Posted in Books you might have missed, Can't-miss Reads

There’s Someone Inside Your House, by Stephanie Perkins

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆   (9/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: There’s Someone Inside Your House was written by YA author Stephanie Perkins, and can best be classified as a YA horror/thriller with romance. It was released by SPEAK, a division of PenguinTeen books, in 2017 and reprinted in 2018. A review from Mashable calls it “the best new horror of the season,” while Seventeen magazine wrote, “Turn on ALL the lights before reading this hair-raiser full of serious Scream vibes.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Makani Young has been living with her grandmother in Nebraska for a year now, stuck in the midst of cornfields and high school football rivalries. However, she’s still learning to adjust to life in the states and away from her native home in Hawaii; the weather, the clothes, the vibes – everything is different. But she left for a reason, she reminds herself – one that she doesn’t care to revisit anytime soon.

Makani has become close friends with Alex – who wears torn fishnet tights, combat boots, and loads of black eyeliner – and Darby, Alex’s best friend who has recently transitioned from “Justine” and is still working on his own acceptance at the rural high school they attend. She’s also working through her disappointment after a summer fling with Ollie, a skinny, pink-haired misfit who works at the local grocery; he never called after their last hookup, and she’s pissed…but not too pissed to stand up for him after an encounter with the aggressive jocks at school, brokering a newfound peace.

It ticked all my guilty-pleasure boxes: a depraved serial killer, an unpredictable motive, a smart and feisty protagonist with her own secrets, a mysterious and alluring love interest, and the occasional POV chapters told by the victims in their last moments.”

Any semblance of calm Makani has found in her new town is shattered when first one student, then another, is found brutally murdered – and the police, including Ollie’s older brother, have no clue who the murderer is. Worse yet, strange things have been happening in her grandmother’s house…cabinets are left open, and items are moved around the house. Both she and her grandmother blame each other, but…could it be something more sinister? 

Makani and her friends – including Ollie – must band together to figure out who is behind the slayings, which are starting to intensify in both method and recurrence. But, just as importantly, who will be the next victim? And can they find the answers before anyone finds out about Makani’s own dark past?

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first novel by Perkins, and I immediately went online after finishing it and looked for more books by her…but, to my great sadness, it appears everything else she’s written thus far qualifies strictly as teen romance. (Which is great for people who love those books – just not my usual genre.)

I consider this lack of thrillers for me to catch up on a travesty, because I found this book incredibly entertaining and suspenseful. It ticked all my guilty-pleasure boxes: a depraved serial killer, an unpredictable motive, a smart and feisty protagonist with her own secrets, a mysterious and alluring love interest, and the occasional POV chapters told by the victims in their last moments. I have to agree with Seventeen magazine that this book was perfect for fans of the Scream movie series (or maybe just the first and fourth movies…?), and for anyone who loves a good slasher-movie turned literary venture.

Makani is a relatable teenage heroine – quick-witted, secretive, loyal to her friends, and begrudgingly besotted with Ollie and his own secrets. (In short, a much more likable character than Neve Campbell’s whiny and occasionally-clueless Sydney Prescott.) Makani deals with the typical teenage dramas: falling hard for a mysterious and quiet boy, guiltily lying to her grandmother, and staying up all night to talk on the phone with her crush. However, she also has heavier baggage to carry, including an emotionally distant and troubled relationship with her self-centered parents, and a new last name courtesy of her own previous misdeeds in Hawaii. This gives her a gravitas that helps her fight her way through the darkness that descends on the town as the slayings continue, and find the drive to figure out the truth behind what’s happening.

I have to agree with Seventeen magazine that this book was perfect for fans of the Scream movie series (or maybe just the first and fourth movies…?), and for anyone who loves a good slasher-movie turned literary venture.”

Perkins writes a refreshingly diverse group of misfits in this novel, with a biracial, island-loving Makani, a transgender Hufflepuff-ish Darby, a goth-y and sarcastic Alex, and a mysteriously quiet and orphaned Ollie. She also includes goosebump-inducing chapters narrating the final moments of each clueless murder victim, which really invokes a sense of fear and dread in the reader. I found that to be an extra-inventive touch, and one I’d love to see in future horror novels. And while I wouldn’t classify this as a classic whodunit, I would like to point out that the ending is pretty brutal – and the violence is graphic and gruesome, but not in a twisted or over-the-top way for horror/thriller fans. 

