The Arc of the Swallow (Søren Marhauge #2), by Sissel-Jo Gazan

Eight stars

Sissel-Jo Gazan is back with another dark Scandinavian crime thriller sure to pique the interest of her fans and curious readers alike. Using her individual flavour, Gazan infuses a strong scientific aspect into the crime and the overall narrative, while not bogging the story down in either regard. Early in the narrative, the reader learns that the University of Copenhagen is abuzz when Immunology Professor Kristian Storm is found dead in his office, having apparently hanged himself. His most promising graduate student and research assistant, Marie Skov, is devastated and cannot fathom why he would take such drastic measures. Skov is, herself, dealing with a recent battle with breast cancer and the death of her mother, two significant events that weave their way through the story. After significant backstory, the reader better understands that Storm and Skov had been hard at work on some immunology research that had been highly controversial, in which they posit that the vaccines being given to African children have significant side effects and/or immunological deficiencies that can be attributed to higher death rates among the population, specifically in Guinea-Bissau. Additionally, someone in the highly-competitive research community flagged the research to a Danish scientific disciplinary board for review and potential sanctions, which was the basis for Skov’s dissertation. Meanwhile, the reader is reintroduced to Søren Marhauge, now a Deputy Chief Superintendent on Copenhagen’s Police Force. Tired of the bureaucratic red tape and wanting to focus on his relationship with his girlfriend and her daughter, Marhauge resigns to focus on his home life, However, when Anna (of acclaim in Gazan’s debut novel) returns home one day with news of the Storm suicide, Marhauge finds that he wants to continue sleuthing, if only a little. As the story progresses, Gazan explores more of the controversies that Storm found during his time in Guinea-Bissau and how the World Health Organization found the generalized comments highly problematic. Additionally, there is trouble brewing within Skov’s family, including a secret that had been covered up for almost three decades. Will Marhauge be able to find reason to contradict the determination that Storm took his own life in disgrace? How might Skov’s discovery of her own family’s drama shape the way she moves forward? Gazan seeks to address these and many other issues in her methodically well-paced story that forces the reader to pay close attention throughout. Not for the reader who loves a quick thrill ride, Gazan seeks to shake up the Scandinavian thriller genre by attracting those who are patient and pensive in equal measure. 

Gazan is a new addition to my reading list, but I can see how she might appeal to a certain type of reader. Her work is detailed, at times too much so for my still-adapting mind, and seeks to slowly develop her story and characters. While Søren Marhauge and Anna are back, their development is not as central to the story’s main plot. It is of great interest to those who liked the first novel to see just how far they have progressed together, as well as how sturdy their relationship has become. Marie Skov and her family take centre stage in this novel, becoming complex characters, each with their own backstories. With a number of strong characters pushing the narrative forward, the premise of the book is again a highly interesting, yet academic, venture. To posit that vaccinations used on the African continent might prove more harmful than helpful is highly scandalous, at a time when such a great scientific breakthrough seems to have revolutionized pandemics. However, with large pharmaceutical companies making millions off the production of these serums, it is no wonder that Kristian Storm could be vilified for his hypothesis. Gazan pulls the reader throughout the discussion and tries to explain it in such a way that the story is not lost on the scientific amateur (among whom I could myself). She balances it well but does not skimp on the blunt conversations in the field, which educates the reader in a persuasive manner. There is much to be said of Gazan, who differs greatly from her Scandinavian counterparts, in this second novel. Her storytelling is superior and her ability to paint a dark story while not deterring readers is worth mention as well.

Kudos, Madam Gazan for showing that you are not a one-hit wonder. I hope you will keep writing and dazzling fans with your unique style and approach to non-English thrillers, whose translation still pack a significant punch.

Portrait of Vengeance (Gwen Marcey #4), by Carrie Stuart Parks

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Carrie Stuart Parks and Thomas Nelson for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Returning with her much anticipated fourth novel, Carrie Stuart Parks takes readers on an emotional rollercoaster. After recently being hired to work on the Interagency Major Crime Unit (IMCU), Gwen Marcey attempts to curry favour with the team and her current beau by taking a case in Alaska. However, when another case is being described at the Unit briefing, Gwen cannot shake the intense flashback she has, directly tied to a traumatic event from her youth. Leaving little room for negotiation, Gwen swaps cases and heads to Idaho, where she will liaise alongside the Nez Perce Tribal Police in Lapwai. There, a couple has been murdered and their four year-old daughter is missing. When her reception is met with less than open arms, Gwen must begin her work as best she can, interviewing witnesses and providing any composite sketches that arise. When her vehicle is stolen, Gwen enlists the assistance of her best friend, Beth Noble, whose online prowess will surely come in handy. In a moment of emotional vulnerability, Gwen admits to discovering a murder scene of her ‘sorta-mom’ at fourteen, which led her out to Montana. This revelation, tied to the added admission that her parents were murdered when she was four, fuels Gwen as she tries to locate this little girl and ensure the killer is found. However, all that is easier said than done. Much of what Gwen grew up knowing changes the deeper Beth is able to dig around through old records. Gwen is distracted and she misses major elements of the crime at hand, which leads to her dismissal from the IMCU. There is surely an element that connects these past crimes to the current abduction, but the clues that tie it all together are slow to emerge. As Gwen and Beth continue to dig, key pieces of evidence fall into place, but that only pushes them into more danger. A killer lurks and Gwen appears to be their target. Her past and present collide, but someone wants to keep what is not yet known firmly veiled in mystery. Parks has spun a powerful story in this novel that will appeal greatly to the series fan and is sure to hook newbies who are just now learning about the wonders of this talented crime writer. 

I have been a fan of Carrie Stuart Parks and her work for a number of years. She offers a wonderful crime thriller, but tackles her stories from a unique angle. With Gwen Marcey as a forensic artist, this individualizes the protagonist and allows the reader to approach the crime fighting from a perspective that might not receive much merit. Basing Marcey on a number of her own experiences, Parks is able to speak with confidence as she weaves an intricate backstory. This novel is saturated with Gwen Marcey’s backstory and fills in many of the gaps left from the previous three books. Additionally, Gwen’s internalized arguments with others (both her ex-husband and Beth) show a struggle the character faces on a number of topics. Rather than simply loading the narrative with these breadcrumbs, the entire story takes on a Gwen Marcey flavour, permitting exploration and growth. Other than Beth and some minor mentions of others back in Missoula, Montana, the entire cast of characters is new and exciting, with a strong Indian (aboriginal) flavour. Politics surrounding the American treatment of this part of the population is woven throughout the story, allowing the reader to learn a great deal as the story progresses. The narrative is crisp and moves forward with an intense story told in short chapters. Parks keeps the reader wondering until the very end and offers up some hints and what might be to come in the ever-evolving battle between Gwen and her ex-husband. Parks has written another winner here and is sure to garner many more accolades for this work.

Kudos, Madam Parks for another wonderful novel. You never fail to impress me as I learn much about forensics from your unique experiences. 

Heart of the City (Ari Greene #5), by Robert Rotenberg

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Robert Rotenberg, and Simon & Schuster Canada for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

After much anticipation, Robert Rotenberg is back with his fifth novel in the Ari Greene series. Jam-packed with action, this crime thriller will have the reader flying through the pages with ease as the search for another killer commences. Forced to reinvent himself, Ari Greene is back in Toronto and working on a construction site. When he discovers the body of real estate magnate, Livingston Fox, Greene’s former detective senses kick into high gear. Detective Daniel Kennicott now heads up the Homicide team investigating the case and is the first to acknowledge that his former mentor seems unable to shake the skill of discovering dead bodies. As Kennicott begins his investigation, it becomes apparent that Fox was anything but much-loved in the community. Numerous people had motives to see him taken out, including a community activist who had butted heads with the man over many of his recent projects. Lurking behind the scenes is Alison Gilroy, a anonymous blogger and British transplant who is the child that Green never knew he had until his recent trip across the Pond. Alison’s work and sleuthing has put her in a precarious position, one that she is even hiding from her father. While Kennicott peels back the onion to discover the contrasting life Fox had in comparison to the rest of his family, the detective discovers that there might have been a secret in the works for an upcoming low-income housing complex. Could Fox have been turning over a new leaf in order to give back? Might Alison know more than she is telling everyone? Will Ari Greene be able to shed the past skirmishes he had with Kennicott and the Homicide Division too bring a killer to justice? All is revealed in this stunning piece that Rotenberg crafts with precision. Perfect for those who love a good Canadian crime drama set in the heart of the country’s largest metropolis.

I have long been a fan of Rotenberg and his work, so it pained me to wait so long between novels. However, the wait was worth it, as I found myself fully committed to the book and all the developments found therein. Rotenberg was faced with some significant decisions after Ari Greene was railroaded in the last novel. Having him return with Alison allowed for significant character growth, as well as tapping into that strong parent-child bond that is sure to develop. This offshoot, as well as Greene’s new post-Homicide life, fuel the narrative throughout and allow Daniel Kennicott to assume a more independent role, where he can lead the case in his own direction. The supporting cast of characters also present strong avenues to propel the narrative in numerous directions and are varied enough to keep the story interesting. The murder plot itself is intriguing, presenting the contrast between lucrative real estate deals and the needed housing complexes that the ‘common person’ can afford. Rotenberg’s development of this premise keeps the reader hooked and forging ahead in a story that offers little time for rest. Short chapters help to keep the pace alongside a wonderfully crafted Canadian feel to the narrative, while not getting too emotional or syrupy. Rotenberg is a master at his craft and while I understand he is otherwise employed during the day, I can only hope he has more story ideas that he can quickly get to paper for his adoring fans.

Kudos, Mr. Rotenberg for another wonderful piece. I have been keeping an eye out for your work and praying that you’ll show that Canada has a place in the crime thriller genre. You have outdone yourself here!

Murder Games, by James Patterson and Howard Roughan

Seven stars 

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

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

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

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

Eight stars

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

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

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

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

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

Eight stars

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

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

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

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

Seven stars

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

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

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

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

The Help, Kathryn Stockett

Nine stars

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

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

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

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

Seven stars

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

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

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

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

Nine stars

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

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

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