Kate’s Review: “Long Bright River”

43834909Book: “Long Bright River” by Liz Moore

Publishing Info: Riverhead Books, January 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Two sisters travel the same streets, though their lives couldn’t be more different. Then, one of them goes missing.

In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. They don’t speak anymore, but Mickey never stops worrying about her sibling.

Then Kacey disappears, suddenly, at the same time that a mysterious string of murders begins in Mickey’s district, and Mickey becomes dangerously obsessed with finding the culprit–and her sister–before it’s too late.

Alternating its present-day mystery with the story of the sisters’ childhood and adolescence, Long Bright River is at once heart-pounding and heart-wrenching: a gripping suspense novel that is also a moving story of sisters, addiction, and the formidable ties that persist between place, family, and fate.

Review: My sister and I aren’t thick as thieves or anything like that. We get along pretty well, though we’re very different people. Lockdown has actually made us interact more than we have in awhile, vis a vis our Switches, playing “Mario Kart” and “Animal Crossing” together. But even though we aren’t best friends, I do love her very much (and am trying not to worry about the fact she and her wife are in New York City, the worst hit place for COVID-19 in this country). So whenever I see a story about sisters, I am bound to relate to it at least a little bit, which was part of the reason I was drawn to “Long Bright River” by Liz Moore. I figured that I could kind of justify it within the mystery or thriller genre, but once again this is a bit more literary than most thrillers I read.

While there are a couple of mysteries that “Long Bright River” centers around, this is more of a character study about two sisters who grew up in poverty, dealing with generational trauma and addiction. Mickey became a police officer, persuaded in part by her need to escape her familial situation, and by a cop who took an interest in her when she was a teen. Kacey, however, was swept up in drugs and addiction, like many people in their community as the opioid crisis looms. We see Mickey as she tries to find her sister as a serial killer starts to prey on addicts and sex workers on her beat, and as Mickey searches for her we get insight into both sisters through the present and through flashbacks. Moore really captures the complications of their relationship, exploring how their differences and their upbringing influenced them and changed them, and the ways they have both loved and hurt each other over the years. Though the perspective is Mickey’s, I felt like I knew both sisters by the time we came to the end, and could understand both of them, even their darker and rougher sides. You see how their sad home life (raised by their grandmother after their young mother died of a drug overdose and their father fled the coop) shaped them both, and can see why each took the paths that they did.

The mystery of the serial killer targeting addicts and sex workers definitely takes a back seat the the sisterly relationship, but the story of the sisters was so well done and so emotional that I didn’t really mind, even though I thought it would be more of a mystery than a character study. The character study was damned good, and it doesn’t limit itself to a sister theme. Along with the themes of childhood trauma and generational poverty and addiction, we also get a hard look at police corruption, and how communities seen as expendable are easily ignored by those who are supposed to protect them. Or sometimes, even explicitly targeted by them. I feel like sometimes books about police officers or detectives are more inclined to either ignore the systemic problems within the police, from racism to corruption to militarization that targets some groups while upholding the power of others. Or, if it’s not outright ignored there is assurance that the protagonist, and the protagonist’s unit, are not part of that problem, that they are good cops. But what I really liked about “Long Bright River” is that Moore acknowledges that Mickey is in it for the right reasons…. but a lot of the time, that isn’t enough.

I also really enjoyed the writing style of this book. Similar to the works of Cormac McCarthy, the dialogue isn’t in the usual punctuation. Instead it’s minimal, with dashes and not a lot beyond that. It always takes a little bit for me to get into this style, but once I’m in I’m in, and I thought that it was a complement to the overall story. I also liked that Moore played with the timeline, as mentioned above, going back in time to expand upon the narrative and to provide insight along the way. And finally, there are many, many references and moments that acknowledge the opioid crisis that has many people firmly in its grip. The story starts off with a list of people who have OD’d within the community that Mickey and Kacey have grown up in, which really sets the scene and serves to show that there is a pall that hangs over the story, just as there is a pall that’s hanging over society right now.

“Long Bright River” was a fantastic and heart rendering mystery that kept me on the edge of my seat. Steel yourself for something dark. But definitely take it on.

Rating 9: A dark and gritty mystery that examines police corruption, the opioid epidemic, and the powerful, if sometimes fraught, relationship between sisters, “Long Bright River” is a fantastic read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Long Bright River” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sister Mysteries”, and I think it would fit in on “Books of Philadelphia”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Something She’s Not Telling Us”

44594911Book: “Something She’s Not Telling Us” by Darcey Bell

Publishing Info: Harper, April 2020

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

Book Description: She’s on the verge of having it all…

But one woman stands in her way.

Charlotte has everything in life that she ever could have hoped for: a doting, artistic husband, a small-but-thriving flower shop, and her sweet, smart five-year-old daughter, Daisy. Her relationship with her mother might be strained, but the distance between them helps. And her younger brother Rocco may have horrible taste in women, but when he introduces his new girlfriend to Charlotte and her family, they are cautiously optimistic that she could be The One. Daisy seems to love Ruth, and she can’t be any worse than the klepto Rocco brought home the last time. At least, that’s what Charlotte keeps telling herself. But as Rocco and Ruth’s relationship becomes more serious, Ruth’s apparent obsession with Daisy grows more obvious. Then Daisy is kidnapped, and Charlotte is convinced there’s only one person who could have taken her.

Ruth has never had much, but now she’s finally on the verge of having everything she’s ever dreamed of. A stable job at a start-up company, a rakish, handsome boyfriend with whom she falls more in love with every day—and a chance at the happy family she’s always wanted, adorable niece included. The only obstacle standing in her way is her boyfriend’s sister Charlotte, whose attitude swerves between politely cold and outright hostile. Rebuffing Ruth’s every attempt to build a friendship with her and Daisy, Charlotte watches over her daughter with a desperate protectiveness that sends chills down Ruth’s spine. Ruth knows that Charlotte has a deeply-buried secret, the only question is: what? A surprise outing with Daisy could be the key to finding out, and Ruth knows she must take the chance while she has it—for everyone’s sake.

As the two women follow each other down a chilling rabbit hole, unearthing winding paths of deceit, lies, and trauma, a family and a future will be completely—and irrevocably—shattered.

From its very first page, Something She’s Not Telling Us takes hold of readers’ imagination in a harrowing, unforgettable thriller that dives deep into the domestic psyche and asks the question:

Is anyone ever really who they say they are…?

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

When the movie “A Simple Favor” came out I was interested in seeing it, but knew that I should probably read the book first. So I listened to the Darcey Bell thriller while driving in the car, and while it was fine, I ultimately liked the movie version better. Scandalous, I know. But I did like it enough that I wanted to see more from Bell. So when I saw that her newest novel, “Something She’s Not Telling Us”, was up on NetGalley, I requested it, hoping that I would get to read it. There’s definitely something about Bell and the way she writes and crafts a story, in that it can suck you in and be unrelenting.

What I will say about “Something She’s Not Telling Us” is that, once again, I got sucked in pretty handily. It’s told from (mostly) two perspectives of two different women. The first is Charlotte, a high stung and privileged wife and mother living in New York City. She has a loving husband, a darling daughter named Daisy, and a job that she enjoys, though she is constantly fretting about Daisy’s well being and judging her younger brother Rocco for his poor taste in girlfriends. The other perspective is that of Ruth, Rocco’s current girlfriend who is desperate to impress Charlotte and hoping that Rocco is The One. As the two women interact we are treated to two unreliable narrators in their own ways, one seemingly wearing her heart on her sleeve while the other is trying to control a narrative. As we switched between their perspectives, the pacing was such that I felt like it was very easy to keep going between the two. It was incredibly readable, and I devoured the book in a couple of sittings in a weekend.

But ultimately, “Something She’s Not Telling Us” had the same pitfalls that “A Simple Favor” did. The first is that the mystery was perfectly fine and one I was invested in, but I kind of figured out a number of aspects to it quickly. It was clear from the get go that both Charlotte and Ruth were going to be unreliable in their own ways, but it wasn’t very difficult for me to tell which one was the one to be keeping my eye on. On top of that, there were very few actually likable people in this book, which was the same problem I had with “A Simple Favor”, the book. None of them felt particularly complex in their characterizations, so their nastiness didn’t really have any sort of softened blow. Sure, some tragic childhood stuff was tossed in, but not enough exploration or depth was done to make it feel like much more than a catch all. And the problem with unlikable or unrelateable characters at the end of the day is that ultimately, you aren’t invested in what happens to them. I did want to keep reading, but it wasn’t because of any of the characters that I was following. And frankly, when it gets down to it there wasn’t really anything unique or new about the various reveals and twists that we saw here. Readable, yes, but not exactly unique or memorable.

I’m still interested in reading what Bell may come out with in the future, mainly because there still continues to be a certain something that kept me going and reading. But “Something She’s Not Telling Us” didn’t stand out from other run of the mill thrillers that are coming out at the moment.

Rating 5: A very readable thriller, but not one with a lot of new things to say, “Something She’s Not Telling Us” has some okay twists, but not many interesting characters or plot developments.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Something She’s Not Telling Us” is included on the Goodreads list “Crime, Mystery, & Thrillers, 2020”.

Find “Something She’s Not Telling Us” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Murderous Relation”

35530507Book: “A Murderous Relation” by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Veronica Speedwell and her natural historian colleague Stoker are asked by Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk to help with a potential scandal so explosive it threatens to rock the monarchy. Prince Albert Victor is a regular visitor to the most exclusive private club in London, known as the Club de l’Etoile, and the proprietess, Madame Aurore, has received an expensive gift that can be traced back to the prince. Lady Wellie would like Veronica and Stoker to retrieve the jewel from the club before scandal can break.

Worse yet, London is gripped by hysteria in the autumn of 1888, terrorized by what would become the most notorious and elusive serial killer in history, Jack the Ripper–and Lady Wellie suspects the prince may be responsible.

Veronica and Stoker reluctantly agree to go undercover at Madame Aurore’s high class brothel, where another body soon turns up. Many secrets are swirling around Veronica and the royal family–and it’s up to Veronica and Stoker to find the truth, before it’s too late for all of them. 

Previously Reviewed: “A Curious Beginning,” “A Perilous Undertaking,”“A Treacherous Curse” and “A Dangerous Collaboration” 

Review: I was even more excited than usual to pick up the latest “Veronica Speedwell” mystery when it came out. Finally, at the end of the last book, it seemed like Veronica and Stoker were finally confirming their romantic interest in one another. But, in a cruel twist of authorial spite, readers were left right at the brink of these two actually acting on their feelings. So here, in the next book, how would this newly forming relationship affect their working relationship and would we finally see them actually together? Well, yes, but not necessarily in the way I would have preferred.

Immediately upon their return to London, Veronica and Stoker once again find themselves caught up in mystery and scandal. This time, rather than solve a mystery, they are tasked with protecting Veronica’s “family,” the monarchy that has not acknowledged her. To do this, they must go under cover into an elaborate private club in hopes of retrieving a rare jewel that can be used to implicate Prince Albert Victor. But things are never as simple as they seem, and soon enough Veronica and Stoker find themselves mixed up with familiar foes and wandering streets that are plagued by a horrific serial killer.

So, this was a bit of a frustrating read for me. It seems that recently the books in this series have been see-sawing a bit as far as my enjoyment goes. The third book I found to be a bit lagging, but I loved the fourth book. Sadly, here, we see a return to some of the dragging bits. Ultimately, I struggled with two aspects of this: first, like in the third book, it felt like the author was not willing to deal with the burgeoning romance she had started and instead created roadblocks and delays that didn’t feel natural to the story; and second, there was a distinct feeling of familiarity and lack of new material to this particular story.

When I said “immediately” in my book description about how quickly the mystery started, I meant immediately. So much so that the entire question of the burgeoning romance between Stoker and Veronica is effectively sidelined right off the bat. From there, the book is quick to establish how tired they both are, how the beginning of a case is not the right time, etc, etc. And then the rest of the book happens with the entire mystery taking place in one full swoop spanning a hectic day and a half or so. Right there, we have a problem. Regardless of how silly and obvious some of the “tiredness” and “not the right time” conversations felt, the mystery itself did not gain anything for having to frantically move fast enough from one element to another in order to prevent addressing the romantic elephant in the room. Emotional moments didn’t ring as true or feel as earned. The build-up, crescendo, and conclusion to the mystery itself felt rushed, making it hard to feel invested in what was happening. It all felt forced and I think hurt the story more than it accomplished…whatever it was trying to accomplish.

My second problem had to do with the actual elements involved in the story. Almost all of it were retreads of themes, characters, and dilemmas that were found in previous books. We’ve already covered much of the emotional groundwork to be had with regards to Veronica and her feelings towards a royal family who doesn’t want to acknowledge her unless she can do them some favor. There has already been an entire book about a salacious secret society, so the escapades at the private club feel all too familiar. Even the villain, for the most part, is a return to a motivation and individual we’ve seen before. And for all of that, the Jack the Ripper portions that are teased in the book description are barely worth mentioning.

The primary strength of the series has always been Veronica and Stoker themselves. But even they, when given tired material that offers no room for new personal growth, can only do so much. Veronica’s voice is still strong and compelling, but that’s probably the best that can be said. Stoker felt largely absent from the story, even when he was right there on the page. And the small bits of emotional groundwork covered between the two of them felt like, again, retreads of conflicts that had already been resolved. There is a payoff for these two at the end, but I found it to be too little too late.

Overall, I was pretty disappointed by this book. It felt like the author had ran out of ideas as far as the mystery went. And then was too scared to confront the changing romance she had started in the last book, so she threw in a bunch unnecessary and ridiculous roadblocks in order to write one more book between these two prior to any romantic commitment. I honestly don’t understand the concern here. I’ve often compared this series to the “Amelia Peabody” books. And in that series there was only one book before our main characters not only paired up, but got married! And then only one more book or so before they had a kid along with them! And that series never lost anything for resolving the “will they/won’t they” aspect early, let alone 5 books in like this one. Frankly, I feel like this shying away from resolving “will they/won’t they” relationships in general, across all media formats, needs to die a quick and final death.

I believe the author has a contract with a publisher to write at least two more books, so of course I’ll be reading them. And, at least given the events of the end of this book, this whole relationship thing should be settled. Hopefully she’ll come out with some more unique themes and elements, too. But if I catch even a whiff of forced drama to the romance of this story again, I’m pretty sure I’m out.

Rating 6: A disappointing follow-up after one of my favorites in the series so far. The author seemed to run out of ideas and resorted to pulling old tricks out of her hat. And then became a deer in the headlights with the romance she had written herself into at the end of the last book.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“A Murderous Relation” is a newer title so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Historical Mystery 2020.”

Find “A Murderous Relation” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Saint X”

43782399Book: “Saint X” by Alexis Schaitkin

Publishing Info: Celadon Books, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Claire is only seven years old when her college-age sister, Alison, disappears on the last night of their family vacation at a resort on the Caribbean island of Saint X. Several days later, Alison’s body is found in a remote spot on a nearby cay, and two local men – employees at the resort – are arrested. But the evidence is slim, the timeline against it, and the men are soon released. The story turns into national tabloid news, a lurid mystery that will go unsolved. For Claire and her parents, there is only the return home to broken lives.

Years later, Claire is living and working in New York City when a brief but fateful encounter brings her together with Clive Richardson, one of the men originally suspected of murdering her sister. It is a moment that sets Claire on an obsessive pursuit of the truth – not only to find out what happened the night of Alison’s death but also to answer the elusive question: Who exactly was her sister? At seven, Claire had been barely old enough to know her: a beautiful, changeable, provocative girl of eighteen at a turbulent moment of identity formation.

As Claire doggedly shadows Clive, hoping to gain his trust, waiting for the slip that will reveal the truth, an unlikely attachment develops between them, two people whose lives were forever marked by the same tragedy.

Review: Whenever I hear the phrase ‘missing white woman syndrome’ I immediately think of Natalee Holloway. Holloway was an eighteen year old on a school sponsored trip to Aruba when she went missing. Her disappearance was all over the news, her face practically everywhere even as little new information came up. While her case is technically still unsolved, the general consensus is that she was murdered by a local whose father was a judge, and therefore had a lot of protection (it just so happens the same guy was eventually convicted of murdering another woman in Peru). A very sad and mysterious case all around, and it was all I was thinking of when I read the description for “Saint X” by Alexis Schaitkin. But instead of a run of the mill thriller that takes inspiration from real tragedy for lurid entertainment (I know that I’m one of the people who perpetuates that problematic issue by reading books like that), I instead found a literary thriller that had a lot of deep thoughts and haunting themes.

“Saint X” is less about Alison’s disappearance, and more about the fallout and consequences for those involved with the case, specifically her sister Claire and one of the accused but cleared suspects, Clive. Both Claire and Clive have had their lives completely upended by what happened to Alison. For Claire, it’s the grief and trauma of loss that her family never recovered from, and her obsession of wanting to find out what happened. This is sparked when she sees Clive in New York City. For Clive, being suspected and never officially cleared made his life back on Saint X one of suspicion, and he felt the need to start over and leave it all behind, which meant leaving everything he ever knew and loved. They are both damaged people with one commonality, and Schaitkin really brings out the pain that both of them have been dealing with. Along with these two and their trauma, we also get snippets of other people’s associations with Alison’s death. These bits are left to the end of chapters, and not only shed light into how Alison’s death sent shockwaves through many lives, but how she was as a person before her ill fated trip and during it as well.

Alison herself is a bit more of a mystery, but I thought that that was deliberate and I enjoyed that. We see her through Claire’s eyes, and Clive’s eyes, and the eyes of others. But those eyes can’t really know who Alison was as a person. Even the audio diary entries that Claire finds and listens to don’t quite capture who Alison was, because Alison was still trying to figure all that out. It’s a really interesting way to call out this obsession people get with missing and murdered (usually white and attractive) women, and how we project our own ideas of who they are upon their memory, even if those ideas are totally of the mark. I also liked that what we DO know about Alison is that she is very human, in that she isn’t perfect. Alison is at that tenuous age where she is trying to find herself, and yet still trying to be seen in a certain way by others. She is privileged and naive, and sees the colonizer issue of a resort in the Caribbean, but doesn’t see that her presence, as judgemental of the system as she is, is still perpetuating the problem.

And that was another thing that I liked about this book: Schaitkin definitely takes shots at the resort society on Saint X. It’s an industry that drives the economy, but relies upon a population group that is underprivileged and taken advantage of. Clive is doing his best to support himself and his loved ones, and has to kowtow to wealthy white tourists who see his home as an escape, but doesn’t see the inequities outside of the resort walls. This theme wasn’t at the very front of the story, but it was simmering underneath.

I wasn’t expecting what I got from “Saint X”, in that I was ready for a tense and addictive thriller. What I got instead was a little more ruminative. That isn’t a bad thing, but I will admit that had I known it was more literary I would have probably enjoyed it more. I did enjoy it, but it didn’t grab me as much as I think it would have had I had the expectations it called for. That said, I think that “Saint X” is a worthwhile read. Just go in expecting something more nuanced.

Rating 7: A haunting and evocative literary mystery. It wasn’t what I was expecting. But it’s definitely worth the read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Saint X” is included on the Goodreads list “Psychological Suspense for 2020 (U.S. Publications January-July).

Find “Saint X” at your local library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Darling Rose Gold”

49223060._sy475_Book: “Darling Rose Gold” by Stephanie Wrobel

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2020

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

Book Description: Sharp Objects meets My Lovely Wife in this tightly drawn debut that peels back the layers of the most complicated of mother-daughter relationships…

For the first eighteen years of her life, Rose Gold Watts believed she was seriously ill. She was allergic to everything, used a wheelchair and practically lived at the hospital. Neighbors did all they could, holding fundraisers and offering shoulders to cry on, but no matter how many doctors, tests, or surgeries, no one could figure out what was wrong with Rose Gold.

Turns out her mom, Patty Watts, was just a really good liar.

After serving five years in prison, Patty gets out with nowhere to go and begs her daughter to take her in. The entire community is shocked when Rose Gold says yes.

Patty insists all she wants is to reconcile their differences. She says she’s forgiven Rose Gold for turning her in and testifying against her. But Rose Gold knows her mother. Patty Watts always settles a score.

Unfortunately for Patty, Rose Gold is no longer her weak little darling…

And she’s waited such a long time for her mother to come home.

Review: Thanks to Berkley for sending me a print ARC of this novel!

In college my undergrad was a Psychology BA with a focus in Abnormal Psychology. Because of this, I have a vague (if not probably outdated) working knowledge of various mental disorders, so when I first heard about the case of Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee Blanchard, the mother daughter duo that ended with Gypsy Rose murdering her mother Dee Dee, my mind immediately went to Munchausen By Proxy. For the unaware, Munchausen By Proxy is when a caregiver deliberately makes their charge (usually their child) ill, or hurts them in other ways. Given that Dee Dee had convinced many people that Gypsy Rose was sick in hopes of getting money and attention, and also poisoned Gypsy Rose and broke her down, making her completely dependent on her, she fits the bill to a T. When “Darling Rose Gold” by Stephanie Wrobel both ended up in my hands in print form, and in my email box as well, I was very interested to read what I assumed was going to basically be a novelization of the Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose storym, which felt a little salacious, though honestly kinda fun too. But Wrobel has managed to create a thriller novel that definitely takes elements from that case, as well as other Munchausen By Proxy cases, without making it feel exploitative.

“Darling Rose Gold” has two differing perspectives. The first is of Patty Watts, a woman who is just getting out of prison for abusing her daughter Rose Gold. Patty convinced Rose Gold that she had a number of health issues and that she needed to be confined to a wheelchair, when it reality she was making her sick by dosing her with ipecac and only feeding her half the calories her body needed. Rose Gold testified against her, and Patty is simultaneously holding a grudge, but also desperate to be near her daughter again. Rose Gold, on the other hand, has far murkier motivations. When you have Patty who is constantly twisting the truth, and Rose Gold hiding it, it makes for two unreliable narrators and an unknown path that we are taking with them. We know that Rose Gold is up to something, but we don’t really know what. I thought that Wrobel was excellent at capturing the voice of Patty, a narcissistic sociopath, and thought that her thought processes were spot on in terms of constantly victimizing herself and incapable of believing that she could be at fault for anything. She is very much a stand in for Dee Dee Blanchard, whose toxic and abusive personality came out after her death and the facade of perfect caring mother was shattered. I was far more worried about how Rose Gold would be portrayed, as to me the ultimate victim in the case this is taking inspiration from was Gypsy Rose. If Patty is an obvious stand in for Dee Dee, Rose Gold is far different from Gypsy Rose. Which is probably a good thing. As I mentioned before, you don’t know what her plan is. But as her side of the story and motivations slowly come to light, you get a complex character who is damaged, and a little twisted. Just how twisted is the question that remains to be seen when we dive in.

The mystery is definitely about what Rose Gold is planning. You get pieces from Patty’s POV, but you also kind of have to wonder if what she is experiencing is ACTUALLY something she’s experiencing, or if her own guilt and paranoia is messing with her head. The pieces that Rose Gold gives us are built up over time, as we look at her life directly after her mother was convicted, up until her mother’s release. Wrobel, as I mentioned before, carefully shows just what kind of person this abuse has turned her into. She never paints with broad strokes when it comes to Rose Gold. She can both be a victim and also an abuser, and she can be both sympathetic and quite unsettling. I really didn’t know what she was up to for a long while, and even when I started to piece it together on my own I wasn’t completely on point with the big reveal. It’s well plotted, it’s addicting to read, and it sticks the landing for a satisfactory end without stepping into arguably controversial territory when measuring it against the real life crime that occurred. While it didn’t really blow me away, I can safely say that I was happy with how everything sussed out, and Wrobel makes a notorious story very original and new feeling.

“Darling Rose Gold” is a creepy and addictive thriller. I really enjoyed my time with it, and think that anyone who was captivated by the Dee Dee Blanchard Murder, or Munchausen By Proxy in general, would find it to be a scintilating read.

Rating 8: A frothy and unsettling thriller with inspiration from real life horrors, “Darling Rose Gold” was perhaps a little predictable, but the journey to the end was VERY fun.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Darling Rose Gold” is included on the Goodreads lists “Psychological Suspense for 2020 (U.S. Publications Jan-July 2020)”, and would fit in on “Munchausens and Munchausens By Proxy”.

Find “Darling Rose Gold” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Disappearing Earth”

34563821._sy475_Book: “Disappearing Earth” by Julia Phillips

Publishing Info: Knopf, May 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I borrowed it from my Mom

Book Description: Beautifully written, thought-provoking, intense and cleverly wrought, this is the most extraordinary first novel from a mesmerising new talent.

One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the north-eastern edge of Russia, two sisters are abducted. In the ensuing weeks, then months, the police investigation turns up nothing. Echoes of the disappearance reverberate across a tightly woven community, with the fear and loss felt most deeply among its women.

Set on the remote Siberian peninsula of Kamchatka, Disappearing Earth draws us into the world of an astonishing cast of characters, all connected by an unfathomable crime. We are transported to vistas of rugged beauty – densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes and the glassy seas that border Japan and Alaska – and into a region as complex as it is alluring, where social and ethnic tensions have long simmered, and where outsiders are often the first to be accused.

In a story as propulsive as it is emotionally engaging, and through a young writer’s virtuosic feat of empathy and imagination, this powerful novel provides a new understanding of the intricate bonds of family and community, in a Russia unlike any we have seen before.

Review: I was visiting my parents when I saw “Disappearing Earth” by Julia Phillips on their coffee table. I asked them who had read it, and my Dad said ‘Your Mom got it for me. I read it. I didn’t like it at all.’ Not the highest of praise, but I also knew that it was probably less a reflection of the quality of writing, and more of the kind of writing. I know my Dad, and I know that literary fiction isn’t really his style. Therefore, I was definitely interested in giving it a go, especially since it had so much praise from the book community. Because that’s what “Disappearing Earth” is at it’s heart: it has the plot of a thriller, but the foundation and bones of a literary novel.

While it’s true that “Disappearing Earth” starts with, and deeply connects, to the disappearance of Alonya and Sophia, two sisters who vanish in an isolated town in Kamchatka, Russia. But it’s definitely more about life in an isolated town in a country that is still feeling the effects of a fallen empire, and the people who live their lives there every day. Each chapter takes place in a different month after the disappearance, spanning over nearly a year, and has a different perspective of a member of the community, or the surrounding communities. Each character has their own connection to the missing girls, from their mother, to a police officer, to the only witness, to members of the Even community who had their own disappearance a few years prior (but more on that later). But focusing on the various people in the town and their own connection to the girls and their disappearance, as direct or indirect as it may be, we get a slice of life narrative that is steeped in sadness, resilience, and a little bit of hope. Can I understand why this perhaps wasn’t my Dad’s kind of book? Sure. It’s not your typical thriller/mystery, even though Alonya and Sophia’s disappearance is always at hand. It’s really more about how these girls went missing, how different people react to it (from disbelief to coldness to determination to know what happened).

The theme that really stood out to me, however, was that of the Even community and characters, specifically Alla Innokentevna, the mother of the missing Lilia, and Ksyusha, a University student who is torn between her community at home and the community she has at school, specifically her boyfriend, a white Russian named Ruslan. One of the big reveals of this book is the disappearance of Lilia, whose disappearance was like Alonya and Sophia’s, but went largely unnoticed by those outside of Esso and the natives who live there. I know so little about Russian society, and the little that I do know has very little to do with the rural communities and the relationships between the white Russians and the native communities. And like in other parts of the world, the non-white victim has gone largely forgotten while two white girls have their faces splashed all over town and beyond. It’s not a mystery what happened to Alonya and Sophia, as we see what happens to them in the very first chapter, but we do find ourselves wondering if Lilia did actually leave by her own volition, or if she fell victim to the same predator as the two younger girls. And Phillips does a very good job of making you fear the very worst, and wrings out some truly heart wrenching moments involving her family. Especially when Alla interacts with Martina, Alonya and Sophia’s mother.

And finally, Phillips completely captured what life is like in this village, making the village feel like a character in and of itself. I got a very good feel for not only the location and the people, but also the day to day emotions and experiences that the communities as a whole had, and how they were shaped by where they live. This was so well done, and I was a bit astounded by how real and evocative the place of this story was.

“Disappearing Earth” may not be the kind of thriller I usually cover, but it’s so damn good. Phillips has blended two genres to make a satisfying and compelling read. I’m no doubt going to have to have a long conversation with my Dad to try and plead its case!

Rating 9: Evocative and melancholy, “Disappearing Earth” is about life on an isolated peninsula, and the way lives change yet continue when a community is rocked by tragedy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Disappearing Earth” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Books on the North”, and “Russia Based Thrillers”.

Find “Disappearing Earth” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “One of Us Is Next”

One of Us is Next FINAL cover.inddBook: “One of Us Is Next” by Karen M. McManus

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press for Young Readers, January 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The highly anticipated sequel to the New York Times bestselling thriller everyone is talking about, One of Us Is Lying! There’s a new mystery to solve at Bayview High, and there’s a whole new set of rules.

Come on, Bayview, you know you’ve missed this.

A ton of copycat gossip apps have popped up since Simon died, but in the year since the Bayview four were cleared of his shocking death, no one’s been able to fill the gossip void quite like he could. The problem is no one has the facts. Until now. This time it’s not an app, though—it’s a game.

Truth or Dare.

Phoebe’s the first target. If you choose not to play, it’s a truth. And hers is dark. Then comes Maeve and she should know better—always choose the dare. But by the time Knox is about to be tagged, things have gotten dangerous. The dares have become deadly, and if Maeve learned anything from Bronwyn last year, it’s that they can’t count on the police for help. Or protection.

Simon’s gone, but someone’s determined to keep his legacy at Bayview High alive. And this time, there’s a whole new set of rules.

Review: Back in 2017, I was super impressed by Karen M. McManus’s debut YA thriller “One of Us Is Lying”. It felt like “The Breakfast Club” was mashed up with a soapy murder mystery, and had interesting and complex characters to boot. Because of this I was stoked to find out that McManus had written a sequel called “One of Us Is Next”, which takes the original premise, twists it up, and brings in some new and some familiar faces. It took a little while for my library to get it, but as soon as it was in my hands I set a day aside and basically devoured it in one go.

“One of Us Is Next” is a semi-direct sequel in that it takes place at the same school but has a mixed bag of characters. The Original Bayview Four, as the protagonists from the first book are called, are definitely around, but the focus is not on them. Rather, we have a few brand new characters, and a few former supporting characters turned leads. I really liked this choice, as it gave us a little bit of familiarity while still giving us fresh faces and new possibilities along with a new tech based threat. In this case the threat is a Truth or Dare game, in which if you are chosen you have to pick one or the other. If you pick Dare, you have to do something based on the person in control’s whims. If you ignore it or pick truth, something humiliating will be exposed. I LOVED this new game, as McManus gave a similar premise completely new stakes. The three main character focuses are Maeve, Bronwyn’s sister who played a very important role in the first book; Phoebe, a semi popular girl who is the first target of the Truth or Dare game; and Knox, a geeky theater kid who is Maeve’s best friend. Once again McManus is great at making these characters all have their own secrets and insecurities while showing their vulnerabilities when they could easily fall into stereotypes. Of the three I was the most enamored with Phoebe, which caught me by surprise given that she is almost right off the bat painted in a light that’s less than flattering (no spoilers here though!). While she has made bad and selfish decisions in the past, once her bad decisions are exposed we get to see into her mind, her thought process, and what she’s been dealing with at home (recently deceased father, downsized living situation, a formerly close relationship with her sister in shambles). I ended up really loving Phoebe, rough edges and all, as she (like Nate and Addy in the previous book) had so much depth and so much heart it was impossible not to root for her. And Maeve has her own issues that felt very heavy and weighted, and McManus was able to give it the serious tone that it needed without making it feel like it was overshadowing everything else.

Kind of like the first book, the mystery itself left a little bit to be desired in the sense that I figured it out pretty quickly, at least part of it. But, also like the first book, that didn’t really matter, as I was more than happy to go along for the ride of building up to the endgame solution. Our cast of characters is immensely likable, and I liked seeing how the Truth or Dare game escalated to the breaking point AND how it all came together in the end. Like, ALL of it. McManus does know how to weave multiple strands, and even if I saw one of the bigger threads from a ways away it was still well done. And I also liked how she incorporated the characters from the previous books into said mystery, without leaning too much upon them. I loved seeing what Bronwyn, Nate, Addy, and Cooper have been doing, and it was nice getting reassurance that they are all still doing well (for the most part. There has to be a LITTLE drama, after all).

Fans of “One of Us Is Lying” will not be disappointed with “One of Us Is Next”! If McManus wanted to continue the soapy and twisty adventures of Bayview High, I would happily follow her wherever she takes it!

Rating 8: A gripping mystery and worthy follow up to a runaway hit, “One of Us Is Next” is a twisty tale that kept me guessing, and gave us a new set of characters that were easy to root for.

Reader’s Advisory:

“One of Us Is Next” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Thrillers and Mysteries 2019-2020″, and “Popsugar 2020 – A Book That Passes the Bechdel Test”.

Find “One of Us Is Next” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously reviewed: “One of Us Is Lying”

Kate’s Review: “A Line in the Dark”

28096526Book: “A Line in the Dark” by Malinda Lo

Publishing Info: Dutton Books for Young Readers

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it!

Book Description: The most important thing is that Jess Wong is Angie Redmond’s best friend, even if Angie can’t see how she truly feels. It’s okay that Jess is the girl on the sidelines that nobody notices. That means she’s free to watch everyone else and be at Angie’s side. But when Angie starts falling for Margot, a girl from the nearby boarding school, Jess can already see what’s going to happen. And suddenly her gift for observation is a curse.

As Angie drags Jess further into Margot’s circle, Jess finds more than her friend’s growing crush. Secrets lie just beneath the carefree surface of this world, and when they come out, Jess knows Angie won’t be able to handle the consequences. When the inevitable darkness finally descends, Angie will need her best friend.

Review: A couple years ago Serena and I went to the Twin Cities Book Festival, and given that neither of us have any will power we both left with a few books in tow. One of the books that I brought with me was “A Line in the Dark” by Malinda Lo, which had been on my Highlights list in October 2017. Suffice to say, it languished on my shelf for awhile. Like, two years and a fourth years awhile. Definitely my bad. But since I’m trying to read books that I’ve been putting off as of late, I decided the time had come for “A Line in the Dark”.

It takes a little while to get there, but ultimately “A Line in the Dark” is a mystery. But the bigger themes involve friendship, loyalty, privilege, and jealousy. Jess and Angie are best friends, but the tension that exists between them is almost immediate, and prevalent throughout the narrative. Jess is infatuated with Angie, and her devotion to her best friend is exacerbated even more so because of her attraction for her. So when Angie starts dating the privileged and potentially toxic Margot from the local boarding school, Jess’s jealously starts to fester and stir. It’s hard to know much about Margot, as this book spends a lot of the time in Jess’s head, and her opinion is skewed because of her jealousy. We don’t know if Jess is an unreliable narrator, which adds to the mystery that appears when Margot’s friend Ryan (another mean girl from the boarding school) goes missing after a party that all of the girls attend. Ryan’s disappearance and it’s aftermath is told through Jess’s POV, transcripts of police interviews, and a sudden shift in perspective as the narrative turns to third person. While the first person POV and transcripts worked well together, the sudden shift to third person felt a little forced, especially since it happens later in the book as opposed to being established right away. That said, I did like the mystery and how the clues unfolded, as well as how we eventually got to the solution through these three devices. Even if the third device wasn’t as strong, in my opinion.

That said, I did have a problem with how the characters were presented. There were already some limitations due to the majority of the novel being in the first person, but I do believe that a first person POV doesn’t necessarily hinder an author from character development. I’ve read a number of books in the first person where I still got a really good sense of the surrounding characters, but “A Line in the Dark” didn’t have that. I never really got a good sense for what Angie was like outside of being an object of affection for Jess. We’re told that Jess’s parents think she’s a bad influence, but I never could really figure out why that was. Margot gets a little more to work with, but that isn’t clear until we’re basically done with the story. And even though we have Jess’s first person perspective throughout a lot of the narrative, I felt like the only thing I really knew about her was her love of art and her devotion to Angie. I did like that Lo does comment on classism and racism within this book, as Jess is Chinese American and has to deal with privileged and racist wealthy kids during her art program and when she hangs out with Angie and Margot and Margot’s group. I thought that while it was subtle commentary, it packed a punch.

Not so compelling characters aside, I enjoyed “A Line in the Dark” for it’s mystery. I will definitely be looking into reading more works by Lo, as it’s undeniable that she knows how to craft a tense story.

Rating 6: A solid mystery that keeps the tension taut, “A Line in the Dark” kept me interested, even if the characters weren’t as drawn out as I’d hoped they would be.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Line in the Dark” is included on the Goodreads lists “Bi and Lesbian Psychological Thrillers”, and “Sapphic Boarding School Books”.

Find “A Line in the Dark” at your library using WorldCat!

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!