This Was a Man (Clifton Chronicles #7), by Jeffrey Archer

Nine stars

Archer completes his heptalogy in fine form, coming full circle with the Cliftons and Barringtons, while peppering the narrative with other key characters and their plights from 1978-92. As the novel opens, the reader is left to wonder what has become of Karin Barrington, revealed to be working with the East German Government and in the clutches of her step-father and handler. Shots ring out and a body falls, but it turns out that MI6 has Karin protected and the ultimate traitor lies bleeding to death. While Karin’s revelation is key to opening the novel, her importance fades as husband, Lord Giles Barrington, forges ahead in the House of Lords. Crippled by a Labour loss in the General Election and subsequent backing of the wrong candidate to take over the Party, Giles is shuffled to the back benches to live out his meagre political life. However, while they are unable to wrest the reins of power out of Thatcher’s Conservatives, failure at the top breathes new life into Giles and offers an opportunity to serve in the Shadow Cabinet, with a new opponent in his crosshairs. Meanwhile, Emma Clifton has been enjoying her time as Chairman of Barrington Shipping, but when there is a takeover offer, the money cannot be ignored and she sells the family business to a competitor, which leaves her open to rise amongst the ranks of a hospital board, acting as Chairman of the largest NHS hospital in the country. Emma immerses herself in the intricacies of the hospital while remaining on the radar of PM Margaret Thatcher. Seeing potential in her friend, Thatcher elevates Emma into the Lords as well, opposite her brother, who is only too happy to show her the ropes before he vows to hang her with one of the political variety. Emma is given Undersecretary of State for Health and the entire NHS program rests firmly at her feet. While she seeks to steer a major piece of legislation through the Lords for the Government, Giles will stop at nothing to see Labour triumph as he bandies the legislation around and bullies the sister he knows all too well, leading to a face-off of epic political proportions. Harry Clifton, patriarch of the family, remains pleased resting his his wife’s shadow, waging his own form of war with the characters in his latest novel. Deciding to fulfill a lifetime promise to his mother, Harry embarks on writing his magnum opus while coming to terms with the passing years around him. The idea that germinates is one that he uses to weather personal storms in his own life, things he wishes not to reveal to the rest of the family. Sebastian, son to Emma and Harry, continues his meteoric rise in the banking industry, though he is called on to make a play for a major company, filled with nemeses from his past, in order to protect the virtue of a young woman who is gifted shares in a Last Will and Testament. Sebastian straddles time on both sides of the Atlantic in order to see truth and virtue restored, while keeping Lady Virginia Fenwick from sullying the reputations of anyone else, but more on her in a moment. Sebastian’s precocious daughter, Jessica, has an eye for art and finds nothing that can stand in her way. Nothing, that is, until a Brazilian man turns the future of this nineteen year-old into something that comes crashing down in short order. Jessica’s life goes to tatters and teeters on the precipice, all she has worked towards lost after a night of bingeing and recklessness. There is a glimmer of hope, which comes in the least likely of relatives. While Jessica tries to right herself, Lady Virginia Fenwick continues to plot in order to elude the taxman and his hefty fines for past legal and financial transgressions. As Lady Virginia barely survives the scandal of her faux pregnancy at the hands of a rich American, she sinks her teeth into the 13th Duke of Hertford. Lady Virginia weasels her way closer to fortune, though the Duke’s family can smell a rat, especially when Lady Virginia makes a quick play after a rushed codicil to the Duke’s will. With her long track record of deception and few friends to call her own, Lady Virginia might have to pull out all the stops to keep herself from flirting with financial ruin and becoming destitute. As Archer meanders through his various characters and uses history as a backdrop, he takes the narrative down some truly interesting avenues, which allows him to remind the reader of how far things have come in the last seventy odd years, including putting to rest the lingering question of Harry’s parentage. Offering his three central characters one last encore at centre stage, Archer lays the groundwork to end the Clifton Chronicles, ensuring that there is not a dry eye left in the house… or wherever the reader chooses to devour this truly amazing piece of writing. A powerful novel to end a stellar series, it will be one that readers will want to revisit repeatedly and recommend at every opportunity.

Jeffrey Archer is more than a man! He is surely one of the twentieth century’s greatest storytellers with his vast array of plots and countless characters that breathe life into his ideas. The Clifton Chronicles became an epic seven-novel series that needed every page to deliver the impact that it had to offer. Rich characters who survived against a backdrop both of history and personal growth, strong narratives that meandered across continents, and dialogue that kept the story moving at a clip that was both comprehensive and realistic. Archer told his epic story that took characters seven decades to present and offered lingering after-effects in which the reader sought just a few more chapters of delightful storytelling. While potentially hinting at his next writing assignment, Archer drew parallels between Harry Clifton and himself at times, teasing the reader, and left the door open for all to wonder. The smooth writing style and attention to detail throughout the series attracted scores of new fans in addition to those who have admired Lord Archer for decades. While some may bemoan that things became too predictable in this final novel, lacking the essential thrill to get them out of bed and grabbing for their copy, these are the same people who spend all their time looking for errant acorns in the wilderness as the vast majority enjoy the majesty of the forest. To have had the chance to read such a wonderful series and feel for all of the characters within, I was not surprised when I found myself tearing up at points, especially towards the end. This was a man, a family, a series, and an epic journey. Do consider embarking on the adventure from beginning to end and lose yourself in Lord Jeffrey Archer, as you raise a pen in literary victory.

Kudos, Lord Archer for never letting your readers down. While there will be naysayers, it is likely an inherent need to play the role of Lady Virginia that fuels their bitterness.

Cometh the Hour (Clifton Chronicles #6), by Jeffrey Archer

Eight stars

Archer has much to offer in this penultimate volume of his heptalogy, pushing the Cliftons, Barringtons, and a slew of other characters into the centre of dramatic events of the 1970s. As the novel opens, Emma Clifton awaits news on a libel suit that may see her forced to hand over control of Barrinton’s Shipping, as the Board is divided over her actions. While she is able to weather a rather choppy storm, her prowess is not ignored as she joins more directorships and is kept in the inner circles of the Conservative Party and its rising star, one Margaret Thatcher. As these events progress, Lady Virginia Fenwick will not take the loss in her proceedings with Emma Clifton sitting down. She is prepared to continue her scheming in order to remain in good standings with those around her. Sinking her teeth into a wealthy American, Lady Fenwick devises a plan that will link them and help fund her lavish lifestyle, but only if she can pull off a ruse of enormous proportions without being caught. Her former husband, Giles Barrington, has been busy with his own life since being disgraced during his sister, Emma’s, trial. Giles must admit his affair with a translator in East Germany, Karin Pengelly. This news is splashed across the tabloids, including whispers of a pregnancy, which stymies a return to the House of Commons. Luckily, the PM has secured a spot for him in the House of Lords, where he can make a difference and still hold a Cabinet post. Karin holds a secret from him, which she does not reveal even after they marry; she is an East Germany spy, alongside her step-father, who are keeping the Stasi and Communists informed. However, Karin’s dealing are being closely watched and her future is in jeopardy if she does not turn against the Germans. While the reader may wonder greatly about Sebastian Clifton, son of Harry and Emma, he has his hands full with a collection of issues. After he remains unable to reconnect with his daughter, Jessica, he must focus on the woman who holds his heart at present, one Priya Ghuman. Chasing her across the world, in defiance of her parents, might be the only way he can find true love, though nothing comes as easily as that and plans go drastically awry for the man who has timed everything perfectly. He is forced back to England, empty-handed, and left to handle his job in banking, where a merger is about to turn the tides on how things are run. When a group works behind the scenes to cripple Sebastian’s efforts, he is left to scramble, while one of the key players faces legal proceedings that could end his career and freedom. All this while Sebastian makes another stab at connecting with Jessica and her mother, Samantha, a woman from his past. While he must choose wisely, the precocious Jessica will stop at nothing to unite her family once and for all. Finally, as if he wants nothing more than to sit in the background and write for a living, Harry Clifton continues to fight for the publication of Uncle Joe, a manuscript he prepared for his friend and former cellmate, Anatoly Babakov. While Clifton is sent on a book junket, it is less the content and more his ability to remember large passages that seems to appeal to the American media. However, Harry will stop at nothing to ensure his friend receives all the merit coming to him, even as the Soviets keep him detained in Siberia. When Babakov’s book receives the ultimate award, Clifton takes the reins even after Babakov is unable to attend the ceremony, creating a new movement in the Cold War clash. All this and more await readers who wish to soak up Archer’s powerful novel that lays the groundwork for an exceptional end to it all. Gripping and captivating, with some cliffhangers that show Archer is as cruel as he is a literary genius.

Jeffrey Archer is a man whose writing and ideas never seem to end, even after three-plus decades. He has been able to pull readers into his works by appealing to a large cross-section. Mixing politics with history and adding just enough family drama, Archer knows how to pace a story that keeps the reader wanting to learn a little more. History as a backdrop not only provides a wonderful pace-setter, but also forces the characters to move in a forward motion, no matter what they have on their respective plates. While Archer has been able to use a key collection of characters, he does offer fresh blood in the form of new generations and characters whose importance emerges through the delicately balanced narrative. One would be remiss if they ignored this, as Archer is forced to keep the backstories straight while providing new ideas to keep the reader curious. The mix of a strong setting, powerful narrative, stellar characters, and powerful dialogue creates a dramatic series that pulls the story in so many directions while keeping the reader firmly grounded. And there is still more to come, in the final volume. While I could expound on this novel and the series for days, I have one more novel left to finish it all off. Shall we continue the journey through to its completion?

Kudos, Lord Archer for yet another wonderful novel. Your ideas amaze me, but I have grown to expect to be shocked with every passing publication.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (Charlie Bucket #2), by Roald Dahl

Seven stars

After the hair-raising adventure that Charlie Bucket underwent in the opening novel, Dahl picks up right where he left off, ready to entertain young readers again. When last we spoke of Charlie, he was loading his entire family into the glass elevator from his newly-acquired chocolate factory. With Willy Wonka and Grandpa Joe helping at the controls, Charlie welcomes Mr. and Mrs. Bucket, Grandpa George, and Grandmas Josephine and Georgina into the machine before it blasted off. Heading up, up, up into the sky, Wonka explains the wonders of his machine, which can go in any direction and into any room whatsoever. Wonka is eager to show off the elevator’s prowess, blasting it into space, where the group is spotted by a US rocket ship full of astronauts. Reporting back to the White House, these astronauts speak about the peculiar nature of the unidentified ship in front of them. The President of the United States is sure they are astronaut spies that cannot be trusted, even from afar. As Wonka and Charlie dock the elevator onto the International Space Hotel USA, more drama ensues when an extra-terrestrial being is seen wandering around. Knowing much about space and its inhabitants, Wonka helps protect the aforementioned US ship and the containment pod carrying workers for the hotel, before blasting back towards earth. Upon arrival back at the factory, Wonka seeks to enliven Charlie’s grandparents, in hopes that they will get out of bed and help run the factory. Stubborn and old, George, Georgina, and Josephine refuse, but are subject to a product that Willy Wonka has been using inside the factory walls; a pill that can reverse the aging process. When the three greedy grandparents take matters into their own hands, Wonka must use another product, with the opposite effect, to calibrate their ages again. Just as Charlie thinks the drama might be done, there comes a special letter from Washington, with another round of adventures for everyone to enjoy. Dahl’s creative juices were surely flowing and shall never be bottled as he creates more fun for the young and those who feel it in the bones.

While not as crafty as the first Charlie Bucket story, Dahl brings readers into the fold with another outlandish tale that pushes the limits of the imagination. That said, it does clip along nicely and utilises some of the minor characters from the opening tale (grandparents) in a more hands-on role, which is sure to pique the interest of the reader. Dahl chooses to focus more on the action-adventure in this book than the slowly evolving adventure that touches the heart, which I did not care for as much, but still remain happy to see how things developed. The novel poses fewer themes and lessons than pure, silly entertainment for the reader. I can see what this was never picked up for a movie (to the best of my knowledge), but can only hope that if it is, Johnny Depp is kept away from the project, as he left a new generation with a sour taste in their mouths that no Oompa Loompa could fix. While the ending does leave room for more adventures and the characters could make for an interesting mix within the factory walls, the passing of Roald Dahl in 1990 has made that a natural impossibility. But, with a score of other novels for children to explore, there is hope that the new generation will look back to what entertained their parents and grandparents, finding richness in stores that did not require vampires, wizards, or even Middle School.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for touching so many lives across the generations with simple ideas that flourish into magic.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Charlie Bucket #1), by Roald Dahl

Nine stars

Before there were amorous zombies, sleuthing twelve year-olds, or even a teacher who traipsed around in his underwear, children turned to Roald Dahl for their literary entertainment. I thought it the perfect time to zip through time and relive one of my childhood favourites, in hopes that I might soon introduce my son to the wonders of Willy Wonka and his glorious factory. Dahl opens by presenting the reader with Charlie Bucket and his family, confined to a small cottage on the outskirts of town and as poor as can be. Charlie’s one true love is to receive a bar of Wonka’s chocolate on his birthday, which he savours for a month. When news comes that the famous Willy Wonka will open his factory up for five children to tour, the world goes mad. Five golden tickets have been placed in random bars of chocolate, leaving everyone to buy and tear through the wrapping in hopes of finding that glistening entry pass. One by one, tickets emerge when children purchase bars upon bars: first Augustus Gloop, then Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde, and Mike Teavee. Much press coverage is made of these four, though there remains a single ticket left out there, waiting for a pair of grubby hands to grip it by the corner. On a gamble, Charlie uses a coin his discovers and purchases a bar of chocolate that does, miraculously, hold the final ticket. After choosing to attend the factory with his Grandpa Joe, they set off. Arriving at Wonka’s delectable abode, all the children and their chaperones enter and begin learning of the wonders of chocolate making, from the rivers of chocolate to the rooms filled with nut-cracking squirrels, through to experimental chewing gums that will replace the need for meals. All this is overseen by a collection of small people, the Oompa Loompas, whose poetic verses are as exciting as their appearance. One by one, the children flock to something they cannot do without, slowing falling prey to the machinations of the tubes, trapdoors, temptations, and televisions within the factory, leaving Charlie and Grandpa Joe alone as the tour comes to a close. Wonka’s revelation of this fact leads him to make an offer to Charlie that is more than any child might dream and turns the future of Wonka’s factory on its head. Surely, Dahl will expound on that in the sequel, on which I will firmly place my hands like a gluttonous child looking for a golden ticket. Oh, to be a child again!

I will never forget growing up with Roald Dahl’s books around me. Many of his stories are household classics for me, as is the 1971 movie of this book, where Gene Wilder brought Willy Wonka to life. As an adult, I can see some of the themes that Dahl seeks to instil in his readers, about fate, greed, gluttony, and patience. Told in such a fabulous manner as to entertain rather than inculcate, Dahl does not go for the pizzazz and hoopla of some drivel authors use now to lure readers into their novels. I am quite sure everyone wonders about an Oompa Loompa on occasion, which is enough to make me want to return to these books on a regular basis. One cannot criticize Dahl’s work without upsetting a generation or two of readers, in its simplicity and complex themes offered up simultaneously. I would venture to say, the reader and listener (adult and child, alike) will take something from this book and find magic in the formulation. Brilliant in its crafting and heart-warming in the delivery. 

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for touching so many lives with your creativity and awesomeness.

Field of Fire (Jericho Quinn #7), by Marc Cameron

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Marc Cameron, Kensington Books, and Pinnacle for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

In his latest Jericho Quinn novel, Cameron takes readers back to the frozen tundra of Alaska for an explosive thriller. When a deadly nerve agent is released at a high school football game in Dallas, all fingers point to a branch of ISIS, especially with the perpetrators dressing the part. The President’s National Security Advisor calls on Jericho Quinn and others within the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) to stop the threat before it blossoms. Chatter links the gas, called New Archangel, to a Russian chemist, Kostya Volodin. During a trip from his homeland to Alaska, Volodin and his daughter, Kaija, have apparently sought to defect. Before everyone can be properly sorted, Volodin and Kaija disappear and are hiding. Russian officials are seeking to find their rogue scientist before he can release any more news about the gas. The narrative exposes that it is the Russians who are responsible for the gas and its attacks, with primary blame falling at the feet of the Black Hundreds, a terror organization seeking the purity of Russia. Quinn is tasked with finding Volodin within Alaska while Jacques Thibodaux and Ronnie Garcia, two others from the OSI, are sent to New York, where the scientist’s son has apparently been sent some of the New Archangel by accident. An attack in Los Angeles makes the mission even more important and shows that the next attack could happen at anytime, anywhere. While Thibodaux and Garcia team up with an old friend in NYC, Quinn is set to work with Thibedaux’s cousin, Specal Agent Khaki Beaudine of the FBI as they travel through Alaska seeking out the senior Volodin. Quinn’s mission takes them into the tundra, involved in a winner-takes-all game with a Russian sniper, known locally as Worst of the Moon. Needing to secure Volodin as soon as possible, Quinn and Beaudine soon discover that some will stop at nothing to keep them from completing their mission. They traverse cold and open tracts of land to find Volodin, only to discover that Anchorage might be the location chosen for the next attack and that someone close to Volodin could be masterminding the entire Black Hundreds. While Thibodaux and Garcia seek to infiltrate the underworld to keep the gas out of the hands of anyone in the Big Apple, Quinn will use all his strength and determination not to fail, though every man has their physical limits. A wonderfully fast-paced story that turns the cat and mouse game into one of bear and seal. Series fans will surely enjoy this story while newcomers will likely become hooked and clammer for the rest of Cameron’s work.

The story is by no means unique, but Jericho Quinn does not seek to be completely one of a kind. However, it is not only the handful of strong characters that keep the novel pushing forward so effectively, but the attention to detail and drawing the reader in from the get-go that strengthens the narrative. While Cameron places his protagonist in a situation that might breed something repetitive, the use of Alaska and its barren hinterland served as a unique approach, especially when venturing into field traumatic medicine and tactical sniper calculations, allowing the reader something new to digest. Add to that, Cameron has seen that the ISIS and Islamic terror cell is becoming overdone in thrillers and shifts his villain base over to the emerging (and re-discovered?) Russian criminal, who drives home ruthless hatred for capitalist America and new-found money to fund such act of significant damage. Surely there is something beneficial in that as the majority of writers continue to flog an idea developed fifteen years ago. Keeping some of the wonderful dialogue and unique settings for his novels, Cameron delivers another decent piece that should appease readers without lulling them into any form of repetitive normalcy.

Kudos, Mr. Cameron on another successful novel. Jericho Quinn has a lot to offer and you’ve left much to be discovered or expanded upon, when time permits.

Woman of God, by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

Seven stars

The Patterson-Paetro partnership returns with a one-off novel that seeks to explore faith, religion, and the strength in both that one woman possesses in the modern world. Brigid Fitzgerald has been working in South Sudan, serving as a doctor and trauma surgeon in a war-torn corner of the country. After the medical facility is attacked by guerillas, many are slaughtered, including the local priest and Brigid’s mentor. As she struggles to come to terms with this, Brigid, too, is attacked and left for dead. She sees a collection of visions and is left to wonder if she is communicating with God. Brigid wakes in an Amsterdam hospital and learns that she has been brought back from death and from thereon in has an odd and strengthened communication with God, from visions to complete conversations. As Brigid’s life progresses, she continues to have a strong connection to God and uses this relationship to shape the lives of those around her. Tragedy offsets triumph and Brigid learns that God’s decisions are not always pleasant, though there is surely a larger plan to which she is not always privy. After forging a friendship with Father James Aubrey, they weather a scandalous event and find that the Roman Catholic Church remains rooted in its archaic ways. Platonic ties soon turn romantic and Brigid works with Aubrey to create the Jesus Mary and Joseph (JMJ) Movement; a church seeking to modernise some Roman Catholic views as they relate to worship and those who are welcome in the flock. Of course, traditionalists rage against such blasphemy, though Brigid and Aubrey refuse to stop preaching. After a blessed marriage and birth of a daughter Aubrey and Brigid face yet more tragedy, enough to turn anyone from God. Brigid is now head of a movement, one that seeks compassion and openness, while there are still those out there seeking to rid the world of her proselytising. The rumbles of the JMJ Movement continue, with churches popping up all over the world, and leads to an audience with His Holiness, Pope Gregory XVII. What follows is a powerful narrative that turns the foundations of modern Catholicism on its head. An interesting read for those with open minds and seeking to explore the parameters of individual faith.

The premise of the novel is surely grounded in something other than most Patterson fans might expect. While crime and legal dramas have filled bookshelves, there is a softer and more wholesome story found within the pages of this novel. What Patterson and Paetro seek to offer the reader is an exploration of one woman’s faith and struggles that surround it, while also examining the delight that can come from such a connection. One might also say that the authors are depicting Brigid as a modern-day Job, testing her faith with innumerable hurdles as the chapters progress. While the argument towards strength of faith is key, there is also a strong undertone that remains highly critical of the Roman Catholic Church and its principles. All this develops and digresses throughout, complete with a Conclave that emerges with Brigid on the lips of many cardinals. Putting aside the ignored rules and regulations surrounding this, the soft and dramatic events leading up to this are meant to touch the heart of the reader, while pushing them towards hoping that Brigid can shepherd in change. Using a plethora of strong characters, the authors develop a strong protagonist that sees the story take many twists before its ultimate set of revelations. While the story is strong for its messaging, I found it hokey and even melodramatic in spots, with a narrative that gets gushy and eve smarmy. However, it does what it seeks to do, push women and the Church to the forefront, while also allowing the fairer sex to hold the reins during numerous crises of faith. For that, Patterson and Paetro cannot be faulted. Well-crafted for those who want a break from Patterson’s tepid writing, which exemplifies that Paetro is able to save yet another story from ruin. 

Kudos, Mr. Patterson and Madam Paetro for this book that touches the heart and soul of many. While I was not moved to speak out, I enjoyed some of the less than subtle attacks on the Holy See’s arcane views. 

Shantaram (Shantaram #1), by Gregory David Roberts

Nine stars

Returning to read Gregory David Roberts’ epic novel again, I found myself drawn to the complexities and nuances embedded throughout the text. As the novel opens, the reader is introduced to Lin, a man who has escaped his Australian jail and arrives in Bombay, hoping to hide in India’s vast populace. Early on, Lin is forced to realise that India is a beast unlike any other; culturally, racially, and economically. It is, however, home to many who have the same idea, hiding from their criminal pasts elsewhere. These include Karla Saarinen, a woman who occupies Lin’s mind and dreams from the moment he lays eyes on her. As Lin befriends others who have recently arrive in country, seeking to blend into the billions around him with vague and beige backstories, he meets a tour guide, Prabaker (Prabu). Their connection is almost instantaneous, soon becoming an entertaining pair throughout the narrative. Prabu is able to help Lin make numerous connections in and around the city. While they venture out to better explore Bombay and eventually other parts of the state, Lin learns the culural differences between India and his Australian upbringing. As Prabu and Lin continue their adventures, the latter finds himself living in the city’s slums and opens a medical clinic to cater to the poorest population, where Lin becomes involved with the shady underworld and black market living. Throughout the book, Lin crosses paths with those whose simple conversations turn philosophical and force him to digest complex analyses to the universe’s most basic concepts. When offered a position working in forged passports by the Bombay Mafia, Lin accepts, if only to explore new pathways to survival. His living in the slums of Bombay prove not only eye opening, but life changing in ways that the reader can only understand by being enveloped in the larger narrative. Even as Lin is able to build himself up in his new homeland, he is broken by the cruelest and most sadistic Indians, especially when his identity is learned and extradition considered. Roberts offers so much in this narrative that it is hard to summarise or believe that this is the life of a single man on the run. However, where truth ends and fiction commences, the reader is permitted a front seat for everything and the chance to change alongside Lin throughout. A must read by any and all who want to offer up all they feel they know, only to finish the book and question everything.

Set in the early to mid-1980s, the story weaves together a collection of vignettes within Lin’s Indian life, while also telling an overarching story of change and progress. I have read that some criticise Roberts for being too free with his truths and duping the reader, though I must say that fiction is all about embellishment or at least working with a clay and forming it into an image of your choosing. Roberts’ writing style is so blunt and yet smooth that the reader cannot help but get lost therein. The daunting size of the book should not deter the interested reader, as the vignettes play out easily and the characters are rich in their backstories and mesh well with the larger tale. Roberts has certainly held back little in this account of his ‘life on the run’, but also offers gaps significant enough to keep scores of questions floating in the minds of the attentive reader. Will these be resolved and if so, how does it all play into the narrative Roberts presents? The second volume of this quasi-memoir should tell more, though the bar has already been set quite high. I am eager to see how the detail will continue and what Roberts has to say with the handful of characters still involved in Lin’s life. This is a brilliant piece of work and I can only imagine what is to come.

I cannot finish this review without commenting on the narrator of the audiobook version of this massive tome. Humphrey Bower brought the story to life, from his melodious Australian accent in the narrative to the countless accents that he brought out to give characters their personality. I adore Bower’s work and his dedication to another favourite author of mine made me wonder, when first I listened, if this was that writer using another name. Powerful and daunting, Bower deserves a shout out for his reading of this piece. I am worried that the second volume, which I must physically read (gasp), will prove much more difficult without Bower at the helm.

Kudos, Mr. Roberts for this epic story. With simplistic writing and complex threads, a vast array of readers will surely enjoy this book. Onto the sequel, which one can hope is as exciting and life-altering.

Exodus (Dominus #2), by Tom Fox

Eight stars

After a stunning thriller in the form of DOMINUS, Fox returns to continue the series with this short story, whose plot commences two months after the previous novel’s conclusion. Embroiled in the most graphic and disturbing nightmare of his life, Alexander Trecchio wakes to discover he is home, but unsure how he made it there. Employed again as a journalist, Trecchio has been burning the midnight oil after the sensational and highly disturbing events inside the Vatican. This nightmare, though murky, had vivid symbols that leave Trecchio unsure how to process them. When a call comes from a trusted friend within the Vatican Museums, Trecchio agrees to meet him on site. Arriving at the Holy See, Trecchio receives access to the Sistene Chapel, desecrated with blood and symbols, things Trecchio can trace back to his nightmare. As Trecchio is able to foretell other events yet to occur, the Swiss Guard place him under arrest for terrorism and soon murder, after the body of a woman is found deeper in the Museums. With no clear motive or suspects, officials have only a single slip of paper with which to work, emblazoned with the word REVENGE. Who could be seeking retribution on the Vatican with complete access to the grounds and how does Alexander Trecchio sit into this larger narrative? Fox weaves through a biblical undertone as he progresses the story against the backdrop of a bomb, waiting to explode inside the Vatican, its timer slowly ticking downward. A brilliant follow-up to his thriller, Fox has found his niche, though the series could hang in the balance with an epic cliffhanger.

Some who may have read my earlier review of Fox’s first short story in the series (Genesis) will remember that I criticised the author for flipping between the present and past as the story progressed. Here, Fox seems to have learned to hone the skill and utilise it to thicken the plot rather than confuse the reader. The story is layered primarily with a set of events perpetrated by a man seeking some form of retribution or revenge on the Vatican and its hierarchy, offset with the present exploration of these events and discoveries of the sinister plot. Peppered throughout is a philosophical viewpoint on sleep and life from the perspective of Alexander Trecchio, the story’s protagonist. As mentioned above, after the scarring events inside the Vatican two months before, Trecchio is left to sift through the ashes of his memories and rebuild his own personal strength. However, someone seeks to begin their own Exodus away from the Vatican, perhaps paralleling the journey series fans know Trecchio himself took when he abandoned the priesthood. Fox uses strong characters to construct this tight short story and a plot that gains momentum with each passing (brief) chapter. It would seem as though Fox has learned from stumbling out of the block with Genesis on how to construct a strong story and lure readers in from the get-go. While one could likely read this story independently, some of the subtleties found in the previous two pieces, specifically DOMINUS, would certainly accentuate the character connection required to fully understand some of the backstory nuances Fox lays throughout the narrative.

Kudos, Mr. Fox for another wonderful piece of writing. I am eager to see if your cliffhanger has resolution or if fans will be pulled into a new set of characters when next you grace us with your work.

Dominus (Dominus #1), by Tom Fox

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Tom Fox, and Quercus (US) for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

As if heeding the call of reviewers and fans after his initial short story in this series, Fox delivers in spades, again diving into conspiracies as they relate to the Catholic Church and the Vatican. When a stranger appears inside St. Peter’s Basilica, everything seems to stop. The Swiss Guard fall to their knees as the stranger approaches, allowing him to pass and approach the Pope, crippled and wheelchair-bound his entire life. In an event paralleling happenings in the New Testament, the Pope rises and is able to walk when summoned to do so. Thereafter, the Supreme Pontiff ushers this man away into his private residences to talk and espouse the miracle that has just taken place. As amateur cellphone footage of the event begins blasting its way online, former priest-cum-journalist Alexander Trecchio is assigned the task of trying to determine what happened within the Vatican and pinpoint the identity of the man of mystery. No one is talking and no leads are forthcoming, forcing Trecchio to turn to his own research. After tracking down two academics who, through the world of the 140 character rebuttal, have been speaking out against the miraculous events seen by most of the world, Trecchio ventures out for answers. Before he can arrive to speak to them, both been brutally murdered. Unsure where else he can turn, Trecchio contacts Inspector Gabriella Fierro of the Polizia di Stato, a former romantic interest and partner on another Vatican-based investigation two years before. While Trecchio is sure there is something that is being covered-up, Fierro is shackled by her superiors and told not to investigate whatsoever. However, she agrees to meet Trecchio and they commence their own sleuthing, not deterred when they become targets in a high-velocity shootout. Suddenly, a collection of blind children are spontaneously able to see and a group of terminally-ill cancer patients show no signs of disease moments after the Pope speaks publicly of his healing. Pundits the world over are convinced that this ‘stranger’ must have some power, with miracles cropping up since he his initial appearance. One final event, a dead girl coming back to life, divides the world; divine acts or complete hoax? Meanwhile, Global Capital Italia’s CEO, Caterina Amato, sits in her offices, surrounded by a cabal of men who seek to capitalise on all these events, hoping to penetrate deep inside the Vatican to its most vulnerable core. Trecchio and Fierro soon find a link between the miracles and a powerful arm within the Vatican, hoping to unveil it, but Amato will stop at nothing to ensure her plan comes to fruition. As the race to reveal truth becomes central, Fox takes the reader through a fast-pace exploration of the inner workings of the Holy See and attempts to place faith and proof under the proverbial microscope. A fascinating thriller that will pull readers in from the opening pages, Fox delivers and shows his potential as a first-rate writer in the genre. 

I love a good Vatican conspiracy thriller, as I mentioned when reviewing Fox’s previous short story. Where there were significant issues with presentation and layout before, this story rectifies that and offers readers something substantial on many levels. Fox takes a strong foundational premise and develops it in numerous ways. The characters are strong, stemming from the two protagonists whose backstory is fleshed out a little more. Working with Trecchio and Vierro, the reader develops a necessary connection, while also remaining piqued by this stranger who appears from nowhere. While it may have a slightly predictable spin, the strong and devious antagonist also helps keep the novel’s pace moving and forces the reader to wonder just how deeply this ‘plan’ runs to infiltrate the Vatican. Fox uses a strong narrative and credible dialogue to propel the story forward, while also honing the short-chapter technique that fits perfectly with the numerous cliffhanger moments embedded throughout. Alongside these ingredients for a great thriller, Fox presents the reader with the inevitable religious/faith spin, while also pushing a ‘seeing the light’ moment, but does so in a relatively tame fashion, keeping those from all (or no) faith bases appeased enough, understanding full-well that the Catholic-centric nature of the discussion is expected. Fox developed a wonderful full-length novel in this story, picking up many of the loose threads left dangling in the prequel. Can he follow this great piece with another winner? We shall soon see, as the sequel (also a short story) is next on my reading list. 

Kudos, Mr. Fox for a great book. I am pleased that I gave you a second chance to redeem yourself and show your true colours.

Genesis (Dominus #0.5), by Tom Fox

Six stars

Fox presents readers with this interesting prequel to his full-length work, diving into conspiracies as they relate to the Catholic Church and the Vatican. After receiving reports of small donations going missing at a tiny parish church in Rome, Polizia di Stato assigns Agent Gabriella Fierro to investigate. Unsure of the importance of a few misallocated euros, Fierro nonetheless begins looking into the small parish and its priest, Father Alberto Agostini. Unbeknownst to Fierro, a former acquaintance has been dispatched to investigate as well, former priest turned journalist Alexander Trecchio. He appears at the church, creating a stir for Fierro, though neither is able to locate Agostini, who made an appointment with them both. Reluctantly working together, Fierro and Trecchio discover that many of the missing funds have a similar alphanumeric code build into their transactions, one that refers to something prevalent in the Scriptures; GENESIS. As they try to track down Agostini, the narrative offer a glimpse into a scene where a man is being tortured for information and another where a Cardinal in Venezuela is targeted for his views within the Vatican, both seemingly part of a larger issue that might tie-in to the funds. What is Genesis and how does using a small church in Rome to funnel monies play into the larger plan? Fierro and Trecchio must speak with Agostini to get some answers before the conspiracy has a chance to grow. However, those in positions of authority can sometimes lay their own traps within shell games, all in an effort to distract from a larger plan. Fox lays out this short story nicely to hint at what is to come and how Genesis might only be the beginning of a plot more sinister than anyone could have imagined. A quick read that piques at least some interest in the reader.

While I am always up for a good Vatican conspiracy thriller, presentation and layout are a must. Fox has the foundation for a great story to captivate the reader, but the way in which the story is told lessens that delivery. While there are some good characters, each with their own backstories and a connection between the two protagonists that is not fully explored, the narratives bounces from past to present to closer past and back to the present again, all in such a way that the reader is left somewhat confused and perhaps slightly irritated. Additionally, the resolution of the Genesis plot seems too basic or swift, though there is surely something afoot that arises in the final chapter of the novel. One can hope that Fox will use a full novel to explore more as it relates to the inner workings of this cabal and how their power could topple the upper echelons of the Vatican, adding politics to an already veiled system of power. There is potential here and the patient reader might just be rewarded, should they stick around a while longer.

Decent work, Mr. Fox. I am pleased to see some potential here and hope that it flourishes into something greater with this next novel. 

Cross the Line (Alex Cross #24, but should be #23.25), by James Patterson

Five stars

Patterson returns with another Alex Cross thriller, leaving series fans curious what is to come, especially after the high-impact ending of the previous story, a BookShot. As if nothing had happened at all, the story opens with Cross investigating an apparent case of road rage, a man shot and killed in his car. However, just as Cross is getting a handle on the situation, a call comes in, reporting an officer has been shot. Rushing to the scene, Alex realises that this is not only his former boss, the Chief of Detectives, but the mentor of his wife, Bree. The killer is out there, but no one is at the helm to guide detectives, until Bree is chosen for this illustrious job, now boss to the famed Dr. Alex Cross. While Bree is to wear multiple hats, she makes a decision on the killing to appease the brass, ignoring the instincts of her own husband. This puts a significant strain on the relationship and tears the Homicide Division in two, just at the time when unity is essential. A drug lab is attacked and many of those inside are left for dead, an apparent act by a group of vigilantes, which has Cross on high-alert. With no firm list of suspects and fluid motives, Cross must pound pavement and ask the right questions before more acts of retribution take place, while still letting the killing of the former Chief of Ds percolate in his mind. When more apparent acts of road age occur, Cross sees a pattern; expensive vehicles and people admitting they may have been skirting traffic laws. Could these killings be fuelled by someone who wants to enforce the laws of the road when no one else will? Pulled in many directions, Cross soon learns that the vigilante movement is stronger than he first thought and that there is a plan to deliver justice on a large scale, with Metro DC in the crosshairs. With all that is going on, one would think that Cross could not focus on his family, but a few issues on the home front force him to take a closer look and reinvent the foundation of the Cross family. An interesting premise for Alex Cross, though delivery seemed slightly strained for me.
I have long been a fan of the Alex Cross series, the only one that James Patterson has kept for himself. While I lamented some of his joint writing ventures, I could always rely on this series to deliver a punch. Perhaps that time has ended, for I felt this novel did not offer the excitement I had hoped. While Cross and the strong supporting cast continue to develop with their backstories, the cases are not pulling me in. Patterson litters the plot with a few cases and has the reader juggling them to keep things straight. Perhaps the best part of the story involves the personal strains in the Cross home, though I will not speak to these, leaving the reader to discover them peppered within the pages of this story. While there was nothing wrong, per se, with Patterson’s work, I could not find myself attaching or feeling any sort of compelling reason to read “just a little more”, as Patterson has always been able to do. Perhaps my mindset, but also likely that Patterson churns out so much that the quality has taken second place to quantity. I must address one thing that I pointed out in the opening, something that I know many series fans have been hoping to better understand. In the BookShot released earlier this year (Cross Kill, Alex Cross #23.5), there was an ending that offered a wonderful cliffhanger. I know many people commented on various sites about how Patterson might have to get the popular character out of the predicament in order to fuel a full-length novel. Without revealing too much, it was only when I opened the first few chapters of said BookShot after completing this novel that I realised that this novel (#24) is actually supposed to PRECEDE the BookShot. Call it poor labelling by the publisher or blame Patterson for not regulating things, the reader is still left to suffer. So now, series fans must wait to see if Patterson addresses things in a timely fashion or if we are to be considered dunces and expected to forget all that happened. Much like a bad season of Dallas in the 1980s. Interesting… but unfortunately baffling all the same.

Interesting work, Mr. Patterson, though I cannot praise you. Perhaps others will and I will give this another read down the road. While your BookShots are entertaining and your countless other series seem to churn out pieces, could it be time to halt the train containing your riches and focus on well-crafted books?

The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Harry Bosch #21), by Michael Connelly

Eight stars

Michael Connelly has done it again, with a stellar novel that follows the ever-evolving travails and work options of Harry Bosch. Out of the LAPD, Bosch is always on the lookout for something new and exciting to bide his time. An acquaintance reaches out to him, running a private security firm and has a favour to ask. Bosch learns that he has personally been requested to meet with billionaire Whitney Vance, though the specifics remains veiled in secrecy. Bosch hesitates, but is intrigued enough to head out to see the man and find out what this business magnate might want with him. During their meeting, Vance recounts the story of impregnating his Mexican girlfriend back in 1950, before his father ushered her away. With no knowledge of what happened and no living heirs, Vance would like to know if his bloodline continued over sixty years ago. Having lived a full life, Vance admits that, at eighty-five, he has started to think about his death and would like to leave the company to family and not the vultures on the board. Bosch begins poking around using old records and with little on which to base his investigation. His intuitive abilities lead him to a former home for unwed mothers, where the mystery thickens and Bosch is left with more questions than answers. The reader also learns that after his major run-ins with the LAPD, Bosch is now working for the San Fernando Police Department (the other SFPD) in their cold case squad. Due to significant budget cuts, Bosch is working without pay, on a reserve basis. As he juggles the Vance investigation, he is neck-deep into a serial rape case involving a perp called the Screen Cutter. Victims are attacked while in their homes and at the height of their monthly fertility. This baffles Bosch on many levels and he works angles as best he can, unsure of much and with only a few insights. While trying to dig further into the Vance case, Bosch finds himself surrounded with memories of his time in Vietnam and the struggles young men across the country had with strict army rules and loved ones left stateside. A old foot locker proves to be a treasure trove of information and helps Bosch learn about a potential heir that could put Vance’s mind to rest, but there is still much work to accomplish. As the Screen Cutter case heats up, Bosch is certain he has a suspect in mind, sending his partner out to add the final pieces to the puzzle. When she falls captive, Bosch’s guilt and desire to see the suspect caught propels him to break rules in ways only he can and bring some form of justice to those who need it the most. Just when he feels he might be able to relax, there is a twist in the Vance case and Bosch is forced to reexamine the truths he’s used throughout the investigation. Connelly does not stop with the action, pulling Mickey Haller in for a small role in this electrifying Bosch novel. Not to be missed by those who love the unconventional nature of Harry Bosch. 

While some authors tend to lose the momentum when series go on for too long, Connelly has been able to keep Harry Bosch alive and always pushing the envelope. No matter the mystery or things going on in his personal life, Bosch finds new ways to entice readers with his rule-breaking and unique sense of justice. Connelly surrounds his protagonist with strong supporting characters and references to those from his past, enough to bridge the old Bosch with yet another version of the man who is tackling police work from different angles. Of particular interest to me was another glimpse into the life of Bosch as a Vietnam soldier, memories of his time there and how it has made him into the man he is now. With a daughter away in college, Bosch is forced to live life on his own, not shackled down but also somewhat adrift. Connelly spins to his advantage as he continues to develop the Bosch character and adds his other great protagonist, Mickey Haller (half-brother to Bosch) to keep things light and somewhat legal. If I could offer a single issue that arose in my listening to this novel, it would be Connelly’s lack of literary flair when describing dialogue. Peppering the page like a errant cap gun the word ‘said’ sticks out like a sore thumb. I only noticed this in the latter few chapters, but it is as if Connelly can find no way to bridge lines of dialogue, which lessens the colourful nature of the narrative. Minute in its importance, true, but when you are working with such a great novel, it is the tiniest things that one grasps when looking for a flaw. Will readers ever tire of Bosch? Not likely, as long as Connelly continues to step up and produce gems like this. 

Kudos, Mr. Connelly for another wonderful novel. I was hooked from the opening chapter and cannot say enough about your abilities.

The Whistler, by John Grisham

Seven stars

In his latest novel, garnering many mixed reviews, Grisham seeks to offer readers yet another angle of the law in thriller format. Lacy Stoltz is gainfully employed with the Florida Bureau of Judicial Conduct, a branch of the state government tasked with keeping those who occupy the bench from stepping too far out of line. When Lacy and her partner, Hugo, meet with Greg Myers, he lets them know that he is acting as an intermediary for someone who has significant information on a corrupt judge, one Claudia McDover. Myers explains that McDover is apparently mixed up with a collection of men who call themselves the Coast Mafia, all of whom have pushed forward the building and maintenance of a casino, The Treasure Key, on tribal land belonging to the Tappacola. McDover and others have been receiving significant payments, contravening numerous laws. McDover is accused not only of ensuring that the casino moved forward, but oversaw a fabricated murder trial of one Junior Mace, a member of the tribe and strong advocate against the casino. With Mace out of the way, opposition by a segment of the Tappacola dissolved, paving the way for its construction and continued prosperity. With Treasure Key significantly in the black, McDover has been further compensated with a number of condominiums, another kickback for her steering judicial decisions in a favourable direction. Digesting all this, Lacy must await a formal complaint, understanding that it will rock the system if even parts of it can be proven. Myers agrees to get the wheels in motion, but warns Lacy about one Vonn Dubose, a member of the Coast Mafia and closely tied to Her Honor. Dubose has connections to men who could make people disappear or worse, which is why the actual whistleblower (or ‘Whistler’ in the vernacular) has yet to come forward themselves. Commencing her formal investigation, Lacy and her partner head to the tribal lands and begin asking questions about the casino and the trial of Junior Mace, who was convicted of killing his wife and close friend in an apparent fit of rage when they were found in bed together. Lacy learns that much of the testimony at trial was flimsy and that witnesses were given a great deal of leeway. While travelling home from their investigation, Lacy and Hugo are struck by a drunk driver, killing Hugo. In a coma for a time, Lacy is incapacitated and the investigation can go nowhere, the time limit for filing slowly ticking away. When Lacy is able to recover enough she has a newfound impetus to bring McDover down and have someone charged for killing Hugo. When Myers goes missing, Lacy realises that someone will stop at nothing to ensure this investigation withers on the vine and so she presses on, soon learning the identity of the Whistler. Now she has to protect this individual if she is to bring the full force of the Bureau of Judicial Conduct down on McDover, while using the additional resources of the FBI, who have jurisdiction on tribal lands when it comes to criminal matters. When the Whistler is apparently identified during monitored phone calls, Lacy must do all in her power to protect this person before all those who have the power to bring McDover down cease to exist. However, the Coast Mafia will do anything in their power to protect their greatest asset, the casino, and the judge who made it all come true. An interesting and unique take to the legal thriller, Grisham keeps the reader wondering throughout. 

I have long enjoyed and respected John Grisham for his varied stories as they relate to the law. While I have struggled with some of his more recent novels, I think that might have something to do with the nuanced aspects of the legal world being explored, rather than diminished writing capacity on the part of the author. As always, Grisham uses a wonderful collection of characters from many walks of life to flavour his story effectively, as well as another southern locale to keep things close to home for him. What I found lacking was something I cannot place; as if the Grisham Spark was missing. The story flowed well and the narrative did not drag, but I was not captivated as I had been in earlier novels, which might have something to do with a lack of ‘David versus Goliath’ mentality that Grisham used to inject into his stories. While there was certainly a Good versus Evil theme to the book, I lacked a connection to the story that I often find when exploring the world of John Grisham. I have seen others review this book and offer similar sentiments, so I know that I am not alone. How to give insight to those who will read this before choosing to read the book, that is something with which I struggle. However, veteran Grisham fans such as myself know when something is off and won’t stand idly by chalking it up to just a poor effort. I will admit, reading the prequel to this story, ‘Witness to a Trial’, did offer some interesting insight into the capital case of Junior Mace that plays a key role in the larger complaint against Claudia McDover. I am happy I took the time to do so and found it helped in that regard. Still, one can hope that this does not become the norm, where Grisham slides into James Patterson’s mentality and rests on his laurels to make millions while churning out less than his best.

Kudos, Mr. Grisham for a good book. That je ne sais quoi seems to have been lacking, which I hope can be found by the next publication. I know your loyal fans will forgive you for it… once.

Without Mercy (Body Farm #10), by Jefferson Bass

Eight stars

Bass sets out to stun and tantalise readers with the tenth novel in the highly-acclaimed Body Farm series. When Dr. Bill Brockton and his longtime assistant, Miranda, are called to an apparent crime scene in Cooke County, no one is quite sure what to make of it all. A large tree with a deeply gouged ring in its bark and a small pile of leg bones is the only signs of any crime, though even Brockton is unable to provide a timeline. It is only upon further investigation that Brockton is able to discern that a body was, at one time, chained to a tree, only to become human bait and devoured by a bear. This would explain the lack of bones and all but makes identification impossible. Back at the University of Tennessee, Brockton and Miranda begin work on the leg bones, which helps narrow the search to a male of approximately twenty years of age. Another item points in the direction of this being a hate crime, perhaps white on black, which sends the case into some interesting directions in the heart of the South. Brockton and Miranda spend time debating and researching the rise of hate groups in the region, only to realise that there are many whose ideologies converge on a decided vehemence towards the inferior races. Meanwhile, Nick Satterfield, a serial killer that Brockton helped put away two decades before, has been able to escape from prison and has but one item on his agenda; destroy the life of the fine doctor any way he can. As Brockton and the authorities make a poignant discovery in their chain case, everything points back to Satterfield, as if this was all an attempt to lure Brockton out into the open. With no chance he’ll rest while Satterfield is on the loose, Brockton must become bait to the one man that has haunted him for the past twenty years. However, revenge is usually served without a shred of mercy, which does not bode well for another tied to Brockton. Bass continues to shine in another novel that will keep the reader interested as they find themselves educated on the intricacies of forensics and crime fighting.

I have long been a fan of Bass and the Body Farm series, through its twists and turns, both in the present and in throwback novels. While Bass works with a core set of characters, those who make brief appearances always fit so nicely into the larger storylines and provide needed expertise to keep the forensics of each case as detailed as possible. Bass will also offer the reader brief biographies of these characters, which helps place them, as well as reminding series fans of how they fit into the larger Bill Brockton timeline. Offering both crime-related character development and that of a personal nature, Bass is able to keep the reader hooked on two levels, and series regulars have come to expect the dual progression. While the area of forensic anthropology lends itself to bones and the stories they tell, there is both a unifying and differentiating aspect to the science. Unifying in that we are all the same on a skeletal level; bones of the same colour and contour. It is only when examining more closely that our differences, both between genders and cultural groups, become apparent, at least in shape and measurement. Bass seeks to explore the unity aspect throughout this book when exploring his ‘man chained to tree’ plot line, but it does bleed into a classroom setting for a brief period of the novel. What begins as an apparent hate crime that echoes back to the 1960s turns out to have strong ties to a more recent hatred brewing between ‘Americans’ and immigrants. Without divulging too much, the argument about immigration over the decades and how hate crimes have shifted, somewhat, becomes a prevalent topic. There remains a strong narrative that we are all the same, underneath our skin and cultural practices, which weaves itself into the story without getting too sappy. On a lighter note, I can also express that Bass tends to truly bring the story ‘home’ by using linguistics nuances of the region, which substantiates to the reader that we’re in Knoxville and not the Brahmin neighbourhoods of New England. I find this approach unique and very much appreciated, even if I have to slow down to process on occasion. Refreshing in its presentation and highly informative on many levels. 

Kudos, Messrs. Jefferson and Bass for another great novel. I have to wonder if, due to some of the plots presented in this novel, things are either soon to dwindle or take a few new twists. I am eager to see where you take readers next. 

Trump vs. Clinton: In Their Own Words: Everything You Need to Know to Vote Your Conscience: A BookShot, edited by James Patterson and Denise Roy

Seven stars

** Pardon the excessive use of the colon, above. **

With the United States General Election on the immediate horizon, I felt it poignant to take a little while to look at this BookShot, a rare non-fiction piece edited by James Patterson and Denise Roy. It is entirely direct quotes made by the presidential candidates of both major parties, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Patterson and Roy divide the quotes into themes and then further break them down into smaller and more digestible sub-topics, all for the reader to synthesise. By offering their context, the reader can sometimes better place what is meant or considered by each snippet. Exploring these numerous topics, Patterson mentions in his editorial preface that he hopes to provide those who read this piece a better idea of those for whom they might cast a ballot on November 8, 2016. The world will be watching, though it is unclear if this collection will purify the waters at all.

Without delving too deeply, the academic in me must offer a few caveats to this collection. First and foremost, quotes can be highly misconstrued when they are taken out of context. Anyone reading one-liners can develop a certain view of any person, which might not reflect who they are as a person. Should anyone choose to cut and paste a number of the phrases I use in book reviews alone, I could really be in trouble with the outside world. It is all about context. Secondly, the editor’s pen and cutting room floor must not be taken out of the equation. While I am not trying to vilify Patterson or Roy, their personal viewpoints will bleed through the quotes they wish to include in this collection, as well as those whose impact were left as scraps or afterthoughts. No sane person can read or listen to every possible sound byte or piece of writing that relates to these two candidates. Therefore, the reader is expected to place their trust in the editors that the collection is comprehensive, which is impossible to do. Lastly, one can only wonder if this collection will sway anyone. It is quite well presented and offers some key aspects of what the electorate ought to think about as it relates to a Commander-in-Chief, but I would be remiss if I felt this was the ultimate guide that all Americans ought to read ahead of casting their ballot. It is more entertainment for those who wish to approach it. Whoever is chosen on November 8th, they will have much to do and I can almost guarantee the mud will fly, even after one side concedes to the other.

Kudos, Mr. Patterson and Madame Roy for this collection. I cannot offer praise, for it does not lend itself to being persuasive one way or the other. That said, your dedication in gathering these quotes deserves at least a small golf clap.

Conclave, by Robert Harris

Nine stars

Harris returns with another remarkable novel of historical fiction, turning his narrative to the present as explores a highly pious and political event. THE POPE IS DEAD! This startling piece of news makes its way to the ears of Cardinal Lomeli in the early hours one October morning. Heading to the apartment of the Holy Father, Lomeli is met by a small group, who confirm the news and begin the proscribed acts required when the Vatican is without its Supreme Pontiff. As the news becomes public, Lomeli is tasked with preparing for the highly publicised, though extremely secret, event known as The Conclave. As Dean of the College of Cardinals, Lomeli must organise the election of the next pope, which is only a few weeks hence. During the intervening time, the funeral must take place and Lomeli handles sundry pieces of Vatican business ahead of the papal election. As cardinals arrive from all over the world to cast their ballots, Lomeli wrestles with a few issues surrounding cardinal electors, including one Cardinal Tremblay, the Vatican Camerlengo, its temporary leader, a French-Canadian who was apparently removed from all positions the night before the pope died. As if this were not enough to occupy his time, as 117 confirmed cardinals have arrived for Conclave, a mysterious figure appears and makes he known that he, too, is a cardinal eligible to choose the next pontiff. Vincent Benitez, Archbishop of Baghdad, was appointed a cardinal in pectore, ‘in the heart’, and was known only to the recently deceased pope and God. Seeing the documentation and meditating on this oddity, Lomeli grants Benitez access to the Conclave and the preliminary events commence. Even before being sequestered into the Sistene Chapel, there are a few front runners for the position, all of whom seek to solidify their supporters before the voting begins. Tremblay stands firm that he can speak best for the Catholic Church, being a North American without being from America; Bellini, the current Secretary of State from Italy, served the last pope well on the world scene and can continue with his liberal outlook in directing the Church; Adeyemi, a cardinal from Nigeria, seeks to lead the way for the Third World and present the Church with its first black pontiff; and Tedesco, Italian and pining for a return of a fellow countryman to the Throne of St. Peter, who will also remove the impediments that Vatican II ushered in, keeping the faith pure and the language of the Church equally so. These four men vie as best they can before cardinals place their minds in God’s hand to help them cast their ballots. Once the Conclave begins, Lomeli must continue running it by the strict orders laid out in the Apostolic Constitution, which includes specific rules and processes. While the outside world is left to wonder what is going on, receiving only the most minimal of news in the form of curling smoke from a chimney, inside the Sistene Chapel there is much politicking. Lomeli uncovers great issues with two of the front runners, whose power dwindles as the Dean uses the Constitution to keep the Conclave on track. As the ballots mount, surprises continue, and not even an act of terror can stop the cardinals from choosing the new Catholic leader. Voting continues until one cardinal receives the proscribed two-thirds of the votes, which seems almost impossible until impassioned speeches before the eighth ballot. Lomeli is on the verge of witnessing history, but even then, there is one more surprise that no one saw coming. The Catholic Church is set to change dramatically, though its congregants cannot know how deeply divided its upper echelon has become over a single decision. From the embers of the deceased pope comes the cry the world has waited to hear: Habemus papam (We have a Pope)! A thought-provoking thriller that keeps readers glued to the page until the very last sentence.

This is a brilliant piece that pulls together the most political event in the world, far exceeding the election of an American president (and this is from a non-Catholic). The intricacies and nuances with a Conclave are enough to drive any historian or political fanatic mad, but to create one in a piece of fiction is surely an even more onerous task. Harris develops a wonderful collection of characters to serve as cardinals and support staff, though he promises in his author’s note that none are based on actual people. Using these multi-dimensional individuals, the narrative moves in interesting ways to enrich the story the further it advances, using Lomeli as the central protagonist throughout. From what I know of Conclaves and the rules surrounding them, Harris has used everything at his disposal to create momentum in the most interesting of spots without dragging things out too much or weighing the story down in a constitutional miasma. Tackling the fallibility of each cardinal, the struggle between man and God, the views of the outside world, and the highly political event that is electing the Supreme Pontiff, Harris delivers a thriller that far exceeds any expectations and does so in under three hundred pages. Weaving dramatic interactions into the storyline, the reader is left to cheer on their favourite cardinal, in hopes that he will obtain the magic eighty votes. I cannot think of a novel that churned up so much political excitement in me or so flawlessly depicts this highly secretive event as a Conclave. Readers of all political and religious stripes will surely enjoy devouring this piece, which reads so fluidly and is timeless in its presentation that it could be read over the years without losing any lustre.

Kudos, Mr. Harris for entertaining, educating, and keeping the reader guessing until the very end. I cannot think of a better novel to read to contrast and compare with the circus of the upcoming US General Election.

The Bone Collection: Four Novellas (Temperance Brennan novellas), by Kathy Reichs

Nine stars

In this collection of short stories based on the highly popular Temperance Brennan series, Reichs allows readers to enjoy four pieces in a single collection. While three have been on the market before, Reichs includes one that speaks of how Tempe found forensic anthropology, surely of greatest interest to series fans. As I have read three of these before, I will paste my previous reviews on the date they were posted to GoodReads, and then expound on the never before published piece.

Bones in her Pocket (8 stars)

Fans of the Reichs series starring Tempe Brennan will love this short story as a teaser before the next major literary release. Reichs offers up a teaser of the upcoming novel Bones of the Lost (which I left untouched) to lure her most ardent fans into devouring this quick read. When few bones turn up in a lake, Brennan must use all her forensic anthropological skills to solve this whodunit. What looks to be a simple case of ‘identify those bones’ turns into a much larger mystery, which is more multi-faceted than it appears. The chase is on and another set of forensic clues leads to a second case, with an end that no one sees coming. Reichs is able to boil down her full-length novels into a short story, yet does not lose any of its excitement.

Reichs has proven her ability to present an equally exciting story without the character development and personal drama. Still filled with her poison-tongue writing style, peppered with humour as well, Reichs tells a gruesome story and uses her famed character’s abilities to crack the case wide open. When things veer away from simple bone identification, Brennan turns into a super sleuth and puts her own life in danger to tie up all the loose ends. A wonderful appetizer as fans wait for the next instalment of the Brennan saga, well worth the annual wait.

Swamp Bones (8 stars)

Reichs teases her readers with this wonderful novella ahead of her next full-length sensation. When Dr. Brennan heads to the Florida Everglades on a brief vacation, she’s called to help a long-time friend with a project fit for the birds. Learning more about the local Burmese python situation, the avowed foe of all animals of the Everglades, Brennan assists with a necroscopy that reveals something with which she is greatly familiar; bones from a dead body. Brennan abandons her vacation ideas and begins looking for clues as to whose bones these might be and how they might have died. Once she becomes sure that the victim met their match at the hands of a human and not the python, Brennan pieces things together in her sleuthing ways. Even with a name for the victim, little is known about the rationale or how to stop more killings. When more bones surface, it is up to Brennan and the local Miami-Dade Police to catch the killer before more bodies can slither out of sight. A highly informative story, filled with Brennan’s stubborn wit and great anthropological learning experiences.

Reichs rarely falls flat when she uses her Tempe Brennan character. No matter the locale or the crime, the story always expands in ways unseen at the beginning. Reichs uses so many ideas and finds gold in them all, showing how versatile and all encompassing forensic anthropology can be. I am eager to see if there are tie-ins with this novella and her upcoming book, meant for the most attentive readers and greatest fans.

Bones on Ice (9 stars)

Kathy Reichs uses all her skills in this unique novella, which sees forensic anthropologist Temperance (Tempe) Brennan involved in a cold case like no other, foul play atop Mount Everest. When Tempe is called in to work on a weekend, she’s less than impressed. Once she learns that she’s personally been requested to handle the identification of a frozen, mummified corpse, things get a little more interesting. While trekking up Mount Everest, Brighton Hallis perished amongst the elements, the rest of her crew finding her body on their descent. It’s been three years and Tempe must work with what she has to determine if this is, in fact, Brighton. With over 200 bodies scattered around the “death zone” area of Everest, it is anything but a foregone conclusion that these remains are those of Brighton. Reichs explores the world of mountain climbing, where individuals lose their identity and become known by their coloured clothing, the only differential when surrounded by snow and ice. What appears to be a simple body succumbing to the elements soon becomes a murder victim, leaving Tempe to piece it all together. Was it one of the climbing crew with a vendetta that wanted Brighton to die up where no one would find her, or perhaps a rival climber who wanted glory? All this leaves the legal argument of charging anyone in Charlotte with a crime that took place in Nepal. In her anthropological sleuthing way, Tempe pieces it all together, but finds herself more confused the further she digs. A wonderful novella to bridge the time until the next full-length Tempe Brennan novel hits the shelves.

Reichs remains the queen of her craft and is as entertaining as she is educational. Tackling forensics in ways no other author (outside the field) has ever attempted, she keeps the reader curious and wondering throughout this piece. From the medical terminology surrounding climbing to the legal matters of a murder on the other side of the world, Reichs leaves few rocks unturned in a short period. Pepper in some humour and a little character bridging between the two major novels and you have a wonderful novella that is sure to tide avid fans over, but not for too long.

First Bones (9 stars)

In this story, Reichs finally offers patient readers a glimpse into how Temperance Brennan got involved in the world of forensic science, as well as introducing a number of characters important throughout the entire series. As the narrative opens in the present day, Brennan is holding vigil for someone in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit, their injuries serious, but still no inkling of their identity for the sake of the reader. At this point, the story shifts into an indeterminate past, with Brennan working at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, trying to finish her PhD with a focus in bioarcheology. Newly-minted Detective Erskine “Skinny” Slidell barges in and demands to see Dr. Becknell, whose experience working alongside the authorities makes her a hot commodity and the apparent forensic archeology of the time. With Becknell on sabbatical, Brennan reluctantly agrees to assist Slidell, examining some charred remains. What was left of a body was found at a fire inside the trailer of Dr. Keith Millikin, who has been running a free clinic for the homeless population around Charlotte. With Millikin missing for the past week, he appears to be the likely victim, though Brennan will have to positively identify him for the authorities. Brought to the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s office, Brennan meets Dr. Tim Larabee, who allows her to use the facility to complete her examinations, as well as tossing her some additional work when needed. While working with the limited collection of bones she has on hand, Brennan discovers a bullet hole in the back of the skull and surmises that the fire was not the cause of this man’s death. Dental records confirm that Millikin has not perished in the fire, which is substantiated when the physician appears after a trip south of the border, claiming that he needed some time away. However, Slidell is able to use his crass nature to present an alternate victim, a dentist who runs his own shop and has been cited for health code violations, who is also missing and ends up being a patient of Dr. Millikin. After a body is pulled from a car, left charred as well, Slidell cannot help but wonder if there is a connection. Two bodies, a murderer still on the loose, and Brennan is getting the hang of this forensic anthropology, with a real case on her hands. As Slidell works to nail down a suspect and motive, Brennan offers up a theory based on what she’s seen. After Millikin admits he may have a patient with motive to come after the two victims, Slidell and Brennan rush to a scene, in hopes of stopping any more bloodshed. The motive becomes clear and Brennan becomes more hands-on than Slidell could have imagined, or likely wanted. Moving back to the present, Reichs offers readers the identify of the person in the hospital bed, speculating on the randomness of crimes and victims, though the end result is sure to pull on the heartstrings of the series fan. A wonderful book-end short story for Tempe Brennan fans that solidifies the superior writing style of Kathy Reichs!

I remember beginning this series years ago and how drawn I was to the characters and the ideas behind it. Reichs has continued to develop her characters, both in Charlotte and Montreal, while keeping Dr. Tempe Brennan realistic and in touch with the changes in the field. Some authors falter the more they write in a series, though Reichs seems to get better, pulling on her own experiences. This short story offers that longed for answer of how Tempe got into the field while also permitting the reader to feel the intensity that comes with any case. Much can be learned from this story, as Reichs continues to teach her series regulars both inside the lab and in life’s crazy turns.

Kudos, Madam Reichs for never giving up on Tempe Brennan or your abilities. You dazzle and continue to impress. Please don’t take Tempe away from us, as she leave the television screen next spring.

The Bourne Enigma (Jason Bourne #13), by Eric van Lustbader

Six stars

In his effort to elongate the Jason Bourne series, van Lustbader continues to steer the protagonist in ways Robert Ludlum would likely never have dreamt or possibly wanted. In this ‘lucky’ 13th instalment, Jason Bourne is approached in Frankfurt with a present from a close friend; a coin, etched with a curious rebus. Upon arriving in Moscow, Bourne sets out to attend the wedding of a close friend, General Boris Karpov, who is a high-ranking official in the country’s FSB. Before Bourne has a chance to inquire about the coin Karpov sent him, the General is garrotted outside his wedding reception. FSB officials are prepared to arrest Bourne for the murder, as he found the body, though the elusive ‘man of mystery’ asks for a short reprieve to prove that he is innocent. Embedded in the wound is a gold Star of David, one that Bourne recognises as belonging to Israeli Sara Yadin. While Bourne’s past is somewhat fuzzy, he is well aware that Yadin is a Kidon assassin using the name Rebeka, though he cannot understand what reason she might have for killing the General. While pondering this, Bourne is left to wonder if the man for whom he has been searching over the past little while, Ivan Borz, might be responsible, and if this coin could play into the murder. Finding himself headed to Cairo in search of Borz, Bourne locates Yadin, who denies being behind the killing, but does admit her Star has gone missing. They begin examining the coin in Bourne’s possession and wonder if it might hold the key to Karpov’s murder. After coming head to head with Borz, it appears they have the assassin before them, but there is something even larger afoot; something that involves The Sovereign, the respectful name of the current Russian President. Once Bourne and Yadin are able to decipher the rebus, they realise that The Sovereign has been siphoning money from a secret account to terror cells, distracting the world from his own plans of renewed imperialism. Unless Bourne can stop the money train, world leaders will expend all attention and energy to fighting the likes of ISIS while Russian forces exact brutal takeover manoeuvres in hopes of recreating a 21st century USSR. Is this one mission Bourne will have to admit is too much for him to handle? Series fans may find much excitement in van Lustbader’s latest instalment, though purists may cringe or turn away.  

A few years ago I went on a Jason Bourne binge, reading the entire collection to that point. Some may remember this venture and how I saw a significant turn away from the Ludlum Bourne when Eric van Lustbader took over. This continues and, while the stories on their own might hold the reader’s attention, I feel they are not upholding what Ludlum created. Far be it from me to lament times past or previous incarnations of characters whose entire being is embedded in a bygone era, but I simply find myself unable to be drawn in by the ‘new’ Bourne or the adventures crafted by van Lustbader. The characters in this story are varied and, in true Bourne series fashion, offer both those who fill the upper echelons of ‘good’ and evildoers. The author is able to spin backstories of both individual characters and how Jason Bourne fits onto their larger radar. While early novels were always about Bourne staying one step ahead of the law and government agencies (a la Jack Reacher), it seems he is now on more of an international spy/sleuth kick (a rougher Cotton Malone). The story weaves its way across continents and develops plots that have agencies battling one another, forcing Bourne to choose his loyalties, which could be of some interest to the dedicated reader. However, I find myself less than enthralled or captivated by this and sensed myself drifting mentally at times. Why do I keep reading whatever van Lustbader churns out when it comes to this series? Perhaps I find myself wanting to simply finish that which I have started, in honour to Robert Ludlum. Still, there comes a time when things have outlived their usefulness. Could this series be ready to end anytime soon? For the sake of purists, one can surely hope, though van Lustbader has at least one more book coming. 

Thank you for your contributions, Mr. van Lustbader. Jason Bourne has grown and developed, but perhaps his ill-fitting britches are indicative that he needs to hang up his amnesia-riddled personality and retire.

Airport-Code Red: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Michael White

Eight stars

Patterson welcomes Michael White into the elusive (but growing) group charged with the creation of BookShots, a ‘take no prisoners’ form of short story writing that puts the reader in the middle of quick tales about a plethora of subjects. On a Tuesday evening in Bradford, in Northern England, a terror cell is hashing out the final aspects of a plot to wreak havoc on Europe’s busiest airport, Churchill London International (presumably a dressed-up version of Heathrow). However, while headed towards the English metropolis, authorities are tipped-off and a few base members are taken into custody. After some ‘creative talking maneuvers’ over a few days, a vague version of the plan is revealed, but there will not be enough time if everyone waits for official channel approval. On the Friday morning, at Churchill, former SAS Matt Bates and ex Delta Force Chaz Shoeman are prepared to meet for their annual vacation, a few weeks basking on the Greek Islands. As they rush to the Departures area, they trip upon the beginnings of the terror plot with its first unsuspecting victim. Remaining as calm as possible, and using the training for which they were so well known in their respective militaries, Bates and Shoeman hustle away and try to make contact with the outside world. In another part of the terminal, Hubab Essa has taken over for her husband as the cell’s leader (perhaps somewhat odd given that these are Muslim extremists), promising casualties like never before. A chemical weapon is hidden in the airport and all those guarding the hostages are ready to die for Allah. As Bates and Shoeman try not only to save those passengers whose lives hang in the balance but also communicate with British Special Forces, they must come to terms with the fact that the world is watching their every move. Time is of the essence, leaving no room for error. The type of story that BookShots was meant to convey, Patterson and White hold the reader enthralled until the very last page-turn.

Another successful BookShot, where the reader is never sure what they will get. Patterson and White infuse the right amount of dramatic effect and story into a piece that gives just the right amount of character backstory to keep the reader caring. With a setting that is sure to draw attention and a plot that has been done so may times, the reader receives little notice as to how easy it is to fall into the trap known as a good short story. I felt as though the Bates-Shoeman pairing could have come from a past novel, they work so well together and seem to complement one another well (without offering too many unmanly compliments, haha). If I could make mention of one thing that nagged at me as I read, it would have to be that the underlying theme is overdone to the point of being charbroiled. I have been reading thrillers for many years and since September 2001, it seems that Muslim terrorists is the flavour du jour, which has become old quite quickly. It is overplayed that duping the authorities seems almost impossible, what with racial profiling so high in airports and amongst police forces. On behalf of (I’m sure) a number of us who enjoy a good thriller, find a new angle. Fanatical Scandinavians, quiet but deadly Canadians, even ultra-feminists. The Muslim terrorist seeking to kill the infidel has had its time in the sun. Please, put the idea to rest and leave readers wondering if and how the next terror cell will ever be discovered and captured.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and White for another wonderfully crafted piece. While you have worked together on a full-length novel, this goes to show you have great abilities when developing a shorter story together as well.

The Women’s War: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Shan Serafin

Eight stars

Patterson brings Shan Serafin into his coterie of BookShot authors and develops this highly entertaining and unique story. Heading a covert and well-trained group of Marines, Colonel Amanda Collins has a single target in mind, drug lord Diego Correra. Working throughout Mexico, but happy to send his product up into the United States, Correra has been a thorn in the side of many, particularly Col. Collins. When Collins takes her all-female team on a mission to scrub him out, they discover he remains a step ahead, having evacuated his compound moments before, but leaving a significant gift behind to mock Collins. Using her continued intel from the elusive ‘Fat Man’, Collins hopes to have another opportunity to catch this most vile of drug paddlers. Returning stateside, Collins arrives home to discover a personal tragedy, one that has her leave the Marines and settle in the small community of Archer, Texas. Two years thereafter, Collins is working off the books but still have some of her team together, Carrera still in their crosshairs. Fat Man continues to provide intel about Carrera shipments, but Collins continue to feel as though they are draining the ocean with a teaspoon, breaking laws to derail this single drug pipeline. After a threatening visit by the DEA, Collins remains determined to remove Carrera herself and organises a mission to Mexico to destroy all his factories. That mission has some glitches of its own, but Collins can chalk it up to at least partial success. Feeling slightly cocky, she lets down her guard and is taken into custody before being left stranded in the heart of Mexico City’s slums. With a bounty on her head and a burning need for revenge, Collins and her team wage one final “Women’s War”, giving all they’ve got. A great story that keeps the reader enthralled throughout, this is precisely what BookShots should be.

I have come to really enjoy the BookShot collection for a number of reasons. While it does allow Patterson to continue crafting ideas with some authors with whom he has worked effectively before, it is also a a showcase of new and exciting talent. These stories are also highly varied, which enables the reader to see that not all will be showstoppers; there is gold and garbage in equal measure. Serafin surely ups his game in writing this story, developing a collection of gun-toting women who have a mission and work effectively to plod through the narrative in order to find some measure of success. The characters suited this short story and the plot kept things moving without issue. While there was a slight dramatic corniness in the “freedom fighting, tragedy, and capture” equation, Patterson and Serafin work around this by keeping the reader focussed on catching Diego Carrera and trying to rid the world of one more drug runner. Easily read in a single sitting for those who are inclined, this BookShot has flecks of gold. Readers should keep an eye out for Serafin in future, either on his own or in future collaborative efforts.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Serafin for developing a great story. I am eager to see if this pairing is something that could work in future, or if this BookShot is the only stellar piece we will see.