When a Rook Takes the Queen, by Edward Izzi

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Reedsy Discovery and Edward Izzi for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Edward Izzi is back with another explosive thriller set on the streets of Chicago. The highly controversial mayor of the city has been assassinated in her backyard and the media circus is only beginning. Alongside the hunt for a murderer, a keen reporter trips on a connection between a local crime boss and an highly activist priest. Might there be something there that no one’s yet realised? Izzi spins a tale like no other in his latest thriller, When a Rook Takes the Queen, that is sure to captivate the reader’s attention.

In the heart of the summer, a gunshot rings out and Chicago Mayor Janice Kollar lies dead in her garden. A controversial politician in her own right, Kollar had many enemies around town, on both sides of the law. However, it’s an investigation the CPD rushes to begin. With such a list of suspects, it will be hard to pinpoint who might have wanted the city’s first openly gay mayor lying in a casket.

As the story hits the wires, Chicago Tribune reporter, Larry McKay, rushes to make sense of it all and begin following leads. While the murder attracts a great deal of attention, McKay learns of a weekly chess match at St. Simeon’s Church between Fr. Colin Fitzgerald and organised crime boss Anthony ‘Little Tony’ DiMatteo. This baffles McKay, as Fitzgerald is known to be a staunch political activist and a former grand chess master. What business he has with a powerful mobster seems to make little sense. A few calls ruffle some feathers, but McKay is not dissuaded from proceeding.

Inside these weekly chess matches, it would seem ‘Father Fitz’ has been able to serve as a new family consigliere, providing inside and guidance to Little Tony in an advisory role. Their discussions look to how one might control the powder keg that Chicago is becoming with the murder of Mayor Kollar, turning to force and violence to quell things before a new incarnation of Black Lives Matter comes to fruition.

As McKay digs deeper and peddles his views to a fellow television reporter, his life is in danger. This unlikely ‘Chicago Gambit’ want nothing more than to silence McKay and keep their association off the radar. McKay cannot back down, especially with a killer still out there. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Edward Izzi does a masterful job tying in his thrilling political story with a criminal angle. Adding his usual flavourings of organised crime and the Catholic Church, the story gains momentum throughout and keeps the reader guessing how all the players will turn the plot throughout the piece. As always, there are some wonderful twists that only Izzi can deliver in his great style.

While the story is split between a number of storylines, Larry McKay does appear to hold firm to the role of protagonist. His gritty style and unwillingness to bow to the pressure only adds to his character. I admit, if he was a character in a past Izzi novel, he was minor, so I have little backstory for him. However, he grows on the reader with ease and is able to make an impact throughout with great development. His interactions with others, both major and minor characters, helps create a story that does not stop until the final page turn.

Izzi has always used an interesting technique for his secondary characters. As I have mentioned in past reviews, Izzi positions minor characters to have their time in the spotlight before fading away. Some are mentioned in passing and receive their cameo in a novel, only to slink back away, while others prove prominent and are paid lip service in subsequent novels. Here, there are a number of ‘has been’ prominent people who receive mere mention, as well as a few heavy hitters whose presence makes the book what it is. Izzi’s ability to use this technique, which I have seen elsewhere done almost as effectively, provides a standalone option for his novels, while luring fans to stick around and read them all, to tie the threads together.

The book itself was well paced and full of exciting plot development. While there are Catholic and organised crime themes throughout, their stereotypical presentation does not turn this into a mob novel. The story flows well, with a strong narrative that keeps the reader moving along. Short chapters can easily be devoured, allowing things to develop quickly and remain intense throughout. Edward Izzi is an author I only recently discovered, but I cannot get enough of his books. It could be the stories, the writing, or the ease of flow. Whatever that might be, I love when I see that another is ready for me.

Kudos, Mr. Izzi, for another winner. I am excited to see two more books in the pipeline and will gladly clear my schedule when that time comes!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

A Cold Day for August (Detective August Miller #1), by Charles Prandy

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Reedsy Discovery and Charles Prandy for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Always up for a good police procedural, I eagerly reached for Charles Prandy’s latest book A Cold Day for August. A detective works a baffling case where young women keep turning up murdered in various ways. With little to go on, Detective August Miller tries to follow up on the few leads presented to her. However, there’s something in her past that has her feeling a little off-kilter and may impede her usual clear headedness. A great start to what looks to be a new series, prefect for those who love a thriller with many twists.

Detective August Miller is a well-established homicide detective in Maryland. She’s called out to handle the discovery of a young woman’s body, apparently murdered by strangulation. With few leads, Miller must try to piece together the final night of the victim, in hopes of discovering the killer’s identity. While things seem to be leading in a certain direction, she encounters a few dead-ends, which only creates layers of frustration.

When another woman is found, this time drowned in a lake, Miller works even harder to piece the crimes together. Might there be a serial killer out there who is targeting young women for reasons as yet unknown? It’s also got Miller worried that someone from her past, her sister’s killer, has come back to resume his obsession.

