Kate’s Review: “Chasing the Boogeyman”

Book: “Chasing the Boogeyman” by Richard Chizmar

Publication Info: Gallery Books, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The New York Times bestselling coauthor of Gwendy’s Button Box brings his signature prose to this story of small-town evil that combines the storytelling of Stephen King with the true-crime suspense of Michelle McNamara.

In the summer of 1988, the mutilated bodies of several missing girls begin to turn up in a small Maryland town. The grisly evidence leads police to the terrifying assumption that a serial killer is on the loose in the quiet suburb. But soon a rumor begins to spread that the evil stalking local teens is not entirely human. Law enforcement, as well as members of the FBI are certain that the killer is a living, breathing madman—and he’s playing games with them. For a once peaceful community trapped in the depths of paranoia and suspicion, it feels like a nightmare that will never end.

Recent college graduate Richard Chizmar returns to his hometown just as a curfew is enacted and a neighborhood watch is formed. In the midst of preparing for his wedding and embarking on a writing career, he soon finds himself thrust into the real-life horror story. Inspired by the terrifying events, Richard writes a personal account of the serial killer’s reign of terror, unaware that these events will continue to haunt him for years to come.

A clever, terrifying, and heartrending work of metafiction, Chasing the Boogeyman is the ultimate marriage between horror fiction and true crime. Chizmar’s writing is on full display in this truly unique novel that will haunt you long after you turn the final page.

Review: I was describing “Chasing the Boogeyman” to my mother during one of my parents weekly visits, where we inevitably start talking about what we are reading at the moment. She basically asked ‘so wait, is this a fictional book or a nonfiction book?’, to which I paused for a beat or two and said ‘I…. don’t know?’ And at the time I didn’t feel like I did. I knew that Richard Chizmar had written horror novels, as I’ve read him before, and I knew that people were describing it as ‘metafiction’. But surely this book that read like a narrative nonfiction story was nonfiction, right? I mean, there was a whole introduction by James Renner who talked about a previous edition and how he always wondered what happened to the Edgewood Boogeyman case! But it’s catalogued as fiction! IS THIS ACTUALLY REAL?!

No, “Chasing the Boogeyman” is not a true story, at least not the meat of it. And that is a testament to Chizmar’s writing and set up that I found myself questioning if it was a true story or not in spite of many pieces of evidence and flat out statements that it is, indeed, not. This book definitely reads similar to Michelle McNamara’s personal “I’ll Be Gone In the Dark”, as a fictionalized version of Richard Chizmar investigates a hometown serial killer and finds himself not only obsessed, but also perhaps on the killer’s radar. The setting of Edgewood, Maryland is real, and Chizmar does take anecdotes and community locations and people who exist or existed in the 1980s (when the bulk of the story takes place) to make the story even more realistic. It makes for a very engaging and realistic tale, and it makes the town of Edgewood just as much a character as Chizmar and his mirror-universe self and counterparts. The set up is unique, and the details that Chizmar puts in, from that tricky intro to staged photographs and documents are so great and just add to the narrative nonfiction feel. It’s easily one of the most ambitious works I’ve read this year in how it combines two completely different takes on literature and creates a fictional story that reads like a real one.

The plot itself isn’t terribly ambitious to the naked eye. A serial killer preying on young women in a small town is, unfortunately, all too familiar within the true crime world. The mystery is well set up, and by the time we got to the reveal I was legitimately surprised by the whodunnit solution (and we also get a very unsettling interview between Chizmar and the perpetrator, which just gave me CHILLS). But I think that what makes it stand out the most is that by framing it as Chizmar having this personal connection to the community, and an obsession with this dark reality that is functioning in it, it makes the story more about the darkness of small town America, and how sometimes we have to reckon with the dark realities of our childhoods. While Chizmar (both fictional and real world) has happy memories about growing up in Edgewood, he also has to ruminate on the fact that really bad things happened to women in his community, and how even beyond that there are definitely imperfect and dangerous things in small town America that are hidden behind the veneer of tight knit community and traditional morality. But as more girls and women are attacked and killed, the paranoia, gossip, and fear starts to show that people are capable of destructive things that aren’t limited to murder. It feels a lot like a Stephen King deconstruction of small town values, but since Chizmar has made it personal, it has its own spin. And his affection for his real small town of Edgewood makes it so that it feels more bittersweet of a revelation, as opposed to a Derry-esque complete take down of Americana.

“Chasing the Boogeyman” is unique and ambitious, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Part horror, part thriller, part faux (but also a bit real) memoir, it is truly a book that stands out this year.

Rating 8: An ambitious dive into metafiction that explores true crime through a fictional lens, “Chasing the Boogeyman” is unique and entertaining, and unsettling as well.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Chasing the Boogeyman” is included on the Goodreads lists “Horror With an Author As the Main Character”, and “Mystery & Thriller 2021”.

Find “Chasing the Boogeyman” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “As Good As Dead”

Book: “As Good As Dead” (A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder #3) by Holly Jackson

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2021

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

Book Description: The highly anticipated, edge-of-your-seat conclusion to the addictive A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder series that reads like your favorite true crime podcast or show. By the end, you’ll never think the same of good girls again.

Pip’s good girl days are long behind her. After solving two murder cases and garnering internet fame from her crime podcast, she’s seen a lot.

But she’s still blindsided when it starts to feel like someone is watching her. It’s small things at first. A USB stick with footage recording her and the same anonymous source always asking her: who will look for you when you’re the one who disappears? It could be a harmless fan, but her gut is telling her danger is lurking.

When Pip starts to find connections between her possible stalker and a local serial killer, Pip knows that there is only one choice: find the person threatening her town including herself–or be as good as dead. Because maybe someone has been watching her all along

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

Whenever I get to a final book of a series I have genuinely enjoyed, I am torn between wanting to devour it to see how it all plays out, and savoring it to stave off the end as long as possible. When I saw that “As Good As Dead”, the last book in Holly Jackson’s “A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder” series was coming out, I was thrilled and saddened. I think part of me had hoped that perhaps Jackson would make Pippa Fitz-Amobi, true crime obsessive and amateur detective, a series a la Temperence Brennan or Amelia Peabody. But if this is truly the end for Pip, I have to say that, while I was sad to say goodbye, this goodbye was so satisfying that I have few regrets.

Me saying goodbye to this series (though all three books are on my shelf to revisit whenever). (source)

When we left Pip at the end of “Good Girl, Bad Blood”, she had just survived a house fire and witnessed the brutal murder of sometimes ally, sometimes thorn in her side Stanley, who had been revealed as the son of a notorious murderer and who was killed out of revenge though he himself was a child at the time of the murders. Pip has been downward spiraling ever since, as while she’s counting the days down until she leaves for college, she’s also been taking Xanax on the sly to help her sleep, having PTSD episodes in secret, and fighting back unbridled rage issues. Especially since serial rapist Max Hastings, whose actions had far reaching consequences for Pip and those she cares about, has gone free. I had a very clear idea of what I thought was going to happen with this book. Pip is very unwell, understandably so, and I figured that we were going to get an exploration of a detective on the edge, who is after one last case to try and absolve herself of her roles in past cases and tragedies that came from them. As well as trying to solve the newest case of who is stalking her before it is too late.

In terms of these things, Jackson soars. I completely believed Pip’s mental state, and I loved that Jackson decided to go in this direction. I also found the slowly escalating stalker events in her life to be very creepy and unsettling, and through a combination of narrative as well as pictures, graphs, and epistolary segments (much like the previous books), we have a new case of a long supposedly solved serial killer that Pip now has to attend to, lest she be the next victim. Did this seem a little out there? Sure. But I was totally willing to buy in. Mostly because Jackson really knows how to plot a thriller that has wonderful characters and good connections to previous books/cases in the series.

It was about halfway through this book that I realized that Jackson had something else in store for the reader, and when I realized where it was all going, I was both blown away and a little bit horrified. I’m not going to spoil anything here, as it’s definitely worth keeping close to the vest. But “As Good As Dead” does away with preconceived notions of where this final book could go, even more so than just making Pip a complete emotional wreck. At first I was skeptical and a little bit incredulous, but as the plot goes on, it becomes very clear that Jackson has plans for Pip, and they are probably a foregone conclusion for her storyline given how things have been building since the first book. It’s so well done, and so suspenseful, and it made this final book a serious firecracker of a thriller. And I found myself going back to the previous two books to look for clues to see just how far back Jackson was planning this whole thing. It’s very well done. As mentioned above, while the main issue that Pip is facing (being the target of a potential dormant serial killer) did feel a little bit much, Jackson tells that story and the whole new other story so well that I was just enjoying the hell out of the ride. As well as getting my emotions totally run through the wringer. Sweet, sweet agony.

“As Good As Dead” is a satisfying end to a very enjoyable series! I look forward to seeing what Jackson writes next, and I wouldn’t mind revisiting Pip and all her loved ones down the road.

Rating 9: A supremely satisfying (and at times very very bleak) conclusion to a YA series I love, “As Good As Dead” takes Pip on her darkest case yet.

Reader’s Advisory:

“As Good As Dead” is included on the Goodreads lists “Young Adult THRILLERS”, and “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, and Thrillers 2021”.

Find “As Good As Dead” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “Nice Girls”

Book: “Nice Girls” by Catherine Dang

Publishing Info: William Morrow, September 2021

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

Book Description: A pulse-pounding and deviously dark debut, written with the psychological acuity and emotional punch of Luckiest Girl Alive and All the Missing Girls, that explores the hungry, angry, dark side of girlhood and dares to ask what is most dangerous to a woman: showing the world what it wants to see, or who she really is?

What did you do?

Growing up in Liberty Lake, Minnesota, Mary was chubby, awkward, and smart. Earning a scholarship to an Ivy League school was her ticket out; she was going to do great things and never look back. Three years later, “Ivy League Mary” is back—a thinner, cynical, and restless failure. Kicked out of Cornell at the beginning of senior year, she won’t tell anyone why. Working at the local grocery store, she sees familiar faces from high school and tries to make sense of the past and her life.

When beautiful, magnetic Olivia Willand, a rising social media star, goes missing, Mary—like the rest of Liberty Lake—becomes obsessed. Best friends in childhood, Mary and Olivia haven’t spoken in years. Everyone admired Olivia, but Mary knows better than anyone that behind the Instagram persona hid a willful, manipulative girl with sharp edges. As the world worries for perfect, lovely Olivia, Mary can’t help but hate her. She also believes that her disappearance is tied to another missing person—a nineteen-year-old girl named DeMaria Jackson whose disappearance has gone under the radar.  

Who was the true Olivia Willand, and where did she go? What happened to DeMaria? As Mary delves deeper into the lives of the two missing girls, old wounds bleed fresh and painful secrets threaten to destroy everything. Maybe no one is really a nice girl, after all.

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

Though I know that my home state does have a fair amount of problems in some ways, ultimately I love being a Minnesota girl. I am always tickled when I’m reading a book that takes place here, and if that book falls into my preferred genres then it will almost assuredly get some priority on my reading list. Enter “Nice Girls” by Catherine Dang, a suburban (maybe exurban?) thriller written by a local woman. I can honestly say that I was drawn in because of 1) setting, 2) general plot, and 3) the title lettering on the cover of the book. I’m not usually one who takes cover into account (I know Serena loves a good cover!), but the hot pink glowy neon of the book title made me go ‘now THIS is a design!’ Okay, I’m done gushing about the cover. Let’s get into the nitty gritty of “Nice Girls”, a thriller that oozes potential but never quite reaches it.

But I’m going to start with what did work for me, as is tradition. Dang captures the place and setting of Liberty Lake, Minnesota (a made up city/exurb), a community that’s a bit out state and small town-esque with a commanding lake and an insulated population. As I read it I was thinking about the lake town I found myself driving out to to get my COVID shots back when that shit was in demand (p.s., PLEASE get vaccinated if you can, folks). Liberty Lake feels fleshed out in terms of the community itself and how the people view each other, with the expected underbelly of not spoken of racism, misogyny, and stifling community repression. Our main character, Mary, wanted to get out of Liberty Lake, and exceeded the town’s expectations when she was accepted to Cornell. But the usual theme of pride mingling with resentment is there, as when she returns to town after being expelled there is a certain sense of ‘though you were better than us, but look at you now’ that she has to face. Though a fair amount of that may also be her own resentments about being unable to escape a community that she never quite fit into. Along with that, Dang compares and contrasts our two missing women through the lens of the missing white woman syndrome, a theme that is always important to note when it comes to whose stories get picked up and paid attention to when they are potential victims of violent crimes. The victim we hear of first is Olivia, a town darling who is white, blonde, and a social media influencer whose lifelong popularity makes her disappearance front page news. Search parties are going out day after day, the headlines are dominated by her disappearance, and everyone is praying for her safe return. But before Olivia disappeared, DeMaria disappeared, with far less fanfare, even as her body parts are found in the lake. DeMaria is a lower income, Black, single mother, and no one seems to be interested in what happened to her. It’s a comment on systemic and ingrained racism that we’ve started to see more of in fictional stories, but I still welcome the topic because it’s still a huge problem.

But here is where things don’t work as well in “Nice Girls”. Mary as a character is something we have seen before in a thriller like this: she’s damaged, she returns home with a dark secret, and she starts to spiral more and more when she gets embroiled in the local secrets. This kind of thing can work if the main character is compelling in other ways, but Mary is fairly two dimensional who is defined by her dourness, and her deep seated insecurities make her a very unlikable person and hard to root for. She doesn’t really have any growth during this book, and she makes huge missteps that feel convenient to the plot while feeling a bit haphazard even for her slightly unhinged personality. And Mary isn’t the only unlikable character, as there are very few people in this book that I actually liked and wanted to know more about, and those who I did like were relegated to the sidelines for the most part. These kinds of things could be easier to overlook if the mystery itself was addictive, but overall it was pretty standard, with a reveal that felt shaky in the laid out groundwork that held it up. There were a few moments that were genuinely surprising, but the pay off was rushed.

I have no doubt in my mind that I will be picking up the next book by Catherine Dang, as her ability to write and create a setting filled with rich descriptions was definitely there. “Nice Girls” is probably worth the read for casual thriller fans, but if you’ve been steeped in the genre for awhile it may not have the pay off you want.

Rating 6: I saw a lot of potential here and there were some good themes, but the characters were two dimensional and the mystery itself was fairly average.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Nice Girls” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery and Thriller 2021”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Never Saw Me Coming”

Book: “Never Saw Me Coming” by Vera Kurian

Publishing Info: Park Row, September 2021

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

Book Description: Meet Chloe Sevre. She’s a freshman honor student, a leggings-wearing hot girl next door, who also happens to be a psychopath. Her hobbies include yogalates, frat parties, and plotting to kill Will Bachman, a childhood friend who grievously wronged her.

Chloe is one of seven students at her DC-based college who are part of an unusual clinical study for psychopaths—students like herself who lack empathy and can’t comprehend emotions like fear or guilt. The study, led by a renowned psychologist, requires them to wear smart watches that track their moods and movements.

When one of the students in the study is found murdered in the psychology building, a dangerous game of cat and mouse begins, and Chloe goes from hunter to prey. As she races to identify the killer and put her own plan into action, she’ll be forced to decide if she can trust any of her fellow psychopaths—and everybody knows you should never trust a psychopath.

Never Saw Me Coming is a compulsive, voice-driven thriller by an exciting new voice in fiction, that will keep you pinned to the page and rooting for a would-be killer.

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

I’ve made it very well known that I enjoy thriller novels that will spotlight creepy or unsettling characters, and if they are doing bad things, well, hey, I’m still in. I also have mentioned before that I got my B.A. in Psychology with a focus on Abnormal Psych, with another focus on Psychopathy. If a person writes a book from a psychopath’s POV, and they do it well, AND they make it amusing from time to time, sign me right up please! And that brings us to “Never Saw Me Coming” by Vera Kurian. Not only do we have one psychopath character, we have multiple! And not only that, they have to band together to figure out who is trying to kill them! All of this sounded like a hoot, and I was eager to dive in.

The mystery of who is killing off these psychopaths one by one sets up for an interesting dilemma that our characters find themselves in. After all, psychopaths tend to have little loyalties outside of themselves, and therefore in this context that means that it could be any one of them, so they can’t trust each other, even though they HAVE to trust each other. I liked that concept to be sure, and seeing Chloe, Charles, and Andre try and calculate how they could get information from each other, manipulate each other, AND confide in each other without being worried about being stabbed in the back by each other. The mystery itself had some pretty well done twists and details (and a VERY creative death involving an MRI machine), though in the end I kind of saw the solution coming from aways away. That didn’t make the journey to the solution less fun, per se, but I think that had it blown me away it would have been better. But another big plus is that we get to see psychopaths (for the most part) as not necessarily pop culture serial killers, but as people who can be nonviolent and successful… as well as manipulative, fearless, and lacking empathy. We don’t really think of that side of psychopaths as much, which is far more common.

But it’s the characters that this story gets its best strengths, as Kurian has a fun cast, most of whom are deeply, deeply unsettling. We follow three for most of the narrative. The first is Charles, a wealthy and somewhat spoiled frat boy who is doing his best to keep up appearances and to appear normal, with a lovely girlfriend, a group of friends, and a solid academic record. The second in Andre (and we’re going to come back to him), who has a full scholarship to the school because of his participation in the study, but who isn’t ACTUALLY a psychopath. And the third and most prominent is Chloe, who gets third AND first person perspectives, because not only is she trying not to be killed by a mystery killer, she is ALSO planning a bloody revenge on a student named Will. Chloe knew Will when they were younger, and after he assaulted her she has been planning to take her revenge, and now being a target herself could screw all that up. Chloe is definitely the star of the show, and she has some creepy and enjoyable moments. But it’s Andre that I wanted to know the most about, as his story is one that connects to institutional racism. Andre is Black, and when he was a kid his older sister died unexpectedly and tragically. Andre, unable to process this trauma, began acting out, and a counselor just wrote him off as having Conduct Disorder because of his race, and Andre decided to roll with it as a joke… Until he was offered a full scholarship that would change his life. NOW he has to try and keep up appearances, AND he has to try and stay alive. I thought that this was the best storyline, personally, and I wish we had more of him. That said, all of the characters were entertaining, as was the book itself in a gallows humor kind of way.

“Never Saw Me Coming” joins the ranks of other unreliable or psychopathic narrators, but gives us a bit more of a look into how many psychopaths function when you strip away the idea of a serial killer (mystery killer and Chloe notwithstanding). Thriller fans with a wicked streak should definitely pick it up!

Rating 8: A dark, unsettling, and wickedly fun thriller that gets you rooting for a few psychopaths, “Never Saw Me Coming” has some creepy but intriguing characters that will suck you in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Never Saw Me Coming” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark Academia”, and “I Like Serial Killers”.

Find “Never Saw Me Coming” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “How We Fall Apart”

Book: “How We Fall Apart” by Katie Zhao

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury YA, August 2021

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

Book Description: Students at an elite prep school are forced to confront their secrets when their ex-best friend turns up dead.

Nancy Luo is shocked when her former best friend, Jamie Ruan, top ranked junior at Sinclair Prep, goes missing, and then is found dead. Nancy is even more shocked when word starts to spread that she and her friends–Krystal, Akil, and Alexander–are the prime suspects, thanks to “The Proctor,” someone anonymously incriminating them via the school’s social media app.

They all used to be Jamie’s closest friends, and she knew each of their deepest, darkest secrets. Now, somehow The Proctor knows them, too. The four must uncover the true killer before The Proctor exposes more than they can bear and costs them more than they can afford, like Nancy’s full scholarship. Soon, Nancy suspects that her friends may be keeping secrets from her, too.

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

Awhile back, probably the early Spring, I saw a really interesting book cover and read an interesting description. And then, being a dope, I didn’t write down the title of the book, because surely, SURELY, I would remember it. Shockingly enough, I didn’t, and I kept trying to remember what it was called. I knew that it was a thriller, and that it had an all Asian American cast of characters. Eventually I did stumble back upon it, and that was when I finally added “How We Fall Apart” by Katie Zhao to my reading list. After the self-inflicted strife of trying to remember the title, I was eager to sink into it and read it, sure that my anticipation and need to remember would be worth it, but I’m sad to say that “How We Fall Apart” didn’t quite live up to the self made hype.

But as always, we’ll look to the positive first. “How We Fall Apart” has its greatest strength in the characters and how Zhao shows a wide range of circumstances between them. Nancy, Akil, Krystal, Alexander, and even possible murder victim Jamie all have similar cultural backgrounds, as they are all Asian American and many of whom have immigrant parents. But they also have varying circumstances, from the very wealthy and privileged to the lower income with many financial hurdles to overcome. In flashbacks Jamie lords her wealth and power over her best frenemy Nancy, always happy to point out that Nancy’s mother is the family maid, along with other moments of classist bullshit. And unlike a couple of her friends, Nancy has a LOT more to lose if things come out, as her scholarship could very well be on the line if she is revealed to be part of some past controversies and ‘incidents’. It’s nice seeing the complexities within a community, and this book shows them in a simple and easy to understand way. There are also moments where Zhao reminds us that no matter how privileged some of these students are, they still have to face racism from their white student counterparts, and it was moments of nuance like these that worked for me.

But in terms of a thriller, “How We Fall Apart” doesn’t really have much new to offer to the genre. It has a very similar premise to a few popular YA thriller series, from a group of kids who are suspected of a murder they didn’t commit to an anonymous tormenter who is slowly making their lives living hellscapes, the tropes are well worn and not really expanded upon. It just feels a lot like “Pretty Little Liars” (even with a student/teacher relationship subplot, though the good news is that here it is NOT glorified at all nor is it portrayed in any positive light) meets “One of Us Is Lying”, and I was hoping that we would get something a bit more than that. I didn’t really find myself invested in who “The Proctor” was, or how things were going to shake out for Nancy and company in terms of the future as well as in the past (there are many references to an ‘incident’ that Nancy is trying to hide). Ultimately, I felt like I’ve seen this before, and that made for not as enjoyable reading.

But that said, there are absolutely people out there (especially Young Adults) who aren’t as seasoned as I am when it comes to YA thrillers (is “PLL” even a thing anymore?). I have no doubt that “How We Fall Apart” would probably be effective for them. But for someone who has done more than just dipping their toes into the genre, it will probably leave you feeling like there could have been more.

Rating 5: Not offering much beyond what we’ve seen many times before (outside of some well done character insight), “How We Fall Apart” would probably be a good read for those new to the genre, but will probably disappoint old pros.

Reader’s Advisory:

“How We Fall Apart” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark Academia”, and “Asian MG/YA 2021”.

Find “How We Fall Apart” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Bath Haus”

Book: “Bath Haus” by P.J. Vernon

Publishing Info: Doubleday Books, June 2021

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

Book Description: Oliver Park, a young recovering addict from Indiana, finally has everything he ever wanted: sobriety and a loving, wealthy partner in Nathan, a prominent DC trauma surgeon. Despite their difference in age and disparate backgrounds, they’ve made a perfect life together. With everything to lose, Oliver shouldn’t be visiting Haus, a gay bathhouse. But through the entrance he goes, and it’s a line crossed. Inside, he follows a man into a private room, and it’s the final line. Whatever happens next, Nathan can never know. But then, everything goes wrong, terribly wrong, and Oliver barely escapes with his life. He races home in full-blown terror as the hand-shaped bruise grows dark on his neck. The truth will destroy Nathan and everything they have together, so Oliver does the thing he used to do so well: he lies.

What follows is a classic runaway-train narrative, full of the exquisite escalations, edge-of-your-seat thrills, and oh-my-god twists. P. J. Vernon’s Bath Haus is a scintillating thriller with an emotional punch, perfect for readers curious for their next must-read novel.

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

I love seeing the books that some of my favorite authors are reading. Usually I can gauge if I’m going to mesh well with a book if an author I really trust is raving about it. So when Caroline Kepnes made mention of “Bath Haus” by P.J. Vernon, I was definitely curious to pick it up. I went in with certain expectations, most of them falling into the lurid. But almost immediately I realized that “Bath Haus” was going to be not only high octane and like a runaway freight train, it was also going to be super, super dark and disturbing.

From the jump “Bath Haus” is off the rails, and while that may not work in some authors hands, Vernon has no problem starting at fifty and working his way ever upward. We have two perspectives in this book. The first is Oliver, the young former addict who has found himself in a lavish, and highly controlled, relationship with Nathan. Oliver’s POV starts with almost getting strangled while attempting a hook up at a bath house, who then finds himself having to lie to his lover, and then being stalked by his attacker. While another thriller may have kept it here on this familiar trajectory, we have a second POV, of Nathan, Oliver’s older partner. Nathan is controlling, hot tempered but able to mask it, and suspicious of anyone and anything that may get between him and Oliver. And it’s because of this that “Bath Haus” has a whole other layer of suspense. Because not only is Oliver finding himself in a web with Kristian, his mysterious and menacing attacker, you as the reader see that he is ALSO potentially in danger due to his relationship with Nathan, which is unhealthy at best and possibly deranged. Not that Oliver knows this. Because of all these angles, the suspense was at a constant and Vernon managed to amp it up without it feeling histrionic or melodramatic. The flip side of this, however, is that at times the complexity wasn’t there for the characters. This applies more to Nathan, as he has a number of tropes that are pretty par for the course when it comes to his characterization. It didn’t take away from the entertainment, but it wasn’t really doing anything new in that regard.

And what’s more, it kept me guessing! There are enough twists, well crafted red herrings, and revelations in this book that I was in the dark a majority of the time. Things that could have been tacked on in other instances felt necessary, and by the time we did hit surprise after surprise I realized that while I perhaps came close to guessing a twist or two, I was off enough that the reveals felt fresh and surprising. I also really enjoyed how Vernon told the story through not only two different perspectives, but also through a bit of time jumping. This was mostly for Oliver’s benefit, as it really let the reader get into his mind, his past, and his traumas that helped explain a lot about the decisions that he makes as the book goes on. Being able to get this insight really helped, especially when Oliver makes decisions that may come off as really, really stupid. At least you get information as to why he’s making the stupid choice. Especially when stupid choice after stupid choice builds up to so. many. moments where the tension is so taut it felt like it would snap. There were numerous moments where my jaw dropped open and I gasped, or had to close my Kindle and walk away for a bit just to gather my bearings.

All of this said, I really need to tell people that this book is FILLED with content warnings. I almost described this as an erotic thriller at first, just because of some of the themes and elements, but stopped myself because the content isn’t really meant to be titillating. From sexual assault to mental and physical abuse to really disturbing scenes of violence, “Bath Haus” is dark and graphic and it doesn’t pull punches. It never felt distasteful to me, but it pushes boundaries and it is incredibly unsettling.

“Bath Haus” isn’t going to be for the faint of heart, but I think that it’s going to be talked about by those who do read it. It has a way of settling into your consciousness and twisting it about. I was left thinking about it for a few days after finishing, and oof. Recommended, but for a very specific reader.

Rating 8: Suspenseful and unsettling, “Bath Haus” is a twisted thriller that will get under your skin.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bath Haus” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 Releases Featuring Queer Men”.

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

Joint Review: “Velvet Was the Night”

Book: “Velvet Was the Night” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publishing Info: Del Rey, August 2021

Where Did We Get This Book: Received an eARC from NetGalley, received an eARC from Edelweiss+.

Book Description: From the New York Times bestselling author of Mexican Gothic comes a “delicious, twisted treat for lovers of noir” about a daydreaming secretary, a lonesome enforcer, and the mystery of a missing woman they’re both desperate to find.

1970s, Mexico City. Maite is a secretary who lives for one thing: the latest issue of Secret Romance. While student protests and political unrest consume the city, Maite escapes into stories of passion and danger.

Her next-door neighbor, Leonora, a beautiful art student, seems to live a life of intrigue and romance that Maite envies. When Leonora disappears under suspicious circumstances, Maite finds herself searching for the missing woman—and journeying deeper into Leonora’s secret life of student radicals and dissidents.

Meanwhile, someone else is also looking for Leonora at the behest of his boss, a shadowy figure who commands goon squads dedicated to squashing political activists. Elvis is an eccentric criminal who longs to escape his own life: He loathes violence and loves old movies and rock ’n’ roll. But as Elvis searches for the missing woman, he comes to observe Maite from a distance—and grows more and more obsessed with this woman who shares his love of music and the unspoken loneliness of his heart.

Now as Maite and Elvis come closer to discovering the truth behind Leonora’s disappearance, they can no longer escape the danger that threatens to consume their lives, with hitmen, government agents, and Russian spies all aiming to protect Leonora’s secrets—at gunpoint.

Velvet Was the Night is an edgy, simmering historical novel for lovers of smoky noirs and anti-heroes.

