The Neighbour, by Fiona Cummins

Eight stars

With another psychological thriller, Fiona Cummins shakes the reader to the core as they wonder who might be watching them from behind a covered window. In a small Essex town, there have been a handful of murders that cannot be explained. The eerie sense of something wrong is concentrated on The Avenue, a residential area where the homeowners can only wonder who might be behind the crimes. The bodies appear peaceful, with no marks left on them, save the eyes removed and replaced with fakes. The victims seem left like discarded dolls, left in the woods to fend for themselves. Some residents point the fingers to a reclusive doll maker who is rarely seen, though youths do all they can to provoke him, while others wonder if it could be another neighbour, who seems just a little too…different. When the Lockwoods move in, some hope this is a sign of new life. Knowing the history of the area, Olivia and Garrick hope to make a brief impact while they renovate and sell for a profit. Meanwhile, the killer seems to have focussed their attention on the fresh blood, staying one step ahead of all others in a plan to strike at any moment. Someone is out there, watching, and waiting. The further the investigation goes, the more is revealed, though this is not always a good thing. The killer will strike again, though it is impossible to tell when and who could have the motive to complete such heinous attacks. Told from the perspective of many, including the killer, Cummins leaves the reader to guess as they peer through the eyes of many, piecing this story together. A wonderful tale that will send chills down the spines of many and keep the reader wondering if they really know that person who lives up the road. Recommended for those who enjoy a well-balanced thriller with twists throughout.

I discovered Fiona Cummins not too long ago and was hooked by her short series about the hunt for a serial murderer. From there, I promised myself that I would keep an eye out to see if she wrote anything else. When this book crossed my radar, I knew that I would have to get my hands on it, to see if it reached the same level of intensity. It did, and then some, as I sought to see if I could crack the mystery while others in the story hid behind their curtains and speculated over tea. While there are many characters who grace the pages of this piece, the killer appears to be one whose presence cannot be forgotten. Told through a series of memories about events in this small town, the killer recounts of a simple life of children and entertaining, which turned sour at one point and left a pall of death and despair. With a focus on the Lockwood family, new to the area, the killer has a plan with the new blood placed before them, upping the ante and keeping the reader wondering what might be next. With the varied perspectives in this book, the reader will not be short of any character development or flavoured narrative, particularly as they muddle through the various perspectives Cummins offers when it comes to analyzing the crime. The story is well developed as it keeps the reader wondering just who might be involved and how the investigation will play out. With short chapters that alternate between ‘now’—when the killer takes control of the narrative and offers insight—and the summer of 2018, Cummins paints a picture of how this bucolic Essex community turned to one where no one can trust anyone else and all eyes look for clues as to who might be to blame. There is a definitive chill factor here and I know I will keep the blinds down, just in case!

Kudos, Madam Cummins, for another winner. I have come to enjoy your style of writing and hope to see more from you in the coming years!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The Defense (Joseph Antonelli #1), by D.W. Buffa

Eight stars

After reading a few of his more recent novels, I chose to go back into the earlier collections of D.W. Buffa. Always a fan of legal thrillers, I knew this series would pull me in quickly. Joseph Antonelli is quite the defence lawyer, citing that he has never lost a case he ought to have won and was victorious many times when he should have been on the losing side. This cocky attitude served him well when he began practicing in Portland, Oregon, but also painted quite the target on his back. When he is approached by a judge to represent a difficult client, Antonelli leaps at the opportunity to serve as a cog in the wheel of justice. His client, Johnny Morel, is accused of raping his step-daughter, though he denies it vehemently. Antonelli must work his magic in order to ensure justice is met, even if he may not trust that his client speaks the truth. As they prepare for trial, Antonelli engages with his client and prepares him for what is to come, no matter how ugly things could get. In a trial that pits the word of a man against that of a pre-teen, the jury must determine where they see the truth, as Antonelli puts on a great display in the courtroom. Armed with the testimony of Morel’s wife—against her own daughter—Antonelli finds his own form of justice. However, this is not the end of the matter. Five years later, Morel is gunned down in cold blood, seemingly by the woman who sought to help exonerate him, adding questions to the truth that came out in court. In a thrilling tale of courtroom drama and personal vendetta, Antonelli must decide where he stands and how Lady Justice will be seduced by those who use her for their own means. A wonderful introduction to this series by Buffa, exploring justice in all its forms and spinning things effectively until the final sentence. Recommended to those who love a well-developed legal thriller with depth and a bite throughout.

While I have read two books by D.W. Buffa that pertain specifically to the American political situation, this exploration of its legal system was just as interesting and quite telling. In this series debut, Buffa seeks to put the law and justice on trial in the court of public opinion, examining how well they work and whether the system can come together effectively to serve those who need it most. Joseph Antonelli proves to be an interesting character, though his personal life is in shambles. Accused of treating his relationships like his cases—always plotting the next one before the current one has come to an end—he seeks a spark without giving much. He is acutely aware of the law and how things work, bending aspects to ensure they work for him when needed. However, he is not without a soul, never able to cheat the system for a client. I am eager to see how he develops throughout this series, which is sure to have many more revelations. Others in the book help to enrich the narrative, to the point that I am eager to see how many return for the second novel. Legal minds, personal friends, and curious individuals who help propel the story forward are all part of Buffa’s larger plan and keep the reader hooked to the plot. With this deeper and more rooted legal thriller, the reader should expect some mental challenges moving forward, rather than something whimsical and quick to digest. This opening novel chose not to focus on a central case, but rather laid the groundwork for Antonelli’s defence work in general. This could prove a hurdle for some readers, who enjoy the lineal nature of a legal or courtroom thriller, but I suspect it was Buffa’s way to create a foundation for the series. I cannot wait to see what else this series has to offer and how Antonelli will develop throughout!

Kudos, Mr. Buffa, for yet another novel that has me thinking. I am eager to see what twists you have for us in the novels that follow.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

King of Kings (Courtneys and Ballantyne #2), by Wilbur Smith and Imogen Robertson

Seven stars

In their collaborative effort, Wilbur Smith and Imogen Robertson offer readers the latest instalment of the Courtney and Ballantyne saga, taking the story back to the African continent in the latter portion of the 19th century. Situated in and around Cairo, Penrod Ballantyne has tossed away the love of his life for the wily actions of a two-bit whore, or so the story goes. He has been up to his old tricks and remains one step ahead of the law, smearing the names of anyone who crosses him, particularly when he is in the opium dens scattered throughout Egypt. Meanwhile, Ryder Courtney is hard at work trying to mine as much of the metal as he can find, having secured permits to dig around Ethiopia. However, there would seem to be someone trying to stop his progress, as the ship carrying his supplies inexplicably explodes. Convinced that there is much to be done, Courtney and his family remain committed and work with the locals to find new ways to bring about a successful venture, all while Ethiopia enters a new era of politics and tribal control. The Italians have laid claim to the land and are making the country their protectorate, while the local tribesmen are coming to terms with a new leader, the King of Kings, who has promised not to abandon the fight for autonomy. Caught on both sides of the fight, the Courtney and Ballantyne families seek to make their mark on the African continent, particularly its northern territories, while living a life their European ancestors could not have imagined. Smith and Robertson do well in this piece, even if I was not entirely captivated by the writing or plot. I’ll leave it to other fans of this extensive series to decide if they want to add this one, as I have a somewhat lukewarm reaction to it.

I remember how enthralled I was with the early novels in both the Courtney and Ballantyne series, even as they blended together at one point. Of course, that was when Wilbur Smith had full control of the writing and the plot development. Granted, he has aged much and likely cannot keep up with all the advances in the writing process, but I have seen a significant lessening in the impact of the novels since secondary writers have shared (read: controlled) the writing process. It could be that things are not as sharp or that people are just not as attuned to Smith’s nuanced style, but I will admit this was one reason that I was not fully committed to the novel. Ryder Courtney and Penrod Ballantyne each have their own backstories and have enriched the pages of this piece with their adventures. Contrasting significantly, one is a strong and powerful force while the other seems more interested in flitting from one cause to the next, without setting down roots. The reader will likely find themselves connected to one or the other, which creates an interesting banter throughout the novel and will do well as the series continues to advance. Others grace the pages of this book to offer the two protagonists some direction and personalises them, though I could not grasp onto the secondary characters enough to feel it saved the novel from being tepid. The plot was decent and Smith always uses known history as a backdrop, but I needed more to keep me fully committed. Gone are the days of the original series, where strong characters dominated the pages, though they do pop up from time to time. In a set of series that tend to take checker-like jumps in time, it is had to get the full chronological view of either family. Perhaps once Wilbur Smith and his collaborators lay down their pens for the final time, I will have to return and read the entire series in order to get the full impact of the stories being spun!

Kudos, Mr. Smith and Madam Robertson, for a valiant attempt. I may be in the minority, though I do not discount the abilities that either of you have!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The Elizabeth Tudor Conspiracy (The Marquess House Trilogy #2), by Alexandra Walsh

Eight stars

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

After an explosive opening novel in her Tudor trilogy, Alexandra Walsh returns with another instalment, building on some of the mysteries revealed in the opening piece. Perdita Rivers and her sister, Piper, are still trying to wrap their heads around the fact that their grandmother left them a massive estate and countless pieces of her research. However, with that comes the fear of being hunted by an elusive part of the British Government. While away for a wedding, the sisters discover new mysteries tied to the knowledge that Catherine Howard—Henry VIII’s fifth wife—had twins by the king, but they were hidden away. Now, in a mystery that ties to the reign of Elizabeth I, Perdita and Piper learn what became of the twins and how Elizabeth contemplated the Tudor secession based on this information. In secret correspondence, Elizabeth and her closest ladies discussed the news, using jewels to pass the most important of all their news. However, with Philip II of Spain seeking to overthrow Elizabeth and trying to take over the English Throne, the Tudor line (and England herself) are in dire straits, particularly because news of the Howard twins has somehow made it to the continent. As Perdita learns more, she stumbles to discover how it was all revealed and what Elizabeth did to protect herself and the Crown from Spanish interference. Told in two timeline narratives, Walsh keeps the reader hooked until the final pages with this mystery that still has one final piece to tie it all together. Wonderful in its presentation, fans of Tudor history will enjoy this piece, as long as they can keep an open mind about fictional accounts. Recommended to those who love a good historical mystery, as well as those who love the life of the Tudors.

Having read a few other books by this publisher, I was offered an early copy of the first novel in the series. When I noticed a second book was ready for pre-release, I leapt at the opportunity, knowing that Alexandra Walsh would not disappoint. The detail found in this book forces the reader to decipher truth from fiction throughout, hoping the find the thread of the story and using newly unearthed pieces of the historical narrative to entertain the curious reader. Perdita’s character has less of a backstory in this novel, but her ability to piece together some more of the Tudor history keeps the reader enthralled throughout. Seeking to uncover some of the lesser known aspects of Tudor history and genealogy fuels a great narrative and allows the reader to feel fully involved in the process. Other characters in the novel, including Elizabeth I, provide an exciting flavour to the story, serving not only to propel the history of the story forward but also offering exciting plots for the reader to enjoy throughout. The premise of this book was as exciting as the first, building on some of the scandalous revelations. Walsh spins an effective and plausible version of events, which she substantiates in her author’s note at the end of the piece. So much to digest and some ideas that could offer Tudor fans much to consider as they rush to the history books to cross-reference some of the narrative’s most outlandish claims. All in all, a wonderful read and it has left me pining for the third book.

Kudos, Madam Walsh, for another wonderful novel. This series has me curious and I hope to learn more in short order.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Anna of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait, by Alison Weir

Nine stars

Alison Weir returns with yet another novel in her Six Tudor Queens series, turning the attention to one of the lesser known (and seemingly, least scandalous) queens. Anna of Kleve served a brief time on the Tudor throne, but much about her differed greatly from the other wives of Henry VIII. Anna grew up in the House of La Marck, part of Germany, and was tied to the Duchy of Kleve. Her family ruled the region effectively and ensured that the princess had all she could want. A chance encounter with a cousin led to a scandalous event in the early 1530s, one about which only a few were aware, though it marked Anna deeply. As the years passed, Anna could not help but wonder what might come of her life, though she did have a loose betrothal to a local prince, but nothing was ever solidified. When news arrived from England that King Henry VIII was looking to make strong political ties with Kleve, which could include a wedding, Anna was a likely candidate to secure the union. Sending a miniature portrait to secure the king’s favour, Anna waited to see if she would be invited to Court and potentially made the new wife in the Tudor realm. A delayed arrival in England saw Anna accepted, though neither Princess Anna nor King Henry seemed ready for what was to come. Her wedding delayed for political reasons—said to be tied to her potential betrothal back in Germany—and then a wedding night that proved disastrous, Anna was left to wonder if this was a huge mistake. However, she sought to bring forth children for the king, in hopes of not ending up like his past wives. Health and seeming impotence impeded any marital congress, which turned out to be the out King Henry sought to annul the marriage. Anna was left shocked and completely beside herself, but was not sent off or scorned by Henry. Rather, she was given all the amenities that one might expect of a dear family member and given the title of ‘Sister of the Queen’. However, there were still issues, particularly with her small retinue, as she was no longer respected. Henry had moved on to a new (and spritely) wife, leaving Anna to bide her time and turn to those she knew back in Kleve to provide much needed attention. In the final years of her life, Anna saw significant changes to the House of Tudor and of England’s foundation, which would dramatically flavour the path forward. By the end of her life, Anna had shown herself as a respected member of the English Court, even if she was not active in affairs. Recounting many little-known facts about Anna and her years after being queen, Weir dazzles the reader with stories, some factual and others completed fabricated, to tell of the most unique—read: bizarre— of the six wives. A stellar piece of work that will keep the reader enthralled throughout. Recommended to all those who love Weir’s work and especially those who enjoy all things Tudor!

It is always a pleasure to see a new piece by Alison Weir, as I am permitted the chance to learn something while being entertained. This Six Tudor Queens series has proven helpful in fuelling my passion for all things Tudor while also introducing me to a great deal more information about which I had no idea. Anna of Kleve is the queen about whom I know the least, though Weir made sure to fill the book with much that left me wondering and racing for the ‘author’s historical note’. Anna began life as a naive princess, overcome by the wiles of an older relative, but still kept the secret in order not to stain her family. Her use as a pawn in the England-Kleve political alliance seems not to have soured her resolve to make the most of her responsibility, as she knowingly and voluntarily loved Henry VIII as best she could. Tossed into quite the quagmire, Anna was left to fend for herself when demeaned by Henry and his advisors, but did not become a shrinking violet (rose?) for the latter years of her life. Seeking to move on, she grew in personality and resolve, as Weir depicts throughout. There are the usual characters who fill the pages of the novel effectively, from King Henry through to the lowest servants, all of whom add a flavour to this fourth novel in the series. The reader is even able to see ahead, looking at the final two queens chosen after Anna was tossed to the side. The premise of the story is intriguing, offering up some interesting facts that I knew nothing about before, including in the opening chapters of the book. Weir is one who always spins a tale, adding fiction into her factual findings and creates an effective final product that will keep the reader wondering. I cannot wait to see what else is to come, with two queens yet to receive their own novels. I know Weir will keep her readers enthralled, though I will have to wait until next spring for the next instalment.

Kudos, Madam Weir, for another wonderful novel. I thoroughly enjoy your writing and all you bring to the story.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Knife (Harry Hole #12), by Jo Nesbø

Eight stars

Jo Nesbø returns with yet another of the Harry Hole novels, as intriguing as it is dark. When Harry wakes from a drunken stupor, covered in blood, he is unsure what’s happened. Could it have been a bar fight gone wrong, or perhaps something a little more dastardly? While he shakes out the cobwebs, there is news on the crime front, when a body is discovered with its neck slit and a massive stab wound in the stomach. Harry learns of this and seeks answers, particularly when he discovers the victim is someone close to him. While Harry is now stuck working cold cases, he continues probing into this active investigation, which turns up an old nemeses. Svein Finne was an early criminal that Harry caught when he was new to the scene, learning the ins and outs of this most notorious criminal mind. Finne, nicknamed ‘The Fiancé’, would choose his female victims and violently rape them, in hopes of making them pregnant. Thereafter, he would threaten to harm the women, should they in any way report him or terminate their pregnancies. Finne served his time and is now out on parole, just in time to strike again. As Harry pieces together the elements of a murder, a woman comes to report a rape that has Finne’s trademarks all over it, but recants and leaves the authorities baffled as to how they might proceed. With fire in his eyes, Harry strikes and tries to secure an arrest, though things fall flat. With little to show for his actions, Harry falls into a deep depression, coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. Evidence points that the blood on him was that of the victim, which only furthers his grief. Left despondent, Harry wonders if he would be better off dead, taking matters into his own hands while he is on the lam. In a race for the truth, Harry is a pawn in a larger game, one that could see the bodies pile up as the murderer watches with glee. Nesbø is masterful at spinning this dark web of deception and mystery, perfect for fans of his work. Recommended to all those who love Scandinavian thrillers that pack a punch from the opening sentence.