While working these murders, Miller is called out to what seems like the suicide of an older gentleman. However, something is not making sense, leading Miller to think that there was some foul play. Could the case be tied to her two female victims?

With all this going on, Walter Presley, popular crime author, is going through his own issues. An admitted voyeur, Presley has been having a hard time pushing his urges down. He’s fixated on a new woman and ends up sneaking into her house on a whim, but has little interest other than spying on her. However, she’s gone missing and Walter cannot decide if he ought to come forward and help the authorities. His chance encounter with Detective Miller does not go well and a last-second decision puts him at the top of the suspect list. A killer is out there and Detective August Miller will have to find them before the victim count rises even more.

While I have never read anything by Charles Prandy, this book alone makes me wish I had. There is so much in this book that kept me wanting to read more, with a captivating writing style and a plot that never lost its fast pace. It was quite the experience learning about August Miller and her complex past, something I hope Prandy expands into a series of some length.

August Miller comes off as a strong protagonist, complex and yet easily relatable by the reader. She takes her work seriously and has no issue standing firm against the pushback she gets from her male colleagues. Her grit and determination propel her to never stop asking questions and trying to reveal truths that seem to elude others. Her personal struggles related to the murder of her sister seems to fuel Miller’s determination to help others, no matter the cost.

Prandy has a lot going on in this book and keeps his subplots developing with a strong supporting cast. While there were times that it was hard to keep track of everyone, Prandy keeps the characters evolving and intriguing, sure to help the reader want to know more. Be it the banter between Miller and the suspects or some of the lighter interactions in other chapters, Prandy uses his characters well to push the novel along.

I have read many crime thrillers and police procedurals over the years, some of which I found to be highly intriguing. Prandy opens his novel with what looks to be a killer’s journal, which had me hooked. I needed to know more and the story only got better from there. With a distinct narrative and strong dialogue, Prandy keeps the reader in the middle of the action. His short chapters not only propel the story forward, but forces the reader to push for “just a little more” before they put it down for a time. I was all-in from the early chapters and wanted to know more. By the end, I could only hope that August Miller might come back for another few cases, as she has something about her that remains unresolved. I’ll definitely add Charles Prandy to my list of authors to watch.

Kudos, Mr. Prandy, for a great novel. I will have to look into some of your other series, hoping they are just as good.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

The Injection, by D.L. Jones (and Devante Cresh)

Six stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Reedsy Discovery and D.L. Jones for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Intrigued by the premise of his latest novel, I turned to D.L. Jones’ The Injection for something that straddles the medical and psychological thriller genres. When a pharmaceutical product shows interesting results in animal trials, it is used without being fully vetted on a man with an as yet unclear agenda. The results could be problematic, particularly when further lab tests show unexpected side effects. Jones keeps the reader guessing in this piece that has some great moments, though is mired in a sluggish narrative.

Tracey Jones has been hard at work on Hypo, an injection that could revolutionise the pharmaceutical world. Working to augment the actions of the hypothalamus gland, this drug allows the user to utilise sheer determination and strict focus to complete a task, dulling the pain and leaving the skin more resistant to injury. Its testing on mice is going well, though coming off the drug has the user entering a long and fitful slumber, likely as a form of recuperation.

When Tracey reaches out to his college friend, Chauncy Peters, the reaction is one of only slight trepidation. Chauncy and his wife had a run-in with Tracey back in college, something that helped fuel an exceptional thesis, but left the Joneses feeling betrayed. While Chauncy is eager to see his old friend, he has other things on his mind. His electronics shop has been the subject of a number of break-ins of late, which had the cops involved. The only other event in town that rivals the break-ins would be the number of week-long kidnappings taking place.

After Chauncy and Tracey spend some time together, they find themselves caught in the web of these same kidnappers. Tied-up and likely to be held for a while, Tracey talks about an experimental drug he’s been working on, Hypo. With some samples on him, Tracey and Chauncy inject themselves and show great force. They are able to escape, though the after effects leave both feeling completely drained.

Chauncy is shocked by the abilities this Hypo has on him and accepts a number of vials to use at his discretion. Tracey leaves town and returns to the lab to see how things are progressing. While Chauncy comes to terms with what has happened to him, he uses the drug’s determinative effects to help overcome an issue getting his wife pregnant. While she loves the vivaciousness her husband shows, Mrs. Peters comes to resent his aggressive side, something she shares repeatedly with a friend.

As Chauncy continues to use the drug to solve his everyday issues, Tracey learns some troubling news from additional trials, primarily that aggression is heightened to homicidal levels after prolonged use. Once Chauncy discovers a secret his wife has been keeping from him, he acts in the only way he knows how, though is clueless to the aggressive trigger he’s set off inside himself.

