Kate’s Review: “The House Across the Lake”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “The House Across the Lake” by Riley Sager

Publishing Info: Dutton, June 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: It looks like a familiar story: A woman reeling from a great loss with too much time on her hands and too much booze in her glass watches her neighbors, sees things she shouldn’t see, and starts to suspect the worst. But looks can be deceiving. . . .

Casey Fletcher, a recently widowed actress trying to escape a streak of bad press, has retreated to her family’s lake house in Vermont. Armed with a pair of binoculars and several bottles of liquor, she passes the time watching Tom and Katherine Royce, the glamorous couple living in the house across the lake. Everything about the Royces seems perfect. Their marriage. Their house. The bucolic lake it sits beside. But when Katherine suddenly vanishes, Casey becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her. In the process, she discovers the darker truths lurking just beneath the surface of the Royces’ picture-perfect marriage. Truths no suspicious voyeur could begin to imagine–even with a few drinks under her belt.

Like Casey, you’ll think you know where this story is headed. Think again. Because once you open the door to obsession, you never know what you might find on the other side.

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

One of the things that is a complete tell that I’m a Minnesotan is that I LOVE going to a lake house for a getaway. There is nothing more relaxing to me than sitting on a lounge chair on a deck with lake water lapping a few yards away (loon calls optional but even better). But as a consumer of horror and thriller media, I am also well aware that sometimes a lake house setting can be looming and dangerous (most recently the film “The Night House” has really hit that point home), and I kept thinking about that movie as I read Riley Sager’s newest thriller “The House Across the Lake”. You know me, as much as I love the relaxation a situation can bring, I also love seeing that situation skewed into something a bit more menacing in the stories I consume, and Sager definitely made that happen by way of shades of “Rear Window” and “The Girl on the Train”.

One of the things I like best about Riley Sager is that, for me, his generally always female protagonists almost always ring true in how he portrays and writes them. I remember being surprised when I found out that Sager is not, in fact, a woman author, because his protagonists do feel realistic to me in their behaviors and experiences. Our newest is Casey, an actress and recent widow who has turned to diving into a bottle to forget about what happened to her husband Len, and who has retreated to the family lake home to escape the tabloid spotlight of her booze fueled antics. While she drinks, she watches the sparse neighbors through a pair of binoculars, focusing on other people’s potential secrets so she can forget her own. Casey is supremely damaged with a well thought out backstory and tenuous relationships, so her reclusive lake house voyeurism is pretty easily believed. After befriending new neighbor Katherine, a model and wife to a tech start up mogul, who almost drowned in the lake had Casey not been there to save her, she is drawn to Katherine’s seemingly perfect life… Especially when it seems that her veneer, too, is cracking. What follows seems like a pretty standard thriller trope: an unreliable protagonist thinks that her neighbor has been murdered by her husband, and starts to obsess over it. Sager is so good at taking a pretty well worn story (again, “Rear Window”-esque, which is referenced in this book as if acknowledging the inspiration) and making it feel fresh. Casey is a very messy character, but I found her to be sympathetic and explored enough that she doesn’t seem melodramatic or treading towards unrealistic and sexist tropes. Her friendship with older neighbor Eli is a nice grounding force, and while her potential budding romance with new neighbor (and sober) Boone is a bit cloying, it has its place and adds a non judgmental foil to her very ingrained issues without deriding them. Their investigation of Katherine’s disappearance and potential murder is suspenseful and full of some well done beats and plot twists.

But we are once again in a situation where one of the things I liked best about this book is something that I can’t talk about because it’s a pretty significant spoiler that needs to be kept under wraps for the full effect to be appreciated. So I’m going to gush about Sager’s slight of hand and earned twists in the vaguest terms possible. Sager has had various twists in his books that have had a varying degree of success in surprising me, and the big surprise in “The House Across the Lake” really caught me off guard. I thought that I had figured out what he was doing, as a matter of fact, scoffing to myself and saying ‘oh I know what’s going on, ho hum’ and feeling pretty good about myself and my twist sniffing prowess. But then I was completely fleeced, and when the ACTUAL thing was revealed, I actually hooted in glee. I even went back to look and see if the set up was there, and it was. It was super well disguised, but it was, indeed, there. You got me!

You sly dog, Mr. Sager! (source)

“The House Across the Lake” was yet another fun thriller from Riley Sager, and the PERFECT read to take to the lake with you this summer!

Rating 8: Entertaining, surprising, and unsettling, “The House Across the Lake” is another page turner from Riley Sager!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The House Across the Lake” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2022”.

Kate’s Review: “Never Coming Home”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Never Coming Home” by Kate Williams

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, June 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: The beach read you have been dying for! When ten of America’s hottest teenage influencers are invited to an exclusive island resort, things are sure to get wild. But murder isn’t what anyone expected. Will anyone survive?

Everyone knows Unknown Island—it’s the world’s most exclusive destination. Think white sand beaches, turquoise seas, and luxury accommodations. Plus, it’s invite only, no one over twenty-one allowed, and it’s absolutely free. Who wouldn’t want to go?

After launching with a showstopping viral marketing campaign, the whole world is watching as the mysterious resort opens its doors to the First Ten, the ten elite influencers specifically chosen to be the first to experience everything Unknown Island has to offer. You know them. There’s the gamer, the beauty blogger, the rich girl, the superstar, the junior politician, the environmentalist, the DJ, the CEO, the chef, and the athlete.

What they don’t know is that they weren’t invited to Unknown Island for their following—they were invited for their secrets. Everyone is hiding a deadly one, and it looks like someone’s decided it’s payback time. Unknown Island isn’t a vacation, it’s a trap. And it’s beginning to look like the First Ten—no matter how influential—are never coming home.

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

I have various weaknesses in my entertainment, and one of those weaknesses is how I love to revel in schadenfreude of people who are kind of assholes. Especially if said assholes have influence and power and could stand to be knocked down a few pegs. I absolutely devoured both Fyre Festival documentaries and thoroughly enjoyed watching start up scam dramas like “The Dropout” and “WeCrashed”. So when I read about “Never Coming Home” by Kate Williams, and how it was taking a number of influencers, luring them to a remote island with a promise of luxury and a status resort, and then picking them off one by one because of their secrets, I was so interested. But once I started reading it, I realized that this wasn’t going to be what I wanted it to be. Which was super disappointing.

I’ll start with the positives. Namely, as someone who appreciates a good slasher movie with some creativity under its belt, “Never Coming Home” has some really gnarly kills. Why limit oneself to mere poisonings and moments that could be accidents when you could use bees (VERY “Sleepaway Camp”), or full on mutilation, or explosive bodily fluids out of various orifices (admittedly, I did not care for this one as it was way gross)? Williams clearly had a fun time thinking of nasty deaths for the various nasty players, and that I can and will tip my hat off to. And there is so much potential here. The whole concept of Influencers being taken to a Fyre Festival-esque hoax that is really a trap to pick each of them off is just SO tantalizing!

God DAMMIT I wanted this to rock SO BADLY! (source)

But now let’s talk about the negatives. Firstly, the characters. I know that there are definitely limitations on how much attention you can pay to each character in a “And Then There Were None” kind of story, since you have a big victim pool and only so many pages unless you want to go “War and Peace” in terms of length. But in “Never Coming Home”, I didn’t feel like I got to know anyone very well, and what we did see were very two dimensional and tropey characterizations for almost everyone. You had the cartoon villainy of a scheming CEO to the poor little princess rich girl to the superstar with more depth than people realize, and with maybe one or two exceptions, none of them stretched beyond their archetypes. No one was very likable or even fun to hate, and since they all get picked off one by one it felt like a slasher movie cast but without the suspense. Even a good slasher movie will give you something in SOME of the characters so that you have investment in them while others are just there to be meat sacks. This book didn’t give us much of that. I know that I’m absolutely not the target audience, but I would like to give teen readers a little more credit than this.

I also had a hard time suspending a lot of my disbelief when it came to some of these characters and their influencer, well, influence. They’re all under twenty but are wunderkinds in one way or another in ways that feel half baked. Be it the woman-centric email start up to the character who was listed as being a former Minneapolis City Council member on the ‘cast of characters’ reference page (and he’s under twenty?! IN WHAT WARD I ASK YOU? There’s been a LOT about the Minneapolis City Council and its dynamics and members in the news here in the Metro as of late and I just don’t believe this kid pulled a Ben Wyatt in MINNEAPOLIS), I couldn’t swallow it. I just couldn’t. Perhaps had they been aged up a bit it would have rang more true, but then it wouldn’t fit as a YA novel, I suppose.

And finally, I hate it when a book feels a need to just write the entire solution out instead of showing us the way. And “Never Coming Home” has an entire last section that does exactly that. It just spells out who the killer is, how they got away with it, and what their motivation was. I’m not saying that I needed a villain monologue or anything like that, but this is the second “And Then There Were None” retelling that did this. Given that I haven’t read “And Then There Were None” I could be missing something. Is that how the solution comes through in “And Then There Were None”? That could be more forgivable if so, but the problem is that it still feels like a great big info dump that brings the story’s pacing to a screeching halt.

“Never Coming Home” was a big ol’ let down. Again, I’m not the target audience so I very well may be missing the mark here, and it may go over better with others. But I was just disappointed by this one.

Rating 4: This just didn’t work for me. Between the underdeveloped characters and the overdone premise it failed to capture my interest.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Never Coming Home” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “‘And Then There Were None’ Trope Novels”.

Kate’s Review: “56 Days”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “56 Days” by Catherine Ryan Howard

Publishing Info: Blackstone Publishing, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: No one knew they’d moved in together. Now one of them is dead. Could this be the perfect murder?

56 DAYS AGO
Ciara and Oliver meet in a supermarket queue in Dublin the same week Covid-19 reaches Irish shores
.

35 DAYS AGO
When lockdown threatens to keep them apart, Oliver suggests that Ciara move in with him. She sees a unique opportunity for a new relationship to flourish without the pressure of scrutiny of family and friends. He sees it as an opportunity to hide who – and what – he really is.

TODAY
Detectives arrive at Oliver’s apartment to discover a decomposing body inside. Will they be able to determine what really happened, or has lockdown provided someone with the opportunity to commit the perfect crime?

Review: Let’s talk a little bit about the synchronicity of the universe. I’ve had “56 Days” sitting on my book pile for a few months, as it was an impulse purchase at a book store on a solo trip up north. I knew I was going to get to it, though part of me was like ‘eughhhh, I don’t know, we’re still in this pandemic, am I really ready to read a book about COVID?’ But I cast my doubts aside, as it was goading me just sitting there, and I picked it up….

And not two days later, upon returning from a business trip where he took every precaution he could, my husband brought home COVID and infected the whole house.

To say I was livid is an understatement. (source)

Luckily it was pretty mild for me, the husband, and the toddler. But as I was wallowing in my anxiety I read “56 Days”, thinking that sometimes things come full circle in the stupidest ways. That said, my own COVID experience didn’t dampen my reading experience! “56 Days” was a fun read, in spite of my real life mirroring of it.

Catherine Ryan Howard’s thriller has the perfect setting for a mysterious murder: in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic during lockdown in Dublin. Oliver and Ciara have only been dating for a short while, but when the threat of not seeing each other for two weeks looms he asks her to move in. All we know at first is that a decomposing body is found in their shared apartment. We don’t know who it is. Then we jump around in time and perspectives, going back to when Oliver and Ciara first started dating, to the midst of lockdown as paranoia and stir craziness may be kicking in, to the investigation itself. As we jump from Ciara’s perspective, where she is tentative about her getting closer to Oliver but a little excited to, to Oliver’s, who has things that he’s hiding from her, we slowly peel back a larger mystery and a few potential motivations for murder. Now in the U.S. we didn’t have full on lockdowns like Europe did; Minnesota had a ‘stay at home’ order, but it wasn’t a strictly enforced mandate. So while I can’t REALLY speak to the stir craziness that Howard was trying to convey, I get the sense that it was probably aptly portrayed. And as you’re reading the story and know that SOMEONE is going to end up dead, well, that just adds to the tension. Especially when you aren’t totally certain as to why.

And there were a few twists and turns that truly caught me off guard! I was so surprised by one in particular that I had to go back and see if Howard had pulled it out of thin air, or if she had done the due diligence and I had just missed it because her deflection was so well done. It was definitely the latter, and it’s a masterful example of how to pull off such a misdirect in this kind of story. I also think that some of the surprises and twists did a little subverting of what was expected, which I really liked. I’m obviously not going to elaborate, but I will say that some of the pivots from my general expectations were welcomed (while one was maybe a little too much; you all know how I feel about too many pivots or too many twists, I have a hard time getting on board).

And honestly, going back to the beginning of this post, reading this book while having COVID was surreal, but kind of interesting. Again, whatever cases we had were pretty mild, so I was lucky that I am able to say that this felt more like an exercise in novelty and nothing worse than that. But don’t go get COVID just to read this book and have the same experience. I can’t imagine it enhances it too much!

“56 Days” is a fun mystery thriller with a structure I liked and some pretty good surprises. While it was frustrating that COVID did come for my house before we were totally ready for it, at least I had an interesting book to read in those early moments.

Rating 8: Twisty and told in an interesting structure, “56 Days” was the perfect read for being holed up with COVID. I don’t recommend the COVID aspect, but I recommend the book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“56 Days” is included on the Goodreads lists “COVID-19 Pandemic Books”, and “Popsugar 2022 #25: A Book About A Secret”.

Kate’s Review: “The Book of Cold Cases”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “The Book of Cold Cases” by Simone St. James

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: In 1977, Claire Lake, Oregon, was shaken by the Lady Killer Murders: Two men, seemingly randomly, were murdered with the same gun, with strange notes left behind. Beth Greer was the perfect suspect–a rich, eccentric twenty-three-year-old woman, seen fleeing one of the crimes. But she was acquitted, and she retreated to the isolation of her mansion.

Oregon, 2017. Shea Collins is a receptionist, but by night, she runs a true crime website, the Book of Cold Cases–a passion fueled by the attempted abduction she escaped as a child. When she meets Beth by chance, Shea asks her for an interview. To Shea’s surprise, Beth says yes.

They meet regularly at Beth’s mansion, though Shea is never comfortable there. Items move when she’s not looking, and she could swear she’s seen a girl outside the window. The allure of learning the truth about the case from the smart, charming Beth is too much to resist, but even as they grow closer, Shea senses something isn’t right. Is she making friends with a manipulative murderer, or are there other dangers lurking in the darkness of the Greer house?

A true crime blogger gets more than she bargained for while interviewing the woman acquitted of two cold case slayings in this chilling new novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Sun Down Motel.

Review: I am now at the point in my librarian and blogging career that I lose titles that I would normally be super into amongst the books that I want to read. Whether it’s for blog purposes or keeping my RA skills up, I am always looking for books to add to the pile, and then others tend to shuffle through long past their release date. This is what happened with “The Book of Cold Cases” by Simone St. James, and author that I generally like and would normally be putting on my radar earlier than a few months past the release date. Well thank you, Book of the Month Club, because had you not had this book as a selection of that month I probably would have ended up on a hold list and then not gotten to this book until much later. Which would have been a bummer, because “The Book of Cold Cases” combines true crime blogger themes with a 1970s murder case that scandalized a town, as well as a perhaps supernatural presence within the accused murderess’s house. All things that I’m super into.

The story is told through the perspectives of present day Shea, true crime obsessive due to her processing (or not processing) of her own traumatic incident in her past, and past Beth, an accused murderer who was acquitted and who is more than the media and the community sees her as. When Shea meets Beth randomly and asks to interview her for her armchair sleuthing blog, Beth surprises her with a ‘yes’, and then Shea starts to investigate the Lady Killer Murders that Beth seemingly got away with. I liked seeing Shea go on her own investigation and how it is supplemented by the slow reveals of Beth’s past as we see what she was going through during the scrutiny and police investigation/trial back in the 1970s. It’s a device we’ve seen before but St. James does it well. We slowly get more and more information about both women and what their motivations are, and they are both interesting and complex enough that I was invested in finding out what Beth was hiding, and if Shea was going to find herself in trouble as she starts to unravel it all. I found Shea especially fascinating as a character, as while it may have been easy to just paint her as a true crime weirdo, St. James instead brings her own victimization into the formula and makes it less a morbid hobby and more of a coping mechanism (and honestly, I think that for a number of true crime fans there is a bit of anxiety processing and trauma processing that goes into the fascination with the genre). And as for Beth, I liked how St. James picks apart misogyny of the media and society when it comes to the portrayals of women in crime cases like this.

