Kate’s Review: “Good Girls Lie”

42771599Book: “Good Girls Lie” by J.T. Ellison

Publishing Info: Mira Books, December 2019

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

Book Description: Perched atop a hill in the tiny town of Marchburg, Virginia, The Goode School is a prestigious prep school known as a Silent Ivy. The boarding school of choice for daughters of the rich and influential, it accepts only the best and the brightest. Its elite status, long-held traditions and honor code are ideal for preparing exceptional young women for brilliant futures at Ivy League universities and beyond. But a stranger has come to Goode, and this ivy has turned poisonous.

In a world where appearances are everything, as long as students pretend to follow the rules, no one questions the cruelties of the secret societies or the dubious behavior of the privileged young women who expect to get away with murder. But when a popular student is found dead, the truth cannot be ignored. Rumors suggest she was struggling with a secret that drove her to suicide.

But look closely…because there are truths and there are lies, and then there is everything that really happened.

J.T. Ellison’s pulse-pounding new novel examines the tenuous bonds of friendship, the power of lies and the desperate lengths people will go to to protect their secrets.

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

The end of 2019 is upon us and on this New Years Eve we are going to close out the 2019 blog year with one of my favorite guilty pleasure genres: the soapy catty boarding school thriller! Oh how I love the juicy and scandalous tales of kids at boarding school behaving badly, and if you have an interesting mystery to boot it’s just icing on the cake. So how lucky for me that I was approved to check out “Good Girls Lie” by J.T. Ellison. Boarding school drama, secret societies, and murder are just a few of the juicy tidbits you’ll find in this novel.

Our main character is Ash, an English orphan who has been accepted to the prestigious Goode school, an all girls academy that is said to produce women who go on to the Ivy League and then find themselves in powerful jobs and totally set lives. Ash isn’t interested in making friends, as she just wants to finish school and move on with her life. It’s told from the first person perspective, and I have to say that Ellison is really good at still maintaining a sense of mystery in spite of the fact we are in Ash’s head for most of the novel (there are some other perspectives, but more on that later). We know that something went down while she was back in England, and that Ash is hiding something. Pretty standard stuff, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not entertaining. If anything, the fact that it hit a lot of familiar notes and had a number of red herrings and twists made it feel like a comfortable sweater that fit in every way I wanted it to. Ash as a main character was also a positive of this story, as I thought that she had enough mystery and relatability that I was invested in how things turned out for her, as well as worried about what she may or may not be capable of. I was genuinely questioning if I was dealing with an unreliable narrator or not, and I couldn’t wait to see how it all shook out. I also enjoyed the complicated relationship Ash had with another student at the school, Becca. Becca is a couple years older than Ash and one of the most envied, and perhaps feared, girls at Goode, and her interest in Ash is something that makes other girls jealous and curious. Their friendship is filled with a fair amount of sexual tension, and question as to whether either of them can be trusted makes the tension all the more amped, and therefore satisfying.

There was one aspect of this book that didn’t totally work for me, and that is that along with Ash’s perspective, we also occasionally get some third person perspectives from Dean Ford, the headmistress at Goode. While I think that multiple perspectives can be done well, and that you can construct more ‘ah ha!’ moments if you have the ability to see outside the first person narration, a lot of the moments that we had with Ford were more about showing her weaknesses and personal problems. I like the concept of exploring a woman who has to live up to the reputations of the many other head mistresses that the school has had (in particular, her mother, who was the previous head mistress), and how she may fixate on a new, and potentially damaged student, but the way that it was executed felt like it was fat that could have been trimmed.

“Good Girls Lie” was a boarding school thriller that hit the familiar points. Like I’ve said before, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing! If you want a read that you can just enjoy for what it is, and you like boarding school thrillers, this will be a good fit. I hope that you all have a very happy and safe New Year’s Eve, and I’ll see you in 2020!!

Rating 7: A soapy mystery with catty drama, “Good Girls Lie” was a worthy contribution to the ‘thriller at a boarding school’ genre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Good Girls Lie” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Sapphic Boarding School Books”.

Find “Good Girls Lie” at your school using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Trace of Evil”

43263388Book: “Trace of Evil” (Natalie Lockhart #1) by Alice Blanchard

Publishing Info: Minotaur Books, December 2019

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

Book Description: A riveting mystery that introduces a bold and audacious rookie detective assigned to hunt for a killer who is haunted by the past in this gripping murder case…

Natalie Lockhart always knew she was going to be a cop. A rookie detective on the Burning Lake police force, she was raised on the wisdom of her chief-of-police father. These cases will haunt you if you let them. Grief doesn’t come with instructions.

But the one thing her father couldn’t teach her was how to handle loss. Natalie’s beloved sister was viciously murdered as a teenager, and she carries the scars deep in her heart. Although the killer was locked up, the trace evidence never added up, and Natalie can’t help wondering―is the past really behind her?

As the newest member on the force, Natalie is tasked with finding nine missing persons who’ve vanished off the face of the earth, dubbed “the Missing Nine.” One night, while following up on a new lead, she comes across a savage crime that will change everything.

Daisy Buckner―a popular schoolteacher, wife to a cop, and newly pregnant―lies dead on her kitchen floor. As Natalie hunts for Daisy’s killer in the wake of the town’s shock, her search leads to a string of strange clues―about the Missing Nine, about Daisy’s secret life, and reviving fresh doubts about her sister’s murder.

As the investigation deepens, Natalie’s every move risks far-reaching consequences―for the victims, for the town of Burning Lake, and for herself.

Spellbinding and gripping, Trace of Evil is a novel of twisting suspense that will leave you breathless.

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

Awhile back one of the librarians I follow on Twitter was speaking highly of a book by an author I hadn’t heard of. He had an ARC of “Trace of Evil” by Alice Blanchard, and when I clicked on the description it sounded like it would be up my alley. Small town police detective, missing people, a victim with secrets, all matters that will pull me into a story on any given day. I got it from NetGalley, and opened it up, expecting all of those things but maybe not much more. And what else did I get?

Witchcraft, covens, and teenagers with secret ties to black magic rituals.

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Oh HELL YES. (source)

“Trace of Evil” has three main mysteries that make up the guts of the plot. The first is the most obvious, that of the murder of Daisy Buckner. Natalie Lockhart, our plucky but haunted protagonist, has her own personal connections to Daisy. Not only is she colleagues with Daisy’s husband, Natalie’s older sister Grace wa very close with Daisy, so Natalie’s personal investment is high. I enjoyed seeing Natalie slowly piece together various components to the murder, and how Blanchard was sure to show some of the downfalls of being a woman detective in a small town where everyone knows everything about your past. The second mystery involves a number of missing women, or the Missing Nine, that Natalie has been trying to solve since she joined the force. But along with that obsession, Natalie has her own personal mystery to try and solve; when she was a kid, a masked boy attacked her in the woods. Natalie has spent the rest of her life trying to find out who that boy was. Throw in the fact that her oldest sister Willow was the victim of a horrific murder, and you have a lady cop with a lot of emotional baggage on top of the usual caseload that she has to take on every day. But these various bits of backstory never bog Natalie down, nor does Blanchard make it an excuse to make Natalie overly prickly, overly reckless, or overly damaged. Her traumas absolutely have shaped her, but instead of taking the obvious route of ‘broken but brilliant cop’, Natalie is instead multifaceted and achingly human. I really, really like her as a protagonist (and yes, I’m already rooting for her and her colleague Luke to hook up. She’s had a thing for him since childhood, y’all, it’s great!). Blanchard also is able to take all three mysteries and to show how they are connected, even in the most superficial of ways, and really make the reader buy into the connections. This was one of those instances where I didn’t guess any of the solutions to any of the mysteries, and that left me tickled.

And yes, there is a witchcraft element that I thoroughly enjoyed, if only because I totally saw my own dabbling in Wicca within this plot point. Burning Lake, the town Natalie lives in, has a history of witchcraft and witch trials, and it has permeated a lot of the culture and turned it into a Salem-esque community. Not only did Natalie and her sisters dip their toes into it, but now Natalie’s niece and her friends have started to dabble. But, as is the case in other tales, cliques and infighting tends to lead to a misuse of the ‘magic’, and I loved seeing Blanchard bring that into this story and finding ways to not only connect it to the mystery at hand, but to also show how teen girls who feel powerless can be drawn in to the idea of magic and ritual.

I really, really loved “Trace of Evil”. My hope is that Natalie Lockhart comes back soon, because I now have a new mystery series that I fully intend to keep up with. I highly recommend this thriller to all fans of the genre, and hope that you love it as much as I did.

Rating 10: Suspenseful, detailed, engaging, and filled with great characters, “Trace of Evil” is a promising start to a new series that I thoroughly loved.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Trace of Evil” is new and not included on many Goodreads lists. But I think that it would fit in on “Small Towns with Secrets”, and “Spellbinding Fiction”.

Find “Trace of Evil” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Anything For You”

43263434Book: “Anything for You (Valerie Hart #3)” by Saul Black

Publishing Info: St Martin’s Press, November 2019

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

Book Description: Critically acclaimed author Saul Black returns with a heart-racing thriller in which a brutal murder forces one woman to reckon with her own past–and her future.

On a hot summer night, a watchful neighbor locks eyes with an intruder and unwittingly alerts the police to a vicious crime scene next door: a lavish master bedroom where a man lies dead. His wife is bleeding out onto the hardwood floor, clinging to life.

The victim, Adam Grant, was a well-known San Francisco prosecutor–a man whose connection to Homicide detective Valerie Hart brings her face-to-face with a life she’s long since left behind. Adam’s career made him an easy target, and forensic evidence points towards an ex-con he put behind bars years ago. But while Adam’s wife and daughter grapple with their tragic loss, Valerie uncovers devastating clues that point in a more ominous direction. Lurking in the shadows of the Grants’ pristine life is a mysterious blonde who holds the key to a dangerous past.

As Valerie struggles to forge a new path for herself, the investigation forces her to confront the question: can we ever really leave our pasts behind?

Sophisticated and stunning, Anything for You is an unforgettable thriller that will grip readers long after turning the last page.

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

We had to wait a little while, but finally, FINALLY the gritty and complex detective Valerie Hart is back for another mystery! Saul Black continues the adventures of the San Francisco sleuth in “Anything For You”, and I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy. I don’t have many mystery series I follow, but when a new one comes out I’m game to dig in. I had some mostly positive, but also a bit mixed, feelings about the previous Valerie Hart books after revisiting them (as seen in my previous review), but had high hopes that I’d come out of “Anything For You” still feeling good. And I did. Mostly.

I’ll talk about the mystery first, as that really in the central plot point and Hart is just living in it. A well known lawyer is found murdered in his home, leaving behind a wife and daughter. Hart is on the case, though she should probably step aside given that she almost slept with the man a few years ago (because of course she did). It initially looks open and shut, but as Hart continues to investigate we get to see the slow reveal of a more complex (and sinister) plan and past that the victim might have been hiding. Along with Hart’s investigation and her slow clue building, we also get the perspective of a mysterious woman whose connection isn’t apparent at first, but slowly becomes more and more clear. To me this was the most interesting aspect of this story, and possibly the most interesting slow reveal of all of Black’s Valerie Hart books. I was actually more interested in seeing what this mysterious woman’s story was going to bring next than I was in the official investigation, and then once the tethers did intersect and wrap everything together I was all the more satisfied with how Black build up a cohesive and complex mystery.

