The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency, Annie Jacobsen

Eight stars

Far away from anything the general public understands, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) lurks. These are the technological inventions the US Department of Defence use to further their abilities on the world scene. As author Annie Jacobsen posits, some of the technology is used by the US military two decades before it becomes public knowledge, leaving me to wonder what’s being worked on now. Jacobsen uses her exceptional research and writing abilities to provide the reader with a sensational look well behind the curtain and into the secrets the US Government has been using to further its stronghold around the world. Readers who enjoy this type of analysis will surely want to take detailed notes as they make their way through this book.

The need to be technologically advanced became essential for the US Government with the onset of the Cold War. As Jacobsen explains in the opening chapter of the book, secret tests for a new hydrogen bomb took place soon after the Second World War and the results were astronomical. From there, exploration into what other types of military and defence advancements could be done became the task of the day. As Jacobsen explores further, the bomb testing had some fallout no one could have expected, when cancers and other radiation-based diseases emerged in many of the scientists involved in the testing.

With the onset of wars in Asia, US Defence began looking at new strategies to defend against the enemy and scare Soviet-backed countries into submission before things got out of hand. While this might look good on the surface, as soon as technology is released, it can (and is) copied by others, meaning that US strategies to use bombs or chemicals would soon be met with an equally potent weapon by the opposition, making technological advancement essential. Jacobsen cites the emergence of napalm and other chemical weapons key to US success, though there was a need to be careful not to come across as violating war treaties and killing tons of innocent civilians.

This was also the era of new weaponry, which could be utilised and leave no outward scarring. Psychological warfare was becoming a key to successfully learning about the enemy and how to break them down. Jacobsen explores this and how the US military tried to find ways of extracting intel without leaving any permanent damage, though it would not be met without resistance and a form of retaliation by the North Vietnamese. Torture of the physical variety was effective and the North Vietnamese were happy to work with it, as it yielded the same results while offering a more permanent reminder to victims.

Moving through some of the new tech put in place to create stronger battlefield readiness, Jacobsen moves into the 21st century with discussions about the new enemy the Americans had to battle, the stateless terrorists. Using the over-flogged September 11, 2001 narrative, Jacobsen discusses DARPA’s reaction and how it needed to tighten the monitoring abilities to be hyper-aware of what was going on around the country (and the globe) to ensure that no one would be plotting anything of this magnitude again. While it remains somewhat murky in the book’s disc cushion as to whether DARPA or other agencies were fully aware of September11, the significant amount of egg left on America’s face was one that no one wanted to see again. Overriding the rights of the individual for the protection of the masses became a major issue and is still prevalent today,. Jacobsen does a masterful job at addressing it and keeps the reader’s plate full with all sorts of information.

In the latter portion of the book, as Jacobsen continues to reveal some of the stunning technologies, she touches on robotic advancements, used not only to spy on enemies, but also potentially to neutralise them when something is being done. Constructed to look like hummingbirds, dragonflies, or even beetles, DARPA is able to control these miniature drones to gather intel or serve as tiny bombs to kill those who are causing harm. It is so inventive and yet eerie to learn about this, leaving me to wonder what sort of detailed analysis I will undertake when next out on a picnic or talking a walk in the community.

While intelligence and military history is not of particular interest to me, I am always keen to see what going on ‘behind the curtain’. Knowing that the Americans are always on guard to be five steps ahead, I was keen to see what Annie Jacobsen could reveal from the many interviews she undertook for the book. The flow the the narrative and topics discussed proved to be the perfect fit for this book, keeping me well informed and always hungering for a little more. Chapters flowed well, one topic into another, and I could see how military intelligence and battlefield readiness would be important to Americans and likely some of their allies. With the world scene changing on a daily basis, it is interesting to see what’s available, even if what the public sees is usually two decades old. I have enjoyed other tomes by Annie Jacobsen and will likely return to see what else she has penned before too long. This was an eye opening experience and I am eager to see what others think of it as well!

Kudos, Madam Jacobsen, for another great book that taught me so much.

Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, by Alex von Tunzelmann

Nine stars

I have often wondered about the history surrounding the creation of the independent country of India and how it split with the British Empire. When I saw that Alex von Tunzelmann had penned a thorough history of this, I was quick to find a copy so that I could educate myself a little more. There is no doubt that von Tunzelmann does a spectacular job with this book, educating the reader throughout and keeping the story moving. With so many actors and moving parts, it can be somewhat daunted to try deciphering everything, but the book sets itself up to be both thorough and clear in its delivery, making the experience all the more enticing for me. I cannot say enough about Alex von Tunzelmann and how pleased I am to have found this book.

India’s complexity is nothing if not daunting. British historian Alex von Tunzelmann makes this clear in the opening chapters of the book, as she tries to offer readers some context as to how the jewel in the British Empire became one of its most troubling children, with a number of players who sought independence as soon as it was possible. The reader discovers Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Louis ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten. all of whom played central roles in the development of the mature Indian state and its push for independence. But events did not emerge one sunny day, without context, which is why von Tunzelmann spends the first few chapters providing content about these men and their upbringing, as well as how this fit into the larger Indian narrative. The reader can see how each had their upbringing that would shape their political and social opinions for decades to come, all coming together in the independence of India in 1947.

As the history progresses, it becomes clear that Gandhi and Nehru sought independence for Indian from different perspectives but pushing for the same reasoning; India deserved to rule itself and its people sought control of their own politics. Nehru used parliamentary means, with his stunning prose and ability to negotiate effectively, as the narrative reflects at numerous points. Gandhi, on the other hand, chose acts of defiance and publicly drew attention to himself for the cause. He would have fasting periods in order to seek Indian independence, trying to blackmail the British into doing something that would ensure India received what it deserved. When Mountbatten came into the scene, as India’s viceroy, he served to represent the Crown, but could see that his role was being watered down by local sentiment, no matter how hard he tried. The jewel in the British crown was loosening and it was only a matter of time before there would be nothing left for the British to hold onto, no sense of connection or population wanting Britain’s protection.

While the inevitable was happening, India was not in pristine shape. It had countless issues within its borders, with vast swaths of different social and religious groups, each wanting their own voice and potential independence from a central government. The Muslim heavy area of the country sought their own state (what would be Pakistan) and the Sikh population also wanted something of their own. The British could see that the new Indian state would not rush off without issue, but stepped back as a swift August 15, 1947 date approached for handing things over. As von Tunzelmann explores, the Indian preparatory stage was wrought with bumps and bruises, trying to see what would be ‘India’, what would go to Pakistan, and which parts would declare for themselves. The narrative clips along by this point, providing some interesting asides as plans for the Royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip fast approached, casting some shadow in Britain on the dismantling of the Empire.

In the final section of the book, von Tunzelmann explores the infancy of India and how it sought to keep together. Britain was not prepared to keep the training wheels on, nor did some within India want them. However, there were struggles to get a unified message of independence out to the world, as the USSR—living almost in the geographic backyard—looked for allies in the brewing Cold War. This could prove to be a key challenge, but India appeared keen to keep its support focussed on the US and UK, rather than turn to the Soviets. This would be one country that could be a real powerhouse, depending on which way it chose to offer its support. The key actors died for their causes, though each was able to see India move into a successful country,. The next generation moved in and filled the void, pushing the world’s largest democracy towards the 21st century.

The greatest thing about reading a book for me is what I will discover within its pages. Alex von Tunzelmann makes sure that I come away with something, in this case, a great deal, to contemplate and synthesis for myself. I do enjoy learning and there was a great deal of that in this tome, as the history moved along at breakneck speed. The narrative flow worked well, usually pushing forward in a chronological fashion, while the reader is forced to pluck bits of knowledge along the way. Chapters within the book are well themed, but also keep the reader in suspense, at least for those who are not familiar with the history of the region or India itself. To say that a great deal happened in a short period of time would be an understatement, but von Tunzelmann provides thorough accounting of everything and left the reader with so much to digest. I got so much out of this book and can only hope that others who take the time to read it will do the same.

Kudos, Madam von Tunzelmann, for educating me in a way that proved entertaining as well!

Haunting Pasts (Mabel Davison #3), by Trevor Wiltzen

Eight stars

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

After I discovered local author Trevor Wiltzen and his writing not too long ago, I was hooked. When WIltzen offered me an ARC of the latest in the Mabel Davison series, I could not agree fast enough. The series takes Mabel, a diner waitress and motel owner, out of her comfort zone and turns her into an amateur sleuth and private investigator. Her sole focus has been to discover the whereabouts of a number of missing girls around her part of Washington State. Add to it the fact that it’s 1987, away from a great deal of the tech seen in more modern thrillers I read, and the story takes on new dimensions that I cannot help but love. Wiltzen has a great following and I am pleased to be one of them, as this novel adds more tension, excitement, and mystery to a really great series.

Mabel Davison has a great deal on her plate, both literally and figuratively. Running a motel and diner in her small Washington State community, Mabel has been pulled into the middle of an investigation to find a number of missing girls. The case has gone cold but Mabel is not letting the local authorities deter her from getting to the root of the mystery. Juggling three kids at home and a husband who’s recently returned to her life, Mabel has little time to stop and think.

She’s keen to keep looking for the two remaining missing girls who have yet to be accounted for. This leads Mabel to the local jail, where one of the gang members she helped put away on another crime is willing to share a little intel. While there is a great deal of bravado and likely some lies, there’s a truth buried in there that Mabel cannot discount, leading her to open new pathways in hopes of locating these girls.

Scouring over the details, Mabel discovers that the man who could be behind this is not only a potential serial killer, but could also be someone she knew from her past. As Mabel tries to keep her family safe, she refuses to stand down, no matter the threat, in hopes of putting the final pieces together and solving a case many thought too inconsequential. These girls are out there, in some form, as is the man said to have been involved. Mabel will have to tread carefully, as she points the finger at someone and gathers evidence to convince the police to act.

Trevor Wiltzen is one of those authors who has a good thing going, but modesty keeps him from wanting to shout from the rooftops. I am not afraid to do that for him, as this series is a great collection and keeps readers on their toes throughout. Mabel Davison, like Wiltzen, just wants to get the job done, but deserves some praise for her dedication. She fits in nicely with the strong narrative and reveals much about herself as the story advances. A few plot twists emerge and keep the reader guessing where things are headed. Perhaps the best part of the story for me is the pre-tech boom sleuthing that takes place, where rotary telephones and microfiche are the dazzling items of the day. Wiltzen has a winner here and I hope others will take the time to read this series, if only to learn more about Mabel and those around her.

Kudos, Mr. Wiltzen, for keeping the series strong and providing readers with something amazing.

The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams, by Stacy Schiff

Nine stars

Stacy Schiff has always done a masterful job at writing about people whose lives shaped world history, but about whom little is concretely known by me. She returns with another great piece, this time about Samuel Adams, who is not just a name slapped on a beer label. Schiff explores the man and his importance to colonial America, outside of simply being one of those men bandied around when mention of Washington, Jefferson, and Revere enter the conversation. Great storytelling and a keenness to provide little known facts help Stacy Schiff stand out from others who seek to pen great biographies.

Samuel Adams lived his early years in Massachusetts, under the tutelage of parents who taught him right from wrong. His passion always appeared to lay with educating himself, though the mid-19th century did not permit too many options for a poor family. Still, Adams was able to secure a spot at Harvard College and excelled in his studies, ruminating over what his thesis ought to be, while others pondered more mundane topics. This passion to learn and express himself showed the early signs of the man he would become in the American colonies.

After marrying Elizabeth Checkley, Adams knew that he would have to make a name for himself, or at least find a way to provide for his family. Adams became a collector of debts, making sure those who were behind faced swift retribution. As Schiff mentions, the irony that Adams could get monies from others and yet fell deeply behind in his own debt repayment is not lost on historians. Adams did as well as he could, especially as his family continued to grow. However, tragedy did not pass him over, as Elizabeth died not long after one of her numerous stillbirths, an event that shook Adams to his core.

