The Kremlin’s Candidate (Red Sparrow Trilogy #3), by Jason Matthews

Nine stars

In this, the final novel in a high-impact trilogy, Jason Matthews seeks to take the story in a new and interesting direction, while tying up some loose ends and leaving others to dangle without resolution. Dominika Egorova remains a highly-placed mole in the Russian Government, having climbed the ladder within the SVR and rumoured to be the next director. In an early chapter flashback, Dominika remembers using her wiles and other newly honed ‘Sparrow’ assets, and has been able to secure a mid-ranking female US Navy official, which could prove highly useful in the years to come. In the present, Dominika has been able to work with a North Korean nuclear scientist who has admitted that the country is on the verge of creating the necessary weapon to wipe the United States off the map. While conferring with others inside the Russian Intelligence inner circle, as well as President Putin, Dominika learns that her long-ago victim of sexpionage may hold a larger role in the overall Russian plot to bring down their former Cold War enemy, having sold this nuclear technology to the North Koreans. For the time being, it’s all about silently waiting, hoping to learn enough to send along to her CIA handler, Nate Nash in order to prepare for the worst. Dominika agrees to make a covert trip to America, where she can hopefully identify the mole’s Russian handler and allow Nate to extinguish that asset. Worried that Nate might be getting too involved in Dominika’s missions, he is sent to an obsolete American Embassy, only to realize that the Russians are wreaking havoc in an attempt to send a message and locate him through back channels. This serves only to strengthen Nate’s willingness to bring the Russian Intelligence community to the ground, through Dominika’s deception. Having curried enough favour with Putin, Dominika is handed the directorship of the SVR, but cannot shake that someone may be keeping a close eye on her. She is put in a precarious position when approached by a Russian ally, one that could place Nate in the crosshairs of a kill order that cannot be neutralized without compromising her own status. The chase is on to remove the Russian mole, who is positioning herself to be named into the American president’s Cabinet, where there is no end to the secrets she will be able to ship back to Russia, thereby leaving the country open for destruction. Nate has been able to remain one step ahead, but luck is finite and Dominika can only do so much! Another brilliant novel that furthers the complex espionage that Matthews has come to make all his own. A trilogy that impresses many, especially those who love a traditional novel of spy games, with an ending that is second to none. Highly recommended to those with the patience and interest in deep-rooted spy novels, à la John Le Carré!

I started this trilogy just over a week ago because of all the hype it was getting online. It was a slow start, but I had to remind myself that I am not one who normally reads well-crafted spy novels, which seek to forego the superficial banter and develop over time, enriching the reading experience. This novel offers a thorough review of the information to date and provides the reader with an impactful culmination of all in a high-stakes game of spying and trying to destroy the enemy. Nate Nash and Dominika Egorova may come from different spheres but their dedication cannot be discounted, especially towards the latter chapters of this book. Matthews offers up the most intense and impactful Nash yet, as he tries to get the Russians to come to their knees and lose everything, though that is surely not done in a single act. Matthews adds the complexities of Nash’s inability to treat Dominika simply as a mole and someone who is going to help bring Putin’s tsar-lifestyle to an end. Dominika’s secret synesthesia continues as an integral part of her character and is used throughout the narrative quite effectively, especially to allow the reader to better understand the emotional banter taking place in a realm (espionage) where the players remain neutral. Dominika’s struggle both to stay alive and to resurrect her ‘Sparrow’ persona with Putin creates a worrisome connection that could backfire at any moment. Matthews personalises the story by filling the narrative with his own experiences within the CIA. The reader can feast on a methodical understanding of the world of espionage with results dependent on the risks undertaken. Extensive mention of cultural dishes throughout the piece is complemented by Matthew’s addition of basic recipes embedded at the end of each chapter, which has been a central part of all three novels. Lighter fare in a novel full of dark plot development. I know this was a trilogy and the end has come, but I hope Matthews has more up his sleeve. Trust me, once you read these books, you will as well!

Kudos, Mr. Matthews, for another stellar novel. This series has won me over and I hope to spread the word to anyone who will listen.

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

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The Contest: The 1968 Election and the War for America’s Soul, by Michael Schumacher

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Michael Schumacher, and the University of Minnesota Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

While many will argue the importance of all elections in a democratic system, Michael Schumacher posits that the American Presidential Election in 1968 might have been the most important voting event in the country’s modern history. Held in the middle of the bloody Vietnam War, the election saw a true split in the American political psyche, dividing those in favour of the war and those wanting to get soldiers out of the region (likely more than either World War before it). With a sitting president who could not turn his back on America’s involvement, Lyndon B Johnson (LBJ) soon became tarred and feathered for allowing so many men to die in a military action that had no direct connection to the country he led. This pushed him to the brink and left him to wonder how he ought to handle the upcoming presidential election campaign. Schumacher argues that the electoral importance began late in 1967, when the likes of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy agreed to challenge LBJ, feeling the country needed peace and should remove troops from the region. This divisive issue would soon snowball into disaster for LBJ, who took it upon himself to admit defeat and make the famous speech on March 31, 1968, where he refused to run for re-election. Schumacher opens the book with the narrative around this announcement and how those closest to him took the news on a decision that had been pondered but only decided that day. The decision opened the contest for the Democratic nomination, as well as solidifying some of the strong contenders within the Republicans. Schumacher spends an early part of the tome offering up mini biographies of the serious contenders within the Democratic Party (Vice-President Hubert H Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy), the Republicans (Richard Nixon, with a peppering of information on Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan), as well as an outsider Third Party candidate (Alabama Governor George Wallace), who sought to push for state-rights and push the election in the House of Representatives for a final decision. Armed with this knowledge, the reader can follow the push on into the primaries, where Schumacher lays out a succinct narrative of some well-established races within both parties in an attempt to solidify the nomination ahead of each party’s respective convention in the summer. Filled with detailed analysis of the political shoving and maneuvering, Schumacher explores how the candidates sought to win favour with the electorate and use the War to their favour, some vilifying LBJ while others trying to spin their own version of events and staying true to the country’s leader. During this time, three significant deaths cast a shadow on the primary campaign: the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, as well as the wife of George Wallace, Lurleen. While the former two did stun the country, the third appeared to light a fire under Wallace in his attempts to promote segregation as a viable option. Schumacher then forges on and turns the focus to the conventions, where the party’s decision would have to be made. Miami Beach may have been smooth sailing for Nixon, but it was anything but a foregone conclusion. Armed with an unlikely vice-presidential candidate in Spiro Agnew, Nixon was ready to do battle and began his treachery in covertly tinkering with the peace negotiations to end the War. Meanwhile, all eyes turned to Chicago, where much disruption was expected (and found). Schumacher uses an entire chapter of the book to lay out some of the strongest forces in the groups protesting outside the convention and their push to disrupt the goings-on, more to speak out against the Vietnam War than the Democratic Party. Inside the convention hall, the political bloodbath was beginning, but it paled in comparison to the brutality on the streets. Democratic candidates struggled for control and tried to vie for last minute votes, which eventually gave Hubert Humphrey the nomination, while violence filled television screens. Schumacher juxtaposes the two ‘fights’ effectively and keeps the reader pushing onwards into the final step of the contest, the General Election. Here, Nixon and Humphrey traipsed across the country to secure votes, all while LBJ continued to waffle on how to handle Vietnam. Pushing for peace, LBJ soon realised that Nixon may have spoiled the Democratic Party with his own promises (much like Reagan would do a dozen years later in the campaign against Jimmy Carter). The last week of the campaign turned out to be the most exciting, as Nixon and Humphrey sought to secure key states, while Wallace pushed to spoil the Electoral College victory for either man. Once all was said and done, Nixon prevailed by just over half a million votes cast, proving to be a close contest and, in a way, Wallace did prove (Democratic) spoiler. Wonderfully written and paced, the book educates the curious reader who has a passion for history and electoral politics. I’d highly recommend this for anyone who has the patience to plunge into the inner workings of American political campaigns to see just how contentious they can be and why 1968 will likely be seen as one of the most important in modern American history.

Being a political addict, I could not give up the opportunity to read this book when I discovered it. This being the fiftieth anniversary of this election, I allowed myself to be enthralled with the way in which Schumacher delivered s much information in an easily digestible fashion. The book is divided effectively, giving the reader much context as to how and why 1968 was such a political powder keg in the United States. Beginning with the important LBJ speech, Schumacher offers key themes that would return throughout the campaign, namely: the War, infighting about America’s presence in Vietnam, and the segregated states. He then pushes into the primaries, which splintered the country further before turning to the conventions, where America’s youth took centre stage, outside the political event proper. Schumacher turns the final campaign into a succinct narrative, as though all the glitter of 1968 ended once the bloody streets of Chicago had been cleaned in late August. I felt a significant shift towards an anti-climactic ending of the book, which forces the reader to skim over the last few months and not find that last push towards a defining end to what was a strongly worded build-up over four hundred pages. One might argue that the intensity was gone (and the book had taken up so much to that point), forcing a quick end so as not to lose the reader. If I could extract a single, overarching sentiment that Schumacher offers in this piece, it would be just how destructive and divisive the election became for America. Politicians and the electorate alike found themselves deeply divided on the issue of the Vietnam War, which also helped fuel a generational divide in the country, where young and newer voters turned to protest in order to make themselves heard. Tearing at the familial fabric would surely alienate many at a time when parents were trying to make sense of their ‘liberated’ children and Americans watched revolutionary demonstrations on television, seeking to push the American state to its limits. Filled with significant detail, Schumacher left me feeling as though I were right there and wanted to know more, the key to a successful piece of writing. I could not ask for a better introduction to the 1968 campaign than with this book and will surely sift through the biographical notes to find further pieces to whet my appetite.

Kudos, Mr. Schumacher, for a brilliant piece. I will check to see what else you may have published, as I found your writing to my liking and your delivery engaging.

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

Palace of Treason (Red Sparrow Trilogy #2), by Jason Matthews

Eight stars

Having taken the time to check out this interesting espionage series, I am intrigued to see where Jason Matthews intends on taking things with Nate and Dominika. He does not disappoint in this middle novel, the true ‘meat’ of the trilogy. After a harrowing end to the first novel, Dominika is back in Russia, working hard for the SVR and helping to run a discrete but highly important mission. Using a ‘Sparrow’ under her, Dominika is able to obtain top secret Iranian nuclear documents from a high-ranking official. With Iran’s sanctions and the Western attempt to nullify their nuclear program, Dominika could bring back information that would prove Russia is seeking to countermand the international order and facilitate an ongoing nuclear program in Iran. Her success brings Dominika into the inner circle and merits high praise from President Putin himself, who may have his eye on her for some of his own personal gifts. As covertly as she can, Dominika reaches out to CIA operative Nate Nash, now stationed in Athens, to deliver the information she has, in hopes of giving the Americans the proof they need that the sanctions are being violated right under their noses. Meeting in a neutral location, Dominika and Nash exchange news and set-up a ruse to ensure the CIA learns first-hand what is going on. However, that encounter ends disastrously and almost costs Dominika everything, though Nate is able to ascertain the long-range plan that Putin has with the Iranian Government. Trying to keep Dominika under cover and yet turn her into the next American mole, Nate must work day and night, risking everything, while also trying to downplay his emotional connection to this SVR agent. Sparks turn to a raging fire between them, leaving both Nate and Dominika unable to define what is going on between them, while violating CIA orders with each passing second. Wanting to keep Dominika inside Russia but still able to report, Nate organises a handler to be providing the needed link to the Agency. Nate helps train Hannah Archer, whose wiles appear to match those of Dominika in almost every way. Sure that his encounters with Dominika will become report analysis only, Nate allows himself to fall into the clutches of this woman, though the thought of his beloved SVR agent remains front and centre in his brain. When the Russians eventually learn of a new mole, they scour their entire intelligence apparatus, sure that the weak link will surface in enough time for another brutal final solution. With Dominika still in good standing with President Putin, she can only hope that her truth has not been revealed and that he is not toying with her. Nate will do anything he can to protect her, both as an agent and because of their connection. However, sometimes it is better to cut one’s losses, especially when the Russians are on the other side. Another brilliant novel that furthers the complex espionage that Matthews has come to make all his own. A trilogy that continues to impress many, especially those who love a traditional novel of spy games. Highly recommended to those with the patience and interest in deep-rooted spy novels, à la John Le Carré!

I admit that I started this trilogy because of all the hype it was getting online and stuck with the first novel, which began slowly. I had to remind myself that I am not one who normally reads well-crafted spy novels, which seek to forego the superficial banter and develop over time, enriching the reading experience. This novel picks up the impact from the opening pages, pushing me to immerse myself in all the action without a chance to breathe. Nate Nash and Dominika Egorova may come from different spheres but their dedication cannot be discounted. Matthews does well again, showing that Nash’s love of country can sometimes be clouded when blood rushes from his brain to other extremities, though he would surely call it part of the mission. Matthews adds the complexities of Nash’s inability to treat Dominika simply as a mole and someone who is going to help bring Putin and Russia to their knees, but that might be one of the greater aspects of his character throughout this piece. Dominika’s secret synesthesia becomes a central part of her character and is used throughout the narrative quite effectively, especially to allow the reader to better understand the emotional banter taking place in a realm (espionage) where the players are encouraged to remain beige. Dominika’s struggle both to stay alive and to resurrect her ‘Sparrow’ persona proves central to the story’s advancement, particularly when Putin is sometimes one of her escapades. Bone-chilling does not begin to describe this sub-plot. Matthews personalises the story effectively with his own experiences within the CIA, pulling me deeper into the narrative and wondering what might come next. The reader can dine on a methodical understanding of the world of espionage with results dependent on the risks undertaken. Extensive mention of cultural dishes throughout the piece is complemented by Matthew’s addition of basic recipes embedded at the end of each chapter. Lighter fare in a novel full of dark plot development. I cannot wait to get my hands on the final novel to see where it takes the story and how Matthews hopes to tie it all together.

Kudos, Mr. Matthews, for another stellar novel. This series has won me over and I hope to spread the word to anyone who will listen.

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

Red Sparrow (Red Sparrow Trilogy #1), by Jason Matthews

Eight stars

With all the hype this series has received, I thought it best to try the first novel in the trilogy, to see if it meets my expectations. Jason Matthews has not disappointed, with his knowledge of the topic and ability to transmit ideas onto the page. Nathaniel ‘Nate’ Nash has been working as a CIA operative to handle an important mole within the Russian Government. No one seems to know who it could be or how much information the Americans have garnered, but Russian President Putin is enraged and wants this person found. Feeling some of the heat, the CIA takes the opportunity to move Nash out of the region and resettles him in Helsinki. Meanwhile, the reader learns all about Dominika Egorova, whose past as a ballerina ended with a freak accident. Pulled into the Russian Intelligence sphere by an uncle who works as a senior official within the SVR (the KGB’s modern-day cousin), Egorova is targeted for a high-stakes game to retrieve the needed information from Nash. Sent to a ‘Sparrow School’, Egorova is turned into a seductress, where sexpionage is the name of the game. Her skills will be useful if she can lure the mole information from Nash while focussing her attention on his weaknesses. After crafting a chance encounter within the Finnish borders, Egorova begins laying her honey trap, but Nash is not taking the bait, at least not in the way she suspects he should. Instead, Nash sees a potential to turn Egorova to the Americans and have her feed additional information to the CIA. Tensions build and Egorova makes a decision she feels will benefit her in the long-run, but sours the relationship with her SVR handlers. Forced back to Russia, Egorova is presumed ‘handled’ in some dank prison, while Nash returns stateside with some valuable information; there is a Russian mole within the American intelligence community that could compromise everything. The race is on to find this mole before too much can be handed over to the Russians, while also continuing to protect their own information pipeline. Egorova has reported some of her news to SVR officials and seeks another chance to finish the work she’s started. With two moles and significant blowback to come, the American and Russian Intelligence communities are fighting to gain the upper hand in this post-Cold War world. Two agents, doing what they do best, may end up shaping the final outcome of this explosive game of espionage. Who is playing for whom… that’s anyone’s guess. Matthews shows how his past as a CIA official can help shape this gripping thriller that opens every conceivable door for the reader to push onwards. A trilogy that is sure to impress many, especially those who love a traditional novel of spy games. Highly recommended to those with the patience and interest in deep-rooted spy novels, a la John Le Carré!

With this book now a major motion picture and the final novel recently released, I have heard much about it, as it appears all over Goodreads. I thought it high time to take a look to see if it might be for me. While the beginning was a little dense, I had to remind myself that I am not one who normally reads well-crafted spy novels, which seek to forego the superficial banter and develop over time, enriching the reading experience. As I pushed onwards, I found myself drawn to both Nate Nash and Dominika Egorova, two players from different spheres whose dedication to the cause cannot be discounted. Matthews does well to create elaborate and intriguing backstories for these two—particularly Dominika’s synesthesia—as well as meshing them together in a dance that can only have significant consequences. I found myself very interested in the ‘training’ undertaken by Egorova, sure that this sort of ‘Sparrow School’ is more common than it might seem. While many readers may be familiar with the idea of a honeypot mission, Matthews pushes this out of the sweaty sheets and pillow talk, turning the entire undertaking into a slow and methodical game of chess, with two countries staring one another down, unsure how much they know of the other’s game plan. Additionally, the creation and development of the two moles keeps the reader hooked, as they watch both individuals undertake their respective positions and extract the needed information to pass along. Who will be caught and at what price? The story is fabulous and develops slowly, but never loses the momentum through a strong narrative and believable dialogue. Matthews has done well to personalise the story with insider bits that promote a story that rests on a foundation of fact (or does it?). The reader need not feel they are being spoon fed yet another America vs. Russia novel of high-stakes and back alley stabbing, but rather a methodical understanding of the world of espionage with results dependent on the risks undertaken. With the uncanny use of recipes embedded at the end of each chapter—usually related to the food mentioned in the earlier narrative—Matthews shows that he has a lighter side and can lure the reader in through their stomachs as well as minds. I cannot wait to sink my teeth into the next novel, hoping that the development is as exciting as what Matthews developed here. I can see why there was so much hype… Matthews knows his stuff and has the literary awards to show for it.

Kudos, Mr. Matthews, for a stellar debut novel. This series could really have some serious potential to win over many who have not yet developed a love for high-caliber spy novels.

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 Ferry (Konrad Simonsen #5), by Lotte and Søren Hammer

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Lotte and Søren Hammer, and Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Another intriguing novel in the Konrad Simonsen series that sees many twists baffle the reader from the opening paragraphs. When a mysterious man slips onto a canal boat, he appears to have a mission. By murdering many of the adults on board, he seems pleased to slip away by plunging into the water. Seeing the small boat in distress, a larger ferry approaches, but is unable to its course, adding to the carnage. Chief of Homicide Konrad Simonsen and his team are assigned the case, soon rattled when they learn that one of their own is amongst dead. With sketchy witness statements and video coverage of the canal boat’s time on the water, Simonsen zeros in on one man with a past in Denmark’s military services as a likely suspect. Extrapolating the service record of one Bjørn Lauritzen, the Homicide Squad notice that he spent time in Serbia and Bosnia during the mid-90s, a time when the Yugoslav Civil War was in full-swing. Lauritzen’s apparent contact in Denmark may have helped grease the wheels for numerous horrible acts against a cultural minority, something the military will not discuss and stonewalls when it comes to offering up any documentation, even at the highest levels. Simonsen moves quickly to push his investigation to its limits and is able to garner a significant amount of evidence, ensuring the case goes before the courts. Once the legal process commences, there are some loopholes left open and the outcome is anything but certain. Simonsen cannot let this killer slip through his fingers, but the evidence speaks for itself. Might there be another way to ensure justice is served? The Hammer siblings are known for their dark and highly confusing thrillers and this is one of the best. Fan of the series will flock to this, hoping to sift through much of the intense narrative and see Konrad Simonsen rise to the occasion once again.

While I am no Scandinavian police procedural or dark thriller expert, I have read my share over the last number of years. Of all the authors I have encountered, Lotte and Søren Hammer are surely the most convoluted and tangential in their delivery, while keeping the story impossible to put down. While some may dislike this style of writing, much of the story develops under the surface and the attentive reader can adjust to extract all they need to help piece together the elements of the crime. Konrad Simonsen is often front and centre in the series, with his development usually building as the narrative progresses. However, Simonsen seems almost to hover and remain stagnant (at least as it relates to character revelations) in this piece, allowing some of his other Homicide Squad to grow. With the loss of one member, there is a void left in the team and certain individuals flirt with the possibility of being added in subsequent novels. The plot itself is serpentine, beginning with the murder aboard the boat but soon pushing away, as though this local killing spree is only a cover for the larger story. The Hammers do not refute this, as the story morphs into something all about the murderous rampages in the Yugoslav Civil War, though it is the nuances and connections to other countries that keeps the reader intrigued. I applaud the Hammer siblings for this tangent, as it offered up more intrigue than a local mystery might have done, forcing many characters to expand their powers beyond that of the streets within Copenhagen. There seems to be some social commentary woven into the narrative, such that the reader can parse through what is being said and take a stand for themselves. I found it quite interesting, though I can see how some readers might prefer an ‘A to Z’ story whose focus is the slain group aboard the canal boat rather than in the Eastern parts of Europe. I can see that there is much to be done by the Hammer siblings and can only hope the series has enough steam to keep churning out wonderful books.

Kudos, Madam and Mister Hammer, for another wonderful novel. I can see that translation into English has not lessened the impact of your work and hope its quality remains high.

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

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Eight stars

Accepting a book recommendation offered up by my fellow Equinox Book Challenge participant, I chose to explore another novel related to the struggles of a maturing African continent. Making their way to the Belgian Congo in 1959, Nathan Price, his wife, and four daughter are ready to commence their missionary work. Arriving with everything they feel they might need, the Prices begin their journey, armed with Jesus, as they are surrounded with the locals in a jungle community. However, early on during their time, the Price women tell of all the changes they could not have predicted while still in the comforts of their Bethlehem, Georgia home. While Nathan seeks to convert the Congolese population—still stuck on their own spirits and medicine men— with his evangelical Baptist ways, the others begin to see that nothing is as it seems. American staples are of no use to anyone in the Belgian Congo and the learning curve is as sharp as can be. With Belgium ready to hand over control of the country to the Congolese, a political vacuum develops, where foreigners are painted with a single brush. Both sides in the Cold War seek to create a new ally, elbowing their way in, hoping to develop 20th century quasi-colonial territory in Africa, more along ideological lines than those of traditional tribe or cultural brethren. One cannot miss that Congo is rife with natural resources that both the Americans and Soviets might like, though this remains a whispered or ne’er spoken fact. While the Price family soon learns that it will take more than the presence of the Holy Spirit to protect them in this foreign land, each has a struggle to better understand their surroundings and themselves, all in the hopes of completing their mission. Personal growth and grief arrive in equal measure, leaving everyone to reassess their role in the Congo, as political and social stability disintegrates with each passing day. As the novel progresses, the Price girls mature into women, using their Congolese experiences to shape their adult lives, forever altered by what they have experienced. An interesting novel that pushes some of the limits of understanding from a missionary perspective, Kingsolver pulls no punches and lays out her agenda throughout. I’d surely recommend this novel to those who seek to explore an interesting journey through the jungles of Africa, prepared to digest and synthesise symbolism of the highest order and non-Western sets of beliefs.

While I have heard of this novel over the years, I never felt drawn to read it. Admittedly, I knew nothing of it and perhaps judged the book by its title—the lesser of the two evil things avid book readers with literary blinders tend to do—and chose to mentally shelve it. After reading two novels about the horrors of South Africa under the system of apartheid, I was ready for something new, but still on the continent. Learning that Kingsolver set this book in Africa, I wondered if it might complement some of the topics about which I had recently read, while also offering me something with a little less political frustration. Kingsolver presents an all-consuming novel that pushes the limits through the eyes of an American family, at times offering the presumptive ignorance of missionaries while also exploring massive clashes in cultural differences between the Western world and African villages. Kingsolver creates a wonderful core of characters, primarily the Price family, allowing her to paint dichotomous pictures of the proper way to live. Using various narratives led by all five women in the family, the reader is able to see the Belgian Congo/Congo/Zaire through different eyes. Backstories are plentiful, as are the character flaws that each possess, but all five are also keen to interpret their familial head—Pastor Nathan Price—with their own biases. This surely enriches the larger story as well as permitting the reader to feel a closer connection to all those who play a central role in the story’s progress. Kingsolver weighs in, both bluntly and in a wonderfully subtle manner, about the role of imperialism in African countries, which later led to a political game of Cold War chess and bloodshed to tweak the choices the Congolese made as they shed the shackles of their oppressors. Personal growth remains one of the key themes in the book, as all the girls become women and, by the latter portion of the book, their lives as adults and parts of families of their own. Kingsolver keeps the reader hooked throughout as she spins this wonderful tale that forces the reader to digest so much in short order. I am happy to have been able to read this piece and take away much from it, without the need to feel as frustrated as I might have been during my apartheid experience. Still, there is much to be said about the ‘backwards’ interpretation Europeans and missionaries had when spying the African jungle communities.

Kudos, Madam Kingsolver, for such a wonderful novel. I took much from all you had to say and will likely return to find more of your writings, hoping they are just as exciting.

This book fulfills Topic # 1: Recommendation from Another, in the Equinox #3 Book Challenge. A special thank you to Farrah (https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/5368659-farrah) for the suggestion!

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

Tandia (Africa #2), by Bryce Courtenay

Nine stars

Bryce Courtenay impresses again with another ‘practice novel’ as he called them when taking up the art of writing. The sequel to his extremely popular The Power of One, this novel seeks to look at South African political and social transformation (regression?) from the other side of the coin, through the eyes of a teenage girl, Tandia, and the rest of the subjugated population. Tandia is raped soon after her father’s funeral. A mixed-race bastard—her Indian father’s affair with his black house servant—Tandia does not fit into either of South Africa’s non-white populations, but remains downtrodden and the victim of extreme racism. When she is tossed from her home, Tandia takes matters into her own hands, landing up in trouble with the law and facing the man who violated her not long ago. Police officer Jannie Geldenhuis holds his power over her and, with nowhere else to go, Tandia is stuck signing a false statement of facts to save her life. When they arrive at one of the local brothels, Geldenhuis demands that she remain here, under the watchful eye of Mama Tequila, and report back on all the clientele who frequent the establishment. With the Immorality Act— a strict law prohibiting sexual relations between the races—in full effect alongside other pieces of the larger apartheid system, Tandia is sure to have a long list of those who wish to cover themselves in a veil of secrecy. Meanwhile, Peekay, young protagonist from The Power of One, is now at Oxford, reading law and honing his boxing career. He befriends a young sculptor who seeks to explore him through her artistic lens, but this forces Peekay to explore more of himself and his interactions with others. As things heat up in the boxing ring, Peekay must also dodge jabs that life is throwing his way, away from his African homeland. When Mama Tequila sets off with Tandia during a brothel holiday, they encounter the big city of Johannesburg, where racial segregation is in full-swing in the apartheid-fuelled way of life. Shantytowns and oppression populate every corner of the city, though the people rally behind their love of boxing. Tandia hears stories of many men who entered the ring and fought, transforming themselves from lowly black men to heroes for the entire community. One such boy, the Tadpole Angel, is white, but appears to have the love of all the people, as he is happy not to look at the colour of your skin, but the person inside. With Geldenhuis also on the boxing scene, Tandia is terrified that she will see him again, his ruthless ways leaving scars deeper than the ones he has delivered to her skin. With his boxing career going exceedingly well, Peekay returns to South Africa to open a legal practice, only to butt heads with some of the closed-minded police officers, including Geldenhuis. Tandia grows closer to Peekay, though the Immorality Act makes any future between them all but impossible. With race relations reaching a fevered pitch and Peekay heading up a legal challenge to the core of the apartheid system, something will have to give, while the world looks on. Brilliant in its literary delivery, Courtenay pulls the reader in and leaves them wanting so much more, while some will surely remain disgusted by the abhorrent treatment by the Afrikaner population. Recommended for all those who have the patience to endure a slow-building story about race relations, jaded politics, and the power of one man’s convictions fuelled by the determination of one woman to change her country of birth.

Those new to Bryce Courtenay will likely find the author to be one they either love or cannot stomach. This is Courtenay’s second foray into writing—his first just as brilliant—permitting the reader to experience his unique style. The novel combines well-developed characters with a plot that is rich with detail and shakes the reader to the core as the political events and police implementation come to life on the page. Some may find his writing to be both excessive and too much to digest in a single novel (or both this and the previous novel), but it is this that makes the books even more enjoyable. Courtenay uses an interesting formula in his writing, which the attentive reader will discover as they meander throughout his novels, this one being no exception. There are scores of characters who cross the pages, each serving to develop their own backstory and to offer a slice of character revelation for Tandia, as well as further enriching of Peekay, now that he has reached adulthood. The story builds on itself in such a way that the reader can see Tandia’s growth (personal and emotional) while she still struggles to find her place in South Africa’s repressive political system. Courtenay inundates the reader with names and characteristics, which may cause some to stumble or require crib notes, but, rest assured, it is well worth the temporary confusion. Having read all of Courtenay’s novels, I can see character themes that reemerge, including token characters of a variety of backgrounds. The story itself becomes a tale full of twists and turns, such that the path on which the narrative is leading the reader along two paths, Tandia’s life and that of Peekay’s time in England. I must insert here that while Peekay’s passion for the law is visible throughout the story, his development into a world class boxer is also found within the various chapters attributed to him. Courtenay does a sensational job describing these fights in detail, such that they reader (boxing fan or not) is on the edge of their seat as the match progresses on the page. One can only imagine the strife in which South Africa found itself in the 1950s and 60s, with the apartheid momentum gaining and the deprivation of the non-white population reaching its zenith. The Afrikaner population is armed and ready to exact their power at any cost. Courtenay’s narrative shows the subjugation of the black population and the brutality that is inflicted upon them. While I do not condone this whatsoever, I have always been very interested in the apartheid mentality and how the Afrikaners justified it to the world. Courtenay offers up a front row seat to the reader, hoping they will better understand what went on. It is this sort of depth that has drawn me to all of Courtenay’s books, as he offers more than a superficial look at the world, while entertaining the reader. True, his books are long and tangential, but, like a well-paced journey, they permit the reader to gather many wonderful nuggets of information from page to page. While Courtenay turned away from writing about his homeland after this piece, there are many other novels which turn their focus to his adopted country of Australia. I will be sure to revisit them in time, allowing myself to get lost in the magical style that Courtenay has, paired with his audiobook reader, Humphrey Bower. Two fantastic men who are at the top of their games!

Kudos, Mr. Courtenay, for such a stupendous piece. Re-reading this book has solidified why I have come to call you one of my favourite authors of all times.

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

Formula of Deception by Carrie Stuart Parks

Seven 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.

