Kate’s Review: “Eight Perfect Murders”

Book: “Eight Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson

Publishing Info: William Morrow, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: Audible

Book Description: A chilling tale of psychological suspense and an homage to the thriller genre tailor-made for fans: the story of a bookseller who finds himself at the center of an FBI investigation because a very clever killer has started using his list of fiction’s most ingenious murders.

Years ago, bookseller and mystery aficionado Malcolm Kershaw compiled a list of the genre’s most unsolvable murders, those that are almost impossible to crack—which he titled “Eight Perfect Murders”—chosen from among the best of the best including Agatha Christie’s A. B. C. Murders, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Ira Levin’s Death Trap, A. A. Milne’s Red House Mystery, Anthony Berkeley Cox’s Malice Aforethought, James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, John D. Macdonald’s The Drowner, and Donna Tartt’s A Secret History.

But no one is more surprised than Mal, now the owner of the Old Devils Bookshop in Boston, when an FBI agent comes knocking on his door one snowy day in February. She’s looking for information about a series of unsolved murders that look eerily similar to the killings on Mal’s old list. And the FBI agent isn’t the only one interested in this bookseller who spends almost every night at home reading. The killer is out there, watching his every move—a diabolical threat who knows way too much about Mal’s personal history, especially the secrets he’s never told anyone, even his recently deceased wife.

To protect himself, Mal begins looking into possible suspects—and sees a killer in everyone around him. But Mal doesn’t count on the investigation leaving a trail of death in its wake. Suddenly, a series of shocking twists leaves more victims dead—and the noose around Mal’s neck grows so tight he might never escape.

Review: As we say goodbye to the year 2020 (and hope that 2021 is better….), I look back at the complete shitshow that we leave behind and I see ways that I was affected that I hadn’t really thought about at the time. There are many, but for this review I’m going to talk about the lack of audiobooks on my list. In normal times I would probably listen to about one audiobook a month, mostly when driving to work or wherever. But with my job being on hold until the pandemic is better controlled and it’s safer, I haven’t been driving so I really wasn’t listening to things outside of my favorite podcast. But once the weather got a little cooler, I started taking my daughter on walks around the neighborhood, and my audiobook intake rose once more (though with winter being here now I am doing more listening at night before bed). Enter “Eight Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson, the audiobook I got right before things went to hell. Months after I downloaded it, I finally dove in. Peter Swanson, I’m sorry I waited so long.

In true Swanson form, “Eight Perfect Murders” has a weird mystery at its heart, a narrator who is unreliable and perhaps hiding something from the reader, and a compulsively readable style that made my walks with the kid a bit longer than normal. Our protagonist is Malcolm Kershaw, a bookstore owner who finds himself being questioned in a string of murders, as the murders seem to be mimicking a blog post he made years ago where he selected ‘eight perfect murders’ from mystery fiction. The FBI agent, Gwen, knows that the theory is a bit nutty, but wants his insight after she rules him out as a suspect. Malcolm cooperates, if only to help clear his name, but also because he realizes that this is a cat and mouse game between him and the person who read his post and has started killing people. It’s pretty clear pretty early that Malcolm has some skeletons in his closet, and since Swanson has kind of made the ‘interesting and also kinda likable (or at least easy to root for) psychopath’ a bit of a trope, some aspects of this mystery were kind of predictable. Or if not predictable, not shocking when the reveals were done. I liked Malcolm a lot, actually. I also liked Gwen. And I wanted to know what was happening in the story, be it trying to see who was targeting Malcolm, or what Malcolm may have to hide. And at the end of the day, the big reveal did surprise me, which is the important thing when it comes to a mystery story.

What I liked more about this book is that it’s really a love letter to mystery books and book lovers. Swanson references so many authors, stories, series, and moments within the genre that I had a huge grin on my face basically the whole time I was listening. Swanson very clearly loves this genre and this book was a carefully crafted homage to it. I haven’t read a good number of the stories on the Eight Perfect Murders list, but because of this book I’m definitely going to look into a few of them.

On top of everything else, it is claimed on Goodreads that this is the first in a series that is implied to focus on Malcolm. I won’t go into spoilers here, but I will say that the book ends in a way that I am not totally certain how that is going to work, it it’s true. But if it is true?

“Eight Perfect Murders” was a fun and engrossing thriller mystery that (for the most part) kept me guessing. Swanson is still an author that I want more people to get on board with. If you’re looking for new authors to try in 2021, he may be a good choice!

Rating 8: A fast paced and thrilling mystery and love letter to books. Though somewhat predictable at times, I am VERY interested to see how/if Swanson will continue this series, as implied…

Reader’s Advisory:

“Eight Perfect Murders” is included on the Goodreads lists “Unreliable Narrators”, and “Books About Books”.

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

Kate’s Review: “The Good Girls”

Book: “The Good Girls” by Claire Eliza Bartlett

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, December 2020

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

Book Description: The troublemaker. The overachiever. The cheer captain. The dead girl.

Like every high school in America, Jefferson-Lorne High contains all of the above. After the shocking murder of senior Emma Baines, three of her classmates are at the top of the suspect list: Claude, the notorious partier; Avery, the head cheerleader; and Gwen, the would-be valedictorian. Everyone has a label, whether they like it or not–and Emma was always known as a good girl. But appearances are never what they seem. And the truth behind what really happened to Emma may just be lying in plain sight. As long-buried secrets come to light, the clock is ticking to find Emma’s killer–before another good girl goes down.

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

I am not too proud to admit that while I was an outcast and a weirdo in high school, I was not without my own faults when it came to judging other people, especially girls. It takes a lot of time and effort to try and unlearn the malignant lessons that society teaches you when it comes to how girls are supposed to be and act, and even as a woman in her mid thirties I’m STILL learning. I wish that I had read books at that age that would have helped the process along a bit. The good news is that girls these days can pick up books like “The Good Girls” and get some pretty good insight into how to reject internalized misogyny and rape culture! What I thought was going to be a YA thriller turned into something that had more value than I anticipated when it comes to theme and message.

The strongest aspect of “The Good Girls” is how Bartlett examines the damage that rape culture and misogyny wreaks upon young women no matter what their ‘social standing’ is, and how the damage can manifest in different ways. I think that one of the more popular ways to address it in teen fiction these days is to give a perspective to an ‘outcast’ character who is seen as promiscuous or ‘bad news’ in other ways. We do get that here with Claude the party girl and (deceased) Lizzy the addict, but we also see how it can still be damaging to girls who are seen as ‘good’ or ‘successful’, like cheer captain Avery and ‘good girl’ Emma. I think it’s especially important for this kind of ‘representation’ (for lack of a better term) in YA literature, as those who aren’t targeted in the more obvious ways may be less able to recognize it. I also liked that this book addresses that sometimes people in authority positions, because of their own biases, can stumble and fail when it comes to protecting those who are victimized. Or, even worse, use their position of authority to intimidate others into silence, or perpetuate abuse themselves. I thought that “The Good Girls” tackled these themes really well.

All of that said, in terms of mystery and thrills, “The Good Girls” missed the mark for me. While the characterizations were valuable and felt pretty realistic, they also managed to not work outside the box of the tropes that they fit into. I liked all of the main characters well enough, but none of them felt that different from other iterations of the boxes that they fell into. And when it comes to the mystery of who pushed Emma into the river, and what actually happened to Lizzy and how the two connect, I didn’t find myself raring to find the answer or terribly shocked by how it all played out. Even the smaller mysteries that add into the larger parts didn’t really surprise me, and I called a couple of the reveals pretty early on. Admittedly a couple caught me by surprise, but even then I wasn’t wowed. It just feels pretty run of the mill when it comes to the story itself. Not bad by any means. But also not unique. And at the end of the day, valuable message and explorations aside, I read “The Good Girls” because I was looking for a thriller, which it didn’t really provide.

I think that if you go into “The Good Girls” looking for a character study on the effect of misogyny and rape culture on girls from all kinds of labels, you will find something interesting, and certainly something with an important message that could help YA readers. But in terms of mystery and thrills, it isn’t really anything new.

Rating 6: I really liked the themes that take on rape culture and misogyny, but the story itself didn’t feel much different from other stories that have similar characters and plot points.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Good Girls” is included on the Goodreads list “YA Mysteries and Thrillers”, and would fit in on “Small Towns with Secrets”.

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

Kate’s Review: “The Cousins”

Book: “The Cousins” by Karen M. McManus

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, December 2020

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

Book Description: From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of One of Us Is Lying comes your next obsession. You’ll never feel the same about family again.

Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah Story are cousins, but they barely know each another, and they’ve never even met their grandmother. Rich and reclusive, she disinherited their parents before they were born. So when they each receive a letter inviting them to work at her island resort for the summer, they’re surprised . . . and curious.

Their parents are all clear on one point–not going is not an option. This could be the opportunity to get back into Grandmother’s good graces. But when the cousins arrive on the island, it’s immediately clear that she has different plans for them. And the longer they stay, the more they realize how mysterious–and dark–their family’s past is.

The entire Story family has secrets. Whatever pulled them apart years ago isn’t over–and this summer, the cousins will learn everything.

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

I don’t know what we did to deserve it, but the book world gave us two YA thrillers by Karen M. McManus this year. Maybe it was to try to balance the scales of this year just a little bit? Whatever the case may be, it’s hard to deny that McManus is a hot commodity in YA thriller publishing, and “The Cousins” is her newest foray into the genre. Had this book come out a little later, it certainly would have been on my list in our upcoming Highlights Post. It wasn’t easy letting it sit on my Kindle as long as I did, but once I dove in I found myself pretty well ensnared.

Like a couple of McManus’s other stories, “The Cousins” involves a group of teenagers who are thrown together under strange circumstances, even though they are not alike in any way, shape, of form. Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah are cousins who never spent time together as kids, as their parents are generally estranged from each other and completely estranged from their grandmother Millicent. We get the perspectives of each cousin, who all have their own secrets, insecurities, and reasons that they want to get back in their grandmother’s good graces. Milly is desperate to know more about her family, if only because her mother has been so cold to her over the years that she wants to know what made her that way. Aubrey wants to please her father, as his indifference towards her that borders into disdain is a constant hurt that has only amplified as of late because of his escalating callousness. And Jonah, well, Jonah is a bit of a mystery. He wants to meet his grandmother, but he has ulterior motives that aren’t as clear as Milly’s and Aubrey’s. Each of these characters had a distinct voice and read like teens coming from the backgrounds that they do, and their authentic personalities were easy to latch on to, even as their various flaws and, in some cases, lies come to light. I wouldn’t say that any of them were super outside of the box from what I’ve come to expect from McManus, but that’s more than okay because I liked all of them. While I expected myself to like Milly the best (who doesn’t love a sarcastic and somewhat privileged protagonist?), it was Jonah whose voice stood out the most. His frustration, resentment, and ultimate softening towards Milly and Aubrey was a nice journey, and he does get a well set up and believable romance to boot. He was just so easy to care for, and I wasn’t expecting that at first. McManus really has a knack for writing characterizations that really click.

The mystery itself, and the sub mysteries within, were also fairly strong, though once again my jaded self was able to figure out a couple a few steps before I probably was supposed to. I wasn’t as interested in the answer as to why Millicent cut her children out, because as far as I was concerned they probably DID deserve it. But as things became to be not as they seemed my expectations shifted a bit, and I was more interested. Again, sometimes the clues to the various mysteries and secrets sprinkled throughout the story were a little obvious and therefore the solutions predictable. But the pace was fast and I was going through quick enough that I didn’t find myself hindered by my abilities to guess what was coming up. I think that there are still a good amount of surprises here that are, indeed, well set up but well shrouded as well. So even if you do find yourself predicting some things, I can almost be positive that you won’t get them all.

“The Cousins” is fun and quick, and should be on the lists of anyone who likes YA thrillers. Karen M. McManus has a lot of talent and I am very excited to see what she comes up with next!

Rating 8: Another fun mystery thriller from Karen M. McManus!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Cousins” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best YA Mystery/Spy books”, and “YA Suspense/Thriller/Mystery”.

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

Kate’s Review: “These Violent Delights”

Book: “These Violent Delights” by Chloe Gong

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, November 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from a librarian friend.

Book Description: Perfect for fans of The Last Magician and Descendant of the Crane, this heart-stopping debut is an imaginative Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, with rival gangs and a monster in the depths of the Huangpu River.

The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery. A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.

But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.

Review: Confession time! I don’t really care for Shakespeare’s classic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”. Even as a teen when I was even more emotional than I am now (shocker!), it never really connected with me. Well, that’s not totally true. I do enjoy Baz Lurhmann’s take on the story, but that’s because it’s SO DAMN OVER THE TOP.

That and John Leguizamo as Tybalt. I mean my GOD. (source)

But I am someone who is open minded to tinkering with the classics, so when I heard about “These Violent Delights” by Chloe Gong it caught my eye. If you take the “Romeo and Juliet” story, set it in 1920s Shanghai, involve two gangs, and have a Juliet who is nobody’s fool, you will almost certainly get my attention. And if you toss a monster into it as well? YA GOT ME.

“These Violent Delights” follows Juliette Cai and Roma Montogrov, two young adults who are heirs to their family gangs, but have a tumultuous and star crossed past. While it’s third person, we do get to alternate between their third person perspectives, seeing their sides of their ultimate falling out, and how hurt, and angry, they both are about it. I was more invested in Juliet’s perspectives, mostly because I felt that Gong really fleshed out her characterization in fascinating ways, not just making her be a love lorn and somewhat passive character. This Juliette is a calculating higher up of a violent gang, and uses her knowledge of Shanghai and her culture along with her Western education to make chess moves in the ongoing conflicts. Through her we also got to see the colonial and imperialist issues that were facing Shanghai at the time, with Western interests establishing themselves via merchants after a number of treaties after warfare. Gong addresses a number of the issues of Western influence and manipulation within this narrative, and having Juliette there to parse it out for the reader was a great device (I was so ignorant about a lot of this that I found that to be the most intriguing aspect of this story). It was also pretty cool to see not just Juliette but her cousins Rosalind and Kathleen using their wits and their own strengths as women to try to keep the Scarlet Gang in control, especially after things in the main storyline go to hell (more on that in a bit).

Roma, however, is part of a Russian family that relocated to Shanghai and that has tried to claim its own stake in the power pie. His conflicts were more family based, and seeing him (and his heavies Marshall and Benedikt, who were GREAT and WONDERFUL and I would totally read a book just about them) try to reconcile his love for Juliette and his loyalty to his family (some of which is forced upon him) wasn’t as interesting as Juliette’s journey. But all of that said, because of these conflicts that both have, some known, some unspoken, their romance is far easier to invest in than their inspirations in the original play. The two characters (as well as the side characters) harken back enough to be adaptations, but stand on their own and breathe new life into the story.

As for the main conflict, that being a monster that is infecting people in Shanghai with an illness that makes them commit suicide, it was a bit out of left field but I liked it enough. I enjoyed watching Roma and Juliette try to solve the mystery, and how the story still followed beats of the original play in subtle ways. This is where more Imperialist issues come into play, and while a less skilled author may have stumbled into some heavy handed moments, for the most part Gong pulls it off that keeps the story flowing and making good points. It did go on a little long for my taste, but a lot had to be covered for world building, as this is the first in a series. Which I will definitely be following, as the cliffhanger was searing with DELICIOUS, DELICIOUS PAIN.

Let’s call this a visual hint on where we leave off. But it has some tweaking I loved. (source)

“These Violent Delights” is a creative and fun historical fiction fantasy romance thriller (whew!) , and has me fully invested in a “Romeo and Juliet” story. Can’t wait to see where we go next.

Rating 7: A creative and unique retelling of a classic tragedy, “These Violent Delights” goes on a LITTLE long, but breathes some new life into “Romeo and Juliet”.

Reader’s Advisory:

“These Violent Delights” is included on the Goodreads list “YA Fiction Set in the 1920s”, and would fit in on “Romeo and Juliet Retellings”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Surrender Your Sons”

45154800Book: “Surrender Your Sons” by Adam Sass

Publishing Info: Flux, September 2020

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

Book Description: Connor Major’s summer break is turning into a nightmare.

His SAT scores bombed, the old man he delivers meals to died, and when he came out to his religious zealot mother, she had him kidnapped and shipped off to a secluded island. His final destination: Nightlight Ministries, a conversion therapy camp that will be his new home until he “changes.”

But Connor’s troubles are only beginning. At Nightlight, everyone has something to hide from the campers to the “converted” staff and cagey camp director, and it quickly becomes clear that no one is safe. Connor plans to escape and bring the other kidnapped teens with him. But first, he’s exposing the camp’s horrible truths for what they are— and taking this place down. 

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

Let’s give some high praise to the 1990s cult lesbian dramedy “But I’m a Cheerleader” starring literal goddess on Earth Natasha Lyonne. Natasha plays Megan, a naive cheerleader who is sent to a conversion therapy camp because her parents are convinced she’s gay. There the very idea of conversion therapy is lampooned and satirized, and Lyonne is able to discover and accept herself, as well as her eventual love for camp bad girl Graham (played by 90s Goth Queen Clea Duvall). It’s great. It’s very 1990s. It has RuPaul as a counselor. It’s witty and big hearted. It makes fun of conversion therapy and how ridiculous the concept is, and hits that point home hard.

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(source)

But I do think that one aspect that gets a little lost in this movie is just how truly horrifying and evil conversion therapy is. Children are traumatized, abused, and tortured because of their sexuality and/or gender identity, and parents willingly send their children to this kind of treatment that can be incredibly damaging. “Surrender Your Sons” by Adam Sass sends conversion therapy to another extreme (though honestly, probably not too unrealistic), and produces both a rightfully horrifying story…. as well as, ultimately, an uplifting one at its heart.

Adam Sass starts this book off with a content warning and contextualization of the content in this book, noting that while it very much is a story of queer pain, he isn’t promoting that kind of thing and is trying to handle it as best he can. Normally these kinds of spoon fed disclaimers rub me the wrong way, as I think that a work should speak for itself and a reader should have their own interpretations, but in the case of “Surrender Your Sons” I think that it’s probably a good idea. The “Bury Your Gays” trope is damaging and all too present, and this book could absolutely be triggering for the intended audience. But heavy and upsetting content is necessary in this tale as our protagonist, Connor Major, is kidnapped and taken to a conversion therapy camp in the Costa Rican jungle. The things that Connor and his ‘campmates’ go through are horrifying, ranging from physical abuse to mental abuse to emotional abuse, it really runs the gamut, and it is a VERY hard and emotional read. It really needs to be hit home that conversion therapy is torture, plain and simple. Connor is a very relatable, realistic, and in some ways incredibly funny main character, and his sharp wit helps make this story a little easier to handle in its unflinching portrayals of conversion therapy. I really loved Connor’s voice, and I also liked how Sass slowly built him up and fleshed him out as his life is thrown into turmoil. It never felt unrealistic or unearned, and his voice still felt true to him as he evolved. I also really appreciated that Sass points out that the act of ‘coming out’ is still very dangerous for some people. Connor is pressured to come out to his religious zealot of a mother by his boyfriend Ario, who says that coming out will set him free. I do think that there is a well intentioned belief that coming out means that you get to speak your truth, and that that in itself is the best thing that you can do for your own happiness. For some people that’s absolutely true. But for people like Connor, coming out puts a target on one’s back, and Sass did a really good job of bringing up how complicated it can be.

And with these themes we also get a well plotted and interesting mystery thriller! Connor soon discovers that the recently deceased man he was doing Meals on Wheels for, Ricky, has a connection to the Nightlight program, and to it’s leader, The Reverend. It never feels like this mystery is tossed in for good measure, as Sass lays out the clues in a deliberate and careful way. As Connor and his fellow campers begin to investigate, the stakes get higher and higher, and they may need to start plotting a revolt and escape not just because they are being tortured for their sexualities and gender identities, but because they may now know too much. Mixed in with the mystery are the backstories of some of the higher ups at the camp, and how some of them were campers there at one point, which therein leads to the very sad reality that sometimes people who suffer from trauma and abuse end up abusing and traumatizing others later in life. Sass is sure to never excuse the actions of these characters, he does grant them a little bit of empathy, and hammers the point that conversion therapy is truly horrendous because of many unforeseen consequences and outcomes even beyond the violent and abusive root of it.

“Surrender Your Sons” is by no means an easy read, but I think that it’s one that brings up very important conversations. After all, conversion therapy, while perhaps falling out of favor, is still legal in many states in the U.S. Hopefully the more light that is shed on the practice, the more states will ban it until it’s no longer legal anywhere.

Rating 8: An emotionally gut wrenching and suspenseful thriller, “Surrender Your Sons” explores the evils of conversion therapy, the dark side of families when they don’t accept their children for being themselves, and the strength we sometimes have to find within ourselves.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Surrender Your Sons” is included on the Goodreads lists “Queer Fiction Set on an Island”, and “2020 YA Books with LGBT Themes”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Those Who Prey”

Book: “Those Who Prey” by Jennifer Moffett

Publishing Info: Atheneum, Simon & Schuster, November 2020

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

Book Description: Sadie meets The Girls in this riveting debut psychological thriller about a lonely college freshman seduced into joining a cult—and her desperate attempt to escape before it’s too late.

College life isn’t what Emily expected. She expected to spend freshman year strolling through the ivy-covered campus with new friends, finally feeling like she belonged. Instead, she walks the campus alone, still not having found her place or her people so far away from home. But then the Kingdom finds her.

The Kingdom, an exclusive on-campus group, offers everything Emily expected of college and more: acceptance, friends, a potential boyfriend, and a chance to spend the summer in Italy on a mission trip. But the trip is not what she thought it would be. Emily and the others are stripped of their passports and money. They’re cut off from their families back home. The Kingdom’s practices become increasingly manipulative and dangerous.

And someone ends up dead.

At times unsettling and always riveting, Those Who Prey looks at the allure of cult life, while questioning just how far we’re willing to go to find where we belong.

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

Back when I was at the University of Minnesota for my undergrad, between classes I’d spend time in the student union, usually getting a bagel for lunch in the food area where a number of student groups had set up tables trying to find new members. The table that always made me uncomfortable was a far right Evangelical Christian group whose name I can’t remember, as they always had the same rotation of about five people who had interesting signs and information on display. Around Halloween it was about devil worship. At Christmas it was how Santa=Satan. Sometimes it would be pamphlets on the sins of homosexuality or sex. I never saw them talking to anyone, but I did think about how they could probably influence a lonely student or two who hadn’t adjusted to college life yet, who just wanted a connection as they sought out a bagel. As I read “Those Who Prey” by Jennifer Moffett, I kept having flashbacks to that table, and one specific girl with whom I made eye contact on more than one occasion, and how my disgust at the time didn’t see the blatant predatory behavior of the group I was constantly passing as I went for my lunch.

So creepy as I looked back. (source)

“Those Who Prey” is part coming of age story, part thriller, and Moffett is able to pull out the best of both genres to make a genuinely disturbing tale about identity and manipulation. Our protagonist, Emily, reads like a very realistic college freshman who has found herself in a new environment, and who hasn’t quite found her place. Moffett slowly reveals aspects of her background and personality that make her ripe for the picking when it comes to Kingdom, an on campus Christian group that brings her into their organization with promise of friendhip and salvation (and love, as it is the charming Josh who first compels her). I thought that Moffett really did her due diligence to show how the average student who may be isolated and lonely could be so easily taken in with a group like this, and really demonstrated the frog in the boiling water aspect of how Kingdom, and real life campus cult groups, depend upon.

By the time Emily gets to Italy on her ‘mission’, and things really take a turn, the groundwork has been laid out seamlessly. Moffett clearly did her homework about these groups and what they do to get their members, and what they then put them through. While most of the other characters weren’t really given deep dives, as it’s through Emily’s perspective, you still got a sense as to how many of them, especially the ones you wouldn’t expect, would be trapped in this situation. It felt real, and therefore VERY unsettling. We also start to see a mystery unfold involving Kara, the member who has been assigned to Emily, who doesn’t seem as invested in the program as other people are. Kara’s plot line is what gave this story a mystery element to throw in with the creepy cult vibe, and while I kind of guessed what her deal was pretty early on, there were still plenty of puzzle pieces that I wasn’t working out until Moffett was ready for me to do so. I needed to know what Kara’s deal was, I needed to know what Kingdom had in store for their members, and I NEEDED to know if Emily was going to get out. All of this kept me totally ensnared, which was great.

“Those Who Prey” is creepy and all too realistic. I heard that some of these groups have rebranded a bit in hopes of still bringing in members. Hopefully some people who read this book will see the similarities and steer clear, no matter how lonely they may feel while living on campus.

Rating 8: A suspenseful coming of age thriller, “Those Who Prey” kept me on the edge of my seat.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Those Who Prey” is included on the Goodreads lists “Cults and Communes in Fiction”, and “Going to College”.

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

Kate’s Review: “I Hope You’re Listening”

Book: “I Hope You’re Listening” by Tom Ryan

Publishing Info: Aw Teen, October 2020

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

Book Description: In her small town, seventeen year-old Delia “Dee” Skinner is known as the girl who wasn’t taken. Ten years ago, she witnessed the abduction of her best friend, Sibby. And though she told the police everything she remembered, it wasn’t enough. Sibby was never seen again. At night, Dee deals with her guilt by becoming someone else: the Seeker, the voice behind the popular true crime podcast Radio Silent, which features missing persons cases and works with online sleuths to solve them. Nobody knows Dee’s the Seeker, and she plans to keep it that way.When another little girl goes missing, and the case is linked to Sibby’s disappearance, Dee has a chance to get answers, with the help of her virtual detectives and the intriguing new girl at school. But how much is she willing to reveal about herself in order to uncover the truth? Dee’s about to find out what’s really at stake in unraveling the mystery of the little girls who vanished. 

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

In the early stages of quarantine, I fell off listening to some of the true crime podcasts that I loved to listen to before. I don’t know why it was, but outside of “Last Podcast on the Left”, I just wasn’t feeling up for anything else. But one day I decided to try and pick up “My Favorite Murder” again, and started on the unsolved case of the Delphi Murders, in which two teenage girls were found dead after being on a daytime hike. While I liked getting back into the groove of podcasts as I went for a walk with my kid, that particular case is, like the other cases like it, very sad because we don’t know what happened. It just so happened that I was listening to this as I was reading “I Hope You’re Listening” by Tom Ryan, and the chaotic synergy of the universe kind of fell into place. And it made me appreciate “I Hope You’re Listening” all the more.

There are a couple of mysteries running around in the narrative of “I Hope You’re Listening”. The first is what happened to Dee’s best friend Sybil, who was taken when they were children and right in front of Dee’s eyes. Dee is the kind of protagonist that you see a fair amount in thrillers these days; she’s traumatized, she’s not very personable, and she has unpacked baggage regarding her trauma that affects her in many ways. But Ryan does a great job of making her feel realistic in her trauma without feeling like she has to be unlikable or ‘broken’. She has started running an anonymous podcast that tackles missing person cases, in hopes of solving mysteries to help cope with the mystery in her life that was never solved, and I think this device works perfectly for her plot line. I liked that Ryan doesn’t try to make her into a completely self destructive individual, but does show how her experiences has made her more ‘rough around the edges’ when it comes to dealing with other people.

The other mystery is a new child disappearance, this time of a girl named Layla, whose potential kidnapping brings a media frenzy to town and threatens to expose Dee to more reminders of her connection to Sybil, as well as expose her as the anonymous host of her popular podcast. As Dee tries to help solve Layla’s disappearance, she is pulled back into Sybil’s, and her obsession starts up again. Both mysteries are compelling as all get out, and seeing Dee try her hand at actual hands on detective work leads to many suspenseful moments of high stakes action.

There were a couple of things that kind of took me out of the story a bit. The first is merely a pacing issue, and I’m going to get a little spoiler here, so here is your warning:

So one of the biggest strengths of this book is Dee’s bourgeoning romance with new neighbor Sarah. I liked Dee and Sarah together, I thought that they had great chemistry and I was deeply invested in them as a couple. But the timeline on this book isn’t very long, and Sarah figures out that Dee is ‘The Seeker’, aka the host for the podcast. When she confronts Dee, Dee basically confirms it right away, and then they are suddenly passionately making out. It’s not so much them hooking up that I had a problem with, but Dee revealing her secret identity that only ONE other person knows (her best friend Burke) when she has kept it so secret and has been so paranoid about it for so long. It’s especially hard to swallow because a Nancy Grace-esque tabloid crime reporter is in town on the Layla case and wants to expose The Seeker, so for Dee to let her guard down on a girl she has just started to get to know when this dangerous woman is so close just felt unrealistic to Dee’s character. But hey, if that’s the worst thing I can find about this, that’s pretty good.

Overall, “I Hope You’re Listening” is a really engrossing mystery thriller, and I am thinking of gong back to read more of Ryan’s stuff. Pick this one up if you like thrillers AND true crime podcasts!

Rating 8: A page turner of a mystery that pulls you in, “I Hope You’re Listening” is sure to entertain fans of thrillers and true crime podcasts alike!

Reader’s Advisory:

“I Hope You’re Listening” is included on the Goodreads lists “

Find “I Hope You’re Listening” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “White Ivy”

Book: “White Ivy” by Susie Yang

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, November 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I won an ARC in a Goodreads giveaway.

Book Description: A dazzling debut novel about a young woman’s dark obsession with her privileged classmate and the lengths she’ll go to win his love.

Ivy Lin is a thief and a liar—but you’d never know it by looking at her. Raised outside of Boston, she is taught how to pilfer items from yard sales and second-hand shops by her immigrant grandmother. Thieving allows Ivy to accumulate the trappings of a suburban teen—and, most importantly, to attract the attention of Gideon Speyer, the golden boy of a wealthy political family. But when Ivy’s mother discovers her trespasses, punishment is swift and Ivy is sent to China, where her dream instantly evaporates.

Years later, Ivy has grown into a poised yet restless young woman, haunted by her conflicting feelings about her upbringing and her family. Back in Boston, when she bumps into Sylvia Speyer, Gideon’s sister, a reconnection with Gideon seems not only inevitable—it feels like fate.

Slowly, Ivy sinks her claws into Gideon and the entire Speyer clan by attending fancy dinners and weekend getaways to the Cape. But just as Ivy is about to have everything she’s ever wanted, a ghost from her past resurfaces, threatening the nearly perfect life she’s worked so hard to build.

Filled with surprising twists and offering sharp insights into the immigrant experience, White Ivy is both a love triangle and a coming-of-age story, as well as a glimpse into the dark side of a woman who yearns for success at any cost.

Review: Thank you to Goodreads for sending me an ARC of this novel as part of a giveaway!

Me and my kiddo were sitting in the front yard one day, when a UPS guy pulled up and had what was clearly a book shaped parcel in his hands. I thanked him from afar and after he left I wondered if I had ordered a book that I’d forgotten about. But when I opened it up and saw that it was “White Ivy” by Susie Yang, it occurred to me that I had won a Goodreads giveaway! Which rarely happens! I had seen a bit of buzz online about this book, being described as a thriller much like “The Luckiest Girl in the World”, which is about a social climbing schemer with a dark past. That book was entertaining enough, so I figured “White Ivy” would be similar. Which it is…. and it isn’t.

“White Ivy” is certainly about a social climbing schemer. Ivy Lin is our protagonist, and after being raised in a lower class and strict Chinese immigrant household, she has dreams of rising above. It’s true that she from the get go sets her sights on a rich former classmate, and it’s true that she has every intention of doing anything to be with him. But the issue is that “White Ivy” reads less like a thriller, and more like a character study of a damaged person who, being put in certain boxes because of her gender, culture, and race, wants to succeed in the world she has deemed ‘perfect’. Sort of a twist on the ‘immigrant experience’ story that is seen in literature. In some ways Ivy is conniving, but I felt that Yang wrote her with empathy and not really with that much judgement, at least not as much as the summary implies. Does Ivy do questionable/admittedly bad things to get ahead? Absolutely. But I felt that she came off more as an anti-heroine than anything else. And I liked that Yang wrote her that way. We get to see white male antiheroes in books all the time. Seeing a Chinese-American woman fit into this part is something that I don’t encounter nearly as much. Yang touches on the culture clash between Ivy and her parents and grandmother, as while Ivy was born in China, she has grown up in the U.S. (outside of being sent back for awhile after she was caught misbehaving). I thought that while Ivy’s parents definitely contributed to her problems, Yang also afforded them some grace as well, not painting them as just another antagonizing factor, but as complicated people.

Character study aside, outside of Ivy’s deeply fascinating characterization “White Ivy” follows a somewhat predictable route. Ivy finds herself caught between Gideon, a man who represents the ideal life and future she wants, and Roux, a bad boy from her past who stirs up passion, albeit a toxic kind. Following this escalating love triangle to dangerous places isn’t exactly new territory, and this is the only element where the ‘thriller’ aspect of the story comes into play. It has a slow build and escalation to be sure, but there weren’t any surprises that came out of it. I think that had Ivy not been such a good character with all the complexities and depths that she had, I would have been a little less forgiving of this. Her two lovers don’t really move outside of their tropes, Gideon being boring but dependable, and Roux being exciting but dangerous and violent. It also doesn’t read as much like a thriller as buzz and descriptions have promoted. There was one area of suspense for me, but I feel like you need more than one to be an actual ‘thriller’ novel.

Overall, I enjoyed “White Ivy” mostly because of Ivy herself. I think that if you go into it looking at it as a character study as opposed to a full on thriller, you’ll like it. I am intrigued by what Yang will do next.

Rating 7: A dark and fascinating character study and a twist on the ‘immigrant experience’ trope, “White Ivy” is a page turner with an anti-heroine you will probably root for despite your moral misgivings.

Reader’s Advisory:

“White Ivy” is included on the Goodreads lists “Anticipated Literary Reads for Readers of Color 2020”, and “Romance Books with Asian Love Interests” (this may be a stretch but I think it applies).

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

Kate’s Review: “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder”

45874065Book: “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” by Holly Jackson

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Everyone in Fairview knows the story.

Pretty and popular high school senior Andie Bell was murdered by her boyfriend, Sal Singh, who then killed himself. It was all anyone could talk about. And five years later, Pip sees how the tragedy still haunts her town.

But she can’t shake the feeling that there was more to what happened that day. She knew Sal when she was a child, and he was always so kind to her. How could he possibly have been a killer?

Now a senior herself, Pip decides to reexamine the closed case for her final project, at first just to cast doubt on the original investigation. But soon she discovers a trail of dark secrets that might actually prove Sal innocent . . . and the line between past and present begins to blur. Someone in Fairview doesn’t want Pip digging around for answers, and now her own life might be in danger.

This is the story of an investigation turned obsession, full of twists and turns and with an ending you’ll never expect.

Review: Back when we were a COVID-free world and the thought of going shopping in person didn’t give me hives, my Mom and I went to Barnes and Noble on a trip to the Mall of America. I always like to check what the YA display has, because even though I know it will usually be heavy on the fantasy and romance, you can also find some gems of teen thrillers. That was how I initially learned about “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” by Holly Jackson. I let it be, but the name stuck in my head enough that when quarantine happened about a month later I had the title of a book I wanted to order. It still took a little time to get to it, but I finally picked it up and gave it a go…. and kicked myself for waiting to start it as long as I did.

“A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” has all the elements that I want in any kind of thriller, let alone a teen one. The protagonist is interesting and well fleshed out, for one thing. Pippa is the kind of teenage girl I probably wished I was at the time. She’s clever, she’s funny, and her true crime obsession, one true crime in particular, is a fun nod to all true crime enthusiasts everywhere. But on top of all of those things, she is by no means perfect, but not in the obvious ways that some thriller heroines go. She has a well adjusted home life, she has healthy friendships and relationships, and she isn’t drowning in her own dysfunction. You like her almost immediately, and even when she does sometimes do dumb things (like most teenagers probably would on occasion), they are believable. And it isn’t just Pip that is enjoyable as a character. Her friends are all fun with witty and snappy personalities, and her partner in investigating, Ravi, is incredibly likable along with being a little bit tragic. Ravi is the younger brother of Sal, the boy who everyone assumes murdered Andie but who ended up dead before he could be charged (supposedly by his own hand). Not only does Ravi’s involvement make Pip’s endeavor all the more personal and high stakes, it also makes it feel more ‘legitimate’ as opposed to just a random girl not really connected to a tragedy sticking her nose in it because of a quirky true crime obsession. Jackson also makes note of racism within police investigations and media coverage, as Sal, being Indian American, was immediately accepted as the murderer because of racist ideas about his culture and how women fit into it, in spite of a few big inconsistencies. Ravi, too, doesn’t have the same privileges as Pip does as they investigate, and Jackson definitely makes certain to address these things when Pip needs to be educated on them. I thought that was a good theme throughout this novel.

And on top of likable characters, we also get a VERY stellar, complex, but not overwrought mystery at hand. We get to see Pippa approach it through her perspective in a few different ways, be it through the narrative itself, her log entries for her capstone project, or the notes that she has taken about the case. The clues are all there, and while I admit that I kind of figured out one of the big aspects to the case pretty early on, Jackson throws in enough believable red herrings that I did end up doubting myself. It’s a classic whodunnit with a lot of people who would have reason and motive, and then you add in ANOTHER layer with a mystery person starting to threaten Pip as she gets closer and closer to finding out the truth about what happened to Andie. There are well executed moments of legitimate tension, and you do really start to worry about Pip as she starts to unearth long kept secrets and lies. This is the kind of suspense you really want in a thriller, and Jackson is able to maintain it throughout the story, though there are a good number of moments of levity sprinkled in. Just to give the reader a break in the tension here and there. I was hooked, and basically read it in the course of two days, foregoing other forms of entertainment until I was done. Yeah, it’s VERY fun.

And the best part is that a sequel is coming out next Spring here in the States.

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Between this and the hope of a potential vaccine, Spring 2021 is looking PRETTY good! (source)

“A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” is a great read and a hell of a lot of fun! Shame on me for sleeping on it for so long! Thriller fans, do yourself a favor and go read this book!

Rating 9: Incredibly fun, properly twisty, and a very impressive debut novel, “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” gave me everything I want in my YA thrillers, and more.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” is included on the Goodreads lists “Young Adult Crime/Murder Mysteries”, and “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, and Thrillers 2020”.

Find “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Don’t Look For Me”

49127515Book: “Don’t Look For Me” by Wendy Walker

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, September 2020

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

Book Description: In Wendy Walker’s thrilling novel Don’t Look for Me, the greatest risk isn’t running away. It’s running out of time. One night, Molly Clarke walked away from her life. She doesn’t want to be found. Or at least, that’s the story. The car abandoned miles from home. The note found at a nearby hotel. The shattered family that couldn’t be put back together. They called it a “walk away.” It happens all the time. Women disappear, desperate to leave their lives behind and start over.

But is that what really happened to Molly Clarke?

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

The last Wendy Walker book I read was “The Night Before”, which took me on a fun and convoluted ride. Given how much I enjoyed that book, I was very interested in reading her newest book, “Don’t Look For Me”, a thriller about a wife and mother who may have walked away from her life…. or perhaps not. The summary was a bit vague, which only raised my interests more. I was thinking that we were going to get a story filled with questions about Molly Clarke’s whereabouts. And it wasn’t quite that. I’m going to give a bit more info in my review than the summary does, which is kind of going to be spoilery in itself because of that. So if you don’t want to know….. turn back now?

“Don’t Look For Me” has two narratives at play. The first is of Nicole, Molly’s daughter who, after a new lead has come in regarding her mother’s disappearance, returns to the town Molly was last seen in. Nicole has guilt over her last interactions with her mother, and is fighting her own demons because of a tragic incident in the family past (more on that in a bit). The second narrative is that of Molly herself, whose car ran out of gas on the way home while passing through the small town, and who accepted a ride from a man and his daughter…. and then ended up being held captive in their home. The timelines converge pretty early, and you see Nicole trying to solve the mystery of her mom’s supposed ‘walk away’, while Molly is trying to escape her captors by using her wits and her need to survive. I enjoyed how Walker lined these two timelines up, and how you would see the actions of one affect or bleed into the other. Through these two perspectives we see how Molly might have been the type to walk away, as her family life has been a wreck ever since the death of her youngest child, in which she blames herself. And Nicole blames her too. This aspect of the story was very strong, and I thought that as an examination of a family swallowed up by grief, blame, and anger it was well done and very sad. Walker also toys a bit with perspectives and perceptions between the two women, and how they regard people they are interacting with. I won’t say much more than that, but I will say that Walker uses a device that really only works on paper, and she did it well.

But thriller and mystery wise, “Don’t Look For Me” felt pretty run of the mill. Molly checked almost ever box of plucky intrepid survivor, while Nicole has a lot of the vices and bad habits that you see of protagonists with tortured souls. The clues are all in place, and while it wasn’t obvious as to who had taken Molly and why, once we got the big reveal it felt a bit underwhelming. I’m not sure if it was because I didn’t really feel like I cared enough for the characters, or if it was the set up, but I didn’t have much investment as to what happened to either Molly or Nicole. On top of that, there was another one of those surprise twists that comes in near the end, which felt unbelievable and a bit unearned to me. I wish that more moments had been put in place that would have felt like everything coming together, as opposed to kind of nutty things just being flung at the reader in hopes that they would stick.

While “Don’t Look For Me” did keep me reading, and while it was a quick read, I ultimately wanted a bit more from it.

Rating 6: A middle of the road thriller with a paint by numbers plot, “Don’t Look For Me” had some interesting perspective manipulations and examinations of a family in turmoil, but was overall average.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Don’t Look For Me” is included on the Goodreads lists “Psychological Chillers by Women”, and “‘The Girl on the Train’ Read A Likes”.

Find “Don’t Look For Me” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!