The Matchmaker, by Paul Vidich

Eight stars

When handed the ARC of Paul Vidich’s latest novel, I was not sure what to expect. A spy thriller set in the dying days of the Cold War, Vidich transports the reader to a divided Germany, where tensions still run high along the seam of the Iron Curtain. Anne Simpson receives word that her husband’s wallet has been found along the banks of the river, but his body is nowhere to be found. Sure that he is away at work as a piano tuner, she is baffled, but the local American consular official makes it clear that something is amiss. As the investigation continues, Anne learns that her husband may have been working for the Matchmaker, an East German counterintelligence official, someone the CIA has been hunting in relation to a Soviet defector. Now, Anne must wonder if her entire marriage was a farce and how her husband plays into the larger narrative of a Cold War game of political chess! Vidich does a great job of stirring up emotions and political intrigue with this piece. Perfect for those whose love spy thrillers with political flavouring.

It’s 1989 and Europe is about to make a seismic shift. In Berlin, things are teetering on the brink and the Iron Curtain is fraying as the year advances. When Anne Simpson receives a knock on the door, she is by an American consular official with news about her husband. Thus begins the whirlwind of truth and emotions.

It would seem that the wallet belonging to Stefan Koehler has been found on the banks of the river, but no body. Anne is baffled, but cannot think of why her husband would be there at all, as he’s been away tuning pianos across the West. When the CIA and West German Intelligence become involved, she begins to worry, not only about Stefan’s whereabouts, but her marriage as a whole.

It’s soon revealed that Stefan may have connections to the Matchmaker, an elusive East German counterintelligence official wanted by the CIA for his known association with the KGB. It’s a race to discover the truth about Stefan and what he might have known before his apparent death.

As Anne wrestles with the truth about her husband, an apparent spy, she is thrust into the middle of the CIA’s investigation, the only person who has actually seen the Matchmaker years before when she was introduced to Stefan. Now she comes under scrutiny as the Agency pushes for answers while Berlin becomes the symbolic epicentre of a crumbling Communist empire. A chilling tale that pulls the reader into the middle of a web of lies, while showing just how masterful Paul Vidich is within the genre.

While spy thrillers have never been one of the genres I turn to with any regularity, I was eager to see how I would feel about this piece. Paul Vidich not only paints an intense picture with this words, but he places the reader in the heart of the East-West divide in the waning days of the Cold War. With a great narrative and powerful plot twists, the story comes to life and all is slowly revealed by the final chapter. This surely lives up to the standards of Graham Greene and John le Carré, as denoted in the dust jacket blurb.

Anne Simpson is the apparent protagonist throughout, though the craftiness of her husband surely helps share the spotlight. The reader is thrust into the middle of the mystery surrounding Stefan Koehler and who is truly could be, while Anne is left to question everything about the life she’s had with the man. As Anne delves deeper into the past few years, tidbits of the narrative surrounding their marriage and chance encounter become key parts of the puzzle around the plan set in motion by the Matchmaker. Vidich uses this effectively and builds up his characters in stunning fashion, developing a story that will keep the readers adding their own suppositions about each individual who graces the pages of the book.

While I have never read Paul Vidich’s work, I can see he that he’s a master of his craft. A strong narrative that keeps pace with the ever-evolving plot helps the reader become lost in the story. There are so many layers that must be revealed, it is not for the reader who seeks a quick and simple read, but rewards those who want something that adds tension and confusion. Well-developed characters bring much to the story and there is substance to each, adding depth to the political side of things at a time when tensions ran high between the East and West. Vidich does well to remind the reader of how things were in the closing months of the Cold War and uses some effective ideas to keep the tension alive. I am eager to look for more of Vidich’s work soon to see how it compares.

Kudos, Mr. Vidich, for an entertaining read that left me reminiscing of the days of the Cold War.

Be sure to check for my review, first posted on Mystery and Suspense, as well as a number of other insightful comments by other reviewers.

https://www.mysteryandsuspense.com/the-matchmaker/

A Flicker in the Dark, by Stacy Willingham

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Stacy Willingham, and Macmillan Audio for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

In this debut thriller, Stacy Willingham makes a major impact on the genre, taking the reader down a twisted path of memories and revelations. Chloe Davis lost the innocence all children of twelve deserve when six girls disappeared and turned up dead and a police investigation revealed that Chloe’s father was responsible. Now, two decades later, a new batch of young girls go missing and their bodies appear around town, all with loose connections to Chloe. Is someone trying to dig up the past, or could this copycat simply be coincidental? All is revealed in this chilling thriller that is sure to make its mark.

A small town in Louisiana is rocked when six young girls go missing over one summer, their bodies turning up during the ensuing search. Chloe Davis, all of twelve, knew them, at least tangentially, and has to be concerned that she may be next. However, what’s worse is that by the end, Chloe’s father is arrested and charged with the murders based on evidence she discovers in the house. As the Davis family tries to pick up the pieces, Chloe must wrestle with the stigma of being related to a serial killer.

Two decades later, Chloe has established herself as a psychologist and enjoys a prosperous practice. She’s also about to be married, something that has her more excited than anything. Living in Baton Rouge, Chloe thinks that the past might finally be behind her, only to learn that a new set of girls has gone missing and their bodies are turning up. This has the makings of something sensational, though Chloe wants to steer well clear of the limelight.

When a nosy reporter emerges to write about the Davis family, things snowball from there and Chloe finds herself pulled into the web of emotional struggles she hoped would never resurface. Clues related to the girls begin to land on Chloe’s lap and she cannot deny how eerily similar things are to her childhood. Could this be the work of a copycat killer, taunting her, or her own paranoia tied in with coincidence of the highest order? While many around her know little about her past, Chloe cannot help but wonder if the delicate balance may come crashing down around her, leaving jagged pieces to scar her anew. A riveting debut novel by Stacy Willingham that will have readers beginning for more!

I love discovering authors who are just getting their start, as it allows me to feel as though I am part of the wave, rather than trying to paddle to catch up to others. Stacy WIllingham is one I am happy to have tripped upon, as she writes so convincingly that I will have to add her to my author tracking radar and see how things progress over the next few years. This is a captivating thriller that taps into a number of areas that caught my attention. She can spin a tale effectively and keep the reader guessing, while also providing a great deal of detail throughout. Just what I needed!

Chloe Davis proves not only to be an effective protagonist, but one who impacts the narrative with everything she does. Scarred by the past revelation that her father was a brutal serial killer, Chloe tries to pick up the pieces and help others who need assistance with their lives. However, she cannot dismiss her past and wrestles to make sense of it, as new crimes emerge on the periphery. Seeking normalcy and finding only glaring questions, Chloe must make sense of all that surrounds her without extrapolating her past into the present. Her backstory is plentiful, as is the development of her characters throughout the book, leaving the reader to put the pieces together to get a more complete idea of who she has become. Chloe’s being taunted, targeted, and perhaps even teased. What she does about it all could prove to be life-altering.

Stacy Willingham roars onto the scene with this book, leaving me to wonder if this could actually be a debut. It’s so put together and strong, from the well-paced narrative to the characters that make the reader want to learn more and keeping reading to ensure they do not miss a thing. There is an eerie sense throughout the book, as truths pop up like gators in the bayou, forcing the reader to surmise much has yet to be revealed. Chapters that beg to be devoured in short order and a plot that has just enough twists to be impactful, Willingham knows how to grip the reader and refuses to let go. She’s definitely one to watch in the foreseeable future.

Kudos, Madam Willingham, for a solid debut. I hope others feel the same and your following grows.

Operation Wormwood: The Reckoning, by Helen C. Escott

Eight stars

Picking up the action where the series debut ended, Helen C. Escott delivers another stunning novel. Hitting on some disturbing themes with a medical twist right here in Canada, Escott will have the reader riveted throughout the experience as Operation Wormwood continues to baffle many in Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as around the world. While Dr. Luke Gillespie is responsible for a unit treating a number of patients with ‘Wormwood’, a mysterious illness that seems only to target those with a past in pedophilia, he soon discovers that the criteria for sickness has expanded. Sergeant Nicholas Myra of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary is feeling the pressure to bring an end to things and capture those responsible for heinous crimes, as well as determine how Wormwood is targeting them, not yet ready to believe this is a plague of God. While both men work mercilessly in their own way, others are lurking in the shadows and continue to cause havoc, creating new and unseen issues. Escott has outdone herself yet again with this piece and continues to bring a unique Canadian perspective.

After a series of mysterious symptoms brought many flocking to seek medical attention, Dr. Luke Gillespie discovered an odd commonality. All those with unstopping bleeding noses, bitter tastes in their mouths, and rapid deterioration have histories as pedophiles. What’s even more baffling is that it is not solely around St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, but rather across Canada and soon in all corners of the world. The hype has turned this into some ‘plague by God’, nicknamed Wormwood from a passage in the Bible. Whatever it is, Dr. Gillespie and his staff are completely baffled.

This extends to Sergeant Nicholas Myra of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, who must stop those who are committing the crimes, while also try to find the root of the illness, which must be trigger by someone or something. Myra’s stress is high and he’s put on leave after a clash with one of his superiors, only to continue working the case from home. Who is leaking list of known offenders and who are only those responsible getting sick?

Myra’s determination has earned him a number of enemies over the years, including those who have been under scrutiny as part of the Wormwood investigation. When someone he values becomes the target of retribution, Myra cannot handle the fallout and chooses to begin his own vendetta, all while trying to keep his team focussed on finding who might be responsible for the poisonings that lead to slow and painful deaths.

After some toxicology reports come back with a clue, it’s possible that there are a list of suspects close at hand, but it will take some great police work and determination not to tip their hands too soon. If it is not God who is bringing Wormwood to those who are vile, could his soldiers on earth be part of the process? If so, how? Myra and Gillespie will have to work together in their own way to find answers as the epidemic spreads, with a larger victim base. A chilling story that never slows throughout. Helen C. Escott knows what she’s doing and can keep the reader engrossed until the final page.

While Helen C. Escott asked me to read her first novel, which happened to be the debut in this series, I readily rushed to get the next one quickly. I could not get enough of the Canadian themes, great writing, and powerful plot twists that emerged throughout. This novel followed suit and kept me wanting to know more as I found myself devouring the story in short order. There is something about her writing that is honest, yet unique, which I soon discovered was partially because she writes based on real people and the experiences they have brought to her. While set in Canada’s easternmost province, the story can resonate for any reader and hold their attention with ease.

The Sergeant Nicholas Myra-Dr. Luke Gillespie dual protagonist role is back and continues to work effectively. These men are respective in their fields and work hard to couture to grips with what is taking place. Myra is riddled with stress and guilt, as well as being married to the job, which cost him his wife. Gillespie struggles with what he sees daily on the ward, baffled as to how targeted the outbreak appears to be. Both work tirelessly for answers, which come piecemeal and opens new doors along the way. Their development is quite different, but will surely prove intriguing to the attentive reader.

While never the most upbeat subject matter, I never said that I was one to flock towards sunny stories. Escott does well with a difficult subject, turning things on their head in the most baffling way. She weaves a tale of depravity and those who seek to rectify it, while added elements of mystery throughout. The narrative flowed really well, keeping the momentum going throughout the piece, while they lot took some interesting turns and left me wondering how things might resolve themselves by the end. With some tense moments and subject matter that left me feeling a tad awkward, Escott delivered and brought some needed resolution to the story she penned as the series debut. I hope others will read both books and come up with some views of their own, as I look for more Escott to whet my appetite for this type of writing.

Kudos, Madam Escott, for another winner. You don’t shy away from the tense parts of society, but deliver a balanced and well-paced story to allow readers to digest it all in stages.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Fatal Silence: A Short Story (Shades of Secrets #2), by Harris Kloe

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Harris Kloe for providing me with a copy of this short story, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

This is the second independent, yet interconnected, short story that Harris Kloe provided to me. It offers the reader an eerie look into how secrets can sometimes be right under our noses and deception spins things quite effectively. When a family moves into a new home, little do they know that the community and their residence are part of a larger secret that has the town buzzing. Kloe does well to keep the suspense throughout here.

Josh Wood and his family were looking for a change, which is why they moved to the outskirts of town. While the house was large and offered all the amenities the family could want, there was a creepiness to it. When Josh makes a discovery in the basement one night, he’s left to wonder if there is more to this house than meets the eye.

Visiting the library soon thereafter, Josh learns about a mining concern that has plagued the town over the past few years. While it makes for good reading, Josh wants to know more and visits one of the locals who appears to have some knowledge about it all. It’s only then that the story takes on a new and secretive twist!

Harris Kloe asked me to read this short piece, a story that captured my attention from the outset. The story flowed well, with some great build-up, and kept me wondering until the final page turn. While it was a short story, the reader can connect with Josh throughout and surmise what he will discover before too long. I am eager to see what else Kloe has in this collection of short stories, released slowly to keep the reader hungry for more.

Kudos, Mr. Kloe, for leaving me curious yet again. Keep it up and your fan base will surely grow.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Death Chorus (DI Jamie Johansson #4), by Morgan Greene

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Morgan Greene for providing me with a copy of this novel, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Always eager to read the newest piece by Morgan Greene, I rushed to settle down with his latest Detective Jamie Johansson novel. Moving the series along, Greene spins another great crime thriller in rural Sweden, where Johansson finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation. Having settled in Kurrajakk, Detective Jamie Johansson hopes the peace and quiet of a town not known for crime will suit her better. All is fine for months, but the discovery of a boy in the woods turns into a horrific murder and Johansson’s dream is shattered. With a new partner who does not know the area, Johansson will have to acclimate to his ways, as well as trying to solve a case that has stirred up old folklore for the residents. A sensational thriller by a master of the genre!

After a great deal of chaos, Detective Jamie Johansson was happy to make the move to Kurrajakk, a small community in northern Sweden. She’s been working in the community for four months with little more than having to handle minor disturbances. However, all that changes one morning when the body of a teenage boy is located in the woods. He’s been sliced multiple times and has a crow shoved down his throat. This is surely not the work of your typical killer after a skirmish.

Johnasson’s superior is set to retire and does not trust that she can do this alone, so he brings in a pompous detective to help with the investigation. While Kurrajakk may be a small town, Johansson is not yet ready to share policing duties with someone else, though Kjell Thorsen has other plans. He’s heard much about Jamie Johansson and her work, knowing that she puts a violent spin on things, which may not work so well in a rural community. Still, they work together as best they can to crack the case wide open.

After some initial inquiries, Johansson and Thorsen discover that the victim was not quite as docile as some of would believe. Felix Nordahl was running quite the pill business in town and keeping teens supplied, much to the chagrin of their parents. Many have a beef with him, though no one’s yet surfaced as a prime suspect.

Norahl’s death has stirred up some old folklore about Kråkornas Kung, the King of Crows. This is an old legend that has the locals all in a tizzy. As Johansson and Thorsen try to weave their way through truths and myths, appearances of the King of Crows around town adds to the confusion of the investigation. There is surely a drug angle here, though it is not becoming overly apparent to any involved.

As the town begins to riot over the return of Kråkornas Kung and how inept the police appear to be in finding a killer, Johansson and Thorsen will have to provide them wrong. It is sure to be a case unlike anything either of them has ever seen, with a killer lurking in the shadows and waiting to strike again. Another brilliant piece that kept me up we’ll into the night. Morgan Greene knows what he’s doing and takes the readers on a stunning adventure.

Since discovering the work of Morgan Greene, I have not been able to stop reading anything with Jamie Johansson. The writing is strong and the storytelling never ceases to amaze me. I am always shocked to see the angles and perspectives that emerge from the books and find myself pining for the next novel as soon as I complete the latest. Greene has released a schedule of upcoming pieces, which has me excited for 2022, distractingly me from another winter of calamity when it comes to pandemics.

Jamie Johansson has surely transformed herself over the last handful of novels, working her way up the ranks and being challenged at every step. Her grittiness is something like no other and she has made a name for herself in the policing community, both in England and, more recently, in Sweden. Her dedication to the job is like no other, though she takes little guff from anyone, preferring to get the job done and enjoy some time for herself. There is much that she discovers about herself, some of it not entirely to her liking, in this piece, which is sure too impress the reader.

Morgan Greene has a way with his writing that pulls the reader in from the opening pages and does not let go until the final paragraph. His mix of great crime thrillers, Scandinavian settings, and strong characters make the books alluring to anyone who takes the time to read them. The narrative is strong and pushes forward with each passing chapter. The plot thickens and takes turns that keep things interesting throughout, adding folklore and educational moments to add depth for the reader. More recently, the peppering of Swedish into the text gives it even more plausibility, being set in rural Sweden, and makes it an enjoyable piece for me. With a handful of upcoming releases in 2022, I know I will be busy and surrounding myself with great reading experiences. I just hope others discover Morgan Greene as well.

Kudos, Mr. Greene, for another winner. Jamie Johansson is such a rising star and i cannot wait to see what’s to come!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

What I Never Told, By Dawn Goodwin

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Dawn Goodwin, and Head of Zeus for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Intrigued when a new author appears on my radar, I eagerly agreed to read the latest novel by Dawn Goodwin. A tale of deception and suspense straddling two time periods, Goodwin pulls the reader into a mystery from the opening chapters and builds on things from there. With a strong narrative and captivating plot, the story gains momentum and leaves the reader begging for more, as all is revealed. A decent story that kept we wondering!

Helen Whitmore does her best to keep a work/home balance in her small English community. Living in her ancestral home, Helen has a blended family full of strong-wiled individuals. She’s doing her best tp keep the peace, which can be harder than it seems.

When Helen’s step-son, Matt, brings a guest over to the house one evening, it ruffles many feathers for various members of the family. Diana is not only beautiful, but has a conniving side that leaves many turning away from her. Helen also notices that Diana may be more mischief than a new sweetheart for Matt.

All the while, Helen is struggling when an old photograph emerges, as well as some taunting secret notes that make idle threats. The two girls in the photo are well-known to Helen, she being one of them. The other is a girl Helen knew in her past, who died in a mysterious manner.

While Helen has numerous flashbacks to her own youth and how Tracey Deane fit into it, she musty also deal with present-day drama. Diana has turned up dead and everyone in the house has a motive for it. While the authorities scramble for answers, Helen must piece it all together to see who might have taken the ultimate step to silence the deceptive Diana. It will bring a flood of old emotions to the surface again, forcing Helen to confront sentiments she long ago buried. Goodwin spins a tale and keeps the reader gripped as things progress at rapid speed.

Dawn Goodwin masters the dual timeline in this piece, telling two independently, yet interwoven, stories, with Helen Whitmore at the centre. The piece flows well and keeps the twists coming until the final chapters, allowing the reader to engage in both the plot and the characters that push it along. While I found myself struggling at times, I chalk it up to a busy mind rather than less than stellar writing. I enjoy stories like this and Goodwin does well to develop things at a pace most can digest with ease. The mystery builds and the tension heightens until all comes crashing together at the climax.

Helen Whitmore is surely a strong protagonist, straddling both timelines throughout this novel. The reader learns much about her and the struggled she has overcome, as well as the layers of secrets she has been forced to keep. for so long. The novel is written in such a way that the reader gets pieces of teen and adult Helen throughout, allowing one to build an idea of how she has become the woman she is today and just how secretive she remains. While there were times I wanted the backstory to be condensed and a focus on the current timeline, I can see why Goodwin presented things as she did, hoping to allow for a thorough explanation to develop, as it relates to modern events.

I struggled, not with the story or its plot, but with some of my own personal connections to the narrative. While things did move along well, I found things lagging at times and I wanted to get to key twists faster. That being said, I think a lot of it had to do with my personal state of mind, rather than Goodwin’s writing. The narrative was strong and moved along well, keeping both timelines progressing throughout. Key characters emerged in both stories and connections could be found where they were needed, with strong development emerging throughout. The plot held together well, offering mysteries and jolting realities in equal measure. I would love to try reading more of Dawn Goodwin’s work to get some comparisons, so I will add at least one more novel to my toppling ‘to be read’ list to see how I feel.

Kudos, Madam Goodwin, for a great story. Your first impact on me was a good one, though I will be sure to read the next of your novels with a clearer head to get a better sense of my overall sentiments.

Be sure to check for my review, first posted on Mystery and Suspense, as well as a number of other insightful comments by other reviewers.

https://www.mysteryandsuspense.com/what-i-never-told-you/

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Letters From Father Christmas, by J.R.R. Tolkien (a great holiday re-read)

Nine stars

Another wonderful annual re-read!!

A masterful piece of writing by J.R.R. Tolkien, which is a collection of the letters he penned as ‘Father Christmas’ over the years of his children’s upbringing. The letters are in response to those sent by the Tolkien children over the years, in which Father Christmas explores some of the drama he had up at the North Pole. With a handful of splendid characters who add even more excitement in a way only Tolkien can do, this is the perfect collection to read each and every year. I highly recommend the audio version, as it increases the excitement even more!

Kudos, Mr. Tolkien, for another great piece. I may not be a fantasy nut, but this book was right up my alley!

The Homecoming, by Earl Hamner Jr. (a great holiday re-read)

Nine stars

An annual reading tradition for me that I am happy to share again with readers.

No holiday season is complete in my household without remembering the story of The Homecoming. When, on Christmas Eve, Clay Spencer has not returned home from his forty mile trek for the holidays, the entire Spencer household is on edge. Olivia pines for her husband’s safe return, but cannot put life on hold as she waits. With a brood of eight, she turns to Clay-Boy, her eldest, to take up the role of ‘man of the house’ at the tender age of fifteen.

As the story progresses, Clay-Boy is not only playing the role of man, but also must engage in a trek to locate his father and bring him home for the holidays. As Christmas Eve turns to night, the Spencers engage in their own family traditions, meagre as they may be in the midst of the Depression. It is not Santa for whom they wait this Christmas of 1933, but Clay and his safe homecoming to spend time with those he cherishes most. Sure to become an annual tradition for holiday reading lists, Hamner Jr. entertains and depicts the era so effectively.

I grew up watching The Homecoming as part of the annual Christmas preparation. The book was on hand, but I never took the time to read it until a few years ago. Doing so, I came to realise how special this story is and the tradition is one I will continue. I wish not to stand on a soapbox, but the holidays are about love and support, not the material things. Hamner Jr. makes that known throughout this novel, as well as in Spencer’s Mountain. Do take some time to read them and enjoy all they have to offer.

Kudos, Mr. Hamner Jr., for instilling in me the annual reminder that love trumps all. Merriest of Christmases to all!

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued his Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits (a holiday re-read), by Les Standiford

Eight stars

Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas tale is surely synonymous with the holiday season, from its spooky mention of ghosts to its endearing message of love and understanding. However, the story behind this shorter novel is almost as intriguing as the prose itself. After reading a fictitious version of events, I looked to Les Standiford, whose non-fiction account, The Man Who Invented Christmas, offers curious readers something on which they can chew to better understand the background. Highly educational and enlightening, this is a great piece to accompany the Dickens classic. Recommended to those with a love of the holiday season, as well as the reader who may want to chase the Scrooge out of their heart after a horrid 2020 (and 2021).

Charles Dickens may have been a popular author throughout his life, but that does not mean that he enjoyed a positive upbringing. Having come from a childhood of poverty, Charles Dickens was forced to pull himself up by his bootstraps. These early years of scrounging and being forced to rub two pennies together proved helpful when he penned some of his earliest novels, including Oliver Twist. As Standiford mentions throughout, it was his astuteness to his surroundings that gave Dickens ideas for his plots and characters.

Of interest to some readers, Standiford explores how Dickens used to write his novels piecemeal, submitting them for serial publication. While they could appear long as a final product, the short pieces that found their way into weekly or monthly collections made the stories seem a little more palatable. Standiford uses this contrast when discussing the creation of A Christmas Carol, which would not be as long as these other pieces, but had to be completed over a shorter time period.

Dickens had come off a less than stellar publication of a novel that was not getting the excitement his publishers had hoped. With the holiday season creeping up, Dickens was tasked with writing a Christmas story in a short period of time. Pulling on examples from all aspects of his life, Dickens wrote about a man—Ebenezer Scrooge—who hated the joyousness that Christmas brought, but who underwent a significant epiphany after being visited by four beings. The end result proved to be eye-opening for all involved and created a new buzz around the Christmas season.

Strandiford explores the Christmas celebration throughout the book, from its traditions to how it was only minimally celebrated through the centuries. It was the Victorian Era that pushed England to shed its neutrality to the celebrations and breathe new life into this most powerful of feast times. From the Germanic influence of trees at Christmas to the buzz of gift giving and the appearance of Father Christmas, England grew more accepting of the holiday, something that appears in Dickens’ story. While I think it would be a tad hyperbolic to say that Dickens alone breathed life into the holiday season, his story certainly explored some of the less commercial aspects of the season.

I only read A Christmas Carol for the first time in the 2019 Christmas season. While you try to catch your breathe and step back in shock, I will let you know that I have seen the movie and know the premise, but the story itself takes on new meaning when using the author’s actual prose. Pairing the actual story with Standiford’s book (as well as a piece by Samantha Silva, do check it out), offers a great understand of Victorian times and how the holiday evolved. There is a great deal for the reader to understand that will permit a thorough and comprehensive exploration of the themes and ideas. Standiford does a masterful job at shining some light on this for those readers who wish the context.

While there are portions of the book that are quasi-textbook, the information garnered from the pages of Standiford’s book is second to none. Understanding how Christmas was once passed off as just another day and what the Church did to counter the rise of pagan rituals is quite ingenious. Using that backstory and some of the Victorian traditions, the reader can see how it all comes together as Scrooge makes his way through his one sobering night. These nuggets proved useful and provided some additional takeaway, something I always enjoy when it comes to reading. With short chapters, full of great information, the reader is surely to find something that interests them, as it relates to the story. If only this were not such an isolating holiday season. I would love to regale people with ‘did you know?’ moments. Oh well, it just means I have another year to practice and study!

Kudos, Mr. Standiford, for a wonderful piece that entertained and educated in equal measure.

Taking Down Backpage: Fighting the World’s Largest Sex Trafficker, by Maggie Krell

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Maggy Krell, and NYU Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

While there are many deplorable criminal acts that take place on a daily basis, few are surely as horrid as sex trafficking. It would seem to be something that could be easily caught by the authorities, but those behind it are not only sly, but also know how to hide things in plain sight. With the emergence of the World Wide Web, people have turned to websites to move and sell people for their own profit, one of which was backpage.com After learning about this and doing her best to comprehend what was taking place, Maggy Krell went on a mission to close down the site and have those who run it brought to justice. This is her story and some of the battles she faced along the way.

Maggy Krell was a young lawyer who sought to make a difference in her own way. She saw some of the horrible crimes of child exploitation and sexual abuse crossing her desk and wanted to make a difference. She came upon Backpage.com, a website with a variety of things for sale, but also large ‘escort’ and ‘adult services’ pages, one that was rumoured to be a front for sexual slavery, where people could post and sell young women for a price and the authorities would be none the wiser. Working in California to get the ball rolling, Krell started her hunt to ensure that those at the top knew exactly what was going on.

As she worked more, it became apparent that the site was used almost entirely to sell young women into sexual slavery, with the other parts of the site there as a shell or front. Krell began pushing for more and seeking evidence that she could use to show that those who ran the site were knowingly participating in human trafficking and profiting off of it. It was slow, tedious, and sometimes horribly graphic work, but Krell stuck to her guns and made things stick.

The latter portion of the book explores bringing those in positions of real power to justice and having the courts decide their fates. While defence attorneys sought to put an arm’s length distance from the events or First Amendment defences forward, Krell and her team did all that they could to ensure the dots connected. This would be a major coup if the judge could see the clear-cut argument and rule in their favour. But, those running Backpage would not go down without a fight.

While Maggy Krell was successful in her endeavour, this is only the beginning. Just because a platform for illegal activity is closed down does not mean things stop. Women, men, children, and many others are being exploited on a daily basis and there is little that can be done, provided it is all committed on the sly. Exploitation and human sex trafficking (in fact, trafficking of any kind) is horrible and leads to many victims. It is the dedication of Maggy Krell and many like her that promise to do their best to remove key bricks in the wall, in hopes that each loosened brick will mean the wall will one day come crashing down.

While I do not read books of this nature with any regularity, I do find myself drawn to learning things about which I know little. Disturbing though it may be, I come away with a major sense of education and preparedness when I scan the news headlines on a regular basis. Krell writes in such a way that I can take things away from the narrative without feeling as though it is all above my head. She educates throughout, providing details and explanations to make sure things are well understood and their impact is not lost. I needed a book like this to open my eyes to the truths that occur around me. Well-documented chapters provide the reader with a pathway of understanding, as well as some photos to personalize the experience. As I mentioned before, this is a horrible topic, but I feel better knowing a little more about it and how it fits into the larger picture of criminal activity.

Kudos, Madam Krell, for your hard work and dedication to ensuring the reader understands what’s going on behind the scenes.