The Malta Exchange (Cotton Malone #14), by Steve Berry

Eight stars

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

Steve Berry returns with another Cotton Malone thriller, sure to impress series fans that those readers who love peeling back some of the mysteries history has left unsolved. Cotton Malone arrives on Malta with a mission to intercept a collection of letters that could ruin Britain if they see the light of day. These letters were written between Winston Churchill and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini during the Second World War, pertaining specifically to the possession of Malta. While this mission does not seem too difficult, there is more to the story than meets the eye, particularly as it relates to Malta. Long guarded by a security force, the Knights of Malta, the country has been the gem sought by many autocratic leaders, including both Mussolini and Napoleon Bonaparte. However, it is not simply the land they seek, but a secret that could change the face of world domination. This secret, Nostra Trifectà, holds information that many within the Vatican have long hoped would never be found, as its contents could change the Church forever. Vatican City is abuzz, with the death of the recent pope and a conclave about to begin. Over one hundred cardinals are making their way to cast ballots to elect a new leader for the world’s Catholics, but there is a twist. One contender seeks to use a great amount of information he has amassed to turn the tides in his favour, while using the secret enforcement arm of the Vatican to keep all hurdles out of his way. While Malone discovers what is going on, he is joined by others from his former employer, the Magellan Billet, to stop this and finally uncover the Nostra Trifectà. It will take more than brains and a little brawn to discover the secrets hidden in Malta and bring them to Vatican City before the doors of the Sistine Chapel are closed for the commencement of the Papal Conclave. Will this be one adventure through history’s lesser-known mysteries that even Cotton Malone will not solve? A highly captivating story that will hold the reader’s attention until the final pages, as they seek to decipher fact from fiction. Recommended for those who enjoy Steve Berry’s work, as well as the reader who finds solace in historical mysteries where much of the accepted truths are put to the test.

There’s nothing like a Steve Berry novel to get the brain working. He is able to pull on the lesser-known parts of major historical events, pulling the reader into the middle of an adventure, where there is much to learn. Berry’s protagonist, Cotton Malone, has been a wonderful staple throughout the series, moving from an active role as a Magellan Billet agent to a quiet bookseller with a passion for rare documents. While Berry does not offer a great deal of back story or development, Malone is effective in this book by showing his attention to detail when it comes to ciphers and hidden codes. Malone is able to lead his group through mysteries while always flexing his muscles when needed. Berry’s use of a number of secondary characters, both returning from the series and unique to this book, to help move things along, particular as it relates to those who serve as antagonists throughout. The story is interesting on multiple levels, as it tackles some of the events surrounding Mussolini’s fall from grace, the history of the island of Malta, as well as papal conclaves and the role the Catholic Church has long played in the world. Juggling these plots, Berry is able to advance many interesting historical possibilities, as well as injecting some history that may not be readily known to the reader. As with all of his novels, Berry embeds both fact and fiction within the narrative, leaving the reader to decide what to believe, at least until Berry sets the record straight at the end of the story. Tackling the power of the Catholic Church and how a collection of documents, Nostra Trifectà, could derail much of what is known or expected, as well as the power that the pope and his entourage. Set against the mysterious island of Malta, I was able to enjoy the second book in as many months on this island that lays between Italy and the African continent. I am eager to see what else Berry has in store for Malone and the other members of the Magellan Billet in the coming months. It’s always nice to see something that bears Steve Berry’s name, as the reader is guaranteed a jam-packed read.

Kudos, Mr. Berry, for another winner. I learn so much with you at the helm and your ability to tell stories is second to none.

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 Museum of Mysteries: A Cassiopeia Vitt Adventure, by Steve Berry and M.J. Rose

Eight stars

There are few authors I could read every day without tiring (I say this never having tried, haha!), but Steve Berry would have to be one. His mix of mystery and little-known historical events blend together to make sensational stories. He has a well-established Cotton Malone series, which has permitted one of its supporting characters—Cassiopeia Vitt—branch out onto her own on one previous occasion. Berry has teamed-up with M.J. Rose, an author I have not read, to create this wonderful novella with Vitt in the driver’s seat. Visiting a friend in the French village of Eze, Cassiopeia Vitt finds herself chasing someone who has just stolen a costly item from a museum. This is not just any box, but a Sabbat Box, filled with elixirs and potions and used in mediaeval times. Apparently brought to auction six months before, the Box contains items that trace back to the fifth century and could be called an ancient ‘pharmacy in a box’. Vitt catches the apparent thief and slides one of the vials into her pocket, curious about what its powers might be. Soon, Vitt is attacked herself and the Box stolen once again. Confronting the original thief, Vitt learns the true power of the Box, having inhaled some of the fumes from her own vial. This takes her back in time, into the body and mind of one Morgan le Fay. During this state, Vitt (le Fay) encounters a man she has been waiting for and with whom she has a romantic connection. Does this hallucination speak to the present course of events? If so, who is this man, if not Cotton Malone (who is on his way to America)? Baffled but adamant that she will retrieve the Sabbat Box, Vitt follows clues she obtains while conversing with a Paris detective. With a French presidential election under a week away, the Sabbat Box could play a larger role that that of the ballot variety in swaying the results. The trouble is, no one is entirely sure how! A brilliant teaser for those waiting for Berry’s next Cotton Malone novel as well as the many fans Rose has of her own work. Recommended specifically for Berry fans who like what Vitt brings to stories (for I cannot speak of anything Rose has penned).

