Half-Built Houses, 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.

The next book on my independent author list included a courtroom drama with a twist. Set in Calgary, I hoped not only to become enveloped in the story, but also see some of the random mentions of my current city of residence. Charley Ewanuschuk has had a hard life, having been bullied throughout his youth in small-town Alberta before he was shipped to the big city by a less than loving mother. On an especially frigid winter night, Charley witnesses a woman being strangled before her body is left in the snow. Fleeing his squatter’s residence, Charley runs off before his conscience eventually leads him to Legal Aid. Seeking some legal advice as he knows he will somehow be a person of interest, Charley tells his outlandish story to struggling lawyer, Brian Cox. When the police come to investigate, they find clues that point to Charley’s potential involvement and he is eventually charged with the murder of Natalie Peterson. Turning mute, Charley is uncooperative, which leaves Cox to try piecing together a defence based on the shaky story he was told that first night. Meanwhile, Hugh Young lurks in the shadows, a successful businessman whose considerable wealth has become beneficial when it comes to cleaning up the messes left by his son, Jason. This time, Jason’s assault and murder of Natalie have forced Hugh to pull out all the stops. As long as Jason can remain calm and only answer the questions put to him, there is a chance that this homeless man, Charley, will be found guilty. However, as certain aspects of Jason’s narrative prove shaky, Cox receives new hope, but is it enough? A compelling story with a thorough legal plot, perfect for those who love seeing the courtroom in all its glory. 

When Keller reached out to me, he used the lure of Calgary to pique my interest. After starting the book, I would other aspects that had me hooked as well. I found the use of Calgary to be quite intriguing, peppering landmarks and street names throughout the story, though it was not a central focus of the narrative. Keller shows his superior ability to craft realistic characters who present themselves as both unique and yet believable in this type of story, which adds momentum as the story’s pace quickens. The reader learns much about the backstory of Charley Ewanuschuk, the determination of Brian Cox, and the slimy presentation of Jason Young, as well as the other characters that hold the larger story together flawlessly. Many writers will tell a legal thriller by showing the crime and how the authorities will pursue individuals until the accused can be found and (sometimes) sentenced for the crime. However, Keller takes things further, detailing the crime, the investigation, and then the courtroom developments, including the banter between Crown and Defence attorneys as they examine witnesses on the stand, all while not losing some of the out-of-court struggles that befall both sides during trial. Keller’s understanding of the Canadian legal process is notable and he paces the story perfectly without drowning the reader in minutiae. A powerful novel that tells multiple stories within its pages, Keller is certainly an author worth noting as the reader hopes to see more writing in the years to come. 

Kudos, Mr. Keller for this wonderful debut novel. Your writing style is refreshing and injects much life into the genre. I trust another legal thriller is in the works, taking us back to the gritty streets of Calgary.

The Black Book, by James Patterson and David Ellis

Eight stars

James Patterson has again teamed up with David Ellis, offering a wonderful standalone thriller that keeps readers on the edge of their seats and up late into the night. In a narrative set in the ‘past’, Billy Harney and Kate Fenton are hardworking members of Homicide in Chicago. While tailing a suspect, Harney makes the decision to raid a brownstone, which opens up a new and troublesome revelation; this is a brothel visited by the city’s rich and powerful men. During the raid, a ‘little black book’ goes missing, with names that could bring even more of the rich and famous to their knees or serve as strong blackmail fodder. All eyes turn to Harney, who must try to clear his name, when it is presumed he pocketed it. As Fenton begins a power struggle with her partner, Harney must find out who is trying to frame him, adamant that he knows nothing of the book. With the case against the defendants caught in the raid fast approaching, Harney works with a hot-shot prosecutor, Amy Lentini, to ensure his testimony is flawless. Her icy exterior soon melts and she turns up the heat with Harney, which only clouds both their judgements. In a parallel narrative, set in the ‘present’, Harney is found naked, in bed with Lentini, while Detective Fenton lays on the floor. All three have been shot and the two women are dead, with Harney clinging to life and a bullet lodged in his skull. As the story continues, it appears Harney is being blamed for the murder, unable to remember anything from the past as it relates to the lead-up to the shooting or anything he may have learned about the black book. As the reader braces for an ever-evolving rollercoaster ride, the story takes twists and turns with everything centred around a list of names and the people will do anything to hold all the power. A powerful thriller that shows Patterson has the ability to rise to the occasion, with the right author at the helm. Highly recommended to any who enjoy losing themselves in quality writing.

