Sweetpea, by C.J. Skuse

Seven stars

After having written a number of Young Adult novels, C.J. Skuse turns to her darker side in penning this piece, rich in angst and homicidal actions. Rhiannon Lewis hates her life and most of those who cross her path. Using a series of diary entries, she explores this hatred by tipping her hand to the reader. Many of her entries begin with a list of those she despises the most and why they rub her the wrong way. Be it people from the news, those at her place of employment, or people with whom she must interact in public, Rhiannon cannot let things flow off her back. As the narrative progresses, the reader learns that Rhiannon was once famous for being the sole survivor in a horrific attack on a daycare facility, though she suffered significant injuries. These injuries seem to have numbed her ability to truly care for others, while also helping to foster a sense of vigilante behaviour, which she uses to restore balance in the world. Rhiannon has many secrets, but none darker than the need to punish those who have wronged the innocent and to harm people who do not serve a useful purpose in her day to day life. The narrative is full of these struggles and the list of personal enemies that Rhiannon finds troublesome seems to grow as time passes. That being said, a personal event turns everything on its head and forces Rhiannon to reassess her life and the choices she’s made; a new feeling for this seemingly cold and emotionless woman. Whatever the struggle, Rhiannon Lewis will not be the same by the end, though no one can truly tell how she’ll turn out. Skuse offers a very dark and demented path through this novel, sure to interest those who enjoy personal struggle and protagonists with deep and homicidal secrets.

I chose this book on the recommendation of a friend, who knows how much I enjoy a twisted tale. I was not entirely sure what to expect, but did hope for some psychological thriller that would keep me up well into the night. Instead, I pushed through this personal journal of a twenty-something woman who has a hit list a mile long and many deep secrets she wants to keep from others. Rhiannon is quite the repulsive character, particularly because of her attitude towards the outside world. As she mentions throughout the narrative, she has a ‘me’ side and a public persona to uphold, a difficult act to support through troubling times. However, her Dexter-like duality might serve to better underscore her struggles on a daily basis. The reader cannot help but feel a ray of sympathy for her, though surely dislikes her ongoing attacks on anyone who is not perfect. With a cast of varied secondary characters, Skuse is able to prop up her novel with a vast array of fodder to fuel Rhiannon’s fire, though no one can be sure when things will take a significant turn. The story itself is decent, though there are surely segments that drag and left me wondering how long it would take to push through. This is definitely not a fast-paced piece, nor is it something with mysterious crumbs left throughout the narrative. The reader must dedicate themselves to getting to the very end, where more surprises lie in wait. I am happy to say I made it, though the journey was anything but simple. Still, Skuse kept me wondering and guessing, with some significantly curious means of tying up loose ends by the final few entries.

Kudos, Madam Skuse, for a great piece, which differs greatly from your usual fare. I am eager to see what else you might bring up for publishing in the coming years. I know I’ll keep an eye open!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, by Chris Whipple

Nine stars

Chris Whipple offers a stunning look behind the curtain and into the depths of the West Wing, wherein resides some of the most powerful unelected figures in the American political machine. At the pinnacle of this group is a man (for there has yet to be a woman in the role) who wears the moniker Chief of Staff (CoS). Charged with keeping the various factions at bay and protecting the President of the United States (POTUS), the CoS serves primarily as a gatekeeper, but also as the one whose job it is to fall on any political grenade and take the brunt of any blowback for decisions made in the Oval Office. Whipple explores the role of Chief of Staff, loosely formed under Eisenhower, and how it became an essential part of every West Wing since Nixon rose to power in 1968. No POTUS has been without one (save for the early years of Jimmy Carter, who thought he could do it alone), sometimes acting as a sounding board and at other times that sober second thought to prevent disaster. Whipple explores each of the CoS who filled the role, beginning with H.R. Haldeman, who guided a cutthroat Nixon away from early disaster, only to find himself stained with Watergate, which led to the downfall of his boss. Members who served in the role of Chief would make a name for themselves, returning decades later to serve even more important roles, such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who guided the brief Ford presidency along some shaky tracks. Others, like James A. Baker III, would serve under Reagan, but return to guide future presidents with key political advice (read: Bush 41 and 43). Even the likes of Obama’s picks to fill the role would not find themselves rooted for long, especially Rahm Emanuel, who was the first of four men to guide the troops under the last POTUS. As Whipple argues throughout, the role is not for the feint of heart or those who have a strong personal friendship with POTUS, but rather requires a backbone and the ability to say no to the Leader of the Free World, especially at the most inopportune moments. Whipple does a masterful job a recounting some of the behind-the-scenes moments and gives foundation to major events each POTUS faced, showing how the CoS played a role in events, even when they may not have wanted to step forward. Of greatest interest, looking ahead, Whipple uses his findings to forecast the need for a strong person (or persons) to serve as CoS to the 45th POTUS, prone to march to the beat of his own Twitter characters. Political junkies will love this book, which is not bogged down in too much minutiae, though it is a sobering look for anyone with an inkling of political interest.

I approached this book as a lesser dose of politics in these deeply divisive days in America. While not an American myself, I have a keen interest in political history south of the Canadian border, something that Whipple offers here. Whipple uses key events and clashes between POTUS and CoS to illustrate that there were many times when decisions did not flow as smoothly as they might have appeared in front of the camera. There are also numerous mentions of Chiefs having to rein in their bosses, who were hellbent on making stupid mistakes, placing ego before pragmatism. With a narrative that entertains as well as educates, Whipple draws on first-hand interviews as well as documented evidence to provide the reader with as thorough a look behind the doors of power, save when doing so might violate national security. The reader can sit back and see the progression of the role of Chief of Staff, though there were times when Chiefs refused to learn from their predecessors, citing political or ideological reasons. While the role is surely political, Whipple argues that it is more a shepherd herding sheep, no matter their political stripe. And, wherever possible, protecting the man in the Oval Office from political shrapnel.

Kudos, Mr. Whipple, for such a wonderful piece. I can only hope that I find more of you work in the coming years, as it was informative but not preachy. Well worth the time invested.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Jack the Reaper (The Hunt for Jack Reacher Series #8), by Diane Capri

Seven stars

Diane Capri has returned to add to her Hunt for Reacher series, taking a slightly different approach to events. After an explosion in a home, everyone is presumed dead, including the elusive Jack Reacher. FBI Agents Otto and Gaspar have been two steps behind him for so long and now, it would seem, things have gone frigid. However, after the controversial document dump, TrueLeaks, transcripts of a telephone call speaking of Reacher being alive and well, which means Otto and Gaspar must rush to New York to continue their investigation. All the while, General MacKenzie ‘Nitro Mack’ Parnell has come to learn of a sizeable amount of money being hidden away in an New York apartment, money that was tied to an operation he sanctioned years ago. Now, Parnell wants what he feels is his and will stop at nothing to retrieve it. Nitro Mack has a history with Reacher as well, someone who had little love loss for his superior while still serving in the military. As Agents Otto and Gaspar piece together a better understanding of what is going on with Reacher, they are soon following the track of Parnell’s mess as he hunts down the money. As more bodies pile up and the money is nowhere to be found, everyone begins to wonder if, like Reacher, it’s disappeared in plain sight. Capri does well to stand alone while keeping Reacher true to his nature. A decent effort that Reacher fans may like, though the series grows and stands on its own merits.

As she tends to do with each novel’s introduction, Capri pays homage to Lee Child and his creation of the Jack (none) Reacher character. She speaks of how each novel she writes parallels with one that Child has created, which allows the reader to read them one after the other and notice the chronological ties. I have never done so and feel that Capri’s work can stand alone, though the elusive nature of Reacher from Child’s novels is just as strong in this series. Otto and Gaspar remain central characters here and pose no threat to overpowering one another. Many of the past novels have developed their characters, but here, it would seem as though they are in neutral and the focus is strictly Reacher and Parnell. Capri’s glimpse into Otto’s personal thoughts and a run-in within her apartment is about as in-depth a character reveal as the story offers. The secondary characters, as with the mainstream Reacher stories, change each time, though they are well placed here to deliver a strong story. While the story was good and paced itself well, I found it difficult to affix myself to everything that was going on. I wanted to, as I love Reacher, but this piece seemed less focussed on Reacher and more on how the agents would eventually fall in line with Parnell’s antics. It could be an anomaly of the series and I will not rake Capri over the coals for my own sense of confusion. Overall, a decent effort and I am eager to see if she can redeem herself with the next book, highlighted at the end of the narrative.

Kudos, Madam Capri, for keeping Jack (none) Reacher alive between Lee Child novels. You do well on your own and it shines through with each novel you produce in this series.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Lazarus Rising, by John Howard

Nine stars

Exploring key political figures in other countries can be a very exciting endeavour, especially for those who have a thirst for knowledge and willingness to examine unique political systems. While I have inundated myself with American presidents over the past number of years, I thought I would look to a fellow Commonwealth country and seek to better understand the life of John Howard, Australia’s prime minister from 1996-2007. In this comprehensive political and personal memoir, Howard explores his life and the great impact it played in his personal growth, as well as the important events that shaped Australia at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st. Howard divides his memoirs into three distinct periods, which serve well to differentiate time frames for review. To better understand John Howard, it serves to understand his initial introduction into politics, time on the opposition benches, and period as prime minister. While I will not try to be thorough in my examination, my skimming along the surface seeks to whet the appetite of the review reader to see some of the key highlights that leapt off the page. I seek, also, not to delve too deeply into the Australian political divide, which I realise can be quite significant. I had an Australian friend comment to me that I would surely not find much interest in Howard (in comparison to a single-term US president whose biography I read and reviewed recently), though I can honestly say this book has significantly contradicted that sentiment. The curious and dedicated reader who has an interest in parliamentary politics and foreign relations will certainly find something in the substantial memoir that Howards offers.

In his cordial style, John Howard dives right in during the opening chapters of his book to show how politics influenced him from an early age. Growing up against the backdrop of the Second World War, Howard witnessed the importance of Australian government policy from an early age, with food and petrol rationing to keep the country afloat. He discusses the deep-rooted Labor Party affinity his family held, based on the working class nature of his parents and grandparents. While Howard was not actively involved in the political process, he cites remembering going to the polls at a young age, as though the importance of democracy was firmly rooted into his psyche. It was when he left to study law at university that Howard became interested in politics, turning to the Liberal Party to meet his needs. Finding himself centre-right in his leanings, Howard found solace in the party and its policies, headed by Sir Robert Menzies, a popular and long-serving prime minister of the time. Working hard to keep the Liberals in power, Howard tested the water a few times, both federally and at the state-level, but failed to win a seat in either parliament. His dedication and determination to stick to his beliefs led him to finally win a seat under the Liberal leadership of Malcolm Fraser, another well-known prime minister. While serving with Fraser, Howard was promoted quickly, perhaps due to his attention to detail, and was soon given the portfolio of Minister for the Treasury, which, in Australia, provided him the opportunity to delivery the annual budget to Parliament. Howard discusses some of the important decisions that he was able to make during this time, shaping fiscal policy under Fraser and honing his skills as a potential leader in the future. Howard began to make a name for himself in Australia and the Oceania-Asian region during this time, while also clashing with some of the strong trade-unions and Labor Party Members of Parliament (MPs), who sought to contradict his pronouncements at every turn. While riding the high of serving in government, Howard could sense that Fraser’s wave might soon crash, turning a strong Australian Government on its head, left to the decisions of the electorate. That day came in 1983 when the Liberals were unceremoniously turfed from office after a double dissolution (Governor-General dissolved both houses and sent them to elections), leaving a Labor Party ready to negate much of Howard’s (read: Fraser) policies over the last number of years.

Howard’s time serving on the opposition benches proved quite effective for his future as Australian prime minister. Those familiar with the parliamentary system will know that there is always a ‘government-in-waiting’ or shadow cabinet, seeking to leap on any moment that the governing collective might gaffe significantly. Howard was forced to endure significant time as an opposition member, but did not do so idly. His past as Treasury Minister left him as the front-line critic of Labor fiscal policy, which sought to undo much of what he had done while at the helm. Howard did his best, while basing his criticisms in fact rather than ideological rhetoric, though it is impossible to divorce the two completely. Another aspect of time in opposition that Howard highlights relates to an Australian parliamentary adage, ‘there is much dry grass around a party leader’. In essence, a party leader is in the precarious position that anyone who opposes them significantly could toss the proverbial match and cause many issues. Howard saw the Liberals in this position on numerous occasions, as leadership questions arose and factions sought to remove Fraser. Howard tried to hold his ground and, while serving as deputy leader, saw the parliamentary party choose new directions repeatedly throughout the Liberal time in opposition (including Howard serving as leader twice). Without getting too academic here, Australia follows the British parliamentary system, whereby elected officials (in both the House of Representatives and Senate) are responsible for choosing their leader, rather than the party faithful. So, any disharmony could lead to a leader’s ouster at the drop of a hat. Howard weathered the storm here and discusses the repeated strains on his position as MP and shadow cabinet member, what with the numerous backstabbing efforts of the two factions within the Liberals. While not all that exciting for some readers, I found it quite interesting to see the struggles that rose behind closed doors and were reported in the media. When Howard ascended to the leadership role for the second time, Labor was on precarious ground, having turned to ideologically running the country, rather than putting the Australian people first. The election of March 1996 would prove highly interesting, with John Howard taking the Liberal troops into the battle of their lives.

The election of the Coalition (Liberal and National parties) again in March 1996 proved to be a turning point, not only because John Howard was at the helm, but because it ushered in a new era of Australian politics, one in which the newly-elected prime minister sought to shape the country in his own way. As Howard mentions in the introduction, this segment of the memoir fills 2/3 of the entire narrative, speaking to the detail and complexities of some topics discussed herein. Howard had served on the Government benches before, so this was not a complete culture shock, but leading a party (and country) proved to be much different than acting as a Minister. Howard recounts gaining his legs in a Parliament that remained someone in transition, having been led by Labor for a number of years. New policies and approaches had to be vetting through the parliamentary system and new faces meant trying to massage what was already a complicated parliamentary party into a workable and cohesive unit. The aforementioned ‘dry grass’ approach remained on Howard’s radar, though he did not make mention of worrying about it too often (save some jitters late in his parliamentary career). While Howard did serve through a number of elections, he chose not to take large segments of the narrative to describe the campaign trail, unlike what might be found in many of the presidential biographies and memoirs I have tackled in years past. Instead, Howard’s focus was to explore many of the key issues that arose during his time in power. Howard devotes much time to the debate over a GST (Goods and Services Tax), seeking to increase monies that could be used by the federal government and its state counterparts. The divisive nature of this tax seemed to fuel the debate for a 1998 election, where the electorate chose to keep Howard in power, thereby offering their blessing for such a significant tax. Additional issues of indigenous peoples treatment and the brewing debate over turning Australia into a republic received much discussion, the latter going to a referendum in 1999. Howard shows his colours as a strong monarchist and lays the groundwork not only for his party’s beliefs, but his own, which enriches the narrative and provides the reader with a better understanding of the debate. Seeking to help East Timor declare independence from Indonesia proved to be one of Howard’s first international dilemmas, but it would show his desire to put democracy and the stability of the region ahead of anything else. Howard also recounts his long-standing relationship with George W. Bush, with whom he first forged a relationship while he was in the United States during the attacks of September 11, 2001. Throughout the narrative, Howard returns to the importance of this America-Australia relationship, which served to balance the international political unrest at a time of much confusion. Likeminded centre-right leaders, Bush and Howard kept a close relationship throughout the former’s time in office, still speaking after they both left office. Howard uses his omnipotent view of the world political scene and experience leading Australia to offer some insights (and critiques) of leaders in both Australia and America, based on the actions he and Bush took to shape events. There is no shortage of issues that are addressed by Howard, including: the Bali attacks, immigration policy, Kyoto protocols, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and regional political cohesion. While those outside the Australian reaches might not fully comprehend the importance of these and many other topics, Howard offers interesting perspectives through the lens of his leadership efforts. By the time he left office, after Kevin Rudd and Labor swept back into power in 2007, Howard was ready to accept the decision of the electorate, though refused to disappear into the political wilderness. As a man still active in political and international statesman circles, Howard makes clear that he will always present his opinions, though not interfere with the elected officials running Australia in the 21st century.

While some were sure that I would find less interest in John Howard’s story than many of the American political biographies I have enjoyed, I feel strongly that this was an erroneous presumption. Howard lays out his story in such a way that the reader can easily comprehend what he is saying, without diluting the message. Not overly academic in nature, the reader should be aware that this is more than an Australian political primer. It addresses key areas of politics, parliament, and international relations as seen through the eyes of Howard throughout his political career. A general knowledge of the political system helps and a keen interest in learning is also an essential reader trait, but Howard discusses things in such a way that there is no need to have intimate knowledge of Australian history, both political and social. Howard’s approach is one that does not shy away from educating the reader, while also not pulling punches when it comes to those with whom he does not agree. Howard makes his political leanings known, which may trump some from caring at all. Liberal and Labor politics are surely as divisive as some of the political differences in my native Canada, but Howard is able to rise above, on occasion, and speak for Australia. That is not to say that he does not offer many potshots at the disarray that became the Labor Party in Government. His respect for the electoral process, democracy, and the right to alternate opinions shines through in the delivery of this information-rich narrative. Howard served long enough to have a strong opinion of world events and was in power during some of the most important world events in the last fifty years. The second longest-serving prime minister, Australians may not all have liked John Howard or his politics, but they should be proud to have had such a competent leader who sought to shape Australia’s place on the world stage. I know I learned a great deal and have developed a great deal of curiosity about a fellow Commonwealth and parliamentary-led country.

Kudos, Mr. Howard, for permitting me such an in-depth look into your life, particularly the political aspects. I am better for having this knowledge and you offer it up in such a way as to have whetted my appetite for more.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Justice Lost (Darren Street #3), by Scott Pratt

Nine stars

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

As a long-time fan of Scott Pratt and his work, I was pleased to receive an early copy of his latest Darren Street thriller. Having been through a great deal over the past few years, Darren Street is starting to revisit all the criminal acts that he’s committed, covered up just enough to keep him one step ahead of the authorities. That said, he feels a sense of vindication, having disposed of a few key figures who have left him feeling empty. Now he is able to turn over a new leaf, with his girlfriend ready to give birth to their daughter. As they arrive at the birthing centre, the doctor on call is not answering his pages and when he does arrive, he stinks of a distillery. Another doctor takes the lead with the delivery, which turns into something high-risk, as Street waits for news. Tragedy strikes and Street is again plagued with devastation, blaming the intoxicated doctor for negligence. When Street approaches the District Attorney General, his request for legal action hits a wall and soon learns that friends will cover for one another, no matter what. While his conscience is trying to tell him not to, Street must handle things in his own way. Additionally, Street is talked into challenging the District Attorney General in the upcoming election. While preparing for his big day, Street uses some strong financial and political resources at his disposal, but also realises that the county is riddled with corrupt officials. Knowing that Street will soon uncover their backroom dealings, some of these officials take it upon themselves to neutralise him. As Street seeks elected office, he must also dodge those who would see him face the verdict he has handed out many time before; death at any cost. Pratt does a masterful job in this third novel in the Darren Street series. Fans of his work and those who enjoy a darker thriller will surely find something exciting in this novel.

I thoroughly enjoy Scott Pratt’s writing and his unique approach to legal matters. He has developed a strong series that keeps the reader wondering just how far Darren Street will go to balance the scales once and for all. In Street, Pratt has created an interesting character, whose development has been quite dramatic in these three series books. While Street has faced adversity and taken things into his own hands, he begins to grow a conscience and has second thoughts about all the blood he’s shed. Building on the crimes that have plagued him before, Street comes to see how fragile life and his future might be if he does not change his tune. Filled with some interesting supporting characters, Pratt is able to shape the story in many different ways, as though there are a few mini-plots that all come together in the end. While I have criticised the vigilante lawyer presented in the first two novels, they have grown on me. A mix of legal matters and Dexter-like criminal activities, Pratt develops his story in an effective way, which entertains readers until the final pages.

Kudos, Mr. Pratt, for another stellar piece of writing. I have loved this newer series and will recommend it to anyone who has an interest in vigilante justice.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

A Cold Cold Heart, by John Nicholl

Nine stars

John Nicholl is back with another spine-tinging psychological thriller that will keep the reader hooked until the final sentence. A number of young women have turned up murdered, strangled by hand and dressed in some vintage outfits. West Wales Police takes up the investigation, headed by DI Gareth Gravel, who is still trying to balance work and his personal life. When Gravel receives a surprise visit from his daughter, Emily, he is overjoyed, especially when she reveals that she’s taken a local job as a solicitor. As the investigation heats up, Gravel suffers a health crisis that pushes him to the sidelines and allows his colleague, DS Laura Kesey, to serve as temporary point-person. Kesey uncovers some interesting information from Emily that helps point the case in a specific direction, one that Gravel cannot stomach while he remains bedridden. With a killer on the loose, their home a veritable torture chamber, and more bodies piling up, everyone soon realises that Emily’s gone missing. It will be up to Kesey to solve this horrific case and locate Emily, while keeping DI Gravel from making a rash decision that could pave the way to his permanent departure from the police force. Nicholl does not falter whatsoever in this quick read, that allows the reader to feel the full gamut of emotions. Readers who have indulged in Nicholl’s work beforehand, as well as those who love a psychological thriller with a cat-and-mouse aspect, will thoroughly enjoy this book and likely push through in a sitting or two.

I have been a Nicholl fan since I sped through his debut novel, which caught me off guard. Writing about what he knows best, Nicholl utilises the depths of despair to his advantage and produces well-paced thrillers, pushing good and evil together at every turn. DI Gravel does not make his debut here, though series fans will know that he is a tough as rocks copper that places the public above his own well-being, as is clear throughout the narrative here. Giving DS Kesey some of the spotlight will surely help pave the way for future series pieces, should some of the underlying tones of the narrative prove correct. Nicholl is able to utilise a vast array of characters to pull the story together and keep the readers curious throughout. Introducing the killer in the early stages might have been a gamble for some, but Nicholl allows the reader to see the sick development of a killer blossom, turning what might have been a hunt for a serial killer into a twisted game of cat-and-mouse, with the two sides pushing slightly under the pressure. Nicholl’s writing is such that the story flows swiftly and the chapters melt away, leaving the reader to want ‘a little more’ before bookmarking their progress. Readers are in for a serious treat should they take the time to explore this piece and the entire John Nicholl collection.

Kudos, Mr. Nicholl, for always having some new spin to offer your fans. Your writing is stellar and you capture the nuances of the genre so effortlessly.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Home Sweet Murder (True-Crime Thrillers, Volume #2), by James Patterson, Aaron Bourelle, and Scott Slaven

Eight stars

While James Patterson has made a name for himself with his BookShots collection—a series of short stories the reader can complete in a few hours—he is again expanding his horizons. Now that he has secured television rights to a murder-based true-crime show, Patterson has also spun some of the tales into shorter stories, much like his BookShots. While I have been on an intense BookShot binge, I thought that I would include at least the first two volume in my binge read, as they are short enough to be defined as BookShots, though they are best called ‘fictionalised pieces of true crime’. These stories will capture the reader’s attention, more so because they actually happened, with anonymity peppered into the narrative to protect the victims. Sit back and enjoy, as Patterson and his two collaborators in these stories show just how far some people will go to harm those closest to them.

Home Sweet Murder (with Andrew Bourelle)

Leo Fisher and his wife, Sue, are enjoying a quiet Sunday evening when someone rings the doorbell. Unsure who it might be, Leo makes his way to the door and discovers a man who claims to be an SEC agent, seeking urgent information about Leo’s law firm. Baffled, Leo tries to deflect the man’s inquiries, but is soon assaulted. The as-yet unknown man holds Leo and Sue hostage, seeking information about the firm and any improprieties that might be associated with their business. Leo remains baffled, but this only fuels the intruder, who soon learns that he will have to take significant action to remedy the perceived lack of information sharing. In minor flashbacks, the reader learns that Leo may know something he’s not yet shared, even with Sue, but could this be enough to justify the attack? Events take a significant turn for the worse, leaving Leo and Sue to wonder if they will make it through the night. Patterson and Bourelle create this wonderful story that is paced so effectively as to lure the reader into the middle of this dastardly crime.

Murder on the Run (with Scott Slaven )

When a housekeeper and young boy are found slain, the owner of the house, a respectable Omaha doctor, is beside himself. Who could have wanted to break into his home and commit these two murders, particularly of his eleven year-old son? Homicide Detective Derek Mois agrees to do everything in his power to find the killer, no matter what it takes. There is no apparent motive and limited leads. Fast forward five years and the killer seems to have struck again, targeting a doctor and his wife. Now, Mois is armed with some parallels and acts on them. Could the medical angle be something that draws these two cases together? Following his gut and evidence surrounding the two families, Mois finds himself heading to Indiana to pull the pieces together. What he discovers is an interesting story that fuels a deep-seeded need for revenge. Patterson and Slaven are wonderful at pulling together this high-octane thriller that will keep the reader guessing until the final pages.

Both of these stories fit perfectly into this second volume, providing as much suspense and action as the initial collection. Murder is a varied crime, but glaring errors by perpetrators can sometimes unite them, as well entertain those who are away from events and reading, as in this collection. The central characters from both stories provide wonderful backstories and development throughout their appearances on the printed page. The reader can connect with them, which aids in better understanding the cases and fallout from the criminal acts. While these are true events with a fictional flavour, the stories read extremely well and all characters serve a great purpose, accentuating the numerous perspectives of the crime. These brief pieces could easily be called BookShots, with their short chapters and the story arc taking only one hundred pages or so. I am happy to have devoured the first two volumes in this series (and will read more when they come out), though I will not hunt down the television program, as I like Patterson in small doses.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson, Bourelle, and Slaven. Your stories kept me hooked on this new series and have me wanting more. Perfectly crafted for a short spell of reading, much like many of the short stories collaborations Patterson has undertaken.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Murder, Interrupted (True Crime Thrillers, Volume #1), by James Patterson, Alex Abramovich, and Christopher Charles

Eight stars

While James Patterson has made a name for himself with his BookShots collection—a series of short stories the reader can complete in a few hours—he seems to always be expanding his horizons. Apparently having secured some television rights to a murder-based true-crime show, Patterson has also spun some of the tales into shorter stories, much like the aforementioned BookShots. While I am on my BookShot binge, I thought that I would include at least the first volume in my binge read, as they are short enough to be defined as BookShots, even though they are somewhat fictionalised pieces of true crime. These stories will capture the reader’s attention, more so because they actually happened, with a few fudged facts to provide anonymity. Sit back and enjoy, as Patterson and his two collaborators in these stories show just how far some people will go to harm those closest to them.

Murder, Interrupted (with Alex Abramovich)

Nancy Howard’s been shot gruesomely through the eye with the bullet’s trajectory headed for her brain. The mysterious man who did this is unknown to her, but her first concern is calling out for help. Moving the story backwards a bit, the reader learns of Nancy’s husband, Frank, is a successful accountant with a penchant for having sticking fingers. He’s also having quite the affair, but does not want to divorce his wife, as it might tarnish his image. Frank takes matters into his own hands by hiring a strung-out addict to act as a hitman, but things take many odd turns, leaving Frank wondering if he will ever be rid of his wife, so that he can fully focus on his new life in California. As the story moves forward, the reader sees Frank’s attempts to ensure the hit goes as planned, but Nancy is able to call for help, leading to an investigation and fingers pointing in all directions. Sometimes, allowing the blood to leave the brain for other regions proves fatal for those who concoct revenge plots. Patterson and Abramovich open the collection with this interesting story that will have readers shaking their heads as they fly through the chapters.

Mother of all Murders (with Christopher Charles)

Single mother Dee Dee Blancharde has made quite a name for herself in the Missouri community she now calls home. Her daughter, Gypsy, hands many health concerns and after they were forced out of New Orleans, it was the kindness of the community that helped provide a much needed crutch. When one of Gypsy’s friends receives a disturbing Facebook message, the authorities are called to the house, where Dee Dee is dead and Gypsy is nowhere to be found. As detectives try to piece things together, the reader is permitted a thorough look into the backstory of both Blancharde women, including the countless ailments that Gypsy has suffered over the years. When a link to a dating site proves to be a strong clue to better understand what might have happened to Gypsy, detectives soon realise that there is so much more to the story than meets the eye. Patterson and Charles provide wonderful twists in this story based on actual events. The reader will surely enjoy the build of momentum throughout.

Both of these stories were the perfect fit for this first volume. Murder comes in all shapes and forms, but it is sometimes the glaring errors of the perpetrators that serve as the most entertaining aspect of any story. The key characters from both stories provide wonderful backstories and development throughout their appearances on the printed page. The reader can connect with them, which aids in better understanding the cases and fallout from the criminal acts. While these are true events with a fictional flavour, the stories read well and all characters found herein, while not fleshed out as effectively as in a piece of complete fiction, serve a great purpose and help to accentuate the different angles of the crime. These brief pieces could easily be called BookShots, with their short chapters and the story arc taking only one hundred pages or so. I am eager to tackle the second volume of this collection, though am not sure if I will hunt down the television program, as I like Patterson in small doses (which I am sure I contradict, having almost completed my month-long BookShot binge).

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson, Abramovich, and Charles. Your stories kept me hooked from the beginning and I love how they were presented. Perfectly crafted for an afternoon of reading, much like many of the short stories collaborations Patterson has undertaken.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

Nine stars

“ How might you describe the tongue of a woodpecker?” And so it begins, in my ongoing attempt to learn more about important figures in history. This time, I turned to the latest biography by Walter Isaacson, exploring the life of Leonardo da Vinci. A man of many talents, da Vinci lived a full and exciting life as he sought to scratch the many itches that came to mind and paved the way for scores of significant discoveries. Isaacson offers a thorough and highly informative piece that will educate the reader without inflating the narrative with scores of minute facts. Isaacson presents da Vinci in three distinct lights throughout this piece: the animated artist, the inquisitive inventor, and the abstract anatomist, all of which are interconnected and help to better understand the man whose name is synonymous with so many things. Supported by an extensive collection of drawings, referenced throughout, Isaacson brings Leonardo da Vinci to life with this exceptional biography. Perfect for the curious mind and those who want a better understanding of art, history and symbolism without the dramatic scandal of a certain Robert Langdon.

Leonardo da Vinci was surely one of the most animated artists of his time, if not in history. Born a left-handed bastard during the golden days of those who were conceived out of wedlock, da Vinci found his early years to be ones of independent exploration. His father refused to legitimate him, nor did he push to have the young Leonardo follow in his footsteps as a notary, which left the young da Vinci to turn to one of the other important positions of the time, an apprenticeship with a local artist. Florence was a rich locale for art and da Vinci learned his trade from many who sought to teach him how to capture the human form. However, as Isaacson denotes throughout, da Vinci chose not to capture the ‘wooden’ nature of artists at the time and sought to forge his own path by injecting curves and softer depictions of canvas creations. As he grew older, da Vinci tried to instil those beliefs in his own apprentices, with a strong focus on detail and nuance to bring the portraits to life, without falling back on a ‘sack of walnuts’ when presenting images on canvas. Isaacson references something that da Vinci wrote in one of his journals, where the master artist is said to have expressed that painting is both artistic and scientific in nature, with shading and colours that helps capture the subject from all angles. Given some key backgrounds on a number of da Vinci’s key pieces of art, Isaacson provides the reader with something that will open the mind and lead to a number of questions. Biblical references and symbols fill many of da Vinci’s works, which cannot be lost on the attentive reader, though this is more than the controversial ideas Dan Brown offers in a piece of fiction. The eager reader will be happy to see that Isaacson spent an entire chapter analysing and positing the foundations of the famed Mona Lisa, as well as speaking to its intricate detail, which combines all three personas from the biography. It is clear that da Vinci’s art is both full of detail and animated in its own right, which provides the viewer a chance to thoroughly interpret it when taking the time to absorb his vast collections found all over the world. Surely the man’s art is innovative and worthy of deep exploration, without getting stuck on too many stuffy aspects.

The inquisitive nurture of da Vinci’s art work can easily be duplicated in his numerous inventions, as documented in his journals. At a time when the Renaissance was in full swing, da Vinci began to have many ideas about how he might be able to help with the new forms of artistic expression. Isaacson discusses da Vinci’s desire to help personalise some of the religious stage plays of the day, where angels had to fly from one end to the other, at a time when man and earth were sorrowfully bound together. The idea of flight and pulleys came to da Vinci, as he crafted these theoretical mechanisms. Hundreds of years ahead of his time, da Vinci had many ideas that would, at one time, find their way into the mainstream. Isaacson argues that da Vinci’s inventions could sometimes be practical means of filling a gap in what was on the market, but there were also strong influences (particularly anatomy) that left da Vinci full of questions, only to be solved by the development of some inventions to better understand concepts that were unknown to the scientific world. The reader will marvel at the extent to da Vinci’s innovative spirit, pushing the boundaries of what might be possible, all to help fill the void of his inquisitive nature. Not all of his inventions were meant to aid in artistic expression. There is surely a strong influence on the political happenings of the day—da Vinci had relationships with both the Borgia and Sforza families, vicious as they were—whereby war machines were devised. There is talk of tank-like structures and catapults to launch objects over palace walls, both ideas that would have been fostered by the bloody campaigns those two aforementioned families sought in their respective domains. The collection of drawings included in the biography permit the reader to marvel at the vast array of sketches and how da Vinci could have made a greater name for himself (as if he needed more notoriety). It is readily apparent that da Vinci’s innovative spirit was fuelled by a need to better understand the world around him, just as his art sought to open new means of expression at the dawn of the Renaissance. Well before his inventions could be formally created, da Vinci showed how his inquisitive nature was influenced by his thirst for knowledge, especially when he was parched and left to wonder about the inner workings of the human machine, the body!

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects that recurs throughout the biography is da Vinci’s love of all things anatomical. From the veins in the hands to the inner workings of a foetus and the valves of the heart, da Vinci was keen to dissect bodies to better understand the inner workings of various organs and systems. During a time when the Church was still wavering on the dissection of humans, da Vinci sought to open his horizons by exploring the inner workings of various animals, when human cadavers were not available. The desire to better comprehend the human body fuelled da Vinci’s desire to posit about the workings of organs and systems, at a time when nothing could be done ‘live’ or with the body still functioning. Isaacson explores da Vinci’s desire to better understand heart valves and the movement of blood, simply because he could not wrap his head around what might be going on. While he could devise a few experiments and reconstructed the heart, it was only in the 1960s that much of what da Vinci predicted could be proven entirely correct. Not only did da Vinci seek to explore the anatomy of the human body, he felt it essential to depict it in sketches from all angles. Without the ability to properly store the cadavers, da Vinci had only a short time to properly sketch the anatomical subjects. Some of these anatomy explorations surely led to inventions that made their way into da Vinci’s journals and also permitted some of the intricate detail found in numerous pieces of art, namely one of his most popular, the Vitruvian Man, where da Vinci showed extensive understanding of length proportions of the ‘perfect’ subject. Isaacson explores this in detail during part of the biography and may be of significant interest to the reader. Surely his biological curiosities made da Vinci’s creations better and provided the viewer with a better understanding of the realism the artist sought in his work. It is baffling not to look at all three aspects of Leonardo da Vinci now that I have taken the time to explore them, and see just how imbued his art and innovations were with all three perspectives.

I would be remiss if I did not discuss the presentation of the biography and place Isaacson under the literary microscope. The thorough presentation of Leonardo da Vinci’s life helped create a better understanding of the man and his numerous endeavours. I will admit that I am not a major fan of art, nor do I pretend to understand the intricacies of paintings (gasp or toss the odd rotten tomato now). That being said, after reading this and viewing the countless images that Isaacson included in the book, I have a better understanding of the nuances that certain artists use, as well as the symbolism inherent for the viewer to better communicate with the artist. Isaacson takes the time to explain many of da Vinci’s influences, as well as fleshing out some of the symbols that da Vinci uses in his work. Referencing not only da Vinci’s work, but also scholarly references and fellow biographers, Isaacson provides a thorough narrative for the reader to better understand the man and some of his thinking. Adding the images to the book permits the reader to see, first hand, some of the sketches that da Vinci created at different times in his life, even if it creates an Olympic event to toggle between text and image (only made more difficult for those who used the audio version, such as myself). When referencing his various creations, having a visual compendium helps the reader to match something up with the narrative and brings the story to life in a new dimension. This enriches the experience and permits the reader to feel an active part of the process as the layers of da Vinci’s life become more apparent to the attentive reader. While some chapters are long, they ought not be daunting, as the narrative flows so well and the storytelling is second to none. Isaacson has spent as much time here as he did with some of his other key biographical pieces, all of which should be considered by the reader whose curiosity is not sated with this piece. And… as for that woodpecker question I posed to start this review, there’s a nugget of interest that da Vinci never fully explored, but Isaacson offers up.

Kudos, Mr. Isaacson, for helping pave the way towards a better understanding of this key historical figure. You bring Leonardo da Vinci to life and help the reader want to know more, which is essential in a biographical piece.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

The Moores are Missing (A BookShot Collection), by James Patterson, Loren D. Estleman, Sam Hawken, and Ed Chatterton

Nine stars

BookShots remain a wonderful way to spend a few hours, especially when bundling a number of them together to spend a day and permitting easier comparison in a single review. In this collection of three stories, the reader is able to explore three distinct stories that will keep them on the edge of their seats. From an amateur detective thriller to a quasi-police procedural, and ending with a longer manhunt story, James Patterson and his collaborators show the distinct advantage of BookShot reading.

The Moores are Missing, with Loren D. Estleman

After paying an impromptu visit to his neighbours, Ray Gillet discovers that they are nowhere to be found. Additional snooping leaves Gillet with the distinct impression that this was not as innocent a departure by the Moores as some would believe. Cell phones left behind, scrubbed, and no contact with others in town. After approaching the Chief of Police, Gillet is visited by a Federal Marshal, who tells of an attempt to pull the Moores into Wit Sec as they report on corrupt business practices that Kevin Moore has noticed. Unsure if he can sit and wait, Gillet approaches a friend, whose cyber-sleuthing provides a few leads, which eventually point up to Saskatchewan, on the Canadian Prairies. Armed with his travel documents, Gillet begins a trip north of the border, where he hopes to find more than snow and a bunch of grizzlies. If he’s lucky, he can locate the Moores before someone else ensures they go missing permanently. A wonderful collaborative effort between Patterson and Estleman, this will keep the reader hooked (and smirking at the pokes to Canada) throughout.

The Housewife, with Sam Hawken

Maggie Denning has had quite the life change in the past two years. Once the Chief of Detectives, with her biological clock ticking, she left the force to have twins and is now a homemaker. Her husband, Karl, is a rising star in the Homicide Division, once her underling and now living the dream. While out with her girls, Maggie meets a woman who’s just returning from a night on the town. Trouble is, the next day she turns up dead, having been murdered. Maggie, ever the sleuth, cannot heed Karl’s request to stay away from the investigation and begins poking around. Soon, another woman, also a homemaker, ends up dead, but only after Maggie spies her in a compromising situation. Could there be a group of housewives who are servicing one another’s husbands and turning up dead? Maggie reveals what she knows and Karl jumps on this, sure that it might be the big break the investigation needs. However, Maggie soon learns that there is a deeper and more sinister side to things, one that may open a Pandora’s Box of lies. Can the community handle it and is she next on the list, to keep her quiet? Patterson and Hawken weave quite the story with this piece as the reader is pushed into the centre of a middle-class escort ring.

Absolute Zero, with Ed Chatterton

Cody Thurston is seeking a quieter life, working at a pub in London, where he also lives. When a dust-up with some thugs one night goes sour, Thurston tries to keep his temper in order. This former Australian Special Forces Member has a few tricks up his sleeve and is not afraid to use them. Seeking revenge, this group of thugs takes everything Thurston has and frames him for a significant crime. Fuelled to set the record straight, Thurston begins a series of events that serve to restore balance. However, these men do not play by the rules, nor are their business ventures above board. In a journey that sees him remaining under the radar across two continents, Cody Thurston will not stop until he’s finished his own personal mission, even if it kills him. Patterson and Chatterton offer up this highly explosive and most intense of the BookShot stories, which will surely entertain those who take the time to read it.

All three of these stories were the perfect fit for a collection, as they explore different aspects of criminal activity and keep the reader hooked from the opening paragraphs. The key characters found throughout offer up unique perspectives when faced with legal matters, sometimes creating their own rule book, while seeking to set the record straight. Character development and backstory is effectively used throughout, permitting the reader to feel a strong connection, even if they do not agree with the decisions being made. The secondary characters also help paint an effective image of crime and the various legal loopholes, entertaining as well as supporting in their roles. All three stories worked effectively, though none could have blended with the others; their premises unique and the approach distinct. Patterson has chosen well, not only to collaborate with these three, but to bundle these pieces together. Proof positive that there are some stunning BookShot collaborations to be had.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson, Estleman, Hawken and Chatterton, for such a great array of stories. These are the types of BookShots I enjoy reading and will recommend them to all who will listen.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons