Close to Home (Tracy Crosswhite #5), by Robert Dugoni

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Robert Dugoni, and Thomas & Mercer for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.
Adding another explosive novel to the Tracy Crosswhite series, Robert Dugoni has answered the call of his fans to create another superior story. Pulled from the headlines, Dugoni draws on some heart-wrenching topics to add depth to this fifth novel. After young D’Andre Miller is struck and killed in a hit and run while walking home, Tracy Crosswhite and her partner, Kinsington ‘Kins’ Rowe make their way to the scene and begin an investigation. With no vehicle, it might be like finding a needle in a haystack, with a grieving family breathing down their necks. After someone calls in a vehicle matching the evidence left at the scene, Crosswhite and Kins trace it back to a member of the Navy, one Laszlo Trejo. He denies being in Seattle at the time of the crime, though admits his vehicle was stolen overnight. As things are heating up, Trejo makes a call and JAG lawyer Leah Battles appears to lay the groundwork for whatever defence she can formulate. Trejo continues to claim his innocence, even when evidence points in the direction of his being placed at the intersection where Miller was struck. While juggling this agonising case, Crosswhite has her own issues at home on which to focus. With a biological clock that continues to tick, she has agreed to seek some intervention surrounding not being able to get pregnant. With the support of her husband, Dan, Crosswhite takes her last apparent avenue to bring a life into the world, though the prospects are poor. In other events around the Violent Crimes Squad, Detective Delmo ‘Del’ Castigliano is still reeling at the death of his niece from a heroin overdose. Forced to hold the family together, Del tries to track down the person who derailed his niece’s life after she’d recently completed rehab. When he discovers that she has been sold a highly-potent form of heroin, Del will stop at nothing to run up the supply chain to get to the creep who destroyed his family. Del liaises with Celia McDaniel, working in the D.A.’s office on the rise in drug offences. Del and Celia tackle the legal angles and soon find themselves trying to come to an agreement to remove the dealer from the street before another family is torn apart. When the Article 32 hearing arrives for Trejo, Battles is hoping to score at least a few points before a court-martial. However, a key piece of evidence paralyses the prosecution and all eyes shift to Battles, who was the last person with the box of evidence. A killer going free, a young life taken due to heroin, a budding romance, and the perils of pregnancy. All of these are issues that strike close to home in this latest Dugoni legal thriller that will keep the reader enthralled until the last sentence. Series fans will flock to this and newbies will surely find their curiosity piqued.
I have long been a fan of Dugoni’s work, as I find it flows so easily and keeps the reader’s attention. The growth of Tracy Crosswhite has be prevalent throughout the five novels, allowing the series reader to explore her from various angles. The exploration of her maternal side here is poignant, as her work within Violent Crimes has her consoling witnesses and families on a daily basis. However, she is left to be stoic, even in the face of her own personal tragedies. Dugoni does well to build on this throughout the story, adding aspects of Dan’s interpretation. All this, while Crosswhite keeps her detective skills sharply honed to find a killer. The added storyline involving Del Castigliano pulls on the heartstrings of the reader as the family regresses after the death of a young woman. As Dugoni mentions in his Acknowledgements, he cannot fathom the depths of despair that these people must face, but has tried to put a face on it to allow further character development for Del. Dugoni’s use of other characters pulls the story in many directions, all of which prove useful to the overall story arc. The premise of the novel is timely, even if the drug-related storyline takes second chair to the hit and run. The reader is able to relate to both stories, or at least is given enough to allow them to connect, without dwelling too long and losing the narrative’s momentum. Dugoni’s writing style allows the chapters to flow with ease and the narrative to keep things fresh, which makes digesting the book in short order a real treat for the reader. The only issue with this, is the need to wait for the next instalment, though Dugoni seems to be able to churn them out so easily without losing their quality. I hope many will find Tracy Crosswhite to their liking and add this series to a teetering ‘to be read’ pile. It is well worth the gamble.
Kudos, Mr. Dugoni for impressing yet again with an explosive thriller. You touch the heart while spinning a crime and legal thriller like no other in the genre.

The Alchemist’s Secret (Ben Hope #1), by Scott Mariani

Eight stars

In this first full-length novel, Scott Mariani propels Ben Hope into the middle of an ancient mystery, some would rather have left in medieval times. Hope is enjoying his life as a former SAS operative, ensconced in the world of K&R (kidnap and ransom), particularly when the victims are children. When Hope is approached by a wealthy man to help him find a manuscript that purports to hold alchemical secrets, skepticism surfaces and the mission is declined. However, upon learning that this might be the only way to help the man’s granddaughter, a crisis of conscience arises and Ben agrees to take the case and commences the search for the Fulcanelli Manuscript. Steered towards Paris, Hope begins searching for his manuscript that is said to hold keys the Elixir of Life. He encounters a controversial American scientist, Dr. Roberta Ryder, who has her own feelings about this document and seeks to come along, having always wanted to examine Fulcanelli’s notations. However, someone is trying to steer her astray and keep Ryder on the radar of the police. Immortality being what it is, many others are searching for the Manuscript, including a dark organization, Gladius Domini. They will stop at nothing to uncover the secrets and have targeted Hope and Ryder for extinction, if that is what it will take. Headed by a powerful man within the Catholic Church, Gladius Domini purports to be acting in the name of God. As the search continues, a psychiatric patient who has read large portions of the Manuscript might hold some key aspects that Hope will require in his search. However, self-inflicted injuries and incoherent babble led to a deadly outcome. Could these rantings still be useful? Hope and Ryder do all they can to find the truths of the Fulcanelli Manuscript while trying to keep Gladius Domini at bay. As the story progresses, the reader travels with Hope and Ryder on a dangerous trail from Paris to the ancient Cathar strongholds of the Languedoc, where an astonishing secret has lain hidden for centuries. Might Hope lose his life trying to extend that of a sick girl? Mariani storms onto the scene with this new series and keeps readers hooked from the opening paragraphs. An exciting adventure that mixes the devotion of Jack Reacher with the historical obsessions of Robert Langdon. Not to be missed by fans of either protagonist.

Asked by a friend if I would try this series, I decided to stop procrastinating once and for all. I thoroughly enjoy the premise of the Ben Hope series and found that the character, while similar in some regards to the two men mentioned above, also individualises himself nicely. Hope brings much baggage and fast-paced decision making from his time with the SAS, but also a penchant for dedication. He pulls on an ability to decipher codes and hidden messages, while peeling back historical understandings of items not known to many beforehand. It is still early in the series, but I can begin to see an interesting foundation for the Ben Hope character and Mariani offers up some interesting backstory about Ben and his reason for being involved in K&R, pieces that were not clear even with the three short stories that precede this novel. The story is by no means unique, but its development and content does have a degree of individuality, such that the reader will likely want to take a look. Without getting too weighed down with religious symbols, the Fulcanelli Manuscript offers up the one things many have sought for so long, the answer to eternal life. I’d surely use it to read and review all the books that teeter on my ‘to be read’ list. You?!

Kudos, Mr. Mariani for starting the series off with a bang! I am very curious and hope to read more about Ben Hope and his various adventures in the coming weeks.

Bring Him Back (Ben Hope #0.7), by Scott Mariani

Eight stars

Scott Mariani offers up another wonderful early story about his strong-willed protagonist, Ben Hope, in this short piece. After the traumatic kidnapping of her son by a crazed ex-husband, Jessica Hunter looks to Ben Hope for some answers. While the police are working to find Carl, they have been unable to find any solid leads, forcing Hope to take measures into his own hands. While poking around, Hope is able to find some definite clues that point to the mindset of Drew Hunter, though nothing seems to match the man who appeared at the family home. In a case that takes him to Italy and eventually the Principality of Monaco, Hope chases down leads left by, of all people, Carl. What he finds is a narrative that differs greatly from a crazed father trying to capture his son for his own. Instead, there seems to be a degree of trying to save his son from a clueless mother and a new step-father who is not the doting parental figure he tries to portray. With Carl found, the story takes a new turn and twists in ways that will force Ben Hope to show just how sharp his former-SAS skills can be after retiring. A well-paced piece that will appeal to Ben Hope fans and new series readers (such as myself) alike!
I have read three short stories to commence by Ben Hope binge read and I have a good sense of the man, up to now. Gritty and full of pep, Hope seeks to balance the world after seeing some of the worse aspects in his time with the SAS. However, not only does Hope pack some military might, but also a keen eye for sleuthing, which is exemplified here in spades. What lies ahead for the full-blown novels, I have no idea, but if Hope is as exciting there as he has been here, I know I am in for a wonderful ride. The story seems to be one that has two portions, the early stage that develops as the reader would expect, but then there is another, found when a twist falls into place. That twist takes the narrative and the theme in an entirely new direction and keeps the reader from being able to predict things until the very end. That Hope is a kidnap and ransom specialist proves only to be part of the alluring equation in this piece, as Mariani offers up his protagonist’s full skill set to keep the narrative clipping along. I can only hope that there will be more of this determination as the series develops. I am ready to dive in to the full-length novels to see where they will take me.
Kudos, Mr. Mariani for keeping me curious and ready to explore the world of Ben Hope. I have heard much about this series and can only hope (pun intended) that things progress as nicely as they have up to this point.

The Tunnel (Ben Hope #0.6), by Scott Mariani

Eight stars

Continuing on what is sure to be an interesting journey, I am slowly making my way through the works of Scott Mariani, particularly those involving Benedict ‘Ben’ Hope. In this short piece, Hope has recently left the SAS behind and is a freelancer. Having dabbled a little in the world of Kidnap and Ransom, Hope stumbles upon a former colleague, whose drunken stupor leads him to spill the beans on Operation Solitaire, a highly-covert operation from seven years before. Hope begins to explore Solitaire and those who were involved, learning that many chose to end their lives prematurely, though the circumstances do not entirely add up. All this leads to Liam Falconer, head of the Operation and former superior to Hope himself. After stalking him to his home in Scotland, Hope confronts Falconer with the information he has in his possession, soon learning not only the details of the Operation, but also some of its justification. Now it is up to Hope to make a major decision, with Falconer standing before him. It’s Christmas Eve, 2004. How much cheer does Hope have left? A wonderful piece, short though jammed with wonderful information to keep fans of Ben Hope excited while serving the purpose to lure new fans, such as myself, deeper into this complex series. A great read for beach or rainy day alike.
As I still try to hash out the premise of the Ben Hope character, this piece has done a great deal. Providing the reader with context and backstory, Hope’s past comes alive as Mariani lays out some of the groundwork to present a man that will push through many an adventure in the years to come. Hope’s military background and attention to detail will come in handy as his sleuthing skills are sharpened, but it's the character himself that keeps the reader wondering. The premise of the story was great, set before the backdrop of a snowy Christmas Eve, though the contents of the plot are anything but joyous. I have a much better understanding of Hope and how he portrays himself, but this one-man sleuth will surely have many interesting angles to explore as I find myself deeper into the series and more connected to all those who appear in the stories.
Kudos, Mr. Mariani for another early gem. I can only hope that you have more in store for us and that the Ben Hope character continues to evolve on the written page and in your mind while to place him in numerous adventures.