I was pretty amused by the Amazon reviews that refer to this book as “just a romance,” or “really more a romance than a thriller.” I wholeheartedly disagree; there was more foreboding, more disquiet, and more actual murder than there ever were mentions of kissing or *gasp* dating. And anyway – can’t the two genres meet? I mean, Heather Graham has made a killing as a paranormal romance author, and her books are almost completely centered on the romance, with murders almost as an afterthought. I found this book to be a lovely and frightening mystery starring a couple of misfits who just happen to find understanding, and occasional moments of peace and calm, in each other’s arms…which, to me, is a perfect story. Especially when a ruthless killer is hunting them down. (What can I say? We like what we like.)

Posted in Books you might have missed, Recent Releases

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, by Holly Jackson

Release date: February 4, 2020 (illustrated edition)

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆  (8/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder was written by Holly Jackson and published by Delacorte Press in February 2020. This is actually going to be the first book in a series; the second novel, Good Girl, Bad Blood, will be released in February 2021. The tagline reads, “For readers of Kara Thomas and Karen McManus, an addictive, twisty crime thriller with shades of Serial and Making a Murderer about a closed local murder case that doesn’t add up, and a girl who’s determined to find the real killer–but not everyone wants her meddling in the past.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Pippa Fitz-Amobi – known as Pip – has a very well-adjusted life in a Connecticut small town. She lives with her mother in a blended and incredibly close biracial family, and she has two best friends she’s known forever. So why is she so obsessed with the idea of solving a local murder mystery that everyone has already considered solved for five years now?

After all, the town’s residents know what happened – or, so they think. Andie Bell was a gorgeous, blonde, popular senior who went missing on a Friday night and was presumably murdered by her boyfriend, Sal Singh. Sal supposedly confessed in a text to his father, killed himself in the woods without disclosing Andie’s location, and left his family ostracized by a town who viewed them as evil and part of the “other.” 

Pip is a great protagonist; she’s persistent, she’s ballsy, and she’s incredibly intelligent, yet she’s also vulnerable and flawed, which made for an entertaining read.”

Pip – who once considered Sal a hero for his never-ending niceness, and how he helped her deal with a bully – is not convinced that this is what actually happened. She decides to focus her senior thesis on how the media handled Andie’s disappearance and jumped to naming Sal the murderer (no “allegedly”)…but she immediately breaks the rules of her project by contacting Sal’s surviving family and involving his older brother, Ravi.

Together, the two of them begin their own dangerous and thorough investigation into what actually happened that night in 2014 – and as they uncover previously unknown details, and begin to piece together the truth, Pip realizes they’re surrounded by suspects. Clandestine meetings, threatening notes, blackmail, and deadly confrontations all lead up to an explosive ending that shocks even Pip herself.

MY THOUGHTS: This is Jackson’s first novel, although the second book in this series will be coming out in a few short months. I really enjoyed this book and read it in one day; it’s 387 pages, but it’s well-spaced and does include illustrations, maps, etc., which I always appreciate. I felt it was fairly easy to see that there would likely be sequels to this novel; the story of Andie Bell was tied up neatly, but there were other mysteries involving town residents that weren’t wrapped up by the end of Andie and Sal’s story.

This story was told in chapters that gave us real-time looks into Pip’s actions and conversations, interspersed with her project diary and transcripts of interviews she conducted. For someone with ADHD (okay, I’m just talking about me here), who really enjoys something slightly different every few pages, this was great. It also really helps the reader feel as if they are involved in the investigation themselves and taking part, and are thus more invested in the outcome of the mystery.

After all, the town’s residents know what happened – or, so they think. Andie Bell was a gorgeous, blonde, popular senior who went missing on a Friday night and was presumably murdered by her boyfriend, Sal Singh.”

In regards to whodunit, this novel follows a trend I’ve noticed A LOT in the mystery genre in the recent 1-2 years. It’s not a clear-cut answer, and there’s more than one twist and turn as things come to a head. This IS very much a young-adult mystery novel, so I feel safe saying it’s not a shock that a couple of the clues I picked up on super-early did indeed pan out in the end…but the meaning they had, while huge, was not the final reveal. (What a mysterious review to a mystery within a mystery.)