While Samuel Adams was once again a bachelor, he caught the eye of a second woman, someone who appeared to be the perfect match for the young Adams. Schiff pulls on some commentary by Samuel’s cousin, the famed John Adams, who cited that Elizabeth Wells was just the type of woman Samuel deserved and it appears that later letters between the two would show just how in love they were with one another. It was around this time that things in the Massachusetts colony began to get more intense, as Britain passed the Stamp Act and would soon expect not only stamped insignias of the Crown on all published documents, but a tax to be paid to the Crown. Calls of ‘no taxation without representation’ began to echo through the streets across the colonies, though Massachusetts appeared more willing to appease the Crown than others. Adams noticed the sentiment against the British growing and could feel that something was on the horizon, though it had yet to foment into full rebellion.

While Adams wanted to keep the calm, he knew that the British were upping the pressure and trying to press the colonies to become even more subservient. Schiff mentions around this time that Britain had not taxed the colonies before because of their ‘infancy’ but that the time was right to do so. One can only surmise that this lit a fuse under many, both within and outside Massachusetts, which starting creating added animosity and tension. British soldiers, the embodiment of the London Government, became the target of attacks, at which time they retaliated. There are numerous mentions in the text at this time about skirmishes and how Adams was there, even if he was not firing or tossing stones. Animosity was building and it was only so long before it would boil over completely.

Adams’ ability to write and communicate made him a precious commodity when the colonial leaders wanted to express themselves. As Schiff explores, Virginia was the centre of the colonial attempts at rallying to unite, but Massachusetts had strong-willed individuals who would be perfect for the cause, Samuel Adams being one of them. He was spoken of fondly by his cousin, but could also be said to possess his own character worthy of being remembered. Samuel Adams came to realise that the colonies were no longer being respected by Mother England or the Crown, but rather treated as a toddler and kept under thumb. There was talk of considering pushing away, especially when not given a chance to speak or participate in debate over issues that would regularly affect those in the colonies, as well as trying to etch out a set of rules by which colonial residents would live with their own governing body, albeit local and loosely enforced. When Britain scoffed at any independence or voice for the colonies, Adams and his compatriots knew something was in the air. Add to that, England was still pushing taxation and high fees on colonial residents while refusing to let them have a say at the bargaining table.

In an intense progression through the latter portion of the book, Schiff shows how the animosity between the British and colonies, with Adams in the middle of the fray. While colonial leaders knew they could not back down, they would have to play it safe or risk being crushed. Adams and some of the other leaders were able to create a tension amongst locals against the British, such that there was no question of relenting. As the narrative builds, Schiff shows how Adams grew into his “revolutionary” moniker honestly, as he rallied everyone to the need for British remove and the yoke of oppression to be cast off. While it would not be swift, it was necessary and proved to be one of Adams’ greatest moments, using great oratory and written documents to light a fire under those who had the ability to bring about change. From pushing the British to surround Boston for a massacre in 1770 through to the Tea Party in 1773, Adams is said to have been instrumental in building up animosity through is writings. While I could go into great detail, I prefer to let the reader delve into the detail Schiff provides here, which only adds to the moment. When the dust settled, a new republic, albeit still trying to find itself, could be said to have emerged; a united group of colonies who would call themselves states!

While the book proved to be an attempt to cram a significant amount of history into a single document, Stacy Schiff did so effectively and with great passion. Samuel Adams came to life and emerged as a hero, both for the colonies and for Massachusetts specifically. Throughout his life, Adams used his passion for expression and some key political connections to make his mark, staring down the oppression of the British and stopping only when the final result worked in his favour. Schiff builds each chapter on the last and provides a strong narrative to push the reader along. Great anecdotes pepper the tome, giving those with a basic understanding of American history better context, while educating those, such as myself, who are clueless to all but the most basic aspects. Easy to comprehend but still detailed enough to provide needed context for those who want something with depth, Schiff has done it again. She takes a great approach to the Boston Tea Party, something that I knew only about in passing, and puts it into a great context to better understand how this could be seen as one of the pivotal moments in the revolutionary movement. She builds on the clash between the Massachusetts colonists and the English, which was surely a microcosm to the larger colonial struggle. Adams found himself in the middle of it, at least as a spokesman for the colonial position on the matter. When protests turned violent, Adams may not have drawn up the specific plans, but he surely did not distance himself from the acts, feeling that there was a sense of justification in the destruction as a symbol of tossing off the yoke of English control. This proved to be one of the final acts of aggression that fuelled the move for independence by the colonies.

Kudos, Madam Schiff, for dazzling in this account and proving once more you are a historian who cares about educating the common reader.

The Road to Runnymede (Medieval Saga Series #6), by David Field

Seven stars

David Field infuses drama in his 12th century series, hoping the various sides of England’s growth. The era is rife with controversy and the attentyove reader. Will enjoy everything that is on offer. As things appear to be moving to a finale, this novel offers some real action and historical significance. England stands at a crossroads in its political and monarchical development. Field does everything he can to keep the series exciting for series fans, proving he is just the author for the job.

England again finds itself in a precarious situation when its king dies. The English throne falls to John, Richard the Lionheart’s brother, who is staunchly supported by his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. John has no love loss for his brother, keen to return to some of his tyrannical ways to ensure that England is run effectively and free from those who would dare speak out against him. One rival cannot be silenced, which has John somewhat concerned. Arthur, now a duke, is raising support for his own rightful place on the English throne, especially when Richard named him as his rightful heir.

It would seem that Arthur is not alone in his claim, especially when it comes to the law. Many novels and those familiar with the law feel that Arthur should ascend and will do whatever it takes to make sure this happens. King Phillip II of France is also a staunch supporter, which could push things to the brink, if negotiations cannot bring a peaceable solution.

John’s iron grip on the country continues to create more enemies than loyalists and he does not appear to care much. Still, he will stop at nothing to exert his own power, others be damned. In a conciliatory moment, John agrees to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede, in hopes of finding a lasting peace between the Crown and the protesting barons. For a time, it appears to work.

However, John cannot keep to his word and begins his tyrannical ways once more. When Prince Louis of France comes to invade, the country is once again in shambles, without a leader who can unite the people of England and defend the land. With John on the throne, England is in peril, though there does not appear to be any solution from within. Field builds to this climactic moment in order to keep the reader in suspense as they await another novel in the series.

David Field has not stopped with the action since the start of the first novel and keeps building upon themes and historical events. There is a great deal to discover in this book, from political upheaval to new bonds made and even some plotting to keep the treachery at its height. A great narrative helps push the story along, mixed with characters who serve their purpose and know how to highlight the various faces of England’s transformation. Plots with a balance of fact and fiction are peppered throughout, allowing the reader to feel as though they are in the middle of the action, ready to face whatever Field has to offer. I am eager to see how things will go from here, wondering if this might be the penultimate novel in the series. Whatever Field has next will surely be even more stunning, as readers await a new dawn for England in a century that has been anything but dull!

Kudos, Mr. Field, for keeping the action high throughout.

How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Nine stars

Democracies are living and require air to breathe, according to authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. This book seeks to explore how democracies can die if not given the proper elements for success. The authors present this in a cogent and thorough manner, looking not only to the United States in 2016, but also to a number of worldwide issues that have arisen over the years. The authors posit some interesting arguments that will leave the reader to think a little more about democracy and how easily (or subtlety) in can be snuffed out until there is nothing left. A must-read for those who enjoy history, politics, and exploring the world that has emerged of late.

While it would be easy to say that democracy is the lifeblood to all healthy countries, this is not the case. Some countries work well without democracy, though through the lens of those who love this form of government, it is utter failure. That being said, while democracy may be the best form of government—besides all others, as Churchill commented—it is precarious in its footing and can be easily toppled. Authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explore this in a tome that is sure to open eyes to many of the issues that have befallen democratic forms of government over the last number of years.

The coup, or forceful takeover, would be the most common form of ‘death to democracy’ that could occur. Many would look to military take-over, where generals wrest control of the government away with guns, murder, and mayhem. While Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that this is true, it is not the only form of democratic death that takes place. Sure, violently taking control and suspending all forms of voting, elections, and consensus building is a means by which democracy dies, but it is also one that can end just as swiftly with another clash of swords or penetration of bullets. The authors seek to explore the more subtle means of taking over and letting democracy wither on the vine.

Levitsky and Ziblatt offer up a list of four main areas in which the death of democracies can occur without being blatantly violent or appear to be overthrowing the rule of law through military takeover:

1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game,

2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents,

3. Toleration or encouragement of violence,

4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.

From there, the discussion goes through some of the more popular democratic takeovers of the 20th century, using the rubric. Analysis is both comprehensive and tied to strong examples to prove the cases, spanning different parts of the world, from Italy to the Philippines, to Chile, and even into the US in both the Reconstructionist and New Deal eras. Levitsky and Ziblatt do an amazing job to educate readers throughout, allowing them to see how the rubric fits in each case.

The authors would be remiss if they did not touch on the impetus for their book, the 2016 US presidential election and its aftermath. While I have never hidden my contempt for the less than democratic way in which Donald Trump served in the White House, the authors’ rubric helps to substantiate the claims. I will leave it to readers to explore the arguments, though few will likely be able to dodge the truth without pulling wool over their eyes. To counter this, I point to the aforementioned analysis of other (read: Democrat) examples of flagrant abuse of the democratic system. If only both sides could readily admit their own foibles, rather than play ostrich.

Democracy is surely a delicate system that must be nurtured in order to ensure its success. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt work tirelessly in this piece to push those arguments effectively. Their chapters are clear and flow well, keeping the reader involved in the discussion without drowning them in minutiae. There are clear examples from all over the world and even multiple examples of US events on both sides of the aisle. While there will always be those who decry a lack of democracy, the rubric used to truly assess political shifts proves helpful and should not be dismissed as biased or solely there to poke holes at a single elected individual. With the 2024 US presidential election machine warming up, it is a great time to review these arguments before standing behind anyone who may not have the country’s best interests in mind, even if they veil it as a faux return to greatness.

Kudos, Messrs. Levitsky and Ziblatt, for this stellar book that compacts the arguments effectively. I will have to look for more of your writing soon to see what else I can enjoy.

The Absentee King (Medieval Saga Series #5), by David Field

Six stars

David Field builds more drama in his 12th century England series. His strong narrative takes the reader through an era with which they may not be familiar and provides direction, while offering up a handful of key characters whose importance becomes apparent. Field is winning me over, slowly, as I try to get into the time period and become connected to those who appear across the pages. England has never been more intensely divided and I am pleased to be in the middle of the action.

England has a new king in 1189, but some people are not pleased. Richard the Lionheart had ascended to the throne, but his obsession with the crusades in far off lands keeps him from tending to his people back home. This is not lost on many, and grumbling has commenced to have him ousted, by any means necessary.

As England teeters, it is left in the hands of Richard’s trusted few, some of whom have only their own change purses in mind. But, there is someone who has a plan; someone who could pull England back out of the quagmire and set things right. Richard’s brother, John, is ready to step up and take control where Richard has let things wither.

John has a great deal of bitterness towards his brother, not least of which comes to the surface when he is not chosen to be Richard’s successor, but rather Prince Arthur, a young nephew. John’s temporary control of the country while Richard is away is tainted with brutal rules under an iron fist. John will rest only when he is legitimately in control of England and Richard is put aside.

While judicial masters are exploring John’s attempts to usurp the throne, news comes that the Germans have captured Richard and will hold him for ransom. England is in a perilous state and its future hands in the balance. No one can be quite sure who will come out on top and how England will face its next dozen years! Field ramps up the action in this piece, sure to keep the reader flipping pages to finish in a single sitting.

David Field has helped bridge the gap for what I do not know about this time period. he sheds light on much that is going on and keeps me on my toes with a strong narrative that pushes through, even when I cannot fathom how things will progress. Strong characters help connect with what is surely a busy story and make me feel as though I am in the middle of the action. England is surely going through a great deal of transformation, but I am not left behind, as Field propels things forward, while tossing in some great plots. Mixing fact and fiction, the reader is left to decipher which is which, while remaining highly entertained throughout. I am eager to see how things progress and with the sixth book calling my name, I will have to try that soon. Surely the most action-filled novel of the series to date, I am glad that David Field is leading the way!

Kudos, Mr. Field, for showing me England’s resilience during these trying times!

The Daughters of Yalta: The Churchills. Roosevelts, and Harrimans: A Story of Love and War, by Catherine Grace Katz

Eight stars

Catherine Grace Katz takes an interesting approach with this book, turning a key meeting of the three major Allies from the Second World War into a highly unique exploration of the history and goings-on. Three women proved to be key players, albeit behind the scenes, at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, but their presence cannot be discounted. Katz explores these women, both their personal lives and time along the Black Sea, as well as how they noticed certain things in Yalta that have not been widely reported in history books up to this point. A great story that not only highlights the three, but also puts a new spin on Yalta, sure to impress the reader.

Preparations for the Yalta Conference in February 1945 had to be perfect, as the ‘Big Three’ would arrive to discuss the end of the Second World War. While Josep Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill get a great deal of mention in the history books, one would be remiss if some attention were not made of three key women who accompanied their fathers. Catherine Grace Katz explores each of these women in depth before setting out how the conference proceeded and what they saw, which might differ from the ‘mainstream’ tale of events.

American Ambassador to the USSR, Averell Harriman, had his daughter, Kathleen, with him to prep the Black Sea resort town for the meeting. Kathleen Harriman was a champion skier, war correspondent, and well-versed in all things political, having been with her father for the last few years. Her attention to detail made her the ‘leader’ of the three, when they came together for the conference, though she was not without her own opinions on matters, sometimes shared in private.

Anna Boettiger (nee Roosevelt) accompanied her father to the conference,. As Katz explains, this created quite a stir back home. While Anna was FDR’s only daughter, her selection ahead of her own mother, Eleanor, would not go over well within the family. Anna had a family all her own, but it was perhaps not her political prowess that brought her to Russia, but that she could (and did) keep her father’s darkest secret, namely that he was dying of heart failure and surely did not have long left to live.

Sarah Churchill, accompanied the British PM, serving as an astute political mind for her father, as well as having been a popular actress back home and having served in the RAF during the early part of the War. She had ideas and made her her father knew them, but was keenly aware that things were fluid and required analysis, rather than a knee-jerk reaction.

As the book progresses, Katz takes readers through some of the highlights of the Conference, including the agreements and clashes between the Big Three, as they sought to divide and retake Europe from the Nazis. She intersperses the events of the conference against views that these three women had, or their own personal struggles with the lives they have come to live. A detailed exploration of Katherine, Sarah, and Anna may not be possible, but Katz introduces the reader to them sufficiently that there is always room for more reading, should it be something of interest.

A piece like this is always hard to encapsulate easily, but it is a brilliant idea for a book. Catherine Grace Katz provides the reader with a great event in history and layers upon it new flavourings through the eyes of these three strong women. The narrative moves along, divided by chapters that tell of each day of the conference. The struggles found within are real and the backstories may not be well-known to readers, as they were not to mr. I thoroughly enjoyed the drams, humour, and little vignettes that emerged throughout, allowing me to learn and stay entertained as I made my way through the piece. I am eager to see what else Katz has penned and how I might learn more from her, in this unique way of discovering history.

Kudos, Madam Katz, for berthing life into history and keeping me attentive throughout.

The Lion of Anjou (Medieval Saga Series #4), by David Field

Seven stars

David Field keeps developing his series exploring the English 12th century of royal drama. He provides the sense of first-hand accounts through his strong storylines and vibrant characters, sure to educate and entertain the reader In equal measure. While I have followed Field through many of his past series, this is a collection far different than I have seen from him before, mixing historical references with a dialogue that keeps the reader enthralled.

It’s 1154 and King Henry II’s ascension to the throne has quelled the Civil War that threatens to tear England apart. But the fear of bloodshed is not yet muted, as Henry’s new lands across the Channel have begun to stir up discontentment. Louis VII of France has his eye on them and will draw a sword to take them back.

Henry must also look to his new marriage as another strain for him. Having married Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry must try to keep her happy without giving up the reins of power that have put him on the throne. A threat towards the Church in England could see Henry lose a key ally and push his power base a little too far.

All the while, the common Englishman looks to the two things that keep him balanced: the Church and the State. Where will he look to for solace and how will one become more important than the other? It is a struggle that no one wants and is sure to cause new upheavals at a time when any weakness is sure to tear things open for Louis in France.

As Louis plans his strike, he knows that he must time it just right to ensure victory. Henry must not push too far or risk losing everything and push England into another war. As David Field builds this story to its climax, the question of whether England is ever going to find peace must be front and centre, though the action of instability makes readers want more discontent.

I know little about this time period, but David Field has made sure to educate me with every passing page. He shines a light both on English history and the inner workings of the century’s royal drama, keeping the reader in the middle of everything. Field tackles massive topics and is able to boil them down to something much more palatable, while keeping his series fans from feeling as though things are overly repetitive. The narrative flow is decent and the recurring characters allow the reader to have some connection between books, but the emergence of new faces keep things exciting for those who like fresh storylines. Plots emerge and reappear throughout the story, keeping the readers on their toes as they explore the depths of the 12th century with ease. Those who have enjoyed the series to date are in for another winner here, as many readers tend to be when David Field is directing things with his pen.

Kudos, Mr. Field, for keeping things at such a high calibre.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight

Nine stars

At a time when race relations are strained, the name of Frederick Douglass is tossed around with great regularity. It also being Black History Month, I thought to educate myself a little more about the man and the impact he made on US history. Turning to this biography by David W. Blight, I tried my best to understand how the man, his writings and outward sentiments shaped America, with views that still resonate today.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born in a small shed on a plantation in Maryland, around 1817, the mulatto son of a slave and slaveholder. While he was a curious child, Frederick was also subjected to deplorable abuse towards those around him. His being born in the middle of America’s love affair with the slave trade is not lost on the reader who pays attention to the early portion of Blight’s book. Still, young Frederick tried always to see the best in people and sought to better understand what was going on and his place in the larger picture. While he was not permitted to attend school, Frederick paid some of the white children to teach him, usually presenting fresh baked goods to earn his keep. Frederick learned the basics of reading and writing, which would be cornerstones to his future livelihood.

When Frederick grew into adulthood, he discovered more complicated set of writings that would help shape his moral being. Pulling on passages of the Bible and other tomes of the great thinkers, Frederick began to see that there was hope, albeit bleak, out of the slavery that surrounded him, using numerous verses to explain kindness and equality, even though neither seemed possible at this time. This education would be met with some downsides, as Frederick began seeing the harsher side of some people, receiving the lash for speaking out for simply being Black. He tried his hand at odd jobs less out of desire than necessity, but was also prone to getting beaten for the colour of his skin and the apparent lack of speed when working.

When he grew old enough, Frederick took two major chances to shape his future: he changed his name and fled the plantation on which he had been working. Neither would be easy, but both necessary to ensure his future prosperity. Frederick assumed the name FREDERICK DOUGLASS (the repeated final letter to make him stand out) and sought to forget the middle names that had been used as yokes of remembrance from his slaving days. His escape, as Blight explains, was one of need and DIVINE intervention, as he needed to get to the free lands so that he could protect himself and spread the word. Douglass made it to New York after escaping on a train, having been encouraged by Anna Murray, a free black woman. This being the early 1840s, the abolitionist movement was still in its infancy, but Douglass’ oratory skills made him the perfect speaker to decry the horrors of slavery and the need to protect the Back population.

As the years passed, Douglass took Anna as his wife and began a family all while he continued to speak around the North about abolition and the topics of equality. Douglass would become a great orator and a key voice in the equality movements of Blacks, women, and the poor. As Blight explains, Douglass began many speaking engagements across the North and was key to drumming up support to ending slavery. He also made a trip across the Atlantic, when’re Douglass spoke in Ireland and Scotland, though he met some resistance as ‘slavery’ was seen with a much larger definition, hinting at the English control over these peoples.

While Douglass had been doing all he could to pass abolitionist sentiments across the North, there was still little impetus to legislatate an end to slavery. Douglass was well aware that the politicians in Washington (and the state capitals) needed to tackle the issue. It was not until the presidential election of 1860 that the option might have been a reality, with the battle between Democrat Stephen Douglas and Republican Abraham Lincoln. The Republican was staunchly against slavery and stumped on that sentiment, which grew the ire of the South and began a push for secession from the country. When Lincoln was successful at the polls, Douglass hoped that this would usher in change, but the strong-willed politician did not turn that passion into legislation. Instead, the country split and the Civil War began, which would be fought—at least partially—along the slavery/abolition lines. Douglass is said to have been very happy to see the war, as it would ensure that the country answered the question once and for all.

Politics and the Civil War came together for Douglass even more impactfully when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The Proclamation would not only free the slaves, but allow them to serve alongside their brethren for the Union Army. Douglass could not have been prouder, but also cautions, as this meant his son and one son-in-law would soon be serving and could die or face blowback from fellow soldiers not as enlightened as their Commander in Chief. While Lincoln led from the White House, Douglass continued to feel that that passion the Illinoian once felt about slavery waned as the pressure of the national stage befell him.

When an assassin’s bullet killed Lincoln there was little time to mourn, as the country was still in the midst of its Civil War. However, Douglass watched as the Union soldiers tied things off and freedom was soon victorious. This would mean a country in which slavery was done, but fractured as to how it out to move forward. Reconstruction was the next stage, though Washington politicians were sloe to push for its true progress, as Douglass continued to rally from his various pulpits. He would see a country that accepted the tossing off of shackles, but not the complete integration of Blacks. As Blight explores, the Reconstructionist period was slow and hard going for Douglass, who turned to other things, not least of which penning successive volumes of his autobiography to pass the time, The era of slavery was done and its greatest opponent was still hoping for more.

In the latter portion of the tome, Douglass looks to revisit old haunts to see how the years had changed sentiments towards slavery and plantation-style ownership. Douglass took these times to try to understand how his life had come full circle and how that would make for a greater country for his grandchildren and their offspring. Blight explores this in some sentimental passages, as Douglass returned to the place his blood family were torn away from him and how he had to accept his lot in life, at least for a time. With a few more symbolic jobs and a great deal of time to sum up his life, Frederick Douglass basked in the knowledge that he had made a difference, though he would not live to see the equality about which he spoke when he died in 1895.

There is something about a biography that always gets my blood flowing. It could be the moments to learn something new about a person who has done so much, or it might be the entertainment of seeing how the author will portray the many people who grace the pages of the tome. David W. Blight did both numerous times, as I was in awe over all I discovered about one of the great abolitionists. Frederick Douglass was much more than simply a man who sought to toss the shackles of slavery aside. His views resonated decades before the movement to end slavery came into fashion. He used his eloquent ability to speak and write, rallying people all over the world, to see equality as the only way to live, even if it meant a great deal of adversity. Blight highlighted so many parts of Douglass’ life, while speeding over others, all in an attempt tp show readers just how much the man accomplished in his lifetime. Great chapters exhibit the countless themes of freedom, equality, and justice that Douglass sought to make cornerstones of his life, as well as how the America of the time resisted or limped along towards the horizon. While the book is definitely dense and information heavy, the dedicated reader will surely pull something from it that they can take with them, as I did at numerous points. I can only hope that Doug;ass’s views are not lost in the annals of history, either due to the vilification of equal rights or the right’s attempt to accentuate racial inequality. With an election for president coming up in 2024, and a candidate whose views on racial inequality are clear trying to return to his former position of autocratic authority, those who cannot cast a ballot can only hope that America’s return to greatness will have Douglass’ passion for equality in mind, not the suppression of rights through laws and at the hand of police batons.

Kudos, Mr. Blight, on this stunning piece of writing, I did take so much away from it.

An Uncivil War (Medieval Saga Series #3), by David Field

Seven stars

David Field progresses through his series exploring an English century of kings and deception, which is sure to be an exciting endeavour. Field provides the reader with the feeling of being in the middle of the action, with strong storytelling and well-developed characters. While this is not an era with which I have much experience, I am learning a great deal and hope other readers will take the time to be dazzled by all Field has to offer.

After King Henry dies without a presumed heir, chaos envelops England in 1120. There are camps of supporters for two apparent successors: Henry’s daughter, Matilda, and his nephew, Stephen of Blois. While only one can be victorious, both are set on assuming the throne and ensuring the other is obliterated in the process.

As these two vie for power, the commoner is left to wonder what will become of their beloved England. With the possibility of being tossed back into a wasteland, England must hope for the best, as the politics and bloodletting reach their climax, with plotting around every corner.

The young soldier, Richard Walsingham, finds himself in the middle of the fray. As he tries to make sense of things, he must remain loyal to Stephen. The family is at odds, as Richard’s sister, Elinor, remains a companion to Matilda, who is determined to keep the throne her father left for her.

New contenders for the throne emerge in a story full of deception, politicking, and battles that will see a country fraying at the edges while being torn down the middle. Not an official civil conflict, but surely one that will see England weaker and ready for an enemy to come in at any time. David Field weaves a tale like no other and keeps readers guessing until the final page turn.

I may not know much about the era, but I am learning a great deal the further into the series I find myself. Field is one of a few authors who has been able to shine a light on this time period for me, which is usually so convoluted and lacks any real draw. His writing style is quick, but full of detail and keeps the reader pushing through a strong narrative foundation. Characters emerge and are fleshed out on the page, creating connections with the reader as the story progresses. Mixing fact and fiction, Field develops plot twists that are sure to keep the reader wondering what’s to happen next, as well as be highly entertained. With just enough ‘commoner’ flavouring, the story is not only about royals and their battles, but also the regular townsfolk who try to keep their minds off what is going on and feed their families. Refreshing and yet intensely worrisome, this series has much to reveal, but readers are used to Field’s great abilities.

Kudos, Mr. Field, for adding entertainment to history to keep the reader ready for more.

Traitor’s Arrow (Medieval Saga Series #2, by David Field

Seven stars

David Field continues his series exploring England’s 12th century, which is sure to be a challenge. Dazzling with its detail and narrative flow, Field has the reader feel as though they are right there amongst the common folk and members of the royal entourages. I have given Field much of my attention, in hopes that he will be able to convince me that this is a time period I ought to explore even more. So far, I am surely warming to it and his wonderful storytelling.

As England continue to settle under a new king, there is much taking place in the towns. Children are growing up and finding ways to get into trouble, allegiances are being sought and sometimes crumble, while new threats emerge, leaving the locals to wonder on which side they ought to align themselves. Still, there are chores to be done and the day to day living that must be accomplished.

While out on a hunt, King William Rufus of England is killed mysteriously when he takes an arrow to the chest. His younger brother, Henry, can see that this is the time to act and loses no time in proclaiming himself new new king. He seeks to secure the Crown and the coffers of the country before the void can be filled by another. Could he be part of the plot to rid the country of William?

Not everyone is happy with Henry’s ascension to the throne, namely Robert, Duke of Normandy. Not only is Robert the oldest surviving brother of the family, but he also feels that he has claim to the throne and is prepared to travel from France to take it for himself, thereby tossing England into another war for control.

Henry beings to panic and turns to Sir Wilfrid Walsingham to convince everyone that he is innocent of his brother’s murder. While Wilfrid has mixed feelings about the family, he knows that he must do what is right, or find himself in the middle of a bloodbath. Wilfrid will have to act swiftly and decisively to keep Henry as monarch. However, Richard does not seem ready to stand down without a crown on his head. It all comes down to this! Field dazzles once again in this masterful tale.

I have never been fond of the era of early English monarchies, though I am not sure I can speak definitively as to why. I have found a few authors who have been able to breathe some life into that time period, using their stories to cast light on what, for some, is surely a darker period. David Field does well by building up a strong narrative and propels it forward with action and a handful of great characters. Add to that, some great plot twists, using both historical fact and some literary freedoms, all while keeping the reader in the thick of things. There is much to discover in this series and Field leaves little time to breathe, as the action never stops, peppering some great development for the local townsfolk characters, admits the political and monarchical goings-on. I am eager to see where things are headed and how they will progress, as I am getting into the swing of things and eager to learn a little more.

Kudos, Mr. Field, for keeping me entertained as I keep working through the series.

Supreme Inequality: The Supreme Court’s Fifty-Year Battle for More Unjust America, by Adam Cohen

Nine stars

My preparation for the 2024 US General election (particularly that for president) has taken me on some interesting turns to date. While exploring candidates who have served and seek to return to the office, I have come across some great memoirs and analyses that give things some perspective. But there is more at stake than the presidency here, including the ability to shape the third branch of the federal system, the Courts. Adam Cohen explores how rightist choices have certainly turned the Court in the last five decades, away from being people-centric and towards a stronger hands-off approach. He posits that there have been a number of reasons for this, not least of which being the choice of Justices that a sitting president can make. Cohen uses strong arguments, actual decisions from the US Supreme Court, and historical records to provide readers with an interesting look into how the Court has shaped American policy and left many out on the cold, all because a certain president had the reins when an opening became available. A brilliant analysis by Cohen and a wonderful read for those who enjoy these subjects.

Adam Cohen breaks his analysis down succinctly in the opening pages of his book; the Court’s direction is directly proportional to the presidents who fill its seats. That makes a great deal of sense, but does beg a little more explanation. Readers who understand the Court and how it is populated will know that sitting US presidents make their picks for US Supreme Court Justices, have them vetted by the Senate, and then place them on the bench. The politics that takes place to do this is baffling, but it is there. Choosing someone to sit on the Court can be tough, but once they are there, their removal is so difficult that it is almost sure to impact the country for many years. It is the timing of these appointments that can be really important, as well as the age of the nominee. Filling a vacancy is essential to ensuring a certain direction for the Court, though the Senate must also have their say, which can be a slightly tougher hurdle. As Cohen argues, with Republicans having had more time in the presidency over the last fifty years, they have had a longer time to fill vacancies that suit their needs and appease the base. However, it is not only that which shapes the Court, but when the coveted position of Chief Justice comes up for grabs, Republicans have been in a position to choose that person repeatedly in those same five decades. The Chief shapes not only the direction of the Court, but leads the momentum in a specific direction. Being able to choose the Chief Justice not only secures a vote (in theory) for the cause, but creates a movement in a specific direction, something that the Democrats have not been able to do at all and have suffered for it.

Cohen explores how these ‘right of centre’ Courts have shaped US policies and the direction of progress in the country. He turns to a number of themes in the tome, including support for the poor, education funding, voting rights, election funding, and employment rights. While it would be too general a statement to say the right does not care about these, he has made it clear through case analysis and decisions released (as well as dissents) that the Court has taken much more of a hands-off approach to ruling on these cases, or at least not looked to protecting groups from the larger institutions that have proven to be hurdles for them. While part of this could be a lack of concrete arguments presented to the Court, a great deal is also turning a blind eye to those loopholes that could and likely should be used to help others. While Chief Justice John Roberts has said, his only job is to call balls and strikes, choosing whether to play the game is also within the Court’s purview, which is not as often discussed in legal analysis. Cohen presses that the Court has little impetus to look at these issues, as the conservative voting bloc has the majority and can push their views by sticking together. This makes the choice of Justices all the more important.

Throughout the tome, Cohen repeatedly makes mention of how things might have differed had one or two elections gone in another direction. Of particular interest is discussion of Bush v. Gore, the seminal 2000 Supreme Court decision that handed the election to Bush. In a flagrantly successful attempt to tamper with the rights of the voter, the Court chose to impose their conservative majority to place a thumb on the scales and send George W. Bush to the White House. This, in turn, led to the selection of John Roberts as Chief Justice and began a domino effect that cemented further conservatism on the Court for decades to come. One cannot hold onto sour grapes and bemoan what ended up happing, but it is quite telling to look at alternate history possibilities and how they could have made a significant change.

Adam Cohen has proven to be a great writer on the topic of Supreme Court evolution thoughout the last number of years. He provides the reader with great arguments and strong supports as they relate to rulings and public opinions on a number of key topics, more even than I listed above. Cohen argues effectively that the Court has moved firmly to the right in the last five decades, with no likelihood of shifting for the foreseeable future, as rules utilized by the US Senate’s Republican members appears to change based on the sentiment of the day. From Court decisions that disenfranchised groups who were once protected by the esteemed body to the erasing of precedent that kept liberal views from flourishing, through to the gameplay of nominations whereby two sets of rules existed to appease the right, the story of the Supreme Court is riddled with concern. That being said, the past cannot be changed, but the future is rife with possibilities. Strong writing and powerful chapters keep the arguments moving along succinctly and ensures the reader will leave the book feeling even more educated than ever. Adam Cohen does a brilliant job and readers can eagerly particulate in this ever-evolving discussion.

Kudos, Mr. Cohen, for yet another stellar analysis of the US Supreme Court. I m eager to see what else you publish that will whet my appetite for SCOTUS examination.

Conquest (Medieval Saga Series #1), by David Field

Seven stars

David Field is back with a new series to pique the interest of his fans, set in yet another era of English history. Looking at the Norman Conquest, Field provides the reader with a great account of events, while introducing a number of flavourful characters who add depth to the story. While not my favourite time period, I am eager to give this series a try, as Field has always proven to be a masterful storyteller with great ideas.

It’s 1065 in England and there is change in the making. The Kingdom of the Saxons is being threatened by Harold Hardrada from the north with his Norwegian army, while William of Normandy pushes in from across the Chanel to claim the throne he feels belongs to him. In the middle are the people, who have been through so much up to now. They can only hope not to be caught in the crossfire.

Villagers seek answers while trying to defend their lands, protected weakly by armies of their respective earls who can only offer weak support towards King Harald Godwineson, yet another actor in the larger monarchical drama. All the same, there is a connection to their lives that keep these villagers wanting to defend themselves, as effective as that might be.

As armies march across the country to lay claim, locals like Will Riveracre and Selwyn Astenmde must rally the locals to keep the faith and know that they will not be taken over—or killed—without a strong attempt at defending what they have done to this point. Still, the worry is that whomever ascends to the throne is likely to erase local history and customs. A new monarch will no doubt seek to annihilate anything English that has been woven into the country’s cultural fabric.

With other storylines emerging in this series debut, David Field takes his reader through the changing of the times in England and how these common folk will fare as blood and honour seep into the ground at every turn. A good start to what is sure to be an impactful series, in the hands of an author who knows his way around historical fiction. Another strong novel by David Field that should not be missed.

While the era has never been one in which I have a great deal of interest David Field has definitely left me wanting to know more. He uses his strong writing skills to keep the story moving and the characters evolving. His narrative flow is great, using historical references throughout and tells the personal stories of locals, rather than simply a sweeping tale about the larger historical goings-on. Readers will see this as they connect to some of the characters who will likely proceed throughout the story, or perhaps create the foundation for a multi-generational piece. Field creates a few plot twists that keep me wondering and works through some events in likely fact-based storytelling, while blurring others to keep the reader’s interest in the characters. While I was not blown away by the piece, I am eager to move forward to see what else Field has to offer, hoping to connect better as the larger story progresses.

Kudos, Mr. Field, for laying the groundwork for what could be a great series. I am eager to see if it will capture my complete attention soon.

Monsters in the Room: The Boys’ Adventure (Mabel Davison #2.5), by Trevor Wiltzen

Eight stars

Having discovered the writing of Trevor Wiltzen not too long ago, I was happy to read and support this local author. Wiltzen has been working hard on his Mabel Davison series, which takes a diner waitress and thrusts her into the role of an amateur sleuth. While Mabel has been trying to locate a number of missing girls, this story is a slight change of pace, turning to her two sons and an adventure they have one March afternoon. All the same, Wiltzen pulls the reader in with this short story, chilling everyone by the end, when much is revealed.

Fred and Hector enjoy Saturday mornings, with cereal and being able to laze around in their pjs. With their mother, Mabel, busy working at the diner, the responsibility falls to their cousin, Kerry, to watch over them. However, the night before, Kerry made secret plans to go see a boy at the local grocer’s, forcing Fred and Hector to put themselves to bed. With Kerry still gone, the boys decide to go look for her, sure that she’s close by and wanting to ensure their mom does not know anything’s amiss. When the boys head out, they are confronted with some trouble of their own as they begin the search. Things take an interesting turn and by the time there make it home, a new concern is on the horizon and Mabel Davison is smack in the middle of trying to solve it. Trevor Wiltzen does well to tease the reader in this piece, which is sure to connect well with the other books in the series.

While Trevor Wiltzen has not published a great deal yet, what he has produced is well worth a read. He’s got a great style and builds things up well with impactful writing that builds with each passing page, A strong narrative and decent characters keep the reader wanting to learn a little more. As with his full-length novels, this short story grips the reader and keeps them guessing throughout. With another novel on the horizon, one can hope that there will be some resolution, as this piece ended with quite the cliffhanger.

Kudos, Mr. Wiltzen, for another great piece that makes me want to read more!

Trouble (We Could Be Heroes Series #2), by Janelle Brown

Eight stars

Janelle Brown dazzles is this short story, perfect for fans who need a little getaway from reality. Adding her own short piece to the We Can Be Heroes collection, Brown takes the angle of the loving mother, Polly, who is keen to have her daughter, Hannah, enjoy her time in school. However, Polly soon realises that while she wants to protect Hannah, she cannot always choose her friends, something that ends up being a major struggle throughout. However,there is more to the story than a troubled young girl, as Brown leads up to a stunning revelation in this piece.

Polly likes being that ideal mother who is always helping out at her daughter’s school, serving on the fundraising committee, and making sure that everyone gets along. Polly notices that Hannah has a girl in class who does not appear to fit in alongside the others. Sylvie’s uniqueness extends to her mother, who refuses to engage with the other mothers. When Hannah and Sylvia begin having play dates, Polly notices that Sylvie is much different than anyone else her age. Her shirts are a little more forward in their messaging, her latest iPhone seems out of place, and she’s always bragging about her family’s wealth. When Polly tries to inquire, she’s stonewalled by Sylvie, who clams up when personal questions emerge. It is only after Polly sees Sylvie at school that she notices something is out of place and could speak to a larger issue. What is Polly to do? Can she fix this and make things perfect once more, or has Sylvie’s troubled life got to be one mission not worth taken on? Janelle Brown offers up an interesting take that is sure to get the reader thinking.

The story has a mix of everything in it, sure to appease many readers. Janelle Brown dives right in, with her narrative that keeps a clipped pace. She addresses some major issues and begins creating her core characters from the start, developing them so that the reader can feel connection before too long. As the story progresses, the reader learns more about the young Sylvie and her home life, which is nothing like what Polly has experienced, either as a child or a mother now. It’s some of the twists towards the end that really takes the reader and drives the story to its final reveal, leaving everyone to wonder how Polly will handle it. Told in a single chapter, there is little time to rest as the story speeds along and the reader is right there in the thick of things.

Kudos, Madam Brown, for an intriguing piece, easily devoured in a single sitting. I will have to look to see what else you’ve written that might interest me.

Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History, by Alex von Tunzelmann

Nine stars

What’s in a statue? British historian Alex von Tunzelmann seeks to answer this as she pens this book that explores twelve statues that have been erected and taken down over the years. Drawing on much of the global reaction to stone and metal monuments to glorify political or historical figures that have been yanked down, von Tunzelmann seeks to better understand why this global movement is gaining momentum and what these statues mean, as well as how they are depicted today. Her exploration is both amazing and detailed, as she tries to parse through rhetoric and get to the core understanding so that the reader has some educated background should they wish to engage in some conversation about the topic.

While I could go through the list of statues that von Tunzelmann lists in her book, I would rather leave that to the reader. Rather, it would make sense to look at some of the reasons statues were built. From the pages of the book, I can ascertain three specific reasons that von Tunzelmann feels statues appeared, which correlates with some of what I know about statues in general:

• To serve as a form of hero-worship for leaders who hold a firm grip on a country’s people

• To commemorate a leader whose service was remarkable to the country’s success

• To remind future generations of the impact a person had on society during their lifetime

As von Tunzelmann mentions, these sentiments are in the eye of the beholder, which can cause triggers.

Another theme throughout the book that von Tunzelmann explores is the reaction of those who saw the statue on a daily basis. The first half of the book depicts colonial or suppressed peoples and their having to view these statues on a regular basis. Once there was a change in political or imperial tides, the statues fell, usually desecrated in a variety of ways. That statues represented a past that was never really accepted or supported, simply lived through as oppressed peoples.

While this may be true, the more modern push for statue removal is symbolic by a people who did not live through events and simply ride a wave of historical selective retelling. I know that this will likely land me in some hot water, but it bears discussing. Those who decry removal of statues based on historic figures simply because today’s lens is placed upon them miss the point of the statue’s original placement. Was a George Washington statue placed to highlight and cheer on slave holding? Would one of Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald be erected to celebrate his overseeing residential schools across Canada to indoctrinate indigenous populations? Could Winston Churchill’s statue have been meant to honour racist sentiments? Likely not, but this is what the movement is (naively?) missing. They cannot see these statues as anything but through modern perspectives. I understand triggers and symbolism as much as the next person, but to erase any mention or depiction of our past is only to forget it and not learn from it. To deny that the reason these statues may have been created, grounded, and viewed is not to show an iron fist, but rather celebrate achievements for the populace to enjoy (and which they did when the statue emerged). It is ignorant not to take a step back and see this as a possibility. While Alex von Tunzelmann may not bluntly be saying this, it bears mention in a book that explores statues and was penned in reaction to 2020 mass global hysteria over the need to remove such statues.

By the conclusion, Alex von Tunzelmann looks back at the twelve men who are explored in this book and tried to decipher how their mark on history was bettered (or worsened) by the statues that were erected. While none were free from controversy, some were more in line with what I mention above as heroes for their efforts at the time. Discussion arises about how removing statues will help the cause, other than serving as a symbolic destruction of the past, as history is not changed and society does not have their minds erased to what took place. The topic is surely controversial, which I hope von Tunzelmann wanted, but it also bears beginning a conversation about history, statues, and how we depict people from the past. School names, public edifices, and even towns remain other pathways that may be scrubbed, which open up additional conversations and I am ready to have them all!

Looking at the book from an analytical perspective, not for content but how the reader can enjoy the journey, I cannot say that I was disappointed. Alex von Tunzelmann offers great analysis of twelve men whose statues have been removed at various points in time. She offers detailed analysis of each, providing readers some context to better understand who they were and potentially why there might have been issues with the statues depicting them. She is level-headed, not grabbing for Kool-Aid to guzzle down, though she is also not dismissive of the arguments made by those who sought to remove the statues. This well-rounded book offers education and entertainment in equal measure while forcing the reader to open their mind up to what could be happening. There are surely those who feel protest means destroying things, but the conversation might be more effective by stepping back and trying to see the lens through which things were crested, rather than using today as the sole perspective for determining usefulness. I am eager to see what others think and am sure there will be those who do not espouse the views I take on this. That being said, freedom to disagree is at the core of this discussion and I applaud its foundational presence.

Kudos, Madam von Tunzelmann, for a book I put off for much too long. I am glad that I took the time to read it and hope others will too!

Kill Night: A Short Story (We Could Be Heroes Series, #1), by Victor Methos

Eight stars

Victor Methos pens this short story that mixes great legal work with a struggle to do the right thing, even as some want to mute cries for justice. Methos touches on this, which appears to be his addition to a number of short stories by a number of well-established authors in the We Could be Heroes series. I’d love to see what others say, through their own genre, but Methos did not disappoint with this piece. Short and to the point, but highly impactful.

Nick Collins has been sent to a small Utah community to help with a murder trial. The accused is said to have murdered a woman along the road and left her mutilated body. However, his story differs, in that he is said to have picked up a hitchhiker who admitted to the crime, but fled when the police were alerted during a rest stop. Now, Nick and his colleague find themselves tied in knots after trying to supply their big-city Vegas legal knowledge to this small community, and failing miserably. Nick is certain that the real killer is still out there and that his client is telling the truth, but it seems everyone has made up their minds and the trial is simply a means to go through the motions. Methos tackles this topic masterfully and has me wanting to read more!

While the story is short, Victor Methos gets his point across effectively. He pushes the views of justice over an easy legal fix and makes his arguments in a somewhat subtle fashion. The narrative works well and kept me intrigued throughout, though there is little time to ‘warm up’, as things occur in such a short timeline. Methos uses some great characters, but has little time to develop them, especially since there is a murder trial to tie up much of the writing. A few plot twists help keep things going and allow the reader to see that nothing is quite as it seems, but this is surely a piece that will keep the reader wanting to forge ahead and finish in a single sitting. Makes me want to read more in this series, as well as other Methos stories, all of which I have tried have been amazing!

Kudos, Mr. Methos, on another wonderful piece!

Her Deadly Game, by Robert Dugoni

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Robert Dugoni, and Thomas & Mercer for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Robert Dugoni, master storyteller and legal thriller writer extraordinaire, is back with a standalone novel that will have readers on the edge of their seats. Set in his usual Seattle, Dugoni explores a case in which a wheelchair-bound woman is found shot in her home and the husband is the prime suspect. Keera Duggan is ready to work the case, but it will take all her efforts, both to defend the husband and show her family that she can play in the big leagues. A great story that could easily be the opening salvo in a new series. Dugoni at his best and just what fans need to tide them over.

Keera Duggan has a great future as a prosecutor in Seattle, but some personal choices made that path all but impossible. She’s back working in the family law firm, serving as a defense attorney, and trying to keep her alcholic father away from the bottle. Her past as a competitive chess player keeps her memories somewhat positive, though Keera is ready for a new challenge and wants to leave the shadow of her siblings’ disappointing views.

When Keera takes the call of Vince LaRussa, she thinks that she may have found a way to rebuild her career and help the firm rebound to its successful past. LaRussa is an investment advisor who has been accused of murdering his wife, whose wealth is the only positive she has left. Wheelchair-bound after a freak accident, Mrs. LaRussa has been biding her time, but made mention to her closest friend that she may be ready to divorce Vince. This motive, tied with the fact that she was shot in the back of the head, is enough for Seattle PD to begin pulling out all the stops to determine how Vince may have committed the crime. With her former lover serving as the lead prosecutor, Keera is fired up and hopes to make her mark.

While prepping for trial, Vince shows honest sadness for his wife’s murder and hopes that the killer can be found. Keera uses this and a series of cryptic emails to better understand her client and his past. Soon, Keera and her team uncover a complex situation that could better explain the crime scene and those who came to visit the victim in the hours before her death. While Keera follows the path, she learns that there is more to her client and the day of the murder than she first presumed. While it could be a slam dunk to help her win this tense case, it could also open a Pandora’s Box to larger and more troubling things. Dugoni weaves a story of legal loopholes, deception, and a lawyer’s attempt to claim the prize she feels will help her build the family back up once more.

Robert Dugoni is a master at writing stories that will pull the reader into the middle of things and keep them entertained. His stories are always multi-faceted and provide quick development, as the plot thickens and the narrative gains momentum. Dugoni knows what he’s doing and provides a roadmap for the reader to follow. Pulling on past experiences and surely significant research, Dugoni dazzles with each new book he publishes, be it a standalone or one of his highly-acclaimed series novels featuring Tracy Crosswhite. I cannot wait to see where things will go from here and whether Keera Duggan will be back again soon.

Dugoni’s narrative style is one in which the reader is subsumed with ease as things progress around them. A strong foundation helps guide the reader along and adds depth to an already great piece. Strong characters emerge throughout, hinting that Dugoni might want to bring them back for future Seattle adventures, while allowing the reader to decide if they are curious to discover even more. Plot lines develop throughout and build on one another, offering the reader a better insight into the case, Keera’s past, and what could be the real story behind Vince LaRussa. I can only hope that other readers will be as excited as I was when they plunge into this one, sure to keep them flipping pages well into the night.

Kudos, Mr. Dugoni, for proving yet again that you have that magic touch.

Rigged: How the Media, Big Tech, and the Democrats Seized Our Elections, by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway

Six stars for entertainment, zero for content

After a few well-grounded books by those who espoused the merits of the Trump presidency, it is time for something that is light on narrative and heavy on soap box preachiness. Mollie Hemingway has a lot to say about the 2020 election and how it was stolen from her beloved Donald Trump, which I felt was quite entertaining, so I added it to my 2024 election prep reading list. Hemingway bemoans how Democrats stole the election from Trump through a long list of voting irregularities and COVID-19 era voting methods that skewed things towards the left, hence the title of her book. Hemingway makes it an entertaining read, though I cannot see how I am supposed to extract much of anything but a sore forehead from palm bashing.

Mollie Hemingway opens with the same accusations that the right has been pushing since Election Night 2020; that Trump’s promised election was stolen out from under him. He had it locked up, but mail-in ballots and early voting turned the tides towards the Democrats, nullifying any hope that Trump had to stay in the White House for four additional years. While she rightly points out what some academics and pundits have been saying all along—that early returns came from in-person GOP voters were later diluted by the mail-in ballots that began being counted after the polls closed—Hemingway chose to plug her ears with fingers used to follow each line of academic and media analysis. She ostriches the truths laid out before her and screams foul, forgetting what she’s just said about votes. Yet, she denounces the truths she presented and tries to convince the reader that it was a scandal like no other.

Taking a step back, Hemingway tries to put the entire mail-in ballot idea into context but exploring the rise and lingering of Covid-19. However, even this topic is rife with her attempts at wedging politics into the mix and vilifying anyone who does not praise Trump and his handling of events. She makes sure to paint all those who remained unclear with a tainted brush, while espousing the greatness of Donald Trump and everything that came from his mouth. Nothing new or substantial here, other than trying to make the left look bad and no attempts to step back to explore the truths that may need some magnification, specifically the mishandling of the pandemic by POTUS and people reacting through the ballot to turn him away. Hemingway refuses to acknowledge this option, choosing instead to say that Trump was right all along and the left spun his actions out of context.

Hemingway moves into discussions about Black Lives Matter and the presidential debates, using her poison-tipped pen to offer slanted and highly jaded opinions about how these played into the anti-Trump rhetoric. The perspectives presented, that the left sought to create more violence in order to create an anti-police sentiment, is truly abhorrent, and yet she tries to get it shoved into the reader’s gullet. When it came time to address these things on a national stage, Hemingway posits that the media used the debates to attack Trump and Pence, leaving Biden and Harris free from any pointed questions is also false. That being said, when one side is covered in mud, why are not to going to ask about how they sullied themselves? Is that not the journalistic thing to do? Just because the tough questions did not go Trump’s way does not mean it was cruel or biased. Once more, people reacted to what they saw and likely went to the ballot box with those sentiments in mind.

No book of this nature would be complete without a section seeking to smear and whine about corruption and how voters would have changed their minds had they known what Mollie Hemingway uncovered. While she is great at building up some jaded commentary, with Rudy Giuliani at the centre, Hemingway’s antics are as transparent as can be and her sources remain flimsy at best. It is always fun to watch those who want to take their ball away when they don’t win and then turn to espouse falsehoods because they did not get their own way. These whining antics may work for some, but those are the people thirsty for Kool-Aid.

While I do not agree with most of what Mollie Hemingway has to say, I will admit she can write. She great at laying it her arguments in a coherent manner, something that I do not see regularly with those who toss out such calamitous comments. Hemingway offers detailed analyses of a number of topics, even if it is an attempt to shy away from the book’s apparent crux, to show that the 2020 presidential election results were false, fake, and shamefully fraudulent. This is not the first of Hemingway’s books that I have read, but I can happily say that she is consistent in her writing style and perspective. She keeps the left in her crosshairs and feeds on anything Trump as though it were manna from heaven. It is refreshing to see something so jaded and one-sided, even after reading a few strong books that explore Trump Administration action in a favourable manner. All I can say, being up in Canada, is that streamlining electoral processes would save so many headaches. However, I know no one wants to give up the reins of power to do so, which is the underlying crux of this book.

Kudos, Madam Hemingway, for some comedic relief while also remaining me that there will be more pieces like this coming out when Trump falls flat once more!

One Damn Thing After Another: Memoirs of an Attorney General, by William P. Barr

Nine stars

Continuing to prep for November 2024, I wanted to explore more people who surrounded themselves with key players in the Trump Administration, offering their own views about the man and how effective it could be to put him back in the West Wing. William Barr, Trump’s final Attorney General, proved to be a man with a great deal of experience, but who I always saw as being somewhat sycophantic for reasons I could not understand. Yet, Barr had a vision and did not always fall into line when asked (or told) to do something. Therefore, I wanted to get his perspectives. Barr, who held the AG position under the first Bush president, offers a great deal of insight into government, legal matters, and the politics that Washington churns up in anyone within a stone’s throw of the White House. A great book that did open my eyes up to a great deal.

William Barr spent his early years in New York, with parents who were strong academics and sought to ensure their children strove for success. Barr was a strong-willed child and focused, going so far as to want to work for the CIA from a young age. This baffled many, but the single-track mind he had helped him succeed throughout school and into his university years. Barr made a name for himself with his peer group, but some of his academic pathways were not what his mother might have liked. While CIA work was still his passion—with a desire to work at the China Desk—he needed a fallback option, which led to his taking up legal studies in the evenings. His law degree would prove invaluable in the years to come and helped hone his skills for the numerous hurdles he would have to overcome.

While Barr may not have found a path to the CIA, his connection to its director, George Bush, in the 1970s, helped pave a pathway to success within the Attorney General’s Office. Barr found a niche and worked for the Office of Legal Counsel, advising the president on matters that could effect the law and America as a whole. Barr recounts how he was able to make a great deal of headway there, advising both the Reagan and Bush Administrations on matters of great importance. This also allowed him to rise within the ranks and become a Deputy Attorney General under Bush. He was a sought-after voice during some of the legal conundrums that took place in those years, challenging International Law and how the US Constitution fit into it. When an opening for Attorney General occurred, Bush chose Barr to take the role, s post that would last for the final year of the Administration. Barr handled some tricky issues, none more-so that a massive prison hostage situation Alabama, while keeping his cool and preventing the president from being drawn into the fray. A close confidante of President Bush, Barr remained with him through to the electoral loss in 1992, before both had to explore new opportunities for themselves.

Barr addresses his post-AG years as a way to expand his knowledge base. While he had three children and a wife whom he loved a great deal, Barr wanted a challenge and found work as General Counsel for a telecommunications firm that was trying to open things up in America, as the Bell conglomerate was being dismantled. He honed his skills and found himself arguing cases all over, even in Europe, as his name became more international and his reputation of a strong legal mind grew. He did not, however, want a judgeship, feeling that it might shackle him to something and keep him from being able to evolve exponentially.

Barr makes it clear that he was not cheering for Trump in 2016, having chosen to back Jeb Bush in the primaries. While this was the case, Barr admits that when it came down to it, he chose Trump when the GOP crowned him, refusing to consider Clinton at any time. Barr explores in depth his concerns about the Obama Administration and how Trump sought to reinvigorate the country with hope and possibility, even if things got far-fetched at times. Barr, sitting in private practice at this time, saw possibilities and could fathom America’s wanting Trump to turn the tides on the Obama degradation that had taken place. It is this launching point that makes the foray into Trump’s Administration all the more understandable.

Barr tackles his hesitant agreement to serve as Attorney General under President Trump in a key chapter. Exploring the contrast from his original nomination in 1991 with this effort, Barr expressed how Herculean things were with trying to get Senate approval for his confirmation. He also expressed how divisive the country had become and how Trump’s governing style might not be the most inviting or encompassing, but it has its own flair. With Democrats and Republicans staking out their own perspectives, Barr was nominated and ready to take Justice into his own hands, with a slew of issues on his plate, including the Mueller Investigation into collusion from the 2016 election.

The latter portion of the book delves deeply and thoroughly into Barr’s time as Attorney General. While it was only two years, the amount of information relayed is astounding and provides a great deal upon which the reader can feast. Barr touches on a few files that fell into his lap when he took over as Attorney General and offers his through and filterless perspectives on them. His discussion of the Mueller Investigation—as far as he can comments on it—proves interesting, including how he approached the report and the discussions with Robert Mueller III about it. The first Trump Impeachment arguments were also of great interest, as Barr posits some of his legal perspectives, which do not entirely read as sycophantic deference to POTUS. Death penalty use is another topic of great interest, in which Barr lays out not only his own views, but how the constitution and precedent support its use in certain circumstances.

For readers who enjoy seeing behind the curtain, Barer offers some detailed analysis on legal situations that involved the United States, Away from the bluster that was Trump. His detailed description of events; context for the importance in the political, legal, and historical sphere; and analysis all provide the reader with something educational and thoroughly intriguing. This ‘teachable moment’ helps put everything in into context and leaves the reader feeling as though they are involved in better understanding what’s taking place and how they, too, could see things through a lens of the US legal system. Barr pulls no punches about her views and is able to offer strongly worded sentiments, at times thorough a conservative lens, but his ideas seem grounded and not simply flights of fancy. While I may not agree with all of them, I can see his perspective and respect the views that he can substantiate.

Barr handles the 2020 presidential election and its fallout brilliantly, offering his analysis from a legal standpoint and not one as a Trump supporter. Barr repeatedly tried to explain that the Department of Justice is a non-partisan entity in place to ensure laws are upheld and followed, not the hammer of POTUS or the GOP to scrub out those views of state legislatures or politicians who did not fall into line. The election fallout proved to be Barr’s last straw and he gracefully explained how he got his exit before the wheels fell off the Trump-mobile once and for all. It was handled very smoothly and with aplomb, but I am sure Barr had some thoughts that he chose not tp put top paper about the mess that was unfolding before him. He highlights those who planted into the rhetoric and praised the people who, like him, could stand above the fray and watch, like a bad car wreck, how one man tried to pull America into the miasma, proving that there would need to be a saviour to return the country to its greatness that he had sullied so completely.

Books of this nature offer more than simply a place for the author to espouse their views and vilification of the other side. William Barr does present some strongly partisan sentiments, but he is able to support his claims and does not appear blindly sycophantic to either president under which he served. Barr offers a wonderful detail analysis of events, both political and legal, and offers some views with a basis in law and constitutionality that the reader ought to take into account. There will be issues for some and strongly worded sentiments by others, but Barr does not rest on his laurels at any time. He provides readers with sentiments that are more fact than gut feeling and for that he mist be commended. Do not think that I blindly accept all his views, but I can respect them, as I would an academic who supports their views with substantiation. The book is well paced and offers a linear and usually chronological view of events throughout Barr’s professional career. It can get deeper or more opaque at times, but that is Barr pulling on some legal and philosophical perspectives to support his claims. still,the attentive reader and one who enjoys this type of banter will find something in here they can feast up throughout the tome’s journey. I respect the analysis and it has given me a better view of how things were done from the Attorney General’s perspective, as well as some of the glaring choices that Trump chose not to make, even when counselled to do so. William Barr has earned respect for all he explored, though I won’t fall upon my own sword and say that he has won me over entirely. Still, refreshing as we enter new battlegrounds and have some things ton consider when the rhetoric begins sooner than later.

Kudos, Mr. Barr, for a great look into the law and all its complexities, especially with a blowhard trying to make your job harder.

The Institution (Dr. Connie Woolwine #2), by Helen Sarah Fields

Eight stars

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

Always one to enjoy a novel by Helen Sarah Fields, I gladly accepted this ARC. While Fields puts this book forward as a standalone, it is actually the second novel featuring Dr. Connie Woolwine and former Det. Brodie Baarda. Woolwine and Baarda are on a mission to discover how a pregnant nurse in an extremely secure institution was murdered and her foetus violently removed. The storylines in the book provide as much eerieness as entertainment for the reader, while proving that Helen Sarah Fields is at the top of her game in a genre full of authors. This is yet another reading experience about which I will be talking for months to come.

After the murder of a nurse and the kidnapping of her foetus within one of the world’s most secure prisons for the criminally insane, there is panic both to solve the case and keep it hushed. Enter Dr. Connie Woolwine, whose profiling abilities brought her from the United States over the Pond. Working undercover, Woolwine will try to determine what’s been going on and provide the police with much needed information. She’s brought her colleague, former Detective Brodie Baarda along, to serve as a new patient with a mysterious past.

While Dr. Woolwine is known for being able to peel back the layers of the most sadistic murderers, she will have to work her magic slowly, while still on a clock. The foetus, now named Aurora is in the hands of someone unknown, with a massive ransom that must be paid in short order. Dr. Woolwine meticulously interviews the other prisoners and staff within The Institution, a castle-like structure that has many pods and is isolated form much of the outside world. Without revealing her true reason for being there, Woolwine works to explore who might have wanted the victim dead and how it could be accomplished without anyone else knowing. All the while, the hunt for the baby is a secondary worry, as Woolwine does all she can.

With Baarda trying to play a serial killer and yet keep his dignity, Woolwine will have to make efforts to find answers and use her colleague’s insights to see if they can crack the case open in the allotted time. With a murderer in their midst and someone trying to stifle obvious progress, it could cost Woolwine and Baarda everything. A chilling story that is as entertaining as it is addictive, Fields proves just how great a writer she is with this novel!

I always enjoy seeing a new book out by Helen Sarah Fields. Her writing is stellar and the storylines prove tp pull the reader in with little effort. There is an obvious dedication to research, as Fields gets to the root of psychiatric disorders, with just the right amount of tension to make it realistic. While she wants to keep this as a standalone, Fields has the makings for another strong series here, with a collection of protagonists whose personalities mesh effectively. I’ll keep hoping that we see more from Dr. Connie Woolwine in the near future, as I am sure she has much more to offer.

The narrative approach to this book was a mix of straightforward crime thriller and eerie psychological tale. Fields mixes them well and presents a story that is sure to keep the reader flipping pages as they try to get to the core of the matter. A handful of well-established characters and two great protagonists keep the story moving and developing in many directions. It was the non-linear plots that made the book what it is, with a constant evolution of who could have done it and how their psychosis will come to the surface. Fast paced and full of unexpected twists, Fields leads her readers along and presents many possible solutions, in hopes that nothing is too predictable. As i mentioned above, I cannot wait to see when we will see more of Connie Woolwine, hoping that she can dazzle fans and some other characters alike.

Kudos, Madam Fields, for another stunning read!

Breaking History: A White House Memoir, by Jared Kushner

Nine stars

Looking to whet my appetite once more ahead of the 2024 US Presidential Election, I turned to this book, which has been gathering some digital dust on my to-be-read shelf. Jared Kushner, son-in-law to former President Donald Trump, offers some of his own insights into life during the Administration’s single term in the White House. While not a life-long political operative, Kushner offers some interesting perspectives, while still exuding sycophantic sentiments, perhaps to keep the peace with his wife at home. Full of well-paced discussion of events that took place, Kushner’s book is worth exploring, of only to offer another perspective of how the train wreck reached its climax.

Jared Kushner was not politically savvy in his early years. He was quite astute, with a father who taught him the ropes of real estate acquisitions, which may have been one of the reasons Donald J. Trump caught his attention. Soon dating and marrying Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, Kushner found himself sucked into the vortex that was Trump’s political ambitions. As Kushner explores, he agreed to help his father-in-law during the 2016 campaign, but was sure that it would only be for a short time. Still Kushner did all he could to help pave the way for a Trump victory, denying that there were any Russian interferences in the final result.

After Trump’s surprise victory, Kushner and Ivanka were offered spots in the Administration, though they had no political experience. Kushner expresses the hesitancy he had to taking a job in Washington, though he wanted to help his family advance their goals as best he could. Juggling all sorts of portfolios, Kushner found himself working in a variety of capacities, stepping on toes throughout the process. There is talk in the book about how Kushner and Steve Brannon clashed extensively, forcing Trump to make some big choices as to what he would do with each of them. It would appear that Kushner wanted to look at the long game and play within the rules of politics, rather than cut corners or stab people in the back. One can surmise that this ‘big picture thinker’ might have offset many of the outlandish ideas that Trump espoused on a regular basis.

Using his Jewish faith as an advantage, Kushner found himself highly involved in Middle East matters, guiding Trump through some of the thorny issues and using his family’s connections with Israeli power brokers to ensure America kept its pro-Israel stance in all meetings, which also trying to keep an open mind as Trump renegotiated with Islamic and Arab countries in the region. Kushner circles back throughout the tome to discuss peace deals and how integral they were to keeping the region working effectively. There were surely some clashes with the State Department, but as Kushner discusses things, he had the ear of POTUS and so much of his work appeared to receive the green light to move ahead.

Trade proved another key building blocks in the Trump Administration, one which Kushner was given a leading role. The NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) received much discussion under the Trump Administration, such that POTUS sought to re-write how things were done, ensuring that America got the best deal possible. While Mexico appeared to be on board with changes and allowed its northern neighbour to dictate terms, the Canadians stood their ground (go CANADA!) and made the process all the more difficult, Kushner speaks in detail about how he had to go back and forth with the Canadians to get a final deal, so far that Prime Minister Trudeau remained a ‘last second’ decider to ensure that the deal, renamed USMCA (United States Mexico Canada Agreement) came to the desk of Congress for review only minutes before the deadline.

No discussion of the Trump Administration would be complete without an analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kushner explores how this was a complete surprise to the Administration and that Trump sought to act swiftly to create a plan to keep the spread from continuing, locking down the needed supplies for transmission stoppage, and getting a vaccine ready for Americans. While Kushner does slap on a cape and tights for both himself and Trump, he illustrates the need for panic and strong arming to get supplies that were needed, which included harsh conversations with the Chinese to get supplies from their factories to Americans. It is hard to separate sycophancy and truth here, and Kushner has little but praise for his father-in-law, but the discussion about behind the scenes work by many offers credence that at least some of it could be true.

Kushner could not escape discussion surrounding the 2020 presidential election in his memoir, though he does not focus too much of his attention there. Mixing talk of COVID with the imminent election on the horizon (and some impeachment chatter for good measure), Kushner made his sentiments known that Trump was ina good place for reelection, but that it was liberal media outlets who gave ‘senile Joe Biden’ the benefit of the doubt that helped derail a destined second term. While Kushner had a great deal of governmental and political things going on, he made sure to plant the seeds so that everyone knew he was sure his father-in-law was robbed of victory, down to the outlandish complaints of voter fraud and ballot tampering in states like Arizona and Pennsylvania. While it is old and the arguments keep being repeated, I was eager to see how he would handle it in this book. Nothing new and relatively no talk of the January 6, 2021 riots, save to say that there were bad people amongst the good, as well as pointing out that liberals were known to stir up trouble.

A book of this nature is one the reader must enter knowing what to expect. There will be sycophantic sentiments throughout, which Kushner did not disappoint in adding, but there is a chance to really see the inside workings of government, which prove that Trump was not the only one making the machines churn. Kushner shoes just how influential he was an involved in the hard issues, which is refreshing to see. His work netted a great deal of positive things for the country and perhaps the world as well. The memoir was written well, using a strong narrative to guide the reader through some tough topics and those that could have been weighed down with minutiae. Kushner offered wonderful pacing and introduced a number of key payers throughout, keeping the story evolving and in the moment. He added his personal touches to the piece, with family and his own religious beliefs, which gave the book a flavouring that I have not seen in past tomes on the topic. For that, I would gladly recommend this read to anyone who wants a detailed look into the Administration, especially one that is not all Trump-smarmy and makes the reader want to vomit with Trumpian cheerleaders. It has me eager to look at more actions in the troupe who played a role in the Administration.

Kudos, Mr. Kushner, for a captivating view on politics, policy, and personal growth. I have a respect for you I did not have when beginning this journey.

Spare, by Prince Harry

Nine stars

While the British Royal Family have always been a topic of great interest to many, the recent release of a tell-all memoir by HRH Prince Harry added some refreshing honesty and bluntness to the scandalous pieces that have littered bookstores or tabloid pages. Told from the heart and through his own eyes, Prince Harry provides the reader with his perspective, as the ‘Royal spare’, in contrast with his brother’s the heir to the throne. It’s poignant release months after the death of Queen Elizabeth II makes the honest commentary all the more sobering as the monarchy is again being put under the spotlight. Nothing short of eye opening for those who have the regime to read it!

HRH Prince Harry Wales had a purpose from the moment he was born; to be the Royal spare, should older brother, William, not live to ascend to the throne. Harry has lived with this moniker ever since and while it was not bluntly presented in every discussion of his early life, it was there. The world knew of Harry from a young age, but it was only after the death of his mother, Princess Diana, that people started to take notice. This memoir picks up there, just before the fatal car accident in 1997. Harry spends the first portion of the book discussing his ‘spare’ title and how he made his way through school and life in a post-Diana world. He drank, he took drugs, but he was not entirely a reprobate. While he was forced to live in his brother’s shadow at Eton, he made a namer for himself and strove to earn his keep, albeit on his own terns.

Harry turned to a life of charity after school, wanting to visit places in Africa and other parts of the world, as well as a stint in Australia. He sought to get dirt under his nails and make a difference. He found himself wanting to do more than sit at a desk, which is what drew him to military service. While there were many controversies about it, Harry pushed through and found himself ready for combat, with a number of arenas in which he could serve. He challenged the ‘protect all royals’ sentiment and advocated to be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, even if he would have to arrive there converted, so as not to paint a target on his back. Harry recounts of his many adventures in training as well as in Afghanistan, putting his passion to use and making a difference, all before his identity was discovered and he was forced to return to the United Kingdom. Again, he could not shake the ‘royal’ label, wishing to serve as anyone else beside him, but this was not to be.

By the book’s third section, Harry delves into tryin to put his personal life in order, being a hot-blooded man and having seen William wed Kate Middleton. This section focuses on the way in which Harry and Meghan Markle met, dated, courted, and eventually decided to marry. Harry is blunt and completely honest about his feelings and the giddiness he felt with anything Meghan. The couple slowly and determinedly kept seeing one another, as best they could under the radar of the press, connecting on many levels, even when many within Harry’s family thought it a bad idea to date. There were early attacks towards Meghan about her past, her race, and even her life choices, all of which Harry raged that nothing was done to defend her. Still, he would not be dissuaded from marrying the woman he loved, even as the likes of Prince (now King) Charles tried to downplay her for fear that it would shine the limelight on someone other than him. The couple’s nuptials are described in detail here and show a truly fairytale nature to them, forced into pomp and circumstance when they wanted something simple in Africa.

The rest of the third part of the book explores the ongoing struggles that Harry and Meghan had with the British media, public, and the royals themselves. Meghan tried to live her life as best she knew it, but was not ‘Princess Perfection’ as Harry explains. While many within the Royal family usually circle to protect their own, Harry recounts how many left Meghan to be feasted upon, to the point that she contemplated suicide. While some may say that this was melodramatic, the way Harry presents it and from the recollections I have from media accounts, the pain was real and pushed a wedge between Harry and the rest of his family, as well as his country.

The thing about tell-all pieces is that they reveal the warts as well as the great things that happen. This can sour many people who read the book, making them feel this is just about whining or causing a scene. However, one must step back and wonder if this is the author’s way of getting things off their chest, unpinning the media portrayal and offering their heartfelt perspective. While I cannot know how much of the book was complete fact, I must say that Prince Harry offered up powerful and personal opinions, sacrificing himself to try to right the record for all. His flowing narrative was in line with what I would like, rather than a stuffed shirt approach to storytelling. His short chapters, while confounding me in the early stages, began working well for me and left an indelible mark. They pushed me to read on, as there was so much told and great deal more teased with each chapter’s progression. This is the perfect way to lure the reader in. Lots to tell and Harry did that, offering up blunt and honest perspectives, as well as opinions about those around him. While some might pan it as being too full of complaint, I applaud the honesty that Prince Harry offered and the actions he took to protect his immediate family from the harshness that was and is British society.

Kudos, Prince Harry, for setting the record straight, even as you were left out in the cold by your family at the time you needed them most.

The Basement: Dark Past, by M. Marie Walker

Did not finish

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

Always eager to try something by a new author, I gladly accepted this ARC by M. Marie Walker. I went into the reading experience with some trepidation, as I do with many authors with whom I know nothing, but tried to keep an open mind as well. I tried to grasp onto the characters and the story, but could not find myself connecting on any level. Multiple attempts left me in the same situation, allowing me to see that this would not be the book for me.

I do not think that it was the content or the writing, both of which seemed to work for what Walker was trying to convey. I simply could not find myself caring enough to want to keep reading. I have no issue with violence in fiction (and find it quite silly to add ‘content warnings’, as though readers are children and cannot handle big people topics for themselves), which Walker handled well in her writing, nor does language bother me in any regard. I suppose it was just one of those experiences that I did not find myself tied to the story enough to keep picking the book up, no matter how I tried to prepare myself mentally. Surely others will find that connection and perhaps laud M. Marie Walker for her efforts. I am just not one of those readers.

Kudos, Madam Walker, for a valiant effort. I hope others find some connection to the piece and offer you praise for the experience.

The Big Bang Theory: The Definitive, Inside Story of the Epic Hit Series, by Jessica Radloff

Nine stars

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past decade and a half, you’ve likely heard of or seen that hit television program The Big Bang Theory. Jessica Radloff counts on this as she pulls back the curtain and offers readers an in-depth look into the series, its characters, and many of the key plots that arose during the twelve years it ran on CBS. Radloff seeks to use her hours of interviews with many who were buzzing around the sets to give the reader something personal and perhaps show just how things looked on the other side of the script. Full of wonderful anecdotes and powerful explanations, Radloff scores top marks for this personal plunge into the truths of the show and its success.

In the opening chapters of the book, Jessica Radloff explains that this show was never expected to have the meteoric rise that it did. Pitching a program about an experimental and theoretical physicist was not sexy and the likelihood that it would work for network television seemed low. Show creator Chuck Lorre was not sure what he ought to expect when he went to executives to get a green light, but somehow he was able to cobble together enough interest to get a pilot booked. While there were issues with that pilot, it was casting that would prove to be highly difficult and time-consuming, with some well-known actors seeking roles, as well as relative nobodies. When all was said and done, there was a core cast who, after a failed pilot and re-organisation, turned out to be the nucleus of what would make The Big Bang Theory the powerful juggernaut it became.

Radloff explores how each of the ‘core five’ handle the stardom that would eventually be theirs, from little known Jim Parsons to established television actress Kaley Cuoco. Each took the slow but steady success in their own stride, balancing life on stage with evolving personal successes and failures away from the camera. The cast morphed from being a strong troupe to a family that could not live without one another. This is highly interesting for the reader to discover, as one can only wonder if spending all that time together on set would mean two would seek to run away when not taping or rehearsing. This group became so close that they vacationed together, dated in some cases, and even negotiated their contracts alongside one another. And the success only pushed them closer together.

With the ongoing success of the show, buzz around the acting world heightened and guest appearances became easier to score. Radloff explores the many big name celebrities who agreed to play a role on the show, from single appearances to story arcs. One of my favourite guest spots, which receives significant discussion in the book, was how the show captured the attention of Bob Newhart, a brilliant comedy actor in his own right. His delivery on the show (as many who have seen it will know) is perfect and the delayed one-liners proved the gift that kept on giving. The cast gathered around their guests and made them feel at home, forcing some great friendships along the way.

There were many social and personal issues explores in the show, many of which Radloff touches upon. Sheldon neuro-uniqueness, Raj’s social anxiety, the push for the Sheldon-Amy ‘coitus connection’ and even motherhood as experienced by Bernadette. All these helped connect the viewers to the show by showing that while many of the issues were highly scientific, there were everyday issues that crossed their paths as well, many of which were struggles that everyone faced. Radloff explains this wonderfully and ekes out some great views from the cast about how they and the writers sought to handle them.

While the hit show was riding high, everyone knew that it would have to end at some point, leaving a gaping hole in their lives. Radloff examines the announcement and final season with great class. While part of the discussion surrounds Jim Parsons decision not to return after the twelfth season, Radloff shows how things blossomed and the entire cast came to see that it was the right decision to end things on a high note. There was much to do in that final season, leading up to the ultimate final few blocks falling into place for all seven of the characters. A brilliant, yet tearful, end to a magnificent run in which science got its time in the limelight and how many who watched saw themselves looking towards the study of the earth’s functions as their chosen field.

While it is hard to top the greatness of the show, Jessica Radloff does a formidable job in approaching how to summarize 12 seasons and the impact they had on viewers so succinctly, while keeping the comedy high and the personal reveals second to none. Wonderful themes emerge throughout the book, which appear through Radloff’s impeccable writing. She massaged so much information and chose to present it, less in a full narrative format, but to splice in interview answers and character memories. The overall theme emerged so well thought the book and left me with a lump in my throat at others. I was transported back to the first season all the way through to the final curtain call, when the story had its intended ending. JEssica Radloff did the show so well with this book and chose wonderful topics to address. While I hope others don’t try to copy her with this show, I would be eager to see if there are other pieces that reminisce about other popular shows, giving her reader a peek behind the curtain.

Kudos, Madam Radloff, for doing the show and its fans so well with this powerful look back. There’s only one thing that can be said to thank you. BAZINGA!

The Jerusalem Scrolls (Michael Dominic #8), by Gary McAvoy

Nine stars

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

After a number of successful thrillers centred around religious history and antiquities, Gary McAvoy is back with his latest novel. Having been handed an ARC, I was pleased to get an early look at what McAvoy has been planning, as he helps his protagonist, Father Michael Dominic, in yet another adventure that hints at revealing more about the roots of Christianity, with a modern twist. McAvoy is stellar in his delivery and peppers fact and fiction throughout, forcing the reader to pay close attention as they attempt to splice truth from fanciful dream. Surely one of his best novels to date, which will keep series fans rushing back for more!

When two young boys discover a red clay jar in a hidden cave near the city of Qumran, they could not dream of what might be inside. Several scrolls are soon identified as being written by the Essenes two millennia before, depicting events before the Great Jewish Revolt, which includes talk of the Lost Treasures of Solomon, scattered across Jerusalem. All of these discoveries parallel some of the information from the Copper Scroll, found in the Dead Sea region back in 1947. Amongst this new collection is a scroll with writings from St. Paul himself, which could rewrite much of the core beliefs of early Christianity..

After Father Michael Dominic and some of his friends are called to Jerusalem to investigate these scrolls, it becomes clear just how serious things could be. While not on a mission for the Vatican, there is a sense of decorum and Dominic brings all the passion from his past adventures into this one. While Dominic and a long-time friend from his seminary days want to examine the scrolls and learn how the findings could influence Christianity and the Church, there are others in play who have a mission all their own.

A small sect known as the Mithraists—the chief rival to Christianity in the region until the fourth century—wants nothing to do with the scrolls or their findings and takes it upon itself to ensure it is lost forever. A televangelist with personal ambitions arrives in the region to ensure that he alone will bring the news of a new angle to Christianity and house the scrolls in his personal museum. Even the Isaraeli and Egyptian governments weigh in, wanting their piece of the pie. All this while Father Dominic tries to stay one step ahead of those with nefarious intentions.

With action and adventure, peppered with moments of dire trouble and dangerous clashes with those who will stop at nothing for their own outcome, Father Michael Dominic must discover what St. Paul had to say and how it could redefine Jesus and the heart of Christianity into the 21st century. Gary McAvoy does a sensational job in yet another thriller that is sure to leave the reader excited to see where things are going and exhausted from the journey found herein.

When I first discovered the work of Gary McAvoy, I was eager to see how an author would depict something with clear Christian undertones without making it preachy. Not only has McAvoy nailed the thriller genre, but his use of religious and regional history is highly educational without getting ‘soap box sermon-like’. McAvoy wants to educate and show the reader how much we don’t know, which he does through the guise of using Father Michael Dominic’s curiosities for all things historically Christian. There is nothing like a McAvoy story to leave the reader with many questions, as they flip to the back to see just how much is fact and where McAvoy uses creative freedoms.

The narrative flow of this book is not only strong because it points the way, but also because of its rich depiction of all things historical. There is so much to learn about the three Abrahamic religions, as well as the region where it all began. McAvoy imbues his stories with this and helps the reader grasp the intensity of the scrolls’ discovery, as well as the overall impact on many things. Strong characters, each of which flavour the piece in their own way, offer some great contrasts between the differing cultures and mindsets, be it about antiquities in general or regional politics and the possession of sacred knowledge. Plot twists occur throughout and find themselves wrapped in historical events, as well as moments when the thrills are at their highest. McAvoy has a wonderful handle on it all, yet is able to compact things into a quick read that many readers will devour in short order. For those who have yet to discover Gary McAvoy, this is your chance to do so. Start from the beginning to get the proper context and let your imagination soar as you deserve just how little Christianity in 2023 relates to things at the time of its inception.

Kudos, Mr. McAvoy, for another stellar ride through history and proof that there is so much we have yet to truly know about those early days in the Holy Lands.

Sparring Partners, by John Grisham

Eight stars

John Grisham is back with three stellar novellas sure to impress those who have enjoyed his stories for years! Using his knowledge of the law and superior writing skills, Grisham offers up these stories to entertain and educate the curious reader. Told from three completely different perspectives and involving a varied cast, Grisham can appeal to all readers with this collection. In one, a series is advanced, while the other two are standalone stories. Wonderful writing and a dry southern sense of humour shine through in this collection, sure to impress most Grisham fans.

Homecoming transports the reader to Ford County, where Grisham has set some of his best novels to date. Jake Brigance, once a young and naive lawyer, has settled and made quite a name for himself. While Brigance has a great courtroom personality, in this piece he is in his law office when he receives a cryptic letter from a friend and fellow lawyer. Mack Stafford was once the talk of Clanton, Mississippi when he stole large sums of his clients’ money and disappeared. Having divorced his wife and disappeared, he’s now ready to come back, just as Lisa is about to die from cancer. While Brigance does not want to get in the middle of things, he is happy to facilitate Mack’s return to town. What was supposed to be a heartfelt reunion with his family and the ability to settle some disputes goes awry and Mack Stafford’s return is anything but joyous!

Strawberry Moon is a great story about a young death row inmate, Cody Wallace, living the final hours before his execution. The law has let him down and the politicians have all but given up on him. He can see the end and wants to put his 29 year life in order. When he makes one final request, it is a little out of the ordinary, but he is adamant that it is the last thing he wants before he can no longer feel or see anything of an earthly nature.

Sparring Partners introduces the reader to the Malloy brothers, Kirk and Rusty. They are sharp lawyers in the St. Louis community and have been managing the family firm since their father was sent to prison. While the Malloy brothers despise one another, they must come together to stop the complete disintegration of their firm. Unable to fully trust one another, they turn to Diantha Bradshaw, who knows all the skeletons in the firm’s closets. While she is willing to help, Diantha may not be enough to keep the Malloys afloat.

This is a great collection of novellas by John Grisham that not only show his writing ability, but also the varied perspectives the law has to offer. Anyone familiar with Grisham’s work will know it is legally vast and usually pulls characters out from their comfort zones at every turn. Grisham’s strong narrative flow and keen attention to detail provide the reader with a fabulous experience as they flip pages. Great to read as a collection or individual pieces when time permits, these are novellas perfect for any occasion. I can only hope that it will pique the interest of readers who may not be familiar with the work of John Grisham and keep them coming back for more!

Kudos, Mr. Grisham, for a wonderful and vastly different collection of stories in this book.