Miranda’s September Reading Wrap-Up

September has come and gone, and somehow I managed to read 17 books. Unfortunately I don’t have any stats to share, because I, uh… accidentally deleted the spreadsheet I was using to keep track of my 2022 reading. Oops.

Instead of going back through and entering all my information again, I’m just going to leave it empty until 2023. It is what it is! I’m also doing something different with my reading journal. I’m waiting until the month has passed to add it to the journal and fill in my details, instead of setting it up before the month starts. We’ll see how that works out for me.

I’m surprised I managed to get through 17 books, though as you can see a few of them were graphic novels. I’m still really enjoying SPYxFAMILY. I also very much enjoyed Over My Dead Body, as it was clearly a response to J.K. Rowling becoming a terrible person and what an HP fan wishes HP could have been.

My favorite, however, was Ava Reid’s Juniper & Thorn. Considering I found her debut to be just fine, the fact that I loved Juniper & Thorn is a little surprising. I read a lot of negative reviews about it before reading it, and while I can see where they were coming from with their criticisms–such as the love story being a love at first sight or the book having too much sex in it–I ultimately ended up disagreeing. There’s a reason for everything in the story, and it truly lives up to the horror part of Gothic horror.

Another standout was I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy. I never watched iCarly (I was more of a Disney Channel girl, and also, I think I was past the age of enjoying iCarly when it was on the air) but after hearing about this book nonstop on twitter, I decided to give it a go. The first half is gut-wrenching, and frankly, I’m glad her mom is dead too. The second half didn’t flow as neatly, and I did find McCurdy to be a little sparse on details at times, but otherwise, I’m not sorry I read it.

So that’s it for me! What did you read in September, and what were your favorite reads?

Book Review: The Winter Guest by W.C. Ryan

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Arcade Crimewise
Publication Date: October 4th, 2022
Pages: 336, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

January 1921. Though the Great War is over, in Ireland a new civil war is raging. The once-grand Kilcolgan House, a crumbling bastion shrouded in sea mist, lies half empty and filled with ghosts, both real and imagined, while it shelters the surviving members of the Prendeville family. Then, when an IRA ambush goes terribly wrong, Maud Prendeville, Lord Kilcolgan’s eldest daughter, is killed, leaving the family reeling. Yet the IRA column behind the attack insists they left her alive, that someone else must be responsible for her terrible fate. Captain Tom Harkin, an IRA intelligence officer and Maud’s former fiancé, is sent to investigate. He becomes an unwelcome guest in this strange, gloomy household.

Working undercover, Harkin must delve into the house’s secrets—and discover where, in this fractured, embattled town, allegiances truly lie. But Harkin too is haunted by the ghosts of the past and by his terrible experiences on the battlefields. Can he find the truth about Maud’s death before the past—and his strange, unnerving surroundings—overwhelm him?

Tom Harkin is haunted, haunted by the recent war, haunted by those who died, and by those he left behind. One of those is Maud Prendeville, once his future wife, and now, a victim of an ambush that Tom is sent to investigate.

WWI has been over for three years, but the “rebels” are fighting for their freedom from a different oppressor, in The Winter Guest, set in the Ireland during the Troubles. Tom is ostensibly an insurance investigator, but he has multiple roles to play. He finds out that he’s not alone in the game, and not knowing whom to trust will cost him his life, possibly at the hands of his countrymen.

The book was very enjoyable, although I did expect a bit more on the ghostly side, having read Ryan’s A House of Ghosts. Winter Guest has the same great description of the environs, the people, and the relationships between them. It’s necessarily a bit grimmer than his other book, but every bit as enjoyable. The characters are well-drawn and, even when you know what’s going to happen next, may still surprise you.

Book Review: The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tor
Publication Date: October 11th, 2022
Pages: 368 paperback
Source: NetGalley

The Spare Man is a stylish mystery by Hugo, Locus, and Nebula award-winning author Mary Robinette Kowal set on an interplanetary liner between Earth and Mars.

Tessa Crain, one of the richest women in the world, is on her honeymoon on an interplanetary space liner, cruising between Earth and Mars. But she’s traveling incognito, and someone has targeted her new husband as the perfect person to frame for murder.

The Thin Man in space. Murder on a starliner. What’s not to love?

I liked it, but I didn’t love it, unlike Kowal’s Glamourist and Lady Astronaut series. The heroine, Tesla Crane, frankly annoyed me. There was not enough of the lightness of The Thin Man, but there were constant references to drinking, occasionally witty banter, and, of course, the obligatory adorable dog, Gimlet.

I wanted to like Tesla. She survived a horrific accident and suffers from chronic pain, and suffers from PTSD. I admit, I’m not sure how I’d behave were my husband to be implicated in a murder while we were on our honeymoon, but she states that she refrains from using her fame to bully people, and then does precisely that. She puts herself in danger unnecessarily, and seems more to luck into puzzling things out than in actual deduction. The red herrings were more pink, and the story dragged in places.

This book will appeal to many readers, but it just didn’t work for me.

Book Review: Murder by the Book ed. by Martin Edwards

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication Date: August 10th, 2022
Pages: 304, paperback
Source: NetGalley

With Martin Edwards as librarian and guide, delve into an irresistible stack of bibliomysteries, perfect for every booklover and armchair sleuth, featuring much-loved Golden Age detectives Nigel Strangeways, Philip Trent, Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, and others. But readers should be warned that the most riveting tales often conceal the deadliest of secrets…

If much of the action is set in a bookshop or a library, it is a bibliomystery, just as it is if a major character is a bookseller or a librarian.
–Otto Penzler

A bookish puzzle threatens an eagerly awaited inheritance; a submission to a publisher recounts a murder that seems increasingly to be a work of nonfiction; an irate novelist puts a grisly end to the source of his writer’s block.

There is no better hiding place for clues–or red herrings–than inside the pages of a book. But in this world of resentful ghost writers, indiscreet playwrights, and unscrupulous book collectors, literary prowess is often a prologue to disaster.

Anthologies for me are usually like boxed chocolates – there are some I love, some I like, and then some that are going in the trash uneaten. With British Library Crime Classics anthologies, though, I generally devour all the stories greedily.

I’d read a few of the stories before, such as the Innes, Brand, and Crispin ones, but there was a Trent story by Bentley that I hadn’t encountered, and enjoyed. The star of the collection for me, though, was the John Creasey story, The Book of Honour. That story alone would have earned this four stars from me, even if the other stories were absolute dreck, which they were not.

Each of these stories has something to do with books. Books are sold, books are written, and books are stolen. Most of the stories are written by authors with whom the reader will be familiar, but there are a few, like the ones by the Coles and Bremmer, that are unexpected delights.

Recommended for those who love books and those who write them, and those who love a good Golden Age mystery.

Book Review: Be the Serpent (October Daye #16) by Seanan McGuire

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: DAW
Publication Date: August 30th, 2022
Pages: 384, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

October Daye is finally something she never expected to be: married. All the trials and turmoils and terrors of a hero’s life have done very little to prepare her for the expectation that she will actually share her life with someone else, the good parts and the bad ones alike, not just allow them to dabble around the edges in the things she wants to share. But with an official break from hero duties from the Queen in the Mists, and her family wholly on board with this new version of “normal,” she’s doing her best to adjust.

It isn’t always easy, but she’s a hero, right? She’s done harder.
Until an old friend and ally turns out to have been an enemy in disguise for this entire time, and October’s brief respite turns into a battle for her life, her community, and everything she has ever believed to be true.

The debts of the Broken Ride are coming due, and whether she incurred them or not, she’s going to be the one who has to pay.

Toby has not had an easy time of it. She missed her daughter’s childhood when her stepfather turned her into a fish and left her in a pond. Her liege’s wife hates her and Toby is not allowed into their domain. So, in the last book, when she finally, FINALLY got a bit of happiness and married Tybalt, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Be the Serpent is not just that shoe, it’s Imelda Marcos’s entire collection of shoes dropping.

Toby’s best friend’s children are in danger, and Toby finds she may not know Stacy as well as she thinks she does. Toby’s powers have grown exponentially since the first book, as she becomes more Fae, but that might not be enough to take on her latest foe.

Toby is a hero. Toby views herself less as a hero, and more as someone who just keeps getting thrown into messes and has to do her utmost to protect her friends and family. She does an amazing job, whether she thinks so or not.

Toby has forged strong bonds with those who are not related to her by blood and most of them are more loyal to her than they are to their actually lieges. The relationships with her blood relatives? Well, the less said about most of them, the better. Who would have thought, back in Rosemary and Rue, that Toby the fish would find love with the King of Cats? She’s gained a sister (her Fetch May), a squire, a husband, and a strong team that supports her, whether she lets them or not.

It’s almost impossible to review this without spoiling it, so I’ll tell you why you should read it (and the rest of the series, if you haven’t already). The series just keeps getting stronger. Each book builds on the one before it, and this one is the culmination of so many storylines. Each character is well-drawn, and is not merely a prop for Toby. The descriptions are lush, and there’s an appropriate sense of menace throughout. You know something bad has happened. You know something worse is going to happen. The one person who might be able to help Toby is apathetic, at best, and obstructive, at worst. Frankly, I was amazed the body count wasn’t higher. I understand why the book ended the way it did, but it’s hard to see what this cost Toby and know that you’ll have to wait until at least next year for the next book. Be sure you have plenty of time set aside, because this is not a story that lends itself to stopping places.

Book Review: Terminal Peace (Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse #3) by Jim C. Hines

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Genre: Sci-Fi
Publisher: DAW
Publication Date: August 9th, 2022
Pages: 336, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

The third and final book of the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse follows a group of unlikely heroes trying to save the galaxy from a zombie plague.

Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos and her team were trained to clean spaceships. They were absolutely not trained to fight an interplanetary war with the xenocidal Prodryans or to make first contact with the Jynx, a race who might not be as primitive as they seem. But if there’s one lesson Mops and her crew have learned, it’s that things like “training” and “being remotely qualified” are overrated.

The war is escalating. (This might be Mops’ fault.) The survival of humanity—those few who weren’t turned to feral, shambling monsters by an alien plague—as well as the fate of all other non-Prodryans, will depend on what Captain Mops and the crew of the EDFS Pufferfish discover on the ringed planet of Tuxatl.

But the Jynx on Tuxatl are fighting a war of their own, and their world’s long-buried secrets could be more dangerous than the Prodryans.

To make matters worse, Mops is starting to feel a little feral herself…

Terminal Peace is the third in the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse series by Jim C. Hines. Really, do you need anything other than the name of the series to know this is going to be great?

Premise is that humanity have been turned “feral” by an alien disease, except for a few who were naturally immune. Those became “librarians,” and have been working to free humanity from subjugation by various intergalactic powers.

Mops is a human janitor who is also the captain of a ship crewed by humans and aliens. War is imminent, and humans will suffer even more than they already have. It’s up to Mops and her crew to clean up yet another mess, but Mops is running out of time, as she’s been infected and will soon “revert.”

Mops is a delight, as are her crew. There are plenty of pop culture references, but not enough to distract from the story. This is a story of the underdog and how doing the right thing sometimes pays off, even if not in ways you expect. Mops and her crew battle their way to a forbidden planet in hopes of something that will stop the Prodryans, who want to dominate the galaxy. Can they convince the “primitive” Jynx to help them?

Hines is a good writer, and has created worlds and beings with whom you will want to spend more time. I’m hoping there are more in this series, although the ending of this book did wrap things up well.

Book Review: A Treacherous Tale (The Cambridge Bookshop Series #2) by Elizabeth Penney

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Genre: Cozy Mystery
Publisher: St. Martin’s Paperbacks
Publication Date: August 23rd, 2022
Pages: 288, mass market
Source: NetGalley

Lately, Molly has been feeling that she might have fallen into a fairy tale: she’s reinvigorated the family bookshop Thomas Marlowe—Manuscripts and Folios, made friends in her new home of Cambridge, England, and is even developing a bit of a romance with the handsome Kieran—a bike shop owner with a somewhat intimidating family pedigree.

Having recently discovered The Strawberry Girls, a classic children’s tale, Molly is thrilled to learn the author, Iona York, lives nearby. But while visiting the famous author at her lovely cottage in nearby Hazelhurst, an old acquaintance of Iona’s tumbles off her roof to his death.

Then, when one of Iona’s daughters—an inspiration for the original Strawberry Girls—goes missing, Molly begins to worry this story might be more Brothers Grimm than happily-ever-after. Especially after Molly learns about the mysterious long-ago death of Iona’s husband and co-author of The Strawberry Girls…could past and present crimes be linked? Molly must put the clues together before someone turns this sweet tale sour.

Molly Kimball, recent transplant from Vermont to Cambridge, is busy with her bookshop and her aristocratic beau, but when her uncle is suspected of murder, she flies on her bicycle to solve her second case.

In A Treacherous Tale, Molly is organizing an event with local author Iona York, who is coming out with a new edition of her classic children’s book. She visits Iona, only to discover the body of a local antiques dealer, who has fallen off the roof of Iona’s house, where Molly’s uncle was repairing the thatch.

Molly is a likeable heroine and has a great support system in her friends and family. While she does occasionally jump to a wrong conclusion, she generally follows the evidence and the reader is given all the clues they need to solve the case along with her. The secondary characters are important to the narrative, and don’t just serve to enhance Molly.

Penney is a solid cozy writer, and I hope there are many more in this series. I like the Cambridge Bookshop series, but I admit I’m more partial to Penney’s Apron Shop series. Both are well worth reading.

Book Review: Death at the Manor (Lily Adler Mystery #3) by Katharine Schellman

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books
Publication Date: August 9th, 2022
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

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?

Lily Adler’s third case is a death that may have been caused by a ghost. In Death at the Manor, Lily, along with her friends Lord and Lady Carroway, are on a visit to Lily’s aunt in Hampshire. There have been recent sightings of a “Grey Lady” at the local manor, so Lily and Ophelia wish to investigate. Matthew Spencer, who may or may not be a potential beau, is a neighbor of the Wrights, and assists with their investigation.

While good, this book may be suffering from sophomore slump, even though it’s the third in the series. I think this is largely due to the absence of Jack and Simon. Matthew may be a potential suitor, but he isn’t the foil for Lily the way the other two are. It was nice that Lily and Ophelia got to spend more time together, and we got to spend time with the Carroways as a couple and see more of their relationship.

I also think the book couldn’t decide what it wanted to be, a Regency romance, a cozy mystery, or a gothic. It led to some slow pacing and an overall disjointedness. That said, it’s still a really good mystery on its own merits, and if I hadn’t had the previous two to which to compare, I’d probably have rated this one more highly.

DNF Book Review: So Happy For You by Celia Laskey

Genre: girl i don’t even know, it says it’s meant to be a humorous thriller but it fails in both those categories
Publisher: Hanover Square Press
Publication Date: June 7th, 2022
Pages: 304, hardcover
Source: Library

A wedding weekend spirals out of control in this bold, electrifying, hilarious novel about the complexities of female friendship 

Robin and Ellie have been best friends since childhood. When Robin came out, Ellie was there for her. When Ellie’s father died, Robin had her back. But when Ellie asks Robin to be her maid of honor, she is reluctant. A queer academic, Robin is dubious of the elaborate wedding rituals now sweeping the nation, which go far beyond champagne toasts and a bouquet toss. But loyalty wins out, and Robin accepts. 

Yet, as the wedding weekend approaches, a series of ominous occurrences lead Robin to second-guess her decision. It seems that everyone in the bridal party is out to get her. Perhaps even Ellie herself. 

Manically entertaining, viciously funny and eerily campy, So Happy for You is the ultimate send-up to our collective obsession with the wedding industry complex and a riveting, unexpectedly poignant depiction of friendship in all its messy glory.

101/304

The dustjacket summary calls this a “satire”, but I’m not entirely certain Laskey manages to pull that off. I got to 101 pages when I decided my unease with how Laskey was portraying Robin and her group of “rabid feminist” friends was a good enough reason to quit reading, in addition to me skimming the end and seeing Robin call herself a “rage-a-holic” for getting upset and angry when people have bigoted opinions (or as the book tries to calls it, “opinions different from hers.”)

The thing is, up until that point in the novel, Robin hadn’t gone out of her way to seek out bigoted opinions. The biggest example I can think of is when she’s teaching her feminist studies class and she’s pushing her students to think critically about, you know, feminist theories. The thing she’s paid to do. (I just now caught on to the fact that Laskey made Robin a college professor trying to teach her students about so-called “liberal ideas”, a.k.a. an accusation Republicans love to throw at colleges. This is icky to me.)

There’s also a bit where Ellie is stated as feeling like she “can’t say anything right around [Robin’s] friends” and Robin backs this up because Ellie asked a trans friend of Robin’s if he’d “fully transitioned” yet. The way it’s written, we’re made to think both parties are at fault and being ridiculous — but moreso Robin’s, because how dare they hurt Ellie’s feelings by being like, “Uh, maybe don’t ask that right off the bat?”

The ending makes it seem like both Ellie and Robin have huge flaws, but I dunno, y’all, wanting people to be treated equally and seen as human and getting upset when others hold opinions that view those people as less than isn’t really a huge flaw to me! There’s also nothing wrong with being friends mainly with people who share your opinions. If you view me as deserving of less rights than others simply because I’m queer, or fat, or a woman, or whatever, I don’t really want to hang out with you. If that makes me a rabid feminist, oh well!

I don’t know, maybe I’m being overly critical here, but with the severe feminist backlash we’re in the middle of, I think writers need to be a little more careful about what portrayals they put out in their books. I’m not saying don’t write it entirely. But really ask yourself what you’re hoping to accomplish with it, and if it does more harm than good.

Any commentary Laskey tried to make about the wedding industrial complex were sort of lost in my uneasy feelings about the treatment of Robin and her friends. So, in the end, maybe this just wasn’t for me.

Book Review: August Kitko and the Mechas from Space by Alex White

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Sci-Fi
Publisher: Orbit
Publication Date: July 12th, 2022
Pages: 464, paperback
Source: NetGalley

When an army of giant robot AIs threatens to devastate Earth, a virtuoso pianist becomes humanity’s last hope in this bold, lightning-paced, technicolor new space opera series from the author of A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe.

Jazz pianist Gus Kitko expected to spend his final moments on Earth playing piano at the greatest goodbye party of all time, and maybe kissing rockstar Ardent Violet, before the last of humanity is wiped out forever by the Vanguards–ultra-powerful robots from the dark heart of space, hell-bent on destroying humanity for reasons none can divine. 

But when the Vanguards arrive, the unthinkable happens–the mecha that should be killing Gus instead saves him. Suddenly, Gus’s swan song becomes humanity’s encore, as he is chosen to join a small group of traitorous Vanguards and their pilots dedicated to saving humanity.

Love, mechas, and music at the end of the world – what’s not to love? August Kitko is a loveable, awkward, semi-successful jazz musician who ends up playing a song that just might save humanking. Being a hero is all well and good, but can he save both the world and his new relationship?

This is the first book in The Starmetal Symphony series by Alex White. As the story opens, humanity is about to be destroyed by killer robots from outer space (yes, really), called the Vanguards. At one of the many apocalypse parties, August Kitko meets rockstar Ardent Violet, and falls head over heels for them. Unfortuntately, a Vanguard named Greymalkin also knocks Gus head over heels. Gus has five minutes to save the world before he dies.

Gus is an adorable everyman, caught up in something way bigger than he is and for which he seems wholly unprepared, both with the Vanguard and Ardent. The story is sparkly and fun and exciting, and you will absolutely have a soundtrack going through your head for most of the ride. Ardent is less Bowie and more Pete Burns, I felt, and Gus? Maybe Paul Simon? Gus and Ardent’s first jam had me humming “Doomsday Disco” by Lord of the Lost. I’m not sure whether I wanted the author to include the soundtrack they played writing this (if any) or if I was glad I could imagine my own.

Beneath all the shiny, there’s a sweet love story, some Pacific Rim-style fights, and the mystery of why the Vanguards want to destroy humans to solve. The story is covered with glitter and fire and light, and is face-paced and noisy. You can help but root for Gus, and Ardent, self-centered, but utterly loyal to Gus, will grow on you. Probably. If not, you’ll like them because they love Gus.

The story is told from both Gus’s and Ardent’s points-of-view, and I felt that the Ardent chapters were less successful than the Gus ones. That’s partially because almost all the mecha are in the Gus chapters, but also because, well, Ardent isn’t entirely likeable, and the action drags in their sections. I also felt that their “love at first sight” was a bit convenient, but then, hey, it WAS the end of the world, and they were immediately thrown into battle.

Fun, if a bit clunky in places. You won’t be sorry you tuned in.

Miranda’s June Reading Wrap Up

Happy summer! I’ve been in a bit of a slump since June, though thankfully not as bad as the slump I was in during February. Part of it is that work has been busy, so when I get home I don’t have much energy to sit down and read; I also can’t listen to a lot of audiobooks because I had to be more active at work. Things should hopefully calm down now that work is slowing down again.

Of course, now I get to show off the spreads for my reading journal in June. And since it was Pride, of course I put rainbows everywhere.

After receiving the June sticker pack from Pipsticks, I decided to use all of them in this set up. I also used some scrapbooking paper. I especially loved the butterflies in the sticker pack.

I did manage to read 17 books and listen to 7 audiobooks in June. Three of them were rereads. I also DNF’d 6 books. Overall I read 3,116 pages and listened to 4,668 minutes of audiobooks. My favorite book in June was She Gets the Girl by Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick — I swooned. My average rating for June was 3.5, which is the highest it’s been so far!

This is the second month I’m trying out a calendar in my reading journal, and I’m still really enjoying it, although I’ve found I forget to actually sit down and put the tape and stickers in (as you can tell by the absence of both in days 23-30). I’ll try to be better about it in July.

Last up is my mood tracker and a new feature I added in June!

I trimmed down the number of moods I tracked in July and drew a Pride flag as my tracker. Save for a handful of bad days (thanks, Supreme Court!) June was mostly okay for me.

After I wrote down my key, I still had a large space of unused paper on the left hand side. In May’s spread, I used it to stamp some flowers and color them in, but I didn’t have anything that I felt really fit in June. Then I decided to add a “gratitude log”. I tend to be a negative person, and with the world the way it is, I thought adding a gratitude log would maybe help me. This was added about a week into June so a lot of early days are blank because my memory is awful and I couldn’t really think of anything. It’s a work in progress, I think.

Now for the books I read in June…

I reread the first three volumes of Witch Hat Atelier, then got caught up to what the library has available. I also finally read Nimona, which was great. My favorite physical book was probably SPYxFAMILY, which was charming as hell.

I didn’t burn through as many audiobooks this month, which is a bit sad, but overall I liked most of the ones I listened to. The only one I was underwhelmed by was Daughter of Sparta, which started out strong but ultimately went on too long and proved not to be to my taste as far as the romance went. But, my favorite audiobook (and overall book) of June was She Gets the Girl, as I said before. Loved it. I hope these two authors write more together soon.

So that’s it for me! What did you read in June? If you have a reading journal, how did you decorate it last month?

Book Review: Peril at the Exposition (Captain Jim Agnihotri #2) by Nev March

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: July 12th, 2022
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Captain Jim Agnihotri and his new bride, Diana Framji, return in Nev March’s Peril at the Exposition, the follow up to March’s award-winning, Edgar finalist debut, Murder in Old Bombay.

1893: Newlyweds Captain Jim Agnihotri and Diana Framji are settling into their new home in Boston, Massachusetts, having fled the strict social rules of British Bombay. It’s a different life than what they left behind, but theirs is no ordinary marriage: Jim, now a detective at the Dupree Agency, is teaching Diana the art of deduction he’s learned from his idol, Sherlock Holmes.

Everyone is talking about the preparations for the World’s Fair in Chicago: the grandeur, the speculation, the trickery. Captain Jim will experience it first-hand: he’s being sent to Chicago to investigate the murder of a man named Thomas Grewe. As Jim probes the underbelly of Chicago’s docks, warehouses, and taverns, he discovers deep social unrest and some deadly ambitions.

When Jim goes missing, young Diana must venture to Chicago’s treacherous streets to learn what happened. But who can she trust, when a single misstep could mean disaster?

Award-winning author Nev March mesmerized readers with her Edgar finalist debut, Murder in Old Bombay. Now, in Peril at the Exposition, she wields her craft against the glittering landscape of the Gilded Age with spectacular results.

Peril at the Exposition is the follow-up to Nev March’s first novel, Murder in Old Bombay, featuring Captain Jim Agnihotri. Jim and his new bride, Diana, have moved from India to America. Jim has started work as a private investigator, and is sent to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Fair. After weeks of not hearing from Jim, Diana takes matters into her own hands and follows him from Boston to Chicago, where she finds danger and deceit.

I loved the first book, which was from Jim’s POV. This novel is told alternately by Jim and Diana, which allows the reader to have more of the facts and background. Jim has, perhaps understandably, become a bit harder since his move to the States and embarking on a new career. While I applaud Diana’s bravery and her ability to care for the less fortunate around her, I found her part of the investigation to be clumsy. I had difficulty believing that Jim couldn’t get a message to her for all that time, and didn’t feel like the story really needed her intervention. Her naivety imperiled those around her, as well as herself and Jim.

Still, the read was mostly enjoyable, for the story and the name-dropping of the like of Tesla. It also provided a window on the Expo and late 19th-century Chicago.

Book Review: Guilty Creatures: A Menagerie of Mysteries ed. by Martin Edwards

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Mystery short story collection
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication Date: June 7th, 2022
Pages: 320, paperback
Source: NetGalley

“Curiously enough,” said Dr. Manners, “I know a story in which the detection of a murder turned on the behaviour of a bird: in this instance a jackdaw.” Since the dawn of the crime fiction genre, animals of all kinds have played a memorable part in countless mysteries, and in a variety of roles: the perpetrator, the key witness, the sleuth’s trusted companion. This collection of fourteen stories corrals plots centred around cats, dogs and insects alongside more exotic incidents involving gorillas, parakeets and serpents – complete with a customary shoal of red herrings. From the animal mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle and F. Tennyson Jesse through to more modern masterpieces of the sub-genre from Christianna Brand and Penelope Wallace, this anthology celebrates one of the liveliest and most imaginative species of classic crime fiction. 

Guilty Creatures is the latest vintage mystery short-story anthology from British Library Crime Classics/Poisoned Pen Press, edited by Martin Edwards. This outing is all about mysteries where an animal is a key component of the case.

A few of the stories were familiar, but were welcome re-reads, like Doyle’s The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane. I’d forgotten that Doyle did occasionally have Holmes self-narrate a tale, and it’s interesting to see Holmes through his own eyes.

Some of the stories are weaker, mystery-wise, such as The Man Who Shot Birds by Mary Fitt, but the tale itself is so entertaining that that can be overlooked.

Pit of Screams by Garnett Radcliffe is another one I’d read before, but I’d forgotten the trick ending, which is a very pleasing one.

You can’t go wrong with Christianna Brand, whose Inspector Cockrill makes a welcome appearance in “The Hornet’s Nest.” This is another one I’d read before, but it’s just so good and so unexpected that it’s worth the time spent to read again.

The anthology is a mixed bag, but is well worth reading just for these gems.

Book Review: The Unkept Woman (Sparks & Bainbridge #4)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: July 26th, 2022
Pages: 320, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

The Right Sort Marriage Bureau was founded in 1946 by two disparate individuals – Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge (whose husband was killed in the recent World War) and Miss Iris Sparks who worked as an intelligence agent during the recent conflict, though this is not discussed. While the agency flourishes in the post-war climate, both founders have to deal with some of the fallout that conflict created in their personal lives. Miss Sparks finds herself followed, then approached, by a young woman who has a very personal connection to a former paramour of Sparks. But something is amiss and it seems that Iris’s past may well cause something far more deadly than mere disruption in her personal life. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn is struggling to regain full legal control of her life, her finances, and her son – a legal path strewn with traps and pitfalls.

Together these indomitable two are determined and capable and not just of making the perfect marriage match.

Many times, a promising series begins to fizzle out after several books. That is not the case with Allison Montclair’s Sparks and Bainbridge mysteries. The Unkept Woman is fourth in what I hope is a long-running series, and is, if anything, as strong or even stronger than the other volumes.

This time, Gwen is preparing to regain the life stolen from her when she spiraled into depression after her husband’s death during WWII. She is told that her behavior will not stand the scrutiny of the exam board, and that she needs to stick to matchmaking and avoid investigative work. Unfortunately, helping Iris with a ghost from her past may cost Gwen her son and her freedom.

This book authentically captures the struggles of working women of various classes. Even with all the war work women performed, they are still treated as second-class citizens and people with mental health issues aren’t treated much better than they were in Bedlam days.

Gwen and Iris are strong, confident characters, and the books are worth reading for them (and Sally!) alone, but the personal relationships between them, and their larger group of friends and family, provide even greater depth and examination of the culture and mores of the post-WWII austerity years. Both women are damaged, both are flawed, but both rise to overcome their pasts and are determined to be masters of their own destinies.

Book Review: Murder Through the English Post (Beryl & Edwina Mystery #6) by Jessica Ellicott

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Kensington
Publication Date: July 26th, 2022
Pages: 304, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

A rash of poison pen letters has enveloped the sleepy English village of Walmsley Parva in cloud of suspicion and paranoia. But when rampant aspersions culminate in murder, enquiry agents Beryl Helliwell and Edwina Davenport must stamp out the evil-minded epistles . . .

