The Unspoken (Ashe Cayne #1), by Ian K. Smith

Eight stars

Be sure to check for my review, first posted on Mystery and Suspense, as well as a number of other insightful comments by other reviewers.

Ian K. Smith does a fabulous job with this series debut, introducing the world to Ashe Cayne in The Unspoken. Moving through the tough streets of Chicago, Cayne uses some of the skills he brought from CPD into his private investigation firm. Tasked with finding a missing woman, he will have to see through the haze of the rich as well as juggle the socio-economic disparity the city has to offer in order to piece the case together. Well worth a read by anyone who enjoys the genre!

Ashe Cayne may not have left work with the Chicago Police Department on the right foot, but he’s been able to effectively use his skills to develop a great new gig as a private investigator. So much so that he’s been summoned to see Violet Garrigan, a woman of some financial means. It would seem that her daughter, Tinsley, has gone missing. Not only is it important to locate the errant twenty-something, but discretion is paramount. Cayne agrees to the terms and receives a few tidbits on which to begin his work.

After talking to one of Tinsley’s friends, Cayne learns that there was a boyfriend on the side, one the Garrigans would surely not approve being made public. Not only is Tariq ‘Chopper’ McNair a relative of one of Chicago’s most ruthless gang lords, but he’s black. Cayne knows he has his work cut out for him, but forges ahead, hoping that this will prove useful.

After getting the lay of the land, Cayne discovers that Chopper may have blood relations with those on the rough side of town, but he’s well-educated and does not partake in the family business. He loves Tinsley and simply wants her found as soon as possible. Cayne promises to do his best, though with few leads, it may be hard to make any progress.

All that changes when some forensics comes back in the form of phone records. Cayne discovers that Tinsley has an active phone life and a few of her callers prove to be highly intriguing, including the psychiatrist. As hard as he tries, Cayne can get nothing from the doctor, which leaves him wondering if she was harbouring a secret. He’s also baffled as to why Mr. Garrigan seems so calm about the disappearance, as though he is too pre-occupied to care about where his daughter might be. A clue points to a business deal, one that could shed some bad light on the Garrigan name, though things are still too hazy to tell.

In the midst of the investigation, Cayne locates a man for whom he has been searching. This is someone who appears on the up and up, but holds a dark secret behind closed doors. It’s time for Ashe Cayne to help bring about some justice for those without a voice, using some unorthodox means, fuelled by a vindictive streak.

When a body is discovered, Cayne rushes to the scene, only to learn that it’s not Tinsley, but Chopper. Obviously someone wanted him silenced, though the markings on his body point to a rival gang. Had Tinsley found herself in the middle of a gang war? It’s now a missing person and murder investigation, as things continue to heat up.

Just as the case is gaining momentum, Violet Garrigan fires Cayne, citing that things have become highly personal and they will handle them on their own. Cayne can only surmise that he’s turn over too many stones and let out a few secrets no one wanted revealed. However, he’s invested and continues to poke around, sure that he will piece it all together. A few other scandalous tidbits come to light, which could only add to the drama. It might also be the perfect motive to kidnapping and murder.

Having never read anything by Ian K. Smith before, I was eager to see if it would be to my liking. I soon discovered that Smith has a wonderful style and can construct a story effectively, while pulling the reader in with ease. Breadcrumbs are left for both the reader and Ashe Cayne to follow, though where they lead is sometimes the greatest twist of all.

Ashe Cayne is an enjoyable protagonist. After being let go by CPD for some questionable behaviour, he’s out on his own and making a name in the PI business. He’s still trying to come to terms with the loss of his fiancée, something that surfaces throughout the story, but his work is a wonderful way to distract him. With a penchant for doing his best thinking on the golf course, Cayne is able to connect with some of the financially sound people of Chicago, making it a little easier to get access to the information he needs. There’s still a great deal about him the reader does not know, though one can hope that subsequent novels in the series provide that.

Smith utilises a strong cohort of supporting characters, many of whom offer the needed flavouring to the narrative that allow it to excel. Touching on the world of the rich, the reader can feel that sense of entitlement that permeates throughout the story. This contrasts nicely with those who work the streets of Chicago to earn a (less than legal) living. There are also a number of background characters who help Cayne with his work, those who might be best called his ‘crew’ and whose presence begs for additional interactions. They are able to offer the leads on the case, as well as coax out some personal growth in Ashe Cayne. I am eager to see how they might be used in another scenario throughout the series.

Smith presents his story in a way that is both exciting and relatable. While I have never visited the city, I felt as though I were strolling the streets of Chicago with Ashe Cayne. The narrative progresses well throughout, though there are no moments of ‘rushed solution’ as though Smith sought to quickly glue the pieces together for the reader. His slow reveal keeps the reader guessing and provides the needed momentum to ensure the piece keeps the reader hooked. Mixing up his chapters, Smith pulls the reader into the middle of something great and does not let them go, almost begging them to read ‘just a little more’. It worked, as I was up late just trying to piece it all together. I am eager to see where Ashe Cayne and this series intend on going in the coming years. With a second book already being publicised, I will be sure to get my hands on a copy.

Kudos, Mr. Smith, for a winner. I am intrigued to see what else you’ve written in the fiction world. Perhaps I’ll have to have a look while I wait for Ashe Cayne’s return.

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

The Sentinel (Jack Reacher #25), by Lee Child and Andrew Child (Grant)

Eight stars

Back for another Jack Reacher thriller, Lee Child brings a collaborator along to join the fun. Andrew Grant (Child, to keep the persona in line) does well to add his own flavouring to the piece, though some traditionalists have already begun to bemoan the change. I can see their point, but won’t be another stick in the mud for this one, which packed the punch I needed during a busy time of year!

As always, Jack Reacher finds himself in the middle of the scenario not entirely of his own making. Having decided that he ought to leave Nashville, Reacher convinces a young guy to give him a ride about eighty miles up the interstate to a sleepy Tennessee town. It seems quiet enough and is sure not to cause Reacher any issues. Little does Reacher know what awaits him.

Reacher meets Rusty Rutherford, who seems to be persona non grata amongst everyone in town. Having been the IT Manager for local services, Rutherford’s been made the scapegoat for the entire computer system being offline. It all relates to a ransomware attack, with hackers holding the only means to unlock all the computer’s data for a sizeable fee in a timely manner or risk having it erased. Rutherford tried to infiltrate the system and create an effective backup, but the ransomware has provisions for that and now millions will likely have to be spent to return things to normal. In an odd coincidence, Reacher rode into town with the very man, the insurance negotiator, who is tasked with trying to find a monetary solution to the mess.

While walking around town, Reacher notices that Rutherford is about to be targeted by a gang of apparent slick enforcers and comes to the man’s aid. This puts Reacher in a heap of trouble with local law enforcement, but his wily skills have him back on the street before long. Reacher learns a little more about Rutherford’s woes and how there’s a server that contains everything, including a a program Rutherford’s been working on that could have blocked the entire attack and a previously unknown backup that could be helpful.

Through a series of confidential conversations and secret double-crosses, Reacher is read in to a mission taking place that could have major impacts. It would seem the backup houses the name of a Russian spy who has been working nearby to infiltrate one of America’s most prized new digital systems, The Sentinel. A program that protects the integrity of US elections, the Sentinel could pose massive problems if it gets into the wrong hands, wreaking havoc on election registries and pushing the country into electoral chaos [and not of the faux claims of ‘rigged’ that disrupt the democratic transfer of power]!

As Reacher and Rutherford are joined by another key cog in the wheel, they must locate the errant server that has all the information and sell it before turning the perpetrator over to the authorities. However, as with anything that comes to the Russians, there’s always a catch and something that no one saw coming. If that were not enough, a local businessman has a plan all his own that could derail everything and leave a great deal of blood in his wake. Leave it to Reacher to find trouble with only his toothbrush in a back pocket!

Whenever I need something exciting and a little fun, I know I can find it in the hands of Lee Child and his Jack Reacher stories. While the series has made it to twenty-five books, I have never found them lose their momentum, though some will always be better than others. The introduction of the collaborating brothers here will, as I have already seen, rock the boat to the point that some become disheartened with the series. I liked the experiment, though found some small things that may not have been entirely to my liking, which I will tackle in a moment.

Jack Reacher remains a wonderful protagonist. His personality never changes and we don’t get any new backstory here, but he’s always a presence that cannot be missed. Reacher finds himself in a small town, minding his own business, when trouble seems to locate him like a lost puppy. He remains gritty and determined to help, something that Lee Child has fashioned him to be from the very start. However, I noticed that his admitted Luddite ways are inexplicably contrasted with an understanding of complex new Russian digital espionage. This is something that does not jive with a man who finds clamshell phones to be more technology than he can handle. Not that Reacher is a ‘basic’ man, but it seems above what series readers may have come to expect. Was he hiding it from years in the MPs and has somehow come to understand it through an odd osmosis?

The thing about Reacher novels is that there is usually an entirely new cast and crew of secondary characters, which makes things highly exciting and full of newness for the protagonist. This was no exception here, as a sleepy Tennessee town came to life, with personalities on all sides. Child (and Gross) do well to develop those townspeople, authorities, and foreign agents to keep the story flowing well and flavouring the narrative in ways that few would have come to expect. I enjoy it, as I learn a great deal from all the perspectives and must remain attentive to meet an entirely new set of fresh faces with each book. For the most part, they complement Reacher really well!

Being an active and involved reviewer, I try not to let the thoughts of others influence my reading, particularly when it comes to a series I have long enjoyed. That can sometimes be difficult, especially when I have a handful of people whose opinions matter great deal. However, I do enjoy going against the grain at times and speaking for myself, not allowing the current of opinion to push me in any one direction.

This book served the purpose that I needed it to, entertaining me fully and keeping me actively wanting to know what was going on. I thoroughly enjoyed the plot and the narrative worked well to keep me guessing and wanting to know even more. I loved the characters and felt that Child and Gross (I cannot bring myself to call them both ‘Child’, as Andrew Gross has made a name for himself independently) worked well together to keep the essence of the Reacher flavour in most aspects of the story. Strong chapters that always keep things moving proved to be the thing I needed to keep me pushing through, even as things are busy for me outside of the reading world.

I can see how some would have an issue, going so far as to say ‘this is not the Jack Reacher I know’. However, I fear that many people have failed to comprehend that Reacher, like us all, has to progress at some point. He’s had twenty-five full length adventures (and some short story side trips as well) and has surely ‘matured’ over that time. His nomadic ways have surely been offset with an understanding of the new things going on in the world. That said, I did feel that there was quite a leap (though subtle at the same time) in Reacher’s knowledge and comprehension, which could lead some to say that this is not the galoot they know so well. Was it Child and Gross trying to stay with the times and delve into election rigging? Could it be Gross’ collaborative influence that steered the story in new directions? I’m not sure and really don’t think it is worth my time dissecting it fully. I have said my bit and, like Reacher, I am ready to move on to a new adventure. But, I’ll be back, toothbrush in my back pocket, eager to see what else the series has for me!

Kudos, Messrs. Child and Grant, for an entertaining piece. I am eager to see what’s next and whether more collaborations are in store for series fans. At least those who have not turned their backs on Reacher because things ‘are not the same’.

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

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Eight stars

Always willing to try something new, I turned to this cult classic by Neil Gaiman. I chose to read what is called the ‘author preferred’ edition, actually going so far as to take the audio route, which offers a full cast of narrators. Gaiman explains in an introduction that this edition is the longer and more detailed version that mixes the first published draft with one that he felt was best before the editorial cuttings required by the publisher. What’s left is surely an epic ride that takes readers on an adventure like no other. While I may not have picked it up on my own, I am pleased that I agreed to read it. I have my book club of three to thank for it.

