The Russian (Michael Bennett #13), by James Patterson and James O. Born

Seven stars

Michael Bennett is back for his next case, lucky book number thirteen. In the capable hands of James Patterson and James O. Born, Bennett is ready to face off against another wily killer who stalks New York City. However, this one has a different motive and a larger kill area than many others who have crossed Bennett’s path. With his massive brood at home and a wedding on the horizon, Bennett will have to push the distractions aside and focus on catching a ruthless killer. A nice addition for those who enjoy the Michael Bennett series, though not as sharp as some police procedurals I have read lately.

The faint sound of wedding bells seems to pervade Michael Bennett’s every thought, as the big day approaches. With ten children, one grandfather, and a fiancée at home, he has a great deal to juggle. Add to that, a new partner learning the ropes of Homicide, and Bennett has little time to collect his thoughts.

Bennett is soon called to the scene of a brutal murder, one in which the victim’s body is not only slain, but her eye eviscerated. Bennett has not seen something like this in a long while, which can only mean that this killer has something to prove. The murder is similar not only to others in surrounding boroughs, but also other cities crisscrossing America.

All the while, Daniel Ott watches as New York panics. He knows what he’s doing and chooses to push people to the brink. Anyone who disrespects him has a chance of being his next victim; he’s that easily swayed. Between his kills, which he is sure will baffle the NYPD, he makes regular calls back to his family. A wife and two young girls have no idea what he’s doing and hope to see him soon.

Bennett makes little progress on the case until he finds something that ties all three cities together, a computer system update ordered by numerous companies. While everyone remembers a single tech, Ott was so forgettable that no one can recall a physical description. However, Ott knows Bennett and is preparing to derail the detective and the investigation long enough to flee the city and find new victims.

As with most series that extend past a handful of books, things can get a little stale without new plot lines and story arcs. Patterson (with Born in the later novels) has continued to push Michael Bennett to find killer that lurk across the five boroughs, rarely leaving the confines of NYC. Still, there are moments when readers will likely enjoy Bennett’s work, but things appear to be dragging, in my humble opinion.

Bennett returns as the series protagonist, still juggling the usual mix of personal issues and professional responsibilities. While he is well past backstory, Bennett is always evolving, if incrementally. His upcoming marriage has him a tad nervous, though he knows that he’s madly in love. Working with a new partner forces Bennett to be more open with his views and help teach the next generation of Homicide detectives. Gritty and ready to break down any barriers, Michael Bennett shines as best he can with a killer out for blood.

Patterson and Born develop a decent supporting case to push the story along. While it can be hard to find unique approaches to killers, the collaborators do a decent job of spinning the Daniel Ott backstory to offer a fresh approach. With some decent recurring characters and new faces, the story stays somewhat fresh and intriguing, though the sharp edge is gone from both the plot and the characters.

It could be the format of Patterson’s work that breeds a less than chilling approach to the series as it sticks around, something that Born does not see when he collaborates on standalone novels. There’s just something lacking in these latter books that was there in the early stories, though I cannot put my finger on it. Patterson is apt for selling books because of his name, rather than content, as I have bemoaned before, though the issue cannot be placed solely on Born’s shoulders. With short chapters, the story does move forward and keeps the reader guessing, even if it is not a piece that forces late night page flipping to determine how things will end. I wonder if Michael Bennett, like his DC counterpart Alex Cross, might want to look for new adventures. That said, I am still hoping that Patterson can create a Bennett-Cross-Boxer collaborative effort that would pull all three of his successful detectives into a single case crossing multiple novels and keeping readers scrambling to read them all in succession. Then again, that might be too much to ask… or is it?

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Born, for keeping things going. You work well together, though I wish there was something a tad grittier in your collaborative efforts.

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

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

Eight stars

There is something about biographies of people you hear so much about but know so little that stirs me up. Anyone who mentions the name ‘Cleopatra’ is sure to have an image in their mind, if only the depiction that Elizabeth Taylor made of the Egyptian queen in 1963. Stacy Schiff takes the reader along a winding adventure into the world before the Common Era, where actions to unite came at the cost of land and life, both bloody endeavours. Through her tedious research, Schiff brings to life a woman known by few but whose name is synonymous with regality. A brilliant depiction here, if heavy on history. Perfect for the biography fanatic, as well as those curious about a complicated woman in history.

Born into the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt, Cleopatra was of Macedonia Greek origin at a time of much political and geographic change. Her family ruled over the region with an iron fist and would not diminish themselves to speak Egyptian, choosing Greek for their daily interactions. However, Cleopatra did eventually learn the language and customs of the locals, if only to further strengthen her time as ruler of the region.

After the death of her father, Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra was required to serve as co-ruler of Egypt with her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, both of whom she had to marry, as per Egyptian custom. However, neither liaison brought about children and Cleopatra was soon able to cast them off and reigned alone, ingratiating herself with the locals by citing that she was the reincarnated Egyptian goddess, Isis. With Egypt being eyed by Rome as a potential item of acquisition, Cleopatra headed to Europe to liaise with Julius Caesar, an event that led to a secret tryst, leaving Cleopatra the Emperor’s mistress.

Nine months later, Cleopatra bore a son from this union, whom she named Caesarian, or little Caesar. Upon Caesar’s assassination in the Roman Senate, Cleopatra found herself in an interesting position, both as the mother of the Emperor’s child and as ruler of Egypt; she had to choose a side to fill the Roman void.

Turning to back Marc Antony, Cleopatra and all of Egypt held their collective breath as the Roman Civil War grew in fervour, pitting Antony against Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (later known as Augustus). While events in Rome were becoming bloodier, Egypt stood in the middle as the prized possession of both factions, with Cleopatra still holding the reins of power. Her backing Antony turned romantic and Cleopatra bore him twins, Cleopatra II and Alexander Helios, as well as another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus. Their passion was strong and Schiff left the impression that it might have helped Cleopatra see Egypt as both fertile in its political and cultural heterogeneity.

Schiff discusses a fairly significant hierarchy between the common Egyptian and the upper-class Greeks and Mesopotamian. During the Roman Civil War, Schiff also discusses Cleopatra fervour to exact revenge on enemies within the state, quelling any who spoke out against her, including a sister that threatened her hold on power, and sentiments that might have been interpreted as against Antony’s forces.

After the loss at a key battle, Antony attempted suicide in shame, though the historical narrative differs at this point, depending on which account the reader might follow. Schiff presents both the idea that Cleopatra learned of her lover’s death and killed herself, or had Marc Antony brought to her on the verge of death and witnessed his final breath, before allowing herself to be bitten by an asp.

The reader can parse through this and some of the other accounts to come up with their own personal finale, but all the same, Cleopatra’s life centred around reigning the land eventually subsumed into the new Roman Empire and her passionate connection with two famous Romans, both firmly established in the record books. A biography thick with information, nuances, and powerful symbolism, Schiff is sure to impress any reader to dares take the time to investigate the life and times of this most famous Egyptian ruler.

This is my second Schiff biography (and my second time with this piece), which seeks to shed light on powerful and controversial women in history. The attentive reader will no doubt realise the onerous task of trying to amass a biography of a woman as popular as Cleopatra.

Misnomers pepper the historical record, making the discovery of a true story all the more difficult, though Schiff does a formidable job in collecting a thread by which the reader can follow events somewhat fluidly. Additionally, all formal documents were created either in that time before the Common Era or within a hundred years thereafter, let alone that many were penned in languages that have either since died or been significantly altered.

Schiff shows readers why she is worthy of another Pulitzer for her detailed work in weaving a digestible biography, adding fact to a narrative chock full of dates and political happenings. I found things difficult to follow at times, which could be a mix of my own mental acuity and the amount of information each chapter presented, though Schiff is not to blame for my lack of cognizance. I only wish I could have latched on better to what was being presented, as I am sure I could have ascertained even more out of this wonderful piece. Told frankly and succinctly, Schiff does a masterful job that anyone with a passion and curiosity for biographies will find endearing and truly captivating.

Kudos, Madam Schiff for another wonderful biography. I am eager to find more that you have written down the road as I continue to expand my knowledge of areas in which I am interested but know very little.

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

Capitol in Crisis, by Kathy Roy Johnson

Nine stars

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

With an aptly titled book, Kathy Roy Johnson rushes onto the scene and makes her presence known. Johnson pens a fresh type of thriller with a political spin, making Capitol in Crisis one that many readers can enjoy without the vile imagery of a mob ransacking the heart of American democracy and an authoritarian leader inciting insurrection to hold onto power. Johnson focuses on a crisis inside the Capitol building when an explosion rocks the tunnel between the House and Senate sides, as well as the rush to assess damage and free those who are trapped. Anyone looked for a wonderful thriller with strong characters need look no further than this stunning debut novel.

Everything was quiet that morning on Capitol Hill, with coffee brewing and legislators preparing for another day. When an explosion rocks the inside of the building, no one is more concerned than Simone Perez, Architect of the Capitol. Worried that this might have been something planned ahead of time, Perez scrambles for answers, as everyone wants to know what is going on. With sparse information, Perez is able to ascertain that it was likely an explosion tied to the installation of a new power grid and not the act of a terror group, but that is the only relief that is to come anytime soon.

Initial assessments show that the tunnel connecting the House and Senate sides of the building is blocked by debris from the explosion and two men at the epicentre are trapped as well. Amidst those trapped in the tunnel is Addie Hutchinson, proprietor of the small café in the basement, as well as a handful of customers who were there at the time of the explosion. Addie is raising her three grandsons alone and has become like a mother to most everyone on the Hill, especially those who need their morning caffeine fix.

Simone Perez works quickly to assemble a committee of people from all aspects of Capitol life and some emergency groups, hoping to assess the damage and come up with a plan to rescue those who are trapped. This includes briefing the press and keeping them up to date on the progress of any efforts to end this catastrophe.

Working in harmony, various people develop plans to help those who are trapped and come to the aid of families who are seeing things unfold on their televisions. The pressure to communicate with those trapped falls on a maintenance worker by the name of Rob Tate, whose personal demons rise to the occasion and seek to deter him from his mission. Keeping things calm on the political side is Speaker of the House, John McIntyre, who wants nothing but the best and to be kept in the loop.

A harrowing rescue plan is put into action and the world waits as things inch closer to a successful end. However, when someone makes a major miscalculation, new problems arise and Simone Perez can only watch in shock as everything they have tried to do comes to a halt, with new and unforeseen dangers shocking those in the know. There are people on both sides of the collapse praying for answers, none more than the three grandsons of Addie Hutchinson, who have lost everything already. It will take a monumental effort to save the Capitol, but the strength of honest unity might actually propel them to some feasible answer.

When I saw the dust jacket blurb of this piece, I was not entirely sure what to expect. Admittedly, the title of the book caught my eye and I could not wait to read it. I pondered if Kathy Roy Johnson would put her spin on a terrorist plot to attack Capitol Hill or if she mighty have been foreboding the attacks that did occur on January 6, 2021. Yet this was a piece that might have been filled with politics, but its flavouring was completely different, allowing many to find themselves drawn into the middle of the piece.

There are many central characters in his multi-perspective piece, but Simone Perez would likely stand out as the strongest protagonist. It rests on her shoulders to handle the explosion and how to organise efforts to help those who are trapped. As an architect, she knows the technical side of the collapse, but she also exhibits a personal passion for those who are in trouble. This shines through as the piece progresses and keeps the reader hopeful that there are answers to help everyone involved. With hints of her backstory, Johnson paints a warm and caring woman whose emotions run high with the crisis in full swing.

Johnson is able to utilise her strong character development capabilities to craft strong support for her story and the plot. The story explores the lives of many, united by the tragic events on Capitol Hill, and each person has their own perspective that come to the front while things progress. From young children who seek their grandmother, to the press who are there to cover the story, through to the politicians who seek normalcy and to get the agenda moving, there is a personal touch on every page. The book shows hints of the political, but it is more the politics of family and community that shine through, something rarely written about in fiction about the seat of American democracy!

The book starts off strong and yet keeps the reader in the dark about what is going on. The explosion envelops those on the Hill from the opening pages and questions arise as to its origin. Rather than being terror-driven, the story is about hope and communication, with a strong narrative and a handful of well-crafted characters. Johnson uses mid-length chapters to propel the story forward and keeps the reader in the forefront of the rescue mission, as well as the personal stories of those who are most affected. Kathy Roy Johnson has developed something here that is bot addictive and free of the profane, sure to attract a larger group of readers. This may have political undertones, but it is not a political thriller. Those who love rescue stories will find something in it, as well as the people who like the buzz of Washington. I can only hope that Johnson will write more about those people she introduced here, as I am eager to see a political thriller utilising her writing abilities and the backdrop of the Capitol!

Kudos, Madam Johnson, on this riveting debut thriller. I cannot say enough about it and hope you’ll come up with more, as I am eager to queue up to read whatever you publish!

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

Spin (Captain Chase #2), by Patricia Cornwell

Seven stars

Master storyteller Patricia Cornwell is back with the second book in her Captain Chase series. Pulling the reader into the middle of a cyber-tech thriller, Cornwell uses the exciting world of space and the threat to NASA as a whole to keep readers on the edge of their seats. Building on the momentum from the opening novel in the series, Quantum, Cornwell utilises her masterful way of developing a plot to make Spin a novel that is a must-read for those who love her style.

A member of the US Space Force, Captain Calli Chase is following up on a lead involving a murder at a NASA testing facility. Trapping in the middle of a snowstorm, Chase finds herself feeling testy and significantly on edge when she is targeted by a potential killer and saved only when her twin sister, Carme, appears out of nowhere.

Before Calli knows what’s going on, she’s drugged and whisked away to a facility, where she is given more upgrades that she knows how to process. Emerging as a sort of Bionic Woman, Captain Chase is now armed and ready to work at new levels, as she seeks to assemble all the pieces to help her crack the case wide open.

With everything literally at her fingertips, Calli is tasked with locating a young boy who has hacked into NASA and procured a special computer chip, one that could have significant consequences if it falls into the wrong hands. While the lad denies being guilty of anything, the jury is still out. With this chip, control of the internet and other significant technologies could be changed forever. Calli learns that one woman, Neva Rong, has sinister plans when she gets her hands on the chip and will stop at nothing to get it.

As tensions mount, Chase will have to protect the boy and try not to show her cards before it’s time. Rong’s power has already been seen, as she is likely the culprit behind the murder at the NASA facility. Rong’s power in the aerospace world and connections all the way up the political ladder makes her even more deadly, while Chase seeks to reveal all before it’s too late.

There is no doubt that Patricia Cornwell did extensive research for this book, having proven that she understands the topic throughout both novels. She is also not one to slowly offer what she knows, for spoonfeeding has never been what she does best. That said, it is also not presented in a condescending manner. Rather, space becomes exciting in this tech-thriller, for those who have a penchant for all things scientific.

Calli Chase is a likeable character, or so it would seem. She is on point when it comes to her navigation throughout the book and she handles much of what is tossed before her. While she wrestles to understand how she fits into the larger picture, Calli does well to dodge the major issues that occur throughout this piece. The reader will find her learning much about herself, as well as a past she did not know existed.

Cornwell does well to develop a number of other characters throughout the piece, keeping them all complementary of Captain Chase, but never putting the protagonist on too high a pedestal. Cornwell develops her characters to entice the reader, contrasting well with one another at various points. The reader can learn much about the story and Captain Chase through those who cross her path throughout this piece.

While many have come to know Patricia Cornwell for her Kay Scarpetta character, this is far from that domain. While both women thrive on action, Captain Calli Chase is nothing like literary predecessor. Cornwell has taken things in a significantly different direction here and thrives on making waves in a new and exciting domain. Some will love it and others will likely find it too ‘techy’ for their liking. The writing is comprehensive and the plot is somewhat easy to decipher. However, if the reader’s interest is not space, technology, or artificial intelligence, this book may implode before the plot is able to capture their attention. With mid-length chapters, Cornwell develops her story well and tries to keep things on the level, but it missed the mark for me, in that I could not find myself wholly invested. I enjoyed parts of it, but felt out of my element in others. Still, it was a decent effort, even if it’s not entirely my sort of book.

Kudos, Madam Cornwell, for a great leap away from the type of writing I have come to expect from you. While it did not engage me as much, I hope you find many fans and keep your readers guessing where things are headed next.

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

The Ickabog, by J.K. Rowling

Eight stars

Whatever you think of her, J.K. Rowling is back with another story aimed at her younger readers. This is not Hogwarts and there are not Quidditch matches, but the piece works well as a fairytale, albeit slight grim (or, shall I say, Grimm) at times as well. Rowling pulls together a great story in which many children can find enjoyment (and those who are younger at heart), as it adds some of the traditional world of knights and kingdoms to a meaningful tale. Well-paced for the intended reading audience and entertaining enough for me.

Life in the Kingdom of Cornucopia is splendid for many, ruled by a happy, if not eccentric, King Fred. Many of the inhabitants are pleased and show it through their creation of lovely foods and the area’s vast riches. King Fred is pleased to see how happy everyone is and does all he can to keep his subjects pleased, which makes for peace within all the land. The king’s positive outlook is helped along by two sycophants who use flattery to ensure all flows smoothly and with ease.

However, not everything is wonderful in Cornucopia. Those who live near the northern Marshlands are very poor and have taken to concocting a story about a monster called the Ickabog. This creature apparently resides in the marshes and eats sheep, as well as the occasional person. King Fred vows to take action against this creature, which will cement his place in the history books. King Fred leads his Royal Guard along to hunt down this creature, which will end the mythical stories and ensure that Cornucopia turns to him as their fearless leader.

As a thick fog envelops them, King Fred insists to his men that the Ickabog lurks just beyond their sight. A skirmish ensues and one of the men is shot, but Fred refuses to admit that it was human error and returns to his throne with the concocted idea that the Ickabog is to blame. Fred is paralyzed with fear and grief, leaving him to hide away and let others run the kingdom.

Working on the fear of the others, one man pushes the myth to the limits and begins creating stories of Ickabog attacks, as well as pushing a new tax to ‘defend’ the kingdom, all the while pocketing much of the money for himself. This leaves the locals on edge and poor, which stirs up resentment and added worry. As the myth story grows, some locals decide to take matters into their own hands and reveal the truth behind the Ickabog once and for all. It may not be easy, but it is surely something worth exploring, if truth still matters in Cornucopia.

While some appear to have created a boycott on Rowling because of a character in one of her books, I won’t stick my head in the sand and let vapid accusations distract from the heart of the matter; I picked up this book, to read and enjoy. Like the underlying premise of the piece, there is something that people are stirring up to start a movement, but it’s surely being blown out of proportion, for those readers who seek a story to escape. Believe what you will about a character in a book, but leave your social tar and feather pots at home when reading enjoyment is the name of the game.

While the story was aimed at a younger audience, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The piece was not overly juvenile and kept me entertained throughout, offering up some great moments of intrigue and suspense. The fairytale nature of the piece gave it a mystical flavouring, with a peppering of some darker and more violent action, which parallels those tales children have had diluted to make them more palatable. Rowling does well with that and keeps the reader involved throughout.

There was most definitely a strong plot and well-paced characters in this piece. It is harder for me to properly analyze it, as I am so used to books geared towards the older crowd. Even the Potter series sought to instil a deeper storyline and meaning, though Rowling does well to keep her readers engaged. With wonderful artwork by young children, the story pops off the page and can be read repeatedly, as I am sure myths of the Ickabog were told over and over to young children.

Kudos, Madam Rowling, for a great piece. Whatever your haters say, just write and those of us who are interested in a story will be back, while people will too much time on their hands (and no enjoyment of reading) can paint placards of their own.

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

The Future is Yours, by Dan Frey

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Dan Frey, Random House Publishing Group-Ballantine, and Del Rey for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

What would you do if you created a piece of technology that could peer into the future and demonstrate what life would be like, scanning emails you have yet to write and seeing search engine results for events that have yet to occur? Such is the premise of Day Frey’s novel, The Future is Yours. Two young men create a system that can project ahead, hoping that it will help people see the path they are bound to take, a likely goldmine. However, the road is fraught with unforeseen (or ignored) paths, such that the future is more likely to ruin, rather than reinforce, life as you know it. A thought provoking piece that touches on the technology, while offering an insight into why one might not want to peer behind the elusive curtain. Recommended to those who love a little tech in their thrillers.

Ben Boyce and Adhvan (Adhi) Chaudry had an irresistible bond in college, fuelled by their love of technology. They worked together on an idea that would create a system that could look into the future, allowing the user to forecast what lay ahead for them and the world at large. While many scoffed at the idea, Ben and Adhi forged on, using their determination to make it work.

Money proved to be elusive, but this could not deter the two men from pursuing their dreams. Ben was the business-minded one, while Adhi worked through the quantum computing, finally coming up with something that could be feasible. Their system, dubbed The Future, caught the eye of many in the tech and business worlds, though there was still a great deal of reticence by those who did not like dabbling into the future.

After Ben brought his wife, Leila, on to act as legal counsel, everything appeared to be running smoothly. However, the system itself needed some strong parameters in order to function well. Could seeing into the future allow someone to alter their destined path? Might this glimpse allow for illegal and unethical decisions to be made? Falling into the wrong hands, might this prove to be an issue of national security? Ben and Adhi are forced to wrestle with this, as well as some of their own personal quibbles, all while The Future rises in prominence.

As emotions run high and business decisions are made, someone will get left in the dust. It becomes a bloodsport to juggle The Future with what the months ahead will bring, including being summoned before Congress to answer for the technology. Ben is armed with foreknowledge of what is to come, but nothing will prepare him for The Future, including the future itself.

This book caught my eye when I saw the dust jacket summary, as I am always intrigued about what forecasting ahead would do for the world. While America has just gone through a political abyss where they wished to see how to make America great after authoritarian rule, many have not seriously thought or hoped to know what awaits them on the other side of the proverbial horizon. Dan Frey offers readers an insight without getting too tech-heavy or delving into the world of sci-fi.

Ben Boyce and Adhi Chaudry offer up wonderful co-protagonists in this piece. While they come from vastly different backgrounds, their passion for technology and looking into the future binds them together. There is some backstory woven into the narrative, mostly to explore how the two met and what brought them here, with a great deal of the focus in the present (and future, to a degree). Ben is the business-minded one whose eye is on the prize, while Adhi struggles with being the tech-savvy geek who is pushed aside and forgotten. These two men grow, independently at times, together in other instances, but surely apart as well. Their personal and professional struggles are front and centre in this piece, as the reader is forced to choose which of them is the more relatable and perhaps liked.

Frey does well to develop some strong supporting characters, some of whom emerge throughout the piece, while others are blips on the radar of this book. The present/future mix allows the reader to see how certain people will influence things throughout the novel, steering the story in directions for a time before letting fate take the lead. This is done so effectively and many of those who grace the pages of the book become influencers of the story’s future, in a unique manner.

While I am not usually a fan of sci-fi, this book really connected with me. It does have the element of looking into the future and using technology to dictate the path, but it does not get too heavy in that regard, keeping it readable and fun for the masses. Frey writes in such a way that concepts are easy to understand and fun for the reader throughout. This is not your typical story, in that it is retold through emails, memos, congressional testimony, and text messages. The narrative flows well using these forms of communication, exhibiting the emotion one might expect from strong narrative and dialogue. The plot is strong and pushes ahead, forecasting and foreboding throughout, as Ben and Adhi face professional and personal struggles throughout. If Dan Frey’s novel says anything, it is that his future is sure to be successful, and one need not look into any piece of technology to predict that!

Kudos, Mr. Frey, for a strong piece of writing that captured my attention throughout. I am eager to see what others think of it and where you will take readers next. The future awaits…

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

The Shadow Man, by Helen Fields

Eight stars

After developing a strong DI Luc Callanach series, Helen Fields sets about dazzling her readers with yet another superb standalone novel. The Shadow Manis not only a great police procedural, but also pushes the genre to the limits with one of the most unique serial killers I have come across in all my years reading. Steeped with action, suspense, and some psychological chills, Fields proves that she is a force to be reckoned with when she puts her mind to it. Fans of her past work the genre in general will surely find something captivating in this piece, though it will also keep them up well in to the night.

Dr. Connie Woodwine has been called in to help work a case within Police Scotland’s Major Investigation Team (MIT). An American, Woodwine brings her experience as a forensic psychologist to a baffling case and is teamed up with DI Brodie Baarda, based in Edinburgh. A woman’s found slain in her bed and the best friend who had arrived to see her is kidnapped from the driveway. Woodwine and Baarda have no idea where to begin, as the forensics are scarce and the leads non-existent. 

After word comes over the wire that a teenage girl was abducted in plain sight by a gangly, skeletal man outside a library, Woodwine and Baarda try to determine if this is another abduction or an extrapolation of their own case. Still, there is little on which to go, save the eerie description by another youth. Still, it’s something for the time being.

Meanwhile, in an undisclosed location, the two victims begin to see that they are playing parts in a sick a sadistic game with a man who fancies himself already dead. His emaciated body is disgusting enough, but the ‘play acting’ he has them perform while in captivity takes things to a whole new level. He almost encompasses the role as head of a family, one that meets his every needs. As the kidnapper continues to add to his brood, his more violent side comes out, making him a threat in an entirely new way.

Woodwine and Baarda begin to piece things together, though extremely slowly. It is nothing that will guarantee solving the case, but this sliver of information could help expand the search parameters, while they wrestle to comprehend the killer’s physical and psychological anomalies. They’ll need to stay on top of things if they hope to save those who have been taken and find justice for those whose lives have already been extinguished.

I got a kick out of reading the comments made by some about how ‘pleasantly surprised’ they were to see this novel come from Helen Fields. In my humble opinion, this is Fields in and out, pushing the boundaries and bringing police procedurals to life with strong narratives and stellar characters. Set again in Scotland, the reader gets that brogue feel within the banter as a killer seeks to exact their own form of tortuous behaviour to allay their own fears.

Connie Woodwine and Brodie Baarda definitely share the spotlight in this piece, with the former’s ‘foreignness’ definitely receiving a little added focus. Woodwine’s own backstory adds something to the story, after she suffered a brain injury as a teenager and ended up as an achromat, unable to see colour whatsoever. Living her life in black, white, and shades of grey, Woodwine is able to get to the core of the case with her exceptional determination throughout the piece. Her banter with Baarda’s whose past seems much less exciting, proves to be a key element to the novel’s success. This is a duo that works so well together, one can only imagine if it will spin into a series to rival DI Luc Callanach.

By and large, the secondary characters are wonderful with the central antagonist, Fergus Ariss, proving masterful. His body is plagued with an illness that is only revealed in the latter part of the novel, though his mental rationalisations prove baffling throughout. Ariss uses those who fall into his clutches so well and creates this secondary world that readers cannot help but discover in the well-paced narrative. Ariss does well to keep the flow of the story going as he tries to build up his familial empire one victim at a time. There’s little time to rest as the story’s flavour gets deeper and more alluring as the chapters flow. Those who support both the protagonists and the antagonist find themselves perfectly placed, developed effectively throughout.

Kudos, Madam Fields, for another great read. I am eager to see what else you have in store for your fans.

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

The Kingdom, by Jo Nesbø

Eight stars

Jo Nesbø is back with a new standalone thriller that has the reader thinking from the outset. A tale that binds two brothers with a sordid past, Nesbø creates a great backstory and development throughout The Kingdom, though it is up to the reader to determine who rules and where the subservient will find themselves at various points in the narrative. Dark and complex, like much of his past writing, Nesbø offers a great piece for those who are patient enough to peel back the layers of this story. Recommended to fans of the author, as well as those who fancy some Scandinavian noir in their reading diet.

Roy and Carl Opgard live in rural Norway, a place called ‘The Kingdom’ by their father. When the Opgard parents die, Carl takes his leave and flees across the Atlantic, ending up in North America to make a name for himself and leave the family name behind. Roy stays behind and revels in how to define himself, surrounded by the people and scenery he’s known his entire life.

When Carl returns years later, he brings with him a successful wife and plans to revive the small community with a major hotel, aptly named ‘Kingdom’. While Roy is not entirely sure how to process all of this, Carl and his wife, Shannon, speak fondly of the venture and hope to win over the locals. Some appear eager to breathe new life into the community, while others are skeptical, knowing the Opgards and the stories that surround them.

As the story progresses, Roy reveals much about their past, including abuse and treachery that the family sought to hide. There are crimes and other vagrancies that Roy and Carl hope never see the light of day, though they are all whispers on the lips of the locals. The Opgards are no strangers to struggle and self-protection, something that will resurface throughout this intense story.

As Roy finds himself drawn to his brother’s wife, the biblical parallels to Cain and Abel cannot be dismissed by the reader. Struggles with the outside world and from within take over the narrative until a final act seals the fate of all involved. Nesbø uses his mastery of the plot twist to keep the reader guessing throughout, saving his most explosive reveal for the latter stages of the story. Roy and Carl may have drifted apart, but their blood bond cannot be dismissed.

A longtime fan of Jo Nesbø, I was eager to get my hands on this one. I admit, I was not paying attention when I picked it up and was expecting a new instalment of the Harry Hole series, though things soon proved to shake me from my reverie. Instead, this is a complex standalone novel that pulls on themes of family, abuse, deception, and betrayal. Jo Nesbø uses his mastery of language (I am still baffled every time I read one of his books that it was not penned in English, as the flow is not lost in translation) to tell a story that will impact all readers, however differently.

Roy and Carl prove to be highly intriguing joint-protagonists. Their similar upbringing binds them and the time apart enriches their personalities as well as the connection they share. Both have suffered in the past, though are not willing to roll over and accept defeat. Rather, they use these experiences to grow and become greater men. Each has a personality that provides a needed uniqueness, though the backstory of abuse at the hands of a horrid father serves to connect them, as they envelop themselves in the secrets of their childhood.

Nesbø develops wonderful supporting characters throughout his piece, playing on the complementing role that these individuals usually play in stories. There are some who exact new narratives through their dialogue, while others serve only to steer things in a pre-ordained direction. The reader may latch onto some of them and discard others, but that is true nature of the beast in such a complex story that has so many twists.

While Jo Nesbø’s writing is not for the impatient reader, there are gems within the narrative that make it a wholesome and well-crafted thriller. As others have said, this book took some time to get moving, though once it did, there was no stopping the action and revelations. The narrative begins darkly and never seems to crawl out of that hole, though Nesbø does so well at keeping things intriguing without providing much happiness throughout. Chapters slowly progress, but never lag, and the plot gets better the more time the reader permits. This is certainly not for someone seeking a quick story to tide them over. Rather, it forces the reader to look at the underbelly of family life usually hidden behind well-hung curtains and hushed at the front door!

Kudos, Mr. Nesbø, for another chilling thriller. I love how seamlessly your writing flows, without getting too uplifting.

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

The Fight for Free Speech: Ten Cases that Define Our First Amendment Freedoms, by Ian Rosenberg

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Ian Rosenberg, and NYU Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

When it comes to discussions surrounding free speech, Americans look to the First Amendment to their constitution to protect themselves. Ian Rosenberg explores the nuances and elasticity of this part of the US Constitution to show just how versatile it can be, as well as how it has been used and adjudicated over the last number of years. Free speech and expression is surely a hot button issue today, not only in America, and Rosenberg does a masterful job of presenting key legal arguments in lay terms, such that anyone can easily understand and process the topic, should they choose.

Ian Rosenberg has a legal background and has used some of the more recent goings-on in America to explore they hot button issue of free speech and how it came to be defined. He chose ten recent situations, from Madonna’s outburst that she would like to blow up the White House to Colin Kaepernick’s ‘taking a knee’ during the American anthem, as well as a woman offering President Trump a ‘friendly finger’ while jogging to the Complainer-in-Chief vowing to sue for libel when the late-night shows speak poorly about him. These are all highly intriguing issues and worth a deeper look.

Rosenberg does not only dissect the current issues and put them into context, but looks back in time to see what major legal battles occurred to permit (or limit) the various forms of free speech in America. Rosenberg effectively presents the full story of each case before delving into the legal battles that led to historic decisions that shape First Amendment use in America today. Some issues turned out I would have expected, while others were surely cloaked in historical context, such as US patriotism during the Second World War or Vietnam. In all ten instances, a thorough exploration of the legal and societal matters provides a wonderful narrative for those who may not be professionally or scholastically well-versed in all the minutiae.

Using twenty legal vignettes over ten chapters, Rosenberg tells of the various uses of the First Amendment, from its wide interpretation in some regards to strict interpretation in the highest American court. There were some highly humorous aspects, particularly when the ‘stuffy shirt’ Justices heard the case of a man protesting the Vietnam War with ‘Fuck the Draft’ on his jacket. What some would call the most basic right of a free and democratic country is not as black and white as it might seen. That being said, Rosenberg makes it easy to comprehend and keeps the reader engaged throughout. His extensive use of endnotes, while sometimes appearing overbearing, shows that he is determined to provide the most detailed information possible, relying on many outside sources. Yet, the writing is clear and easy to digest, making the book much more relatable for the lay person. There are countless revelations throughout and a handful of ‘aha’ moments that showed me that I am not as knowledgeable as I might have thought. This pleases me to no end, as I love to learn new things about topics that appeal to me.

Kudos, Mr. Rosenberg, for a well-paced book that stirs up the political, legal, and societal arguments around expression in all its forms. I will keep an eye out for more of your writing in the coming months.

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

NYPD Red 6, by James Patterson and Marshall Karp

Seven stars

James Patterson and Marshall Karp are back to look at how the elite of New York live and have their crimes investigated. In NYPD Red 6, the story looks at how a bride’s kidnapping at the reception turns into a hunt for a deranged man with an agenda all his own. The detectives on this elite squad do all they can and cut corners wherever possible to bring justice to those whose notoriety can be seen across the daily headlines. A story that gains momentum throughout, fans of Patterson can rest assured that this is not another of his flops, likely due to Karp’s collaboration. An intriguing piece in a supersaturated genre.

There’s nothing like a socialite wedding in New York to bring out the cameras. Erin Easton is well-known in the celebrity world and her marriage to a man with deep financial pockets has many wondering about her motives. However, when she is kidnapped while changing at the reception, all Erin leaves behind is a bloodied wedding dress on the floor.

NYPD Detective Kylie MacDonald is pulled into work mode immediately, having been invited to attend. When she brings her partner, Detective Zach Jordan, in to join her, they begin an intense hunt for Erin and whoever might be behind her abduction. With few leads to follow, it’s a waiting game, at least until videos begin emerging, with demands that they be broadcast live.

Meanwhile, Erin and her abductor are hidden away, safe from the prying eyes of any authorities. Things appear to be wrapped in some form of fantasy, where Erin would run away with her abductor and raise children together. This outlandish narrative may be the one things that helps Erin stay alive, as long as she can bide her time and not refuse any of his demands. Still, it will take an act of great courage for Erin to toss off her restraints and return to the man she claims to truly love.

As Detectives MacDonald and Jordan fight to make headway in the case, they are distracted by a second matter, involving EMTs entering the apartments of well-off New Yorkers, only to ransack them and leave bodies in their wake. As bad as this is, nothing can distract from the case at hand, which is broken wide open by a frantic call fro mother victim herself.

Rushing to locate her and make sense of what’s next, NYPD Red will have to act swiftly to instil calm in a city whose lifeblood is gossip and flashy headlines. All the while, the bodies are piling up and the truth remains elusive. That’s never stopped MacDonald and Jordan before. With a twist awaiting them, these NYPD detectives will have to stay vigilant.

It’s always nice to find a book that not only fills time between two larger reads, but is entertaining in its delivery. I have long bemoaned the ‘James Patterson Syndrome’, where books sell not for their content, but because of the name that fills the cover. Collaborators are left with their share of profits, but the quality goes down the tube. This book should not suffer this fate and Marshall Karp can rest assured that he has a winner on his hands. One of the decent series that James Patterson continues to help write, NYPD Red remains on point and a decent read for those whose interest has not yet waned with Patterson.

Detectives Kylie MacDonald and Zach Jordan remain the central characters in this book, delving a little more into their development, with a peppering of backstory. Their gritty determination is on point and they strive to solve the cases put before them, without letting their own lives muddy the waters. There is a sliver of personal story sandwiched into this piece, enough to show that they are real people and not solely dedicated to the job. Working effectively, both MacDonald and Jordan are able to find justice wherever it may be hiding and protect those they are tasked with serving.

There are a number of strong secondary characters throughout the piece, including the central victim, Erin Easton. Each plays their role well to keep the story on point and moving forward. The reader is able to see, albeit superficially, how the rich live and what their lifestyles mean to them. There is also an interesting perspective from the abductor’s point of view, as his flights of fancy and long-standing obsession spill into a form of reality that is only truly understood in the latter part of the novel.

It is usually quite difficult to gauge a Patterson novel’s impact until the very end. The stories are good, but the delivery is sometimes a little hokey or lighter when it comes to narrative style. This book did hold my attention throughout, though I did not receive the impactful piece I had hoped to find, after a significant hiatus from the series. That being said, things flowed well and the narrative pushed things along fairly effectively. Patterson’s short chapter signature is on display here, pushing the reader to move forward just to see what awaits them. Marshall Karp surely helped shape this into a decent read, as he has done in the past with this series. Where things are headed next, I have no idea, but I am still interested to see what MacDonald and Jordan have to discover.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Karp, for a decent police procedural. While I used this as a bridge between two larger reads, I am pleased to have taken the time.

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