Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village: A Review

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village by Maureen Johnson and Jay CooperCongratulations! You’ve finally made it to England. Your vacation has already brought you to such iconic sites as Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and Hyde Park. You have posed with the Beefeaters at the Tower of London. You have eaten more than your share of fish and chips. But still your trip is missing something.

Having conquered the big city, perhaps now you want to venture into the bucolic English countryside.

That is a mistake.

While England is filled with many quaint and perfectly safe villages, the chances are high that you will find yourself in an English Murder Village. It will look like any other village. In fact, it might look better than some villages as you admire the manor house with the local vicar and attend the annual village fete. That’s the problem. You’re already in the trap.

If it’s too late for you to eschew the countryside for the safety of London, remember that forewarned is forearmed. Now is the time to acquaint yourself with what to expect from the village, the manor, and their respective residents. Research might keep you alive, if anything can in Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village (2021) by Maureen Johnson, illustrated by Jay Cooper.

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After writing The Name of the Star–an Edgar Award nominated supernatural thriller–and the bestselling Truly Devious series that begins with a boarding school mystery, Johnson here turns her hand to another classic mystery genre: the village mystery.

Readers familiar with mysteries classic mysteries like Miss Marple or Midsomer Murders will appreciate Johnson’s deep dive into all of the hazards inherent to English Murder Village life.

Illustrations from Cooper accompany most entries underscoring the dangers (and macabre humor) to be found in many aspect of village life including such gems as meeting the local amateur astrologer who likes “to wander alone to remote locations at night with a big looking-tube to look. Draw a circle around every word in that sentence that means ‘no.'” The related illustration shows a telescope teetering on the edge of a cliff allowing readers to draw their own morbid conclusions.

Johnson’s pithy text and Cooper’s Gorey-esque illustrations perfectly blend humor with grisly murder in this pseudo-guidebook. Hypothetical scenarios and interactive quizzes add another layer to this breezy and immensely enjoyable book. Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village is must-read for mystery fans and amateur detectives alike.

The Maidens: A Review

The Maidens by Alex MichaelidesAfter so many years of defining herself in relation to her husband Sebastian, Mariana Andros is no longer sure who she is or how she can keep going after his sudden death.

She still has her work as a group therapist but that’s cold comfort when she has nothing but memories to hold onto.

A distressed call from Zoe, the niece she and Sebastian raised, is enough to rouse Mariana from her grief. One of Zoe’s friends at Cambridge University has been murdered. The death is violent and sinister. Worse, it is only the first.

Reluctant to leave her niece in a time of crisis, Mariana agrees to stay at the college surrounded by memories of her own time as a student when she and Sebastian first met. The longer Mariana spends on the familiar campus, the more certain she is that Edward Fosca is the killer.

Fosca is a charismatic and well-liked Greek Tragedy professor. Sharp and formidable, his cult of personality is so strong among his female students that it’s not hard to intuit his guilt despite an alibi.

As Mariana is drawn further into the investigation, her fixation on Fosca grows. Pursuing Fosca could ruin Mariana’s professional reputation, her personal relationships and–as she gets closer to the killer–even her life might be forfeit in The Maidens (2021) by Alex Michaelides.

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The Maidens is Michaelides’ second novel. Most of the story follows Mariana with a close third person narration. All main characters–including one readers may recognize from Michaelides’ debut–are presumed white.

The Maidens is a tense university-set thriller with an audiobook version ably narrated by Louise Brealey and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. Michaelides covers similar territory here to his debut, once again featuring a psychoanalyst protagonist and a shocking case.

Although it is decidedly high concept, The Maidens does little to capitalize on any of its potential. Mariana–a theoretically complex protagonist dealing with intense grief, a patient who is stalking her (which causes her surprisingly little distress), and an increasingly obsessive interest in Fosca as the book progresses–is reduced to little more than a grieving widow. If she has a personality beyond missing Sebastian and investigating Fosca, Michaelides never shows it.

Abrupt chapter breaks eliminate any chance for readers (or Mariana) to meditate on plot points not to mention leaving no room for anything in the way of character development. The breakneck pace of the story and its focus on plot are perhaps why so much of The Maidens feels heavy-handed. Information key to solving the mystery is obscured with plot devices including intermittent chapters from a nameless male character while the identity of the murderer is heavily broadcast even as their motivations remain frustratingly opaque.

With a resolution that is as unsavory as it is unsatisfying, The Maidens feels less like a thriller by the end and more like an object lesson in the veracity of the maxim “physician, heal thyself.” Readers looking for a twisty thriller where no one is quite who they expect would be better served by Alice Feeney’s Rock Paper Scissors which although not a dark academia novel employs similar narrative devices to better effect.

Posssible Pairings: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Now You See Me by S. J. Bolton, Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney, House of Correction by Nicci French, Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian,  Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration through Libro.fm*

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Good Girl's Guide to Murder by Holly JacksonEveryone in Fairview, Connecticut knows the story of Andie Bell–the pretty, popular high school senior who was murdered by her boyfriend, Sal Singh, before he killed himself as the evidence against him mounted.

Five years later, the town is still haunted by the tragic deaths and the mystery that still surrounds the case.

Pippa Fitz-Amobi remembers Sal Singh and has never believed he could be capable of murder. Now a high school senior, Pip plans to prove it by investigating the Bell case herself for her senior project.

With access to case files, Andie’s best friends, and Sal’s younger brother Ravi, Pip has all of the pieces she needs to solve this puzzle. But as she gets closer to the truth, Pip realizes that some people don’t want the truth to be uncovered. And they’ll do whatever is necessary to stop Pip from solving this case in A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder (2020) by Holly Jackson.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is Jackson’s first novel. It’s worth noting that the novel was originally published (and set) in the UK before being moved to Connecticut for the American editions although the story and characters still feel very British. Pip is white (her step-father is Nigerian and her younger brother is biracial), Sal and his family are Indian.

With suspect and witness interviews, case ephemera, and Pip’s engaging project logs between chapters, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is fast-paced and leaves plenty of room for readers to solve the case alongside Pip (possibly even before Pip depending on their own familiarity with mystery tropes).

Jackson subtly amps up the tension as Pip gets closer to the truth and realizes that there might be bigger consequences (and dangers) to her investigation that passing or failing her senior project. While Pip makes some bad decisions inherent to amateur investigators (always bring back up!), the story is engaging enough that Pip’s false starts are barely noticeable as the full scope of the case begins to unfold.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is a fine addition to any YA mystery collection. Fans of true crime podcasts in the vein of Serial will be well served by the audio production which features a full cast recording with Bailey Carr acting as Pip.

Possible Pairings: Killing Time by Brenna Ehrlich, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, You’ll Be the Death of Me by Karen M. McManus, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund, Sadie by Courtney Summers

Killing Time: A Review

Killing Time by Brenna EhrlichWith so much small town charm, it’s easy to think that bad things don’t happen in Ferry, Connecticut.

Which is why everyone is so shaken when local teacher Mrs. Halsey is found dead. Murdered. Even the local crime reporters are shocked by the violence of the crime.

Natalie Temple always thought she’d have a chance to apologize tom Mrs. Halswy after their in the middle of senior year. Mrs. Halsey is the reason Natalie is going to her dream school to study journalism.

Instead, Natalie’s favorite teacher is dead and no one knows why or who to blame.

Mrs. Halsey taught Natalie and her best friend Katie all about the power of true crime as a genre–an interest Natalie’s strict and overprotective mother has never been willing to entertain. Now, Natalie knows the best way to honor Mrs. Halsey is to find her killer. The investigation could also help Natalie take her “blood drenched” podcast Killing Time to the next level–something she’s sure no one would appreciate more than Mrs. Halsey.

Investigating the murder will bring Natalie face-to-face with the seedier side of Ferry–and some uncomfortable truths about her own family history–as Natalie learns that secrets never stay buried forever in Killing Time (2022) by Brenna Ehrlich.

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Killing Time plays out in two timelines alternating between Natalie’s investigation into Mrs. Halsey’s death and flashbacks to her mother Helen’s first year at college. All main characters are presumed white.

Natalie’s first person narration is filled with smart references to narrative conventions in true crime stories and observations about the divisions between East and West Ferry–parts of town separated by train tracks as much as income brackets. Unfortunately, Natalie’s singular focus on her investigation leaves little space for Natalie to gain dimension beyond her fixation on solving Mrs. Halsey’s murder–most of the on page interactions with her best friend revolve around the podcast. Although Ehrlich explores more of Helen’s past in the flashback chapters, Natalie’s relationship with her mother remains very one note for most of the story without fully exploring any of the dynamics inherent to growing up with not just a single parent but one who had Natalie very young.

Where Killing Time excels is in highlighting the knife edge journalists and true crime afficionados walk while trying to balance morbid interest with compassion for the real people who are impacted by these crimes. As with many ethical questions, there are no right answers but Ehrlich explores both the good and the bad through Natalie and Helen’s timelines.

Readers looking for a new true-crime-fueled story in the vein of Courtney Summers or Holly Jackson will find a lot to enjoy in Killing Time.

Possible Pairings: They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, Sadie by Courtney Summers, The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration.*

How We Fall Apart: A Review

How We Fall Apart by Katie ZhaoAt Sinclair Prep, the whispers never stop; it’s a small price to pay for being at the most elite private high school in the country. Graduating from Sinclair Prep will open doors for every student–even scholarship kids like Nancy Luo.

Nancy knows a full scholarship and perpetual class rank as second best isn’t enough to make her truly belong at Sinclair Prep. Nancy’s best friend, Jamie Ruan, is quick to remind Nancy of that whenever she lets herself forget. But even with Jamie’s vicious reminders, even with everything she’s had to sacrifice to get this far, Nancy knows Sinclair Prep is the first step to becoming one of the beautiful, entitled people who can get whatever they want.

When Jamie doesn’t show up for Honors night, Nancy thinks it’s her chance to step into the spotlight and finally claim her spot at the top.

Nancy realizes how wrong she was when Jamie is found dead. As rumors spread that Jamie was murdered, an anonymous post on Tip Tap, the school’s gossip app, from “The Proctor” points to Jamie’s best friends–Nancy, Krystal Choi, Akil Patel, and Alexander Lin–as the prime suspects. The Proctor promises to reveal all of their darkest secrets on Tip Tap until they admit their complicity in Jamie’s death.

If the Proctor makes good on their threats, Nancy and her friends could lose everything–including Nancy and Alexander’s coveted scholarships. In a group of friends where everyone is hiding something, could keeping a secret prove deadly?

At Sinclair Prep Nancy has always known that being good and being the best are mutually exclusive. As the stakes climb, Nancy will have to choose how much she’s willing to give–and to take–in order to stay at the top in How We Fall Apart (2021) by Katie Zhao.

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How We Fall Apart is the first book in a projected duology. The story, narrated by Nancy, starts with the fallout from Jamie’s death. Flashbacks throughout the novel shed light on the secrets Nancy and other members of her friend group are trying so hard to keep buried during the murder investigation.

How We Fall Apart is one of the best mysteries I’ve read this year. Zhao’s plotting is unrivaled as every single thread in this story proves to be crucial to the larger plot while also leaving just enough seeds to justify a second book. At the same time, readers should be advised that mental health plays a major part in this story–and in the circumstances of Jamie’s death. Be sure to check Zhao’s website for full trigger warnings.

Nancy is a calculating protagonist. She knows what she wants and exactly what price tag to attach to it as she struggles to keep her head above water within Sinclair Prep’s cutthroat social scene. With everything to gain, and so much to lose, Nancy is willing to do whatever it takes to keep her spot at the school leading her to increasingly ruthless choices as the novel progresses.

How We Fall Apart is an engrossing mystery set in the pressure cooker of an elite high school. Say hello to your next dark academia obsession.

Possible Pairings: Ace of Spades by Faridah Abike-Iyimide, They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee, The Best Lies by Sarah Lyu, The Cousins by Karen M. McManus, People Like Us by Dana Mele, The Mary Shelley Club by Goldy Moldavsky, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Firekeeper’s Daughter: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Firekeepers Daughter by Angeline BoulleyDaunis Fontaine has always felt like an outsider. Sometimes she’s “too Indian” for her mother’s white relatives. As an unenrolled tribal member thanks to the scandal surrounding her parents’ relationship and her own birth, Daunis never feels like she’s fully part of life on the Ojibwe reservation no matter how much time she spends with that side of her family.

With her pre-med college plans on hold after her grandmother’s debilitating stroke, Daunis feels more adrift than ever. Enter Jamie the newest member of her half-brother Levi’s hockey team. Jamie and Daunis click but that doesn’t change all of the little things about his background that don’t quite make sense.

In the wake of a tragedy that hits too close to home, Daunis learns the truth about Jamie and finds herself at the center of a far-flung criminal investigation as a confidential informant. Delving deeper into the investigation, Daunis will have to confront uncomfortable truths about her own family’s past and the reservation community to discover the truth. After years of admiring her elders, Daunis will have have to embrace being a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) herself to see things through in Firekeeper’s Daughter (2021) by Angeline Boulley.

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Firekeeper’s Daughter is Boulley’s debut novel.

Boulley describes this story as the indigenous Nancy Drew she always wanted to read and that really is the best description. With plot threads exploring opioid addiction (and dealing), grief, and sexual assault, Firekeeper’s Daughter is a heavy read.

Subplots involving hockey, Daunis’s complicated feelings about her family, and more can make the story seem sprawling at times although Boulley admirably ties every single thread together by the end.

Daunis’s high stakes investigation and her intense relationship with Jamie plays out against the fully realized backdrop of life in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and on the Ojibwe reservation. Daunis’s focus on her own culture and heritage are crucial to the plot bringing Daunis closer to the real culprit complete with a focus on traditional (herbal) medicine and the importance of community elders.

Firekeeper’s Daughter is a taut, perfectly plotted mystery with a protagonist readers won’t soon forget. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Every Stolen Breath by Kimberly Gabriel, Fake ID by Lamar Giles, The Bodies We Wear by Jeyn Roberts, Sadie by Courtney Summers, Veronica Mars

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Killing November: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Killing November by Adriana MatherNovember Adley agrees to leave her quaint small town to stay safe while her father takes care of a family emergency. When November wakes up in a remote building without electricity, completely off the grid, she realizes her father may not have given her the full story.

The Academy covers everything from poisons to the art of the deception, students should never reveal details of their past, and the school adheres to an eye-for-aye punishment.

November is pretty sure she can survive anything for a few weeks while her dad wants her to lay low. But even November isn’t sure what to expect when students start dying and everyone seems to think it has something to do with her in Killing November (2019) by Adriana Mather.

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Killing November is the high octane start to Mather’s November duology which concludes with Hunting November.

Killing November is a fun, cinematic read. Mather leans heavily on movie conventions notably including flashbacks, but these elements never integrate fully into the story. Honestly, November is often quite annoying as a protagonist. Her constant shock and horror at the Academy’s brutality is understandable at first but begins to grate as it continues for almost the entirety of the novel.

Despite numerous details, the world building for the Academy and the students who attend it are never fully explained instead serving as a backdrop for all of the novel’s action. Where this story really shines is with the secondary characters notably including Layla and Ash who add dimension to a story that otherwise runs the risk of falling flat.

Killing November is a fresh if underdeveloped take on the classic boarding school mystery. Recommended for fans of that sub-genre and spies reminiscent of James Bond and his ilk.

Possible Pairings: I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons

If We Were Villains: A Review

If We Were Villains by M. L. RioSeptember 1997: Oliver Marks is finishing his fourth and final year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Broadwater, Illinois. After surviving the yearly cuts to his acting program as students fail to meet expectations, it feels like the world is laid at his feet. Everything is ahead of him. This year, it seems, anything can happen.

It will take months for Oliver to realize how right he is.

Ten years later Oliver is finishing the final days of his decade-long prison sentence when the man who arrested him arrives with a surprising ask. Detective Colborne is retiring, leaving his life with the police behind. But he wants answers first. He wants to know what happened at Dellecher all those years ago and, this time, he wants to know the truth.

Returning to the scene of the crime–of so many smaller crimes, if he’s being honest–Oliver sets the scene for Colborne as he remembers that final year with the players in this tale: Richard the tyrant, Alex the villain, James the hero, Wren the ingenue, Meredith the temptress, and Filippa–the one everyone always forgets, always to their disadvantage. And then there’s Oliver, never quite sure where he fits on stage or off.

After three years of settling into roles they seem to know by heart, everything changes during their final year. One of the seven is dead. More than one of them is guilty. One will take the blame. And, ten years later, Oliver will finally tell the truth in If We Were Villains (2017) by M. L. Rio.

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Rio’s debut novel is part atmospheric thriller, part suspenseful mystery all steeped in Shakespeare and the dangerous energy that can make relationships both exhilarating and toxic.

Structured as a play, the story unfolds over five acts as Oliver narrates key scenes with prologues before each act where he further sets the scene for Colborne. This character driven story is dynamite building slowly to an explosive and often surprising conclusion enhanced by Rio’s excellent foreshadowing and parallels to Shakespearean tragedies.

While If We Were Villains keeps a tight focus on Oliver and his fellow theater students, not all characters are created equal. Oliver and James in particular are so nuanced and so authentically flawed that the other characters often seem flat in comparison as they play to type (this may in part be due to Oliver’s own lens as narrator but still felt like something that could be explored more). Meredith and Wren are especially are disappointingly lacking in depth returning, again and again, to the same concerns and the same shortcomings while Filippa remains, in many ways, a mystery herself.

Set in 1997 and 2007, If We Were Villains is surprisingly hesitant to consider sexuality beyond binaries. While some characters are, understandably, hesitant to let themselves be labeled the novel as a whole refuses to even consider the possibility of both bisexuality and pansexuality as queer identities. This is not damaging to the story but it is erasure worth considering when deciding whether or not to consider this title.

If We Were Villains is a tense, thoughtfully executed story of love, obsession, and missed chances. Perfect for readers fascinated by all-consuming relationships, drama in the classic sense, and of course Shakespeare in every sense. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee, The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Macbeth by William Shakespeare, King Lear by William Shakespeare, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Foul is Fair: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Foul is Fair by Hannah CapinElle’s glittering life is torn to shreds when she and her friends crash a St. Andrew’s Prep party and the golden boys there choose Elle as their latest target.

Her best friends Mads, Jenny, and Summer get Elle out of there. They help her bandage the cuts, throw out the ruined dress, and most importantly change her appearance.

Because after that night, after what they did to her, Elle is gone.

She’s Jade now and she is going to make every single boy who hurt her pay.

Her parents are going to turn a blind eye. Her coven of best friends are going to help. And a boy named Mack is going to take the blame for all of it in Foul is Fair (2020) by Hannah Capin.

Find it on Bookshop.

Capin’s modern retelling of Macbeth is a gory revenge fantasy set against a world of luxury and decadence and LA’s upper echelon. (Readers can find a content warning at the front of the book as well as on the author’s website.)

Jade’s first person narration is sleek, sharp, and almost lyrical enough to call iambic pentameter to mind. While the story does little to develop any character beyond their designated role in this revenge fantasy, Jade’s coven of friends is diverse including bisexual Summer, Jenny who is Korean, and Mads–a trans girl and Jade’s oldest and best friend.

The accelerated timeline and copious murder both require a willing suspension of disbelief as Jade sets her revenge quest in motion–all over the course of one week.

Foul is Fair is as bloody as it is campy. Recommended for readers who prefer their revenge fantasies with justifiably angry girls and a healthy dose of gore.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Burn for Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian, Anna K.: A Love Story by Jenny Lee, The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Kingdom by Jessica Rothenberg, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

*An advance copy of this title was provided for review consideration*

Sadie: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Sadie by Courtney SummersThe only thing that has ever really mattered to Sadie is her little sister, Mattie. Sadie pins all of her hopes and dreams onto Mattie. She gives her the care and affection their mother can’t usually manage. Mattie is better and more and she deserves everything Sadie never thinks to want for herself.

But then Mattie is murdered.

The trail is cold and the police don’t care. After all, she’s just another dead girl.

But Sadie knows who did it. And she knows she is the only one who can make them pay–even if it means losing herself in the process.

Weeks later West McCray hears about Sadie while he’s recording a radio segment on small, forgotten towns in America. The police might not care, most of the town might not care, but West finds that he does. What starts as a podcast soon becomes a much larger project as West delves into Sadie’s past and tries to follow her trail before it’s too late in Sadie (2018) by Courtney Summers.

Find it on Bookshop.

Summers’ latest standalone alternates between Sadie’s first person narration and West’s podcast segments as he follows her trail.

Sadie is a brutal story about the disasters left in the aftermath of loss and poverty. Despite the violence surrounding Mattie’s murder and Sadie’s own revenge quest, the prose never sensationalizes it. Through West, Summers makes a deliberate choice to never make Mattie into a plot point and never to appeal to the lowest common denominator by glamorizing violence.

Sadie is a calculating and singular narrator. Her shrewd narration contrasts sharply with dialog as she navigates the world with a severe stutter (a speech impediment that could have been fixed when Sadie was a child if her mother had bothered to pursue treatment). That contrast in particular highlights the way that Sadie explores poverty and privilege–particularly as West begins to unpack his own privilege in being able to initially dismiss Sadie’s disappearance as too common and not interesting enough for a podcast.

Nothing here is neat or simple–including Sadie herself. While the ending leaves readers with a lot of questions it also places the decision of how her story will unfold, back in her own hands–a freedom that was impossible to imagine at the beginning of the novel. Sadie is an incisive story about agency and feminism as well as an utterly engrossing thriller. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Killing Time by Brenna Ehrlich, Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson, A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry, The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed, Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*