I have often said that James Patterson’s writing has waned in the past few years, his lustre buried under many mediocre novels. However, when David Ellis comes to partner, their cooperation produces stellar writing and offers the reader a literary treat. While it may be a standalone, the novel offers an array of superior characters, wonderfully crafted to push the narrative forward without getting caught up in the minutiae. Working with the parallel narratives, Patterson and Ellis keep the reader guessing, while forcing a constant mental gear switch as the story develops, layering a revealed past with a present that is just as murky. If the reader can handle this mix, they are in for a punch to the gut during the numerous plot twists, which only adds the the overall flavour of the piece. Dark, but peppered with some dry humour to keep the reader smiling, Patterson and Ellis know the perfect recipe for a fast-paced thriller.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Ellis for joining forces again and showing that there is never an end to your abilities. I know I am in for a treat when your names grace the cover and hope to see more of your collaborative efforts soon.

Matchup, edited by Lee Child

NIne stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Lee Child (editor), and Simon & Schuster for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

When asked to take the editorial lead in the latest International Thriller Writers (ITW) anthology, Lee Child jumped at the opportunity. What might be daunting for some–herding twenty-two well-known authors together like feral cats–turned out to be a great pleasure for Child and, in the end, the reader. This compilation pits writers into teams of two to concoct a wonderful series of short stories. Each author was asked to bring their ‘A’ game and a favourite protagonist, in hopes that having to share the page (and the locale of each story), which ended up being a little more difficult than simply parachuting characters together. Child’s other hurdle was to place a male and female author together, a ‘matchup’ of epic proportions, to see how they could work together. The end result saw readers treated to the ‘what if’ of forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan working alongside ever-travelling Jack Reacher; bibliophile Cotton Malone living history and the standing stones through which Claire Randall met her beloved in Scotland; and Philly lawyer, Bennie Rosato, crossing paths with the King of Sarcastic Comments, John Corey. Where else would you find a Minnesota cop who wants to fish in the middle of a major crime bust at a cabin in Montana, or a woman who speaks to the dead through their buried bones outside of Alexandria? Child is able not only to find the ideal matches for this anthology, but also sends the reader into a tailspin as they are presented with a number of never before thought-out possible storylines. Child is masterful, though a great deal of praise must go to all who took the time and effort to pen eleven wonderful stories. Surely something of a summer gift for the reader to enjoy poolside.

I have always enjoyed collections such as these, especially when the ITW gang comes out to play. There are so many out there and since the genre is so wide, one is never entirely sure what to expect. Child presents these stories in no particularly themed order, but the end result turns out to be something that is high octane from start to finish. While I tend to gravitate to the crime and legal thrillers, there are many that push outside of my comfort zone, though I cannot find a single story that did not captivate me, even when the narrative flirted with the paranormal. I have a large ‘to be read’ list, but reading these stories has left me wondering if I ought to check out some new authors and their characters, as they intrigued me, even during the brief encounter of a short story. Pitting sub-genres against one another and character professions that were sure to clash, these authors ironed out the difficulties and left the reader with a polished product, perfectly balanced and ready for easy literary consumption. While I could have read these stories for hundreds of more pages, I realise that there is a limit to the number of submissions and authors used, though I am eager to see what is next for the ITW in the years to come.

Kudos, Mr. Child, et al. for such a great anthology. I am hooked to these collections and love the cross-section of story writer that emerges from these classic matchups. Please keep sharpening your skills for the next editorial call out that is sure to arise.

The Fix (Amos Decker #3), by David Baldacci

Seven stars

David Baldacci surfaces with another Amos Decker fast-paced thriller, keeping readers hooked from its explosive start through to the final, lingering sentences. While walking outside the FBI’s Hoover Building, Amos Decker witnesses a woman shot in apparent cold blood before the shooter turns the gun on himself. With the environs in shock, Decker uses his eidetic memory to capture the scene before reporting to his FBI Task Force. Usually handed cold cases, the team turns its attention to the murder of Anne Berkshire at the hands of one Walter Dabney. What might have led Dabney to gun down a substitute teacher who volunteered at the local hospice? It is only when they dig further that the extent to Dabney’s problems arise. Formerly employed with the NSA, Dabney appears to have amassed much debt and has been borrowing to pay it off? That being said, Decker is left confused when the DIA (Defence Intelligency Agency) begins poking around and tries to take control of the investigation. Using his synesthesia and hyperthymesia, Decker is able to help the team explore deeper motives and potential witnesses, which open new avenues of investigation. With no clear backstory on Anne Berkshire, might she have been hiding from a less than stellar past? Could Dabney’s attack on her could be the tip of something larger and much more sinister? In D.C., nothing is as it seems, leaving Decker to hope he can get to the root cause and bring closure to the Dabney family, whose shock grows with each new piece of information. Well paced and sure to keep most Baldacci fans pleased until the final page-turn. 

