The Shadow Project (Ben Hope #5), by Scott Mariani

Eight stars

With Scott Mariani at the helm, Ben Hope is sure to be back on another thrilling adventure, set to reveal what might have been a significant change in history. Enjoying his life in Le Val, his training facility in Northern France, Hope continues to provide top-notch service for those seeking to protect the more vulnerable people of the world. When a training seminar goes too far and Hope loses his temper, a fight ensues; one that could be more costly than the broken bones that Hope’s opponent suffers. Hope is forced to take the team back to Switzerland and offer the kidnap protection service to billionaire Maximilian Steiner, who possesses an interesting document, having procured piece of the Nazi’s larger plan that never saw the light of day. While guarding Steiner, a group attacks his compound and Hope sends in the troops, only to come across a woman from his past, which derails his efforts and leaves Steiner completely enraged. Hope is fired and returns to France, only to discover that his entire business is about to be financially decimated by a lawsuit related to the aforementioned fight. With everything to lose, Hope travels to Austria to track down these neo-Nazi soldiers in hopes of learning a little more about the woman as he tries to piece things together. Meanwhile, a collective of top scientists have been found murdered. Dr. Adam O’Connor learns that his friends have died, but thinks nothing of it until his son, Rory, is kidnapped. Willing to do whatever it takes to save Rory, O’Connor falls into the clutches of these neo-Nazis, who are resurrecting a new type of weapon, nicknamed The Bell, which might have turned the tables on the Allies back in 1944 and closely relates to the document Maximilian Steiner owns. During his search, Hope crosses paths with this technology and learns that Maximilian Steiner is anything but an honest man. With limited time and a new ally in this mystery woman, Hope must dismantle this weapon and learn all of Steiner’s nefarious plans. A needed jolt in this novel has put the Ben Hope series back on track and scored Mariani some well-deserved points. Fan of the series will surely agree that Hope is back in true form and those looking to learn more about Ben Hope have much on which they can base their first impressions.

After a lull in the writing, Mariani seems to have found his groove again, aided with some breathtaking backstory development of the protagonist. The Le Val complex helps develop some of Hope’s character, as his leadership skills are tested, along with his ability to manage his temper. Mariani tests this and the ability for Hope to hold down the business end of the character through various issues that evolve in the story. There is also some development within Hope’s personal life when the aforementioned ‘mystery woman’ emerges back in his life (I choose to let the reader discover her identity by reading the novel). There is surely an emotional investment in the story and Hope pulls on old memories to help shape his present-day interactions. Significant advancement within Hope’s personal life emerges, which could likely return as a minor thread in future novels. The story itself proves entertaining, as is most anything wrapped in a veil of mystery from the past century. The Nazi angle pulls away from the traditional concentration camp discussion, but does allow the reader to wonder ‘what if’ with some degree of fear. The narrative keeps the story moving forward on two tracks and the ‘hinged’ aspect is surely something for which Mariani remains known. I enjoy piecing together where things will cross or how a seemingly minor side story will eventually inflate and take over the central role in the latter chapters. Mariani is back with some exciting ideas and places Hope in precarious situation that force him to rein-in some of his emotional expressions. The reader benefits most from this, through significant enjoyment and story arc advancement.

Kudos, Mr. Mariani, for keeping your Ben Hope series fresh and exciting. You know just when to crank up the excitement to keep the reader curious.

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Trial of Passion (Arthur Beauchamp #1), by William Deverell

