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Book Review | The Christmas Guest by Peter Swanson

From the publisher: A spectacularly spine-chilling novella in which an American art student in London is invited to join a classmate for the holidays at Starvewood Hall, her family’s Cotswold manor house. But behind the holly and pine boughs, secrets are about to unravel, revealing this seemingly charming English village’s grim history.

The Christmas Guest is a small bite of a read, a little snack that can be read in one sitting. It’s immersive and fun and a bit disturbing. We hear from two voices: Emma Chapman, the English student who lives at Starvewood Hall, and Ashley Smith, the American classmate Emma has invited home for the holidays. Ashley speaks to us through the words she pours into her diary.

The author pulled me in right from the Dedication: “For two aunts – Pearl Taylor Moynihan, who disliked Christmas, and Sue Ellis Swasey, who doesn’t particularly like it either.” The dedication is followed by an Epigraph that calls out to A Christmas Carol.

The novella opens with our narrator, living in New York and alone on Christmas Day except for her cat, sorting through her crowded bedroom closet. She comes across an old diary, written by a friend thirty years ago. Although hesitant to “go back in time to that annus horribilis, that murderous year,” she cannot stop herself and begins to read.

The author pokes fun at himself and his “gothic” novella, with Ashley, the diary’s author, revealing that things are both exciting and creepy and almost willing herself into a gothic romance or thriller. (“Chance of gothic thriller murder mystery: Growing by the minute.”) There are a few twists, but in a weird way, this is a comfort read for the cozy mystery reader. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out where the story is going, but the atmosphere makes it worth the read.

The cover is amazing – cute and cozy but also sinister. I read an advance reader copy of The Christmas Guest from Netgalley.

It is scheduled to be released on October 17 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library. (Although it comes out in October, I recommend waiting until Christmastime to read it. 😊)

Book Review | The Death of Us by Lori Rader-Day

From the publisher: The discovery of a submerged car in a murky pond reveals betrayals and family secrets that will tear a small town apart.

The Death of Us has a great premise. A man cheats on his young wife, and the woman he slept with has a baby. One night, his wife answers the door, and the other woman hands the wife the baby and promptly disappears. Although fifteen years pass for the characters, the mystery of her disappearance is solved quickly in the book. A submerged car is found in an old flooded quarry on the family property. Inside is a baby carrier and some bones.

The husband and wife are now separated, as his ability to stay faithful hasn’t improved. They’ve been raising the child that was left behind together. Liss, the wife, loves her stepson fiercely. Because of the unknown status of his birth mother, Liss has never formally adopted Callan, but she IS his mother. Her husband Link is a man-child, spoiled by his mother, but Liss has broken things off with a man who loves her to try to salvage her damaged marriage.

The Death of Us is a great, fast read. The character development is good – I liked and sympathized with Liss and felt sorry for the teenager who is not quite sure how to handle his emotions when his missing mother is discovered. The marshal investigating the discovery is Liss’s recent lover; the man he replaced is the husband Link’s father. It’s a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business.

I guessed one of the big bads early on, but that did not affect my enjoyment of the book. The author still had to spin out her plot, and I liked watching it unravel. There’s a bit of Hollywood blockbuster nonsense at the end, but the author paints some great pictures. Surprisingly, this is my first book by Rader-Day, but it won’t be my last.

I read an advance reader copy of The Death of Us. It is scheduled to be published on October 3, and the Galesburg Public Library will own the book in print, as an ebook, and in audio. The library owns Rader-Day’s previous six books, if you want to try one now. 

Book Review | Murder at the Merton Library by Andrea Penrose

From the publisher: A perplexing murder in a renowned Oxford University library and a suspicious fire at a famous inventor’s London laboratory set Wrexford and Lady Charlotte on two separate investigations in this masterfully plotted, atmospheric Regency-set mystery.

Are you looking for a new historical mystery series? Check out Wrexford and Sloane by Andrea Penrose. Charlotte Sloane is a widowed lady of quality with a secret. She is a satirical cartoonist under a pen name. She uses her pen to cast light on injustices and misbehavior. Circumstances bring her together with two orphaned guttersnipes who she comes to love as her own, and with the intimidating Earl of Wrexford. This series has a nice mix of mystery, historical details, and found family. The relationships feature romantic love, parental love, family love, and deep friendships.

