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

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

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Everyone in Fairview knows the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

Kate’s Review: “Don’t Look For Me”

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

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

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

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

But is that what really happened to Molly Clarke?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

Kate’s Review: “One by One”

50892433._sy475_Book: “One by One” by Ruth Ware

Publishing Info: Scott Press, September 2020

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

Book Description: The #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Turn of the Key and In a Dark Dark Wood returns with another suspenseful thriller set on a snow-covered mountain.

Getting snowed in at a beautiful, rustic mountain chalet doesn’t sound like the worst problem in the world, especially when there’s a breathtaking vista, a cozy fire, and company to keep you warm. But what happens when that company is eight of your coworkers…and you can’t trust any of them?

When an off-site company retreat meant to promote mindfulness and collaboration goes utterly wrong when an avalanche hits, the corporate food chain becomes irrelevant and survival trumps togetherness. Come Monday morning, how many members short will the team be?

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

We are leaving the summer months here in Minnesota and I, for one, am actually actively dreading winter this time around. That isn’t my usual M.O., as someone who likes cold better than heat, but given that heat is the only way we can in person socialize with people right now, weather wise, this Minnesota Winter is going to be even more isolating than usual.

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Yes, I’ve been a Debbie Downer during the pandemic. Look for a more cheerful Kate in 2021 (hopefully). (source)

But all that said, I do try to remind myself that it can always be worse, so at least I’m not going to be stuck in an avalanche ravaged chalet with a potential murderer on the loose, right? That brings us to “One by One”, the new mystery thriller from Ruth Ware! I have mostly enjoyed Ware’s takes on the whodunnit murder mystery, so I was eager to read her newest foray into the genre.

Like what we can usually expect from Ware, “One by One” is an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery where isolation is the name of the game, someone ends up dead, and almost everyone is a suspect because they all have motive, means, and opportunity. This time we dive into the world of Start Ups, when the team behind music app Snoop go on a mountain retreat to get some skiing in while discussing the future of the company. We have two narrative perspectives we follow. The first is of Erin, one of the employees at the Chalet whose job is to make everyone’s stay a happy one. The other is Liz, a former employee who doesn’t seem to fit in with the posh and entitled rest. Both women have their secrets, their traumas, and their parts to play. I feel like we mostly got a sense of what both women were about, though that said Erin definitely felt a little more well characterized than Liz at times. But for the most part by the time I was done with the book and the characters, I felt like both Erin and Liz played their parts well. Heck, most of the characters, even the ones that we didn’t get into the minds of, were drawn well enough that they felt believable in their actions and attitudes. Topher, the co-founder and one of the heads of Snoop, was especially intriguing to follow from out outsider perspective, as his smarm and ambition would occasionally give way to a complex person, depending on whether it was Liz or Erin that was perceiving him in that moment, and therefore shaping the reader’s perceptions of him. We got to see that for a few of the characters, actually, and it was a fun device to show that people have multiple sides to themselves.

The mystery itself was fairly standard, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I sort of figured it out before it all came together, but that didn’t make the journey any less enjoyable. I thought that the setting of a mountain retreat was a fun isolation tactic, and seeing the characters start to unravel as their situation became more dire and murdery was suspenseful, with questions as to who would be next on the chopping block always in the back of the mind. Throw in a unique and pulse pounding climax and I was kept on the edge of my seat, wondering if the characters I liked were going to be safe and the ones who were doing wrong were going to get their comeuppance. My one complaint was that the book felt a need to wrap up a number of ends after the fact, which just made for the ending to feel a little too long and drawn out long after the high tension of the climax was gone. On top of that, a few reveals were left for afterwards as well, when they probably should have been addressed earlier. I feel that had Ware put some of those solutions into other parts of the book it would have worked out a little better, as it threw off the tone as the story was wrapping up. It didn’t ruin the story as a whole, but it did give me a little bit of pause when I should have just been riding out the final pages.

“One by One” is going to be a fun mystery for the autumn and winter as we isolate in our homes and ride out our own storms. Ruth Ware is a reliable distraction during times when reliability is something we need more of.

Rating 8: Suspenseful, twist filled, and appropriately isolated, “One by One” is another fun mystery from Ruth Ware!

Reader’s Advisory:

“One by One” is included on the Goodreads lists “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, and Thrillers 2020”, and “Upcoming Books That Sound Cool” (seems subjective but that title just tickles me).

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

Kate’s Review: “Rico Stays”

53148827._sx318_Book: “Rico Stays” by Ed Duncan

Publishing Info: Independently Published, May 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a print copy from Book Publicity Services.

Book Description: After enforcer Richard “Rico” Sanders stepped in to protect his girlfriend from a local mob boss’s hot-headed nephew, all hell broke loose.

When the smoke cleared, the nephew had vanished, but three goons who had tried to help him lay dying where they’d stood. Fighting for his life, Rico was alive but gravely wounded.

Out of the hospital but not fully recovered, he needed a place to crash – a place where he wouldn’t be found by men who surely would be looking. A place like the cabin owned by lawyer Paul Elliott, whose life Rico had saved more than once. Trouble was, Paul’s girlfriend hadn’t forgotten Rico’s dark history. Or Paul’s fascination with him.

Using Rico’s girlfriend as bait, vengeful killers soon would be coming for him. The only question was whether he would face them alone or with help from Paul.

Review: Thank you to Book Publicity Services for sending me a print copy of this novel!

When I got the summary for “Rico Stays” by Ed Duncan in our email box, the premise was intriguing enough to catch my interest. I had recently finished my first watch through of “The Sopranos”, so taking on a thriller centering around a hit man trying to lay low while also trying to keep his girlfriend safe sounded like it could have promise. Once I picked it up and began reading, I started to get the feeling that something was off. The characters seemed like they were established already, in that we got some little blips about them, but it was a lot of telling in small summaries instead of slow unveiling of characterizations. I went back online to do some digging, and I realized something that I missed the first time: this was the third book in a series, not a standalone. A series I had not read.

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(source)

I definitely take some responsibility for this, as within the email there was a link to more information that does mention “Rico Stays” is part of a series within the broader information summary. I didn’t realize that. But I made a commitment to review this book, so review it I shall. But know that this review is going to be a little…. different.

So what I did like about this book is that there is no denying that it is action packed. The conflict and action sequences basically start up right away, and it’s written in such a way that it feels like you could see it on a TV screen. Did I imagine some of these characters as “Sopranos” characters? Why yes I did. I also really liked Rico’s girlfriend Jean, whose kind and supportive character is also no nonsense and a problem solver. I greatly enjoyed how she advocated for Rico after he was in danger, and was able to connect with Paul, a lawyer who has a connection to Rico from past books. Also, Paul! I liked Paul too, as he clearly has a clear set of morals that he wants to abide by, and that sometimes comes in conflict with the various morals and ethics of his profession as a lawyer… namely, providing shelter for a hitman whom he owes a life debt to. That’s an interesting conundrum for this character, and it definitely puts not only his conscience, but his relationship, on the line.

But as a whole, I spent a fair amount of “Rico Stays” a bit… lost, shall we say? There were clear background plot points feeding into this story, be they as to why Rico is being targeted in the first place or why he and Paul have a tense but amicable relationship, or even as to how Rico and Jean’s relationship has progressed and changed. Without knowing these things, I had a harder time connecting to the story as a whole, and didn’t really find myself terribly invested in Rico’s predicament even as the stakes continued to mount. But I can’t be sure as to whether or not that is the fault of the story, or the fault of my ignorance.

So I think I’m going to have to do something I haven’t done before, and not really GIVE a full on rating on this book. It’s not a DNF because I finished it, but it also feels like I missed a good deal of context because this was the third in a series. So I am creating a new rating:  N/A. I can’t give this book a fair rating because it would be like jumping into the third installment of a movie trilogy that has a linear story, and trying to get the whole story from that alone. “Rico Stays” has solid moments on its own, but without the full context, I don’t really know what to think of it as a whole.

