Last Breath (DCI Erika Foster #4), by Robert Bryndza

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Robert Bryndza, and Bookouture for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

I devoured the previous three novels in this series and could not get my hands on this latest piece fast enough. While family obligations slowed my completion of this book, this should not be indicative of my interest in the story or Bryndza’s writing in general. As the story opens, DCI Erika Foster is still struggling with her assignment outside of the Murder Investigation Team (MIT), while making the most of still having a job. When a call comes to one of the MIT while Foster is present, they both head to the scene, where a young woman has been found murdered and left in the Dumpster. Quick to take charge, Foster tries to control the scene, only to be ordered away. This creates significant headaches for her later on, something with which Foster is only too familiar. Working leads on her own, Foster meets with a former colleague to pass along information, only to find herself in the middle of a harrowing medical emergency. Soon thereafter, Foster seeks and receives another secondment, giving her a chance to lead an MIT as they look for the killer. This one lurks in the shadows as he lures victims through social media, posing as a number of highly attractive men, which proves to be the opposite of his own appearance. The killer’s distinctive crime pattern offers some insight for Foster and her MIT, though it will take more than apt police work to catch this cunning individual. As both Foster and the killer struggle with personal issues, it will be a game of cat and mouse until one makes an irreversible error. Another stunning read that will surely help reestablish the Bryndza conversation and leave a new round of fans scrambling to learn all about Erika Foster.

Bryndza’s effectiveness is not lost on me or the scores of others I know who rush to devour every book when they hit the market. Be it the wonderful cross-section of characters or how well they mesh together, the reader can fall in love with the character development alongside a powerful mystery. The narrative is strong and leaves the reader hanging and wanting to read ‘just a little more’, which is complemented by extremely quick chapters. This quick march through the story has the reader sitting for a period and seamlessly digesting large portions of the book, loving every nuance. The only downside to this is that when the ‘high’ of the story comes to an end, the reader is left crashing and begging for more. Bryndza has such a way with words, settings, and realistic depictions that anyone can read them and feel completely at ease. There is no geographic snobbery that the reader ought to know areas of London and environs to properly navigate through the story. Taking the time to offer an interesting argument about the pitfalls of social media, Bryndza’s social commentary leaves the reader pondering their own online fingerprint and how dishonesty fuels privacy. Brilliant work again, though I am forced to bide my time and hope that there are a few more ideas percolating inside the author’s mind as we speak.

Kudos, Mr. Bryndza for yet another spectacular novel in this series. I find myself impatient, but highly excited what you have planned next for DCI Foster and the rest of the team. Thank you for entertaining so effectively with all you publish.

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, by Jeff Guinn

Nine powerful stars

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

My ongoing trek though the world of biographies would not have been complete without a comprehensive piece about an individual who is often misunderstood in history. Jeff Guinn has provided this with his stellar piece on Jim Jones and the winding road to Jonestown, site of the infamous cult mass suicide in 1978. Guinn focusses the rise and power of Jim Jones, exemplifying his ability to hoard power and hone his leadership skills while captivating a following of the common person. Armed with the power of the delivered word and absolute authority, Jones sought not only to create the Peoples Temple to serve the disadvantaged, but also to instil complete loyalty in a socialist hierarchy, as contradictory as that might sound. The attentive and patient reader will discover countless examples of Jones’ abilities as he becomes the textbook cult leader. (As it will surely rouse extensive debate, for the purposes of this review and my personal beliefs, I would define a ‘cult’ as an organisation premised on a certain type of beliefs, usually religious, whereby extrication is neither simple nor voluntary. I welcome those who wish to challenge me on this, though I do not bandy the word around for the fun of it!)

Raised in a highly dysfunctional home in Lynn, Indiana, Jones stuck out at school and could regularly be found making long-winded sermons alone in the woods or organising healing services for roadkill. This religious upbringing was fostered by his curiosity in the numerous evangelical Christian options around town, even though his parents were the only family not found at any Sunday services. By adulthood, with a young wife by his side, Jones continued to foster his preaching and healing skills, soon part of the revival tour around the state. His ultimate goal, to form his own church that would target lower-income individuals and trying to link up with established black churches in and around Indianapolis. With the Red Scare in full force, Jones sought to utilise some of the socialist ‘equality for all’ in his sermons, bringing hope to any who would grace the sanctuary. His message was less one of godliness, but of the need to integrate the races and help one another, all this in the late 1950s and into the 60s. Developing a strong base, Jones formed the Peoples Temple and rallied as many as would attend on a regular basis. Even at this early stage, Jones tried to create a sense of power and a hierarchy, where followers would rely on him to help them solve problems as long as they turn over all earthly possessions to the Temple. Guinn hints at a duplicity here, where Jones could completely overtake his followers, while remaining above the fray and living as he saw fit.

