The Chimes: A Novella, by Charles Dickens

Seven stars

Most people equate Charles Dickens and Christmas with his popular story, A Christmas Carol. However, in the years that followed its publication, Dickens penned another story about the holiday season and ghostly apparitions. This is that story, which I thought would be a good thing to try during the holiday season. Dickens pulls on the ghoul factor in this piece, which seeks to portray a deeper message for his readers, and which resonates, if you pardon the pun, quite well.

Toby “Trotty” Veck, is a working-class man who has become dispirited with his lowly caste in life. He feels that his family is poor, not only because they cannot gather enough money, but also his unworthiness of having anything special. This extends to a disbelief in the common person and Trotty finds himself ending another year in woe.

On New Year’s Eve, Trotty is visited by a number of spirits, speaking through the local church bell, who try to put things in perspective. Trotty is sure that all has befallen him because of a higher plan. The spirits wish to show him that it is the choices people make that push them in one direction or the other, something that Trotty will have to come to terms with if he is to enter the following year with any sense of hope. Buried throughout the story is a set of life lessons for the reader to enjoy, which Dickens makes clear will help formulate a happier person during the holiday season.

While I would not be telling the truth if I said that I enjoyed this novella as much as the classic holiday piece that Dickens made famous. That being said, I can see the themes woven into the narrative, which builds through four strong chapters. The narrative flows and takes the reason on many interesting journeys before presenting an epiphany for the reader to enjoy. Using the spirts once again Dickens shows how sometimes people need being from other realms to see what is before their own faces. Some wonderful writing and remarkable themes that many will likely want to synthesise at their own pace to see if they mean anything.

Kudos, Mr. Dickens, for a great piece to add to my holiday reading collection.

Exiles (Aaron Falk #3), by Jane Harper

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Jane Harper, and Macmillan Audio for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Jane Harper is back with another thrilling police procedural featuring Aaron Falk. In story full of emotion and tense revelations, Harper strikes a chord for many readers and offers a sensational piece that is sure to entertain. Harper has kept me enthralled with all three novels in the Aaron Falk series and this is likely her best. Eager to see what Harper has on the agenda next, I hope this novel impresses other series fans and those who enjoy something with a great Australian flavouring.

A young baby is found on the grounds of a local festival in rural Australia. Her mother, Kim Gillespie, is nowhere to be found. While the baby is safe, it is the complete vanishing act has everyone baffled. People speculate, but this does not help in the search for Kim or strengthen the foundation that is a motive to abandon a little one.

A year later, plans for the baby’s christening coincide with an updated plea for news about Kim, who remains at large. Federal Investigator, Aaron Falk, is part of the group that has gathered, hoping that he can find a clue as to where Kim might have gone. While Falk hopes to work with the family, he notices things are not as bucolic as they first appeared in this small Australian community.

While things are slow to prove fruitful, Falk refuses to dismiss the gut reaction he has about Kim Gillespie and her disappearance. He discovers more about her past and how she was treated as a teen, particularly around the festival that is playing out around them. What demons lurk in the shadows and might they explain Kim’s disappearance? Falk will stop at nothing in his own policing style to get answers and bring news to those who need it most. With flashbacks that cover a variety of time periods essential to the story’s foundation, this is perhaps Harper’s best Falk Nobel to date. I am eager to see what other series fans think and how Harper will build things from here.

While there are many authors who have been successful in the police procedural genre, those who differentiate themselves have earned by additional praise. I have enjoyed Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk series from the start and can only hope others echo this sentiment. The writing is strong and has a great “Aussie flavour” that never gets tiring. While I appreciate Harper’s stand-alones as well, it is this series that always impressed me most.

Kudos, Madam Harper, for a great read with moments of quaintness amongst the heightened drama.

Operation Trafficked, by Helen C. Escott

Nine stars

While there are many authors who can write police procedurals, Helen C. Escott takes it to a new level, and does so from a Canadian (read: Newfoundland) perspective. Her novels are both well-crafted and very detailed, while keeping the reader hooked with sensational crimes. Escott pulls on her past experience and adds a writing ability like few I have come across, keeping the Canadiana subtle enough that anyone the word over could easily enjoy this book without feeling clueless. I cannot say enough about Helen C. Escott and hope other readers will discover her work, sure to add her to their ‘must read’ list.

When a teenage girl turns up murdered in a downtown St. John’s hotel, all clues point to a victim of human trafficking. Sergeant Nicholas Myra of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and Corporal Gail McNaughton of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have been working different angles on trafficking across the province and find themselves on a Joint Forces investigation to solve this case and hopefully help neutralise trafficking pathways. Myra and McNaughton are not sure they will be able to stymie this multi-billion dollar business, but they have a victim before them and hopes of bringing closure to her short life.

After having a third officer seconded to them—Constable Colleen Royal— Myra and McNaughton begin trying to piece together where this teen came from and who might have visited her on the evening of her death. While there are some seedy businesses in town, none have women who admit to being trafficked or held against their will. This only makes the investigation all the more difficult, but no one is ready to toss in the towel just yet.

The Joint Task Force uncover a complex system of getting girls from all corners of the globe and bringing them to Canada, where they are brainwashed into thinking that this is a luxurious life, while there are undertones of threats should anyone try to escape or speak out against their captors. Myra and Royal work some angles, as McNaughton seeks to nail the local owners of a massage parlour, who may be a puppet front for bikers and even the Russian mob. All the while, McNaughton has some personal stresses piled onto her already overflowing plate.

At one point, the team is informed that a seven-year-old local girl is being offered up for sale in the United States, with a mother eager to get cash for her offspring. Child pornography, sexual slaves, and horrible abuse, all taking place under the noses of everyday citizens, sicken all three officers, though they cannot relent, for fear that another vulnerable person will fall prey to these horrible men who have recreated a slave industry in the modern world. A chilling story that is sure to leave the reading in awe and yet fixated to learning how things will progress. Escott proves her mettle yet again!

As I mentioned before, there is something about Helen C. Escott’s writing that really pulls me in. It may be her superior ability when it comes to police procedurals, or the Canadian flavouring that I have rarely found when I read this genre, or even the depth to which the topics on hand are discussed. Whatever it is, Escott has a sensational ability to keep the reader on the edge of their seat through the storytelling process. I can only hope others find her work and enjoy the Newfoundland perspective as refreshing as I have.

Escott pulls the reader in from the opening pages with a strong narrative flow. The direction points the reader towards a story that is darker than many, but needs to be to get its point across. Pulling on some strong characters from past novels that many of Escott’s fans will have come to know, the development within the story leaves the reader feeling as though they know McNaughton, Myra, and even Royal a little better. The development of the plot throughout leaves the reader uncomfortable, but in a way that is needed to be impactful. Escott’s past in law enforcement has likely put her in contact with the world of human trafficking, which is why things are so detailed and intense. While the topic is surely one many might shy from, it is this awkwardness that makes reading about it all the more necessary. I love each of Helen C. Escott’s novels for their own merits and al eager to get my hands on her next novel, sure to be just as impactful.

Kudos, Madam Escott, for a look into the dark world of human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. I could not put the book down, while also being disgusted by some of the antics portrayed within its pages.

The Santa Killer (DI John Barton #6), by Ross Greenwood

Eight stars

Always eager to get my hands on the writing of Ross Greenwood (and wanting a thriller to fit into my holiday season reading), I turned to this novel. Full of great police work and with some stellar criminal events, Greenwood takes the reader on an adventure like no other during the holiday season. As sharp as the other DI Barton novels, the reader can enjoy this piece and feel as though they are in the middle of it all, chasing a killer who resembles Father Christmas and appears to have multiple, skewed motives. Ross Greenwood impresses once more, providing a holiday gift like no other!

With Christmas only a few weeks away, the town is bursting with lights, busy shoppers, and holiday cheer. However, after a single mother is brutally attacked, things take a distinctive turn. DI John Barton and his team work to piece things together with the crime, but are baffled to discover that the victim has no sordid past and no enemies whatsoever. Could such a personal attack have simply been a random act? The only clue they have is the blurry witness statement by the victim’s special needs daughter, who is sure she saw Father Christmas (Santa) attacking her mom.

When others are attacked in the middle of the investigation, DI Barton can only wonder if there is a specific ‘Naughty and Nice List’ being enacted or if these are all random acts of violence. After someone confesses and is taken into custody, the case is presumed solved, but more people are attacked, with a new and completely different style. Could there be two killers on the loose, working independently or even in tandem? DI Barton will have to crack things side open, as Christmas inches closer.

All hands are on deck for this one, which has the police as baffled as ever. Random notes sent to locals purport to show that they, too, are in danger and could be next. Might this Santa Killer be more than a figment of the imagination, but actually a sharp and ruthless killer? DI Barton had better figure it all out before the magic of the season is lost for good! Ross Greenwood captivates readers with this thriller that pulls on all the strengths he has as as writer.

I found the work of Ross Greenwood years ago and have never looked back. His police procedurals are strong and full of detail, while balancing some humour and insightful sleuthing as well. Great themes and unique plot twists keep the reader unsure what they can expect around the corner, while they are also keen to flip pages well in the night. I can only hope that Greenwood’s next writing project is as addictive and that I can get my hands on an early copy.

Greenwood uses a strong narrative tho guide the reader throughout this well-paced novel. Police work is at the core of it and keeps the reader pushing on, in hopes of cracking the case. Great characters, many of whom receive decent development throughout the series, offer the reader something a little lighthearted throughout the heavy subject matter. A few key plot twits make this novel worth the time to read it, without being too predictive. One can only hope that Ross Greenwood will keep writing strong police procedurals, as he has developed a stellar series with DI Barton at the core.

Kudos, Mr. Greenwood, for another stunning thriller. I hope to see more soon and more killers pushing the limits as to what can be expected.

The Best School Year Ever (Herman’s #2), by Barbara Robinson

Eight stars

The sequel to one of my favourite childhood books, when the Herdmans take over the Christmas Pageant at church and retell this most famous story.

In this book, the Herdmans remain the worst behaved family in town. What’s worse is that they all attend Woodrow Wilson School. Robinson tells of the antics of this horrid family throughout a school year, from hazing to smoking cigars and even forcing children to undertake back-alley orthodontics. When the teacher sets out a year-long project of choosing a classmate and finding ways to compliment them, everyone is confused. Is there anything complimentary that can be said about any of the Herdmans? Read and find out…

A lovely story that leaves me smiling, as there is nothing the Herdmans won’t do.

The First Christmas: A Story of New Beginnings, by Stephen Mitchell

Eight stars

A Holiday re-read!

Always one to enjoy some unique reading during the festive season, I turned to this short piece by Stephen Mitchell. It pulls upon the Nativity story, told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and offers a more thorough and first-hand account of some events surrounding that period. While Mitchell explains that these are some of his own thoughts put into dialogue and a well-paced narrative, something resonates in them and it makes sense.

Mitchell captures many angles of the Nativity narrative, from those major players many will know (Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men), as well as some who were surely essential but receive only a mere mention in biblical passages (the ox and donkey). These perspectives weave together not only a well-developed narrative, but provides the reader with some insight as to how each felt about the event, a well as some of the lead up to things that occurred that cold night. It leaves the reader to ponder a little more what they know and surmise about that story that, for many, is so well known.

Between each chapter (and on occasions, within them) Mitchell offers some of his own analysis of events and how they fit into the larger story. This is almost an annotation or extensive footnoting for the reader to better understand why he wrote things a certain way. I was please to have this, feeling it added to the overall experience and left me feeling a bit better if there were parts I did not understand.

While I am no scholar or expert on the subject matter, I count myself as someone who knows the story fairly well. I was eager to see this approach to better understand the story without being made to feel that this was an academic piece or even one that required heard thinking. I do enjoy challenging myself from time to time and will not stop with this piece. I’d love to see if Mitchell (or others) have other pieces like this, where I can explore new perspectives on long-told and remembered stories from my past.

Kudos, Mr. Mitchell, for a great piece that I devoured in a single day. I’ll keep my eyes open for more of your work and see if I cannot latch onto it as well.

The Homecoming, by Earl Hamner Jr.

Nine stars

An annual reading tradition for me that I am happy to share again with readers.

No holiday season is complete in my household without remembering the story of The Homecoming. When, on Christmas Eve, Clay Spencer has not returned home from his forty mile trek for the holidays, the entire Spencer household is on edge. Olivia pines for her husband’s safe return, but cannot put life on hold as she waits. With a brood of eight, she turns to Clay-Boy, her eldest, to take up the role of ‘man of the house’ at the tender age of fifteen.

As the story progresses, Clay-Boy is not only playing the role of man, but also must engage in a trek to locate his father and bring him home for the holidays. As Christmas Eve turns to night, the Spencers engage in their own family traditions, meagre as they may be in the midst of the Depression. It is not Santa for whom they wait this Christmas of 1933, but Clay and his safe homecoming to spend time with those he cherishes most. Sure to become an annual tradition for holiday reading lists, Hamner Jr. entertains and depicts the era so effectively.

I grew up watching The Homecoming as part of the annual Christmas preparation. The book was on hand, but I never took the time to read it until a few years ago. Doing so, I came to realise how special this story is and the tradition is one I will continue. I wish not to stand on a soapbox, but the holidays are about love and support, not the material things. Hamner Jr. makes that known throughout this novel, as well as in Spencer’s Mountain. Do take some time to read them and enjoy all they have to offer.

Kudos, Mr. Hamner Jr., for instilling in me the annual reminder that love trumps all. Merriest of Christmases to all!

Boundary Issues, by Thomas Boxleiter

Nine stars

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

After I was approached with an ARC of Thomas Boxleiter’s novel, I could not help but be intrigued. The dust jacket blurb presented a novel full of action and with just the right amount of legal flavouring to be something that I would enjoy. Boxleiter did not disappoint at any point, providing a story that garnered not only my attention, but admiration for being so thorough. Mixing a number of areas together with just enough detail to leave the reader wanting more, Boxleiter has shown himself to be an author worth watching for in the years to come.

Dr. Hank Pressman has been running his psychiatric practice for years, with a number of patients who have achieved various forms of personal success. Beneath the surface, Pressman has a life that is a little more involved, from the death of his long-time wife, to bouts of infidelity, and even a blossoming addiction to alcohol. Still, he’s been able to keep things running smoothly.

When Marian Ash visits Dr. Pressman and demands that he take her on as a client, things begin to get a little more intense. Refusing to offer more than the bare minimum when it comes to information—as she fears her husband will find out—Marian speaks of an abusive relationship at home. She comes to the office with physical bruises, which only worries Dr. Pressman more. He does his best to help her, but Marian Ash has other ideas.

While Dr. Pressman is trying to get his life back on track with a new relationship, things take a turn one night when Marian shows up at his home. Soon thereafter, she’s taken into custody when her husband is found murdered. While Dr. Pressman has some of his own views on the matter, a series of events leave him wondering if he can serve as an expert witness to either help or hinder the defence. Faced with a mountain of personal and professional issues, Dr. Hank Pressman while have to decide what matters most to him and how he will look himself in the mirror once legal proceedings begin. A thrilling piece that is sure to make a name for Thomas Boxleiter!

I always enjoy new authors who make their way onto my radar. Thomas Boxleiter did so effectively and showed just how much skill he has with both storytelling and writing. The story, which may seem cookie cutter from the outset, actually delves into some wonderful themes and topics, all while educating the reader throughout the process. Boxleiter pulls no punches and keeps the reader in the middle, feeling as though they are right there with Dr. Pressman and the others. I look forward to reading more by Boxleiter, when the chance arises, and would encourage anyone looking for something refreshing and highly entertaining to try this novel for themselves.

Thomas Boxleiter offers up a strong narrative to guide the reader through the journey. Things begin well and build from there, providing a roadmap for a successful story. The characters Boxleiter uses throughout flavour things effectively and keep the reader intrigued about what is going on, without proving to be too over the top. I must applaud Boxleiter for developing Dr. Hank Pressman so well throughout the novel. There is significant progress for the character, who grows and expands in a variety of ways, such that the reader really feels as though they know his struggles. Use of plot twists keeps the story on point and allows the reader to feel a sense of not knowing where things are headed. While I cannot tell if there will be more for Dr. Pressman, or other novels in the same vein, I can only hope Thomas Boxleiter keeps writing and that I have the chance to read them. I was thoroughly impressed with this effort, which appears to be a debut novel!

Kudos, Mr. Boxleiter, for a great piece that kept me turning pages well into the night.

The Dead of Winter: Three Giordano Bruno Novellas, by S.J. Parris

Eight stars

With this release of three novellas in the Giordano Bruno series, fans can enjoy two previously published pieces and a new story, just in time for Christmas. While I binged the entire series earlier this year, I was eager to return for a little more Bruno and his cunning ways. The reader learns a little more about the early days of Bruno’s time as a monk, including the struggles that face him. There is the curious Bruno who finds the confines of priory rules slightly troublesome, causing him to write his own. The final story has Bruno being called to Rome to answer for some of the antics he’s undertaken, though the young monk does not feel that he has offended anyone, at least those with an open mind. S. J. Parris does a masterful job, particularly for series fans, as she explores those early days, when Bruno was still captivated with serving God above all others!

The Secret Dead

It is Naples in 1566 and the city is in the middle of a stifling heat wave. Giordano Bruno is all of eighteen and has recently entered the monastery to devote himself to God. He is known not to be completely on the straight and narrow, having issues listening to those in authority. However, when Bruno is called away one night to help Fra Gennaro, he goes with all the curiosity that he can muster. Gennaro admits that he wishes to share something with Bruno that must be kept highly secret, taking him to the site of a body. This is a young whore who appears to have been strangled, though the reasons are as yet unknown.

During the anatomising of the body (one might call it early autopsy work), Bruno and Gennaro discover that she was pregnant, which only adds to the drama. While Bruno vows to keep this to himself, he cannot help but try to piece it all together, trying to determine who would have done this to a young woman, even if she held an unwanted offspring. This is surely the spark that led to the great crime solving work of Giordano Bruno in the years to come, all while holding up his end of a monastic life.

The Academy of Secrets

It is Naples in 1568 and a young Giordano Bruno is the rising star at the priory, though his penchant for seeking knowledge outside of the strict role of a monk has become apparent to many. Fra Gennaro, another monk and the local medical professional, takes him under his wing and introduces Bruno to a group of philosophically-minded men, headed by Don Giambattista. These men call themselves the Academy of Secrets, meeting to discuss mental and physical experiments that they have been undertaking, as well as recommending reading—a great deal of which lies outside that permitted by the Church. Bruno takes an especially great interest and Giambattista agrees to grant the young monk access to his libraries.

Juggling his time at the priory, and with the help of Fra Gennaro to cover for his absence, Bruno makes his way there to expand his knowledge. His arrival is met with another surprise, the young and attractive niece to Don Giambattista. Bruno’s work is shelved as he and Fiammetta engage in something a tad more carnal. Bruno slips away and heads back to the priory, keeping his secret to himself, but another of the young monks seems to have discovered that there is something amiss. While Bruno continues to make daily trips to the library and to see Fiammetta, the Academy of Secrets is in jeopardy. When Bruno is kept from his daily journey on one occasion, things turn deadly and questions arise. With his weakened connection of the priory already clear, some must wonder if Bruno took matters into his own hands.

A Christmas Requiem

It is Naples in the late autumn of 1569. A young monk of 21, Giordano Bruno, is continuing his studies and showing just how sharp his mind can be. Honing a parlour trick of sorts, Bruno can recite any of the psalms, forwards or backwards, in a number of different languages. This has caught the eye of some of the senior officials, but it is another missive from Rome that really causes a stir. Bruno’s presence is requested at the Vatican to see His Holiness, Pope Pius V. This must be a joke, right?

When Bruno makes it to Rome, just in time for the Christmas season, he is unsure what awaits him. However, being a young and still somewhat lustful man, Bruno finds himself caught in the web of desire with a woman. This woman, while also highly beautiful, has ecclesiastical connections that could ruin Bruno if he’s not careful. Still, lust is one temptation not easily dissipated by prayer.

When the Holy Father meets with Bruno, the topic at hand is heresy. It is not only the goings on in England under Queen Elizabeth that is causing ire, but Bruno’s repeated conflicts over banned publications by Protestants that has the Pope up in arms. When it’s discovered that Bruno can recite the psalms, much consternation is levelled against the young monk and he’s lucky to escape with his life. Might the pious life not be the best thing for Giordano Bruno after all, if he cannot express himself and expand his mind?

I have come to love the books in this series, not only for the mysteries they present, but also because there is so much history for the reader to enjoy. Parris does well developing her stories effectively and peppers them with fact and massaged fiction to tell a great tale. As with her novels, these novellas proved highly entertaining and are written so as to make the reader feel they have gone back in time. The novellas can, if one chooses, be read as standalone, though I am not sure why anyone would want to deprive themselves of such a wonderful series in its entirety. S. J,. Parris has much to offer and one can only hope that there are more books to come to keep series fans excited.

Kudos, Madam Parris, for an exciting collection of stories that remind me how much I enjoy Giordano Bruno. I cannot wait to see what else you have to offer soon.

Point Blank (Jack Lisbon #6), by Blair Denholm

Eight stars

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

Always eager when Blair Denholm hands me an ARC of his newest book, I took it upon myself to devour this novel in short order. Denholm provides the readier with a decent piece of writing that is full of criminal goings-on, plot twists, and a bit of character development for DS Jack Lisbon. Much takes place in the book, as well as a chilling revelation that Lisbon will have to digest in his personal life. A quick read that complements the other books in this series.

Golf is a sport for patient men, as Detective Sergeant Jack Lisbon has come to believe. While he is not very good at it, he enjoys the challenge of trying to get a ball into the hole, no matter how many swings it takes. When DS Lisbon and his companion on the links hear a gunshot, they immediately revert into police mode. Rushing over, DS Lisbon discovers that Paul Keenan has been shot and his golfing partner is clinging to life.

Once the golf course is secured, DS Lisbon and the team work tirelessly to find out what’s happened and secure any suspects before they are able to flee. Based on the account of witnesses, a drone flew in close at hand and shot both men in the head. Who would have the skills not only to fly the drone, but to aim with much accuracy as to leave bodies on the putting green?

As DS Lisbon tries to piece it all together he receives a disturbing call from his daughter in the UK. Forced the juggle personal and professional, DS Lisbon begins exploring all the options and how Paul Keenan may not have been as nice as he would like many to believe. This only expanded the susp[ect list and makes catching a killer all the more difficult. However, DS Jack Lisbon is up for a challenge. A great addition to the series that shows Blair Denholm has much to say on the topic of Jack Lisbon.

I have been a fan of the DS Jack Lisbon series since Blair Denholm reached out to me, asking that I read the first novel. Since then, whenever a new addition to the collection comes out, I am eager to get my hands on it to see what Denholm has done with his protagonist. Always advancing the personal plot, Denholm keeps the reader on their toes throughout each crime thriller, adding just enough humour to cut the tension down.

Denholm uses a strong narrative flow to keep the reader feeling as though there is constant momentum throughout the book. Key characters arrive to help add depth, but it is surely not Denholm’s key tool for success. Rather, it is the investigative prowess of DS Jack Lisbon, who always seems keen to get to the root of the issue even if it means taking a detour on occasion. With some personal strife peppered in throughout the story, series fans know that something is about to change drastically, which could shape how things progress from here.

Kudos, Mr. Denholm, for a great addition to the series. You have a great way with words and I am intrigued to see what direction things might go.

Letters from Father Christmas, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Nine stars

Another wonderful annual re-read!! This year, Neo joined me!

A masterful piece of writing by J.R.R. Tolkien, which is a collection of the letters he penned as ‘Father Christmas’ over the years of his children’s upbringing. The letters are in response to those sent by the Tolkien children over the years, in which Father Christmas explores some of the drama he had up at the North Pole. With a handful of splendid characters who add even more excitement in a way only Tolkien can do, this is the perfect collection to read each and every year. I highly recommend the audio version, as it increases the excitement even more!

Kudos, Mr. Tolkien, for another great piece. I may not be a fantasy nut, but this book was right up my alley!

The Man who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued his Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, by Les Standiford

Eight stars

A holiday re-read!

Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas tale is surely synonymous with the holiday season, from its spooky mention of ghosts to its endearing message of love and understanding. However, the story behind this shorter novel is almost as intriguing as the prose itself. After reading a fictitious version of events, I looked to Les Standiford, whose non-fiction account, The Man Who Invented Christmas, offers curious readers something on which they can chew to better understand the background. Highly educational and enlightening, this is a great piece to accompany the Dickens classic. Recommended to those with a love of the holiday season, as well as the reader who may want to chase the Scrooge out of their heart after a horrid 2020 (and 2021).

Charles Dickens may have been a popular author throughout his life, but that does not mean that he enjoyed a positive upbringing. Having come from a childhood of poverty, Charles Dickens was forced to pull himself up by his bootstraps. These early years of scrounging and being forced to rub two pennies together proved helpful when he penned some of his earliest novels, including Oliver Twist. As Standiford mentions throughout, it was his astuteness to his surroundings that gave Dickens ideas for his plots and characters.

Of interest to some readers, Standiford explores how Dickens used to write his novels piecemeal, submitting them for serial publication. While they could appear long as a final product, the short pieces that found their way into weekly or monthly collections made the stories seem a little more palatable. Standiford uses this contrast when discussing the creation of A Christmas Carol, which would not be as long as these other pieces, but had to be completed over a shorter time period.

Dickens had come off a less than stellar publication of a novel that was not getting the excitement his publishers had hoped. With the holiday season creeping up, Dickens was tasked with writing a Christmas story in a short period of time. Pulling on examples from all aspects of his life, Dickens wrote about a man—Ebenezer Scrooge—who hated the joyousness that Christmas brought, but who underwent a significant epiphany after being visited by four beings. The end result proved to be eye-opening for all involved and created a new buzz around the Christmas season.

Strandiford explores the Christmas celebration throughout the book, from its traditions to how it was only minimally celebrated through the centuries. It was the Victorian Era that pushed England to shed its neutrality to the celebrations and breathe new life into this most powerful of feast times. From the Germanic influence of trees at Christmas to the buzz of gift giving and the appearance of Father Christmas, England grew more accepting of the holiday, something that appears in Dickens’ story. While I think it would be a tad hyperbolic to say that Dickens alone breathed life into the holiday season, his story certainly explored some of the less commercial aspects of the season.

I only read A Christmas Carol for the first time in the 2019 Christmas season. While you try to catch your breathe and step back in shock, I will let you know that I have seen the movie and know the premise, but the story itself takes on new meaning when using the author’s actual prose. Pairing the actual story with Standiford’s book (as well as a piece by Samantha Silva, do check it out), offers a great understand of Victorian times and how the holiday evolved. There is a great deal for the reader to understand that will permit a thorough and comprehensive exploration of the themes and ideas. Standiford does a masterful job at shining some light on this for those readers who wish the context.

While there are portions of the book that are quasi-textbook, the information garnered from the pages of Standiford’s book is second to none. Understanding how Christmas was once passed off as just another day and what the Church did to counter the rise of pagan rituals is quite ingenious. Using that backstory and some of the Victorian traditions, the reader can see how it all comes together as Scrooge makes his way through his one sobering night. These nuggets proved useful and provided some additional takeaway, something I always enjoy when it comes to reading. With short chapters, full of great information, the reader is surely to find something that interests them, as it relates to the story. If only this were not such an isolating holiday season. I would love to regale people with ‘did you know?’ moments. Oh well, it just means I have another year to practice and study!

Kudos, Mr. Standiford, for a wonderful piece that entertained and educated in equal measure.

Abuse of Power (Blake Jordan #9), by Ken Fite

Eight stars

Having spent the last few days catching up on a few Ken Fite novels I put aside, I realize just what I have been missing. The Blake Jordan series is as addictive as it is action-packed, keeping the reader in the middle of everything throughout. Mixing strong political themes with some investigative elements, Fite has the reader flipping pages well into the night, as he did with me. Another stellar novel that has me hoping there are more to come soon.

A week after the failed assassination attempt on POTUS, the news is still buzzing. A number of rogue CIA agents tried to gun him down during the motorcade’s progress throughout Washington, only to be stymied at the last moment. However, there are still agents out there, with a number trying to cover their tracks.

When FBI Agent Mark Reynolds appears to have tossed himself off a building, some wonder if he might have been involved in the event, but the guilt left him feeling there was only one way out. Blake Jordan, who knew Reynolds well, feels that this could not have been the case and is sure that someone is behind the death. He’s also sure that there are others hunting down any loose ends.

It’s soon determined that the connect to these rogue agent reaches all the way up into the White House, where someone is feeding intel that only those closest to POTUS might know. It will be up to Jordan and a few others to locate the mole, neutralise them, and stop the next plan from coming to fruition. Will they be able to act in time? Ken Fite does a wonderful job pulling on a great deal of sources to pen a must-read novel.

Ken Fite writes thrillers that I cannot seem to put down. After a few chapters, time stops and the story envelopes me. I seem to devour these novels in a single day, proving that Fite knows how to keep the reader enthralled with ease. Fite develops his Blake Jordan character effectively and keeps things progressing with ease throughout the reading journey.

Ken Fite balances the political thriller with some action to keep things moving from the opening pages, especially with this story that follows the previous novel by only a week. The narrative pushes the story in a forward direction, with numerous twists to keep things unpredictable. Fite uses character development effectively, permitting noticeable progression between novels. There’s something not entirely describable that makes this series one I keep following, rushing to grab any outstanding books so that I do not miss a beat. I will have to wait for the next in the collection, but will not do so with patience.

Kudos, Mr. Fite, for keeping things intriguing and on point for all to enjoy!

Spencer’s Mountain, by Earl Hamner Jr.

Eight stars

It is the time of year to return to this story, which relates to a Christmas classic I love to read. This is a re-read of a classic novel, whose 1963 film adaptation also works well for the curious reader. This piece preceded the famous television show The Waltons. Please enjoy the review I originally posted during my first read-through of this book:

Earl Hamner Jr. invites readers to take a trip back to the 1930s and explore the Blue Ridge Mountains in rural Virginia, where the Spencers have lived for generations. Clay and Olivia are trying to raise a family the best they can, helped by the eldest, Clay-Boy, and the strong-willed community. As the story progresses, the narrative takes the reader through some of the adventures undertaken by members of the family, but there are two story arcs that weave their way throughout: Clay’s trying to build a house for his family with his own two hands, and Clay-Boy’s attempt to get accepted to college. While one dream hinges on the demise of the other, the Spencers come together through thick and thin, putting the larger family before their own interests. A great story for those who loved the Waltons, or anyone who seeks to see the power of working together, treating family as a team and not a collection of rivals.

I am familiar with Hamner Jr.’s other Walton-based story, The Homecoming, and when given the chance to read this book, I did not hesitate. Those familiar with The Homecoming, in its book or television movie form, will see many of the stories that arise from that tale are told in greater detail herein. Hamner Jr. seeks not only to tell the story of the Spencers, but also to show how poverty need not impede a family’s ability to live a happy life, even in the Depression. Readers who can divorce themselves from the rigours of fast-paced thrillers or superficial pieces of fiction will enjoy this tale that warms the heart and brings a tear to the eye at the same time.

Kudos, Mr. Hamner Jr. for your wonderful tale. It warms my heart to read this each Christmas season!

Person of Interest (Blake Jordan #8), by Ken Fite

Eight stars

I discovered Ken Fite’s novels a number of years ago and could not get enough. My busy schedule over the last number of years kept me from enjoying the Blake Jordan series, but I am back, with a gap in my reading commitments left me able to catch up on this explosive collection. Blake Jordan keeps the intensity high and has some great character development in this novel, set in the middle of DC.

The presidents of the United States and Russia have been working on a peace treaty in secret and wish it conclude it with a public ceremony. When American intelligence agencies intercept a message related to an assassination attempt, they take action immediately. This means Blake Jordan and his wife, Jami, will be in meetings first thing to determine how to handle the situation.

After Jami fails to show up, Jordan becomes a little worried, which is exacerbated by a call from a blocked number. Jordan is informed that Jami’s been kidnapped and will only be released when demands are met. Jami’s release hinges on the assassination of both world leaders, forcing Jordan to decide between family and his country. However, anyone who knows Blake Jordan realises that it’s no question as to where is loyalty lies.

As the signing ceremony approaches, Jordan rushes to secure Jami’s release, while also trying to determine who mole within the intelligence community could be, likely the person who received that coded message. Jordan will have to work quickly, as the kidnapper means business and is happy to sacrifice Jami to bring the peace accord down in flames. Ken Fite pens yet another sensational thriller that is sure to appease series fans.

Ken Fite has a knack for writing thrillers that I cannot put down. Once I get a few chapters in, time seems to stand still as I delve deeper into the story. I devoured a few of his early novels in a single day, proving that he has what it takes to keep the reader entertained. Fite has developed the Blake Jordan character to be someone who is always advancing, yet never forgets his roots. I’m kicking myself for having waited this long to return to the series.

Ken Fite balances the political thriller with some action to keep things moving from the opening pages. Adding depth to a story that has action allows the reader to feel as though they could visualize everything from the written page. A strong narrative propels the story forward, with twists to keep things from being too predictive. I also highly enjoy how Ken Fite keeps his characters evolving, so there is something to notice from novel to novel. I can only hope this continues, as it is highly effective. Series fans will enjoy how one novel appears to move into the next, though I am sure those who choose to parachute in and reach for any of the novels (though I am baffled as to why anyone would want to) can do so with some comfort. With the latest novel just released, you know where I am headed next!

Kudos, Mr. Fite, for keeping things on retract and will of action. I can only wonder what awaits me in the next novel.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Herdmans #1), by Barbara Robinson

Eight stars

A wonderful story from my youth that I added to my annual reading list (and hope to get my son hooked soon)!

The Herdmans are a collection of six hellion children. When they hear about free and plentiful refreshments are being offered at Sunday School, they decide to attend one week. That happens to be the same week that Christmas Pageant rehearsals are announced. Enter the entire Herdman clan, who decide that they want in. Soon thereafter, they find themselves with all the staring roles and take it upon themselves to interpret the story in their own Herdman way.

What a classic and I am so pleased to have found this and relived some of my favourite childhood memories from my youth.

Camelot’s End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight that Broke the Democratic Party, by Jon Ward

Nine stars

After reading Neal Gabler’s Against the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Rise of Conservatism, 1976-2009, I wanted to revisit this book, which has almost as much detail of a key Kennedy life event. Neither book disappointed at all!

Many have heard the Kennedy family referred to as living in a modern Camelot. Powerful patriarch, Joseph, and his sons strove to make a difference in the political realm. But when did it all come to an end for them and how did America turn away from this glorified view of the Kennedys? Perhaps they never have, though Jon Ward argues that the political Camelot came crashing down with the 1980 Democratic National Convention, dragging the Party along with it. All this primarily due to an embittered campaign for a presidential nominee. Incumbent President Jimmy Carter took the stage at Madison Square Gardens to seek the formal nod by delegates to take the Democrats into the campaign to face the electorate in November. Standing in his way was Edward ‘Teddy’ Kennedy, the last of the political brothers and a powerhouse all his own. Ward takes the reader on a journey to see how these men destroyed their political bases, the Party, and all but handed Ronald Reagan the presidency in 1980, leaving the country in awe during a time it needed solace the most. Opening with great biographical narratives told in parallel, Ward discusses the upbringing of both men—Kennedy with a silver spoon lodged in his mouth, while Carter sweated it out picking peanuts—and how different they were.

Kennedy had politics in his blood, but the shadow of his two brothers seemed to stymie his ability to stay on the beaten path. Carter, a respected Navy veteran, sought to promote his progressive ways in the Deep South, where segregation and racism were the lifeblood of politics. Coming up through the ranks, both men had their foibles, which lingered with them, though Kennedy’s 1969 Chappaquiddick driving debacle that left a young woman dead would seem to have overshadowed much of Carter’s aligning himself with racists in order to secure both the Georgia governor’s mansion and a 1976 run for president. While both men knew the other only in passing, they remained on one another’s radar.

Kennedy passed up the chance to run in ‘76, but many felt that he was gearing up for ‘80, though he remained uncommitted. Meanwhile, Carter sat in the Oval Office and faced economic disaster at a time when the American people could not accept anything less than the prosperity they felt the world’s superpower deserved. While Carter had some international successes, these were overshadowed by long gas lines and protests by the American people. Kennedy toiled in the US Senate to create needed legislation for healthcare reforms and tax breaks that would help the middle class. As they geared up for the 1980 campaign, Carter and Kennedy both sought to take the Democratic Party in their own direction, though it was the latter’s decision to challenge a sitting president that left Carter promising to ‘whip his ass’ even before the last Prince of Camelot had formally entered the race.

Speaking of entering the race, Ward goes into detail about a CBS special on Teddy Kennedy before he announced, which depicted the man as one who could not dodge the Chappaquiddick disaster from a decade before and had no clear reason for entering the race, even though he was seen as an odds-in favourite and wanted to shape policy in new directions. From there, the primary season began, allowing both men to claw at one another and make gains in different ways. Kennedy stumbled out of the block and found financial limitations paralyse his progress, while Carter was trying to juggle the Iran hostage crisis, which was yet another black mark on his reputation. Even when Carter had the needed delegates to win, Kennedy would not concede, crafting an idea about releasing delegates from their primary commitments when they arrived in New York. Bloodied and bruised, they arrived for the convention to a raucous, yet highly divided Democratic base, all while GOP candidate Ronald Reagan sat back and basked in the knowledge that he would obliterate either man, come November.

Ward offers a wonderfully detailed description of the goings-on at the Democratic Convention, including Kennedy’s last attempt to wrestle control away from the sitting president. However, nothing could outdo the events surrounding the last night, when Kennedy handed Carter the snub seen round the world. From there, it was a rocky push through the general election campaign, where Reagan all but handed victory to Carter, who fumbled many chances to bury the ‘television lightweight’. In the end, with Carter trounced and the Democrats in disarray, both men turned away from the presidential limelight. Carter was shunned by his party and turned to a life of humanitarian aid and writing, while Kennedy spent one final decade as a philanderer, while honing his skills as a senator and helped bring the institution together before his death. While it is impossible to know what might have happened in 1980, had things been a little different in the primaries or during the election, there is no doubt that the 1980 left a sour taste in the mouths of many watching the implosion of the Democratic Party by two men who refused to compromise. Camelot is gone, left crumbled by a bumbling third son and other relatives who have passed on. Gritty political battles are also a thing of the past, at least those played out on the convention floor during prime time. But, as we continue to see today, tearing a party apart remains a game that some play for the fun of it, leaving some to wonder if the GOP will resurrect the bloodbath this book depicted in 2020. A powerful narrative that engages the reader with anecdotes and historical accounts, sure to educate and entertain in equal measure. A must-read for political fanatics such as myself, especially those who love American politics.

While I am a fan of political history, particularly as it relates to presidential politics, this book stood out as something even more exceptional. Jon Ward delivers not only a description of the battle for the Democratic nomination in 1980, but serves to present a well-rounded biographical piece of the two main contenders. Mixing in many of the political flavours of the time, Ward supports his claims that this was to be the true litmus test of how the Democrats could meld two of their major factions ahead of another clash with the Republicans. Vowing not to be as criminal as Nixon or as blazé as Ford, the Party wanted to build on its successes, while also trying to ignore some of the domestic disasters that had befallen the Carter Administration since January 1977. In doing so, two men who refused to bow to one another began a battle that would ensure no stone was left unturned and allowed the world to watch as they destroyed one another. Unity was second to victory in August of 1980, with a sitting president being forced to fight for his own party’s stamp of approval, though it was from the last man in a family that had owned the Democrats for decades. Ward uses not only press coverage, but interviews, behind the scenes candid depictions, as well as poll sentiments at the time to develop a narrative that permits the reader to feel right in on the action. Vicious attacks were lodged and stubbornness helped disintegrate any form of coming together before the prime time disaster that encapsulated the Democratic Party coming apart. Who was to blame for all of this? Ward offers some suggestions in his powerful prose, though it is up to the reader to decide in the end. With powerful chapters full of research, Jon Ward offers readers that detailed look into the political goings-on leading up to the 1980 Convention and how it took years for the Democrats to recover and unite to defeat their GOP opponents, at least for the White House. I am so pleased this book found its way onto my radar and hope to find more in line with this style soon.

Kudos, Mr. Ward, for a great story of political undoing in the modern age. I will have to find more of your work, especially if it is as easy to comprehend.

Thin Blue Line (Blake Jordan #7), by Ken Fite

Eight stars

When I discovered the writing of Ken Fite a number of years ago, I could not get enough. Be it a busy schedule or a pile of books that needed to be read on a deadline, my attention turned away from his Blake Jordan thrillers for a time. However, I found a gap in my reaidnfgf commitments that allowed me to return to this explosive collection. Blake Jordan has lost none of his gusto in another fast-paced thriller that puts the reader in the middle fo the action. Fite delivers another winner with this book, set on the streets of New York City!

While in NYC with his fiancée , Blake Jordan receives a call. There’s an unknown hooded man who has blown up a building and making an odd demand, the release of a prisoner from a local facility. Jordan knows the prisoner well, having served with Dallas Webb in the SEALs years before. As Jordan tries to piece it all together, he is baffled as to what’s gong on and how he can help before things go south.

While he is happy to lend a hand, there are others within various agencies that do not feel Blake Jordan will be much help. Still, there’s no time to lose, especially when another bomb goes off. Through some high-tech tracing, the hooded man is revealed to be someone who knows Dallas Webb well, though there is no way he can be who he appears. Jordan continues on his pursuit, hoping to neutralise things before they get too hot.

With the potential of a nuclear event, politicians at all levels rush to assert authority, none higher than POTUS. Still, Jordan will keep him cool and try to protect NYC and all those who call it home. Along the way, Blake Jordan learns that some would jeopardize everything for their own time in the limelight, something that must be stopped before countless others are harmed. Ken Fite offers up a brilliant piece I could not help but devour in a single day!

There are few authors I can sit and read with such ease as Ken Fite. I remember devouring a few of his early novels, polishing each off in a single day. The writing is strong and the plot is something that pulled me in. Fite knows what he’s doing and has crafted Blake Jordan in such a way that things seem to flow with ease. Anyone looking for a thrilling collection need look no further than these novels.

Ken Fite opens with an addictive narrative that never loses its momentum. The story build and the characters all find rather places on the stage, as the action takes over. Poignant themes emerge and are complemented by a stellar plot, all while keeping the backstory developing and characters seeking to make their niche known. Series fans will applaud the seamlessness that occurs between novels. While it has been over two years since I read a Fite book, I felt as though I had just finished the sixth novel and picked this one up . Pure enjoyment for all!

Kudos, Mr. Fite, for a great read. I have two more of your books to tackle, which I know will be just as thrilling.

The Christmas Train, by David Baldacci

Nine stars

I love this holiday classic, even if it is totally cheesy. It is one of my annual reads at this time of year and I hope it can be added to a holiday TBR list for others as well.

Baldacci brings his readers a holiday classic sure to stoke the fires of the heart and keep the holiday season on track. Tom Langdon is on a mission, to get from New York to LA in time for Christmas. After a slightly intrusive and highly problematic search by airport security, Langdon finds himself on a red-flag list, still needing to get to the City of Angels. As a seasoned journalist, he tries to make the most of his issue and decides to take to the rails aboard Amtrak’s best and brightest, writing all about his adventures. His multi-day journey puts many interesting and unique characters in his path, as well as some highly humourous adventures and even a mystery or two. As the miles fly by, Langdon discovers that there is more to the train than a slower means of getting from A to B. When someone from his past appears on the journey alongside him, Langdon discovers true meaning of the holidays and how the heart is the best guide on any of life’s trips. A nice break for Baldacci thriller readers, the book is a wonderful addition to the annual holiday traditions.

I would be remiss if I did not agree with many that this book is not cut from the usual cloth Baldacci presents. That said, its hokey nature is offset by the wonderful story Baldacci tells and the humour he is able to weave into the larger narrative. I have read this book many time before and love it each time, finding some new aspect to cherish. Baldacci is a master at storytelling and this book is proof positive that his flexible ideas can stand the test of time and genre diversification.

Kudos, Mr. Baldacci, for this holiday treat that ranks right up there with shortbread and eggnog.

Waiting for Santa: A Holiday Short Story, by David Baldacci

Eight stars

Another sensational holiday re-read!!

Tucked away in the back of Baldacci’s The Christmas Train, he offers up an extremely short and touching piece around the holidays. After losing his wife in childbirth and his day-old daughter, Sara, on Christmas Day, the narrator recounts how he would take the annual trek down to the mall to watch the children queue up with parents to whisper their desires into the ear of the ever-patient Santa. Eight years into this experience, he meets Sara, who has lost her parents in an accident. While they wait in line, Sara tells of how she misses her parents a great deal, basking in the love they had for her, even if she cannot remember them as people. Sara wants nothing more than to be adopted and have new parents, a wish she has been telling Santa for as long as she can remember. With an aging grandmother, Sara is not sure what her future brings, but hopes she can eventually feel the love of two families, the one she lost and the one out there for her. This touching experience leads our narrator to explain how he found love and had a son of his own. When he arrives at the mall to introduce young Timothy to Santa, he remembers his encounter with Sara and feels the connection his life has, as well as the love of two perfect families. A great story that I never noticed in all the years I read (and listened to) Baldacci’s holiday classic. A wonderful read for the reader who is looking for something as the coffee (or cocoa) cools slightly on December 25th.

Baldacci shows another side of himself in this Christmas story, seeking to pull on the heart strings of the reader who is used to fast-paced crime and thriller pieces. He is able to pull the reader in with so few words, exemplifying how wonderful a writer he has become. This piece was sandwiched between his entire writing career and, while penned over a decade ago, still evokes emotion and curiosity in the open-minded reader.

Kudos, Mr. Baldacci, for yet another piece I will add to my annual collection of Christmas stories to read. I am thankful for the family I have and this story helps solidify these sentiments.

What Lies in the Woods, by Kate Alice Marshall

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Kate Alice Marshall, and Macmillan Audio for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

New to the world of Kate Alice Marshall, I reached for this ARC in hopes of finding a new author with whom I can connect. Marshall’s eerie story pulled me in from the opening pages and I did not want to let go until all was revealed. An intense thriller that leave the reader wondering if all is as it seems until much is revealed with reorganised memories. Impactful and well worth my time, Kate Alice Marshall is an author worth noting.

Naomi Shaw had a magical childhood, which culminated in the summer of her eleventh year. It was then that she and her two best friends, Cassidy and Olivia, played in the woods, creating a magical game all their own. It was also that summer when Naomi was attacked and almost killed, leading to the capture of a serial killer who had been racking up victims for a significant time. Naomi, a victim in her own right, testified and put the killer away, making her a hero and one who always fought the limelight, even when she did not want it.

It was two decades later that Naomi received a call that the man who had attacked her was dead. Finally she could breathe a sigh of relief, though changing her name had already helped with that. Naomi returns to her hometown to tie off some of the loose ends, particularly with Cassidy and Olivia. However, the suddenly apparent suicide of Olivia with a note apologising for being a ‘part of the lies’ turns the tables on everything from that summer twenty years ago. Might the girls have used their young age and the wave of publicity around the serial killer to point the finger at the wrong man?

As the truth comes crashing down on Naomi, she must relive the past and piece things together in the correct order, no matter how painful it might be. Chilling as it seems, the truth must come out, but Naomi wants to be in charge of its dissemination, as it will surely tarnish her image. However, a man has died in prison who might have been innocent of all crimes, as three girls lapped up the stardom their victimhood brought along with it. Marshall tells an electrifying story and keeps the reader in the centre of things as they come to fruition.

New authors can be a joy to a reader who has experience in specific genre. Well-paced stories that attract attention with ease make for an exciting adventure and leaves readers thirsting for more. Kate Alice Marshall did that for me, introducing her writing in such a way that it is hard to stop once the momentum takes over.

A strong narrative is at the heart of the reading experience, keeping me hooked from the opening page. The premise, a young girl captured and almost killed, had me wanting to know more, even as the narrative was slow to reveal truths. Building with decent characters, all of whom had a story of their own, as well as flashback moments that fill in the blanks, I kept wanting to learn a little more. A plot that never stayed clearly pointed in one direction had me hoping to get to the truth, while perceived reality dominated. Marshall has me wanting to read more of her work, as soon as I can get my hands on it, as this was one thriller that will stay with me for a while.

Kudos, Madam Marshall, for leaving that indelible mark and making me want to get deeper into your writing. I can only hope there is more to come, as this was a reading experience I will be sharing with others.

The Devil You Know (Detective Margaret Nolan #3), by P.J. Tracy

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, P.J. Tracy, and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Long a fan of P.J. Tracy and their work (from the era when it was a duo and now a single author), I have followed things from the Monkeewrench series to this new collection. While things have proven to be less impactful for me, the stories remain strong and have the needed spark to attract many readers. Full of action and set on the West Coast, Tracy keeps the reader guessing in this unique police procedural that has subtle undertones of personal struggle. Tracy has done well as a single author, though I do miss the duo that had my rapt attention with every turn of the page.

LAPD Detective Margaret Nolan is back with a new case that takes her into all aspects of the city’s citizenry, including the stars who feel that they are untouchable. While the every day citizen toils and the dark underbelly use crime to get by, there is a privilege the rich feel they have, and Nolan sees this first hand. She’s also forced to contend with her own issues, which might pale in comparison, but are still prevalent as she does her job each day.

Prominent actor Evan Hobbes turns up dead in the rubble of a recent rockslide. Shouldering accusations of child pornography kept Hobbes from being able to live his best life, but Detective Nolan thinks that there might have been more than a rockslide involved in his death. The world of the entitled makes Nolan’s job all the more difficult, parsing through truth and deception. Still, Detective Nolan is determined to get to the bottom of what’s happened and who might have wanted to smear Hobbes’ name.

When another body turns up, with strong connections to Hobbes, Detective Nolan is all but assured that there is a killer on the loose; someone with an axe to grind and message to deliver. Detective Nolan will have to work with her team to get to the bottom of what’s happening, all while she tries to deflect the gleam of riches and entitlement that stardom leaves in its wake. With a killer hiding, Detective Nolan knows that this will be a challenge, but when has she ever shied way from it? A great addition to the series!

Authors surely undergo a transformation for a number of reasons, be they personal changes or writing styles. P.J. Tracy is one of those authors, moving from a strong mother-daughter duo into the daughter alone after the death of the elder. I have seen a significant change in the writing, which is to be expected. I have not been able to connect as much with this new series, but it could simply be that my writing tastes have shifted as well. Still, this is a series that has a great deal of potential and should attract the attention of many readers.

The key to a strong police procedural is to keep the crime at the centre of the narrative and build from there. P.J. Tracy does that well, adding her own flavouring with characters and setting development. Plot twists throughout keep the reader guessing, which permits things to be less than predictive. I appreciated this, as well as shorter chapters, which propelled the story forward. While I did not feel as connected to the story, I can appreciate how some would find this to be their perfect reading experience.

Kudos, Madam Tracy, for a decent novel that is sure to impress many, even if it was not something about which I can rave.

Devil’s Way (Kate Marshall #4), by Robert Bryndza

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Robert Bryndza, and Raven Street Publishing for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Always eager to get my hands on novels by Robert Bryndza, I reached for this ARC in the Kate Marshall series. Pushing the limits of private investigation, Kate and her associate delve into some of the seedier cases across the UK, only to discover how past secrets can emerge and haunt those who hoped they would stay buried. Bryndza spins quite the tale here, pulling the reader into the middle of it all with an impactful novel.

After a freak swimming accident leaves Kate Marshall hospitalised, she has a great deal of time on her hands. Some of that time is spent speaking to her roommate, who recounts the horror of her missing grandson. Charlie Julings disappeared during a family camping trip eleven years earlier. Kate, in a moment of medicated curiosity, agrees to take the case, working with her associate, Tristan. How could a little boy disappear into thin air?

After trolling the area and determining that Charlie did not fall into the raging river close by, at least by police investigative notes, Kate and Tristan must look elsewhere for more information. When Kate learns that a social worker who had been looking into Charlie’s well-being was brutally murdered two weeks after the disappearance, the case takes on a new level of interest.

Could Charlie still be alive? Is someone harbouring a deep secret that cannot get out? With the help of a few others, Kate and Tristan begin piecing things together, in hopes of bringing some peace to a family that has been on the edge for over a decade. Bryndza does a masterful job spinning this tale, keeping the reader wondering until the very end.

I have come to expect great things from Robert Bryndza when reading his novels, as he has impressed me so much in the past. Crime procedurals that pack a punch and leave things slightly off-kilter, these novels never fail to leave a lasting impression. Great narrative approaches help shape the story and propel it along, with a few twits to keep the reader from feeling too comfortable along the way.

Both of Bryndza’s crime thriller series had the advantage of a strong narrative foundation, keeping though moving and forcing the reader to pay close attention. Bryndza weaves his story through the narrative, which encapsulates the intensity of the moment, while adding characters who flavour things for the reader’s enjoyment. Plot twists abound, as does the necessary character development, leaving readers feeling a sense of comfort and discomfort in the same breath. I have long enjoyed the work of Robert Bryndza and this was no exception. I only hope that there is more to come, as Kate Marshall is one character who remains somewhat of a mystery to me.

Kudos, Mr. Bryndza, for another winner!

All the Dangerous Things, by Stacy Willingham

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Stacy Willingham and Macmillan Audio for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Back with a new and intense novel, Stacy Willingham presents readers with something chilling. A story that has multiple layers and an eerie resonance the more that is revealed, Willingham dazzles and keeps the reader gasping. Well-paced and full of twists, this is one story that will have to be absorbed attentively, as pieces subtlety fall into place as the narrative crescendos. A great addition to a genre that has been gathering momentum over the past few years!

It’s been a year since Isabelle Drake had her worst fears realised. Her young son, Mason, was taken from his crib in the middle of the night while the rest of the house slept. Since then, Isabelle has been trying to find him and attending true crime symposiums to pass along the news. Isabelle has turned into a raging insomniac, vowing that she will sleep only when Mason is safely returned to her.

The disappearance causes strains in her marriage, as well as accentuating a number of memories from her past, when Isabelle’s childhood sleepwalking was at its worst. Isabelle struggles with these memories as well as the possibility that she may have unwittingly harmed Mason.

If that were not enough, Isabelle tries to juggle her estranged husband’s actions, as well as a crime blogger who wants to know more about what happened. The pressure is enough to make anyone crack, though Isabelle must be keep a facade of calmness to ensure no one suspects anything. An intense thriller that Stacy Willingham as created, sure to impress many readers, to at least keep them flipping well into the night.

I discovered Stacy Willingham through her debut novel a number of months ago. Her work is both chilling and well-paced, making me want to explore more and dig a little deeper within the narrative. With strong characters who accentuate a decent plot, the story moves along well and keeps the reader guessing. Quick chapters help push things along, though there are enough twists to also whet the appetite of the hungry reader. Not to be missed and proof that Willingham keeps getting better!

A story needs direction in order to succeed for me. I found Willingham to have all the needed elements to develop a strong story from the outset. The narrative direction is strong and keeps the reader wanting to know more, as does the handful of strong characters, all of whom have a purpose throughout the piece. Chapters serve as teasers and make things move well, without getting in the way of the momentum. I like Willingham’s style and found her delivery to be on point throughout. I’m eager to see what else she has in store for fans in the coming months.

Kudos, Madam Willingham, for an entertaining read. Keep the publications coming.

The Nazi Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill, by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Brad Meltzer, Josh Mensch, and Macmillan Audio for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

A longtime fan of Brad Meltzer’s writing, I have come to also admire his collaborative work with Josh Mensch. Together, these two pen stellar pieces of ‘little known’ history that allow the reader to feel refreshed when reading about topics that have sometimes been overdone. Meltzer and Mensch explore a unique angle of the Second World War, as well as a plot that would have changed the world significantly. Eager to wrap my head around this piece, I devoured the book and was left to wonder ‘what if…’ on numerous occasions.

After a tumultuous few years in the Second World War, US President Franklin Roosevelt is looking forward to meeting with this two greatest allies, Winston Churchill (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) and Joseph Stalin (leader of the USSR). While these three men have been juggling the war on two major fronts, they have yet to sit down as a group of three to plot out how to exterminate Hitler and the Nazis. Secret discussions determine that Tehran, Iran would be the ideal place for these three to meet and hash out a plan to neutralise Germany before any other Axis powers can come to their aid.

While planning remained covert, the Nazis had a stellar spy network that leaked the information back to the highest level within the Party. Hitler and his closest associates thought it best to plot something so nefarious that it would not only show his might, but also resonate deeply, while crippling the war effort. Hitler thought it best to use German soldiers to infiltrate the Tehran meeting and assassinate all three men, thereby turning the tables on a growing Allied effort in 1943. Hitler would expect nothing less than success. While the end result was anything but spectacular for the Nazis, Meltzer and Mensch posit that the entire plan could have been a Russian piece of war folklore.

The authors take the reader through the build-up to this remarkable summit, as well as the Nazi planning to kill all three leaders. Paced with wonderful anecdotes, asides, and a great narrative, Meltzer and Mensch offer the reader a new look into a very documented period in world history. While I vowed not to read anything set during the Second World War—mostly because I was tired of hearing about Nazi death camps and Hitler marching across Europe—I was happy to read this piece and learn a great deal as I devoured the text.

Meltzer and Mensch have worked together before and impressed me with their efforts. Taking a little known event and turning it into a great piece of writing proved helpful yet agin. From the inside look at all four sides (US, UK, USSR, and German), as well as some of the cultural aspects to a summit in Iran, the authors provided an impactful piece that is sure to garner a great deal of attention. I am pleased I took the gamble and am happy to see Brad Meltzer keeping his avenues open with a variety of writing projects geared towards different audiences. Well worth the effort, particularly with Scott Brick as narrator for those who listen to the audiobook.

Kudos, Messrs. Meltzer and Mensch, for a stunning look at history through a unique lens. I am eager to see what other projects you two have in the works.

How Mrs. Clause Saved Christmas (Christmas Chronicles #2), by Jeff Guinn and Layla Nicholas

Nine stars

Part of my annual re-reads!

This holiday season, I discovered a gem in Jeff Guinn’s Autobiography of Santa Claus, which provided me with some wonderful context of all things related to St. Nicholas and Christmas. In this follow-up piece, Guinn tuns his sights on Layla, also known as Mrs. Claus, who played a central role in the aforementioned book, but also has her own story.

In the opening section of this book, Guinn backs up much of what was outlined in the autobiography, as well as laying the backstory for Layla. After being left a great deal of money when her parents died in the late 4th century, Layla decided to take up offering gifts to the less fortunate children, where she encountered Nicholas and Felix—his sidekick—in a most interesting manner. After agreeing to work together, she and Nicholas grew closer before falling in love. Their efforts, soon supported by an ever-growing group of helpers, continued for many years, as Nicholas and Layla honed their skills and focused attention on certain nights around the world.

While much of Europe had come to accept Christmas, there was a move away from its acceptance at the end of the Tudor dynasty in Britain, tied specifically to the squabbles between the Catholics and Protestants. As ships sailed to the New World, Puritans began setting up colonies in American, leaving Nicholas to decide there was a need for his presence there, ensuring the Christmas spirit made its mark.

Layla stayed back in Britain, where Parliament and Charles I were at odds over governing, putting Christmas in jeopardy. Puritans in Parliament were led by Oliver Cromwell, who interacted regularly with Layla. While Layla sought to keep Christmas special in Britain, Cromwell sited that it was only a means of justifying drunkenness and debauchery, two things the Puritans could not abide.

Meanwhile, some of the others in the group began creating a new-fangled sweet, a peppermint confection that left a buzz on the tongue. When news arrived that Layla was atop the list of Puritan traitors, she was ushered off to Canterbury for safe keeping. Still, the English Civil War raged on and Christmas was soon banned by legislation. Layla sought to promote Christmas from within, remaining off the radar while building up a small contingent of supporters in an effort to protest the ban. Creating a secret symbol to denote those who wanted to see Christmas protected for the masses—using those peppermint sweets shaped in a shepherd’s crook—Layla tried organising an effort to bring holiday magic back to Britain.

When Puritans caught Layla and her group, they were punished for their actions and sent to face the consequences. However, Layla refused to believe that Christmas would be muted and pushed to have others see the benefits of celebration, even among the most straight laced of Christians. With Nicholas so far away at the time, it was up to Layla to defeat Cromwell and his soldiers, bringing joy back to Britain at a time when politics left things balancing precariously. A great complement to Guinn’s first book in the series, sure to be appreciated by those who have read it. Recommended to those who love Christmas, as well as the reader who enjoys obscure historical facts.

I have always been in awe by Jeff Guinn’s writing, as it tells such an interesting story and adds little known facts to enrich the reading experience. After devouring the first book in this series, I had to get my hands on this book to see how they would mesh together. Guinn does well to construct Layla her own backstory and melds it with the story from the aforementioned autobiography before tackling the central issue of the book, Christmas suppression in Britain. Those who have read the first book will see that this tome differs greatly in that there is an elongated focus—almost a fictional tale—on this issue, turning Layla into the obvious protagonist.

Guinn develops some interesting Christmas tradition as he weaves together the puritanical suppression of Christmas during the English Civil War. Peppering the piece with some interesting characters and many aspects of English history, the reader ends up well-versed in all things Puritan and Oliver Cromwell. The twists and turns throughout leave the reader wanting to know more and wondering where the blurs between fact and fiction may lie. With a mix of chapter lengths, Guinn and Layla take the reader on countless adventures as they seek to shed light on the dark days of Christmas in 17th century England. Not to be missed by those who love Christmas, or those who seek a spark during this holiday season.

Kudos, Layla Nicholas and Mr. Guinn for helping to bring a smile to my face as I tackle this stunning Christmas read.

The Great Santa Search (Santa Chronicles #3), by Jeff Guinn

Eight stars

While others have filled their reading time this holiday season with some of the classics (I have as well), I stumbled upon this wonderful collection of Christmas pieces by non-fiction author Jeff Guinn and I cannot say enough about them. Working around the premise of telling the true story of Christmas from the perspective of Santa, Guinn has worked with the Big Man himself—and his wife, Layla—to shed light on how things came to be, as well as explaining some of the historical things that take place around this time of year. In this final piece, the story moves back to Nicholas and his perspective, filling in some of the final holes in the historical record, while also telling what some might call a slightly hokey piece of fiction as well. It was in the early 1840s that a storekeeper came up with the idea of bringing Santa to the children, allowing them to interact with him directly and tell some of what they might like. Nicholas was dead set against it, particularly when he saw the low caliber of ‘fake Santa’ the storekeeper intended to use. He vowed never to partake or condone it, though he understood some of the reasoning behind it all. When the emergence of malls appeared, ‘Mall Santas’ were all the rage, as the story shares some of their history. By the early 21st century, the story tells of a man who really wanted to capitalise on the Santa part of Christmas, creating a reality show to come up with the best one, who might act as spokesman for a high-end brand of toys. Nicholas, tired of seeing the subpar people chosen, is convinced to try out and show the world what Santa is really like. Trouble is, during auditions, he flubs it by trying to tell too much to a screening panel that only wants the basics, as known to every boy and girl. Santa will have to go another route, which includes qualifying through a Mall Santa candidacy, and thus begins the rigours of sitting and listening to what children would like. With the reality competition coming, Santa will have to train his mind and body, in hopes of not being eliminated before the final vote. Thankfully, he has a trusted group eager to assist. When the spotlight shines in New York on Christmas Eve, or dear Santa wants to be on stage, if only to show that the real thing wins the crown of BEST SANTA EVER! A slightly more comical take on all things Christmas, but a nice way to round things out in this series. Recommended to those who have enjoyed the other two books in the series, as well as the reading who likes some lighter fare at Christmas.

Jeff Guinn’s writing tells such a captivating tale, adding little-known facts to educate the reader throughout the experience. After devouring the first two books, I had to complete the series to see how everything comes together. Having penned a great deal about both Nicholas and Layla, it was time to fill in any gaps and provide more of a fictional account of how things could happen in this day and age. The references to many of the characters the series reader will already know enriches the experience, while complementing those who are newly added to the narrative. Guinn finds a way to mesh the mountain of information he has in an easy to digest read that will have readers flying through the pages with ease. With a mix of chapter lengths, Guinn and Nicholas take the reader through some of the more ‘reality-based’ aspects of current society, perhaps added their own social commentary. I felt that the piece had a slight ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ vibe to it on occasion, though it could be because I grew up on that film and love the nuances offered therein. While things did get a little hokey, I enjoyed the lighter reading and hope many will not become Scrooges to the entire series—as I noticed some did—if the caliber of this piece is not as high as the previous two, Not to be missed by those who love Christmas, or those who seek a spark during this holiday season.

Kudos, ‘Nicholas Holiday’ and Mr. Guinn for helping to remind me what Christmas is all about!

Missing (Bombay Crime Bureau #3), by Krishnaraj HK

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Krishnaraj HK for providing me with a copy of this novella, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

I was pleased to be handed yet another ARC for this series, a well-paced novella this time. Always ready to enjoy a great police procedural, I was eager to return to the Bombay Crime Bureau, where SSP Dev Shinde has a daunting case on his blotter. Using an Indian flavouring to advance the story, Krishnaraj succeeds once more with this series, keeping the reader guessing until the very end. Well-paced and with a few twists at the right spots, I found myself devouring the latest in the series.

After a young woman leaves a note to say that she’s gone off with her lover, the family is unsure how to proceed. Noor’s husband cannot face the rejection and won’t go looking for her, while their son is only ten and cannot wrap his head around what’s happened. Local police treat this with disdain and choose to let a number of days go by without putting any effort into the search. What’s even more baffling is that many of the city’s CCTV cameras show no sign of Noor whatsoever. Something seems off, but local police remain disinterested.

SSP Dev Shinde and the Bombay Crime Bureau are soon brought in to lead the case, with too many loose ends left dangling. Shinde has his team begin the investigation from scratch, in case previous members of the squad missed something. Questioning anyone and everyone, SSP Shinde and the Crime Bureau soon make a little headway in the form of another missing person, this time a young girl. Might the two be connected? If anyone can figure that out, it’s SSP Dev Shinde. Still, it will take all his efforts and a keen sense of the criminal mind to bring things to a reasonable close. A great story that takes the reader on quite the journey.

It was a gamble when first I tried one of these ARCs, but found myself completely absorbed and intrigued with how Krishnaraj writes and presents his stories. I readily accepted this latest police procedural novella, still waiting in for the full-length novel the author promised is on its way. I hoped that it would prove to be as strong as the previous publications, soon proven correct. The story is clear and creates twists throughout to keep the reader on their toes. Introducing the reader to some great characters and policing techniques, Krishnaraj has done it again with this story.

Police procedurals often require strong narrative direction, particularly for those unfamiliar with the local customs or laws. The reader can easily follow Krishnaraj’s writing, which keeps things moving briskly. Characters offer some depth throughout, which provides strong development. Plot twists keep the reader wondering, as well as providing an unpredictable realisation when things come together. I gladly read these shorter piece, but am also waiting for the full novel that appears to be ‘just around the corner’.

Kudos, Mr. Krishnaraj, for reaching out and providing a wonderful way to pass a few hours. Keep the stories coming, whenever you can.

The Autobiography of Santa Claus, as told by Jeff Guinn

Nine stars

Another sensational holiday re-read!

During the holiday season, I turned to the gifted biography writer, Jeff Guinn, to open my mind to what must have been one of his most entertaining projects. Christmas tends to be a time of giving and there are many who find Santa Claus, Father Christmas, or St. Nicholas to be a key player in promoting this amongst the youngest part of the population.

As Guinn reveals in the introduction, he was tasked with writing the autobiography of the man in red and provides a stunning piece for fans of all ages to enjoy. Born in what is now a region of Turkey in 280, Nicholas was always a very loving child. His parents doted on him before their death, when Nicholas was sent to live with the monks. While there, Nicholas discovered the art of secretly gifting to others who were less fortunate, a theme in his life for centuries to come. While things did not always go his way, Nicholas soon grew to become a priest and bishop, never forgetting those in need.

It was at this time, when Nicholas attained the age of 60 or so, that he discovered his power to never age. He did, however, disappear from public sight and those within the community eventually were said to have found him dead in his bed, thereafter burying him and paying homage. Still, Nicholas lived and provided wonderful gifts to those who least expected it. Nicholas soon met a few important members of his team that would help him deliver gifts: Felix (a man who was a slave, but shared Nicholas’ passion for giving) and Layla (another secret gifter, who became a romantic interest). They would soon gain the same magical ability to live forever and work with Nicholas as he travelled around and provided gifts for children in need.

Nicholas was eventually sainted, though he never let this get to his head, worrying more about how his power to help was stymied whenever they entered a war-torn area. Coming across many people to help as the world evolved and population growth continued, Nicholas soon honed his gift giving to a time between his name day (December 6th) and the Feast of Epiphany (January 6th).

As time progressed, St. Nicholas became better known in Europe and served to bring joy to the lives of little ones, but with the discovery of the New World came Puritans who sought to rid the region of any celebratory connection to Christmas and Nicholas himself. It was at this time that Britain faced their own internal struggles and Christmas was all but wiped off the map. Diligently, St. Nicholas worked with his team to inject a new love of the holiday season.

In what seems like a rush through the ages, the newly nicknamed Santa Claus tells how he acquired the name and what new people he met along the way that helped to shape the modern idea that many have about him, from his use of chimneys to flying reindeer and even tie-ins to many songs depicting his jolly nature.

The latter portion of the book finds Santa settling in the North Pole to work and live permanently, an interesting tale all its own. How a man could have left an impact on children for close to 1800 years astounds me, but it is all here in this sensational autobiography that Jeff Guinn helped pen. Masterful in its detail and ties to historical events, this is sure to become a book readers return to regularly to spark a new light in their holiday traditions. Recommended for the lover of history, as well as those who enjoy learning a little more about the Christmas that one cannot find on the store shelves.

I have always been in awe when reading anything Jeff Guinn writes and this piece was no exception. While I have been aware of some facts about Nicholas throughout his life, I had no idea about the majority of the information depicted here, nor how it all tied together. Guinn’s extensive research and, perhaps (?), some writing freedoms allows the reader to get lost in the story of how this man went from orphan at nine to being a central part of the Christmas tradition, accepted by those who may not be heavy into the religious symbols of the season. The nuances and side stories are so plentiful and fit like a jigsaw puzzle, connecting seamlessly into the larger narrative and make for a sensational piece of biographic work.

Like belief in St. Nicholas requires one to suspend reality at times, this book has moments where rational thought must be set aside and the magic of the season put front and centre. The attentive reader will be dazzled by what Guinn has done and will want to know more, which is thankfully available in two more volumes in the collection. With a mix of chapter lengths, Guinn and St. Nicholas take the reader on detailed or superficial journeys throughout the centuries, never skipping key aspects.

There are countless moments for the reader to learn the history of the time and how Christmas was once so controversial, as well as how Church and secular decisions created many precedents still used today (but whose origins many did not know). This has secured a spot on my annual Christmas reading list for sure and I will recommend this easy to comprehend piece to anyone who wishes a warm holiday read that brings out the child in us all.

Kudos, St. Nicholas and Mr. Guinn for reminding us what the holiday season is all about and ensuring no one ever forgets.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Eight stars

What a way to continue my annual Christmas reading…

If there is one story that is synonymous with Christmas, it would be Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. How I have gone so long in my life never having read this story, I do not know. I quite liked the movie from the early 1950s and always used that as my benchmark for what the story is all about, but chose to take the plunge and read Dickens’ actual words, yet another tradition that comes from the Victorian era.

As miserly Ebenezer Scrooge heads home late one Christmas Eve night, he is visited by the apparition of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, dead seven years. Marley’s apparition tells that Scrooge will be visited by three ghosts who will show him essential things that he needs to know.

While Scrooge scoffs at the entire process, he is startled when the first ghost appears to take him into the past. This experience shows Scrooge some of the events from his past and how he became the man he is today. A second ghost explores current decisions Scrooge has been making, including some of the most miserly choices he could have made. Quite startled by this point, Scrooge does not want the third visit, but must see life as it would be after his passing and how others will speak of him. This is enough to help bring about an epiphany for the elderly Ebenezer, who sees the world for what it could be. A Christmas classic that I will definitely add to my annual read list, this one is recommended for anyone eager to explore Christmas and its true meaning.

Many of my friends on Goodreads have read this book and are as astounded as me that I had never done so myself. I found myself enthralled from the opening sentences and remained captivated throughout. I will admit that I chose to let the stellar voice of Tim Curry guide me through the Audible version of this tale, which brought the experience to life for me and will be used each December, of that I can be sure. Dickens is a master storyteller and many renditions of this story have emerged over the years, all of which have their own spin on the story. The themes that come up as Scrooge explores his life are sensational and there is little about which any reader could complain. Divided into five distinct staves, Dickens pulls the reader in and keeps their attention until the final sentence, never letting things lose momentum. I can only hope to find more exciting tales in the years to come, to add to my December collection.

Kudos, Mr. Dickens, for a stunning story that touches the heart of each reader in its own way.

Against the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Rise of Conservatism, 1976-2009, by Neal Gabler

Nine stars

After being enthralled with the first volume of Neal Gabler’s biography of Ted Kennedy, I knew that I would have to come back for the second portion in short order. Gabler dazzles like few biographers I have ever read, providing context and insight into the life Kennedy lived while espousing the liberal dream in the first volume. With the winds beginning to blow towards conservatism, this second volume tackles that, as well as Kennedy’s greatest obstacle, the presidency. Trying to move out from his brothers’ shadows, Ted Kennedy had to decide whether he would run and how using his own merits might help him. Gabler does a phenomenal job at portraying Kennedy as a hard worker and passionate about the every day citizen, even in the face of significant conversation that sought to drown out his liberal flame. Poignant with some even more passionate entries than the first volume, Gabler does it again.

In the latter portion of volume one, Gabler presented the reader with the crossroads that Ted Kennedy faced in the mid-70s, with the political winds changing dramatically, The country had seen the rise of Nixon and the beginnings of a conservative change in their sentiments, followed by Watergate and the end of Vietnam, under President Ford. With the 1976 campaign for the White House heating up, Kennedy had a chance to toss his hat into the ring, but he chose to wait for another time, feeling that this was not his place. As he watched from the sidelines, an unlikely Democrat claimed the nomination and headed into the general election. Jimmy Carter appeared to be the antithesis of Kennedy’s liberal values and potential a Democrat in name only, something which worried Kennedy a great deal, and yet he remained outwardly quiet.

After Carter’s victory in ‘76, Kennedy had to work with the Administration, which proved painful. Carter did not share Kennedy’s values, trying to shut down the senator’s legislation, discussions, and any momentum that Kennedy might have. As Gabler puts it, Carter was always waiting for Kennedy to announce his campaign for 1980, which did not come until late in the lead-up to the primaries in January 1980. Kennedy waffled and weighed all his options, as America drifted further away from his liberal left towards the right and kept those the senator held dearest on the outside of the tent. When Kennedy did announce an intent to run against the incumbent Carter, it was a series of gaffes and a lack of connection to the people he long called his own that left the campaign drooping from the outset. As Gabler magically recounts in long chapters, the battle was on, though it took a long time to get going and Kennedy was always playing catch-up. Kennedy did appear to catch Carter, though it may have been a little too late. With Carter poised to capture the nomination and the Republicans locking up their candidate, Ronald Reagan, the fight was on for one final liberal push. Kennedy entered the 1980 Democratic National Convention hoping to challenge Carter on the floor and bring the party back to its liberal roots. It failed and Kennedy, seeing the writing on the wall, had to admit defeat, while promising never to let the winds of change extinguish his liberal flame.

Shaking off the pain of a defeat for the nomination, Kennedy watched Carter get pummelled in the election, with Reagan storming onto the scene. This was a battle that many media outlets thought Kennedy might have won had he been the Democratic nominee. Still, it was time for Kennedy to lick his wounds and hope that he could use his role in the Senate to rein in the Reagan Administration. As much as this might have been his plan, Kennedy appears to have dialled things back, according to Gabler. Feeling the conservative wind and how Reagan vilified the liberal perspective, Kennedy turned his attention to his own personal causes. It was only when a controversial Supreme Court nominee came before the Senate that Kennedy’s old ire returned and left Robert Bork embarrassed for all to see. Gabler shows how this was Kennedy’s time to shine and he did so, stymying the nominee and infuriating Reagan at the same time.

This ‘lay low’ technique continued after Kennedy chose not to run for president in 1988, clearing the way for VP George H.W. Bush to assume the role. Kennedy tried to push his liberal agenda and protect minorities from his perch, earning a few small victories with legislation to help those with disabilities and another push for additional civil rights. While Kennedy did make a small push on blocking Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, the spark came too late and was mired by Kennedy’s own personal issues with drink and tabloid scandal. This left Thomas to turn the tables on the Senate Judiciary committee and create a race issue out of something that had been sexual harassment claims by one of the nominee’s former colleagues. The family aura was quickly tarnishing and Ted Kennedy could not stand aside, as he was being painted with the same brush as some of his adult nephews, who found themselves in trouble with the law or in treatment centres. Even Kennedy’s own constituents wondered if it was time to step away from politics, as he was not proving to be an advocate for their needs, but rather dodging his own scandals.

This was a true wake-up call for Kennedy, who sought to realign himself to ensure that he had a purpose. His passion lay with legislating and representing the people of Massachusetts, which was strengthened when he ran in 1994 against his toughest Republican opponent yet, Mitt Romney, whose family had deep ties to national politics as well. Kennedy used this re-election campaign to find himself and reconnect with voters, showing that he still had the passion needed to serve and could put scandalous behaviour in the rear view mirror. Kennedy also used this time to work with President Bill Clinton on trying to forge new ground open some of his pet projects. While Clinton was passionate about healthcare he demurred when faced with the cost and the Herculean effort needed to pass it through a Congress led by ideological Republicans. Kennedy would return to Congress rejuvenated and help Clinton as best he could, with both legislative and social issues. Still, Kennedy had to wonder, as Gabler posits, whether this might be the path to his final swan song as an American politician and leader.

In a whirlwind of American political change, Kennedy saw the Democratic Party ebb and flow once more, particularly as the judicial branch weighed in on the 2000 presidential election. George W. Bush became the eventual leader but showed a willingness to look across the aisle and use Kennedy’s passions to help America, particularly with education reform. Gabler explores this odd relationship and how Ted Kennedy put partisan views aside to help children and enshrine their eduction into the American psyche. This collegiality was short-lived, though, particularly after President Bush began his War on Terror campaign, sending troops into Iraq and Afghanistan. Kennedy was adamantly opposed to the troop deployment, one of the only senators to voice those concerns, but received no support from his colleagues and proved to be a thorn in the side of the White House. Attempts to push through some important legislation proved insurmountable when many saw Ted as being unpatriotic for opposite gender US intervention. Could this have been the writing on the wall Ted Kennedy needed to see that his political career was done and that he ought to hang up his advocacy boots once and for all?

By the end of the Bush Administration, much had changed. A new tiredness with conservative ideals, packaged a number of ways by countless Republicans, left the electorate hungry for change. Kennedy could see that a new era of liberalism, or at least sustainable Democratic hope, had come to the party, particularly when a young Senator Obama began making waves. It was at this time that Ted Kennedy’s fallibility also showed its true colours, when he was diagnosed with an inoperable Brian tumour. Kennedy loud see the end was near and yet he wanted to ensure his country, his ideals, and his values were left to those who. old protect them. As Gabler presents a strong narrative in the final chapter, the country came to Ted Kennedy to offer their thanks, even politicians who used his name to rally support for the opposition . The Lion of the Senate and master of all things congressional would not be forgotten. The final Kennedy brother would soon be gone, but his mark would never fade. An outstanding two volume biography that is sure to touch any reader with the patience and open-mindedness to read it.

I have read many political biographies in my time, but Neal Gabler’s work stands apart from many. Gabler lays extensive groundwork about all aspects of Ted Kennedy’s life, which was full of struggles at each turn. Kennedy’s greatness is balanced with stumbles along the way, illustrated in a clear narrative style. There is so much material in this tome (let alone the opening volume) that many readers might find themselves overwhelmed, but Gabler synthesises and discusses things with ease. The themes emerge and come full circle throughout the narrative, allowing the attentive reader to bask in all the glory that Gabler has to offer. With long and detailed chapters, Gabler develops the message of Kennedy’s impact on American politics, while also dividing each segment into small sub-chapters, perhaps to aid with digestion. I could not have asked for more, though there is no doubt a great deal that was skimmed over, in order to get to the best parts of the Kennedy story. Those who have time and interest will surely not be disappointed whatsoever.

Kudos, Mr. Gabler, for this stunning portrayal of Edward Kennedy and America that. Saw a great deal of change over the years. I can only hope that some of your other work is just as intriguing.