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!

Book Club Review: “The Widows of Malabar Hill”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Outside the Genre Box”, in which we each picked a book from a genre or format that we don’t usually read.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Widows of Malabar Hill” by Sujata Massey

Publishing Info: Soho Press, January 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Genre/Format: Cozy/Historical Mystery

Book Description: Bombay, 1921: Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father’s law firm, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India. Armed with a legal education from Oxford, Perveen also has a tragic personal history that makes her especially devoted to championing and protecting women’s rights.

Mistry Law is handling the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind. But as Perveen goes through the papers, she notices something strange: all three have signed over their inheritance to a charity. What will they live on if they forefeit what their husband left them? Perveen is suspicious.

The Farid widows live in purdah: strict seclusion, never leaving the women’s quarters or speaking to any men. Are they being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous guardian? Perveen tries to investigate and realizes her instincts about the will were correct when tensions escalate to murder. It’s her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that nobody is in further danger.

Kate’s Thoughts

I keep saying this over and over again and yet never really follow through, but I always feel like I’m in on the look out for a new mystery series to follow. While Kathy Reichs has returned to her Temperance Brennan mysteries after an illness, one series doesn’t seem like enough. So thank you to Book Club for introducing me to the Perveen Mistry series with the first book “The Widows of Malabar Hill”! Because I found this first entry in this historical/cozy (debatable to me) mystery collection to be exactly what I wanted!

For one thing, I really liked the setting, being in 1920s Bombay, when British Colonialism was still a thing, and our heroine Perveen is living life as an attorney in her father’s practice after her marriage fell through. I have very little knowledge of this time period in India specifically, and I really enjoyed getting some context into the many different people and cultures who lived there at the time, sometimes to great conflict. I loved Perveen as a main character, as she is determined and spunky, but still felt realistic for the time period based on the knowledge that I did have previously and what we learn in the story itself. There are two timelines here, the present day one in which Perveen is investigating the will of a man who left three wives behind after his death, and then finds herself involved in a murder investigation. This storyline was well done, with well plotted out intrigue and a mystery that kept me guessing. But it was the other storyline that really got my attention, in whcih we see Perveen’s previous doomed marriage, and how she came to be working for her attorney father in the first place. I thought that the situation she found herself in was deeply upsetting and fascinating, and it really gave her a good amount of depth and characterization that suited her in the present day storyline.

Overall, I really enjoyed “The Widows of Malabar Hill”, and am definitely going to continue reading the Perveen Mistry mysteries!

Serena’s Thoughts

Like Kate, I’ve also read many of the Temperance Brennan series. I’m pretty behind now, but it is also one of my favorite mystery series. But I also currently read a few historical mystery series, so it’s a genre that I’m still fairly involved with in my general reading. That said, most of the historical mysteries I’ve been reading for the last two years have been set in Britain in similar time periods in the last 1800s. So I was excited to read another historical mystery (a genre I clearly enjoy), but one set in a very different location and period of time.

Most of the praise that Kate has already covered I would second. Perveen, herself, is a really excellent character. I imagine it was difficult to write a character that takes on the roles she does (lawyer/detective) but who must also feel true to her time and deal with the many roadblocks that were present in women’s lives. I think the author does an excellent job of making Perveen a very believable character in this way. Her history, as we see it play out in the portion of the story set in the past, lays out a nice foundation for Perveen to find herself in the position she does in the present. And for her perspective that shapes her approach to tackling the mystery and murders at the heart of the story.

I also really liked the time period and setting. I, too, only knew a little about India during this time period. I’d read “A Passage to India” way back in college, but that was about it. So I really enjoyed the immersion in the culture and history that served as the backdrop and landscape for Perveen’s story.

The mystery itself was also very good. This book was chosen as a “cozy mystery” type story, so while there is tension and mystery throughout, it’s not as gruesome or scary as some of the other mysteries series you may read. If you enjoy historical mysteries this will probably be a good fit!

Kate’s Rating 8: A well plotted mystery and a compelling backstory combine along with a unique setting to make “The Widows of Malabar Hill” an intriguing start to a series I plan to continue!

Serena’s Rating 8: An excellent start to a new series with a compelling heroine at its heart!