Always wanting more and seeing the lights of California, Jones turned his attention to Redwood Valley and the surrounding town of Ukiah, California. Situated between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Jones felt he could work effectively by integrating into a smaller community, yet still be able to pull followers from both major metropolitan areas. He was so effective in having his followers join him because of the impending nuclear holocaust that was sure to come from the Soviets, having recently been deterred during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Yes, more duplicity, as he rallied to the Soviet-style collectivist notion of equality for all, yet chose to sit at the end of all!) Jones knew how to use the news to his advantage, demanding blind faith and complete trust that he had revelations about what the Peoples Temple ought to do. While Jones had to reestablish himself out West, many scouts and a strong advertising campaign in the less affluent neighbourhoods brought new recruits along with those who had heard of this captivating preacher. From there, Guinn explores many of the sexual encounters that Jones had (and sanctioned) within the Temple, citing the need to de-stress or share communally, though only within the confines of fellow Temple folk. Jones cemented a stronger sense of communal ownership by Temple faithful, going so far as to require all children born into the group be raised communally, where they would see parents only when Jones saw fit. Sex led to drugs and soon Jones relied on that to keep him going, all while his wife stood by and loyally tried to digest what was going on. Guinn explores sentiments of jealousy and angst, though Jones never sought to enter into polygamous marriages, choosing instead to share his body and time with at least two women regularly and others on an as needed basis. How could Jones profess these beliefs and hold firm to the reins of power? As Guinn explains, there was significant verbal and physical abuse administered, which would push straying members into line. Be it calling people out in sermons, browbeating in meetings, or blackmailing in private, Jones made sure that he held the upper hand to ensure obedience. If a member sought to leave the fold, Jones had pre-signed documentation or blank sheets that he could use and submit to the authorities, thereby pigeon-holing any who might make idle threats. Guinn offers numerous examples of the lengths to which Jones would go to command attention and total control over the lives of Temple members, from the new recruits to his own wife, seen as the second-in-command of the entire organisation. Using his prowess to rally the troops, Jones became a favourite of the political candidates in the Bay Area, helping to secure votes and rallying the electorate, though the expectation was a system of quid pro quo, usually forgotten after the ballots were counted.

Negative press haunted Jones and he began developing an escape plan from California, looking to the small and recently independent country of Guyana. The country appealed to Jones, as it held strong socialist views as well as significant area for agricultural cultivation; a heavenly commune for collectivist living. Jones soon laid the foundation for the Temple’s new home, aptly named Jonestown, which was isolated enough that government officials would not come knocking. Holding his followers in awe and paying for their travel, Jones brought hundreds down to the country in a series of trips, where they settled and the commune took shape, strengthening the idea of a cult, through geographic isolation, both from families and American authorities (Guyana had no extradition treaty with the United States). Legal actions were beginning in San Francisco courts by family members of those in the Peoples Temple, citing kidnapping or illicit seizure of property from members. This soon led to continued bad press, though only in those locations where the Temple had a footprint. This soon caused US Congressman Leo Ryan to organise a trip to investigate some of the concerns. Armed with scores of letters and members of the media, Ryan tried to explore the truthfulness of the Temple’s assertions that all were happily residing in Guyana. He found few issues and only a handful of members who wished to leave. Guinn uses the last few chapters to explore the US expedition to Guyana and the fallout as Jones saw his complete control slipping away. Stunning writing on Guinn’s part shows the lengths to which Jim Jones would go to hold complete control. The eventual mass suicide and assassination of the outsiders at the direction of the leader led to a body count of over 900, including Ryan himself. Jones and the entire Jonestown community soon became international headline news, having escaped much mention during their entire time in South America. The common (and erroneous) phrase that came out of those final hours in Jonestown remains “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid [actually Flavor Aid]”, which the reader will discover has lasted for decades since the event. All the same, the power Jones held over his followers is phenomenal and the reader will surely finish the book wondering as much as understanding his sway.

Was Jim Jones an evil man or simply one who allowed power to go to his head? Even Guinn does not have a definitive answer, but this biography is so detailed and well-paced that the reader will surely come away with their own opinions. Many books have been written about Jonestown and Jim Jones, though all seem to offer sensationalised accounts of events or are completely weighted to one side, forcing the curious reader to sit through diatribes or blatant vilification. Guinn has used much time and effort to offer a complete look at the man, interviewing those who are still alive (due to age and the obvious sacrifice in Guyana) as well as all the documents he could recover to tell the story. A feat that not many would have taken, Guinn uses his wonderful narrative to tell the dénouement as honestly as he can. Like the other biography of his that I have read, Guinn forges headlong into the tough topics and questions, emerging with answers that defy simple religious or cultish vilification, which offers the reader a much more comprehensive approach. I can now speak about Jonestown with greater authority and understand much of the life of Jim Jones and what led him to that fateful day on November 18, 1978. I would strongly encourage anyone with the patience to read such a detailed tome to digest all that Guinn has to offer, for he refuses to sermonise, preventing the the reader from, pardon the remark, “drinking the Kool-Aid”.

Kudos, Mr. Guinn for your stunning effort with this piece. This is a sensational delivery of what has to be a very difficult topic. You have entertained, educated, and armed me for discussions about this and other cult groups, which seem to surround me as I forge ahead with more biographies.

Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, by Sally Bedell Smith

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Sally Bedell Smith, and Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

My ongoing trek though the world of biographies would not have been complete without a piece by the famed Sally Bedell Smith. With honour and elegance, Smith is able to offer up an insightful look into the lives of those many hold in high esteem. Her latest subject is Prince Charles, heir to the Throne of the United Kingdom (and its realms). While many readers will be familiar with Charles as scandalous and perhaps frigid towards his former wife, Smith takes the reader through the man’s life to date and presents strong arguments for seeing him in three contrasting lights: the man, the misfit, and the monarch-to-be. Through these three lenses, Smith argues effectively that Charles, Prince of Wales, has much more to offer than his one-off comments or trite sentiments that the tabloids have used to boost their image while remaining useful only for campers and fish mongers. A powerful piece that humanises a man whose entire life has literally been a waiting game.

That Charles is a man with interests as common as any other might be hard to fathom, though Smith does a wonderful job of accentuating this. Raised with the eyes of the world on him from the start, Charles had little hope of being ‘normal’ in the true sense of the word. Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip were thrust into the limelight when Charles was only a young boy, turning the former into a queen and ruler of the Realm, thereby leaving the young prince in the hands of nannies and tutors. Smith explains repeatedly that neither of his parents provided Charles with affection of a sense of closeness, with Phillip going so far as to seek a rough and tumble upbringing to harden his son’s outer shell. While Charles did not excel at individual sport, his passion for polo and other group ventures helped shape him into the man he would become. Enjoying time alone as well as surrounded by others, Charles soon turned to the tranquility of painting with watercolours, which regulated what was surely a chaotic life around him. After mandatory military service, Charles remained a bachelor, though did dabble around with the likes of Camilla Shand (eventually Parker Bowles), and it was said that the Palace would never have approved their marriage. Smith cites Camilla’s less than sexual innocence as the main reason, as her reputation was known, even among those of the upper crust. Still, Charles did date, sparingly, as he pursued some of his other interests, which included the environment, architecture, and spiritual oneness. Making speeches on these topics and exploring their depths with some of those who were held in high regard, Charles carved a niche for himself and soon became passionate, which added an unwanted wrinkle that I will explore below. It was only after a personal tragedy befell the prince that he realised the need to marry, especially as heir to the Throne. His choice of Lady Diana Spencer was fraught with issues from the start, as Smith explores through some of the more tumultuous chapters of the biography. Not only was there a major gap in age, but their interests did not mesh and the looming cloud of Camilla could not be ignored. Add to this, Smith makes much of the mental anguish Diana faced behind closed doors and Charles found himself struggling from the onset of the marriage. While the Waleses had two boys, their union was eroding and soon ended in parsimoniously, as neither wanted to make things work, choosing instead to fall into the arms of other lovers. It was only after Diana’s death in the summer of 1997 that Charles showed a more human side and was able to connect more readily with the public. He kept up with his aforementioned niches and succumbed to true happiness when allowed to wed the woman he loved, speaking around the world and drawing strong ties to the common person’s interests. This connection with the public did help with shedding his role as villain, though for many the decision had already been made. While he was certainly a man who differed from his parents and grandparents, Charles did prove to have issues that could not be overlooked by either the tabloids or the general public.

To call Prince Charles a misfit might not be too far from the truth, though Smith tackles it in the highest regard possible. Charles was never one to create scandals as a youth, staying away from drink and drugs in an era where love was free and booze plentiful (unlike his own son, Harry, decades later). However, Smith does not fail to list a number of the indiscretions that Charles seems to have had during his marriage to Diana, usually related to Camilla Parker Bowles. Smith does an amazing job at laying the groundwork for Charles’s sainthood in his marriage, as though these acts of stepping out might have been justified knee-jerk reactions. She is quick to portray Diana as the unstable one, issuing countless examples of bulimic attacks, limb cutting, and berating the Princes of Wales, all in private. There was also a great deal of Charles trying to balance this apparent Diana outbursts and putting on a brave face in public. Of course, the general public seemed more than happy to side with the People’s Princess, ignoring her numerous mentions in the tabloids while Charles did not seem to be able to have any assignations that were not splashed on the front pages of any daily rag and the illegal content of phone conversations turning him into the butt-end of jokes. Smith goes so far as to list the number of tabloid antics throughout her narrative, including the “Tampax” comment that fuelled many a joke in the early 90s. Charles could not shake this persona, as long as Diana was alive. It was as though he was forced to live in the shadow of his wife, as he had his parents, and would eventually do the same for his sons. Perhaps blown out of proportion by the salacious need for the British tabloids to sell papers, Charles may have been a misfit of sorts, but it was likely because all eyes were on him whenever he hiccoughed too loudly. Still, that moniker would tarnish his abilities to be regal when it counted most of all.

