French Kiss (Detective Luc Moncrief #1): A BookShot, by James Patterson and Richard DiLallo

Six stars

Patterson and DiLallo team up again for the first of (at least) a trilogy of BookShots involving Inspector Luc Moncrief. On loan to the NYPD from Paris, Moncrief cut his teeth in the French capital chasing down murderers and uncovering major drug crimes, though has been relegated to some clean-up work in New York. When his partner is killed while working undercover, Moncrief must deliver the news to her family and is then tasked with solving the murder. Katherine Burke, dubbed ‘K. Burke’ by Moncrief, has two years experience as a detective and is paired with him to offer some NYPD insight to this recent transfer. While investigating a high-priced prostitute angle, Moncrief is handed some more devastating news. It appears that this is not a killer seeking to scrub out hookers, but one who has Moncrief in their crosshairs, killing those close to him to offer personal grief and angst. Moncrief convinces his superior that he must return to Paris, where he will likely uncover a vendetta buried in his old case files, bringing Burke along to assist. When they arrive in Paris, Moncrief is able to show Burke a little more about the city and some of the accolades he earned while making Paris a little safer. After Burke is attacked and almost killed, Moncrief uses his French intuition and heads to one of the notorious French prisons to find the killer, or at least the man calling the shots. A tepid piece, though it did flow easily, which is key for any BookShot.

When I heard that there would be a trilogy of these short stories, I was curious, having seen some of Patterson’s past work with DiLallo and the larger BookShots collection. What could have been highly entertaining and adventurous (a la Private) turns slightly melancholy at times, as though Moncrief’s character wants the reader to feel that French laissez-faire attitude. There is a mystery and it does turn out to have ties to Moncrief, though the narrative seems less captivating than I have seen from the authors (or even BookShots) before. There could be some decent character development in the next two stories and some banter within this tale does keep the reader wondering what might transpire, but I did not feel the spark, which is essential in these short stories, where there is little time to meander. The jury’s still out and I will see what is to come in the next instalment, due out during the holiday season, before I decide if Moncrief needs to go into la poubelle!

Decent work, Messrs. Patterson and DiLallo on this BookShot. As I said, I shall reserve judgment until I have seen your next BookShot.

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Bush, by Jean Edward Smith

Nine stars

Smith offers up another refreshing presidential biography, turning his attention to a recent resident of the Oval Office and one who brought much controversy to his two-terms. To paraphrase one of this president’s most ominous comments, readers are either in his corner or against all for which he stood. Either way, Smith presents a thorough view of the man and his time from birth to the wonders of life after the spotlight shifted elsewhere. Smith’s well-rooted biography puts George W. Bush in three camps throughout his life to date: the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. All of these meld together to create a man who sought to use his time as POTUS to leave America (and the world) a lasting impression of his decisions. As can be see in the biography, some are surely indelible and will have adverse effects for a generation at least. These themes can be found within this wonderfully structured biographical piece, full of powerful quotes and supported arguments, the sign of a superior tome. Smith is a stellar biographer and this biography is not only timely, but is surely worth the reader’s time and attention.