Seven stars

New to the world of William Deverell, I could not think of a more interesting series to read than that of Arthur Beauchamp. Pair a legal/courtroom drama with a Canadian setting and I was curious from the get-go. Arthur Beauchamp has made a name for himself in the Vancouver legal community as a razor-sharp defence attorney. However, with brambles in both his public and private lives, Beauchamp has decided to settle in Garibaldi, off the mainland of British Columbia. In an attempt to hit his own personal reset button, Beauchamp must acclimate to the more rural lifestyle that presents itself, while still answering questions about this drastic change from family and some friends. Slow to accept the small-town feel, Beauchamp remains steadfast in his desire to remain out of the legal fray, even when a significant case makes headlines and his name is bandied about to defend Professor Jonathan O’Donnell, current Dean of Law at UBC. During an affair with one of his students, Kimberley Martin, O’Donnell is said to have confined and raped her, though the entire ordeal is clouded in an alcoholic haze. As the preliminary hearing progresses in the narrative, Beauchamp is involved in his own legal matter in Garibaldi, with a neighbour who shows that she, too, can be pig-headed when it comes to the law. After mending proverbial fences with Mrs. Margaret Blake, Beauchamp can finally let down his personal wall and agrees to defend O’Donnell, whose significant fees are being covered without blinking an eye. By the time Beauchamp sinks his teeth into the case, there seems to be much more than a simple rape at hand, as the encounter was preceded by a law school party and intense flirting. Add to that, the ongoing sexual encounters that Martin and O’Donnell shared and things begin to take on an entirely new meaning. Armed with a somewhat sturdy defence, Beauchamp is prepared to cross paths with the Crown, though neither could have expected how a newly-appointed judge might handle proceedings. Beauchamp must dodge many a bullet to show that O’Donnell is not the fiend the Crown wishes to make him out to be and that Ms. Martin is anything but the innocent student lured into her professor’s lair. Deverell presents this somewhat meandering legal thriller to the reader and entertains while building a high-brow narrative that is sure to have helped garner him significant literary awards. Not for those who want a superficial legal read, but well worth the invested time of a dedicated reader.
Let me be the first to admit, literary awards mean little to me as a reader. I am more interested in a story that I will enjoy, rather than a panel of individuals seeking high-brow amusement and discovering symbolism in every verb. Deverell has laid the groundwork for an excellent series here by developing Arthur Beauchamp as not only a well-established lawyer, but one who seeks to reinvent himself. His struggle to come to terms with his wife’s decision to divorce and his attempts to adapt to rural living prove to be the ideal fodder to shape this man into someone the reader can enjoy. There is much yet to be said about Beauchamp, but I am intrigued to see if Garibaldi will remain the settling for the series, as it is a wonderful place for the reader to learn more about the aforementioned contrasts. As with any series that seeks to take the protagonist out of their comfort zone, there will be many interesting characters who emerge. Margaret Blake is one that proves to be both a thorn in Beauchamp’s side and yet curries favour with him to the point of commencing something romantic. I am eager to see where Deverell takes that, should he allow them to continue this romantic entanglement. The premise of the book was very strong and the legal aspects kept me thinking throughout, though the presentation left something to be desired. As I began reading, I found myself trying to hack through much of the verbiage that Deverell presents to come to terms with the narrative’s intended effect. Use of extensive Latin and thesaurus-rendering vocabulary left me pondering how long it would take to develop a fondness for the story. By waiting, I was able to survive the slow ascent this literary rollercoaster took and treat myself to a stunning rush once the courtroom matters began building. I soon became hooked, even with stunningly long chapters to present the point at hand. Deverell will hopefully have only used this in the opening novel, though seeing the gem at the end, I will try to persevere, should the follow-up novel be as wordy. The courtroom aspects of the novel propel the story forward and the unique style Beauchamp brings to the defence kept me wanting to learn more and witness things firsthand. I suspect that if the rest of the series, to date, is as legally balanced, I am in for a wonderful binge-read.
Kudos, Mr. Deverell for being able to balance the law and Canada in equal measure. While the setting is not quintessential in this piece you have made me proud to see a Canadian legal thriller of such high quality is available for those who want it.

The Heretic’s Treasure (Ben Hope #4), by Scott Mariani

Seven stars

Mariani brings Ben Hope back for his fourth full-length adventure, constantly reinventing this highly energetic protagonist. Having been through a number of professions in his short life, Ben Hope still wants to hang up his adventure goggles in some form. However, in the world of Kidnap & Ransom, there is never a shortage of work. Seeing an opportunity, Hope purchases some land in France and opens up his own training facility. With things running smoothly, Hope receives a call from Colonel Harry Paxton, a former colleague, who has a mission for him; find his son’s murderers. Eminent Egyptologist, Morgan Paxton, has been working to uncover the ‘Akhenaten Project' in Cairo, the most mysterious project of his life. While torn, Hope cannot help but remember the elder Paxton’s sacrifice when he was a young soldier and agrees to investigate. However, Hope is also drawn to Colonel Paxton’s much-younger wife, Zara. The attraction seems mutual and Hope forges into Egypt to find the killers and bring some balance to the Paxton family. What begins as a simple mission of redemption soon turns much darker than expected. A double-cross fuelled with Hope’s thinking with his heart pushes him deeper into the Egypt mystery than he pledged. Hope finds himself bouncing around various geographic locations to follow the trail of the Akhenaten Project, culminating in a showdown with a cutthroat terrorist in war-torn Africa. What follows could significantly change the political climate around the world. Who was Pharaoh Akhenaten and how did his secret leave him branded a heretic by those of his era? Mariani keeps the story fresh and the thrills continuous in this Ben Hope story that will have readers curious until the very end. Recommended to series fans and those who need a summer jolt for their reading lists.