Moving away from her Gwen Marcey series, Carrie Stuart Parks intrigues readers with this standalone novel that is sure to send chills up the spine. Murphy Andersen is hiding in plain sight in rural Alaska, worried that the serial killer likely responsible for her sister’s disappearance might soon find her. Creating a backstory so as not to alert anyone, Andersen sells herself as a forensic artist and has been brought in by the Kodiak Police Department to sketch some memories of a dying man. These sketches are to represent five bodies the man found a decade ago on a remote island. When Andersen and a crime technician make their way to the apparent crime scene, weather works against them and they narrowly escape with their lives. Soon thereafter, people with whom Andersen has recently had contact end up murdered and her home is torched. Might this all be coincidental or is there someone trying to send a message? As Andersen remains convinced that she will get to the bottom of her sister’s disappearance, she is also working this cold case, where she discovers potential ties to a World War II extremely covert mission. While she is worried that her identity and past may soon be revealed, Andersen cannot be deterred from doing all she can to solve these two Alaskan mysteries. A well-paced thriller that keeps the reader’s attention. Recommended for those who enjoy a police procedural with a twist!

I have long enjoyed Parks’ forensic artist series, as it tackles crime fighting from a unique perspective and helps educate the reader on some of the major aspects of the author’s other career. This move away from the series allows Parks to expand the foundation of her writing, adding a younger and less jaded protagonist. Murphy Andersen proves to be an interesting character, though the intensity of her backstory is diluted as she tries to help with the cases at hand. Parks has done well to introduce a number of interesting supporting characters, many of whom complement Andersen well, though not as well as some of those Parks has created in her aforementioned series. The plot has some interesting aspects—a serial killer, five mystery bodies, a military mission— but I found the entire experience not to be as intense as I might have liked. I was able to read the book with ease, though found myself lacking a connection to much on the page. It might also be some of the psychological aspects and internal conversations that Andersen seems to have, but I felt it lacked the punch Parks usually brings to her novels. The premise is sound and the historic happenings, be they real or fabricated, offered the reader something interest to ponder as they make their way through this piece.

Kudos, Madam Parks, for a decent addition to your writing repertoire. While not my favourite piece, I can still see some of your high-calibre writing that hooked me a while back.

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

The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington, by Charles Rosenberg

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Charles Rosenberg, and Hanover Square Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

In this novel of alternate history, Charles Rosenberg asks the reader to ponder what might have happened if the British Crown had been able to get their hands on General George Washington and bring him to justice in an English Court. In the dead of night, off the New Jersey coast, Colonel Jeremiah Black undertakes his ultra-secret mission. He has only one chance to succeed and many have put their trust in him. Making his way ashore, Black begins a journey that will see him play the role of a disaffected Colonial soldier, inching closer to his ultimate prize. Striking at just the right moment, Black is able to capture General George Washington and take him aboard HMS Peregrine for the trip across the Atlantic. While the journey is slow and laborious, Washington is not yet panicked, sure that he will be treated as a prisoner of war. However, Black has his orders and while he would have rather put a bullet in the military man, he hopes for long-term praise when they reach the English Coast. Meanwhile, news of Washington’s capture reaches the king, as well as the British Cabinet. George III is beside himself with delight—perhaps fuelled by his insanity?—and is prepared to levy charges of high treason, which will lead to a gruesome form of execution, one the monarch is sure will make an example of Washington. Panicked, the Continental Congress of the American States sends its ambassador plenipotentiary, Ethan Abbott, to negotiate terms and bring Washington home safely. However, Britain does not recognise the Congress or any of its officials, leaving Abbott neutered and unsure what to do. After some smooth talking, Abbott is able to communicate with the prisoner, who is prepared to face his indictment, but demands an American represent him in court, even though some high profile Brits are prepared to step up for the cause. Enter Abraham Hobhouse, whose work in a small firm has been anything but remarkable up to this point. When he is approached to represent General Washington, the chance to change history flashes before Hobhouse’s eyes, though the notoriety might also turn sour should he fail. Armed with the most significant case of his career, Hobhouse must cobble together a case to defend a man who does not deny his charges, though remains firmly rooted that the Colonial cause was just and that he led a necessary rebellion. All eyes turn to the London court prepared to hear the case, where history hangs in the balance. Rosenberg proves adept at entertaining as well as educating his reader in this wonderfully developed story that asks ‘what if’ in relation to one of America’s founding historical moments. Recommended for those who love history and its alternate possibilities, as well as those who enjoy a unique legal thriller.

Having never read Rosenberg before, this was a delightful introduction to an author with a vivid imagination for alternative history. When I first saw the title, I was immediately drawn to the book, as it sought to posit a significant change in paths to one of the central pieces in early American history. Might Washington’s capture and guilt have deflated the American States and left the English to run roughshod in the colonies, locking them into a horrible situation? Additionally, how would both sides negotiate through international law, sovereign state interaction, and during a state of war? One can only imagine in this well-paced piece of historical fiction. The characters used throughout help the story to progress nicely at different points. Rosenberg uses not only time-centred dialogue and settings, but also brings the characters to life as they seek to find a balance. The reader can feel right in the middle of the action, particularly throughout the lead up and into Washington’s trial. Rosenberg uses a mix of short and mid-length chapters to push the story along, keeping the reader wondering what is to come and how it will resolve itself. This constant pace keeps the narrative crisp and the plot from getting too bogged down in minutiae. Perhaps this is why the story seems to read to swiftly and with ease. As things built, I could find myself curious to see just how far Rosenberg would take things, having literary freedoms under the umbrella of alternate history. The final product is definitely worth the time spent and keeps the reader engaged until the very end.

Kudos, Mr. Rosenberg, for this interesting piece of American history. I will be certain to check out more of your work and keep an eye out to see what you might have coming down the pipeline.

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

The Power of One (Africa #1), by Bryce Courtenay

Nine stars

The dazzling writing style of Bryce Courtenay is captured in this, his debut novel. Its intricate prose and powerful characters bring a story to life that few readers will be able to resist. In rural South Africa during the late 1930s, Peekay is a young boy who has been sent to boarding school. With English roots, Peekay struggles in this school where the Boer boys ridicule him for his heritage, turning verbal pokes into full-on malicious attacks. With war building in Europe, Peekay is led to believe by classmates that Hitler will soon arrive in South Africa to toss the shackles from the Afrikaner people, long subjugated by the English. After a number of brush-ups with others, the matron agrees to send Peekay to his grandfather’s home, a long train ride across the country. Eager to leave, Peekay begins the long train ride, soon joined by the conductor, Hoppie Groenewald. This new friend helps Peekay with the ways of the rails, as well as being an amateur boxer in his own right. Peekay develops a passion for boxing and attends a bout where Hoppie is set to meet a much larger opponent, all during the train’s layover. Peekay is astonished when he sees Hoppie box, as well as the passion that others feel about the sport. From there, it is back on the train, where Peekay must survive the rest of the journey without his dear Hoppie. Arriving at his grandfather’s home, Peekay has distant memories of life with his family, including two young kitchen maids who keep him entertained. As he tried to acclimate to life in rural South Africa, Peekay befriends a highly interesting man, one Professor ‘Doc’ Karl von Vollensteen. Doc is a former concert pianist from Germany whose interest in botany piques Peekay’s curiosity, allowing him to further his education in a less formal setting. War continues to rage and South African officials choose to detain Doc, citing his German heritage as an issue that cannot be overlooked. While incarcerated, Doc continues to share his passion of music with Peekay and the other prisoners, many of whom are poor blacks. Straddling the middle, Peekay is able to forge strong friendships with the prisoners, who respect him for not treating them as lower class citizens, as well as with the guards, who help hone is boxing skills. Still young, Peekay must sell his abilities as a boxer to those who will help shape him into the athlete he hopes to become. Peekay’s passion for learning helps him excel in school and he’s sent off to yet another boarding school, but remains close to all those who have helped him along his path. The reader can easily become lost in Courtenay’s fabulous narrative that continues to twist from here, adding depth and insight to an already powerful tale. Highly recommended for those who love complex stories that touch on history and coming of age. How do I feel about the book? As Professor von Vollensteen would say, “for this I give… eleven out of ten. Absoloodle!”

Those who have not experienced a Bryce Courtenay novel are in for a treat with this piece. Not only does the reader have the opportunity to experience Courtenay’s first foray into writing but also experience his unique style, which combines well-developed characters with a plot that is rich with detail. Some may find his writing to be both excessive and too much to digest in a single novel, but it is this that makes the books even more enjoyable. Courtenay uses an interesting formula in his writing, which the attentive reader will discover as they meander throughout his novels, this one being no exception. There are scores of characters who cross the pages, each serving to develop their own backstory and to offer a slice of character revelation for the protagonist, Peekay. While the reader will notice strong ties between Peekay and one character in the early portion of the book, that individual will soon vanish, though their life lessons and impact are felt throughout the rest of the story. Courtenay inundates the reader with names and characteristics, which may cause some to stumble or require crib notes, but, rest assured, it is well worth the temporary confusion. Having read all of Courtenay’s novels, I can see character themes that reemerge, including token characters of a variety of backgrounds. The story itself becomes a tale full of twists and turns, such that the path on which the narrative is leading the reader soon changes, leaving what one might have expected to be left in the proverbial dust. This is also something that some may criticise, but I find this serpentine journey to be refreshing and forces the reader to remain engaged, rather than skim through parts of the story. As Courtenay calls this piece his loose attempt at a fictionalised autobiography (yes, the dichotomy of the statement is not lost on me), the historic moments and struggles are more than conjured up dramatisations from world events, but actual experiences that Courtenay felt. One can only imagine the strife in which South Africa found itself in the late 1930s and into the 40s. The Afrikaner population is still smarting as they are being regulated by the English, but they, too, have developed a sense that, perhaps, Hitler can come to save them and return the land to the rightful Boers. Peekay feels this throughout the novel, an English boy tossed amongst the strong-willed Afrikaners who look down upon him. However, there is also the theme of brewing apartheid, which has been loosely permitted for decades already. Courtenay’s narrative shows the subjugation of the black population and the brutality that is inflicted upon them. While I do not condone this whatsoever, I have always been very interested in the apartheid mentality and how the Afrikaners justified it to the world. Courtenay offers up a front row seat to the reader, hoping they will better understand what went on. As an aside, the book’s publication came just as the grip of apartheid was loosening, so it may be an educational piece to those who could not fathom the true horrors of the policy as it gained momentum and became a way of life. It is this sort of depth that has drawn me to all of Courtenay’s books, as he offers more than a superficial look at the world, which entertaining the reader. True, his books are long and tangential, but, like a well-paced journey, they permit the reader to gather many wonderful nuggets of information from page to page. As a friend commented to me recently, the story ends somewhat abruptly and has no strong sense of finality. Therefore, I’ll rush to get to the sequel, Tandia, to continue the exploration of Courtenay’s Africa.

Kudos, Mr. Courtenay, for such a stupendous piece. Re-reading this book has solidified why I consider it one of my favourites and a book I’d surely pack for an island isolation.

This book fulfils Topic # 3: Island Reading in the Equinox #3 Reading Challenge.

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