As heir to the Throne, Charles would have to offer a side of himself that denotes his ability to be monarchical. While Charles grew up in a household where his mother served as reigning monarch, he did not always possess the key traits of heir. Smith extols Queen Elizabeth’s ability to be neutral and seek information from all players before offering the hint of an opinion on any matter, while Charles would race around the world (or even in Britain) and stand atop his own soapbox to present his ideas whenever a microphone appeared in front of his face. Honourary and customary events saw Charles act as keynote speaker, only to steal the limelight and push for his own beliefs, at times angering those to whom he preached. Smith offers a number of examples throughout the years, most notably the British Medical Association, a slew of British and world-renowned architects, and even members of the Government. Charles never worried about who he might upset, knowing that they would demur (in public at least) to his station, though this was surely neither regal nor the personality fit for a monarch. While Charles was seen to be going to all corners of the Commonwealth, it is not only attending events but currying favour of one’s subjects that brings about that image of a monarch-in-waiting. As mentioned above, Charles was forced to stand in the shadows of Diana’s love affair with the people, but there comes a time when the love must flow towards the heir apparent. It seems to be strong with Prince William, as Smith relates the Hollywood-esque personality he has around the world, but it is also the ability to relate to people, which William has in spades, that attracts the attention, at least of the positive variety. Can Charles be a monarch in which “the Firm” will be proud? The jury remains in deliberations, though Smith makes a strong case that he might not have the traits Queen Elizabeth and her predecessors felt were quintessential. 

Taking a moment to sift through Smith’s piece in general, it is surely armed with the tools of a biography worth citing in conversations and future pieces on the royals. I read with much interest her piece on Queen Elizabeth II and loved it. Crisp, to the point, and yet not fuzzy or tepid in the least, Sally Bedell Smith knows how to create a life and weaves it together with scores of sources and much research. This piece is poignant, as it addresses many of the issues related to the Prince of Wales, from his birth through to the present struggles he faces as heir to the throne. Smith does not try to smear or pile on the gossip, but she does not ostrich herself (or the reader) by refusing to acknowledge the scandals that have shown themselves over the decades. Smith keeps much of the narrative flowing chronologically, rathe than simply by topic, the reader can follow the arguments with ease. With both detailed and short chapters, Smith allows the reader to ensconced themselves in a number of topics, though also chooses to skim across the surface on others that might not be as encompassing. Pulling on a number of sources and events, Smith portrays Charles in many lights, some of which were discussed above, but does not seek to attack or belittle with any intention. The curious and dedicated reader will surely find much of great interest in this biography, that serves the role of educating and entertaining at the same time.

Charles is in line to be king, but should he hold the position? Smith does not outwardly address this throughout the book, but she lays some strong arguments in the narrative. Charles is outspoken and stands by his beliefs, but is also one to have not fretted with the silver spoon lodged firmly in his mouth. It is a debate over whether time fostered this reliance on others or if it was a personal choice, thereby alienating himself from his expected subjects. Then again, Queen Elizabeth II is the textbook royal and detached from much in the public light, though her approval ratings remain high and strong. Could it be a trail of scandals that have plagued Charles over the decades that has kept him from being the man many yearn for when looking to the future of the British monarchy? One can hope that his being who he feels is right will not jade either him or those who await the next monarch. Whether Charles will ever ascend to the throne (should he be given the chance, based on the Queen’s longevity) remains up in the air, for he has literally waited his entire life for this honour. Neither William nor George are surely chomping at the bit to push him out of the way, but one can hope that the Commonwealth and even the world is ready for whatever happens. There is much to be decided, and yet much that remains as clear as a foggy Scottish morning.  

Kudos, Madam Smith for this sensational piece that enlightens the reader while pulling no punches in its delivery. You have been able to attract much interest with your past pieces and this is sure not to disappoint. 

The Restless Dead (Dr. David Hunter #5), by Simon Beckett

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Simon Beckett, Random House UK, Transworld Publishers, and Bantam Press for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

After a lengthy hiatus, Simon Beckett returns with his fifth Dr. David Hunter novel, reliving some of the great forensic anthropology of past books in the collection. Still coming to terms with a recent attack by a psychopath, Dr. Hunter receives a call to consult on a case outside of London. Happy to take the work where he can get it, Hunter soon discovers that this case goes beyond his usual parameters; the body is set to be recovered from an estuary, after having spent a significant amount of time in the water. During the body’s removal, Hunter realises that his expertise will be needed as there is little left of the face and extremities, though everyone is certain it belongs to Leo Villiers, whose father looms close at hand and wants a swift post-mortem to confirm his suspicions. During his trip to the formal post-mortem, Hunter tries a shortcut and is left stranded with the tide coming up. Without a vehicle, he must rely on the assistance of a local family, though the frigid reception he receives leaves him wondering how long the welcome might extend. Hunter soon learns that Leo Villiers is accused of murdering Emma Derby, an attractive young woman, though the body has yet to be discovered. Hunter begins poking around the case on his own and soon encounters Emma’s sister, Rachel, who adds to the narrative. Hunter makes a further forensic discovering, trying to curry favour with the local authorities, who are set to send him packing, and all but definitively determines the body is not that of Villiers. Left to wonder who might have turned up in the estuary, more bodies appear and all eyes turn to a local man whose sanity is a question of local lore. Can Hunter help get to the bottom of things before he, again, becomes the focus of a killer? A great return to the David Hunter series that will have series fans well-pleased and help to garner more fans for Beckett’s writing.

