Book Review: Chapter and Curse (Cambridge Bookshop #1) by Elizabeth Penney

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Cozy Mystery
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: September 28th, 2021
Pages: 320, paperback
Source: NetGalley

In Chapter and Curse, Molly Kimball is used to cracking open books . . .but when a poetry reading ends in murder, she must use her skills to crack the case.

Librarian Molly Kimball and her mother, Nina, need a change. So when a letter arrives from Nina’s Aunt Violet in Cambridge, England requesting their help running the family bookshop, they jump at the chance.

Thomas Marlowe—Manuscripts and Folios, is one of the oldest bookshops in Cambridge, and—unfortunately—customers can tell. When Molly and Nina arrive, spring has come to Cambridge and the famed Cambridge Literary Festival is underway. Determined to bring much-needed revenue to the bookstore, Molly invites Aunt Violet’s college classmate and famed poet Persephone Brightwell to hold a poetry reading in the shop. But the event ends in disaster when a guest is found dead—with Molly’s great-aunt’s knitting needle used as the murder weapon. While trying to clear Violet and keep the struggling shop afloat, Molly sifts through secrets past and present, untangling a web of blackmail, deceit, and murder.

Chapter and Curse is the first book in the new Cambridge Bookshop cozy series by Elizabeth Penney, who also has several books out in her Apron Shop series.

Molly Kimball and her mother move to her mother’s home country of England to help Molly’s aunt with her bookshop. During a poetry reading at the bookshop, Molly discovers the body of one of her aunt’s friends. The police suspect her aunt, so Molly starts investigating. 

The characters are engaging and the writing is so good that I didn’t mind that I figured out the motive and the murderer before we got too far into the book. The characters are more than focus than the mystery, and that’s perfectly fine, as I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them and hope for more books in the series.

Book Review: Under the Whispering Door by T.K. Klune

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Genre: Contemporary Fantasy
Publisher: Tor
Publication Date: September 21st, 2021
Pages: 384, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

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.

By turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, this absorbing tale of grief and hope is told with TJ Klune’s signature warmth, humor, and extraordinary empathy.

Who is whispering beyond the door at Hugo’s tea shop? Wallace wants to know; too bad he had to die to find out. 

Wallace was not a nice person when he was alive, and death doesn’t seem to have improved him at all. It’s early days though, and Hugo, a ferryman for the dead, has lots of patience and tea. Wallace’s afterlife may be the making not only of him, but of others who have been locked into grief and death for far too long. 

This book is so lyrical and magical that it’s hard to describe. It’s poignant without being maudlin. You physically ache for the characters. I picture Klune like a jeweler, setting each stone in place with care. While the story centers on the interaction between Wallace and ferryman Hugo, the other characters are full in their own right, and the world the inhabit is as familiar as our own town.

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune carries trigger warnings for death, including suicide and murder. Those elements are present, and I cried more than once reading this novel. It’s a beautiful story, though, and as comforting, in places, as the tea Hugo serves.

Cannot recommend enough. Five out of five stars.

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.

Book Review: Narwhal’s School of Awesomeness (Narwhal & Jelly #6) by Ben Clanton

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Juvenile fiction
Publisher: Tundra Books
Publication Date: September 7th, 2021
Pages: 88, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Dive into four new stories about Narwhal and Jelly becoming substitute teachers! The two best friends come across an enthusiastic school of fish one morning. Unfortunately, Mr. Blowfish, their teacher, has come down with a cold, and class will have to be cancelled . . . until Professor Knowell (Narwhal) and Super Teacher (Jelly) volunteer to help out! The first subject is Wafflematics, in which Narwhal and Jelly calculate the number of waffles needed to feed the class. That’s what we’re chalking about! Next up is a super-fun science scavenger hunt, followed by a game of Tag! You’re Awesome! at recess. Narwhal’s teaching methods may be unconventional, but with Jelly’s help, the two teach (and learn) with their trademark positivity and humor. Before they know it, the day is over . . . but what grade will Narwhal receive from Jelly?

I have been out of school for, well, quite a while now, but I would absolutely attend Narwhal’s School of Awesomeness. In this, Ben Clanton’s sixth outing for Narwhal and Jelly, they save the day and become substitute teachers when Mr. Blowfish catches a cold, leaving his fishy scholars adrift. 

Professor Knowell (Narwhal) schools the fish (sorry, couldn’t resist) in WaffleMatics. Who wouldn’t love math if it came with waffles and syrup? There’s also an exciting science scavenger hunt. The school of nine fish are adorable, and kids will pick up lots of new vocabulary words from them. 

While this is geared toward younger elementary school children, adults will also appreciate the humor and the artwork. 

Book Review: Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Horror
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: August 24th, 2021
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Katrell doesn’t mind talking to the dead; she just wishes it made more money. Clients pay her to talk to their deceased loved ones, but it isn’t enough to support her unemployed mother and Mom’s deadbeat boyfriend-of-the-week. Things get worse, when a ghost warns her to stop the summonings or she’ll “burn everything down.” Katrell is willing to call them on their bluff, though. She has no choice. What do ghosts know about eating peanut butter for dinner?

However, when her next summoning accidentally raises someone from the dead, Katrell realizes that a live body is worth a lot more than a dead apparition. And, warning or not, she has no intention of letting this lucrative new business go.

But magic doesn’t come for free, and soon dark forces are closing in on Katrell. The further she goes, the more she risks the lives of not only herself, but those she loves. Katrell faces a choice: resign herself to poverty, or confront the darkness before it’s too late.

Content warnings: Murder of a dog on-page about 9% of the way in, physical abuse of a child, emotional abuse/manipulation of a child, food insecurity, some gore.

This took me by surprise, but in a good way. From the summary I expected more of a young adult urban fantasy/paranormal read, but Bad Witch Burning ended up being more of a contemporary novel with heavy horror elements. Readers expecting a fast paced novel will be disappointed as there’s more of a character driven focus for the plot. Which is fine because Katrell and the supporting cast are well written and I didn’t mind spending time with them (save for her abusers).

Katrell herself is a worthy main character, although near the end she did end up having to hand part of the reins over to her best friend, Will. However, I didn’t mind this, as Katrell’s whole story was about having to always fend for herself and believing no one was there for her. The fact that she has to learn to depend on her friend and allow Will to help save her was a satisfying conclusion to her arc. This may not be some readers’ preference, however, as it might come across as Katrell becoming a little passive.

The paranormal aspects are likely what will disappoint some readers; we’re never given any kind of explanation as to why Katrell’s powers suddenly change, or whether she was always able to bring a person back to life and just didn’t know until she was desperate enough to try. Personally I would have preferred a bit more explanation in this, but it may not bother others.

The only criticisms I have concern the pacing for the first part of the novel, which seems to meander just slightly, and the fact that Katrell is warned about her powers by Will’s deceased grandmother in one of the first chapters. At this point Katrell can only bring a shade back for about ten minutes. Will’s grandmother waits until the very end of these ten minutes to tell Katrell not to do any more summoning, and won’t explain why. Lewis does poke fun at this a bit in the end by having Will say her grandmother could have given a better warning, but it was a bit late, so the scene mostly came across as a contrived way to build suspense.

Bad Witch Burning isn’t perfect, but I enjoyed it and it even made me cry at the end. I look forward to what comes next from Jessica Lewis.

Book Review: The Misadventures of an Amateur Naturalist (Celeste Rossan #1) by Ceinwen Langley

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fantasy Fairytale Retelling
Publisher: Feed the Writer Press
Publication Date: September 1st, 2021
Pages: 365, eBook
Source: Library

Aspiring young naturalist Celeste Rossan is determined to live a life of adventure and scientific discovery. But when her father loses everything, Celeste’s hopes of ever leaving her home town are dashed… until she sees a narrow opportunity to escape to Paris and attend the 1867 Exposition Universelle.

Celeste seizes her chance, but the elements overwhelm her before she can make it five miles. In desperation, she seeks refuge in an abandoned chateau only to find herself trapped inside the den of an unknown species: a predator with an intelligence that rivals any human.

It’s the discovery of a lifetime. Or, it will be, if Celeste can earn the beast’s trust without losing her nerve – or her heart – to her in the process.

The Misadventures of an Amateur Naturalist has some interesting spins on the Beauty and the Beast fairytale, such as Celeste (the Beauty) sacrificing herself to a marriage she doesn’t want in order to save her family, instead of sacrificing herself to the Beast, as well as making her a naturalist/scientist. I did enjoy these takes on the plot beats of the original fairytale. I also liked Celeste well enough as a main character, although I’m not sure she had much of an arc, as such. I felt she was more or less the same character in the end as she was in the beginning of the novel.

The biggest issue is that the pacing is very off. We don’t meet the Beast until close to the 50% mark. The first half is spent on Celeste’s life and the circumstances that lead her to being desperate enough to run away. I’m not opposed to this idea, but we simply spend too much time in it, and as a consequence the story dragged quite a lot. The better choice may have been to shorten this and have Celeste act sooner.

Langley’s choice not to introduce the Beast until nearly halfway in also harmed the progression of Celeste’s relationship with her. Their progression from distrust to trust, to friendship, to love wasn’t as clear cut as I would have liked, and in the end I’m not entirely certain I believed the love between them. Quite literally, Celeste initially spends more time on-page with a barn owl in the castle than she does with the Beast.

At times it felt like Langley suffered from the issue of not really knowing what to have Celeste do in the castle, and instead chose to focus more on scenes with Celeste and the Beast. However then the issue became that there simply wasn’t enough time to develop that relationship as it should have been developed.

Also, if I didn’t know this was the first in a possible series, I would have been very put off by the fact that Celeste doesn’t seem to spend much time thinking about her family in the last chapter. They still believe she’s dead and here she is, going off on an adventure with her wife, and she doesn’t even think about them once. No remorse? No guilt? Maybe this will be handled in the sequel, but it should have had a mention here, in my opinion.

The strongest parts of the novel were the technical writing aspects of it — Langley has a lovely writing style that’s easy to read, and I was able to envision her world easily. Her characters were also strong, and I appreciated that she didn’t go the Gaston route with Celeste’s fiance Etienne. If the issues of pacing were fixed, I would have enjoyed this novel much more. I may still read the sequel (I’m thinking it’ll be a Little Mermaid retelling, given some dialogue in the end).

Wishlist Wednesday (2)

Welcome to Wishlist Wednesday, where we share what books we’re excited to buy and read!

Miranda’s Wishlist

When Sorrows Come (October Daye #15) by Seanan McGuire

Although I’ve been bad about keeping up with the series (I haven’t read the last two books — I’m ashamed of myself, really), the October Daye series is still an auto-buy for me. Maybe once When Sorrows Come is released, I’ll take a weekend and get caught up with the series?

It’s hard to be a hero. There’s always something needing October “Toby” Daye’s attention, and her own desires tend to fall by the wayside in favor of solving the Kingdom’s problems. That includes the desire to marry her long-time suitor and current fiancé, Tybalt, San Francisco’s King of Cats. She doesn’t mean to keep delaying the wedding, it just sort of…happens. And that’s why her closest friends have taken the choice out of her hands, ambushing her with a court wedding at the High Court in Toronto. Once the High King gets involved, there’s not much even Toby can do to delay things…

…except for getting involved in stopping a plot to overthrow the High Throne itself, destabilizing the Westlands entirely, and keeping her from getting married through nothing more than the sheer volume of chaos it would cause. Can Toby save the Westlands and make it to her own wedding on time? Or is she going to have to choose one over the other?

Vespertine (Vespertine #1) by Margaret Rogerson

Margaret Rogerson has written some of my favorite YA fantasy the last couple of years, so I’m very excited to read her newest offering.

The dead of Loraille do not rest.

Artemisia is training to be a Gray Sister, a nun who cleanses the bodies of the deceased so that their souls can pass on; otherwise, they will rise as spirits with a ravenous hunger for the living. She would rather deal with the dead than the living, who trade whispers about her scarred hands and troubled past.

When her convent is attacked by possessed soldiers, Artemisia defends it by awakening an ancient spirit bound to a saint’s relic. It is a revenant, a malevolent being that threatens to possess her the moment she drops her guard. Wielding its extraordinary power almost consumes her—but death has come to Loraille, and only a vespertine, a priestess trained to wield a high relic, has any chance of stopping it. With all knowledge of vespertines lost to time, Artemisia turns to the last remaining expert for help: the revenant itself.

As she unravels a sinister mystery of saints, secrets, and dark magic, her bond with the revenant grows. And when a hidden evil begins to surface, she discovers that facing this enemy might require her to betray everything she has been taught to believe—if the revenant doesn’t betray her first.

A Counterfeit Suitor (Rosalind Thorne Mystery #5)

The Rosalind Thorne Mystery series is a favorite series of both Gina and Miranda, so of course this is on the wishlist. Even though I (Miranda) personally thought the fourth entry in the series wasn’t as strong as the rest, I’m still looking forward to the next book. Look for Gina’s review on November 30th!

It is every mama’s dearest wish that her daughter marries well. But how to ensure that a seemingly earnest suitor is not merely a fortune hunter? Rosalind is involved in just such a case, discreetly investigating a client’s prospective son-in-law, when she is drawn into another predicament shockingly close to home.

Rosalind’s estranged father, Sir Reginald Thorne—a drunkard and forger—has fallen into the hands of the vicious scoundrel Russell Fullerton. Angered by her interference in his blackmail schemes, Fullerton intends to unleash Sir Reginald on society and ruin Rosalind. Before Rosalind’s enemy can act, Sir Reginald is found murdered—and Fullerton is arrested for the crime. He protests his innocence, and Rosalind reluctantly agrees to uncover the truth, suspecting that this mystery may be linked to her other, ongoing cases.

Aided by her sister, Charlotte, and sundry friends and associates—including handsome Bow Street Runner Adam Harkness—Rosalind sets to work. But with political espionage and Napoleon loyalists in the mix, there may be more sinister motives, and far higher stakes, than she ever imagined…

Gina’s Wishlist

Hooked on a Feline (Magical Cats Mystery #13) by Sofie Kelly

Librarian Kathleen Paulson and her inquisitive cats find themselves in a jam when a musician turns up dead, in the newest installment of this New York Times bestselling series.

It’s summer in Mayville Heights, and Kathleen Paulson and her detective boyfriend Marcus, are eager to attend the closing concert of the local music festival. The concert is a success, but then one of the band members is discovered dead shortly after it. At first it’s assumed the death is a robbery gone wrong, but Kathleen suspects foul play–and she’s certain that she, along with her trusty side-cats, Owen and Hercules, can help solve the murder.

Before his death, Kathleen had noticed the victim in the library researching his genealogy, and when she and Marcus take a closer look at the man’s family tree, they begin to think a previous death of one of his relatives now seems suspicious. The more Kathleen thinks about it, the more this murder feels like it could be an encore performance. Kathleen and her cats will need to act fast and be very careful if they want to stay off of a killer’s hit list.

The Necropolis Empire (Twilight Imperium #2)

The key to controlling the galaxy is hidden on a distant planet, and interplanetary powers will do anything to unlock its secrets, in this epic space opera from the best-selling game, Twilight Imperium

Bianca Xing has spent a lifetime on a provincial planet, dreaming of travelling the stars. When her planet is annexed by the Barony of Letnev, Bianca finds herself being taken into custody, told that she’s special – the secret daughter of a brilliant scientist, hidden away on a remote planet for her own safety. But the truth about Bianca is stranger. There are secrets hidden in her genetic code that could have galaxy altering consequences. Driven by an incredible yearning and assisted by the fearsome Letnev Captain, Dampierre, Bianca must follow her destiny to the end, even if it leads to places that are best left forgotten.

That’s it from us! What’s on your wishlist?