Kidnapped (Jon Roscoe #3): A BookShot, by James Patterson and Robert Gold

Seven stars

In the third of their Joe Roscoe BookShots, Patterson and Gold deliver another story that keeps the reader guessing and wondering until the final paragraph, showing that short stories do not always lack the essential attention to detail. After finishing up with a piece of business in Chicago, Jon Roscoe is headed back to London for the holidays. His wife and two daughters await him, hoping that he will be able to carve out some time with them as he continues to work for Tribeca Luxury Hotels. While waiting at the airport, Roscoe encounters two families and their various events, both of which cause him worry. He only later learns that both pairs will be on his flight over the Atlantic. Roscoe tries his best to intervene, but is rebuffed in both cases, sensing that there is something ominous about to take place. When back in London, Roscoe is given a stern warning about staying away from a certain celebrity hotel guest, but cannot shake that something is significantly wrong. Meanwhile, Roscoe learns that his wife and daughters may have stumbled onto something else of interest. As the story progresses, the reader is pulled into two significant storylines, both with particular importance and set against the backdrop of the Christmas season. Patterson and Gold devise a wonderful story that will keep the reader up a little later to find out how it resolves itself.

Patterson’s invention of the BookShot has not always been a gift for readers, as some stories offer little more than a lump of coal while others are true diamonds. However, that is the nature of the beast and this BookShot shows strong contention for being in the latter category. The third story in the series, readers have already learned much about Jon Roscoe, but the constant move to add new and interesting characters adds a new dimension to the tale. Also, that the hotel is not a primary setting for the story plays into its unique nature. The authors use Roscoe’s brain and intuition more than his brawn in this BookShot, adding a dimension to the man while keeping things somewhat realistic. The numerous storylines keep readers ready to forge onwards, offering some interesting views into family life, particularly around the holidays. Short and crisp chapters are offset with interesting plots without taking readers down too many rabbit holes and confusing them as they seek to finish in short order. A successful BookShot that tries taking up only enough time to fill the period between a significant meal and the rowdy round of game playing during the holiday season.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Gold for another wonderful addition to this collection. I hope there are more Roscoe stories on their way soon, as you have done well with this series.

The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan, by Laurence Leamer

Eight stars

America’s race wars seem to be on the rise again, as the general populace is asked to reaffirm that certain lives matter. While the imagery is horrible and the bloodshed excessive, it pales in comparison to some of the clashes that became weekly occurrences in the South for decades. The Civil War sought to rectify some of these issues, but only exacerbated them, allowing the rise of white supremacy in its many forms, the most prevalent and wide-spread being the Ku Klux Klan. Leamer seeks not only to explore Klan life in America, particularly throughout Alabama, but also a criminal case that might have snuffed out the power Klan politics had over the state and across America. In March 1981, members of Klavern 900 of the United Klans of America pondered how to lash out against a jury that refused to find a black bank robber guilty of shooting a white police officer. Hatred filled their speech and the only solution would be to commit an act so outrageous that everyone would take notice. Klansmen focussed on nineteen year-old Michael Donald, walking through Mobile late at night. What follows is an act so depraved and horrible that it does not bear detailing here. Needless to say, Donald was lynched and his dead body left dangling from a tree at the courthouse. After some investigating and witness statements, a member of the Klan was brought to justice and sentenced for the crime. Leamer then takes a significant amount of time in the middle of this book to explore the rise of racial hatred in Alabama, particularly under the watchful eye of George Wallace, its segregationist governor. In the 1960s. Wallace welcomed the help of the Klan in preserving order in the state and ensuring that he would not have to bend to the wave of integration, which he felt would sully his state. Civil rights leaders found much of their time spent in the state dedicated to marching and peacefully protesting, though they were met with clubs, bottles, and water cannons. Still, their resolve did not bend and Wallace’s invectives were soon diluted, at times with the help of the Oval Office. Out of the fray came one black lawyer, Morris Dees, who worked with the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) and could not, in good conscience, let Alabama fall into such an abyss. His smooth writing style and ability to cut to the chase had him a sought after commodity by politicians throughout the South. However, Leamer depicts him as the man who would stop at nothing to bring down the Klan, after seeing all its actions throughout the 1960s and 70s. Returning th narrative to the mid-80s, Leamer discusses that Dees took the opportunity to approach Michael Donald’s mother and agreed to take her case to civil court for wrongful death. This was Dees’ opportunity to pull all the key figures in the Klan onto the carpet, in an Alabama courtroom, from the lowly men who committed the lynching to the Imperial Wizard of the Klan, Robert Shelton, and the entire United Klans of America. Fighting and taking no prisoners, Dees sought justice for a people as well as a nation, hoping to put the heinous past of segregation, black suppression, and white supremacist violence by the wayside. It was an epic fight, the true David versus Goliath, though its end result was anything but certain. Leamer does a fascinating job at pulling the heartstrings of the reader, even those who did not suffer through the era. His powerful story will resonate in the minds and hearts of anyone courageous enough to take the time and learn how Michael Donald became a lasting symbol of the fight for equality in Alabama.

Leamer does a masterful job of depicting the Klan, the state of racial unrest in Alabama, and the overall sentiment of the movement in a short time. While I have always been looking for an overarching book to explore the roots and depths of the Klan in America, Leamer has surely whet my appetite to learn a little more. I tend to turn towards things about which I know little, in hopes of learning more and being able to adequately represent myself in discussions. The two outer parts of the book flow so well that one might sometimes wonder if these are pieces of historical fiction. It is listed under non-fiction, which supports that the horrors and battles found therein are at least mostly true. The power of his writing and the depths of despair that the reader can find themselves, should they be open to learning, is amazing. The middle section, a true history of hate and the rise of George Wallace, proves even more telling, as Leamer sets the basis of Alabama as a cesspool of hatred, though surely the rhetoric of the times did not help. Does Leamer go too far? I would venture to say no, in that he is trying to illustrate just how poorly things got and how horrible the nightly walks could have been for blacks or those who sympathised with their cause. I was enthralled with the story, the narrative, and the overall rawness of what Leamer had to tell. One can only hope many others will take the time to learn about this before dismissing if any set of lives matter more than others.

Kudos, Mr. Leamer for pulling me in so effectively. I will be sure to find some more of your work in the near future.

Before the Storm (Hunters #0.5), by Chris Kuzneski

Seven stars

Choosing to finally reveal more about the Hunters before they became a team, Chris Kuzneski has decided to pen a number of novellas to offer their essential backstories. First on the list is the purported leader, Jack Cobb. As the story opens, Cobb is in Florida, fresh off a dishonourable discharge from the U.S. Army. Unsure what to do next, he receives a call from out of the blue by longtime friend and former MANIACs compatriot, Jonathon Payne. As they sit, shooting the breeze, Payne admits that he is not alone on this visit; David Jones is somewhere nearby, set to join them to talk about what happened and where Cobb sees himself next. Ever the Casanova, Jones finds himself otherwise engaged, trolling the beach in search of the finer sex. When Jones does find Payne and Cobb, they discuss a potential job lead for Cobb, though he’ll answer to a Frenchman, something that neither Payne nor Jones can stomach themselves. An interesting means of laying the groundwork for Cobb’s entrance into the Hunters realm, and surely of interest to fans of Kuzneski’s work.

