Murder Games, by James Patterson and Howard Roughan

Seven stars 

In their recent collaboration, James Patterson and Howard Roughan have created a wonderful standalone piece to entertain readers. Dr. Dylan Reinhart has done well for himself: an established Professor of Psychology at Yale, happy in his long-term relationship, and a popular textbook on Abnormal Psychology that has received many accolades. When he is approached by NYPD Detective Elizabeth Needham, her message is as ominous as they come. “Someone may be trying to kill you!” Soon Needham and Reinhart are teaming up to crack open a homicide investigation with a serial killer who uses playing cards to hint at their next victim. Deemed ‘The Dealer’, Needham and Reinhart must try to remain one step ahead of the killer, whose obsession with Reinhart is quite apparent. In the background, a power-hungry Mayor of New York City (are there other kinds?) demands updates as he delves deeper into Reinhart’s past while a crime beat journalist relishes all the headlines the case seems to be garnering. The reader soon learns that Reinhart has a secret that he has been keeping from everyone, perhaps one reason he has been tapped by The Dealer. Juggling the case and some developments in his personal life, Reinhart must find a balance before he becomes a victim himself. As The Dealer ups the ante, Needham must rely on this man she barely knows to keep her from going bust. Patterson and Roughan have a firm grip on his story and keep the reader connected throughout. Fast paced and perfect for a short beach read, this novel shows that Patterson still has some good work to offer.

Many know of my love/hate relationship with James Patterson in recent years. The man has amassed much of his wealth with less than stellar pieces. However, when paired with the proper collaborator and using the perfect literary recipe, a decent book emerges. Roughan seems to have brought out some great ideas as they craft this decent thriller that exemplifies another NYPD cat and mouse game with an intelligent serial killer that has much to prove. The characters are varied and well-developed, though there are many whose presence is used only to be a quick victim in the larger narrative. The Reinhart-Needham connection is decent, though not unique from other Patterson novels where a cop and civilian find themselves intertwined during the story arc. The story is paced well and the use of Patterson’s short chapter technique keeps the narrative clipping along with ease. While not psychologically stunning, the story is decent and it keeps the reader’s attention. Sure to laud some praise on Roughan and give Patterson another pat on the back, this book has all the elements of a decent summer novel.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Roughan for a great piece of work that will bring readers back again. I hope to see more collaborative efforts in the near future, as you two have a symbiosis that cannot be taken for granted when Patterson’s name appears on the dust jacket.

Glass Walled Houses (Charley Trilogy #2), by Eric Keller

Eight stars

First and foremost, thank you to Eric Keller for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

After thoroughly enjoying his debut novel, it was a no-brainer that I would devour this second book in the Charley series. Keller keeps the story fresh, while spacing out the two novels, in an effort to allow the proverbial dust to settle. After his work with Charley Ewanuschuk, Brian Cox left the paltry life of defence work to join the Crown Prosecutor’s Office. The criminal work in Calgary is such that he could keep himself busy, while also finding inexcusable ways of alienating his wife and new baby. When Charley seems to appear outside the courthouse after a particular devastating day for Cox, Brian cannot shake a chill up his spine and memories of how their last encounter ended. Meanwhile, Carl Gibson has his own set of struggles: a failing marriage, children who have a complete disinterest in him, and a run-down apartment not even fit for a pauper. After a neighbour and high-profile child pornographer is stabbed to death, Gibson seeks to make a name for himself with media outlets, as well as some of the darker message boards he has come to use for his online news. Gibson wants the attention, though veils himself in an online moniker, as though he can control his stardom. Dealt her first case after a recent move to Homicide, Inspector Tina Walker is forced to play gofer to a senior partner whose jaded view on life ties into the fate of his last partner. Still, they lock in on Gibson and his apparent seeking out fame and use it to fuel their investigation. While Gibson seems to have seen a nondescript homeless man at the scene, all eyes seem to be firmly focussed on the man seeking too much attention. As Brian buries himself in work and finally confesses something to his wife, Charley continues his reintegration into Calgary society with a secret of his own. The reader learns much about the four years that Charley was away and a mysterious woman who turned him into some sort of thief and mission-driven criminal. Has Charley returned on a new mission and might it involve Brian? Can Gibson get ahead of the likely charges that await him for the murder of his neighbour? Does Inspector Walker have what it takes to handle Homicide for the long-term? Keller explores these and many other plots in this powerful follow-up crime thriller that will keep readers hooked until the final pages. A wonderful addition to the series, which awaits a final book to complete the trilogy.

