Kate’s Review: “Nice Girls”

Book: “Nice Girls” by Catherine Dang

Publishing Info: William Morrow, September 2021

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

Book Description: A pulse-pounding and deviously dark debut, written with the psychological acuity and emotional punch of Luckiest Girl Alive and All the Missing Girls, that explores the hungry, angry, dark side of girlhood and dares to ask what is most dangerous to a woman: showing the world what it wants to see, or who she really is?

What did you do?

Growing up in Liberty Lake, Minnesota, Mary was chubby, awkward, and smart. Earning a scholarship to an Ivy League school was her ticket out; she was going to do great things and never look back. Three years later, “Ivy League Mary” is back—a thinner, cynical, and restless failure. Kicked out of Cornell at the beginning of senior year, she won’t tell anyone why. Working at the local grocery store, she sees familiar faces from high school and tries to make sense of the past and her life.

When beautiful, magnetic Olivia Willand, a rising social media star, goes missing, Mary—like the rest of Liberty Lake—becomes obsessed. Best friends in childhood, Mary and Olivia haven’t spoken in years. Everyone admired Olivia, but Mary knows better than anyone that behind the Instagram persona hid a willful, manipulative girl with sharp edges. As the world worries for perfect, lovely Olivia, Mary can’t help but hate her. She also believes that her disappearance is tied to another missing person—a nineteen-year-old girl named DeMaria Jackson whose disappearance has gone under the radar.  

Who was the true Olivia Willand, and where did she go? What happened to DeMaria? As Mary delves deeper into the lives of the two missing girls, old wounds bleed fresh and painful secrets threaten to destroy everything. Maybe no one is really a nice girl, after all.

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

Though I know that my home state does have a fair amount of problems in some ways, ultimately I love being a Minnesota girl. I am always tickled when I’m reading a book that takes place here, and if that book falls into my preferred genres then it will almost assuredly get some priority on my reading list. Enter “Nice Girls” by Catherine Dang, a suburban (maybe exurban?) thriller written by a local woman. I can honestly say that I was drawn in because of 1) setting, 2) general plot, and 3) the title lettering on the cover of the book. I’m not usually one who takes cover into account (I know Serena loves a good cover!), but the hot pink glowy neon of the book title made me go ‘now THIS is a design!’ Okay, I’m done gushing about the cover. Let’s get into the nitty gritty of “Nice Girls”, a thriller that oozes potential but never quite reaches it.

But I’m going to start with what did work for me, as is tradition. Dang captures the place and setting of Liberty Lake, Minnesota (a made up city/exurb), a community that’s a bit out state and small town-esque with a commanding lake and an insulated population. As I read it I was thinking about the lake town I found myself driving out to to get my COVID shots back when that shit was in demand (p.s., PLEASE get vaccinated if you can, folks). Liberty Lake feels fleshed out in terms of the community itself and how the people view each other, with the expected underbelly of not spoken of racism, misogyny, and stifling community repression. Our main character, Mary, wanted to get out of Liberty Lake, and exceeded the town’s expectations when she was accepted to Cornell. But the usual theme of pride mingling with resentment is there, as when she returns to town after being expelled there is a certain sense of ‘though you were better than us, but look at you now’ that she has to face. Though a fair amount of that may also be her own resentments about being unable to escape a community that she never quite fit into. Along with that, Dang compares and contrasts our two missing women through the lens of the missing white woman syndrome, a theme that is always important to note when it comes to whose stories get picked up and paid attention to when they are potential victims of violent crimes. The victim we hear of first is Olivia, a town darling who is white, blonde, and a social media influencer whose lifelong popularity makes her disappearance front page news. Search parties are going out day after day, the headlines are dominated by her disappearance, and everyone is praying for her safe return. But before Olivia disappeared, DeMaria disappeared, with far less fanfare, even as her body parts are found in the lake. DeMaria is a lower income, Black, single mother, and no one seems to be interested in what happened to her. It’s a comment on systemic and ingrained racism that we’ve started to see more of in fictional stories, but I still welcome the topic because it’s still a huge problem.

But here is where things don’t work as well in “Nice Girls”. Mary as a character is something we have seen before in a thriller like this: she’s damaged, she returns home with a dark secret, and she starts to spiral more and more when she gets embroiled in the local secrets. This kind of thing can work if the main character is compelling in other ways, but Mary is fairly two dimensional who is defined by her dourness, and her deep seated insecurities make her a very unlikable person and hard to root for. She doesn’t really have any growth during this book, and she makes huge missteps that feel convenient to the plot while feeling a bit haphazard even for her slightly unhinged personality. And Mary isn’t the only unlikable character, as there are very few people in this book that I actually liked and wanted to know more about, and those who I did like were relegated to the sidelines for the most part. These kinds of things could be easier to overlook if the mystery itself was addictive, but overall it was pretty standard, with a reveal that felt shaky in the laid out groundwork that held it up. There were a few moments that were genuinely surprising, but the pay off was rushed.

I have no doubt in my mind that I will be picking up the next book by Catherine Dang, as her ability to write and create a setting filled with rich descriptions was definitely there. “Nice Girls” is probably worth the read for casual thriller fans, but if you’ve been steeped in the genre for awhile it may not have the pay off you want.

Rating 6: I saw a lot of potential here and there were some good themes, but the characters were two dimensional and the mystery itself was fairly average.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Nice Girls” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery and Thriller 2021”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Never Saw Me Coming”

Book: “Never Saw Me Coming” by Vera Kurian

Publishing Info: Park Row, September 2021

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

Book Description: Meet Chloe Sevre. She’s a freshman honor student, a leggings-wearing hot girl next door, who also happens to be a psychopath. Her hobbies include yogalates, frat parties, and plotting to kill Will Bachman, a childhood friend who grievously wronged her.

Chloe is one of seven students at her DC-based college who are part of an unusual clinical study for psychopaths—students like herself who lack empathy and can’t comprehend emotions like fear or guilt. The study, led by a renowned psychologist, requires them to wear smart watches that track their moods and movements.

When one of the students in the study is found murdered in the psychology building, a dangerous game of cat and mouse begins, and Chloe goes from hunter to prey. As she races to identify the killer and put her own plan into action, she’ll be forced to decide if she can trust any of her fellow psychopaths—and everybody knows you should never trust a psychopath.

Never Saw Me Coming is a compulsive, voice-driven thriller by an exciting new voice in fiction, that will keep you pinned to the page and rooting for a would-be killer.

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

I’ve made it very well known that I enjoy thriller novels that will spotlight creepy or unsettling characters, and if they are doing bad things, well, hey, I’m still in. I also have mentioned before that I got my B.A. in Psychology with a focus on Abnormal Psych, with another focus on Psychopathy. If a person writes a book from a psychopath’s POV, and they do it well, AND they make it amusing from time to time, sign me right up please! And that brings us to “Never Saw Me Coming” by Vera Kurian. Not only do we have one psychopath character, we have multiple! And not only that, they have to band together to figure out who is trying to kill them! All of this sounded like a hoot, and I was eager to dive in.

The mystery of who is killing off these psychopaths one by one sets up for an interesting dilemma that our characters find themselves in. After all, psychopaths tend to have little loyalties outside of themselves, and therefore in this context that means that it could be any one of them, so they can’t trust each other, even though they HAVE to trust each other. I liked that concept to be sure, and seeing Chloe, Charles, and Andre try and calculate how they could get information from each other, manipulate each other, AND confide in each other without being worried about being stabbed in the back by each other. The mystery itself had some pretty well done twists and details (and a VERY creative death involving an MRI machine), though in the end I kind of saw the solution coming from aways away. That didn’t make the journey to the solution less fun, per se, but I think that had it blown me away it would have been better. But another big plus is that we get to see psychopaths (for the most part) as not necessarily pop culture serial killers, but as people who can be nonviolent and successful… as well as manipulative, fearless, and lacking empathy. We don’t really think of that side of psychopaths as much, which is far more common.

