Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Genre: mystery
Format read: audiobook
Positive Rep: POC (multiple)
Rating: planchet-5

Our main character in this one, Clay, made a mistake I am all too familiar with: getting an art degree during an economic downturn.

After the startup he worked for goes bust, Clay is left wandering the streets of San Francisco, trying to find a new job. More of out curiosity than anything else, he wanders into Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore with it’s help wanted sign in the window, and discovers a charming but dusty shop run by a thin old man. Though it’s not as prestigious as what he’d been hoping for, Clay sees potential in the bookstore, and accepts the job offer.

It’s clear from the first night that there’s something strange about this bookstore. For starters, there are almost no customers. The inventory is sporadic, and the computer is as old as he is.

But what customers do show up are more than a little strange. They hardly seem aware of the world around them, and most of them have special membership cards that allow them to take books as they please and then return them–as though they came from a lending library, and not a bookstore!

But it’s not until Clay opens one of the mysterious books from the back of the store that he realizes just how strange Mr. Penumbra’s is: All of the books his mysterious clients ask for night after night are in code.

The discovery of the code sends Clay on a mission to not only crack it, but to find the secret of the book store. Together with a computer expert, a prop  designer, and his wealthy best friend, he assembles a team that uncovers a secret society dating back hundreds of years.

I thought this book would be something quiet and relaxing to listen to on a night I was plagued by insomnia.

Boy, was I wrong.

While it starts off a little quieter, Robin Sloan weaves an exciting mystery with a surprisingly simple resolution (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you). A quick read, I blew through the audio in about two days, and was utterly hooked almost from chapter one. Even when I wasn’t able to listen, I was thinking about the book and trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle.

If you are a fan of books, or of ways books and technology work together, than this is definitely a book you should read.

In fact, you should just read it full stop.

Osgood as Gone by Cooper S. Beckett

Genre: mystery
Secondary genre: paranormal
Series: The Spectral Inspector vol 1
Format read: ebook
Content warnings: alcohol and RX abuse
Positive rep: LGBTQIA, polyamory, POC (SE Asian)
Rating: planchet-3

I received an ARC of this book in exchanged for an honest review.

Prudence Osgood has had it rough. A car accident left her with chronic back pain and debilitating headaches. Her ambition and willingness to please her old boss destroyed her hopes of having her own ghost-hunting television show–not to mention her relationship with her co-host and then girlfriend. To top it off, her polyamorous relationship with a married couple has hit a wall, leaving her shut out.

All this to say that most of her time is spent laying on the floor in varying states of not-sober, while her podcast, the Spectral Inspector, languishes in the bowels of the internet.

That all changes with a mysterious text message. After enlisting her tech-expert best friend, she tries to track down the unknown sender and decipher the cryptic message.

What she finds sends her on a mythical quest into ’90s rock music, a series of missing persons cases, and a reunion with Catherine Frost, her former co-host and ex. They’ll have to put aside their differences if they want to bring the missing home–including Catherine’s sister. Or stop the end of the world.

This book starts out as a hard-boiled detective novel, then delves into 90s nostalgia, music fandom, and finally takes a sharp left into Cthullhu-esque mythos.

I enjoyed all aspects of this book, though I do wish the supernatural had been sprinkled throughout the book, rather than just exploding at the end. It’s hinted at through Osgood’s dreams, but when I picked up the book I was expecting more of a ghost story than an end-of-the-world, old gods bent on destruction kind of story.

Still, I really loved the layering of the clues though music and hidden messages, and the chemistry and tension between the characters. If you’re looking for an indie book in the vein of Meddling Kids, then this is a good one to pick up.

The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka

Genre: Mystery
Format read: hard copy
Content warnings: alcohol abuse, implied child abuse, sexual assault (off page)
Positive rep: LGBTQIA, addiction recovery
Rating: planchet-4

***This review contains minor spoilers***

Roxane Weary, PI, has always had a contentious relationship with her father.

It might be even worse, now that he’s dead.

Frank Weary was a stubborn, work-a-holic alcoholic detective, and his daughter is no different. To top it off, Roxane is still trying to cope (or possibly avoid) the fact that her father was killed suddenly in the line of duty six months earlier.

Scraping along rock bottom and still denying she has a problem, Roxane’s newest case lands on her desk courtesy of her condescending older brother. She takes it mostly to get him off her back–and also to make sure she can keep a roof over hear head and whiskey in her glass for another month or so.

There’s just one problem: Her new client, Danielle, wants to find someone who’s practically a ghost. Someone who has been missing for years–and the only person who can get her brother off death row before his execution in two months.

Reluctantly, Roxane agrees to make some initial inquiries. The case against Danielle’s brother Brad seems questionable. Accused of killing his girlfriend’s parents while in high school, his girlfriend, Sarah, has never been found. Unfortunately, the knife that did the deed was in his car, for reasons he can’t explain.

While Sarah remains elusive, it quickly becomes clear that something is up with the local cops, who question Roxane every time she shows up in town to work, threatening her with arrest if she doesn’t leave.

That in itself is enough to make suborn, contrary Roxane dig in her heels.

Her investigation turns up a string of similar crimes, including one her father was the lead detective on.

The revelation sends Roxane into a passionate downward spiral, clouding her judgement. But the clock isn’t just ticking for Brad–when another girl goes missing, Roxane only has a matter of hours to solve the case before another teenage girl ends up dead.

With an alcoholic in my own family, this book was difficult for me to read in places. But despite her flaws, Roxane has many redeeming qualities, my favorite one being her relationship with Shelby, the daughter of one of the earlier victims. Shelby has an obvious but silent crush on her best friend, which bisexual Roxane can relate to. She provides a willing ear and a big-sister type role for the teen. I really hope Shelby shows up in later books.

My one complaint with this book is that some of the physical descriptions of characters were lacking, so it was occasionally difficult to keep some of them straight, or know who would be familiar with what based on their age. This meant that for me, the culprit came out of nowhere, but a better description might have put him on my suspect list sooner.

This book was full of twists that still felt completely natural, and I am really looking forward to reading the second book in the series.

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

Genre: Horror
Secondary genre: Mystery/comedy
Format read: audio
Content warnings: mental health including mentions of suicide, disturbing imagery
Positive rep: POC (Hispanic and Native American), LGBTQIA, mental health*
Rating: planchet-5

This book has been on my radar since it came out, but while it made an initial splash, I feel like it was largely unnoticed by readers. That’s a shame, because it was my first 5 star book of 2019.

13 years ago, Andy, Nate, Karri, and Paul were middle-school aged kids solving mysteries during summer vacation with Kari’s trusty pup. Aftering breaking up sheep smuggling rings, finding lost items, and uncovering sabotage, the quartet are faced with their toughest case yet: a so-called haunting at a mysterious abandoned mansion on Sleepy Lake.

While their child-selves managed to uncover the suspect–a man in a mask searching for hidden gold, who would have gotten away with it, too, if not for those meddling kids–the case has far reaching repercussions, and haunts them into adulthood.

Peter, the defacto leader and eldest of the group, goes on to become an actor, but takes his own life just as his career is taking off.

Kerri, the brain, has washed out of grad school and is tending bar. Handy, since she’s also an alcoholic trying to deal with terrifying nightmares.

Nate has been in and out of mental institutions since high school in an attempt to get control of his hallucinations–like seeing Peter’s ghost.

And Andy, wanted in at least two states, with a dishonorable discharge from the air force and a few assaults under her belt, is trying and failing to get a handle on the episodes of blinding rage she’s been dealing with.

Sick of running from her demons, Andy decides it’s time to get the gang back together and face the monsters head on. It’s time to find out if the man in the mask was really the one pulling the strings, or–as they all once suspected–there’s something supernatural afoot in Sleepy Lake.

This book balances grit with goofy, horror with humor. At first, I wasn’t sure it was my kind of book, but I kept reading for the one liners. By chapter two or three, however, I was hooked.

While Andy seems to be the main focus of the book–most of the narration is centered around her–it’s Nate that really makes the story for me. A nerd to the core, he’s the one with the mythical knowledge that allows them to move forward with their investigation. I’m a sucker for characters that make me laugh, and Nate definitely does that.

A cross between Scooby Doo and H.P Lovecraft, it calls back to the ensemble mystery novels of the early-mid 1900s, with some fantastical horror thrown in and some early ’90s nostalgia to boot.

*The mental health content in this book involves depression and hallucinations and may be triggering for some readers