I have long been a fan of Jo Nesbø and his writing, even though it is much heavier than many of the novels I read. The reader is forced to focus intently in order to ascertain all the nuances found within the narrative. With nothing apparently lost in translation, this Norwegian thriller keeps the reader guessing throughout while showing the depths to which Harry Hole can find himself when things do no go his way. Harry remains a stunning member of the police, though his skills are always in question when drink enters the equation. That being said, Harry seems able to push the haze aside and make something of himself, though this might be the end of his luck, as personal angst acts as a anchor to drag him into the depths of his melancholy. Others around him seek to lighten the mood—or make it darker, depending—and shape the narrative effectively. Nesbø chooses a wonderful cast of characters to portray the themes he has in mind, as well as introducing the reader to one man who has haunted Harry Hole for many years. The plot of the story worked well, keeping me intrigued while also wondering if things would remain gloomy throughout. Nesbø does so well with the darkness and angst-filled stories that I could never tell when I ought to pause, worried I would miss some enlightening aspect. For those not familiar with Harry Hole or many of these Scandinavian noir thrillers, I would recommend walking back to the start of the series, as things definitely need context before popping up here, twelve novels in.

Kudos, Mr. Nesbø, for keeping my attention throughout and helping me see another side of Harry Hole. I never tire of your work and hope you’ll keep the novels coming.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The Accomplice (Theodore Boone #7), by John Grisham

Eight stars

John Grisham is back with some of his lighter legal work with another instalment of the Theodore ‘Theo’ Boone series. Th has been a stalwart in his community, fighting for justice—for both human and animal—and keeping an ear to the ground for tidbits of new legal concepts to shape his future. As Theo is attending middle school, his worries for one of his classmates mount. Woody Lambert comes from a fairly disconnected family, one in which everyone is forced to fend for themselves. When Woody and his older brother are caught up in an armed robbery, having been waiting in the vehicle for the ringleader without knowing what was going down, they are tossed into the slammer and subjected to a great deal of hurt. Theo cannot stand to see Woody go through this, blindly believing that he must be innocent and caught in the web of legal bullying. He works with friends and family to raise enough to set Woody free on bail, but is baffled to see how arcane some of the practices of law can be when it comes to incarceration. Armed with a passion for justice, Theo uses his legal knowledge and persuasive attitude to get the wheels of justice turning as best he can. When not trying to get Woody some justice, Theo is in Animal Court dealing with a rabbit that has apparently been drumming up some nocturnal trouble. As both cases progress, Theo learns a little more and does his best to ensure justice is served, even if the law is riddled with holes! Another wonderful piece that shows Grisham is able to convey the law for readers of all ages. Recommended to those who love Grisham’s work as well as the younger reader (or young at heart) who enjoy his lighter legal series.

I have found that few authors can work both the Young Adult and mainstream adult audiences with their work. Grisham is able to bridge the gap effectively, entertaining and passing along some interesting concepts about the law. He works through this lighter fare with the legal keener, Theo Boone, who may only be thirteen, but is always eager to learn. Theo is surrounded by lawyers in his family, but is always learning a little more about legal conundrums when it comes to major and minor matters around town. Grisham allows his protagonist to fill the page with wonderful advancement and shows just a little more in each piece. Theo’s passion to help others rings through the narrative yet again, as does his bafflement at yet another aspect of the law. Other regulars in the series make their mark here, while newbies shape the main plot with some interesting flavouring. Never a ‘deep read’, Grisham makes a wonderful case with the plot of this book, able to entertain readers of all ages with a case that is sure to keep the reader wondering. A mix of short and longer chapters with a plausible plot and legal situations, Grisham will have no trouble drawing fans into the middle of the courtroom drama and plight of the accused. I always look for Theo Boone books to lighten my reading load and have not been disappointed with this one!