As the world seems to have turned against him, Chauncy Peters takes matters into his own hands, only to realise that he’s been played yet again. His aggression sees him get into trouble with the law. Blinded by rage, the truth spirals out of control and Chauncy has lost his ability to regulate. All from a simple injection!

Having never read any D.L. Jones before, I was eager to see if this might be an author I would add to my list. I enjoyed the dust jacket blurb for this book, which left me wondering how things would play out. However, even with such an intriguing premise, the narrative delivery offered some issues that left me feeling cheated and out of sorts.

Chauncy Peters serves the story well, not only as an unwitting test subject for a new drug, but as a local businessman who wants to help his community. He loves his wife and wants a family, though seems distracted by some of the things that he has going on. When introduced to Hypo, it takes over his world, much as illicit drugs might form an addiction. Before he can regulate himself, Chauncy is fixated on the effect the drug has on him and lets it overtake him. Struggling to find a calm balance, Chauncy becomes the author of his own demise, unable to allocate blame where it is needed.

Jones uses some interesting supporting characters to develop his story, some of whom serve their purpose well, while others are truly as flimsy as they present themselves to be. The story works well with some of the core secondary characters, though there are a few plot lines that were likely created solely to substantiate the use of other names that pepper the pages of this book. I can see what Jones was trying to do with some of his minor characters, but could have used less of their flighty interactions.

While I cannot fault the core idea of the story, I found the delivery to be full of issues. The narrative was not as crisp as it could have been, at times recounted in a 1920s dark sleuth mystery, complete with “Girl, if only you…” and “Gosh, ….” I sought grit in the writing and got moments of pablum. Even the rage Chauncy Peters showed throughout was diluted to the point of being unbelievable in the present day. There were some narrative twists, which did work well and the chapters were short enough to make me want to forge ahead, but I worry for readers who are expecting something sharp and edgy, based on the summary. While not a book clinging to life-support, some readers may call out a Code Blue to resuscitate the narrative from its 1920s shell!

Kudos, Mr. Jones, for a valiant effort with a strong premise. Perhaps your work with your own alter ego left you divided in how to present this as top of the genre. I may come back for another try of a different publication, when time permits.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Stolen Truth, by Henya Drescher

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Reedsy Discovery and Henya Drescher for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Eager to get my hands on a great psychological thriller, I turned to Henya Drescher’s Stolen Truth, which documents a woman’s struggle to find her missing husband and newborn when no one believes her. The story touches on a number of chilling themes and kept me reading into the evening as I sought to piece the underlying story together. Well worth a look by interested readers.

Bree Michaelson wakes in a haze, unsure what’s going on. She realises that she’s slept for hours longer than she ought to have and yet her newborn, Noah, has not woken. When she goes to check on him, he’s not there. In fact, there is no sign of him whatsoever, including no baby clothes, furniture, or photos. Bree’s husband, Todd, is also gone, without a trace.

In a state of panic, Bree calls the police and demands that they come help. While she waits, the reader learns through Bree that Todd was a very secretive man and forced her to cut ties with everyone she knew, friends and family alike. Noah was also born to a midwife, Connie, who had been staying with the couple. She, too, is missing.

When the local officer arrives, he does a cursory look, but nothing is adding up. There is no sign of anyone ever having lived there with Bree. The officer agrees to make some calls, but can promise nothing. Bree begins to question everything around her and cannot understand what’s going on. She remembers being pregnant and has the leaking breasts, as well as loose stomach, to show for it.

As Bree begins an investigation on her own, she discovers that no one wants to help and that her own family does not believe her. Having been isolated from everyone, she does not appear to have anything to show for her time with Todd and Noah. The more she asks questions, the fewer answers emerge.

Coming to terms with her own mental health issues in the past, Bree must try to convince herself that she is not fabricating all of this, but an inexplicable victim. Bree will need to turn to the most unlikely source for help, as they may just be her last hope to prove that she’s telling the truth. Then again, what she discovers is equally as baffling!

Having never read anything by Henya Drescher before, I was eager to check out her writing. The premise of the story had me curious and I was hooked from the early chapters. Watching Bree Michaelson appear to swim upstream to prove herself is a wonderful theme throughout this piece, while the reader questions what us real and where the mind of a traumatized woman has filled in the missing pieces.

Bree Michaelson is a wonderfully complex character, whose story emerges throughout the development of the narrative. Not only does she have to deal with a baby who has gone missing, but she questions everything about the man who got her into this mess. Where does truth end and fallacy begin? Bree’s sordid past makes it harder for others to trust her, though she is determined to prove that she is of sound mind and that someone’s targeting her for reasons as yet unknown.

Drescher does a wonderful job with her supporting characters, offering the reader a glimpse at a fabulous cross-section of people who help enrich the story. While some add only a small piece to the larger puzzle, others know Bree well and help coax out information key to the reader’s better understand of what’s taking place. The banter and interactions add much to the story and help make the plot even better.