Pip is a great protagonist; she’s persistent, she’s ballsy, and she’s incredibly intelligent, yet she’s also vulnerable and flawed, which made for an entertaining read. I also really enjoyed her growing relationship with Ravi and their banter and bonding, which gave a lighter note to the darkest times. I will definitely be picking up the future novels in this series, and recommending them to my own daughter once she’s old enough to read them.

Posted in Books you might have missed, Can't-miss Reads, Upcoming Releases

When No One is Watching, by Alyssa Cole

Release date: September 1, 2020

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★   (10/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: When No One is Watching is a contemporary fiction/thriller novel written by Alyssa Cole and set for publication September 1, 2020. This novel is being published by HarperCollins Publishers by their William Morrow Paperbacks division. Cole has won multiple awards and accolades for her works, including historical, contemporary, and sci-fi romance novels. The tagline for this novel reads, “Rear Window meets Get Out in this gripping thriller from a critically acclaimed and New York Times Notable author, in which the gentrification of a Brooklyn neighborhood takes on a sinister new meaning…”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Sydney Green has returned home to the Brooklyn neighborhood she’s spent her entire life in, save those few years she doesn’t want to think about in Seattle. She’s left her ex-husband there, with his controlling ways and abusive tendencies, and she’s settled into her new role as caretaker for her ailing mother. She’s even started a new project of her own: a “real” history tour, one focusing on the contributions of people of color in her historically black neighborhood, in response to the white-washed tour of homes she recently took. 

But time passes, and her mother declines, and Sydney finds herself aimlessly wandering through the area she’s known so well for years. Her neighbors’ names, their children, their habits, their jobs – these are all things that have imprinted on her very being, and made her an integral part of the Gifford Place family. But an ominous pall has settled over the street, and things are changing rapidly and alarmingly. Neighbors aren’t just selling their homes; they’re vanishing completely, and without telling anyone where they’re going. Entire storefronts disappear overnight, to be replaced with generic cafes and organic sandwich shops. New, lighter-skinned residents are incredibly quick to pick a fight with their older neighbors and call the authorities – men in uniform who never seem to pick the side of the “angry” black residents who are being targeted.

Cole has been receiving industry buzz for this novel in recent weeks, including a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly – and let me just say that I, like these reviewers, was absolutely blown away by this novel.”

Sydney knows the often-buried history of her neighborhood, and New York and America writ large; she’s no stranger to the cultural death toll that gentrification takes, or how it remakes entire neighborhoods and wipes out generations of minorities in the blink of an eye. But her gut is telling her that all of these mysterious happenings, and the sudden presence of threatening individuals and police patrols, are no coincidence, and that something more sinister is actually happening.

Together with Theo – her new white neighbor from across the street, who has his own dark secrets to contend with – she digs into the truth behind the new pharmaceutical company that’s moving into the neighborhood and causing these sweeping changes. Can she trust Theo with her own terrible truth, and if so, can they work together to find out the truth behind the implosion of Gifford Place? And even if they find the answers they’re looking for…can they stop it?

MY THOUGHTS: Cole has been receiving industry buzz for this novel in recent weeks, including a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly – and let me just say that I, like these reviewers, was absolutely blown away by this novel. Her previous works in the sci-fi romance and historical genres have passed me by, but I for one am so grateful this book found its way into my hands this year.

I finished this book in less than 24 hours – in fact, it’s safe to say I actually DEVOURED it. (With two young attention-seeking kids, and multiple loads of laundry and dishes to do for the upcoming school week, natch.) The story flips back and forth between the perspectives of Sydney – the protagonist who’s watching the Brooklyn neighborhood of her youth fall prey to a greedy and malevolent gentrification – and Theo, her new (white) neighbor across the street with secrets of his own. It’s gritty, it’s realistic, and it’s enthralling.

Cole skillfully – and seemingly effortlessly – weaves together threads of contemporary fiction, the darkest parts of American history, and the creeping dread that something terrible is happening and cannot be stopped. And if you are an empath, or if books actually physically affect you – by leaving you feeling overwhelmed, claustrophobic, or irritated when the characters are in seemingly no-win situations – then you will FEEL that dread. You will feel it in your bones, and you might want to stop turning the pages…but you can’t.

Cole knows that this level of unease and discomfort is necessary to accurately portray what Sydney is going through. The atrocities perpetuated throughout history – our own American history, on our own land, by people we’ve deemed heroes instead of monsters – SHOULD indeed make us feel uncomfortable. And in achingly realistic scenes that mirror headlines today, we see militaristic policemen arresting young black men with no reason, and patrolling a peaceful neighborhood multiple times a day to maintain a semblance of power. There’s also a rage-inducing scene depicting a belligerent, rich white man taking over a piece of land with both a fake deed and the full support of the corrupt local police department. The officers threaten the “angry black” person – who actually has true legal ownership of the land – with arrest for refusing to leave. “The police came for [him]. The knowledge that it can happen just like that, that they can show up and ruin your life, feels like an itch in the middle of my back that I can’t reach,” Sydney bemoans.

Cole skillfully – and seemingly effortlessly – weaves together threads of contemporary fiction, the darkest parts of American history, and the creeping dread that something terrible is happening and cannot be stopped.”

Cole wants us to know that just turning a blind eye to entire infrastructures and systems that perpetuate this racism is not acceptable, and it’s costing people everything even now, in 2020 – their homes, their hopes and dreams, even their lives. If it’s shocking to read some of the historical facts presented in this novel – including detailed and historically accurate information about how we turned the loss of slavery into a successful ongoing system of oppression and voter suppression – I think we really need to sit with it and ask ourselves why. (The same with the incredibly tense ending to this novel, and the depictions throughout the book of violence, murder, and bloodshed.) We’re meant to ask ourselves why we’ve been trained to see these things as okay in certain situations, but not in others.

And Cole does all of this with a literary magnificence and such beautiful prose that I really hesitate to label this book as a “thriller,” considering what usually passes in that genre. As Sydney’s neighborhood becomes more and more alien to her, she stares out at the bleak beacons of change, complete with cranes that have “the American flags attached to them flapping darkly in the wind, signaling that they came in peace when really they were here to destroy. To remake. … The landscape of my life is unrecognizable.” You can’t miss this metaphor.

Sydney learns, as we do while reading the book, that this travesty is nothing new. “People bury the parts of history they don’t like, pave it over like African cemeteries beneath Manhattan skyscrapers. Nothing stays buried in this city, though,” she muses. (Even – horrifyingly – the once-successful slavery theme park, “Black America.”) However, by the end – which is explosive, shocking, and yet satisfying after such a heavy journey – she learns that the power always belongs to those who band together to right the wrongs: “Bad things happen in this world, every minute of every day. We try to stop them, when we can, how we can. We try to look out for one another.”

Posted in Books you might have missed, Recent Releases

They Did Bad Things, by Lauren A. Forry

Release date: June 2, 2020

 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆  (8/10)

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: They Did Bad Things is a mystery/thriller that was written by Lauren Forry and published by Arcade CrimeWise on June 2nd, 2020. (The release I’m reviewing is the market first edition, but was bound together specifically for the Nowhere Bookshop for release a few weeks early.) Forry won prizes for her debut novel, Abigale Hall, which was also an atmospheric and gothic tale; she teaches English at Harcum College and “never murdered anyone in college,” according to her book biography (a funny shout-out to this book). The tagline for this novel reads, “And Then There Were None meets The Last Time I Lied in this dark and twisty psychological thriller.”

PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: In 1995, on the outskirts of London, six college students who’d never met before move into a rundown, decrepit old house at 215 Caldwell Street. The school year looms ahead, bright with promise yet intimidating, and – like most college students – they’re ready to spend the next year balancing a healthy schedule of studying and partying. There’s three women – a daddy’s girl, a studious feminist, and an insecure romantic – and three men: one gregarious and obsessed with parties, one a shy but overly thoughtful poet, and one a reserved and observant detective-in-the-making.

But when you combine six very different personalities under one roof, and throw in a healthy dose of deception and desire, you have a powder keg waiting to combust. When the year is over, only five of them will emerge from the house…and they will have a deep, dark secret that only they will share, about what truly happened on the night their sixth roommate died.

I enjoyed this atmospheric and creepy thriller, and after I was about a third of the way through, I couldn’t put it down.”

Twenty years later, the five survivors are all lured by various irresistible invitations – tailored to their own specific personalities and deepest desires – to the old and dusty Wolfheather House. This mansion is located on a secluded island in Scotland, and is similar to the house they left behind on Caldwell Street all those years ago in its crumbling structure and ongoing renovations. Each roommate is shocked to see the others, and even more surprised when notes and “gifts” start arriving…with twisted nods to what happened to their long-dead roommate.

Soon, there will be a violent, bloody murder…and then another…and the survivors will have to work together to figure out the truth about what is happening now. Can they right their wrongs from 20 years earlier, and band together to beat the person determined to punish them for their terrible silence? Or will they all pay the ultimate price for the part they played in their roommate’s death?

MY THOUGHTS: This was my first novel by Forry, but I’m definitely interested in reading Abigale Hall now; gothic thrillers are a particular favorite of mine. The events of They Did Bad Things take place in two parallel timelines: in 1995, when six new college roommates move into a decrepit house on Caldwell Street, and in the present time, when they’re mysteriously and unexpectedly reunited at an isolated and creepy Inn on the Scottish Isle of Doon.

One of the blurbs on the front of the novel reads, in part, “As ingenious as Knives Out, as twisted as Gone Girl” – and I would somewhat agree with this assessment. As a veteran thriller reader, I wouldn’t compare it to Gone Girl, because we generally always expect a good twist or two in 2020. The genre is pretty much completely dependent on it in this day and age, so it’s hard to say a novel has an ending (or a middle, a la Gone Girl?) that’s as shocking as what Gillian Flynn wrote. Forris does have a couple of twists in store for us – one of which I predicted about 33% of the way through (of course), and which became more obvious with all of the little clues that are thrown in here and there if you pay close attention. The other twist, however, I think would be very hard to see coming. (Feel free to prove me wrong!)

I would personally compare the plot of the novel to Agathe Christie (especially And Then There Were None, in agreement with the publisher’s tagline), or to a Hitchcock movie. (Hitchcock is actually referenced in this novel more than once.) This is a favorite theme/trope for many mystery novels: you start with a certain number of people who either share a terrible secret, or who all have terrible things to hide. Next you put them in a location that’s inherently creepy in its isolation and its unfamiliarity to the characters – in this case, in a reunion they’re not expecting. Add in a doomsday clock, ticking downward as each of them meets a mysterious but fatal fate, and a healthy dose of “whodunit,” and you have yourself a vintage-feeling mystery.

And to be fair, there are truly two mysteries to solve here: who was actually responsible for Callum’s death in 1995 (not a spoiler), and who’s committing the murders 20 years later. We know that none of the residents told the police the truth: that Callum’s death was a murder, and not an accident. But what we DON’T know is who delivered the fatal blow – or why. The notes they receive at Wolfheather House say the reason they’ve all been brought back together is to flush out the original killer, and make him or her confess…but is it? Or is the person who drew blood in 1995 back to destroy the only other people who know what happened?

The book goes back and forth between a partial diary of the person committing the murders, and the “real-time” events occuring in the mansion. The diary was left as a confession to the police, detailing the history of the roommates’ time in the mansion; it chronicles their year at the house, from move-in day to the day they got away with murder. As I read it, I was puzzled as to how the present-day murderer would be able to detail each roommate’s thoughts and private movements throughout their time in the house on Caldwell, 20 years later. Forry provides an explanation as to how the writer pieced together all of the information at the end of the book; there were years of covert research and interviews, and the writer states that the others’ thoughts and motives might not be 100% correct all of the time – but he/she insists that the facts are dead right. I can accept this explanation, and I understand that it was done to give us a good idea of why each person acted the way they did and what their motives were…but as a stickler for detail, it does bother me slightly, since each entry is written from that specific roommate’s point of view.

Overall, I enjoyed this atmospheric and creepy thriller, and after I was about a third of the way through, I couldn’t put it down. I am a sucker for a classic “one-by-one” secluded murder-mansion mystery in all its forms, and even though I partially knew who was behind the present day events, it was gratifying to see an ending that I didn’t see coming.