Moral Defense (Samantha Brinkman #2), by Marcia Clark

Eight stars

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

In her latest thriller, Clark brings Samantha Brinkman back for more captivating drama and legal wrangling. Discovering her father and brother murdered and mother hanging on by a thread, Cassie Sonnenberg is at the centre of a media frenzy. Why was she spared and could the killer come back for her to finish things off? Playing the proactive approach and knowing that Cassie will need legal representation, Samantha Brinkman has the courts appoint her Cassie’s lawyer. While she is cognizant that her client has been through much over the past few weeks, Brinkman is keen to get the larger picture of the entire happenings, mainly to protect Cassie from future loopholes. Brinkman engages her team–office manager, Michelle, and investigator, Alex– to help develop Cassie’s story. Adopted by the Sonnenbergs at a young age, Cassie has been able to fit nicely within the unit. However, Cassie admitted to eventually becoming the sexual plaything to both her brother and father, which fuelled not only a sense of vulnerability, but also a simmering rage. Once the police are able to disprove Cassie’s witness statement on the night of the murder and stumble upon some damning evidence, she is placed into custody, forcing Brinkman to turn the representation into a full-fledged criminal defence. Brinkman brings Alex on board to flesh-out the abuse allegations and they seek to build up a solid defence based on this information, while trying to keep the practice’s other cases from going stale. Alex discovers that key people in Cassie’s life seem not to have been aware of some abuse claims, or recite the facts in a scripted manner when interviewed. When a key piece of evidence falls into place, an alternate set of facts comes into play and a suspect with more motive to kill the Sonnenbergs emerges. Even with this new potential killer, trouble comes when Cassie will not cooperate, the only hurdle to being able to get her off the hook. As Samantha Brinkman contorts herself in legal and personal ways she could not have thought possible, the story becomes more complicated, pitting Cassie against a set of facts that leaves her completely vulnerable and on trial for murder. Clark’s legal background and strong writing ability make this another must-read in her new legal series.

Having followed Clark through her previous series, I was unsure how well I would adjust to Samantha Brinkman. My uncertainty was quickly quashed when I read the opening novel in this new series, chock-full of character development and backstories that kept the reader hooked from the early chapters. This follow-up is leaps and bounds ahead of even that story, so much so that I could not help but devour it in a few concentrated sittings. Not only has Clark used her strong protagonist in the form of Samantha Brinkman, but by bringing Michelle and Alex back in their capacities as strong supporting characters, the flow of the novel is stronger, picking up where the first novel ended. With a deeply personal story that is strengthened by a crisp narrative, Clark allows the reader not only to see how she can get to the heart of the manner, but also tap into strong emotions on the part of Brinkman. This creates a drive In the narrative and helps push the story along in a credible fashion. The novel also paces itself nicely as there are numerous cases (read: storylines) that develop throughout, forcing Clark not only to shine the spotlight on one and give the others passing mention. Each case develops and finds some resolution, though there are some delectable bits that keep the reader wondering what else Clark might have in store for future novels. With her legal background and setting the novels in and around the Greater Los Angeles area, Clark is able to keep things realistic and sustain the momentum that is essential for this type of novel, which relies on pulling the reader in and not letting go. Clark has effectively kept readers sated and curious simultaneously, while keeping her narrative as realistic as possible. There might not be any courtroom scenes that leave the reader gasping, but there is a significant amount of sleuthing and tense exchanges, which only thicken the plot. A wonderful piece of writing that has me hooked and seeking more, as soon as Clark can place Samantha Brinkman into another legal thriller.

Kudos, Madam Clark for writing at such a high caliber. You have succeeded in winning many fans with your realistic approach. I can only wonder what directions you see Brinkman going in the next few years.

Wolf Lake (David Gurney #5), by John Verdon

EIght stars

John Verdon is back for another well-grounded and deeply psychological thriller that will keep readers up well into the night, gripping pillow and covers alike. Tired and ready for a break, former NYPD Detective David Gurney and his wife, Madeleine, are preparing to head out for some solitude in snowy, rural Vermont. Days before they are to leave, they receive a somewhat unwanted visitor, Jane Hammond, who seeks Gurney’s help to clear her brother’s name. Dr. Robert Hammond is a hypnotherapist whose name has been associated with a number of dramatic suicides over the past few months, now the latest fodder for media outlets and a number of police departments throughout the country. These suicide victims sought the assistance of Dr. Hammond to stop smoking, but soon after their intense session, each complained of severe nightmares, identical in nature. These nightmares proved so troubling that the men were found with their wrists slit, soon thereafter. Each encounter took place at an exclusive lodge off Wolf Lake, where Hammond had been living while under contract with the lodge. Hesitantly, David and Madeleine agree to visit Wolf Lake on their way up to Vermont, if only to learn a little more and perhaps meet with Dr. Hammond. When they arrive, the Gurneys are met by some of the local unsavoury folk, who add a little spook to the local legends and keep them on their toes. Gurney does what he does best, turning over some rocks and asking poignant questions, but succeeds in irritating the State police, who want him to resume his retired status and leave the policing to those with active credentials. The deeper Gurney digs, the more the mysteries pile up, as all the victims have a connection from their youth at a nearby camp for boys. Additionally, Madeleine has some of her own revelations about Wolf Lake from her past, things that stun Gurney. Could Dr. Hammond actually have implanted these suicidal thoughts into the minds of his patients, as well as vivid nightmares? Is there legal precedent to try someone who offered hypnotic suggestion of an act and is such a suggestion akin to accessory to murder? Gurney is certain there is something more going on and that Dr. Hammond is in someone’s crosshairs. Like the wolf, this individual is prepared to stalk its prey in the shadows, pouncing only when least expected. Verdon offers up another stellar piece of writing that is nothing short of brilliant in its execution. 

Verdon has created yet another winner with this novel that pulls David Gurney away from retired life and into the thick of things. While no one could know what he had in mind, the expectations were surely high as his past work proved amazing. Verdon is able to use a strong protagonist in Gurney, whose style is neither brash nor neutral, while still offering new and tantalising layers to lure the reader a little deeper. Some of the revelations, as they relate to Madeleine keep the reader stunned while also demanding more information. The intricate plot is held together by significant backstories on key characters, as well as constant action that forces the reader outside their comfort zone. Verdon knows no limits with his narrative abilities, as he pulls the unsuspecting reader into the story and then refuses to let them out. Once hooked, the reader must learn more and turns to Gurney to ask the necessary questions at just the right moment. Just when the reader might think that there is nothing else Verdon could do with Gurney, more comes to the surface, heightening the demand for ‘just one more book’. How Gurney has Jessica Fletcher Syndrome, always in the vicinity of a crime that begs his attention, surely baffles all but the mastermind, John Verdon. As always, yet another wonderful piece of work that will keep bookclubs and water coolers buzzing for the foreseeable future.

Kudos, Mr. Verdon for this brilliant work. I could not stop myself from plunging deep into the story, your characters, and the nuanced traps you lay for the unsuspecting reader throughout.

Combustion, by Martin J. Smith

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Martin J. Smith, and Diversion Books for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

In his gripping new crime thriller, Martin J. Smith shows readers how versatile he can be, especially when he turns up the heat! Ron Starke is a longtime resident of Los Colmas, just outside the LA environs. He’s idolised his father for as long as he can remember, climbing through the ranks and securing one of two detective spots on the Los Colmas PD. After weeks of handling the missing persons case of Paul Dwyer, a body turns up in some water out by a new residential development. After the forensics proves it to be Dwyer’s body, Starke must turn the investigation into one with a homicide focus. With a new Chief of Police, Donna Kerrigan, riding him, Starke must do everything by the book in order to curry her favour, though she appears to have other plans. After approaching the widow, Shelby Dwyer, Starke must try to determine who might have had a motive to kill her husband. Shelby reveals a different side to Paul from the man everyone knew; one who was prone to violence, binge drinking, and chasing down any woman of his choosing. As Starke continues the investigation, the wildfires rage on the horizon, with an evacuation notice potentially days away. Working quickly, Starke learns that Shelby sought to trade in her computer the day after her husband went missing, but has no solid reason for doing so. Her less than casual follow-ups after the body is found leads Starke to wonder if there might be something more than mere technological curiosity on her mind. With a number of people coming forward with less than stellar stories about Paul Dwyer, Starke has many leads he must chase down before swooping in to make an arrest. When fire breaches the city limits, Starke has yet to find the killer, but Shelby has a secret, one that could blow the entire case wide open. Smith crafts this story so well that dedicated readers will blaze through it to discover what lies in the closing chapters.

This is my first experience with Smith and his writing, but it will definitely not be my last. The character development is crisp and offers readers a wonderful look into the lives of many, while not bogging the story down at any point. Ron Starke’s detective role is evident, but his back story, which includes a youthful romance with the widow, is neither lost on the reader or labelled as trivial. It weaves its way into the plot and offers a powerful impetus to judge the neutrality and professionalism that Starke can exhibit during the homicide investigation. Other characters work well in conjunction with Starke, including Chief Kerrigan, whose oil and water contrast throughout the story keeps Starke on his toes. A strong narrative coupled with short chapters helps push the story forward and keeps the reader wanting a little more to solve the case on their own. Smith knows all the key building blocks to a successful novel and incorporates them with ease as he places the setting amidst a developing wildfire. These elements can only offer the reader the highest quality action and suspense with Smith’s latest novel. Highly recommended to anyone who has a hankering for a top tier crime thriller with a pace that does not wane.

Kudos, Mr. Smith for this great piece of writing. You have found a new fan and I hope to devour the rest of your work as soon as I can locate it.

Lake of Slaves (The Lion and the Leopard Trilogy #2), by Brian Duncan

Eight stars

Returning for the second book of his African trilogy, Brian Duncan resumes educating the reader about a significantly contentious period on the African continent. Set years before Duncan’s first novel, the story introduces the reader to Alan Spaight who has returned from serving in the British Army and seeks a new adventure in the uncharted areas of Africa. Spaight arrives near Portuguese East Africa in the late 1880s, hoping to work for the African Lakes Company, which has been doing some good work in the region as it tries to quell the slave trade. Meeting a family of fellow Scots, he travels up the river with them, learning a little more about the region of Africa that struggles to invent itself, surrounded by European imperialists and marauding tribes that use Lake Nyasa as a ‘Lake of Slaves’. A group of slavers lurks in the shadows, half-African and half-Arab, after centuries of intermingling. Plucking the strongest and most able individuals, they are taken into custody and used to further the Arab trade routes, as well as remove Christian influence in the region. Duncan splits the first half of the book between Spaight’s hard work with the African Lakes Company and a narrative about a slave abduction. This latter plot development introduces readers to Goodwill and Kawa, two young men who witness the evils of the Yao tribe, who seek to transport them up the Lake of Slaves where they will be used for their youth and strength. Shackled and forced to endure the most heart-wrenching of horrors, Goodwill and Kawa realise they may have to succumb any chance of freedom again. When Goodwill and Kawa are able to escape during a storm, they must slowly make their way to freedom, ever-watchful of the potential of being captured again. Meanwhile, Spaight tires of having to use his military abilities to quell the slavers. After taking Goodwill under his wing, Spaight seeks the quieter life on a coffee plantation, where he might be able to farm in relative peace. However, as he tries to tackle the coffee business, he finds himself in a love triangle, where the wife of the local surgeon throws herself at him while the clinic’s nurse pines for Alan on the sidelines. When the drama of a pregnancy thickens the plot, Spaight is unsure what to do, so as not to topple all that he has sought to build over the last number of years. When asked to help rid the region of slavers once and for all, Spaight chooses to do the honourable thing, though he is unsure if he will live to see things through back on the plantation. Much drama awaits Spaight, both on the battlefield and back home, where nothing is left to chance. Filled with adventure with actual history as a backdrop, Duncan crafts a wonderful second novel in the trilogy, which leaves readers pining for the final instalment.

Duncan’s trilogy offers readers an interesting look into some of the lesser known (or ignored) developments in the region, particularly during the 19th century. In this second book, the theme of slavery is central, which is sure to offer some less than peaceful descriptions as the characters develop throughout the story. Alan Spaight is an interesting man, whose military past offers some curiosity for the reader. Like his cousin, Martin Russell (who played a prominent role in the first novel), Spaight arrives in Africa knowing little but expecting to ensconce himself in the region’s culture and politics. Duncan again pushes women in the path of his protagonist in order to add some drama to an already emotionally-filled novel, which only enriches the character development on all sides. The use of the Goodwill narrative offers the reader a look into the horrid side of slavery, including punitive actions taken by those who are captured, which seems an essential part of the overall story, as it pushes that first-person view of the treatment of those who were captured and sent into a life of slavery. Duncan instils much drama into the narrative, which flows effortlessly with short chapters, filled with action. There is the obvious aspect of addressing the societal outlook on slavery, though Duncan does not seek to inculcate the reader with information, choosing instead to present the historical approach in hopes of providing a better understanding. Most readers were likely unaware of the development of East Africa and how those territories run by Portugal, Germany, and Britain were all subject to these occurrences, as well as some of the brutal treatment of slaves by non-Europeans at the time. For that, Duncan should be applauded and revered for his dedication. While they can be read independently, both novels pair up nicely and offer a wonderful education for the curious reader, especially those with little knowledge of Africa. I place myself in both camps.

Kudos, Mr. Duncan for a masterful novel that kept me curious about where you plan on taking the reader for the final instalment. Do write and publish soon, as I promote the first two books in the trilogy.

End of Watch (Bill Hodges Trilogy #3), by Stephen King

Eight stars

As the Bill Hodges trilogy comes to an end, Stephen King fans lament the conclusion of something that has taken on a mind of its own, while being pleased with the calibre of the final novel. The reader gathers the shards of literary glass King left with the end of the previous book, as Bill Hodges is called to the scene of an apparent murder-suicide, a favour by his former partner. What brings Hodges and his partner, Holly Gibney, rushing to the house is that one of the two bodies belongs to that of Martine Stover, severely injured by a man dubbed the Mercedes Killer back in 2009. Left a quadriplegic after the car ran into her, Martine lived with her mother, who seemingly could not take all the pressure after seven years. Hodges can remember the day of that horrific killing spree, one that led Brady Hartsfield to attempt another horrible at the following year at a boy band concert. Now, Hartsfield is in the hospital with a severe brain injury and resting in a coma, though Hodges cannot help but wonder if there is more going on that the hospital staff will admit. Unbeknownst to anyone, Hartsfield’s neurologist, Dr. Felix Babineau, has been giving his patient injection of an unapproved drug while running his own experiments. Outwardly there is nothing apparently going on, but Hartsfield seems to have honed some telegenic skills, those that he can use to his advantage. As the story progresses, someone close to Hodges is involved in an accident that could have been suicidal in nature, only to learn that a handheld console, a Zap-It, apparently lulled the potential victim into throwing herself in front of a car. A similar Zap-It was found at the scene of the murder-suicide, alongside a letter describing a particular game found on the console. Hodges and Holly dig a little deeper and learn that there are ties between these consoles and victims of both events attributed to Hartsfield, but he remains in a coma and therefore could not be responsible. When approaching the authorities, Hodges is left in the dark and reminded of his retired state, only angering the former detective. While battling these mysteries, Hodges must also come to terms with a medical diagnosis sure to slow him down; one that he would rather shelve until after the investigation. As Hartsfield remains in the hospital, he seems to be able to use these telekinetic powers to have others do his bidding as he continues to haunt those he was unable to kill. As suicidal messages flood into the brains of many young people, Hodges must find a way to end this before many people clock out for their final End of Watch. How Hartsfield continues to play puppeteer from a hospital bed and the havoc that develops is revealed throughout King’s novel, though ne’er in a clear and precise manner. A brilliantly crafted novel that takes many turns as King helps the reader bid adieu to Hodges and the rest of his colourful ensemble.