No matter how you feel about the man they called Dubya, he was able to show that he had a good side and one that meant well for the larger populace. While he was born into a family with a silver spoon wedged in his mouth, Bush was not free of the foibles that beset men of the generation. Boozing, drugs, and random sexual partners all played a role in his twenties, something that has never been refuted. However, by finding himself and a path on which he wanted to lead his life, Bush changed his lifestyle for the better, putting his wife and family before himself. Smith explores this selfless act and allows Bush to attribute it to finding Jesus, a personal choice that he used for the rest of his public life. While the reader can accept the born-again philosophy or not, it is apparent that there was a “one-eighty turn” after this personal choice, which is chalked up to one of Bush’s great feats in life. Additionally, Bush sought to shape America in his early days as president, pushing forward with the ‘No Child Left Behind’ program, an educational initiative that would ensure children from all walks of life receive adequate and equivalent educational opportunities. Scoffed at by some, Bush’s Compassionate Conservatism tried to accentuate that there were issues with the current system and that children, the building blocks of the future, needed to find themselves on equal footing, no matter their socio-economic background or familial situation. Smith applauds Bush for this and shows how the impetus for this program came not only from his wife, Laura, but also a sense that there needed to be more for America’s children. One could also look at some of Bush’s domestic policies as good or at least decent in that he tried to peel back the tax burden on the everyday American, but also stuck to lowering amounts that this upper classes paid. The hands-off approach falls in line with fiscal conservatism allowed Americans who were out of work to be able to keep that little bit extra in their pockets while trying to get back on their feet. Smith adds some more fodder to this aspect of Bush’s life in the latter portion of the biography, discussing a focus to fight AIDS in Africa, through PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), which did allocate large sums through Congress to help control the distribution of medicines and preventative measures in those countries hit with AIDS and other diseases that offer a high rate of morbidity. One could argue that it offsets some of the more problematic areas of Bush’s presidency, though this ‘Baid-Aid’ solution does not distract from some issues on which I will expound below. While he did have his shortcomings, Bush’s heart was, at least on some occasions, in the right place.
With the good must also come the bad, and Smith does not hold back when discussing these, peppering examples throughout the biography. Perhaps one of the largest issues that weaves itself throughout is that Bush surrounded himself with advisors who bowed to his will, or tried to muzzle the few who publicly aired their discontent. Smith offers up numerous examples where politically savvy individuals, much more in tune with the pulse of Washington, simply stood mute as Bush led America down the path towards highly problematic outcomes, when there was a clear view of the pitfalls ahead. As shall be discussed below, there were a plethora of bad decisions that mushroomed into something horrendous, more because those who could speak out against him did nothing. Bush’s choice to rule with an iron fist or not to seek the advise of his advisors led to horrible decisions and left the country grasping at straws. One key example would be Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, arriving in the summer of 2005, where POTUS waited until after the devastation came and then tried to wrestle control out of the hands of the governors, making himself look like the saviour (pun intended, see below). Bush’s ignorance to things only to have them blow-up later is surely one of the fundamental issues with his presidency and a serious personality flaw that plagued him until he returned to private life. Another issue that Smith presented repeatedly would be Bush’s reliance on his religion to explain how he handles life. Far be it from me to criticise what someone believes or how they practice their faith, but Smith offers up some key examples of Bush’s self-indoctrination that his ‘finding Christ’ left him to be a vessel for God to use in the battle with evil. I kid you not, the man publicly saw himself as God’s agent to fight evil in its many forms, usually from his Oval Office perch. This mentality, while a personal sentiment on how being born-again shaped his outlook, offers nothing if not a jaded view and perhaps one that substantiates that he wanted power and would justify it in any way he possibly could. One final area, related to the previous example would be that while Bush gave up alcohol and drugs in his late thirties, he spent most of his presidency intoxicated on power and his decisions reflected this complete lack of sober-thinking. While the last of the three sections below will exemplify some more concrete examples, Bush would not hand over the reins of power or let anyone talk him out of his views. “You are either with us or against us” seems to have been part of his slobbering drunk mantra, as he turned from being Leader of the Free World to its only Saviour. Again, Smith shows prime examples of Bush paraphrasing passages in the Book of Revelations to explain how he was battling Gog and Magog, wrestling with Evil as God’s Chosen Soldier ahead of Judgement Day. And this was the elected leader of the United States of America, who used events to his favour to guilt, cajole, and bully others within the democratic machine to drink the Kool-Aid (dare I say, Bush though it was the Blood of Christ?) and follow him down this path of half-truths in an alternate reality. If this were the worst that Smith had to offer, I would laugh it off, but we have yet to tackle some of the worst, which is yet to come. Bush made many bad decisions, which cannot be erased by some good aspects elucidated above.
It takes a special type of man to have an ugly side so deeply entrenched that he is oblivious to its existence. I would venture to say that Bush was so out of touch with the world that he allowed his jaded views and completely eccentric spin on evangelical Christianity to turn him into a world tyrant, though he would hide behind the democratic process to justify his decisions. Events of September 11, 2001 shaped America in a way that could not have been foreseen, at least to the layperson. Smith shows how Bush knew of these threats and chose to do nothing before they boiled over (as he did with Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 Economic Meltdown). Bush’s reaction to the events of early September 2001, both immediate and long-term, cemented his complete buffoonery as a man, a politician, and a leader. One could argue, as Smith does, that this was the beginning of Bush’s binging, which led to a state of complete intoxication until January 20, 2009, when he handed over the reins of power to President Obama. Smith argues brilliantly that Bush not only sought retribution while the Twin Towers were still smouldering, but wanted it to be an act that the world would notice. As he did so, he sought the world’s compassion and sympathy for the atrocious act of terror enacted on its citizens. Those who know me well will know how I feel about September 11th, so I will not reiterate it here, but this knee-jerk reaction was only the tip of the stupidity that Bush began thereafter. While waging a war in a country said to be harbouring bin Laden, Bush demanded that his officials find a tie-in that would bring Iraq into the mix. Somehow Saddam Hussein must have been involved or counselled the terrorists. When that did not work, it was the apparent weapons of mass destruction, all to bring down a second regime. Now then, it was not enough to go in and remove those responsible or seek to remove Hussein through diplomatic channels, but Bush tried to create conflicts to make himself look better. Two wars, countless lives lost, and they are still being fought today, all because the man could not grasp the concept of state sovereignty. Besides that, Bush’s ugliness extended into his disregard of international treaties and laws passed through the democratic process laid out in the US Constitution. Bush skirted these rules and promises at will, enacting torture and ill-treatment of individuals because they did not fit within the narrow interpretation that he saw of things like the Geneva Conventions. Deplorable ideas like this drip from page after page of Smith’s work, while Bush sought to push onwards, refusing to allow anyone to contradict him. And for what? To leave the country in two wars and with black marks on its reputation for decades all because he wanted to look like the hero; the Chosen One that God sent to battle with Evil. Thank God for the judicial branch, who hammered home the unconstitutionality of these plans, but being a reactive body, the damage was done and a tyrant was left to develop into something worse.
I would go so far as to equate some of Bush’s tendencies with those of infamous dictators and not see it as a stretch. Hitler, Stalin, Ceausescu, Amin…. all of these men ruled with an iron fist as much as Bush. However, while they sought to attack their own people, Bush looked outward and sought to use his power to oppress many in foreign lands (and I would venture to say he was worse than many imperialists). He used his own political system to fall into line with his ideas, refusing to accept alternatives and pushing scare-tactics into the minds of his legislators to force them to see a jaded perspective. Why did no one stop him? That is the lingering question. Was the attack on America that Tuesday morning in September 2001 so bad that no one dare speak out against it or him? It would appear so, which only sickens me even more. Smith offers up much more than his political dictatorship as he fleshes out this biography, but its stink pervades every vignette that is offered up, each decision that Bush made. On could go so far as to say that he did place Americans in harm’s way, sending tens of thousands of them off to fight in the wars, spending billions of dollars and these two wars rather than earmarking these funds on domestic programs, and pushing a false sense of stability into the minds of the everyday American, which could have helped precipitate the 2008 Financial Meltdown. The man was out of control, hated by the world, and oblivious to how horrid he was. And yet, through his intoxication on power and bully tactics, he used those around him to push his ideas through Congress or vetoed those he did not like. Smith tries to soften the blow at times, but I was pleased to see that I was not the only one who saw how disgusting this man’s actions were and what it did to my Neighbour to the South.
Some will say that they supported Bush because they could not fathom the Democratic Party while others argue they stood behind a man who tried to defend the honour of their country. Others still will say the man did the best he could with what he had. Smith helps support my belief that this was more than a political game, this was an inherent attempt to use the most powerful military and depths of the war chests to do whatever he saw fit. What does a Canadian, like myself, have spouting off an opinion on the leader of another country? What happens in the United States plays a significant role on how things play out in Canada and around the world (perhaps another reason we are watching the 2016 General Election so closely). Bush took America and the world into places that could not be reversed with the swearing-in of a new administration. ISIS has come to prominence in Iraq because of Bush, though the man is twiddling his thumbs down in Crawford, Texas and earning millions on a speaking tour. Deplorable and one can make a strong case that we have a war criminal in our midst. Smith would likely be able to support those claims, and did so in various points of this biography.
There were countless others sections of the biography that have not been explored in this review, but which offer a well-rounded look at Bush and his time in office. Any reader curious enough to take the time and explore them, I would encourage it and ask that they see just how troublesome things were from 2001-09. Smith did his best, though sometimes, one can only dress up a horrible situation in so many ways.
With his powerful writing style that pulls the reader in and delivers vignettes full of detail, Smith presents the reader with an essential biographical piece. One can only hope the length is not a deterrent, or some of the denser topics, though Smith is able to explain things in a succinct and easy to digest manner. If only the man himself were as simple to understand, rather than being a simpleton through and through.

Kudos, Mr. Smith for this stellar piece. I needed a chance to stand on my soapbox and expound some of the vitriolic comments that have always come to mind about this man, though when dealing with a tyrant, sometimes you cannot stand idly by and wait. I look forward to exploring more of your biographies and hope that you have at least one more in you.

Fatal: A Novel, by John Lescroart

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, John Lescroart, and Atria Books for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

Lescroart has made a name for himself, publishing over twenty legal thrillers with his collection of interconnected characters in the San Francisco area. Keeping with the Bay Area in this standalone novel, Lescroart shows readers why he remains a powerful writer no matter the characters he uses. After meeting at a dinner party, there appears to be a strong magnetism between Kate Jameson and Peter Ash. Kate finds herself acting out of her norm and lures him to a local hotel under false pretences. Defying his gut and normal practice, Peter allows himself to be seduced and their dalliance ends up weighing heavily on them both. Peter begins a life of philandering, as if his encounter with Kate has made him forget his wife and twins back home. Kate, too, has started to act odd in the eyes of her husband and children, as though the guilt is eating away at her. Out one day with best friend and SFPD Homicide Inspector Beth Tully, Kate is about to admit her deep secret, when the restaurant in which they are dining is attacked and scores are injured. Six months later, Beth is recovering slowly after being shot during the attack and Kate has made a significant recovery after slipping into a coma. Beth is alerted to the apparent murder of a man whose turned up in the Bay, one Peter Ash. As Beth and her partner begin trying to dig into the life of this man, the secret that seems to have pushed Kate and Peter to become shells of their former selves has begun leaking out, which leaves the list of potential suspects in Ash’s murder mounting. While this case preoccupies her, an act of kindness in another homicide opens up a connection to a distant witness, one that will open social pathways for he. Struggling to find out how she can help, Beth must not lose her momentum on this current homicide. While she remains unaware of Kate’s dalliance, Beth’s investigative memory will soon push her to ask those awkward questions to anyone who may know about Peter Ash and his less than stellar extra-curricular activities. When two others with a tangential connection to Ash die, presumably suicides after they are wracked with guilt, Beth may have found her murderer, which allows her to put the Ash case to rest. However, as Lescroart has taught his readers over the years, nothing is ever cut and dry when it comes to homicide. A wonderful novel that entertains as much as it does impress long-time fans and is sure to lure a new set of fans with ease.

Lescroart has become so synonymous with Dismas Hardy and the collection of other characters that I am not sure if this is a refreshing change or has me pining for more off-colour humour. The story was wonderfully laid out, offering a mystery woven into the plot line that eschews little judgement for the affair. How two people’s lives can change so dramatically and affect so many based on a single decision is surely front and centred throughout the story, though the characters chosen offer such a varied reaction that Lescroart need not worry about his story losing momentum throughout. It clips along with ease and the shift of protagonists is done without so much as an awkward bridging, though the homicide investigation does take front and centre, alongside the personal plight of a brief case Beth handled in the early part of her introduction to the story. Lescroart writes what he knows, at least from a San Francisco point of view, and this affirms the greatness of his story. This novel does take some getting used to (at least for long-time fans), as the other shoe does not drop until late in the game, leaving the reader to guess at suspects and keeping any courtroom drama from anywhere in this story. That said, it is perhaps this difference that keeps readers hooked and goes to show Lescroart’s versatile nature.  

Kudos, Mr. Lescroart on another success. I was so pleased to be able to see a different side to your writing, though I am still pining for more Dismas, Abe, and the rest of the gang.

Missing, by Monty Marsden

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Monty Marsden, and Aria for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

Marsden uses his debut novel to stir up chills in the reader while also developing a gripping murder mystery, unique for some of its characters and twists. After a young girl goes missing on her way to school outside Milan, what begins as a missing persons case for the local police soon turns national. Police Commissioner Sensi agrees to use all the resources that he can spare and Italy watches as news slowly trickles in, but all leads soon dry up. Part of the small Senegalese community, the Demba Family hold out hope that their young Aminata (Ami) will return home safely. Sensi approaches a former colleague who has done work with the police, criminal psychiatrist Mr. Claps, who suffered significantly at the hands of a serial murderer and was almost a victim. Plagued with the after-effects of aphasia due to blood loss, Claps has a jilted means of communication, but his ideas are as sharp as ever. He begins investigating as best he can, liaising with the police as often as possible. When a body emerges, that of Ami, Claps focusses on some of the minutiae, only to discover that this is not the killer’s first victim. A number of young girls have gone missing from African families across Italy. Their bodies have been discovered over the past number of years, though decomposition has made identification problematic and thereby delayed any concrete news to those who wait and pray. All the while, Elisa Cellini is in therapy to help deal with debilitating schizophrenia, which has made her uncommunicative for the past number of years, a period that aligns with her twin sister’s disappearance. Claps draws some strong parallels and determines not only that Denise Cellini may be part of the larger serial killing spree, but that Elisa has many answers locked away inside her. As the killer continues to feel the urge to find more victims and Ami’s father, Elaji will not rest until his daughter’s killer is punished, the story turns from a mystery into a manhunt, which adds to an already dramatic storyline. Can the killer be caught or will young girls be forever in harm’s way? Marsden does a wonderful job of luring the reader into the story and holding their attention until the bitter end. Highly recommended for those who love a crime thriller. 

This is a great debut novel that has been able to cross the threshold as it is translated from its original Italian. Marsden creates an interesting cross-section of characters, all of whom fit together perfectly, though they are varied enough not to be easily forgotten. Of particular note, the characters of Claps and Elaji prove to be unique in their presentation and force the reader to think outside the box as they synthesise the role these two men play in the larger plot. The story itself, a serial murder spree, is not unique, though some of the nuances within the mystery are not common enough that I can pull their use from other novel with ease. I enjoyed how fast-paced things were throughout the story, though there were moments when I wanted to rush Mardsen through his narrative and dialogue to reach the conclusion (out of excitement, not boredom). While the story does take on many scenes and plot lines, if I had to offer a criticism, it would be that the opening part of the novel, and less so later on, the various plots develop in too jagged a fashion. By this I mean that Marsden does not complete a vignette to develop a plot, but chooses to tease with a few paragraphs, moves to another segment, and then comes back, all within the same chapter. To create a better flow and lessen the mental gear shifting that I found myself doing, he ought to have developed a few of those segments into a single vignette (by that I mean the portion of writing between asterisks) and then move on. There are no real cliffhangers within these segments that are lost by following my proposed idea and it will likely keep from irritating the reader too much. That being said, there are time in the latter portion of the book when the momentum builds with these quick changes, especially when events are happening simultaneously. With a debut novel, one can expect the author is still getting a handle on things and the editor is also trying to shape the story without taking away the author’s personal flavoured approach to the delivery. Overall, this is a stunning opening novel and one can hope that Marsden will create more in this vein, as I will surely read them and recommend these sorts of pieces to anyone who will listen.

Kudos, Mr. Marsden for a powerful first thriller. Please take the constructive criticisms and keep writing, as I am sure you will develop a following if your novels flow as easily in languages other than English and Italian.

The Fateful Lightning: A Novel of the Civil War (Civil War, Western Theatre #4), by Jeff Shaara

Eight stars

Shaara’s history-rich tetralogy has finally come to an end with the most exciting novel saved for last. After taking the reader through numerous campaigns in the lesser-known Western Theatre of the American Civil War, Shaara has been able to bring closure to the bloody battles and military chess-play between leaders on both sides. In this novel, the focus shifts away from General Ulysses S. Grant, whose presence has been a key aspect of the previous novels. Instead, Grant has been called to Washington to help oversee the entire Union Army, leaving General William T. Sherman to take control of the Army in the West. Successful in Tennessee, Sherman looks to push further south and make his way down to Georgia, into the far reaches of the Deep South. While marching with his men, Sherman witnesses some of the plantations and settlements abandoned by landowners but still filled with those labelled as ‘slaves’. Seeing some of the remnants of the Confederate attempts to block the way, Sherman must make key decisions for those left behind to hide in their houses or cast a glance at barren fields. Have these people been forced to back the Secessionist Ways or will the Union soldiers be attacked when least they expect it? While Sherman has decided to take any foodstuffs left and torch all houses of Confederate supporters, his men go a little further, pillaging and raping the locals, particularly the recently released slave women. The mentality is that these people ought to be thankful for being freed and anything Unionists want, they ought to have. Shaara forces Sherman to face this, on occasion, though there is little glee in having to come to terms with these ideas and this offers a less than pristine view of the ‘conquering saviours’. Shaara also introduces the reader to Franklin, a former slave who wishes to join the Union cause. A man with gumption and ideals, Franklin chooses to march with the men, though Sherman refuses to offer him the full rights of a Union soldier, at least for the time being. This is a true time of enlightenment, for Sherman and the entire Union cause. They have fought to free the slaves, left themselves bloodied on the battlefield to protect the views of Lincoln. However, when it comes time to offer equality or a parallel mindset, many are still stuck in the pre-War views, that these ‘darkies’ are surely not smart enough to engage with equally, let alone serve alongside other Union soldiers. On the other side of the fight, Generals William Hardee and Joseph Johnston offered up the best possible fight in a war that was slowly slipping away. Shaara insinuates that the Confederates had lost their trust in Braxton Bragg and sought a leader in the area who could repel Sherman and save what territory they called their own. Alas, Sherman’s force and tactical abilities proved too much for Hardee in particular, though Johnston spurred his subordinate on with vigour and determination. The game of cat and mouse soon ended, with Grant squeezing out the final hoorah by forcing Robert E. Lee to lay down his arms in Virginia as Sherman marches through the Carolinas, en route to join with the rest of the Union forces. However, the story does not end there, even if Shaara does not pen its continuation. He insists that there is much yet to do, mending relationships and proverbial fences in a country that was not only lightly cicatrised by differing sentiments. Fundamental thought processes had to be shifted and those who were enemies had to either be accepted back into the fold or banished. President Johnson could not simply call for the incarceration of all Confederates, or accept their mass exodus from American soil. It is this unwritten next chapter (or volume) that will prove to be highly difficult for a country seeking to clean up its mess and return to the world scene. A wonderful final volume of the tetralogy that offers Shaara a chance not only to tie up some loose ends, but keep the reader pining for more.

That Jeff Shaara is a master storyteller is not a debate I wish to have here, as I have made my sentiments clear throughout these four novels. Nor am I willing to dispute that Shaara’s historical fiction writing is superior to much that I have read to date. Shaara presents strong arguments that he admits to coaxing from historical texts, letters, and field journals, all of which breathe life into events that may not have made it into general history texts in secondary schools. While there is limited time to offer his arguments, Shaara does so effectively and from numerous vantage points. As I have said in earlier reviews, Shaara could just as easily allowed his stories to flow from an omnipresent narrator or from the points of view of those leading the charge, but he does not. Shaara seeks to offer both sides their chance to narrate key events, from generals down to civilians. The impact that this war had on the entire populace is not lost and the characters chosen to narrate offer a more thorough story than could be told otherwise. The attentive reader will see in this volume the banter between Franklin and the Union soldiers, the scolding they offer him for being a former slave, but it also rises up the ranks and the likes of General Sherman must come to terms with the underlying reasons for this war, outside of bringing in rebellious states back into the Union. These are powerful themes woven into the fabric of this story and must be said, lest they are forgotten and the reader brushes them aside. Additionally, while not as strongly presented in this volume, General Ulysses S. Grant had made numerous asides that some of the men on the other side of the battlefield were at one time brethren in other battles, particularly down in Mexico. It brings the ‘brothers fighting brothers’ phrase a new meaning and forces the reader to take a step back, realising how rooted this war was for America. Then again, as a Canadian, I should likely not spout off too much about its importance and stick to my own literary commentary. 

Kudos, Mr. Shaara for finishing the tetralogy on such a resounding note. I am eager to dive into your account of the Korean War, surely filled with new and slightly more modern characters who will still keep the reader enthralled throughout that conflict.

Fractured, by Catherine McKenzie

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Catherine McKenzie Lake Union Publishing for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

International bestselling author Catherine McKenzie presents readers with a stellar mystery that unfolds in a highly unconventional manner. Julie Prentice and her family arrive in a seemingly bucolic community tucked in the corner of Cincinnati, hoping to put their past behind them. Having fled Tacoma because of a stalker, the Prentices hope to hit the proverbial reset button on Pine Street. Greeted with a welcome basket and note from Cindy Sutton, the self-proclaimed Chair of the Pine Street Neighborhood Association. (PSNA), Julie and her family soon realise that this is not the laid-back row of houses with picket fences for which they were searching. As a full-time writer, Julie is home all day, alone while her husband and children attend work and school. In the early stages, her only social interactions are with John Dunbar, the neighbour with whom she runs early mornings. This fitness regimen soon blossoms into a friendship, where they can swap ideas and complain about the mind-numbing and fascist ways Chairperson Cindy seeks to regulate every aspect of the Pine Street community, down to pet walking and suggested curfews for those with children under 17 years of age. When John loses his job, he ends up spending more time at home, which offers Julie the chance for more time around her neighbour. An IT specialist, John soon notices some weakness in Julie’s computer network and offers to assist. This seemingly innocent act sticks in the craw of the reader, who is fully aware of the stalker situation that has pushed the Prentices to Ohio. While she is proud of her first novel, The Murder Game, Julie is torn about admitting who she is to those around her, though her secret is soon revealed in one of the weekly PSNA e-newsletters. As John grows closer to Julie, the latter continues to make a bad impression on most of her neighbours, particularly Cindy and John’s wife, Hanna. As the story unfolds, McKenzie takes the reader through an ever-advancing timeline, a twelve-month arc, where an event has occurred, vaguely defined but that is fleshed-out as the narrative advances; something so horrid that no one wishes to mention it other than to call it ‘the accident’ but that also requires legal intervention. As Julie alienates herself from the neighbours and must sever ties with John for reasons of marital stability, she finds herself feeling more isolated than ever before, which creates a feeling of instability and heightens her sense of vulnerability. This is exacerbated as new actions and events occur around her home. Has Julie’s previous stalker returned, or are the neighbours trying to drive her off Pine Street? All this, and the elusive ‘accident’ to which McKenzie refers as she advances the plot, keeps the readers guessing until the last sentence. A well-crafted piece of fiction that will keep readers guessing, wondering, and hoping as the peaks and valleys of the non-linear plot develop.

This is the first novel of Catherine McKenzie’s that I have read and I am kicking myself for waiting so long. When I received an advance copy of her next book (read on to see how it ties in), I thought I ought to begin here, laying the groundwork to better understand the author and her writing style. McKenzie shows that she is able to create wonderful characters, all of whom are believable and varied, which caters to the vast array of readers who will pick up this book. The plot is wonderfully paced and, while it advances over a year, it is peppered with flash-forwards to the present, which deal with a vague and somewhat opaque legal issue that has a number of the characters testifying before a grand jury. McKenzie uses the interesting technique not only of segmenting events in month-long chapters, but also by handing the narrative voice to a few key characters, Julie Prentice and John Dunbar. This allows the reader to feel a stronger connection to these protagonists, rather than a beige omnipresent narrator who can only present superficial thought processes. Of greatest interest is the novel for which Julie ‘Apple’ Prentice is so well-known. Its plot is hinted at throughout and the eventual dust jacket summary appears in an early chapter. Whether this is based on an event from Julie’s time in law school remains unknown, though McKenzie does offer the backstory of a friend’s death in Julie’s student days. The Murder Game, this blockbuster story hinted at in this novel is the next published work that McKenzie will release in the coming weeks (and the book I mentioned above that NetGalley has offered me). So, while there will be little to resolve the cliffhangers or ideas that fall within this novel, The Murder Game might pave the way towards better understanding Julie Prentice and some of the characteristics she presents in this McKenzie novel. Why not read The Murder Game first, as it stands two years before the happenings of this novel? I thought I ought to check out all the hype and discover how lured in I would get, then see if I can create some ‘aha!’ moments for myself by reading the Apple novel. Bring on ‘The Book’ as Julie calls it, which I am sure will be stellar, as it is sure to hold McKenzie’s powerful writing punch. I might, however, need a night to pick my jaw up from off the floor, as I remain amazed at how drawn I was to all aspects of this story.

