Criss Cross by James Patterson


"Long-buried images of my past rose up, blurry at first, and then gradually coming into focus, all of them deeply disturbing."

Reading the latest Alex Cross novel by James Patterson has become one of my yearly traditions. Dating all the way back to my years as a reluctant high school reader, my mom has given me the latest novel as a Christmas gift. The books usually release in November, so this gives me an entire year to procrastinate on reading it until I inevitably receive the next installment. Each of the 26 books in the series has varying levels of success as pieces of writing, but I look forward to breezing through the new one regardless. Criss Cross, the 27th book in the prolific series, has been waiting for my attention for nearly a year now. With the holidays rapidly approaching, I decided now was as good a time as any to finally dive in and give it a read. 

With so many Alex Cross books under my belt, I pretty much know what to expect when I pick up the latest. There's a comfort in the familiarity of Patterson's characters and plot structures that allows me to settle into the words and read them quickly. With that many books, I've also grown to know what kinds of stories work best for these characters. In the case of Alex Cross, the best novels always feature a balance between the hunt for a secretive serial killer and the continued development of the extended Cross family. Fortunately for me, Criss Cross perfectly finds that balance. 

Alex is being taunted by a mysterious murderer who goes simply by the name M. We learn that this particular killer has been a part of Alex's career from the very beginning, an elusive criminal who takes as much pleasure in the act of murder as he does is toying with the famed detective. Alex is truly stuck. His usual intellect fails him at every step of the way, keeping him always one step behind M. 

If the case wasn't causing enough stress, Alex has plenty to worry about on the homefront. After recovering from a season-ending injury, his daughter is finally poised to make a triumphant return to track and field. And not a moment too soon. She's caught the eye of several university coaches, each wanting to see how she performs after her recovery. Just as things seem to be moving in the right direction, she comes down with an illness that threatens to end her season and any hopes and receiving one of the coveted track scholarships. 

A James Patterson novel is usually either pretty good or absolutely rubbish. Criss Cross falls into the pretty good category. Patterson keeps the suspense moving through several flashbacks and detours of family drama, constantly driving the novel forward to a pretty satisfying conclusion. I always enjoy getting to check in on the Cross family, and this book was no exception. Patterson has smartly allowed his characters to age with the series. This means there are new life experiences for the characters with each new book and new angles for us to see them in. The mystery is one of the more intriguing puzzles Patterson has written in recent installments. I genuinely didn't know who the murderer would be until the very end, a rarity for a seasoned crime reader like myself. The Alex Cross series will never win awards for literary merit, but it has become a hallmark of my holiday tradition. I will always enjoy reading these books, and I can't wait to unwrap the next one soon. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2020, 47)

Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman


"Life is not what you think it is. Remember that. Remember me."

With the arrival of November comes cooler air, shorter days, and the need to curl up with a good book. I was given a copy of Alice Hoffman's Magic Lessons from her publisher and was eager to read this prequel to her hit Practical Magic. While I had never read a novel by the author before, this combination of historical fiction and fantasy seemed like the perfect read to tie into the change of seasons. As an added bonus, I hoped that it would also help my mind escape from the tumultuous election season. While it turns out it wasn't exactly the kind of novel I was expecting, there is still a lot to like about the book. 

The novel traces the history of the Owens women, famed masters of the "unnamed art". Maria Owens, just a small infant, is left abandoned in a rural field in England. Fortunately for her, Hannah Owens, a single woman who lives on the outskirts of town, takes the child in as her own. From a young age, Maria is extremely adept at learning Hannah's magic. The child sees how women from the town flock to Hannah's cottage for her remedies of everything from common medical ailments to matters of love. She also learns that there are some things you shouldn't mess with. Hannah warns her about matters of the heart. For every blessing bestowed, a curse must also follow. 

As Maria grows into a young woman, tragedy strikes and forces her to flee to the new world. Even on her journey across the sea to America, Maria puts her skills into practice. She heals a young sailor from his illness and seems to fall under his spell in the process. Still, she is extremely wary of the trappings of love and refuses to fall into such traps herself. Her journey in the new land sees her break free from indentured servitude and follow her heart to a new town. Little does she know the trouble that awaits her in Salem, Massachusets. 

I have quite a mixed reaction to Alice Hoffman's Magic Lessons. I absolutely slogged through the first half of the novel, not feeling much connection to the characters are the events that unfolded. I think this is partly because Hoffman merely told us about what was happening instead of actually showing it. The beginning has a lot of history and rules to establish. I never felt like the discovery of this history was organic. It wasn't until the protagonist Maria arrived in America and made her way to Salem, that the pace quickened and my investment in the story finally took hold. 

Placing a woman who practices witchcraft directly into the setting of the horrendous trials against women brought some much-needed drama and suspense to the work.  Commentary about feminism and family peppered into the story in a way that only heightened by connection in the latter half of the book. And so I'm on the fence about recommending this novel. I nearly stopped reading it in the beginning, but I couldn't put it down toward the end. I won't be rushing to read a Hoffman novel any time soon, but I also wouldn't' be against reading one down the road. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2020, 46)

Rage by Bob Woodward


With the United States Election day only days away, I went into reading Bob Woodward's latest book Rage with a pretty clear idea of what to expect. I read Woodward's 2018 book Fear in which he documented President Trump's tumultuous election and first year in the White House. To say the things uncovered in that book were disturbing would be an understatement. Woodward gained prominence as one of the two journalists who broke Nixon's Watergate scandal. His previous work covering Donald Trump was meticulously reported and backed by verified sources, public interviews, and cross-referenced records. Still, Trump reverted to his usual tactic of calling any unfavorable reporting on him "fake news". To be fair, Woodward was never granted an interview with President Trump, but all of that has changed in this latest book. Donald Trump granted Woodward 18 recorded interviews over the course of several months. Buckle up, folks. This is a wild ride. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been at the forefront of most American's lives since we were first told to quarantine in mid-March. Despite various attempts to re-open states and get back to a sense of normalcy, our country hasn't been able to effectively lower the number of positive cases. In fact, this week saw us hit a record number of reported positive cases for a single day. Naturally, much of the political debate surrounding this year's presidential election has focused on the government response to the health pandemic. The bombshell of Woodward's reporting in Rage centers upon what Donald Trump knew about the virus, when did he know it, and what was his response. Woodward reveals that the President was warned about the severity of the virus in January. His strategy has been recorded and quoted word for word by Woodward. "I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create panic."

Beyond the obvious mishandlings of the health pandemic, Rage provides some exclusive insights into the President's strange approach to foreign affairs. Despite warnings from both his Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, Donald Trump began a bizarre relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Woodward obtained letter correspondence between the two leaders. In the letters, both men gush about the brilliance of the other and their combined competence in forging an unprecedented relationship between their respective governments. It was widely reported that General Mattis resigned from his position after Trump took military action that was counter to Mattis's recommendations. While it ultimately seems like the worst ramifications of some of these actions have been avoided, it is the President's continued disregard for the informed advice of his advisers that continues to be one of the most disturbing parts of his presidency. 

If Fear was a stunning portrait of dysfunction within America's highest governing office, then Bob Woodward's Rage is the first-hand confirmation of those assertions. As Donald Trump's first tumultuous term as President of the United States comes to a close, it is one that will be more remembered for scandal than any legislative achievement. What I always find striking about books like this is that there really aren't any new revelations. Anyone paying attention is already aware of everything that this book confirms. As always, it is the direct quotes from the mouth of the President that are the most striking. Through the wide-ranging interviews that Woodward conducted, we see a man who is completely over his head in leading the country. Woodward says it best, "Trump is the wrong man for the job." It has been said time and again, but I'll say it one more time. Vote!

For more information visit the author's website and Goodreads

(2020, 45)

Prey by Michael Crichton


Even if you've never heard of him, you probably have some sort of familiarity with Michael Chrichton's work. His bestselling novel Jurassic Park spawned a juggernaut film series that continues to thrill audiences to this day. Chrichton was anything but a one-hit-wonder. In fact, he had 26 novels to his name before succumbing to cancer in 2008. Since then, three more of his novels have been posthumously published, giving audiences another taste of his brilliant ability to combine high concept thrillers with down to earth characters. It has been a while since I last read one of his books, but his 2002 novel Prey has been waiting patiently for me to read it for several years now. I finally gave in this week and was instantly reminded of why I'm such a Chrichton fan. 

As is typical to most of Chricton's work, there is a heavy speculative science slant to the plot. In this case, he imagines a lab building the latest in nanotechnology. The programmers at the desert lab created these microscopic robots to mimic patterns found in nature. They are supposed to flock together, working as a group to complete various tasks. As is always the case with well-laid plans, things quickly go awry. The robots escape the lab. The flock soon becomes a predatory swarm, feasting upon the smaller animals surrounding the lab and becoming completely uncontrollable. Worse, it seems to be evolving, learning from past experience, and become unstoppable. 

Chrichton balances the high concept science fiction with drama rooted in the relatability of domestic life. His main character, a father and husband who has recently taken on the role of stay at home dad after losing his job with a tech company, is about as every-man as you can get. He is struggling to come to terms with the fact that his wife is now the financial supporter of the family. The couple bicker about the best approach to parenting and the time she spends away at her job. He grows suspicious as she begins to change her routine, arriving home later and later each day and showering immediately when she gets home. He fears his marriage is falling apart and his wife is being unfaithful. The reality is something much worse. 

Michael Crichton's Prey has all the makings of a quintessential sci-fi thriller. There's the high concept tech experiment gone amock grounded by an equally riveting family drama. All in all, I couldn't stop reading it. I was hooked on this one for the entire duration. Still, I'd hesitate to call this my favorite Chrichton novel. It follows the formula of scientists unprepared to deal with the ramifications of their science that often finds its way into his writing, but it veered a bit too far into the outrageous for my tastes. And that's coming from someone who loved his book about reanimated dinosaurs! All in all, Michael Chrichton is usually a safe bet for some clever thrills, and Prey is no exception. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2020, 44)

You Are Not Alone by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen


Last year I read The Wife Between Us, a twisty thriller that used all the conventions of the genre to string the reader along and play with traditional expectations. Writing duo Hendricks and Pekkanen absolutely exceeded my expectations and left me longing to read more from them. I made a note to be on the lookout for more from the pair. As often happens, other books distracted me, and my experience reading The Wife Between Us soon became a distant memory. Fast forward to this week, and I found myself scrolling through the list of available audiobooks from my local library. When I saw You Are Not Alone, the latest from Hendricks and Pekkanen, I jumped at the chance to read another thriller from these talented authors. 

To say that Shay Miller's life is not going according to plan would be a huge understatement. She is recently unemployed, turning to random temp jobs to make ends meet. Her roommate/best friend entered into a new relationship that leaves him physically and emotionally occupied on most days. Shay is pretty sure he'll be moving in with his girlfriend soon. To top it all off, Shay just witnessed a horrific suicide on the New York subway. The young woman looked directly into her eyes before she jumped onto the tracks. 

Shay is haunted by that final moment. She can't seem to clear the image of that woman looking at her from her mind. Inspired by a bit of guilt and the longing to put that tragic moment behind her, Shay looks up the accident and discovers the name of that girl. Before she knows it, she is attending the girl's funeral, taking in the view of her mourners. Before she is able to leave the service unnoticed, Shay is confronted by a group of the late woman's friends. She panics and concocts a story about how she knew the woman, and the friends seem to buy it. United by shared grief, Shay becomes a member of this friend group. Little does she know, the friends may have more nefarious plans for their newest addition. 

You Are Not Alone has all the makings of a fine thriller. The main character teeters precariously on the line of reliable and not. As readers, we are in on the twist much earlier that Shay is, but that doesn't deter from the suspense. In fact, knowing that Shay is walking directly into a trap only heightened my paranoia and had me rushing through the pages. Hendricks and Pekkanen layer in commentary about loneliness and reliance on others in a way adds some much-needed depth to their characters. All that said, I still felt as if there was something missing from this book that was present in their others. I can't quite discern if the plot was just a bit too unbelievable, or if the characters weren't as enticing. Suffice it to say, You Are Not Alone left me with the feeling that I was missing something. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2020, 43)

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman


 "A few glasses of wine and a mystery---very social, but also gory. It is good fun."

When you think of a retirement community, what is the first thing that comes to mind? I have memories of visiting my great grandmother in her nursing home, seeing the other folks gathered in the cafeteria/activities room, playing dominoes, and sharing stories. My guess is that you would think of something similar. What you probably wouldn't imagine is a group of seniors investigating murders, but that's exactly what British TV Presenter Richard Osman has conjured up in his debut novel The Thursday Murder Club. I was so intrigued by this inventive premise that I was eager to dive into the copy of the book that Osman's publisher graciously provided me. 

Joyce is one of the newer residents of the upscale senior living facility called Coopers Chase. She's a former nurse who did well enough financially to end up spending the rest of her days in the luxury retirement community. The rooms are spacious enough, but the rest of the amenities really sealed the deal. She spends her time enjoying a glass of wine and honing her baking skills, but Joyce longs for something more stimulating to occupy her days. 

Enter Elizabeth, perhaps the most determined person Joyce has ever met. Not much is known about Elizabeth's secretive past. Suffice it to say that whatever work the woman did, she is well-connected and has a seemingly endless chain of contacts to achieve whatever she desires. One day Elizabeth recruits Joyce's medical expertise by showing her a set of crime scene photos. At first, Joyce is a bit taken aback by the images shes seeing. As she begins to study the pictures and apply her knowledge to form medical conclusions about the crime, however, she begins to feel the same thrill she has been lacking since moving into the retirement community. Joyce is hooked, and Elizabeth is pleased. 

Elizabeth reveals to Joyce The Thursday Murder Club, a group comprised of herself and two other men. The friends meet weekly in the jigsaw puzzle room and hash out their theories around various crimes. Elizabeth's connections to the police department help to keep a fresh supply of cases for their weekly gatherings. Joyce is excited to join in all the fun. When one of the owners of Coopers Chase is suddenly killed, the murder club shifts its focus from decades-old cold cases to the one that has occurred in their own back yard. If they can help solve this killing, they'll legitimize their club beyond the current perception of four friends meeting to reminisce about times gone by. 

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman might be the most charming book I've read all year. Osman combines elements of a more traditional cozy mystery with the strong character work and plot points of a more hardened crime novel to form a genre-bending novel that gripped me for the entire duration. I'm not sure what inspired him to write a book about a group of crime-fighting octogenarians, but I'm really happy that he did. Osman cleverly uses the age of his main characters to build a deep history into each one of them, imbuing them wisdom and struggles that can only come from time and experience. The retirement community where the majority of the novel is set is a fully-realized world, full of detailed settings and well-drawn supporting characters. I truly felt like I was there with the characters. As for the mystery, Osman layered in enough red herrings and twists to keep me guessing all the way to the big reveal at the end. With a unique premise, alluring characters, and a captivating mystery, The Thursday Murder Club is a nearly perfect debut novel. 

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads.

(2020, 42)

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