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”


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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”.

Kate’s Review: “Kismet”

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Book: “Kismet” by Amina Akhtar

Publishing Info: Thomas & Mercer, August 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

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

Book Description: From Amina Akhtar comes a viciously funny thriller about wellness—the smoothies, the secrets, and the deliciously deadly impulses.

Lifelong New Yorker Ronnie Khan never thought she’d leave Queens. She’s not an “aim high, dream big” person—until she meets socialite wellness guru Marley Dewhurst. Marley isn’t just a visionary; she’s a revelation. Seduced by the fever dream of finding her best self, Ronnie makes for the desert mountains of Sedona, Arizona.

Healing yoga, transcendent hikes, epic juice cleanses…Ronnie consumes her new bougie existence like a fine wine. But is it, really? Or is this whole self-care business a little sour?

When the glam gurus around town start turning up gruesomely murdered, Ronnie has her answer: all is not well in wellness town. As Marley’s blind ambition veers into madness, Ronnie fears for her life.

Review: I am not, nor have I ever been, someone who buys into influencer stuff, especially not ‘wellness’ influencers. Yes, my husband and I have a Peloton that I am constantly trying to get into a solid routine with, and yes, I’ve tried yoga, and meditation. But that’s about as far as I go. AND EVEN THEN I feel like I’m constantly stopping and starting, no matter how much I love having Cody Rigsby tell me that I’m fierce, babe! But I’m also super interested in the drama around influencers and some of the dirt you hear about the wellness community, but that’s just because I love a good mess. And that is probably why I was very interested in reading “Kismet” by Amina Akhtar. For one, the cover is gorgeous. I’m not as big into book covers as Serena, but this one just snagged my attention the moment I saw it. And then when I saw that it was a satirical thriller that pokes fun at the wellness movement, much like her previous book “#FashionVictim” did for the fashion industry, that just clinched it. I had to read it.

Me to this book as I clicked it open on my Kindle. (source)

In terms of working as a thriller, “Kismet” has all the elements to lead to general success. We have an engaging protagonist in Ronnie, a young woman who is trying to start a new leaf after years of living with her abusive aunt Shameem. She has recently found confidence thanks to her life coach turned friend Marley, an aspiring wellness influencer who convinced her to sell her home and move to Sedona, Arizona, a wellness based community. Ronnie has self doubt issues which makes it easy to care for her, and easy to believe that she may not trust her judgement as things start to take a turn for the strange, to the violent. We also have a mystery of a mysterious person murdering predatory wellness influencer superstars in the community, perhaps partially at the behest of the local raven population. Seeing Ronnie try to become her own person while starting to realize that she may be getting close to a murderer makes for a suspenseful mystery, though perhaps not in ways I was expecting. There were a lot of good moments of suspense, as well as some good twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, and the murders are both disturbing but also kind of tongue in cheek as some truly reprehensible people get picked off one by one. It really made it so I couldn’t put the book down as I charged forth to find out just what was going on.

But the aspect of this book that really hit it out of the park was how Akhtar so effortlessly satirizes and dismantles the idea of ‘wellness’ culture in our society, and how fraudulent, isolating, privileged, and, yes, racist it can be. The community Ronnie and Marley join has an open and body positive/health conscious demeanor and facade, but from the jump there are numerous problematic aspects to it. Be it people appropriating aspects of other cultures to make money, or disrespecting the environment around them, or hostility towards the Other (namely Ronnie, the only person of color in the community), Akhtar skewers the concepts that are thrown around by wellness influencers and has a very fun time making the community more and more unhinged whilst seeking out crystals, spiritual connection, and a like minded, albeit cult-like, group of neighbors. There is also a good exploration of white women weaponizing their race against women of color, as the friendship between Ronnie and Marley is codependent at best, and deteriorates into something far more toxic, with Marley hurling microaggressions, condescension, and then potential violence towards someone whom she supposedly loves like a sister. The community itself, with a few exceptions, is just as bad towards Ronnie, and it’s a very effective way of showing how this supposedly positive, wellness minded ethos is very much for a certain kind of person, all others to be either fetishized or looked upon with suspicion. It’s some great satire, and it has teeth.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Kismet”. And I think I will stick to my wellness routine of the exercise bike, quick meditation, and the occasional bath bombed soak in the tub.

