Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession (Six Tudor Queens #2), by Alison Weir

Nine stars

I have long been a fan of things Tudor and the work of Alison Weir. That she can create such masterful biographies and historical pieces is one thing, but to transform all that research into a piece deemed fictional (likely because of the dialogue) and allow a larger reader base to enjoy and discuss her work adds to the awe surrounding her. In this, the second book in her newest series, Weir takes the reader into the life of Anne Boleyn, whose short life offered much to Tudor and English history. Anne appears to have lived much of her life in the shadow of others, as Weir exemplifies throughout. In the early chapters, the reader seems Anne casting her gaze towards her older sister, Mary, who held her parents’ favour and made a name for herself at court. While following in her sister’s footsteps, Anne served in two continental courts before she was called home to spend time as a lady-in waiting to Queen Katherine. While Weir purports that Anne paled in comparison to her sister’s beauty, there were a few men who sought the younger Boleyn sister’s affections, including Sir Henry Norris and the King of England, Henry VIII. Dismissing the affectionate advances of both while serving at court, Anne tried to serve her queen as effectively as possible. The latter Henry would not desist in his approaches, as history has helped us see seemed to be his modus operandi throughout his reign. While Anne stood firm, she was counselled not to rebuff the king for too long and eventually entered into an agreement with him, serving as his mistress but would not engage carnally until there was a dissolution of his marriage to Katherine. Weir spends much time weaving together the narrative of the multi-year journey, during which time Henry VIII tried to divorce the pious Katherine, finding roadblocks to success within both Canon Law and the Catholic Church. However, Anne never seems to have that passionate magnetism to Henry VIII that history presented (and television purported fuelled her desire to betray Queen Katherine), which might be one of the largest surprises to me in the entire novel. Weir portrays Anne as living in the shadow of Queen Katherine during this time, as Henry VIII could be seen to cower when it came to confronting his first wife. The eventual ruling by the Vatican led Henry VIII to create the Great Schism and birth of the Church of England (known as the Anglican or Episcopal Church). This break offers a natural divide in Anne’s life, when she transformed from a simple woman into a dynastic member of history. Some may argue that it was less Anne than Henry’s decision to part ways with Rome, but it came about because of her and for this reason, I feel Weir’s elongated narrative about the lead-up is indicative to a great importance in the Anne Boleyn story.

With the dust still settling and the ink not yet dry on the new Royal Decrees, Anne agreed to marry Henry VIII with this impediment removed and soon bore him an heir, though it was not the son that had been sought. Still, Princess Elizabeth would be the apple of her father’s eye, at least until a son was forthcoming. Like Katherine, Anne’s attempts to have a son were troublesome, as each subsequent birth was either a stillborn or miscarriage. Fraught with concern, Anne was forced to battle with the others who held some confusing sway over Henry VIII, including his counsellors and Princess Mary, his daughter from Katherine. Anne was yet again forced to remain in the shadows, with the princess acting as pious as her mother in regards to the ‘true’ Queen of England. Add to this, the strain of the ongoing attempts to turn away from Rome and Henry VIII’s temper was much shorter, which left Anne to face his wrath over minute concerns at court. After numerous failed attempts to bring forth a son, Anne’s allure lessened in the eyes of King Henry and he sought pleasure elsewhere. With rumours swirling, Anne was forced to live in the shadow of these others, the new mistresses of Henry VIII. It was only when Anne pushed back and refused to allow other women to share Henry’s affections that she found herself on the wrong side of a charge of treason. Weir supports this latter part of the narrative well, as Anne struggles to understand why she has been subjected to this charge and the apparent false accusations of her unions with the likes of the aforementioned Sir Henry Norris and her own brother, George, surface. Anne struggles to pronounce her innocence and lives in the shadow of the Tower of London, her eventual home as she awaits a verdict of beheading. Struggling throughout, Anne was forced to accept her fate, which came about through a set of purported lies and scandalous behaviour. All this because she upset a man that she likely did not love passionately. A powerful second book in the series, Weir does a masterful job at bringing Anne Boleyn to life, as well as adding depth to some of the struggles that are peppered throughout the history books. A must-read or Tudor fans who enjoy the intricacies of that time period, but would also be of interest to those who love history and all things royal. 

I will admit that I have been significantly influenced in my views on Anne Boleyn by Natalie Dormer’s portrayal of her during the television programme, THE TUDORS. Her beauty, her air, and even the general conniving nature of the young lady-in-waiting lweft me with a strong sentiment of a less than lovely Anne. Reading this book has given me a new outlook on Anne and has helped me piece together a better understanding of things at court during that time. It is impossible to understand the true story of Anne Boleyn without an understanding of numerous other actors who played various roles. Weir develops these characters so well and tied them together wonderfully, allowing the reader to bask in a richer and more complete narrative. While there are surely historical inaccuracies (that I know my buddy read companion will be able to recite), the story flows so seamlessly as Anne ages and changes from a naive girl into a woman who seeks to hold her own. Weir offers up a slow, but consistent, transformation of Anne throughout the piece, which is further exemplified by chapters whose focus is a particular period in time. As I mentioned above, I feel that the only thing pushing this novel into the realm of fiction would be its use of dialogue, which could not have been substantiated with complete accuracy. Still, the reader can get the sense that they are right in the middle of these historical events and conversations, which is surely a positive aspect of Weir’s writing. The story is so rich and Anne has so much to offer, the reader will surely want to pace themselves, or at least pay special attention to the story, so as not to miss anything. Then, the eager reader (of which, I admit, I will not be one) can cross-reference things from the first novel and even into the third (when it is released) to see how Anne is portrayed as a minor figure there. The only major downside to the novel, in my humble opinion, is that the reader rides such a high when in the middle of it, that the crash thereafter and knowing that there is a waiting period stings even more. And don’t get me started on trying to get the two short stories that accompany this series to date. UK fans should rejoice that they can easily be acquired.

Kudos, Madam Weir for bringing a key Tudor character to light in this novel. I am eager to see what else you have in store for us in the coming years.

The Car Bomb (Detroit Im Dyin Trilogy #1), T.V. LoCicero

Seven stars

First and foremost, thank you to T. V. LoCicero for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Returning to my independent author list, I found this piece. Having never read any LoCicero, I thought I would entertain his request to see how it worked for me. Set in 1992 Detroit, I was never sure what to expect, though the title and the cover image (a car engulfed in flames) left me wondering if this would be a gang-based thriller on the rough inner-city streets. How I have learned not to judge a book by its cover! In a quiet neighbourhood, a woman loads her children into the family car. When she turns the key in the ignition, it explodes and kills them all. ‘Face of the Channel 5 News’ Frank DeFauw learns of the incident and rushes to make some sense of it. DeFauw, a philandering man with deep celebrity roots in the community, has a way to extract information out of people and delivers it with aplomb to his watching public. Trying to piece everything together, DeFauw learns that Anthony Peoples was not on scene when his family perished and considers that this might be retribution for a drug-deal gone wrong. However, scouring the streets and making on-air pleas, DeFauw reaches out to Peoples and hopes that they can talk. Peoples spills the beans on a large bribery scandal that got him off charges of murder, but which also involves some of the high-ranking officials in Detroit’s judicial community. DeFauw tries to piece it all together while fighting the demons of his personal struggles and a wife who wants a divorce as he refuses to be faithful. However, gritty journalistic determination rushes through DeFauw’s veins and he will stop at nothing to air the truth, even if it costs him everything. A great story that LoCicero has created, the first in a trilogy of novels. A decent read for those who enjoy a little throwback when reading crime stories, peppered with some less than savoury backstories.

