Kate’s Review: “Untamed Shore”

Book: “Untamed Shore” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publishing Info: Agora Books, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A coming-of-age story set in Mexico quickly turns dark when a young woman meets three enigmatic tourists.

Baja California, 1979. Viridiana spends her days watching the dead sharks piled beside the seashore, as the fishermen pull their nets. There is nothing else to do, nothing else to watch, under the harsh sun. She’s bored. Terribly bored. Yet her head is filled with dreams of Hollywood films, of romance, of a future beyond the drab town where her only option is to marry and have children. Three wealthy American tourists arrive for the summer, and Viridiana is magnetized. She immediately becomes entwined in the glamorous foreigners’ lives. They offer excitement, and perhaps an escape from the promise of a humdrum future.

When one of them dies, Viridiana lies to protect her friends. Soon enough, someone’s asking questions, and Viridiana has some of her own about the identity of her new acquaintances. Sharks may be dangerous, but there are worse predators nearby, ready to devour a naïve young woman who is quickly being tangled in a web of deceit.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is one of the most exciting voices in fiction, and with her first crime novel, UNTAMED SHORE, she crafts a blazing novel of suspense with an eerie seaside setting and a literary edge that proves her a master of the genre.

Review: It is probably becoming clear to all of you that this blog is very much a Silvia Moreno-Garcia Stan page. Given that she has been dipping her toes into all kinds of genres, there are things for both Serena and myself to love. This time I’m taking on a good old fashioned crime thriller novel called “Untamed Shore”, which promises suspense, secrets, death, and sharks. All while also being a coming of age story in 1970s Baja, Mexico. I mean my goodness, everything about this just screams ‘YOU SHOULD BE READING THIS KATE, AND HOW DARE YOU MISS IT THE FIRST TIME AROUND?!’

Me to my reading tastes. Also, holy “Detroit Rock City” gif, Batman! (source)

Something that has become very clear about Moreno-Garcia is that she can genre hop with ease, and that her stories will always be incredibly strong no matter what kind of themes that they take on. This is something that I have seen not very often with authors I like, as they either stick to one thing, or if they do branch out it doesn’t work as well. But for Moreno-Garcia, she makes it look easy. “Untamed Shore” is both a crime novel and a bildungsroman about Viridiana, an eighteen year old living in small town Baja who dreams of more for herself. She’s smart, she’s feisty, she’s misunderstood due to her ambition and her background, and she’s also naive, due to her youth and her lack of worldliness. All of these things make for an easy to root for character, and she’s well rounded and tenacious and everything I like to see in a female protagonist at that. You completely understand why she would be drawn to Ambrose, Daisy, and Gregory, three American tourists with money, privilege, and a somewhat dark dynamic that Viridiana sees when she becomes a live in assistant. Ambrose is cold, Daisy is magnetic and unpredictable, and Gregory is charming and seductive, and I love how we get a sense for all of them through Viridiana’s eyes, but also through the behaviors that she sees but may not quite catch. It’s Gregory’s wooing of Viridiana that feels the most dangerous, as her pie in the sky romantic nature and hopes for better things makes their romance feel sinister, even as she is led to believe that it’s real. So our suspense is ratcheted up because Viridiana may be in serious danger the closer she gets to them, and yet as the story goes on Viridiana takes a very interesting journey in which she adapts, grows, and makes moves of her own. Bottom line, I loved Viridiana, and her growth was fascinating to watch. Especially when she has to start figuring out if she has alliances to her supposed friends/the man she loves, or to those who may want to take her supposed friends down.

Moreno-Garcia has also set her story in a place that, once again, feels unique to me and my reading tastes. When I think of crime novels, I tend to think of New York, Los Angeles, maybe somewhere in Europe or MAYBE Asia. I am always trying to expand my horizons, however, so the setting of 1970s Mexico was very enjoyable. I felt like I knew the ins and outs of Desegaño, the small fishing town that is becoming more and more suffocating to Viridiana as days go by, and that doesn’t see TOO many tourists (which means the three she falls in with are all the more compelling). The setting is compelling, and it also is the perfect way to explore the way that American tourists take places like this for granted, thinking that they can waltz in, throw their weight around, and use the locals in whatever way they feel like. Ambrose, Daisy, and Gregory have their own preconceived notions about Viridiana, because of her youth and her ethnicity/nationality, and it all feels like a very ugly but apt metaphor that I greatly enjoyed.

And oh, the suspense! It’s pretty clear to the reader what happened when one of the Americans ends up dead, so the story there on out is wondering if Viridiana is going to realize what exactly she has been pulled into, or if she is going to be so desperate to leave Desegaño and so desperate to believe that she and Gregory are in love that she will believe anything that the two left alive will tell her. Her desperation is palpable and understandable, and I was barreling through to the end not necessarily wanting to know if all the garbage the Americans did would come to light, but if Viridiana would come out okay.

Overall, I loved “Untamed Shore”. I ran the gamut of emotions and am now even more excited to continue on my Silvia Moreno-Garcia journey.

Rating 9: A sizzling and suspenseful crime thriller with a likable, if not a little morally ambiguous, protagonist and a fun backdrop.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Untamed Shore” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mysteries/Thrillers by BIPOC Authors”, and “Historical Fiction Set in Latin America”.

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

Kate’s Review: “You Love Me”

Book: “You Love Me” (You #3) by Caroline Kepnes

Publishing Info: Random House, April 2021

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

Book Description: Joe Goldberg is done with cities, done with the muck and the posers, done with Love. Now, he’s saying hello to nature, to simple pleasures on a cozy island in the Pacific Northwest. For the first time in a long time, he can just breathe.

He gets a job at the local library–he does know a thing or two about books–and that’s where he meets her: Mary Kaye DiMarco. Librarian. Joe won’t meddle, he will not obsess. He’ll win her the old fashioned way . . . by providing a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand. Over time, they’ll both heal their wounds and begin their happily ever after in this sleepy town.

The trouble is . . . Mary Kaye already has a life. She’s a mother. She’s a friend. She’s . . . busy.

True love can only triumph if both people are willing to make room for the real thing. Joe cleared his decks. He’s ready. And hopefully, with his encouragement and undying support, Mary Kaye will do the right thing and make room for him.

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

Long have I waited for Caroline Kepnes to continue the story of Joe Goldberg, my favorite literary psychopath/hopeless romantic/obsessive stalker. When I first encountered Joe back in 2016, in which I read “You” and “Hidden Bodies” almost in direct succession of each other, I was hoping we’d get more, but didn’t want to hold my breath lest I be disappointed. Well thank you, Netflix, for picking up the show “You” starring Penn Badgely, and making it a bonafide hit. Because now we are DEFINITELY getting more Joe stories, and the newest one is “You Love Me”. When I saw that I was approved to read it, I could have cried I was so happy (I may have a little bit, actually). I waited for five years, and it was pretty much worth the wait.

Hello again, creep. Oh how I’ve missed you. (source)

I missed Joe. And diving back into his mind was both fun and a bit jarring. “You Love Me” has similar traits to the previous books; we still have Joe obsessing, we still have a cast of over the top scumbag characters he encounters, and we still have the eerie and voyeuristic sensation of watching him as he stalks someone and worms his way into her life. But we also get some more complexity to Joe, complexity that certainly doesn’t let him off the hook for his misdeeds, but makes him a bit more semi-tragic than he was back in the early days of “You” and “Hidden Bodies”. Kepnes really dives into the darkness of his character here, and keeps mining out disturbing things, though at the same time she’s letting him grow in other ways that I found really interesting. I suppose it would be too repetitive to just keep him static, and that’s kind of a ballsy move given that this is a man who victimizes basically everyone he encounters. Even when he doesn’t mean to.

Since it’s from his POV again (and we’re back to the second person perspective in the unique way that Kepnes does it, in that it actually WORKS), we have to surmise that a LOT of what we’re getting from him is unreliable. But at the same time, I felt like that I did get a sense for many of the new characters this time around, from Mary Kay to her daughter Nomi (or “Meerkat” as Joe calls her), to Mary Kay’s obnoxious friends, to other thorns in his side. While I don’t know if anyone was going to live up to Love Quinn in my mind (more on that in a bit…..), Mary Kay felt like the exact kind of nuanced and complicated person that Joe would be drawn to. Kepnes manages to make all of these characters feel real, even though they are all a bit exaggerated just because of who the narrator is. 

The story itself has some of the same stumbling blocks that the previous books have. There are some moments or arcs that feel a little hastily tacked on to keep Joe a few steps away from his ultimate goal. There are a couple deus ex machinas. There are a couple of REALLY nutty moments of peril for Joe. My biggest issue was how the story wrapped up the L.A. storyline, as while I know we had to have Joe be able to move on to a new object of obsession, it felt VERY rushed. When we did revisit Love she felt a little stilted and out of character for my tastes, which was a shame because I felt like there was a FOUNT of depths, mostly dark, that we could have explored, so that was a disappointment. But ultimately these shortcomings I can pretty easily put aside, because it’s Joe. I read these books not for the believability of them, or to see how a plot will keep itself together, or to avoid over the top craziness. I read them because Joe Goldberg is scary, hilarious, and in some ways (not the killing ways) very relatable.

I don’t know where we’re going to go from here. I do know that a fourth book is going to happen. “You Love Me” is a welcome return to Joe Goldberg and his twisted obsessions. I’m happy to see him again.

Rating 9: A soapy, creepy, and funny return to one of my favorite series of all time, “You Love Me” brings Joe Goldberg back to freak us all out, and it goes splendidly.

Reader’s Advisory:

“You Love Me” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 Horror Releases” . That said, this is not a horror novel but it’s the ONLY list that is at all specific to theme. I may add more if more pop up that are more specific.

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

Previously Reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “She’s Too Pretty To Burn”

Book: “She’s Too Pretty To Burn” by Wendy Heard

Publishing Info: Henry Holt & Co. (BYR), March 2021

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

Book Description: An electric romance set against a rebel art scene sparks lethal danger for two girls in this expertly plotted YA thriller. For fans of E. Lockhart, Lauren Oliver and Kara Thomas.

The summer is winding down in San Diego. Veronica is bored, caustically charismatic, and uninspired in her photography. Nico is insatiable, subversive, and obsessed with chaotic performance art. They’re artists first, best friends second. But that was before Mick. Delicate, lonely, magnetic Mick: the perfect subject, and Veronica’s dream girl. The days are long and hot―full of adventure―and soon they are falling in love. Falling so hard, they never imagine what comes next. One fire. Two murders. Three drowning bodies. One suspect . . . one stalker. This is a summer they won’t survive.

Inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray, this sexy psychological thriller explores the intersections of love, art, danger, and power.

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

While I have a vague working knowledge of the main themes of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde thanks to pop culture, I haven’t actually read the book, nor have I seen any source material stringent adaptations. I figure I should probably get on that at some point, but man, the To Be Read pile is so big that it just keeps falling by the wayside. That didn’t stop me, however, from being totally interested in “She’s Too Pretty to Burn” by Wendy Heard when I read the description. Sure, the “Dorian Gray” adaptation is already kind of a tantalizing detail, but when you throw in teenage girls, sapphic romance, AND what sounds like a “Velvet Buzzsaw”-esque pretentious art scene/bloodbath? Baby, you got a stew going.

This movie is a mess, but it’s a mess that I couldn’t stop watching. (source)

“She’s Too Pretty To Burn” has two perspectives. The first is Mick, a shy, awkward, friendless teenage girl who lives with her narcissistic mother. Her self esteem is low and she hates having any attention on her. The second is Veronica, a budding photographer from a privileged home who has dreams of art school after high school, and who pals around with Nico, a passionate political performance artist who is always on the edge with his art. After Mick and Veronica meet at a party, their connection is immediately forged in passion as well as boundary treading, in that Veronica takes Mick’s picture without her knowing. This, of course, sets off a disturbing and highly readable chain of events. I liked having both Mick’s and Veronica’s perspectives, as I feel like we got a really good sense for both their passions, their hopes, and their insecurities, as well as how they both are deeply into each other, but know how to hurt each other. There were moments where I loved each of them, and moments where I would get so mad at each of them, but I was wholly invested in them, their relationship, and their fates. I also really enjoyed how Heard explored their differing levels of privilege, be it based on race, class, home life, what have you, showing that while Mick may have the upper hand in one way, Veronica may have it in another, and neither of them can see past their own issues to REALLY understand how their varying advantages manifest. Nico is a bit of a wild card in all of this at first glance, until he starts to manipulate both girls in different ways to suit his own purposes, and as that slow burn threw in a whole other dynamic to this story, I went from hooked to lined and sunk as well (does this metaphor work? I don’t care, I was all in is what I’m saying).

The plot, which I’m going to keep a little vague, is a slow build of suspense and dread as to what is going to happen. The unease is apparent from the get go, but you aren’t totally certain as to why you feel that way. Is it because of Mick’s unease with everything around her? Is it because of Veronica’s obsession with that photo she took of Mick and what it drives her to do? Is it the two of them, is it something else? Since I haven’t read “Dorian Gray” I can’t tell you as to how well it fits the narrative of that story, or how it reinterprets those themes, but what I can tell you is that this book is just off and unnerving enough that you will be on edge even before things really start to go south for all of our characters. And then when it does go that way, the tension is massive. At least it was for me. I was ripping through the final chapters, nearly breathless as I waited to see what was going to happen. I don’t know what it was about this book, but it really laid its talons in my brain and I am still shaken up. The only reason that this didn’t get a ten out of ten is because I felt like it went a LITTLE long by the end, extending past the climactic events and laying a little last minute groundwork that I don’t think was fully explored. That said, if it was laying groundwork for a potential sequel? I would be chomping at the bit to see what happens next.

“She’s Too Pretty to Burn” is going to be on my mind for awhile. Deeply disturbing but compelling as hell. Definitely check this out if you like YA thrillers, or even just thrillers in general.

Rating 9: A twisted and unnerving thriller that had me hooked almost immediately.

Reader’s Advisory:

“She’s Too Pretty to Burn” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Sapphic Releases”, and “Dorian Gray”.

Find “She’s Too Pretty to Burn” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Every Vow You Break”

Book: “Every Vow You Break” by Peter Swanson

Publishing Info: William Morrow, March 2021

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

Book Description: A bride’s dream honeymoon becomes a nightmare when a man with whom she’s had a regrettable one-night stand shows up in this electrifying psychological thriller from the acclaimed author of Eight Perfect Murders.

Abigail Baskin never thought she’d fall in love with a millionaire. Then she met Bruce Lamb. He’s a good guy, stable, level-headed, kind—a refreshing twist from her previous relationships. But right before the wedding, Abigail has a drunken one-night stand on her bachelorette weekend. She puts the incident—and the sexy guy who wouldn’t give her his real name—out of her mind, and now believes she wants to be with Bruce for the rest of her life.

Then the mysterious stranger suddenly appears—and Abigail’s future life and happiness are turned upside down. He insists that their passionate night was the beginning of something much, much more. Something special. Something real—and he’s tracked her down to prove it. Does she tell Bruce and ruin their idyllic honeymoon—and possibly their marriage? Or should she handle this psychopathic stalker on her own? To make the situation worse, strange things begin to happen. She sees a terrified woman in the night shadows, and no one at the resort seems to believe anything is amiss… including her perfect new husband.

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

After totally dropping the ball on getting my hands on Peter Swanson’s last book, I vowed, VOWED, that I wouldn’t let that happen again. They are just far too enjoyable. So when I saw that NetGalley had his newest book “Every Vow You Break” available, I jumped at the chance to read it, therein guaranteeing that I wouldn’t be so incredibly late this time. And, like most Swanson books, I was completely taken in by the mystery, this time taking place on a strange and isolated island as a newly married couple starts to crumble under secrets, lies, and a looming threat of a potential stalker hiding in the woods. Oh yes. This is exactly what I wanted from this book.

What I find striking about Swanson’s books is that they can hit completely different notes and feelings depending on the story. I think that were I to have no idea that Swanson wrote both “Eight Perfect Murders” and “Every Vow You Break” I’d have been gobsmacked that they were the same author. And “Every Vow You Break” also has a different feel from some of his earlier works as well. It doesn’t rely on a big early twist to set the reader off course, nor does it toss in any last moment twists and turns that feel unearned. But all that said, what I thought was going to be a pretty straight forward thriller about a woman being stalked by a man she had a single sexual encounter with turned into something far more sinister than I imagined. And I LOVED that. I pieced together a few aspects of this book, but for the most part I was kept on my toes, and fell for a couple of the red herrings that Swanson tossed out there. It felt fresh and new, and I had a hard time putting the book down once I had picked it up. Swanson took the story to places that I didn’t really anticipate, and I will say (whilst keeping it vague) that he tackles themes like misogyny, rape culture, and sexism in ways that felt responsible and biting. Which, again, I wasn’t expecting from this read. I should really learn to expect the unexpected from him, and yet….

Beyond the plot, our main character of Abigail was also a genuine and realistic protagonist. She definitely makes some poor decisions as the story goes on, as it’s really not a good idea to sleep with another person during your bachelorette party weekend, but for all of her faults you can understand why she does the things she does. And she’s probably the least screwed up protagonist that Swanson has introduced us too, or at the very least the least morally grey trending towards malevolent. I really liked Abigail by the end and was fully invested in what was going to happen to her. While the other characters didn’t feel as multi dimensional as she did, that didn’t bother me so much because even though it was in the third person, it was really her point of view that we were getting. Would I have been intrigued to get the POV of a few of the other characters, in particular Scottie, the man who she is trying to get away from? Absolutely. But at the same time, the decision to make it purely Abigail’s tale not only leaves more room for twists and surprises, it also lets her experience and perspective have the control of the narration as to what is happening to her.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times (or at least as many times as I’ve reviewed a Peter Swanson book): if you are into thrillers and still haven’t read something by Peter Swanson, do yourself a favor. Go read one of his books. “Every Vow You Break” would be a great place to start.

Rating 8: Another fun thriller filled with twists and turns from Peter Swanson!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Every Vow You Break” is included on the Goodreads lists “Wedding Mysteries & Thrillers”, and “Domestic Thrillers”.

Find “Every Vow You Break” at your library using WorldCat or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Follower”

Book: “The Follower” by Kate Doughty

Publishing Info: Amulet Books, March 2021

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

Book Description: A spine-tingling YA thriller, based on a still-unfolding true story
 
Instagram-famous triplets Cecily, Amber, and Rudy—the children of home renovation superstars—are ready for a perfect summer. They’ve just moved into the site of their parents’ latest renovation project when they begin to receive chilling messages from someone called The Follower. It soon becomes clear that this anonymous threat is more than a simple Internet troll, and he can’t wait to shatter the Cole family’s perfect veneer and take back what’s his. The Follower examines the implications of what it is to be watched in the era of social media fame—as well as the lies we tell and the lengths we’ll go to uphold a perfect image, when our lives depend on it.

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

One of the things that most caught my eye about “The Follower” by Kate Doughty is that in the description it says that it’s ‘based on a still-unfolding true story’. Sure, I’ve seen ‘based on a true story’ until the cows come home, but ‘still-unfolding true story’?

Like, WHAT? (source)

I did a little digging, and found out that this book takes some inspiration from the still unsolved “Watcher” case, in which a family moved into a house, and started getting harassing and threatening letters from an unknown person. This went on for awhile, the person was never caught, the family moved out. HERE is an article about it if you want to know more, and you probably do because it’s BANANAS. But ‘still-unfolding’ may be a little misleading, as it sounds like it’s stalled out and will probably never be solved. That said, “The Follower”, though taking inspiration, does not leave the reader hanging like reality did! In fact, it captured my attention and held it, making it so I had a really hard time putting this book down.

What I liked best about “The Follower” was how fast paced and generally addictive it was. We hit the ground running in the very first pages, and we never really paused to take a breather. This made for a book that I just kept on taking in, which was great in the moment. While it’s true that sometimes this fast paced momentum meant that we’d feel like we would trip through moments that needed maybe a little bit of a slow down, this only happened a couple times and the awkward pacing wasn’t too distracting. I also liked all three of the Cole Triplets, when I assumed that at least one of them was going to fall more by the wayside. But all three of them had well rounded personalities and motivations, as well as insecurities and flaws that made them feel human in spite of their ‘influencer’ lives. I especially liked how we got to explore Amber’s drive to be a fashion master while being plus sized, and how while she was hurt by how people (specifically her mother) think that she isn’t as valuable because of her body, she herself is happy with how she is because why shouldn’t she be? Also, the snippets of the social media comments were a fun way to show how their experience at the house and with The Follower was being perceived, and how when ‘fans’ on social media get whipped up into a frenzy of perceived wrongdoing/their own entitlement and or outrage, it can be REALLY damaging. I’m not going to say that it’s going so far as to be a critique of so called ‘cancel culture’, but I will say that it raises good points about how toxic fandoms can be towards living breathing people because of the faux intimacy of social media.

In terms of the actual mystery of who “The Follower” is, there were parts that were pretty obvious from the get go if you are familiar with tropes that go with these kinds of stories. If a character has a beloved pet, it will probably meet an untimely end. If things move around and no one fesses up to doing it, that may mean something more. The family can’t leave the house in which they are being terrorized because it’s a money pit. And so forth. It’s not BAD, per se, and these tropes are familiar and cozy in a way that means that they work just fine. But it also didn’t really make for many big surprises as the story went on. There were a number of moments that should have been ‘ah HA’ in nature, but because I knew the tropes and tricks from many stories before, almost all of them were not surprising, and even somewhat predictable. That being said, I’ve been consuming these kinds of stories for many years now, so for readers who are just getting started there could be things to discover.

“The Follower” was a comfortable read for me that gave me all the reliable elements that I like of a YA thriller. I look forward to seeing what Kate Doughty comes out with in the future, and will definitely be checking it out, whatever it may be.

Rating 7: Fast paced and a page turner, “The Follower” is a pretty satisfying thriller, if at times a predictable and reliant on tropes seen many times before.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Follower” is pretty new and not featured on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Books Involving Stalking”, and “Unwanted Attention”.

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

Kate’s Review: “The Lost Apothecary”

Book: “The Lost Apothecary” by Sarah Penner

Publishing Info: Park Row, March 2021

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

Book Description: A female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them—setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course

Rule #1: The poison must never be used to harm another woman.

Rule #2: The names of the murderer and her victim must be recorded in the apothecary’s register.

One cold February evening in 1791, at the back of a dark London alley in a hidden apothecary shop, Nella awaits her newest customer. Once a respected healer, Nella now uses her knowledge for a darker purpose—selling well-disguised poisons to desperate women who would kill to be free of the men in their lives. But when her new patron turns out to be a precocious twelve-year-old named Eliza Fanning, an unexpected friendship sets in motion a string of events that jeopardizes Nella’s world and threatens to expose the many women whose names are written in her register.

In present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, reeling from the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. When she finds an old apothecary vial near the river Thames, she can’t resist investigating, only to realize she’s found a link to the unsolved “apothecary murders” that haunted London over two centuries ago. As she deepens her search, Caroline’s life collides with Nella’s and Eliza’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

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

As a true crime fan worth her salt, I can tell you that a trend seen in many women killers is the use of poisons and toxins within their murders. You have Mary Anne Cotton, Belle Gunness, Giulia Tofana, and numerous others. Poison has been deemed a ‘woman’s murder weapon’ (though, to be fair, plenty of men have used it over the years as well), and while I haven’t done MUCH deep diving into it as a means of murder, I feel like I should. Even more so now that I’ve read “The Lost Apothecary” by Sarah Penner, a dual timeline and multi-perspective narrative that involves women who are wronged by the men in their lives, and an apothecary owner who creates poisons to take care of such issues. Because why do things the direct way when you can just dump a vial into someone’s food and call it a night?

“The Lost Apothecary” takes place in two different timelines. The first has two perspectives, those of Nella, the apothecary owner who mixes poisons for wronged or desperate women, and Eliza, a servant girl sent to the apothecary to fetch a poison meant to be ingested by her employer (at the behest of the woman of the house). The second is that of Caroline, an American woman who has travelled to London on what was meant to be her tenth anniversary trip, though she has just found out about her husband’s infidelity. What connects the two timelines and three perspectives is a glass vial, lost in time but found by chance by Caroline. Penner is very careful to find the strings and threads that bring the two stories and three characters together, and draws parallels between all of their lives as women who have been aggrieved in one way or another by the men in their orbits. In the modern day we see Caroline start to find the puzzle pieces about Nella and Eliza, and in the past we see the path that Nella and Eliza take that may lead to their undoing and doom. The mystery of what happened to Nella and Eliza as found out through their perspectives and that of what Caroline finds is a fun device that kept me interested, especially as things in the modern day started to harken back to some of the, shall we say, ‘themes’ of the 18th century plot line. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that poison is timeless…. On top of all that, it did mostly keep me guessing until the end, even if there were some convenient moments that felt a little forced or hard to believe. But I was having enough fun that I could forgive it. I also just liked learning about all the women, and found all of them pretty believable in their portrayals.

But what I liked most in “The Lost Apothecary” is how these two timelines slowly unfolded not only the fates of a long lost poison shop and those who were involved with it, but how they had similar grievances across centuries about abusive and toxic men and misogyny, and what that does to women. While it’s true that the degrees of the shitbird men in this book, especially the ones that have impacted the three main character’s lives, run a gamut, we still see how even in a 21st century setting a woman can have her life upended and set adrift because of power dynamics that society has set in place in terms of expectations on how a man and a woman should be, especially in a marriage. I felt for Caroline, not just because of her husband’s transgressions, but because of how much she sacrificed for him and their relationship all because she had been told all her life that was just what you do. And while Caroline may not be turning to poison as a solution, back in the 18th century Penner paints a very clear picture as to why women from all backgrounds may see poison as the only way that they can escape a really terrible situation when it comes to the men in their lives. Some of the stories that we learn of are truly horrifying, and it makes Nella’s shop seem more like a place for justice for the forgotten, instead of a place where murderers gather their wares. I got a fun and cathartic thrill, which was ultimately what I wanted from this book.

“The Lost Apothecary” is a fun historical mystery thriller, and one that I would definitely recommend to those who want a little nasty catharsis when it comes to patriarchy smashing.

Rating 8: A wicked and satisfying historical thriller, “The Lost Apothecary” is a slow burn of a cathartic tale of revenge against the ever present patriarchy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Lost Apothecary” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dual Time Mysteries”, and “[ATY 2021] – Female Villains or Criminals”.

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

Kate’s Review: “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep”

Book: “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” by Lauria Faria Stolarz

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, March 2021

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

Book Description: Bestselling author Laurie Faria Stolarz returns with a thrilling novel where an eighteen-year-old girl’s search for answers lands her in one of the most terrifying situations imaginable.

Four days…Trapped in a well, surrounded by dirt, scratching at the walls trying to find a way out. Four days of a thirst so strong, that when it finally rains, I drink as much as possible from the dripping walls, not even caring how much dirt comes with it.

Six months… Since my escape. Since no one believed I was taken to begin with – from my own bed, after a party, when no one else was home… Six months of trying to find answers and being told instead that I made the whole incident up.

One month… Since I logged on to the Jane Anonymous site for the first time and found a community of survivors who listen without judgment, provide advice, and console each other when needed. A month of chatting with a survivor whose story eerily mirrors my own: a girl who’s been receiving triggering clues, just like me, and who could help me find the answers I’m searching for.

Three days…Since she mysteriously disappears, and since I’m forced to ask the questions: will my chance to find out what happened to me vanish with her? And will I be next? 

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

Back at the beginning of 2020 I reviewed the book “Jane Anonymous”, in which a kidnapping survivor has to readjust to her life after returning home. I thought that it did a great job of combining legitimate thrills with a realistic and responsible take on trauma. So when I saw that Laurie Faria Stolarz had written a new book within that same universe, “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep”, I was pretty interested! I really like the idea of a series that gives stories to different characters who are on the Jane Anonymous blog and support chat board that was established at the end of the first book, so I was really eager to jump into this one to see what story was up next. But unfortunately, this book didn’t live up to the high hopes I had for it.

I do want to say right off the bat that I think that Stolarz does her due diligence to portray mental illness and the effects of trauma on a person in realistic and non-romanticized ways. Terra has two big, horrible things that she has to deal with: the traumatic death of her parents, who died in a house fire that she survived, and being kidnapped and held captive for days, only to escape and have people not believe her. These two things would of course weigh on anyone, and the crap that Terra has to deal with, be it the disassociation, the PTSD, the fugue states, etcetera is only exacerbated by people who either can’t handle her very difficult behavior, or are openly hostile towards her or wary of her. Sometimes I think that mental illness can be portrayed in ways that doesn’t do it justice in the sense that it can be VERY hard for the person suffering, and it can be constant and repetitive. That was all well done. The problem, however, is that when you have a character going through these kinds of things in realistic ways, it can make for a plot that feels like its spinning its wheels or repeating itself. “Jane Anonymous” was able to balance both the trauma themes and the plot progression, so it was disappointing that this one couldn’t quite manage it.

And in terms of the plot progression, we have two mysteries at hand. The first is the mystery that is always in the air, and that is what happened to Terra when she was abducted, or if she was abducted at all. As the story goes on Terra has pretty much stopped trying to convince people of what happened to her, as she is met with those who think she’s flat out lying, or those who think that her previous trauma of losing her parents has led her to a psychotic break of sorts. There are moments of her looking for proof, and scenes of her maybe seeing clues that she is still being watched, though she lets it fall by the wayside a bit because she just doesn’t really know how to approach it lest she be met with derision. The other, more active mystery is what happened to her online friend Peyton, someone she met on the Jane Anonymous support boards, who has been talking about her own trauma of being kidnapped, and is worried that her kidnapper is stalking her again as well. After Peyton disappears, Terra is motivated to try and find her, and therein perhaps find the man who took her, as their stories have similarities. The problem with this storyline is that the action doesn’t pick up until we are more than halfway done with the book. I kept waiting for it and waiting for it, as it’s in the description that this is the main plot line, but it was very late, in my opinion a little too late in the progression. And by the time we do get to the big climax, which I won’t spoil here, there were things that just felt wrapped up a little too quickly, or too conveniently, and then the plot lingered a little too long post climax. Ultimately, it felt muddled and haphazard.

Given that I still think that there is a lot of potential for more books within the “Jane Anonymous” world that looks at different survivors and their stories, I’m not writing off the series as a whole. But “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” was a bit of a let down that couldn’t quite find a good balance between important messages and captivating story.

Rating 5: Though I had hopes for this sequel to “Jane Anonymous”, “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” was a repetitive and muddled follow up. That said, the candid look at how difficult mental illness and trauma could be was well handled.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sweet Vicious”, and “YA Suspense/Thriller/Mystery”.

Find “The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed: “Jane Anonymous”

Kate’s Review: “The Girls Are All So Nice Here”

Book: “The Girls Are All So Nice Here” by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, March 2021

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

Book Description: Two former best friends return to their college reunion to find that they’re being circled by someone who wants revenge for what they did ten years before—and will stop at nothing to get it—in this shocking psychological thriller about ambition, toxic friendship, and deadly desire.

A lot has changed in the years since Ambrosia Wellington graduated from college, and she’s worked hard to create a new life for herself. But then an invitation to her ten-year reunion arrives in the mail, along with an anonymous note that reads “We need to talk about what we did that night.”

It seems that the secrets of Ambrosia’s past—and the people she thought she’d left there—aren’t as buried as she’d believed. Amb can’t stop fixating on what she did or who she did it with: larger-than-life Sloane “Sully” Sullivan, Amb’s former best friend, who could make anyone do anything.

At the reunion, Amb and Sully receive increasingly menacing messages, and it becomes clear that they’re being pursued by someone who wants more than just the truth of what happened that first semester. This person wants revenge for what they did and the damage they caused—the extent of which Amb is only now fully understanding. And it was all because of the game they played to get a boy who belonged to someone else, and the girl who paid the price.

Alternating between the reunion and Amb’s freshman year, The Girls Are All So Nice Here is a shocking novel about the brutal lengths girls can go to get what they think they’re owed, and what happens when the games we play in college become matters of life and death.

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

Having gone to a large public university (two, really, as I transferred after freshman year from one U of MN campus to another) and having only lived in the dorm for one year, I didn’t really find myself caught up in any dorm drama or scandals. Perhaps my dorm was just boring, or perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough. The closest I got was having a roommate with whom I initially bumped heads (but even that doesn’t really count because now she’s one of my dearest friends). But I guess that I can believe that such things do happen. And “The Girls Are All So Nice Here” by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn is steeped, and I mean STEEPED, in the poisonous shenanigans that some college kids get up to while living on campus. I’ll admit that I was just picturing Danielle from “Happy Death Day” as I read the description. And while I wasn’t too far off, it didn’t rise to the occasion that I was anticipating.

Danielle and Tree play my expectations when they’re smacked back to reality. (source)

“The Girls Are All So Nice Here” has some pretty good hits, and a few glaring misses. I’ll start with the hits, however, as there were definitely things that worked really well. We have ourselves a mystery at hand. Our narrator, Amb, has done her best to leave her college days behind and forget about them. She has a kind husband, lives in New York, and has cultivated a scandal free life. But when her college reunion looms, she starts getting strange messages from an anonymous person saying that they need to ‘talk about what they did that night’. The story is Amb going back to the school to find out who is sending the messages, and we as the readers slowly get to find out what it is she did, through flashbacks and the present day reunion weekend. It’s a device that we’ve seen before, but it works well here as Flynn carefully peels back the layers of Amb’s freshman year, and her relationships. Specifically those she had with her then best friend Sully, the resident mean girl, and Flora, Amb’s sweet and well loved roommate. I will say that what we find out is pretty damn upsetting, with mean girl bullshit spiraling out of control, jealousy and pettiness getting the best of people, and the entitlement thinking one deserves more than they have leading to very bad things. I’m being vague deliberately, because the plot itself is well done. When I thought a character couldn’t stoop lower, she did. When I thought that a twist was one thing, it ended up being something else. A couple reveals felt a bit convenient, but ultimately I was enjoying the ride enough that it didn’t put me too off.

What didn’t work as well for me were the characterizations of the various players in our toxic soup of a story. I definitely understand having garbage people being at the forefront in a story like this, and I don’t have a problem with following an unreliable narrator who is also an unlikable and nasty person. But I think that if you are going to do that, I would like a little bit of exploration as to what it is that makes them that way, or at least make them wickedly entertaining in their nastiness. With Amb, we get a lot of telling that she is insecure, that she is jealous of Flora and how easy it is for ‘girls like her’, but there wasn’t really much in Amb’s background that we see that made me fully see the complexities that go with this kind of dangerous coveting and jealousy that leads to very bad things. Sully, too, is just nasty with no reason or exploration into her nastiness. We just see she’s horrible and that’s all we get from her, and she isn’t interesting enough to even make it fun to hate her. Perhaps one would think that Flora may get a bit of depth here, given that she is the one who is hurt the most by Amb and Sully, but no. Flora is your two dimensional really nice girl that is there to be a martyr. Even when she talks with Amb or other characters talk about her with Amb in the past and the present, all we know about Flora is SUPER sweet which, sure, makes your blood boil when Amb and Sully treat her like crap. But that only gets me so far.

So while the plot was engrossing and had some genuine tricks up its sleeves, “The Girls Are All So Nice Here” was a fairly run of the mill thriller about women behaving badly. It gets the job done, but it probably could have done more.

Rating 6: A twisty thriller with some fun surprises, “The Girls Are All So Nice Here” will keep you guessing, but doesn’t have anyone to root for.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girls Are All So Nice Here” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2021”.

Find “The Girls Are All So Nice Here” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Good Girl, Bad Blood”

Book: “Good Girl, Bad Blood”(A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder #2) by Holly Jackson

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, March 2021

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

Book Description: The highly anticipated sequel to the instant New York Times bestseller, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder! More dark secrets are exposed in this addictive, true-crime fueled mystery.

Pip is not a detective anymore. With the help of Ravi Singh, she released a true-crime podcast about the murder case they solved together last year. The podcast has gone viral, yet Pip insists her investigating days are behind her.

But she will have to break that promise when someone she knows goes missing. Jamie Reynolds has disappeared, on the very same night the town hosted a memorial for the sixth-year anniversary of the deaths of Andie Bell and Sal Singh. The police won’t do anything about it. And if they won’t look for Jamie then Pip will, uncovering more of her town’s dark secrets along the way… and this time everyone is listening. But will she find him before it’s too late?

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

Perhaps you remember that last year I greatly enjoyed the YA mystery “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” by Holly Jackson, and it even made my Top Ten Books of 2020. I also mentioned in that review that I was super stoked for the sequel. Well folks, the time has arrived. “Good Girl, Bad Blood” is here.

My first highly anticipated thriller book of the year! (source)

We pick up not to far after we left off in “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder”. Pip is no longer actively seeking out mysteries to solve, instead working on a podcast about the Andie Bell/Sal Singh case, and attending the trial of serial rapist Max Hastings. Pip, however, is drawn into helping her friend Connor, whose brother has gone missing, and dedicates a new season of her podcast to her investigation. What I liked most about “Good Girl, Bad Blood” is that while Jackson could have set Pip up to be a modern day Nancy Drew who is just going to solve cases and move on to the next, instead we get a front seat at the physical, mental, and emotional labor that she has to endure to help those she cares about. Well, and to give her that purpose that she felt she had in the first book. It’s an angle that may seem obvious, but Jackson does it in a way that makes you really start to wonder how much of this is all worth it as Pip gets sucked into another case, and risks her safety in trying to solve it. I didn’t expect it to go in this direction, and I was happy that it did. Jackson also takes this time to examine the weaknesses in our current law and order systems, as the police in town aren’t really taking Jamie’s missing status seriously, and the rape trial of Max Hastings follows a lot of the same ‘he said, she said’ injustices we see in real life. All of these things combine that leaves Pip in some pretty bleak places as the story goes on, and since there is going to be another book in the series, I want to see how Jackson tackles this for our imperfect heroine.

In terms of the plot itself, “Good Girl, Bad Blood” has a lot of the same strengths as the first book. I still really like Pip, and I loved seeing her relationship with Ravi Singh evolve and flourish (cutest couple ever). I also liked getting to know some of her other friends a little bit better, like Connor. As to the mystery, once again we got a taut and suspenseful thriller, and we get to see everything laid out in a cohesive way through podcast transcripts and Pip’s notes. It’s a much better way to keep everything organized without making any of the characters seem like they’re reciting facts in a robotic way, and I really enjoy it. I will say that there were a couple of trip ups for me, however. The first was that a couple of red herrings tossed out there didn’t really get resolved as red herrings or not. Like, I think that they were? But it felt a little too touched upon in the narrative to just be left behind without explanation. That’s nitpicky. The other issue isn’t as such, in that one of the big puzzle pieces that ties everything together wasn’t even hinted at until well into the last fourth of the book. It felt sort of like a deus ex machine, but for a plot point. But that said, I was pretty much kept guessing until the end. And what an ending it was. It has set us up for the next book in the series. And now, once again, I am waiting anxiously to see where Pip can go next.

“Good Girl, Bad Blood” continues a fun series that is on my must read list going forward. If you haven’t tried these books yet and like a good YA mystery/thriller, you absolutely need to pick them up.

Rating 8: A twisty and suspenseful sequel, “Good Girl, Bad Blood” has a couple of stumbles, but is overall a great follow up to a runaway hit!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Good Girl, Bad Blood” is included on the Goodreads lists “Young Adult Crime/Murder Mysteries”, and “Fiction Books Featuring Podcasts”.

Find “Good Girl, Bad Blood” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Initial Insult”

Book: “The Initial Insult” by Mindy McGinnis

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, February 2021

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

Book Description: Welcome to Amontillado, Ohio, where your last name is worth more than money, and secrets can be kept… for a price. Tress Montor knows that her family used to mean something—until she didn’t have a family anymore. When her parents disappeared seven years ago while driving her best friend home, Tress lost everything. She might still be a Montor, but the entire town shuns her now that she lives with her drunken, one-eyed grandfather at what locals refer to as the “White Trash Zoo,” – a wild animal attraction featuring a zebra, a chimpanzee, and a panther, among other things.

Felicity Turnado has it all – looks, money, and a secret that she’s kept hidden. She knows that one misstep could send her tumbling from the top of the social ladder, and she’s worked hard to make everyone forget that she was with the Montors the night they disappeared. Felicity has buried what she knows so deeply that she can’t even remember what it is… only that she can’t look at Tress without having a panic attack.

But she’ll have to. Tress has a plan. A Halloween costume party at an abandoned house provides the ideal situation for Tress to pry the truth from Felicity – brick by brick – as she slowly seals her former best friend into a coal chute. With a drunken party above them, and a loose panther on the prowl, Tress will have her answers – or settle for revenge.

In the first book of this duology, award-winning author Mindy McGinnis draws inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe and masterfully delivers a dark, propulsive mystery in alternating points of view that unravels a friendship . . . forevermore.

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

As I’ve mentioned before, I really enjoyed Edgar Allan Poe and his poems and short stories. From the sad to the dream like to the macabre, the guy always has something that is going to connect with me. It’s been a long time since I read “The Cask of Amontillado”, the short story in which a man slowly seals up his rival into a tomb brick by brick, but I do remember how much it unsettled me the first time I read it back in middle school. When I head that Mindy McGinnis had written a new YA novel that took that story and updated it to be between two teenage girls, I was interested, but wondered how it could be done! But I was absolutely game to give it a try.

Taking a story like “The Cask of Amontillado” and turning it into a thriller/horror about two teenage girls whose friendship has gone bad is a lofty goal to set for oneself, but McGinnis rises to the occasion and has created a creepy and suspenseful story. We get the perspectives of both Tress, the one with the bricks, and Felicity, the one in the chains, and see how their relationship has gotten to this point. I really enjoyed both voices of each girl, and McGinnis was very careful to show that each of them had their own roles to play in the disintegration of their friendship. She doesn’t really give either of them a pass, but is also very empathetic to each of them in their struggles. It made it easy to both feel for them, and hate them, depending on the moment of the story. But it was the third perspective that I didn’t expect that kind of worked the best for me, and that is of the Panther that Tress’s grandfather Cecil owns, who has escaped from the exotic zoo. It’s this element that makes “The Black Cat” our other most prominent Poe work, and I thought it upped the ante, but also added an experimental and all knowing third perspective to bring in other, dreamy elements.

I WILL say, and I never thought I’d ever say this given how much I like Poe, that there was a little too much Poe stuffed into this book. It’s one thing when you are throwing references with names, vague similarities between the source content and the interpretation, and a main plot that’s paying homage. But McGinnis put a few too many plot points in that were a bit overwhelming. If it had just been “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat” with a few other nods I think it would have been fine. But we also get a whole “The Mask of Red Death” subplot which feels underexplored because there is so much else going on, and some plot points from “Hop Frog” thrown in as well that are also superfluous. It just made things seem a bit more bloated than they needed to be, especially since there is, indeed, going to be another book in the series. Could these things have been saved for that? Or will there be even MORE underutilized opportunities with some great source material?

But yes, having said that, “The Initial Insult” was a lot of fun, and while I’m curious about how a sequel is going to work (given that things seemed pretty final in some regards), I have a couple of theories as to what McGinnis may be up to. And even if those theories don’t pan out, I’m definitely anticipating what comes next.

Rating 8: A creative modern day interpretation of an Edgar Allan Poe classic, “The Initial Insult” sometimes does too much, but is entertaining and suspenseful nonetheless.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Initial Insult” is included on the Goodreads list “Books Influenced by Edgar Allan Poe”.

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