As Beckett admits in the acknowledgements, this book was a long-time coming and its delay has left series fans eager to dive in. I will admit, it took a few chapters for the momentum to return, but once I was back in sync, Beckett took over and I remember why I enjoy this series so much. Dr. David Hunter remains somewhat of an isolated soul, with his backstory developed throughout the series and newer fears sandwiched on either end of this thriller. Beckett is able to support his protagonist with a wonderful collection of characters, pulling on both police and locals, that keep the story moving forward. Flirting with something more than platonic, Hunter seeks to use his awkwardness to his advantage, though the reader might be left tapping a toe as they wait for Hunter to pick up on the obvious signs. While not as strong on the forensics as I have seen in past novels (or other series within the genre), Beckett was able to keep the narrative moving effectively, turning Hunter into a sleuth more than forensic anthropologist alone. There are a few subplots that can be extrapolated from outside the boundaries of this novel, all of which work nicely and culminate in the final few chapters, leaving the reader highly entertained and perhaps surprised. A strong story and a cliffhanger that keeps readers wondering what is to come, Beckett has come back from his Hunter hiatus with a well-written piece that should sate fans for a short time (and only that)!

Kudos, Mr. Beckett for a great return. I hope you have more ideas brewing and that we can look forward to them sooner than later.

Ill Will, by Dan Chaon

Three stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Dan Chaon, and Random House Publishing Group-Ballantine for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

In my first attempt to decipher the writing (ramblings?) of Dan Chaon, I was left with a bitter taste I am unable to mask. This novel, set in both the early 1980s and 2012-14 tells of two sets of unsolved murders, which sounds interesting enough. The first centres around a young Dustin Tillman, who spends much of his time with his cousins and adopted older brother, Rusty. Being much younger than the other three, Dustin is not privy to their drinking, drug-addled states, or promiscuity as they explore one another. He is, however, able to see an odd nature in Rusty, whose previous foster placement ended when the house caught on fire and the entire family died. Recounting events that include Satanic Worship (an apparent buzz word in the early 80s), Dustin lays the groundwork for horrific possibilities. On the morning before a family trip, the youths discover that their parents have all been murdered, though the killer is not immediately apparent. Chaon has the reader meander through the story to learn that Dustin did, eventually, testify against Rusty, who was sentenced to thirty years in jail for the crime. Fast-forwarding to a more present time, Dustin is now a psychotherapist who has done some work with Satanic worship, but was eventually drummed out of that and now does some run-of-the-mill hypnosis and projection exercises. When a patient brings an elaborate theory about a serial killer who chooses young men as his victims, Dustin cannot help but scoff. But, the more they talk, the more the idea germinates and soon Dustin is out on the road trying to piece it all together. Dustin’s wife and two sons are left to wonder and go through their own tribulations, as the reader witnesses the evaporation of the family unit due to illness and drugs. With these two narratives running parallel, the reader is forced to make sense of what is going on, though there is little of a sensical nature. The premise is there, but the delivery, as strong as an over-boiled noodle. Beware readers who get caught up in the dust jacket summary, as I did. You are in for a flop!

I have always found author first impressions to be very important. If I cannot find a groove with an author after reading one of their books, I am usually leery to give them a second chance. This book has left me so confused with its lacklustre delivery that I am forced to question if Chaon’s past literary awards were delivered in error. As I mentioned above, the premise is sound, or at least it could be. Two narratives telling of two sets of crimes; a protagonist who lives through both sets of crimes at different points in his life; the struggle to determine if that past accusation was an error and who might have committed the crime. All in all, Chaon is sitting on a potential thriller goldmine. He creates some interesting characters and surrounds them with a few plausible scenarios. But then, he pulls out all the stops to ruin a good thing. Paragraphs and chapters that end in the middle of a sen (note: purposefully done to prove a point), chapters that appear as columns on the page with each stretching over four or five flips (in which the reader must then return back the pages to begin the next column), transition between 1983 and 2012-14 between parts of the book, but not flowing seamlessly. One might presume that Chaon used his past acolytes to publish this, knowing that his reputation would allow sales to skyrocket (the James Patterson Syndrome). Some who loved it may troll on this review and comment that if I could do better, why don’t I write a book. Alas, I am not being paid to write a book (or for this unbiased review), so I can hold those who do make a living of this to a higher standard. All around, a literary train wreck with toxicity spewing from all sides. Fair warning with flashing lights, bells, and blaring horns. Steer clear and find a better pick!

Oh, Mr. Chaon, one can only hope this was an one-off gaffe. That said, you surely did some literary bed defecation with this one.

