Kate’s Review: “The Girls Are All So Nice Here”

Book: “The Girls Are All So Nice Here” by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, March 2021

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

Book Description: Two former best friends return to their college reunion to find that they’re being circled by someone who wants revenge for what they did ten years before—and will stop at nothing to get it—in this shocking psychological thriller about ambition, toxic friendship, and deadly desire.

A lot has changed in the years since Ambrosia Wellington graduated from college, and she’s worked hard to create a new life for herself. But then an invitation to her ten-year reunion arrives in the mail, along with an anonymous note that reads “We need to talk about what we did that night.”

It seems that the secrets of Ambrosia’s past—and the people she thought she’d left there—aren’t as buried as she’d believed. Amb can’t stop fixating on what she did or who she did it with: larger-than-life Sloane “Sully” Sullivan, Amb’s former best friend, who could make anyone do anything.

At the reunion, Amb and Sully receive increasingly menacing messages, and it becomes clear that they’re being pursued by someone who wants more than just the truth of what happened that first semester. This person wants revenge for what they did and the damage they caused—the extent of which Amb is only now fully understanding. And it was all because of the game they played to get a boy who belonged to someone else, and the girl who paid the price.

Alternating between the reunion and Amb’s freshman year, The Girls Are All So Nice Here is a shocking novel about the brutal lengths girls can go to get what they think they’re owed, and what happens when the games we play in college become matters of life and death.

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

Having gone to a large public university (two, really, as I transferred after freshman year from one U of MN campus to another) and having only lived in the dorm for one year, I didn’t really find myself caught up in any dorm drama or scandals. Perhaps my dorm was just boring, or perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough. The closest I got was having a roommate with whom I initially bumped heads (but even that doesn’t really count because now she’s one of my dearest friends). But I guess that I can believe that such things do happen. And “The Girls Are All So Nice Here” by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn is steeped, and I mean STEEPED, in the poisonous shenanigans that some college kids get up to while living on campus. I’ll admit that I was just picturing Danielle from “Happy Death Day” as I read the description. And while I wasn’t too far off, it didn’t rise to the occasion that I was anticipating.

Danielle and Tree play my expectations when they’re smacked back to reality. (source)

“The Girls Are All So Nice Here” has some pretty good hits, and a few glaring misses. I’ll start with the hits, however, as there were definitely things that worked really well. We have ourselves a mystery at hand. Our narrator, Amb, has done her best to leave her college days behind and forget about them. She has a kind husband, lives in New York, and has cultivated a scandal free life. But when her college reunion looms, she starts getting strange messages from an anonymous person saying that they need to ‘talk about what they did that night’. The story is Amb going back to the school to find out who is sending the messages, and we as the readers slowly get to find out what it is she did, through flashbacks and the present day reunion weekend. It’s a device that we’ve seen before, but it works well here as Flynn carefully peels back the layers of Amb’s freshman year, and her relationships. Specifically those she had with her then best friend Sully, the resident mean girl, and Flora, Amb’s sweet and well loved roommate. I will say that what we find out is pretty damn upsetting, with mean girl bullshit spiraling out of control, jealousy and pettiness getting the best of people, and the entitlement thinking one deserves more than they have leading to very bad things. I’m being vague deliberately, because the plot itself is well done. When I thought a character couldn’t stoop lower, she did. When I thought that a twist was one thing, it ended up being something else. A couple reveals felt a bit convenient, but ultimately I was enjoying the ride enough that it didn’t put me too off.

What didn’t work as well for me were the characterizations of the various players in our toxic soup of a story. I definitely understand having garbage people being at the forefront in a story like this, and I don’t have a problem with following an unreliable narrator who is also an unlikable and nasty person. But I think that if you are going to do that, I would like a little bit of exploration as to what it is that makes them that way, or at least make them wickedly entertaining in their nastiness. With Amb, we get a lot of telling that she is insecure, that she is jealous of Flora and how easy it is for ‘girls like her’, but there wasn’t really much in Amb’s background that we see that made me fully see the complexities that go with this kind of dangerous coveting and jealousy that leads to very bad things. Sully, too, is just nasty with no reason or exploration into her nastiness. We just see she’s horrible and that’s all we get from her, and she isn’t interesting enough to even make it fun to hate her. Perhaps one would think that Flora may get a bit of depth here, given that she is the one who is hurt the most by Amb and Sully, but no. Flora is your two dimensional really nice girl that is there to be a martyr. Even when she talks with Amb or other characters talk about her with Amb in the past and the present, all we know about Flora is SUPER sweet which, sure, makes your blood boil when Amb and Sully treat her like crap. But that only gets me so far.

So while the plot was engrossing and had some genuine tricks up its sleeves, “The Girls Are All So Nice Here” was a fairly run of the mill thriller about women behaving badly. It gets the job done, but it probably could have done more.

Rating 6: A twisty thriller with some fun surprises, “The Girls Are All So Nice Here” will keep you guessing, but doesn’t have anyone to root for.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girls Are All So Nice Here” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2021”.

Find “The Girls Are All So Nice Here” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York”

Book: “Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York” by Elon Green

Publishing Info: Celadon Books, March 2021

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

Book Description: The gripping true story, told here for the first time, of the Last Call Killer and the gay community of New York City that he preyed upon.

The Townhouse Bar, midtown, July 1992: The piano player seems to know every song ever written, the crowd belts out the lyrics to their favorites, and a man standing nearby is drinking a Scotch and water. The man strikes the piano player as forgettable. He looks bland and inconspicuous. Not at all what you think a serial killer looks like. But that’s what he is, and tonight, he has his sights set on a gray haired man. He will not be his first victim. Nor will he be his last.

