Heather Seggel

Not one, not two, but all three of the books in this month’s cozy column received starred reviews!

Mango, Mambo, and Murder

Miriam Quiñones-Smith has just relocated from New York City to tony Coral Shores in Miami. A former food anthropologist, she lands a gig teaching Caribbean cooking on a morning show and works to grow a social circle, but at her very first meeting of a women’s club, one of the attendees keels over. Mango, Mambo, and Murder has everything you look for in a cozy mystery but also feels like a breath of fresh air. Author Raquel V. Reyes fills this story with details that make it feel real, despite there being a character named Sunny Weatherman. Cuban American Miriam and her family, friends and co-workers are well-rounded personalities whom readers will be eager to learn more about. Miriam’s attempts to find a killer take her to strip malls filled with questionable folk healers and incredible restaurants serving Cuban American standards like ropa vieja and pollo a la plancha. Reyes incorporates Spanish into characters’ dialogue throughout, adding authenticity, while subtly providing context so that readers who aren’t Spanish speakers won’t miss a beat. Dig into this inviting, suspenseful feast for the senses.

★ The Man Who Died Twice

It’s impossible to single out any one feature that makes The Man Who Died Twice such an absolute treat. The plot is a crackling mystery: Septuagenarian retiree and amateur sleuth Elizabeth gets a coded message from someone in her past asking for help, as he’s stolen a lot of diamonds from some very angry people. When two people are killed, the hunt is on for the killers and the diamonds. English TV presenter and comedian Richard Osman creates real magic with his characters. They are frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious but also entirely real and three-dimensional. There’s also dogged police work, tradecraft most devious, a lot of cocaine and those diamonds. If possible, this sequel is even better than the Osman’s charmer of a debut, The Thursday Murder Club. This series is both a load of fun and an ode to how the power of friendship is important throughout one’s life but especially during the final stretch. Don’t miss it.

★ Seven-Year Witch

Seven-Year Witch finds Josie Way settling into life as a librarian in rural Wilfred, Oregon, and deepening her powers as a witch, thanks to letters left to her by her grandmother. The old mill in town is set to be turned into a lavish retreat center, but rumors that the site is cursed raise local hackles, especially when the disappearance of one of Wilfred’s inhabitants is followed by the discovery of a bloody weapon. Josie’s love interest, FBI agent Sam Wilfred, returns to town, but things between them are complicated by the news that he’s married with a baby. Author Angela M. Sanders uses the eerie atmosphere to great effect and also plays with the assumed charms of a small town. For example, the locals lose some of their warmth when there’s a killer in their midst. Josie’s witchcraft plays into solving the mystery, but the story feels realistic overall. Full of false leads and truly surprising reveals, this terrifically plotted mystery is hard to put down.

Not one, not two, but all three of the books in this month’s cozy column received starred reviews!

On June 1, 1921, a mob of white people descended on the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as “Black Wall Street.” They killed hundreds of Black residents and bombed, burned and otherwise laid waste to a neighborhood that spanned 35 blocks. In Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, author Brandy Colbert recounts this history for teen readers and shows how its echoes continue to reverberate today.

As she does in her middle grade and young adult fiction, including the Stonewall Award-winning Little & Lion, Colbert draws readers in with richly detailed settings, and she describes Greenwood with vibrant imagery. Its Black residents built their own economy from the ground up. They could not freely choose where to spend their money in the wider region, but as it recirculated within Greenwood, it created a booming business community. Colbert captures a sense of lively growth that makes the neighborhood’s eventual destruction hit home with visceral impact.

Poor white Tulsans' feelings of grievance and jealousy were factors that led to the massacre, and some local media outlets escalated tensions through false, inflammatory reporting. As the violence spread, the police and the National Guard aided white vigilantes by imprisoning Black residents in internment camps. A grand jury investigation later blamed Black men for inciting violence when they had actually been trying to stop it.

Colbert’s meticulous research holds the book together. Informative sidebars add vital context and will help readers make sense of an almost incomprehensible crime that was driven by white supremacy. A chilling postscript explores efforts to bury this history and the ongoing resistance to its revival. Black Birds in the Sky tells the truth about an event that every American should know about. It’s a horrifying account told with great care.

Black Birds in the Sky tells the truth about an event that every American should know about. It’s a horrifying account told with great care.

Elizabeth Bertelsen’s life is not sheltered—far from it, in fact. Growing up Mormon during the late 1870s means she is close to the land, to matters of life and death and to the complex dynamics of a polygamous household. But Elizabeth has quite literally set her sights on the stars; she hopes to become an astronomer at a time when women studying science is tantamount to witchcraft. Rosalyn Eves’ Beyond the Mapped Stars blends fiction and fact to create an adventure that doesn’t shy away from difficult topics.

It all hinges on a solar eclipse, the first that the Western states will experience in almost a hundred years. When Elizabeth finds herself close to the path of totality (the area on Earth where the moon will completely block the sun), she’s willing to make major sacrifices to be there to witness it. Chapters count down the days and then the hours to the eclipse, which keeps a sense of urgency bubbling as Elizabeth makes new friends and begins a tentative romance. A brother and sister whom she meets after a train robbery offer support as well as a chance for reflection; some of Elizabeth’s assumptions about them are based on the color of their skin, and she’s surprised to learn that their family makes assumptions about Mormons in a similar fashion.

Beyond the Mapped Stars offers a portrait of a diverse American West that’s filled with promise, but it does so with honesty about where and from whom much of that promise was stolen. If that seems like a modern flourish, Eves makes a strong case for its basis in historical fact in her author’s note, while also revealing a deeply personal dimension to the story.

The whole novel takes place amid a six-week journey by train, carriage and on horseback, during which Elizabeth finds her courage, makes mistakes and learns from them. It’s a thrill to travel alongside her. Faith, family, race and gender are the earthly concerns that draw her down from the clouds, but as Eves expertly incorporates them into Elizabeth’s life-changing summer, Beyond the Mapped Stars takes flight and soars.

Rosalyn Eves’ Beyond the Mapped Stars blends fiction and fact to create an adventure that doesn’t shy away from difficult topics.

Good company, beautiful scenery, false pretenses and uninvited guests make for nerve-rattling, riveting armchair travel in these two thrillers.

At the beginning of Kimberly McCreight’s Friends Like These, five friends reunite for a bachelor party in the Catskills. The sixth member of their group, Alice, died by suicide in college, and they’ve kept secrets about the events surrounding her death ever since. But the trip has a more serious purpose that’s yet another secret to keep: The group plans to hold an intervention to convince one of their number, Keith, to check into rehab.

But when the weekend is over, someone is missing, someone is dead and Julia Scutt, a local detective, is tasked with prying the truth from people so insulated by privilege, they’re shocked to find themselves affected by anything, let alone a tragedy of this caliber. And Julia has a tragedy in her own past that may be clouding her judgment.

The community where the party’s host, Jonathan, owns an opulent country house is in an economic slump, which results in a tense dynamic where “weekenders” like this group are both hated and needed. It can be hard at first to distinguish the individual members of the clique; the specifics of their relationships and connections could fill a wall chart with connecting strings. But their collective self-absorption makes it that much more satisfying when some comeuppance is finally distributed.

An intricate resolution involves performance art, the mafia, armchair detectives addicted to true crime podcasts and three big twists. (The third is a doozy.) As each character narrates their version of events, new pieces of information bring you closer to the truth . . . if only there weren’t so many lies mixed in. The false leads and big cast of characters make Friends Like These an entertaining puzzle. Take this book on your vacation and be glad you’re not on their vacation.

Getaway drops three women, two of them sisters, into the Grand Canyon for some adventurous hiking and unforeseen terror. Sisters Imogen and Beck have made the trip before with their family, but in the intervening years, Imogen suffered two major traumas that have turned her focus inward. Beck hopes the trip will restore her sister’s courage and also help mend Imogen’s rift with their mutual friend Tilda, a less experienced hiker who waits until they’re well into the hike to tell them as much. That would be bad enough, but soon all three women begin to have the sneaking suspicion that they are not alone on the trail.

Author Zoje Stage (Baby Teeth) gives this horror-tinged thriller emotional depth through a careful layering of big themes and tiny details. Stage has hiked the Grand Canyon herself, and her characters’ descriptions of the hike have an immersive, absorbing effect. The violence in this novel is truly frightening, more so because of how it contrasts with the beauty of the canyon’s vistas, sounds and silences.

Something as insignificant as a sliver of granola bar wrapper in an unexpected location can actually mean a great deal, but only if the people you’re traveling with and counting on listen to and believe you when you point it out. When there are three people in a challenging setting, two are almost always aligned while the third feels left out, and that can shut down communication and make it difficult to solve problems. Empathetic Imogen has the sense that she knows what’s really going on and how best to help, but there’s a chance her compassion is blinding her to how dire their situation really is. 

Getaway plays with shifting loyalties, old hurts and the potential for reconciliation in a way that’s emotionally affecting but never slows down the plot. A truly devilish thriller, it balances gut-twisting suspense with heartfelt connection. 

Good company, beautiful scenery, false pretenses and uninvited guests make for nerve-rattling, riveting armchair travel in these two thrillers.

You’d be forgiven for feeling a bit tired of the unreliable narrator, a character that is practically inescapable in the mystery and suspense genre. But even if you think you’re out, the slippery protagonists of these two thrillers will reel you right back in.

It’s natural to be wary of the main character in Rabbit Hole. Alice Armitage is currently enduring an extended stay in a psychiatric hospital and is very upfront about her PTSD, memory lapses and tendency toward misbehavior on the ward. But when a fellow patient is found dead, Alice’s training kicks into gear. Previously a police officer—or so she says—Alice launches an independent investigation of the crime, developing a theory of the case that’s both overly complicated and entirely plausible. When the suspect she’s laser-focused on is also killed, the tightening spiral of this story spins off its axis, taking Alice’s grasp of reality with it.

It’s an audacious move to open a story by essentially waving a red flag and pointing to the unreliability of the main character, but Alice is consistently intriguing, vacillating between lucid, analytical thinking and temper tantrums when she doesn’t get her way. Mark Billingham, author of the bestselling Tom Thorne mystery series, gives Alice a cocky confidence that Rabbit Hole peels away at every turn. One minute she’s wisecracking about her fellow patients and their diagnoses, certain they belong inside while she’s the voice of rationality. Then her father comes to visit, and the exchange is so crushingly awkward that her jokes fail to hide how serious her situation is.

Descriptions of the hospital and its residents are fairly bleak with lots of dark humor. Patients might be friends, but friendship can quickly turn antagonistic and even violent for any reason or none at all. What begins as the story of a maverick cop lands some distance from that premise, will leave you rethinking everything that was said and done along the way to the novel’s surprising and poignant ending.

After finishing Louise Candlish’s The Other Passenger, I patted myself down to be sure my wallet was still accounted for. This gorgeous, meticulous nail-biter is a smooth work of narrative criminality. Here are the basic facts: Jamie has just ridden the ferry to begin an average workday when two police officers stop him. His friend and fellow commuter Kit is missing, and Kit and Jamie were seen fighting the night before Kit’s disappearance. Jamie swears he knows nothing of Kit’s whereabouts, and from there things get very stressful very quickly.

Through a series of flashbacks, Jamie explains how he and his partner, Clare, and Kit and his wife, Melia, became close friends, a complex foursome full of hidden resentments and deep financial grievances. There’s extramarital sex and the potential for a payday that’s too big to resist. The heady feeling that comes with doing the wrong thing and getting away with it falls apart spectacularly when consequences come into play; the shame and regret feel like gut punches when they land.

Key to all this drama is Melia. Clare was the first to befriend her, only to later observe that a preference for being called “Me” might signal a hint of narcissism worth watching out for. False leads and feints recall The Usual Suspects and will keep the reader hyperalert, bordering on paranoid. Music figures into the story as a layer of commentary that also builds atmosphere: In a scene where Melia dances with a girlfriend, the lyrics of the Lana Del Rey song that’s playing add a sinister undertow. 

Candlish never lets the tension slacken as deep discussions of income disparity, aging, love and loss keep readers’ loyalties shifting between characters. There’s the potential for at least one character, perhaps more, to appear in another novel. It would be thrilling to see them again. The villains in The Other Passenger are never held at arm’s length. We care, even as their ordinary lives turn monstrous. 

Don’t trust—or turn your back on—these narrators.

A cab driver, a Regency widow and the owner of a milkshake emporium find their lives disrupted by murder most foul in this month’s cozy column.

Death of an Irish Mummy

Expat Megan Malone is back behind the wheel at Leprechaun Limos, this time driving a fellow Texan, Cherise, who thinks she’s heir to an ancient Irish earldom. Cherise is later found dead, just as her three squabbling daughters arrive in Dublin from the States to support their mother’s quest. Megan must find out what happened, partly because she was involved from the start, but also, in a truly hilarious touch, because her boss is beginning to think she’s cursed, given that dead bodies keep popping up around her, Megan must find out what happened. Catie Murphy’s Death of an Irish Mummy is a bright new installment in a consistently delightful series. Megan’s a staunch ally to her limo service co-workers, and when times are tough, it’s nice to see how people have her back in return. She’s slyly conscious of the fact that  drivers are viewed as “the help,” members of the invisible servant class with whom people will sometimes speak too freely, and she uses this to her advantage, accumulating useful information. Murphy balances grief and family secrets with a hunt for buried treasure, keeping things realistic even as the story flirts with the fantastical.

Pint of No Return

Trinidad Jones is determined to make a fresh start after getting divorced, and to avoid her ex-husband Gabe’s two other ex-wives and his protective sister. Fortunately, she received a storefront in rural Oregon in the breakup, and she moves in with plans to turn it into a homemade ice cream and milkshake emporium. When she finds a neighboring business owner dead and one of Gabe’s exes is charged with the crime, Trinidad must change her priorities and see justice done. Dana Mentink’s series starter, Pint of No Return, takes place in a neighborhood common to cozies: a nice town full of good people, if you don’t count all the lying, theft and murder. Noodles, Trinidad’s service-dog dropout who knows he should help but does so in adorably wrong ways, is likely to become a fan favorite.

Silence in the Library

Katharine Schellman’s Silence in the Library is a welcome return to the Regency world of recently widowed Lily Adler. She finds herself saddled with her ailing father as an unexpected houseguest, and he’s in such a foul temper that Lily must escape by visiting Lady Wyatt, who has married Sir Charles, an old family friend. It’s a shock when Sir Charles is found dead, and Bow Street constable Simon Page thinks the fall that caused his death was staged to appear like an accident. Soon enough, Simon and Lily are working in tandem to find the truth. The mystery is complicated by Arthur, one of Sir Charles’ sons, who is autistic. His wealth and privilege have allowed him to escape being institutionalized, but his family has kept him hidden from public view and are quick to blame him in the search for the killer. A touching subplot about Lily tentatively coming out of mourning to embark on a newly independent life—and her father’s subsequent fury at this change—illustrates the tightrope that women had to walk to gain even the smallest bit of freedom. Schellman’s meticulous research puts the reader right in the heart of Regency London, and the hunt for a killer is tense and frightening.

A cab driver, a Regency widow and the owner of a milkshake emporium find their lives disrupted by murder most foul in this month’s cozy column.

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