But it’s the characters that this story gets its best strengths, as Kurian has a fun cast, most of whom are deeply, deeply unsettling. We follow three for most of the narrative. The first is Charles, a wealthy and somewhat spoiled frat boy who is doing his best to keep up appearances and to appear normal, with a lovely girlfriend, a group of friends, and a solid academic record. The second in Andre (and we’re going to come back to him), who has a full scholarship to the school because of his participation in the study, but who isn’t ACTUALLY a psychopath. And the third and most prominent is Chloe, who gets third AND first person perspectives, because not only is she trying not to be killed by a mystery killer, she is ALSO planning a bloody revenge on a student named Will. Chloe knew Will when they were younger, and after he assaulted her she has been planning to take her revenge, and now being a target herself could screw all that up. Chloe is definitely the star of the show, and she has some creepy and enjoyable moments. But it’s Andre that I wanted to know the most about, as his story is one that connects to institutional racism. Andre is Black, and when he was a kid his older sister died unexpectedly and tragically. Andre, unable to process this trauma, began acting out, and a counselor just wrote him off as having Conduct Disorder because of his race, and Andre decided to roll with it as a joke… Until he was offered a full scholarship that would change his life. NOW he has to try and keep up appearances, AND he has to try and stay alive. I thought that this was the best storyline, personally, and I wish we had more of him. That said, all of the characters were entertaining, as was the book itself in a gallows humor kind of way.

“Never Saw Me Coming” joins the ranks of other unreliable or psychopathic narrators, but gives us a bit more of a look into how many psychopaths function when you strip away the idea of a serial killer (mystery killer and Chloe notwithstanding). Thriller fans with a wicked streak should definitely pick it up!

Rating 8: A dark, unsettling, and wickedly fun thriller that gets you rooting for a few psychopaths, “Never Saw Me Coming” has some creepy but intriguing characters that will suck you in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Never Saw Me Coming” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark Academia”, and “I Like Serial Killers”.

Find “Never Saw Me Coming” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

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!

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!

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!

Kate’s Review: “The Family Plot”

Book: “The Family Plot” by Cherie Priest

Publishing Info: Tor Books, September 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: I own the audiobook.

Book Description: Music City Salvage is a family operation, owned and operated by Chuck Dutton: master stripper of doomed historic properties, and expert seller of all things old and crusty. But business is lean and times are tight, so he’s thrilled when the aged and esteemed Augusta Withrow appears in his office, bearing an offer he really ought to refuse. She has a massive family estate to unload – lock, stock, and barrel. For a check and a handshake, it’s all his. It’s a big check. It’s a firm handshake. And it’s enough of a gold mine that he assigns his daughter Dahlia to personally oversee the project.

Dahlia preps a couple of trucks, takes a small crew, and they caravan down to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the ancient Withrow house is waiting – and so is a barn, a carriage house, and a small, overgrown cemetery that Augusta Withrow left out of the paperwork.

Augusta Withrow left out a lot of things.

The property is in unusually great shape for a condemned building. It’s empty, but it isn’t abandoned. Something in the Withrow mansion is angry and lost. This is its last chance to raise hell before the house is gone forever, and there’s still plenty of room in the strange little family plot.

Review: I’m always on the hunt for a haunted house read, as Gothic horror almost always sends shivers up my spine. If the story involves a ghost or two, all the better! I was perusing a book list of such things, and I saw “The Family Plot” by Cherie Priest was one of the selections. I had never heard of this book, and decided that I would add it to my audiobook list to have going while walking around the neighborhood or running weekend errands. And almost immediately I knew that I was in for a fun ride. A Southern Gothic haunted house story that takes full aim at the secrets that the wealthy keep? Hell yes.

“The Family Plot” is a ghost story that hits a lot of the things I love about the sub-genre. The first is that the setting just felt so real and well explored. Withrow Mansion was incredibly well described and detailed, and as I listened to the book I felt like I could see the rooms, the remnants of the life it had within, every aspect of the grounds and the house that was built there. It was also a really cool concept to have the people being haunted NOT being a new owner, or a descendant, or someone who has come to the mansion to live there, but a salvage crew that is there to gut it and make a buck. As Dahlia and her crew interact in the house, and as things get more and more dire, the reason they stay is very believable: if this job doesn’t work out, they will almost certainly be out of business. It makes the stakes a bit higher, and feels like a more tangible reason to not turn tail and run (though to be fair, homeowners almost always have sunk everything into a new house and leaving may not be much of an option for them either). Dahlia also has a well explained backstory, and as we slowly find out the backstory to the house and the spirits that are within in, we can draw parallels between her and the aggrieved spirits that I thought made it feel even scarier as the story went on.

And yes, this is a well done ghost story to boot. The dread builds and the scares are done in varying ways, from subtle shifts in scenery to full on jump scares as written on the page. But Priest also manages to avoid a few overdone tropes. Instead of Dahlia and her crew being stubborn nonbelievers, for the most part they all accept the fact that there are, in fact, ghosts in the house they are working on. One of the most frustrating themes in stories like this is that the person who knows that something is seriously wrong is usually pooh-poohed by those around them, and frankly, it’s usually a woman being told she’s being hysterical by the man in her life. But in “The Family Plot”, Dahlia is never seen as crazy, and is never treated as such by her colleagues. That said, there is tension between her and her cousin Bobby, which just adds a whole other level of intensity to the story, especially as the situation worsens. On top of all of this, our narrator did a great job with all of the characters, and her reading of it set the mood just perfectly.

But then, the goodwill that I had toward this story soured a bit at the end. I’m going to try not to spoil anything, as ultimately I think that this is worth the read if you’re looking for a solid haunted house story. But we get a final twist right at the end, like the VERY end, that just felt a bit like a cheat. As someone who LOVES horror, like loves loves loves it, I’m a bit of an outlier perhaps in that I’m not a fan of a last moment about face in regards to the resolution of the plot. Like, say that your protagonist escapes the pit of the psycho killer, only to stumble upon one of the psycho killer’s henchmen they didn’t know was a henchman while they’re escaping, then they get thrown back into the pit and we get a smash cut to the credits. That kind of sudden turn around doesn’t work for me on screen or on page, and any whiff of such just turns me off. And unfortunately, we get one of those twists here, and I’m just never going to like that kind of thing, and it tainted my overall enjoyment.

Frustrating end moment aside, I genuinely had a good time listening to “The Family Plot”. Halloween season isn’t so far away, so add this one to your pile of creepy reads you may be saving for that time of year!

Rating 7: A genuinely spooky haunted house story that is a bit derailed in the last couple of paragraphs, “The Family Plot” was a bit frustrating at the end, but was overall a fun horror experience.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Family Plot” is included on the Goodreads lists “Haunted Houses”, and “Eerie Fictions Written by Women”.

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

A Revisit To Fear Street: “Fear Street Part One: 1994”

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 One: 1994”

I sat down to watch “Fear Street Part One: 1994” at the end of the July 4th long weekend. The kid was asleep, the husband was out for the night, I had some mac and cheese and the TV all to myself. And almost immediately it was clear that this was not going to be the “Fear Street” of my youth, given that right in the first few minutes we had some pretty heavy swears and a blow up sex doll. But after I got over the fact that this movie, based on a series that had mostly off page violence and very LIGHT implications of teenage sexuality, was going to be balls to the wall slasher gore, I bought in but fast!

A quick description: In the town of Shadyside in 1994, a massacre at the local mall has upended the town, once again making people talk about how it feels cursed. It seems that ever couple of decades or so, something terrible happens and a slasher killer of some sort commits some kind of terrible murder spree. When a group of teens from Shadyside and the neighboring (and rival) town Sunnyvale unexpectedly awaken an ancient evil that has been pulling the strings, they have to figure out how to stop it, before it takes them all out.

The first thing that struck me about “Fear Street Part One: 1994” is the oozing nostalgia that it presents right off the bat. Our first scene takes place at a B. Daltons book store (RIP, B. Daltons), in which someone is buying “The Wrong Number”, one of the earlier “Fear Street” books. The soundtrack throughout the movie transported me back to my grade school years, ranging from the obvious like “Creep” by Radiohead to the more salacious “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails (I may have nearly spit out my beverage at this moment). It’s a nod to the time that these books were being written and were popular, but it also means that our characters can be put in perilous situations like in the books where a cell phone can’t come in handy to help save the day. Oh, and the fashions! I loved seeing the fashions! These kinds of nostalgia moments were highlighted in each of my “Fear Street” recaps, so seeing the movie makers really lean in was a lot of fun.

I also really liked the characters, as while they are definitely a bit more foul mouthed and prone to more sex and gory endings (all of this is fine by me), they all feel like “Fear Street” teens. Our main character Deena (that’s gotta be another nod to “The Wrong Number”, right? Deena Martinson?) is a bit of a loner with a geeky younger sibling named Josh. She runs with a couple of rebels, Simon and Kate, who peddle drugs on the side, Simon to support his family and Kate to make enough money to get out of Shadyside as fast as she can. And Deena is also pining for her ex, Sam, but unlike in the books of the past, Sam is a girl. LOVE the sapphic romance in this movie, just as I loved how diverse the cast is in many other ways. In the original books it was a lot of heteronormative white kids, but this “Fear Street” has had some much needed updating and it is for the better to be sure. They all have great chemistry with each other, and unlike in the books when you probably don’t have much attachment because of how cardboard they are, I really loved all of them, which made a few of the outcomes more weighted, even if they were splattery fun at the same time.

And how about the “Fear Street” connections and feel? Honestly, it does a good job of both paying homage and lifting from the source material, as well as creating new mythos and backgrounds for Shadyside and the people who live there. In terms of nods to the classic tales, we have characters who are named after those from the books, as well as references to Sarah Fear, and the Goode family as well. And next movie mostly takes place at Camp Nightwing, the summer camp in the original series! There is also the origins of the curse that Shadyside has upon it, with a teenage girl being executed for Witchcraft, though it’s changed a bit as of now. But that said, there are hints that the third movie in this trilogy, with the year 1666 as the time period, will probably take a lot of origin from the “Fear Street Saga”. After all, the Goode Family is popping up here and there. But a lot of the new stuff works really well, and makes the Shadyside lore (albeit original to the movie) come to life and all converge into a really fun horror movie. I’m thinking that we are going to see more backstories for the various baddies that pop up in this movie, as well as why Shadyside and Sunnyvale have a deep seated rivalry, as the series goes on, and I am absolutely stoked to see how this all came to be.

All in all, “Fear Street Part One: 1994” is a really fun slasher movie with a lot of love for the source material. Given that the “Fear Street” series was one of my personal horror building blocks, it was wonderful seeing it get an R-rated slasher treatment!

In two weeks I will review the next film in the series, “Fear Street Part Two: 1978”.

Kate’s Review: “We Were Never Here”

Book: “We Were Never Here” by Andrea Bartz

Publishing Info: Ballantine Books, August 2021

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

Book Description: An annual backpacking trip has deadly consequences in a chilling new novel from the bestselling author of The Lost Night and The Herd.

Emily is having the time of her life–she’s in the mountains of Chile with her best friend, Kristen, on their annual reunion trip, and the women are feeling closer than ever. But on the last night of their trip, Emily enters their hotel suite to find blood and broken glass on the floor. Kristen says the cute backpacker she’d been flirting with attacked her, and she had no choice but to kill him in self-defense. Even more shocking: The scene is horrifyingly similar to last year’s trip, when another backpacker wound up dead. Emily can’t believe it’s happened again–can lightning really strike twice?

Back home in Wisconsin, Emily struggles to bury her trauma, diving head-first into a new relationship and throwing herself into work. But when Kristen shows up for a surprise visit, Emily is forced to to confront their violent past. The more Kristen tries to keep Emily close, the more Emily questions her friend’s motives. As Emily feels the walls closing in on their coverups, she must reckon with the truth about her closest friend. Can she outrun the secrets she shares with Kristen, or will they destroy her relationship, her freedom–even her life?

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

I enjoyed Andrea Bartz’s previous novel “The Herd” particularly because of how she tackled the fraught, complicated, and sometimes deadly relationships between women characters in high stress, high ambition situations. It was kind of a no brainer that I would be interested in her new book “We Were Never Here”, about two friends who find themselves once again with a dead body in a foreign country. Talk about your high stress situations! I had high hopes, but unfortunately, the hopes weren’t really met.

But like I always do, I will start with what I did like about this book, and that is how well Bartz captured the ins and outs of a codependent and toxic friendship. I have found myself in a couple of bad and toxic friendships, that have either healed through time and distance, or fell by the wayside and good riddance to them, and Bartz really clocked the ways that people can hurt each other, manipulate each other, and bend over backwards to make excuses for each other’s behavior. I found myself cringing as I read it as it hit very close to home, and was definitely impressed by all the little details she had that weren’t even necessarily connected to the main conflict. Both Kristen and Emily were realistic in the parts that they played, and the unreliability of Emily was interesting not because she necessarily had something to hide from the reader, but because she had to convince herself that her friendship with Kristen was normal and not steeped in toxicity that may have led to murder. I enjoyed that angle a lot, and thought it had a lot of potential because of it.

But the execution of “We Were Never Here” was pretty standard and run of mill with a lot of predictability and not many big surprises (except for one but we’ll get to that). I really liked the beginning of the book, where Emily and Kristen are in Chile, and the ensuing killing of a fellow traveler and disposal of his body. I thought that was genuinely suspenseful and interesting. But then it turns into Emily slowly realizing that maybe Kristen isn’t the great and true blue friend she always thought she was, and it kind of goes on a road well travelled from there. It’s no surprise as things are alluded to early and then revealed as huge red flags. It’s not shocking when Emily learns more and more and Kristen gets seemingly more and more obsessed with being near Emily. As more parts of Kristen’s history come out, beats that should be surprising aren’t, and by the time we get to the big climactic moment it feels rushed, and yet drawn out as we follow some MORE exposition after the fact, and then have some will there or won’t there be fallout from this that also fizzles out. And THEN, as if for good measure, Bartz tries to flip the script one last time in the last few pages for one more twist that really feels out of place and just hackneyed. It’s super disappointing that this story never quite got off the ground, as at first I was really digging it.

“We Were Never Here” was a bit of a disappointment for me, but it may work for other people! I haven’t given up on Bartz as a whole, she does portray relationship strife really well. I’m hoping her next one will hit a little better.

Rating 5: A promising premise, but a lot of predictability and a bit of an anti-climactic (and then out of nowhere) end made “We Were Never Here” fall a bit flat.

Reader’s Advisory:

“We Were Never Here” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery and Thriller 2021”.

Find “We Were Never Here” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “When the Reckoning Comes”

Book: “When the Reckoning Comes” by LaTanya McQueen

Publishing Info: Harper Perennial, August 2021

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

Book Description: A haunting novel about a black woman who returns to her hometown for a plantation wedding and the horror that ensues as she reconnects with the blood-soaked history of the land and the best friends she left behind.

More than a decade ago, Mira fled her small, segregated hometown in the south to forget. With every mile she traveled, she distanced herself from her past: from her best friend Celine, mocked by their town as the only white girl with black friends; from her old neighborhood; from the eerie Woodsman plantation rumored to be haunted by the spirits of slaves; from the terrifying memory of a ghost she saw that terrible day when a dare-gone-wrong almost got Jesse—the boy she secretly loved—arrested for murder.

But now Mira is back in Kipsen to attend Celine’s wedding at the plantation, which has been transformed into a lush vacation resort. Mira hopes to reconnect with her friends, and especially, Jesse, to finally tell him the truth about her feelings and the events of that devastating long-ago day.

But for all its fancy renovations, the Woodsman remains a monument to its oppressive racist history. The bar serves antebellum drinks, entertainments include horrifying reenactments, and the service staff is nearly all black. Yet the darkest elements of the plantation’s past have been carefully erased—rumors that slaves were tortured mercilessly and that ghosts roam the lands, seeking vengeance on the descendants of those who tormented them, which includes most of the wedding guests. As the weekend unfolds, Mira, Jesse, and Celine are forced to acknowledge their history together, and to save themselves from what is to come.

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

One of my favorite places to visit on a semi-regular basis (at least in the beforetimes) is Savannah, Georgia. It’s such a funky historic town, and I really enjoy staying in the historic area, walking around the squares, and doing haunted pub crawls and ghost tours. I also try to go on historic house tours, as there is a lot of interesting history there, but I almost always found it hard to really enjoy because so many of the tours would completely white wash the slavery aspect of said history. That isn’t to say that doesn’t happen in Northern historical institutions: as someone who has worked at historic sites before, one of which had a significant tie to Dred Scott, it happens up North too (admittedly, the sites I worked at did try to start the conversations, they just also didn’t give us tools to handle the visitors who would meet those conversations with either derision or flat out hostility. THE STORIES I HAVE.). Horrors of some of our historic sites can get lost, and a lot of the time it’s because of the fact America hasn’t really faced those horrors yet. “When the Reckoning Comes” by LaTanya McQueen takes this idea, and makes it into a full blown vengeful ghost story, and boy does it work.

In terms of ghostly plots, we have a little bit of everything. Childhood friends Mira and Celine have grown apart, but Mira returns home for Celine’s wedding at a rural plantation house that may or may not be haunted. We see this story unfold in a few ways. The first is the present, as Mira attends the wedding celebrations in spite of her very understandable discomfort. But that discomfort isn’t just because of the terrible things that happened to Black people on that land (and Celine deciding to have a lavish party there in spite of that), but also because of another timeline we see: when they were kids, Mira and hers and Celine’s friend Jesse went onto the land when it was run down and abandoned, as the rumors of ghosts were intriguing. But what they both saw and experienced on that visit changed their lives. For Mira, she saw things that she couldn’t explain, but for Jesse, the mysterious death of a white local on the property led to him being suspected of murder due to his proximity, but mostly his race. All of these things come to a head during Celine’s wedding celebrations, but there is also the aspect of the vengeful ghosts that want to take out any descendants of those who brutalized them in life… who happen to be a lot of the wedding guests and wedding party members. The ghost aspects of this book hit all the marks I wanted them to hit: they have VERY legitimate reasons for being angry, there are a lot of creepy moments with imagery and pacing, and we have Mira who just can’t quite believe that she is seeing something supernatural, even as it becomes more and more clear that something strange is happening. McQueen knows the beats to hit for an effective ghost story, and she hits them pretty well.

But this ghost story, while absolutely having creepy ghost moments, is also about the way that history and trauma can haunt for generations. The metaphors are rich in this book, the ghosts of America’s sins being a huge theme, and characters like Mira and Jesse who have to reckon with them, while characters like Celine don’t feel like they have to. Mira and Jesse bear the brunt of American racism in different ways, be it Jesse being accused of a crime he didn’t commit because of his race, or Mira internalizing that racism and trying to be an ‘ideal’ Black woman in a society that is fueled by white ideals and supremacy. For them to be invited by white childhood friend Celine to her LITERAL plantation wedding, and for her to not see what the problem is with it and to dismiss how fucked up it is, is truly a perfect set up for this kind of story. Celine is a bit more than the caricature that she could have been, in that you do see her complex friendship with Mira for both the bad and the good. You do see how she, too, had a hard time growing up in their community as someone who was poor. But you also see that she always, ALWAYS, falls on the side of her whiteness, even when it is on the side of those who mistreated her for other things, and how insidious whiteness can be because of that. It’s heavy stuff, and McQueen lays it all out expertly. And really, the true horror story moments are moments of interlude that are from the generalized POV of the ghosts of the slaves, who tell their experiences in all of their devastating truths. It is so hard to read, but it is very important to do so. We have so much reckoning to do still.

“When the Reckoning Comes” is certainly a horror story, but it’s the horror story of the disgusting legacy of chattel slavery in America. And it’s long past time we face that horror head on.

Rating 9: Lots of suspense and scares, as well as on point commentary, “When the Reckoning Comes” is a seething and scary horror story!

Reader’s Advisory:

“When the Reckoning Comes” is new and not on many Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Diverse Horror”.

Find “When the Reckoning Comes” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Dead and the Dark”

Book: “The Dead and the Dark” by Courtney Gould

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, August 2021

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

Book Description: Courtney Gould’s thrilling debut The Dead and the Dark is about the things that lurk in dark corners, the parts of you that can’t remain hidden, and about finding home in places―and people―you didn’t expect

The Dark has been waiting for far too long, and it won’t stay hidden any longer.

Something is wrong in Snakebite, Oregon. Teenagers are disappearing, some turning up dead, the weather isn’t normal, and all fingers seem to point to TV’s most popular ghost hunters who have just returned to town. Logan Ortiz-Woodley, daughter of TV’s ParaSpectors, has never been to Snakebite before, but the moment she and her dads arrive, she starts to get the feeling that there’s more secrets buried here than they originally let on.

Ashley Barton’s boyfriend was the first teen to go missing, and she’s felt his presence ever since. But now that the Ortiz-Woodleys are in town, his ghost is following her and the only person Ashley can trust is the mysterious Logan. When Ashley and Logan team up to figure out who—or what—is haunting Snakebite, their investigation reveals truths about the town, their families, and themselves that neither of them are ready for. As the danger intensifies, they realize that their growing feelings for each other could be a light in the darkness.

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

Given that I am a HUGE sucker for the ‘small town with terrible secrets’ trope, I am always on the lookout for books and stories that showcase it, and showcase it well. In the past few years there have been books that have hit the mark and missed the mark, and when I requested “The Dead and the Dark” by Courtney Gould I didn’t really know what to expect. All I knew was that it was a YA horror novel that not only had that highly enjoyable theme, but it also had a sapphic romance to go with the scares. Since I was a bit let down by a previously hyped book with these themes, I was hoping that this one would give me what I wanted, and for the most part it did!

“The Dead and the Dark” is told through two third person perspectives. The first is that of Logan, a teenage daughter of Brandon and Alejo, the hosts of the ghost hunting show “Paraspectors”. Her Dads were raised in Snakebite but never fit in, and Logan has a strained relationship with Brandon that she hasn’t been able to really figure out. Ashley, on the other hand, is a local teenager who is basically a member of Snakebite royalty, but ever since her boyfriend Tristan disappeared she’s felt like something is off. When Logan’s dads are suddenly suspects in Tristan’s disappearance, Logan and Ashley have to work together to try and figure out what happened, and what secrets the town is hiding. Both characters were well explored and given depth, and I found myself eager to get to each perspective as the book went on. They are both good characters on their own, but Gould is sure to make their interactions as they become allies, then friends, then maybe something more, enjoyable. But Gould doesn’t stop there, as the supporting characters are also interesting and do more than just furthering the plot that Logan and Ashley work within. I liked getting to know Brandon and Alejo, as well as the other teens in the town who range from helpful to downright hostile. Snakebite as a town is also well explored, as the small town with a secret theme has layers of small town angst and pain for outsiders that come to the surface.

As for the plot and the horror elements, “The Dead and the Dark” did some new things that I really liked. I don’t want to give too much away, as there are definitely things here that I want readers to discover without the potential for being spoiled. But, like many good horror stories, there is thought and purpose behind the dark fantasy and horror elements. As Logan and Ashley start to find clues to the evil that is hurting local teens, they also start seeing the every day rot, be it due to sexism, or homophobia, or just plain resentment of anything different from what is known. This ties into the big reveal as to what is going on, and then another reveal within that reveal that legitimately caught me off guard. And it was done in a way that built it up, made it believable, AND socked me right in the feels. So much so that I found myself crying a bit, and I’m not really used to crying while reading YA horror novels.

I had a really good time reading “The Dead and the Dark”. The horror elements were creepy, the sapphic elements were very satisfying, and I will definitely be checking out what Courtney Gould has to offer the genre in the future!

Rating 8: A creepy and suspenseful YA horror story with enjoyable characters and a small town with secrets setting, “The Dead and the Dark” is a fun read with a nice romance to boot.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dead and the Dark” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Sapphic Releases”, and “Monsters and Magic Society”.

Find “The Dead and the Dark” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!