Texas Ranger, by James Patterson and Aaron Bourelle

Six stars

In another of his endless collaborations, James Patterson has called on Aaron Bourelle to work alongside him on this standalone novel. Part murder mystery, part protagonist self-discovery, this piece takes the reader down to the heart of Texas. Rory Yates is part of the elite Texas Rangers, one of only two hundred in the entire state. Best known for his quick draw capabilities, Yates has found himself in a few situations of shooting first and asking questions later. After one such event, he takes a call from his ex-wife, Anne, who’s been getting creepy messages and items left on her property. Yates makes his way across the state to check on her, only to find her dead body. Yates is soon cleared as a suspect, but has an idea who might be responsible and pushes the local police to investigate. While he may be a Ranger, this is one case that Rory Yates will not be welcome to join, officially. Back in his hometown and trying to chase down leads, Yates reconnects with his family and some of his former sweethearts, all of whom help stir up scores of emotions and memories from his time as a child and being married to Anne. With a killer on the loose, Yates cannot let his past cloud the present, even if it means turning down new love, or rekindling a past flame. When another person close to Yates turn up dead, stalked in the same manner, Yates is sure the killer has him in the crosshairs and will do whatever it takes, legal or not, to end this. Patterson and Bourelle have an interesting one-off novel here that seeks to pull the reader in from the outset. Perfect for those who have travel plans or need some beach reading. Patterson collaborations always fill a gap between substantive reads and this one is decent enough to recommend without hesitation.

I have come to realise that while many see the name James Patterson and flock to the book, I tend to give it a second thought, having been on the rollercoaster ride that is the Patterson Express. One can never know what to expect, particularly with one-off novels. That said, Bourelle has made a name for himself with some stronger collaborative efforts—Patterson’s BookShots—and so I trust something of a higher caliber when I see their joint efforts. This story worked well and kept me reading, which says a lot when it comes to the massive pile of books I have to read. Rory Yates is an interesting protagonist, by no means unique, but the spin put on this rough exterior cop is one that kept me intrigued throughout. I was not sure how Patterson and Bourelle might have approached him, but they did well to offer a hard-nosed man who demands respect with a soft side when it comes to those he loves. Yates has that ‘nothing will stop me’ mentality, perfect for a stubborn cop, though does not reek of ‘redneck traditionalism’, should such a stereotype deserve a formal label. The handful of other characters who influence Yates’ progress in the novel serve to eke out interesting tidbits about the protagonist and his backstory without taking the reader down too many rabbit holes and losing momentum throughout the narrative. The story is surely interesting, as it gives the reader a glimpse into how a cop might handle a murder investigation of someone close to them, though keeps a unique angle as the narrative progresses by tossing sub-plots related to self-discovery throughout. With little time to waste, the authors push forward and force the reader to juggle both types of storyline simultaneously. Using Patterson’s trademark short chapters full of cliffhangers, the story never has a chance to slow and the resolution comes crashing through the gates in the closing pages, with that lingering wonder throughout who might be responsible. My rating has nothing to do with the quality of the book, but more that I want to be blown out of the water, as Patterson has been known to do on the rare occasion. A decent story, but I would not offer up a ‘stellar’ label at this point.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Bourelle, for your ongoing collaborative work. I can see wonderful things within these pages and hope you’ll find more time to write in the coming months and years.

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

The Moscow Cipher (Ben Hope #17), by Scott Mariani

Eight stars

Scott Mariani is back with another Ben Hope thriller, placing him in the middle of another harrowing adventure to uncover mysteries that would shock the outside world. Yuri Petrov thought he had left his life as a Russian spy in the past. However, when approached by his former superior to help with a coded message that was found inside an old Moscow building, he is wary of what awaits him. After starting the process, Petrov realises that he must flee with his daughter, Valentina, to ensure they are both safe. Meanwhile, back at his compound in France, former SAS Ben Hope is enjoying his life of leisure, working for himself and at his own pace. An old acquaintance arrives with some worrisome news, his grand-niece seems to have been kidnaped by her father—Yuri Petrov—after she was not returned back to her mother in a timely manner. Hope, who spent many years honing his work in kidnap and ransom has much experience working with children and he agrees to help. Sent to Russia, Hope must find young Valentina and extract her quickly, though he is unsure what awaits him, having never ventured into this massive country. Met at the airport by a young guide, Hope begins his search, using intuition and cyber clues to locate Petrov and Valentina. It is at this point that Hope learns about ‘Operation Puppet Master’, a Soviet-era experiment that could control the mind of any subject and wreak havoc. With the Russians inching closer and Valentina his primary concern, Hope must not only extract the young girl, but ensure that Puppet Master in its resurrected form is terminated before it can be put to use. This may be the most harrowing adventure yet, for Hope cannot tell how to locate his enemies or what they might do after placing him in the crosshairs. Mariani has done well with this book and keeps the reader involved. Series fans will surely enjoy this one, as will those who like thrillers with a ‘revived Russia’ theme.