The Last Call Killer preyed upon gay men in New York in the ‘80s and ‘90s and had all the hallmarks of the most notorious serial killers. Yet because of the sexuality of his victims, the skyhigh murder rates, and the AIDS epidemic, his murders have been almost entirely forgotten. This gripping true-crime narrative tells the story of the Last Call Killer and the decades-long chase to find him. And at the same time, it paints a portrait of his victims and a vibrant community navigating threat and resilience.

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

As someone who has had a deep fascination with psychopaths and serial killers since she was a kid, it sometimes takes some digging for me to be completely caught off guard by a story that I’ve never heard of. But the sad truth is that in the cases I’ve never heard of it, a lot of the time is because of the fact that the victims fall into the ‘less dead’ category (aka marginalized groups, such as POC, drug addicts, sex workers, LGBTQIA, etc) and because of that, it’s not as publicized. This is basically what I ran into when I learned about “Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York” by Elon Green. My initial though was ‘why haven’t I heard of this?’, and then I realized that if a serial killer was preying on the gay community in 1990s New York City, it was going to get muffled for a myriad of reasons. So I decided I needed to read it.

“Last Call” is about Richard Rogers, aka the Last Call Killer, a man who murdered gay men after interacting with them at a piano bar in New York City in the early 1990s. This time period was tumultuous for the LBGTQIA community, as violence, HIV/AIDS, and prejudice were constant threats to a group whose safety wasn’t really a high priority for law enforcement officials. Green does a really good job of capturing an contextualizing the time period and the place, breathing life into a New York City that has been transformed from that time, though for both better and worse depending on what angles you decide to approach it by. The socio-political context is incredibly important to this story; there was still a lot of fear and stigma around gay men because of misconceptions about HIV/AIDS, as well as their sexuality, so for gay men to be targeted in this way wasn’t exactly focused on or considered a priority. While some detectives were dogged in their investigations, you get the overall sense that there wasn’t much urgency in spite of the fact dismembered bodies with similar M.O.s were being dumped like trash on the outskirts of the city. Green really sets all of this up well, and as he tracks the case as time goes on and explores how things began to change in the city, he shows how it all is connected. Throw in a lot of really helpful notes and research information at the end, and you have a well researched true crime story that’s brimming with historical context! Which I love.

But the other thing about this book that I really liked is that Green is very careful to shine a light on each of the victims that Rogers murdered. Given that true crime does have a problem with exploitation and salacious framing as it strives for ‘entertainment’, Green wants to be sure that each of the people who Rogers murdered has a voice and is depicted as more than a victim, especially given how forgotten this whole thing was. There are sections devoted to each victim’s background, from their childhood, to how they were faced with prejudice and turmoil because they were gay, to the friends that they made and the found families that the crafted while living in New York City. Along with this we see the resilience and determination of a community that is having to contend with so much strife and trauma. As if it wasn’t enough that prejudice and threats of general violence and an epidemic were threats that the LGBTQIA community was having to think about at the time, a serial killer that the police weren’t exactly gunning for was another horrible reality.

And Green is also very dogged in his investigation into Rogers as a person. Though Rogers didn’t cooperate with this book (and whatever, that’s fine, there’s no need to give the guy a platform), Green still does a deep dive into his life and psyche, building a compelling argument that there were undoubtedly more victims that we never heard about, even going further back into his history to reveal that there had been ANOTHER murder he had committed even before the Last Call murders (but the record was sealed due to various circumstances). It’s impressive and thorough journalism.

“Last Call” is bleak and sad, but it gives voice to horrible crimes that deserve to be remembered, for the sake of the victims. It’s a deep dive with a lot of notes, and while it’s a hard and tragic read, I think that true crime fans should make note to read it.

Rating 8: An impactful and haunting book about a forgotten killer and his forgotten victims, “Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York” shines a light on how some true crime stories are lost due to society’s prejudices.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York” is included on the Goodreads list “Can’t Wait Nonfiction of 2021”, and would fit in on “Tales of New York City”.

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

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.7): Brief Lives”

Book: “The Sandman (Vol.7): Brief Lives” by Neil Gaiman, Jill Thompson (Ill.), & Vince Locke (Ill.).

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1993

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Dream’s youngest sister, the loopy Delirium, convinces him to go on a quest for their missing brother, Destruction. But Dream may learn that the cost of finding his prodigal sibling is more than he can bear.

Review: This was the storyline in “Sandman” that I was most looking forward to revisiting. My love for Morpheus’s younger sister Delirium knows no bounds, and I remembered that the story that has so much to do with her was the one that touched me the most on my first read through of this series. Her childlike innocence and whimsy, which is also steeped in the darkness of her past, has always been so utterly charming and lovely, and “Brief Lives” puts her at the forefront as she gets in her mind the idea of finding the long lost Endless Sibling, Destruction. When both Desire and Despair say no, she turns to Dream, who is mourning the end of a romantic relationship and decides to go. What comes next is a story that sets the wheels in motion for where this series eventually ends. As well as a road trip tale between the unlikeliest of companions, Delirium and Dream. And I LOVE a good road trip.

