Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

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This is the first book of the “Millennium Trilogy” by Steig Larsson, a Swedish Author and journalist. I believe this book was released in 2005 posthumously. He died at the age of 50 in 2004 from a heart attack whilst climbing 7 flights of stairs to his office since the lift was not working. A definite loss to the world of crime fiction 😩

A movie with the same name was released in 2011 starring Daniel Craig. Just found out this bit of information so my next objective is to watch the movie and see if the director has done justice to the story. I have read the second book of the Trilogy – The Girl who Played with Fire and have ordered for the last one – The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Can’t wait to read it 🙂

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo introduces us to Mikael Blomkvist, a well-known financial journalist and publisher who loses a libel case against Hans-Erik Wennerström and is sentenced to deferred imprisonment of 3 months along with a huge fine for damages. At what seems to be the death knell for his career and credibility, Blomkvist is offered a lifeline by Henrik Vanger to work for him for one year and is promised a hefty payment and enough proof for him to get his revenge against Wennerström in return. Under the pretext of writing his biography, Blomkvist’s actual mission is to unearth the real truth behind the mysterious disappearance (40 years ago) of Vanger’s niece, Harriet, who is presumed dead. Vanger’s decision to hire Blomkvist is based on the extensive background research conducted by a freelance researcher working for Dragan Armansky – Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth Salander is a 24-year-old plagued by a highly turbulent childhood which eventually resulted in her being institutionalised briefly. But a gifted researcher and computer hacker with a brilliant mind and an unpredictable violent streak. She has a photographic memory and is the girl with the dragon tattoo.

Salander is initially under the legal guardianship of Holger Palmgren who suffers a stroke and is replaced by Nils Bjurman. Bjurman is a lawyer with no scruples and does not hesitate to misuse his power to completely curb her financial freedom and sexually abuses her. Salander plots her revenge against Bjurman which goes awry. She is brutally raped by Bjurman but Salander manages to turn the tables on him. She has the entire assault on her recorded on tape and after torturing him, brands him as a rapist with a tattoo machine. Salander uses the video tape to blackmail Bjurman and gets back control of her finances.

Vanger suspects that Harriet was murdered by one of the Vanger family members who do not see eye to eye with each other but have their sights set of the inheritance of the company. Blomkvist relinquishes his active role in Millennium, his publishing company, much to the chagrin of Erika Berger, Chief Editor of the company and Blomkvist’s lover and goes to Hedeby Island to take up his new assignment. Erika is in an open marriage and her husband has no objection to her long standing relationship with Blomkvist.

Blomkvist begins his investigations and comes across pieces of evidence which give some insight into Harriet’s troubled teenage years.  He interviews the key family members including Martin Vanger – current CEO of the Vanger empire, Isabella Vanger, Cecilia Vanger and Anita Vanger. He realizes that he needs a strong researcher and commissions Lisbeth Salander to help him. Lisbeth moves in with Blomkvist. With some help from Blomkvist’s daughter who drops in to visit her father, their research leads them to a series of gruesome murders of women executed in biblical fashion. They zero in on Gottfried Vanger, father of Harriet and Martin Vanger as the prime suspect but the last murder was committed after Gottfried died which meant that there was more than one person responsible for the serial murders.

Meanwhile in the midst of all these leads, evidence and research, Blomkvist manages to find time to sleep with Erika Berger, Cecilia Vanger and Lisbeth Salander and also serve his three months imprisonment (reduced to two months). The plot plods along. Blomkvist is convinced that Gottfried’s accomplice in crime was his son, Martin Vanger and goes to his house to confront him and gather evidence. Instead Blomkvist finds himself ambushed by Martin. Salander appears on the scene just in time to save Blomkvist from a certain death. This is followed by Martin fleeing with Blomkvist in pursuit. Martin Vanger dies when his speeding car collides with an oncoming truck.

The story then shifts to Harriet Vanger. Through some shrewd deductions helped by Salander’s hacking and research skills,  Blomkvist and Salander follow a trail to Anita Vanger in London and then to Australia where they meet a very alive Harriet Vanger. The last part of the book unravels the mystery behind Harriet’s  disappearance, her subsequent migration to Australia, marriage to an Australian businessman and her reunion with Henrik Vanger and the Vanger empire. Henrik Vanger’s promise of proof against Wennerström ends in disappointment as the evidence is not substantial and is too old. But thanks to Salander’s brilliant hacking skills, Blomkvist pulls of a major coup de grace against Wennerström. He publishes the expose of  Wennerström and catapults his company to national glory.

