Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, by Jared Cohen

Nine stars

While many people surely aspire to be President of the United States (POTUS), the role of Vice-President is sometimes called a position ‘not worth a bucket of warm spit’. John Nance Garner, one of FDR’s vice-presidents famously made that remark, though I paraphrase. However, there have been times when the second on the ticket has ascended to the role of POTUS due to death and it is those men that fuel this book by Jared Cohen. In it, Cohen explores eight of the men who assured the office of President upon the death of their predecessor. Exploring some of the backstory that led to the death of the sitting leader, the fallout, and the ascension of the vice-president, Cohen seeks to determine how effective the new POTUS became. As far back as John Tyler taking the position after the death of William Henry Harrison, the idea of American leadership falling into the lap of another has been a reality. The shock of the Tyler situation, in which he became POTUS just over a month into the term is contrasted with the almost expected elevation of Harry S. Truman after FDR’s fourth electoral victory. As Cohen calls him, Truman was ‘President-in-waiting’ and it was only the constitutional limbo of ensuring FDR made it from election night victor to inaugurated POTUS that served as the drama. Some grabbed the reins of power effectively, like Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson (LBJ), and ran with it before they served a term as POTUS and kept the country together, while others were disasters. Cohen argues extensively that Andrew Johnson’s choice by Lincoln during the second term may have been seen as a uniting effort during the Civil War, but when an assassin’s bullet ended the great president’s life, Johnson’s ascendency turned the country on its ear, which led to impeachment trials. Cohen also sandwiches the ‘blip on the screen’ vice-president—Calvin Coolidge—with the likes of Chester A. Arthur and Millard Fillmore, who had little interest in the top job, but worked to make things work as best they could. The United States has seen eight men ‘fall’ into the role of POTUS, making the choice of a presidential running mate all the more important. More in line with what Garner actually said, one would hope future aspirants to the White House choose folks full of ‘piss and vinegar’ rather than clueless and guided by their own wit, as he discusses in a poignant afterward. Recommended for those who love American political history, as well as the reader who find American presidential politics right up their alley.

I always love a good presidential biography and Cohen offered up sixteen of them in miniature. His discussion of American history and political goings-on is second to none as he pulls eight presidents and their last running mates into the mix, analyses their effectiveness, and contrasts it with the way America ran itself. While the presidential curse ran long—the man elected every twenty years from 1840 to 1960 died in office—there is more to this elongated collection of biographies. The country is surely one heartbeat away from the second-in-command assuming the office and the choice is sometimes not just to bolster the ticket. Those reading will see how Cohen effectively shows that some selections doomed the country for a time—A. Johnson, Arthur, Coolidge, while others proved effective choices to succeed their predecessors—Roosevelt, Truman, LBJ—and made an indelible impact on the country. It is for the reader, with the help of Cohen’s writing, to decipher what they feel. Cohen’s use of extensive sources and effective arguments make a strong case that these many have been accidents, but also could have been averted. Men chosen to serve as vice-presidents should not only bind the party and the country, but have the wherewithal to serve effectively. There are others who never had the opportunity that would surely have been great players in the game, while other vice-presidents one would surely shudder to think running the country—as many do of some who actually have won victory to the White House—for any period of time. Cohen uses strong academic arguments in an easy to digest format to propel American history into the reader’s mind and shows just how interesting things can be. Besides the eight men who ascended to the presidency, Cohen explores some ‘near misses’ and a temporarily use of the 25th Amendment to show how vice-presidents should be ready at any time While surely not a book for everyone, Cohen’s writing makes it easy to draw conclusions, even if they are not always the ones with which the reader would agree. Well-organized and so thoroughly researched that I will have to see what else I can learn from this man and his on-point arguments.

Kudos, Mr Cohen, for a fascinating look. As you mention in your author’s note, this has long been a passion for you. I am happy to join you in being a long-time presidential history (and disaster) fanatic.

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

Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir, by Justice John Paul Stevens

Eight stars

After reading the recent judicial memoir by former Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, I was eager to get my hands on more of his writing. This piece serves as another such legal/judicial memoir, though its focus is much narrower and anecdotes fewer in number. Stevens uses this book to focus primarily on the five Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) with whom he had personal interactions, a daunting and interesting task in equal measure. Opening the book, Stevens gives readers a brief backstory about the other Chiefs and their legacy, from political and historical happenings durning their tenure at the Court, as well as some of the most important cases that came before SCOTUS. Stevens also spends a little time telling the reader how the role of Chief Justice differs from the other Justices on the Court and how more recent holders of the office used their role to shape America outside of the legal decisions made there. Once Stevens is ready to tackle those legal leaders who influenced him personally, the anecdotes come out, as well as discussions of key cases that came to the Court during these tenures. These cases are, at times analysed and their decisions commented upon with Stevens’ own editorialising. From the clerking with Justice Fred Vincent, Stevens developed his passion for all things SCOTUS. These were the post-war years of the Court, when constitutional discussions became more heated and complicated. Stevens speaks about the fraternal nature of clerks and Justices, working together effectively to push forward the legal agenda. The arrival of Earl Warren changed the flavour of the Court significantly, as can be seen through the analysis of many legal scholars. Many important cases were argued and decided under the Warren Court, pushing a liberal interpretation of the US Constitution. Warren Burger brought the pendulum swinging back and served as Chief when Stevens was eventually appointed to the Court. Some say that Burger sought to claw the more conservative and ‘law and order’ approach back to the Court, though Stevens is openly critical about the lack of structure and leadership that Burger had over the other Justices. He would often cajole and choose which side to support last, ensuring he was usually in the majority. He was also known to push for the vilification of certain Justices, turning them into the Court’s public face of a decision that would not parallel the sentiments of society. After a hasty departure by Burger, William Rehnquist took over in the latter part of the 1980s, a time when Stevens feels the Court came into its own and its impartiality was evident. Rehnquist was passionate about structure the the image of the Court, but also wanted to ensure the Justices had their voice. A stickler for the rules, Rehnquist stuck by time limits and did not enjoy repetition when it could be avoided. His death while still Chief struck all those around the Court very hard, but also paved the way for a new and vibrant generation, in the form of John Roberts. During the final years of Stevens’ tenure on the Court, Roberts sought to fill the shoes of his predecessor, while also carving out his own unique approach. Stevens explores many of the interesting cases that came before the Court during this time, including the reinvigoration of debates on capital punishment, the Second Amendment (gun control), and election spending. In his closing remarks, Stevens offers readers a view of life as a retired Justice and how the Court continues to respect those who left. While there was surely much change for Stevens and the country under these five men, there is sure to be a great deal more, especially once a woman assumes the role of Chief Justice. A great approach to the modern SCOTUS and great complimentary piece to The Making of a Justice, the new and thorough memoir to which I referred earlier. Highly recommended to those who love the law and its interpretation, as well as readers who have an interest in the Supreme Court.

I realise the law and constitutional discussions are not for everyone and this book is especially heavy on both accounts. Modern discussions of the core political rules of the American Republic can have many nuances that pull some readers in, particularly when juxtaposing the styles of the five men who served as Chief Justice during much of the discussion. Stevens seeks to draw many of the parallels, as well as keen differences here. The attentive reader will realise that the flavour of each Chief-led Court varies greatly on the types of cases that arrived and the other eight Justices who served alongside their leader. Stevens effectively presents cogent summaries of the cases throughout, a shorter summary that his full memoir, helping the reader to better understand many of the intricate details of the legal arguments, the struggles that occurred for the Justices as they sought to decide in conference, and society’s reaction to the rulings. While there is some technical nature to the cases and the overall narrative, it is easy enough to follow for those with an interest in the topics. Full of personal asides and anecdotes that are not captured in the decisions rendered from the bench, Stevens adds new angles to the memoir that may not be familiar to everyone. This added education adds depth and piques my curiosity to find even more in the coming months to understand the delicate balance between personalities and ideologies that shaped SCOTUS for the 35 years Justice John Paul Stevens was an active member.

Kudos, Justice Stevens, for a stellar, while also shorter, memoir that kept my attention from cover to cover. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece and will find the last piece you’ve written to discover even more of your views.

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

Star Witness (Joseph Antonelli #5), by D.W. Buffa

Eight stars

D.W. Buffa has done well with his Joseph Antonelli legal thriller series, taking the reader into the depths and darkest corners of the genre. In this novel, the protagonist tries his hand at the law in the glitzy city of Los Angeles, battling the giants of Hollywood and the seedy underbelly of the politics of the silver screen. While settling in San Francisco, Antonelli receives a call to come to Los Angeles to meet with a potential client. He cannot help but wonder and is brought to the city, where Stanley Roth, the famous film director, finds himself in some hot water. After his wife, Mary Margaret Flanders, was found in their pool, her throat slit, all eyes look to Roth as the obvious killer. Antonelli learns that Roth did not have the strongest marriage to his movie star spouse, nor was it monogamous, but there are a few more troubling aspects. With the revelation that Roth was violent to his wife and surrounded by vipers in his movie studio, there are many triggers that could have pushed Roth over the edge. Add to that, Roth saw himself as the greatest film executive ever, having penned ‘the modern Citizen Kane’ to show some of the hurdles he overcame. Antonelli finds himself battling uphill the entire time and facing a ruthless prosecutor who is out for blood. However, Antonelli has a few tricks up his sleeve, which he will need to use effectively, as the evidence paints a picture of guilt like no other. Buffa does well in yet another of his novels to show that Joseph Antonelli is a versatile character and one the attentive reader can enjoy. Recommended to those who have loved the series to date and the reader who enjoys a deeper and denser legal thriller.

Many will know that I have an affinity for novels by D.W. Buffa, which prove to be a deeper read and trigger the need to think a little more about the content. Delving into the world of Hollywood politics, the reader discovers new angles about Antonelli and this realm of the law, though there is little backstory on offer. Antonelli has seemingly chosen to live in San Francisco now and is making headway in his relationship that sparked in the past novel, though it is his ability to adapt to ever-changing legal scenarios that is the main focus of the protagonist here. The masterful courtroom work is what makes Antonelli such an interesting character, but it is replaced with decent banter and a great deal more angst for the world of Hollywood and the accused’s plight as he faces almost certain conviction, based on the facts. Other characters pepper the pages of the book and offer some shape to the case at hand, it is the cutthroat world of the silver screen that keeps the characters intriguing. As always, it is Buffa’s style to slowly draw the reader in with characters whose lives are anything but simple and who serve to draw out interesting tangents about the case and those actors at the centre of the legal argument. The story held my attention throughout, though the Hollywood angle served to offer less of a punch than a flick to the ear. Buffa never makes reading his novels easy, but the themes developed do offer something unique from past books in the series. The story seemed darker and not as sharp, but the end result baffled me as many of the past novels have done as well. I am fully committed to the series and am eager to see what new ideas await the dedicated reader. It’s time to dive into another novel and see what Buffa has in store!

Kudos, Mr. Buffa, for new twists and an ever-evolving protagonist. Not my favourite of the series, but surely one that kept me wondering.

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

The Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years, by Justice John Paul Stevens

Nine stars

As I mentioned in a recent review of another book, I love discussion of constitutional documents, particularly through the lens of the courts and its interpretation of the document. Discussions of the U.S. Constitution seems easiest for me to access, so I am subjected to a great deal of discussion on this matter, though my native Canadian one is equally captivating. Of even more interest is when a legal memoir surfaces, using one of the key constitutional actors, which discusses many of these constitutional interpretations. This piece, a legal/judicial memoir by former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) John Paul Stevens, was stellar in its approach to that subject, as well as tackling some of the author’s biographical information during the first ninety-four years of his life. As of this writing, Justice Stevens is still around, set to turn 99 and still as strong-minded as ever, holding the title of third longer serving justice on SCOTUS. Below are some brief summaries of items found in this tome, whose volume is deceptively long, with well over half being endnotes (a good sign for those who want to learn more).

Justice Stevens opens the book with some interesting backstory about his life in and around Chicago. He discusses the Stevens ancestry and name in Illinois, showing how the Christian Scientist beliefs of his mother and business sense of his father helped shape him into a well-rounded young man with a thirst to learn. Stevens majored in English before making his way to law school, where he developed a passion for the law, particularly all things anti-trust. Working both in the public and private spheres, Stevens was able to see how the law and its pitfalls worked in a practical sense, ironing out the wrinkles when needed. He mentions his time in the Navy during the Second World War, as a codebreaker, and the excitement he had working to crack the Japanese Army’s transmissions. The reader also learns of his early political dealings, including attending some of the Republican events in and around Chicago, at a time when politicians tended to speak on the issues and not utilise ‘foreign mud’ to sling at others. His legal work brought him to the attention of those in the Nixon Administration and Stevens was given the chance to sit on the bench of the US Court of Appeals, where he developed his passion for hearing cases and writing opinions than would show his attentiveness and eagerness to explore avenues of the law. Stevens discusses some interesting developments that saw him be asked by President Ford to serve as an Associate Justice of SCOTUS, where the fun really began, and much of the tome takes off.

Stevens tackles his time on the Court in a thorough and yet highly digestible manner. He makes it clear that he was honoured to serve, but also does not hold back in his frank discussion of events. Having served for close to thirty-five years, Stevens has a great deal to say on many topics and uses this soapbox to explore many interesting cases. Stevens tackles some of the interesting aspects of constitutional law throughout his discussions, pertaining especially to personal liberties in the realm of abortion, sexual orientation, free speech, and gender equality. The reader will find many discussions throughout the years on the bench, with many specific cases coming to the forefront. I would be remiss not to mention his swipes at Justice Scalia as they relate to the Second Amendment (gun ownership) throughout the latter portion of the piece, when the topic came back to the Court and had some shocking reinterpretation that favoured a wider interpretation of this controversial part of the constitution. I leave it to the reader to decide how they feel! Stevens also tackles frank commentaries on his fellow Justices—not pulling any punches about how he disagreed with some on their legal views and others on the inability to work effectively on the team—which serves to enrich the read, rather than take away from it. Stevens pulls on the memories of his past legal clerks and offers up detailed discussions of cases, decisions, and even judicial conferences where Justices bantered about the merits of certain legal arguments. His long time on the Court offers readers a rich and very varied view of events over a significant amount of time, as legal standards changed based on the other eight sitting alongside him. Stevens surely made some great friends on the Court, though he never sold out. He was, in my opinion, one of the Justices who looked at the law and not the president who appointed him to make decisions. Many of those on the Court today could take a page out of his book, where each decision drips with ideology that ‘trumps’ what would appear to be central constitutional tenets and precedent by the Court, grounded in strong arguments. Anyone looking for a stellar analysis of the law, particularly from on high need look no further than this piece, which is full of wonderful discussions and frank commentary. I will be looking for his other work to complement my reading of this stellar judicial memoir. Recommended for those with a passion for constitutional discussion and the reader with an interest in legal issues. It is not as long as it looks, as long as the reader is not one to get lost in the minutiae of endnotes and citations.

There is no doubt that this book will not appeal to everyone, even those who love biographical pieces. Justice Stevens does spend some time giving his background, which includes wonderful stories from his youth and adulthood that will be of much interest to some readers. I was quite enthralled with learning all he had to say, specifically his time in the Navy and the war effort he undertook. Admittedly, there is little talk of his own family, with only passing mention of his first wife and children, and a little more about his current wife. I understand this is a legal memoir, though by adding the backstory from the early chapters, I would have hoped to learn more about his children and any anecdotes of their growing up before Stevens ascended to the bench. Perhaps a ‘first volume’ could have been used to discuss this backstory in more detail, though I cannot critique Stevens for his approach to his own life! Stevens uses the bulk of the book to explore his time on the Court, but chooses to lay things out in an interesting manner. He argues that the Court is less a product of its Chief Justice—the way in which many refer to the Court—and more of the newest Justice that has been appointed. Therefore, he includes chapter titles that refer to the ‘X Court’, where the variable is the newest appointee to SCOTUS. Additionally, he breaks down each annual Court sitting, beginning on the first Monday in October, in which he discusses key cases, rulings, and historical happenings from that period. This juxtaposition of events on an annual basis allows the reader to better see the influences of events and how cases developed over the years, based on the actors involved. While the early chapters are quite short, these latter section breaks are much longer and more detailed, something legal keeners such as myself are sure to enjoy. Stevens offers up so much information that even the more dedicated constitutional fan will likely need to take a breather from time to time. The narrative does, at times, get a little technical and ‘deep’, but when it comes to discussing Court decisions, it is sometimes hard to water things down too much, with the specifics under exploration. Overall, this is surely one of the better memoirs I have read in a long time, specifically due to its frank and detailed (in the latter portion) nature.

Kudos, Justice Stevens, for a stellar memoir that held my attention throughout. I did learn a great deal over your decades on the Court and am eager to ready your other publications to learn a little more.

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

The Legacy (Joseph Antonelli #4), by D.W. Buffa

Eight stars

D.W. Buffa has done well, writing both legal and political thrillers. Now, I have the chance to see him blend these two sub-genres in the explosive fourth novel in the Joseph Antonelli series. After his cousin reaches out to him, Antonelli agrees to travel to San Francisco to consider representing a young man accused of murder. While this would not seem to pose any issue, the fact that the victim is a United States senator adds drama and intrigue to the case. Senator Jeremy Fullerton is well known around California, though he is by no means a favoured son. He was involved in a run for the governorship and hoped to use that office to springboard his campaign for president. As Antonelli arrives and gets a lay of the land, he discusses the case with his potential client, Jamaal Washington, who says that he was walking home from work one foggy night and came upon the slain senator. From there, things take an odd turn that sees Washington shot by SFPD and his fingerprints on the murder weapon. As Antonelli agrees to act as defense counsel, he begins preparing his case, which will be more difficult than he could have imagined. Antonelli is pulled into the political realm to see just what Fullerton was like and how many people disliked him for a handful of reasons. Accusations from all corners paint quite a picture, none more than the revelation of his congressional assistant, who has taken over running in the gubernatorial race. By the time court proceedings commence, Antonelli is subjected to an aggressive feud between the District Attorney and the judge, making it clear that they’re no longer in Portland. While Antonelli effectively presents his case, he cannot help but wonder if the merits of his client’s innocence will prevail, or if a young black man will be sandbagged and sent to die because of circumstantial evidence. Another stellar courtroom thriller with Buffa’s signature slow reveal, forcing the dedicated reader to use patience as they learn the truth. Recommended to series fans and those who enjoy the darker side of politics.

Many will know that I have read and enjoyed novels by D.W. Buffa in the past, both political and legal thrillers. The mix has added a new level of intrigue for me, particularly with Joseph Antonelli in the mix. The reader, who has learned much about Antonelli in the past, is subjected to something a little different. The opening chapter retells some of his early memories from childhood, as well as the annual trips he took to San Francisco to visit family. Now, with a handle on criminal defense work, he is back, though his family life takes a backseat—save for a paragraph long explanation of what happened to his fiancée after the end of the previous novel. Rather, Antonelli is forced to dive into the world of politics and legal work in the ‘big city’. Antonelli finds himself wandering around, learning scraps here and there, while also trying to use this to distract from his client being accused of a capital crime. As with the past novels, the masterful courtroom work is what makes Antonelli such an interesting character. Others pepper the pages of the book and offer interesting tangential narratives, exploring more about the victim and how politics can change someone. While the impatient reader may complain about too much weighing things down, it is Buffa’s style to slowly draw the reader in with characters whose lives are anything but simple. The story held my attention throughout, mixing criminal law with the mudslinging of politics. Buffa never makes reading his novels easy, but the narrative is full of nuggets to keep the reader on their toes, with rewards for remaining dedicated. The legal arguments are presented well and leave the reader to wonder where the truth can be found. I am fully committed to the series and cannot wait to see what else Buffa has for his protagonist, with new approaches to criminal defence emerging. Not a courtroom thriller series for all, though surely perfect for a reader who enjoys being an active part of the journey.

Kudos, Mr. Buffa, for another winner. I cannot wait to see what comes in the next novel you have in this series.

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

Unsolved (Invisible #2), by James Patterson and David Ellis

Nine stars

James Patterson collaborates with David Ellis—one of the authors who is able to keep his pieces on track—for this sequel that will chill the reader almost as much as the original piece. Emmy Dockery is back, still licking the wounds after having blown the lid off a serial killer who masked his crimes under the radar, but she refuses to rest. Seeing links in apparent accidental deaths, Emmy is connecting dots and trying to make a case that a new serial killer is on the loose. However, her superiors at the FBI refuse to listen and want her to keep the investigation where it belongs, on the back burner and during her downtime. For now, Emmy is tasked with helping to crack a case that has the country talking, the nighttime bombings by Citizen David, an anonymous activist trying to representing the ‘little guy’. With news leaking to the public through a keen reporter, all eyes turn to Emmy as the one fuelling that fire. Emmy’s fiancé, Harrison ‘Books’ Bookman, has taken a step away from his past with the Feds and is working in a bookstore, trying to keep her from getting too far off the beaten path, though failing miserably. As the Citizen David investigation heats up, a killer lurks in the shadows, one who has been committing crimes that Emmy is discovering, though no one is yet ready to admit it. ‘Darwin’ is hiding in plain sight, masking his appearance and developing a backstory that will cover any tracks that might be visible. While Emmy is breathing down his neck, he seeks to throw everyone off the scent while also monitoring Emmy from afar. As the investigation heats up and Emmy is finally able to convince someone that there might be something to her off-duty sleuthing, the hunt for the mole intensifies, straining resources and the relationship Emmy needs so badly. But, will this serial killer get the best of everyone and create a pile of unsolved cases, while killing at random? Patterson and Ellis show why they are a masterful duo in this novel that will have the reader wanting to read on until the very end, stopping only when necessary. Recommended to those who loved the early Patterson novels, before he sold out, as well as the reader who loves a decent thriller.

I will be the first to admit that I have only a vague recollection of reading the debut in this series. This is not indicative of a poorly penned novel, but only that I read and review so much. However, after looking back at the review, I can remember a little more and knew I enjoyed it. The same can be said here, as I devoured this piece in short order, loving the twists and turns the authors presented. Emmy Dockery is a protagonist that the reader will easily enjoy, even if she becomes annoying at times. Her ability to get to the root of the issue and dedication is not lost on the attentive reader, even if she is socially stunted and unable to walk away from scouring for Darwin. The connection she has with Books is an on/off switch, but it is apparent that they need one another throughout this book, again. There are a handful of strong supporting characters, all of whom serve to intensify an already strong story with their own character development. One can only wonder if Patterson and Ellis will be back for another novel in the series and use some of these folks to help propel things even further. The story is strong and works well with this cast of characters, keeping the reader wondering throughout. The authors have used a few subplots to keep the overall storyline moving forward and it keeps the reader wondering, as they use their omnipotent view to amass all the information and are able to see the thriller from all angles. I’d gladly return to see if Emmy Dockery and her group have another case in them, though it would seem that anytime Patterson and Ellis work together, the magic follows.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Ellis, for another stellar novel. I am happy to see this collaboration working effectively and can only hope it continues.

