Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns, by Joseph Cummins

Seven stars

Looking for some lighter reading fare and pairing it with a buddy read, this book seemed the perfect mix. Joseph Cummins has compiled this wonderfully educational and entertaining piece that seeks to examine each of the presidential elections in US history (up to 2008, around the time of publication). By exploring these elections, Cummins seeks to determine just how dirty and ruthless the campaigns turned out to be. His hypothesis: campaigns have long been dirty affairs and while the sleaze factor may change, mud-slinging and backstabbing has always been an active part of the election cycle. While George Washington seemed fairly free of any attacks by his foes, the whirlwind of issues started soon thereafter. Cummins shows that early elections utilized a more “blatant” approach to attacks on candidates: mocking men for being drunkards, philanderers, and willing to buy votes. All forms of publication were blunt in their approach, vilifying anyone who opposed the writer’s perspective. As the years progressed, there were times that actual political issues served to tar and feather presidential candidates, but the move turned to personal mockery, where the weight of one’s wife or the genealogy of a certain child became active fodder. Cummins shows that candidates had to defend their honour or toss exponentially more mud to deflect some of these accusations. Personal foibles and missteps seemed to be more the 20th century approach to campaign attacks, turning to more subtle advertisements that treated the electorate as an intelligent being, filling the airwaves and printed leaflets with nuanced references. Perhaps it was the more litigious nature of America, but the straightforward “Candidate X has a fat wife!” was no longer permitted, leaving parties to spin stories and sometimes ride out complete fabrications. In an era when candidates could not always dodge the accusations, Cummins shows just how forgiving the voter could be, or how well the spin factor worked when the Democrats and Republicans were working at their hardest. A wonderful compilation of short vignettes related to each presidential election, sandwiching history and political context between the actual candidates and final vote count. Wonderful for history and political buffs looking for something light to digest.

Cummins does a fabulous job in this collection, which came to fruition because he saw much mud-slinging and so many attack ads coming out of Bush-Kerry in 2004. What came to print was a great primer for the curious reader, allowing the development of the basics of a scandalous campaign approach. With the additional layers of history and some of the key issues found between the presidential candidates permitted this foundational piece to hold its own. This is sure to fuel a fire for any reader who wants to know more, though some of the information found herein is more or less ‘general knowledge’. It is when the reader gets to some of the more obscure presidents (and I say this, knowing full well my Canadian education would make far more of these men obscure than my American counterparts) that Cummins offers some humorous anecdotes that may have the reader rushing to Wikipedia or the library to substantiate these comments. Most electoral campaigns are summarised in 5-10 brief pages, though there are others that seem less controversial and can be tied off in under four. Cummins also adds his own “sleaze-o-meter”, allowing the reader to better understand how scandalous things turned out to be. Light and surely entertaining, the reader can learn a great deal. Perhaps its only downside (surely not Cummins’ fault) is that the 2016 campaign could not be included. Wouldn’t reading all about the backstabbing and bribery and cheating be tweet… I mean, sweet!

Kudos, Mr. Cummins for this wonderful collection. I will check to see if you have other presidential pieces out there to entertain me between deeper books.

The Frozen Hours: A Novel of the Korean War, by Jeff Shaara

Nine stars

Shaara returns with another blockbuster piece of war fiction that is sure to impress many. Turning away from many of the well-documented wars and battles that fill school textbooks, Shaara creates a well-balanced story about the Korean War, nicknamed the ‘Forgotten War’. It becomes apparent early on why this was a war that many forgot about or do not adequately understand. Originally a United Nations effort to return North Korea to their geographic borders, events soon became quite America-centred, with UN (read: mostly US) forces being controlled by General Douglas MacArthur. Admittedly, MacArthur spent most of his time in the theatre’s home base, over in Tokyo. Shaara offers up three strong character perspectives in the novel, allowing the reader to learn more about the two sides involved and the advances made (as well as the retreats that became necessary) throughout the 1950 segment of fighting, which proves interesting as a snapshot for the overall conflict. What began as an attempt to help the South Koreans soon became the first test of Cold War politics. North Korea was happy to turn to its ideological and political ally, China, to assist with defending their outposts and keeping the Americans at bay. In an era when China was still a new force (the attentive reader will remember that Mao only surged the victory the year before, creating Red China), there was certainly a Soviet presence in the area, if only as observers and major weapons suppliers. The Korean Conflict could easily have turned into World War III, had cooler heads not prevailed, turning the Peninsula into an ideological battleground with both sides thirsty to repel others and in full possession of the Bomb. Shaara illustrates the battles and bloodshed, but is intentionally slow to introduce the enemy of both sides; the weather. Deemed the coldest winter in four decades, the battles fought had the added struggle of bitterly cold weather, which is the most unpredictable and vicious of foes. Guns that would not fire, oil that turned to sludge, and limbs that succumbed to various forms of frostbite pepper the narrative, as they surely did the landscape. While both sides were used to battles in more temperate climates, not being able to cover limbs effectively only added to the horrors. Limbs were frozen to gun barrels, toes came off when socks could be removed, leaving soldiers destroyed and armies decimated. The only small blessing came from wounds that froze before they could kill a soldier. Encapsulating that first year of the war, Shaara does not seek to clearly delineate the war in its totality, but the powerful narrative gives reader a strong sense of what transpired, perhaps in hopes of making this war a little less forgotten. Brilliantly crafted, with a mix of historical accuracies and personalized fiction, Shaara shows the reader why he is the master of the genre. Perfect for the curious reader that finds pleasure in historical fiction, particularly of the war variety. 

Any reader who has a long relationship with Jeff Shaara and his war-fiction will be enthralled with this piece. Those who might be expecting some light-humoured M*A*S*H* episode best look elsewhere, for these novels seek to get to the core of the battles. Steering away from the electoral and military politics of the War, Shaara seeks to focus on those who played a daily and key role in the war efforts. Shaara keeps mention of General MacArthur and President Truman to a minimum, but presents the soldiers as the most important players in Korea. General Oliver P. Smith allows the reader to see some of the military insights of a commander in the field. Smith was not sure what to expect, though likely no American forces really knew what to expect on the Korean Peninsula. As Smith sought to advance the troops, he discovered that there were many enemies that lay before him, the terrain being but one. Private Pete Riley represents that military character that Shaara likes to pepper into each of his novels; the ‘wet behind the ears’ newbie who does not know what to expect. It is during the novel that Riley is able to shed his peach fuzz and become a man, both on the battlefield and in life. Shaara shows Riley’s development and the sobering experiences he faces as he learns the horrors of war, pairing the loss of friends with that unknown enemy, the weather. To offer a well-rounded narrative, Chinese General Sung Shi-lun plays a central role and his narrative voice emerges throughout. Shaara effectively utilizes Sung and the entire Chinese Army effectively in the novel, exemplifying a completely different mindset to war. As mentioned before, Mao’s Red China was still fresh in the minds of many who arrived in Korea and the feel of the gun barrel remained a calloused sense to many of these soldiers. Where the two sides differed greatly, besides being somewhat ready for the frigid temperatures (though Shaara does show that the Chinese struggled greatly as well), is the inner momentum to win. While the Americans are fighting for glory and dominance, the Chinese appear to have a sense of seeking to please Mao and upholding the communist ideal. Shaara weaves this throughout the fight and shows how military hierarchy pushed the “Mao factor” onto the soldiers, who soon fell into line. This brilliant contrast allows Shaara to show yet another layer of the war, one that is likely not clearly delineated in textbooks or superficial narratives. Pulling all of this together, Shaara masters his arguments and leaves the reader wishing there were more. History has much more to offer on this war, though Shaara opens the novel commenting that he is not clearly tying himself down to a trilogy at this time, though there is surely room for it, should time and interest permit. And with Shaara, there is no doubt that if he chooses to return, it will be yet another stellar novel.

Kudos, Mr. Shaara for entertaining and educating in equal measure. I cannot tell you how excited I am whenever I see you have published something else. This was another piece of pure gold and I hope many find time to pick it up for themselves.