The book ends with Salander wanting to profess her love for Blomkvist but backs off when she sees him with Erika Berger. A very upset Salander disappears from Blomkvist’s life. Alteast for now 🙂

Whew! It was a long story with multiple characters and plots. The narration is long but strong enough to keep you engrossed till the end. Well, almost. The climax per se after Martin Vanger’s death is a bit of a let down. The pace of the book drops drastically the moment Harriet Vanger appears on the scene. It could have been handled better.

What I liked about the book – a clear plot with a complex and intriguing storyline. Teenage girl missing for nearly 40 years, presumed dead. Uncle is convinced she was murdered and wants the murderer to be brought to task. He commissions Blomkvist, an investigative journalist bogged down by a professional crisis, who takes up the assignment.

I liked the portrayal of Lisbeth Salander. Branded mentally unstable, under legal guardianship, protected from the harsh world by the fatherly Holger Palmgren. Behind the emotionless face is a razor-sharp mind with photographic memory and unmatched hacking skills. And a very troubled childhood and youth. The way she bounced back after the brutal assault by Nils Bjurman and turned the tables on him had me literally rooting for her. The author reveals the different layers of her complex personality creating a deep connection with the reader including her emotional albeit one sided relationship with her mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. She, for me, was the hero of the book.

The violence in the book is a little too overboard. Yes, the entire plot hinges on sexual assault/ sexual violence but there were quite a few portions which made me cringe and not very palatable. I read somewhere that the author was witness to the gang rape of a young girl in his early years and carried tha guilt of not helping the girl throughout his life. This perhaps has a very strong influence on his story lines and the depiction of Lisbeth Salander. The book almost seems to be a catharsis of some sort for Larsson. Lastly, at the risk of sounding prudish – did Blomkvist really have to sleep with every available woman he came across? I felt that the promiscuity bit was a little overdone.

To sum it up a good read but the ending leaves you with a few “fill in the blank”. A lot of these missing pieces fall into place in the second book.

More to come 🙂

Review of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher – One Shot

JRMy quest for crime thrillers eventually resulted in discovering Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. Being a die hard fan of Alistair MacLean, James Hadley Chase, Desmond Bagley, Sidney Sheldon, Dan Brown, David Baldacci and the like, I am very picky about the authors I read. After perusing the reviews on numerous sites, I decided to venture out and try Lee Child’s books. And the first book I ordered was Jack Reacher – One Shot.

The story has a crisp opening with the reader being transported to the sequence of events preceding the crime and the actual murders. James Barr, a former army sniper is accused of gunning down 5 innocent office-goers from a vantage point in an adjoining car park. All evidence points to Barr who is arrested and has only two things to say – a) that they have the wrong guy and b) he wants Jack Reacher to help him. Barr’s sister Rosemary has no idea who this Jack Reacher is but is convinced of her brother’s innocence and joins hands with lawyer Helen Rodin (DA’s daughter) to try and salvage the case.

An elusive Jack Reacher appears out of seemingly nowhere and expresses his interest in helping the case not to prove Barr’s innocence, but on the contrary to ensure he is convicted. Reacher, a former armyman himself had investigated an incident 14 years back which involved Barr going on a gunning spree in Kuwait City and killing 4 men. Reacher joins hand with the defense team headed by Helen Rodin to help establish the true course of events. They are supported by a TV journalist, Ann Yanni who has been waiting for a major media scoop to boost the TRP ratings of her news channel.

Barr has an unfortunate skirmish with the prison inmates and is rendered unconscious with serious head injury. This results in a partial amnesia which interferes with the prosecution’s plans. Reacher begins his investigation of the evidence and the story then meanders through various plausible theories and finally zeros in on a group of Russians who may have had a hand in the incident. There are a few more murders and disappearances which punctuate the story and of course, Reacher’s rendezvous with Brig. Gen. Hutton – his ex flame during his service in Kuwait – who puts in a brief appearance for the deposition with the DA.

