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.

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.

A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh (Civil War, Western Front #1), by Jeff Shaara

Six stars

Known for his epic novels of historical fiction, Jeff Shaara has further distanced himself from those within the genre by writing solely (or, at least predominantly) about war, through American eyes. This novel, the first in a tetralogy on the Western Theatre of the US Civil War is no exception in its greatness. Shaara chooses to focus the first novel on the Battle of Shiloh, to that point the bloodiest battle ever fought on US soil, in Spring, 1862. Shaara chooses wisely as he moves the focus west (in this case, West would be along the lines of Kentucky and Tennessee), at times on the cusp of the North-South divide. As he states in his introduction, Shaara is careful to choose a handful of characters to tell this story. From the Union side, narratives include those with a focus on General Ulysses S. Grant and faceless soldier Fritz Bauer. Offering a balance, Shaara hands the reins to Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston and Cavalryman James Seeley. Within the narrative, characters advance not only the plans of the battle as both sides mobilised, but some of the inner struggles that both the mighty and peons felt, some barely able to grasp the concept of war. As pressure mounts and the major battle seems imminent, the characters are forced to their limits and the little-known Bauer and Seeley become central, allowing them to describe the horrors they witness. While historians have focussed much attention on the views of Grant and even Johnston, this insight into the blood, gore, and loss of the frontline soldiers helps stir events as Shiloh becomes less about a land grab and more the piercing of souls and loss of innocence. By the end, with bodies strewn all over, neither side can truly say they have won, even though history will record it as a significant Union victory. Shaara offers another round of ‘the horrors of war’ as it echoes throughout the pages of this powerful novel, peppered with just enough reality to provide the reader with additional chills.

I have long been a fan of Shaara and his writing. His style of getting to the core of the issue, the views of the day-to-day soldiers offers something refreshing that is missing from biographies or pieces of historical non-fiction. Shaara pulls out a random (usually fake) soldier and levies much of the real insights of war through their eyes. This allows the reader to better understand things, with less of the clean-cut precision that war historians tend to offer. His use of real sources helps to support the claims of truth behind the novels he pens, though they remain fiction because of the dreamt-up dialogue he uses to propel the story forward. That being said, I will admit that there are times that I got lost in the minutiae or the dialogue and details, even though I am focussed with a keen narrator through the audiobook version. I struggled repeatedly to find some of the key moments of character development or the crucial lead-up to events. I found myself learning about some of the characters, but ask me specifics about their plights or worries and I would be lost. I find this to be more my lack of sustained interest in the intricate details of the US Civil War (sorry, my American friends) than Shaara’s writing. I cannot, in good conscience, offer up a five-star rating for this book, though I feel it is more my impediment than the author’s inability to transmit things. I find myself in the position where I hold my nose and rate the book more along the lines with what I know it is worth rather than how it made me feel, disconnected from what I know of the author. I also promised myself that I would read all the books in this tetralogy and I will. I want to open my mind and perhaps catch myself enthralled by the time this is all over and done with. I owe it to myself and Jeff Shaara, whose past work has been stellar, even to a lowly Canadian such as myself.

Kudos, Mr. Shaara, for you would still make your father proud with a novel like this. While I sometimes have troubles with concepts or intricate battle plotting, I know I need to pay better attention and I will surely learn a great deal from you.

The Trapped Girl (Tracy Crosswhite #4), by Robert Dugoni

Nine stars

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

In another impressive addition to his latest series, Dugoni places Detective Tracy Crosswhite in her most confounding case to date. After a body is found in a crab pot at the bottom of Puget Sound, Crosswhite and her homicide team are called in. The victim is identified as Lynn Hoff, though there is little backstory or digital presence with which to work. However, after circulating a photo of the victim, a ranger on Mount Rainier recognises Hoff, though knows her as Andrea Strickland, presumed perished when she disappeared off the side of the mountain while ascending with her husband, Graham. Further investigation shows that Hoff was likely an alias that Strickland used in an attempt to go off the grid and flee Graham’s controlling ways. This disappearing act does not explain how Strickland ended up in a crab pot, but might offer some suggestions as to who put her there. As Crosswhite learns of a sizeable trust Strickland held and some curious bank transactions that occurred soon after the body was discovered, all eyes point to a spurned husband who discovered the truth. Dugoni adds a parallel narrative in the voice of Strickland, which helps reveal some of the information as Crosswhite discovers the identity ruse, while also fleshing out some of her own impetus for taking such drastic action. As Crosswhite and the team travel to Portland to piece together the lives the Stricklands led, all becomes a little clearer, until a single theory muddies the entire investigation and forces Crosswhite to cede control in an inter-departmental tug-of-war. While Crosswhite faces struggles of her own, based on memories of her past and an uncertain future, the reader learns much about her worries and wonders as she places work as a priority. Unable to sit idly by and ponder the meaning of her life, Crosswhite puts her team on a mission to dig a little deeper, and focus on wrestling control of the case back to Seattle’s Finest. However, it will take a huge discovery to allow that to happen. In a thrilling fourth novel in the series, Dugoni shows why he is the master of his genre, pulling readers in until the final sentence.

While this series has been sensational from the get-go, Dugoni always seems to be able to tap into something new that allows series fans to feel refreshed and left wondering what is yet to come. Additionally, Dugoni continues to weave additional backstory out of Tracy Crosswhite while reopening the murder of her sister. Self-reflection is a key aspect to a series character and Dugoni focusses on a few new areas that help personalise Crosswhite a little more. While the narrative itself is strong, it seems that the banter and ongoing development of the story as the chapters progress adds another layer of excitement to the novel. Dugoni keeps the story moving with twists that take things in a number of directions, which keeps the reader guessing. Strong dialogue puts the crime thriller front and centre while allowing the reader to feel they are in the bullpen or the interrogation room throughout the novel. I can only hope that Dugoni will continue with this series, as there seems to be so much more to explore, even as he anchors his key characters with life-altering events. As this series continues to gain momentum, new fans are sure to arise the most they hear about Dugoni’s literary magic. 