Love Me Not (Helen Grace #7), by M.J. Arlidge

Nine stars

M.J. Arlidge has created another wonderful novel to appeal to his large cross-section of fans, many of whom will surely be buzzing about this seventh instalment. Helen Grace is back in a thriller that brings new meaning to ‘race against time’. While driving to work, DI Helen Grace is almost struck by a vehicle and then comes upon an apparent carjacking victim, with a woman shot twice at close range. It is only then that Grace realises that she may have seen the killer, behind the wheel and speeding away from the scene. Calling in her team, DI Grace begins an investigation to determine what happened and who might be behind this heinous act. Meanwhile, the two trench coat clad youths have a second target in mind when they descend upon a chemist’s. A confrontation therein leads to more bloodshed, though the killers are less concerned about being identified when they leave a victim behind. DI Grace remains committed to finding the killers and one clue helps begin the chase, but these killers are a little too conniving and remain one step ahead. As minutes turn to hours, tainted journalist Emilia Garanita refuses to let this breaking news pass her by, especially as she is on a short leash for having led to the frame-up of DI Grace. Finding a way to approach the story from her own vantage point, Emilia is soon caught in the middle of an evolving situation and could become the next victim. When all eyes turn to a local school, DI Grace knows that there is no time to ponder next steps, though sometimes fast responses yield drastic mistakes. Two killers soon become one and the hunt is on, with enough breadcrumbs to predict where the killer will go next. But what is fuelling this one-day rampage and will DI Grace be able to stop it before anyone else gets killed? Arlidge pulls on past emotional character flaws from previous novels to construct a wonderfully dark story that pulls DI Helen Grace in all directions and well past her breaking point. Wonderful for series fans but likely not a good starting point for those curious about Helen Grace. Best to begin where it all started and work up to this explosive culmination. 

I remember binge-reading the Helen Grace series last summer and being enthralled with the build-up of the characters throughout. This story has an interesting aspect to it that differs significantly from the other novels in the series, worth a discussion in a moment. Arlidge continues to develop the post-incarceration Helen Grace, as she is forced to come to terms with the arrest, prison time, and eventual exoneration for being framed. While that is going on, others around her are forced to readjust, seeing Helen in a new light or trying to revert to how they felt before, though the taint of the prison time makes that hard. The style of this book leaves little time for Helen growth, but the killer’s life is explored in the narrative, such that the reader can draw a strong affinity to the hunter-go-hunted. Speaking of the uniqueness of the book, the largest portion is set in a single day, a la Jack Bauer and the ’24’ television series. The race is always on and the story develops over small increments of time. While some readers have bemoaned this approach, I cannot applaud it enough, as the short chapters beg for this small time passage. The narrative remains crisp as minutes pass and the story develops as the reader turns the page (which becomes happily repetitive). Brilliantly crafted and powerful in its delivery, Arlidge challenges the reader to put the book down. I know I failed there, propelling myself through this wonderful thriller with ease.

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge for another wonderful novel. You have differentiated yourself here, turning away from the drawn-out story of a psychopath to a killer seeking to find themselves.

The Dinosaur Feather (Søren Marhauge #1), by Sissel-Jo Gazan

Eight stars

Having received much praise when it was released in 2013, I was pleased to explore Sissel-Jo Gazan’s debut novel, balancing that Scandinavian noir mystery with a strong science component to keep the reader guessing throughout. The origins of birds is apparently a hotly-debated topic in that ivory tower known as paleo-ornithology. Could it be possible that birds were once dinosaurs? Even more controversially, could dinosaurs actually have had feathers? A great deal of it comes down to evolution and a strong understanding of physiology and osteology, at least that is the argument embedded within Gazan’s novel. Graduate student Anna Bella Nor is only a few weeks away from defending her thesis on the topic of avian evolution and has been able to add her own spin to the academic discussion. Her advisor, Lars Helland, is a strong proponent of the feathered dinosaur and encourages Nor to add some definitive proof in her work. After Helland is found dead in his office, his severed tongue sitting on his shirtfront, questions surface as to what might have happened, particularly as Nor’s bloodstained thesis rests on his lap. Could this have been a severe seizure or was there something more sinister at play? Police Superintendent Søren Marhauge is assigned to investigate, discovering some interesting stories emerging from the Biology Department at Copenhagen University. Upon closer inspection, Dr. Helland appears to have been purposefully infected with a rare parasite long before his death, something that only an expert might be able to obtain. While she is somewhat troubled by the death, Anna Bella sees the clock ticking on her degree and pushes to have a thesis defence, even with the pall of the recent murder overshadowing the university. When her friend and fellow graduate is found murdered, Anna Bella cannot help but wonder if there is something tied to her in this string of murders. With Dr. Helland’s greatest academic nemesis in Denmark for a conference, some wonder if he could be behind these murders, in an attempt to wipe-out the feathered dinosaur theory. Meanwhile both Anna Bella and Superintendent Marhauge have personal struggles they are battling, which may cloud the investigation and distract them from finding the killer. A highly complex crime thriller, Gazan weaves a story and layers it with much character development. Not for those looking to breeze through a novel or play a quick whodunit!

Gazan is to be applauded for developing such a deep piece of work in her first published novel. I can see where the accolades have come, as there are genuinely areas that pull on the darkest of Scandinavian crime thrillers and a much more fleshed-out set of characters. It is worth beginning with the characters that find themselves filling the narrative, for Gazan spends so much time honing their every aspect. While I love a good backstory for my protagonists, I think Gazan may have gone a little too far, using some of the opening chapters to build massive clay statues to present Anna Bella Nor and Søren Marhauge, down to each wrinkle on their respective foreheads. During the opening chapters I had a serious debate as to whether I ought to continue with the novel, hoping for crime but all I got was family drama and angst, with little mention of dinosaurs or murders. However, it was as though Gazan needed to show off her characters in their ‘other lives’ before pushing them onto centre stage and allowing the criminal elements to seep into the narrative. From there, the slow and methodical mystery covers the novel, like a dense fog, and the reader becomes stuck in the middle, though the progress is still much less animated than what might be expected in ‘North American/British’ thrillers. The reader receives breadcrumbs, but must also wrestle with the backstories that become front and centre. While I am no expert of Scandinavian thrillers, I have read a number and even this one seemed slow to advance. The plot is sound and well-documented, if slow to flourish. The reader is left to wonder who and why throughout, given numerous suspects based on different angles one might approach. Dr. Helland was certainly not the most liked person in the world, but were those who disliked him that sinister as to kill him with parasites? Finally, I would be remiss if I did not discuss the extensive use of science within the novel. Gazan’s background in biology shines through and she does not hold back, either with the area of discussion (disagreement) or the technical language. The narration is riddled with highly academic portions, surely to fuel a debate for those readers who can understand the topic at hand. While I did not find myself drowning in technical terms or academic tennis, it is surely not for the reader seeking to skim the surface of a number of topics, as there is significant scientific flavour to the story. I can see many people shying away already. That said, it is well presented and challenges the mind and brain synapses. 

Kudos, Madam Gazan for a wonderfully crafted novel that pushed me to attempt a better understanding of science and the art of the Scandinavian dark crime thriller. I may have to return to see what else you have planned for Søren Marhauge in the near future.

Like/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at:

Running Blind (Helen Grace #0.75[?]), by M.J. Arlidge

Eight stars

Before delving into another Helen Grace novel, there stands this short story that packs a punch and offers series fans a look into the early police days of the protagonist. M.J. Arlidge pulls readers back in time once again with this story, which might help show how DCI Helen Grace became such a detail-oriented copper! A man runs through a forested area, dogs chasing after him, and his level of panic increasing. The man is not paying attention when he is struck by a lorry on a fairly busy thoroughfare, causing traffic tie-ups and significant headaches for the local constabulary. A fresh recruit from police training, WPC (Women Police Constable) Helen Grace is rotating through the Traffic Division of the Hampshire Police and attends the scene, taking note of the accident and the state of the victim, who has no identification whatsoever. Discovering her inner sleuth, Grace interacts with the morgue and convinces the pathologist to undertake an autopsy, which reveals some interesting findings. Grace also learns that there is nowhere from which this man could have come, save a small piece of property on the other side of the wooded area. It is a small poultry farm, which soon reveals that the owner has been hiring recent immigrants to complete the arduous tasks. Highly agitated by the arrival of any police presence, Gary Raynor rebuffs many of the questions being asked, but Grace is able to ascertain the identity of the man from one of the other farmhands, Addisu Tesfaye. Working on her off-hours, Grace learns that Addisu was riddled with a form of tuberculosis and that he likely arrived on the shores of England in a less than majestic fashion. Returning to the farm, Grace makes a horrible realisation that will shape how a simple accident investigation may turn into a full-blown major police incident. While her superiors curse Grace and her lack of sticking to the rules, she is lauded for having used her gumption to open up what might be a massive investigation. Definitely a short story/novella, but Arlidge packs a major punch in this story, perfect for series fans or those wanting to learn a little more about Helen Grace before taking the major investment into reading the collection of novels.

I stumbled upon Helen Grace last summer (has it been that long?) and devoured the entire collection up to that point. Reading all the novels that Arlidge had penned and adding some of the short stories that he placed within the series to better shape the Helen Grace character, I soon became addicted and have been waiting for some fresh material. Those who have been on the long journey with Helen Grace will know that she is not one to ‘colour in the lines’, but this story might be the perfect piece of foundation to show where that initiated. Not yet her gritty self, Grace is learning to bend the rules to benefit those who have died, rather than always follow the guidance of her superiors. While there are some periphery characters, the length of the story and the intended focus made Grace the front and centre character to develop. The story flows wonderfully with those short chapters, crisp and leading, for which Arlidge is well known. Even the topic is quite poignant, though is was likely just as popular in 1993, when the story is set. There are wonderful nuances and literary breadcrumbs offered in the piece, giving it the throwback feel that leave the reader feeling they are back in time with the young and still impressionable WPC Helen Grace, who grew into being a maverick who would not rest until the guilty were caught. I had a niggling feeling that I had read this story before. I remembered a number of the opening chapters and scene developments, but I could not find any record of having reviewed them. Now, either the cyber book police found a review I made on a leaked story and erased it, or I became so ensconced in the Helen Grace series that I felt I must have read this piece and crafted the story in one of my dreams. Either way, Helen Grace is back. I am a happy reader and it is time for a full-length novel to keep my heart rate up!

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge for a wonderful piece that taps into those early Helen Grace years. This suits your series fans well, as we are always looking to better understand Helen and some of the ideas you have bouncing around in your head. Keep up the high-calibre writing.

The Switch, by Joseph Finder

Eight stars

Joseph Finder is back with another high-quality standalone novel that will provide chills and increased heart rates for many readers. After retuning home from a business trip, Michael Tanner discovers that his laptop was inadvertently swapped with an identical model at LAX. After accessing it, Tanner learns that the laptop belongs to none other than ‘S. Robbins’, as in US Senator Susan Robbins. A little more sleuthing leads him to discover a cache of top secret documents on the desktop, all related to an operation codenamed Chrysalis. From what he can understand, this operation would pose significant issues to the American public and he is not entirely certain that he wants it kept under wraps. Meanwhile, Senator Robbins is in possession of Tanner’s laptop, which she discovers with the help of her Chief of Staff, Will Abbott. Wanting to ensure the most plausible deniability, the senator leaves Will the arduous task of retrieving the laptop, as they both know what sits on the desktop. Abbott seeks to build a bond with Tanner in hopes of making a simple swap, but things soon turn dire, especially when the laptop cannot be located. Tanner has come to learn that he will be entirely expendable as soon as he returns the laptop, forcing him into a game of cat and mouse, first with Abbott and eventually with the NSA. Forced to abandon his coffee business and live on the run, Michael Tanner is a wanted man, but no one can broadcast this, for fear that he will release these sensitive documents and create an even larger headache for the US Government. What began as a simple laptop switcheroo has turned into a snafu of the highest order. Wonderfully crafted, Finder balances high-impact suspense with some key social issues that plague the world at present. Readers who enjoy a novel that does not stop will surely want to leap on for the ride, unsure of unseen twists!

There are few authors who are able to captivate me on a repeated basis with their stories. Joseph Finder is one such author, as his stories balance the complexities that face the everyday person, struggling to balance their civic duty with a want to live the simple life. Michael Tanner is the perfect such character, a man of simple means who wants to earn a buck and enjoy the fruits of his labour. Contrast him with Will Abbott, whose life remains high octane both on Capitol Hill and at home, with a baby. Finder adds a number of other characters, who flavour the narrative with their own quirks and push the reader to decide how trustworthy they might be. The ‘constant dash’ that is common in Finder novels does not let up for a second, allowing the reader to latch on and bounce from scene to scene, with little time to catch their breath. The story is crisp and believable, while also pushing forward some decent ‘soap box lectures’ about buzz topics that have arisen over the last few years. Where does privacy end and protection commence? How much do we know about what the government is doing around us? For how long will the club of “September 11th” be used to beat any opposition to spying on American (and likely any) citizens? All these questions and more are woven into the narrative and keep the story moving. An excellent piece that will surely capture the attention of many longtime Finder fans and those only recently discovering his work.

Kudos, Mr. Finder for such a great addition to your collection of novels. I always know I am in for something stellar when your name pops up!

Babytrick (Detroit Im Dyin’ Trilogy #3), by T. V. LoCicero

Eight 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.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the first two novels in the trilogy, it was a no-brainer to read the final instalment, full of some of the darkest writing that LoCicero has offered to date. Camie may only be fourteen, but she has lived the hard life. After being abused by her step-father, she fled to the rough streets of Detroit and was eventually sent to work in a vice den. A babytrick, the name given to underage prostitutes, Camie has come to learn that she wants out from under the thumb of a greedy set of thugs, free to earn money the only way she knows how. That being said, once they have you, those who control the sleazy underbelly of the city rarely want to let you go. Meanwhile, Gabriella ‘Ella’ Peek has made quite the name for herself. Rising through the ranks of the Detroit Police Department, Peek left after her list of enemies on the force exceeded those on the street. She earned a law degree and has returned to work for the city on a lucrative project to rejuvenate the City Airport. However, with an ailing father in the hospital, Peek takes some time to visit an old boyfriend, whom she finds dead in his pool. When the police arrive, she is the number one suspect, with ample motive to have killed Bruce Miller. What ties these two women together, Ella and Camie? One Mark Cremini, journalist for Rolling Stone, who has travelled from LA to discover the pulse of Detroit. He wants to write all about Peek and her amazing life story, as well as develop a piece on the youth working the inner city streets. Cremini is able to forge a strong relationship with both Peek and Camie, bringing them together as they are hunted by a corrupt gang of cops and thugs. The more Cremini learns, the deeper he finds himself in both their plights. With a murder charge looming for Peek and Camie’s life on the line as she hides, all three must work together to develop a team mentality before it’s too late. Surely the darkest and most impactful of the three novels, LoCicero entertains and educates the reader in equal measure. Perfect for those who are looking for a different type of crime novel that pushes all the grit to the surface.

All three of these novels have been a stunning look into early 1990s Detroit, presenting some of the struggles that seem to have pervaded the inner-city. LoCicero tackles prostitution, particularly underage girls, presenting some loose theories about how some girls might flock to the profession. With each novel, the central characters change, but the quality of their development remains at the highest caliber. LoCicero presents Camie Walsh as a precocious girl who is living the life she has apparently been dealt to her, but is also well-grounded in the life that she dream of living. Ella Peek has seen much in her life and has struggled in a city where race remains a ceiling when it comes to advancement. Mark Cremini is the new guy in town, somewhat wet behind the ears to Detroit living, but also coming with the preconceived notions of what awaits him. Peppering a wonderful cast and a minor role for Channel 5 news anchor Frank DeFauw, LoCicero locks down a cast of characters who will dazzle the narrative in their own ways. The story is, as mentioned before, the darkest of all three and also the most dense. It could be the subject matter, but there is also a sense that the reader really must become invested to take a significant amount away. This is not a bad thing in the least. The chapters are still short and to the point, allowing the reader to speed through the novel while still picking up much of interest. Using fairly ‘raw’ language and idioms, LoCicero gets his point across that these streets are not Candyland or some dreamy suburb community. While some may bemoan the cursing, I would point to the realism factor on offer by doing this, which LoCicero has surely done for a reason. The story comes to life with these amazing gems and the entire series comes highly recommended, for what it’s worth!

Kudos, Mr. LoCicero for a fabulous novel and stellar series. I appreciate having these novels come onto my radar at such a poignant time and I was pleased to devour and review them, in hopes that others will discover their quality.

Admission of Guilt (Detroit Im Dyin’ Trilogy #2), by T. V. LoCicero

Eight 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.

After thoroughly enjoying the first novel in the series, I decided to return to LoCicero’s Detroit for another gritty story. Set in 1993, the story opens with the shooting of a young girl who was delivering the daily newspaper. Plagued by the news, John Giordano begins to see just how bad things have become, particularly for his eighth-grade students. Children dying, his own students working the corner selling crack and heroin, others barely making ends meet as they turn to whatever will make them a quick buck. Even popular Channel 5 news anchor, Frank DeFauw, can do little but talk about the issue and present documentaries. After being pinkslipped by his school, Giordano decides that something must be done and concocts a plan to bring about significant change. He wants to rid the city of at least one major illegal drug importer, Steven ‘The Bank’ Monelli. Kidnapping someone within the Monelli family, Giordano seeks to have the drug trade stop for good and Monelli pay a price for all the horror he has caused. However, while it may seem heroic, Giordano does not realize the reach this man has or the lengths to which he will go to wipeout anyone seeking to sully the Monelli name. It’s a race to the finish, pitting brains against brawn, with a feisty news anchor in the middle to report on it all. Another powerful novel that tells the story in a raw and honest fashion. LoCicero pulls the reader into the middle of the struggles many have only seen during news clips, refusing to dial down the way of life that was (and likely is) inner-city Detroit. Perfect for those wishing to read a fast-paced crime thriller that will surely leave the reader well out of their comfort zone.

I have never lived in the inner-city, nor have I been exposed to some of the horrors that LoCicero depicts in this story. I was able to live comfortable and see these sorts of stories stream over the news, as one of the American stations on our television used a Detroit affiliate. LoCicero has chosen his characters well to depict not only the abject poverty seen within the city, but also the lengths to which some people will go to earn their keep. From mob bosses to journalists, teachers with rose-coloured glasses to overworked social workers, LoCicero depicts them all and shows how things intertwine to create a wonderful story as well as a narrative that is full of depth and despair. The story itself may not be unique, but the depiction of one man, John Giordano, doing whatever it takes to bring about change to a city he has seen crumbling around him, speaks volumes. While it is not entirely possible to know for sure what LoCicero is attempting to do here, it is fairly apparent that there is a call to arms seeking to highlight what is going on and how it needs fixing. I would venture to say that Detroit could be replaced with many other mid-sized cities across North America, all with the same social, economic, and political issues. The end result is all the same; ignore the problem and it will not go away, but get worse. Rigged elections and politicians who do not give a ‘tweet’ about anything but themselves aside, there are many issues within the confines of the city limits that are not being addressed and this ‘cancer’ is only spreading. LoCicero pulls no punches, but it is up to the reader to take the message to heart, and run with it. 

Kudos, Mr. LoCicero for another enjoyable piece. I could not put this book down and I am excited to rush into the final book in the series, where I may get another look into the social issues that plague the inner-city.

Camino Island, by John Grisham 

Seven stars

Back with another new novel, John Grisham seeks to expand his horizons with a story free of much legalese, but with the slightest hint of some criminal activity. A heist at one of Princeton’s libraries puts a number of original F. Scott Fitzgerald’s manuscripts in the hands of some career criminals. Quick-acting FBI agents are able to scoop up two of the five, but the others are still in hiding, along with the manuscripts. When one is rumoured to have surfaced at a small book shop on Camino Island, the FBI’s Rare Asset Recovery Unit pegs Bruce Kabel as being involved and plan keep an eye on his bookselling operation. Meanwhile, Mercer Mann is approached by a private security firm to help with the reacquisition of the manuscripts under the guise of writing her next novel. Mercer has struggled with her craft and is not sure she wants to play sleuth, particularly if it means returning to Camino Island, where she spent many summers with her grandmother. Taking a risk, Mercer agrees to open some old wounds and pretends to be writing, while surrounding herself with the local writing community. Slowly, Mercer begins building bridges with Bruce Kabel, in hopes of learning more about the manuscripts. However, as she grows closer to an answer, Mercer may have second thoughts of toppling all she has built in a short period of time. With millions of dollars on the line, Mercer must decide what is most important to her. Grisham shows that he has talent to pen novels that keep lawyers and the law outside of the narrative. Sure to appeal to a different group of readers, the story offers some interesting insight into the craft of writing the next ‘great novel’. 

I have long been a fan of John Grisham and his novels, having cut my teeth on his legal thrillers throughout the years. This story differs greatly from those and serves a completely different purpose. While the legal thrillers are usually quite sharp-edged, this book shows a much smoother edge to Grisham’s writing. The characters offer an interesting mix, giving the reader a great sampling of both mannerisms and characteristics that complement one another at times and clash at moments to offer some dramatic flavour to the story. One might say that the characters are a lot softer than Grisham usually presents, but the genre might play into that, alongside the intended audience. The plot and setting are also a much softer, transitioning from the rough and tumble heist at the beginning to the oceanfront setting of Florida, where the breeze and sand denote a more peaceful place for the book to develop. One also has a feel of more romance and emotional discovery in this book, where the reader is subjected to Mercer’s inner turmoil and portions of her self-discovery as she grows closer to the man she is supposed to betray. Its structure also left me a little baffled, choosing ‘chapters’ in what are surely part divisions and then chopping up the chapters into enumerated pieces, clearly of the usual chapter variety. I will admit that the book was well-crafted and kept the story moving forward, but I feel it tapped too much into sentimentality and the development of the author’s process than gritty legal battles and a dark exploration of the criminal element, which better suits Grisham as an author and my enjoyment of his stories. This book will surely create a stir, both good and bad, for the vast number of Grisham fans. I am happy to have offered my five Canadian cents and will watch as things transpire. 

Kudos, Mr. Grisham for another interesting novel. While it was not my favourite, your versatility shines through by penning this piece. I am eager to see how it is received.

Trap the Devil (Dewey Andreas #7), by Ben Coes

Eight stars

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

Ben Coes brings Dewey Andreas back for yet another explosive thriller that will have series fans sitting on the edge of their seats. During an FBI operation in Toronto, a group is seen entering a local mosque and killing everyone inside; their intent, to rid the world of Muslims under any circumstances. This foreshadows a larger and much more ominous plan that could soon play out within America. Meanwhile, Dewey Andreas is still trying to come to terms with everything that happened on his last mission, forced to synthesize his thoughts and actions with a psychotherapist. While the recommendation is that Andreas take some time off behind a desk, he negotiates a calmer mission, sent to France to protect the Secretary of State during a tension-filled secret meeting. The Secretary is visited by a woman who delivers an explosive terror plot, though Andreas cannot make it back before someone is sent to assassinate the Secretary. By the time he returns, Andreas learns his gun was used in the killings and he is detained. While being interrogated, Andreas must do all he can to get out and catch the killer, suspecting that elusive woman he saw in the vicinity. After organizing an escape, Andreas begins his hunt for the truth, but INTERPOL’s release of his prison escape alerts the world to his status and presents his key enemies with a chance to locate him and end his life once and for all. With key the deaths of key political figures imminent, Andreas must work within the CIA and use his own intuition to find those who plan to overthrow the country’s stability. Andreas has enemies coming from all sides, leaving him to fight both those known and unknown to nullify the plot before it is too late. A wonderfully fast-paced thriller that will keep series fans begging for more and could easily lure new readers into starting this fabulous series.

Ben Coes has the ability to craft a strong political thriller without getting caught up in all the fodder that seems to be a common theme within the genre at present. While ISIS was once the buzz topic, a shift to explore the other side, homegrown terror cells to rid the world of Islam seems to be a new take and one that works well for Coes as he places Dewey Andreas in the centre of the firestorm. Andreas is a complex character, a tough exterior that acts to protect a man who has suffered much loss. Adding an interesting cast of characters to complement and offset Andreas, Coes has been able to keep the flow of the story strong and the plot from lagging. Speaking of plot, the story moves forward on many levels simultaneously, with Andreas in the crosshairs as he tries to foil a plan that could change the entire political landscape in one afternoon alongside the race to exterminate a woman who has all the secrets garnered from an overheard conversation. The reader races through the short chapters to find out just what awaits, unsure if Andreas might have finally met his match. Coes shows why he is the master of his genre as he crafts the perfect summer novel that will leave readers looking over the shoulder at every turn. 

Kudos, Mr. Coes for another sensational piece of work. I will surely be promoting it to anyone who might want to inject a little thrill into their reading. 

No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Short Stories, by Lee Child

Eight stars

I always enjoy when something Reacher pops up on my radar, particularly when it has not been sullied by Tom Cruise. In this recently released collection, Lee Child has amassed a number of previously published short stories and compacted them between two covers. Some I have read and enjoyed, others I am discovering for the first time. I have decided not to review each individual piece, but to offer an overarching summary of general sentiments.

Child shows off Jack Reacher in an interesting light within this collection, tapping into some of his early years as a military brat through to his itinerant ways, best known to readers throughout much of the series. Reacher is depicted as a precocious and highly attentive youth, even when still under the watchful eye of his parents and begins his independent ways soon thereafter, ending up in New York during the Son of Sam killings in the late 1970s. From there, the reader sees Reacher in the middle of the career within the military, showing off his MP skills and honed interrogation techniques, which have served him well. Some of the latter stories depict Reacher as stumbling upon something of interest, a theme found in many of the series novels. It appears that no matter his age or where he is located, Reacher seems to have a way with the ladies. Baffling enough, he is always able to extract himself from their grasp as he continues his travels around the world. A wonderful collection of stories that show Reacher as he progressed through life. Ideal for the hardcore Reacher fan (though some may have read all these tales), though it also might be a decent piece for those who wish to discover the man with No Middle Name!

Lee Child has spent two decades honing his Jack Reacher character, developing both an ongoing story of his random wanderings into small towns across America and significant pieces of the man’s backstory. Reacher is a complex character, even if he prides himself for not having a large historical footprint. Child has created this collection to show off the fifty-seven years of Reacher’s life through the stories that readers have come to love. Each story can and does stand on its own, but series fans will love noticing the development in the character over time. Seeing Reacher develop from teenager through to his current stage was best shown by placing the stories in chronological (age, not publication) order. Longtime series fans are used to Child’s flashback novels and stories, some of whom create tension when reviews pile up. That said, this collection offers something for everyone while we wait for the next full-length novel.

Kudos, Mr. Child for this fabulous collection of stories that keep Reacher fans happy. I am excited to see what awaits us in the coming months. 

Two Nights, by Kathy Reichs

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Kathy Reichs, and Simon & Schuster Canada for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Kathy Reichs is back with another thriller, though it is not of the forensic variety. Sunday “Sunnie” Night lives an isolated life after leaving the Charleston PD under a cloud of scrutiny. She is happy being off the grid and living alongside nature. When she is approached with a chance to get back in the game, Night remains somewhat skeptical, but takes a gamble and heads to the mainland. There, she meets with Opaline Drucker, a rich socialite who wants answers related to the murder of her daughter and grandson, as well as the disappearance of her granddaughter. The payout and the chance to call the shots are too alluring for Night and she agrees to explore this case, which takes her to Chicago. There, Night learns that the murders took place at a Jewish Girls’ School when a bomb detonated. Setting out some feelers, Night must try to ascertain who is behind this and how she can trap them, where the local cops failed. After discovering a few digital breadcrumbs, Night becomes enmeshed in a game of cat and mouse, almost losing her life. However, she is able to trace some of the bombing events to a larger group, a collective who sport a double-J tattoo. Travelling from Chicago to Los Angeles and eventually into the Old South, Night will stop at nothing to get answers. Layered with in the narrative is a side story about how Night got her name and the personal struggles she faced at a formative time in her life. An interesting story that will have some readers on the edge of their seats while others might be praying that Tempe Brennan will soon reappear.

I am of two minds about this book. I applaud Reichs for venturing out of her comfort zone (Tempe Brennan and anything VIRALS), which has given her the chance to create a new and highly curious protagonist. However, I also have such a deep appreciation for Temperance Brennan that I find it hard to step away from that character or at least not to draw large comparisons. The premise of this story is strong and the development of Sunday Night is also done with considerable delicacy. As I mentioned before, it could be that she contrasts so much with Temperance that has left me leery to latch onto her. The story moves along effectively and flows with ease, though I did not find myself as ensconced as I would have liked. I sought something stronger and deeper, rather than bouncing from one side of the country to the other before landing in Kentucky for a terror-based standoff. The banter between characters was decent enough and the backstory that Reichs provides could bear some fruit, but it did not capture me as wholeheartedly as I would have liked. Overall, this is a decent book, but I regret to say, it pales in comparison to the forensic gems I am used to finding when Kathy Reichs is at the helm.

Kudos, Madam Reichs for stepping away and allowing your readers to see another of your layers. I know some authors like to be known not only for a single character, but you have done so well that perhaps Reichs and Brennan will forever be intertwined.

Two From the Heart, by James Patterson (with Emily Raymond, Frank Constantini, and Brian Sitts)

Seven stars

It remains a gamble when a reader picks up something by James Patterson. Will it be a decent read or something that has been cobbled together to make a little pocket change? This pair of short stories seems to show some of Patterson’s great work and warms the heart in that sentimental and calming way.

Tell Me Your Best Story (with Emily Raymond):

Anne McWilliams has chosen to isolate herself on a sparsely populated island around North Carolina after a messy divorce. When a tropical storm hits, it destroys her most valued possessions: her home and the darkroom she used to develop her film. Seeing this as a potential sign, Anne packs up and decides that she is going to take a long and meandering road trip across the country, in search of the ‘best stories’ that people have to offer. She’ll write them down, add some photographs, and publish it for all to see. A wonderful idea as she sets off to see family and friends, but her final destination might be one that she least expected. While Anne has been so busy gathering stories, she forgets that she, too, has a story to tell. Hers is full of peaks and valleys, but in the end, it is heartwarming to see how far she has come in the past two decades.

Write Me a Life (with Frank Costantini and Brian Sitts):

During one of his periods of writer’s block, Damian Crane receives a truly unusual visitor. Tech-genius and billionaire, Tyler Bron, has an offer that Crane cannot refuse. Write him up a new life to contrast with the one he currently lives. Crane receives total control of how it will play out and will be rewarded handsomely if it can be executed smoothly. Bumbling to comprehend the task, Crane begins work on this new life for Bron, setting him down in the desert lands of Nada. It is there that Bron encounters an interesting collection of townsfolk and a complete divorce from his tech-heavy lifestyle. Bron must return to his roots and try to interact naturally, all while Crane continues to compose this story from his own ideas. As the piece progresses, Bron makes a few significant connections and learns the power of hard work, seeing its rewards in the eyes of those around him.

I was pleased to have taken the time for these two stories, which warmed the heart on this rainy day. Patterson has chosen well as he joined forces with these three other authors. I am always fickle when it comes to Patterson’s work and while this was not set in the genre I would not normally read, I did give it a try. “Tell Me…” had moments of sugary writing and I had to try not to roll my eyes, but then again, I steer away from Raymond’s romance work for the most part. “Write Me…” turned into something I found somewhat confusing, as the narrative turned into reality and yet was still coming from the pen of Damian Crane. I likely missed something while driving and streaming the audio, but the premise was worth the time spent. The characters were decent in their portrayal and fit nicely into the storylines. I would recommend it to anyone who needs some lighter reading for an afternoon or those who need it to bridge into something else, as I had happen to me.

Kudos, Mr. Patterson et al. for this interesting pair of stories. I can see much promise in these collaborative efforts and know BookShots are a wonderful way to leap into the fray, Messrs. Constantine and Sitts! Madam Raymond has already dazzled many with her efforts.

A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, by Sue Klebold

Eight stars

Out of the worst tragedies there surely sprouts some specks light and hope. That seems to be the premise of this book and makes it the ideal choice for the buddy with whom I chose to read this. Pain and suffering seems to envelop people, but there are many more feelings and emotions that layer themselves within the larger narrative of grief. Sue Klebold has the insurmountable task of penning this piece and trying not to get lost in the accusations surrounding the pall left by her son. Dylan Klebold was one of the Columbine High School shooters, a murder spree whose infamy only grew in the months after events, once much of the evidence and backstory emerged. Sue Klebold seeks not to want to gloss over events or spend the entire book seeking pity from the reader, but to offer her own perspective of events and how she was blindsided by many of the narrative from April 20, 1999. The early chapters offer a cogent narrative of the events of the day and the period that followed, a time in which Sue and her husband, Tom, were crippled with doubt and guilt for what Dylan had done. Searching for answers, both in their own lives and that of their younger son, the Klebolds faced vilification over something they said they could not have predicted. As the book progresses, Klebold takes the reader back in time to depict Dylan as a loving boy who was extremely helpful and loving. However, with the power of hindsight, Klebold could see what might have been warning signs of the smallest order. Throughout, Klebold offers the argument that Dylan was a follower and that Eric Harris, his long-time friend and the other Columbine shooter, was the leader of this sadistic act. This is not to toss all the blame onto Harris, but Klebold posits throughout that her son’s less aggressive nature surfaced in journal entries, recorded messages, and in footage of the actual school shooting. Addressing teen suicide and the inner turmoil that Dylan faced, Sue is blunt in her message to parents: do not ignore anything that seems out of place. Beneath the surface of any teenager’s emotional expressions can be found torrential angst and calls for help. Had Sue and Tom Klebold delved deeper into Dylan’s life as soon as they can issues, would Columbine have been averted? There is no way to tell and while media outlets seem to bask in finding a whipping boy, finger pointing serves no fruitful purpose. A powerful book that does offer insight, angst, pain, and confusion in all forms, Klebold is to be applauded for coming out and speaking about these hard issues in a frank manner. While it would be crass to choose any reading group that might ‘like’ this book, its insightful nature might prove useful to those who remember the Columbine shooting as they wrestle to better understand the chaos of that day.

After reading a stellar book on Columbine, many of my friends asked if I would consider reading Sue Klebold’s biography/memoir to offer another interesting perspective. I will be the first to admit, I was hesitant. I did not want a sob story that bemoaned how the world had painted her with the same brush as her son, or that Dylan was the victim here, a youth that slipped through the cracks. Additionally, I expected a ‘we wash our hands of this as we could not have known’ piece. I could not have been more off base. Klebold takes responsibility as any parent would, but does not allow Dylan off scot-free for what he did. Klebold draws on all aspects of her life with Dylan: childhood, lead-up to the Columbine event, and her solo suffering with a son she never knew in the aftermath. Layered not only with poignant topics, but also some succinct diary excerpts to weigh-in on the discussion, the book flows wonderfully as it dissects some of the areas related to Dylan and the shooting. The blindside of what Dylan was going through, as well as the hindsight realisation that the signs were actually there shows Klebold at her most vulnerable. She pulls no punches in lashing out at those who seek to pummel her with the guilt of the event, but is also compassionate enough to realise that her presence might be too much for some parents to handle. While many of the books on school shootings focus on the terror and the victims, Klebold posits that the list of victims is exponentially larger, left to include those members of the perpetrators’ families that did not see it coming. I was left loving the frankness of this book, but also hating it, as I cannot shake those sickening feeling in my stomach that left me asking, “Could this be Neo? Will I ever know if he is struggling and about to topple into this abyss?” I am sick with worry, admittedly, but I also know that I can only do so much. I must send my son to school, unaware if there will be a school shooting, just as I can only hope that I will foster an open and honest relationship with my son to ensure that I see any signs. Klebold has left me with that hope and for that I am eternally grateful.

Kudos, Madam Klebold for touching on so many important issues within this book. While I struggled with some of it, more because of my personal fears, I loved how open and honest you could be with all of it. I admire your strength and determination to get in front of all this.

Dissent and the Supreme Court: Its Role in the Court’s History and the Nation’s Constitutional Dialogue, by Melvin I. Urofsky

Nine stars

My ongoing education into the world of the United States Constitution took an interesting venture when I picked up Melvin Urofosky’s book. I had been used to tomes that tackle key constitutional arguments, supported or decreed by the United States Supreme Court. However, Urofsky chose to differ in his approach and overall argument, adding depth and exploring a unique perspective. The general premise of the book, as can be clearly found in its title, is to explore dissent options from the Court and how those commentaries helped shape constitutional progress. Urofsky opens by giving the reader a primer on the Court’s opinion system, whereby decisions that are supported by the majority of justices are deemed the ‘majority opinion’, while those who do not align with the aforementioned decisions are deemed dissents. The early Court was mostly free of these dissents when Chief Justice Marshall sought a uniform, single-voice Court, with sweeping comments made to encompass specific areas of law. Urofsky argues that while Marshall may have sought unanimity, there was no expectation of complete judicial neutering or a lack of opinions. However, at times those justices who had differing opinions left their divergence from being formally recorded. Dissent took on a significant role in the latter part of the 19th century, particularly after the Civil War, where justices were looking to examine Reconstructionist America and ideas differed greatly. Some of the dissents of the day seemed to act as a call in the wilderness to future forward thinking or even radical exploration of how America might find itself in the decades to come. Urofsky cites numerous cases where justices were vehement in their disagreement with the stanch majority, though these opinions served to open new and exciting pathways in constitutional interpretation. The 20th century saw numerous forward thinkers earn seats on the Court, a few given the moniker ‘Great Dissenter’ for refusing to accept some of the narrow interpretations of the constitutional document. In time, these dissents would be cited in clarifying majority opinions, as if the constitutional breadcrumbs led directly from an early lone voice before it became stronger and more widely accepted. Urofsky sifts through American judicial history to find many such cases and chooses to thoroughly explore them for the curious reader. There is also an interesting discussion of international courts that parallel the US Supreme Court and how they handle both dissent and delivery of opinions. Urofsky presents readers with a degree of uniqueness as it relates to the Court’s handling of the Constitution and the ever-developing views on its interpretation. In the latter chapters, as the narrative reaches modern judicial interpretation, Urofsky presents his strongest argument yet, by positing that dissenting opinions do not dilute or lessen the majority opinions of the Court, as had been feared in the early years, but serve to offer a stronger foundation towards better and more comprehensive opinions on which the Court can stand. Tackling many ‘buzzword’ cases across history, Urofsky shows how the Court exacerbated firm divisions within the country while also creating thinking that helped with progressive thinking. The reader can learn much about the evolutionary discussion of abortion, capital punishment, privacy, and equality through the Court’s decisions and the dissents that opened future reinterpretations of these laws. While it would be naive to presume that politics or ideology do not come into play, especially with the more recent 5-4 decisions that have served to leave each decision announced from the Bench to be a gamble, there is surely a wonderful place for dissent in Court discussions, leaving the Constitution a living document that remains ready for new and learned minds to explore, even if some in power couldn’t give a ‘tweet’ about its importance. Urofsky offers up not only a substantial piece of legal and constitutional interpretation here, but he keeps the door open for much discussion and development for the interested reader, however small that group might be.

I have come to love all things legal and constitutional, where I feel able to walk away enriched and offered new arguments to better synthesize what is going on. While I am not American, I can see the importance of the constitutional discussion and how the evolution of the document and its interpretation will better reflect how citizens can live their lives. Urofsky has surely taken on much with this piece, but stands his ground and supports his arguments thoroughly, with both examples and strong citations. The reader who may not be as well-versed in the cases listed, the constitutional significance, or the temperature of the political world at the time need not worry, as Urofsky supplies it all. There is no doubt that the narrative can be dense or even overwhelming, but it is also expected that not all readers will flock to this sort of tome. Still, laypeople need not worry that things will be come too academically heavy as to exclude them from trying to understand what is going on. In fact, it seems Urofsky would like to enlighten those with an interest but who might not have the legal standing to parse through the minutiae that is a Court decision. There have been thousands and to find the few dozen listed within the text that serve to support the evolution of the constitutional interpretation is something Urofsky should be praised for doing. Clear, somewhat succinct, and highly educational, Urofsky wants the reader to follow him along the journey, while refusing to make sweeping generalizations and leaving the reader to swallow his assertions. I would surely read more of Urofsky’s work, if only to whet my appetite for constitutional discussions.

Kudos, Mr. Urofsky for stunning me into a sense of complete awe as it relates to all things constitutional. I will recommend this to anyone who has a passion to learn about this subject and the patience to allow a slow and continual absorption. 

Justice Burning (Darren Street #2), by Scott Pratt

Eight stars

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

I have always loved Scott Pratt’s work, as he is able to get to the core of the issue while entertaining those who love a good legal story. Returning to add a second novel in this new series, Pratt reminds readers of Darren Street, who has been out of jail for two years. Falsely convicted after being framed by a vindictive D.A., Street found himself in the depths of despair while fighting for his freedom. During his incarceration, he encountered a man who sought to kill him, but who had the tables turned. Now, with Street free and back in Knoxville, retribution is on its way. Street learns that his mother’s home is targeted and destroyed by a massive explosion, killing her and leaving only a pile of smouldering ash. Street focuses the hated he has for the perpetrators and chases them down, killing them in a bar in West Virginia. However, Street does his best to cover his tracks, not wanting to serve any time. With this taste for revenge, Street turns his sights on some other miscreants who have done him harm and has them expunged. While he remains one step ahead of the authorities, his luck can only last so long. His son is pulled from his life, a new fiancée begins to wonder about his sincerity, and Street finds himself unable to ignore the devil on his shoulder. Every decision must be masterfully timed, but even the most wily criminals slip up, especially when they have help with their crimes. When will Street make that glaring error or push someone to rat him out? Pratt shows that he can keep readers hooked without all the fancy legalese in this novel that excels without trying to do so. Perfect for fans of legal and crime thrillers that seek to tackle the gritty rather than the silky side of the law.

Scott Pratt has proved himself to be a master in his own right. Seeking to get to the heart of the story, he offers up a wonderful cast of characters. Full of flaws, these men and women show off their true colours and allow the reader to relate. Struggles with love, life, and compassion come to the surface, while that evil vigilante spirit with whom everyone struggles emerges throughout the story. From there, a plot that feeds off the first novel and flourishes again here, Pratt does not seek to layer the narrative with high brow legal discussion, but rather a more realistic element. The ‘Clever Felon’ tactic serves this novel well, leaving the reader to potentially cheer for evading the authorities. However, one cannot completely condone the behaviour, especially as Street seems to be fuelled by his need to set things right in his own mind. Quick-paced, the story gains momentum in the early chapters and does not let go until the very end, using cliffhanging moments or ideas to push things forward. Chapters that flow easily through the reader’s fingers turns a quick reading session into hours of pure enjoyment. Pratt continues to show his fan base that they have chosen well in turning to him for their thriller fix.

Kudos, Mr. Pratt for another stellar piece of work. I thoroughly enjoy whenever I learn you have been hard at work and hope many others share my eagerness for whatever you publish.

Watch Me Disappear, by Janelle Brown

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Janelle Brown, Random House Publishing Group and Spiegel & Grau for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Turning to a new author, I wanted to see what Janelle Brown had to offer in this interesting story that explores the family unit and its dynamic when a significant piece is missing. After Sybilla ‘Billie’ Flanagan goes missing during a solo hike, her immediate family is left to wonder what happen, while never giving up hope. Billie’s husband, Jonathan, is left to wonder about his wife, entering a state of numbness as he goes through the motions of a memorial when she is seemingly dead. Adding to his confusion, Jonathan must juggle his teenage daughter, Olive, who is determined not to shut the door on her mother, wondering if she will walk through the door at any moment. When Olive begins having some visions of her mother, she holds out that Billie is alive and just away from them, either by choice or having been kidnapped. This lights a fire under Jonathan, who has been filling his time writing a memoir of life with Billie Flanagan. When Billie finds some information about Billie on her computer, this opens new potential pathways that go back three decades and the breadcrumbs that Jonathan follows leads him to believe this might have been something orchestrated. However, there is nothing to substantiate any of this, save for a gut feeling and a daughter whose focussed seems stronger than ever. Where is Billie Flanagan and was her disappearance something that had been in the works long before that hiking adventure? Brown offers up an interesting spin on a much-used plot, allowing readers to weigh the strength of a family’s determination to find what belongs to them. An interesting read for those seeking something more emotion-based than a thriller or crime story.

This is the first piece of Brown’s work that I have tried, which has left me a little on the fence. I was expecting a high-powered mystery, with characters that sought truth and sifted through lies. Brown works hard to create these characters: the lost and drifting Jonathan, his eager and determined Olive who is suffering the loss and her teenage epiphany, and the ever-elusive Billie, who comes to life in the stories that are told and through the other two characters. Brown serves to deliver the Billie persona through the ever-winding memoir on which Jonathan has been working and the increasingly vivid images that Olive develops. With a story that could have delved deep into mystery, Brown presents something that is more worthy of an emotional journey and one in which all the characters find and lose themselves at the same time. I found myself begging to find something on which I could grasp during the first portion, but by the end, the twists had me highly impressed as the narrative took me in directions I was not sure I would have originally liked. A journey full of mystery after all!

Kudos, Madam Brown for an great book. I think I may come back to see what else you have to offer sooner than later.

The General vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War, by H.W. Brands

Eight stars

In another of his wonderful pieces, H.W. Brands takes the reader into the world of the Korean War, alongside a battle that superseded that country’s geographic and ideological fate. The true clash arose between the military and political wings of the United States, more specifically, General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman. Opening the narrative, Brands provides the reader with context necessary to understand how both men reached their respective commands. MacArthur had been working on keeping the Pacific Theatre under control as Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War, showing compassion over aggression during the victory claimed by the United States. Truman, on the other hand, was hoisted into his position as a late choice to serve as Roosevelt’s running mate in the ’44 election, only to ascend when the POTUS died in office a few months into the new term. When the outbreak of aggression on the Korean Peninsula threatened to turn into a full war, the infant United Nations turned to the military strength of the US, and MacArthur in particular, to head-up ground troops in the region. Truman held firm that he, as Commander-in-Chief, would liaise directly with the UN and his military forces, though MacArthur seemed to have his own opinions, working directly in the region. With technology what it was in the early 1950s and the speed at which things moved from a Korean Conflict into a potential Third World War, all eyes were watching what might happen. China and the Soviets began arming troops and the entire region seemed ready to host the ultimate ideological war, with nuclear weapons at the fingertips of both sides. MacArthur, whose eyes were solely focussed on the war effort, made decisions he felt were best, at times ignoring the political chess game taking place. This contradiction in commands sent by Truman left the White House fuming, as the president was apparently unable to keep his own general in line. Press reports emerged from both arenas, making a mockery of the American control of the situation and leaving the Communist forces to sit back, if only momentarily, and watch the implosion. One defiance too many saw Truman remove MacArthur from command and send him stateside, though the repercussions by the American people was astoundingly in favour of the general, while vilifying Truman. A ticker tape parade awaited MacArthur, who also testified to his actions in front of Congress, only further creating tension within the American sphere. The final blow came as the 1952 Presidential Election loomed. Had Truman soured the hopes of any Democrat? Could MacArthur ride the wave of his popularity into something even larger? Only time would tell. Brands offers a wonderfully detailed account of this, with the Korean War as a sensational backdrop, and presents the reader with the ability to choose for themselves, who was right in this most intense stand-off. A captivating piece that will pull the reader to the centre of what could have been a disaster and the end of the world as we know it. Perfect for history and war buffs alike, Brands shows off his superior abilities with this well-paced piece.

Admittedly, I have been trying to secure a piece of historical fiction that relates to the Korean War. While patiently twiddling my thumbs, I thought I ought to invest in a little historical background reading, which would offer up some facts and a better understanding of the regional struggle. Brands not only provides a wonderful backgrounder, but he brings the story to life, pulling on history as it relates to all the key players: MacArthur, China, USSR, Truman, as well as a slew of others who influenced both central characters. Using a wonderfully alternating chapter sequence to begin, the reader learns not only the thoughts of one man, but a contrast between the two, as they synthesised the same information. When the two came together on Wake Island, the reader could see the clash of titans and the apparent unspoken dislike the two had for one another. Brands pulls on historical documents to create this seamless narrative that offers more than factual presentation, but serves to lay the groundwork for the eventual clash that cost one man his job and likely buried the other from being seen as an effective world leader. Brands pulls no punches, but also does not seek to smear either man, allowing the reader to weigh in and potentially fuelling many discussions about these historic events. The tome offers some key questions throughout: Could Korea have ended differently had MacArthur stayed? Was Truman out of his depth? Who makes the ultimate military policy decision in the middle of a conflict? The reader becomes the ultimate judge, though history offers a a single pathway in determining its solution. There is no doubt that the world stood on the brink at this time, an event that was eventually replaced by the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it is worth remembering how tense things were in the years just after the Second World War. And for a history buff like myself, I was in complete awe.

Kudos, Mr. Brands for delivering such a wonderful story and pulling on so many powerful sources to give readers something to consider.

Columbine, by Dave Cullen

Nine stars

There comes a time that everyone must not only see outside the box, but read things that make them less than comfortable. Life is not always honeybees and flowers bursting with colour. Dave Cullen offers this sobering perspective as he tackles an insightful view into one of the worst school shootings in history, though I am not prepared to posit how one ranks school shootings from ‘best’ to ‘worst’. Cullen pulls the reader in to explore not only the event that took place in a small Colorado community in April 1999, but also the vast array of sentiments surrounding this shooting, both before and afterwards. The book throughly examines all three time periods, though not in a clear division, allowing the reader to learn much about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who have long been deemed evil personified. Cullen gives these boys a personality as he searches for the triggers that led them to act. While both did have their issues with the law, there were no outward signs of aggression in the way they interacted with the general community or even their families. The revelation, found mostly after the fact, showed a detailed plot to exact general revenge, through taped messages and journal entries. What Cullen does highlight is that many of the signs, particularly a website, were pooh-poohed by authorities, or the depth to which the hatred was brewing seemed to have been lost as others missed the signs. Cullen then gives a thorough and heart-wrenching account of the shooting day and how members of the school community became victims of chance. It appeared as though there were no ‘specific targets’, as long as Harris and Klebold killed and hurt many. Cullen ties in the ominous date and how the boys sought to top Oklahoma City in loss of life, all in an attempt to make names for themselves. Victims received names and faces throughout the narrative, as did the injured. Cullen appears not to have wanted to simply lump them together into ‘the victim group’ or ‘those who barely got away’. Cullen also exemplifies the reaction by authorities to the events, from police to SWAT and even the national reaction from the White House. The reader cannot help but be swept up as they see how things were managed. Cullen then pulls the story into the aftermath and the synthesising of all the emotions and outpouring of grief. “Why?” and “How?” remained on the tips of everyone’s tongues, as well as how the school, the county, and the country as a whole (perhaps even the world?) would bounce back from this. School officials did not wish to be burdened with the pall of events, though they could not simply turn a new page and forget. It is perhaps this thread that proved most powerful for me; how did the school seek to learn and yet not dwell? While media outlets sought to focus on Nazi worship and gun stockpiles, Columbine and county officials needed to rebuild. That said, Cullen also spends much time exploring the familial reactions to events, both the Harris and Klebold families as victims themselves, even though many sought to tar and feather them with ease. Bitterness and resentment were flooding the region, leaving little time for personal healing. Targets were painted, threats made, and families destroyed. How does one seek to rebuild when the core is gutted? It is this aspect of the tragedy that cannot be fixed with a coat of paint and new drywall, where steam cleaners and a memorial plaque cannot erase self-doubt and hatred towards those who destroyed the lives of many. There are so many more nuances within the book, though it is up to the courageous reader to sift through the book and pull out what touches them most deeply. Not a book for those looking to apportion blame or shake their heads at two lone souls. This is the kind of book that leaves readers thinking and examining themselves, as it will do for me while Neo continues his scholastic endeavours. Brilliantly presented and captivating on many levels!

As a journalist for the events, Dave Cullen brings a wonderful perspective and his writing pulls the reader in throughout this piece. I have pondered throughout reading and come to realise that this book is more than facts and names and places, it serves as a biography of an event. Yes, a biographical piece of time, not a life or a school or even the killers. It is the event that needs a face, a life, and a death, which Cullen offers up and allows the reader to dissect at will. By putting a face on the event, those actors who shaped it also come to life. As Cullen admits in his opening notes, it would be too confusing to put names to EVERYONE, though he has done is best not to offer sweeping generalisations, but rather put names and faces and lives to those who were in the middle of things. While it would have been easy to go with the majority and dump on the Harrises or Klebolds, Cullen seeks to explore the family dynamics, as well as the lives of these two boys. He pushes into a zone that might have received much fodder already, labelling Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as psychopaths, but uses much of the medical and psychological analyses to SHOW how these boys fit the bill. They did have psychopathy in them and the key traits were exemplified throughout their lives, even if hindsight was the only way to see it come to the surface. The book is wonderfully paced and pulls the reader in from the start. Topics and chapters move throughout time, though in a way that has much organisation. This is neither a book of excuses or finger pointing, but a thorough analysis of what we, as humans, go through and how there is never a single answer or path to determinations. Media push us around like sheep, but to take the time and examine what is going on around us, we see the nuances and the differences, allowing us to form our own conclusions. I am aware of how odd that sounds, as I place my trust in Cullen here, but that is why I am writing this review; for myself to express what I see from this book. I remain in awe and shock, as I remember the day well, but have come to see that I really knew NOTHING other than what was force fed to me in papers and later stilted documentaries. May those who perished and were injured feel the warmth of many, for you are more than the statistics that surround this event. Pain and loss continue to this day and will surely never completely disappear. However, looking forward, this was a learning experience for everyone touched by it. Blame no individual, for we all play a part in fostering personal sentiments towards or against others. Children are our future and it is they who exemplify what is to come. As Cullen so aptly puts it, the education the world got that chilly April morning is surely more powerful than any line-item in the curriculum. Have we learned from it? I suppose only time will tell!

Kudos, Mr. Cullen for making me see that there is more than meets the eye. Your delivery has me hoping that you will return with more, on any subject, as you have piqued my interest!

The Lake (Konrad Simonsen #4), by Lotte and Søren Hammer

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Lotte and Søren Hammer, and Bloomsbury USA for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

The Hammer siblings return with another novel in their highly successful Konrad Simonsen series, recently translated in English. With the dark undertones of a well-crafted Scandinavian thriller, the story pushes the reader to the limits, while also leaving them demanding more! As the story opens, three individuals are travelling through the forested areas of Denmark, as if on a mission. Dense trees and shadowy lanes lead to a secluded cabin, where something sinister is about to happen. A young African woman is led to the cabin and a crime committed. However, something goes wrong and she dies. Her body is tied to a large stone and left to sink in the middle of the lake, where nature takes its course. It is only when parts of her are found months later than the authorities arrive, eventually creating national headlines for bumbling the case. Konrad Simonsen and his Homicide Team are called in from Copenhagen to take over, while media outlets continue to feast off some of the bad press that has sullied the case to this point. Slow and methodical, Simonsen begins to explore what may have happened and tries to put a face to the victim, which is harder than it seems. From there, it is trying to locate a missing person report or some way of tying this woman to a social network. No leads leave Simonsen and the rest of the team scrambling. However, there are some concrete solutions that come out of the cabin and its surrounding area, which takes the Homicide team into the dark world of rape and eventually the seedy domain of sex trafficking. Meanwhile, the perpetrators hide away in plain sight, protecting the vast empire that keeps the world of sex trafficking in business. Someone reaches out and begins a blackmail scheme, as though they are fully aware of the horrible things that are going on and wish to bring about their own form of revenge. While Simonsen gets closer to an answer, questions arise as to how this could all be tied together and how deep the trafficking goes. Is it just the depraved that come to the well and seek this form of gratification or are there others, more ‘mainstream’ faces that dabble, as long as the price is fair? There is no justice for the victim and no family that mourn her, but Simonsen will stop at nothing until the culprits are caught and face the ultimate price. The only question is, does he have the determination to keep going? A powerful thriller that pulls the reader into a dark corner and explores sex trafficking at its most deplorable, but with so much social commentary that the reader will not be able to help but join the conversation. Perfect for those who want a deeper and more complex story in a game of cat and mouse.

I have long been a fan of the Hammers and their delightfully dark thriller series. As I have said numerous times, reading Scandinavian thrillers takes the story to an entirely new level, with complex storylines and thoroughly intriguing ideas that are handled with aplomb and a depth with which I do not find in North American novels. Add to that, the translation that is required to bring me an English language version. If things remain at such a high calibre outside of the story’s original language, I can only imagine how powerful they are in the original Danish. The Hammer siblings also push the story further by using their well-honed collection of characters, each with their own backstory. Konrad Simonsen continues to lead the group, though has to struggle with some of his own past issues and the restructuring that his team has undergone, both due to his own issues and a case that went horribly wrong and left one member on the brink of disaster. Simonsen uses all he has to take the story in ways that the reader cannot help but follow, though they are fully aware of the flaws that the character possesses. As with many of their novels, there is a strong social commentary threaded into the story, which adds a dimension that cannot be missed. Be it the sex trafficking industry, the covert use of au pairs from another part of the world, or even the fact that some of the upper crust in Denmark are using this service without batting an eye. The Hammer siblings also pull in the discussion of shifting the blame on ‘paid sex’ away from the prostitute and solely onto the john, which seems to be happening in some of the surrounding countries. It leaves the reader with much to contemplate and perhaps shed the past concerns over the issue before delving into open-air discussions with others. These are strong issues and should be addressed, which are also handled in a serious and forthright manner by the authors. There is no better way to entertain and educate than to place a story on such precarious places and the Hammer siblings do it so well.

Kudos, Mr. and Madam Hammer for another sensational story. I know we English folk are still a few novels behind your Simonsen series, but I am eager to get my hands on more, as you push things to the limit and force me (and other readers) to confront some of the seedier aspects of life.