Serena’s Thoughts

I remember noting in one of my early Moreno-Garcia reads that she’s a unique author in that she seems to jump from genre to genre with ease. It’s truly something rare, I believe, as most authors have a defined genre within they operate comfortably. Sherry Thomas is another favorite author of mine who comes to mind with this shared ability. But Moreno-Garcia takes it to a new level. I’ve read a Gothic horror, a Regency romance, a Mexican folktale fantasy, and now here I am reviewing a noir! At the very least, she’s single-handedly expanding my horizons in my genre reading!

One thing that does remain consistent between her books is her love of featuring duel/multiple POVs in her books. Here we experience the story from both an inside and outside perspective. On one hand, we have Maite, an introverted young woman who leads a quiet life reading her beloved romance novels before getting drawn into the mysterious disappearance of her neighbor Leonora. And on the other, we have Elvis, a gang member who works with the Hawks, an organization that works to quell political dissenters. He is interested in Leonora’s disappearance for very different reasons.

There was much to love about this book, from its exploration of the deep loneliness found in two characters leading very different lives, to the vivid painting of life in Mexico during this period of history. I knew only a little about what was going on during this time, so I was particularly interested in seeing Moreno-Garcia’s take on that situation. Elvis’s storyline, in particular, presented a unique take on these events, coming from the inside of the Hawk organization itself.

But her strengths have always been her characters and the strong, atmospheric worlds she sets them loose in. Here, both Maite and Elvis, while very, very different characters, were equally compelling. Their stories weave together slowly and with attention given to the inner workings of each character and the arcs they are covering. I don’t read a lot of noirs, but I believe this slower-paced storytelling is a specific aspect of the genre, and it blends perfectly with Moreno-Garcia’s love of careful character building.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I think I ultimately still prefer her other books that had supernatural/fantasy elements involved, but that’s also just very inline with my own reading tendencies. Fans of noirs and historical fiction, I’m sure, will gobble this up, but I recommend it to readers of all genres,

Kate’s Thoughts

Boy oh boy, I am consistently blown away by how good Silvia Moreno-Garcia is at seamlessly slipping into a new genre with every book I read, and while I always hope that she will come back for more horror and thriller elements as time goes on, I do like a good mystery. I’m not as in tune with the Noir subgenre as I am other mystery subgenres, but I do enjoy a good Noir film every now and again. Because of this, I was eager to read her new Noir novel, “Velvet Was the Night”

Serena touches on a lot of the same things I liked about this book in her review, so I’ll try not to repeat her too much. I also enjoyed both of our protagonists Maite and Elvis, and their very different backgrounds and motivations for finding Leonora. Maite gets pulled into it because 1) she was watching the woman’s cat, and 2) the mystery is exciting, and her life is decidedly not. Elvis, on the other hand, works for a secret group that crushes political dissenters, and Leonora is involved in student activism. The elements of an intricate mystery are there as they both go on the search and find out a lot about her life and how it fits into the landscape of 1970s Mexico City. I liked both Maite for her somewhat naïveté laced personality and the dark and dangerous journey she takes, and I liked Elvis and how, even though he works for a group of suppressive fascists, he has his own bits of rebellion as he, too, goes on a journey on self discovery. They both feel confined to their existences, and start to realize that there could be more.

And it’s really the time and place that worked the best for me in this story. I have no little knowledge of Mexican history, so a lot of this felt like I was learning a bit about an area I knew little about as we went on the journey. I found myself looking up information about Luis Echeverría Álvarez and El Halconazo as I was reading the book just to educate myself some more, and it made the political dissent angle all the more interesting to me. I love how Moreno-Garcia pulled a Noir story out of a setting that you don’t see within the subgenre all that often, at least in my experience. Some of the details and allusions to that theme were very unsettling, and wove in an entire lower level of dread that the Hawks were going to catch up with Maite, Rubén, and Leonora and then all hell would break loose.

“Velvet Was the Night” is a well done new Noir mystery that is sure to entertain mystery fans. Hats off to Moreno-Garcia for once again doing a great job with a new genre!

Serena’s Rating:

Kate’s Rating 8: A taut mystery, fun characters, and a unique setting made “Velvet Was the Night” a fun noir mystery that I enjoyed quite a bit.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Velvet Was the Night” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Noir of the 21st Century”, and “Books by Latinx Releasing in 2021”.

Find “Velvet Was the Night” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “We Were Never Here”

Book: “We Were Never Here” by Andrea Bartz

Publishing Info: Ballantine Books, August 2021

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

Book Description: An annual backpacking trip has deadly consequences in a chilling new novel from the bestselling author of The Lost Night and The Herd.

Emily is having the time of her life–she’s in the mountains of Chile with her best friend, Kristen, on their annual reunion trip, and the women are feeling closer than ever. But on the last night of their trip, Emily enters their hotel suite to find blood and broken glass on the floor. Kristen says the cute backpacker she’d been flirting with attacked her, and she had no choice but to kill him in self-defense. Even more shocking: The scene is horrifyingly similar to last year’s trip, when another backpacker wound up dead. Emily can’t believe it’s happened again–can lightning really strike twice?

Back home in Wisconsin, Emily struggles to bury her trauma, diving head-first into a new relationship and throwing herself into work. But when Kristen shows up for a surprise visit, Emily is forced to to confront their violent past. The more Kristen tries to keep Emily close, the more Emily questions her friend’s motives. As Emily feels the walls closing in on their coverups, she must reckon with the truth about her closest friend. Can she outrun the secrets she shares with Kristen, or will they destroy her relationship, her freedom–even her life?

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

I enjoyed Andrea Bartz’s previous novel “The Herd” particularly because of how she tackled the fraught, complicated, and sometimes deadly relationships between women characters in high stress, high ambition situations. It was kind of a no brainer that I would be interested in her new book “We Were Never Here”, about two friends who find themselves once again with a dead body in a foreign country. Talk about your high stress situations! I had high hopes, but unfortunately, the hopes weren’t really met.

But like I always do, I will start with what I did like about this book, and that is how well Bartz captured the ins and outs of a codependent and toxic friendship. I have found myself in a couple of bad and toxic friendships, that have either healed through time and distance, or fell by the wayside and good riddance to them, and Bartz really clocked the ways that people can hurt each other, manipulate each other, and bend over backwards to make excuses for each other’s behavior. I found myself cringing as I read it as it hit very close to home, and was definitely impressed by all the little details she had that weren’t even necessarily connected to the main conflict. Both Kristen and Emily were realistic in the parts that they played, and the unreliability of Emily was interesting not because she necessarily had something to hide from the reader, but because she had to convince herself that her friendship with Kristen was normal and not steeped in toxicity that may have led to murder. I enjoyed that angle a lot, and thought it had a lot of potential because of it.

But the execution of “We Were Never Here” was pretty standard and run of mill with a lot of predictability and not many big surprises (except for one but we’ll get to that). I really liked the beginning of the book, where Emily and Kristen are in Chile, and the ensuing killing of a fellow traveler and disposal of his body. I thought that was genuinely suspenseful and interesting. But then it turns into Emily slowly realizing that maybe Kristen isn’t the great and true blue friend she always thought she was, and it kind of goes on a road well travelled from there. It’s no surprise as things are alluded to early and then revealed as huge red flags. It’s not shocking when Emily learns more and more and Kristen gets seemingly more and more obsessed with being near Emily. As more parts of Kristen’s history come out, beats that should be surprising aren’t, and by the time we get to the big climactic moment it feels rushed, and yet drawn out as we follow some MORE exposition after the fact, and then have some will there or won’t there be fallout from this that also fizzles out. And THEN, as if for good measure, Bartz tries to flip the script one last time in the last few pages for one more twist that really feels out of place and just hackneyed. It’s super disappointing that this story never quite got off the ground, as at first I was really digging it.

“We Were Never Here” was a bit of a disappointment for me, but it may work for other people! I haven’t given up on Bartz as a whole, she does portray relationship strife really well. I’m hoping her next one will hit a little better.

Rating 5: A promising premise, but a lot of predictability and a bit of an anti-climactic (and then out of nowhere) end made “We Were Never Here” fall a bit flat.

Reader’s Advisory:

“We Were Never Here” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery and Thriller 2021”.

Find “We Were Never Here” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Just One Look”

Book: “Just One Look” by Lindsay Cameron

Publishing Info: Ballantine Books, July 2021

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

Book Description: Eyes aren’t the windows to the soul. Emails are.

Cassie Woodson is adrift. After suffering an epic tumble down the corporate ladder, Cassie finds the only way she can pay her bills is to take a thankless temp job reviewing correspondence for a large-scale fraud suit. The daily drudgery amplifies all that her life is lacking–love, friends, stability–and leaves her with too much time on her hands, which she spends fixating on the mistakes that brought her to this point. While sorting through a relentless deluge of emails, something catches her eye: the tender (and totally private) exchanges between a partner at the firm, Forest Watts, and his enchanting wife, Annabelle. Cassie knows she shouldn’t read them. But it’s just one look. And once that door opens, she finds she can’t look away.

Every day, twenty floors below Forest’s corner office, Cassie dissects their emails from her dingy workstation. A few clicks of her mouse and she can see every adoring word they write to each other. By peeking into their apparently perfect life, Cassie finds renewed purpose and happiness, reveling in their penchant for vintage wines, morning juice presses, and lavish dinner parties thrown in their stately Westchester home. There are no secrets from her. Or so she thinks.

Her admiration quickly escalates into all-out mimicry, because she wants this life more than anything. Maybe if she plays make-believe long enough, it will become real for her. But when Cassie orchestrates a “chance” meeting with Forest in the real world and sees something that throws the state of his marriage into question, the fantasy she’s been carefully cultivating shatters. Suddenly, she doesn’t simply admire Annabelle–she wants to take her place. And she’s armed with the tools to make that happen.

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

Given that Caroline Kepnes is one of my favorite authors, anything that she recommends I am going to jump all over. So when I saw that she had put a blurb on a book called “Just One Look” by Lindsay Cameron, I was definitely interested to see what it was about. If the blurb piqued my interest, the description totally reeled me in: a woman who is overseeing emails for a large fraud issue stumbles upon personal emails between a married couple, and starts to obsess about them and covet their life. Oh hell yeah, that sounds right up my alley! I figured I knew what I was in for. But boy, I was wrong. And in this instance that was a good thing.

“Just One Look” is a slow burn of a creepy tale of obsessive love and wanting, as a woman who has lost everything starts to covet a life that is laid out in front of her in emails. Cassie lost a very prestigious position at her previous firm, and her downfall was viral and well known enough that she has been reduced to humiliating drudgery. We slowly get to see just what Cassie did, and we do this as we watch her start to obsess over Forest and Annabelle Watts thanks to private emails between them that have been caught in this email review. As Cassie obsesses more and more and starts building up a narrative of their lives in her head, she starts to see herself there as well, and creeps ever closer to Forest as she pieces his life together. But I can tell you that this plot isn’t what you think it is. Cameron does a really good job of building up a lot of tension along with a very unreliable protagonist, so anything she says could be completely false, even if she doesn’t know it. I thought that this story was going to be one thing, but it took many different directions that I didn’t expect, and I really, really enjoyed being surprised at a new moment or reveal. It’s so unsettling watching Cassie seep more and more into Forest and Annabelle’s life, and Cameron yanks it so taut that it could easily snap. Especially when she pulls the rug out from under you.

But what I liked the most about this book was our protagonist, Cassie. I went into the book with some preconceived notions about how it was going to go, and just what kind of person Cassie was going to be. I mean, in my defense, since Kepnes was used as a blurb on the cover, I figured ‘okay, so it’s gonna be like ‘You’ but with a woman creepazoid’. And hey, I was here for that, don’t get me wrong! But Cameron has other tricks up her sleeves, and Cassie is a very interesting protagonist with a lot of layers. Some of those layers are incredibly sympathetic, and others are very, very disturbing. In some ways, there are definitely similarities to Joe Goldberg, but Cassie has more of a broken feeling to her, and in some ways that makes her all the creepier. But along with that, Cameron affords her some interesting exploration that female characters don’t often get. While it’s true that the things that Cassie does in this book are super, super unethical and also absolutely stalker behavior, it was kind of nice to see the background as to why she is this way, without excusing any of her behavior or making it okay. Cameron walks that fine line between romanticizing a dangerous obsessive, and making her a cartoonish caricature.

I really enjoyed “Just One Look”. It got under my skin, and surprised me in a lot of ways. Don’t sleep on this one, thriller fans! And be careful about what you put in emails that others can potentially see..

Rating 9: A slow burn of a suspense thriller with a creepy protagonist and some really well done twists!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Just One Look” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery and Thriller 2021”, and would fit in on “Thrillers ft. Stalkers or Obsessive Love”.

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

Kate’s Review: “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives”

Book: “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” by Kristin Miller

Publishing Info: Ballantine Books, July 2021

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

Book Description: Meet the trophy wives of Presidio Terrace, San Francisco’s most exclusive–and most deadly–neighborhood in this shrewd, darkly compelling novel from the New York Times bestselling author of In Her Shadow.

Mystery writer Brooke Davies is the new wife on the block. Her tech-billionaire husband, Jack, twenty-two years her senior, whisked her to the Bay Area via private jet and purchased a modest mansion on the same day. He demands perfection, and before now, Brooke has had no problem playing the role of a doting housewife. But as she befriends other wives on the street and spends considerable time away from Jack, he worries if he doesn’t control Brooke’s every move, she will reveal the truth behind their “perfect” marriage.

Erin King, famed news anchor and chair of the community board, is no stranger to maintaining an image–though being married to a plastic surgeon helps. But the skyrocketing success of her career has worn her love life thin, and her professional ambitions have pushed Mason away. Quitting her job is a Hail Mary attempt at keeping him interested, to steer him away from finding a young trophy wife. But is it enough, and is Mason truly the man she thought he was?

Georgia St. Claire allegedly cashed in on the deaths of her first two husbands, earning her the nickname “Black Widow”–and the stares and whispers of her curious neighbors. Rumored to have murdered both men for their fortunes, she claims to have found true love in her third marriage, yet her mysterious, captivating allure keeps everyone guessing. Then a tragic accident forces the residents of Presidio Terrace to ask: Has Georgia struck again? And what is she really capable of doing to protect her secrets?

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

Soapy trashy stories about potentially villainous men and women who are hiding and spilling secrets is something of a guilty pleasure of mine, and I mostly try to own that fact. I loved the first few seasons of “Desperate Housewives” (after season 4 it went downhill VERY fast, in my honest opinion), and while I haven’t been able to bring myself to consume reality TV like “The Real Housewives” or anything like that, I do enjoy watching drama porn like “Untucked” when watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. So a book with the title and description of “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” by Kristin Miller absolutely caught my attention. I’ve found some really fun books involving bored housewives behaving badly (Hello, “Big Little Lies”!), and if you have some potential murder and whodunnit elements to go with it, I am absolutely there! I went into this book with high hopes for soapy thrills. And I got that. But I also remembered why sometimes that isn’t enough.

But, as I always try to do, I will start with what I did like about this book. It was a very fast, very entertaining read in the moment. I picked it up over the Fourth of July weekend, and basically read it over the course of two days. It has some really good moments of sudsy drama, and there were pretty well done moments of shocking reveals as well as a build up to a nutty and soapy climax that is hinted at right at the start. So it tantalized me as a reader, and definitely gave me that “Desperate Housewives” vibe of manipulation, bitchiness, and over the top whodunnit/who are these people really and what are they hiding. A breezy read it always a plus in my book, as it makes the experience enjoyable in the moment.

But there were a few things that really bogged down “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” and made it a pretty meh book once all is said and done. The first is the cast of characters. Our main focus are on the perspectives of Erin, the neurotic and (horror and shock!) aging news anchor who is trying to keep her allure and lost youth at the forefront, lest her husband Mason stray, and Brooke, a mystery writer who is trying to keep up appearances for her much older husband, but is sniffing out a potential new plot with Georgia, the supposed Black Widow. Both Erin and Brooke have things that they are hiding, but getting into their heads doesn’t make them all that interesting, nor does it let them branch out from their two dimensional character tropes (admittedly there is a bit of a twist here, but I’m not going to go into that because spoilers). We see Georgia through their eyes, and while we do learn a bit about her through various reveals that each character has through action in the moment and past actions, she TOO is very flat and predictable. On shows like “Desperate Housewives” this kind of thing can work for awhile, but that is because we also get to see characters complexities come out as stories go on (well, in some cases; Teri Hatcher’s Susan was always two dimensional). But in this book, we don’t really get to see any growth. Even aforementioned twist couldn’t save it in the end. The other issue is that once I was done and I was no longer in the moment, upon reflection there wasn’t really much new or interesting to the story and how the mystery all shook out. It felt a bit like it was trying to be similar to “Big Little Lies”, but never really hit the emotional plot beats that that book did. The problem with gooey sudsy tales is that in the moment I really enjoy them, but without some solid foundation and substance to keep it up I look back and realize that there wasn’t really much to work with.

“The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” could be a good read if you just need something to pass the time. Pass the time it will! But I found it to be middling when all was said and done.

Rating 5: The read itself was quick and breezy, but the characters were middling and the story upon reflection was a bit ho hum.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mystery & Thriller 2021”, and I think it would fit in on the list “Desperate Housewives”.

Find “The Sinful Lives of Trophy Wives” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!