Book Club Questions:

  1. What kind of mystery sub genre would you think this is? Does it feel more historical, or cozy?
  2. What did you think of the writing style? Do you think it matched the story tone and themes?
  3. What did you know about the various themes of the sotry, be it the setting, culture, religion, society?
  4. What did you think of the narrative structure of the two time periods that we follow in this book? Did you prefer one over the other?
  5. Who was your favorite character outside of Perveen? Who was your least favorite character?
  6. Do you think you’ll keep going in the series? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Widows of Malabar Hill” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Historical Mystery Series”, and “India: Fiction”.

Find “The Widows of Malabar Hill” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “The Right Swipe”

Kate’s Review: “The Survivors”

Book: “The Survivors” by Jane Harper

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, February 2021

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

Book Description: Coming home dredges up deeply buried secrets...

Kieran Elliott’s life changed forever on the day a reckless mistake led to devastating consequences. The guilt that still haunts him resurfaces during a visit with his young family to the small coastal community he once called home. Kieran’s parents are struggling in a town where fortunes are forged by the sea. Between them all is his absent brother, Finn. When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge. A sunken wreck, a missing girl, and questions that have never washed away… 

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

Someday, when the world isn’t dealing with a pandemic and I don’t have to worry about traveling with a little one, I have every intention of going to Australia. My time in the Sydney airport on the way to New Zealand doesn’t count. When I think about a trip there my mind hovers in big cities like Sydney, and also thinks about The Outback, but I’d do well to remember that there are also oceanside towns, which I tend to love no matter what the continent. I was reminded of such facts as I read “The Survivors” by Jane Harper, her newest mystery, another standalone that’s separate from the Aaron Falk Series (and I’m not sure when we’re getting another one of those, but patience is a virtue, I guess? So I’m told, I wouldn’t know).

One of the common strengths of Harper’s stories is the ability she has to bring out strong atmosphere and sense of place, and “The Survivors” is no different. Evelyn Bay is a seaside town in Tasmania, and you immediately feel the close knit strength of the community, the strength and reverence of and for the ocean, and the pitfalls that come with all of these things. Just as there is a strong sense of community, for some people that can be a downfall. Our protagonist, Kieran, knows this from first hand experience, and has only come back because he and his girlfriend Mia have a new baby, and because his father Brian is falling more and more into dementia. We know that a terrible accident happened that caused Kieran to flee this town as soon as he could, and we see the consequences, both the good and the bad, for those who stayed behind. There are those in town who hold a grudge against Kieran because of his role in the tragedy during a bad storm, and it is slowly shown just how much Kieran has held in and how much his guilt has weighed him down. Harper explores the complications of family in the wake of a tragedy, as well as unresolved trauma and grief. You throw in the worries and anxieties of being a new parent, and the sadness and stress of dealing with an ailing father, and Kieran is having a rough go all around, even BEFORE a local murder dredges up past hurts, suspicions, and ills. It’s a painful time unpacking a lot of this, and the emotions are raw and real, but that’s really the strongest aspect of this book.

The two mysteries that are the hearts of “The Survivors” are years apart, but similar in nature. During the storm that upturned Kieran’s life, a local girl went missing. She has connections to Kieran, as she was the younger sister of his friend Olivia, as well as the best friend of his now girlfriend Mia. And it just so happens that during Kieran’s visit, a young woman named Bronte is discovered dead on the beach, reigniting fears and suspicions in the community. The questions are who killed Bronte, is it connected to the past case, and who knows something. I was happy that from the get go it’s made clear that Kieran isn’t really a true suspect, at least in the reader’s eyes, as that would have been a red herring I would have had a hard time dealing with on top of all the other garbage in his life. But that isn’t to say that there aren’t red herrings; because boy are there. The mysteries take a bit of a backseat to Kieran’s inner turmoil and the atmosphere of a small town in disarray, which made it a little hard to be invested in either of them, at least to a level that I would have expected. But all that said, the clues are carefully plotted out, and there were enough curve balls thrown that I was left guessing and left pretty entertained. It was a little slow to be an addictive read, but that was alright in the end.

“The Survivors” is heavy and emotional, and certainly an interesting examination of one man’s baggage. Harper continues to show us her talents as a mystery author, and now we wait to see what she comes up with next!

Rating 7: An emotional mystery about trauma, family, and the darkness in small towns, “The Survivors” is a new entertaining thriller from Jane Harper.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Survivors” is included on the Goodreads lists “Down By The Sea”, and “Fictitious Australia”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Eight Perfect Murders”

Book: “Eight Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson

Publishing Info: William Morrow, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: Audible

Book Description: A chilling tale of psychological suspense and an homage to the thriller genre tailor-made for fans: the story of a bookseller who finds himself at the center of an FBI investigation because a very clever killer has started using his list of fiction’s most ingenious murders.

Years ago, bookseller and mystery aficionado Malcolm Kershaw compiled a list of the genre’s most unsolvable murders, those that are almost impossible to crack—which he titled “Eight Perfect Murders”—chosen from among the best of the best including Agatha Christie’s A. B. C. Murders, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Ira Levin’s Death Trap, A. A. Milne’s Red House Mystery, Anthony Berkeley Cox’s Malice Aforethought, James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, John D. Macdonald’s The Drowner, and Donna Tartt’s A Secret History.

But no one is more surprised than Mal, now the owner of the Old Devils Bookshop in Boston, when an FBI agent comes knocking on his door one snowy day in February. She’s looking for information about a series of unsolved murders that look eerily similar to the killings on Mal’s old list. And the FBI agent isn’t the only one interested in this bookseller who spends almost every night at home reading. The killer is out there, watching his every move—a diabolical threat who knows way too much about Mal’s personal history, especially the secrets he’s never told anyone, even his recently deceased wife.

To protect himself, Mal begins looking into possible suspects—and sees a killer in everyone around him. But Mal doesn’t count on the investigation leaving a trail of death in its wake. Suddenly, a series of shocking twists leaves more victims dead—and the noose around Mal’s neck grows so tight he might never escape.

Review: As we say goodbye to the year 2020 (and hope that 2021 is better….), I look back at the complete shitshow that we leave behind and I see ways that I was affected that I hadn’t really thought about at the time. There are many, but for this review I’m going to talk about the lack of audiobooks on my list. In normal times I would probably listen to about one audiobook a month, mostly when driving to work or wherever. But with my job being on hold until the pandemic is better controlled and it’s safer, I haven’t been driving so I really wasn’t listening to things outside of my favorite podcast. But once the weather got a little cooler, I started taking my daughter on walks around the neighborhood, and my audiobook intake rose once more (though with winter being here now I am doing more listening at night before bed). Enter “Eight Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson, the audiobook I got right before things went to hell. Months after I downloaded it, I finally dove in. Peter Swanson, I’m sorry I waited so long.

In true Swanson form, “Eight Perfect Murders” has a weird mystery at its heart, a narrator who is unreliable and perhaps hiding something from the reader, and a compulsively readable style that made my walks with the kid a bit longer than normal. Our protagonist is Malcolm Kershaw, a bookstore owner who finds himself being questioned in a string of murders, as the murders seem to be mimicking a blog post he made years ago where he selected ‘eight perfect murders’ from mystery fiction. The FBI agent, Gwen, knows that the theory is a bit nutty, but wants his insight after she rules him out as a suspect. Malcolm cooperates, if only to help clear his name, but also because he realizes that this is a cat and mouse game between him and the person who read his post and has started killing people. It’s pretty clear pretty early that Malcolm has some skeletons in his closet, and since Swanson has kind of made the ‘interesting and also kinda likable (or at least easy to root for) psychopath’ a bit of a trope, some aspects of this mystery were kind of predictable. Or if not predictable, not shocking when the reveals were done. I liked Malcolm a lot, actually. I also liked Gwen. And I wanted to know what was happening in the story, be it trying to see who was targeting Malcolm, or what Malcolm may have to hide. And at the end of the day, the big reveal did surprise me, which is the important thing when it comes to a mystery story.

What I liked more about this book is that it’s really a love letter to mystery books and book lovers. Swanson references so many authors, stories, series, and moments within the genre that I had a huge grin on my face basically the whole time I was listening. Swanson very clearly loves this genre and this book was a carefully crafted homage to it. I haven’t read a good number of the stories on the Eight Perfect Murders list, but because of this book I’m definitely going to look into a few of them.

On top of everything else, it is claimed on Goodreads that this is the first in a series that is implied to focus on Malcolm. I won’t go into spoilers here, but I will say that the book ends in a way that I am not totally certain how that is going to work, it it’s true. But if it is true?

“Eight Perfect Murders” was a fun and engrossing thriller mystery that (for the most part) kept me guessing. Swanson is still an author that I want more people to get on board with. If you’re looking for new authors to try in 2021, he may be a good choice!

Rating 8: A fast paced and thrilling mystery and love letter to books. Though somewhat predictable at times, I am VERY interested to see how/if Swanson will continue this series, as implied…

Reader’s Advisory:

“Eight Perfect Murders” is included on the Goodreads lists “Unreliable Narrators”, and “Books About Books”.

Find “Eight Perfect Murders” at your library using WorldCat, at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Truly, Devious”

Book: “Truly, Devious” by Maureen Johnson

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, January 2018

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

Book Description: Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont for the brightest thinkers, inventors, and artists. It was founded by Albert Ellingham, an early twentieth century tycoon, who wanted to make a wonderful place full of riddles, twisting pathways, and gardens. “A place,” he said, “where learning is a game.”

Shortly after the school opened, his wife and daughter were kidnapped. The only real clue was a mocking riddle listing methods of murder, signed with the frightening pseudonym “Truly, Devious.” It became one of the great unsolved crimes of American history.

True-crime aficionado Stevie Bell is set to begin her first year at Ellingham Academy, and she has an ambitious plan: She will solve this cold case. That is, she will solve the case when she gets a grip on her demanding new school life and her housemates: the inventor, the novelist, the actor, the artist, and the jokester. But something strange is happening. Truly Devious makes a surprise return, and death revisits Ellingham Academy. The past has crawled out of its grave. Someone has gotten away with murder. 

Review: As is probably pretty evident by now, Kate is the true crime aficionado on our blog. I’ve casually looked into a few cases based on her recommendations, but my penchant for mysteries often falls into the historical, detective fiction more than anything. I also don’t read too many contemporary YA novels. So in a lot of ways, this book didn’t really meet many of my usual criteria for picking a new book. But it had fabulous ratings on Goodreads and happened to show up on my audiobook list right when I was between reads. And here we are!

Stevie Bell is shocked when she’s accepted into the exclusive, expensive private school of Ellingham Academy. It’s most highschoolers’ dream, but only accepts a handful of applicants per year. At that, they don’t even specify what they’re looking for! But apparently Stevie interest in and proficiency with true crime investigations hit some mark. What’s more, Ellingham Academy itself is the location of one of history’s most notorious unsolved crimes, the abduction of the founders wife and infant daughter. The only clue was an enigmatic riddle that has been poured over and pondered now for decades. But Stevie Bell is determined that once she’s on the grounds, she will solve this cold case. What she doesn’t expect is for this cold case to suddenly warm up with a new murder and the return of “Truly, Devious.”

So there were things I enjoyed about this book, and there were things I didn’t. Before I even get to the things I didn’t, I’ll just say again that this book has really high ratings on Goodreads, so there’s a fairly decent chance that most of the things that didn’t work for me were due to the fact that the book was way outside my usual genres of choice. But on to the good!

For one thing, I was not expecting the format that this book is told from. It’s not simply Stevie’s story while at Ellingham trying to solve this cold case. Instead, the story is told in alternating chapters between the present, which follows Stevie as she works a new murder as well, and the past, where we see various characters’ perspectives on the events that lead up to and during the abduction of Mr. Ellingham’s wife and infant daughter. I really enjoyed these chapters in the past. They really helped bring to life this cold case and avoided what otherwise would have had to be a pretty info-dumpy style of writing to give the reader the same information that Stevie would have already had. It also leaves readers free to begin making their own connections and theories, outside the influence of Stevie’s own thoughts on the mystery.

I also really liked Stevie herself. She’s your typical highschooler, in many ways, but I liked the way the story incorporated her struggles with anxiety and the differences she feels between herself and her parents. She deals with a lot of the fears and challenges that any new student comes across at a new school, but it’s made all the more interesting by the eccentric friends she meets there. The way Ellingham is described, it’s definitely the kind of school I would have loved to attend as a highschooler myself!

My problems with the book, however, also come from the modern timeline of the book. I wasn’t into the romance at all. I felt like it came out of nowhere but was also so entirely predictable that it landed flat immediately. The book tries to insert some more tension and mystery towards the end, but I just didn’t care enough about this couple to have any strong feelings about the drama or reveals. I also thought that the modern mystery was fairly predictable. The motive and history of the victim were especially obvious which just undermined Stevie’s own prowess as a burgeoning detective.

Lastly, I wasn’t expecting this book to not solve the mystery of the cold case. So there’s definitely a cliff-hanger sort of ending as far as that goes. If this book was up your alley, maybe this wouldn’t bother you as much. But for me, who enjoyed it for the most part but wasn’t in love by any means, I was just annoyed that I’d be forced to continue reading to get more answers to the one part of the book that really intrigued me. As it is, we’ll see if I get around to it or not. I’m guessing it will be a similar story, that if I do read it, it will be more a matter of happy chance than anything else. Fans of contemporary mysteries and true crime, however, will likely really like this. Just a bit too far out of my genres of choice to really hit home for me.

Rating 7: A tale of two stories: one of the past, which was excellent, and one of the future, which was more meh.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Truly, Devious” is on these Goodreads lists: Young Adult Crime/Murder Mysteries and Dark Academia.

Find “Truly, Devious” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Good Girls”

Book: “The Good Girls” by Claire Eliza Bartlett

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, December 2020

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

Book Description: The troublemaker. The overachiever. The cheer captain. The dead girl.

Like every high school in America, Jefferson-Lorne High contains all of the above. After the shocking murder of senior Emma Baines, three of her classmates are at the top of the suspect list: Claude, the notorious partier; Avery, the head cheerleader; and Gwen, the would-be valedictorian. Everyone has a label, whether they like it or not–and Emma was always known as a good girl. But appearances are never what they seem. And the truth behind what really happened to Emma may just be lying in plain sight. As long-buried secrets come to light, the clock is ticking to find Emma’s killer–before another good girl goes down.

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

I am not too proud to admit that while I was an outcast and a weirdo in high school, I was not without my own faults when it came to judging other people, especially girls. It takes a lot of time and effort to try and unlearn the malignant lessons that society teaches you when it comes to how girls are supposed to be and act, and even as a woman in her mid thirties I’m STILL learning. I wish that I had read books at that age that would have helped the process along a bit. The good news is that girls these days can pick up books like “The Good Girls” and get some pretty good insight into how to reject internalized misogyny and rape culture! What I thought was going to be a YA thriller turned into something that had more value than I anticipated when it comes to theme and message.

The strongest aspect of “The Good Girls” is how Bartlett examines the damage that rape culture and misogyny wreaks upon young women no matter what their ‘social standing’ is, and how the damage can manifest in different ways. I think that one of the more popular ways to address it in teen fiction these days is to give a perspective to an ‘outcast’ character who is seen as promiscuous or ‘bad news’ in other ways. We do get that here with Claude the party girl and (deceased) Lizzy the addict, but we also see how it can still be damaging to girls who are seen as ‘good’ or ‘successful’, like cheer captain Avery and ‘good girl’ Emma. I think it’s especially important for this kind of ‘representation’ (for lack of a better term) in YA literature, as those who aren’t targeted in the more obvious ways may be less able to recognize it. I also liked that this book addresses that sometimes people in authority positions, because of their own biases, can stumble and fail when it comes to protecting those who are victimized. Or, even worse, use their position of authority to intimidate others into silence, or perpetuate abuse themselves. I thought that “The Good Girls” tackled these themes really well.

All of that said, in terms of mystery and thrills, “The Good Girls” missed the mark for me. While the characterizations were valuable and felt pretty realistic, they also managed to not work outside the box of the tropes that they fit into. I liked all of the main characters well enough, but none of them felt that different from other iterations of the boxes that they fell into. And when it comes to the mystery of who pushed Emma into the river, and what actually happened to Lizzy and how the two connect, I didn’t find myself raring to find the answer or terribly shocked by how it all played out. Even the smaller mysteries that add into the larger parts didn’t really surprise me, and I called a couple of the reveals pretty early on. Admittedly a couple caught me by surprise, but even then I wasn’t wowed. It just feels pretty run of the mill when it comes to the story itself. Not bad by any means. But also not unique. And at the end of the day, valuable message and explorations aside, I read “The Good Girls” because I was looking for a thriller, which it didn’t really provide.

I think that if you go into “The Good Girls” looking for a character study on the effect of misogyny and rape culture on girls from all kinds of labels, you will find something interesting, and certainly something with an important message that could help YA readers. But in terms of mystery and thrills, it isn’t really anything new.

Rating 6: I really liked the themes that take on rape culture and misogyny, but the story itself didn’t feel much different from other stories that have similar characters and plot points.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Good Girls” is included on the Goodreads list “YA Mysteries and Thrillers”, and would fit in on “Small Towns with Secrets”.

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

Kate’s Review: “The Cousins”

Book: “The Cousins” by Karen M. McManus

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, December 2020

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

Book Description: From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of One of Us Is Lying comes your next obsession. You’ll never feel the same about family again.

Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah Story are cousins, but they barely know each another, and they’ve never even met their grandmother. Rich and reclusive, she disinherited their parents before they were born. So when they each receive a letter inviting them to work at her island resort for the summer, they’re surprised . . . and curious.

Their parents are all clear on one point–not going is not an option. This could be the opportunity to get back into Grandmother’s good graces. But when the cousins arrive on the island, it’s immediately clear that she has different plans for them. And the longer they stay, the more they realize how mysterious–and dark–their family’s past is.

The entire Story family has secrets. Whatever pulled them apart years ago isn’t over–and this summer, the cousins will learn everything.

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

I don’t know what we did to deserve it, but the book world gave us two YA thrillers by Karen M. McManus this year. Maybe it was to try to balance the scales of this year just a little bit? Whatever the case may be, it’s hard to deny that McManus is a hot commodity in YA thriller publishing, and “The Cousins” is her newest foray into the genre. Had this book come out a little later, it certainly would have been on my list in our upcoming Highlights Post. It wasn’t easy letting it sit on my Kindle as long as I did, but once I dove in I found myself pretty well ensnared.

Like a couple of McManus’s other stories, “The Cousins” involves a group of teenagers who are thrown together under strange circumstances, even though they are not alike in any way, shape, of form. Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah are cousins who never spent time together as kids, as their parents are generally estranged from each other and completely estranged from their grandmother Millicent. We get the perspectives of each cousin, who all have their own secrets, insecurities, and reasons that they want to get back in their grandmother’s good graces. Milly is desperate to know more about her family, if only because her mother has been so cold to her over the years that she wants to know what made her that way. Aubrey wants to please her father, as his indifference towards her that borders into disdain is a constant hurt that has only amplified as of late because of his escalating callousness. And Jonah, well, Jonah is a bit of a mystery. He wants to meet his grandmother, but he has ulterior motives that aren’t as clear as Milly’s and Aubrey’s. Each of these characters had a distinct voice and read like teens coming from the backgrounds that they do, and their authentic personalities were easy to latch on to, even as their various flaws and, in some cases, lies come to light. I wouldn’t say that any of them were super outside of the box from what I’ve come to expect from McManus, but that’s more than okay because I liked all of them. While I expected myself to like Milly the best (who doesn’t love a sarcastic and somewhat privileged protagonist?), it was Jonah whose voice stood out the most. His frustration, resentment, and ultimate softening towards Milly and Aubrey was a nice journey, and he does get a well set up and believable romance to boot. He was just so easy to care for, and I wasn’t expecting that at first. McManus really has a knack for writing characterizations that really click.

The mystery itself, and the sub mysteries within, were also fairly strong, though once again my jaded self was able to figure out a couple a few steps before I probably was supposed to. I wasn’t as interested in the answer as to why Millicent cut her children out, because as far as I was concerned they probably DID deserve it. But as things became to be not as they seemed my expectations shifted a bit, and I was more interested. Again, sometimes the clues to the various mysteries and secrets sprinkled throughout the story were a little obvious and therefore the solutions predictable. But the pace was fast and I was going through quick enough that I didn’t find myself hindered by my abilities to guess what was coming up. I think that there are still a good amount of surprises here that are, indeed, well set up but well shrouded as well. So even if you do find yourself predicting some things, I can almost be positive that you won’t get them all.

“The Cousins” is fun and quick, and should be on the lists of anyone who likes YA thrillers. Karen M. McManus has a lot of talent and I am very excited to see what she comes up with next!

Rating 8: Another fun mystery thriller from Karen M. McManus!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Cousins” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best YA Mystery/Spy books”, and “YA Suspense/Thriller/Mystery”.

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