Since discovering the greatness that is Stephen King, I have been amazed at the intricacy of his writing and the varied styles in which it is presented. Once the King of Horror (no pun intended), he has been able to morph away from the blood and gore and more into more of a psychological mystery that keeps some of his tried and tested ideas fresh. King uses detail to his advantages, particularly as he develops his main characters, tossing in minutiae in order to flesh out their normalcy, but also offering scores of other characters whose appearance sometimes does not last longer than a page. While many authors would be chastised for this, King’s use of these minor characters always has a purpose and therefore is to be applauded. While keeping the stories closer to home, the New England feel of the settings works well with the development of the story, allowing the small-town approach to work wonders as the characters utilise what is on offer to allow the narrative to grow. King is not one to regularly write multi-volume stories like this, which has forced him to keep the momentum up and attention to detail as a priority. The story flowed so well and the narrative remained synchronized that any reader who chose to read all three novels back to back would likely not notice too much of a disturbance. While dealing with some paranormal activities and placing a mystery within the bounds of the novel, King is also able to address the social issue of suicide, particularly that by teens, and uses this novel as a soapbox of sorts, crossing some subtlety rather than the inculcation of his points of view. This works well and keeps the reader attuned to some of the issues that are poignant, while also seeing how easy it can be to sway someone with the power of suggestion. While I could go on and on about King and the nuances he places in his writing, I will leave it to the reader to pull much from these pages, while seeking not to spoil too much. A fabulous piece of work that ends an entertaining series. If only all authors dedicated as much detail as King, readers would be in for a smorgasbord of superior novels, at least in my opinion.

Kudos Mr. King on another wonderful piece. I’ll not look at those pesky, mindless gaming apps the same way again, but will surely promote this book to anyone who will listen.

Guilty Minds (Nick Heller #3), by Joseph Finder

Eight stars

Bringing Nick Heller back for a third thriller, Joseph Finder pulls out all the stops and offers a wonderful story with just enough mystery to keep the reader hooked. When Heller is summoned to meet with a high-powered attorney under veil of secrecy, he cannot guess what might be going on. Gideon Parnell is a legend in the legal world, having made a name for himself amongst the Washington elite, but also spent his youth marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. and pushing the envelop. Parnell seeks to retain Heller’s services, but won’t divulge anything until he commits. As a matter of habit, Heller will not take the bait until he meets with the actual client, forcing an impasse between the two men. After much banter and a non-disclosure agreement, Heller agrees to head to Washington to meet with the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, who is being accused of sleeping with an escort on numerous occasions. A sleazy online rag is about to publish the story, offering 48 hours before they post it. While the Chief Justice has a strong alibi, he refuses to let it become public knowledge, for it relates to a medical condition. Heller must dig a little deeper, uncovering that many of the accusations do not hold up to basic fact-checking and that the escort has been hired as part of a large fabrication and paid handsomely by a mysterious group of businessmen. Before he can approach Mandy Seeger, the journalist who is penning this story, the article appears online early and the 24 hour news cycle begins. Acting quickly, Heller presents some concrete facts he has uncovered, forcing a retraction. The website’s reputation is ruined and the journalist is sent packing. Case closed, as least as far as the Chief Justice and Parnell are concerned. With residual curiosity and the momentum of the investigation, Heller wants to know more about who might have put the escort up to this and greased the wheels for this erroneous story. Trying to protect her, Heller hides the escort away and seeks to get to the bottom of the entire scheme, only to return to the hotel and find her body in the tub, victim of an apparent suicide. Heller does not buy it and and reaches out to Seeger for some help, along with a rookie homicide cop who has some questions of his own. Working together,Heller and Seeger dig a little deeper and realise that there are people in positions of power who want to use political backers to bring down the Chief Justice, an everyday sport in Washington. They soon learn of a security firm that will go above and beyond to protect its clients, scrubbing out any issue rather than reacting to breaches. Heller finds himself up against a serious threat and in the crosshairs of a rogue cop, but will not stand down until he gets all the answers, even if it ends up killing him. Finder offers a wonderful thriller that gets better the further the plot advances. A treat for series fans and general thrill seekers alike.

Finder has mastered the art of the thriller through his years of writing and numerous novels. I am constantly impressed when offered the chance to explore Finder’s work and this novel was no exception. Nick Heller has been well developed and his character fits perfectly into this story, quirks and all. The plot flourishes and takes quick turns, forcing the reader to remain attentive as the action stops for nobody. There is little idle time as the narrative takes Heller on his most daring adventure yet. While none of it is unique within the genre, its fresh approach keeps readers curious. Finder also uses a variety of great characters, developing those who play some role in the larger plot, but does not stuff chapters full of trivial names on which the reader will trip. Finder reveals little as he drops literary breadcrumbs towards possible future alliances, should Nick Heller live to see a fourth novel, which forces the reader to ponder. Full of fast-paced storytelling and a plot that mixes politics with nefarious criminals, Finder has a wonderful novel for readers to enjoy without cutting any corners.

Kudos, Mr. Finder for this wonderful novel. You always have a way to lure readers into your narratives so effortlessly.

Haematemesis: How One Man Overcame a Fear of Things Medical and Learned to Navigate His Way Around Hospital [sic], by Henry G. Sheppard

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to they author for providing me with a copy of this book, as he seeks an honest review. 

While serious disease is no laughing matter, Henry Sheppard seeks to inject some humour into his trials and tribulations as a patient suffering from leukaemia a second time. After significant time in remission, Sheppard finds himself again invaded with cancer and must face another battle, one with which he is familiar. While the experience itself is not ‘fun’, Sheppard seeks to take a lighter approach, using his past knowledge to infuse some humour, where he can as he offers a narrative of the ordeal for the receptive reader. From an oncologist who will not buy his excuse that chemotherapy is not for him because it is uncomfortable to a botched biopsy appointment to determine the inevitable leukaemia diagnosis through to the dread of treatment thereafter, Sheppard offers the reader an insight into his battle with this sinister disease. Capturing some of the truly daunting aspects of cancer treatment, Sheppard seeks to lead the reader through the rocky adventure as smoothly as possible, while not removing some of the less heartwarming moments. Leaving the door open to the final result of the treatment forces the reader to guess or hope for a good outcome. Anyone who has dealt with cancer will know that it is not only an unwelcome but also a lingering guest, one that leaves many to ponder changing the locks and adding black out curtains. A decent read to deflect from the horrors of cancer and leave the reader chuckling or at least shaking their head.

With a personal connection to cancer, I was not sure how I wanted to approach reading this. Knowing that I was doing the author a favour, I forged ahead, but rarely saw ‘cancer’ and ‘funny’ in the same sentence. However, as I began, I was able to see that Sheppard sought not to deny the negative aspects of cancer and its treatment, but to distract from the negative side, as a photographer would with a rubber duck towards a stubborn toddler. Laughter is a medicine that can only be injected if accepted, unlike many other medicaments that will help the patient, though Sheppard’s dry wit makes it hard not to see at least something humerous in the entire process. By being able to laugh at the horrors or fecal deposits or the fear of being lodged inside a CT scanner because of blubber excesses, the reader can see that this is a way to exit reality or at least take things from another perspective. Sheppard uses a number of interesting characters throughout his tale, though in some cases the non-fiction nature of the piece shines through, as no one could make up these sorts of people. Between that and the relatively fast-pace nature of the process, Sheppard is able to offer a microcosm of the war in a lighthearted and digestible fashion. I did find myself chuckling at times, sure that these moments would elicit a completely different sentiment if I were on the other end of the procedure. Short enough and crafted with enough medical references as to offer the reader a well-grounded look into cancer diagnosis and treatment, this piece can be synthesised in just over an hour or two without trouble.

Well done, Mr. Sheppard, as I can see you want to educate as well as entertain. I hope cancer patients and their families find solace in seeing that there is something on the other side of the storm clouds about which to laugh. 

Little Boy Blue (Helen Grace #5), by M. J. Arlidge

Nine stars

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

It has all led up to this, in Arlidge’s sensational DI Helen Grace series. Four well-crafted novels, full of psychological intrigue and laced with character backstories, have built-up to this novel, one that pushes Grace into the spotlight and uses all the loose threads of past plots to create a masterpiece. When DI Grace and her team are called to the scene of a murder at an S&M club, no one is sure what to expect. A man is found, bound so tightly that he suffocated, though no one saw anything out of the ordinary. When he is unmasked, Grace’s personal life spins out of control, as the victim is none other than Jake Elder, her former dominator. Grace scrambles to keep a straight face as she vows not to let this dark secret interfere with the investigation or become common knowledge amongst other team members. There is significant infighting within the team as they jockey for spots and positions of power, leaving Grace to keep them in line as she hides her defensiveness. The secrets do not end there, for series readers know all too well about Emilia Garanita, the roving crime reporter who is regularly up in Grace’s craw but also knows the aforementioned deep secret. During the jockeying for power, Garanita leaks this information to a member of the team, which blows the investigation wide open. While Grace has her own misgivings about her personal choices, a second dominator is found murdered, someone with whom Grace had a brief and very poisoned S&M relationship. Grace panics and spills her secret to her superior, who relishes knowing all this, as he has been courting a secret crush on her and uses this to draw ever closer. Remaining a single step ahead of everyone, Grace is summoned to the home of her current and infrequent dominator, who has recently been killed. Someone is targeting her and she may have discovered the link, though she is in the crosshairs of her own team, who seek not only to out her as a social misfit, but a murderer. Will DI Helen Grace be able to outmaneuver her team long enough to catch the killer, or has this house of cards finally come crashing down around her? Arlidge has concocted a novel of such impact at a poignant point in the series that readers will be left shocked and stunned with the cliffhanger presented to them.

I am almost unable to put my thoughts into words as I seek to review this novel. I sped through this series, not out of obligation but because they read so easily. I was pulled in by the crisp style that Arlidge has to offer in his lightning-fast chapters, as well as the varied style in which DI Helen Grace is presented; a superior police detective with a dark side of her own. While some have come out and called Arlidge the new Jo Nesbø, I feel this is both a disservice to both authors, as well as to Helen Grace and Harry Hole. Grace effectively balances her personal life and the need to release her tension in a way that does not interfere with what she leaves at the office. As is mentioned throughout the series, Grace has no family of her own, save an estranged nephew, and can easily find herself at the mercy of her work life. Arlidge seems to have laid the groundwork for this novel in the previous four, from the character backstories to the dramatic revelations made to certain characters and the means by which the team has changed. While still falling into the psychological serial killer genre, this novel is much more personal, from the opening paragraph to the final sentence and Helen Grace is firmly rooted in the spotlight throughout. Series readers will lap it up, but those seeking to test to waters ought not begin their Helen Grace journey here, for numerous reasons. Stunning developments that I still am trying to organise in my head!

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge for knocking me off my feet with this one. How I can have devoured so much in such a short time speaks volumes to your writing abilities and my interest in your work. I cannot wait for both the upcoming short story and full-length novel, which I hope will help me better understand that ending.

The Pretender: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Andrew Bourelle

Eight stars

Working alongside Andrew Bourelle, James Patterson assists in crafting another of his popular BookShots that keep the drama coming as the chapters flow freely. Logan Bishop has a lot in his past he would rather forget. A thief living a life constantly on the edge, he chooses to opt out after a significantly profitable diamond heist. Scamming his partner, Logan goes off the radar in the remote community of Lake Tahoe. While out one day, he encounters Hannah, a perky woman he recognises from the gym, and agrees to join her on a little adventure on the outskirts of town. While out in a water taxi, they come across a drowning girl and Logan is able to save her with some quick thinking. Little does he know, but his companion is Hannah Ryan, reporter for the Lake Tahoe Gazette. Hannah uses her ‘always on duty’ gumption to compose a laudatory story about the rescue adding some photos and cellphone video footage to help with recognition. No longer living a solitary life, Logan panics that his two years in hiding might be blown and awaits his partner’s return to claim the diamonds. After a fallout with Hannah over blowing his cover, Logan tries to pick up the pieces, only to meet Claire, another gym fanatic and hiker. They connect on many levels and Logan is able to relax, while still looking over his shoulder. When Logan’s past collides with his present life, he realises that there is nowhere to hide and his must retrieve the diamonds to save Claire’s life. However, he comes to understand that once the diamonds change hands, there is no reason to keep him around. Fast thinking will have to trump heroics if Logan wants to see another day, or will it? Patterson and Bourelle pen this high-energy piece that keeps readers flipping pages until the final sentence.

While not an entirely unique theme in the genre, Patterson and Bourelle make the story work. The short space offered in a BookShot forces the reader to latch on and develop a relationship with characters quickly, which is possible with both Logan and Hannah, though for entirely different reasons. The narrative must also be crisp and keep the reader wanting to push forward, which is accomplished with a mix of first- and third-person description (the former from Logan’s perspective), while keeping the story from losing its momentum as the perspective alters. Even as the characters and narrative prove effective, without a decent plot, the entire project goes nowhere. The authors offer up a decent plot and utilise an introspective theme of who is ‘pretending’ and who shows their real colours. This allows the reader to feel something a little deeper in a story that does have its share of cheesy moments. Patterson and Bourelle keep things fresh and highly entertaining, precisely the recipe for success in a BookShot.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Bourelle for this interesting piece. I look forward to seeing if you will team up again, either with another short piece or a full-length novel.

The Settler (The Lion and the Leopard, #1), by Brian Duncan

Seven stars

In the first book of the trilogy, Brian Duncan takes the reader into an interesting and contentious period on the African continent, showing an impressive ability to use history as a backdrop to support a powerful story. As the novel opens, the year is 1890 and a young Martin Russell has just completed his studies at Oxford. Determined to make the trek to South Africa where he hopes of discovering some of the new mining possibilities, Martin refuses to heed the requests put forth by his family. In preparation for his journey, Martin encounters Perry Davenport, an American who is headed into the Transvaal to detect what mining options there might be, backed by a rich family in Boston. When they head to the Cape, Martin meets a young Helen Bateson, engaged to Lord Robert Onslow,who agrees to fund Martin’s trip into the unchartered African territory. Martin and Helen share a brief spark of romance, though the engagement is a impediment for any suitable progress. While travelling in the bush and up to Rhodesia, Robert and Perry soon abandon the trek, leaving Martin to wrestle with all the territory has to offer, though he is not alone as many British have begun flocking to the region to take advantage of many diamond discoveries. Martin succeeds in securing land in the as yet developed Rhodesia and begins a farming venture, which he offsets by mining for gold on the periphery of his territory. However, by 1893 the Matabele tribes begin rebelling against these intruders. The imperial British and Boers alike fight to stem the tide of these tribal rebellions, though remember their animosity towards one another fondly. When Perry makes a surprise return from time in America, he and Martin fight together and eventually come across a Boer family, the Venters, who take them in during their journey homeward. The two teenage daughters, Louise and Pookie, draw much interest from both Martin and Perry, though their age makes any romantic possibilities less than ideal. While sixteen year-old Louise does seem to express interest, Martin cannot convince himself to reciprocate her desires and Perry ends up stealing her away, no conscience blocking his lustful ideas. Licking his heartbroken wounds, Martin returns to farming while Perry becomes ensconced with the Boer lifestyle. When Helen and Robert return from England to pursue a farming lifestyle in South Africa, Martin’s spark returns, though Helen remains forbidden fruit, though they build a strong friendship built on admiration. Trouble is brewing as the British continue to travel to settle in South Africa but are refused representation in the local government, which leads to a second British-Boer clash, famously referred to the Boer War. Martin agrees to serve under his native Britain, though Perry is happy to serve on the side of his relations and signs up to defend the Boer territories. Martin and Perry have different experiences on either side of the battle, but will cross paths at least once more. Will their friendship supersede battle lines and how will the others fare in this bloody battle that ushered in the 20th century? Duncan does a wonderful job laying the groundwork for this first novel and lures readers in as the African subcontinent’s mysteries are slowly revealed.

I received word of Duncan and his trilogy while working my way through another collection of South Africa-Zimbabwe novels by a popular author. I agreed to take a gander and was pulled into Duncan’s narrative early on, as he develops many wonderful characters, all of whom work on conjunction to weave a strong plot. However, as with any good storyteller, Duncan had to choose the path he wished the story to follow and focussed on Martin Russell’s adventures, as he settled in the new land of Rhodesia. Using a narrative that does progress over periods of time, Duncan is able to skip over some of the mundane daily living that his characters might undertake and highlight key events. The struggles that Martin faces become more complex in time and with more characters flavouring the narrative, though the foundation remains the same, that he seeks a new and independent life in Africa. Peppered with wonderful subplots and historical figures making their own cameos, Duncan is able to push the story to its ultimate climax, the Boer War. The story branches off and a number of the characters in a useful way while offering the reader a detailed look into his military campaign, providing fodder for both sides and their points of view. While the end does leave the reader wondering, the epilogue seeks to tie things up in three to four paragraphs. Alas, the trilogy is more about the region than the characters introduced in this opening novel.

Kudos, Mr. Duncan for a masterful opening novel. I cannot wait to see what other aspects of African history you seek to address in the next two novels.