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:

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Harry Potter #6). By J.K. Rowling

Nine stars

The Harry Potter experience has definitely taken a darker turn in this penultimate official book, as Harry is laying the groundwork for his final clash with Lord Voldemort. If ever there was a need, the reader ought to pay close attention to comprehend all the plotlines that J.K. Rowling offers, as things inch towards something truly chilling. Rowling continues to outdo herself, as readers push into the climactic point of the entire series. Perfect for those who have waited for major development and sinister happenings, with no happy ending in sight!

Harry’s preparation for Sixth Year is overshadowed by the death of Sirius Black, which has left him feeling morose and completely lost. Between bouts of sadness and anger, Harry vows to destroy Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Harry is again able to leave the confines of the Dursley household early when Dumbledore arrives to take him on an adventure that includes persuading former professor, Horace Slughorn, to come out of retirement and return to Hogwarts.

Harry’s return to school includes news that he is the Quidditch Team Captain, which comes with significant responsibility. While engaging with friends and faculty, Harry, Ron, and Hermione discover that Professor Snape is no longer teaching Potions, but has finally been offered Defense Against the Dark Arts, ready to bury his senior students at the NEWT level. If there is a silver lining, Harry is also offered private tutelage by Dumbledore to help explore all aspects related to Voldemort’s past. Dumbledore hopes that this may offer Harry an advantage in his upcoming clash with the Dark Lord.

Unprepared to have been allowed to take NEWT level Potions, Harry does not have the text. He’s given a mysterious book previously owned by the Half-Blood Prince, one that has alternative and advanced means to create powerful elixirs. While many are impressed with Harry’s abilities, he grows highly dependent on the information in the book and finds himself using his new knowledge on school grounds, to the dismay of some.

Draco Malfoy has become even more reclusive, something that Harry does not fail to notice. Harry is sure Draco has replaced his father as part of the dark side, keeping a close eye him and his antics. Harry surmises Malfoy is helping Voldemort in his preparations, but can prove little. These speculations do little to help Harry’s cause, though others have noticed that Draco seems even more suspicious.

Harry and Ron are both struck with the love bug (with the help of some potions), though the former’s choice is surely a girl who is off-limits. How will Harry explain to Ron that younger sister, Ginny is the apple of his eye? To distract himself, Harry turns to his lessons with Dumbledore, which includes a mission to obliterate a horcrux, which contains a part of Voldemort’s soul and will surely weaken the Dark Lord, in the coming final clash.

The latter portion of the novel brings much to the table, especially after Harry departs with Dumbledore. Malfoy’s dark plot finally comes to fruition and Hogwarts is pushed to a state of panic. The Order of the Phoenix enlists the help of some students to push back against the unwanted attackers, with no clear understanding of who will come out victorious. Even when Harry and Dumbledore return, all is not entirely safe, as the dark plot has gained momentum and the two strongest wizards find themselves trapped at the hands of a Voldemort supporter. There is much yet to come and the book teeters on the understanding that good versus evil doesn’t always yield a positive outcome, though Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s friendship may be the strongest bond left at Hogwarts!

This series continues to get better, as J.K. Rowling offers her readers more complex stories that have deeper undertones. While things have moved away from the humerous, there is still a great deal for the attentive and patient reader to enjoy, given the time and effort. Some have said these books are “fit for kids”, but it is truly the closed-minded individual who dishes that out without getting deep into the series to see for themselves. I was once in that camp, but have seen the light.

Harry Potter’s role as protagonist is but one of the hats he is forced to wear. With the weight of goodness on his shoulders, Harry must also be the hero who fends off Lord Voldemort as they prepare to battle one final time. Harry cannot turn away from this, but tries his best to also be the teenager he is, finding ways not to do homework and to feel the impact of love. Harry has moved from being a scarred, young boy to a figure that holds the future in the palm of his hand, something that Rowling surely meant all along. Series fans with see the growth, as well as some of the stumbles along the way. Harry’s passion has matured, as has his depth, though there is still a naïveté that cannot be discounted by attentive readers. What awaits the reader (and Harry) in the final formal novel is sure to be impactful and troubling at the same time.

Rowling develops her supporting characters in such a way that some who were in the background have risen to more prominent roles. Series fans who have chosen their favourites may see some added depth to those names that are peppered throughout the series, as well as some new faces crafted just for this book. Rowling never skimps on strong development and the story permits many characters to add their own spin on the narrative, which surely adds depth when needed to push the story along.

This was the most complex of all the novels to date, understandably so. Thre is so much going on over each chapter and the plots get slightly convoluted, even with the end goal being quite clear. Harry has matured to the point that he must ‘sink or swim’ as the saying goes, while others around him show true colours and sentiments. While not the longest of the novels, it is surely the most mentally consuming, in my humble opinion. I could not allow myself a moment to rest as I tried to make sense of the threads left in one part of the novel that needed tying off later. This is the sign of a strong author, who leaves it all out there and hopes the reader can compute and discern some of the narrative nuances.

It would seem that since the Ministry of Magic has been handled, it is time to focus on the true good versus evil, that being Potter vs. Voldemort. Many of the series’ themes lead up to this clash, forcing the reader to use their memories and refer to past comments, as well as a handful of clues. Now, it is time to prep for war, as it were, while getting some insight into how both ‘men’ got to this point. Some will be triumphant and others will fall to the wayside. Soldiers on both sides of battle are revealed, some of whom may surprise the reader. In the end, this novel lays the final bit of foundation before it all comes to a dazzling and disastrous conclusion. I cannot wait to see who’s left when I turn that final page!

Kudos, Madam Rowling, for keeping me enthralled throughout. This is how a series should build and take readers through a literary (and literal) maturation!

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

Bone Canyon (Eve Ronin #2), by Lee Goldberg

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.

Lee Goldberg is back with the second novel in his Even Ronin series, which pulls the reader into two parallel cases when bones are discovered after a major brush fire ravages the area. Both cases pull at the heartstrings, but for different reasons, leaving the reader to guess what the killers might have been thinking. Quick paced and easily devoured, this is perfect for those who love gritty police procedurals.

Eve Ronin has had quite the rise through the ranks of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Videos of her gritty antics hit social media and she earned quite the reputation for herself, something that others within the LASD have been holding against her. With little interest in capitalising on her fame, Ronin is forced to rebuff those in the industry who see stardom and an easy television career based on her life.

When Ronin and her partner are called out to a recently fire-ravaged area, they discover part of a skull. Some slow and thorough investigating by a forensics anthropologist not only offers up a lead as to who the victim might be, but also reveals much of her skeletal remains, scattered around the property. Ronin begins piecing it all together and identifies the victim as Sabrina Morton, with the help of a surgical implant.

While Ronin chases down some people who may be able to help piece together what Sabrina was doing in the days before she died, she learns that there were some horrible things that befell this young woman. Sabrina and her roommate went to party on the beach and were gang-raped by a bunch of surfers, all sporting a similar tattoo. After Ronin is able to get hold of a sketch of this tat, she learns that it’s a common mark worn by many of the sheriff’s deputies in the area. Could Sabrina have been attacked by off-duty officers and killed to keep her silent?

While working various angles, another set of bones turns up, those of Debbie Crawford, a fifty-something woman who has a long-standing beef with her rich neighbour. Ronin begins to look into this case and sees the feud has been building, such that having her killed would surely have eased the headache that was developing across the fence line. Still, there’s something not entirely kosher with the way things are presented to her, leaving Ronin to open new lines of inquiry.

As Ronin begins accusing deputies of rape and likely murder, she becomes more of a villain than she is already, leading to verbal and physical attacks. Yet, Ronin refuses to back down, sure that she should be seeking justice over covering her own backside. Two killers are out there and they must be brought to justice, even if it costs Ronin her badge, or worse!

Lee Goldberg proves again that he is a master storyteller with this piece. His ability to develop strong plots and use a fast-paced narrative keeps the reader on their toes as things progress. Poignant characters also help keep things enthralling until the final reveal for the attentive reader.

Eve Ronin remains a relatable protanogist, even though she is young and still somewhat naive when it comes to priorities. Her backstory pops up throughout the piece, though it is how she handles it that prove to be an entertaining subplot. Gritty and seeking to make a difference with her badge drives Ronin to do what she feels is right, even when she steps on toes to get there. With a peppering of some personal interactions at key points in the story, Goldberg has crafted a character that will definitely remain highly entertaining for as long as the series continues.

The cast of strong secondary characters keeps the reader wanting to learn more. Each complements Ronin in their own way, though there are some who are able to stand alone and provide entertainment value in how they are portrayed. With some returning faces and a number of one-offs, Goldberg keeps his story moving with all the banter throughout, offering up many suspects for these two murders and forcing the readers to point at those they would accuse.

The premise of the piece is not only strong, but highly engaging. The plot moves along at a quick pace, thanks to a strong narrative and clipped dialogue. Goldberg has a lot of practice in the genre and it shows, keeping the reader wanting more with every turn of the page. Short chapters that propel the story forward keep the reader on the edge of their seat until everything comes together at the end. A highly entertaining story in a genre that is quite full of cops and their hunt for the elusive suspect or killer.

Kudos, Mr. Goldberg, for another strong effort. I cannot wait to see what else you have in store for your fans in the near future.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Harry Potter #5), by J.K. Rowling

Nine stars

The Harry Potter experience has little time for rest and relaxation, with this fifth book in the series. Things take a significant turn towards the dark and eerie, yet the story remains captivating as magic politics takes centre stage. What began with a boy wizard has become a fight for survival with the evil Voldemort appearing in strange and mysterious ways throughout the piece, even as many deny his presence. The reader will have to pay close attention to connect with all the plotlines that J.K. Rowling offers, though the dedication does not go unrewarded. Rowling surely has outdone herself here as readers push into what might be called the ‘maturation’ of the series, no longer short books that rely solely on humour. Perfect for those who want something more adventurous and without the guarantee of a happy ending!

Harry has again been forced into a state of boredom all summer long. Still stuck living with the Dursleys, Harry must bide his time and hope the days pass quickly before it’s time to return to Hogwarts. While out one evening, Harry and his cousin, Dudley, are set upon by Dementors. Harry does the only thing he can think to do and accesses his magical capabilities, in direct violation of Ministry of Magic regulations. Harry is forced to attend a disciplinary hearing when his actions are made known, one that could cost him a spot at Hogwarts during his important Fifth Year!

After an intense process, Harry is exonerated, but not before he learns of a secret society, the Order of the Phoenix. Created by his headmaster, Dumbledore, the Order is currently housed in the home of Sirius Black, who remains wanted by the Ministry. Harry’s eyes are opened to the inner workings of wizardry and the politics that keeps the Ministry of Magic at arm’s length.

Harry’s return to Hogwarts brings a great deal of change. Not only is it Fifth Year, but the OWL exams await students, a set of tests that help streamline further educational and career aspirations. Plus, a new professor has joined the faculty, Delores Umbridge, who has strong ties to the Ministry. While Ron and Hermione are eager to see what the year brings, an ominous cloud hangs over Harry, not to mention the constant ache of his forehead scar.

While Harry tells anyone who will listen that he had a run-in with Voldemort, many follow the Ministry line and deny that it happened, choosing to consider that Harry and Dumbledore are mad and seeking to steal the limelight. Leading the denials is Delores Umbridge, who does all in her power to break Harry down in secretive and destructive ways. The reader discovers the pains Harry must endure at the hands of Umbridge, who appears to be power hungry herself.

As the Ministry of Magic seeks to put Hogwarts in its place, they nominate Professor Umbridge as High Inquisitor, allowing her to vet and remove any on the teaching faculty deemed out of line. Umbridge is also given the iron fist to bring the students in line, putting Harry in her crosshairs from Day One. Harry and Umbridge clash repeatedly, which eventually leads to a monumental decision that could ruin Fifth Year.

Through a series of secret communications, Harry tries to explain himself to Sirius, who offers support but cannot come to the aid of his godson as effectively as he would like. Harry does the only thing he can do, rallying students who feel the squeeze of the High Inquisitor. The creation of Dumbledore’s Army is a protest movement that will pit Harry against the Ministry in a standoff like no other. Things go so far that one senior member of Hogwarts will have to pay the price.

