On the House: A Washington Memoir, by John Boehner

Eight stars

I do enjoy delving into the world of political memoirs on occasion, if only to get a new and intriguing perspective on the inner workings of government. When I saw that John Boehner has penned this book, I was interested to see what he had to say. A well-spoken politician from Ohio, Boehner rose through the ranks of the Republican Party (GOP) to eventually become the Speaker of the House of Representatives. What’s found within this brief memoir is a collection of views and perspectives (sometimes told without filter) to show how he witnessed the true metamorphosis of the modern GOP from conservative to outright bombastic. Readers who enjoy these sorts of pieces will likely find something within to pique their interest.

While the book never follows a strict chronology of his life, John Boehner grew up as the second oldest of twelve children on the outskirts of Cincinnati. Life was never easy for him, but he learned from a young age that hard work is sure to pay off. Boehner recounts working in the family bar from a young age and modelling himself after his father, a Second World War veteran who never spoke of his time away.

When Boehner made his way into politics, he set his eye on Washington, where he felt that he could make a difference. Boehner pushed the limits in the early 1990s, hoping to make a name for himself and shape America. He was not always welcomed by some of his congressional colleagues, as he never saw the point of sitting back and watching, but rather wanted to be in the middle of things and stirring the pot. Boehner tells of pushing for an amendment to the US Constitution, one that had sat dormant due to a lack of states ratifying. This push did shed some light on his young congressional career and would help pave the way to added successes.

As his politics continued to impress his constituents, Boehner was re-elected multiple times, allowing him to climb the ranks of the Republicans within the House. There, he took on some committee chairs and saw politics through another set of eyes. Still, he yearned for a broader leadership and sought to put himself out there for key positions. While the Democrats controlled the House, Boehner was trying to herd together the GOP members, working loosely as a check on their opponents, but also hoping to turn the tables when the opportunity arose.

In the middle of the book, Boehner takes a step away from his congressional work, per se, and turns to one of the stalwart former members of the House and political scene. Boehner had the chance to meet and play golf with former president Gerald Ford, recounting some lesser known stories about the man. Ford was a master of the House for many years, aspiring to be Speaker before he was uniquely thrust into the vice-presidency and eventually became president. Boehner admired the man and his convictions, though pines what might have been had he been able to win in 1976 over the unknown Jimmy Carter. Ford offered many insights to the up and coming Boehner, but also liked to see the progress he had made in his time as a member of the House.

Boehner eventually became Speaker of the House of Representatives, the third most powerful position in US politics. He ran the House as best he could, working to balance his party views with amicable interactions alongside President Obama and the Senate. Boehner soon realised that there was a movement within the GOP to push things to the extreme, making keeping the party together a lot more difficult. There was no desire to compromise or work with the administration, instead choosing to toss rocks at anything they could. Boehner commented throughout how he struggled with this, first as the Tea Party movement gained traction and the eventual Ted Cruz/Trump circus that rolled into town. It would seem that rational thought played a second role to stymying anything that would see compromise between the Republicans and Democrats. Boehner could see the writing on the wall and knew that Washington was about to change, and not for the better.

The latter portion of the book tackles some of the areas that promote interaction with the electorate: lobbyists and media. Boehner offered some interesting commentary on both, feeling them essential, even if he does not always agree with their antics. Boehner has had numerous encounters with both groups and describes how they always kept him on his toes and left him sometimes pining to still have them in his life. This is quite a sobering admission for a politician, but Boehner rarely follows the rules of a political memoir.

While I had little knowledge of John Boehner before I read this piece, I feel much closer to him and those positions he feels are important. Unlike many others who have penned their thoughts about life in Washington, Boehner tells it like it is and refuses to sugar coat things. This look into life in Washington proves insightful and Boehner uses a great mix of history and anecdotes to tell a story worth reading. Longer chapters provide detailed discussions that are sure to shed light on many issues for the reader. Well-paced and full of just enough salty asides, Boehner makes the book one that is easily read and enjoyed by those who love political narratives without the stuffiness one might expect with those in positions of leadership. While few will deny the Republican Party has taken a strong turn to the right, Boehner offers proof of when and how the shift took place. Let’s hope this is only a short-term detour, or at least a tiny sip of the Kool-Aid!

Kudos, Mr. Boehner, for a wonderful piece that educated and entertained me in equal measure. Thanks for the memories!

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

Find You First, by Linwood Barclay

Eight stars

When it comes to psychological thrillers, Linwood Barclay is one of the best that I’ve read. Keeping the reader in suspense throughout the experience, Barclay crafts wonderful stories that tell an underlying story, while chilling those who venture to delve deeper. When a man of considerable wealth learns he has a serious medical condition, his first thought is to warn those with his genetic make up of the possibility that they might have inherited it. This proves more difficult, as the only children he’s sired were those who came from a sperm bank. Obtaining the list, it’s a race to let them know, as well as connect with those who never knew their biological father. However, someone else is targeting this same group, as some go missing. Could this be one of the heirs, who would gain that much less of the inheritance promised them? It’s a race to discover the truth, with sinister forces hiding in the shadows.

Miles Cookson has enjoyed a successful life. Working in the tech industry, he’s been able to amass a large sum of money along the way, though never had a spouse or children to share his riches. When Cookson learns that he has a terminal illness, he is understandably distraught, but it also starts a mission that he has put off for too long.

Twenty years ago, Cookson chose to make multiple donations to a local sperm bank, well before he had earned his riches. Now, he is adamant that he must discover the names and location of those children who were born with his help. Not only does he want to inform them about the illness, but has decided to divide his inheritance amongst them all.

After some strong arming, Cookson gets the list and begins his visits, which includes a call on Chloe Swanson, a young filmmaker who has been trying to document the blurry parts of her past as well. Together, Cookson and Swanson try their best to track down the others, only to discover that some have simply disappeared. What’s even more baffling is that the homes in which these people live have been scribbled clean, as though any trace of them could prove troubling.

While Cookson and Swanson forge onwards, the question lingers as to who else might have a copy of the list and whether they might be trying to shorten the list of offspring to share the inheritance. When Cookson discovers an even more troubling piece of news about the fertility clinic, the mission to locate these children takes on new meaning, though it could only up the violence even more. A chilling story that proves Linwood Barclay is a master in the genre, leaving readers baffled with every page flip.

I have read some authors who use psych thrillers to promote serial killers and gruesome murders. While I enjoy those to a degree, Barclay uses a more spine-tingling approach to present his stories, one that keeps the reader guessing and tripping over all the twists. The subtleties woven into the narrative and random mentions of Canada (who does not like those?) help to make me feel a stronger connection to the book. Barclay has a knack for this type of writing and I am eager to keep reading whatever he has to offer.

With the story shifting through a number of narrative approaches, the reader can see protagonist roles being offered to many, by primarily Miles and Chloe. Both come from such different backgrounds that their backstories contrast perfectly and the development they show is formidable. Readers can latch onto what they experience without being too distracted from the premise of the novel and they both provide some insights into what is actually going on within the novel. I thoroughly enjoyed the perspectives they brought and definitely wanted more throughout the novel.

The handful of impactful secondary characters throughout the book offer the reader some interesting flavouring into the plot development and how the protagonists are able to forge ahead. There is a complex web of scenarios taking place throughout and the need for strong individuals to push the story along forces Barclay to pay close attention to everyone who makes it to the printed page. There is a great deal to tackle here, which Barclay does well, as has been my experience with many of his past novels as well.

The premise of the novel—man seeks to find his long-long children and deliver news—may not be entirely unique, but Linwood Barclay found a way to add layers of excitement and intrigue from the opening pages. There is so much going on within each chapter that the reader will have to play close attention, being a part of the developing narrative throughout. Short to mid-length chapters keep the reader guessing and wondering, all while trying to make sense of what’s really taking place, a trademark Barclay style. With believable characters in a realistic setting, there is little the story is missing to make a wonderful read any time of the year. I always look forward to Barclay’s work, as it never quite answers all the questions posed in the story, a sort of earwig with which the reader must grapple well after putting the book down at the end. Pure genius!

Kudos, Mr. Barclay, for another winner. While some may not find things as gripping, I love your style and hope you keep things going for your upcoming publications.

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

Katharine Parr: The Sixth Wife (Six Tudor Queens #6), by Alison Weir

Nine stars

Whenever I have the chance to read something by Alison Weir, I take note, be it a lengthy piece of non-fiction or her well-paced novels of historical fiction. Weir is able to breathe life into the Tudor Era (as well as other times in English monarchical history) and provide the reader with a stellar account of things that took place. In this, Weir’s final novel related to the wives of Henry VIII, the author depicts how King Henry VIII continued to rule over England, in search of yet another wife. Young Katharine Parr was no simple woman, having been married before and suffered great loss. However, it is the interaction between the King and his sixth wife that brings life to this story and provides an intriguing ending to the long-winded narrative of Henry’s wives. Weir does a fabulous job at illustrating things here, offering up some great storytelling and wonderful dialogue to leave the reader feeling as though they were in the middle of the action. While the series has ended, the impact is sure to remain long after.

Katharine Parr was born into a well-established family with ties to past monarchs. Her upbringing was full of privilege, though Parr never sought to flaunt herself to others. Rather, she dove into learning to quench her desire to expand her mind and better comprehend the world around her. This included trying to understand her place in the world, or at least the complex placement within England at a time when many had claims of royal blood and lineage.

After her first marriage at seventeen, Parr discovered the trials and tribulations of trying to fit into the lifestyle. Her husband, Sir Edward Burgh, held secrets that could not make their way to Court, for fear of tarnishing the family name. Still, Katharine pined for a family, something Burgh could not deliver. Upon his death, Katharine wondered what might become of her and how she could rectify the blunder of her marriage with little to show for it.

When she married John Neville in 1534, Parr hoped to make a name for herself and truly understand what it was like to have a family, now graced with a handful of step-children. However, it was around this time that King Henry VIII chose to annul his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, creating a massive schism with the Church in Rome. While Henry VIII pushed for the dissolution, he also developed the Reformation and the Church of England. Neville, a staunch Catholic, fought hard against the change and he was soon deemed troublesome to the king, an issue that Katharine would have to face head-on.

There were conflicting accounts as to how involved John Neville might have been in the push against the Reformation, leaving Henry VIII to make some interesting decisions regarding how to treat the man. Katharine’s future was left in the king’s hands, as she had little to support her and the children under her care. All the while, Katharine sought to marry for love, though she could not see how this might occur, having no means of finding a man who stole her heart while saddled with her current responsibilities.

Her saving grace might have been a connection with Princess Mary, the king’s eldest daughter, in whose household she served. While at Court, Katharine caught the eye of the king, though she did not seek his affections. Rather, she found herself enamoured by Sir Thomas Seymour, brother of the late queen, Jane Seymour, the only wife to bear Henry VIII a legitimate son. While Katharine hoped to marry Thomas, it was not in the cards. Henry was without a wife and seemed keen to find a sixth, with Katharine his first choice. As has been seen throughout the series, what Henry wants, he gets.

After marrying the king, Katharine found the stability she had long sought, though there was still a lack of love in her marriage (at least on her part). Katharine bonded well with her new step-children and sought to connect with them whenever possible. It would seem that she was a glue that past queens could not be between the royal offspring and their father, as she welcomed them and was apparently loved by all three, even though she was only a few years older than Mary.

While Henry grew older and sicker, Katharine did her best to serve as queen and regent when time required it. She sought to make the most of her life and did whatever was asked of her, within reason. Katharine knew that Henry’s time was limited, as he became less and less active and his ailments caught up with him. She knew that it would be only a matter of time before the country was forced to accept the end of the reign of their long-serving ruler, but what of the Tudor dynasty?

It is this latter portion of the book that tackles not only the waning period of Henry VIII, but Katharine’s struggle to be named regent to serve as technical ‘monarch by proxy’ until Prince Edward came of age. Katharine uses her power to try lobbying Henry, as well as members of the Privy Council, all of whom will help to shape the future of England and the direction in which the monarch will turn. Add to this, Katharine has struggles of her own about a future that is not clear. Will she be able to turn to the man she sought before being chosen as a sixth wife? How will it play out and which pieces must move in tandem for all this to happen? A powerful end to the queens of Henry VIII, while also providing a key period in the larger Tudor narrative. Weir ties things off splendidly and many fans of the series will likely agree.

There is something about the writing of Alison Weir that has captivated me for many years. I always know that when I pick up one of her books, it will be an educational experience, no matter the topic. While there are both fiction and non- books from which to choose, both offer such insight into the lives of past English monarchs and how their lives changed the history books. Weir’s use of dialogue is likely one of the only reasons this series is called ‘fiction’, but that is an argument I will not broach, as I am sure Tudor historians would leap on the chance to crucify me with examples. All the same, it was a thoroughly enjoyable novel and stellar series. While it has come to an end, I hope to be able to return and learn more with another reading at some future date.

Katharine Parr was an amazing protagonist throughout this piece, offering up insights and intriguing vignettes throughout the narrative. While she came to reach her zenith after many struggles and personal hurdles, Katharine does not skimp on the action or development throughout this time. Weir provides her with a thorough and well-rounded story, adding the twist that she was the only one to outlast the monarch and saw England post-Henry VIII. This would prove poignant, as the chaos of fickle decision making, both in matrimony and leadership, had finally come to an end.

Weir uses a handful of stellar supporting characters to keep the story lively. The story spans quite a time period and much of Katharine Parr’s life needs hashing out, which requires thorough narrative footprints. Weir effectively shapes the Parr story with names and faces who push the story along, sometimes recurring throughout to offer a few twists, even as the history books have long closed on how things would cement themselves. I could not find myself leaning towards any single character or time period, but was highly impressed with all that was packed into this single novel.

It is no shock that the book (and series) turned out to be so stellar. There is so much going on and yet Weir keeps the narrative pushing along at a decent pace. Details drip from every page, some needed and others that permit a visualization that could not otherwise be made (as these are the centuries before photographs). Long and thorough chapters fill the book with needed details, each segmented in an effective manner, as the push towards the end of one Tudor era and into a rockier time to come. Using history and fiction together, the novel came across as a gritty piece of entertainment, though there is surely so much to learn throughout, keeping the reader from skimming too much. I have always loved Weir’s work for this reason and cannot wait for the next project, hoping it will lure me in as effectively.

Kudos, Madam Weir, for another winner. The series, the book, the concept… all worked so well. I loved it and am also a little sad to see it all come to an end.

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

The Vivaldi Cipher, by Gary McAvoy

Nine stars

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

Gary McAvoy returns to continue building on his previous series, though the shift away from all things Magdalene has not lessened the impact of the writing. There is still a great deal to discover in the secret archives of the Vatican and who better to bring them to light than Father Michael Dominic. It was during the election of the new pontiff in the mid-18th century that famed violinist Antonio Vivaldi came to learn a dreadful secret, one that could scandalize the Holy See for centuries. Using his skills in musical composition, Vivaldi hid a message in his music, hoping that it would be found and those responsible revealed. Today, Father Dominic comes upon one of these compositions and enlists some help to crack the code. Soon, a long-held secret that will surely tarnish the Vatican comes to light. However, its revelation comes at a price, specifically the ire of a powerful branch of the Italian mob. Dominic will have to stay one step ahead of these ruthless men to ensure the truth is revealed, but staying alive may be a larger concern.

While many would expect the election of a new pope to be a wonderful thing, the papal concave of 1740 held more problems than simply who would be the best candidate. Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, the obvious front-runner is poisoned, holding onto the knowledge of something sinister. He confesses to Antonio Vivaldi, the famed violinist of the times, on his deathbed. Worried that his own life could be in danger, but refusing to sit on the secret, Vivaldi weaves a cipher into some of his manuscripts, in hopes that someone will learn the truth about the artwork scattered throughout the Vatican collection before it is too late.

In present day, a priest takes a confession of a dying mafia don, one who has chilling news about the Vatican’s art collection. This stirs up some curiosity, which is furthered when curator of the Vatican’s Secret Archives, Father Michael Dominic, stumbles upon one of the Vivaldi compositions. With the help of Hana Sinclair, a sharp-witted journalist, and a famed cryptologist, Dr. Livia Gallo, they all learn the message Vivaldi wished to broadcast. It would seem much of the artwork within the Holy See is forged and a powerful mafia organization, Camorra, continues to run the ring to this day.

Dominic, Sinclair and Gallo slowly uncover the truth, which leads them to one of Vivaldi’s descendants, Contessa Donatella Vivaldi herself. While visiting the woman in Venice, much is revealed and truths begin to emerge. However, this is only the beginning, as Camorra cannot have their operation foiled or the truth about the secret come to light. It’s been running smoothly for centuries and some meddlesome priest will not halt the lucrative business because he wants to ‘do right’ with his employer.

Dominic and Sinclair enlist the help of their friends in the Swiss Guard to delve deeper and uncover those responsible. This is no small feat and it’s soon discovered that with such secrets come battles to the death. As Dominic pushes ahead, his mettle is tested, particularly when Hana is captured and assured she will die. While most of the art world is none the wiser, Father Dominic must risk it all for the woman who is a friend and a truth that must come out! McAvoy picks up just where his past series ended with this chilling piece that I could not put down, no matter what obstacles tried to find their way in my path.

It was just last summer that I discovered the work of Gary McAvoy and I have not been able to say enough about him since. Using a backdrop of the Vatican, McAvoy pens a wonderful series of thrillers that push mysteries beyond what most writers would concoct and keeps the reader guessing until the end. Use of two forms of art in this piece make for added thrills in a book that tries to serve as a standalone, but is also wonderfully complements McAvoy’s past trilogy. I cannot get enough of these books, as my binge reading has proven repeatedly.

The Dominic-Sinclair connection is back and both play wonderful protagonists again. They work together well, while complementing one another in numerous ways. McAvoy avoids more backstory for them, choosing instead to push these two deeper into their roles as sleuths who seek answers amongst the dust-landed documents inside the Secret Archives. There is surely a damsel in distress portion, but it’s not because Sinclair is weak or helpless. Rather, the ruthless group knows just how to find Dominic’s Achilles heel, even if he is not yet ready to admit it.

As with each of the three previous books, those who grace the pages of the book both complement and accentuate the protagonists. There are a number of great repeat characters whose supporting role cannot be overlooked. Alongside those names and faces series fans know well are the darker characters, those who wish nothing more than to flex their muscle and show that they will do whatever it takes to see secrets kept and lives sacrificed for the caused. McAvoy does a great job contrasting the good and evil, without the need for salacious killing or language.

As I read the book, I could not help but wonder if this could be the continuation of the past series. It flows so well and keeps the same pace I found in each of the Magdalene thrillers, but seeks to branch out a little. Father Dominic is back in the limelight and using his vocation to bring new adventures to light, even if they are filled with danger. McAvoy concocts a wonderful thriller with a powerful narrative push that is like few books I have seen before. Short chapters and clipped dialogue keep the reader pushing ahead, fuelled by a plot that is full of twists at every turn. I could not stop reading and found myself bingeing just to get through this book, more out of addiction to the story than anything else. Those who have yet to discover Gary McAvoy ought to begin with his Magdalene trilogy, though I suppose this could serve as a standalone (but why would you want to shortchanged yourself?). I cannot wait to see what’s next, as I will be first in queue to get my hands on it.

Kudos, Mr. McAvoy, for another winner. You sure know how to spin a tale, with equal parts mystery and historical possibility.

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

The Ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy at the Court of St. James’s 1938-1940, by Susan Ronald

Nine stars

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

I have long been a fan of the Kennedy family, perhaps America’s first political dynasty. While much of my focus has been on JFK and his assassination, Susan Ronald opened my eyes to another angle worth exploring. Joseph P. Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedys, used power and influence to sway opinions, both in and out of the political arena. When he was given the role of US Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s (United Kingdom), it was the job of a lifetime. However, as Ronald argues effectively throughout this tome, it came with significant consequences for the country, the president, and world history. Ronald puts forth strong arguments and keeps the reader enthralled throughout as she lay the groundwork for how Kennedy’s ambassadorship changed history, not entirely for the better.

Susan Ronald opens the book offering the reader some great backstory on the Kennedys and how Joseph helped build his empire on both American coasts. His love of the movie industry helped make him a household name, though his focus was making money rather than making sure every American could recite his name at the drop of a hat. As his family grew, Kennedy found ways to build walls around himself, keeping his wife, Rose, at a distance when it suited him. However, He always wanted his eldest, Joe, Jr., and John (Jack) close to the action, hoping to pave the way for their successes in the years that followed.

With his eye on the ambassadorship in the United Kingdom, Kennedy lobbied Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) for the appointment. Many people know Kennedy was wealthy, but a position like this would require more than cutting a cheque to cover the costs. He would need to be a diplomat and one with power to persuade. Kennedy did all in his power to show that his influence could be used properly in Europe and that his connections would effectively help the Americans build stronger ties with their allies. Reluctantly, FDR agreed to the appointment in 1938, but tried to leash Kennedy to ensure things flowed smoothly.

While Kennedy was keen to use his new role to cement European connections, he was fond of offering his opinions when it came to the brewing unrest on the European continent. As the Germans and Italians rose to power, Kennedy repeatedly espoused views that fascism was not entirely problematic, as long as it kept communism from rising. This was not official American foreign policy and there are numerous instances when FDR offered angered rebukes about his ambassador. Kennedy was, perhaps indirectly, trying to formulate US policy on his own and speaking as the government mouthpiece while doing so. Using his ties within the British government, Kennedy sometimes could be seen to shape politics at Westminster in a time when a united front was needed against the boisterous Germans and equally troubling Italians.

Appeasement appeared to be the theme of the day, as Kennedy supported his British counterparts while they dealt with the fascist uprising. FDR did not take the easiest approach and recall his ambassador, for many reasons. With an upcoming election in 1940, FDR sometimes surmised that it was better to keep Kennedy away, so as to prevent him from making a run for the Democratic nomination. While war inched closer, Kennedy pushed his views, but was eventually rebuffed when FDR-supported Churchill returned to the prime ministership. Kennedy was no longer the great political statesman and bided his time while FDR turned attention elsewhere. Kennedy had overstayed his welcome and was soon on his way back, with little to show and no overt support from his own government.

Ronald effectively portrays Joseph P. Kennedy’s rise to power as being one in which the man thought that he could use his influence to change opinion, no matter what his superiors wanted. While this did occur repeatedly, the clash between Kennedy and official US foreign policy never seemed to be properly resolved. Kennedy dictated what he wanted, the State Department issued their version, and the two wafted next to one another, while Europe stood on shaky ground. Ronald shows how this gamble to send Kennedy to Europe paid off more to keep him out of the Administration’s hair than to keep things steady and calm. Joseph Kennedy had an agenda and would not leave without pushing it in one direction or another. That it caused a great deal of turmoil in the late 1930s is clear to many, though could it have been halted without ruining FDR’s chances at an unprecedented third term in office? That’s a mystery best left to the alternate historians.

While this was by no means a light and quick read, Susan Ronald makes it highly enjoyable for the reader who has an interest in this sort of thing. Her attention to detail and thorough analysis provides the reader with something intriguing to read. Much of the instability within Europe is well-known, but Ronald’s perspective offers readers a great insight into what happened and how Kennedy played a key role in its development. With chapters that are easily digested and a captivating narrative, the story advances well and the curious reader is provided some wonderful nuggets. Susan Ronald is clear in her arguments and does leave the reader with something on which to chew as they consider what might have been. I’d gladly read more of her work, as this offered a great perspective on pre- and early-war analysis.

Kudos, Madam Ronald,, for an insightful book. I am glad I took the time to read it and hope to find more of your work soon.

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

Final Verdict (Daniel Pike #6), by William Bernhardt

Eight stars

Having long been a fan of William Bernhardt and his work, I was eager to get my hands on the final novel in his latest series. With gritty lawyers, who push the limits of cases that seem all but lost, the narrative takes the reader on an adventure to show that nothing is truly determined until the final gavel has come down. Daniel Pike has been working with the Last Chance Lawyers for a number of years, always one step behind local philanthropist and businessman, Conrad Sweeney. When Sweeney is arrested for murder, Pike must make the difficult decision about whether to defend him. Even as it causes strain within his team, Pike does not hesitate, sure that he can produce the best defence possible in order to help a client who has no other solution. What’s revealed in court is only the tip of the iceberg, as Pike and his team fight against a pile of evidence to bring Sweeney the justice he deserves and some answers in a case that is as scandalous as it is gruesome. Bernhardt does well to tie up loose ends in this novel, while also revealing much in the final chapters.

Daniel Pike has vowed to find answers about his mother’s murder and how everything went down that night years ago. He has been working through the stories and evidence, sure that local businessman and philanthropist, Conrad Sweeney, had something to do with it, but without concrete evidence, it is only speculation. This animosity has come out many times before, both in and out of the count courtroom, but Sweeney is slick and always finds a way to distance himself from local legal issues.

During a routine police investigation, dismembered pieces of a body have turned up in Sweeney’s private freezer. He’s is taken into custody and charged with murder, while professing to be innocent. When someone comes forward, having seen Sweeney arguing with a man, the police piece it together and learn that the victim is that very same individual. Sweeney’s case is making headlines all over St. Petersburg, but it is only when the elusive Mr. K. reaches out to the Last Chance Lawyers that things get interesting.

Pike, who heads the team of lawyers seeking to help those who have no other legal options, is leery about taking on the case. He’s had a beef with Sweeney for years, but comes to see that he cannot cherrypick the cases he wants just because he feels it’s beneficial. While some of the team turn their back on him, Pike is determined to find justice for Sweeney, no matter the cost.

As the case goes to trial, Sweeney insists that he’s being framed and that someone from his business interactions has tried to ruin him. While Pike cannot be so sure, he puts on the best case he can in short order, pushing to turn over every rock before him. How can a private room have been accessed by someone other than his client? How can troubles that have come to light be explained away without derailing the defence narrative?

While the case is racing forward, someone’s out in the Nevada desert, having escaped the custody of a Central American cartel. Will this be the key to explaining things away for Pike, thereby exonerating his client and providing justice for all? It’s a race to the finish, as Conrad Sweeney has yet to be able to show everything that’s happened is not his own doing. Pike will have to pull out all the stops and find one errant detail to win, if it even exists!

William Bernhardt’s writing has always left me excited and eager to explore legal thrillers a little more. While he does not go for the flashy, the books are always intriguing and rests on a minute detail that brings the case together. This series has utilised the same formula and connects each novel together until all is revealed here. There’s something gritty about the work Daniel Pike does, finding a way to turn a sure defeat into a victory for those who have no other options, all while being led by a mysterious ‘Mr. K.’ who calls the shots through random video meetings.

Daniel Pike has always been an intriguing character, having developed a strong backstory throughout this series. His interest in the simple life is disrupted only by the case thrust before him, though Pike is never one to shy away from a challenge. He’s determined to find the truth, no matter how elusive and appears keen on protecting the rights fo those who need defending, putting his personal animosity on the back-burner whenever he can. Those who have followed the series will see how much he’s grown over the years and come to fit nicely in the role he has with the Last Chance Lawyers.

Bernhardt has developed a number of interesting supporting characters over the years, many of whom work to complement Pike in his legal efforts. There is no shortage of personalities who appear throughout the series, including Conrad Sweeney. Bernhardt has effectively created backstories and story arcs with these characters, while utilising them well to push this final story through to the end. It’s wonderful to see and I can only imagine that they will appear in some of the author’s future writing, as he is prone to do on occasion.

While the story was nothing out of this world, it worked for the type of novel I sought. Entertainment value and strong narrative momentum headlined this piece, which presents a legal matter and tries to take it through the court system. Bernhardt has a wonderful way of pushing the story along, keeping the reader enthralled without being too far-fetched. Short chapters propel the piece forward and keep things exciting as the courtroom setting heats up. As with any final novel in a series, there’s time to tie off the loose ends and reveal much, which is surely what Bernhardt does with the final few chapters here, tossing the odd spin on what the reader likely expected. I’m eager to see where things are headed next and how William Bernhardt will continue to dazzle. I will be there for the ride.

Kudos, Mr. Bernhardt, for another winner. Let’s hope others are as positive with their sentiments, as I know readers can be a fickle bunch!

Be sure to check for my review, first posted on Mystery and Suspense, as well as a number of other insightful comments by other reviewers.

https://www.mysteryandsuspense.com/final-verdict/

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

The Hunt for Red October (Jack Ryan #1 or 3, depending), by Tom Clancy

Please note, I referenced various book sources to determine where this novel fell in the Jack Ryan collection. None could agree, so I listed both options, chronologically written and chronological to the protagonist’s life.

Eight stars

When asked if I would buddy read this Tom Clancy classic, I jumped at the chance. While the book’s title was familiar to me, I have to admit that I have never taken the time to read any of Clancy’s work. This was a sensational Cold War thriller, with all the key elements to keep patient readers on the edge of their seats. When a well-armed Russian nuclear submarine is on its way to the East Coast of the United States, few know that its captain has plans to defect. After the Russians learn this, they hope to stop things quickly and recover their prized maritime weapon. The Americans are privy to this through a leak in the Soviet government, but do not wish to tip their hand. Now, it’s a matter of getting the captain and his crew safely into the hands of the Americans, while capturing the submarine, all before the Russians learn of the plan. It’s sure to be a race, as both sides stare one another down and hope not to push the world to the brink of war on the high seas. A great introduction to Clancy’s world for anyone with time and patience to dedicate to this novel.

In the bleak North Atlantic, the Red October, a Soviet submarine with exceptional firepower, inches closer to the East Coast of the United States. It’s mission is not entirely clear, but the payload aboard could cause havoc in the blink of an eye. The Cold War may be a period of detente, but all that could change quickly.

Captain Mario Ramius is guiding Red October on its mission, stealthily crossing the Atlantic with hopes of making landfall before too long. However, Ramius has a secret, one that he has not shared with many. He wishes to defect and is happy to take his crew with him. While his family has strong ties to Soviet Russia, he cannot stomach the direction in which his government is taking the nation and has high hopes of living freely in America.

While the Russians have been made aware of this, they must act carefully. They need to get Ramius and Red October back before anyone is aware of what is going on. All the while, the Americans have been tipped off to what’s going on and have plans to help Ramius and get their hands on Red October, as well as all it holds. This will allow them a better idea of Soviet technology and submarine advancements.

Trying to play it cool, both sides send ships into the open waters, in hopes of keeping things somewhat light and discreet. This includes a CIA operative, Dr. Jack Ryan, whose background in naval history will help the Americans on their mission. Ryan has not served and is not keen to be pulled into this battle, but knows that he must serve his country as best he can. Armed with an academic’s mind, Ryan will have to attempt to inform the higher-ups as the Soviet ships inch closer.

While both sides are calm on the surface, it’s a panic to locate Red October and bring her in. Ramius is becoming more worried as the days pass, wondering if his plan will work, or whether he will be captured and sent to the gulags. The Americans are keen to get their hands on the technology and will do whatever it takes to get their hands on it, even if that means sacrificing some of their own.

When things come to a head, it’s a political stare down like no other, pitting American freedom against Soviet order. Neither side is keen to open the proverbial can of worms, but possession of the Red October is essential and must be achieved. The hunt for this submarine could push the world to the brink, though no one is blinking quite yet. A chilling Cold War tale that had me turning pages and wondering what was to come. Clancy has me intrigued and I will surely be back to discover more!

While I am aware of Tom Clancy and how Hollywood got their hands on his books to turn them into feature films, there was never a push for me to read the vast collection. I love espionage and Cold War stories, but always shied away, as I have little knowledge of anything marine related. I was told the book was which technical in places and worried that I would be lost as I tried to stay afloat, if you pardon the pun. That, and I always had a massive pile of books around me. But, as luck would have it, when asked to buddy read this with a dear friend, I could not resist.

While the book explores both sides of the Cold War clash, Jack Ryan does prove to be somewhat of the protagonist. An academic who has great knowledge of maritime history, he is tapped to help guide the Americans through this clash with their Soviet counterparts. Clancy develops the Ryan character well, keeping his backstory and some development constant throughout the novel. I was intrigued about how he would fit into the larger narrative and saw that Clancy did not want him to steal the show, using many characters to push the story along.

The large number of characters and settings used in this novel help to make it even better. This is a story told through the eyes of many men, from two countries, pushing clashing ideological beliefs. All this drips from each page, as the reader is immersed in the politic from the very beginning. The battles are numerous, if only on paper, and Clancy heightens them with strong characters throughout the story. Ramius is but one whose struggles come to light throughout the book.

Many of the reviews and comments that I have read regarding this book point to its technical nature. While I agree that Clancy does get ‘into the dirt’ when it comes to marine technology and life on a submarine, it is essential to capture the true essence of the story and struggles. This detailed narrative is not for the impatient (of whom I see there are many who choose only to make one-liner comments as reviews) or those wanting something quick. Like a submarine, this is a slow a deliberate trolling through the narrative to build up a sense of urgency. It is, perhaps, the duelling perspectives that really capture the greatness of this book. Clancy offers accounts on both sides, providing the reader with something in-depth to really see how both sides struggle throughout. The characters were on point and I found myself intrigued by how they saw things developing. Clancy uses detailed chapters to really get to the heart of the matter, which might explain why some have found it overly long winded. However, that is, to me, an essential part of the process, particularly if it is not to be a one-sided affair. I am intrigued to see how Jack Ryan fits into the larger narrative and what will come of him. While I cannot commit to binge-reading the entire series, I will be back to see how Jack Ryan develops as a character and what else Clancy has to offer.

Kudos, Mr. Clancy, for opening my eyes with this stellar piece of fiction. I cannot wait to explore a little more, when time permits. A perfect buddy read for someone who knows so little and will be able to question a new recruit to the US Navy!

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

The Package, by Sebastian Fitzek

Eight stars

Always a fan of the well-paced psychological thriller, I was pleased to discover the work of Sebastian Fitzek. With stories that contort the brain in numerous ways, Fitzek keeps the reader guessing throughout by layering ideas and twists into the main story. This piece was no exception, mixing psychological deception with abuse and trauma. Emma suffered a great deal of psychological trauma as a child, vowing to help others when she got older. After attending a conference, she is attacked and raped in her hotel room, left to feel that she was a victim of a ruthless serial killer who shaved the heads of his victims. It’s only afterwards that Emma begins to piece things together, though she has self-isolated within her home. When a package is delivered to her, addressed to the neighbour, things begin to unravel significantly and Emma is forced to face all her fears anew. A challenging and chilling read that will leave the reader tied in knots as they attempt to piece it all together.

Emma suffered significantly at the hands of her abusive father when she was a child. She was also haunted by a ghost that terrified her repeatedly, forcing the little girl to have fits of panic on a regular basis. The tension in the house worked to push the little one to the brink and she vowed not to let it happen with any regularity.

As an adult, Dr. Emma Stein is a respected psychiatrist whose methods are on display at a local conference. Returning to her hotel room after a lecture, Emma is attacked and raped by a man she cannot see, but who leaves her brutalised and shaves her head, much like the ruthless serial killer, The Hairdresser, who has been killing women around town. But why keep her alive when the others were killed?

Having locked herself away in the confines of her home, Emma relives the attack and tries to make sense of it. Her husband, Phillipp, tries to be supportive, but knows that his wife’s vivid imagination can sometimes concoct things that are not truly there.

After a knock at the door by a delivery man leaves Emma with a handful of mail, she’s asked to hold onto a package that belongs to a neighbour, while a note will be left at the proper address. Emma is baffled and curious about the contents of the package, which only fuels her active imagination.

When a series of events begin to push Emma towards the brink, she decides not only to see what’s inside the package, but also learn more about the neighbour. A stealthy trip over to his residence reveals much to Emma and she has to wonder if she’s made a major discovery that the police will want to explore further. However, that same curiosity may have put Emma in a web out of which she cannot escape.

Saddled with what she knows and trying to make the right choice, Emma takes matters into her own hands and ends up doing something she will soon regret. This might explain why, in a flash-forward narrative, she is sitting in custody with her lawyer, trying to justify it all. However, even that has an element of tension that cannot be explained away. A chilling tale that does not lend itself to easy explanations throughout.

There are times when a good story is made better by a few unexpected twists, This seems to be the approach Sebastian Fitzek takes in his writing, as each of his books that I have taken the time to i enjoy left me rattled and wanting more. His style transcends the written word and buries itself into the core of the reader, something that is not lost in translation from the original German. There is no doubt that Fitzek is a master at his art and will likely keep me up well into the night when I find myself enjoying another of his books soon.

Emma Stein was a great protagonist, though she is weighed down with so much trauma and psychological angst that I cannot see how she is able to function. A victim at the hands of many, Emma is simply trying to keep herself afloat, which proves more difficult with each passing day. Seeking truth in a world that wants to sedate her, Emma strives not to let others tell her what is real, while questioning it on a regularly basis.

The handful of other characters that Fitzek uses in this piece prove to be highly useful to the overall experience as well, keeping the reader wondering until the final reveal, which is in itself a twisted event. Many complement the Emma storyline well, though these are characters to have their lows perspectives and can sometimes come across as highly troubling. The author uses them well and keeps the reader on their toes as the truth comes out, in extremely convoluted ways.

The reading experience was formidable, using the essence of the psychological thriller effectively and keeping the reader wondering what awaits them. A strong narrative has the reader transported through this story quickly, with mid-length chapters helping to propel things forward when needed. There is a real sense of darkness in the writing and the plot, with characters who know how to add twists at just the right times. Fitzek has done well in the past and this is another novel that demonstrates his strong abilities, which leaves me wanting more when time permits.

Kudos, Mr. Fitzek, for a stunning piece that left me tied in knots. This is the kind of story that entertains and disturbs in equal measure.

Be sure to check for my review, first posted on Mystery and Suspense, as well as a number of other insightful comments by other reviewers.

https://www.mysteryandsuspense.com/the-package/

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Woman in Shadow, by Carrie Stuart Parks

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Carrie Stuart Parks, and Thomas Nelson for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

I am always eager when I see Carrie Stuart Parks has written another novel, having found myself fully enthralled with her Gwen Marcey series a number of years ago. While Parks has moved into writing standalone thrillers, she can still pack a punch and offers up some great storytelling in this piece. When a woman who is saddled with much PTSD from a horrific work event arrives in rural Idaho, all she wants is some rest and well-deserved relaxation. Darby Graham could not have known that this ranch had so many issues and someone causing massive amount of uproar. As things begin to happen, Darby is thrust into the middle of trying to solve them and determine if there is a killer targeting the ranch or someone on its grounds specially. Gritty and mysterious, Parks does well to lure the reader in with this story.

When she arrives in Idaho, all Darby Graham wants is some time to recharge her batteries and enjoy the wilderness. However, things begin with a bang (or more literally, a shake) and develop from there. In an area close to Yellowstone National Park, there are countless mini earthquakes that cause quite a stir. Graham encounters this, as well as two potential canine companions to join her as she makes her way up to Mule Shoe. Graham slowly tries to get herself acclimated, though she carries much baggage of her own.

Having arrived at the ranch from Clan Firinn, a program for law enforcement officers who have suffered severe PTSD, Graham hopes to put all her worries behind her. However, that is not always the case, as small things occur that trigger flashbacks and horrible fugue states. When these occurrences begin to pile up, Graham has no choice but to work with the locals to try uncovering what’s been going on.

A forensic linguist by training, Graham finds clues in language and how it is presented. She is able to use some notes from the past sent to ward others away and finds herself able to piece together a very loose profile. That may not help her now, as people are dying and destruction is rampant, though it does not deter Graham from trying her best.

Riddled with memories of the past that haunt her, Darby Graham will have to put all that behind her if she is to help find a killer before she becomes a victim herself. Much if riding on this, the least of which a chance to slay her own demons once and for all. A well-paced story that adds action and suspense throughout, proving that Parks has not lost her way with words.

I struggle after reading a series and the author turns to standalone novels. When I get into the groove of things, I can only see myself wanting to continue on the journey of a protagonist I know well, with dangling threads and new plot ideas formulated in the closing chapters of a book. However, Carrie Stuart Parks turned to writing novels that float on their own, equally as impactful to the attentive reader. These are still filled with the element of mystery and suspense, as well as utilising some unique forensic research, which is usually able to extinguish my longing for a series continuation.

Darby Graham does well in her role as protagonist, offering the reader a fair bit with which it work. Having suffered a great deal and still haunted with vast amounts of PTSD, Graham has tried to right herself and find a new path. Graham’s attempted escape to rural Idaho may not be the peace and quiet she needs, but it does showcase some of her wonderful forensic skills and keeps the reader guessing about how she will overcome it all. There is great growth and backstory construction in the piece, even if it is meant to go no further than the end of this novel.

Those Parks matches up with her protagonist also play key roles in keeping the story moving. While many flavour a particular aspect of the narrative, some drop clues throughout to help add depth to the story and provide insights into where things are going for the overall reading experience. Parks has a way of developing the rural authority figure effectively, which is not lost in this novel. Some of the characters help propel Darby Graham to a new level, while others are strictly there to impede her personal and professional progress throughout.

Things began somewhat slowly for me in this read. I needed some time to find myself interested in what was going on. Parks uses a slow reveal to really captivate the reader’s attention, but when it is found, the narrative picks up and finds its momentum. The various perspectives offered throughout provide the reader with an exciting tale, with decent backstory and mysterious twists. The plot advances in due time and keeps the reader guessing until all is revealed by the end. Short chapters push things along, though the information in them is essential, forcing the reader to play close attention. One of Parks’ great assets in her writing is presenting a typical criminal case through the lens of a less-known forensic profession. As with her Gwen Marcey series, the reader learns much through the eyes of Darby Graham, whose life as a forensic linguist offers some insights that may have been missed otherwise. While not my favourite piece by Carries Stuart Parks, I enjoyed it and would encourage readers to look into her other work, particularly that of the aforementioned Gwen Marcey.

Kudos, Madam Parks, on another solid piece of writing. You never cease to impress me with the new forensic angles presented in your writing.

Be sure to check for my review, first posted on Mystery and Suspense, as well as a number of other insightful comments by other reviewers.

https://www.mysteryandsuspense.com/woman-in-shadow/

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

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, by Amanda Montell

Nine stars

I first encountered Amanda Montell‘s work a year or so ago, when she dissected the world of language and how it has inherent gender pitfalls. In this text, Montell unwraps how language is used to develop strong followings or serve to persuade people into various collectives. After some great background, Montell labels this language as ‘cultish’, right up there with English, Spanish, and even French (yes, I see that the last breaks the fluidity of examples). Montell effectively argues that language can be used in subtle or blunt ways to coerce or convince the population to believe or disbelieve certain things. While many people are surely visual learners, the means by which language is used can have a major influence on decision making, something Montell shows repeatedly throughout the tome.

While the word ‘cult’ has morphed into something quite negative, for a long time it was not given the same eerie notion. Montell effectively argues that it was the rise of Jim Jones and his Jonestown commune in Guyana that sullied the word and permitted the world to make negative associations with the word so freely. Montell explores not only the group, but also how Jones used words and various phrases to really drill home his views to followers. It it so very intriguing how words and phrases, usually tied to salvation or persecution, can drum up such emotion in people. Montell’s exploration of the religious cult movement may not have been entirely unique to me (as in, I had heard some of the discussion before), but its presentation and analysis brought a much-needed new look to the subject matter.

Another way in which groups can be called cults is a use of insider language, keeping those who are not ‘in the circle’ completely ostracised. While the primary example of this is the Church of Scientology, it can be extended to other groups, usually those in the world of fitness or other health movements. The ‘us versus them’ mentality fuels a separation between those who are actively supporting the group and non-believers. Montell exemplifies that there is usually a push to ‘get more insiders’ in a variety of ways, but that those who refuse to believe should be left to perish. Language to create this inner know is essential to success and failure, something that Montell presents repeatedly.

Just as in many other realms, language can be key to bullying others, even within an organization. Multi-level Marketing (MLM) groups use it to keep their members motivated and trying to keep pulling more inside the circle, making it clear that those who cannot meet the standards are forced out and will likely be shunned for good. Montell explores many groups, usually popular sales from home companies, and how they use buzz language to promote continued growth, but also harsh critiques for those who are not able to succeed. While I am not working within an MLM, I know that sort of pressure, to a degree, in my current field of employment, where I work from home and try to liaise with the general public to help them protect themselves and their families. I see the strong verbiage that is used and the buzz language, which was only further highlighted at as I read this section of the book. Language can be a tool, though it is not always a building block, but rather a club to keep people in line.

Montell offers many other examples, but it is up to the reader to take the time to explore this book to see things for themselves. The book was paced well and tackled a number fo areas of interest. While there may be moments of ‘soap box’ preaching, it almost needed to be done to shake the trees and allow the reader to see what’s going on around them. Montell’s detailed chapters are full of evidence to suppose her thesis and is also written in such a way as to entertain while surely educating. Amanda Montell is a vibrant personality and this comes through in her writing, but she is academic when the need arises. This is no fluff piece or a means of debunking things that others have already espoused as troublesome. She seeks to devise her own arguments and presents them in a clear and succinct manner, permitting the reader to come to their own conclusions. This is masterful and just what I needed to keep my mental muscle flexed throughout this captivating read.

Kudos, Amanda Montell (for you taught me never to call you Madam), for this great book. I loved the hype leading up to its release and can say for a fact… it was well worth the wait.

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