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.