Archive for December 2023

Top 10 Favorite Reads of 2023


As we bid farewell to 2023, it's time to acknowledge the books that defined this remarkable year. I delved into a total of 93 books, marking a personal record for the most books read in a single year. The abundance was such that narrowing down my favorites to just five proved impossible. Instead, I'm delighted to share a list of the top 10 books that captivated me throughout the year.

The Trees by Percival Everett

Percival Everett's 2021 novel, The Trees, delves into the intertwined issues of racism and police brutality, echoing the disturbing history of Money, Mississippi, where the infamous lynching of Emmett Till occurred. Against the backdrop of an eerily repeated crime, Everett weaves a fast-paced murder mystery that defies classification. 

The plot's humor, derived from mocking the stupidity of racist characters, surprisingly complements the poignant and disturbing elements of the narrative. Everett confronts the violence inherent in hate crimes, using graphic details to underscore the bitter reality. The Trees emerges as a propulsively readable and challenging masterwork of modern fiction.

Read the full review here.

The Great Gimmelmans by Lee Matthew Goldberg

Take a road trip with Aaron Gimmelman and his son, Roark. To connect, Aaron shares his turbulent life story through an audiobook memoir that gives this novel a narrative nesting egg effect. Set against the backdrop of a 1987 stock market crash, the Gimmelman family's journey unfolds, with financial struggles leading young Aaron into a chain of criminal activities that shape their destinies.

Lee Matthew Goldberg's The Great Gimmelmans masterfully blends thrilling heist elements with reflections on parenthood and guilt. With its intricately crafted characters and innovative storyline, this enthralling book is a compelling read that defies genre boundaries.

Read the full review here.

Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane's Small Mercies unfolds in the tumultuous Boston summer of 1974 amid the controversial desegregation of public schools. Mary Pat Fennessy, a struggling single mother in the traditional Irish enclave of "Southie," faces financial hardships while searching for her missing daughter, Jules.

Lehane's narrative skill shines as he weaves racial complexities into the story, bringing forth emotionally charged moments. Beyond the racial tensions, the novel delves into the essence of motherhood, portraying Mary Pat as a multifaceted character grappling with desperation, personal demons, and a profound desire for redemption. The story captivates with its exploration of societal shifts and the deep human struggle for understanding and closure.

Read the full review here.

Mothered by Zoje Stage

Author Zoje Stage, like many, found inspiration in the early days of the pandemic, giving rise to her novel Mothered. The pandemic's impact on livelihoods is palpably portrayed through Grace, a hairstylist facing uncertainty as her salon shuts down permanently. With a mortgage burden and limited options, she reluctantly turns to her estranged mother, Jackie, for help. 

Their cohabitation, initially seen as a chance for reconciliation, unravels into a complex exploration of their troubled history. Stage expertly weaves pandemic anxieties with familial tensions, blurring reality and nightmares in a riveting narrative. 

Read the full review here.

Tom Lake by Anne Patchett

In Tom Lake, Lara's unexpected venture into acting during Our Town auditions shapes her aspirations, leading to a divergent path in Los Angeles. Fast forward to 2020, and quarantined in Michigan during the pandemic, Lara shares her transformative summer with her three daughters. 

Anne Patchett's novel navigates youthful love, ambition, and family's enduring power amid the backdrop of the pandemic. Lara's story prompts reflection on life, relationships, and achievements, offering subtly impactful characters. Integrating the classic Our Town, Patchett crafts exemplary character-driven fiction that will leave you both introspective and deeply moved. 

Read the full review here.

Mister Magic by Kiersten White

Embark on a nostalgic journey with Kiersten White's Mister Magic, a thought-provoking allegory that twists the concept of a beloved children's show into a chilling narrative.

Decades after a tragic incident halts the production of Mister Magic, the surviving cast, known as the Circle of Friends, grapples with haunting memories and unanswered questions. The group reunites on a journey to reclaim their shared history.  

White skillfully weaves a mysterious tapestry, drawing readers into a narrative that not only captivates but also prompts reflection on childhood, authority, and indoctrination. Mister Magic is an exhilarating read that transcends its genre.

Read the full review here.

In Memoriam by Alice Winn

Alice Winn's debut, In Memoriam, redefines war narratives by focusing on a gay couple during WWI. The novel follows Gaunt and Ellwood's journey from an English boarding school to the grim realities of war. Gaunt, grappling with societal hostility toward his German heritage and a forbidden love for Elwood, enlists to escape. Soon, however, he learns that Ellwood has enlisted, too. 