Kudos, Mr. Grisham, for another classic pared-down legal thriller. You kept my attention and I know these are likelier easier to create, but they pack as much punch as some of your other and more complicated works! Keep them coming, as I know there are numerous fans who enjoy each publication.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Parkland: Birth of a Movement, by Dave Cullen

Nine stars

Dave Cullen is back with another heart-stopping book that depicts the world of gun violence and school shootings. While his first book, Columbine, shook the literary world by depicting the event from two decades before, this piece seeks to encompass the momentum gained after yet another shooting by a group of students trying to neutralise these atrocities. After a shooting in Parkland, Florida, America wrung its collective hands yet again and vowed that school shootings needed to be dealt with once and for all, though this echoed sentiment seems to resonate after each atrocity, vowing to the victims that they will be the last. The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were the latest of those with a spotlight thrust in their faces, seventeen victims dead from another round of gun violence. But this was not just another school with students who wanted to mourn their losses. Cullen explores the power of a movement that began here, to toss off the yoke of ‘victim’ and turn it into something more. Guns and school shootings had peppered America for years and it was time to take the spotlight off the crying and blood, turning it towards a rallying cry for change. A small group in Parkland began organizing walkouts to protest gun violence, first at local schools and then across the country. There was a need to meet with political figures and plead the case for more restrictions on guns and the need to vilify the NRA (National Rifle Association) and all its spinning as it deflected any responsibility for funding campaigns to keep guns on the streets and in people’s homes. The movement grew and a march in Washington became a rallying cry for the world to see. ‘Gun are killing our children’, it sought to say, ‘and we are tired of it’. Cullen explores how the movement grew and put the spotlight on needed change and political action, forcing those who blame mental illness and not guns for all these killings in schools. As the movement gained momentum and people across the country gathered, thoughts of those who had been slain before in places like Sandy Hook, Columbine, and other horrid mass shootings added fuel to the already raging fire. However, as Cullen posits, one can only wonder if the momentum can be sustained and if politicians and those in positions of authority—read: the NRA—will be held accountable when the time comes. The blame game is strong, but it is time for action, serious action. Cullen and many others suffered significant bouts of anxiety and illness by hearing stories first hand, with long-lasting devastation for those who lived the events as well. One can only imagine the collective pain and mental illness that could come by seeing yet another blind eye turned in hopes of ‘never again’, only to be a temporary battle cry until ‘next time’. Brilliantly argued and researched, Cullen pulls the reader in again. Highly recommended for those who enjoyed Cullen’s past work as well as the reader with an interest in this sort of analysis of American culture.

As I mentioned in my review of Columbine, it is hard to rank the best and worst school shootings in America (or anywhere in the world). The pain and suffering that comes from the event leaves many in such dire straits that no one can really understand the depth of all that is going on. In this piece, Cullen seeks to rise above the analysis that he did in Columbine and look to the movement for a change in the conversation. He refuses to give the Douglas shooter any mention and the focus is less on that shooting than the larger movement to stop them in the future. He describes the agony enough to hook the reader, then moves on to show how speedily students worked to begin making a difference, using social media to push for change and to unite the country and speak about such tragedy. Not deterred by the NRA who sought to make it a mental health issue or President Trump who wanted to arm all teachers, these students wanted their voices heard and changes made once and for all. The time to act was prescient and Cullen was there to capture the movement at its inception. He explores the minds of the students, their efforts to argue with political figures as well as link arms with others who wanted to end the violence. Cullen takes on the movement’s core values and matches it to some of the other protests of non-violence in America history, drawing significant parallels. In his own tongue in cheek manner, Cullen debunks the ‘it is not guns, but people who kill people’ and ‘mental illness is to blame’ sentiments, asking at times why it is only America that seems to have this ongoing issue with school (and more generally, all) shootings in the world. There is never an answer for that. One can only wonder why tons of money is not being funnelled into mental health programs IF we are to believe it is mental health and not guns that are killing these students. Cullen’s well-paced piece seeks to make a difference in his own way with stunning chapters that are broken down into more digestible portions for all to see. There is a stunning exploration throughout and the reader will surely learn much from the movement. I can only hope not to read more Cullen if it pertains to new school shootings, but anything he has to say on the topic (or any topic), I will gladly read any day of the week!

Kudos, Mr. Cullen, for another riveting piece of writing. I hope the momentum can remain high as we go into the 2020 election cycle and beyond.

This novel fulfils the May requirements of Mind the Bookshelf Gap Reading Group.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Fragments of Fear, by Carrie Stuart Parks

Seven stars

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

One can usually expect something intense when Carrie Stuart Parks is writing, spun with the uniqueness of her forensic expertise. I did not feel as much of that here with her one-off novel and wish for more of the series that pulled me in while teaching me all about forensic artists. Evelyn McTavish is suffering, having just buried her fiancé. ‘Tavish’ to many who know her around her New Mexico home, has to find some normalcy in her life. When she receives an odd phone call from the local dog pound, Tavish is pulled into the middle of a series of events that could put her in much danger. Somehow identified as the owner of an acquaintance’s dog, a man who soon appears murdered in his own home, Tavish must try to get answers while dodging those who would seek to hurt her. As the story progresses, more becomes known about the larger story and how Tavish may have stumbled into the middle of things inadvertently. All she thought she knew goes up in a puff of smoke, leaving more confusion. As the tension ramps up, no one is safe and any hope of a peaceful solution goes out the window. In a piece that left me feeling very distance and detached, I pined for the Parks from her past novels. While I may have missed out on much by not feeling connected to the story, I cannot offer a strong recommendation, but do hope readers will look to her past work for something I would highly suggest checking out soon.

Sometimes authors have hit or miss moments, much like a well-rounded readers who travel through the world of fiction and non-fiction over long periods of time. I know that I enjoy Carrie Stuart Parks and her writing, but felt as though there was something missing from this piece. Tavish is an interesting woman with an artistic background, but I never found myself able to fully connect with her. She seems to have found herself in the middle of a larger mystery and by doing so, she struggles to find which way is up. It could be that the story rushed by and I never ‘caught on’ to her as a character, but it was almost as though I was waiting for the big Tavish reveal to hook me. Others found their place throughout the story and kept me wanting to find just a little more to pull me into the piece, but I was sadly unable to latch on. The premise, from what I ascertained, was decent, though the mystery did not get to the depths I had hoped it might. I know that established authors with strong series are sometimes judged based on that as a yardstick, which is surely what I am doing here, but I cannot help myself. I needed more and while I may be in the minority, as a reader, my own opinion matters as much as the major reviewers and slew of those on Goodreads or other sites. I can hope that this was an anomaly for me and that we will return to the powerful and addictive novels before too long.

Kudos, Madam Parks, for the effort, as I know there was much that went into this piece. It was likely not my cup of tea, which surely happens. Not all readers can be enamoured all the time!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

First: Sandra Day O’Connor, by Evan Thomas

Nine stars

Continuing my exploration of influential members of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), I turned to Evan Thomas and his biography of Sandra Day O’Connor. The life and times of the first woman who served on the Court proves not only to be interesting to the curious reader, but also quite informative in its exploration of key legal and policy themes the United States faced over that quarter century of her time as one of the nine Justices. Never the wallflower, Sandra Day grew up as a rancher’s daughter in Texas and learned the ‘ropes’ from an early age. Thomas explains that Day learned the importance of hard work as a child, though her parents also felt there was a need for strong educational roots, sending her away to finishing school to smooth some of her rough edges. Always interested in learning, Day was accepted to Stanford at a time when women in post-secondary institutions was rare. Her interest in history and politics left her wanting more, paving the way for Stanford Law School, a domain where few women went and even fewer succeeded. There, she devoured all things related to the law and made some key friendships, none more than with William ‘Bill’ Rehnquist, a man who developed strong feelings for her and who would one day serve as Chief Justice on the Court. Thomas explores this platonic/romantic relationship between Day and Rehnquist, though the former did not feel the passion and sought love elsewhere. When Sandra Day met John O’Connor, it was a connection that few would ever doubt had great chance at longevity. This connection proves to be a theme for the rest of the biography, showing how dedicated the O’Connors were to one another.

Armed with a law degree, Sandra O’Connor sought to find work, though she was dismissed from many law firms, offered only legal secretary positions. However, she refused to demean herself or the education she had, choosing to hang out her own shingle in Phoenix. O’Connor was able to work and make ends meet, while John secured work in one of the city’s larger firms. Thomas shows these parallel employment tracks of the two O’Connor lawyers, depicting how closed-minded many were in the 1950s. Taking time to start a family, Sandra showed a passion for all things familial, working as hard in the house as she had when sitting behind a desk. As her children grew, O’Connor turned back to her Republican roots and sought higher office to effect change. In a turn of fate, she was offered the chance to run for state senate in Arizona and served there, shaping laws and soon becoming the country’s first female state senate leader, even though the press made no notice of it. Her notoriety was not lost on the state and national scene, as she befriended the often outspoken and staunchly Republican U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, who began circulating her name to key players in the political arena. Sandra O’Connor was a woman with a mission and her passion for the law could not be overlooked. Her ascension to the bench came in due time, where Sandra O’Connor was able to shape laws and interpret the US Constitution in key instances, paving the way for others to look to her, hoping to see how she would use her clout to shape women’s issues at a time when rights were coming to the forefront.

During the 1980 US Presidential Election, Republican candidate Ronald Reagan vowed to make his first SCOTUS appointment be that of a woman. Paving the way for O’Connor, the opportunity arose in the summer of 1981, as Reagan chose Sandra O’Connor to fill a seat on the Court, even though many close to the president wanted him to renege on his promise. Reagan had little doubt that O’Connor would serve as a key conservative vote on the Court, while others were sure that women’s issues and affirmative action would be strengthen themes in rulings. O’Connor was breaking glass ceilings all over, though she was extremely modest in her advancements. As Thomas explores throughout, O’Connor did not want to be token woman who would buck the trend of her eight brethren, though she could not deny the new and fresh approach on the Court. Thomas spends much time exploring issues of affirmative action, abortion, race relations, constitutional interpretation, and social advancement throughout the biography, with all sides hoping to use O’Connor as a key player to various causes. She did not disappoint, but could not always be relied upon to vote a certain way, surprising pundits (and the president) on certain occasions. Thomas also spends time exploring the interactions that O’Connor had with her fellow Justices and clerks, positing an ever-evolving set of views and clashes that kept O’Connor’s life on the Court highly exciting.

There was more to O’Connor than her writing Court decisions and deciphering some of the nuances of constitutional law. Thomas explores how she used her time on the Court to educate many to the importance of the law, be it within the United States or on the world scene. She would travel around the country—and the world—to speak to groups that valued her opinions, while leaving a lasting impact on world judicial pillars. As hard as it would be for the world to see Sandra Day O’Connor as a human like others, she had her own foibles. A fight with cancer brought O’Connor to her knees and forced her to accept that she could not always deflect life’s hard choices. Thomas shows her vulnerable side throughout, when she was handed news and would breakdown in her chambers or at home. The strength of her family foundation was able to keep her from falling apart, but the reader will discover a woman who had her own issues and yet found ways to overcome them in her own way. Slowly, John O’Connor began to fade as well, though it was Alzheimer’s that took him down a path towards confusion and a degree of isolation. Justice O’Connor did her best to juggle her role as one of the nine, as well as be the dutiful wife to keep John comfortable. When there was little chance of her being able to do both, Sandra O’Connor chose family above country and decided that it was time to retire. Thomas engages in an interesting banter around O’Connor’s retirement and the illness of Chief Justice Rehnquist, which serves as an interesting parallel to their early relationship five decades before. While she was out of Court proceedings, Sandra O’Connor was never far from the pulse of legal progress locally and around the world. Her impact would not soon be forgotten, and remains vibrant to this day!

Evan Thomas captivates readers with his paced biography, giving Sandra Day O’Connor both a heroic nature and down to earth mentality as she navigated through life in the spotlight. While many created O’Connor into an icon for the women’s movement, shaping decisions from the bench, she was quite independent in her views and would not always vote to expand rights for the sake of doing so. Thomas uses extensive research to shape his narrative, including interviews, Court documents, and judicial opinions to offer a thorough view of the first woman to sit on SCOTUS, paving the way for other women who now sit and shape American policy. Thomas explores key themes in American politics and constitutional interpretation, including some issues that remain buzzwords today. Thomas effectively argues that O’Connor moved the discussion forward, though could not always be seen to give a final flavour to the discussion. The biography is highly educational, though Thomas is able to entertain in this easy to digest tome. The curious reader will take much away from this book and can use Thomas’ work as a wonderful launching pad to further exploration of O’Connor’s life or the intricacies of American jurisprudence. There is so much to learn and Evan Thomas takes readers on an adventure they will not soon forget, glorifying Sandra Day O’Connor without turning her into a sainted being.

Kudos, Mr. Thomas, for a sensational biography of a wonderful American icon. While this was my first piece of your work, it will definitely not be the last.

This Book fulfils Topic #5: Humbly Herculean in the Equinox #7 Book Challenge.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: