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: 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

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. 


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: 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: 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: The Dying Day (Malabar House #2)by Vaseem Khan

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Hodder Stoughton
Publication Date: November 2nd, 2021
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Bombay, 1950

India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, is summoned to the 150-year-old Bombay Royal Asiatic Society at Horniman Circle. The society’s preeminent treasure, a priceless manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy, has vanished, as has the society’s head curator, William Huxley, an Englishman with a passion for Indian history. 

Tasked to recover an item for which Benito Mussolini once offered one million pounds, Persis soon uncovers a series of murders, and a trail of tantalising coded clues that lead her into the dark heart of conspiracy…

Set in 1950s post-Partition and post-colonial India, The Dying Day by Vaseem Khan features a unique protagonist. Persis Wadia is the first female police detective in India. This is her second outing in the series, and features a DaVinci Code-esque hunt for a copy of The Divine Comedy, which has been stolen from the Bombay’s Asiatic Society archives by an English researcher.

Khan does a great job showing the effects of Partition and independence on post-WWII India and the impact on both Indians and colonists. Persis, daughter of a well-known Parsee Bombay bookseller, is the first and only female detective on the police force. She is called upon to solve two cases – the first is the missing manuscript, and the other is the death of a white woman found on the railroad tracks. She finds that old sins cast long shadows, and that events from the previous decade are still causing problems in the new. 

Persis encounters an old flame, while trying to decide whether to pursue a relationship with an English forensic scientist. She is also commanded, by her boss to speak at a women’s event, but Persis does not consider herself a trailblazer, and has no desire to call attention upon herself as a example of “the new woman.”

Khan is the author of the Inspector Chopra series, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. Persis has a strong voice, and has a solid core, much like Chopra. Also much like Chopra at the beginning of his series, she is in transition, and trying to find her place in an unfamiliar role as her society changes around her.

The one thing I didn’t care for in the novel was the reappearance of Persis’s old flame. He seemed more of a throwaway, swooping in like a deus ex machina, when Persis was demonstrating that she was well able to take care of herself. He didn’t really add anything to the story for me.

Khan also recaps enough of the first book, Murder at Malabar House that readers will not feel like they’re missing backstory if they haven’t read it.

This fresh new series, set in a period and country not often found in mystery series, is recommended.

Book Review: Pawmistry: Unlocking the Secret of the Universe with Cats by Megan Lynn Kott

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Non-Fiction
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Publication Date: October 12th, 2021
Pages: 112, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Pawmistry is a tongue-in-cheek guide to the feline oracle and the supernatural signs your cat may leave behind. Written and illustrated by the beloved creator of Cat Tarot Megan Lynn Kott, this playful and informative book offers instruction in a number of types of divination to practice with your cat, where messages and portents may be delivered by scattered cat toys, particular tail positions, and sleeping on your face. What does that barf in your shoe really mean? You may even consider learning the dark magic of their litterbox leavings (if you dare). Each section includes write-in pages to record your own cat’s messages from the universe, and a removable, fold-out Feline Divination Board included with the book will allow you to take your arcane partnership to the next level.

Cats are mysterious, and in Megan Lynn Knott’s book, Pawmistry, they are mystical and magical, too. By using the methods in this book, you and your cat may be able to unlock the secrets of the universe…if your cat so chooses.

There are sections for divining and scrying via toys, toe beans/paws, leftover food, and, ew, scat. I personally think that section should come with a toxoplasmosis warning, and I don’t know that there’s a secret, short of unified field theory, that I want to know that badly.

The watercolor illustrations are beautiful, and add to the whimsy of the subject matter. I especially liked the flowchart that will help you find a mystical cat. Again, no promises that the cat will be cooperative.

I felt some of the methods were a little silly, and, in the case of the litter box scrying, possibly unhealthy. Much of the content was material found in many other places that have general information about cats, but it’s nice to have it organized in one place, and again, the illustrations make this book worth a look. 

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: Beyond the Sea: A Wren at War by Christian Lamb

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Mardle Books
Publication Date: August 19th, 2021
Pages: 240, paperback
Source: NetGalley

Christian Lamb is one of the last surviving Wren Officers to have served throughout the Second World War, from Blitz ravaged London, to the important Radar and Operations rooms and undertaking a vital role in D Day.

Escaping both the Spanish Flu pandemic when she was born and the pandemic we are emerging from today, she has reached the impressive age of 101. Now she leads us through the story of her extraordinary life and the wartime experiences of her fellow Wrens.

I’m a big fan of WWII memoirs, especially those written by those on the homefront. Christian Lamb’s I Only Joined for the Hat has been on my TBR list for a while, so I was excited to see her new book, Beyond the Sea: A Wren at War.

I’m not sure how, or even if, Beyond the Sea differs from her previous memoir about her time in the Wrens during WWII. I expected Beyond the Sea to contain Lamb’s thoughts and experiences, but there are vignettes from other Wrens sprinkled throughout the book. That’s not a bad thing, but I thought the focus was to be on Lamb herself, and the book to be more autobiographical, given the A Wren at War subtitle.

Lamb takes us through her early life through her post-WWII experiences as a military wife, and even a peek into her life today. Born during the 1918 pandemic, she contrasts that with the current pandemic. She provides her perspective into the causes which led to WWII, and how she and women from all classes felt they had to “do their bit.” There are some stories about culture shock when encountering those from other areas, and apparently, at one billet, the Wrens were bad enough that she asked to be transferred. That, plus some name-dropping of her Wren associate who became a duchess smacked a little of classism, but I could be misinterpreting it. She also talks about how some of the Wrens were not as clean as others, and had body odor.

A surprising amount of the book is about her ante- and post-bellum life, which was also interesting, but I think the book would have been improved by focusing on Lamb herself, and her experiences during the war, rather than bringing in letters from her friends.