As the OWLs approach, Harry must juggle his studies, his ongoing romantic interest in one of his fellow students, and a series of dark dreams that he cannot fully comprehend. He receives help from a completely unexpected source to help block his mind from the powers that Voldemort appears to be trying to push. The scar aches repeatedly, which can only mean that evil awaits, though no one is entirely sure when or how!

As Umbridge takes further control at Hogwarts, it is an epic battle over the future of the institution, as well as a clash of good versus evil. Harry and Voldemort are destined to collide, which could end badly for everyone. With Hogwarts in shambles, Harry can only hope that he will be able to wrest control back to the good side, or face likely expulsion for good. Then again, if he’s dead, school won’t matter at all!

J.K. Rowling offers her readers, young and old alike, a story full of excitement and thrills on every page. As usual, there are nuances that appeal to various reading levels, making the story highly intriguing.

Harry Potter retains the protagonist role, always maturing and finding new way to show this to the attentive reader. There are moments of significant backstory to offer, should the reader be paying close attention between the action-filled narrative in the present. Rowling again addresses the scar and its symbolism, providing more for the reader who has surely come with more questions. The reader gets another look at the personal side of Harry’s life, talking about his romantic interests as a more regular concern. Balancing that with an important school year provides needed depth for Harry’s character. With added struggles related to Voldemort, Harry proves to be one character who refuses to turn stagnant. The reader also sees the morose side of Harry Potter, especially in the final section of the novel.

Rowling continues providing strong supporting characters for her readers, both individuals present throughout the entire series and those whose one-off status was specifically designed for this novel. The ever-evolving aspect of the story permits Rowling to add new perspectives to Hogwarts and focus on an ever-growing group of humans and creatures alike. There is some development in a handful of the characters, which helps contrast alongside the advancements that Harry makes and permits readers to see growth in their favourites.

This was another of the ‘truly complex novels’, books that exceed the basics of what I would expect Neo might want to handle. However, he has been devouring them with relative ease. This was the longer of all the books, but it needed every pages to hash out some of the more complicated plot lines that could not have effectively been divided over a few novels. I can only hope that this does/did not scare some readers away, as there is such an attachment to a number of the characters that can develop for the dedicated and attentive reader.

The book uses a strong narrative to push it along and leaves the reader wanting more with every chapter. Much is revealed in relation of the Ministry of Magic and some of its more nefarious plans, as well as the darker side of the Potter-Voldemort clashes. Both of these appear to be essential to understanding the larger story arc that Rowling injects into the narrative. I can see many of the truths unveiled in this book are to be important parts as the series progresses, so I am trying to stay alert. Longer chapters help build a deeper story and entertaining the eager reader. I cannot wait to see what awaits me in the final few novels, as Harry surely is not done learning about himself, his family, and his role in the larger Hogwarts/Ministry struggles.

Kudos, Madam Rowling, another stellar piece of writing. I cannot wait to see what else you have for your reading fans.

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

The Magdalene Reliquary (Magdalene #2), by Gary McAvoy

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Gary McAvoy for providing me with a copy of this novel, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Having long been a fan of novels with Catholic and/or historical twists, I thoroughly enjoyed Gary McAvoy’s debut book in this series when I read it a few months ago. Now, with the sequel ready for publication, I eagerly accepted a copy to see how the adventure would continue. A new relic is hidden, news of scandalous proportions awaits, and a man is out to avenge the death of his father. All this and more in a single book. Perfect for readers who loved the first book or are searching for something thrilling!

Father Michael Dominic has been enjoying his work as Prefect of the Secret Archives within the Vatican, dealing with some of the most sensitive documents the Church has in its possession. When he is asked to help with a research project, Dominic collects some old manuscripts and uncovers a 13th century puzzle that could be highly important.

After consulting his friend, Swiss journalist Hana Sinclair, Dominic realises what he’s got in his possession. It’s a map of a cave that is said to possess a valuable reliquary once owned by Mary Magdelene. Eager to see it for himself, Dominic convinces two members of the Swiss Guard to accompany him as they troll through the cave.

Unbeknownst to Dominic, his safety may soon be in jeopardy. Recently banished Cardinal Dante has a bone to pick with Dominic, who cost him the prized position of Vatican Secretary of State. Dante reveals that Dominic was involved in a raid that cost a powerful Croat his life. Now, the man’s son seeks revenge and is happy to destroy Dominic any way we can. Ivan Gović learns of Dominic’s cave adventure and plans to kill the priest while collecting the reliquary for himself.

While Dominic and his crew head to France to follow the map’s direction, Dante begins plotting his own return to power by blackmailing the one man who stands in his way. What Dante learns will not only shock the upper ranks of Vatican membership, but could ruin a man’s life as well. With little regard for anyone else, Cardinal Dante makes his move and waits for the dominoes to fall.

Inside the cave, Dominic retrieves the reliquary and notices an important message on its side; one that could change the face of Christianity. However, before he’s able to leave the cave, Gović and his henchmen arrive to collect the prize and seek to block the exit. With Dominic trapped in the cave, it could mean his end, once and for all.

News of the reliquary causes a stir in certain circles, especially once the contents are verified. Gović is sent on a final mission that could earn him great financial wealth, but it will not be as easy as it seems.

With pure determination, Dominic finds a way out of the cave, but still needs to get his hands on the reliquary before it can be sold off and hidden away anew. It will take much grit and determination to find Gović and ensure these secrets do not end up in the wrong hands. It’s a race across Europe and no one is entirely sure where they’re headed next!

Gary McAvoy has not only a great deal of skill when it comes to writing, but also knows how to spin a tale that will keep the reader wanting to know more. Mixing history, religion, politics, and science, McAvoy has crafted a thrilling piece of fiction that just may have some degree of reality buried in the narrative.

Michael Dominic plays a key role in this piece, serving as the quasi-protagonist. His determination to help uncover secrets is like no other. While the first book dealt with a lot of his backstory, there is a degree of that past that emerges in this piece as well. His focus on the prize, the reliquary, drives him throughout the book, though he remains clueless to some of the outside forces that seek to shape him. The interactions between Dominic and Hana Sinclair are obvious to the reader, but seem to fly over the head of the young priest, at least outwardly.

Hana Sinclair heads up a group of strong supporting characters in this piece. She remains determined to uncover the truth no matter what, using her skills and grit to stay one step ahead of everyone else. A number of other characters work well with the various subplots that emerge in the piece, all of which develop independently before coming together in the final pages. McAvoy does a wonderful job of populating his novel with credible characters, all of whom have their own missions.

When it comes to religious thrillers, there are times when the reader must suspend belief and go with what is being presented. McAvoy’s plot delves less into the biblically fanciful and deals primarily with what might actually happen. His story builds throughout and stays relatively plausible, keeping the reader guessing. There are aspects of politics and science, both of which are handled effectively, as well as portions that are straight thrills, perfect for the reader who wants an adventure. I am eager to see where McAvoy wants to take his novels from here, as he writes in such a way that the reader can never get enough. I suppose we’ll have to wait, but I know it will be worth it!

Kudos, Mr. McAvoy, for another stellar novel. Your gift of suspense does not go unnoticed and I hope others are as captivated as I was throughout this experience.

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

Heart of a Runaway Girl (Mabel Davison #1), by Trevor Wiltzen

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Trevor Wiltzen for providing me with a copy of this novel, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Approached by the author to review his debut novel, I was intrigued with what appeared to be a captivating dust jacket blurb in Heart of a Runaway Girl. Trevor Wiltzen takes readers back to a small Washington town in the 1980s, where drugs and white supremacy are running rampant. When a murder takes place, the easiest person to name becomes the sole suspect, though this does not sit well with Mabel Davison. She’s determined to get to the bottom of what happened and sacrifice it all for an innocent man.

Blue River is nestled in the heart of Washington State, but is by no means tranquil. A hotbed of drugs and racism in 1986, it’s surely nowhere one would want to raise their children. However, Mabel Davison is doing her best as a single parent. Her local diner and motel serve the locals well, allowing Mabel to get a sense of the town’s pulse.

While waitressing one evening, Mabel notices a young couple at a back table; a white girl and her black boyfriend. They appear to be arguing, though Mabel presumes it’s just one of those teenage squabbles and lets them be. When news breaks hours later that young Karen Thompson was found raped and murdered at the local mill, all eyes turn toward her boyfriend, Winston Washington. It seems to make sense that a black man who commit such a heinous act, so he is rounded up by the local sheriff. When a group of local white supremacists learns of the arrest, they try to bring about their own form of justice, stopped only when Mabel gets involved and calls the state police.

Something in her gut tells Mabel that Winston is innocent, though she has no concrete proof. She pushes ahead to learn as much as she can about both Karen and Winston, while dodging the pressure of others to let the wheels of justice turn. Mabel begins asking the tough questions and starts investigating on her own, only to discover a potential list of suspects that no one wants to name.

While she is able to convince Winston’s attorney not to accept the guilt that his client is professing to put things to sleep, Mabel knows that she is entering dangerous territory. She unearths much of the local drug trade and offends many men in positions of power, all to help Winston. This could surely have dire results, but Mabel Davison is nothing if not compassionate.

Juggling her work, her home life, and the constant threats that come with asking too many questions, Mabel finds that she may be the only one who really seeks to advocate for Winston’s innocence, while also shining a light on the real killer who treated Karen Thompson so poorly. Mabel’s prepared to sacrifice it all and she may have that chance, if she makes a single wrong move!

While this may be Trevor Wiltzen’s debut novel, it sure doesn’t read like it. There is depth and an addictive plot that will keep the reader hooked as they try to push through to see who the real killer is in what is being called the first in a new series.

Mabel Davison comes across as a woman who has such a big heart and is willing to help anyone in need. Known to many around town, she seeks to ensure that everyone is heard and that truth sees the light of day, even if it is not always what people want to hear. A single mother, she has her own demons from the past, but is doing all that she can to raise two boys and a niece. Sheer determination to do what is right makes her the best amateur investigator, not taking herself too seriously while not dismissing the importance of the mission at hand.

Wiltzen provides a handful of strong characters who help make the novel as alluring as it is. Coming from many walks of life, these men and women add flavour to an already intriguing story and help depict Washington State in the mid-80s effectively. I found myself wanting to know more about many who grace the pages of this book, making the fact that there may be a series in the works all the more exciting.

The premise of the book may sound a little odd—local waitress seeks to become private investigator to help a patron—but it works! Wiltzen develops his story and characters in such a way that the story flows well and keeps the rewarded guessing. With short chapters, the reader is propelled to keep reading (as I did) well into the evening to discover the truth that Blue River residents do not want known. The writing is strong, the ideas clear, and the narrative crisp, making this the perfect debut to captivate the attention of the curious reader. I’ve already signed up to receive more information about future publications and I suspect others will follow suit once they get their hands on this one!

Kudos, Mr. Wiltzen, for this wonderful introduction to your work. Glad to see a fellow Albertan out there making a name for himself. I cannot wait to see what else you have in store for Mabel and your fans!

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

Every Last Secret, by A. R. Torre

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.

Always eager for a chilling story about power and deception, I was pulled into the middle of A. R. Torre’s latest novel, Every Last Secret. It definitely has all the elements to keep the reader enthralled, with just enough darkness to provide needed twists for a complex plot. Torre is sure to lure many in with her writing, as she did for me throughout!

Cat Winthorpe has not rested on her laurels for all these years. Her home is immaculate and she’s been able to make a name for herself, alongside a productive and successful husband, William. When the Ryders purchase the home next door, Cat cannot help but greet them with open arms, hoping that her neighbours will be just as driven. Little does Cat know what awaits her.

Neena Ryder does not fit the Winthorpe mold, but does not care all that much. She’s been hired by William Winthorpe and has a job to do, but her skills as a life coach are the least of her concerns. Her husband, Matt, has come to bore her and Neena seeks a new challenge. The move was her way of inching in the right direction, though it also causes Neena to see the major piece she is missing in her life. While he may be her boss at work, Neena is eager to get better acquainted with William Winthorpe and push anyone who serves as an obstacle out of her way, including Cat!

Cat and Neena begin a friendship that soon blossoms, but neither is clueless to the other’s ultimate goal. The admiration that Neena has begins to grow and she must make her move before it’s too late. Cat is not clueless to the antics her neighbour has undertaken to curry favour with her husband. No one will steal William away from her without a fight to the end, that’s for sure. Danger lurks behind every corner and the secrets pile up. It will be Cat or Neena in the end, with William as the prize. Only thing left to determine is which of the two wants him more… and is willing to make the sacrifice to show him!

While this is my first A.R. Torre novel, I can see the allure of her work. It builds on some fairly uncomplicated plot development, but turns dark and addictive as the chapters progress. While the reader may feel they have entered a bucolic neighbourhood, they soon discover that fake friendships and cutthroat antics are the norm, beneath the Botox and country club lifestyle.

Told from the dual perspectives of Neena and Cat, the story offers two protagonists. While these women come from completely different backgrounds, they have one thing in common; a desire for William Winthorpe. Torre crafts her characters effectively and provides detailed backstories for them both in the narrative, as well as a slow development as the plot builds. While they appear to be friends on the surface, there is no doubt that Cat and Neena have no love loss between them, eager to gouge the eyes out of the other when no one is looking.

This tense friendship would not work without some strong supporting characters. Torre does well to provide those, though these individuals seem only present to help stir up the Cat and Neena feud. In this instance, it works effectively to have some wallflowers present throughout. Torre shows that she is capable of developing the needed support to show how her protagonists click and keeps the reader entertained between scenes of tenseness and evil plotting.

Torre’s writing is quite strong and she is able to keep the reader curious as the story progresses. While a cat fight (pardon the pun) may not seem all that alluring on paper, it is developed slowly and yet never loses its momentum. This provides the reader with a strong connection to the piece as they get lost in the narrative. Succinct and alternating chapters allow the reader to see things from both women’s perspectives, inching forward effectively to the final reveal, a battle for the attention and affection of a man, William, who really is not worth their time! While not your typical thriller, it works well and should keep the reader wanting more as they witness what two women would likely do to get what they want!

Kudos, Madam Torre, for introducing me to your work. I am eager to see if all the praise some of your other novels have received are worth it. This piece leads me to believe they might just be!

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

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter #4), by J. K. Rowling

Nine stars

The Potter adventures continue in a series that keeps outdoing itself with each novel I read. What began as an interesting story about a boy wizard has me completely hooked and demanding more as I delve deeper into the darker side of magic. J. K. Rowling does a masterful job at penning a story that has something for everyone, in her first story that really expands on the foundation she has laid and develops things into a much more thorough storytelling adventure that will test the determination of any reader, young or old. Some have said it is the best of the series. Based on the novels I have read to date, I must concur. Newer fans of the Harry Potter series, I can only hope you are ready for an adventure of a lifetime, as Rowling pushes you headlong into an abyss you will enjoy exploring.

It’s the summer before Fourth Year and Harry has been counting down the days until he can leaver the Dursley house and return to Hogwarts. However, his friends, the Weasleys, have a surprise for him before he hits the books. Mr. Weasley has secured a handful of tickets to the finals of the Quidditch World Cup. This means an early departure from his family who hate him and the chance to see the best athletes in the Quidditch world.

While the game is all that Harry and the many other fans could have hoped it would be, Voldemort and his Death Eaters make an appearance, causing havoc to everyone in attendance. Harry grows quite concerned and his ever-present scar aches, perhaps a sign that evil is on its way.

The return to school provides Harry, Ron, and Hermione with a new surprise when they learn that Hogwarts will be hosting the Triwizard Tournament; a competition between the three top wizarding schools across Europe: Hogwarts, Durmstrang, and Beauxbatons. Difficult challenges that promise to test the skill and daring of a ‘school champion’ from each scholastic establishment will provide some camaraderie, but also could prove deadly, if past tournaments are any indication.

Students from Durmstrang and Beauxbatons arrive at the end of October, at which time eligible competitors place their name in the Goblet of Fire, hoping to be selected their school’s champion in a magical ceremony. While the three names chosen are strong students, the Goblet offers some suspense when Harry’s name is chosen as a fourth competitor, even though he is not of age. However, one cannot defy the Goblet of Fire and so he is permitted to compete. Who could have done this, and for what reason?

Ron is convinced Harry seeks praise and glory, sure that he’s tossed his name into the mix. This leads the best friends to stop speaking, putting Hermione in an awkward position as she tries to focus her attention on her school work and a new social movement involving House Trolls. Never one to shy away from controversy, Hermione pushes for their betterment, going against the grain of what much of wizardry has long accepted.

The Triwizard tournament’s first task requires champions to fight dragons, something that Harry discovers he can do with some ease. It would seem his Quidditch skills prove helpful in his success. The danger factor seems high enough that Ron realises that Harry would not have put himself in harm’s way voluntarily. The boys are now convinced someone added the name to the Goblet to harm Harry.

Between competitions, the school year progresses and Harry finds himself in the middle of numerous headaches. A silver tongued (and quilled) journalist, Rita Skeeter, publishes gossipy articles about Harry and others that have many ramifications and cause a great deal of emotional pain to those who are outed. Harry can only hope that things will settle, though it would seem no one is off limits when it comes to smearing them and being fodder for whispered conversations.

The second task of the tournament is more daunting than the first. It involves collecting something from a lake filled with mer-people. Harry’s choice to be helpful almost costs him everything, though the judges see through his tardiness and award him high marks for his bravery. It would seem that Harry is well suited for the Triwizard Tournament, though there are still grumbles from other schools about his being an illegal competitor.

Sirius Black returns in secret to help protect his godson. This elates Harry, but only adds more pressure and concern, as Hogwarts could soon be the location of a deadly strike. It completely clear now that there is someone who wants Harry dead, but no one can yet identify the culprit.

It’s all down to the final task of the tournament, the most difficult of all the challenges. Harry is ready, but cannot have guessed who or what awaits him. A death shocks everyone who watches the tournament and Voldemort makes an appearance, hoping to regain much of the power he lost those years ago. Harry is vulnerable and this could mean the end to his time at Hogwarts, or worse… Mobilisation to combat the evil wizardry may be the only solution!

J.K. Rowling has done it again, offering her readers a highly entertaining story that is sure to keep readers of all ages talking long after they finish the book. The story is full of nuances that will appeal to different reading levels, making the story ‘pop’ no matter how much the reader understands of her hidden meanings.

Harry Potter reclaims the undisputed protagonist role in this story, maturing alongside his friends and fellow wizards as he tries to succeed during his fourth year of studies. While there is little backstory to offer, Harry’s past does become a part of his present and future, as Rowling addresses the scar and its symbolism a little more. The reader also gets to see a personal side of Harry, as romantic interests begin to play into his daily thoughts, while school is sometimes secondary or tertiary in importance. Perhaps teenage Harry will begin to emerge and offer a new flavouring for the upcoming novels, depending on how he is able to handle the struggles that Voldemort brings to the table.

Rowling continues to offer strong supporting characters for readers, from the key individuals who have been present throughout the series, to new or minor characters claiming some of the spotlight. The constant evolution of the story permits Rowling to expand the wizard world and keep her readers from getting bored. As someone told me when they heard I was beginning this book, “you’ll soon see that Hogwarts is only the tip of the wizarding iceberg”. How true that has come to be.

This was the first of the ‘truly complex novels’ in the series, books that exceed what I would expect Neo might want to handle. However, he devoured them with relative ease (thank goodness for audiobooks) and I can see Rowling needed every page to hash out some of the complex stories that bind this piece together. I am eager to see how things will keep progressing, as things are definitely getting more intricate and darker, which is sure to make for exciting reading.

The book relies on a strong narrative to push it along and peppers curiously interesting characters to leave the reader wanting to know more. Much is revealed in things as simple as dialogue exchanges, but it requires attention and dedication. I can only surmise that some of the breadcrumbs will be important as the series progresses, so I am trying to stay on top of all aspects of the piece, even if they seem trivial. Longer chapters prove necessary to jam-pack all the story without losing the theme that each presents to the eager reader. There are only a few moments when I was left scratching my head, minute details that readers who binge-read the series will likely notice over those who space out the book experience. I’ll see if it continues.

Kudos, Madam Rowling, another winner. I cannot wait to see what you have planned next and I want to get to it ASAP.

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

Stolen Truth, by Henya Drescher

Eight stars

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

Eager to get my hands on a great psychological thriller, I turned to Henya Drescher’s Stolen Truth, which documents a woman’s struggle to find her missing husband and newborn when no one believes her. The story touches on a number of chilling themes and kept me reading into the evening as I sought to piece the underlying story together. Well worth a look by interested readers.

Bree Michaelson wakes in a haze, unsure what’s going on. She realises that she’s slept for hours longer than she ought to have and yet her newborn, Noah, has not woken. When she goes to check on him, he’s not there. In fact, there is no sign of him whatsoever, including no baby clothes, furniture, or photos. Bree’s husband, Todd, is also gone, without a trace.

In a state of panic, Bree calls the police and demands that they come help. While she waits, the reader learns through Bree that Todd was a very secretive man and forced her to cut ties with everyone she knew, friends and family alike. Noah was also born to a midwife, Connie, who had been staying with the couple. She, too, is missing.

When the local officer arrives, he does a cursory look, but nothing is adding up. There is no sign of anyone ever having lived there with Bree. The officer agrees to make some calls, but can promise nothing. Bree begins to question everything around her and cannot understand what’s going on. She remembers being pregnant and has the leaking breasts, as well as loose stomach, to show for it.

As Bree begins an investigation on her own, she discovers that no one wants to help and that her own family does not believe her. Having been isolated from everyone, she does not appear to have anything to show for her time with Todd and Noah. The more she asks questions, the fewer answers emerge.

Coming to terms with her own mental health issues in the past, Bree must try to convince herself that she is not fabricating all of this, but an inexplicable victim. Bree will need to turn to the most unlikely source for help, as they may just be her last hope to prove that she’s telling the truth. Then again, what she discovers is equally as baffling!

Having never read anything by Henya Drescher before, I was eager to check out her writing. The premise of the story had me curious and I was hooked from the early chapters. Watching Bree Michaelson appear to swim upstream to prove herself is a wonderful theme throughout this piece, while the reader questions what us real and where the mind of a traumatized woman has filled in the missing pieces.

Bree Michaelson is a wonderfully complex character, whose story emerges throughout the development of the narrative. Not only does she have to deal with a baby who has gone missing, but she questions everything about the man who got her into this mess. Where does truth end and fallacy begin? Bree’s sordid past makes it harder for others to trust her, though she is determined to prove that she is of sound mind and that someone’s targeting her for reasons as yet unknown.

Drescher does a wonderful job with her supporting characters, offering the reader a glimpse at a fabulous cross-section of people who help enrich the story. While some add only a small piece to the larger puzzle, others know Bree well and help coax out information key to the reader’s better understand of what’s taking place. The banter and interactions add much to the story and help make the plot even better.

The premise of the piece may not be entirely unique, but it was developed in such a way as to pull the reader in from the opening pages and leave them wondering. The latter portion of the book alone takes the reader down quite the rabbit hole, bringing things together in ways that few could have ever predicted. All signs of a masterful writer that can keep the reader from standing on solid ground.

Drescher uses strong writing to string the reader along, setting the scene and then opening up many of the story’s hidden doors as the plot develops. This serves to keep the reader open their toes and guessing, even if the most likely answer is right before them. Use of different chapter lengths serves to keep the reader from getting into too much of a lull, mixing up the short bits to keep the momentum going and then adding longer an more detailed portions when the information is such that one has to keep going to see how it will play out. Strong characters and a narrative that takes things in many directions keeps things fresh throughout while always leaving the reader wondering if they missed something obvious, a la Sixth Sense. Drescher is masterful in her storytelling and I can only hope to find more of her work in the coming years.

Kudos, Madam Drescher, for such a captivating piece. I will be sure to recommend others try this novel to see what they think for themselves.

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

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque

Eight stars


This enthralling novel by Erich Maria Remarque provides the reader with a stellar look at a soldier’s life during the Great War. Told through the eyes of a young German soldier, the story pulls the reader in and personalises events in such a way that it almost seems palatable, without justifying or downplaying the atrocities at any point. All Quiet on the Western Front is sure to stir up emotion in those readers who have an interest in military discussions, as well as those who love war-time history.

This is the story of Paul Bäumer, a nineteen year-old fighting for the German Fatherland in France during the middle of the Great War. Having signed up voluntarily alongside a number of his classmates, Bäumer hoped things would be as exciting as they sounded. All that was dashed after the weeks of basic training, in which the young men are broken down and put through their paces before being tossed on the front lines, where the beauty of nationalism is replaced by the horrors of death. Now, these young men live in constant physical terror as explosions rock their every night.

The story explores the trials and tribulations the war brings to those who witness it first-hand. Bäumerl finds himself fighting to justify his presence in France and tries to survive on poor rations, barely enough for survival. He also witnesses how decimating the war can be, when only a handful of his training class survive after a short stint on the front.

Bäumer is also forced to sober up to the realities of life, which turns sensitivity on its head and permits pragmatism to surface. After a soldier dies in front of them, the fight is on for his supplies, something the surviving soldiers need more than the corpse. This creates a refreshing look at life and the lessons that come with it, leaving manners back in Germany when every day could be your last.

There are moments of harrowing action, as Bäumer accompanies the others to lay barbed wire and finds himself trapped under artillery fire. Scared and pinned down, the men talk about their own thoughts about how the war could be more effectively fought, as well as what might have changed the minds of the politicians who are sitting in their ivory towers, far away from the bloodshed.

When a bloody battle with enemy leads to men being blown apart with severed limbs and torsos, Bäumer sees the most gruesome part of the war, something that he was not told about when first he agreed to serve. Rats feast on the dead and Bäumer expresses a sense of being animalistic, trusting his instincts alone to save him. The casualty list is high and Bäumer tries to erase what he’s seen when he is given leave and encounters a few French girls, eager to help him forget.

Bäumer takes some extended leave to return home for a family visit. He feels like an outsider, unable to discuss his trauma with anyone. His mother is dying of cancer and she hopes that he can be proud of what he is doing, but wants him to come home as soon as possible. This surely pulls on his heartstrings and Bäumer is left to wonder what the fighting will really do, as he cannot be with family when they need him most.

After witnessing the horrors of a prisoner-of-war camp, Bäumer is determined to help bring the war to an end, vowing never to be captured or enslaved by the enemy. The months push onwards and the German army begins to lose control of its fate. Bäumer watches his friends die in combat, eventually leaving him as the only one left from his original class. By the fall of 1918, Paul Bäumer can see the end is in sight and hears much talk about an armistice, which would bring the bloody war to an end, something he’s wanted ever since arriving at the Western Front.

Erich Maria Remarque does a masterful job painting the image of war and how it truly gets into the pores of those who are fighting on the front lines. It is less about strategy and troop advancement than the blood and gore faced by those young men who were pulled from their schools in order to fight for their country. While many in the West see the Germans as the evildoers (in both World Wars), Remarque offers this wonderful look at the war through the eyes of one man, to show that there was nothing but pure fear within him. No matter whose sides was right, young men perished without knowing what they were trying to do. Their task, kill or be killed. Their horror, to be maimed or brutally injured. All this comes to the surface throughout this piece, which will surely shock the attentive reader.

There are many characters whose lives progress throughout the book, though I will not list them. Remarque seeks more to tell a story of the war through their experiences than to inject a deeper plot with the Great War as a backdrop. The horrors of war spill out from every page, as well as the senselessness of men who could barely shave being the pawns of an international political disagreement. This theme is echoed throughout, in twelve strong chapters. While many will likely turn away from the book because they disagree with war or have ‘read too much about it’, I would encourage everyone to give it a try to see just how deeply it affects you. Especially with November 11th just around the corner!

Kudos, Mr. Remarque, for this sensational piece that had me enthralled throughout. It has stirred up some real emotions within me.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

– Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae

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

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter #3), by J.K. Rowling

Eight stars

I’ll be the first to admit that I have caught Harry Potter Fever. It may not require isolation, but it sure does cause the reader to get the shakes when not able to read about Hogwarts and a cough develops when forced to talk about all things Muggles. Thankfully, I have many doses of needed medication to keep me going for the foreseeable future. I must thank Neo for this, as he keeps me occupied and points to the books when I begin to stray.

It will soon be time to get back to Hogwarts for Harry’s Third Year. However, first he must again suffer the trials and tribulations of time with his adoptive family, the Dursleys, who seek to shun him to no end. When his Aunt Marge is visiting and offers up another of her insults towards his family, Harry cannot hold back and some magic seeps out. Marge finds herself blown up and Harry flees in horror. He’s surely done it now.

As he makes his way out onto the streets alone, Harry is sure an expulsion awaits him when he arrives at school. He is met with something altogether more baffling, when a secret bus emerges on the road, one for wizards to use whenever they need. Harry discovers that he may have a way to get to Hogwarts and away from his ‘family’, if only long enough to plead his case. When news arrives that his antics with Aunt Marge will be forgiven by the Minister of Magic, Harry cannot believe his ears. He also learns that there is a mass murderer looking for him, one Sirius Black. It would seem that Black was a prisoner at the wizard’s penitentiary, Azkaban, but has been able to escape, the first to ever do so. Now Harry’s a little on edge and cannot believe what’s about to happen to him. All in a day’s work, he supposes!

When Harry arrives at school, sitting on the knowledge that he is in danger, he cannot help but share it with his friends, Ron and Hermione. Any chance of that being a secret is dashed when the school grounds are soon surrounded by Dementors, evil creatures that are more than happy to suck out your soul. Their sole purpose is to protect the students from Sirius Black, who could emerge at any time. Harry finds it particularly difficult to have the Dementors around, attributed to the violent past involving his parents, and promises that he will do whatever he can to protect himself. Aid comes in the form of a new professor, Lupin, who begins teaching Harry all about the Patronus Charm, a spell that will keep the Demetors at bay, at least for the time being.

When a focus on school and the mountains of homework assigned to them, Harry and Ron are baffled as to how Hermione is handling the pressure, especially with her burdensome courses and scheduling nightmare. To add to the stress, she and Ron are soon at odds when their respective pets begin fighting. This could cost Ron and Hermione their friendship, something Harry refuses to accept.

Armed with the Patronus Charm, Harry makes his way through the school year and is able to dodge many of Black’s attempts on his life. However, it is only when Harry discovers some sobering truths about those around him that the pieces of his past begin to fall into place. Ron’s trusty rat sidekick holds a secret power that no one saw coming, one that could put the Potter past into better perspective. Lord Voldemort and his evil ways come to the surface once again, putting Harry in the crosshairs and forced to come to terms with the fact that his parents suffered a horrible death.

This series is surely growing on me, as I seek to learn more with each book and share my findings with an eager Neo! It would seem that J.K. Rowling is able to craft a piece that has readers, young and old alike, pulling things out of the narrative and plots to entertain them. I just hope that this continues, as it has made for some wonderful conversations around the dinner table with my young Ravenclaw Ginger son!

Harry Potter remains central to the story, though he does not leave his best friends in the dust. Much is revealed about Harry and his past in this piece, as well as some needed development throughout his third year at Hogwarts. The attentive reader will continue to amass knowledge about the bespectacled Harry, as well as many of the new and exciting aspects of wizardry that await him. As with any strong series, Harry’s personality broadens as the chapters advance, hinting at more to come with the subsequent novels in the series.

Rowling offers strong supporting characters for all, including new aspects of Hermione’s studiousness and Ron’s ability to find trouble around every corner.

The central trio are joined by many returning pupils, with new faces to add more to the story for all to enjoy (or despise). Complex magic and unknown creatures emerge, giving the reader more to discover and will likely force them to keep a notepad at hand to keep everything straight (if others are anything like me!). I am left to wonder who amongst the new names will be one-off characters and which folks might make a permanent mark on Hogwarts as the series advances.

On the surface, the novels might seem geared towards the younger reader. However, J.K. Rowling writes so effectively and allows tidbits for everyone to feed their own enjoyment. Neo and I have already discussed various aspects of the book and found some unique perspectives that can be shared, adding to the enjoyment of the overall experience.

The story worked well for me yet again, leaving me wondering where the time went (a pun here, for those who have read this book). Rowling develops a strong narrative and interesting characters to keep me turning pages well into the night. The conversation topics might be geared towards the younger reader, but I have no complaints there whatsoever, as there are nuggets that I found humorous as well. The series seems to be moving into darker stories, which will surely add another layer to the experience. I just hope my House at Hogwarts is ready for the shift… any guesses which that might be?!

Kudos, Madam Rowling, for a great series that has me completely enthralled.

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

Idle Hands (DS Jamie Johansson #3), by Morgan Greene

Eight stars

Having devoured the opening two novel in this series, I was eager to get my hands on the third, deemed the final of the ‘prequel trilogy’ by Morgan Greene. This book matches the others with a strong story and more captivating characters. Working on threads from the past books and a new case, Greene is able to pull readers in with more from DS Jamie Johansson.

Still reeling from the fallout in the last book, DS Johansson is left with an injured partner and many questions about who could have tipped off the smugglers to the intended raid. While there are some whispers about an inside job, it is hard to finger members of the London Met without major blowback.

If this were not enough to keep her busy, Jamie has decided to move, worried that her stalker—serial killer, Elliot Day—may return to cause her more havoc. Working during off-hours, she and a few helpful hands are able to secretly put her into a new abode, hopefully that no one will be the wiser.

DS Johansson is soon called to the scene of a crime, with her interim partner, Captain Nasir Hassan. They discover the body of a young woman whose hands have been severed. She appears to have been busking on the London streets, though this is no dime store violin in a case. It is antique and has been kept up. Witnesses mention having seen someone in passing, though no one saw the murder.

Using some of the added resources within the Met, Johansson and Hassan learn that the victim is none other than Alyssa Doran, who sits as first chair in her college orchestra. Her abilities with the violin sound magical, though she does not come across as anyone worthy of murder, or having her hands removed. A little digging helps Johnasson and Hassan learn more about the cut throat world of orchestras, though the primary suspect cannot be located, the new first chair.

When not only the aforementioned first chair goes missing, but the orchestra’s conductor is found murdered, Johansson and Hassan discover that there is more to the story they do not yet know. It appears the crime may not be victim specific, but more to do with the sanctity of her hands. Are there other murder victims out there with missing hands? Could this, perhaps, provide some needed clues?

Just as things are getting heated at work, Johnasson is visited by none other than Elliot Day. He brings a message and proof that no amount of secrecy will keep him from her. Jamie is walking a fine line and has yet to tell anyone that he’s back, which only furthers the sense of danger that envelops her.

A killer’s on the loose, Day lurks in the shadows with an ongoing obsession to help her in his own, sick way. Will this be one killer who can lull more victims into a sense of protection, or can he be plucked up before the vibrations of his kills resonate with the general public?

Morgan Greene remains a natural storyteller, using strong writing alongside some well-developed characters to provide an addictive read. All novels in this prequel series served to keep me pushing ahead and reading well into the night, leaving me wanting even more

DS Jamie Johansson remains a powerful protagonist, blossoming throughout the story. She remains a young detective, but Johansson has great passion her father passed along. The attentive reader will see how she struggles to handle the three plots that have come up in this story, leaving her little time for personal growth. Greene effectively shapes her into a character many will want to see grow as the novels continue. If rumours I have heard prove true, there is a lot to come for Johansson in the coming years!

Greene develops his supporting cast effectively, pulling on many walks fo life to keep the reader highly entertained. This police procedural blends some of the unresolved cases from the past with a new and equally horrible one, mixing people from all three novels. With a focus on music and its dark underbelly, Greene develops some characters specific to the genre, some of whom work well with Johansson, as others clash in the best possible way.

This was a great third novel, tying off some of the ‘prequel threads’ Greene presented. An author worth noting, Greene shows much confidence as the story builds. There is great action and a well-balanced set of cases. Exploring London from yet another angle, Greene offers something not soon forgotten. Longer chapters pull the reader in with much plot development, alongside a few teasers to keep the reader forging ahead. I have high hopes that some of the less developed aspects of the story emerge later in Greene’s work, as his ability to offer a cliffhanger or two has me wanting to rush back as soon as I can.

Kudos, Mr. Greene, for another winner. Where will you take DS Jamie Johansson next, is surely all the buzz amongst your fans!

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

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter #2), by J.K. Rowling

Eight stars

Returning for more fun, I am back to see what Harry and his friends have to offer in this second novel of the series. Still fairly light and entertaining, J.K. Rowling keeps the story on track, while tossing the odd flying broom, swooping owl, and Quidditch match to keep me on my toes.

After a long summer with his family, Harry Potter is eager to return to Hogwarts for Second Year. While the excitement builds amongst others as well, Harry receives an ominous visitor on his birthday. This elfin visitor hints strongly that Harry ought not return to school. A warning that Harry does not wish to ignore, but his excitement supersedes all else.

When Harry refuses to heed the warning, he finds himself in a great deal of trouble with his aunt and uncle, who lock him away for his attitude. Fearing the warning may indeed keep him back, Harry wonders how he will be able to escape without using the small amount of magic he knows, forbidden from using it away from Hogwarts. Before he can get too upset, his best friend, Ron Weasley, arrives with some help to get him out. Harry spends the rest of his summer break living with the Weasleys, learning what it is like to live amongst those who understand and practice magic.

Once school begins, Harry must cope with piles of new homework and some professors who are anything but engaging with their students. Seeing Ron and Hermione help lessen the pain, but it is still a hard push through. When Harry begins hearing a mysterious voice, he wonders if this is a game someone is playing, though the voice does not dissipate and has a message for him.

As well as ominous warnings, there are attacks on members of the student body that cannot be explained. Harry begins to worry and wonders if the voice may be a part of the violence. Harry also discovers the power of being a Parslemouth—able to speak to snakes—which only adds to the suspicion that he could hold some dark magic powers. These powers include coming from a lineage able to open a mysterious ‘Chamber of Secrets’ and unleash the monster that lives within.

Baffled about all of this, Harry vows to discover who is behind the attacks on the students. With the help of Ron and Hermione, Harry goes undercover and targets the most likely suspect, Draco Malfoy, hoping that he will reveal himself. Things take a turn when they cannot nail Draco for the attacks and Hermione finds herself being the latest victim.

While Ron and Harry continue their quest, the former’s younger sister, Ginny, is taken and dragged to the Chamber of Secrets, upping the ante to solve the case. With the help of a key clue Hermione left the boys, they inch closer to learning the truth and revealing all.

Harry finds himself facing much danger on his own and must clash with the person who has been unleashing all the violence throughout Hogwarts. He will be surprised to see the truth and wonders if the warning to stay away all those months ago might have been a wonderful decision after all. Harry will need some outside help from a trusted ally and some new faces, but there comes a time where dark magic might be too much for even Harry to handle. The pressure mounts and young Harry is forced to make a decision he hopes not to regret! A chilling follow-up book that is perfect for those seeking to get hooked on Potter and all his world.

I admit, the series has me curious and I am wanting to know more with each chapter. I wish I had heeded the request of Neo and others to start this sooner, though there is no time like the present, as the world could use a little magic, what with the dark forces that emerge south of the Canadian border. J.K. Rowling lays the story out masterfully and develops strong characters to support her plot lines. This looks to be a wonderful reading experience for all, with different people taking something away from the story for themselves.

Harry Potter remains central to the story, but, as mentioned before, is more a part of a trio of protagonists. The reader learns more about Harry and perhaps some of his backstory, while also being immersed into some of the Ron story, through tie spent with his family. While Hermione’s past is not as developed as the boys, she comes into herself and readers can easily sense a connection to her. While not a damsel in distress, she has fallen into the stereotype of being ‘in need of saving’ to this point, a mantle I am sure she wishes it dispel soon.

Rowling offers more strong supporting characters for the reader, with new forms of magic and creatures who are just now scurrying from the shadows. This is sure to be an evolving list, perhaps adding to what will be a chaotic and action-packed series as things continue. This cross-section of characters will take some concentration to keep straight, as names fly by with each passing chapter. Still, it is exciting to see how things will progress and who returns to the fold as the novels continue .

While the theme of the story is definitely geared towards the younger reader, Rowling writes with an inclusive pen and allows everyone to take something away for their own entertainment. I can see that I may find nuggets that Neo missed and vice versa. That is truly the sign of a wonderful book, allowing out conversations on the various plots and character developments to remain rich and wholesome.

The story flows really well, so much so that I find myself getting lost in the story and losing track of time. A well-paced narrative keeps me wanting to learn more, with strong characters to keep me interested. Rowling does keep the conversation at a level that the banter is understood and geared towards the younger reader, but I have no complaints there whatsoever. While I am told these early novels are lighter and happier, I am eager to see how things progress into a darker presentation and what Rowling will do to add depth to the stories, while still understanding her intended reading audience. Until then, Muggles can stand aside, as I need to get back and see how my House is doing. Any guesses which might be mine?

Kudos, Madam Rowling, for a great continuation of the series. I am eager to see where things progress from here.

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

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Harry Potter #1), by J.K. Rowling

Eight stars

After years of being asked, I agreed to read the Harry Potter series. Neo led the charge and insisted that I make sure to get them all done before 2020 comes to an end. While the world is looking for some democratic magic elsewhere, it’s time to get my head wrapped around this story, this series, and these exciting characters.

After his parents died when he was an infant, Harry Potter was sent to live with his relatives, who treat him quite poorly. Harry is relegated to sleeping in the cupboard, tossed some second-hand clothes, and kept from doing anything with his adopted family. His misery is like no other and there does not seem to be an end to it.

All the sadness is paused on his 11th birthday when Harry learns that he’s a wizard and headed to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for further education. If this were not enough of a birthday gift, Harry discovers that he is a hero in the lore of wizardry, having fended off the evil Lord Voldemort after his parents were slain.

Unsure what to do with this information, Harry agrees to attend Hogwarts in September. After some delightfully unique school supply shopping, Harry arrives and soon becomes friends with Ron Weasley, whose family has a long history at Hogwarts. They are assigned their ‘houses’ for the year, which is quite the ceremony itself.

As only young boys will do, Harry and Ron do all they can to break some of the school rules, enamouring them with fellow student Hermione Granger. They soon become quite the trio, kept busy with classes and homework. To let off some steam, the three also play Quidditch regularly, a sport wizards enjoy.

While school is time consuming, there’s a mystery the three uncover on the grounds of Hogwarts. There’s a large three-headed dog guarding something in a deserted corridor. It turns out to be the Sorcerer’s Stone, whose power is as mysterious and all-encompassing as anything Harry can imagine. Harry, Ron, and Hermione try to prevent anything from happening, even as they are accused by their professors, only adding to their angst.

The adventure is on as the three sneak past the canine and creep deep into the school’s basement. Ron and Hermione help Harry where they can in order to save the Stone, but it will all come down to a clash, one on one, to declare a final victory. Harry and Lord Voldemort clash again, allowing the latter a chance to kill the boy he could not do all those years ago. Flying brooms, countless spells, and even some age-old banter await the reader in this first novel of the series.

What an interesting start to the series. I can see where Neo and others have found so much to enjoy in this opening book, in which J.K. Rowling lays some wonderful groundwork for things to come. The plot, the characters, and the narrative direction help pave the way towards a great reading experience.

Harry Potter is surely the central character in this piece, though I think that he readily shares the spotlight with his two closest friends. Ron and Hermione help to push Harry throughout this piece and offer their backstories to give the reader some context in the early stages of this series. There is some decent development that leaves the reader wanting to know more.

Strong supporting characters offer the reader some intrigue into how wizardry will play into the larger story. With a great cross-section of characters from all walks of life, Rowling provides the unsure reader with some entertainment to lure them in a little deeper. While there are some oddities and unique characters, things remain relatively realistic and it has me wanting to learn a little more.

While the story is definitely geared towards the young adult reader, Rowling writes in such a way that adults can easily fall in love with the story. There are some wonderfully colourful narratives developed throughout, as well as a dash of fantasy, which serves as a decent form of entertainment. Well-paced chapters and storing plot development keeps the story flowing and leaves a dash of wonder for the curious reader. I’ll gladly continue with the series and see if Neo and others are right. Muggles, out of my way!

Kudos, Madam Rowling, for a great start to this series. I am intrigued by what is to come!

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

The Descartes Evolution, by N.J. Croft

Eight stars

Eager to sink my teeth into something with a little pep, I turned to this book by N.J. Croft. Full of mystery and intrigue, it also opens up the world of terrorism and unique weapon technology in a story that will have readers flipping pages until they reach the climactic finish. N.J. Croft has done it again, stunning readers with a story that seems to come out of nowhere with influences that are, quite literally, out of this world. Recommended for readers who have enjoyed Croft’s work in the past, as well as those who prefer terrorism thrillers.

Jenna Young always knew that she was special, particularly when her father explained that she had a rare, genetic illness that could only be managed with experimental medication. When he died in a car accident, Jenna receives a letter from him through his solicitor, asking that she see one of his colleagues for more of her medication, using the codeword ‘Descartes’. Unsure what to do, Jenna visits a friend and confides that she needs help, revealing all she knows. The next day, her friend is found murdered.

Luke Grafton has been keeping an eye on a group using the name Conclave, sure that they are behind the staged suicide of his father years before. Luke will stop at nothing to dismantle them, hoping that he can learn their truth purpose along the way. When members of Conclave appear to target a young woman, Luke does all he can to save her, while remaining unsure what Jenna Young might have that they want.

On the run, Luke and Jenna forge an unlikely connection. Jenna shares her news and wonders what ‘Descartes’ might have to do with everything, which triggers Luke to dig a little deeper. It would seem that Conclave have been working on something experimental, potentially useful in a terrorist attack. Descartes, its codename, seems to have had some success during testing on the African continent, but no one is quite sure when or where it will be unleashed.

Off her medication, Jenna begins to feel a lot different, though she cannot entirely understand why. Could it be that her illness is taking over her body? When Luke makes note of it, both he and Jenna realise just how important she could be the Conclave and the larger Descartes mission. That will mean they must stay one step ahead of everyone, while also not resting on their laurels.

This is another stellar piece by N.J. Croft, which keeps the reader attentive until the very end. There’s action throughout and even a few moments of cheesy romance for those readers who enjoy that in their thrillers. Posing some moral and ethical questions along the way, Croft keeps the reader wondering until all comes together in the final reveal.

Jenna Young and Luke Grafton play wonderful dual protagonists in this piece. Coming from vastly different backgrounds, their personal stories are developed throughout the narrative, while they appear to develop effectively as the story progresses. Both have had death befall them, though neither can adequately explain what’s happened or how things will turn out. As with many Croft pieces, there are sparks and something blossoms, though this cannot (and should not) deter them from focussing their attention on the task at hand.

There is an effective secondary cast throughout the book that complements the protagonists, as well as helping to shape the larger story. With a few key subplots, these individuals serve to push the narrative forward in a number of ways. Great dialogue banter and effective action on the page shows that Croft has been able to properly manage the direction of the piece through the supporting cast on offer. As many of the novels are standalones, there is little chance of reemergence, forcing each character to make their mark in this single novel.

The story as a whole was quite thought provoking and kept me wanting to know more. The thrills were apparent throughout the piece, taking the reader through many twists and turns, leaving little time to catch one’s breath.

In those few lulls, Croft takes the reader into something more for the soft hearted reader, with a few romance scenes that do not add much to the overall depth of the piece. I get the desire to (pardon the pun) flesh things out a bit, but it seems more filler than useful for my reading experience.

With a mix of chapter lengths, the reader can find themselves riveted and pushing forward to see where things are headed, while stopping should the need arise.

Even as a standalone, the novel has all the reader could need with a strong story, well presented characters, and a twist at the end that will baffle at least a handful.

Kudos, N.J. Croft, for another winner. I always enjoy your novels and cannot wait to see what’s next in line!

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

The Alley, by Kathy Garthwaite

Eight stars

After devouring her DI William Gibson series, I returned for the newest novel by Kathy Garthwaite. Still using Vancouver Island as her setting, a new protagonist emerges. Detective Sergeant Marlowe Flint heads up a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) team in rural British Columbia. Faced with a murder, they must track down a killer on the lam with a motive yet unknown. All the while, Flint has yet to fully process the trauma that befell her. The Alley is one of those novels that pulls you in and challenges you to put it down. Perfect for those who have enjoyed some of Garthwaite’s other work, as well as the reader who finds something exciting about Canadian police procedurals.

DS Marlowe Flint has suffered a great deal. The death of her husband, Martin, left her empty and seeking answers. With a young daughter in tow, Flint returns to her hometown of Castlecrest, British Columbia, where she hopes living with her parents will help ease the burden.

Put in charge of a small team, DS Flint heads up the RCMP detachment in Castlecrest. When she hears shots while in the local diner, she rushes over to the jewelry store. A man is dead, shot at point-blank range. When backup and her team arrive, the hunt for the killer begins, but is fruitless. As the investigation commences, leads are few, which does not help. Murder is something new for this team and for the bucolic community as well.

Trying to learn a little more about the victim, Stan Kingston, DS Flint and her next most senior officer, Corporal Naomi Thornberry, begin looking into the man’s past. A transplant from Vancouver, Kingston appears to have fled the big city, only to be struck down in a small community. Picking the brains of those who knew him away from work, Flint and Thornberry discover that Kingston was a quiet man, but did enjoy a little socializing at one of the local pubs. Might he have upset the wrong person and found himself as part of a personal attack, rather than a robbery gone wrong?

As the investigation gains momentum, DS Flint and her team discover something not altogether kosher within the jewelry store, which may lend credence to a blackmail scheme. However, nothing seems to stick and the team appear to be chasing their tails.

While DS Flint juggles work and her home life, she soon realises that there is a significant imbalance and something will have to give. Alienating a young child is sure to have consequences, something that is sure to have repercussions years down the road. Still, a killer is out there and surely no one wants the bad guys to get away, right?!

This is another stellar piece by Kathy Garthwaite, showing that she has a great deal of versatility when it comes to writing. Sticking to what she knows best, Garthwaite keeps things in her backyard on Vancouver Island, yet is still able to provide a uniqueness to the story and characters that no one will accuse her of reinventing her DI William Gibson series.

DS Marlowe Flint has quite the backstory, something that reveals itself little by little throughout this piece. A gritty cop who was widowed one night on the job, Flint is also a single mom trying to make the best of it. Her relocation was meant to be a reprieve and provide her daughter with safety, though it would seem that recent events have proven that Castlecrest can still attract serious crime.

Garthwaite effectively adds a supporting cast to keep the reader enthralled, all of whom complement DS Flint in their own way. The Castlecrest team offers a variety of personalities, none greater than Corporal Thornberry. She’s got Flint’s back, but is not afraid to speak her mind. Should this blossom into a full series, I can see some recurring characters being key to success, while there have also been some wonderful one-off personalities, as I like to call them. The bantering and small amounts of character development made for some great reading and kept me guessing throughout the process.

The story as a whole was quite intriguing and kept me wanting to know more. I will be the first to say that I hope Kathy Garthwaite has plans to turn this into a new series, as there are many questions that are left unanswered and plots that could develop based on the community and those living there. Garthwaite uses her wonderful narrative style to pull the reader in and then builds things up effectively with strong plots and interesting twists. A mix of chapter lengths is, as I often say, helpful to capture the reader and string them along. As this is the fourth Garthwaite book I have read in a short time, it is impossible not to draw parallels between this novel and the DI Gibson series. Both are strong and show great police work, though they can stand on their own, not overshadowing each other. Who knows, there could even be some crossover work, should Garthwaite have ideas in that regard!

Kudos, Madam Garthwaite, for a stunning standalone. DS Flint has something and I hope she is back on the streets of Castlecrest before too long.

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

Murder on the Saanich Peninsula (DI William Gibson #3), by Kathy Garthwaite

Eight stars

I returned for more of Kathy Garthwaite’s great Canadian police procedural novels in a smaller community on the country’s West Coast. Detective Inspector William Gibson is back in Victoria, still heading the Vancouver Island Integrated Major Crime Unit (VIIMCU). A brutal crime shocks and divides the team in Murder on the Saanich Peninsula, while adding depth to many of the central characters in the series. Recommended to those who have enjoyed the series to date and the reader looking for something a little different.

Just as DI William Gibson hopes to get out on the water again, he gets a call. A body’s turned up in Sidney, thirty minutes outside of his Victoria office. When he arrives, Gibson discovers the victim—soon identified as Dianne Meadows—has been stabbed and bled out almost immediately. The hunt for the murder weapon will take some time, especially since it could have been tossed into the water nearby.

Working alongside his partner, Detective Sergeant Ann Scott ‘Scottie’ Cruickshank, Gibson tries to come up with a preliminary list of suspects. In cases like these, the husband is always top of the list. Gibson and Scottie pay the Meadows household a visit, where a volatile husband, Kevin, and daughter take the news as well as can be expected. There’s something that leaves Gibson feeling ill at ease about it, though Scottie refuses to jump to conclusions.

When the autopsy reveals signs of domestic violence, DI Gibson is sure that he has guessed right by accusing Kevin Meadows, though Scottie is the first to remind him that abuse and murder are not always the same thing. After dispatching some of the junior members of the team to investigate Kevin’s workplace, Gibson and Scottie return to speak more intensely with Meadows. He remains vehement that he is innocent, though the daughter shares some news about a boy she’s been seeing on the side, a Ryder Simpson. This opens new possibilities that cannot be discounted, particularly when the murder weapon is located and Ryder’s fingerprints are all over it.

While the case has him busy, Gibson has a secret of his own that is burning a hole inside him. It all relates to his time back in Ontario a few months ago. He debates sharing the news with his wife, as Katherine has enough on her plate with a baby coming. Still, it may be the only way to clear the air.

As the hunt for Ryder intensifies, it will cost one of the team significantly. The murderer is out there, somewhere, though the motive is still somewhat unknown. Could Kevin have snapped and killed his wife? Might Ryder have been trying to react to his being rejected by Dianne? Or, could there be another, as yet unidentified, with reason to have acted? With a twist at the climactic moment, Kathy Garthwaite proves herself with yet another great novel!

This is yet another stellar piece of writing, set in a cozy part of the country. Without pushing too many of the Canadian stereotypes, Kathy Garthwaite offers the reader something that is both entertaining and enthralling in equal measure. I am glad that I stumbled upon the series and am eager to see what else Kathy Garthwaite has in store for fans.

William Gibson resumes the protagonist role, building on some of his backstory. The letter from Ontario plays a central part in that, though there is also some of the struggles about impending fatherhood and life with Katherine that must be faced. Gibson shows a more passionate side at work, particularly when clashing with his partner about the murder. His grit and determination have grown on me, as Garthwaite has developed him into a wonderful central character. His compassion is matched by effective leadership skills, essential for a strong police presence in these type of novels.

More great secondary characters keep the narrative afloat. With the story back on Vancouver Island, some of the regulars from the first novel are back to play their roles. However, there are also those key newcomers who play an essential role in the story. The interactions between characters is great and there is never a dull moment, either in action or dialogue bantering. Much is revealed throughout, important for the series fan to note. Garthwaite’s use of her supporting cast helps to propel the reveals throughout.

The stories get better the longer the series becomes. Each piece builds on the others, while remaining unique enough to serve as a quasi-standalone. The narrative clips along and pushes the story forward, aided by short chapters that are full of information. Garthwaite uses some interesting themes in the series as a whole, as well as with each individual book.

It would seem that the theme of family importance flows throughout this piece. Garthwaite weaves it into many of the subplots, which helps to shape the delivery of the book. Series fans will know that this is something DI William Gibson has struggled to handle throughout and much of what occurs in this piece shapes his deeper thinking on the matter.

Turning to some themes that recur in the three novels of this series, I noticed that Garthwaite has an interesting obsession with using food as a binding social event. All three books have Gibson’s need to eat or consume coffee mentioned repeatedly. While not annoying in the least, it was quite humorous to see how the cases progress with mention of good food and hearty conversation over such breaks. Steering clear of obvious name dropping of local eateries, Garthwaite has me wondering about visiting Vancouver Island and the Niagara region to see if these places exist.

One other thing worth mentioning, though I will be the first to say that it did not play a role in my rating of this book, is the use of language. I have long held that an author should use language and terminology inherent to where the story takes place, not their own idioms (particularly if they are not from the region where the story is set). While Garthwaite is American (according to some brief research I have done), she lives on the Island. What baffles me at times is the use of British idioms for things, which might have something to do with her publisher. There is a note that ‘Canadian English’ is used, though there are some strong British terms used throughout. These things did leap out at me, though they were not troublesome. It stuck in my craw and I wanted to put it down, once I had read the DI William Gibson trilogy. Perhaps others will not notice them, of that I cannot be sure.

Kudos, Madam Garthwaite, for showing your talents yet again. I hope others will come across your work and enjoy it as much as I have. Now then, onto a standalone you’ve recently penned, as I continue my binge reading of your work!

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

Harry Potter: The Prequel (Harry Potter #0.5), by J.K. Rowling

Eight stars

I promised Neo—my son— that I would read the Harry Potter series with him. Since I have never done so (insert gasp here), I wanted to begin with this prequel piece.

Two cops clock a motorcycle speeding by them at something that should not register. When the two long-haired boys are trapped in a dead-end, they reveal who they are. James Potter and Sirius Black seem not to be taking this very seriously, though the two cops cannot understand why.

In the flash of an instant, something happens and everything is turned on its head. Likely all part of the series that is to come, though, like the coppers, I am completely baffled.

Bring on the series. I hope I learn a lot!

We’re Better Than This: My Fight for the Future of Our Democracy, by Elijah Cummings

Nine stars

I embarked on a mission to read a number of books on subjects that were of great importance to the 2020 US Presidential Election. Many of these explored actors intricately involved in the process, in hopes that I would understand them better and, perhaps, educate others with the power to cast a ballot. I was open to serious recommendations from anyone who has a book I might like to include in the process, though none who have felt my past sentiments on the current Administration has been too tough. I see this as a sign in and of itself that the truth has shone stronger than any serious tomes with the ability to justify the acts of the 45th President of the United States

This is the final, Book #36, in my 2020 US Election Preparation Challenge.

I chose to end my reading challenge with a book that would fire me up a bit, penned by recently deceased Congressman Elijah Cummings, a stalwart in the House of Representatives. Cummings’ passion for his work and a desire to equal the playing field shines through on every page and, while he died before the final product came to print, his voice remains strong in his fight to bring America back from the quagmire in which it has slipped.

Born to parents who could trace their ancestry to sharecroppers, Elijah Cummings knew the struggles of inequality from a young age. While his family never had much money, they had love and respect for one another. Cummings talks regularly about growing up on the rough side of Baltimore, an area he would eventually represent when he won a seat in the House of Representatives. While he saw blatant racism and was the victim of attacks because he was Black, Cummings never let that deter him from believing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s message would bring change.

After making his way through public school, Cummings went off to college and earned a law degree, choosing to give back to his community. He returned to serve those he called neighbours before being chosen to serve in the Maryland House of Delegates. It was there that Cummings learned about the formal political process and how representing others could do much in his fight to bring the people of his district the services they so badly needed. When a seat opened up in Baltimore to serve as a congressman, Cummings tossed his hat into the ring and won, sending him out to Washington, with new constituents and a country to protect.

The narrative is peppered with vignettes about Cummings’ time in the House, with a strong focus on his last two terms. When Cummings accepted the invitation to attend the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, he leapt at the opportunity, once it was green lighted by another stalwart in the civil rights movement. A one-on-one conversation with the new president yielded Cummings with a great deal of hope, as he tried to get prescription medication discounted for all Americans, something he was sure could help make Trump a great president. While lip service was paid to the idea, President Trump misattributed something that Representative Cummings said in their meeting and ignored his promise to work on the initiative. This soured Cummings to the Commander-in-Chief, and would be a harbinger of things to come.

After his numerous years in Congress, Cummings became the ranking (senior minority) member of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, one of the most powerful in the House. He began asking the tough questions of his Republican colleagues, many of whom were using the Committee to bandy around their own personal concerns about tax breaks for right-wing non-governmental organisations. However, President Trump had begun his unravelling of the American fabric, something that Cummings could not watch without comment. He knew that the public would notice and had to bide his time until the mid-term elections, hoping that it would bring about a change. November 2018 did bring the Blue Wave and the Democrats regained control of the House, pushing Cummings into the chairmanship of Oversight and Reform.

The narrative of much of the book explores Cummings’ role as Chairman and how he brought numerous witnesses before the Committee to explore a handful of issues. From Trump’s former personal attorney—Michael Cohen—admitting he lied and revealing all the plans the president had while still a Republican candidate, to the treatment of those who were detained on America’s Southern border, and even the veiled use of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census that would ‘help with the Voting Rights Act’, Cummings used his gavel to get to the bottom of many Administration plans to dismantle much of what was in place and purposely disenfranchise those who were not in the Trump Camp. There are many gripping moments the reader will likely enjoy, though they can be difficult to stomach.

The pushback by Chairman Cummings would not go unnoticed, eventually finding him the victim of the presidential billy club, a series of tweets about him and his home district. Cummings admits they were hurtful comments and incorrectly vilified those he represented, though Trump has yet to learn how to apologise, so the mistakes hung in the air. Cummings cites many who came to his defence on both sides of the aisle, but the damage was done.

A poignant part of the narrative comes in discussion preparations to explore impeachment of Trump and how Cummings was central to the push. While he did not lead the change, Oversight and Reform had uncovered a great deal that could be used. The fine balance about how to handle this information and the repeated shunning of requested documents would prove to be too much to ignore. All the while, Cummings was losing his mobility to a recurring medical condition and ended up hospitalised for the latter part of his life. As recounted by his wife, Maya in the book’s final chapter, Cummings did not leave this world without making his final push to ensure democracy and justice would have their time in the limelight, for the America he wanted needed them both to be strong.

While he was happy to serve as a quasi-ghost writer for the project, James Dale broke his silence in the book’s introduction. He offered some wonderful backstory, taking the reader behind the curtain to explain how he amassed many of the stories Elijah Cummings wanted used in the book. These conversations were both frank and, at times, tough for both men to discuss. However, it led to the superior quality of this book. While Elijah Cummings passed away before this book could be published, he was an active player in his development, vetting vignettes and anecdotes up to the day of his death, as Dale describes. The realism of that admission makes me feel all the closer to Elijah Cummings as I read this quasi-memoir.

The passion for truth and calling America to account for the actions of its president cannot be missed by the attentive reader. There are moments of hope throughout, as Cummings recounts how he was able to surpass the expectations of many, but also many times when the ugliness of racial divide makes itself known. Cummings seeks not to candy coat what he witnessed or the actions emanating from the West Wing, but he does challenge the reader, as the title suggests, that this is not the best America has to offer. A president who feasts on division, violence, xenophobia, degradation, and mockery is not a uniter or one who speaks for the country. This is one reason Cummings spoke so vociferously from the House floor or in committee. He could see where things were going and could not ostrich himself in hopes that they would get better on their own.

In a book that sought to offer hope amongst much struggle, Cummings (through James Dale) lights a candle. His stories are on point and his passion drips from every page. While health concerns sidelined him on occasion, Elijah Cummings would not let it neutralise him as he sought a better America. Each chapter is full of rugged determination to show the progress that has been made since he was a boy, as well as some of the regression that has taken place. Cummings pulls no punches, but neither does he espouse violence to have his voice heard. The writing is clear and concise where it can be, educating the reader on a number of important topics that relate to one another and show ho one man can make a difference. A deeply religious man, Elijah Cummings found solace in his god and a loving family, who were there until the very end.

Kudos, Representative Cummings and Mr. Dale, for relating this essential story to everyone. While you are no longer with us, let the people speak loud and clear on November 3rd!

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

Murder at Lake Ontario (DI William Gibson #2), by Kathy Garthwaite

Eight stars

Adding some Canadian flavouring to my police procedural reading, I turned to the work of Kathy Garthwaite. Detective Inspector William Gibson’s role within the Vancouver Island Integrated Major Crime Unit (VIIMCU) has him being summoned across the country to help set-up a new task force, which may be just the break he needs from tensions at home. Garthwaite’s Murder at Lake Ontario is a great follow-up novel in a series showing much potential. Recommended to those who like a unique police procedural

DI William Gibson has made a name for himself within the VIIMCU, so much so that he has been asked to return to his native Ontario to help train a new task force in the Niagara region. It may be the perfect break from Victoria and his wife, Katherine, who has begun to grate on him as their relationship circles an unspoken drain.

When DI Gibson arrives in Toronto, he’s greeted by DI Rene Eckhart, not someone he’s expecting. A young and attractive woman who knows her policing, Gibson must try not to allow the spark he’s feeling for her show. When they arrive in rural Ontario, they do not have time to begin speaking with the members of the task force before they are called away to a murder scene. It would seem that Elsie Webber has been found at the bottom of a set of stairs that lead onto the beach. What sort of confrontation could have ended Canada Day on such a sour note?

Gibson and Eckhart begin their investigation, speaking with many of those who attended the local Canada Day celebrations, but no one is the wiser. People came and went at will, leaving the possibility open that Elsie’s killer could be anyone. A fraternity ring found under the body is a clue, though it would seem the potential motive for the killer must also be taken into account. Elsie was the town gossipmonger, something that soured her to many.

The case is taking up a great deal of DI Gibson’s time, but he still has moments when he can sense the attraction to his temporary partner. This is further exacerbated by the fact that he’s dodging speaking with Katherine. Thinking back to his first marriage that ended in flames, Gibson cannot help but wonder if he is destined to have the second terminate the same way. Still, he must be somewhat professional and help out where he can, seeing the case through and later determining what ought to be done about Eckhart.

With the help of the task force, Gibson and Eckhart learn a little more about the forensics left around the crime scene. There are also whispers about a long-ago drowning of a little girl and a more recent criminal accusation that came to naught. Gibson needs to find the one true path before his time in Ontario ends and he’s none the wiser!

Kathy Garthwaite does another fabulous job leading the reader on a Canadian adventure, without too many of the stereotypes. After an intense novel on Vancouver Island, Garthwaite does the unexpected and pulls her protagonist away from home and uses a secondary setting, though one he knows well. Things flowed just as well, with perfect subplots to keep the reader intrigued.

William Gibson does well as the protagonist yet again, with some interesting backstory woven into the story at the early stages. While a strong police officer with wonderful management skills, this trip to Ontario serves also as a break from the intensity that surrounded him in Victoria. The reader gets only a glimpse of the Gibson-Katherine interaction, but what is present proves highly intriguing and leaves the door open for many decisions. Gibson is able to balance his professional life with what seems to be a somewhat challenging personal one, even as temptation crosses his path when he is least expecting it. Strong willed but also one who has a heart, DI Gibson will find himself in a few precarious situations that develop throughout the narrative.

Great secondary characters again keep the reader hooked to the story. Made up mostly of local townsfolk, the supporting cast lay the groundwork for the murder investigation at hand, as well as some interesting personal interactions that keep the story moving forward. The Gibson-Eckhart chemistry is one the reader can watch develop throughout, though it will take some interesting turns at the most inopportune times.

The story felt somewhat unique for me, though I do have another Canadian procedural series I adore, set in a small town. Garthwaite paints a wonderful picture with her words and uses a strong narrative to create a believable police procedural. While there is less focus on the nuances of forensics, the point comes across and the personal interactions work well to tell the story. Using longer chapters, Garthwaite captures the reader with the intense storytelling and keeps them throughout this shorter novel. I enjoyed seeing DI William Gibson out of his element, though I wonder how many of the truths that surface in this piece will play out in the third novel this series has to offer. I suppose I will have to reach for it to see for myself.

Kudos, Madam Garthwaite, for another great novel. I love the Canadiana feel and cannot wait to see what happens when things return to British Columbia in the next novel.

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

Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption, by Jules Witcover

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 #35 in my 2020 US Election Preparation Challenge.

Close to formal Election Day, I was finally able to locate and read a thoroughly engaging biography on the Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden. The work that Jules Witcover puts into this piece offered me the well-rounded view I sought and explores Biden’s personal backstory, mixed with the political experiences the candidate has had. This provides me with a better understanding and stronger ability to stand behind the man, even though I do not have a vote. While likely too late for many to read ahead of casting their ballot, this is a biography that many can enjoy no matter the time, and one that I recommended without hesitation.

Born in 1942, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was the eldest son of a hard-working father and a doting mother. His early years in Scranton, Pennsylvania proved to be fortuitous for Joey Biden, allowing him to develop strong friendships and hone his Irish Catholicism. When work required the Bidens to move to Delaware, Joey struggled, but knew his father, Joe Sr., did not make the decision lightly.

Witcover explores the formative years of Joe Biden’s life, including his passion for socialising, sports, and girls. While Biden was saddled with a stutter, it did not impede his abilities to form life-long friendships, nor did it appear to stop the young man from speaking at length to anyone who would listen, a trait that would become a Biden trademark in the decades to come.

While on a holiday from college, Biden met the woman who would become his wife, assuring everyone that this was the woman of his dreams. Biden’s decision to marry Neilia Hunter also helped him decide to choose Syracuse for law school, a decision he never regretted. While never at the top of his class, Witcover discusses the Biden love of learning, even though there were a few foibles along the way.

His passion for helping the ‘little guy’ led Biden to begin his professional career in Wilmington, Delaware. He hung out his shingle and began dabbling in local politics when time allowed. This was also the time that Joe and Neilia started their family. Biden would refer back to the importance of his own family throughout his life, echoed by Witcover as the narrative progresses. The Bidens had two boys in quick succession, Beau and Hunter, as Joe’s eyes locked onto his next challenge, national office.

With the upcoming US Senate race in Delaware, Biden wanted to put his name in the ring to run against long-time senator Cale Boggs. A respected man who had served the state for the Republicans, Boggs was a guarantee. However, Biden did all he could in 1972 to create a dent in the GOP campaign and toured the state, making speeches and showing how he could make a difference. In a miraculous outcome, something Witcover deemed a David defeating Goliath moment, Joe Biden won the race and became a US senator at age twenty-nine, not yet the constitutional age to serve, though he would celebrate a birthday later in November, ahead of being sworn-in.

Preparing to serve, Biden began preparing his office in Washington late in 1972. News came in mid-December that there had been an accident, in which Neilia and their new baby, Naomi, were killed in an automobile accident, with the boys injured. Witcover describes how this was a seminal moment in Biden’s life, a widower and single father who contemplated packing it all in before he had even spent a day in the Senate. However, he received the support he needed, from family and Senate colleagues alike, and chose to do this for his sons.

Biden’s first term in the Senate was one of eye-opening moments. While many newcomers to the Upper House of the United States would sit silently and learn, Biden was happy to speak out and use his gift of the gab to shape policy. This did not endear him to some in the Chamber, but Biden knew no other way of living. His passion for civil rights served him well and an early endorsement of 1976 Democratic candidate for president, Jimmy Carter, helped propel Biden onto the national scene. It was at this time that Biden also began dating former model Jill Jacobs, a woman with no love of politics. Their long and drawn-out courtship led to marriage in 1977, at the insistence of Beau and Hunter.

Witcover explores some of Biden’s political passions, including a less than orthodox view on civil rights. Biden’s passions came from a strong admiration for the Kennedys, another pair of Catholic politicians, and a desire to ensure all Americans were protected. His later role on the Senate Judiciary Committee permitted him to explore how these views could be shaped to continue helping Americans. While not covered in the book, the reemergence of this issue makes his run in 2020 poignant.

Witcover spends much time exploring Biden’s early years in the Senate and how he was often talked about as a potential presidential candidate. He declined in 1980 and ‘84, citing his young family and not yet being ready for the spotlight. However, he thought that he could have a chance in 1988, tossing his hat into the ring and beginning his campaign during the spring of 1987. However, he would stumble and find himself spread too thin, while also making a significant gaffe by not attributing certain views to others, tarring himself as a plagiarist. The nomination ended before it really began, though Joe had his Senate responsibilities to keep him busy.

It was the Democrats winning back control of the Senate in 1986 that started the ball rolling for Biden, who earned the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. Biden’s passion for all things legal put him in the spotlight as US Supreme Court nominations became central. Witcover explores two such nomination battles, Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1991, in great detail for the curious reader. Biden rose to prominence with them both, but was criticised extensively for how he handled them as Chairman.

Biden turned his focus towards his other Senate Committee, Foreign Relations, into the 1990s and how he could help in the effort to make America a role model on the world scene. From his countless trips to war-torn areas through to blunt meetings with some world leaders whose values did not match those of the United States, Biden proved himself a statesman. Witcover explores this at length and shows how Biden added to his already long resume for another run to win in the White House. However, in a post-September 11th world, Biden and many other senators were led down the garden path by the George W. Bush Administration, according to Witcover, and many voted in favour of a war in Iraq, something that many Democrats would come to regret.

As the end of the George W. Bush presidency neared, Biden felt that 2008 might be his year to run and finally become president. However, he was not alone in his ambition, which included a first-term senator from Illinois by the name of Barack Obama. As hard as Biden tried, he could not garner the attention some of the front-runners captured and dropped out of the race in early 2008. Witcover explores the early campaign in-depth and shows how Joe Biden held some strong views, some of which would force him to eat crow. When Obama won the Democratic nomination, he turned to a man he felt would not only balance the ticket, but also provide strong foundation in a new Administration. Biden had vowed never to be anyone’s lapdog, but did agree to serve as Obama’s vice-president, offering some stipulations.

Witcover spends a significant amount of time on the 2008 Campaign and time that Biden spent as vice-president, showing that years of dedicated service could pay off while also permitting him to learn to tone down his gift of the gab. Biden shaped policies and worked inside the tent to help his president create an America many would come to love.

Serving under Obama, Biden did a great deal to advance the domestic and international agendas of the Administration, combatting those who would try to deter Obama from making the progress he had promised while stumping on the campaign. From liaising with Congress to ensure health-care for all Americans to ensuring that countries were treated fairly and not bullied by others, Biden was in for the fight, ready to do whatever he could. Witcover shows this repeatedly throughout the biography, with concrete examples.

In the waning chapters of the book, added for the re-release in 2019, Witcover looks at Biden and where he hoped to go post vice-presidency. There is a truly heartfelt portion of the piece that surrounds the illness and eventual death of Beau Biden from brain cancer, exemplifying how Joe would and could handle it. In those pages is included the solemn vow and promise Joe made to his son, which is explored more completely in a book the former vice-president penned after leaving the White House.

Watching the destruction of the America he sought to create while working in Washington, Joe Biden mulled over a third and final run for the presidency. He tossed his hat in the ring, beginning a campaign of a progressive in April 2019, vying for the role of nominee against a number of others, many who were younger and who had not yet thought of politics when Joe arrived on the scene. While many were focussed on pie in the sky ideals of policy and social movement, Biden appeared to turn his attention on one thing; wresting control of the reins of power from a madman and returning America to the greatness it lost on January 20, 2017. Here’s hoping he will!

I entered this piece hoping from a great deal, as I needed a meaty and educational piece about Joe Biden. Jules Witcover did that and more, pulling me into the middle of this man’s life and all that he had done. While the journey is long, paralleling some of the speeches that Joe Biden made on the Senate floor, it is comprehensive and detailed, providing the reader with the insight they need to understand the politics and passion of the man. There is no doubt to me that Joe Biden loves his country, almost as much as he does his family. The thoroughness of Witcover’s writing appears in each of the chapters, with both praise and criticism at every turn. Add to that, the education value is one in which any reader can learn something about the man and the system in which he served.

This is no fluff piece, but more an examination of the man and how he sought to grow over his more than forty years of public service. I cannot say enough about Joe Biden, his views, and his passions. Jules Witcover proves his mastery and I am indebted to him for offering up something so captivating.

Kudos, Mr. Witcover, for a sensational biography. I hope you’re around to pen one more book about Biden and his presidency, putting the country back on track (pardon the pun!).

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

Murder on Vancouver Island (DI William Gibson #1), by Kathy Garthwaite

Eight stars

Looking to add a little Canadian flavouring to my police procedurals, I turned to the work of Kathy Garthwaite. With a murder on Canada’s far West Coast, the reader meets the gritty Detective Inspector William Gibson and his role within the Vancouver Island Integrated Major Crime Unit (VIIMCU), all While looking into the murder on university grounds. Garthwaite’s Murder on Vancouver Island is a great debut in a series with much potential. Recommended to those who like something away from the ‘major’ police procedurals out on the market today.

DI William Gibson cherishes his days off, particularly when it allows him to leave his Victoria home early in the morning and spend some quiet time in his kayak. When he is interrupted doing just that, DI Gibson knows it must be something significant and makes his way to the campus of the University of Victoria.

When DI Gibson arrives, he takes in the scene. A maintenance man, Robbie Spencer, has been murdered after being struck on the back of the head with a baseball bat. Spencer is still in civilian clothes, making it seem the attack occurred while he was just arriving. When the body is moved, an errant, unused condom is found under him, which leads to many questions. With a preliminary time of death between 5:30-7:00am, many of Spencer’s colleagues appear likely suspects.

DI Gibson turns to his partner, Detective Sergeant Ann Scott ‘Scottie’ Cruickshank to handle the scene. She begins interrogating the other maintenance men, all of whom cite their presence at a safety meeting that began around 5:30am. However, talk about a Hallowe’en party the night before opens up some possibilities, when one of the crew got into a skirmish with Spencer. Questions about Spencer’s sexual orientation are bandied about, even as he has a wife and child at home, which leads DI Gibson to wonder if the brutal attack might have been targeted.

While Scottie and Gibson begin trying to hash things out, the burning question of the brutality of the attack cannot be dismissed. DI Gibson begins to wonder if a hate crime might be on the table, even as his superiors refuse to entertain the idea. After an awkward interview with Spencer’s wife, the police learn that the victim was sitting on quite a large sum of money, which was to be dispersed amongst a few key family members. With a few motives and a handful of suspects, it will take some serious legwork to make sense of things.

While the case slogs along, DI Gibson is pulled into his personal life, when his wife, Katherine, has a nervous breakdown over the phone. It is the anniversary of her sister’s death and Gibson cannot promise when he will be home. It worries him, though he tries to deflect it, hoping that Katherine will understand and promises to be home soon. Still, he cannot help but wonder if there is more going on under the surface.

When forensics offer no clear suspect, it is up to a few secondary interviews by Scottie and DI Gibson that will narrow the field of possibles, with one at the centre of the case. An attack on a homeless man leaves DI Gibson wondering if there is a connection, even if it might dismiss his hate crime angle. Time’s running out and a killer remains on the loose, potentially free to strike again.

Kathy Garthwaite does a great job taking the reader on a Canadian adventure in this thriller without tapping into too many of the stereotypical expectations that many may have. Set in Victoria, the story’s setting offers something unique and adventurous, while also fuelling some great subplots throughout.

William Gibson does well as the protagonist in this piece, providing the reader with a little backstory and some great development. A transplant from Ontario, he leapt at the chance to work within the VIIMCU and has not looked back. He can appear narrow minded when it comes to his work, but he feels his time with the police has honed his gut instincts. Able to balance his professional life with what seems to be a somewhat challenging personal one, Gibson does the best he can. His grit will hopefully continue as the series develops, but I am eager to see where Garthwaite will take him in the next few books.

Great secondary characters keep the reader intrigued about the story and how they interact. The reader is given some great people in the supporting cast, who are able to keep the narrative moving and the plot thickening. The Gibson-Scottie duo is one that I am eager to see blossom a little more, as I can see there being something there on a professional level. Same goes for the Gibson-Katherine storyline, as the latter has already revealed some things in a subplot the reader can find for themselves. Garthwaite also uses her characters to tackle some social issues, which may be of keen interest to the reader.

The story may not be unique, but the elements offer up an individuality that will stick with the reader. Hate crimes, sexual orientation, and bullying in the workplace all play key roles in the narrative, which is pushed along with some great writing. Garthwaite mixes different chapter lengths into her novel to keep the reader hooked and pushing forward. While the book does not appear to be long, there are moments that it gets intense and the reader will slow their pace so as not to miss anything. I am eager to get my hands on the second novel in the series to see how it compares.

Kudos, Madam Garthwaite, for a great debut. You have me very curious and that means I’m ready to take the plunge into BOOK 2!

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

Downward Spiral, by Gary Barocsi

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Gary Barocsi for providing me with a copy of this novel, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Approached by the author to review his debut novel, I was intrigued with what appeared to be a captivating dust jacket blurb in Downward Spiral. Gary Barocsi explores how teenage choices resonate into adulthood and the importance of choosing well at the forks in the road. Harrowing and tough to read at the same time, there is emotion dripping from every page, worth the patient reader’s time.

Donnie McKay enjoyed a quiet life in Kentucky. With loving parents who always taught him right from wrong, he was usually able to discern what he needed to do so that trouble would not find him. Donnie’s best friend and next door neighbour, Jimmy, helped open his eyes to what the world had to offer, though it was mostly innocent fun.

As they grew, Jimmy and Donnie remained inseparable, building their own private fort where they could chat and plot who to tease at school. Jimmy’s large family meant that he would, on occasion, have extended family sent to his rural farm for the summer, where cousins could not get into too much trouble.

One summer, Cousin Tracy arrived and Donnie was hooked. While she was older, Tracy was also easy on the eyes, something that Donnie made sure everyone knew. Tracy showed Donnie a thing or two, from smoking pot to taking his virginity, before she went back to Arizona. The summer love affair was something that Donnie would never forget, though Tracy failed to write and Donnie was forced to move on.

Years later, Tracy returned, only to bring Donnie a new cascade of emotions. The love and lust were back, fuelled by a new interest, meth. While Donnie and Tracy acted like rabbits and stayed high, they hatched a plan to flee Kentucky and make it on their own in Arizona. Sneaking out at night, they hitchhiked all the way to Phoenix, where things got even more real for Donnie.

Discovering that Tracy had no intentions of returning to her family and wanting to flex her new-found adulthood, she introduced Donnie to her friends, young transients who did whatever it took to make a buck. Eager to fit in, Donnie followed suit, only to find himself caught in a legal quagmire that would cost him a great deal. Looking back, Donnie could see that ever since meeting Tracy, he’d definitely entered a downward spiral!

Gary Barocsi tells quite the story and knows how to pull the reader in from the outset. Whether it be the rawness of the narrative or the credible banter of his characters, the story reads with a great deal of reality woven into the narrative.

Donnie remains the protagonist throughout, offering the reader quite the view of life. From silly teenage pranks to finding out the truth of sex and even dabbling in drugs, Donnie sees himself experiencing life with few consequences. Even the love he develops for two girls helps him see the pangs of loss and the strength of a broken heart. The character development takes him into the darkest corners of his life as well, with a set of choices he won’t be able to take back, surely one of the central themes of this book.

The story would not stand tall without strong secondary characters, something that Barocsi creates effectively. The story works well with those who complement Donnie throughout his journey, from his neighbour to his so-called friends, and even those he meets when the law catches up to him. The rawness of who these people represent adds depth to a story that was already doing well.

It’s hard to label this story in a single category. I might call it a coming of age piece, where a somewhat sheltered young boy sobers up to what the real world has in store for him, based on his choices. One could also call it a story of loss and moral disintegration, where lust and wanting to fit in supersedes the upbringing a young man receives. Either way, the story sticks with the reader and is told in a way that is easily digested. Short to mid-length chapters keep the reader wanting to forge ahead and the plot is such that there’s so much to discover, the reader does not want to miss a thing.

I would be remiss if I did not mention something that has cost this review an entire star. The grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors in the early part of the book (and which reappear throughout) almost cost me a ‘DNF’ in the first chapter. There are many, as well as some issues with structure. While I try to look past them, I have come to expect a great deal of late, particularly when I am asked to read a manuscript that is published (and on Amazon). The relationship between author and reader is such that the best product is presented for enjoyment, but there was something lacking here. Perhaps the editor was sleeping at the switch or there needs to be an editor to hash out some of the issues. Either way, it was a little disappointing. I am glad I stuck it out and pushed through reading this in a single day.

Kudos, Mr. Barocsi, for an impactful novel. I’d surely try another of your books (after editorial vetting) to see what else you have to say to the world!

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