Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, by Margaret MacMillan

Nine stars

What a fantastic read! I learned so much from MacMillan’s intricate account of the time after the Great War. Relying on many historical facts and documents, MacMillan offers up not only a depiction of the world in the months after the Armistice had been signed, but how the world changed dramatically. I knew little of the fallout of the Great War, save that there was a Treaty of Versailles. I knew the German reaction to the Treaty and Peace led to the fuelling of animosity and, eventually, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. MacMillan disputes that this narrow view was the main and sole weakness of the Conference, as will be discussed below.

When the Peace Conference was convened, its chosen heads—America, Great Britain, France, and Italy—took it upon themselves not only to negotiate a lasting peace, but to solve many of the geographic disputes of small nations or cultural groups. The only caveat required to present a plea the ‘Big Four’ was that a group must justify how they were supporters of the victors throughout the Great War. Ostensibly led by American President Woodrow Wilson, the Big Four sought to re-draw the world in such a way as to create calmness and ensure the vanquished were left with little. MacMillan weaves an extremely detailed explanation of how the world changed and what the Big Four did by slashing a pen across a map they could not bother to examine. It is clear that Wilson wanted a League of Nations—a world parliament of sorts—drawn-up along the lines of his key Fourteen Points to save the world. While noble, the attentive reader can see that even a century ago, American leaders were big on the ‘my plan only’ mindset, even if it did not take into account many of the world’s nuances. Still, as MacMillan argues, Wilson saw benefit in reshaping the world, as it was surely ‘broken’ and needed injection of new perspectives. This idea permeates throughout the book as MacMillan shows how, over a six-month period, many of the world’s disputes were heard and ruled upon, though not always in a way that would foster lasting peace. The Middle East was doled out like the spoils of a poker game, decided and bid on by the Big Four, but forgetting history or ethnicity. The Ottoman Empire, as well as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were picked apart, leaving a carcass unrecognisable by geography or ethnicity. Like putting bees in a jar and hope they will learn to be amicable.

MacMillan pulls no punches in her book. None of the Big Four are safe from her harsh criticism at one point or another. She lays out her facts (I am not naive enough to think that she is not writing from her own angle) and then lets the reader see the fallout. Telling not only of the presentations by delegations, but also the inner fighting between the US, UK, France, and Italy, MacMillan shows how decisions were not simply agreed upon over a bottle or two of wine. Peering into the lives of these four men and their apparent infallibility, we see just how human they are.

MacMillan does a masterful job presenting the history in this piece. She weaves together a ton of information and organises it so that the reader can readily understand what is going on. With brief, but poignant, biographies of the Big Four leaders, she sets the scene before offering up some chronological narratives about the goings-on in Paris. Giving each country their own chapter, MacMillan thoroughly explores their plights, asks, and the eventual decision reached, which can sometimes pave the way for the cognizant reader to see the modern reverberations of these actions. A thorough tome if ever there was one, MacMillan is a master at telling her story and uses a preponderance of evidence to back up the claims she makes throughout, leaving the reader to decide how closely they align with her arguments. While hindsight is always crystal clear, I can see the glaring errors that have come from these decisions in the winter and spring of 1919. Shattered states that I grew up seeing dissolve were born in the geographic biology labs of Paris in 1919. Imagine such a Conference now and how truly impossible it would be. Six months with the major leaders sitting down, mostly uninterrupted, and hashing something out as thoroughly and intricately as the re-organisation of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. I cannot fathom this ever happening again. But, perhaps this is why it was such a tragedy at the time and that history has shown the disaster it became. MacMillan does not try to soften the blow, as the world has surely become more chaotic because of the Paris Peace Conference. I just wonder if we’d have been better off without any attempts at gluing the world together in 1919 and what it would look like a century later.

Splendid job, Ms. MacMillan. Great to see a Canadian present such a fabulous piece of analysis as it relates to a profound bit of world history. Kudos and much praise.

This book fulfils Topic #3: A Tragic Tome, part of the Equinox #5 Reading Challenge.

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

Virtual Sabotage, by Julie Hyzy

Seven stars

Having long been a fan of Julie Hyzy’s mystery work, I was pleased to try something outside of the genre. This most recent publication stems from a short story she read years ago, which helped plant the seed of an idea around the world of virtual reality (VR). As the world continues to seek more in the VR realm, Virtu-Tech stands at the forefront of its delivery. Many people the world over are happy to use VR in their daily lives, usually as a form of entertainment. However, as with all activities, there are limits before things get unsafe, which is where Kenna Ward comes into play. Working as an ‘envoy’, Kenna is tasked to act as a ‘lifeguard for the brain’ and keeps people from getting too involved in their VR experiences. During one of her forays into the virtual world, she comes across her fiancé, who is in the middle of a highly-involved experience, which leads to his death. Charlie has suffered, it would seem, from something called mortal absorption, whereby reality and the virtual realm blur. It is only when Kenna wants answers that she learns Charlie has been sitting on some stunning information about Virtu-Tech, something that might bring this company to its knees. As she works with her team, they discover that someone within the hierarchy of Virtu-Tech has been targeting clueless VR users. The more Kenna discovers, the larger the target on her back. With members of her team turning up dead, will she be next? In a battle to seek justice, Kenna has to wonder how much of what she knows is simply a figment of her VR world. Hyzy does well with this piece, pulling on her great writing ability to take readers outside the norm. Recommended for those with an interest in the burgeoning world of VR and the reader who likes a little suspense in their reading experience.

This is the second book this week that I have read, where the author is working outside the realm in which I am used to seeing them. Both have been valiant efforts, though I surmise that my less than total interest in virtual reality may have flavoured my sentiments regarding this piece. Hyzy effectively creates her characters to be both believable and liked by the reader. Kenna Ward presents well and pushes to learn everything she can, without being too detached from the everyday. The loss of her fiancé has surely helped motivate her to get answers, but she is not fixated on the journey, in such a way that it creates tunnel vision. Hyzy surrounds her protagonist with a handful of useful characters, many of whom balance out good versus bad quotient throughout the narrative, offering some sinister aspects to the world of VR. Hyzy builds on these character traits throughout, weaving together a story that is less than completely plausible, though the plot seems to follow a fairly straight path. The story itself is well-devised and has been written effectively to keep the reader’s interest. Hyzy has spent a great deal of time researching and it shows, as there is little awkwardness with descriptions, nor does the book drop ‘inside language’ that keeps the reader guessing or feeling lost. While VR is not my thing, I cannot discount Hyzy’s work as less than impressive. The mystery held my attention and I will surely return when she has more to offer. As always, it is a pleasure to see what she pens, as it reads easily and provides much entertainment.

Kudos, Madam Hyzy, for another great piece. I am a longtime fan, so it is always a pleasure to see you expanding your horizons. Keep writing!

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

Mecca, by William Deverell

Eight stars

William Deverell has dazzled fans with his wonderful writing on all things legal, particularly as they relate to the Canadian system. However, he stepped back with this piece, one of his early works, to offer up something completely different, as fitting now as it was upon its original publication. During a period of torture and deprivation, an agent of the East German Rotkommando utters a single word, ‘Mecca’. This clue can only mean that there is something planned in the holiest of Muslim cities by this terrorist organisation, though that remains entirely unclear. After washed-up poet, Jacques Sawchuk, is about to be extradited back to Canada, he panics about having to face jail time for his involvement in a terror attack over a decade before. However, he may be the perfect new recruit to place within Rotkommando to learn of their plans. Used as a pawn, Sawchuk is brought to Canada before being shuttled off to Europe, where he undergoes significant training akin to that given to new Mossad agents. Once he is planted inside a cell within Rotkommando, Sawchuk slowly learns of the plan to attack the Saudi palace. Meanwhile, there is a story developing that the American president is set to broker a deal with the Saudis to sell them missiles. These weapons will likely be used to obliterate the Isaraelis without a second thought. Needing only a few more votes in the Senate, key legislators have been bribed, paving the way to the approval of the sale. One journalist seeks to uncover this story and blow the deal out of the water, but it will take all his effort and a great deal of strategy not to find himself out of a job, or worse. When Sawchuk finds himself in the middle of the Saudi attack, he soon learns that those he thought were his friends only have his back when it suits him. Might he have been better off rotting in a Canadian prison? Deverell does a masterful job in this piece, completely out of his normal genre, to dazzle the reader and pull them in with this reasonable story of espionage. Recommended to those who like stories within this genre, set years before the topic became stale.