Kudos, Madam McKenzie for this stellar piece of work. How have I not known about you for all these years? I won’t lament it and be glad I did. Now then, The Murder Game awaits!

The Murder Game, by Julie Apple (pseudonym of Catherine McKenzie)

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Catherine McKenzie (writing as Julie Apple), and Lawsome Books for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

With Catherine McKenzie already having garnered much success in her literary career, she chose to put a spin on this story, writing under a pseudonym whose importance comes from another of her recent novels, Fractured. Julie Apple pens the story of protagonist Meredith Delay, a successful Crown Prosecutor in Montreal who finds herself handling many homicide cases in Canada’s second largest city. When a particularly curious case lands on her desk, Meredith faces the ultimate decision. The accused is none other than her law school friend, Julian McCarthy, who admits to stabbing a former NHL star while sleepwalking, which led to the victim’s death. Julian is being represented by Jonathan Sayers, another in the close-knit group from law school, who also happens to be a long-time on-again/off-again flame that Meredith has been trying to shake. Finishing out the quartet is Lily, criminal psychologist who works in the Crown’s office and appears to have some insights for Meredith, but who will offer very little of substance while parroting her IQ whenever it seems worthy of mention. As she is unsuccessful in claiming a conflict of interest, Meredith moves forward with the prosecution, undeterred by her personal knowledge of those close to the case. As Apple pushes the story forward, the narrative switches from the time of the trial in 2007, back to the group’s time in law school, circa 1995-99. The reader is able to see some of the strong connections between Meredith and Jonathan, as well as her feeling of being an outsider within this quartet. With the City of Montreal and some key Canadian history as its backdrop, the stories progress nicely, leading Meredith to press forward with the trial, where she tries to put up the strongest possible case for murder as she counters the defence of “non-insane automatism” that Sayers and his client feel fits perfectly. As the case unfolds, at issue is whether Julian’s history of sleepwalking could have caused him to act out violently, but without the needed ‘guilty mind’ to be culpable of the crime. Additionally, as Apple pushes the flashback narrative towards its conclusion, the quartet enter into a legal game and make a secret pact that could influence their futures in ways none of them had imagined. A brilliantly crafted piece that is as captivating as it is succinct. Those who love a good legal thriller with courtroom antics will surely flock towards this novel.

I have to ask myself, where have I been for so long without ever having tripped upon McKenzie’s work? After reading Fractured, I knew I had to get my hands on this book, if only to piece together some of the thoughts that floated around my head as I read about Julie ‘Apple’ Prentice and the fallout of her book, The Murder Game. In this novel, Apple presents four key characters and does so in such an effective manner that the reader cannot help but want to know more. The effective use of layering allows the reader to see the ‘modern’ character and then learn a little more in the flashback chapters, which also help explain and explore some of the key characteristics being developed on the page. The dual storylines work well in tandem, complementing one another well, while exemplifying key struggles in Meredith’s life that have not been resolved over time. One of the greatest aspects of this book for me has got to be the true Canadiana that Apple uses, plotting not only a few mentions of Canada or Montreal, but going all-out in the entire novel. From McGill as the institute for higher learning to the Quebec Referendum in 1995 and through to the entire trial process (complete with My Lord and the gowns worn by the lawyers), this is something to give Canada its due in mainstream fiction. Many times I find authors ruin anything Canadian by making glaring errors or watering things down to make it seem like Law & Order of the Great White North. Save for a few early examples that Apple explained in detail with asides for her readers (does Nesbo do this in Norway or Fox in Australia?), the story forces the reader to fully submit to being in Canada and accepting the system or looking things up they do not comprehend. This is surely because Apple (and McKenzie) studied in Montreal, is well-versed with the city, and understands Canada’s nuances when it comes to the legal system (the bastard child of Britain and the United States). The courtroom aspects of the story flow wonderfully and keeps the reader feeling as if the case is progressing with ease. While short in sections, it gets the impact of key witnesses and important testimony out for the reader, and permits an open-ended ability for the reader to decide for themselves how they might decide, should they have found themselves on the jury. Plus, that twist at the end left me applauding and helped better understand how Apple received such mixed reviews in Fractured, as the bestselling author who lived under a cloud of uncertainty.

I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to meld my thoughts from this novel to the Julie Apple created and developed in Fractured. I can see now how some characters had a jaded view of Apple in the novel, curious as to how she could have written something so sinister. That said, as many approached Apple to ask if Meredith was based on her, I can now ask the same about Apple being a loose characterization of Catherine McKenzie. I can see some similarities between Apple and Meredith and presume some of the same parallels between Apple and her creator. While Meredith struggled with her ongoing romantic magnetism to Jonathan, I wonder if Julie and John suffered a similar connection, though on a much more superficial level. That said, it is hard for the attentive reader to miss that both stories also offer open-ended plot lines that leave the reader to wonder about a key aspect in the story, which tells of McKenzie’s brilliance in her writing. One might also wonder about Apple’s foreboding as she wrote about Meredith’s choice to uproot herself and the departure Apple faced when she showed up in Cincinnati after events in Tacoma. Both sought a needed reset of their lives. This novel offers a window not only into the mind of a character that was not entirely possible even with the first-person narrative McKenzie presented in Fractured, as though Julie Prentice needed a little more fleshing out. Such a brilliant piece of legal fiction helps explain some of the praise that Julie seemed hesitant to fish for but sought so passionately. I admit that. McKenzie did the right thing in having these two novels published close together, so that readers can draw parallels for themselves.

Kudos, Madam Apple/McKenzie for such an entertaining novel. I see from where all the hype arose and can only hope there is another novel in this vein to come. BOOK TWO was discussed in Fractured, so surely there is something percolating, eh?!

The Smoke at Dawn: A Novel of the Civil War (Civil War, Western Theatre #3), by Jeff Shaara

Eight stars

In penning this penultimate novel in his Western Theatre tetralogy as it relates to the US Civil War, Shaara continues to dazzle and enthral readers with his attention to detail. As the previous novel ended, Grant’s siege on Vicksburg, Mississippi proved fruitful in keeping the Confederates at bay, isolating them and forcing a massive retreat. In its aftermath, General Ulysses Grant left to fight off in Louisiana and, as the reader learns through the narrative, was injured after an equine mishap. However, the War Department saw much left to do and summoned the general to head towards Tennessee, where Chattanooga awaited in the Fall of 1863. Grant surrounded himself with his admired colleague, General William T. Sherman, as they faced down the Confederates, headed by General Braxton Bragg. Grant and Bragg had a history, years before, and this chance to face off against one another proved a highly-anticipated opportunity to utilise the military prowess both felt they possessed, each fighting for a cause they believed was faultless. Bragg found himself utilising the admirable skills of General Patrick Cleburne, Irish blood flowing through his veins but Confederate sympathies in his heart. Bragg and Cleburne sought to outmanoeuvre Sherman and Grant, using the Tennessee fells and fields to their advantage, as Shaara recounts the story of the battle through the eyes of his most trusted military leaders. However, as is common in his series, the story is best told by those in the trenches and on the field of battle, where the reader can turn to Fritz “Dutchie” Bauer. This Union soldier had a coming of age in this novel, moving away from the volunteer that he was upon signing up in Wisconsin and seeking to be an enlisted soldier. This move is not only to diminish the pain of having no family left, but also to prove a point to himself and his friend, Sam Willis, his superior. Bauer’s heartfelt passion for the Union and decision to place himself in a life of military service was further solidified as he grew more accustomed to the life of a soldier. The reader will have seen his progression and maturation throughout the series, only to see Bauer suffer a great loss on the battlefield followed soon thereafter by one of a personal nature. Bauer’s suffering is felt deeply by the reader, though the narrative continues on, allowing the Union to drive Bragg and Cleburne back, after the Confederates almost toppled the Union forces with deceptive military plotting. This push of Confederate forces back towards Georgia sets up what is sure to be the most captivating final instalment of the series, and which will put Sherman on the map as he controls the entire Union Army in the West. Grant, a victory secured, is summoned to Washington and offered control of the entire Union force, hoping to cut Robert E. Lee off once and for all, as Jefferson Davis watches his successes disintegrate with each passing day. Shaara offers readers a wonderful depiction of the ongoing fighting and personalises the pains and victories, through the eyes of many men (sorry, no Lucy Spence-type female characters this time around). Brilliant and well-worth the effort invested for the attentive and curious reader alike.

Those who have followed my reviews of the tetralogy will know that I thoroughly enjoy all that Shaara has to say. This series is of particular interest, as it puts the reader in the minds of a number of well- and lesser-known figures to tell the stories of the Civil War that are not as well broadcast in history texts. I admit that I am still not entirely able to wrap myself in the narrative, more because I struggle with the intense battle descriptions, but the gist of the story is not lost on me. Shaara’s writing is both informative and highly intense, exemplifying his research abilities and how he chooses to communicate this in his fiction writing. Keeping some of the key characters from the series (Grant and Bauer) he offers readers some continuity while also a fresh flavour with the addition of new and powerful voices (Bragg and Cleburne), as if more ‘villains’ were needed for the reader to dislike, but also appreciate. The numerous narrative perspectives offer readers a personal insight into the story, rather than an omnipresent storyteller who can only peer down and subject the reader to detached sentiments. Shaara has prided himself on being able to pull the reader in and does so effortlessly in this recounting. With one novel left, there is still much to do, but building up characters effectively keeps the reader wanting to see what is to come, even if the inevitable outcome has been inculcated into at least some of the readers who paid attention in history class. I cannot wait to see what twists and turns Shaara has to offer, though ending the series will come with mixed emotions.

Kudos, Mr. Shaara for bringing the reader to the front lines of another poignant battle in the Western Theatre. I can truly say I am learning much about all aspects of the War and its intricate pieces that make up the greater whole. 

A Chain of Thunder: A Story of the Siege of Vicksburg (Civil War, Western Theatre #2), by Jeff Shaara

Eight stars

Shaara continues with his Civil War series with the second novel in the Western Theatre tetralogy. Shaara builds on the first novel’s focus on the Battle of Shiloh by turning things towards Mississippi and the vital city of Vicksburg, approximately a year after the aforementioned skirmish. Located on a key route (the Mississippi River) that serves the Confederate Army, General Pemberton seeks to protect this gem while awaiting more troops and instruction from superior. However, fresh from victory in Shiloh, Union Generals Grant and Sherman seek to push forward and overtake the region, thereby paralysing the Confederates in an attempt to stave off any momentum that might be tanking place further East. Shaara builds momentum up as all generals plot military manoeuvres surrounding the Siege of Vicksburg, which can only end with one army standing. A Confederate loss could commence a devastating domino effect that will reverberate across the South and bring Lincoln the impetus he needs to justify this war to the world. While Shaara offers wonderful troop and general perspectives in the narratives, he introduces a new voice to the war, that of the citizenry. Lucy Spence is a young woman from Vicksburg who has seen her city turned into a chaotic mess, filled both with grey-uniformed Confederates with the Union’s blue-uniformed troops filling the horizon. While she has been led to support the views of her southern brethren, Spence is enlisted as a civilian nurse and witnesses the horrors of war from the perspective of blood and gore, which differs greatly from the opening chapter, when things were still formal dinners and balls with the local soldiers. Spence sees war through the eyes of the civilians caught in the middle of fighting, but who suffer more, as the face a war of hunger and depravation, food becoming a commodity that only the Union can offer, which is stronger propaganda than any leaflet. Spence and other citizens of Vicksburg learn that their heroes who had been touting freedom from Washington’s grasp and the right to hold slaves cannot be trusted if they cannot keep their own people from starving during the campaign. It is this weaponless war that might turn the tides more than any cannon or musket. When the smoke clears, Vicksburg falls and Grant can forge onwards, seeking to curry additional favour with Washington as the Confederate Army is left to nurse their substantial wounds. A powerful second volume in Shaara’s latest Civil War series, sure to stir up significant emotions in the attentive reader.

I am a long-time fan of Shaara and his writing style that explore war from perspectives untapped by academics or many historical fiction writers. While I struggled immensely with finding a connection in the first novel, being somewhat more conscientious of what is going on has allowed me to pull more (still not all) from the narrative in this second piece. In reading this collection, I am reminded of the John Jakes trilogy, North and South. Perhaps my bias and memory will sway me as I say this, but Shaara appears to be taking a page from the Jakes book and not only writing from the perspective of a fictional soldier, but now choosing an outsider to speak about the civilian interpretation of war. While Shaara usually chooses to keep the war and battlefields as his settings for all characters, use of a civilian is very Jakesian and does add additional flavour to the story. He does postulate that many civilians were outside the sphere of the War and knew little more than which side they were supposed to support. Key choices or decisions did not impact their choice of sides in the entire affair. As he usually does, Shaara offers a veiled (though it is apparent throughout) commentary on the struggles of war for those on the battlefield as well, be it tactics, marching, or the horrific food on offer. Shaara brings the reader inside and behind the lines to exacerbate the negative side of fighting, while still injecting pride into the act. Strong and regionally-peppered dialogues allow the reader to feel in the midst of the action in both camps, while also learning of their individual struggles as soldiers try to put themselves in the boots of the other. Chapters chock-full of detail, development, and historical portrayals of the settings allow the reader to envelop themselves in all that Shaara has to offer. Dense in spots, Shaara does not water things down, which will require a dedicated and attentive effort. There is not enough praise that can be offered up for this wonderful style of writing, geared towards a target audience.
Kudos, Mr. Shaara for another wonderful novel. I am still trying to wrap my head around all that you have to present, but by pacing myself and paying particular attention, I have a much better idea of what happened in the lesser-known Western Theatre of America’s Civil War.

Adrift, by Micki Browning

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Micki Browning, Random House Publishing Group, and Alibi for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

In her debut novel, Browning offers up an interesting take on the mystery novel, adding a deep sea flavour to keep the reader curious. Teuthologist Dr. Meredith ‘Mer’ Cavallo has turned to working as a divemaster in the Florida Keys after her latest research project went belly-up. While out with a group, a troubled diver surfaces, speaking of a ghost within the Spiegel Grove, a local shipwreck. This ghostly chatter brings The Spirited Divers to the Keys, known for their documentaries on deep sea paranormal activities. Headed by Ishmael Styx, the group is set to investigate the recent sightings as part of their latest film project, with Cavallo sent along as the safety diver. While on the dive, a number of unexplained events occur followed by a panic attack by one member of the team. As Cavallo seeks to assist with the ascent, she leaves Styx behind. Fully capable of reaching the surface alone, Cavallo is baffled when Styx does not appear, which shifts significant suspicion on the skeptical doctor. A local detective begins probing and Cavallo is left to defend herself against accusations that she had something to do with Styx’s disappearance, which is quickly turning into something much more sinister. With the rest of the Spirited Divers mourning the likely loss of their leader, Cavallo is forced to help them finish the documentary, only to discover that things may be more paranormal that meets the eye. After struggling with much self-doubt when someone from her past resurfaces, Cavallo must also wrestle with relaxing her strong scientific mind when presented with much she cannot explain. Her continued probing into the life of Ishmael Styx open up a chasm of mystery and deception, leaving some key evidence out in the open but with the authorities refusing to engage in any discussion. With the revelation of another body, Dr. Cavallo finds herself in the middle of a mystery that has her as a key suspect, keen on disproving the entire paranormal phenomena. Will Mer find herself able to unravel the truth or will the mystery haunt her? Browning offers readers an interesting look into her abilities and has potential to attract a wonderful fan base.

In a genre supersaturated with traditional sleuths, Browning offers readers a unique approach. Using Cavallo’s professional training and her personal passion, as well as an ideal setting, Browning is able to coax out a decent foundation for her murder mystery. Developing a collection of characters from many walks of life allows the story to spin in many directions, while keeping the central focus on Cavallo and her numerous struggles. The dialogue is peppered with jargon that accentuates the numerous areas in which the narrative dabbles, which can be both beneficial and troublesome. Skimming the surfaces on many topics, including diving, the paranormal, personal faith, and documentary filmmaking, leaves the reader feeling underwhelmed and likely not curious enough to explore topics independently. That being said, Browning’s understanding and description of all that is diving offers her a unique niche best utilised in another novel, should a series be in the making. Additionally, while the reader is to grasp the idea that Dr. Mer Cavallo is an amateur sleuth, her interactions with law enforcement are stilted and minimal, but her own investigating is also less than intense, namely because she is juggling so much else in the story. This leaves the reader pulled in a number of directions without a clear understanding of where they are being taken or how things will resolve themselves. A stellar technique for some authors, but problematic in its approach by Browning in this debut novel.

Kudos, Madam Browning for a decent opening novel. I hope you will consider writing a sequel, having left some options open for Mer in the storyline, but a stronger concentration on a few areas might help create a better final product.