Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Race Against Time (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang #3), by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Eight stars

As I continue to explore the adventures of this most exciting vehicle, I have come to see why young readers the world over would be drawn to this series. Frank Cottrell Boyce offers up a cute and informative piece that will surely last the test of time. Picking up where the previous story ended, the Tootings find themselves in an epoch of which they are not familiar, with a Tyrannosaurus Rex breathing down their necks. Apparently, the ‘chronojuster’ has the capacity to toss Chitty Chitty Bang Bang through time, an added layer of excitement for the Tootings. When Mr. Tooting is able to manoeuvre the family away from the meat-eaters and into a more current period, they find themselves in the heart of the early 1920s New York City, where Chitty’s famed creator, Count Zborowski, greets them warmly and challenges them to race in his newly perfected Chitty Chitty Bang Bang II. After some finagling and fine-tuning of the original Chitty, the Tootings take along a young racing enthusiast in hopes that the chronojuster will help propel them to more adventures. Their ultimate goal, to find the Pott family, original owners of Chitty, so that they might erase any remnant of Chitty’s creation. Why get rid of such a handy vehicle, you might ask? Super villains Tiny Jack and Nanny are still on the hunt for Chitty, hoping to add her to their collection to undertake dastardly plans. The Tootings bounce around time, in search of the Potts Family and trying to dodge all that time travel can toss their way. After a makeover in the Amazon, Chitty is ready to face anything that might be placed before her, taking the Tootings along for the ride of their lives. However, Nanny’s spun a web and cannot help but hope to snag Chitty before all is said and done. A wonderful continuation of this series that enthrals young and mature readers alike.

Starting this series as a buddy read, I was so pleased with it presentation that I chose to continue reading all the newer adventures left for young readers. Cottrell Boyce continues to dazzle readers with the adventures of a newer family while keeping the memories of Ian Fleming’s original theme in the forefront of the narrative. A time-travel theme allows for a new round of delightful characters, all of whom add to the fast-paced narrative. Cottrell Boyce presents an interest story, working on a new angle to keep readers curious and free from being able to predict what is to come. While geared to the young reader, the story plays out in such a way that it is not overly cheesy and a more mature (read: adult) reader can equally enjoy the journey through time. I am eager to see what comes next in the Chitty series and will keep these books in mind for when my son is a little older.

Kudos, Mr. Cottrell Boyce for keeping the series fun as well as informative for the reader. While you have taken oven from Ian Fleming, I am confident that his estate is well-pleased with what you’ve been able to do.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang #2), by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Eight stars

Having begun this series with the Ian Fleming classic, I thought it a good idea to continue on, under the guidance of Frank Cottrell Boyce. Moving the story into the present day, the young reader is introduced to the Tooting Family, with a mom and dad, as well as Lucy, Jeremy, and baby Harry. When Mr. Tooting announces that he has major news, he shares that he’s been sacked from his job, which means the family is without a vehicle. Noting the crossroad in their lives, Mr. and Mrs. Tooting agree to take the family on the adventure of a lifetime, but will need a vehicle to match. After they secure a camper van, the Tootings are almost ready to go, but Mr. Tooting takes Jeremy with him to the local scrap yard to find a few items that might be useful to ensure the camper van is ready for all its adventures. There, the duo discover an old Zborowski engine, a famous racing vehicle from the 1920s. Mr. Tooting has grand ideas and turns the camper van into a speeding monstrosity, while Jeremy is unsure what to expect. When the family is ready to head out, they begin the journey towards Paris, where Mrs. Tooting has always fancied going. Their trip takes a turn when the camper van sprouts wings and begins to sail through the air. Panicked and unsure what is going on, the Tootings hold on for dear life until they find themselves atop the Eiffel Tower. The authorities and local media outlets scramble for an explanation, which leads to a mysterious phone call and the subsequent renaming of the camper van to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a name the Tootings think quite odd, but who are they to protest. From there, Chitty takes the family over to the Sphinx and more adventures. However, super villain Tiny Jack has been watching the Tootings and their vehicle, with a plot of his own and a fiendish assistant named Nanny. What will come of the Tootings and is there more to these vacation destinations than meets the eye? Cottrell Boyce pulls his readers in and does Fleming great justice with this sequel, where the adventure never seems to let up.

It was a buddy read that had me begin this series, but I am pleased that I took the time to delve in, as the adventures are wonderful. Cottrell Boyce ties the previous novel to this one in a masterful manner, offering breadcrumbs to the attentive reader, while entertaining those who may be new to the series. A new collection of characters keeps the story going and offers a wonderful new realm of adventures. With just the right amount of evil villain to keep young readers curious and yet not petrified, Cottrell Boyce delivers a jam-packed adventure that one can only hope will continue with the next in the series. Paced perfect and with a peppering of corny storylines, this is the perfect tale for a young reader with a taste for the adventurous.

Kudos, Mr. Cottrell Boyce for working along the Fleming framework and keeping children enthused as they are educated about the ins and out of motors in all their forms.

The House Husband: A BookShot, by James Patterson and Duane Swierczynski

Eight stars

With a new author pairing, Patterson brings Duane Swierczynski into the BookShot mix to show off his abilities, and what a debut venture this has become. There is a killer about, targeting families whose strains outweigh the connection they have together. What makes it all the more mysterious is that said killer by night is a house husband, most bland, during the day. When Teaghan Beaumont returns to the Homicide Squad after having her first child, everything seems out of whack; her partner is acting off and her fellow detectives handle her with kid gloves. However, when Beaumont and her partner respond to the scene of a potential familicide, she cannot help feel chilled to the bone. While trying to juggle her job and a six-week old baby, Beaumont’s mind is always racing, yet tired as ever. Doing a little work on her own, Beaumont soon realises that there have been other such crimes while she’s been away, all chalked up to strain within a family unit. But, when another such event occurs, Beaumont is sure there is a killer on the loose, setting the scene and trying to deter the authorities. What she discovers next will not only blow the case wide open, but no one will see it coming, even the reader. A wonderful story to appeal to those BookShot fans who seek a gem and have toughed it out with less than stellar pieces in the past.

As I have mentioned many times before, BookShots are truly a gamble to the avid reader. Short enough that anything disappointing has not wasted too long of the reader’s time, but fast-paced at times that the reader can devour a few in one afternoon. Patterson’s introduction of Swierczynski into the family proves to be a wonderful addition and has offered new hope for fans of this short story grouping. With little time to waste, Patterson and Swierczynski develop strong characters and a story that is second to none. Short chapters force the reader to grab on and get hooked or drop everything as the plot moves at an alarming pace. A few key twists within the story act as major pivot points and the reader is left to wonder what’s just happened, hopefully in a good way. I do hope to see Swierczynski again soon in either BookShot or full novel format, as he surely has a mind for this sort of piece.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Swierczynski on a wonderful piece. I can only hope there are more BookShots to come from this entertaining duo.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang #1), by Ian Fleming

Eight stars

While most famous for his work on creating Agent 007, Ian Fleming wrote this classic children’s story many years ago, which entertains as much as it captures the interest of many young readers. Commander Caractacus Pott has a long history of inventing things, which provides limited success and forces the family to gather round in times of financial strain. After selling one of his ideas to a local confectionary, the Potts head out to purchase their first family car. Commander Pott brings his wife (Mimsie) and twins (Jeremy and Jemima) along to find a vehicle that might suit them. One that has been left to the side catches their attention and soon the Potts have a vehicle of their own. This vehicle appears somewhat standard in appearance but seems to have a personality all its own, down to its name, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The Pott Family find themselves out exploring the rural English countryside one day when things take a slight detour and Chitty begins showing off her wonderful capabilities (as many will know, cars prefer to be ‘she’ and Fleming discusses this). Departing the confines of England, Chitty takes the Commander and his brood on a continental exploration, which goes from exciting to problematic in the blink of an eye. Jemima and Jeremy are soon placed in danger and no one can help them, though Chitty might have seen in all, if only she can get the Commander and Mimsie to heed her alerts. A wonderful story that will keep the young reader hooked until the very last pages.

