The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson – A Review

The Sacrament Olaf Olaffson

The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson
Mystery | In Translation
Published by Ecco
Released December 3rd, 2019
Goodreads | Amazon
Rating: 5_Star_Rating_System_2_stars

Note: I received a free finished copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my opinion.

I don’t get to travel much, so instead, I travel through the books I read. I seek out translated novels in order to learn more about the world, and I’m particularly interested in the Norse countries, which include Iceland.

The Sacrament follows a nun, Sister Johanna, in dual timelines – one in France and the other in Iceland. Sister Johanna, who speaks fluent Icelandic, is called to Iceland to investigate rumors of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. While she is investigating, there’s a mysterious death, and the investigation is closed. Twenty years later, she is called back to Iceland at the request of the now-grown boy who watched the death occur. The trip brings up a lot of painful memories for Sister Johanna, including her feelings for the Icelandic, female roommate she once had.

Olaf Olafsson.jpg
Olaf Olafsson

Although I wanted to love this book, I found it to be confusing. Due to the dual timelines, I had no idea which timelines the events were occurring in for much of the book. As this book was originally published in Iceland as Sakramentið, perhaps that’s a problem with the translation. It’s hard to be sure, but my biggest complaint about this book is that it was so confusing that I could barely enjoy the story.

The author’s stylistic choice of refraining from using quotation marks also added to the confusion. There are novels where that choice works, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Roadbut it most certainly did not work for The Sacrament.

This novel was also slow-paced, and I had to force myself to continue reading it. The story isn’t bad, I just think that it appeals to certain types of readers, myself not included.

One of the things I enjoyed about the book was the descriptions of Iceland and its people. Iceland isn’t an easy place to live, and Olafsson shows this to the reader through Sister Johanna’s observations.

The main topic tackled in this novel, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, is a very important one, and Olafsson did a good job of illustrating how these kinds of abuses can easily be covered up.

There’s an underlying plot to The Sacrament, which is Sister Johanna’s secret love for an Icelandic roommate she had in Paris years ago. Since she believes that homosexuality is a sin, she ignores those feelings and joins the church as a nun. She never stops thinking about her old roommate, however, even searching for her in Iceland. I was intrigued by this subplot, but ultimately, it was incredibly unsatisfying. I can’t go into more detail due to spoilers, but the outcome of this subplot left me feeling annoyed and disappointed. Overall, this subplot added nothing to the story.

I really wanted to like this book, but in the end, the fact that the dual timelines were written in a way that made the story convoluted and confusing, along with the unsatisfying subplot, made this a book that I cannot recommend nor will I ever read again.

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Interview with Author Robert McCaw – Friday Favorites

BobMcCaw_2019_Version_4 - Calli P. McCaw photographer

Robert McCaw is the author of the Koa Kāne Hawaiian Mystery series, the second book of which I reviewed last week. The series is focused on Hilo police detective Koa Kāne as he works to uncover mysteries and crimes.


After reading the interview, take a look at my review for Off the Grid (Koa Kāne Hawaiian Mystery #2) or go ahead and head over to Amazon to snag yourself a copy.

Before we get started, I would like to thank FSB Associates for sending me a review copy of Off the Grid and Robert McCaw for doing the interview.

Let’s get right into the questions!

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a former soldier, reformed lawyer, and now an author of three mystery/thriller novels set on the Big Island of Hawaii. Growing up in a military family, we lived in Panama, Japan, Germany and various places in the US. After graduating from Georgetown University, I served as a lieutenant in US Army Artillery in South Korea, Fort Sill, OK, Fort Benning, GA, and Fort Knox, KY. I tried my first case while in the Army which inspired me to go to law school at the University of Virginia. After graduating, I was honored to serve as a law clerk to Justice Hugo Black on the Supreme Court of the US, and subsequently practiced law in Washington, DC, and NYC, where I participated in many headline-grabbing cases. I lived part-time on the Big Island in Hawaii for 20 years, falling in love with the people, culture, and language.

What inspired you to write books set in Hawaii?


