Kate’s Review: “56 Days”

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Book: “56 Days” by Catherine Ryan Howard

Publishing Info: Blackstone Publishing, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: No one knew they’d moved in together. Now one of them is dead. Could this be the perfect murder?

56 DAYS AGO
Ciara and Oliver meet in a supermarket queue in Dublin the same week Covid-19 reaches Irish shores
.

35 DAYS AGO
When lockdown threatens to keep them apart, Oliver suggests that Ciara move in with him. She sees a unique opportunity for a new relationship to flourish without the pressure of scrutiny of family and friends. He sees it as an opportunity to hide who – and what – he really is.

TODAY
Detectives arrive at Oliver’s apartment to discover a decomposing body inside. Will they be able to determine what really happened, or has lockdown provided someone with the opportunity to commit the perfect crime?

Review: Let’s talk a little bit about the synchronicity of the universe. I’ve had “56 Days” sitting on my book pile for a few months, as it was an impulse purchase at a book store on a solo trip up north. I knew I was going to get to it, though part of me was like ‘eughhhh, I don’t know, we’re still in this pandemic, am I really ready to read a book about COVID?’ But I cast my doubts aside, as it was goading me just sitting there, and I picked it up….

And not two days later, upon returning from a business trip where he took every precaution he could, my husband brought home COVID and infected the whole house.

To say I was livid is an understatement. (source)

Luckily it was pretty mild for me, the husband, and the toddler. But as I was wallowing in my anxiety I read “56 Days”, thinking that sometimes things come full circle in the stupidest ways. That said, my own COVID experience didn’t dampen my reading experience! “56 Days” was a fun read, in spite of my real life mirroring of it.

Catherine Ryan Howard’s thriller has the perfect setting for a mysterious murder: in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic during lockdown in Dublin. Oliver and Ciara have only been dating for a short while, but when the threat of not seeing each other for two weeks looms he asks her to move in. All we know at first is that a decomposing body is found in their shared apartment. We don’t know who it is. Then we jump around in time and perspectives, going back to when Oliver and Ciara first started dating, to the midst of lockdown as paranoia and stir craziness may be kicking in, to the investigation itself. As we jump from Ciara’s perspective, where she is tentative about her getting closer to Oliver but a little excited to, to Oliver’s, who has things that he’s hiding from her, we slowly peel back a larger mystery and a few potential motivations for murder. Now in the U.S. we didn’t have full on lockdowns like Europe did; Minnesota had a ‘stay at home’ order, but it wasn’t a strictly enforced mandate. So while I can’t REALLY speak to the stir craziness that Howard was trying to convey, I get the sense that it was probably aptly portrayed. And as you’re reading the story and know that SOMEONE is going to end up dead, well, that just adds to the tension. Especially when you aren’t totally certain as to why.

And there were a few twists and turns that truly caught me off guard! I was so surprised by one in particular that I had to go back and see if Howard had pulled it out of thin air, or if she had done the due diligence and I had just missed it because her deflection was so well done. It was definitely the latter, and it’s a masterful example of how to pull off such a misdirect in this kind of story. I also think that some of the surprises and twists did a little subverting of what was expected, which I really liked. I’m obviously not going to elaborate, but I will say that some of the pivots from my general expectations were welcomed (while one was maybe a little too much; you all know how I feel about too many pivots or too many twists, I have a hard time getting on board).

And honestly, going back to the beginning of this post, reading this book while having COVID was surreal, but kind of interesting. Again, whatever cases we had were pretty mild, so I was lucky that I am able to say that this felt more like an exercise in novelty and nothing worse than that. But don’t go get COVID just to read this book and have the same experience. I can’t imagine it enhances it too much!

“56 Days” is a fun mystery thriller with a structure I liked and some pretty good surprises. While it was frustrating that COVID did come for my house before we were totally ready for it, at least I had an interesting book to read in those early moments.

Rating 8: Twisty and told in an interesting structure, “56 Days” was the perfect read for being holed up with COVID. I don’t recommend the COVID aspect, but I recommend the book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“56 Days” is included on the Goodreads lists “COVID-19 Pandemic Books”, and “Popsugar 2022 #25: A Book About A Secret”.

Book Club Review: “Payback’s A Witch”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Romance”, in which we each picked a book that is a romance, or has elements that fit romance tropes to a T. For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Payback’s A Witch” by Lana Harper

Publishing Info: Berkley, October 2021

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Romance Trope: Hometown Return

Book Description: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina meets The L Word in this fresh, sizzling rom-com by Lana Harper.

Emmy Harlow is a witch but not a very powerful one—in part because she hasn’t been home to the magical town of Thistle Grove in years. Her self-imposed exile has a lot to do with a complicated family history and a desire to forge her own way in the world, and only the very tiniest bit to do with Gareth Blackmoore, heir to the most powerful magical family in town and casual breaker of hearts and destroyer of dreams.

But when a spellcasting tournament that her family serves as arbiters for approaches, it turns out the pull of tradition (or the truly impressive parental guilt trip that comes with it) is strong enough to bring Emmy back. She’s determined to do her familial duty; spend some quality time with her best friend, Linden Thorn; and get back to her real life in Chicago.

On her first night home, Emmy runs into Talia Avramov—an all-around badass adept in the darker magical arts—who is fresh off a bad breakup . . . with Gareth Blackmoore. Talia had let herself be charmed, only to discover that Gareth was also seeing Linden—unbeknownst to either of them. And now she and Linden want revenge. Only one question stands: Is Emmy in? But most concerning of all: Why can’t she stop thinking about the terrifyingly competent, devastatingly gorgeous, wickedly charming Talia Avramov?

Kate’s Thoughts

I was the book club member to finish off our Romance cycle, and I knew exactly what I wanted us to read when we decided on the theme this time around. I had my eye on “Payback’s a Witch” by Lana Harper around the time it came out, so this was the perfect opportunity. I picked it because I kind of like the whole ‘return to your hometown and discover/rediscover love’ trope, and this one has that, but also Sapphic Witches! How could I NOT pick it?

And for the most part I enjoyed it! I thought that Harper built and created a pretty well done mythology and background for the town of Thistle Grove and the magical people who live there, with a clear history and some clear systems in place. I liked how that combined with the small town politics of low key feuding families as well, and how that enters into our main plot as Emmy returns home to find that her ex has been cheating on Linden, her childhood best friend, with Talia Avramov, her childhood semi-crush, and they decide to prevent him from winning the big tournament that determines the family power in town. It’s rudimentary but that’s fine, because it flows well and is enjoyable as it all plays out.

In terms of characters, I thought that Emmy was fine, but I REALLY loved Talia, her love interest. She checks all my boxes: she’s cool, she’s snarky, she has a heart of gold under a biting exterior, and her family is the family that is basically the necromancing communicators with the dead. I MEAN COME ON! Emmy and Talia have pretty okay chemistry (admittedly there isn’t that much sexytimes in this book, as one member was quite irked by), and while some of their stumbling blocks are a bit silly a little conflict makes a romance more high stakes. And besides, two witches falling in love is always going to get high marks from me.

I enjoyed “Payback’s a Witch” and I absolutely intend to continue in the series! BRING ON MORE AVRAMOVS, PLEASE!

Serena’s Thoughts

I can basically repeat all of Kate’s thoughts and opinions, only tone down the excitement one slot for me. It was still a fun read, but I knew going in that it probably wasn’t going to be totally for me. I think partly because I’m the exact opposite of Kate in my romance trope preferences, with the “home town returnee rediscovers their ex/crush” theme being one of my less favorites. I just have a hard time with all the glossed up nostalgia over home-towns. I haven’t lived in mine for over twenty years now, but I do go back every year. And while I love visiting and have happy memories of the place, I also have no qualms in saying that if I met any of my exes or crushes from when I lived there, I’m sure they would be totally different people, just like I am now.

That said, Talia was an awesome love interest, so regardless of the the trope itself, she worked well as a partner for Emmy. Like Kate, I very much enjoyed her more than Emmy. I had a hard time taking Emmy too seriously, honestly, as I felt her reactions to leaving and then coming home to be overblown. I mean, your highschool ex cheated, like ten years ago, move on! Gain some self-respect and perspective as an adult!

I did like what we got for the magical elements as well. This was a more fun take of the magical families battling than the battle royale that I fairly recently read in “All of Us Villains.” The various families and there different styles of magic was very “four houses of Hogwarts,” but so many things in fantasy are derivative of the bigger titles that that can hardly be a complaint.

Overall, this was a fun quick read. For me, the main character held that book back the most, but she was made up for by her love interest. I probably won’t continue with the series, but fans of fantasy romance, especially those looking for a saphic romance should definitely check this one out.

Kate’s Rating 8: Super fun, super witchy, super creative. I really enjoyed this book and man oh MAN is Talia just the best.

Serena’s Rating 7: Purely subjective rating as this wasn’t really my type of book to begin with, but Talia and the magical houses were definite bonuses.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the town of Thistle Grove? Did you think it was well conceived?
  2. What were your thoughts on the magical systems and mythology in this book?
  3. Emmy left Thistle Grove with little intention to return, but when she did she made connections with people and places. If you don’t live in your home town anymore, how do you think it would be to return?
  4. Did you like the relationship between Emmy and Talia? What did or didn’t work for you?
  5. The four magical families who run Thistle Grove all have distinct magical abilities and connections. Which family would you want to be a part of?
  6. Were there any characters you’d want to follow in future books in the series?

Reader’s Advisory

“Payback’s a Witch” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sapphic Witchy, Ghostly Books”, and “Popsugar 2022 #16: A Book About Witches”.

Serena’s Review: “Ordinary Monsters”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Ordinary Monsters: by J.M. Miro

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, June 2022

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: England, 1882. In Victorian London, two children with mysterious powers are hunted by a figure of darkness —a man made of smoke.

Sixteen-year-old Charlie Ovid, despite a lifetime of brutality, doesn’t have a scar on him. His body heals itself, whether he wants it to or not. Marlowe, a foundling from a railway freight car, shines with a strange bluish light. He can melt or mend flesh. When two grizzled detectives are recruited to escort them north to safety, they are forced to confront the nature of difference, and belonging, and the shadowy edges of the monstrous.

What follows is a journey from the gaslit streets of London, to an eerie estate outside Edinburgh, where other children with gifts—the Talents—have been gathered. Here, the world of the dead and the world of the living threaten to collide. And as secrets within the Institute unfurl, Marlowe, Charlie and the rest of the Talents will discover the truth about their abilities, and the nature of the force that is stalking them: that the worst monsters sometimes come bearing the sweetest gifts.

With lush prose, mesmerizing world-building, and a gripping plot, “Ordinary Monsters” presents a catastrophic vision of the Victorian world—and of the gifted, broken children who must save it.

Review: First off, thank you so much to Flatiron Books for sending me an ARC copy of this book! However, I `will say, given its page count, I may have defaulted to reading the ebook more often than not, if only to spare my poor wrists. I was very excited to dive into this one given its description. I always love it when I can find books that cross my favorite genres, and historical fiction plus fantasy is right up my alley. Pair that with a concept that sounds awfully close to Victorian “X-Men,” and I’m all in.

Two children with strange and wonderous powers are on the run, each unsure of who or what they are. Only that these mysterious gifts they possess have drawn the attention of dark figures who chase them and surely mean no good. Soon enough however, with the help of two detectives, they make their way to a safe haven where they find out that they are not the only children with powers. Indeed, there are more and they have a name: the Talents. While centered primarily in 1882 England, the story jumps around the world highlighting the experiences of other Talents scattered across the continents.

I have to say, it’s either an incredibly gutsy or an incredibly confident author who puts out their debut novel at 672 pages. Yes, fantasy is the genre where you’ll find the most tolerant crowd for behemoth tomes. But even well-established authors like Brandon Sanderson started out with normal-length books before releasing their full powers (his most recent “Stormlight Archive” book comes in at a whopping 1230 pages!). It’s also a confident editor who doesn’t instruct that same debut author to trim things up a bit. And while I would say that this book might have been better served being trimmed down some (there’s just no avoiding the fact that this is a lot to ask of readers who no nothing about an author and whether the time the reader is committing to them will be paid back in kind), it also held up well given the sheer length.

Part of this is helped by the style of the story. While the book definitely has some main-ish characters, the story also jumps around a lot, exposing readers to a plethora of new characters, cultures, and locations. It also helped that there were some really stand-out action sequences, most particularly a pretty cool battle on a train. These intermittent fight scenes helped give the story a jolt of adrenaline right when the reader could start to feel a bit bogged down by the sheer length of the book.

The characters were all just ok, for me. I enjoyed them all well enough, but none of them really spoke to me in a way that it would be any one of their stories that draws me back to this world. Instead, they felt closer to avatars that reader is using to explore this newly understood world where magical elements line up beside historical figures and facts that we may already be familiar with.

The story also swerved into the darker parts of fiction, drawing neat parallels between itself and the penny dreadfuls that were so popular at this time. But these darker elements were supported by a strong focus on found families and inner strength, using a diverse set of characters to highlight the human experience that connects us. The writing was also powerful and sure-handed.

Overall, I enjoyed this book quite a lot. It is an undertaking, to be sure, but I think it is well worth it. I fully expect this book to get a second look by many fantasy fans and that the inevitable second and third parts of the proposed trilogy will be anxiously awaited. If you’re an avid fantasy fan and don’t mind a massive tome, definitely give this one a try. Also, don’t forget to enter to win an ARC of this book!

Rating 8: A long, but well-worth it historical fantasy read!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ordinary Monsters” is on this Goodreads list: Can’t Wait Books of 2022

Kate’s Review: “From Below”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “From Below” by Darcy Coates

Publishing Info: Poisoned Pen Press

Where Did I Get This Book: I received access to an eARC via NetGalley from the publisher.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: No light. No air. No escape. Hundreds of feet beneath the ocean’s surface, a graveyard waits

Years ago, the SS Arcadia vanished without a trace during a routine voyage. Though a strange, garbled emergency message was broadcast, neither the ship nor any of its crew could be found. Sixty years later, its wreck has finally been discovered more than three hundred miles from its intended course…a silent graveyard deep beneath the ocean’s surface, eagerly waiting for the first sign of life. Cove and her dive team have been granted permission to explore the Arcadia’s rusting hull. Their purpose is straightforward: examine the wreck, film everything, and, if possible, uncover how and why the supposedly unsinkable ship vanished.

But the Arcadia has not yet had its fill of death, and something dark and hungry watches from below. With limited oxygen and the ship slowly closing in around them, Cove and her team will have to fight their way free of the unspeakable horror now desperate to claim them. Because once they’re trapped beneath the ocean’s waves, there’s no going back.

Review: Thank you to Poisoned Pen Press for sending me an eARC of this novel!

Minnesota may not be on any oceans, but we do have Lake Superior, which is so vast and unruly at times that it kind of acts like the sea. Hell, it’s big enough and has enough commercial traffic on it that there have been a fair amount of shipwrecks in its waters, so many that I have a framed poster in our den of the various wreckages on a map of the Great Lakes. I got that poster when I was a tween, so clearly shipwrecks have fascinated me for awhile (fun fact, on a day where the conditions are right, you can see a shipwreck in the waters at the Split Rock Lighthouse, north of Duluth. I ALWAYS try to see it when I go). I was thinking a lot about the shipwrecks in Superior as I read “From Below” by Darcy Coates. But I also knew that, while similar, the wrecks I was thinking of weren’t comparable. The biggest reason is the actual ocean has A LOT more secrets than ol’ gitchi-gami does just by it’s vast unknown depths. The other, more fiction based one is that this shipwreck has some supernatural nonsense going on.

This story is told in two timelines that slowly come together to reveal what happened on the S.S. Arcadia, a ship that disappeared during a voyage sixty years prior and whose wreckage was just discovered way off course. The first timeline is in the present, with a dive team that has been selected to go in and document the wreckage. The other is on that doomed voyage, following the crew and the passengers as things slowly start to go wrong and a strange, choking fog stalks the ship. Which is just the beginning. In the present we have leader Cove and her crew going into the wreckage and finding clues as to what went on…. and as things go from solemn to strange to terrifying, they don’t feel like they can stop because they need the money the dive will bring in. Both timelines build up the dread at a languid pace, tightening the tension bit by bit until things suddenly snap. It goes on a little long and extends a bit more than it needs to, but it has moments of high tension and horror. I enjoyed the present timeline more than the past one, but both use different elements to achieve some well done scares. In the past it’s a frenzy of paranoia and desperation for the crew and passengers as things spiral out of control, and in the modern time it’s a realization that there are things left in this ship that should not be there. Cove is the most interesting character of them all, as she is trying to be a good leader, but also knows that they all need the compensation. It’s a legitimate factor that kept me from wholly disbelieving their choices in staying on (there was another issue near the end that I didn’t buy, but that’s just another byproduct of it going on a little long, which is mostly forgivable).

But Coates doesn’t only rely on the supernatural side of things when it comes to the horror moments in this book. I mean sure, a long lost shipwreck with a mysterious disappearance, and then horrors within, are great themes for a horror novel, and themes I don’t see TOO often (though interestingly enough Serena and I reviewed a novel this year that had those exact themes but in space). And these themes work really well here. But it’s more the real life and realistic moments that had my pulse pounding. Coates goes into some really good detail about deep sea diving, and just how dangerous it is, and a lot of the suspense was built up around a slowly running supply of oxygen, as well as the very real threats of the bends and pressure damage should one try to ascend too quickly. And when you are exploring an underwater ghost ship and find really horrific things inside, how are you NOT going to suck through your oxygen, or try to speed out of there just a little too quickly? Ugh, that really was the stuff that set me on edge. And Coates did a great job of explaining all of it for a layperson so I understood some of the dangers when I may not have initially.

So it seems I may have to go back through Darcy Coates’s catalog to see what else she has written, as “From Below” was super entertaining and definitely freaky. I wasn’t exactly in a rush to go deep sea diving at any point in my life, but this just clinches it.

Rating 7: A claustrophobic and eerie (and at times a bit drawn out) tale of ghost ships and exploration, “From Below” will surely chill horror fans to the bone.

Reader’s Advisory:

“From Below” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror to Look Forward to in 2022”.

Giveaway: “Ordinary Monsters”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Ordinary Monsters: by J.M. Miro

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, June 2022

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: England, 1882. In Victorian London, two children with mysterious powers are hunted by a figure of darkness —a man made of smoke.

Sixteen-year-old Charlie Ovid, despite a lifetime of brutality, doesn’t have a scar on him. His body heals itself, whether he wants it to or not. Marlowe, a foundling from a railway freight car, shines with a strange bluish light. He can melt or mend flesh. When two grizzled detectives are recruited to escort them north to safety, they are forced to confront the nature of difference, and belonging, and the shadowy edges of the monstrous.

What follows is a journey from the gaslit streets of London, to an eerie estate outside Edinburgh, where other children with gifts—the Talents—have been gathered. Here, the world of the dead and the world of the living threaten to collide. And as secrets within the Institute unfurl, Marlowe, Charlie and the rest of the Talents will discover the truth about their abilities, and the nature of the force that is stalking them: that the worst monsters sometimes come bearing the sweetest gifts.

With lush prose, mesmerizing world-building, and a gripping plot, “Ordinary Monsters” presents a catastrophic vision of the Victorian world—and of the gifted, broken children who must save it.

Giveaway Details:

I always love it when I can find books that cross over two (or more!) genres that I enjoy. It’s the reason why most of the mystery novels I read/review for this blog are also historical pieces and not modern murder mysteries. Much of the fantasy I read, however, is second-world fantasy, meaning the entire setting, time period, and culture is unique to the story. But there’s a pretty solid subgenre of historical fantasy, stories that simply recreate a time and place and add a dash of magic to the entire affair.

Reading through this description, “Ordinary Monsters” essentially sounds like Victorian “X-Men” if you ask me. And who’s not interested in that?! Of course, my usual wariness of large casts of characters is at play, but there are some solid examples of ensemble stories, so hopefully this is one of those!

Per the usual, my review for this book will be up Friday. But don’t wait until then to get in on the chance to win a copy of this book! This giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and will end on June 14.

Enter to win!

Kate’s Review: “A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons” by Kate Khavari

Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, June 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: Saffron Everleigh is in a race against time to free her wrongly accused professor before he goes behind bars forever. Perfect for fans of Deanna Raybourn and Anna Lee Huber, Kate Khavari’s debut historical mystery is a fast-paced, fearless adventure.

London, 1923. Newly minted research assistant Saffron Everleigh attends a dinner party for the University College of London. While she expects to engage in conversations about the university’s large expedition to the Amazon, she doesn’t expect Mrs. Henry, one of the professors’ wives to drop to the floor, poisoned by an unknown toxin. Dr. Maxwell, Saffron’s mentor, is the main suspect, having had an explosive argument with Dr. Henry a few days prior. As evidence mounts against Dr. Maxwell and the expedition’s departure draws nearer, Saffron realizes if she wants her mentor’s name cleared, she’ll have to do it herself.

Joined by enigmatic Alexander Ashton, a fellow researcher, Saffron uses her knowledge of botany as she explores steamy greenhouses, dark gardens, and deadly poisons. Will she be able to uncover the truth or will her investigation land her on the murderer’s list?

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I’m not really a plant person. Every year I have the best intentions when it comes to the landscaping that came with our house, as there is lots of room and lots of nice flowers… but I’m never motivated to clean it up or make it look pretty (though I have taken in irises, peonies, and a bleeding heart from friends and family, which are all lovely and stick out amongst the weeds). But poisonous plants are a whole other thing, given that I would LOVE to go on a tour of a poisonous garden at some point in my life, with the proper precautions in place. So when I saw the description of “The Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons” by Kate Khavari, I jumped at the chance to read it, for whatever reason getting into my head it was going to be a thriller level mystery about academia and poisons. Thriller level, not so much. Honestly this is probably more along the lines of the kinds of mysteries Serena reviews on her, but here we are and I still liked it, so I’m taking it on!

In similar themes and fashions that I have associated with historical mysteries, “A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons” is engaging, swift entertainment with a fun protagonist and a fascinating setting. Set in post WWI London, Saffron Everleigh is one of the only women research assistants/academics at the University of London, where she works in botany to the well respected Dr. Maxwell. So when he is accused of trying to poison a colleague’s wife at a university soiree as revenge, Saffron is determined to clear his name and find the real culprit. As far as the mystery goes, I thought that Khavari has a workable list of suspects who all have their reasons, as well as some good red herrings and misdirects. And who doesn’t like the potential murder weapon being an exotic and dangerous poisonous plant? I especially liked all of the talk about the deadly plants, and how Khavari created one especially for the story that sounded perfectly plausible. It’s not a super complex mystery and while there are twists they’re pretty standard. I was more interested in our characters, particularly Saffron and her recruited sidekick Alexander Ashtonm a biology researcher who is serious but swoony all the same. They play off of each other very well, and their chemistry is at a nice simmer for their will they or won’t they dynamic. I also liked Saffron’s best friend and roommate Elizabeth, whose spunky and winsome personality makes her a fun foil. Most of the other characters are pretty two dimensional, but my guess is that casts of characters will rotate in and out and therefore the main players are really the only ones that need the most depth.

I also found the World War I themes in this book make it stand apart from the other mysteries in this subgenre that I am accustomed to. WWI is a war that was just awful and devastating, as wars are, but it tends to get a bit overlooked within popular culture and literature. Khavari has its presence in the background, as Saffron and other characters have been affected by it in very sad ways. For Saffron, she lost not only her childhood friend/assumed future husband Wesley to the war, as well as her father, a brilliant scientist who felt the need to enlist, and died due to mustard gas in a trench. This early in the series we have the background set up for this personal pain, and while Saffron and others touch upon the grief of all these men lost, it never overwhelms the story. There is also Alexander, who is a veteran turned researcher, whose reputation of being perhaps hot tempered at times is more a reflection of his PTSD due to his experiences. Khavari makes a note at the end of the book that she wanted to be as true to the ‘shell shock’ experience as she could be, and I felt that Alexander was a responsible look into the aftermath of such a trauma. There are a fair amount of potential content warnings that could apply here (as well as instances of harassment and one moment of potential sexual assault), but Khavari is careful with all of it. Again, it’s early in the series, and I’m sure there will be more exploration of such themes. We had a good set up here that balanced well with the larger mystery.

Though it wasn’t the tone I expected, I enjoyed “A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons”. I plan to keep up with Saffron’s ongoing adventures, especially if there are more poisonous plant shenanigans.

Rating 7: A charming mystery with some enticing themes, “A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons” will please those who like jaunty historical mysteries with plucky heroines.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons” is included on the Goodreads lists “ATY 2022: Flora & Fauna”, and “Historical Mystery 2022”.

Highlights: June 2022

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

We’ve both been anxiously awaiting June this year. Not only does it finally feel like not winter anymore (here in Minnesota with all the humidity, summer’s a mixed blessing…but not winter? That’s truly great!), but June is the month of the ALA annual convention. We’ve been two other times before, once in Las Vegas (our cardigans really helped us blend in with the crowd) and again in Chicago. We meant to go several years ago, but, you know, Covid ruined everything for everyone. But finally, FINALLY, we are going again! It’s not until the end of the month, however, so here are some books we’re looking forward to reading to tide us over until then!

Serena’s Picks

Book: “Half a Soul” by Olivia Atwater

Publication Date: June 28, 2022

Why I’m Interested: Fairie courts? Check! Strange curses? Check! Regency romance? Double check! I’m so excited to read this book, if you didn’t get the idea. The story follows Dora Ettings, a young woman who lost half her soul to a fairie curse early in her life. As such, she has no filter and practically no chances in the marriage mart. But that’s ok with her, being more than happy to simply support her cousin her courtship goals. Enter a grumpy sorcerer and a mystery surrounding children falling under strange magical sleeps, and even a cursed young woman can find life taking an unexpected turn! I had a hard time waiting until June to dive into this one, so look for a review to come shortly!

Book: “For the Throne” by Hannah Whitten

Publication Date: June 7, 20202

Why I’m Interested: I really enjoyed “For the Wolf” when I read it last year. It was an excellent stand-alone fantasy. But it also laid the groundwork for this, the sequel and Red’s sister Neve’s own story. After realizing the sheer folly of her past decisions and falling into a dark underworld, Neve will do practically anything to return to her sister Red. However, the longer she remains in this world of monsters, the more she begins to question whether she is herself one of them and this is where she truly belongs. There’s also an anti-hero love interest, so this entire thing very much gives off “Hades & Persephone” vibes. Given how much I liked the first book and Neve herself in that book, I can’t wait to see where the story goes from there!

Book: “Juniper & Thorn” by Ava Reid

Publication Date: June 21, 2022

Why I’m Interested: As faithful blog readers may remember, last summer was the season of the “Red Riding Hood” retellings for me. I ended up liking two out of the three. And even more luckily for me, both of those books came out with sequels/companion novels this summer! In this instance, “Juniper & Thorn” is set in the same world as “The Wolf and the Woodsman” but it introduces a new set of characters. This dark fantasy story follows Manlinchen and her two sisters who are essentially held captive in their own home by their cruel, cursed father. But soon enough Manlinchen finds a way to escape at night and an entire new world opens up to her. However, there’s a darkness haunting her city, and Manlinchen begins to suspect her family may be at the center of it. I’m not very familiar with “The Juniper Tree,” the fairytale this based on, so I’m curious to see what’s in store!

Kate’s Picks

Book: “The House Across the Lake” by Riley Sager

Publication Date: June 21, 2022

Why I’m Interested: Riley Sager is a must read author for me, his books always offering up something that I enjoy and look forward to every year. His newest book, “The House Across the Lake”, sounds like it’s a little bit of “Rear Window” with a little bit of “The Girl on the Train”. Casey has sought out the solitude of a cabin on a lake after she finds herself a widow and the victim of a tabloid frenzy. In the house across the lake she keeps and interested eye on Tom and Katherine, a seemingly happily married couple. Casey makes friends with Katherine, but then shortly thereafter Katherine disappears. Casey is desperate to find out what happened to her new friend, but as she investigates she uncovers secrets that were best left hidden away. Sager can always find a way to surprise me, so this should be a treat!

Book: “Never Coming Home” by Kate Williams

Publication Date: June 21, 2022

Why I’m Interested: You grab my interest when you describe a teen thriller that involves influencers in danger, and when it sounds like it takes inspiration from the Fyre Festival you have my full and entire buy in. This is why “Never Coming Home” by Kate Williams made the list. Ten teenager influencers have been invited to spend a vacation at Unknown Island, a resort that is so exclusive it is invite only, and only for people under 21. What this group of influencers doesn’t realize, however, is that they have been invited to Unknown Island for very specific reasons, as all of them have dark pasts and things to hide. And it seems that someone has found them out. This really sounds like it’s going to be a soapy fun thriller that will make the Fyre Festival seem downright tame.

Book: “A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons” by Kate Khvari

Publication Date: June 7, 2022

Why I’m Interested: Why, poisons, of course! I always say that I’m not a big plant person, but the plants that I’m a guaranteed sucker for are poisonous ones. And any mystery thriller that uses mysterious poisons as a murder weapon is going to end up on my to read list, hence “A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons” making the highlights this month. It’s post WWI England, and Saffron Everleigh is one of the only women researchers at her prestigious university, following in her father’s footsteps in botany and working with a kind and intelligent mentor. But when the wife of a colleague is poisoned at a party, and her mentor is the main suspect, she is determined to clear his name, and starts to look into the various poisonous plants that could be at the killer’s disposal. I mean, come on. That sounds super fun.

What books are you looking forward to this month? Let us know in the comments!

Monthly Marillier: “Beautiful”

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“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books. I’ll be posting a new entry in this series on the first Friday of every month.

Book: “Beautiful” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Audible Studies, May 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | WorldCat

Book Description: Beautiful is in three parts. Part one follows the pattern of the fairy tale, though the central character is not the white bear prince or the intrepid young woman who travels east of the sun and west of the moon to save him from a curse. Our narrator, whom I named Hulde, only had a bit-part in that original story. The novel-length version takes Hulde way out of her comfort zone as she heads off into the unknown world beyond the glass mountain, to find out what it means to make your own story.

Review: Well, we’ve finally come to the end of my “Monthly Marillier” series! It’s been about a year and a half since I started it, which just speaks to how many books this author has written. Of course, I’ll add to this series whenever she releases new books (right now we seem to be in a bit of a dry spell, as she’s mentioned on her blog that she’s still pitching book ideas to her publisher for her next title). I’ve saved this one for last because it’s probably the most inaccessible of her books, being only available as an audiobook through Audible. Hence, it’s one of the few I hadn’t read before this re-read. Let’s dive in!

We’ve all heard the story before: that of the girl, the polar bear, a dreadful curse and the troll Queen behind it all. This is not that story. Instead, this is Hulde’s tale, that of the troll princess who thought the prince was meant for her. Only to discover his true love was on a mission to rescue him from a curse…and Hulde was that curse in action. With her world tipped on its end, her mother dead, and her future before her, Hulde goes on a quest to discover not only who she is but what role she is meant to play in the most important story of them all: her own.

So, it’s kind of a bummer that I’m ending the series on this note. There are so many of Marillier’s books that are absolute favorites of mine, books I’ve re-read countless times. Sadly, this will not be one of them. But before I get into that, I do want to mention some of the stronger aspects of the story. First off, there’s no denying the cleverness of this idea. I’ve reviewed a number of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” stories on this blog. But to take that idea and flip it on its head, centering the story around the troll princess who thought the prince was her prince…why, that is clever indeed! Beyond that, there is never any fault to be found in Marillier’s prose. She paints beautiful scenes onto the page, and her stories are always well-paced and complete.

However, I struggled to connect to Hulde herself. It’s always tough with stories like this, stories that are meant to focus on the growth of a character from a starting point that isn’t all that sympathetic. Obviously, you have to leave room for your character to grow and have something to point them towards over the course of the story. The delicate balance, however, is that a reader has to also connect with that character from the start. Here, that balance was just a bit off. Hulde veered a bit too far into the realm of immaturity, displayed too many annoying traits, and generally was not particularly compelling. Of course, as the story is one of self-discovery, she grows into a more likable character. But for me, it was never quite enough to regain my lost interest in the character.

The romance was also not my particular jam. And this is definitely a subjective point. Because I think it was really smart and unique on Marillier’s part to write the romance as she did here. She’s known for her fairly straightforward love matches. So to see a polyamorous connection from her was definitely new territory. And from what I could tell, it seemed to be well done. But, again, subjectively, I do like my romances between only two people. As we’ve discovered in our book club theme this season, preferences for romance are probably one of the most subjective things there are in reading experiences. So, if this is your jam, you’ll probably really like it!

Lastly, I didn’t enjoy the narrator for the audiobook. This is the most disappointing aspect of the entire thing, really. A good or bad narrator can make or break a book. And readers who know they are particular about the narrator for audiobooks can avoid this pitfall by simply reading the physical book. But with this one, we don’t have that option. So if you don’t enjoy the narrator, you’re left with nowhere to go. It was really a shame, because it’s so hard to evaluate how much of my reading experience was dictated by my distraction and dislike for the format in which the story was being presented.

Sadly, this wasn’t my favorite Marillier title. I do think that if you check out a preview of the book and aren’t bothered by the narrator, you may enjoy it more than me simply for that reason. Readers who enjoy polyamorous relationships might also want to check this one out.

Rating 6: A rather unlikable main character and a disconnect between me and the audiobook narrator really set this book off on the wrong foot, and it never recovered from there.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Beautiful” is on this Goodreads list: Polar Fantasy

Kate’s Review: “The Book of Cold Cases”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “The Book of Cold Cases” by Simone St. James

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: In 1977, Claire Lake, Oregon, was shaken by the Lady Killer Murders: Two men, seemingly randomly, were murdered with the same gun, with strange notes left behind. Beth Greer was the perfect suspect–a rich, eccentric twenty-three-year-old woman, seen fleeing one of the crimes. But she was acquitted, and she retreated to the isolation of her mansion.

Oregon, 2017. Shea Collins is a receptionist, but by night, she runs a true crime website, the Book of Cold Cases–a passion fueled by the attempted abduction she escaped as a child. When she meets Beth by chance, Shea asks her for an interview. To Shea’s surprise, Beth says yes.

They meet regularly at Beth’s mansion, though Shea is never comfortable there. Items move when she’s not looking, and she could swear she’s seen a girl outside the window. The allure of learning the truth about the case from the smart, charming Beth is too much to resist, but even as they grow closer, Shea senses something isn’t right. Is she making friends with a manipulative murderer, or are there other dangers lurking in the darkness of the Greer house?

A true crime blogger gets more than she bargained for while interviewing the woman acquitted of two cold case slayings in this chilling new novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Sun Down Motel.

Review: I am now at the point in my librarian and blogging career that I lose titles that I would normally be super into amongst the books that I want to read. Whether it’s for blog purposes or keeping my RA skills up, I am always looking for books to add to the pile, and then others tend to shuffle through long past their release date. This is what happened with “The Book of Cold Cases” by Simone St. James, and author that I generally like and would normally be putting on my radar earlier than a few months past the release date. Well thank you, Book of the Month Club, because had you not had this book as a selection of that month I probably would have ended up on a hold list and then not gotten to this book until much later. Which would have been a bummer, because “The Book of Cold Cases” combines true crime blogger themes with a 1970s murder case that scandalized a town, as well as a perhaps supernatural presence within the accused murderess’s house. All things that I’m super into.

The story is told through the perspectives of present day Shea, true crime obsessive due to her processing (or not processing) of her own traumatic incident in her past, and past Beth, an accused murderer who was acquitted and who is more than the media and the community sees her as. When Shea meets Beth randomly and asks to interview her for her armchair sleuthing blog, Beth surprises her with a ‘yes’, and then Shea starts to investigate the Lady Killer Murders that Beth seemingly got away with. I liked seeing Shea go on her own investigation and how it is supplemented by the slow reveals of Beth’s past as we see what she was going through during the scrutiny and police investigation/trial back in the 1970s. It’s a device we’ve seen before but St. James does it well. We slowly get more and more information about both women and what their motivations are, and they are both interesting and complex enough that I was invested in finding out what Beth was hiding, and if Shea was going to find herself in trouble as she starts to unravel it all. I found Shea especially fascinating as a character, as while it may have been easy to just paint her as a true crime weirdo, St. James instead brings her own victimization into the formula and makes it less a morbid hobby and more of a coping mechanism (and honestly, I think that for a number of true crime fans there is a bit of anxiety processing and trauma processing that goes into the fascination with the genre). And as for Beth, I liked how St. James picks apart misogyny of the media and society when it comes to the portrayals of women in crime cases like this.

Though there were some things that didn’t really work for me. The problem is, I can’t really talk too much about them here without going into serious spoiler territory. What I will say is that we get a device about half way through the story that made it a bit less interesting for me, as it makes Beth a little less interesting as a whole. And the other issue is that, like other Simone St. James books, there is an element of the supernatural here. I generally like how St. James incorporates ghost stories into her books, and it isn’t that I didn’t like it here, because I did. I think that the problem is that in this story it didn’t really feel like it was needed, and because of that it felt a bit forced into it. It doesn’t make it any less suspenseful, and I still tore through this book over the course of two days. But this time around it may not have been necessary to have that element to it.

At the end of the day, I was supremely entertained by “The Book of Cold Cases”! It’s summer now, and I do think that this would be a great beach or cabin read. It may even send a chill up your spine on a hot summer day.

Rating 7: Though some of the plot choices didn’t hit as hard for me, overall Simone St. James once again puts together a twisted and suspenseful horror-thriller story that I couldn’t put down!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Book of Cold Cases” is included on the Goodreads lists “2022 Horror Novels Written By Women and Non-Binary Femmes”, and “The Most Anticipated Mysteries and Thrillers of 2022”.

Serena’s Review: “Clockwork Boys”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Clockwork Boys” by T. Kingfisher

Publishing Info: Argyll Productions, November 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: A paladin, an assassin, a forger, and a scholar ride out of town. It’s not the start of a joke, but rather an espionage mission with deadly serious stakes. T. Kingfisher’s new novel begins the tale of a murderous band of criminals (and a scholar), thrown together in an attempt to unravel the secret of the Clockwork Boys, mechanical soldiers from a neighboring kingdom that promise ruin to the Dowager’s city.

If they succeed, rewards and pardons await, but that requires a long journey through enemy territory, directly into the capital. It also requires them to refrain from killing each other along the way! At turns darkly comic and touching, Clockwork Boys puts together a broken group of people trying to make the most of the rest of their lives as they drive forward on their suicide mission.

Review: Back again with another T. Kingfisher book! What can I say? When I find an author I enjoy, their back catalog is sure to show up for a decent amount of time going forward! I was particularly excited to start this book as not only is it the first in a duology but there appear to be several other books set in the same world. Up to this point, everything I’ve read by Kingfisher has been a stand-alone, so I was excited to see how she handled an ongoing story across two books.

In a classic fantasy version of “Suicide Squad,” a bunch of former criminals are set off on a suicide mission as a last ditch effort by a kingdom on the brink of destruction by mysterious magical forces. Nothing to be lost there, right? Nothing unless you happen to be one of the criminals sent out on said mission. And so we follow the story of a forger, an assassin, a disgraced (kind of possessed?) paladin, and a very sexist scholar. But as this group of oddballs march down certain death, they begin to discover they may have something worth living for after all.

There comes a point when I’ve read enough by an author that I know going in that, sparing some extreme aberration, I’m going to enjoy the book in hand. Mostly this comes down to a style of writing. A strong author is rarely going to put out a bad book when they have such a solid handle on the basics. Excellent characters? Check. Fun and snappy writing? Check. Unique world and magical systems? Check. Kingfisher has it all. All of that to spoil the end of the review and say I really enjoyed this book.

This was the first book from her I’ve read, however, that featured a multi-POV style of writing and a band of characters at the center. Of course, Kingfisher’s characters are one of the strongest things she has going for her as a writer, so I was confident she would handle it well. And indeed she does. It helps that we really only spend time in the head of Slate, the master forger, and Sir Caliban, the somewhat-demon-possessed paladin. They each have distinct arcs that they begin to travel along in this book (presumably to be concluded in the second book). And theirs is the focus of a brewing romance.

I really enjoyed them both, but their banter and interactions together is what really made them jump from the page. Slate’s eyerolling at Caliban’s seemingly uncontrollable chivalry; Caliban’s attempts to reconcile that same chivalry with the reality that a strong woman such as Slate might be more offended than pleased by some of his efforts. It’s also nice that they’re both full adult characters, well into their thirties and with the history and hang-ups that go with that. This isn’t love’s first blush for either of them, and it makes their slow-burn romance all the more appealing.

I also really liked the other characters, though we didn’t spend any time in their heads really. The sexist scholar, the one most would rightly be skeptical of enjoying, was quick to grow on me given the amused scoffing that Slate sends his way at his more ridiculous moments. The Learned Edmund also quickly grows to realize that his opinions don’t hold up outside his cloistered halls of learning. I also really liked the assassin. Can you have a more threatening ex staring down a newly forming relationship than an assassin?

The story itself was also fast-moving and interesting. The clockwork boys only showed up briefly, but it was easy to understand the threat they posed. There is also a mysterious plague that is….plaguing….the country. As well as several other mini adventures that our gang must work through on their journey.

As far as pacing goes, while it was a fast read, it did seem to end abruptly. It’s a shorter book, and ultimately it read almost like the first half of one book that was mysteriously broken into two volumes. I guess I’ll see how the second half works, but I do wonder why this decision was made? Fantasy novels are known to be long, so I can’t imagine the total page length of the two books would have been that bad. And I suspect that the story as a whole would have been better served presented in this way. As it is, while I enjoyed the heck out of this book, it did read like part of a story rather than a complete work on its own. Even books that are part of a series should read as individual pieces on their own, with beginnings, middles, and ends and with themes and completed arcs.

So, that being the case, I already have the second book in hand and will likely jump into that soon. Fans of Kingfisher’s work will likely enjoy this one, but make sure to have easy access to the second book as this one definitely ends in a way that doesn’t feel completely finished.

Rating 8: Fun and feisty, though perhaps a bit incomplete with out the second book attached with it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Clockwork Boys” can be found on this Goodreads list: Books With ‘Boy’ in the Title

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