Though there were some things that didn’t really work for me. The problem is, I can’t really talk too much about them here without going into serious spoiler territory. What I will say is that we get a device about half way through the story that made it a bit less interesting for me, as it makes Beth a little less interesting as a whole. And the other issue is that, like other Simone St. James books, there is an element of the supernatural here. I generally like how St. James incorporates ghost stories into her books, and it isn’t that I didn’t like it here, because I did. I think that the problem is that in this story it didn’t really feel like it was needed, and because of that it felt a bit forced into it. It doesn’t make it any less suspenseful, and I still tore through this book over the course of two days. But this time around it may not have been necessary to have that element to it.

At the end of the day, I was supremely entertained by “The Book of Cold Cases”! It’s summer now, and I do think that this would be a great beach or cabin read. It may even send a chill up your spine on a hot summer day.

Rating 7: Though some of the plot choices didn’t hit as hard for me, overall Simone St. James once again puts together a twisted and suspenseful horror-thriller story that I couldn’t put down!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Book of Cold Cases” is included on the Goodreads lists “2022 Horror Novels Written By Women and Non-Binary Femmes”, and “The Most Anticipated Mysteries and Thrillers of 2022”.

Kate’s Review: “Chloe Cates Is Missing”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Chloe Cates Is Missing” by Mandy McHugh

Publishing Info: Scarlet, February 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: The disappearance of a young internet celebrity ignites a firestorm of speculation on social media, and to find her a detective will have to extinguish the blaze.

Chloe Cates is missing. The 13-year-old star of the hit YouTube series, “CC and Me,” has disappeared, and nobody knows where she’s gone — least of all ruthless momager Jennifer Scarborough, who has spent much of her daughter’s young life crafting a child celebrity persona that is finally beginning to pay off. And in Chloe’s absence, the faux-fairytale world that supported that persona begins to fracture, revealing secrets capable of reducing the highly-dysfunctional Scarborough family to rubble.

Anxious to find her daughter and preserve the life she’s worked so hard to build, Jennifer turns to social media for help, but the hearsay, false claims, and salacious suspicions only multiply. As the search becomes as sensational as Chloe’s series, Missing Persons detective Emilina Stone steps in, only to realize she has a connection to this case herself. Will she be able to stay objective and cut through the rumors to find the truth before it’s too late?

Told from multiple points of view including Jennifer, Emilina, and pages from Chloe’s lost diary, Chloe Cates Is Missing is a suspenseful novel of a child pushed to the brink, and of the troubled family that desperately needs her back.

Review: Have you ever been in a situation where you have a book on your radar that you are super interested in, and are super looking forward to, but once you do get your hands on it it just keeps getting bumped in favor of more pressing books? This is what happened with me and “Chloe Cates Is Missing” by Mandy McHugh. It seriously has so many tidbits and plot points that are my catnip. You have a missing girl, you have a ‘social media is a dangerous sea’ theme, you have an overbearing perhaps insidious mother figure, and you have a dour lady cop with baggage and a secret. Like, holy cats, so many things! So when I finally sat down and said to myself ‘IT IS TIME!’, I had high hopes due to building anticipation due to my own poor book time management and rambling promises of finally getting down to it.

When all is said and done, I found “Chloe Cates Is Missing” to be an addictive read. I basically sat down and read it over a couple of nights, or during my kid’s nap time, becoming fully and totally immersed in the mystery and the layers and layers of drama. We follow multiple perspectives to tell the story of the missing influencer/blog personality, thirteen year old Chloe Cates, real name Abby Scarborough. The first is that of her mom/momager Jennifer, whose obsession with the blog and how it has made her daughter Internet famous has caused severe damage to her family relationships. The second is Jackson, Jennifer’s husband/Abby’s Dad, who has gone along with the blog due to not wanting to anger his wife, no matter how much Abby is being hurt by it. The third is Emilina Stone, the detective assigned to the missing child case, who also has a distant connection to Jennifer (and a shared secret they both want to keep hidden). And finally we also get the perspective of Abby/Chloe herself, through diary entries. It’s a tried and true device, but I enjoyed how McHugh would use it to jump a little bit through the timeline, either to a few minutes before where one perspective left off, or back years and years, and how that added to the breakneck pacing. It was also a good way to misdirect or distract the reader, as we’d cut off one moment and jump to a whole new one, and I liked that strategy.

The characters themselves are a bit familiar in terms of the archetypes they represent. Emilinia is probably the most fleshed out, as her job as a detective means she has to deal with a lot of bleak and dark things, which has made her question the goodness of the world around her, as well as whether or not she would want to foist the darkness of the world on those she loves and cares for. But there is also a whole other dynamic of her having this job, which comes back to her relationship with Jennifer. No spoilers here, but I will say that the two of them share a secret, and Emilina’s choice of work may be a way of trying to atone. Jennifer, on the other hand, is pretty over the top villainous here. At first it seemed that there may have been a little bit of nuance to her character, giving her perspective of how alienating and uncomfortable being a new mother can be, but that went out the window pretty quickly. I don’t have a problem with having an antagonist you love to hate, as it’s entertaining as hell and makes for even more addictive reading, so it worked for me in the end.

I will say, however, that there was another big twist right at the last minute, as has been seen in so many thriller novels and always bugs me a bit. This almost certainly comes down to personal preference in storytelling, but it still made the read end on a bit of a sour note just because it shifted things so quickly right before the last moments. We don’t need to have one final gotcha! There were plenty of satisfying gotchas!

So outside of an ending that frustrated me, I found “Chloe Cates Is Missing” to be a very quick and fun read. I waited so long, and it was worth the wait.

Rating 7: The ending was a little bit of a dime’s turn switch for me, but man was I along for the ride up until that point.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Chloe Cates Is Missing” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2022”.