Mariani continues to create his Ben Hope character, offering something unique in each of the novels to date. Here, with Hope trying to balance between ‘former warrior’ and ‘fully retired’, Mariani places his protagonist in a spot to explore the teaching role, as if he wanted to pass along his knowledge for the next generation. Of course, that is foiled and keeps him in the game. Interestingly enough, Hope also suffers only briefly with the loss of his wife and turns his eyes (and heart) towards a new interest, though she is surely off limits in the early stages of this book. Mariani continues to portray Hope as a man able to sow many proverbial oats and who has to keep an oak door as the women seek to beat it down. However, this banter between Hope and the lady friends he keeps shows a more tender side to the man who is happy to cut a throat in the line of duty. Turning to the story itself, I found myself, again, less than drawn to the overall idea, though Mariani keeps the reader guessing with all the travel and some of the head butting scenes. One can only hope this lull in the plot does not become a new normal, though with many books yet to go in the series, one can surmise that this is but a brief dial-down. While Egypt has much to offer historically, with scores of mysteries intertwined within its centuries of undiscovered stories, I found this to be less electrifying as I might have liked. Ben Hope has much to offer and the early chapters showed a great deal of intriguing storytelling, but the full-impact story lost me at some points. Again, as mentioned above, there may be a lull here or I might just be a little off my game.

Kudos, Mr. Mariani for advancing the Ben Hope character in new directions. There is surely much to be found in this man and his life in the numerous novels to come.

The Doomsday Prophecy (Ben Hope #3), by Scott Mariani

Seven stars

Scott Mariani continues to impress with his third novel in the Ben Hope series. With continued enthusiasm, Mariani pushes Hope to the brink to entertain readers until the final pages. Having made a promise to his wife that he would retire from this dangerous life once and for all, Ben Hope formally retirement. With distant thoughts of life in the SAS and then as a kidnap and ransom operative, Hope attends a local wedding, ready to return to his theological studies. While there, an old colleague approaches him for work, though Hope has little to offer, proudly announcing that he is ‘out of the game’. Soon after returning to Oxford, Hope is summoned by a former professor and asked to undertake a special mission. Erratic biblical archeologist Zoe Bradbury has gone off the radar and her family is trying to determine if she is alive and well. Citing his dedication to his studies, Hope passes the easy case off to his friend, who sets out for the Greek Islands. When Hope receives a panicked call, he agrees to come and help sift through the mess. A bomb blast in a crowded area leaves many dead and Hope on the case to find Bradbury, if only to determine what has been going on. Meanwhile, Bradbury has been held by a group who are trying to extract a secret from her, one that could change Christianity forever. Hope follows the trail from Greece to the American Deep South, where he discovers the pull of evangelical Christianity and the sway it holds over many. Might Bradbury have discovered something to do with the Book of Revelations, the cornerstone to the End of Days prophecies by which many evangelicals live and breathe? Hope will stop at nothing to find out, even if it means battling a fiery preacher and a rogue collective of CIA operatives. Armed with a single CIA agent he can trust in Alex Fiorante, Hope pulls out every stop to bring this mission to a successful completion. Whether or not he finds Bradbury, he is in the crosshairs of a few ruthless killers and a fundamentalist sect who will stop at nothing to bring about their own End of Days. Another piece that ramps up the energy while delivering a punch to the gut. Highly recommended for those who like a fast-paced mystery that delves into areas some might call taboo!

Mariani has done a wonderful job to continue the development of Ben Hope’s backstory. While much is going on in his present, including the death of a loved one, the reader continues to sift through his past to discover his dedication to theological studies. That said, I have a hard time picturing an Anglican priest fighting crime, but stranger things have happened. Ben Hope will always be SAS, as it is embedded into his psyche. He will also always foster a desire to help those who have been taken, a.k.a his K&R work. However, he does not remain stagnant, shooting and killing while scooping and running. He trips on the mysteries of the world, becoming more academic and pensive in his actions. Mariani offers the reader this multi-faceted approach and it works well for the series so far. True, there is a long way to go, but with constant character development and background foundational support, Ben Hope will never become stale, as some characters in the genre have started to lose their lustre. Turning to the story at hand, it pulls on the drama of a missing person search with the undertones of something scandalous that could change the world. I will admit that this did not hold my attention as much as I would have liked. Perhaps the topic at hand, the truth of the Book of Revelations, was a little too weighty for Mariani to tackle in the pages of this book, but the pace at which he developed the story was decent. The narrative kept the plot clipping along and moving from scene to scene, as well as various locales. The trademark hinged narrative is back again, though the primary plot remains dangling for close to the entire story, allowing readers to feel a sense of completion only when the last chapter presents a final period. A slight dip in the overall delivery, but I was still hooked on seeing where Hope would take things and whether there would be another of those ‘single novel no strings’ romances.

Kudos, Mr. Mariani for keeping me entertained throughout. I have a large audio stack to go, so best forge onwards and lose myself in another Ben Hope thriller.

The Cuban Affair, by Nelson DeMille

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Nelson DeMille, and Simon & Schuster for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.
Returning with another novel full of political commentary and a slice of dry wit, Nelson DeMille shows how he has long been a master storyteller with yet another sensational novel. Daniel ‘Mac’ MacCormick enjoys the quiet life in Key West, Florida. Having traded in his military life for that of a charter boat captain, he is able to enjoy the calm breeze and only a few arrogant customers at a time. When he is approached with an offer to sail a group down to Cuba, the idea does not much appeal to him. Up the ante to over a million dollars for his troubles and he is in. With the Cuban Thaw, Americans are slowly becoming accepted in the country, but this mission is anything but an advance team for the party planners during the welcoming fiesta. Instead, Mac will work with Cuban American Sara Ortega to secure a vast sum of cash and valuables left by her banker grandfather before the Cuban Revolution. These vast riches are currently stashed away in a cave well away from Havana’s lights. Posing as members of a Yale Travel Group, Mac and Sara arrive in Havana and begin putting their plan into action. Their cover seems secure and a faked holiday romance soon turns completely genuine. However, their Cuban tour guide may be onto them and tips his hand a little too soon. With a general idea of where the money is located and a plan to get it out of the country in the dead of night, all it will take is a timely execution of the plan. Trouble is, they still need to get back to US soil before they are caught by the Cubans. Might this operation bring a renewed diplomatic chill to a relationship that remains precariously uncertain? Full of one-liners and sarcastic banter, DeMille entertains, educates, and enthrals fans with this novel. Recommended to anyone with a great respect for humour in its driest form paired with a story ripped from the headlines.
Nelson DeMille has a style all his own and exemplifies it yet again here. His use of sarcasm and dry wit passes through all protagonists borne of his pen, but it is the delivery and the ease with which the reader can enjoy its inclusion that makes it so accepted. Mac is another wonderful character cut from the same cloth as John Corey. He seeks the simple life and yet seems to find trouble at every turn. He has just the right amount of machismo to lure in the women and leave the men beating their chests in jealousy. Using a military backstory, DeMille is able to not only pull his protagonist into the current situation at hand, but also pull punches as it relates to the two wars that continue to simmer when US boots need not be. Add in a spicy female to offset Mac’s bravado and you have a wonderful pairing. Ortega is an independent woman who wants to do her family proud, but cannot deny the allure of this scarred ship captain. Turning to the story, DeMille weaves a wonderfully realistic story, using some of his research during a trip to the country in 2015 and shows how the Thaw might be welcomed on one side, but not yet fully celebrated in Cuba. Still, it is apparently the State Department that has turned this police state into the untrusting tiny country that has been a thorn in the American backside. Rich with history and descriptions of the countryside, DeMille takes the reader to the streets of rural Cuba and nighttime Havana with his well-crafted narrative. Injecting just the right amount of political commentary, the reader will surely see the Thaw through the eyes of a patriotic American who has witnessed the sentiments on the other side. Whatever Cuba might be to the reader, this is a wonderful story and keeps the action going until the final pages. Witty yet full of social comparisons between the two nations, DeMille delivers a knockout punch.
Kudos, Mr. DeMille for telling this story at a time when many are surely questioning the need for ongoing embargoes and travel restrictions. They may have once been chummy with the Russians, but Cuba poses much less of a threat than the current American Administration.

The Mozart Conspiracy (Ben Hope #2), by Scott Mariani

Eight stars

Returning for another full-length novel, Scott Mariani sends Ben Hope into a tailspin of emotions. After learning that his friend and former colleague, Oliver Llewellyn, has drowned in a freak winter accident, Hope attends the funeral. While there, Ben sees Oliver’s sister and his own former love interest, Leigh, who is now a well-known opera singer. Tensions rise and Hope disappears before old wounds can be reopened. However, when Leigh contacts Hope for some assistance, they must put their past behind them and focus on the task at hand. Oliver’s death was originally ruled as a drunken accident, but then also attributed to his book research on the subject of Mozart and his apparent murder. Mozart was a member of the Freemasons and to celebrate that he penned a famous opera, The Magic Flute. The competent historian or active Mason would be able to see some of the strong connections to this secret society. Oliver seemed to be positing that Mozart might have been killed by a splinter group, long since extinct. With only an ancient letter by which to follow leads, something isn’t adding up. Oliver’s death is equally troubling to Austrian Detective Sergeant Markus Kinski, who tries to reopen the case. His daughter is briefly taken and his superior takes a sudden retirement, hinting that there might be some things best left alone. When a video lands in their laps, Hope and Leigh begin to wonder if the Order of Ra is alive and well, committing ritualistic murders. Oliver seems to have captured one of these before he was caught and potentially killed to keep him quiet. In a race to find out the truth behind the deaths of both Oliver and Mozart, the Order is hot on their heels. Kinski begins to work with Hope and Leigh, helping to protect the opera star and his own daughter while the Order remains active. Unfortunately, the Order of Ra is deep and has ties everywhere, which forces Hope’s hand, if he wants a happy ending to this conspiracy. Electrifying and fast-paced, Mariani knows how to pull the reader in with breadcrumbs and lead them around the world on this historical mystery.

I will admit that I am quite intrigued by the Ben Hope series, with all its undertones and subplots that fill the pages of the pieces I have discovered to date. Mariani imbues much that the reader can enjoy while not getting too caught up in the minutiae of the historical record. While the series is only two full novels in (and three novellas/short stories), much of the Ben Hope backstory is coming to the surface. In this novel, they reader learns a little more about Hope’s SAS time and the woman he abandoned, as well as his mindset on settling down. I do hope that these building blocks turn out to be poignant as the series continues. At present, Hope remains the only constant character, but that might change, forcing the reader to pick up much of the description offered to the other characters in the book. Mariani does a stellar job bringing the reader into the lives of these characters and building a sense of connection, which can only help push the narrative forward. Mariani also pushes to keep the story moving and interesting, choosing some of the lesser known historical happenings and crafting a story around them. This allows him to play with fact and fiction, while also keeping the reader wondering. I get a small chuckle, as Mariani appears keen to ‘destroy’ the evidence that could turn the world on its head, at some point in the novel, which is a tactic used by another author in the genre who has a similar plot thread. I have noticed that Mariani enjoys what I would called a ‘hinged narrative’, in that he tells the story that has been progressing nicely, but peppers the narrative with a subplot or alternate storyline that does not seem to play into what is going on. Then, three-quarters of the way through, the primary story resolves itself and the hinge ‘bends’, turning the story onto this new path, creating a secondary adventure, one might say. This seems to work and does tie in nicely, without leaving the reader feeling cheated or too out to sea with the earlier narrative mentions. The story is strong and the characters help fuel a wonderful narrative. What more could a thriller do for someone seeking an escape?

Kudos, Mr. Mariani for keeping me hooked. I am steamrolling through these pieces, but loving them very much!