Testimony by Scott Turow

Much more than a legal thriller…

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Middle-aged successful American lawyer, Bill Ten Boom, is having a bit of a subdued mid-life crisis. He has ended his marriage, not over another woman but simply because he felt there was no real love or passion in it. And he has given up his partnership in a big legal firm – a role he primarily took on to satisfy the aspirations of his ex-wife. So when he’s offered the job of prosecuting a case at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, he decides it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. The case involves the rumoured brutal killing of four hundred Roma in Bosnia in 2004. It happened near an American base, so the case is further complicated by the fact that the US, under George W Bush, pulled out of the ICC. First, Boom (as he is known) must establish that the atrocity did in fact happen, and if so, must then try to find out who should be held responsible.

Scott Turow is one of those writers whose books transcend easy genre definition. On the surface this is a legal crime novel with all the aspects of an investigation, suspects, clues, trial procedures, and so on. But it is also a careful, revealing look at the way the Roma have been dealt with throughout history, in Bosnia and elsewhere – a group at least as victimised as the Jews over the centuries but somehow still left under the radar of popular concern. Turow avoids the easy route of making the Roma seem too much like helpless victims though – he shows how their determination not to assimilate into the societies within which they live puts them in the position of always being seen as outsiders, who are often involved in criminal activity of one kind or another. He also discusses their cultural attitudes towards girls and women, which to our western eyes display all the sexism we have fought so hard to overcome. But Turow doesn’t do any of this as an information dump. It’s woven into the story as Boom himself learns about the Roma during his investigation, and as he becomes attracted to a woman of Roma heritage who is acting as a support to one of the witnesses.

We are also given a look at how the ICC operates: slow to the point of glacial on occasion, bound up in all kinds of procedures and restrictions, but grinding on in its efforts to bring justice for some of the most atrocious crimes in the world. Turow shows how the process can seem cold and unemotional, almost clinical in its approach, but how even this great legal bureaucracy can be shocked by some of the evidence that comes before it.

….“…I knew there was no point. I could claw at the rock the rest of my life and get no closer. I knew the truth.”
….“And what truth was that, sir?”
….“They were dead. My woman. My children. All the People. They were dead. Buried alive. All four hundred of them.”
….Although virtually everyone in the courtroom – the judges, the rows of prosecutors, the court personnel, the spectators behind the glass, and the few reporters with them – although almost all of us knew what the answer to that question was going to be, there was nonetheless a terrible drama to hearing the facts spoken aloud. Silence enshrouded the room as if a warning finger had been raised, and all of us, every person, seemed to sink into ourselves, into the crater of fear and loneliness where the face of evil inevitably casts us.
….So here you are, I thought suddenly, as the moment lingered. Now you are here.

The story also touches on the other big American war of the early years of this century – some of the errors and miscalculations that turned “victory” in Iraq into the quagmire of factionalism that is still going on today, with consequences for us all. But while Turow is perhaps grinding a political axe of his own to some degree, he also shows the dedication and sacrifice of so many US soldiers at all levels, and the basic integrity of much of the legal and even political classes. And if all that isn’t enough, there’s another minor strand about Boom’s European roots and the seemingly never-ending after-effects of earlier atrocities under Nazi Germany.

Scott Turow

Turow’s writing is as good as always – he’s a slow, undramatic storyteller, so that he relies on the strength of the story and the depth of his characterisation, and he achieves both in this one. If I have made it sound like a political history, then that’s my error, not his. Running through all this is an excellent plot – almost a whodunit – that kept me guessing till very late on in the book. He is skilled enough to get that tricky balance when discussing the various atrocities of bringing the horror home to the reader without trading in gratuitous or voyeuristic detail. And as well as Boom, he creates a supporting cast of equally well drawn and credible secondary characters. More political than most of his books, I’m not sure I’d recommend this one as an entry point for new readers (Presumed Innocent, since you ask), but existing fans, I’m certain, will find everything they’ve enjoyed about his previous books plus the added interest of him ranging beyond his usual territory of the US courtroom. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grand Central Publishing.

