Jimm Juree is on her way to becoming the top crime reporter at the Chiang Mai Daily Mail, even though her editor trims all of her novel-like detail into a laundry list of names, dates, and police PR statements. Then her mother, who seems to be getting more confused and vague by the day, makes an announcement: she's selling the family home and business to run a remote beach resort in southern Thailand. Jimm, her brother, and her grandfather follow her to the resort to help out, though it's more to keep an eye on her mom. Jimm is resigned to gutting fish for the resort's cafe (she taught herself with YouTube videos) when a local farmer finds a buried, rusted-out VW van containing two skeletons. This is followed by the brutal murder of a local Buddhist Abbot, which is covered up by cops from the capitol. She might not have to give her writing career up after all.
Why I picked it up: I wanted a soothing mystery to sink into, and pretty much every review compared the book to The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.
Why I finished it: It's bloodier than No. 1, but still has the richness of detail of daily life. Jimm is a firecracker: snarky, adventurous, and exasperated by life in the slow lane in her new, rural home. To top it off, she's stuck borrowing her mom's bike or bumming rides from her family or the police to get around. She joins forces with a cop who's been sent to work a dead end job in the sticks because he won't stay in the closet, and finds that her family has hidden mystery-solving skills, too.
It's perfect for: My mom, who loves characters who are well-drawn and just a little bit off. Jimm's mom makes her own ninja outfit, complete with medical face mask that she's colored black with marker, as part of a revenge plot. Her sister, a former transgender beauty queen, refuses to leave her apartment during the daytime because she's afraid her looks are fading. Her brother is a weightlifter who won't go all the way until he's truly in love. They start to see each other in a new light when everyone's lives are thrown into disarray by the big move.
A young, imprisoned safe cracker recounts his brief life of crime, how he fell in love, and the traumatic childhood experience that took away his ability to speak.
Why I picked it up: It had the Edgar Award Winner for Best Novel of the Year seal on the cover, there was a great shelf talker at Ravenna Third Place Books where I found it, and they had a cheap used copy available. Trifecta!
Why I finished it: The pacing of this book is brilliant. Chapters alternate between Michael’s life of crime and his life as a teen living with his uncle, who runs a liquor store in the bad part of town -- it’s one-half heists and one-half coming-of-age novel. After Michael shows off his talent for opening locks, he ends up in trouble with the law. This leads (in an unexpected way) to his career as a criminal, and sets the two narratives on a collision course, which increased the tension and had me reading frantically.
Readalikes: In addition to being an artist with locks, Michael also draws. In fact, the romance between him and the girl he falls for starts as a comic that they draw together. This reminded me of this comic that Dave Roman (Astronaut Academy, Teen Boat) and Raina Telgemeier (Smile, Sisters) drew together.
Coffeehouse manager Clare Cosi finally faces down the dreaded Quiz Master, a customer who comes in, grills her staff on obscure coffee drinks, then orders a double espresso. After she stumps him, he is beginning to make her a job offer when a car bomb goes off outside. Clare, who has some experience as an amateur investigator, wants to find out who killed internet magnate Eric Thorner’s chauffeur and almost put her out of business. While juggling suspects, Clare's busy with her own affairs, including a dissatisfying long-distance relationship, possessive business partner and ex-husband Matt, the estrangement between her daughter Joy and Joy's besotted boyfriend Manny, and the job Eric gave her, to hunt for the best and rarest of the world's coffees to roast as Billionaire's Blend. Eric, who's as adept at marketing as he is at computers, plans to use the coffee to get an invitation to attend a legendarily posh dining event, The Billionaire's Potluck, where he plans to market a new luxury goods commerce platform. Clare and Matt plan to leverage Eric's quest for the best and rarest of coffees into better lives for coffee producers, from family growers in Uganda to elephants in Thailand. And of course, there's still a bomb-building killer out there.
Why I picked it up: I'm a fan of the series. I've never been disappointed by the books’ mix of murderous and mundane concerns, or the warm descriptions of the flavors and aromas of various coffees.
Why I finished it: I came for the crime and coffee, but I stayed for the hilarious situations. Clare bribes bomb squad cops with homemade spiked fudge, daringly attends a swanky dinner in a vintage Chanel dress so old she needs to make a seam check mid-meal, and has to fend off not one but two amorous billionaires. She also has to straighten out her relationship with long-term, long distance boyfriend Mike. In conjunction with her ex-husband Matt she even plays Cupid, making sure one of those amorous billionaires spends some quality time with the perfect girl. The coffee glossary and recipes at the end of the book are grace notes. For new readers, there’s enough background to inform them about the characters without overwhelming long-time fans.
Readalikes: Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout is one of the earliest of foodie mysteries, and like Billionaire Blend addresses a wider range of concerns than a few crimes and food. In Cooks case it's civil rights.
Lyric comes from a mixed family. They live in fear that people will discover that her mother is an Alpha, a member of the ocean-dwelling race that came to the shores of Coney Island three years ago. Their presence has caused quite a bit of controversy because xenophobes believe they were spawned by the devil. The governor is stirring up haters with populist rhetoric about the land being for humans and the ocean for fish. Cooler heads have decided that the Alpha should be integrated into human schools. Lyric is assigned to help Fathom, the heir of the Alpha's leader, transition into life among the humans. This puts her in the middle of the disagreement over how the Alpha should be handled, and leaves her struggling with growing romantic feelings for him. As groups claim that the "fishheads" need to go back into the ocean, Fathom’s and Lyric’s feelings for each other deepen. Then the real bombshell drops: the powerful race of marine dwellers which chased the Alpha out of the their home is on its way to finish them off.
Why I finished it: It didn't involve lovelorn mermaids. The Alpha are more likely to rip your face off than make you swoon. Some have fins or bony plates, others have tentacles or tails. Others appear almost human, stoking people’s fears of spying and trickery. There are many different types, each with different powers and tendencies. (The Sons of Triton have retractable bones in their forearms -- these can be used to slice up their enemies. Ceto can shock enemies with jellyfish-like appendages. The Feige look human except for rows upon rows of shark-like teeth.) Lastly, there was a rich backstory, involving class-based politics among the Alpha, which brought about revolution and drove them to the surface.
It's perfect for: Alicia, who liked Rampant by Diana Peterfreund, about killer unicorns that drink the blood of their victims through their horns. She clearly enjoys seeing rote, innocent images turned on their heads, so I think she would like this reversal of the undersea wonderland image created by familiar movies like Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo.
In the summer before college, eighteen-year-old Daniel wants to spend as much time with his grandfather Darius as he can. Darius, or Da, suffers from dementia and Daniel desperately wants to enjoy the few lucid moments his grandfather has left. But when Da starts talking about people he eliminated and governments he messed with, former colleagues from the global agricultural firm where he was a "systems analyst” begin visiting more frequently to try to keep him quiet.
Fearing these men from his grandfather's past will lock him away, Daniel hits the road with his Da. Over the ensuing chaotic days, he discovers a lot about his Da and the values he has tried to instill in Daniel, especially something he calls a kill switch. “Once you flip your kill switch, you can do anything.”
Why I finished it: The unconditional love Daniel has for his Da as he tries to overcome his frustration and hopelessness at drifting in and out of reality was heartwrenching. The eclectic cast of characters that helps them, brought in by Daniel’s stoner cousin who always seems to know a guy who can help, kept things from getting too heavy.
Readalikes: Charlie Price’s Desert Angel, another story about a teen on the run with minimal resources and no definite plan. In that book, after finding her mother murdered, Angel flees into the desert with an expert tracker in pursuit.
A collection of short comics stories that are, on the whole, a bit melancholy.
Why I picked it up: The cover’s colors and the title made it look really cheerful. (I didn’t notice the man falling through the air and a woman holding her face, weeping. I’m not very observant.)
Why I finished it: There’s a moment early in the first story, “In Our Eden,” that made me laugh. Adam and Eve have embraced after Adam’s hunting trip, and members of their community are gathered around a fire. Something’s not what it appears to be, because why else would there be Butterfingers and M&Ms in the grass? When an argument erupts, it becomes completely clear that these folks are trying (and failing) to evade the modern world. One of the Adams talks about Utopia and the other tries to set him straight: “Your name is Darryl and you’re the ex-manager of a Bass Pro Shop in Tampa!” I started giggling.
As I continued into the book, I realized I’d read and really enjoyed the third story in the collection as a mini comic or in an anthology somewhere. “Nita Goes Home” is a quiet science fiction story set in a polluted world about a young artist who lives beneath a dome going home to visit her sick father. The bright colors work really well as a contrast to the sad mood of the story. At that point I was really enjoying the work, but I was reading for the color. “Seven Sacks” is my favorite story in the book -- it has an orangey brownness that adds to the strangeness of the creatures who need to be ferried across the river.
Readalikes: Many of the black and white comics in the collection reminded me of Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant. Davis’s lines (while more precise than Beaton's) somehow convey the same energy and freedom to draw anything that Beaton’s do, whether Davis is drawing a fox being skinned or a group of naked people climbing into a huge bag from the Netherlands.