Rating 9: Addictive, biting, funny, and genuinely surprising, “Kismet” is a hell of a fun read that satirizes an industry that could use a good ribbing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Kismet” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2022”.

Kate’s Review: “Shutter”

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Book: “Shutter” by Ramona Emerson

Publishing Info: Soho Crime, August 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC of this novel at ALAAC22.

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

Book Description: This blood-chilling debut set in New Mexico’s Navajo Nation is equal parts gripping crime thriller, supernatural horror, and poignant portrayal of coming of age on the reservation.

Rita Todacheene is a forensic photographer working for the Albuquerque police force. Her excellent photography skills have cracked many cases—she is almost supernaturally good at capturing details. In fact, Rita has been hiding a secret: she sees the ghosts of crime victims who point her toward the clues that other investigators overlook.

As a lone portal back to the living for traumatized spirits, Rita is terrorized by nagging ghosts who won’t let her sleep and who sabotage her personal life. Her taboo and psychologically harrowing ability was what drove her away from the Navajo reservation, where she was raised by her grandmother. It has isolated her from friends and gotten her in trouble with the law. And now it might be what gets her killed.

When Rita is sent to photograph the scene of a supposed suicide on a highway overpass, the furious, discombobulated ghost of the victim—who insists she was murdered—latches onto Rita, forcing her on a quest for revenge against her killers, and Rita finds herself in the crosshairs of one of Albuquerque’s most dangerous cartels. Written in sparkling, gruesome prose, Shutter is an explosive debut from one of crime fiction’s most powerful new voices.

Review: Thank you to Soho Crime for giving me an ARC of this novel!

Before I went out to the ALA Annual Conference this summer, I made a list of books that I wanted to look for in potential ARC form. I also sat down and tried to figure out which publishing house was where on the map so I could be the most efficient in finding said potential books. There were some that I put little stars next to, denoting that these were the books I was most excited for, and “Shutter” by Ramona Emerson was one of those books. I had stumbled upon the description of this book online, and it just called out to me. An Indigenous author combining a gritty detective procedural with a story of a woman who can see ghosts at the crime scene she photographs? In Albuquerque, when New Mexico is one of my favorite states?! HELL YES I WANT THIS BOOK! And I was so thrilled when it was available. I finally sat down to read it about a month after the conference, and let me tell you, I was not disappointed.

The first big thing is that, as we all know, I am a HUGE sucker for stories with people who can see ghosts. I love the idea of a person communicating with the dead, and so help me, if it helps solve a crime and gets tangled up in a procedural setting, I am going to be SO ON TOP OF THAT. And Emerson nails that entire concept here with a really likable medium protagonist, a well established psychic connection to the dead, and how that can both help and hinder her (and it’s mostly hinder her) in her professional and day to day life. I love the idea of the dead not being at all chill about finding someone they think can help them, and then becoming so obsessed with her that THAT is one of the scariest things. In so many stories like this the medium just assists the ghosts because that’s just the right thing to do. In “Shutter”, the ghost in question, Erma, is a complete psychotic asshole who is making Ramona’s life a living hell, and watching it escalate is creepy and scary. I also liked the kinder and gentler interactions between Ramona and ghosts, mostly those from her childhood where her deceased grandfather would come to visit. But along with all that, I also LOVED how Emerson brings an Indigenous perspective to this, and how for Ramona as a Navajo woman seeing the dead is incredibly taboo and something that makes those in her community wary of her, as well as worried for her. Because of this, she cuts herself off from her culture in some ways, and it reflects a lot of the tragic ways that Indigenous people can lose grasps on their identities in a reality that doesn’t involve ghosts.

But this is also a solid procedural thriller, that mixes in gritty detective drama, cartel threats, and a very real and malevolent undercurrent of police corruption that is rotting at the systemic level. While it is true that Erma is a pain in the ass and genuinely creepy at times, the real threat to Ramona is getting too close to not only dangerous drug runners, but also realizing that the supposed ‘good guys’ that she works with can be just and threatening, as law enforcement has its own problems with violent, dangerous people working within it. Emerson also addresses how Rita, as an Indigenous woman, had bad run ins with police as a kid, where she tried to use her powers to help solve a murder, but then was zeroed in on as a potential suspect as opposed to someone with information. Sometimes procedurals get lost in the idea of good police working against the odds, and maybe address a smattering of bad cops here or there while being sure to show that the hero cops are righteous and true. I always kind of like it more these days when stories about law enforcement, even those that follow detectives and police, are more honest about the serious problems law enforcement in this country has in regards to racism and corruption, and “Shutter” addresses it very well.

If you love a good detective story, and if you love a good story about people who talk to ghosts, absolutely pick up “Shutter”. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rating 8: Heavy, creepy, and suspenseful, “Shutter” is an awesome horror twist on a procedural mystery.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Shutter” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Not the ‘Normal’ Paranormal”.

Kate’s Review: “Mademoiselle Revolution”

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Book: “Mademoiselle Revolution” by Zoe Sivak

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, August 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: A powerful, engrossing story of a biracial heiress who escapes to Paris when the Haitian Revolution burns across her island home. But as she works her way into the inner circle of Robespierre and his mistress, she learns that not even oceans can stop the flames of revolution.

Sylvie de Rosiers, as the daughter of a rich planter and an enslaved woman, enjoys the comforts of a lady in 1791 Saint-Domingue society. But while she was born to privilege, she was never fully accepted by island elites. After a violent rebellion begins the Haitian Revolution, Sylvie and her brother leave their family and old lives behind to flee unwittingly into another uprising–in austere and radical Paris. Sylvie quickly becomes enamored with the aims of the Revolution, as well as with the revolutionaries themselves–most notably Maximilien Robespierre and his mistress, Cornélie Duplay.

As a rising leader and abolitionist, Robespierre sees an opportunity to exploit Sylvie’s race and abandonment of her aristocratic roots as an example of his ideals, while the strong-willed Cornélie offers Sylvie safe harbor and guidance in free thought. Sylvie battles with her past complicity in a slave society and her future within this new world order as she finds herself increasingly torn between Robespierre’s ideology and Cornélie’s love.

When the Reign of Terror descends, Sylvie must decide whether to become an accomplice while a new empire rises on the bones of innocents…or risk losing her head

Review: Thank you to Berkley Books for sending me access to an eARC of this novel via NetGalley!

I remember a few years ago I was at a party that was thrown by a former work colleague, and I was sitting on the couch with my friend Scott as we played introverts and talked to each other for almost two hours as we caught up and enjoyed each other’s company. We ended up talking about the ills of society, and he made some comment about guillotines and the French Revolution, and as I sipped my mixed drink I said ‘yeah, but then you get Robespierre. I don’t want Robespierre!’ I’ve had a chip on my shoulder about Robespierre ever since we learned about the French Revolution in tenth grade. Like, what a dick! A timeless tale of someone who had good intentions but then was completely corrupted by power and then turned into a goddamn blood soaked monster in an effort to hold onto his power.

It’s a weird angry fixation I have, but it’s mine all the same. (source)

Needless to say, when I found an email from Berkley Books in my folder tempting me with “Mademoiselle Revolution”, a story about a biracial woman who fled Haiti during their Revolution only to find herself cozying up to Robespierre during the French Revolution, I was immediately on board. BRING ON THE ROBESPIERRE DISSECTION AND HOPEFULLY SLANDER!