Bad Little Girl, by Frances Vick

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Frances Vick, and Bookouture for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

In her follow-up novel, Frances Vick tackles some of the most troublesome areas of a well-organized society, the protection of the child. In her years as a teacher, Claire Penny has seen many children pass through the halls of her school. Some good experiences mix alongside those that are less than enlightening, but when it comes to young Lorna Bell, something deep inside begins to call out to Claire, even if it is hard to pinpoint the precise concern. After seeing young Lorna on the playground, isolated from the other children, Claire develops a particular curiosity that develops into a caring interest. Soon thereafter, Lorna finds herself in small bouts of trouble, be it teasing or stealing or roughhousing on the playground, which brings in a young mother, Nikki, to handle her daughter’s troubles. What follows are signs of continued alarm to Claire, but no one else will heed her requests to follow-up with the authorities. Claire learns of a home life that is less than ideal for Lorna and marks all over the little one’s body, but nothing can be done, at least by those with the power to remove Lorna from her family. By the time she turns ten, Lorna begins to forge a bond with Claire and a plot is hatched to solve everything. Just after Christmas, they flee the town for the Cornish seaside, where Claire hopes to keep Lorna from the family that does not care for her. Tragic news comes over the wire, but Claire still wants to keep Lorna protected and away from the bright lights, but is confused why no one has reported Lorna missing. While out in the seaside town, Claire and Lorna encounter Marianne, a writer-cum-dancer-cum-Jill of all trades. Lorna and Marianne soon begin spending time together while Claire is left ignored and constantly worried she will be discovered as having kidnapped Lorna. However, something begins to eat away at Claire, both related to the news back home and the connection that Marianne has made with Lorna. Before long, Claire is left to wonder if she, too, will be abandoned and Marianne will pick up as the saviour figure to Lorna. A gripping tale that takes some time to get going, but pulls the reader in soon thereafter.

Without a strong connection to Vick and her writing, it is somewhat difficult to judge the calibre of that which I have read. However, I find that first impressions usually go a long way for me and I can say that I came out of this reading experience with mixed feelings. I was interested in the premise of the novel from the outset and Vick is able to present it in such a way as to capture its essence, a struggle between one’s gut reaction and the rules of the system. The array of characters Vick uses conveys a decent cross-section of those who might be involved, from abusive parents to detached school officials and an overbearing (caring?) educator who wants it all to work out for the best. While the plot is strong in its intentions, I felt it took a long time to really get moving, longer than I would have liked even to lay the groundwork for the departure from the primary residence itself. However, once things got moving, there was a wonderful undertone to the story and hints throughout as to what might be going on. Vick portrays Claire, Lorna, and Marianne in a wonderful fashion and leaves the reader to wonder if the gut reaction they are getting as the story progresses could actually be true. Vick layers on more drama and a few twists to keep the reader from guessing too much before letting everything fall into place at the perfect moment. Working in the Child Protection field myself, I enjoyed the perspective offered and can empathise with Claire on many accounts. An interesting novel that I think could work well and drawn many people to it, given the proper approach.

Kudos, Madam Vick for a great story and interesting portrayal. While I cannot put my finger on precisely what kept me from loving this book outrightly, I know there is much potential and I will keep my eyes peeled for your next work.

New World Order: A Strategy for Imperialism, by Sean Stone

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Sean Stone, and TrineDay for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

In his work that is as thought-provoking as it is full of rhetoric, Stone follows in the footsteps of his father and presents a set of ideas that might lead some to doubt his authenticity. However, with careful arguments and thorough sourcing, the patient and attentive reader might see how he could make his point with ease. The crux of Stone’s argument is that there has been talk of a New World Order (NWO) for decades and that America (or at least some of its most powerful political figures) have been falling into line, unbeknownst to the general public. This is not the NWO espoused by Bush the Lesser (43), who wanted America to lead the world in an ‘us versus them’ mentality that aligns with the faux-wrestling that “NWO” brings to mind. Instead, Stone argues that there has long been talk of a World Government with teeth that follows the structure of the British Commonwealth, where the centrality of the governing body is paramount, while a degree of autonomy and sovereignty exists for member-states. Stone argues that there have been Round Tables made up of scholars and political figures for decades, discussing issues like that and that there has been an ‘indoctrination camp’ where American scholars have been able to go to ‘learn and accept these tenets’, in the form of Rhodes scholarships to Oxford. While it might seem somewhat far-fetched, Stone presents arguments that FDR, Kissinger, and even Zbigniew Brzezinski (National Security Advisor to President Carter) fell into line with this mentality and long promoted it in speeches and published documents. While the League of Nations and the United Nations fell flat (for reasons best not addressed at length here), this NWO could work and has already made inroads into the America political system. Trade and shared markets have long been a part of the system (the US and Canada, the largest part of the Commonwealth, being integral trade partners while the US and UK have been closely aligned on political and market matters for decades) and the strong ties during WWII and the Cold War period helped solidify the Western Europe/America connection as well. Stone does not profess that the world will be under a single umbrella, or that the encroaching system will force the United States to stand alongside North Korea or Russia as brothers, but that there has long been a neo-imperialism taking place and that America is falling deeper in line. Well argued and thoughtfully presented, Stone is able to deliver his point with some degree of ease. While he says that the book serves the novice who is curious alongside the well-versed academic on the subject, I would venture to say the former might be out of their element with some of the nuanced arguments presented herein.

While this is a piece that provokes thinking from the outset, Stone is clear to lay the groundwork for those who seek to use his work and ideas as fodder to show how off the beaten path he might be. While some authors might relish being called ‘conspiracy theorists’, Stone seems to want his arguments not to fall on deaf ears. In that, he criticises those whose main goal is to toss academic epithets on this work or to call out those who practice psittacism and refuse to open their eyes to what is before them. The text reads fluidly for the most part and is substantiated with numerous citations and examples. While any piece of non-fiction, especially academia, can be spun to suit the writer, I can see some of the points that Stone is making without feeling that I am reaching to comprehend or swallow them. Where I do find myself wondering is in the inherent ‘betterness’ that comes from American politicians, leaders rather than followers. Alongside that, the newly minted 45th President of the United States has vowed to make it an ‘America First’ period before the country wakes from its horrible nightmare, leaving the reader to wonder how anything could ‘trump’ this mindset and see the country or its political elite turn towards something that does not allow the reins of power to rest firmly on Pennsylvania Avenue. All that being said, should Stone have as much credibility in what he says, I cannot help but hope that there is a chance that America will find itself tied to something larger and not entirely in its control, be it a World Commonwealth or some such political monster. It cannot be any worse than the current demon’s head atop the political Hydra guarding the palace until at least January 20th, 2021.

Kudos, Mr. Stone for providing me with some strong political and historical thinking. I love a good alternate theory and while you might be trying to warn the country of its demise, I applaud the possible future inculcation of a new and world-centric point of view. Just watch the country march in the streets when they find all this out, eh?! 

Snitch (Shea Stevens Thiller #2), by Dharma Kelleher

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Dharma Kelleher, and Alibi for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

I recently discovered Dharma Kelleher and her biker thriller genre, which is as realistic sounding as it is entertaining to read. After some major dust-ups with the law and the local outlaw motorcycle club, Confederate Thunder, Shea Stevens has been trying to remain below the radar. Her focus has turned to running the Iron Goddess, a custom motorcycle shop, while juggling being a new parent to her niece. When a few people turn up dead after a night of partying, a new party drug cut with strychnine appears to be the culprit. Whispers point to a new female motorcycle club, the Athena Sisterhood, as being responsible for its distribution. Shea is forced into infiltrating the club to learn more, all part of a confidential informant agreement she signed to keep her out of prison. Faced with a significant dilemma, Shea must stomach that the Sisterhood is run by her ex, Deb Raymond. Hesitant, but knowing it is her only chance not to lose it all, Shea agrees to work with the police and worms her way into the Sisterhood. With their strong anti-misogynist views, the Sisterhood clashes with the Confederate Thunder over territory and the right to exist, leading to numerous violent encounters and significant bloodshed. As the number of drug-related deaths rise, Shea pushes harder to get into the middle of the Sisterhood, which leads to a blurring of lines with Deb and places Shea’s committed relationship on the ropes. Shea is aware that the Thunder are holding onto a significant amount of product and surmises that it might have been sold to the person responsible for adding the strychnine. The club clashes turn deadly and Shea must take a stand, which places her in a precarious position, trying to protect those she loves while revealing someone by the name of Bonefish, who is at the heart of the distribution. Shea’s work as a CI takes over and she begins to lose focus of what matter. What will it take for Shea to reach the tipping point and which ‘family’ will she choose? With powerful themes and significant undertones, Kelleher offers readers a powerful second instalment of the series.
My knowledge of outlaw motorcycle gangs does not extend past SAMCRO, though I felt as though I was in the middle of a realistic clash on the rough streets of Ironwood, Arizona. Kelleher surely uses some of her personal experiences to help shape the novel and its significant plot lines, much as she did when introducing the reader to the concept in the debut novel. A vast array of characters from various walks of life helps develop the numerous plot lines and creates the needed clash and banter that fuels this clash of wills. Shea Stevens has a convoluted past, as well as a present life that borders on the insane, both of which become clearer through the narrative and the situations into which the protagonist is put. While dealing with some fairly common themes in the mystery genre (drugs, violence, murder), Kelleher is able to spin things to keep them unique and fresh, which is highly appealing to the reader. Keeping the story fast-paced and developing twists throughout, Kelleher keeps the reader guessing until the very end and leaves the series with a few loose ends that can, one would hope, find some resolution in yet another novel. I look forward to seeing more work by Kelleher in the near future, as she has a strong handle on how to keep the reader fixated on the life of motorcycle outlaws.
Kudos, Madam Kelleher for a wonderful follow-up novel. I will be promoting your work to anyone who wants to give this new and evolving genre a try. Know you have a significant fan in me. 

The Bone Field (The Bone Field Series #1), by Simon Kernick

Eight stars

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

Bringing his Ray Mason character back for a new round of police adventures, Simon Kernick has a recipe for success with the plot of this novel. During a holiday in 1990, a young woman’s body goes missing in Thailand, never to be found. With nothing on which to go, life continues for everyone, including the seemingly distraught Henry Forbes, boyfriend to the victim. Twenty-six years later, Forbes has information about his missing girlfriend and reaches out to DI Ray Mason, citing that the body is in England and the killer is part of a large group that have many sinister plans. While Mason and Forbes are meeting on the sly, a group attacks the house and leaves Forbes dead, with Mason only just able to escape. His superiors are furious but also baffled when they discover the body, as well as that from another cold-case from around the same time. DI Mason is put in touch with a private investigator, Tina Boyd, who was also contacted by Forbes, and they begin piecing together what might have happened and who could be behind the murder decades ago, as well as the recent attack and murder of Forbes. Mason remembers an occult symbol on Forbes’ arm and seeks to determine if it is a solid clue. Just as the authorities are honing in on a viable suspect, Mason makes an error that has fatal consequences, which has him suspended. Refusing to give up, Mason works with PI Boyd to trace the events of Thailand and before to determine who might be trying to exact revenge all these years later. What they discover shakes them to the core and leaves the door open for scores of other potential victims. Kernick offers readers a powerful and well-paced story that could flourish into an intriguing series, should the author desire.

This is my first time reading anything by Simon Kernick and I found it highly entertaining. While I might usually read a series in order (meaning I might have secured and read the first Ray Mason novel to get sufficient context), I did not feel lost or out of place by entering at this stage. Kernick develops a few key characters in an effective manner, particularly his protagonist. Mason is a complex police officer, whose past on the Force has been anything but smooth sailing. Added to that, his traumatic childhood, which helps coax out certain dramatic portion of the narrative, as well as allowing the reader to forge an instant connection. The premise of the story is interesting as well, though it was not as ‘captivating’ as some of the dust jacket narratives might have led me to hope. Murders, especially cold cases, can have a wonderfully complex nature, leaving the detective to pull at any strings and chase many paths, some of which lead nowhere. While I was not up late into the night, wondering what could be waiting in the next chapter, Kernick has developed a strong foundation, should Mason and PI Boyd return for another instalment. I will keep an eye out for it, in hopes that the impact is as effective. 

Kudos, Mr. Kernick for this entertaining piece of writing. I see you have a lot of other books in your collection, which might be something for me to explore later on this year.

Without Warning (J.B. Collins #3), by Joel C. Rosenberg

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Joel C. Rosenberg, and Tyndall House Publishers for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

Rosenberg returns with another powerful political thriller, the final instalment of this trilogy, that takes an interesting spin on ISIS and Western reactionism. J.B. Collins, War Correspondent for the New York Times, remains skeptical of the US Administration’s plan to combat ISIS, as Abu Khalif, its purported leader, remains at large. Khalif and ISIS have perpetrated major and catastrophic attacks against infidel states and US-backers, culminating in the kidnapping of the American president and a massacre during a major Middle East peace summit (both of which occur in past novels, familiar to the series fan). With the State of the Union Address hours away, US President Harrison Taylor dismisses concerns Collins raises about Khalif and ISIS as a whole. Taylor wonders if he ought not to rescind his offer of a Presidential Medal of Freedom to the acclaimed journalist. When the Capitol is attacked during the Address, all hell breaks loose and Collins soon learns that ISIS has struck again, but on a much larger scale. Seeking to get away from the violence and drama, alongside an inability to stomach the lies Taylor seems to be spinning to the American public, Collins eyes a return to Maine with his brother, Matt. As they travel, a personal tragedy befalls them and Collins learns just how inept the Administration has become when it comes to ending the reign of terror that ISIS and Abu Khalif have over the world. Could the answers be in the Middle East, where American allies can fight a war against this radical and apocalyptic Islam? Collins seeks to reinvent himself and must decide if he can take up the torch, using his own set of allies to help topple ISIS at its heart before the world must fall on blended knee and admit defeat to the terrorists. With a sensational culmination to a stunningly realistic series, Rosenberg shocks readers to the core. This story and the complete trilogy offer a poignant and blunt narrative, weaving through fact and plausible fiction. A must read for those who love political thrillers and can stomach mild Christian inculcation. 

I have long been a fan of Rosenberg and his political fiction. This is the third series I have devoured as quickly as the novels come off the presses, all using a strong biblical undertone paired against current events in one of the most unstable political powder kegs. Rosenberg gathers a wonderful cross-section of characters, pulled from key states that propel the story forward and seem plausible in the fight against ISIS. Additionally, injecting realistic political and religious impairments brings a whole new level to the character interactions and places reality that much closer to the reader’s grasp. While ISIS remains the buzz word in the news today and seems to permeate thriller novels to no end, I never tired of hearing Rosenberg’s spin. I have mentioned how the same drivel bores and irritates me, Rosenberg’s angle is not only refreshing, but more realistic than some secret operative mowing down anyone who utters ‘Allah’ before ‘Hello’. Those familiar with Rosenberg’s novels will know that he has been found to offer eerie foreboding buried within his novels, perhaps tying all the pieces together as his protagonist is known for doing in this book. To treat Rosenberg’s work as pure fiction is to ignore the nuances and attention to detail the author places as he pens his plots. The writing style is some of the best in the genre and the short chapters offer readers a wonderful ability to get hooked and beg themselves to read ‘just a little more’ as cliffhangers grow exponentially. While I am not a fan of ‘in your face’ Christianity, I have become immune to some of it in Rosenberg’s stories and dodge the born-again land mines that emerge throughout. Rosenberg knows what he is doing and readers should flock in his direction, if only to learn about the Middle East and its political importance on the world scene.

Kudos, Mr. Rosenberg. You have done it again with a powerful political thriller series that has me so captivated. I have promoted you and your work to as many people as will listen. This novel proves yet again that my recommendations are well founded.