Passenger 13 (Ben Hope #0.5), by Scott Mariani

Eight stars

After much debating and considering, I have decided to tackle Scott Mariani’s best-selling Ben Hope series. Where better to begin than in the beginning, while Hope was still an active member of the SAS? After an intense tour in Iraq, Hope seeks to enjoy some of his downtime in Wales. However, it’s 2003 and the world is still on edge from the attacks in America and one that shook London. Ben discovers that a close friend (and former colleague) crashed a small plane between the Cayman Islands in an apparent act of suicide. Unsure how Nick Chapman could ever have done something so outlandish, Hope heads there to sift through the ashes and the blowback of the scandal. Soon after he arrives, Hope meets up with Chapman’s daughter, who is equally as baffled about the suicide, even though there is apparent evidence of Nick’s depression within the medicine cabinet. Before his eyes, Hilary Chapman is mowed down and her mobile phone is stolen, the only piece of evidence that Hope has showing that Nick was aware that something was going on. As he tries to piece things together, Hope learns that Nick was a popular pilot and had no reason to do anything so rash. After the authorities prepare their final report, all the passengers from that doomed flight are accounted for when cross referencing the company’s sales, save one; Larry Moss. Jumping on this, Hope seeks to track down Moss and who he might have been. Could this thirteenth passenger hold the key to the entire debacle? A highly curious opening piece in the Ben Hope series, this short story surely has my interest piqued and will surely do the same for many others who have been wondering about the origins of the Ben Hope character and how get got out of the SAS.
When a friend of my suggested I try Mariani’s series, I was quick to take up the challenge, as I have heard much about Ben Hope over the years. It is hard to put a finger on how to describe Ben Hope, for this is only a drop the bucket of the overall character development. I see a lot of other characters with whom I am familiar, but Mariani has done a wonderful job of keeping things somewhat unique. Hope has no family, no ties outside his military work, and seems more than willing to help those he calls friends. With a sleuthing ability, Hope is sure to uncover many mysteries as the series progresses, which has me very interested in seeing where things might go. This short story lays the groundwork for what is sure to be a great collection. I enjoyed the quick pace and the story’s constant advancement. One can only hope that the remaining short stories to begin this collection will keep me as interested before diving into a full-fledged piece of writing.
Kudos, Mr. Mariani for hooking me already. I cannot wait to see where you will take Hope and how you will develop his character in the many novels to come.

Enemy of the State (Mitch Rapp #16)

Eight stars
First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Kyle Mills and Simon and Schuster Canada for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.
Continuing the highly popular Mitch Rapp series, Kyle Mills surely impresses Vince Flynn fans (and the late author’s estate) with another stellar novel. Still healing from his latest mission, Rapp has decided to settle down a little and build a colossal estate just outside the D.C. area. When news from a reconnaissance mission in Morocco reaches him, he is somewhat surprised to learn that Saudi Prince Talal bin Musaid has been caught providing large sums of money to ISIS. However, no one is more surprised and shocked than the current POTUS, who has come to despise his predecessor’s ignoring the proof that the House of Saud was implicit in the September 11th terror attacks. Nonetheless, with an ailing King Faisal, there is a need to cut off this financial pipeline before the country falls into new hands, those who might be more than willing to fuel terror attacks on America and give the new caliphate a crown jewel. When the head of the information directorate appears for a meeting with the president, lines are drawn in the sand. Aali Nassar refuses to be dictated to, though promises to support America, while secretly in charge of the ISIS financing and eyeing the chance to overtake the country’s government once the king is dead. Rapp is summoned and told explicitly that he must handle things, but it is a completely rogue mission against an ally. Rapp chooses to distance himself from the Agency, tendering his resignation and sending shockwaves around the international intelligence community. Rapp collects a band of covert misfits to assist him with the task at hand. What could be a simple mission goes somewhat haywire and Rapp is caught on video. Unable to publicly defend him, POTUS agrees to Nassar’s request to use American support to locate Rapp and force him to answer for his crime. All the while Nassar is happy to hunt down the one man who might foil his plan to fund ISIS and bring about a Middle East superpower to rival the Americans. The question remains, who is the real enemy of the American state? A sensational thriller that will keep Mitch Rapp fans on the edge of their seats. Perfect for them and anyone else who enjoys a little politics with their covert operative novels.
This novel goes to show that there are rare occasions when authors can continue a series effectively and with honour. I have admired Kyle Mills for a long time and this addition to the Mitch Rapp series exemplifies that many times over. Rapp is a complex character and has been since Vince Flynn first had him make his way onto the printed page. Wrestling with demons from his past and seeing those closest to him die has, in some regards, taken the edge of this man. However, even with a softer and more family-oriented side, Rapp remains sharp when called to defend his country. Mills effectively shows these two sides and keeps Rapp as entertaining as he has always been. Other characters help to advance the story and offer something to flavour Rapp as the protagonist, but there is little backstory spun in this piece. Much is a forward thinking approach and, as some readers may posit alongside me, perhaps Mitch Rapp is winding down and hanging things up in the coming years. Far be it from me to say that Mills has any intention of doing so, but there are signs, albeit somewhat subtle. The story remains fresh and can be pulled from the headlines, though it is not a flogging of ISIS in the usually overdone approach. The plot remains complex enough that the reader can find new approaches and something fresh on which to connect themselves without bemoaning the words ‘America’ and ‘ISIS’ in the same paragraph. Kudos to Mills for that, in a genre that seems hung up on pitting the US against this somewhat elusive military band of less-than-merry men. Newcomers to the series might want to begin where it all started to get a good feel for Mitch Rapp and his countless adventures, but I am sure series veterans will bask in all there is within this novel.
Kudos, Mr. Mills for keeping things interesting from beginning right until the last sentence. You have always kept things respectable and full of intrigue and for that I am sure Vince Flynn would be forever grateful.

The Frozen Dead (Commandant Martin Servaz #1), by Bernard Minier

Eight stars
In my attempt to explore more dark mysteries translated from another language, I stumbled upon French author, Bernard Minier. Bringing a new meaning to the word ‘noir mystery’, Minier uses his debut novel to delve into the depths of despair, stereotypical for literary pieces emanating from the author’s homeland. When a body is discovered dangling from a cliff, Commandant Martin Servaz is called to the scene. Much to his dismay, the body is that of a decapitated horse. Sure that someone has played a macabre joke, Servaz tries to remove himself from the case, feeling that his skills could be better used elsewhere. Early investigation shows that DNA evidence of Julian Hirtmann accompanies the horse’s corpse, which proves to be even more interesting, in that he is a Swiss serial killer and locked down in the mental asylum in a nearby French community. Servaz is intrigued and finds himself newly committed to the case, curious how a super-max facility could be porous enough to have one of their most notorious patients slipping out. On the same day as the horse is discovered, Diane Berg arrives to take up employment at the asylum. A Swiss psychologist by trade, Berg learns much about the facility and their less than mainstream means of treating patients. Non-anesthetized electro-shock therapy, graphic virtual reality with body probes, and countless medicines no longer used in the treatment of psychiatric patients all find themselves used on a daily basis, with a director who prides himself on these unorthodox measures. Back on the outside, Servaz is called to the scene of another body, this time a man who is found hanging under a bridge. He, too, is found to have Hirtmann’s DNA, however, there appears to be no tie between the patient and the reclusive chemist. Servaz is baffled, particularly when he arrives at the asylum and cannot find a means by which anyone would be able to escape or to return unnoticed. When Servaz learns that the community also lived through a number of teen suicides, all by hanging, he wonders how much more the locals can take. Further probing can only help to open old wounds and forces Servaz to wonder if he is doing so more out of curiosity than necessity. Servaz finds himself distracted as well by his daughter, who is beginning to exhibit odd behaviours, so much so that he has her tailed. What he discovers shocks him a little, but that proves to help his case, if only a little. Berg continues to probe inside the asylum, trying to answer her own questions, but her inquisitiveness might be unknowingly acting as a secondary investigator for this truly baffling case. A wonderfully dark piece that pulls the reader into corners of the story that are anything but pleasant, Minier exemplifies that the language barrier does not lessen the impact of this thriller. Perfect for those who enjoy macabre pieces with a protagonist who is anything but uplifting.
While no expert, I have read a number of mysteries whose original publication language is not English. I find them scintillating and require the reader to play a much more active role than in some of the pieces penned in my mother tongue. Minier portrays Commandant Servaz in much the same way as my Scandinavian police officers, fighting his own demons and with a personal life more jagged than peaceful. Servaz seems to have an agenda all his own, surrounded by colleagues who are anything but sycophants. He struggles to piece together the clues, but always ends up positing the most outlandish possibilities, some of which prove fruitful as he synthesizes the statements made by reluctant witnesses. Minier is able not only to tell his dark mystery, but also create a decent backstory for a few of his characters, whose lives away from the office and the case at hand show that they, too, have secrets they prefer not rise to the surface. The story remains dark and the element of equine torture pulls the reader in from the early going. What else might Minier have in store for the reader? Exploration of the asylum angle only further baits the reader and keeps the story from becoming too predictable. Slow to develop, but with a constant sense of forward movement, Minier pulls the reader along and keeps things from becoming too easy to discern. These are the best types of novels, as the reader can never tell where a twist will take things. Minier’s debut novel has me curious and I will certainly be back for more in the near future.
Kudos, Mr. Minier, for pulling me in and finding a new fan. I can only hope that others will be as intrigued to read this and the other novels in which Martin Servaz makes an appearance.

Snap Judgment (Samantha Brinkman #3), by Marcia Clark

Eight stars

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

Marcia Clark is back with the third instalment of the Samantha Brinkman series, perhaps the best novel yet. After Alicia Hutchins is tired of her controlling boyfriend, Roan Sutton, she chooses to dump him to relieve herself of the burden. In an act of apparent retribution, naked selfies of Alicia appear online for all to see. This ‘revenge porn’ puts Alicia in a tailspin and her body is found a short time later. Might Roan have taken the next step and killed the young woman who sought to defy him? It would appear so, though the ante is raised yet again, after Roan’s body is discovered a short time later, hanging from the ceiling. Early conclusions point to suicide, but Alicia’s father, Graham, is being eyed by the police as the case could have a homicidal element. Enter Samantha Brinkman, whose criminal work has earned her quite the reputation. Brinkman agrees to take on the case, loving the price tag that goes along with it, and tries to delve even deeper into the investigation. Working alongside her investigator, Alex Medrano, Brinkman begins to peel back the layers of the case, unsure what they will find. Alicia seemed to have been a sheltered young woman who was finally coming out of her shell while interacting with other college students. Could Roan and his controlling ways have been used on other women before Alicia? Might the revenge porn angle be one that he has used before? As questions about the case continue to emerge, Brinkman is visited one night by a man with deep roots in the cartel community. He’s come to call in on a favour that Brinkman has promised him after she was caught breaking the law for another client. Brinkman has been ordered to find a witness who is in protective custody, ready to finger a member of this elusive man’s family. Unable to turn to Alex, who is unaware of Brinkman’s law breaking, she turns to her father, Dale Pearson. Together, they must grease the wheels to find this young woman, whose life story brings up more dirt than either could have imagined. Tales of abuse and molestation, with a handful of younger sisters still at home, Brinkman finds pity for the woman in custody and will do whatever she can to protect her from the death that awaits her once she has been outed by the cartel. Working these two major cases and a slew of other meat and potatoes, Brinkman has little time for herself. Trouble is, there is a time limit on both and patience is not a virtue anyone seems to have for the time being. A wonderfully crafted piece of work that will keep the reader guessing until the very end. Highly recommended for legal thriller fans and those who enjoy the fast-paced writing that makes Clark a master of the genre.

Whatever people seem to feel about Clark in her past life, she has shown that she has the ability to craft excellent legal thrillers that do not miss a beat. Filled with relatable storylines and themes that could easier pulled from the headlines, Clark pulls the reader in from the opening paragraphs and provides enough drama to keep them hooked until the very end. Samantha Brinkman is both a complex and easily relatable character. Not only is she a lawyer with a solid reputation, but she is keen on fighting for her clients and will leave no stone unturned. Her jaded past has not left her defeated, but fuels her to find the best in everyone, or at least to see past their outer layers. She remains determined to discover the whole story, even if it places her clients in an uncomfortable position. Surrounding herself with the likes of Alex and Michy, her office runs effectively and her caseload is anything but boring. A recently discovered father in Dale Pearson has helped her find someone in whom she can feel familial pride, though their relationship is anything but traditional parent-child. Clark injects secondary characters who keep the story moving forward and fuel interesting twists to keep the reader curious throughout. The story takes legal and personal turns that no only make for a great story but are plausible, permitting the reader to feel at home as they lose themselves in the book. Clark’s legal past and blunt delivery help create a story that has everything needed for a superior legal thriller. I cannot wait to see what else Clark has is store for her readers and where she will take Brinkman in the years to come. And the question that I have been asking for a while now, when will Rachel Knight ever make an appearance in Samantha’s life?

Kudos, Madam Clark for another wonderful novel. I am amazed at how thoroughly captivated I am by everything you write. I know you have a large following, and for good reason! 

A Criminal Defense, by William L. Myers, Jr.

Nine stars

Exploring the world of William L. Myers, Jr., I had hoped to be dazzled by his skills and dedication to the genre. Legal thrillers are a dime a dozen, but well-crafted ones are much harder to come by. Mick McFarland is a gritty Philadelphia lawyer trying to make the world a better place, one case at a time. However, he is in private practice, so his clients must also have the money to pay for his expert legal advice. While handling some meat and potatoes casework, a stunning bit of news hits the wire; a well-known investigative journalist, Jennifer Yamura has been found at the bottom of her stairs, dead. What’s worse, McFarland’s long-time friend, wealthy businessman David Hanson, was seen by the police fleeing out the back door. After being retained, McFarland starts in damage control mode, learning that Hanson is clear in his innocence, but that there was a sexual relationship in play with Yamura. However, early discussions and evidence points to the fact that Hanson could well have killed Yamura, or was at least in the house with her dead body and had been cleaning up any sign of his presence. McFarland goes into pitbull mode, but must stay one step ahead of his client and three of the salivating District Attorney’s Office, where senior ADA Devlin Walker has his eye on burying Hanson. While the case is progressing and heading towards a trial, McFarland must face a number of personal struggles involving various members of his family: a wife whose family is money rich but cannot see past their country club lifestyle, and a brother who is now the firm’s investigator, but who harbours a past filled with less than savoury decisions. As guilt exudes from Hanson’s pores, McFarland must trust that his friend is telling the truth and that he is innocent of murder. Could Yamura’s flashy news reports on dirty cops have met with retribution? Might there be another jealous lover who wanted her out of the way? Or, worst of all, might Hanson be colluding with others to cover-up this crime and lying to McFarland at every turn? Whatever the answers, McFarland will stop at nothing to craft ‘a criminal defense’. A stunning legal thriller that mixes all the ingredients to deliver a story that will keep the reader hooked until the bitter end, and what a twist awaits there! Myers is surely an author who knows how to connect with his audience and deliver a realistic account of life in criminal law.

This being his debut novel, I had to use this book as my first impressions of Myers. It serves as a wonderful starting point and the legal nuances embedded into the story keep the reader engaged. Myers is able to create a wonderful set of characters, developing them as the narrative builds. Mick McFarland is surely a lawyer of note, whose work ethic and personal foibles make for a highly entertaining protagonist. Myers develops him in many ways and does not shy away from offering the good, the bad, and the ugly, though not in equal measure. Branching out from there, Myers fills the story with a wonderful cross-section of legal minds, money-grubbing business folk, and those who see themselves as above the fray. Peppering them throughout the narrative allows the story to mutate into something more than a courtroom drama, as lives are placed in the balance. Myers is also keen on showing that a lawyer’s work is never tied to a single case, forcing a precarious juggling act to keep a firm afloat. McFarland is forced not only to deal with clients, but also other lawyers and shady witnesses, in hopes of providing the best defense that money can buy. Myers shows that his first foray into the genre has been a great success and I cannot wait for his follow-up, another standalone, out in the early part of 2018.

Kudos, Mr. Myers for such a wonderful opening salvo into the world of cutthroat readers and reviewers. Your legal know-how will surely propel you to the top of the pack, given time and great word of mouth.

The Late Show (Renée Ballard #1), by Michael Connelly

Eight stars

As if he did not have enough on his plate, Michael Connelly has decided to launch a new series (or at least a standalone) that takes a new approach to policing, still in the busy city of Los Angeles. Renée Ballard is a well-established detective with the LAPD, working the ‘late show’, police talk for the 11pm-7am shift. It’s mostly picking up the scraps of the nightlife and directing cases to daytime divisions, but police work all the same. Called out whenever the need arises, Ballard is left without closure or any sense of propriety on the cases she catches. Working alongside a jaded partner, Ballard is forced to contain her excitement for the cases that come her way. During a single shift, two monumental cases land in her lap: the assault of a transgender prostitute, left for dead in a parking lot, and a shooting at a nightclub with three victims left to die in their own blood. Ballard chases up leads as best she can, in hopes of being able to see something through and bring some closure for herself. While chasing down some evidence on the assault, Ballard learns that the victim has odd marking on his body, as if there might be words embedded in the flesh. Could this be the work of someone using a less than typical weapon? Meanwhile, at the club, the shooting appears to be a form of ‘house cleaning’ with the suspected shooter likely known to the three victims. Just as Ballard is trying to liaise with the day shift and move on from the shooting, some evidence pointing to a fellow cop emerges. Worse, it could be her former partner, who hung her out to dry. While trying to confront him, Ballard discovers that he has been shot. Could this be yet another act of senseless violence in a city where gunfire competes with cricket chirps? While wrestling with her own personal demons, Ballard is taken captive for poking her nose around on these cases, but no one knows she’s gone missing. Will the lights go out for Ballard on the late show once and for all? Perfect for those who have come to love the Bosch series, Connelly flavours this book with just as much energy, though differentiates it in numerous regards.

When I heard that Connelly intended on beginning a new series, I was not sure how well it would go, as he was so very busy. My worry intensified (I know, I worry about things I cannot control) when I discovered it would be another cop series, thinking that it might be a female Bosch or, worse yet, one in which the main character stayed on the narrow path. However, Connelly has been able to craft the Renée Ballard character to reflect the same grit of the LAPD, but with strong differentiations from the(in)famous detective. Ballard offers readers an interesting perspective, not only as a woman, but one who is single and not tied down to anyone else, save her dog. Having met her fair share of issues on the job, Ballard has had to make a name for herself and, at times, reinvent the person she wants to be on a force that still seeks to shuffle her to the side. Working that night shift makes her seem like a paper pusher and set-up for the glorious day shifts, who are able to score all the points and win glory at every turn. However, Connelly offers enough in this character that the reader can, at times, forget that and focus on wonderful police work. The story is strong and keeps the reader hooked, juggling a few cases simultaneously. While it is impossible to dream up new and exciting new angles to the crimes of the L.A. streets, Connelly chooses cases that can expand as the narrative explores the darker sides to the underworld. Keeping things realistic and succinct, Connelly is able to tell his story and utilize his characters effectively, while not getting too far-fetched. With almost two dozen Bosch novels to his name and a genre that is saturated with crimes in the big city, Connelly has been forced to show how Renée Ballard is not only unique, but also deserves a spot on the scene. I am eager to see when and where she will make her next appearance, as Connelly has a sure winner here.

Kudos, Mr. Connelly for a wonderful teaser novel to get the reader curious. Admittedly, I cannot remember reading about Ballard before in your writing, but I wonder if you have any hopes of bringing Haller or Bosch in to liaise at some point, should this book take off and lead to a larger series.

Dead Drop (Jericho Quinn #7.5), by Marc Cameron

Eight stars

Marc Cameron is back with a short story/novella addition to the Jericho Quinn series, with a summer-themed piece perfect for the beach. After a harrowing meeting with POTUS, Jericho Quinn and Jacques Thibodaux have agreed to take their respective families to the Buccaneer Beach Thrill Park, home of the Dead Drop waterslide. Soon after arriving, an explosion rocks the Park, leaving many hurt and thousands fleeing for cover. Separated from their loved ones, Quinn and Thibodaux seek to neutralize the situation in an intelligent and tactical manner, while also learning as much as they can about the perpetrators. It would appear that a group of teenagers fuelled by religious zeal has turned the Park into a terror zone, but for what reason? As time slowly advances, Quinn must find his daughter before she is injured in the crossfire, but there are many more who rely on his fast thinking. Led by a young man with nothing to lose, this terror cell hopes to cause as much havoc before the authorities arrive. However, no one thought to tell Quinn and Thibodaux of this little beach party. A worthwhile standalone for the curious reader, but also highly enjoyable for those who have long been fans of Cameron and his fearless Jericho Quinn.

Marc Cameron is always on his game when writing about Jericho Quinn. While the genre is super-saturated with men (and women) ready to save the world one gunfight at a time, there is something about Quinn that individualises him. It might be that every story is strongly weighted with a family aspect, which occurs in this piece as Cameron allows both Quinn’s family (daughter, Mattie, and girlfriend Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Garcia) and members of the Thibodaux collective (sons Shawn and Dan, alongside wife, Camille) to play more than a wallflower role. There is little room for character development between Jericho and Jacques, but the reader is able to learn a little more about some of the aforementioned characters. Additionally, there is the handful of ‘terrorists’ who play villain roles in the story. I am of two minds about this depiction. Cameron has fallen into the stereotype of Muslim extremists (front and centre in the aforementioned super-saturated genre), but does take a step back and inject some blowback when certain passing characters make blatant generalizations about Muslims or Arabic people. It is here that Cameron at least partially redeems himself, perhaps trying to step away from the ‘Muslim as whipping boy’ mentality that has been overused at least since September 13, 2001. The summer theme of the story is perfect and brings even more realism tied to its release. Now then, I have had my Quinn fix, though I am not sure I can wait until February, though I will have to try. 

Kudos, Mr. Cameron for another jam-packed thriller. I can only guess what else you have up your sleeve for the next novel. 

Dunkirk: Retreat from the Brink of Destruction, by Lt. Col. Ewan Butler and Major J. Selby Bradford (M.B.E., M.C.)

Six stars

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

Resurrecting a piece first published in 1950, this digital version allows the reader to connect with Lt. Col. Ewan Butler and Major J. Selby Bradford (M.B.E., M.C.) in their recounting of events leading up to and the hands-on activities during Dunkirk, an important military campaign in the early part of the Second World War. Told from the perspective of members of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.), Butler and Bradford seek to recollect some of their memories so that the importance of Dunkirk is not lost on subsequent generations. The authors begin recounting their recollections of the B.E.F. as it traversed the French and Belgian territories, speaking less of the impeding German approach, but rather the soldier’s interactions with citizens in the various towns along the way. At times drawing parallels between the hospitality offered during the Great War and this conflict, the authors make mention of how welcoming the entire process appeared to be, though the looming defeat of the Belgian forces was never far from from narrative. The winter of 1939, which flowed into early 1940, led to a build-up of military conflict, with France becoming the new battlefield. Butler and Bradford recount the incoming Nazi armies and Air Force regiments targeting France and littering propaganda along the countryside. It seemed somewhat effective in leaving segments of the popular ill at ease about the Allied movement, even as the B.E.F. sought to support their French brethren. By the time military campaigns were in full swing, Dunkirk became the battlefield central to the Allied-Axis clash, at least as can be deciphered from the book’s narrative. An important early battle in the Second World War, Dunkirk proved a litmus test for both Nazi and B.E.F. soldiers, indicative of what would be a drawn-out war. Members of the B.E.F. offered their all (at times including their lives) to stave off the Nazi march to overtake Europe. Interesting in its approach, this is a short primer on the military morale in the region during 1939-40. The curious and attentive reader should be able to pluck out some interesting factoids and it is for those individuals that this book will surely be of greatest interest.

This is an interesting piece for the reader, on numerous levels. First, it was purposely written ten years after events to allow some time for history to settle. The authors explain this at the outset, in hopes of having a sobering view of events, rather than writing in the heat of the moment. Secondly, the book is a digitalized copy of the text from 1950, allowing yet another generation of readers to enjoy this piece with ease. On this note, I must admit that the language and delivery does not appear as dated as I might have expected for sixty-seven year gap from the original publication. The test of time has surely stood with this piece, allowing curious readers to feel completely at ease. The third area of interest is how one might label this piece of writing. It is not fictional (even though it has some dialogue at various points), and it is not entirely historical in its presentation. It is also not a journal-based storytelling of events for the reader to digest. Instead, it stands as a loose and somewhat entertaining narrative that pulls on memories, even if they are somewhat clouded by close to ten years’ delay. Historians may decry this as being a jaded account and surely it is a personal perspective told by two members of the B.E.F. However, I would not call this propaganda in the least. Let me be the first to admit that I was not entirely drawn to this piece, perhaps because it was not as hardcore historical as I might have liked, but I can respect this publication for what it is. I agreed to read this for the publisher and think that many might have a great fascination with this first-hand account. It just was not for me, at least at this point in time. I am sure there will be other pieces that will pull me in, but surely the publisher, keen on reissuing a piece from 1950, cannot be held accountable for the content of this piece. Anyone who has a great deal of interest in soldier accounts of war-time battles might find this a stellar piece and for them, I recommend this piece.

Kudos, Lt. Col. Butler and Major Bradford for your frank account of the events surrounding the British Expeditionary Force in the early period of the Second World War. I will pass the title along to others, who can laud your praises even more than I have been able to in this review.  

The Bourne Initiative (Jason Bourne #14), by Eric van Lustbader

A painful four stars

Returning with another novel in the Jason Bourne series, Eric van Lustbader is back to extend a collection well past its ‘best before’ date. As Jason Bourne remains in hiding and mourns the loss of his friend, General Boris Karpov, he is targeted by his own country. A top-secret death squad is sent to kill Bourne and destroy the one item Karpov left him; a yacht. However, Karpov was not as stingy as one might think. The former head of the Russian FSB also created a cyber weapon he named the Bourne Initiative, trusting only Jason to control it. The Initiative, at full capacity, could strike terror into the heart of America, as it is designed and capable of ascertaining the president’s nuclear launch codes. With those codes, no one is sure what could happen, or how devastating the blowback might be. As Bourne learns of this ‘gift’, he realizes that his life is in an even more precarious position. Bourne is left to turn to one of his own enemies to ensure his own safety, alongside an operative who is anything but trustworthy. Bourne learns more about this Initiative weapon and what Karpov might have had in mind as he concocted the ultimate strike within American borders. Will Bourne allow the Initiative move forward, thereby placing the world in a state of dire volatility? Only time will tell, though even that is in short order. An interesting twist in the Bourne saga, though I am not fully captivated by the premise of this novel or the series continuation.

I will be the first to admit that there are times when a book simply does not connect with the reader. This is one such situation for me, though I fear that each book that van Lustbader adds to the Bourne series has been less than impressive and builds a stronger case that he ought to stop churning them out. In fact, as I have said before, it is perhaps time to let Jason Bourne head out to pasture and insist that van Lustbader turn to other projects. I simply cannot connect with Bourne, even though van Lustbader seems to have provided a decent premise for this novel. The characters are some that would appear enticing, though Bourne has left his espionage days behind and has become somewhat flat. Use of a Russian-based villain is refreshing, as it seems authors are still caught on the ISIS and Muslim-centred evildoers, which can only fan xenophobia. Even the plot, when reading the book’s summary, seems to be something on which the reader could grasp. Alas, I seem to have lost the ability to connect with any of it, as though the entire experience were Teflon and the entire novel slips away as quickly as it is delivered. I tried, but could not find myself latching on, no matter the time of day or activity undertaken. It is not the audiobook narrator, for I have much esteem for his work, nor is it that things were dull and one-dimensional, per se. There simply was a lack of anything that reached out and zapped me to attention. One can hope that other readers will find some solace in the plot and premise, but I suspect it might have something to do with the author. It is impossible to fill Robert Ludlum’s shoes and van Lustbader has never sought to utilise the Bourne we have all come to know in early novels. Sure, characters need to progress and become a little more…versatile, but this Bourne is not one I know or even one I want to know. Best to end things now and let Bourne enter obscurity on his own terms, rather than have scores of readers come to the same conclusions I have and risk tarnishing a character and author’s reputations.

Mr. van Lustbader, the time has come to let Bourne fade off your radar screen. Surely you have your own series to manage and the Ludlum Estate can survive off proceeds already in place.

A Mind to Kill, by John Nicholl

Eight stars

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

After thoroughly enjoying his previous work, I jumped at the opportunity to read an early copy of John Nicholl’s latest work. Likely pulling on some of his past experiences in Child Protection, Nicholl tells a dark and somewhat macabre story that will pull the reader in, if only to learn whether justice is served by the end. When the Crown Prosecution Service declines to press charges after she is sexually assaulted by her ballet instructor, six year-old Rebecca Smith is left to fight with the demons that haunt her dreams. There is now a paedophile left lurking in the shadows and DS Gareth ‘Grav’ Gravel has no answers for the Smith family. Moving ahead seventeen years, Grav is now a DI, though some of his recent activity has left him hanging onto his job by the skin of his teeth. Fallout from his partner’s apparent suicide has just about pushed Grav to the brink. Perhaps a holiday in the Bahamas will rejuvenate him and allow him to reorganize himself. Meanwhile, little Rebecca Smith is now a grown woman, though the demons are still ever-present. She has secured a tech job within the West Wales Police Force in Caerystwyth, but her true passion is hunting for paedophiles who lure children online. Taking on various child personas, Smith is able to keep up significant banter with them, until just the right moment, when she lays a trap and has them come for a visit. Rather than an innocent child waiting for a ‘special friend’, Smith enacts the revenge she wished she could have done all those years ago; torturing, killing, and dismembering the bodies. When some of the body parts surface in a local body of water, new hire DS Laura Kesey must make sense of this, while Grav remains halfway around the world. Her initial investigation makes some headway, though how could she know that Smith is the fox in the henhouse, wiping out some key evidence that could close the case in short order. As Grav is summoned back early from holiday, he is confronted with a case that is not bringing in leads as swiftly as he might have hoped. Add to that, Smith makes herself known to him, laying on significant guilt for his past failures. Will it be enough to spur Grav on to catching this paedophile killer, or has the past all but defeated him once and for all? Dark and at times shocking in its bluntness, Nicholl provides the reader a free trip into those parts of society many hope never to encounter. Perfect for those readers who are willing to venture well out of their comfort zone and never to feel the same way about the vulnerability of children again, with a powerful ending to leave a lasting residue.

My current work in Child Protection has left me a little better suited to stomach some of the atrocities found in this book, but no one can be completely prepared. Nicholl has continued to impress me with his abilities, both in writing and storytelling. He uses some of his own knowledge and experiences, weaving it into stories of the most depraved portions of society. While some might try to shy away or candy coat, Nicholl thrives on telling it ‘like it is’, if only to pay respect to the victims and raise a red flag with the reader. The characters used herein show the various perspectives that are present in the world of paedophilia: the vulnerable child, the helpless coppers, the destroyed family members, and even the general public. Nicholl provides a narrative that is both full of despair for the victims and yet shows how an investigation might yield effective results, given the right break. While I applaud the Rebecca Smith character and how she might seek to enact revenge after her ordeal, I am slightly troubled how her childhood trauma might turn her into such a ruthless killer. I might expect her to be withdrawn and not fuelled by such hatred to the point of plotting numerous murders. Granted, I have not been through such an experience and Nicholl is sure to have a a better understanding of the mindset of such victims. If the reader is looking for a swift and happy ending, this is surely not the book for them. However, those who can handle a trip to the dark side, come join Nicholl on this unforgettable journey. 

Kudos, Mr. Nicholl for this stunning piece. It chilled me to the core and I am sure many readers familiar with your work will be just as interested (dare I use the word, ‘excited’?) to tuck in. Always a pleasure to see what you have to offer.

Grace to the Finish (A Manor House Mystery #8), by Julie Hyzy

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Julie Hyzy and Berkley Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Julie Hyzy is back for another annual instalment in the Grace Wheaton series. This novel packs a punch and offers some insight into numerous threads that have been left dangling from previous series novels. Celebrating their recent purchase of a run-down building in town, Grace and her roommates-cum-business partners are eager to get a start on the renovations. However, after opening things up, they discover a woman’s body laying at the base of the stairs. Virginia Frisbie is not a random victim, having served as the local bank’s vice-president and the institution’s representative in the sale of the property. Could she have fallen, or is there something more nefarious at play? Grace finds herself in the middle of yet another mystery that could have a definitely murderous odour. As the investigation progresses, a squatter is discovered and his account could play a key role in given better context as it relates to Virginia’s presence on-site, as well as a mysterious man with whom she would rendezvous on a regular basis within the building. If that were not enough, Grace’s sister, Liza, is set to be released from prison and is itching to get her hands on the lion’s share of the Marshfield Estate, something that Grace has been lucky enough to have been promised when her boss (and recently discovered uncle) Bennett Marshfield passed on. Armed with a nosy aunt in town from Florida, Liza seeks to cash-in on the millions (or billions) to which she feels she is entitled because of her bloodline. However, as Grace frets about this, she learns a secret about Liza that could pose an even larger problem, once it comes to the surface. Grace may have a great deal on her plate, but there are suitors all around her, some of whom she has been trying to encounter romantically for quite some time. They, too, have skeletons in their closets, forcing Grace to make some major life decisions. A wonderful addition to the Marshfield Manor series, showing how entertaining Hyzy’s writing can be, in that quaint manner reserved for clean-fun reading. Highly recommend the entire series for a beach-binge, should time permit.

I have heard rumours that Hyzy decided to end the series with this novel, which would be somewhat disheartening. If it is true, she ends things on a high note, closing the proverbial book on the series before it loses its lustre. Grace Wheaton has seen much transformation in the series and this novel allows the reader to learn a touch more about her. Her sleuthing ways are front and centre in this piece, while the interesting balance of her work seems to have taken a back burner. I always enjoyed the balance, though I suspect Hyzy had too many Grace balls in the air to inject mention of art in more than passing. The secondary characters remain strong, with Frances adding her two cents whenever and wherever possible. The rest of the crew keep the story flowing well, though they do not play a crucial role. Even Liza and Aunt Belinda seem to be muted in the storyline that utilizes them. The overall mystery is strong and keeps the reader guessing. The entire series has relied on a quaint nature and so there is a strong sense of lightheartedness, even when cracking the mystery wide-open. Some key aspects of the story are resolved herein, which fuels the aforementioned rumours a little. However, there is much that could be developed yet, so Hyzy has not entirely closed the door on another book. Either way, I enjoy these novels, as they are quick-reads and highly entertaining for the time they take to finish.

Kudos, Madam Hyzy, for another wonderful novel. I am eager to see what else you have going on, being it Grace, Olivia, or someone new. 

The Templar Heresy (Chris Bronson #7), by James Becker

Six stars

After some delays to work on writing projects with some shared themes, James Becker is back with another Chris Bronson thriller. Tapping into Christian history and the symbols that have emerged through the ages, Becker entertains readers with this story while adding the thrill of the chase as two sides fight over the interpretation. Seeking a little excitement during his holidays, Chris Bronson accepts an invitation from ex-wife and best friend, Angela Lewis to join him on her latest archeological dig. He makes his way to Kuwait and is met at the airport, where Angela and fellow archeologist Stephen Taverner fill him in on their latest discovery. While out in the deserts of Iraq, they have come across some temple that has odd inscriptions on its walls. Bronson, always one to enjoy a mystery, agrees to come see them to determine if he can crack the code. However, as they return to camp, all that is left are a slew of dead archeologists, their bodies slaughtered and baking in the desert sun. The inscriptions have been chipped out of the walls, which only adds to the mystery. After deciding to flee the region and report what has happened when they are safely in the United Kingdom, Bronson leads the group back towards Kuwait. However, a band of thugs seems more than happy to exterminate them before they can reach their destination. Dodging bullets and trying to reach safety, Bronson, Angela, and Stephen are able to catch numerous last-minute flights around the Middle East before landing in Milan. From there, it is a simple trip to London and they will be safe. However, after splitting up from Stephen, Bronson and Angela learn that the thugs are still targeting them, having killed Stephen and left him for dead. Now, all eyes turn to these inscriptions, which Angela was smart enough to capture digitally during the excavation. As they begin to study the words and apply a few ciphers, there appears to be a larger mystery, one that includes (of course!) the Knights Templar. From here, Angela and Bronson must dodge the thugs as the race to uncover the mystery kicks into high gear. What the Templars may have discovered centuries ago remains highly thrilling even now. Bronson and Angela just may not live long enough to uncover the mystery for themselves. A decent story for series fans who have been waiting a while for the next instalment, complete with some seemingly sacrilegious speculations. There is even enough Templar flavour in the second half of the novel to appeal to thrill seekers who enjoy something a little more methodical. 

I have long been a fan of Becker and his work, having followed Chris Bronson through many an adventure. I will admit, though, that this novel seemed to lack some of the punch that I remembered from past stories in the series. During the Bronson reprieve, I have been following Becker as he delves into a Templar-based series and find the calibre of writing in this novel lacking significantly from those Templar stories, published as late as fall 2016. While Chris Bronson and Angela Lewis remain strong characters, it is as though the ‘cookie cutter’ race to solve a mystery was used here, allowing for no character development as individuals or jointly in their current platonic relationship. How Becker could have forgotten to add at least some fond memories his protagonists share baffles me, as they are forced to work so closely at hand. The thug characters continue to fuel the current “terrorist du jour” mentality, by tossing around ISIS images, though to some degree there is a sensical nature to the Muslim evildoer in this piece, which the reader understands better when they read the book. The plot is decent, though it is by no means original, either in Becker’s world or those authors who write about uncovering Templar secrets. I must comment here that the story, while fiction, could have been firmly rooted in reality, though I found the constant “let me just buy more airline tickets, hotels, and anything we need” highly unrealistic. Bronson comes across as being flush with cash and able to simply pull out the large sums of money while on the run. Again, I may be nitpicking, but this is my review and I can address issues that came to mind throughout the reading. All in all, a decent read, but surely not one of Becket’s best. I hope this was simply an aberration. 

Kudos, Mr. Becker for another Bronson-Lewis adventure. I know you have a Templar book soon to be released and hope you can use your successes there and allow them to return to this series in short order.

Seven Stones to Stand of Fall: A Novella Collection, by Diana Gabaldon

Nine stars

With the release of this recent collection of novellas, Gabaldon seeks to pull together a number of her shorter pieces for the reader’s enjoyment. With some mention of Jamie Fraser, a peppering of Roger, and even the elder Fraser, the vast number of stories have some Lord John Grey connection. When I undertook my Diana Gabaldon binge in the summer of 2015, I sought to read her entire collection in chronological order, which sandwiched Outlander novels with a number of the Lord John pieces. A number of the novella found within this collection were included in this binge. I have chosen to resurrect these reviews for those stories I have already read in this collection, so some of the comments might seem out of place in 2017. The latter two pieces are those I have never read and so their reviews are brand new to me and those who follow my postings. I hope you will enjoy my summaries and encourage anyone with a massive amount of patience to tackle the larger Outlander/Lord John collection. 

The Custom of the Army:

It all begins with an electric eel party and a duel that goes horribly wrong. A night of apparent debauchery leads our famed Gabaldon character in a heap of trouble everywhere he turns. In an attempt to hide himself while he is persona non grata, Grey agrees to act as a character witness for a friend facing court martial, in CANADA. With an additional familial matter to handle while he is away, Grey embarks on an adventure to the New World and mixes it up with the British Army (currently at war with France in Quebec), while he hunts down a man keen on abandoning his duties. Gabaldon shows the reader another humorous side of Grey who, without Jamie Fraser around, is quite a civilised gentleman.

Gabaldon does a great job in keeping the LJG series moving forward. With some great storytelling, time appropriate characters and wonderful narration, anyone who is a fan of the Outlander series or the full-length Lord John Grey books will not be disappointed. This book sits nicely as a stand-alone, hence its unofficial non-labelled nature between many of the other pieces of writing in the series.

The Space Between:

In this novella, Gabaldon chooses two lesser characters and send them on a journey mentioned towards the end of An Echo in the Bone. Young Joan MacKimmie, step-daughter of our beloved Jamie Fraser, heads to Paris to answer her calling and train to become a nun. Sent on her way with Jamie’s nephew, Michael, they travel through the streets of Paris in a short and jam-packed story. While Joan seeks to make herself a bride of Christ, she wrestles with voices only she can hear, which offer both advice and glimpses into the future. As she prepares for her entry into the convent, she begins to question everything she has come to believe, which led her to this point. Michael, who may have been sent as a bodyguard, fights his own inner demons on the trip, part related to his growing feelings for this young woman as well as the knowledge his Aunt Claire gave him about the not too distant civil uprising in France, with Paris at its heart. Michael and Joan struggle to balance their responsibilities with what the heart desires, creating a space between logic and emotion. They must also fend off the plans of a sinister man who seeks revenge for Claire Fraser’s antics when last she spent time in Paris. Learning of the connection Joan and Michael possess to La Dame Blanche, they are spun into a web of deceit and potential disaster. With a sprinkling of time travel discussion (of course, no Outlander story can ignore the Stones), Gabaldon moves her major sub-story forward while keeping a little more of the full time movement situation for the final novel. Brilliantly composed with just enough to keep the reader wanting more.

As the number of remaining Outlander stories dwindle, I am left to pay special attention to these tales. Having taken the time to re-read the entire collection, I have taken away so much and learned a great deal, both about the history of the time as well as the intricacies of the characters Gabaldon has set before the reader. As mentioned many times in previous novels, Gabaldon may introduce minor characters throughout, whose importance is only known much later. This novella is a wonderful case in point, where the likes of Joan and Michael receive only passing mention in earlier stories, but now play central roles. One could say the same for Comte St. Germain, who acts as a Stephen Bonnet or Black Jack Randall of sorts. Wonderfully spun in such a way to entertain and intrigue simultaneously.

The Plague of Zombies:
In Gabaldon’s final piece (to date) of Lord John-centred writing, she succeeds in weaving another great tale with her ever-resourceful Lord John Grey at the helm. In Jamaica on official business, Lord John is soon drawn into a phenomena new to him; the emergence of zombies. Waking one night by a visitor whose human form is questionable, Grey wonders if there is more to this myth than strict lore. When the Governor is found murdered, the scene leads many to believe a pack of zombies may be behind the crime. However, Grey is not so sure and mounts clues to turn the investigation in another direction. With many wishing him gone (from office as well as from the earth), the Governor’s demise leaves many suspects for Grey to ponder. That said, the power of zombies appears stronger than even and Grey seeks to learn more about them if for no other reason than to quench his curiosity. Another great novella by Gabaldon to keep the reader on the edge of their seat and with an eye on packs of unknowns lurking the streets at night.

Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER series is one of my great guilty pleasures. Her plethora of characters leaves a great opening for many interesting branch-off stories or novellas. That said, her character Lord John Grey, whose role in the Outlander series is minor in the first three novels, is one perfectly suited for a series of novels. An 18th century Sherlock Holmes on one hand and a tyrannical man whose lust for Jamie Fraser fuels a powerful hatred in the main novel series cannot be discounted. Gabaldon has done a masterful job of painting a calmer and more likeable side to Grey in this series, as well as jumping on the ‘zombie’ bandwagon made overly popular by THE WALKING DEAD. A great novella for fans of the series or newbies alike, it makes for a highly entertaining read for the curious reader.

A Leaf of the Wind of All Hallows:
What ever happened to Jerry MacKenzie, father of Roger, whose plane went down during the War effort? As Gabaldon mentions in the story’s preface, discussion of Jerry opened in An Echo in the Bone, where Claire admitted that the story Roger knew was not entirely true. With Roger finally encountering Jerry in 1739, something must have happened related to the Stones, but the story is again not flushed out. Gabaldon chooses this point to offer a real account of events, just in time as Outlander fans are surely tearing their hair out with wonder, as the cliffhanger found no resolution within Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. Spitfire pilot Jerry MacKenzie is approached by MI6 (and Frank Randall no less) to help in the execution of a covert mission behind the Iron Curtain. While out on reconnaissance, Jerry develops engine trouble and crash lands somewhere in Northumbria. As Jerry seeks to get his bearings, he discovers that he’s been propelled into the past, but has no explanation for events. When he comes across a mysterious character, a little is revealed, including how to get back, but no clear understanding of the Stones is made known. Returning to modern times, Jerry comes across his wife, Marjorie, but is not in a position to reach her to discuss his revelations. Filling a few cracks in the Outlander storylines, this short story fits nicely, yet leaves much to the imagination. 


VIRGINS, a novella penned by Gabaldon years after she made Jamie Fraser a successful protagonist in the Outlander series, opens the collection nicely. In it, Fraser and his friend, Ian Duncan, embark on the life of young mercenaries, well away from Scotland. It’s 1740 and the boys, aged nineteen and twenty respectfully, find themselves out in the world, experiencing all that it has to offer. While Duncan sees that his friend is holding onto a secret, nothing prepares him when he learns the truth. Captain Jack Randall came to Lallybroch and embarrassed Fraser, along with his entire family, leaving Jamie banished from his own estate. Jamie uses the attack and belittling to fuel his fire to become a man in a hard-knock world. Along the way, Jame and Ian learn about fighting, sex, and what it means to be independent, all while crossing paths with many a clan unlike themselves. These ‘life virgins’ soon learn the ways of the world while vowing to protect one another. The novella opens the door to what is sure to be a wonderful series, at least for Jamie, as he hones his skills and returns to face Randall in the years to come. The awkwardness that he will encounter (as Outlander fans know all too well) should make for an ever-changing flood of sentiment in the man’s brain…but we have many many pages to learn all about that.

A Fugitive Green:

In a story set around 1744, Minerva ‘Minnie’ Rennie is living in Paris with her father. They run a somewhat successful bookselling business, but it is merely a front for some of their more deceptive work: espionage, blackmail, and a little robbery. At seventeen, Minnie is ready to find herself a husband, but has been kept shielded from men by her overprotective father. However, an Englishman is said to make the best husband, so she is sent off to London to find a man and help her father with an especially interesting assignment. Meanwhile, the Duke of Pardloe, Harold (Hal), brother of the popular Lord John Grey, is still mourning the death of his wife and infant. They both perished after the onset of premature labour occurred when Hal engaged in a duel with his wife’s lover, Nathaniel Twelvetrees. The fallout of that duel and the death of his wife has kept Hal trying to justify his actions, though he has no firm proof of the affair. After Minnie arrives in London and is given the task of securing the collection of letters between Esme and Twelvetrees. Sly as she might be, even Minnie is sure to find this task somewhat difficult. Minnie is also left to discover a family secret that will shock her to the core, burning in a nunnery. While Minnie tries to secure copies of the letters, she encounters Hal and is somewhat besotted with him. This chance encounter turns somewhat steamy after she is caught red-handed trying to locate the letters. Returning to Paris, Minnie recounts her story to a curious father, who can see he has a well-trained daughter on his hands. However, when she reveals two secrets, all bets are off. A wonderful story that even allows the beloved Jamie Fraser to make a cameo appearance. Gabaldon is able to tie off a few threads left dangling in past stories as she adds to the Outlander/Lord John Grey chronology.


In the waning days of his military governorship in Jamaica, Lord John Grey is preparing to head to the America Colonies, not yet in full insurrection mode. The year is 1762 and life has been decent for this man of many adventures. He receives his step-father, who passes along a message that Lord John’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Pardloe, is in Havana and may need to be collected. While this seems like a lovely side journey, news that the British Navy is on its way to seize the territory in its ongoing battles with Spain, leaves Lord John a little less at ease. Gathering his retinue, they make their way to Cuba and soon learn that the Dowager has made her way into the rural areas, alongside some other members of Grey’s extended family. Added to the upcoming siege is news of yellow fever, which has been making its way around the region. Choosing to arm himself with a few Spanish-speaking individuals, Lord John ventures far from the beaten path and encounters some less than pleasurable individuals who seek to form their own slave insurrection. What follows will test Lord John to his core and may put a significant flavour to the intended mission. Another great story that shows the softer and more compassionate side of Lord John Grey during his continued missions around the New World.

While not entirely full of new stories, the collection is well worth the time invested by the reader. Gabaldon is not only the master of the genre, but finds new and exciting ways to link passing mentions in some of her larger pieces with novellas that explain or further the already-developed piece. History is, at times, fluid when Gabaldon is at the helm, but it is the intricacies of the narrative that makes this collection a stunning compendium. Many will know of Lord John and Jamie, but it’s these minor characters who are given some centre stage time that enriches the experience for all. 

Kudos, Madam Gabaldon for this lovely collection. Please allow me to speak for your entire fan base when I say, ‘we thank you for these short stories… but when can we dive into BOOK NINE?’. There, I said it!

The Arc of the Swallow (Søren Marhauge #2), by Sissel-Jo Gazan

Eight stars

Sissel-Jo Gazan is back with another dark Scandinavian crime thriller sure to pique the interest of her fans and curious readers alike. Using her individual flavour, Gazan infuses a strong scientific aspect into the crime and the overall narrative, while not bogging the story down in either regard. Early in the narrative, the reader learns that the University of Copenhagen is abuzz when Immunology Professor Kristian Storm is found dead in his office, having apparently hanged himself. His most promising graduate student and research assistant, Marie Skov, is devastated and cannot fathom why he would take such drastic measures. Skov is, herself, dealing with a recent battle with breast cancer and the death of her mother, two significant events that weave their way through the story. After significant backstory, the reader better understands that Storm and Skov had been hard at work on some immunology research that had been highly controversial, in which they posit that the vaccines being given to African children have significant side effects and/or immunological deficiencies that can be attributed to higher death rates among the population, specifically in Guinea-Bissau. Additionally, someone in the highly-competitive research community flagged the research to a Danish scientific disciplinary board for review and potential sanctions, which was the basis for Skov’s dissertation. Meanwhile, the reader is reintroduced to Søren Marhauge, now a Deputy Chief Superintendent on Copenhagen’s Police Force. Tired of the bureaucratic red tape and wanting to focus on his relationship with his girlfriend and her daughter, Marhauge resigns to focus on his home life, However, when Anna (of acclaim in Gazan’s debut novel) returns home one day with news of the Storm suicide, Marhauge finds that he wants to continue sleuthing, if only a little. As the story progresses, Gazan explores more of the controversies that Storm found during his time in Guinea-Bissau and how the World Health Organization found the generalized comments highly problematic. Additionally, there is trouble brewing within Skov’s family, including a secret that had been covered up for almost three decades. Will Marhauge be able to find reason to contradict the determination that Storm took his own life in disgrace? How might Skov’s discovery of her own family’s drama shape the way she moves forward? Gazan seeks to address these and many other issues in her methodically well-paced story that forces the reader to pay close attention throughout. Not for the reader who loves a quick thrill ride, Gazan seeks to shake up the Scandinavian thriller genre by attracting those who are patient and pensive in equal measure. 

Gazan is a new addition to my reading list, but I can see how she might appeal to a certain type of reader. Her work is detailed, at times too much so for my still-adapting mind, and seeks to slowly develop her story and characters. While Søren Marhauge and Anna are back, their development is not as central to the story’s main plot. It is of great interest to those who liked the first novel to see just how far they have progressed together, as well as how sturdy their relationship has become. Marie Skov and her family take centre stage in this novel, becoming complex characters, each with their own backstories. With a number of strong characters pushing the narrative forward, the premise of the book is again a highly interesting, yet academic, venture. To posit that vaccinations used on the African continent might prove more harmful than helpful is highly scandalous, at a time when such a great scientific breakthrough seems to have revolutionized pandemics. However, with large pharmaceutical companies making millions off the production of these serums, it is no wonder that Kristian Storm could be vilified for his hypothesis. Gazan pulls the reader throughout the discussion and tries to explain it in such a way that the story is not lost on the scientific amateur (among whom I could myself). She balances it well but does not skimp on the blunt conversations in the field, which educates the reader in a persuasive manner. There is much to be said of Gazan, who differs greatly from her Scandinavian counterparts, in this second novel. Her storytelling is superior and her ability to paint a dark story while not deterring readers is worth mention as well.

Kudos, Madam Gazan for showing that you are not a one-hit wonder. I hope you will keep writing and dazzling fans with your unique style and approach to non-English thrillers, whose translation still pack a significant punch.

Portrait of Vengeance (Gwen Marcey #4), by Carrie Stuart Parks

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Carrie Stuart Parks and Thomas Nelson for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Returning with her much anticipated fourth novel, Carrie Stuart Parks takes readers on an emotional rollercoaster. After recently being hired to work on the Interagency Major Crime Unit (IMCU), Gwen Marcey attempts to curry favour with the team and her current beau by taking a case in Alaska. However, when another case is being described at the Unit briefing, Gwen cannot shake the intense flashback she has, directly tied to a traumatic event from her youth. Leaving little room for negotiation, Gwen swaps cases and heads to Idaho, where she will liaise alongside the Nez Perce Tribal Police in Lapwai. There, a couple has been murdered and their four year-old daughter is missing. When her reception is met with less than open arms, Gwen must begin her work as best she can, interviewing witnesses and providing any composite sketches that arise. When her vehicle is stolen, Gwen enlists the assistance of her best friend, Beth Noble, whose online prowess will surely come in handy. In a moment of emotional vulnerability, Gwen admits to discovering a murder scene of her ‘sorta-mom’ at fourteen, which led her out to Montana. This revelation, tied to the added admission that her parents were murdered when she was four, fuels Gwen as she tries to locate this little girl and ensure the killer is found. However, all that is easier said than done. Much of what Gwen grew up knowing changes the deeper Beth is able to dig around through old records. Gwen is distracted and she misses major elements of the crime at hand, which leads to her dismissal from the IMCU. There is surely an element that connects these past crimes to the current abduction, but the clues that tie it all together are slow to emerge. As Gwen and Beth continue to dig, key pieces of evidence fall into place, but that only pushes them into more danger. A killer lurks and Gwen appears to be their target. Her past and present collide, but someone wants to keep what is not yet known firmly veiled in mystery. Parks has spun a powerful story in this novel that will appeal greatly to the series fan and is sure to hook newbies who are just now learning about the wonders of this talented crime writer. 

I have been a fan of Carrie Stuart Parks and her work for a number of years. She offers a wonderful crime thriller, but tackles her stories from a unique angle. With Gwen Marcey as a forensic artist, this individualizes the protagonist and allows the reader to approach the crime fighting from a perspective that might not receive much merit. Basing Marcey on a number of her own experiences, Parks is able to speak with confidence as she weaves an intricate backstory. This novel is saturated with Gwen Marcey’s backstory and fills in many of the gaps left from the previous three books. Additionally, Gwen’s internalized arguments with others (both her ex-husband and Beth) show a struggle the character faces on a number of topics. Rather than simply loading the narrative with these breadcrumbs, the entire story takes on a Gwen Marcey flavour, permitting exploration and growth. Other than Beth and some minor mentions of others back in Missoula, Montana, the entire cast of characters is new and exciting, with a strong Indian (aboriginal) flavour. Politics surrounding the American treatment of this part of the population is woven throughout the story, allowing the reader to learn a great deal as the story progresses. The narrative is crisp and moves forward with an intense story told in short chapters. Parks keeps the reader wondering until the very end and offers up some hints and what might be to come in the ever-evolving battle between Gwen and her ex-husband. Parks has written another winner here and is sure to garner many more accolades for this work.

Kudos, Madam Parks for another wonderful novel. You never fail to impress me as I learn much about forensics from your unique experiences. 

Heart of the City (Ari Greene #5), by Robert Rotenberg

Nine stars

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

After much anticipation, Robert Rotenberg is back with his fifth novel in the Ari Greene series. Jam-packed with action, this crime thriller will have the reader flying through the pages with ease as the search for another killer commences. Forced to reinvent himself, Ari Greene is back in Toronto and working on a construction site. When he discovers the body of real estate magnate, Livingston Fox, Greene’s former detective senses kick into high gear. Detective Daniel Kennicott now heads up the Homicide team investigating the case and is the first to acknowledge that his former mentor seems unable to shake the skill of discovering dead bodies. As Kennicott begins his investigation, it becomes apparent that Fox was anything but much-loved in the community. Numerous people had motives to see him taken out, including a community activist who had butted heads with the man over many of his recent projects. Lurking behind the scenes is Alison Gilroy, a anonymous blogger and British transplant who is the child that Green never knew he had until his recent trip across the Pond. Alison’s work and sleuthing has put her in a precarious position, one that she is even hiding from her father. While Kennicott peels back the onion to discover the contrasting life Fox had in comparison to the rest of his family, the detective discovers that there might have been a secret in the works for an upcoming low-income housing complex. Could Fox have been turning over a new leaf in order to give back? Might Alison know more than she is telling everyone? Will Ari Greene be able to shed the past skirmishes he had with Kennicott and the Homicide Division too bring a killer to justice? All is revealed in this stunning piece that Rotenberg crafts with precision. Perfect for those who love a good Canadian crime drama set in the heart of the country’s largest metropolis.

I have long been a fan of Rotenberg and his work, so it pained me to wait so long between novels. However, the wait was worth it, as I found myself fully committed to the book and all the developments found therein. Rotenberg was faced with some significant decisions after Ari Greene was railroaded in the last novel. Having him return with Alison allowed for significant character growth, as well as tapping into that strong parent-child bond that is sure to develop. This offshoot, as well as Greene’s new post-Homicide life, fuel the narrative throughout and allow Daniel Kennicott to assume a more independent role, where he can lead the case in his own direction. The supporting cast of characters also present strong avenues to propel the narrative in numerous directions and are varied enough to keep the story interesting. The murder plot itself is intriguing, presenting the contrast between lucrative real estate deals and the needed housing complexes that the ‘common person’ can afford. Rotenberg’s development of this premise keeps the reader hooked and forging ahead in a story that offers little time for rest. Short chapters help to keep the pace alongside a wonderfully crafted Canadian feel to the narrative, while not getting too emotional or syrupy. Rotenberg is a master at his craft and while I understand he is otherwise employed during the day, I can only hope he has more story ideas that he can quickly get to paper for his adoring fans.

Kudos, Mr. Rotenberg for another wonderful piece. I have been keeping an eye out for your work and praying that you’ll show that Canada has a place in the crime thriller genre. You have outdone yourself here!

Murder Games, by James Patterson and Howard Roughan

Seven stars 

In their recent collaboration, James Patterson and Howard Roughan have created a wonderful standalone piece to entertain readers. Dr. Dylan Reinhart has done well for himself: an established Professor of Psychology at Yale, happy in his long-term relationship, and a popular textbook on Abnormal Psychology that has received many accolades. When he is approached by NYPD Detective Elizabeth Needham, her message is as ominous as they come. “Someone may be trying to kill you!” Soon Needham and Reinhart are teaming up to crack open a homicide investigation with a serial killer who uses playing cards to hint at their next victim. Deemed ‘The Dealer’, Needham and Reinhart must try to remain one step ahead of the killer, whose obsession with Reinhart is quite apparent. In the background, a power-hungry Mayor of New York City (are there other kinds?) demands updates as he delves deeper into Reinhart’s past while a crime beat journalist relishes all the headlines the case seems to be garnering. The reader soon learns that Reinhart has a secret that he has been keeping from everyone, perhaps one reason he has been tapped by The Dealer. Juggling the case and some developments in his personal life, Reinhart must find a balance before he becomes a victim himself. As The Dealer ups the ante, Needham must rely on this man she barely knows to keep her from going bust. Patterson and Roughan have a firm grip on his story and keep the reader connected throughout. Fast paced and perfect for a short beach read, this novel shows that Patterson still has some good work to offer.

Many know of my love/hate relationship with James Patterson in recent years. The man has amassed much of his wealth with less than stellar pieces. However, when paired with the proper collaborator and using the perfect literary recipe, a decent book emerges. Roughan seems to have brought out some great ideas as they craft this decent thriller that exemplifies another NYPD cat and mouse game with an intelligent serial killer that has much to prove. The characters are varied and well-developed, though there are many whose presence is used only to be a quick victim in the larger narrative. The Reinhart-Needham connection is decent, though not unique from other Patterson novels where a cop and civilian find themselves intertwined during the story arc. The story is paced well and the use of Patterson’s short chapter technique keeps the narrative clipping along with ease. While not psychologically stunning, the story is decent and it keeps the reader’s attention. Sure to laud some praise on Roughan and give Patterson another pat on the back, this book has all the elements of a decent summer novel.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Roughan for a great piece of work that will bring readers back again. I hope to see more collaborative efforts in the near future, as you two have a symbiosis that cannot be taken for granted when Patterson’s name appears on the dust jacket.

Glass Walled Houses (Charley Trilogy #2), by Eric Keller

Eight stars

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

After thoroughly enjoying his debut novel, it was a no-brainer that I would devour this second book in the Charley series. Keller keeps the story fresh, while spacing out the two novels, in an effort to allow the proverbial dust to settle. After his work with Charley Ewanuschuk, Brian Cox left the paltry life of defence work to join the Crown Prosecutor’s Office. The criminal work in Calgary is such that he could keep himself busy, while also finding inexcusable ways of alienating his wife and new baby. When Charley seems to appear outside the courthouse after a particular devastating day for Cox, Brian cannot shake a chill up his spine and memories of how their last encounter ended. Meanwhile, Carl Gibson has his own set of struggles: a failing marriage, children who have a complete disinterest in him, and a run-down apartment not even fit for a pauper. After a neighbour and high-profile child pornographer is stabbed to death, Gibson seeks to make a name for himself with media outlets, as well as some of the darker message boards he has come to use for his online news. Gibson wants the attention, though veils himself in an online moniker, as though he can control his stardom. Dealt her first case after a recent move to Homicide, Inspector Tina Walker is forced to play gofer to a senior partner whose jaded view on life ties into the fate of his last partner. Still, they lock in on Gibson and his apparent seeking out fame and use it to fuel their investigation. While Gibson seems to have seen a nondescript homeless man at the scene, all eyes seem to be firmly focussed on the man seeking too much attention. As Brian buries himself in work and finally confesses something to his wife, Charley continues his reintegration into Calgary society with a secret of his own. The reader learns much about the four years that Charley was away and a mysterious woman who turned him into some sort of thief and mission-driven criminal. Has Charley returned on a new mission and might it involve Brian? Can Gibson get ahead of the likely charges that await him for the murder of his neighbour? Does Inspector Walker have what it takes to handle Homicide for the long-term? Keller explores these and many other plots in this powerful follow-up crime thriller that will keep readers hooked until the final pages. A wonderful addition to the series, which awaits a final book to complete the trilogy.

When Keller approached me to read his first novel, Half-Built Houses, I was keen to try it. Why not explore what a local author has to say about this, my current city of residence? I devoured that book as I learned about the struggles Charley Ewanuschuk had as a homeless man and his fledging lawyer, Brian Cox, faced as a legal-aid attorney. Keller returns with something even better here, as he fleshes out these two men in sensational fashion while adding a slew of new and highly unique characters. Developing his Cox and Ewanuschuk characters adds a certain flavour to the story, but it is Carl Gibson who takes centre stage here, able to impress and capture the reader from the start. Adding Tina Walker only gives the story more intrigue, especially as she pokes around and tries to make a name for herself. The story, set in Calgary, offers more rich narrative spins as the setting develops. I could see the characters wandering around and peeking into my neighbourhood at one point. I loved that aspect and felt even closer to things as they progressed. Rather than being that pretentious ‘find the killer and bring them to justice’ story, Keller has built this case, as the title suggests, on the premise of the outside world looking in on a man who wants some notoriety, as long as it does not curse him too much. While the killer remains at large, the cat and mouse game takes the story into various side stories, one of which is the evolution (or devolution) of Charley and his ‘mission’ back in Calgary. Keller plays on the Charley character well and tries to offer him a great space throughout, while not stealing the show. I was highly impressed with the story, its presentation, and the ease with which the entire narrative flowed. I hope many find and read both novels so that they, too, can wait anxiously to see how it all ties together in the yet to be completed final book of the trilogy.