But even better, “Mademoiselle Revolution” is a story that has a deeply resonant heart, centered by its protagonist Sylvie de Rosiers, a biracial woman who grew up in privilege due to her father’s status as a plantation owner, though her mother was one of the enslaved women he owned whom he raped and exploited. Sylvie was raised in her father’s home and treated like family, though her lineage and the color of her skin made it so she never truly belonged, even as she got to live in lavish luxury while other people who looked like her were being subjected to daily brutality and dehumanization. It is when the Haitian Revolution is at her doorstep and her family flees that Sylvie starts to grapple with the Otherness she has always dealt with, and her complicity to a system that she had the privilege to be mostly removed from. It makes for a complex and nuanced character from the jump, and it sets up to make all of her choices, once she and her loving brother Gaspard end up in Paris, make perfect sense. I really loved seeing Sylvie evolve in this story as she tries to make up for her complicity, and how she dives head first into the romanticism and justice seeking angles of the rumbling French Revolution as she gets close to Robespierre and his lover Cornélie, and how her guilt and optimism and naïveté send her into dangerous waters. Sivak tackles the racial politics and racism of the time and the cultures at hand with deftness, and shows the seeming contradictions of Sylvie’s experiences with ease and in a way that makes it very understandable. She is also that really well done main character who interacts with historical figures without feeling like it’s overdone or unrealistic. Sylvie’s role is well conceived enough that I totally bought into all of the scenarios and relationships that Sivak put her in, and that says a lot. Because Sylvie does a LOT.

I also really liked how Sivak shows that complexities of a group of true believers whose hearts start in the right place, and then become corrupted as time goes on. That’s my biggest issue with Robespierre at the end of the day; he wasn’t wrong about the corruption and the violence of the French Aristocracy. But when you start cutting the heads off of anyone you please because you THINK they may disagree with you, that’s when you become a whole other problem. And Sivak has a lot of horrifying moments in this book that really hit home how off point the message became, which led to a lot of suffering and then Napoleon friggin’ Bonaparte. There is one scene in particular that involved a severed head being put on display around town, specifically in a cafe, and used in a way that is SO dehumanizing and disgusting that it made my blood run cold. Sivak does a fantastic job of showing just how horrific the Reign of Terror, and the violence leading up to it, was, and how people like Robespierre are more than willing to exploit and use people like Sylvie to get what they want. It is intense and it makes for some very suspenseful moments, and that is why I am classifying this as a thriller as well as an historical fiction title. It’s absolutely harrowing at times, watching the walls close in on the circle of revolutionaries as they turn on each other.

I really enjoyed “Mademoiselle Revolution”. It is sure to wow fans of political thrillers and historical fiction alike. Go out and get your hands on this book!

Rating 9: Engaging, intense, and harrowing, “Mademoiselle Revolution” is a historical political thriller that explores identity, race, revolution, and the dangers of fanaticism.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mademoiselle Revolution” is included on the Goodreads lists “Historical Fiction – The Caribbean”, and “Historical Fiction – France”.

Kate’s Review: “The Devil Takes You Home”

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Book: “The Devil Takes You Home” by Gabino Iglesias

Publishing Info: Mulholland Books, August 2022

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley and an ARC from the publisher at ALA.

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

Book Description: From Bram Stoker, Anthony, and Locus award-nominated author, Gabino Iglesias, comes a genre-defying thriller about a father desperate to salvage what’s left of his family, even if it means a descent into violence–both supernatural and of our own terrifying world.

Buried in debt due to his young daughter’s illness, his marriage at the brink, Mario reluctantly takes a job as a hitman, surprising himself with his proclivity for violence. After tragedy destroys the life he knew, Mario agrees to one final job: hijack a cartel’s cash shipment before it reaches Mexico. Along with an old friend and a cartel-insider named Juanca, Mario sets off on the near-suicidal mission, which will leave him with either a cool $200,000 or a bullet in the skull. But the path to reward or ruin is never as straight as it seems. As the three complicated men travel through the endless landscape of Texas, across the border and back, their hidden motivations are laid bare alongside nightmarish encounters that defy explanation. One thing is certain: even if Mario makes it out alive, he won’t return the same.

The Devil Takes You Home is a panoramic odyssey for fans of S.A. Cosby’s southern noir, Blacktop Wasteland, by way of the boundary-defying storytelling of Stephen Graham Jones and Sylvia Moreno-Garcia

Review: Thank you to NetGalley and to Mulholland Books for giving me an eARC and an ARC of this novel!

I had been hearing about “The Devil Takes You Home” by Gabino Iglesias for a number of months, either on social media or on buzzy book lists. It was one that was definitely on my list, given that I enjoyed Iglesias’s previous book “Coyote Songs”, so when I had the opportunity to read it via NetGalley AND through an ARC I got at ALA, I was eager, but nervous to start. I knew that Iglesias wasn’t going to pull punches, and the description alone tipped me off that this was probably going to be supremely creepy, and also very sad. And reader, I was right. Iglesias just kicked me in my feelings AND set me on the edge of my seat in this part horror story, part cartel thriller, part indictment of American society and the tragedies it creates through its apathy.

The supernatural horrors that Iglesias describes and explores were super, super unsettling, using an air of mystery and ambiguity to fuel them. Just as Mario doesn’t know what he is seeing in the tunnels or out in the desert, we too don’t know, outside of glimpses and short descriptions of things that just don’t sound right. A potential psychic gift that is growing louder. Creatures that sound perhaps humanoid-ish, but which are feral and grotesque. Witchcraft and rituals harkening to the Narcosatánicos conjures up seemingly impossible acts, with the dead coming to life for a fleeting moment to descend upon enemies. Rituals end with otherworldly goo that is then used as a blessing of sorts. A story of a man whose barn was inhabited by a strange being. All of these moments were fleeting, and we didn’t linger to understand or to get an explanation, and honestly that made it all the scarier.

But then it was the real life horrors that REALLY got under my skin. Iglesias doesn’t put too much focus on the magical or otherworldly terrors, but he lasers in on the very real terrors of cartel violence, systemic racism, torture, and childhood illness and brings out so much dread and devastation. I found myself having to put the book down after a particularly devastating moment, but it always feels like there is a purpose and meaning behind the most devastating beats. Iglesias also knows how to capture the rage and trauma and grief that Mario is feeling after his family is ripped asunder by his daughter Anita’s illness, and how a child dying of leukemia is the greatest horror of this book should you be a parent of a young kid (and hello, that is me, so you know I was just reeling in despair). Iglesias doesn’t hold back on the realism that comes with the violence and the violent world that Mario inhabits, and you find yourself horrified by some of the things he does, but you also completely understand it as he is grief stricken AND up to his ears in medical debt. The clear line of society causing so many ills due to capitalism, racism, and class warfare cuts through the pages of this novel, and the desperation of some of our characters drives them into this dark journey in which we are passengers. It mixes horror and thriller and spits out something wholly unique. As I was reading it it felt almost dreamlike, which I imagine is the point, as Mario certainly doesn’t know what is reality and what is in his head as the journey goes on.

“The Devil Takes You Home” is scary and tragic, a cartel thriller and a ghoul-ridden horror tale at once, and it left me breathless by the end. Steel yourself for this one, both in the vivid moments of violence, but also the tragedy of a parent at the end of their rope.

Rating 9: Dark and genre bending, “The Devil Takes You Home” is incredibly tense, unwaveringly scary, and is both bleak and dreamlike.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Devil Takes You Home” would fit in on the Goodreads list “Diverse Horror”.

Kate’s Review: “Deadly Setup”

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Book: “Deadly Setup” by Lynn Slaughter

Publishing Info: Fire and Ice, July 2022

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

Where You Can Get This Book: Amazon

Book Description: When her impulsive, romance-writing mom announces her engagement to a man whose last heiress wife died under suspicious circumstances, Sam tries to dissuade her mother. But her mom is convinced she’ll finally have the “Happily Ever After” she writes about.

And then Sam’s life implodes. Her mom’s fiancé turns up dead, and a mountain of circumstantial evidence points to Sam as the killer. On trial for murder, she fights to prove her innocence with the help of her boyfriend’s dad, an ex-homicide cop.

Moonbeam Children’s Book Award bronze medalist and Agatha Christie award nominee, Lynn Slaughter returns with a new YA thriller pushing the envelope on coming-of-age stories. Dark yet hopeful, Deadly Setup shows that wealth truly doesn’t buy happiness.

Review: Thank you to Fire and Ice for sending me an ARC of this novel!

I remember being a teenager and watching “Law and Order” with my Dad on Wednesday nights once my homework was done (mostly…). I really enjoyed watching the detectives investigate a crime, and then watching the lawyers try the defendant, all for it to wrap up in about an hour’s time. As we’d watch my Dad, who was also a lawyer, would give me tips and tidbits on how the trial stuff worked as the story unfolded. It was solid bonding time. I kept thinking about this stuff as I read “Deadly Setup” by Lynn Slaughter, and how teenage me would have loved a book where a teenager was on trial for a crime she didn’t commit.

The thing that really stood out in a positive way in this novel is that the main focus of the conflict is in a fairly unique setting. In so many YA thrillers I’ve read (and adult thrillers too, thinking about it) the center of the action is in the investigation of a murder or crime. Usually the main character is an outside player, or they are a potential suspect and are using the limited time they have to clear their name. In “Deadly Setup”, we get into a full on courtroom drama that reminds me of some of Jodi Picoult’s earlier works. As someone who devoured a lot of Picoult’s older books specifically because of the courtroom aspects, and who, as mentioned above, really liked the original “Law and Order” specifically to watch Jack McCoy go through the courtroom motions, this really clicked with me. Slaughter takes on a lot of ins and outs and mechanics of how a murder trial would work, from witnesses to various functions of the lawyers to strategies either side would implement, and I think it’s so cool that she did this in a YA novel. It’s a really good way to show the audience that trials themselves can be completely nutty and that a lot of thriller dramatics can be found in a courtroom. I NEED MORE COURTROOM DRAMAS IN MY READING STACK!

The flip side of all of this is that outside of Sam, a lot of the characters are pretty two dimensional. I thought that Sam herself was an enjoyable character, and I really felt the stress and tension and loneliness of her situation. And as our protagonist it’s good that I liked her and was invested in her journey and fate. But almost everyone else was pretty standard for the tropes that they were filling, most of which being her mother Meryl. Meryl is a cookie cutter bad mother, as she’s narcissistic, verbally cruel, willing to believe her sleazy boyfriend of a couple months over her own daughter, and more than happy to play the victim and center herself. I have no doubt that there are mothers out there like this. Hell, I have FRIENDS who have mothers like this. But I think that the problem was that her dialogue and actions were very over the top villainous. This is also seen in the victim, Meryl’s fiancé, who is clearly a dangerous gold digging predator from the jump, and while I am a okay with him being an obvious lout, it’s laid on pretty thick here. Most of the antagonists are, really. When you throw that in with some clunky dialogue here and there and a mystery solution that is a little too hinted at a little too early, the building blocks of the story feel a little shaky. Not in a way that damages the concept overall, mind you, as I did enjoy it as I was reading. But it has awkward beats because of all these things.

But I do enjoy a courtroom drama, and “Deadly Setup” has that and how! I think that the audience this is catered to will have a really unique reading experience with this one given the crux of the drama! Jack McCoy would probably approve.

Rating 7: A good concept and some really good time spent in a courtroom drama setting, though the characters were a bit two dimensional and some of the writing was a bit stilted.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Deadly Setup” is included on the Goodreads lists “Legal Thrillers”, and “Best Books for Teens by Indie Authors“.

Kate’s Review: “Things We Do in the Dark”

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Book: “Things We Do in the Dark” by Jennifer Hillier

Publishing Info: Minotaur Books, July 2022

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

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

Book Description: When Paris Peralta is arrested in her own bathroom—covered in blood, holding a straight razor, her celebrity husband dead in the bathtub behind her—she knows she’ll be charged with murder. But as bad as this looks, it’s not what worries her the most. With the unwanted media attention now surrounding her, it’s only a matter of time before someone from her long hidden past recognizes her and destroys the new life she’s worked so hard to build, along with any chance of a future.

Twenty-five years earlier, Ruby Reyes, known as the Ice Queen, was convicted of a similar murder in a trial that riveted Canada in the early nineties. Reyes knows who Paris really is, and when she’s unexpectedly released from prison, she threatens to expose all of Paris’s secrets. Left with no other choice, Paris must finally confront the dark past she escaped, once and for all.

Because the only thing worse than a murder charge are two murder charges.

Things We Do in the Dark is a brilliant new thriller from Jennifer Hillier, the award-winning author of the breakout novels Little Secrets and Jar of Hearts. Paris Peralta is suspected of killing her celebrity husband, and her long-hidden past now threatens to destroy her future.

Review: Thank you to Minotaur Books for sending me an ARC of this novel!

Jennifer Hillier is an author whose novels always get under my skin because of how creepy and unsettling they are. Every year I am on the look out for news of a new book, and imagine how excited I was when Serena handed me some book mail and included was her new novel “Things We Do in the Dark”! While I’m always down for eARCs, print ARCs are just so satisfying to hold in my hand. I saved this one for my plane ride out to D.C., and boy, did I get sucked totally in.

Hillier has once again written a thriller that has a lot of twists and turns with complex build up, interesting characters, and explorations of darker themes that don’t bog down the story. We are dealing with two mysteries in this book, both involving our protagonist Paris Peralta. The first, and most obvious, is the death of her husband Jimmy, an aging comedian who was on the edge of a comeback. Paris was found in the bathroom next to his dead body, with a straight razor in her hand. The second is a bit more convoluted, as Paris has been receiving letter from a convicted murderer name Ruby Reyes, who is threatening to expose OTHER secrets from Paris’s past. It isn’t super clear as to how these two stories connect from the get go, but Hillier relies on the patience of her readers as she slowly starts to drop clues, give background, and introduce us to a whole cast of characters who have secrets, vendettas, painful memories, and regrets. We would jump from Paris’s murder charge, and then we’d go to learn more about Ruby Reyes and the horrible things that SHE did, mostly through the eyes of a podcaster who was friends with her deceased daughter Joey who, like Paris, doesn’t want her to get out on parole, though for different reasons. It takes time to understand how Paris connects to Ruby, but while the burn is slow the payoff is great, and every time I thought I had something figured out, I would realize that there were actually things that I had missed. IN terms of the two mysteries, Hillier balances them both and I liked both of them quite a lot, especially after they merged.

But what makes Hillier’s stories stand out from other thrillers is that she tackles some pretty dark themes without letting them overwhelm the story. Paris is a Filipino American whose race has been a factor that has led to whispers about her relationship with her husband, and she has tried to fit in within an upper class lifestyle in spite of the racism (and classism) she’s had to deal with her entire life. We also look into her past as a survivor of various things, and how her poverty stricken childhood within a dangerous and abusive home situation has made her strive to escape a dark past. Paris has issues, Paris has secrets, but she is always intriguing and compelling as she tries to clear her name… and to also keep her secrets at bay. With these dark elements, however, come content warnings, and I want to mention that there are moments of sexual abuse, parental abuse, and other intense subjects. Hillier is careful to make sure that it doesn’t get super graphic or super exploitative, but it’s just good to know.

I really liked “Things We Do in the Dark”. Hillier is a must read thriller author for me, hands down, and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next!

Rating 8: A thrilling novel about trauma, identity, and the secrets we keep.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Things We Do in the Dark” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery and Thriller 2022”.

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

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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”.

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