The premise of the piece may not be entirely unique, but it was developed in such a way as to pull the reader in from the opening pages and leave them wondering. The latter portion of the book alone takes the reader down quite the rabbit hole, bringing things together in ways that few could have ever predicted. All signs of a masterful writer that can keep the reader from standing on solid ground.

Drescher uses strong writing to string the reader along, setting the scene and then opening up many of the story’s hidden doors as the plot develops. This serves to keep the reader open their toes and guessing, even if the most likely answer is right before them. Use of different chapter lengths serves to keep the reader from getting into too much of a lull, mixing up the short bits to keep the momentum going and then adding longer an more detailed portions when the information is such that one has to keep going to see how it will play out. Strong characters and a narrative that takes things in many directions keeps things fresh throughout while always leaving the reader wondering if they missed something obvious, a la Sixth Sense. Drescher is masterful in her storytelling and I can only hope to find more of her work in the coming years.

Kudos, Madam Drescher, for such a captivating piece. I will be sure to recommend others try this novel to see what they think for themselves.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

The Shelton Mill, by Elaine Gavigan

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Reedsy Discovery and Elaine Gavigan for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Looking for something a little more conspiratorial, I turned to this novel by Elaine Gavigan. The Shelton Mill offers readers a glimpse into a story that explores how greed and political corruption make for strange (and usual) bedfellows, leaving the ‘little gal’ to push back and fight for the truth. A decent read, though not as stirring as I would have hoped, given the dust jacket blurb.

Ellen Larkin enjoys working as an investigative reporter with the Boston Chronicle and has been compiling information on a major story about kickbacks in the construction industry. However, due to a massive diminution in advertising revenue, she’s handed a pink slip by the newspaper and sent on her way.

Her dreams of a Pulitzer dashed and a bank account on fumes, Ellen is forced to look for work. While her reputation precedes her, she knows that a job in journalism is a lofty ask so quickly agrees to a position at Gargantua, a recruitment company that has been siphoning the aforementioned advertising dollars from the Chronicle.Things are a tad strange when she arrives for an interview, but Ellen chalks it up to her own paranoia.

With Gargantua located in the Shelton Mill, a piece of property with a long history all its own, Ellen knows that she’s in for an interesting work experience. Early in her training, she comes across something that leads her to believe that Guarantua’s tied in with the construction scheme she had been investigating. Might her time here allow Ellen to covertly gather intel for the story of a lifetime, positioning her to be brought back to the Chronicle and offered a Pulitzer?

As organised crime in Boston is as intense as ever, with both the Irish and Italians happy to stick their fingers in as many corrupt pies as possible, Ellen will have to be attuned to those who may wish to silence her. One wrong move could ruin her chances and leave her footing in the Charles River, another crime statistic the Chronicle may not even cover!

While this appears to be the first published novel by Elaine Gavigan, there is a great deal of potential. The ingredients are there for something gripping, though it takes a little time for the narrative to heat up to the point that I was fully committed.

Ellen Larkin serves as a decent protagonist for this piece. Her dreams of reaching journalism’s elite halls may not have yet been realised, but she knows her stuff. With an interesting backstory, she puts all her efforts into earning her paycheque by being intuitive and gritty. Struggling to make ends meet, she does all she can to keep the money coming in and yet she cannot help but feel she’s owed something.

Gavigan uses a large array of characters to keep the story on point, pulling on Boston’s varying cross-section of cultures and socio-economic groups. Many of those who grace the pages serve to push the story along, though there are ties when things lag and I might have sought less backstory or tangential character development. Still, there’s something intriguing about her character choices, all of whom complement one another as the piece progresses.

The premise of the story worked well for me, with corruption embedded into the core of the city’s largest construction project, The Big Dig. While things started off well, there was a point when I was waving my hands in the air to get back to the central theme of the story and lessen Guarantua’s superficial public persona. Gavigan knows how to writer and can set a scene effectively, but it lacked the needed momentum for me to remain hooked with the plot.

Shorter chapters worked to keep me pushing onward, but I needed something more to hold my attention, rather than tap my finger as I tried to keep my attention focussed on the next major reveal. I’d likely return for another novel, as Ellen Larkin has some sass worth seeing developed on another occasion.

Kudos, Madam Gavigan, for a great debut (I presume) novel. You’ve got some talent that needs a little developing for greater success.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

The Shelton Mill, by Elaine Gavigan

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Reedsy Discovery and Elaine Gavigan for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Looking for something a little more conspiratorial, I turned to this novel by Elaine Gavigan. The Shelton Mill offers readers a glimpse into a story that explores how greed and political corruption make for strange (and usual) bedfellows, leaving the ‘little gal’ to push back and fight for the truth. A decent read, though not as stirring as I would have hoped, given the dust jacket blurb.

Ellen Larkin enjoys working as an investigative reporter with the Boston Chronicle and has been compiling information on a major story about kickbacks in the construction industry. However, due to a massive diminution in advertising revenue, she’s handed a pink slip by the newspaper and sent on her way.

Her dreams of a Pulitzer dashed and a bank account on fumes, Ellen is forced to look for work. While her reputation precedes her, she knows that a job in journalism is a lofty ask so quickly agrees to a position at Gargantua, a recruitment company that has been siphoning the aforementioned advertising dollars from the Chronicle.Things are a tad strange when she arrives for an interview, but Ellen chalks it up to her own paranoia.

With Gargantua located in the Shelton Mill, a piece of property with a long history all its own, Ellen knows that she’s in for an interesting work experience. Early in her training, she comes across something that leads her to believe that Guarantua’s tied in with the construction scheme she had been investigating. Might her time here allow Ellen to covertly gather intel for the story of a lifetime, positioning her to be brought back to the Chronicle and offered a Pulitzer?

As organised crime in Boston is as intense as ever, with both the Irish and Italians happy to stick their fingers in as many corrupt pies as possible, Ellen will have to be attuned to those who may wish to silence her. One wrong move could ruin her chances and leave her footing in the Charles River, another crime statistic the Chronicle may not even cover!

While this appears to be the first published novel by Elaine Gavigan, there is a great deal of potential. The ingredients are there for something gripping, though it takes a little time for the narrative to heat up to the point that I was fully committed.

Ellen Larkin serves as a decent protagonist for this piece. Her dreams of reaching journalism’s elite halls may not have yet been realised, but she knows her stuff. With an interesting backstory, she puts all her efforts into earning her paycheque by being intuitive and gritty. Struggling to make ends meet, she does all she can to keep the money coming in and yet she cannot help but feel she’s owed something.

Gavigan uses a large array of characters to keep the story on point, pulling on Boston’s varying cross-section of cultures and socio-economic groups. Many of those who grace the pages serve to push the story along, though there are ties when things lag and I might have sought less backstory or tangential character development. Still, there’s something intriguing about her character choices, all of whom complement one another as the piece progresses.

The premise of the story worked well for me, with corruption embedded into the core of the city’s largest construction project, The Big Dig. While things started off well, there was a point when I was waving my hands in the air to get back to the central theme of the story and lessen Guarantua’s superficial public persona. Gavigan knows how to writer and can set a scene effectively, but it lacked the needed momentum for me to remain hooked with the plot.

Shorter chapters worked to keep me pushing onward, but I needed something more to hold my attention, rather than tap my finger as I tried to keep my attention focussed on the next major reveal. I’d likely return for another novel, as Ellen Larkin has some sass worth seeing developed on another occasion.

Kudos, Madam Gavigan, for a great debut (I presume) novel. You’ve got some talent that needs a little developing for greater success.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

The Night the Doorbell Rang, by Chalon J. Harris

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Reedsy Discovery and Chalon J. Harris for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Storming onto the scene with her debut thriller, Chalon Harris pens a wonderful short novel that will keep the reader guessing as the story unfolds. Told from two perspectives, this is one piece that will keep readers hooked throughout while dodging any random ringing of the doorbell. Recommended to those who love a quick and gritty story.

Jerry Bishop had a long history with the Boston PD, solving many tricky cases and making a name for himself. However, one slipped through his fingers, the disappearance and murder of a teenage girl. After all the leads dried up and the case went cold, Jerry could not stomach disappointing the family, sending him into retirement.

Jerry is now settled in New Hampshire with his wife, Cheryl. When someone rings the doorbell in the middle of the night, neither can be entirely sure what’s going on. Jerry goes to greet the insistent ringer, a decision he will soon regret. What follows is likely something out of the Bishops’ worst nightmare.

Two masked men storm the house and begin torturing both Jerry and Cheryl. It is only after much blood is shed that the reason for their presence is revealed. Both attackers seem hell bent to exact a form of revenge, while the Bishops do all they can to stay alive. It will take all of Jerry’s skills to get the upper hand, but even that could lead to issues when the police arrive at the scene.

In a story that forces Jerry to revisit many of the details surrounding the cold case that left him feeling inadequate, the reader must prepare themselves for a tale that will run through a series of emotions. If there is a silver lining to it all for Jerry, one might look to the stellar cliffhanger Harris provides in the closing pages.

I love a great thriller, especially by a new author on the scene. Chalon Harris has all the ingredients for a great piece mixing strong plot lines with well-developed characters. I am shocked that this is her first novel, as it flows so well and lacks the sluggishness some debut authors exhibit.

Both Jerry and Cheryl Bishop serve as wonderful protagonists in this piece. They each bring a wonderful story, with the novel split between their perspectives. Jerry’s experience with the cold case is an essential part of the thrill ride, while Cheryl’s detailed explanations of what is taking place keeps the reader feeling as through they are in the middle of the action. While this is likely a one-off piece, Harris leaves the reader wanting more from the Bishops in the future.

There is a handful of strong secondary characters as well, each of whom pop off the page and serve an integral part of the larger narrative. From the two thugs who appear on the doorstep through to the police and medical staff, each help push the story forward and help secure the reader’s interest.

While the premise of a stranger on the doorstep may not send chills down the reader’s spine, Chalon Harris is able to build on this to keep the reader hooked. Told with great detail and some painful depictions of the treatment of others, the narrative flows well and there is always a twist lurking around the corner that leaves the reader guessing. Harris uses a mix of chapter lengths in this short novel to keep the reader on their toes, or at least flipping pages until they can discover how everything comes together. Trouble is, that cliffhanger pulls the blocks out and sends the entire happy ending into disarray, at least for some!

Kudos, Madam Harris, for a stunning debut. I will keep my eyes open for more of your work and encourage others to do the same.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

The Parisian Professor, by Joseph Sciuto

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Reedsy Discovery and Joseph Sciuto for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

In this thriller with a great deal of ‘current event’ moments, Joseph Sciuto keeps readers intrigued with a story that has a little of everything. A decent plot and well-crafted characters work in the author’s favour, keeping the reader entranced throughout, even if things get a tad hokey at various points. Recommended to those who need something a little off the beaten path when it comes to a suspense novel.

After spending some time in the CIA’s Kabul office, Nick leaves under a cloud of suspicion and lands in Paris for another assignment. Asked to pose as a university student, Nick’s target is a young Abdul Haqq, a suspected terrorist with lofty plans. While it may seem easy enough, Nick’s conscience gets the better of him and he befriends Abdul, who does not appear to be the staunch Muslim some might expect.

While Nick seeks to learn a little more of Abdul’s plans, he meets and instantly falls in love with Abdul’s adoptive sister, Gabrielle. The two siblings could not be more opposite, something they both make perfectly clear to Nick during countless conversations. Nick works through the emotions he has for them both and comes to a decision, he will have to finish his work for the Agency, flee Paris with Gabrielle, and settle down in America.

Along the route to completing the mission, Abdul confides in Nick what he’s been selling, but feigns any wrong doing and ensures that these small bombs are for the personal protection of those who can afford them. Abdul insists that Nick drop the obvious love interest he has for Gabrielle, a woman not worth any man’s time.

Meanwhile, Nick learns some harrowing truths about Gabrielle, which will help him solidify the need to get her out of the country. All the while, there is a larger and more sinister plan for Abdul, one in which Gabrielle may have a hand in creating. This includes a new destination for Abdul and a wily professor who is calling all the shots as a well-placed member of the Agency. All Nick wants is out of this game, though he may have left himself beholden to something even more troubling. When the professor take matters into his own hands, Nick surmises that there is something nefarious taking place, all the way up the chain of command.

This is my first novel by Joseph Sciuto, though it seems he has numerous others that have been published over the years. There is certainly something unique about the piece, both in its presentation and the topics covered. While not entirely what I expected from the dust jacket blurb, the story does work and kept me wanting to forge ahead with every page turn.

Nick is one of those protagonists who reveals much, but sometimes not enough. His ability to connect with the reader is present, though not always complete. With an interesting backstory, both before and during his time within the Agency, Nick’s growth within the novel is surely the means by which he is noticed by the reader. Slightly focussed on the next chapter in his life, the reader may not see Nick’s actions as being much more than a conduit to get Abdul into the hands of the real movers and shakers who’ll make a difference.

There is a strong core of secondary characters, including the young Gabrielle. The reader, alongside Nick, are left to wonder if she is a clueless pawn in the entire mission, though it is her horrifying past that becomes what defines her. She presents herself as vulnerable, while others around her are as cold as can be, which proves to be an interesting contrast throughout the piece. Sciuto utilises a handful of secondary characters to flavour the narrative and keep the reader from falling into a lull throughout the story. It is primarily these interactions that push the story into a ‘hokey’ domain at times. Silly dialogue and what appears to be outlandish decision-making (ie marriage at the drop of a hat) that lessens the impact of the story for me.

While the premise may not be unique, Sciuto does not rest on the laurels of the Agency man trying to foil a terrorist plot to push the story along. There is much more to this piece that is only truly revealed through dedication and a great attention to detail. With some wonderful political commentary of what is going on around the world at present, Sciuto injects added reality to a story that seems plausible at times. There are some eye-rolling moments, but they come primarily from some of the character banter and the mysterious tough guy demeanour of the professor, as well as some of the aforementioned silly comments that arise in dialogue. With a mix of chapter lengths, the reader is pushed to read on and see how things will reveal themselves, though it is surely a tangential journey.

Kudos, Mr. Sciuto, for this interesting spin on what is surely a great story. I’ll likely return to try out some more of your work in the months to come, primarily to see how you craft your other work in comparison with my first impressions.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Death in the Cloud (Michael Nicholas #4), by E.J. Simon

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Reedsy Discovery and E. J. Simon for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

In a series that has grown exponentially in its depth and degree of action, E.J. Simon brings what is surely his best work to date with this novel. Working angles of artificial intelligence and nuclear warfare, Simon injects a thriller that will have readers flipping pages simply to determine how things will resolve themselves. A series to note for those who need something lighter, but still seek reading entertainment throughout!

