Into the Abyss: How a Deadly Plane Crash Changed the Lives of a Pilot, a Politician, a Criminal and a Cop, by Carol Sheban

Nine stars

Late on the evening of October 19, 1984, Wapiti Air Flight 402 crashed into a bunch of trees, outside High Prairie, Alberta. Of the ten passengers on board, one was Larry Shaben, father of the author. In this information-packed book, Shaben explores not only the crash that kill six passengers, but also offers a detailed exploration of the four men who survived—Larry Shaben, a politician; Erik Vogel, the pilot; Scott Deschamps, RCMP officer transporting a prisoner; and Paul Archambault, the prisoner. Shaben cuts right to the chase and discusses the night of the crash, where Vogel miscalculated High Prairie’s landing strip, going on to document the fourteen hours the survivors spent in a snowstorm, waiting for military Search and Rescue to locate them. While this would surely make a sensational book on its own, Shaben goes further, sketching out the history of Wapiti Air and its problematic flight record, the fallout of the crash that led to Transport Canada to strip Wapiti of its operating licence for a time, and the guilt Vogel felt for having been at the yoke. Offering snapshot biographies of the survivors up to twenty years later, as well as the pall of the deaths of those who perished, Shaben pulls no punches as she tries to offer a 360 degree exploration, without pointing fingers or offering vilification. Perhaps most interesting of all is the epiphany that Deschamps underwent in the years after the event. Veiled in his own secret struggles, Deschamps came out of the event the most scarred and lost, as Shaben discusses throughout. While no loss of life can be deemed insignificant, the crash of Wapiti Air Flight 402 hit home for many, shaping the lives of ten family irreparably. That Shaben can present this horror in such a well-rounded manner speaks volumes and is indicative as to the calibre of her writing. While it is hard to offer a recommendation for this book, I would encourage anyone with an interest in the subject matter to locate this book and learn so much in short order.

It is surely not an easy thing to tackle such an emotional subject, but Carol Shaben does it in a professional manner. Her personal investment in the story is obvious from the outset, as Shaben explains how she was in the Middle East and read a small article that hit the international wires. To offer a succinct, yet thorough, context to the events allows the reader to educate themselves without being bogged down in minutiae. Through detailed interviews and document retrieval, Shaben is able to develop a strong foundation that keeps the book progressing nicely. While it is impossible to ignore the six who died (particularly when one was Grant Notley), Shaben does not dwell on them, choosing instead to develop a story to explore how the crash changed the lives of the four men who were rescued. Being sufficiently dramatic in parts, without turning things into a sob story, the author pulls the reader in and keeps their attention throughout. One miscalculation led to a domino reaction, but who’s to blame, if anyone?

Kudos, Madam Shaben, for such an impactful story that pulls the reader in from the outset. I know someone who was personally impacted by these events and I could not have asked for a more professional presentation, weighing information against the need for privacy.

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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Perfect Death (D.I. Callanach #3), by Helen Fields

Nine stars

Helen Fields is back with another instalment of her popular Police Scotland series, where DI Luc Callanach has a new case to handle that will challenge everything he knows about policing. Callanach continues to adjust to his position within Police Scotland, much different from his INTERPOL days. After his colleague’s recent promotion, Callanach is adjusting to a new professional relationship with DCI Ava Turner, who has been forced to learn the ropes swiftly. While Callanach’s attention is drawn to an apparent victim of hypothermia, Turner receives disturbing news that her Chief Inspector has taken his own life in an apparent act of suicide. Unable to see what signs she might have missed, Turner liaises with her superior’s family, only to make a number of disturbing discoveries. Callanach tries to piece together his own case, but nothing is adding up. Just as he is making some progress, he receives a personal visitor who comes with a pile of unsolicited news that rocks him to the core. Trying to make sense of what he’s come to learn, Callanach goes somewhat rogue and keeps Turner at arm’s length in the middle of an important part of the investigation, earning him some ire from his DCI. When a few more cases of unexplained illnesses show signs of outside interference, Callanach and Turner realise that there may be a serial killer lurking in the shadows, their victims varied to the point that no similarities exist. With Edinburgh abuzz, Police Scotland must make some headway to locate this killer while also trying to better understand the Chief Inspector’s drastic final act. Fields has not lost any of the momentum with this series and is sure to appease series fans and those who love intense police procedurals.

