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.

Killing the Presidents: Presidential Assassinations and Assassination Attempts, by Nicholas Vulich

Six stars

My love of all things historical, especially those of a political nature, drew me to this short book/pamphlet by Nick Vulich. It serves as an overview on American presidential assassinations, as well as attempts that have been made on POTUS. Vulich lays the groundwork for each assassination (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy), both historic and geographic, as well as offering a background on the assassin. Where possible, Vulich also discusses any legal action taken thereafter and sentence rendered by the courts. The latter portion of the piece looks briefly into the attempts made on presidents and how they failed, though this is far less encompassing in its detail. With direct quotes and a few references to eyewitness accounts, Vulich does well to show the reader what happened and the mindset of the person responsible for the act. A decent read for your morning coffee period.

Vulich likely never expected his printed piece to be anything other than a primer, and its superficial detail leads me to feel that is the case. It could be the basis for an explosive book, should each of the five assassinations be drawn out and explored with much historical documentation. It is surely something I would read, as I love lesser-known history that is not rote memorisation from history textbooks. While I noted that Vulich is not in the market to write such a tome, I wonder if any historian would take up the challenge and compile something of this nature. Where things fell short for me came in some of the typographical or grammatical errors, something that, in such a short piece, could easily have been caught by a third or fourth eye. In reading it once, they leapt out at me, which confuses me, as it made it through enough hands to be published (electronically) and pushed out to the public. Such things can sully a well-written piece and I cannot brush them off

Well done, Mr. Vulich for piquing my interest and making me want to read more on the subject. I will have to look around for some of your other work, sure to be equally as interesting.

Chase: A BookShot (Michael Bennett #9.5), by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge

Seven stars

As Michael Bennett seeks a little of the BookShot spotlight, James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge concoct this high-impact thriller to lull series fans temporarily. As the book opens, a mysterious man is being stalked by two others, eyeing him in the corner of a hotel bar. A brief exchange in a bathroom leaves one injured and our man of mystery racing for the roof. A short confrontation ensues and soon a body is flying over the side, only to crash onto the busy New York streets. When Detective Michael Bennett of Major Crimes arrives, everyone knows this is serious. The body could have been tossed, but there is the possibility that someone is trying their hand at a new and exciting way of committing suicide. When the identification comes back, Bennett and all those around him are stunned. The body belongs to none other than Stephen Eardley, who was killed while fighting in Iraq. And yet, Bennett has seen the body and the identification was run three times to be sure. Bennett uses some influence to get an interview at the Pentagon, though he hits a brick wall and is ushered out before he can learn much of anything. A covert message makes its way to him, sending him out to Pennsylvania, where one Paul Haber might have some answers. Bennett travels out to investigate, but is ambushed and almost killed. As he narrowly escapes, he is left to find safety and try to understand how he has become the hunted and if the men aiming their high-powered rifles at him might know more about Eardley than meets the eye. A quick-paced story that will entertain most readers, not only fans of the successful Bennett series.

When I saw that this piece was listed as “9.5”, I made sure to wait until after I read BULLSEYE, though I ought not have worried. There is no connection to the previous full-length novel, nor should anyone with a general curiosity in BookShots feel they need to know the entire Bennett backstory. There is little time for character development, leaving Patterson and Ledwidge to assume the reader will well-versed in the Bennett clan and their home-based adventures. The plot is not unique to the point of being stellar, but the story flows well and keeps the reader hooked, as many BookShots successfully set out to do. With its poignant Bennett sarcasm, the story is able to be a little lighthearted without losing its impact and keeps the reader hooked until the epilogue.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Ledwidge for making this a story worth reading on a Sunday afternoon. Quick read, high impact, well done!