Someday we will road trip again! (source)

I, of course, loved “Brief Lives” thanks mostly to Delirium, whose character and design is just a joy as well as a little sad. She is very clearly not in her right mind, gravitating towards those who are in the same boat, so seeing her and the stoic and matter of fact Dream is both quite amusing and bittersweet. It is interesting, however, that she is the Endless that is so determined to find Destruction, who left the family and disappeared three hundred years previously. We see flashbacks of Destruction interacting with some of his siblings, as well as the moment that he decided to go, foreseeing that the Age of Enlightenment and a move towards reason across humanity would bring forth things that would almost make him a bit pointless. Delirium is the perfect sibling to want to find him, as one must only seek Destruction if they were in a similar place as she is. I hesitate to say ‘crazy’. It’s far more complex than that. We get some great moments of humor with her and Dream on this trip, as her driving a car or interacting with nonplussed humans is really great fun.

We also get to see that she didn’t start as Delirium, but as Delight, and that the change she went through was in part thanks to Destruction. This change or multi faceted characterization is a HUGE theme in this tale, especially for the dysfunctional siblings; Destruction talks about how the Endless are two sided coins and aren’t just one thing, but also the inversion of that thing. Delirium is insane, but also one of the most clear headed of her siblings. Death brings, well, Death, but is also the kindest. Desire is both filled with want, but also incredibly vicious. And so forth. I loved seeing these concepts explored as Dream and Delirium go on their journey, inadvertently causing destruction on their quest to find Destruction. This is probably the arc in which we get to see the intricate relationships between The Endless, who are both otherworldly beings with scope and metaphysical attributes that tie into humanity, but also a dysfunctional family group with shifting alliances, petty grievances, and old hurts that siblings know far too well.

And finally, we do get a final visit to the relationship between Morpheus and his son Orpheus, who, cursed with immortality, is just a head being cared for by a family on an island off of Greece. As we saw in “Fables and Reflections”, Orpheus begged his father to kill him, as he is really the only one that can grant him that wish, and Dream turned his back on his son. Now Morpheus has to confront that decision, and to face the child that he abandoned for reasons that Orpheus does not understand. I don’t really want to spoil how this all plays out, but it’s significant and sets the course for what is going to happen next in the series. Also, it made me weep.

And finally, once again, the artwork is lovely. I haven’t gushed enough about Delirium’s design, which is excellent and cheerful and creepy at once. But there was one particular panel that really stuck out to me near the end that just sums up the vast, ever-changing realities of The Endless and their worlds.

Source: Vertigo

“Brief Lives” is a significant story arc and is still my favorite thus far. It really captures the philosophy, the humor, the pathos, and the wonder of the entire series.

Rating 10: A lovely story arc about family, grief, and change, “The Sandman: Brief Lives” is my favorite tale in the series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.7): Brief Lives” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mythic Fiction Comics”, and “Death Gods and Reaper Protagonists”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.7): Brief Lives” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “Good Girl, Bad Blood”

Book: “Good Girl, Bad Blood”(A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder #2) by Holly Jackson

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, March 2021

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

Book Description: The highly anticipated sequel to the instant New York Times bestseller, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder! More dark secrets are exposed in this addictive, true-crime fueled mystery.

Pip is not a detective anymore. With the help of Ravi Singh, she released a true-crime podcast about the murder case they solved together last year. The podcast has gone viral, yet Pip insists her investigating days are behind her.

But she will have to break that promise when someone she knows goes missing. Jamie Reynolds has disappeared, on the very same night the town hosted a memorial for the sixth-year anniversary of the deaths of Andie Bell and Sal Singh. The police won’t do anything about it. And if they won’t look for Jamie then Pip will, uncovering more of her town’s dark secrets along the way… and this time everyone is listening. But will she find him before it’s too late?

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

Perhaps you remember that last year I greatly enjoyed the YA mystery “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” by Holly Jackson, and it even made my Top Ten Books of 2020. I also mentioned in that review that I was super stoked for the sequel. Well folks, the time has arrived. “Good Girl, Bad Blood” is here.

My first highly anticipated thriller book of the year! (source)

We pick up not to far after we left off in “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder”. Pip is no longer actively seeking out mysteries to solve, instead working on a podcast about the Andie Bell/Sal Singh case, and attending the trial of serial rapist Max Hastings. Pip, however, is drawn into helping her friend Connor, whose brother has gone missing, and dedicates a new season of her podcast to her investigation. What I liked most about “Good Girl, Bad Blood” is that while Jackson could have set Pip up to be a modern day Nancy Drew who is just going to solve cases and move on to the next, instead we get a front seat at the physical, mental, and emotional labor that she has to endure to help those she cares about. Well, and to give her that purpose that she felt she had in the first book. It’s an angle that may seem obvious, but Jackson does it in a way that makes you really start to wonder how much of this is all worth it as Pip gets sucked into another case, and risks her safety in trying to solve it. I didn’t expect it to go in this direction, and I was happy that it did. Jackson also takes this time to examine the weaknesses in our current law and order systems, as the police in town aren’t really taking Jamie’s missing status seriously, and the rape trial of Max Hastings follows a lot of the same ‘he said, she said’ injustices we see in real life. All of these things combine that leaves Pip in some pretty bleak places as the story goes on, and since there is going to be another book in the series, I want to see how Jackson tackles this for our imperfect heroine.

In terms of the plot itself, “Good Girl, Bad Blood” has a lot of the same strengths as the first book. I still really like Pip, and I loved seeing her relationship with Ravi Singh evolve and flourish (cutest couple ever). I also liked getting to know some of her other friends a little bit better, like Connor. As to the mystery, once again we got a taut and suspenseful thriller, and we get to see everything laid out in a cohesive way through podcast transcripts and Pip’s notes. It’s a much better way to keep everything organized without making any of the characters seem like they’re reciting facts in a robotic way, and I really enjoy it. I will say that there were a couple of trip ups for me, however. The first was that a couple of red herrings tossed out there didn’t really get resolved as red herrings or not. Like, I think that they were? But it felt a little too touched upon in the narrative to just be left behind without explanation. That’s nitpicky. The other issue isn’t as such, in that one of the big puzzle pieces that ties everything together wasn’t even hinted at until well into the last fourth of the book. It felt sort of like a deus ex machine, but for a plot point. But that said, I was pretty much kept guessing until the end. And what an ending it was. It has set us up for the next book in the series. And now, once again, I am waiting anxiously to see where Pip can go next.

“Good Girl, Bad Blood” continues a fun series that is on my must read list going forward. If you haven’t tried these books yet and like a good YA mystery/thriller, you absolutely need to pick them up.

Rating 8: A twisty and suspenseful sequel, “Good Girl, Bad Blood” has a couple of stumbles, but is overall a great follow up to a runaway hit!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Good Girl, Bad Blood” is included on the Goodreads lists “Young Adult Crime/Murder Mysteries”, and “Fiction Books Featuring Podcasts”.

Find “Good Girl, Bad Blood” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Corpsing”

Book: “Corpsing” by Kayleigh Marie Edwards

Publishing Info: Sinister Horror Company, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eBook from the author.

Book Description: Kayleigh Marie Edwards has been entertaining and chilling audiences with her own eclectic mix of horror and comedy. Now, for the first time, this popular author has collected her works together, reviewing and revising each one to bring you the definitive versions of her unique tales.

From murderous children to nightmarish trips to an ill-fated zombie apocalypse, Corpsing will send you running for the light switch, but smiling as you do it. Featuring the stories: Bitey Bachman, Bits and Bobs, Siren, Now You See Them, Skin, ‘S’ Day, Barry’s Last Day & ’Twas The Night Before Christmas.

Review: Thank you to Kayleigh Marie Edwards for reaching out and sending me an eBook of this novel!

Since I’ve had a pretty okay run with short stories recently, there may not be a reason for me to do a disclaimer, but I’m going to do it anyway. Short stories or anthologies as a format for a book is VERY hit or miss for me. While there are definitely collections I’ve enjoyed, a good number in recent years, I still tend to stay away of my own volition unless it’s an author I REALLY love. But when Kayleigh Marie Edwards approached our blog about her short story collection “Corpsing”, I wanted to give it a shot, because the info I found out about it made it sound like it was going to be a treat. And let me tell you, when the first story in the collection had MANY “Rocky Horror Picture Show” references, I knew that I had made the right call.

One might say it makes me wanna take Charles Atlas by the hand. (source)

“Corpsing” is a very fast collection, clocking in under one hundred pages, so was able to finish it in an evening. But that isn’t to say that the stories within it feel rushed or incomplete in any way. On the contrary, Edwards has crafted some creepy, grotesque, and sometimes quite funny tales that make up this collection, all of them feeling well thought out with clear arcs. As per usual, I shall talk about my favorite stories, and then tackle the collection as a whole.

“Siren”

By far the scariest story of the bunch, “Siren” is about a girl named Lucy who moves to a new home with her mother, her father staying behind as their marriage has fallen apart. Lucy is resentful and bitter, but then she looks out her window overlooking a lake and sees a girl who appears to be floating on the surface. Lucy gets to know Alice, a ghost who is convinced that they are going to be the best of friends. “Siren” has so many creepy moments, from imagery to interactions to an unsettling feeling as the story progresses, and it is probably one of the most serious stories of the bunch just because of how bleak it feels. You get Lucy’s isolation and resentment, and she feels like a very realistic tween girl who doesn’t quite get the full consequences of her actions or the actions of those around her, and as she depends more and more on Alice the dread builds more and more. And again, back to the imagery I mentioned: holy shit. There was one moment in particular that made me shiver.

“Barry’s Last Day”

As someone who has felt resentment towards a job, I thought this was a pretty fun one. Barry has worked at his company for many years, only to be passed over in his promotion for a young and smarmy man named Todd. As he’s leaving his job, he wants to take revenge on those he feels wronged him, but it may not go to plan. “Barry’s Last Day” isn’t really a scary story per se, but it definitely falls into the suspenseful ‘will this work out for him, and if it does, what does that mean?’ realm. Barry isn’t particularly likable or sympathetic, but I feel like lots of people could relate to him in his frustration. And I laughed out loud at the dark gallows humor throughout, especially once everything shakes out in the conclusion.

“‘Twas The Night Before Christmas”

Jim has taken his sons Dan and Nathan out to chop down a Christmas tree, but the only one they can find is growing in an animal cemetery, and hadn’t been there the year previously when they buried the family cat. Jim brings it home anyway, as what could possibly go wrong? This one was such a creative concept, and I don’t really want to spoil it, but I feel like this one was the best in the collection in terms of combining true horror with the funny. And again, I don’t want to spoil anything. But the last line made me laugh out loud and clap. I see what you did there, Kayleigh Marie Edwards, and I APPROVE.

In terms of the other stories, I think that were I more into visceral splatter horror and body horror I may have enjoyed them more, so while a couple didn’t click with me, it is probably because the subgenres aren’t my jam for the most part. But they were still engaging and quick reads, so those who do like more body horror things and want a quick collection will probably be right at home with them. And yes, the dark humor is there for those who like that mixed in with their scares. Edwards does it well and captures a well balanced tone when they do mix.

“Corpsing” was a fun and fast read! Definitely seek it out if you’re looking for something quick with wit and gore.

Rating 7: A quick and nasty (in a good way!) collection of short stories that is sure to have something for everyone, “Corpsing” is a fun collection with a couple stories that really stood out for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Corpsing” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Spooky Short Story Collections”.

Find “Corpsing” at your library using WorldCat, or at sinisterhorrorcompany.com!

Kate’s Review: “The Initial Insult”

Book: “The Initial Insult” by Mindy McGinnis

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, February 2021

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

Book Description: Welcome to Amontillado, Ohio, where your last name is worth more than money, and secrets can be kept… for a price. Tress Montor knows that her family used to mean something—until she didn’t have a family anymore. When her parents disappeared seven years ago while driving her best friend home, Tress lost everything. She might still be a Montor, but the entire town shuns her now that she lives with her drunken, one-eyed grandfather at what locals refer to as the “White Trash Zoo,” – a wild animal attraction featuring a zebra, a chimpanzee, and a panther, among other things.

Felicity Turnado has it all – looks, money, and a secret that she’s kept hidden. She knows that one misstep could send her tumbling from the top of the social ladder, and she’s worked hard to make everyone forget that she was with the Montors the night they disappeared. Felicity has buried what she knows so deeply that she can’t even remember what it is… only that she can’t look at Tress without having a panic attack.

But she’ll have to. Tress has a plan. A Halloween costume party at an abandoned house provides the ideal situation for Tress to pry the truth from Felicity – brick by brick – as she slowly seals her former best friend into a coal chute. With a drunken party above them, and a loose panther on the prowl, Tress will have her answers – or settle for revenge.

In the first book of this duology, award-winning author Mindy McGinnis draws inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe and masterfully delivers a dark, propulsive mystery in alternating points of view that unravels a friendship . . . forevermore.

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

As I’ve mentioned before, I really enjoyed Edgar Allan Poe and his poems and short stories. From the sad to the dream like to the macabre, the guy always has something that is going to connect with me. It’s been a long time since I read “The Cask of Amontillado”, the short story in which a man slowly seals up his rival into a tomb brick by brick, but I do remember how much it unsettled me the first time I read it back in middle school. When I head that Mindy McGinnis had written a new YA novel that took that story and updated it to be between two teenage girls, I was interested, but wondered how it could be done! But I was absolutely game to give it a try.

Taking a story like “The Cask of Amontillado” and turning it into a thriller/horror about two teenage girls whose friendship has gone bad is a lofty goal to set for oneself, but McGinnis rises to the occasion and has created a creepy and suspenseful story. We get the perspectives of both Tress, the one with the bricks, and Felicity, the one in the chains, and see how their relationship has gotten to this point. I really enjoyed both voices of each girl, and McGinnis was very careful to show that each of them had their own roles to play in the disintegration of their friendship. She doesn’t really give either of them a pass, but is also very empathetic to each of them in their struggles. It made it easy to both feel for them, and hate them, depending on the moment of the story. But it was the third perspective that I didn’t expect that kind of worked the best for me, and that is of the Panther that Tress’s grandfather Cecil owns, who has escaped from the exotic zoo. It’s this element that makes “The Black Cat” our other most prominent Poe work, and I thought it upped the ante, but also added an experimental and all knowing third perspective to bring in other, dreamy elements.

I WILL say, and I never thought I’d ever say this given how much I like Poe, that there was a little too much Poe stuffed into this book. It’s one thing when you are throwing references with names, vague similarities between the source content and the interpretation, and a main plot that’s paying homage. But McGinnis put a few too many plot points in that were a bit overwhelming. If it had just been “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat” with a few other nods I think it would have been fine. But we also get a whole “The Mask of Red Death” subplot which feels underexplored because there is so much else going on, and some plot points from “Hop Frog” thrown in as well that are also superfluous. It just made things seem a bit more bloated than they needed to be, especially since there is, indeed, going to be another book in the series. Could these things have been saved for that? Or will there be even MORE underutilized opportunities with some great source material?

But yes, having said that, “The Initial Insult” was a lot of fun, and while I’m curious about how a sequel is going to work (given that things seemed pretty final in some regards), I have a couple of theories as to what McGinnis may be up to. And even if those theories don’t pan out, I’m definitely anticipating what comes next.

Rating 8: A creative modern day interpretation of an Edgar Allan Poe classic, “The Initial Insult” sometimes does too much, but is entertaining and suspenseful nonetheless.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Initial Insult” is included on the Goodreads list “Books Influenced by Edgar Allan Poe”.

Find “The Initial Insult” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “What She Found in the Woods”

Book: “What She Found in the Woods” by Josephine Angelini

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, December 2020

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

Book Description: Running from a scandal at her New York private school, Magdalena heads to her family home to recover under the radar.

Over-medicated and under-confident, she’s fearful she’ll never escape her past.

Until she meets Bo out hiking. Wild, gorgeous and free, he makes her believe she might finally be able to move on.

But when a mutilated body is discovered in the woods, Magdalena realises she can’t trust anyone. Not even herself.

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

In a moment of ‘why did no one tell me this’, last November I was looking at my Highlights list for December, only to discover that one of the books I had highlighted had been postponed until Spring of this year. So I needed to go looking for a new title that I could highlight, and hit a bunch of lists for December publications. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I panic! But I was happy when I saw “What She Found in the Woods” by Josephine Angelini, as the description was checking off a LOT of my boxes. A privileged girl running from a private school scandal, a strange boy who may be hiding something, and dead bodies popping up in the wilderness, my gosh, what a treasure trove! I was lucky enough to get a copy via NetGalley, and dove in hoping for a fun read. But sadly, checked boxes or no, “What She Found in the Woods” ended up not gelling for me.

While it certainly has a promising premise and it did have some moments of tension because of a solid build up, “What She Found in the Woods” just didn’t thrill me the way that I wanted it to. The first issue I had was the characters themselves. Magdalena, our protagonist, had a well plotted slow burn of a reveal to her past, but I feel like there was too much piled on once we got past the first initial ‘bad thing’ that was revealed just to make it ‘extra bad’. We really didn’t need the additional issues after the first one (being vague as best as I can here), as it felt like too much to me. There was also a huge reliance on mental health problems as plot progression, or being used as potential foreshadowing, which doesn’t really count as character development, and is a bit problematic as it’s seen as a weakness or potential for violent behavior. And then there is Bo, the mysterious Wild Boy who lives in the wilderness with his family. I thought that Angelini did address how his social skills may not be up to par, though he felt a little manic pixie dream boy for a good amount of the time. There was also a glossed over ‘oh he’s going to go to college’ aspect to his storyline which didn’t feel very thought out, as how? How is he going to go to college? There are so many hoops that he would have to jump through within the context of him going that just saying ‘oh he’s going to’ doesn’t really cut it.

On top of that, the story itself wasn’t too thrilling for me. I wasn’t invested in who was maybe killing people in the woods, as to whether it was Bo or a mysterious entity known as Dr. Goodnight. The commentary on addiction and poverty was interesting enough, but ultimately it barely scratched the surface and the bigger priority was whether or not the instalove between Magdalena and Bo was going to work out, either because of her mental issues, or his potential for having a role in what was happening in the woods. By the time we got to the big climax, I just kind of wanted to be done for the sake of being done.

I’d been really struggling with if I wanted to go into spoilers for this review, just because those who may want to read it should go in without having to worry about having aspects of the mystery ruined. But one of my biggest gripes outside of ‘it just didn’t thrill me’ is tangled with a pretty big spoiler. But I think that I need to address it, so, as always, here is your

So, one of the big questions in this mystery is why Bo and his family have been living in the woods off the grid, and why they are so paranoid about Bo being discovered, and why he has to pretty much say goodbye to them once he leaves the woods for a college life. It is eventually revealed that Bo’s father Ray was an anesthesiologist who started doing a Dr. Kevorkian kind of service, where people who were dying and in agony wanted him to euthanize them to end their suffering. I actually liked that this book brought up issues of euthanasia and bodily autonomy, and whether or not people should have the right to decide when they end their life with the assistance of those who can make it painless and with dignity. This is the worst thing that he has done in this book (so this is the big spoiler: he is NOT Dr. Goodnight), a string of acts that are illegal, but seen as a huge grey area depending on whom you speak to. SO THAT SAID, since he is eventually shown as a medical professional who was participating in illegal, but morally complicated, acts, and wasn’t actively seeking out to cause pain and suffering to others, it felt COMPLETELY incongruous when in the story he encourages Magdalena to go off her very complex prescription regimen when that is SO dangerous to do. When it was possible that he was doing that as a sadist, I was thinking ‘okay, maybe’, but when it’s revealed that no, he’s NOT a sadist, that whole aspect just felt like either a lazy red herring (which IS incredibly damaging, as even though Magdalena eventually gets back on medication that she needs, it’s mentioned in passing, which doesn’t stand out), or a complete disservice to the character in that it just doesn’t mesh with who we eventually see him as.

“What She Found in the Woods” really had potential on paper, but just didn’t live up to it. I think that if I knew someone was just starting to dabble in unreliable narrator tropes in their stories I could see myself recommending it, but there are many that are better executed.

Rating 4: A promising concept to be sure, but a ho hum and at times uneven execution.

Reader’s Advisory:

“What She Found in the Woods” isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “YA Involving Mental Health Issues (2000-Present)”.

Find “What She Found in the Woods” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Winter Counts”

Book: “Winter Counts” by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Publishing Info: Ecco, August 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A groundbreaking thriller about a vigilante on a Native American reservation who embarks on a dangerous mission to track down the source of a heroin influx. 

Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  When justice is denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, Virgil is hired to deliver his own punishment, the kind that’s hard to forget. But when heroin makes its way into the reservation and finds Virgil’s nephew, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal. He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend and sets out to learn where the drugs are coming from, and how to make them stop.

They follow a lead to Denver and find that drug cartels are rapidly expanding and forming new and terrifying alliances. And back on the reservation, a new tribal council initiative raises uncomfortable questions about money and power. As Virgil starts to link the pieces together, he must face his own demons and reclaim his Native identity. He realizes that being a Native American in the twenty-first century comes at an incredible cost.

Winter Counts is a tour-de-force of crime fiction, a bracingly honest look at a long-ignored part of American life, and a twisting, turning story that’s as deeply rendered as it is thrilling.

Review: While I am certainly an aficionado of the thriller genre, as a genre it can span over a number of sub genres. I tend to not really go as much into the literary side of things, nor do I really tread towards the incredibly dark. And given that “Winter Counts” by David Heska Wanbli Weiden is both of those things, I was stretching my preferred subgenre muscles a bit. But I’m also always game to read books by Indigenous authors, and when I read up on this one it captured my interest. One birthday gift later, and I owned it, though it sat on the shelf awhile. I eventually picked it up. Almost immediately it went dark and bleak. But it also snagged me in even as I was immediately uncomfortable.

Our main character is Virgil Wounded Horse, a Lakota man living on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He’s made his way as an enforcer who will dole out justice for those who cannot get it by other means, be it due to corruption, apathy, or both from local law enforcement and tribal governance. Right off the bat we have a trigger warning, as he beats the absolute shit out of a child rapist. This is just the beginning of the violence that is within this book, but it never feels exploitative, nor does it feel like it’s ever too much. “Winter Counts” doesn’t shy away from the very desperate circumstances on the reservation, and what those circumstances can drive people to do just to survive, and how predatory people can take advantage of it. While I feel like a character like Virgil in many other settings (especially within certain tropes of the thriller genre) may come off as morally ambiguous (and in some ways he kind of does here), overall Virgil never feels like an antihero, probably because of the environment he’s operating within. This book brings up a lot of hard realties and truths about 21st century life for Indigenous people both on and off reservations, and it isn’t limited to drug cartels. The fallout of racism, colonialism, and extended genocide by the American Government are throughout this book

The mystery of who is behind the cartel and drug activity on the reservation is the main thread of this story, given that Virgil’s nephew Nathan gets caught up in it after almost fatally OD’ing on some of the stuff brought in. Nathan and his ex girlfriend Marie set out to find the culprits, Virgil doing so because it’s personal and Marie acting as a guiding moral voice towards what it does to the Native community as a whole. While at times I wasn’t as interested in the ‘who’ of the whodunnit, it wasn’t because I didn’t want to know, it was more because the other themes of the story and the inner conflicts of Virgil, Marie, and others were more interesting. Marie is more idealistic and social justice driven, while Virgil is just trying to survive, and these two motivations sometimes bumped against each other, though thankfully never led to questions of who was ‘right’, as both are in their own ways. But that said, I was surprised by the ultimate solution to the mystery, even if the mystery itself took a bit of a backseat to other interests in my reading motivation.

And yeah, like I said, this is a DARK book. It took me a little while to get through it just because the heaviness of it all could be a bit much. But it’s also compelling and powerful, and totally worth it. Weiden kept me coming back for more, even if I had to pace myself a bit to get there. Just know that there are many triggering themes within its pages.

“Winter Counts” is a bold book from a striking new voice in thriller fiction. If you’re looking for a new twisty thriller and can handle the darkness, I definitely suggest you check it out.

Rating 8: Dark, compelling, and powerful, “Winter Counts” is a difficult read at times, but worth it to be sure.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Winter Counts” is included on the Goodreads lists “Popsugar 2021 #16: A Book by an Indigenous Author”, and “2020 Adult Debut Novels by Authors of Color”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Revenge of the Sluts”

Book: “Revenge of the Sluts” by Natalie Walton

Publishing Info: Wattpad Books, February 2021

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

Book Description: Double standards are about to get singled out.

In this stunning debut, author Natalie Walton tackles privacy and relationships in the digital age.

As a lead reporter for The Warrior Weekly, Eden has covered her fair share of stories at St. Joseph’s High School. And when intimate pictures of seven female students are anonymously emailed to the entire school, Eden is determined to get to the bottom of it.

In tracking down leads, Eden is shocked to discover not everyone agrees the students are victims. Some people feel the girls “brought it on themselves.” Even worse, the school’s administration seems more concerned about protecting its reputation than its students.

With the anonymous sender threatening more emails, Eden finds an unlikely ally: the seven young women themselves. Banding together to find the perpetrator, the tables are about to be turned. The Slut Squad is fighting back!

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

I thank my lucky stars that I got out of high school before social media became a huge thing, because my GOD I don’t know if I would have survived it all. I went to a prestigious and rigorous prep school, and as someone who was a bit of a weirdo who, for some time, bore the brunt of my meaner classmates, I can’t even imagine what might have happened if Snapchat, Tik Tok, or the like were available (I’m old, are those still popular with the youths?). “Revenge of the Sluts” by Natalie Walton addresses a number of the things that make my heart hurt when it comes to stories of teenage bullying and cruelty, specifically that of girls who send nudes to people they think they can trust, only to find their trust broken and their bodies exposed for laughs, revenge, or what have you. When I saw this book on NetGalley, I knew that I had to read it.

“The Revenge of the Sluts” is a VERY fast read that kept me interested, as I pretty much read it in one day during a long weekend. The mystery of who leaked the nudes of seven high school girls is technically the heart of this book, but it felt more like an examination of the difficulties of high school life for girls in modern society. I really enjoyed Eden, our protagonist and intrepid student reporter who is investigating the invasive and cruel leak of nude selfies of seven of her classmates. While Eden wasn’t a target herself, she and co-journalist/editor in chief Ronnie not only see a huge story, but a number of girls who deserve justice and deserve to have their voices heard. Eden has a few more layers to it as well, as she too has sent nude photos of herself in the past to her ex boyfriend, and while he never shared them so that they could potentially be leaked, she knows that she was just as vulnerable.

I liked that Walton brings up all of the complicated messy issues about teen dating and sex. Such things include the pressures that some may feel do do things that they may not want to do, and the self autonomy that others have to be comfortable in their sexuality which can lead to stigma and punishment from others when that is put on display. The victims are a wide variety, with some enjoying casual hook ups and sexual exploration, and others being in monogamous relationships with people they are supposed to be able to trust. Walton never frames any of these girls as anything but victims, and I really liked that we get to explore double standards when it comes to boy vs girl sexuality and the expectations that is foisted on the two, many times unfairly. I also liked the frustrating but probably pretty realistic subplot of the mishandling of the scandal by the school and the greater community, as the girls are treated less as victims and more as, well, ‘sluts’, like in the title.