As I have said before, independent author reads tend to be hit and miss for me. Going into this one, I was not sure how it might play out, but LoCicero presented a strong story and peppered it with just the right amount of salacious activity by our protagonist on the gritty streets of Detroit. The characters are a wonderful collection of varied individuals, their characteristics bringing the story to life. LoCicero knows precisely how to pull the reader in while exuding some dislike towards some of the antics taken. While the story was not overly complex, it was enjoyable and flowed well, with short chapters and a few cliffhangers. The length of time it took me to complete the read should not be indicative of my enjoyment of the entire process. Life tosses up roadblocks at times, though when I was able to pick up the book, I flew through section with ease. LoCicero is not new to the writing game and it shows in this well-developed piece, which has me wondering about the second novel. Could DeFauw be back for more fun and games, or has he hung up his glitz to make room for a new and exciting journalist in town? Only time will tell.

Kudos, Mr. LoCicero for this enjoyable piece. I enjoyed how you brought the story and Detroit to life. I am happy that you reached out and asked me to review this book. Has me curious about more relating to Detroit.

Gwendy’s Button Box & The Music Room, by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

Seven stars

Gwendy’s Button Box:

A wonderful collaboration between ‘King of Horror’ Stephen King and Richard Chizmar, who have been long-time friends but meshed their literary ideas into a single piece. This story is peppered with the New England flavour for which King is so well known and an innocent story that turns on a single item, something Chizmar surely influenced after being handed control of the story. Gwendy Peterson is an energetic girl who seeks to change herself before heading into middle school, where the teasing she has undergone will only get worse. When a mysterious man, Richard Farris, engages her in conversation, Gwendy soon realises that this is not a man who seeks to do her any harm. Rather, he has a special gift for her, a mahogany box affixed with eight buttons, their convex surfaces and varied colours quite alluring. Farris explains the importance of each button, warning her away from pressing the red, unless she is sure of what she wants, as it packs quite the punch. With that, Farris is gone and Gwendy is left to fend for herself. She hides the box from everyone else, pulling it out only to feed off the delectable sweets that are compartmentalised along one side. As the story progresses and Gwendy ages, she becomes tempted by the buttons, or at least the red one, and seeks to experiment. The result is anything but peaceful, but Gwendy knew that was a distinct possibility. With events around her playing out, Gwendy is left to wonder, could she be solely responsible? An interesting novella that pulls the reader in from the start and posits some interesting theories. A wonderfully entertaining read for any who enjoy some of the less macabre King work with this new spin that Chizmar brings to the writing process.

I have long been a King fan and can only hope that there will be more stories like this. King and Chizmar took on a seemingly innocent plot and allowed it to evolve and take shape, to the point that the reader is left to wonder just who Gwendy Peterson might be. She has moments of teenage naïveté that are contrasted nicely with some darker thoughts, especially when she knowingly uses the ‘red button’. However, there is little attempt by the authors to turn her into anything sinister. The same goes for Richard Farris, who balances precariously on the fence from being that creepy ‘man in the shadows’ to an innocent stranger who seeks to offer up something interesting, akin to the magic beans that Jack received for his cow. King and Chizmar take the story from there and allow Gwendy to apparently control her destiny, while also placing much burden at her feet. Did her pressing the button lead to various newsworthy calamities? Without going too far off the beaten path, King and Chizmar force the reader to wrestle with destiny and the influence of choices on the larger scale. Call it The Butterfly Effect through the eyes of a teenage girl. A wonderful story that packs a punch and offers up much entertainment, one can only hope that King has more of these ideas rumbling around and that Chizmar is on hand to help spin them, in the years to come.

Kudos, Messrs. King and Chizmar for this wonderful novella. I am impressed and the early hype is right; you two are a wonderful team!

The Music Room (written solely by Stephen King):

Pulled from a collection of short pieces that seek to flesh out what is going on in a popular painting, Stephen King offers up this for his readers. It is the low point of the Great Depression, with people starving and suffering just to make enough to eat. However, the Enderbys have found a way both to survive and entertain themselves at the expense of others. Various ‘guests’, picked up by Mr. Enderby, are placed in a sound-proof closet, left to fend for themselves, How will they make it? No one is quite sure. While the Enderbys consider themselves only thieves, picking the pockets of those who enter the room, the reader might have other ideas, as what goes in does not come out in the same form. An interesting tale, though not long enough to expound some of King’s true abilities.

The Outsider, by Anthony Franze

Nine stars

Yet another powerful legal thriller by Anthony Franze that left me rushing to review it. This novel pulls readers into a story that centres around the U.S. Supreme Court in all its glory. After graduating from a fourth-tier law school and saddled with enormous debts, Grayson ‘Gray’ Hernandez was lucky enough to secure a job as a Messenger within the U.S. Supreme Court. While he has always aspired to argue before the nine Justices, he finds pleasure in being able to surround himself with the history and regal (as well as legal) nature of the marbled halls. When he stumbles upon an assault in the Court’s underground parkade, Gray does all he can to help the victim, who ends up being the Chief Justice Edgar R. Douglas. As a thank you for the heroics, Chief Justice Douglas offers Gray a coveted spot on his staff, as a fifth law clerk. Forced to acclimate to the quick pace of the Court, Gray is shunned by his co-clerks, but soon proves his worth through hard work and dedication to the Court’s business. Meanwhile, the FBI is investigating the attack at the Court and a handful of homicides that might be related. Further digging leaves Special Agent Emma Milstein wondering if the perpetrator might come from within the Court, based on random items left around the crime scenes. Milstein approaches Gray to help with their investigation, hoping to crack the case wide open, tapping into his experience working within the hallowed halls. Gray accepts, adding this to the laundry list of things he must accomplish, most notably learning the ropes of his clerkship while not alienating his family and friends. Remembering his roots, Gray tries to live in both worlds and appease everyone. With a serial killer on the loose with a penchant for the Court, Gray is fingered as being a potential culprit, forcing him into hiding. However, Milstein stands by his innocence and scrambles to uncover the vast conspiracy, which might cost someone a reputation, or even a life. Rich with history and a quick-paced narrative, Franze has successfully offered the reader another winner. Perfect for crime fans who enjoy a little history peppered throughout, this is one not to put too far down the ‘To Be Read’ list!

Franze has the ability to breathe new life in the Court and all that it represents. The reader is not only treated to a wonderful setting on First Street Northeast, but much of its history comes to life as the characters develop throughout the novel. Key cases adjudicated before the Court find themselves mentioned and the reader cannot help but learn from the background provided. Pulling on a number of different personalities, Franze develops strong characters who clash at key moments, only adding to the dramatic effect of the overall reading experience. While the premise, murder, is by no means unique, Franze layers it and keeps the excitement building until the very end, pushing his protagonist to the limits to profess his own innocence. Some have drawn strong parallels between Franze and other authors in the genre, to which I firmly believe there is much merit. Captivating and full of nuances that the non-attentive reader will miss, Franze is sure to be one author many readers will discover and love, given the chance.

Kudos, Mr. Franze for another wonderful Supreme Court thriller. You pull out all the stops and leave the reader with a fabulous story in which they easily become enthralled.

He Said/She Said, by Erin Kelly

Eight stars

In a book that has garnered much attention on Goodreads, Erin Kelly treats the reader to a unique spin on an oft presented scenario. Splitting the story between an evolving past narrative and one set in 2015, Kelly leaves the reader unsure where to focus much of their attention. A complete solar eclipse is days away, which has Kit making all the last-minute preparations for an event he has marvelled seeing since 1991. Less excited is his wife, Laura, who is six months pregnant with twins. Their joint concern is not the crowds or the sun’s glare, but the potential sighting of ‘Beth’, who appears to be stalking them. It is only as the story progresses that the reader learns of events that transpired at the eclipse of 1999, where Laura came upon Beth and Jamie Balcombe, engaged in some primal sexual encounter. Laura was sure it was rape and alerted the authorities of this, while Jamie did all he can to convince her otherwise. Beth remained silent, though Laura would not let the victim’s state of shock allow a rapist to roam free. With the evidence collected, the matter was brought to trial, where Laura testified that she heard a faint ‘no’ uttered during the encounter. Balcombe presented a defence that it was only a rough sexual encounter, but completely consensual. After the trial and a guilty verdict, Kit and Laura found Beth showing up at their flat and trying to forge a friendship while supporters of Balcombe do all they could to smear the victim through any means necessary. Laura had to come to terms with what she saw, Kit stood by her, and Beth accepts nothing less than total belief that she was a victim in all this. With brief glimpses into the present, Kit violates the cardinal rule of staying off the radar, which begins a series of events that could have dire consequences. As the narrative picks up momentum, the reader learns more about eclipses, both solar and character, which flavours the story and offers many twists that take the story in unexpected directions. An entertaining psychological thriller that provides readers with a chilling view into the power of perception. Worth a read, even if the hype might be a little overdone.

I had heard and seen much about this over the past while and thought I would take up the recommendation of a friend of mine to give it a whirl. Kelly offers the reader some interesting perspectives as it comes to character development, building a persona in both the past and present simultaneously. The central cast develops and regresses throughout, depending on the perspective used. This forces the reader to balance everything before making a final determination on guilt or innocence. Using the solar eclipse, both literal and metaphorical, serves to present the reader with the essential aspects of the story, whereby the characters shine at moments and scurry away to hide at others. However, once all is revealed, there is an anti-climactic moment and a rush to understand what has just happened. Kelly builds the narrative up throughout and keeps the reader wondering, but also serves up large twists at just the right moment to turn the story on its head. This shows not only superior skill but also pulls the reader in and leaves them wanting more, even when the road ahead is, seemingly, free from any more surprises. 

If I might offer a single criticism that I feel jolted me out of the smooth delivery, it would be the use of legal terms during the trial portion of the book. Kelly flips between British and American legal terminology at will. While this might not disrupt the reader’s attention span, it left me confused and returning to double check the jargon, where I noticed the repeated error. Perhaps during the subsequent re-release of the book these erroneous phrases will be tightened up and the proofreaders scolded. 

Kudos, Madam Kelly for putting together this wonderful piece. I found myself enthralled at certain points and begging for more at others.

It Can’t be October Already: A Short Story, by Jeffrey Archer

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Jeffrey Archer, and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Lord Jeffrey Archer continues to prove that he is a wordsmith, showing off those skills in this wonderfully succinct piece. Patrick O’Flynn is caught red-handed as he is in the midst of committing a crime one October night. O’Flynn seems to be well-known to the authorities, all of whom wonder if it can, again, be October. As he is taken in and processed, O’Flynn continues to greet those who know him well. A brief encounter with the courts earn him six months in jail, which seems to play into the larger plan that he has concocted already. After he is sent off the Belmarsh, O’Flynn reveals his larger plan to his cellmate, at which time it all makes sense. Quick witted throughout this short piece, Archer keeps the reader guessing through to the ‘aha’ moment. Perfect for a coffee break and sure to impress a cross-section of readers.

I remain impressed with the work Lord Archer produces (or resurrects) at the drop of a hat. He has a way of pulling the reader in from the early pages and not letting up until the final phrase lingers in the air. While there is little time for character development, Archer does present enough backstory for the reader to feel some connection to O’Flynn. From there, it is the short back and forth as the narrative builds through to the end, where Archer injects his notable twist. Any reader who loves a full novel by this English master will adore the short stories that keep things light and highly entertaining. Well worth the invested time and effort.

Kudos, Lord Archer for this wonderful piece. I look forward to all you have going on and sketched out for future publications. 

The Chosen One, by Carol Lynch Williams

Eight stars

Carol Lynch Williams touches on a topic about which I have read a great deal over the past few months; a young woman trapped in a religious organisation. Writing this novella seemingly geared for the young adult population, Williams turns the focus onto a polygamous community and the plural wives mentality that turns innocent teenage girls into matrimonial dolls for the elders. Kyra Leigh Carlson is thirteen and has lived her entire life in a strict religious community, enveloped by the polygamist mentality. When the Prophet arrives one day to decree that she will marry one of the Apostles, her Uncle Hyrum, Kyra is beside herself with worry. Merely a girl, she has many of the typical feelings that a young person possesses: longing to grow-up, hoping to have innocent crushes, and discovering herself. Her eyes are by no means focussed on Hyrum, but turn, instead to a boy her own age, Joshua. The admiration seems mutual, though Kyra knows that she only has four weeks to get out of this mess before she becomes a child bride. Kyra’s only concrete contact with the outside world is through a mobile library, driven by a well-meaning young man, Patrick. Books that have been banned by the Prophet show her a world about which Kyra can only dream and freedom she knows she will never taste. The Chosen One by many, Kyra’s heart and mind must work in tandem to decide which she will follow. Physical abuse and banishment are only two of the many possible ways to keep those who stray from repeating their sin. Faced with a decision, Kyra knows that there is only one way out, but that choice could cost her everything she knows. A powerful story, Williams paints a realistic (from what I have read) version of the struggles inside polygamist sects ruled by fundamentalist Christianity.

A requested buddy read, I was not sure how I would stomach a young adult approach to the subject. I tend to find YA more interested in romanticizing the message and failing to penetrate to the core. However, Williams does a stellar job not to pull any punches (pardon the pun) by exemplifying just how far some of these groups will go to weed out errant thought. Further to this, there is the ongoing issue of pre-destined marriage that pervades the sect, both in the news and from those who have fled its confines. One cannot dismiss these as totally off the wall or without some merit and Williams does not shy away from revealing it as the foundation of her argument throughout. The characters within the story are top-notch and provide the reader with a realistic and varied sense of approaches to the theme. The narrative is crisp and yet what one might expect from a teenager at the helm, directing the story into corners that they might find important. Williams encapsulates the angst and struggle of a teenage girl faced with losing all she has ever hoped to find in life, as well as the fight for freedom, if only to define herself outside of what some prophet might decree.

Kudos, Madam Williams for getting to the root of this matter and presenting something for a younger audience. It was brilliantly portrayed and I am sure you will garner many fans for this and anything else you publish.

Never Stop on the Motorway: A Short Story, by Jeffrey Archer

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Jeffrey Archer, and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Lord Jeffrey Archer has made a name for himself, with spellbinding novels spanning over three decades. He has also proven to be equally talented when it comes to the short story, as is exemplified in this electronic republication of a past piece. Diana is a successful divorced mother of two, who enjoys life whenever possible. During her only childless weekend, she accepts an invitation to a country getaway. After a brief delay, Diana dodges commuter traffic and hopes to make up for lost time. However, she is soon being followed by a large van she cannot shake, its headlights glaring into her rearview mirror. No matter what she does, Diana is unable to lose this crazed driver, who follows her when she executes the most Bond-like driving off the A1. As panic sets in, Diana recollects some recent police alert about a serial rapist who has been targeting single women on the road. With this madman on her bumper, will she be the next victim? Archer weaves a wonderful story that keeps the reader on edge for the short time they are enveloped in this piece. Perfect for that coffee or lunch break, with just enough thrill to keep the heart pumping rapidly.

In all the years I have been reading Lord Jeffrey Archer, I have yet to be underwhelmed. His stories are always full of intrigue and he hashes out his characters with ease. In a short story, it is essential to pull the reader in and have them connect to the character, which Archer does as he spins the backstory needed to feel for Diana. From there, it is the swift development of the plot and some of the subplots that keep the reader pushing forward. Archer has that mastered here, leaving the reader to wonder about this mysterious van driver and how far things will go, even as Diana has her destination in sight. As with many Archer pieces, the end is where it all comes together, pushing the protagonist to the limits before injecting a wonderful twist. This is Archer at his best, bar none.

Kudos, Lord Archer for this wonderful piece, which I cannot remember reading in the past. You have such a way with words and I can only hope you will continue churing out masterful pieces for many years to come.

The Lucky Ones, by Mark Edwards

NIne stars

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

Yet another powerful thriller from the mind of Mark Edwards, pulling the reader into the middle of a serial killer’s rampage, fuelled by an interesting justification. DI Imogen Evans is on the hunt for the Shropshire Viper, someone who has been injecting victims with morphine. While the investigation intensifies, Evans learns of an odd connection between the three victims; something that could blow the case wide open. Is there a degree of ‘luck’ or ‘happiness’ tied to these killings, for both the killer and the victim? In a parallel narrative, Ben Holland has been struggling as a single father, back in the village of his youth. Raising his son, Ollie, and trying to begin divorce proceedings, Ben has been unable to find his niche as he struggled to redefine himself. With the Viper in the area, Ben is forced to confront his estranged wife, Megan, and her new beau, a glitzy television presenter. How will it all play out and does someone have a little ‘luck’ that they might be able to pass along to Ben, under the right circumstances? In this crime thriller that pulls the readers in many directions, Edwards shows how he has earned the reputation of being a fabulous writer. Perfect for those who want to up their heart rate and ponder where the killer might be lying in wait.

I have always found Mark Edwards to be at the top of his game and this novel only further exemplifies that. Working with this one-off novel, the key is to create characters who are both easy to explore and fast to present their backstories. Pair that with the ever-evolving storyline of a murder investigation and the reader is required to juggle a great deal and keep names straight in short order. Edwards writes in such a way that this is no impediment to the larger narrative and the reader is hooked by everything that is going on. Through the interesting technique of random chapters told through the eyes of the killer, the reader is able to discern a few key elements of the crime and crawl inside to better understand the ‘lucky’ mindset that might be feeling these murders. With a wonderful mix of short and longer chapters, the reader hangs on every word and utilises the cliffhanger moments to propel themselves towards the end, unsure how they were able to finish so quickly. Once Edwards has the reader in his grasp, there is no letting go, until the final sentence. Even then, there is an eerie quality of ‘what if’ that keeps the reader pondering. Stellar work by one who has earned the right to call himself great!

Kudos, Mr. Edwards for another wonderful thriller. How you come up with so many wonderful ideas leaves me baffled, but please do not stop. I can see scores of new fans flocking to you once they get their hands on this piece.

16th Seduction (Women’s Murder Club #16), by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

Seven stars

Another piece that shows that Patterson knows how to choose some of his co-authors to produce entertaining writing. Working alongside Maxine Paetro to craft sixteen novels in the Women’s Murder Club, Patterson has been able to present high-impact writing peppered with some interesting legal and criminal angles. The world is beset with a new terrorist organisation, loosely called GAR, the Great Antiestablishment Reset, happy to wreak havoc at every turn. San Francisco is not immune, which leaves Sergeant Lindsay Boxer on high alert. After agreeing to see her estranged husband, Joe, they take a stroll close to Sci-Tron, the city’s science museum. An explosion rocks and destroys the building. Soon thereafter, Boxer overhears a man claim responsibility, almost unable to believe her own ears. After arresting him, this Connor Grant denies ever saying anything about being culpable and he is sent to trial for murdering twenty-five innocent people and injuring many more, including Joe. While Boxer braces for what is surely a major situation, Yuki Castellano, the lawyer of the Murder Club, assumes second chair in this major trial, pitting the wily District Attorney against Grant, who has chosen to represent himself. The trial is harrowing and far from a slam-dunk, leaving the verdict in the hands of the twelve-member jury. Meanwhile, Dr. Claire Washburn, the city’s Chief Medical Examiner (and, of course, another of the Club’s members) contacts Sergeant Boxer about a mysterious string of deaths, originally attributed to heart conditions. Further investigation shows that the deaths are connected by a strange injection in the buttocks that each victim exhibits. Could there be someone in San Francisco injecting people with some unknown narcotic? As the reader discovers, one Neddie Lambo is on the loose, playing up his detention in a psychiatric facility, but actually plotting a number of these random killings to feed his need for control. All this while Cindy Thomas is getting the inside scoop and reporting the news garnered from her fellow Club members, sometimes without their knowledge and consent. How will San Francisco survive all this and can Boxer rise above an Internal Affairs investigation for her actions as they relate to the Sci-Tron bombing? Patterson and Paetro offer an explosive ending to this sixteenth instalment to the series. A great story for series fans and sure to attract some new readers who have a penchant for quick read stories.

There is something about the Women’s Murder Club that has always kept me on the edge of my seat. While Patterson has stumbled at times, even with key authors around him, the annual return to this series keeps me believing that there is something worthwhile left in the author (the least of which is surely not Paetro’s involvement). The stories are poignant and while the mysteries are not always complex or psychologically thrilling, they move at a quick pace and keep the story from going stale. The strong central cast of characters continue to evolve and there is always a interesting flavour to the one-offs, particularly the criminal element. Patterson and Paetro always leave room for ‘just one more’, be it a chapter before bed or a new book in the series, fostering an ongoing hunger in the reader. Those short chapters propel the reader forward and can, like me, leave them wondering how they polished the book off in a single day. Surely not foundational work in the genre, but a wonderful escape that keeps pace with the swiftness the outside world has to offer. 

Kudos, Mr. Patterson and Madame Paetro for another great novel. I always look forward to what the annual revelation of the Women’s Murder Club will bring and you have not let me down.

Defending Jacob, by William Landay

Nine stars

Having received a strong recommendation to read this book, I was curious to see what William Landay might have in store for the reader. Not for the weak of heart, the story offers the reader much to consider as they manoeuvre through this stellar work. The small community of Newton, Massachusetts is put on edge with the murder of Ben Rifkin. A teenager at the local middle school, Rifkin was known to be somewhat of a bully, happy to toss aside those who might be different. Andrew ‘Andy’ Barber takes up the initial murder investigation as one of the ADAs, turning his attention on a local paedophile with lives in the area. However, Jacob Barber becomes a person of interest and is eventually arrested and charged with the murder, which pushes Andy out of a job and onto the sidelines as he scrambles to prove his son’s innocence. Forced to wrap his head around what might have happened, Andy turns to examining Jacob’s life under a microscope. What he discovers is the extensive cruelty that youths inflict on one another, be it verbally or hidden behind the veil of social media. There is also the possibility that a genetic predisposition (read: The Warrior Gene) could be at play, forcing Andy to explore his past and bring some less than pleasant aspects to the surface, all which trying to keep his family together as his wife doubts their son’s innocence. Whatever happens, when the case goes to trial, Andy can do nothing but hone his focus… on defending Jacob. Question is, will it be enough? A thought-provoking story that Landay tells in a masterful fashion. Perfect for the reader who wishes to be enveloped in a small-town legal struggle that digs deeper and pushes the limits at every turn.

William Landay’s work is new to me, but rest assured I will be back for more. The story, be it steeped in fact or completely fictitious, is full of intrigue and paced in such a way that the reader cannot help but want to know more. The list of characters work well and are depicted as close to realistically as possible, from teenage choppy-linguistic portrayals, to the profanity-laden diatribes of prisoners, and even the smooth legalese that lawyers offer in the middle of trial. Landay explores this case from all angles and takes the reader into the middle, though offers a clear flaw, by using Andy Barber as the narrator. This entire process is digested and then regurgitated through the eyes of a disbelieving father, which flavours the story in a wonderful way, jading things from the start. Andy has his own demons about which he is not proud, though he refuses to turn his only child into yet another notch on his family tree trunk. The law, the social struggles, and the angst that a family feels all emerge throughout the story, keeping the reader hooked and Landay in complete control of the story through to the final page twist. If this is Landay’s typical story format, I can see myself offering more praise of his work in the months to come.

Kudos, Mr. Landay for such a raw and insightful piece. You have such a way with words and presentation that I am sure scores of other readers will soon discover the superior quality of your work.

Half-Built Houses, by Eric Keller

Eight stars

First and foremost, thank you to Eric Keller for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

The next book on my independent author list included a courtroom drama with a twist. Set in Calgary, I hoped not only to become enveloped in the story, but also see some of the random mentions of my current city of residence. Charley Ewanuschuk has had a hard life, having been bullied throughout his youth in small-town Alberta before he was shipped to the big city by a less than loving mother. On an especially frigid winter night, Charley witnesses a woman being strangled before her body is left in the snow. Fleeing his squatter’s residence, Charley runs off before his conscience eventually leads him to Legal Aid. Seeking some legal advice as he knows he will somehow be a person of interest, Charley tells his outlandish story to struggling lawyer, Brian Cox. When the police come to investigate, they find clues that point to Charley’s potential involvement and he is eventually charged with the murder of Natalie Peterson. Turning mute, Charley is uncooperative, which leaves Cox to try piecing together a defence based on the shaky story he was told that first night. Meanwhile, Hugh Young lurks in the shadows, a successful businessman whose considerable wealth has become beneficial when it comes to cleaning up the messes left by his son, Jason. This time, Jason’s assault and murder of Natalie have forced Hugh to pull out all the stops. As long as Jason can remain calm and only answer the questions put to him, there is a chance that this homeless man, Charley, will be found guilty. However, as certain aspects of Jason’s narrative prove shaky, Cox receives new hope, but is it enough? A compelling story with a thorough legal plot, perfect for those who love seeing the courtroom in all its glory. 

When Keller reached out to me, he used the lure of Calgary to pique my interest. After starting the book, I would other aspects that had me hooked as well. I found the use of Calgary to be quite intriguing, peppering landmarks and street names throughout the story, though it was not a central focus of the narrative. Keller shows his superior ability to craft realistic characters who present themselves as both unique and yet believable in this type of story, which adds momentum as the story’s pace quickens. The reader learns much about the backstory of Charley Ewanuschuk, the determination of Brian Cox, and the slimy presentation of Jason Young, as well as the other characters that hold the larger story together flawlessly. Many writers will tell a legal thriller by showing the crime and how the authorities will pursue individuals until the accused can be found and (sometimes) sentenced for the crime. However, Keller takes things further, detailing the crime, the investigation, and then the courtroom developments, including the banter between Crown and Defence attorneys as they examine witnesses on the stand, all while not losing some of the out-of-court struggles that befall both sides during trial. Keller’s understanding of the Canadian legal process is notable and he paces the story perfectly without drowning the reader in minutiae. A powerful novel that tells multiple stories within its pages, Keller is certainly an author worth noting as the reader hopes to see more writing in the years to come. 

Kudos, Mr. Keller for this wonderful debut novel. Your writing style is refreshing and injects much life into the genre. I trust another legal thriller is in the works, taking us back to the gritty streets of Calgary.

The Black Book, by James Patterson and David Ellis

Eight stars

James Patterson has again teamed up with David Ellis, offering a wonderful standalone thriller that keeps readers on the edge of their seats and up late into the night. In a narrative set in the ‘past’, Billy Harney and Kate Fenton are hardworking members of Homicide in Chicago. While tailing a suspect, Harney makes the decision to raid a brownstone, which opens up a new and troublesome revelation; this is a brothel visited by the city’s rich and powerful men. During the raid, a ‘little black book’ goes missing, with names that could bring even more of the rich and famous to their knees or serve as strong blackmail fodder. All eyes turn to Harney, who must try to clear his name, when it is presumed he pocketed it. As Fenton begins a power struggle with her partner, Harney must find out who is trying to frame him, adamant that he knows nothing of the book. With the case against the defendants caught in the raid fast approaching, Harney works with a hot-shot prosecutor, Amy Lentini, to ensure his testimony is flawless. Her icy exterior soon melts and she turns up the heat with Harney, which only clouds both their judgements. In a parallel narrative, set in the ‘present’, Harney is found naked, in bed with Lentini, while Detective Fenton lays on the floor. All three have been shot and the two women are dead, with Harney clinging to life and a bullet lodged in his skull. As the story continues, it appears Harney is being blamed for the murder, unable to remember anything from the past as it relates to the lead-up to the shooting or anything he may have learned about the black book. As the reader braces for an ever-evolving rollercoaster ride, the story takes twists and turns with everything centred around a list of names and the people will do anything to hold all the power. A powerful thriller that shows Patterson has the ability to rise to the occasion, with the right author at the helm. Highly recommended to any who enjoy losing themselves in quality writing.

I have often said that James Patterson’s writing has waned in the past few years, his lustre buried under many mediocre novels. However, when David Ellis comes to partner, their cooperation produces stellar writing and offers the reader a literary treat. While it may be a standalone, the novel offers an array of superior characters, wonderfully crafted to push the narrative forward without getting caught up in the minutiae. Working with the parallel narratives, Patterson and Ellis keep the reader guessing, while forcing a constant mental gear switch as the story develops, layering a revealed past with a present that is just as murky. If the reader can handle this mix, they are in for a punch to the gut during the numerous plot twists, which only adds the the overall flavour of the piece. Dark, but peppered with some dry humour to keep the reader smiling, Patterson and Ellis know the perfect recipe for a fast-paced thriller.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Ellis for joining forces again and showing that there is never an end to your abilities. I know I am in for a treat when your names grace the cover and hope to see more of your collaborative efforts soon.

Matchup, edited by Lee Child

NIne stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Lee Child (editor), and Simon & Schuster for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

When asked to take the editorial lead in the latest International Thriller Writers (ITW) anthology, Lee Child jumped at the opportunity. What might be daunting for some–herding twenty-two well-known authors together like feral cats–turned out to be a great pleasure for Child and, in the end, the reader. This compilation pits writers into teams of two to concoct a wonderful series of short stories. Each author was asked to bring their ‘A’ game and a favourite protagonist, in hopes that having to share the page (and the locale of each story), which ended up being a little more difficult than simply parachuting characters together. Child’s other hurdle was to place a male and female author together, a ‘matchup’ of epic proportions, to see how they could work together. The end result saw readers treated to the ‘what if’ of forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan working alongside ever-travelling Jack Reacher; bibliophile Cotton Malone living history and the standing stones through which Claire Randall met her beloved in Scotland; and Philly lawyer, Bennie Rosato, crossing paths with the King of Sarcastic Comments, John Corey. Where else would you find a Minnesota cop who wants to fish in the middle of a major crime bust at a cabin in Montana, or a woman who speaks to the dead through their buried bones outside of Alexandria? Child is able not only to find the ideal matches for this anthology, but also sends the reader into a tailspin as they are presented with a number of never before thought-out possible storylines. Child is masterful, though a great deal of praise must go to all who took the time and effort to pen eleven wonderful stories. Surely something of a summer gift for the reader to enjoy poolside.

I have always enjoyed collections such as these, especially when the ITW gang comes out to play. There are so many out there and since the genre is so wide, one is never entirely sure what to expect. Child presents these stories in no particularly themed order, but the end result turns out to be something that is high octane from start to finish. While I tend to gravitate to the crime and legal thrillers, there are many that push outside of my comfort zone, though I cannot find a single story that did not captivate me, even when the narrative flirted with the paranormal. I have a large ‘to be read’ list, but reading these stories has left me wondering if I ought to check out some new authors and their characters, as they intrigued me, even during the brief encounter of a short story. Pitting sub-genres against one another and character professions that were sure to clash, these authors ironed out the difficulties and left the reader with a polished product, perfectly balanced and ready for easy literary consumption. While I could have read these stories for hundreds of more pages, I realise that there is a limit to the number of submissions and authors used, though I am eager to see what is next for the ITW in the years to come.

Kudos, Mr. Child, et al. for such a great anthology. I am hooked to these collections and love the cross-section of story writer that emerges from these classic matchups. Please keep sharpening your skills for the next editorial call out that is sure to arise.

The Fix (Amos Decker #3), by David Baldacci

Seven stars

David Baldacci surfaces with another Amos Decker fast-paced thriller, keeping readers hooked from its explosive start through to the final, lingering sentences. While walking outside the FBI’s Hoover Building, Amos Decker witnesses a woman shot in apparent cold blood before the shooter turns the gun on himself. With the environs in shock, Decker uses his eidetic memory to capture the scene before reporting to his FBI Task Force. Usually handed cold cases, the team turns its attention to the murder of Anne Berkshire at the hands of one Walter Dabney. What might have led Dabney to gun down a substitute teacher who volunteered at the local hospice? It is only when they dig further that the extent to Dabney’s problems arise. Formerly employed with the NSA, Dabney appears to have amassed much debt and has been borrowing to pay it off? That being said, Decker is left confused when the DIA (Defence Intelligency Agency) begins poking around and tries to take control of the investigation. Using his synesthesia and hyperthymesia, Decker is able to help the team explore deeper motives and potential witnesses, which open new avenues of investigation. With no clear backstory on Anne Berkshire, might she have been hiding from a less than stellar past? Could Dabney’s attack on her could be the tip of something larger and much more sinister? In D.C., nothing is as it seems, leaving Decker to hope he can get to the root cause and bring closure to the Dabney family, whose shock grows with each new piece of information. Well paced and sure to keep most Baldacci fans pleased until the final page-turn. 

I have long been a Baldacci fan and find myself still hooked after this novel. Amos Decker stands alone when compared to other thriller protagonists on the market today, making the series novels highly interesting and entertaining. Baldacci has brought another wonderful plot to the forefront and spun a tale that keeps the reader on their toes, while also injecting the perfect number of twists. Steeped in political struggles of the day, Baldacci turns to a mix of the Middle Eastern and neo-Cold War clashes, without instilling too many stereotypes within each chapter. Strong returning characters provide the reader with a foundation on which to base their expectations, permitting growth and sideways development. While Decker’s backstory has been revealed in the previous two novels, there are moments of reflection that provide new insight for the reader. Peppering new characters and leaving the door open for their return again allows Baldacci to offer great subplots, injecting humour into what is normally a darker subject. All those who grace the pages of the book can stand well on their own and mesh well with some Decker’s quirks, paving the way for a great story that can be devoured in short order. Baldacci continues to shine in a genre that has long been supersaturated, though I will admit this was not his absolute best work. I have seen some fans who have shared a less than exuberant sentiment when they completed the novel. One might posit their issue is rooted in the lack of synesthesia-based writing, which left them a sense of being cheated. However, I cannot speak for them or their personal struggles with the story. There is always room for improvement and Baldacci shows that he, too, is fallible.

Kudos, Mr. Baldacci, for keeping the series strong and the stories sharp. I look forward to each new book you have and can assure you that I remain a fervent fan of all your work. 

War Cry (Courtneys # 14), by Wilbur Smith (with David Churchill)

Eight stars

Building on his multi-generational Courtney family saga, Wilbur Smith crafts a new story that shifts focus on the Kenyan-based group, led by Leon. After the tragic death of his wife, Leon is left to raise his precocious daughter alone. Saffron Courtney’s determination and refusal to let anything stand in her way shows how much of the family blood flows through her veins. Sent to study at a reputable boarding school in South Africa, Saffron learns the ropes as Leon tries to resurrect Courtney Trading, which had been paralyzed by the global downturn of the Depression. Working with his three brothers, Leon pitches an idea to turn things around, leaving at least one with a sour taste in his mouth. In an alternate storyline, the reader learns of Gerhard von Meerbach, who grows up in his brother’s shadow and has yet to fully accept the new Nazi regime that has taken Germany by storm. The reader is reminded of the von Meerbach family’s ties to the Courtneys, which was fleshed out fully when last Smith wrote about this wing of the family. As both Saffron and Gerhard grow older, they cross paths and soon find a connection that would stir up many emotions in their respective families, though about which both young characters are temporarily unaware. As the winds of war begin to blow across Europe, the Courtneys and von Meerbachs choose their sides, though both families have porous aspects of their familial foundations and support leads both clans to find the traitorous blood. Saffron shows that she is determined to craft an Allied victory through any means necessary, putting country before her own safety. Gerhard is also willing to show a softer side, though it might cost him his freedom and eventually his life. Using the African continent as a backdrop and some of the regional battles as a historical narrative, Smith is able to forge a story rich in delivery and yet devastating in its discussion of the War. Smith’s continuation of the Courtney saga is fortified by a wonderful narrative and well-developed characters, pulling on the lush fruits of this complex family tree. Well suited for readers who are familiar with the entire Courtney series, but equally as entertaining for anyone who picks the book up to begin the magical journey.

I was happy to have secured a copy of this latest book in the series and even more impressed that its focus was in the 20th century. I have found that Smith’s additions to the series are weaker the further back in history the story delves, while the closer to the central South African storyline proves most effective. Smith has been able to effectively weave the story of this large family by branching off and building on loose threads left in the narrative, without losing the impetus for the larger story. As with many of his tales, Smith has a wonderful handle on the narrative and use some strong characters to tell the story of love, history, and determination. As Smith tends to be constantly crafting his Courtney series, it would be helpful to focus on one direction (time era), permitting the reader to better understand what to expect. While this might be an editorial decision, bouncing from 17th century adventures on the high seas to this powerful Second World War tale proves to be a ‘stop-start’ in the reader’s ability to understand the flow of the story. I find it harder to develop a bond with characters if I have to wait eight years to see them again (as in this story and the last time we met Leon, etc). Perhaps I pine too much for the ‘series one and two’ Courtney stories, where there was a significant build-on of the characters, always moving forward. By the time ‘series three’ arose, we were bouncing back in time and trying to hash out some of the ancestral aspects of the family, thereby losing the momentum that Smith had so effectively developed. Smith leaves some great storylines unfinished and there is hope that future novels might address this. I can only hope that Smith will continue to control the stories, though I have come to see that he has contributors and authors who have taken over writing for him, which lessens the impact of the larger Courtney saga. One can hope that more generations emerge, enriching the experience both for the reader and Smith personally.

Kudos, Mr. Smith for a great addition to the series. I can only hope that you have a few more ideas in mind, especially in the latter generations of Courtney family members. 

Marcel Malone, by Lew Watts

Seven stars 

First and foremost, thank you to Lew Watts for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Working through my pile of independent author reads, I came across this book by Lew Watts. He kindly asked me to take the time to read and review the book, though I had no idea what to expect beforehand. It did push me outside my normal genre, but I strive to open myself up to new and exciting topics. Dr. Vera Lewis is a successful therapist in the DC area, whose interesting cross-section of patients offer the application of many therapeutic techniques. One of these patients is Marcel Malone, an accountant by trade who has forged a close relationship with Vera, while they tackle building his interpersonal skills through social interactions with strangers. During their sessions, Marcel introduces Vera to poetry, something he has been able to use as a form of communication and therapeutic release. Their sessions turn from strict question-answer banter to a varied collection of poetic expression that Marcel has found helps him with self-discovery. Vera soon finds herself interested in the poetry and begins her own journey of expression and analysis. The novel offers a constant development/regression as it relates to life at home for Vera, where she must face her husband, Raymond, who is a lobbyist and appears to place much focus on clients while leaving his wife find solace in drink and solitude. While exploring poetry in its many forms, Vera and Marcel develop a non-spoken bond that surpasses therapeutic discovery, whereby the reader might see it as an infatuation on the part of the therapist. As Marcel tackles some of his deeper issues, he drifts away, leaving Vera to forge her connection through random poetic texts and the odd letter, while also forcing her to turn inward and discover an alter-ego. Finding her own voice in poems, Vera takes hold of her life and makes some life-altering decisions, returning to her roots. A book that opens the mind of the patient reader, Watts is able to capture this story through prose, poetry, and a therapeutic analysis of the human spirit. Recommended for those looking to find a gem in the vast array of busy-body fiction on the market today. 

I entered this read slightly hesitantly, particularly since my last independent author read ended in a cataclysmic mess. One surely cannot judge a book by its cover or dust jacket summary. I found myself curious about the therapeutic aspect of the story from the beginning, having read a number of novels with a counsellor-based protagonist. When Watts introduced some of the poetry and embedded extensive verse throughout, I began to worry, as I have never been one to find much pleasure in analysing this form of expression. As Ver and Marcel discover the latter’s speech patterns influenced by iambic pentameter, I found myself pacing and beating every sentence he uttered, driving myself mad as I scoured for the iambic flow before I began to dissect my own verbal presentation. However, Watts soon distracts the reader with other interesting therapeutic and poetic notions, steeped in academic and literary roots which are referenced in the narrative. The cast of characters found within the novel helps to push the story forward, offering a variety of individuals whose traits complement one another in certain spheres while they clash and created some needed conflict. Social, professional, and familial connections all emerge within the story and provide the reader with the opportunity to play armchair therapist, if only for brief moments. Vera’s growth is readily apparent throughout, though the reader might find periods of stagnancy, causing them to curse the protagonist into finding the epiphany and moving forward. One thing of note that Watts utilises in the novel is a journaling style over formal chapters, pushing the reader to see the world solely through the eyes of Dr. Vera Lewis. The reader will only discover an alternate angle by peering into the thoughts of others when Marcel Malone’s journal is quoted during a key point in the story. While this offers a somewhat centric flavour to the story, Watts makes it work and the reader comes out of the experience with a stronger understanding of the struggles presented throughout. A well-paced piece that shows both the author’s attention to his readers and has me wanting to see what else Watts may have to offer. Definitely expanded my horizons without pushing me too far out of my comfort zone.

Kudos, Mr. Watts for this great novel, with multi-faceted explorations. I enjoyed your presentation of a number of area of interest/expertise that you possess without inculcating your readers with an excessively academic primer.

The Lost Order (Cotton Malone # 12), by Steve Berry

Eight stars

Returning with another Cotton Malone thriller, Steve Berry never ceases to impress, embedding fact and fiction throughout a fast-paced narrative. Malone finds himself out in rural Arkansas on a mission, tracking down a small collection of gold. Hired and sent by someone other than the president, Malone’s still loosely working for the Magellan Billet, a covert part of the Justice Department. While cracking a code engraved on one of the majestic trees, he is attacked and questioned by a gentleman who calls himself the Sentinel, part of the long thought defunct Knights of the Golden Circle. Malone soon learns that the Knights trace their roots to the Confederacy and are charged with protecting small caches of gold and stones, which lead to a larger treasure, scattered across the South. Back in Washington, the Billet’s overseer, Stephanie Nelle, is meeting with a senior official with the Smithsonian Institution, only to be shot and left for dead. There appears to be a connection to the Knights and the Smithsonian, though it is not entire clear at the time. Former US President Danny Daniels is attending the funeral of a lifelong friend and senator, where he discovers that the widow and the Speaker of the House of Representatives might have been involved in some nefarious dealings, yet another branch of the Knights’ larger plans. Daniels accepts a position that will permit him some inside information at the congressional level, though he must not tip his hand too soon. While Malone seeks to better understand the workings of the Knights of the Golden Circle, he learns that a recent schism may have led to the recent attacks on Nelle and the kidnapping of Billet member (and Malone’s love interest) Cassiopeia Vitt. It would appear that someone wants the treasure to push forward a constitutional convention, one that could change the face of the United States while others within the group are fine keeping the riches hidden until the time is more propitious . While Cotton is seeking to quell the rogue branch of the Knights, Danny Daniels must rest the power held by the Speaker before major (though entirely legal) power changes to vest all formal congressional powers on the lower house, thereby nullifying the Senate’s role in the legislative branch of the government. A killer is loose, lives hang in the balance, and Cotton Malone may be the only person who can intercept those bent on causing chaos, all while learning that one of his ancestors may have played a central role in the Knights. Berry weaves a wonderful story together and will not let up until the reader is fully engrossed. Perfect for fans of the Cotton Malone series as well as those who love a good mystery seeped in historical significance.

As with many Berry novels, there is nothing off limits in the narrative. Shifting through time and working with little-known facts, Berry creates a story that keeps the reader wondering. The Magellan Billet has seen its usefulness wax and wane throughout the series, though Cotton Malone has never become tiresome. Working through the Civil War era and the spy rings that accompanied it, Berry resurrects some ideas tied to the Confederate cause as well as diving headlong into a better understanding of the Smithsonian, which is a vast array of museums and facilities that seek to educate and impress. Berry sifts throughout the historical record to teach the reader while proving to be adept at entertainment. Longtime series readers will have grown fond of certain characters and it is noteworthy that Berry has found a way to keep them present and relevant, as well as finally (!!) revealing the ‘long story’ behind Malone’s nickname. While there is little time to rest throughout the tale, Berry takes the time to point out facts and fallacies, especially to those readers who choose the writer’s cut of the audiobook. Certainly an advantage over the always anticipated Writer’s Notes that Berry includes in his novels. A wonderful addition that enriches little known pieces of US History and political developments that could be useful today.

Kudos, Mr. Berry for another wonderful book. I love how you are able to mix history, politics, and thrilling chases all into one, while keeping a realistic balance. I look forward to all you have in the works, as I praise your published books to all those who will listen. 

The Thirst (Harry Hole #11), by Jo Nesbø 

Eight stars

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

The reader can always expect a treat when Harry Hole re-emerges on the written page. Nesbø’s latest novel is no exception. While Nesbø has taken his protagonist on many a wild ride, there is always something sinister and dark that pulls the reader (and the jaded murder detective) back into the mix. As the novel opens, a woman is on a date in a local watering hole, having trusted the swipe-match benefits of Tinder. When things do not go as planned, she returns to her flat, seemingly alone. However, someone lurks in the shadows, attacking her before leaving a dead body with a distinct mark. When Oslo Police begin their investigation, they cannot help but wonder if this mark, along the neck, could have been left by… a vampire? When another body turns up and there are no concrete leads, a familiar name begins being bandied about as a possible lifeline to solving the case. Harry Hole is now an instructor within the Police College, happy to lecture and discuss the former profession that brought him much satisfaction, but also fuelled his worst nightmares and led to his downward spiral into a personal abyss. Agreeing to run a parallel investigation, Hole begins looking into the murders, which hold a very unique and possible fetishistic curiosity. As Hole digs deeper, his recollections of being a part of the police return, more intense than ever, though he also cannot dismiss the angst brought on by certain of his colleagues. When a personal emergency strikes, Hole must find the time to piece of the shattered pieces, which not letting the case disintegrate. A suspect comes to mind and Hole does all he can to bring them to justice, entering a violent confrontation. The evidence is all there, as Hole learns more about the dark world of vampirism. However, with such an open and shut case, questions remain as to whether the hunt for answers and the prime suspect will survive the ‘light of day’. A powerful thriller that steeps a narrative in the usual dark aspects. Nesbø fans will devour this piece and there are sure to be new fans coming out of the woodwork. 

I have long been a fan of the European mystery and thriller genres, specifically those which emerge from the Scandinavian countries. I find that they are not only better crafted, but offer the reader a richer sense of the narrative while filled with dark twists. Nesbø has proven that he not only has a handle on the genre, but that he is able to push his protagonist well past the point of no return. As Harry struggles, the reader follows suit, wishing for some happy outcome, only to be led away from the easy solution. Nesbø tells a dark story, tapping into the still-buzzworthy ‘vampire’ theme, but does not inject that Hollywood flavour, choosing instead to flirt with the obsessive dark side of bloodlust and all things ‘haemo’. While the reader synthesises this, Nesbø pushes past storylines into the present piece and forces the reader to balance multiple tasks. Rich in its character development as well, the reader draws close to some individuals who grace the page, while hoping others will meet their match. I remain in awe of the high calibre of the writing, especially as the story has been translated into English. I have often commented that if the piece can hold strong after it has been linguistically altered, imagine the force behind the original Norwegian presentation.

Kudos, Mr. Nesbø for another impressive novel. I have a die-hard fan and you are still able to push me in directions I could not have seen coming. 

Godforsaken, by Tarryl Janik

Two fizzled-out stars

First and foremost, thank you to Tarryl Janik (through a friend) for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

With a few independent books that have been offered to me by authors through Goodreads, I wanted to take some time and read them, before posting reviews. They may not get the publicity of other writers, but deserve some recognition. Jack Warren has little in life about which to be happy, explaining why he has a revolver pressed to his temple as the book begins. A deputy in the Waushara County Sheriff’s Department, Jack breaks from his suicidal thought processes to investigate the disappearance of Jessica Mills, a local teenage girl. With only a few clues, Jack must assess the scene and try to piece together her last moments with others. On a tangential narrative, an archeological expedition in Guyana uncovers some highly troubling discoveries with sacrificial elements of the most graphic nature, which seems out of place at the time, but finds its place as the story progresses. The narrative returns to offer the reader a glimpse into the last night of Jessica Mills’ freedom, full of sexual exploration and disappointment, before eventually leading to her capture by a silhouetted individual. When Jack comes across a friend he hopes will be able to offer some insight into Jessica’s disappearance, he is attacked by a mysterious woman in the shadows, maimed to the point of requiring medical attention. It is here that the story takes a turn, when a nondescript room tucked in the corner of the hospital reveals added alter sacrifices and medicinal reincarnations that perpetuate a zombie state. If the review reader is grasping at straws to collect some form of narrative thread, reading this piece is like blindly hanging from said threads in a torrential downpour. A troubled publication, the reader must take a gamble as they sacrifice their sanity, time, and mood to finish.

I have always been taught not to say anything if there is nothing good to be added to the discussion. With that in mind, let me dig and find something positive worth exploring in this book. The text is organised in coherent paragraphs and pages (lacking horribly inane columns), which is worth one star. One would presume this is a freebie star, but in some of the recent books I have come across, traditional text presentation is never a foregone conclusion. The second star is surely worthy for great use of the English language, showing that Janik has a grasp of how to weave the words together in any effective and comprehensive fashion that makes sense to the adult audience. With these two stars in the book’s quiver, we embark on what might be the miraculous search for a third star, or how we cannot lose the two previously ascertained praiseworthy traits this book possesses. Moving forward, things take a turn for the worse or at least inch towards literary disaster. While the words are clear, the story begs for an editor. If one was used, said person should immediately return the funds they were paid and march through the town as they are shamed for horrible work. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation are haphazardly used and, on occasion, their disappearance ruin what might have been a passable plot. One might turn to me and ask that I cast the first stone if I am so perfect. I do not seek perfection, though I should expect some degree of clarity on the parts of both the author and editor to clean up the draft and show honour and respect in the published work. This is not Harper Lee’s resurrected second manuscript from a few years ago, whereby the world accepted it without a red pen touching the page. It is an insult to the reader to seek their money and time while not putting in the conscious effort to produce one’s best work. Janik seeks to provide that flashy distraction to the aforementioned abyss by opening a medical terminology text or thesaurus and peppering the narrative with fancy words, as if to beg for the literary equivalent of a golf clap. ‘Well done, sir!’ If the characters worked in the medical profession or counselled those with numerous philias, phobias, or isms, the reader might accept these words as useful, but it does little to distract the intelligent reader from what is going on. The gratuitous and seemingly inexplicable use of sex in all its forms to fill pages and bestow forms of orgasmic delight for the minor characters leaves the reader wondering if there will be some epiphany in the narrative that pulls all this ejaculatory blather to a head (pardon the pun). It occurs in almost every chapters and adds nothing to the larger story, save to promote disgust and ‘strokes’ (again, sorry for the pun) the author’s ego to have devised every euphemistic penile reference that a second-tier romance novelist would veto. Janik shows only that his academic success (discussed on the author blurb) is surely diluted as he remains trapped in the mentality of a sixteen year-old boy, giggling with the ways he can under-impress the reader. I am not Freud, so I will not draw cigar parallels. What began as a mystery quickly slips away and turns into something without a genre, though seeks to introduce sex to distract from its dissolving plot. Might this distraction attempt be a theme all its own in the book? The reader may prepare to celebrate the end of this short novel, only to be greeted with a TO BE CONTINUED final page. As if there is need to contemplate the next move. Most will rush for the closest door and run into the hills. Then again, might there be those with literary masochistic leanings?

Good luck, Mr. Janik. I do not pull punches and set the bar high for authors. You have a sequel and seem to have some followers, but do not fold up the tent on your academic endeavours just yet. 

Environmentally Friendly: A Short Story, by Eliza Zanbaka

Six stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Elias Zanbaka for providing me with a copy of this short story, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Army veteran, Sargeant Major Bushnell, has escaped from a psychiatric facility and is on a rampage. Armed with a cache of weapons, he has his eye set on a specific target, but not one of the ‘garden’ variety. As the LAPD scramble to catch Bushnell, one of their own must try to reason with the vet before any more blood is shed. Sargeant Schaefer feels that he can make a connection with Bushnell, but must get inside his head before something rash occurs. The ultimate victim, Mother Nature, hangs in the balance and only Schaefer can stop the madness. Trouble is, he may not want to do anything at all. An interesting short story from Zanbaka that fills a coffee break period and leaves the reader wondering about the entire environmental lobby.

When asked to read Zanbaka’s short piece, I felt I did not have anything to lose. While I tend to find author solicited work on Goodreads to be less than provocative, Zanbaka presented a decent story. Veiled in a winding narrative and offering more subtle nuance than might have been helpful for me first thing in the morning, I was left waiting for a cataclysmic event to end the story. While this did not happen, the pace did keep me turning pages until the very end. After closing the book, I was forced to wonder… does it all really matter after all? To open this path of inquiry, Zanbaka has an interesting way of presenting his work, one that might work well for some readers. I count myself in the middle, still unsure what I think.

Kudos, Mr. Zanbaka for your efforts. I see some of my ‘Goodreads’ friends have already sifted through this and I hope more take the time to do so, if only to open their minds to a new way of thinking.