When Keller approached me to read his first novel, Half-Built Houses, I was keen to try it. Why not explore what a local author has to say about this, my current city of residence? I devoured that book as I learned about the struggles Charley Ewanuschuk had as a homeless man and his fledging lawyer, Brian Cox, faced as a legal-aid attorney. Keller returns with something even better here, as he fleshes out these two men in sensational fashion while adding a slew of new and highly unique characters. Developing his Cox and Ewanuschuk characters adds a certain flavour to the story, but it is Carl Gibson who takes centre stage here, able to impress and capture the reader from the start. Adding Tina Walker only gives the story more intrigue, especially as she pokes around and tries to make a name for herself. The story, set in Calgary, offers more rich narrative spins as the setting develops. I could see the characters wandering around and peeking into my neighbourhood at one point. I loved that aspect and felt even closer to things as they progressed. Rather than being that pretentious ‘find the killer and bring them to justice’ story, Keller has built this case, as the title suggests, on the premise of the outside world looking in on a man who wants some notoriety, as long as it does not curse him too much. While the killer remains at large, the cat and mouse game takes the story into various side stories, one of which is the evolution (or devolution) of Charley and his ‘mission’ back in Calgary. Keller plays on the Charley character well and tries to offer him a great space throughout, while not stealing the show. I was highly impressed with the story, its presentation, and the ease with which the entire narrative flowed. I hope many find and read both novels so that they, too, can wait anxiously to see how it all ties together in the yet to be completed final book of the trilogy.

Kudos, Mr. Keller for another explosive novel. I am eager to see where you take things and hope to be front and centre for that ride as well!

Use of Force (Scot Harvath #16), by Brad Thor

Eight stars

Brad Thor is back with another thrilling Scot Harvath piece, sure to add new layers to the War on Terror and the clandestine nature that has kept readers hooked for fifteen previous novels. When an ill-equipped boat full of refugees sinks off the Italian coast, many die or are lost at sea. One significant body that turns up is a mid-level ISIS member with chemistry experience. After Harvarth breaks-up a potentially dangerous terror plot in Nevada, clues lead him to Libya, where a larger terror cell is plotting a significant attack. This is substantiated when a laptop found in the raid has a hidden drive, showing extensive chemical weapon attacks and options that could be used across Europe. There is a buzz inside the CIA Director’s Office, where there are whispers that senior members of the Agency are leaving to join the Carlton Group, where the eponymous head has been suffering issues of mental acuity. This may be the time to bring the Group down, or at least sully them to the point of no longer leeching Agency powerhouses. However, Reed Carlton will not go down with a few tricks of his own, unsure why his largest contractor has turned its back on him. All eyes turn to Paris when it is hit with a significant bombing. ISIS quickly claims responsibility, while a high-level Tajik operative behind the attack is plotting something even larger and more devastating at the heart of yet another Infidel stronghold. When Harvath is able to extract enough information in Libya, he leads his team into Italy, where the aforementioned refugee vessel becomes highly important. Might ISIS be smuggling some of its own into refugee camps, only to lay the groundwork for key strikes in the future? Could ISIS be teaming up with organized crime families in Italy to bring down significant portion of the population, led by a man with the odd moniker of La Formícula, or ‘the ant’. Prepared to do everything in their power to squash La Formícula before he leads a devastating strike, Harvath has little time to ponder his next move. A well-balanced piece that keeps the reader guessing as they flip pages until the explosive climax. Brad Thor fans will not be disappointed with this one, though those not familiar with the series might find it quite tech heavy.

I have long been a fan of Brad Thor and all his novels, which offer the great mix of Vince Flynn grit and Steve Berry off-beat humour. As his no-nonsense protagonist, Thor leads Scot Harvath into many an adventure without fully knowing where things will end up by the novel’s completion. Thor continues to construct a powerful backstory for Harvath, taking even more time than usual to hash-out some of his characteristics while experimenting by pushing a new layer onto the man; a set of emotions that come to the surface. Gone are the days of the neutral Harvath where killing is at the heart of his being. A collection of secondary characters also play key roles in their own ways, both to support and conflict with Harvath. The story is central and poignant to the news coming out of the region today, making the plot not only believable, but also plausible at this point on the ISIS terror matrix. The attentive reader will see some of these things and wonder if there could be some foreboding of what is to come. Those who dabble with the audiobook version of this story are treated to an extra track by the author, where Thor delves into some of the deeper areas surrounding research, influences, character mapping, and ideas for the future. A definite treat for long-time fans such as me who are always hoping to take a little more away from each novel. Harvath is going strong, but certain choices in the narrative might hint of some new pathways to come for the entire series, should Thor follow these breadcrumbs. I cannot wait to see what awaits!

Kudos, Mr. Thor for not letting up in this wonderful novel. I can see many who will be well-pleased with what is insinuated here, as well as the non-stop action.

A Deadly Betrothal (Ursula Blanchard Mysteries #15), by Fiona Buckley

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Fiona Buckley, and Severn House for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Fiona Buckley returns with her Elizabethan sleuth, Ursula Blanchard (now Stannard), in another murder mystery. While in the countryside with her manservant and groom, Ursula pays a visit on two close friends. During the visit, a teenage boy goes missing and there are strong suspicions that something nefarious is afoot. Amidst trying to find young Thomas Harrison, Ursula is summoned to Court where she is to meet with Queen Elizabeth to discuss a matter of some importance. At the age of forty-six, the monarch remains unwed and with no children, something that remains the fuel of whispers around the Court and onto the continent. News of a potential suitor has arrived, a French prince who has become enamoured at the sight of Elizabeth’s sketch. However, many are leery of this union, for reasons that include marriage to a Catholic and trying to produce an heir at her late age. With Mary Stuart keeping a close eye from afar, no one wishes to put the monarch in any position that might cost England the Throne or the Protestants control of the country. Returning to the estate, Ursula is forced to weigh her options and devise a way to influence Elizabeth one way or the other. During a trek in the forest, she comes upon the body of Master Harrison in a tree and a clue leases her to suspect someone of the crime, though they have conveniently made themselves scarce. While attending a banquet related to the potential future marriage of Queen ELizabeth, many guests fall ill, Ursula included. Could this be an unlucky bout of food poisoning, or is something try to remove all opposition to an English-French alliance through marriage? An interesting addition to this series that seems to have developed significantly throughout, Fiona Buckley has been able to keep readers hooked with interesting branch-offs that work as effectively today as in the late 16th century. Wonderfully quaint for readers who enjoy a little whodunit with their fish pie and tankard of ale.

I have never read the Ursula Blanchard series or any other Fiona Buckley writing before this book. Parachuting in at the fifteenth instalment might seem a little silly, but galley reviewing can sometimes be a sacrificial experience. Buckley tells the story in an effective manner, keeping the era in check while her story remains sharp enough to pull readers in. The characters seem realistic and could have been pulled from scenes of The Tudors, offering up their own individual flavour alongside a wonderfully regal-driven plot. Ursula Stannard herself (someone I mentioned I knew nothing about) has rich character development up to this point, including an interesting connection to the reigning monarch. Other characters keep things moving along and add just the right amount of intrigue. The story itself is decent, splitting between the counsel Ursula is to give the Court and this mystery that develops in the countryside. I would not call it high-impact mystery storytelling, but the reader can find the clues scattered throughout the narrative and piece things together in n effective manner. With enough drama to lure the the reader to keep pushing forward, the story offers up all it promises, a decent mystery set in Elizabethan times. I would likely poke around to find some early Ursula Blanchard to see how things started, though I am not yet committed to a fourteen-book binge to catch up to this point.

Kudos, Madam Buckley for this curious piece of writing that pulls on history and mystery in equal measure. My interest in piqued, if only to discover some of the revelations that Ursula let slip in the narrative. 