The book that introduces these characters and other series regulars is Murder on Black Swan Lane, and book seven in the series is due out in September. This is a great time to start reading, because if you like the first book, you can move right on to the next, but the number of books already published is not intimidating. Set in Regency London, the author likes to spotlight legitimate scientific innovation of the time period. Real scientists make occasional appearances in her stories.

Book seven, Murder at the Merton Library, starts with the murder of an Oxford librarian. It deals with fallout from the Napoleonic wars and intrigue around competition to create a marine propulsion system utilizing steam engines. (If that sounds boring, don’t worry – the author makes it interesting.) The Regency details seem perfect, and the author believably makes her female characters as important to the action as the male characters. I’ve found some of the other books in the series a bit draggy at times, but this one moved along briskly for me.

This series is a lot of fun for the serious historical mystery reader.

I read an advance reader copy of Murder at Merton Library from Netgalley. It is scheduled to be published on September 26. The Galesburg Public Library will own it in multiple formats, and we already own the first six books in the series.

Book Review | Play the Fool by Lina Chern

From the publisher: A cynical tarot card reader seeks to uncover the truth about her friend’s mysterious death in this delightfully clever whodunit.

Play the Fool is a screwball comedy/mystery about a new adult trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life in the Chicago suburbs. Katie True has a mysterious and fascinating friend, a throwaway job at a Russian tchotchke shop at the mall, and a family with normal family issues. When she accidentally sees a photo of her friend, dead, and starts investigating, an attractive cop enters her life as well.

As a suburban Chicagoan myself, I enjoyed the setting. The main character even mentioned one of my favorite places, the Bristol Renaissance Faire on the Illinois/Wisconsin border! The library plays an important part in Katie’s investigation, always happy to see props from authors. The narrator is most definitely too stupid to live at times, as she is careless with her safety as she tries to figure out who killed her friend. Her relationship with her autistic brother is sweet and her rocky relationship with her sister believable.

Katie reads tarot cards, taught by her Aunt Rosie as a child, and is constantly both dealing and consulting her tarot cards and comparing situations to them. I’m not familiar with a tarot deck, so this meant less to me than it might to some readers, but they are a winsome touch that help define Katie. The book cover is very eye-catching.

The mystery is not terribly mysterious, and there is never any real sense of danger, but the cast of characters is fun. I sense a sequel in the future. I read an advance reader copy of Play the Fool from Netgalley.

It is scheduled to be released on March 28 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library.

New Adult Fiction — March 2023

Spring is just around the corner, which means we’re getting lots of rainy days. What better way to enjoy the showers than curling up next to the window with a good book? This week is mystery week, with five new books that hit the shelves recently, ready for you to check out or put on hold!

Up first, we have Wolf Trap by Connor Sullivan. This thriller/mystery tells the story of over three hundred highly-trained agents who operate in the darkest shadows of the country’s covert wars. Plucked from the highest echelons of America’s special mission units, these individuals go through rigorous training by the Agency to perfect the arts of assassination, sabotage, infiltration, and guerrilla warfare.

Another thriller/mystery also hit the shelves this week: Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murders by Jesse Q. Sutano. You see, Vera Wong is a lonely little old lady—or rather, lady of a certain age—who lives above her forgotten tea shop in the middle of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Despite living alone, Vera is not needy, oh no. She likes nothing more than sipping on a good cup of Wulong and doing some healthy detective work on the Internet about what her Gen-Z son is up to.

Then one morning, Vera trudges downstairs to find a curious thing: a dead man in the middle of her tea shop. In his outstretched hand, a flash drive. Vera doesn’t know what comes over her, but after calling the cops like any good citizen would, she sort of… swipes the flash drive from the body and tucks it safely into the pocket of her apron. Why? Because Vera is sure she would do a better job than the police possibly could, because nobody sniffs out a wrongdoing quite like a suspicious Chinese mother with time on her hands.

Traditional mystery is some of the most popular here at GPL, and the 32nd installment of Donna Leon’s bestselling series Commissario Brunetti, So Shall You Reap is sure to delight. On a November evening, Guido Brunetti and Paola are up late when a call from his colleague Ispettore Vianello arrives, alerting the COmmissario that a hand has been seen in one of Venice’s canals. The body is soon found, and Brunetti is assigned to investigate the murder of an undocumented Sri Lankan immigrant. Because no official record of the man’s presence in Venice exists, Brunetti is forced to use the city’s far richer sources of information: gossip and the memories of people who knew the victim. 

Robert B. Parker’s Revenge Tour by Mike Lupica is another mystery for your reading list. In this entry in the Sunny Randall series, Melanie Joan Hall is back in Boston, riding high, refusing to have Sunny and Rosie move out. She has a Netflix series about to start shooting in Boston, based on her wildly popular new series of books for girls. Then it turns out that most of her fortune is gone. And her manager, who was in charge of the money, turns up dead. He’s been with her a long time. When Sunny begins to investigate, she discovers that a lot of Melanie Joan’s past is a product of her amazing imagination. And then Sunny’s loyalty to her old friend is challenged by her loyalty to finding the truth.

Last but not least, we have Red Queen by Juan Gómez-Jurado. This thriller, which sold 2 million copies when released in Spain, introduces Antonia Scott, the daughter of a British diplomat and a Spanish mother. Antonia is gifted with a forensic mind, whose ability to reconstruct crimes and solves baffling murders is legendary. But after a personal trauma, she’s refused to continue her work or even leave her apartment.


All book descriptions courtesy of the publisher.

Book Review | The Golden Spoon — Jessa Maxwell

From the publisher: A killer is on the loose when someone turns up dead on the set of a hit TV baking competition in this darkly beguiling debut mystery.

I gobbled up The Golden Spoon in one afternoon. A cast of characters assembles for Bake Week, a long-running reality TV show that challenges six chefs to make desserts. The current season’s cast includes a former journalist running from a trauma at her last job; a young prodigy from Minnesota who bakes pies for the local diner; a precise, detail-oriented math teacher from New York; a bored millionaire former CEO of a tech startup; a retired nurse who specializes in traditional recipes; and a hobbyist baker whose day job is restoring old buildings. The characters weren’t as distinct as I would have liked, but they are a diverse cast.

The six contestants gather at the palatial home of America’s Grandmother, Betsy Martin, who started the show and has been judging it for nine years. Much to her annoyance, joining her this season is the host of a cutthroat cooking show, Archie Morris, who is fighting off middle age but still a smooth charmer.

The Golden Spoon is not about the mystery, many aspects of which I guessed long before they were revealed. It’s about the show. I don’t watch reality TV, and I have to guess this book will appeal even more to people who understand the baking terms and how challenging some of the desserts are to make. I do love dessert, and this book made my mouth water.

Although a prologue tells the reader someone is dead, two weeks of activity take place before we return to the crime. There are current mysteries, and a mystery from long ago. The Golden Spoon is a frothy dessert, full of sweets, friendship, and found families. Is this a great book? No. Is this a fun read? Yes. Unlike the book’s publicity, I personally would not put it in the same category as books by Anthony Horowitz and Richard Osman, but a TV series is in development, and with the right cast it will probably be terrific. I read a print advance reader copy.

This debut novel is available at the Galesburg Public Library in print, in audiobook, and as an ebook.

Book Review | The Last Party by Clare Mackintosh

From the publisher: It’s the party to end all parties…but not everyone is here to celebrate. On New Year’s Eve, Rhys Lloyd has a house full of guests. His vacation homes on Mirror Lake are a success, and he’s generously invited the village to drink champagne with their wealthy new neighbors. But by midnight, Rhys will be floating dead in the freezing waters of the lake. On New Year’s Day, Ffion Morgan has a village full of suspects. The tiny community is her home, so the suspects are her neighbors, friends and family—and Ffion has her own secrets to protect. With a lie uncovered at every turn, soon the question isn’t who wanted Rhys dead…but who finally killed him. In a village with this many secrets, murder is just the beginning.

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Book Review | Hidden Pieces by Mary Keliikoa

From the publisher: Sheriff Jax Turner is staring down the barrel of his broken past. On the brink of ending it all, he feels like a failure following his daughter’s tragic passing and his subsequent divorce. But when a schoolgirl vanishes and her backpack is found in a sex offender’s backseat, the weary lawman drags himself into action and vows to nail one last sociopath. Can the jaded sheriff take down the culprit in time to bring the young girl home alive?

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