I am happy to be able to continue this high-impact series that almost fell into my lap not too long ago. Fields is able to pull on all aspects of a well-developed police procedural without getting bogged down by too much of the frivolous banter. Fields has developed her characters perfectly and brings life to them with her subtle development of their personal foibles alongside their abilities to solve cases. DI Callanach continues to show why he is the perfect fit for the Major Investigative Team, while remaining highly vulnerable as he struggles to piece together some personal travesties that have befallen him. He contrasts nicely with DCI Turner, who is not only still compartmentalising the horrors of her past traumas, but also seeking to make a name for herself in a male dominated industry. Fighting to show compassion while not being deemed incapable, Turner puts on a hard exterior and demands much of her team. The rest of the characters work well to build a strong foundation for the story, which gets better as it builds. This more unique aspect of a serial killer lurking in plain sight is sure to work well for the dedicated reader, who gets glimpses into their own struggles while also watches as the victim total grows. I have loved all three of the series novels and am eager to get my hands on the fourth, set for release this coming summer. Those who enjoy this type of book should make a little more space on their to be read shelf, for they will not be disappointed.

Kudos, Madam Fields, for keeping things intense and allowing readers to bask in a well written procedural.

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

The Third Victim, by Phillip Margolin

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Phillip Margolin and Minotaur Books for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Phillip Margolin is back with another explosive legal thriller that will keep the reader pushing through until the very end to see that justice is served. Regina Barrister has made a name for herself in the Oregon legal community, defending those who have the money and need her legal prowess. Not only are clients aware of Barrister’s capabilities, but one law student has made the ultimate sacrifice to work alongside her. Robin Lockwood has done everyone in her power and when the opportunity arises, she’s keen to take an associate position with Barrister. Meanwhile, Meredith Fenner appears on a rural road, burns across her torso with obvious signs of having been held captive, claiming that she’s just escaped her kidnapper. After the Portland Police become involved, they notice her injuries are similar to those of two prostitutes who have recently been murdered. As the evidence rolls in and Fenner makes an identification of the house where she was held, attorney Alex Mason is arrested for the crime. His wife admits that Mason is quite the control freak and likes his sex kinky and a little violent, including tying her up and burning her with a cigarette. Regina Barrister accepts the case and begins defending Mason, bringing young associate Robin Lockwood along, as this is set to be a capital murder case. The evidence all points to Mason, but there is something that just does not seem right with the evidence as it has been presented pre-trial. Additionally, Regina seems to be keeping a secret that could turn this case on its head, though Robin is not entirely sure what to do. With a man’s life on the line, there is no room for error, but the evidence does not seem to lie, even if Regina refuses to see the larger picture. Margolin delivers a sensational novel that keeps pace throughout. Perfect for fans of legal dramas and who enjoy a twisted tale throughout.

I have admired Phillip Margolin’s work for a long time and find that he is usually quite on the ball with what he has to say. While one person I know strongly panned the book, I felt nothing but a strong connection to the characters and story, perhaps one of the best pieces of Margolin’s work that I have read. There were a number of characters to juggle throughout, but the central few (namely, Regina Barrister and Robin Lockwood) were strong and kept things moving effectively. Sprinkling some backstory in with character development helped to connect the reader with these two legal protagonists. Many of the others, including the third victim, Meredith Fenner, helped to up the dramatic effect of the case as things progressed and the trial opened with a bang. Of course, the secret Regina keeps throughout the novel cannot be discounted, though it would be too much of a spoiler to mention it here.The story was fairly well presented, with a strong lead-up and segments of the trial, in which Barrister and Lockwood do what they can to keep Alex Mason from facing death row, but cannot discount the evidence. While things did go well, as I mentioned above, the vast array of characters served sometimes to dilute the effectiveness of the story, as the reader is forced to recollect who belongs where and what they have said up to this point. That being said, things did all fall into place at just the right moment and Margolin shows how effective he can be in his writing.

Kudos, Mr Margolin, for another wonderful legal thriller. I love the move away from the bright lights of big city stories and hope Oregon will remain where you set future stories.

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

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

Nine stars

With her sensational debut novel, Eowyn Ivey offers readers a healthy dose of rural Alaskan life balanced with a story that pulls on the heartstrings. Mabel and Jack have come to settle on the Alaskan home-front in the 1920s, having left behind the busy Pennsylvania lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. Childless and in their 50s, Jack and Mabel are forced to forge their own way and subsist on whatever they can accumulate. While Jack toils away on their land, Mabel’s idle time is spent remembering the child they lost and how devastating it was for her, having always yearned to be a mother. On the evening of the first snowfall of the season, Jack and Mabel venture out to build a little snow girl, adding all the accoutrements they can create, before turning in for the night. Mabel wakes the next morning to find the snow girl gone, likely destroyed by an animal. However, she is sure she’s seen something in the woods, when she leaves the safety of her home. Unable to convince anyone, Mabel wonders if a story from her childhood has influenced her. When Jack finally meets the girls in the woods, sure that this is no longer an apparition that Mabel has concocted. Jack soon makes a discovery about which he tells to no one and invites the young girl to come live with them. The as-to-now nameless girl soon admits to being called Faina, a unique name that both Mabel and Jack adopt with ease. While Faina is happy to live with her new parental figures, she also enjoys her independence and disappears on occasion, off into the woods, where she once made her home. Mabel soon receives a package from her sister, one that includes the story read to her as a child. The piece explores the life of an older couple and their connection to a snow girl, though, like most fairy tales, the story takes a turn for the worse and has an ending that is anything but happy. Guarded with the knowledge of what might cause Faina to leave forever (or disintegrate before their eyes), Mabel and Jack become protective of the child they always wanted but never could have. As the years progress, Faina develops into a young woman with new issues that must be addressed, adding new layers of concern on the Alaskan home-front. Ivey’s story is both captivating and chilling to the core as the reader sees just how precarious life can be and the fragility of familial bonds. Recommended for anyone with a penchant for slow evolving stories that find their action and suspense in the smallest developments.

I had heard much about this book before I got my hands on it, with mixed reviews. I liked the premise and could not help but enjoy how the story evolved in the rural Alaskan communities. I felt a connection to the story and characters, not distracted with busy city life or blazing gunfights. The characters are well-crafted, mixing backstory with development throughout this piece. Ivey does well the flesh-out the Jack and Mabel characters from the outset, balancing their current lifestyle against the reasons they fled Pennsylvania and everything they knew. The rough lifestyle contrasts nicely with the love they show one another and, eventually, Faina, who is equally interesting a character. Developed from the Russian fairytale that Mabel knows so well, the reader develops an somewhat deep seeded expectation of how Faina will act and what will become of her, though being touch by love in human form (as opposed to animal) changes her perspective on things. The story, though not as fast paced as some would like, flows nicely and offers numerous symbols throughout. I cannot express how pleased I was to see the slow development never falter and how Ivey kept the reader enthralled, even if things did not happen at breakneck speed. As a very brief aside, it is addressed throughout parts of the novel that fairytales, while geared for children, tend to have strong negative outcomes (at least until Disney morphs them) and horrid happenings. Many of the tales Neo and I have read together are gore-filled and nothing I would want to present to a child, as is The Snow Child in reference to the story Mabel read as a child. Brilliantly developed for a debut novel and I am pleased I did not listen to those who panned this book quite heavily.

Kudos, Madam Ivey, for this debut success. I will be reading your second novel and hope it packs as much punch as this one did for me.

This novel fulfils Topic #6 (A Book About the Current Equinox) in the Equinox #2 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

Justice Returns (Ben Kincaid #19), by William Bernhardt

Nine stars

After a significant hiatus, William Bernhardt is back with another Ben Kincaid courtroom thriller that will surely envelop the reader throughout this high-impact novel. Ben Kincaid enjoys work in Oklahoma City, with his law firm and handful of clients. While he enjoys dabbling in criminal law, he’ll take what he can get. While in the middle of a civil trial, Kincaid is warned about a potential client waiting in his office, one that could cause him many headaches. Rushing back to see what’s going on, Kincaid comes face to face with Omar ‘Oz’ al-Jabbar, a man he knew back in high school before his conversion to Islam. Oz recounts a horrible tale about being interrogated by the CIA for 21 days, where numerous ‘enhanced’ techniques were used. In charge of the interrogation was one Abdul Nazir, once working for Hussein’s Iraqi Forces, but now one of the Agency’s most productive representatives. After weighing his options and being influenced by members of his family, Kincaid agrees to file suit against the US Government, a long-shot but one that might force the CIA’s hand to admit wrongdoing. US Attorney Roger Thrillkill is happy to bury these allegations as nothing but a vendetta for a man who was hiding essential information. During a press conference, Thrillkill begins fanning the flames about American security in the face of terrorists, all to entice media coverage. To add to the dramatic effect, Thrillkill is happy to allow Nazir a chance to speak. Soon thereafter, a shot rings out, Nazir is dead, and Oz is holding the murder weapon. What was a civil matter has now turned criminal, with the US Attorney filing capital charges. Now, Kincaid must decide if he is ready to defend a former friend, whose life is on the line. This is more than a murder trial, even one with capital implications. It pits the American view of Muslims against the rights guaranteed in the Constitution. If that were not enough, one of the young Kincaid twins is exhibiting some odd behaviours, which has Ben wondering if there may be something significantly wrong. With a trial before him Ben Kincaid will have to hope for a miracle, with the country watching his every move. Series fans and those who love a courtroom drama will appreciate this book, full of political undertones and an ending that is as explosive as they come.

