) sure to ensue. That said, it is well worth any agony, as its pay-off is an impressive final product. Lincoln’s place beside Washington and FDR as one of the three greatest presidents of all-time, at least according to many historians, seems not to be displaced after reading this. Perhaps other readers will have new and insightful ideas to share, which I welcome. 

Kudos proves to be too diluted a statement to offer the praise I have for you, Mr. Burlingame. You have taken some of the darkest days of America’s history and injected such passion and controversy. It is that which makes a wonderful biography, where contrasting views can flourish. 

The 7th Canon, by Robert Dugoni

Eight stars

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

Stepping away from his two successful series, Dugoni released this standalone novel that mixes the detail of a legal drama with the excitement of a crime thriller to create something captivating. Taking the reader back to 1987, Degoni explores the rough Tenderloin District of San Francisco, where Father Thomas Martin is tending to the duties of the boys shelter he runs. Father Martin comes upon the body of a young man, new to the shelter and with an unknown past. Before he can call for help, the police raid the shelter and Martin has been arrested for murder. The Archdiocese turns to the small firm it has trusted for years, staffed with a gritty lawyer, Lou Giantelli and his young associate, Peter Donley. With little criminal experience and only in his third year of practice, Donley is still cutting his teeth on the legal maneuvers required for greatness and remains indebted to Uncle Lou, who never doubted him. When a medical emergency puts Lou out of commission, Donley must take up the reins and begins defending Father Martin. However, something seems off, as the District Attorney and his team are pushing for a plea deal, though they have a history of never pleading out first-degree murder charges. As Donley learns the legal ropes, his client, vilified by media outlets, is tossed to the wolves by the prison authorities. Refusing to take any deal, Father Martin directs Donley to not only push to exclude a handful of damning evidence, but also to find the real killer, which is the only hope of exonerating him. Donley digs deeper with the help of the firm’s private investigator and uncovers a deep secret that connects the DA’s office with a dirty cop, though much is speculation and conjecture. Risking his life as he plods on, Donley not only seeks to redeem his client but also to wrestle with the demons from his own past. Sometimes even the Hand of God cannot save an innocent lamb from the slaughter, as Donley is apt to learn. Dugoni pulls readers into this wonderful novel and does not ease up on the action until the final page has been turned.

While the novel is crafted along the lines of being a one-off, its character development and backstories are significant and well-balanced. The reader is able not only to form a connection to Peter Donley and Father Martin, but also the destructive DA and rogue detective who will stop at nothing to get their way. Readers learn more as the story progresses, though there is something to be said about the wonderful flashbacks into Donley’s past that reveal a very dark time in his youth. I have come to notice that Dugoni enjoys setting his novels in the past, sometimes a year or two earlier, though this one takes readers back to 1987, when the law was fought with precedents found in bound tomes and not at the click of webpage. While the technological issue does not rear its head too much, it seems the pure approach to legal thrillers, when media were print and film rather than the 24 hour news cycle and criminals were not instantly alerted to a manhunt for them, makes for a stronger story and adds an element of dramatic effect. Additionally, Dugoni tackles a few social issues within the story, one of which relates directly to the novel’s title. The 7th Canon is that codified assurance that an attorney will do all he or she can to represent their client, stopping at nothing within the parameters of the law. This is the impetus that Donley uses when faced with a client who is potentially a child murderer and pedophile. It spurns him on to do all in his power to offer a thorough defence. Secondly, the Roman Catholic Church, which has been the punching bag and butt of many jokes for their dirty priests, receives much maligned coverage for a small population. Dugoni clarifies that it is only this drop in the proverbial bucket that sully the name of the Church entirely. These two pillars, combined with a strong narrative and wonderful dialogue create a brilliant piece worthy of reading by anyone with a strong aversion to the law and justice. One might find a third social issue, which arises out of the locale chosen for the novel, at a time when alternative lifestyles were flourishing and San Francisco remained on the cusp of leading the country towards acceptance. This does come up, both within the narrative and as a political issue in the late 1980s. Without the stuffy and drawn-out trial to weigh good versus evil, Dugoni uses the reader’s gut to act as a jury while pushing Donley into the middle of a race for truth and justice, not always synonymous. Even though David Sloane and Tracy Crosswhite both had significant time to hash out their issues and make an indelible mark on the minds of Dugnoni fans, Peter Donley does so effectively in this single book and for that much praise is due the author.