As for Hart, I still really like Valerie and I like seeing how she progresses in each book. When we see her in this one, she is now married to her lover Nick, and they are considering starting a family. The questions of parenthood and whether she’s cut out for her are obviously weighing on her mind, and it means that, once again, she starts to drift towards her usual self destructive tendencies. And as much as I love Valerie and I like that it’s being acknowledged that family planning can be filled with complex emotions, I do feel like Valerie’s constant slip up potential is a little old at this point. I’m not saying that there wasn’t any growth whatsoever with her character, as she certainly isn’t static in her behavior or personality. But I do think that it’s an easy out to revert to questions of ‘will she or won’t she’ make bad decisions just for the sake of inner conflict and turmoil. I’m also becoming more and more sensitive to the ‘men write women’ pattern that can be seen sometimes, especially when it comes to ‘strong female characters’. When it comes to Hart, she sometimes falls into all too common tropes about what that means, like sacrificing any aspect of femininity, pointing out the flaws of other women to make her look better, or simply putting more ‘masculine’ traits (that is traits commonly associated with masculinity in our culture) into her bag of tricks to show how tough she is. That isn’t to say that all men or all women exist in a monolith when it comes to behavior and emotional coping skills, as that would also be a foolish thing to insist upon. The problem with Valerie is that more and more she falls into the ‘not like other girls’ box, and it’s one that I have less and less patience for. And honestly, every time that Valerie referred to her genitalia as ‘her c*nt’, I cringed. And I know that Black is British and the associations with that word are very different there, but still. It just felt like another ‘not like other girls’ moment, and it was laid on pretty thick.

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(source)

Overall there was a lot for me to like about “Anything for You”, and I am still interested in seeing what lies in store for Valerie Hart and any future endeavors she may undertake. But I’m hoping that her character gets to grow a little more in the future.

Rating 7: Valerie Hart is still a compelling protagonist and the mystery was good, but I’m starting to worry that we’re edging into all too common ‘tough but messed up girl’ tropes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Anything For You” is new and not included on many Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Women Who Solve Crimes”.

Find “Anything For You” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “The Killing Lessons” and “Lovemurder”

 

Serena’s Review: “The Art of Theft”

36510437Book: “The Art of Theft” by Sherry Thomas”

Publication Info: Berkley, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes has solved murders and found missing individuals. But she has never stolen a priceless artwork—or rather, made away with the secrets hidden behind a much-coveted canvas.

But Mrs. Watson is desperate to help her old friend recover those secrets and Charlotte finds herself involved in a fever-paced scheme to infiltrate a glamorous Yuletide ball where the painting is one handshake away from being sold and the secrets a bare breath from exposure.

Her dear friend Lord Ingram, her sister Livia, Livia’s admirer Stephen Marbleton—everyone pitches in to help and everyone has a grand time. But nothing about this adventure is what it seems and disaster is biding time on the grounds of a glittering French chateau, waiting only for Charlotte to make a single mistake…

Previously Reviewed: “A Study in Scarlet Women” and “A Conspiracy in Belgravia” and “The Hollow of Fear”

Review:  Continuing my week of Sherry Thomas reviews! While “The Magnolia Sword” took me by surprise (I didn’t realize it was coming out until late in the game, and still later figured out the author was Sherry Thomas), I’ve been impatiently waiting for the release of the latest “Lady Sherlock” story. Thanks to Edelweiss+, I had early access to it on my Kindle, and due to a complete lack of willpower, I ended up reading this book a few months ago but still wanted to review it closer to its publication date, so here we are. And while this wasn’t my favorite book in the series, I’m still enjoying the heck out of these stories and, again, am anxiously awaiting the next.

After helping Lord Ingram escape a false murder charge in the last book, Charlotte Holmes once again finds herself at the service of one of her close friends. This time it’s Mrs. Watson who has been contacted by a friend from the past who is now caught up in a mysterious blackmail/art theft situation. But this time, Charlotte and co. must do more than simply unravel the various players in this charade, but now find themselves playing an active role within the events themselves. Now she must not only discover who is at the heart of this conflict, but find a way to walk the narrow line between solving the case and not becoming a criminal herself!

Many of the strengths of the original books are still present here. Charlotte, as always, is a perfectly realized character, now comfortably familiar in both her quirks (her sense of fashion and preference for sweet treats), her strengths (obviously), as well as her weaknesses (challenges with navigating complicated relationships). One of the pleasing things about a long(ish) running series is this solid comfort with a character who is understood and beloved, but it also come with challenges. Here, while Charlotte is still at the heart of untangling the mystery, it feels like she is not the main character in her own book. That is, there is very little ongoing character development or a unique arc that is devoted to her. Much of this character work is picked up by the others in the book, but for a series that is called the “Lady Sherlock” series, this book was the first that did begin to show some signs of not quite knowing where to go from here with its titular character.

Luckily, the series has already set up a good number of side characters in the first several books so a shift of focus to them, while not preferred, also still feels earned. And I was already invested enough to feel that their conflicts were enough to carry much of this story. Mrs. Watson, of course, is at the heart of this story, and I loved learning more about her past and those who played a role in it. We see, again, both the strengths and weaknesses that lead her to where she is today. She also serves as a good mentor for Livia who ends up taking on a much more active role in this story.

Throughout the series, Livia has always played a bit of a strange role. A decent amount of page time is devoted to her, but she’s typically no where near the action and her development has moved at a fairly glacial pace. Here, Livia finally gets to come out of the shadow and play with the big kids. I loved seeing her come out of her shell, even if it was an uncomfortable process for her. Through her, the story also spends a bit exploring, again, the limitations on women in this time period. And, while Livia’s life has by no means been a happy one, she comes to realize the privileges that she has taken for granted.

I did enjoy the mystery itself as well. After the more active role that Charlotte took on in the previous book, it was nice to see that approach used once again here with Charlotte and co. essentially staging a heist. The story has definite “‘Ocean’s 11’ but in Victorian times” vibes, which I thought was a clever change of pace from the other, more typical mysteries of the first books. There were some surprises sprinkled throughout, as well, and, overall, I found the conclusion and explanation satisfying.

However, for all the answers we do get, there were a few too many loose ends left hanging. This was clearly done on purpose, but there were just one or two too many for me not to begin to feel slightly frustrated and anxious. For one thing, these mysteries are complicated. It always takes a bit of thinking on my part to fully put things together and still I’d have a hard time explaining it all later. But to add more unsolved clues on top of all that, clues I can only assume will come into play in a later book and that I will need to recall…it’s a bit too much. For me, I was left feeling a bit worried that I was not only missing things in this book, but will now likely miss even more in some future story.

The book also ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, which I’m not sure was necessary. It’s not the type that gnaws away at you, but more just introduces the topic of the next book. But it seemed liked a strange choice for an established series. It’s the kind of thing you do in book one or two, just to keep readers interested. But here, it was more like an unneeded “coming next week” preview for a well-watched and established TV show. Just leave it out and let the book end on a note relevant to this book’s story. The next book can take care of itself without page time given to it here.

Those quibbles aside, this was another solid entry in the “Lady Sherlock” series. I’m definitely excited for the next book as it seems like it will focus on a character who wasn’t much seen in this story. And I hope that Charlotte’s more active role continues. However, I also hope that she gets a bit more character development and a more defined emotional arc in future stories. I enjoy the side characters, for sure, but I’m mostly here for Charlotte. All of this to say, if you’ve enjoyed this series so far, you’re good to go on this one as well. And never fear, there will be another; it’s all set up right there at the end of this one.

Rating 8: While Charlotte fades a bit into the background and there are a few too many dangling clues, I enjoyed the addition of a heist plot onto another solid mystery.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Art of Theft” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads’ lists, but it is on “Historical Mystery 2019.”

Find “The Art of Theft” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Bonfire”

33876540Book: “Bonfire” by Krysten Ritter

Publishing Info: Hutchinson, November 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: eAudiobook from the library!

Book Description: Should you ever go back?

It has been ten years since Abby Williams left home and scrubbed away all visible evidence of her small town roots. Now working as an environmental lawyer in Chicago, she has a thriving career, a modern apartment, and her pick of meaningless one-night stands.

But when a new case takes her back home to Barrens, Indiana, the life Abby painstakingly created begins to crack. Tasked with investigating Optimal Plastics, the town’s most high-profile company and economic heart, Abby begins to find strange connections to Barrens’ biggest scandal from more than a decade ago involving the popular Kaycee Mitchell and her closest friends—just before Kaycee disappeared for good.

Abby knows the key to solving any case lies in the weak spots, the unanswered questions. But as Abby tries to find out what really happened to Kaycee, she unearths an even more disturbing secret—a ritual called “The Game,” which will threaten the reputations, and lives, of the community and risk exposing a darkness that may consume her.

With tantalizing twists, slow-burning suspense, and a remote, rural town of just five claustrophobic miles, Bonfire is a dark exploration of the question: can you ever outrun your past?

Review: Many people associate Krysten Ritter with her version of Jessica Jones, but for me she’s always going to be the tragic, manipulative, and doomed drug addict Jane Margolis from “Breaking Bad”. These are two heavy characters, and Ritter has the chops to deliver their stories with a lot of complexity, humanity, and darkness. And now you can add ‘author of a heavy and dark thriller novel’ to her list of accomplishments.

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Keep it up, queen! (source)

I knew that she wrote a book called “Bonfire”, but for whatever reason never got around to picking it up. I’m kind of kicking myself now, given that it has a few elements that I really like, such as small town conspiracy, mean girls, and the potential ill doings of the corporate world. That sure sounds like a healthy mix of ‘things that appeal to Kate’. When I saw that it was checked in in eAudiobook form, I downloaded it and dove right in.

“Bonfire” has some set ups that we’ve seen before in these gritty woman-centered thrillers. Our protagonist, Abby Williams, is returning to her small town of Barrens, Indiana that has only given her bad memories. She was tormented by the resident mean girls, her father was a zealous and abusive drunk, and her mother died when she was a kid. You probably won’t be surprised to find out that she’s still fixated on the past, especially on the disappearance of her ex-best friend turn tormenter Casey. Casey made Abby’s life a living hell, but then vanished off the face of the Earth after graduation, leaving everyone to assume she needed to get out of the small town scene but quick.The longer Abby spends in Barrens, the more unhinged and emotionally compromised she gets, a mix of bad memories, trauma, and her assignment being perhaps more than she anticipated. Throw in a vague love triangle with the former high school golden boy and the former high school outcast, and you have pretty standard fare. I liked Abby quite a bit, as while she was a train wreck (the trope that I’ve long grown tired of in these books), she is also relatable and just enough put together that she didn’t feel flat or two dimensional. I also found her to be a more realistic train wreck than I’ve seen in other books that are similar, as I completely believed her emotional regression when she returns to the town that has left her with so much trauma. She was by far the most complex character of the book, and while I would have liked to have seen a little more oomph from the others, ultimately this is her story. I think that Ritter tried to make a couple of the antagonistic side characters more nuanced, but she didn’t achieve it for me. Perhaps that’s just because they were both so reprehensible based in my own ethical and moral standards that I couldn’t cut them slack, and others would be able to. Not I.

What made “Bonfire” stand out from other books like it is that while the main conflict is, certainly, on a missing person, there is also the theme of corporate wrongdoing and conspiracy. Abby has been sent as a lawyer to investigate Optimum, a large plastics corporation that has brought a lot of money and jobs into Barrens. They have also potentially been illegally dumping waste into the town reservoir, and therein poisoning the citizens. Ritter brings up the fact that a lot of people in town don’t want the investigation, and while it seems like that would be unimaginable she does a really good job of showing how much Barrens, and many small towns, rely on large corporate interests, even if there are terrible costs. Since Barrens was on the brink of collapse before Optimum came in, the question of its future would be up in the air if a huge scandal would drive the corporation into destitution. I really liked how that upped the stakes for all the characters in different ways, and how it shows that some things are bigger than just personal issues between individuals. 

“Bonfire” was a mostly satisfying debut novel from Krysten Ritter. Should she continue to write books, I will almost certainly make sure to pick up whatever she comes out with next. You’ve come a long way from your “Gilmore Girls” stint, baby!

Rating 7: While some of the broader themes and tropes we’ve seen before, “Bonfire” had some stand out plot points and a pretty enjoyable protagonist.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bonfire” is included on the Goodreads lists “If You Liked Gone Girl, Try…”, and “Best Female Driven Mysteries”.

Find “Bonfire” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Night Before”

40867676Book: “The Night Before” by Wendy Walker

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, May 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: First dates can be murder. 

Riveting and compulsive, national bestselling author Wendy Walker’s The Night Before “takes you to deep, dark places few thrillers dare to go” as two sisters uncover long-buried secrets when an internet date spirals out of control. 

Laura Lochner has never been lucky in love. She falls too hard and too fast, always choosing the wrong men. Devastated by the end of her last relationship, she fled her Wall Street job and New York City apartment for her sister’s home in the Connecticut suburb where they both grew up. Though still haunted by the tragedy that’s defined her entire life, Laura is determined to take one more chance on love with a man she’s met on an Internet dating site.

Rosie Ferro has spent most of her life worrying about her troubled sister. Fearless but fragile, Laura has always walked an emotional tightrope, and Rosie has always been there to catch her. Laura’s return, under mysterious circumstances, has cast a shadow over Rosie’s peaceful life with her husband and young son – a shadow that grows darker as Laura leaves the house for her blind date. 

When Laura does not return home the following morning, Rosie fears the worst. She’s not responding to calls or texts, and she’s left no information about the man she planned to meet. As Rosie begins a desperate search to find her sister, she is not just worried about what this man might have done to Laura. She’s worried about what Laura may have done to him…

Review: This summer has come and gone, and while I didn’t have a trip where you could find me by the pool with a stack of books, there were a few books I did read that would have been the perfect pool reads. You know the kind, the ones that will suck you in and that you can’t put down. “The Night Before” was one such book. And while I read it in bed as opposed to pool side, all of the elements that I love were there. Wendy Walker has impressed me again.

“The Night Before” is told through two perspectives, the sisters Laura and Rosie. Laura is freshly out of an intense romantic relationship, and her rocky love life has started to take an emotional toll on her. Her arc is first person, and starts the night of the first date she’s had since her last relationship. She’s about to meet a man named Jonathan she met online. She’s nervous but excited to get back in it. The second narrative is Rosie’s which is third person and starts the morning after, when Laura hasn’t come home, and Rosie is worried. While this could be a pretty standard set up for a pretty standard thriller, Rosie’s fear, as it turns out, seems to be more about what Laura is capable of as opposed to the mystery man she was going on a date with. Therefore, our story is about not only finding out what happened to Laura, but if she is less the vulnerable victim and more a dangerous predator. The two perspectives slowly start to unravel Laura’s past, the reasons Rosie may be both worried and perhaps scared of her, and how Laura’s past relationships may influence her actions on the night she goes missing. Walker did a really good job of slowly revealing her cards, and while I had a lot of theories about what was going on, I usually found myself in the wrong, which was great! It goes to show that the mystery was strong and that Walker had complete control of what she wanted to reader to take away from it. I was so invested in finding out what happened that I found myself tearing through this book in a couple of sittings. The suspense builds at a satisfying pace, and by the end it has risen to a breaking point that makes the reader unable to put it down.

I liked Laura and Rosie enough as characters, thought I do wish that we got a little bit more interaction between them in the moment so we weren’t relying as much on telling as opposed to showing. I also felt like that while we got a really good sense of who Laura was as a person when all was said and done, Rosie was relegated to worried older sister, and I wanted more from her. I also felt like one of the big reveals was a little farfetched, or if not farfetched it felt like the weight of it didn’t carry in the way I think it should have. The hints at the set up were there, so that wasn’t a problem, but ultimately it was clear it was just there to aid a red herring as opposed to be a meaningful moment of plot and character development. All that said, the plot and mystery was so strong that I didn’t really mind.

“The Night Before” was a fast paced and fun read with a solid mystery and a lot of good twists. Pool side reading may be over, but if you want a book that you could get lost in, this would be a pick that I recommend!

Rating 8: A gripping and fast paced thriller that kept me guessing, “The Night Before” is a fun read with many twists and turns. While the characters could have been more developed, the plot and mystery made up for it and then some.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Night Before” is included on the Goodreads lists “Psychological Chillers by Women Authors”, and “The Girl on the Train Readalikes”.

Find “The Night Before” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “I’ll Never Tell”

40201006Book: “I’ll Never Tell” by Catherine McKenzie

Publishing Info: Lake Union, June 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I own an eAudiobook.

Book Description: What happened to Amanda Holmes?

Twenty years ago, she washed up on shore in a rowboat with a gash to the head after an overnight at Camp Macaw. No one was ever charged with a crime.

Now, the MacAllister children are all grown up. After their parents die suddenly, they return to Camp to read the will and decide what to do with the prime real estate it’s sitting on. Ryan, the oldest, wants to sell. Margo, the family’s center, hasn’t made up her mind. Mary has her own horse farm to run, and believes in leaving well-enough alone. Kate and Liddie—the twins—have opposing views. And Sean Booth, the family groundskeeper, just hopes he still has a home when all is said and done. 

But then the will is read and they learn that it’s much more complicated than a simple vote. Until they unravel the mystery of what happened to Amanda, they can’t move forward. Any one of them could have done it, and all of them are hiding key pieces of the puzzle. Will they work together to solve the mystery, or will their suspicions and secrets finally tear the family apart?

Review: We are at the end of August already! Summer flew by so fast, and what perfect way to end this season than with a book that was the perfect summer read in tone, plot, and setting. “I’ll Never Tell” by Catherine McKenzie is the tantalizing (to me) combination of a mystery, a dysfunctional family, and a summer camp backdrop, and I it ended up purchasing it on Audible because I just couldn’t wait for the holds lists at both library systems I frequent. Once again, a perfect stew of a book for me and my tastes, on paper anyway.

“I’ll Never Tell” is told from multiple perspectives in two different times. The modern day is split up between the distant and damaged MacAllister siblings. whose parents were the owners of Camp Macaw, and Sean, the groundskeeper who has always been in the periphery of the siblings. The past is told through the eyes of Amanda Holmes, the girl whose lifeless body washed up in a canoe two decades prior, and whose attack remains unsolved. Hers is the only first person perspective, those those of the MacAllisters and Sean are definitely third person yet possibly unreliable. I liked the structure of this overall, though sometimes I felt that McKenzie couldn’t quite keep all the balls up in the air. Some characters felt more well fleshed out than others, as while I definitely felt like I got a sense for people like Margot, the pragmatic middle child, and Ryan, the temperamental oldest and black sheep, others like Mary, the closed off horse fiend, felt closed off. They all served their purposes in how they added clues and perspectives to the overall picture, and their stories laid out against Amanda’s night before she was attacked did come together to create a well done tapestry of a narrative structure and reveal.

I also did enjoy the mystery at the heart of this story, as to who was the one who attacked Amanda. While it’s true that I did mostly guess the solution to the mystery fairly early on, certainly earlier than I should have, getting there was still a fun journey because I liked learning about the characters as a whole. All of this said, this read more like a family drama than a thriller mystery, which might not have been the tone that McKenzie was going for. There were other smaller mysteries at hand as well, and all of those were plotted out well enough that there were still some surprises in store for me, even if the biggest one didn’t pan out that way. For what it’s worth, I definitely tended to listen to this story beyond my time in the car, which doesn’t happen all that often with audiobooks. I did need to know what was going to happen next.

I did take issue with some of the characters, however, specifically Ryan. I understand that there is more to him than his ‘black sheep spoiled oldest son’ persona, and I appreciated that McKenzie didn’t make him completely two dimensional and obvious in the part that he played. However, I felt that too much time was spent trying to redeem him when I didn’t think that he was at ALL redeemable. Complex I will happily give you. But I have little patience for the ‘woe is me, the privileged straight white male’ character arc. Do I concede that things weren’t totally black and white in his characterization? Absolutely. But given how he treats a few of his siblings, and given how he has ‘anger issues’ that end up coming off as totally justified in some ways, and GIVEN that he had a pretty cushy life free of consequences when compared to other characters, his whole ‘I have it hard too pity me’ act felt forced and trite. I did feel bad for him, but I think that there was a little too much effort put into redemption when other characters weren’t given the same treatment, and probably deserved it as much as he did.

“I’ll Never Tell” was a pretty good mystery, and a nice tone for a summer read. While I had expected a little bit more from it, I enjoyed it for what it was, even though I found some character choices dubious. If you are looking for one last summer read, this could be a good contender to make the transition into the fall!

Rating 6: The mystery was compelling and many of the characters were pretty well established, but “I’ll Never Tell” had a couple of unexamined issues that I couldn’t totally overlook.

Reader’s Advisory

“I’ll Never Tell” is included on the Goodreads list “Psychological Suspense for 2019 (January-June)”.

Find “I’ll Never Tell” at your library using WorldCat!