Kudos, Mr. Dugoni for another wonderful novel. I can only hope that you’ll keep impressing us with Tracy Crosswhite and her complex cases. 

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, by Jeffrey Toobin

Nine stars

In this brilliantly crafted piece of non-fiction, Toobin explores one of the most sensational events of the 1970s, which commenced with the kidnapping of teenager Patricia Campbell Hearst. In a decade still hungover on the push for counterculture and raging against the Man, the capture and turning of Patty Hearst illuminated how things had changed from the active 1960s, where change through any mean was acceptable. Toobin uses the early portion of the book to lay the groundwork for Hearst kidnapping, describing the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and their rationale for choosing Hearst, whose family riches could surely be used to the Army’s advantage. After Hearst was taken and locked away from her captors, the SLA began making demands, not to line their own pockets with the millions the Hearst Empire surely possessed, but to feed those in need. As Toobin describes, the SLA’s demands helped create the People in Need (PIN) food distribution network. While there were some good incentives to be realised, the delivery was fraught with mishaps, including riots, injuries, and collusion within the chain of command. Negative reactions by the Hearst family to the PIN initiative soured their connection to the SLA, who continued to profess demands to facilitate Patty’s safe release. It was at this time, posits Toobin, that Patty Hearst may have not only softened towards her captors, but also sought a role in the Army. Hearst went from being their captive to a member of the team in a series of events within the SLA’s ‘clubhouse’. From here, Toobin explores the SLA and their hiding while they plotted to line their own pockets with cash, through a major bank heist, where they would publicly prove that Patty Hearst, using the moniker Tania, was no longer a prisoner but a willing combatant in the war against the fascist state. As the Toobin narrative flows, the reader is able to see the extent to which ‘Tania’ sympathised with the SLA and how she took on a life in the underground to keep herself from being caught. One of the FBI’s Most Wanted, Hearst was forced to sneak around in order to protect herself and those around her, which would lead to further crimes so that she might stay afloat. The tumultuous 18 month manhunt ended when Hearst was arrested for her crimes and sent to trial, which turned out to be another circus of media frenzy. It was during her trial, now in front of the spotlight, that her notoriety rose even more and those closest to her at the defence table, namely F. Lee Bailey, sought to use her fame to boost his own reputation. Toobin goes through the trial in his legal analyst manner and recounts some of the foibles, which would lead to her conviction. However, many questions were raised in testimony, some of which I am happy to explore below. That Patty Hearst became a name most anyone in the 1970s could have recognised is beyond dispute. However, the transformation this 19 year old took from the day she was forced into the trunk of a car until she was eventually led away in handcuffs over a year later is fascinating. Toobin did a fabulous job directing this journey, sure to impress the reader who has the patience to wade through the rollercoaster journey.

I thought I ought to take a few minutes to explore the Symbionese Liberation Army as presented by the author. Formed by the politically-minded Donald DeFreeze and some like-minded youths, the SLA sought to create a renewed buzz of the counterculture movement, pitting themselves against the State, which it felt was fascist in nature. However, as Toobin mentions repeatedly, no other groups on the left trying to make political statements within the United States would associate themselves with the SLA. They were too radical and tried to make statements with little regard for the larger picture. While DeFreeze tried to align himself with some Central and South American guerrilla groups, the associations floated out in the public without solidarity on the part of the international organisations, a deafening two-step away from the SLA and their creed. That said, there was a brief time during which the SLA captured the minds of the public, immediately after the Patty Hearst kidnapping. As mentioned above, forcing the creation of the People in Need initiative allowed the poor in California to receive food, funded by Randy and Catherine Hearst in order to see their daughter returned safely. This ‘Robin Hood Complex’ allowed the SLA to make themselves somewhat respected, if only for doing the right thing and not falling into being greedy while lauding the fact that they held Hearst as their captive. Their early communiqués were poignant and even pushed a commentary that had been strong in the 60s, but it soon turned into excessive rambling. Even before the 24-hour news cycle, the SLA lost the general public, which the ongoing search for Patty Hearst never lost its buzz, partially because of the SLA. When Hearst agreed to become a soldier in the SLA and took up the name Tania, her public prominence on-screen during the bank robbery injected new drama into the SLA-Hearst situation, as speculation swirled about what had been done to turn Hearst. For the months that followed, it was a manhunt around the country and the FBI using their Most Wanted List to turn Americans into snitches and forced them to be on the lookout at every moment. Toobin clearly illustrates how the cat and mouse game was what fuelled television ratings, rather that the SLA’s ongoing desires to change the way things were being done in America. Perhaps losing their way and becoming a bunch of criminals on the run is what truly killed the impetus of the SLA movement. 

One cannot review this book and not spend at least a little time looking at Patty Hearst, whose life was turned upside down that February 4, 1974 night when she was pulled from her home. Toobin effectively argues that this was both a fearful experience for her and one that made her a symbol of her family’s vast empire and collection of assets. However, being the granddaughter of the famous William Randolph Hearst did not work in her favour, as Patty was not able to garner the financial means that it was expected she might. Her father, Randy, was not as wealthy as might have been expected, much of his wealth tied up in trusts and third-party holdings. Additionally, Patty was not political, so her being held was not the coup the SLA might have expected when they undertook to remove her from the house. As has been insinuated above, there came a time when Patty Hearst changed, not only adopting the Tania persona, but left being the victim and became a member of the cause. Much was made at her trial about brainwashing or the newly-coined term ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, something that the Toobin narrative does not posit during the kidnapping period. However, while the transition Hearst undertook as a captive took a month or so, she appears to have reverted after her capture, happy to sell anyone and everyone up the river to save her skin. Toobin exemplifies how quickly Hearst was prepared to cry ‘rape’ and ‘inhumane conditions’, which led her to make choices she would not have otherwise made. The State left the question on which the jury could percolate during deliberations: “Why did Hearst not flee at some point during the eighteen months in the SLA?” Surely, there must have been at least one instance when she could have revealed herself and allowed the authorities to take her into protective custody. The innocent kidnap victim became not only a hardened criminal, but duplicitous along the way. Surely the silver spoon upbringing helped to foster a belief that she need only act and the world would do as she wanted. Toobin presents this theory as the Hearst family lobbied many of those in positions of power to commute Patty’s sentence because she was acting under duress while a captive of the SLA. Former California Governor Reagan bought into it, John Wayne lassoed it as his own personal truth, and even President Jimmy Carter succumbed to the pressures and signed the commutation order. Further political maneuvering had Carter pull on the heartstrings of the departing President Clinton to offer a full pardon to Patty Hearst on his final day in office. Power and money surely turn the winds of justice, allowing a woman who played the system to flip the bird at the entire population incarcerated in the United States and those whose lives she affected while a soldier with the SLA.