I have long been a Baldacci fan and find myself still hooked after this novel. Amos Decker stands alone when compared to other thriller protagonists on the market today, making the series novels highly interesting and entertaining. Baldacci has brought another wonderful plot to the forefront and spun a tale that keeps the reader on their toes, while also injecting the perfect number of twists. Steeped in political struggles of the day, Baldacci turns to a mix of the Middle Eastern and neo-Cold War clashes, without instilling too many stereotypes within each chapter. Strong returning characters provide the reader with a foundation on which to base their expectations, permitting growth and sideways development. While Decker’s backstory has been revealed in the previous two novels, there are moments of reflection that provide new insight for the reader. Peppering new characters and leaving the door open for their return again allows Baldacci to offer great subplots, injecting humour into what is normally a darker subject. All those who grace the pages of the book can stand well on their own and mesh well with some Decker’s quirks, paving the way for a great story that can be devoured in short order. Baldacci continues to shine in a genre that has long been supersaturated, though I will admit this was not his absolute best work. I have seen some fans who have shared a less than exuberant sentiment when they completed the novel. One might posit their issue is rooted in the lack of synesthesia-based writing, which left them a sense of being cheated. However, I cannot speak for them or their personal struggles with the story. There is always room for improvement and Baldacci shows that he, too, is fallible.

Kudos, Mr. Baldacci, for keeping the series strong and the stories sharp. I look forward to each new book you have and can assure you that I remain a fervent fan of all your work. 

War Cry (Courtneys # 14), by Wilbur Smith (with David Churchill)

Eight stars

Building on his multi-generational Courtney family saga, Wilbur Smith crafts a new story that shifts focus on the Kenyan-based group, led by Leon. After the tragic death of his wife, Leon is left to raise his precocious daughter alone. Saffron Courtney’s determination and refusal to let anything stand in her way shows how much of the family blood flows through her veins. Sent to study at a reputable boarding school in South Africa, Saffron learns the ropes as Leon tries to resurrect Courtney Trading, which had been paralyzed by the global downturn of the Depression. Working with his three brothers, Leon pitches an idea to turn things around, leaving at least one with a sour taste in his mouth. In an alternate storyline, the reader learns of Gerhard von Meerbach, who grows up in his brother’s shadow and has yet to fully accept the new Nazi regime that has taken Germany by storm. The reader is reminded of the von Meerbach family’s ties to the Courtneys, which was fleshed out fully when last Smith wrote about this wing of the family. As both Saffron and Gerhard grow older, they cross paths and soon find a connection that would stir up many emotions in their respective families, though about which both young characters are temporarily unaware. As the winds of war begin to blow across Europe, the Courtneys and von Meerbachs choose their sides, though both families have porous aspects of their familial foundations and support leads both clans to find the traitorous blood. Saffron shows that she is determined to craft an Allied victory through any means necessary, putting country before her own safety. Gerhard is also willing to show a softer side, though it might cost him his freedom and eventually his life. Using the African continent as a backdrop and some of the regional battles as a historical narrative, Smith is able to forge a story rich in delivery and yet devastating in its discussion of the War. Smith’s continuation of the Courtney saga is fortified by a wonderful narrative and well-developed characters, pulling on the lush fruits of this complex family tree. Well suited for readers who are familiar with the entire Courtney series, but equally as entertaining for anyone who picks the book up to begin the magical journey.

I was happy to have secured a copy of this latest book in the series and even more impressed that its focus was in the 20th century. I have found that Smith’s additions to the series are weaker the further back in history the story delves, while the closer to the central South African storyline proves most effective. Smith has been able to effectively weave the story of this large family by branching off and building on loose threads left in the narrative, without losing the impetus for the larger story. As with many of his tales, Smith has a wonderful handle on the narrative and use some strong characters to tell the story of love, history, and determination. As Smith tends to be constantly crafting his Courtney series, it would be helpful to focus on one direction (time era), permitting the reader to better understand what to expect. While this might be an editorial decision, bouncing from 17th century adventures on the high seas to this powerful Second World War tale proves to be a ‘stop-start’ in the reader’s ability to understand the flow of the story. I find it harder to develop a bond with characters if I have to wait eight years to see them again (as in this story and the last time we met Leon, etc). Perhaps I pine too much for the ‘series one and two’ Courtney stories, where there was a significant build-on of the characters, always moving forward. By the time ‘series three’ arose, we were bouncing back in time and trying to hash out some of the ancestral aspects of the family, thereby losing the momentum that Smith had so effectively developed. Smith leaves some great storylines unfinished and there is hope that future novels might address this. I can only hope that Smith will continue to control the stories, though I have come to see that he has contributors and authors who have taken over writing for him, which lessens the impact of the larger Courtney saga. One can hope that more generations emerge, enriching the experience both for the reader and Smith personally.

Kudos, Mr. Smith for a great addition to the series. I can only hope that you have a few more ideas in mind, especially in the latter generations of Courtney family members. 

Marcel Malone, by Lew Watts

Seven stars 

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

Working through my pile of independent author reads, I came across this book by Lew Watts. He kindly asked me to take the time to read and review the book, though I had no idea what to expect beforehand. It did push me outside my normal genre, but I strive to open myself up to new and exciting topics. Dr. Vera Lewis is a successful therapist in the DC area, whose interesting cross-section of patients offer the application of many therapeutic techniques. One of these patients is Marcel Malone, an accountant by trade who has forged a close relationship with Vera, while they tackle building his interpersonal skills through social interactions with strangers. During their sessions, Marcel introduces Vera to poetry, something he has been able to use as a form of communication and therapeutic release. Their sessions turn from strict question-answer banter to a varied collection of poetic expression that Marcel has found helps him with self-discovery. Vera soon finds herself interested in the poetry and begins her own journey of expression and analysis. The novel offers a constant development/regression as it relates to life at home for Vera, where she must face her husband, Raymond, who is a lobbyist and appears to place much focus on clients while leaving his wife find solace in drink and solitude. While exploring poetry in its many forms, Vera and Marcel develop a non-spoken bond that surpasses therapeutic discovery, whereby the reader might see it as an infatuation on the part of the therapist. As Marcel tackles some of his deeper issues, he drifts away, leaving Vera to forge her connection through random poetic texts and the odd letter, while also forcing her to turn inward and discover an alter-ego. Finding her own voice in poems, Vera takes hold of her life and makes some life-altering decisions, returning to her roots. A book that opens the mind of the patient reader, Watts is able to capture this story through prose, poetry, and a therapeutic analysis of the human spirit. Recommended for those looking to find a gem in the vast array of busy-body fiction on the market today. 

I entered this read slightly hesitantly, particularly since my last independent author read ended in a cataclysmic mess. One surely cannot judge a book by its cover or dust jacket summary. I found myself curious about the therapeutic aspect of the story from the beginning, having read a number of novels with a counsellor-based protagonist. When Watts introduced some of the poetry and embedded extensive verse throughout, I began to worry, as I have never been one to find much pleasure in analysing this form of expression. As Ver and Marcel discover the latter’s speech patterns influenced by iambic pentameter, I found myself pacing and beating every sentence he uttered, driving myself mad as I scoured for the iambic flow before I began to dissect my own verbal presentation. However, Watts soon distracts the reader with other interesting therapeutic and poetic notions, steeped in academic and literary roots which are referenced in the narrative. The cast of characters found within the novel helps to push the story forward, offering a variety of individuals whose traits complement one another in certain spheres while they clash and created some needed conflict. Social, professional, and familial connections all emerge within the story and provide the reader with the opportunity to play armchair therapist, if only for brief moments. Vera’s growth is readily apparent throughout, though the reader might find periods of stagnancy, causing them to curse the protagonist into finding the epiphany and moving forward. One thing of note that Watts utilises in the novel is a journaling style over formal chapters, pushing the reader to see the world solely through the eyes of Dr. Vera Lewis. The reader will only discover an alternate angle by peering into the thoughts of others when Marcel Malone’s journal is quoted during a key point in the story. While this offers a somewhat centric flavour to the story, Watts makes it work and the reader comes out of the experience with a stronger understanding of the struggles presented throughout. A well-paced piece that shows both the author’s attention to his readers and has me wanting to see what else Watts may have to offer. Definitely expanded my horizons without pushing me too far out of my comfort zone.

Kudos, Mr. Watts for this great novel, with multi-faceted explorations. I enjoyed your presentation of a number of area of interest/expertise that you possess without inculcating your readers with an excessively academic primer.

