Serena’s Review: “Murder on Black Swan Lane”

Book: “Murder on Black Swan Lane” by Andrea Penrose

Publishing Info: Kensington Books, June 2017

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

Book Description: In Regency London, an unconventional scientist and a fearless female artist form an unlikely alliance to expose unspeakable evil . . .

The Earl of Wrexford possesses a brilliant scientific mind, but boredom and pride lead him to reckless behavior. He does not suffer fools gladly. So when pompous, pious Reverend Josiah Holworthy publicly condemns him for debauchery, Wrexford unsheathes his rapier-sharp wit and strikes back. As their war of words escalates, London’s most popular satirical cartoonist, A.J. Quill, skewers them both. But then the clergyman is found slain in a church—his face burned by chemicals, his throat slashed ear to ear—and Wrexford finds himself the chief suspect.

Review: I’m not quite sure how I missed this series when it started up a few years ago. It’s quite obviously up my alley: historical mysteries featuring a man and woman duo. It’s to the point where I almost feel guilty about how specific my reading tastes are for both historical fiction and mysteries. But I finally tracked it down and received my audiobook from the library. Bonus points for being narrated by one of my faves!

The Earl of Wrexford and A.J. Quill operate in very different circles. Their paths only seem to intersect when Wrexford becomes the unwilling star of Quill’s satirical cartoons. But when the feud between Wrexford and a priest that Quill had so delightfully been illustrating goes south with the priest dead and Wrexford suspected, their paths cross in real life. Both are not what the other had thought, with Wrexford hiding a true scientific mind behind his rakish outward persona and Quill turning out to be not a man, but a widow who has her fingertips on the pulse of the city. As they begin investigating the priest’s death, more mysteries begin to appear and the perpetrator may be closer than either had suspected.

Recently, most of the historical mystery pair-ups I’ve read have a distinct “comfort mystery” vibe to them. Both the Amelia Peabody series as well as the Veronica Speedwell are very light-hearted, with equal attention given to the romance and comedy of the story as the mystery itself. So I was excited to see that this was a more serious mystery series. The murder itself is violent, the motives for the various players are appropriately dastardly, and the story doesn’t shy away from the very real challenges of life in this time period.

Mrs. Sloane, of course, most represents this aspect of the story. A widow making a living for herself as a satirical cartoonist, you can feel the way her livelihood balances on the edge of the knife. But her two young wards, a pair of brothers who have grown up on the streets, paint an even more stark picture. At every turn, we see Mrs. Sloane’s desperate attempts to carve out a place for herself and these two boys, both representing groups that society neglects and forgets. She is an excellent character, and I love the fact that there were a number of mysteries about her past and character that were not fully resolved even here. We have enough to paint a general picture and become attached to the character, but enough teases are left to have me eager to pick up the next entry.

For his part, Wrexford is the more typical rich, snarky, seemingly care-free aristocrat. But as the story progressed, he, too, began to reveal new layers. There are fewer mysteries to be found here, but I’m equally intrigued by his ability to put together the pieces behind Mrs. Sloane’s secrets as I am about their ultimate reveals. I also liked the fact that Wrexford was a nice balance between the cluelessness that would be natural to a man in his position dealing with a woman like Mrs. Sloane, while also being progressive enough to be heroic. The balance struck between these two aspects felt believable and compelling.

I also really liked the mystery itself. There were a good number of red herrings and a lot of historical scientific elements that were all particularly interesting. The author also included a great note at the end that went into how she used these elements and which are based in fact and which had been adjusted somewhat to meet the needs of the story. The writing was also very strong and drew me immediately into the story, deftly painting scenes and grounding the world in Regency London. Fans of historical mysteries should definitely check this out, especially if you’re looking for a more serious tone than some of the cozy historical mystery series running right now.

Rating 9: A super solid start to a new historical mystery series with two compelling protagonists at its heart. Of course, I already want them to just kiss.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Murder on Black Swan Lane” is on these Goodreads lists: Regency and Victorian Mysteries and Art & Artists in Fiction.

Find “Murder on Black Swan Lane” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Vanishing Stair”

Book: “The Vanishing Stair” by Maureen Johnson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, January 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Just as Stevie feels she’s on the cusp of putting it together, her parents pull her out of Ellingham academy.

For her own safety they say. She must move past this obsession with crime. Now that Stevie’s away from the school of topiaries and secret tunnels, and her strange and endearing friends, she begins to feel disconnected from the rest of the world. At least she won’t have to see David anymore. David, who she kissed. David, who lied to her about his identity—son of despised politician Edward King. Then King himself arrives at her house to offer a deal: He will bring Stevie back to Ellingham immediately. In return, she must play nice with David. King is in the midst of a campaign and can’t afford his son stirring up trouble. If Stevie’s at school, David will stay put.

The tantalizing riddles behind the Ellingham murders are still waiting to be unraveled, and Stevie knows she’s so close. But the path to the truth has more twists and turns than she can imagine—and moving forward involves hurting someone she cares for.

Previously Reviewed: “Truly, Devious”

Review: While I do enjoy mystery novels, they’re typically of the historical mystery variant. That or adult forensic crime stories, ala the “Temperance Brennan” series and such. That being the case, “Truly, Devious,” a YA mystery was a new thing for me. I listened to it as an audiobook and ended up really enjoying it, even if I was able to predict a few of the twists and turns. And then…it ended on a cliffhanger. It took me a bit, but now I’m finally back to see what mysteries will be revealed here! Spoiler alert: not enough.

Things have not gone to plan. After Stevie pinned so many hopes on attempting to solve the mysteries at the heart of Ellingham academy, her parents pull her away. But all is not lost when David’s father, the reviled Edward King, arrives with a proposition: Stevie returns to Ellingham in order to placate his troublesome son. Stevie’s parents, big supporters and donators to King’s causes, are willing enough to agree to this and thus Stevie returns. But all is not right at Ellingham and the prices keep going up on the bars for entrance into the academy’s dark past.