As with many of the Toobin books I have read, this was laid out in such a way that the reader can easily follow all arguments made and keep the historical references in some semblance of order. Toobin pulls on a period that was dramatic, with its iconoclastic photo of Patty Hearst holding the machine gun ahead of her first bank heist. However, having not lived through these events, I relied heavily on the author’s ability to act as narrator and historical tour guide as I tried to make sense of the entire ordeal. Toobin has taken much time to develop some of the backstories of key characters who crossed paths with Hearst, as well as tangential events in history that helped precipitate the key events known to many who followed the Patty Hearst saga in 1974-75. While there is surely a bias woven into the perspective, Toobin gives the reader the reins to synthesise much of the information and evidence presented within these pages, which makes the book all the more enjoyable. I left this feeling better informed and have created some of my own sentiments on those stormy eighteen months. Surely a collection of events people can use to ask “do you remember when…?”

Kudos, Mr. Toobin for another great effort. I will surely recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Patty Hearst, as well as those who might not know the details of the SLA and all that went down.

$10,000,000 Marriage Proposal: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Hilary Liftin

Six stars

James Patterson joins forces with Hilary Liftin for this quasi-romance BookShot that remains at least somewhat digestible for the reader who does not fancy the gushy genre with Adonis-like men affixed to the cover. A billboard appears in Los Angeles, sporting the following message: “WILL YOU MARRY ME FOR $10,000,000? CREATIVE, OPEN-MINDED BUSINESSMAN WITH LIMITED TIME AND DESIRE TO PLAY THE FIELD. THIS IS A SERIOUS PROPOSAL.” The story focusses Suze Lee, Caroline Fried-Miller and Janey Ellis, exploring their individual interpretations of the proposal and roles they play upon agreeing to participate in the process. Cynical, they each bring their own flavour and perspective as the screening moves forward, none of whom are sure they have what it takes. When all is said and done, surprisingly, they end up as finalists vying for the heart (and wallet) of this mystery man, which has helped them all boost their egos, while remaining true to their own beliefs. The final process moves away from a competition and towards a heightened degree of honesty as the reader can only watch until the final ‘rose’ is handed out. Perhaps a winner for some, but I would not propose anything like this for someone looking for a thrill-filled BookShot. The only use your left hand will have is to strike your forehead repeatedly or wave to speed-up finishing the story.

Truth be told, I knew what I was getting into when I read the title of the book. I did not expect anything high-impact or thrilling, nor did I feel I would leave this book feeling uplifted or enthralled to look for more Patterson-Liftin collaborations. I needed something to bridge my time between novels and this fit the bill. The story has ‘reality show’ reeking from it and even one of the characters posits that the idea would be perfect for the small screen. The three ‘main’ characters had enough of a backstory to give them a little depth, but I was not drawn to any of them, nor was the collection of secretive antics enough to make me want to know too much about this ‘Mr. Moneybags’. The narrative was decent, though when I compare it to many of the Patterson BookShots I have read up to now, it dragged and got tiresome quickly. What started out as something full of curiosity turned into a sappy mess the further I read. By the final chapters, I think Patterson and Liftin expected the reader to have an epiphany about the importance of finding that person to love. Alas, it got too hokey for me, but, as I mentioned above, it served the purpose I knew it would going into this experience. For that, I cannot fault the writers too heavily.

Well done, Mr. Patterson and Madam Liftin for succeeding in what your sought to do. Not my kind of story, but I hope there are those out there who love this kind of thing. The entire BookShot Flame genre attracts a certain type of reader, which may be the demographic that flocks to this.

Witness to a Trial: A Short Story Prequel to The Whistler, by John Grisham

Seven stars

Grisham mixes his well-established background in crafting sensational legal thrillers with an ability to offer quirky approaches to writing in formulating this short story. It is that of the capital murder trial of Junior Mace, accused of slaying his wife and best friend in cold blood. All the evidence points to Mace returning home early from work, where he rages at the act of adultery, and shoots them both in the head. While Mace presents an alibi through his less than confident attorney, it does not seem solid and the State of Florida has more than enough to substantiate their claims with a stronger prosecutor ready to send him to death row. While the case unfolds, there is one man in the courtroom who knows what really happened; someone with a motive to see Mace out of the way. Alas, his reasons never make it onto the record, though the verdict could make all the difference in the world. A unique approach to the legal thriller and a story that sets up the soon to be released full-length novel that Grisham has for eager fans. While not an earth shattering piece, surely one the reader can enjoy during the waiting game. 

Grisham surely has something up his sleeve if this story is a prequel to The Whistler. Without reading too much into that upcoming novel, I can only imagine how it all pieces together with a cast of interesting characters that found their way into this piece. This story, a trial told in thirteen short chapters, offers something unique for the reader, while presenting all the needed information for the reader to remain intrigued. Rather than Grisham’s powerful courtroom saga, each chapter offers a brief summary of a witness’ testimony, almost on the verge of short paragraph summations, as well as a brief biography of someone having something to do with the larger case or investigation. While I found myself looking for testimony or some development (read: meatier narrative), I was happy to get a short synopsis and at least get the gist of what is going on, if there is a purpose to all this when The Whistler comes around. Grisham has done so well with spinning the law on its head that I can only hope he has something new to offer the reader. Save for the deeper glimpse offered of Junior Mace, all characters received quite minor roles, though some have enough offered that their return will surely create an interesting cross-mix and allow for the story to take many twists. If The Whistler delves deeper into this case, or at least something along these lines, I can see much excitement to be had when I get my hands on the novel.

