The Amendment Killer, by Ronald S. Barak

Nine stars

Ronald S. Barak presents readers with a sensational novel that delves into the world of US constitutional politics, kidnapping, and a developing courtroom drama. When a girl is taken from off the street on her way to school, no one seems to notice. The country’s attention turns towards Washington, D.C., more specifically the US Supreme Court, where a monumental case is about to be argued before the nine justices. The premise surrounds the introduction of the 28th Amendment to the US Constitution, which seeks to tighten the responsibilities of congressional members. The controversy surrounds not only the content of the amendment, but that it was not introduced by Congress and the state assemblies. The National Organization for Political Integrity (NoPoli) chose to hold a constitutional convention with delegates of its fifty state branches, crafting and passing the aforementioned amendment. Having made its way through the lower courts, it is now time for the nine justices to rule not only on Congress’s standing to sue based on constitutional standing to create amendments, as well as on the content of the 28th Amendment. With such an impact on the future of America, the case is being carried live on television for everyone to see, live and as it develops. During the Chief Justice’s opening remarks, Justice Arnold Hirschfeld’s cell phone buzzes with a text; his granddaughter, Cassie, has been kidnapped. As Hirschfeld tries to remain stoic, he is informed that the only way she will be returned safely is when the amendment is quashed. Panicked, Justice Hirschfeld must follow the rules laid out for him, but makes some veiled contact to ensure that his family is aware of the situation. While not wanting to tip his hand to what’s going on, Justice Hirschfeld reaches out to have an investigation commenced, though the burner phones being used and lack of substantial clues makes finding Cassie all the more difficult. Lawyers for NoPoli and Coingress battle it out, exploring what the Founding Fathers might have meant with Article 5 of the US Constitution and trying to parse out a modern day solution, all in a compacted oral argument setting, where justices openly hurl questions at the attorneys, who seek to maximise their allotted time. While arguments continue in the Court, Cassie is being kept in a secluded location, unsure why she’s been targeted. What she does know is that her diabetes will not remain under control if this lasts much longer. Bonding with her captor, Cassie is able to soon learn that her grandfather’s role in the current let of legal arguments could lead to her freedom, or untimely demise. Working off the radar while media outlets start sniffing around, Metro Homicide Detective Frank Lotello tries to craft an agreement to ensure that Cassie is released and Justice Hirschfeld can sway his colleagues. However, the constitutional arguments are compelling, forcing many to wonder why oral arguments show Hirschfeld speaking against everything he appears to hold dear. In the shadows, someone is trying to push for this amendment nullification, but at whose request? Will the Court rule properly on this monumental case and allow young Cassie the freedom she deserves? Barak has stitched together this wonderful novel that captures the reader’s attention from the outset and does not release its grip until the final pages. Recommended for those who love legal thrillers with a constitutional flavour, as well as the reader who find crime thrillers to their liking.

A friend of mine recommended this book to me, feeling that I might enjoy both its legal and criminal aspects. I had it sitting on my TBR list for a while, wanting to find myself in the right mood before diving in. Why I waited so long I will never know. Barak is able to pull the reader into the middle of this book, whetting my appetite for detailed discussion of constitutional practices, as well as using the US Supreme Court as a central tool to deliver some of the important impetus to keep the narrative flowing. Barak utilises the subplot of Cassie’s kidnapping to keep the story balanced and allow the reader to enjoy a well-rounded piece, as though to dilute some of the legal and constitutional arguments that fill many chapters. Barak effectively crafts a set of characters who mesh well together, but whose individual stories come together in a seamless manner. This gives the reader the chance to better understand those they find interesting and push aside those who do not pique their interest. In a story full of legal tangents, Barak keeps the reader guessing and wondering how things will resolve themselves. Fast-paced with a narrative benefitting both short and longer chapters, Barak paces the story well with time stamps, showing the slow (and quick) progression of the case before the Court’s expedited decision. With Cassie’s life on the line, the reader will surely push through this one to discover the monumental finality of this first-rate novel.

Kudos, Mr. Barak, for such an impactful story. I will have to find some of your other work and devour it in short order. I’m eager to see what else you can bring to life with your superior writing style.

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


Puppet Child, by Talia Carner

Nine stars

What would you do if you knew your ex-spouse was molesting your five year-old? That’s the question that Talia Carner poses to readers in the early stages of this explosive book. Rachel Belmore knew there was a problem with her husband, Dr. Wes Belmore, from the time their daughter was a baby. After an alarming event that Rachel witnessed at the crib-side of young Ellie, the couple split, but Dr. Belmore’s actions did not stop. Rachel began proceedings to limit her ex-husband’s access, trying to have him labelled a paedophile, but the courts would only take incremental steps. Distraught, Rachel turned to the only power she had, to refuse Wes access to Ellie, in violation of the court order. Even when Ellie did have to go, she would scream, returning after the access with mysterious injuries and bruises, sometimes to her vagina. When Ellie admitted that her father enjoyed playing ‘The Zoo Game’, Rachel could take it no longer and turned to her attorney for help. However, the Family Court judge refused to accept the pleas being made, sure that Rachel had overdramatised them. With little else to do, Rachel took matters into her own hands, seeking to protect Ellie, even if it would endanger her own freedom in the eyes of the court. Working to save her daughter at any cost, Rachel turned to family and friends, as well as an unusual source to help protect Ellie. However, Dr. Wes Belmore was not without resources of his own and would do whatever it took to ensure Ellie comes back to him. Part legal battle, part family struggle, Talia Carner pushes the reader to the limits of what they can stomach when it comes to child abuse and molestation, while Lady Justice seems to have been shelved during an election year. Highly recommended for those who enjoy a legal and courtroom battle, but not for the faint of heart when it comes to the protection of the most vulnerable.

This book was recommended to me by a friend who could not speak highly enough about its story. Working for Child Protection, it is all too common that cases such as those described in this novel cross my path, but I have tried not to become too involved as to skew my outlook on all custodial arrangements or cases of abuse. Being a parent as well, this story kicks you in the gut (and teeth), forcing you to read and try not to believe that anyone could do this to their own child. Carner’s descriptive power is strong and pushes the story off the written page and into the realm of reality. I found myself flipping back regularly to see if this were a piece of fiction or based on real events. Her detailed narrative about the strain of the abuse (thankfully for many, there is not too much overt description) as well as the courtroom battles left me feeling as though I were in the middle of events unfolding before me. The characters brought much to the story, particularly those at the forefront of the plot. I found myself pitying Rachel and hating Wes repeatedly, all while I begged that something could be done to save Ellie, even when the justice system would not. The twists and turns in the story left me surprised, as this is by no means a cookie cutter narrative, though there were some times that foreshadowing and foreboding left me able to see what might lurk around the corner. The impact of Carner’s writing left me wanting more, but also full-up with all the horrors bestowed on young Ellie, if that makes sense. I found the ongoing legal battles to my liking, as that is a genre that I always enjoy, but also some of the great backstory that shows the world still spinning and life not taking a hiatus even when tragedy strikes. Carner’s style left me wanting to see what else she has penned and hoping that many will find this book and be able to see through some of the disturbing content to find the underlying theme, that the law is not always in sync with what is just. After reading this book, if I needed any reminder of that, it’s become readily apparent.

Kudos, Madam Carner, for this sensational piece. I cannot thank you enough for putting these ideas to paper and I will tell anyone who might listen that this is a must-read.

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

Margaret Truman’s Allied in Danger (Capital Crimes #30), by Donald Bain

Eight stars

Donald Bain is back with another instalment of the long-running Capital Crimes series. Straddling a legal and mystery genre here, Bain takes the reader on an interesting journey through the world of illicit money schemes. Mac Smith has just agreed to help a new client, whose father was taken in by a Nigerian money scheme, sending his life savings into the African country, before killing himself when he went broke. Smith, unsure if he will be able to help, brings his investigator into the case, in hopes of assisting. Robert Brixton can see this will be an uphill battle, but is always up for a challenge. Brixton turns to a friend of his at the British Embassy, David Portland, who also has an interest in Nigeria, though not for the same reasons. Portland’s son has been over in the country and may have been killed while working for a security company, SureSafe. However, Portland cannot learn anything for sure, until a family heirloom is found on a Nigerian back in D.C. Portland begins to uncover that his son may have died at the hands of a Frenchman who heads up security firm, closely allied with a warlord, whose enterprises include money schemes directed towards the gullible. Armed with a passion to bring justice for his son, Portland and Brixton pool their resources and impetus to head onto the African continent for some answers, though someone lurking in the shadows wants to ensure they end up empty handed and perhaps worse. What may have started out as a simple legal remedy to help a man duped out of his life savings has become a life and death mission for family honour. Trouble is, no one is willing to stick out their heads to help, worried it may be the last thing they do. Bain has pulled another winner out in this series, whose focus has shifted from the strong legal novels to something more focussed on investigation and mystery. Recommended for those who have followed this series for its lengthy run as well as the curious reader who wants a glimpse into the political and social situation of Nigeria.

I have been reading the Capital Crimes series since I discovered Margaret Truman many years ago. That it has reached thirty novels may surprise some, but its ability to morph and keep the reader’s attention speaks volumes to its longevity. Robert Brixton, the creation of Donald Bain when he formally took over the series, is a fabulously developed character. His tough exterior helps push the story along, with grit to get to the heart of the matter. However, the softer side as he still mourns the death of his daughter, pushes through and makes the character more compassionate and worthy of attention. While he may play a minor role in the last few novels, series regular and former protagonist Mac Smith is always a pleasure to see on the page. His anchored approach seeks to allow the law to do battle rather than devious behaviour, but he has a way about him that keeps the reader from rolling their eyes. With a narrative that pushes along and keeps the story fresh, Bain does wonderful things by educating the reader about many of the nuances of Nigeria and some of the vast differences with North American life, which provides a rich plot. Bain shows a dedication to the backstory and weaves it together effectively through a mix of short and longer chapters. The reader cannot get enough as they seek to learn which twists will influence the larger story and which are dead ends to entertain. Bain has kept Truman’s series alive with his own flavour and left series fans fairly impressed. Sadly, with his death, I suppose this is the last instalment in a long-running and highly energetic series.

Kudos, Mr. Bain, for keeping the spirit of Margaret Truman alive. She would be proud with your effort and I know fans of the novels are sure to applaud this effort. I thank you for all the work you did on this series and that you may now rest in peace.

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

The Fallen (Amos Decker #4), by David Baldacci

Eight stars

David Baldacci’s latest Amos Decker novel touches on some timely material while keeping the reader enthralled throughout. While vacationing in rural Pennsylvania, Amos Decker and his partner, Alex Jamison, seek to unwind with Alex’s sister. When Decker stumbles across a murder scene, he is unable to divorce himself from his sleuthing ways. Two men are found murdered in a home presumed to have been abandoned. This is not the first murder in Baronville of late, which has seen half a dozen bodies piling up over the last few months. While Jamison is happy to let the locals handle things, Decker pulls her into the middle of the investigation as his mind races at light speed. It would appear that someone does not want them poking around, as they are caught in a situation that leaves Decker’s mental abilities tarnished. When tragedy befalls Jamison’s family, she is happy to set the case aside, but Decker is determined to get to the bottom of everything going on, including trying to learn more about the town pariah, a man whose family has influenced the community since its inception. As Decker investigates, the dire the consequences of the opioid crisis come to the surface, where towns across America are being destroyed by new and lethal drugs on a regular basis. When Decker makes a solid connection between these drug deaths and someone in town, he will stop at nothing to reveal the full picture, even if it costs him everything. Baldacci has another winner with this novel, which keeps the reader guessing while addressing some of the poignant topics making their way into news headlines around the world. Recommended to series fans and those who enjoy a well-paced thriller that has a little of everything.

I have long enjoyed Baldacci’s work, which is as varied as his handful of central characters. He has the ability to place his protagonists in interesting predicaments while also pulling news from the headlines to make the novels even more relevant in a genre that seems supersaturated with books. Paring down the series characters, Baldacci focuses on Decker and Jamison, allowing both to develop some more of their backstories/personal sides and offering the reader something on which they can relate. It would seem that the opioid crisis is an ongoing hot button issue and Baldacci finds a way to spin it in a unique fashion to offer his own perspective without getting overly preachy. Baldacci’s subtle use of characters to portray opinions permits the reader to feel at ease throughout this controversial topic. With chapters that keep the narrative flowing effectively and keeps the reader wondering what’s coming next, Baldacci has another winner with this novel in an established series. Perhaps not the best of the novels, but still one well worth the time to read it, I can only wonder what else Baldacci has in store for his fans.

Kudos, Mr. Baldacci, for another wonderful book. I know you have plans for new and exciting series in the fall, but I hope you will not forget this series, which has been gaining momentum since its inception.

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

Gate 76, by Andrew Diamond

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Andrew Diamond, and Stolen Time Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

What at first seems to be an airline disaster thriller soon takes on a life of its own in Andrew Diamond’s latest novel. While waiting to board his flight back to DC, Freddy Ferguson notices another passenger in queue at Gate 76, a flight soon departing San Francisco for Honolulu. This passenger, a fairly attractive blonde, seems distraught and slips out of line at the last minute, rushing to board another plane. As Ferguson lands in DC, the news is full of reports of that Hawaii-bound flight, which blew up soon after takeoff and killed all those on board. Ferguson and the Private Investigation firm for which he works is soon hired by the airline to look into what might have happened. Even with a baggage handler in custody in San Francisco, something does not seem right, especially since Ferguson saw that woman acting oddly. Ruled one of the dead passengers, Ferguson knows this woman, Anna Brook, may hold the clue to better understanding what actually happened and who is to blame. Sifting through all the paperwork and following up on leads sees Ferguson chase down a tangential idea to the heart of Texas, where things take an interesting turn and leave him wondering if he can penetrate the layers of red tape put in place by the Feds. Might there be something more sinister than an act of terror? Ferguson may have bitten off more than he can chew with this case, as he battles his own personal demons from the past. Diamond offers readers an interesting thriller that evolves continuously. Recommended for those who like a little mystery with their high-paced thrillers.

This being my introduction to the world of Andrew Diamond, I was not sure how I would react. The dust jacket blurb had me hooked and the novel began well, developing not only the backstory of Freddy Ferguson’s rough life before becoming a PI, but also some of the more personal aspects to the man’s life that shaped him. Diamond creates a number of interesting characters that could, should he choose, be the foundation of an entire series. The uniqueness of some central characters mesh well and give the reader much to hold their attention, though I will admit that the story does develop in such a way that there are numerous individuals who emerge and whose storylines must be followed, causing a degree of confusion at some points. Working with a mix of short and longer chapters, Diamond pulls the reader into the middle of the story and develops the plot effectively, creating both the slow revelation and the cliffhanger moments in equal measure. I enjoyed Diamond’s varied nature when it came to presenting the narrative and the twists taken to get to the final outcome, leaving the reader to piece the entire case together over the span of the book. These twists keep things engaging and free from a predictable outcome. I’ll surely read another Andrew Diamond novel, given the chance to do so.

Kudos, Mr. Diamond, for this wonderful piece. I hope some of your other pieces are just as exciting and that you’ll consider bringing Freddy Ferguson back for more.

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

Paper: Paging Through History, by Mark Kurlansky

Eight stars

Those who have been following my reviews of late will know that I have been drawn to Mark Kurlansky’s work on the history of certain edible items. In these pieces, the author depicts the evolution and exponential uses for the products throughout the centuries. Here, with the history of paper before me, some may feel that things will take a significant turn towards the mundane. Just how interesting can paper be and how can someone extol its virtues for hundreds of pages? I, too, was somewhat a skeptic, but also highly curious to see if it could be done in an entertaining and educational manner. Kurlansky posits early in the book that it it not paper, per se, that is examined here, but the evolution of human’s communication utilising paper as its conduit. Still not sold? Well, Kurlansky explores some of the early forms of written communication—from the development of ancient Chinese through intricate and interconnected symbols through the development of the Roman alphabet—and how such thoughts were placed on objects for long-term reference. Moses and those Ten Commandments were only a primitive means by which of moving from oral tradition to the document form that allowed many to view and potentially understand what had been said. Stone, clay, bark, and even animal skin seemed to be the early forms of documentation material, but paper was also being used to adequately hold words or symbols for longer periods of time. Kurlansky explores varieties of paper and their acidic levels, which also played a key role in durability, both in the short term and throughout history, as well as the varied types of plant life that could be used to create paper. From there, it was the evolution of documentation that fills the biography’s pages. Handwritten accounts served for a time, but when Gutenberg and others were able to create or hone printing presses, mass communication became possible. Interestingly enough, Kurlansky argues that history takes not the inventor of a concept but he/she who is able to find the best way to apply it to society and deifies them. That intellect has helped label concepts throughout history, pushing false praise on a number of people. As paper was less costly and easier to mass produce, it was also highly effective in the art world. No longer did an artist need to worry about waste, as they could sketch out an idea or a concept before putting it to canvass. Paper also ushered in the era of drawing and rough drafts, which proved highly useful for the likes of Michelangelo. Kurlanaky also explores some of the details around paper’s use as a political weapn, helping to fuel many a revolution through political tracts and pamphlets. There is extensive discussion of the American and French Revolutions, spread to the masses by the printed material made available. During the latter portion of the book, Kurlansky explores the economic ramification of paper making around the world, particularly paper mills and the environmental impact. The reader can see the financial side of paper and how something as simple as a sheet used for writing can be such a lucrative industry, particularly for some Asian countries, who have taken on the recycling process and redistribution of paper back into the market. For a topic that may seem rather drab, Kurlansky creates quite an interest biography that weaves the history of paper through the ages, permitting the reader to learn a little more about the building blocks of their favourtite book. Unless we’re talking about e-books, but that’s for another discussion. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in biographies, particularly of a unique nature.

As with many of his past biographies, Kurlansky is able to pull the reader in from the beginning, laying the groundwork for what is to be an interesting piece of writing. At no time do things go ‘flat’ or lose their lustre, for Kurlansky has been able to distill all the information gathered and present it in a masterful manner, with just enough intrigue to keep the reader wanting to know more. Some may say that paper cannot be exciting, no matter how delightful the narrative, but I would disagree. Kurlansky takes hold of this topic and provides the reader with much to ponder. His ongoing theme that paper is not only so versatile but has come into its own through a variety of cultural and historical evolutions rings true. The reader is able to explore paper (and its predecessors) around the world and see how each region of the world added its own spin. Technology proved to be highly influenced by paper, something that Kurlansky also argues effectively. As the reader will notice, it was paper that brought about much of the advancements in printing and communication technology. Revolutions depended not only on overthrowing governments and monarchies, but on having the paper to rile up the masses. I had never thought of things from this perspective, but Kurlansky has a tendency of opening my mind and leaving me in awe. With jam-packed chapters that offer historical and cultural perspectives, the reader is able to see paper advancements from around the world, and the eventual connection of all these cultures into modern paper making and forms of technology that rely on this somewhat simple and forgotten cog in the larger wheel. Kurlansky breathes life into a topic that might not otherwise be of much interest, but does so in such a way that the reader cannot help but care. With easy to understand descriptions and a flowing narrative, Kurlansky shows yet again that he has a handle on the nuances of unique biographical tomes.

Kudos, Mr, Kurlansky, for another winner in my eyes. I have marvelled at all you have to say about these topics and this one was another winner for me. Keep up the excellent writing and I hope to find more of your biographies soon.

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

Bought & Sold, by Megan Stephens

Eight stars

When I made the decision to read this book by Megan Stephens, I knew that I would not be heading into a story of hope and enlightenment, but of something depraved and horrific. Stephens recounts how a single trip to Greece with her mother changed everything and continues to haunt her years later. In the early portion of the book, the reader discovers that Megan lived a life of broken families and parents whose main interest in life was drink and booze-fuelled fights with one another. After the breakdown of the family unit, Megan and her sister turned to acts of petty crime to fill their days. Megan became the problem child, though had yet to get involved in anything too salacious. When Megan and her mom took a trip to Greece, their eyes opened to the possibilities before them. Megan’s mom met a lovely gentleman and Megan seemed to attract the attention of a few Albanian men, specifically Jak. Spending as much time with him as she could, Megan soon fostered a strong affinity for Jak, who appeared to love her as much as she did him. After extending their trip once, Megan’s mom had to face reality and prepared to see them go back home. However, Megan’s attachment to Jak was complete and she turned away to start a life with the man she loved, at the ripe age of fourteen. From there, Jak helped Megan with the idea of working, though this would not be the work that any 14 year-old might expect. Jak asked her to help him raise some money for his family by turning to sex, but only for a time. Megan would work the streets, always monitored by Jak and, blindly, had her eye on the prize the entire time. She hoped that she could get out of the work and build a life with Jak. However, as the countless number of men sought to fulfil grotesque fantasies with her, Megan soon slipped into an abyss from which there was no escape. Jak eventually sent her off to work for another man, who had Megan working in bordellos. This is where she would average eighty to one hundred quickie sessions a night, pulling in thousands of euros for the men who handled her. With threats of death directed towards Megan and her family, there was no escape. Any straying from the path could be met with a slap, a beating, or even worse. Sold and bandied around Athens, Megan soon was in deeper than she could have imagined and she had no idea how to free herself without endangering her mother. Even when she was arrested, her fear of the man who ‘owned’ her left Megan helpless and turning back to the life. With a mother who was being fed lies about her ‘waitressing’ career, Megan had no one to help her and a life with no end in sight. How could she find hope in a world where sex and abuse were not hourly visitors? This is the story of a teenage girl’s six years in a human trafficking ring where death was the only assurance of safety. While it is hard to recommend a book of this nature, I would strongly support anyone who wants to pop their naive bubble of daily life to try this piece, if only for its sobering aspect.

As I said before, this was not expected to be a light and enjoyable read. I entered this reading knowing that full well and I suppose it is why I knew the piece would work well as an ‘Awkward Read’ in my reading challenge. The story reads fairly well, with the narrative flowing easily and the reader able to understand some of the early depravities that Megan faced. While there is a great deal of implied horror, Megan Stephens does not subject the reader to extensive and graphic depiction of what happened to her, which leaves me both thankful and shortchanged. I know it is a little controversial to say that, as an outsider, but I almost wonder if the impact might have been stronger if the reader could see some of the detailed horrors and have that stomach churning moment. That being said, I did see the story has somewhat hokey at times and wondered (as Megan did in the retelling) how these choices could have been made and the lifelines ignored. I had to remind myself that this was a fourteen year-old who was drunk on love making these choices with the neon lights flashing ‘bad idea’, ‘stupid girl’, and ‘what the hell, Megan!?!’. That being said, fear can surely fuel the willingness to stay on the path before you, if only to ensure you live another day. I will say that while I understand human trafficking is a constant issue and happens all over the place, Megan’s story did not play out as I might have predicted. She was not constantly strung out on drugs or sent to some backwater country and shackled to the wall between shifts. She lived in a hotel, was transported to and from work, and remained sober for the most part. It did leave me wondering how much human trafficking might be going on around me (not to sound paranoid) and if there are rings operating in the communities I visit for work on a daily basis. The story was quite sobering and offered some interesting insights, as well as fuelling a sickening feeling that anyone could treat another human being with such disregard. The book can be read swiftly, though its fourteen chapters will surely weigh heavily on the minds and hearts of those who take the time to soak it all in. Horrible topic, but truly informative.

Kudos, Madam Stephens, for this interesting read. Words cannot express how sorry I am to have read the horrors you endured in your teen years, but you’ve synthesised things quite well and left me wondering about the larger world of human and sex trafficking, especially in the West.

This book satisfies Topic #2: Awkward Attempt, in the Equinox #3 portion of the A Book for All Seasons book challenge.

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

Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and his Times, by Joel Richard Paul

Eight stars

In my years of reading American history, I have always found biographies of the Founding Fathers of greatest interest to me. Not only were these men full of grit and determination in the face of their British oppressors, but their decisions proved to be some of the most important for the new America, many of which are still held firmly in the political system today. While the Fathers worked to create the central document of rules and limitations—The U.S. Constitution—this was only part of the rules that would govern the country for over two centuries. Joel Richard Paul effectively argues throughout this tome that the Rule of Law was central to a strong republic and no man helped shape that legal tenet more than John Marshall, soldier, politician, diplomat, and long-serving Chief of the United States Supreme Court. Paul’s detailed biography not only helps the reader better understand early America, but also its growth through important legal and political decisions that came from the Court. Not only was Marshall an essential part of early American jurisprudence, but his ability to create conformity amongst the Justices of the Court proved not only that he was persuasive in his positions, but also worked to show the American public that the law can—and should—supersede political divisions. Paul’s thoroughness in presenting much of Marshall’s life serves not only to educate the reader, but help provide a better understanding of America’s early steps toward being a country based on an enshrined set of laws.

Paul spends the first half of the book laying the groundwork for the great legal career of John Marshall. Unlike some more modern men, those who would one day be given the moniker Founding Fathers seemed to have many important positions in colonial America. After laying some of the groundwork of Marshall’s ancestry—where the reader discovers that Marshall and Thomas Jefferson were second cousins—the narrative turns to a brief discussion of the Revolutionary War, where Marshall served in the Continental Army under General Washington. Marshall may not have been a war hero in the most conventional sense, but his understanding of the political goings-on and the legal ramifications of the colonies’ desire to secede would prove valuable in the years to come. Working to help craft some aspects of the constitutional documents, Marshall used some of his legal abilities to ensure that the new Republic would not be left on shaky ground. Proving himself not only to be a sharp legal mind, Marshall was sent to France to help broker deals to solidify American allies while Britain was still seen as the enemy to much of the European countries. While stationed there, Marshall developed some strong social friendships, which Paul posits may have been his way of forgetting the family he left back in America. Marshall’s persuasive ways were not able to cement long-lasting agreements with France, but did help earn him his first formal position in the new American Government. John Adams, who followed Washington to the position of President of the United States offered Marshall the coveted position of Secretary of State. This Cabinet post in its original form held more prestige than it does today, equating to a quasi-presidential role for America on the world stage. With open animosity still present with Britain and a yet to be buttonholed France, Marshall utilised his abilities to strengthen America’s position on the world scene amongst the European superpowers. During this time, America began to show some early signs of strain within its own borders. Divisions between key Founding Fathers saw two political parties emerge: the Federalists and the Republicans. While both labeled as right-of-centre by the author, Federalists held strong traditional views with the country as a whole serving as the base unit of decision making, while Republicans sought ongoing change for Americans and saw the state as the political unit in this new country. Clashes would ensue and vilification of those on the other side of the divide proved to be a regular game. As Adams saw his presidential power waning with the constant attacks by Thomas Jefferson, he chose to offer Marshall one of the most powerful positions possible, that of Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Marshall waffled for a time, as the Court was seen as a weak body on which no man wanted to serve for long. That said, there was the chance to shape the Court and interpret many of the new laws being drafted and implemented by the state and federal governments. Marshall did acquiesce, taking the position in hopes that he could make something of it. How little he knew of what was to come in the decades that followed.

Marshall seemed to come into his own after his appointment to the Supreme Court, even though he was hesitant to accept the role from the outset. Marshall saw the work as difficult and taxing, but also was able to utilise his sharp mind to interpret laws effectively, laying the groundwork for major legal decisions, some of which still hold firm. Paul has aptly named this biography, for many of the decisions that Marshall made (or others on the Court wrote) were without any form of precedent—the idea of a previous court ruling that could be used as the foundation of a judicial decision—thereby allowing (forcing?) the Court to forge into new territory. Paul does delve into a small discussion of the perspective that Marshall had for the Court, an active or interpretative judicial branch, which was substantiated by the comments of others. Some saw Marshall leading the Court to read things into laws or the US Constitution that may not have been present, thereby creating new laws or unintended interpretations. Others argued that Marshall simply followed what was in the law and forced the lawmakers to be bound by what they had passed in their legislative assemblies. Either way, Paul argues effectively that Marshall saw the Constitution has a ‘living tree’ or always evolving, which may help the reader and historians better understand some of his interpretations of legal matters. Through the latter portion of the biography, Paul develops the narrative of Marshall as head of the Court, deciding many important cases that would help shape the young Republic, including: states rights, private land rights, legal entitlement of the Indigenous (read: Indian at the time) population, slavery, and the limits of Executive Power. Numerous cases are listed throughout the narrative, some with great backstories, to help the reader better understand those cases that made their way before the Court and how Marshall sought to interpret them. Interspersed within the cases, Paul develops the historical setting and changes of presidents, some of whom admired Marshall’s work while others sought to vilify him. Marshall remained on the Court for over thirty years and, while holding the judicial and executive branches of government apart, could be seen to inject the odd comment into the goings-on that shaped America. One aspect that historians and biographers can only ponder and not substantiate is the number of unanimous decisions that came from the Court. Marshall may have started with numerous other Federalist justices, but that number waned the longer he remained on the Court. However, the staggering amount of unanimous decisions seemed to continue. As an aside for those who are not aware, discussions of the US Supreme Court justices when they meet in conference to decide cases are neither public nor are they documented for historical review. Therefore, it is all a mystery as to how Marshall might have developed so many strong-minded legal scholars to come together on hundreds of cases. When Marshall could no longer ignore his health concerns, he was forced to leave the Court, having served his country for decades. As with many men of the time, his decline was swift and he left an indelible mark on American history. As Paul effectively argues, no matter one’s political stripe, the country mourned the loss of John Marshall, who served as the compass for the Union leading up to some of the most tumultuous times that would befall the immature Republic.

Joel Richard Paul provides a thorough and educational biography of John Marshall, permitting the reader to better understand this man who shaped early America through his dedication and attention to detail. Paul develops a strong and chronological narrative that permits the reader to see just how varied Marshall’s life came to be and how he put his all into every job he was assigned. As with many other biographies of the Founding Fathers, change was ever-present and the evolution of the country occurred with each decision made. Marshall found himself in the middle of most of it, be it as a soldier, diplomat, cabinet secretary, and Supreme Court Justice. His ideas sought not only to shape the new country, but also proved useful in helping to build a foundation of a country that was seeking to differentiate itself from its past colonial oppressors (the British). Paul offers some great detail in his narrative, but also leaves many aspects of the story open for interpretation or future exploration. It is apparent that a detailed analysis of Marshall’s legal decisions could take up an entire volume, as could fleshing out more of the early years that Marshall lived, before he emerged on the battlefield for the Continental Army. Of interest to some will be Paul’s exploration in the latter portion of the final chapter of the lives of the two cousins, Marshall and Thomas Jefferson. How diametrically opposed the two men could be, yet how quintessential they were to the advancement of the Republic. Paul has done a wonderful job here and leaves the reader wanting more, which tends to happen for those who love the era and enjoy a variety of perspectives. Highly recommended for those with the patience to delve into this biography, which mixes politics, history, and legal matters in equal measure.

Kudos, Mr. Paul, for such a wonderful piece of work. I can only hope that I locate some of your other work soon to better understand other topics that you have taken the time to synthesise.

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

Atticus Finch: The Biography, by Joseph Crespino

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Joseph Crespino, Perseus Books, and Basic Books for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

The name Atticus Finch was long synonymous with kindness and compassion, showing his children the importance of not judging a book by its cover. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Finch’s character pushes the limits of 1930s Alabama acceptance and tries to bring justice to the African American population, calling himself a ‘moderate Southerner’. However, those who sought out and read Lee’s second published novel, Go Set a Watchman, are jolted to see Atticus turned into a racist who strongly sides with his Caucasian brothers in putting those of colour in their place. Shock came from this revelation, but there is a story there; two, actually. Joseph Crespino seeks not only to explore the vastly different versions of the two Atticus characters in this piece, but also to give the reader a better understanding of Nelle ‘Harper’ Lee and how she fashioned Atticus out of her own father’s life. The attentive reader will see strong parallels between the elder Lee and Atticus, leaving this book with a better understanding of the metamorphosis made by the latter between the two novels, published over half a century apart.

Amasa Coleman ‘A.C.’ Lee was a genuinely affable man who married his sweetheart before the start of the Great War. With two of his children born in the years following his marriage, A.C. started a law practice and had one highly controversial case, where he defended an African American man accused of raping a white woman. With that came the call for lynchings, an event that brought all townsfolk out to watch, even as it disgusted A.C. The Lee family welcomed their third child, Nelle Harper, born significantly later than her next youngest sibling. Nelle would forever forge a close connection to her father, as Crespino elucidates throughout the text, when A.C. became a single involved parent soon thereafter. It was this relationship between A.C. and Nelle that created the strong connection seen in both of Harper Lee’s novels. A.C. left the practice of law and found pleasure in life running a weekly newspaper in Monroeville, in the heart of Alabama. He would present the news to the locals as he saw fit and provided his readers with a large stage on which to offer their grievances through Letters to the Editor. A.C. would also use this stage to compose editorials of his own, helping to shape the community with a well-rounded set of opinions. These opinions did vary from many of those around Alabama, but A.C. would not be deterred. While defending the rights of all, he did understand that there were differences between the races, though did not extol them as vehemently as some in Alabama or around the Southern states. However, as Nelle grew, she soon came to see that the community in which she was living had vastly different views from those of her father, which did force her to question much of what was going on. A.C. did his best to shape his youngest daughter’s ideas, but the world around them was also helpful in providing its own Southern Charm, particularly related to race relations. As A.C. and Nelle watched Alabama become more deeply divided, it turned them both away from the hope for equality and into a realm of realistic division. By the mid- to late-1950s, as Nelle prepared to leave Alabama for the bright lights of New York City, A.C. was firmly rooted in a divisive view of race relations. It was an acceptance of inequality or race differentiation. Crespino explores how A.C. joined groups committed to keeping whites in positions of superiority, but would not engage with KuKlux members, citing that violence was not the answer. Throughout the late 1950s and into the early 1960s, Alabama’s race clashes reached a fevered pitch, which surely influenced A.C. in his waning years. This would provide Nelle much fodder for her writing career, which started in an interesting manner, permitting one A.C. Lee to breathe life into the fictional Atticus Finch.

Crespino explores Nelle (hereafter called by her author’s moniker, Harper) and her introduction into the world of writing through the most generous of Christmas gifts. Close friends of hers offered to give her a stipend equivalent to one year’s wages to allow her to write without distraction. Lee used her perch in New York to explore some of the happenings back in Monroeville and penned Go Set a Watchman in short order, which depicted one Jean Louise Finch returning from the North to take in what had become of her children Alabama home. When Harper Lee had the novel sent in for consideration, many found the story and the characters drab or too basic. Rejection letters abounded, but Lee did not let that stop her. Soon there were other short stories, sometimes penned in a brief time, which helped flesh out her key characters. A youthful Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch appeared, somewhat precocious and yet always seeking answers from her knowledgeable father, Atticus. It was only when Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird that she had publishers rushing to put it to print. Crespino notes that these publishers, located in New York City, rushed the printing as it was a book that Northerners could enjoy, with its criticism of Southern treatment of the African American population. Readers who are familiar with the book will know that Lee portrayed Alabama as strongly segregated and deeply divided, with the Finch family almost an island unto themselves. Atticus sought not only to stand alone around so many with strong opinions, but wanted to teach his children the importance of taking a moment to look at all perspectives before making any judgement. When Lee had the book published in 1960, it was a shock to the country (and the world) that such behaviour could be going on in the South, though its reception was not entirely joyous. Crespino explores the cinematic depiction of the book as well, with Gregory Peck as its lead. Peck utilised his own opinions to shape the Atticus character as a hero to his children and a villain to his fellow citizens, though few could expect much else. Atticus Finch in this regard is surely the A.C. Lee that Harper knew as a child, though it only told part of the story.

Where things take an interesting turn throughout Crespino’s book is the exploration of Lee’s first novel, the forgotten Watchman. It was only in its publication that readers saw another side of Atticus Finch in his older age. Lee depicts Atticus as more racist and drawn towards the racial class system in America. Crespino argues that this Atticus, who likely alarms many readers in his gruffness, was the A.C. Lee of the mid- to late-50s, after leaving his editorial views behind. Atticus reflects more of the Alabama of the times in this novel, vastly different from the man who sought to defend an African American man accused of rape. While Northern audiences loved Mockingbird, Crespino argues that Harper Lee sought to publish Watchman, which was closer to her own personal views, as a primer for Northerners to see things from the perspective of Southern inhabitants, to offer a dose of the other side. This is likely why it was rejected at first and only published in 2015, even then as an unedited manuscript years after Harper Lee died. There is surely a strong Atticus parallel with the life of A.C. Lee found within its pages, but nowhere near as soft or warm-hearted. Without the ability to defend her position, many soured on Harper Lee as an author and could not understand why she would bastardise her beloved Atticus so much. It is the attentive reader of this biography that sees the metamorphosis over time, as A.C. Lee no longer tried to block out the Alabama influence that permeated his daily life. Perhaps Harper Lee simply sought to present her readers with a complete picture, though there was no bridge or middle-ground on which readers could accept the transition. Left with questions and outrage, many vilified the author from the grave. Atticus Finch, like all other men, was flesh and blood, influenced by his surroundings, as A.C. Lee tended to be. However, without the background understanding of how closely Atticus was to A.C. Lee, few readers will understand or want to hear the justifications.

Not only was this a refreshing look at the life of Amasa Coleman Lee, but also a sobering snapshot of Harper Lee and her creation of Atticus Finch. For decades, Finch was seen as the personification of the moderate Southerner, whose views were neither radical nor browbeating. However, with the release of Watchman in 2015, much of the world turned against Finch (and by extension, Harper Lee). Joseph Crespino breathes new life into this debate by writing of the parallels between the fictitious Finch and A.C. Lee, which serves to help the reader better understand the significant change. Crespino relies not only on scores of historical texts and past Harper Lee biographies, but archived interviews to provide the reader with the mindset that Harper Lee had when writing these two novels and to explore the life and times of her father. It is likely difficult to model a fictional character after someone in real life, particularly if the author is close to that person, as the nuances of their character must (for some readers) be adequately substantiated to accept anything but the most loving of depictions on the page. Harper Lee, in all her wisdom, was not able to properly explain the latter depiction of Atticus Finch or show the general public the parallels between him and her own father. Crespino pulls back the curtain to offer that detailed analysis and may, fingers crossed, provide many readers with a better explanation as to why things got so intense when comparing the two pieces. Crespino has opened my eyes to much related to the Lee family, the writing of the two novels, and the influence that Alabama politics had on the metamorphosis of A.C. Lee and Atticus Finch. I will certainly have to revisit both novels and see some of the explanations that are made throughout this biography, especially now that I am armed with new information. I can only hope to have a better understanding and create my own bridge between the novels to justify things, something that Harper Lee never did. One question still simmers in my mind: had Watchman been published in 1957, would the general reaction to the book in the Northern part of America been such that we might never have seen Mockingbird in its print or film versions? And a follow-up: had Mockingbird not been published, how might the understanding of Southern race relations been depicted to the world?

Kudos, Mr. Crespino, for making me think so very much about this and other topics of interest. I am eager to find some more of your work and understand the nuances of Southern race relations and the inside knowledge of key American personalities.

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

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, by Judy Melinek, MD, and T.J. Mitchell

Seven stars

While the world of medicine is likely beyond the comprehension of many, there is always an interest in some of the more bizarre cases that make their way onto the public’s radar. These types of medical situations are anomalies, according to Dr. Judy Melinek, MD and TJ Mitchell, citing that the vast majority of medical cases are not worthy of a script on prime time television. After leaving her surgical residency, Melinek leapt at the chance to enrol in one focussed on pathology, with significant interest in the forensic arm of the field. This led to a two-year fellowship in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York, where Melinek was able to see some of her most exciting and interesting cases, described throughout the book. While many think of a medical examiner as being one who deals in homicides, Melinek explains that there are many types of life-ending situations that ended up before her. Some were quite serious, including the man who leapt five storeys to his death and fractured numerous bones, while others were overly comical, like the man who died from complications with his metal penile implant. Not only does the job require an examination of the body to determine the matter of death, but can be quite contentious if the family disagrees or the matter makes its way to court. Melinek explains that her job can be quite stressful, especially as the body is not always forthcoming with evidence of what has happened and witnesses can inject their own bias surrounding the events leading to the end of life. Melinek may have a humours side, but her work also subjects her to numerous cases of horrible death or suffering, not the least of which was the fallout of the September 11, 2001 disaster, where she and her team (alongside many others) were tasked with identifying remains and trying to bring closure for many. Full of oddities that many readers will likely feel must be real—as this stuff could never be made up—the book will education as well as entertain the curious reader. Perfect for those who have an affinity for all things medical and enjoy some of the funnier predicaments in which people can find themselves at the point of death. A lighter read for those who want to absorb rather than construct strong opinions.

Melinek and Mitchell have created an interesting piece here, serving to dispel the myths of television dramatization of the former’s job as well as presenting some of the more interesting parts of work as a medical examiner. The authors do a masterful job of explaining the medical nuances of the work and injecting a less than intensely serious aspect, which can sometimes help to make the vignettes more alluring. At no time should the reader feel that the profession is anything but serious, though there are so many interesting files that must cross the desk of a medical examiner that they are forced to find some of the lighter sides to get through the day. I can only suspect that many of the names (and some facts) have been fudged, as the authors freely offer names and situations to help the reader feel as though they are in the middle of the situation at hand. Told in a straightforward manner with some medical jargon (which is fully explained), the reader is given a decent dose of the profession without drowning in the minutiae. Melinek and Mitchell divide the book’s chapter’s up to discuss a specific theme and choose a central case, whose narrative builds throughout, as well as some minor side vignettes to exemplify some of the arguments being presented. This not only allows the reader to have a better handle on the topic, but see it from multiple perspectives. As I am a big fan of forensic medicine, this book was right up my alley and served as a wonderful way to sit back and relax after some high-intensity reading of late.

Kudos, Dr. Melinek and Mr. Mitchell, for this wonderful piece, that served the purpose I needed. I will keep my eyes open for anything else you may write, though will steer clear of any medical journals, even though some of the findings would surely be eye-opening.

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