Kate’s Review: “Like a Sister”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Like a Sister” by Kellye Garrett

Publishing Info: Mulholland Books, March 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: A twisty, voice-driven thriller for fans of Megan Miranda and Jessica Knoll, in which no one bats an eye when a Black reality TV star is found dead in the Bronx—except her estranged half-sister, whose refusal to believe the official story leads her on a dangerous search for the truth.

When the body of disgraced reality TV star Desiree Pierce is found on a playground in the Bronx the morning after her 25th birthday party, the police and the media are quick to declare her death an overdose. It’s a tragedy, certainly, but not a crime. But Desiree’s half-sister Lena Scott knows that can’t be the case. A graduate student at Columbia, Lena has spent the past decade forging her own path far from the spotlight, but some facts about Desiree just couldn’t have changed since their childhood. And Desiree would never travel above 125th Street. So why is no one listening to her?

Despite the bitter truth that the two haven’t spoken in two years, torn apart by Desiree’s partying and by their father, Mel, a wealthy and influential hip-hop mogul, Lena becomes determined to find justice for her sister, even if it means untangling her family’s darkest secrets—or ending up dead herself.

Review: Sometimes a good book can be a balm during very trying times. That has become abundantly clear during these past two years, though sometimes a fresh hell will be a good reminder of that, since this pandemic hell can sometimes fade into the background because it’s been with us for awhile (ugh, how depressing). My personal fresh hell was one of my cats having a sudden health spiral, and at nearly 18 years of age (14 of which were with me and my husband) we had to put her down. As her health deteriorated over the course of a few days, when I wasn’t tending to her and wrangling my toddler, on my down time I needed an escape. Enter “Like a Sister” by Kellye Garrett, a thriller mystery I got from Book of the Month that had been on my radar for a bit. It kept me well distracted and entertained when I really, really needed to decompress.

Garrett has a great set up for her mystery. Lena Scott finds out that her reality show star half sister Desiree has been found dead, in the Bronx, in lingerie, with signs of a drug overdoes. Though Lena has been estranged from her, she is struck with grief, and also refuses to believe that Desiree OD’d. So she starts to investigate what could have actually happened to her. That is a hook in and of itself, and we follow Lena as she has to unpack and untangle the complicated life her sister had built in the past few years. Garrett does a really good job of creating a hook, but also carefully exploring all of the suspects that Lena comes upon, as well as many of the things that Desiree had been up to that give various suspects very clear motives of why they would want her dead. I really enjoyed the twists and turns, and while I called a few of them here and there, a lot of the time I was surprised or tricked. We also get the story told through Lena’s voice, as well as through descriptions of various social media posts that Desiree has made that give hints as to what is going on, and I like how both could be insightful as well as deceptive. Lena as a main character is enjoyable to follow, and while sometimes her voice was repetitive I thought that she had a very clear perspective (I really liked how Garrett used this to talk about a lot of pressures as racism she faces as a Black woman; from having to don a ‘Strong Black Woman’ demeanor at all times to preconceptions about who she is as a person due to her race and her family, these moments flow very well and feel very realistic.

But I also really loved the complexities between all of the characters in Lena’s family circle, not just that between her and Desiree, and how her deliberate distancing from much of her family has worked both as armor and also as grief. Lena is determined to find out what happened to Desiree, unwilling to believe the narrative that seems logical, but is also bogged down in societal ideas about race and wealth. But Lena also admittedly didn’t really KNOW Desiree anymore in the months leading up to her death, as their estrangement was bitter, and perhaps this guilt is what is driving Lena’s determination. The other relationship that is fraught (and had more interaction in the moment) is the one between Lena and her father Mel, the record mogul, who left Lena’s mother for Desiree’s mother, and seemingly left Lena in the dust. Lena resents Mel and tries to keep her distance, but resents him for respecting that distance, and the unsaid resentment about his public relationship with Desiree weaves in and out of Lena’s investigation. Mel is one of the more mysterious characters, who sounds a lot like Suge Knight, but who has many depths that Lena can’t, or won’t, acknowledge. These circumstances of the estranged father and daughters means we have more mysteries to unravel for Lena, and a lot of emotional baggage to go with the murder mystery. Which Garrett depicts very well.

I really enjoyed “Like a Sister”. It’s very entertaining and will hold your attention, and if you’re looking for a thriller with some well done family strife, this is a good pick. It certainly helped me get through a very difficult week due to how darn enticing it is.

Rating 8: A gripping mystery that has complicated family relationships at the center, “Like a Sister” is a compelling thriller.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Like a Sister” is included on the Goodreads lists “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, & Thrillers 2022”, and “Thrillers by ITW Authors”.

Kate’s Review: “The Turnout”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “The Turnout” by Megan Abbott

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, August 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: The library!

Where You Can Get this Book: WorldCat | Amazon | IndieBound

Book Description: Bestselling and award-winning author Megan Abbott’s revelatory, mesmerizing, and game-changing new novel set against the hothouse of a family-run ballet studio, and an interloper who arrives to bring down the carefully crafted Eden-like facade.

Ballet flows through their veins. Dara and Marie Durant were dancers since birth, with their long necks and matching buns and pink tights, homeschooled and trained by their mother. Decades later the Durant School of Dance is theirs. The two sisters, together with Charlie, Dara’s husband and once their mother’s prize student, inherited the school after their parents died in a tragic accident nearly a dozen years ago. Marie, warm and soft, teaches the younger students; Dara, with her precision, trains the older ones; and Charlie, back broken after years of injuries, rules over the back office. Circling around each other, the three have perfected a dance, six days a week, that keeps the studio thriving. But when a suspicious accident occurs, just at the onset of the school’s annual performance of The Nutcracker, a season of competition, anxiety, and exhilaration, an interloper arrives and threatens the delicate balance of everything they’ve worked for.

