Kate’s Review and Giveaway: “An Anonymous Girl”

39863515Book: “An Anonymous Girl” by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, January 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The publisher sent me an ARC.

Book Description: Seeking women ages 18–32 to participate in a study on ethics and morality. Generous compensation. Anonymity guaranteed. 

When Jessica Farris signs up for a psychology study conducted by the mysterious Dr. Shields, she thinks all she’ll have to do is answer a few questions, collect her money, and leave. But as the questions grow more and more intense and invasive and the sessions become outings where Jess is told what to wear and how to act, she begins to feel as though Dr. Shields may know what she’s thinking…and what she’s hiding. As Jess’s paranoia grows, it becomes clear that she can no longer trust what in her life is real, and what is one of Dr. Shields’ manipulative experiments. Caught in a web of deceit and jealousy, Jess quickly learns that some obsessions can be deadly. 

Review: I want to extend a very special thank you to St. Martin’s Press for sending me an ARC of this novel!

In my younger years I was deeply fascinated with psychology, specifically of the abnormal type. During my undergraduate program I was especially taken with the various unethical studies that were conducted in the name of ‘science’. While studies of these natures could never get past an IRB today, I think about the Milgram Experiment (where a subject thought that they were giving people violent electric shocks and were told to keep going no matter what) and The Zimbardo Prison Experiment (where students were separated into prisoner and guard roles in a faux prison setting, and horrific abuse began almost instantly), and wonder just how these things were ever thought to be okay. Because of this lingering fascination, when I saw the new book “An Anonymous Girl”, written by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen of “The Wife Between Us” fame, was about unethical psych subjects I was excited to read it. I really enjoyed “The Wife Between Us”, so my expectations were set pretty high for their newest work.

“An Anonymous Girl” has a similar narrative structure to “The Wife Between Us”, with dual narrators who have distinct voices and their own takes on unreliability. The first and more prominent of the two is Jess, a make up artist who is living a meager and somewhat unfulfilling existence. She used to have dreams of making it on Broadway as a make up artist, but has since stalled out and settled for a job that sends her to private appointments around New York City. Her past is a bit hidden at first, though you know she’s sending money to her family to help care for her younger sister, who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child. Jess is a narrator whose motivations are always laid out and clear, and while she has a tendency to make questionable to poor decisions, she’s written in a way that makes you totally believe why she would make said decisions. The other narrator is Dr. Shields, and she is a bit more muddled in her motivations. The mystery of the novel is just what Dr. Shields is doing with the experiment that Jess volunteers for, and as her intent is slowly revealed her character’s layers are peeled back to show a dark mind at work, far darker than Jess’s. Both characters are interesting enough that I was invested in figuring out just what Dr. Shields wanted with Jess, and how far Jess would be pushed within the ‘experiment’ she was participating in. I kept thinking back to Milgram and how the subjects would sally forth, no matter how uncomfortable they were, because they thought that they had to.

The mystery sustained itself as long as it wanted to, laying out various hints towards both womens’ overall story arcs and their pasts. But eventually the narrative shifts from a mysterious question of intrigue to a pins and needles cat and mouse game. And it is that shift where “An Anonymous Girl” stumbled a little bit for me. Once we found out what it was that Dr. Shields was trying to accomplish, the reveal was a bit disappointing if only because it’s something we have seen many times before within this genre. I’m not going to spoil it here because I do think that getting there and the ensuing predator and prey dynamic is worth the read. But I will say that I went in hoping for a send of of unethical experiments of the past, where the likes of Milgram and Zimbardo were doing awful things in the name of science and learning about human nature. And what is very much not the case here at the end of the day.

“An Anonymous Girl” is a strong follow up to Hendricks’s and Pekkanen’s previous hit. While I do wish it had thought outside the box a little more, it was still an enjoyable thriller that serves the genre well. And I have some good news for you! I am going to give my ARC away so a lucky winner can read it for themselves! This giveaway runs through January 14 and is open to U.S. Residents only.

Click Here To Enter The Giveaway!

Rating 7: A suspenseful and engrossing thriller that mostly kept me on my toes, “An Anonymous Girl” was enjoyable, though I wish it hadn’t fallen on some old reliable plot points of the genre.

Reader’s Advisory:

“An Anonymous Girl” is including on the Goodreads lists “Psychological Chillers by Women Authors”, and “Chilling New York Novels”.

Find “An Anonymous Girl” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Bring Me Back”

35857495Book: “Bring Me Back” by B.A. Paris

Publishing Info: St Martin’s Press, June 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I was given a copy by the publisher.

Book Description: Finn and Layla are young, in love, and on vacation. They’re driving along the highway when Finn decides to stop at a service station to use the restroom. He hops out of the car, locks the doors behind him, and goes inside. When he returns Layla is gone—never to be seen again. That is the story Finn told to the police. But it is not the whole story.