Rating N/A: I don’t know enough about the characters and the overarching plot line to really say if this book stuck the landing for the trilogy, but I did find some things about “Rico Stays” that were enjoyable. If you like Mafia or hitman stories, maybe go back to the beginning with “Pigeon-Blood Red” and start there.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Rico Stays” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but I’m sure if would fit in on “The Mafia Connection Group’s Favorite Mafia Themed Reads”!

Find “Rico Stays” and the rest of the “Pigeon-Blood Red” Trilogy at Ed Duncan’s website! Or on Amazon!

Giveaway: “The Love Interest”

31145148Book: “The Love Interest” by Cale Dietrich

Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, May 2017

Book Description: A thrilling YA debut about teen spies disguised as “love interests”–whoever gets the girl lives; but the one she rejects, dies.

There is a secret organization that cultivates teenage spies. The agents are called Love Interests because getting close to people destined for great power means getting valuable secrets.

Caden is a Nice: The boy next door, sculpted to physical perfection.
Dylan is a Bad: The brooding, dark-souled guy, and dangerously handsome.

The girl they are competing for is important to the organization, and each boy will pursue her. Will she choose a Nice or the Bad?

Both Caden and Dylan are living in the outside world for the first time. They are well-trained and at the top of their games. They have to be – whoever the girl doesn’t choose will die.

What the boys don’t expect are feelings that are outside of their training. Feelings that could kill them both.

From debut author Cale Dietrich comes a fast-paced adventure that is full of both action and romance and subverts common tropes.

Giveaway Details: I don’t know about you guys, but given how much garbage is going on in the world right now, escapist reads are really calming. You can pick up a book, get lost in it, and not think about pandemics, political corruption, systemic racism and racial violence, and a kneecapped Post Office… etc etc etc. I was looking at my shelves the other day, trying to do another culling, as the libraries being a little more difficult to maneuver these days has meant that I’ve turned to eBooks, NetGalley, and buying from indie bookstores when I’ve wanted to read. The last of those options has meant that my shelf has become a bit cramped. So that means that you guys get to benefit from it, with a fun, flirty, and action filled escapist read called “The Love Interest”!

“The Love Interest” takes tropes from spy books, romance books, rivalry books, and more, and has a fun time subverting them. Caden and Dylan are on the surface the perfect examples of the tropes of a YA love triagle. Caden is the sensitive nice one, Dylan is the bad boy with deeper layers than he lets on. They have to pursue the same girl, and whichever one she chooses gets to live. Dietrich, however, decides to have some fun with the tried and true love triangle storyline, and what we get is fun, action packed, and fluffy. This isn’t high literature, but it doesn’t have to be to be enjoyable and something that some of us need right now.

If you are looking for and easy read that has fun by not taking itself terribly seriously, this is the giveaway for you! This is a hardcover ‘Book of the Month Club’ Edition of this book, though I’m pretty sure that just means there is a BOTMC stamp on it and not really anything else? This giveaway is open to U.S. Residents only and ends on August 24th.

Enter To Win HERE!

 

Kate’s Review: “Some Kind of Animal”

41016362Book: “Some Kind of Animal” by Maria Romasco Moore

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, August 2020

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

Book Description: A story about two girls guarding a secret no one would ever believe and the desperate lengths they will go to in order to protect each other from the outside world.

Jo lives in the same town where her mother disappeared fifteen years ago. Everyone knows what happened to Jo’s mom. Now people are starting to talk about Jo. She’s barely passing her classes and falls asleep at her desk every day. She’s following in her mom’s footsteps. Jo has a secret — she has a twin sister. Her sister is not like most people. She lives in the woods, wild and free. Night after night, as often as she can manage, Jo slips out of her bedroom window and meets her sister in the woods, where together they run, fearlessly.

When Jo’s twin attacks a boy from town, the people in town assume it must have been Jo. Now Jo has to decide whether to tell the world about her sister or to run. SOME KIND OF ANIMAL is an accessible, feminist thriller that digs into themes of sisterhood, family, and friendship.

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

My bachelor’s degree is in Psychology, and one of the most interesting topics from one of my classes was the story of Victor of Aveyron, aka the Wild Boy of Aveyron. In the late 1700s in France a feral twelve year old boy was found roaming the countryside. He was eventually taken into society and studied, and various people attempted to acclimate him to the human world. While he never fully acclimated, there was some progress while he was in the care of a medical student named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard. Feral children have been seen in history and in literature, and “Some Kind of Animal” by Maria Romasco Moore brings that theme to a YA thriller. The feral child plot point is what drew me in initially, I think, though I had theories that this story couldn’t possibly actually be dealing with a feral child, because it seemed like it would be difficult to pull off in the setting that it was functioning in. And yet.

I went into “Some Kind of Monster” believing that our main character Jo didn’t actually have a twin sister named Lee who was living in the wilderness outside her small town. Given Jo’s traumatic childhood, after her mother disappeared and was possibly murdered, and growing up with a harried aunt and a toxic grandmother, as well as being unable to shake the reputation her mother had, I thought it would be a manifestation of her trauma. But I can tell you right now that no, there is absolutely a feral twin living in the woods, and reader, I just don’t think that I quite believed it. Don’t get me wrong, the groundwork is kind of laid to show how Lee ended up there, and how she stayed and survived out there without anyone knowing about her existence outside of Jo. Explanations are given, but I’m still not totally certain that I buy them. I also don’t quite buy Jo not telling anyone who MIGHT listen to her about her twin. Grandma Margaret, sure, that woman is awful and her reaction to what she perceives as a lie definitely tracks, therein making Jo’s reluctance to insist upon Lee’s existence completely believable. But not telling her Aunt Aggie? Not telling her best friend Savannah? I can’t suspend my disbelief that hard. On top of that, there are a lot of twists and reveals that happen once the action in this book gets going, but once they are revealed a fair number of them don’t have much pay off. There is a rather big one regarding a character’s paternity that I thought would have a lot of reverberations, but it’s barely touched upon for the rest of the book, at least in a way that might bring some insight into both characters. It just felt rushed. And the ending? VERY rushed.

Along with a hard to believe and hasty plot, most of the characters weren’t very interesting or multifaceted. Again, I thought that this book was going to be an exploration of Jo’s traumatic childhood, but while it’s acknowledged it was a hard time and that she has trouble trusting people, it’s a whole lot of telling and not much showing. Lee, too, is relegated to feral girl role, and she just isn’t terribly interesting outside of ‘so is she going to attack someone again?’ I will say, however, that there was one character who didn’t feel two dimensional or incomplete, and that is the character of Jo’s Aunt Aggie. There was a very quiet sadness about Aggie, who has been raising Jo as best she can while also mourning the loss of her little sister, and trying to keep Jo away from Aggie’s toxic mother Margaret. I thought that Aggie was the most compelling character because she is very obviously in over her head when it comes to being the guardian to her neice, and doesn’t make the wisest decisions when it comes to her own life and choices (shacking up with the new pastor in town when she herself has turned her back on God seems like maybe not the BEST idea, especially since the pastor is clearly trying to save himself by saving others). She really reminded me of Parker Posey’s character Libby Mae in “Waiting for Guffman”, if Libby Mae was a bit more beaten down by life.

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(source)

I was quite disappointed that “Some Kind of Animal” didn’t gel for me. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t gel for you! I could definitely see myself recommending it to the right person. After all…

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Rating 4: A promising idea falls short. Improbable plot points and two dimensional characters really dragged this story down.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Some Kind of Animal” is included on the Goodreads list “2020 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Find “Some Kind of Animal” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Night Swim”

51169341Book: “The Night Swim” by Megan Goldin

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

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

Book Description: After the first season of her true crime podcast became an overnight sensation and set an innocent man free, Rachel Krall is now a household name―and the last hope for thousands of people seeking justice. But she’s used to being recognized for her voice, not her face. Which makes it all the more unsettling when she finds a note on her car windshield, addressed to her, begging for help.

The small town of Neapolis is being torn apart by a devastating rape trial. The town’s golden boy, a swimmer destined for Olympic greatness, has been accused of raping a high school student, the beloved granddaughter of the police chief. Under pressure to make Season Three a success, Rachel throws herself into interviewing and investigating―but the mysterious letters keep showing up in unexpected places. Someone is following her, and she won’t stop until Rachel finds out what happened to her sister twenty-five years ago. Officially, Jenny Stills tragically drowned, but the letters insists she was murdered―and when Rachel starts asking questions, nobody seems to want to answer. The past and present start to collide as Rachel uncovers startling connections between the two cases that will change the course of the trial and the lives of everyone involved.

Electrifying and propulsive, The Night Swim asks: What is the price of a reputation? Can a small town ever right the wrongs of its past? And what really happened to Jenny?

Review: Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for sending me a print ARC of this novel!

We’re seeing more and more podcast themed books, and as of now I, for one, am still very pleased with this theme in thrillers. If an author does it well, it adds a whole other layer to a story that combines my favorite kinds of books with one of my other favorite forms of entertainment. When St. Martin’s Press sent me “The Night Swim” by Megan Goldin I was elated, as this book had already kind of been on my radar because of the podcast theme. When I did jump on into the narrative, it sucked me right in. And it also made me very, very uncomfortable.

“The Night Swim” has two crimes that our protagonist, Rachel, is following. One is for her podcast, ‘Guilty or Not Guilty’, and it follows a high profile rape case in the small town of Neapolis. A popular and charismatic young man with Olympic dreams is accused of raping a sixteen year old girl, and the town (as well as people all over the world) are split on whether or not he’s guilty. While Rachel is in town, she keeps getting mysterious correspondence from Hannah, a woman who wants Rachel to investigate the death of her older sister Jenny, who was found drowned twenty years before, also in Neapolis. We have multiple narrative styles to tie these two seemingly unrelated cases together. We have Hannah’s letters to Rachel, Rachel’s podcast, and a third person narrative following Rachel’s podcast research and eventual investigation into Jenny’s death. It’s a lot, but Goldin makes it work, blending them all together and carefully revealing how some things, like rape culture and small town politics, never really change even as decades pass. This thriller is really part murder mystery, part courtroom drama, and Goldin balances both aspects meticulously. I was held in suspense regarding what the outcome of the rape trial was going to be, but also as to whether or not Rachel was going to find out what really happened to Jenny. The reveals were all well done and some were genuinely surprising, and while I did piece together a few clues probably earlier than I was supposed to, all of the big reveals were still surprising and enjoyable.

But what made this book stand out from other thrillers I’ve read as of late, and what made it a very difficult read at times, was how frank and unflinching Goldin is when it comes to the themes of rape in this book. While I feel that sometimes other thrillers will have rape as a plot point or as a crime in their pages, going into details or seeing the traumatic fallout aren’t as focused on, rather focusing on the investigation to bring the perpetrator to justice. In “The Night Swim”, Goldin opts to show what it is like for a victim to have to relive her attack while on the stand, and in the spotlight of a high profile trial. After reading Chanel Miller’s “Know My Name”, the memoir of the woman raped by Brock Turner (and whose case is clearly inspiration for this storyline), it was especially jarring and upsetting to read these parts as the victim, Kelly, is forced to tell her story in graphic detail in front of a courtroom full of strangers. But while it was hard, I thought that it was important to show that rape isn’t just a plot point, that it has a horrific fallout, and that the fact that victims have to basically be re-traumatized to get justice, justice that isn’t even guaranteed, is abominable. The descriptions of Kelly’s rape (as well as the assault of Jenny) will definitely be hard to read for many people, so content warnings abound in this book. And while we don’t really get to know much about Kelly outside of her victim status, we DO get to know Jenny very well.

It’s a hard one, but I did really like “The Night Swim”. Steel your heart and get ready for righteous indignation to rush through you, but I think that if you are a thriller reader you should probably pick it up.

Rating 8: A compelling mystery is accompanied by an unflinching look at rape culture and trauma. “The Night Swim” is difficult at times but also feels like it takes on difficult themes that other thrillers may gloss over.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Night Swim” is included on the Goodreads lists“Books for Serial Podcast Lovers”, and “Crime, Mystery, and Thrillers 2020”.

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

Kate’s Review: “He Started It”

51373979Book: “He Started It” by Samantha Downing

Publishing Info: Berkley, July 2020

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

Book Description: Beth, Portia, and Eddie Morgan haven’t all been together in years. And for very good reasons—we’ll get to those later. But when their wealthy grandfather dies and leaves a cryptic final message in his wake, the siblings and their respective partners must come together for a cross-country road trip to fulfill his final wish and—more importantly—secure their inheritance.

But time with your family can be tough. It is for everyone.

It’s even harder when you’re all keeping secrets and trying to forget a memory—a missing person, an act of revenge, the man in the black truck who won’t stop following your car—and especially when at least one of you is a killer and there’s a body in the trunk. Just to name a few reasons.

But money is a powerful motivator. It is for everyone.

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

Even though it got a lot of hype when it came out, I never actually read “My Lovely Wife” by Samantha Downing. I’m not sure why it never made it to my hold list, but for whatever reason it just hasn’t been on my book stack. But given all the buzz it has, when Berkley sent me a link to Downing’s newest book, “He Started It”, I was pleasantly surprised and delighted. And the description alone was enough to get my hyped: feuding siblings, a missing person, family secrets, and a mysterious potential stalker? That just screams something that I would want to read about! As someone who used to go on family road trips all the time throughout her childhood, sometimes to the point where everyone in the car wanted to murder each other, that was the icing on the cake!

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One of my shining moments was convincing my sister she had kidney problems because she had to stop and pee so often. Memories. (source)

“He Started It” is from the perspective of Beth, one of three dysfunctional siblings who are on a road trip in hopes of collecting an inheritance from their recently deceased grandfather. When we first meet these siblings, all we know are that 1) they aren’t really close to each other, and 2) this road trip is a re-creation of a trip they took with said grandfather when they were kids, and if they want to get their money, they have to do it. As we get to know Beth, siblings Eddie and Portia, and Beth and Eddie’s spouses Felix and Krista, we find we are following a group of very unlikable people who have a lot of secrets. And while the characters themselves are all pretty reprehensible, the road trip they take is incredibly fun, mostly because the secrets start coming out and you just have to know more. As Downing slowly shows us what happened on the childhood road trip, and slowly starts to reveal facts and details that are more and more salacious as time goes on, you find yourself completely hooked into what happened to these siblings and what motivates them in the present day. As mentioned, we are mostly getting into Beth’s head, so it’s hard to know how reliable she is and what kind of picture we’re getting, but all that is just part of the salacious fun as more well crafted twists come out of the woodwork. And almost all of the big reveals and shocks feel well earned too. And while none of the characters were enjoyable, I still wanted to know what happened to them because I wanted to know if they would all get what was coming to them. Suffice to say, I devoured this book in a very short time, and really had to force myself to put it down when I had other things to do.

In spite of how freakin’ addicted I was to this book, I will say that the ending threw a wrench into my overall experience of it. I’m not going to spoil anything for you guys, because up until that point I had a really fun time and I still think it’s worth the read. But what I will say is that it felt abrupt, it felt unresolved, and it felt a bit like a shocker just for the sake of being shocking. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, per se, but it did mean that this book never really moved from ‘mindless fun thriller’ to ‘you gotta read this book, thriller fans of all ages!’ That’s not a bad thing when you want to bring a stack of books to your backyard escape. But it may not stand out too much from other stories in that stack.

“He Started It” was fun in the moment, and as someone who is trying to live more for the moment, I was thankful for it as I was reading it.

Rating 7: Though the ending kind of throws the whole thing off, “He Started It” is a fun and kind of salacious thriller that will take your attention and refuse to return it until you’ve finished.

Reader’s Advisory:

“He Started It” is included on the Goodreads lists “Psychological Suspense for 2020 (U.S. Publications Jan-July 2020)”, and “Books Featured on First Chapter Fun”.

Find “He Started It” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “These Women”

52218559Book: “These Women” by Ivy Pochoda

Publishing Info: Harperluxe, May 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: In West Adams, a rapidly changing part of South Los Angeles, they’re referred to as “these women.” These women on the corner … These women in the club … These women who won’t stop asking questions … These women who got what they deserved … 

In her masterful new novel, Ivy Pochoda creates a kaleidoscope of loss, power, and hope featuring five very different women whose lives are steeped in danger and anguish. They’re connected by one man and his deadly obsession, though not all of them know that yet. There’s Dorian, still adrift after her daughter’s murder remains unsolved; Julianna, a young dancer nicknamed Jujubee, who lives hard and fast, resisting anyone trying to slow her down; Essie, a brilliant vice cop who sees a crime pattern emerging where no one else does; Marella, a daring performance artist whose work has long pushed boundaries but now puts her in peril; and Anneke, a quiet woman who has turned a willfully blind eye to those around her for far too long. The careful existence they have built for themselves starts to crumble when two murders rock their neighborhood.

Written with beauty and grit, tension and grace, These Women is a glorious display of storytelling, a once-in-a-generation novel.

Review: I know that through my true crime reviews, and maybe even a thriller review or two, that I’ve mentioned the concept of ‘lesser dead’ on this blog. For those who may not have seen that, it’s basically the idea that law enforcement doesn’t prioritize certain victim groups when trying to solve cases. Groups included in this concept are POC, addicts, and sex workers. When I read a book review of “These Women” by Ivy Pochoda, the fact that it was emphasizing a literary thriller take on this concept, I knew that I really needed to read it. But as I read “These Women”, it became apparent that the narrative wasn’t only going to focus on forgotten sex workers who are the victims of a serial killer, but also on other women who are connected, if not directly affected.

We have multiple perspectives in “These Women” who represent a swath of women living different lives in South Central, Los Angeles. You have Feelia, a sex worker who narrowly survived being murdered. Dorian, whose daughter Lecia was a victim of the same murderer. Julianna, a sex worker who Lecia used to babysit for. Essie, a detective for the LAPD whose colleagues don’t take her insistence on paying attention to a potential serial killer seriously. Marcella, a neighbor to Julianna who finds a cell phone that sparks her creativity, no matter what that may mean for another person’s privacy. And Anneke, a judgmental woman who has certain opinions about other women in her community. On the surface a lot of these characters seem different from each other, but once you get really into the grit and meat of this book you realize that, while there are some differences and some privilege differences, all of these women are struggling in their own ways, usually because of societal expectations thrust upon them. I felt that Pochoda gave pretty good attention to most of them, though there were some that were more compelling than others. The pain was very real in a few of them, the rage in others, as well as perspectives that were more about privilege and superiority. They all worked well, and really brought on guttural responses at the various injustices that are feeling especially pertinent in this moment.

While this is definitely more a character study, or an examination of some aspects of the culture we live in, there is a mystery at hand, and that is who is killing these sex workers, and why. The mystery did take a back seat to the other aspects of the book, but for the most part I thought that it was well laid out and plotted so that I was taken by surprise by the reveal when it happened. I also found myself really enjoying how all the pieces eventually came together, both in terms of the mystery and in terms of how all of these characters are connected to one another. It also is a good way of showing that there is common ground between all of these women in a way, and how a society that looks down upon the gender as a whole makes victims of them all in different ways, and sometimes in ways that can be damaging to each other. All of that said, I did feel that the story ended a little abruptly, and I think that that is in part due to the structure of it as a whole, with no moment to tie all of the perspectives together. It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day because this is less about conclusions and more about concepts, but for me it just felt like it was cut off when there could have been a little more room to sink into an end.

Overall, “These Women” is dark, emotional, and gritty. Also very sad. But I think that it tackles a good number of themes and realities that many thrillers sometimes leave by the wayside. Ivy Pochoda has a very clear message, and while it’s hard to immerse oneself in, it’s necessary to do so.

Rating 7: A very powerful message about how society views the victimology of certain groups, “These Women” is a compelling literary thriller, even if it ends a bit abruptly.

Reader’s Advisory:

“These Women” is included on the Goodreads list “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, & Thrillers, 2020”.

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

Kate’s Review: “I Killed Zoe Spanos”

50202540Book: “I Killed Zoe Spanos” by Kit Frick

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, June 2020

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

Book Description: This gripping thriller follows two teens whose lives become inextricably linked when one confesses to murder and the other becomes determined to uncover the real truth no matter the cost.

What happened to Zoe won’t stay buried…

When Anna Cicconi arrives to the small Hamptons village of Herron Mills for a summer nanny gig, she has high hopes for a fresh start. What she finds instead is a community on edge after the disappearance of Zoe Spanos, a local girl who has been missing since New Year’s Eve. Anna bears an eerie resemblance to Zoe, and her mere presence in town stirs up still-raw feelings about the unsolved case. As Anna delves deeper into the mystery, stepping further and further into Zoe’s life, she becomes increasingly convinced that she and Zoe are connected–and that she knows what happened to her.

Two months later, Zoe’s body is found in a nearby lake, and Anna is charged with manslaughter. But Anna’s confession is riddled with holes, and Martina Green, teen host of the Missing Zoe podcast, isn’t satisfied. Did Anna really kill Zoe? And if not, can Martina’s podcast uncover the truth?

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

In case you were wondering, I’m still on my bullshit when it comes to True Crime podcasts. I haven’t really strayed into new territory outside of the old reliables, but if you have some recommendations, send them my way! More and more we’re seeing podcast themes making their way into mysteries, perhaps in part due to this true crime boom within the listening world. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t, but I’m always game to try that kind of book out. So of COURSE “I Killed Zoe Spanos” by Kit Frick caught my eye! It has elements that I greatly enjoy in my thrillers: a luxurious summer setting, a missing girl, secrets that the privileged and the non-privileged alike keep close to their vests. SO, you throw in a podcast angle and I am gonna be there! “I Killed Zoe Spanos” really hooked me in, and it was just the kind of read I could see myself reading on the beach. You know, if I was going to the beach this summer. Which I’m not.

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Goddamn pandemic. (source)

“I Killed Zoe Spanos” follows two distinct perspectives. The first is of Anna Cicconi, a teenager who has come to the Hamptons town of Herron Mills to be a live in babysitter. Herron Mills has a lot of money, a lot of privilege, and is currently haunted by the fact that local girl Zoe Spanos has gone missing that past New Year’s. Eventually Anna confesses to killing Zoe, even though as far as anyone knows there is no connection between the two. The other perspective is that of Martina Green, a local teen who is best friends with Zoe’s sister Aster, and puts out a podcast about the case. Anna’s perspective is mostly in the past and in the first person, while Martina’s is in the present and in the third. Sometimes I have a hard time when there are two kinds of POV styles in a book unless I feel it’s warranted, and with “I Killed Zoe Spanos” I felt like it worked fairly well. It made it so that we could get both the unreliability of Anna’s perspective, given that we have no idea what her connection to Zoe is, even though there is clearly something going on, and also the outside third person lens that Martina has as she is trying to solve the mystery herself. Throw in the transcripts for Martina’s podcast, which adds a whole other layer of potential unreliability (or at least bias), and you have a lot of potential for looking at Zoe’s disappearance and death from all sides. I thought that these three views all complemented each other pretty well, and had enough potential for red herrings within them all to make the mystery interesting. I enjoyed a few of the twists and turns quite a bit, though I will admit that I think that there was a bit of an overreach that came up right at the end. You don’t have to overdo it is all I’m saying.

As far as the characters go, no one really stood out too much in terms of going beyond their templates. Anna is unreliable and mysterious, perhaps threatening but maybe not. Martina is tenacious and truth seeking. I think that there was some interesting potential in some of the side characters, particularly Zoe’s boyfriend Caden, a transracial adoptee whose skin Others him within a very wealthy, and white, insular community. But we didn’t really go looking too deeply into many of these side characters, no matter how interesting they might be.

“I Killed Zoe Spanos” is definitely the kind of book that will take you in this summer! If you are a thriller fan and do find yourself able to safely go to a beach, or sit by a pool, this would be a great read to accompany that kind of excursion!

Rating 7: A fun mystery with some interesting turns, “I Killed Zoe Spanos” is a reliable summer read for thriller fans and fans of true crime podcasts alike.

Reader’s Advisory:

“I Killed Zoe Spanos” is included on the Goodreads lists “What’s My YA Name Again”, and “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, & Thrillers 2020”.

Find “I Killed Zoe Spanos” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!