Dracul, by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker (a re-read)

Nine stars

There are surely many who have wondered where Bram Stoker got his idea for Dracula. After creating an interesting sequel to his ancestor’s popular book, Dacre Stoker decided to team up with J.D. Barker to pen this prequel of sorts, though its exploration is less of Prince/Count Dracula than of a younger Bram Stoker. It is here that the seeds of all things ghoulish germinated, or so the reader is led to believe.

Bram Stoker was quite a sickly child, being bedridden for the first number of years of his life. The family’s nanny, Nanna Ellen, did all that she could to help, though caring for many children kept her occupied. It was only when Bram’s uncle came to bleed him with leeches that things took an interesting turn. At that time, Nanna Ellen also visited her young charge and, by all of Bram’s accounts, undertook a unique form of medicinal care through a small bite along his arm.

Soon thereafter, Bram was healed, though to everyone it was thought that the leeches did the job. Upwardly mobile, Bram and his sister, Matilda, begin exploring their environs in the Irish countryside, which includes a closer examination of Nanna Ellen. What they discover serves to shock and concern them, for she acts in such a unique manner. When she disappears one day, Bram and Matilda can only surmise that something extremely mysterious is going on and they might have witnessed a key that relates to her disappearance.

Moving forward more than a dozen years, Bram and Matilda are again witnesses to some odd happenings, both related to their nanny and some other folks from the town. Could the mysteries they uncovered as children be back again, in new and curious forms? As they press to understand what is going on, they discover the world of vampires and the un-dead, a realm that is highly dangerous for adults and children alike. However, nothing has prepared them for what is to come, or the residue it will have on their lives.

Contrasted nicely with a more ‘modern’ Bram Stoker, who struggles with some additional demons, Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker instil a significant chill into the narrative that is perfect for fans of the Dracula novel. Highly recommended, especially during the haunting month of October, when ghosts and ghouls begin to emerge!

I have some experience with Barker’s work and have come to admire Dacre Stoker, as he penned that aforementioned sequel to the extremely popular Dracula. Now, it’s time to look back and allow these two authors to paint some interesting pictures for the reader, taking their own liberties with Bram Stoker and his life, though they make clear that some of their story is based on his writings and early journals.

The authors handle Bram Stoker in a very interesting light here, even more interestingly than Dacre did his ancestor in the <i> Dracula </i> sequel. Bram is seen not only as a precocious boy, but one who is driven to understanding the mysteries of the world, particularly when oddities pop up around him. The reader will see his progression throughout the story, both in the ‘journal format’ and in his elder form, where he surely undergoes many events that shaped him before writing his novel about the prince from Transylvania. The attentive reader will see this progression and the crumbs of information in this text that relate to the best known work, utilizing many interesting themes and ideas.

Many of the other characters, who play strong roles as well as minor narrative flavouring, must also receive great recognition, as their presence keeps the reader enthralled until the final pages.

The narrative is wonderfully strong and filled with nuggets of wonderful speculation which, through to the authors’ note at the end, can be left to hang in the air, wondering how much was real. Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker dispel much of the fiction versus fact in their note at the end, as well as exploring how much of Dracula itself was based on real happenings, as opposed to a fictional account of a monster from history. While the use of journals and clippings may not be to everyone’s liking, it serves a wonderful purpose and is a true adage to Bram’s original work, deserving praise for that writing format. At this time of ghouls and monsters, this story hit the spot and will surely make it onto my annual reading list.

Kudos, Messrs. Stoker and Barker, for such an intense story. I am eager to see if you two will work together again, as this was surely a strong collaborative effort.

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

Dracula the Un-Dead, by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt (a re-read)

Nine stars

After my latest re-read of Bram Stoker’s famous piece, I chose another story with eerie undertones, though this one is sure to stir up some controversy. It serves as a sequel to the classic original, in which Dacre Stoker works with renowned Dracula historian Ian Holt to bring this continuation of the story to life in fine form. Chilling and complex, this is surely a piece for Hallowe’en literature fans to add to their collection and which will not collect dust.

It is now 1912, twenty-five years since Count Dracula has crumbled into dust. Can this have been long enough for those who were directly involved in the hunting to have shelved their memories and moved on? Dr. Jonathan Seward, who was instrumental in the original chase, has turned into a washed-up medical professional, addicted to morphine and chasing demons all across Europe.

Young Quincey Harker, born in the final pages of the original novel, has been sent to France to pursue his legal studies, but is drawn into the world of stage acting. Quincey is further impressed when Shakespearean actor, Basarab, takes him under his wing, an honour the young actor could not have expected.

When Quincey stumbles upon a stage-play version of Dracula, directed by Bram Stoker himself, he begins to learn some of the long-buried secrets his parents kept from him. Trying to digest it all, there seems to be a presence in and around London, as the original collective who killed Dracula meet their ends in horrific fashion.

Meanwhile, 16th century Countess Elizabeth Bathory has returned to wreak havoc on those seeking to explore the Dracula question a little more. Bathory has a long history with the Romanian prince and may hold the answers that others seek, though she is more interested in new blood to satiate her extreme hunger. What’s brought Countess Bathory back to visit those whose adventure a quarter-century ago rid the world of blood-sucking evil?

With a new collection of characters and tapping into Holt’s expertise in the field of all things Dracula, Stoker does well to carry the torch for his great-granduncle and entertains curious fans throughout. Perfect for those readers who enjoyed the original Dracula and who can accept applying some of the history of this Romanian prince, alongside a continuation of a classic piece of 19th century literature.

I have heard it said that one ought never mess with the classics, which is why parody pieces get a major eyebrow raise from literary purists. However, this piece that seeks to act as a sequel to Bram Stoker’s classic, not only grounds itself in seriousness, but also has the blessing of the Stoker family (and was penned by a descendent).

Stoker and Holt look to progress the entire Dracula story by adding backstories to the well-established characters who brought to piece to life, as well as adding fresh angles to Dracula in this follow-up. The eerie nature of the original piece is replaced by a history that permeates the narrative, allowing the patient reader to discover much more and delve deeper than the late 19th century novel permitted.

The story itself differs greatly from the original, not only because it is told in true narrative (as opposed to journals and letters), but also serves to provide cameos for many famous individuals (Bram Stoker and John Barrymore, to name a few) as well as pulls on some of the history of the original novel’s reception and development into a stage-play.

Ian Holt’s influence can also be seen, as the story pulls on numerous Dracula stories from centuries ago and where Stoker may have developed his ideas for this vampire that became the go-to reference for all blood-imbibing creatures.

Some of the narrative and historical assertions do keep the reader wondering, but it is difficult not to downplay the tidbits as being wrapped in a way to fill cracks that time has not caulked. As I mentioned above, some purists will scoff at this book simply because it seeks to build on a classic that can survive on its own. Others will mock it for lacking the same flowing prose or spooky foresight. While I will not engage in trivial banter about this being ‘allowed’ or not, I will say that Dacre Stoker’s piece served as a wonderful complement to my recent reading of Bram Stoker’s classic.

Kudos, Messrs. Stoker and Holt for entertaining and engaging me at times as I made my way through this novel. I know there are massive footsteps to fill, even to stand alongside the classic novel and I applaud you both for the effort.

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

Dracula, by Bram Stoker (a re-read)

Nine stars

This is a classic monster tale I have enjoyed before, but could not wait to revisit as the season is rife with haunted ghouls and bloodthirsty readers!

Young solicitor Johnathan Harker finds himself travelling through the Hungarian countryside and into Romania, on his way to a castle in the heart of Transylvania. There, one Count Dracula awaits Harker and proves to be an odd, yet amenable, host. Seeking to finalise a land deal in England, Harker and Dracula talk long into the night, though the former feels that there is something odd about his host. It is only when numerous unsettling things occur that Harker realises that Count Dracula is nothing like any man he has met before and eventually escapes the confines of the castle.

Back in England, Harker’s fiancée, Mina, and her close friend, Lucy, are going through their own ordeals. Lucy Westenra suffers through significant bouts of sleepwalking. The two women travel to the seaside to clear their heads, but Lucy encounters someone the reader knows to be Dracula during one of her nocturnal jaunts and is eventually discovered with two minuscule puncture holes on her neck. Unsure of what to do, Westenra is sent to see Dr. Johnathan Seward, one of her suitors and director of the local mental hospital. When Dr. Seward cannot deduce all of these symptoms, he calls upon the renowned Dr. Abraham Van Helsing in Amsterdam to consult.

The Dutchman arrives and begins some of his early queries. He is highly interested, though cannot be completely sure that he has a diagnosis of yet. Slowly, Lucy begins to fade from this mysterious neck injury and eventually died of her injuries, though her body transforms into a vampire of sorts, paralleling some of the actions Count Dracula is known to have been committing.

Van Helsing works with Seward to locate the body and it is at this time that the Dutch doctor deduces that there is something eerie at work. Studying the situation before him, Van Helsing proposes the seemingly barbaric act of driving a stake through Lucy’s heart and then decapitating her, which is the only way to ensure that her spirit will be freed, according to some of his research and ancient lore.

Done with that issue, but still needing to resolve the larger concern at hand, Van Helsing gathers a group to hunt down the Count, who seems to have taken up residence in England, and drive him back to Transylvania. Lurking in the dark and gloomy areas of Eastern Europe, Van Helsing prepares for the fight of his life, armed with only the most basic medicaments, in hopes of slaying this monster once and for all.

Stoker lays the groundwork for a truly bone-chilling tale that has stood the test of time. I would highly recommend this to anyone who has the wherewithal to delve deep into the heart of a sensational 19th century story of horror and mayhem.

I am still kicking myself that I waited so long to read this sensational piece of fiction. Surely one of the early stories that has fostered such a strong tie between Dracula and Hallowe’en, Bram Stoker’s work provides the reader not only with thorough entertainment, but leaves a shiver up their spine every time they enter a dark room.

With a cast of powerful characters, Stoker weaves his tale in such a way that the story never loses its momentum. Harker, Seward, and Van Helsing are all well-crafted and provides powerful contrasts throughout the narrative, while Count Dracula is not only eerie in his presentation, but also one of the scariest villains in 19th century literature.

There need not be outward descriptions of gore and slaying to get to the root of the suspense in this novel, which seems to differ from much of the writing in the genre today, where gushing blood and guts pepper the pages of every book imaginable. The narrative is also ever-evolving, helped significantly by the journal-based writing that Stoker has undertaken. The reader is transported through the story using these varied perspectives (and some press clippings), rather than a straight delivery of the story from a single point of view. This surely enhances the larger package and does much to provide the reader with even more fright, at certain times.

There are surely many stories taking place here, some of which deal directly with the issue at hand (read: Dracula), while others seem to solve themselves throughout the numerous journal entries. Whatever the approach, Stoker captivates the reader such that there is a strong desire to know how it all ends and if Van Helsing lives up to his more colloquial moniker of ‘Vampire Hunter’.

I wish to add for those who wish to take the audiobook approach, as I have done, the Audible version, with a full cast (including Alan Cumming, Tim Curry, and John Lee), adds yet another dimension to this story and should not be discounted.

Kudos, Mr. Stoker, for such a riveting piece. I can only hope to find the time to read some of your other work, as well as that of your descendants, who seem to want to carry the torch and provide more Dracula for the modern reader.

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

Dracula’s Guest, by Bram Stoker

Eight stars

While poking around for new finds on the topic of Dracula (especially those told by both Stokers), I stumbled upon this short story by the elder Stoker. In rural Germany, a man is travelling by coach and chooses to stray off the beaten path. He makes his way to a manor house and into a sizeable cemetery, where one large tombstone catches his eye. With the sound of wolves filling the air, one such creature soon appears on the scene, as though it felt the need to mark its territory. Alone and in a foreign land at night, our protagonist might have met his match in a lupine enemy, but there’s a twist… read the story to find out a little more! A great addition to anyone who loves Dracula or Stoker’s writing.

As I read this piece, I felt as though I had already come across it in the past, though I cannot place where I might have done so. Without tipping my hand too much, the title of the piece might not be as truthful for those who skim through the story, though it does have a deeper meaning if you take the time to think about it. Written in 1914–or at least published at that time—it has quite the feel of the original Dracula story, though any reader who has delved into Dacre Stoker’s sequel to the Dracula piece will see some parallels there as well. The piece flows really well, though it seems to be done just as it is getting started. I’d almost have wanted more, though Stoker does a fine job with his descriptions and build-up. I would say that anyone handed this piece and told to ‘get into’ Dracula with it will likely not return to seek out the classic novel, but there is a definite horror aspect that only Stoker can create.

Kudos, Mr. Stoker, for such a great short story. I hope many will take the time to read this after they have invested time in your masterwork on the subject!

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

Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Eight stars

An re-read with a review worth posting once again.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s story of Frankenstein poses less the spooky and bone-chilling tale that it has received in subsequent permutations, but rather serves more as a warning in regards to scientific exploration.

The novel opens with a set of letters by Captain Robert Walton to his sister back in England. Captain Walton is travelling through the Arctic to further his scientific appetite. The captain and crew notice a large creature travelling over the ice and eventually stumble upon a nearly frozen Victor Frankenstein, who tells the story of his scientific struggles and tries to dissuade Walton from any such pursuits.

From there, the narrative shifts to Frankenstein’s story, who was encouraged by his parents to explore the world of science and nature. Armed with the knowledge of the ancient natural philosophers, he takes this passion with him to university in Germany, where he is introduced to more modern ways of thinking. Grief befalls Frankenstein after his mother’s death and he turns to science to assuage him, discovering how to bring the electricity of life to that lacking its spark.

Creating a being in secret, Frankenstein soon sees that it has gone horribly wrong, both the physical appearance of this eight-foot behemoth (tempered with translucent skin and pulsing veins) and the decision to play God. Frankenstein rages against his creation and flees for the city, only to return and see that the being has fled the confines of his flat.

Frankenstein becomes ill and recuperates over a four-month period before returning to his native Geneva. Upon his arrival, he discovers that his younger brother has been killed. Frankenstein sees the tell-tale signs of his creation having strangled the young boy, though the crime is saddled upon a nanny and she is executed by hanging.

Full of guilt, Frankenstein chases his creature and learns of the personal journey ‘he’ had over their time apart. The creature tells of how he learned the nuances of language and speech, the complexities of emotion as well as discovering of his hideous appearance. The creature vows to ruin the life of his creator unless he is gifted with a female companion. Frankenstein ponders this and promises to make one, having been threatened with more personal anguish if he fails.

Frankenstein travels to the far reaches of Scotland to begin his work, eyed by the creature from afar. When Frankenstein has a final epiphany that his hands can create nothing but increased terror, he disposes with his experiment, knowing the consequences. More agony befalls Frankenstein, who seeks to destroy his creation once and for all.

By the end, the story returns to Captain Walton’s ship and a dramatic set of events which solidifies the story’s underlying thread once and for all. A brilliant piece that is full of social commentary and much foreboding as it relates to science. Shelley’s original is less spooky than it is chilling for her thematic messaging. A wonderful read for those who like a good challenge.

Deemed the first ever piece of science fiction, Shelley’s story tell of the downsides of playing God with human life and creation. The themes that emanate from the story at hand are numerous and thought provoking. The reader can easily get lost in the narrative and its linguistic nuances, but it is the characters and their messages that permeate the text.

Victor Frankenstein and his creature prove to be two very interesting and yet contrasting characters, developed primarily through their individual narratives. Frankenstein is the bright-eyed scientific mind who seeks to alter the path of events by imbuing something of his own making with life, only to discover that thought and reality do not mesh. On the other hand, the creature tells of a struggle to find ‘himself’ and suffers through the reality beset upon him, forced to learn to adapt under the most problematic circumstances.

The plethora of other characters develop and support these two, with Captain Walton playing an interesting, yet seemingly background, role in the entire narrative. The attentive reader will see that this original piece lacks the ‘Hollywood’ flavour that has been placed upon it, where crowds with torches chase the protagonists and lightning is used to jolt the creature to life from his metal bolts in the neck.

This is a piece of social commentary that prefers to scare in its foreboding and provides a much more academic approach than might be suspected by the unknowing reader. I was pleased with the novel and all it had to offer. I am sure it will provide a wonderful soapbox for those who wish to open a discussion on the matter. I would welcome it.

Kudos, Madam Shelley, for this wonderful piece. That you started it at the ripe age of eighteen baffles and impresses me. I will be adding this to my annual late October reading list!

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

Journey to the Centre of the Earth, by Jules Verne

Eight stars

This novel by Jules Verne is not only deemed a classic, but also a jam-packed adventure set in the 19th century. Verne mixes the wonders of a story that would be considered fanciful in its day (and today, as well) with some scientific discussions to keep the reader on their toes. While I have steered away from classics for reasons all my own, I am pleased that I was nudged to read this book.

The story opens in May 1863, with Axel Lidenbrock living in Germany, alongside his uncle, Professor Otto Lidenbrock An academic in the field of geology, the elder Lindenbrock is quite focussed on his work and always open to new adventures. When Otto arrives home one day, he has quite the treat for his nephew, a manuscript by an Icelandic historian of some repute. Within the manuscript is a note that baffles them both, until it is properly translated and read, revealing a secret adventure made by another Icelandic fellow, Arne Saknussemm. It would seem that Saknussemm undertook a trip to the centre of the Earth, accessed through a crater in a dormant volcano. According to the document, one can only gain access for a short time each year and Otto determines that he must undertake this adventure, bringing Axel with him.

Upon their arrival in Iceland, Otto and Axel hire a local guide to take them to the volcano, where they will scale it and seek to access the passage at just the right moment. Beginning the adventure, the trio commence their descent, soon exhausting their water supply. Professor Otto begins expostulating about the various geological finds around them and making calculations to track their progress. The group comes across a subterranean body of water, solving one concern and helping to dash some of the scientific beliefs of the time. Temperature increases and means of travel are turned on their heads, while all three seek to understand what awaits them as the journey continues,

The adventure deepens when a larger body of water appears before them, forcing the trio to make some major decisions, which include building a raft and exploring some of the local terrain. Much of the area is filled with bones of long-extinct creatures that piques Axel’s interest, leaving him to wonder if the adventure might have been worthwhile after all. Much of the discoveries prove baffling to Axel, though he marvels at what he can see, as well as what might await him as they push onwards.

After constructing a raft, they set sail and encounter some truly harrowing creatures, as well as a few meteorological phenomena that baffle them all and leave them doubting their choice to take the voyage. However, determination wins out and they find themselves forging onwards, making new and exciting scientific calculations about their depth and what might be above them at the Earth’s surface.

Determined not to stop until they reach their destination, Axel and Otto convince their guide to keep moving, though the task gets more and more harrowing. It is only through grit and determination that they will be able to survive, especially when they discover a new set of remains that sends chills up all their spines. While the trip down has been anything but boring, how will they ever get back, without having to traverse the path already taken? Verne excites the reader with this and much more as the journey takes even more twists in the latter part of the novel.

While I am not well-versed in Jules Verne or his work, I did a little background reading and discovered that this was the second of his special voyages collection, which opens the minds of the reader to a world of adventure, scientific discovery, and analysis. It is said that Verne used novels like this to introduce the world to what is now science fiction, which is completely understandable. His penchant for showing that science is full of mistakes that are only corrected by hands-on attempts is echoed throughout the narrative.

Axel Lindenbrock is the narrator of the piece and becomes the presumptive protagonist of the story, though I would offer the dual role to include Professor Otto. Both learn a great deal from one another and help to foster an adventurous nature throughout the piece. While there is a great amount of hesitation at one point, the Linderbrocks grow closer throughout the story, their characters developing alongside the relationship they forge in this harrowing trip to places unknown.

While there are few secondary characters in the piece, Verne uses the history books and scientific tomes to inject species that serve as guideposts to a world long-ago extinct. This serves to educate and entertain the reader throughout, offering them a glimpse of how science presented things in the 1860s, as compared to the present. I did take much away from the descriptions, even though my background is not the sciences. Always nice to learn while enjoying a classic piece of literature.

The story itself proved to be highly alluring, even for one whose scientific mind sits somewhere in a glass jar. Verne is able to inject true adventure throughout, keeping the reader wondering what awaits them around the next corner. The characters complement one another well (going so far as to compliment each other, occasionally) and their banter propels the narrative forward. Using the Axel journal as the primary means of recounting the story offers a daily log of events, pulling the reader even deeper into the journey and hoping that they, too, will almost feel a part of events as they occur.

While there is a strong scientific flavour to the story, it does not engulf the text, keeping the reader reaching for reference texts or losing interest. There are terms peppered throughout, but they are explained well enough as to educate, rather than inundate. As mentioned above, Verne effectively combines the spark of adventure with the fuel of scientific discovery to create an explosive birth of the science fiction genre!

The book is not overly long, with its chapters propelling the reader forward with ease. Everything appears to flow effectively and the curious reader may even devour it in a day or two. I chose the Audible version because Tim Curry led me on the adventure, which added more to the story than simply guiding myself. I cannot say enough about how enjoyable this was and encourage those with a love of audiobooks to seek this version for themselves. Curry does a masterful job at every turn.

Kudos, Mr. Verne, for such a delightful story. While I may not rush to devour all your work immediately, I am curious to see if I might venture on another of your extraordinary adventures in the future.

This book fulfills a supplementary read for October 2020 in the Mind the Bookshelf Gap reading challenge.

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

Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, by Joe Biden (a re-read)

Nine stars

I have decided to embark on a mission to read a number of books on subjects that will be of great importance to the upcoming 2020 US Presidential Election. Many of these will focus on actors intricately involved in the process, in hopes that I can understand them better and, perhaps, educate others with the power to cast a ballot. I am, as always, open to serious recommendations from anyone who has a book I might like to include in the process.

This is Book #34, a quick re-read, in my 2020 US Election Preparation Challenge

Back in 2016, when many politicians climbed onto soap boxes and publish pieces to extol their own greatness, former Vice-President Joe Biden released this short book that seeks to rise above the fray and offer a story of hope, despair, and personal reflection. It is perhaps the first book I have read where a politician talks of their choice to turn away from high office, but it is much more than that, as the attentive and dedicated reader will discover.

At the heart of the story is the struggle Biden had with his eldest son’s brain cancer diagnosis. This realisation puts everything into perspective for the vice-president, as well as the entire Biden family. Wanting to keep things private, no one would share the news publicly and Biden was still trying to serve the Obama Administration as effectively as possible.

Woven into the story are countless international crises that Biden was required to handle, sometimes an eager distraction while at other times an anchor that kept him from the focus on family and loved ones. Added to that, there was the 2016 presidential election to consider. Would Biden, a capable long-term politician and hands-on member of the Executive Branch, toss his hat into the ring? Those in Democrat circles watched and waited, the country soundlessly tapped their collective foot, still unaware of the chaos that brewed for the Biden family below the surface.

When Beau Biden did pass, it was both a relief and a blow to the entire Biden family, as the glue that held them all together was lost. The elder Biden tried to remember all the promises he made to his son, some in passing and a few heart-felt pleas to carry the torch. The most important of these was the promise not to let 2016 pass without a Biden running for president.

The latter portion of the book, with Beau gone and Joe trying to wrap his head around it all, turns to the 2016 race. Would he run? Should he run? Could he run and make a difference? It would seem that while Biden pondered his options, the country had already placed him as a front-runner. As Biden confides, it was his decision and his alone. GOP members and the media would only offer kid gloves for so long, as well as the Clinton camp that began cursing another heavyweight to neutralise.

In the end, Biden chose what he felt was best, a promise to Beau that he would do his best to be the man everyone knew. The Joe Biden who used compassion over a club, integrity over vicious words, and intelligence over knee-jerk reactions. Now, with 2020 here and the election at hand, it is time for Joe’s promise to Beau to come to fruition, allowing him to fight for another son’s honour as well!

This is a wonderful piece, suited for all readers who like the more human side of politicians, though can understand the rhetoric that goes along with having a role in the machine. Touching at times, Biden pulls out all the stops and tells a story that will not soon be forgotten.

When I first picked up this book, I had just finished a thorough examination of the 2016 presidential election, one in which I was left gagging at the atrocious actions of people vying to represent the entire American population. Returning to it a second time, my study of the Trump Administration allowed me to see the promises in this piece through a new lens.

I wanted to see more about the narrative from the Biden perspective, the man who chose not to put his hat in the ring back in 2016. While I expected a strong political discussion throughout, I was happy to find something more complex. Within these pages rests a narrative that wove together the power of American politics, international clashes, family interactions, and a man’s struggle to come to terms with his son’s eventual illness.

The reader is in for a piece where they must handle emotions and see how world events shaped the man who sought to keep it all together and away from the public eye. Biden does not pull punches in this piece, but does not make excuses either. He tells of world events (ISIS, ISIL, Ukraine, Russia), as well as domestic policies in the Obama Administration, but he also injects strong ties to family and the love they bring him. This is a piece that helps shape a man and his love for country, family, and self. It is impossible to divorce any of it effectively.

A few things that I took away from this book include the knowledge that life does not stop when tragedy knocks, promises to those who are going before us mean more than a simple nod of the head, and there is more to life than tossing mud in the eyes of one’s opponents. Anyone who has been through a personal tragedy will know that while they are numb, a simple look out the window will show that life is not prepared to stop for grieving, it moves along. Such is one of the key sentiments that Biden shares with the reader. Terror still occurs, state sovereignty is not respected, domestic issues do not solve themselves. Biden was forced to juggle all of it in order to mix his public and personal lives. It is obvious (but nice to hear) that others struggle with this as well.

The list of promises made to the dying can be heart-wrenching, as the reader may know. One always promises to do this and that, if only to bring a sense of ease to the one who will soon be gone. However, Biden did not take his promises to Beau as simple window dressing, those “yah, umm, sure…” moments. He felt that he owed it to the son who always supported him and whose political light shone just as powerfully. Biden shows that he is a different sort of man, looking to others rather than his own greatness, to shape the future of his own legacy.

Finally, one cannot deny that 2016 was one of the most divisive presidential election campaigns in recent history. That Biden sought to enter the race is commendable, especially looking at those with whom he would cross paths. The decision not to run, where he would be forced to face Clinton, Sanders, and Trump (and countless others), may have been determining factors. But, Biden seems less interested in gouging out the eyes of others and more about trying to build the country up.

Few readers would deny that 2016 was less about policy and more about how to denigrate others in the hopes of tearing them down (as 2020 has proven to be on the GOP side, again). Did a newly-wounded Biden really need that in his life? It is the ultimate sacrifice to bear one’s self to the electorate, especially in these days when no one holds back with their mud slinging.

While there will be some readers who want dirt-only with their political stories, I would recommend this piece to anyone with a heart or who has been touched with the loss of a loved one. It seeks to unite, as much as politics usually divides, and tells of the powerlessness one can feel at the hands of cancer, but offers the strength to persevere.

Kudos, Mr. Vice-President, for such a wonderful piece. After reading this, I would strongly like to read a thorough version of your memoirs, should you choose to pen them. I located a great piece up to 2008 and now it’s time for more!

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

Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now, by Evan Osnos

Eight stars

I have decided to embark on a mission to read a number of books on subjects that will be of great importance to the upcoming 2020 US Presidential Election. Many of these will focus on actors intricately involved in the process, in hopes that I can understand them better and, perhaps, educate others with the power to cast a ballot. I am, as always, open to serious recommendations from anyone who has a book I might like to include in the process.

This is Book #33 in my 2020 US Election Preparation Challenge.

As the time for the US Presidential Election creeps closer, I wanted to take some time to learn a little more about Joe Biden. I have spent much of my time exploring the dismantling of America from the perspective of the Trump Administration, but looked at the Democrats’ candidate only in passing.

Evan Osnos, who has written extensively for the New Yorker, took the time to hash out a concise political biography of the man for those who may be interested, dropping it on newsstands a short time before the election. Osnos uses his primer to give the reader a taste of what the Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. has done and where he stands, but leaves those who hunger for more (such as me) with an appetite to use this as a launching point. A decent piece that opens the door a crack, but does not (nor did it ever seek to) provide the complete story.

Biden was born between the Great Depression and the end of the Second World War, fitting into a time when he was too young to have remembered the struggles of severe limitations, yet too old to have become a practical advocate for the counter-culture. Osnos explores this briefly and provides the reader with some insight into how important work and staying the course could be for the Biden household.

With an upset victory in Delaware’s US Senate race in 1972, Biden headed to Washington as a young father with a great deal of ambition. Even before he’d been sworn in, tragedy struck when his wife and baby daughter were killed in a car accident, thrusting him into being a single parent. He struggled and grief overtook him, but Biden was able to prevail with help from many around him. Osnos explores this a little, but chooses not to use the tragedy as a crutch, nor did Biden appear to do so.

In a Senate career that was filled with ups and downs, Biden rose to prominence, even though he was from one of America’s smallest states, travelling into DC daily on Amtrak trains. Many will remember him on the Foreign Relations Committee, but his most notable role was as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, hashing out some of the country’s most conservative judges at the time. While discussion on this topic is minimal, mere mention of Anita Hill will leave many with chills down their spine and how Chairman Biden failed to heed to requests to fully explore the antics of Clarence Thomas in 1991.

After a failed run for the presidency in 1987 and again in 2008, Biden was sure he would end his days as a US senator. However, a young Democrat came knocking in 2008 and asked him to be his running mate in a presidential campaign that made a difference. The Obama-Biden partnership proved highly successful and Osnos looks at how these men complemented one another so well. While Biden was known for his long-winded speeches, he learned to button his lip and listen, serving as the Administration mouthpiece when asked and remaining active in battling many of the concerns that faced the country at the time. This service was not a dead-end for Biden politically, but served to educate him for what might be a final run for the presidency.

Osnos takes time in the latter portion of the book to look at Biden the candidate, seeking to see where he stands on numerous issues of policy, as well as some of the accusations tossed in his direction. Biden bluntly admits that had Donald Trump not been president, he would not have sought the Democratic nomination, happy to allow a younger person battle it out. However, as Trump continues to attack and dismantle everything from the Obama Era, Biden felt he owed it to the country and his former running mate to return to the fray, even as the country battles its worst health crisis in a century. Armed with formidable ideas and his own powerful running mate in Senator Kamala Harris, Biden is ready for whatever happens, knowing that the campaign and Election Night will be anything but peaceful. However, he’s made many a promise to others to do all he can to help.

While I have read a number of books in my challenge to date, this piece by Evan Osnos offered me some hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. While rumours continue to circulate about Hunter Biden, this book does not tackle them, so ever-Trumpers are out of luck. However, Osnos seeks to offer a foundation for the curious to learn a little more about the man who seeks to remove the first authoritarian leader the country has faced.

The research that went into this book proves to be quite thorough, trying to cram a great deal into a short period. Osnos never tries to sell this as a comprehensive piece, but it is both a penetrating and captivating snapshot of the man and his values. Part biography and part policy document, Osnos prepares the voter for what they can expect, using his years of research and article writing, rather than the empty rhetoric of a man who feasts on conspiracy theories and has babies for dessert. Told over eight decent-length chapters, Evan Osnos provides something of a primer for the curious reader, offering breadcrumbs that permit the dedicated individuals to explore more on their own. I may just do that, for myself, as well as those who read these reviews, as November 3rd is fast approaching!

Kudos, Mr. Osnos, for penning this piece. It’s nice to see that there can be something positive that comes from political reporting these days

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

Rage, by Bob Woodward

Nine stars

I have decided to embark on a mission to read a number of books on subjects that will be of great importance to the upcoming 2020 US Presidential Election. Many of these will focus on actors intricately involved in the process, in hopes that I can understand them better and, perhaps, educate others with the power to cast a ballot. I am, as always, open to serious recommendations from anyone who has a book I might like to include in the process.

This is Book #32 in my 2020 US Election Preparation Challenge.

Analysis of the 45th President of the United States (POTUS) proves to be a sport of conversations, insults, and downright headaches, particularly when scanning the published word. As I have done with the other books in my challenge, I sought to approach reading this text with an open and curious mind, as I did with the first tome on Trump penned by Bob Woodward.

The author remains a highly esteemed journalist in his own right, having been blunt in his assessments, no matter what the subject matter might be. While this may sting the ever-Trumpers, the smears hurled fall on deaf ears and Woodward’s Teflon suit. Eager readers should gather round, as this is yet another stellar piece of work, with more than simply the leaked COVID-19 tidbits to open an eye or two.

Woodward returns to the early time in the Trump presidency to explore some of the key cabinet selections he made. Those mentioned are men who would shape the Administration, but also serve as Trump’s puppets. As would become the case with all those who received special attention in the early chapters, the men were either fired or resigned because of the micromanagement of the president for reasons not entirely clear. It would seem that things would always have to run on the Trump-table, a guideline and timing that baffles many and is fuelled by consumption of Diet Coke.

The book moves between a number of themes throughout, offering the reader a glimpse into all of them on a rotating basis. Woodward explores the the ongoing development of some peace with the North Koreans. While Trump entered the White House with a warning from President Obama about how troubling North Korea and Kim Jong Un would be, the incoming Leader of the Free World was ready to make some noise and turn things into a political pissing contest. Woodward explores how Trump used his Secretary of State to show that America meant business, demanding a scaling back of nuclear weapons in the brashest terms. Only Trump could grab Kim by the proverbial ‘missile’ and not be called a political misogynist.

The warming of relations between these two did eventually occur when Kim agreed to denuclearise. Woodward speaks of a handful of ‘love letters’ (Trump’s words) between the two that were used as background research for the book and helped to promote two key summits. These letters were chivalrous and highly praise-worthy, according to Trump, something that would surely baffle many who see both men on television and how they comport themselves.

Trump also came out swinging on America’s military role in the world. He sought to pull troops from Syria, even though the civil war there was balancing precariously. He also sought to remove America from its NATO commitments, citing a fiscal imbalance, something that Woodward probes in some of his early interviews. The eternal businessman, Trump is so focussed on the ledger and the outcomes that he cannot see the game of political Jenga he’s playing.

When it came to the intelligence community, Trump was ready to dismiss America’s capabilities form the get-go, especially since much of the early (read: first week on the job) messaging sought to show that Russia interfered in the election that Trump won. Those with concrete proof sought to present it and show that there was an issue that needed addressing. However, as many readers will already know, Trump chose to stick his fingers in his ears and sing a loud song, thereby negating the intelligence as being fake and part of a leftist conspiracy.

As I mentioned in my review of Woodward’s last book, if there is a single theme that echoes throughout the pages of all well-documented chapters, it is that Trump wanted to do things his own way, choosing rarely to follow the advice proffered by those tasked with being the representatives or experts. Such renegade behaviour is enough to make anyone rage at such an ignorant leader. As seen above and on more occasions below, it was Trump’s way or no way, going so far as being a narrative that the president believed, with the alternative labelled #fakenews. Woodward challenged him on this numerous times, as appears in the narrative, though Trump always found a way to be boisterous and ignore the topic if it did not suit him.

Woodward explores some of the interesting backstory into the creation of the Special Counsel of Robert S. Mueller III, tasked with exploring Russian meddling and any collusion by the Trump Campaign. While this event was so sensationalised that there is not likely much ‘new’ information, the attentive and curious reader will see the blunt and egotistical responses to the investigation. Trump and his sycophants alike sought to diminish the importance of the process and neuter Mueller from the get-go, at times mulling over firing him. One can only imagine what might have happened had this taken place.

As the country remains in the grip of the COVID-19 crisis, Woodward uses many of his interviews with Trump to hash out what he knew and when. Much of it has been leaked now, but it is eye opening to see just how dismissive Trump was about things, which parallels some of the idiocy shown after he contracted COVID and still downplayed the severity of it. Woodward uses a significant amount of time exploring the needed backstory and reactions around the COVID-19 crisis, dispelling many of the myths that the White House has tried to shove down the throats of the general public. Many of the interviews with Trump for the book took place as things were developing, allowing for a great narrative and ongoing exploration of sentiments in almost real time.

While Woodward does offer praise where needed, especially when Trump agreed to a country-wide shutdown in March, he also explores how the president would not push for stronger safety measures and precautions. Interest to see how Trump felt it would not be good for POTUS to wear a mask ‘when greeting heads of state, queens, kings, and ambassadors’, as though this would show weakness. Fast forward to the autumn, as an infected president refuses to follow the guidelines, showing that there was likely some cerebral infection in the part of the brain where reasoning occurs (my sentiments, not Woodward’s). I suppose we should applaud him for being consistent (and reckless?)!

It would seem that Trump was scorned by other world leaders for his practices, as Woodward cites numerous examples within the text. Things were said to his face and then the opposite done thereafter. While perhaps not the laughing stock of the world, his bombast proved to be more than enough for some, who could not take his blowhard approach. Much of this can be attributed to his Trump-table approach, immovable and unwilling to accept that he could be wrong. This doesn’t to bode well for a political leader, particularly one representing a large population on the world scene.

Woodward should be applauded again for this second book, seeking to offer insights through the eyes of others, rather than rallying his own personal attacks with little substantive proof. While he does seek to challenge Trump to think and explore what he’s saying (as any good journalist would do), he permits the president to dig his own grave with a presidential shovel. This is not a book of ‘gotcha’ moments, unless the reader chooses to label such writing as one where direct quotes in open interviews serve to entrap the speaker.

I sought to secure my copy of this book the day it was announced as being ready for pre-order. This interest only grew when the leaked tapes emerged, so I could see the context in which Trump and others would box themselves into corners or speak frankly. From what I have seen and heard, some love the book for being open and exploring many topics, while others hate it for its few ‘aha’ moments. Still others are critical because it knocks POTUS down a peg or two at a time when we ought to rally around him (maskless and Proud Boy shirt visible) during this crisis. It is this latter group for whom I have the most pity, as someone has surely been lacing your Kool-Aid with ignorance powder!

The book opened my eyes in many ways and I felt as though much could be taken away from it by the dedicated reader. While I have read a fair number of books on the Trump presidency over the last month (all in preparation for the election), there are themes that come out in all of them. These include: obsession with television portrayals, refusal to read background materials for essential decisions, preconceived notions of effective governance, and a hatred for all who oppose him. Woodward explored this in the first book and revisits them again, showing that nothing has changed. Billy club in hand (in the form of his Twitter account), Trump forges on.

All of these and other perspectives were further solidified through the interviews Woodward undertook with those closest to Trump and the president himself. This was not Woodward dusting off the soap box and issuing criticism dreamed up in his own mind, though some will spin it as such. Woodward used the words and sentiments of many who were ‘in the trenches’ to garner a better understanding for the reader and to show that things were not always peachy behind the velvet curtain. These type of books are likely the best, as they provide truths that are hidden from the general public, or discounted on a regular basis.

Call me naive again, but I cannot see Bob Woodward using weak information to build his arguments, having written about nine presidents in his career. Woodward has shown time and again that he asks the tough questions, but seeks to be fair in his delivery. First hand accounts serve as the foundation of this book’s narrative momentum, which I applaud. As I mentioned above, he went so far as to document that he held Trump accountable, even when the man refused to see his ignorance wafting around his coiffed head.

There are moments of praise for Trump and others of complete mockery, but when they come from within, can be really call it a smear campaign by liberal media sources? I have never hidden my sentiments on this topic and have built up a foundation of understanding through reading and trying to better understand the situation. Of note, no one once approached me with any recommendations for great tomes on the right (see disclaimer at the top of the review), which leads me to wonder if there are any. I may be an outsider, hailing from Canada, but I do love my politics.

Should we, as citizens of the world, have lived in fear up to the 2020 elections, as many Republican senators did? Might the type of behaviour exemplified in this book lead to horrible things if the Russians collude again and skew the results? There is that possibility, but this book could also be a rallying cry for American voters to turn out to cast their ballots, while Intelligence agencies work to plug some of the gaping holes that permitted outsider influences in elections past. We’re almost there people and if you have not cast your ballot yet, I’ve spent a lot of time summarising a ton of information for you to consider (as well as countless others)!

Kudos, Mr. Woodward, for giving me something about which to think yet again. While this is not the final book in my challenge, I am glad I left it as one of the last!

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

The Shelton Mill, by Elaine Gavigan

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Reedsy Discovery and Elaine Gavigan for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Looking for something a little more conspiratorial, I turned to this novel by Elaine Gavigan. The Shelton Mill offers readers a glimpse into a story that explores how greed and political corruption make for strange (and usual) bedfellows, leaving the ‘little gal’ to push back and fight for the truth. A decent read, though not as stirring as I would have hoped, given the dust jacket blurb.

Ellen Larkin enjoys working as an investigative reporter with the Boston Chronicle and has been compiling information on a major story about kickbacks in the construction industry. However, due to a massive diminution in advertising revenue, she’s handed a pink slip by the newspaper and sent on her way.

Her dreams of a Pulitzer dashed and a bank account on fumes, Ellen is forced to look for work. While her reputation precedes her, she knows that a job in journalism is a lofty ask so quickly agrees to a position at Gargantua, a recruitment company that has been siphoning the aforementioned advertising dollars from the Chronicle.Things are a tad strange when she arrives for an interview, but Ellen chalks it up to her own paranoia.

With Gargantua located in the Shelton Mill, a piece of property with a long history all its own, Ellen knows that she’s in for an interesting work experience. Early in her training, she comes across something that leads her to believe that Guarantua’s tied in with the construction scheme she had been investigating. Might her time here allow Ellen to covertly gather intel for the story of a lifetime, positioning her to be brought back to the Chronicle and offered a Pulitzer?

As organised crime in Boston is as intense as ever, with both the Irish and Italians happy to stick their fingers in as many corrupt pies as possible, Ellen will have to be attuned to those who may wish to silence her. One wrong move could ruin her chances and leave her footing in the Charles River, another crime statistic the Chronicle may not even cover!

While this appears to be the first published novel by Elaine Gavigan, there is a great deal of potential. The ingredients are there for something gripping, though it takes a little time for the narrative to heat up to the point that I was fully committed.

Ellen Larkin serves as a decent protagonist for this piece. Her dreams of reaching journalism’s elite halls may not have yet been realised, but she knows her stuff. With an interesting backstory, she puts all her efforts into earning her paycheque by being intuitive and gritty. Struggling to make ends meet, she does all she can to keep the money coming in and yet she cannot help but feel she’s owed something.

Gavigan uses a large array of characters to keep the story on point, pulling on Boston’s varying cross-section of cultures and socio-economic groups. Many of those who grace the pages serve to push the story along, though there are ties when things lag and I might have sought less backstory or tangential character development. Still, there’s something intriguing about her character choices, all of whom complement one another as the piece progresses.

The premise of the story worked well for me, with corruption embedded into the core of the city’s largest construction project, The Big Dig. While things started off well, there was a point when I was waving my hands in the air to get back to the central theme of the story and lessen Guarantua’s superficial public persona. Gavigan knows how to writer and can set a scene effectively, but it lacked the needed momentum for me to remain hooked with the plot.

Shorter chapters worked to keep me pushing onward, but I needed something more to hold my attention, rather than tap my finger as I tried to keep my attention focussed on the next major reveal. I’d likely return for another novel, as Ellen Larkin has some sass worth seeing developed on another occasion.

Kudos, Madam Gavigan, for a great debut (I presume) novel. You’ve got some talent that needs a little developing for greater success.

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