Slow Horses by Mick Herron

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The plethora of streaming services in the entertainment industry has led to a wide variety of content, and many TV shows have their origins in literature. This is precisely the case with the acclaimed spy thriller series on Apple TV+, Slow Horses. As I approached the first season's conclusion, I realized it was adapted from Mick Herron's 2010 novel of the same name. Eager to experience the original source material without spoiling the show's conclusion, I paused my viewing and delved into the book instead.

The world is filled with stories of heroic secret agents who save the day. From James Bond to Jason Bourne, these thrilling adventures capture our imaginations, creating a romanticized view of espionage. But what about the agents who mess up? Indeed, not every mission goes as planned, let alone is successful. No, there are inevitably a few mishaps here and there, and those responsible for them must be handled with care. In the case of Britain's MI5, the "slow horses," as they're called, find themselves separated from the rest of the force, consigned to the disheveled Slough House—a last resort where the blacklisted agents will spend the remainder of their careers doing nothing more than busywork.

Slough House is the last place River Cartwright ever thought he would find himself. As the grandson of a decorated agent, he believed he would follow in his grandfather's legendary footsteps. Unfortunately, River was betrayed by a colleague and bungled a critical mission. Now, he stands on the steps of Slough House, left to try to pick up the pieces of his shattered career. When a young Pakistani student is kidnapped by a far-right group that plans to live-stream their victim's murder, River sees this as an opportunity to honor his duty and redeem himself. It won't be easy, especially as he is meant to remain in the shadows as a pencil pusher for the rest of his career, but River will stop at nothing to try to regain his spot as an agent.

In Slow Horses, Mick Herron envisions a group of antiheroes I couldn't help but cheer for. Unlike the polished agents in Ian Fleming's world, they are a band of misfits, each selfishly striving to escape the purgatory of Slough House and return to the glory of being an active agent. After a compelling start, the novel takes some time to find its footing. I'll confess to feeling a bit weary as Herron introduced each of the "slow horses" and the various elements of the plot. Around the halfway point, however, the story's trajectory began to unfold, and I could not put the book down. The characters bring a wit that injects much-needed levity into the weightier subject matter, resulting in a thrilling read and a promising start to the series.

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

(2024, 18)


The House of Last Resort by Christopher Golden

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Do you believe in giving authors a second chance? Not every book resonates with every reader, and there have been numerous occasions when a particular story failed to connect with me. Nevertheless, I am generally open to giving an author's writing another chance before deciding whether it aligns with my preferences. Take horror author Christopher Golden, for instance. I was familiar with his work for years but only delved into his novel Road of Bones last year. While I appreciated the clever setup and the chilling premise, the ending fell short of my expectations. Intrigued nonetheless, I decided to give Golden another opportunity with his latest book, The House of Last Resort.

Overflowing with abandoned villas left to decay, Becchina, Italy, remains largely forgotten, with only a handful of locals still residing there. It has become "...the corpse of a town that didn't even realize it was already dead." Eager to breathe life back into his town, the mayor proposes a final, desperate plan. The city acquires all the deserted homes, offering them to new families at the nominal price of one Euro. The only caveats are that the buyers must commit to a minimum investment to renovate and modernize their newfound residences and live there for at least five years. The concept gains traction, attracting people from various places who relocate to the quaint Italian town to embark on their fresh start.

Tommy and Kate Puglisi, a newly married couple from America, are among the newcomers enticed by the offer. With the flexibility of remote work and the added bonus of Tommy's grandparents living in Becchina, the move is a golden opportunity for the couple. It promises homeownership, quality time with family, and an adventure in romantic Italy. From the beginning, however, things take an unsettling turn. While initially appealing, their dream house on the hill raises reservations as a significant tremor shakes the earth upon their arrival. Even more foreboding is the reaction of Tommy's grandmother, who, instead of sharing in the family's joy, is filled with fear and anger. Nonna knows the house's history, and Tommy and Kate are about to discover they've signed up for more than they bargained for.

In The House of Last Resort, Christopher Golden masterfully constructs a narrative steeped in anticipation and foreboding. The notion of leaving one's home to pursue a better, more balanced life in a different country resonated with me, and I immediately connected with Tommy and Kate. Golden initiates the story with innocence, capturing the protagonist's joy and optimism for a fresh start. As moments of doubt begin to pepper this dream, both the characters and readers are left questioning everything. Even as the true horror became more apparent, I was irresistibly drawn into the story. It all culminates in an ending that poetically echoes the town's history that we learn about earlier in the book. Golden adeptly balances character development with a chilling plot, ensuring a narrative that engages the reader fully. The House of Last Resort delivers everything I seek in a horror read, and it has solidified my decision to explore more of this author's works in the near future.

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

(2024, 17)

Prima Facie by Suzie Miller

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As a dedicated reader, I have as much interest in authors and their writing processes as I do in their books. Discovering the various methods authors employ to craft their stories, whether through meticulous outlining or a more free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness approach, is endlessly fascinating. Equally intriguing is the genesis of the initial idea for a book. This origin is readily apparent in the case of Suzie Miller's novel Prima Facie. The narrative was initially shared in the form of her highly successful play of the same name, which garnered acclaim on both the West End and Broadway. Now, Miller has adeptly adapted this compelling story into a novel, promising to enthrall an entirely new audience with this brilliant work. 

Tessa Ensler has dedicated her life to justice. The young criminal defense barrister has worked her way up through the country's legal system, overcoming all the odds that were set against her to become one of the best at defending those who plead not guilty. Tessa's unwavering belief in the law and the judicial system is reflected in her brilliance at her craft. With a quick wit, intuitive cross-examinations, and an encyclopedic knowledge of legal procedures, she has amassed a string of victories. Even in emotionally challenging cases, Tessa maintains objectivity to secure the best defense for her clients, embodying the foundational principle of a civilized society—innocence until proven guilty.

Tessa's unwavering faith in the law is shattered when she becomes a victim herself, enduring a harrowing sexual assault by a coworker. Reporting the assault to the police, she acknowledges the uphill battle ahead, where her testimony stands against his. Yet, she clings to her belief in the system she has devoted her career to. Taking the witness stand, Tessa confronts doubt, trauma, and manipulation, determined to validate the harrowing reality of her situation and seek justice.

In Prima Facie, Suzie Miller delivers a compelling legal thriller that delves into themes of justice, trauma, and the relentless pursuit of truth. The novel serves as a stark critique of the legal system's rigidity, demanding flawless evidence from victims of sexual crimes while not holding the accused to the same standards. The narrative evoked increasing anger as I witnessed the protagonist navigating the legal obstacles, highlighting the unfortunate commonality of such situations. Understanding the reasons why many victims choose not to report their abuse or seek justice became distressingly clear, especially considering the staggering statistic of 1 in 3 women experiencing sexual assault.

Adapted from a play, Prima Facie initially shows signs of the story's expansion, with the first half burdened by an unnecessary backstory that threatened the narrative's momentum. However, as the main conflict unfolded, the story gained an urgency that captured my full attention. The culmination in a final courtroom scene was both infuriating and satisfying. I chose to experience Prima Facie in the audiobook format (provided by the publisher), narrated by Jodie Comer, who portrayed Tessa in the play. While the play likely had more streamlined pacing, the novel effectively conveys the story's importance and urgency. If transforming the play into a novel increases awareness of the harsh realities depicted, it's a worthwhile adaptation that also makes for a gripping read.

For more information, visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2024, 16)

First Lie Wins by Ashley Elston

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After relishing my previous read and taking my time with it, I sought a book that would immediately captivate me. While I didn't have a particular title in mind, I yearned for a page-turner that I could effortlessly consume within a few hours. That's when I stumbled upon Ashley Elston's First Lie Wins, her inaugural foray into adult fiction after establishing herself as a YA author. Let me tell you, this book delivers a powerful punch. Several of my book-blogging friends had been enjoying it for the past month, and having experienced it myself, it's evident why. With brisk chapters, alternating timelines, and a plot rife with twists and turns, it offers precisely the kind of enthralling read I was in the mood for.

Revealing too much about this story would rob you of the excitement of discovering it for yourself. In fact, even the publisher's summary provides more details than necessary. The narrative revolves around Evie Porter, a charming Southern girl whose life appears to be the epitome of perfection. Her relationship with her wealthy businessman boyfriend has rapidly evolved, and they've decided to take the plunge into the next chapter by moving into a flawless home together. Evie has met his circle of friends, a group of affluent socialites in their own right, and is eager to embark on this new phase of her life. There's only one problem—Evie Porter doesn't actually exist. 

Ashley Elston's First Lie Wins immediately captivated me with its ability to forge a connection with a character about whom I initially knew little. As the truth about Evie Porter emerged, my intrigue deepened, and I grew more fond of the character. Elston employs a brisk pace, seamlessly transitioning between past and present, offering morsels of information that tantalizingly foreshadow events to come. The narrative's clever plotting drew me in, and while some suspension of disbelief is required, the thrill of the twists overshadowed any minor concerns. First Lie Wins is one of the most inventively plotted thrillers I've read this year. Elston doesn't attempt to make the book more than it is, delivering all the thrills, character revelations, and shocking twists that thriller enthusiasts crave. This was a delightful read, and I eagerly anticipate Elston's future ventures into this genre.

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

(2024, 15)


Trust by Hernan Diaz

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There are moments when we, as readers, indulge in books for pleasure and enjoyment, while other times, we opt to challenge ourselves. I've always been a mood reader, gravitating towards whichever story captures my interest at a given moment. However, there are certain books that I choose to read as a means of expanding my literary horizons. When packing books for my recent Caribbean cruise, I primarily selected quick page-turners and crime thrillers. Yet, once on vacation, I yearned for something more substantial. I turned to my Kindle, where Hernan Diaz's Trust had been waiting since I impulsively purchased it after it won the Pulitzer in fiction last year. Disconnected from the rest of the world and fully absorbed in the ship's gentle rocking and the soothing hum of the waves, I began to read. The title is fitting, as 'trust' is precisely what you need when embarking on this novel, presented in four distinct parts. If you trust and stick with Diaz's writing, you'll soon be rewarded...mostly.

Part one unfolds as a brief novella titled "Bonds," a creation by a long-forgotten author, Harold Vanner, from the 1930s. It narrates the story of America's wealthiest man, Benjamin Rask, a man so accustomed to his privilege that he could never anticipate the tragic turn his life would take. In contrast to his father, who amassed a substantial fortune in the tobacco industry through his sociable nature and knack for sales, Benjamin relished in his solitude. While he might not have cultivated the social connections his father was known for, he possessed a talent for handling money. Benjamin turned his significant but not colossal inheritance into an unimaginable fortune, catching the attention of his colleagues and competitors. From the Roaring 20s to the crash of 1929, he employed an almost preternatural intuition to profit and sell, remaining oblivious to the devastation the crash would unleash on everyone else.

Benjamin's life transformed when he encountered the woman who would become his wife. She serves as a perfect counterpoint to him—equally at ease in her contemplative solitude, eccentric yet private. The couple captured the fascination of society, an allure that intensified as they withdrew from the public eye. Speculations about corruption within Rask's fortune began to circulate, particularly as he navigated the financial minefield of the Great Depression, unscathed. As if to demonstrate that even mere suspicions of impropriety must face an inevitable reckoning, the narrative hurtles toward the forewarned tragedy—a climax that manages to both shock and satisfy. Just as "Bonds" concludes with its tragic finale, Diaz seamlessly transitions to the second part of his novel, initiating the next layer of his intricate narrative.

Trust initially presented a challenge for me to navigate. Following the opening novella, which echoed Fitzgerald's cautionary fable in The Great Gatsby, the second part unfolded as a memoir by an American financier. While this narrative shared some parallels with the initial section, I grappled with understanding their connection and questioning why I should invest in this new storyline. It wasn't until the third section, roughly halfway through Trust, that the true essence of Diaz's narrative began to unveil itself, with connections becoming more apparent and the emotional journey drawing me further in. As a cohesive whole, this book stands as a masterfully crafted tale, making me marvel at Diaz's ability to inhabit distinct voices and styles within each of the four sections and seamlessly bring them together into a unified whole. While the ending fulfilled my desire to witness the integration of the diverse narrative threads, the story's emotional impact left me yearning for something more. The conclusion lacked a grand revelation or thesis, but I sense that might be the book's intention. These influential individuals channel all their energy into amassing fortunes, only to succumb to the same fate awaiting us all. In the end, Trust captivated and confounded me, expanding the definition of a novel and encouraging me to seek out more challenging reads in the future.

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

(2024, 14)

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye by David Lagercrantz

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David Lagercrantz faced a daunting task when he took on the responsibility of continuing the acclaimed Millennium series after the untimely passing of Stieg Larsson. His first endeavor, The Girl in the Spider's Web, advanced the storyline and stayed true to the core elements that captivated readers in the initial trilogy. Although it has been a while since I immersed myself in that narrative, I've had Lagercrantz's fifth book, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, patiently waiting on my shelf for several years. Inspired to reenter the ominous universe of these stories, I finally decided to read it.

At the book's outset, Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, finds herself incarcerated. The reason is her use of excessive force while rescuing a child from their abuser. Lisbeth is now paying the price for her unwavering moral code. Confined behind prison bars, she immerses herself in the study of Quantum Field Theory. This subject is utterly elusive to me, yet effortlessly unfolds its intricacies for the brilliant Salander. Her solitary existence is disrupted by interactions with fellow inmates, one of whom has targeted another woman on the block. Never one to ignore injustice, Lisbeth is inevitably drawn into the midst of it all.

Mikael Blomkvist, renowned for his incisive exposés at Millennium Magazine, makes a return, this time delving into the mysterious Registry, the organization believed to be behind the appalling abuse suffered by Lisbeth and her twin sister. As Blomkvist probes deeper into Salander's past, it becomes evident that those accountable for her childhood trauma are determined to prevent him from uncovering the truth. What's even more disturbing is the potential continuation of their horrific research into the present day. Their threat is as present as ever, and Blomkvist will stop at nothing to finally bring their actions to light. 

On the surface, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye was poised to be a successful continuation of this thrilling narrative. Having mostly enjoyed the previous book, I anticipated another captivating tale. However, I found the novel to be a complete misfire, setting the series on a path of diminishing returns. Interestingly, many of my complaints about this book align with my issues with one of Lagercrantz's recent efforts, Dark Music. Like that novel, this one relies too heavily on telling the reader about the action instead of showing it, turning what should be page-turning moments into dull retellings that left me yearning to witness the action. Furthermore, Salander takes a back seat as a character in this story, leaving the supporting cast to try to bear the emotional weight of the narrative. None of the confusing cast of characters can fully carry the mantle of the story on their own, resulting in a messy tangle of threads that simply don't come together for a satisfying conclusion. With two books left in this series, I think this one will be my last.

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

(2024, 13)

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