I have enjoyed Mariani’s work since I binge-read much of the Ben Hope series last summer. Each book serves to build on the previous novels, advancing not only story arcs, but well-balanced plots and timely situations. Ben Hope has undergone much change in these seventeen novels, progressing and regressing in equal measure, but there is always room for more, as the reader discovers with each passing piece. Hope is away from home for much of the book and his past does not rear its head throughout, but his compassionate nature is on offer for the reader to weigh against the deadly force he is willing to use against those who threaten his safety, as well as that of his client. A handful of supporting characters help keep the story moving, both key allies and those with dastardly intentions to wrestle control away from Hope. The story is one that seems to be reappearing in thrillers of late, the renewed rise of Russia and its cutthroat push to regain control, flexing muscles in an effort to return to past glories. Reality or fiction, Mariani paints a dark image of what could be to come, should the Russians possess or utilse Operation Puppet Master to its full effect. The reader is left to wonder and potentially quake as this spine-tingling technology is explained in depth, as well as the fallout that awaits. Could it already be in use, in communities around the world? Mariani leaves that opportunity open for discussion as the reader pushes through this latest novel in the Ben Hope series. There does not seem to be any loss of momentum, so one can only hope that Mariani has many more adventures in store for his rugged protagonist.

Kudos, Mr. Mariani, for another well-crafted piece. I thoroughly enjoy the mix of adventure and historical analysis you offer the reader. I am pleased to see another piece is ready for publication and eagerly await its release.

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

Due Process (Joe Dillard #9), by Scott Pratt

Eight stars

Scott Pratt is back with another gritty legal thriller, the ninth in the Joe Dillard series. This piece is sure to impress series fans with more legal antics that only Dillard to justify in the cutthroat world of Tennessee law. After being picked-up by the police, Sheila Self professes that her intoxication is related to being drugged and gang-raped at a party held by the local college football team. A stripper and escort, Self explains that she was hired to perform at a house and was forceable attacked in the washroom. The authorities begin an investigation into the case as defence attorney Joe Dillard watches from the sidelines, refusing to become involved for personal reasons. However, when three black players are fingered as the culprits by Self, whose identification is nudged along by a tunnel-visioned investigator, Dillard agrees to meet with one young man and learns that the evidence is not only flimsy, but that the man before him could not be guilty. Dillard’s intuition is such that he will do everything he can to help his client, feeling that this is not a ‘sports team gone wild’ case as much as one divided along racial lines. With East Tennessee still teetering on the edge of racial acceptance, Dillard is sure that no matter what the evidence shows, race will become a key factor. Can he help his client get a fair trial? Will a young black man be safe when accused of raping a white woman? How will Dillard balance a trial with a wife whose cancer is back and getting worse? Pratt explores these and many other situations within the pages of this fabulously crafted novel. Series fans will be so pleased to see Joe Dillard back and should be ready to learn much. Also recommended to those who love a quick paced legal thriller, though beginning at the start of this well-paced series may shed additional light on the nuances woven into this novel.

I have long been a fan of Scott Pratt and the Joe Dillard series, which mixes legal matters alongside life in the southern United States. Pratt is able to convey a highly entertaining story for the reader, full of interesting characters, as well as legal matters torn from the headlines, but with a twist. Joe Dillard, who has seen much transformation throughout the series, returns with even more passion, both for his work and the family he has worked hard to keep together. His dedication to his wife is second to none and Pratt is able to mould his protagonist into being a highly compassionate man while also ready to cut the throat of anyone who crosses his path. The novel brings a number of returning characters into the story, each with their own development, though some advance more than others. The one-offs, as with many novels, prove to propel the plot and make a mark, though not usually indelible, throughout. The pace of the narrative is such that the reader loses themselves in the legal and medical matters, as well as the social commentary offered to depict the ongoing racial divide in Tennessee and surrounding area. Pratt does not pull any punches, painting Eastern Tennessee as being anything but inclusive, though it is necessary to bring his point home and the reader should see this as being more than a mere soapbox rant. Fans of the series are surely pleased to see Dillard back, on a brief hiatus to allow Pratt’s development of another series, equally enthralling. The banter within this series is well-constructed and keeps the reader from getting too bogged down in legal matters. I hope Pratt has many more novels in this series, as Joe Dillard does not appear to be losing steam whatsoever.

Kudos, Mr. Pratt, for another stellar novel. A quick read, but surely memorable and the perfect addition to any reading list!

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

The Gaslight Stalker (The Esther and Jack Enright Mysteries #1), by David Field

Eight stars

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

Exploring Victorian England’s criminal underbelly through the eyes of David Field proves not only to be a harrowing experience for the reader, but one that pays off exponentially. In the summer of 1888, young Esther Jacobs makes her way down to one of the popular drinking establishments in search of her neighbour. While Esther does make her plea, it falls on deaf ears and the young seamstress returns home empty-handed. When she wakes the next morning, news of her neighbour’s murder brings Esther back to the seedy neighbourhood, shocked to learn the horrible news. It is there that she meets Constable Jack Enright, who tries to learn what Esther might have seen. Piecing together what other witnesses have mentioned, Esther is able to guide Constable Enright in the proper direction and turns into a valuable citizen on the investigation. It would seem that the slain woman was seeking to play her role as a prostitute for some local soldiers, something that baffles Esther. When more women turn up dead, also providing ‘nighttime services’, Esther and Constable Enright worry that a serial killer is on the loose, his murderous rampage leaving the victims horribly gutted. During their investigation, both Esther and Jack—as he likes to be known when not on duty—develop a romantic connection that seems to pose problems in the Enright household. Still, Esther holds firm to her love and yet is able to keep a level head when dealing with the police. As Scotland Yard is seeking a quick solution to this murder spree, Esther is able to weasel out some key information that might help find a murderer. The papers report letters attributing the murders to a ‘Jack the Ripper’, leaving London to wonder if their serial killer has been named, his identity still veiled. Field does a masterful job in weaving this historical murder mystery through a short narrative. Perfect for those who love mysteries set in the Victorian Era.

This is my introduction to David Field and his work, but it will surely not be my last. When the publisher asked if I would read this series debut, I did not hesitate to add it to my pile, especially after reading the dust jacket summary. Field hooks the reader from the outset, not only with his setting, Victorian England, but also with his ability to paint characters in such a colourful fashion. Esther Jacobs emerges onto the scene and her character develops quickly from there. An orphan who is working to keep her family business afloat, Esther’s naïveté is soon challenged with the rough speech of those around her and the murder investigation in which she finds herself working. Esther’s softness is complemented by Constable Jack Enright, who is new to the police, but whose family has deep roots within Scotland Yard and is well-established with money and prestige. While Jack is not ensconced in this lifestyle, Field injects some family members to show what money and power can do. Some of the secondary characters fit perfectly into the story, complete with their Cockney speech and wayward manner, allowing the reader to feel as though they are in the middle of the action. The story itself flows well and keeps a decent pace. With only a short time for Field to develop his narrative, there is little time for extemporaneous blather. Quick chapters keep the reader wanting to know more and pushing to find out who might be responsible for this string of murders. Plus, with the Jack the Ripper theme peppering the story, everyone is left to wonder if this might have been part of his early killings. I can only hope that Field keeps writing these sorts of mysteries for all to enjoy.

Kudos, Mr. Field, for this wonderful debut. I am eager to get my hands on the next Esther and Jack novel, which could be a very exciting series for sure.

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

The President is Missing, by Bill Clinton and James Patterson

Eight stars

James Patterson has entered into his most interesting collaboration yet, taking second chair to former American president Bill Clinton in a story that is highly political and action packed from the opening paragraph through to the epilogue’s lingering final sentence. President Jonathan Duncan finds himself in the middle of a congressional witch hunt. The former military hero has stories about outlasting Iraqi torturers, but when it comes to an opposition Congress, he’s forced to accept an attack on all sides. The issue working to protect the Sons of Jihad, a known terrorist organisation, and its leader, Suliman Cindoruk. Duncan denies the allegations and has tried using Executive Privilege in regards to what happened, but the committee will hear none of it. Rumours begin that impeachment may be the only answer, though Duncan refuses to discuss what he knows with anyone, particularly with the television cameras glaring in his direction. Back in the Oval Office, Duncan receives a call from his daughter about a highly confusing encounter she had in France when she was approached by a mysterious woman. The First Daughter was asked to pass along the urgency that this woman meet with POTUS, uttering a highly classified code word to cement her seriousness. This word is one known only to the top echelon of the National Security Team, leaving POTUS to wonder who’s been leaking classified information. Duncan meets with this woman, who outlines a story about a potential cyber attack on America. Whisked away from the public eye, Duncan learns more about the attack how deadly it could be to the nation as a whole. Remaining off the radar, POTUS is presumed missing while the rest of the world tries to make sense of what is going on. With only a handful of people aware of the imminent attack, the clueless vice-president must wait to see what steps she might need to take and the country seeks answers. With a country unaware of this cyber-attack and their president nowhere to be found, it is only a matter of time before someone will have to take the reins of power. That play could have dire consequences without the full picture. How long will POTUS remain missing and what’s being done to address this terror event? And what of this sly assassin, code named Bach, who seems to have a mission all her own? Clinton and Patterson deliver a sensational thriller full of twists and political insider knowledge. It’s sure to impress many and might leave some wondering if they ought to try some of Patterson’s newer work. Recommended for thriller buffs, particularly those who enjoy something with a political and terror twist.

This is surely not your typical James Patterson novel, leading me to wonder just how much influence the former president had in its writing. In a book full of insider knowledge of the American political system, Clinton and Patterson weave a story that has all the essential ingredients to be a top-notch thriller that will keep the reader engaged for hours as they push through to the climactic ending. The story is full of wonderful character development, particularly Jonathan Duncan, whose victories and foibles are documented in equal measure. Clinton and Patterson have also created a number of highly-intriguing characters that serve to entertain the reader, some more likeable than others. Told in a four narrator style, the authors weave a story that is told from various perspectives, which only enriches the overall delivery. There are many aspects of the book that will intrigue a large cross-section of the reading population, which can only help to ensure its success. I found myself enthralled by the political narrative, but also the well-paced action and terrorism as it progresses. The book is a mix of Patterson’s short cliffhanger chapters and longer (mainstream?) chapters that pull the reader in and develop a theme quite effectively. One can only presume that this is Clinton’s doing, wanting to flesh-out some of the political perspectives that cannot be packaged into three pages. There are even digs at the current administration with long-winded speeches about re-inventing America, a country lost over the last number of years. A strong effort with some apparent ghost writing by David Ellis, another of Patterson’s collaborators, this is not a book to miss and could be one of the better travel reads of the next few months. One can hope that Patterson and Clinton will collaborate again, for this surely ups the ante when it comes to novels bearing the former’s name on the cover.

Kudos, President Clinton and Mr. Patterson, for a great novel. I was hooked from the start and can see how well you two appear to work together. Please say that there is more to come.

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

Deathly Wind (Inspector Torquil McKinnon #2), by Keith Moray

Eight stars

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

In continuing this unique series, Keith Moray takes the reader deep into the Hebrides to recount another Scottish murder mystery full of local nuances. Torquil ‘Piper’ McKinnon has recently returned home to West Uist, determined to leave his job as part of the constabulary behind. However, he soon learns that his friend and colleague, Ewan McPhee, has gone missing, his catamaran found floating in a local body of water. Could he have drowned or might his superior swimming capabilities have left him stranded elsewhere? Before McKinnon can ponder that too much, he must deal with some local disturbances. Jock McArdle recently purchased Dunshiffin Castle, thereby making him the laird. He’s decided to erect a number of wind turbines around West Uist to create a more environmental community, much to the dismay of the locals. The town seems divided, voicing their opinions about this new technology in a community that prides itself on simplicity. Another environmental issue seems to be rearing its head when a number of golden eagles have started targeting some of the animal population, noted by the new veterinary doctor who is being called out at all hours. Tragedy strikes the town when a man turns up dead, his body in a pool of rocks. The mangled remains have an unusual talon-like mark across the face, leaving many to wonder if the eagles might be involved. One death can be called an accident, but when more bodies begin to emerge, McKinnon is sure that there’s a serial killer on the loose and not of the feathered variety. Laird McArdle is also being targeted when one of his prized dogs is found poisoned, demanding that action be taken, though McKinnon cannot shake that something seems off about this man and his retinue. McKinnon is unsure what to make of it all, but with a superior officer demanding results and the local journalist writing sensational stories in the local paper, he’ll need to act fast before West Uist turns into an embarrassment across all of Scotland. Moray has a wonderful way with words and spins a great tale here. Surely a series that will keep gaining momentum as readers flock in its direction. Wonderful for those who want a murder mystery with much Scottish heritage woven throughout.

When the publisher approached me to read and review the first novel in the series, I was pulled in as soon as I took the time to read the dust jacket blurb. This second novel was much the same, taking me back into Moray’s rural Scottish community and Torquil McKinnon proves to be a very interesting character, combining his reputation as a successful member of the constabulary with a strong connection to the locals. While this piece is less a chance to develop a backstory, McKinnon’s policing and struggles with superiors who are away from West Uist becomes apparent and is used throughout the novel as a means of currying favour with the reader. Many of the others who appear throughout the story are well presented and have their characteristics woven into the story in an effective manner, particularly Laird McArdle, who is the newcomer. Many supporting characters gain entry into the narrative and shape it effectively, adding humour and banter for the reader. The story itself is actually quite well done and its succinct delivery and keeps the narrative flowing well, though does not leave the reader feeling shortchanged whatsoever. While some may be familiar with ‘big city’ and tangential police procedurals, the reader can enjoy this close-knit story that fills the pages with Scottish lore! I’ll gladly read the rest of this series, if only to learn more about McKinnon and the West Uist community.

Kudos, Mr. Moray, for this wonderful follow-up piece. I enjoyed the story and its clipped delivery, which proves a refreshing alternative to much of what I have been reading.

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

Private Princess (Private #14), by James Patterson and Rees Jones

Seven stars

James Patterson has returned for another collaborative effort with Rees Jones to add to the ever-expanding Private series. This novel, like many of the others, takes readers around the world and into a high-stakes game of sleuthing and action, with an international twist. Jack Morgan, head of Private, the international investigation service, is back in London. This trip is anything but a chance to sightsee or make one of his random check-ins with the local offices, for he has been summoned by Princess Caroline, third in line for the British Throne. After being hurriedly whisked off to her residence, Morgan meets with the royal, who explains that a dear friend of hers has gone missing, a woman with a wild streak and great tabloid fodder. Never one to turn down a challenge, Morgan begins his investigation, sure there is more to the story than the princess is willing to tell. While doing so, Morgan engages with the head of Private: London, Peter Knight. It would seem Knight is on a case to explore an apparent suicide of a well-to-do gentleman whose daughter wants to keep scandal from the tabloids. When Knight and Morgan compare notes, they realise that there is more to each of their cases than meets the eye. Joining efforts, some semblance of closure can be found, but there remains an overarching mystery whose narrative remains a leaden weight for both men and their cases. Morgan’s trip across the Pond has also allowed him to attempt a revisiting of an old flame, though time has all but extinguished those possibilities. When an old foe from a past U.K. case resurfaces with deadly intentions, Morgan cannot simply leave. He is invested and soon has malice pulsing through his veins. Jack Morgan and the entire Private: London enterprise are on this new mission, refusing to back off until all is right again. Trouble is, Jack Morgan’s luck may have finally run its course. An interesting addition to the series, returning to a British locale. Jones and Patterson spin a decent tale, sure to be of interest to those seeking a beach or travel read, but also worthy of those who have followed Private through its long series run.

Having long been a fan of Patterson and followed this Private series over the years, I can say with some confidence, that this was a decent addition to the series. Patterson and Jones have returned to a familiar spot, using characters seen before, and extrapolating on some of the plots left to dangle during a previous novel and short story. Jack Morgan, the ever-present character that finds himself in all Private-based stories surely plays more of a central role here, offering the reader a further glimpse into his past and some of the grit that makes him a worthy addition to each series piece. More focus on the likes of Peter Knight and some of the other local Private folks is also refreshing for the series fan, as some will be able to pull on past skirmishes and character development. The story is by no means phenomenal, but it follows a decent Private layout, playing out with at least two cases running parallel and eventually merging. Morgan’s personal story here proves to be a third plot, though it, too, seems to have some ties to the early cases, something the attentive reader will notice. While I cannot say Private is one of Patterson’s premier series, it is one that can be enjoyed if read independently or as an entire collection. Rees Jones should be applauded for helping keep the story on task and relevant, as well as stronger than some of the past pieces in this series. I’ll surely keep my eyes peeled for more when they are released.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Jones, for a great effort. While I cannot admit to being mesmerised, I enjoy this lighter reading material.

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

The Kremlin’s Candidate (Red Sparrow Trilogy #3), by Jason Matthews

Nine stars

In this, the final novel in a high-impact trilogy, Jason Matthews seeks to take the story in a new and interesting direction, while tying up some loose ends and leaving others to dangle without resolution. Dominika Egorova remains a highly-placed mole in the Russian Government, having climbed the ladder within the SVR and rumoured to be the next director. In an early chapter flashback, Dominika remembers using her wiles and other newly honed ‘Sparrow’ assets, and has been able to secure a mid-ranking female US Navy official, which could prove highly useful in the years to come. In the present, Dominika has been able to work with a North Korean nuclear scientist who has admitted that the country is on the verge of creating the necessary weapon to wipe the United States off the map. While conferring with others inside the Russian Intelligence inner circle, as well as President Putin, Dominika learns that her long-ago victim of sexpionage may hold a larger role in the overall Russian plot to bring down their former Cold War enemy, having sold this nuclear technology to the North Koreans. For the time being, it’s all about silently waiting, hoping to learn enough to send along to her CIA handler, Nate Nash in order to prepare for the worst. Dominika agrees to make a covert trip to America, where she can hopefully identify the mole’s Russian handler and allow Nate to extinguish that asset. Worried that Nate might be getting too involved in Dominika’s missions, he is sent to an obsolete American Embassy, only to realize that the Russians are wreaking havoc in an attempt to send a message and locate him through back channels. This serves only to strengthen Nate’s willingness to bring the Russian Intelligence community to the ground, through Dominika’s deception. Having curried enough favour with Putin, Dominika is handed the directorship of the SVR, but cannot shake that someone may be keeping a close eye on her. She is put in a precarious position when approached by a Russian ally, one that could place Nate in the crosshairs of a kill order that cannot be neutralized without compromising her own status. The chase is on to remove the Russian mole, who is positioning herself to be named into the American president’s Cabinet, where there is no end to the secrets she will be able to ship back to Russia, thereby leaving the country open for destruction. Nate has been able to remain one step ahead, but luck is finite and Dominika can only do so much! Another brilliant novel that furthers the complex espionage that Matthews has come to make all his own. A trilogy that impresses many, especially those who love a traditional novel of spy games, with an ending that is second to none. Highly recommended to those with the patience and interest in deep-rooted spy novels, à la John Le Carré!

I started this trilogy just over a week ago because of all the hype it was getting online. It was a slow start, but I had to remind myself that I am not one who normally reads well-crafted spy novels, which seek to forego the superficial banter and develop over time, enriching the reading experience. This novel offers a thorough review of the information to date and provides the reader with an impactful culmination of all in a high-stakes game of spying and trying to destroy the enemy. Nate Nash and Dominika Egorova may come from different spheres but their dedication cannot be discounted, especially towards the latter chapters of this book. Matthews offers up the most intense and impactful Nash yet, as he tries to get the Russians to come to their knees and lose everything, though that is surely not done in a single act. Matthews adds the complexities of Nash’s inability to treat Dominika simply as a mole and someone who is going to help bring Putin’s tsar-lifestyle to an end. Dominika’s secret synesthesia continues as an integral part of her character and is used throughout the narrative quite effectively, especially to allow the reader to better understand the emotional banter taking place in a realm (espionage) where the players remain neutral. Dominika’s struggle both to stay alive and to resurrect her ‘Sparrow’ persona with Putin creates a worrisome connection that could backfire at any moment. Matthews personalises the story by filling the narrative with his own experiences within the CIA. The reader can feast on a methodical understanding of the world of espionage with results dependent on the risks undertaken. Extensive mention of cultural dishes throughout the piece is complemented by Matthew’s addition of basic recipes embedded at the end of each chapter, which has been a central part of all three novels. Lighter fare in a novel full of dark plot development. I know this was a trilogy and the end has come, but I hope Matthews has more up his sleeve. Trust me, once you read these books, you will as well!

Kudos, Mr. Matthews, for another stellar novel. This series has won me over and I hope to spread the word to anyone 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

The Contest: The 1968 Election and the War for America’s Soul, by Michael Schumacher

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Michael Schumacher, and the University of Minnesota Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

While many will argue the importance of all elections in a democratic system, Michael Schumacher posits that the American Presidential Election in 1968 might have been the most important voting event in the country’s modern history. Held in the middle of the bloody Vietnam War, the election saw a true split in the American political psyche, dividing those in favour of the war and those wanting to get soldiers out of the region (likely more than either World War before it). With a sitting president who could not turn his back on America’s involvement, Lyndon B Johnson (LBJ) soon became tarred and feathered for allowing so many men to die in a military action that had no direct connection to the country he led. This pushed him to the brink and left him to wonder how he ought to handle the upcoming presidential election campaign. Schumacher argues that the electoral importance began late in 1967, when the likes of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy agreed to challenge LBJ, feeling the country needed peace and should remove troops from the region. This divisive issue would soon snowball into disaster for LBJ, who took it upon himself to admit defeat and make the famous speech on March 31, 1968, where he refused to run for re-election. Schumacher opens the book with the narrative around this announcement and how those closest to him took the news on a decision that had been pondered but only decided that day. The decision opened the contest for the Democratic nomination, as well as solidifying some of the strong contenders within the Republicans. Schumacher spends an early part of the tome offering up mini biographies of the serious contenders within the Democratic Party (Vice-President Hubert H Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy), the Republicans (Richard Nixon, with a peppering of information on Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan), as well as an outsider Third Party candidate (Alabama Governor George Wallace), who sought to push for state-rights and push the election in the House of Representatives for a final decision. Armed with this knowledge, the reader can follow the push on into the primaries, where Schumacher lays out a succinct narrative of some well-established races within both parties in an attempt to solidify the nomination ahead of each party’s respective convention in the summer. Filled with detailed analysis of the political shoving and maneuvering, Schumacher explores how the candidates sought to win favour with the electorate and use the War to their favour, some vilifying LBJ while others trying to spin their own version of events and staying true to the country’s leader. During this time, three significant deaths cast a shadow on the primary campaign: the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, as well as the wife of George Wallace, Lurleen. While the former two did stun the country, the third appeared to light a fire under Wallace in his attempts to promote segregation as a viable option. Schumacher then forges on and turns the focus to the conventions, where the party’s decision would have to be made. Miami Beach may have been smooth sailing for Nixon, but it was anything but a foregone conclusion. Armed with an unlikely vice-presidential candidate in Spiro Agnew, Nixon was ready to do battle and began his treachery in covertly tinkering with the peace negotiations to end the War. Meanwhile, all eyes turned to Chicago, where much disruption was expected (and found). Schumacher uses an entire chapter of the book to lay out some of the strongest forces in the groups protesting outside the convention and their push to disrupt the goings-on, more to speak out against the Vietnam War than the Democratic Party. Inside the convention hall, the political bloodbath was beginning, but it paled in comparison to the brutality on the streets. Democratic candidates struggled for control and tried to vie for last minute votes, which eventually gave Hubert Humphrey the nomination, while violence filled television screens. Schumacher juxtaposes the two ‘fights’ effectively and keeps the reader pushing onwards into the final step of the contest, the General Election. Here, Nixon and Humphrey traipsed across the country to secure votes, all while LBJ continued to waffle on how to handle Vietnam. Pushing for peace, LBJ soon realised that Nixon may have spoiled the Democratic Party with his own promises (much like Reagan would do a dozen years later in the campaign against Jimmy Carter). The last week of the campaign turned out to be the most exciting, as Nixon and Humphrey sought to secure key states, while Wallace pushed to spoil the Electoral College victory for either man. Once all was said and done, Nixon prevailed by just over half a million votes cast, proving to be a close contest and, in a way, Wallace did prove (Democratic) spoiler. Wonderfully written and paced, the book educates the curious reader who has a passion for history and electoral politics. I’d highly recommend this for anyone who has the patience to plunge into the inner workings of American political campaigns to see just how contentious they can be and why 1968 will likely be seen as one of the most important in modern American history.

Being a political addict, I could not give up the opportunity to read this book when I discovered it. This being the fiftieth anniversary of this election, I allowed myself to be enthralled with the way in which Schumacher delivered s much information in an easily digestible fashion. The book is divided effectively, giving the reader much context as to how and why 1968 was such a political powder keg in the United States. Beginning with the important LBJ speech, Schumacher offers key themes that would return throughout the campaign, namely: the War, infighting about America’s presence in Vietnam, and the segregated states. He then pushes into the primaries, which splintered the country further before turning to the conventions, where America’s youth took centre stage, outside the political event proper. Schumacher turns the final campaign into a succinct narrative, as though all the glitter of 1968 ended once the bloody streets of Chicago had been cleaned in late August. I felt a significant shift towards an anti-climactic ending of the book, which forces the reader to skim over the last few months and not find that last push towards a defining end to what was a strongly worded build-up over four hundred pages. One might argue that the intensity was gone (and the book had taken up so much to that point), forcing a quick end so as not to lose the reader. If I could extract a single, overarching sentiment that Schumacher offers in this piece, it would be just how destructive and divisive the election became for America. Politicians and the electorate alike found themselves deeply divided on the issue of the Vietnam War, which also helped fuel a generational divide in the country, where young and newer voters turned to protest in order to make themselves heard. Tearing at the familial fabric would surely alienate many at a time when parents were trying to make sense of their ‘liberated’ children and Americans watched revolutionary demonstrations on television, seeking to push the American state to its limits. Filled with significant detail, Schumacher left me feeling as though I were right there and wanted to know more, the key to a successful piece of writing. I could not ask for a better introduction to the 1968 campaign than with this book and will surely sift through the biographical notes to find further pieces to whet my appetite.

Kudos, Mr. Schumacher, for a brilliant piece. I will check to see what else you may have published, as I found your writing to my liking and your delivery engaging.

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

Palace of Treason (Red Sparrow Trilogy #2), by Jason Matthews

Eight stars

Having taken the time to check out this interesting espionage series, I am intrigued to see where Jason Matthews intends on taking things with Nate and Dominika. He does not disappoint in this middle novel, the true ‘meat’ of the trilogy. After a harrowing end to the first novel, Dominika is back in Russia, working hard for the SVR and helping to run a discrete but highly important mission. Using a ‘Sparrow’ under her, Dominika is able to obtain top secret Iranian nuclear documents from a high-ranking official. With Iran’s sanctions and the Western attempt to nullify their nuclear program, Dominika could bring back information that would prove Russia is seeking to countermand the international order and facilitate an ongoing nuclear program in Iran. Her success brings Dominika into the inner circle and merits high praise from President Putin himself, who may have his eye on her for some of his own personal gifts. As covertly as she can, Dominika reaches out to CIA operative Nate Nash, now stationed in Athens, to deliver the information she has, in hopes of giving the Americans the proof they need that the sanctions are being violated right under their noses. Meeting in a neutral location, Dominika and Nash exchange news and set-up a ruse to ensure the CIA learns first-hand what is going on. However, that encounter ends disastrously and almost costs Dominika everything, though Nate is able to ascertain the long-range plan that Putin has with the Iranian Government. Trying to keep Dominika under cover and yet turn her into the next American mole, Nate must work day and night, risking everything, while also trying to downplay his emotional connection to this SVR agent. Sparks turn to a raging fire between them, leaving both Nate and Dominika unable to define what is going on between them, while violating CIA orders with each passing second. Wanting to keep Dominika inside Russia but still able to report, Nate organises a handler to be providing the needed link to the Agency. Nate helps train Hannah Archer, whose wiles appear to match those of Dominika in almost every way. Sure that his encounters with Dominika will become report analysis only, Nate allows himself to fall into the clutches of this woman, though the thought of his beloved SVR agent remains front and centre in his brain. When the Russians eventually learn of a new mole, they scour their entire intelligence apparatus, sure that the weak link will surface in enough time for another brutal final solution. With Dominika still in good standing with President Putin, she can only hope that her truth has not been revealed and that he is not toying with her. Nate will do anything he can to protect her, both as an agent and because of their connection. However, sometimes it is better to cut one’s losses, especially when the Russians are on the other side. Another brilliant novel that furthers the complex espionage that Matthews has come to make all his own. A trilogy that continues to impress many, especially those who love a traditional novel of spy games. Highly recommended to those with the patience and interest in deep-rooted spy novels, à la John Le Carré!

I admit that I started this trilogy because of all the hype it was getting online and stuck with the first novel, which began slowly. I had to remind myself that I am not one who normally reads well-crafted spy novels, which seek to forego the superficial banter and develop over time, enriching the reading experience. This novel picks up the impact from the opening pages, pushing me to immerse myself in all the action without a chance to breathe. Nate Nash and Dominika Egorova may come from different spheres but their dedication cannot be discounted. Matthews does well again, showing that Nash’s love of country can sometimes be clouded when blood rushes from his brain to other extremities, though he would surely call it part of the mission. Matthews adds the complexities of Nash’s inability to treat Dominika simply as a mole and someone who is going to help bring Putin and Russia to their knees, but that might be one of the greater aspects of his character throughout this piece. Dominika’s secret synesthesia becomes a central part of her character and is used throughout the narrative quite effectively, especially to allow the reader to better understand the emotional banter taking place in a realm (espionage) where the players are encouraged to remain beige. Dominika’s struggle both to stay alive and to resurrect her ‘Sparrow’ persona proves central to the story’s advancement, particularly when Putin is sometimes one of her escapades. Bone-chilling does not begin to describe this sub-plot. Matthews personalises the story effectively with his own experiences within the CIA, pulling me deeper into the narrative and wondering what might come next. The reader can dine on a methodical understanding of the world of espionage with results dependent on the risks undertaken. Extensive mention of cultural dishes throughout the piece is complemented by Matthew’s addition of basic recipes embedded at the end of each chapter. Lighter fare in a novel full of dark plot development. I cannot wait to get my hands on the final novel to see where it takes the story and how Matthews hopes to tie it all together.

Kudos, Mr. Matthews, for another stellar novel. This series has won me over and I hope to spread the word to anyone 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