Ten years later Finn is engaged to Layla’s sister, Ellen. Their shared grief over what happened to Layla drew them close and now they intend to remain together. Still, there’s something about Ellen that Finn has never fully understood. His heart wants to believe that she is the one for him…even though a sixth sense tells him not to trust her.

Then, not long before he and Ellen are to be married, Finn gets a phone call. Someone from his past has seen Layla—hiding in plain sight. There are other odd occurrences: Long-lost items from Layla’s past that keep turning up around Finn and Ellen’s house. Emails from strangers who seem to know too much. Secret messages, clues, warnings. If Layla is alive—and on Finn’s trail—what does she want? And how much does she know?

A tour de force of psychological suspense, Bring Me Back will have you questioning everything and everyone until its stunning climax.

Review: Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for sending me an ARC of this book!

Every once in awhile my book pile gets out of control. Okay, more than every once in awhile. It’s always teetering on the edge, and it does start to get to be too big. But earlier this year it was SO big that I felt a need to make two separate piles on my nightstand. My husband would taunt me saying that it was too much, TOO MUCH, but I told him that I had a system and that it was fool proof. Unfortunately, the second pile fell a bit to the wayside, as it was filled with non-library books and non- ARCs, which I deemed not as big of a priority… Until I looked at it a few months later and realized that one of the ARCs, “Bring Me Back” by B.A. Paris, had been sitting in that pile the whole time.

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My system! How could my system FAIL me so?! (source)

Kicking myself, I threw it on the regular pile, and when I finally, FINALLY, sat down to read it I promised myself that I would check these two piles a bit more frequently from now on, as I had missed out on a read I had been looking forward to.

And then… THEN. I finished it and wished that I hadn’t let the anticipation build. Because I did not care for “Bring Me Back”. And to fully explain my frustrations with this book, I’m going to give this a big ol’ SPOILER ALERT. If you still want to read this book, by all means have at it, and skip the bulk of this review because you’ll find nothing but sadness here.

For one thing, none of the characters are very likable or sympathetic. We get this book in two narratives: Finn and Layla. Finn is creepy as hell and has moments of toxicity and violence towards women in his life, be it verbal or physical. He is the epitome of ‘broken fellow who is deathly obsessed with one woman’, but unlike in books with similar characters (HELLO, JOE GOLDBERG) there are no interesting or complex or SATIRICAL things about his personality. He’s just a mess. We eventually find out that that Layla didn’t just ‘disappear while he was in the toilet’ while at that roadside stop; she’d confessed that she’d slept with someone else and he DRAGGED HER out of the car in a rage.

Then there’s Layla. Her parts are a little more understandable in their muddledness, given how her character enters into all of this. But my biggest problem with her is that, in SPITE of the fact that Finn is the goddamn worst and that she runs away with him in a fear that he’ll kill her, SHE STILL WANTS HIM BACK. And I kept waiting and waiting for a reveal, or a twist, or something that I had missed. But nope. She just wants him back, and wants Ellen out of the way. I really hated that aspect of this book, and while I know that there are a lot of complicated factors that enter into abusive relationships when it comes to how abusers can control and keep sway over their victims, but this seemed far fetched and really seemed to sweep Finn’s violence under the rug (as Layla repeatedly says that she KNOWS he’d never ACTUALLY hurt her, as if dragging her out of a car in a rage isn’t damaging).

But the biggest frustration for me was the end. The other B.A. Paris book I’ve read is “The Breakdown”, and if you recall I was very ‘meh’ on it until the last third of the book, when it did a surprising and well pulled off twist that pretty much saved the read for me. Going into “Bring Me Back” I hoped that it would get to the point a little faster than “The Breakdown”, but then it did the other extreme and about a fourth of the way in I figured out what one of the big reveals was. It is set up from pretty early on that Finn is an unreliable narrator. He talks about having moments of rage that he can’t control, talks about moments where he’s had minor black outs, and talks about his obsessive love for Layla. So from the get go I was saying ‘Layla is dead, Finn killed her, and now the guilt is resurfacing and he’s made a split personality a la Norman Bates’. I’m not quite right. The end is far more ludicrous. Turn back, y’all, if you really don’t want to know. The whole time, Ellen WAS Layla. Finn had been with Layla thinking that she was Ellen, because she has been wearing concealer, lost some weight, and tinted her eyebrows and changed her hair, along with other minor physical tweaks. Also, she took on all of Ellen’s mannerisms. I just CANNOT suspend my disbelief to this point, guys! Paris tries to make it all work, with other ‘changes’ that Layla made being brought up, and the fact that before Layla had disappeared Finn had never met Ellen (P.S.:Ellen is dead, y’all: their father killed her) so he didn’t have a frame of reference. But it really, really didn’t work for me. On top of all of this, the big reveal happens in the form of a long winded letter, a literal telling as opposed to showing faux pas being laid out on the page.

There were a couple of things that I liked about this book. Mainly a couple of side characters named Ruby and Harry. They are both meant to be red herrings, but I liked Ruby’s kind personality and I liked Harry’s tolerance of other people’s BS. They both seemed like supportive friends at the end of the day. It was also a quick read, and while I was having a hard time with everything, it did keep me going and I didn’t find myself slogging as I went through. It’s fast paced to be sure, and clocking in at less that 300 pages it could be a way to spend an afternoon during this holiday season if you find yourself with time off.

So it’s another book that pulls out Ranganathan’s Law 3.

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“Bring Me Back” wasn’t the book for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the book for you.

Rating 3: With a twist that was easy to guess and an incredibly improbable ending that felt way too far fetched, “Bring Me Back” really didn’t work for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bring Me Back” is included on the Goodreads lists “Matryoshka/Nesting Dolls”, and “OMG Where Did That Come From?!”.

Find “Bring Me Back” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Leave No Trace”

38355245Book: “Leave No Trace” by Mindy Mejia

Publishing Info: Atria/Emily Bestler Books, September 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: A friend lent me a copy!

Book Description: From the author of the “compelling” (Star Tribune, Minneapolis) and critically acclaimed Everything You Want Me to Be, a riveting and suspenseful thriller about the mysterious disappearance of a boy and his stunning return ten years later.

There is a place in Minnesota with hundreds of miles of glacial lakes and untouched forests called the Boundary Waters. Ten years ago a man and his son trekked into this wilderness and never returned.

Search teams found their campsite ravaged by what looked like a bear. They were presumed dead until a decade later…the son appeared. Discovered while ransacking an outfitter store, he was violent and uncommunicative and sent to a psychiatric facility. Maya Stark, the assistant language therapist, is charged with making a connection with their high-profile patient. No matter how she tries, however, he refuses to answer questions about his father or the last ten years of his life.

But Maya, who was abandoned by her own mother, has secrets, too. And as she’s drawn closer to this enigmatic boy who is no longer a boy, she’ll risk everything to reunite him with his father who has disappeared from the known world.

Review: As a Minnesota girl straight down to my bones, I am always a bit tickled to see a book take place in my home state. I think that that was part of the appeal of Mindy Mejia’s “Everything You Want Me To Be”, because along with the stellar mystery and twists and turns it had a familiarity to it that I greatly appreciated. Mejia is also a Minnesota Native, and seeing local authors make good is always gratifying. Her newest book, “Leave No Trace”, is another book set in Minnesota, this time in the northern part of the state as opposed to the farm belt. But it, too, serves us a mystery with lies, deceptions, and people with secrets from their pasts they’d rather keep buried.

The setting itself is one of the most powerful aspects of this book, and I don’t think that I say that solely as a Minnesota girl. Mejia does a great job of conveying the very setting and culture of Northern Minnesota, from the harbor town Duluth, where Lake Superior is an ever intimidating and daunting presence, to Ely, where the wilderness is just on the cusp of a small town, to the Boundary Waters, where the wilderness is vast and isolating. These various settings felt like characters in and of themselves, and I loved the imagery that Mejia put on the page. I lived in Duluth for almost a year, and she really captures that town and what it’s like to be on a Great Lake, especially one as temperamental as Superior. No matter where the characters were, the setting was well described, and the players interacted with their surroundings or made reference to their surroundings in realistic ways. The mystery itself kept me going, as I pretty much sat down one morning and read well into the afternoon until I had turned the last page. It really did suck me in, and there were things that I didn’t see coming and red herrings that had me fooled. Place and plot were, for the most part, strong.

But it was the characters that I had a harder time with, be it in terms of their conception and characterization, or the choices that they made. Maya didn’t work as well for me as a protagonist, as while we got background on her and why she might do the things that she did I found some of her choices (and the consequences of said choices) far fetched. I also didn’t think that we really got enough of her through showing rather than telling, and she made a shift in character once one piece of her backstory was revealed that didn’t feel believable. I also found it very hard to believe that some of her, shall we say, poorer choices didn’t have the consequences that they really should have. I don’t want to spoil anything here just because it is a fun read, but there were a couple of things she does that would have had far greater reaching issues than the ones that panned out. Lucas, too, had some problems, and that was really just that he didn’t really flesh out beyond the two dimensional hermit he was introduced as. I didn’t really believe his character progression with Maya either, and I didn’t buy their instant connection because of parental loss issues. ALSO, the heat between them was SO unethical that I was quite uncomfortable by all of it. He’s a patient who is going through a huge trauma (in this case being separated from his father AND having to acclimate to a new life outside of the Boundary Waters), so for this romance to be presented in a complicated skewing towards positive light was not settling well for me. And finally, the end itself felt a little too neat and tidy, and it went very fast in the wrap up, with a time jump and everything. I wish that things had gone a bit longer, or that we’d been able to see some of the difficult things that got swept away because of the time jump epilogue.

So while “Leave No Trace” didn’t live up to “Everything You Want Me To Be”, the Minnesota origins and settings of Mindy Mejia are still going to pull me back to whatever it is she writes next.

Rating 6: Though it’s fun to see a Minnesota setting was well portrayed, “Leave No Trace” had characters that I didn’t care for and didn’t have as many thrills as I wanted from it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Leave No Trace” isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think that it would fit in on “A Walk in the Woods”, and “Trees, Woods, Forests”.

Find “Leave No Trace” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Jar of Hearts”

36315374Book: “Jar of Hearts” by Jennifer Hillier

Publishing Info: Minotaur Books, June 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: This is the story of three best friends: one who was murdered, one who went to prison, and one who’s been searching for the truth all these years . . .

When she was sixteen years old, Angela Wong—one of the most popular girls in school—disappeared without a trace. Nobody ever suspected that her best friend, Georgina Shaw, now an executive and rising star at her Seattle pharmaceutical company, was involved in any way. Certainly not Kaiser Brody, who was close with both girls back in high school.

But fourteen years later, Angela Wong’s remains are discovered in the woods near Geo’s childhood home. And Kaiser—now a detective with Seattle PD—finally learns the truth: Angela was a victim of Calvin James. The same Calvin James who murdered at least three other women.

To the authorities, Calvin is a serial killer. But to Geo, he’s something else entirely. Back in high school, Calvin was Geo’s first love. Turbulent and often volatile, their relationship bordered on obsession from the moment they met right up until the night Angela was killed.

For fourteen years, Geo knew what happened to Angela and told no one. For fourteen years, she carried the secret of Angela’s death until Geo was arrested and sent to prison.

While everyone thinks they finally know the truth, there are dark secrets buried deep. And what happened that fateful night is more complex and more chilling than anyone really knows. Now the obsessive past catches up with the deadly present when new bodies begin to turn up, killed in the exact same manner as Angela Wong.

How far will someone go to bury her secrets and hide her grief? How long can you get away with a lie? How long can you live with it?

Review: Sometimes I get carried away in my request lists for library books. On my personal Instagram I have repeatedly posted pictures of book piles that are overflowing and busting at the seams, fifteen books high and not showing the books on my kindle OR the pile of ARCs in my home office library. And when this happens, I occasionally have to make sacrifices and send books back into the library pool. I did this with “Jar of Hearts” by Jennifer Hellier, thinking that it was probably going to be a book I liked, but one that could wait, like so many middle of the road thrillers ultimately can. But when I did eventually pick it up again (after sleeping on it AGAIN; I didn’t pick it up until a week before it was due), I was angry with myself for letting it go that first time. Especially since Caroline Kepnes, ONE OF MY FAVORITE AUTHORS, wrote the blurb on the cover, and I didn’t even notice! “Jar of Hearts” is one of the best thrillers I’ve read this year, and one of the reasons for that is that it is so dark in some ways it treads towards horror.

The story is laid out through a few different perspectives. The first is from Geo’s perspective, the woman who went to prison for helping her boyfriend Calvin James cover up the murder of Angela Wong, her best friend. We get to see Geo’s present day timeline, from her arrest to her trial to her stint in prison to her time out of prison, as well as moments from her high school days, when Angela was still alive and Geo was just getting involved with Calvin. Seeing how Geo changes over time because of the various experiences she’s had really gives the reader a feel for the character, and it allows her to become multidimensional in an organic way. To go from awkward and shy high schooler to world weary felon is heartbreaking to see, and you really see how much of a monster Calvin James is while also seeing why Geo would have fallen under his spell. Hillier does a very good job of showing the reader why Geo is the way that she is, and simultaneously doesn’t excuse her mistakes, but helps you understand them, and her. I really liked Geo, and while she had EVERY opportunity to fall into the tried and true ‘hot mess’ stereotype for this kind of thriller, I feel like she never did.

Geo and Angela’s high school friend Kaiser is our second perspective, and his is set firmly in the present. Kaiser was the sweet best friend who held a torch for Geo, who then ended up being the detective who solved the murder and then arrested Geo. While is isn’t as compelling as Geo is, I did like seeing this man with his own haunted past have to come to terms with his feelings for his old friend as he investigates a new spate of crimes that she may have a tie in, be it directly or not. While he DID fall into familiar traps of the genre (the cynical detective who is responsible on the clock but makes reckless decisions in his personal life), I really did like Kaiser and liked following him. He was also our main connection to the mystery at hand, while Geo was the connection to what happened to Angela.

And let’s talk about that mystery. Because “Jar of Hearts” is dark as hell. Kaiser is trying to figure out if Calvin James is back to killing women after years of being off the grid, as bodies start showing up that are similar to Angela’s murder scene. But along with the dead women, there are also dead children. This doesn’t match James’s original M.O., and as Kaiser digs deeper and does more investigating, things do start to fall into place because of the various perspectives we are getting. And not only is it suspenseful, there were moments in this book that I was completely unsettled. Hellier did a great job of slowly giving the reader the clues just when she deemed it necessary, and while I had an inkling as to where some things were going, I never got there too soon before Hellier wanted me to. The content was bleak and very upsetting at times, and while I greatly enjoyed this book, it is not for the faint of heart. It feels like it treads more towards “The Silence of the Lambs” than “The Girl on the Train”. Which is a SUPER positive in my book.

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If only the villain was as polite as Hannibal, though. (source)

But before I wrap things up completely, I do need to give a serious, SERIOUS content warning. This book has multiple depictions of rape in it, and while it doesn’t feel titillating or exploitative in how it’s done or portrayed, it absolutely could be triggering for those who are going into it. So just be aware that it is there.

“Jar of Hearts” is a fantastic thriller and an incredibly impressive debut novel. I truly cannot wait to see what Jennifer Hillier comes out with next. Do not let this one go, thriller fans! Don’t make the same mistake I did!

Rating 9: Suspenseful and disturbing, “Jar of Hearts” was a fantastic thriller that hit every bingo box for my dark thriller needs!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Jar of Hearts” is included on the Goodreads lists “Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance” (I imagine this fits in horror?), and “Best Suspense Novels”.

Find “Jar of Hearts” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Gazelle in the Shadows”

39978906Book: “Gazelle in the Shadows” by Michelle Peach

Publishing Info: Michelle Peach, April 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I was given a copy by Book Publicity Services

Book Description: In the mid 90s, Elizabeth Booth is a young British college student studying Arabic at Durham University. With some travel and work already under her belt, she excels at her studies and is sent to Damascus to immerse herself in the language. Taken aback by the generosity and kindness of the people there, she easy slips into a life in the ancient city. She has friends, her studies, and even a handsome boyfriend. But things aren’t always what they seem. Soon, in a world where mistrust and disloyalty are commonplace, Elizabeth finds herself navigating a web of lies, betrayals, and even murder involving MI6, deadly terrorist factions, and the shadowy Syrian secret police.

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

I have a distinct memory of being a child and my parents watching “The Hunt for Red October” in the family room. While I normally liked to try and watch whatever movie my parents were watching at the time (which led to them chasing me out of the room on more than one occasion), I remember feeling one distinct thing as they watched that movie: “This is boring”. And I can tell you, with a couple exceptions to this rule, in general I am not a huge fan of spy and espionage fiction and non-fiction. But I can be convinced to be a bit more open and to try new things, and that is why I said ‘yes’ to reading and reviewing “Gazelle in the Shadows”. For one, Syria has been at the center of many world conflicts and current events as of late, so I figured that reading up on it, albeit a fictionalized account set a couple decades ago, may do me some good. It definitely helped that the author, Michelle Peach, has experience as a diplomat and writer in this part of the world, as I figured that she knew what she would be talking about. So I dove in, hoping that I’d be able to break my apathy towards novels like this at least a little bit. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work.

But first I want to start with what I did like about “Gazelle in the Shadows”. I found our protagonist, Elizabeth, to be a pretty relatable character throughout the narrative. I completely bought her passion for her studies in Arabic language and cultures, and I totally believed that she would want to pursue furthering her education in Syria in spite of the hesitations that her family had. I also found her character development to be pretty interesting and realistic, and thought that her change from wide eyed student to hardened survivor to be a narrative that was compelling. I also very much enjoyed Peach’s descriptions of various aspects of life in Syria, be it the bustling market squares, or the kind and strong people that Elizabeth met along the way (I particularly liked Fatima, a friend that Elizabeth confided in for a share of the story). I did get the sense that Peach had knowledge about the culture and the time frame that the story was working within, which makes sense given her background.

But there were also things in this story that didn’t quite work for me. First was the writing. At times the dialogue felt a little bit stilted, and while there were absolutely moments where descriptions and imagery flowed and worked, there were other moments that felt choppy. It wasn’t something that completely took me out of the story as I read it, but it did give me moments of pause before moving on. I also had a hard time with some of the characterizations of the non-Western characters within the narrative. Outside of Fatima, the Arab and Syrian characters ended up being either unexplored, or devious and untrustworthy in their intentions. Some ended up being flat out demonized, and while I understand that within the time and location that this story was taking place there certainly would be people who had ban intentions, I wasn’t comfortable with the theme of ‘Western People Saving Other Western People From The Dysfunctional Middle East”. It’s the same hesitations I’ve had with movies like “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” (in spite of enjoying them for the most part), and why I haven’t been able to watch “Homeland”. And at the end of the day, it has the same issue that I had with “Hunt for Red October”: this really isn’t my genre. I think that people who do like espionage thrillers would have more things to like about “Gazelle in the Shadows”, but for someone like me it’s not really my cup of tea.

“Gazelle in the Shadows” had it’s ups and downs for me, but I think that people who like espionage thrillers would find a fair amount to like about it. I would tell people to be mindful about the optics of it, but Elizabeth is an interesting protagonist that may stand out from others in the genre.

Rating 6: While the descriptions were beautiful and the author has clear knowledge on the subject, the writing was a little clunky, espionage stories and I don’t mesh well, and some of the portrayals of the various characters made me uneasy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Gazelle in the Shadows” is not on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in with the “Jack Ryan” books and books by John Le Carre.

“Gazelle in the Shadows” isn’t listed on WorldCat, but HERE is a link to it’s Amazon page.

Bookclub Review: “S.T.A.G.S.”

35248505We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both. 

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “S.T.A.G.S.” by M.A. Bennett

Publishing Info: Penguin Teen, January 2018

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

Genre Mash-Up: “Satire” and “School Story”

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Greer, a scholarship girl at a prestigious private school, St Aidan the Great School (known as STAGS), soon realizes that the school is full of snobs and spoilt rich brats, many of whom come from aristocratic families who have attended the institute throughout the centuries. She’s immediately ignored by her classmates. All the teachers are referred to as Friars (even the female ones), but the real driving force behind the school is a group of prefects known as the Medievals, whose leader, Henry de Warlencourt, Greer finds both strangely intriguing as well as attractive. The Medievals are all good-looking, clever and everyone wants to be among their circle of friends. Greer is therefore surprised when she receives an invitation from Henry to spend a long weekend with him and his friends at his family house in the Lake District, especially when she learns that two other “outsiders” have also been invited: Shafeen and Chanel. As the weekend unfolds, Greer comes to the chilling realization that she and two other “losers” were invited only because they were chosen to become prey in a mad game of manhunt.

Kate’s Thoughts

Yes, I did read and review this back at the beginning of the year. But when my genre mash-up came up in our Book Club drawing, I thought that perhaps “S.T.A.G.S.” should get a revisit through the lens of pure satire as opposed to teenage thriller. I thought that it was really just going to meet the requirements for our book club, but then something  happened that brought it into a new focus: Brett Kavanaugh was nominated and confirmed for the Supreme Court, in spite of the fact that he was accused of attempted rape by a classmate from high school (not to mention a whole slew of other issues), with many people saying that his Yale credentials and good background meant that he couldn’t POSSIBLY be a sexual predator. All of a sudden, a book about privileged wealthy kids at a private school stepping on the less fortunate, all because they CAN, felt incredibly, incredibly relevant, and it caused my opinions of this book to evolve a bit.

So re-reading “S.T.A.G.S.” with these events in mind made it a sobering experience. This time, seeing Greer, Chanel, and Shafeen have to contend with the Medievals and their cat and mouse nonsense made me look a bit deeper into how this could be satirical as opposed to straight up survival YA popcorn. Seeing the action unfold again with a different lens made it a more chilling read, and my eyes were more eager to spot the little moments, be it when Greer is more willing to believe her rich, white counterparts over Shafeen in spite of damning evidence of wrongdoing, or presumptions that both Greer AND Nel have about Shafeen based on his heritage.

As satire I do think that it can be heavy handed at times, but over all I think that it works effectively. High school is always ripe for the picking when it comes to satirical possibilities, though it’s not as often you see it unfold in full on violence, though that’s probably more due to actual violence in schools being far too prevalent as opposed to creators not thinking about it. “S.T.A.G.S.” manages to tread a good line in making the points it wants to make, while still managing to mostly punch up. I enjoyed reading it again with these themes in mind.

Serena’s Thoughts

I was excited to read this book when Kate said it would be our next bookclub pick. While not falling in my typical genre of reads, I had had it on my own personal reading list for a while. I like survival stories in general (though I’m often overtaken with judgement about plausibility and stupid choices, but that’s half the fun!) and I remember one of my favorite projects in highschool English had to do with re-creating scenes and a map (which I hand drew and was very proud of) for “The Most Dangerous Game.” So yes, in many ways this was right up my alley.

As Kate discussed, this also came at a pretty rough period in American politics so many of its themes struck a more somber note than they may have reading outside of the current environment. I liked a lot of the more up-front points being made about uber wealth and privilege as well as some of the more subtle comments that Kate alluded to. I would be curious to see how this story read in Great Britain which has a much longer history and different understanding of the type of class system on display here. American readers simply don’t have this type of background to layer onto our reading of this story and, even while I still was able to appreciate many of its larger point, I feel like some of these shades of criticism and even comprehension were lost on U.S. readers.

I very much liked our main character Greer. There were a few moments here and there  where her plethora of cultural references could have been a bit much, but over all, I was so involved in the story and on-board with her character that I don’t think these distracted overly much. And there were a few key ones that really struck home with how a fan of media (movies, books, etc) would relate a new situation/scene to something they’ve read or seen in a film. And while there were definite moments where I wanted to shake her out of some of her more stupid decisions, overall she read as a very realistic protagonist. For the most part, she is clever and discerning, so her moments of weakness read as very believable. I mean, c’mon, it IS an unbelievable situation! Doubting their suspicions only makes sense.

My one criticism of the book had to do with the violence and introduction of the story. No, it wasn’t too much for a young adult novel. If anything, it felt too PG. I kept waiting for something truly terrible (in a life-ending way) to happen, but instead, all of the action and violence felt a bit toothless. In particular, there is one event that Greer references right in the beginning of the book, so the entire story is building towards it, supposedly. And then we get there and…it is not at all that thing. And even after the event, Greer insists on referring to it as her original concept, and I was just like “but…but…IT’S NOT THAT!” I don’t think this would have annoyed me so much if it hadn’t been for the fact that readers are teased about this event for the entire story. And then when this misdirection is combined with the relatively tame action of the story, it just felt like a bit of a let down.

But overall, I still very much enjoyed this book and it was a nice excuse to venture outside of my typical reading boundaries.

Kate’s Rating 8: “S.T.A.G.S.” held up pretty well the second time through, and reading it this time I was more in tune with the satirical elements about the haves subjugating the have nots, and how systems (as well as the compliance of other have nots) help them escape consequences.

Serena’s Rating 8: A stellar main character makes up for a few weaknesses as far as plotting and action.

Book Club Questions

  1. I picked “S.T.A.G.S.” for this book club choice because my theme was satire meets a school story. Do you think that the satire (of the wealthy privileged literally hunting the less fortunate) is effective?
  2. One of the biggest themes in this book is about privilege, and how those with it exploit and victimize those that don’t. How did Shafeen, Greer, and Nel’s interactions with the medievals and each other come off? So you think that these three had some privileges that others didn’t?
  3. What do you think Bennett was trying to say with Greer’s hesitance to believe that the Medievals were up to no good in spite of the evidence presented to her? Why do you think that she was more susceptible to believe the best of them as opposed to Nel and Shafeen (outside of her crush on Henry, that is)?
  4. Shafeen made up a story about feeding at a tiger’s tit to take the attention off of Nel, but tells Greer that he doesn’t live in a palace but is actually from a bustling city (though he does have royal roots). Why do you think he made up a story like that instead of telling a true story from his youth.
  5. What did you make of the Medievals rejection of technology and their categories of Medieval vs Savage? Do you think that Henry had a point about the ills of the internet?
  6. At the end it is revealed that even though Greer, Shafeen, and Nel have become the new prefects/medievals, the Abbot has been shielding and continuing the violence without their knowledge. What did you think of that revelation?

Reader’s Advisory

“S.T.A.G.S.” is new and not included on any relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Let The (Deadly) Games Begin!”, and  “Boarding Schools, Camps, and Private Academies”.

Find “S.T.A.G.S.” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Dead Zone”

28254557Book: “The Dead Zone” by Stephen King

Publishing Info: Viking Press, 1979

Where Did I Get This Book: An audiobook from the library!

Book Description: When Johnny Smith was six-years-old, head trauma caused by a bad ice-skating accident left him with a nasty bruise on his forehead and, from time to time, those hunches…infrequent but accurate snippets of things to come. But it isn’t until Johnny’s a grown man—now having survived a horrifying auto injury that plunged him into a coma lasting four-and-a-half years—that his special abilities really push to the force. Johnny Smith comes back from the void with an extraordinary gift that becomes his life’s curse…presenting visions of what was and what will be for the innocent and guilty alike. But when he encounters a ruthlessly ambitious and amoral man who promises a terrifying fate for all humanity, Johnny must find a way to prevent a harrowing predestination from becoming reality.

Review: During the Great Stephen King Binge of Eighth Grade, I hit a lot of classic King stories that have endured the test of time. But interestingly enough, one of the titles I skipped during that time was “The Dead Zone”, King’s fifth book (not including a few he wrote under Richard Bachman), and therefore still SUPER early in his writing career. It’s also one of his first books in Castle Rock, now a staple setting for a lot of the King Mythology. Looking back I have no idea why I skipped it; it’s about a man who becomes a psychic after an accident and has to deal with having horrible visions as well as deal with how his new powers affects his relationships. Perhaps at the time it sounded too tame, but now I know that psychics are some of my favorite tropes in dark fantasy/horror/what have you. Suffice to say, I decided to give it a go, and now I am sorta kicking myself for waiting so long to pick it up. Because not only does “The Dead Zone” include one of my favorite tropes of all time, it also has a villain that feels incredibly relevant to today: a malignantly narcissistic politician who garners a fervent following in spite of (because of?) his brash, callous, and cruel nature and false promises.

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That’s a political hellscape that sounds AWFULLY familiar… (source)

John Smith is our protagonist, a humble and serious school teacher who, after a car accident that leaves him in a coma for years, suddenly gains the power to touch someone or something, and get an impression about the past, or the future. King writes John in the way that I think most people would be if they gained this power: unhappy with the burden of it, but also unable to make himself ignore it should the consequences be grave and also potentially malleable. While this is a fairly standard recipe for modern ‘psychic who wants to be normal’ characters, John was probably one of the earlier iterations of the now familiar trope, and I enjoyed watching his character have to grapple with the responsibility. While it may feel a little old hat now, when this book was published in 1980 I wonder if the idea of ‘reluctant psychic’ was as prevalent as it is now. King really emphasizes the pitfalls of this gift, be it because of people who will harangue you as a fraud, or the people who will be desperate for you to give them answers to things that may not have easy, or wanted, solutions. Multiple times John has to weigh the pros and cons of telling people what he has seen, and King makes it clear that the emotional exhaustion and fallout oftentimes takes serious tolls on him. There are multiple moments in the story where I felt so badly for John, because he gains very little from this gift, even when it does positive things. In fact, if he does predict an outcome, usually those he helps are then completely terrified of him because of his supernatural abilities.

But I think that while John is a perfectly fine person to follow, I believe that the greatest strengths in this novel are the supporting cast of characters, in particular John’s old girlfriend Sarah, and the villain of the piece, Greg Stillson. Sarah and John are very tragic in a muted way, as while John survived the crash and eventually did wake up, Sarah, assuming he never would, moved on with her life. She has a husband and a child by the time John wakes up, and while she never stopped loving him she thought that she could never actually be with him. When confronted with the reality of what COULD have been is desperately sad. But at the same time, Sarah isn’t mired down by her sadness. I like that she takes the agency and little control she does have over the situation and is able to find closure in some ways (though admittedly I did roll my eyes a little bit at one aspect…. It felt weird and schmaltzy, but no spoilers here). She is a very steadfast character who feels deeper than just the old girlfriend who has lingering regrets. However, the strongest supporting character is assuredly Greg Stillson, the aforementioned politician whose power comes from a slowly growing cult of personality. Stillson and John spend much of the novel separate, but while we see John’s eventual rise as a reluctant psychic, we see Stillson’s rise in the political world (gains made mostly through violence, extortion, and intimidation). While I was at first wondering just where Stillson was going to come into all of this (as I went into this book with very little knowledge about it), King does a great job of carefully and slowly bringing them together at the most critical time in the novel. By the time John and Stillson do meet on the page, you have been given enough info about both of them that you know it’s the meeting of two powerhouses in their varying ways. Stillson scares the hell out of me, if only because Stillson feels like our reality…. Except there was no reluctant psychic to step in and stop his mad reign.

I listened to this on audio, and oddly enough it was read by James Franco. My guess is this was recorded around the time he was starring in “11/22/63” and the tie in was too good to pass up, but while it was odd to hear him at first he did a pretty okay job with the material. He varied his voices appropriately and emoted enough without feeling over the top. He’s no Will Patton, but I was overall satisfied with how he did (though, hilariously, one of the characters calls for a Polish accent, and so I just kept imagining Franco as Tommy Wiseau in “The Disaster Artist” whenever the Polish Neurologist was around).

“The Dead Zone” was a dark and unsettling novel, but it is SO classic King that my nostalgia meter was off the charts. While it felt a little too real at times, I greatly, greatly enjoyed finally reading it.

Rating 8: A classic King book with a newly relevant feel, “The Dead Zone” is an unsettling read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dead Zone” is included on the Goodreads lists “Theological Weird Fiction”, and “Conspiracy Fiction”.

Find “The Dead Zone” at your library using WorldCat!