Kate’s Review: “You’re Invited”


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Book: “You’re Invited” by Amanda Jayatissa

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, August 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

Book Description: From the author of My Sweet Girl comes a dangerously addictive new thriller about a lavish Sri Lankan wedding celebration that not everyone will survive.

When Amaya is invited to Kaavi’s over-the-top wedding in Sri Lanka, she is surprised and a little hurt to hear from her former best friend after so many years of radio silence. But when Amaya learns that the groom is her very own ex-boyfriend, she is consumed by a single thought: She must stop the wedding from happening, no matter the cost.

But as the weeklong wedding celebrations begin and rumors about Amaya’s past begin to swirl, she can’t help but feel like she also has a target on her back. When Kaavi goes missing and is presumed dead, all evidence points to Amaya. However, nothing is as it seems as Jayatissa expertly unravels that each wedding guest has their own dark secret and agenda, and Amaya may not be the only one with a plan to keep the bride from getting her happily ever after

Review: I always look forward to seeing what Book of the Month has in store for the monthly picks, and while I am egregiously behind in keeping up with my BOTM picks, I will prioritize ones that look especially interesting. So naturally, when I saw that one of the picks this summer was “You’re Invited” by Amanda Jayatissa, I was pretty stoked. I had mostly enjoyed “My Sweet Girl”, her previous thriller, and while it had stumbled in some ways I liked Jayatissa’s voice and perspective. And honestly, the idea of a lavish wedding being thrown into upheaval due to a bride going missing, possibly due to a jealous ex friend, is just too good to pass up. I LOVE A GOOD WEDDING MESS!

We all know I love drama, and wedding drama is a special kind of drama. (source)

Jayatissa has once again given us a protagonist who makes a lot of questionable choices and is clearly hiding something not only from those around her, but also from the reader. This time it’s Amaya, a woman born in Sri Lanka who is now living in the U.S., and seems to be on the verge of emotional collapse. When she finds out her former best friend Kaavi is getting married to her ex boyfriend Spencer, and having a lavish wedding in Sri Lanka, Amaya is dead set on stopping the nuptials. Amaya clearly has things bubbling beneath the surface, as it is clear she is damaged and unstable in a lot of ways, and I just couldn’t wait to see just what was going on. Because obviously there’s a bit more to it than a potential backstabbing from people she used to know (though admittedly on paper that sure does sound infuriating). In terms of the mystery itself, I enjoyed the way that it was set up and slowly unveiled, through both first person POVs (namely of Amaya and Kaavi, jumping through the timeline a bit between them) and also transcripts of the official police interviews as they investigate Kaavi’s disappearance. It’s a good way to get a lot of different perspectives not only on the mystery itself, but also on our protagonist and the potential victim that she may or may not have been entangled with right before the disappearance. It makes for a mix of unreliability AND clarity, depending on how the pieces fall into place. I found myself able to guess some of the twists, but was genuinely surprised by others, and the pacing was quick and snappy so that I was propelled forward and fully engaged in the plot and how it was all going to turn out.

All that said, I did think that some of the twists were a little haphazard and cobbled together to make for higher drama when there probably didn’t need to be as such. One of them was even the kind that I just don’t like in that it was thrown in basically at the las moment, as one final shock to the narrative. I’ve complained about this kind of thing in the past, and I’m pretty sure that I had that gripe with Jayatissa’s previous novel “My Sweet Girl”. What I will say about this one was that it wasn’t so involved that it completely changed the outcome of the story in the last few paragraphs, but sometimes that’s even more frustrating because then what even is the point of doing such a thing outside of just being able to say ‘well maybe I gave you one last shock’. I don’t really need one last shock so close to the end, and unless you REALLY earn it, it’s usually going to be the kind of thing that leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Sour taste aside, “You’re Invited” was entertaining, soapy, and suspenseful enough that I enjoyed my time reading it. Amanda Jayatissa is definitely going to be one of those authors I want to read, and I am very interested to see what her next book is going to be!

Rating 7: A couple twists felt out of left field and unearned, but overall I found this to be engaging and entertaining.

Reader’s Advisory:

“You’re Invited” is included on the Goodreads lists “Wedding Mysteries & Thrillers”, and “Books by Sri Lankan Authors About Sri Lanka”.

Serena’s Review: “Death at the Manor”

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Book: “Death at the Manor” by Katharine Schellman

Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Regency widow Lily Adler is looking forward to spending the autumn away from the social whirl of London society. When she arrives in Hampshire with her friends, Lord and Lady Carroway, she doesn’t expect much more than a quiet country visit and the chance to spend time with her charming new acquaintance, Matthew Spencer.

But something odd is afoot in the small country village. A ghost has taken up residence in the Belleford manor, a lady in grey who wanders the halls at night, weeping and wailing. Half the servants have left in terror, but the family is delighted with the notoriety that their ghost provides. Piqued by this spectral guest, Lily and her party immediately make plans to visit Belleford.

They arrive at the manor the next morning ready to be entertained—but tragedy has struck. The matriarch of the family has just been found smothered to death in her bed.

There was no one else in her room, and the door was locked from the inside. The dead woman’s family is convinced that the ghost is responsible. The servants are keeping secrets. The local magistrate is flummoxed. Lily is determined to learn the truth before another victim turns up—but could she be next in line for the Great Beyond?

Previously Reviewed: “The Body in the Garden” and “Silence in the Library”

Review: I’ve really been enjoying this historical mystery series. There are a few others I’ve been reading recently, but they’ve all featured a heroine/hero combination that, while enjoyable, begins to feel familiar very quickly. This book stands out not only with Lily serving as the primary detective herself, but in the fact that her cast of supporting characters not only includes, yes, the hero character, but also some of her fellow lady friends. This has allowed the series to remain feeling fresh and unique as compared to contemporaries. So, of course, when I saw the new one coming out this summer, I was on top of things!

Lily Adler’s friend, Captain Jack, is heading back to sea. And while he is glad to be returning to his beloved ship, he worries that Lily has had quite the penchant for stumbling upon dead bodies recently. She, however, assures him that she will be heading to the country to spend time with her dear aunt. What body could possibly be found in these circumstances? Alas, Jack’s worries are all too astute. For Lily, accompanied by her friend Lady Carroway, not only stumbles upon another murder victim, but the primary suspect is none other than a manor house ghost. But when Lily stumbles upon some revelations she had never suspected, she begins to question her own abilities. Will she be able to solve yet another mystery?

So, unfortunately, this book didn’t quite live up to my expectations for it. Admittedly, they were quite high, so the book was by no means objectively bad. Just not as good as the two that came before. But first, there are a few things that definitely stood out in the positive category. For one, I liked Lily’s struggles with her own limitations. Up to this point, while Lily has struggled to garner the respect from her peers for her observational skills, she’s never suffered from any great crisis of faith in herself. Here, after a secret that has been sitting right under her nose for years finally comes to light, Lily must grapple with her own limitations and biases. It’s a great internal arch for the character, and one that you rarely see in detective mysteries such as this that rely on their main character’s almost supernatural ability to know all.

I also liked the addition of Lady Carroway. While we’ve seen the character quite a bit in other books, here, she is allowed a few of her own chapters and perspectives. These were excellent on their own, but also worked well as a balance point to Lily’s ongoing internal struggles. Lady Carroway has a very different view of society, both because of the challenges she faced as a biracial noblewoman, but also because of her differing temperament. Their friendship is not without its own ups and downs, and I liked this more honest depiction of female friendships, one where the waters are not always smooth.

I also liked the nods to the gothic novels that were popular during this period of time. This was a fun theme to explore in the story, and served as a nice change of pace from the more straight-forward murder mysteries at the heart of the previous two books.

That said, there are two major points where the book struggled, in my opinion. One of them is more subjective than the other, so let’s start with that one. One of the nice things about these books so far has been the very, very slow burn of any romance that may (or may not) be developing between Lily and Jack. On one hand, I very much like this. But on the other, when it became clear that Jack was going to cede his position in this book to Matthew Spencer, a gentleman who was introduced as a potential romantic interest in the previous book, I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I just couldn’t become invested in this character or this romance. It does seem like this might be setting the stage for Lily’s slow growth through her grief over her husband. And, objectively, the decision for her to not necessarily jump from one “great love” to another but instead have other interests between makes sense. But as a reader, I just spent most of the time missing Jack and rolling my eyes at Lily’s obtuseness (at least I had Lady Carroway right there with me on #TeamJack).

My second problem, sadly, came with the mystery itself. Because I don’t want to spoil it, there’s not a whole lot I can go into as far as details. It’s a closed-door mystery, so that lays out the stakes well enough right there. However, I found the way in which the murder took place incredibly obvious from the very first inspection of the murder scene. What’s worse, later in the book, Lily happens upon a particular happenstance in this same locked room that even more clearly illustrates the solution. And it still didn’t click! It was so blatantly obvious that it had the unfortunate effect of making Lily’s obliviousness increasingly at odds with her reputation for solving complicated mysteries. I also was able to identify the killer and a decent portion of their motivations fairly early, too. All in all, while I still enjoyed the process of reading about this mystery, it was incredibly anticlimactic given some of the obvious clues and red herrings.

However, I still very much enjoyed Lily as a character. And I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of viewpoints from Lady Harroway herself. So, in conclusion, this book was a bit hit and miss. I still think the writing is strong, and Lily’s long term arch holds a lot of potential. Fans of the previous books will likely enjoy this one, but be warned that the mystery was not as compelling as previous entries.

Rating 7: Has a bit of a “middle book” feel to it with a lackluster mystery at its heart, but Lily herself is still an interesting enough character on her own to carry the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Death at the Manor” can be found on this Goodreads list: Historical Mystery 2022

Diving Into Sub-Genres: Forensic Mysteries

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We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

While I mostly review historical mysteries and detective mysteries on this blog, I’m also a huge fan of forensic mysteries. It’s actually a favorite subgenre for both Kate and I. Honestly, at this point, she’s probably more caught up on some of our favorite series than I am, considering the pivot I’ve made in recent years for my reviews here. But what is a forensic mystery?

While the detective mystery is the ruler of the mystery genre, with the story following a detective of some sort (lots of variation for how official this title is), forensic mysteries have exploded in the last 30 years or so, challenging this norm. The popularity of shows like “CSI” and “Bones” can perhaps be attributed to some of this increased popularity. Those examples alone do most of the work defining what makes forensic mysteries stand out: the stories will typically follow a scientist of some sort who is involved in solving crimes by close examination of evidence and expert interpretation of those nuanced facts. You have a lot of coroners, medical examiners, anthropologists, etc. Due to the nature of this type of evidence and work, most forensic mysteries rate high on the gruesome scale, with detailed explanations of anatomy and murder methods. While not exclusively so, the leading characters in this subgenre are often female, serving as a nice balance to the still male-dominated detective mystery genre.

As I’ve said, this subgenre has exploded in recent years. So my list here is just scratching the surface of what’s to be found. There can also be a lot of overlap between forensic mysteries and other subgenres. Let’s take a look at a few!

Book: “Deja Dead” by Kathy Reichs

Having mentioned “Bones” in my introduction, I couldn’t not include the long-running book series on which the show is based. Like the show, the story follows Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist. But really, that’s where most of the similarities end. This Brennan has a daughter, a precarious marriage, and, while she does have a few friends, no where near the level of quirky scientist lab friends that she has in the show. There is a character who Booth is loosely based off, but the romance is nothing like the show, with this character not even being a romantic interest at certain points. But Temperance herself is largely similar, being a very analytical and scientific individual. She also has a strong sense for justice which can get her caught up in crimes that then end up striking close to home. This is a long-running, current series with book number 21 coming out just last month.

Book: “The Crossing Places” by Elly Griffiths

Similar to the previous title, this is another female-lead forenstic thriller/mystery series. In this case, the lead is Dr. Ruth Galloway, a forensic archeologist. As such, her expertise is in bones, thus there is often a lot of cold cases involved in stories. This first book involves the discovery of a set of bones that are suspected to be those of a young girl who went missing years before. But this crime won’t stay in the past, and when another girl goes missing, Dr. Galloway finds herself dealing with a very real killer. Again, this is a very long-running series, with the most recent book involving Galloway’s experiences of the pandemic lockdowns.

Book: “The Bone Collector” by Jeffery Deaver

As a change of pace, this series follows a male lead. The series begins by introducing Lincoln Rhyme, once a well-known, respected criminologist. But he’s been out of the game for a while after an accident turned his life upside down. He’s drawn back into the game, however, when he is personally challenged by a diabolical killer. He must team up with a police detective and solve the complicated forensic mystery laid out before him. This one is a nice change of pace in that the lead has an expertise in criminology, opening up the series to cover a wide variety of various forensic techniques and clues. This series has been running since 1997, so you can guess as to its length so far…

Book: “The Lost Girls of Rome” by Donato Carrisi

Time for stand-alone options, for those not ready to commit themselves to double-digit-long series! This book offers a nice mix of genres, including several nice nods to historical elements that become integral parts of the mystery. The lead is a young widow and forensic analysist who, while trying to uncover the truth in her husband’s death, finds herself caught up in mysterious forces that trace back through Rome’s long and twisting history. While touching on the details and analysis that is at the heart of all forensic mysteries, this one has a lot to offer for fans of lots of different types of books. Plus, like I said, it’s not as much as a commitment as some of the other series on this list!

Book: “Postmortem” by Patricia Cornwell

Like the Temperance Brennan series, this is another cornerstone in the forensic thriller/mystery genre, so it is only fitting to finish up this list with it. This series follows Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner whose close eye and keen sense of justice sees her caught up in one investigation after another (seriously, this series started back in 1990 and the 26th book in the series came out this year, so…). This book is also often credited as the first book in the now popular forensic thriller/mystery subgenres. It’s also not a stretch to imagine that its success also helped build up the ever-popular, numerous, numerous forensic TV shows like “CSI” and the ilk. It’s definitely a must for fans of this subgenre (along with the Brennan series, this it the other series I regularly read, for what that’s worth!).

What forensic thrillers/mysteries do you enjoy reading?

Serena’s Review: “Blood and Moonlight”

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Book: “Blood and Moonlight” by Erin Beaty

Publishing Info: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

Book Description: Rising above the city of Collis is the holy Sanctum. And watching over its spires is Catrin, an orphan girl with unique skills—for she alone can spot the building’s flaws in construction before they turn deadly.

But when Catrin witnesses a murderer escaping the scene of his crime, she’s pulled into the web of a dangerous man who will definitely strike again. Assigned to capture the culprit is the mysterious, brilliant, and enigmatic Simon, whose insights into the mind of a killer are frighteningly accurate.

As the grisly crimes continue, Catrin finds herself caught between murderer and detective while hiding her own secret—a supernatural sight granted by the moon, destined to make her an outcast, and the only thing that might save her and those she loves from becoming the next victims…

Review: This was definitely a cover lust request for me. I mean, that’s a lovely cover and will easily drive people to pick it up off the shelves. Reading the description, the story also sounded like an intriguing mix of YA fantasy and a murder mystery. All of the right elements were there but, alas, this book ultimately wasn’t for me. By that I mean, my dislike of it could really have come down to the fact that I wasn’t the target audience for this book. Some YA can read up to adult readers, but others are definitely written for a specific age group. So reviewers like me have to be careful when evaluating outside of the target audience. All that to say, take my rating and review with a grain of salt.

Growing up an orphan, Catrin has struggled to understand her place in the world or to find a family to replace the one lost to her. She does have a gift, however, the ability to see flaws in construction before they become dangerous. Through this gift, she sees a path forward for herself. But that straight track is interrupted when she witnesses a criminal fleeing the scene of a grisly murder. Now, alongside the mysterious Simon, a detective, Catrin finds herself caught up in a spree of crime, trying to catch a killer before he surely strikes again.

So, like I said at the start, this book wasn’t for me. I honestly struggled to read the entire thing and ended up skimming a decent portion of the last half. But before getting into the problems I had, I want to address the good things. I thought the magic system was interesting, with the moon playing a role in how people’s abilities worked. After being exposed to direct moonlight, for example, certain characters abilities were enhanced. This was an interesting concept and something I hadn’t run across before (other than the obvious werewolves, of course!).

Given the strength of the fantasy elements, I kind of wish the author had just stopped there (though that would have resulted in a totally different book, I guess). The mystery itself I felt was incredibly predictable. The moment the villain makes their way on to the page, it was clear they were behind it all. This made it all the more frustrating to see Catrin and the supposedly clever detective, Simon, struggle to put together the very, very obvious pieces of the puzzle. But, here, I may have been reading this mystery through the lens of an adult mystery reader. YA audiences may be totally satisfied with this aspect of the story.

I also struggled with the writing and characterization. The writing was very simplistic, and I struggled to fully immerse myself in the story. And Catrin was everything you’ve ever read a million times from YA fantasy protagonists. If anything, she was even a bit higher on the cringe level. I also never bought the romance; Simon seemed like he could do better, honestly. And I really don’t care for this type of angsty romance where the primary emotion it pulls from me is frustrating, wanting to just bang these two’s heads together (and not in a cute, kissing way.)

As I said, I struggled to even finish this book. After I realized that I had already solved the mystery and all that was left was the developing relationship between Simon and Catrin, I knew this wasn’t going to be for me. However, the simpler style of writing, this type of protagonist, and even the mystery itself may be completely satisfying for the target audience. It just wasn’t for me.

Rating 6: A miss all around with an unlikeable heroine and a mystery that revealed itself far too early in the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Blood and Moonlight” can be found on this Goodreads list: YA Releases June 2022

Kate’s Review: “The House Across the Lake”

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

Publishing Info: Dutton, 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: It looks like a familiar story: A woman reeling from a great loss with too much time on her hands and too much booze in her glass watches her neighbors, sees things she shouldn’t see, and starts to suspect the worst. But looks can be deceiving. . . .

Casey Fletcher, a recently widowed actress trying to escape a streak of bad press, has retreated to her family’s lake house in Vermont. Armed with a pair of binoculars and several bottles of liquor, she passes the time watching Tom and Katherine Royce, the glamorous couple living in the house across the lake. Everything about the Royces seems perfect. Their marriage. Their house. The bucolic lake it sits beside. But when Katherine suddenly vanishes, Casey becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her. In the process, she discovers the darker truths lurking just beneath the surface of the Royces’ picture-perfect marriage. Truths no suspicious voyeur could begin to imagine–even with a few drinks under her belt.

Like Casey, you’ll think you know where this story is headed. Think again. Because once you open the door to obsession, you never know what you might find on the other side.

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

One of the things that is a complete tell that I’m a Minnesotan is that I LOVE going to a lake house for a getaway. There is nothing more relaxing to me than sitting on a lounge chair on a deck with lake water lapping a few yards away (loon calls optional but even better). But as a consumer of horror and thriller media, I am also well aware that sometimes a lake house setting can be looming and dangerous (most recently the film “The Night House” has really hit that point home), and I kept thinking about that movie as I read Riley Sager’s newest thriller “The House Across the Lake”. You know me, as much as I love the relaxation a situation can bring, I also love seeing that situation skewed into something a bit more menacing in the stories I consume, and Sager definitely made that happen by way of shades of “Rear Window” and “The Girl on the Train”.

One of the things I like best about Riley Sager is that, for me, his generally always female protagonists almost always ring true in how he portrays and writes them. I remember being surprised when I found out that Sager is not, in fact, a woman author, because his protagonists do feel realistic to me in their behaviors and experiences. Our newest is Casey, an actress and recent widow who has turned to diving into a bottle to forget about what happened to her husband Len, and who has retreated to the family lake home to escape the tabloid spotlight of her booze fueled antics. While she drinks, she watches the sparse neighbors through a pair of binoculars, focusing on other people’s potential secrets so she can forget her own. Casey is supremely damaged with a well thought out backstory and tenuous relationships, so her reclusive lake house voyeurism is pretty easily believed. After befriending new neighbor Katherine, a model and wife to a tech start up mogul, who almost drowned in the lake had Casey not been there to save her, she is drawn to Katherine’s seemingly perfect life… Especially when it seems that her veneer, too, is cracking. What follows seems like a pretty standard thriller trope: an unreliable protagonist thinks that her neighbor has been murdered by her husband, and starts to obsess over it. Sager is so good at taking a pretty well worn story (again, “Rear Window”-esque, which is referenced in this book as if acknowledging the inspiration) and making it feel fresh. Casey is a very messy character, but I found her to be sympathetic and explored enough that she doesn’t seem melodramatic or treading towards unrealistic and sexist tropes. Her friendship with older neighbor Eli is a nice grounding force, and while her potential budding romance with new neighbor (and sober) Boone is a bit cloying, it has its place and adds a non judgmental foil to her very ingrained issues without deriding them. Their investigation of Katherine’s disappearance and potential murder is suspenseful and full of some well done beats and plot twists.

But we are once again in a situation where one of the things I liked best about this book is something that I can’t talk about because it’s a pretty significant spoiler that needs to be kept under wraps for the full effect to be appreciated. So I’m going to gush about Sager’s slight of hand and earned twists in the vaguest terms possible. Sager has had various twists in his books that have had a varying degree of success in surprising me, and the big surprise in “The House Across the Lake” really caught me off guard. I thought that I had figured out what he was doing, as a matter of fact, scoffing to myself and saying ‘oh I know what’s going on, ho hum’ and feeling pretty good about myself and my twist sniffing prowess. But then I was completely fleeced, and when the ACTUAL thing was revealed, I actually hooted in glee. I even went back to look and see if the set up was there, and it was. It was super well disguised, but it was, indeed, there. You got me!

You sly dog, Mr. Sager! (source)

“The House Across the Lake” was yet another fun thriller from Riley Sager, and the PERFECT read to take to the lake with you this summer!

Rating 8: Entertaining, surprising, and unsettling, “The House Across the Lake” is another page turner from Riley Sager!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The House Across the Lake” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2022”.

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

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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”.

Kate’s Review: “Chloe Cates Is Missing”

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Book: “Chloe Cates Is Missing” by Mandy McHugh

Publishing Info: Scarlet, February 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

Book Description: The disappearance of a young internet celebrity ignites a firestorm of speculation on social media, and to find her a detective will have to extinguish the blaze.

Chloe Cates is missing. The 13-year-old star of the hit YouTube series, “CC and Me,” has disappeared, and nobody knows where she’s gone — least of all ruthless momager Jennifer Scarborough, who has spent much of her daughter’s young life crafting a child celebrity persona that is finally beginning to pay off. And in Chloe’s absence, the faux-fairytale world that supported that persona begins to fracture, revealing secrets capable of reducing the highly-dysfunctional Scarborough family to rubble.

Anxious to find her daughter and preserve the life she’s worked so hard to build, Jennifer turns to social media for help, but the hearsay, false claims, and salacious suspicions only multiply. As the search becomes as sensational as Chloe’s series, Missing Persons detective Emilina Stone steps in, only to realize she has a connection to this case herself. Will she be able to stay objective and cut through the rumors to find the truth before it’s too late?

Told from multiple points of view including Jennifer, Emilina, and pages from Chloe’s lost diary, Chloe Cates Is Missing is a suspenseful novel of a child pushed to the brink, and of the troubled family that desperately needs her back.

Review: Have you ever been in a situation where you have a book on your radar that you are super interested in, and are super looking forward to, but once you do get your hands on it it just keeps getting bumped in favor of more pressing books? This is what happened with me and “Chloe Cates Is Missing” by Mandy McHugh. It seriously has so many tidbits and plot points that are my catnip. You have a missing girl, you have a ‘social media is a dangerous sea’ theme, you have an overbearing perhaps insidious mother figure, and you have a dour lady cop with baggage and a secret. Like, holy cats, so many things! So when I finally sat down and said to myself ‘IT IS TIME!’, I had high hopes due to building anticipation due to my own poor book time management and rambling promises of finally getting down to it.

When all is said and done, I found “Chloe Cates Is Missing” to be an addictive read. I basically sat down and read it over a couple of nights, or during my kid’s nap time, becoming fully and totally immersed in the mystery and the layers and layers of drama. We follow multiple perspectives to tell the story of the missing influencer/blog personality, thirteen year old Chloe Cates, real name Abby Scarborough. The first is that of her mom/momager Jennifer, whose obsession with the blog and how it has made her daughter Internet famous has caused severe damage to her family relationships. The second is Jackson, Jennifer’s husband/Abby’s Dad, who has gone along with the blog due to not wanting to anger his wife, no matter how much Abby is being hurt by it. The third is Emilina Stone, the detective assigned to the missing child case, who also has a distant connection to Jennifer (and a shared secret they both want to keep hidden). And finally we also get the perspective of Abby/Chloe herself, through diary entries. It’s a tried and true device, but I enjoyed how McHugh would use it to jump a little bit through the timeline, either to a few minutes before where one perspective left off, or back years and years, and how that added to the breakneck pacing. It was also a good way to misdirect or distract the reader, as we’d cut off one moment and jump to a whole new one, and I liked that strategy.

The characters themselves are a bit familiar in terms of the archetypes they represent. Emilinia is probably the most fleshed out, as her job as a detective means she has to deal with a lot of bleak and dark things, which has made her question the goodness of the world around her, as well as whether or not she would want to foist the darkness of the world on those she loves and cares for. But there is also a whole other dynamic of her having this job, which comes back to her relationship with Jennifer. No spoilers here, but I will say that the two of them share a secret, and Emilina’s choice of work may be a way of trying to atone. Jennifer, on the other hand, is pretty over the top villainous here. At first it seemed that there may have been a little bit of nuance to her character, giving her perspective of how alienating and uncomfortable being a new mother can be, but that went out the window pretty quickly. I don’t have a problem with having an antagonist you love to hate, as it’s entertaining as hell and makes for even more addictive reading, so it worked for me in the end.

I will say, however, that there was another big twist right at the last minute, as has been seen in so many thriller novels and always bugs me a bit. This almost certainly comes down to personal preference in storytelling, but it still made the read end on a bit of a sour note just because it shifted things so quickly right before the last moments. We don’t need to have one final gotcha! There were plenty of satisfying gotchas!

So outside of an ending that frustrated me, I found “Chloe Cates Is Missing” to be a very quick and fun read. I waited so long, and it was worth the wait.

Rating 7: The ending was a little bit of a dime’s turn switch for me, but man was I along for the ride up until that point.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Chloe Cates Is Missing” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2022”.

Blog Tour: “The Murder of Mr. Wickham”

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Book: “The Murder of Mr. Wickham” by Claudia Gray

Publishing Info: Vintage, May 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

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

Book Description: The happily married Mr. Knightley and Emma are throwing a house party, bringing together distant relatives and new acquaintances—characters beloved by Jane Austen fans. Definitely not invited is Mr. Wickham, whose latest financial scheme has netted him an even broader array of enemies. As tempers flare and secrets are revealed, it’s clear that everyone would be happier if Mr. Wickham got his comeuppance. Yet they’re all shocked when Wickham turns up murdered—except, of course, for the killer hidden in their midst.

Nearly everyone at the house party is a suspect, so it falls to the party’s two youngest guests to solve the mystery: Juliet Tilney, the smart and resourceful daughter of Catherine and Henry, eager for adventure beyond Northanger Abbey; and Jonathan Darcy, the Darcys’ eldest son, whose adherence to propriety makes his father seem almost relaxed. In a tantalizing fusion of Austen and Christie, the unlikely pair must put aside their own poor first impressions and uncover the guilty party—before an innocent person is sentenced to hang.

Review: There is a truth universally acknowledged: the more ardent a fan of Jane Austen a reader is, the more critical that fan will be of any and every Jane Austen adaptation/sequel. I feel fairly confident making a generalization like that, and I would easily include myself in it. There have been times when my snobbery has reached levels not seen in any other favorite genre or beloved series of books. But I’m glad that I didn’t let this lesser self dictate whether or not I picked up this book, cuz, man, other than “Death Comes to Pemberley,” this is probably my favorite Jane Austen continuation yet!

In Emma’s view, a house party is always just the thing to cheer matters up! So she and her husband, Mr. Knightley, gather a large group of friends, acquaintances, and family members to share in a visit at their home. This cheerful event is made much less so, however, when the disreputable Mr. Wickham shows up one dark and stormy night. And what’s worse than an unwelcome guest? One that is rude enough to get themselves murdered on the premises, thus leaving all the remaining guests left as suspects. With so many members of the group having motives for thinking the world would be better off without Mr. Wickham, the Darcy’s oldest son, Jonathan, and the young Juliet Tilney decide to tackle the mystery themselves. But as they get closer and closer to discovering the murderer, the more horrifying the truth becomes, because it must have been one of their dear friends!

It’s immediately obvious that the author is herself a huge fan of Jane Austen. This book is so clearly a love letter to all of these characters and to all of the fans that it’s impossible to miss. This also makes the reading experience entirely dependent on one’s familiarity with these characters and stories. There are so many small nods and inside jokes that will only be appreciated by ardent fans, that the reading experience will likely be vastly different for those familiar with these stories and those who have been less-exposed. And because the story includes characters from all of the books, the reader pretty much has to have all six novels well under the belt to appreciate the work the author has put into creating in this story.

As fun as all of these Easter egg clues were to spot, what really made this book stand out was how well the author understood the characters she was working with, in all of their strengths and weaknesses. Most especially, she envisioned how these personalities would play off one another, both between each other and within their own marriages (since, due to the nature of Austen’s books, we see very little of what these characters’ lives are like in the marital state). Gray doesn’t shy away from pointing out some of the flaws in these characters that could drive wedges into their marriages. However, everything is handled with such care that you never feel like any of these choices or actions are out of character with the originals. Instead, we see how many of them grow even further once some of these characteristics are exposed to the harsh light of day.

From a purely preferential state, I was glad to see that Emma and Knightley were by far the most stable of the couples. Not only do they know each other much better than anyone else (Emma having grown up with Knightley as a good friend from the very beginning), but the original book does a good job dealing with each of their flaws to begin with. Fans of “Mansfield Park,” however, may be dismayed to see that Fanny and Edmund, on the other hand, probably have the most work to do. Again, this never feels like an overt critique of the original story, but instead seems perfectly in line with these two characters and the way their romance played out (honestly, one of the more weird ones when you think about it). It’s satisfying to see Fanny come more into her own and Edmund be forced to reckon with some of the ways that he didn’t do his best with regards to Fanny and their relationship.

All of this written and I haven’t even touched on the mystery! I honestly can’t say enough good thing about this as well. It’s truly impressive how well Gray managed to work Wickham into all of these characters’ lives in ways that felt completely natural and inline with their stories. Not once did his relationship with these characters feel forced or shoe-horned in to fit the narrative. Instead, it felt completely organic and believable. Thus making the entire thing so stressful! It starts to become truly horrifying wondering how this mystery is going to be resolved without vilifying one of our beloved main characters!

I also really enjoyed the original characters of Jonathan and Juliet. It’s tough work to create new characters and stand them up against classics like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, but Gray manages it! For one thing, the book features so many viewpoints that Jonathan and Juliet are by no means the sole focus. We get plenty of time with our other favorites, but I also began to appreciate both Jonathan and Juliet in their own right. I was also pleased to see that while there are hints of a potential romance between these two, the story didn’t commit to anything in this arena. There simply wasn’t enough time in this book to not do a disserve to the mystery by trying to force in a fully-fledged romance as well.

All of this to say, I highly recommend this book to any Jane Austen fan out there! The more familiar you are with the originals, the more you’re likely to enjoy this!

Rating 9: Simply excellent and sure to please even the most picky Jane Austen fan!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Murder of Mr. Wickham” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Jane Austen Sequels and Pastiches.

Kate’s Review: “Homicide and Halo-Halo”

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Book: “Homicide and Halo-Halo” by Mia P. Manansala

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, February 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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

Book Description: Things are heating up for Lila Macapagal. Not in her love life, which she insists on keeping nonexistent despite the attention of two very eligible bachelors. Or her professional life, since she can’t bring herself to open her new cafe after the unpleasantness that occurred a few months ago at her aunt’s Filipino restaurant, Tita Rosie’s Kitchen. No, things are heating up quite literally, since summer, her least favorite season, has just started.

To add to her feelings of sticky unease, Lila’s little town of Shady Palms has resurrected the Miss Teen Shady Palms Beauty Pageant, which she won many years ago–a fact that serves as a wedge between Lila and her cousin slash rival, Bernadette. But when the head judge of the pageant is murdered and Bernadette becomes the main suspect, the two must put aside their differences and solve the case–because it looks like one of them might be next.

Review: I was truly kicking myself when I realized that I had missed the publication of the second book in the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mysteries Series, “Homicide and Halo-Halo”. Given how much I enjoyed Mia P. Manansala’s first book in the series, “Arsenic and Adobo”, and given that it’s a cozy mystery series I actually like, I immediately put it on hold at the library. It took a little time to arrive, but when it did I was thrilled! Not only was a eager to revisit the town of Shady Palms and the character of Lila Macapagal, I was also eager to read up on all the delicious Filipino food that Lila and her family makes in her Tita Rosie’s restaurant.

And it was a nice return at that! Manansala has once again put together and enjoyable and not so intense mystery involving murder, gossip, and small town beauty pageants! After the head of the judging panel of the Miss Teen Shady Palms Beauty Pageant is murdered, Lila (who was asked to be on the judging panel as a former winner) can’t help but be sucked into investigating, especially when her cousin Bernadette is a prime suspect. It’s the kind of mystery that, while indeed high stakes, doesn’t seem too stressful, and it has the elements of being complex and well thought out without being convoluted or too zig zaggy. I liked following Lila as she investigates like a snarkier Jessica Fletcher, and how she goes about investigating in her own way. It just flows effortlessly, and it did keep me guessing, though going back Manansala did lay the clues out in clever ways.

It’s still the characters that really make it for me. Lila remains a fun and flawed protagonist, who has a little more to work with this time around given that Manansala decides to not shy away from the emotional and mental fallout of the previous novel. Lila is having emotional and mental struggles after having nearly been killed in “Arsenic and Adobo”. I liked that we actually address how traumatizing this was for her, and how that has had some real consequences for her in her personal and professional life. But given that this is, in fact, a cozy mystery, we also don’t get too bogged down in it, and Lila is still a fun, plucky, and snarky detective with a whole cast of characters who act as her foils. From her supportive (though sometimes judgmental) aunties to her friends to her colleagues at the pageant, we have an enjoyable cast of characters, some of whom serve as some probable and potential perpetrators to the crime at hand, as well as other scandals and mysteries that surround it. I especially liked seeing Lila and her nemesis cousin Bernadette interact, as their relationship is… complicated. And we kind of get to explore why that is, and how perhaps they themselves aren’t solely to blame for it. And hell, even though there’s a bit of a love triangle (still with the love triangle, gracious), it wasn’t too focused on that I found it terribly obnoxious. Not terribly, anyway.

And once again, the recipes!! Since this is a library book that will have to be returned I can’t have it at the ready if I want to try them out…. So of course I took pictures of the recipes and sent them to my email recipe folder! Manansala introduces the readers to more Filipino foods and easily gives them background and context within the story, and then adds a few to the back to try at home. I said it last time and I’ll say it again, THIS is the kind of cozy mystery perk I can get behind!

I challenge you to read the description of Halo-Halo and NOT want to eat it immediately! (source)

I continue to be completely charmed by the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mysteries! Bring on the next! My hunger for both well done mysteries and delicious food is ever present!

Rating 8: Another entertaining and delectable cozy mystery with yummy recipes, “Homicide and Halo-Halo” continues a fun series following a fun protagonist!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Homicide and Halo-Halo” is included on the Goodreads lists “If You Liked ‘Dial A for Aunties’ Try…”, and “Filipino Fiction (English)”.

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Murder at Queen’s Landing”

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Book: “Murder at Queen’s Landing” by Andrea Penrose

Publishing Info: Kensington, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

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

Book Description: When Lady Cordelia, a brilliant mathematician, and her brother, Lord Woodbridge, disappear from London, rumors swirl concerning fraudulent bank loans and a secret consortium engaged in an illicit—and highly profitable—trading scheme that threatens the entire British economy. The incriminating evidence mounts, but for Charlotte and Wrexford, it’s a question of loyalty and friendship. And so they begin a new investigation to clear the siblings’ names, uncover their whereabouts, and unravel the truth behind the whispers.

As they delve into the murky world of banking and international arbitrage, Charlotte and Wrexford also struggle to navigate their increasingly complex feelings for each other. But the clock is ticking—a cunning mastermind has emerged . . . along with some unexpected allies—and Charlotte and Wrexford must race to prevent disasters both economic and personal as they are forced into a dangerous match of wits in an attempt to beat the enemy at his own game.

Previously Reviewed: “Murder on Black Swan Lane” and “Murder at Half Moon Gate” and “Murder at Kensington Palace”

Review: Back again for my seemingly monthly review of a book from the “Wrexford and Sloane” series. I’ve had my up and down moments with this series, but now I am beginning to catch up to the author’s release schedule, so it’s becoming a bit of a goal to complete it at this point. Overall, I was pleased with this entry, which just makes it all the more easy to move forward with this series!

Wrexford and Charlotte have begun to make a bit of a name for themselves in the crime-solving department. Of course, each is pursuing these goals under the guise of various other personal personas: Wrexford, a rather grumpy, scientifically minded member of the gentry, and Charlotte as the hidden genius behind a popular satirical cartoonist. But their friends know of their abilities, and it is these friends who call upon them when Lady Cordelia and her brother go missing. As Wrexford and Charlotte dive into the fray, they find themselves getting caught up with players who are more powerful than any they have grappled with before.

I really liked this entry into this series. There were a few things that were changed up that really gave the books the boost they needed. There had been a bit of a rut forming prior to this, so I was pleased to see the author address this. We had two changes made to the general story. One, there were a few chapters where we strayed from Charlottle and Wrexford’s particular stories. Instead, we got to see what Raven was up to. Raven and Hawk have been excellent side characters, but they had been becoming a bit predictable in their “street wise” ways. So having a few chapters where we saw Raven in action helped personify him more as a character in his own right.

We also had a few scenes where our characters were transplanted outside of their typical London domains. It was refreshing to see them interacting in new ways and to explore new locations other than the dark streets of the city. It opened up new angles on our characters and seemed to brighten the story considerably.

The mystery itself was also good. They typically have been, so that wasn’t really a surprise here. I will say, however, that this one walked a fine line of being almost a bit too complicated. I applaud the author for using each book to explore a different unique scientific or economic force that was prevalent in this time period. To do this, however, there is a necessary amount of explanation that needs to be conveyed to the reader in each story to fully lay out the stakes of the situation. And here, too, we got to explore how new concepts that were just entering the scene could be used and manipulated, for good and evil. It just so happened that the way some of these wove together got to be confusing and hard to keep track of as the story unraveled.

I was pleased to see the relationship between Wrexford and Sloane progress nicely. I think this will be a welcome change for many fans of the series. On the other hand, a lot of the emotional stakes for this particular mystery were centered around characters that we knew very little of. Lady Cordelia and her brother, while familiar to a certain extent from previous books, just didn’t have the same pull as the previous mysteries that tied more directly to our two main characters. That said, it is nice to see the cast becoming more fleshed out.

Fans of the series will likely be pleased with this book. It took a few steps forward in important aspects of the story, though I feel like, strangely, the mystery itself was the biggest challenge. Though, I still enjoyed that well enough, too.

Rating 8: Another solid entry. If you’re looking for a reliable (but not mind-blowing) historical mystery series, this one’s a good bet even four books in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Murder at Queen’s Landing” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Historical Mystery 2020 and Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.

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