Taut and unnerving, The Turnout is Megan Abbott at the height of her game. With uncanny insight and hypnotic writing, it is a sharp and strange dissection of family ties and sexuality, femininity and power, and a tale that is both alarming and irresistible.

Review: Megan Abbott is an author who I keep coming back to because of a couple good experiences. When I’ve liked her books, I’ve REALLY liked her books (titles like “The Fever” and “You Will Know Me” spring to mind), but when I haven’t they’ve clunked hard. And given that I have an undeniable love for ballet stories, especially if there is drama to be found along with the pas de deuxs, when I read the description for “The Turnout” I was absolutely down for giving it a go! Even if there was a bit of hesitation, wondering whether it would be landing more hot or cold, as with all other Abbott books I’ve read there is no in between.

“The Turnout”, in spite of the ballet drama, is bit more on the clunker side of things. But there are also aspects of it that I did like, and let’s start there. The first is that there is no doubt that Abbott knows how to create a deeply unsettling undercurrent with her characters. When we meet our trio of protagonists, sisters Dara and Marie and Dara’s husband Charlie, they are successful owners of a dance school that was founded by the sister’s mother. Immediately you get the sense that there is an underlying tension between all three of them, though the reasons why are hidden at first, and well tamped down in their minds and psyches. It gets under the skin, and it makes for a building tension, especially as things start to crumble, specifically when a contractor named Derek enters their lives after a fire and offsets the strained dynamic that they all have. I kind of figured what was going on, but I was surprised by some of the reveals that entered into the dynamic. And legitimately skeeved by it, without feeling like it was poorly done or melodramatic.

But on the flip side, there were elements that didn’t work for me. While I like that Abbott did some experimentation with the narrative, more telling the story in split paragraph chunks versus longer bodies of action, the construction felt a little disjointed at times. We would be in the same scene, the same moment, and really in the head of the same character, but we would have a jump on the page that didn’t feel like it was necessary. It would just take me out of the moment and make it feel jerky. Along with that, I didn’t feel like we got an even distribution of character development between our main players, specifically between the sisters Dara and Marie. Granted, this story is mostly from Dara’s third person POV, so we really got to know her (and I actually did find her compelling and interesting), but as for Marie, someone part of an arguably important pas de deux within the narrative (see what I did?), I really didn’t feel like we got enough insight into her character. It ended up feeling like her frustrating actions were more to drive the plot forward as opposed to being a foregone conclusion in terms of the choices that she would make based on what we know about her. Even by the time things did get expanded upon throughout various twists and turns, I STILL didn’t think that we got enough insight into Marie, and that made me more frustrated than anything else.

So “The Turnout” was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I think I retract my statement about it being a clunker, but it did leave me wanting more. So my relationship with Megan Abbott books continues to be a mixed bag, but mixed enough that I will probably keep giving her books a shot. If you have had a better experience with her work, this will probably click more with you than I.

Rating 6: Unnerving and brimming with unease, “The Turnout” is a suspenseful tale, but at times feels disjointed and strangely paced, and we didn’t get to know all the characters as well as I’d have liked.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Turnout” is included on the Goodreads lists “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, and Thrillers 2021”.

Kate’s Review: “Very Bad People”


This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  
Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Very Bad People” by Kit Frick

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, April 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: In this dark academia young adult thriller for fans of The Female of the Species and People Like Us, a teen girl’s search for answers about her mother’s mysterious death leads to a powerful secret society at her new boarding school—and a dangerous game of revenge that will leave her forever changed.

Six years ago, Calliope Bolan’s mother drove the family van into a lake with her three daughters inside. The girls escaped, but their mother drowned, and the truth behind the “accident” remains a mystery Calliope is determined to solve. Now sixteen, she transfers to Tipton Academy, the same elite boarding school her mother once attended. Tipton promises a peek into the past and a host of new opportunities—including a coveted invitation to join Haunt and Rail, an exclusive secret society that looms over campus like a legend. Calliope accepts, stepping into the exhilarating world of the “ghosts,” a society of revolutionaries fighting for social justice. But when Haunt and Rail commits to exposing a dangerous person on campus, it becomes clear that some ghosts define justice differently than others.

As the society’s tactics escalate, Calliope uncovers a possible link between Haunt and Rail and her mother’s deadly crash. Now, she must question what lengths the society might go to in order to see a victory—and if the secret behind her mother’s death could be buried here at Tipton.

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

I had some pretty grand plans for myself nearing the end of March. I secured a solo trip up to the North Shore, bringing a book stack and my Kindle and thinking that I’d spend my days in nature and my evenings reading… Well, my faith in good weather was foolhardy, as that first day it was snowing and the wind chill made the temperatures outside feel like it was 18 degrees. I don’t know why I didn’t consider that, being Minnesota and all. But it DID mean that I got a LOT of reading done, and when I sat down with Kit Frick’s newest book “Very Bad People”, I found myself tearing through my eARC. The pacing was great! The mysteries were appropriately engaging! We had a secret society with some potentially nefarious members! Spending all the time inside was turning out okay for me…. Until we once again hit the dreaded ‘and it all falls apart in the last third of the book’ situation.

As per my usual strategy, I’m going to start with what I liked. And the potential for this story just oozes off the page. It has so many things that work for me on paper. I love boarding school thrillers, I love people who get in over their heads in frog in the boiling water situations, and I love moral ambiguity and questions. I also really liked Calliope as our main character, as she felt rounded and real and like someone who would be completely into being included in a secret society like Haunt and Rail. I also liked the school history and history of the secret society as a whole. On top of that, it was so fast paced and engaging that I was eager to see what was going to happen next, and how the connection of Haunt and Rail across the generations was going to come into play.

But I just didn’t like how a couple of the big arcs shook out. Like, at all. And I’m not certain if it had to do with the structure and set up feeling unbalanced with the conclusions, or straight up personal preference on my part and my own sore spots and biases coloring my judgement. I’m half tempted to go on a rant here, but am also kind of not wanting to spoil anything because I think that people would probably do better with it than I did…. What the hell, let’s just go half and half and throw in a

Skip to the next paragraph if you so choose (source)

The book opens with a recounting of the tragedy that has haunted Calliope for a few years: the car accident that killed her mother and nearly killed her and her two sisters. There has always been question as to what happened, as Calliope was asleep, and her two sisters either couldn’t remember what happened or was two young to do so. Calliope sees a man in town during a trek from the Tipton grounds, has her memory jumped, and is convinced she saw him the day of the accident. She starts trying to piece together who he was, as well as his connection to her mother, AS WELL AS her mother’s connection to the Haunt and Rail Society, which leads to the supposedly accidental death of another student during her mother’s time in the club. Calliope starts to surmise that perhaps the Haunt and Rail members had something to do with the student’s death, and her mother’s death was actually someone trying to shut her up. It’s a great premise….. But it isn’t the case. What IS the case is that Calliope’s mother was ACTUALLY LEAVING HER HUSBAND FOR HER HIGH SCHOOL BOYFRIEND AND TAKING THE KIDS WITH HER ON THE DAY OF THE CRASH. It’s all coincidence. And it’s awful. It immediately turned me off from the mother as a character who was, until that point, a formative and powerful drive for Calliope and her connection to the Haunt and Rail assholes. I get what Frick was trying to do, to say that some things are random and terrible (and it does have another connecting point, ultimately), but it left such a sour taste in my mouth. I don’t even think of myself as some kind of Puritanical scold, but once it was revealed how profoundly selfish the mother was being in wanting to uproot her kids from the life they knew with their father (with no indication that he’s a bad or even emotionally incompatible guy; HE SEEMS LIKE A REALLY GOOD LOVING GUY?), with NO actual exploration into her motivations outside of ‘oh, my high school boyfriend is back in my life and THAT’S EXCITING’, it wrecked that entire thread. Okay, I’m not going to elaborate further into the other reveals and twists and turns, but that was just too much. It derailed the emotional crux.

And then a lot of the other characters were frustrating and shrill in their characterizations, especially some of the Haunt and Rail members. It wasn’t even that their motivations and thoughts were things I disagreed with. I found myself quite sympathetic to the matter at hand, as a matter of fact! But I didn’t think that Frick did the due diligence to show enough complexity to their ‘arbiters of justice in their own minds’ themes until too far into the narrative. By then I had kind of stopped caring about their motivations and was more blinded by how their zealotry was damaging to those who didn’t deserve it, and I don’t think that it was properly grappled with.

Talk about running off the rails. There was so much promise with this book for the first two thirds. I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it too much because it could just be a ‘me’ thing.

Rating 5: Lots of built up momentum and promise ends with a couple of clunker reveals.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Very Bad People” is included on the Goodreads lists “2022 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”, and would fit in on “Academia, Magic, and Secret Societies”.

Kate’s Review: “The Resting Place”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “The Resting Place” by Camilla Stem (translation: Alexandra Fleming)

Publishing Info: Minotaur Books, March 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: A spine-chilling, propulsive psychological suspense from international sensation Camilla Sten.

The medical term is prosopagnosia. The average person calls it face blindness—the inability to recognize a familiar person’s face, even the faces of those closest to you. When Eleanor walked in on the scene of her capriciously cruel grandmother, Vivianne’s, murder, she came face to face with the killer—a maddening expression that means nothing to someone like her. With each passing day, her anxiety mounts. The dark feelings of having brushed by a killer, yet not know who could do this—or if they’d be back—overtakes both her dreams and her waking moments, thwarting her perception of reality.

Then a lawyer calls. Vivianne has left her a house—a looming estate tucked away in the Swedish woods. The place her grandfather died, suddenly. A place that has housed a dark past for over fifty years.

Eleanor. Her steadfast boyfriend, Sebastian. Her reckless aunt, Veronika. The lawyer. All will go to this house of secrets, looking for answers. But as they get closer to bringing the truth to light, they’ll wish they had never come to disturb what rests there. A heart-thumping, relentless thriller that will shake you to your core, The Resting Place is an unforgettable novel of horror and suspense.

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

Last year I was really impressed with Camilla Sten’s horror novel “The Lost Village”, as it not only creeped me out throughout the narrative, it also felt like it was a fresh take on a story that’s been done before. I kicked myself for passing it by initially, and I told myself I wouldn’t do that again with Camilla Sten’s next novel. Which brings us to “The Resting Place”, the new thriller by Sten that has made it from Scandinavia to the U.S. I picked it up right as our Minnesota winter was starting the Great Thaw, and the thought of a new scary thriller with a snow storm element was detached enough from the doldrums of our eternal winters that I figured it would be fun (I’ve probably jinxed us with an April snow storm now, however). And I said that I wasn’t going to let Sten pass me by again, after all. However, “The Resting Place” probably didn’t need the urgency I assumed it did.

But what did I like? We will start there, as always. A few things to be sure! For one, the setting and atmosphere was awesome. I love me a Gothic thriller and mystery, and “The Resting Place” is bursting with that sensibility. I loved the isolation of the Swedish country home of Solhoga, which has the potential to be tranquil and peaceful but due to a poorly timed blizzard and a potential killer on the loose makes it far less inviting. The isolation tactics are well worn, but effective nonetheless, and I felt like I could see the snow, the old home, and the landscapes. I also did like the dual narratives, the first being Eleanor et als’ dangerous time at Solhoga and the second being diary entries of Anuska, a servant in the 1960s who knew Vivianne and her husband due to her employment and other, more secretive, ties. I thought that the slow unveiling of the mysteries, be it what Vivianne was hiding, or who is out to perhaps kill those who were left behind, was an entertaining plot that kept me reading. In terms of characters, I liked Eleanor enough as she grapples with the trauma of walking in on her grandmother’s murder, as well as the guilt that due to her prosopagnosia she couldn’t be of any help as a witness. The tension that is there not only within her inner self, but also between her and her boyfriend Sebastian, is just another factor in the tension that is slowly rising in this narrative.

But entertaining as it is, we aren’t really doing much new here. Outside of Eleanor’s face blindness, I guess, though even that is something that could be easily done away with with some tweaking and none would be the wiser. While it’s true that I didn’t really guess a few of the big reveals, I did guess others, and the big reveals I didn’t guess felt a little underwhelming because of how they felt like a bit of a cheat. It wasn’t so much farfetched as too easily explainable under kind of nutty circumstances. Ultimately, while I thought that “The Lost Village” did a lot of new and interesting stuff with the genre it was within, “The Resting Place” didn’t feel all that unique to me, and more like the kind of thriller I read once and then don’t really think about again. Serviceable for sure, but nothing that made me say ‘now THAT was a ride!’

I am eager to see what Camilla Sten does next, as this was by no means a book that made me lose my faith in her talents. But “The Resting Place” didn’t have the oomph I was hoping for going into it.

Rating 6: Pretty standard thriller. Serviceable for sure, but nothing really wowed me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Resting Place” is included on the Goodreads lists “Bring On The Creepy!”, and “The Most Anticipated Mysteries and Thrillers of 2022”.

Kate’s Review: “Nine Lives”

This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend.  Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Nine Lives” by Peter Swanson

Publishing Info: William Morrow & Company, March 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: The story of nine strangers who receive a cryptic list with their names on it – and then begin to die in highly unusual circumstances.

Nine strangers receive a list with their names on it in the mail. Nothing else, just a list of names on a single sheet of paper. None of the nine people know or have ever met the others on the list. They dismiss it as junk mail, a fluke – until very, very bad things begin happening to people on the list. First, a well-liked old man is drowned on a beach in the small town of Kennewick, Maine. Then, a father is shot in the back while running through his quiet neighborhood in suburban Massachusetts. A frightening pattern is emerging, but what do these nine people have in common? Their professions range from oncology nurse to aspiring actor.

FBI agent Jessica Winslow, who is on the list herself, is determined to find out. Could there be some dark secret that binds them all together? Or is this the work of a murderous madman? As the mysterious sender stalks these nine strangers, they find themselves constantly looking over their shoulders, wondering who will be crossed off next….

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

I’ve been reading Peter Swanson novels since 2016, in which “The Killing Kind” totally blew me away and kept me on my toes. I have come to expect him to find ways to bring in new twists and turns that are totally earned by also shocking and unexpected, sometimes even deconstructing what we have come to expect of the thriller genre as a whole. Because I have this knowledge and because I’m so familiar with his tricky little carpet yanks, one would think that when I went into his newest book “Nine Lives” that I would have figured all of this out. One would think that I would be expecting a twist and that when it came I would say ‘ah yes, I knew that was coming’. And hey, to be fair, there were a couple early on moments that I thought ‘well either that was the twist or perhaps there IS no big reveal this time just to keep me on my toes even more’.

And then this guy STILL manages to completely take me by surprise with a twist I didn’t expect AT ALL.

And it’s just one of a good few in this story! (source)

The thing that I like the most about Peter Swanson, beyond the ability he has to totally floor me, is that he always crafts mysteries that have just enough twists to be interesting without going into wholly farfetched territory. As each stranger on the list of names is slowly picked off one by one, the deaths are done in ways that are almost always matter of fact, totally believable, and in a finite and quick manner that makes the beat punch hard, but then go onto the next. We don’t linger on melodrama nor do we feel a need to explain until it’s fully time for explanations. The clues are placed here and there, and they all fit together once they start to near each other. And while it’s true that I caught a couple of them in advance, the lion’s share were truly surprising. It has definite allusions to the Agatha Christie story “And Then There Were None” without feeling like a direct lifting, and while acknowledging that there are some tweaks here and there. The mystery is strong, even if a lot of the characters kind of fall by the wayside. But I think that that is kind of to be expected in some ways, just because there are nine people on the list, and a limited amount of time that they are going to be alive given that they are all targets of a killer. But for a few of them I felt like we did get some pretty okay insight into who they were as people outside of this, even while others fell flat or into two dimensional tropes.

I have seen criticism of the motive behind what all is going on, and I can definitely get why the criticism is there. Ultimately the construction of the mystery is sound and it has very solid working parts, but the actual foundation of the motive was pretty generic and glossed over. It doesn’t really help that there had to be a huge ‘telling instead of showing’ component at the end, with a big letter that explains just about everything. That’s usually a huge splash of cold water on a book for me, and I remember thinking ‘ah jeeze’ when I realized what was happening.

But hey, I was still having a fun time as we barreled towards the end of “Nine Lives”. The motive may be eh, but the journey through a list of nine marked people is still really fun. Keep on catching me off guard, Peter Swanson! I always like being surprised!

Rating 7: A fun twist on “And Then There Were None” with a few good surprises, “Nine Lives” is another entertaining read from Peter Swanson, even if some of the details are glossed over or undercooked.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Nine Lives” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2022”, and would fit in on “‘And Then There Were None’ Trope Novels”.

%d bloggers like this: