Book Review: Play the Fool by Lina Chern

book review play the fool lina chern

Title: Play the Fool

Author: Lina Chern

Publisher: Bantam

Publication date: March 28, 2023

Genre: Mystery

One Sentence Summary: When Katie unexpectedly learns her friend has been murdered, she willingly jumps into danger to solve her murder, in spite of being a complete disaster of a person.

play the fool lina chern


Play the Fool is a fun murder mystery with characters I loved, but I found it was lacking a bit in danger and I was disappointed there wasn’t more tarot. Katie is absolutely intent on solving her friend’s murder, with the help of her new detective friend Jamie and her brother Owen, but, while there’s some danger, there’s nothing really that truly puts Katie in real danger. Despite being a complete mess of a person and huge disappointment, she had a remarkable ability for getting lucky breaks. There were some nice twists and turns to the mystery; I just wish Katie had faced more actual danger and consequences. I also wish there had been more tarot because, while it was a nice touch, I didn’t think it was absolutely necessary to the story. Still, this was fun and quite an easy read that flowed well.

Extended Thoughts

Katie is a complete mess and a complete disappointment of a daughter, complete with an overachieving sister and brilliant brother who appears to be on the autism spectrum. She’s completely failed to make something of herself, finding herself back in her home town, working to sell tchotchkes and do tarot readings on the side, and practically living in squalor. At least, her small apartment seems to want to fall apart around her ears.

But she has one friend, a young, mysterious woman named Marley who happens to work in a nearby store at the same mall. Their friendship is brief, but it’s basically all Katie has to cling to to make it through the day. When Katie unexpectedly sees a photo on a stranger’s phone that suggests Marley has been murdered, Katie immediately springs into action, finding suspects everywhere she turns and clues around every corner. Her recklessness gets her tangled up with a local detective with a sad history of his own, but real, actual danger is looming.

I’m not sure what it was about Play the Fool that caught my attention, but it was a fun ride if I didn’t think too hard about it. There were some nice twists and turns, and a delightful mess of a main character, that kept me reading. Actually, I really enjoyed most of the characters, and the family interactions felt like a nice touch to Katie’s life, but the actual mystery part had me going back and forth on whether I actually enjoyed it.

I liked Katie. She was really fun, and I especially liked how she was just a disaster at this thing called life. Her voice was a lot of fun, and I took a great deal of amusement from reading it. But it was also sometimes just excruciatingly painful to read about her bad decisions and why she made those bad decisions. There were so many times I just wanted to yell at her, but it did help feed into the idea that Katie is absolutely a mess. She’s functional, capable of keeping her head just barely above water, but she’s definitely a big disappointment, and absolutely willing to just play into it. At the same time, she really did have a good heart. Despite barely knowing Marley, she was willing to go all out to solve her murder. But it was her relationship with her brother Owen that stole my heart. Initially, Owen was just delightfully eccentric. I loved him and found him to be quite interesting. It was later in the book that I realized he’s probably on the spectrum, and everything Katie did just to make sure he was okay just melted my heart. With the rest of her family, well, she’s clearly a disappointment to them, but they love her anyways, even if it takes her a while to see it. I really liked those family interactions. They were slightly odd and awkward, but I’m glad the story ended the way it did in terms of Katie and her family.

My favorite relationship, though, was that between Katie and detective Jamie. I found their romance to be cute and I thought they made a good team, even if Jamie continually broke the rules for her. It made me want to shake him a few times as well, but I did like the way they just worked so well together, almost as though they’d been working together for quite a while. Jamie was kind of an odd character. He’s got a serious past that still hurts him, so I suppose it made him run hot and cold. Sometimes he was all about being the perfect cop, and other times he was willing to bend the rules until he was practically bent in half. But, in the end, I found I enjoyed their romance a lot more than the mystery, if only because it was light compared to a lot of other non-romance books I’ve read with a romance. It felt more natural and I liked that they weren’t completely at ease with each other until the end. I liked that it felt like a solid friendship where there were clearly feelings on both sides, but both parties are just too damaged to really deal with it.

As for the mystery, it did have some nice twists and turns, but it also annoyed me how Katie either became too distracted or too stuck on one thing. She’s not a detective, so, clearly, she has no idea what she’s doing, but the fact that she was able to stumble around and not get hurt just kind of astounded me. She had so many lucky breaks I don’t think I could count them all. It made the story feel kind of low-stakes, because there was no way Katie was going to end up in serious trouble. The police force, too, was a disappointment. Of course I understand it’s small and they probably don’t deal with murders very often, but Katie just got away with so much. It helped make the story move and continually push forward, but it also got a little annoying, like I wanted a serious roadblock to be placed in her way so she had to rely a little more on her brain than just luck.

But I think my biggest disappointment was how much there wasn’t much tarot. So much of the description and even the cover makes me think it’ll play a bigger role, but, other than Katie doing a few readings and thinking of different cards when it came to different people and situations, I don’t feel like the tarot was really instrumental to the story. If it was completely stripped out, I think I would have gotten exactly what I did get out of it. It was an interesting touch, but I felt it was just something brought in to give Katie a direction to go in at the end of the book. I had hoped for some serious readings that would lead somewhere, lending an air of mysticism, but, sadly, that wasn’t to be, and I was left understanding no more about tarot than I went into the book with, which is to say very little.

Play the Fool was a fun mystery to read, but wasn’t without its problems. The characters were my favorite part of this book. I loved how Katie was just such a mess and such a disappointment, and she never minded. It actually helped her bumble her way through solving the case. I still don’t really understand why she was so adamant about solving the murder of someone she barely knew, but I guess it gave her something to focus on other than selling tchotchkes. I also wish there had been more actual danger presented to Katie and serious consequences for her actions, considering all the close calls she had, but I wonder if the point of this was just to present a fun murder mystery with some interesting elements. The characters were the stars for me, and I could have used more actual danger in the mystery.

How many cups of tea will you need?

3 cups

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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.

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