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 (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25938480-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.

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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.