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First Clue - Augusta Hawke by G.M. Malliet, A Dreadful Splendor by B.R. Myers, The Nurse's Secret by Amanda Skenandore, Such a Good Mother by Helen Monks Takhar

First Clue
You know what’s too often missing from these reviews? The humor we discover in the books.
Between trying to describe what in these books will appeal to readers (such as pace, tone, writing style), providing a smidgeon of the plot, and perhaps adding a few read-alikes, there’s little room to get into something like humor.
And it’s not like any of these books are real knee-snappers. The humor is often wry, sardonic, droll, ironic, sarcastic. It’s hard to capture, harder to explain. Easier to just say: you had to have been there.
But when I look at the titles in the last year that I’ve reviewed for First Clue and have enjoyed the most, it’s often the ones that made me smile.
So here’s to doing a better job of sharing those smiles with you.—Brian Kenney

Rear Windows
⭐ Malliet, G. M. Augusta Hawke (Book 1). July. 240p. Severn House. 
Best known for her cozy British series, here Malliet abandons the country vicarages and Oxbridge colleges for Old Town Alexandria, Virginia directly across the Potomac from the District of Columbia, and home to the witty Augusta Hawke. Hawke, herself a mystery author, is a bit of a recluse, a state brought on by the pandemic and the recent death of her husband. Fortunately, her four-story townhouse provides plenty of distractions, including—with a nod to Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”—casually observing the neighbors. So when the Normans, the young couple across the way, go missing, Hawke has plenty to tell the cops, including details of a fight she witnessed between the couple. When their car is found abandoned in a marsh, Hawke decides it’s time to take on the case, so to speak, and heads off to investigate. Perhaps the story has the making of a true-crime bestseller? The pleasure in this book lies in the arch and humorous Augusta, her interior musings as well as her interactions with others, her caustic take on the publishing industry, and the ridiculous situations she gets caught up in. May this be the introduction to many more outings with Augusta.—Brian Kenney
Dark, Stormy, and Handsome
Myers, B. R. A Dreadful Splendor. August. 416p. William Morrow. 
Is it a gothic romance? Yes, indeed. Is it a mystery? That, too. In fact, A Dreadful Splendor uses nearly all the tropes of the gothic, adding a bit of humor to the mix. Genevieve Timmons, all of 19 years old, is a spiritualist, a conjurer, adept at calling forth the dead to assuage the grief of the living—and lining her own pocket. Trained by her mother, who is recently deceased, Genevieve has hit a bad patch and is in jail until she’s approached by a gentleman who wants her to summon the dead bride of his boss, Mr. Pemberton. Except when Genevieve arrives at Somerset Park, Mr. Pemberton’s estate, she discovers that the widower believes his bride was murdered, and he wants Genevieve to stage a session so powerful it will reveal the killer. (As for Mr. Pemberton, he’s one part Mr. Darcy, one part Heathcliff, and one part Maxim de Winter. Brooding and beautiful.) With days to go before the séance, there’s plenty of time for Genevieve to rattle around the estate, research the past, and become terrified of a ghost who may well be the real thing. Lots of fun for readers who enjoy historical mysteries with a double serving of atmosphere.—Brian Kenney 
A Bloody, Good Read
⭐Skenandore, Amanda. The Nurse’s Secret. July. Kensington.
Una Kelly is a pickpocket in 1883 New York City, artfully dodging the police and turning her loot over to the head of her pickpocket ring, the quietly ruthless Marm Blei. Una is saving her pay to leave this miserable life, but it’s slow going, so she chances a side gig—selling a trinket she steals rather than turning it over to Marm. This puts her at the site of a murder, and now she’s accused and on the run. Her unusual hiding place—one of the country’s first nursing schools, at Bellevue Hospital—is the intriguing, politics- and emotion-laden setting for most of the book. Only educated ladies are accepted as nurses, but Una is neither schooled nor genteel, and faking both. Her nervous, always-on-your-toes code switching will be familiar to immigrant readers as well as anyone who’s reached for something out of grasp, and heavy doses of realism are thrown in as Una fights bullies while making a great friend and even finding romance. Skendandore’s (The Second Life of Mirielle West) intrepid heroine continues investigating the crime she’s accused of, too, making the book a thoroughly enjoyable and compelling medical history, mystery, and romance. Side benefit: a look at attitudes toward the then-emerging science of blood transfusion.—Henrietta Verma
Reading, Writing, Recklessness
Takhar, Helen Monks. Such a Good Mother. August. 368p. Random House.
Rose O’Connell’s never been confident. At her downmarket English school, she was bullied as “Rotten Rosie” after her father was publicly disgraced. While her life has since improved, her husband struggles to find work and they’re deep in debt. Then she gets her son, Charlie, into The Woolf Academy, an exclusive school in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood she grew up in. In fact, it’s her old school, but it’s now completely unrecognizable, as is the house she grew up in, where Amala Kaur, the CEO of the new school, lives. Woolf Academy seems too strict with Charlie yet indulgent of the other children, and while Rose is determined to do whatever it takes to help her son, she quickly finds that the mean girls she faced years ago have nothing on the circle of snooty women in charge here. It’s complicated and confusing when things begin to thaw and Rose is invited into the inner circle after the mysterious death of one of its members; slowly readers will begin to wonder if there’s anything she won’t do to please Amala and her ice-queen clique. By the time Amala wants something that made me gasp out loud—just the first of several gut-punching twists—it seems too late for Rose to salvage her marriage, her career, and even her sense of self. For readers of mean-girl titles and those who enjoyed The Hawthorne School by Sylvie Perry.Henrietta Verma
Extra Credit
'Cowards and Sycophants': Don Winslow Rails Against Republicans, Talks Gangster Novel 'City on Fire'
The Bookseller - News - Hawkins, Billingham, Hallett and Banville on CWA Dagger longlists
New Mysteries and Crime Novels - The New York Times
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Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney
Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney @1stClueReviews

The mission of First Clue is simple: to provide succinct reviews of crime fiction far in advance of publication. Our intent is for First Clue to help librarians and booksellers select titles and make recommendations, and readers find that next great read. We’re especially interested in books by authors of color, LGBTQ writers, first novelists, books that are first in a series, as well as translations and titles from smaller publishers. We give stars to books we love or which do a great job at accomplishing what they set out to do.

We are two, New York City-based librarians and former editors at leading review magazines—Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and School Library Journal. We hope you'll subscribe—it’s free!—and after that, watch your email box every Thursday for our recommendations.

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