The Front (Winston Garano #2), by Patricia Cornwell

Seven stars

Cornwell’s sequel to her Winston Garano novella series picks up the pace and gives readers a stronger sense of the man while showing more of the author’s abilities. Set a year after the previous story, Garano is again summoned to help Middlesex County DA Monique Lamont in her latest venture. Seeking to reshape her image after the horrific events of a year ago, Lamont dreams up the ‘No Neighborhood Left Behind’ initiative, where police across jurisdictions in Massachusetts can work together to solve cold cases. Garano is told the test case will be one down in Watertown, where a blind woman was sexually assaulted and murdered in 1962. Lamont offers up a contact for Garano down in Watertown, sending him down there to work. Stump is a take-no-prisoners member of the local police force, with an attitude that could cut diamonds, not hampered when she lost her leg in a motorcycle accident. While Garano begins working the case, he learns from Lamont that there may be another angle of great importance to this case; it could be the first crime committed by the Boston Strangler. Garano has no interest in the fame and political advantage this might have and seeks to piece clues together with a less than cooperative Stump. A YouTube video goes viral that paints the DA in a feminine light, forcing her to revamp her image yet again. When Lamont reveals the Strangler angle to the governor, she adds that she’s enlisted the help of Scotland Yard, as the victim was a British national in America for a year. Seeking to garner major headlines, she can see nothing wrong with this media grab, though few around her share the same enthusiasm. The more Garano works with Stump, the more he learns of her connection to Lamont, back when she was a ruthless prosecutor. Events transpired that put things in a whole different light for Garano and he seeks to solve the case to vindicate Stump more than anything. Through hard work and determination, Garano cracks the case wide open, but things take a turn away from the projected theory, which could jeopardise any advantage that Lamont might have thought she’d possess with a closed case. Cornwell invests more time and effort into this piece, which makes it a more cogent and enjoyable story, more in line with her Scarpetta work. Sure to lure the curious reader.

While the Garano novella series may have stumbled out of the block, Cornwell makes up for that with this piece. No only is our protagonist portrayed a more cutthroat manner, butting heads with Lamont at every turn, but we learn a little more about his grandmother, who raised Winston from age seven. A self-declared witch, Garano must steer his grandmother away from her casting of spells and keep her focus on safety as she advances in age. Cornwell also paints DA Lamont into a corner, touching extensively on the brutal rape she suffered in the previous story and building on it, both from the standpoint of image development and her political ambitions. Using the ornery Stump was a brilliant idea and her connection to Lamont solidifies the case more than the actual evidence, which drives the story forward. While the case itself was nothing outstanding, the assembled pieces did provide an ‘aha’ moment for readers, who could see the delicate nature of a criminal thriller before them. Cornwell does well to draw on her experiences while also differentiating these stories from anything Kay Scarpetta. I am curious to see if Winston Garano will return, as he has been shelved for eight years now. His brief appearance on the written page was well-placed, though he does pale to some of Cornwell’s other work.

Kudos, Madam Cornwell for a great novella. You have shown that you can impress, even in a shorter period of time.

Grace Sees Red (Manor House Mysteries #7), by Julie Hyzy

Eight stars

In her latest adventure from Marshfield Manor, Julie Hyzy brings another murder mystery to light and places sleuthing responsibilities in the capable hands of Grace Wheaton. While touring the Manor one morning, Grace receives a call from her assistant, Frances, who is highly distressed and in need of immediate assistance. Once Grace makes her way to the address Frances offered, it is soon discovered to be an assisted living facility. Frances uses her weekends to visit someone at the facility, her ex-husband, Percy, and has been doing so for many years. The surprises do not end there, as Grace discovers that Percy’s neighbour has died and Frances remains a person of interest in his suspicious death. There is no love loss between Frances and Gus, something she is happy to admit to anyone who will listen. However, Grace will not stand idly by and her her friend be dragged through the mud. Once Frances has retained counsel, Grace commences sleuthing, checking stories and trying to determine what might have happened to Gus. Could he have died naturally or taken matters into his own hands, as there is evidence of a possible insulin injection. Local law enforcement are less than keen to have someone poking around, though Grace does her best not to step on any toes. When the victim’s family arrives to handle the situation, Grace sees new avenues that may work in Frances’ favour. While all this is taking place, Grace handles an issue on the home front when her roommates’ winery is suddenly closed by an overzealous building inspector. She tries to quell disaster there by coming up with a plan that might solve everyone’s concerns, but Frances and her situation are not completely solved. When Frances is formally arrested, Grace knows that she cannot wait any longer and pushes her investigation into high-gear, calling in the assistance of anyone who might be able to help. Will Frances finally have to fess-up for her antics to rid herself of an annoying human, or is someone trying to frame her for the death? All is revealed in true Manor fashion in Hyzy’s latest novel, which is as cute as it is entertaining.

I never tire of a good Hyzy novel, for it allows me to shift into neutral, but also keep my wits about me. The stories are usually not very complicated, but they are layered with interesting characters, great bantering dialogue, and just enough mystery to keep me from figuring it all out in the opening chapters. Added to that, Grace Wheaton and her backstory are always developing, which keeps her from getting stale and allows Hyzy to take readers inside her drama-filled life. Much like the other series Hyzy successfully pens, Grace seems to fall into these mysteries as she denies leading the way towards them. Be that as it may, they are always highly entertaining and leave a cliffhanger at the end just tantalizing enough that the reader will curse having to wait another year. 

Kudos, Madam Hyzy for another hit in the series. One can only hope you have many more ideas, for things are far from going stale with Grace and the rest of the Marshfield gang.

At Risk (Winston Garano #1), by Patricia Cornwell

Six stars

Shifting gears, Patricia Cornwell pens a novella that introduces readers to a new character with many unique features. Winston Garano works for the Massachusetts State Police, assigned to liaise closely with one of the most power-hungry women who possesses the title of District Attorney. With her eyes on the Governor’s Mansion, she will stop at nothing to get a leg up, literally. While Garano is studying at the National Forensics Academy, he is summoned back from Knoxville to attend to some pressing business. The DA has decided she wants to toss her hat into the ring for the upcoming gubernatorial race and needs an edge. She’s created a new program she calls At Risk, utilising the up-and-coming technology of DNA analysis and seeks to apply it to an old case that might earn her praise and recognition. Funny enough, this case is a murder down in Tennessee, which will allow Garano to continue his studies while bolstering the DA’s image. Dismissing it, Garano mumbles to himself and prepares to head back south when a violent crime hits close to home and he receives a mysterious phone call about this new case, both of which propel him into action. Working alongside a fellow classmate and current Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent, Garano slowly commences piecing it all together. However, the crime in Massachusetts stinks to high heaven as well, forcing him to spend some time looking into this. What was an attempt to help smaller police forces may be a political battle for Massachusetts Governor and Garano cannot be in the middle of it. Cornwell does well in showing off her new crime minion in this shorter story, pulling readers into the fray with the greatest of ease.

It is said you write what you know, which is how Cornwell created and mastered such a wonderful character in Kay Scarpetta. With Winston Garano, things flow nicely and his backstory is one that is surely intriguing, but even with a hook such as his mixed African America/Italian heritage, he does not hold a candle to the great Scarpetta. I felt as though the story sought to skim the water, a filler, perhaps, between writing assignments, as it does not have the pizzazz for which Cornwell is known. I admit to using this novel to fill a small period of time before I launch myself into a larger project. The development of characters is decent enough and the story flows smoothly, though it seems to drift along in spots, as though there is nothing to hold it together and no impetus to draw the story out into areas not foreseen. I did not feel connected or pulled in to see more about Garano as I might have with other characters. That said, it is not a horrid piece of writing by any stretch of the imagination. I’ll finish things off with the follow-up novella and be able to offer something more cogent at that time.

Kudos, Madam Cornwell for attempting to branch out, though perhaps this is more a means of idling as your next Scarpetta masterpiece came to you.

Bullseye (Michael Bennett #9), by James Patterson

Six stars

Michael Bennett makes his return to the printed page in this thriller that puts him in the crosshairs of a determined assassin who has plans to significantly shift the political balance. When Bennett is called away from his family one weekend morning, he knows something is up. Summoned to work a joint operation, Bennett is soon read in on a piece of intercepted intel that concerns an assassination attempt on POTUS while he is in town to attend the U.N. General Assembly. In a harrowing piece of eye in the sky bravery, Bennett is able to stop the assassin while on a helicopter patrol, but fails to capture them. With a plot to kill POTUS still active, no one is taking any chances and Bennett begins investigating possible leads and suspects. Before long, he learns of a possible husband-wife team who could be involved, though he cannot narrow his scope too much at the present time. Meanwhile, the Bennett household is busy as ever, when they take in the star football player of the high school team on a temporary basis. While the eldest Bennett is busy chasing down an assassin, the boys soon learn that you may be able to take the kid out of the rough neighbourhood, but the neighbourhood remains in the kid. Drug dealers and illicit weapons become shocks they must face, which is more than they can handle, especially with their father working with the NYPD. Back on the streets, rumours abound that the kill plot might have been contracted to a ruthless assassin who plays no sides, choosing to to work for the highest bidder. Furthermore, there could be a Russian angle, one that reaches the highest levels of the Kremlin. In a world almost three decades into a Cold War thaw, frigidity between America and Russia could be building again, with state-sanctioned violence a distinct possibility. Bennett must rush to find the assassin before total chaos, while also determining if Russia is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, which could open a political chasm best not explored. Patterson and Ledwidge create an interesting novel, full of drama, but nowhere near as exciting as Michael Bennett in his prime. 

This is the second novel I have read in an many days that posits an America v. Russia political build-up. While I am not blind to the antics taking place in Moscow, could the blather of ISIS be waning as we return to a new war where former enemies renew their syncopated waltz on the political dance floor? While this may be the case, the interpretation of this is weaker and plays but a passing role in this novel, as Patterson and Ledwidge seek more to show Bennett’s heroic nature than a grasp of political chess play. As always, the Bennetts receive little mention, allowing for no real backstory progression, especially as Michael remains stagnant in his sentiments towards Mary Catherine. However the subplot line does offer some insight into the older children. The plot itself moves at a decent place and allows the reader to get a handle on the situation, though is nothing stellar or gripping to the point of holding the reader’s breath at every turn. As Michael Bennett and his brood approach ten novels, could things be winding down for him, leaving room for new and exciting possibilities, or will Bennet join Cross and Boxer as they catapult into an infinite number of novels, sometimes leaving the reader feeling tepid about their reading experience? Time will tell, but let’s not draw things out too long for the dedicated fan, seeking a decent reader.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Ledwidge for an interesting addition to the series. Nowhere near as captivating as some of the previous work, but not the worst effort, by far. 

Let’s Play Make-Believe: A BookShot, by James Patterson and James O. Born

Seven stars

Back for another BookShot, I enter the world of the Jameses, Patterson and Born, as they seek to entice the readers with this interesting short piece. After being tossed to the curb by her wealthy husband, Christy Moore is looking to inject some excitement into her life. When she meets Martin Hawking, a recent divorcĂ©, the two seem inseparable. Like young lovers, they spend as much time together as possible and become infatuated with one another. A few weeks into this courtship, Martin suggests they play a game of make-believe, taking on roles and situations normally outside their purview. From an expensive dine and dash to temporarily taking possession of an expensive vehicle, Martin and Christy are living on the edge, when they are not partying it up and receiving late night visits from the police. However, the game soon intensifies and both become even bolder with their dares, going so far as to enter the mansion of Christy’s soon-to-be ex. They scout the place out and help themselves to a few items Christy feels entitled to have, no sense of consequences. Thereafter, it is a rollercoaster of emotions that pushes things well past illegal and into highly criminal, where both Christy and Martin are unable (or unwilling?) to play by the rules. How will Christy put a stop to things before they reach the point of no return? Could Martin’s game of make-believe be one where the rules do not apply? A well-crafted piece that speeds by as the reader gets more attached to the story.

I have been a fan of BookShots since they came out and find Patterson has done some of his best work (read: put his name to work authored by others) in these short stories, as he chooses the best of the best. While this piece read like something bordering on female infatuation at times, it did pick up its pace and soon had me wondering how things would end. With a prologue that lays out some fairly significant information, there was no way I was putting this one down until I saw how things came full circle. Patterson and Born develop two interesting characters in Martin and Christy, both spurned by recent marital issues and finding one another like oppositely-charged magnets. However, it was the pace of the story that lulled me into a sense of complacency, only to shock me as I reached the last half dozen, when the story takes a real turn. The ending alone made the story worthwhile and it is this that helps earn my choice to recommend it to anyone who has a spare few hours. Everything falls into place nicely, though there is by no means a happy ending in store.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Born for this piece. I hope to see your teamwork again soon, either in full novel form or another exciting BookShot.

The Devil’s Work, by Mark Edwards

Nine stars

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

In his latest psychological thriller, Mark Edwards pushes things to the limit again while drawing the reader into a world of suspense and horror. After a four year hiatus, Sophie Greenwood is looking to get back to work in the highly competitive world of book publishing. Recently hired by Jackdaw Books, Sophie is living her dream, though it does stir up a little unease. Sophie has dreamed of working for Jackdaw since she was a little girl, but its owner, Franklin Bird, has kept her from living that dream until now. Introduced to her new team, Sophie seeks to acclimate herself to the hustle and bustle of the job while having numerous flashbacks to her early college days and best friend, Jasmine, who happens to be the granddaughter of the aforementioned Mr. Bird. As the days go on, things begin happening in the workplace that leave Sophie extremely vulnerable or off her mark, some of which might be tied back to her assistant, Cassie Said. Sophie has seen Cassie’s schoolgirl innocence change at the drop of a hat, producing a take-no-prisoners woman who will accept no blame for even the smallest foible. After her daughter briefly goes missing during a workplace event, Sophie begins to turn her concerns into outright accusations, sure that Cassie is trying to push her buttons. When Sophie’s husband, Guy, gets caught up in the mess and is found to be interacting with Cassie, home life takes a definite turn towards the frigid, leaving Guy and Sophie at a crossroads. While it could be a number of coincidences, Sophie cannot shake that there is something sinister going on, with her as the central target. While Sophie’s flashbacks continue, the reader sees a parallel in the dramatic update in that storyline with Sophie’s current paranoia. Could someone be trying to get rid of Sophie from her position at Jackdaw? She begins digging around and discovers there may be more going on that meets the eye. However, Sophie learns the hard way that sometimes things are best left alone, unless you’re willing to face the dire consequences. Edwards develops this thriller in such a way that no reader will be able to put it down until all is revealed.

Just as his biographical note states, Mark Edwards is an author of psychological thrillers where innocent people are pulled into extraordinary situations. This novel is by no means an exception to the rule. The reader is slowly pulled deeper into the plot until there is no escape. With a wonderful balance of present and past narratives, the reader views Sophie Greenwood as a well-adjusted student, then mum, who is looking to achieve her dreams. Life progresses peacefully until one event turns everything on its head and Sophie is forced to scramble in order to protect herself. All characters are highly realistic and keep the story flowing nicely, each with their own nuances, if not flesh-out backstory. It is the subtle progression of the plot and the fluid narrative that makes this book great, in true Edwards fashion. The author wants the reader to wonder, to ponder, to remain uncertain as they navigate further along. Edwards hits the reader with drama and action at the most opportune times, when their guard is down. One could almost say the reader is Sophie Greenwood, feeling her pain and understanding her angst. However, there is always that niggling wonder as to whether things are being extrapolated to fit what is easiest for Sophie to explain. By the time the reader reaches the end, everything comes crashing down and there is no doubt, though by then it may be too late for Sophie, and is surely past the point of no return for the reader. Mark Edwards will subsume you, if not invade your every thought. Beware reader, once you start this novel, you’ll never be able to put it down, even if you want to!

Kudos, Mr. Edwards for another stellar piece of work. Be it writing alone or part of a team, you never fail to impress.

Foreign Agent (Scot Harvath #15), by Brad Thor

Seven stars

Thor continues his meteoric rise in the genre with another novel pulled directly from potential headlines. After a brutal bombing that killed a group of American operatives seeking to destroy a pillar of the ISIS organisation, all heads shift back to Washington, demanding answers. How could an operation so important and long in the making be infiltrated and ruined, its key members obliterated? The assassination of a high-ranking Cabinet official is the second attack by ISIS, which increases the ire of all, made worse when it is flaunted all over the Internet. Worried that things will continue to spiral out of control, Scot Harvath is summoned by the White House to complete a reconnaissance mission and complete the kill order, no matter the cost. As he trolls through the ashes of the attacks, he finds himself in Europe, gathering essential intelligence and making new contacts. Meanwhile, the narrative focusses attention on Sacha Baseyev, whose youth was filled with hatred of all things Muslim after an attack on his village. Russian Special Operations have honed this hatred and sent him out to infiltrate ISIS at the highest level. However, in order to fit in, he might have to commit a few atrocities along the way. When Harvath learns that Baseyev is at the centre of the attacks on the Americans, he will stop at nothing to bring him down, as well as the cell of ISIS fighters around him. What begins as intel gathering soon turns into the most covert of missions in the deserts of Syria. No mission has been as dangerous, as covert, or as important as the one Harvath has undertaken. And, with plausible deniability the name of the game, there are no safety nets to protect him. With all this taking place, a keen senator lurks in the shadows, seeking not only to take down the POTUS, but also to uncover just what sort of illegal black ops are going ahead without congressional approval. Thor offers wonderful insights and pushes the envelope as far as he can to rile up the reader, at a time when ISIS teeters on the brink. Highly enjoyable for those with an open mind and a strong heart!

I have always enjoyed a good Brad Thor novel, as he mixes espionage and action with terror and bloodshed. While I have lamented many authors for writing about ISIS to the point of flogging a dead horse, Thor’s character, Scot Harvath, is not only able to spin his adventures so as not to make it a cookie-cutter narrative, but to instil some unique angles. While some may call it preaching (to the choir), I find his political spins not only poignant, but necessary to see the larger picture. It is the curious reader who will rush out to read this and see for themselves, but I can see much being made of these suggestions and look to the next five years, as political holdings in the region are sure to shift. Thor has always worked with a collection of well-developed characters and advances the Scot Harvath backstory seamlessly throughout his writing. The dedicated series reader will notice that while Harvath retains his job, he is always advancing in his personal life, as glacial as that might be. With plots pulled from the headlines, Thor is able to add his own flavour to events, but also to push away from the constant US v. ISIS that floods the airwaves and lesser novels in the genre. I can never be sure where Thor will take the reader, nor how close to peril Harvath will find himself. This might be part of the draw, and surely keeps me keen to queue up for the next instalment.

Kudos, Mr. Thor for this. You are aptly named, for you are a god of your genre and all-powerful when it comes to storytelling. Hammer out another novel for your adoring fans, will ya?!

The Night Stalker (DCI Erika Foster #2), by Robert Bryndza

Eight stars

Robert Bryndza brings DCI Erika Foster back for another thrilling story that will send chills down the reader’s spine. When the body of a prominent doctor is found in his own home, DCI Foster and her team arrive to investigate. Sprawled out naked and with a bag firmly affixed around his head, Dr. Gregory Munro appears to be living a secret life, supported by significant amounts of Flunitrazepam (Rohypnol) in his blood and gay pornography in his bedside table. Could the doctor have a lover who took things too far? As Foster heads up the investigation, she leaves no stone unturned, even if it is sure to offend many. When she hears that she is being considered for a promotion, Foster debates changing her unorthodox style, but cannot justify not being what makes her a decent detective. When a second man is found killed in a similar fashion, forensic evidence opens the possibility that the previous profile may be flawed and that a woman may be responsible. Foster is happy to forge ahead with this, much to the chagrin of her superiors, as female serial killers are extremely rare. All the while, the killer is using an online forum to vent about a life gone awry, one that may offer some insight into how the victims are chosen and how they are killed. With the case ramping up, Foster must come to terms with the two-year anniversary of her husband’s death, something that she thinks about everyday, though she remains numb to some of the nuances. It was not only Mark who died, but the entire team she led into a botched drug raid. Coming out of this inner-exploration, Foster realises the killer has come to visit her and left a calling card, which ups the ante and forces the investigation to move at warp speed. A third murder hits closer to home and Foster is forced to give up her leadership role when she makes a careless mistake, one that she does not feel is of her own doing. In true DCI Erika Foster form, she convinces her team to continue working on the case under the radar, even when they are reassigned. A single lead may blow the case wide open, but Foster will have to defy her superiors and put her promotion in jeopardy in order to bring a killer to justice. For many, it is a tough decision, but Foster is no regular cop! Another stellar piece of thriller fiction will keep the reader talking about this book around the virtual water cooler for a long time to come.

Bryndza offers an explosive follow-up to his highly successful debut novel. The Erika Foster character is still prominent, though her backstory receives little attention, save one chapter. Foster’s struggle with the loss of her husband and previous team is handled effectively, though still leaves the door open for more exploration in a future novel. It is presumed the reader knows DCI Erika Foster and the truffles that have brought her from Manchester. Bryndza successfully builds up his characters, such that the reader cannot help but like (or hate) them and want to know more, which he kindly offers in brief snippets as offshoots to the larger plot. Bryndza uses the narrative to propel the story forward effectively, leading the reader down many paths as the team follows leads and the killer ramps up their crimes. Bryndza shapes the story around the cat and mouse game that ensues, leaving the reader to watch and wonder how things will resolve themselves effectively. Not only that, but Bryndza offers up themes in this novel that pull on the heartstrings of many readers, from child pornography to abuse and even venturing into the world of neglect. These issues seek to offer the reader a chance to ponder what is important and realise just how horrid the world can be. One can only hope that Bryndza has a few more DCI Erika Foster novels in him, though this story ends with a cliffhanger that begs for at least one more, if only to resolve the tension.

Kudos, Mr. Bryndza for this wonderful novel that offers much to the police thriller genre and is sure to entertain the reader.

The Templar Archive (Treasure #2), by James Becker

Six stars

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

James Becker returns with the second novel in this new Templar series. Picking up soon after the previous novel, The Lost Treasure of the Templars, Robin Jessop and David Mallory face numerous questions by the police when they return to Devon. Three bodies discovered at Jessop’s apartment prove to be only the tip of the iceberg, as the duo provides a detailed narrative about the far-fetched adventures tney faced, culminating with a harrowing escape inside cave in northern Cypress. When they are released from custody, Jessop and Mallory resume their analysis of the Templar treasure box, which serves as the next clue in their ongoing adventure. Left to analysing photos of the box, a methodical examination of the symbols etched on the lid sends them to an ancient French cathedral. Meanwhile, the Ordo Praedicatorum, a Dominican Order working under deep secrecy in the heart of Rome, is taking account of their recent mission. They failed to eliminate Jessop and Mallory, who possess many Templar secrets and remain in possession of a highly revealing Templar parchment, whose messages lead the way to numerous treasures. Having stolen the Templar treasure box from the duo, the Order soon realises that it is empty with no riches in sight. After realising the benefit of using Jessop and Mallory, a team is dispatched to monitor the pair’s progress, reporting back to Rome on a regular basis. When Jessop and Mallory crack another portion of the Templar parchment with another cipher code, they rush from a French cathedral to the heart of Switzerland. Reference in the parchment and based on Mallory’s own knowledge, they surmises that the Templar treasure may have less to do with gold and precious stones than land ownership. The Templars were the originators of the world’s modern banking system and devised the early form of mortgages. The ‘treasure’ is more an archive of land titles and deeds, which the Templars have hidden and whose emergence could lay claim to vast portions of Europe. As they interpret the clues and seek to find the Archives, Jessop and Mallory are followed not only by the Order, but a more and more sinister collective whose interest is unknown to the reader, but whose weaponry is second to none. The hunt for the Archives is a slow and arduous process, one that forces Jessop and Mallory to use their skills and patience as they scour Switzerland. However, finding the Archive is only the beginning, as its revelation to the world could have significant ramifications across Europe; one that the Order would use to their benefit. This is a well-devised follow-up novel that keeps the reader guessing, even with the cliffhanger ending that presupposes at least one more novel to solve the final Templar riddle.

Becker has done well with this new series, offering up an interesting collection of characters and varied settings to keep the readers curious and highly entertained. While this second novel did not seek to hash out character backstories, the apparent romantic connection the protagonists share cannot be missed by the attentive reader. This serves as a slightly hokey aspect of the novel, but it does not distract from the larger narrative. While the opening novel did have significant portions of ‘cat and mouse’ chases, this novel steers away from that and focusses more on the thrill of the treasure hunt, rather than shootings from car windows. The two groups following the duo adds an element of thrill, though it is only the Order that supplies a true competitive aspect, as they are in hot pursuit of our duo in the cave systems. One would be remiss not to mention the significant historical portions that Becker includes in this book. Becker has made a name for himself by exploring religious icons, which he is able to do in the early portions of the novel, namely while Jessop and Mallory stand in a French cathedral. However, as the title suggests, the Templars are central to the story and so knowledge of their movements and personal history is essential. Becker serves this up and weaves it into the story in an effective manner, dropping breadcrumbs throughout and using Mallory to educate the reader. It is just enough for the reader to feel as though they have learned something without an information overload. The chapters propel the book forward, though they are not too fast-paced so as to leave the reader sensing things are too unrealistic. That said, the ‘Swiss’ aspect seems to have come to the forefront and ended in a mere 10 pages, an anticlimactic moment perhaps used to push them off the radar and out of future storylines. It was as though Becker needed a second set of villains, but was running out of time and simply ended their story with a lunch-hour plot diversion. It appears there is a trilogy afoot, which will tie things up nicely, though I cannot see this series lasting for too long, as Becker is already showing signs of impatience with his minor characters, as mentioned above. The book is rich in history, thrills, and just enough drama to keep the reader wondering what is coming next, though pales in comparison to Becker’s novels of old.

Kudos, Mr. Becker for a decent novel. I am curious to see what direction you will take the next novel, while keeping the story fresh.