I came to discover William Deverell for his legal writing and have not looked back. His novels are deeper than most to which I am accustomed, but this is by no means an issue for me. Being forced to think kept me on my toes and allowed me to discover a more complex set of characters. Jacques Sawchuk proves to be less vapid than he presents in the opening chapters, as he is gritty and knows how to handle himself in touch situation. That being said, he is no hulk, as he undergoes significant pain at the hands of his enemies during a portion of the story, such that the reader cannot help but have pity for the man. His left-leaning sentiments bleed through they narrative, though this is a time when the world was truly in flux and ideological differences meant something a lot different than they do today. Many of the other characters that pepper the pages of this well-crafted book complement many of the subplots effectively, fuelling a gradual build-up of what could be cataclysmic circumstances. From spies to security personnel, Deverell places a number of key characters in specific spots to tell his story. The narrative is balanced and works effectively throughout. Set in the early 1980s, the story is free of that ISIS/September 11th theme that has been beaten to death, but chooses to focus on an increasingly powerful Israeli military that is pushing back its Arab enemies. There are some poignant moments throughout that seek to address rises in ideological clashes without flinging mud and using the 24 hour news cycle to bury opponents, which is a refreshing change. Stepping away from all things legal, Deverell makes a name for himself in the world of espionage writing without being forced to lose that Canadian flavour. This makes the novel all the more alluring to me, for I have issues with those authors who repeat the same themes in their works, as though no one has ever thought to discuss al Qaeda or ISIS as a veritable enemy of the protagonist. While I am eager to get back to his legal writing, I thoroughly enjoyed this Deverell treat!

Kudos, Mr. Deverell, for another stellar piece of writing. I’ll be sure to check out more of your books to see if I can continue my praise!

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

To Squeeze a Prairie Dog: An American Novel, by Scott Semegran

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Scott Semegran and Mutt Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

After being asked by the author to read and review this piece, I was eager to see what he had to present. Set in Texas, Semegran’s storytelling was sure to mix nicely with the Southern flavour of this book. J.D. Wiswall is a pie-eyed young man from a small Texas town. When he arrives in Austin, he’s secured a government job at the Texas Department of Unemployment and Benefits. While a clerk job, J.D. finds it rewarding to help those in need. Working alongside a number of quirky individuals, J.D. soon learns of a contest being launched to help create cost-saving measures within government departments, with a prize of $10K to the winner. While J.D. is quite eager to win the prize, he learns that his Unit 3 colleagues have a pact whereby they will all share in the spoils. As the novel progresses, J.D. and his colleagues each receive time in the narrative to show their personal struggles, all aimed at accentuating how they could use the money for themselves. An accidental ‘epiphany’ by the drunken unit manager appears to solve the problem, which could ensure the Unit 3 team is that much richer. During a visit to the Governor’s Office, the chance for significant publicity trumps anything else, perpetuating a misleading set of facts spread at the hastily arranged press conference. Amongst the reporters on scene is one with a penchant for investigative work, who sees an opening that could blow the entire set of jaded facts out of the water, as well as reveal a long-held secret the governor has been keeping. An interesting novel that is sure to keep the reader forging ahead until the final revelations come to pass.

I was quite pleased to have Scott Semegran reach out and ask that I partake in reviewing this piece. While not weighed down with a great deal of drama or monumental character development, it does offer the reader something significant into which they can sink their teeth. J.D. Wiswall proves to be an interesting protagonist, whose blissful ignorance works well as he makes his way to the big city. He fits in nicely with his handful of fellow clerks in Unit 3, all of whom have their own backstories. In fact, it is Semegran’s ability to present these backstories and build on them through subsequent chapters focused away from the office that makes the story interesting for all. From a matriarch who tries to keep her sizeable brood in order, to single mother whose son is anything but angelic, and even a street-racing giant who enjoys being mute when it serves him well, Semegran flavours the story effectively with these individuals. The ‘dysfunctional family’ of Unit 3 promises to keep the reader wondering and eager to learn more. Toss in some political corruption and a journalists who refuses to accept anything for what it appears to be, and Semegran has woven together a novel that reads as easily as the curious reader could like. The format of the piece works well, choosing to entertain the reader from the get-go, and does not steer away from humorous antics. Those looking for something a little lighter need cast their sights no further than Scott Semegran’s latest piece. And what a curious title, which will lure in another pack of curious readers as well.

Kudos, Mr. Semegran, for permitting me the chance to read this piece. I may have a peek to see what else you’ve published, as I am sure to be just as entertained.

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

Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age, by Matthew Brzezinski

Nine stars

On the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of the Sputnik satellite, Matthew Brzezinski took the time to write this comprehensive book about the entire experience, pulling on political and social perspectives to educate the curious reader. Brzezinski shows that this was far from being an isolated event, which helped to fuel the early years of Cold War weapons stockpiling, as well as sparking the race for space and how one might ‘colour the heavens’. As the dust was settling on the Second World War, Europe was emerging as a new region, divide into two ideological spheres. The USSR and USA stood before one another as two superpowers, each with their handful of allies, ready to dismiss the other’s ideology as faulty. With this, came the need to develop weapons in an effort not only to protect themselves, but also to flex each superpower’s technological muscles. With the dropping of nuclear bombs on the Japanese, the Americans had made the first move, though the Soviets were not about to take things lying down. Rather than focus solely on bombs, both sides wanted to develop an arsenal of missiles, strategically aimed at the other. With the technology at their fingertips—helped by some of the German scientists who sought refuge once their Nazi homeland was decimated—both sides created weapons with nuclear tips, likely some of the most deadly weapons that could be launched with ease. At the middle of this, US President Dwight Eisenhower sought to outmaneuver Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, though neither side could claim complete victory. Brzezinski explores the weapons development that both undertook, as well as some of the attempts by either side to spy on the progress being made. While the Americans had to create ultra-light spy planes to capture photos of some facilities, the Soviets remained baffled that American media outlets readily published news of their progress to the world through daily headlines. While ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) were being perfected, Soviet scientists were able to create something that could be launched into the sky and orbit the Earth with ease. When they were able to launch a satellite into orbit, they named it Sputnik and wondered how great a difference this would make to the larger technological battle. While the Americans panicked and Eisenhower hid from any journalist seeking a response, the Soviets only realised the impact they’d made when the world media began blasting the news out as fast as it could be synthesised. Brzezinski explores how both sides reacted to this news upon grasping its significance and how the Americans used this as a tossing of the gauntlet to encourage them to rush to new heights of weaponised readiness in the ever-developing Cold War. It was then that things got out of hand for all involved, with the Americans tripping over their own feet to wipe the egg of their faces. With Eisenhower still shaky on the entire premise, many within the American political sphere pushed harder to ensure that there would be a space program that could counter its Soviet cousin as soon as possible. Brzezinski has used extensive research to present this thorough piece in an attempt at educating the curious reader, while also memorialising the event on such a significant anniversary. Highly recommended for those who love political and military history set in a modern era.

While much has been written about the Cold War and the military clashes of the two superpowers, I was quite intrigued to read Matthew Brzezinski’s account of this key event. He explores its significance, not only from a weapons perspective, but also how this constant competition pushed the limits of technological advancements and brought humans to new and exciting realms. The dedicated reader will see the progression of this theme throughout, accentuating the impact of the space race in both countries. Brzezinski does a wonderful job of exploring the specifics of weapons and space technology without drowning in the reader in information. Brzezinski places this arms race in the middle of social change taking place in the United States, which contrasts nicely and explores some of the domestic struggles Eisenhower faced. Little Rock, Arkansas proved to be a key test in the Eisenhower presidency as he sought to desegregate the South, against the wishes of politicians from the region. This parallel development in history shows that Eisenhower could not focus all his attention on these significant changes, turning his gaze to the blood in the streets, rather than solely those stars in the distant sky. The narrative also shows that Eisenhower—key military figure in the Second World War—was out of his element in the advancement of military technology and the modern art of warfare. Brzezinski argues that Eisenhower needed to make some decisions well outside his comfort zone or face significant impediments in keeping America relevant as the Cold War progressed. With many key figures appearing throughout this narrative, the reader will notice many familiar names in the battle to push America and the Soviet Union towards a standoff, only years away. There is no doubt that the book focusses a great deal on the American perspective and explores the reactions of many US actors in the larger political drama. I can only speculate that research was limited from a Soviet perspective, though it is clear that Khrushchev has an iron fist and ruled with little chance for dissent. The narrative flows so well and keeps the reader enthralled throughout this piece. As mentioned above, while full of information, there is little time for the reader to get lost in the description, as the smooth delivery helps the layperson to better understand some of the more complex aspects of the story. Brzezinski has gone above and beyond to create a masterful piece that accentuates how far the two countries have come since then, leaving many to posit where things will go in the years to come.

Kudos, Mr. Brzezinski, for a great piece of non-fiction. I learned so much though was entertained in equal measure. I look forward to finding more of your work in the coming months.

This Book fulfills Topic #5, Equinoxy Thinkin’ (Moon) of the Equinox #5 Book Challenge.

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

Famous Assassinations, by Sarah Herman

Seven stars

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

Sarah Herman seeks to explore the somewhat controversial side of death, particularly as it relates to those of some notoriety. Herman uses her introduction to explore the difference between simple—as if that word applies—murder and an act of assassination. Assassination includes the murder of a political or religious figure to negate some change being espoused, keeping the definition vague enough to include many figures in history. She also effectively argues that assassinations of key figures can be found throughout history, as far back as documents exist. Tracing not only the history of assassinations, but also offering a backstory on some of those she uses as examples, Herman shows that plots to kill for power can be found centuries before the Common Era, where Roman emperors were slain to make room for others who wanted their crowns. Other monarchs also found themselves at the wrong end of a sword’s blade, slain sometimes to stop their despotic power or to change the political and geographic unions that kept Europe together. Herman moves through to those who pushed political movements and sought to change things from the grassroots level. While not powerful in the traditional sense of politics, these groups sought to change results and their deaths may have been attempts to neutralise the ‘thorn in the side’ these men created. From Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., those who sought to enact change came up against strong resistance and found themselves slain, becoming martyrs for their causes. Herman seeks to explore some interesting developments in the latter portion of the book by exploring presidential assassination, some of whom are better known than others. Looking at US presidents Lincoln and Kennedy, Herman explores their well-known slayings and makes some generic summaries of events surrounding their respective shootings, while also looking at assassination attempts that fell just short. Herman takes an all-encompassing look at assassination as a form of political and religious movement to effect change, arguing that it is by no means a new phenomenon. Interested readers can bask in the large number of cases Herman introduces and use this book as a springboard to more in-depth reading about those cases they find most intriguing.

I have always had an interest in assassinations, as they mix the need for power with the desire to better understand what led to such a dramatic reaction. Herman has done a fair bit of research to generate a large narrative of assassinations that pepper the history books, organising them into distinct categories. Her choice to offer the reader a small background of the victim and killer is furthered by a ‘lay of the land’ related to the events leading up to the tragic act and some of the fallout thereafter. From emperors to monarchs through to presidents and protestors, Herman argues that violent death does not discriminate, as long as it serves the purposes of someone with a plan. While Herman’s book offers a wonderful cross-section of assassinations, the reader should be clear that this is strictly a primer. Her descriptions, while great for those wanting a brief glimpse, is not all-encompassing. It serves only to whet the appetite for those readers wanting a thorough exploration of assassinations throughout history. Herman’s book serves its purpose, though skimming the surface on so many historical events leaves readers like myself feeling somewhat shortchanged. A decent primer shows that Herman knows her stuff and should be applauded for her effort in gathering up so many examples to prove her arguments.

Kudos, Madam Herman, for a nice introduction to the world of assassinations. I will look forward to finding more of your work in the coming months.

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

The Hangman’s Secret (Victorian Mystery #3), by Laura Joh Rowland

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Laura Joh Rowland, and Crooked Lane Books for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Laura Joh Rowland takes readers back to Victorian England to continue this mystery series that proves addictive from the opening pages. Sarah Bain and Lord Hugh Staunton have worked well together in the past and, after some results in a recent kidnapping case, have been hired by Sir Gerald Mariner to work at a recently acquired newspaper. Sarah’s skill at photography is sure to help sell copies, alongside the passion she and Hugh have for solving crimes. When they are sent to a murder scene on a tip, Sarah and Hugh discover a decapitated man. He is soon identified as one of the hangmen used across England to execute those deemed worthy of death. During an encounter with the local police, a competition ensues to see who will find the killer first. Sarah and Hugh begin poking around and learn of the hangman’s ties to a ruthless killer, one Amelia Carlisle, who ran a baby farm and was found to have murdered many of the little ones in her care. Working undercover of sorts, Sarah and Hugh make their way to the prison to learn a little more about Carlisle, where they meet the select group who witnessed the hanging. Between learning about this, Sarah’s half-sister comes to call, where she admits that she may have seen their father. Benjamin Bain was thought to have died over two decades before, having disappeared after a clash with the police. However, Sarah came to discover that he had a second family, using a pseudonym. She also discovers that he is wanted as a person of interest in the rape and murder of a young girl, around the time of his disappearance from the Bain household. With new information, Sarah his determined not only to find her father, but clear his name of this heinous crime. When new revelations surrounding the Carlisle execution leaks to the press, Sarah’s job is in jeopardy, though she has other matters on her mind. A killer is on the loose, targeting those who know all about the execution, but Sarah is also keenly aware that there are secrets in her own family that must be revealed before she can learn the truth for her own peace of mind. Rowland has penned another winner, full of great plots and interesting characters. Recommended for those who love mysteries set in Victorian England that have unique twists.

I chose to read the first two novels in the series before jumping into this one, as I felt that it would help enrich the experience. I am pleased that I did so, as Rowland effectively lays the groundwork for this book and develops her characters well in the first two pieces. This novel is just as exciting, set another year or so after the Mariner kidnapping and two years after the Ripper scare made headlines. Sarah Bain remains an interesting character, sure to interest most readers for her relatability and constant curiosity. A photographer by trade, Sarah uses her amateur sleuthing capabilities again in this novel, accentuated by grit and determination to get to the answer. Rowland did well to develop her into a quasi-investigative reporter, utilising all her skills. Lord Hugh Staunton remains her effective sidekick, though it is his interest in keeping things secretive about his true identify that acts as the form of development the reader must accept in this piece. Hugh has been disowned by his family for his homosexuality and his recent relationship could cost everyone a great deal, if it becomes public. Some of the secondary characters shape the story effectively, particularly Police Constable Thomas Barrett. PC Barrett struggles with his love for Sarah and his dedication to the job. His superiors have made it known that Sarah is not welcome to poke around, leading to some interesting secret keeping and revelations between Barrett and Sarah throughout. Overall, the story worked well and kept my attention through to the final sentence. Wonderfully developed in the middle of Victorian England’s most crime-filled years, Rowland captures the feeling of those dark and troubled streets in London’s less savoury neighbourhoods. Rowland has created an interesting series that mixes history with key elements of a decent mystery. I will keep her on my radar and hope that she continues this wonderful series that is both highly entertaining and easy to read.

Kudos, Madam Rowland, for keeping the series fresh with new ideas and established storylines. Victorian England comes alive in your descriptions and I hope the series will continue in the years 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

Ambush (Michael Bennett #11), by James Patterson and James O. Born

Seven stars

Michael Bennett is back, further developed by James Patterson and collaborator James O. Born. In this eleventh novel in the series, Bennett finds himself paired up with a partner, given the task to show him the ropes. When a tip comes in and they are headed out onto the streets of New York, Bennett cannot know what awaits them. As they arrive, a hail of gunfire erupts and Bennett is left injured while his partner dies in a pool of blood. This was some form of ambush, an attack meant to scrub Bennett out of the NYPD equation. Lurking in the shadows is an Columbian national who has been sent to exterminate Bennett as part of a contract to allow the Mexican cartel ready access to the streets of the Big Apple. While Bennett recuperates, he learns that his son, serving time in update New York, has been attacked. Could it be tied to the attempted offing at the ambush? If that were not enough, Bennett’s eldest daughter, Julianna, has been chosen to act in a local television production and has been flexing her independence at every turn. Will a killer on the loose, leaving bodies of rival cartel members strewn around New York, Bennett has little time to wait, especially once he discovers there are crosshairs focussed on him. A man of a million roles, Michael Bennett as little time for capes and phone booths, but he must be a superhero not only to the city he loves, but the family he cannot live without. Patterson and Born offer up a decent continuation to the Bennett series, which has been moving along effectively. Series fans may enjoy this one, though there are also signs that Bennett might want to turn to life with the family and hang up those cuffs!

I have a long history with many of the cop series that James Patterson has crafted over the years. I find that those with a collaborator seem to get a little tepid as they progress, particularly when plots repeat themselves. Bennett was once a sharp cop who sought to juggle life in Homicide with his massive brood of adopted children. It worked well, when backstory and development allowed for adequate action and kept the reader enthralled. It would seem to be that things have remained in neutral, with new killers and more ways to wreak havoc on NYC, but little movement in the protagonist. Sure, as his children grow their life lessons blossom into interesting sub-plots, but they do not have enough momentum to keep the series propelling along for me. Born was brought in recently, perhaps to inject some pizzazz into the series, though it might have been past its best before date already. The handful of characters that have followed the series seem to have grown slightly, but it is time to either make significant changes to them or let the series fade into the sunset. The story is ok, though, as I mentioned above, has not got the spark needed to push it to the top of any list—save perhaps lists that utilise the ‘Patterson’ name for automatic notoriety. Bennett mixes his time between chasing down killers and trying to keep a handle on his family. The series is at a crossroads—or, perhaps it has already left that spot—and needs some revamping and more energetic developments. I leave it to Patterson and Born to see if they want to keep it exciting or let it wither and cause animosity amongst those who have dedicated time and effort into supporting it for this long.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Born, for working your best to make something out of a series that may be turning beige. Perhaps a BookShot or two to tie things off? I suspect your collaborative efforts in the future could make for brilliant work, away from Michael Bennett.

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

The Last Good Year: Seven Games That Ended an Era, by Damien Cox

Nine stars

Damien Cox is a long-time journalist covering the Toronto sports scene, having covered my beloved Toronto Maples Leafs for many years. Fans of this celebrated franchise have been through years of glory as well as periods of painful sorrow, as the team never seems able to gel enough to bring home the prize. Cox looks back at the National Hockey League’s Campbell Conference Final in 1993, where the Leafs came within one game of making it to the elusive Stanley Cup Finals. This series was more than a seven game battle, but one that sports writers could use as symbolic of the last time the Leafs were truly championship ready and worthy. Cox briefly describes how the Leafs entered the 1993 playoffs as significant underdogs, but were able to claw their way through a seven game series with heavily favoured Detroit. Thereafter, it was another gritty match-up with St. Louis, who ended up being no match for Doug Gilmour and the Leafs as they checked their way into a Conference Final against Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings. Cox takes his time exploring each of the seven games in detail, discussing the major happenings and dramatic flair each game brought, while interspersing backstories about the clubs, their players, and some of the dramatic happenings that brought both the Leafs and Kings to this point. This was more than a series, it was the culmination of years of successes—as well as a few abject failures—that would shape the game for years to come. In a series that could have brought about an all-Canadian Stanley Cup Final, the Leafs fell into trouble on the ice in the latter stages of the series and fell in a gruelling seventh game, breaking the hearts of many, including yours truly. This is more than a story about hockey, but a way of life in Canada’s largest city as it relates to sports and the business of professional hockey. Cox enthrals the curious reader with facts, anecdotes, as some of the key events that shaped this hard-fought series that many players, fans, and journalists alike call one of the greatest in modern NHL history. Recommended for Leafs fans, as well as those who love hockey and its history in the latter part of the 20th century.

I remember this series and the heartbreak that it brought for me. I won’t explore it too much here, as I know there are few I call friends who read my reviews that share this same passion. That being said, a quarter of a century later, I have come to see that while the pain has dissipated, my curiosity in discussing it has not. Cox develops a wonderful narrative that describes how these two teams came to face one another, as well as the on-ice animosity that showed itself over the seven games. There was no inherent long-standing feud between these two teams, but bad blood arose in short order. The star players each team possessed, combined with the enforcers used to protect these assets, turned the series into one of rough play, bloodshed, and rule enforcement—or ignorance—by the referees. Cox offers great context to better explain these two teams and key members of both franchises. This puts the series in context, as well as offering some poignant editorializing about the NHL and how it turned from being business heavy into solely a money-making league, with hockey only a means to amass greater wealth for both owners and players. Cox pulls no punches and does not let his Toronto roots cloud his sentiments, as he offers the reader some well-rounded discussion. Seeking less to argue a point than to offer up insight, Cox succeeds in telling his version of events and how things got to that pivotal game before Los Angeles found themselves bound to play the Montreal Canadiens and the Leafs were forced to wait for their trip to the Stanley Cup Finals—an event that has not happened for fifty-one years. Well-researched and thoroughly educational, Cox has left readers with a stellar piece of sports writing that serves its purpose. I was enthralled throughout and think many hockey fans who enjoy more than on-ice events will be as well.

Kudos, Mr. Cox, for bringing this series to light again, twenty-five years later, which has allowed me to revisit things through adults eyes and better understand some of the behind the scenes events that I would have missed as a young fan!

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

Song of a Nation: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Calixa Lavallée, the Man Who Wrote ‘O Canada’, by Robert Harris

Nine stars

Uniting by definition, a country’s national anthem can bring a people together under a single tune. Robert Harris takes time not only to explore Canada’s national anthem, but also provides the reader with a comprehensive biographical piece on the song’s creator, Calixa Lavallée. Born Calixe Paquet dit Lavallée in 1842, he had a penchant for all things musical from an early age. Calixe’s father was a talented musician and fostered that love in his son, who took up the piano while living in rural Quebec. Harris explores the life that awaited Lavallée in the big city of Montreal when he had exhausted all that he could do at home. It was there that music and the world of the arts came together for Lavallée. Harris explores Lavallée’s discovery of life in a minstrel group—yes, he wore blackface—and the role that sort of entertainment held for both those in the Canadian colonies as well as the perceptions in the United States. When the Civil War broke out, Lavallée went to join the troops, though his placement was both surprising and yet completely to be expected. Harris explores not only the importance of the Civil War on Lavallée’s future, but also on its impact for the Canadian colonies, who would soon enter a unification oddly called ‘confederation’. This lit a flame inside Lavallée, whose passion for Quebec saw him push back and flee Canada soon thereafter. When he made a name for himself in Boston, Lavallée continued work in minstrel shows, but also honed his skills of composition. Harris delves into the new and exciting world that Lavallée discovered, though knew that his name and homeland might impede his ability to make an impact. By this time, Canada was looking for a song that might unite its people. Many pieces of writing were being considered and Lavallée was asked to pen a song for the occasion. However, he chose something that might appear somewhat peculiar to Canadians today; he wrote a nationalistic piece—words and music alike—that promoted a strong Quebec within the larger Canada. Harris examines the nationalistic sentiment in the song, as well as the tune and rhythms, in order to help readers understand how brilliant it ended up being. While Lavallée continued his music work in the United States, he was becoming a beloved entity in his home province of Quebec, so much so that his name is imprinted all over the province to this day. Harris continues the narrative to explore how Canada got its first set of English lyrics to the piece—while I should have known this, growing up singing both English and French versions, they are not translations of one another—and the fight to get ‘just the right’ sentiment flowing through the melody. From there, Harris ties off the discussion with the long and arduous task of getting Canada to formally acknowledge O Canada as the national anthem through means of parliamentary debate. A masterful biographical piece, Harris takes on not only a piece of Canadian history, but a massive chunk that will forever live in the heart of those who rise and hear the opening bars of the tune. Recommended for those who love stories of patriotism without the need for nationalistic isolation, perfect for anyone who feels a sense of pride in their homeland.

Harris has undertaken a wonderful exploration of a highly sensitive subject with this piece. Hoping not only to explore the life of Calixa Lavallée, Harris weaves together the life of this man who did so much for Canada, while also showing just how little many (English) Canadians likely know about the man. The biography of Lavallée throughout this piece is an essential part to better understanding not only the song—rich in its symbolism—but also the struggles that could be found within the precarious union of two distinct peoples before and after formal confederation of Canada. Harris does not shy away from the clashes or issues between English and French Canada, nor does not seek to smooth it over. While reading this, I did learn a great deal, but also felt that Harris presents his information in such a way that many outside of Canada could enjoy this piece while learning much about our history. How Lavallée was so connected to the United States was shocking, as well as some of the activities he undertook to make a living, things that would be scandalous and likely scrubbed from history texts today. Harris refuses to leave the politics out of the story, for they are essential to understanding what went on, including some of the more painful memories of how Canada almost tore itself apart. Harris is blunt in his depiction of the national anthem being highly divisive and how its very words drive wedges between parts of the country. How one song, meant to unite a country in times of pride, can be so divisive and politically scandalous was one thing that I had never considered. Harris’s exploration of getting the Government of Canada to formally make O Canada our national anthem is quite interesting, pointing out how the Americans and British also struggled with formal national anthem recognition. How a book that is so brief could pack such a punch, I will never know. I cannot say enough about this book and the impact it had on me, as a Canadian, as well as fuelling my passion for all things political and history-based. As many of my country folk will understand, I think of beer commercials from days of old…. I AM CANADIAN!

Kudos, Mr. Harris, for this masterful piece. You show how Canadians can have pride in their country without the need to offend others—though you surely make a case for how Canada is not as peaceful within its own borders—while telling this masterful story about Calixa Lavallée. I will look to see what else you may have penned to whet my appetite.

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