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Lamentation (Matthew Shardlake 6) by CJ Sansom

lamentationHeresy hunt…

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It is 1546, and an increasingly ailing Henry VIII has swung back to the traditionalist wing of the church – in fact, some fear he might be about to make amends with the Pope and take the country back to Catholicism. The constant shifts in what is seen as acceptable doctrine have left many sects, once tolerated, now at risk of being accused of heresy. And, as the story begins, Anne Askew and three other heretics are about to be burned at the stake for preaching radical Protestantism. At this dangerous time, Henry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr, has written a book, Lamentations of a Sinner, describing her spiritual journey to believing that salvation can be found only through study of the Bible and the love of Christ, rather than through the traditional rites of the Church. Not quite heretical, but close enough to be used against her by the traditionalists. So when the book is stolen, Catherine calls on the loyalty of her old acquaintance, Matthew Shardlake, to find it and save her from becoming another of Henry’s victims. And when a torn page turns up in the dead hand of a murdered printer, it’s clear some people will stop at nothing to get hold of the book…

I have long held that Sansom is by far the best writer of historical fiction, certainly today, but perhaps ever; and I’m delighted to say that this book is, in my opinion, his best to date. A huge brick of a book, coming in at over 600 pages, and yet at no point does it flag. All the Shardlake novels are set close to the throne, with Matthew caught up as a pawn in the political machinations and religious manoeuvrings of the nobility as they jostle for power and position at court. Matthew himself, as a lawyer, is richer and more privileged than most people, but still is powerless and vulnerable amongst these great folk, while his physical weakness as a hunchback leaves him reliant on others when danger beckons. It is Matthew’s intelligence on which Catherine depends – his ability to question witnesses and to see his way through the labyrinth of plots and betrayals.

Catherine Parr
Catherine Parr

But although this makes the Shardlake books more cerebral than many of the sword and dagger historical novels, there’s plenty of action in them too. Jack Barak is back as Matthew’s assistant in his legal business, and as always becomes involved in the investigation. Tamasin, Jack’s wife, is expecting their second child, and we see both Matthew and Jack struggling to reconcile Jack’s love of danger with his responsibilities as a husband and father. And Matthew has a new assistant too – Nicholas, a young gentleman sent by his parents to study law. Like Jack, though, Nicholas quickly shows he’s ready to put his life in danger to help Matthew. And by his careful development of the character of Shardlake, Sansom makes it entirely credible that he should gain such loyalty from the people around him. Matthew’s old friend Guy is here again too; and, since he is still loyal to the church of Rome in his heart, his discussions with the more reformist Matthew allow Sansom to shed light on the religious divisions in society as they shift and change during this turbulent period.

Catherine Parr's book - Lamentations of a Sinner
Catherine Parr’s book – Lamentations of a Sinner

I’ve read many ‘proper’ histories about the Tudor times, but I can honestly say that Sansom always gives me a much deeper understanding of what was actually going on, especially amongst those below the top rank. I’m no expert, but I never spot any historical inaccuracies or inconsistencies, and I find the Tudor world that Sansom describes wholly credible. This book, like the others, is completely immersive – the length of it is matched by its depth. The fictional aspect is woven seamlessly into fact, and the characters and actions of the real people who appear in the novel is consistent with what we know of them through the history books. By the time of this novel, Shardlake’s old employer Cromwell is dead, but his long-time adversary Sir Richard Rich is still up to his political games. And we get a first glimpse of a newcomer to court, young William Cecil, ambitious, but loyal to Catherine and the reformist cause. With Henry declining, we see his children growing in importance as England begins to consider what will follow his reign – who will hold power while young Edward is still a child.

CJ Sansom
CJ Sansom

There is a secondary plot in the book, of a feud between a brother and sister over a will, and this gives us an insight into the day-to-day working life of Shardlake and his employees, while showing us that the legal profession is just as riddled with power struggles and divided loyalties as the court. We also see Shardlake at home, his house populated by the various strays he has picked up in previous books. And it’s by showing all these different aspects of Matthew’s life that Sansom builds up a complete picture of the man – honest and loyal, struggling to find his own faith within the religious turmoil going on around him, and with a huge sense of responsibility to the people around him: a responsibility that weighs him down and leaves him guilt-ridden for exposing them to danger. The combination of the personal and the political is perfectly balanced, and Sansom never fails to take the consequences of events of previous books through to the next, meaning that the recurring characters continue to develop more deeply in each one. There’s always a long wait between Shardlake novels, but they are invariably worth waiting for. And as England moves on to dealing with the aftermath of Henry’s death, I very much hope that Shardlake will be there to lead us through it…

