Kate’s Review: “The Black Queen”

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Book: “The Black Queen” by Jumata Emill

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2023

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

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

Book Description: Nova Albright, the first Black homecoming queen at Lovett High, is dead. Murdered the night of her coronation, her body found the next morning in the old slave cemetery she spent her weekends rehabilitating.

Tinsley McArthur was supposed to be queen. Not only is she beautiful, wealthy, and white, it’s her legacy–her grandmother, her mother, and even her sister wore the crown before her. Everyone in Lovett knows Tinsley would do anything to carry on the McArthur tradition.

No one is more certain of that than Duchess Simmons, Nova’s best friend. Duchess’s father is the first Black police captain in Lovett. For Duchess, Nova’s crown was more than just a win for Nova. It was a win for all the Black kids. Now her best friend is dead, and her father won’t face the fact that the main suspect is right in front of him. Duchess is convinced that Tinsley killed Nova–and that Tinsley is privileged enough to think she can get away with it. But Duchess’s father seems to be doing what he always does: fall behind the blue line. Which means that the white girl is going to walk.

Duchess is determined to prove Tinsley’s guilt. And to do that, she’ll have to get close to her. But Tinsley has an agenda, too.

Everyone loved Nova. And sometimes, love is exactly what gets you killed.

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

I love being taken surprise by a book. Whether it’s because I hadn’t heard of it before, or because a new author is on the scene and I’m totally unfamiliar, it’s a joy and a treat when one ends up in my hands, I have no expectations, and it ends up working for me and then some. That was my experience with “The Black Queen” by Jumata Emill. I hadn’t heard of the book until it was offered to me (thanks again, Delacorte Press!), and the premise was interesting and I was feeling up to trying something new. And then I ended up really, really enjoying it!

This story is told from two first person perspectives. The first is that of Duchess, a Black teenage girl in a Southern Community that is dealing with unofficial segregation and disparities for the Black community. Her best friend Nova is another Black girl, and is named the first Black Homecoming Queen the school has ever had. When Nova is murdered, Duchess is determined to prove that the privileged and wealthy Tinsley, a white classmate who wanted to be Homecoming Queen, is the culprit, as Tinsley was not only cruel to Nova during the race, but was also seen on TikTok making threats after the crowning. But the other perspective is actually of Tinsley, who is desperate to clear her name in the murder, and who is conducting her own investigation. Eventually, both girls team up despite the bad blood and past baggage, and it makes for a hell of a story. Not in the sense of ‘look at these two learning from each other’ kind of way, but because Emill doesn’t shy away from very uncomfortable moments regarding Tinsley’s character, and also explores lots of complexities with Duchess’s father, who is a police captain in town, and how his role has an effect on Duchess and her peers. Watching Tinsley be really difficult to like and slowly start to realize how terrible she has been, and how her race and privilege has made her entitled and venomous, is a very interesting choice to make with the character, and it was really neat to see that while we do get growth and remorse, she isn’t let off the hook for her really shitty actions. Watching her do the work first because she wants to clear her name, but then slowly start to realize that she has a lot to atone for was a fascinating character arc. I also like Duchess’s storyline and character growth, as she goes from making assumptions about things to then starting to find hard to reconcile nuances that make her question what she thinks she knows. It’s just really cool to see Emill delve into these deep issues about race in America and doesn’t water it down or package it in a way that some may think would be more palatable for a teen audience. She makes it easy to understand while still trusting the reader to be able to parse out a lot of complex, not so easy to answer questions.

The mystery at hand was very entertaining and pretty well put together. We know from the jump that Tinsley was guilty of being a shit head but not guilty of murder, so having her Duchess start to piece the mystery together separately and then together led to some good reveals and some good clue drops. There were a lot of facets to the story, and to Nova’s character, and many puzzle pieces that come together to give many options for why someone would have wanted her dead. Emill is fairly successful in pulling everything off and throwing readers off the trail here and there, and while I did kind of call one of the big solutions pretty early on in my read, there were a few well done red herrings that made me think ‘well maybe…?’, before they were revealed to be misdirections. But they were all plausible. The pace is kept fairly brisk and the plot moves in a way that keeps you interested, and I devoured this book in a couple of sittings because it was just that addictive.

So all in all “The Black Queen” was a well done YA thriller that successfully injects bigger, relevant issues into the plot. I really enjoyed it and I will be looking for more fiction from Jumata Emill in the future!

Rating 8: Some really good reveals, complex main characters, and a lot of relevant and important themes about race in America come together to make a well done YA thriller.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Black Queen” isn’t included on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Black Lives Matter and Anti-Racist Books”and “Young Adult Thrillers”.

Kate’s Review: “The House in the Pines”

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Book: “The House in the Pines” by Ana Reyes

Publishing Info: Dutton, January 2023

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher at ALAAC22.

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

Book Description: Maya was a high school senior when her best friend, Aubrey, mysteriously dropped dead in front of the enigmatic man named Frank whom they’d been spending time with all summer.

Seven years later, Maya lives in Boston with a loving boyfriend and is kicking the secret addiction that has allowed her to cope with what happened years ago, the gaps in her memories, and the lost time that she can’t account for. But her past comes rushing back when she comes across a recent YouTube video in which a young woman suddenly keels over and dies in a diner while sitting across from none other than Frank. Plunged into the trauma that has defined her life, Maya heads to her Berkshires hometown to relive that fateful summer–the influence Frank once had on her and the obsessive jealousy that nearly destroyed her friendship with Aubrey.

At her mother’s house, she excavates fragments of her past and notices hidden messages in her deceased Guatemalan father’s book that didn’t stand out to her earlier. To save herself, she must understand a story written before she was born, but time keeps running out, and soon, all roads are leading back to Frank’s cabin.

Utterly unique and captivating, The House in the Pines keeps you guessing about whether we can ever fully confront the past and return home.

Review: Thank you to Dutton and ALAAC22 for providing me with an ARC of this novel!

It’s nuts to think that The ALA Annual Conference in 2022 was already almost half a year ago. I feel like I did a pretty okay job going through my ARCs and taking them on, and given that a few I grabbed were for early 2023, I did have some stragglers by the end of the year. One of those was “The House in the Pines” by Ana Reyes, which had been touted as an eerie thriller with a creepy as heck cover to boot. As someone who likes creepy cabins (“Evil Dead” really set the bar, be it the movies OR the musical), the cover alone commanded my attention. By the time I was diving in, long after the conference had ended, it didn’t take long to become invested even beyond the core concept and solid cover.

What I liked most about this book is that I wasn’t sure if it was going to ultimately be a horror story with potentially supernatural elements, or a very off kilter thriller that does, in fact, have a possibly plausible explanation. Where it ultimately ended up, I’m not quite sure, but the ride was pretty well worth it. I liked how we jumped through time in the narrative, seeing our protagonist Maya in the present day as she grapple with her past relationship with a man who may have killed her best friend. How, she isn’t sure, as Aubrey just dropped dead, and Frank was right there and seemingly did nothing. But Maya can’t shake the feeling that he did it, especially when she stumbles upon a viral video of ANOTHER woman just dropping dead, with Frank being present again. In the present we see her obsess and try to figure out how he could have pulled this seemingly impossible murder off. But then we jump to the past, and see how Frank manipulated, groomed, and influenced Maya at seventeen years old. It’s sometimes a bit jarring to see the two time lines so close to each other, especially since the jumps aren’t as predictable, but I liked the contrast and how it brings the story together.

As for the strange elements that I was referring to up-post, as to whether this is a horror story or a thriller, Reyes really knows how to make her pages and moments disorienting. I really couldn’t tell if I could at all trust what I was reading, and had to skip back a couple times here and there to re-read to make sure I was getting everything I was theoretically supposed to be getting. This is all, mostly, a positive and deliberate thing, as it is very much in control and doesn’t feel due to sloppy or haphazard writing. And ultimately, this book is less about the weird and disorienting things, and more about the fallout and trauma that Maya has experienced, and how that in and if itself can lead to disorientation. I think that my only qualm with all of this is that, because it’s more about that and less about Frank and true answers, the ending feels a bit drawn out and unresolved. I know that a lack of resolution definitely has its place in stories with themes such as these. But I think that for me the narrative would have benefited a bit from some more concrete answers and resolutions.

Overall, “The House in the Pines” is strange and twisty, with bleak but interesting themes. I will be very curious to see the reactions this one receives as more people read it, and I’m very curious to check out what Ana Reyes brings forth next.

Rating 7: Weird and upsetting with some intriguing twists, “The House in the Pines” is a solid way to start your thriller reading in 2023.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The House in the Pines” is included on the Goodreads list “Latinx Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Kate’s Review: “Five Survive”

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Book: “Five Survive” by Holly Jackson

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, November 2022

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

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

Book Description: Eight hours. Six friends. Five survive. A road trip turns deadly in this addictive YA thriller from the bestselling author of the worldwide phenomenon A GOOD GIRL’S GUIDE TO MURDER.

Red Kenny is on a road trip for spring break with five friends: Her best friend – the older brother – his perfect girlfriend – a secret crush – a classmate – and a killer.

When their RV breaks down in the middle of nowhere with no cell service, they soon realize this is no accident. They have been trapped by someone out there in the dark, someone who clearly wants one of them dead.

With eight hours until dawn, the six friends must escape, or figure out which of them is the target. But is there a liar among them? Buried secrets will be forced to light and tensions inside the RV will reach deadly levels. Not all of them will survive the night. . . . 

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

With how much I loved the “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” Trilogy by Holly Jackson, I was waiting on pins and needles to see what she would come up with next. And lo and behold, I saw “Five Survive”, her newest YA thriller, up on NetGalley, and rejoiced. And the description was so, so intriguing: six friends on an RV trip are deliberately stranded by a dangerous stranger, who wants one of them dead and gone, with secrets coming to light and perhaps friends turning on each other. I mean come on. That’s all just catnip to me! And my high hopes were fairly well met, as “Five Survive” snagged me in and kept me going until I’d finished the book over two days time.

The breakneck pacing really works in this books favor, as the building tension that starts almost from the jump is really what kept me reading. We have our group of friends, the protagonist being Red, on a trip with her childhood friends and a couple new faces in the mix. Jackson wastes no time in cutting this trip short, as the RV is waylaid and it is clear very quickly that it is NO accident. And when they realize that a sniper is outside, demanding a secret, the people in this stranded RV go from stunned, to disbelieving, to frustrated, to horrified realization, and as the severity of their situation starts making all of them start making desperate decisions. Friends turn on friends in hopes of saving their own skins, and a fun road trip becomes nightmarish. I liked the time chunks and the way that the hours tick by and the desperation builds, and how they all start showing their true colors as secrets are revealed and the back stabbing begins. But I did like that a lot of the characters were easy to like, which made the stakes all the higher. Sure, there is one guy who is a complete asshole that is fairly two dimensional, but everyone else is explored well enough that the suspense about who was the secret holder and who wouldn’t make it out alive was palpable. After all, the title is “Five Survive”, and there are six people in the RV. And I do think that a lot of the surprises were well done and well earned. Jackson has really perfected the right formula for this kind of teen thriller, and it was neat seeing her tackle this kind of thriller as opposed to one like “Good Girls Guide” that feels more detective-y and step by step investigation.

In terms of our narrator, Red, she was a little more of a mixed bag for me for a lot of the book. A lot of her train of thought felt repetitive, and there were a lot of moments that felt need to remind us that she has a harder time than everyone in the RV and that she has had a lot of tragedy in her life. I’m not saying that there isn’t reason for this tragic backstory, or even that there isn’t reason for dwelling on it a bit, but when it does all come together it still felt a bit like it was hammered over the head perhaps a few too many times. I think that if we had more time with her in the story, and by that I mean a longer timeline than overnight, she may have been able to breathe a bit more with her angst and pathos, but crammed into one night, even if the book itself isn’t outside the average of a typical novel, it just gets a bit tedious. But there is still enough to like with her, and the supporting characters, from privileged asshat Oliver to sweet but condescending Maddy to awkward Arthur, all have satisfying moments and bring variety to a solid cast of characters.

Overall, “Five Survive” is a quick and engaging thriller, another fun read from Holly Jackson. I’m so glad that her streak is continuing, and once again I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

Rating 8: Suspenseful and tense with breakneck twists and turns, “Five Survive” is another well done YA thriller by Holly Jackson!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Five Survive” is included on the Goodreads list “2022 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Kate’s Review: “Wayward”

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Read the full disclosure here.

Book: “Wayward” by Chuck Wendig

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, November 2022

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

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

Book Description: Five years ago, ordinary Americans fell under the grip of a strange new malady that caused them to sleepwalk across the country to a destination only they knew. They were followed on their quest by the shepherds: friends and family who gave up everything to protect them.

Their secret destination: Ouray, a small town in Colorado that would become one of the last outposts of civilization. Because the sleepwalking epidemic was only the first in a chain of events that led to the end of the world–and the birth of a new one. The survivors, sleepwalkers and shepherds alike, have a dream of rebuilding human society. Among them are Benji, the scientist struggling through grief to lead the town; Marcy, the former police officer who wants only to look after the people she loves; and Shana, the teenage girl who became the first shepherd–and an unlikely hero whose courage will be needed again.

Because the people of Ouray are not the only survivors, and the world they are building is fragile. The forces of cruelty and brutality are amassing under the leadership of self-proclaimed president Ed Creel. And in the very heart of Ouray, the most powerful survivor of all is plotting its own vision for the new world: Black Swan, the A.I. who imagined the apocalypse.

Against these threats, Benji, Marcy, Shana, and the rest have only one hope: one another. Because the only way to survive the end of the world is together.

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

So, when I was reading “Wanderers” back in 2019 I felt a mild anxiety that I was constantly trying to write off. ‘A deadly pandemic? Eh, that’s not something you need to be worrying about, Kate. No way.’

Joke’s on me, I guess. (source)

Little did I realize that a year later it would be a reality that was consuming so many of us. Luckily it wasn’t a White Mask level of death, though that doesn’t mean it’s been a cake walk by ANY means. But, now it’s 2022, and while we are still in the midst of this life changing pandemic with death and sickness, I feel more secure than I did two years ago, or even one year ago (thank you, under 5 vaccines and lots and lots of therapy!). So much so that I could actually pick up “Wayward”, Chuck Wendig’s sequel to the pandemic end of world thriller/sci-fi/dystopia “Wanderers”. You probably remember how I couldn’t bring myself to read books about sickness and the world ending for awhile. I guess the fact I read “Wayward” shows how far I’ve come. Though now the worry is that it’s predicting a whole other society altering reality, with it’s huge themes of Christo-fascism and white supremacist violence…. Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s dive in.

“Wayward” picks up shortly after “Wanderers” ends, and five years after the White Mask pandemic has wiped out a huge majority of the world population. The surviving ‘Sleepwalkers’ and ‘Shepherds’ are living in the isolated Colorado town of Ouray, where the seemingly benevolent (but actually dangerous) Black Swan AI is continuously running and trying to create a new world. There are familiar faces like Benji, the former scientist who is now a well respected town leader, and Shana, the first ‘shepherd’ who is now pregnant with the first child to be born in the community (who was in stasis for five years like the sleepwalkers were). At the end of “Wanderers” there were hints that this perfect rebuilding community was actually on a precipice, and we get to see that play out as Wendig tinkers with ideas of dangerous AI, and groupthink that can lead to cultlike behavior, unrest, and power grabs. I liked how Wendig did some full exploration of this, because the community that was being envisioned at the end of “Wanderers” felt a little too pat. I also liked revisiting Benji, Shana, et al, because I had forgotten how much I liked them and I liked seeing how they had all changed from the first book up through this book. The changes are believable both as to how they would change due to their circumstances, but also as to how they as characters would have changed with their base personalities in mind. Shana in “Wanderers” is pretty different from Shana in “Wayward”, but she is still Shana, and so forth, and it is clear that Wendig knows his cast inside and out. It is their inherent complexity and goodness that keeps this book from treading too bleak.

Though that isn’t to say that it isn’t bleak at times. Oh soothsayer Chuck Wendig, I must say that I’m a bit on edge that you have put another horrible thing out into the universe, given what happened last time! And that is the theme of Christ-fascist authoritarian groups trying to wipe out those they deem inferior against the backdrop of the end of society. Though I don’t think we spent too much time with white supremacist and totalitarian would be president Ed Creel in “Wanderers”, he has his own perspective chapters in “Wayward”, and good God we are once again getting into too real territory. Creel is a clear Donald Trump analog, but obvious or not it doesn’t make him any less terrifying as he continues to amass a white supremacist and violent following to do his bidding even as he bides his time in an underground bunker for the uberwealthy. “Wanderers” came out during the Trump Presidency when we were seeing these groups like the Proud Boys and Oathkeepers and literal Neo-Nazis sing his praises, and now “Wayward” puts new focus on this in a post January 6 world. It’s all a bit on the nose at times, but that doesn’t make it any less resonant. Sure, the AI run amok themes were also scary, but that was more on the Sci-Fi side of things so it didn’t catch my anxiety as much as this all did. Maybe give it a few years.

But what I love about Wendig’s voice is that even through all this violence, trauma, sadness, and raw devastation, there is always hope. Hope through humor. Hope through love between family and friends. Hope that some places can get through a terrible thing like White Mask through their effort and community strength (I loved the idea of different parts of the world faring better based on factors ranging from environment to cultural aspects). Hope that no matter how bad things get, they can be addressed and salvaged. It’s hard to remember that hope is there, at times. But Wendig reminds us throughout the narrative, and I really liked that.

“Wayward” is a solid follow up to an end of world story that looks at what could come next. Wendig taps into a lot of modern anxieties and fears, but he also knows how to keep the reader hopeful. We need that sometimes.

Rating 8: A melancholy and suspenseful but ultimately hopeful follow up to an apocalypse book that now feels a bit too real, “Wayward” brings us back to Ouray and examines what happens after the world as we know it ends.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wayward” is included on the Goodreads list “Hugo 2023 Eligible Novels”.

Kate’s Review: “The Vicious Circle”

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Book: “The Vicious Circle” by Katherine St. John

Publishing Info: William Morrow & Company, September 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher at ALAAC22.

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

Book Description: A perfect paradise? Or a perfect nightmare?

On a river deep in the Mexican jungle stands the colossal villa Xanadu, a wellness center that’s home to The Mandala, an ardent spiritual group devoted to self-help guru Paul Bentzen and his enigmatic wife Kali. But when, mysteriously, Paul suddenly dies, his entire estate–including Xanadu–is left to his estranged niece Sveta, a former model living in New York City.

Shocked and confused, Sveta travels to Mexico to pay her respects. At first, Xanadu seems like a secluded paradise with its tumbling gardens, beautiful people, transcendent vibe, and mesmerizing de-facto leader Kali. But soon the mystical façade wears thin, revealing a group of brainwashed members drunk on false promises of an impossible utopia and a disturbing, dangerous belief system–and leader–guiding them.

As the sinister forces surrounding Sveta become apparent, she realizes, too late, she can’t escape. Frantic and terrified, she discovers her only hope for survival is to put her confidence in the very person she trusts the least.

Review: Thank you to William Morrow & Company for giving me an ARC of this novel!

On that first night of the ALA Annual Conference, there is always a bit of a free for all in the exhibit hall as publishers unleash ARCs of books unto the librarian masses. In the recent times I have gone I always tell myself, ‘be discerning! Don’t grab for the sake of grabbing! You know what books you want, prioritize those!’. And, as one can imagine, that never works, and I end up with many books because panic tells me so. But hey, I’ve found some fun books this way, and that is why I don’t kick myself too hard when I do it. That is how I got “The Vicious Circle” by Katherine St. John: I passed the table, saw the cover, read the back and said to myself ‘IT’S A CULT THRILLER!’ and shoved it in my tote bag. I finally sat down to read it a couple months after the fact, and it was…. a decidedly mixed bag.

In terms of a cult thriller, “The Vicious Circle” is pretty successful if only because it knows what notes to hit and doesn’t stray from it. The details The Mandala pick and choose from a lot of other true life cults; you get a little People’s Temple/Jonestown, you get a little Rajneeshpuram, you get a little NXIVM, with sprinkles of Scientology and Children of God for good measure. It’s a true smorgasbord of cult ideologies, and it was kind of fun for me to be able to be like ‘oh I get that reference’. There is also an effective ‘frog in the pot of boiling water’ pacing as our protagonist Sveta arrives at a compound called Xanadu in the Mexican jungle after getting word that she has inherited a vast fortune from her late uncle Paul. Who just so happened to be an incredibly successful wellness author and icon, influential enough to have a compound called Xanadu in the Mexican jungle. Sveta thinks that it’s going to be easy to settle the estate and everything else with Kali, her uncle Paul’s wife, and then begins to realize that maybe things aren’t what they seem. I always enjoy the ‘oh shit’ moments in a cult thriller, and St. John definitely has many of them coming at a quick pace. It makes for a fun and easy thriller that is, in a way, comforting to a reader who likes these kinds of stories. And I fully realize that ‘comforting’ is a strange word choice given the fact we are talking about a potentially dangerous cult. But it kept me turning the pages to see how it all shook out for Sveta as she goes head to head with the Mandala and its devotees.

I think that some of the more negative aspects are pretty easy traps to fall into in a book like this, mostly because you need them for the story to work if you don’t want to do a lot of difficult literary heavy lifting. The biggest for me is that Sveta feels VERY naive and susceptible to being duped when I’m not quite certain that she would be. I’m not talking about falling for the cult angle, as that isn’t really the issue. It’s more the fact that she has found herself in a very precarious position: isolated in the jungle, newly named as a beneficiary of millions upon millions of dollars, and with a woman who has EVERY reason to want that money, but feels like she can trust said woman. I found it very frustrating that she took everything that Kali said at face value. You met her once for dinner and it was a nice meal. Fine. But your uncle CLEARLY kept her out of his will for a reason, especially since it sounds like his death wasn’t sudden. I understand why the story needs her to be this way, but I kind of needed more reasons for her to be this way. It made Sveta’s motivations feel more there to drive the plot as opposed to trying to make the two work in a cohesive and believable way.

All in all “The Vicious Circle” is entertaining enough and has enough suspense to keep me engaged and interested. It doesn’t really stand out too much from other run of the mill cult thrillers, but as someone who loves a cult thriller that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Rating 6: Pretty standard cult thriller reading. Doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s entertaining enough.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Vicious Circle” isn’t included on many specific Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “Cults and Communes in Fiction”.

Kate’s Review: “Always the First to Die”

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Book: “Always the First to Die” by R.J. Jacobs

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Landmark, September 2022

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

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

Book Description: For fans of Riley Sager with a classic slasher twist, Always the First to Die follows a former horror movie actress as she returns to the set of her most iconic film, only to find that the strange circumstances begin to resemble the plot of her most famous film.

After her husband’s death, Lexi has refused to return to the Pinecrest Estate on the Florida Keys, too many hard memories on that strip of land. Memories of meeting her husband on the set of an iconic horror movie. Of being cast as an extra, of watching herself get killed on screen. And of scoffing at the rumors of the Pinecrest Estate “curse,” until she witnessed a cast member die that very summer. But when her daughter sneaks away to visit her grandfather, legendary horror movie director Rick Plummer, Lexi is forced to face her past. That’s when a Category Four hurricane changes course, and hits the southern coast.

Unable to get through to her daughter, Lexi drives to the Keys in the wake of the storm. What she finds is an island without cell service, without power, and with limited police presence. A desolate bit of land, with only a few remaining behind: the horror director, the starlet once cast as the final girl, the young teenager searching for clues of her father, the mother determined to get off the island, and…the person picking them off one-by-one.

Soon enough Lexi’s life begins to resemble Rick’s most famous horror film, and she must risk her life to save her daughter before someone, or something, destroys them all.

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

Well even though Horrorpalooza is over for this year, you know that I like to extend the spooky season well beyond the end of October. So it just made sense to pick a thriller that has some quality horror love and reference points to ease out of an all horror line up. So that brings us to “Always the First to Die” by R.J. Jacobs, a thriller novel with a slasher movie twist. As a slasher movie geek with a love for fourth wall breaking nonsense, the description of this really spoke to me, and while I’ve saved it for a later review date (this has been out since September after all), make no mistake, I throughly enjoyed this book.

Since it is a mystery thriller at heart, let’s start there. The set up is pretty well done. We have Lexi, a current librarian who once had a serendipitous acting turn in “Breathless”, one of the most lauded (and most notorious) horror films of the 1990s. The director, Rick Plummer, has a reputation for being hardcore and visionary, and the death of one of the actors on the set solidified the film in Hollywood horror lore. Now Lexi is his daugher in law, his writer son/her husband Cam disappeared, and Rick lives on the Pinecrest Estate in the Keys where they filmed the movie and is estranged from Lexi. Lexi’s daughter lies to her and goes to visit grandad, and then a Hurricane hits. So Lexi goes to find her kid, but they all find themselves trapped on the island with a potential killer who may have a vendetta against Plummer. Solid stuff, and while it sounds fairly run of the mill, Jacobs does a good job of building the suspense while also giving back story so we can understand Lexi, Rick, and what is motivating both of them. We have two timelines, the first being the present day, and the second being the filming of “Breathless” where Lexi first meets Rick and things start going sideways, and both narratives take their time to build up the mystery and to leave clues that intersect with each other. I liked having a couple mysteries to solve, and while I kind of guessed some aspects of one, others were vague enough that I was left mostly in the dark. I also liked how Jacobs took a ‘locked room’ theme and applied it to an island in the wake of a hurricane. It cuts our characters off in a realistic but unique way, and makes them have to reckon not just with a killer on the loose, but also their pasts and their secrets.

But the horror movie easter eggs are such a fun bonus and what made this read stand out for me. Jacobs definitely has a working knowledge and affection for horror movies and the horror genre, and I loved seeing reference after reference sprinkled throughout the narrative in a meta sort of way. It’s already fun to have the setting and plot revolve around a horror movie cast and crew that had a tragedy on the set, which leads to rumors of a curse on the production (in similar ways things are said about the “Poltergeist” franchise or “Twilight Zone: The Movie”). To add in a nudge nudge wink wink of a ‘how to survive a horror movie’ mentality that Lexi has, in part due to being in one in her youth and in part due to her late husband’s book on the subject, just makes it all the more fun. It’s like having Randy and/or Mindy Meeks from the “Scream” Franchise yelling in our protagonist’s ear, and it absolutely worked for me as someone who is assuredly a Randy or Mindy Meeks kind of horror fan.

Duh. (source)

I thought that “Always the First to Die” was an entertaining thriller that will have some appeal for fans of slasher and horror movies. But you honestly don’t have to love the horror genre to find this book fun; if you are a lover of locked room mystery thrillers it will be a good addition to your to-read pile!

Rating 8: Addictive and compelling with a lot or horror movie reference icing, “Always the First to Die” is a fast paced thriller that will entertain slasher movie fans.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Always the First to Die” isn’t included on many Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Slasher Fiction (No Novelizations)”.

Kate’s Review: “After Dark with Roxie Clark”

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Book: “After Dark with Roxie Clark” by Brooke Lauren Davis

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury YA, October 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher at ALAAC22

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

Book Description: Roxie Clark has seen more dead bodies than your average seventeen-year-old. As a member of the supposedly-cursed Clark family, most of her ancestors have met tragic ends, including her own mother. Instead of fearing the curse, however, Roxie has combined her flair for performance and her gruesome family history into a successful ghost tour. But her tour never covers the most recent body she’s seen-her sister Skylar’s boyfriend, Colin Riley, found murdered in a cornfield.

A year after the murder, Roxie’s desperate to help Skylar find closure and start to heal. Instead, Skylar becomes fixated on finding the killer. As the sisters dig into what really happened, they discover that more than one person has been lying about that night. And the closer they get to the truth, the more Roxie starts to wonder if some scary stories might be better left untold. Brooke Lauren Davis offers another thought-provoking and eerily satisfying tale, perfect for fans of Kara Thomas and Cruel Summer

Review: Thank you to Bloomsbury YA for giving me an ARC of this book!

It’s been a few months now and I’m getting near the end of my ALAAC22 ARC stack, thinking back fondly of the conference and the massive suitcase sized haul of books I left with. So many end up being books I either grabbed on a whim, or those that were hyped by representatives of the publishing houses. “After Dark with Roxie Clark” by Brooke Lauren Davis was one of the more effective hype moments, as when walking by the table with the ARC, the rep overheard me saying something about horror. And she said ‘would a book about a Goth teenager who runs her own ghost tour business be of interest to you?’ What other possible response could I have had, other than

Between this woman and the woman who gave me the Spike book, the hype people were on point this past year (source).

And what the perfect premise for an October read. Ghost tours, a maudlin teenage girl, a murder mystery, a family curse? Hell yeah. Perfect spooky season reading.

In “After Dark with Roxie Clark” we meet Roxie, the aforementioned Goth girl who has her own ghost tour business, which takes stories from her own tragic family history and turns them into folklore that can help her process the angst around her family tree. Roxie is exactly the kind of character I would have loved as a teenage girl, as her love of all things horror and her spunky attitude would have spoken to me on every level. Even as a grown woman who still has that Goth girl in her I really loved Roxie. Did I need to suspend a little disbelief about her having a successful business? Sure. But independence and autonomy are big pluses in a teenage reader’s mind, so I am more than happy to forgive it. I liked her personality, I liked her wit, I just liked everything about her. I also liked the mystery at hand, about who killed Colin, her older sister Skylar’s boyfriend, and the brother of Roxie’s best friend (and crush) Tristan. I enjoyed how the worries of a Clark family curse enter into Roxie’s anxieties, and I liked how she and grief stricken Skylar team up after being distant to try and solve it (more on Skylar later….). In terms of the mystery itself, sure there were some things that were patently obvious as being red herrings, but there were definitely a few things that took me by surprise, and I mostly liked seeing Roxie grapple with the mystery at hand that is so personal to her, and how she has made a business of family tragedy, even if doing so in a respectful (in her mind) way. All of these things worked wonders for me.

The reason that this doesn’t have a higher rating is mostly because of my own personal struggles with one major aspect. That aspect is Skylar, Roxie’s older sister who is mourning the death of her boyfriend, and who is not coping well. I can’t even tell you why, as from what I can tell she is a pretty good representation of what terrible grief can do to a person when they don’t have the access to help that they need. But I had a very hard time with her as a character, and her actions as they try to figure out what happened to Colin, mostly because in her obsession and grief she does not care who she hurts, even if that person is her younger sister. I am grappling with the fact that I found a mourning and traumatized teenager wholly unlikable, and that may very well be something on my end, as she sure doesn’t have to be likable! But ruminating on it, I think it was more that a lot of it felt a bit overwrought, characterization wise, and with few peaks and valleys to it. Mourning and traumatized or not, I felt she was almost always at the highest level, and that gets a bit tiring.

But again, the mystery was taut, I was caught off guard by a few of the reveals, and Roxie as a character will surely be fun self insertion fantasy for Goth girls everywhere! “After Dark with Roxie Clark” is a great Halloween read for those who want to celebrate the season, but don’t want too much horror to go with it.

Rating 7: A solid YA mystery with a very enjoyable main character, “After Dark with Roxie Clark” is a good Halloween themed book for those who want an appropriate seasonal read without too much horror.

Reader’s Advisory:

“After Dark with Roxie Clark” is included on the Goodreads list “What To Read After Riverdale”.

Kate’s Review: “Jackal”

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Book: “Jackal” by Erin E. Adams

Publishing Info: Bantam, October 2022

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

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

Book Description: It’s watching.

Liz Rocher is coming home . . . reluctantly. As a Black woman, Liz doesn’t exactly have fond memories of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a predominantly white town. But her best friend is getting married, so she braces herself for a weekend of awkward and passive-aggressive reunions. Liz has grown, though; she can handle whatever awaits her. But on the day of the wedding, somewhere between dancing and dessert, the bride’s daughter, Caroline, goes missing—and the only thing left behind is a piece of white fabric covered in blood.

It’s taking.

As a frantic search begins, with the police combing the trees for Caroline, Liz is the only one who notices a pattern: a summer night. A missing girl. A party in the woods. She’s seen this before. Keisha Woodson, the only other Black girl in school, walked into the woods with a mysterious man and was later found with her chest cavity ripped open and her heart missing. Liz shudders at the thought that it could have been her, and now, with Caroline missing, it can’t be a coincidence. As Liz starts to dig through the town’s history, she uncovers a horrifying secret about the place she once called home. Children have been going missing in these woods for years. All of them Black. All of them girls.

It’s your turn.

With the evil in the forest creeping closer, Liz knows what she must do: find Caroline, or be entirely consumed by the darkness.

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

I love it when books I haven’t heard of wind up in my email, as it gives me a reason to expand my horizons a bit AND the potential to find a story I may not have discovered so quickly otherwise. When I opened up the email that described “Jackal” by Erin E. Adams, it had a number of traits that caught my eye. One, it’s described as horror, always a plus. Two, I’m always eager to read horror by authors of color. Three, the missing person thriller is always a subgenre I’m going to be all over. So I went into this book with anticipation, and I am happy to report that I was pretty happy with it!

As mentioned, I love a missing person story, and “Jackal” has that along with some supernatural beats. Adams slowly builds up the suspense and dread by showing us a few of the moments where other Black girls have gone missing and subsequently found with their hearts missing, culminating with our protagonist Liz, whose best friend’s daughter Caroline is the newest missing girl. Liz takes it upon herself to try and find Caroline, as the local police are dragging their feet, and she is considered a suspect due to the fact she was the last person to see Caroline at her mother Mel’s wedding. Though let’s be honest; it’s also because Liz is Black. As Liz tries to piece things together to find Caroline and clear her name, she starts to find a patter of other Black girls who have gone missing and wound up dead. I loved watching Liz find the clues, and was very affected by how the stakes get higher and higher and Liz gets more and more desperate. By the time we got to the supernatural reveal, it didn’t click QUITE as much for me as I had hoped it would, but I think that may be more on my own expectations on what was going on. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just kind of leave it at that. I do think this book is both thriller and horror overall, it’s just that the thriller elements were a bit stronger. It’s still a strong story, suspense wise.

But it’s the real life horrors of this book that really stand out. Adams effectively captures Liz’s experience in this small Rust Belt town, and how much Othering she felt because of her race, just as she captures the inaction taken by the authorities over missing Black girls in the community. Liz left Johnstown and rarely looked back, and when you see what it’s like for her when she returns you completely understand her need to get out. Some of the reasons are less obvious, like microaggressions she experiences from those around her, to the way she felt a need to conform to fit in. Others are more blatant, like the fact that her white best friend’s family is very clearly suspicious or dismissive of her even though they have known her for years and she has given no reason for them to be that way. And there is, of course, the maddening truths of a clear pattern of young Black girls disappearing and then ending up brutally killed, and the community just doesn’t really seem to care, leaving the loved ones left behind to mourn and suffer without any hope of justice. There are other more spoilery examples of this, some of which involve the way that goal posts are shifted by a racist society once Black people are able to find success for themselves, but I’m leaving that as is, once again. Just know these tidbits are far reaching and well conceived.

“Jackal” is suspenseful and eerie, an effective thriller with real life horrors to draw fear from. I am absolutely going to be looking at what Erin E. Adams does next.

Rating 8: A thrilling mystery with supernatural and horror elements, “Jackal” is a missing person story that has larger questions about societal and systemic racism.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Jackal” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mystery/Thriller/Detective Books Featuring and Written by Black Women (Part 4)”, and “Anticipated Literary Reads for Readers of Color 2022”.

Kate’s Review: “I’m The Girl”

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Book: “I’m The Girl” by Courtney Summers

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher at ALAAC22.

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

Book Description: The new groundbreaking queer thriller from New York Times bestselling and Edgar-award Winning author Courtney Summers.

When sixteen-year-old Georgia Avis discovers the dead body of thirteen-year-old Ashley James, she teams up with Ashley’s older sister, Nora, to find and bring the killer to justice before he strikes again. But their investigation throws Georgia into a world of unimaginable privilege and wealth, without conscience or consequence, and as Ashley’s killer closes in, Georgia will discover when money, power and beauty rule, it might not be a matter of who is guilty—but who is guiltiest.

A spiritual successor to the 2018 breakout hit, Sadie, I’m the Girl is a masterfully written, bold, and unflinching account of how one young woman feels in her body as she struggles to navigate a deadly and predatory power structure while asking readers one question: if this is the way the world is, do you accept it?

Review: Thank you to Wednesday Books for giving me an ARC of this novel!

Ever since I read “Sadie” by Courtney Summers, I knew that she was going to become one of my must read authors. “Sadie” kicked me in the gut, but I loved every minute of it because of it’s rawness. I was lucky enough to snag her newest book “I’m The Girl” at the Annual ALA Conference (well, Serena snagged it for me on our first night strategic ‘split up and find all the ARCs’ mission), but I knew that I would probably drag my feet on reading it for a bit. Just because I knew that she wasn’t going to pull punches in her newest thriller. She never does, you see. But I also knew that this one, with its haunting cover and somewhat vague description, was going to be something else. And when I did finally sit down and read it, it had my attention, even if it was another kick in the gut.

I will first and foremost say that this book, like most of Courtney Summers’s books, is a rough one. We do not shy away from pretty bleak but realistic issues, like grooming, sexualization of children, trauma, and rape, and it makes for a book that is filled to the brim with content warnings that should be heeded by those who have sensitivities. I am a fairly steely reader for the most part, but even this one had me deeply uncomfortable at a number of moments. But I think that it’s also important to be frank and candid about these things, especially if they are handled in a way that isn’t exploitative or titillating, and I think that Summers achieves that. If we are going to explore beauty as power and how, in turn, powerful people wish to exploit and own beautiful things and people, it’s important to look at what all that means, and I think that we do that here. Even when it’s dark and very disconcerting to do said exploration.

The mystery is the main artery of this story, as our protagonist Georgia stumbles upon the dead body of thirteen year old Ashley James, who was the missing daughter of the local deputy sheriff, after she herself was hit by the car of the potential perpetrator. George is recruited by Ashley’s sister Nora to help solve what happened, but there is a lot more to this story than a teenage murder mystery, and the complexity is deftly handled. George is also hoping to start working at the small town’s elite resort and social club Aspera, where celebrities, politicians, and other big wigs come from far and wide to experience the luxury provided by Matthew and Cleo Hayes and their done up employees, the women known as ‘Aspera Girls’. George’s mother was an Aspera girl until a scandal left her without a job, and while George has always been beautiful her mother, now deceased, always told her she wouldn’t belong. George is a very complicated character, whose foray in amateur detective-hood is overshadowed by her quest to fit into the opulence of Aspera, no matter the cost and no matter the sacrifice. Summers takes her time in unveiling bits and pieces of the plot, be it the mystery of what happened to Ashley, or the reasons that George is so desperate to join Aspera, and what she has tried to do to make herself stand out from the crowd in an effort to wield her beauty as the only power she feels she has. I did like the mystery overall, and I liked seeing George delve into the secrets of Aspera in connection to Ashley as she worked there, given that small town secrets are always okay in my book as a theme, and mysterious organizations are as well. I kind of figured out what was going on in regards to Ashley, but ultimately that isn’t the point of this book. This is more an exploration of the ways that girls are told they can be powerful, but how those in power can also take that power away in insidious ways. Especially if there is wealth and disenfranchisement involved between the players. And it all set me on edge, even as I tore through it over the course of a couple nights.

“I’m The Girl” is another triumph by Courtney Summers that looks into the void and doesn’t sugar coat what it sees. People will need to steel themselves for this one, but I think it’s powerful reading all the same.

Rating 9: Dark, powerful, and gritty to the bone, “I’m The Girl” is another unnerving YA thriller from Courtney Summers.

Reader’s Advisory:

“I’m The Girl” is included on the Goodreads lists “If You Love Veronica Mars… YA Books”, and “#MeToo”.

Kate’s Review: “You’re Invited”

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

Book: “You’re Invited” by Amanda Jayatissa

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, August 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

Book Description: From the author of My Sweet Girl comes a dangerously addictive new thriller about a lavish Sri Lankan wedding celebration that not everyone will survive.

When Amaya is invited to Kaavi’s over-the-top wedding in Sri Lanka, she is surprised and a little hurt to hear from her former best friend after so many years of radio silence. But when Amaya learns that the groom is her very own ex-boyfriend, she is consumed by a single thought: She must stop the wedding from happening, no matter the cost.

But as the weeklong wedding celebrations begin and rumors about Amaya’s past begin to swirl, she can’t help but feel like she also has a target on her back. When Kaavi goes missing and is presumed dead, all evidence points to Amaya. However, nothing is as it seems as Jayatissa expertly unravels that each wedding guest has their own dark secret and agenda, and Amaya may not be the only one with a plan to keep the bride from getting her happily ever after

Review: I always look forward to seeing what Book of the Month has in store for the monthly picks, and while I am egregiously behind in keeping up with my BOTM picks, I will prioritize ones that look especially interesting. So naturally, when I saw that one of the picks this summer was “You’re Invited” by Amanda Jayatissa, I was pretty stoked. I had mostly enjoyed “My Sweet Girl”, her previous thriller, and while it had stumbled in some ways I liked Jayatissa’s voice and perspective. And honestly, the idea of a lavish wedding being thrown into upheaval due to a bride going missing, possibly due to a jealous ex friend, is just too good to pass up. I LOVE A GOOD WEDDING MESS!

We all know I love drama, and wedding drama is a special kind of drama. (source)

Jayatissa has once again given us a protagonist who makes a lot of questionable choices and is clearly hiding something not only from those around her, but also from the reader. This time it’s Amaya, a woman born in Sri Lanka who is now living in the U.S., and seems to be on the verge of emotional collapse. When she finds out her former best friend Kaavi is getting married to her ex boyfriend Spencer, and having a lavish wedding in Sri Lanka, Amaya is dead set on stopping the nuptials. Amaya clearly has things bubbling beneath the surface, as it is clear she is damaged and unstable in a lot of ways, and I just couldn’t wait to see just what was going on. Because obviously there’s a bit more to it than a potential backstabbing from people she used to know (though admittedly on paper that sure does sound infuriating). In terms of the mystery itself, I enjoyed the way that it was set up and slowly unveiled, through both first person POVs (namely of Amaya and Kaavi, jumping through the timeline a bit between them) and also transcripts of the official police interviews as they investigate Kaavi’s disappearance. It’s a good way to get a lot of different perspectives not only on the mystery itself, but also on our protagonist and the potential victim that she may or may not have been entangled with right before the disappearance. It makes for a mix of unreliability AND clarity, depending on how the pieces fall into place. I found myself able to guess some of the twists, but was genuinely surprised by others, and the pacing was quick and snappy so that I was propelled forward and fully engaged in the plot and how it was all going to turn out.

All that said, I did think that some of the twists were a little haphazard and cobbled together to make for higher drama when there probably didn’t need to be as such. One of them was even the kind that I just don’t like in that it was thrown in basically at the las moment, as one final shock to the narrative. I’ve complained about this kind of thing in the past, and I’m pretty sure that I had that gripe with Jayatissa’s previous novel “My Sweet Girl”. What I will say about this one was that it wasn’t so involved that it completely changed the outcome of the story in the last few paragraphs, but sometimes that’s even more frustrating because then what even is the point of doing such a thing outside of just being able to say ‘well maybe I gave you one last shock’. I don’t really need one last shock so close to the end, and unless you REALLY earn it, it’s usually going to be the kind of thing that leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Sour taste aside, “You’re Invited” was entertaining, soapy, and suspenseful enough that I enjoyed my time reading it. Amanda Jayatissa is definitely going to be one of those authors I want to read, and I am very interested to see what her next book is going to be!

Rating 7: A couple twists felt out of left field and unearned, but overall I found this to be engaging and entertaining.

Reader’s Advisory:

“You’re Invited” is included on the Goodreads lists “Wedding Mysteries & Thrillers”, and “Books by Sri Lankan Authors About Sri Lanka”.

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