Michael Nicholas took on more than he expected when obtaining the laptop belonging to his deceased brother, Alex. Not only wanting to be a fond memory for his younger brother, Alex also sought to communicate with Michael in the age of technology. The laptop, full of programs that create an artificial intelligence version of the elder Nicholas, permit Alex to communicate in real time using many complex algorithms. With a constant connection to the internet and ability to pull things from the cloud, Alex grows smarter and provides Michael with key information on essential topics, wherever possible.

The brothers know who had Alex killed and even the depths to which the Vatican tried to cover it up. There remains a group who seek to utilise this technology for themselves, creating a neo-Nazi group that will be able to topple any government and run effectively by using the technology Alex held dear to withstand anything put in their way. Its leader is the conniving Claus Dietrich, with Monsignor Kurt Schlegelberger, a former member of the Vatican, as its loyal foot soldier. Schlegelberger may have met an untimely death at the hands of Michael Nicholas, but the acquisition of the artificial intelligence that Alex uses has made the monsignor even more powerful, ready to act and leave the world trembling as it watches.

When a previously missing aircraft emerges in the skies over Washington, it’s a mad scramble to determine where it had been and what the plan is now. A skittish pilot, given a mission to crash land, is having second thoughts, which is not entirely what Kurt Schlegelberger wants to hear. Able to commandeer control of the aircraft, the White House its target, Schlegelberger does all in his power through computer controls to create damage of incalculable proportions. Only the last-ditch efforts of the US Government can bring it down, where certain truths seem to surface soon thereafter.

The plane was full of passengers, including Russia’s leading opposition member who has a long history of speaking out against the current regime. All eyes turn to Moscow and a leader ready to wrest world control away from the Americans. And yet, Michael Nicholas may hold all the answers, bundled into the laptop he possesses. When Nicholas is summoned to the White House, he presents what he has to the president, though Alex is not entirely on board with the display. This is, after all, still his secret from the world.

A reluctant Alex does make an appearance and surmises that this may not have been the Russian attack it appears to be on the surface. Still trying to piece it all together, Alex and Michael wonder if Monsignor Schlegelberger could be behind this, as there was a time he knew of the technological capabilities that Alex possessed. Extrapolating from there, with the ability to control things through the cloud, might Schlegelberger be able to play a game of chess between the American and Russian governments, thereby allowing his neo-Nazi regime to waltz into a power vacuum?

While all this is coming together, Michael remains firm in not revealing Alex’s secret to the world, even those closest to the brothers. However, Alex’s widow is becoming quite suspicious and no longer accepts all that she’s been fed. The coffin with Alex’s body has been unearthed and an unknown body sits therein. A secretive priest offers up a box of ashes, citing Alex’s desire to be cremated, though this does not sound like Alex at all. Is Alex Nicholas dead, or in hiding and perpetrating some fantastic ruse elsewhere?

When Schlegelberger is able to pull off an amazing hack on American soil, he’s ready to enact the final part of his plan, one that will see the two great powers on the verge of complete annihilation. Top officials have only one solution to stop Schlegelberger once and for all. With nuclear warheads in the equation, nothing is off limits, even if it means sacrificing Alex Nicholas’ artificial intelligence in the process.

The journey on which E. J. Simon has taken me in this series proves to be highly entertaining and thought provoking at the same time. Some might call it lighter fare, though this does not diminish the impact of the novels and actually leaves me to ask some things of myself. Questions surrounding technological phenomena, such as artificial intelligence and its usefulness moving into the 21st century, balance nicely within this thriller genre that has become more complex as the novels progress. Simon posts many questions within the narrative while also showing just how seamless the transition can be, as he peppers some morality in there for the reader to consider as well.

Michael Nicholas remains a strong protagonist, having morphed into a man on a mission, rather than the international financier of the early novels. His role to discover the truth behind his brother’s action finds him answering questions he has not pondered, while also being pushed to provide solutions to the Leader of the Free World in his spare time. Michael struggles with it all, pulled well outside his comfort zone, though he seeks to be as helpful as possible to those who seek his assistance. He’s grown throughout the series, both as a character and with the reader, especially as he plunges deeper into the plot.

Yet again, Simon uses a cast of secondary characters to keep the story moving through its full-fledged dedication to the thriller genre. Kurt Schlegelberger remains the dastardly villain, paired with an equally problematic Claus Dietrich, both of whom offer a needed counterbalance to all the Nicholas Brothers are doing throughout the story. The Schlegelberger-Alex clash at the artificial intelligence level is supported, in a way, through Michael and Dietrich, providing an interesting flavouring of how things come together towards the latter portion of the book. There are also a number of recurring characters, all of whom offer the reader some advancement in subplots that round out a highly entertaining read.

As the series morphs from a technological ‘what if’ into a true ‘edge of your seat’ collection, E.J. Simon leaves the reader with much to ponder throughout. There are moral and social issues that emerge, as well as a strong thriller theme throughout. While reading the summary alone may give the impression of something a tad ‘light’ or ‘hokey’, Simon pens a piece that is anything but. His attention to detail and short chapters keep the reader wanting more. The writing is fluid in the series, making one book easily move into the next. These are not standalones, though Simon does offer some flashback summaries in the early part of the book. My bingeing of them helped me see just how strong things can get and the reader is surely in for a wild ride. With a teaser for a fifth (!) book, I am eager to see how things will progress, in new and exciting theatres. This is surely a series curious readers ought to try, if only to give themselves something a little different from their usual fare.

Kudos, Mr. Simon, for another great novel. I am truly intrigued as to where you intend on taking the plot and what other topics are left to broach!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

The Holy Conspiracy, by Kristi Saare Duarte

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Reedsy Discovery and Kristi Saare Duarte for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Looking to expand my reading parameters, I chose this interesting piece of historical fiction by Kristi Saare Duarte that explores early Christianity. While the subject matter may not be for everyone (and could offend those who are staunchly religious and hold firm to what they are told from the pulpit), this is an eye-opening interpretation of events from a woman who admits to not being deeply religious. The book opens the months after Yeshua (Jesus) has left the earth, leaving the disciples to determine how to continue the ministry. Yakov is Yeshua’s brother and has taken on the role of leading the group, in hopes of spreading the Good News and keeping the movement afloat. While he is surrounded by others who strongly believed in Yeshua, the group politic is anything but passive. Included in the collective is Miriamne, Yeshua’s wife and the woman carrying his son. Her presence, much as it was during the early year of the ministry, is controversial and puts a strain on how to proceed. Much of the book explores the connection between Miriamne and Yakov, especially with the custom of the latter taking the former into the household going forward. As the years pass, the group encounters Saul of Tarsus (Apostle Paul), who speaks of a revelation he had along the road and how he is now ready to preach the Good News as it was relayed to him by Yeshua. This causes a great deal of strain, as the disciples and Saul (renamed Paulus) speak of different forms of Christianity. Both feel they know ‘the True Word’ and the clashes are by no means minor. As the years progress, the reader can see how these messages serve as shepherding acts to plant the early roots of Christianity. Yakov must make some tough choices as to how he wants his brother’s legacy upheld, while Paulus feels his power of the written word will surely expand the grassroots movement. A telling piece that allows Duarte to offer the reader some of the early nuances in differing Christian messaging, without seeming too blasphemous. Recommended to those who enjoy Christian fiction, as well as the reader whose mind remains open and intrigued about what might have happened in the early, post-Jesus days.

I will be the first to admit that when I saw ‘conspiracy’ in the title, I expected something a lot more suspenseful and likely scandalous. That said, I kept as open a mind as I could when reading the novel and came out of the experience better for it. Kristi Saare Duarte provides the reader with a great piece of writing that highlights some of the key events in the early years of Christianity, including its struggles to get a message to the people. The core group of characters were well represented and the reader who has some background knowledge of them from their own religious education will likely enjoy what’s Duarte has done here. Of greatest interest to me was the representation of Miriamne (Mary Magdalen) as the wife of Yeshua, going so far as to depict her as being with child. While this will likely ruffle the feathers of some, the character fits in perfectly with some of the larger messages. Equally interesting is the depiction of Saul (Paulus) and how he took his own approach to how Christianity would develop. Duarte offers some interesting questions as she writes, leaving the reader to wonder which path might be the most accurate, based on where things stand today. The story is slow, let’s be perfectly honest here. There is little action or suspense, as it flirts with the line of non-fiction in its accounting. However, I am sure Duarte was going for the historical depiction over swords and violent clashes angle in her writing. I struggled at times, looking for a spark, but was happy to pull out some tidbits of historical interpretations on which I could feast as I digested much of what I read. A fair warning (and another struggle of mine) is that Duarte seeks to keep things as authentic as possible by using Aramaic versions of names, not the traditional ones many readers of the Bible may know. While this is a useful brain exercise (there is a reference sheet at the start), it was an added thinking process as I read, keeping everyone straight and remembering what I learned in my past education to match up with this. Still, Duarte did an amazing job in her final product. The amount of research that surely went into this piece is amazing and allows the reader to bask in some of the early years with a degree of confidence that things are not bastardised to meet a certain plot point. Perfect for the open minded reader who is interested in some of the early forks in the road, before the Catholic Church came in and set out their own decrees. I gave it my best and hope I did the book justice with this review!

Kudos, Madam Duarte, for not being afraid to rock the boat a little. I may have to look into some of your other work, as there were some intriguing moments for me during this read!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons