Kate’s Review: “Reprieve”

Book: “Reprieve” by James Han Mattson

Publishing Info: William Morrow, October 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A chilling and blisteringly relevant literary novel of social horror centered around a brutal killing that takes place in a full-contact haunted escape room—a provocative exploration of capitalism, hate politics, racial fetishism, and our obsession with fear as entertainment.

On April 27, 1997, four contestants make it to the final cell of the Quigley House, a full-contact haunted escape room in Lincoln, Nebraska, made famous for its monstrosities, booby-traps, and ghoulishly costumed actors. If the group can endure these horrors without shouting the safe word, “reprieve,” they’ll win a substantial cash prize—a startling feat accomplished only by one other group in the house’s long history. But before they can complete the challenge, a man breaks into the cell and kills one of the contestants.

Those who were present on that fateful night lend their points of view: Kendra Brown, a teenager who’s been uprooted from her childhood home after the sudden loss of her father; Leonard Grandton, a desperate and impressionable hotel manager caught in a series of toxic entanglements; and Jaidee Charoensuk, a gay international student who came to the United States in a besotted search for his former English teacher. As each character’s journey unfurls and overlaps, deceit and misunderstandings fueled by obsession and prejudice are revealed, forcing all to reckon with the ways in which their beliefs and actions contributed to a horrifying catastrophe.

An astonishingly soulful exploration of complicity and masquerade, Reprieve combines the psychological tension of classic horror with searing social criticism to present an unsettling portrait of this tangled American life.

Review: You all know what a big fan I am of Halloween, and while for various reasons I haven’t done this in a long time I also really enjoy doing haunted hayrides, and living in Minnesota it’s not hard to drive outside the city limits to find such shenanigans. But I’m not as big into walk through haunted houses, and am certainly NOT into any ‘extreme’ haunted houses. Locally we had something called The Soap Factory, which made you sign a waiver before you went through, but they closed a couple years ago. The most infamous ‘extreme’ haunt, however is almost assuredly McKamey Manor, a combined haunted house escape room puzzle experience that is notorious in the haunt industry. Yes, you sign a waiver, and you may be subjected to physical and psychological torture for hours on end all in the name of thrills. There is no question in my mind that “Reprieve” by James Han Mattson is partially inspired by McKamey Manor, and that made an already enjoyable reading experience that much better. This book seems to be polarizing. I’m firmly on the ‘love’ team.

“Reprieve” is a deeply layered and multidimensional horror story that comes to life through literary structure. The guts of the tale involve a slowly revealed violent incident at Quigley House, a hardcore escape room/haunted house that offers players serious money if they can solve the puzzles in all the ‘cells’ while actors inflict psychological terror upon them. What exactly happened is slowly revealed through court room transcripts, flashbacks through character perspectives, and the straight narrative of the timeline of what happened in each cell up until the moment in question. I liked the slow build up and the combined story telling techniques, and how all of them combined to make a building tension of dread while also getting to know each character and what role they play. I’m sure that it’s the literary structure that threw readers for a loop, as I can definitely say that the creative choices made here are probably not for everyone. Which is totally okay. I, however, really liked it. I’m not the kind of person who thinks that horror needs to be elevated or classed up by any stretch of the imagination, but “Reprieve” does this without feeling pretentious or disingenuous. The scares are knowing what is coming (even if only in part), seeing it all unfold, and seeing the way that the REAL horror is in the bad behavior of villainous people, unwitting or not.

This is also a really well done commentary on capitalism, the weaponization of entertainment, and race in America. Many of the characters are POC, some are LGBTQIA+, and many of them feel lost, isolated, or Othered. Kendra is a new resident of this small Nebraska community and one of the few Black people (outside of her family) and finds herself working at Quigley House. The ‘we’re family here’ mentality definitely pulls her in deeper when she feels isolated in other ways. Contestant Jaidee is an international student from Thailand who is also gay, and feels scrutiny from his college peers because of both of these facts. And then there are the characters of Leonard, a hotel worker who feels inadequate in his personal life, and John, who owns Quigley House. Their friendship is a toxic concoction that encapsulates misogyny, xenophobia, and aggression, and sets off the first domino that leads to tragedy. Mattson knows what he’s doing with these characters, and while they easily could have felt like two dimensional villains, we get into their minds a bit, and it makes them fascinating, and all the more upsetting.

Boy did I enjoy “Reprieve”. It’s one of the more unique horror novels I’ve read lately, and it finds the horrors in both an extreme haunted house, and the darker side of American cultural consciousness.

Rating 9: A stunning literary horror thriller, “Reprieve” is mesmerizing, blistering, and deeply sad.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Reprieve” is included on the Goodreads lists “Deliciously Chilling Horror”, and “If You Like ‘Squid Game’, You Should Read…”.

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

Kate’s Review: “It Will End Like This”

Book: “It Will End Like This” by Kyra Leigh

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2022

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

Book Description: For fans of The Cheerleaders and Sadie comes a psychological thriller that reminds us that in real life, endings are rarely as neat as happily ever after. A contemporary take on the Lizzie Borden story that explores how grief can cut deep.

Charlotte lost her mother six months ago, and still no one will tell her exactly what happened the day she mysteriously died. They say her heart stopped, but Charlotte knows deep down that there’s more to the story.

The only person who gets it is Charlotte’s sister, Maddi. Maddi agrees—people’s hearts don’t just stop. There are too many questions left unanswered for the girls to move on. But their father is moving on. With their mother’s personal assistant. And both girls are sure that she’s determined to take everything that’s theirs away for herself.

Now the only way to get their lives back is for Charlotte and Maddi to decide how this story ends, themselves.

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

Boy did I think that the timing on this was golden! Around the time that I sat down to start “It Will End Like This” by Kyra Leigh, my favorite podcast was starting their two part series on Lizzie Borden and the Borden Axe Murders. “It Will End Like This” is a YA thriller that takes that story and updates it with modern times and sensibilities, so to me this was going to be the perfect pairing, to my mind.

But I think that it actually worked against the book’s favor, at the end of the day. Which is a real bummer, as I was amped for a YA thriller a la “Sadie” or “The Cheerleaders” that tackled a notorious murder mystery. Because “It Will End Like This” fell pretty flat.

I will start with the positive, and that is the very concept of updating the Lizzie Borden tale with YA protagonists and in a modern setting. There are so many aspects of the original tale (at least how it has evolved over time) that have so much storytelling potential: murder! Potential family strife! A freakin’ axe! I was really hoping for a creative and engaging update that would put all of these Victorian Themes (and all the mess that comes with that kind of baggage) into a modern lens. Like, that is just teeming with potential!

But there were some glaring missteps with this story that reminded me that a story can’t float on potential alone. The first is just a narrative style and set of choices that I didn’t like. For one, while we got a lot of Charlotte perspectives, the Maddi chapters were quite limited. I would have liked to have a bit more of an even distribution for their narrations, unreliability between them notwithstanding. Along with that, it’s all very disjointed, which is a fair choice to make given that Charlotte (and to some extent Maddi) is slowly losing her faculties due to grief, resentment, and rage. But the execution feels a bit heavy handed as well as too messy, and it makes Charlotte and Maddi rather two dimensional in their depictions.

But for me, the biggest issue is that while this book is inspired by the Borden Axe Murders, it’s more inspired by the myths surrounding Lizzie Borden versus the actual case at hand. And this is why my podcast timing probably ruined it for me. This book gives Charlotte and Maddi all the reasons in the world to want their father and stepmother dead, the biggest being that they were clearly having an affair and potentially had something to do with their mother’s very recent death. But the real Lizzie Borden had no obvious motive, as her mother had been LONG dead, and there is no reason to think that her father had anything to do with her death. That’s the big mystery surrounding these murders at the end of the day: Lizzie Borden as a suspect is hard to believe given lack of substantiated motive (note: I say substantiated because of speculation about a lesbian love affair being found out as a motive. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case, but I don’t know if there is actual evidence to suggest this? And it wasn’t even used in this book as a plot point, so…) and some timing issues on the day of the murders (seriously, the timing would have to be insane for her to pull it all off). Buuuuut there is also a difficult argument to be made for some random person to have done it without being noticed by someone! Instead of taking inspiration from a truly puzzling murder mystery, “It Will End Like This” takes the “Lizzie Borden Took An Axe” nursery rhyme and speculation run amok and ran with that narrative. I think that if the final product had been stronger and less confusing, and had I not JUST listened to a breakdown of the actual facts of the case, I could have overlooked this all, but with all of these issues at hand, it was a bit too much to get over.

“The Cheerleaders” and “Sadie” this is not. I was sad that “It Will End Like This” was the disappointment that it was. I will say that it makes me want to go read other adaptations of the story to see what they do with it. I’m just not sure I’m convinced that Lizzie Borden did take that axe, and this book didn’t rise up high enough for me to look past that.

Rating 5: A good concept is muddled down by confusing narrative choices and straying a bit from the inspirational event it touts in the description.

Reader’s Advisory:

“It Will End Like This” is included on the Goodreads list “2022 YA Mysteries and Thrillers”.

Find “It Will End Like This” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “My Sweet Girl”

Book: “My Sweet Girl” by Amanda Jayatissa

Publishing Info: Berkley Publishing, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Paloma thought her perfect life would begin once she was adopted and made it to America, but she’s about to find out that no matter how far you run, your past always catches up to you…

Ever since she was adopted from a Sri Lankan orphanage, Paloma has had the best of everything—schools, money, and parents so perfect that she fears she’ll never live up to them.

Now at thirty years old and recently cut off from her parents’ funds, she decides to sublet the second bedroom of her overpriced San Francisco apartment to Arun, who recently moved from India. Paloma has to admit, it feels good helping someone find their way in America—that is until Arun discovers Paloma’s darkest secret, one that could jeopardize her own fragile place in this country.

Before Paloma can pay Arun off, she finds him face down in a pool of blood. She flees the apartment but by the time the police arrive, there’s no body—and no evidence that Arun ever even existed in the first place. Paloma is terrified this is all somehow tangled up in the desperate actions she took to escape Sri Lanka so many years ago. Did Paloma’s secret die with Arun or is she now in greater danger than ever before?

Review: I was first made aware of “My Sweet Girl” by Amanda Jayatissa during one of the virtual conferences I attended last summer. It sounded like it had a lot of buzz, as it definitely was mentioned a couple of times and highlighted at least once. By the time I finally sat down with it, I was fresh off a weekend of a reading frenzy due to no plans whatsoever, and figured that I would probably meander through it right in time for it to be returned a couple days later on the due date. But even though my brain was residually soupy, I still plowed through “My Sweet Girl” in about one evening. Yep. It’s one of those: super addictive and highly readable.

“My Sweet Girl” is a thriller about Paloma, a woman adopted by a wealthy white couple in the U.S. from an orphanage in Sri Lanka when she was a tween. She has lived up to their expectations as best she could, though the fact she’s been harboring a dark secret the entire time has made it so she is nearly at the breaking point, with an alcohol abuse problem, high risk taking choices, and a cynical and cutting personality. Well, that and the microaggessions and racism she has had to live with ever since she moved to the U.S., being a South Asian woman trying to live up to the model minority stereotype while trying to function as a brown woman in a deeply racist society. This was the first theme I thought worked very well in this book. Usually these kinds of stories are reserved for messy white women protagonists, but not only is Paloma given the freedom to be messy, she is also incredibly easy to root for as she tries to figure out what is happening. There are also two mysteries at work here. The first is what happened to Paloma’s roommate, Arun, as after blackmailing her she found him dead in their apartment…. but before she could report it, she blacked out and his body disappeared. The second mystery is just what this ‘dark secret’ is, dating back to her days in the Christian run orphanage, where Paloma and the other orphan girls were living in grim conditions, and would see the spectre of a ghostly woman they called Mohini. I loved how both stories intersected, and I loved how Jayatissa slowly revealed what happened at that orphanage, how it relates to Paloma’s trauma and guilt, and how it relates to what is happening to her now. All of this is fantastic, and has moments of genuine terror, specifically when dealing with the potential for an angry woman ghost Paloma is now seeing everywhere.

But I once again found myself with a story that had such great promise and such great build up and action only to be knocked down a few pegs by the ending. Obviously I’m not going to spoil it here, because the ride itself makes it worth the read. But I will touch on a few broad issues I took with it. For one, it’s the kind of ending I’ve seen a few times in a narrative similar to this one (a woman with a dark secret trying to hide the darker elements of her identity, who is a complete mess and slowly unraveling OR IS THERE SOMETHING ELSE GOING ON?), which means that it didn’t feel super original to me. For another, one big twist is revealed in a way that makes the reader believe one thing is true, only to undo that in the blink of an eye or the turn of a page, therein meaning to shock the reader… even though it’s not all that shocking because it’s kind of cliche at this point. I mean, I opted NOT to review a book on here that I read that had a similar ending because I was so frustrated by the gotcha. Having said that, “My Sweet Girl” does get a review because while I didn’t like the ending, at least this story worked its ass off in a way that it felt like it had earned it, no matter how irked it made me. But it did drop my rating a bit.

Like I said, I think that “My Sweet Girl” is ultimately worth the read, because the build up to the climax was creepy as hell and very addictive. I will absolutely be checking out the next book that Jayatissa writes, because the thriller genre is in good hands with her.

Rating 7: Incredibly readable and a well crafted mystery are the high points, but the ending was a bit of a let down.

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Sweet Girl” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Books by Women of Color” and “Mystery and Thriller 2021”.

Find “My Sweet Girl” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “A History of Wild Places”

Book: “A History of Wild Places” by Shea Ernshaw

Publishing Info: Atria Books, December 2021

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

Book Description: Travis Wren has an unusual talent for locating missing people. Hired by families as a last resort, he requires only a single object to find the person who has vanished. When he takes on the case of Maggie St. James—a well-known author of dark, macabre children’s books—he’s led to a place many believed to be only a legend.

Called Pastoral, this reclusive community was founded in the 1970s by like-minded people searching for a simpler way of life. By all accounts, the commune shouldn’t exist anymore and soon after Travis stumbles upon it… he disappears. Just like Maggie St. James.

Years later, Theo, a lifelong member of Pastoral, discovers Travis’s abandoned truck beyond the border of the community. No one is allowed in or out, not when there’s a risk of bringing a disease—rot—into Pastoral. Unraveling the mystery of what happened reveals secrets that Theo, his wife, Calla, and her sister, Bee, keep from one another. Secrets that prove their perfect, isolated world isn’t as safe as they believed—and that darkness takes many forms.

Hauntingly beautiful, hypnotic, and bewitching, A History of Wild Places is a story about fairy tales, our fear of the dark, and losing yourself within the wilderness of your mind.

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

I read the book “The Wicked Deep” by Shea Ernshaw, and while I thought that a story of three witch sisters who were executed and now have a curse upon the town that wronged them would be my jam, I didn’t really care for it. I didn’t really think about it again, but when I saw the description for “A History of Dark Places”, her adult fiction debut, I was incredibly intrigued by the premise of missing people and a possible forest cult. And boy am I glad I picked this up, because this? This WAS my jam!

“A History of Wild Places” pulled the wool over my eyes and totally tricked me. And I went into it sniffing out the twist and the surprises, which I know probably isn’t the BEST way to go into a novel with twists, but hey, it still managed to take me by surprise. So kudos! Ernshaw balances an elephant in the room mystery with another, incredibly intense mystery, and manages to interconnect them in ways that felt satisfying and that pay off. The first mystery is what happened to missing novelist Maggie St. Clair, as well as the man looking for her Travis Wren. The second mystery has to do with the town that St. Clair and Wren found themselves within, an isolated wilderness commune called Pastoral, as some years after their disappearances, the villagers are cut off from the world due to a plague… or is it? In that storyline we follow the perspectives of married couple Theo and Calla, and Calla’s blind sister Bee, who is in love with Levi, the leader of Pastoral. The comparisons to “The Village” are well earned on many levels, but I felt like this book did a good job of actually pulling off what “The Village” was trying to do. I mean, I knew that something was off, and as Theo, Calla, and Bee all got closer and closer to the secrets of Pastoral, the secrets of evidence of Maggie’s and Travis’s presence, and the secrets that they keep from each other as well, the intensity goes higher and higher until it’s completely through the roof. I found myself charging through a good chunk of the book in one sitting because I needed to know what was going to happen, and if my predictions were right. Side note: they rarely were. Ernshaw pulled almost all of her twists off, and they all felt earned.

I also liked all of the characters. Theo, Calla, and Bee are all well thought out and seeing all of them start to question Pastoral, and start to unlock mysteries and memories, was deeply satisfying. I think that Bee was probably my favorite, as she is intrepid, incredibly caring, and a little bit psychic (a trait that she shares with Travis; this wasn’t really explored as much as it could have been, however, and that’s one of the few qualms I had with this book). As he deeply in love with Pastoral leader Levi, but after Levi makes a decision that supposedly keeps the community safe at the expense of the life of one community member, she starts to question everything about the town, and Levi himself. Ernshaw writes a woman who is devoted to her sister and her community, and whose love for a man is starting to crack apart as she begins to realize that he may not be what he seems to be. It’s a woman who is realizing that she is in a cult, and it’s heartbreaking and a little bit scary, as it becomes clear that she is very possibly in serious danger.

“A History of Wild Places” also has a very dreamy quality to it that makes it feel like a dark fairy tale as much as a bone chilling thriller. We have people who have walked into the woods and seemingly disappeared, we have people with the power of visions and deep empathy, and we have a dark and disturbing wood both in an overlapping narrative of Maggie St. Clair’s “Eloise” books (which we get excerpts from here an there), and in the forest surrounding Pastoral that may contain a deadly disease for those who try and cross its borders. A strange and eerie presence is on the pages of this book, and it worked so well for me that I closed the book and let out a long sigh when I was done. It is such a satisfying tone to go with a creepy cult story with a hint of missing person mystery, and it combines to make something so unique and enjoyable.

“A History of Wild Places” is a great dark fairy tale of a thriller. I’m so glad I decided to try out Ernshaw again, because this one worked SO well for me. It’s a wonderful read for a cold winter’s night.

Rating 9: Strange and dreamy, but unsettling and tense, “A History of Wild Places” is a surprising thriller that kept me guessing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A History of Wild Places” is included on the Goodreads lists “Cults and Communes in Fiction”, and “2021 Horror Novels Written by Women (Cis and Trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.

Find “A History of Wild Places” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “You’ll Be the Death of Me”

Book: “You’ll Be the Death of Me” by Karen M. McManus

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, November 2021

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

Book Description: Ivy, Mateo, and Cal used to be close. Now all they have in common is Carlton High and the beginning of a very bad day.

Type A Ivy lost a student council election to the class clown, and now she has to face the school, humiliated. Heartthrob Mateo is burned out–he’s been working two jobs since his family’s business failed. And outsider Cal just got stood up…. again.

So when Cal pulls into campus late for class and runs into Ivy and Mateo, it seems like the perfect opportunity to turn a bad day around. They’ll ditch and go into the city. Just the three of them, like old times. Except they’ve barely left the parking lot before they run out of things to say…Until they spot another Carlton High student skipping school–and follow him to the scene of his own murder. In one chance move, their day turns from dull to deadly. And it’s about to get worse.It turns out Ivy, Mateo, and Cal still have some things in common. They all have a connection to the dead kid. And they’re all hiding something.

Now they’re all wondering–could it be that their chance reconnection wasn’t by chance after all?

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

It’s almost guaranteed by now that whenever Karen M. McManus releases a new book, I’m going to have a helluva fun time reading it. So when I saw that “You’ll Be the Death of Me” was coming out at the end of 2021, I was absolutely hyped. And I am so happy to say that this one MIGHT be my favorite of hers yet. Which is high praise, since I enjoyed all of her previous books. And it’s kind of funny that it’s my favorite, because it has a lot of winks to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, a movie that I don’t particularly enjoy outside of Cameron and Jeanie. But that said, one of our main characters is basically a Jeanie, so maybe it’s not surprising after all.

Look, if you don’t like Jeanie Bueller, I don’t have time for you. (source)

“You’ll Be The Death of Me” centers on three former friends. The first is Ivy, a high strung Type A overachiever who tries to be the best at everything because she feels her brother is favored over her due to his intelligence. There’s Mateo, a quiet kid who lives with his cousin and his newly out of work mother, who is dealing with a medical condition that is prohibitively expensive in its treatment. And there’s Cal, a wise ass loner who is pining after someone he shouldn’t be. When they spontaneously decide to ditch out of school one day, they stumble upon the dead body of a classmate. On top of that, they all have a connection to the crime, and they all have dark secrets. The question isn’t so much if any of them did it, as we know they didn’t. The question is who did, and what secrets ARE they hiding that could be related. We alternate between first person perspectives of all the characters, and we get into their personalities as well as the complications of their former friendship that kind of fizzled out over the years, as friendships sometimes do. I had a true affection for all of them as we got to know them, and I thought that they were all pretty realistic in some of the choices they made and how they reacted to the situation they were in. I especially liked Ivy, as her desperation to be a high achiever and her insecurities were very relatable. It’s a character type we’ve seen a couple of times in McManus’s books, and I thought that Ivy was the most well rounded version of the trope in both her character strengths and weaknesses. And I thought that the way she portrayed all of them together felt very real, especially as we slowly find out the reasons that they stopped hanging out. Let’s just say it’s all very mundane, but in a good, true to life way.

And as for the mystery and the various reveals, be they connected to the murder or not, I was genuinely surprised and stumped for basically the most of the book! There are some really good twists and turns in this book, and when I thought that I had something figured out, or pegged something for a red herring, I was never quite on point. We get the clues interspersed with insight into how the community, specifically the school community, starts to theorize and start rumors about what happened, and how dangerous that kind of thing can be in terms of misinformation. And the mystery is quite complex, with threads reaching out to other characters that I didn’t expect, and going to some pretty dark places, involving the opioid crisis and grooming. And McManus made these themes fit into the overall story pretty well, and handled them in responsible and empathetic ways. And the best part? There is the possibility of a sequel that’s been set up here. If it doesn’t happen, that’s fine, of course. But I would absolutely read to see what happens next.

“You’ll Be the Death of Me” is supremely entertaining and a good mystery. With winter setting in, add this to the reading pile to get through these upcoming, colder months!

Rating 9: Supremely entertaining and a well crafted mystery with likable characters. McManus is still a titan in the YA thriller community!

Reader’s Advisory:

“You’ll Be the Death of Me” is included on the Goodreads list “YA Suspense/Thriller/Mystery”.

Find “You’ll Be the Death of Me” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “A Lesson in Vengeance”

Book: “A Lesson in Vengeance” by Victoria Lee

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Felicity Morrow is back at Dalloway School.

Perched in the Catskill mountains, the centuries-old, ivy-covered campus was home until the tragic death of her girlfriend. Now, after a year away, she’s returned to graduate. She even has her old room in Godwin House, the exclusive dormitory rumored to be haunted by the spirits of five Dalloway students—girls some say were witches. The Dalloway Five all died mysteriously, one after another, right on Godwin grounds.

Witchcraft is woven into Dalloway’s history. The school doesn’t talk about it, but the students do. In secret rooms and shadowy corners, girls convene. And before her girlfriend died, Felicity was drawn to the dark. She’s determined to leave that behind her now; all Felicity wants is to focus on her senior thesis and graduate. But it’s hard when Dalloway’s occult history is everywhere. And when the new girl won’t let her forget.

It’s Ellis Haley’s first year at Dalloway, and she’s already amassed a loyal following. A prodigy novelist at seventeen, Ellis is a so-called “method writer.” She’s eccentric and brilliant, and Felicity can’t shake the pull she feels to her. So when Ellis asks Felicity for help researching the Dalloway Five for her second book, Felicity can’t say no. Given her history with the arcane, Felicity is the perfect resource. And when history begins to repeat itself, Felicity will have to face the darkness in Dalloway–and in herself.

Review: You give me a YA thriller that involves a boarding school with a bloody history, and I am one hundred percent here for that kind of narrative. And if you throw in witches, or even the rumor of them, I’m even MORE interested. So obviously when I read about “A Lesson in Vengeance” by Victoria Lee, I definitely wanted to give it a read.

The thing that worked best in “A Lesson in Vengeance” was the eerie setting and atmosphere of Dalloway School, the prestigious boarding school that our protagonist Felicity attends. It has a long history of educating women, but a notorious past involving five students who were supposed witches, and who died under strange circumstances. Lee builds this history up through Felicity’s perspective, as well as research that she and new student/prodigy author Ellis are conducting. We know that Felicity has been through some kind of trauma involving her former girlfriend Alex, who also died, and whose death is haunting Felicity for various reasons. As she and Ellis start to dig into the occult rumors, the tension builds at a well paced rate. I was definitely wondering just what Felicity was hiding, both from the reader as well as herself, and while I kind of figured out some of (okay, a lot of) the twists and reveals that we had along the way, the creepy setting and atmosphere that Lee had in place made the journey work for me. I also thought that the tension between Felicity and Ellis was nice and taut, as they are playing a game of sexual and romantic desire and want, while also perhaps not being able to trust each other for various reasons that are slowly peeled back as the book goes on.

But that brings us to the characters themselves. “A Lesson in Vengeance” has a harder time with keeping the characters interesting as the story goes on, as I felt that both Felicity and Ellis were pretty two dimensional. Or at the very least, tropey in their characterizations. Felicity is the unreliable poor little rich girl, whose toxic relationship with her now dead ex girlfriend has damaged her, but also perhaps has her hiding something. Ellis is the cold and blunt child prodigy whom everyone loves due to her fame (as she is a published author) but who is also potentially hiding secrets and ulterior motives. They have a slow building romance that may or may not be dangerous, but it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before in thrillers where characters are potentially fatales, femme or otherwise. The tension is there, and it is effective, but at the end of the day neither Felicity nor Ellis had much unique to their characters, and came off more flat than anything else.

“A Lesson in Vengeance” is definitely an effective Dark Academia thriller, but it doesn’t reach the high levels I was hoping for.

Rating 6: A creepy and atmospheric thriller involving a history of witches, dangerous romance, and a school full of secrets. The characters, however, are a little flat for the tale they inhabit.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Lesson in Vengeance” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark Academia”, and “2021 Sapphic Releases”.

Find “A Lesson in Vengeance” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Our Violent Ends”

Book: “Our Violent Ends” by Chloe Gong

Publishing Info: Margaret K McElderry Books, November 2021

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

Book Description: Shanghai is under siege in this captivating and searingly romantic sequel to These Violent Delights, which New York Times bestselling author Natasha Ngan calls “deliciously dark.”

The year is 1927, and Shanghai teeters on the edge of revolution. After sacrificing her relationship with Roma to protect him from the blood feud, Juliette has been a girl on the warpath. One wrong move, and her cousin will step in to usurp her place as the Scarlet Gang’s heir. The only way to save the boy she loves from the wrath of the Scarlets is to have him want her dead for murdering his best friend in cold blood. If Juliette were actually guilty of the crime Roma believes she committed, his rejection might sting less.