The book vividly portrays war's devastation and loss while exploring the characters' poignant struggles with self-acceptance in an era hostile to non-conforming sexualities. The novel's emotional impact extends beyond the horrors of war, delving into the heartbreaking struggles and redemptive power of complex relationships.

Read the full review here. 

Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin

Cecile Pin's debut novel, Wandering Souls, is a powerful testament to resilience, navigating a family's history through war, immigration, and assimilation. Set in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Pin’s novel shows the plight of immigrants striving for a better life. Promising reunions are shattered, and surviving siblings grapple with a broken dream in a foreign land, facing anti-immigrant sentiments and social inequality. 

Pin masterfully explores the complexities of memory and honoring the past while forging ahead. Wandering Souls is a poignant narrative that captures the challenges of immigrant life with haunting precision.

Read the full review here. 

All the Sinners Bleed by S.A. Cosby

S.A. Cosby astounds once again with All the Sinners Bleed, proving his prowess as a compelling novelist. From the acclaimed author of Razorblade Tears, this latest work blends contemplation on complex subjects into a gripping police procedural. 

Cosby's storytelling transcends the traditional procedural, delving into themes of community, racism, and religion. With vivid descriptions and rich characters, he paints Charon County as a palpable Southern town, weaving conflict into a narrative that propels this novel to the pinnacle of his remarkable body of work. All the Sinners Bleed is a must-read, solidifying Cosby's status among the finest American novelists today.

Read the full review here.

Wellness by Nathan Hill

Nathan Hill, renowned for his impactful debut novel The Nix, returns with Wellness, a captivating exploration of the disintegration of Jack and Elizabeth's once-thriving marriage. From the intricacies of modern marriage and the complexities of polyamory to reflections on psychology, art, and algorithms, Wellness transcends its substantial length, offering readers a rich tapestry of contemplative insights. 

With a skillful storytelling approach, Hill draws readers into a narrative that unfolds seamlessly, making Wellness an immersive and thought-provoking journey. Standing tall at over 600 pages, the novel emerges as a nearly flawless masterpiece, firmly securing its place as my favorite read of the year.

Read the full review here.

These books have left lasting impressions, each offering a distinctive reading experience. Have you delved into any of these captivating reads? Share your favorite book of 2023 in the comments! As I eagerly anticipate the literary adventures of 2024, I want to express gratitude for the joy, inspiration, and moments of introspection these books brought into my life. Here's to a new year filled with exciting reads and shared bookish delights!

Billy Summers by Stephen King


Next year will begin Stephen King's sixth decade as a bestselling author (with his initial hit, Carrie, hitting shelves in 1974). In that time, he's certainly earned the freedom to explore any genre that captures his imagination. Recently, the horror maestro has developed a keen interest in crime fiction. His 2021 release, Billy Summers, is a testament to this fascination. The acclaimed author takes on the narrative of a killer for hire, presenting a hitman with a moral compass reminiscent of Jeff Lindsay's iconic character, Dexter. Given my enduring appreciation for King's literary prowess, it was the perfect choice to bring my year of reading to a close. 

In the novel's opening, King skillfully acknowledges the well-worn trope he's about to delve into. Billy Summers, an Iraq War veteran turned assassin, is on the verge of concluding his career with one last job. Fully aware of the tendency for final assignments to go awry, Summers, nevertheless, decides to take on this task. For this ultimate job, he adopts the guise of a fictitious author, settling in the vicinity to complete a classified project as part of his massive book deal. While awaiting the arrival of his target, Summers uses his time to craft a fictionalized narrative of his own life. This pursuit unexpectedly becomes a source of genuine enjoyment for him.

As anticipated, the job takes an unexpected turn. This is the juncture where the narrative truly intensifies. Summers, compelled to go into hiding, finds his aspirations for a seamless departure from his criminal life delayed. Lacking the payment from this pivotal assignment, he's left without the means to execute his planned disappearance. While grappling with his dilemma, he unexpectedly crosses paths with a young woman facing an even more dire situation than his own. What ensues is a tale of an improbable partnership, propelling these two individuals on a riveting journey of revenge and redemption.

Billy Summers is a solid three-star thriller from Stephen King, blending elements of pulp fiction with in-depth character explorations that affirm the author's enduring literary heft. While the novel takes its time to gain momentum, and the initial character establishment of the eponymous Billy Summers may feel prolonged, the narrative becomes thoroughly engaging once the action kicks in. King skillfully manipulates well-worn genre tropes, infusing each with his signature twist. Introducing a female character serves to counterbalance Summers' ruthlessness, providing a necessary foil to the main character. It's essential to note that the novel contains prevalent triggers of rape and violence; however, King handles these darker elements with purpose, adding depth to his characters and driving their connection. If there's a critique, it lies in the book's length, which could have benefited from some trimming to enhance the overall storytelling. Nonetheless, concluding 2023 with this novel was a thrilling experience.

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

(2023, 93)

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens


Merry Christmas! Whether you partake in the festivities or not, I wish you a day filled with joy, tranquility, and a sense of community. I spent last night celebrating Christmas with my family and will be traveling back home today for additional festivities this evening. In what has become a Christmas Eve tradition, I dedicated the late hours of last night into the early morning to finishing a book. This year, I chose a classic novel that I hadn't read since my school days. Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol is a timeless holiday classic that has sparked numerous retellings and reinterpretations. Immersing myself in the original text, I rediscovered its narrative and found the work to be as impactful as ever.

Attempting to summarize the book feels somewhat futile, given the well-known tale of the cantankerous Ebenezer Scrooge being visited by three spirits—a narrative that has become a trope for numerous retellings. Instead, this review aims to reflect on the enduring power of Dickens's classic tale. Through his distinctive prose, Dickens instantly transports readers to Victorian England, creating a rich setting that envelops them in a cool sense of nostalgia. While classic literature can sometimes be challenging, this story effortlessly flows off the pages. I found myself captivated, even though I was familiar with the narrative, irresistibly drawn to the next page by the enchanting writing.

Despite elements of whimsy and a joyfully happy ending, the work carries a darkness that lingers. Scrooge is a man haunted both literally and figuratively—by his past, grappling with life's what-ifs; by his present, a listless existence yielding great wealth but little satisfaction; and most terrifyingly, by his future, a looming certainty approaching with each passing day. This duality is what, I believe, continues to captivate readers with A Christmas Carol. We all encounter similar reflections on our lives, filled with regrets, upsets, and uncertainties. The holidays, while a time of exuberant celebration, also compel us to step back and reflect on the year gone by. As I turned the final pages of the book,  I was overcome with a sense of gratitude for my own life. Yes, the past year had its challenges, but Dickens's narrative reminds us that no one is beyond redemption. It is never too late to embrace the spirit of love, charity, and community that the season brings. As we approach the final days of the year, I hope you, too, take a moment to reflect and appreciate the gifts in your own life. 

For more information, visit Amazon and Goodreads.

(2023, 92)

Friday Flicks: Christmas with the Kranks


What are your go-to holiday films? I have a list of favorites that I make sure to watch each year, and sometimes, I find myself extending my Christmas movie marathon well into the new year just to cover them all. One perennial favorite of mine is Christmas with the Kranks. Adapted from John Grisham's bestselling Skipping Christmas, the film didn't make a huge impact commercially or critically upon its release in the fall of 2004. Nonetheless, with its heartwarming message of community goodwill and boosted by the comedic talents of Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis, it has secured a permanent spot on my holiday watchlist.

Similar to the novel, the film follows Luther and Nora Krank (portrayed by Allen and Curtis, respectively) as they bid farewell to their young adult daughter Blair, who is embarking on a journey with the Peace Corps. The void left by Blair's absence triggers a case of empty nest syndrome, particularly affecting Nora, who grapples with the prospect of an upcoming holiday season without her. Considering the significant expense—over $6,000—that the Kranks incurred during the previous year's festivities, Luther proposes a radical solution. To both save money and find a fresh way to celebrate, he suggests diverting the funds typically allocated for decorations, gifts, and entertainment towards a ten-day Caribbean cruise. Luther is adamant about boycotting the traditional holiday celebrations, and after some hesitation, Nora eventually agrees.

As news of the Kranks opting out of Christmas spreads throughout their neighborhood, the community is left in disbelief at this unconventional choice. Vic Frohmeyer, the self-proclaimed block captain played by Dan Aykroyd, rallies the neighbors to persuade the Kranks to decorate their home. Despite facing a barrage of negative reactions, the Kranks stand firm in their commitment to embark on a cruise. However, everything takes a turn on Christmas Eve when they receive an unexpected call from Blair. She is back in the US and is on her way home for Christmas, anticipating all the usual family traditions. When asked if they are hosting their customary Christmas Eve Party, Nora caught off guard, impulsively says yes. Now, with less than 12 hours before their daughter's arrival, the Kranks find themselves needing to reverse their decision and hastily orchestrate a Christmas celebration.

Christmas with the Kranks takes John Grisham's concise story and injects numerous comedic moments for its stars to explore. Watching Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis navigate the preparations for a cruise, complete with tanning and botox mishaps, is one of the film's highlights. The movie boasts a supporting cast of character actors, each breathing life into the community as they grapple with the Kranks' unconventional decision to skip Christmas. However, the film has flaws, as it grapples with narrative inconsistencies and introduces a few peculiar subplots that seem more like attempts to extend the runtime than integral components of the story. The emotional moments can be heavy-handed, and the theme of a community rallying to help their fellow man isn't as pronounced as in the book. Nevertheless, this film has become a holiday mainstay in my household, serving as a suitable, lighthearted diversion during the festive season.

Absolution by Alice McDermott


Like many wives of the era, Tricia finds herself in Saigon in 1963. Her husband has taken a job contributing to the war efforts, leading the newlyweds to spend the initial years of their marriage overseas. While the men are occupied with work, the women engage in various charitable activities, primarily involving cocktail party fundraisers, all aimed at making their own contributions. When Tricia attends one such event at Charlene's house, she is immediately impressed by the woman's polished exterior. Charlene, a corporate wife and mother of three, is motivated by her desire to alleviate the world's hardships. Their connection deepens when Charlene's youngest child unexpectedly vomits on Tricia, igniting a bond that will reshape both of their lives.

Nearly sixty years later, Rainey, Charlene's daughter, reaches out to Tricia, who now lives a quiet life as a widow in Washington. As they reconnect, they reminisce about their time in Southeast Asia and the complex woman they both share in common. While there are joyful recollections, the narrative delves deeper into their lives, shaped and limited by Charlene's pursuit of "inconsequential good." Through flashbacks and Tricia's introspective moments, we witness how these women, and many like them, lived and learned during this significant historical period.

In Absolution, Alice McDermott writes less about the history of the Vietnam War and more about the profound impact it had on the women who experienced it. The titular theme of absolution centers around Tricia, the main character, as she grapples with redeeming herself from various sins—as a wife, a mother, and as part of a nation embroiled in an unwinnable war. McDermott skillfully navigates this complex introspection with a graceful subtlety that is truly remarkable. Not driven by a specific plot, the novel serves as a character study, sometimes appearing disjointed yet intricately weaving various events into the tapestry of Tricia's life. It stands as a deeply moving exploration of how we navigate the uncertainties that life presents. I found it to be a remarkable and contemplative read, providing a serene space for reflection within the recesses of my own thoughts and expectations.

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

(2023, 91)

Winter Prey by John Sandford


Winter Prey, the fifth installment in John Sandford's Lucas Davenport series, weaves the frosty, unforgiving winter setting into the narrative, almost becoming a character itself. As the story commences, Lucas Davenport, nursing his wounds, seeks refuge in his rural Wisconsin cabin after leaving his detective career behind. Fate swiftly intervenes when a neighboring family falls victim to a savage murder. The local sheriff, unequipped for such a heinous crime, calls upon Lucas for aid. Restless and eager to assist, Lucas assumes the role of deputy and dives headfirst into solving the case.

Dubbed "The Iceman," the murderer is fervently guarding his secrets, resorting to violence to maintain his cover. As the body count escalates, Lucas desperately seeks any evidence to help break into the case. His investigation points him toward a local doctor, Weather Karkinnen, a woman who seems perfectly matched to Davenport's witty intellect. Fans of the Prey series will recognize the burgeoning connection between the two characters, hinting at something deeper to come. As the story progresses, it becomes evident that this small town harbors more secrets than anticipated, placing Lucas in one of the most perilous situations of his career.

Winter Prey, written in 1993, reflects attitudes toward homosexuality that, by today's standards, would be considered homophobic. Comparing it to Sandford's more recent works reveals an evolution in both his writing style and social perspectives. Still, it's essential to acknowledge that the book is a product of its time, with certain aspects better left in the era they were created.

That said, Winter Prey reveals a notable evolution in Sandford's storytelling. Lucas Davenport's character gains depth, and the author embraces the dry humor that's become a signature element of his writing. The mystery is compelling, with the antagonist's identity hidden, allowing readers to uncover the truth alongside Davenport. The introduction of a love interest also adds a layer of depth and connection to Davenport's character, offering promise for further character development in subsequent novels. Ultimately, Winter Prey establishes the framework that has allowed the Prey series to endure and evolve into the present day.

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

(2023, 90)

Christmas Presents by Lisa Unger


As the holiday season unfolds, Madeline Martin is haunted by the tragedy that struck her community over a decade ago. She remains the sole survivor of the brutal killing spree perpetrated by Evan Handy, a man responsible for the murder of her best friend and suspected in the disappearance of her other two close friends. This horrifying crime cast a dark shadow over the small town of Little Valley during what should have been a time of celebration. Her father, who was the town's sheriff at the time, tirelessly worked to find the missing girls, but his efforts proved futile. In the present, Madeline has mostly concealed the physical and emotional scars of that traumatic period. She now owns a successful bookstore and spends her days managing her business while caring for her ailing father. Instead of the warmth and light of the holiday season, she grapples with a shadow of grief.

Harley Granger, renowned for his remarkable ability to uncover details others miss, has carved out a niche as a successful true crime author and podcaster. He arrives in Little Valley and begins reexamining the seemingly closed case involving Evan Handy. His initial interaction with Madeline sours when she realizes his intention to delve into her past. Madeline has already struggled to move beyond those painful memories, and the last thing she needs is an author unearthing her history. Still, Harley's probing questions hold a glimmer of potential. Evan Handy's pattern has been disturbingly replicated, even after his incarceration, with five young women disappearing in the same region over a decade. This raises uncertainties about Evan Handy's guilt, the potential presence of another culprit on that fateful night, and the sinister motives that may still be at play.

Marketed as a holiday novella, Christmas Presents may be shorter than your typical novel, but I found Lisa Unger's narrative to be a well-rounded mystery that offers due attention to both its plotline and the characters who navigate it. This marked my first encounter with Unger's storytelling, and I was captivated by her writing. She skillfully balances setting the atmosphere, building suspense, and crafting emotionally rich characters. The book presents a captivating interplay between the quaint, small-town holiday backdrop and the somber events that have transpired there. Unger weaves in contemplations on grief, guilt, and justice, infusing the story with a depth that enhances the mystery elements. Despite its relatively extended length for a novella, spanning 260 pages, I devoured it in a single sitting. Christmas Presents embodies everything I seek in my holiday reading and undoubtedly deserves a spot on your own holiday reading list.

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

(2023, 89)

The Christmas Guest by Peter Swanson


What is your favorite holiday tradition? For me, decorating, enjoying festive music, and savoring delicious holiday dishes are a few of my most cherished traditions, ones that I absolutely must partake in every year to capture that true Christmas spirit. Recently, I've developed a deep affection for reading holiday-themed books. They provide me with a means to momentarily escape the hustle and bustle of the season, offering a quiet sanctuary amidst the joyful chaos. I savor the opportunity to carve out some personal time each year, immersing myself in the enchantment of a holiday-themed read. This year, I was thrilled to discover that Peter Swanson, one of my favorite thriller authors, had published a short Christmas novella. Naturally, I set aside some time to sit down and immerse myself in it.

The book's beginning unfolds with the charming setup of a Hallmark holiday movie. Ashley Smith, a college student initially planning to spend Christmas in solitude, receives an invitation from her friend Emma Chapman to join the Chapman family at their country residence, Starvewood Hall. The grandeur of Starvewood Hall, adorned with pine boughs and bustling with Christmas week guests, epitomizes a fantasy Christmas setting. Ashley finds herself captivated by the warm, firelit atmosphere of the house, the lively family, and the picturesque village of Clevemoor. Her heart flutters even more at the sight of Adam Chapman, Emma's enigmatic and handsome brother, hinting at the possibility of a romantic fairy tale Christmas.

The enchanting scene takes an unexpected twist as Adam becomes the subject of a local police investigation into the recent brutal murder of a village girl. In the world of Peter Swanson's thriller, one can't help but expect the unexpected! Toss in an enigmatic stranger who lurks along the woodland path between Starvewood Hall and the local pub, and an air of mystery begins to overshadow the idyllic romance that Ashley initially envisioned. Will this Christmas prove to be a dream or a nightmare? The answers lie within the pages, waiting to be discovered.

I've always had a soft spot for Christmas stories that bring an element of mystery or darkness into the mix. The tale of Scrooge and his encounters with ghosts always captivated me more than the typical joyful and heartwarming narratives that define the holiday season. Peter Swanson's The Christmas Guest is an intriguing departure from the norm. It cleverly straddles the line between wish-fulfillment fantasy and murder mystery, blending these two contrasting elements in a way that keeps readers on their toes.

Spanning under 100 pages, this novella is designed to be devoured in a single sitting. While it may not allow for extensive character development or the intricate twists characteristic of Swanson's longer works, it is a perfect diversional read amid the bustling holiday season.  I recommend trying it as you cozy up by the fireplace with a cup of cocoa in hand. It's a snug and manageable read that I easily devoured in one go.

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

(2023, 88)

Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane


The summer of 1974 proved to be a turbulent period in Boston. A scorching heatwave blankets the city, mirroring the simmering civil unrest beneath the surface. The city's decision to support the desegregation of all public schools triggers significant upheaval, as it means students will be bussed across town to foster greater integration on school campuses. In "Southie," a proud, long-standing Irish enclave steeped in tradition, the residents are deeply disgruntled. Desegregation jeopardizes their way of life, regardless of its inherent prejudice, and they are willing to go to great lengths to prevent it.

Amid these tensions, Mary Pat Fennessy is also deeply troubled by the news regarding the schools. But she's grappling with more immediate concerns. As a single mother, she struggles to stay one step ahead of bill collectors. One night, Mary Pat's teenage daughter, Jules, stays out late and doesn't return home. The same evening, a young Black man meets a tragic end, struck by a subway train in mysterious circumstances. Initially, these two occurrences appear unrelated. However, Mary Pat begins to uncover deeply unsettling connections, propelling her into a relentless quest to locate her missing daughter. Desperate for answers and undeterred by potential consequences, Mary Pat embarks on a journey that leads her to confront mobsters, politicians, and fellow citizens, all entangled in the tumultuous backdrop of the era.

Dennis Lehane's novels, such as Mystic River and Shutter Island, are among my all-time favorites. Thus, when I first got wind of his latest offering, Small Mercies, I quickly included it in my reading list. Lehane possesses a narrative style that cuts to the core, unafraid to illuminate the most unsettling facets of our history. By situating his latest creation within the backdrop of the civil rights movement, Lehane introduces an inherent tension that simmers to the surface in several heart-wrenching scenes. The connection between Mary Pat and her Black co-worker generates one of the most emotionally charged moments I've encountered in any book this year. However, that's just skimming the surface of this exceptional literary work.

Beneath the racial complexities that form the foundation of this tale lies a deep contemplation on the essence of motherhood. In Mary Pat, Lehane has molded a woman in the throes of desperation. She grapples with the desperate struggle to stay afloat, both financially and emotionally. Her desperation is magnified by her desire to be a good mother, offering her daughter a chance at a life better than her own. As her daughter vanishes, she becomes consumed by the desperation for answers, willing to go to any lengths to find closure. Mary Pat is a profoundly multifaceted character, wrestling with her own personal demons, including deep-seated racism. Nevertheless, I found myself drawn into her story, empathizing with her predicament and rooting for her path to redemption.

Lately, Lehane has been heavily immersed in writing, producing, and showrunning television series. In interviews promoting this book, he hinted that it might be his final novel. If Small Mercies marks the culmination of his literary career, it serves as a remarkable note to end on. Nonetheless, for the sake of readers, I hold out hope that more stories are waiting to be told by this gifted author.

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

(2023, 87)

Friday Flicks: A Haunting in Venice


Actor and director Kenneth Branagh has reinvigorated the murder mystery genre with his acclaimed portrayal of Agatha Christie's renowned character, Hercule Poirot. His 2017 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express offered a fresh perspective on Christie's most infamous tale, and the 2022 sequel, based on Death on the Nile, continued the success. It's no surprise that a third film in the Poirot series has been expedited. After recently reading the book Hallowe'en Party, the inspiration for the newest film, I was eager to see how Branagh would approach this story, which is notably less cinematic in nature.

Essentially, A Haunting in Venice can be viewed more as a movie "inspired by" Christie's writing than a faithful adaptation. The film retains little more than character names and a supernatural element from the novel it claims to be based on. Surprisingly, these liberties don't cause much concern, especially considering that Hallowe'en Party is a rather ordinary entry in Christie's repertoire. As one of her final works featuring her beloved protagonist, it fell short compared to some of her more celebrated pieces. Instead, Branagh and his team opt to place the film in the mysterious setting of Venice, a city that inherently lends itself to the grandeur and marvel suitable for the cinematic experience.

At the film's outset, Hercule Poirot, portrayed by the director Kenneth Branagh, relishes a tranquil retirement, channeling his sharp mind into pursuing the perfect breakfast eggs rather than solving murder mysteries. Despite persistent requests from those seeking his investigative prowess, he remains uninterested. The serenity of a quiet life suits him well. This changes, however, when he agrees to meet with Ariadne Oliver, an old friend and crime novelist played by the always-charming Tina Fey. Although no stranger to unraveling deceptions, she is confounded by Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a World War I army nurse turned medium. Motivated by curiosity or perhaps sheer pride, Poirot consents to attend a Halloween party and séance at the palazzo of the renowned opera singer Rowena Drake. What initially begins as an attempt to expose a charlatan swiftly transforms into a night of darkness and death. Once again, Poirot must deploy his intellect and deduction to unveil the identity of a ruthless killer before becoming their next victim.

A Haunting in Venice marks a significant departure from both its predecessors and the source material. While it differs significantly, the change proves beneficial. The music takes on a more subdued tone, and the cinematography adopts an angled and choppy approach, a departure from the sweeping visuals seen in other films. Introducing a potentially supernatural element adds a layer of dread and suspense, contributing to a unique atmosphere that works exceptionally well.  The film sustains a tension akin to razor wire throughout, making every moment count. The ensemble cast delivers performances filled with vigor, eliciting both support and suspicion from the audience. Despite its variance from the book, the film adeptly balances horror and mystery, offering a murder story that pays homage to Agatha Christie's tradition while adapting it for contemporary audiences.

Lay Them to Rest by Laurah Norton


Countless cold cases remain consigned to an eternal lack of resolution, their evidence fading into the mists of time due to insufficient resources. For every high-profile instance of a perpetrator being held accountable, numerous other mysteries remain in perpetual limbo. Laurah Norton has long harbored a deep fascination with these unsolved cases, haunted by the lingering "what ifs" and unanswered questions. Yet, as a writing professor, her interest remained merely a personal preoccupation. This changed dramatically when the case of two twins was cracked open by the groundbreaking methods of forensic genealogy. Similar technology had been pivotal in unveiling the identity of the notorious Golden State Killer, prompting Norton to launch a podcast specifically dedicated to unresolved cases. The success of this podcast not only validated Norton's enduring passion but also directed much-needed attention and resources toward forgotten and neglected cold cases.

Lay Them to Rest features Norton's comprehensive exploration of the forensic methodologies in solving murder cases. The book takes readers on a historical journey through the profession's evolution, all while shedding light on modern-day technologies. Concurrently, it follows the efforts to unravel the identity of "Ina" Jane Doe, a case dating back to the early 1990s. The discovery of a dismembered, unidentified female head in an Illinois state park presented an enduring mystery, leaving investigators stumped due to the scarcity of evidence for identification. Norton collaborates with seasoned forensic anthropologist Dr. Amy Michael, leveraging Michael's extensive experience and network of committed forensic scientists to focus on cracking this long-standing case. This gripping narrative gives readers an inside view of the scientific processes, speculations, and serendipitous moments that form the foundation for identifying the nameless victim in this compelling cold case.

The determination behind solving the "Ina" Jane Doe case fascinated me. Norton’s detailed narrative unveils the intricate steps essential to cracking this mystery, emphasizing the evolving technology and relentless pursuit of answers. However, the scarcity of resources poses a significant barrier in examining every case, leaving many forgotten by time. This stark reality resonated deeply while reading. The absence of a unified system to consolidate critical data like dental records and DNA adds to the challenge, forcing investigators to rely heavily on luck and tireless dedication to unravel such cases.

Though Lay Them to Rest admirably debunks the myths surrounding forensic investigations perpetuated by media, the book sometimes delves excessively into technical minutiae. While the meticulous examination of "Ina" Jane Doe's teeth, for example, yielded critical breakthroughs, the exhaustive detail occasionally disrupted the book’s pacing, causing a sporadic imbalance between the urgency of the mystery and the in-depth forensic descriptions. Despite this, Norton's insightful writing sheds light on a widely misunderstood field, providing a valuable understanding of the realities of forensic work and ultimately aiding in solving a decade-old cold case. The book remains an engrossing and enlightening read.

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

(2023, 86)

Dark Music by David Lagercrantz


In 2013, David Lagercrantz found himself in a remarkable position when he was tasked with continuing Stieg Larsson's renowned Millennium series. It was a considerable undertaking, especially given that Larsson's original trilogy had become a worldwide bestseller, captivating readers across the globe. The pressure was on, but Lagercrantz's interpretation of the beloved characters in The Girl in the Spider's Web transformed the book into a genuine hit, proving that the series could endure beyond the original author's legacy. He crafted two more bestsellers in the series before passing the torch to Karin Smirnoff. Today, Lagercrantz is fully immersed in his own Swedish crime series, commencing with Dark Music. As an admirer of his previous works, I approached this new story with elevated expectations.

Hans Rekke holds the distinguished title of being the foremost expert in the realm of interrogation techniques. His exceptional talent lies in discerning subtleties that often elude others. Complemented with unparalleled logical acumen, he is exceptionally adept at high-stakes investigations. Despite an outwardly perfect life, Rekke conceals a profound secret. Burdened by severe anxiety, he crumbles under the weight of pressure, impeding his ability to perform at his best.

On the other hand, Micaela Vargus has tirelessly ascended through life, transforming dreams into reality through sheer determination. Born to Chilean refugees, she spent her formative years in Stockholm, where her family sought political asylum. Driven by an unrelenting pursuit of success, she has risen through the ranks as a police officer, propelled by a burning need to prove herself in the eyes of her colleagues. When she faces the case of a murdered asylum-seeker from Afghanistan, Micaela seeks out Hans Rekke's invaluable expertise to help unravel the enigma. Together, they embark on a mission to apprehend the killer before being silenced for eternity.

Lagercrantz expertly weaves the essential elements for a captivating read into the narrative. The ambiance is shrouded in shadows, the murder case is tantalizingly mysterious, and the two central characters engage in a fascinating interplay. Yet, despite this seemingly flawless foundation, Dark Music falls short of expectations. The plot loses momentum after a promising beginning and never fully regains its footing. Lagercrantz dedicates much of the story to recounting events through exposition rather than letting them unfold naturally. The book becomes overly reliant on this tactic, significantly impeding its pace and making it a slow read. I found myself eagerly anticipating moments of tension and excitement, and although they occasionally surfaced, we were denied the opportunity to experience them firsthand. Instead, we received accounts of these moments through additional exposition. While the final section of the book does eventually crescendo to a satisfying conclusion, the underwhelming buildup that precedes it diminishes its impact. It's challenging to reconcile this work with the same author who captivated me with the Millennium series. While a second installment awaits, I don't have the motivation to continue.

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

(2023, 85)

Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney


Do you believe in giving second chances? I'm an avid reader, devouring numerous books yearly, and I'm always looking for the next great read. With so many options at my fingertips, I can be hesitant when it comes to trying out new authors. Several years ago, I got caught up in the buzz surrounding Alice Feeney's debut novel, Sometimes I Lie. I never got around to reading that book, so my first experience with her work was I Know Who You Are. I have to admit, I didn't enjoy it. It felt like it was twisting the plot for the sake of shock value, and I found the big revelation at the end to be in poor taste. It was a disappointing experience that made me steer clear of Feeney's books from that point on. Still, many readers continue to find enjoyment in her novels. My fellow book enthusiasts have urged me to give her another chance, and that day has finally come. I recently picked up Rock Paper Scissors, and I finally understand the fervor surrounding Feeney's writing.

Adam and Amelia Wright's marriage is in a state of turmoil. Adam, a successful screenwriter, grapples with a unique condition known as face blindness. Essentially, he struggles to recognize people's faces, unable to distinguish one person from another. The only way he identifies his wife is through the length of her hair and the fragrance of her perfume. In a dedicated effort to support her husband and his career, Amelia painstakingly assists him by discreetly whispering the names of individuals he encounters.

Yet, Adam's single-minded focus on his work often causes him to overlook his wife. Every year, the couple exchanges gifts to celebrate their anniversary, selecting items corresponding to the traditional materials associated with each year of marriage. While some years see them carefully choosing thoughtful presents, others lead to hastily assembled gifts. This variability reflects the ups and downs of their relationship. In a way, they can't stand each other, but they also can't bear to be apart. Their connection is inextricable.

Amelia unexpectedly wins a weekend getaway to Scotland, a vacation that could either rekindle their love or drive a deeper wedge between them. As they embark on their journey, a snowstorm sets in. Upon arrival, they are met with the sight of an old stone chapel cloaked in snow, a far cry from the luxurious getaway they had anticipated. This weekend is poised to be a turning point in their relationship. Will it bring them closer, allowing them to find their marital happiness, or will it push them further apart?

Rock Paper Scissors is a mind-bending thriller that progressively releases layers of sinister intrigue with every turning page. Alice Feeney crafts the narrative through multiple shifting perspectives, allowing us to delve into the inner workings of both the husband and wife. Alongside these viewpoints, a shadowy third perspective surfaces, shrouded in initial ambiguity, intensifying the enigma that unfolds. The story's atmosphere is palpable, casting a chilling suspense over the entire narrative, keeping readers engrossed and disquieted. Feeney's character development shines brightly in this tale. Although both protagonists share responsibility for their ailing marriage, I couldn't help but root for their redemption. The alternating perspectives culminate in an ending that's a whirlwind of twists, shocks, and a well-deserved resolution. I'm delighted that I gave this author a second chance. If Rock Paper Scissors represents the caliber found in her other works, I'm eager to explore more of her writing.

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

(2023, 84)

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