After long drives and hours of thinking and pondering and finally a visit to Gunny Cash, ex military serviceman and owner of the shooting range which James Barr used to frequent, Reacher finally cracks the mystery behind the shooting and figures out who the “Puppet Master” is. Rosemary Barr finds herself kidnapped by the Puppet Master and Reacher along with Cash, Ann Yanni and Helen Rodin hatch a plan at attacking “The Zec” and rescuing Rosemary Barr. And in the bargain clears James Barr of the murder charges.

This was an interesting read. The writing is crisp with short sentences. To the point. The build up to the plot is engrossing. The mystery behind the killing starts unravelling half-way through the book. The ending is fast paced and packed with loads of action.

On the flipside, I found Jack Reacher’s portrayal too perfect. The man has no flaws and is always a step or two ahead of his adversaries. Even James Bond is not that perfect :P. The second issue I had was the investigation of the victims. Any murder investigation starts with the suspects and also a complete screening of the victims’ profiles and I was very surprised that the Perfect Jack Reacher thought about doing research on the victims’ backgrounds towards the end of the book 🙂

All in all an entertaining whodunit packed with action and enough twists and turns.

Review: The Shiva Trilogy – Book 3 – The Oath Of The Vayuputras

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The second book in Amish Tripathi’s Shiva Trilogy series ended with the Shiva discovering that Brahaspati was very much alive in Panchavati. The third and final book in the Trilogy – The Oath of The Vayuputras  – is about the battle of good over evil.

Once Shiva overcomes his shock and surprise, Brahaspati explains to him that the root cause of all the problems is Somras. The depletion of water in the river Saraswati, the dumping of toxic wastes in the river Brahmaputra resulting in the Branga plague, the deformities in the Nagas are all attributed to prolonged production and consumption of the Somras. Shiva then meets the Vasudevs and discovers that the Vayuputra Council, an ancient tribe with roots going back to the first Mahadev – Lord Rudra, was entrusted with the responsibility of identifying and training the next Neelkanth whenever the need to defeat evil arose. He also finds out that his Uncle who was a Vayuputra, was instrumental in grooming him as the Neelkanth.

Since Somras was the brainchild of the Meluhans, Shiva declares war on Meluha. This creates moral and emotional conflicts in Shiva’s team. Sati stands by her husband while Parvateshwar, though accepting Shiva as his God, chooses to fight for Meluha out of loyalty for his homeland and is joined by Anandamayi.

What ensues after extensive plotting and planning is a complex and tactical war against Meluha and its suspected allies which is countered by a very competent and experienced Parvateshwar. Shiva commandeers the main army and is aided by Ganesh and Karthik who attack Ayodhya. Parvateshwar along with his large Meluhan force attacks Sati’s army and emerges victorious.  Following this defeat Shiva leaves for Pariha to acquire the deadly Bramhastra from the Vayuputras which would give him the power to negotiate peace with Meluha. The Vayuputras grant him the Pashupathiastra instead. Parvateshwar uses diversionary tactics and pretends to attack Panchavati which results in Kali rushing to Panchavati and realizing that she was tricked.

In the midst of all these battles, Daksha hatches a plan to assassinate Shiva with the help of hired Egyptian assassins and invites Shiva for a so called “peace conference”. Sati attends the peace conference in Shiva’s absence and is attacked by the assassins and unfortunately meets with a bloody end. Shiva returns to Devagiri to find his brutally assassinated wife. Heartbroken and enraged, he uses the deadly weapon given by the Vayuputras to destroy all of Devagiri and with it the Somras thereby triumphing over evil. Shiva then retires to Mount Kailash along with his sons.

The book is packed with a lot of action. There are many a twists and turns in the plot and the pace is pretty fast moving. In addition to action, Amish has tried to portray the humanness of the characters by bringing out their emotional conflicts and pain.

While Amish’s intentions and efforts are commendable there still are some glaring shortcomings which prevent it from being a good book. My major bugbear continues to be the language – it lacks the flow and polish of a skilled writer and sounds amateurish. Using big words does not necessarily mean excellent writing skills, what is important is that they be used in the right context.

The ending unfortunately does not do justice as well. Given the very strong storyline and larger than life characters Amish had, he could have orchestrated  a grand finale but ends up with an extremely gory and emotionally exhausting finish.  I really didn’t see the need to bring in “Egyptian” assassins and the detailed description of Sati’s brutal killing left me cringing. I did not understand the conflicting apparitions of Sati which appear to Ganesh and Karthik either.

The hero in this book for me was Sati, not Shiva. She embodied femininity, intelligence, was a great daughter, sister, wife, mother and a greater warrior with immense strength, valour and courage. The Vayuputras are reduced to an insignificant presence in the entire series – why name the book as “The Oath of the Vayuputras”? They hardly take up a few pages of the book!

Reading has been my passion since I was a kid and a good book irrespective of its genre always leaves me feeling good. My apologies to all Amish fans, it took me sometime to get over this book – it was a big let down. I enjoyed The Immortals of Meluha, I found The Secret of the Nagas intriguing though not great but I really don’t have the patience or endurance to pick up this book again. To deal with Hindu Gods and mythological characters, their human emotions, frequent science lessons straight from textbooks, contemporary language including swearwords used in a timeline which is possibly thousands of years old and the “over the board” gory description of Sati’s murder and her mutilated body is too much for me to handle a second time around.

Review: The Shiva Trilogy – Book 2 – The Secret of the Nagas

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The Secret of the Nagas is the second novel in the Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi. In the previous book, Shiva helps the Meluhans launch an attack on Swadeep and defeat the Chandravanshis. Shiva along with Sati visits the Ram Temple in Ayodhya – the capital of Swadeep. The story continues from the last scene which is that of Shiva rushing to save Sati from being attacked by a Naga who is suspected of killing Brahaspati at Mount Mandar.

Shiva saves Sati but the Naga escapes leaving behind a few strange coins which are traced  to Chandraketu, King of the Branga Empire. Shiva and Sati visit Kashi to meet with the Branga community settled there and try to gather information.  The entourage includes General Paravateshwar – Chief of the Meluhan army, his deputies – Nandi and Veer Bhadra, Ayurvati – the Chief Meluhan doctor, Prince Bhagirath and Princess Anandamayi of Ayodhya. Anandamayi is a lissome, beautiful young lady who spends the long journey trying to lure and entice a wary Parvateshwar, who is sworn to celibacy.

To cut the story short, Shiva decides to visit Branga. As preparations begin in full swing ahead of the arduous journey, Sati gives birth to a son who is named Karthik by Shiva. Shiva then embarks on the voyage to Branga while Sati stays back to help defend a local village attacked by lions. Despite her efforts, Sati and her soldiers are on the verge of being defeated by the ferocious lions when suddenly a group of Nagas led by a man and woman appear and help them overpower the lions. The woman has an extra pair of hands and reveals herself as Kali – the Naga Queen and Sati’s twin sister separated at birth by their father, King Daksha, because of her deformities. The man in none other than Ganesh, Sati’s first born who was supposed to have died at childbirth, but was again separated from his mother by King Daksha because of his deformed face which gave him the appearance of an elephant.

Meanwhile, Shiva reaches the shores of Branga and  defeats a fearsome bandit – Parashuram – who is a Vasudev Scholar and the only person knowing the cure for the Branga plague. Realizing that Shiva is indeed the Neelkanth, Parashuram severs his left hand as atonement for his sin of fighting against him and joins Shiva’s entourage back to Kashi.

On reaching Kashi, Shiva is introduced to Kali and Ganesh. Shiva recognizes Ganesh and accuses him of killing Brahaspati and attacking Sati. After a good measure of  drama which involves lions, Ganesh and Karthik, Shiva reconciles with Ganesh and King Daksha admits abandoning Kali and Ganesh and also murdering Sati’s first husband. Shiva then travels to Panchavati where after some more action filled drama, he discovers that Brahaspati is very much alive and in good spirits!

While I rather enjoyed the first book, I found this one quite tedious and was mentally exhausted at the end of it.

First of all – too many characters, multiple locations and too many twists and turns in the plot. Second point was the narration and the language which were clumsy and uninspiring. Amish’s attempt at portraying the passionate Anadamayi falls flat. Instead of sounding passionate, she comes across as immature and almost vampish in her attempts to woo Parvateshwar. The most discordant note for me was the depiction of Ganesh and Kali. Granted that Amish has taken inspiration from Hindu religion and mythology, and agreed that as an author he has “artistic license”. While he has not tampered too much with the image of Shiva, I felt his interpretation of Ganesh and Kali and calling them the Nagas – humans with deformities – was not too appealing. Especially since I have grown up reading the stories of these iconic Indian Gods. The fusion of Amish’s creativity and imagination with the Hindu Gods and mythology does not seem to work too harmoniously.

I finished the book feeling a little drained, irritated and confused – it was like listening to a song sung off key! I confess, it was with some hesitation and trepidation that I picked up the third book – The Oath of the Vayuputras.. More to come shortly 🙂

 

Review: The Shiva Trilogy – Book 1 – The Immortals of Meluha

Having heard and seen a lot of publicity of this book series by Amish Tripathi, I finally found time to read the three books during a short 4 days break a couple of weeks back.

I had already received different reviews on this series – the store manager at Sapna, where I purchased the book also contributed his opinion based on the feedback of the readers. So I decided to dive in trying to keep aside any form of prejudice.

Amish Tripathi has taken inspiration from the Hindu religion, the highly revered Hindu Gods and Scriptures and most of the characters are those which anyone familiar with the Indian culture and Hindu mythology can easily relate to. The review of the Trilogy is split in three parts. This post is dedicated to the first story.

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The first book – The Immortals of Meluha – is the story of a young Shiva and his discovery by the Suryavanshis as the “Neelkanth (one with the blue throat)” or Saviour. The initial setting is in Tibet where Shiva, a Tibetan Chieftain,  is “discovered” by Nandi – the Captain of the Meluhan Army who is from Meluha, which is on the south western side of the Himalayas. The story then proceeds to Devagiri, the capital of Meluha ruled by King Daksha. Meluha, originally founded by Lord Rama, is a perfect kingdom with perfect citizens who happen to be live almost forever – thanks to Somras,  which prevents them from aging. Shiva and his tribe are brought to Melhua and administered the Somras which results in Shiva’s throat turning blue confirming to the Meluhans that he is indeed the Neelkanth who has been sent to save all of them from the Chandravanshis – their arch enemies. Shiva also meets Sati, daughter of King Daksha, whom he falls in love with at first sight and relentlessly courts her despite her apparent disdain till she confesses her love for him and consents to marriage.

Shiva is taken to Mount Mandar situated close to the banks of the fabled river Saraswati , the site where the Somras is manufactured where he meets Brahaspati – the Chief Inventor. Brahaspati acknowledges Shiva as the Neelkanth without the excessive adoration and fawning of the Meluhans that Shiva has been tired of and both develop a strong bond. Further along the story, Mount Mandar is destroyed and Brahasapati is presumed to be amongst the fatal casualties. The Chandravanshis are the prime suspects to have committed the crime abetted by the Nagas (considered cursed by the Meluhans) since they always envied the Meluhans for the Somras. The book ends with Shiva being convinced that he indeed is the “Chosen One” to avenge Meluha and declares war against the Chandravanshis and helps the Meluhans win the battle.

I have deliberately outlined a very sketchy plot – don’t want this to be a spoiler for those who wish to read the books :)..

The book was  interesting and quite gripping. The treatment of the characters of Shiva, Nandi, Sati and the novelty of the Meluhan society was rather intriguing. Shiva is portrayed as a human initially unaware of his divinity. The plot is simple, straightforward, not too complicated.

What I found jarring was the language – am pretty sure the “swear words” used by the human Shiva were not used during that time period. The writing style is quite ordinary. The story is interspersed with Science lessons by Brahaspati which made me feel I was reading my school Science textbooks – at times I had to remind myself that the timeline of the story was hundreds and hundreds of years ago and not my school days!

All in all a good read, I completed reading the book in less than a day and was curious about what Amish had in store in this second book… More to come in just a bit 🙂

Reinventing Yourself

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Change is the only constant in life. We consciously bring in changes to achieve certain targets and goals. Sometimes change is thrust upon us though we may not desire it. The good changes bring in positive vibes and cheer and we sail along. The not so good changes – financial challenges, failure, relationships going sour, divorce, loss of loved ones, ill health, work related situations, etc., make us sit back and think of why we are in the situation we find ourselves in.

Innovation is the name of the game – the buzz word in today’s age. We read about innovation in technology, in infrastructure, in business models, in our lives. But the most challenging innovation is within oneself – what does it take to re-invent yourself? The journey of life is unique – so much so that no two individual’s paths are exactly identical. Life is made up of a fabric called experiences and these experiences are influenced not just by the situations or circumstances but also heavily by perceptions. How do I perceive the my family, my friends? My colleagues, my work, the organization I work with? How do I perceive every situation I face? How do I perceive myself? Which brings up the question of what influences perceptions. Our emotions – love, hate, fear, ego, pride to name a few and the baggage of experiences that we always carry along almost always prejudice our perceptions. Sifting through a few articles on the internet, various versions of “reinventing” yourself emerge. Some look at reinvention as a technical project broken into bits and put down in a planner preferably with a time frame. Others talk of visions and goals, having mentors and using social media to connect with others. A belief system which seems to work for me – atleast in parts – is that change is really first and foremost within yourself – it is in your mind and your soul. Once you achieve the realization and conviction of what you want to be, the Universe takes care of the rest. We often underestimate and undermine the power of our minds and thoughts. A simple thought with 100% conviction and trust in the Universal power triggers a series of actions, events and happenings that makes the impossible possible. Talk about dreams coming true – who has not experienced this or heard or read about it. Or of miracles – for all the science and technology in the world there are a billion and more things we just cannot explain or rationalize. Yes, man can attempt to create matter and perhaps anti-matter. Science will progress and grow organs from stem cells. We will create life by procreation. But can we create a soul – or infuse life into a dead person? The biggest challenge is achieving that realization or conviction of who you are. It is only when you truly understand who you are that you will know what you want to be. But then, easier said than done. I am still meandering along the tapestry of life.. searching within myself for that elusive moment of “truth”..  And when I do discover my self within, I will have the mammoth task of letting go all that is holding me back from being myself – fear of the unknown and of failure, hate, resentment, anger and ego..

“Accept responsibility for your life. Know that it is you who will get you where you want to go, no one else.” – Les Brown

David Baldacci’s Zero Hour

I have read most of David Baldacci’s books and have generally found a pattern in his writing. His stories start off with action after which the pace drops a notch and narration takes over till the basic framework of the story is revealed to the readers. And then the action once again takes over keeping the reader engrossed till the end.

It was with this expectation that I picked up his latest novel “Zero Hour” after nearly three years of a “semi sabbatical” from reading. I was in for a real surprise – the first few pages put the story firmly in gear and Mr. Baldacci doesn’t slow the pace one bit till the very end. It almost reminded me of action oriented novels of Alistair Maclean or James Hadley Chase but with much more complex, intricate and interwoven plots all narrated at a pace which makes it difficult to put the book down. Yes, I finished the book in one day and at one go – it was that gripping!

John Puller is the hero, a criminal investigator with the US Army, roped in to probe the rather gruesome and mysterious murder of Col. Mathew Reynolds and his family in a remote town in West Virginia. This is where Puller meets Samantha Cole, local detective who partners with him in his investigations. Mystery deepens when a further series of murders quickly follow to increase the  body count. There is the local business tycoon Roger Trent who practically owns the town’s businesses to whom the finger points along with his beautiful wife. And you have Trent’s second in command Bill Strauss along with his son Dickie (yes!) who seems to be hiding quite a few skeletons in his closet. The emotional angle is provided by Puller’s family – his father, a retired, highly distinguished ex US Army hero and a brilliant brother serving a life sentence for treason.

Add to all this some interesting insights into the intricate machinery of the Pentagon and the US Army along with a hint of romance between Puller and Sam and you have a first class, racy, mystery suspense thriller guaranteeing you a few hours of complete entertainment. The book ends with Puller predictably solving the case but with a few twists and turns – one of which I, being the eternal romantic, did not quite like.  If you have read the book you will know what I am hinting at!

To all Baldacci fans out there – you cannot miss this one!

Happy Reading 🙂