Simon & Schuster UK | 29 September 2022 | 400 pgs
Source: Library 

This book features one of the most unusual families I've ever read and if you've watched this movie, Ready or Not, they've similar vibes though this is more of a whodunit kind of story. 

Harriet Reed is basking in her success after selling her first thriller book and while she is writing and worrying over her second book's deadline, her mind nowadays is occupied by her engagement to Edward Holbeck. Edward is a perfect man in many women's eyes - he's young, good-looking and he's the heir to a successful and powerful family who has their name and reputation well-built over decades. 

When Harriet first receives an invitation from Edward's sister for a drink, she's nervous yet she's excited too. She could tell the Holbeck family exudes power and authority after Mathilda's assistant changed her meeting appointment with her publisher so that she could attend the meet up with Mathilda. Granted, the publisher is a part of the Holbeck's business conglomerate and Harriet only finds out much later. It's not long that Harriet is invited for dinner with the family and she finds herself attracted by Edward’s father's charisma yet there's an edge behind his cool demeanour which she couldn't put her finger on. 

But Harriet is quick to impress Robert Holbeck so when he hands her a cassette tape of a book he's been working on, she couldn't say no. And the more Harriet listen to it, the more Robert's narrative read like a murder confession than a fiction. And as if this isn't enough, the Holbecks has several (weird) traditional family games which they'd play during occasions which scare her. Harriet isn't sure if all these are simply part of their plan to test her loyalty; if not would she be able to escape from the Holbecks' mind games? 

As much as the story goes, I think it was a bit far-fetched yet it was very entertaining and unputdownable. The characters drove you crazy yet you couldn't shift your attention away. I'd mixed feelings towards Harriet though; one moment I felt sorry for her and then frustrated and annoyed at her actions next. Robert's narrative was intriguing and I always love reading a frame story. I'd have given this book a 4-star but alas that ending (more of the motive) felt a bit ridiculous in my opinion but suffice it to say there wasn't any boring moments so overall it was an engrossing read. 
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Feiwel & Friends | 29 March 2022 | 384 pgs
Source: Purchased 

A Magic Steeped in Poison is Judy I. Lin's debut and the first in a duology featuring a fantastical world of shennong-shi (Master of Shennong magic) and the art of tea brewing and magic set in the imperial city of Dàxī. 

Ning has been living in guilt since the death of her mother and her younger sister seriously sick with poison. It isn't her fault actually; who'd have known that the tea bricks are laced with poison? Nonetheless Ning blames herself for her negligence for not detecting it earlier. To save her sister, Shu, from following their mother's fate, Ning leaves her hometown in Su to the imperial city of Dàxī for a competition that would allow her to receive a favor from the princess should she be the winner. 

On her way to the palace, she meets a boy who intrigue and capture her attention at the same time. Little does she know that she'd soon cross path with him again and learn his true identity once she's in the palace. Though winning the competition is Ning's goal, she soon finds herself embroiled in the politics and conspiracies within the palace and all the more with the rise of a revolt led by the General of Kăiláng, who's being exiled and better known as the Banished Prince. Is there a hope for saving her sister now that the kingdom is threatened by the rebellion? 

Ah. I loved this fantasy a lot. I'm a big tea drinker so when I read the blurb and learned that teas play a major part in this story, I knew I've to read it. And I enjoyed the story, too. Ning was a likeable character who's courageous and determined and I loved her fighting spirit and her devotion towards her sister. The tea brewing and the tea concoctions (sounds a little like Traditional Chinese Medicine), together with the various magic cast by the shennong-shi are fun to read, though some of the tasks required for the competition made it so hard to read. But, there's also some heartwarming moments as well, e.g. the friendship between Ning and Lian (fellow participant), and the palace kitchen staff's loyalty and helpfulness when Ning was in danger. 

All in all, I enjoyed this book immensely and I'm glad my book buddy, Lark, shared this reading journey with me (visit Lark's blog for her review). 

Finally, here's my answers to Lark's questions:

1. What are your favorite tea ingredients, and if they had magical properties, what would they be?
One of my favorite tea ingredients would be chrysanthemum flowers and goji berries (with a few rock sugar). They make a refreshing drink and I read that this concoction is a powerful boost to improve our eyes' health and cool our body heat. If they had magical properties, I wish they could eliminate all the cancerous cells in our bodies. 

2. What characters do you hope to see more of in the next book? And which character surprised you most in this book? 
I've a few characters in mind, but the one who stands out amongst the rest is the General of Kăiláng. Considering his exile and the uproar of the rebellion towards the end, there's so little information about him and his appearance was minimal (perhaps in the next book, A Venom Dark and Sweet?) 

As for the character who surprised me most, she's none other than the princess, Ying-Zhen. She gave me the impression that she's a person who guard her feelings well so it's hard to decipher what kind of a person she is. I suppose it's necessary considering her role as a princess and she couldn't wear her heart on her sleeve. 
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Quercus | 29 September 2022 | 352 pgs
Source: Library 

This is the third installment of Elly Griffiths' Harbinder Kaur series and I've to admit I'm addicted to this series since book one. While each book can be read as a standalone, I'd recommend reading them in order for the characters developments. 

The story begins with Harbinder now serving in the Met as a DI in the Homicide and Serious Crimes Unit and her first case involved a prominent MP who is found dead during a school reunion party at Manor Park School. At first glance, Garfield Rice's death seems likely to link with drug overdose with the syringes found at the crime scene but forensic later claims that this isn't the case. 

To complicate matters, Harbinder's subordinate, DS Cassie Fitzgerald, is present at the same reunion party. She and Garfield were schoolmates alongside with a few others who are known as "The group" back during their school days twenty one years ago. While this group of seven members differ in characteristics, status and moral values, they've one secret which they've shared within themselves - the murder of a schoolmate named David Moore and they're all complicit in the crime, though it is also stated early on in the story that Cassie was directly involved. As the story progresses, Harbinder couldn't shun the feelings that these two cases might be related despite the years apart. Is Garfield's death simply a political motive given his upcoming campaign and some enemies he'd met along the way? Or is it Cassie or one of "The group" who wouldn't mind killing again for some reason? 

The story was told in three narratives with present and past timeline: Harbinder, Cassie and Anna (one of the group members) and each of their voices add intrigue and depth to the story. Harbinder has become one of my favourite female detectives and I loved her calm, competence and meticulous mind in her investigations. She's family oriented (she's single but she's close with her parents) and I enjoyed reading her relationship with her two flatmates and her two other invaluable subordinates, DS Kim Manning and DS Jake Barker (both whom I hope we'll see more of in this series). Also, the London setting and Bleeding Heart Yard (a courtyard in Holborn. Read more here) add intrigue and atmosphere to the suspense and I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. Overall a good read if you love police procedural and a strong female character. 

Harbinder Kaur Books in order

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Michael Joseph | 29 September 2022 | 352 pgs
Source: Library 

This is a compilation of a passion project (and not to mention her debut short story collection) C. J. Tudor had put on the back burner, but decided that instead of scrapping a book which she didn't feel good enough due to the difficult times she'd been through (the pandemic and her father's passing), she thought that this shorts collection seemed like the perfect opportunity instead of skipping a publication year (in 2022) and letting her readers and her publishers down. 

I rarely read short stories, but I couldn't turn this book down because it's Tudor's and this is one of my favourite genres. Without further ado, here's my brief write-up of the eleven tales and my favourites highlighted in red. 

End of the Liner - A scary story about a virus obliterated the world and for decades people are living their life on giant cruise ships in the middle of the ocean. There're rules within the cruise and while the passengers are more or less satisfied with their confined life, something seems to be off. 

The Block - A group of friends decided to explore an abandoned building and stumbled upon some scary creatures. 

Runaway Blues - This is a story about twisted love and revenge. The ending is not what you'll think and expect. 

The Completion - A ruthless property agent who'd do anything to get the deals sealed, until he meets his next client - a strange old man living in Bragshaw Manor. 

The Lion at the Gate - A graffiti that comes alive? Perhaps you'll have to think twice before touching that paintings in this short. 

Gloria - Gloria first appeared in Tudor's second novel, The Taking of Annie Thorne. The author had a huge soft spot for this character and always felt that there was a possibility that she might one day return. So here it is - a chanced encounter between a hardened mercenary and a girl with a strange gift (you wouldn't guess this one.)

I'm Not Ted - This story was super short, and a bit strange. A person who claimed he wasn't Ted found himself in a luxurious building with everything nice equipped. A mistaken identity? Probably not. Just a test of your temptations resistance. 

Final Course - In an apocalypse world of darkness, a father and daughter travel along eerie country lanes after an invitation for a reunion gathering at an isolated manor. The manor is exceptional, except that the good old schoolmates have somewhat changed. And the host has a motive - a plan to engage his invitees to commercialize the apocalypse, but it comes with a price. 

The Copy Shop - What if you could replace anything old or broken with a copy better than the original? An original tale about reproductions with a bit of Stephen King vibes. 

Dust - A woman went to Gran Canaria to escape from her past. The stay at Villa de las Almas Perdidas was supposed to be a great escapism, but then there's Calima wind and the place was often coated with layers of fine sand. But this wasn't the worst, she'd have to remember what she'd done in the past or she'd never leave. 

Butterfly Island - A frightening story about killer butterflies and a murderous psychopath roaming the island. There's no closure to the ending, and the author stated that this is one of her favourite short stories that she might expand it into a novella one day (Please do! I want to know what happened in the end!)

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Pushkin Press | 2 September 2021 | 304 pgs
Source: Library 
Translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

The blurb read like a psychological thriller but it was actually more like a noir fiction centering on domestic abuse and the interactions between the perpetrator and the victim. 

Sandrine has a low self-esteem and often views herself as a fat and ugly woman. Constrained by the harsh society's standard and her self loathing views (much often contributed by her unhappy childhood), she lives her life miserably alone until she meets Langlois; a man whose wife has mysteriously gone missing and is left with their young son, Mathias. For a while, Sandrine is happy living with them as Langlois seems to be good and attentive to her. But, Sandrine does wonder about his missing wife at times and how she's the "Second Woman" given her plight. It's not long when Langlois becomes a selfish and manipulative man who starts controlling Sandrine, leading her to become submissive and always wary of his moods and behaviours. The story then starts to shift when Langlois's missing wife returns. 

I've to admit this story was hard to read in so many ways. First off, the extensive self-loathing thoughts of Sandrine and the abusive relationship between her and Langlois. Then, there's the omission of quotation marks (in which I'm not a fan of) and also the story is more "telling" than "showing" but I understand the latter as a form of writing style given the first person narrative. In spite of the darkness of the story, little Mathias was the saviour to me as his appearance and his child innocence lit some light during my reading journey. This is not a book for everyone yet it's an important subject which we cannot ignore or turn away from. 
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