It Can’t be October Already: A Short Story, by Jeffrey Archer

Eight stars

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

Lord Jeffrey Archer continues to prove that he is a wordsmith, showing off those skills in this wonderfully succinct piece. Patrick O’Flynn is caught red-handed as he is in the midst of committing a crime one October night. O’Flynn seems to be well-known to the authorities, all of whom wonder if it can, again, be October. As he is taken in and processed, O’Flynn continues to greet those who know him well. A brief encounter with the courts earn him six months in jail, which seems to play into the larger plan that he has concocted already. After he is sent off the Belmarsh, O’Flynn reveals his larger plan to his cellmate, at which time it all makes sense. Quick witted throughout this short piece, Archer keeps the reader guessing through to the ‘aha’ moment. Perfect for a coffee break and sure to impress a cross-section of readers.

I remain impressed with the work Lord Archer produces (or resurrects) at the drop of a hat. He has a way of pulling the reader in from the early pages and not letting up until the final phrase lingers in the air. While there is little time for character development, Archer does present enough backstory for the reader to feel some connection to O’Flynn. From there, it is the short back and forth as the narrative builds through to the end, where Archer injects his notable twist. Any reader who loves a full novel by this English master will adore the short stories that keep things light and highly entertaining. Well worth the invested time and effort.

Kudos, Lord Archer for this wonderful piece. I look forward to all you have going on and sketched out for future publications. 

Never Stop on the Motorway: A Short Story, by Jeffrey Archer

Eight stars

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

Lord Jeffrey Archer has made a name for himself, with spellbinding novels spanning over three decades. He has also proven to be equally talented when it comes to the short story, as is exemplified in this electronic republication of a past piece. Diana is a successful divorced mother of two, who enjoys life whenever possible. During her only childless weekend, she accepts an invitation to a country getaway. After a brief delay, Diana dodges commuter traffic and hopes to make up for lost time. However, she is soon being followed by a large van she cannot shake, its headlights glaring into her rearview mirror. No matter what she does, Diana is unable to lose this crazed driver, who follows her when she executes the most Bond-like driving off the A1. As panic sets in, Diana recollects some recent police alert about a serial rapist who has been targeting single women on the road. With this madman on her bumper, will she be the next victim? Archer weaves a wonderful story that keeps the reader on edge for the short time they are enveloped in this piece. Perfect for that coffee or lunch break, with just enough thrill to keep the heart pumping rapidly.

In all the years I have been reading Lord Jeffrey Archer, I have yet to be underwhelmed. His stories are always full of intrigue and he hashes out his characters with ease. In a short story, it is essential to pull the reader in and have them connect to the character, which Archer does as he spins the backstory needed to feel for Diana. From there, it is the swift development of the plot and some of the subplots that keep the reader pushing forward. Archer has that mastered here, leaving the reader to wonder about this mysterious van driver and how far things will go, even as Diana has her destination in sight. As with many Archer pieces, the end is where it all comes together, pushing the protagonist to the limits before injecting a wonderful twist. This is Archer at his best, bar none.

Kudos, Lord Archer for this wonderful piece, which I cannot remember reading in the past. You have such a way with words and I can only hope you will continue churing out masterful pieces for many years to come.

The Lucky Ones, by Mark Edwards

NIne stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Mark Edwards, and Thomas & Mercer for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Yet another powerful thriller from the mind of Mark Edwards, pulling the reader into the middle of a serial killer’s rampage, fuelled by an interesting justification. DI Imogen Evans is on the hunt for the Shropshire Viper, someone who has been injecting victims with morphine. While the investigation intensifies, Evans learns of an odd connection between the three victims; something that could blow the case wide open. Is there a degree of ‘luck’ or ‘happiness’ tied to these killings, for both the killer and the victim? In a parallel narrative, Ben Holland has been struggling as a single father, back in the village of his youth. Raising his son, Ollie, and trying to begin divorce proceedings, Ben has been unable to find his niche as he struggled to redefine himself. With the Viper in the area, Ben is forced to confront his estranged wife, Megan, and her new beau, a glitzy television presenter. How will it all play out and does someone have a little ‘luck’ that they might be able to pass along to Ben, under the right circumstances? In this crime thriller that pulls the readers in many directions, Edwards shows how he has earned the reputation of being a fabulous writer. Perfect for those who want to up their heart rate and ponder where the killer might be lying in wait.

I have always found Mark Edwards to be at the top of his game and this novel only further exemplifies that. Working with this one-off novel, the key is to create characters who are both easy to explore and fast to present their backstories. Pair that with the ever-evolving storyline of a murder investigation and the reader is required to juggle a great deal and keep names straight in short order. Edwards writes in such a way that this is no impediment to the larger narrative and the reader is hooked by everything that is going on. Through the interesting technique of random chapters told through the eyes of the killer, the reader is able to discern a few key elements of the crime and crawl inside to better understand the ‘lucky’ mindset that might be feeling these murders. With a wonderful mix of short and longer chapters, the reader hangs on every word and utilises the cliffhanger moments to propel themselves towards the end, unsure how they were able to finish so quickly. Once Edwards has the reader in his grasp, there is no letting go, until the final sentence. Even then, there is an eerie quality of ‘what if’ that keeps the reader pondering. Stellar work by one who has earned the right to call himself great!

Kudos, Mr. Edwards for another wonderful thriller. How you come up with so many wonderful ideas leaves me baffled, but please do not stop. I can see scores of new fans flocking to you once they get their hands on this piece.

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 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. 

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.