Kudos, Mr. Grisham for this peek into your next novel. What will you do to keep the reader on their toes?

Never Never (Detective Harriet Blue #1), by James Patterson and Candice Fox

Eight stars

After their successful work together in a BookShot, Patterson and Fox combine their talents to expand on that short story, penning a great full-length novel. Harriet ‘Harry’ Blue is stunned when she learns that her brother has been arrested as the prime suspect in the Georges River Killer case, which has attracted much attention in the Sydney area. Acting quickly and knowing her predisposition to argue with her fists before her mouth, Blue’s superior, Chief Morris, pulls some strings and has her sent to the Australian Outback to participate in an investigation of three missing miners. Bitter and argumentative, Blue reluctantly departs Sydney and heads into the great desert lands of her own country, unsure how she could use her sex crimes knowledge on such a case. Paired with Edward ‘Whitt’ Whittacker , a man with secrets of his own, Blue remains highly suspicious of him and refuses to play nice. Arriving at the temporary site, Blue and Whitt learn that three mine employees have disappeared over the past while, though the speculation is that they tired of the isolation and chose to return to civilisation. After the boot of one minor turns up, foot still lodged inside, forensic testing proves that he was dead before the foot left the body. With the staff refusing to help, feeling that there is nothing wrong, Blue and Whitt must conduct a hostile investigation, tapping into all parts of the mine, from its Head of Security, mining staff, through to the protesters seeking to close down the mine and the local prostitutes. Lurking in the shadows, the killer, using the moniker The Soldier, stalks their prey and waits for the dead of night. Blue and Whitt have a few chance encounters, though narrowly escape, with significant scars to prove it. When the bodies of the missing are found down a makeshift shaft, Blue and Whitt realise they have a killer within the mining compound, or at least someone close by, though the barren nature of the area, dubbed Never Never, makes it hard to fathom it is not someone with whom they cross paths daily. As more employees go missing, hunted down like animals, a request for a local forensic team and some police comes through loud and clear. As they continue to be stalked, Blue and Whitt try to whittle down their suspect list to something manageable, but time is running out. All the while, Blue is trying to keep her identity a secret as the Australian media outlets are splashing news of her brother across every medium possible. Will Blue be able to focus on this sadistic killer long enough to catch them, or will her personal troubles make her a choice victim? Patterson and Fox create a powerful page turner in this novel, sure to keep the reader up well into the night.

Aware of Fox’s own writing, I knew that I was in for a treat. Her work here with Patterson did not let me down, as her unique style permeated throughout the narrative and the story clipped along in a way that only Fox can deliver. Harry Blue is a wonderful character, though torn with her own secrets and inner angst. She does not want to open up to anyone, save her own Chief Morris, who has a mentor-mentee relationship with his star detective. That isolated nature works well in this story as Blue is foisted into a situation well outside her comfort zone, in the Outback, and partnered with a man she does not know or trust. Fox and Patterson build on this strain while delivering a wonderfully rich crime thriller, with a killer hiding in plain sight. Even as things seem to be clearly pointing to one person, twists occur and the reader is forced to rethink their previous ideas. I can see a lot of Eden Archer in the Harry Blue character, as well as some of Patterson’s strong writing through short chapter cliffhanging moments. The reader will likely devour this wonderful book in short order. And, if there is a significant jonesing for something along these lines thereafter, Fox’s own series awaits the reader for even more enjoyment.

Kudos, Mr. Patterson and Madam Fox for this great novel. While the BookShot pulled me in and kept me wondering where Blue would go in her character, I can say that I really enjoyed this and would welcome more collaborative work down the road.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Nine stars

There are some books that I finish and am left in awe, questioning everything that I thought I knew on a subject. Or, as is the case hear, having learned so much about which I knew nothing. My jaw is still on the floor after I finished this book and I can only imagine the controversies and discussions it might provoke. A thank you goes out to three Goodreads friends who recommended that I read this book and open an avenue for discussion. Aven, Brenda, and Rae, I hope we can begin a wild and intriguing dialogue, pulling others into the mix as things gain momentum.

Who was Henrietta Lacks? What are HeLa cells? These are two of the foundational questions that Rebecca Skloot sought to answer in this poignant biographical piece. While I have tackled a number of biographies in my time as a reader, Skloot offered a unique approach to the genre in publication. Henrietta Lacks grew up in rural Virginia, picking tobacco and made ends meet as best she could. After marrying, she had a brood of children, including two of note, Elsie and Deborah, whose significance becomes apparent as the reader delves deeper into the narrative. Skloot offered up a succinct, but detailed narrative of how Lacks found an unusual mass inside her and was sent from her doctor to a specialist at Johns Hopkins (yes, THAT medical centre) for treatment. The mass was malignant and Lacks was deemed to have cervical cancer. Her surgeon, following the precedent of many doctors in the early 1950s, took samples of her tumour as well as that of the healthy part of her cervix, hoping to be able to have the cells survive so they could be analysed. Past attempts by doctors and scientists failed to keep cells alive for very long, which led to the constant slicing and saving technique used by those in the medical profession, when the opportunity arose. As it turns out, Lacks’ cells were not only fascinating to explore, but George Gey (Head of Tissue Culture Research at Johns Hopkins) noticed that they lasted indefinitely, as long as they were properly fed. Gey realised that he had something on his hands and tried to get approval from the Lacks family, though did so in an extremely opaque manner. After Lacks succumbed to the cancer, doctors sought to perform an autopsy, which might allow them complete access to Lacks’ body. Ignorant of what was going on, Henrietta’s husband agreed, thinking that this was only to ensure his children and subsequent generations would not suffer the agony that cancer brought upon Henrietta. So began the conniving and secretive nature of George Gey. He harvested these ‘special cells’ and named them “HeLa”, a brief combination of the original patient’s two names. Their phenomenal growth and sustainability led him to ship them all over the country and eventually the world, though the Lacks family had no idea this was going on. HeLa cells were studied to create a polio vaccine (Jonas Salk used them at the University of Pittsburgh), helped to better understand cellular reactions to nuclear testing, space travel, and introduction of cancer cells into an otherwise healthy body during curious and somewhat inhumane tests on Ohio inmates. During all this, Johns Hopkins remained completely aware of what was going on and the transmission of HeLa cells around the globe, though did not think to inform the Lacks family, perhaps for fear that they would halt the use of these HeLa cells. Through the use of the term ‘HeLa’ cells, no one was the wiser and no direct acknowledgement of the long-deceased Henrietta Lacks need be made. Skloot provided much discussion about the uses, selling, ‘donating’, and experimenting that took place, including segments of the scientific community in America that were knowingly in violation of the Nuremberg Rules on human experimentation, though they danced their own legal jig to get around it all. The crux of the biography lay on this conundrum, though it would only find its true impact by exploring the lives of those Henrietta Lacks left behind after her death.