As I mentioned above, I have long been a fan of Steve Berry’s work and leapt at the chance to read this piece while I await the next Cotton Malone novel. Berry and Rose have created an interesting tale that pulls on both the present time and distant ages past. Cassiopeia Vitt, who has long been a secondary character, plays the protagonist in this piece. Her backstory is fleshed out a little more, with discussion of her childhood and upbringing. The authors also put her grit and determination front and centre, allowing the reader to better understand this woman who has often been called the ‘billionaire building a castle’ and more recently Cotton Malone’s love interest. The handful of other characters help to offer a stronger story, both in modern France and medieval Europe, though there is surely a sinister revelation that awaits the patient and attentive reader, revealed through intense dialogue presented within the narrative. The story straddles both time periods and uses alchemy to bind them. Without offering up too much of the story (and thereby spoiling it), there is a definite pulse to the story that requires the reader to understand what is going on during both time periods, which can then be bound together by the closing pages of the novella. Berry and Rose Bering their experiences together in this piece, adding some of their characters to the novella and creating a handful of others. While sorcery and magic is not my cup of tea, this piece did pique my interest and I may have to see what M.J. Rose is all about. Additionally, I am curious to see if Berry adds mention of it in his upcoming Malone novel. A great way to spend a short time reading and perfect for a beach afternoon!

Kudos, Mr. Berry and Madam Rose, for this piece that is both unique and on par with much that I have read in Berry’s series. I hope you work together again, as this was a wonderful collaborative effort.

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

The Bishop’s Pawn (Cotton Malone #13), by Steve Berry

Nine stars

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

Steve Berry is back to provide readers with another instalment of the Cotton Malone series. In this piece, things go back to the beginning, before Magellan Billet, when Malone was still a lieutenant in the Navy and working for the JAG. After a failed attempt to help a friend finds Malone tossed in a Florida jail, he’s approached by one Stephanie Nelle from the Justice Department. She can make the arrest and any charges disappear if he will help her with a secretive and very important mission. He must retrieve a rare gold coin and ensure it is returned to her as soon as possible. Having nothing to lose, Malone ambles down to the waterfront, where he finds the item, alongside a number of documents that appear to be highly classified. Etched with ‘Bishop’s Pawn’ on the cover, Malone is curious and soon discovers that these files are highly sought, when an agent of the Cuban Secret Police comes to fetch them in a less than courteous manner. From that point, Malone learns that there are many seeking the documents, including the FBI, who will stop at nothing to ensure they are not seen by anyone else. Malone soon realises that he’s stumbled into the middle of the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination conspiracy and that these documents may reveal a narrative no one expected. Could there be more to the assassination than first thought? Might this ‘Pawn’ document prove that J. Edgar Hoover was behind the entire operation to exterminate King while the race riots and civil rights movement was heating up? As Malone dodges blood-thirsty people on both sides of the equation, he must decide if working for Justice and retuning the documents to Stephanie Nelle is the right move, or whether burying the narrative from the public is the best choice of all. Another brilliant piece by Berry, who digs up loose threads in history and weaves his own narrative in a magical way. A wonderful addition to the Cotton Malone series, it will keep series fans quite content. Those new to Berry and the series need not shy away, as it builds the foundation of a wonderful set of novels and may whet the appetite of those looking to explore this phenomenal collection.