I will admit that I had heard of this book (and movie) a long time ago, but it is only now, when asked to do a quick buddy read, that I decided to go all in. Fleming takes this outrageous idea and puts a nice spin on it, perfect for young readers. While there is much that can be said of Commander Pott, the story is rightly all about this unique vehicle, though the other characters found herein keep things light and adventurous. Fleming teases readers with what might be around the corner, beginning with talk of a magical sweet, but soon pushes the story well away from inventions and into the fast-paced world of travels and trouble. In a fashion that I have only seen in English children’s books, the narrator keeps the reader fully involved and helps push speculation to its limits, while also making sure that no one is left behind. The twists and turns of this tale are wonderfully paced and the reader is sure to want more. As do I, admittedly. So, I’ll rush out to read the next three in the series, though it is too bad that Fleming never got around to writing those, too busy keeping the rest of the world safe with James Bond.

Kudos, Mr. Fleming for your wonderful beginning to a series of children’s novels sure to bamboozle as much as they excite the young reader. I feel like a kid again as I devoured this wonderful story.

Bad Little Girl, by Frances Vick

Seven stars

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

In her follow-up novel, Frances Vick tackles some of the most troublesome areas of a well-organized society, the protection of the child. In her years as a teacher, Claire Penny has seen many children pass through the halls of her school. Some good experiences mix alongside those that are less than enlightening, but when it comes to young Lorna Bell, something deep inside begins to call out to Claire, even if it is hard to pinpoint the precise concern. After seeing young Lorna on the playground, isolated from the other children, Claire develops a particular curiosity that develops into a caring interest. Soon thereafter, Lorna finds herself in small bouts of trouble, be it teasing or stealing or roughhousing on the playground, which brings in a young mother, Nikki, to handle her daughter’s troubles. What follows are signs of continued alarm to Claire, but no one else will heed her requests to follow-up with the authorities. Claire learns of a home life that is less than ideal for Lorna and marks all over the little one’s body, but nothing can be done, at least by those with the power to remove Lorna from her family. By the time she turns ten, Lorna begins to forge a bond with Claire and a plot is hatched to solve everything. Just after Christmas, they flee the town for the Cornish seaside, where Claire hopes to keep Lorna from the family that does not care for her. Tragic news comes over the wire, but Claire still wants to keep Lorna protected and away from the bright lights, but is confused why no one has reported Lorna missing. While out in the seaside town, Claire and Lorna encounter Marianne, a writer-cum-dancer-cum-Jill of all trades. Lorna and Marianne soon begin spending time together while Claire is left ignored and constantly worried she will be discovered as having kidnapped Lorna. However, something begins to eat away at Claire, both related to the news back home and the connection that Marianne has made with Lorna. Before long, Claire is left to wonder if she, too, will be abandoned and Marianne will pick up as the saviour figure to Lorna. A gripping tale that takes some time to get going, but pulls the reader in soon thereafter.

Without a strong connection to Vick and her writing, it is somewhat difficult to judge the calibre of that which I have read. However, I find that first impressions usually go a long way for me and I can say that I came out of this reading experience with mixed feelings. I was interested in the premise of the novel from the outset and Vick is able to present it in such a way as to capture its essence, a struggle between one’s gut reaction and the rules of the system. The array of characters Vick uses conveys a decent cross-section of those who might be involved, from abusive parents to detached school officials and an overbearing (caring?) educator who wants it all to work out for the best. While the plot is strong in its intentions, I felt it took a long time to really get moving, longer than I would have liked even to lay the groundwork for the departure from the primary residence itself. However, once things got moving, there was a wonderful undertone to the story and hints throughout as to what might be going on. Vick portrays Claire, Lorna, and Marianne in a wonderful fashion and leaves the reader to wonder if the gut reaction they are getting as the story progresses could actually be true. Vick layers on more drama and a few twists to keep the reader from guessing too much before letting everything fall into place at the perfect moment. Working in the Child Protection field myself, I enjoyed the perspective offered and can empathise with Claire on many accounts. An interesting novel that I think could work well and drawn many people to it, given the proper approach.

Kudos, Madam Vick for a great story and interesting portrayal. While I cannot put my finger on precisely what kept me from loving this book outrightly, I know there is much potential and I will keep my eyes peeled for your next work.

The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance, by Ron Chernow

Nine stars

In his first massive biographical tome, Ron Chernow definitely takes up an undertaking that proves daunting and yet highly interesting. Chernow sought to explore not only financial ties in America through the ages, but to explore a powerful financial, business, and political force that has lasted for more than a few decades. The Morgan name has been deeply ensconced in the American fabric (the international one as well) for well over a century, helping to steer world events and political ideals one way or another. In his exploration of the House of Morgan–more than a familial biography in the true sense–Chernow examines the entity during three distinct epochs: the Baronial Age, the Diplomatic Era, and the Casino Period. Readers can marvel not only at the power held by these multi-millionaires, but how the House survived many a plight (both political and economic) and remains as strong as ever. While I am not one who is well-versed in finances or who can attest to being the greatest handler of money, I feel any reader with patience and a passion to learn will devour this and see just how powerful and corrupt money can be, no matter the holder.

Chernow first examines the House of Morgan by exploring the lives and ventures of Junius and Pierpont Morgan in what he coins as the Baronial Age. This father and son duo sought to forge greatness in an era when the American aristocracy was finding its feet. As Chernow lays the groundwork for his entire piece, the House set up its own foundations, whereby the elite nature became the basis for future Morgan enterprising. The Morgans sought not to be a bank in the traditional sense, with tellers and small accounts, but to offer services to the uppermost crust of society, requiring inflated minimal deposits and refusing to publicise their services. Chernow touches on this in the preface, but does explore how Junius wanted to use the mid-nineteenth century to develop a core group by which he could make sizeable investments and see his own profits soar. By the time Pierpont took over daily running of the House, banking became but one of the ventures undertaken to produce great wealth. Railroads were coming into vogue and their development as more than regional entities could be seen by amalgamating companies into monopolising monstrosities. The House of Morgan had capital for those who wished to expand holdings, but also elbowed their way onto the board of many companies. The rise in rail importance created a strong upswing in the Morgan profits and thereby helped earn Pierpont Morgan the title of Robber Barron in the late nineteenth century. At the dawn of the early twentieth century, the House of Morgan found itself firmly rooted in America’s upper class and became the go-to lenders of the top tier. When Wall Street felt tremors of a crash in the first decade of that century, it was the House that held firm and weathered the storm. Pierpont did all he could to keep things running effectively, leaving a powerful and influential House of Morgan for his son, Jack, after his death in 1913. Creating a financial aristocracy in America and laying the groundwork for international importance, the baronial age ushered in some of the most trying and successful years of the House of Morgan. 

In the lead-up to major political changes on the world scene, the House of Morgan undertook using their strong voice in what Chernow titles the Diplomatic Era. Divesting its monetary policy outside of America, the Morgans had enterprises in London and Paris, two key areas in Europe with long reaches across the continent and around the world. The House used its significant influence to help foster stability within the European countries, providing key loans and, at times, propping up their national currencies to the point of steering away from significant devaluation. With strong diplomatic intentions, the House was not overly picky about their clients for a time and would help wherever they could. Even after the Great War commenced, the House of Morgan invested heavily in munitions and metals that became essential to the war effort. Chernow goes so far as to discuss how the Morgans were seemingly war profiteers by investing in both sides without outwardly supporting the Axis. This was precarious territory and could flirt with treasonous activity. But, the House of Morgan sought to invest in what would bring profit and did so effectively. In those inter-war years, the House began seeing itself managed more by US administrations, through legislation. President Wilson passed income tax laws and tried to limit control of the Morgans with the creation of a Federal Reserve. Wilson received much pushback and watched the House do all they could to react. With the arrival of the Depression, Jack Morgan, now at the helm, sought to push through as panic enveloped the world, steadying the financial markets and remaining above the fray. The European situation brought dual concern to the Morgans, who watched the reparations of the Great War cripple Germany and the rise of the Nazis, fuelled by that resentment. As Chernow explains, the House could strike to aid with reparation stability and prop-up the German economy, which might prevent the need for war. There was much to be done with these sorts of monetary policies, but the House was kept from offering complete assistance, with pressure from both FDR and Churchill on both sides of the Atlantic. Trying to keep from sullying their reputation and steering away from treasonous activities, the Morgans would not allow themselves to make concrete ties with the Nazis or the extermination policies enacted throughout the concentration camps. The House remained firmly rooted in the American camp, though financial potentials surely crossed political ideologies in the 1930s and 40s. The diplomatic era saw the House of Morgan hold onto much power around the world, though they were not able to prevent some of the major political skirmishes. The profits they reaped allowed them to divest from national government concerns and focus solely on the personal investor.