Skloot took the time to pepper chapters with the history of the Lacks family as they grew up and, eventually, what happened when they were made aware that the HeLa cells existed, over two decades after they were obtained and Henrietta had died. Skloot split this other biographical piece into two parts, which eventually merge into one, documenting her research trips and interviews with the family alongside the presentation of a narrative that explores the fruits of those sit-down interviews. That Skloot tried to remain somewhat neutral is apparent, though through her connection to Henrietta’s youngest daughter, Deborah, there was an obvious bias that developed. Superimposing these two narratives would, hopefully, offer the reader a chance to feel a personal connection to the Lacks family and the struggles they went through. In her discussions of the Lacks family, Skloot pulled no punches and presented the raw truths of criminal activity, abuse, addiction, and poverty alongside happy gatherings and memories of Henrietta. No biographical piece would be complete if it were only window dressing and trying to paint a rosy picture of this maligned family without offering at least a little peek into their daily lives. However, it balanced out and Skloot ended up with what the reader might call a decent introduction to this run of the mill family unit. Their ire at being duped by Johns Hopkins was apparent, alongside the dichotomy that HeLa cells were so popular, yet the family remained in dire poverty in the poor areas of Baltimore.

The legal ramifications of HeLa cell usage was discussed at various points in the book, though there was no firm case related to it, at least not one including the Lacks family. One person I know sought to draw parallels between the Lacks situation and that of Carrie Buck, as illustrated wonderfully in Adam Cohen’s book, Imbeciles ( While the courts surely fell short in codifying ownership of cells and research done on them, the focus of Skloot’s book was the social injustice by Johns Hopkins, not the ineptitude of the US Supreme Court, as Cohen showed while presenting Buck v. Bell to the curious audience. While George Gey vowed that he gave away the HeLa cell samples to anyone who wanted them, surely the chain reaction and selling of them in catalogues thereafter allowed someone to line their pockets. Skloot offers up numerous mentions from the family, usually through Deborah, that the Lacks family was not seeking to get rich off of this discovery of immortal cells. While companies were spending millions and profiting billions from the early testing of HeLa cells, no one in the family could afford to see a doctor or purchase the medicines they needed (all of which came about because of tests HeLa cells facilitated!). It is both fascinating and angering to see the system wash their hands of the guilt related to immoral collecting and culturing of these HeLa cells. Skloot did explore the slippery slope of cells and tissue as discarded waste, as well as the need for consent in testing them, something the reader ought to spend some time exploring once the biographical narrative ends. It is sure to confound and confuse even the most well-grounded reader.

The latter chapters touched upon the aptly used word from the title “Immortal” as it relates to Henrietta Lacks. Be it a biography that placed a story behind the woman, a detailed discussion of how the HeLa cell came into being and how its presence is all over the medical world, or that medical advancements as we know them will allow Henrietta Lacks’ being to live on for eternity, the reader can reflect on which rationale best suits them. While there is a religious undertone in the biography as it relates to this, Christianity is not inculcated into the reader’s mind, as it was not when Skloot learned about these things.

Do I know Henrietta Lacks any better now, after Skloot completed her work? Most definitely! Can I, a complete scientific dunce, better understand HeLa cells and the idea behind cell growth and development? Completely! Do I feel there was an injustice done to the Lacks family by Johns Hopkins in 1951 and for decades to come? Yes, I do harbour a strong resentment to the duplicitous attitude undertaken by a hospital whose founder sought to ensure those who could not receive medical care on their own be helped and protected. Is there a lingering legal argument to be made for compensatory damages or at least some fiduciary responsibility owed to the Lacks family? That is a very grey area for me, only further complicated by the legal discussions in the Afterward and the advancement of new and complicated scientific discoveries, which also bore convoluted legal arguments. I will say this… Skloot brought Henrietta Lacks to life and if that puts a face to those HeLa cells, perhaps all those who read this book will think twice about those medicines used in their bodies and the scientific breakthroughs that are attributed to many powerful companies and/or nations. Maybe then, Henrietta can live on in all of us, immortal in some form or another.

Kudos, Madam Skloot for intriguing someone whose scientific background is almost nil. You brought numerous stories to life and helped me see just how powerful one woman can be, silenced by death and the ignorance of what those around her were doing.

Like/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at:

Out of Bounds (Inspector Karen Pirie #4), by Val McDermid

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Val McDermid, Grove Atlantic, and Atlantic Monthly Press for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

In a continued meteoric rise, McDermid places DCI Karen Pirie in another first-rate novel that sees her working on the complicated Historic Cases Unit. A horrific vehicular accident leaves three young men dead and eighteen year-old Ross Garvie clinging to life. A routine sample for blood alcohol levels includes DNA analysis and is sent to Police Scotland’s database for comparison with any outstanding cases. A flag pops up on a rape-murder twenty years before, where Tina McDonald was left amongst the rubbish bins at a local bar. There is a familial match between Garvie and the rapist, which is the only clue Pirie has to solve the case. As Garvie was not yet born at the time of the crime, all eyes shift to his father, which is further complicated because Garvie was adopted at birth. Wresting with the bureaucratic red tape and awaiting a sheriff’s approval to access the original birth certificate, Pirie must bide her time, a trait she does not come by naturally. This sends her to poke around a recent case of Gabriel Abbott, who apparently committed suicide. What piques Pirie’s interest is that Carolyn Abbott, mother of the deceased, died when the Cessna on which she flew disintegrated when a bomb exploded onboard in 1994. Never formally solved but attributed to an IRA act of terror, Pirie begins poking around on her own, keeping all her work hidden from superiors and the DI handling Gabriel’s case. As with most cold cases, this one is far from simple, though the politics involved extend well-past Bloody Sunday retribution. The more Pirie learns, the less she feels Gabriel Abbott died under his own hand, though the remains as murky as pea soup. While work does seem to keep her busy, Pirie is still struggling with the recent death of Phil Parhatka, whose place in her heart remains a gaping hole and one that she is only just able to address. A conversation with a few new locals in town puts it all in perspective for her, though does not diminish the power of grief. Juggling both case, Pirie moves forward with the birth certificate for Ross Garvie, which takes her on more wild chases and ruffles the feathers of all who will listen. The death of Carolyn Abbott and mutterings by Gabriel about some ‘conspiracy’ must surely tie the cases together, though Pirie cannot work it out with ease. Can the Historic Cases Unit solve three murders or will the killers all disappear in the wind, never to be brought to justice? McDermid spins another fabulous tale that pits Karen Pirie into her most challenging cases yet.

Only recently discovering the DCI Pirie collection, I have been happy to devour all four books on offer to date. They are not only well composed, but require the reader to divide their attention between the present and numerous parts of the past, as the case is pieced together. Karen Pirie’s character can be rough around the edges, pushing her way up the ranks within Police Scotland, while also showing a deeply personal side as she mourns the loss of her partner and lover. McDermid effectively shows this balance, as well as adding a number of characters who are able to coax out all this sentiments from the protagonist. With significant amounts of humour and Scottish colloquialisms, McDermid leaves the reader to feel as though they are right in the mix. The narrative pushes the story along, while also taking the necessary rest stops to develop aspects of the case that require more synthesising. All this done without losing any of the story’s momentum or the thrill of the hunt as the killers remain on the loose, awaiting Pirie’s sleuthing to find them. McDermid appears ready to tackle anything put before her and I am pleased to see that she continues to be highly successful in this venture.

Kudos, Madam McDermid for another wonderful novel. I hope you will keep writing Pirie novels. I am curious, since you have a number of successful series, if you will entertain a crossover at some point. Brilliant if you would consider it for us fans!

Dark Water (DCI Erika Foster #3), by Robert Bryndza

Eight stars

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

The latest DCI Erika Foster novel allows Bryndza to return with another stellar piece of work that is sure to keep readers chatting for months to come. After a rocky end during her last major case, DCI Foster has accepted a position with the Projects Team, fighting organised crime and high-value contraband shipments. As they scour a local body of water for a significant stash of heroin, a container with a small skeleton is found lodged in the sand under the depths of murky waters. After the contents are identified, it proves to be the body of Jessica Collins, a seven year-old who has been missing since the summer of 1990. After pleading to be given the case, noting her track record and inability to rest until the crime is solved, Foster is given the chance to head-up the investigation, choosing some of her own team. With little forensic evidence, there are no leads, forcing Foster to return to a paedophile who was arrested early on during the investigation. However, a settlement with the MET makes him off-limits and Foster is grasping at straws. She thinks to approach former DCI Amanda Baker, who headed the original investigation, though a forced retirement coupled with years nursing resentments and the bottle have left this one-time rising star all but useless. Still, she is able to offer Foster a few leads that might pan out, but wants to be kept in the loop. While Foster and her team think to chase down the residents of a halfway house close to the property, someone is watching from the shadows, intent that no one will reveal what really happened to Jessica Collins and her twenty-six year cold case. During a brief lull in the action, Foster receives a surprise visit that not only rocks her world but leaves her thinking about the husband she lost back in Manchester. Foster must pull herself together and focus on the present, rather than sitting in the past and stewing over what might have been. After two police officers with connections to the case are murdered, Foster realises that they must work fast and get answers, before the cover-up pushes the case back into the realm of ‘unsolved’ for another generation. A powerful novel with twists at just the right moment, Bryndza delivers a great novel to keep the reader hooked.

While I came late to the game in admiring DCI Erika Foster and the work of Robert Bryndza, I have come to love the style of writing he presents. His readers are treated to complex plots that turn in multiple directions while pushing the story forward at every turn. The reader has a handful of characters who continue to grace the pages of the series, as well as a set of new ones, keeping the story fresh for those who have thoroughly enjoyed the past two Foster cases. Bryndza’s move to a cold case genre does require some new sleuthing (for Foster) and a style of writing that keeps a present and past narratives sharp and succinct, all of which is achieved effortlessly. The struggles in solving the case should keep the reader from guessing too early on what awaits them, while also admiring how things have developed over time. Adding Foster’s personal struggles with Mark, her dead husband, offers the reader a personal side that is covered while working the case. That it comes back in all novels, as well as the zany Slovak family that Erika tried to leave behind her, personalises the experience and keeps the reader wondering what else Erika Foster might be hiding in her steel lockbox she calls a backstory. Wonderfully revealed with much more to go, Bryndza has enough material to keep him writing for years to come.

Kudos, Mr. Bryndza for pulling readers into this captivating story that spans almost three decades. I never tire of your storytelling and hope your fountain of ideas is far from drying up.

All He’s Got: A Legal Thriller Short Story, by Nick Nichols

Eight stars

A thank you goes out to my Goodreads friend, Linda, for recommending this short story to me. Nick Nichols is surely an author who ought to be read and enjoyed by many and I would not have found him with such ease had I not let Linda sway me.

Nichols bursts onto the published scene with this thought provoking short story that forces the reader to think while enjoying all the tale has to offer. Jack Adams is still trying to get his life and legal work back in order after serving a six month suspension. When he is approached by Jeremy Weldon, his new client presents an interesting scenario to consider. Jeremy’s brother, Darrell, was in a serious car accident that left him comatose. Darrell’s wife, Lucinda, has decided that she wishes to have a child with her husband and has procured the services of a storage facility should she be able to extract his sperm. Without any medical certainty as to how long Darrell has, Lucinda wishes to act immediately. Jeremy argues that not only is his sister-in-law being unfaithful, but that Darrell would not have wanted a family with his wife, once he learned of her adultery. Debating all the angles and how he might tackle the case and the relatively new area of contested reproductive rights and the law, Jack agrees to represent Jeremy in hopes of making him the guardian to act on his brother’s behalf. In court, both side present their arguments, some emotional and others rooted in the law, but both seeking the upper hand on the plan to retrieve Darrell’s contribution to continuing his legacy. However, there are some areas that are without clear precedent and it is here that Jack Adams can excel, or fail miserably. Nichols offers the reader a chance to weigh in, if only in their mind, to see which side of the fence they would take, all before the judge’s ruling and the fallout from there. A wonderful introduction to a new author who is sure to craft a number of successful legal thrillers, if this story is any indication of capability.

Nichols uses few words to convey a powerful message, both legal and emotional, in this first published offering. He creates a plausible plot by using some realistic characters and scenarios, before pushing them along a legal path that is wrought with twists and uncertainties. While the genre is full of mediocre authors who try to grandstand and push their legal views on the reader, if only through a well-spun narrative, Nichols seems fit to offer the facts and permits the reader to weigh in on their own, albeit one side is a little stronger, as Jack Adams is the central character in this short story. While I will not toss out other authors whose calibre Nichols could reach with more writing of this nature, I will admit that should this writing (and likely the full-length novel he touts) make its way into the hands of many, he will be a household name before too long.

Kudos, Mr. Nichols for opening my eyes and mind to some of the issues surrounding reproductive technology and the murky waters the law sets out for it.

The Skeleton Road (Inspector Karen Pirie #3), by Val McDermid

Eight stars

McDermid continues to impress with another novel, adding an historic twist to keep readers enthralled. A skeleton is lodged high in a Victorian-era building in the heart of Edinburgh. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTFY) have a number of war criminals from the Balkan wars in their crosshairs and seek one at the top of their list, a ruthless Croatian. Such begins the latest Karen Pirie novel and pulls the reader deep into the narrative. Now a Detective Chief Inspector of the Historic Cases Unit (perhaps more PC than ‘Cold Case Squad’), Pirie is called to the scene of the skeleton discovery, but is baffled as to how a body made it so high up. The skeleton cannot easily be identified, even with a bullet hole in the back of the skull and degraded evidence around the remains. Pirie and her team must begin the slow and onerous process of identifying the skeleton, as well as plotting a scenario for getting a body up to such an out of the way location, all while determining a concrete motive. With a rash of free climbing of public buildings, could this be someone who was caught and had justice served without a charge of trespassing levied? While they wait for DNA analysis, Pirie heads the investigation to follow some leads to Oxford, where one General Dimitar Petrovic and Professor Maggie Blake were said to have lived. With Blake admitting that Petrovic has been gone for eight years, she offers up a possibility that he has returned to his homeland, Croatia, to deal with some of the fallout from the Balkan War in which he fought fiercely. Pirie learns the same General Petrovic is being sought by the ICTFY for war crimes, which only ups the ante and adds numerous faceless suspects to the already murky mix. Could a leak within the ICTFY have fed Petrovic’s name to an assassin? Might someone from his past be responsible for seeking the ultimate redemption? While Pirie contemplates this, she must also handle an accident that leaves her lover and former colleague, Phil Parhatka, clinging to life. McDermid uses numerous flashbacks through the eyes of Maggie Blake to paint not only the picture of her connection with Petrovic, but the early days of the Balkan War and the horrors that befell the region and its inhabitants. Perhaps one of McDermid’s most powerful novels to date, the reader can be pulled into the narrative while discovering much from recent Balkan history. Not to be missed by series fans and general enthusiasts alike.

While the idea of cold case resolution (or, shall I call it historic case finality?) has a certain drama to it, McDermid has upped her skill even more. Having worked through a number of intriguing cases that garnered much curiosity in past novels, McDermid offers readers more recent and controversial regional history to weave into the already exciting narrative. Presenting numerous historical lessons and interpretations on which the reader can further their knowledge later, McDermid places a mysterious murder with strong ties to a post-Communism disintegration of the Baltic region. The characters are not only varied, but offer different angles to the same narrative, which produces a fuller and more thought-provoking novel. McDermid may not hide the direction of the case or its likely perpetrators, but her masterful way of telling a story keeps the reader fully engaged until the very end. As per usual, she releases the poignant information with a portion of the novel to go, then presents its fallout, almost aiding the reader to better understand justifications, or as much as can be offered when a heinous crime takes place. I must a take a moment here to address those who bemoan the predictability in this novel in particular, or that McDermid strayed away from the formula that worked well. To those people I can only shrug and raise an eyebrow as they seek to wring Shakespearean genius from a novel that purports to be fiction in nature. Fiction is meant to entertain and intrigue, while non-fiction should educate or offer gems on which people can spend years debating. I find the pretentious reader is always looking for perfection or a faultless novel with perfect literary traps or characters who do no reveal themselves until the very end. These are the same people who complain if a book is too dense or cannot grab them in the opening forty pages. Alas, it takes all kinds to create a reader base, I suppose. 

Kudos, Madam McDermid for an exciting novel. I loved the historical aspects that pull reality into the middle of a wonderfully crafted mystery. 

The Verdict (Jon Roscoe #2): A BookShot, by James Patterson and Robert Gold

Eight stars

Patterson and Gold return for another joint writing assignment in the BookShot collection. Jon Roscoe remains head of Global Security for the Tribeca Luxury Hotel chain, anchoring himself at the glamorous London establishment. During a high-profile criminal trial, the hotel is housing the defendant, billionaire Harvey Rylands. Accused of attempting to murder his lover, Elegant Daniels, Rylands has done all he can to drag out alternate theories of the crime, while acting as though he is above reproach. However, Daniels delivers some damning testimony that could seal the fate of the defendant as she hints that his temper and her demand not to be the scorned lover must have fuelled the attempts to see her die. During an investigation of a hotel security breach, Roscoe discovers some information that thickens the plot on Rylands’ past, one that could weigh heavily on motive, as the trial that currently sits in the jury’s hands. Roscoe can only hope the truth comes out and sets free those who are the most deserving. A fast-paced story that will keep the reader flipping pages until the final paragraph.

Since the launch of the BookShots publications, Patterson has been able to turn the calibre of writing attributed to him from lacklustre to, at times, pristine. Gold offers up some wonderful ideas in crafting the second Roscoe piece that proves entertaining as well as captivating. The characters are, again, decently developed, though Roscoe remains front and centre in this story again. The premise is not new, but it is also not regurgitated in such a way that the reader tires of it. I found myself speeding through the chapters, hooked on wanting to move forward, which is surely the test of any novel or short story. Patterson shines, but nothing is more brilliant than Gold, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Gold for this great piece. I cannot wait for the next Jon Roscoe BookShot in the coming months.

Dating (The Ladybird Books for Grown-ups Series), by J.A. Hazeley and J.P. Morris

Six stars

Hazeley and Morris offer a sarcastic spin to the apparently highly popular Ladybird children books, surely familiar to those in the United Kingdom. Presented with the most tongue-in-cheek comments on the dating world as interpreted through sketches from actual Ladybird books, the reader is able to see just how silly things can get in the world of dating and how mockery or ‘taking the piss’ can inject humour in a sometimes highly aggravating process. 

There is little need to analyse or synthesise the book, readable in a mere 5-7 minutes, other than to say, sitting down to read it will surely leave the reader wanting to find the others in the collection. That is, if the intended humour can be found in these written words.

Kudos, Messrs. Hazeley and Morris for this lighthearted look at dating and all its permutations. Take the piss out of any subject and you’ll be sure to have a great following.

Fall (Archer and Bennett #3),  by Candice Fox

Eight stars

Returning for a third instalment of the Archer-Bennett series, Fox takes readers down the more precarious of thriller rabbit holes while keeping things as sinister as her past two novels have exemplified. After almost losing her life to a serial killer and admitting her moonlighting as a killer herself, Eden Archer must rely heavily on her partner, Frank Bennett. Their latest case sees women targeted while out for a run, tranquillised and their faces pummelled. With little but CCTV footage that shows a shadowy figure, Archer and Bennett struggle to make any progress. Bennett’s girlfriend, police psychologist Dr. Imogen Stone, has a project of her own on which she is working; seeking to bring closure to long-ago cold child kidnapping cases in Australia. Using her numerous connections, Stone is able to focus her attention and acquire the large rewards, though she does so anonymously. Her most recent project is to nail down whatever happened to Morgan and Marcus Tanner. The deeper she digs, the more her inclination leans towards Eden Archer as an adult Morgan. Piecing together what Heinrich ‘Hades’ Archer might have had to do with the kidnapping and murder of the children’s parents proves to be Stone’s central focus, which puts Eden on the defensive when she learns of this through backchannels. This is one secret that cannot be revealed, no matter what. While working the ‘Sydney Park Strangler’ case–poorly named, but catchy for media sound bytes–Bennett encounters a victim with whom he worked in the past, young Amy ‘Hooky’ Hooku, a tech-savvy seventeen year old whose skills have her working off the books for the authorities. While Bennett liaises regularly with Hooky, this puts Imogen Stone in the awkward position of being jealous of a child. While the killer’s backstory is told throughout the novel, it is only when a strong-willed woman seeks to take the city back for those women who enjoy running in the city’s parks that it becomes the greatest cat-and-mouse game that Archer and Bennett have ever witnessed. Over seven thousand potential victims and one killer who has offered little to identify them. Will Stone uncover Eden’s true identity while the killer remains on the loose, thereby distracting the detective from her job to sweep the breadcrumbs under the table? And how can Archer handle her partner’s constant discussion of the moonlighting she has been doing, questioning every dead body that turns up in Sydney as perhaps being one of Eden’s kills? Poignant down to the final sentence, Fox pulls her readers into a vortex from which their is no exit, save a fall into the abyss of confusion.

Before I go any further, the title and progress of the narrative hint towards this being the final novel in a powerful trilogy, one that should not be read out of order if the reader enjoys a captivating story that develops over time. Fox has utilised all her skills and shows why she was awarded some key Australian literary honours for this series, as she places two detectives, polar-opposites to one another, together and has them fighting crime on the streets of Sydney. The choice of characters and the backstories they are given is all purposeful and plays into the larger narrative and the storylines as they fuel the series’ momentum. There is little to say other than that there is much to enjoy in the banter between characters, sarcastic and jilted as it can be. The narrative takes twists and turns, while revealing much from the outset. Fox seeks not to create a ‘whodunit’ but more a ‘how with they get to the answer’ situation, which places the reader in the driver seat from the get-go. The inner struggle each character possesses helps to construct a larger and more uncertain central foundation that propels the narrative into countless directions. One could also comment that the lack of formal chapters (though breaks in momentum create natural places for them) helps to show that the entire novel is a single fall, slow in the beginning, but quicker by the last third. Fox does not shy away from surprises, some of which will hit the reader from unexpected directions. This only goes to strengthen the argument that Candice Fox is rising from within the genre to make a sensational name for herself.

Kudos, Madam Fox for another powerful novel. While I know you are co-authoring with James Patterson, I hope your voice is not muted pairing yourself with a juggernaut. You are a force to be reckoned with in the thriller genre.