In the Hall with the Knife

It’s YA Clue! The End.

For some reason my editor didn’t think my first draft review of this book (see above) was long enough. So I’m going to take another stab at reviewing In the Hall with the Knife by Diana Peterfreund.

First, I want to take you back in time. No, we won’t need a DeLorean but we will need Christopher Lloyd.

I wouldn’t discover this for another five years, but in 1985 a totally bonkers film based on a board game with an all-star cast was getting mixed reviews. Critics didn’t understand at the time that they were witnessing cinematic gold; gold my family and I would watch repeatedly over the years to the point it became a family tradition.

I’m talking about the movie Clue. It takes the characters and layout from the board game and re-imagines it as a 1950s-era dinner party-turned-murder mystery. Thrills, chills, puns, and innuendo are all served up on a platter of physical comedy. While this might not sound amazing to you, it captured my heart and mind in a way that no other media has ever been able to do.

Author Diana Peterfreund had a similar backstory and relationship with the film. She gives a great shout-out in the book’s acknowledgements:

Finally, my eternal devotion to anyone even marginally involved with the beloved 1985 classic movie, as well as my parents, who thought nothing of letting us bring along our battered VHS tape of Clue on every road trip growing up. I could know a foreign language: instead I know that movie’s script by heart.

Same, girl. Same.

If you have a similar love for the film, you will appreciate the 5-6 subtle references I spotted in the text of In the Hall with the Knife. But rest assured that no knowledge of the film is required in order to enjoy what I’ve told friends is “a delightful murderous romp through a flooded and frozen Maine boarding school campus.”

Scarlet, Mustard, Green, Peacock, Plum, and Orchid are students at Blackbrook Academy, an elite, secluded boarding school in the wilds of Maine. It’s winter break and they are among the handful of students unlucky enough to be on campus when the storm of the century strikes. Flooding has wiped out the bridge to the mainland, making escape impossible. Flooding has also systematically invaded most of the buildings on campus until there’s only one place left for everyone to try to survive until help arrives: Tudor House.

Tudor House was once a home for wayward girls or some such nonsense. It housed teenage girls who somehow didn’t fit the norms established by society; in some cases they were accused of crimes and sent to Tudor House to be “reformed.” When Blackbrook went co-ed, they acquired Tudor House to serve as the first girls’ dormitory. For decades Mrs. White has served as Tudor House’s proctor and chaperone.

When it becomes clear that help isn’t coming, or is at least a ways off, the group of students, Mrs. White, Headmaster Boddy, and the school’s caretaker work to weather-proof the old mansion as much as possible while keeping spirits up and learning to get along.

But just as secrets are shared and trust is starting to form tentative bonds, tragedy strikes: Headmaster Boddy is found dead. At first most people try to convince themselves it was a suicide: he must have stabbed himself to death. The school’s caretaker leaves to get help, but Green is the only one who sees the absurdity of ruling his death a suicide and tries to convince the others that it’s definitely murder and the police are needed more urgently than ever.

Who murdered Headmaster Boddy? Was it Beth “Peacock” Picah, Orchid McKee, Vaughn Green, Sam “Mustard” Maestor, Finn Plum, or Scarlet Mistry? All we know for certain is he was killed in the hall, with the knife.

Trapped in a rambling old mansion with a sordid history (and wait–is that a secret passage?) during a brutal winter storm, will anyone survive to tell the police whodunnit?

Read Your Fruits and Veggies

If you’re following along with our annual reading challenge, you’ve likely discovered that so far the challenges each month have been relatively straightforward: read a book by Sy Montgomery, read a poetry book, etc.

This month’s challenge, read a book with a vegetable or fruit in the title, is a little harder to achieve. Yes, you could go straight to the cookbooks, but I’m here to offer up a relative cornucopia of novels that will satisfy both the criteria and your book cravings. Just click any book cover that looks good! You’ll be taken to the catalog record where you can read a summary and place a hold.

 

   

So don’t wait–gobble these up while you can! And don’t forget to enter the monthly contest. Simply post a picture of your book on Instagram, Twitter, and/or Facebook with the hashtag #everettreads for your chance to win a $25 Amazon gift card from the Friends of the Everett Public Library. Be sure to make the post public so we can see it. Easy peas-y.

The Best Books I Read in 2018

2018 brought a lot of heartache and stress.

I probably shouldn’t start this post out that way, but looking back it’s been an exhausting year for me. I sold my house, bought a new one, dealt with the movers using a broken toilet and overflowing the house we no longer owned (yes, really), packed and unpacked an insane amount of boxes stacked Tetris-style in a storage unit, spent months figuring out what plants I had in my new yard and how to not kill them, hosted visits from Midwestern family loves, and had to say goodbye to the sweetest cat ever.

It’s been barely controlled chaos. And that’s not even looking outward at our divided country and other political and social nightmares popping up on a daily basis.

However.

2018 also brought a deluge of amazing books. While society is one large dumpster fire and I still have a ton of stuff to check off my never-ending to-do list, giving up sleep in favor of reading means that I got to read more this year than I expected. So without further ado here are just a few of the best books I read this year.

Pride : a Pride and Prejudice Remix by Ibi Zoboi
This is the modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice I had been waiting for! I read this in one sitting and want to go back and read it again–which is so rare for me I can’t even. Our setting is modern-day Bushwick, Brooklyn. Our Bennet family is actually the Benitez family, Afro-Latino and close-knit. Our Darcys are still the Darcys, but these Darcys buy the entire building across the street from the Benitez’s building and renovate it into one luxurious home for just the four of them. To Zuri Benitez the Darcys–and especially their arrogant son Darius–embody the gentrification that is rapidly changing her neighborhood and pricing out families who have lived there for generations. But Zuri’s older sister Janae is crushing hard on Darius’s older brother Ainsley, and thus Zuri is reluctantly drawn into Darius’s universe, even as her place in both Bushwick and the world (hello, college applications!) shifts. Pride is filled with emotion and possibility, and the characters speak like real teens, not like the stuffy ideal aristocracy in the original P&P. I am one of the few who didn’t like the original, so Pride really spoke to me and has become an instant classic.

We Are Not Yet Equal : Understanding the Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson’s groundbreaking White Rage has been adapted for teens, and I’m here to tell you this book is for literally everyone. Anderson reframes the conversation about race with a straightforward and accessible voice. Her chronology begins at the end of the Civil War and follows through to the turmoil we face today. Anderson focuses on the systemic and sadly legal ways American society has suppressed progress for African-Americans. Racism is a horrible problem we still face today, but by learning from the past–and present–there can be hope for change in the future. There are historic photos and added resources for further reading and reflection. Hand this book to your relative who thinks everyone was made equal with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and doesn’t understand why we definitely still need activists and movements like Black Lives Matter.

(Don’t) Call Me Crazy : 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health edited by Kelly Jensen
I’ve been steadily diversifying my TBR, adding in authors of color and LGBTQIA authors, generally absorbing life experiences that are different from my own as a way to expand empathy and understanding of more people. I haven’t been so great about seeking out books explaining mental health and how mental health challenges can look different to each individual. Kelly Jensen–former librarian, current Book Riot editor, and all-around book champion–has assembled a diverse and absorbing introduction to this extremely important and under-represented demographic. Each essay is from a different perspective but straightforward and descriptive, helping the reader see through each author’s eyes. What’s it like to be called crazy? And how can we start having real and true conversations about mental health when such stigma is attached? This book answers those questions and so much more.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
At a secluded house party, Evelyn Hardcastle will die. She’ll die every night at 11pm until Aiden Bishop can determine who her killer is and break the cycle. However, each day he wakes up in the body of a different party guest, with no way to predict which body he’ll inhabit next. As he lives each day and learns more about Evelyn, Aiden becomes determined to not only unmask the killer, but he intends to prevent her death entirely. This is the perfect mystery for readers who think they’re pretty good at predicting twists and figuring out whodunnit. Seriously, it’s just…not what you’re expecting, even if you (accurately) expect a murder mystery that answers the question: What would happen if Agatha Christie wrote a mash-up of Groundhog Day and Quantum Leap? Don’t let the number of pages fool you. You’ll stay up late and cancel plans to finish reading this book.


Darius the Great is Not Okay
by Adib Khorram, There There by Tommy Orange, and Vox by Christina Dalcher
These books were fantastic and at the tippy-top of the favorites pile for me. I won’t go into detail here because Jesse and I have already written in-depth reviews about each. Go check them out and thank us later.

Darius the Great is Not Okay, aka Star Trek, Soccer, and Ancient Persian Kings
There There, aka The Best Book I’ll Read This Year
Vox, aka 900 Words About Vox

Well, that’s all for me. As we wave goodbye to another year of fantastic reading, I can’t help but wonder what 2019 will bring us. Drop a comment below with titles you’re looking forward to reading and when they’ll be published. Because if this year taught me anything it’s this: my TBR cannot be too big, and reading when I’m stressed is the best thing for my soul.

The Nerdiest Murder Mystery Ever

What do you think of when you read the words Comic Con? Do you think of ECCC, the Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle? Do you think of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, or Star Wars? Indie comics artists, fandom cosplay, and merch galore? How about murder? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

A result of a power partnership between two veteran comics geniuses (writer Fred Van Lente and illustrator Tom FowlerThe Con Artist is more than just a hilarious mystery where a slightly washed-up comics artist is blamed for the death of his bitter rival. The whole book is set up to mimic a written police statement, recounting day by day and hour by hour what exactly happened at Comic Con. Here’s the opening note:

Due to ongoing litigation, many names of the companies, trademarked characters, and real people in the statement of Michael “Mike M” Mason have been changed upon the advice of the publisher’s counsel. However, none of the artwork has been altered in any way; it has been reproduced exactly as it was found in the sketchbook confiscated by the San Diego Police Department.

So let me tell you more about Mike. He had some limited success years ago as a comics illustrator, but is mostly known for his run on Mister Mystery, a popular long-running comics series owned by one of the industry’s most lucrative publishers. In the last few years, he’s become essentially homeless. He flies from convention to convention often giving up some or all of his appearance fee in exchange for a longer hotel stay. He’s running away from permanence, from the possibility that he’s now a has-been and he doesn’t know how to enter the next phase of his life. He’s also running away from a breakup and betrayal that did a tap dance on his confidence and smashed his heart into a tiny million pieces.

But back to the con! After arriving at the airport in San Diego, Mike is immediately swept into the madness that is the world’s biggest and most well-known comic convention: SDCC. It’s not long before he eases back into the norm of con life, the signings and parties, only to be slapped with the news that his comics mentor has died. Everyone thinks it was natural causes, but Mike starts to wonder if maybe someone got to his mentor before he could secure the intellectual property rights to one of his biggest creations.

To make matters worse, Mike’s mortal enemy is also at Comic Con. And who’s on his arm? None other than the ex-love of his life, the one who betrayed him and tossed his life into chaos. Mike tries to keep his cool, but after a well-publicized fight at an after hours Comic Con party, his rival winds up dead and Mike’s the San Diego PD’s prime suspect.

Mike knows he didn’t murder anyone, but he has to convince the police that he’s innocent. He starts his own investigation knowing that serving up the real killer on a silver platter is the only way to completely remove suspicion from himself. But then other people start turning up dead and it becomes a race the clock for Mike. Not only does this need to be wrapped up before the end of the con, but the killer just might decide to kill Mike next.

It’s important to note that both the author and illustrator are seasoned comics veterans and that really shines through the pages. I’ve only been to one big comic con (ECCC, big but not nearly as big as SDCC I know) but I relived some of my experiences (lines! getting to meet rad artists in Artists’ Alley! awesome cosplayers!) while reading this book.

In getting the con experience right, and in highlighting the details that only the people on the other side of the table (comics professionals) would experience, the author holds up con culture, nerd culture, and the entire comics industry for scrutiny. Pay attention to the social commentary, especially surrounding the darker side of comics where artists’ original intellectual properties often become absorbed by mega publishers and where no health care is to be found for these artists and writers who brought so much joy to children and adults through their staple-bound pages.

The text is lightly peppered with sketches from the main character’s notebook and I figured there would probably be clues in them that the reader should try to interpret to determine whodunit. Mike occasionally recalls a clue from one of his sketches, but once or twice he recalled details I could not discern from the sketches I saw. It helped prolong the unmasking of the killer’s identity for me, which added to the suspense.

Thanks to our book vendor for sending us an early copy from the publisher, I was reading this book while in line at Everett Comics for Free Comic Book Day back in May. If that’s not meta I don’t know what is. Nerds, read this book and rejoice!

Who is Vera Kelly?

Student, activist…spy? Who is Vera Kelly? is a spy novel by Rosalie Knecht published earlier this week by Tin House Books. It’s also a question I asked myself many times while reading this engrossing novel of intrigue and identity. What Vera Kelly is not is your typical school girl, and she’s definitely not your typical spy.

1966 is a dangerous time to be living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For those of you who may have forgotten your world history, events in the summer of 1966 sparked the Argentine Revolution that overthrew the government and began a long period of dictatorship. Up until 1966 Vera was supplementing her low-wage radio station job doing occasional weekend surveillance jobs for the CIA, but the Buenos Aires job would be quite different. I’ll let Vera explain herself:

My handler pitched it to me in January 1966, in a diner where he liked to meet on East Fifty-Second Street. The Argentine president was weak, there could be a coup anytime, and KGB activity had picked up in Buenos Aires. I would have to do infiltration work as well as surveillance. I would be gone indefinitely, months or a year, and I would have to quit my job. For this they would pay me thirty-five thousand dollars.

You math nerds and currency freaks will realize how much thirty-five thousand dollars was in 1966, but I’ll spell it out so the rest of us can understand. According to one inflation calculator I consulted, that would be over $270,000 in today’s dollars. For someone scraping by at $38/per week at her day job (about $259 in today’s dollars) it was kind of a no-brainer financially for Vera to accept the job.

But even more than the money, Vera has found a sense of accomplishment in her work with the CIA. The satisfaction of a job well done in service to her country is what helps make the rest of her lonely existence worth getting up for every morning. I say lonely because Vera is a closeted lesbian and in the 1960s it wasn’t impossible to find female companionship in New York City, but doing so could possibly jeopardize her security clearance. This is a sad way of telling you that Vera suppressed a lot of her identity in service to her country, but she wasn’t always so noble.

The chapters alternate between Vera’s present-day espionage and her formative years growing up in Chevy Chase, MD. Vera’s battles with undiagnosed depression eventually led to a suicide attempt. This is revealed in the very first paragraphs of the book (you’ll get no spoilers from me, but do consider this a trigger warning for a suicide attempt right at the top of the story). Vera’s recovery shut her off even more from a world that didn’t understand her, and would eventually lead to heartbreak and a brush with the law. That sounds very depressing, and it is! But it does steer her down a winding path to the CIA and her life of adventure.

Vera spends much of her time surrounded by other people, and though it’s the nature of the job as a spy to lie to people and not trust what she’s told in return, Vera is essentially a woman alone. It’s hard to make friends when you’re a spy and it’s even harder to find romance or even simple physical companionship when you don’t fit into society’s prescribed heteronormative expectations and ideals.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give more of a taste of the espionage portion of the plot because if this book’s plot were a pepperoni pizza, the spy parts are the cheese and the character development is the pepperoni. It’s got a good sprinkling of character development, but every bite is covered in the cheese of espionage.

The best books make me scattered in my retellings. Just take my awkward pizza metaphor as the gold star this book deserves!

Once the coup in Argentina begins, Vera’s plans go up in smoke and she’s forced to improvise in order to escape the police state and survive. This is where Vera surprises both the reader and herself as she depends entirely on her instincts and cunning to get herself home.

There are secrets, betrayals, weapons, and kisses. This is a book that really does have it all.

I’m not usually a fan of character-driven literature, but apparently if you throw in an engrossing spy plot and some witty dialogue I will fall at your feet in worship. My girl Amy Stewart blurbed this book as “The twisty, literary, woman-driven spy novel you’ve always wanted to read. Dazzling.” And of course she’s right. Vera Kelly is 100% the spy I’ve always wanted. Thank you, Rosalie Knecht, for bringing her into my life.

Now please, please, PLEASE tell me this will be a series?! Because like all great literary characters, after meeting Vera Kelly I’m not ready to say goodbye.

Warlock Holmes: A Study in Brimstone

warlock holmes a study in brimstone by denning

Oh em gee, this cover is gorgeous! Here’s another straight-up book review all thanks to the power of advance reader copies from our publishers. Thanks, publishers!

Let me just start this review by saying that Warlock Holmes: a Study in Brimstone by G.S. Denning is one of those books that Sherlockians will either love or hate. Spoiler alert: I completely loved it!

Our story begins in a way that will seem familiar to most Sherlock fans: Watson is back in London after being injured during the war in Afghanistan and is desperate to find a place to live. Through a chance meeting with one of his old connections he learns about a man who needs a roommate. His name is Warlock Holmes and he is a consulting detective who sometimes works with Scotland Yard. Thus the literary world is gifted with another first meeting of Watson and Holmes.

Things start out pretty normal for Dr. John Watson. He feels lucky to have landed a roommate who only asks for a one-time payment of just one sovereign for the rent. Things get even better for Watson when Holmes chooses the smaller of the two bedrooms as his own. So now we have a war veteran staying with a successful, if eccentric, consulting detective. Their companionship slowly evolves into a friendship, but even so, Watson is initially clueless as to what he’s gotten himself into by handing over that sovereign.

From the beginning though, it’s clear to the reader that this Holmes is unlike any other Holmes we’ve met before. It’s not just the fact that his name is Warlock and we highly suspect (especially after reading the blurb on the book cover) that magic flows through this Holmes. It’s more like we’re realizing for the first time in literary history that Watson is the one well-versed in deductive reasoning and investigative expertise, especially when it comes to handling evidence correctly at a crime scene. Holmes, on the other hand, seems a bit…distracted. Easily distracted by things that Watson cannot or will not notice, things that seem to have very little if anything to do with the crime being investigated.

Soon enough Watson discovers Holmes’s not-so-well-kept secret: he’s got the magic touch. The spirit of Holmes’s nemesis, Moriarty, is trapped inside his head. And Holmes can command demons to do his bidding. This would normally be a shocking scandal worthy of the penny dreadfuls, but in this Victorian society there are certain creatures that, though not embraced by society, live among them. For example, here’s our cast of characters:

warlock holmes character blurb

Yup! Inspector Lestrade is a vampire, aided by an ogre. Most of Scotland Yard is uncomfortable around Lestrade and Grogsson, if not downright terrified of them. But their record for closing cases (with Holmes’s help, of course) keeps them on the payroll despite others’ misgivings.

I’m laying all this out there to illustrate a point. While this could easily be some weird standalone parody of one of the most famous friendships in literary history, it is instead a faithful retelling of Sherlock Holmes–just a little twisted. And sometimes smoking. Because, ya know, brimstone and stuff.

True to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original format, Warlock Holmes: a Study in Brimstone is composed of several short stories. The first is the longest by far, but it kind of needs to be since it’s setting up the world and the characters. Despite the length, that story flew by for me, as did the others. I actually pouted when I was finished, and was a little bummed out to leave that world behind. Luckily for me this is just the first book in what I hope is a very long series, with Warlock Holmes: the Battle of Baskerville Hall  heading our way in May 2017.

So take a chance on something new! Let me know if you want to read this or not, and definitely get back to me if you end up actually reading the whole thing. I am desperate for people to talk to about this book that will be published May 17th.

Noir Around the World

I’ve never been very fond of puzzles. Slowly deducing how to put something together, or take it apart, has always seemed deathly dull to me. Of course this could be due to the fact that I suck at it and am easily frustrated. My eventual answer to the Rubik’s cube was a large hammer and I’m a big fan of Alexander the Great’s Gordian knot solution.

Because of this fact, you wouldn’t think I’d be a very good candidate for becoming a mystery reader.  But I’ve actually come to enjoy mysteries… of a certain type.  After lots of trial and error, I’ve learned that the two things I really like about certain titles in the mystery genre are their strong sense of place and, for lack of a better term, a general dark tone.

Imagine my delight when I came across a new series of books published by Europa editions titled World Noir. This unique ongoing series highlights international crime fiction and features many titles that have been published for the first time in English, a great help to the language challenged such as myself. I’ve come to think of these books as cultural travel guides, albeit with a body count. Here are three of my favorite locales so far.

summertimeDestination:  Perpignan
Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored by Philippe Georget

This city on the French Mediterranean shore is gearing up for the summer influx of tourists, when a murder in a nearby town and then a kidnapping in Perpignan break the vacation atmosphere. Both victims are Dutch. Is there a connection? Perhaps. Either way police detective Gilles Sebag is tasked with getting to the bottom of the situation.

The setting for this novel is unique, with Perpignan being a few miles from the border with Spain and having a mixed Catalan culture. In addition Sebag is an intriguing character, a world-weary family man who stumbles through the investigation in a pleasingly existential, but not necessarily despairing, way. If you read this novel you will start feeling the overbearing heat of the Mediterranean sun and begin looking up unfamiliar terms like Pastis.

midnightpromiseDestination:  Melbourne
The Midnight Promise by Zane Lovitt

It doesn’t get any more hardboiled than this series of ten cases involving “private inquiry agent” John Dorn set in the southern Australian city of Melbourne. Each case is unique but they have a cumulative effect, slowly revealing why Dorn is such a troubled soul. The author likes to play around with the temporal to great effect and the main character has an intriguing weakness for a gumshoe: he actually cares at times.

Lovett’s Melbourne is a great setting, being at once familiar and unique. Moneyed interests battle for supremacy as the underclass struggles to survive and an often corrupt police force tries to keep the lid on things. As a side benefit, the lead character’s massive alcohol consumption will make those of us who imbibe feel better about our lesser drinking rates.

thecrocodileDestination:  Naples
The Crocodile by Maurizio De Giovanni

Inspector Giuseppe Lojacono, disgraced due to false accusations of bribery in his native Palermo, has been transferred to a dead-end position in the Naples police force where he splits his time between playing computer poker and visiting the local trattoria. When a series of seemingly random shootings goes unsolved, he is drawn into the investigation by the prosecutor Laura Piras who recognizes his superior deductive skills.

This mystery is more of a “why did they do it” with the narrative being equally split between the perpetrator and the pursuers. The real star of the show though, is Naples: A city seemingly in a permanent state of decay and peopled by indifferent citizens, yet stunningly beautiful and magnetic none the less. Truly a perfect noir city.

If you like to discover new and vivid locales, and don’t mind a little darkness, these three books will take you there. Just don’t hold your breath for a happy ending.