JK’s Code (Brooks/Lotello #4), by Ronald S. Barak

Eight stars

Ronald S. Barak is back with another explosive thriller that mixes politics, technology, and a dash of satire to entertain a the reader effectively. Jake Klein is a computer genius at only twenty. He scores a lucrative invite to a secret conference on election meddling and takes away more than a few pointers on how to rig an election, including backdoor access into a highly dangerous hacker’s computer. Jake soon learns of a plan by the Russians to once again influence and meddle in the upcoming 2020 US election, which is backed by the current POTUS. Trying to get the message out, Jake is soon discovered and two superpower governments seek to neutralise him for all he knows. With Election Day approaching, he will have to act swiftly, or face another four years of horrible leadership. Barak knows how to convey a wonderful story with a twist to keep the reader engaged.

Jake Klein knows his way around a computer, even at a young age. Known to those around him as JK, Jake finds himself tripping upon a private conference in Eastern Europe whose aim is to highlight how to rig elections through voting machines. When he scores an invite, Jake is ready to take the information and ensure it is passed along to those who need it.

While at the conference, JK takes the bold move of installing a tracker on the computer of a powerful hacker, just to see what he can discover. When he is back in the US, JK learns just how dangerous things can get, as he uncovers plans to infiltrate the 2020 US election once more. Led by the Russians, with full support of the current US Administration, the plan would be to use voting machines to skew results and leave a destructive leader in the White House. As JK trie to stop this, he is discovered by powerful sources in each government, making him a wanted man.

While JK tries to dodge those who are after him, he confides in his sister about what is going on. She, in turn, entrusts the help of others around her to locate and rescue JK before it’s too late. Talk of assassination, treason, and permanent incarceration circle around, while JK is being held captive. Knowing what he is doing is for the good of the many, Jake stops at nothing to ensure that the truth comes out, or that election results are not tainted ahead of this most important election for America. Ronald S. Barak does well to keep the reader engaged, adding his own spin on events in the not too distant past.

I stumbled upon the world of Ronald S. Barak a few years ago and was immediately hooked. His mix of law, politics, and satire had me wanting to know more as quickly as I could. This is another great book that packs a punch, while also conveying some of the seriousness that befell the US election system, with some spewing “fix” on both sides. A strong narrative and highly detailed plot keeps the reader engaged and curious as to how things will progress, which is just the kind of book I needed. Eager to see what else Barak has in store for this series, which took a turn away from the strict legal storyline.

Jake Klein (JK) plays a wonderful protagonist in this piece, offering up some great backstory and development throughout. Young and keenly aware of his surroundings, JK can tap into things with ease and expound on them. He is attune to the world around him, yet somewhat naive when it comes to life, as is shown throughout this piece. Relying on the help of others, JK makes his mark and uses his brains to face-off against two powerful entities, both with plans to annihilate him, given then chance.

Legal thrillers are definitely my cup of tea, given the chance to get lost in their storylines. Ronald S. Barak has done well with his past stories, but spins things in this one, while adding some satire to what was a highly tense 2020 US election campaign. His narrative in this piece flows well and kept me on my toes throughout, never sure in which direction he would take things. The plot seemed clear, but definitely had some twists to keep things interesting. Mixing chapter lengths, Barak tears the reader to “read a little more”, which was his stated goal in the author’s introduction. Adding that satirical side is sure to anger some who would don their silly red ball caps, but that is perhaps the point. I liked the blend of serious topic and lighthearted banter, which made reading this book all the easier for me.

Kudos, Mr. Barak, for another winner. Bring on more, as I am eager to see where things will go in this series.

Unhinged (DI Alexander Blix and Emma Ramm #3), by Thomas Enger and Jørn Lier Horst

Eight stars

Back to read the latest collaborative work between Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger, I had high expectations. The pair have crafted a great series that taps into many aspects of crime and investigation, using strong protagonists to get their point across. While at a speaking engagement, DI Alexander Blix receives numerous calls from one of his colleagues and his daughter. It is only later that he learns that a gunman entered their flat and killed the police officer. When Blix insists his daughter receive some therapy, things go awry as she is kidnapped from the office and held captive. Blix takes matters into his own hands and kills that man holding his daughter. However, questions arise as to whether this was the shooter, or if Blix was blinded by rage and simply shot a man for his own revenge. Horst and Enger work their magic again in this stunning piece!

While Detective Inspector Alexander Blix is speaking to a large group, he receives several calls on his mobile, both from Inspector Sofia Konica and his own daughter, Iselin. It is only after the fact that Blix learns of the horror they went through, where Kovic was murdered, execution style, and Iselin barely escaped the killer as she hid in her apartment below. Blix begins trying to piece it all together, working with crime reporter, Emma Ramm, only to learn that Kovic had been working on some corruption within the department.

After convicting Iselin to receive some therapy from one of the psychologists on staff, Blix feels slightly at ease, especially when Emma agrees to take her. Things get turned on their head when Iselin is kidnapped from the office and taken into custody, fuelling Blix’s desire to save his daughter at any cost. When he tracks down where Iselin is being held, things go awry as she is almost killed again and Blix shoots the man, unarmed, in the back. Thus begins a series of issues for the decorated officer.

While Blix is being interrogated by Oslo Police ,Iselin clings to life in the hospital. Emma, feeling guilty for not being there for Iselin, straddles both worlds and tries to help her friend as well as be supportive. It is only then that the truth comes out and Blix begins to discover that things may not be as they seem. Could the killer still be on the loose? Fuelled by a need for answers and a tragic turn of events, Blix does all he can to reveal the truth, once and for all. Another great novel in this new series that is sure to have readers intrigued.

Horst and Enger have shown that they can effectively work in collaboration without losing any of their personal style. I have long been a fan of Jørn Lier Horst’s work, but this was a refreshing spin on things, allowing me to see how the ideas can vary between the two popular authors. A gritty story that takes the reader in many directions, there is a little of everything to culminate in a stunning ending. While I do love Horst’s solo work, I have come to enjoy this series as well, hoping that there is more to come.

Alexander Blix and Emma Ramm share the limelight as protagonists once again. Personal stories flood the narrative, as the reader will discover, but there is a strong sense of character development within, even as Blix struggles with the friendship he has with Ramm. This is surely a darker story, one that taps into things that many authors do not reveal about their leads, but I felt it necessary to show the realism they share and the struggles that permeate just below the surface on occasion. I will gladly accept more development and backstory when the authors return for another instalment of the series, as I have come to really enjoy these two, working alone or in tandem.

This was likely one of the darkest Scandinavian noir books that I have read in a while, though not because of the crime being presented. Rather, it was more the angst and personal pain presented throughout and the attempt to set things straight once more. The narrative was strong and kept me wondering throughout, as things progressed and took turns I could not have expected. Great characters fit well alongside a plot that left me hooked as I read well into the evening. Short chapters offered a tease of what is to come and I could not get enough, even as I tried to put the book down doer a period of time. This is a series worth noting for those who love Scandinavian thrillers like no other. The translation was once again quite seamless, making me wonder how this could not have been a book penned in English from the outset. I am eager to see if Horst and Enger have more collaborative plans, as there is something to be said for two powerhouses working together to create something even better!

Kudos, Messrs. Horst and Enger, for another great story. Series fans are in a for a treat with this.

Smoke Screen (Alexander Blix and Emma Ramm #2), by Thomas Enger and Jørn Lier Horst

Eight stars

A longtime fan of Jørn Lier Horst and his writing, I was eager to see how this would translate into some collaborative work with Thomas Enger. The pair have come up with a great new series, with a Norwegian police officer and crime reporter working together to solve crimes. Alexander Blix and Emma Ramm are both at New Year’s Even celebrations in Oslo when a bomb explodes and kills many. Emma is able to help a woman who is in the water, only to realise that it is the mother of a young girl who has been missing for a decade. This opens up new questions about the kidnapping, which has both Blix and Ramm looking into things. What was presumed a kidnapping and murder may not be the case now, as new questions emerge. Horst and Enger pen yet another winner with this novel, which kept me reading until I got all the answers.

There is a buzz around Oslo for the New Year’s Eve celebrations and Emma Ramm is eager to witness it. At the strike of midnight, fireworks light up the sky, but there is also a bomb explosion, a suspected terrorist attack. In the mayhem, Ramm tries to help those in need and comes across Alexander Blix, a Detective Inspector with the Homicide division, with whom she has worked in the past. Noticing a body floating in the water, Emma rushes to help. It is only when the woman is brought to shore that she is identified as Ruth-Kristine Smeplass, mother to Patricia Smeplass, who was abducted at age two a decade before.

Emma’s journalist brain begins churning and she works with Blix to see if there are any new leads to follow. While Patricia has been kidnapped and presumed dead, someone may know something that could revitalise the case. When Emma receives some disturbing personal news, she is temporarily derailed and must trying to regain her focus. All the while, Blix ponders whether the bombing was terror related or if someone was targeting Ruth-Kristine for something.

As the investigation progresses, both Ramm and Blix work on leads that have them looking outside Norway for answers. Could Patricia Semplass still be alive? If so, where has she been for the last decade? A bomber is also on the loose, someone who may have answers that could shed light on the investigation and bring some peace to a family that has been in mourning for years. Horst and Enger work their magic again and have come up with a sensational thriller that is easily devoured in a few sittings.

I thoroughly enjoy books that work outside the cookie cutter outline for a police procedural. Horst and Enger do so effectively, while working two key angles throughout. Their writing is strong and keeps the reader engrossed in the story, without going too over the top. While I am always eager to read Horst’s independent work, this collaboration is refreshing and appeals to me as well!

Alexander Blix and Emma Ramm do well as joint protagonists. Both have their own personal stories that receive some attention throughout, but it is their collaborative efforts that create great character development, perfect as the series continues. They work well together, but also independently, allowing the reader to see how they bring their own spin to the larger case. This is sure to be a great series if both are highlighted with their strengths throughout.

Cold cases can sometimes be hard to keep ‘warm’, but the authors do well with this one. The narrative worked well, developing in a few directions and pacing itself so that the reader does not get lost, either in the present or flashback sequences. Great characters keep the plot moving and add a flavour to the writing so the reader is never left unimpressed. There is a strong sense of drama, which keeps the reader engaged and allows for some needed growth of the protagonists. The translation was seamless, leaving me to wonder how something that was not penned in English works so well. That being said, I have always found Jørn Lier Horst is able to write in such a manner as to make the narrative quite fluid. I have the next book in the series teed up and ready to go, so I will dive right in to see how I feel about it.

Kudos, Messrs. Horst and Enger, for another great read. I hope this series takes off and others enjoy it as much as I have.

The Mirror Man (Joona Linna #8), by Lars Kepler

Eight stars

Long a fan of Lars Kepler and the Joona Linna series, I was eager to get my hands on this latest publication. In a novel that is as intense as it is dark, the story pulls the reader into levels of depravity never thought imaginable. A young girl is kidnapped in plain sight and taken into custody, where she is locked away with a number of others. Years later, she’s found hanging in a playground, her past a great mystery. Now, a new girl has gone missing and Joona Linna is brought in to investigate. While Loona tries to piece it all together, a number of girls are being held captive by a man who is has elusive as he is cruel. Linna will have to work quickly to save these girls, though nothing is making much sense. Lars Kepler does it again with a novel that sends chills up the spine.

It was a sunny day when Jenny was abducted in plain sight, leaving her family wondering what had happened. As Jenny is taken to a nondescript house, she is locked away with other girls, all of whom are cowering in fear. Those who try escaping are met with severe punishment, at times far worse than they could ever imagine. Their captor is ruthless and will stop at nothing to keep order and fear.

When Jenny’s body is found hanging in a playground five years later, questions emerge as to where she has been and how she make it to the playground. Local CCTV offers some answers, though it is not nearly enough. It’s time for police detective Joona Linna to begin investigating, though his unorthodox style leaves some wondering how effective it can be. Linna finds an obscure parallel to a death that was deemed to be a suicide years before. Now, when a new girl, Mia, goes missing, Linna is sure that there is a serial kidnapper/murderer who has been targeting young girls and hopes to make a mockery of it all.

While Linna and the Swedish police begin trying to piece things together, Mia and her fellow captives are thrust into a world of torture and pain at the hands of a heinous woman. However, their greatest fears is bot her, but a man running the show, with a long history of psychiatric issues and who presents with a highly complex condition. As Linna follows all the leads available to him, he finds a clue that could help, but time is short and the lives of these girls seem readily expendable. Lars Kepler at their best again with another bone chilling tale that is sure to keep the reader flipping pages well into the night.

I have long come to enjoy the work of Lars Kepler, especially with the detailed narrative and strong storyline. There is something ‘unputdownable’ about the books, perhaps related to the depravity the antagonist presents throughout. The story flows well, even though it is translated, and the action continues throughout, keeping the reader on their toes during this dark journey.

Joona Linna is a protagonist like few others, with many of her personal struggles front and centre in the novel. While he is highly unorthodox, using illegal drugs to get through the day, his ability to investigate is like no other. Linna finds ways to get inside the heads of the most heinous killers and gets to the root of the crime. That being said, he cannot shake some of his personal issues, which shape all that he has become, making the stories all the more engrossing.

When I look for a strong police procedural with psychologistal thriller aspects, I need look no further than Lars Kepler. Each of the eight books have kept me hooked and I cannot say enough about them. The narrative is strong and keeps me connected throughout, with mid-length chapters to leave me demanding more. The plot is quite strong and the characters compelement it well. Sick and depraved antagonists round out the story well and keep me wondering just how far things will go until Joona Linna finds a way to solve the case. The fact that the story is translated always baffles me, as the writing flows with such ease. There is no hint of translation and I would swear it was penned in English from the beginning. Hats off the translator and Kepler’s ability to write so seamlessly. I would highly recommend these novels to anyone with time and a penchant for the darker psychologist thriller, alongside a police detective who will stop at nothing to get answers.

Kudos, Lars Kepler, for another sensational book in the series. What will you come up with next?

One for Sorrow (DI Callanach #7), by Helen Sarah Fields

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Helen Fields, and Avon Books UK for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Helen Fields returns with another great police procedural that pulls the reader into the middle of a chilling investigation with horrible outcomes. No one is safe and many characters in the series find themselves inadvertently in the crosshairs. After a tragic crime leaves DCI Ava Turner gutted, she has a hard time moving on. However, Turner forced to keep working as she tries to locate a bomber who appears keen to kill as many as possible with highly devastating weaponry. DCI Turner and her right-hand man, DI Luc Callanach, will have to crack the code before it’s too late, or face more bodies. Fields does a masterful job at pulling the reader into this fast paced thriller.

DCI Ava Turner has always considered herself one who can separate work from personal life, no matter how closely run. However, when a bomb explodes in the morgue and the chief pathologist is killed, DCI Turner has second thoughts. A life-long friend is dead and the bomb used was embedded inside a corpse ready for autopsy. When the call comes in to Police Scotland about another bomb set to go off, it’s a race to the scene.

While Turner and DI Luc Callanach prepare to handle the situation, a bomb inside a pregnant woman explodes, killing many of the emergency attendants in the area, including one of Turner’s team. This only spirals her deeper into despair with no leads to work the case and superiors ready to send her packing.

In a flashback sequence, a young woman begins a relationship with an elusive man, one who has been able to sweep her off her feet. When a video emerges to show that she was raped, an event she does not remember, things take a turn and the suspect goes on the defensive. With little hard evidence to tie him to the assault, he walks free, but there is a great deal of animosity towards Liam Cook.

As the bombings continue, DI Callanach tries to get inside the murderer’s head to see what they might use as motivation to commit these acts. It’s a dark and sinister pathway, one that is filled with twists. However, the truth is out there, with an explosive (pardon the pun) ending that ties it all together. Helen Fields has done so well with this series, keeping fans on the edge of their seat!

Helen Fields created this series with a great spin on it, using DI Luc Callanach to offset the typical Scottish flavour of the police procedural. She’s been able to effectively work through a number of issues, using the Scottish Frenchman effectively while pairing him alongside DCI Ava Turner, a one-time equal who has risen the ranks. The story turns more towards Turner and her personal angst with what is going on, while layering two time periods and crimes that are seemingly unrelated. With great plot building and decent characters that series fans have come to enjoy, Fields keeps the reader enthused and entertained without hesitation.

While much of the series has worked through the relationship, professional and personal, that DCI Ava Turner and DI Luc Callanach have forged, it takes a backburner to some of the inner struggles that these murders have created. DCI Turner has been personally impacted by the bombings and is trying to piece her lifer together because of it, making little headway. Her issues are compounded when she has to function and lead, as well as keep her personal life in balance,. DI Callanach does play a role in this one, though it appears to be more secondary, at least for most of the novel. Still, there is something series fans will enjoy, should they pay close attention to what Fields is offering.

While police procedurals are plentiful, the genre is always looking for a unique take or interpretation. Fields has used Luc Callanach as her niche, embedding his French upbringing into every situation. Fields has tackled many topics within the book, using her narrative to push the story along effectively. The plots, while seemingly independent, have some threads left hanging for the reader to tie off, though it may take some attentive reading to do so. The two timelines work well in this piece, allowing the reader to appear as though there are two sets of crimes taking place throughout. While Fields has presented some great standalone thrillers, this series is where she blossoms and I cannot wait to see what’s next and how it will work with a broken and troubled DCI Turner!

Kudos, Madam Fields, for another series success! I hope others find it as exciting as I have.