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

The Judgment (Joseph Antonelli #3), by D.W. Buffa

Eight stars

D.W. Buffa returns with another novel in the Joseph Antonelli legal series that will keep readers on the edge of their seat as the case slowly reveals itself. In a story layered in nuances and subplots that are as interesting as the central case itself, the reader will have to focus all their attention to catch every aspect and piece the case together effectively. Judge Calvin Jeffries is dead after having his throat slit. Jeffries’ murder remains a mystery as many gather to remember his life, including Joseph Antonelli. It is at the reception that many recount the time that Antonelli and Jeffries clashed, an event Portland’s premier defence attorney would like to forget. However, Antonelli knows that there is more to the story, which includes the plight of Elliott Winston, an up-and-coming lawyer that Antonelli tried to guide and who struck up an odd friendship with the judge. Winston is now locked away in an institution for the criminally insane and expresses little distress when Antonelli shares the news. After some quick police work, a suspect is arrested for the murder and a press conference is called. Antonelli tries to get himself appointed as defence counsel to the homeless man, but the suspect commits suicide in his cell after offering a full confession. Case closed, or so it would seem. When another judge is found murdered in the same manner a few months later, another homeless man is arrested, but he’s chosen to stay mute. Antonelli takes up the case and brings it to trial, though there is something that does not make sense with the case. Might all this have some tangential connection to Elliott Winston? Antonelli cannot shake the possibility, but will have to put all his efforts into defending his latest client. If that were not enough, his high school sweetheart has resurfaced, leaving Antonelli to process feelings he thought were long buried. An excellent legal thriller that slowly reveals itself, leaving the dedicated reader to patiently peel back all the layers to get to the truth. Recommended to series fans and those who want a deeper and darker legal tale to keep them enthralled.

Let me first say that the time it took me to read this book—a week—should not be indicative of my feelings about it. Life happens and I wish I had been able to dedicate more time, over a shorter period, to getting through it. I have read and enjoyed a handful of novels by D.W. Buffa, both political and legal thrillers, each one as powerful as the last. Joseph Antonelli’s backstory is again pulled into the forefront of this novel, both a more recent past—covering Judge Jeffries and Elliott Winston—and that of decades ago. Both these narratives fill in some of the gaps that series fans may have discovered with the protagonist, though it is the current-day developments that enrich the character even more. With a sharp legal mind and the determination to get his clients the justice they deserve, Antonelli dazzles readers while leaving the prosecution cursing themselves. A handful of supporting characters serve to keep the story moving forward, all of whom are new to the series. This permits the reader to see Antonelli react in new and surprising ways. The story itself was great, though it will take much attention and some mental gymnastics to keep the storylines straight, somewhat important in the overall novel. Buffa never makes it easy, but the narrative flows well and the reader will be rewarded by being patient and staying the course. The legal arguments are intriguing and presented in a captivating manner, which only adds to the allure of the novel. I am committed to the series and cannot wait to forge ahead to see what else Buffa has in store for Antonelli, while providing interesting approaches to criminal defence. Not a courtroom thriller series to be dismissed, though I warn readers who want something light, this may not be for you.

Kudos, Mr. Buffa, for keeping me entertained throughout. I cannot wait to see what else you have in store for us in the series and what antics Antonelli will undertake.