Shadow Moon is a convicted felon who has almost served his time. The warden calls him to his office to explain that there’s been a car accident. Shadow’s wife and best friend have both died and he’s being released a few days early so that he can travel to put the affairs in order. While Shadow is thankful, he cannot yet process the news and departs in a quasi-haze.

After a series of odd events, Shadow finds himself sitting in first-class on an airplane next to a man who seems to know a lot about him. That man calls himself Mr, Wednesday, but admits it’s not his real name. After a little bantering, Shadow is offered work by Wednesday. He declines and hopes that when they part in Chicago, this will be the last they see of one another.

Shadow finds himself travelling along a dusty road, unsure what to do next. He stops in at a roadside tavern and sees Wednesday is there with some friends. After much convincing and losing a coin toss, Shadow agrees to work for Mr. Wednesday. To celebrate, Shadow’s offered an odd drink that is apparently something usually reserved for the gods. While it does not taste good at all, it seems to seal the deal with Wednesday and makes everyone happy.

Shadow soon learns that he is to be a jack of all trades for Wednesday, doing whatever needs doing and asking no questions. Wednesday makes it clear that he will ensure everyone is safe and no laws are broken, but Shadow must follow the path laid out for him. Shadow is not one for vagueness, but does not see the harm and agrees to the terms. It soon becomes apparent that Wednesday runs cons and gets people to do what he wants, His style is such that no one is the wiser and this seems to work well for Wednesday. Shadow takes some mental notes, unsure how long the partnership will last, but still intrigued.

A chance encounter with an odd Irishman leaves Shadow feeling slightly perplexed. The man, Mad Sweeney, purports to be a friend of Wednesday’s but is also quite independent minded. Shadow receives a gold coin and is shown an odd trick that appears almost magical. Sweeney offers the coin to Shadow, who thanks him. At the grave, Shadow offers it up and tosses the coin alongside his wife, hoping it will bring her some luck in the afterlife. If he only knew!

Shadow is visited by his wife that night, somehow risen from the dead through the power of that coin. It is then that Shadow realises that Wednesday is actually the reincarnation of the Norse god, Odin, which leads to the appearance of other ‘washed up’ gods. They all bemoan the same thing, that the world has turned its eyes from the true gods, choosing instead to focus on technology and shiny baubles. This symbolism reappears throughout the story, as things take more turns for Shadow and those he encounters.

Shadow is soon kidnapped by two men acting on behalf of these New Gods. He’s rescued by his wife, who murders them as they sleep. Shadow is sure to be blamed for the killings, though he is careful not to leave any evidence that could be tied to him. Still, things are getting more and more complicated for Shadow, forcing him to wonder if this is all a dream or some altered state of reality. Shadow continues to follow the path laid out for him by Wednesday, settling for a time in Michigan, but always ready to be sent out on missions at the drop of a hat. The New Gods try numerous times again to lure Shadow to their side, promising him riches and excitement. Shadow continues to refuse, but does appear curious as to what might wait for him on the other side.

Through a series of events and happenings, Shadow learns that there is to be a battle between the New and Old Gods, the winner of which will be able to claim control over humanity. Shadow is to be a bystander, but has strong visions about what is to come and how he fits into everything. Shadow sees his place in the world and tries to ensure he does not tip the scale, while the War of the Gods takes place before him. The end result is sure to baffle many, but it will require the reader to take the plunge for themselves.

This was certainly not the type of book I would usually see myself reading, though I can admit that I thoroughly enjoyed it. There was a great deal going on throughout, which left me needing to pace myself, but the end result proved to be a well-crafted piece that opened my mind to many aspects of life I had not previously considered. With a handful of vignettes sandwiched between the chapters, the reader is treated to some additional subplots about America and how those who came saw it through their own eyes.

Shadow Moon would be the presumptive protagonist of this piece. He proves to do a stellar job at this, always evolving and developing as he makes his way through the piece. There is a great deal for the reader to learn about Shadow, from his compassionate ways through to his love of coin tricks. A man with little to call his own, Shadow comes into his own while trying to reveal his place in the world. Much of what he says and does makes him appear docile, but there is certainly a mean streak within him, one that makes itself known on occasion.

There are so many wonderful supporting charadfcters throughout this piece, it is hard to name a favourite. I thoroughly enjoyed some of the darker depictions that Gaiman creates, offering up villains when they were needed, but constrasting them with some light-hearted and more innocent folks at other times in the story. I felt a connection to many of them, on one level or another, but also enjoyed wartching them develop on their own. Each brought something impoirtant to the story without distracting from some of the larger themes or plots. I was eager to see how many of them blended together, keeping the story moving and on point.

Neil Gaiman’s writing style is quite unique. It cobbles together a mixture of many forms, keeping the reader on their toes and never knowing what is to come. I enjoyed the meandering style of writing, as the story progressed, which left the door open for a great deal of interpretation. The banter and character dialogue was quite well done and left me wanting more as I never knew what was about to happen or how the interactions would influence the larger story. Long and detailed chapters left the story trudging along, while forcing the reader to stick it out and see how things would resolve themselves. Oddly enough, I did not want things to end, preferring to see where things were headed next and trying to guess what to expect in the next plot twist. I’d read another Gaiman novel for sure, though I may need some time to get myself ready for such an epic journey!

Kudos, Mr. Gaiman, for such a wonderful piece of writing. There was so much in here about which I need to reflect!

This book fulfils the November 2020 requirement of the Mind the Bookshelf Gap Reading Challenge.