Kudos, Mr. Keller for another explosive novel. I am eager to see where you take things and hope to be front and centre for that ride as well!

Use of Force (Scot Harvath #16), by Brad Thor

Eight stars

Brad Thor is back with another thrilling Scot Harvath piece, sure to add new layers to the War on Terror and the clandestine nature that has kept readers hooked for fifteen previous novels. When an ill-equipped boat full of refugees sinks off the Italian coast, many die or are lost at sea. One significant body that turns up is a mid-level ISIS member with chemistry experience. After Harvarth breaks-up a potentially dangerous terror plot in Nevada, clues lead him to Libya, where a larger terror cell is plotting a significant attack. This is substantiated when a laptop found in the raid has a hidden drive, showing extensive chemical weapon attacks and options that could be used across Europe. There is a buzz inside the CIA Director’s Office, where there are whispers that senior members of the Agency are leaving to join the Carlton Group, where the eponymous head has been suffering issues of mental acuity. This may be the time to bring the Group down, or at least sully them to the point of no longer leeching Agency powerhouses. However, Reed Carlton will not go down with a few tricks of his own, unsure why his largest contractor has turned its back on him. All eyes turn to Paris when it is hit with a significant bombing. ISIS quickly claims responsibility, while a high-level Tajik operative behind the attack is plotting something even larger and more devastating at the heart of yet another Infidel stronghold. When Harvath is able to extract enough information in Libya, he leads his team into Italy, where the aforementioned refugee vessel becomes highly important. Might ISIS be smuggling some of its own into refugee camps, only to lay the groundwork for key strikes in the future? Could ISIS be teaming up with organized crime families in Italy to bring down significant portion of the population, led by a man with the odd moniker of La Formícula, or ‘the ant’. Prepared to do everything in their power to squash La Formícula before he leads a devastating strike, Harvath has little time to ponder his next move. A well-balanced piece that keeps the reader guessing as they flip pages until the explosive climax. Brad Thor fans will not be disappointed with this one, though those not familiar with the series might find it quite tech heavy.

I have long been a fan of Brad Thor and all his novels, which offer the great mix of Vince Flynn grit and Steve Berry off-beat humour. As his no-nonsense protagonist, Thor leads Scot Harvath into many an adventure without fully knowing where things will end up by the novel’s completion. Thor continues to construct a powerful backstory for Harvath, taking even more time than usual to hash-out some of his characteristics while experimenting by pushing a new layer onto the man; a set of emotions that come to the surface. Gone are the days of the neutral Harvath where killing is at the heart of his being. A collection of secondary characters also play key roles in their own ways, both to support and conflict with Harvath. The story is central and poignant to the news coming out of the region today, making the plot not only believable, but also plausible at this point on the ISIS terror matrix. The attentive reader will see some of these things and wonder if there could be some foreboding of what is to come. Those who dabble with the audiobook version of this story are treated to an extra track by the author, where Thor delves into some of the deeper areas surrounding research, influences, character mapping, and ideas for the future. A definite treat for long-time fans such as me who are always hoping to take a little more away from each novel. Harvath is going strong, but certain choices in the narrative might hint of some new pathways to come for the entire series, should Thor follow these breadcrumbs. I cannot wait to see what awaits!

Kudos, Mr. Thor for not letting up in this wonderful novel. I can see many who will be well-pleased with what is insinuated here, as well as the non-stop action.

A Deadly Betrothal (Ursula Blanchard Mysteries #15), by Fiona Buckley

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Fiona Buckley, and Severn House for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Fiona Buckley returns with her Elizabethan sleuth, Ursula Blanchard (now Stannard), in another murder mystery. While in the countryside with her manservant and groom, Ursula pays a visit on two close friends. During the visit, a teenage boy goes missing and there are strong suspicions that something nefarious is afoot. Amidst trying to find young Thomas Harrison, Ursula is summoned to Court where she is to meet with Queen Elizabeth to discuss a matter of some importance. At the age of forty-six, the monarch remains unwed and with no children, something that remains the fuel of whispers around the Court and onto the continent. News of a potential suitor has arrived, a French prince who has become enamoured at the sight of Elizabeth’s sketch. However, many are leery of this union, for reasons that include marriage to a Catholic and trying to produce an heir at her late age. With Mary Stuart keeping a close eye from afar, no one wishes to put the monarch in any position that might cost England the Throne or the Protestants control of the country. Returning to the estate, Ursula is forced to weigh her options and devise a way to influence Elizabeth one way or the other. During a trek in the forest, she comes upon the body of Master Harrison in a tree and a clue leases her to suspect someone of the crime, though they have conveniently made themselves scarce. While attending a banquet related to the potential future marriage of Queen ELizabeth, many guests fall ill, Ursula included. Could this be an unlucky bout of food poisoning, or is something try to remove all opposition to an English-French alliance through marriage? An interesting addition to this series that seems to have developed significantly throughout, Fiona Buckley has been able to keep readers hooked with interesting branch-offs that work as effectively today as in the late 16th century. Wonderfully quaint for readers who enjoy a little whodunit with their fish pie and tankard of ale.

I have never read the Ursula Blanchard series or any other Fiona Buckley writing before this book. Parachuting in at the fifteenth instalment might seem a little silly, but galley reviewing can sometimes be a sacrificial experience. Buckley tells the story in an effective manner, keeping the era in check while her story remains sharp enough to pull readers in. The characters seem realistic and could have been pulled from scenes of The Tudors, offering up their own individual flavour alongside a wonderfully regal-driven plot. Ursula Stannard herself (someone I mentioned I knew nothing about) has rich character development up to this point, including an interesting connection to the reigning monarch. Other characters keep things moving along and add just the right amount of intrigue. The story itself is decent, splitting between the counsel Ursula is to give the Court and this mystery that develops in the countryside. I would not call it high-impact mystery storytelling, but the reader can find the clues scattered throughout the narrative and piece things together in n effective manner. With enough drama to lure the the reader to keep pushing forward, the story offers up all it promises, a decent mystery set in Elizabethan times. I would likely poke around to find some early Ursula Blanchard to see how things started, though I am not yet committed to a fourteen-book binge to catch up to this point.

Kudos, Madam Buckley for this curious piece of writing that pulls on history and mystery in equal measure. My interest in piqued, if only to discover some of the revelations that Ursula let slip in the narrative. 

The Help, Kathryn Stockett

Nine stars

Kathryn Stockett has created this wonderful story that depicts life in America’s South during the early 1960s. A mix of humour and social justice, the reader is faced with a powerful piece on which to ponder while remaining highly entertained. In Jackson, Mississippi, the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement presented a time where colour was a strong dividing line between classes. Black women spent much of their time serving as hired help and raising young white children, while their mommas were playing ‘Society Lady’ as best they could. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan may have been part of the clique, born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but she held herself on the periphery, at times looking in. Skeeter was unwed and with few prospects, though her time away at college left her ready to tackle the workforce until an eligible man swept her off her feet. Skeeter returned to Jackson, only to find her family’s help left under mysterious circumstances and no one was willing to discuss it. Skeeter sought a job as a writer, prepared to begin at the bottom rung, but not giving up on sleuthing around to determine what might have been going on in Jackson. Skeeter scored a job writing an informative column in the local newspaper, giving cleaning tips to housewives in need of a little guidance. Who better to offer these tips that the hired help of Jackson?! Skeeter fostered a slow friendship with one, while building up a trust, and has an idea for a book that could offer a unique perspective in Mississippi’s divided society. Skeeter sought to write a tell-all from the perspective of the hired help, in hopes of shining a light on the ongoing domestic slavery taking place within a ‘freed’ America. With secret meetings taking place after working hours and Skeeter typing away, a mental shift took place and the idea of class became taboo, at least to some. Full of confessions and struggles in Mississippi society, Skeeter’s book may just tear the fabric of what has been a clearly demarcated community since after the Civil War. However, sometimes a book has unforeseen consequences, turning the tables on everyone and forcing tough decisions to be made. Stockett pulls no punches in the presentation, fanning the flames of racial and class divisions, as she depicts a way of thinking that was not only accepted, but completely sanctioned. A must-read for anyone ready to face some of the treatment undertaken in the name of ‘societal norms’, Stockett tells it like it was… and perhaps even still is!

Race relations in the United States has long been an issue written about, both in literature and pieces of non-fiction. How a country as prosperous as America could still sanction the mistreatment of a large portion of its citizens a century after fighting a war on the issue remains completely baffling. While Stockett focusses her attention on Mississippi, the conscious reader will understand that this sort of treatment was far from isolated to the state. One might venture to say that racism continued on a worldwide scale, creating a stir, while many played the role of ostriches and denied anything was going on. The characters within the book presented a wonderful mix of society dames and household help, each with their own issues that were extremely important. The characters bring stereotypes to life in an effort to fuel a raging fire while offering dichotomous perspectives. The interactions between the various characters worked perfectly, depicting each group as isolated and yet fully integrated. The household help bring the struggle of the double work day (triple, at times) while the society dames grasp to keep Mississippi from turning too quickly towards integration and equality, which they feel will be the end of all normalcy. Using various narrative perspectives, the characters become multi-dimensional. Additionally, peppering the dialogue with colloquial phraseology pulls the story to a new level of reality, one that is lost in strict textbook presentation. Stockett pushes the narrative into those uncomfortable places the reader hopes to keep locked in the pages of history, pushing the story to the forefront and requiring a synthesising of ideas and emotions. This discomfort is the only way the reader will see where things were, likely in a hope not to repeat some of history’s worst moments in America’s development. However, even fifty years after the book’s setting, there remains a pall of colour and class division promulgating on city streets. While racism is not as sanctioned in as many laws, it remains a strong odour and one that cannot simply be washed away by speaking a few words. This book, as entertaining as it is in sections, is far from fictional in its depiction of the world. The sooner the reader comes to see that, the faster change can occur. All lives matter, if we put in the effort and have the presence of mind to listen rather than rule from our own ivory towers.

Kudos, Madam Stockett for this wonderful piece. I am happy to have completed a buddy read on this subject and return to read what was a wonderful cinematic presentation.