Open Carry, by Marc Cameron

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Marc Cameron, and Kensington Books for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Established author Marc Cameron has branched out to create a new series, full of all the excitement his fans have come to expect, but with a few new twists to lure in more followers. Arliss Cutter is proud to work for the US Marshals, though being assigned to Alaska has come to be less exciting than he’d hoped. Spending days with his team hunting down fugitives makes for interesting, though not always enthralling, work. When Cutter is contacted to help a small local police detachment on a rural island in the state, he jumps at the opportunity. A teenage girl has gone missing and the list of suspects is quite long, owning to the fact that a reality television program is in the middle of production. When two members of the crew also go missing, Cutter must try to determine if this is all connected or just a matter of overly curious folks in a rural setting. As Cutter connects with some of the locals, he learns a little more about the indigenous population and their deep roots in the area. Meanwhile, someone has arrived with a vendetta to settle, one that Cutter had better diffuse before things get out of hand. In a story that takes readers on many twists and turns, Marc Cameron shows why he is top of his genre with this fast-paced novel. Recommended to those who have enjoyed Cameron’s work in the past, as well as the reader who enjoys a thriller set outside the major metropolitan areas.

When I heard that Cameron was beginning a new series, I had mixed sentiments. I have read authors who seek to expand their writing base, but their core series tends to fade and fans lose out on strong writing. However, it would seem that Cameron has a wonderful collection of ideas in this novel, which could be a standalone or the start to a new and successful series. Arliss Cutter is a great character whose grit and ‘bad cop’ mentality is balanced with his love of his extended family and roots in the state. Cutter shows his affinity for those in his inner circle, even as he chases the scum of the earth around on a daily basis. His tunnel vision works well in this story, as he gets to the heart of the matter in short order. Others around him add interesting flavouring to the narrative and could, given the chance, show more depth in future pieces. The story may not be completely unique, but Cameron’s use of the Alaska setting and some of the locals adds a certain individuality that will keep the reader wanting to know more. Short chapters and an ever moving narrative keeps things clipping along and allows the reader to discover just how talented Marc Cameron is at the art of writing. I would hope to see more Arliss Cutter in the future, but am not worried if Cameron returns to his core series for a time. Either way, the reader is in for a treat!

Kudos, Mr. Cameron, for a wonderful piece. I am eager to see where you take us next.

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

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Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator, by Oleg V. Khlevniuk

Nine stars

Oleg V. Khlevniuk presents a new biography on one of history’s most ruthless dictators, Joseph Stalin. Taking the reader well behind the (iron) curtain, Khlevniuk explores some of the many topics only briefly mentioned in passing before, if not entirely erased from outsider discussion. Joseph Stalin, born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, came from a frugal household. A Georgian by birth, Jughashvili did not let his family’s plight shape his academic successes, earning top honours throughout his educational endeavours, before joining the seminary. As a young man, Jughashvili rebranded himself as Joseph Stalin, a name that rolled off the tongue with greater ease, while also finding solace in the Bolshevik Party, speaking out for a Marxist way of life. Stalin’s close ties to Lenin saw him rise in the Party and help develop the plans for the eventual uprising that history has called the Russian Revolution. Stalin could not stomach much of the class divisions that he saw developing in his homeland, but also did not stay quiet about these issues, finding himself shipped off to Siberia on a few occasions. Khlevniuk offers up a few interesting vignettes about Stalin’s time there, including letters pleading for assistance as he starved and froze. Under Lenin’s leadership, the Bolsheviks stormed to power after raising a Red Army that crippled the already weakened Russian troops under the current government, with Stalin close to the top of the power structure. Lenin could see that his protégé was less about the Marxist ideology in practice than the complete concentration of power and its delivery with an iron fist—a theme that would recur throughout the biography. As history has recounted, Lenin feared his eventual death, as it would surely see Stalin take the reins and steer the USSR in another direction. Khlevniuk illustrates Stalin’s impatience as he waited for control over the Communist Secretariat, biding his time as Lenin sought a firm, but not harsh, approach to the new ideological delivery. When Stalin did succeed Lenin, things took a significant change in the USSR, as the new leader sought to focus his attention on bringing to pass some of his collectivisation tactics, textbook communism wherein the country would share all. Khlevniuk explores Stalin’s first ‘five year plan’ in which commodities were taken from the various communities and amassed centrally. Brutal hoarding of products brought about by Party rules saw people literally starving, with no remorse by Stalin whatsoever. Khlevniuk depicts brutal murder for those who would not abide by the rules and how some mothers, mad with starvation, turned to murdering their children to eat their flesh. This brutality continued as Stalin killed or brought about the deaths of millions under the USSR’s control, all in an effort to concentrate power. [As an aside, it is fascinating as well as horrifying to see the narrative go in depth about all these atrocities, substantiated by much of Khlevniuk’s research. While the world remained clueless about these acts, focus and shock appeared turned towards Hitler’s decision to exterminate people over the next 10-15 years!] Stalin continued his brutal governing, instilling fear and repression into his people with some of these foundational Marxist values that were taken out of context. Khlevniuk offers countless examples to show just how authoritarian things became in the USSR in the lead-up to the Second World War. Without any firm alliances on the international scene, Stalin inched towards the Nazis, who were solidifying their own power structure in Western Europe. As Khlevniuk explores, Stalin soon realised that he may have made a pact with the devil, noticing Hitler’s plans to overtake Europe with no thought to anyone else. Not wanting to show any sign of weakness, Stalin held onto his loose non-aggression pact with Hitler, only to have the German dictator plot an invasion of Russia in secret. The narrative of the war years is both bold in its assertions of how Stalin kept the Red Army in line and brutal in discussions about the clashes with the Nazis and punitive measures doled out for not ‘serving Russia adequately’. By the end of fighting, Khlevniuk cites that over six million Russians had died, a figure that becomes even more astonishing when added to the millions who perished during the famines and collectivisations mentioned before. With the war over, Stalin turned to his own territorial expansions across Eastern Europe, amassing countries under his Communist umbrella. While he did that, he watched with fascination as China turned red, though its leader, Mao, would not be suppressed or bullied. Stalin may have had the role of brutal communist dictator sewed up, but Mao was surely ready to learn and did enact some of his own horrible treatment of the Chinese. Stalin’s health had always been an issue, but it became even more apparent the final years of his life, as his outward appearance showed significant signs of wear. Khlevniuk examines this, both through the narrative and with extracted comments by others, as Stalin suffered a debilitating stroke while those in his inner circle could do nothing. By the end, it was a waiting game, as Russia’s powerful leader and generalissimo soon drifted off and never woke. Sentiment in the streets was mixed, though the Secret Police and communist officials sough to quell much of the critical talk. The end of an era and a loosening of the reins of power would follow for Russia, as one of the world’s most ruthless dictators was no more, his indelible mark not one the world will soon be able to ignore. A brilliant biographical piece that will entertain and educate many who take the time to read it. Highly recommended for those who love political biographies, particularly of those leaders who have received such a whitewashed tale in history books.

While I am no expert on Stalin, communist, or even Marxist theory, I can see that Khlevniuk’s efforts with this piece are not only stellar, but comprehensive. Choosing to focus on the man and add the lenses of his leadership and the ideology he espouses, the reader sees a new and definitely more brutal Stalin than has been previously substantiated. Those readers who love biographies and how they are cobbled together will find significant interest in the introduction, where Khlevniuk explains not only why this piece is ‘new’, but how he was able to take past biographies (both of Stalin and those closest to him) and weave new narratives to tell the story from inside the Kremlin walls. Actions are no longer part of a sterlised account and the reader is not fed tasteless narrative pablum, but able to see more of the actions and the blood flowing in the proverbial streets. I was shocked on more than one occasion with the attention to detail provided within the piece and how these accounts received substantiation from those in the room, as though they could now speak out without worry of being persecuted. Khlevniuk is able to convey a great deal of information in his narrative, taking the reader deep into the history, but knows what will appeal to the general reader and what might be too mundane. His dividing the book into six parts (chapters) allows the reader to see the various parts of Stalin’s life. Interestingly enough, Khlevniuk tells the reader in his introduction that each part can be read in whatever order they choose, though anyone seeking a chronological depiction of Stalin should (and would) read from beginning to end in that order. Full of detail and substantiated comments, this biography of Joseph Stalin is not only new, but well worth the reader’s time and should not be missed solely because of its length. There is much to learn about the man and his impact on world history, as we enter an era of new authoritarian leaders who seek to control large portions of the population.

Kudos, Mr. Khlevniuk, for an outstanding piece of writing. I learned a great deal and hope that others will be able to take as much away from reading this book as well.

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

The Current, by Tim Johnston

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Tim Johnston, and Algonquin Books for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

In my first exploration of Tim Johnston’s work, the novel took a journey that may literally chill the reader to the bone. On their way back from college, two young women stop for gas in the middle of winter. A simple fill-up soon turns sour when one is assaulted by two men who prey on her solitude. After fending them off, the women rush to their vehicle and continue on their way, hoping the worst is behind them. Bright headlights soon creep up in the rearview mirror and the vehicle is bumped off the road, teetering on the edge of a body of water. In the moments before they lose consciousness, both women vow to get through this together. When Audrey Sutter wakes, she is in the hospital with significant injuries. Her friend was not so lucky, having perished before a passer-by called the authorities. Now, with her fractured memories (and bones), Audrey must relay what she knows to the sheriff, who tries to formulate a suspect list. Audrey’s father, Tom, is a former sheriff himself and will not stand idly by as he seeks to locate the perpetrators. However, this proves harder than it seems and leads go colder faster than the ice water in which his daughter was once submerged. With a cold case coming to the surface and the local sheriff choosing to run things at his own pace, those who sought to kill Audrey remain at large, but are they watching so that they can finish the job? Johnston weaves an interesting tale that seeks to control the reader’s experience like a strong-willed river current. With all the elements for a successful novel, I am not sure why this one missed the mark for me.

Having sampled no past work by the author, I am required to let my gut and first impressions steer me. Johnston utilised many of the needed elements to craft a decent novel, including a crime and assault to open the story. However, it would seem that there was a supersaturation of information that diluted much of the delivery. Audrey Sutter, who plays at least a partial protagonist character, proves to be somewhat likeable, though I did not feel a strong connection to her. She’s young and is forced to come to terms with much loss in short order. Still, I would have liked to feel as though her fate (and finding the person/people who tried to kill her) meant more to me. The same goes for many of the other characters who crossed the pages of the book, including the retired cop Tom Sutter. Instead, many of the names and their backstories blended together to form a giant wad of narrative goop. Johnston had some great ideas amidst the various tangential storylines, something that I think might better have been developed in a series. While the central crime does recur, there are so many people with insights on different plots that the reader is forced to parse through all the discussions and keep things straight. Johnston has a strong writing style and I applaud this, but I could not find a level of comfort to pull me through this piece. Best of luck for those seeking a story with lots to offer, but too much to digest.

Kudos, Mr. Johnston, for your efforts. Not my cup of tea, though the premise drew me in from the outset.

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

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, by Serhii Plokhy

Eight stars

While I have long heard that the maternal side of my family came from Ukraine in the 1930s, I was not old enough to ask the poignant questions to those who made the journey while they were still alive. While it is not entirely necessary to understand the political and social rationale, my curiosity has always been quite high to better understand what led these people to flee and settle throughout Saskatchewan, in Canada’s Prairie West. A recent topic in my reading challenge pushed me to explore some of my ancestral roots, which paved the way to better understand Ukraine as a country, a political entity, and a society. While I may not discover all the answers I seek, Serhii Plokhy wrote a fairly comprehensive history of the region, giving me a greater understanding of my ancestral homeland, leaving me many new questions that will have to be answered through further research. Plokhy begins his exploration by discussing the territory that would eventually become Ukraine as being vast and open, unbordered in the modern sense. Various groups settled in the region, leaving their marks, including: Neanderthal mammoth hunters, the Norsemen (Vikings), Cossacks, and various others. These groups sought not necessarily to overtake the territory, but to offer influential marks in defence, arms, and primitive political assembly. Plokhy pushes through the centuries quite effectively, with the Ottomans entering the fray, as well as an early Russian Empire, both squeezing the land that would be called Ukraine in a time. Interestingly enough, the influence of these outsider empires helped formulate a cultural mix and a people who referred to themselves as the Rus’, though a number of other names have been given to these people, as Plokhy discusses for the interested reader. Plokhy goes into much greater detail in the early part of the book about many of the cultural and social entities that wove the early fabric of the Rus’ people, should the reader wish to indulge in this discussion. With politics and geography always evolving, the Rus’ found themselves influenced by these two strong-willed groups as the Hapsburgs came along and laid claim to other European neighbours, adding new and flavourful influences to the region. A seminal event in Ukrainian—and world—history would have to be the Great War, where empires fell and territory was handed out like sweets at a party. The Rus’ people, now seeing themselves as Ukrainians, saw the potential to seek independence during a movement of removing past shackles. Interestingly enough, as the Russian Revolution came to pass, Ukraine sought to declare itself autonomous as well, but did not have the military or political might to stand entirely alone, as they soon discovered. Rather, they had the ever-powerful Bolshevik Russia breathing down their neck and quashing any hopes of independence. Plokhy explores an interesting perspective at this point, with army general Stalin wanting Ukraine to fall under the Russian umbrella in this new collective, but Lenin felt it better to make them a Ukrainian people, developing the (other) USSR, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. As part of this vast republic, Ukraine became the second largest of all the republics, even as other countries began eating away at their borders—namely: Poland, Russia, and Czechoslovakia—in the inter-war years. Stalin’s rise to power saw him flex his muscle and turn to the Ukrainians, punishing them by taking all their agricultural offerings and starving them out. A pogrom if ever there was one, this Great Famine was Stalin’s way of turning Ukraine into a great republic, though one can only imagine how beating them down would help them. Plokhy notes that the Ukrainian lands were also quite sought after when the Nazis arrived in the early 1940s to invade Russia. Hitler spent significant time in Ukraine, laying the groundwork for a key cog in the Nazi wheel, with its plentiful fields and the like, though many readers will know what happened to the Nazis. They did, however, leave their mark, alongside Stalin, in ridding the region of Jews, carting them off to camps and luring robust Ukrainian men away from the country to work in Germany. By the Cold War years, Ukraine was a staple part of the Soviet republics, but after Stalin’s death, the bloodletting seemed to taper off, as numerous other leaders utilised Ukraine as one of the key pillars in keeping the region afloat. Soviet Party influence waned for the latter years of the USSR and was completely obliterated with the disintegration of the Soviet Empire in 1991. On wobbly legs, Ukraine emerged as independent for a time, supported by democratic elections and recognition around the world. Plokhy offers an interesting narrative about some of the revolutionary elections that led Ukrainian politicians to push back. However, with Putin sitting in the Kremlin, Ukraine was soon being meddled with once again. Putin pushed for Russian-backed parties to win elections and went so far as to overturn elections in the Crimean Region, installing a party that had not garnered much support by the people—surely more blatant and doable, as social media and collusion tactics were not needed, as in North America. Plokhy leaves open the possibility that Russia and Ukraine with lock horns again over a variety of issues, including the latter’s ability to remain independent. He asks the curious reader to keep an open mind as things progress politically, hoping that the world will not let a Russian fist erase democracy. However, if they can put a Russian agent into the White House, one can only imagine they can do so anywhere. A brilliant piece of writing that gives the reader a great overall view of the region’s development and casts light on some of the current skirmishes with Russia over the Crimea, sure to be a highly controversial battle for years to come. Recommended to those who wish to learn more about Ukraine without getting bogged down in the minute history of the region.

As I mentioned before, I wanted a little something that would open my eyes to some of my ancestral roots, as well as offer me the history and politics of a region about which I know so little. Plokhy does this in an even-handed manner, mixing social, cultural, and political history together in an easy to digest format. The book tries not to skim, but it is almost impossible to delve in too deeply and still offer up a book that can be carried from one place to another. Plokhy’s arc of Ukrainian history opens the discussion, but never does he profess to having all the answers or to be the final word on the matter. While I refuse to call it a primer, this book does lay some basic foundations for those who want to learn more. Plokhy’s writing style is also easy to comprehend, offering readers lots of information in a relevant format. Depending on the topic at hand, chapters can be short or more detailed, permitting to reader to extract what they want before moving along. Written in English, there was little I felt I might be missing at the hands of a translator, which helped me feel confident in my reading, though I am sure Plokhy has been able to thoroughly research the topics in their original languages, as well as relying on other historians who have taken the leap before him. While the region may not be of interest to all, I can see many readers learning a great deal, even if they chose only to read key chapters in the book: lead-up to the Great War through the the Cold War fallout. While I never promote ‘parachuting’ into a book, I admit this was the section that interested me most and allowed me to extract a great deal of information to whet my appetite and cultivate a stronger understanding of familial roots. I suppose I will have to see if I cannot better comprehend what led my family to leave Ukraine and settle in Saskatchewan. The Prairie West does have a strong Ukrainian population and Plokhy has given me some good ideas why this might be the case.

Kudos, Mr. Plokhy, for enlightening me on this subject. I feel better versed and am eager to tackle some of your other work, which I see deals with other regional interest of mine!

This book fulfils Topic#3: Show Your Roots in the Equinox #6 Reading Challenge.

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

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, by Maxwell King

Ten stars

Hello Neighbour! Many of children and adults alike have come to know the wonders of Fred Rogers during a long career in children’s education television. Maxwell King seeks to revive an interest in Mr. Rogers and his extensive impact that touched the lives of thousands over a career that spanned six decades. The young Fred Rogers was quite introverted and bullied, choosing to hide away in his family’s third floor home, where he had his own puppet theatre. King writes of how Rogers would use his time with puppets to work out many of his emotions, away from those who may judge or mock him. Rogers was an attentive student and did well in school, but had trouble finding his niche in college. It was only when he travelled to Florida that Rogers was able to complete a degree in music that he felt himself completely satisfied, especially since it was there that he met his wife. Returning to Pittsburgh, Rogers discovered the new medium of television and noticed just how horrible it was, lacking anything substantial for children. Thus began Rogers’ lifelong mission, to create children’s programming that would educate and entertain in equal measure. Rogers moved to New York with his new wife to hone his skills as he worked for NBC. He learned some of the tricks of the trade while also discovering many of the pitfalls of trying to develop programming. King explores how Rogers discovered the importance of speaking directly to the child through the television, creating a one-on-one relationship to better connect and deliver his message. When WQED came calling, Rogers returned to Pittsburgh to help the start-up network with some of its early programming. Rogers began honing his need to speak to children at their level, linguistically and emotionally, even when his ideas clashed with those of his collaborators and bosses. Rogers used puppets and wrote many of the songs used on screen to communicate with children and foster a passion. King explores a brief sojourn to Canada for the Rogers family, where Fred worked with the CBC to develop Mr. Rogers, the precursor to his highly successful program. While Rogers did enjoy some aspects of his time in Canada, there were also a number of issues with his young boys that helps push Rogers to return to Pittsburgh, though he had no job prospects. It was only through hard work and dedication that Fred Rogers could sell his Mr. Rogers idea to WQED in an expanded format. Rogers was able to do so, particularly with the backing of eminent child developmental psychologist Dr. Margaret McFarland, as well as Dr. Benjamin Spock and Erik Erikson. Pittsburgh was rife with talent and academic genius in the mid-1960s from which Rogers could easily pluck new and exciting ideas. As King reiterates throughout, Rogers sought their advice when he launched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and throughout much of his time on the air. The show sought to captivate children from 2-5 years of age with simple to digest themes, but never shied away from reality, choosing not to shield children from topics that would affect them, as long as they were presented appropriately. This overarching theme endeared Rogers to many children (and their families) as he pushed to let the child learn in concepts they could understand at a slower pace. King spends chapters exploring the progress that Rogers made with his staple programming, including when he hung up his sneakers and cardigan for a time in the mid-70s. While Rogers took up seminary studies and was an ordained Presbyterian minister, he chose never to instil his Christian views or many of his social sentiments in shows, hosting Christmas specials but adding that there are many ways that people celebrate. From life on the house set to the World of Make-Believe, Fred Rogers was constantly trying to help children through themes—both subtle and blatant—that would help them grow. From death to divorce, machines to music, Fred Rogers brought the word to children, one 28 minute episode at a time, loving each viewer just the way they were. Brilliantly written in ways that touched my heart and brought back so many memories. Maxwell King ignites memories of childhood that bring a warm and fuzzy feeling. Highly recommended for anyone who wants a stroll down memory lane, as well as the reader who wishes to hear all about the inner workings of a great children’s educator.

I could not wait to get my hands on this book. As soon as I started, I knew I would be pulled into my early childhood years, taking back to time sitting around the television. Maxwell King effectively tells the story of Fred Rogers and how he changed the lives of so many children by passionately listening to them and not being afraid to ask others for help. He chose not to take a condescending approach, but advocated for the child from their perspective, rather than using his name recognition to force change upon society. Fred Rogers grew up in wealth, but did not use this to his advantage, choosing instead to amass riches in the joy he brought to others. King writes in such a fluid manner that the reader is soon lost in the narrative and is learning at every flip of the page. King spares no detail in recounting the life events that made Fred Rogers a success, but also chose key events in his life to better understand the arc Rogers made in public broadcasting and the rights of the child to learn without distraction of advertisement, violence, or flashy gimmicks. As King reiterates throughout, Rogers required a slower pace and smooth delivery to show children that their pace was the right pace to learn, but also chose to include follies into his program, underlining the fact that perfection is not part of the learning experience. Maxwell King has done much research, pulling out countless interviews, archived clips of shows, and pieces written about Fred Rogers throughout his life, all to develop this well-rounded biography of a man who quietly took hold on the North American television market from the late 1950s through to 2003. As King writes, wherever Fred Rogers went, he was swarmed by happy toddlers and young children. He was happy to stop and talk to these children, be it in his own voice or that of one of the many puppets he brought to life on the show. Do stop in the next time you are in the Neighborhood or take Trolley if you feel you need a little extra direction. I know I will!

Kudos, Mr. King, for this sensational piece. I found myself tearing up numerous times as I remembered moments from my childhood that were shaped by Fred Rogers. He will be missed, but your book breathed new and exhilarating life into him.

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

The First Lady, by James Patterson and Brendan DuBois

Eight stars

James Patterson and Brendan DuBois renew their collaborative efforts with a new book full of thrills and political intrigue. As US President Harrison Tucker makes his final push for re-election, he finds himself in an awkward position. Caught leaving an Atlanta hotel with his mistress, Tucker scrambles to save his reputation, but is unable to keep media reports from reaching First Lady Grace Tucker. Understandably upset, the First Lady excuses herself and leaves the White House. While the news is troubling, it’s just another hurdle that Secret Service Agent Sally Grissom has to face. Heading up the Presidential Protective Detail, Grissom will have to keep POTUS safe as he tries to patch his reputation. She’s tossed a curveball soon thereafter, when a senior member of the First Lady’s detail calls to say that she’s gone off the grid, having slipped past those charged with protecting her. Grissom rushes to the scene of where she was last seen, hoping that this is just the First Lady trying to exert some freedom. However, things take a turn for the worse when a note appears in the First Lady’s handwriting. Has her disappearance been orchestrated and is she being held against her will? Meanwhile the president’s Chief of Staff is making calculated moves of his own to ensure the disappearance news does not derail an already fragile situation. He cannot have anything go against his plans or it could spell electoral disaster. With a mercenary slinking around in the background, Grissom’s actions begin to have dire consequences and new evidence push the Secret Service to the brink as they seek to do what’s needed before media outlets use the disappearance as new fodder for the next news cycle. Patterson and DuBois do a great job with this standalone novel, which keeps the reader’s attention until the story’s climactic ending. Recommended for those who can appreciate Patterson’s stronger collaborative efforts.

James Patterson collaborations can be hit and miss, which is additionally troublesome as the market is supersaturated with the author’s name on bookstands at any given moment. However, Brendan DuBois can usually be counted upon to help shape novels in a productive manner and keep Patterson on task. This novel mixes the fast pace of political thrills with the mystery of a missing central actor. Sally Grissom proves to be a decent protagonist, mixing her grit on the job with having to balance being a single mother at home. Still in the midst of marital disintegration, Grissom must try to keep her daughter’s respect while not letting her personal life distract her from the job at hand. As this is a standalone, the authors must ‘sell’ Grissom in short order so that the reader does not lose interest in her, which appears to be done effectively throughout. Many of the secondary characters prove useful storylines to keep the novel moving forward. From the search for the First Lady to those who want Grissom and her team away from the action, the authors can easily use a number of characters to add flavour to a rich narrative. The story is strong and well-paced, with Patterson’s trademark quick chapters that keep the plot from losing momentum. Patterson and DuBois have a great way of mixing first- and third-person narratives to show an entire story from all perspectives. While I do bemoan the excessive number of books Patterson churns out, this is one with a silver lining that I feel would be perfect for those who need a few hours to escape their busy lives.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and DuBois, for a successful novel. I am happy I took the time to enjoy this piece and look forward to another collaborative effort.

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

The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind—and Changed the History of Free Speech in America, by Thomas Healy

Nine Stars

The premise of free speech is one that remains central to many of the constitutional documents in democratic societies. That being said, the current form that many cite when wishing to express themselves was not generally held until the past century, at least in the United States. As Thomas Healy recounts in this comprehensive book, free speech in America drastically changed at the hands of one man in particular, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Healy effectively argues that Holmes—long given the moniker as the ‘Great Dissenter’—radically changed his views on speech and the First Amendment of the US Constitution over a nineteen month period, forever altering how America (and the world) saw free speech. Early in his legal career, Holmes held what legal scholars call the Blackstone approach to free speech, one in which citizens had only limited rights to expression of their beliefs, protected in verbal expression. When these views were published and distributed or expressed in large settings, free speech was nullified and government laws could hold citizens accountable. Many Americans found that they walked a thin line and cowered when the courts became involved in adjudicating expressions of free speech. However, with the Great War in full swing and the Americans on the battlefield, something drastically changed. Healy discusses a number of legal friends that Holmes encountered throughout his life, a handful of men whose views helped expand those of the great Justice. These men pushed some of the beliefs that Holmes held about speech, forcing him to express himself and explain how he could hold so narrow a set of views. It was only when the US Supreme Court heard a number of cases related to the Sedition and Espionage Acts that Holmes began to see new ways of understanding free speech. The two acts in question sought to punish those who would dare speak out against America, particularly if they criticised government decisions or sided with America’s enemies. This, in conjunction with the rise of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, saw the rise of groups with a socialist leaning becoming increasingly critical of America’s capitalist views, including their fuelling the ongoing war in Europe. Holmes and his colleagues heard arguments about those who would express themselves, speaking against the state or simply stating views that may not align with American core values. In drafting decisions surrounding these cases, Holmes did craft a few tests by which free speech could be judged. His ‘clear and present danger’ test would require the courts to weigh expressions of speech against whether those sentiments posed and clear danger to the general public, one that was immediate and detrimental. Out of this test came the sentiments around ‘a man yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre’, now part of the everyday discussion around free speech. Holmes felt that these limited on speech were both sound and provided justifiable leeway. These series of cases, many of which riled up the public, helped Holmes see that free speech was not meant to be a leash on what people could say, but should permit maximum expression, save when doing so would harm the core of national security. To oppose the majority opinion should not be punished, but rather added to the larger discussion, whereby truth would prevail, however, flavoured it might become by a number of perspectives. By the time Holmes was ready to extol his greatest views, he found himself as the only Justice willing to speak out against the common beliefs. His colleagues went so far as to beg that he fall into line, for the good of the country, freshly healed from the horrors of the Great War. However, Holmes could not silence himself, even if his views would be a cry in the wilderness. His published dissent caused major waves in the legal communities, which saw him mocked by many, alongside some of those closest to him. Holmes, an old man by then, would not stand down and, as Healy presses in the closing chapter of the book. Free speech would forever be changed by his sentiments in dissent and a new view of the First Amendment soon came to be accepted, as expression became more accepted in a world that had fought for democratic freedoms. That being said, reasonable limits on free speech are still a matter of much debate, as society grapples with what is acceptable and what crosses the line. Surely not entirely in line with what the Founding Fathers had in mind at the time the Amendment was included in the constitutional document, Healy effectively expresses that Holmes sought to pull constitutional interpretation into a ‘current day’ understanding, which is how it continues to evolve today. Highly recommended for those who love constitutional books seeking to explore the nuances of societal rules that hold a country together.

While some of the discussion above may seem a little dense, I applaud Healy for presenting his arguments and substantiating many of the cases effectively. One of the underlying themes of the book remains that free speech, while simple on the surface, is highly complicated in its interpretation. Healy takes the concentrated period of 1918-19 and weaves an effective legal narrative to show how Oliver Wendell Holmes was faced with several important cases that sought to expand the basic understanding of the First Amendment, particular when faced with strong anti-socialist (read: Bolshevik) sentiments. Healy not only lists the cases under consideration, but offers an excellent backstory to give context to the reader before trying to sift through the US Supreme Court sentiments around the case and the current laws of the land. Healy also utilises parts of the book to explore those who influenced Holmes and his views, including Judge Learned Hand (you cannot make up a name like that!). By offering some mini-biographies of these men, as well as the history of their interactions, Healy shows how thoughts on free speech evolved for the Justice, leading to his great dissent in November 1919. Healy builds his case for free speech and shapes how Holmes came to understand the First Amendment in such a way that modern American jurisprudence takes these views for granted. In an easy to understand narrative that builds chronologically, Healy captures the reader’s attention from the outset and continue to pull them in with sound legal arguments and detailed analyses, permitting an overall understanding of the issues up for discussion. While I will admit that parts can be somewhat complex, most readers can grasp the legal arguments that serve to enshrine the core values of free speech in use today.

Kudos, Mr. Healy, for this thoroughly entertaining piece that pushed me outside my comfort zone as we explored the birth of modern free speech. A must-read for those who like to hide behind the First Amendment without understanding its core principles.

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

Mackenzie King and the Prairie West, by Robert A. Wardhaugh

Nine stars

Those with a passion for Canadian politics will know that the federal Liberals have long had an issue with securing the Prairie West. Many point to the re-emergence of the Progressive Conservatives under John Diefenbaker in 1957 as being the beginning of Liberal woes, something from they would never truly recover. However, Robert Wardhaugh turns this theory on its head and effectively argues that it was Mackenzie King’s mistreatment of the Prairie West that paved the way for long-standing disaster for the ‘Government Party’ as they were called for much of the 20th century. Wardhaugh takes the reader through the chronological period that King served as Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, including his time as Canada’s longest-serving prime minister (and still holds the record for Commonwealth leader). While still a member of Wilfrid Laurier’s Government, King could see the emergence of a new and fairly feisty Prairie West. While Manitoba had been a province since 1870, both Alberta and Saskatchewan only earned their ‘legs’ in 1905. Hoping to foster good relations, King spent some of his time while working as a senior bureaucrat and sitting Member of Parliament in the region, learning the issues and trying to better understand their needs. When, after Laurier’s retirement in 1919, King ascended to the leadership of the Liberals, he discovered the issue his predecessor had—trying to hold onto the business East and working West—and sought to find a middle ground. Working with the three provinces and their respective Liberal party wings, King sought to curry favour by utilising their strong minds to help shape government policy. However, King soon discovered that it was not only Liberal members who mattered, but elected representatives in the three governments. As Wardhaugh effectively argues, the governments in Alberta and Manitoba were not as willing to toe the line and made strong demands in order to fall into line, including inclusion not only at the Cabinet table, but in positions of power. Saskatchewan had a strong provincial wing of the party, which helped generate support for their national cousin. While King refused to cede power to the West—still shaky in their support at the ballot box—he also knew that he could not turn his back on the East and all that stood for in Canadian politics. The 1920s became a see-saw battle over agriculture and financial tax breaks for the working man, but try as he might, King could not penetrate the strong-willed ideas of the breakaway parties, including the United Farmers and the Progressives. The battle for control left King making demands and the Prairie West refusing to comply. A stalemate ensued, one in which the East consolidated its power and the Prairie West lost out entirely. Even a move to a western seat in Prince Alberta (Saskatchewan) could not turn the tides enough and the Liberals faced defeat at the polls in 1930. King thought that he would be able to cobble together the needed foundation, since the power was out of his hands and he was not a supplanted Westerner. However, with the Depression paralysing the West and new Prime Minister Bennett all but tossing the reins of power aside, King felt that the Prairie West owed him. When they continued to refuse to bow down, he took victory in 1935 and all but ignored them. Wardhaugh shows this multiple times throughout, by implying that King refused to heed to anything that was going on, even as new and powerful movements were emerging. He demanded complete loyalty in order to receive anything. This continued political ignorance left King to suffer through his twilight years, going so far as to refuse to spend any time in his riding in the 1945 election, one that saw him defeated and left to run back to Ontario for the final few years of his time in office. A man seen as one of Canada’s greatest prime ministers could do nothing for the Prairie West, leaving him in the proverbial dust and decimating the Liberals from doing much in the region for the foreseeable future. Recommended for political keeners such as myself, who like looking through the lens of political history when it speaks against what scores of textbooks present as gospel truth.

I know this book will certainly not appeal to many, but it was one that has been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I studied under Robert Wardhaugh during my undergraduate degree and found many of his ideas and insights fascinating when he taught political history at the University of Winnipeg. While we did not always agree, I felt the passion he brought to lectures and discussions, which is also seen in this book. Wardhaugh chooses not to swallow the commonly held belief, but rather cobbles together a powerful argument that he can substantiate with strong facts from the historical record. The Prairie West can be a fickle thing—trust me, I lived there throughout some of the interesting political years of my youth—and has often been hardest for federal political parties to capture. Why is that? Likely because it sees itself as strong-willed and deserving of a listening ear, though is commonly drowned out by the East. Its population may be smaller and its incomes less impactful, but its punch rivals anyone. This might be the crux of Wardhaugh argument and King’s foible; the Prairie West cannot simply be appeased with a smile and a wink. They want power, they deserve a voice, something that Wardhaugh illustrates effectively. Those who have not lived here or been a part of the deep-rooted struggle can simply nod and hope to understand. Wardhaugh gets it and uses he strong academic prose to sell the point. Whether it is heard outside the region is really a matter of semantics. We hear it, we know it, and the Liberals have to acknowledge it to penetrate through and make a lasting difference. As of this review writing, we are in an election year and the Prairie West is up for grabs. Snatch it or snub it, Liberals… it’s your choice!

Kudos, Dr. Wardhaugh, for reminding me what passion comes from politics and history when they mix themselves effectively. I look forward to finding more of your work and indulging!

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

Minds of Winter, by Ed O’Loughlin

Eight stars

In a novel that mixes a historical mystery with the geographic challenges of Canada’s far north, Ed O’Loughlin delivers an interesting story that takes readers on a great adventure. After a marine chronometer from a 1840s expedition finds its way back to England, many are quite confused. Not only was the chronometer from Sir John Franklin’s expedition to find the North West Passage in the Canadian Arctic—a journey that ended in tragedy when both ships sunk and all aboard perished—but the item was repurposed and arrived as a Victorian carriage clock. Thus begins the mystery that takes the story back to the early 1840s, where Franklin has been sent to oversee an Australian colony, punishment for a previous mission. However, when the British are eager to explore the Arctic region, Franklin is chosen to head the mission, amassing a crew of his own. In flash-forward chapters, the story moves to the present in Canada’s Northwest Territories, where Nelson Nilsson and Fay Morgan meet by chance outside the community of Tuktoyaktuk, in the middle of winter. Morgan is somewhat vague about what brings her here from the United Kingdom, but soon discovers that Nelson is just as vague. He explains that he has been looking for his brother, who used to work in the region but has since disappeared. Their odd alliance sees them spending some time together and discovering a little more about the Franklin Expedition and some lost items, as they sift through many of the historical documents amassed by Nelson’s brother. As the story progresses, the reader is privy to these documents and some larger narrative putting them into perspective. It would seem that a few attempts were made to locate Franklin’s lost fleet or anything that may have been found in the wreckage. However, the deeper they look, the more the mystery rises to new levels. Could the Nilsson brothers have an ancestor all their own who spent time in the region, one who has a jaded past and was sought by the Royal Canadian Mounter Police? With no means of leaving, as the snow is too heavy to travel, Nelson and Fay are pushed to piece together this narrative through documents and letters, which might shed light one a few mysteries that could significantly shape their respective futures. Recommended for those who like novels that span decent periods of history, told through documents and historical happenings.

I chose this book for two key reasons. First, I admit that the title and topic both looked as though they could help fulfil my reading challenge responsibility. Secondly, the Franklin Expedition has been making the news of late, particularly since the Government of Canada has been trying to bring it up and solve the long-lost mystery of what happened. With a story set in Canada, I thought that I’d be pulled in from the early chapters. O’Loughlin did so and I was pleased to find myself captivated by the story and its setting. Nelson and Fay were two interesting characters who worked at odds with one another for the most part, but seemed able to peel back the layers on this mystery in order to help bring to light some of the long-hidden goings-on in Canada’s Arctic region. With a handful of other characters who played roles during their respective points of history, the story moved along at a decent pace. O’Loughlin’s story was well founded and did, at times, move well. That being said, there were times when I felt as though the narrative could have picked up the pace, though this could have been my desire for something a little faster in its pace. O’Loughlin effectively portrayed the historical documents in the story, making them seem realistic and penned in such a way that the reader could feel they were actual letters and conversations, based on style and linguistic delivery. While the story did drag, I was able to speed through it, skimming where I felt it necessary in order to complete my reading journey.

Kudos, Mr. O’Loughlin, for an interesting piece. I think I may have to look to see what else you’ve written, as I would love to discover some of your other passions.

This book fulfils Topic #6: Equinox Read of the Equinox #6 Book Challenge.

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

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard

Nine stars

In an interesting, quasi-biographical piece, Candice Millard explores the brief presidency of James A. Garfield and the assassination attempt that would eventually take his life. While it would seem a clear-cut task, Millard broadens the story to include a few additional individuals, whose actions play a key role in better understanding events surrounding the president’s lingering before finally succumbing in September 1881. Millard opens the narrative at the Centennial Exposition, where celebrations surrounding one hundred years of American nationhood were taking place There, as Congressman James A. Garfield wandered around the grounds, two men were also present, prepared to discuss some of their scientific findings. The first, British surgeon Dr. Joseph Lister, who sought to explain to his American colleagues the importance of antisepsis. Struggling as he was, Lister could not sway those present of the importance of a sterile field while working or of the need for utmost cleanliness when handling open wounds. His words, which were impacting the way European doctors were handling patients, would prove to be foreboding in the years to come. The other man, shuffled away at the Exposition, was Alexander Graham Bell, a Scot who was trying to show off his telephone, which was still in its infancy. Bell did receive some takers, though the process of being able to hear someone’s voice when they are a distance away was still baffling. Millard peppers the narrative with backstories and mini-biographies as she advances the successes of Garfield, particularly when he went to Chicago in the summer of 1880, host of the Republican National Convention, to put forth a nominee for president. By the end of the gruelling voting process, Garfield was handed the nomination, which he reluctantly accepted. A powerful speaker, Garfield was respected by his peers and was seen to be a sure winner when he faced his Democratic opponent in November. In a parallel narrative, the reader learns all about Charles Guiteau, a failed lawyer and evangelical preacher, who soon became fixated on all things related to Garfield. When the ballots were cast and Garfield won the presidency—something that Millard describes as being a prize Garfield accepted without much fanfare—Guiteau began an eerie communication with the president-elect, first congratulating him and then stalking him for a posting in the new government. As Millard illustrates, Guiteau was known around town as a swindler who would not pay his bills, though he was adamant that he should have a prominent role in the Garfield Administration, more because he was first to ask than meriting anything in particular. When nothing came from the president, Guiteau continued and appeared around the White House, partaking in an awkward discussion with the First Lady, who remembered his presence in her diary. Eventually, Guiteau realised that Divine Intervention, which had already guided Garfield to become president, was now calling for the president’s death. Guiteau plotted and planned, eventually choosing a train station, where he fired multiple times into Garfield. The shots were not immediately fatal, though a doctor who quickly attended the president sought to probe the wound—on the dirty floor of the station—with his bare finger. Lodging it into the wound, the doctor surely introduced much grime and bacteria, thereby pushing it deep into the president’s body. After the panic of securing the president and arresting Guiteau, who voluntarily handed himself over, medical staff attempted to help Garfield and save his life. Enter, Alexander Graham Bell, who had been thinking about how to use some of the technology surrounding his telephone to locate the bullet, which might aid in saving the life of President Garfield. Before the invention of the x-ray, Graham’s use of sound through current induction and blockages would likely be able to help locate the lead bullet, preventing sepsis and other potentially fatal issues. As the days moved along, Garfield’s health ebbed and flowed, even as Bell attempted to use his makeshift invention. While Bell was able to see the president and introduce some of this early medical technology, the bullet was not located or extracted. Days turned to weeks and Garfield became weaker, with abscesses appearing all over his body, pus seeping out when they were punctured. All the while, Guiteau remained in custody, writing and pondering what might happen next. After a hot summer and doctors trying to alleviate stagnant air, which might be the cause of much distress for Garfield, September came and the president’s health took a significant drop. Each passing day saw his condition worsen until he finally succumbed to the gunshot wounds. The 20th President of the United States was dead, his assassin in custody, and the vice-president, Chester A. Arthur, equally disinterested in the role of president, assumed the role of America’s leader. Alexander Graham Bell was beside himself with grief, but knew he had done all that he could. In an interesting closing segment of the book, Millard documents the autopsy of President Garfield, which revealed abscesses and a body riddled with infection, particularly along the pathway the bullet took and a finger probed. Had Dr. Lister’s warnings been heeded those years ago, it is quite possible that President James A. Garfield could have lived and served a full term in office. Then again, history is filled with ‘what if’ moments, some of which would surely have changed things in a significant manner. A brilliant look at Garfield, Guiteau, and a few others whose decisions impacted the short Garfield presidency in a significant manner. Recommended for presidential history buffs, as well as those who enjoy seeing some of the lesser known aspects to the Garfield presidency and assassination attempt.

I recently finished a biography on Chester A. Arthur and was able to learn a little about Garfield during that time. I found what scraps were presented to me to be not only captivating, but also needing more detail. Millard’s book came highly recommended to be and I devoured it, thinking that it would be the biography of James A. Garfield that I sought. Rather than being a traditional biography, Millard offers a few mini-biographies while threading together the events that led up to Charles Guiteau shooting the president in the summer of 1881. I took away much from the book and its parallel narratives, all of which mesh at the appropriate times. I was astounded to learn about the Bell connection to the entire process, thinking him as a man whose attention was primarily on honing his telephone. The portions relating to Charles Guiteau not only strengthen my belief that he was somewhat detached with the rest of the world, but also that his fanciful ideas may have fuelled a vendetta against Garfield. Small snippets that discuss Chester Arthur and the role that many felt he had in his boss’ death cannot be discounted, but, like Garfield, I cannot find reason to believe that there was a substantial plot. I leave it to the reader to discover some aspects to the story I have chosen to hold back, permitting others to discover the wonders of Millard’s efforts. The writing is clear and tells an interesting aspect of American history that has been glossed over in many history books. Each chapter opens with a poignant quote by James A. Garfield, introducing the reader to even more bits of facts gleaned from the historical record, followed by a smooth narrative that transitions seamlessly from one topic to another. Any reader who enjoys history, particularly that which is not common knowledge, should locate and devour this book in short order.

Kudos, Madam Millard, for a stunning piece of writing. I took so much away from it and hope to look into some of your other work in short order.

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