I’m going to get this out of the way, I had a lot of problems with this book. I can essentially put them in two categories, however: problems I had with this book in general and problems that might be simply due to me being a 30-something woman reading a YA mystery novel. That being the case, take much of this with a grain of salt, especially if you’re a young adult who loves this type of book and series.

Because, yes, there are still some really solid things about it. Stevie herself is an interesting leading lady. The author excels especially at the portrayal of Stevie’s anxiety and how it affects her day-t0-day life. I thought this topic was handled in such an important, normalizing way, addressing the real challenges posed to those who live with anxiety like this. Most importantly, while Stevie lives with anxiety, it doesn’t define her and the book never treats it as some sort of shameful flaw. It’s all very well-done, and I think sends a powerful message to readers who also live with anxiety.

I also like the underlying mystery at the heart of the story. But this is also where I get into one of my biggest problems with this book, and one that I think I would have regardless of my age reading it. The Ellingham murder/disappearance story is so captivating that it starts to wash-out the events happening in the current setting of the story. What’s more, we again get very, very few answers and end on yet another cliffhanger. I don’t think there is anything in this book, or in this bigger mystery itself, that justified this being a trilogy rather than a duology. By doing this, every aspect of the book feels stretched thing and watered down. It’s the epitome of “second book syndrome.”

On top of that, by choosing to end on yet another cliffhanger, the author has lost all goodwill from me. One is bad enough, but a second just makes me start to feel like I’m being inexpertly manipulated. Had there been more substantial reveals or revelations offered up in the story as a whole, perhaps I would be more forgiving of this choice. As it is, it feels like a weak attempt to forcibly capture an audience and maneuver them into sticking around using a “sunk cost” approach: you’ve already read two entire books without really getting anywhere, gotta read the last!

I personally also struggled with the characters in this book. In the first story, we meet Stevie and the other odd characters who make up the student body at the school. By splitting that story between these necessary introductions, plus the small mystery at the heart of that book and the ongoing Ellingham mysteries, we never got much more than the broadest strokes of these other characters there. So I had expected to see more depth add to them in this second book. But no, they all still felt pretty one-dimensional. That said, again, I’m not the target audience for this book, so others may find more value in these characters than I did.

Ultimately, I was pretty disappointed by this book. I had really hoped for more and finished the last page firmly believing that this entire book was necessary to the story. Of course, I haven’t read the third one, but I have to imagine that things could have been neatly covered in a duology rather than a trilogy. I’m especially frustrated with the cliffhanger and lack of answers to the cold case of Ellingham. I’m not sure I’ll continue on, honestly. We’ll see how my mood takes me in the future!

Rating 6: A solid “second book” in the worst ways, but I’m also not the target audience for this, so take my rating with that in mind.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Vanishing Stair” is also on these Goodreads lists: 2019 YA Mystery/Thrillers and YA Murder Mysteries.

Find “The Vanishing Stair” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “As Good As Dead”

Book: “As Good As Dead” (A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder #3) by Holly Jackson

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2021

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

Book Description: The highly anticipated, edge-of-your-seat conclusion to the addictive A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder series that reads like your favorite true crime podcast or show. By the end, you’ll never think the same of good girls again.

Pip’s good girl days are long behind her. After solving two murder cases and garnering internet fame from her crime podcast, she’s seen a lot.

But she’s still blindsided when it starts to feel like someone is watching her. It’s small things at first. A USB stick with footage recording her and the same anonymous source always asking her: who will look for you when you’re the one who disappears? It could be a harmless fan, but her gut is telling her danger is lurking.

When Pip starts to find connections between her possible stalker and a local serial killer, Pip knows that there is only one choice: find the person threatening her town including herself–or be as good as dead. Because maybe someone has been watching her all along

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

Whenever I get to a final book of a series I have genuinely enjoyed, I am torn between wanting to devour it to see how it all plays out, and savoring it to stave off the end as long as possible. When I saw that “As Good As Dead”, the last book in Holly Jackson’s “A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder” series was coming out, I was thrilled and saddened. I think part of me had hoped that perhaps Jackson would make Pippa Fitz-Amobi, true crime obsessive and amateur detective, a series a la Temperence Brennan or Amelia Peabody. But if this is truly the end for Pip, I have to say that, while I was sad to say goodbye, this goodbye was so satisfying that I have few regrets.

Me saying goodbye to this series (though all three books are on my shelf to revisit whenever). (source)

When we left Pip at the end of “Good Girl, Bad Blood”, she had just survived a house fire and witnessed the brutal murder of sometimes ally, sometimes thorn in her side Stanley, who had been revealed as the son of a notorious murderer and who was killed out of revenge though he himself was a child at the time of the murders. Pip has been downward spiraling ever since, as while she’s counting the days down until she leaves for college, she’s also been taking Xanax on the sly to help her sleep, having PTSD episodes in secret, and fighting back unbridled rage issues. Especially since serial rapist Max Hastings, whose actions had far reaching consequences for Pip and those she cares about, has gone free. I had a very clear idea of what I thought was going to happen with this book. Pip is very unwell, understandably so, and I figured that we were going to get an exploration of a detective on the edge, who is after one last case to try and absolve herself of her roles in past cases and tragedies that came from them. As well as trying to solve the newest case of who is stalking her before it is too late.

In terms of these things, Jackson soars. I completely believed Pip’s mental state, and I loved that Jackson decided to go in this direction. I also found the slowly escalating stalker events in her life to be very creepy and unsettling, and through a combination of narrative as well as pictures, graphs, and epistolary segments (much like the previous books), we have a new case of a long supposedly solved serial killer that Pip now has to attend to, lest she be the next victim. Did this seem a little out there? Sure. But I was totally willing to buy in. Mostly because Jackson really knows how to plot a thriller that has wonderful characters and good connections to previous books/cases in the series.

It was about halfway through this book that I realized that Jackson had something else in store for the reader, and when I realized where it was all going, I was both blown away and a little bit horrified. I’m not going to spoil anything here, as it’s definitely worth keeping close to the vest. But “As Good As Dead” does away with preconceived notions of where this final book could go, even more so than just making Pip a complete emotional wreck. At first I was skeptical and a little bit incredulous, but as the plot goes on, it becomes very clear that Jackson has plans for Pip, and they are probably a foregone conclusion for her storyline given how things have been building since the first book. It’s so well done, and so suspenseful, and it made this final book a serious firecracker of a thriller. And I found myself going back to the previous two books to look for clues to see just how far back Jackson was planning this whole thing. It’s very well done. As mentioned above, while the main issue that Pip is facing (being the target of a potential dormant serial killer) did feel a little bit much, Jackson tells that story and the whole new other story so well that I was just enjoying the hell out of the ride. As well as getting my emotions totally run through the wringer. Sweet, sweet agony.

“As Good As Dead” is a satisfying end to a very enjoyable series! I look forward to seeing what Jackson writes next, and I wouldn’t mind revisiting Pip and all her loved ones down the road.

Rating 9: A supremely satisfying (and at times very very bleak) conclusion to a YA series I love, “As Good As Dead” takes Pip on her darkest case yet.

Reader’s Advisory:

“As Good As Dead” is included on the Goodreads lists “Young Adult THRILLERS”, and “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, and Thrillers 2021”.

Find “As Good As Dead” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Unholy Murder”

Book: “Unholy Murder” by Lynda La Plante

Publishing Info: Zaffre, August 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst!

Book Description: ‘Help me turn the coffin lid over.’ Jane Tennison said, grabbing one end.

‘What you looking for?’ Doctor Pullen asked.

‘I want to see the condition of the interior lining.’

‘The right hand on the body has a broken fingernails, some are worn down to the fingertips.’ Doctor Pullen informed them as they gently turned the lid over. The mouldy white satin lining was torn and hanging loose at the head end. Jane gently brushed it to one side revealing deep fingernail scratch marks on the interior metal.

‘Oh my God,’ Tennison exclaimed. ‘She was buried alive.

In Unholy Murder, Tennison must lift the lid on the most chilling murder case of her career to date . . .

Review: I won this book in a giveaway not really knowing that it was number seven in a series, but, here we are! I was mostly intrigued by the fact that it was a series featuring the character Tennison best known from the TV show. I also like a good crime novel every once in a while (Kate and I both read the “Temperance Brennan” series on and off though we haven’t reviewed them here). So I was excited to find another book in that vein, all the better since I can likely find audiobook versions read by people with lovely British accents, given the location! Let’s dive in.

Jane Tennison is back on the case. This time she arrives to find a recently-discovered coffin at the site of an old convent. Inside, the remains of a nun. But what should be unsurprising is suddenly awful when it becomes clear the nun was buried alive. Now Tennison must work to uncover the truth, attempting to wheedle out the truth from the reluctant Catholic Church, made all the more difficult from her partner’s past connection to the Church. But nothing can put Tennison off the case, and slowly but surely, the past will be unburied.

Like I mentioned earlier, I hadn’t read any other books in this series before picking up this book .Worse, I’ve only seen one or two of the episodes of the original show and none of the new show (didn’t even discover there was a new show until I went down a research rabbit hole). All of that to say, I still did fine without any real previous knowledge of the story. Like many police procedural books, there were perhaps some character connections and histories that I missed out on, but the story itself is started, centered, and concluded around this particular crime.

The crime itself was interesting. Being buried alive, I think, is pretty much anyone’s nightmare, so the horror was already built in right there. It was also a bit timely to be reading this book right now given the ongoing revelations about crimes within the church. I thought the book did a decent job of unpacking the “circling the wagons” nature of the Catholic Church while also not demonizing the entire belief system.

I also really liked both of the characters we had here. DCS Barnes, a completely new character to me, was particularly interesting with his past history with the Church. I liked that La Plante didn’t shy away from showing the biases that are inherent even to investigators who are meant to look at crimes through as objective a lens as possible. It’s simply not possible for a person not to bring their own baggage to some of these scenes, so it was nice to see the author give her characters these natural flaws.

I also enjoyed the time period that this book was set in. For some reason, I had assumed it would be a modern story, but I guess that doesn’t make much sense given the fact that it’s based on a TV show from the 90s I believe. The story itself is set in the early 80s, and I liked how it showed crime investigations going down without the modern tools we’re used to seeing in police procedurals today.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It’s been a while since I’ve read a crime procedural, and it was a good addition of a series to return to now and then. The story was definitely slow, and the writing was a bit awkward here and there (perhaps a testament to the author’s original writing experience coming from screenplay work rather than novel-writing). Fans of the series, I’m sure, will enjoy this. And those who enjoy police procedural stories are likely to appreciate it, too.

Rating 7: A bit slow and fumbling at times, but ultimately an enjoyable change of pace for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Unholy Murder” is a newer title so it isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Best Female Crime/Mystery/Thriller Writers.

Find “Unholy Murder” at your library using WorldCat!

Joint Review: “Velvet Was the Night”

Book: “Velvet Was the Night” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publishing Info: Del Rey, August 2021

Where Did We Get This Book: Received an eARC from NetGalley, received an eARC from Edelweiss+.

Book Description: From the New York Times bestselling author of Mexican Gothic comes a “delicious, twisted treat for lovers of noir” about a daydreaming secretary, a lonesome enforcer, and the mystery of a missing woman they’re both desperate to find.

1970s, Mexico City. Maite is a secretary who lives for one thing: the latest issue of Secret Romance. While student protests and political unrest consume the city, Maite escapes into stories of passion and danger.

Her next-door neighbor, Leonora, a beautiful art student, seems to live a life of intrigue and romance that Maite envies. When Leonora disappears under suspicious circumstances, Maite finds herself searching for the missing woman—and journeying deeper into Leonora’s secret life of student radicals and dissidents.

Meanwhile, someone else is also looking for Leonora at the behest of his boss, a shadowy figure who commands goon squads dedicated to squashing political activists. Elvis is an eccentric criminal who longs to escape his own life: He loathes violence and loves old movies and rock ’n’ roll. But as Elvis searches for the missing woman, he comes to observe Maite from a distance—and grows more and more obsessed with this woman who shares his love of music and the unspoken loneliness of his heart.

Now as Maite and Elvis come closer to discovering the truth behind Leonora’s disappearance, they can no longer escape the danger that threatens to consume their lives, with hitmen, government agents, and Russian spies all aiming to protect Leonora’s secrets—at gunpoint.

Velvet Was the Night is an edgy, simmering historical novel for lovers of smoky noirs and anti-heroes.

Serena’s Thoughts

I remember noting in one of my early Moreno-Garcia reads that she’s a unique author in that she seems to jump from genre to genre with ease. It’s truly something rare, I believe, as most authors have a defined genre within they operate comfortably. Sherry Thomas is another favorite author of mine who comes to mind with this shared ability. But Moreno-Garcia takes it to a new level. I’ve read a Gothic horror, a Regency romance, a Mexican folktale fantasy, and now here I am reviewing a noir! At the very least, she’s single-handedly expanding my horizons in my genre reading!

One thing that does remain consistent between her books is her love of featuring duel/multiple POVs in her books. Here we experience the story from both an inside and outside perspective. On one hand, we have Maite, an introverted young woman who leads a quiet life reading her beloved romance novels before getting drawn into the mysterious disappearance of her neighbor Leonora. And on the other, we have Elvis, a gang member who works with the Hawks, an organization that works to quell political dissenters. He is interested in Leonora’s disappearance for very different reasons.

There was much to love about this book, from its exploration of the deep loneliness found in two characters leading very different lives, to the vivid painting of life in Mexico during this period of history. I knew only a little about what was going on during this time, so I was particularly interested in seeing Moreno-Garcia’s take on that situation. Elvis’s storyline, in particular, presented a unique take on these events, coming from the inside of the Hawk organization itself.

But her strengths have always been her characters and the strong, atmospheric worlds she sets them loose in. Here, both Maite and Elvis, while very, very different characters, were equally compelling. Their stories weave together slowly and with attention given to the inner workings of each character and the arcs they are covering. I don’t read a lot of noirs, but I believe this slower-paced storytelling is a specific aspect of the genre, and it blends perfectly with Moreno-Garcia’s love of careful character building.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I think I ultimately still prefer her other books that had supernatural/fantasy elements involved, but that’s also just very inline with my own reading tendencies. Fans of noirs and historical fiction, I’m sure, will gobble this up, but I recommend it to readers of all genres,

Kate’s Thoughts

Boy oh boy, I am consistently blown away by how good Silvia Moreno-Garcia is at seamlessly slipping into a new genre with every book I read, and while I always hope that she will come back for more horror and thriller elements as time goes on, I do like a good mystery. I’m not as in tune with the Noir subgenre as I am other mystery subgenres, but I do enjoy a good Noir film every now and again. Because of this, I was eager to read her new Noir novel, “Velvet Was the Night”

Serena touches on a lot of the same things I liked about this book in her review, so I’ll try not to repeat her too much. I also enjoyed both of our protagonists Maite and Elvis, and their very different backgrounds and motivations for finding Leonora. Maite gets pulled into it because 1) she was watching the woman’s cat, and 2) the mystery is exciting, and her life is decidedly not. Elvis, on the other hand, works for a secret group that crushes political dissenters, and Leonora is involved in student activism. The elements of an intricate mystery are there as they both go on the search and find out a lot about her life and how it fits into the landscape of 1970s Mexico City. I liked both Maite for her somewhat naïveté laced personality and the dark and dangerous journey she takes, and I liked Elvis and how, even though he works for a group of suppressive fascists, he has his own bits of rebellion as he, too, goes on a journey on self discovery. They both feel confined to their existences, and start to realize that there could be more.

And it’s really the time and place that worked the best for me in this story. I have no little knowledge of Mexican history, so a lot of this felt like I was learning a bit about an area I knew little about as we went on the journey. I found myself looking up information about Luis Echeverría Álvarez and El Halconazo as I was reading the book just to educate myself some more, and it made the political dissent angle all the more interesting to me. I love how Moreno-Garcia pulled a Noir story out of a setting that you don’t see within the subgenre all that often, at least in my experience. Some of the details and allusions to that theme were very unsettling, and wove in an entire lower level of dread that the Hawks were going to catch up with Maite, Rubén, and Leonora and then all hell would break loose.

“Velvet Was the Night” is a well done new Noir mystery that is sure to entertain mystery fans. Hats off to Moreno-Garcia for once again doing a great job with a new genre!

Serena’s Rating:

Kate’s Rating 8: A taut mystery, fun characters, and a unique setting made “Velvet Was the Night” a fun noir mystery that I enjoyed quite a bit.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Velvet Was the Night” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Noir of the 21st Century”, and “Books by Latinx Releasing in 2021”.

Find “Velvet Was the Night” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Firekeeper’s Daughter”

Book: “Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley

Publishing Info: Henry, Holt, & Co., March 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: As a biracial, unenrolled tribal member and the product of a scandal, eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. Daunis dreams of studying medicine, but when her family is struck by tragedy, she puts her future on hold to care for her fragile mother.

The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team. Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, certain details don’t add up and she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into the heart of a criminal investigation.

Reluctantly, Daunis agrees to go undercover, but secretly pursues her own investigation, tracking down the criminals with her knowledge of chemistry and traditional medicine. But the deceptions—and deaths—keep piling up and soon the threat strikes too close to home. Now, Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she’ll go to protect her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known.

Review: Sometimes, when you are reading a book, there is a moment where you just know that it is going to knock your socks off. I couldn’t pinpoint where it was in “Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley, but I know it was early. I know there was a moment where there was a switch that flipped, and I said to myself ‘this is going to be fantastic’. I bought it after hearing a bit of buzz, but it admittedly sat on my pile for awhile. I happened to pick it up the same day that I had the pleasure of seeing Boulley talk during a virtual conference, and what began as ‘oh, that’s cool serendipity’ shortly thereafter morphed into something more.

It was very this. (source)

I loved this book. I LOVED it. Angeline Boulley is a fantastic writer who has a gift for imagery, characterization, and plotting, and the result is a hell of a debut novel. The mystery at hand as so many layers, and not just in terms of evidence and components, but also in terms of the consequences and difficult realities that it has because of the community it is affecting. Our main character, Daunis, is such an effective and complicated but easy to root for protagonist, and she is completely believable in every step she takes based on her experience, background, and personality. We slowly learn her backstory while we are meeting her in the middle of a huge traumatic change, as her maternal grandmother has just had a stroke and months previously her maternal uncle was found dead of a meth overdose. Daunis is feeling adrift, even when she has already felt a bit adrift, being the biracial daughter of a white mother and an Anishinaabe man, so her very existence was a huge scandal (parentage aside, her mother was a teenager when she became pregnant, and shortly thereafter he left her for another girl he’d also gotten pregnant). Daunis has had to straddle the privileged white identity as well as her Indigenous one, and has never felt truly and fully accepted by either side of the family, no matter how much love she feels from both sides. Her need to find herself, and her need to avenge the death of her best friend Lily (whose murder she witnessed), as well as her uncle, drives her even more. Daunis is such a compelling main character, I just loved her and loved everything about her. When I saw Boulley speak during the Virtual U.S. Book Show, she described Daunis as a ‘Native Nancy Drew’, and while meth is a bit more high stakes than secrets in old clocks, her pluckiness and likability is totally an homage to young women detectives in literature. And yes, her chemistry with Jamie is…. it’s just wonderful, and heartbreaking, and beautiful, and that’s all I am going to say about her and Jamie. Because you gotta read the book.

But Daunis’s Indigenous cultural identity plays a huge part in this story, and Boulley weaves it all in spectacularly. I think that in a lot of YA thrillers in which a young adult protagonist would be asked to be a CI for the government, it may be a hard and dangerous decision, but on that they would ultimately do for ‘the greater good’ without many personal qualms outside of danger. But that isn’t so in Daunis’s case, nor can it be. Her decision to work with the FBI and the BIA is certainly not one to take lightly, given the terrible history both organizations have with Indigenous people in this country (really, the United States Government in general has just been awful in this regard). But once she’s in it, we get a gritty and suspenseful, as well as critical, look at what it means to be a CI, as well as the way that the FBI and BIA approach communities with such systemic and cyclical oppression. Daunis approaches this as ‘the greater good’, but never truly trusts Ron, the FBI agent, as his motivation is to stop the criminals, as opposed to helping the community that is being affected by the meth supply heal and get better.

There is also the complicated relationship that Daunis has with her maternal side, in particular her Grandmary, who absolutely loves her granddaughter, but is racist towards the Indigenous population in the community as seen through flashbacks and second hand accounts. While it could be written that Daunis either completely excuses her grandmother, or completely shuns her grandmother, instead we find a very realistic and complicated middle ground for her. Along with both those really complicated examinations, every time we get information about Daunis’s culture, be it through conversation, demonstration, or flat out explanation, it is done in a way that is so natural that it always fits the moment. It feels strange to say that it’s ‘unique’, as the uniqueness of it probably comes from the fact that Indigenous voices in literature have been underrepresented for far too long, but it was certainly a fair amount of new information to me, someone who grew up on Dakota Land and has spent a lot of time north on Ojibwe/Anishinaabe Land.

AND, as if I haven’t gushed on long enough, BUT I’M GOING TO CONTINUE, the mystery is also great. I may have guessed some parts of it, but that didn’t even matter to me because it was well crafted, complex, and it was really able to hit home the tragedies of meth running in this community and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that are at the center of the mystery. There is so much power in this story. As well as a lot of darkness (content warnings here an there, from domestic abuse to murder to a sexual assault that happens off page, but is definitely upsetting). But the darkness always has a bit of hope and resilience to go along with it, and that made all the difference.

“Firekeeper’s Daughter” is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Do yourself a favor and read this book. It is almost assuredly going to be on my Top Ten list this year.

Rating 10: It’s just fantastic. A healthy and powerful mix of a well done mystery and a meditation on being Indigenous in the 21st century, “Firekeeper’s Daughter” blew me completely away.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Firekeeper’s Daughter” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books by Indigenous Women”, and “Hello Sunshine YA Book Club Book List”.

Find “Firekeeper’s Daughter” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “That Weekend”

Book: “That Weekend” by Kara Thomas

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, June 2021

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

Book Description: Three best friends, a lake house, a secret trip – what could go wrong?

It was supposed to be the perfect prom weekend getaway. But it’s clear something terrible happened when Claire wakes up alone and bloodied on a hiking trail with no memory of the past forty-eight hours. Three went up the mountain, but only one came back. Now everyone wants answers – most of all, Claire. She remembers Friday night, but after that… nothing. And now Kat and Jesse – her best friends – are missing.

That weekend changes everything. What happened on the mountain? And where are Kat and Jesse? Claire knows the answers are buried somewhere in her memory, but as she’s learning, everyone has secrets – even her best friends. And she’s pretty sure she’s not going to like what she remembers.

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

Kara Thomas is one of those authors who has never disappointed me. I have genuinely enjoyed and been surprised by all of her books, and she has easily been one of the authors whose works I am guaranteed to read as soon as I possibly can. I admit that the pessimist in me tends to worry whenever I pick up a book by one of these ‘can do no wrong’ authors, as I am always wondering ‘is this the book that is going to disappoint me?’ Thus far, with her newest novel “That Weekend”, Thomas has never done so. Hell, when I was reading this book and I was enjoying it and trying to figure out what was going on, I had an epiphany moment in the tub (when I wasn’t even reading the book) in which I thought that no, THIS was going to be the big reveal that was going to change everything. I wasn’t even mad about it, as it was, to my mind, a great reveal and surely that was what was going to happen because that would be genius.

And then, like she always does, Kara Thomas went and pulled the rug out from under me and my expectations of what was to come.

SHE DID IT AGAIN! (source)

But I am so ahead of myself. “That Weekend” is a YA thriller that could have used some tried and true tropes to tell a pretty familiar story. Thomas is a talented enough writer and mystery weaver that she could have done this and still made it work and feel fresh, but no, instead she takes it to other places that make it all the more interesting and suspenseful. We mostly follow Claire, a girl who went on a camping trip with her best friends Kat and Jesse, and woke up in the wilderness with a head injury, blood on herself, and no memory of what had happened for the past twenty four hours. On top of that, Kat and Jesse are no where to be found. From the jump we are in the weeds as much as Claire is, as she is the perfect unreliable narrator in that she has memory loss AND has some issues with Kat and Jesse that she is only starting to work through (specifically, the fact that they are now a couple, and she has been in love with Jesse for years). The mystery of what happened to Claire and what happened to Kat and Jesse seems pretty straight forward at first, with familiar beats and plot points, but never fear; Thomas has much more in store. What happens next is an engaging and very addictive mystery about friendship, secrets, trauma, and the things we don’t know about the people we love most. I really liked Claire’s storyline trajectory, as she goes from victim of something, to scrutinized potential suspect, to hard boiled amateur detective, all while realistically dealing (or perhaps not dealing) with the horrifically traumatic experience she went through and continues to go through as time moves on. Her characterization felt realistic in it’s messiness, and her resentment and determination was organic and never forced. Because of this, she was easy to root for, even if she was sometimes hard to like. We do get to see into the minds of other characters a little bit, and while they are all done well too, it’s really Claire that shines as a flawed but mostly empathetic protagonist.

And as I was gushing above, the mystery is so well plotted that I was always a few steps behind. Thomas has all the clues laid out so that you can trace everything back, but she knows how to keep them close to the vest. The reveals and surprises are all pretty darn rewarding because of this, and the pacing was such that I found it very hard to put this book down. And even one kind of out there late game twist that could have been seen as overkill was done in a way that I really didn’t hate it. It didn’t necessarily ADD to anything, but it worked well enough that the late revelation wasn’t the cheap moment that it could have been. Thomas also brings up some good, damning points about true crime tourism and media, as not only are there some armchair detectives online who come off as pretty terrible, there is a VERY clear nod to that horrible trauma scavenger Nancy Grace in one of the characters whose only goal is to get ratings by turning the public against literal teenagers. It’s one of the things that the true crime community really needs to reckon with, as people like Grace (and this character) see blood in the water and exploit it for ratings, even if they make chum of innocent people in the process.

“That Weekend” continues the streak that Thomas has had from the get go. It may be my favorite of her books. Thriller fans of all ages should definitely check it out.

Rating 9: Thomas has once again written a suspenseful, engaging, and surprising YA thriller!

Reader’s Advisory:

“That Weekend” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Find “That Weekend” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Bury the Lede”

Book: “Bury the Lede” by Gaby Dunn & Claire Roe (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Boom! Studios, October 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Twenty-one-year-old Madison T. Jackson is already the star of the Emerson College student newspaper when she nabs a coveted night internship at Boston’s premiere newspaper, The Boston Lede. The job’s simple: do whatever the senior reporters tell you to do, from fetching coffee to getting a quote from a grieving parent. It’s grueling work, so when the murder of a prominent Boston businessman comes up on the police scanner, Madison races to the scene of the grisly crime. There, Madison meets the woman who will change her life forever: prominent socialite Dahlia Kennedy, who is covered in gore and being arrested for the murder of her family. The newspapers put everyone they can in front of her with no results until, with nothing to lose, Madison gets a chance – and unexpectedly barrels headfirst into danger she never anticipated.

Review: As I continue to try and up my graphic novel stats after a few months of a whole lot of novels, I found “Bury the Lede” by Gaby Dunn on a list about dark graphic novels with LGBTQIA+ themes and characters. Both wanting to get out of the fantasy realms of graphics, and always wanting to read more books by LGBTQIA+ authors about LGBTQIA+ characters, I found it at my library and placed it on hold. When it came I was a little shocked to see how short it was, but hey, a story about a young wannabe reporter getting close to a potential murderer in hopes of solving a baffling case? That could be covered in a trade paperback collection sized graphic, right? Right. Then it was too bad that “Bury the Lede” had far more plot points and aspirations than just that, because it’s a lot to cram into one thin book.

In terms of what did work for me, there were some really cool ideas in this book. I love the concept of a budding journalist wanting to prove herself getting in a bit over her head. I really liked the sapphic obsessive relationship that our journalist, Madison, starts up with accused murderess and socialite Dahlia. On paper it sounds very “Silence of the Lambs”, with a prisoner perhaps manipulating an investigator, but also leading them to a much bigger case nonetheless. I thoroughly enjoyed every scene that Madison and Dahlia had together, the weird sexual chemistry oozing and crackling when you aren’t exactly certain if this is something you’re supposed to be cool with. That works so, so well. I also enjoyed the ‘ripped from the headlines’ character of Raquel Stief, a woman in an education position that is being considered for a place in the President’s circle of advisors and administrators, and who is CLEARLY based on that demon Betsy DeVos. There may have been some living vicariously going on here as I read, given that one of the true monsters in this story is Stief, and Madison is hoping to take her down. And hell, I liked that there was a broader conspiracy afoot, because something like that is a really good idea that has a lot of potential to explore. And as mentioned earlier, this book does have numerous LGBTQIA+ characters and themes, and any time we get some diversity in graphic novels written by Own Voices authors, it’s going to be positive.

But oh, the stumbles within the good ideas and broad themes. While the idea of a sweeping political conspiracy theory with implications that could go all the way to Washington D.C. is very interesting, this isn’t a very long book, and it all feels like it goes VERY fast. Madison uncovers connection after connection at break neck speed, and it gave very little space to breathe by the time we get to the big reveal and climax of the book. And while the book pulls you in with the mystery of Dahlia, the murder of her husband, and her missing child, by the time we do get to the revelations involving that whole thing, it feels like a bit of a cobbled together afterthought. So does the connection that Dahlia has to Stief. By the end it feels more like Dunn wanted to have an “All the President’s Men” kind of story, but thought that the only way to get people to read such a thing in graphic novel form was to throw in a nice carrot on a stick in the form of murder. And by the end, neither aspect felt wholly explored. Hasty plot points aside, in terms of the characters, there really isn’t anyone to root for. I like that Madison is determined, but not only do we really only get to see this one side of her, she is also wholly, WHOLLY unethical in her journalistic ways. I’m sure that it was meant to establish her as a morally gray character whose drive to do ANYTHING for a story is damaging, but that’s not exactly a new theme to stories about journalists. And if anything, she left the morally gray area and went into straight up villain territory (mild spoiler alert: she roofies someone to get information out of them. Like, holy shit.), but it never seemed to be treated as such.

But, I did like the artwork and the character designs. Claire Roe uses some effective shadows and colors to establish mood, and it definitely felt neo-noir in her illustrations.

I had expectations for “Bury the Lede” that weren’t met. Though it had glimmers of really cool ideas, the execution didn’t get off the ground.

Rating 5: Definitely has a well conceived plot with some good ideas, but it just felt like it was executed a little too quickly with not enough focus. Throw in unlikable characters, and it’s just meh.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bury the Lede” is included on the Goodreads lists “Journalists, Photographers, Etc. in Comics”, and “Novels with Bisexual Protagonists”.

Find “Bury the Lede” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Arsenic and Adobo”

Book: “Arsenic and Adobo” by Mia P. Manansala

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, May 2021

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

Book Description: The first book in a new culinary cozy series full of sharp humor and delectable dishes—one that might just be killer….

When Lila Macapagal moves back home to recover from a horrible breakup, her life seems to be following all the typical rom-com tropes. She’s tasked with saving her Tita Rosie’s failing restaurant, and she has to deal with a group of matchmaking aunties who shower her with love and judgment. But when a notoriously nasty food critic (who happens to be her ex-boyfriend) drops dead moments after a confrontation with Lila, her life quickly swerves from a Nora Ephron romp to an Agatha Christie case.

With the cops treating her like she’s the one and only suspect, and the shady landlord looking to finally kick the Macapagal family out and resell the storefront, Lila’s left with no choice but to conduct her own investigation. Armed with the nosy auntie network, her barista best bud, and her trusted Dachshund, Longanisa, Lila takes on this tasty, twisted case and soon finds her own neck on the chopping block…

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

I’ve said in the past few months that I’m trying to expand my literary experiences this year in terms of genres. First that meant that I was going to read more romance. And then after our Book Club read “The Widows of Malabar Hill” I thought that perhaps I would give more cozy mysteries a try. Admittedly my preconceived notions of cozy mysteries usually involve crafting or baking themes, and also usually star white women. Whether these were accurate notions or not, they were the notions I had before Book Club opened my eyes. And then I stumbled upon “Arsenic and Adobo” by Mia P. Manansala on NetGalley, and I decided that it was time to finally dive in. And what better way to do it, but with a story that takes place in a Filipino restaurant in small town America?

The premise is pretty simple: our protagonist Lila has returned to her small town after a bad break up that made her flee Chicago. She rejoins her Tita Rosie, as well as her grandmother and her meddling but well meaning aunties, and is helping at Rosie’s restaurant. Things get sticky when Lila’s old boyfriend Derek dies after eating the food at the restaurant, and also after arguing with Lila. So Lila has to clear her name, as well as help save the restaurant from going under. Simple stuff, but Manansala writes with such joy and verve that it’s just a fun story to read in spite of some of the more simplistic aspects. Lila is a fun character to follow, as she is a good balance of a bit self absorbed and frazzled, but also clearly cares about her family and her friends. She’s the perfect amateur detective for a story like this, getting into trouble but charming her way (or sometimes bumbling her way) through her investigation. I also liked the other supporting characters, from her loving Tita Rosie to her busy body aunties. My favorite, however, was definitely her high school best friend Adeena, who is both spunky and yet sensitive, and provides a good foil to Lila both in positive and negative ways. Really, the entire cast is fun, it’s diverse, and we are getting ideas as to what parts they are going to play as the series goes on.

As for the mystery itself, it’s entertaining and perfectly alright. The stakes are high, given that Lila’s freedom and her aunt’s business are both threatened, but it never feels like things aren’t going to work out, one way or another. I know that’s one of the things that appeals about cozy mysteries, but as someone who reads some pretty dark shit I’m not as used to it, and it was a bit refreshing. There are a wide array of suspects and some red herrings, but when all is said and done it was pretty predictable as to what was going on and who was guilty if you knew what to look for. I guessed the culprit long before I was supposed to, but since the journey with the quirky characters was enjoyable I wasn’t too frustrated by that. And it was well done enough that I will probably be seeking out the next book in the series.

Also, RECIPES! I’m sure that there are many cozy mystery series that have recipes and crafting instructions and such if those are the themes, but that didn’t make it any less delightful when I saw that we get some really delicious and simple recipes in the back of this book! I am fully intending to try my hand at a few of them. If the COVID-19 Pandemic has taught me anything it’s that I can distract myself with a recipe and experimenting with new ones is fun as hell!

I can now make bagels, challah, and a mean green bean casserole, and can’t wait to add some Filipino recipes to my three ring binder. (source)

“Arsenic and Adobo” is super fun, and I’m glad that this is the cozy mystery series I decided to take a chance on. Whatever Lila is up to next, I will surely be on board. I can’t recommend stretching your genre comforts, guys. I’ve been having a ball.

Rating 7: A fun mystery with enjoyable characters, “Arsenic and Adobo” was a little predictable, but a good time. Also, recipes!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Arsenic and Adobo” is new and not on many relevant Goodreads list, but I think it would fit in on “Filipino Authors”, and “Culinary Cozy Mysteries”.

Find “Arsenic and Adobo” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “A River in the Sky”

Book: “A River in the Sky” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: Harper Collins, April 2010

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

Book Description: August 1910. Banned from the Valley of the Kings, Amelia Peabody and husband Emerson are persuaded to follow would-be archaeologist Major George Morley on an expedition to Palestine. Somewhere in this province of the corrupt, crumbling Ottoman Empire—the Holy Land of three religions—Morley is determined to unearth the legendary Ark of the Covenant.

At the request of British Intelligence, Emerson will be keeping an eye on the seemingly inept Morley, believed to be an agent of the Kaiser sent to stir up trouble in this politically volatile land. Amelia hopes to prevent a catastrophically unprofessional excavation from destroying priceless historical finds and sparking an armed protest by infuriated Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Meanwhile, Amelia’s headstrong son, Ramses, working on a dig at Samaria, encounters an unusual party of travelers and makes a startling discovery—information that he must pass along to his parents in Jerusalem…if he can get there alive.

Previously Reviewed: “The Crocodile on the Sandbank” and “The Curse of the Pharaohs” and “The Mummy Case” and “Lion in the Valley” and “Deeds of the Disturber” and “The Last Camel Died at Noon” and “The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog.” and “The Hippopotamus Pool” and “The Ape Who Guards the Balance” and “Guardian of the Horizon”

Review: It’s been quite a while since I’ve returned to my beloved Amelia Peabody series. Not from any lack of continued interest, just the continuous growth of my TBR which shames me into reading more current books more often than not. But I felt like it was high time to return to a comforting favorite, so here we are! What adventures will Amelia and her family get up to this time?

The season ahead looks bleak for Amelia and Emerson. They are forbidden from working in their beloved location in the Valley of the Kings and have no fruitful prospects before them. But, sure enough, adventure arrives on their doorway in the form of spy craft and intrigue. This time they are sent by the British government to follow the activities of a would-be archeologist whom the intelligence community suspects of being an agent of disruption sent by the Kaiser to sew chaos in Palestine. But Amelia and Emerson are archeologists at their hearts and can’t help getting caught up in the man’s mad quest to uncover the Ark of the Covenant (and prevent the man from blundering up the entire affair to boot!)

Following what seems to be a bit of a trend, this book largely sees our party split up, with Amelia and Emerson working their own case, and Ramses off on his own (with some other friends) doing his own thing. The story intertwine in a creative way, but I think, overall, I’m always a bit disheartened by the books that playout like this. So much of what makes these stories so good is the interaction between its very charismatic cast of characters. Other than perhaps Amelia herself, I’ve never felt like any of the other cast can really stand well on their own. I think this book is making a case for Ramses being more of his own character, and perhaps that will just be the way later books go and he will begin to flesh out more as we move forward. But for now, I still miss the amusing parental/grown-child interactions that we see from this family unit when they’re all together.

For whatever reason, I also struggled a bit more with the mystery in this book. Some of this could just be due to the chopped-up nature of my reading experience, only listening to chunks here and there when I could catch a minute. But I had a hard time keeping track of the cast of characters, especially between the discoveries we learn from Ramses’ plotline and those we were discovering with Amelia and Emerson. I did like, however, that the general flow of both of these sections felt very different. Amelia and Emerson’s plotline largely felt familiar, with the pair travelling to an excavation site and finding their trip and work constantly interrupted by baffling experiences. Ramses, however, followed a much more action-packed story that was less a mystery than it was a thriller. The combination of both tones made for an interesting reading experience. It was just a bit tough reacclimating when we switched from one to the other.

I also really liked the new setting. The last book saw the crew return to the Lost Oasis, and that was a breath of fresh air from the usual Egyptian setting. But here we had an entirely new location, one we had never visited previously. This is where I wish our family group had been together more of the time, and the story could have devoted more of its page time to exploring the ins and outs of this region. As it was, we only had Amelia and Emerson’s chapters to really dive into Jerusalem and its political/cultural/religious quagmire.

I really enjoyed returning to this series. I do think that my piece-meal approach to reading these later books is hurting my experience a bit, though. I can see that the author is really trying to grow Ramses into a fully fledged lead character in his own right, but because I have such long gaps in my reading experience, he always is the least interesting to me, something that may become more of a problem going forward. Hopefully I can get to the next one more quickly and start to become more invested in him in his own right. But fans of the series are sure to be pleased with this one, especially if you’re already more onboard the Ramses train.

Rating 8: A fun new adventure that mixes the traditional mystery with a more action-packed thriller style of storyline.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A River in the Sky” is on these Goodreads lists: Novels That Let You Travel in Retro Style and Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.

Find “A River in the Sky” at your library using WorldCat!