Kudos, Mr. Dugoni for another addictive piece of writing. I am eager to read more of your work and hope that you are able to keep coming up with fresh ideas.

Game of Death, by David Hosp

Eight stars

Tapping into areas some may consider taboo, Hosp pens a one-off that will keep readers squirming. While living in a Boston suburb, Nick Caldwell has found his niche working for NextLife, a company that offers the complete online smorgasbord for any social media addict. Buried within the site is Lifescenes, something that not only differentiates it from its competitors, but also allows users to shed their inhibitions. In LifeScenes, users can enter a virtual reality and live out their every fantasy, no matter its construct. As avatars roam freely at the whim of each user, Nick heads up the ‘GhostWalking’ aspect of LifeScenes, a group of people who invisibly penetrate into these fantasies as they play out to determine what tweaks might make the system run more smoothly or what new technologies might be integrated to better the personal experience. While working one night, he trips upon a user who is involved in a bondage scenario which pushes past the simple aspect of control and into the domain of murder. He cannot shake the scene before him, even though it is fictionalised. When one of his employees, Yvette, reports a similar experience on a GhostWalk, they compare notes and realise it is the same user, De Sade. When a murder parallels the fantasy Yvette witnessed, down to the fact that the murdered woman bears a striking resemblance to the killed avatar, she and Nick take notice. Approaching the authorities, Nick tries to sell the case, but without being able to penetrate the strong encryption on NextLife, there is little than can be done. When another woman is murdered, Boston Police make an interesting connection. Things get even more interesting as Nick joins the investigation and is threatened unless he backs off. Yvette works her back channels and may have found a way to piece together some of De Sade’s fantasies to a company computer. As a suspect emerges, another murder derails all the work that’s been done, but it is a matter of time before more bondage killings occur. However, when dealing with virtual reality, nothing is quite as it seems and the case takes an ominous twist. Hosp offers readers a thrilling look into the darker aspects of personal fantasies that only a 21st century Marquis de Sade could love. A must-read for those who need something to keep them up (reading) well into the night.

As with many of his previous novels, David Hosp pulls readers in with a great set of characters that interact effectively and a backdrop in Boston that never fails to impress. Nick’s backstory alone offers up much for the reader, as though his lifelong association with Charlestown should be the subject of a collection of stories all their own. However, within Nick’s development lies two areas of the novel on which Hosp pontificates, if only a in subtle way. First, sadomasochistic behaviour has a long history and is not something to be shunned or hidden away in the darkest parts of the human psyche, for its balance of control and domination appears in all aspects of life. Hosp explores this through a brief glimpse into the life of the Marquis de Sade, as well as some of the descriptors used to bring some of the LifeScenes into vivid reality, as well as offering a developed character who leads a somewhat placid life outside the domain. Secondly, virtual reality, fictitious as it may seem on the surface, has a way of pulling the individual into it and creating a reality that is, perhaps, more natural for some than the life they live. Mixing the two allows those who harbour secret fantasies about domination to play them out in the privacy of their own home while still enjoying the thrill. Hosp utilises these premises to fuel this book, though he injects a wonderful crime thriller to bind it all together. The end result is a darker but still highly entertaining novel that captivates the reader. There is so much to enjoy and to be disturbed about within the story, should the reader wish to interpret things in that way. Hosp goes so far as to use climactic moments (pardon the pun) to spin anti-climax in the story. Brilliant use of his research and written in such a way that the reader can almost feel themselves within the story, a literary virtual reality if you will. 

Kudos, Mr. Hosp for another great novel. You impress me in new ways each time I sit down to read your work.

Judgment Cometh (And That Right Soon) [Joe Dillard #8], by Scott Pratt

Eight stars

Pratt returns with another of his beloved Joe Dillard legal dramas, which never ceases to pull the reader into a wonderful story of crime, mystery, and a little harrowing adventure. Tennessee is in an uproar as three of its judges have gone missing in the past few weeks. While out late one, David Craig is pulled over for suspicion of driving under the influence. Things get much worse for Craig when the arresting officer chooses to look inside the bed of his truck and opens two coolers, both of which contain body parts. The victim is identified as a Tennessee Supreme Court judge and though Craig is highly inebriated, the interrogations begin back at the station with a county sheriff whose legal prowess matches his passion to protect and serve. Joe Dillard is called and comes to represent Craig on this matter, seeing gaping holes from the start and lies piling up by the authorities. While there is no denying that Craig had the body in his possession, he explains that he was forced to watch the dismemberment and have the pieces left in his freezer. While Dillard presses for answers, Craig refuses to give up a name. Armed with constitutional violations up the wazoo, Dillard argues and has the entire set of charges dismissed when a cocky sheriff seeks to flex his puny muscle. However, a killer remains on the loose and while Craig reveals the next in the chain of command, he cowers in fear that he might be next. Working with a personal friend, who happens to be an esteemed member of the county police community, Dillard begins following leads to discover who might be behind the murders from around the state, as well as a strong motive. Meanwhile, Dillard struggles to handle more bad news in his family when his wife is diagnosed with more cancer, this time seemingly terminal. Added grief hits the family, but Dillard does all he can to remain level. Will the killings stop long enough for someone to be caught, or will Dillard be forced to see his own client die for what he knows? Pratt keeps the story moving along nicely in this wonderful addition to the Dillard series.

While he is independently published, Pratt’s work ranks up there with some of the best and brightest in the genre. His no-nonsense approach to writing keeps the reader curious and does not bemoan useless character development to pad the chapters. Succinct, but also offering a needed balance between the main plot and areas that allow characters to shine, Pratt knows how to spin a tale and shies away from nothing. The cancer cloud looms large and does play a significant role in the story, pulling series readers into the struggle in hopes of feeling for the family in their time of need. While a cock-sure lawyer is nothing new to this type of writing, Pratt has something that allows the slightly corny nature of it all come across as permissible under the circumstances. Any reader who wants a quick but highly entertaining read need look no further than Scott Pratt and his Joe Dillard collection.

Kudos, Mr. Pratt for another wonderful novel. Keep the books coming and you will have a fan in me!

Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume 1, by Michael Burlingame

Nine stars

By choosing one of, arguably, the three most important US presidents, Burlingame seeks to offer up a thorough and all-encompassing exploration into the life of a man whose important supersedes his profile on the penny. There is so much to explore in the life of Abraham Lincoln that Burlingame must divide the biography into two volumes, each a monstrosity that surpasses 1400 pages. This first volume explores the life of Honest Abe from his birth in 1809 through to his departure for the White House in 1861. Chock full of stories and anecdotes, the patient and attentive reader will discover three themes Burlingame presents to describe his subject. Abraham Lincoln comes across as extremely generous to those deserving his aid, grounded in his personal beliefs, and inherently political. Any reader who is able to set aside the time to absorb this book will leave not only wanting more, but also find new and exciting aspects about the 16th President of the United States. A stellar piece of biographic material not to be missed by any with a passion to learn.

Abraham Lincoln’s generous nature is one of Burlingame’s repeated themes throughout this volume. Lincoln saw past the greed that permeated his childhood home, showing graciousness and gratitude through his formative years. Burlingame mentions Lincoln’s scholastic years, thinking nothing of offering insight and assistance wherever it might prove beneficial. The kind sentimentality continued when Lincoln entered the workforce, including time as a postal clerk, storekeeper, and legal mind once he passed the Illinois Bar. Burlingame expands his narrative significantly around Lawyer Lincoln (not to be confused with the legal character modern crime author Michael Connelly developed) and discusses not only cases the man fought, but also the courtroom drama that ensued. Lincoln would help anyone who sought him out and could pay his fees, which seemed moderate for the time. As Lincoln became more political, his views towards helping the less fortunate are not lost on the attentive reader. Burlingame posits that this generosity, cultivated his entire life, was not only Lincoln’s desire to help the ‘little man’, but that there was a strong believe in the future president that slavery was horrid and those who were treated as chattel must shed themselves of their shackles, both literally and figuratively. While not a professed strong believer in Christianity (even though he read and memorised biblical passages in his youth), Lincoln could turn the other cheek from those who sought to bring him down and offered insightful ways to have them better understand him. A man who would give the shirt off his own back and the last morsel of food he had, Lincoln’s generous nature appears throughout the biography. 

While Lincoln did want to open his mind and prove a helpful individual, he did hold certain truths to be his own and from which he would never stray. Burlingame offers key examples throughout this tome, beginning with young Abraham’s sense that reading was the key to knowledge. In an era when point-and-click research was impossible, the only way to open one’s mind was through reading and absorbing that which came from the written page or the spoken word. Lincoln ostracised himself, preferring a book to attending social gatherings or interacting with the fairer sex. As Burlingame elucidates throughout, Lincoln felt reading and comprehending opposing views would pave the way to much success. This viewpoint continued when he was called to the Bar without having formally studied under any lawyer, but read the eminent texts repeatedly. Lincoln’s firm beliefs from here led him into the crazy world of politics, where having a stance can both differentiate a man from his opponents, but also pigeonhole him with the electorate. That Lincoln developed some of his strongest truths from reading Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence explains much and is repeated throughout the biography. Lincoln pulled from the Declaration a set of passionate views surrounding equality, shaped by his upbringing and life experiences, but also a sense of fairness to all men, extending this definition to those of all skin colours, which might have been vague when penned and delivered to the British decades earlier. Burlingame allows the reader to soak up Lincoln’s personal beliefs through numerous anecdotes and tales of the man’s countless interactions with others, though does not make the future president seem aloof or condescending when holding such strong views. There is no way for the reader to miss Burlingame’s repeated mention of Lincoln’s sentiments about slavery, something to which even the most simplistic history text makes reference. This core belief proves not only a theme through the biography, but also pushed Lincoln through his most exciting years as a member of the Whig and Republican parties, both as an office holder and policy advocate. A passionate man with a quiver full of personal ideals, Lincoln defended them adamantly and would not stray, no matter the adversary before him. 

To have a passion for politics is one thing, but to be able to transform those sentiments into becoming the vessel for change is something altogether rarer. Lincoln’s path to becoming the 16th President of the United States in 1861 was not a clear path in which he rose to become a preeminent statesman through a series of political positions, each one more demanding than the last. While Lincoln did hold office in Illinois and served a single term in the US House of Representatives, a great deal of his political success came from behind the podium where he used his masterful abilities to pull individuals over to his side or to sway large sections of an audience. While Lincoln did have a number of men who shaped his aspirations, specifically fellow Kentuckian, Senator Henry Clay, he stood alone in his pathway and chose to forge new and unexplored ground in his beliefs and the means by which he presented them. While Lincoln’s political aspirations came by aligning himself with many, his greatest successes came in opposition to Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. By this time, both men called the state home, allowing Lincoln and Douglas to have numerous clashes over the years, predominantly around the issue of slavery. Both men were able to score key victories, though the scorecard remains vague in both camps. Lincoln espoused his strong beliefs against slave holding and Douglas held firm in relation to the class system within America, where whites held supremacy over all others. These two men had their respective camps through many political campaigns and ran against one another in the 1858 senatorial election in Illinois. It is worth noting for the political astute reader, while direct elections of senators did not come until 1913 under the 17th Amendment, Lincoln and Douglas debated, seeking to sway the electorate to choose individuals for the state legislature, who would then cast votes for the state’s US senator. As Burlingame elucidates, the ’58 contest was one for the ages and saw Douglas defeat Lincoln after a collection of gerrymandered districts failed to properly proportion votes into state seats. Burlingame offers detailed and insightful views throughout the biography into the various events that included Lincoln’s passionate addresses, politicking, and seeking to sway large portions of the electorate. Supporters and detractors alike would flock to hear Lincoln speak, even if they could not stand behind the rhetoric presented. Lincoln’s apparent meteoric rise to fame came from these well-documented clashes with Douglas, which received not only statewide but national (and sometimes) international press. Slavery was surely a hot button issue in the United States and Lincoln’s strong views earned him much support amongst Republicans, which led to the surprising candidacy coming out of the 1860 Republican National Convention, where Lincoln encountered another political foe, William H. Seward of New York. Seward hailed from the powerful state and Lincoln had to use all his political aplomb to ensure he could keep Seward in line on Election Day. Burlingame illustrates this struggle, as well as the renewed clashes with Stephen A. Douglas in the General Election. Two mainstream party candidates vying for the White House from the same state is a feat rarely, if ever, seen in a presidential election. Lincoln political rise to power was less a direct path than one that zigged when needed and zagged to remain firmly out of the clutches of the Democrats. However, even after the November battle, Lincoln could see that trouble awaited him as southern states began passing resolutions to leave the Union. Burlingame uses the final two chapters to instil a sense of panic with the President-elect, not only as states drew lines in the sand, but to choose a Cabinet that might keep a country together that was in the midst of tearing itself apart. Lincoln’s passion for all things political is seen throughout, though he may have been naive as to the minefield into which he walked when assuming the role of Commander-in-Chief.

One cannot complete the review of this tome without discussing a few other aspects that did not necessarily fit neatly into the themes above. While many politicians would have not only a strong political base but also a supportive household, Burlingame shows that Lincoln’s home life was far from ideal. While she likely did have some positive traits, Mary Todd Lincoln comes across not only as a complete control freak, but also as a woman well beneath what Abraham deserved. Her abusive nature, directed towards their children and the future president both, come out in much of Burlingame’s narrative dealing with Lincoln’s family. How Lincoln remained with such a horrid woman baffles me, though surely he was no peach with whom to live. Burlingame does describe how Lincoln would spend as much time away from the house as possible and that his correspondence with his wife while out on the road was minimal at best. Not that political spouses need be vapid, but Mary Todd Lincoln seems to take things to the opposite extreme. In addition Mrs. Lincoln’s abusive sentiments, Burlingame is able to capture the strength of the pushback against black equality at the time. While students of history may know that the South was strongly opposed to ending slavery, the extent to the complete degradation and abuse dished out to the black population stunned even me. I have read and seen much related to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but it surely paled as compared to the poisonous rhetoric that was being presented in newspapers and during stump speeches by well-respected politicians. Whether Burlingame sought to highlight the extensive racist and imbecilic views presented is not known, though one must weigh this against the mainline views of the times. Surely there has been much progress made in 150 years, though the knowledgeable reader will understand that there is a long way yet to go. These are but two additional areas that deserved some mention amongst scores of others that will pique the reader’s interested while making their way through the biography.

So much passion and attention to detail went into this volume that one can only hope the second instalment is as powerful. Surely there is to be a minute account of Lincoln’s Civil War presidency, as the second volume covers a much short time period, 1861-65. If it is anywhere as powerful as this tome, the reader is in for a treat beyond measure. The narrative is woven together so seamlessly that the long chapters seem to fly by, which are supported with many references and direct quotations from those who lived with or reported on Abraham Lincoln. Burlingame is on his game in putting together such a detailed piece of biographical work and should be praised for his dedication to the cause. I do not think I have read such a detailed biography since examining the life of the other US president who sought to quell relations with blacks, LBJ. The detail, the anecdotes, the varied means of presenting Lincoln’s character. All of these help to formulate a story of Abraham Lincoln that shows the numerous aspects of the 16th President of the United States. I remained in a state of constant shock as the narrative peeled back some of the lesser known facts about the man and his personal creed. How blessed I am to have found and devoured such a wonderful book, which still has a second volume to complete the tale of this superb political figure. I am eager to sink my teeth into it and learn about the minutiae of America’s darker days as Burlingame continues to make his case that Lincoln’s importance to America places him amongst the top three presidents of all time.

Kudos seems too small a praise to offer you, Mr. Burlingame. I am sure to praise this book for years to come and recommend it to anyone who wishes to see how a stellar biography ought to have been written.  

Dead Heat: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Lee Stone

Seven stars

To commemorate the Rio Games, James Patterson and Lee Stone present this sports-themed BookShot that pushes police work to its limits as the Olympics forge onwards. Detective Rafael Carvalho is just over two weeks shy of retirement and looking for the easiest path into a life of relaxation. When a call wakes him in the early morning hours, it is anything but social. Carvalho is summoned to work by his partner, Vitoria Paz, in a case that requires not only his expertise, but an under the radar approach as the world is watching. An Australian athlete has gone missing from the Olympic Village hours before the Opening Ceremonies of the Rio Olympics. When Carvalho and Paz arrive to investigate, they work with few leads and even fewer ideas as to where Tim Gilmore might have gone. While attending the Ceremonies later that day, Gilmore appears with his delegation, though something is off. It is only when he charges the VIP section of the stadium that Carvalho must take things into his own hands, which has tragic results for Gilmore and places the aging detective in the most precarious of positions. From hereon in, Carvalho and Paz begin a thorough investigation until another athlete goes missing, still unsure of Gilmore’s motive. As the investigation progresses, more athletes are pulled into the investigation, their lives sacrificed for reasons as yet unclear. What might be causing this erratic behaviour and how does an unlisted mobile number found amongst the personal effects of two athletes tie it all together? Patterson and Stone present some high-impact writing that puts both Private novels surrounding the Olympics to shame. A great read between watching your favourite events in the summer of 2016.

In their second collaborative BookShots work, Patterson and Stone present another winner. Utilising a protagonist that Patterson knows well, the much-invested detective, the story clips along with a decent cross-section of characters. Using the Rio Games as a backdrop is not only useful, but essential to the story’s plot, though the grandeur of the Games does not overshadow the police work embedded in each chapter. The story is fresh, even if Olympic-based stories are not a first for Patterson, to the point that it does not come across as hokey or stale too quickly. The narrative remains crisp and the reader is not left dreading the time invested. Most importantly, the reader is able to enjoy this short thriller in a few hours while not missing a beat of the action from around Rio. Stone brings out the best in Patterson, or perhaps Patterson allows Stone to shine, and this is one author whose work should be sought out by curious readers outside of the BookShot experiment. 

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Stone for another successful sports-themed BookShot. I think this is a great partnership and hope more BookShots are in the works for you two, or perhaps a full-length novel. There is much promise here!

Portraits of the Dead, by John Nicholl

Eight stars

Returning with another psychological thriller, John Nicholl stuns readers with this novel, whose content and dramatic build-up offer something for everyone. Emma Jones is a quiet and down to earth university student whose assault and kidnapping goes off without a hitch for a masked intruder. In a haze, Emma can barely piece together the events that see her locked in a soundproof room, her captor relishing the power he has over her as she cowers in the corner. Forced to degrade herself and offer false platitudes to a man who demands complete respect, Emma can only hope that this nightmare will end before too long. She soon discovers that she is the sixth such captive, the other five having met their untimely demise at the hands of this sicko. Detective Inspector Gareth Gravel is asked to investigate Emma’s disappearance when her parents refuse to believe she has simply gone off the grid. Skeptical but determined to follow his superiors, Gravel completes a preliminary investigation by interviewing some of those who knew Emma best. Calling upon Detective Sergeant Clive Rankin to assist, Gravel begins to unravel the last hours of Emma’s life on the outside, though he cannot help but wonder if this is just teenage rebellion. When a body dump is discovered just outside of a Welsh town, Gravel and Rankin become convinced Emma’s disappearance is more than a game; certainly not a simple kidnapping. All the women whose decomposing bodies are found have similar characteristics to Emma, though her body is not among those scattered in the woods. Gravel tasks Rankin to begin probing around, hoping that Emma can be saved before it is too late. Strategic canvassing leads Rankin to the home of an elderly woman who offers what she feels is a potentially useful lead, though her age and memory are a little spotty. Following up on this, their best lead, Rankin and Gravel work as the killer ups the ante and pushes Emma to her limits. As panic sets in, the authorities inch closer in their investigation though remain clueless as to the perpetrator. Weighing the advantages to keeping Emma with him against the need to destroy all evidence before he is found out, the killer must make a choice that could seal Emma’s fate forever. Gravel and Rankin may have the backing of the Welsh authorities, but some killers can elude even the most determined detectives. Nicholl offers a captivating story whose action resonates long after the final sentence completes this chilling tale.

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Nicholl’s previous novels, I was not disappointed with his latest offering. Nicholl is able to use his characters not only to tell a story, but their individual characteristics help pull the reader deeper into the narrative and offer wonderful contrasts throughout. Set in Wales, the story takes on a much different setting than the rough and tumble streets of New York, Washington, London, or even Oslo. This setting and the attention to detail that Nicholl brings to the story offered a unique experience for me, which sets it apart from a number of the books in the genre I have read to date. Even though the killer’s identity was revealed halfway through, this did not detract from the story, as the ultimate game of cat and mouse ensued. The reader might have tried pushing Gravel and Rankin in one direction or yelled as the omnipotent narrative offered all the clues to solve the case, but this only added to the complexity of the novel. When all is said and done, the final half dozen chapters pull the story into a whirlwind of action and emotion as Nicholl seeks to offer twists and turns that enrich the story’s dark aspects. Brilliantly executed and throughly entertaining, Nicholl uses some of the key aspects of his previous two novels while building this standalone novel to capture a whole new collection of fans.

Kudos, Mr. Nicholl for tapping into the darkest sides of the psychological thriller genre while also pushing the limits in order to get your point across. This is sure to be a great success and should pave the way for more writing of a similar vein. 

Hide and Seek (DCI Helen Grace #6), by M.J. Arlidge

Eight stars

After leaving readers hanging at the end of the previous novel, Arlidge offers some answers in his latest thriller. Set weeks after the events of Little Boy Blue, Helen Grace must acclimate to life behind bars in Holloway Prison, the same institution in which her sister spent years for murder. Grace professes her innocence to anyone who will listen, though the evidence is strong to convict her as a serial killer. During a routine bed-check, Grace’s cell neighbour is found dead, her lips and eyes sewn shut and orifices plugged with an unknown substance. Grace is the presumed culprit, but without any evidence, all anyone can do it keep an eye on high-profile prisoner. Making the best of her time, Grace is drawn into a loose clique, a collection of ladies who seek to help one another out during their daily tasks. They find themselves butting heads with a more sinister group who to marginalise Grace for sending many of the inmates to Hollowy. Left to fend for herself on a daily basis, Grace trying to poke around and solve the murder of her neighbour, eliciting the assistance of a pliable guard. Working with piecemeal information, Grace behinds to put together some potential leads, following them as best she can. Meanwhile, on the outside, DS Charlie Brooks is the only one from Grace’s team still advocating on her behalf. Sure the murderer is still on the loose and has a close connection to Grace, Brooks must work off the books and in complete defiance of her superiors. Using antics that would have pleased her former DCI, Brooks follows a paper trail until she comes face to face with the murderer. While Holloway continues to reel with news of the murder, another inmate is found killed, again stitched and stuffed. Signs of sexual activity between the killer and both victims turns eyes away from Grace and onto one of the guards, though the Governor refuse to allow her staff to be pulled into the middle. Grace may not be a part of Major Crimes at present, but her sleuthing skills soon reveal a likely candidate, someone with motive and opportunity. No one will listen to her, leaving a killer on the loose and Grace that much closer to her own legal demise. Can Brooks and Grace convince their respective superiors to take action, or will the body counts rise while everyone plays ostrich a while longer? Arlidge delivers a wonderful novel to keep fans somewhat sated, though any definite resolution is far from certain.

While this novel did not have the same impact as some of the previous five, there are rational explanations. Helen Grace is away from the rest of her team, working solo and without the resources to which she is accustomed. While there is a serial killer on the loose, with a victim pool that is much larger and contained, the suspect list is significantly smaller in this microcosm. Additionally, it seems only DS Brooks is following up on the leads related to the killer on the outside, keeping the ‘team’ from working as a cohesive unit. All of these factors limit the ability for any successful and explosive novel to develop. However, working with what tools are on hand, Arlidge delivers a wonderfully paced novel that keeps the reader involved from the outset. More a cat-and-mouse game on the outside and a confined whodunit inside Holloway, the two plots work in tandem, coming to a climax around the same time. Arlidge successfully navigates through this with a cast of characters reminiscent of Orange is the New Black: UK Version (if such a show were to exist). There is much to be said of this novel, which taunts the reader, begging them to wait as Helen Grace counts down her final days before trial.

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge for this wonderful novel that kept me hooked until the very end. You are a master at your craft and ought to be praised for it. 

No Way Back (DCI Helen Grace #5.5), by M.J. Arlidge

Nine stars

In this poignant short story, Arlidge offers an interesting look at events from decades ago. Jodie Haines has been through much in her young life. Placed in her third group home by the age of sixteen, she is alone and has nowhere to turn. Her sister is serving time for murdering her parents, who were complicit in years of abuse towards their children. As she tries to connect with her fellow housemates, Jodie is shunned and left to suffer, until she is befriended by Gemma, a girl whose rough past is something to which Jodie can relate. After a night of drinking and drugging in the home’s basement, Jodie wakes suddenly to an assault in progress on her person, the owner of the group home facilitating access to the local scumbags. When Gemma makes a shocking revelation to Jodie, they try to get help for the girls in the house. However, actions are taken and Gemma soon disappears, presumably turning to a life on the streets. When Jodie finds evidence that disputes this, she escapes, but is too cowardly to substantiate her report to the authorities. After a second girl brings news to Jodie, there is no standing around idly. Again, this girl goes missing, but Jodie sleuths her way into following and learns what is going on. She holds onto this information, hoping that she will be able to reveal all in time. When she becomes a target again, Jodie chooses to take the law into her own hands. However, with a record for being less than honest and her family history, will anyone believe her outlandish story? Arlidge offers a powerful look into a main character from his extremely successful series, filling in many of the gaps left in the previous five novels.

This short story is not only extremely well-written, but it also gives the reader much insight into the life of Jodie, read: Helen Grace. While Grace’s backstory has not been one of extreme mystery, there are aspects that have been left to linger, particularly how she got her name and became interested in police work. Arlidge develops the early Helen Grace story in these pages, as well as illustrating her resilience in the face of extreme adversity. The attentive reader can also see the strong parallels between Jodie’s ‘imprisonment’ in the group home and the situation in which Helen Grace finds herself at present. This substantiates the timely release of this short story, allowing the reader to mentally prepare for the horrors that Grace is suffering, likely a partial repeat of this third (and final) teenage placement in a group home. There is little to dispute, even from the outset, that Helen Grace has long been a strong woman. However, this short story supports her true character and that helping others has always been a part of her. A quick read, but chock full of details essential to further the understanding for the series reader.

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge for this wonderful story that answers so much while sating series fans as they await news of Helen Grace’s demise.

The Guardian, by David Hosp

Eight stars

At a time when Al Qaeda and the Taliban were still buzzwords in the region, David Hosp penned this thriller piece that centres around an ancient relic and its importance to the Afghan people. The ‘Heart of Afghanistan’ is said to date as far back as the time of Mohammed and has been kept safe in the country for many centuries. Having only been revealed publicly three times, the Heart guides its holder to great prominence over the Afghan people and sanctions their destiny. During extensive looting and pillaging in the aftermath of the War in Afghanistan, the Heart is shuttled out of the region. Intercepted inadvertently by an American soldier, Charles Phalen, a number of groups are seeking its return. When Phalen returns to Boston, he reconnects with his sister, Cianna, who was herself serving in the region before a dust-up sent her back stateside. Revealing to her what he has in his possession, the Phalens begin trying to plan their next step, which includes selling this most unique item. When they are visited by suspended CIA operative Jack Saunders, the three seek to keep the Heart from landing in the wrong hands. An encrypted intercept shows that the Taliban are on to Charles and have sent a team to take back the Heart, with the Agency also trying to track it down for their own purposes. Charles is captured and tortured, revealing the location of the Heart, after a horrible encounter with a blood-thirsty man. Cianna and Saunders continue their mission, remaining a step ahead of those chasing them, only to learn that the Heart is more than it seems. Deception and bravery are key to success, though this relic means much to the Taliban, who will kill for its return. Cianna and Saunders connect with one person they feel can be trusted, until they, too, fall victim to the wiles of the ruthless Taliban operatives. While goodness and honesty should prevail, trouble is, time is running out and there are fewer safe options from which to choose. Hosp delivers a politically-rich drama that offers some insight into the Afghan situation, while also painting a somewhat bleak picture of the current path to peace.

With all his novels centred around Boston, Hosp is forced to push the limits if he wants to include his story to fit in New England. He does so wonderfully as he offers a curious and highly intriguing backstory of his two protagonists, Cianna Phelan and Jack Saunders. Both receive much of the narrative time as Hosp paints their journeys to the present, dotted with struggle on both sides of the law. The plot does have a cookie-cutter nature to it: missing relic in the hands of an innocent person, chased by the evildoers, must save it before it lands in the bad people’s grasp. That said, the narrative pushes the story along nicely and Hosp’s attention to detail really does make things all the more interesting. His somewhat veiled diatribes about the American involvement in the region can get a little thick, but it serves its purpose to sell the impetus both sides have to ensure the Heart falls into the proper hands. While this is surely a one-off novel, having seen Hosp’s previous work, I am certain to read another and I encourage readers to give this and his other novels a try. The action alone keeps them highly interesting and forces readers to teeter on the edge of their seat.

Kudos, Mr. Hosp for this poignant novel. You are able to boil things down nicely while keeping a high degree of action in the telling of this story.