The Cartel by Don Winslow

For newer readers to my blog, some months back I reviewed the book that precedes this one called “Power of the Dog” also by Don Winslow. I gave it an unequivocal 5 stars and this one continues the story and receives the same 5 stars. I went and bought the book new, soft cover at the book store simply because I could not get the first book out of my head and talked about it to every reader I know.

This book picks up where the last left off. Adan Barerra, the powerful leader of the drug cartel that Art Keller decimated, has managed to finagle his way out of U.S. custody back to Mexico to serve his prison time there.

In the glorious vein of Lucky Luciano and Pablo Escobar, he begins rebuilding his cartel from behind bars. This includes setting up his cell as a luxurious 5 star suite and having prison authorities, government authorities and cartel members all on his payroll. He also manages to establish a private army and take a jailed beauty queen/drug smuggler as his mistress after the demise of his marriage.

Adan has only one other ambition besides re-establishing his drug empire. He has a $2 million dollar bounty on the head of DEA agent Art Keller. As for Art Keller, he knows Adan will try to be the kingpin again and he wants Adan dead too. Stalemate.

Throughout the border towns the funnels are controlled by a variety of dons who have filled the vacuum since Adan’s capture. An all-out war erupts between the new dons and the old to control the means of movement of drugs through the plazas and border cities throughout the rest of North America.

This time, we are treated to some new players. A group of activist journalists and writers based in Jaurez provide a running commentary on the carnage and represent the people caught in the middle of this all out bloodbath for control of the drug trade. Pablo, Ana and Oscar are our guides in this group.

Marisol is a physician, fighting to assist the broken and damaged as well as an activist who, by raising her profile and speaking out publicly, has also put a target on her back. She also provides us with a new love interest for Art. This is a good thing because I despaired for Art’s soul and humanity at the end of the first book.

As with the first book, the stakes are high and the violence is brutal and graphic but the storytelling is exceptionally high caliber. I am going out on a limb here but in my opinion, this could well be the next “Godfather”. It is that good. It might even be better. This makes “Scarface” look like a cartoon.

The alphabet agencies are all in play again and we get a better look at Mexican politics and military tactics as well as the paramilitary organizations the cartels control to enforce their dominance and protect their territories. The cost of the drug trade is very high and one weeps for the average citizen who lives in these areas and is forced to deal with domestic terrorism, human trafficking and crushing poverty on a day to day basis.

I have become a Don Winslow fanatic. Even as I write this review, I am planning on going by the bookstore tomorrow to pick up two more Winslow books and see what else this storyteller has up his sleeve. There are books I keep and books I pass on. Winslow’s have a permanent place on my shelves with a guillotine hanging over borrowers heads who do not return the books. You have been warned!!

Please, buy this man’s books so he will keep writing. It is a wonderful reading experience. 5 stars plus.

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And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

There is something about a rainy autumn night and a cup of hot tea with a cat on your lap and a fire crackling in the fireplace that screams “Read an Agatha Christie mystery!” In short, that is exactly what I did.

This was one of her favorite stories. In the forward she explains why. She had to work carefully to craft the story to her formula to ensure that it was consistent, that it made sense to the reader and that the solve was undetectable to the very end of the book. She achieved it all.

The story is set at an isolated house on an English island called Soldiers Island. Ten houseguests have been invited by a mysterious host named U.N. Owen to spend the weekend. Each guest has been given a different reason to attend. Three of the seven believe they are there as employees.

There is no way to exit the island except by tender. Weather effectively strands the guests there ensuring no one is able to leave. After the dinner is served on the first night, the mysterious hosts has the butler play a phonograph record. The host has yet to be seen but it is his voice outlining the real reason each guest is there.

Every individual has murdered another person, either legally or through accidental misadventure and the host believes that this means that each of those people have evaded justice and must be dealt with.

There is a poem posted throughout the house called “Ten Little Soldier Boys”. There are also ten soldier figurines on a centerpiece at the table. As each guest is dispatched, each soldier disappears.

And that is where I will leave you. Agatha Christie has a process that her readers will be familiar with – the set up and introduction, the crime and the solve. This was one of her better stories. I have a few favorites in my stash and every once in a while, it is fun to go back to one of the masters of the mystery genre and enjoy a touch of Edwardian England. Even the murders seem civil. Cheerio!

The Bali 9: The Untold Story

Australia has a special relationship with Indonesia in general and Bali in particular.  The Indonesian Archipelago arches across the top half of Australia. Bali has long been a very popular inexpensive overseas holiday destination for Australians. The surfing beaches of Kuta provide the watery playground by day and the nightclubs of Kuta the playground by night.

Not far away, for the more artsy and adventurous, Ubud provides the peaceful getaway and a chance for holiday makers to have up close encounters with the islands primates in the Monkey Forest. Cheap accommodation sits next to 5 star resorts. Bali is also a melting pot of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. Trinkets and clothing are cheap. Beer is plentiful.

Before any traveler leaves Australia, one has only to go to the restroom to get your first taste of how much the Australian government does to try and protect its citizens from themselves. On the back of every door, in every stall, there is a notice explaining the penalties for drug trafficking in most of the Asian countries in the region. For Bali, the penalty is death by firing squad. It is spelled out explicitly.

Upon arrival in Bali, a huge sign is hung in front of travelers before they even reach customs and immigration. In Bali, Drug Trafficking = Death. Both governments are crystal clear on the penalties. Nothing is left to chance or the imagination.

In 2005, 9 Australians, between the ages of 18 and 29, decided to test the system. They lost. At least two have been executed by firing squad. Five are doing life in prison in Bali. Two are doing 20 years.

This book is a succinct version of what occurred. It documents a brief background on each individual involved in the smuggling ring. It then documents the events that led up to the attempt to smuggle 8.2kg of heroin out of Bali and back to Australia where the street value was the equivalent of approximately $5million dollars.

The next portion outlines the arrests of the smugglers and their trials. Trials that occurred both from the Indonesian legal system (which is very unique and described in detail) as well as trial by media. Every move each person made being dissected by the tabloids and news organizations from Australia, Indonesia and abroad.

The final chapters outline what the prisoners day to day experience of being in prison on Bali are like and the effect these events have had on the families of the smugglers. It also discusses the relationships with Indonesians that the smugglers have formed throughout this ordeal. One thing about the Balinese – they are a wonderful, kind and warm people whose faith and belief in kindness comes through even in a bleak story like this one.

This is a quick read but an excellent reporting of the events that resulted in the execution by firing squad of two Australians for drug smuggling. In Bali, death means death for drug trafficking.

If I Did It – by O.J. Simpson with Essays by Fred Goldman and Dominick Dunne

Having already read William Dear’s alternate theory of who killed Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, this book popped up on the Bookbub list. The twentieth anniversary has spawned countless OJ Simpson true crime books, articles and television programs. As I mentioned before, I was not in the country when all this occurred so I am not completely burned out on the topic. And I was very curious about this book.

Absolutely no disrespect to Fred Goldman and their family but he writes a forward to the dictation done by OJ with his ghostwriter. I can’t even call it a forward. It is an angry, infuriated, grief saturated tirade. It is understandable. It is tragic. It may have been cathartic. But it the beginning of a he said-he said book. The viewpoints represented are both highly personal and highly biased. This is not a dispassionate review of what may or may not have occurred.

The OJ portion is just ridiculous. There is not much reading between the lines required except to acknowledge that OJ Simpson is a deeply narcissistic man who, at 35, dumped his first family to take up with an eighteen year old waitress who wasn’t even born when his career began.

He continually tries to lay the blame at Nicole Brown’s feet for everything that happened. She was violent, she was immature, she was on drugs, she was cheating on him, and she was unstable. All of these same traits can also be ascribed to OJ himself who should have known from the beginning that he had nothing in common with a teenager half his age.  In truth, the thing he hammers on over and over was that they continually turned back to one another for sex. Sex of convenience mostly.

When he gets done laying the blame at her feet, the description of the crime itself, mirrors the crime. A short, violent description of an altercation that probably lasted 15-20 minutes in total. He infers someone else was there and I think William Dear’s book is a pretty good indicator that OJ was with his oldest son Jason.

For all the mud slung at Ron Goldman by opposing attorneys and OJ himself this book is clear on one thing: Ron Goldman was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. He was dropping off some sunglasses and by OJ’s description, he simply tried to stand between OJ and Nicole and was overtaken by two more powerful men and killed.

OJ’s part of the book ends there. An epilogue essay is provided by Dominick Dunne, a writer and victim advocate who befriended the Goldman’s and understands celebrity crime. It is scathing of OJ and the process.

I really bought the book for one reason: I wanted the money I spent (a pittance at that) to go to the fund that the Goldman family established. Although OJ says this is a hypothetical account of what occurred, I think it sounds pretty close to what happened that night.

These two people kept coming in and out of each other’s lives and it was a car crash every time. In relationships like this, there seem to be a lot of casualties outside of the two people involved. That was certainly the case here. It will probably take generations to put some of it behind those families and even then, maybe never.

The book is not that good, the anger and grief is palpable and OJ does not come off well even by his own account. One star but maybe buying it for the Goldman Trust is enough incentive.