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

Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices, by Noah Feldman

Nine stars

It has been said that the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) are like nine scorpions in a bottle. Never is that truer than after reading Noah Feldman’s book, in which he explores some of the precarious dealings those nine men had with one another throughout the 20th century. While Feldman does focus on four specific Justices, all chosen by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he makes the case that these men were unpredictable, both on and off the bench. The argument of FDR’s desire to shape the Court in his own image has long been held, though Feldman shows how the choice of four men in particular—Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, and Robert H. Jackson—shaped the Court and America significantly with their decisions that spanned decades on the bench. However, Feldman does not simply parachute the reader into the middle of Supreme Court decisions, but rather builds a foundation through biographical vignettes of these powerful men, providing context into some of their decisions and the outside influences during key cases. Each man came from a vastly different background and held beliefs that creates the aforementioned unpredictability. From Frankfurter’s arrival as a teenage to the shores of America to Black’s membership in the KKK in order to win a seat in the Senate, Feldman shows how one’s past can differ greatly and yet still catch the eye of a man with the power to offer great rewards. Feldman also discusses some of the key FDR legal issues early in his presidency, including the court-packing bill that would have ensured a liberal court in his own image. Moving away from that, FDR had to choose men who would support his New Deal politics and turn the Court away from its conservatism. This paved the way for support the liberal democracy that would soon be paramount in contrasting with the rise of fascist views in Europe. As Feldman mixes biography with Court cases, the reader has a better understanding of how America evolved—or devolved—during key events in history, the war, and social expression. One cannot miss the inherent political side of the SCOTUS, even as it purports to be the neutral branch of the American political system. Justice Douglas is shown throughout to align himself with those who could grant him a potential run for high office, while Justice Jackson used his ties to win a temporary leave from SCOTUS to serve as chief prosecutor in Nuremberg. Feldman takes the reader on this journey and explores how—due to their life appointment—FDR’s appointees continued to shape the legal landscape long after the president’s death. Full of captivating stories and constitutional discussions about how American jurisprudence sought to weight rights against policy enactment, Feldman shows how the law is not as clear-cut as it may seem—including detailed discussion of Brown v. Board of Education and the negotiation to get a unanimous decision. Recommended to those who love all things legal, especially constitutional, as well as the reader who has a passion for 20th century American history.

This book was recommended to me by a friend who knows how much I love constitutional discussions. I have long loved reading about SCOTUS interpretation of the law and how decisions are reached by the nine sitting on the bench. Feldman goes deeper though, by not only providing the reader with a biography of the four men he will use as judicial filters throughout, but also providing an ongoing narrative about their lives, the interactions they had, and the backdrop of history as it unfolded. While today’s SCOTUS may appear to be lapdogs with decision-making to appease an ideological bent, Feldman effectively shows how the Court of the day was less predictable in its decisions and rationale, looking to legal arguments and not a pre-destined checklist of how a Justice will rule. Interestingly enough, Feldman also shows that Justices can flex their own legal muscle when they attain a seat on the bench, no longer forced to spew forth the rhetoric of the president who selected them (or the groups that helped push them into the limelight, as with Justice Black). Feldman’s discussion remains on point and his narrative is clear, turning the delivery of fact and anecdote into a story-like presentation rather than dry, textbook discussion. The tome is easily understood by the layperson seeking to know more or better understand key decisions, particularly during the apparent suspension of rights throughout the Second World War and the social instability of the early Cold War years. Fantastic in its presentation, Feldman leaves the reader wanting to know more, with a text full of citations that dangle more information on many topics. I hope to find more of Feldman’s writing to explore legal history and SCOTUS discussions in the near future.

Kudos, Mr. Feldman, on a stunningly easy book to digest while also tacking the tough topics. You have proven the ‘scorpion’ argument well and I cannot wait to see what else you have in store for readers.

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

Valley of Death (Ben Hope #19), by Scott Mariani

Eight stars

Scott Mariani is back with another explosive novel in the Ben Hope series. Having recently returned from America’s Deep South, Ben is forced to come to terms with the fact that his helpful vibe seems to be an inherent aphrodisiac to women all over, causing him much distress in his romantic relationships. However, he soldiers on while working at his training facility in France. When a woman appears with a message, he takes notice. The sister of his former love interest, Brooke Marcel, has come to beg for Ben’s help. Brooke’s husband, Amal Ray, was kidnapped in plain sight while the couple was visiting India. Brooke is distraught, but her past with Ben has kept her from asking directly for his help. Ben is unable to fight off the powerful feelings that come bubbling back to the surface and agrees to help, flying immediately across Asia. When he arrives, Ben sees just how different policing is in India, as well as experiencing a significant culture shock. After connecting with Brooke—a harrowing adventure for mind and body—Ben begins piecing things together, which includes that Amal is aware of an ancient civilization and some of the riches it is said to have buried around India. Aware that a gang has focussed its attention on the Ray family, Ben does all he can to save Amal and learn about the treasure that may be waiting in the ground. No adventure would be complete without some blood shed and bones snapped, which is precisely what Ben Hope has in mind, should the need arise. Time is running out and Ben Hope must show that he can still be a hero, even if he is not Brooke’s active love interest. Mariani does well this deep into the series to keep the action fresh and the ideas current. Recommended to those who have long enjoyed the Ben Hope series, as well as readers who like a good thriller in parts of the world not utilised as much by Western writing.

The Ben Hope series has been one that I have long enjoyed and I am pleased to see that Scott Mariani is still able to develop something with substance and action, rather than riding on the coattails of his past work. Nineteen novels is a lot to expect much development with characters or story arcs, but Ben Hope is always one to surprise, be it with his sentimental side or the grit and determination he shows. Always able to adapt, Hope takes himself into India, where the rules differ and the fighting is a lot less calculated, or so it would seem. Mariani mixes this off the cuff fighting mentality with a definite spark in his heart to show that Ben Hope can use many things to fuel his desire for justice. With few other characters from past novels making an impact, it is Brooke Marcel that keeps series readers interested, as they try their best to decipher what has Hope so dedicated. Marcel does her best not to be the distraught woman, but there are times when it is impossible not to see her as swooning and begging for Hope’s assistance. Mariani also uses some of his one-off characters to depict the Indian mentality, essential for the reader to better understand what’s going on. The plot of the book was well-developed, taking the story out of Europe (or America) and focussing much of the attention in India, a vast expanse of land, culture, and differing mentalities when it comes to handling the criminal underbelly. Mariani offers up something for everyone as the story forges ahead and takes no prisoners, though is keen to keep the series fan wondering if Ben Hope will remain professional until the bitter end. A great addition to all that Mariani has written with his scarred protagonist and one can only hope there are at least a few novels left before Hope decides to give it all up… again!

Kudos, Mr. Mariani, for another wonderfully entertaining piece. I hope you keep you fans on the edge of their seats for a while 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

White Noisem by Don DeLillo

Six stars

Don DeLillo presents this off the wall piece that takes the reader on an adventure they may wish they’d never joined. Told in an oddly lilting manner, a family comes to terms with the pressures of the outside world in a way only they can surmises is rational. Jack Gladney is the Chair of the Hitler Department at a small college in Middle America. He thrives on the uniqueness of his work and yet has never learned to speak German, leaving him missing a key aspect of the essential research. At home, life is equally as unique, as Gladney and his wife, Babette, head up a family of children from their past marriages. A familial conglomeration of offspring from past unions that are mixed together like a multi-tiered cake, Jack and Babette try to create some normalcy in a situation that is anything but. With all that is going, there is something on the horizon, literally. When an accident at a train yard releases a toxic chemical, Gladney and his family gaze upon it with some awe. However, this cloud does not dissipate and soon the town is forced into an evacuation situation, which sees Jack Gladney exposed, however briefly, to some of the fallout. He chooses to keep this to himself, though the pall of death is now front and centre for Jack. He returns home contemplative as he banters with the children in the house, only to learn that Babette has been going through her own rollercoaster of emotions on this subject and many others. For the remainder of the novel, death lurks, as does the inherent fear of its arrival, taking the reader on a mind-bending (and numbing) discussion of preparation for the end and the afterlife’s inviting call. While there are surely some peaks in this novel, much of it is spent in valleys I wish I had kept well enough alone. I’ll go neutral on any recommendations and let each reader make their own decision on this one.

It is always difficult to dive into the middle of a well-established author’s domain and find issue with the first piece you discover. Having never read Don DeLillo before (and asked to do so for a book challenge), I could not help but wonder what sort of experience I might have. The dust jacket blurb for this piece seemed somewhat intriguing, which left me hoping that I would find something that kept my attention. However, as things inched along, I was drowned in silly offshoots that frustrated me more than helping move the story. Jack Gladney has the potential to be a captivating character, especially with the job he holds, though that ends up being a distance subplot and seems used only as window dressing for the piece. Rather, we see how Gladney tries to work through the patchwork of his home life with children from all sorts of marriages over a series of years, none of which give the reader any depth to the protagonist. There is little about the man that proves overly exciting, as he ambles along with his quasi-philosophical musings and banal conversations about life, death, and any number of other topics that lull the reader into something akin to wakeful sleep. I wanted much more, especially with all that was going on around him (and set at a time when chemical disasters could have meant a Cold War clash). Those around Gladney were equally irksome, fuelling some weird need to engage him on silly topics throughout, without actually making any progress. The premise of the novel had some potential for me, though its impact was lost in many of the long-winded and silly conversations that took place, circling the topic for ages and getting nowhere. Be it between the children or including adults, I wanted to reach out and toss a punch at someone’s throat, hoping it would end things and force the characters to move onwards. Alas, I suffered through it too many times, but soldiered on, knowing that the book challenge group would want to know about it. I suppose there is something in here for those who want something a little deeper or with some philosophical meat, though I hold firm that the title aptly describes this piece: something annoying in the background that is best ignored.

Kudos, Mr. DeLillo, for the attempt, but I will steer clear of your work for a while.

This novel fulfils the June requirements of Mind the Bookshelf Gap Reading Group. https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/886451-mind-the-bookshelf-gap

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