The Lost Order (Cotton Malone # 12), by Steve Berry

Eight stars

Returning with another Cotton Malone thriller, Steve Berry never ceases to impress, embedding fact and fiction throughout a fast-paced narrative. Malone finds himself out in rural Arkansas on a mission, tracking down a small collection of gold. Hired and sent by someone other than the president, Malone’s still loosely working for the Magellan Billet, a covert part of the Justice Department. While cracking a code engraved on one of the majestic trees, he is attacked and questioned by a gentleman who calls himself the Sentinel, part of the long thought defunct Knights of the Golden Circle. Malone soon learns that the Knights trace their roots to the Confederacy and are charged with protecting small caches of gold and stones, which lead to a larger treasure, scattered across the South. Back in Washington, the Billet’s overseer, Stephanie Nelle, is meeting with a senior official with the Smithsonian Institution, only to be shot and left for dead. There appears to be a connection to the Knights and the Smithsonian, though it is not entire clear at the time. Former US President Danny Daniels is attending the funeral of a lifelong friend and senator, where he discovers that the widow and the Speaker of the House of Representatives might have been involved in some nefarious dealings, yet another branch of the Knights’ larger plans. Daniels accepts a position that will permit him some inside information at the congressional level, though he must not tip his hand too soon. While Malone seeks to better understand the workings of the Knights of the Golden Circle, he learns that a recent schism may have led to the recent attacks on Nelle and the kidnapping of Billet member (and Malone’s love interest) Cassiopeia Vitt. It would appear that someone wants the treasure to push forward a constitutional convention, one that could change the face of the United States while others within the group are fine keeping the riches hidden until the time is more propitious . While Cotton is seeking to quell the rogue branch of the Knights, Danny Daniels must rest the power held by the Speaker before major (though entirely legal) power changes to vest all formal congressional powers on the lower house, thereby nullifying the Senate’s role in the legislative branch of the government. A killer is loose, lives hang in the balance, and Cotton Malone may be the only person who can intercept those bent on causing chaos, all while learning that one of his ancestors may have played a central role in the Knights. Berry weaves a wonderful story together and will not let up until the reader is fully engrossed. Perfect for fans of the Cotton Malone series as well as those who love a good mystery seeped in historical significance.

As with many Berry novels, there is nothing off limits in the narrative. Shifting through time and working with little-known facts, Berry creates a story that keeps the reader wondering. The Magellan Billet has seen its usefulness wax and wane throughout the series, though Cotton Malone has never become tiresome. Working through the Civil War era and the spy rings that accompanied it, Berry resurrects some ideas tied to the Confederate cause as well as diving headlong into a better understanding of the Smithsonian, which is a vast array of museums and facilities that seek to educate and impress. Berry sifts throughout the historical record to teach the reader while proving to be adept at entertainment. Longtime series readers will have grown fond of certain characters and it is noteworthy that Berry has found a way to keep them present and relevant, as well as finally (!!) revealing the ‘long story’ behind Malone’s nickname. While there is little time to rest throughout the tale, Berry takes the time to point out facts and fallacies, especially to those readers who choose the writer’s cut of the audiobook. Certainly an advantage over the always anticipated Writer’s Notes that Berry includes in his novels. A wonderful addition that enriches little known pieces of US History and political developments that could be useful today.

Kudos, Mr. Berry for another wonderful book. I love how you are able to mix history, politics, and thrilling chases all into one, while keeping a realistic balance. I look forward to all you have in the works, as I praise your published books to all those who will listen. 

The Thirst (Harry Hole #11), by Jo Nesbø 

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Jo Nesbø, and Random House Canada for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

The reader can always expect a treat when Harry Hole re-emerges on the written page. Nesbø’s latest novel is no exception. While Nesbø has taken his protagonist on many a wild ride, there is always something sinister and dark that pulls the reader (and the jaded murder detective) back into the mix. As the novel opens, a woman is on a date in a local watering hole, having trusted the swipe-match benefits of Tinder. When things do not go as planned, she returns to her flat, seemingly alone. However, someone lurks in the shadows, attacking her before leaving a dead body with a distinct mark. When Oslo Police begin their investigation, they cannot help but wonder if this mark, along the neck, could have been left by… a vampire? When another body turns up and there are no concrete leads, a familiar name begins being bandied about as a possible lifeline to solving the case. Harry Hole is now an instructor within the Police College, happy to lecture and discuss the former profession that brought him much satisfaction, but also fuelled his worst nightmares and led to his downward spiral into a personal abyss. Agreeing to run a parallel investigation, Hole begins looking into the murders, which hold a very unique and possible fetishistic curiosity. As Hole digs deeper, his recollections of being a part of the police return, more intense than ever, though he also cannot dismiss the angst brought on by certain of his colleagues. When a personal emergency strikes, Hole must find the time to piece of the shattered pieces, which not letting the case disintegrate. A suspect comes to mind and Hole does all he can to bring them to justice, entering a violent confrontation. The evidence is all there, as Hole learns more about the dark world of vampirism. However, with such an open and shut case, questions remain as to whether the hunt for answers and the prime suspect will survive the ‘light of day’. A powerful thriller that steeps a narrative in the usual dark aspects. Nesbø fans will devour this piece and there are sure to be new fans coming out of the woodwork. 

I have long been a fan of the European mystery and thriller genres, specifically those which emerge from the Scandinavian countries. I find that they are not only better crafted, but offer the reader a richer sense of the narrative while filled with dark twists. Nesbø has proven that he not only has a handle on the genre, but that he is able to push his protagonist well past the point of no return. As Harry struggles, the reader follows suit, wishing for some happy outcome, only to be led away from the easy solution. Nesbø tells a dark story, tapping into the still-buzzworthy ‘vampire’ theme, but does not inject that Hollywood flavour, choosing instead to flirt with the obsessive dark side of bloodlust and all things ‘haemo’. While the reader synthesises this, Nesbø pushes past storylines into the present piece and forces the reader to balance multiple tasks. Rich in its character development as well, the reader draws close to some individuals who grace the page, while hoping others will meet their match. I remain in awe of the high calibre of the writing, especially as the story has been translated into English. I have often commented that if the piece can hold strong after it has been linguistically altered, imagine the force behind the original Norwegian presentation.

Kudos, Mr. Nesbø for another impressive novel. I have a die-hard fan and you are still able to push me in directions I could not have seen coming. 

Not Young, Still Restless, by Jeanne Cooper

Eight stars

As my final selection in this sixty-one day biography marathon (or bio binge as I have aptly named it), I turned to a quirky memoir of an on-screen character who is synonymous with daytime television; Jeanne Cooper. While the reader may not immediately recognise the name, many who have taken the time to sit down and discover the exciting stories that come from the fictional Genoa City, Wisconsin will know Katherine Chancellor and the longevity she brought to The Young and the Restless (Y&R). Cooper became not only the matriarch of Y&R, but also made a name for herself in the 1950s and 60s on-screen with many major television and movie actors, relationships she brings to light throughout this poignant memoir. More a tell-all than I would have expected, but still highly interesting and full of interesting tidbits. Cooper pulls no punches, but also lauds praise upon many of those who have shaped her life in acting and the personal relationships she was able to garner from these interactions. A highly entertaining and somewhat educational piece that many readers will enjoy, even if they have to admit their guilty pleasure.

Born in Taft, California just before the Depression, Cooper opens her piece by explaining that she was considered “the night the diaphragm didn’t’ work” by her mother. A wonderful place to begin a life that had seen much, even at an early age. With a father who brought his family wherever the work might be, Cooper was left without a strong paternal relationship, which left her lacking something. Her closeness was fostered with a loving mother through numerous stories in the opening chapter, none so chilling as two molestation revelations during her childhood. By the time Cooper finished public school, she was struck with the agonising death of her mother from cancer and sought to console herself by moving to Los Angeles to become an actress. Studying as hard as she could, Cooper was approached by some executives to get into the new and uncertain world of television, something she felt would only be a fad. After much coaxing, Cooper agreed to try it and soon found herself enamoured with the medium. It was there that she met some of her long-time acting friends, including Raymond Burr, a man with whom she would be close on multiple levels until his death. During her early years on television, Cooper met Harry Bernsen, an agent who sought to sweep her off her feet. While he did do that, their fun always had a degree of intrigue, stirring up both amorous and angering sentiments inside Cooper. When she found herself pregnant, Cooper did not bat an eyelash and soon sought to make Bernsen settle down with her. While he remained at her side, his work took him all over, leaving Cooper to wonder about how dedicated he was to her. Cooper gave birth to Corbin in 1954, hoping this might light a fire under Bernsen, but Harry remained somewhat distant, even with a new baby to show off to the world. Cooper recounts that Bernsen treated his son as somewhat of a pariah, calling a simple hematoma a deformity and wishing no one to come by to visit baby Corbin. Cooper took definite offence to this, though she remained as calm as possible. When Bernsen asked to marry her, she agreed, but was left struggling to understand his commitment when he rushed her to Tiajuana for a long weekend than have a full-fledged ceremony. Two other children followed and Cooper’s career continued to soar, while her husband was always off with numerous lovely women, only exacerbating the wonder of his fidelity. Cooper mentions some interesting vignettes about how Bernsen tried to shuffle her off, though she was too wise to fall for the bait. Still, she needed a distraction, or at least a sign that some new path would help her find her way.

While vacationing with her family in 1973, a call came from a producer who wanted to cast her in the role of Katherine Chancellor for a new soap opera, The Young and the Restless. Cooper was shocked and dubious, having never worked on the five-day a week filming routine. Still was intrigued and agreed, even though the three years they wanted as commitment seemed to be quite a blood promise. From the time she began as Katherine, Cooper found her niche and fell in love with the character and the writing. Never one to shy away from conflict when it was well-deserved, Cooper tells of many screaming matches with writers, directors, producers, and her fellow co-stars, all in an attempt to make the show better and more believable. Cooper bursts the bubble that many viewers likely have, commenting that even the actors roll their eyes at some of the dialogue or storylines that are presented to them, though there always seemed to be a flavour of reality with many of the stories that found their way to air on CBS. Cooper explores some of the interesting storylines that she encountered during her years on Y&R, noting some of the special actors and actresses with whom she worked. In true tell-all fashion, she even revealed a year-long romance she had with one of her co-stars, which might surprise many fans who have a long viewing history with the show. Shocking to most readers (and Y&R fans alike) will be the revelation that Cooper did not win her first Daytime Emmy for Katherine Chancellor until 2008. This is a shock to many who will remember her memorable double portrayal in 1990, an episode that is discussed at length in the book, particularly when the eventual winner was sure Cooper had the award. In the latter portion of the memoir, Cooper spends time regaling some of her favourite co-stars and telling some of the behind the scenes stories about them while also tipping her hand at some of the secrets she has been keeping from the world. In the waning chapters, Cooper turns to address the role her children and grandchildren play in her life, recounting touching stories about their growth and her admiration for each one. Remaining high on her own personal soap box, the memoir ends with some public services that Cooper holds dear and will forever cherish. A refreshing and powerful memoir that exemplifies that longevity does not equate to stale acting, but a dedication to the larger family unit. Cooper’s words captivate and intrigue while they entertain and encourage.

Those who have read my review of Eric Braeden’s memoir, Cooper’s long-time friend and Y&R co-star, will realise that I struggled with admitting my guilty pleasure at being a long-time fan of the soap opera. However, as I discovered, being an off-again, on-again, fan of Y&R, I was all the more interested to see some of the intriguing aspects of the memoir, particularly those that surrounded the program. That being said, I did learn so much more about Cooper and her life before taking on the role of alcoholic and powerful Katherine Chancellor, particularly her fame in early television. Cooper exemplifies throughout this piece that she never looked back to those days or on those with whom she acted and left them in the dust. Her journey is praised at every turn and her stepping stones are equally important to her larger journey. Cooper keeps things real and takes no prisoners, as her ex-husband can attest to, when she pushed him out for blatant infidelity. Cooper uses her smooth narrative to push the reader through a wonderful story with ample stops along the way. A tell-all, as I explained earlier, though also filled with classy depictions, so as not to vilify anyone whose name graces the pages of this book. Cooper was a family woman, be it blood or work, and never forgot those who loved her, with exponential amounts of affection to send back. The world lost a wonderful actress and daytime television lost a stellar personality when Jeanne Cooper died alongside the Katherine Chancellor character. Hollywood, Genoa City, and the world will miss her and many are thankful she is never to be replaced and always remembered. 

Kudos, Madam Cooper for your straight talk and wonderful storytelling. While I have not watched Y&R for numerous years, you will be missed and are loved by many. Thank you for sharing your most intimate moments and remaining classy the entire time.

I’ll Be Damned: How my Young and Restless Life Led me to America’s #1 Daytime Drama, by Eric Braeden 

Eight stars

When it comes to biographical pieces, there are times you turn away from the academic or the historical figures and want to know more about those people who interest you for no reason other than you see them on television or in the movies. ‘How did they get there?’ or ‘What dirt do they have behind the scenes?’ are two questions that often pop into my head. When I saw that Eric Braeden put out a memoir, I thought back to my guilty pleasure obsession with The Young and the Restless (Y&R) in the past and wanted to learn more about this ultimate villain. The name Victor Newman has crossed my lips many times, when referring to the evil side I sometimes like to bring out, leaving me to wonder more about the actor and how this character came to fruition. The attentive reader will, as I did, learn that Breaden’s life was much more than the past 37 years in the fictional Genoa City, Wisconsin, spanning decades of work and interesting stories. A fabulous collection of thoughts and biographical tales that will astound and shock anyone who gives it a chance.

Born Hans Jörg Gudegast in the small northern German town of Kiel, the story begins by exploring life in the middle of the Second World War. Braeden (I will use his current name, so as not to confuse the review reader) and his family struggled to make ends meet with a father who was caught up in the Nazi rhetoric and served Hitler as well as he could. When, at age 12, Braeden’s father died of a heart attack, the push was on to support his family and make a future for himself. Working hard and keeping up his grades, Braeden was offered an opportunity to move to the United States upon graduation, which he took without looking back. Settling in Texas, Braeden learned the value of hard work, but felt the sense of being a villain because of his German background. Moving around, he eventually settled in Montana on an athletic scholarship and worked harder than he ever had before. The lights and sounds of Los Angeles eventually lured him away, at which time he learned some hard truths about the past he had been shielded from before; the role Germany and the Nazis played in the Second World War. Braeden explains that his scholastic upbringing sought to ‘erase’ those years and so he was unaware of the cruelty that Hitler imposed on the Jews. He took it upon himself to educate anyone who would listen that German does not equate to Nazi. Funny enough, when Braeden found his calling as an actor, he was typecast on stage and in film/television as the ‘German scientist’ or ‘Nazi soldier’. He pushed back where he could, trying to personalise the characters and not playing in the stereotype. This led to some wonderful opportunities and stellar movie roles, all of which are detailed within the book, as well as the moment he was faced with the request to change from Hans Jörg Gudegast to Eric Braeden. 

Besides his love of acting, Braeden kept up his passion for sports, specifically soccer, which he played semi-professionally for many years while acting. This team mentality helped a great deal when the opportunity to act in a soap opera came along. It was February 1980 when Braeden was asked to sign a three month contract as Victor Newman. He agreed, reluctantly and was prepared to leave after the term ended, but was persuaded by his wife, Dale, to give it more time. Through countless negotiations with William Bell, the creator of Y&R, Braeden hashed out a thorough backstory for Victor Newman and took him in many directions. It is here that Braeden was able to explore himself as an actor and accrue scores of fans from all walks of life. I no longer need to hide my head when I admit that I am a fan of Victor or Y&R, as Braeden tells of world leaders and professional athletes who were diehard fans, approaching him for news and praise. Braeden recounts some of his fondest memories and those co-stars who touched his life. With thirty-seven years on set, Braeden is as excited to stay as he has ever been, loving the role and all those who surround him, though his own family is the true passion of his life. A wonderfully succinct piece that pulls no punches, but also keeps the story as real as possible, Eric Braeden is surely a man much more complicated that the Victor Newman for whom he is likely best known.

One can never be sure what will come out of a memoir written by a television star. Will it be all about the struggles and woeful losses, balanced off by a few great decisions and strong agents? Will there be a collection of knives tossed into the backs of former co-stars, allowing the piece to reveal previously unknown facts about the actors in a ‘tell-all’ format? Whatever one might expect, Braeden bucks the trend and offers a powerful piece that is rooted less in the dramatic growth of his career as a collection of passions that have made him the man he is today. While acting and the rigours of life on set plays a key role within the narrative, there is a strong and ongoing push to open up the German/Jewish dialogue, whereby Braeden does not allow the world to forget the past with which his country of birth indelibly marked history, but seeks to rectify that past and build towards a stronger and more understanding future. Braeden is tirelessly seeking to ensure the reader understands that he is not ashamed of Germany as his homeland, but is also not prepared to be vilified for being born under a regime that was not of his choosing or desire. With countless vignettes that move the narrative along, Braeden captures the reader from the start and does not let go until the final pages of the memoir. Raw, honest, and a pleasant dose of reality, Braeden has shown the potential power that comes from a well-crafted biographical piece.

Kudos, Mr. Braeden for such a refreshing memoir that pulls on the personal and professional aspects of your life so fluidly. I learned so much more than I thought and will surely recommend this to anyone who has an interest in seeing the bigger picture.