I am a long time Bernhardt fan, particularly of his Ben Kincaid novels, which always mix social issues with some of the best courtroom writing I have ever read. The reader is pulled not only into the middle of the case, but also can witness the banter of the trial as it progresses. Ben Kincaid has been around for a longtime, his legal demeanour quite subdued, but his passion for the law ever-present. Series fans will have seen much progress throughout (and now into the 19th novel), but this piece offers both development and some significant backstory from a time Kincaid would likely prefer to forget. Added to that, the new role of father and the struggles that this entails, Ben Kincaid has become a complex and quite endearing character. Most stories are full of strong secondary characters and this is no exception, be it the countless witnesses on both sides, the prosecutor who seeks to discredit everything, as well as Kincaid’s strong support base, who have been with him from the early days. The story comes to life through these characters, as do the numerous struggles. The story is, in my opinion, long overdue and while it rehashes a subject I have long since tired reading about (the America versus Muslim world clash), it is less ISIS and more civil and constitutional rights. Bernhardt does not hold back in his strong social commentary about the rights of Americans and anyone in the world, particularly at the hands of American agents. As discussed throughout, fundamental rights enshrined in the US Constitution are not afforded to Americans when it is deemed a matter of security. Added to that, the ongoing thumbing of noses towards Geneva Conventions and the interesting means by which US Administrations can spin things to meet their needs. One other central issue at the beginning of the novel pertained to ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, read: torture, and how some in the Administration feel security weighs more heavily than rights. That’s a matter for the reader to ponder here and for themselves, but I found many of the comments within this novel echoed some of the sentiments I have had for over a decade, though I am sure my being Canadian, many would want me to keep my mouth closed on US matters.

Kudos, Mr. Bernhardt, for a stunning novel that shook me to my core. I have been waiting patiently for another Ben Kincaid piece and am so happy you’ve found the time to craft it for your many fans!

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

The Hanged Man (The Bone Field #2), by Simon Kernick

Seven stars

Simon Kernick is back with another thriller set amid the bodies of The Bone Field, where readers saw DI Ray Mason and PI Tina Boyd work together to discover the horrible collection of unidentified bones. Still baffled by their findings, Mason and his partner are called to a rural home, where a woman lies dead and a half-penned suicide note leads them to believe that her husband, Hugh Manning, might have decided to stay alive a while longer. The deeper Mason digs, the clearer the story. Manning might have been visited by others seeking to silence him once and for all. For what, no one is yet sure. However, when the first of the bones is attributed to a woman who was presumed missing, the case opens wide and Mason soon learns that Manning may be the key to the entire Bone Field case. With a ruthless gang looking for Manning, it will only be a matter of time before the case goes cold again, forcing Mason to take matters into his own hands. With the help of his current girlfriend, PI Tina Boyd, Mason pushes not only to protect Manning, but also to bring the killers to justice and identify all the victims in short order. Trouble is, the criminal element rarely play by the rules. Kernick does well with this sequel and keeps the reader enthralled until the final pages as the mystery developed throughout. Those familiar with Kernick’s work and fans of darker police procedurals will likely enjoy this piece.

I discovered Kernick last year when the debut in this series crossed my path. I remember being interested, though was not sure how I felt about the story. I decided to give this one a chance to see if some of the loose threads might be tied off and the level of mystery heightened. I am pleased I took the gamble, though there were times I felt things took a while to gather momentum. Kernick’s interesting plots leave me feeling that I will try some more of his books in the near future. DI Ray Mason is an interesting character, having invested much of his time in police work, but now tied to Tina Boyd, who has both sobered him and kept him always looking behind his back. While he is still reckless at times, he also loves to get to the heart of the matter in a sensible way, hoping to stay alive a while longer. Still, he struggles with a relationship and being close to someone else. Boyd, for her part, seems to feel the same (and I will admit I have not ventured into her series that Kernick has padded with numerous novels). The cast of secondary characters prove believable and help push the story along, though I did not find any of them shone enough to jump off the page. The story, veiled in the Bone Field mystery, was decent and showed just how jaded some in the criminal world tend to be and what lengths they will go to get what is needed. Filled with interesting tidbits that trace back decades, Kernick has done well here and keeps the reader wondering, which is the sign of a well-crafted novel.

Kudos, Mr. Kernick, for creating this timely sequel, as fans sink their teeth into this new series, which has much potential.

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

Sweetpea, by C.J. Skuse

Seven stars

After having written a number of Young Adult novels, C.J. Skuse turns to her darker side in penning this piece, rich in angst and homicidal actions. Rhiannon Lewis hates her life and most of those who cross her path. Using a series of diary entries, she explores this hatred by tipping her hand to the reader. Many of her entries begin with a list of those she despises the most and why they rub her the wrong way. Be it people from the news, those at her place of employment, or people with whom she must interact in public, Rhiannon cannot let things flow off her back. As the narrative progresses, the reader learns that Rhiannon was once famous for being the sole survivor in a horrific attack on a daycare facility, though she suffered significant injuries. These injuries seem to have numbed her ability to truly care for others, while also helping to foster a sense of vigilante behaviour, which she uses to restore balance in the world. Rhiannon has many secrets, but none darker than the need to punish those who have wronged the innocent and to harm people who do not serve a useful purpose in her day to day life. The narrative is full of these struggles and the list of personal enemies that Rhiannon finds troublesome seems to grow as time passes. That being said, a personal event turns everything on its head and forces Rhiannon to reassess her life and the choices she’s made; a new feeling for this seemingly cold and emotionless woman. Whatever the struggle, Rhiannon Lewis will not be the same by the end, though no one can truly tell how she’ll turn out. Skuse offers a very dark and demented path through this novel, sure to interest those who enjoy personal struggle and protagonists with deep and homicidal secrets.

I chose this book on the recommendation of a friend, who knows how much I enjoy a twisted tale. I was not entirely sure what to expect, but did hope for some psychological thriller that would keep me up well into the night. Instead, I pushed through this personal journal of a twenty-something woman who has a hit list a mile long and many deep secrets she wants to keep from others. Rhiannon is quite the repulsive character, particularly because of her attitude towards the outside world. As she mentions throughout the narrative, she has a ‘me’ side and a public persona to uphold, a difficult act to support through troubling times. However, her Dexter-like duality might serve to better underscore her struggles on a daily basis. The reader cannot help but feel a ray of sympathy for her, though surely dislikes her ongoing attacks on anyone who is not perfect. With a cast of varied secondary characters, Skuse is able to prop up her novel with a vast array of fodder to fuel Rhiannon’s fire, though no one can be sure when things will take a significant turn. The story itself is decent, though there are surely segments that drag and left me wondering how long it would take to push through. This is definitely not a fast-paced piece, nor is it something with mysterious crumbs left throughout the narrative. The reader must dedicate themselves to getting to the very end, where more surprises lie in wait. I am happy to say I made it, though the journey was anything but simple. Still, Skuse kept me wondering and guessing, with some significantly curious means of tying up loose ends by the final few entries.

Kudos, Madam Skuse, for a great piece, which differs greatly from your usual fare. I am eager to see what else you might bring up for publishing in the coming years. I know I’ll keep an eye open!

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

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, by Chris Whipple

Nine stars

Chris Whipple offers a stunning look behind the curtain and into the depths of the West Wing, wherein resides some of the most powerful unelected figures in the American political machine. At the pinnacle of this group is a man (for there has yet to be a woman in the role) who wears the moniker Chief of Staff (CoS). Charged with keeping the various factions at bay and protecting the President of the United States (POTUS), the CoS serves primarily as a gatekeeper, but also as the one whose job it is to fall on any political grenade and take the brunt of any blowback for decisions made in the Oval Office. Whipple explores the role of Chief of Staff, loosely formed under Eisenhower, and how it became an essential part of every West Wing since Nixon rose to power in 1968. No POTUS has been without one (save for the early years of Jimmy Carter, who thought he could do it alone), sometimes acting as a sounding board and at other times that sober second thought to prevent disaster. Whipple explores each of the CoS who filled the role, beginning with H.R. Haldeman, who guided a cutthroat Nixon away from early disaster, only to find himself stained with Watergate, which led to the downfall of his boss. Members who served in the role of Chief would make a name for themselves, returning decades later to serve even more important roles, such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who guided the brief Ford presidency along some shaky tracks. Others, like James A. Baker III, would serve under Reagan, but return to guide future presidents with key political advice (read: Bush 41 and 43). Even the likes of Obama’s picks to fill the role would not find themselves rooted for long, especially Rahm Emanuel, who was the first of four men to guide the troops under the last POTUS. As Whipple argues throughout, the role is not for the feint of heart or those who have a strong personal friendship with POTUS, but rather requires a backbone and the ability to say no to the Leader of the Free World, especially at the most inopportune moments. Whipple does a masterful job a recounting some of the behind-the-scenes moments and gives foundation to major events each POTUS faced, showing how the CoS played a role in events, even when they may not have wanted to step forward. Of greatest interest, looking ahead, Whipple uses his findings to forecast the need for a strong person (or persons) to serve as CoS to the 45th POTUS, prone to march to the beat of his own Twitter characters. Political junkies will love this book, which is not bogged down in too much minutiae, though it is a sobering look for anyone with an inkling of political interest.

I approached this book as a lesser dose of politics in these deeply divisive days in America. While not an American myself, I have a keen interest in political history south of the Canadian border, something that Whipple offers here. Whipple uses key events and clashes between POTUS and CoS to illustrate that there were many times when decisions did not flow as smoothly as they might have appeared in front of the camera. There are also numerous mentions of Chiefs having to rein in their bosses, who were hellbent on making stupid mistakes, placing ego before pragmatism. With a narrative that entertains as well as educates, Whipple draws on first-hand interviews as well as documented evidence to provide the reader with as thorough a look behind the doors of power, save when doing so might violate national security. The reader can sit back and see the progression of the role of Chief of Staff, though there were times when Chiefs refused to learn from their predecessors, citing political or ideological reasons. While the role is surely political, Whipple argues that it is more a shepherd herding sheep, no matter their political stripe. And, wherever possible, protecting the man in the Oval Office from political shrapnel.

Kudos, Mr. Whipple, for such a wonderful piece. I can only hope that I find more of you work in the coming years, as it was informative but not preachy. Well worth the time invested.

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

Jack the Reaper (The Hunt for Jack Reacher Series #8), by Diane Capri

Seven stars

Diane Capri has returned to add to her Hunt for Reacher series, taking a slightly different approach to events. After an explosion in a home, everyone is presumed dead, including the elusive Jack Reacher. FBI Agents Otto and Gaspar have been two steps behind him for so long and now, it would seem, things have gone frigid. However, after the controversial document dump, TrueLeaks, transcripts of a telephone call speaking of Reacher being alive and well, which means Otto and Gaspar must rush to New York to continue their investigation. All the while, General MacKenzie ‘Nitro Mack’ Parnell has come to learn of a sizeable amount of money being hidden away in an New York apartment, money that was tied to an operation he sanctioned years ago. Now, Parnell wants what he feels is his and will stop at nothing to retrieve it. Nitro Mack has a history with Reacher as well, someone who had little love loss for his superior while still serving in the military. As Agents Otto and Gaspar piece together a better understanding of what is going on with Reacher, they are soon following the track of Parnell’s mess as he hunts down the money. As more bodies pile up and the money is nowhere to be found, everyone begins to wonder if, like Reacher, it’s disappeared in plain sight. Capri does well to stand alone while keeping Reacher true to his nature. A decent effort that Reacher fans may like, though the series grows and stands on its own merits.

As she tends to do with each novel’s introduction, Capri pays homage to Lee Child and his creation of the Jack (none) Reacher character. She speaks of how each novel she writes parallels with one that Child has created, which allows the reader to read them one after the other and notice the chronological ties. I have never done so and feel that Capri’s work can stand alone, though the elusive nature of Reacher from Child’s novels is just as strong in this series. Otto and Gaspar remain central characters here and pose no threat to overpowering one another. Many of the past novels have developed their characters, but here, it would seem as though they are in neutral and the focus is strictly Reacher and Parnell. Capri’s glimpse into Otto’s personal thoughts and a run-in within her apartment is about as in-depth a character reveal as the story offers. The secondary characters, as with the mainstream Reacher stories, change each time, though they are well placed here to deliver a strong story. While the story was good and paced itself well, I found it difficult to affix myself to everything that was going on. I wanted to, as I love Reacher, but this piece seemed less focussed on Reacher and more on how the agents would eventually fall in line with Parnell’s antics. It could be an anomaly of the series and I will not rake Capri over the coals for my own sense of confusion. Overall, a decent effort and I am eager to see if she can redeem herself with the next book, highlighted at the end of the narrative.

Kudos, Madam Capri, for keeping Jack (none) Reacher alive between Lee Child novels. You do well on your own and it shines through with each novel you produce in this series.

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

Lazarus Rising, by John Howard

Nine stars

Exploring key political figures in other countries can be a very exciting endeavour, especially for those who have a thirst for knowledge and willingness to examine unique political systems. While I have inundated myself with American presidents over the past number of years, I thought I would look to a fellow Commonwealth country and seek to better understand the life of John Howard, Australia’s prime minister from 1996-2007. In this comprehensive political and personal memoir, Howard explores his life and the great impact it played in his personal growth, as well as the important events that shaped Australia at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st. Howard divides his memoirs into three distinct periods, which serve well to differentiate time frames for review. To better understand John Howard, it serves to understand his initial introduction into politics, time on the opposition benches, and period as prime minister. While I will not try to be thorough in my examination, my skimming along the surface seeks to whet the appetite of the review reader to see some of the key highlights that leapt off the page. I seek, also, not to delve too deeply into the Australian political divide, which I realise can be quite significant. I had an Australian friend comment to me that I would surely not find much interest in Howard (in comparison to a single-term US president whose biography I read and reviewed recently), though I can honestly say this book has significantly contradicted that sentiment. The curious and dedicated reader who has an interest in parliamentary politics and foreign relations will certainly find something in the substantial memoir that Howards offers.

In his cordial style, John Howard dives right in during the opening chapters of his book to show how politics influenced him from an early age. Growing up against the backdrop of the Second World War, Howard witnessed the importance of Australian government policy from an early age, with food and petrol rationing to keep the country afloat. He discusses the deep-rooted Labor Party affinity his family held, based on the working class nature of his parents and grandparents. While Howard was not actively involved in the political process, he cites remembering going to the polls at a young age, as though the importance of democracy was firmly rooted into his psyche. It was when he left to study law at university that Howard became interested in politics, turning to the Liberal Party to meet his needs. Finding himself centre-right in his leanings, Howard found solace in the party and its policies, headed by Sir Robert Menzies, a popular and long-serving prime minister of the time. Working hard to keep the Liberals in power, Howard tested the water a few times, both federally and at the state-level, but failed to win a seat in either parliament. His dedication and determination to stick to his beliefs led him to finally win a seat under the Liberal leadership of Malcolm Fraser, another well-known prime minister. While serving with Fraser, Howard was promoted quickly, perhaps due to his attention to detail, and was soon given the portfolio of Minister for the Treasury, which, in Australia, provided him the opportunity to delivery the annual budget to Parliament. Howard discusses some of the important decisions that he was able to make during this time, shaping fiscal policy under Fraser and honing his skills as a potential leader in the future. Howard began to make a name for himself in Australia and the Oceania-Asian region during this time, while also clashing with some of the strong trade-unions and Labor Party Members of Parliament (MPs), who sought to contradict his pronouncements at every turn. While riding the high of serving in government, Howard could sense that Fraser’s wave might soon crash, turning a strong Australian Government on its head, left to the decisions of the electorate. That day came in 1983 when the Liberals were unceremoniously turfed from office after a double dissolution (Governor-General dissolved both houses and sent them to elections), leaving a Labor Party ready to negate much of Howard’s (read: Fraser) policies over the last number of years.

Howard’s time serving on the opposition benches proved quite effective for his future as Australian prime minister. Those familiar with the parliamentary system will know that there is always a ‘government-in-waiting’ or shadow cabinet, seeking to leap on any moment that the governing collective might gaffe significantly. Howard was forced to endure significant time as an opposition member, but did not do so idly. His past as Treasury Minister left him as the front-line critic of Labor fiscal policy, which sought to undo much of what he had done while at the helm. Howard did his best, while basing his criticisms in fact rather than ideological rhetoric, though it is impossible to divorce the two completely. Another aspect of time in opposition that Howard highlights relates to an Australian parliamentary adage, ‘there is much dry grass around a party leader’. In essence, a party leader is in the precarious position that anyone who opposes them significantly could toss the proverbial match and cause many issues. Howard saw the Liberals in this position on numerous occasions, as leadership questions arose and factions sought to remove Fraser. Howard tried to hold his ground and, while serving as deputy leader, saw the parliamentary party choose new directions repeatedly throughout the Liberal time in opposition (including Howard serving as leader twice). Without getting too academic here, Australia follows the British parliamentary system, whereby elected officials (in both the House of Representatives and Senate) are responsible for choosing their leader, rather than the party faithful. So, any disharmony could lead to a leader’s ouster at the drop of a hat. Howard weathered the storm here and discusses the repeated strains on his position as MP and shadow cabinet member, what with the numerous backstabbing efforts of the two factions within the Liberals. While not all that exciting for some readers, I found it quite interesting to see the struggles that rose behind closed doors and were reported in the media. When Howard ascended to the leadership role for the second time, Labor was on precarious ground, having turned to ideologically running the country, rather than putting the Australian people first. The election of March 1996 would prove highly interesting, with John Howard taking the Liberal troops into the battle of their lives.

The election of the Coalition (Liberal and National parties) again in March 1996 proved to be a turning point, not only because John Howard was at the helm, but because it ushered in a new era of Australian politics, one in which the newly-elected prime minister sought to shape the country in his own way. As Howard mentions in the introduction, this segment of the memoir fills 2/3 of the entire narrative, speaking to the detail and complexities of some topics discussed herein. Howard had served on the Government benches before, so this was not a complete culture shock, but leading a party (and country) proved to be much different than acting as a Minister. Howard recounts gaining his legs in a Parliament that remained someone in transition, having been led by Labor for a number of years. New policies and approaches had to be vetting through the parliamentary system and new faces meant trying to massage what was already a complicated parliamentary party into a workable and cohesive unit. The aforementioned ‘dry grass’ approach remained on Howard’s radar, though he did not make mention of worrying about it too often (save some jitters late in his parliamentary career). While Howard did serve through a number of elections, he chose not to take large segments of the narrative to describe the campaign trail, unlike what might be found in many of the presidential biographies and memoirs I have tackled in years past. Instead, Howard’s focus was to explore many of the key issues that arose during his time in power. Howard devotes much time to the debate over a GST (Goods and Services Tax), seeking to increase monies that could be used by the federal government and its state counterparts. The divisive nature of this tax seemed to fuel the debate for a 1998 election, where the electorate chose to keep Howard in power, thereby offering their blessing for such a significant tax. Additional issues of indigenous peoples treatment and the brewing debate over turning Australia into a republic received much discussion, the latter going to a referendum in 1999. Howard shows his colours as a strong monarchist and lays the groundwork not only for his party’s beliefs, but his own, which enriches the narrative and provides the reader with a better understanding of the debate. Seeking to help East Timor declare independence from Indonesia proved to be one of Howard’s first international dilemmas, but it would show his desire to put democracy and the stability of the region ahead of anything else. Howard also recounts his long-standing relationship with George W. Bush, with whom he first forged a relationship while he was in the United States during the attacks of September 11, 2001. Throughout the narrative, Howard returns to the importance of this America-Australia relationship, which served to balance the international political unrest at a time of much confusion. Likeminded centre-right leaders, Bush and Howard kept a close relationship throughout the former’s time in office, still speaking after they both left office. Howard uses his omnipotent view of the world political scene and experience leading Australia to offer some insights (and critiques) of leaders in both Australia and America, based on the actions he and Bush took to shape events. There is no shortage of issues that are addressed by Howard, including: the Bali attacks, immigration policy, Kyoto protocols, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and regional political cohesion. While those outside the Australian reaches might not fully comprehend the importance of these and many other topics, Howard offers interesting perspectives through the lens of his leadership efforts. By the time he left office, after Kevin Rudd and Labor swept back into power in 2007, Howard was ready to accept the decision of the electorate, though refused to disappear into the political wilderness. As a man still active in political and international statesman circles, Howard makes clear that he will always present his opinions, though not interfere with the elected officials running Australia in the 21st century.

While some were sure that I would find less interest in John Howard’s story than many of the American political biographies I have enjoyed, I feel strongly that this was an erroneous presumption. Howard lays out his story in such a way that the reader can easily comprehend what he is saying, without diluting the message. Not overly academic in nature, the reader should be aware that this is more than an Australian political primer. It addresses key areas of politics, parliament, and international relations as seen through the eyes of Howard throughout his political career. A general knowledge of the political system helps and a keen interest in learning is also an essential reader trait, but Howard discusses things in such a way that there is no need to have intimate knowledge of Australian history, both political and social. Howard’s approach is one that does not shy away from educating the reader, while also not pulling punches when it comes to those with whom he does not agree. Howard makes his political leanings known, which may trump some from caring at all. Liberal and Labor politics are surely as divisive as some of the political differences in my native Canada, but Howard is able to rise above, on occasion, and speak for Australia. That is not to say that he does not offer many potshots at the disarray that became the Labor Party in Government. His respect for the electoral process, democracy, and the right to alternate opinions shines through in the delivery of this information-rich narrative. Howard served long enough to have a strong opinion of world events and was in power during some of the most important world events in the last fifty years. The second longest-serving prime minister, Australians may not all have liked John Howard or his politics, but they should be proud to have had such a competent leader who sought to shape Australia’s place on the world stage. I know I learned a great deal and have developed a great deal of curiosity about a fellow Commonwealth and parliamentary-led country.

Kudos, Mr. Howard, for permitting me such an in-depth look into your life, particularly the political aspects. I am better for having this knowledge and you offer it up in such a way as to have whetted my appetite for more.

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