Kate’s Review: “Anything For You”

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

Publishing Info: St Martin’s Press, November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(source)

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

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

 

Kate’s Rev Up Series Review: The Valerie Hart Series

 

Books: “The Killing Lessons” and “Lovemurder” by Saul Black

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, September 2015; Orion, November 2016

Where Did I Get These Books: The library!

Book Descriptions: When the two strangers turn up at Rowena Cooper’s isolated Colorado farmhouse, she knows instantly that it’s the end of everything. For the two haunted and driven men, on the other hand, it’s just another stop on a long and bloody journey. And they still have many miles to go, and victims to sacrifice, before their work is done.

For San Francisco homicide detective Valerie Hart, their trail of victims–women abducted, tortured and left with a seemingly random series of objects inside them–has brought her from obsession to the edge of physical and psychological destruction. And she’s losing hope of making a breakthrough before that happens.

But the murders at the Cooper farmhouse didn’t quite go according to plan. There was a survivor, Rowena’s ten-year-old daughter Nell, who now holds the key to the killings. Injured, half-frozen, terrified, Nell has only one place to go. And that place could be even more dangerous than what she’s running from.

In this extraordinary, pulse-pounding debut, Saul Black takes us deep into the mind of a psychopath, and into the troubled heart of the woman determined to stop him.


The second spine-chilling serial-killer thriller featuring homicide detective Valerie Hart from the author of the critically-acclaimed THE KILLING LESSONS.

Troubled San Francisco homicide detective Valerie Hart is planning a rare weekend away from the job when she gets the call. A body has been found. A woman, brutally murdered. And the cryptic note left by the body is addressed to Valerie.

The victim is unknown to her, but as Valerie analyses the scene, the clues begin to point in a deeply disturbing direction: to a maximum security prison where a woman called Katherine Glass is awaiting execution for a series of gruesome killings. And Valerie was the cop who put her there.

The last thing Valerie wants to do is re-enter Katherine’s twisted world, but when a second body is discovered, with another puzzling clue, she realises she has no choice. Katherine Glass holds the key to the killings, and Valerie needs to find out what she knows before the murders come even closer to home.

Even if it means playing a deadly game where once again, the psychopathic killer holds all the cards.

Review: A few years ago, I took a chance on a book called “The Killing Lessons” by Saul Black. I went in more interested in the overall story and plot, expecting it to be a one off with horrific travelling murderers and a run of the mill hard boiled detective on their tail. But what I found instead was Valerie Hart, a damaged, complex, and fascinating protagonist whose demons and past eclipsed the already compelling and disturbing main plotline. A year later, “Lovemurder” came out, and I was thrilled to see that Valerie Hart was, once again, the hero of the tale. And now, a few years after that, the third in the Valerie Hart series “Anything For You” is about to come out. In anticipation of this new novel, I decided to go back and revisit “The Killing Lessons” and “Lovemurder”, and get myself super hyped for the return of Valerie. So before I review that book, let’s look at the books that came before it, as they are very different stories, and yet are connected by a protagonist that I’ve come to really enjoy.

When we first meet Valerie in “The Killing Lessons”, she is a detective in San Francisco who is haunted by a couple of different things. The first is that she has had a couple of unsolved cases that she can’t shake, cases that have rocked her to her core and have become a dark obsession. The other is a failed relationship with another detective named Nick Blaskovich. She and Nick had a real shot at happily ever after, but after her frustrations about her unsolved cases made her spiral, she pushed him away in the most destructive ways possible. Little does she know that out east in Colorado, the men she has been trying to find are about to strike again, and this time they mess up and leave a witness alive, a little girl named Nell who ran when her mother and brother were brutally murdered. Black seamlessly connects the stories of Valerie, Nell, and the two murderers, and shows them on a collision course. Black gives a lot of attention to all of the players, the chapters trading off between what Xander and Paulie, the murderers, are up to, what Nell is doing as she hides from them, and how Valerie is slowly but surely piecing their tracks together and closing in on them. The story treads more towards the literary than what you may expect from a detective story, and the brutality is striking, and at times a little much to handle. When I read it initially it didn’t seem to bother me, but during my revisit the violence, which is mostly directed towards women, was very difficult to swallow. I think that had Valerie not been given as much attention, depth, and complexity, I would have been more critical. But as it was, Valerie’s storyline shows not only the tenacity and spunk of a truly gifted detective, but also what being a good detective can sometimes do to your psychological state. 

In “Lovemurder”, we turn from overblown sadistic violence, and gravitate more towards a psychological cat and mouse game. In this story, Valerie has to confront Katherine Glass, a serial killer that she put away years ago, but whose mystery partner has started killing again, and claims they won’t stop unless Glass is set free. Like Hart, Glass is a hyper-intelligent woman who knows how to read people, and when she and Valerie start to face off again, the mind games start up again between the two women. Glass claims that she wants to help Valerie since her partner, whom she never knew the identity of, left her high and dry to rot in jail, but Valerie isn’t certain that she can fully trust this woman, insights aside. In this story, there is still a case that is haunting her, but Valerie has grown from the complete mess that she is in “The Killing Lessons”, and exudes a new strength and confidence that really suits her. I like seeing her character grow between novels, as had she just remained static between the two it would have been exhausting. I also liked that Black didn’t feel a need to up the ante on the violence, and that while there is STILL violence in this book, it doesn’t feel nearly as exploitative or misogynistic as it did in “The Killing Lessons”. On top of that, Katherine Glass is another fascinating, complex character, and I really liked seeing her and Valerie go head to head in a battle of the wits. Another aspect I liked is that Valerie’s personal life with Nick is still there, but it doesn’t take the forefront, nor does Black put Valerie in any situation where she is the ‘bad guy’ because she takes her job so seriously and will put it over romance when she deems it fit to do so. 

That isn’t to say that there aren’t pitfalls with Hart and her characterization. I do think that from time to time Black does fall into the ‘men writing women’ trap. Every once in awhile Valerie may do something that would make me pause and say ‘okay, that reads more like a guy’s idea of what a woman would do as opposed to how a woman author would write and read the same situation’. And it’s hard to deny that, as mentioned above, there are definitely misogynistic undertones towards some of the women characters, be it as victims, or just other characters that aren’t Valerie (this is especially evident with a character named Carla in “The Killing Lessons”; her hatred for Valerie is petty and comes back to a man). Plus, there were some strange moments, especially in “The Killing Lessons”, where objectification and violence ruled, and sexuality popped up in places it probably shouldn’t. While it makes some sense when it’s from Xander and Paulie’s point of view (they are sexual sadists after all), there was one moment involving Nell, a prepubescent girl, and the odd note that she hasn’t hit puberty yet as denoted by a, shall we say, lack of certain secondary sexual characteristics. Why did THAT need to be noted? What did it add to the plot as a whole, ESPECIALLY when the observation is coming from a character who is supposed to be benevolent and someone she is safe with? 

But that said, as a whole I am always interested in finding out more about Valerie, and to see where she goes next. So go on I shall, problematic aspects aside (but also kept track of, in case it becomes too much). Suffice to say, when I saw that Black had a new book about her, I was THRILLED and requested it from NetGalley almost immediately. Valerie herself is such a compelling character, as of now I am eager to come back for more. On Thursday, I’ll review her newest adventure, “Anything For You”.

Rating 7 and 8: Black has brutal, dark, and propulsive thrillers, but the true strength is the protagonist Valerie Hart. These books aren’t for the faint of heart and sometimes come off as sexist in some ways, but overall Hart is a complex and interesting character to follow.

Reader’s Advisory:

The Valerie Hart Series is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Female Lead Characters”, and “Best Modern Thrillers”.

Find “The Killing Lessons” and “Lovemurder” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “His Hideous Heart”

39127647Book: “His Hideous Heart” by Dahlia Adler (Ed.)

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Thirteen of YA’s most celebrated names reimagine Edgar Allan Poe’s most surprising, unsettling, and popular tales for a new generation.

Edgar Allan Poe may be a hundred and fifty years beyond this world, but the themes of his beloved works have much in common with modern young adult fiction. Whether the stories are familiar to readers or discovered for the first time, readers will revel in Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tales, and how they’ve been brought to life in 13 unique and unforgettable ways.

Contributors include Kendare Blake (reimagining “Metzengerstein”), Rin Chupeco (“The Murders in the Rue Morge”), Lamar Giles (“The Oval Portrait”), Tessa Gratton (“Annabel Lee”), Tiffany D. Jackson (“The Cask of Amontillado”), Stephanie Kuehn (“The Tell-Tale Heart”), Emily Lloyd-Jones (“The Purloined Letter”), Hillary Monahan (“The Masque of the Red Death”), Marieke Nijkamp (“Hop-Frog”), Caleb Roehrig (“The Pit and the Pendulum”), and Fran Wilde (“The Fall of the House of Usher”).

Review: I’ve been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe since grade school when I read “The Raven” and “The Tell Tale Heart” in my free time. It was truly the first indication that I was going to shift into full on Goth in high school. His melancholic writings and nerve wracking imagery is still very effective, and while it does have some dated elements it can’t be denied that he has had a huge influence on American Horror writing to this day.

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Super relatable in so many ways too. (source)

I still hold him and his works near and dear to my heart, even if I haven’t read as many as I thought I had. I came to this realization as I read “His Hideous Heart”, a collection of new YA interpretations of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous works, edited by Dahlia Adler. I bought this book for my Kindle, as I was so excited to read it I really didn’t want to wait before I could get it in my hands. The group of YA authors selected was really the icing on the cake, as it includes some of my favorites like Stephanie Kuehn and Tiffany D. Jackson. A group of authors coming from lots of backgrounds and experiences to update some of the stories from the OG Creep Master of American Literature? It can’t get better than that! Like with most Short Story collections I am going to talk about my three favorite works, and then give a summation of the collection as a whole.

“Night-Tide” (based on “Annabel Lee”) by Tessa Gratton

The poem “Annabelle Lee” has made me cry many times in my life. It’s about the death of a young woman and her husband who has been left behind to mourn her, and is most likely based on Poe’s own wife Virginia who tied of tuberculosis. Tessa Gratton takes this always upsetting story theme and twists it up in many positive ways. She changes it into a prose narrative instead of a poem, sets in in a historical fiction timeline, and makes the two lovers two young women who are living in a time where gay romance and love is never going to be accepted. Annabel Lee and Jackie have spent summers at the resort of Kingdom by the Sea and became close friends. But the summer she’s sixteen Jackie arrives to find out that Annabel has passed away of illness, and that Annabel’s family blames Jackie because of their ‘close friendship’ and the sin it was. As Jackie tries to come to terms with her friend’s death, and to try to come to terms with the guilt that she is feeling because of it. Like the poem there are no happy endings here, but it makes the sadness of the poem all the more emotional, as Jackie has to live with the guilt that others and society has placed upon here merely because she and Annabel Lee were in love. And, like it’s inspiration, it made me cry as well.

“The Glittering Death” (based on “The Pit and the Pendulum”) by Caleb Roehrig

“The Pit and the Pendulum” is a tense and scary read where a prisoner is being psychologically and physically tortured during the Spanish Inquisition. Caleb Roehrig, however, subverts that into a modern retelling involving a serial killer, a teenage girl, and misogyny. Laura finds herself the newest victim of a murderer called The Judge, who kidnaps and tortures young women for the sins he’s perceived they’ve committed. Laura has to figure out how to survive the situation and escape. This was probably my favorite story in the collection, as Roehrig does a GREAT job of drawing comparisons between his zealous and woman hating serial killer and the forces that were behind The Spanish Inquisition, showing how repression, misogyny, and religious fundamentalism can instigate violence. Laura as a main character was spunky and tough, and the tension of her imprisonment and her plans for escape had me on the edge of my seat. It’s definitely the scariest story in this book, and I thought that it really found the heart of the source material and cleverly applied it.

“Happy Days, Sweetheart” (based on “The Tell-Tale Heart”) by Stephanie Kuehn

One of Poe’s most famous stories is “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and it’s about jealousy pushing someone to murder, and the guilt that drives the murderer insane. Leave it to Stephanie Kuehn to take that and make something totally different, all while finding the deeper themes and applying them perfectly. An unnamed high school girl has been living in the shadow of Jonah, a charismatic but mediocre white guy at their boarding school. She has always worked hard to be the best, but being a bi-racial girl from outside their community has always kept her down. But now she has a plan to finally become number one, to finally get the praise and recognition she deserves. I LOVED how Kuehn took the idea of women (especially women of color) having to work harder and do more to get the same recognition that a white man gets just by existing, and how that frustration can turn into an all encompassing anger. While it’s true our narrator eventually takes it to extremes (as one would have to with the source material), I still felt that Kuehn drew out her motivations in a way that I found incredibly relatable in a lot of ways. Kuehn is one of my favorite authors, and her contribution to this collection knocked it out of the park to be sure.

And there were a lot of other really strong stories that I didn’t mention! “His Hideous Heart” covers a wide range of genres, and most of the segments were all very strong in their own ways. Even the ones that I didn’t end up caring for as much were more based on the genres they fell in as opposed to the content. There are so many strong authors here, and they all did their very best to do justice to Poe’s original works, with many of them succeeding. But wait, there’s even more to sing the praises of! “His Hideous Heart” not only has these thirteen original stories, it also includes the original works by Poe! So if you aren’t familiar with the source material, you have direct access to it. LOVED that!

“His Hideous Heart” was a great short stories collection. If you are a Poe fan you should read it, and if you aren’t familiar with Poe this is the perfect introduction to the original works AND the updates. And hey, it’s almost Halloween. This is just the book to read this time of year.

Rating 8: A well done and well updated collection of stories that pay homage to Poe, “His Hideous Heart” is an enjoyable read and the perfect book for the Halloween season.

Reader’s Advisory:

“His Hideous Heart” is included on the Goodreads lists “Edgar Allan Poe in YA & Middle Grade Fiction”, and “The Unlikable Female Characters Podcast”.

Find “His Hideous Heart” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Institute”

43798285Book: “The Institute” by Stephen King

Publishing Info: Scribner, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: From #1 New York Times bestselling author Stephen King, the most riveting and unforgettable story of kids confronting evil since It—publishing just as the second part of It, the movie, lands in theaters.

In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”

In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help. But no one has ever escaped from the Institute.

As psychically terrifying as Firestarter, and with the spectacular kid power of It, The Institute is Stephen King’s gut-wrenchingly dramatic story of good vs. evil in a world where the good guys don’t always win.

Review: Whenever a new book I really want to read is about to come out, I try to get myself positioned high on the request list at the library. When this doesn’t work, I will make sure it’s going to be available at my former job on the day it comes out, as copies from that branch don’t go to the request list. And then once it’s publication day, if I can I will rush to that branch before opening, and become that patron that I used to kvetch about: the one who hangs out outside before the doors open and rushes the new wall as soon as they do. This made it so I got a copy of Stephen King’s “The Institute” at the library the day it came out, and yeah, I was a bit of a sore winner when I snagged it off the display. We are kind of in the midst of a King Renaissance right now, from new books to adaptations of his works in movie theaters and on TV and computer screens. I’m always going to be stoked for anything King related, and he has so much content to explore that you have a lot to work with. Unfortunately, on the flip side of that is the fact that not everything is going to be a winner, and “The Institute”, for me, was not a winner.

But like usual, we’ll start with the good. Even in books he’s written that don’t quite click with me, I am almost always happy with the way that King portrays childhood experiences and childhood friendships. From “It” to “The Body”/”Stand By Me”, the way that he can capture the innocence and yet importance of these childhood bonds and put them on the page is almost always incredibly effective. He brings this talent to “The Institute”, as whenever he focuses on Luke Ellis, Kalisha, and the other child prisoners it feels like you’re seeing real kids interacting with each other. I was worried that the innate precociousness of the children, especially super genius Luke, would stunt the dialogue and relationships, but I greatly enjoyed all of them whether they were playing, scheming, or mourning. While I didn’t feel like I got to know all of them as deeply as I got to know The Losers Club or the four boys who went looking for a dead body, I still liked seeing the glimpses into the relationships that we did, as it was always entertaining. With a resurgence in popularity of ‘kids solving mysteries/fighting back against more powerful entities’ because of “Stranger Things”, I definitely get tapping back into that kind of tale. It is also very hard to deny that, given the horrific reality that children are being imprisoned in cages at the Southern Border, some of the themes are all the more resonant in this story. King does a good job of drawing comparisons without treading into distaste, and given that I’m sure this book had already been submitted to the publisher before some of the more recent developments I definitely couldn’t help but connect his story to the horrible things our Government is doing. Especially as the slow reveal of The Institute’s true intentions is carefully peeled back. Plus, the pacing was well done and it never felt slow, so it was mostly entertaining.

The reason that this doesn’t get a higher score from me is because “The Institute”, while being entertaining, didn’t quite evoke the emotions I have come to want from Stephen King novels. Yes, the concept is horrible and scary, and there were certainly thrilling aspects of the plot as we reach the end, but I never felt the actual tension, elation, sadness, and fear. For whatever reason it just didn’t connect with me. I think that part of it was that this felt less like a horror novel and more like a conspiracy thriller, and while that’s fine and I generally like a good conspiracy thriller, this one just didn’t quite click. And I think the other part I already kind of touched on earlier, in that while I liked the characters and the relationships they had with each other (the kids especially), I don’t think that we got to know them well enough for me to really connect with them. And if I’m not as connected, I’m not as invested. I don’t think “The Institute” was a bad read by any definition, but if a book falls into these traps that I’ve mentioned, I’m just not going to enjoy it as much.

I’m so happy that Stephen King is still writing, and that he’s getting all kinds of attention right now. While “The Institute” was a miss, the man is still my favorite horror author of all time. And given that there’s already rumors of this book being adapted into yet another TV series based on King source material, it may be in your interest to give it a go regardless of what I thought!

Rating 6: While “The Institute” was an entertaining read and had its moments and details that I liked, overall it fell a little flat for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Institute”, surprisingly, isn’t included on many relevant or specific Goodreads lists. But I think that it would fit in on “Conspiracy Fiction”, and “Books like Stranger Things”.

Find “The Institute” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Full Throttle”

43801817Book: “Full Throttle” by Joe Hill

Publishing Info: William Morrow, October 2019

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

Book Description: In this masterful collection of short fiction, Joe Hill dissects timeless human struggles in thirteen relentless tales of supernatural suspense, including “In The Tall Grass,” one of two stories co-written with Stephen King, basis for the terrifying feature film from Netflix.

A little door that opens to a world of fairy tale wonders becomes the blood-drenched stomping ground for a gang of hunters in “Faun.” A grief-stricken librarian climbs behind the wheel of an antique Bookmobile to deliver fresh reads to the dead in “Late Returns.” In “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain,” two young friends stumble on the corpse of a plesiosaur at the water’s edge, a discovery that forces them to confront the inescapable truth of their own mortality . . . and other horrors that lurk in the water’s shivery depths. And tension shimmers in the sweltering heat of the Nevada desert as a faceless trucker finds himself caught in a sinister dance with a tribe of motorcycle outlaws in “Throttle,” co-written with Stephen King.

Featuring two previously unpublished stories, and a brace of shocking chillers, Full Throttle is a darkly imagined odyssey through the complexities of the human psyche. Hypnotic and disquieting, it mines our tormented secrets, hidden vulnerabilities, and basest fears, and demonstrates this exceptional talent at his very best.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending my an eARC of this book!

Happy Horrorpalooza 2019 everyone! As you may know, in October I try to stick to books that have horror based or Halloween-y themes, as this is absolutely my favorite time of the year and I like to inundate myself with all things scary and spooky. So how lucky are we that we get to kick off the month with a book from one of my favorite horror authors, Joe Hill. Hill is one of those authors that I will always swear my devotion to, and so when I found out that he had a new short stories collection coming out I was stoked as heck. Granted, I had already read a few of the tales in “Full Throttle”, his new collection, as they had been published previously with other collections or in collaboration with his father, Stephen King. But a majority of the tales were new to me, and I couldn’t wait to tackle them all. As per usual with short stories collections, I’ll talk about my favorites, and then give an overall review of the series as a whole. And I have lots to say about my favorites.

“Dark Carousel”

This story is one of the most blatantly horror-centric tales in the collection, and it has a good amount of winking and nudging towards well loved tropes and stories in the genre. With nods towards “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, I took great delight in this creepy tale. Four friends attend a carnival and take a ride on the carousel. After they accuse the carousel operator of wrongdoing, they decide to have some fun and take their revenge on him. But little do they know that they are being watched by non-human eyes, and that their misdeeds will have dire consequences. I really, really loved this story, from the characterizations of our protagonists to the slow build of dread at the carnival and afterwards, and the come down that has ambiguity and a sense of inevitability. The loving references to “Something Wicked This Way Comes” were fun to spot, and the overall wrongness of the carnival and the carousel made for an eerie and unsettling, yet never over the top, scary story. The story isn’t terribly complicated, but it is very effective in what it is trying to achieve. The best horror story in the collection for me, hands down.

“By The Silver Waters of Lake Champlain”

This was one of the stories I had read previously before picking up this book, but given how much I loved it the first time I was excited (and apprehensive) to read it again. But on a second go through, my love for the story only grew, and it is probably my favorite story in the collection. Friends Gail and Joel are visiting Lake Champlain on vacation, and one lazy Sunday morning the two of them find the body of what looks to be a plesiosaur-like reptile. Convinced it’s the famed lake monster Champ, they have dreams that their discovery will make them rich and famous. But instead of fame and glory, they have to confront the hard truths of growing up, loss, and mortality. I first read this story a few years ago, and it blew me away and left me crying. Reading it this time and knowing how it all ends made the experience all the more bittersweet. Hill has the ability to capture tween and teenage voices in authentic ways, and he also knows how to give hints to his characters realities without being explicit. We can surmise that Gail and Joel are both a bit lonely at home, and that their parents, at least during this story, are more focused on nursing vacation hangovers than on their children and what they are getting up to on a foggy morning by the lake. Gail and Joel are probably friends more based on circumstance than anything else, but that doesn’t make their friendship any less valid, nor does it cheapen the ultimate ending this story has. They are connected by interest in the Lake Champlain Monster as well, and honestly anything that shows weird and funny friendship obsessions with cryptids is going to resonate with me, given my past (and present) fascinations with similar topics. But on top of that, for me this is one of the most emotionally charged stories in the bunch (one of the others will be addressed in a moment). Hill is so good at writing grief and trauma, and the last paragraphs are still haunting and incredibly emotional. This is a story that I would LOVE to see expanded into a novel, where Gail goes back to the lake to try to get answers and closure. And even on the second read through I was left a bit emotionally compromised. Nay, extremely emotionally compromised.

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Actual footage of my emotions at the end. (source)

“Late Returns”

I will wholeheartedly own up to the fact that as a librarian I was no doubt going to be biased towards this story. A new librarian, trying to escape his own grief and loss, takes over the Bookmobile job in hopes of spreading the love of reading to people who can’t necessarily make it into the actual library. As he makes the rounds, he starts to encounter people from other times, who may need to read books that were published after their deaths in order to feel complete. This is one of the less creepy or scary stories from the collection, and the unabashed love of reading and the testament to the power of a book is so sublime and wholesome. Hill also tinkers and plays with the idea of time and space continuums in this story in really unique ways. For example, should one of these ‘late returns’ (the name given to the out of time patrons) pick up a book that was published after their death, it may be indecipherable to them if they shouldn’t be reading it. But it will also morph it’s design to fit the design of the era the person was from. It’s little details like these that feel original and incredibly clever. On top of that, we get more emotional moments for some of the characters, from our protagonist processing his own grief to one late return whose son is fighting in Vietnam, and she doesn’t know if she will ever see him again. Again, while I love the scares and thrills that Hill creates, it’s how he taps into the human condition and all its complexities that makes him stand out.

As for the rest of the collection, most if the stories are strong in their own ways. The two collaborations with his Dad show how well they work together, though I will say that “In The Tall Grass” (another I’d read previously) sort of makes me feel like they were trying to one up each other in the shocks department (and I ultimately didn’t really care for it when all was said and done). It is a good balance of a number of genres, and they all fit together even if they aren’t explicitly connected. At the end he has little background notes about how each came to be written, and I thought that gave them even more context which enhanced the reading experience.

“Full Throttle” is a perfectly compiled collection of Hill’s various offerings, and if you want a taste of what he can do, you have a smorgasbord to choose from.

Rating 8: A solid collection of horror, thriller, and dark fantasy, “Full Throttle” has scares and heart and confirms Joe Hill’s prowess as an author of many genres.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Full Throttle” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror to Look Forward To in 2019”.

Find “Full Throttle” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Bonfire”

33876540Book: “Bonfire” by Krysten Ritter

Publishing Info: Hutchinson, November 2017

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

Book Description: Should you ever go back?

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

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

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

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

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

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Keep it up, queen! (source)

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

Find “Bonfire” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Night Before”

40867676Book: “The Night Before” by Wendy Walker

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

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: First dates can be murder. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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