I have enjoyed Kuzneski’s writing for a number of years now, both his highly entertaining banter between characters and the fast-paced adventures in which the reader has a front row seat. When his newer series began, things seemed a little like these folks were parachuted in from nowhere, though hints were left for the reader to piece together a loose backstory. With this new collection of novellas, the reader is able to pair what they know about the characters with something more in-depth, without being too long or drawn out. It’s a perfect read, quick and to the point, while still offering up the Kuzneski flavour that the reader will likely want. One can hope these novellas will be released in relatively short order, as a full-length novel is what I really seek in the coming year or so. That said, I can be sated, temporarily.

Kudos, Mr. Kuzneski for re-introducing us to some of your best characters in these shorter pieces. I cannot wait to see what other novellas you have waiting to release.

American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, by Jon Meacham

Eight stars

“In God We Trust”, the official motto of the United States of America, emblazoned on places as important as the Supreme Court and as basic as an off-colour Lincoln penny. That simple, but powerful, sentiment fuels Meacham’s exploration of the basis of religion in America, offset by the Founding Fathers’ constitutionally entrenched separation of Church and State. By no means was this division as longstanding as the presence of people in the original colonies, for the early residents had fled England because of religious persecution and organised their settlements with a strong set of Christian beliefs. Meacham tackles discussions by those who attended the Constitutional Conventions, where early ideas of religion and faith within the new America proved somewhat divisive. Some wanted to entrench Christianity in their new country, as it was imbued in all laws and proved to be largely practiced throughout the Thirteen Colonies. However, Thomas Jefferson argued strongly that the country should be a more inclusive and less entrenched nation, possibly tied to his less than stalwart views on a Higher Being. The Founding Fathers knew that the country they sought to create would be one built on tolerance and, while not ridding the state of Christianity, ensured religious openness with the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment. Meacham explores how Washington steered the state through its early years, balancing on this precarious thread, which proved successful. Other presidents handled the religious debate with less aplomb, outwardly espousing the Christian God to save them in their time of need. Of greatest interest is Meacham’s exploration of the three presidents who saw America through the tumultuous war years. Lincoln, whose various speeches sought to steer away from seeking God’s blessing and sought instead to place his trust that the ‘right’ answer would come to pass. Woodrow Wilson and FDR took a more preacher-cum-president approach, seeking Americans to pray for success over their foes and vilifying those who did not fall into line or spoke out against these pleas to the Christian God. One might extrapolate this and look to Bush 43, whose fabrication of facts and declaration of a War on Terror bred xenophobia and a degree of Islamaphobia that still simmers to this day. The American State also had periods where public sentiment clashed with the inherent beliefs of some religious groups, namely acceptance of abortion and the ongoing debate over capital punishment. Meacham effectively argues that America weathered this storm and its leaders, while sometimes left to grit their teeth, never lashed out against all that was going on. These personal beliefs did not bring the country to its knees, nor did it create chaos amongst the masses, some of whom would not have worshiped the same God as their leaders. Meacham looks to the latter part of his book to explore public religion, which differs greatly from the personal tenets that Americans held in their hearts. Acknowledgement of religious holidays (Christmas and Easter), as well as the Judeo-Christian set of legal beliefs are two strong examples of this. These public ideals remove the neutrality that would be required for a complete separation between Church and State, though it does not adversely affect the citizenry, at least to the point of any violation of certain beliefs. This might seem like a minor point, but Meacham makes it nonetheless, wishing to keep all discussions aboveboard. Worthy of a brief mention, Meacham does touch on the judicial branch, which acted as a shepherd in guiding the state through some of its more trying times, ensuing that the First Amendment’s freedoms were never curtailed, but that there was a balance to ensure the greatest cross-section of the population could live free from intrusion. While religion and the state remains a highly divisive issue and one that can spark many concerns, Meacham come to the conclusion that America’s personal gospel is one of acceptance and openness, even when its leaders may seek to push the envelop and subtly turn the country into an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ battle. This is by no means a simple topic to digest, though Meacham has done a brilliant job in educating the masses. 

Having recently completed a book that explored the depths of the First Amendment, I thought it a good idea to take some time to explore this topic. Meacham does a fabulous job in laying out his arguments clearly, with strong examples pulled from history, documents, and documented reports. He takes the entirety of the American political experience and focusses the Church versus State argument through the various political eras without weighing things down with too much information. Meacham’s primary argument or freedom and acceptance flows throughout, while offsetting this with an equally compelling belief that one would have to live under a rock not to see the long-standing Christian values that shine through all laws and speeches made by political leaders. With two hundred and forty years of experience, America’s views have held firm, though history has tossed enough tests into its path to force a few course corrections. But, as with any belief system, a reevaluation is always useful to match the flavour of the times.

Kudos, Mr. Meacham for another stellar political analysis. I wish I could do your work justice with my review. You take on so much and yet make it seem so effortless.

Come and Get Us: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Shan Serafin

Seven stars

In their second BookShot collaboration, Patterson and Serafin deliver another winner, as unique as it is adventurous. Travelling along the canyons between Arizona and Utah, Miranda Cooper has husband, Aaron, and four year-old, Sierra, along for the ride. After an impatient driver forces them off the road, their van careens into a ravine. Hurt, scared, and out of cell range, the family must regroup and Miranda takes charge. Miranda guides Aaron and Sierra away from the elements, but with a significant injury, hoping she can return with help before it’s too late. Miranda begins traversing rocky terrain in order to find any sign of life, coming across the group of men who pushed her off the road. With gunshots ringing throughout the ravine and working alone, Miranda must find safety and contact the authorities before she’s killed, thereby leaving Aaron and Sierra to perish, alone and forgotten. In a quick-paced story that has as much social justice as it does action, Patterson and Serafin present a polished product that is sure to lure in many BookShot fans, as well as those who need a short break from the everyday.

While there is never a guarantee when it comes to a BookShot, Serafin has brought two winners in his efforts to combine talents with James Patterson. The story is unique and offers readers something different, even amongst the BookShot collection. There are also some believable characters placed in somewhat realistic situations, which keeps readers visualising events as they transpire. As the story progresses, the reader finds themselves somewhat drawn to Miranda and her success at trying to find a solution for the family, even as she realises that nothing may be as it seems. Her gumption and the pace at which the authors push the story keep the reader hooked and seeking to learn a little more. With a little social commentary buried within the narrative, Patterson and Serafin open a dialogue that requires the reader to ponder a little, though nothing is as it appears on the surface. Crisp, concise, and truly imaginative. This is the sort of story perfect for the BookShots idea.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Serafin for another successful collaboration. I am eager to see what else you two have planned for readers.

Freedom for the Thought that We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment, by Anthony Lewis

Eight stars

Lewis offers a brief biography of the most oft-cited portion of the American Bill of Rights, the First Amendment. Exploring free speech and expression through the eyes of America’s political and social evolution, Lewis presents a well-grounded political and constitutional treatise on the subject. Looking first to the evolution of free speech in the United States, Lewis explores it as a reaction to the lack of such opportunity when the Thirteen Colonies were part of the British Empire. Sedition and libel became the most popularly adjudicated actions, especially between individuals and the burgeoning published press. Acceptance of freedom to express oneself in the spoken word and in print was by no means as far-reaching as it is today, even though it was ensconced in the constitutional documents of the country. It took time and an evolutionary process of the courts to accept new and deeply-rooted understandings of these freedoms. Lewis shows how the Supreme Court shaped free speech and expression in the 20th century, trumping some of the early interpretations of the Amendment, and tightening the reaction to laws that sought to impede these rights. Lewis also explores the press angle and freedom to shield sources as a mean of garnering free speech. By not having to openly reveal the names of those who offered information to flex the journalistic muscle of freedom of expression, the courts ruled that the First Amendment worked both to encourage expression and to protect it from government intrusion. While cases and precedent evolved through to the latter part of the 20th century, there was surely a great surge in open interpretation from the 19th century, which appears all but barren in its legal proceedings on speech. Adding personal expression through action into the mix of this biographical piece, Lewis shows how Americans and their varied personal beliefs found refuge in an open interpretation of the Amendment, though time and political fear shaped or suspended some fundamental rights for periods of time. Lewis mentioned the German Scare of the Great War, Japanese internment camps of the Second World War, and racial profiling during the early stages of the War on Terror, all of which were events wherein the Federal Government played on the emotions of the public (and the press) to push through laws or actions that blatantly violated personal rights. It was only the courts, who are reactionary and not proactive in their adjudication, who kept the leash of the US Constitution tightly in hand. Tackling such a political powder keg as the First Amendment, Lewis does present the reader with a well-developed exploration of the constitutional and political foundations behind a right that pushes the boundaries of tolerance and acceptance of all peoples. Succinct, yet detailed enough to make strong arguments, Lewis succeeds in what he sought to do with this tome, that will likely enlighten those who have the patience to wade into the discussion.

Lewis is able to offer his views in an effective manner without an awkward attempt to inculcate ideas. Using numerous legal sources, cases, and historical settings, Lewis is able to present a strong case for the effective use of the First Amendment, while also pointing out when the courts dropped the ball. As constitutional interpretation falls to the courts (though I could open a chasm by mentioning the role the courts have in this regard), Lewis shows how a decision made at one point was reversed or completely contradicted at another point in time. Evolution of opinions and judicial understanding came as America grew, though the political and emotional blinders were clearly evident, perhaps a throwback to support the general sentiments held by the populace. That said, Lewis also shows that the courts do not fall prey to letting public sentiment determine the direction in which the constitutional winds blow. I suspect this ability to effective present strong arguments and cases comes from a long history of exploring the judicial system. This benefits the reader who might not be as well-versed, even if they are eager to learn. Lewis is a decent teacher and makes his arguments transparent, leaving the reader to decide if they agree or have an opinion of their own; the crux of this book in action.

Kudos, Mr. Lewis for this wonderful exploration of political and constitutional arguments. You tell things in such a way that the information flows freely without boring the reader will too much minutiae.

Waiting for Santa: A Short Story, by David Baldacci

Eight stars

Tucked away in the back of Baldacci’s THE CHRISTMAS TRAIN, he offers up an extremely short and touching piece around the holidays. After losing his wife in childbirth and his day-old daughter, Sara, on Christmas Day, the narrator recounts how he would take the annual trek down to the mall to watch the children queue up with parents to whisper their desires into the ear of the ever-patient Santa. Eight years into this experience, he meets Sara, who has lost her parents in an accident. While they wait in line, Sara tells of how she misses her parents a great deal, basking in the love they had for her, even if she cannot remember them as people. Sara wants nothing more than to be adopted and have new parents, a wish she has been telling Santa for as long as she can remember. With an aging grandmother, Sara is not sure what her future brings, but hopes she can eventually feel the love of two families, the one she lost and the one out there for her. This touching experience leads our narrator to explain how he found love and had a son of his own. When he arrives at the mall to introduce young Timothy to Santa, he remembers his encounter with Sara and feels the connection his life has, as well as the love of two perfect families. A great story that I never noticed in all the years I read (and listened to) Baldacci’s holiday classic. A wonderful read for the reader who is looking for something as the coffee (or cocoa) cools slightly on December 25th.

Baldacci shows another side of himself in this Christmas story, seeking to pull on the heart strings of the reader who is used to fast-paced crime and thriller pieces. He is able to pull the reader in with so few words, exemplifying how wonderful a writer he has become. This piece was sandwiched between his entire writing career and, while penned over a decade ago, still evokes emotion and curiosity in the open-minded reader.

Kudos, Mr. Baldacci, for yet another piece I will add to my annual collection of Christmas stories to read. I am thankful for the family I have and this story helps solidify these sentiments. 

The Christmas Mystery (Detective Luc Moncrief #2): A BookShot, by James Patterson and Richard DiLallo

Seven stars

In this follow-up BookShot, Patterson and DiLallo bring Detective Luc Moncrief back to work alongside Katherine “K.” Burke on the streets of New York. While their assignments vary, from undercover shoppers in Bloomingdale’s to stakeouts waiting for the next “chalk drop” in the dingy streets of the city, Moncrief and Burke are always ready for a new adventure. News comes down the line that there is an art gallery that has been stiffing its patrons, selling them knock-offs at prices for which the original masterpieces might sell. Moncrief uses his connections in the art world to peer deeper into this, with Burke happy to play along, doing so more effectively than anyone might imagine. When one of New York’s finest, Ramona Driver Dunlop (Baby D to her fans), is murdered, Moncrief and Burke begin investigating, soon learning that she, too, has been a victim of forgers. While the case plays out, Moncrief receives a call from Paris with some sad news. In an attempt to support him, and on the insistence that they both take some time off after the murder investigation, Burke accompanies Moncrief to Paris. There, much is made of the news and Moncrief tries to unwrap the mystery of his feelings for K. Burke in the City of Love. Could Burke and Moncrief have Christmas chemistry? A BookShot that rebounds, at least partially, from the previous let-down in the series. This is a quick read and should keep any reader occupied long enough to digest such a large and festive meal before breaking out the sweets.

As with any BookShot, there is a gamble and a balance in trying to make it all work. Patterson and DiLallo offer up a decent story, though it is a little light on the mystery and drama, while plunging a little deeper into the personal sentiments of Detective Luc Moncrief. I found the crime-based portion of the story to be somewhat predictable and less than captivating, though perhaps this was a cover the authors had for eating up page counts before delving into the Paris angle and final BookShot in the series. I am curious to see how things will resolve themselves, on both sides of the Pond, and to see if this mini-series can end with a bang rather than a dreary collection of angst-filled sentiments by Moncrief towards Burke. Perhaps I am too used to the quick pace of a Patterson mystery, but this set of characters seems locked into something bridled, even in their banter with one another. There are moments of excitement, for sure, but it is as if Patterson and DiLallo are holding back, from what I have seen in each of them previously. One can hope that the pep is back, for this team has churned out some successful stories before.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and DiLallo for soldiering on, though I can only hope you have something riveting to complete the BookShot trilogy. Moncrief has potential and seems to have some NYPD tendencies. Show them off or ship him back!

The Devil’s Prayer, by Luke Gracias

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Luke Gracias and Australian eBook Publisher for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

Luke Gracias offers readers an interesting novel that seeks to mix the foundations of religious belief–both the goodness of a god and evil of its great nemesis–with the human understanding of bartering for a particular outcome. By placing these themes within a modern setting, the reader is better capable of understanding the story and relates with ease. After an eerie preface, the novel opens in a small Spanish town, with one Sister Benedictine trying to locate The Devil’s Bible, which contains a prayer that appears to hold much importance. After copying a few pages of the prayer, in complete secret, Sister Benedictine is able to hide it away with a journal of her own within her convent before being chased by a group of monks wielding swords. Trapped in a bell tower, Sister Benedictine takes the only path she has and ends up hanging from the bell’s rope, in an apparent suicidal act. On the other side of the world, Siobhan Russo learns that her mother has died in Spain, after abandoning the family for six years. While Siobhan is curious as to what happened to Denise Russo (the actual name of Sister Benedictine) all those years ago, she is unsure what to expect. Siobhan’s sister, Jess, wants nothing to do with her mother, though Siobhan feels she owes it to the entire family to explore what might have happened. Travelling to Spain, Siobhan is granted access to a vault where her mother held some key documents she willed to her eldest daughter. Siobhan receives the journal, which her mother called The Confession, and agrees to read it in order to learn more about what happened all those years ago. This confessional journal dates back to the early- to mid-1990s, when Siobhan was a young girl. Denise Russo was a single mother who tried her best to raise a daughter she loved more than life. After a traumatic event, Denise made a deal with a truly diabolical man, who forces her to trade Siobhan’s safety with a pledge to commit numerous crimes. Feeling that she had no choice, Denise is led down a path of truly alarming proportions, but never strays from the promise she made. As Siobhan reads of these events and the eventual birth of her sister, all becomes a little clearer while also extreme muddled. An ancient sect of red-clad monks remain on the lookout for Siobhan, forcing her to remain in hiding and return to Australia with a secret that could tear her family apart. Her arrival opens new and horrific possibilities, just as Gracias keeps the reader in suspense with a major cliffhanger. A wonderfully crafted novel for those who love an evolving and dramatic narrative that takes twists as it tries the reader’s personal faith.

This being the first piece of writing I have ever encountered by Luke Gracias, I was unsure what to make of it. While the opening few chapters took a little time to grasp me, by the time the story entered ‘The Confession’ section, I was completely hooked. Gracias pulls on many time periods and uses strong characters to tell his story, layering both the narrative and character development throughout. His use of strong religious history plays perfectly into the larger story and, should it hold some degree of truth, the reader must wonder about this darker side of religious acceptance. Whereas many will turn to the god of their choosing and make promises for specific results, could the same not be done in the face of a diabolical being, the antithetical deity? Exploring the role this character played in shaping history, Gracias forces the reader to shelve their preconceived notions and potentially accept that there is an evil pulse that is steering world events alongside the goodness of some Higher Being. The powerful and plausible story is accentuated with the lengths to which a parent will go to save their child and face the consequences of their actions. Told primary to convey the life and times of Denise Russo, the addition of Siobhan and, to a lesser extent, Jess, allows Gracias to paint an extremely disturbing picture while flirting with safety for those who are not entirely ready to let go of their belief in goodness.

Kudos, Mr. Gracias for this stellar piece of work. I cannot wait to see what other ideas you have percolating for your growing fan base.

The Christmas Train, by David Baldacci

Nine stars

I love this holiday classic, even if it is totally cheesy. I can see my writing style in its content and ideas, and will read it annually to savour the moments.

Please enjoy the review I have posted in past years:

Baldacci brings his readers a holiday classic sure to stoke the fires of the heart and keep the holiday season on track. Tom Langdon is on a mission, to get from New York to LA in time for Christmas. After a slightly intrusive and highly problematic search by airport security, Langdon finds himself on a red-flag list, still needing to get to the City of Angels. As a seasoned journalist, he tries to make the most of his issue and decides to take to the rails aboard Amtrak’s best and brightest, writing all about his adventures. His multi-day journey puts many interesting and unique characters in his path, as well as some highly humourous adventures and even a mystery or two. As the miles fly by behind him, Langdon discovers that there is more to the train than a slower means of getting from A to B. When someone from his past appears on the journey alongside him, Langdon discovers true meaning of the holidays and how the heart is the best guide on any of life’s trips. A nice break for Baldacci thriller readers, the book is a wonderful addition to the annual holiday traditions.

I would be remiss if I did not agree with many that this book is not cut from the usual cloth Baldacci presents. That said, its hokey nature is offset by the wonderful story Baldacci tells and the humour he is able to weave into the larger story. I have read this book many time before and love it each time I choose to sit down and enjoy its story. Baldacci is a master at storytelling and this book is proof positive that his flexible ideas can stand the test of time and genre diversification.

Kudos, Mr. Baldacci for this holiday treat that ranks right up there with shortbread and eggnog. 

Taking the Titanic: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Scott Slaven

Five stars

In their first BookShot partnership, James Patterson and Scott Slaven use the voyage of the Titanic as the backdrop to their tale. As people of all classes and backgrounds prepare for the Titanic’s maiden voyage in April 1912, there were a few aboard who saw it is as opportunity to line their pockets. After leaving port en route to New York, Nigel Bowen (or a man choosing the pseudonym to cover his sordid past in England) lures the unsuspecting to gambling away large sums at the poker table, bleeding them dry after playing the role of inept card player. Meanwhile, a young woman who is just as much of a con agrees to a ‘marriage’ aboard and takes the name Celia Bowen, which allows her to use her nimble fingers to steal from the women on board, which harbouring a secret of her own back in England. While Nigel and Celia make quite a name for themselves on board, fighting and becoming the buzz on every deck, there is another heist in the making. All this while the boat strikes an iceberg. Before long the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic is taking on water and descending into the Atlantic. Readers will know of the scramble to board lifeboats, which is not lost in this narrative. Will Nigel and Celia be able to turn away from their scandalous pasts and work together? A lacklustre story that is not horrid, but surely goes to show that not all BookShots are equal in their levels of excitement.

Patterson’s BookShots idea has been working for close to a year now and his introduction of a number of authors has the potential to create new and exciting options. Slaven is new to the partnership scene and is sure to have tried to use the Patterson name to catapult him to success. While the story has some decent characters and a plot that is not awful in its development, there is too much history with the setting to effectively tell the story that Patterson and Slaven had in their minds. Much like the attempt of Leo DiCaprio to ruin the maiden voyage of the Titanic in that cinematic hot mess, this short story does little to respect the foundations set with sinking of the Titanic over one hundred years ago. Perhaps Slaven will return again and redeem himself, for it would be a pity to see him fail as he attached himself to the seemingly unsinkable world-famous author.
Decent work, Messrs. Patterson and Slaven, but it was not the best piece for me. I can only hope this was a partnership anomaly and that the next collaboration has more pizzazz. 

Watergate, by Thomas Mallon

Nine stars

Thomas Mallon takes one of the most (in)famous events in 20th century American politics and places it at the centre of this highly-energetic piece of historical fiction. As the novel opens, the break-in at the Watergate Hotel buzzes around town, though it was far from a successful event. Name and finger pointing continue to swirl as money changes hands during clandestine meetings, all in an attempt to distance the core actors from those in the White House who sanctioned the illicit activity. Slowly, discussions of what happened leave the streets of Washington and migrate to the Oval Office, where Nixon and some of his inner circle have begun to discuss events and how it ought to be handled. With a victory over McGovern a certainty, panic over who will say what when the thumb screws are applied seems to be the order of the day. Furthering the panic is the revelation that Nixon tapes many of his Oval Office conversations and those in a number of other key locations. While these recordings covered all discussions on countless topics, only those pertaining to the Watergate affair seem to be of interest to Congress. Legal manoeuvres cannot block their release and Nixon has to come to terms with this, as he sees his presidency circle the proverbial drain. Mallon adds interesting side plots by following the lives of a handful of characters, both in their daily lives and as they relate to the Watergate mess. It is only when the political shell games no longer seem effective that true panic sets in, with firings, disassociation, and accusations fly helter-skelter. As impeachment seems all but certain, Nixon leaves the sinking ship that is his presidency and lets Ford takeover before Congress can act. In an act that even Mallon cannot definitively speculate upon, Ford pardons Nixon of all wrongdoing and leaves him to bask in the life of a former president. A brilliantly crafted story that takes actual historical events and fictionalises them just enough to offer theories and suppositions, Mallon shows how effective a writer he is and is sure to garner much praise for this piece.

This being my first Mallon novel, I was not sure what I ought to expect. I was pleasantly surprised to see the attention to detail and varied approaches used to support the evolving narrative. In some other historical fiction that I have read, the author explained that the use of ‘fiction’ must be placed thereupon, as there is no way to substantiate some of the dialogue between characters. Even with use of the transcripts related to the Nixon Tapes, Mallon would have to concoct some of the banter between individuals, but does so in such a way that the reader might think these were actual conversation on the days listed. Mallon’s use of dates and locations pulls the reader into wondering if these things actually took place based on this crisp timeline and how things began to unravel for Nixon after his fated lies were caught on tape. Bringing in a cross-section of people from the time, Mallon allows the reader not only to experience the events through a number of perspectives, but to offer insights and sentiments that are unique to some who saw the events in their own way. Pat Nixon, Eliot Richardson, Howard Hunt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth to name but a few of the characters who pepper the pages of the novel and branch out on their own journeys. Mallon has done a stunning job balancing on that precarious spot between reality and constructed expectation, leaving the reader to bask in a novel that pulls no punches. If all of Mallon’s work is this captivating, he has surely found a new fan in me.

Kudos, Mr. Mallon for delivering a powerful expression on events that shaped much of the latter decades of the 20th century. I cannot wait to see how you handled some of the other events about which you have written.  

Killer Chef: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Jeffrey J. Keyes

Eight stars

In their first BookShot partnership, James Patterson and Jeffrey J. Keyes create the basis for what could be an excellent new series, even if it does not go further than a collection of short stories. Caleb Rooney is local celebrity in New Orleans, best known for his food truck, ‘Killer Chef’. People will line up all down Bourbon Street just to get their hands on a po’ boy (I guess that’s some Southern delicacy?!) and Instagram to tell about it. However, under this greasy apron and rubber crocs is his other persona, Homicide Detective Caleb Rooney of the NOPD. Called to the scene of a popular restaurant, Rooney begins by surveying the scene, where he discovers that two patrons have been poisoned. The owner of the establishment is an old flame, which provides a moment of awkwardness, but not as much as the realisation that she is unsure who might be behind these murders. Checking some of the CCTV footage, Rooney surmises that it must be someone on staff, though nothing is clear as of yet and it was only these two patrons who died. While he is out fighting crime, Rooney has left the Killer Chef in the capable hands of his co-owner and ex-wife, Marlene. His extended absences has left their strong platonic connection strained and puts the future of the Killer Chef and its reputation in jeopardy. When another call comes, Rooney rushes off to find two more patrons murdered at another establishment, again poisoned. It is only when Rooney checks out some footage and compares it to the first scene that a suspect emerges, one that is seen taking photos of the food truck during one of Killer Chef’s busiest nights. Rooney rushes to make an arrest, but also discovers a common denominator between a number of the victims, outside of their love for good food. What looks like a quick solution turns into something more complex than creating the perfect soufflĂ©. Patterson and Keyes have a wonderful mystery here and I am sure fans will be begging for more to come. 

BookShots are surely a hit-or-miss endeavour, with a number of collaborations touching on many subjects. Patterson pairs himself with a number of up and coming (or established) authors and seeks to churn out successful pieces, though their success really cannot be predicted one publication to the next. While I read another BookShot the other day that was a complete flop for me, this one jumped out and shook me; only furthering my belief that there is much to these short pieces. Patterson and Keyes use some great characters that have some curious backstories, leaving some areas to the imagination, while setting the mystery in the lively city of New Orleans. There is so much to do and see down South, and the door is wide open for another wonderful mystery with a strong culinary focus. Rooney plays the double role so effectively that I would love to see more of him, even in a full-length novel, as it would permit some added development to the characters whose lives cross at various times. If not, a series of BookShots would be effective, as some authors have been able to do with Patterson. This is sure to be one story that makes the rounds and receives lip service for its delectable content.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Keyes for the wonderful initial partnership. I hope to see your collaborative juices simmering again soon in another great story.

High Heat (Nikki Heat #8), by Richard Castle

Seven stars

With the return of Nikki Heat and Jameson Rook, Castle seeks to extend his book series past the ill-fated conclusion of his eponymous television program. With a presidential election only a few months away, New York is abuzz with candidate visits and fundraisers. However, it is the release of a video by a rogue ISIS group that has the NYPD buzzing. A young woman is beheaded and Jameson Rook is called out as the group’s next victim. Captain Nikki Heat is in a panic, both to find out who is behind this heinous act and to locate her husband, whose life is obviously in danger. When Jameson turns up after an assignment covering one of the candidates, the investigation shifts focus to finding out more about the ISIS video. Rushing from one scene to another, Heat spots a woman she feels strongly resembles her mother, a woman dead for seventeen years. Trying to chase her down, Heat is unable to locate the woman, but is so baffled that she disturbs the cremains to take a sample for testing. After Heat’s team zeroes in on location of the execution, a local mosque, real policing and racial profiling clash in a city where echoes of Islamic terrorism are not yet silent. Heat and her team soon reveal that the woman killed in the video was a high-profile journalist with one of the New York newspapers, who had been poking around on an undetermined story that took her to Ohio. Juggling this case and more about her mother, Heat faces trying to piece together the reality she thought was firm, only to realise that it might be as porous as the alibis some perps offer. Looking into some of those who were close to Cynthia Heat, the mystery continues. Could she still be alive and is someone trying to tie off the loose ends of those who could offer insight to a curious Nikki? The ISIS case breaks wide open, though not before Jameson tries to use his vast connections to impress his wife. With Rook on their radar, will ISIS capture and execute another journalist, causing more embarrassment for the NYPD? If she is alive, what is Cynthia Heat doing in the shadows while her daughter questions everything she thought she knew? Castle delivers a strong story, peppered with off-hand and silly humour for which his character was so well known on screen. An interesting read for series fans and curious mystery readers alike.

While I tired and stopped watching the television series, these books have usually been well worth my time. The writing is fairly strong and the ongoing development of series characters keeps the reader interested. While there is use of the ISIS angle, it is not belaboured or done in such a way as to condone and fuel the ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Castle paces his novel well with the parallel storylines working in conjunction with the dramatic build-ups throughout. Drawing the strong Castle/Rook parallels, Jameson Rook’s dry wit and silly humour bleed through the characters dialogue, perhaps the only thing that grates on my nerves to no end. Castle panders to a large cross-section of readers in this novel, entertaining as well as educating the masses as the series grows. A few twists should keep readers wondering until the next novel’s release, where much is left to be unveiled. I think I will check it out, if only to see what might be resolved.

Kudos, Mr. Castle for another decent novel. I can see this series working well as long as backstories continue to evolve over time.

Now I’m Catching On: My Life On and Off the Air, by Bob Cole

Eight stars

Canadian broadcast legend, Bob Cole, brings readers an interesting look into his life in this short, but jam-packed, biographical piece. It is sure to open the eyes of those who take the time to peruse its pages, especially if they experienced the Saturday night ritual I did growing up in Canada. Cole takes the time to show his rise to fame through humble beginnings back in Newfoundland. Growing up while Newfoundland was still a British Dominion, Cole shows the reader how his simple home life did little to hinder his passions as a hockey and football (soccer) player, though there was always an interest to broadcast games and bring as much love to others as the famous broadcaster, Foster Hewitt, did for so many over the radio. Cole recounts a number of events that led to a life in broadcasting, from working the high seas through to recording himself high in the rafter during hockey game in and around St. John’s. Given a chance to use his energetic voice on the airwaves, Cole moved into his lifelong passion, first in radio and eventually making it onto television. His ability to turn a hockey game into a story helped shape a generation of hockey fans who tuned in to listen to him. Idolizing the aforementioned Hewitt and Danny Gallivan, Cole explores how he became the voice of CBC’s hockey broadcasts for over forty years. Along the way, there were a few key events that helped shape his life, including the ’72 Summit Series that saw Canada face-off against the Soviets for the greatest eight-game series that this country has ever witnessed. Cole explores not only his pre-game rituals, but also how he used his role to shape the game and forge long lasting friendships throughout the League. Taking the time in this book to reveal some health issues for the first time, Cole shows that he is a man like all others, though his voice and descriptions on Saturday nights helped turn a generation of Canadians into passionate lovers of a game that is the lifeblood of a nation. Truly insightful and inspiring, Bob Cole knows just how to tell a story, both on and off the ice.

When I first learned that Cole had penned a book of this nature, I knew that I had to read it. While it is by no means a complete memoir or biography of the life and time of Robert Cole, it does permit the reader to parachute into some of the key events in Cole’s professional life. Peppered with anecdotes, Cole pulls together a narrative that shows his vast experience and knowledge with broadcasting in the National Hockey League and his rise to prominence as two of the great English broadcasters in Canada, Foster Hewitt and Danny Gallivan, were reaching their zenith (or had passed the torch onto the next generations already). With such prominent broadcasters before him, Cole did all he could by taking the job seriously, but was not immune to having fun. His rituals and experiences come from all chapters of this piece and offers the curious reader a look behind the scenes as to how those three hours on Saturdays (and more frequently in the playoffs) come together. Truth be told, I would have loved a book that was more chronological and in-depth about the man and his life, down to some of the minutiae, though this was a wonderful primer and leaves the door open to something more down the road. I feel as though Bob Cole is an essential part of my growing up and helped me develop a love of hockey broadcasts. I am sorry that the next generation will not have his regular broadcasts to help shape their passion. He has left large shoes to fill, which is the sign of a true legend.

Kudos, Mr. Cole on this wonderful piece. I loved the mix of seriousness, humour, and dedication. You are a Canadian legend and someone who is a true ambassador for greatness.

Spencer’s Mountain, by Earl Hamner Jr.

Eight stars

A re-read of a classic novel, now that I have seen the 1963 classic film. Please enjoy the review I originally posted during my first read-through of this book:

Earl Hamner Jr. invites readers to take a trip back to the 1930s and explore the Blue Ridge Mountains in rural Virginia, where the Spencers have lived for generations. Clay and Olivia are trying to raise a family the best they can, helped by the eldest, Clay-Boy, and the strong-willed community. As the story progresses, the narrative takes the reader through some of the adventures undertaken by members of the family, but there are two story arcs that weave their way throughout: Clay’s trying to build a house for his family with his own two hands, and Clay-Boy’s attempt to get accepted to college. While one dream hinges on the demise of the other, the Spencers come together through thick and thin, putting the larger family before their own interests. A great story for those who loved the Waltons, or anyone who seeks to see the power of working together, treating family as a team and not a collection of rivals.

I am familiar with Hamner Jr.’s other Walton-based story, THE HOMECOMING (which is also next on my list to read), and so when given the chance to read this book, I did not hesitate. Those familiar with The Homecoming, in its book or television movie form, will see many of the stories that arise from that tale are told in greater detail herein. Hamner Jr. seeks not only to tell the story of the Spencers, but also to show how poverty need not impede a family’s ability to live a happy life, even in the Depression. Readers who can divorce themselves from the rigours of fast-paced thrillers or superficial pieces of fiction will enjoy this tale that warms the heart and brings a tear to the eye at the same time.

Kudos, Mr. Hamner Jr. for your wonderful tale. I shall indulge in the book form of THE HOMECOMING and perhaps check out THE WALTONS, which aired before I was able to enjoy this television classic.

Chaos (Kay Scarpetta #24), by Patricia Cornwell

Seven stars

Having reached the impressive milestone of twenty-four Kay Scarpetta novels, Cornwell takes readers on another journey into the fast-paced life of this popular medical examiner. While attending a seminar in Cambridge, Scarpetta is told of a complaint called into the police for disturbing the peace, apparently involving an argument she had with her assistant. Detailed information knowable only to someone who was close at hand, Scarpetta is baffled as to who might be lurking in the shadows and what the rationale could be for such a false report. She is left to think back on the odd messages received from one ‘Tailend Charlie’, a cyber bully that has both her and her techie niece, Lucy, completely baffled. While dining with her husband, FBI Agent Benton Wesley, both receive calls that pull them away from their date and to handle leads in their respective jobs; Wesley a heightened terror alert for the Boston area and Scarpetta to attend the scene of a potential homicide. Scarpetta is met by longtime friend and colleague, Pete Marino outside the restaurant, where they begin piecing together the narrative. After receiving an odd call from INTERPOL, Marino is told of the homicide of Elisa Vandersteel, who works in England. What does not make sense is the fact that INTERPOL was tipped off and took an active interest before the local police have investigated and liaised. Marino and Scarpetta head to the scene, where twin girls apparently found Vandersteel, though they are less than clear in their statements. Racing against the clock, Scarpetta is still hoping to welcome her sister who is flying in from Florida, but has had to pass that along to Lucy. Tailend Charlie continues to send messages, some in Italian, offering shreds of information from Scarpetta’s past that only one or two people could know. During the examination of Elisa’s body, there appears to be signs of an electrical shock that knocked her from riding and Scarpetta realises that she met the young woman earlier in the day. Trying to synthesise what might be going, Scarpetta deduces there might have been a shock from a lightning strike, though the night was free of any cloud cover. With no firm leads, Scarpetta receives a call that her mentor has died after a freak accident, which derails her already fractured concentration. Things continue to take many twisted turns, leaving Scarpetta to have strong memories of her long-time nemesis, Carrie Grethen. How does all this fit together and could someone else be targeting Scarpetta in an attempt to impress Grethen with a degree of psychopathic tendencies? All builds up to a grand finale, where Scarpetta and Wesley come to terms with the series of events that have plagued them, only to leave readers with a stunning revelation that will change the scope of the Scarpetta series for the foreseeable future. An interesting instalment to the series that might leave regulars scratching their heads or tossing the novel down in frustration. 

In a twist of fate, I have read and reviewed a number of series whose length opens the discussion about the usefulness of character longevity. While Kay Scarpetta is a character whose day to day activity is not physically taxing to the point of running her body ragged, series followers will have seen her go through many transformations, both in personal life and the workplace. A character that goes through so much change is sure to become somewhat stagnant without an author at the helm who can rejuvenate the backstory and keep things moving forward. Cornwell has done well with Scarpetta and has kept her from becoming too aged or even losing the lustre of her abilities. However, the writing in his novel showed that the case at hand played second fiddle to an ongoing flashback narrative and one that forced regular readers to pound their heads into the wall. I have always found that if a reader chooses to parachute into the middle of a series, they should leave confused and without a strong connection to the protagonist. However, Cornwell spent so much time rehashing the entire backstory of Dr.Kay Scarpetta and how each character tied to her, back to the early days, that I was left to ask, ‘when will be focus on the case?’. The case was present, though took closer to 70% of the novel to have the esteemed doctor arrive on the scene. Then, in an interesting spin, the entire case, investigation and determination of what happened flowed down like an information avalanche in order to tie things off. Fearing I might offer too much, I must also say that while the key characters were as strong and present as always, the constant reappearance of Carrie Grethen makes me feel as if Scarpetta wanted to tie every case she works to Grethen and all over evildoers must, in some way, be pawns in her game of chess. It gets tiresome and led me to beg Cornwell to have someone cut Grethen’s throat once and for all, watching her bleed out before dropping her in a vat of acid. Kill her once and for all… let’s find new case and new villains with no ties to anyone else. Let Lucy focus her attention elsewhere, have Scarpetta not look over her shoulder… and let the bodies be tied to actual cases that attract the reader’s attention, not something tech-based that pushes the parameters of reality. While Kay Scarpetta does not track down terrorists or have her life threatened as she is beaten up and captured in some Uzbek cave, her time as an effective character might have come to an end at twenty-four novels. Ok, I’ll push the soapbox away and hush now, or at least until the next annual release of Cornwell’s Scarpetta. 

Kudos, Madam Cornwell for another interesting addition to the Scarpetta series. I hope others will see some of what I do and this helps shape your approach to future publications.

The Mountain Shadow (Shantaram #2), by Gregory David Roberts

Eight stars

Finally taking the time to read the sequel to Gregory David Roberts’ epic novel, Shantaram, I was pleased that I made the effort. Much like the original novel, it is chock full of linguistic complexities and subtleties embedded through the easy-flowing text. As the story opens, the reader is taken two years past the end of Shantaram, presumably the latter portion of the 1980s, with Lin in a stable relationship with Lisa, whose presence peppered the narrative of the past novel as her character developed. Alongside this revelation, the writer learns that Lin is still firmly involved in the Bombay Mafia and has taken up control of the passport forgery business. However, Lin has an epiphany of sorts after meeting a rough and highly unique Irishman, Concannon, whose stubbornness is matched only by his refusal to conform. As Lin decides to put the Mafia behind him, he must plan his exit carefully, so as not to become a complete pariah. One issue he must confront is the constant attacks from a rival gang, the Scorpions, who will stop at nothing to kill him and take over his business. As the novel progresses, Lin comes face to face with Karla again, the woman he loved since arriving in India and for whom his feelings have not dissipated in the two year hiatus. This love is diluted more because of his relationship with Lisa and Karla’s marriage (a protest union) with Ranjit, but Roberts explores the lingering nature of these two characters and the magnetism they possess. As Lin gathers new and excited characters throughout his adventures, his focus is on rebuilding a friendship with Karla and helping her shed the weight of a husband with whom she has no true passion. After a terrible event hits Lin to his core, he seeks revenge in the only way he knows how, by ridding himself from the perpetrator. This brings Lin and Karla closer, forcing them to come to terms with their love for one another and pushes them to work as a team for the first time; the cohesive unit that Lin sought from his earliest days with her. With adventures that take Lin up the side of a mountain and into the Sri Lankan Civil War, Roberts matches the power of Shantaram while offering new insight into the life of a man who is off the grid while being so very connected to those around him. A powerful novel that tells so much in its massive narrative.

Similar to the previous novel, the story weaves together a collection of vignettes within Lin’s Indian life, though is more grounded and faces a day to day existence now that roots are firmly planted in Bombay. Roberts uses this follow-up to explore Lin’s choices to stay in India and how he has developed as a man, working on the black market while being kind of heart. Lin struggles, as any character might with all he faces, though does his best to look out for himself. Roberts tosses many new characters into the narrative, but the core group from the previous novel return, their lives also enriched with two additional years in India. While Roberts does say this novel reads effectively as a standalone, I would argue there is an essential flavour that is lost on the reader who has not lived through Shantaram. There are portions that read very quickly and with great ease, particularly the gang clashes, which had me feeling as if it were a rejuvenated West Side Story. Other portions were thick with philosophy and the inherent complexities of the universe. Mention of illicit drugs peppered the narrative and I felt, at times, as if I needed to be under the same influence in order to fully grasp the depth and esoteric nature of what Roberts presented. That being said, there was a powerful momentum that pushed the story along, both the amorous thread that Lin and Karla shared, as well as a chance for the protagonist to shed those parts of his Indian past and rediscover himself. This is a love story, wrapped in a philosophical treatise, enveloped in a struggle against conformity and tied up with a bow of seal-fulfillment. There is just so much to explore that this review can never truly encapsulate all that I learned and wanted to share. 
I did say, during my Shantaram review, that I was not sure how well I would do having to read this novel, rather than letting Humphrey Bower take the helm, as an audiobook narrator. It was a struggle, not because the text was hard to read, but in missing the nuances and accents, I was not able to take the same journey that had me so impressed while reading Shantaram. The length of time it took me to complete this book should not be indicative of its lack of worthiness, but that parts were so deep that I could only digest them in small portions, without the help of a stellar audio narrator.

Kudos, Mr. Roberts, for another outstanding piece that has touched me to my core and left me wondering if there is more for Lin to discover. 
Like/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at: 
https://pecheyponderings.wordpress.com/

Night School (Jack Reacher #21), by Lee Child

Seven stars

In penning another of his ‘flashback’ Reacher novels, Child stirs the pot and leaves series fans divided. Taking the story back to 1997, Reacher still works for the Military Police and is summoned to attend some additional training in the form of an evening class. The course outline is vague and Reacher is sworn to secrecy, but he has nothing to lose, showing up to a classroom where representatives of the CIA and FBI await him. The class is a cover to instil inter-agency cooperation on a pending threat that has come out of Germany. A collection of Muslims from various countries, on both sides of the Shia-Shi’ite divide, are living together and talking about a vague event. An Iranian double agent is reporting that the group has been dealing with an American who is willing to sell them something for upwards of $100 million. With no idea as to who the mystery American might be or what he has to offer for such a large sum of money, Reacher is sent to the region to investigate. While liaising with German officials, Reacher learns that the American might be part of the US Military, based on some information that witnesses have garnered. However, others offer information that leads Reacher to wonder if this could be one of the handful of men who went AWOL over the past while. Working on this premise, Reacher uses his systematic thinking that has made him so popular in twenty previous novels and loosely connects the American and the larger plot to events from the Cold War era. The item worth so much could be something that might ignite a new and highly dangerous war, though Reacher is determined not to let that happen. As Reacher races to locate the perpetrator, he must flex his muscle and seduce yet another woman, keys to the recipe of any Jack Reacher thriller, while also ensuring that there is some degree of finality, knowing full well that the world does not end in 1997. What could Reacher have discovered in the years leading up to America’s supposed ‘War on Terror’? An interesting throwback novel that has some fans bemoaning the end of Lee Child’s success as a bestselling author while others applaud this ingenious spin.

It was just the other day that I was discussing the idea of long book series with a protagonist that has an ‘active’ (read: fighting) tendency. How long can a series go on before the body gives out and it becomes somewhat unbelievable. Scot Harvath and Mitch Rapp seem to be able to do it, though the likes of Jason Bourne may have to hang up his shoes soon (this is likely because of an inferior author guiding him through adventures now). When it comes to Jack Reacher, the same might be said, though Lee Child has taken an interesting spin on things, by penning throwback or ‘flashback’ novels to help the series grow while not taxing the protagonist any further from where he ended during the last present-based novel. Many series fans don’t like this, as Reacher is best known for his renegade and vigilante behaviour, which is lost when he still dons the Army uniform. That said, he remains crisp and uses his analytical mind to decipher the most obscure clues. In this novel, the younger Reacher is his sarcastic self, surrounded by an always-new (and somewhat unique) collection of supporting characters. Pulling time-sensitive plots, Child is able to discuss Muslim terrorism in its kernel stage, before it was used by every thriller writer and flogged to the point of becoming less than intriguing. I will agree, somewhat, that the law-abiding Reacher, one serving his country, is not as exciting as the current incarnation of this character, though this novel way by no means a waste. As with any Reacher novel, there has to be that lovely lady that Reacher is able to seduce and a group of men who are begging to have the snot beaten out of them by the calm protagonist. Child is always happy to offer social commentary pulling on various aspects of America’s ongoing need to be involved in wars of all types and the apparent disregard for technological protection from one era to another. If I were to say anything else, I might spill the proverbial beans, so I will encourage readers to give this novel a change and look at the silver lining; Lee Child has not signed off on letting Tom Cruise ruin a handful of other Jack Reacher stories in the years to come. 

Kudos, Mr. Child for this refreshing look at the early Jack Reacher, before the chip on his shoulder became the cross he had to bear. 

No Man’s Land (John Puller #4), by David Baldacci

Eight stars

Baldacci proves why he is the master of his genre with another exciting novel in his John Puller series. After returning from his latest military assignment, John Puller is visited by two military officials with potential news of a cold case from thirty years before. Jacqueline “Jackie” Puller left the family home one evening after supper, leaving her sons, John Jr. and Robert, with a babysitter. When she did not return, her disappearance was investigated, but no changes were ever laid. Accompanying these two men is a letter penned by a woman who lived at Fort Monroe with the Pullers at the time Jackie disappeared. The contents of the letter clearly express that the elder John Puller, an accomplished military man at the time, was responsible for the disappearance of his wife and goes on to lay out claims that Puller murdered her, having lied to investigators three decades before. While the woman is terminally ill, Puller, Jr. and Robert cannot believe the allegations, but are not prepared to dismiss them as completely offhand. While Puller, Sr. remains in a state of mental fog, Puller, Jr. begins his own investigation into events. Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative, Paul Rogers is released from prison and is seeking to acclimate himself back into society, though has no desire to make any blip on the radar. His unusual strength and massive size leaves him hard to hide, though he will do all he can to hide himself and the scars that cover his body. Rogers settles in as a bouncer at a local bar, though even there he cannot hide from everyone. As Puller pushes deeper into the investigation, he find himself hitting a wall with no help from the US Army. They go so far as to close u any investigation and reassign those who were turning over stones, which is a significant red flag for Puller. Someone is trying to cover something up and he is left to wonder what happened to his mother. After Puller comes upon news that there were other women who disappeared and turned up murdered around the Base, he is sure that a serial killer may have been lurking in the shadows and Jackie was one of the victims. Puller is visited by his old friend and sometimes flame, Veronica Knox, who agrees to help uncover many of the areas that seem to be causing Puller the most grief, though she must do so off the radar as well, so as not to alert the military or US Government. It is only when they learn of a covert program within the military that sought to create indestructible soldiers that Puller wonders if his mother knew something she should not. When Puller and Knox come across Paul Rogers, they are amazed at his abilities and wonder if he might be responsible for the killings and could have disposed of Jackie Puller, either following orders or as a rogue agent. There are those high in their ivory towers that have been able to distance themselves for years, but have blood on their hands and consciences, and Rogers has not forgotten those who used him as a guinea pig for their own advancement. Rogers confesses some telling information to Puller and Knox after saving their lives; things that might help clear things up on that night thirty years in the past. Could John Puller, Sr. have played a role in his wife’s death, taking orders from the military hierarchy? Will Knox and Puller, Jr. piece it all together before it is too late? Is Paul Rogers the epitome of the military’s soldier of the future? Baldacci spins a story that will keep readers guessing and wondering until the final chapter, and beyond.

Fans of David Baldacci have seen him develop many series, all of which are highly entertaining and poignant in their plots. While his writing has become even better over time, he is also able to tap into some of the long-standing style that has made him the bestselling author whose creations include the King and Maxwell, Camel Club, Amos Decker, and John Puller series. In this novel, Baldacci uses a core of highly-developed characters to keep the story moving forward while a secondary collection who complement and support the narrative as it weaves in many directions. Plots are ever-evolving and dialogue remains crisp, which keeps the reader guessing and pushing even further, in hopes of learning more in short order. Series fans will revel in this great novel that looks into military technology and offers up a brief soapbox speech about the perils of such development. Filled with humour, action, emotion, and drama, Baldacci has another bestseller on his hands and is sure to find more fans to flock to his ever-growing publications. 

Kudos, Mr. Baldacci for delivering yet again. I can count on you and your abilities with every new book. 

Order to Kill (Mitch Rapp #15), by Kyle Mills

Seven stars

Mills returns to extend the Mitch Rapp series, careful to keep the Vince Flynn voice and sentiment throughout the swift narrative. While Rapp has become use to being in control, he is dealt a curveball when outmanoeuvred in South Africa by a hired killer. Taken into custody, Rapp learns that there is a plot to intercept some warheads from Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and place them in the hands of ISIS. This will surely goad America into an already fluid war, with the stakes much higher and the enemy just as elusive. However, there is a further wrinkle that can make things a great deal more difficult; the Russian President is keen to pull the strings in the background, teaming up with ISIS to eliminate the Americans and reset the World Order. Working alongside Scott Coleman, a friend and colleague, Rapp is able to get his hands on one of the nukes, only to discover that it has been altered in such a way to substantiate the rumours of Russian involvement. Rapp must now work with his boss, CIA Director Irene Kennedy, not only to prevent the weapons falling into the wrong hands, but ensure those in charge of the plot are eliminated, all while trying to prevent a diplomatic disaster. Posing as a potential ISIS recruit, Rapp enters the region and battles his way into learning of the ultimate plan, which could devastate the world and shift power back at least three decades. At a crossroads, Rapp has no choice but to act, though his life could be the ransom paid for tranquility. A seamless continuation of the series that keeps Rapp as interesting as ever, while entertaining series fans who are still saddened by the loss of the great Vine Flynn.

I have long been a Vince Flynn fan and have enjoyed the Mitch Rapp series since its inception. I also admire Kyle Mills and the work he has done to continue these novels in such a way as to keep series regulars from feeling jilted or as if things had been hijacked by an author with a motive all their own. When authors die and their series are continued, it remains a real gamble as to whether a new author can take the reins and be successful. Mills handles the herculean task with aplomb and one might wonder if Flynn were still influencing the plotlines. Mills offers strong characters as he continues to develop the Rapp backstory, which is complex in and of itself. While there has been much that has jaded the CIA operative, Rapp continues to fight for his country and has the scars to prove it. Some who have read my other reviews within this genre will know that I have begun to bemoan the excessive flogging of Islamic terror cells and their attack on America as a means to offer an effective antagonist and keep terror on the front burner. That books still feature this idea drives me mad, though I will admit that Mills’s use of ISIS is not quite as bad. Mills pulls the story a little further with a new fork in the road, one that offers the Russians as renewed enemies of America. Teaming with ISIS, these two major enemies are working together to cripple the mighty American juggernaut, which is an impressive plot development, though one can only assume it will be short-lived. Mills uses the acerbic wit of Mitch Rapp and the ever-developing narrative to keep the reader hooked, while tossing the story into a seemingly believable direction with a nuclear arsenal on the line. I found myself connected and intrigued until the very end, though I must ask myself, how much does Mitch Rapp have left? Could we finally have seen his swan song?

Kudos, Mr. Mills for pulling together another stellar story as you guide the beloved Rapp through yet another adventure. I admire your work and know Vince Flynn would be proud.