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!

Serena’s Review: “These Hollow Vows”

Book: “These Hollow Vows” by Lexi Ryan

Publishing Info: HMH, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Brie hates the Fae and refuses to have anything to do with them, even if that means starving on the street. But when her sister is sold to the sadistic king of the Unseelie court to pay a debt, she’ll do whatever it takes to get her back—including making a deal with the king himself to steal three magical relics from the Seelie court.

Gaining unfettered access to the Seelie court is easier said than done. Brie’s only choice is to pose as a potential bride for Prince Ronan, and she soon finds herself falling for him. Unwilling to let her heart distract her, she accepts help from a band of Unseelie misfits with their own secret agenda. As Brie spends time with their mysterious leader, Finn, she struggles to resist his seductive charm.

Caught between two dangerous courts, Brie must decide who to trust with her loyalty. And with her heart.

Review: Yeah, yeah. What was I thinking? There’s an obvious love triangle right there on the cover! But what can I saw, I was lured in by good-looking heroine and the summary describing Fae courts. “But Serena, doesn’t that sound like ‘Court of Thorns and Roses?’ A book you hated??” Why yes, it does. But it also sounded slightly like “An Enchantment of Ravens,” another book with fairy courts that I happened to love. Alas, my wiser side was correct and this was a huge mistake of a read for me.

Brie is a thief. A good one, yes, but she and her sister still live on the very edge of survival, barely making ends meet from month to month. Those who can’t pay their debts often find themselves sold to the powerful and dangerous Fae, a fate that Brie hates more than anything. So when her sister is sold to pay off a late debt, Brie knows she must do anything she can to spare her sister from a terrible fate. With a dangerous mission to steal three priceless artifacts and a nebulous disguise as a potential bride for prince of the Seelie court, Brie’s task is a steep one. It’s made all the more difficult when she begins to find herself torn between two Fae men, each more handsome (and untrustworthy) than the other.

Man, even writing that description reinforced what a mistake picking this book up was. I don’t love writing negative reviews, so I often try to just avoid books that I know will be obvious misses for me. But I have recently found a few stories here and there that have managed to pull off a love triangle in surprising ways, so I didn’t want that to forever be an instant “pass” from me. But, unfortunately, this one did nothing to further that cause and instead only reinforced how much I hate that trope.

Not only do I always struggle with the very concept of two love interests actually holding equal interest at once, but it was particularly hard here. I found neither of her love interests compelling in any way. There was the roguish, “bad boy” and then the super-good, upright one. Neither had anything truly unique or layered to their characterization. There were a few reveals towards the very end that maybe, maaaayybbbeee, helped a bit. But not enough for me to change my mind from my original assessment: that this book is just “Court of Thorns and Roses” all over again, love interest arc and all.

Brie also wasn’t particularly interesting. I do love sisters books, and her strong connection to her sister was one of the better parts of the book. Unfortunately, there is very little of their relationship, as the sister quickly disappears to become plot fuel. Brie is also supposedly an excellent thief, but in the very first scene we meet her in, she makes several fairly foolish and inept choices. It’s a hard sell when the author is telling me one thing (Brie is a great thief) but showing me something very different (Brie is a hot mess).

There also wasn’t a whole lot added to the fairly typical Seelie/Unseelie dueling fairy courts theme. The Fae didn’t really read like Fae much at all, seeming more human than anything, without many of the characteristics that one usually finds with depictions of these beings (cold, capricious, etc.) And, of course, Brie is “not like other girls [Fae]” which makes her oh, so attractive to both love interests.

Towards the end, there are a very few pages that sparked my interest once again. Brie seems to finally come into her own and come alive. But pacing and plot-wise, it’s all very abrupt and then the book just…ends. I wish we’d had more of that tone throughout the entire story. As it is, it was not only too little, too late, but it felt like a very abbreviated and strange way to end the book. Almost like the author just wrote the entire duology in one go, then was told to split it into two books, and literally just chopped it in half, no other attempts at a true ending needed.

So, yes, this book wasn’t for me at all. I won’t be continuing with the duology, I don’t think, even though the last few pages were the strongest bit of the lot. I’m sure Brie will go back to being her nonsense self, and it’s too obvious what’s going to happen in the romance department anyways to spark any remaining interest. Fans of “Court of Thorns and Rose” may like this, especially if you’re wanting to read a very, very similar story. But if you’re looking for much beyond two hot guys and a love triangle, this probably isn’t for you.

Rating 5: The love triangle strikes again, this time with two bland love interests and a heroine bland enough herself to deserve them.

Reader’s Advisory:

“These Hollow Vows” is on these Goodreads lists: Epic High Fantasy/Romance/Mythology in 2021 and YA Releases of July, 2021.

Find “These Hollow Vows” at your library using WorldCat!

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: “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives”

Book: “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” by Kristin Miller

Publishing Info: Ballantine Books, July 2021

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

Book Description: Meet the trophy wives of Presidio Terrace, San Francisco’s most exclusive–and most deadly–neighborhood in this shrewd, darkly compelling novel from the New York Times bestselling author of In Her Shadow.

Mystery writer Brooke Davies is the new wife on the block. Her tech-billionaire husband, Jack, twenty-two years her senior, whisked her to the Bay Area via private jet and purchased a modest mansion on the same day. He demands perfection, and before now, Brooke has had no problem playing the role of a doting housewife. But as she befriends other wives on the street and spends considerable time away from Jack, he worries if he doesn’t control Brooke’s every move, she will reveal the truth behind their “perfect” marriage.

Erin King, famed news anchor and chair of the community board, is no stranger to maintaining an image–though being married to a plastic surgeon helps. But the skyrocketing success of her career has worn her love life thin, and her professional ambitions have pushed Mason away. Quitting her job is a Hail Mary attempt at keeping him interested, to steer him away from finding a young trophy wife. But is it enough, and is Mason truly the man she thought he was?

Georgia St. Claire allegedly cashed in on the deaths of her first two husbands, earning her the nickname “Black Widow”–and the stares and whispers of her curious neighbors. Rumored to have murdered both men for their fortunes, she claims to have found true love in her third marriage, yet her mysterious, captivating allure keeps everyone guessing. Then a tragic accident forces the residents of Presidio Terrace to ask: Has Georgia struck again? And what is she really capable of doing to protect her secrets?

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

Soapy trashy stories about potentially villainous men and women who are hiding and spilling secrets is something of a guilty pleasure of mine, and I mostly try to own that fact. I loved the first few seasons of “Desperate Housewives” (after season 4 it went downhill VERY fast, in my honest opinion), and while I haven’t been able to bring myself to consume reality TV like “The Real Housewives” or anything like that, I do enjoy watching drama porn like “Untucked” when watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. So a book with the title and description of “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” by Kristin Miller absolutely caught my attention. I’ve found some really fun books involving bored housewives behaving badly (Hello, “Big Little Lies”!), and if you have some potential murder and whodunnit elements to go with it, I am absolutely there! I went into this book with high hopes for soapy thrills. And I got that. But I also remembered why sometimes that isn’t enough.

But, as I always try to do, I will start with what I did like about this book. It was a very fast, very entertaining read in the moment. I picked it up over the Fourth of July weekend, and basically read it over the course of two days. It has some really good moments of sudsy drama, and there were pretty well done moments of shocking reveals as well as a build up to a nutty and soapy climax that is hinted at right at the start. So it tantalized me as a reader, and definitely gave me that “Desperate Housewives” vibe of manipulation, bitchiness, and over the top whodunnit/who are these people really and what are they hiding. A breezy read it always a plus in my book, as it makes the experience enjoyable in the moment.

But there were a few things that really bogged down “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” and made it a pretty meh book once all is said and done. The first is the cast of characters. Our main focus are on the perspectives of Erin, the neurotic and (horror and shock!) aging news anchor who is trying to keep her allure and lost youth at the forefront, lest her husband Mason stray, and Brooke, a mystery writer who is trying to keep up appearances for her much older husband, but is sniffing out a potential new plot with Georgia, the supposed Black Widow. Both Erin and Brooke have things that they are hiding, but getting into their heads doesn’t make them all that interesting, nor does it let them branch out from their two dimensional character tropes (admittedly there is a bit of a twist here, but I’m not going to go into that because spoilers). We see Georgia through their eyes, and while we do learn a bit about her through various reveals that each character has through action in the moment and past actions, she TOO is very flat and predictable. On shows like “Desperate Housewives” this kind of thing can work for awhile, but that is because we also get to see characters complexities come out as stories go on (well, in some cases; Teri Hatcher’s Susan was always two dimensional). But in this book, we don’t really get to see any growth. Even aforementioned twist couldn’t save it in the end. The other issue is that once I was done and I was no longer in the moment, upon reflection there wasn’t really much new or interesting to the story and how the mystery all shook out. It felt a bit like it was trying to be similar to “Big Little Lies”, but never really hit the emotional plot beats that that book did. The problem with gooey sudsy tales is that in the moment I really enjoy them, but without some solid foundation and substance to keep it up I look back and realize that there wasn’t really much to work with.

“The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” could be a good read if you just need something to pass the time. Pass the time it will! But I found it to be middling when all was said and done.

Rating 5: The read itself was quick and breezy, but the characters were middling and the story upon reflection was a bit ho hum.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mystery & Thriller 2021”, and I think it would fit in on the list “Desperate Housewives”.

Find “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “The Stolen Kingdom”

Book: “The Stolen Kingdom” by Jillian Boehme

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: For a hundred years, the once-prosperous kingdom of Perin Faye has suffered under the rule of the greedy and power-hungry Thungrave kings. Maralyth Graylaern, a vintner’s daughter, has no idea her hidden magical power is proof of a secret bloodline and claim to the throne. Alac Thungrave, the king’s second son, has always been uncomfortable with his position as the spare heir—and the dark, stolen magic that comes with ruling.

When Maralyth becomes embroiled in a plot to murder the royal family and seize the throne, a cat-and-mouse chase ensues in an adventure of dark magic, court intrigue, and forbidden love.

Review: I’m always down for some good ole court intrigue, which is why I initially requested this book. Of course, that’s also one of those phrases that book blurbs often use that more often than not simply translates to “unrealistic drama” of the sort that reduces me to eye rolls. Sadly, that was the case here.

Maralyth has grown up helping to run her father’s renown vineyard. Though she is skilled at tending the vines (more so than her family even knows, with a magical ability to help plant flourish), she finds herself minding the kitchen and serving the workers meals after her mother dies, leaving this role vacant. But Maralyth knows there is a bigger future before her. Bigger even that she could have expected, when she is snatched away from this lowly life and finds herself caught up in plots to overthrow the throne. As for Alac, the second son of the king, he, too, is uncomfortable with his lot and life. And when a mysterious young woman shows up in court, he finds he, too, has an unexpected future before him.

Sigh. So, this wasn’t what I had hoped it could be, and I always struggle with these types of reviews. I don’t like to just spend an entire post ragging on a book, but sometimes it really is hard to come up with things I liked about some of these. Perhaps, if you’re appetite for fairly generic YA fantasy (super light on the fantasy and more heavy on the romance), this book could appeal to you. The writing is competent enough, and while the plot is very “write-by-numbers,” is also comfortingly predictable, if that’s what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, it was decidedly not what I was looking for.

The biggest problem for me was the characters. I’m definitely a reader whose experience of a book is largely defined by how I feel about the characters. Of course, I like the magic and mystery, but if the characters feel flat, it’s really hard for me to get past that. And here, there was nothing really going for either of the two leads (another ding against this was the fact that there even were two leads to begin with, as, more and more, I’m growing to dislike these fantasy romance stories that feature both love interest’s perspective). Sadly, each character falls into the worst tropes of the YA genre. The leading lady (dumb name Maralyth) is essentially a special snowflake who is plucked out of her ordinary life to discover that she has a magical and wonderous heritage. The leading man (dumber name/spelling Alac) regularly demeans the looks of the women around him (at one point going so far as to mentally fat shame a young woman) and only falls for Maralyth because she’s “not like other girls.” If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know that the “not like other girls” motivation for love is probably one of my absolute biggest pet peeves. It’s pretty much a guaranteed “out” for me. That’s not even getting into some of his violent thoughts when he gets angry with Maralyth, a fact that is glossed over and somehow even romanticized.

The world-building and plot were perhaps better in that they weren’t actively enraging, but that’s not saying much. Like I said above, the story follows a fairly predictable path, with many of the character’s choices being easily predicted early in the story. And, while I appreciated that the author wrote a stand-alone story, it also ended up crippling much of the world-building. There is a religion that is included but given very little depth or explanation. Wars and other countries/regions are mentioned, but the story never takes the time to fully flesh any of this out. It left the entire reading experience feeling fairly flat, relying too heavily on its main characters who weren’t up to the task of carrying the story on their own.

This book was a pretty big disappointment. The main characters were incredibly unlikable, proving that some tropes are too persistent to die in the fiery pit from whence they should be thrown. It’s really too bad, especially because stand-alone YA fantasy stories are so hard to find.

Rating 5: The main characters were too rage-inducing for me to focus on much else.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Stolen Kingdom” is on this Goodreads list: Female fantasy authors – Children’s, YA and adult.

Find “The Stolen Kingdom” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Bury the Lede”

Book: “Bury the Lede” by Gaby Dunn & Claire Roe (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Boom! Studios, October 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Twenty-one-year-old Madison T. Jackson is already the star of the Emerson College student newspaper when she nabs a coveted night internship at Boston’s premiere newspaper, The Boston Lede. The job’s simple: do whatever the senior reporters tell you to do, from fetching coffee to getting a quote from a grieving parent. It’s grueling work, so when the murder of a prominent Boston businessman comes up on the police scanner, Madison races to the scene of the grisly crime. There, Madison meets the woman who will change her life forever: prominent socialite Dahlia Kennedy, who is covered in gore and being arrested for the murder of her family. The newspapers put everyone they can in front of her with no results until, with nothing to lose, Madison gets a chance – and unexpectedly barrels headfirst into danger she never anticipated.

Review: As I continue to try and up my graphic novel stats after a few months of a whole lot of novels, I found “Bury the Lede” by Gaby Dunn on a list about dark graphic novels with LGBTQIA+ themes and characters. Both wanting to get out of the fantasy realms of graphics, and always wanting to read more books by LGBTQIA+ authors about LGBTQIA+ characters, I found it at my library and placed it on hold. When it came I was a little shocked to see how short it was, but hey, a story about a young wannabe reporter getting close to a potential murderer in hopes of solving a baffling case? That could be covered in a trade paperback collection sized graphic, right? Right. Then it was too bad that “Bury the Lede” had far more plot points and aspirations than just that, because it’s a lot to cram into one thin book.

In terms of what did work for me, there were some really cool ideas in this book. I love the concept of a budding journalist wanting to prove herself getting in a bit over her head. I really liked the sapphic obsessive relationship that our journalist, Madison, starts up with accused murderess and socialite Dahlia. On paper it sounds very “Silence of the Lambs”, with a prisoner perhaps manipulating an investigator, but also leading them to a much bigger case nonetheless. I thoroughly enjoyed every scene that Madison and Dahlia had together, the weird sexual chemistry oozing and crackling when you aren’t exactly certain if this is something you’re supposed to be cool with. That works so, so well. I also enjoyed the ‘ripped from the headlines’ character of Raquel Stief, a woman in an education position that is being considered for a place in the President’s circle of advisors and administrators, and who is CLEARLY based on that demon Betsy DeVos. There may have been some living vicariously going on here as I read, given that one of the true monsters in this story is Stief, and Madison is hoping to take her down. And hell, I liked that there was a broader conspiracy afoot, because something like that is a really good idea that has a lot of potential to explore. And as mentioned earlier, this book does have numerous LGBTQIA+ characters and themes, and any time we get some diversity in graphic novels written by Own Voices authors, it’s going to be positive.

But oh, the stumbles within the good ideas and broad themes. While the idea of a sweeping political conspiracy theory with implications that could go all the way to Washington D.C. is very interesting, this isn’t a very long book, and it all feels like it goes VERY fast. Madison uncovers connection after connection at break neck speed, and it gave very little space to breathe by the time we get to the big reveal and climax of the book. And while the book pulls you in with the mystery of Dahlia, the murder of her husband, and her missing child, by the time we do get to the revelations involving that whole thing, it feels like a bit of a cobbled together afterthought. So does the connection that Dahlia has to Stief. By the end it feels more like Dunn wanted to have an “All the President’s Men” kind of story, but thought that the only way to get people to read such a thing in graphic novel form was to throw in a nice carrot on a stick in the form of murder. And by the end, neither aspect felt wholly explored. Hasty plot points aside, in terms of the characters, there really isn’t anyone to root for. I like that Madison is determined, but not only do we really only get to see this one side of her, she is also wholly, WHOLLY unethical in her journalistic ways. I’m sure that it was meant to establish her as a morally gray character whose drive to do ANYTHING for a story is damaging, but that’s not exactly a new theme to stories about journalists. And if anything, she left the morally gray area and went into straight up villain territory (mild spoiler alert: she roofies someone to get information out of them. Like, holy shit.), but it never seemed to be treated as such.

But, I did like the artwork and the character designs. Claire Roe uses some effective shadows and colors to establish mood, and it definitely felt neo-noir in her illustrations.

I had expectations for “Bury the Lede” that weren’t met. Though it had glimmers of really cool ideas, the execution didn’t get off the ground.

Rating 5: Definitely has a well conceived plot with some good ideas, but it just felt like it was executed a little too quickly with not enough focus. Throw in unlikable characters, and it’s just meh.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bury the Lede” is included on the Goodreads lists “Journalists, Photographers, Etc. in Comics”, and “Novels with Bisexual Protagonists”.

Find “Bury the Lede” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Don’t Tell a Soul”

Book: “Don’t Tell a Soul” by Kirsten Miller

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2021

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

Book Description: People say the house is cursed. It preys on the weakest, and young women are its favorite victims. In Louth, they’re called the Dead Girls.

All Bram wanted was to disappear—from her old life, her family’s past, and from the scandal that continues to haunt her. The only place left to go is Louth, the tiny town on the Hudson River where her uncle, James, has been renovating an old mansion. But James is haunted by his own ghosts. Months earlier, his beloved wife died in a fire that people say was set by her daughter. The tragedy left James a shell of the man Bram knew—and destroyed half the house he’d so lovingly restored.

The manor is creepy, and so are the locals. The people of Louth don’t want outsiders like Bram in their town, and with each passing day she’s discovering that the rumors they spread are just as disturbing as the secrets they hide. Most frightening of all are the legends they tell about the Dead Girls. Girls whose lives were cut short in the very house Bram now calls home.

The terrifying reality is that the Dead Girls may have never left the manor. And if Bram looks too hard into the town’s haunted past, she might not either.

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

I decided to pick up “Don’t Tell a Soul” by Kirsten Miller after a Minnesota snow storm, one of the first of the season and no doubt a precursor to a long winter ahead. There is just something about the dead of winter that makes a haunted house story feel all the more ominous, probably the isolation factor (which is amped up by the pandemic we are facing right now), and while my review is just now coming out in the Spring, I will say that had I read it now that feeling would have been different. I hadn’t read anything by Miller before this book, so I had no idea what to expect. All I wanted was something creepy and satisfying to match the atmosphere, as well as a story that would keep me on my toes and tick all the boxes of a genre that I love. And I didn’t really get that from this book, unfortunately.

We will start with what I did like about this book. For one, there were some really creepy moments within the manor house, moments that felt like they could have fit right in in a classic haunted house story. From flashes of someone running across the property at night, to the sense of someone standing just around the doorway but right out of sight, the unsettling moments were crafted and described very well. I also liked how Miller takes the idea of the tragic woman in a Gothic haunted house story and tweaks with it a bit. There was a line I loved in particular, “Ghosts and girls go hand in hand. Why do you suppose that is?” It gave me chills, as so many ghost stories, especially in this subgenre, do have to do with women who were probably victims in one way or another. Instead of running with the outcome as interesting, Miller decides to look at the victimization at hand and show the injustice of that. Many of the women in this story are victims of misogyny and rape culture, and there is a lot of pushback against that, which I appreciated.

But the qualms I had with “Don’t Tell a Soul” skewed my ultimate enjoyment of the novel. For one, while we get a lot of hints about Bram’s tragic backstory, up until the reveals about her circumstances we get a lot of ‘other girls aren’t like me’ and ‘but if they knew who I REALLY was they wouldn’t think that’ kind of malarky that I find frustrating. “I’m Not Like Other Girls” is frustrating when it’s used to make a girl seem cooler, and it’s just as frustrating when it’s used to make a girl seem tragic. By the time we did find out what was going on with her, the build up didn’t match the way that it was just kind of stated and then not explored. It also felt like a lot of the people in her circles were just there to be awful and unsympathetic to bolster her tragic-ness, but it made them feel more two dimensionally villain-y than actual real world problematic people. On top of all that, while I DID like how Miller takes apart the idea of the ‘crazy girl in the haunted manor’ trope we’ve seen many a time before, it was done in a lot of heavy handed ways that felt more like telling as opposed to showing.

My biggest problem, however, was that while “Don’t Tell a Soul” wanted to make good points about misogyny and the dangers that women face, too often was the bad behavior of certain men written off as okay. There were many times where Bram was feeling intimidated by local men in the town, while characters who are supposed to be ‘good’ would tell her that she didn’t have anything to worry about when it came to them. My biggest issue of this was with the character Maisie. Maisie is a local girl who befriends Bram, and is there to be the character that makes you question the ‘crazy woman’ tropes, as she actively pushes back against it in theory, and also has to deal with a mother who has a reputation for being a crazy alcoholic (but is in actuality dealing with trauma). Maisie continuously brings up some really good points, but she herself is toxic in many ways. One of the biggest examples was how she was quick to defend the very clearly abusive and bad behavior of local men (spoilers here: at one point in hopes of ‘saving’ Bram from a situation, she literally gets two local men to kidnap her and tries to write it off as ‘oh their intentions were good you don’t have to worry about the men here’. WHAT THE FUCK). I was fine with the taking down of the privileged wealthy men who were abusing the town and its locals in various ways, but it felt like others who were behaving in other bad ways got more of a pass, and that didn’t sit right.

Overall, I found “Don’t Tell a Soul” mundane and frustrating. There were glimmers here and there, but it missed the mark for me.

Rating 5: Character development felt left behind in favor of messaging, but “Don’t Tell a Soul” brings up some interesting, though not terribly unique, points about misogyny.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Don’t Tell a Soul” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Find “Don’t Tell a Soul” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Mirrorland”

Book: “Mirrorland” by Carole Johnstone

Publishing Info: Scribner, April 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher.

Book Description: With the startling twists of Gone Girl and the haunting emotional power of Room, Mirrorland is a thrilling work of psychological suspense about twin sisters, the man they both love, and the dark childhood they can’t leave behind.

Cat lives in Los Angeles, far away from 36 Westeryk Road, the imposing gothic house in Edinburgh where she and her estranged twin sister, El, grew up. As girls, they invented Mirrorland, a dark, imaginary place under the pantry stairs full of pirates, witches, and clowns. These days Cat rarely thinks about their childhood home, or the fact that El now lives there with her husband Ross.

But when El mysteriously disappears after going out on her sailboat, Cat is forced to return to 36 Westeryk Road, which has scarcely changed in twenty years. The grand old house is still full of shadowy corners, and at every turn Cat finds herself stumbling on long-held secrets and terrifying ghosts from the past. Because someone—El?—has left Cat clues in almost every room: a treasure hunt that leads right back to Mirrorland, where she knows the truth lies crouched and waiting…

A twisty, dark, and brilliantly crafted thriller about love and betrayal, redemption and revenge, Mirrorland is a propulsive, page-turning debut about the power of imagination and the price of freedom.

Review: Thank you to Scribner for sending me an ARC of this novel!

Right before I picked up “Mirrorland” by Carole Johnstone, I gave up on a thriller novel involving twin women, one of whom goes missing off a boat, and the other who finds herself getting closer to her twin’s husband after her sister’s supposed death. I actually ended up giving up on it, and it just wasn’t gelling with me. So imagine my double take when I picked up “Mirrorland”, and found a story about twin women, one of who goes missing off a boat, and the other getting closer to the MIA twin’s husband. Coincidence like whoa! Very “Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano”! All that aside, I did find myself more interested in “Mirrorland”, and didn’t find it hard to finish. But that only gets one so far.

“Mirrorland” has a lot of promise and potential that made me interested to read it, but the execution was a little lackluster. In terms of the good, I loved seeing Cat try to hunt through her old home, finding out piece by piece what someone (could it be El?) has left for her to find. As she slowly peels back the clues and starts to piece together what could have happened to her sister, we get a really fun narrative device that feels like it could also be unreliable. I also liked slowly learning about what Mirrorland’s purpose was for Cat and El, and the slow reveal as to what their home life was like that necessitated a place like Mirrorland. There were genuine surprises to go with it, and some of the big reveals totally caught me off guard.

But that is part of the problem with this book. For a few of the twists and reveals, one in particular that I don’t want to go into too much detail about, we have to really, REALLY do some suspension of disbelief and plot gymnastics for it to work. By the time we got to that big reveal, it was so out of left field that we had to have a character actively sit down and explain it, in the ultimate telling versus showing strategy. It feels a lot like the end of “Psycho”, where we get a stilted monologue about what the heck was going on with Norman Bates kind of offsets the entire film. It doesn’t work very well there, and it doesn’t work very well here either. And really, it’s so farfetched and unbelievable, and the story before it isn’t strong enough to make up for it (unlike “Psycho”). I was kind of flabbergasted that we got all of the wrap up in a monologue, as that feels like a big no no to me.

And to add insult to injury, I really didn’t connect with any of the characters. The only one that we really got to know was Cat, and she didn’t feel like she was reinventing the wheel when it comes to unreliable and tortured protagonists in stories like this one. And everyone else fit into very familiar and well worn tropes we see in the genre without really exploring beyond. Overall, it just felt like more of the same. While I definitely don’t doubt that this book and the book I had given up on previously were complete coincidences when it came to plot details and ideas, the fact remains that there just didn’t feel like there was a lot of originality going on in this book, nor were the characters people I was invested in.

“Mirrorland” was a bit of a letdown. Books don’t always have to reinvent the wheel, but if you’re going to lean into familiar themes and ideas, I want a seamless execution.

Rating 5: Lots of twists and turns, but some real plot gymnastics to make some of them work and not terribly interesting characters makes “Mirrorland” a bit of a letdown.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mirrorland” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2021”.

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

Kate’s Review: “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep”

Book: “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” by Lauria Faria Stolarz

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, March 2021

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

Book Description: Bestselling author Laurie Faria Stolarz returns with a thrilling novel where an eighteen-year-old girl’s search for answers lands her in one of the most terrifying situations imaginable.

Four days…Trapped in a well, surrounded by dirt, scratching at the walls trying to find a way out. Four days of a thirst so strong, that when it finally rains, I drink as much as possible from the dripping walls, not even caring how much dirt comes with it.

Six months… Since my escape. Since no one believed I was taken to begin with – from my own bed, after a party, when no one else was home… Six months of trying to find answers and being told instead that I made the whole incident up.

One month… Since I logged on to the Jane Anonymous site for the first time and found a community of survivors who listen without judgment, provide advice, and console each other when needed. A month of chatting with a survivor whose story eerily mirrors my own: a girl who’s been receiving triggering clues, just like me, and who could help me find the answers I’m searching for.

Three days…Since she mysteriously disappears, and since I’m forced to ask the questions: will my chance to find out what happened to me vanish with her? And will I be next? 

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

Back at the beginning of 2020 I reviewed the book “Jane Anonymous”, in which a kidnapping survivor has to readjust to her life after returning home. I thought that it did a great job of combining legitimate thrills with a realistic and responsible take on trauma. So when I saw that Laurie Faria Stolarz had written a new book within that same universe, “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep”, I was pretty interested! I really like the idea of a series that gives stories to different characters who are on the Jane Anonymous blog and support chat board that was established at the end of the first book, so I was really eager to jump into this one to see what story was up next. But unfortunately, this book didn’t live up to the high hopes I had for it.

I do want to say right off the bat that I think that Stolarz does her due diligence to portray mental illness and the effects of trauma on a person in realistic and non-romanticized ways. Terra has two big, horrible things that she has to deal with: the traumatic death of her parents, who died in a house fire that she survived, and being kidnapped and held captive for days, only to escape and have people not believe her. These two things would of course weigh on anyone, and the crap that Terra has to deal with, be it the disassociation, the PTSD, the fugue states, etcetera is only exacerbated by people who either can’t handle her very difficult behavior, or are openly hostile towards her or wary of her. Sometimes I think that mental illness can be portrayed in ways that doesn’t do it justice in the sense that it can be VERY hard for the person suffering, and it can be constant and repetitive. That was all well done. The problem, however, is that when you have a character going through these kinds of things in realistic ways, it can make for a plot that feels like its spinning its wheels or repeating itself. “Jane Anonymous” was able to balance both the trauma themes and the plot progression, so it was disappointing that this one couldn’t quite manage it.

And in terms of the plot progression, we have two mysteries at hand. The first is the mystery that is always in the air, and that is what happened to Terra when she was abducted, or if she was abducted at all. As the story goes on Terra has pretty much stopped trying to convince people of what happened to her, as she is met with those who think she’s flat out lying, or those who think that her previous trauma of losing her parents has led her to a psychotic break of sorts. There are moments of her looking for proof, and scenes of her maybe seeing clues that she is still being watched, though she lets it fall by the wayside a bit because she just doesn’t really know how to approach it lest she be met with derision. The other, more active mystery is what happened to her online friend Peyton, someone she met on the Jane Anonymous support boards, who has been talking about her own trauma of being kidnapped, and is worried that her kidnapper is stalking her again as well. After Peyton disappears, Terra is motivated to try and find her, and therein perhaps find the man who took her, as their stories have similarities. The problem with this storyline is that the action doesn’t pick up until we are more than halfway done with the book. I kept waiting for it and waiting for it, as it’s in the description that this is the main plot line, but it was very late, in my opinion a little too late in the progression. And by the time we do get to the big climax, which I won’t spoil here, there were things that just felt wrapped up a little too quickly, or too conveniently, and then the plot lingered a little too long post climax. Ultimately, it felt muddled and haphazard.

Given that I still think that there is a lot of potential for more books within the “Jane Anonymous” world that looks at different survivors and their stories, I’m not writing off the series as a whole. But “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” was a bit of a let down that couldn’t quite find a good balance between important messages and captivating story.

Rating 5: Though I had hopes for this sequel to “Jane Anonymous”, “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” was a repetitive and muddled follow up. That said, the candid look at how difficult mental illness and trauma could be was well handled.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sweet Vicious”, and “YA Suspense/Thriller/Mystery”.

Find “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: “Jane Anonymous”

Kate’s Review: “Burn Our Bodies Down”

Book: “Burn Our Bodies Down” by Rory Power

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: From the author of the New York Times bestseller Wilder Girls comes a new twisty thriller about a girl whose past has always been a mystery—until she decides to return to her mother’s hometown . . . where history has a tendency to repeat itself.

Ever since Margot was born, it’s been just her and her mother. No answers to Margot’s questions about what came before. No history to hold on to. No relative to speak of. Just the two of them, stuck in their run-down apartment, struggling to get along.

But that’s not enough for Margot. She wants family. She wants a past. And she just found the key she needs to get it: A photograph, pointing her to a town called Phalene. Pointing her home. Only, when Margot gets there, it’s not what she bargained for.

Margot’s mother left for a reason. But was it to hide her past? Or was it to protect Margot from what’s still there? The only thing Margot knows for sure is there’s poison in their family tree, and their roots are dug so deeply into Phalene that now that she’s there, she might never escape.

Review: After I read “Wilder Girls” I was left a little cold. Which was odd, because Rory Power’s debut novel had all the elements of something I thought I’d love: a boarding school, a post-apocalyptic event, sapphic characters, a mystery, the list goes on. I was thinking that maybe it was just me, and given that I liked her writing style a lot (the atmosphere! The world building!), I wanted to give her another go. Enter “Burn Our Bodies Down”, a YA horror story with a gorgeous cover, a strange small town setting, and family secrets. Again, things that I love in a story, whatever the genre. I gave it a go, hoping that it would click. But, once again, I was left a bit cold.

I wil start with what I did like, however. Power really has a skill at creating atmosphere and setting, and once again I was sucked into the world building of Phalene, the small town our protagonist Margot runs to in hopes of connecting with her estranged grandmother. Phalene feels like the kind of rural town that I remember passing through in my childhood, with familiar characters and places, as well as familiar hardships and hurdles. I could practically see the cornfields, and the town area, as well as the vast farmscapes and openness. Phalene itself felt like its own character that Margot was getting to know. I also will be the first to say that, without giving too much away, the big mystery that Margot’s grandmother is trying to hide, and that has affected Margot’s mother so profoundly that it has damaged her relationship with her daughter, is pretty unique and an interesting concept. I had a feeling that I knew what it was (once it became clear that this was, indeed, a horror story with fantastical elements, but I will talk about that in a bit), but it was still an angle that felt fresh and not like many others that I’ve seen before. Power had some of that going for her story in “Wilder Girls” as well, there is no denying that she has some really cool ideas!

But there were too many things that didn’t work for me. My biggest gripe was that it took a long time for the actual horror elements to arrive within the plot. I honestly went into this with very little knowledge as to what the general tropes and themes were, and while I was reading I was wondering if Power had decided to forgo her past horror genre foray and go into more of a family secrets thriller. And I guess that this could kind of be considered that as well, but by the time the actual can’t be argued as anything else horror elements popped up it was about half way through the book. That seems a little long to me. I understand that we had to have some set up of Margot’s family dysfunction before we could really explore the other issues, given that the dysfunction and the issues tie in together very tightly. But the dragging of feet didn’t really build up suspense, it just felt like it took too long. Along with that, I didn’t feel like we got to really know Margot as the story progressed, at least not past a kind of superficial level. There was so much potential for us to peel back layers of her, and hints to who she was outside of a teen who has a fraught relationship with her mom, but none of that really gets explored. Which, in turn, made it harder for me to care about her and what the deal was with her and her weird family.

I gave Rory Power another shot, but I think that this may be the end of the road for me and her books. “Burn Our Bodies Down” shines bright in the ideas department, but the execution was lacking.

Rating 5: Lots of solid ideas, but none of them fully execute in time for the big reveal for me to have investment in them.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Burn Our Bodies Down” is included on the Goodreads lists “Corn Books”, and “2020 Horror to Scream For”.

Find “Burn Our Bodies Down” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!