The Cousins by Karen M. McManus (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Karen M. McManus’ latest thriller is a layered whodunit that takes its time unpacking several generations’ worth of deceit and cruelty. When Mildred Story invites her three grandchildren to spend the summer working at the resort she owns on Gull Cove Island, it’s a loaded proposition. Milly, Aubrey and Jonah barely know each other, and they don’t know their grandmother at all. Mildred is wealthy, and her decision to disinherit her children left the Story family fractured and alienated from one another. The Cousins at the heart of this mystery are tentatively curious to learn more about their family, and once they reach the island, secrets begin to come to light. The story jumps around quite a bit by design, as chapters alternate from each cousin’s perspective and also flash back to their parents’ youth. The suspense ebbs and flows while each Story’s story plays out. Milly had hoped to grow close to the grandmother she’s named for, but Mildred flatly ignores her in favor of Aubrey. At first, Aubrey is flattered by the attention, until she realizes she’s being rewarded for compliance (but compliance with what, exactly?). Jonah keeps his head down, but his strategy of trying to stay in the background only takes him so far; when the spotlight finds him, it’s damaging to everyone. McManus populates the island’s atmospheric, Hitchcockian scenery with eccentric characters, many of whom have ties to the Story family, and slowly reveals the event that shattered their lives. The conclusion that follows is terrifically choreographed. A relationship predicated on false identity turns out to be clever foreshadowing; readers who enjoy a romantic storyline intertwined with their mysteries will be all in. Curl up with The Cousins on a chilly day, and you’ll swear you can hear howling wind and crashing waves just outside your door.
A Spy in the Struggle by Aya de León (e-book available on the Libby or Overdrive app with your library card): Environmental racism, police and FBI malfeasance, gentrification and other social injustices are front and center in Aya de León’s novel A Spy in the Struggle. Even COVID-19 makes a brief appearance. All of these of-the-moment elements come together to make up a compulsive tale set in Holloway, a poor but proud neighborhood near San Francisco. The book’s opening tells you almost everything you need to know about its protagonist, Yolanda Vance. An associate in what turns out to be a corrupt law firm, she rats the otherwise prestigious company out because it’s just the right thing to do. For Yolanda, doing the right thing is paramount. It’s almost as important as being the right thing. The daughter of a charismatic but adulterous Southern preacher and a woman who too often let lowdown men lead her astray, Yolanda decides early in her life to let nothing get in the way of her success. That includes men, racism, sexism and any other “ism” out there lying in wait to trip her up. Her focus and determination pay off when the FBI, in what seems like an act of gratitude, hires her and gives her a very special assignment. Yolanda learns that an eco-activist group called Black, Red and GREEN! is making things difficult for a Microsoft-size government contractor called RandellCorp, which has invaded Holloway without offering residents any but the most low-level jobs. Moreover, the behemoth company is dumping carcinogens in an old railway yard even as they pretend to be greener than Kermit the Frog. Yolanda’s job is to infiltrate Black, Red and GREEN! and report on the comings and goings of its members. But this story isn’t just about a rock-ribbed conservative whose eyes are opened; it soon morphs into something darker and more kinetic. A Spy in the Struggle is as gripping as it is surprising, dropping readers into the thick of things before they even know it.
Bait and Witch by Angela M. Sanders (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Libby or Overdrive app with your library card): Angela M. Sanders’ first book in a new cozy mystery series, Bait and Witch, balances paranormal whimsy and small-town charm. Josie Way had her dream job in the Library of Congress but had to drop out of sight after overhearing a conversation that pointed to political corruption. She essentially creates a do-it-yourself witness protection program by taking a job in the library of rural Wilfred, Oregon, hoping to lie low until things resolve back in Washington, D.C. She’s barely unpacked her bags when a body is discovered on the library property, and her concern that she may have been the intended target prompts her to investigate. Oh, and the books on the shelves at Wilfred’s library? They’re able to talk to her–no big deal. Sanders fills the town of Wilfred with eccentric locals and blends in a plot about the library property being sold and potentially converted into a retreat center. These elements all collide when Josie’s life back east catches up with her. However, the story’s real heart derives from Josie’s gradual discovery that she’s a witch. From becoming fast and intimate friends with a local cat to developing an ability to recommend books she’s never read or even heard of, Bait and Witch is playful yet grounded, setting up a final confrontation when the decision to refuse or embrace her powers is critical. Sanders’ light touch leaves lots of possibilities for Josie’s future stories. There’s a potential romance simmering on a back burner, as well as Josie’s commitment to stay and help bring Wilfred’s library into the modern era without alienating any longtime patrons. Most evocatively, Bait and Witch ends with Josie receiving her grandmother’s grimoire, or book of spells, and preparing to learn more about her powers. Some of us think all librarians are at least a little witchy (in the best way), but it’s a delight to read about someone whose powers derive in part from stories and the feelings that readers attach to them. This is a fine debut that promises more bookish fun to come.