Chernow’s third era of the House of Morgan, which he calls the Casino Period, proved to be one in which gambles in finances were precipitated by a loss of control by the House at a time when multinational corporations were the new Goliaths. With the onset of the Cold War, the world proved divided along ideological lines, but this did not force the House of Morgan to shy away from their business ventures. Using corporations as clients, the House sought to bridge financial wealth with the acquisition of key businesses all over the world, though they were more a servant to aid in the diversification of business interests. The American presidents tried to turn away from some of the ventures being undertaken, but those heading up various investment branches of Morgan were able to turn politics on its head with bold and daring moves. Be it subsidizing means to acquire and monopolize Japanese high tech firms or foster third-party fiscal exchanges so as not to violate embargoes in the Middle East, the House of Morgan was there through it all. Chernow offers numerous concrete examples of how the House tried to keep itself one step ahead of the precarious markets while also pushing the limits with offering seed money for hostile takeovers. Whatever it was, it brought things into the late 20th century at a time when financial security was rare, even with relative peace on the political front. Hedging bets for their clients proved to be the effective means of creating a relatively effective House of Morgan in the latter part of the century and into the twenty-first, after Chernow’s narrative comes to a close. 

As the political and economic world remains balanced on the head of a needle, Chernow exemplifies how the diverse and risky approaches of the House of Morgan keep their financial prowess effective. I am no money man, nor do I feel I learned enough in these pages to expound much on the subject. However, Chernow’s strong ability to lay out a thought-provoking and timely narrative pushes the reader through the various situations with ease. Political, economic and personal grief pepper the story throughout and Chernow is able to draw them all together. His focus has to be varied as he handles a number of people and their personal stories, but he does so effectively and to the point that the reader is sure to want to know more. This is the sign of a good historian and biographer, something that I know Chernow has fostered after reading a number of his works. There is more to the House of Morgan than money, but it is their passion for it that shaped them as men and a family (both blood and business) for so long. While Chernow sought to find a family whose influence on worldwide banking lasted long enough to write about its development, he has done so in spades with this exploration of the Morgans.

Kudos, Mr. Chernow for shedding so much light on these men and their empire, which showed numerous changes over its development. Your books always leave me wanting more and curious as to what else you have in store. What a wonderful way to begin your life-long journey of writing. 

New World Order: A Strategy for Imperialism, by Sean Stone

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Sean Stone, and TrineDay for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

In his work that is as thought-provoking as it is full of rhetoric, Stone follows in the footsteps of his father and presents a set of ideas that might lead some to doubt his authenticity. However, with careful arguments and thorough sourcing, the patient and attentive reader might see how he could make his point with ease. The crux of Stone’s argument is that there has been talk of a New World Order (NWO) for decades and that America (or at least some of its most powerful political figures) have been falling into line, unbeknownst to the general public. This is not the NWO espoused by Bush the Lesser (43), who wanted America to lead the world in an ‘us versus them’ mentality that aligns with the faux-wrestling that “NWO” brings to mind. Instead, Stone argues that there has long been talk of a World Government with teeth that follows the structure of the British Commonwealth, where the centrality of the governing body is paramount, while a degree of autonomy and sovereignty exists for member-states. Stone argues that there have been Round Tables made up of scholars and political figures for decades, discussing issues like that and that there has been an ‘indoctrination camp’ where American scholars have been able to go to ‘learn and accept these tenets’, in the form of Rhodes scholarships to Oxford. While it might seem somewhat far-fetched, Stone presents arguments that FDR, Kissinger, and even Zbigniew Brzezinski (National Security Advisor to President Carter) fell into line with this mentality and long promoted it in speeches and published documents. While the League of Nations and the United Nations fell flat (for reasons best not addressed at length here), this NWO could work and has already made inroads into the America political system. Trade and shared markets have long been a part of the system (the US and Canada, the largest part of the Commonwealth, being integral trade partners while the US and UK have been closely aligned on political and market matters for decades) and the strong ties during WWII and the Cold War period helped solidify the Western Europe/America connection as well. Stone does not profess that the world will be under a single umbrella, or that the encroaching system will force the United States to stand alongside North Korea or Russia as brothers, but that there has long been a neo-imperialism taking place and that America is falling deeper in line. Well argued and thoughtfully presented, Stone is able to deliver his point with some degree of ease. While he says that the book serves the novice who is curious alongside the well-versed academic on the subject, I would venture to say the former might be out of their element with some of the nuanced arguments presented herein.

While this is a piece that provokes thinking from the outset, Stone is clear to lay the groundwork for those who seek to use his work and ideas as fodder to show how off the beaten path he might be. While some authors might relish being called ‘conspiracy theorists’, Stone seems to want his arguments not to fall on deaf ears. In that, he criticises those whose main goal is to toss academic epithets on this work or to call out those who practice psittacism and refuse to open their eyes to what is before them. The text reads fluidly for the most part and is substantiated with numerous citations and examples. While any piece of non-fiction, especially academia, can be spun to suit the writer, I can see some of the points that Stone is making without feeling that I am reaching to comprehend or swallow them. Where I do find myself wondering is in the inherent ‘betterness’ that comes from American politicians, leaders rather than followers. Alongside that, the newly minted 45th President of the United States has vowed to make it an ‘America First’ period before the country wakes from its horrible nightmare, leaving the reader to wonder how anything could ‘trump’ this mindset and see the country or its political elite turn towards something that does not allow the reins of power to rest firmly on Pennsylvania Avenue. All that being said, should Stone have as much credibility in what he says, I cannot help but hope that there is a chance that America will find itself tied to something larger and not entirely in its control, be it a World Commonwealth or some such political monster. It cannot be any worse than the current demon’s head atop the political Hydra guarding the palace until at least January 20th, 2021.

Kudos, Mr. Stone for providing me with some strong political and historical thinking. I love a good alternate theory and while you might be trying to warn the country of its demise, I applaud the possible future inculcation of a new and world-centric point of view. Just watch the country march in the streets when they find all this out, eh?! 

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, by Thomas Mallon

Nine stars

Mallon has created a second superbly crafted that paints the presidency of a strong American surrounded by turmoil. Using his strength within in the historical fiction genre, Mallon parachutes the reader into the life of Ronald Reagan at a time when the world was watching, and holding their collective breath. After a preface that lays the groundwork for the bitterness of the ’76 campaign and dear Nancy’s obsession with the insights of her astrologer, the reader finds themselves lodged into a narrative between August and December of 1986. Within that period, President Reagan was juggling a few items of greatest importance to him: retaining a Senate majority during the mid-term elections, continuing the discussion of a thawing of relations with the Soviets, and a pesky item around backing the Contras in Central America while selling arms to Iran. As the narrative progresses, the reader learns much of the role played by Nancy Reagan, the apparent marionette behind the president’s decision-making abilities. When not bemoaning the lack of support she felt she got from Congress on her ‘Just Say No!’ initiative, Nancy was either trying to oust the Chief of Staff, Don Regan, or trying to negotiate an early abdication from the White House after learning of the placement of Uranus in relation to Saturn. As Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to meet in Reykjavik to discuss nuclear disarmament, the world watched. These tense and critical negotiations ensued over a weekend as the two world leaders tried to hammer-out what might be the end to the Cold War, yet failed abysmally to come to a concrete agreement. Throughout that period of cut-throat politics, dead ‘Mommy’ could help but complain from back in Washington that her ‘Ronnie’ was being handled and given poor information. It is a minute spark in a Lebanese magazine that turns heads away from the disjointed and fruitless summit and towards an apparent plan within the president’s National Security team to sell weapons to Iran and funnel that money to the Contras in Nicaragua and El Salvador. This event, which the president feigned no knowledge about, turned the tables in the late autumn and paralysed the GOP in their quest for Senate supremacy. Thereafter, the Reagans were left to limp towards 1987 and the final quarter of their time in the White House, a blemish that could be removed with a Hollywood smile and a final rally to support the Gipper. With wonderful side and backstories flowing throughout, Mallon develops a wonderfully argued novel that places the reins of power outside of Ronald W. Reagan and firmly in the hands of his manipulative and driven wife. A must-read for any who love political fiction with a sense of reality permeating throughout. 

Mallon has a wonderful way of capturing reality in a well-paced narrative. The reader is left feeling that they are in the midst of the action, rather than an omnipotent observer. While there is no way to substantiate many of the conversations had within the pages of this book, it is likely that (the dialogue) which keeps it from being pure fact. Historical fiction is at its best when left to the devices of Thomas Mallon, as he has shown on at least a few occasions. The reader is also treated to many characters that enrich the story and offer their own historical marker, leaving the tale with a much more complex and lasting impression on those who take the time to digest all that is on offer. While I would have preferred a focus on Iran Contra and how Reagan bumbled his way through it, use of Reykjavik and Nancy’s puppeteering was equally interesting, especially as it is left to the reader to determine if a woman is reading the stars out her window in the California night and sending messages through the First Lady to make major political decisions. Mallon’s sarcastic style is not lost, nor is his desire to argue that there were many heavy hitters seeking to influence decisions in the West Wing. Brilliant and one can hope there are more presidential novels to come.

Kudos, Mr. Mallon for showing me how fun and exciting political writing can be. I can only hope your quiver is full of more stories like this to keep your fans sated. 

Snitch (Shea Stevens Thiller #2), by Dharma Kelleher

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Dharma Kelleher, and Alibi for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

I recently discovered Dharma Kelleher and her biker thriller genre, which is as realistic sounding as it is entertaining to read. After some major dust-ups with the law and the local outlaw motorcycle club, Confederate Thunder, Shea Stevens has been trying to remain below the radar. Her focus has turned to running the Iron Goddess, a custom motorcycle shop, while juggling being a new parent to her niece. When a few people turn up dead after a night of partying, a new party drug cut with strychnine appears to be the culprit. Whispers point to a new female motorcycle club, the Athena Sisterhood, as being responsible for its distribution. Shea is forced into infiltrating the club to learn more, all part of a confidential informant agreement she signed to keep her out of prison. Faced with a significant dilemma, Shea must stomach that the Sisterhood is run by her ex, Deb Raymond. Hesitant, but knowing it is her only chance not to lose it all, Shea agrees to work with the police and worms her way into the Sisterhood. With their strong anti-misogynist views, the Sisterhood clashes with the Confederate Thunder over territory and the right to exist, leading to numerous violent encounters and significant bloodshed. As the number of drug-related deaths rise, Shea pushes harder to get into the middle of the Sisterhood, which leads to a blurring of lines with Deb and places Shea’s committed relationship on the ropes. Shea is aware that the Thunder are holding onto a significant amount of product and surmises that it might have been sold to the person responsible for adding the strychnine. The club clashes turn deadly and Shea must take a stand, which places her in a precarious position, trying to protect those she loves while revealing someone by the name of Bonefish, who is at the heart of the distribution. Shea’s work as a CI takes over and she begins to lose focus of what matter. What will it take for Shea to reach the tipping point and which ‘family’ will she choose? With powerful themes and significant undertones, Kelleher offers readers a powerful second instalment of the series.
My knowledge of outlaw motorcycle gangs does not extend past SAMCRO, though I felt as though I was in the middle of a realistic clash on the rough streets of Ironwood, Arizona. Kelleher surely uses some of her personal experiences to help shape the novel and its significant plot lines, much as she did when introducing the reader to the concept in the debut novel. A vast array of characters from various walks of life helps develop the numerous plot lines and creates the needed clash and banter that fuels this clash of wills. Shea Stevens has a convoluted past, as well as a present life that borders on the insane, both of which become clearer through the narrative and the situations into which the protagonist is put. While dealing with some fairly common themes in the mystery genre (drugs, violence, murder), Kelleher is able to spin things to keep them unique and fresh, which is highly appealing to the reader. Keeping the story fast-paced and developing twists throughout, Kelleher keeps the reader guessing until the very end and leaves the series with a few loose ends that can, one would hope, find some resolution in yet another novel. I look forward to seeing more work by Kelleher in the near future, as she has a strong handle on how to keep the reader fixated on the life of motorcycle outlaws.
Kudos, Madam Kelleher for a wonderful follow-up novel. I will be promoting your work to anyone who wants to give this new and evolving genre a try. Know you have a significant fan in me. 

The Witches, by Roald Dahl

Nine stars

What is a witch? After my last book, all about the Salem Witch Trials, I have a pretty good idea about what the Puritans thought. However, it would serve me well to allow Roald Dahl to present an answer to that for his childhood readers. According to Dahl, a witch has claw-like fingers (always gloved), remains bald (but wears a wig), and has squared feet (no toes and a horror when shopping for shoes!). But, the most important piece of knowledge about witches is that they DESPISE children more than anything. From there, in a sort of faux memoir about his youth, Dahl recounts losing his parents in an automobile crash and living with a Norwegian grandmother. She, of course, knows much more about witches and counsels him about them, since Norway has had witches for centuries. While on holiday, young Dahl and his grandmother are in a hotel and stumble across a gathering of all English witches, who are meeting under the guise of a fairly popular and heart-warming organisation. What happens next will test young Dahl’s ability to remember all the traits and actions witches undertake, as well as a conspiracy that the Grand High Witch of the World has for all the children. A delightful book to pique the curiosity of the young reader without any trials, tortures, or tribulations. Salem or the quaint English seaside, witches are all over and Dahl finally helps us identify them. Do YOU know a witch in your daily life?

Dahl’s magical way of presenting things to children is highly entertaining and allows me, a full-fledged adult reader, to tackle an enjoyable and short piece. Intentionally bordering on the silly, Dahl offers his readers some background before setting sail on a reading voyage that will both educate and entertain. His personalising the story pulls the reader in a little more and, even faced with adversity, Dahl does not push things to the edge of despair. I have always liked Dahl stories in my youth and see now just how uplifting I feel. I hope that in a few years, when my son is ready for something a little more dense, we might explore the world of witches and all they have to offer.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for another winner. Children have a goldmine of reading when they discover all that you had in your mind and put to paper.

The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff

Seven stars

From a period of time so fraught with scandal and religious ferocity, Stacy Schiff is able to construct a powerful and well-paced book that offers readers insight into the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Admitting from the outset that much of the stereotypical views of witches–their pointy hats, bubbling cauldrons, warty chins, and evil cackles–was formulated much later by fiction writers, Schiff tries to get to the core of events in colonial New England and provide the reader with everything needed to place these events in proper context. Salem events took place primarily over a nine-month period, between January and September, 1692, though the idea and persecution of witches dates well-back in the colony and for centuries around the world. Witchcraft of the time related strongly to the practice of allowing the devil to use one’s body as a vessel for his own devices, as Schiff notes, contrasting greatly with the strong puritanical nature of Salem and the New England environs. As such, the hunting out of witches and their subsequent trials became a long-standing biblical war, akin to that found in the Book of Revelations, on which the Puritans based their fervour. From the outset, Schiff provides the reader with a collection of characters, both puritanical leaders and those who were agents of the Devil, to play out these events, both standing firm to their set of beliefs. In developing the persona of the witch, Schiff focusses on the blunt and honest admission by some women (as well as a handful of men) who agreed to turn towards the Devil for assistance in their daily lives, or because they felt out of place amongst others in town. The book’s focus is not to exemplify the vastly generic nature of witch hunting and persecution, but to show that those in Salem who were possessed had no problem admitting it. Schiff mentions a few traits seen in these individuals, such as the evil eye, marking across the skin, or a copy of a contractual agreement with the Devil, usually signed in blood. These traits separated the individuals from others and became the collection of foundational traits by which the religious elders judged others to be witches. Schiff notes that possession or witchcraft crossed ethnic and socio-economic lines, as well as varied in age, citing a girl of seven as being happy to admit that she is a tool of the Devil. Schiff surmises that it was the extrapolation of the aforementioned traits by judicial and religious leaders that created the frenzy of false accusations and the deaths of many who attested to their innocence. Familial and fraternal relationships with known or admitted witches tended to be seen as automatically guilty, as well as some oddities in the person (shakes, birthmarks, speaking oddly), though the puritanical fire and brimstone proved not to weed out the guilty, but to make an example for those placed before the authorities. Schiff notes various forms of torture to wean out admissions, which would sometimes come to offset the pain in which people were put. Most readers will see, like torturing prisoners, those in positions of power can usually get the answers they want if the barbarism is painful enough. Some trials were drawn out while others were brief affairs and required only a witness or two, but all guilty verdicts were handled in the same way; a death sentence for the convict. These public executions served also to scare people into reporting others who appeared possessed or professed to doing evil acts (and one can surmise that it was also to pack the pews for religious meetings). Throughout the tome, Schiff offers up wonderful detail of each point in the process , placing events it into historical context. While I might have expected more of a ‘law and order’ approach (hunt them out and bring them to trial in the latter part of the narrative), Schiff explores the different types of witches and their varied occult activities, grouping individuals in this manner and, on occasion, referring to a person in a few chapters, as their personal stories were quite complex. This was definitely a scary time in colonial America and Schiff effectively portrays it, without the bells and whistles of a Hollywood storyline. An interesting novel that seeks to open the eyes of the reader while trying to separate fact from inevitable fiction.

Having never read Schiff before, I was not sure how to approach this. Truth be told, when the book was recommended to me, I thought it would be more of a fictional account of the trials with a great deal of substantiated proof (a piece of historical fiction). Once I realised in the early going that this was a full-on historical and biographical account, I was pulled into the narrative and sought to learn as much as I could. Schiff admits that her research was stymied by not having the actual transcripts of the trials, but simply summaries and some court documents that have lasted over three centuries. To have the compendium of actual transcripts would have made for a much more riveting depiction, though Schiff is effective in portraying all that occurred and breathes life into those who were accused. There are two things that come forth in these accounts over all others; the religious might under which the colony was held at the time and the openness of those who were actually witches. Schiff portrays the clash and the trials lose their muster as being a strong judicial battle to find the traitors in the midst, especially since these individuals stand firm in their convictions of being strong-willed agents of the Devil. Schiff paces her tome out effectively, trying to offer up varying perspectives of those who were brought to trial and their different accusations, though since much of the narrative focussed on Salem, the same characters are interspersed within, seeing as it is likely that the witches would all interact on some level. The attention to detail that Schiff offers is second to none and I found myself enthralled in the details, though I will admit there were portions I found dry and drawn out. All that being said, Schiff knows how to present an effective biographical and historical piece on one of the most misunderstood short periods in time, while also dispelling many of the myths that surround both witches and the trials in this small New England community.

Kudos, Madam Schiff for this wonderful insight into this most scandalous subject. Rest assured, I will be coming back to read more of your work soon!

Iron Goddess: A Shea Stevens Thriller, by Dharma Kelleher

Eight stars

Having newly discovered Dharma Kelleher and her genre of biker thriller (??), I was eager to see if her past life experiences could fluidly translate into an effective novel this being her debut. Shea Stevens has been running the Iron Goddess, a custom motorcycle shop, for the past number of years. In doing what she loves, Shea has been able to put her criminal past in the proverbial rearview mirror. When she arrives to discover she’s been robbed of a major custom order and one of her employees has been shot, she cannot help but see red. Curious as to who might be responsible, Shea contemplates the Confederate Thunder, a local biker gang with whom she has a sordid past; her reprobate father having been their president in her youth. With few clues, Shea makes the gamble and reached out to her estranged sister, Wendy, who is married to the current president of the Thunder, a man with little to no respect for anyone, including his family. While trying to learn if Confederate Thunder might be responsible, Shea learns that her niece has been kidnapped, potentially by a rival Mexican gang. Forced to work with her brother-in-law, Shea has flashbacks of her own youth and vows to help Wendy get out of the life before she ends up dead. When the kidnappers reach out, Shea does all she can help, which puts her in many precarious positions of her own. Further clues might tie the kidnappers to the break-in at the Iron Goddess, but there is another more sinister revelation that rocks the Arizona community, a stone’s throw from the heart of Phoenix. Kelleher tells a powerful story with ease and pulls the reader in so effortlessly. A must read for those looking to branch out in their thriller genre reading. 

I admit I know little about motorcycles or their affiliated gangs, outside of my obsession with SAMCRO for seven seasons. However, when I learned of Kelleher and her writing, I thought I would see if it parallels what I knew about the ‘life’. Everything fits nicely and I felt in the middle of a local charter that has enemies all around it and the police sniffing around. Kelleher not only builds up a number of decent bikers as characters, but is able to offset the life that Shea is seeking to shed with a bright future before her. Layering numerous plot lines together, as Kelleher has done, can be risky, as the reader must be invested in them all for it to work out well. The novel balances everything and offers just enough of each plot to keep the story moving forward and the reader from getting lost in the shuffle. There is much to be said of this, alongside the quick chapters that tease just enough information out so as to push the reader a little further. I am eager to rev things up and get into the second Shea Stevens thriller, just as soon as I can cool my engines and get this review posted.

Kudos, Madam Kelleher for a wonderful debut in the realm of novel writing. If this is anything like some of the other ideas you have, you will gather a following quickly and without issue.

The Bone Field (The Bone Field Series #1), by Simon Kernick

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Simon Kernick, and Random House UK for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Bringing his Ray Mason character back for a new round of police adventures, Simon Kernick has a recipe for success with the plot of this novel. During a holiday in 1990, a young woman’s body goes missing in Thailand, never to be found. With nothing on which to go, life continues for everyone, including the seemingly distraught Henry Forbes, boyfriend to the victim. Twenty-six years later, Forbes has information about his missing girlfriend and reaches out to DI Ray Mason, citing that the body is in England and the killer is part of a large group that have many sinister plans. While Mason and Forbes are meeting on the sly, a group attacks the house and leaves Forbes dead, with Mason only just able to escape. His superiors are furious but also baffled when they discover the body, as well as that from another cold-case from around the same time. DI Mason is put in touch with a private investigator, Tina Boyd, who was also contacted by Forbes, and they begin piecing together what might have happened and who could be behind the murder decades ago, as well as the recent attack and murder of Forbes. Mason remembers an occult symbol on Forbes’ arm and seeks to determine if it is a solid clue. Just as the authorities are honing in on a viable suspect, Mason makes an error that has fatal consequences, which has him suspended. Refusing to give up, Mason works with PI Boyd to trace the events of Thailand and before to determine who might be trying to exact revenge all these years later. What they discover shakes them to the core and leaves the door open for scores of other potential victims. Kernick offers readers a powerful and well-paced story that could flourish into an intriguing series, should the author desire.

This is my first time reading anything by Simon Kernick and I found it highly entertaining. While I might usually read a series in order (meaning I might have secured and read the first Ray Mason novel to get sufficient context), I did not feel lost or out of place by entering at this stage. Kernick develops a few key characters in an effective manner, particularly his protagonist. Mason is a complex police officer, whose past on the Force has been anything but smooth sailing. Added to that, his traumatic childhood, which helps coax out certain dramatic portion of the narrative, as well as allowing the reader to forge an instant connection. The premise of the story is interesting as well, though it was not as ‘captivating’ as some of the dust jacket narratives might have led me to hope. Murders, especially cold cases, can have a wonderfully complex nature, leaving the detective to pull at any strings and chase many paths, some of which lead nowhere. While I was not up late into the night, wondering what could be waiting in the next chapter, Kernick has developed a strong foundation, should Mason and PI Boyd return for another instalment. I will keep an eye out for it, in hopes that the impact is as effective. 

Kudos, Mr. Kernick for this entertaining piece of writing. I see you have a lot of other books in your collection, which might be something for me to explore later on this year.

James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl

Eight stars

I have always been taught to start at the beginning, which seemed like sage advice when I wanted to explore some of the children’s stories that Roald Dahl crafted over his long and illustrious career. Choosing this work, apparently his first stab at children’s literature, proved highly entertaining and a wonderful way to spend a few hours. After an accident claims the life of his parents, young James Henry Trotter is sent to live with his wicked aunts, facing a period of miserable adjustment. While out one day, he encounters a man who offers him a sack of magical beans that will, so the tale goes, react marvellously with the first living thing they encounter. James brings them home and while outside, the beans escape at the base of an old peach tree that has not shown any signs of life for many years. James witnesses a peach growing larger than anything he has ever seen in all his years and soon approaches it. He discovers a number of other creatures that have reacted with the beans, including a grasshopper, an earthworm, and a ladybug. Crawling inside a hole within this peach, James escapes the confines of his yard and sets about on an adventure with his new-found friends. Rolling through town, they eventually make their way to the open waters and find themselves marooned in the middle of the Atlantic. James and his ‘pesty’ friends use their wherewithal and conquer numerous enemies as they tackle a number adventures before them. James, in turn, learns the importance of new and exciting friendships, leaving some of the sorrow of his past behind him. Dahl at his best, proves how he became a household name amongst children’s authors.

As part of my 2017 reading goals, I thought I would pave the way and return to reading some of the classic books from my youth, in hopes of introducing them to my son in the coming years. Dahl has a way of telling a great story that will appease the young reader while also instilling great values and ideals into their little minds, sure to please parents and other adults. The stories have a degree of silliness, but also adventure and excitement, allowing the reader’s interest to be piqued to forge onwards a little more. While some books out there seek to create a spark amongst children by addressing modern characters and technologies, Dahl’s ideas and presentation are timeless, which I would venture to say might spurn children whose attention span has been whittled down by games and electronics to turn to these stories and take a moment to absorb all that is going on from chapter to chapter. Timeless classics are hard to discover in this fast-paced world, but Dahl has left these stories as breadcrumbs to discovering the wonders of early reading.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for introducing me to reading and the love of books. I hope to bring another generation of readers up to see the wonders of your storytelling abilities.

Bird Box, by Josh Malerman

Eight stars

After having this book so highly recommended to me by one of my friends on Goodreads, I decided to delve in to see what Josh Malerman might have to say in this twisted novel. Early into the story, Malerman introduces readers to his protagonist, Malorie, a young and somewhat fearful woman. Scrubbing the walls and carpets of blood stains, Malorie appears highly agitated and yet focussed on her task at hand, which serves only to up the ante of what is yet to come. The reader soon learns that something sinister is going on in the world; something that cannot be easily explained by anyone. It appears that out there, lurking in the open air, is something or some THINGS that will turn people mad simply by making eye contact. People are shut into their homes, covering windows and isolating themselves from the sights and sounds of the world beyond their doors. When venturing outside, blindfolds are used and aural stimulation becomes key. Malorie is set to challenge this world and after the death of her sister, answering the call in a newspaper, to find a group of people who are putting up a united front against whatever might be lurking. Arriving, Malorie makes the untimely admission that she is pregnant, wondering how she will raise a baby in these conditions and almost has herself ostracised before she enters the ‘safe house’. As the group prepares to reach out with others in the world, everything around them is crumbling. Running water becomes more scarce, food is strictly found within one’s pantries, and telephone lines begin to fizzle out. As the child inside her grows, Malorie encounters another woman who arrives at the safe house, also with child, and they work together to allay fears of the others that their offspring will not be detrimental to the greater whole, but a blessing. Trapped in their house as a bird might be in a cardboard box, Malorie and the others must find a way to subsist and not come into contact with the forces that could be anywhere at any given time. The narrative is interspersed with a ‘flash-forward’ of Malorie travelling in a boat with two small children who call her ‘mommy’, heading on an unknown adventure, though visual precautions are still high. What lies out there, in a world where a single twig cracking might mean imminent danger? Malerman offers readers little time to relax and ponder this, as things get more and more disturbing with each page-flip. A stellar piece that will keep readers up well into the night, for a multitude of reasons.

I’d not heard of this book before the other day, so when it received such hype, I had to see what Malerman might have done. The book reads very easily, though it is not ‘simple’, layering ideas and eerie thoughts between two time periods. Malorie is a well-developed character with complexities build into her backstory, as do some of the other characters that emerge as the story progresses. It is their individuality and the zig-zig pace of the narrative that gives this story some of its odd development, though one would be remiss not to think about the larger ‘happenings’ outside the four walls of the house. While there are some threads that remind me of Stephen King, more because of the odd way the characters act in the face of this unknown terror, Malerman stands firmly on his own two feet in his writing. Fair warning to the reader, once you start this book, you will find yourself enveloped in its progress and may find it hard to put it aside. It is that creepy that one must forge onwards, as Malorie and her children did in the boat, if only to see when and where terror might strike next. Beware and keep your eyes down, on the page (or the audiobook player, in my case) and do not interact with anyone until the final sentence. You’ll be glad you followed this simple rule! 

Kudos, Mr. Malerman for a stellar thriller. I will surely be putting this book out there for anyone who has an interest in the slightly (or extremely) eerie and psychologically stirring novel.

Going Solo (Roald Dahl Autobiography #2), by Roald Dahl

Eight stars

“A life is made up of a great number of small incidents and a small number of great ones.” So opens the second and ‘adult-based’ portion of Roald Dahl’s autobiography. He makes perfectly clear that this is not such a book, for autobiographies are full of useless and boring information. Dahl seeks to offer the reader some of the key memories he had during his early adult life, particularly serving in the Second World War. Accepting a job with the Shell Company, Dahl is soon shipped to the African continent, working particularly in Dar es Salaam, part of what is currently Tanzania. During his travel aboard a ship to reach the far shores, Dahl learns why the upper class held use of hands when eating in such low regard and the ‘daytime entertainment’ they found acceptable on deck. Arriving in Africa, Dahl uses all his patience and understanding as he undertook a complete culture shock, a world where wildlife ran the show and humans knew their place. While the scenery was spectacular and the people highly entertaining, the rumblings of war could be heard on the horizon. Dahl finds himself evacuated from the region, only to join the RAF to help Britain in the forthcoming Second World War. Lanky, yet determined, Dahl is an unlikely pilot-in-training before he became a key member of the effort in North Africa. While serving, Dahl is involved in a significant aerial accident, captured in a story he penned, eventually bastardised and published in the Saturday Evening Post. Dahl seeks to correct the narrative for the reader in this piece of writing, as if one might worry he was seeking to make himself seem overly heroic. The crash leaves Dahl with significant injury, his nose caved into his fractured skull (interesting for those who remember his childhood injury to the same nose), and he is required to remain in hospital for upwards of two months. While he convalesces, Dahl continues penning his weekly letters to his mother, though remains careful to censor his news, so as not to have the letters destroyed. Once healthy enough to fly again, Dahl heads out to serve in Greece, where he comes face to face with the Nazis, trying to hold the onslaught back and keep the Allies in control of the area. As the fighting intensified, Dahl dodges many a proverbial bullet and heads to the Middle East, where he sobers up to much of what was going on in the region and the European Theatre, learning of the extreme anti-Semitism or ignored undertone of the Nazi atrocities. As the reader is pulled deeper into the life of this wonderful author, Dahl uses his wonderful prose to breathe life into his life story. A must read for anyone who loves a story of humour and utter despair, all in short order.

Having recently completed the first volume in this first-person narrative, I wanted to take some time to explore the adult life of this man whose stories tantalised me throughout my childhood. As Dahl continues the story, boarding schools are replaced with African-style boardrooms (open air villages) and a collection of characters that only Dahl could dream up. Those Dahl mentions turned from being men recollected into individuals with complex backstories or who shaped Dahl in his intense battles in Africa and the war zones he discovered. Using a collection of his letters penned to his mother, Dahl is able to recall some of the minutiae, which helps substantiate his many adventures. Dahl outwardly admits the need to use this letters, both because of his age when writing the tale and the number of events that can mesh together in wartime. Crisp and humorous, Dahl is able to tell his story while keeping the reader spellbound, injecting passion for his situations on every page while not getting too wordy in his descriptions. A contrast to stories about chocolate-makers, giants, and fresh produce, this story (and its first volume) is not one to be passed over. It is yet another gem in the Roald Dahl collection.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for this two-volume collection about your life prior to becoming the popular writer for which you are best remembered. I cannot wait to tackle some of your other works, adult- and child-centric alike.

The Fireman, by Joe Hill

Eight stars

Joe Hill made quite the ‘spark’ with this novel, which garnered a significant following in 2016, culminating in winning one of the Goodreads awards for its genre. With curiosity piqued and a gap in my reading requirements, I chose to dive in while trying to steer clear of the ripples and spoilers that others have left around me. Harper Grayson is a school nurse with little of interest going on in her life, though the world is coming apart at the proverbial seams. People from every corner of the earth are developing what the medical profession has labelled draco incendia trychophyton, known in the vernacular as ‘dragonscale’. It appears on the skin as a grey scaly rash and can progressively envelop more of the carrier’s body, changing colour at times as well. Dragonscale is highly contagious, though no one seems sure how it passes from one human to another. What everyone has come to see is that carriers can show signs of billowing smoke from their hands and feet, like a small collection of dry kindling. As the carrier’s illness develops, spontaneous combustion is also possible, though the general public has been given little knowledge of the events and this leaves them to turn against the infected. Carriers are pariahs and try to hide their plight, fearful of ‘cremation crews’, tasked to seeking to kill those who carry the condition before it can spread further. One such crew is headed by the Marlboro Man, who encapsulates the rugged cowboy and keeper of the peace while slaying the sick as quickly as he can locate them. Harper soon realises that she has been infected, which places an irreparable wedge between her and husband, Jakob. Even after he finds out Harper is expecting their first child, Jakob tries to banish her and does all he can to push added levels of isolation. Harper rages back and soon encounters a fireman-cum-pyromancer, John Rookwood, who has a small following of infected individuals. They lead her to an abandoned and secluded camp where other carriers are living. This camp, a collective of sorts, struggles with the daily worries around being hunted by ‘cremation crews’ and the inner struggle of any group seeking self-sustenance. Fractures within the group develop and soon Harper witnesses a mutiny, all while she tries to learn more about draco incendia trychophyton. Rookwood remains distanced from the group, though he and Harper share a strong connection and his insights are supported by a previous collective member who was murdered for his attempts to push back against the societal ostracism. While she learns how to tame the progress of dragonscale in a melodious manner, Harper has major hurdles ahead if she wants to survive, while the world is bent on killing those who differ too greatly. Hill does a fascinating job of developing this story on many levels and lures the reader in, be they interested in the story, the metaphors, or the microcosm found within the narrative. Well worth the hype it has received and should be high on the list of readers who need a little horror and entertainment any time of year.

Hill has writing pulsing through his veins, with both parents highly acclaimed authors in their own rights. He does not try to grab hold of their coattails to be effective, carving out a niche all his own and remains highly successful in this venture. His writing does have some parallels to that of his father, perhaps in the oddities in which he places his characters, but there is a definite uniqueness in the flow and the tangents presented to the captivated reader. The invested reader will see this novel as being something other than a collection of sick individuals who are in hiding, finding parallels with the proverbial leper colony in which people are thrown when the general public is not aware or given sufficient information on which to base an educated decision. The struggles are not unique or off the wall, though Hill effectively creates a character base to lure the reader into significant sympathy. Additionally, Hill touches on the in-fighting of any isolated community as group and personal politics cloud the larger struggle, that of survival. Hill’s ever-advancing narrative and swath of different characters provides the greatest Petri dish for effective political meltdown. Again, one might see this as a great microcosm of the larger human struggle for success, where those who are too alike tend to clash and forget the thread that ties them all together. I know I used to bemoan English teachers who asked students to look below the story to find these themes, but they seem so apparent and Hill develops these struggles so effortlessly that the reader cannot help but peer through the smoke and blazing to notice them. Hill does not shy away from generalities, perhaps painting the English as a potty-mouth group who curse so uniquely that North Americans could tear out a page from their verbal playbook. However, it has moments of humour, alongside a protagonist whose unusual obsession with Julie Andrews and her depiction of Mary Poppins keeps readers constantly shaking their heads. If this novel is anything like the other work that Hill has produced, I will be sure to rush forward to dive headlong into those, though my reading list is growing daily.

Kudos, Mr. Hill for a wonderful way to start my 2017 reading journey. You offered a light at the end of the tunnel, though tossed in enough smoke and mirrors to keep me guessing.

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín

Eight stars

In this short piece, Tóibín offers readers an insightful look into the life of Jesus Christ, from the perspective of his mother. The story becomes a monologue, delivered by Mary, that weaves throughout the life of her son, though she will never use his name. Mary offers memories from the evolving life of Jesus, adding editorial commentary when it suits her best. Choosing to see the disciples as a collection of vagrants and vagabonds, Mary cannot always understand why Jesus would associate with these fellows, which is further exacerbated by her ‘handling’ after the crucifixion. Perhaps of greatest interest in the piece, Mary explores the period of Jesus’ ministry, depicting him as ‘high on himself’ and trying to flaunt his connection to God, as well as a miracle worker who, like a carnival barker, wants the attention brought towards him. Tóibín’s presentation of Mary during the latter part of the ministry is, perhaps, the most stunning of all. An interesting piece that explores Jesus Christ from the one human being who knew him best. Tóibín’s writing is not one that should be dismissed as blasphemy, though surely many will try.

While not a ‘guilty pleasure’, stories that surround biblical events hold interest for me, though not when I am left with a sense of religious and spiritual inculcation. Tóibín does not do that in this piece, though the reader should be well-versed in some of the key events of the life of Jesus. Offering a sobering look into the man’s life, Mary is able to balance the highly laudatory nature of the four Gospels. Jesus was a boy, a teenager, and a man like any other, which is sometimes lost on those who have such a reverence for him and the plight he suffered at the hands of the Romans. I would venture to say that he was arrogant, an ass at times, and perhaps, so focussed on laying the groundwork for his ministry that those closest to him were left in the dust, both figuratively and in a literal sense. Tóibín does not stray from the first-person narrative of Mary, but is able to introduce a number of key characters into this story, as seen through the eyes of the woman and not the Gospel writers. The pace of the narrative was ideal, keeping things moving, but was not dismissive of events to save time. Honest sentiment flowed freely from the piece, which kept the entire story grounded and does not leave it as carte blanche acceptance of everything Sunday School and sermons have instilled. Perhaps the greatest thing of all about this piece would be that Meryl Streep narrated the audiobook version, using her stellar acting background to shade portions of the story in such a way that one could almost see Mary actually uttering these words. Brilliant and has left me wondering why I have never read Tóibín before now.

Kudos, Mr. Tóibín on this short story that pushes the boundaries at every turn. This is surely a piece that has created much hoopla, in pews and around water coolers alike.

Without Warning (J.B. Collins #3), by Joel C. Rosenberg

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Joel C. Rosenberg, and Tyndall House Publishers for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

Rosenberg returns with another powerful political thriller, the final instalment of this trilogy, that takes an interesting spin on ISIS and Western reactionism. J.B. Collins, War Correspondent for the New York Times, remains skeptical of the US Administration’s plan to combat ISIS, as Abu Khalif, its purported leader, remains at large. Khalif and ISIS have perpetrated major and catastrophic attacks against infidel states and US-backers, culminating in the kidnapping of the American president and a massacre during a major Middle East peace summit (both of which occur in past novels, familiar to the series fan). With the State of the Union Address hours away, US President Harrison Taylor dismisses concerns Collins raises about Khalif and ISIS as a whole. Taylor wonders if he ought not to rescind his offer of a Presidential Medal of Freedom to the acclaimed journalist. When the Capitol is attacked during the Address, all hell breaks loose and Collins soon learns that ISIS has struck again, but on a much larger scale. Seeking to get away from the violence and drama, alongside an inability to stomach the lies Taylor seems to be spinning to the American public, Collins eyes a return to Maine with his brother, Matt. As they travel, a personal tragedy befalls them and Collins learns just how inept the Administration has become when it comes to ending the reign of terror that ISIS and Abu Khalif have over the world. Could the answers be in the Middle East, where American allies can fight a war against this radical and apocalyptic Islam? Collins seeks to reinvent himself and must decide if he can take up the torch, using his own set of allies to help topple ISIS at its heart before the world must fall on blended knee and admit defeat to the terrorists. With a sensational culmination to a stunningly realistic series, Rosenberg shocks readers to the core. This story and the complete trilogy offer a poignant and blunt narrative, weaving through fact and plausible fiction. A must read for those who love political thrillers and can stomach mild Christian inculcation. 

I have long been a fan of Rosenberg and his political fiction. This is the third series I have devoured as quickly as the novels come off the presses, all using a strong biblical undertone paired against current events in one of the most unstable political powder kegs. Rosenberg gathers a wonderful cross-section of characters, pulled from key states that propel the story forward and seem plausible in the fight against ISIS. Additionally, injecting realistic political and religious impairments brings a whole new level to the character interactions and places reality that much closer to the reader’s grasp. While ISIS remains the buzz word in the news today and seems to permeate thriller novels to no end, I never tired of hearing Rosenberg’s spin. I have mentioned how the same drivel bores and irritates me, Rosenberg’s angle is not only refreshing, but more realistic than some secret operative mowing down anyone who utters ‘Allah’ before ‘Hello’. Those familiar with Rosenberg’s novels will know that he has been found to offer eerie foreboding buried within his novels, perhaps tying all the pieces together as his protagonist is known for doing in this book. To treat Rosenberg’s work as pure fiction is to ignore the nuances and attention to detail the author places as he pens his plots. The writing style is some of the best in the genre and the short chapters offer readers a wonderful ability to get hooked and beg themselves to read ‘just a little more’ as cliffhangers grow exponentially. While I am not a fan of ‘in your face’ Christianity, I have become immune to some of it in Rosenberg’s stories and dodge the born-again land mines that emerge throughout. Rosenberg knows what he is doing and readers should flock in his direction, if only to learn about the Middle East and its political importance on the world scene.

Kudos, Mr. Rosenberg. You have done it again with a powerful political thriller series that has me so captivated. I have promoted you and your work to as many people as will listen. This novel proves yet again that my recommendations are well founded. 

Boy: Tales from Childhood (Autobiography #1), by Roald Dahl

Eight stars

One of the great authors of children’s stories, Roald Dahl entertains readers with this piece that encompasses his life to age twenty. While Dahl clearly states that this piece is not an autobiography (for those sorts of books are filled with stale and dusty tales), this is a fabulous compendium of memories from his early years. The eldest son of two Norwegians, Dahl’s early years were a mixture of pain (he lost his sister and father within a single week) and childhood frivolity (he loved to play with his school chums whenever time permitted). In one vivid memory, Dahl recounts his love of sweets and a shopkeeper who had a hate-on for him, which led young Roald to concoct a plan to exact revenge, which backfired horribly. A child from his father’s second marriage, Dahl remembers riding with his elder half-sister, who got into a serious motor vehicle accident that almost cost him part of his face, Dahl recounts this with as much humour as the event permits. Dahl works hard to recollect those annual summer vacations outside Oslo, where grandparents doted on him and he could not wait for school to let out each summer. However, those glorious thoughts are countered with memories of the strap and horrid matrons patrolling the dorms when he left for boarding school. By the end, Dahl bridges his memories of entering the workforce and the hope that he might pen another short volume to entice readers to continue on with this journey. Like many of his books, the reader is lured into a blissful experience with Dahl’s easy writing and fascinating ideas.

One cannot read Roald Dahl and not feel some connection to the characters that fill the narrative. Although this is a move away from fiction and forces the author to recollect his own life, Dahl is happy to admit he does not remember large portions of life before eight, though his memories flood forward thereafter. While some would think that a man of seventy would have so much to tell, Dahl does not wish to fill pages with dreary recollections, choosing to succinctly tell his early life. I could see some interesting themes in the vignettes Dahl chose to present, which ended up being major children’s stories that I read in my younger years. Dahl’s use of these memories to craft timeless classics, such as The BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, only adds to the greatness of this short book. Told in a highly animated fashion, the reader cannot help but picture the young Roald heading to see that horrid matron or visiting with his beloved Norwegian grandparents while dreaming of sweets on his way home from school in second form. A piece that was so interesting, I am scrambling to get my hands on the second volume, to hear of his wartime memories. A must-read for anyone who has a little while to relax and loves the style Dahl has made famous.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for all you did in your life. You will always hold a special place in my heart, which is only strengthened after reading this piece.

Thumbprint: A Story, by Joe Hill

Eight stars

Joe Hill pulls readers in with this short story that offers both entertainment and social commentary of the highest order. PFC Mallory ‘Mal’ Grennan was highly effective while serving under Uncle Sam in Iraq. Her time dealing with prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison helped hone a hard outer shell, as she was always to stay out of the limelight and within rage of the camera’s eye. Little soft or nurturing characteristics appeared during her time with those who backed the dreaded Butcher of Baghdad. Now back on US soil, Mal receives a black thumbprint, alone on a white sheet of paper; no note or explanation accompanying it. Unable to decipher what it means, she returns to work, tending bar at one of the local watering holes. As the narrative progresses, Mal splits her time dealing with a present-day blackmail scheme and flashbacks to time in Iraq. More thumbprints emerge, leaving Mal to wonder if someone has taken offence to her making a buck off men who want a cheap thrill, though it is only when she returns home after a weekend shift that all becomes clear. Hill is able to keep the reader flipping pages in hopes of discovering what lies beneath, all while providing strong arguments surrounding US Military treatment of Iraqis in the mid-2000s.

While the story took me under an hour to read, its themes resonate with me even now. This is the second piece by Hill that I have read, both of which were chock-full of social commentary on society and the treatment of others. While some might say I am digging too deep and not reading for enjoyment, as I mentioned in an earlier review, Hill presents his ideas so clearly that the reader would be remiss not to notice them. In crafting the Mal character, Hill is able to effectively paint the portrait of an Iraqi war vet, perhaps jaded and scarred by what she has seen. The story was brief enough that forward development was not possible to notice, though the reader surely develops an understanding of her backstory and can surmise what is to come after the final lines of the story drift into the literary ether. This story comes highly recommended and is brief enough that a lunch break or brief period of quiet is all one needs to absorb what he has to say.

Kudos, Mr. Hill for another great piece of writing. I am not sure where I have been all this time, but am glad to have discovered you lately.