Kate’s Review: “My Heart Is a Chainsaw”

Book: “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” by Stephen Graham Jones

Publishing Info: Gallery/Saga Press, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: “Some girls just don’t know how to die…”

Shirley Jackson meets Friday the 13th in My Heart Is a Chainsaw, written by the author of The Only Good Indians Stephen Graham Jones, called “a literary master” by National Book Award winner Tananarive Due and “one of our most talented living writers” by Tommy Orange.

Jade Daniels is an angry, half-Indian outcast with an abusive father, an absent mother, and an entire town that wants nothing to do with her. She lives in her own world, a world in which protection comes from an unusual source: horror movies…especially the ones where a masked killer seeks revenge on a world that wronged them. And Jade narrates the quirky history of Proofrock as if it is one of those movies. But when blood actually starts to spill into the waters of Indian Lake, she pulls us into her dizzying, encyclopedic mind of blood and masked murderers, and predicts exactly how the plot will unfold.

Yet, even as Jade drags us into her dark fever dream, a surprising and intimate portrait emerges…a portrait of the scared and traumatized little girl beneath the Jason Voorhees mask: angry, yes, but also a girl who easily cries, fiercely loves, and desperately wants a home. A girl whose feelings are too big for her body. My Heart Is a Chainsaw is her story, her homage to horror and revenge and triumph.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I’m going to be repeating myself a bit here, given that back in July I reviewed “The Final Girl Support Group” by Grady Hendrix, and I waxed poetic about my deep deep love for slasher movies. I don’t know why it was that a super anxious teenager like me was so enthralled by horror, especially horror that involved slicing and dicing teenagers, but I’m sure it’s the ability to explore such anxieties in a safe way. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I found out that Stephen Graham Jones, one of my favorite horror writers writing today, was writing a book that was an ode to the slasher genre. “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” is that ode, and I was excited to see what a well known slasher lover like he would do with it, especially since he’s also SO good at weaving in social issues and metaphors into his horror stories that make them all the more brilliant. And holy moly, did “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” NOT disappoint. I assure you, this book is FANTASTIC.

Would I steer you wrong? (source)

There are so many things I want to talk about in regards to this book, but let’s start with the obvious: the slasher stuff. Jones is, as I mentioned, a well known fan of the slasher genre (as seen on his social media but also in her previous ‘Final Girl’ novel “The Last Final Girl”, which I reviewed on this blog as well). In “My Heart Is a Chainsaw”, our main character, Jade, is a slasher movie fanatic of epic proportions. And since she is the one that we are mostly seeing the story through, we, too, get to bathe in all the slasher movie knowledge and lore as she is convinced that her small town of Proofrock, Idaho is falling victim to the start of a slasher massacre. Jade is working out theories based on all kinds of movies and franchises, and we are hard hit with references to so many movies that it was tricky (but super fun) to keep up. From the well known lore of the likes of “Friday the 13th” and “Halloween”, to lesser known treasures like “Trick or Treat” (not “Trick R Treat’, “Trick or Treat” a movie about a heavy metal musician whose ghost comes back to wreak havoc through a record, IT IS THE BEST) and the like, this book hits so many movies with love and affection. We even get history lessons and thematic breakdowns via essays that Jade has written to her favorite teacher, Mr. Holmes, which then tie into the plot line as it is progressing in real time. It’s meticulous and incredibly well done, and Jones balances all of it without it ever feeling overdone or hokey.

But the thing that really, really made this stand out for me and brings it to a whole other level is the layered and heartbreaking portrayal of Jade, and her circumstances. One of the big issues is that of the town itself, as Proofrock is seeing an influx of outsider cash and influence as a gentrified community called Terra Nova is starting to move in (and it is this group of people that seems to be dropping like flies). It’s not the first time a community has had this kind of development, while the new people move in and their influence of money and value start to make things harder for the less fortunate. There are also references to the Indigenous community there, of which Jade is a part, as her father is Native, and the way that they are perceived and in a number of ways left behind or forgotten about. This also plays into the overall horror arc, as, without giving too much away, the violence of Colonialism against the Indigenous groups who lived there is still being felt in this community, and there are repercussions that are starting to bubble up.

And this leads into the brightest part of this story, and that is the character of Jade herself. When we first meet her, Jade is very easy to fit in the box of weirdo teenage girl who loves horror movies, who humorously could find herself living a horror movie and her know how will surely make her plucky and easy to root for. And yes, that is true, but Jones slowly unfolds layer after layer of Jade, and what we get is an incredibly complex girl who has experienced numerous traumas and heartbreaks over the years. She has an abusive father, an absent mother, no friends, and cannot see any escape out of her life except through slasher films, which she clings to because they are a better alternative to the horrors that she has seen and experienced. So when she thinks that an actual horror movie is unfolding in her town, now is her time to shine. BUT THAT SAID, there is also this heartbreaking aspect that comes forth, as while Jade has all of the components of a slasher in her mind that are unfolding, and while she is definitely piecing things together, she has such a struggle with how she views herself that she cannot see the value or part that she could be playing when all is said and done. And that is why not only is “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” a super fun slasher homage, it’s also an incredibly emotional story about a girl who is dealing with a lot of terrible shit.

I loved “My Heart Is a Chainsaw”. If you have been sleeping on the genius that is Stephen Graham Jones, I implore you, STOP IT. Go get this book! ESPECIALLY if you love slasher movies! But even if you don’t! There is so much to love about this story! JUST READ IT!

Rating 10: Intense, heartfelt, and filled with slasher goodies, “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” is my favorite Stephen Graham Jones book yet.

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Heart Is a Chainsaw” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Horror Releases”, and “Horror To Look Forward to in 2021”.

Find “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Not Just Books: August 2021

While we do love us some books, believe it not, we do have a life outside of reading. So to highlight our other pop culture interests, on the last Monday of each month, we each will highlight three other “happenings” from the last month. Big events on favorite TV shows, new movies we’ve watched, old movies we’ve “discovered,” etc. Pretty much whatever we found of particular interest outside of the book world during the last month. Share your own favorite things in the comments!

Serena’s Picks:

TV Show: “Alone” Season 8

Obviously, my husband and I immediately started watching this show when it started up this summer! I think it’s probably both of our current favorite reality series (honestly, probably his only reality series. I’m not classy and enjoy several). This time, participants are set down in a remote section of Canada that also happens to be the home of the most concentrated grizzly populations, so now all we have to do is wait for the first person to realize, oh, yeah, grizzlies really are that big! Also can’t wait to see who the first person is to leave for ridiculous pretenses and to award the prize for “most cool shelter.” Fun times!

Movie: “12th Man”

I watched this movie on a pretty big whim. I didn’t even know it was a foreign language film when I selected it, but that in no way hindered my enjoyment of the story. It’s based on a true story (oh, you know I went down a big rabbit hole about all the details after finishing!) of a Norwegian resistance fighter who survives a harrowing escape after being chased by Nazis for weeks. Very much like “Alone,” much of his story involves survival in terrible conditions with very little food. Unlike “Alone,” it features Nazis rather than grizzlies. But really, they’re both bad, so we’ll allow it. I really enjoyed this film. It’s both uplifting and also incredibly tense. It’s so amazing the things people can survive.

Computer Game: “Sims 4: Cottage Living”

When I get a chance, I do enjoy play a few computer games. “The Sims” has been a long-time favorite but I hadn’t returned to it in a while since the packs I have I’d pretty much wrung the enjoyment from. But then they released a new expansion, and I’m back in it! Longtime fans of “The Sims” have been clamoring for a farming pack for ages, and it’s finally here! There is so much cute stuff in this expansion, from the new building options, to the new clothes, to, of course, all of the great farm animals. I, of course, immediately formed very negative relationships with the chickens, so that was very true to life for me. It’s a super fun expansion, so if you’re a fan of this game, I’d definitely recommend it!

Kate’s Picks:

Film: “The Suicide Squad”

I, of course, love superhero stories, but honestly it’s the villains and the anti-heroes that truly hold the keys to my heart. While I didn’t see the first “Suicide Squad” movie (as I heard it was terrible), I did see “Birds of Prey” and enjoyed it. Because of that, I was very interested in seeing “The Suicide Squad”, James Gunn’s reboot of the supervillain turned kinda hero franchise. This time, the Squad, including Harley Quinn, Bloodsport, Rat Catcher 2, and King Shark (one of my faves) have been thrown into the middle of a military coup in a South American nation, as the new government is hostile towards America. Oh, and there is also a potential scientific weapon that the government may be getting its hands on. So send in a bunch of hapless, kinda psychopathic, yet exceedingly charming criminals to take care of it. Margot Robbie is always a treat as Harley, but newcomers Idris Elba (Bloodsport), John Cena (Peacemaker) and Sylvester Stallone (King Shark, I KID YOU NOT) really sold it for me. It’s a really fun, over the top, hilarious and gory as FUCK movie, and I am SO happy that they got James Gunn to do this because he nails the tone.

TV Show: “Wellington Paranormal”

I love the vampire comedy “What We Do In the Shadows”, a faux documentary about a household of vampires living their undead lives in Wellington, New Zealand. One memorable scene involves Wellington police officers ending up at the house on a complaint call, and now those police officers (and a few more) have their own documentary comedy show, “Wellington Paranormal”. Officers Minogue and O’Leary have been selected by their superior Sergeant Maaka to be the members of the Wellington Paranormal unit, a division that investigates supernatural phenomena. They are competent but a little bit perplexed by what they see. Part “The X-Files”, part “Reno-911!”, this show has the dry and quirky humor of the movie it has spun off from, and I loved practically everything about it. Much like “What We Do in the Shadows” there are some great moments of meta horror and trope deconstruction, and it’s charming as all get out. If you love the movie (augh I still haven’t watched the show!), give this a try!

TV Show: “Reservation Dogs”

If Taika Waititi is attached to something I’m almost assuredly going to be interested, but I also saw a lot of hype for “Reservation Dogs” on Twitter by some pop culture and movie people I really like. Like, some people saying that it was the funniest show on TV hype. I decided to give it a try, and yep, it’s pretty damn funny. “Reservation Dogs” follows a group of Indigenous youth in rural Oklahoma. Bear, Elora Danan, Cheese, and Willie Jack are a group of friends that are hoping to escape their poverty ridden area for California, and commit petty crimes to make the money to do so. Hilarious misadventures ensue. “Reservation Dogs” is also a show that can tout the fact that it is a mostly Indigenous cast, and has a mostly Indigenous creative team working on it. Oh, and as if that isn’t awesome enough on its own, Zahn Tokiya-ku McClarnon is on the show as the police officer who is trying to bust the teens to no avail, and he is a hottie. Anyway, I’m really digging “Reservation Dogs”.

Serena’s Review: “Unholy Murder”

Book: “Unholy Murder” by Lynda La Plante

Publishing Info: Zaffre, August 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst!

Book Description: ‘Help me turn the coffin lid over.’ Jane Tennison said, grabbing one end.

‘What you looking for?’ Doctor Pullen asked.

‘I want to see the condition of the interior lining.’

‘The right hand on the body has a broken fingernails, some are worn down to the fingertips.’ Doctor Pullen informed them as they gently turned the lid over. The mouldy white satin lining was torn and hanging loose at the head end. Jane gently brushed it to one side revealing deep fingernail scratch marks on the interior metal.

‘Oh my God,’ Tennison exclaimed. ‘She was buried alive.

In Unholy Murder, Tennison must lift the lid on the most chilling murder case of her career to date . . .

Review: I won this book in a giveaway not really knowing that it was number seven in a series, but, here we are! I was mostly intrigued by the fact that it was a series featuring the character Tennison best known from the TV show. I also like a good crime novel every once in a while (Kate and I both read the “Temperance Brennan” series on and off though we haven’t reviewed them here). So I was excited to find another book in that vein, all the better since I can likely find audiobook versions read by people with lovely British accents, given the location! Let’s dive in.

Jane Tennison is back on the case. This time she arrives to find a recently-discovered coffin at the site of an old convent. Inside, the remains of a nun. But what should be unsurprising is suddenly awful when it becomes clear the nun was buried alive. Now Tennison must work to uncover the truth, attempting to wheedle out the truth from the reluctant Catholic Church, made all the more difficult from her partner’s past connection to the Church. But nothing can put Tennison off the case, and slowly but surely, the past will be unburied.

Like I mentioned earlier, I hadn’t read any other books in this series before picking up this book .Worse, I’ve only seen one or two of the episodes of the original show and none of the new show (didn’t even discover there was a new show until I went down a research rabbit hole). All of that to say, I still did fine without any real previous knowledge of the story. Like many police procedural books, there were perhaps some character connections and histories that I missed out on, but the story itself is started, centered, and concluded around this particular crime.

The crime itself was interesting. Being buried alive, I think, is pretty much anyone’s nightmare, so the horror was already built in right there. It was also a bit timely to be reading this book right now given the ongoing revelations about crimes within the church. I thought the book did a decent job of unpacking the “circling the wagons” nature of the Catholic Church while also not demonizing the entire belief system.

I also really liked both of the characters we had here. DCS Barnes, a completely new character to me, was particularly interesting with his past history with the Church. I liked that La Plante didn’t shy away from showing the biases that are inherent even to investigators who are meant to look at crimes through as objective a lens as possible. It’s simply not possible for a person not to bring their own baggage to some of these scenes, so it was nice to see the author give her characters these natural flaws.

I also enjoyed the time period that this book was set in. For some reason, I had assumed it would be a modern story, but I guess that doesn’t make much sense given the fact that it’s based on a TV show from the 90s I believe. The story itself is set in the early 80s, and I liked how it showed crime investigations going down without the modern tools we’re used to seeing in police procedurals today.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It’s been a while since I’ve read a crime procedural, and it was a good addition of a series to return to now and then. The story was definitely slow, and the writing was a bit awkward here and there (perhaps a testament to the author’s original writing experience coming from screenplay work rather than novel-writing). Fans of the series, I’m sure, will enjoy this. And those who enjoy police procedural stories are likely to appreciate it, too.

Rating 7: A bit slow and fumbling at times, but ultimately an enjoyable change of pace for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Unholy Murder” is a newer title so it isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Best Female Crime/Mystery/Thriller Writers.

Find “Unholy Murder” at your library using WorldCat!

A Revisit to Fear Street: “Fear Street Part 2: 1978”

Given that I did a re-read of R.L. Stine’s original “Fear Street” series, as well as a few “Super Chillers” and a couple special Trilogies within the Universe, when I saw that Netflix was going to make some “Fear Street” movies I knew I was game. And because that re-read series was chronicled on this blog, I figured that I ought to give my thoughts on these new movies as well, as nostalgia bombs and a new way for people to connect with a classic series in YA horror literature! So let’s see what the Netflix “Fear Street” Trilogy does for the series when introducing it to a new generation!

Film: “Fear Street Part 2: 1978”

It was once again a night to myself as I sat down to watch “Fear Street Part 2: 1978”, and given that I had really enjoyed the previous installment I thought that there would be big, big shoes to fill this time. But this one did have some things going for it: I figured that the soundtrack at least would be really awesome. I also love me a camp based horror movie, figuring homages to “Friday the 13th” and “Sleepaway Camp” would be plentiful and enjoyable. But guys…. I loved this one even more than I loved “1994”.

And yeah, the camp factor (both in setting and a little bit of tone) was a huge part of that. I really liked how Camp Nightwing was the setting, as that summer camp played a pretty significant role in at least one “Fear Street” book. This movie also really does capture the essence of summer camp cinema, be it horror or sex comedy. The counselors are horny, the kids are afterthoughts, and the summer is hot and picturesque. And once again, this is not the “Fear Street” from my youth, because there were two, count ’em TWO, rather graphic sex scenes, and the gore is very much upped to about eleven (and mind you, it has NO qualms about killing young kid campers as well as counselors). But at the same time, it once again captures the essence of the series, and fleshes out the characters so that you are really and truly rooting for them. This one was almost even more emotional because at the heart of it there isn’t a love between two teens showcased, but the complicated relationship between sisters Cindy and Ziggy. What we know at the beginning is that one of these sisters doesn’t make it out alive, and the other is the key for the 1994 characters on how to stop Sarah Fier once and for all. And while it’s a bit obvious as to who is who, I still found myself wholly invested in the ups and downs of goody goody Cindy’s and bad girl Ziggy’s fraught sisterly bond. As someone who has a younger sister that I get along with in adulthood, but am not really close with, the way that these two butt heads was pretty relatable, and the way that they just can’t quite figure the other out hit me in the feels quite a bit. It’s a testament to the two actresses, Sadie Sink and Emily Rudd, who play off each other very well.

And it’s a joy seeing some of the horror lore build up in this one, specifically the maniac at Camp Nightwing who, looking like Jason Voorhees in “Friday the 13th Part 2” axes his way through camp, at the will of Sara Fier and her curse. “Lights Out”, where we first encounter Camp Nightwing, isn’t one of my favorite books in the series, but I liked that we branched out beyond Shadyside into another part of the Stine Lore. It’s a great homage to these exploitation camp horror films as mentioned above, and it had some great scares and death moments, as well as a bit of poignancy to round it out. Once again the filmmakers aren’t just going to let us see these victims as mere bodies to entertain us as they are run through. At least, not for the most part. Everyone is genuinely likable, and the standout is Sadie Sink as angry and hurting Ziggy who has been a black sheep at camp, and now has to survive a massacre. And we also get to see the connections to “1994” that we didn’t even know were there, and they fit together very, very well. The rivalry between Shadyside and Sunnyvale is expanded upon, we get to see some characters in the first movie as teenagers, and we get a bit more into Sara Fier’s machinations and what it is she does to get people under her thrall.

Finally, yep, more nostalgia goodness, and this time it’s squarely in the late 1970s. So you know what that means! We have another really good soundtrack that finds a bunch of hits from the era, as well as styles and fashions from the time that perfectly reflect the various characters. A bit more denim for the more scruffy Shadyside kids, and more polos for the Sunnyvale ones. I was worried that the soundtrack and styles would seem a little forced, and while sometimes it treads pretty darn close, it never crosses over into ‘oh come on’ territory. There are even nods to popular authors at the time, from my boy Stephen King to Queen of YA realism Judy Blume. There are many easter eggs to find here, and since the books (at least in the original series) didn’t do much in the 1970s it felt novel and creative to have it take place in 1978.

“Fear Street Part Two: 1978” is a really, really fun and somewhat emotional follow up to “Part One”! I cannot wait to see what the final installment brings!

In two weeks I will reveal the third and final film in the series “Fear Street Part Three: 1666”.

Serena’s Review: “Where Dreams Descend”

Book: “Where Dreams Descend” by Janella Angeles

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, August 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: In a city covered in ice and ruin, a group of magicians face off in a daring game of magical feats to find the next headliner of the Conquering Circus, only to find themselves under the threat of an unseen danger striking behind the scenes.

As each act becomes more and more risky and the number of missing magicians piles up, three are forced to reckon with their secrets before the darkness comes for them next.

The Star: Kallia, a powerful showgirl out to prove she’s the best no matter the cost

The Master: Jack, the enigmatic keeper of the club, and more than one lie told

The Magician: Demarco, the brooding judge with a dark past he can no longer hide

Review: The book description immediately drew me in on this one, sounding very similar to “The Night Circus,” one of my favorite stand-alone books. But then it continued and started sounding too much like yet another “Six of Crows” knock-off. I swear, the minute any summary starts listing characters as “The ‘thief/assassin/master/etc.'” I now immediately become suspicious. It could have went either way, so in I dove!

Kallia has always been ambitious, dreaming of more than just her small act in a local club. So when a competition is announced to find the next headliner for the Conquering Circus, she jumps at the opportunity. Fleeing alone through the woods, she briefly escapes Jack, the owner of the club. But safety is not to be found in this new city as her fellow competitors begin to fall prey to disappearances and mysterious accidents. But Kallia knows of no way but forward, and with the judge of the competition brooding in the shadows, Kallia begins to find she has more than one reason for sticking it out.

To get it out of the way, this wasn’t all I had hoped it would be. However, the problems I had with it weren’t due to any comparisons to “Six of Crows.” Instead, it was one of those odd reads where just enough things didn’t come together in a smooth way and left me with a disjointed and disconnected reading exerpience.

The first problem I had was with the writing itself. There was a lot of telling in this book and a lack of showing. Kallia’s abilities are highlighted on and off, but we’re essentially told she’s that much better than everyone else….just because she is. For a story that is comprised of many dark fantasy elements, scenes that just burst, sparkle, and pop from the page (she’s trying out for something called the “Conquering Circus” for Pete’s sake!), the actual prose often fell flat, and I found myself having to work hard to keep myself grounded in the story.

The pacing was also incredibly slow feeling. Again, this was a strange experience as, on paper, things were definitely happening. We have Kallia’s initial flight through the woods to get to this new city. Then her experiences in the competition itself. As well as the strange happenings when she’s home alone. Even typing it out, it sounds like it should read like an action-packed thrill ride. But instead, it felt slow and plodding. Again, I think there was just something lacking in the writing to really give the plot the “oomf” it needed to get started.

The characters were probably the best part of the book, but they didn’t stand out as especially unique. I found myself getting annoyed by Kallia’s innate “specialness” and the generous helping of arrogance that came along with this. I was marginally more interested in the two male character, the mysterious judge who is the primary romantic interest as well as Aaros, a young man who quickly becomes her best friend in this new city.

Sadly, this book wasn’t for me. There was the bones of a good story here, but I just couldn’t get into it. This is definitely one of those where one should take my rating with a grain of salt as there’s a decent chance that many of these things didn’t work for me just because I wasn’t in the right mood for this type of book. If you like fantasy and dark circuses, this still might be worth checking out. But if you were on the fence already, maybe give it a pass.

Rating 6: Just not for me with writing that couldn’t manage to draw me into the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Where Dreams Descend” is on these Goodreads lists: 2020 YA/MG Books With POC Leads and Glittering Glamorous Fantasies.

Find “Where Dreams Descend” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “How We Fall Apart”

Book: “How We Fall Apart” by Katie Zhao

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury YA, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received and eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Students at an elite prep school are forced to confront their secrets when their ex-best friend turns up dead.

Nancy Luo is shocked when her former best friend, Jamie Ruan, top ranked junior at Sinclair Prep, goes missing, and then is found dead. Nancy is even more shocked when word starts to spread that she and her friends–Krystal, Akil, and Alexander–are the prime suspects, thanks to “The Proctor,” someone anonymously incriminating them via the school’s social media app.

They all used to be Jamie’s closest friends, and she knew each of their deepest, darkest secrets. Now, somehow The Proctor knows them, too. The four must uncover the true killer before The Proctor exposes more than they can bear and costs them more than they can afford, like Nancy’s full scholarship. Soon, Nancy suspects that her friends may be keeping secrets from her, too.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Awhile back, probably the early Spring, I saw a really interesting book cover and read an interesting description. And then, being a dope, I didn’t write down the title of the book, because surely, SURELY, I would remember it. Shockingly enough, I didn’t, and I kept trying to remember what it was called. I knew that it was a thriller, and that it had an all Asian American cast of characters. Eventually I did stumble back upon it, and that was when I finally added “How We Fall Apart” by Katie Zhao to my reading list. After the self-inflicted strife of trying to remember the title, I was eager to sink into it and read it, sure that my anticipation and need to remember would be worth it, but I’m sad to say that “How We Fall Apart” didn’t quite live up to the self made hype.

But as always, we’ll look to the positive first. “How We Fall Apart” has its greatest strength in the characters and how Zhao shows a wide range of circumstances between them. Nancy, Akil, Krystal, Alexander, and even possible murder victim Jamie all have similar cultural backgrounds, as they are all Asian American and many of whom have immigrant parents. But they also have varying circumstances, from the very wealthy and privileged to the lower income with many financial hurdles to overcome. In flashbacks Jamie lords her wealth and power over her best frenemy Nancy, always happy to point out that Nancy’s mother is the family maid, along with other moments of classist bullshit. And unlike a couple of her friends, Nancy has a LOT more to lose if things come out, as her scholarship could very well be on the line if she is revealed to be part of some past controversies and ‘incidents’. It’s nice seeing the complexities within a community, and this book shows them in a simple and easy to understand way. There are also moments where Zhao reminds us that no matter how privileged some of these students are, they still have to face racism from their white student counterparts, and it was moments of nuance like these that worked for me.

But in terms of a thriller, “How We Fall Apart” doesn’t really have much new to offer to the genre. It has a very similar premise to a few popular YA thriller series, from a group of kids who are suspected of a murder they didn’t commit to an anonymous tormenter who is slowly making their lives living hellscapes, the tropes are well worn and not really expanded upon. It just feels a lot like “Pretty Little Liars” (even with a student/teacher relationship subplot, though the good news is that here it is NOT glorified at all nor is it portrayed in any positive light) meets “One of Us Is Lying”, and I was hoping that we would get something a bit more than that. I didn’t really find myself invested in who “The Proctor” was, or how things were going to shake out for Nancy and company in terms of the future as well as in the past (there are many references to an ‘incident’ that Nancy is trying to hide). Ultimately, I felt like I’ve seen this before, and that made for not as enjoyable reading.

But that said, there are absolutely people out there (especially Young Adults) who aren’t as seasoned as I am when it comes to YA thrillers (is “PLL” even a thing anymore?). I have no doubt that “How We Fall Apart” would probably be effective for them. But for someone who has done more than just dipping their toes into the genre, it will probably leave you feeling like there could have been more.

Rating 5: Not offering much beyond what we’ve seen many times before (outside of some well done character insight), “How We Fall Apart” would probably be a good read for those new to the genre, but will probably disappoint old pros.

Reader’s Advisory:

“How We Fall Apart” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark Academia”, and “Asian MG/YA 2021”.

Find “How We Fall Apart” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Diving Into Sub-Genres: True Crime

We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

I will admit, the very idea of encompassing the entire classification of True Crime into the sub-genre box is a little bit of a cheat. One can certainly argue that true crime is a genre in and of itself, as it is a genre within the Non-Fiction Umbrella of books and storytelling. But the reason that I am going to classify it here as a sub genre is because I am the blogger who takes on the entirety of Non-Fiction on this blog, though that is admittedly few and far between. Because of this, I’m going to talk about true crime as a sub-genre on its own, but I am hoping that I will cover a swath of the kinds of stories you can find within that topic, genre or sub-genre or what have you.

True crime has kind of seen a bit of a resurgence as of late, with a sudden explosion of podcasts, docuseries, and yes, books on the topics of serial killers, missing people, and the random and strange acts that happen to fall into a gamut of wrongdoing. I’ve been a huge fan of true crime since I was a grade schooler, when I read my first true crime book (which was a kids oriented book about Jack the Ripper of all things!). While I enjoy picking up a book about true crime, I also find myself struggling with the moral dilemma of using other peoples pain for my own intrigue and, in crasser terms, entertainment. I do think that there is something that can be found in true crime that can be useful, however, even if that’s only to explore some of my own anxieties about these things in a safe and controlled way. So here is a list of some of my favorite true crime books, be they about cases or stories I’ve found interesting, or books that I have found genuinely useful when it comes to mitigating my own fears surrounding the subject.

Book: “The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy: The Shocking Inside Story” by Ann Rule

Honestly there are a whole lot of ‘classic’ true crime books that I truly love, from “Helter Skelter” by Vince Bugliosi to “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote, but when picking one for this list I had to go with “The Stranger Beside Me” by Ann Rule. True, there has been a weird obsession with Ted Bundy in the past few years, and I definitely get and agree with the criticism regarding telling his story over and over again (especially when so much focus is on HIM and not the women he brutalized and murdered). But I decided to include “The Stranger Beside Me” because it was the book that propelled Ann Rule to the legendary true crime writer status that she had when she was alive. And it’s the added fact that Rule was friends with Bundy because they worked in the same suicide hotline call center, and that she, too, fell for the ‘well he couldn’t possibly because he’s so upstanding’ fallacy that made him so dangerous. Rule gives context to Bundy’s story, does have some focus on his victims, and also analyzes her own role in all of this, as she was investigating and writing about the murders that her friend Ted was committing while not connecting the dots. It’s a well done look into how a serial killer like Bundy could manipulate those around him, and a very personal story about the blinders that people have when it comes to those they care about, even when there is ample evidence that they are not good people.

Book: “Party Monster: A Fabulous But True Tale of Murder in Clubland” by James St. James

This is once again a bit of a personalized account of what it’s like to be friends with a murderer, but it definitely has a bit more, shall we say, flamboyance if only because the author is legendary Club Kid James St. James. “Party Monster” (formerly known as “Disco Bloodbath”) is St. James’s true crime book/partial memoir about his friendship with Michael Alig, fellow Club Kid who murdered another Club Kid named Angel Melendez over a drug squabble. But “Party Monster” is also a first hand account of the 1990s club scene in New York City, and the wild, vibrant, idealistic, and sometimes destructive people who lived within it. St. James is a very funny writer who talks about the ups and downs of being a Club Kid (basically professional partiers known for their extravagance in costumes, themes, and attitudes in the club scenes), his battles with addiction, and his fremeny relationship with Alig, who ended up being a psychpathic murderer. St. James never fails to make me laugh, but he also tells a very intriguing story that has a lot of pathos because of what it was like being queer, poor, and somewhat adrift at a young age in a big city.

Book: “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America” by Erik Larson

Erik Larson is probably more of a history writer, as his books have the framework of taking a historical event and examining different facets of it, or the unintended consequences of it. “The Devil in the White City” just happens to involve a serial killer named H.H. Holmes. In Chicago in 1893, the World’s Fair (also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition) drew many people to the city from all over the country. It just so happened that H.H. Holmes was taking advantage of this fact, as he set up a hotel for women to live, and then would murder them and profit off of their deaths. “The Devil in the White City” does a deep dive into the history of the Exposition, with the background, the planning, the execution, and the bumps along the way, as well as telling the story of a legitimate American monster. I love how he makes the historical connections between a huge event and the smaller event that was able to happen because of that huge event. And along with the true crime aspect, you get some interesting factoids about the Chicago World’s Fair and the city itself!

Book: “I Love You Phillip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love, and Prison Breaks” by Steve McVicker

On the non-violent side of things, we turn to one of the most bizarre true crime books I have ever read that involves fraud, prison breaks, and true love (sort of). “I Love You Phillip Morris” is a bananas stranger than fiction book to be sure. Steve Russell was a family man who had ties to his Church community, a wife and daughter, and promising career in business. He was also a closeted gay man, and after going to prison for a fraud charge he met and fell desperately in love with fellow inmate Phillip Morris. Russell would go on to escape from jail over and over again, usually with outlandish plans and ALWAYS on Friday the 13th, but he would always fall victim to his love for Morris, and his inability to just move on or stop committing fraud/pulling a con would mean he’d be caught again and again. It’s a truly nutty story that is entertaining as all get out, and with a lack of serial killing or other violent themes it’s a good pick for those who are interested in true crime as a whole, but are worried about triggering aspects of it. “I Love You Phillip Morris” is just kinda fun as well as bonkers.

Book: “Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up In a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs” by Elissa Wall and Lisa Pulitzer

“Stolent Innocence” by Elissa Wall was the second book that I had ever read on the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints (or FLDS), but it was the first one that was from the perspective of a woman who had escaped the abusive cult that had held her prisoner ever since she was born into it. The FLDS is an extremist offshoot of Mormonism that still practices Polygamy, and more often than not marries of teenage girls (and someones younger) to older men, who then are trapped in an abusive marriage in which they are dehumanized and subjected to sexual assault as well as other abuses (sometimes even at the hands of their sister wives). Elissa Wall’s memoir is such a story, as she talks about growing up in the FLDS, as well as when convicted rapist Warren Jeffs took over and really upped the ante on violence and sexual abuse towards the members. This book is compelling, personal, and in many ways quite upsetting. But it is also a testament to the strength that Elissa had to get herself out of this situation and to find a new life for herself. The FLDS also has it’s fingers in other crime pies, like fraud, harassment, child abandonment, and trafficking, so it really has a full swath of true crime topics.

Book: “The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence” by Gavin de Becker

I am ending this list with a book that is less about a specific true crime case, and more about ways to potentially lower chances of becoming victim to something bad (though I want to stress something here: in no way am I saying that victims of crimes are at fault in any way shape or form. This is just a book that I have been able to use in my actual life in some ways and found it helpful). “The Gift of Fear” is written by Gavin de Becker, who specializes in violent behavior, with lots of focus on stalking and abusive behaviors. de Becker talks about different scenarios and cases, from victims of violence to stalking to targeted harassment, and shares tips and techniques on how he advises people to use their instincts and wits to get out of or avoid dangerous situations. I myself had a fairly creepy and aggressive phone stalker for a year or so back when I was right out of college, and this book gave me some good advice on how to proceed, which ended up being effective. It’s definitely not perfect (I think that he misses the mark on his section on domestic violence, and yes, it can come off a little victim blamey at times), but there are definitely good nuggets of info about listening to your gut if a situation doesn’t feel right, and to not worry about how you may be perceived because of it.

What true crime books are must reads for you? Feel free to share in the comments!

Serena’s Review: “The Burning Sky”

Book: “The Burning Sky” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, September 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Iolanthe Seabourne is the greatest elemental mage of her generation—or so she’s been told. The one prophesied for years to be the savior of The Realm. It is her duty and destiny to face and defeat the Bane, the most powerful tyrant and mage the world has ever known. This would be a suicide task for anyone, let alone a reluctant sixteen-year-old girl with no training.

Guided by his mother’s visions and committed to avenging his family, Prince Titus has sworn to protect Iolanthe even as he prepares her for their battle with the Bane. But he makes the terrifying mistake of falling in love with the girl who should have been only a means to an end. Now, with the servants of the tyrant closing in, Titus must choose between his mission—and her life.

Review: Honestly, it’s shocking that I haven’t gotten to this trilogy sooner. So far, I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read from Sherry Thomas. Her “Lady Sherlock” series is one of my favorite historical mysteries still publishing. Her “Mulan” re-telling was perfection and everything I’ve always wanted for that story. I even enjoyed the straight-up romance novel I read from her, the genre where she got her start. So the fact that I’m getting to her YA fantasy trilogy last is pretty strange, given my general reading preferences. What can I say? Part of me was probably saving it since I fully expect to love it to pieces.

Iolanthe was just going about her business, summoning lightening and all of that, when the Prince barges in informing her that she’s some sort of prophesied savior of the world, meant to take on the powerful tyrant that rules over their world. For his part, Titus has always known this day was coming. His mother foretold it long ago and told Titus to be on the look out, as he is meant to guide and protect this savior in their mission. But enemies are at their door, and it is all Iolanthe and Titus can do to keep two steps ahead of them. And while duty weights heavily on Titus, he finds his foretold future harder and harder to bare in the face of his growing feelings for Iolanthe.

As predicted, I really enjoyed this book. The book description, however, I felt was a bit deceptive. All that it describes is true, but there are a few aspects of the story that were big surprises. For one thing, Iolanthe is not aware of her savior status, so that is a huge part of her arc, growing to learn and accept this destiny that’s laid out before her. It also plays a major role in her relationship with Titus, since his appearance is tied so closely to her being informed that she must take on a perilous, and likely deadly, task.

The story also isn’t only set in a third-world fantasy setting. Instead, Titus and Iolanthe travel to London and spend time in the boys’ school that Titus attends there. This lead into another surprise, but one of my favorite tropes ever: Iolanthe disguised as a boy. The situation is rife with all of the humor and adventure that one would expect, and Thomas’s witty writing style is on point here. There were several laugh out-loud moments, both in clever dialogue sequences and imaginatively wacky situations. The story itself was just a blast to read.

I also really liked Iolanthe and Titus. They each felt like very distinct characters who were approaching a destiny that they shared in very different ways. Titus has known the role he must play for years; everything is new to Iolanthe. It was also nice to see that the friendship/love story that developed was paced in a more realistic way, with the road bumps and swift turns that one would expect from this situation. Iolanthe must learn to trust Titus, and Titus must learn to see Iolanthe as an individual with her own opinions and autonomy, not just a nameless, faceless “prophesied one.”

My one critique of my reading experience had to do with the audiobook version. It’s tough, because on one hand, I think the narrator nailed the humorous aspects of the story. However, the way the book works, the narration quickly and often shifts between Titus and Iolanthe. There are no chapter titles or warnings when this shift takes place, and the narrator didn’t do a lot to differentiate their voices. So there were time where I was thrown a bit before realizing that we had switched POVs. It was confusing and distracting at times, which was too bad.

I enjoyed the heck out of this book. I already bought the entire trilogy, so I think I might try to read the second one in print to see if that helps with the POV switching. But, really, the only question that remains is how long can I delay the joy of blowing straight through the next two books??

Rating 8: Action-packed, hilarious, and with a lovely slow-burn romance at its heart. Everything I like and more!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Burning Sky” is on these Goodreads lists: Girls disguised as Boys and Young Adult Books Without Love Triangles.

Find “The Burning Sky” at the library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Bath Haus”

Book: “Bath Haus” by P.J. Vernon

Publishing Info: Doubleday Books, June 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Oliver Park, a young recovering addict from Indiana, finally has everything he ever wanted: sobriety and a loving, wealthy partner in Nathan, a prominent DC trauma surgeon. Despite their difference in age and disparate backgrounds, they’ve made a perfect life together. With everything to lose, Oliver shouldn’t be visiting Haus, a gay bathhouse. But through the entrance he goes, and it’s a line crossed. Inside, he follows a man into a private room, and it’s the final line. Whatever happens next, Nathan can never know. But then, everything goes wrong, terribly wrong, and Oliver barely escapes with his life. He races home in full-blown terror as the hand-shaped bruise grows dark on his neck. The truth will destroy Nathan and everything they have together, so Oliver does the thing he used to do so well: he lies.

What follows is a classic runaway-train narrative, full of the exquisite escalations, edge-of-your-seat thrills, and oh-my-god twists. P. J. Vernon’s Bath Haus is a scintillating thriller with an emotional punch, perfect for readers curious for their next must-read novel.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!

I love seeing the books that some of my favorite authors are reading. Usually I can gauge if I’m going to mesh well with a book if an author I really trust is raving about it. So when Caroline Kepnes made mention of “Bath Haus” by P.J. Vernon, I was definitely curious to pick it up. I went in with certain expectations, most of them falling into the lurid. But almost immediately I realized that “Bath Haus” was going to be not only high octane and like a runaway freight train, it was also going to be super, super dark and disturbing.

From the jump “Bath Haus” is off the rails, and while that may not work in some authors hands, Vernon has no problem starting at fifty and working his way ever upward. We have two perspectives in this book. The first is Oliver, the young former addict who has found himself in a lavish, and highly controlled, relationship with Nathan. Oliver’s POV starts with almost getting strangled while attempting a hook up at a bath house, who then finds himself having to lie to his lover, and then being stalked by his attacker. While another thriller may have kept it here on this familiar trajectory, we have a second POV, of Nathan, Oliver’s older partner. Nathan is controlling, hot tempered but able to mask it, and suspicious of anyone and anything that may get between him and Oliver. And it’s because of this that “Bath Haus” has a whole other layer of suspense. Because not only is Oliver finding himself in a web with Kristian, his mysterious and menacing attacker, you as the reader see that he is ALSO potentially in danger due to his relationship with Nathan, which is unhealthy at best and possibly deranged. Not that Oliver knows this. Because of all these angles, the suspense was at a constant and Vernon managed to amp it up without it feeling histrionic or melodramatic. The flip side of this, however, is that at times the complexity wasn’t there for the characters. This applies more to Nathan, as he has a number of tropes that are pretty par for the course when it comes to his characterization. It didn’t take away from the entertainment, but it wasn’t really doing anything new in that regard.

And what’s more, it kept me guessing! There are enough twists, well crafted red herrings, and revelations in this book that I was in the dark a majority of the time. Things that could have been tacked on in other instances felt necessary, and by the time we did hit surprise after surprise I realized that while I perhaps came close to guessing a twist or two, I was off enough that the reveals felt fresh and surprising. I also really enjoyed how Vernon told the story through not only two different perspectives, but also through a bit of time jumping. This was mostly for Oliver’s benefit, as it really let the reader get into his mind, his past, and his traumas that helped explain a lot about the decisions that he makes as the book goes on. Being able to get this insight really helped, especially when Oliver makes decisions that may come off as really, really stupid. At least you get information as to why he’s making the stupid choice. Especially when stupid choice after stupid choice builds up to so. many. moments where the tension is so taut it felt like it would snap. There were numerous moments where my jaw dropped open and I gasped, or had to close my Kindle and walk away for a bit just to gather my bearings.

All of this said, I really need to tell people that this book is FILLED with content warnings. I almost described this as an erotic thriller at first, just because of some of the themes and elements, but stopped myself because the content isn’t really meant to be titillating. From sexual assault to mental and physical abuse to really disturbing scenes of violence, “Bath Haus” is dark and graphic and it doesn’t pull punches. It never felt distasteful to me, but it pushes boundaries and it is incredibly unsettling.

“Bath Haus” isn’t going to be for the faint of heart, but I think that it’s going to be talked about by those who do read it. It has a way of settling into your consciousness and twisting it about. I was left thinking about it for a few days after finishing, and oof. Recommended, but for a very specific reader.

Rating 8: Suspenseful and unsettling, “Bath Haus” is a twisted thriller that will get under your skin.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bath Haus” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 Releases Featuring Queer Men”.

Find “Bath Haus” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Gods and Monsters”

Book: “Gods and Monsters” by Shelby Mahurin

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Evil always seeks a foothold. We must not give it one.

After a heartbreaking loss, Lou, Reid, Beau, and Coco are bent on vengeance more than ever before—and none more so than Lou.

But this is no longer the Lou they thought they knew. No longer the Lou that captured a chasseur’s heart. A darkness has settled over her, and this time it will take more than love to drive it out.

Previously Reviewed: “Serpent & Dove” and “Blood & Honey”

Review: I know, I know. Didn’t I essentially swear off this series at the end of my review of “Blood & Honey?” And yes, I was incredibly disappointed by that second entry, not only as its own (poorly done) work but for the extreme drop in quality from the first book which I mostly enjoyed. But…I have so much trouble escaping my completionist compulsions. That last entry is just kind of…hanging there. So here I am. And while the trilogy is in no way going down as a “must read” any time soon (there’s still no forgiving that second entry), at least I can now say that ended it on a better note than that.

Everyone was in a dark place after the great loss suffered at the end of the last book. But none more so than Lou. A girl whose brightness had once caught the attention of a grim, stubborn young chasseur is now consumed with a darkness that wants nothing more than vengeance. To Reid and their friends, Lou is barely recognizable, and they worry they won’t be able to pull her back to herself before she’s lost forever, swept up in a wave of revenge that will topple systems and countries.

So, I obviously had problems with the second book. I thought the characters were barely recognizable, and I hated, hated, the ridiculous drama that became the romance. With that, I wasn’t sure what I was going to get with this third book. Lou, in particular, was set out on a very specific trajectory that had some extreme potential for crashing and burning into a fiery pit of tropes. Instead, while I think the book never climbs back to the high of the first, I was pleased to see a good exploration of important themes like grief in the face of the duties still required and the different pains and joys of found families versus those we’re born to.

The fast-paced action of the story probably helped distract me from some of my continued complaints about characterization. As the story gallops towards its final confrontations and conclusions, there is action scene on top of action scene. As we’ve seen many times before in this series, our characters again and again trip over “best laid plans” problems, with obstacles thrown in their way repeatedly. This contrivance, however, serves as more than just page filler and gets into the theme I mentioned above regarding having to keep moving forward even in the face of grief. The world doesn’t stop when losses occur; the world doesn’t care that our characters are hurting. Instead, life continues even while necessary processing and healing must happen alongside practical decisions and actions.

The relationships between the characters were also nice to see emphasized once again. I especially liked the friendship between Lou and Coco and how vital they were to one another, this small family they had made for themselves, each disconnected from their birth families in different ways. I also liked a lot of the scenes we had between Lou and Reid. Now that the series was over the hump, it was clear the author could return these two characters to the much more pleasing process of coming together (instead of the difficult-to-believe theatrics of the middle book that worked at tearing them apart).

My ultimate conclusion is that these books would have been much better served as the duology they were initially meant to be. Looking at all three, now that they have been published, it’s easy enough to see what the duology might have looked at. A lot of unnecessary angst, plot contrivance, and filler could have been trimmed, leaving behind the solid exploration of important themes, the witty banter, and a lovely romance. I’m mostly sad that we didn’t get that story. But I’m happy enough that it ended in a satisfying way. For those who have enjoyed the series so far, I’m sure they’ll be pleased with this entry. For those who were burned on the second book, I won’t say that this book justifies a return to the series, but it also won’t be a monumental regret if you choose to complete the trilogy.

Rating 7: Mostly a relief that it improved from the second book and managed to tie things together well enough.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Gods & Monsters” is on these Goodreads lists: Dragons/Serpents and 2021 YA with Male POV.

Find “Gods & Monsters” at your library using WorldCat!

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