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

A Stranger at the Door (Rachel Marin #2), by Jason Pinter

Nine stars

Be sure to check for my review, first posted on Mystery and Suspense, as well as a number of other insightful comments by other reviewers.

Jason Pinter dazzles with a protagonist whose past is anything but clear in this electrifying sequel to his newest series. In A Stranger at the Door, Pinter creates a murder mystery that has deeper and more complicated plots, as Rachel Marin must again face her past and the risks she’s taken to protect her children, one of whom finds a new form of trouble. With a mixed civilian-police procedural story, Pinter slowly and deliberately weaves a web and traps the reader into forging ahead, guessing who is behind it all. Recommended for those who loved the first novel in the series, as well as the reader who might like something a little different in a crime thriller.

Rachel Marin may not be her real name, but it is what folks in Ashby, Illinois call her. When Rachel receives an email from her son’s teacher, asking to meet and discuss a private matter, she’s intrigued. However, before she can make it to see Matthew Linklater, he’s been murdered and his house set ablaze. Who could want to do this to a man that many describe as quiet and salt of the earth?

Rachel is still as keen as ever to thrust herself into the middle of a criminal investigation, something that her boyfriend, Detective John Serrano, has come to realise he cannot deter. As they work the case, it soon becomes apparent that one of the students at school may have had a beef with Linklater, but no motive is yet clear.

Things take a definite turn for the worse when Rachel’s son, Eric, sneaks out to the local ball field in the middle of the night. With a little help from Detective Serrano, they discover that it is a collective of teenage boys who are being targeted to begin selling a wide range of products. It would seem they prey on the vulnerable, creating a safe space for them. While not illegal, Rachel wants Eric out of this group and can only see trouble lurking. Everything seems to be led by one Bennett Brice, who uses foot soldiers and some violence to keep the boys in line.

As Rachel tries to head up the investigation, she is neutered repeatedly by Serrano, which does not sit well with her. Attempts to get Brice to stay away from her son also fail miserably, when Rachel is attacked one day as she follows Eric discretely and lands in the hospital. However, Brice could be the key to the Matthew Linklater murder, though the pieces are still not fitting together.

Things get even more complicated when someone from Rachel’s past arrives in town. Evie Boggs has a secret that Rachel cannot have come out, but must play her cards right or things could get even worse for Eric. With a killer on the loose and more victims emerging, Serrano will have to utilise the mental acuity of his girlfriend and the grounded nature of his own partner to solve the case, or a number of teenage boys could end up in the morgue themselves.

I only recently discovered the work of Jason Pinter and am kicking myself for waiting so long. I devoured the series debut and was highly impressed with the writing and presentation, which led me to rush out and get my hands on this novel. Mixing a police procedural with civilian criminal investigator keeps the reader busy as they try to piece it all together in a format that is not entirely orthodox.

Rachel Marin recaptures her role as protagonist, offering more pieces of her life throughout the story, though her reveal at the end of the last novel sets the table for much of the vague backstory. Marin is sharp and on point when it comes to the investigation, but still has trouble when it comes to ceding control of the situation to the professionals, including her boyfriend, Detective John Serrano. Rachel loves her two children, who could not be more opposite to one another, taking risks to keep them safe. This familial dedication does, at times, blind her and pushes Marin into making poor choices.

Pinter crafts a stellar supporting cast of characters as well, providing fodder for the numerous plot lines. While the criminal element drives the story, there are personal struggles as well, which are effectively shaped by those Pinter uses to hash out the details. There is never a lull in the story telling, which drives many of the characters to grow in their own way and provides the narrative with something worth exploring. With a handful of returning faces, the reader can learn a little more about them, but the new cast definitely takes the story in some interesting directions.

The story definitely proved unique for me in the thriller genre. The melding of an active police investigation with an overly keen civilian investigator keeps the story moving and allows the reader to feast on a few perspectives simultaneously. Pinter pulls the reader in with a strong narrative that never stops evolving. The narrative works well with the clipped dialogue, offering a sense of realism and great banter. Chapters are predominantly short, which keeps the reader on their toes, never knowing what’s to come. With a personal thread that takes Rachel Marin out of her usual ‘distanced observer’ role, the reader is treated to some wonderful magic throughout this piece. While some have said this works well as a standalone, I question why anyone would want to do that. There is so much to enjoy in both books together that the reader would be foolish not to start fresh and enjoy the ride!

Kudos, Mr. Pinter, for a great series that kept me guessing. I am definitely going to keep my eye on your future publications and may look back to see what other gems you may have written.

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

The Injection, by D.L. Jones (and Devante Cresh)

Six stars

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

Intrigued by the premise of his latest novel, I turned to D.L. Jones’ The Injection for something that straddles the medical and psychological thriller genres. When a pharmaceutical product shows interesting results in animal trials, it is used without being fully vetted on a man with an as yet unclear agenda. The results could be problematic, particularly when further lab tests show unexpected side effects. Jones keeps the reader guessing in this piece that has some great moments, though is mired in a sluggish narrative.

Tracey Jones has been hard at work on Hypo, an injection that could revolutionise the pharmaceutical world. Working to augment the actions of the hypothalamus gland, this drug allows the user to utilise sheer determination and strict focus to complete a task, dulling the pain and leaving the skin more resistant to injury. Its testing on mice is going well, though coming off the drug has the user entering a long and fitful slumber, likely as a form of recuperation.

When Tracey reaches out to his college friend, Chauncy Peters, the reaction is one of only slight trepidation. Chauncy and his wife had a run-in with Tracey back in college, something that helped fuel an exceptional thesis, but left the Joneses feeling betrayed. While Chauncy is eager to see his old friend, he has other things on his mind. His electronics shop has been the subject of a number of break-ins of late, which had the cops involved. The only other event in town that rivals the break-ins would be the number of week-long kidnappings taking place.

After Chauncy and Tracey spend some time together, they find themselves caught in the web of these same kidnappers. Tied-up and likely to be held for a while, Tracey talks about an experimental drug he’s been working on, Hypo. With some samples on him, Tracey and Chauncy inject themselves and show great force. They are able to escape, though the after effects leave both feeling completely drained.

Chauncy is shocked by the abilities this Hypo has on him and accepts a number of vials to use at his discretion. Tracey leaves town and returns to the lab to see how things are progressing. While Chauncy comes to terms with what has happened to him, he uses the drug’s determinative effects to help overcome an issue getting his wife pregnant. While she loves the vivaciousness her husband shows, Mrs. Peters comes to resent his aggressive side, something she shares repeatedly with a friend.

As Chauncy continues to use the drug to solve his everyday issues, Tracey learns some troubling news from additional trials, primarily that aggression is heightened to homicidal levels after prolonged use. Once Chauncy discovers a secret his wife has been keeping from him, he acts in the only way he knows how, though is clueless to the aggressive trigger he’s set off inside himself.

As the world seems to have turned against him, Chauncy Peters takes matters into his own hands, only to realise that he’s been played yet again. His aggression sees him get into trouble with the law. Blinded by rage, the truth spirals out of control and Chauncy has lost his ability to regulate. All from a simple injection!

Having never read any D.L. Jones before, I was eager to see if this might be an author I would add to my list. I enjoyed the dust jacket blurb for this book, which left me wondering how things would play out. However, even with such an intriguing premise, the narrative delivery offered some issues that left me feeling cheated and out of sorts.

Chauncy Peters serves the story well, not only as an unwitting test subject for a new drug, but as a local businessman who wants to help his community. He loves his wife and wants a family, though seems distracted by some of the things that he has going on. When introduced to Hypo, it takes over his world, much as illicit drugs might form an addiction. Before he can regulate himself, Chauncy is fixated on the effect the drug has on him and lets it overtake him. Struggling to find a calm balance, Chauncy becomes the author of his own demise, unable to allocate blame where it is needed.

Jones uses some interesting supporting characters to develop his story, some of whom serve their purpose well, while others are truly as flimsy as they present themselves to be. The story works well with some of the core secondary characters, though there are a few plot lines that were likely created solely to substantiate the use of other names that pepper the pages of this book. I can see what Jones was trying to do with some of his minor characters, but could have used less of their flighty interactions.

While I cannot fault the core idea of the story, I found the delivery to be full of issues. The narrative was not as crisp as it could have been, at times recounted in a 1920s dark sleuth mystery, complete with “Girl, if only you…” and “Gosh, ….” I sought grit in the writing and got moments of pablum. Even the rage Chauncy Peters showed throughout was diluted to the point of being unbelievable in the present day. There were some narrative twists, which did work well and the chapters were short enough to make me want to forge ahead, but I worry for readers who are expecting something sharp and edgy, based on the summary. While not a book clinging to life-support, some readers may call out a Code Blue to resuscitate the narrative from its 1920s shell!

Kudos, Mr. Jones, for a valiant effort with a strong premise. Perhaps your work with your own alter ego left you divided in how to present this as top of the genre. I may come back for another try of a different publication, when time permits.

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

The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by J.K. Rowling

Eight stars

To come full circle in my J.K. Rowling/Harry Potter reading adventure, I sought to look back at some of the tales that young witches and wizards might have heard in their childhood. Many of these pieces are referred to throughout the Harry Potter stories, at least in passing, though I chose to take some time to explore them a little further. With the help of Hermione Granger—who translated them from runes—and Albus Dumbledore—whose commentary provided a mere Muggle like myself with some context—I was able to make my way through these short pieces with relative ease. I can only hope others are as successful.

Beedle the Bard is a master storyteller, whose pieces serve to offer entertainment to the young reader. While some stories are delightfully fun, such as The Wizard and the Hopping Pot, others are much darker and full of spooky narrative twists. One might refer to The Tale of the Three Brothers to see something that might not be as inviting for bedtime reading. The five tales found in this collection offer not only highly imaginative stories that beg the reader/listener to conjure up images of what is being recounted, but also provide strong morals needed to shape the mind of the young. These are tales whose impact deepens the more they are read and one can hope Beedle knew this when putting quill to parchment.

As is noted in the introduction, this collection parallels what Muggles might call favoured fairy tales. Much like the tales that are told to young humans, there is a sanitised version for the younger reader, as well as the true version Beedle authored for full impact. Think of the Brothers Grimm and their gruesome depictions that are known to Muggles only when they grow up, if ever. The impact of the morals are significant to the open minded reader, as is the curiosity of those who paid close attention in all the Harry Potter stories and seek some context. Before undertaking the translation efforts, Hermione was as clueless as Harry about these pieces, having surpassed the knee height of a grasshopper outside the wizarding world. While Neo has yet to read these five tales, I will encourage him to do so and hope that he will draw from them something long-lasting. The Dumbledore commentary is essential for Muggles to better comprehend the piece and serves as a great contextual guide to obtain the full meaning. Brilliantly authored!

Kudos, Madam Rowling and Bard Beedle, for providing a lowly Muggle with some better understanding of a world I have only seen through eight Potter stories that span twenty-six glorious years!

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

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One and Two (Harry Potter #8), by Jack Thorne (with input from J.K. Rowling and John Tiffany)

Eight stars

Having completed the seven novels in the Harry Potter series, I sought a little extra Potter-ing. I turned to the controversial (by some) eighth story in the series, which has its beginnings in the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Some call this blasphemy and a piece of fan fiction that tries to line the pockets of a few. While I will permit those folks to suck on the lemons and lick their theatrical wounds, I dove in to see how this piece might be developed for the stage, penned by Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, with the support and guidance of J.K. Rowling. Working with a new generation of Hogwarts students and some additional drama from the past, the story seems to work well and offers Potter fans some insights into how things turned out and what struggles remain. Sit back and enjoy, though reading (or listening) to this may force the brain through some somersaults, as it is in script form. Then again, this should be easy for Potter fans, as it’s a literary format Muggles can digest with ease!

Taking place two decades after the reader last saw their favourite characters, the piece begins at King’s Cross Station. Here, the next generation of Potter, Granger, and Weasley children are headed off to Hogwarts. Albus Potter and Rose Granger-Weasley prepare for their first year, eager to see what awaits them. Albus worries about which House he will be delegated to, though others are sure that the answer is a foregone conclusion. On the ride, Albus befriends Scorpius Malfoy, the son of Draco, which proves interesting for fans of the Harry Potter series.

At the annual ceremony, Scorpius is sent Slytherin, as is Albus Potter, a shock to everyone. Rose follows the family tradition and ends up a Gryffindor, continuing the familial magical aptitude. Due to whispers of a Malfoy progenation issue, Scorpius is rumoured to be the offspring of the Dark Lord, through a mysterious time-travel capability, thus earning him unsubstantiated vilification.

Draco Malfoy is also tormented these rumors and asks Harry Potter for a statement that all time-turners have all been destroyed. Harry, holding a high bureaucratic position in the Ministry of Magic, cannot offer concrete reassurances and receives a visit by Amos Diggory and his niece Delphi. They ask Harry to use a time-turner and save Cedric, the Hogwarts student who died at the Triwizard tournament after being an innocent victim of Lord Voldemort. Again, Harry is non-committal, though the issue does pique his interest.

During a school holiday, Albus and Harry argue about former’s difficulties at school. Fuelled by a gift that Albus feels is both useless and empty, Harry admits something that is painful to the younger Potter. Soon thereafter, Harry’s scar begins to hurt for the first time since the death of the Dark Lord almost twenty years before.

Albus and Scorpius learn of the Diggory plea and agree to help them by using a time-turner. They promise to visit the Triwizard Tournament and stop Cedric from dying. After sneaking into the Ministry offices, they steal a time-turner and plan to sabotage Cedric, thereby ensuring he cannot make it to the final round.

Harry and Draco discover the boys outside Hogwarts after their first trip to the past, as the time-turner has a limited usage time. Learning of their plan, Harry senses evil around Albus and forbids him to have anything to do with the Malfoys, as it can only lead to new and horrible evils. It seems that no matter the generation, Hogwarts tends to show similarities in family trees.

After meddling with time, small changes in the present occur, from the elder generation marrying others, to different employment, and even an altered reality that sees Harry Potter having lost the battle with Voldemort. Scorpius visits Severus Snape, who is still alive in this narrative. Through use of the time-turner, Snape can rectify the changes made at the Triwizard Tournament, though new horrors occur when the Scorpius returns to the new present.

Scorpius learns his lesson and seeks to destroy the time-turner once and for all. He takes it to Delphi but her true parentage is finally revealed, which sends shockwaves through many. Another travel back to the Triwizard Tournament seeks to use Cedric to help ensure that Voldemort is able to cement his power over everyone, though something goes wrong and Delphi must make a drastic decision.

After Delphi takes the boys to an unknown time, they discover that she has plans to deal with baby Harry Potter, ensuring that he is killed alongside his parents. Worried, Albus and Scorpius send a message through time, in hopes that Harry and the others will discover it in time and can save them.

When the elders arrive back in time, they lure Delphi away from the younger boys, tricking her and forcing an admission as to her parentage, which puts the entire narrative into perspective. A powerful duel occurs and Harry is forced to battle the forces of evil once again, all to save his family and the world from another evil-doer. Will Potter have it in him again to confront those who would harm his world?

This is definitely a less intense piece, after some of the latter novels really caught me in a web of despair. While Neo and I have enjoyed all eight movies based on the novels, I was intrigued to see how this would be presented on stage (or cinematically). New characters and returning themes pepper this piece, which adds depth to an already exciting Rowling series. As I mention above, some dislike the play and seek to smear it, but it’s best to let them whinge, so they feel validated. I have tried to keep an open mind and enjoy it, which I did. It may not be as powerful as most of the Rowling novels, but one cannot live solely in black and white without expecting to keep one’s head stuck in grey clouds!

The entire cast of this piece offer the reader something exciting and the opportunity to think outside the box. From the new Potter lead through to some of the melting of frigid pasts between the Potters and Malfoys, the story offers newness and some wonderful twists that series fans may not have expected. I enjoyed how this was developed, yet not completely erasing the past differences between Harry and Draco. There are many characters who return from the novels, but also a slew of new ones in which the reader can find new attachments. As mentioned before, to see how they would present themselves on the stage intrigues me even more. Heck, I would love to see more adventures from them, though the Potter traditionalists would likely have a coronary.

I enjoyed the narrative as it developed throughout this piece, able to see progress in the plot without having to suspend what I know about the Potter series too much. There were moments of intrigue, of entertainment, and even of pulling the past drama into the current era. Working with some degree of fantasy, the writers kept throwing the reader something new and exciting. I’d read more, be their stage plays, short stories, or even full novels. I enjoyed how things were balanced throughout the four acts and can only hope that Rowling would authorise it. Her current literary issues could surely use a distraction.

Kudos, Messrs. Tiffany and Thorne, for allowing me to see a new perspective of the Potter world. Don’t let the haters get to you, as they are more than likely Muggles who just don’t understand.

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

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, by Newt Scamander (J.K. Rowling)

Eight stars

Having read the seven (formal) novels in the Harry Potter series, I decided to take a moment and peruse some of the ‘textbooks’ that are mentioned throughout the series and have been published for us Muggles to read. J.K. Rowling has done this and presented an exceptionally well-developed short piece. Mostly tongue-in-cheek, Rowling offers her readers something interesting to complement the stories in the Potter series, while also shining some light on many of the creatures who grace the various pages of the Harry Potter tomes.

Newt Scamander has penned fifty-two editions of this text for use at the various wizarding and witchcraft institutions over the years. He seeks not only to offer the reader a better understanding of what a beast might be (as opposed to a being), but also differentiate them from one another. With the largest section being dedicated to listing many of the beasts that wizards and witches might encounter, Scamander provides the reader with an understanding of their habitat, level of danger, and a brief history, wherever possible. While this is a textbook, the writing is fairly intriguing and would be of much use to those who were attentive throughout the Harry Potter novels.

Kudos, Madam Rowling, for this insightful (and humour-filled) piece. While I do not review textbooks, I could not help but add my few cents to this piece.

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

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Harry Potter #7), by J. K. Rowling

Nine stars

As we enter the final formal novel in the series, J.K. Rowling takes readers on an adventure like no other. This is the plot line that series fans have been waiting to see play out over six previous novels. Harry Potter prepares for his final clash with Lord Voldemort, where only one can survive. Good versus Evil if ever there was a clear and symbolic interaction. Rowling develops a story unlike the previous pieces, where a scholastic year serves as the story’s undertone. Rather, this book reads more like a journey from a fantasy novel, with various creatures met along the way, precious items are discovered, and an epic battle proves to be the climatic moment in the narrative. Full of action and sorrow, Rowling does not skimp out here and keeps her fans glued to the page until the final sentence is done, but even then it lingers!

After a long time waiting, Harry can finally see the age of seventeen before him. After the numerous calamities from the end of the Sixth Year, Harry is ready to fulfil the prophecy and will begin a journey to defeat Lord Voldemort, protecting good from the clutches of his evil ways. After those troublesome Durselys reluctantly agree to go into hiding, keeping the Death Eaters from preying on them, Harry sets off with Ron and Hermione to locate some of the other horcruxes about which Dumbledore spoke before his murder. The desctruction of these horcruxes is the only way to ensure that Voldemort can be killed once and for all.

After a plan to get Harry to safety by using a number of doppelgängers goes awry, there is some doubt if it is all worth it. However, there is no second-guessing the plan and the three forge ahead. If tackling the quest were not enough, rumours about Dumbledore’s past emerge in a tell-all biography that offers more dirt than glory for Hogwarts’ former headmaster. Harry begins to wonder just how well he knew the man and whether there was a dark side to him that was shielded. There are many pitfalls and struggler that Ron, Hermione, and Harry face, which leads to struggles and painful realizations. Ron’s temper is frayed when he feels he’s been duped and he flees, returning home.

Harry and Hermione are crestfallen that their closest friend has abandoned them and seek answers in Godric’s Hollow. Voldemort almost obliterates them there, leaving the two to feel as though the Dark Lord is anticipating their every move. What’s worse, Harry’s wand is broken in the skirmish, leaving them without proper protection at the worst possible moment. There’s little left to protect these two, other than their wits, which are growing shorter by the moment.

Weeks later, another clash takes place and Harry is almost killed. His savour is none other than an apologetic Ron, who arrives just in time. Using Gryffindor’s sword, the three are able to destroy another horcrux and they become enlightened about the provenance of a mysterious trio of magical objects called the Deathly Hallows. Anyone who possesses all three items is said to ‘own’ death, which may be one way to guarantee defeating Voldemort. However, it is not as easy as it sounds, something to which Harry has become accustomed over the last while.

While Harry inches closer to an ultimate clash, he realises that he may have to sacrifice everything to save others. As heroic as it sounds, it is rare for someone of seventeen to sober to this so easily. Will Harry agree to die in order to save others? Can he stomach a life without himself around, even if it means Voldemort dies as well? Dumbledore’s prophecies all come together and Harry must soldier on, forgetting what others have said. A chance encounter with a spirit form of Dumbledore opens Harry’s mind to new truths.

The final standoff is set, with Harry and Voldemort facing off. No others can interfere and there is little that can be solved by talking. Harry has made his choice, for his friends, his family, and himself. Death no longer scares him, if it means others can rest peacefully. It’s time for a spell like no other… and perhaps some luck from Merlin’s beard!

This series definitely increased in its intensity as things progressed. J.K. Rowling offers her readers something that is less a story in this final novel, but more of an epic adventure that pushes the series into the realm of fantasy (not that it was teetering before). The complex nature of this story shows a deeper set of themes that the mature reader will readily understand. A friend of mine commented that Rowling definitely wrote these latter novels with the expectation that her reader had matured, as Harry did, and would be able to comprehend the nuances. While I am not sure Neo caught some of it, I know he appreciated the action and detail, as he spoke with me about it once I had read enough not to hush him.

Harry Potter retains the role of protagonist, but is also the ‘good’ for all that can be found within this book. With this on his shoulders, Harry must come to terms with the realization that he is the only one who can fend off Lord Voldemort. Like a teenage Jesus, Harry cannot turn away from this fate, even if he questions it from time to time. Harry has moved from being a young boy with a mysterious scar to the only thing left to save the world from the clutches of evil. As dramatic as it sounds, series fans will likely agree as they synthesise the growth Harry has made along the way. Still, there are moments of teenage ‘normalcy’ as he urns for love and acceptance, as well as wanting to turn away and let someone else handle the heavy lifting.

Rowling has developed her supporting characters throughout the series, allowing the reader to choose those they favour and hiss and the folks that are best left outside the tent. However, in an epic novel such as this, it is time to cull the herd, so to say. While Rowling injects as much magic into them as she can with her written word, she also leaves some to perish and forced the reader to process this for themselves. There are many faces who have made an impact who return, almost in a cameo manner, and Rowling flavours the narrative with their interactions. Series fans will likely revel in all that is provided here, though there will surely be some whose passing will not be readily accepted by the larger reading community.

This was a highly complex and multilayered novel, understandably so. There is a general journey theme that serves as a story arc, but also smaller revelations in each chapter. Plot lines merge or blur, depending on what Rowling wants to do, but the final goal is clear throughout. Harry’s maturation comes to a head and the final battle will surely draw clear lines.

Easily the most mentally consuming of all the novels, I could not allow myself a moment to rest as I tried to make sense of the threads that weave together. The younger reader is soon sobered to truths that things are not always going to be positive, where good is sure to triumph over evil. That being said, there is a ray of hope, albeit faint at times.

Rowling has waited until the seventh novel to really pull out all the stops. The symbolism of Good versus Evil is not lost on many, though I am sure some would have liked something a tad more nuanced. It is war and Harry must realise that Voldemort is not one to stand down, but to rectify what he family to do on Hallowe’en night 1981. Rowling dazzles with her intricate narrative that weaves together a strong story and provides countless adventures in well-developed chapters. I cannot say enough about the piece and am pleased to have undertaken this reading challenge. While the formal books and done and I have a sense of where things have gone, there’s still a stage-play, a Book 8, to conquer. I will return to audio for that, as I am not sure I could wait to find a production of it.

Kudos, Madam Rowling, for keeping me enthralled throughout. I’ve loved this journey, as it brought me closer to my son, some of my dearest friends, and helped me tap into a part of myself I never knew existed.

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

Hide Away (Rachel Marin #1), by Jason Pinter

Eight stars

Be sure to check for my review, first posted on Mystery and Suspense, as well as a number of other insightful comments by other reviewers.

Looking for a thriller that would keep my mind racing throughout, I turned to this new series by Jason Pinter. With a woman who’s hiding her past from the authorities, but it adamant about helping with a murder investigation, Pinter pulls readers in with Hide Away. He reveals everything in a slow and deliberate fashion, keeping the reader guessing and trying to piece it all together. A police procedural with a twist, this will appeal to fans of the genre, as well as the reader looking for something across numerous timelines.

She calls herself Rachel Marin, but that’s not her real name. Something happened a number of years ago that’s forced her to flee with her two children and try to stay two steps in front of someone who’s lurking in the shadows. Whatever it is, the threat is real and ongoing, forcing Rachel to stay hyper vigilant, while living just outside of Chicago.

After the Ashby PD are called to the scene of a body found on the ice below a bridge, the first thought is suicide. Things must have been going wrong for the victim, which is substantiated once the woman is identified as former mayor Constance Wright. Her fall from grace, like this leap from a bridge, was anything but graceful.

While watching the news the following morning, Rachel Marin sees the story and does some of her own calculations. Marin calls the Ashby PD and reports that this was a murder, citing the physics of the event as being impossible to replicate by a suicidal jumper. Intrigued, two homicide detectives take her information under advisement and commence their own questioning. When Marin appears at the home of the victim’s ex-husband, she worms her way inside and finds additional information that points to a potential suspect. While the information is welcomed, Marin’s presence is not and she’s told to steer clear.

As the police investigation gains momentum, it is soon apparent that there is more to Constance Wright that meets the eye. Her downfall came from an apparent affair with a staff member, but her admits under questioning that he was paid to fabricate it, something that Marin discovers as well. She is trying to work the angles and provide a pathway for the police without stepping on any toes. All this, while balancing two children who are at completely different levels of acceptance of her sleuthing.

When Marin appears on the scene again, her involvement crosses the line one too many times and she’s taken into custody. It’s now time to look at Marin, not as a suspect, but to determine who she is and why she has such a connection to the case. Background checks turn up empty and the cash purchase of her current home raises red flags. She is a mystery without a past, not something that Ashby PD sees often.

While Constance Wright’s killer is out there, they remain as yet unknown. Marin and her family have already been put in danger, which does not seem to be dissipating the more this amateur sleuth sticks out her neck. It’s time to take action or wait for another body to appear, one currently named Rachel Marin.

Having never read anything by Jason Pinter before, I was unsure what I ought to expect. That being said, I was highly impressed with the writing and presentation of this piece, which mixes a police procedural with civilian criminal investigation and adds some layers of mystery to keep the reader guessing.

Rachel Marin proves a great protagonist, offering bits and pieces of her life throughout the story, while shielding much from the reader and those she encounters. Her backstory is a little hazy, but with use of flashback chapters, the reader learns a little more, without fully understanding the story behind her husband’s apparent murder. Marin is sharp and on point when it comes to the investigation, laying out her theories effectively and staying active, while crossing the line when her enthusiasm gets the better of her.

Pinter adds a strong set of supporting characters as well, keeping the story interesting on many levels. The detectives drive the story as the police investigation progresses, while the suspects and various witnesses offer some interesting theories for the reader to ponder throughout. Those who can help shape Rachel Marin’s story as a person are an essential part of the piece as well, as the reader seeks to assemble things and answer the ‘who are you’ question that lingers.

The story itself was unlike many I have read in the thriller genre. The mix of civilian sleuth with an active police investigation will prove useful as the series continues. Pinter also adds a layer of mystery surrounding the story of Rachel Marin’s true identity and whatever she’s fled. With a strong narrative that evolves throughout, Pinter hooks the reader in the early chapters. Flashback chapters that fill in some of the Marin gaps prove helpful, while still keeping the reader in the dark as to what’s really going on. Chapters not only alternate in time period, but also with their length. This keeps the reader on their toes, never knowing what’s to come or how detailed the analysis will be. Great banter between characters and a stellar plot with a handful of nefarious characters provides something for all readers to enjoy, while trying to peel back the ‘whodunit’ portion of the story. I cannot wait to get my hands on the sequel to see if it packs just as much of a punch.

Kudos, Mr. Pinter, for a great start to a series. I think you found a definite fan in me, which leaves me wanting to read more of your work!

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