Kate’s Review: “The Black Queen”

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Book: “The Black Queen” by Jumata Emill

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2023

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

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

Book Description: Nova Albright, the first Black homecoming queen at Lovett High, is dead. Murdered the night of her coronation, her body found the next morning in the old slave cemetery she spent her weekends rehabilitating.

Tinsley McArthur was supposed to be queen. Not only is she beautiful, wealthy, and white, it’s her legacy–her grandmother, her mother, and even her sister wore the crown before her. Everyone in Lovett knows Tinsley would do anything to carry on the McArthur tradition.

No one is more certain of that than Duchess Simmons, Nova’s best friend. Duchess’s father is the first Black police captain in Lovett. For Duchess, Nova’s crown was more than just a win for Nova. It was a win for all the Black kids. Now her best friend is dead, and her father won’t face the fact that the main suspect is right in front of him. Duchess is convinced that Tinsley killed Nova–and that Tinsley is privileged enough to think she can get away with it. But Duchess’s father seems to be doing what he always does: fall behind the blue line. Which means that the white girl is going to walk.

Duchess is determined to prove Tinsley’s guilt. And to do that, she’ll have to get close to her. But Tinsley has an agenda, too.

Everyone loved Nova. And sometimes, love is exactly what gets you killed.

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

I love being taken surprise by a book. Whether it’s because I hadn’t heard of it before, or because a new author is on the scene and I’m totally unfamiliar, it’s a joy and a treat when one ends up in my hands, I have no expectations, and it ends up working for me and then some. That was my experience with “The Black Queen” by Jumata Emill. I hadn’t heard of the book until it was offered to me (thanks again, Delacorte Press!), and the premise was interesting and I was feeling up to trying something new. And then I ended up really, really enjoying it!

This story is told from two first person perspectives. The first is that of Duchess, a Black teenage girl in a Southern Community that is dealing with unofficial segregation and disparities for the Black community. Her best friend Nova is another Black girl, and is named the first Black Homecoming Queen the school has ever had. When Nova is murdered, Duchess is determined to prove that the privileged and wealthy Tinsley, a white classmate who wanted to be Homecoming Queen, is the culprit, as Tinsley was not only cruel to Nova during the race, but was also seen on TikTok making threats after the crowning. But the other perspective is actually of Tinsley, who is desperate to clear her name in the murder, and who is conducting her own investigation. Eventually, both girls team up despite the bad blood and past baggage, and it makes for a hell of a story. Not in the sense of ‘look at these two learning from each other’ kind of way, but because Emill doesn’t shy away from very uncomfortable moments regarding Tinsley’s character, and also explores lots of complexities with Duchess’s father, who is a police captain in town, and how his role has an effect on Duchess and her peers. Watching Tinsley be really difficult to like and slowly start to realize how terrible she has been, and how her race and privilege has made her entitled and venomous, is a very interesting choice to make with the character, and it was really neat to see that while we do get growth and remorse, she isn’t let off the hook for her really shitty actions. Watching her do the work first because she wants to clear her name, but then slowly start to realize that she has a lot to atone for was a fascinating character arc. I also like Duchess’s storyline and character growth, as she goes from making assumptions about things to then starting to find hard to reconcile nuances that make her question what she thinks she knows. It’s just really cool to see Emill delve into these deep issues about race in America and doesn’t water it down or package it in a way that some may think would be more palatable for a teen audience. She makes it easy to understand while still trusting the reader to be able to parse out a lot of complex, not so easy to answer questions.

The mystery at hand was very entertaining and pretty well put together. We know from the jump that Tinsley was guilty of being a shit head but not guilty of murder, so having her Duchess start to piece the mystery together separately and then together led to some good reveals and some good clue drops. There were a lot of facets to the story, and to Nova’s character, and many puzzle pieces that come together to give many options for why someone would have wanted her dead. Emill is fairly successful in pulling everything off and throwing readers off the trail here and there, and while I did kind of call one of the big solutions pretty early on in my read, there were a few well done red herrings that made me think ‘well maybe…?’, before they were revealed to be misdirections. But they were all plausible. The pace is kept fairly brisk and the plot moves in a way that keeps you interested, and I devoured this book in a couple of sittings because it was just that addictive.

So all in all “The Black Queen” was a well done YA thriller that successfully injects bigger, relevant issues into the plot. I really enjoyed it and I will be looking for more fiction from Jumata Emill in the future!

Rating 8: Some really good reveals, complex main characters, and a lot of relevant and important themes about race in America come together to make a well done YA thriller.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Black Queen” isn’t included on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Black Lives Matter and Anti-Racist Books”and “Young Adult Thrillers”.

Kate’s Review: “Blackmail and Bibingka”

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Book: “Blackmail and Bibingka” (Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mysteries 3) by Mia P. Manansala

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, October 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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

Book Description: It’s Christmastime in Shady Palms, but things are far from jolly for Lila Macapagal. Sure, her new business, The Brew-ha Cafe, is looking to turn a profit in its first year. And yes, she’s taken the first step in a new romance with her good friend, Jae Park. But her cousin Ronnie is back in town after ghosting the family fifteen years ago, claiming that his recent purchase of a local winery shows that he’s back on his feet and ready to give back to the Shady Palms community. Tita Rosie is thrilled with the return of her prodigal son, but Lila knows that wherever Ronnie goes, trouble follows.

She’s soon proven right when Ronnie is accused of murder, and secrets and rumors surrounding her shady cousin and those involved with the winery start piling up. Now Lila has to put away years of resentment and distrust to prove her cousin’s innocence. He may be a jerk, but he’s still family. And there’s no way her flesh and blood could actually be a murderer…right?

Review: We are in the full swing of Hanukkah in my house and Christmas is this weekend, so you know that I am both feeling pretty good but also PRETTY frazzled. By this time at the end of the year I am almost always teetering towards burnout, and this year is no different, as we’ve been dealing with child illness AND a surgery in the family this past month. So I was looking for some light hearted reads that were within the holiday spirit, and I realized that Mia P. Manansala’s new “Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mysteries” book, “Blackmail and Bibingka”, was not only out, but also Christmas themed! What’s more festive than delicious recipes and a little bit of premeditated murder, after all?

In terms of the story itself, it’s a solid and fun continuation of Lila Macapagal’s amateur detective adventures in her small town of Shady Palms. She’s running a successful coffee shop, her Tita Rosie is still running her successful cafe, and everything is hunky dory… until Rosie’s son Ronnie shows up after a fifteen year absence, with a winery business in tow. Trouble follows Ronnie, and shortly thereafter the wife of a big investor in the winery is poisoned at an event, and Ronnie is seen as a suspect. So once again Lila is thrust into trying to clear a family member’s name, all while trying to get through the holidays and her own stresses. It’s a pretty standard formula we get here, as with a lot of cozy mysteries as that is part of the point of the genre, but there are strengths and unique bits elsewhere. Whether it’s Lila’s Filipino background and cultural aspects that enter into the plot, or the fact that Manansala does a really good job of bringing in diverse characters and experiences, or that the characters are just downright likable (mostly) and interesting, this series really connects with me beyond the mystery itself. I actually thought that the mystery this time was pretty easy to discern, but that didn’t matter because the journey getting there was enjoyable and well paced. I also thought that Manansala was very good and tackling some of the more difficult sides of Lila’s family. In some ways it is black sheep Ronnie who can’t get his act together, or how Rosie can’t help but forgive him even as he’s hurt her so much. But it actually also shows how someone like Ronnie, who has been pretty hurtful, can be a product of his own hurt at the hands of those who love him and his mother, even if they didn’t really mean for it to be that way. It’s melancholy stuff, but it never felt like it was too much.

And yes, we’re going to talk about the recipes. Because once again we have a slew of delicious sounding recipes that have both Filipino origins, but also a recipe for Coquito, a Puerto Rican coconut egg nog, as one of the characters is Puerto Rican and plays a pretty significant role in the story. It’s always so great to see these recipes that I am unfamiliar with being shared and explained in really simple ways, and I am fully considering trying to make some bibingka (a rice cake with many toppings options) for one of the family get togethers. There are also twists on recipes that I am more familiar with, like a snickerdoodle recipe with ginger that also sounds so freaking good. I said it once and I’ll say it again: give me cozy mysteries with all the food.

“Blackmail and Bibingka” was a fun mystery that brought a little reading zazz to my holiday season after a pretty brutal lead up. It’s always nice to be able to settle in to decompress with an entertaining read, and this one definitely provided that.

Rating 7: A fun holiday themed mystery with even more delicious recipes, “Blackmail and Bibingka” shows the dysfunctional side of Lila Macapagal’s family, but keeps it light.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Blackmail and Bibingka” is included on the Goodreads list “ATY 2023: Asian Diaspora”, and would fit in on “Holiday Themed Cozy Mysteries”.

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens”

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Book: “Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens” by Andrea Penrose

Publishing Info: Kensington Publishing Corporation, September 2021

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

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

Book Description: One advantage of being caught up in a whirl of dress fittings and decisions about flower arrangements and breakfast menus is that Charlotte Sloane has little time for any pre-wedding qualms. Her love for Wrexford isn’t in question. But will being a wife–and a Countess–make it difficult for her to maintain her independence–not to mention, her secret identity as famed satirical artist A.J. Quill?

Despite those concerns, there are soon even more urgent matters to attend to during Charlotte and Wrexford’s first public outing as an engaged couple. At a symposium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, a visiting botanist suffers a fatal collapse. The traces of white powder near his mouth reveal the dark truth–he was murdered. Drawn into the investigation, Charlotte and the Earl learn of the victim’s involvement in a momentous medical discovery. With fame and immense fortune at stake, there’s no shortage of suspects, including some whose ruthlessness is already known. But neither Charlotte nor her husband-to-be can realize how close the danger is about to get–or to what lengths this villain is prepared to go…

Previously Reviewed: “Murder at the Queen’s Landing

Review: This has been a series of highs and lows for me. While I love the detailed historical insights that come with these mysteries, I’ve also been befuddled by overly complex mysteries and an ever-increasing cast of characters. That said, I enjoyed the last book quite a bit, and I’m still thoroughly on board with keeping up with the series. Is my investment in Charlotte’s and Wrexford’s relationship a large part of that? Yes, what of it?

While Charlotte and Wrexford’s love for one another has never been in question, Charlotte is increasingly concerned about the burdens of marriage that will soon be hers to bear. Regardless of the equality and freedom that Wrexford has worked so hard to ensure for her, Charlotte will still be a Countess, and with that comes certain responsibilities to society. And where can her work as a satirical artist fit into this increasingly all-encompassing role. With all of these thoughts plaguing her, Charlotte is almost relieved to stumble upon yet another murder mystery, this one throwing the two into the mysterious world of medical science and recent discoveries that could change the face of medicine.

While there have been ups and downs in other areas of the stories, there is no question that Penrose is a devoted researcher. Each books does a deep dive into unique aspects of this particular time period and thoroughly expands on the intricacies involved. This one tackles recent discoveries in medicine and pharmaceutical science. But it doesn’t stop with just discussing changes to treatments and understanding of certain illnesses and their effects on the body. Penrose dives into how, even in this time period, control over these sorts of discoveries is understood to hold an enormous potential for wealth and power. I really enjoyed learning all about this, and thought the mystery itself regarding this topic was complicated and engaging.

Which leaves us with the rest of the book, which is where I struggled a bit more. For one thing, this is book number five in the series. At this point, I generally think authors should trust that readers have either read the previous books or are the sorts of reader who are fine jumping into a series where they don’t know all of the details. Instead, Penrose picks the worst of the options and spends a significant portion of the beginning of the book reintroducing the, now large, cast of characters and how their relationships weave in and out. Not only does this all just feel like unnecessary page filler, but it delays the start of the actual plot and sets up the pacing to fail. I’m not sure what the thinking was with this decision, but I think it hurt the book fairly significantly right off the bat.

From there, other than my interest in the actual subject of the mystery, I struggled to feel the same connection to our main two characters. Charlotte was especially frustrating, spending huge chunks of this book stuck in an indecisive swirl of anxiety. And by the end of the book, it didn’t feel like any of this time spent on these emotions contributed to much change for her character or much of a character arc at all. Wrexford, too, felt very bland. While I wasn’t as actively frustrated with his story, there was also just wasn’t much there for him. Again, what character arc or growth did he experience in this book, cuz I really couldn’t find any.

Overall, I found this to be disappointing entry into the series. The chemistry between Charlotte and Wrexford seemed pale in comparison to previous books, and both character individually felt flat. It is still a well-researched, interesting mystery. But without its main character providing any emotional stakes, the whole thing felt rather deflated and more of a trial to get through than other entries.

Rating 7: Fairly disappointing, the interesting historical aspects weren’t enough to make up for the lackluster character arcs.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.

Book Club Review: “In a Midnight Wood”


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Read the full disclosure here.

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Book Bingo” where we drew reading challenges commonly found on book bingo cards from a hat and chose a book based on that.  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: “In a Midnight Wood” by Ellen Hart

Publishing Info: Minotaur Books, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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

Book Bingo Prompt: A cozy mystery.

Book Description: Beloved heroine Jane Lawless finds that some secrets don’t stay buried forever in Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Ellen Hart’s In a Midnight Wood, the 27th mystery in this cultishly popular series.

Minnesota private investigator Jane Lawless is headed to the small town of Castle Lake for a little getaway. She and Cordelia plan to visit an old friend, participate in an arts festival, and look into a cold case that has recently come on Jane’s radar–thanks to a podcast Jane is now involved in which looks into Minnesota cold cases.

In Castle Lake, a high school senior named Sam went missing in 1999. Everyone thought he ran away, though the town rumor mill has always claimed the father killed him. In present day, within a week of his 20th high school reunion, Sam’s remains are found. People who knew Sam, and those around him, will be in town for the much anticipated reunion. It’s up to Jane to sort friend from foe, before it’s too late.

Kate’s Thoughts

Outside of the “Tita Rosie Kitchen Mysteries”, I don’t really do many ‘cozy mysteries’ when it comes to the litany of mystery sub genres. I’ve dabbled here and there, but it’s not really my thing. But Book Club is always making me challenge myself, and when it was a cozy mystery prompt, I went in with an open mind. Oddly enough, even though I’ve worked for multiple public library systems in Minnesota, I had never heard of local author Ellen Hart or her character Jane Lawless, so “In a Midnight Wood” was completely new to me as a title and series. I had no idea what to expect in terms of specifics, but had some preconceived notions based on the sub genre, and I was, mostly correct.

“In a Midnight Wood” has a lot of really charming elements to it. The most obvious are our main character Jane and her ride or die best friend Cordelia. I really enjoyed their friendship and they way they interacted with each other, and I liked that we were getting a story about two aging lesbian best friends who have each other’s backs, but also call each other out on their nonsense. While I was jumping into a series 20+ books in, I still felt like I got to know Jane and Cordelia and who they were as people in spite of the fact I have missed OODLES of backstory. I also, being a Minnesotan, really liked the Minnesota setting in the fictional town of Castle Lake. It just felt like an outstate Minnesota town, with the insular community, the main street area with beloved local businesses, and the descriptions of chain of lakes food specialties, from burger joints to mentions of some favorite local beers (Grain Belt forever!)

On the flip side, the mystery and plot itself was fairly generic and run of the mill. I had a pretty good idea of what was going on, and the beats of twists and red herrings and reveals were fairly easy to spot. It also felt a little out of time in some ways, as the mystery at hand involves people who graduated in 1999, but as adults sound less like elder millennials and a bit older than that. And finally, and this is purely reflective of the choice we as a book club made and not on the book itself, jumping into a long running series twenty plus books in may have been a bit of a mistake. Not one that derailed the experience or anything! But there were definitely references to past characters long gone that seemed meaningful, but were meaningless to me as a reader with no context.

Overall, “In a Midnight Wood” was an entertaining choice for Book Club. I don’t think I’m going to tackle the series as a whole, but it made for a good discussion.

Kate’s Rating 6: I liked Jane and her friend Cordelia, and I loved the Minnesota references and location, but the mystery itself was pretty run of the mill. And jumping into a series 20+ books in was probably a mistake.

Book Club Questions

  1. Have you read any cozy mysteries before this book? If so, how does this one fit the genre and what did you think of it within said genre? If not, do you think you’d read others?
  2. What did you think of the setting that Hart created? Did the town and the people there engage your interest?
  3. This series started in the late 1980s and has been going on ever since. If you haven’t read this series, how do you imagine it has changed as time has gone on, and if you have, what have you noticed about the changes in the characters and their journeys?
  4. Do you think you will continue on in this series, be it going back to the beginning, or picking and choosing plots that sound interesting to you?
  5. Jane has her own true crime podcast. Do you listen to any podcasts, true crime or otherwise?
  6. There are a lot of awesome bits about food in this book. Did any of the foods stand out to you as something you’d want to eat?

Reader’s Advisory

“In a Midnight Wood” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists that I could find, but it would probably fit in on “Small Towns With Secrets”.

Kate’s Review: “After Dark with Roxie Clark”

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Book: “After Dark with Roxie Clark” by Brooke Lauren Davis

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury YA, October 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher at ALAAC22

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

Book Description: Roxie Clark has seen more dead bodies than your average seventeen-year-old. As a member of the supposedly-cursed Clark family, most of her ancestors have met tragic ends, including her own mother. Instead of fearing the curse, however, Roxie has combined her flair for performance and her gruesome family history into a successful ghost tour. But her tour never covers the most recent body she’s seen-her sister Skylar’s boyfriend, Colin Riley, found murdered in a cornfield.

A year after the murder, Roxie’s desperate to help Skylar find closure and start to heal. Instead, Skylar becomes fixated on finding the killer. As the sisters dig into what really happened, they discover that more than one person has been lying about that night. And the closer they get to the truth, the more Roxie starts to wonder if some scary stories might be better left untold. Brooke Lauren Davis offers another thought-provoking and eerily satisfying tale, perfect for fans of Kara Thomas and Cruel Summer

Review: Thank you to Bloomsbury YA for giving me an ARC of this book!

It’s been a few months now and I’m getting near the end of my ALAAC22 ARC stack, thinking back fondly of the conference and the massive suitcase sized haul of books I left with. So many end up being books I either grabbed on a whim, or those that were hyped by representatives of the publishing houses. “After Dark with Roxie Clark” by Brooke Lauren Davis was one of the more effective hype moments, as when walking by the table with the ARC, the rep overheard me saying something about horror. And she said ‘would a book about a Goth teenager who runs her own ghost tour business be of interest to you?’ What other possible response could I have had, other than

Between this woman and the woman who gave me the Spike book, the hype people were on point this past year (source).

And what the perfect premise for an October read. Ghost tours, a maudlin teenage girl, a murder mystery, a family curse? Hell yeah. Perfect spooky season reading.

In “After Dark with Roxie Clark” we meet Roxie, the aforementioned Goth girl who has her own ghost tour business, which takes stories from her own tragic family history and turns them into folklore that can help her process the angst around her family tree. Roxie is exactly the kind of character I would have loved as a teenage girl, as her love of all things horror and her spunky attitude would have spoken to me on every level. Even as a grown woman who still has that Goth girl in her I really loved Roxie. Did I need to suspend a little disbelief about her having a successful business? Sure. But independence and autonomy are big pluses in a teenage reader’s mind, so I am more than happy to forgive it. I liked her personality, I liked her wit, I just liked everything about her. I also liked the mystery at hand, about who killed Colin, her older sister Skylar’s boyfriend, and the brother of Roxie’s best friend (and crush) Tristan. I enjoyed how the worries of a Clark family curse enter into Roxie’s anxieties, and I liked how she and grief stricken Skylar team up after being distant to try and solve it (more on Skylar later….). In terms of the mystery itself, sure there were some things that were patently obvious as being red herrings, but there were definitely a few things that took me by surprise, and I mostly liked seeing Roxie grapple with the mystery at hand that is so personal to her, and how she has made a business of family tragedy, even if doing so in a respectful (in her mind) way. All of these things worked wonders for me.

The reason that this doesn’t have a higher rating is mostly because of my own personal struggles with one major aspect. That aspect is Skylar, Roxie’s older sister who is mourning the death of her boyfriend, and who is not coping well. I can’t even tell you why, as from what I can tell she is a pretty good representation of what terrible grief can do to a person when they don’t have the access to help that they need. But I had a very hard time with her as a character, and her actions as they try to figure out what happened to Colin, mostly because in her obsession and grief she does not care who she hurts, even if that person is her younger sister. I am grappling with the fact that I found a mourning and traumatized teenager wholly unlikable, and that may very well be something on my end, as she sure doesn’t have to be likable! But ruminating on it, I think it was more that a lot of it felt a bit overwrought, characterization wise, and with few peaks and valleys to it. Mourning and traumatized or not, I felt she was almost always at the highest level, and that gets a bit tiring.

But again, the mystery was taut, I was caught off guard by a few of the reveals, and Roxie as a character will surely be fun self insertion fantasy for Goth girls everywhere! “After Dark with Roxie Clark” is a great Halloween read for those who want to celebrate the season, but don’t want too much horror to go with it.

Rating 7: A solid YA mystery with a very enjoyable main character, “After Dark with Roxie Clark” is a good Halloween themed book for those who want an appropriate seasonal read without too much horror.

Reader’s Advisory:

“After Dark with Roxie Clark” is included on the Goodreads list “What To Read After Riverdale”.

Kate’s Review: “You’re Invited”


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Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “You’re Invited” by Amanda Jayatissa

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, August 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

Serena’s Review: “Death at the Manor”

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Book: “Death at the Manor” by Katharine Schellman

Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, August 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

Diving Into Sub-Genres: Forensic Mysteries

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

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

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

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

Book: “Deja Dead” by Kathy Reichs

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

Book: “The Crossing Places” by Elly Griffiths

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

Book: “The Bone Collector” by Jeffery Deaver

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

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

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

Book: “Postmortem” by Patricia Cornwell

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

What forensic thrillers/mysteries do you enjoy reading?

Serena’s Review: “Blood and Moonlight”

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Book: “Blood and Moonlight” by Erin Beaty

Publishing Info: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

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

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

Publishing Info: Dutton, June 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You sly dog, Mr. Sager! (source)

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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