Hawaii itself was my overarching inspiration. The Big Island is incredibly diverse, enjoying six of seven of the world’s climatic zones, ranging from sea level to 14,000 feet and from alpine environments to rain forests to deserts. Madame Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanic fires has been building the islands for many millions of years. It has only one indigenous mammal, a bat, and many of its plants and birds are unique to the islands. Hawaii’s first inhabitants crossed more than 2,000 miles of hostile ocean from southern Polynesia in double-hulled canoes, bringing with them a combination of human sacrifices and sustainable environmental practices. The islands existed as a series of fiefdoms before King Kamehameha consolidated the archipelago under his rule in 1810. This kingdom was widely recognized as a sovereign nation for nearly a century before a group of Western businessmen overthrew the monarchy,  and Hawaii became a US territory. Indelibly associated with America’s entry into WWII, Hawaii ultimately became a state. It now hosts the largest US military installation in the Pacific and some of the country’s largest cattle ranches.

Although my summary only hints at the many facets of Hawaii, you can see that it is a unique environment and a rich setting for untold mysteries. Indeed, the Big Island itself becomes a character in my novels.

What kind of research did you do to prepare for the politics and history that’s incorporated into Off the Grid?

The Hawaiian history in Off The Grid was gleaned from many primary and secondary sources. The libraries and archives of the Bishop Museum and the University of Hawaii provided access to many historic documents and academic research papers. Textbooks, articles, newspaper archives, and personal “story talk” with friends and old-timers proved invaluable. My practice of exploring the places where my stories unfold, including the island’s many historic locations, enable me to describe details that add an air of authenticity to my stories.

My research on local politics included some municipal documents but came mostly from newspapers and discussions with Hawaiian friends and officials. For the international episode underlying the plot, I researched every news and official report I could find, often turning to foreign sources with more detailed and different accounts than the US press. The accounts I researched mostly agreed on the facts, but none adequately explained the why. And so I made up an explanation for the event and that became a key part of the plot of Off The Grid.

Do you stick to a regular writing schedule?


I get this question often and have come to realize that in many ways it misses the mark because it assumes that writing is the principal, if not the only, work of an author. I write regularly—mostly every day—but I don’t have a fixed schedule. I write on a laptop and am often at work on airplanes and in hotel rooms as my wife and I travel. However, I probably spend nearly an equal amount of time thinking, day-dreaming, planning, and discussing aspects of my current project. Some of my best ideas come to me in the shower, as I fall asleep at night, or as I read or see something that triggers a thought, a sentence, or a word picture that I subsequently reproduce in some way on the written page.

What is your favorite (and least favorite) character in your Koa Kāne series, and why?

You might think that I would automatically pick Koa Kāne, my protagonist, as my favorite character, but that would be too easy and too self-absorbed because he’s a bit too much like me. Actually, my favorite character is Zeke Brown , the long-time Hawaii County prosecutor, who speaks in a loud voice, has eyes and ears in every aspect of local government, wears black leather, western-style Lucchese boots, pounds his fist on his battered wooden desk when excited, dispenses wisdom, and rides to Koa’s rescue in times of great stress.

My least favorite character is Shizuo Hori, the incompetent obstetrician who doubles as Hawaii County coroner. He’s my court jester, adding a touch of humor to death and autopsy scenes. Because he owes his mayoral appointment as coroner to the large sums he loses on absurd bets at the mayor’s Thursday night poker smokers, he also symbolizes the petty corruption so common in local politics.

What types of books do you read for fun?

I read a wide variety of books, including mysteries and thrillers, biographies, histories, financial theory, and scientific materials, including astronomy (a career I considered but didn’t pursue), cosmology, archeology, physics, and artificial intelligence. As a fitness enthusiast, I multitask with audiobooks as I walk or climb the never-ending elliptical stairs.

If you could spend a night hanging out with three authors, living or dead, who would you choose and why?

I would include those people who have probed and pondered the deepest mysteries of space, time, and the human mind. I would hang out with: Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Stephen Hawking. It would be fascinating to watch such deep thinkers interact with each other.

Which classic or popular book do you hate?


My hands-down choice in this category is Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

While Wolfe may have accurately chronicled part of the 1960s hippie culture, the book’s effort to turn drug use into a religion, elevating hipsters to a higher spiritual level, strikes me as psychobabble nonsense.

What are your five favorite books, and why?


Homer’s Odyssey is one of the great epic adventure stories of all time. Set in the aftermath of the Trojan War, it is the second oldest manuscript in Western literature, a cornerstone of the Western canon, and a model for non-linear literature. Its story and style have been copied and imitated by countless subsequent authors. It’s also a must-read for anyone planning to visit the Peloponnese area of Greece or Sicily, where parts of the story allegedly take place.


James A. Michener’s Hawaii is a classic example of an author’s ability to convey the essence of a place while incorporating sweeping views of its people, history, and culture.


David McCullough’s The Great Bridge, the story of one of the nineteenth century’s greatest engineering feats, is richly told amid the backdrop of flamboyant Tammany Hall, the Chicago World’s Fair, and Custer’s last stand. His research is superb.


Alfred Lansing’s Endurance is the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s astounding struggle against impossible odds to save his crew after his ship, Endurance, was crushed by the Antarctic ice. It chronicles the unrelenting determination of one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century and is a must-read before any visit to the great southern polar ice cap.


Yuval Noah Harari’s A Brief History of Humankind employs natural sciences and evolutionary biology to present a non-traditional view of human history, one that highlights imagination as a defining human trait. It’s a tribute to the creative human mind, including the intellects who would create fictional stories.

Finally, leave us with your favorite bookish quote.

“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” — Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead

One more big thanks to Robert McCaw for doing this interview. Don’t forget to read my review of his mystery novel, Off the Grid.

Want some more author interviews?

Laurence Westwood | Kathy Kimbray | Hanna Jameson

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Off the Grid by Robert B. McCaw – A Review


Off the Grid (Koa Kāne Hawaiian Mystery #2) by Robert B. McCaw
Mystery | Crime
Published by Oceanview Publishing
Released July 2, 2019
Goodreads | Amazon
Rating: 5_Star_Rating_System_3_and_a_half_stars

I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Off the Grid is a book that would typically be out of my comfort zone, but since one of my goals for 2019 was to get out of that comfort zone, I thought it’d be fun to give this novel a try. In the end, I realized that I’m just not that into police procedural mysteries.

This is nothing new to me – I’ve never been the type of person to enjoy shows like Law & Order or any true crime media. However, if you are one of those people who will binge-watch police dramas or if it’s a genre that you frequently find yourself reaching for, you will love this book.


Off the Grid takes place in Hawaii and follows police detective Koa Kāne as he tries to unravel a baffling pair of murder cases. One of the victims, a woman, was killed in an explosive, and seemingly staged, car accident. The other, a man, was found tortured and disposed of in the path of advancing lava.

The mystery of the identity of the two victims and why they were murdered is a very intriguing one, full of politics and set on an international stage. The majority of the characters are interesting, and this was a very well-written and well-researched novel.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about Off the Grid was everything that I learned about Hawaiian culture. I’ve never been to Hawaii and I’m also not very familiar with anything about the state. Learning about heiau, or traditional Hawaiian temples, was particularly fascinating. There’s also a lot of talk of Hawaiian flora and the types of people who call Hawaii home. Something else I learned from the novel is that there are 20,000 species of orchids, and that’s a fact that definitely blew my mind.


I’ve read a lot of mysteries that left me bored after figuring out the twist of the story early on – this novel was definitely not one of those. It left me guessing right up to the very end, and it was refreshing reading a novel that I didn’t predict right off the bat. It’s quite intricate and well put together by the author.

One other aspect of the novel that I enjoyed is that our main character, Koa Kāne, has a pretty dark history. While I don’t want to go into spoilers, he has a really interesting back story for a police detective, and I thought that was pretty original.

The reason I’m giving Off the Grid 3.5 stars rather than a higher rating is that, at times, the book was difficult to get through. It’s very slow-moving at times and because of that, I found myself getting turned off at various points through the novel.

Another gripe I had about this novel was that the female characters left a lot to be desired. There are two women who are important to the plot. The first is Koa’s girlfriend, Nālani. In short, she’s basically perfect, and perfect is boring. She doesn’t have much personality and I found myself annoyed at the lack of any real characteristics for her. The second woman, Rachael Ortega, is essentially the complete opposite of Nālani – dowdy and pathetic. Just like with Nālani, her characterization annoyed me immensely. I feel as though the author could have fleshed out his two female characters to be as complex as the men, and it bothered me that they were both so flat.

In the end, I think if you like police procedural dramas and mysteries, you’ll enjoy Off the Grid. It’s likely not a genre that I’ll dip my feet into frequently, however. Off the Grid is the second novel is a series, the first being Death of a Messenger, but you do not have to read the first book in order to enjoy or understand the second.

Have you read Off the Grid? What were your thoughts? Let me know in the comments!

If you’re a fan of mysteries, here are a few other books you might enjoy:

Lost You | 48 Hours | The Last | The Willow Woman | Sadie

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Lost You by Haylen Beck – A Review


Lost You by Haylen Beck (pseudonym for Stuart Neville)
Mystery | Psychological Thriller
Published by Crown Publishing Group
Upcoming Release: August 6, 2019
Goodreads | Amazon
Rating: 5_Star_Rating_System_4_stars

I received a free finished copy of this novel from Crown Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

“Even though logic and reason told her otherwise, she knew the moment that she’d been fearing for more than three years had finally come. As inevitably as morning follows night, the truth had found her. Perhaps the knowledge should have calmed her, but instead it sharpened her fear, brought panic back to the surface.”

Something you may have noticed if you’ve subscribed to this blog for a while is that I very rarely read and review mysteries and thrillers. Sure, there have been a select few, like Courtney Summers’ Sadie and Laurence Westwood’s The Willow Woman, but it’s generally not a genre that I’m familiar with.

I reached out to Crown Publishing after reading a review of this novel because it’s a genre that I want to become a fan of. I love the idea of thrillers, and Haylen Beck’s Lost You sounded like a great place to start. I’m incredibly thankful to Crown Publishing for sending me a finished copy of this novel because I really enjoyed it.

Lost You is a psychological thriller involving two women and a child that both of them believe is theirs. One of these women, Libby, desperately wants a child but isn’t able to conceive; the other, Anna, loses her job and is convinced to become a paid surrogate. Anna becomes the surrogate for Libby through a shady business called the Schaeffer-Holdt Clinic, although the two women never actually meet or know one another’s identity.

I don’t want to give too much away since this is a mystery novel, so I’m going to share the official synopsis of the story here, and then we’ll get straight into the review:

Libby needs a break. Three years ago her husband split, leaving her to raise their infant son Ethan alone as she struggled to launch her writing career. Now for the first time in years, things are looking up. She’s just sold her first novel, and she and Ethan are going on a much-needed vacation. Everything seems to be going their way, so why can’t she stop looking over her shoulder or panicking every time Ethan wanders out of view? Is it because of what happened when Ethan was born? Except Libby’s never told anyone the full story of what happened, and there’s no way anyone could find her and Ethan at a faraway resort . . . right?

But three days into their vacation, Libby’s fears prove justified. In a moment of inattention, Ethan wanders into an elevator before Libby can reach him. When the elevator stops and the doors open, Ethan is gone. Hotel security scours the building and finds no trace of him, but when CCTV footage is found of an adult finding the child wandering alone and leading him away by the hand, the police are called in. The search intensifies, a lost child case turning into a possible abduction. Hours later, a child is seen with a woman stepping through an emergency exit. Libby and the police track the woman down and corner her, but she refuses to release Ethan. Asked who she is, the woman replies:

“I’m his mother.”

What follows is one of the most shocking, twist-y, and provocative works of psychological suspense ever written. A story of stolen identity, of surrogacy gone horribly wrong, and of two women whose insistence that each is the “real” mother puts them at deadly cross-purposes, Lost You is sure to be one of 2019’s most buzzed-about novels.

Lost You starts off with a literal bang, with a woman standing at the edge of the roof of a tall building, about to jump. From there, the story weaves through the perspectives of both Libby and Anna, perfectly combining their narratives while we discover the truth of what happened in both of their pasts. This works so well for the story as it’s far more character-driven than plot-driven (although by no means is the plot lacking for substance!). The most interesting aspect of this entire novel and the thing that will keep you absolutely hooked are the personalities, motives, and personal histories of Libby and Anna.

Neither Anna nor Libby are particularly good people, which makes the story enticing. In fact, there are very few “good” people in this book, as the representatives of the Schaeffer-Holdt Clinic are downright terrible – Mr. Kovak gave me chills and made me want to punch him through the page. Despite their shortcomings, however, I felt that I understood the motivations of both of the characters and felt (somewhat) sorry for them, although the character I felt the sorriest for ended up being a surprise.


The main theme of this book is surrogacy. At the end of the book, there is a brief note from the author explaining that this is not a book against surrogacy in any way. The story has some interesting questions about surrogacy, and especially how hard it is for some women to give up a child that they’ve carried in their womb for nine months. I know I could never be a surrogate as I would not have the emotional capacity to do so, but there are women that can, and they are immensely strong women. Beck’s novel just examines how easy it would be for a woman to have doubts about the process.

I really enjoyed this book, and while there were a few places where I guessed what would happen next, the book was genuinely surprising to me. I’m glad that I received a copy to review because it has made me feel far more positive about mysteries and thrillers in general.

Lastly, I do want to give a shoutout to the cover artist, Lauren Dong, because I love the design and colors in the cover art so much.

If you are someone that cannot handle books that might involve missing children or violence towards children, definitely avoid this book. Otherwise, I very much recommend adding this to your TBR and getting ready for its upcoming release on August 6th.

Are you looking forward to Lost You coming out on August 6th? Let me know in the comments!

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The Willow Woman by Laurence Westwood – A Review


The Willow Woman: A Philip Ye Novel by Laurence Westwood
Published by Shikra Press
Released January 7, 2019
Goodreads | Amazon
Rating: 5_Star_Rating_System_4_stars

I received a free paperback of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

I tend to mostly read fantasy or science fiction, so I’ve been trying to make a conscious effort to branch out into other genres. When Laurence Westwood reached out to me and asked if I was interested in reviewing The Willow Woman, a mystery novel set in modern-day China and with a slight paranormal aspect, I jumped on the opportunity.

There are several characters that we follow as they try to unravel the mystery surrounding a shooting, a missing son, and a cult that worships the Willow Woman. Philip Ye is a homicide detective who is led to the sight of the shooting by an apparition that appears to him the night before. We also meet Ma Meili, the constable that does the shooting that Philip Ye witnesses; Xu Ya, a new public prosecutor, and her investigator, Fatty Deng.

I was hooked by this novel pretty early on. It’s a fairly long novel, but one that I flew through easily and was constantly kept guessing about what would happen next. I was thrilled that I wasn’t able to immediately guess the ending or twist of the novel like I have with many other mystery books I’ve read in the past.

Laurence Westwood’s writing is absolutely spectacular. Everything flowed nicely and it was paced perfectly, the language and word-choices kept me engaged, and the perspectives transitioned smoothly from one character to another. I’d recommend this book based on Westwood’s writing style alone.

There were some moments in the book where women are subjugated or that just felt sexist, but while reading it I discussed those moments with someone that has quite a bit more knowledge of Chinese culture than I do, and they told me that it’s not a far-off representation of some of the plights of women in modern-day China. Some examples include the “Beautification” program of the police to hire attractive women to make people like the police better; Ma Meili constantly being called an ogre or ugly or simply treated poorly because she’s not “attractive;” and the portrayal of women just generally being focused on men, relationships, and marriage more than anything else. After speaking to my friend, I’m assuming this was done to make the story more authentic to how women are treated in China.

The only reason I’m not giving this book five stars is that I was frustrated by Xu Ya’s obsession with Philip Ye. It didn’t make sense to me and their connection was too loose to intrigue me. They attended the same school many years ago and never spoke, and yet Xu Ya has seemingly been obsessed with him for years and years. While I understand that Philip Ye is supposed to be an incredibly attractive, rich, much sought-after bachelor, it still felt a little forced.

Overall, there’s so much to keep you interested in this novel, from the main mystery to the political intrigue that I definitely recommend to anyone wanting a new mystery novel to read, and a new author to explore. I’ll certainly be looking forward to any future novels written by Laurence Westwood.

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The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas – A Review


The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas
Science Fiction | Mystery
Published by Crooked Lane Books
Released August 9, 2018
Goodreads | Amazon
Rating: 5_Star_Rating_System_5_stars

I didn’t know too much about this book before starting it. I saw it at my local library, and thought to myself, “Wow, that’s a cool cover. And I love time travel!” So, I promptly checked it out and brought it home.

I’m glad I brought it home, because WOW. This book and Kate Mascarenhas’s writing blew me away. I inhaled this book in just a couple of days because I was hooked.

The Psychology of Time Travel is a non-linear mystery story involving time travel. Four women worked together to create time travel in 1967. One of these women, Barbara, has a bit of a mental breakdown and is promptly given the boot out of the team.

Fifty years into the future, Barbara’s granddaughter, Ruby, finds a small, origami rabbit on her doorstep with a date in the near future. She becomes concerned that the date might be that of her grandmother’s death and sets out to uncover the truth about the Time Traveler’s Conclave.

We also meet Odette, who stumbles upon the scene of a gruesome murder and is trying to figure out the mystery of who was murdered and how.

This novel is complex and told in a non-linear format. We jump from past to future frequently, but I never felt lost or confused. The story is easy to follow.

The characters are wonderfully written with very distinct personalities and motives. One of the aspects of this novel that I enjoyed was that practically its entire cast is made up of female characters, with LGBTQ representations. It’s so rare, especially in science fiction, to find a novel that isn’t dominated by male characters.

Life's better with a few risks than a lot of regrets..png

It’s very clear that the novel is written by someone with a degree in psychology, which Kate Mascarenhas has. The novel is focused on how people would deal with time travel and how it would influence our perspectives. The impact time travel would have on crime was particularly fascinating:  Would authorities be able to use time travel to catch the perpetrator, or would it still happen?  Questions like that are examined throughout the novel.

My favorite aspect of the novel was the examination of how Mascarenhas’s characters dealt with traveling into the past to see loved ones who had passed.

“When you’re a time traveler, the people you love die, and you carry on seeing them, so their death stops making a difference to you. The only death that will ever change things is your own.”

So much of time travel literature and media is limited by paradoxes and not running into your former selves, but that is not the case in the world Mascarenhas has created. In this novel, it’s normal to watch yourself die, hang out with your future or past selves, or even to have sex with yourself. Without the limitations of paradoxes, so many opportunities are opened up.

The novel also deals with difficult topics, but in a new light, such as mental illness, trauma, sexuality, love and loss, and death. All of these issues are touched on and examined through the lens of time travel.

This book has stuck with me as few others have. Usually, it’s simple for me to finish a book and go on to another, but this book left me with an intense book hangover. I kept coming back to the story over and over again in my head. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

I sincerely hope that Kate Mascarenhas will write more novels in the future.

Sidenote: Kate Mascarenhas’s website contains some dioramas inspired by the book. Check them out here. There’s also a video of her talking about the book, which is fascinating.

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2019 Edgar Award Winners Announced


The Edgar Awards are an annual award given to the best mystery books of the year. The lists are put together by Mystery Writers of America.

Here are the 2019 winners. If you’d like a full list of the nominees, click here.

Book synopses are courtesy of the publishers and Goodreads.

Best Novel


Down the River Unto the Sea by Walter Mosley

From trailblazing novelist Walter Mosley: a former NYPD cop once imprisoned for a crime he did not commit must solve two cases: that of a man wrongly condemned to die, and his own. 

Joe King Oliver was one of the NYPD’s finest investigators, until, dispatched to arrest a well-heeled car thief, he is framed for assault by his enemies within the NYPD, a charge which lands him in solitary at Rikers Island.

A decade later, King is a private detective, running his agency with the help of his teenage daughter, Aja-Denise. Broken by the brutality he suffered and committed in equal measure while behind bars, his work and his daughter are the only light in his solitary life. When he receives a card in the mail from the woman who admits she was paid to frame him those years ago, King realizes that he has no choice but to take his own case: figuring out who on the force wanted him disposed of–and why.

Running in parallel with King’s own quest for justice is the case of a Black radical journalist accused of killing two on-duty police officers who had been abusing their badges to traffic in drugs and women within the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Joined by Melquarth Frost, a brilliant sociopath, our hero must beat dirty cops and dirtier bankers, craven lawyers, and above all keep his daughter far from the underworld in which he works. All the while, two lives hang in the balance: King’s client’s, and King’s own.

Best First Novel


Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin

Rice Moore is just beginning to think his troubles are behind him. He’s found a job protecting a remote forest preserve in Virginian Appalachia where his main responsibilities include tracking wildlife and refurbishing cabins. It’s hard work, and totally solitary—perfect to hide away from the Mexican drug cartels he betrayed back in Arizona. But when Rice finds the carcass of a bear killed on the grounds, the quiet solitude he’s so desperately sought is suddenly at risk.

More bears are killed on the preserve and Rice’s obsession with catching the poachers escalates, leading to hostile altercations with the locals and attention from both the law and Rice’s employers. Partnering with his predecessor, a scientist who hopes to continue her research on the preserve, Rice puts into motion a plan that could expose the poachers but risks revealing his own whereabouts to the dangerous people he was running from in the first place.

James McLaughlin expertly brings the beauty and danger of Appalachia to life. The result is an elemental, slow burn of a novel—one that will haunt you long after you turn the final page.

Best Paperback Original


If I Die Tonight by Alison Gaylin

Late one night in the quiet Hudson Valley town of Havenkill, a distraught woman stumbles into the police station—and lives are changed forever.

Aimee En, once a darling of the ’80s pop music scene, claims that a teenage boy stole her car, then ran over another young man who’d rushed to help.

As Liam Miller’s life hangs in the balance, the events of that fateful night begin to come into focus. But is everything as it seems?

The case quickly consumes social media, transforming Liam, a local high school football star, into a folk hero, and the suspect, a high school outcast named Wade Reed, into a depraved would-be killer. But is Wade really guilty? And if he isn’t, why won’t he talk?

Told from a kaleidoscope of viewpoints—Wade’s mother Jackie, his younger brother Connor, Aimee En and Pearl Maze, a young police officer with a tragic past, If I Die Tonight is a story of family ties and dark secrets—and the lengths we’ll go to protect ourselves.

Best Fact Crime


Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation by Robert W. Fieseler

Buried for decades, the Up Stairs Lounge tragedy has only recently emerged as a catalyzing event of the gay liberation movement. In revelatory detail, Robert W. Fieseler chronicles the tragic event that claimed the lives of thirty-one men and one woman on June 24, 1973, at a New Orleans bar, the largest mass murder of gays until 2016. Relying on unprecedented access to survivors and archives, Fieseler creates an indelible portrait of a closeted, blue-collar gay world that flourished before an arsonist ignited an inferno that destroyed an entire community. The aftermath was no less traumatic—families ashamed to claim loved ones, the Catholic Church refusing proper burial rights, the city impervious to the survivors’ needs—revealing a world of toxic prejudice that thrived well past Stonewall. Yet the impassioned activism that followed proved essential to the emergence of a fledgling gay movement. Tinderbox restores honor to a forgotten generation of civil-rights martyrs.

Best Critical/Biographical


Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s by Leslie S. Klinger

American crime writing was reborn in the 1920s. After years of dominance by British authors, new American writers—with fresh ideas about the detective and the mystery—appeared on the scene and rose to heights of popularity not witnessed since the success of the Sherlock Holmes tales in America.  

Classic American Crime Writing of the 1920s—including House Without a KeyThe Benson Murder CaseThe Roman Hat MysteryRed Harvest, and Little Caesar—offers some of the very best of that decade’s writing. Earl Derr Biggers wrote about Charlie Chan, a Chinese-American detective, at a time when racism was rampant. S. S. Van Dine invented Philo Vance, an effete, rich amateur psychologist who flourished while America danced and the stock market rose. The quintessential American detective Ellery Queen leapt onto the stage, to remain popular for fifty years. Dashiell Hammett brings readers another mystery narrated by the Continental Op. W. R. Burnett, created the indelible character of Rico, the first gangster antihero.

Each of the five novels included is presented in its original published form, with extensive historical and cultural annotations and illustrations added by Edgar-winning editor Leslie S. Klinger, allowing the reader to experience the story to its fullest. Klinger’s detailed foreword gives an overview of the history of American crime writing from its beginnings in the early years of America to the twentieth century. This gorgeously illustrated volume includes over 100 color and black and white images as well as an introduction by the eminent mystery publisher Otto Penzler.

Best Short Story

English 398: Fiction Worksop by Art Taylor, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

Best Juvenile


Otherwood by Pete Hautman

What happened in the woods that day? Pete Hautman’s riveting middle-grade novel touches on secrets and mysteries — and the power of connections with family and friends.

“Hatred combined with lies and secrets can break the world.” Grandpa Zach used to say that before he died, but Stuey never really knew what he meant. It was kind of like how he used to talk about quantum physics or how he used to say ghosts haunted their overgrown golf course. But then one day, after Stuey and his best friend, Elly Rose, spend countless afternoons in the deadfall in the middle of the woods, something totally unbelievable happens. As Stuey and Elly Rose struggle to come to grips with their lives after that reality-splitting moment, all the things Grandpa Zach used to say start to make a lot more sense. This is a book about memory and loss and the destructive nature of secrets, but also about the way friendship, truth, and perseverance have the ability to knit a torn-apart world back together.

Young Adult


Sadie by Courtney Summers
Read my review of Sadie

A missing girl on a journey of revenge. A Serial―like podcast following the clues she’s left behind. And an ending you won’t be able to stop talking about.

Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.

When West McCray―a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America―overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.

Courtney Summers has written the breakout book of her career. Sadie is propulsive and harrowing and will keep you riveted until the last page.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

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