Therein, however, lies some of the weaknesses in this book as well. These messages and themes are absolutely important, especially for teen readers who may have to navigate such things in their lives. But some of the lessons were presented in really awkward and clunky ways. Many times we would have these teachable moments with characters going into long lectures or diatribes about consent, bodily autonomy, double standards, and misogyny which felt like they were lifted from educational or resource materials. There would be debates between characters that go the way that one would expect from an after school special as opposed to an actual conversation between classmates or friends. It ended up making things feel a bit canned and packaged, and while I know that the YA audience may like things a bit more straight forward, I think that authors need to give teens a little more credit in how they can process the messages being conveyed.

All in all, I thought that “Revenge of the Sluts” had a few hiccups here and there in execution, but the themes and statements behind that are too important for me to write it off completely. It’s quick and engaging, and I hope that it can help people who may be going through the bad things it addresses.

Rating 7: A quick and entertaining read that often treads towards clunky monologues and lecturing, “Revenge of the Sluts” has good messages about bodily autonomy, consent, and rape culture, even if it felt a little canned.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Revenge of the Sluts” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Girls Take on the Patriarchy”, and “Best Books to Read When You Need a Reminder of Why Feminism Is Important”.

Find “Revenge of the Sluts” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Witch Hunt”

Book: “The Witch Hunt” (Jonny Roberts #3) by Alexander Lound

Publishing Info: Self Published, February 2021

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

Book Description: Two months on from the tragedy of the burned house, and Jonny has spent most of the long summer days in bed, hiding from the miserable rain. Ghost-hunting is in his past. After all, it has proved to be little more than a curse.

However, when his dad reaches out to him after an eighteen-month absence, Jonny can’t hide his fury. He also can’t say no when his father asks him to stay at his new home in the quaint, little village of Peene. Maybe it will heal the hurt between them. At the very least, it will take his mind off Grantford, and his haunting nightmares.

But, when he realizes ‒ feels ‒ that all isn’t quite right with his dad’s new partner, Bella, he has no choice but to turn back to his ability. To uncover a grisly murder of years past. Even if it means risking another date with death…

Review: Thank you to Alexander Lound for approaching our blog and sending me an eARC of this book!

It’s always a nice day when I get a notification from an author I’ve highlighted in the past that they have a new book coming out. Earlier this year it was “Atonement”, which saw the end of the Cerenia Chronicles, and now we finally get a new story from Alexander Lound’s Jonny Roberts Series, “The Witch Hunt”. I was already thoroughly invested in the stories about teenage medium Jonny, and when you throw the mere idea of witches into that, well, you officially have me snared.

I will never not be super interested in all things witch. (source)

When we left Jonny at the end of “The Burned House”, things had taken a turn for the worse for our teenage medium. His best friend Stephen was dead, his girlfriend Cassy had broken up with him because of the dangers of his ghost talking abilities, and Jonny was all around feeling lost. “The Witch Hunt” doesn’t walk any of that back, and in fact puts him in an even more precarious place in that his father, who abandoned him and his mother a year and a half prior, now wants Jonny to come visit him and his new lady friend, Bella. What is supposed to be an awkward reunion turns into another supernatural adventure, as it becomes clear that there is something wrong with Bella and the local historic site that was the location of witch hunts and burnings centuries ago may have a key. I liked getting Jonny out of his usual routine for this book, as it gave him more space to explore and a different approach, given that now the case is actually personal to him. Another change is that Lound doesn’t walk back the separation from Cassy, at least not yet. I was wondering if we were going to have a tug of war of feelings, and then just a reconciliation to get things back to ‘normal’, but it’s not as simple as all that, as it is made clear that Cassy’s hesitancy and fear is perfectly understandable. This also gives Jonny a little leeway to just be on his own for this story (well, outside of his mentor/friend Aaron, who does come in, which is fine by me because I really like Aaron!), and not have to continue an complex teen relationship on top of everything else.

I also didn’t expect, but really enjoyed, the approach that was taken towards Jonny’s father’s new partner, Bella. I think that it would have been super easy for her to be the unlikable home wrecker trope. I mean, I probably would have accepted that without any questions. But instead she is a very likable person who you care about, especially when it’s clear that something is very wrong with her that is putting her, and her loved ones, in danger. While I DO think that there could have been a little more ‘responsibility’ taken on her part when it comes to getting involved with a married man, just insomuch that it’s definitely mostly on Jonny’s Dad, Bella did have a part to play in a lot of pain caused to Jonny and his mother. But that said, I liked that she wasn’t what I expected her to be, and that she was, in fact, overall a decent person.

As for the mystery itself about what is ailing Bella and where the Witch Hunt site comes into it, it was pretty solid. I don’t want to give too much away, but Lound takes the opportunity to explore misogyny, violence towards women, and makes connections between the medieval witch hunts and modern day victims of what people think women should be, and what women owe men. And while it may be true that witches as characters weren’t really a part of this as much as I had hoped, the themes of witches and witchcraft and what they have represented throughout history is definitely a HUGE piece of the story. And I really liked that.

“The Witch Hunt” is another fun ghost story from Alexander Lound! I’m so happy this series has continued and cannot wait to see where it goes next!

Rating 8: Another tense and suspenseful YA paranormal thriller from Alexander Lound, and a new focus for teenage medium Jonny Roberts.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Burned House” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “YA Novels and Psychic Abilities”, and “Young Adult Ghost Stories”.

“The Burned House” isn’t available on WorldCat as of now, but it will be available for purchase this week. For more information, go to Alexander Lound’s WEBSITE.

Previously Reviewed: