Review | Better the Blood, by Michael Bennett

BetterTheBloodBetter the Blood is a thoughtful and thought-provoking crime novel that delves into the injustices of colonization and the deep-seated and driving need for reparations. A series of seemingly unrelated murders in Auckland, New Zealand turn out to be the work of a Māori person seeking utu for the killing of a Māori Chief by British soldiers eight generations ago. The concept of utu takes this beyond a simple revenge story: the term refers to reciprocity and balance, and while the killings are undeniably wrong, the killer’s motives are complex and multi-faceted.

The themes are explored with even greater depth and nuance through the main character, Detective Senior Sergeant Hana Westerman, who is Māori. A talented detective, the tension between her Māori roots and her chosen profession was made stark eighteen years ago when, as a junior cop, she was part of a police team sent to end by force a peaceful land rights occupation protest by Māori peoples trying to reclaim their land. In the present day, Hana is raising a biracial teenage daughter who can’t understand how her mother can be part of an institution like the police that continues to perpetuate injustices against indigenous peoples.

As a thriller, Better the Blood is slow-moving, and its pace more deliberate and contemplative than page-turning. While the killer remains definitively the antagonist rather than an anti-hero, the character is shown to take no delight in their actions. Rather, they seem weighed down by the murders themselves, and when we learn a bit more about their personal history before they began to kill, you can almost feel the weight of hundreds of years of injustices weighing them down.

Likewise, the climax of the story begins with violence, but finishes with a call to heal. A character says, ‘The people rose up….for peace, for love, the things that are much bigger than anger, stronger than violence.’ (page 336) That character then makes a choice that sends a powerful statement about what courage can be, and what a path to balance can look like. It’s a beautiful moment that ends the novel on an uplifting note while never letting us forget all we’ve learned and reflected on throughout the story.

Better the Blood is not meant to be a comfortable read, but it is a hopeful one. The mystery at its core doesn’t quite feel like the point; rather, the novel feels more like an invitation to read up on the realities of how colonization impacted indigenous peoples in New Zealand, and how those impacts continue to manifest in imbalances in the present-day.


Thank you to Publishers Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Last Invitation, by Darcy Kane

TheLastInvitationCoverImagine a group of high-powered vigilante women, who go beyond the bounds of the law to exact justice on men who do bad things and elude punishment within the system. In The Last Invitation, frenemies Gabby Fielding and Jessa Hall both get mixed up with this group when Gabby’s ex-husband dies from an apparent suicide and Jessa gets invited to join.

The Last Invitation is a fun, twisty thriller. The impetus behind the group’s formation is unfortunately understandable; the legal system has its limits and for bad men with resources, there are many ways for them to escape justice. I also like how the book delves into the moral complexity of the group’s ethos: the legal system is in place for good reasons; what right do people really have to skirt its boundaries?

In this novel, the moral question becomes somewhat more black-and-white, at least for me, when it’s revealed just how far the group goes to protect its interests. Their selection process for potential new members is pure hazing, possibly even blackmail. They mess with the potential member’s life and basically drive them into dire desperation before offering membership in the group — with all the vigilante activities required — as a means to make all their problems go away. It’s hinted that potential members who turn them down then become liabilities who must be dealt with, and that level of ruthlessness is chilling for a group the book presumably wants us to sympathize with. It’s also hinted that some of the more problematic acts by the group were a result of a member going rogue, but the group itself doesn’t seem too fussed about this behaviour.

And I think that’s why I ended up not enjoying this book as much as I thought I would. Part of me wanted a full-on fun revenge plot that just becomes complicated by particular circumstances, but I found the group a menacing force from the start. The group felt like a one-dimensional villain, which I didn’t expect when I started this book, and I wish there’d been more nuance to the work they did. Or even some time spent on making us want to cheer for some of their work, so that the reveal of their ruthlessness has more of an impact.

Perhaps that’s part of the thrills, where I was meant to root for Jessa and Gabby to win and for the group to fail, right from the beginning, but Jessa and Gabby’s storylines felt a bit too disjointed to really suck me into their story as a whole.

Gabby started out as a compelling character, but her big and supposedly scandalous secrets were a letdown. I didn’t really understand why the group had such a strong hold over her, nor, on the flip side, even why she cared so much about the truth behind her husband’s death. The whole drama with her family was a major factor for her decisions, but that plot didn’t really go anywhere, and eventually just seemed to fizzle out.

Jessa’s narrative arc was a bit more compelling, but I was frustrated by how much of her actions felt like they were forced upon her. For example, because the group goes so far in testing their potential future members, Jessa’s decision to join the group didn’t feel driven so much by her interest in their mission as by her desire to stop her life from going so far down the toilet. Conversely, her desire to break away from the group is interesting because we know the risks she would have to take, but again her agency is somewhat limited because for so much of the story, it’s mostly just Gabby trying to get her to leave.

The Last Invitation is a solid thriller, with interesting twists and a good pace to keep the pages turning. The characters just fell short for me, and while the concept of a vigilante group of high-powered women is compelling, the execution felt a bit flat.


Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Top 8 Books of 2022

Mysteries and Thrillers

1. Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

A cold case murder at an annual Scrabble championship. Clues sent as word puzzles. And a setting of Malaysia, with Malay words casually integrated into the dialogue. As a word nerd who loves mysteries and who grew up in Southeast Asia, this is a book I wish so badly I could have read as a teen, and I am so thrilled today’s teens get to experience this for themselves. Someone please turn this into a mini-series!

Read my full review here

2. Take It Back by Kia Abdullah

A white girl with facial deformities accuses four handsome Muslim boys from immigrant families of rape. Jodi has a good explanation for the inconsistencies: she doubts anyone would believe her original story, that Amir, the most handsome of the boys, actually wanted someone who looked like her. Who’s telling the truth? And as events unfold in court, what does justice look like?

By keeping the truth about the incident unclear, Abdullah invites her readers to “take our place on the jury.” I was torn about whom to believe, and my ambivalence made me reflect on my own biases as a woman and as a BIPOC immigrant.

Take It Back has won Abdullah a fan in me. I’ve read a few more of her books this year, and while this remains my favourite, I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

Read my full review here.

3. Marple: Twelve New Mysteries by multiple authors

As a huge Agatha Christie and Miss Marple fan, I found this book to be absolutely delightful. The author list includes such luminaries as Alyssa Cole, Val McDermid, Ruth Ware, Karen M. McManus, and Jean Kwok, so perhaps that should come as no surprise. I love how they stayed true to Christie’s style while still making their respective stories their own. Is it too soon to hope for a Volume 2?


1. Feels Like Home by Angel C. Aquino

What an emotional roller coaster of feels this book is! A sweet, young adult romance with a very Filipino vibe, lots of Pampanga love, and lots and lots of yummy food, this book very much does feel like returning home. The romance between Mickey and Clara is really sweet; they support each other’s dreams and help each other grow as people, and as cheesy as this may sound, I truly felt like they found a sense of home and family with each other. 

Read my full review here.

2. Hard Sell (Jade Harbour Capital # 1) by Hudson Lin

Business drama, family drama, friendship drama… The chemistry between Tobin and Danny is fantastic, but I think the highlight of this book for me is all the wonderfully messy angst that keeps getting in the way of their happily ever after.

This book has its weaknesses. Some elements of the business conflict felt underdeveloped, and despite the chemistry between the MCs, I found the sex scenes pretty meh. This story also shows why brother’s best friend isn’t one of my favourite romance tropes: I just keep thinking that Tobin’s brother needs to chill. Still, this book was just pure fun to read, and with that cover, it’s definitely staying on my shelf!

3. Puppy Christmas (Forever Home # 2) by Lucy Gilmore

I don’t usually get gooey over single dad heroes or romances with kids in general, but Ford as a single dad just melted my heart. I love his flirty banter and his insecurities, and I love how much courage it takes for him to be serious about things that matter. I also absolutely love Lila, and how perfect they are together. I super relate to Lila’s “take care of everything” attitude as the oldest sibling, and I love how Ford and his daughter Emily helped her embrace her silly side. I especially love how much courage it takes for Lila to decide to risk trusting that Ford was for real. And of course, Jeeves the service puppy was just the absolute best.

The first book in this trilogy, Puppy Love, made it to my Best of 2020 list. The final book Puppy Kisses didn’t quite hit the mark as much for me, but overall, I love the Vasquez sisters, and reading about their puppy-fuelled romances is an absolute treat.



1. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen

The stuff this book says makes so much sense! My copy is all highlighted up, I’ve used the techniques so many times throughout the past year, and I can imagine this will be a useful resource to dip back into time and again. I like how the authors laid out the info, and how they clarified their techniques with examples. I also really liked the 10 FAQs they added to the end. A few of those addressed questions I had while reading, and I’m glad they added those bits of clarification.

Another classic read on the same topic is Crucial Conversations. I found the information in that one also useful, but personally found the writing style of Difficult Conversations easier to digest. That being said, different folks respond to different things, so if Difficult Conversations doesn’t quite make sense to you, you may want to give Crucial Conversations a try.

Also for conversations that involve negotiations, my go-to is Getting Past No, which I included in my Top 10 list last year.


Literary Fiction

1. The Son of Good Fortune by Lysley Tenorio (narrated by Reuben Uy)

This novel is funny, warm, and sharp. It has a lot of heart, and it’s a surprisingly emotional read. I didn’t expect to feel teary, but the ending got me. 

Excel and his mother Maxima are TNTs, a Tagalog term, “tago-ng-tago”, which refers to Filipinos who live in the US illegally. (“Tago-ng-tago” means always hiding, which reflects the reality of their precarious living situation.) Maxima is an arnis master and former action film star who now earns money by scamming American men who are looking for “good Filipinas” (read: lovers who are submissive and affectionate, and who can do domestic tasks well). Excel longs for independence, but when circumstances lead to him and his girlfriend struggling to make ends meet, Excel turns to Maxima for help, and joins in her business.

I love the realism of Excel and Maxima’s circumstances and their actions; they do questionable things, but their actions are also very much how they survive. Maxima’s scams are wonderfully subversive; as a Filipina who’s encountered men like those she targets, I admit feeling rather satisfied at her successes. Still, I love how the novel adds layers of ambiguity with Jerry, the man Maxima and Excel target. He starts off being typically sleazy, and the narrator’s performance enhances that portrayal. But then as Excel gets to know him better, it’s hard not to feel sympathy: Jerry’s a genuinely optimistic guy, and while Excel rightly notes that Jerry’s optimism is naivete due to systemic privilege, it’s also sad to see how Jerry is about to learn a very harsh lesson on how cutthroat people can be.

I listened to the audiobook of this, and highly recommend that format. The narrator’s performance really highlights the comedy, and he did a great job in bringing the characters to life. I particularly love his performance of Maxima, and I would love to see Maxima brought to life on screen.


Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for an e-galley of Queen of the Tiles in exchange for an honest review. All the other books featured on this list are either purchased or from the library.