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The Hanging Judge by Michael Ponsor

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the hanging judgeWhen a gang-related drive-by shooting in Massachusetts results in the death of an innocent bystander, the government decides the case should be tried under federal rather than state law, so that the death penalty can be applied. The driver of the car was caught at the scene and, as a result of a plea bargain, will be the chief prosecution witness against the defendant, Clarence ‘Moon’ Hudson. Judge David Norcross is set to preside over the trial…

Michael Ponsor is a federal judge who, in real life, has presided over a death penalty case. This gives a real air of verisimilitude to this well written and intriguing legal thriller. The reader doesn’t know whether Moon is guilty or innocent and, although privy to a little more information than the jury, on the whole is given the evidence as they are, during the course of the trial. For most of the book, this puts the reader into the position of being the thirteenth juror, having to decide what verdict to bring in. I thought that might leave things a bit up in the air at the end, but I’m glad to say that Ponsor manages to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion that still stays within the overall tone of realism that runs through the book.

The characterisation of the major players is very strong. Judge Norcross is a widower and finding himself attracted to a woman for the first time since the loss of his wife. We see the strains he is under, presiding over a case that is at the centre of political controversy over the death penalty. While there is criticism of the system in the book, all the lawyers are refreshingly portrayed as ethical, trying their best to get the right result for their client, be that the defendant or the government. The defence attorney, Bill Redpath, is a particularly well drawn character – a man who has both lost and won capital cases in the past, and whose experiences in Korea have left him opposed to killing whether sanctioned by the state or not. Moon is a young man who, after a typical deprived upbringing and a youth spent in gang-related crimes, seemed to have put all that behind him and has a new life with his young wife and baby. But now, Sandra has to question whether the man she loves and thought she knew has gone back to the life she thought he had left behind.

Michael Ponsor Photo: Michael S Gordon
Michael Ponsor
Photo: Michael S Gordon

In his short introduction, Ponsor says that no-one should presume that any of the characters in the book should be taken to represent his own opinions on capital punishment. However, the fact that the main story is intercut with occasional chapters telling the true story of a miscarriage of justice that led to the hanging of two innocent men back in 1806 left me feeling that the overall tone of the book was anti-death penalty. But the pro/anti argument is only touched on lightly – this is mainly a legal procedural, and the thriller elements that play a part in the plot are kept well within the bounds of realism, making the whole thing believable and convincing.

Overall, after a dramatic beginning, I found the first few chapters a bit slow as the scene was set and the characters introduced, but after that I became more and more involved in the story, wanting to know the truth of the case and what the jury’s verdict would be. The quality of the writing and storytelling made this an absorbing read, and I look forward to seeing more from Ponsor in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Open Road.

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Sycamore Row by John Grisham

Where there’s a will…

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“They found Seth Hubbard in the general area where he had promised to be, though not exactly in the condition expected. He was at the end of a rope, six feet off the ground and twisting slightly in the wind.”

sycamore rowSeth Hubbard was dying of terminal cancer and in extreme pain, so it was not altogether surprising that he had chosen to end his own life. Much more surprising was that, the day before, he had handwritten a new will, leaving the bulk of his substantial fortune to his black housekeeper and specifically cutting out his own children and grandchildren. He had also left clear instructions that he wanted Jake Brigance to be the legal representative for his estate and to fight any challenges to the will ‘to the bitter end.’

This book takes up the story of Jake Brigance three years after the end of the Carl Lee Hailey trial (A Time to Kill). Jake still hasn’t recovered financially from the loss of his house, and the expected rush of clients after the Hailey trial hasn’t materialised. So the idea of a case like this, with a guaranteed generous hourly rate for his work, strongly appeals. And when it becomes clear that Seth’s family intend to throw everything they have into challenging the will it looks like it’ll be a long case. Jake’s determined to take the dispute before a jury, mainly because he loves the thrill of a court appearance.

The question of why Seth would have left such a will is a matter of hot debate, with the majority view being that Lettie Lang must have been something more to him than just a housekeeper. But Lettie seems as bewildered as everyone else and maintains that their relationship was never more than that of employer and employee. So Jake’s old boss, Lucien, and Lettie’s daughter Portia set out to investigate the past…

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Grisham shows all his usual skill in this book – a great first chapter that hooks the reader straight away, an interesting plot, strong characterisation and the suspense of a jury trial with both sides pulling unexpected ambushes at the last moment. As in A Time to Kill, race is a major theme – the general feeling that Seth should not have cut out his own children is compounded by a belief amongst some of the white people that no black person deserves to have been left so much money. Greed figures prominently too – the greed of Seth’s unloving children scrambling for their share, Lettie being inundated with requests for help from relatives she wasn’t even aware she had, and, not least, the greed of the lawyers all trying to manipulate the case so that they get a healthy cut of the proceeds of the estate.

There is a but, though. Which is that, enjoyable and well-written as this is, it has nothing like the depth or impact of A Time to Kill. Something very strange has happened to Ford County in the last three years – attitudes have changed so dramatically that it seems as if the gap is more like the 24 years that actually exists between the two books. Here, not only is there no threat of the Ku Klux Klan and no real fear of race-related violence, but even the language has changed. In my review of the first book, I mentioned the frequent use of the n-word, which generally puts me off reading a book, but which in this case seemed relevant to the story. Three years on, not only do people not use that word any longer, but Portia is actually shocked by it on the one occasion it comes up. What happened in those three years to entirely change the culture and attitudes of this small town?

a time to killIt’s obvious that Grisham has projected modern sensibilities back onto his characters. I can see why he’s done it – readers today are even less likely to accept the kind of blatantly racist language and attitudes that would have just about been tolerated in the eighties. But it means this book doesn’t have the power or authenticity of the first – it’s all rather sanitised. And it means the fear and racial tension of the first book is almost entirely missing from this one. I’m sure it wouldn’t have struck me so much if I hadn’t read the two books back to back, but I couldn’t help feeling that this would have worked better if Grisham had set it ten or fifteen years later so that we were dealing with a different generation.

However, as a standalone, this is a very readable and enjoyable story. The twists were a bit obvious, I thought, meaning that the ending didn’t have as much surprise value as I feel Grisham intended, and the last chapter was pretty saccharin even for Grisham, as well as seeming a bit too rushed and neat. But the quality of the writing, the characterisation and the contrast of darkness and humour mean that this still stands up well as one of Grisham’s better books, leaving me hoping he will revisit Ford County and Jake Brigance again in the future.

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Identical by Scott Turow

“We came into the world like brother and brother…”

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identicalThe lives of the Kronos and Gianis families have been entangled for decades, first as friends and then divided by a feud that has lasted for over twenty years. But when the Gianis boys – identical twins Cass and Paul – grow up, Cass falls in love with Dita, daughter of the head of the Kronos family, a man who calls himself Zeus. During a picnic at which both families are present, Dita is killed and a few days later Cass confesses to the crime.

The book has a double time-line. The main one takes place in 2008 and begins just as Cass is about to be released from prison. The events of the day of the picnic in 1982 are told in flashback, in occasional chapters cut into the main narrative. By 2008, Zeus has been long dead, and the Kronos business empire is now headed by his son Hal. Hal has never been satisfied that the full story of his sister’s death has been told and publicly accuses Cass’s twin, Paul, of having been involved. Paul is campaigning to become mayor and is left with little option but to sue for slander, which he does, but with great reluctance. Hal tasks Evon Miller with the job of seeking evidence to back up his accusation.

“After Cass was sentenced, Paul was in actual physical agony for weeks at the prospect of their separation. But they had adjusted to life apart. People adjust to loss. And now he found dealing with Cass every day, and the similar ways their minds worked, with the same lapses and backflips, often unsettling. He had forgotten this part, how it inevitably felt like they were opponents on an indoor court, basketball or squash players, throwing their back ends at each other as they fought for position.”

There’s much less courtroom stuff in this than in most of Turow’s earlier books, and there’s been a bit of a generational shift in the characters. We catch brief glimpses of the old guard – Raymond Horgan and Sandy Stern both put in cameo appearances – but the focus of the book is on the investigation carried out by Evon and ex-cop Tim Brodie, both on the payroll of Hal’s firm. Evon is an ex-FBI agent who first appeared in, I think, Personal Injuries. Through the feuding families, Turow takes us into the Greek community of Kindle County – a close-knit group of immigrants and their descendants, holding to old traditions, and with bonds and enmities that are passed down through the generations.

Turow’s skill is in telling a story slowly, concentrating on each character in turn and giving a complete picture of them. Here he shows us Evon, struggling still in middle-age to find love and acceptance and dealing with a relationship that has reached breaking point. Through Tim and a couple of the oldest of the Greek immigrants, he looks with great empathy and insight at how differently aging can affect people. Love is a major theme in the book – family love, romantic love, lost love and, not least, the unique bond that binds the twins so closely that sometimes it is as if they are two parts of the same identity.

“All in all, his wife was the kindest person he had ever known – love seldom left her and she had filled their house with love like light. But in dying she became ornery and sharp-tongued, and frequently raised her voice to him, telling him that whatever he did was not right. It was a grief impossible to bear at the time, the raw unfairness that she had to die and leave as final memories ones of her being somebody else.”

The investigation rests mainly on forensic evidence, with the now familiar story of advances in DNA technology that make it possible to revisit old crimes. By a third of the way through, I was convinced I knew what had happened. By halfway through, that idea was blown out of the water, but again I felt I was on the right track and partially I was. However the end, when it came, did surprise me – but this isn’t really a thriller in the sense of a big explosive action-packed climax. With Turow, it’s more thoughtful than that – more of a concentration on the impact of the people involved and of the legacy in broken lives. I have long considered that Turow writes literary fiction rather than thrillers and this book strengthens that view.

Scott Turow
Scott Turow

I don’t think this is Turow’s best plotted novel, but as always loved the quality of his writing and the depth of his characterisation. Oddly, the weakest characters for me were the twins themselves and I found the resolution of their part of the story stretched my credibility a bit more than I like. But the Greek theme was handled very well, giving a genuine feel to this community within a larger society. And I loved the concentration on the older age-group – it means these characters have fully-finished lives; they are who they are, not what they might become. Although this is not, for me, Turow’s absolute best it is nonetheless an excellent book: thoughtful, a little nostalgic and of course beautifully written. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grand Central Publishing.

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A Time to Kill by John Grisham

An eye for an eye…

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a time to killTonight around 1 a.m., Grisham’s new book Sycamore Row will appear on my Kindle as if by magic. (Somewhat annoyingly, so will Donna Tartt’s new one, The Goldfinch, but Grisham will get priority.) In it, he revisits the people of Ford County who appeared in his first book A Time to Kill all of 24 years ago in 1989. I couldn’t remember if I’d read it, and even if I had, the plot had faded completely from my mind, so a refresher seemed in order. As it turns out, I haven’t read it before, though I’ve certainly seen the film.

The story begins with the horrific gang-rape and beating of a young black girl by two white men. The two men are quickly arrested and there is no doubt about their guilt. However, Carl Lee Hailey, the father of young Tonya, is not ready to let justice take its course and sets out to take his own revenge. When he is in turn arrested and charged with murder, he asks Jake Brigance to defend him. While there’s a lot of sympathy for Carl Lee, especially amongst the black townsfolk, there is also a sizeable slice of opinion that vigilantism, whatever the provocation, is wrong; and then there’s the minority of white racists who think Carl Lee should be lynched. Soon the town is plunged into fear as the Ku Klux Klan take the opportunity to resurrect the days of burning crosses and worse.

burning cross

Grisham doesn’t give any easy answers and doesn’t paint anyone as a complete hero (and only the rapists and the KKK are seen as wholly villainous). There’s a huge cast of characters and we get to know their flaws as much as their strengths; and it’s an indication of Grisham’s skill that we can still like so many of them even when we are bound to disagree with most of them at least some of the time, whatever our own views. As the case proceeds and conviction looks increasingly likely, Jake has to decide how far he can stretch his fairly elastic ethics. And he also has to consider whether it’s worth the danger that he’s inadvertently brought on his family, employees and himself.

In the foreword, Grisham tells us that the book didn’t have much impact when it was first published but that over the years it has grown in popularity. I can understand both of those things. Firstly, it’s an enormous brick of a book, the first chapter is a graphic and shocking description of the gang-rape and, being based in the South and with racism as a major theme, the use of the n-word is liberal from the beginning and throughout. If it was my first introduction to Grisham, I’m not sure I’d have gone past the first few chapters. However, it is Grisham, and so I read on…and how glad I am that I did!

John Grisham
John Grisham

This is an ambitious, sprawling book that looks at racism, ethics, fatherhood, friendship, politics, gender and, of course, corruption and the law. As always with Grisham, the writing is flowing, the plot is absorbing, the characterisation is in-depth and believable and there’s plenty of humour to leaven the grim storyline. The sheer length of the book gives Grisham plenty of room to explore his themes thoroughly and he carefully balances his characters so that we get to see both sides of each argument, particularly on vigilantism and capital punishment. Grisham doesn’t peddle his own views – he lets his characters argue each side effectively and so the reader is left to decide. Grisham says that often people he meets tell him this is their favourite of all his books – if I ever meet him, I think I’ll be telling him that too. Now I can only hope that Sycamore Row lives up to the standard Grisham has set himself…

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The Litigators by John Grisham

the litigatorsThoroughly enjoyable…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A thoroughly enjoyable outing from the master of the legal thriller. Our hero, David Zinc, walks out of his high-pressure career in a huge, high-flying law firm; and walks into the firm of Finley & Figg, ambulance-chasers extraordinaire. Oscar, Wally and their secretary Rochelle (to say nothing of the dog) only just manage to keep their heads above water by pursuing injury cases and divorces, and their tactics are not the most ethical. David is a Harvard graduate and son of a judge but has never actually been inside a courtroom. This mismatched group suddenly finds itself handling a potentially massive lawsuit against a major pharmaceutical giant, being represented by David’s former employers.

This book is much more light-hearted than some of Grisham’s other novels and has lots of humour. Wally dreams of making it rich with one massive settlement, Oscar dreams of being rich enough to divorce his wife, while David dreams of having enough energy left at the end of the working day to start a family with his lovely (and very understanding) wife, Helen.

John Grisham
John Grisham

Well-written, as Grisham’s novels always are, this time we get an insight into the distinctly unglamorous and uncertain life of the lower echelons of legal life and while it might not be much fun for the lawyers, it certainly is for us. Despite their flaws, all three of the lawyers are enjoyable characters whom we warm to more and more as the book progresses. My only complaint is that Grisham’s books are usually stand-alone, so we probably won’t get to meet with them again. All the more reason to enjoy this outing. Highly recommended.

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Crime of Privilege by Walter Walker

crime of privilegePower corrupts…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Assistant DA George Becket is asked for help by the father of a murdered girl, he finds himself up against not only one of the most powerful families in the state but also his own guilt about an episode he helped cover up in his past.

This is a thoughtful legal thriller, more Turow than Grisham, and with some echoes of the world of The Great Gatsby – a parallel the author himself hints at; a world where the powerful use their position, patronage and wealth to protect themselves from the consequences of their actions; a world where corruption distorts every part of the system.

George is a flawed hero and knows it. As he finds more and more people whose silence has been bought to cover up a crime, he knows that he is no better than they are. And he knows that if he succeeds in finding evidence of guilt, he will be putting his own future, and perhaps even his life, at risk. But will his conscience allow him to make the same mistake he made once before? Or by finding the truth will he also find some form of personal redemption?

Walter Walker
Walter Walker

Written in the first person, we see the story through George’s eyes. His character is very well drawn as a fairly ordinary person struggling as much with his own weaknesses as with the corrupt world he inhabits, and struggling too to know whom he can trust. Well written and thought-provoking in its look at how power corrupts, the book also has plenty of action and humour to keep the story moving along. An enjoyable and interesting read and one that will encourage this reader to backtrack to the author’s previous work – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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