Book Reviews

Book Review: Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson

Book Review: Before She Knew Him by Peter SwansonBefore She Knew Him by Peter Swanson
Published on March 5, 2019
Genres: Mystery, Fiction, Thriller
Links: Buy on Amazon | Goodreads
Pages: 309
Format: Hardcover

Source: Book of the Month

Catching a killer is dangerous—especially if he lives next door

Hen and her husband Lloyd have settled into a quiet life in a new house outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Hen (short for Henrietta) is an illustrator and works out of a studio nearby, and has found the right meds to control her bipolar disorder. Finally, she’s found some stability and peace.

But when they meet the neighbors next door, that calm begins to erode as she spots a familiar object displayed on the husband’s office shelf. The sports trophy looks exactly like one that went missing from the home of a young man who was killed two years ago. Hen knows because she’s long had a fascination with this unsolved murder—an obsession she doesn’t talk about anymore, but can’t fully shake either.

Could her neighbor, Matthew, be a killer? Or is this the beginning of another psychotic episode like the one she suffered back in college, when she became so consumed with proving a fellow student guilty that she ended up hurting a classmate?

The more Hen observes Matthew, the more she suspects he’s planning something truly terrifying. Yet no one will believe her. Then one night, when she comes face to face with Matthew in a dark parking lot, she realizes that he knows she’s been watching him, that she’s really on to him. And that this is the beginning of a horrifying nightmare she may not live to escape.

Henrietta Mazur is an artist most commonly known for drawing disturbing paintings and etchings. She now works as a successful children’s book illustrator. Recently, she and her husband, Lloyd, relocated to a new neighborhood for a fresh start. Who knew that Hen’s dark tendencies would lead her straight into the mouth of a serial killer?

Do you know that saying about “never really knowing your neighbors”? It doesn’t quite apply here in Swanson’s methodical novel Before She Knew Him. The thing is, Hen’s entire problem is that she does know her neighbor is. She figures it out before anyone else can.

What do you do when you learn the man living no more than yards away from you is a murderer? That is the basis of this novel, and boy did I enjoy going on the journey for the answer to that question.

I have never read Swanson’s work before, but he has a new fan in me now. I sometimes shy away from reading novels written by men in this genre, particularly when they have female protagonists, but I was pleasantly surprised by Hen’s character. She doesn’t fit into the typical hard-drinking, edgy, women we’ve come to expect from psychological thrillers. She felt fully-realized and developed, as did all the other characters.

Yes, I did figure out the direction this book was going pretty early on, but I attribute that as a credit to the author. I will always choose to unfold a story where the twists and turns genuinely make sense over one where the sole purpose is to shock me. I don’t mind when I figure it out before the end if it is well-executed and this story is.

Authors who are adept at foreshadowing know how to render a palpable twist that will still engage you even if you do manage to solve it ahead of time.

I snagged this book a couple of months back when it became available from BoTM, and I’m delighted I did. I only regret taking so long to read it!

Book Reviews

Book Review: Carmilla by Kim Turrisi

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Carmilla by Kim TurrisiCarmilla by Kim Turrisi, Shaftesbury Sales Company
Published on May 7, 2019
Genres: Fiction, LGBTQ+, Young Adult, Fantasy
Links: Buy on Amazon | Goodreads
Pages: 224
Format: ARC

Source: NetGalley

An adaptation of Shaftesbury's award-winning, groundbreaking queer vampire web series of the same name, Carmilla mixes the camp of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the snark of Veronica Mars, and the mysterious atmosphere of Welcome to Nightvale. Newly escaped from the stifling boredom of a small town, college freshman Laura is ready to make the most of her first year at Silas University. But when her roommate, Betty, vanishes and a sarcastic, nocturnal philosophy student named Carmilla moves into Betty's side of the room, Laura decides to play detective. Turns out Betty isn't the first girl to go missing? She's just the first girl not to come back.

All over campus, girls have been vanishing, and they are completely changed when (or if) they return. Even more disturbing are the strange dreams they recount: smothering darkness, and a strange pale figure haunting their rooms. Dreams that Laura is starting to have herself. As Laura closes in on the answers, tensions rise with Carmilla. Is this just a roommate relationship that isn't working out, or does Carmilla know more than she's letting on about the disappearances? What will Laura do if it turns out her roommate isn't just selfish and insensitive, but completely inhuman? And what will she do with the feelings she's starting to have for Carmilla?

I have heard quite a bit about Carmilla over the years. I’ve yet to get around to watching the web series, and I don’t know much about the history behind Carmilla, I was primarily interested in this book because of the romantic relationship between two women. I thought if I got into the book, I could check out the web series after (I tend to read before I watch).

But unfortunately, I didn’t make it far into this book before deciding it wasn’t for me. The writing style is far too condensed, and the author tends to tell rather than show. I didn’t feel a distinctive voice for any character, and therefore it failed to grip me.

Book Reviews

Book Review: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuistonRed, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
Published on May 14, 2019
Genres: Fiction, LGBTQ+, Contemporary, Romance
Links: Buy on Amazon | Goodreads
Pages: 425
Format: ARC

Source: NetGalley

A big-hearted romantic comedy in which the First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales after an incident of international proportions forces them to pretend to be best friends...

First Son Alex Claremont-Diaz is the closest thing to a prince this side of the Atlantic. With his intrepid sister and the Veep’s genius granddaughter, they’re the White House Trio, a beautiful millennial marketing strategy for his mother, President Ellen Claremont. International socialite duties do have downsides—namely, when photos of a confrontation with his longtime nemesis Prince Henry at a royal wedding leak to the tabloids and threaten American/British relations.

The plan for damage control: staging a fake friendship between the First Son and the Prince. Alex is busy enough handling his mother’s bloodthirsty opponents and his own political ambitions without an uptight royal slowing him down. But beneath Henry’s Prince Charming veneer, there’s a soft-hearted eccentric with a dry sense of humor and more than one ghost haunting him.

As President Claremont kicks off her reelection bid, Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret relationship with Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations. And Henry throws everything into question for Alex, an impulsive, charming guy who thought he knew everything: What is worth the sacrifice? How do you do all the good you can do? And, most importantly, how will history remember you?

In our current harrowing political climate, a book like Red, White & Royal Blue is an exhilarating breath of fresh air. The romance between Alex and Henry is founded in a strong foundation of snark, charm, and sheer chemistry. Casey McQuiston is a real talent.

Initially, I didn’t think I would enjoy this book as I’m not always a fan of romantic stories but it’s impossible to not find yourself immersed in the world. The characters are richly defined and the romance is sexy yet full of adoration. It is incredibly well-developed and I loved being privy to watching this story unfold.

Book Reviews

Book Review: The Night Before by Wendy Walker

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: The Night Before by Wendy WalkerThe Night Before by Wendy Walker
Published on May 14, 2019
Genres: Fiction, Thriller, Mystery
Links: Buy on Amazon | Goodreads
Pages: 338
Format: ARC

Source: NetGalley

Laura Lochner has never been lucky in love. She falls too hard and too fast, always choosing the wrong men. Devastated by the end of her last relationship, she fled her Wall Street job and New York City apartment for her sister’s home in the Connecticut suburb where they both grew up. Though still haunted by the tragedy that’s defined her entire life, Laura is determined to take one more chance on love with a man she’s met on an Internet dating site.

Rosie Ferro has spent most of her life worrying about her troubled sister. Fearless but fragile, Laura has always walked an emotional tightrope, and Rosie has always been there to catch her. Laura’s return, under mysterious circumstances, has cast a shadow over Rosie’s peaceful life with her husband and young son – a shadow that grows darker as Laura leaves the house for her blind date.

When Laura does not return home the following morning, Rosie fears the worst. She’s not responding to calls or texts, and she’s left no information about the man she planned to meet. As Rosie begins a desperate search to find her sister, she is not just worried about what this man might have done to Laura. She’s worried about what Laura may have done to him

I was thoroughly captivated by The Night Before. It is the first thriller I’ve read in a while where I wasn’t able to predict where the story was going. I had several predictions in my head of where the story would go, but the ending surprised me. Walker is adept at building tension and suspense into her storytelling. You can tell she is a natural at it. I haven’t read her other novels before this one but I definitely will now! I appreciated the varying point-of-views in this book.

Alternating between Laura’s perspective and Rosie’s perspective allowed for the tension to build and build until the explosive ending although I did find the climax got a bit confusing with the constant back-and-forth. Streamlining the action into a single perspective would have made it more powerful.

Overall, The Night Before is a psychological thriller at its very best. There are so many clues and red herrings, not to mention an extremely complicated, layered and nuanced female protagonist. Laura is a meaty character; one of those you want to dig into and figure out how her mind works. The prose surrounding her inner monologues were pure poetry.

I felt like this was an easy read, but not oversimplified. It was an easy read because it was so captivating and I devoured the entire thing in one sitting. Each chapter ending forces you to turn the next page to keep the momentum moving forward.

Book Reviews

Book Review: Fruit of the Gods by William C. Tracey

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Fruit of the Gods by William C. TraceyFruit of the Gods by William C. Tracey
Genres: Fantasy, LGBTQ+, Fiction
Links: Buy on Amazon | Goodreads
Format: ARC

Source: NetGalley

Sisters Kisare and Belili uproot an ancient box in their owner’s orchard and find a miracle inside: a fifth godfruit in a society that knows only four. It is punishable by death to eat godfruit, so the sisters hide the discovery and plot to escape servitude for good. With the power represented in the box, they could live as nobles themselves.

But Kisare finds her new freedom more difficult than she imagined, and Belili has many secrets she strives to keep hidden. With the help of a people slowly losing their culture and technology to the powerful nobles, the sisters lead an infiltration of the highest levels of noble society.

While Kisare finds she cares for the captured leader of the people helping them, Belili comes to love her noble suitor’s guard—a fierce woman with a similar past to her own. In the end, the fifth godfruit may bring harmony to the world, but the sisters’ only hope of succeeding lies in deciphering ancient mythologies surrounding the gods’ original plan for their people.

Fruit of the Gods is a unique fantasy novel with a surprisingly complex system of magic. It navigates the tropes of the genre with relative ease, delivering a story that bypasses overly predictable beats. For the most part, I was immersed in Kisare and Bel’s world, enriched by the imaginative culture the author created and surprisingly delighted by the fact one of the main characters was gay.

But still, I felt some parts of the book were too dense and it slowed the pacing down to a slog at times. The characters too, were not always as fleshed out as they needed to be. The alternating perspectives between the sisters also made the book far more confusing than it should have been. I wish the chapters were marked with the name of whichever sister would be narrating each passage instead of it randomly switching back and forth.

Still, I appreciate the novel’s ingenuity and I enjoyed myself reading it.

Book Reviews

Book Review: Beautiful Bad by Annie Ward

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Beautiful Bad by Annie WardBeautiful Bad by Annie Ward
Published on March 19, 2019
Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Thriller
Links: Buy on Amazon | Goodreads
Pages: 384
Format: ARC

Source: NetGalley

Maddie and Ian's romance began with a chance encounter at a party overseas; he was serving in the British army and she was a travel writer visiting her best friend, Jo. Now almost two decades later, married with a beautiful son, Charlie, they are living the perfect suburban life in Middle America. But when a camping accident leaves Maddie badly scarred, she begins attending writing therapy, where she gradually reveals her fears about Ian's PTSD; her concerns for the safety of their young son, Charlie; and the couple's tangled and tumultuous past with Jo.

From the Balkans to England, Iraq to Manhattan, and finally to an ordinary family home in Kansas, sixteen years of love and fear, adventure and suspicion culminate in The Day of the Killing, when a frantic 911 call summons the police to the scene of a shocking crime.

Beautiful Bad had all the makings of the tense domestic thrillers I typically love. I’m fond of the alternating timelines and Annie Ward is a beautiful writer.

I was captivated from the early pages but then the novel and the plot lost me as it descended into a war-torn story spanning across a decade between a pairing that never had any good reason to be so in love with one another. I mean why was Ian so infatuated by Maddie?

I understand the idea of “love at first sight” but we were given so little to go off of. I was so confused by several parts of the novel that depended me to believe on the emotional connection between the two because their relationship always seemed shallow at best.

Then the story simply dragged on for hundreds of pages without adding to the actual mystery. Large swathes of the writing and scenes could have been trimmed down or cut out altogether in favor of scenes that would have built on the relationship in a more realistic way.

Needless to say, I got bored and Beautiful Bad ultimately failed to leave an impression.

Book Reviews

Book Review: Little Darlings by Melanie Golding

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Little Darlings by Melanie GoldingLittle Darlings by Melanie Golding
Genres: Thriller, Fiction, Horror, Mystery
Links: Buy on Amazon | Goodreads
Pages: 304
Format: ARC

Source: NetGalley

“Mother knows best” takes on a sinister new meaning in this unsettling thriller perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, and Aimee Molloy's The Perfect Mother.

Compulsive, creepy, and inspired by some our darkest fairy tales, Little Darlings will have you checking—and rechecking—your own little ones. Just to be sure. Just to be safe.

The idea of a changeling child is legendary lore passed through multitudes of cultures around the world for a reason. What could be more frightening than the idea of an unknown being stealing away your children – and even worse, what if you didn’t even know they were stolen until it was much too late?

Melanie Golding approaches the dark heart of fairy tales we all know and love. She bypasses the rosy sheen and instead settles among the black, thorny nettles behind every Disney-fied story into the beating Grimm heart of it all.

The story of Lauren Tranter is a tragedy, a sinister tale about a woman lost to the wilds of her imagination and the gloomy enchantment of a shadow witch who may or may not be real. Is Lauren manifesting demons as part of postpartum depression, or is she truly being stalked by an agent of the watery abyss?

Little Darlings is a fine piece of literary work that falls under the disguise of a thriller only because of the police involvment in the story. The menial police casework is one of the weaker elements of the novel – despite Detective Joanna Harper and her keenness to believe Lauren against all odds being compelling, it is Lauren’s journey that proves the more fascinating one. Both in terms of plot and in terms of character.

In the future, I would love to see Golding’s take on other fables and fairy tales. I appreciate female authors who take it upon themselves to explore the, sometimes, hideous introspection of the female psyche, particularly as they pertain to maternity – a subject that is often so nullified and squeaky clean in media, it’s nice to see an author who embraces it with all its potential pitfalls.

Little Darlings qualifies as my first book of the #SpringHorrorReadathon!

Book Reviews

Book Review: Paper Ghosts by Julia Heaberlin

Book Review: Paper Ghosts by Julia HeaberlinPaper Ghosts by Julia Heaberlin
Published on May 15, 2018
Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Thriller, Suspense
Links: Buy on Amazon | Goodreads
Pages: 351
Format: eBook

Carl Louis Feldman is an old man who was once a celebrated photographer. That was before he was tried for the murder of a young woman and acquitted. before his admission to a care home for dementia. Now his daughter has come to see him, to take him on a trip. Only she's not his daughter and, if she has her way, he's not coming back.

When I first started reading Paper Ghosts I was quickly absorbed in Grace’s story and her journey to discover the truth about her sister’s killer. Unfortunately, I lost interest just as fast as the book slogged onwards into a meandering road trip story without much thrill or suspense.

The idea of a young girl traveling with a serial killer was interesting at first, but I really didn’t find Carl to be a compelling character. Not to mention the fact we read pages upon pages of endless internal monologue from Grace about how she trained for most of her life leading up to the moment she would spring Carl from Mrs. T’s. But we almost never see this “training” come into play. More often than not, Carl outsmarts her by some small mistake she makes.

Nor did I find the somewhat random love story between her and the detective, Andy, to make much sense. It serves as a background plot more than anything and Andy really serves no greater purpose to the story.

By the end of the novel, when we learn the truth about Carl and his supposed kills, it makes nearly everything that occurred before it ultimately pointless. I didn’t feel like the ending had suited the long, winding journey preceding it.

However, I will say that the book is very well-written. Even though I didn’t love the story, I kept reading because Heaberlin’s writing style more than kept me engaged, it made me hope for a stronger pay-off than I got. While I didn’t find this novel to be my cup of tea, I would certainly consider checking out her other books in the future.