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!

Kate’s Review: “The Forest of Stolen Girls”

Book: “The Forest of Stolen Girls” by June Hur

Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, April 2021

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

Book Description: After her father vanishes while investigating the disappearance of 13 young women, a teen returns to her secretive hometown to pick up the trail in this second YA historical mystery from the author of The Silence of Bones.

Hwani’s family has never been the same since she and her younger sister went missing and were later found unconscious in the forest, near a gruesome crime scene. The only thing they remember: Their captor wore a painted-white mask. To escape the haunting memories of this incident, the family flees their hometown. Years later, Detective Min—Hwani’s father—learns that thirteen girls have recently disappeared under similar circumstances, and so he returns to their hometown to investigate… only to vanish as well.

Determined to find her father and solve the case that tore their family apart, Hwani returns home to pick up the trail. As she digs into the secrets of the small village—and reconnects with her now estranged sister—Hwani comes to realize that the answer lies within her own buried memories of what happened in the forest all those years ago.

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

Last year I read June Hur’s novel “The Silence of Bones”, and quite enjoyed it. It’s always great to see new Own Voices authors getting new stories out into the world, especially within genres that tend to be associated with whiteness. While I know that there are a myriad of historical mysteries out there from many backgrounds, in my experience and the experiences of people around me the general thoughts on the genre tend to skew towards European or American settings. I want to stretch and challenge this thought in my own reading. So given that “The Silence of Bones” took place in 19th Century Korea, it was a fresh feeling setting when I read it, and I liked that a lot. When I saw that Hur had a new historical myster/thriller coming out called “The Forest of Stolen Girls”, I was massively excited to read it, hoping that it would live up to “The Silence of Bones” in terms of plotting and mystery. And I have great news: it exceeded it.

Let’s start with the time, setting, and characters. Given that Hur really connected with me on all three of these points with “The Silence of Bones”, I had high hopes that same would be said for “The Forest of Stolen Girls”. And this time she went even above and beyond my expectations. Once again we are in historical Korea, though we’ve gone even further back in time to the 15th Century on Jeju Island. The setting is isolated and remote, and for Hwani, who has spent a few years on the mainland it is a jarring return because of culture shifts and also because of the trauma that she suffered there. I loved the descriptions of the island and the nature and wilderness that surrounds the village, and I also loved that Hur did throw in tidbits of historical facts (like the Haenyeo divers, and how on Jeju girls weren’t much less valued than boys because it was the girls who did the diving), about the area. It just felt like a unique setting, one that lends itself very well to the plot, and it was one that I greatly enjoyed. I also really liked our main characters, Hwani and Maewol, two sisters separated by distance and also their shared trauma and the fallout. The strong bond that they share as sisters has been tested and strained because of Hwani being sent to the mainland to live with her aunt, while Maewol was left behind, a decision made by their father. Hwani has the utmost respect for him, while Maewol resents him. Hwani felt constrained by her time on the mainland, while Maewol felt abandoned. Their frustrations and resentments, of course, come out and target each other, but this felt realistic and true to how sometimes sibling relationships can be fraught because of circumstances they can’t always control. I loved seeing both of them have to learn to trust each other again, and have to team up and use each other’s various skills to try and solve what had happened to their father, and what had happened to the local girls.

In terms of the mystery itself, I found it to be very engaging, suspenseful, and well crafted. There are a number of people in their town who could be very believable suspects when it comes to who is taking teenage girls, and Hur makes sure to give believability as well as deniability to almost all of them. The way that the mystery connects to Hwani and Maewol is well done, as is the compounded mystery of what happened to their father when he tried to go solve it once and for all. And on top of all that, for added context Hur adds a historical note at the end of the book that talks about human trafficking, specifically that of girls and women, during this time period in Korea, which really put into perspective that while the years and centuries can keep on going and progress and changes can be made, but some things just keep on happening and one of those things is violent misogyny.

“The Forest of Stolen Girls” is another great historical mystery/thriller from June Hur. If you are looking to shake up your historical fiction content and reading lists, definitely give this one a look! I cannot wait to see what Hur comes out with next.

Rating 8: A dark, suspenseful novel with timeless themes and a unique setting, “The Forest of Stolen Girls” is a solid historical mystery!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Forest of Stolen Girls” is included on the Goodreads lists “Asian Historical Fiction”, and “2021 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Find “The Forest of Stolen Girls” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “An Unexpected Peril”

Book: “An Unexpected Peril” by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: January 1889. As the newest member of the Curiosity Club—an elite society of brilliant, intrepid women—Veronica Speedwell is excited to put her many skills to good use. As she assembles a memorial exhibition for pioneering mountain climber Alice Baker-Greene, Veronica discovers evidence that the recent death was not a tragic climbing accident but murder. Veronica and her natural historian beau, Stoker, tell the patron of the exhibit, Princess Gisela of Alpenwald, of their findings. With Europe on the verge of war, Gisela’s chancellor, Count von Rechstein, does not want to make waves—and before Veronica and Stoker can figure out their next move, the princess disappears.

Having noted Veronica’s resemblance to the princess, von Rechstein begs her to pose as Gisela for the sake of the peace treaty that brought the princess to England. Veronica reluctantly agrees to the scheme. She and Stoker must work together to keep the treaty intact while navigating unwelcome advances, assassination attempts, and Veronica’s own family—the royalty who has never claimed her.

Previously Reviewed: “A Curious Beginning,” “A Perilous Undertaking,” , “A Treacherous Curse” , “A Dangerous Collaboration” , and “A Murderous Relation”

Review: I think I’ve started my reviews for the last several books in this series the same way: my enjoyment of these stories has been very hit and miss. The first several were all very enjoyable, but as the series progressed, it felt like the author was stalling on the romance and losing some creativity with the mysteries themselves. The book directly previous to this one, for example, very much felt like a recycled version of plot elements from several of the books before it. However, optimistic as ever, I’ve continued on. And, while this wasn’t my favorite book in the series, it did again bounce back from the previous low point.

Surprising no one but perhaps Stoker (his optimism for an end to his and Veronica’s dangerous mysteries is perhaps more endearing than it is realistic), murder and mystery has once again found Veronica Speedwell. The death of a fellow female explore, Alice Baker-Greene, a famous mountaineer, raises suspicion from Veronica, especially in light of the cagey response by the Princess of the country in which Alice died. When the Princess herself next disappears, Veronica finds herself thrust into royal company posing as a doppleganger and hoping to suss out more clues as to Alice’s fate. But are Veronica and Stoker once again straying too close to danger?

I was pleased to see that this new entry into Veronica and Stoker’s story was taking us into uncharted territory for the most part. I really enjoyed the backstory we are given for Alice, a woman of Veronica’s own ilk but whose talents were directed towards mountain climbing rather than butterflies. I was able to guess a few of the mysteries tied up in her story, but I was also flummoxed by a few others. The added twist of the Princess’s disappearance adds an interesting extra layer to the proceedings.

Veronica and Stoker are still interesting characters, but I do feel that each is beginning to run a bit dry on character development. Once again, Stoker is so far in the background of this story that I often felt like he was barely present. Over the last two books, there has been practically no growth or arch for this character and it’s definitely starting to show. And for her part, Veronica is growing only marginally. We see her here struggle with the prospect of her future and the changes that her burgeoning relationship with Stoker may have upon that. This was an interesting concept, but I don’t feel like the author really gave it enough room to grow and resolve.

Instead, we find Veronica again getting caught up into the tired story line regarding her connections to the Royal family. Seriously, knock it off with this. It was a great reveal for the first book and coming up here and there is fine. But every single book now seems to include this aspect of Veronica’s life, but without having anything new to say or any new conclusion to reach. It’s dull and starting to feel really lazy. I complained about this same thing in my last review, and I’m disappointed to be repeating myself again here.

Overall, however, I was pleased with the mystery itself. When the story started out, I had hopes that Veronica and Stoker would travel to Alpenwald to conduct their investigation. I’m starting to think that a change of location would help the series a lot. One of my favorite entries, “A Dangerous Collaboration,” took place elsewhere, and I think it helped the story get out of a few of the ruts it gets stuck in when remaining in London. If there’s a next entry in the series, hopefully a relocation like this will help breathe some new life into this series. I’ll probably still continue on, but at this point I would probably only recommend it to those who are fairly devoted. The last few entries have just been too shallow and dull to amount to a stronger recommendation to a new reader.

Rating 7: An improvement on the last book, but still stuck in some tired tropes of its own making.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Unexpected Peril” is on these Goodreads lists: Historical Mystery 2021 and Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.

Find “An Unexpected Peril” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Girls Are All So Nice Here”

Book: “The Girls Are All So Nice Here” by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, March 2021

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

Book Description: Two former best friends return to their college reunion to find that they’re being circled by someone who wants revenge for what they did ten years before—and will stop at nothing to get it—in this shocking psychological thriller about ambition, toxic friendship, and deadly desire.

A lot has changed in the years since Ambrosia Wellington graduated from college, and she’s worked hard to create a new life for herself. But then an invitation to her ten-year reunion arrives in the mail, along with an anonymous note that reads “We need to talk about what we did that night.”

It seems that the secrets of Ambrosia’s past—and the people she thought she’d left there—aren’t as buried as she’d believed. Amb can’t stop fixating on what she did or who she did it with: larger-than-life Sloane “Sully” Sullivan, Amb’s former best friend, who could make anyone do anything.

At the reunion, Amb and Sully receive increasingly menacing messages, and it becomes clear that they’re being pursued by someone who wants more than just the truth of what happened that first semester. This person wants revenge for what they did and the damage they caused—the extent of which Amb is only now fully understanding. And it was all because of the game they played to get a boy who belonged to someone else, and the girl who paid the price.

Alternating between the reunion and Amb’s freshman year, The Girls Are All So Nice Here is a shocking novel about the brutal lengths girls can go to get what they think they’re owed, and what happens when the games we play in college become matters of life and death.

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

Having gone to a large public university (two, really, as I transferred after freshman year from one U of MN campus to another) and having only lived in the dorm for one year, I didn’t really find myself caught up in any dorm drama or scandals. Perhaps my dorm was just boring, or perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough. The closest I got was having a roommate with whom I initially bumped heads (but even that doesn’t really count because now she’s one of my dearest friends). But I guess that I can believe that such things do happen. And “The Girls Are All So Nice Here” by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn is steeped, and I mean STEEPED, in the poisonous shenanigans that some college kids get up to while living on campus. I’ll admit that I was just picturing Danielle from “Happy Death Day” as I read the description. And while I wasn’t too far off, it didn’t rise to the occasion that I was anticipating.

Danielle and Tree play my expectations when they’re smacked back to reality. (source)

“The Girls Are All So Nice Here” has some pretty good hits, and a few glaring misses. I’ll start with the hits, however, as there were definitely things that worked really well. We have ourselves a mystery at hand. Our narrator, Amb, has done her best to leave her college days behind and forget about them. She has a kind husband, lives in New York, and has cultivated a scandal free life. But when her college reunion looms, she starts getting strange messages from an anonymous person saying that they need to ‘talk about what they did that night’. The story is Amb going back to the school to find out who is sending the messages, and we as the readers slowly get to find out what it is she did, through flashbacks and the present day reunion weekend. It’s a device that we’ve seen before, but it works well here as Flynn carefully peels back the layers of Amb’s freshman year, and her relationships. Specifically those she had with her then best friend Sully, the resident mean girl, and Flora, Amb’s sweet and well loved roommate. I will say that what we find out is pretty damn upsetting, with mean girl bullshit spiraling out of control, jealousy and pettiness getting the best of people, and the entitlement thinking one deserves more than they have leading to very bad things. I’m being vague deliberately, because the plot itself is well done. When I thought a character couldn’t stoop lower, she did. When I thought that a twist was one thing, it ended up being something else. A couple reveals felt a bit convenient, but ultimately I was enjoying the ride enough that it didn’t put me too off.

What didn’t work as well for me were the characterizations of the various players in our toxic soup of a story. I definitely understand having garbage people being at the forefront in a story like this, and I don’t have a problem with following an unreliable narrator who is also an unlikable and nasty person. But I think that if you are going to do that, I would like a little bit of exploration as to what it is that makes them that way, or at least make them wickedly entertaining in their nastiness. With Amb, we get a lot of telling that she is insecure, that she is jealous of Flora and how easy it is for ‘girls like her’, but there wasn’t really much in Amb’s background that we see that made me fully see the complexities that go with this kind of dangerous coveting and jealousy that leads to very bad things. Sully, too, is just nasty with no reason or exploration into her nastiness. We just see she’s horrible and that’s all we get from her, and she isn’t interesting enough to even make it fun to hate her. Perhaps one would think that Flora may get a bit of depth here, given that she is the one who is hurt the most by Amb and Sully, but no. Flora is your two dimensional really nice girl that is there to be a martyr. Even when she talks with Amb or other characters talk about her with Amb in the past and the present, all we know about Flora is SUPER sweet which, sure, makes your blood boil when Amb and Sully treat her like crap. But that only gets me so far.

So while the plot was engrossing and had some genuine tricks up its sleeves, “The Girls Are All So Nice Here” was a fairly run of the mill thriller about women behaving badly. It gets the job done, but it probably could have done more.

Rating 6: A twisty thriller with some fun surprises, “The Girls Are All So Nice Here” will keep you guessing, but doesn’t have anyone to root for.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girls Are All So Nice Here” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2021”.

Find “The Girls Are All So Nice Here” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Good Girl, Bad Blood”

Book: “Good Girl, Bad Blood”(A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder #2) by Holly Jackson

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, March 2021

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

Book Description: The highly anticipated sequel to the instant New York Times bestseller, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder! More dark secrets are exposed in this addictive, true-crime fueled mystery.

Pip is not a detective anymore. With the help of Ravi Singh, she released a true-crime podcast about the murder case they solved together last year. The podcast has gone viral, yet Pip insists her investigating days are behind her.

But she will have to break that promise when someone she knows goes missing. Jamie Reynolds has disappeared, on the very same night the town hosted a memorial for the sixth-year anniversary of the deaths of Andie Bell and Sal Singh. The police won’t do anything about it. And if they won’t look for Jamie then Pip will, uncovering more of her town’s dark secrets along the way… and this time everyone is listening. But will she find him before it’s too late?

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

Perhaps you remember that last year I greatly enjoyed the YA mystery “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” by Holly Jackson, and it even made my Top Ten Books of 2020. I also mentioned in that review that I was super stoked for the sequel. Well folks, the time has arrived. “Good Girl, Bad Blood” is here.

My first highly anticipated thriller book of the year! (source)

We pick up not to far after we left off in “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder”. Pip is no longer actively seeking out mysteries to solve, instead working on a podcast about the Andie Bell/Sal Singh case, and attending the trial of serial rapist Max Hastings. Pip, however, is drawn into helping her friend Connor, whose brother has gone missing, and dedicates a new season of her podcast to her investigation. What I liked most about “Good Girl, Bad Blood” is that while Jackson could have set Pip up to be a modern day Nancy Drew who is just going to solve cases and move on to the next, instead we get a front seat at the physical, mental, and emotional labor that she has to endure to help those she cares about. Well, and to give her that purpose that she felt she had in the first book. It’s an angle that may seem obvious, but Jackson does it in a way that makes you really start to wonder how much of this is all worth it as Pip gets sucked into another case, and risks her safety in trying to solve it. I didn’t expect it to go in this direction, and I was happy that it did. Jackson also takes this time to examine the weaknesses in our current law and order systems, as the police in town aren’t really taking Jamie’s missing status seriously, and the rape trial of Max Hastings follows a lot of the same ‘he said, she said’ injustices we see in real life. All of these things combine that leaves Pip in some pretty bleak places as the story goes on, and since there is going to be another book in the series, I want to see how Jackson tackles this for our imperfect heroine.

In terms of the plot itself, “Good Girl, Bad Blood” has a lot of the same strengths as the first book. I still really like Pip, and I loved seeing her relationship with Ravi Singh evolve and flourish (cutest couple ever). I also liked getting to know some of her other friends a little bit better, like Connor. As to the mystery, once again we got a taut and suspenseful thriller, and we get to see everything laid out in a cohesive way through podcast transcripts and Pip’s notes. It’s a much better way to keep everything organized without making any of the characters seem like they’re reciting facts in a robotic way, and I really enjoy it. I will say that there were a couple of trip ups for me, however. The first was that a couple of red herrings tossed out there didn’t really get resolved as red herrings or not. Like, I think that they were? But it felt a little too touched upon in the narrative to just be left behind without explanation. That’s nitpicky. The other issue isn’t as such, in that one of the big puzzle pieces that ties everything together wasn’t even hinted at until well into the last fourth of the book. It felt sort of like a deus ex machine, but for a plot point. But that said, I was pretty much kept guessing until the end. And what an ending it was. It has set us up for the next book in the series. And now, once again, I am waiting anxiously to see where Pip can go next.

“Good Girl, Bad Blood” continues a fun series that is on my must read list going forward. If you haven’t tried these books yet and like a good YA mystery/thriller, you absolutely need to pick them up.

Rating 8: A twisty and suspenseful sequel, “Good Girl, Bad Blood” has a couple of stumbles, but is overall a great follow up to a runaway hit!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Good Girl, Bad Blood” is included on the Goodreads lists “Young Adult Crime/Murder Mysteries”, and “Fiction Books Featuring Podcasts”.

Find “Good Girl, Bad Blood” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Revenge of the Sluts”

Book: “Revenge of the Sluts” by Natalie Walton

Publishing Info: Wattpad Books, February 2021

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

Book Description: Double standards are about to get singled out.

In this stunning debut, author Natalie Walton tackles privacy and relationships in the digital age.

As a lead reporter for The Warrior Weekly, Eden has covered her fair share of stories at St. Joseph’s High School. And when intimate pictures of seven female students are anonymously emailed to the entire school, Eden is determined to get to the bottom of it.

In tracking down leads, Eden is shocked to discover not everyone agrees the students are victims. Some people feel the girls “brought it on themselves.” Even worse, the school’s administration seems more concerned about protecting its reputation than its students.

With the anonymous sender threatening more emails, Eden finds an unlikely ally: the seven young women themselves. Banding together to find the perpetrator, the tables are about to be turned. The Slut Squad is fighting back!

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

I thank my lucky stars that I got out of high school before social media became a huge thing, because my GOD I don’t know if I would have survived it all. I went to a prestigious and rigorous prep school, and as someone who was a bit of a weirdo who, for some time, bore the brunt of my meaner classmates, I can’t even imagine what might have happened if Snapchat, Tik Tok, or the like were available (I’m old, are those still popular with the youths?). “Revenge of the Sluts” by Natalie Walton addresses a number of the things that make my heart hurt when it comes to stories of teenage bullying and cruelty, specifically that of girls who send nudes to people they think they can trust, only to find their trust broken and their bodies exposed for laughs, revenge, or what have you. When I saw this book on NetGalley, I knew that I had to read it.

“The Revenge of the Sluts” is a VERY fast read that kept me interested, as I pretty much read it in one day during a long weekend. The mystery of who leaked the nudes of seven high school girls is technically the heart of this book, but it felt more like an examination of the difficulties of high school life for girls in modern society. I really enjoyed Eden, our protagonist and intrepid student reporter who is investigating the invasive and cruel leak of nude selfies of seven of her classmates. While Eden wasn’t a target herself, she and co-journalist/editor in chief Ronnie not only see a huge story, but a number of girls who deserve justice and deserve to have their voices heard. Eden has a few more layers to it as well, as she too has sent nude photos of herself in the past to her ex boyfriend, and while he never shared them so that they could potentially be leaked, she knows that she was just as vulnerable.

I liked that Walton brings up all of the complicated messy issues about teen dating and sex. Such things include the pressures that some may feel do do things that they may not want to do, and the self autonomy that others have to be comfortable in their sexuality which can lead to stigma and punishment from others when that is put on display. The victims are a wide variety, with some enjoying casual hook ups and sexual exploration, and others being in monogamous relationships with people they are supposed to be able to trust. Walton never frames any of these girls as anything but victims, and I really liked that we get to explore double standards when it comes to boy vs girl sexuality and the expectations that is foisted on the two, many times unfairly. I also liked the frustrating but probably pretty realistic subplot of the mishandling of the scandal by the school and the greater community, as the girls are treated less as victims and more as, well, ‘sluts’, like in the title.

Therein, however, lies some of the weaknesses in this book as well. These messages and themes are absolutely important, especially for teen readers who may have to navigate such things in their lives. But some of the lessons were presented in really awkward and clunky ways. Many times we would have these teachable moments with characters going into long lectures or diatribes about consent, bodily autonomy, double standards, and misogyny which felt like they were lifted from educational or resource materials. There would be debates between characters that go the way that one would expect from an after school special as opposed to an actual conversation between classmates or friends. It ended up making things feel a bit canned and packaged, and while I know that the YA audience may like things a bit more straight forward, I think that authors need to give teens a little more credit in how they can process the messages being conveyed.

All in all, I thought that “Revenge of the Sluts” had a few hiccups here and there in execution, but the themes and statements behind that are too important for me to write it off completely. It’s quick and engaging, and I hope that it can help people who may be going through the bad things it addresses.

Rating 7: A quick and entertaining read that often treads towards clunky monologues and lecturing, “Revenge of the Sluts” has good messages about bodily autonomy, consent, and rape culture, even if it felt a little canned.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Revenge of the Sluts” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Girls Take on the Patriarchy”, and “Best Books to Read When You Need a Reminder of Why Feminism Is Important”.

Find “Revenge of the Sluts” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!