I have read and enjoyed Berry’s work for as long as I can remember, having enveloped myself in the nuances of the Cotton Malone series and the tweaks to history for the entire journey. What sets Berry apart is that his writing and storytelling pits fact against fiction in such a way that it is sometimes indiscernible to the reader, forcing them to refer to the ever-present piece at the end it find out what was based in reality and where Berry sought to bridge things with some of his own creative writing. With this being the dawn of Malone’s appearance with Justice, there are none of the other characters that series fans know so well, allowing a stronger focus on the protagonist. Malone is given some brief backstory at the beginning and it builds throughout. His reckless ways are still fairly new, though his intuition is strong and the reader can see some of the early crumbs of what will become his unique personality in the novels to come. Malone is determined to do what he feels is right, though admits that he does try to follow orders, when they suit him. The narrative hints repeatedly at the issues in his marriage, something that develops in the series. This introduction to such a wonderful character paves the way for some wonderful future revelations by the reader, should they take the time to enjoy the entire collection of novels. Some of the other characters work well to build the dramatic effect within the story, serving as high-ranking members of the government or agencies central to the King assassination at the time. Shedding light on those tumultuous times, Berry utilises these people to expound on an America at the crossroads of internal disaster and race disintegration, with the apparent stop-gap measure before them. Turning to the story itself, Berry imbeds so many interesting pieces as they relate to the King assassination, as well as providing the reader with some interesting insight into what might have happened. While the entire event was seemingly an open and shut case, there were many whispers over the past fifty years that receive their due mention in the narrative. At a time when race relations are again teetering, Berry’s novel opens up the discussion and explores how those days in the 1960s changed the way the world looked at civil rights in America. And with the fiftieth anniversary of the King assassination on the horizon, Berry fuels the fires of discussion and analysis once again. Written from a first-person narrative, Malone’s story receives a much more personal touch, allowing Berry to introduce the man who has been so important over the years. The narrative, mixed with documents and references to flashback moments in King’s life, proves a rich story on which to build this modern piece. Additionally, placing the story in and around 2000 permits both Berry and the reader to look both back and ahead, straddling history and using that unique perspective of hindsight and forethought. I thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of this piece and can only hope that others will also find something worthwhile.

Kudos, Mr. Berry, for another winner. I cannot wait to see what you have in mind as you keep Cotton interesting and ever-evolving, even in his rookie days.

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

The Lost Order (Cotton Malone # 12), by Steve Berry

Eight stars

Returning with another Cotton Malone thriller, Steve Berry never ceases to impress, embedding fact and fiction throughout a fast-paced narrative. Malone finds himself out in rural Arkansas on a mission, tracking down a small collection of gold. Hired and sent by someone other than the president, Malone’s still loosely working for the Magellan Billet, a covert part of the Justice Department. While cracking a code engraved on one of the majestic trees, he is attacked and questioned by a gentleman who calls himself the Sentinel, part of the long thought defunct Knights of the Golden Circle. Malone soon learns that the Knights trace their roots to the Confederacy and are charged with protecting small caches of gold and stones, which lead to a larger treasure, scattered across the South. Back in Washington, the Billet’s overseer, Stephanie Nelle, is meeting with a senior official with the Smithsonian Institution, only to be shot and left for dead. There appears to be a connection to the Knights and the Smithsonian, though it is not entire clear at the time. Former US President Danny Daniels is attending the funeral of a lifelong friend and senator, where he discovers that the widow and the Speaker of the House of Representatives might have been involved in some nefarious dealings, yet another branch of the Knights’ larger plans. Daniels accepts a position that will permit him some inside information at the congressional level, though he must not tip his hand too soon. While Malone seeks to better understand the workings of the Knights of the Golden Circle, he learns that a recent schism may have led to the recent attacks on Nelle and the kidnapping of Billet member (and Malone’s love interest) Cassiopeia Vitt. It would appear that someone wants the treasure to push forward a constitutional convention, one that could change the face of the United States while others within the group are fine keeping the riches hidden until the time is more propitious . While Cotton is seeking to quell the rogue branch of the Knights, Danny Daniels must rest the power held by the Speaker before major (though entirely legal) power changes to vest all formal congressional powers on the lower house, thereby nullifying the Senate’s role in the legislative branch of the government. A killer is loose, lives hang in the balance, and Cotton Malone may be the only person who can intercept those bent on causing chaos, all while learning that one of his ancestors may have played a central role in the Knights. Berry weaves a wonderful story together and will not let up until the reader is fully engrossed. Perfect for fans of the Cotton Malone series as well as those who love a good mystery seeped in historical significance.

As with many Berry novels, there is nothing off limits in the narrative. Shifting through time and working with little-known facts, Berry creates a story that keeps the reader wondering. The Magellan Billet has seen its usefulness wax and wane throughout the series, though Cotton Malone has never become tiresome. Working through the Civil War era and the spy rings that accompanied it, Berry resurrects some ideas tied to the Confederate cause as well as diving headlong into a better understanding of the Smithsonian, which is a vast array of museums and facilities that seek to educate and impress. Berry sifts throughout the historical record to teach the reader while proving to be adept at entertainment. Longtime series readers will have grown fond of certain characters and it is noteworthy that Berry has found a way to keep them present and relevant, as well as finally (!!) revealing the ‘long story’ behind Malone’s nickname. While there is little time to rest throughout the tale, Berry takes the time to point out facts and fallacies, especially to those readers who choose the writer’s cut of the audiobook. Certainly an advantage over the always anticipated Writer’s Notes that Berry includes in his novels. A wonderful addition that enriches little known pieces of US History and political developments that could be useful today.

Kudos, Mr. Berry for another wonderful book. I love how you are able to mix history, politics, and thrilling chases all into one, while keeping a realistic balance. I look forward to all you have in the works, as I praise your published books to all those who will listen.