What began for two dear if very different friends–an American adventuress and a prim and proper Brit–as a creative response to the lean times following the Great War has evolved into a respectable private enquiry business. So much so that Constable Gibbs calls upon Beryl and Edwina to solve a curious campaign of character assassination.

A series of anonymous accusations sent via post have set friend against friend and neighbor against neighbor. In her new position as magistrate, Edwina has already had to settle one dispute that led to fisticuffs. Even Beryl has received a poison pen letter, and while she finds its message preposterous and laughable, others are taking the missives to heart. Their headstrong housekeeper Beddoes is ready to resign and one villager has attempted to take her own life.

The disruption of the peace goes far beyond malicious mischief when another villager is murdered. Now it’s up to the intrepid sleuths to read between the lines and narrow down the suspects to identify the lethal letter writer and ensure that justice is delivered . . .

Poison is in the pen in Jessica Ellicott’s latest mystery, Murder Through the English Post. This time, Beryl and Edwina must investigate a rash of poison pen letters that may have caused a death.

Beryl, Edwina, and Simpkins continue to grow and their unconventional partnership is a delight. The flip side of that is that there is a LOT of introspection, mostly by Edwina, in this book, and it does cause it to drag in places. I’m very happy that Edwina is opening herself up to new experiences, such as becoming a magistrate, but I don’t necessarily want to read an entire chapter of her inner thoughts about her life.

Pretty much everyone in the village gets a poison pen letter, some deserved, some not. Readers will probably figure out the solution before Beryl and Edwina, but this is an enjoyable visit to Walmsley Parva, and a great peek into post-WWI village life.

Miranda’s May Reading Wrap Up

We’re into June, so it’s time to share my reading journal spread and stats!

For May, the theme I went with centered around the Norse Goddess of Constancy and Compassion, Sigyn. In the myths, she’s Loki’s second wife and mother to two of his children, Narvi and Vali. I’m more or less a devotee of hers, so I chose to depict her out in the sun and flowers, away from the cave where she joined Loki in his punishment.

The lyric is from Florence and the Machine’s “Heavy in Your Arms”, and my shaky attempt at an ampersand. Purple and blue are colors I associate with Sigyn, as well as keys and flowers, so those are represented here.

In May, I read 14 books amounting to 1,849 pages, and listened to 14 audiobooks, amounting to 7,455 minutes. My favorite book of May was “The Girls I’ve Been” by Tess Sharpe, and I didn’t finish 2 books. I read a lot of fantasy, a number of graphic novels, some memoirs and non-fiction, and romance. The average rating was 3.2. So, pretty normal, so far.

This is an idea I shamelessly stole from a friend. On the calendar, you use washi tape to mark how long it took you to finish a book. Since I was finishing audiobooks in a day, or sometimes I read a graphic novel in a day, I also used stickers to mark a finished book. (This is actually missing a bit of tape and stickers in the fourth week, but wev.) We also have more decoration for things I associate with Sigyn; a deer, flowers, purples and blues. I basically just threw everything at this spread.

Last but not least, my mood tracker. I decided to try making my own this month, and I’m more or less content with how it turned out. I don’t draw flowers very often, so I’m not great at them. On the other side, I put my key (and yes, I put “productive” down twice by accident; I shortened up my options for June’s tracker) and some more decoration.

So, that’s it for me this month! June’s theme is probably easy to guess. Let’s just say… it’s very colorful.

Book Review: Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: May 17th, 2022
Pages: 370, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

The internationally bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society returns with a compelling and heartwarming story of post-war London, a century-old bookstore, and three women determined to find their way in a fast-changing world.

Bloomsbury Books is an old-fashioned new and rare book store that has persisted and resisted change for a hundred years, run by men and guided by the general manager’s unbreakable fifty-one rules. But in 1950, the world is changing, especially the world of books and publishing, and at Bloomsbury Books, the girls in the shop have plans:

Vivien Lowry: Single since her aristocratic fiance was killed in action during World War II, the brilliant and stylish Vivien has a long list of grievances – most of them well justified and the biggest of which is Alec McDonough, the Head of Fiction.

Grace Perkins: Married with two sons, she’s been working to support the family following her husband’s breakdown in the aftermath of the war. Torn between duty to her family and dreams of her own.

Evie Stone: In the first class of female students from Cambridge permitted to earn a degree, Evie was denied an academic position in favor of her less accomplished male rival. Now she’s working at Bloomsbury Books while she plans to remake her own future.

As they interact with various literary figures of the time – Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Sonia Blair (widow of George Orwell), Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim, and others – these three women with their complex web of relationships, goals and dreams are all working to plot out a future that is richer and more rewarding than anything society will allow.

Evie, Vivien, and Gracie are the Bloomsbury Girls, a not-quite sequel to Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society, although Evie appears in both novels.

It’s 1950s London. There’s still austerity, but life has more-or-less resumed as it was before World War II…and that’s the problem. Women are in the workforce in increased numbers, to the consternation, and sometimes hostility of their male coworkers and some customers.

Each woman is trying to make her place in Bloomsbury Books, which has stood for over 100 years and has over 50 unbreakable rules. In the changing society of the 50s, though, rule-breaking is almost inevitable, and each of the “girls” must decide whether to go with the status quo or fight to carve out the place she deserves among the shelves and aisles.

In addition to being a great story with characters you want to spend time with, this is a great peek into the post-war working-class society in mid-20th-century London. It does focus more on the internal struggles for each woman, but there are glimpses into the wider world and how it impacts their choices.

You don’t have to have read The Jane Austen Society before reading this, but you will want to, if only to learn more about Evie Stone.

Book Review: All for One by Lillie Lainoff

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Retelling
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: March 8th, 2022
Pages: 12hr 23mins, audiobook
Source: Library

Tania de Batz is most herself with a sword in her hand. Everyone in town thinks her near-constant dizziness makes her weak, nothing but “a sick girl”; even her mother is desperate to marry her off for security. But Tania wants to be strong, independent, a fencer like her father—a former Musketeer and her greatest champion.

Then Papa is brutally, mysteriously murdered. His dying wish? For Tania to attend finishing school. But L’Académie des Mariées, Tania realizes, is no finishing school. It’s a secret training ground for a new kind of Musketeer: women who are socialites on the surface, but strap daggers under their skirts, seduce men into giving up dangerous secrets, and protect France from downfall. And they don’t shy away from a swordfight.

With her newfound sisters at her side, Tania feels for the first time like she has a purpose, like she belongs. But then she meets Étienne, her first target in uncovering a potential assassination plot. He’s kind, charming, and breathlessly attractive—and he might have information about what really happened to her father. Torn between duty and dizzying emotion, Tania will have to lean on her friends, listen to her own body, and decide where her loyalties lie…or risk losing everything she’s ever wanted.

This debut novel is a fierce, whirlwind adventure about the depth of found family, the strength that goes beyond the body, and the determination it takes to fight for what you love. 

Oh, I wish I could rate this higher, but there were a lot of flaws in One for All, most of them the author’s, but one that wasn’t.

The biggest issue I had was the pacing. Tania doesn’t meet Etienne until the 50% mark, and by that point, any relationship they might have had no room to breath or time to feel natural. Maybe this was intentional on Lainoff’s part, but I think there were better ways to go about it, so when the third act came along I would have been more emotionally engaged than I was.

There’s also the issue that the Musketeers fight for the King of France, and, well, Lainoff does attempt to flesh this out by having the characters criticize the King and say they’re fighting more for France, and that if the King dies then the poor will suffer most, and while that’s true… it still felt like it was mostly just pasted in and not really developed enough. Yes, the girls are fighting to prove women can be Musketeers, and they disagree with the villain’s plot, but they also don’t seem to have any alternate ideas as to how to improve things.

They say they want to avoid having the poorest people pay the price in blood, but frankly, their actions will kill those same people eventually, either through starvation or illness or any of the other myriad, slow ways people died while the rich did their thing. All that fell flat for me and left the characters not looking the greatest.

One for All does start out pretty strong, and I was engaged up until Tania leaves her village to go to Paris. There, the pacing combined with Wilson’s inability to differentiate her voices for the characters (or, when she does, her inability to stick to those voices) made it harder to follow.

The other issue was the choice of narrator. I like Mara Wilson herself well enough, but her skills at narration were… lacking. I’m not sure if this was a director’s choice or her own, but sometimes she had long pauses between lines, up to 2 seconds long, which made me think we were starting a new scene or a new paragraph altogether, only for the scene to continue. The pauses and the speed of her speech were so slow even at 1.50x speed that I had to turn it up to 1.75x just for it to be manageable for me to listen to. She wasn’t consistent in this, either, so sometimes we had long pauses, other times not, so it threw me off.

I suspect if I had read this instead of listened to the audiobook, I would have liked it slightly better. I’ll probably look into Lainoff’s next book, to see how she improves past the typical debut shakiness.

Book Review: The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions by Kerry Greenwood

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication Date: May 17th, 2022
Pages: 272, paperback
Source: NetGalley

The elegant Miss Phryne Fisher returns in this scintillating collection, featuring four brand-new stories.

The Honourable Phryne Fisher—she of the Lulu bob, Cupid’s Bow lips, diamante garters and pearl-handled pistol—is the 1920s’ most elegant and irrepressible sleuth.

Miss Phryne Fisher is up to her stunning green eyes in intriguing crime in each of these entertaining, fun and compulsively readable stories. With the ever-loyal Dot, the ingenious Mr Butler and all of Phryne’s friends and household, the action is as fast as Phryne’s wit and logic.

Phryne Fisher is back with four new short stories in The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions. Her sleek bob and sharp wits remain unchanged, but there are minor alterations to a few of the other thirteen stories, which were previously published in A Question of Death.

Phyrne is always a joy to read. She is poised, confident, and intelligent, and uses her skills (and money) to pursue justice and solve mysteries. I wish there were more than four new stories, but it had been awhile since I had read the anthology with the others, so it was like catching up with an old friend who had exciting new news.

But Phryne does not act in a vacuum. While she may dine with the upper crust, she’s equally at home in humbler (and more socialistic) settings. She’s a chameleon, but she’s always true to herself and is sympathetic to people in unfortunate circumstances.

If you like mysteries with wit, sparkle, and charm set in the period between the World Wars, you should be reading Phryne. Even if you don’t think that’s your cuppa, try them anyway. You won’t be disappointed.

Book Review: Rotten to the Core (Lady Hardcastle Mysteries #8) by T.E. Kinsey

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Publication Date: June 7th, 2022
Pages: 334, paperback
Source: NetGalley

Summer 1911. A scorching heatwave engulfs the quiet town of Littleton Cotterell and brings about an unusually early harvest. The villagers are thrilled, but events quickly turn sour when one of them turns up dead in an apple orchard, stabbed through the heart.

Amateur sleuth Lady Hardcastle and her trusty lady’s maid, Flo, suddenly have a juicy case on their hands. Might the mysterious stranger they recently met in the village be to blame?

When a second cider-related murder takes place, it quickly becomes clear that there’s more to these mysterious deaths than meets the eye. The daring duo uncover whispers of an ancient order and moonlit rituals. And evidence points to a macabre secret in the village stretching back years. A secret someone will do anything—anything at all—to keep hidden.

Something is rotten, that’s for sure. With the local constabulary baffled, Lady Hardcastle and Flo must use all their powers of wit and whimsy to get to the bottom of the dastardly deed. But can they catch the killer before any more people drop dead?

Old sins cast long shadows in T E Kinsey’s latest Lady Hardcastle mystery, Rotten to the Core. In the midst of preparations for a harvest festival, a local man is found dead in an orchard. Lady Hardcastle and her more-than-a-maid Flo are called upon to investigate. They find a benevolent society with some odd rituals, a tourist/newcomer who picks some odd local sites to visit, and more than one motive for murder.

Flo and Emily are back with the sharp skills and witty banter that we’ve come to expect and love. There are red herrings and suspects galore in this outing, indeed, maybe a few too many. But Flo and Emily persevere, and solve the case in time to enjoy cider at the festival.

I always enjoy spending time in Littleton Cottrell, and this book is no exception.

If you like an egalitarian aristocrat with an amazing jill-of-all-trades sidekick, pick up this series now!

Book Review: Prison of Sleep (Journals of Zaxony Delatree #2) by Tim Pratt

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publication Date: April 26th, 2022
Pages: 400, paperback
Source: NetGalley

After escaping the ruthless Lector, Zax Delatree has a new enemy to fight in the sequel to Doors of Sleep.

Every time Zaxony Delatree falls asleep he wakes up on a new world. His life has turned into an endless series of brief encounters. But at least he and Minna, the one companion who has found a way of travelling with him, are no longer pursued by the psychotic and vengeful Lector.

But now Zax has been joined once again by Ana, a companion he thought left behind long ago. Ana is one of the Sleepers, a group of fellow travellers between worlds. Ana tells Zax that he is unknowingly host to a parasitic alien that exists partly in his blood and partly between dimensions. The chemical that the alien secretes is what allows Zax to travel. Every time he does, however, the parasite grows, damaging the fabric of the Universes. Anas is desperate to recruit Zax to her cause and stop the alien.

But there are others who are using the parasite, such as the cult who serve the Prisoner – an entity trapped in the dimension between universes. Every world is like a bar in its prison. The cult want to collapse all the bars of the worlds and free their god. Can Zax, Minna, Ana and the other Sleepers band together and stop them?

Prison of Sleep continues Zax’s journey through multiple worlds as he tries to stop the Sleeper cult from propagating and destroying space-time. Told from the points-of-view of Zax, and his former traveling partner and lover, Ana, we get insights (and, admittedly, info-dumps) about the cult and the people from various worlds who are working to defeat it. But, can a god who can traverse anywhere be killed?

Tim Pratt is a writer who’s work is always a joy for me. I became a fan with his Marla Mason series, and have liked everything since. I read The Twilight Empire at the same time I was reading Prison of Sleep, and was intrigued by how effortlessly he builds worlds and characters.

Zax has traveled over 1000 worlds, and he has lost several companions along the way. The cult are looking for him, either to convert or to kill him, and it’s becoming harder to stay ahead of them.

Ana has also become a traveler, after surviving near-madness due to exposure of the space between the worlds. She’s a bit more pessimistic than Zax, but also less idealistic. They balance each other well, and readers will hope for their eventual reunion.

We also meet back up with some characters I thought might be lost for good after the first book. No spoilers, but they’ve joined the fight as well, and are working their way to Zax.

Despite the large blocks of info, the plot moves well and makes sense. I think possibly it could have been improved by having two parts Zax to one part Ana in the chapters, but then too, Ana’s sections give us lots of the backstory of the cult and the group working against them.

This is a good, solid sci-fi series that will appeal to readers who like to imagine alternate times and places.

Book Review: Knit or Dye Trying (A Riverbank Knitting Mystery #2) by Allie Pleiter

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Cozy Mystery
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publication Date: April 5th, 2022
Pages: 304, mass market paperback
Source: NetGalley

Business is booming for Libby Beckett and her fabulous Maryland shop, aptly named Y.A.R.N., but when a town festival brings a fatality with it, Libby gets all tangled up in murder.

As spring comes to Collinstown, the village launches a food festival to draw a new group of tourists. Libby, proud owner of Y.A.R.N., has planned a yarn event to provide an alternative option to a foodie weekend. Artisan fiber dyer Julie Wilson–known for her work with animal-friendly, plant-based knitting fibers such as bamboo and hemp as well as her brilliant use of color–will hopefully draw a crowd with a special dyeing workshop.

The festival begins, but it draws more than crowds. First a flock of sheep parades down the street, herded by farmers protesting Julie’s antiwool stance. Then Julie’s celebrity chef sister appears, and the siblings resume a long-standing rivalry. Despite all this, Julie’s workshop has sold out. Libby is thrilled, and they’re preparing for a full house. But the night before the event, Julie is found alone in the warehouse event space–dead. The witty “Watch Julie Wilson Dye” workshop title now has a terrible new meaning–and it’s up to Libby to catch a crafty killer.

A flock of protest sheep welcome Libby’s most recent celebrity guest, a well-known, and much-disliked yarn dyer, in Knit or Dye Trying, the second in Allie Pleiter’s knitting mystery series. Libby owns Y.A.R.N, and is having an event to go along with the local seafood festival. Julie Wilson is her expert guest, and Libby gives Julie access to a local warehouse so that Julie can create her special, highly sought-after, colors. Julie gets trapped in the warehouse, and is overcome by fumes. Libby feels responsible, and decides to investigate.

This second outing for Libby is every bit as enjoyable as the first. Although she hasn’t been back in town long, she’s folded herself seamlessly into the life of her town, even running for local office against her blowhard fellow business owner George. One of the strengths of the series is the relationships Libby has forged and the growth we’ve seen from the first book. Libby is likeable and is a very relatable character, as are her almost-boyfriend Gavin, Gavin’s daughter, and Libby’s mom. They feel like real people whom you’d like to know.

Libby is a great cozy heroine. She’s thoughtful, and doesn’t jump to conclusions. She looks at the people involved in the case, and makes logical deductions. Maybe it’s a knitting thing? I can knit a decent scarf, and I admire people who can work large, complex patterns. Libby is amazing at unravelling (pun intended) the knotty skeins of the crimes which have come her way.

The crimes make sense, too, and there are enough clues scattered along the way to keep the reader engaged without letting them guess the solution too soon.

It’s a wonderful series, filled with life and love. I hope there are many more to come.

Miranda’s March Reading Wrap-Up

( A little late, but hey!)

March has come and gone, so it’s time to share my monthly spread from my reading journal. For March, I went with a Mardi Gras theme, because Easter isn’t really that big a deal for me. I definitely put all the work into the drawing and, when I got to the actual stats spread, I was like “idk just throw whatever on there.” So, a little lazy on my part, but oh well!

I don’t think it comes through on the picture, but I used Archer & Olive’s Arcylograph metallic markers for the beads, then a mix of Tombow and Copic for the rest of the outfit and lady. I had some foil cardstock that I cut up into random triangles just to give it more metallic sheen.

Now for the stats! I read 21 books in March, a big step up from my awful February stat of 7 books, totaling 3,161 pages. I DNF’d one book, and my average rating was 3.0. Unfortunately at the end of March I started listening to a bunch of audiobooks but I didn’t really have anywhere to put that statistic on this spread, but I listened to 2,725 minutes of audiobooks in March.

All in all, not a bad reading month.

I decided not to do a spread for my best book of the month, and going forward, I’m only going to do them if I have a solid idea of what I want. I don’t really see the point in making a spread about a book unless I can put stuff on it that actually relates to the book, instead of just whatever I have lying around. Maybe it’s a weird way to think about it, I dunno.

Unfortunately I missed two days in March for my Read Every Day challenge, but I had good excuses! On the 21st I had a migraine, and the 26th, I just… didn’t read. Oh well. I think I’m still doing pretty well.

I also have a new sticker page!

All of these except for the Belle sticker were purchased from RedBubble:

I Heart Books” by renduh
Books sticker” by deepfuze
flowers growing from book” by andilynnf
Pink and Blue Floral Bookstack” by Emma Mildred Riggle
Cat Tarot stickers by Thiago Corrêa
Forest moon” by Laorel

And that’s it for my March reading journal spreads! What does your reading journal look like for March?

Book Review: The Ex Hex (The Ex Hex #1) by Erin Sterling

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Publisher: Avon
Publication Date: September 28th, 2021
Length: 7 hrs 23mins
Source: Library

Nine years ago, Vivienne Jones nursed her broken heart like any young witch would: vodka, weepy music, bubble baths…and a curse on the horrible boyfriend. Sure, Vivi knows she shouldn’t use her magic this way, but with only an “orchard hayride” scented candle on hand, she isn’t worried it will cause him anything more than a bad hair day or two.

That is until Rhys Penhallow, descendent of the town’s ancestors, breaker of hearts, and annoyingly just as gorgeous as he always was, returns to Graves Glen, Georgia. What should be a quick trip to recharge the town’s ley lines and make an appearance at the annual fall festival turns disastrously wrong. With one calamity after another striking Rhys, Vivi realizes her silly little Ex Hex may not have been so harmless after all.

Suddenly, Graves Glen is under attack from murderous wind-up toys, a pissed off ghost, and a talking cat with some interesting things to say. Vivi and Rhys have to ignore their off the charts chemistry to work together to save the town and find a way to break the break-up curse before it’s too late.

Sir Percival the cat was the best part of this, especially when he called Gwyn “mama”. Otherwise I rolled my eyes at a lot of this, especially the heavy focus on sex when frankly there were much more important things going on. Mayhaps I am simply a Clueless Ace, but do allosexual adults really spend this much time thinking/talking/joking about sex and getting turned on at the drop of a hat? Sounds exhausting. Couldn’t be me.

This book shares two problems I had with another witchy romance book, Payback’s a Witch. Both of them feature settings consisting of a town in America that was founded a few hundred years previously by an ancestor of one of the main characters. Just like in the aforementioned book, nothing is said about what happened to the Native Americans who owned the land before it was colonized. Really gotta wonder about that! Also, this book takes place in Georgia. So, uh… did any of the ancestors, you know, enslave Black people? It’s stated that the town was founded at least 300 years ago, so.

Maybe I’m ruining the witchy rom-com vibe the book was going for by trying to pry deeper into the worldbuilding and wanting answers to these serious questions, but if you introduce this kind of world, a bitch is gonna wonder about a few things.

There’s also a couple of snide remarks about how “fake” witchcraft has become very popular (“Everyone’s a witch these days.”) and this was a thing in Payback’s a Witch as well. Kind of tired of it, to be honest. Just because a lot of people are experimenting with witchcraft doesn’t make them fakers or posers. It’s just a sense of condescension that rubs me the wrong way.

Otherwise, I wasn’t moved much by the main couple. Like I said, the main focus on sex dampened by ability to really get into them or root for them as a couple. I also just found Vivienne annoying as hell. This comes down to a personality issue for me; I don’t see why characters, especially female ones, have to still be torn up and hurt by a dude even nine years after he did something to them, or be frankly huge bitches when the dudes show back up. I try to cut some slack since I know this is me being judgmental, and I guess it’s fine if it still hurts a bit, but come on. You’re twenty-eight. Let’s act like the adult we are instead of the 19-year-old who got her heart broken.

Reading Journal: February Spread

Playing a bit of catch up here by posting both of my monthly spreads for January and February this week.

I was a bit stuck on what to do as a theme for February. I didn’t want to do a Valentine’s Day theme, because… eh. So I racked my brain for a bit, and then I saw something on twitter called “Funguary.” People were drawing mushroom girls for something called Funguary, and I thought, “Yes. That. I want to do that.”

I only dabble in drawing, and my poor little fungus baby has a few mistakes. But I still think she’s cute.

I didn’t feel like drawing a whole bunch more, so I threw some mushrooms on there, then colored in the stats page with the colors from the theme. Then I used washi tape. A whole lot of washi tape. So much washi tape.

(Yes, I forgot to give my fungus baby some toes. I could go back and add some in, but… I could also not do that.)

Again, I’ve left space for when I add in the covers. I’ll get to it eventually! Promise!

(Narrator: She probably won’t.)

As for my favorite book of the month, The School for Good Mothers, I struggled a bit with making a spread for it. I used construction paper again and used a quote from the novel, because I liked it a lot. It was a sort of literary dystopian, light sci-fi novel. I don’t usually go for literary, but I really loved the world that was painted in this novel, as terrifying as it was. I’m still not 100% pleased with this, and I might play around with it some more.

And lastly, I have so many stickers I had to put in a new sticker spread. I think this is something I’ll keep doing, too, so I can use my stickers and keep them in a place where they won’t get damaged. A lot of these were bought off RedBubble. Since this is a spread kind of representing me, I have a few of my favorite things: Books, Alphonse Mucha art, Belle, a Tarot card, some cats, the moon, and a small golden key for my devotion to Sigyn, the Norse Goddess of Constancy and Compassion.

Have any bujo spreads for February? Lemme see!

Reading Journal: January Spread

Yesterday I posted about setting up my 2022 reading journal. Today, I’m going to share the first monthly spread I did!

A lot of people who bujo do a different theme for each month, and put stat sheets in individual months as well (so, say, they may do a “Daily Pages Read” sheet for each month). That was a little too fussy for me, so to start out, I imagined doing just four pages for each month: A monthly stat spread, and a spread for my favorite book of the month.

With that in mind, here’s my January spread!

I went with basic wintry colors, plus a sticker from Happy Planner, and some washi tape. My cursive writing is about as bad as my normal writing, but I made an attempt at a fancy little banner. I used cardstock and construction paper for this. The blank space in the middle of page 2 will be where I paste the covers of the books I read, once I get my hands on a proper printer.
I did a small stats line up, as well as a genres read and average rating options. I may play around with this a bit–already in February I didn’t include a “Re-Reads” option because I didn’t re-read anything.

As for my spread, well, I did not make a spread for We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory. I sort of cheated and made a spread for Deathless instead, which I re-read in January and still love as much as the first time I read it.

I used black construction paper for this, as I find it stresses the binding of the journal less than the heavy duty cardstock. The white and red paper are also construction paper. I found some pictures on Pinterest and included them, and then I printed out a map of Stalingrad as it was in the 1940s, since a portion of the novel takes place there. I’m still very much pleased with how this turned out.

If you have a reading journal, too, share your spreads for January! I would love to see them.

Setting Up My 2022 Reading Journal

I’ve always liked the idea of bullet journaling in a sort of abstract way. I liked seeing what people came up with for their layouts and spreads and how creative they were. I toyed with the idea of starting one of my own, but, well, the problem was… I have no life. I have nothing to fill a bullet journal/planner. (And I’m perfectly content this way! If I could be a hermit, I would.)

So, I never really got into it. Until one day, when I was scrolling through my YouTube home page, and saw a video recommended for me about “reading journals”. Intrigued, I watched it.

And thus did I find a way to get in on the bullet journaling craze. (It’s still a craze, right? I know it’s been around for a few years, but…)

At the very end of December, I ran into B&N and got myself a little Leuchtturm1917 journal.

I watched a few more (a dozen more) videos on reading journals, figuring out what I wanted and didn’t need in mine, and then I started. I decorated my first two pages myself with some basic flowers and used some highlighters to color them in, which I rather like.

I didn’t have any washi tape or even any color markers to decorate my journal with at first. I ordered some, but while I waited for them to arrive, I set up the first half of my “GoodReads 200” spread, which was a basic log sheet. As you can see, I messed up a lot and found out that white-out doesn’t work great with fineliner pens. (I’m a perfectionist, so I’m rather proud of myself for not immediately giving up the whole project then and there.)

As I don’t have a color printer, I stuck to black and white images I could color in myself to decorate my journal with. I also used a postcard I got from a set from ALA. As you can see, once the stickers came in, I filled up the sticker spread with them as well.

Once that was done, I bought some pretty reasonably priced scrapbooking paper and made some backgrounds for my reading challenges I was taking part in through 2022.

My “read every day” challenge is going well! Instead of using just one color for the log, I alternate between two or three colors to track my progress. This gives it more visual interest, I think, and makes it prettier. Sometimes I use colors from whatever my monthly spread theme was, such as in January and March; other times I just used some stereotypical colors associated with that month, like February for Valentine’s, though my theme was not Valentine’s Day inspired.

The bingo card I’ve already completed, as you can see!

Now that I’ve finished my winter bingo card, I’m working on the 2022 PBN Reading Challenge, found here.
I did have to change out one challenge for another on the list, but that’s fine, it’s my journal and I can do what I like.

I won’t be starting the summer bingo until May, maybe June.

And look at that, I’ve already failed one of my personal goals! It’s fine, though. I’m making progress in other areas of my reading backlog, so I won’t beat myself up too much about this.

I did start in on the next challenge, then stopped, because I didn’t want to use the same books for multiple challenges. I may switch between this one and the PBN challenge going forward, depending on if what I read fits one of the challenges.

The A-Z Reading Challenge! Not doing too badly, so far.

Another sticker page, along with another colored in printout of sakura. Then my pages read log. Some people do a daily pages read sheet, but that seemed a little too fussy for me (and I don’t keep track of that anyway), so I’ve just done a monthly one. As you can see, I’m still figuring some things out. The most pages I’ve ever read in a month was 8,150, so I set that as my maximum. We’ll see if I can meet it!

Another sticker page! I just really love stickers, okay? Then comes my “owned TBR” which is books I own. At first I was going to keep track of when I received them (the first “R” checkbox line) as well as a checkbox line for when I read that. I took that first option out so I could better fit more lines on the spread and have it take up less pages.

Next is my series tracker! This actually isn’t all the series I own or started and haven’t gotten around to finishing. These are just the ones I’m going to focus on getting to first, and then once/if I finish this, I’ll do another spread and choose more. I was a little daunted by how many series I’ve got going, actually…

Lastly, I’ve got a pretty late addition to my journal, as you can see I didn’t put it in until the very last day of February. I bought the spreads here.

I noticed that I had a bad depressive crash in February, and it walloped my reading as well. I was still reading every day, but not as much, and I wasn’t finishing books as quickly as usual. I decided I wanted to keep track of my mood to see if I could find any patterns. As you can see, March started off rough for me, but it’s been steadily improving. (I also, hilariously, did not write down what markers I used for which colors/moods, so I’m just using whatever one is closest in color. This is a mistake I intend to rectify in April’s mood spread.)

So that’s it for the start of my journal! Do you journal? If you do, what sort: life bullet journaling, reading journaling, or movie/TV journaling, or something else entirely? Let me know!

Book Review: Danger on the Atlantic (A Jane Wunderly Mystery #3) by Erica Ruth Neubauer

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Kensington
Publication Date: March 29th, 2022
Pages: 304, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

For young American widow Jane Wunderly, there are worse fates than adventuring aboard a transatlantic liner with the only man who could change her mind about romance. Unfortunately, her first-class itinerary has an unexpected—and deadly—addition waiting just below deck . . .

Atlantic Ocean, 1926: Voyaging from Southampton to New York, self-reliant Jane is determined to prove herself a worthy investigator on the stately ship—even awkwardly going undercover as the fashionable wife of her magnetic partner, Mr. Redvers. Few details are known about the rumored German spy the duo have been tasked with identifying among fellow passengers, but new troubles unfold once wealthy newlywed Vanessa FitzSimmons announces the sudden disappearance of her husband at sea . . .

Miles Van de Meter, the man Vanessa rushed to marry in Monte Carlo, has allegedly vanished into thin air along with his luggage. Redvers guesses the shifty heiress may be weaving tall tales for fun between flutes of champagne, yet Jane isn’t convinced—not after the stunning murder of a trusted acquaintance sends them into uncharted waters. Facing two dangerous mysteries and a boat load of suspects, Jane must navigate a claustrophobic quest for answers before the culprits can slip from her grasp on land . . . or, worse, ensure she and Redvers never reach their destination.

In Danger on the Atlantic, the third installment in Erica Ruth Neubauer’s Jane Wunderly series, there are rumblings of unrest in Europe. Jane and Redvers pose as a married couple traveling on an ocean liner to discover who among three suspects is a German spy. But a missing newlywed husband and a gaslit bride distract Jane from her primary mission, putting her in peril from multiple sides.

For the character development and the backstories of Jane and Redvers alone, this is a great read. While the story does have some uneven pacing, the plot generally ticks along and there are enough red herrings to keep the reader guessing for a long while.

There are a few more will they/won’t they moments between Jane and Redvers, but they also serve to deepen their connection. He is a bit dismissive of her thoughts on occasion, but in general, he treats her as a partner, which allows her to trust again after her disastrous abusive marriage.

If you haven’t read the others, the only thing you’re missing out on is Jane’s overbearing aunt, so reading the first two is not crucial to enjoying this one. If you enjoy Christie-type puzzles, you’ll like this book.

Book Review: Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments (Edinburgh Nights #2) by T.L. Huchu

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: April 5th, 2022
Pages: 368, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Some secrets are meant to stay buried

When Ropa Moyo discovered an occult underground library, she expected great things. She’s really into Edinburgh’s secret societies – but turns out they are less into her. So instead of getting paid to work magic, she’s had to accept a crummy unpaid internship. And her with bills to pay and a pet fox to feed.

Then her friend Priya offers her a job on the side. Priya works at Our Lady of Mysterious Maladies, a very specialized hospital, where a new illness is resisting magical and medical remedies alike. The first patient was a teenage boy, Max Wu, and his healers are baffled. If Ropa can solve the case, she might earn as she learns – and impress her mentor, Sir Callander.

Her sleuthing will lead her to a lost fortune, an avenging spirit and a secret buried deep in Scotland’s past. But how are they connected? Lives are at stake and Ropa is running out of time.

Stop what you’re doing and go buy this series now. Seriously. Why are you still reading my review? Go!

If you love Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, you’ll be captivated by T. L. Huchu’s Edinburgh Nights. Ropa Moyo might finally have gotten a break after the disastrous events in the first book led to an unpaid internship and the loss of her primary ghostalking clientele. Her friend Priya offers her a job investigating the victim of a mysterious new magical illness. Ropa has to navigate post-catastrophe Edinburgh and, even worse, a high-society magical boarding school to get the answers. But what she uncovers is a threat hundreds of years old, and no one today may have the power to stop it.

Ropa is doing her best to stay under the radar of the various Edinburgh gangs, keep food on the table for her gran and her younger sister, and not get into any more trouble with the Library. She’s an amazing character, and you’ll root for her even as you marvel and the wonderful (and awful) world Huchu has created. While there are similarities to Aaronovitch’s series, Ropa is very much her own character and has had a much rougher time of it than Peter Grant. She meets every challenge head-on, and will undoubtedly change the magical society of Edinburgh before they change her.

Book Review: Crowbones (The Others #8) by Anne Bishop

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Ace
Publication Date: March 8th, 2022
Pages: 384, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Crowbones will gitcha if you don’t watch out!

Deep in the territory controlled by the Others-shape-shifters, vampires, and even deadlier paranormal beings-Vicki DeVine has made a new life for herself running The Jumble, a rustic resort. When she decides to host a gathering of friends and guests for Trickster Night, at first everything is going well between the humans and the Others.

But then someone arrives dressed as Crowbones, the Crowgard bogeyman. When the impostor is killed along with a shape-shifting Crow, and the deaths are clearly connected, everyone fears that the real Crowbones may have come to The Jumble-and that could mean serious trouble.

To “encourage” humans to help them find some answers, the Elders and Elementals close all the roads, locking in suspects and victims alike. Now Vicki, human police chief Grimshaw, vampire lawyer Ilya Sanguinati, and the rest of their friends have to figure out who is manipulating events designed to pit humans against Others-and who may have put Vicki DeVine in the crosshairs of a powerful hunter.

It’s Trickster Night in Crowbones, the latest book in Anne Bishop’s The Others series. Vicki DeVine has introduced the non-human residents of Sproing to that world’s equivalent of Halloween. But the tricks turn to terror when a mutilated corpse is found and the Indigene block the roads so that no one can leave.

My recommendation is that you read the other books in this series before attempting this one. While there’s a reasonable amount of recap, the interpersonal relationships and the fear the residents feel will make a lot more sense with the backstory you’ll find in previous books.

I’m not a fan of Bishop’s other series, and this one felt a bit like some of her character quirks from those other novels made their way into this one. The human men are much better-defined and have less trauma than the human women. Overall, human women do not fare well in this series. They’ve typically survived all forms of abuse and violence, and can’t sustain healthy relationships.

However, the writing and worldbuilding is strong enough to compensate for a few flaws. There are many parallels with our world, but just enough differences to feel ‘alien.’ The idea that humans have somehow managed to coexist with stronger, faster, and quite frankly, usually smarter beings is fascinating. When contrasted against the Indigene, who are comprised of vampires, shifters, and other non-human species, you have to wonder how the humans managed to survive long enough to develop technology. But, humans being humans, they often find ways to alienate the Indigene, which leads to the deaths of those humans.

Come for the glimpse into a world where we aren’t top of the food chain and stay for the wonderful non-human characters.

Book Review: Boyfriend Material (Boyfriend Material #1) by Alexis Hall

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Romance
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication Date: July 7th, 2020
Pages: 472, trade paperback
Source: Library

Wanted:
One (fake) boyfriend
Practically perfect in every way

Luc O’Donnell is tangentially–and reluctantly–famous. His rock star parents split when he was young, and the father he’s never met spent the next twenty years cruising in and out of rehab. Now that his dad’s making a comeback, Luc’s back in the public eye, and one compromising photo is enough to ruin everything.

To clean up his image, Luc has to find a nice, normal relationship…and Oliver Blackwood is as nice and normal as they come. He’s a barrister, an ethical vegetarian, and he’s never inspired a moment of scandal in his life. In other words: perfect boyfriend material. Unfortunately apart from being gay, single, and really, really in need of a date for a big event, Luc and Oliver have nothing in common. So they strike a deal to be publicity-friendly (fake) boyfriends until the dust has settled. Then they can go their separate ways and pretend it never happened.

But the thing about fake-dating is that it can feel a lot like real-dating. And that’s when you get used to someone. Start falling for them. Don’t ever want to let them go. 

This was Fine, but it went on for too long — the novel could have been cut by about 50+ pages and it would have flowed so much better. This seems to be a thing with Hall’s novels, though, in that they’re very long when they don’t necessarily need to be.

Luc and Oliver’s relationship also didn’t move me that much, to be honest. I’m not sure what was leaving me cold about it, except that Oliver felt a little shallow at times. This isn’t helped by the fact that Hall waits until the last 100 pages or so to deal with Oliver’s issues, after focusing the entire novel on Luc’s. It really felt like it was just forced in at the end.

I do love Hall’s dialogue, though, and the friendships in Boyfriend Material are a lot of fun. I liked the repeating gag where Luc tries to tell his coworker a joke, and the coworker just doesn’t get it — very reminiscent of the same gag from The Vicar of Dibley, but one I enjoyed nonetheless.

I don’t really have much more to say than this, honestly. Like I said, Boyfriend Material left me a bit cold. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it, either. I was whelmed, you could say. I might still glance at Husband Material but I won’t be rushing out to read it.

Book Review: The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date: June 8th, 2021
Pages: 418, hardcover
Source: Library

In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. The villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was a Yehuli man, one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. When soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of Woodsmen to claim a pagan girl for the king’s blood sacrifice, Évike is betrayed by her fellow villagers and surrendered.

But when monsters attack the Woodsmen and their captive en route, slaughtering everyone but Évike and the cold, one-eyed captain, they have no choice but to rely on each other. Except he’s no ordinary Woodsman—he’s the disgraced prince, Gáspár Bárány, whose father needs pagan magic to consolidate his power. Gáspár fears that his cruelly zealous brother plans to seize the throne and instigate a violent reign that would damn the pagans and the Yehuli alike. As the son of a reviled foreign queen, Gáspár understands what it’s like to be an outcast, and he and Évike make a tenuous pact to stop his brother.

As their mission takes them from the bitter northern tundra to the smog-choked capital, their mutual loathing slowly turns to affection, bound by a shared history of alienation and oppression. However, trust can easily turn to betrayal, and as Évike reconnects with her estranged father and discovers her own hidden magic, she and Gáspár need to decide whose side they’re on, and what they’re willing to give up for a nation that never cared for them at all. 

SPOILER WARNING!

The Wolf and the Woodsman was a bit of mixed bag. The beginning starts off really strong, with Évike’s village preparing for the arrival of the Woodsmen, holy soldiers who take one girl from the village to be given to the King. Reid throws us right into her world with the first line, informing us that the trees will run away when the Woodsmen come:

“The trees have to be tied down by sunset. When the Woodsmen come, they always try to run.”

Great, right?

For the beginning, I was fully thinking this would be a four or five star book. It reminded me of older McKinley or Yolen works. I did think Évike and the other girls her age read as a bit young; Évike is 25, but the dynamics and bullying she has to endure from some of the other girls her age made it seem like she was more in her late teens or very early twenties. This is an issue that stays with the book throughout. Évike never really came across as a 25 year old, just as a teenager. I’m not sure why I kept getting that impression, except that she was incredibly immature at times and acts in ways more suited to a teenager. I could ignore that, though, because I was in love with the world.

Then, well, Évike and Gáspár are the only two characters we’re with for at good long while, and the pacing–and story–sort of sputter to a slow crawl. I don’t mind character-driven books that move slowly. The problem I had was that, well, I could see why Reid was writing these scenes the way she did. She had to develop the relationship between the two leads; she had to introduce a plot device; she had to introduce two side characters. Maybe I’m not explaining this well, but she was never able to make me forget why she was writing these things, and it was very obviously set up for later plot. It felt a bit aimless and like she struggled with making it feel natural.

During this portion, Évike tells stories of her world, and this was something I enjoyed a lot. I don’t know anything about Hungarian mythology and it was great to first come across it in Reid’s writing. I’ve read other reviews that say this was boring and slowed the pace down again, and in a way, I can see how some readers would feel that way. There are, I think, at least three stories that Évike tells (I think Reid intentionally made it three to allude to the Rule of Three fairytale device). In my notes for this part I wrote down “starting to feel a little episodic” and I still stand by that. The events didn’t flow easily, as I said earlier.

(Big big spoiler for the ending here.) However… Reid has Évike lose the magical powers she’s only just developed in the novel as sacrifice for killing a sacred, mythical creature. While I agree this makes sense in the overall plot and world, I’m tired of female characters losing powers at the end of their arcs. It also made sense for Alina to lose her powers at the end of the Shadow and Bone trilogy, but it still feeds into a stereotypical story of how a powerful woman has to lose her powers at the end of whatever story she’s in. Either that, or she goes crazy from them. So again, while it makes sense, I’m still tired of seeing it happen. (End spoiler.)

Thankfully, if the reader can get through this part of the book, the middle and ending make up for a lot of the flaws. Reid finds her footing again as Évike tries to navigate a dangerous world and finds a family, and I loved all of this. The ending was great and had some amazing visuals that Reid was able to convey with her words. I could very easily see the things she was writing about, and it looked great in my mind.

So, when it’s on target, The Wolf and the Woodsman is spectacular, which is why it’s so noticeable and jarring when it loses itself a bit. Still, I enjoyed it enough to stick with it for 418 pages, and I’ll be looking into what Reid writes next.

Book Review: The White Rose Network by Ellie Midwood

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Bookouture
Publication Date: February 9th, 2022
Pages: 281, paperback
Source: NetGalley

Sophie was born to be a rebel, raised by parents who challenged the brutal Nazi regime. Determined to follow in their footsteps, she leaves for university, defying Hitler’s command for women to stay at home.

On her first day in Munich, Sophie’s brother Hans introduces her to his dear friend. When she meets Alexander, with his raven-black hair and brooding eyes, she knows instantly that she isn’t alone. There are more courageous souls like her, who will fight against evil.

Together, and with others who also refuse to back down, they form the White Rose Network. In an underground vault, Sophie and Alexander conspire in whispers, falling in love as they plot against Hitler. Promising her heart to Alexander is the most dangerous act of all––with each risk they take, they get closer to capture.

As snowflakes fall on a frosty February morning, Sophie and her brother scatter Munich University with leaflets calling for resistance: “We will not be silent; we will not leave you in peace!”

But their lives hang in the balance, with the secret police offering a reward to anyone with information on the White Rose Network. It is only a matter of time before the Gestapo closes in… And when Sophie is imprisoned in an interrogation room, staring a Nazi officer in the eye, will she take their secrets to her grave? Will she sacrifice her freedom for love?

Fans of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, The Alice Network and The Lilac Girls will be completely gripped by this heartbreaking and addictive page-turner. Based on a true story, this inspirational tale shows that, in the face of evil, giving up is not an option…

Ellie Midwood’s The White Rose Network is a fictionalized account of Sophie Scholl’s involvement in a student resistance against the Nazis in WWII Munich.

When Sophie arrives in Munich in the Spring of 1942 to study at the university, she has no idea that her brother Hans, his best friend Alex, and their fellow students have started publishing leaflets denouncing the Nazis. Sophie, despite being engaged to a Wehrmacht solider, is already a rebel, being one of only ten percent of women allowed to attend university. Her family do not support the Nazi regime, so it is natural that Sophie joins their group, called “The White Rose” and begins writing her own tracts.

Midwood uses contemporary sources and actual quotes which demonstrate the bravery and conviction of these students. Sophie’s refusal to condemn the others to save herself, despite the best efforts of her Gestapo interrogator to get her to do so, shows that, even in evil times, there are good people, and it is worth it to try to change things.

It’s not an easy read. You know not all of the group will survive the war, and there are definitely uncomfortable parallels to the political climates in several places. The content is rich, though, and Midwood brings each person vividly to life.

Book Review: Hot and Sour Suspects (A Noodle Shop Mystery #8) by Vivien Chien

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Cozy mystery
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: January 25th, 2022
Pages: 320, mass market paperback
Source: NetGalley

At the Ho-Lee Noodle House, murder is on the menu.

When Lana Lee’s best friend, Megan Riley, asks her to help host a speed dating contest at Ho-Lee Noodle House, she doesn’t see the harm in lending a hand. The night goes better than anticipated, and both Lana and Megan are beyond thrilled with the results. But before they can break out the champagne, Rina Su, fellow Asia Village shop owner and speed dating participant, calls to inform Lana that the date she’s just matched with has been murdered. Under suspicion of foul play, Rina enlists Lana’s help in finding out what really happened that night.

Without hesitation, Lana begins to dig into the man in question. To her dismay, she quickly finds that Rina’s date has a rather unsavory past. There’s a long line of slighted women, angry neighbors, and perturbed co-workers—all of whom seem to have a motive.

As Lana continues to spiral down the treacherous path of scorned lovers and mistreated acquaintances, she can’t help but dwell on how quickly an innocent evening filled with hope and positivity could turn so sour. When the media gets in on the case, Lana must rush to find the killer before more dates turn deadly.

Hot and Sour Suspects is our eighth trip to Ho-Lee Noodle House, and this time, speed dating is on the menu. But when one of the daters turns up dead, and Lana’s friend Rina is the prime suspect, Lana, her best friend Megan, and her dog Kikko, along with the sometimes helpful, sometimes not assistance of Kimmy, have to save the day.

This is a solid series. Lana is a great heroine, and her relationships with her family and friends are a big part of what makes the series work. The characters are all so relatable and believable that you wish you could visit Asia Village, where Lana’s restaurant is.

Lana’s sleuthing skills are getting better, and her police officer boyfriend Adam seems to be dealing with her investigations better, even though this one is on his patch.

Lana has to juggle running the restaurant, investigating the murder, and doing damage control for a close relative when rumors start flying around Asia Village. Is this the life Lana wanted at the start of the series? No, but she’s embraced her role and we’ve seen great character development with her and her friends. The cases are interesting, but I read the series more for the characters.

Food, friends, and family make this series great, and I hope there are many more adventures for Lana.

A Trio of Small Book Reviews

Over the holiday season, I didn’t stop reading, but I did stop reviewing most of what I read. I did, however, write three small reviews for three books. Enjoy these extremely short, paragraph-long reviews!

Lore Olympus Volume 1 by Rachel Smythe

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I would have liked this way more if the coloring wasn’t so dark and muddied. I’m not sure if this is an issue of the coloring not translating well from computer screen to on-page; maybe it looks fine online. But here, it was almost impossible to see things like expressions on the characters in the first few episodes. It was frustrating; the art style is interesting! Let me, you know, actually see it!

It did get better in later episodes, somewhat. And Smythe has a good sense of comedic timing and comedy in her drawings. I’ll still look into the next volume, but I may have to bring a flashlight.

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I’m not sure how, exactly, Daryl Gregory is able to make Lovecraftian horror actually interesting to me, but he manages somehow. This is the first book where I really got how terrifying Lovecraft mythology can be.

Time to tear through the rest of his backlog.

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente (reread)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

So glad I decided to ignore my library stack and reread this one. I first read it in 2012, a year after it released. Ten years later, I approached it a very different person than I was then, and Deathless rang with new meaning for me. I could understand it better than I did ten years ago, feel it more deeply. I haven’t gone through anything as traumatic as Marya and the cast have gone through, no, but the last few years have done a number on me, and it was interesting to look at a favorite book from a newer, slightly more tarnished lens.

Book Review: King of Battle and Blood (Adrian x Isolde #1) by Scarlett St. Clair

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Genre: Fantasy Erotica
Publisher: Bloom Books
Publication Date: November 30th, 2021
Pages: 368, trade paperback
Source: Library

Isolde de Lara considers her wedding day her death day. To end a years-long war, she is to marry vampire king, Adrian Aleksandr Vasiliev, and kill him. ⠀

But her assassination attempt is thwarted and Adrian threatens that if Isolde tries kill him again, he will raise her as the undead. Faced with the possibility of becoming the thing she hates most, Isolde seeks other ways to defy him and survive the brutal vampire court. ⠀

Except it isn’t the court she fears most—it’s Adrain. Despite their undeniable chemistry, she wonders why the king——fierce, savage, merciless—chose her as consort. ⠀

The answer will shatter her world.

NOTE: I SPOIL EVERYTHING IN THIS REVIEW. I pretty much couldn’t in order to get to why some stuff bugged me. Proceed with caution!

Okay. Okay, to be totally fair, this is a little bit outside of my comfort zone. I don’t read erotica; I’ve tried in the past, and it just makes my little ace self uncomfortable because I can’t connect to why the characters would want to jump right into bed with each other. It makes no sense to me and authors don’t really try to convince me that that’s what should happen.

Still, the premise sounded… interesting. And I’ve heard good things about St. Clair’s Hades & Persephone series. I figured, why not?

But I’m sorry, y’all. I couldn’t take it seriously. I tried, I really did, but honestly my enjoyment of the book increased once I realized I couldn’t take it seriously. I was literally the Ryan Gosling gif I used above at some parts of the book.

St. Clair is a good writer, actually, when it comes to the technical aspect of things. I enjoyed her fight scenes and I was able to follow them well, which is a thing I struggle with sometimes in books. Isolde’s voice is distinct and her character is interesting, if occasionally holding the Idiot Ball because either the plot demands it or St. Clair wanted to get to the sex. Literally, at one point, Isolde is attacked by the Big Bad and, instead of being like “holy shit I just got attacked by the woman my husband has been looking for, I better go tell him what happened and everything she said because she said some weird ass shit” they have sex. And then she makes a little mention of what the Big Bad might have said, and when pressed for more, St. Clair takes the easy way out and has Isolde go, “Oh, I can’t really remember what she said.” Girl. C’mon. 

For instance, once Isolde is in the kingdom of vampires, her first priority should have been to begin reading up on the history of her new kingdom and going to court to observe and learn the dynamics at play. She does go to court… where Adrian immediately tells her that she’ll have to make decisions already. And then she kills a dude there, her first time out. This is normalized in the story. Honestly, when the kingdom is attacked by Adrian’s own people, I was kind of like, “Well, y’all are killing them left and right and ruling by brute force with occasional fairness. What did you expect?” You can’t rule a kingdom, even a kingdom of vampires, by killing anyone who looks at you funny. Courtly politics and intrigue and the roles royal women played in their worlds are very clearly not St. Clair’s forte.

But anyway, who cares about that? Let’s have another sex scene!

Isolde does eventually get off her ass and do, you know, her job, but it’s late in the game. So, after a few dozen pages of sex–both between Adrian and Isolde and Isolde just walking in on people having sex or people having sex out in the open where anyone can see them–the rest of the plot arrives, which I had guessed before the 50% point. Isolde is, in fact, the reincarnation of Adrian’s lover from before he was turned into a vampire, which is why she feels drawn to him immediately and can’t get enough of having sex with him. This is not at all examined in the story. She’s just like, “Oh, I had a past life where I died horrifically, and now the guy I loved in said past life is here and my husband, isn’t that grand?” There’s no allowing Isolde to process this at all. I dunno, y’all, I would have been a little bit more “WTF” but maybe that’s just me! Who cares about the implications and nuances of this reveal when we could have another sex scene or two?

It sounds like I hated this book, but I really didn’t. In fact, when the story wasn’t being twisted in order for St. Clair to shove in sex scenes, I liked what I read. I enjoyed her characters, though Adrian got on my nerves occasionally. The little world-building we get was solid enough. I appreciated that St. Clair made a fantasy world where queerness is normalized.

But like I said: My little ace self couldn’t take it seriously after a certain point. The sex scenes were clearly the most important thing to St. Clair here, and I get it, but maybe try not to make it so obvious?

I guess, in the end, I’ll always prefer romance novels that generally have feelings and chemistry and a bit of buildup before they get to the sex. That’s what makes sense to me.

Also, Adrian seemed to walk around with a near-constant boner. It must be his vampire abilities that keep him from passing out all the time from the lack of blood to the head on his shoulders.

Book Review: Seven Mercies (Seven Devils #2) by Laura Lam and Elizabeth May

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Sci-Fi
Publisher: DAW Books
Publication Date: January 25th, 2022
Pages: 464, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

The second book in a feminist space opera duology that follows the team of seven rebels who will free the galaxy from the ruthless Tholosian Empire–or die trying.

After an ambush leaves the Novantae resistance in tatters, the survivors scatter across the galaxy. Wanted by two great empires, the bounty on any rebel’s head is enough to make a captor filthy rich. And the seven devils? Biggest score of them all. To avoid attacks, the crew of Zelus scavenge for supplies on long-abandoned Tholosian outposts.

Not long after the remnants of the rebellion settle briefly on Fortuna, Ariadne gets a message with unimaginable consequences: the Oracle has gone rogue. In a planned coup against the Empire’s new ruler, the AI has developed a way of mass programming citizens into mindless drones. The Oracle’s demand is simple: the AI wants One’s daughter back at any cost.

Time for an Impossible to Infiltrate mission: high chance of death, low chance of success. The devils will have to use their unique skills, no matter the sacrifice, and pair up with old enemies. Their plan? Get to the heart of the Empire. Destroy the Oracle. Burn it all to the ground.

Gina’s Review

Seven Mercies is the sequel to Seven Devils, and continues the story of the rebellion led by the former heir to the Tholosian Empire. In the Empire, the Archon controls the populace by means of the Oracle, a powerful AI.

The Devils are on the run. Most of their forces have abandoned them, and they have no allies. One of them will be dead soon without a cure for the ichor. The One wants her programmer back, and is willing to enslave all of humanity to make it happen. The odds couldn’t be more stacked against them, until a bit of intel from the most unlikely of potential allies gives them one last shot for the freedom of the galaxy. The stakes are high, and Eris, former heir to the throne, knows that she will have to pay her god in more deaths before they are done.

The relationships between the characters grow stronger, but there are still times when they don’t act as a cohesive unit, and members pursue their own agendas. We learn the backstories for several of them, and those stories serve to further illustrate how despotic the Empire is.

The book clocks in at 464 pages, and at times, it feels like it. Each of the characters, with the exception of Kyla, has a fully fleshed-out story arc/tangent, and there’s a lot of exposition. It’s good exposition, but this is not a quick or easy read.

Lam and May have done a great job of tying up all the loose ends and have given a satisfactory, if somewhat formulaic, ending to the duology.

Book Review: Rosebud by Paul Cornell

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Sci-Fi
Publisher: Tordotcom
Publication Date: April 26th, 2022
Pages: 112, paperback
Source: NetGalley

“The crew of the Rosebud are, currently, and by force of law, a balloon, a goth with a swagger stick, some sort of science aristocrat possibly, a ball of hands, and a swarm of insects.”

When five sentient digital beings—condemned for over three hundred years to crew the small survey ship by the all-powerful Company—encounter a mysterious black sphere, their course of action is clear: obtain the object, inform the Company, earn lots of praise.

But the ship malfunctions, and the crew has no choice but to approach the sphere and survey it themselves. They have no idea that this object—and the transcendent truth hidden within—will change the fate of all existence, the Company, and themselves.

I like Paul Cornell’s work, even when I’m not sure I’ve entirely gotten the message. Such is the case with Rosebud. It’s as if 2001 had been written by John Dickson Carr, perhaps. It’s a mystery inside an enigma inside a, well, you get the idea.

There are five sentient digital beings who are being punished for crimes against society. Their job is to investigate anomalies. Upon encountering a mysterious sphere, they decide to investigate and then must decide what to do with forbidden knowledge.

I found myself distracted by the physical forms the digital beings took. I suppose that if you’ve been locked up for several hundred years, you have to take your freedoms where you can, but it didn’t really add anything to the story for me, and it made it a bit harder to keep track of who was whom. The characters themselves are interesting, and I wanted to know more about them.

The pop culture references were fun. It does seem to be a thing for a lot of books lately, but I have to wonder whether people will really be quoting cult classics several hundred years from now, the way we do, say, Shakespeare.

Gina’s Favorite Books of 2021

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission—and if he fails, humanity and the Earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that’s been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it’s up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.

And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.

Part scientific mystery, part dazzling interstellar journey, Project Hail Mary is a tale of discovery, speculation, and survival to rival The Martian–while taking us to places it never dreamed of going.

Son of the Storm by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

In the ancient city of Bassa, Danso is a clever scholar on the cusp of achieving greatness—only he doesn’t want it. Instead, he prefers to chase forbidden stories about what lies outside the city walls. The Bassai elite claim there is nothing of interest. The city’s immigrants are sworn to secrecy.

But when Danso stumbles across a warrior wielding magic that shouldn’t exist, he’s put on a collision course with Bassa’s darkest secrets. Drawn into the city’s hidden history, he sets out on a journey beyond its borders. And the chaos left in the wake of his discovery threatens to destroy the empire.

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead.

Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.

But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.

When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.

Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments by T.L. Huchu

Ropa Moyo’s ghostalking practice has tanked, desperate for money to pay bills and look after her family she reluctantly accepts a job to look into the history of a coma patient receiving treatment at the magical private hospital Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments. The patient is a teenage schoolboy called Max Wu, and healers at the hospital are baffled by the illness which has confounded medicine and magic.

Ropa’s investigation leads her to the Edinburgh Ordinary School for Boys, one of only the four registered schools for magic in the whole of Scotland (the oldest and only one that remains closed to female students).

But the headmaster there is hiding something and as more students succumb Ropa learns that a long-dormant and malevolent entity has once again taken hold in this world.

She sets off to track the current host for this spirit and try to stop it before other lives are endangered.

Miranda’s Favorite Books of 2021

In 2021, I read 192 books, surpassing my goal of 150. My best month was July, where I read 28 books (though a large chunk of them were easy picture books or graphic novels/manga). Maybe in 2022 I’ll put my reading challenge at 200 books — but maybe not. That’s a lot of books.

This year I tried to branch out into reading more horror. I’m still getting my toes wet, but I’m making good progress, I think.

In the past, I haven’t typically done reading goals. I’m a huge mood reader so I fail challenges a lot because I’m not in the right mood to read something that qualifies for the challenge. That being said, there are two challenges I’m setting for myself for 2022:

  • Read at least two classics.
    I’m thinking Jane Eyre will be one of them, definitely, but I’m still undecided on the second. Any suggestions?
  • Read at least 3 books from my weeding piles at work a month.
    I work in a library and we do a thing called “weeding” — basically pulling old, damaged, outdated books with inaccurate information, or otherwise unpopular books from the shelves and taking them out of the system. This frees up much needed shelf space for new books. We give the weeded books to Better World Books, but we’re free to pick from the pile whenever we want and take the weeded books we find home.
    I have… a very large pile. No, not just a pile. Several. They’ve been slowly growing over the last seven years of my employment, and I can’t take them home because I’m out of shelf space. So! New goal: Clear out my weeding piles by actually reading the books, then sending them on their way to BWB.

Now on to my favorite books of 2022! I narrowed it down to four that really stayed with me after I read them. They are:

Little Thieves by Margaret Owen

As I said in my review, I’ve long been a fan of Margaret Owen. I was stupidly excited to get an ARC of this through NetGalley, and I devoured it eagerly. Not only that, though. Y’all, I actually went out and bought a hardcover copy. My protocol is, if I’ve read it for free, I don’t buy it, and since I can get most books through my job, I don’t buy a lot of new hardcovers due to the cost, but… I had to own this one. I had to. Especially because it came with Owen’s drawings that weren’t included in the ARC. I’m so excited that we’re getting a sequel.

Revelator by Daryl Gregory

This is probably my biggest surprise of 2021. I hadn’t heard of Daryl Gregory before this. I stumbled across this title by looking at a list of some sort — I can’t remember, but it might have been a best Gothics or best horror list — and the premise intrigued me. However, I’m very picky about what male authors I read, and modern Gothics tend to be hit or miss for me. Still, I decided to request it from work and see.
Surprisingly, I loved it. I had worried it would be a little more literary than I like, but the writing style wasn’t at all too literary. I loved the characters, the worldbuilding was fascinating, and the plot had me hooked. I definitely kept thinking about Revelator long after I finished it. I’m looking to read some of Gregory’s other work now, and I hope it’s just as good.

The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

After Revelator, this is probably my second biggest surprise of 2021. I read Starling’s The Luminous Dead and, while I liked it, it hadn’t wowed me. I was on the fence about reading this at all, but I’m a sucker for Gothics. I decided to go ahead and give it a try.
This is definitely not going to be a book for everyone. It gets weird. Really, really, super duper weird. But I loved every batshit second. I thought the magic system Starling created was interesting and I loved Jane’s character. It goes bonkers in ways that a lot of modern Gothics don’t have the courage to do, in my opinion. As soon as I finished it, I told my workplace we needed to buy Yellow Jessamine by her, as it looks to be more Gothic goodness.

All the Feels by Olivia Dade

The second book in her Spoiler Alert romance series, All the Feels left me laughing and crying. Like, a lot of crying. Alex and Lauren’s relationship was a joy to read about, and the banter was hilarious and endearing. This just barely made the favorites of 2021 list, as I read it on December 27th and 28th. It squeaked by with tires screeching and I’m so glad it did. As a fat woman myself–one who still participates in fandom and writes fanfic–I loved seeing bits of myself in Lauren. I liked especially how the big split near the end wasn’t a case of the man doing something stupid and having to make it up entirely to the woman, as sometimes happens in romance books. Both characters make huge mistakes that cause the break up. And both characters have their apology moment as well. I’m impatiently waiting for Dade’s third entry to this series, of which we know nothing, but I’m sure it’ll be another great romance.

Honorable Mention

Good Girl, Bad Blood by Holly Jackson

I read the first book in the series, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, and found it to be a likeable but pretty predictable debut. I loved Pip’s character, though, and I wanted to see what Jackson did with the character after the traumatic plot she went through in the first book. Plus, I tend to give second novels a try if I like the debut well enough — once an author finds their feet in the publishing world, their writing typically gets better. I wanted to see if that was true for Jackson.
Holy wow, was it. The writing was much more subtle this time around, and the red herrings were much more convincing. I wasn’t able to predict what the mystery was or where it was going like I had in the first book. I even cried through the ending.
Not only that, but I went out and bought the hardcover of the third book, As Good As Dead, because the waitlist for a copy at my job is just too long. I intend to make it my first read of 2022.

So that’s it from me! Gina’s favorites will be posted tomorrow. What were your favorite reads of 2022?

Book Review: Three Shots to the Wind (Chloe Jackson, Sea Glass Saloon Mystery #3) by Sherry Harris

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Cozy mystery
Publisher: Kensington
Publication Date: March 29th, 2022
Pages: 304, mass market paperback
Source: NetGalley

DEAD EXES TELL NO TALES

Saloon owner Chloe Jackson appears to have a secret admirer. She’s pouring drinks at the Sea Glass Saloon in Emerald Cove when an airplane flies by above the beach with a banner reading I LOVE YOU CHLOE JACKSON. She immediately rules out Rip Barnett. They are in the early stages of dating and no one has said the L word. Then a bouquet of lilacs—her favorite flower—is delivered to the bar, followed by an expensive bottle of her favorite sparkling wine. It couldn’t be . . .

Sure enough, her ex-fiancé from Chicago has flown down to Florida for an accountants’ convention. But is he trying to mix business with pleasure and win her back? Unfortunately he’s not in a hotel conference room, he’s floating facedown in the lake next to her house, clutching a photo of Chloe. Who murders an accountant on a business trip—it just doesn’t add up. When Rip becomes the prime suspect, Chloe is determined to find the secret murderer. But if she isn’t careful, it may be closing time and lights out for her.

The Chloe Jackson series just keeps getting better. This time, Chloe’s ex-fiance turns up dead, and Chloe finds there was a lot she didn’t know about her seemingly mild-mannered ex.

Chloe has settled in nicely to her new life in Florida. She’s part owner of the Sea Glass Saloon, and is building strong relationships with the residents of Emerald Cove. She’s a great character, and her motivations and actions feel real. There’s also a good amount of humor.

This is a great cozy series and I hope there are many more cases for Chloe.

Book Review: A Deception Most Deadly (A Cassie Gynne Mystery #1) by Genevieve Essig

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Bookouture
Publication Date: January 14th, 2022
Pages: 340, Kindle
Source: NetGalley

Florida, 1883. Cassie Gwynne is looking for a fresh start when she steps off the steamship at Fernandina harbor for the first time. She’s trying hard to be a proper lady, for once. She’s styled her unruly hair, shined her boots, and even purchased a whole new fashionable (or at least fashionably priced) wardrobe. However, she’s certain finding a body is not very ladylike behavior…

While out exploring the beautiful island with her Aunt Flora, Cassie stumbles across the body of Peanut Runkles, town grump and her aunt’s neighbor, lying at the foot of the harbor pilots’ lookout tower. To make matters worse, because Peanut and Flora have been quarreling for years over everything from Flora’s eccentric ideas to her pet pig’s fondness for Peanut’s vegetable patch, Flora is immediately arrested for murder.

Desperate to save the only family she has left, Cassie vows to prove Flora’s innocence and untangle the mystery herself, no matter how much the surly local sheriff disapproves. Cassie’s brilliant mind and nose for a clue lead her on an investigation that takes her all around the island, and even earns her a valiant furry friend in Esy the kitten.

But how does the mysterious ledger Cassie finds hidden in a secret drawer in Peanut’s desk connect to the crime? Cassie is determined to dig up the truth, but can she catch the killer before her time on the island comes to a deadly end?

A Deception Most Deadly, the first in a cozy mystery series by Genevieve Essig, is a bit of a mess. It’s a fun mess, but it’s a mess all the same.

Cassie Gwynne has come to Florida to meet the aunt she has never known. Shortly thereafter, the local curmudgeon is killed, and Cassie’s aunt Flora becomes the prime suspect.

It’s a good thing the characters are so likeable, because the book reads more like a modern-day cozy that just happens to be set about 140 years ago. Cassie is not all that bright, yet she somehow solves the case ahead of multiple officials. You’d also think, given the results of her behavior back home, that she’d be a bit more circumspect now.

I think the author tried a little too hard to write a madcap cozy, and while it works some of the time, it does feel forced on occasion. Essig’s sophomore effort will hopefully be stronger.

Book Review: Under Lock & Skeleton Key (Secret Staircase Mystery #1) by Gigi Pandian

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: March 15th, 2022
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

An impossible crime. A family legacy. The intrigue of hidden rooms and secret staircases.

After a disastrous accident derails Tempest Raj’s career, and life, she heads back to her childhood home in California to comfort herself with her grandfather’s Indian home-cooked meals. Though she resists, every day brings her closer to the inevitable: working for her father’s company. Secret Staircase Construction specializes in bringing the magic of childhood to all by transforming clients’ homes with sliding bookcases, intricate locks, backyard treehouses, and hidden reading nooks.

When Tempest visits her dad’s latest renovation project, her former stage double is discovered dead inside a wall that’s supposedly been sealed for more than a century. Fearing she was the intended victim, it’s up to Tempest to solve this seemingly impossible crime. But as she delves further into the mystery, Tempest can’t help but wonder if the Raj family curse that’s plagued her family for generations—something she used to swear didn’t exist—has finally come for her. 

Who better than a magician to unravel a locked room mystery?

Tempest Raj has returned home after nearly dying in her last magic show in Las Vegas. She can’t prove sabotage, but thinks her former assistant set her up. To Tempest’s surprise, her father’s crew find the body of her former assistant walled up in a property they are renovating. The only problem is, that section hadn’t been touched in decades, so it was impossible for her to be there. Tempest and her friends (including Sanjay, from Pandian’s Jaya Jones series) must unlock the mystery before Tempest becomes the next victim.

Tempest has had a rough go of it. She’s broke, has had to move back home with her father and grandparents, and may be sued by the venue where she used to perform. On top of that, she may be being haunted by her mother, who disappeared years ago, possibly due to the family curse.

Tempest is a likeable heroine and you’ll root for her. She’s not quite as fierce as she thinks she is, but she’s real and strong and has a good support system in her family and friends. She’s also lucky to have friends and family who share her interest in magic and puzzles. I was frankly jealous of her living space.

The story is well-written, and the action flows naturally. There are the requisite number of red herrings, and not too many potential villains. Like Tempest, once the reader figures out what made the crime impossible, the who and the how will follow.

Be sure to eat something before you read, as the food descriptions will make you hungry. Luckily, Pandian includes recipes in her books!

4 out of 5 magic stars – highly recommended.

Book Review: The Mystery of the Sorrowful Maiden (A Laetitia Rodd Mystery #3) by Kate Saunders

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication Date: December 7th, 2021
Pages: 336, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

In the spring of 1853, private detective Laetitia Rodd receives a delicate request from a retired actor, whose days on the stage were ended by a theater fire ten years before. His great friend, and the man he rescued from the fire, Thomas Transome, has decided to leave his wife, who now needs assistance in securing a worthy settlement. Though Mrs. Rodd is reluctant to get involved with the scandalous world of the theater, she cannot turn away the woman in need. She agrees to take the case.

But what starts out as a simple matter of negotiation becomes complicated when a body is discovered in the burnt husk of the old theater. Soon Mrs. Rodd finds herself embroiled in family politics, rivalries that put the Capulets and Montagues to shame, and betrayals on a Shakespearean scale. Mrs. Rodd will need all her investigatory powers, not to mention her famous discretion, to solve the case before tragedy strikes once more.

For readers of the Grantchester Mysteries, The Mystery of the Sorrowful Maiden is the charming third mystery in Kate Saunder’s series about Laetitia Rodd, the indomitable lady detective.

The Mystery of the Sorrowful Maiden is the third outing for Laetitia Rodd. Her clergyman husband’s death left her to earn her living, and she has embarked on a career as a private detective.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the series to date, and this story is no exception. Laetitia is asked by a neighbor, who is a retired actor, to assist in making a divorce settlement between a fellow actor and his wife. As it turns out, Laetitia’s brother is representing the husband, and welcomes her assistance. Not Laetitia’s usual fare, but it’s a paycheck, if either party truly has any money to spare.

But old sins cast long shadows, and the discovery of the body of a man who disappeared ten years ago plunges Laetitia into a murder investigation and crosses her path with that of Inspector Blackbeard once again, who, while willing to assist Laetitia, is still somewhat dismissive of her conclusions.

Laetitia is a well-drawn character. She is consistent and readers will cheer her on as she works to keep her independence and her modest living as a working woman in the mid-1800s. Her brother swoops in on a semi-regular basis, and we don’t know a great deal about him, his wife, or their ever-increasing brood of children.

Inspector Blackbeard, who is also widowed, may or may not become a love interest. For now, it’s enough to see them gain respect and understanding of each other, and assist each other in investigations.

Now, while I enjoyed it, I will say I figured out the motive well ahead of Laetitia, and honestly, as a clergyman’s wife, she should have seen this type of scandal before. Her naivety as a bit surprising, and caused the book to drag a bit. It’s not quite as strong as the first two in the series, but I still highly recommend it and am impatiently waiting for the fourth book.

Book Review: The Heart Principle (The Kiss Quotient #3) by Helen Hoang

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Publisher: Berkley
Publication Date: August 31st, 2021
Pages: 352, paperback
Source: Library

When violinist Anna Sun accidentally achieves career success with a viral YouTube video, she finds herself incapacitated and burned out from her attempts to replicate that moment. And when her longtime boyfriend announces he wants an open relationship before making a final commitment, a hurt and angry Anna decides that if he wants an open relationship, then she does, too. Translation: She’s going to embark on a string of one-night stands. The more unacceptable the men, the better.

That’s where tattooed, motorcycle-riding Quan Diep comes in. Their first attempt at a one-night stand fails, as does their second, and their third, because being with Quan is more than sex—he accepts Anna on an unconditional level that she herself has just started to understand. However, when tragedy strikes Anna’s family she takes on a role that she is ill-suited for, until the burden of expectations threatens to destroy her. Anna and Quan have to fight for their chance at love, but to do that, they also have to fight for themselves.

The Heart Principle highlighted an issue I hadn’t realized I had with Hoang’s novels until now: I honestly cannot remember the male leads from either of her books. I can remember the women just fine, but the men? Blank spaces.

This problem is sort of brought to a head in this book, because honestly, Quan was not as fleshed out as Anna was. He started out strong but got lost in the middle and was almost completely absent from the ending. It’s a shame, because what we get from their relationship is sweet. But it’s very apparent that Hoang was a little more interested in Anna’s story than she was Quan’s. This wouldn’t be an issue if The Heart Principle didn’t follow modern romance novel standards and have chapters from both Quan and Anna’s POVs. In comparison to Anna’s fully fleshed out story, Quan’s felt more like a first draft that still needed filling out.

The reason I’m giving this three stars despite the big issue of the hero’s story is because Anna’s storyline and character arc are so good. I cried quite a few times, I cheered, and when I closed the book, I was thrilled for her. I just wish Quan’s story had as much impact.

Book Review: Little Thieves by Margaret Owen

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy Fairytale Retelling
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Publication Date: October 19th, 2021
Pages: 512, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Once upon a time, there was a horrible girl…

Vanja Schmidt knows that no gift is freely given, not even a mother’s love–and she’s on the hook for one hell of a debt. Vanja, the adopted goddaughter of Death and Fortune, was Princess Gisele’s dutiful servant up until a year ago. That was when Vanja’s otherworldly mothers demanded a terrible price for their care, and Vanja decided to steal her future back… by stealing Gisele’s life for herself.

The real Gisele is left a penniless nobody while Vanja uses an enchanted string of pearls to take her place. Now, Vanja leads a lonely but lucrative double life as princess and jewel thief, charming nobility while emptying their coffers to fund her great escape. Then, one heist away from freedom, Vanja crosses the wrong god and is cursed to an untimely end: turning into jewels, stone by stone, for her greed.

Vanja has just two weeks to figure out how to break her curse and make her getaway. And with a feral guardian half-god, Gisele’s sinister fiancé, and an overeager junior detective on Vanja’s tail, she’ll have to pull the biggest grift yet to save her own life.

Once, many moons ago when I was just a baby Miranda, my friend and I were obsessed with a comic on deviantART. It was part of a challenge where several different artists created characters and storylines set in a world that the person in charge of the challenge had created. Week by week, the artists would post their own comics, and people would vote on which story and characters could go through to the next round.

My friend and I loved the storyline following two outlaws, Annie and the Professor (or as Annie called him, Ginger.) It was hilarious, the characters were well crafted, and the storyline was moving. I loved it so much, in fact, that I followed the artist for the next fifteen years, because I wanted to see what else she would eventually put out.

The artist was Margaret Owen, and I am so excited to be able to read her books.

Little Thieves is a loose retelling of The Goose Girl but focused on the villain of the story, the maid who steals the princess’ life. When Vanja steals something she shouldn’t and is then cursed by a Low God to repay her debt, she has only two weeks to break the curse before she turns to jewels.

To say this book is a triumph is an understatement. Owen takes the fairytale of The Goose Girl and upends it while still keeping the recognizable bits of the tale. It’s creative and the way she uses the bits from the fairytale make sense, in a way that leaves you thinking, “How did she come up with that?” I read the book almost entirely in one sitting. That’s how much I enjoyed it.

Perhaps what I enjoyed most was how clearly Owen has taken her ability to create comics and translated it into prose. Little Thieves is bursting with detail that I could visualize very easily simply because Owen knew how to describe what she was seeing artistically in her head into words. I sometimes have trouble picturing what an author is trying to describe; I didn’t have an issue here.

All of the things I loved about Margaret Owen’s comic on deviantART years ago are present in Little Thieves as well: Wonderfully layered characters, hilarious banter, an interesting world, and a romantic arc that made me squee. Yes, squee. Vanja herself is one of the best YA characters I’ve read in a long while. She does horrible things, yes, but given the world she grew up in, it makes sense. Owen treats her both with sympathy but also making certain she does, indeed, pay her debts. If the book had simply been entirely of banter between her and Emeric, I would have been over the moon. Owen simply has a way with words that can make you laugh like a donkey — then pages later, she’ll have you tearing up.

Some readers may find the villain to be lacking in nuance, but frankly, the world is full of men like the villain, and I find him all too believably real. The ending may also lack a bit of a punch to some readers; again, I didn’t mind it.

I honestly have very little else to say except that I adored Little Thieves, and I’m so looking forward to everything else Owen releases in the future.

Book Review: A Surprise for Christmas: And Other Seasonal Mysteries by Martin Edwards (Editor)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Genre: Mystery Anthology
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication Date: October 12th, 2021
Pages: 320, paperback
Source: NetGalley

A Postman murdered while delivering cards on Christmas morning. A Christmas pine growing over a forgotten homicide. A Yuletide heist gone horribly wrong. When there’s as much murder as magic in the air and the facts seem to point to the impossible, it’s up to the detective’s trained eye to unwrap the clues and neatly tie together an explanation (preferably with a bow on top).

Martin Edwards has once again gathered the best of these seasonal stories into a stellar anthology brimming with rare tales, fresh as fallen snow, and classics from the likes of Julian Symons, Margery Allingham, Anthony Gilbert and Cyril Hare. A most welcome surprise indeed, and perfect to be shared between super-sleuths by the fire on a cold winter’s night.

Anytime a new British Library Crime Classics comes out is like Christmas. A Surprise for Christmas and Other Seasonal Mysteries (bit of a mouthful, that), edited by Martin Edwards, is like a box of Christmas crackers. There’s something for everyone, and twelve stories in total, one for each day of Christmas.

There are the usual authors – Gilbert (as Malleson), Allingham, and Chesterton, but also a Loveday Brooke by Pirkis that I hadn’t seen before, and a Cyril Hare that I had, but still enjoyed. Like most anthologies, some of the stories are stronger than the others, and this isn’t one of the better Christmas collections by BLCC, but it’s well-worth a read, especially on a snowy Winter’s night.

Book Review: Payback’s a Witch (The Witches of Thistle Grove #1) by Lana Harper

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Genre: Contemporary romance
Publisher: Berkley
Publication Date: October 5th, 2021
Pages: 336, paperback
Source: NetGalley

Emmy Harlow is a witch but not a very powerful one—in part because she hasn’t been home to the magical town of Thistle Grove in years. Her self-imposed exile has a lot to do with a complicated family history and a desire to forge her own way in the world, and only the very tiniest bit to do with Gareth Blackmoore, heir to the most powerful magical family in town and casual breaker of hearts and destroyer of dreams.

But when a spellcasting tournament that her family serves as arbiters for approaches, it turns out the pull of tradition (or the truly impressive parental guilt trip that comes with it) is strong enough to bring Emmy back. She’s determined to do her familial duty; spend some quality time with her best friend, Linden Thorn; and get back to her real life in Chicago.

On her first night home, Emmy runs into Talia Avramov—an all-around badass adept in the darker magical arts—who is fresh off a bad breakup . . . with Gareth Blackmoore. Talia had let herself be charmed, only to discover that Gareth was also seeing Linden—unbeknownst to either of them. And now she and Linden want revenge. Only one question stands: Is Emmy in?

But most concerning of all: Why can’t she stop thinking about the terrifyingly competent, devastatingly gorgeous, wickedly charming Talia Avramov?

Considering that I got to 48% of Payback’s a Witch, I probably should have finished it, but… honestly, I was bored. The technical aspect of the writing was fine, and the characters had pretty strong, distinct voices, but the pacing was all over place. Harper seemed to have trouble juggling all the different parts of the plot and figuring out how to have things move in a way that made sense. The character’s plot to get back at the man who hurt them made very little sense, and would have been easy to foil in real life.

I wasn’t overly into the relationship between Talia and Emmy, either, as I didn’t see much to support their relationship other than mutual lust-at-first-sight. That may be some reader’s cup of tea, but it isn’t mine, unfortunately.

Also, this is maybe a stupid quibble when Payback’s a Witch is meant to be a fun rom-com that you don’t think about too much, but I was a bit bothered by the history of Thistle Grove. The novel states that the four founders of the town gravitated to the area because the land “had an abundance of magic”.

The land that, by the by, is in America. So… what about the Native Americans who were there first? Were they using that land for anything? Or was it just happily empty of people and waiting for a bunch of colonizers to come take it?

Looking at the reviews, it seems I’m in the minority as far as Payback’s a Witch goes, so YMMV. It just wasn’t for me.

Book Review: Iron Widow (Iron Widow #1) by Xiran Jay Zhao

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Sci-Fi
Publisher: Penguin Teen
Publication Date: September 21st, 2021
Pages: 400, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

Iron Widow has a solid premise and, unfortunately, not much else.

I wanted very badly to love this novel, as I enjoyed all of its comp titles and I like what I’ve seen of Xiran on twitter. But Iron Widow feels a bit like a first rough draft where the writer was just getting the general beats down and not overly paying attention to anything else such as the world building, characterization, or pacing, or even making certain the characters’ dialogue doesn’t sound exactly the same.

Even accounting for the fact that English isn’t Xiran’s first language and the differences in storytelling norms between English and Chinese, the writing simply isn’t good. It’s very blunt, and while maybe that was the point as the novel is entirely in Zetian’s POV and she’s not a subtle person, I can’t be sure about that. We’re given no time to really pause and reflect on certain scenes or emotions, which leaves it all feeling shallow. Even Zetian’s relationship with her Big Sister, who’s the entire driving force behind the events of the novel, barely gets any mention. We’re told everything and shown nothing.

It really seems as if the author only had a few scenes crystal clear in their head but had no interest in building the rest of the novel around those scenes in a way that made sense. There are a few bits of the novel that really shine, while the rest are hastily put together and shoved to the side so the author could get to the stuff they actually cared about. I couldn’t really tell you a thing about the worldbuilding except that it’s a Chinese sci-fi world where boys and girls have to fight aliens called Hunduns, and the girls are basically batteries for the boys and die in the process of the fighting.

Which brings me to Zetian’s story: I could not, in any way, believe her arc because it made no sense. Where she ends up at the end of the novel is unbelievable; at several points in the story, she should have been stopped simply because she’s about as subtle as a trainwreck on a boat and, frankly, not entirely smart about her plots. Readers looking for a character who manages to play the game intelligently and with subtlety should look elsewhere, because that’s very much not Zetian’s style, and while I understand that’s what Jay Zhao was going for, it doesn’t work. At all.

In a way, I think Iron Widow would have benefited incredibly from not being a YA novel–being an adult novel focused on teenage characters instead–and having multiple POVs. Zetian is limited in a lot of ways (including physically–she has bound feet, though at times it seems like Jay Zhao forgot about that, given that it doesn’t overly impact Zetian’s ability to do things that much) and the middle drags because we can’t see how other pieces are being moved, if they’re being moved at all. Given how the novel was written, I sort of doubt it; the characters come in when they’re needed, do what the plot/Zetian’s characterization and arc require them to do, and then leave, as if they don’t exist outside of their on-page appearances or have an impact on the world outside of them.

And now my final, biggest issue with the novel: For all that it touts itself as a feminist novel, and for all that Zetian claims she wants to save girls, neither Zetian nor the novel seem to actually like other girls that much. Zetian is a prickly person, so I get that she wouldn’t get along with everyone, but the novel itself doesn’t treat girls other than Zetian that well. There’s a difference between your character having some internalized misogyny issues and the writing backing her up on it by having every female character she encounters either be an enemy or get killed by the end of the novel. I don’t require Zetian to never have a bad word to say about other girls or for the novel not to have antagonistic relationships between them, but her scenes with other girls are so scant and overwhelmingly negative. If feminism means only One True Awesome Girl, it’s not one I’m interested in.

I did like the way the mecha functions, and I like that the love triangle resolves itself into an actual poly relationship. I wish the rest of the novel had been as good as some of the scenes inside, but unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Book Review: A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Contemporary Fantasy
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 14th, 2021
Pages: 320, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

When her siblings start to go missing, a girl must confront the dark thing that lives in the forest—and the growing darkness in herself—in this debut YA contemporary fantasy for fans of Wilder Girls.

Derry and her eight siblings live in an isolated house by the lake, separated from the rest of the world by an eerie and menacing forest. Frank, the man who raised them after their families abandoned them, says it’s for their own good. After all, the world isn’t safe for people with magic. And Derry feels safe—most of the time.

Until the night her eldest sister disappears. Jane and Derry swore to each other that they’d never go into the forest, not after their last trip ended in blood, but Derry is sure she saw Jane walk into the trees. When another sibling goes missing and Frank’s true colors start to show, feeling safe is no longer an option. Derry will risk anything to protect the family she has left. Even if that means returning to the forest that has started calling to Derry in her missing siblings’ voices.

As Derry spends more time amidst the trees, her magic grows more powerful . . . and so does the darkness inside her, the viciousness she wants to pretend doesn’t exist. But saving her siblings from the forest and from Frank might mean embracing the darkness. And that just might be the most dangerous thing of all.

A Dark and Starless Forest is a solid novel that falls prey to some typical issues in a debut novel.

The two biggest issues I found in the novel were the pacing and the themes. The pacing dragged in the middle and it seemed Hollowell wasn’t quite sure what she needed to have Derry do. The plot needed to have Derry act in a certain way, so she did, but it didn’t necessarily make sense with the events happening in said plot. The sense of urgency at having two of her sisters missing never quite sticks, since Derry and the rest of her siblings are mostly unable to go out and look for them and so have to continue living their lives as normal. Although Derry does ignore this rule, her forays into the forest become more about growing her magical powers than it does finding her sisters. Hollowell does try to explain in the story why the siblings mostly have to stay in the house, but it’s not quite good enough reasoning.

The themes were close to being pinned down, but another draft of the novel would have made them clearer. Derry is surrounded by two main enemies: Frank, her adoptive father who’s teaching her and her siblings how to control their magic for possibly dark purposes, and the forest that surrounds the house they live in. The atmosphere of the house was claustrophobic and oppressive, but the forest lacked the same danger and darkness. Hollowell clearly tries to state that both Frank and the forest want to use the girls for their own ends, but she doesn’t quite get there in regards to the forest.

Derry is a character that some readers will probably dislike, as she’s mostly passive and reacts to things instead of causing things to happen, and she’s avoidant of the facts staring her in the face. However I was fine with this, as Derry is living in a situation that’s almost a cult. Her family is completely cut off from the rest of the world, and whatever they know about it, they learn from Frank. Frank is emotionally abusive and gaslights the siblings often, and Derry, as a sixteen year old girl who’s had to view Frank as a parental figure, is realistic in her reluctance to realize and accept that Frank is dangerous and harmful.

While the bond between Derry and most of her siblings is evident, the siblings themselves are too numerous and subsequently their characters fall to the wayside. A couple stand out, like Elle, Jane, and Winnie, while others were little more than names and attributes. I do applaud Hollowell for making her cast a good representation of diversity, but some of that was integrated into the novel better than others, such as Brooke’s deafness being dealt with by all the siblings using ASL for a good chunk of the novel.

Personally, I will say that as a fat woman, it was a relief to read about a fat main character and never have her weight come up as anything other than a neutral description of herself. There are no fat jokes, no one harms her because she’s fat or uses her fatness to harm her. Derry simply exists as a fat girl, and that was wonderful.

There was enough that I liked in A Dark and Starless Forest that I’ll likely read what Hollowell writes next. Most of the problems in this novel are either debut issues or stylistic choices that some readers may not gel with, such as the worldbuilding beyond the house and the forest being thin to non-existent. Readers looking for a richly detailed contemporary fantasy won’t find it here, but they will find a story about a girl discovering her magic and saving her siblings from an abusive man, and that’s a story worth reading even with the issues.