Roma is still reeling from Marshall’s death, and his cousin Benedikt will barely speak to him. Roma knows it’s his fault for letting the ruthless Juliette back into his life, and he’s determined to set things right—even if that means killing the girl he hates and loves with equal measure.

Then a new monstrous danger emerges in the city, and though secrets keep them apart, Juliette must secure Roma’s cooperation if they are to end this threat once and for all. Shanghai is already at a boiling point: The Nationalists are marching in, whispers of civil war brew louder every day, and gangster rule faces complete annihilation. Roma and Juliette must put aside their differences to combat monsters and politics, but they aren’t prepared for the biggest threat of all: protecting their hearts from each other.

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

Last year I took a bit of a chance on the book “These Violent Delights”, Chloe Gong’s historical fiction fantasy romance thriller retelling of “Romeo and Juliet”. That’s a true mouthful for a genre description, but it’s the only way to truly describe the wide breadth that this book had. I ended up enjoying it, and found myself waiting anxiously to find out what happened next. Well great news! The conclusion, “Our Violent Ends”, has been released, and let me tell you, the year long wait was worth it. Juliette and Roma are back, and I happily dove into the sweet, sweet agony that was sure to follow.

Me fully ready to watch things go horribly south for all my favorite characters in 1920s Shanghai. (source)

Just as a quick additional refresher, this “Romeo and Juliet” retelling takes place in 1920s Shanghai, as two rival gangs, the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers, have a blood feud that has led to constant tension and violence. Juliette is the heir to the Scarlet Gang, Roma is the heir to the White Flowers, they had a passionate love affair and in the last book teamed up to try and stop a monster from wreaking pure havoc on the city they love. When we finished the first book, Juliette had just killed Roma’s best friend Marshall, though she hadn’t REALLY killed him, it was all a ruse to keep Roma safe vis a vis his hatred of her.

Plot wise, Gong balances the source material with a lot of new themes and plot points, as well as an update to the time and place that the story takes place. There are still threats from monsters in this one, which makes the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers have an uneasy truce/team up in hopes that Juliette and Roma can find the vaccine that is rumored to stop the monsters (and of course the tension is off the charts in all kinds of ways). But there are also threats of the time period, like the simmering tensions between the Nationalists and the rising Communists. And we are still dealing with the two gangs having conflicts, which could be ceasing due to a common enemy of the monsters, but is always on the precipice. It’s a lot to cram in there, and while sometimes it felt like it was a little too much (and that we’d gloss over aspects of the plot because of it), overall Gong still managed to have a clear connection to the original play through things that would happen in the story. Even when she would twist some things around to better fit the story that she was telling. These moments were done in such a way that usually felt more true to the circumstances, however, and never like she was just trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

It is still the characters, however, that are the books greatest strengths. While the original cast of “Romeo and Juliet” has a kind of charisma to a degree (I mean, I don’t like the play but I recognize the appeal of the characters), Gong continues to draw far more complexity from her versions of the players. With Roma you have a brooding and brokenhearted Romeo, who is mourning the supposed death of his friend Marshall at the hand of his former lover. With Juliette you have a woman who is being torn up by her feeling of duty to her family as the heir to the Scarlet Gang, as well as her deep love for a man that she had to pretend to betray. And oh how I continued to love this version of Juliette. She gets shit done and isn’t given ANY credit for it, and I loved her inner turmoil even as she has to hold EVERYTHING together to be the strongest player in the whole damn story. It gives both the main characters FAR more pathos than the play did, and I really enjoyed how Gong gave both of them a lot more agency, smarts, and will than their inspirations were ever given. I was actively rooting for both of them, but especially Juliette, who is constantly trying to prove herself as worthy, though as a woman she is never going to be seen as such (and her psychopathic cousin Tyler is given more glory than she ever gets). But it’s also side players that are highly enjoyable, be it Juliette’s cousins Kathleen and Rosalind, or Roma’s younger sister Alisa. For me, though, I LOVED Marshall and Benedikt, the two lovers who have been separated due to Marshall faking his death, and Benedikt’s agony over it. Oh these two. You cannot help but root for them.

“Our Violent Ends” finished out the duology on a perhaps expected but still satisfying high note. Chloe Gong made me into a “Romeo and Juliet” fan, at least the way she tells it, and I definitely recommend checking it out if you want to see a really unique twist on the original tale!

Rating 8: A complex and satisfying end to a truly unique Shakespeare retelling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Our Violent Ends” is new and not included on any Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “Rewriting Shakespeare (YA Edition)”, and “YA Fiction Set in the 1920s”.

Find “Our Violent Ends” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: “These Violent Delights”.

Kate’s Review: “Getaway”

Book: “Getaway” by Zoje Stage

Publishing Info: Mulholland Books, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: It was supposed to be the perfect week away . . . 

Imogen and Beck, two sisters who couldn’t be more different, have been friends with Tilda since high school. Once inseparable, over two decades the women have grown apart. But after Imogen survives a traumatic attack, Beck suggests they all reunite to hike deep into the Grand Canyon’s backcountry. A week away, secluded in nature . . . surely it’s just what they need.

But as the terrain grows tougher, tensions from their shared past bubble up. And when supplies begin to disappear, it becomes clear secrets aren’t the only thing they’re being stalked by. As friendship and survival collide with an unspeakable evil, Getaway becomes another riveting thriller from a growing master of suspense and “a literary horror writer on the rise” (BookPage).

Review: We’ve established this again and again, but I’m not really a camping person. While I am absolutely down for going up North to a remote location, more often than not I want that location to have a hotel that I can rest my weary head in. But I do love thrillers and horror stories that involve being out in the wilderness, as it probably lights up a deep seated fear that I have that prompts me to go for a cabin versus a tent. “Getaway” by Zoje Stage caught my eye for two reasons: 1) I read her previous novel “Wonderland”, and while it didn’t really connect with me as much as I’d hoped, I knew that I wanted to read more of her work, and 2) I am always, ALWAYS going to be on board for a danger in the wilderness story!

Let’s be real, this movie is why I’m not a camper. (source)

Stage creates the perfect set up for this danger in the wilderness story, and at first glance it sounds a lot like the film “The Descent”, in terms of motivation. Imogen is a woman who survives a mass shooting at her synagogue, and has been experiencing PTSD on top of OTHER PTSD that stems from another trauma in her life (known as ‘The Thing’ at first). Her older sister Beck and their long time friend Tilda (who has a somewhat strained relationship with Imogen) think that a backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon would be beneficial for Imogen’s mental health and great way to reconnect, but, as the description says, once they are in the thick of their trip, it’s clear that someone else is out there with them. Stage has a good blend of personal strife to go along with the slowly building unease, as the three women, all friends at one point but now drifting for multiple reasons, may not really trust each other as much as they should in a situation like this. We slowly start to learn the dynamics of this group, and how they have gotten to the point of mistrust, and I liked that Stage makes sure to be careful in how she portrays sticky themes while still giving all of these women room to grow, room to be messy, and room to adapt as their situation becomes more and more dire. I fully expected the characters to mostly stick to tropes (and Beck kind of does, as the reliable and logic minded doctor), but by the end they all have well explored characterizations that made them complex and realistic. This made it so I was all the more attached to them as the story progressed, which in turn made the tension all the more dire as they find out just who it is that is nearby (I’m being vague! I’m sorry! I just don’t want to spoil anything).

And let’s talk about that tension. “Getaway” absolutely touches on every point that I love in a wilderness thriller story, from the unrelenting apathy of nature to the elements being a danger to the foreboding sense of being watched in the dark. And even when Stage kind of showed her cards earlier than I was expecting and made it clear as to what Imogen, Beck, and Tilda were dealing with, I was still totally immersed even though I probably would have been happier to string it out even longer. By the end things were going at a breakneck speed, and the suspense was making me unable to put the book down so easily. It was also pretty cool that the tension wasn’t just limited to the danger that they didn’t calculate for. Because there are plenty of moments of suspense that just involve being on a backpacking hike in the Grand Canyon, given that rough trails and narrow paths overlooking cliffs are things that the characters DO know about, and have to maneuver through even when they don’t realize they are being tracked. I love it when stories can incorporate the actual horrors of these kinds of things. I mean, going back to “The Descent” again, some of the scariest moments involve the claustrophobia and unpredictability of caving, and “The Blair Witch Project” milks a lot of terror from being lost in the woods. “Getaway” has plenty to work with when it comes to The Grand Canyon and how dangerous it can be on its own.

“Getaway” is a tense and satisfying thriller that doesn’t relent on the suspense once it gets going, and the characters likability makes it all the more stressful. In a good way. I’m glad I went back to Zoje Stage, because this one really worked for me.

Rating 8: Incredibly tense and filled with realistic characters and dramatic moments, “Getaway” doesn’t let up on the intensity of being in danger in the middle of nowhere.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Getaway” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Wilderness Horror Stories”, and “2021 Horror Novels Written By Women (Cis and Trans), and Non-Binary Femmes”.

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

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: