Kate’s Review: “Pieces of Her”

35887251Book: “Pieces of Her” by Karin Slaughter

Publishing Info: William Morrow, August 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The publisher sent me a hardcover copy.

Book Description: What if the person you thought you knew best turns out to be someone you never knew at all…?

Andrea knows everything about her mother, Laura. She knows she’s spent her whole life in the small beachside town of Belle Isle; she knows she’s never wanted anything more than to live a quiet life as a pillar of the community; she knows she’s never kept a secret in her life. Because we all know our mothers, don’t we?

But all that changes when a trip to the mall explodes into violence and Andrea suddenly sees a completely different side to Laura. Because it turns out that before Laura was Laura, she was someone completely different. For nearly thirty years she’s been hiding from her previous identity, lying low in the hope that no one would ever find her. But now she’s been exposed, and nothing will ever be the same again.

The police want answers and Laura’s innocence is on the line, but she won’t speak to anyone, including her own daughter. Andrea is on a desperate journey following the breadcrumb trail of her mother’s past. And if she can’t uncover the secrets hidden there, there may be no future for either one of them…

Review: I want to extend a special thanks to William Morrow for sending me a copy of this book!

This may be surprising to some of you out there, but until I was given “Pieces of Her” I had never actually read a book by Karin Slaughter. Given that she’s such a prolific thriller and mystery author it’s a bit strange, and yet while I’d certainly heard of her I just never picked her up. But when William Morrow asked if I would be interested in reading this book, I said sure, and decided to give her a whirl, finally! And while I went in not knowing what to expect, I ended up really enjoying “Pieces of Her”.

The first thing that struck me about “Pieces of Her” was that I was going to be getting two separate stories, even if I didn’t realize that at first. The first narrative is that of Andy, a thirty one year old woman who has found herself drifting in life (as so many people around my age have, thanks in part to the Great Recession that slammed us right when we were set to be starting or ending college). She loves her mother Laura, who has always been a caring and devoted parent to her. But when Laura becomes famous for interfering in an act of violence and killing a killer, Andy sees a side of her mother that she never knew existed. For many people there is that one moment that you realize that your parent is a person beyond just being your parent, and Andy’s moment turns into a very engrossing journey. We follow Andy as she tries to piece together who Laura was before she had Andy, and why she seems to be comfortable with violence and destruction. This mystery is intriguing and the journey Andy takes kept me interested. But what was even more interesting was the story of Laura’s past, which is told as well through her own chapters and sections. These were even more fascinating, as we got to watch Laura face harrowing and upsetting circumstances (which I don’t particularly want to spoil here, as it was far more fun slowly watching it all come to fruition), and see how she moved from her experiences there to the picture perfect, but not really perfect, parent that she was in Andy’s eyes. Seeing their relationship evolve because of these revelations was also very neat, just as watching the story as a whole unfold and come together was very gripping. Slaughter is clearly a pro at devising a cohesive and intricate plot.

I also really enjoyed the various societal themes that Slaughter discusses in this book, specifically how our culture tends to gloss over or perpetuate violence towards women due to toxic masculinity and toxic men. There are multiple severe and relevant moments of violence in this book that target women, targeted by men who are entitled, who are angry, or who have been victims of societal standards of masculinity and therein take their pain and turn it against others. It’s no coincidence that the act of violence that sparks the entire story is perpetrated by a teenager who killed his ex girlfriend and her mother because said girlfriend dumped him. It’s no coincidence that a character who makes a pivotal decision in the past timeline was a victim of violence at the hands of her husband, who killed their children and himself. Other women in this book have had various abuses thrown at them by men, and it shapes them and drives them to do various things, some good, some bad. This is very much a book about how our culture can hurt and fail those who are vulnerable, and I greatly appreciated that Slaughter was willing to do a deep dive into some psychological darkness. It made the story that much richer, and made it feel that much more real.

“Pieces of Her” was a book that I ended up greatly enjoying. I’m sure that Karin Slaughter fans will find a lot to like, but I think that fans of thrillers who haven’t sought her out would find it to be an entertaining read.

Rating 8: A well plotted out and engrossing thriller/mystery that addresses hidden pasts, violence towards women, and the relationship between mothers and daughters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Pieces of Her” is still fairly new and not on many relevant or specific Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Witness Protection, New Identities, People in Hiding”, and “Bonds Between Mother’s and Daughters”.

Find “Pieces of Her” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Sadie”

34810320Book: “Sadie” by Courtney Summers

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2018

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

Book Description: Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water. 

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meagre clues to find him.

When West McCray—a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America—overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.

Review: I want to thank NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this novel!

I fully admit to being a huge fan of true crime, even though I sometimes have a hard time reconciling the sometimes inevitably exploitative nature of it. Even if books, TV shows, podcasts, and the like do raise awareness when it comes to various crimes, especially murder, it also turns other people’s potential pain into entertainment to make money off of. I’m no role model, as I ultimately consume SO MUCH true crime stuff it borders on the obsessive. But it isn’t lost on me that there is something dark and a bit voyeuristic about listening to and reading stories about murder. So I knew that “Sadie” by Courtney Summers was going to be, at the very least, an interesting read. What I didn’t know was that it was going to be a phenomenal one.

I first want to start with how the narrative is laid out. There are two alternating storylines that we are following: There is the transcript of the podcast “The Girls”, hosted by a well meaning man named West McCray, and then there is the first person perspective of Sadie herself, as she goes on her lonely mission to hunt down the man that she thinks killed her sister Mattie. The podcast transcript feels very much like other breakaway true crime podcasts that involve an investigative elements like “Serial” or “S-Town”, as West is tracking down Sadie in ‘real time’ and finding his narrative as he goes. Given that I love these kinds of podcasts, I knew that I was going to be picky as hell with how Summers did it, but she pulls it off in spite of the fact a podcast is, in itself, an audio experience. But ultimately, West doesn’t have all of the pieces of the puzzle, so for much of the time we are a couple steps ahead of him. We get to see him slowly piece Sadie’s actions together, and see how he could frame the story in a way that can have many themes that his audience would take interest in: poverty, addiction, violence towards women, and familial loyalty all play a part in “The Girls” as West interviews and gets to know the people in Sadie’s life and those that she interacts with. Audience members (aka the reader) can see the big picture that came together to impact Sadie and Mattie’s life, and West gets to remain detached as well as interested, controlling the narrative as best he can and guiding his audience to feel sympathy for Sadie and the culture (poverty stricken and forgotten) that she comes from, while still maintaining the safety and comfort of their own lives.

Sadie, on the other hand, does not have that luxury. Her parts of the story are dark, grim, and filled with despair as this nineteen year old is trying to hunt down the man she thinks killed the only person in the world she loved with all of her heart. Sadie doesn’t care that their mother, Claire, is a victim of a society that gives little to no support to single mothers who live in poverty and with addiction. Sadie doesn’t care that she herself has been victimized by society that is steeped in misogyny and makes victims out of women of all ages. Sadie just knows that Mattie is dead, and that she is going to kill the man she believes did it. Sadie’s story is at times so hard to read because Summers doesn’t sugar coat or gloss over the violence and hardships that she encounters, but that makes it all the stronger. While West makes Sadie’s story a commodity, we SEE her story, and we see how bad it is. While West certainly has his heart in the right place, you can see the exploitation at the heart of it because you see everything Sadie goes through in her own words. But then Sadie is also unreliable in her own ways, and sometimes what she says doesn’t necessarily line up with later revealed realities. The ways that the two narratives serve to both confirm and also upend each other never ceased to catch me off guard, and I liked that it also emphasized the various struggles that victims of domestic violence face when their abusers can hide behind a mask and trick even those closest to the victims.

I’ve labeled this as a mystery, as it SORT of is (between who killed Mattie and what happened to Sadie), but ultimately the mystery isn’t the point of this story. The point is female rage, and Summers does a masterful job of keeping it grounded in reality and never treading towards melodrama or overcompensating. Too often with YA books do we see authors feeling a need to spell everything out, or take things to extremes that feel unrealistic. Everything in “Sadie” feels real, and because of that it kicks you in the guy repeatedly, and doesn’t try to placate to the need for a happy ending or absolute closure. I really hope that this book gets noticed by readers, because it is easily one of the best YA novels I’ve read in recent memory.

“Sadie” is another perfect example of why adults shouldn’t turn their nose up at YA, just as it is a perfect example of a YA author trusting her audience. This is a book that is going to stay with me for a long time, and I cannot recommend it enough for it’s relevance and it’s power. Go read it.

Rating 10: A gut wrenching and engrossing novel that cuts to the bone, “Sadie” is a story about victimization, revenge, and how the lines can blur between investigative journalism, entertainment, and advocacy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sadie” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Missing Persons”, and “If You Love Veronica Mars…- YA Books”.

Find “Sadie” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Lies You Never Told Me”

36547961Book: “Lies You Never Told Me” by Jennifer Donaldson

Publishing Info: Razorbill, May 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst

Book Description: Gabe and Elyse have never met. But they both have something to hide.

Quiet, shy Elyse can’t believe it when she’s cast as the lead in her Portland high school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Her best friend, Brynn, is usually the star, and Elyse isn’t sure she’s up to the task. But when someone at rehearsals starts to catch her eye–someone she knows she absolutely shouldn’t be with–she can’t help but be pulled into the spotlight.

Austin native Gabe is contemplating the unthinkable–breaking up with Sasha, his headstrong, popular girlfriend. She’s not going to let him slip through her fingers, though, and when rumors start to circulate around school, he knows she has the power to change his life forever.

Gabe and Elyse both make the mistake of falling for the wrong person, and falling hard. Told in parallel narratives, this twisty, shocking story shows how one bad choice can lead to a spiral of unforeseen consequences that not everyone will survive.

Review: Whaaaat? A thriller review by Serena and not Kate?! That’s right, people! Buckle up and get ready for a good look at what it’s like for a fantasy reader to read a YA thriller! Spoiler alert: probably not that different, though much more naive as far as predicting twists. I’m sure Kate would have figured this one out, but oh well!

The story is told in dueling, first-person narratives. In one, we follow the story of Gabe, a teenage boy who, after being involved in a car accident and rescued by a mysterious girl, finds himself struggling to escape the clutches of his mean-girl girlfriend, Sasha, to pursue this new savior girl. The other narrative follows Elyse who on a whim auditions for a role in “Romeo and Juliet” and quickly finds herself entangled in a complicated web revolving around a person she knows she should avoid.

Both stories were engaging, however I did find myself more pulled into Elyse’s plot. Her struggles and circumstances were a bit more relatable to the average reader, while Gabe’s story could verge a bit into the unbelievable, particularly where his ex-girlfriend Sasha was involved. It was a bit hard to believe that she had so little oversight in her life that she could pull off some of the very unbalanced stunts she did.

The story is told in first-person, which I thought worked fairly well for the story. At times it did make the writing feel a bit too simple, and I found myself wanting a little more depth in the descriptions of scenes. This is a typical limitation of this writing tense, however, so it wasn’t overly distracting, just not my preferred type. And I do think that keeping it in first-person allowed readers to more fully identify with the mental and emotional struggles that Elyse and Gabe go through.

I also very much liked the diversity of the cast. Gabe is Mexican American and his sister has Down Syndrome. I especially loved the relationship between Gabe and his sister, and it was great to see a relationship like that portrayed on the page. The story also tackled several other topics such as poverty, addiction, and, of course, abusive romantic relationships.

As I’ve said, I haven’t read too many thrillers. So, while I know that there will some twist coming, I wasn’t able to spot this one. Maybe fans more familiar with the genre would have had an easier time of it, but I was genuinely surprised. Specifically, I was left wondering throughout most of the book how Elyse’s and Gabe’s storylines were tied together, and it was exciting to finally find out in the end. However, as surprising as it was, it also had an affect on how I viewed the rest of the story in the end, and I’m not sure it was a change for the better.

Ultimately, I very much enjoyed “Lies You Never Told Me” even though it falls outside of my usual genre preferences. I’m sure it will be a hit for regular thriller fans as well!

Rating 7: While thrillers are probably never going to be my favorite, I found this book a compulsive read and a fun reminder of what this genre has to offer!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Lies You Never Told Me” is on these Goodreads lists: “Secrets and Lies” and “2018 YA Mysteries.”

Find “Lies You Never Told Me” at your library using WorldCat.

Kate’s Review: “Vox”

37796866Book: “Vox” by Christina Dalcher

Publishing Info: Berkley, August 2018

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

Book Description: Set in an America where half the population has been silenced, VOX is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial–this can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.

This is just the beginning.

Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard.

But this is not the end. 

For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.

Review: A special thanks to Berkley Publishing and NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

People keep asking me if I have watched “The Handmaid’s Tale” yet, and as of now I still haven’t. I know that it’s supposed to be super super good, and I know that a number of my friends really love it, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it because it really just feels ‘too real’ right now. So I will admit that when I was sent the book “Vox” by Christina Dalcher from Bentley, I also had that moment of cringe, not because I doubted that it was good, but because I felt that it would touch on a raw nerve. Perhaps a few years ago I would have said that the idea of the American Government stripping women of all rights, and limiting their daily speech to 100 words total, as preposterous. Now? I’m not as certain about it. But I did eventually decide that it was time to buckle down and read it, and once I did, as terrifying as the themes were, I had a hard time putting it down.

The first big win of this book is that Dalcher creates a fairly realistic pathway for how American Society can change it’s societal values and ideals in such a drastic way in such a comparatively short amount of time. Our protagonist, Jean, is in her early forties, and she can trace the origins of this super right wing group, The Pure Movement, within her lifetime dating back towards her college years. Through flashbacks involving Jean and other people in her life, mostly her old friend and feminist advocate Jackie, we can see how a woman who became a renowned expert in neuroscience eventually ended up as a housewife with no rights and a counter on her hand to track her words. Dalcher presents a slow take over of right wing politics and ideals, and the apathy of ‘that will never happen here’ that does nothing until it is far too late. Dalcher also presents a fairly realistic progression of how Jean’s family is affected by the law, and how the men in her life betray her in different ways even though they also ‘love’ her (I hate putting that in quotations, but I feel like I have to). Be it her husband Patrick, who is a flunky to the government who doesn’t REALLY believe in the law, but does nothing to stop it, or her son Steven, who at seventeen is drinking the Kool Aid of The Pure Movement and becoming a traitor to his mother and general decency.

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I was consistently picturing THIS motherfucker whenever Steven was on page. (source)

Because of these things the plot was gripping and engrossing. I was horrified by the things that the Pure Movement does in this book (be it to women, LGBTQIA people, or other marginalized groups), but Jean was so compelling and so easy to root for that I kept reading, needing to know if she was going to overcome the persecution, if not completely overthrow it.

There were a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me. I did feel that the pacing was a bit off by the end, as I felt that I suddenly wrapped up very quickly. There were a couple of inconsistencies within the ending that felt like they went against a few of the characters and their personalities, and while I do believe that some people can change their minds about certain things (I’m trying so hard to be vague), to go from one side of opinion to an opinion on the other VERY extreme side felt uncharacteristic and hard to swallow. I can’t really divulge much more without spoiling anything vital, but just trust me when I say it was a leap. That and I feel that some characters who did nasty things got too easy of a pass. I’m kind of over giving people who do crappy and disturbing and oppressive things the benefit of the doubt, so while I like me a redemption arc to a point, I’m not sure that I can stomach one that gives something of a pass to bigots, even if they were slowly brainwashed. 

Still and all, “Vox” is an entertaining read that give enough darkness to feel allegorical, but enough hope that you don’t want to just crawl into a hole and never come back out. I think that this could be a hot read come Fall, and think that anyone frustrated or scared may be able to work out some feelings by trying it out!

Rating 7: A gripping and addicting thriller that feels all too real at the moment, “Vox” was a disturbing, and somewhat cathartic, read about women being silenced by their own government and those who fight back.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Vox” is included on the Goodreads lists “Patriarchal Dystopias”, and “Best Books To Read When You Need A Reminder of Why Feminism Is Important”.

Find “Vox” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “#Murdertrending”

34521785Book: “#Murdertrending” by Gretchen McNeil

Publishing Info: Freeform, August 2018

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

Book Description: WELCOME TO THE NEAR FUTURE, where good and honest 8/18 citizens can enjoy watching the executions of society’s most infamous convicted felons, streaming live on The Postman app from the suburbanized prison island Alcatraz 2.0.

When eighteen-year-old Dee Guerrera wakes up in a haze, lying on the ground of a dimly lit warehouse, she realizes she’s about to be the next victim of the app. Knowing hardened criminals are getting a taste of their own medicine in this place is one thing, but Dee refuses to roll over and die for a heinous crime she didn’t commit. Can Dee and her newly formed posse, the Death Row Breakfast Club, prove she’s innocent before she ends up wrongfully murdered for the world to see? Or will The Postman’s cast of executioners kill them off one by one?

Review: Special thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

One of my cinematic weaknesses is Arnold Schwarzenegger movies from the 1980s. The best way to give me a great day is a glass of champagne and a marathon of movies like “The Terminator”, “Predator”, and “Commando” (and maybe toss in “Kindergarten Cop” just to lighten things up a bit). But if I had to pick the one that I like the most just based on cheese factor, it’s going to be “The Running Man”. For the uninitiated, the plot is that Arnold is a fugitive who gets roped into a reality show in which convicts are hunted down and killed by flamboyant ‘stalkers’, all in the name of entertainment. Richard “Family Feud” Dawson plays the nefarious TV show host Killian, and Minnesota’s own former Governor Jesse Ventura plays retired stalker turned Aerobics Coach Captain Freedom.

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Minnesota, hail to thee. (source)

“#Murdertrending” wants to be “The Running Man” with sprinkles of “The Breakfast Club” thrown in, and while it had the ambition to combine the two, it falls a little short.

But first I will start with the good. Given that I am a huge sucker for these deadly dystopian stories involving death as entertainment, “#Murdertrending” was going to always have the advantage right out of the gate. Honestly, if you have a story where people are being killed on a reality show and it stands in as a critique of society, I am going to be here for it. And McNeil has created a world that feels familiar enough so the reader can relate to it, but removed enough that it can definitely be considered future dystopia. Dee Guerrera is thrust into Alcatraz 2.0 at the beginning of the book, and it’s the perfect way to slowly reveal the world building in an organic way. One of my favorite aspects of this book was the social media bookends to each chapter, with viewers and ‘fans’ of the show chatting on message boards and Twitter-like sites. It was a good way to show how the world reacts to and perceives the show they are watching, and also shows how their perceptions start to change as Dee and her allies on Alcatraz 2.0 try to survive the island. The tech on the island was fun too, with cameras and drones being used in creepy and interesting ways. The stakes did feel fairly high, as McNeil did a good job of showing consequences and how deadly they could be if you made a wrong move on the island. In terms of plot and world building, “#Murdertrending” was an addictive and fun book.

But when it comes to the characters in this book, aka the Death Row Breakfast Club, I was left a bit underwhelmed overall. Dee was fine for the most part, but a lot of the time (given that it’s first person) she slips into the ‘I’m snarky and sarcastic, isn’t that cool?’ attitude that we see far too often in YA thrillers and horror. I wasn’t all that invested in her story, be it surviving the island or clearing her name in the murder of her stepsister, and while I liked how she interacted with some of her fellow prisoners (specifically Nyles, a British teen who is geeky as heck) I wasn’t worried about her well being. I also felt that some of her backstory involving a kidnapping didn’t quite mesh well with other parts of her character, and I wish that it had been integrated a bit better. The group mostly fit a bunch of familiar tropes: the jock, the bad girl, the nerdy boy, the weirdo, etc, and none of them felt like they were much more beyond their tropes. If I was pressed to pick a favorite character, I’d probably go for Griselda, the snarky and mean bad girl who is clearly the Bender of this Breakfast Club. But even that was more because I LOVE that character trope of ‘damaged bad boy/girl who is actually hurting’ and less because of who she was as a full person. Even when a big reveal came near the end of the book, while I didn’t necessarily see it coming I didn’t really have an “OH MY GOSH WHAT?!” moment from it either. And oh man, the ending. I hate endings like this one. I won’t spoil it, but just know that it was frustrating to get to the last page and have that tossed out there.

“#Murdertrending” had a lot of positives going for it and a couple negatives as well, but I did find it to be an entertaining read that kept me going. If you aren’t so worried about characterization and are just here for straight up thrills, it’s a good book to end the summer with!

Rating 6: An entertaining thriller that doesn’t rock any boats, “#Murdertrending” is a solid story that feels part “Running Man”, part “Breakfast Club”. I just wish that the characters had been a little more well rounded outside the usual tropes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“#Murdertrending” is new and isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists, but it is included on “Should Be Made Into a TV Show” , and would fit in on “Let the (Deadly) Games Begin!”

Find “#Murdertrending” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Force of Nature”

34275222Book: “Force of Nature” by Jane Harper

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, February 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Five women go on a hike. Only four return. Jane Harper, the New York Times bestselling author of The Dry, asks: How well do you really know the people you work with?

When five colleagues are forced to go on a corporate retreat in the wilderness, they reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking down the muddy path.

But one of the women doesn’t come out of the woods. And each of her companions tells a slightly different story about what happened.

Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing hiker. In an investigation that takes him deep into isolated forest, Falk discovers secrets lurking in the mountains, and a tangled web of personal and professional friendship, suspicion, and betrayal among the hikers. But did that lead to murder?

Review: Remember when I read “The Dry”,, and while I wasn’t fully into it I was excited about the potential of Jane Harper’s character Aaron Falk and where we could go with him? Shortly after that review was posted, I got my hands on “Force of Nature”, the second book in the Aaron Falk Series. My ambivalence towards “The Dry” meant that “Force of Nature” sat on my really too high book pile for far too long, and that by the time I got to it I only had a couple of days to read it before it was due. But almost immediately after I started it, my interest was piqued by the reference to an off page character whom I knew right away was based on Ivan Milat, the Backpacker Killer. That little tidbit, combined with a mystery about a group of women who go into the mountains on a team building hike that leads to wilderness survival and the disappearance of one of them?

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Okay, I’m intrigued. (source)

The mystery of “Force of Nature” is what happened to Alice, a cold and ambitious corporate worker, while she and four others went on a hike. Alice has connections to Falk and his partner Carmen, as she was giving them information of a nature that we are not necessarily privy to when our story begins. We switch off between two perspectives: the first is of Aaron and Carmen as they get tied into the investigation after Bree, Beth, Jill, and Lauren leave the woods without Alice. The second is what exactly did happen in the woods between the five women, and  how the tensions that were already present between them could have erupted into something more than arguments and spats. Like most thrillers, we get to see the two narratives give us different insights, and we get to see the statements given to Falk unravel and transform into different realities as we go back into the disastrous hike itself. I knew that the four remaining women were going to be unreliable to Falk, but it was fun seeing it all unfold. I liked how it all slowly came together, and while I figured out a majority of the solution pretty early on, I still really enjoyed traipsing along the way as Falk and Carmen sleuthed. For me, the most fun of this story were in two things: the survival story of the five women (and how they quickly descended into paranoia and belligerence), and the hints and clues to Ivan Milat (known as Martin Kovac in this book) and the horrific serial murders he committed. For those who don’t know, Milat found backpackers and campers in the Belangelo State forest in New South Wales, Australia, and killed them in awful, violent ways. He’d then leave their bodies off trail in the forest. He’s officially responsible for seven murders, but in reality it was probably many more. The possibility that these characters might not only have the elements and each other to fear, but ALSO a crazed murderer, is really my kind of cup of tea, and it gave this book the oomph that REALLY made it a fun read.

But Harper has also given us a bit more to chew on with the characters this time. I don’t know if it’s because this time it’s not as personal for Falk, or because it isn’t seen mostly through his eyes, but I found myself more taken in by this group than I was by those in “The Dry”. I loved his partner Carmen, with whom he has some undefinable heat that neither of them are willing or able to explore, because she is very sensible and a good foil for Falk. She has his back, but also can read people in her own right. And plus, I like the heat that they share, even if nothing very well may come of it. And I also liked seeing the awfulness of Alice, and how the other women in her group have had problems with her in one way or another. Harper does a very good job of creating a ruthless person who very well may have a target on her back, while still giving her enough humanity (mostly through her daughter) that she doesn’t feel like a caricature who doesn’t deserve to be found in one piece. And if the Aaron Falk stories are going to be like this, where Falk is there as a grounding force of good, but with most of the focus on a different cast of characters for each book, I would be totally here for that. It clicked so well this time that I will almost be more frustrated if we go back to the structure of “The Dry”, because I felt like the groove I wanted from that book was more present here.

“Force of Nature” was a thrilling and solid mystery, and now that I have finally fully climbed aboard the Aaron Falk train I am very excited to see where it goes next. Fans of survival thrillers with a side of catty drama should absolutely pick this one up, and you may not even need to start with “The Dry” to fully enjoy this one.

Rating 8: A strong second helping of a new series, “Force of Nature” brings some focus off of Aaron Falk and centers it on complex and interesting characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Force of Nature” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Survival Stories”, and “The Aussie List”.

Find “Force of Nature” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “The Dry”.

Kate’s Review: “The Cheerleaders”

30969755Book: “The Cheerleaders” by Kara Thomas

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, July 2018

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

Book Description: There are no more cheerleaders in the town of Sunnybrook.

First there was the car accident—two girls gone after hitting a tree on a rainy night. Not long after, the murders happened. Those two girls were killed by the man next door. The police shot him, so no one will ever know why he did it. Monica’s sister was the last cheerleader to die. After her suicide, Sunnybrook High disbanded the cheer squad. No one wanted to be reminded of the girls they lost.

That was five years ago. Now the faculty and students at Sunnybrook High want to remember the lost cheerleaders. But for Monica, it’s not that easy. She just wants to forget. Only, Monica’s world is starting to unravel. There are the letters in her stepdad’s desk, an unearthed, years-old cell phone, a strange new friend at school. . . . Whatever happened five years ago isn’t over. Some people in town know more than they’re saying. And somehow Monica is at the center of it all.

There are no more cheerleaders in Sunnybrook, but that doesn’t mean anyone else is safe.

Review: I want to extend a special thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book.

I am so, so pleased that the YA Thriller community has someone like Kara Thomas repping it these days. As you all know I’ve had a harder time with YA thrillers in the past, if only because they either aren’t gritty enough, don’t have enough interesting characters, or have predictable and spoon fed mysteries for their audience. While I understand that sometimes straight forward narratives are considered to be more ‘teen friendly’, I also think that it’s refreshing when authors don’t talk down to their teen readers and give them some serious narratives to chew on. And Kara Thomas trusts her readers enough that there is NO talking down to them. After reading her previous books “The Darkest Corners” and “Little Monsters”, I was practically chomping at the bit to read “The Cheerleaders”, her newest thriller mystery. When I finally sat down and began to read it, I pretty much devoured it all in two sittings. Thomas has done it again.

The first thing that really stood out to me about this book was our protagonist, Monica. Monica could at first glance be written off as your typical thriller heroine in novels like this: when we meet her she is in the middle of a medication induced abortion after a fling with an older man who happens to be the new soccer coach at her high school (side note: I super super appreciate the fact that Thomas has an abortion in this book and doesn’t use it as a melodramatic moment or a moment to proselytize to either side: it’s just a fact that Monica has one and that she made that choice without any hesitation). She has been having trouble coping for the past five years ever since her older sister Jen committed suicide, the fifth cheerleader in the five cheerleader deaths that have shaken the town, and has been distancing herself from everyone and succumbing to numbness. I appreciate the fact that while it’s never outwardly stated that Monica is suffering from a deep depression, Thomas makes it clear through her actions. Monica is flawed and Monica has moments where you just want to shake her, but she feels so freaking real that I just longed to hug her. I loved how intrepid she was, and think that she is one of the strongest protagonists I’ve seen in a YA thriller, or ANY thriller, in the past few years.

The mystery, too, was solid and intricate, and kept me guessing up until the end. It’s laid out in two different narratives: there’s Monica’s first person POV, and then a third person POV that follows Jen five years before in the months leading up to her death. Monica is starting to wonder if Jen actually committed suicide, and if all of the cheerleader deaths were as cut and dry as they seemed at the time. This leads her on a noire-like mystery with her own sidekick in Ginny, a neighbor that Monica has never really gotten to know in spite of the fact Ginny has always been around. The mystery surrounding the cheerleaders deaths is well paced and ever suspenseful, and Thomas doesn’t show her hand until she is good and ready to. I was once again left guessing until the end, and even though I had some small inklings of where things were going, I was mostly left surprised by the main mystery, and TOTALLY surprised by another that flits about off to the side, almost unnoticed but always present. The flashbacks to Jen’s story also give us clues that we can piece together while Monica is doing the same, and I really liked seeing Monica pick up on something that we picked up on previously, and vice versa.

And it’s gritty and bleak to be certain. Thomas doesn’t hold back in bringing up hard issues like abortion, statutory rape, violence in schools, and suicide, but they never feel like they’re exploitative, titillating, or over the top. At the same time, they they don’t feel like moments in an after school special either. Again, she trusts her readers to see nuance and darkness and be able to sort it out for themselves without any hand holding or deeper explanation. I think that it’s because of this trust that she knows how to strike the right balance in tone, and to make this book feel realistic and thrilling without having to go to any kind of extremes to send the point all the way home.

“The Cheerleaders” is another great mystery from Kara Thomas. Thriller fans, if you are reluctant to give YA thrillers a try, know that she is not going to let you down.

Rating 9: A suspenseful and well crafted mystery with realistic characters and a responsible handle on important issues, “The Cheerleaders” was a fulfilling read that kept me guessing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Cheerleaders” is included on the Goodreads lists “Cheerleading”, and “Best Mystery & Thriller 2018”.

Find “The Cheerleaders” at your library using WorldCat!