The Help, Kathryn Stockett

Nine stars

Kathryn Stockett has created this wonderful story that depicts life in America’s South during the early 1960s. A mix of humour and social justice, the reader is faced with a powerful piece on which to ponder while remaining highly entertained. In Jackson, Mississippi, the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement presented a time where colour was a strong dividing line between classes. Black women spent much of their time serving as hired help and raising young white children, while their mommas were playing ‘Society Lady’ as best they could. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan may have been part of the clique, born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but she held herself on the periphery, at times looking in. Skeeter was unwed and with few prospects, though her time away at college left her ready to tackle the workforce until an eligible man swept her off her feet. Skeeter returned to Jackson, only to find her family’s help left under mysterious circumstances and no one was willing to discuss it. Skeeter sought a job as a writer, prepared to begin at the bottom rung, but not giving up on sleuthing around to determine what might have been going on in Jackson. Skeeter scored a job writing an informative column in the local newspaper, giving cleaning tips to housewives in need of a little guidance. Who better to offer these tips that the hired help of Jackson?! Skeeter fostered a slow friendship with one, while building up a trust, and has an idea for a book that could offer a unique perspective in Mississippi’s divided society. Skeeter sought to write a tell-all from the perspective of the hired help, in hopes of shining a light on the ongoing domestic slavery taking place within a ‘freed’ America. With secret meetings taking place after working hours and Skeeter typing away, a mental shift took place and the idea of class became taboo, at least to some. Full of confessions and struggles in Mississippi society, Skeeter’s book may just tear the fabric of what has been a clearly demarcated community since after the Civil War. However, sometimes a book has unforeseen consequences, turning the tables on everyone and forcing tough decisions to be made. Stockett pulls no punches in the presentation, fanning the flames of racial and class divisions, as she depicts a way of thinking that was not only accepted, but completely sanctioned. A must-read for anyone ready to face some of the treatment undertaken in the name of ‘societal norms’, Stockett tells it like it was… and perhaps even still is!

Race relations in the United States has long been an issue written about, both in literature and pieces of non-fiction. How a country as prosperous as America could still sanction the mistreatment of a large portion of its citizens a century after fighting a war on the issue remains completely baffling. While Stockett focusses her attention on Mississippi, the conscious reader will understand that this sort of treatment was far from isolated to the state. One might venture to say that racism continued on a worldwide scale, creating a stir, while many played the role of ostriches and denied anything was going on. The characters within the book presented a wonderful mix of society dames and household help, each with their own issues that were extremely important. The characters bring stereotypes to life in an effort to fuel a raging fire while offering dichotomous perspectives. The interactions between the various characters worked perfectly, depicting each group as isolated and yet fully integrated. The household help bring the struggle of the double work day (triple, at times) while the society dames grasp to keep Mississippi from turning too quickly towards integration and equality, which they feel will be the end of all normalcy. Using various narrative perspectives, the characters become multi-dimensional. Additionally, peppering the dialogue with colloquial phraseology pulls the story to a new level of reality, one that is lost in strict textbook presentation. Stockett pushes the narrative into those uncomfortable places the reader hopes to keep locked in the pages of history, pushing the story to the forefront and requiring a synthesising of ideas and emotions. This discomfort is the only way the reader will see where things were, likely in a hope not to repeat some of history’s worst moments in America’s development. However, even fifty years after the book’s setting, there remains a pall of colour and class division promulgating on city streets. While racism is not as sanctioned in as many laws, it remains a strong odour and one that cannot simply be washed away by speaking a few words. This book, as entertaining as it is in sections, is far from fictional in its depiction of the world. The sooner the reader comes to see that, the faster change can occur. All lives matter, if we put in the effort and have the presence of mind to listen rather than rule from our own ivory towers.

Kudos, Madam Stockett for this wonderful piece. I am happy to have completed a buddy read on this subject and return to read what was a wonderful cinematic presentation.

Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns, by Joseph Cummins

Seven stars

Looking for some lighter reading fare and pairing it with a buddy read, this book seemed the perfect mix. Joseph Cummins has compiled this wonderfully educational and entertaining piece that seeks to examine each of the presidential elections in US history (up to 2008, around the time of publication). By exploring these elections, Cummins seeks to determine just how dirty and ruthless the campaigns turned out to be. His hypothesis: campaigns have long been dirty affairs and while the sleaze factor may change, mud-slinging and backstabbing has always been an active part of the election cycle. While George Washington seemed fairly free of any attacks by his foes, the whirlwind of issues started soon thereafter. Cummins shows that early elections utilized a more “blatant” approach to attacks on candidates: mocking men for being drunkards, philanderers, and willing to buy votes. All forms of publication were blunt in their approach, vilifying anyone who opposed the writer’s perspective. As the years progressed, there were times that actual political issues served to tar and feather presidential candidates, but the move turned to personal mockery, where the weight of one’s wife or the genealogy of a certain child became active fodder. Cummins shows that candidates had to defend their honour or toss exponentially more mud to deflect some of these accusations. Personal foibles and missteps seemed to be more the 20th century approach to campaign attacks, turning to more subtle advertisements that treated the electorate as an intelligent being, filling the airwaves and printed leaflets with nuanced references. Perhaps it was the more litigious nature of America, but the straightforward “Candidate X has a fat wife!” was no longer permitted, leaving parties to spin stories and sometimes ride out complete fabrications. In an era when candidates could not always dodge the accusations, Cummins shows just how forgiving the voter could be, or how well the spin factor worked when the Democrats and Republicans were working at their hardest. A wonderful compilation of short vignettes related to each presidential election, sandwiching history and political context between the actual candidates and final vote count. Wonderful for history and political buffs looking for something light to digest.

Cummins does a fabulous job in this collection, which came to fruition because he saw much mud-slinging and so many attack ads coming out of Bush-Kerry in 2004. What came to print was a great primer for the curious reader, allowing the development of the basics of a scandalous campaign approach. With the additional layers of history and some of the key issues found between the presidential candidates permitted this foundational piece to hold its own. This is sure to fuel a fire for any reader who wants to know more, though some of the information found herein is more or less ‘general knowledge’. It is when the reader gets to some of the more obscure presidents (and I say this, knowing full well my Canadian education would make far more of these men obscure than my American counterparts) that Cummins offers some humorous anecdotes that may have the reader rushing to Wikipedia or the library to substantiate these comments. Most electoral campaigns are summarised in 5-10 brief pages, though there are others that seem less controversial and can be tied off in under four. Cummins also adds his own “sleaze-o-meter”, allowing the reader to better understand how scandalous things turned out to be. Light and surely entertaining, the reader can learn a great deal. Perhaps its only downside (surely not Cummins’ fault) is that the 2016 campaign could not be included. Wouldn’t reading all about the backstabbing and bribery and cheating be tweet… I mean, sweet!

Kudos, Mr. Cummins for this wonderful collection. I will check to see if you have other presidential pieces out there to entertain me between deeper books.

The Frozen Hours: A Novel of the Korean War, by Jeff Shaara

Nine stars

Shaara returns with another blockbuster piece of war fiction that is sure to impress many. Turning away from many of the well-documented wars and battles that fill school textbooks, Shaara creates a well-balanced story about the Korean War, nicknamed the ‘Forgotten War’. It becomes apparent early on why this was a war that many forgot about or do not adequately understand. Originally a United Nations effort to return North Korea to their geographic borders, events soon became quite America-centred, with UN (read: mostly US) forces being controlled by General Douglas MacArthur. Admittedly, MacArthur spent most of his time in the theatre’s home base, over in Tokyo. Shaara offers up three strong character perspectives in the novel, allowing the reader to learn more about the two sides involved and the advances made (as well as the retreats that became necessary) throughout the 1950 segment of fighting, which proves interesting as a snapshot for the overall conflict. What began as an attempt to help the South Koreans soon became the first test of Cold War politics. North Korea was happy to turn to its ideological and political ally, China, to assist with defending their outposts and keeping the Americans at bay. In an era when China was still a new force (the attentive reader will remember that Mao only surged the victory the year before, creating Red China), there was certainly a Soviet presence in the area, if only as observers and major weapons suppliers. The Korean Conflict could easily have turned into World War III, had cooler heads not prevailed, turning the Peninsula into an ideological battleground with both sides thirsty to repel others and in full possession of the Bomb. Shaara illustrates the battles and bloodshed, but is intentionally slow to introduce the enemy of both sides; the weather. Deemed the coldest winter in four decades, the battles fought had the added struggle of bitterly cold weather, which is the most unpredictable and vicious of foes. Guns that would not fire, oil that turned to sludge, and limbs that succumbed to various forms of frostbite pepper the narrative, as they surely did the landscape. While both sides were used to battles in more temperate climates, not being able to cover limbs effectively only added to the horrors. Limbs were frozen to gun barrels, toes came off when socks could be removed, leaving soldiers destroyed and armies decimated. The only small blessing came from wounds that froze before they could kill a soldier. Encapsulating that first year of the war, Shaara does not seek to clearly delineate the war in its totality, but the powerful narrative gives reader a strong sense of what transpired, perhaps in hopes of making this war a little less forgotten. Brilliantly crafted, with a mix of historical accuracies and personalized fiction, Shaara shows the reader why he is the master of the genre. Perfect for the curious reader that finds pleasure in historical fiction, particularly of the war variety. 

Any reader who has a long relationship with Jeff Shaara and his war-fiction will be enthralled with this piece. Those who might be expecting some light-humoured M*A*S*H* episode best look elsewhere, for these novels seek to get to the core of the battles. Steering away from the electoral and military politics of the War, Shaara seeks to focus on those who played a daily and key role in the war efforts. Shaara keeps mention of General MacArthur and President Truman to a minimum, but presents the soldiers as the most important players in Korea. General Oliver P. Smith allows the reader to see some of the military insights of a commander in the field. Smith was not sure what to expect, though likely no American forces really knew what to expect on the Korean Peninsula. As Smith sought to advance the troops, he discovered that there were many enemies that lay before him, the terrain being but one. Private Pete Riley represents that military character that Shaara likes to pepper into each of his novels; the ‘wet behind the ears’ newbie who does not know what to expect. It is during the novel that Riley is able to shed his peach fuzz and become a man, both on the battlefield and in life. Shaara shows Riley’s development and the sobering experiences he faces as he learns the horrors of war, pairing the loss of friends with that unknown enemy, the weather. To offer a well-rounded narrative, Chinese General Sung Shi-lun plays a central role and his narrative voice emerges throughout. Shaara effectively utilizes Sung and the entire Chinese Army effectively in the novel, exemplifying a completely different mindset to war. As mentioned before, Mao’s Red China was still fresh in the minds of many who arrived in Korea and the feel of the gun barrel remained a calloused sense to many of these soldiers. Where the two sides differed greatly, besides being somewhat ready for the frigid temperatures (though Shaara does show that the Chinese struggled greatly as well), is the inner momentum to win. While the Americans are fighting for glory and dominance, the Chinese appear to have a sense of seeking to please Mao and upholding the communist ideal. Shaara weaves this throughout the fight and shows how military hierarchy pushed the “Mao factor” onto the soldiers, who soon fell into line. This brilliant contrast allows Shaara to show yet another layer of the war, one that is likely not clearly delineated in textbooks or superficial narratives. Pulling all of this together, Shaara masters his arguments and leaves the reader wishing there were more. History has much more to offer on this war, though Shaara opens the novel commenting that he is not clearly tying himself down to a trilogy at this time, though there is surely room for it, should time and interest permit. And with Shaara, there is no doubt that if he chooses to return, it will be yet another stellar novel.

Kudos, Mr. Shaara for entertaining and educating in equal measure. I cannot tell you how excited I am whenever I see you have published something else. This was another piece of pure gold and I hope many find time to pick it up for themselves.

Love Me Not (Helen Grace #7), by M.J. Arlidge

Nine stars

M.J. Arlidge has created another wonderful novel to appeal to his large cross-section of fans, many of whom will surely be buzzing about this seventh instalment. Helen Grace is back in a thriller that brings new meaning to ‘race against time’. While driving to work, DI Helen Grace is almost struck by a vehicle and then comes upon an apparent carjacking victim, with a woman shot twice at close range. It is only then that Grace realises that she may have seen the killer, behind the wheel and speeding away from the scene. Calling in her team, DI Grace begins an investigation to determine what happened and who might be behind this heinous act. Meanwhile, the two trench coat clad youths have a second target in mind when they descend upon a chemist’s. A confrontation therein leads to more bloodshed, though the killers are less concerned about being identified when they leave a victim behind. DI Grace remains committed to finding the killers and one clue helps begin the chase, but these killers are a little too conniving and remain one step ahead. As minutes turn to hours, tainted journalist Emilia Garanita refuses to let this breaking news pass her by, especially as she is on a short leash for having led to the frame-up of DI Grace. Finding a way to approach the story from her own vantage point, Emilia is soon caught in the middle of an evolving situation and could become the next victim. When all eyes turn to a local school, DI Grace knows that there is no time to ponder next steps, though sometimes fast responses yield drastic mistakes. Two killers soon become one and the hunt is on, with enough breadcrumbs to predict where the killer will go next. But what is fuelling this one-day rampage and will DI Grace be able to stop it before anyone else gets killed? Arlidge pulls on past emotional character flaws from previous novels to construct a wonderfully dark story that pulls DI Helen Grace in all directions and well past her breaking point. Wonderful for series fans but likely not a good starting point for those curious about Helen Grace. Best to begin where it all started and work up to this explosive culmination. 

I remember binge-reading the Helen Grace series last summer and being enthralled with the build-up of the characters throughout. This story has an interesting aspect to it that differs significantly from the other novels in the series, worth a discussion in a moment. Arlidge continues to develop the post-incarceration Helen Grace, as she is forced to come to terms with the arrest, prison time, and eventual exoneration for being framed. While that is going on, others around her are forced to readjust, seeing Helen in a new light or trying to revert to how they felt before, though the taint of the prison time makes that hard. The style of this book leaves little time for Helen growth, but the killer’s life is explored in the narrative, such that the reader can draw a strong affinity to the hunter-go-hunted. Speaking of the uniqueness of the book, the largest portion is set in a single day, a la Jack Bauer and the ’24’ television series. The race is always on and the story develops over small increments of time. While some readers have bemoaned this approach, I cannot applaud it enough, as the short chapters beg for this small time passage. The narrative remains crisp as minutes pass and the story develops as the reader turns the page (which becomes happily repetitive). Brilliantly crafted and powerful in its delivery, Arlidge challenges the reader to put the book down. I know I failed there, propelling myself through this wonderful thriller with ease.

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge for another wonderful novel. You have differentiated yourself here, turning away from the drawn-out story of a psychopath to a killer seeking to find themselves.

The Dinosaur Feather (Søren Marhauge #1), by Sissel-Jo Gazan

Eight stars

Having received much praise when it was released in 2013, I was pleased to explore Sissel-Jo Gazan’s debut novel, balancing that Scandinavian noir mystery with a strong science component to keep the reader guessing throughout. The origins of birds is apparently a hotly-debated topic in that ivory tower known as paleo-ornithology. Could it be possible that birds were once dinosaurs? Even more controversially, could dinosaurs actually have had feathers? A great deal of it comes down to evolution and a strong understanding of physiology and osteology, at least that is the argument embedded within Gazan’s novel. Graduate student Anna Bella Nor is only a few weeks away from defending her thesis on the topic of avian evolution and has been able to add her own spin to the academic discussion. Her advisor, Lars Helland, is a strong proponent of the feathered dinosaur and encourages Nor to add some definitive proof in her work. After Helland is found dead in his office, his severed tongue sitting on his shirtfront, questions surface as to what might have happened, particularly as Nor’s bloodstained thesis rests on his lap. Could this have been a severe seizure or was there something more sinister at play? Police Superintendent Søren Marhauge is assigned to investigate, discovering some interesting stories emerging from the Biology Department at Copenhagen University. Upon closer inspection, Dr. Helland appears to have been purposefully infected with a rare parasite long before his death, something that only an expert might be able to obtain. While she is somewhat troubled by the death, Anna Bella sees the clock ticking on her degree and pushes to have a thesis defence, even with the pall of the recent murder overshadowing the university. When her friend and fellow graduate is found murdered, Anna Bella cannot help but wonder if there is something tied to her in this string of murders. With Dr. Helland’s greatest academic nemesis in Denmark for a conference, some wonder if he could be behind these murders, in an attempt to wipe-out the feathered dinosaur theory. Meanwhile both Anna Bella and Superintendent Marhauge have personal struggles they are battling, which may cloud the investigation and distract them from finding the killer. A highly complex crime thriller, Gazan weaves a story and layers it with much character development. Not for those looking to breeze through a novel or play a quick whodunit!

Gazan is to be applauded for developing such a deep piece of work in her first published novel. I can see where the accolades have come, as there are genuinely areas that pull on the darkest of Scandinavian crime thrillers and a much more fleshed-out set of characters. It is worth beginning with the characters that find themselves filling the narrative, for Gazan spends so much time honing their every aspect. While I love a good backstory for my protagonists, I think Gazan may have gone a little too far, using some of the opening chapters to build massive clay statues to present Anna Bella Nor and Søren Marhauge, down to each wrinkle on their respective foreheads. During the opening chapters I had a serious debate as to whether I ought to continue with the novel, hoping for crime but all I got was family drama and angst, with little mention of dinosaurs or murders. However, it was as though Gazan needed to show off her characters in their ‘other lives’ before pushing them onto centre stage and allowing the criminal elements to seep into the narrative. From there, the slow and methodical mystery covers the novel, like a dense fog, and the reader becomes stuck in the middle, though the progress is still much less animated than what might be expected in ‘North American/British’ thrillers. The reader receives breadcrumbs, but must also wrestle with the backstories that become front and centre. While I am no expert of Scandinavian thrillers, I have read a number and even this one seemed slow to advance. The plot is sound and well-documented, if slow to flourish. The reader is left to wonder who and why throughout, given numerous suspects based on different angles one might approach. Dr. Helland was certainly not the most liked person in the world, but were those who disliked him that sinister as to kill him with parasites? Finally, I would be remiss if I did not discuss the extensive use of science within the novel. Gazan’s background in biology shines through and she does not hold back, either with the area of discussion (disagreement) or the technical language. The narration is riddled with highly academic portions, surely to fuel a debate for those readers who can understand the topic at hand. While I did not find myself drowning in technical terms or academic tennis, it is surely not for the reader seeking to skim the surface of a number of topics, as there is significant scientific flavour to the story. I can see many people shying away already. That said, it is well presented and challenges the mind and brain synapses. 

Kudos, Madam Gazan for a wonderfully crafted novel that pushed me to attempt a better understanding of science and the art of the Scandinavian dark crime thriller. I may have to return to see what else you have planned for Søren Marhauge in the near future.

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Running Blind (Helen Grace #0.75[?]), by M.J. Arlidge

Eight stars

Before delving into another Helen Grace novel, there stands this short story that packs a punch and offers series fans a look into the early police days of the protagonist. M.J. Arlidge pulls readers back in time once again with this story, which might help show how DCI Helen Grace became such a detail-oriented copper! A man runs through a forested area, dogs chasing after him, and his level of panic increasing. The man is not paying attention when he is struck by a lorry on a fairly busy thoroughfare, causing traffic tie-ups and significant headaches for the local constabulary. A fresh recruit from police training, WPC (Women Police Constable) Helen Grace is rotating through the Traffic Division of the Hampshire Police and attends the scene, taking note of the accident and the state of the victim, who has no identification whatsoever. Discovering her inner sleuth, Grace interacts with the morgue and convinces the pathologist to undertake an autopsy, which reveals some interesting findings. Grace also learns that there is nowhere from which this man could have come, save a small piece of property on the other side of the wooded area. It is a small poultry farm, which soon reveals that the owner has been hiring recent immigrants to complete the arduous tasks. Highly agitated by the arrival of any police presence, Gary Raynor rebuffs many of the questions being asked, but Grace is able to ascertain the identity of the man from one of the other farmhands, Addisu Tesfaye. Working on her off-hours, Grace learns that Addisu was riddled with a form of tuberculosis and that he likely arrived on the shores of England in a less than majestic fashion. Returning to the farm, Grace makes a horrible realisation that will shape how a simple accident investigation may turn into a full-blown major police incident. While her superiors curse Grace and her lack of sticking to the rules, she is lauded for having used her gumption to open up what might be a massive investigation. Definitely a short story/novella, but Arlidge packs a major punch in this story, perfect for series fans or those wanting to learn a little more about Helen Grace before taking the major investment into reading the collection of novels.

I stumbled upon Helen Grace last summer (has it been that long?) and devoured the entire collection up to that point. Reading all the novels that Arlidge had penned and adding some of the short stories that he placed within the series to better shape the Helen Grace character, I soon became addicted and have been waiting for some fresh material. Those who have been on the long journey with Helen Grace will know that she is not one to ‘colour in the lines’, but this story might be the perfect piece of foundation to show where that initiated. Not yet her gritty self, Grace is learning to bend the rules to benefit those who have died, rather than always follow the guidance of her superiors. While there are some periphery characters, the length of the story and the intended focus made Grace the front and centre character to develop. The story flows wonderfully with those short chapters, crisp and leading, for which Arlidge is well known. Even the topic is quite poignant, though is was likely just as popular in 1993, when the story is set. There are wonderful nuances and literary breadcrumbs offered in the piece, giving it the throwback feel that leave the reader feeling they are back in time with the young and still impressionable WPC Helen Grace, who grew into being a maverick who would not rest until the guilty were caught. I had a niggling feeling that I had read this story before. I remembered a number of the opening chapters and scene developments, but I could not find any record of having reviewed them. Now, either the cyber book police found a review I made on a leaked story and erased it, or I became so ensconced in the Helen Grace series that I felt I must have read this piece and crafted the story in one of my dreams. Either way, Helen Grace is back. I am a happy reader and it is time for a full-length novel to keep my heart rate up!

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge for a wonderful piece that taps into those early Helen Grace years. This suits your series fans well, as we are always looking to better understand Helen and some of the ideas you have bouncing around in your head. Keep up the high-calibre writing.