Reckless Girls: A Review

Reckless Girls by Rachel HawkinsLux and her boyfriend, Nico, have a plan: they’re going to fix up Nico’s boat the Susannah and travel around the world. Every day will be an adventure. But boats, especially boats that need fixing, are expensive. And so far the only adventure Lux has had is seeing if she can survive another boring shift as a housekeeper at a Hawaiian hotel.

When college friends Brittany and Amma charter Nico’s boat to sail to a remote South Pacific island, it feels like the adventure Lux has been hoping for is finally starting. The boat is fixed, things are finally moving. Even Brittany and Amma feel like the perfect passengers–feel like they might become friends.

Meroe Island is secluded, picturesque, and a bit like paradise.

It’s a dream come true. At first.

But the island also has a dark past with a history filled with shipwrecks, rumors of cannibalism, and even suspected murder. It’s easy to imagine trouble lurking in the shadows, especially when they realize The Susannah isn’t alone.

First it’s Jake and Eliza–a wealthy couple as sleek as their expensive catamaran. Then it’s another stranger.

As the atmosphere of the island shifts, so too do the new relationships between the small group.

There’s nowhere to go on an island as small as Meroe. And when the trouble starts, there’s no one to stop it in Reckless Girls (2022) by Rachel Hawkins.

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Reckless Girls is a standalone thriller. All characters are assumed white. Check out the audiobook narrated by Barrie Kreinik for an immersive read.

Detailed descriptions of both the island and the boats quickly immerse readers in the story and distract from a slow build as Lux and the rest of her foursome acclimate to Meroe Island. This quiet start is broken up with flashback chapters that slowly reveal the backstories (and secrets) the main characters are keeping close. The initial lack of action works in stark contrast to the twist-filled final act where the pacing realy picks up.

Fans of thrillers will appreciate the suspense and claustrophobic isolation of the setting, but mystery fans might find the payoff and reveals fall short of jaw-dropping.

Reckless Girls is an atmospheric thriller; a perfect addition to your beach reading list.

Possible Pairings: How to Kill Your Best Friend by Lexie Elliott, Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney, The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell, The Club by Ellery Lloyd, The Wild Girls by Phoebe Morgan, The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse, Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman, The Woman in Cabin Ten by Ruth Ware

*An advance listening copy of this title was provided by the publisher through Libro.fm*

Rock Paper Scissors: A Review

Rock Paper Scissors by Alice FeeneyBehind closed doors something has been wrong with Mr. and Mrs. Wright for a long while. First it’s the things they don’t talk about it, then there’s the time they spend apart.

Adam has always been a workaholic, happy to toil away adapting best-selling novels into screenplays while neglecting his own creative projects. Amelia has built her whole world around Adam but she knows their marriage is becoming more and more fragile. Most people can see the writing on the wall even if they can’t read it.

Amelia also knows that the right move can set them back on course, so when she wins a trip to Scotland it feels like fate.

Except someone is lying. And someone else never planned for both of them to come back from this trip in one piece in Rock Paper Scissors (2021) by Alice Feeney.

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Rock Paper Scissors is a standalone thriller. Most chapters alternates point of view between Adam and Amelia. Letters for each wedding anniversary are interspersed throughout offering a glimpse into the past with letters thematically tied to traditional wedding gifts (starting with paper) as well as so-called words of the year (including rock). I can’t say much more about the book’s structure without giving away some of the key twists but if you want an atmospherically creepy reading experience, do check out the audiobook narrated by Richard Armitage and Stephanie Racine.

Feeney presents a satisfying and troubling story that is part thriller and part marriage post-mortem. Amelia’s mysterious past and Adam being face blind (unable to recognize anyone–even loved ones–and unable to read facial expressions accurately) add elements of unreliability and even more suspense to an already taut story.

Rock Paper Scissors is a fast-paced, surprising story about two toxic people who may or may not get the exact ending they both deserve. Come into this one knowing as little as possible for the biggest impact.

Possible Pairings: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks, All the Broken People by Leah Konen, Best Day Ever by Kaira Sturdivant Rouda, Tell Me My Name by Erin Ruddy

*An advance listening copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration through Libro.fm*

The Maidens: A Review

The Maidens by Alex MichaelidesAfter so many years of defining herself in relation to her husband Sebastian, Mariana Andros is no longer sure who she is or how she can keep going after his sudden death.

She still has her work as a group therapist but that’s cold comfort when she has nothing but memories to hold onto.

A distressed call from Zoe, the niece she and Sebastian raised, is enough to rouse Mariana from her grief. One of Zoe’s friends at Cambridge University has been murdered. The death is violent and sinister. Worse, it is only the first.

Reluctant to leave her niece in a time of crisis, Mariana agrees to stay at the college surrounded by memories of her own time as a student when she and Sebastian first met. The longer Mariana spends on the familiar campus, the more certain she is that Edward Fosca is the killer.

Fosca is a charismatic and well-liked Greek Tragedy professor. Sharp and formidable, his cult of personality is so strong among his female students that it’s not hard to intuit his guilt despite an alibi.

As Mariana is drawn further into the investigation, her fixation on Fosca grows. Pursuing Fosca could ruin Mariana’s professional reputation, her personal relationships and–as she gets closer to the killer–even her life might be forfeit in The Maidens (2021) by Alex Michaelides.

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The Maidens is Michaelides’ second novel. Most of the story follows Mariana with a close third person narration. All main characters–including one readers may recognize from Michaelides’ debut–are presumed white.

The Maidens is a tense university-set thriller with an audiobook version ably narrated by Louise Brealey and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. Michaelides covers similar territory here to his debut, once again featuring a psychoanalyst protagonist and a shocking case.

Although it is decidedly high concept, The Maidens does little to capitalize on any of its potential. Mariana–a theoretically complex protagonist dealing with intense grief, a patient who is stalking her (which causes her surprisingly little distress), and an increasingly obsessive interest in Fosca as the book progresses–is reduced to little more than a grieving widow. If she has a personality beyond missing Sebastian and investigating Fosca, Michaelides never shows it.

Abrupt chapter breaks eliminate any chance for readers (or Mariana) to meditate on plot points not to mention leaving no room for anything in the way of character development. The breakneck pace of the story and its focus on plot are perhaps why so much of The Maidens feels heavy-handed. Information key to solving the mystery is obscured with plot devices including intermittent chapters from a nameless male character while the identity of the murderer is heavily broadcast even as their motivations remain frustratingly opaque.

With a resolution that is as unsavory as it is unsatisfying, The Maidens feels less like a thriller by the end and more like an object lesson in the veracity of the maxim “physician, heal thyself.” Readers looking for a twisty thriller where no one is quite who they expect would be better served by Alice Feeney’s Rock Paper Scissors which although not a dark academia novel employs similar narrative devices to better effect.

Posssible Pairings: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Now You See Me by S. J. Bolton, Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney, House of Correction by Nicci French, Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian,  Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration through Libro.fm*

The Ones We’re Meant to Find: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Ones We're Meant to Find by Joan HeIn a world that has been ravaged by climate change, eco-cities guarantee clean air, water, and shelter. They also require all residents to live sustainably. By living less.

Kasey Mizuhara has always thrived in the eco-city. She doesn’t mind the close quarters or spending a third of her life in stasis. She prefers it. Everything is so much easier when she can focus on science instead of people.

Kasey isn’t sure she can ever forgive her older sister Celia for hating the eco-city enough to leave it three months ago never to return.

Kasey knows that her sister is gone. Dead. Logically, leaving the safety of the eco-city only ends one way. She’s known that for a while. But Kasey is still desperate to retrace Celia’s steps to try and understand.

Cee has been alone on an abandoned island for three years. She has enough food to survive and a long-vacant house for shelter but not much else. She has no memory of how she got there or who she was before.

She knows she has a sister. Kay. She knows that Kay is waiting for Cee to find her.

Cee will do whatever it takes to get back to her sister. Even if it means cracking open all of the secrets from her past–including the ones Cee has been too afraid to confront.

In a world founded on logic and numbers, there isn’t a lot of room for love. Or choice. But Kasey and Cee will choose how to find each other. And how far they’ll go to get there in The Ones We’re Meant to Find (2021) by Joan He.

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The Ones We’re Meant to Find is a quiet, character driven story. Chapters alternate between Cee and Kasey’s narrations (Cee’s in first person, Kasey’s in third person). Both sisters grieve for what they have lost and, in their own ways, cope with that finality against the backdrop of imminent global catastrophe.

The less you know going into this story, the better. He expertly doles out all of the information readers need to unravel the story–and the secrets–alongside Kasey and Cee as the novel builds to its staggering and affecting conclusion.

The Ones We’re Meant to Find is an eerily plausible sci-fi thriller where sisterly love is leveraged against the greater good. Come for the intense emotions and taut pacing, stay for the intricate world building and ethical quandaries. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, More Than This by Patrick Ness, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, Extras by Scott Westerfeld, All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

All the Broken People: A Review

Lucy King is ready to start over in Woodstock, New York. She has her dog, she has cash, she has her suitcase with her mother’s vintage silk scarf and her father’s hammer. She has plans for a quiet life where her past will never come back to haunt her.

All the Broken People by Leah KonenEnter Vera and John, Lucy’s painfully stylish neighbors who quickly take Lucy under their wing. After being isolated for so long Lucy craves their attention and friendship enough that she knows she’d do almost anything to keep it.

When the couple asks for Lucy’s help to get a fresh start of their own, Lucy knows she has to help. But what starts as a bit of fraud with minimal consequences and an accidental death becomes something else when someone turns up dead.

Receiving more attention than she wanted, Lucy finds herself at the center of the investigation not just as a witness but a likely suspect. After coming so far to start again, Lucy will have to figure out who she can trust–and who’s really to blame–if she wants to keep the new beginning she fought so hard to create in All the Broken People (2020) by Leah Konen.

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All the Broken People is Konen’s adult debut. You might recognize her name from her previous YA titles.

All the Broken People is an eerie story where every tension is amplified by Lucy’s isolated, first person narration. After escaping a relationship marked by gaslighting and abuse, Lucy no longer trusts anyone. Not even herself. As her carefully constructed life in Woodstock begins to collapse, she’s forced to confront the events that led her here and what she has to do to get out again.

All the Broken People is the kind of book where the less you know when you start, the better. Konen expertly demonstrates her range as an author with this thriller debut filled with menace and ground-pulled-out-from-under-you twists.

Possible Pairings: Only Truth by Julie Cameron, The Girl Before by J. P. Delaney, Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney, The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

Traitor: A Review

“We’ve all got our own little wars.”

Traitor by Amanda McCrinaIn 1944 Poland WWII may be nearing its end, but the troubles are just beginning for some of the country’s long suffering residents. In the wake of Lwów’s liberation from Germany, the city–like the rest of Poland–is torn between loyalists to either Poland or Ukraine as their years long power struggle continues and threatens to tear the country apart.

Seventeen-year-old Tolya Korolenko is half-Ukrainian, half-Polish and wanted by neither side. Hungry and alone, he has become a sniper in the Soviet Red Army to try to survive. It’s a good plan until he shoots his unit’s political officer in a dark alley. Tolya knows what happens to traitors. He knows what to expect.

What surprises him is his unlikely rescue by Ukrainian freedom fighters. In Poland everyone is fighting their own little wars and soon Tolya finds himself dragged into Solovey’s. Helping the man who rescued him probably won’t save Tolya’s life. But it might buy him some time.

In a city where self-preservation and loyalty can’t always mean the same thing, Tolya and Solovey are both rocked by betrayals that will change everything in Traitor (2020) by Amanda McCrina.

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The story follows two storylines: Tolya’s as it unfolds in 1944 and Aleksey’s years earlier in 1941. How you feel about the story may depend on how quickly you begin piecing together the connections between these two timelines.

Contrasting the beginning and end of World War II, Traitor explores the things that remain the same as characters are driven to desperate choices both for survival and revenge. Tense prose and cliffhanging chapter endings make this novel a fast read although alternating parts between Tolya and Aleksey often cuts much the tension and–given the fact that Aleksey’s story is essentially a flashback–lends a certain inevitability to what should be suspenseful plot points.

Traitor effectively uses restricted perspective in both narratives to limit what the characters and readers know leading to reveals that sometimes expected and sometimes not. Unfortunately, it also keeps both of the novel’s main characters at a remove from readers making it hard to feel entirely invested in either narrative.

Traitor is a well-researched and suspenseful look at a rarely examined piece of history. Readers who enjoy their history with a large dose of suspense and an unflinching look at the violence of war will find the most to appreciate here.

Possible Pairings: Tamar by Mal Peet, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

The Angel of the Crows: A Review

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine AddisonAfter suffering an egregious injury on the front in Afghanistan, Dr. J. H. Doyle is forced to return to England in 1888 and none too happy about it. With a bad leg, a foul temper, and a war pension that doesn’t quite go far enough in London, Doyle is unsure what to do upon returning until a friend makes a surprising suggestion.

Everyone knows about the angels–after all Nameless can be found in front of every place of worship or bakery, any habitation large enough hopes to have an angel claim it as their dominion, and–like Doyle–everyone knows the damage that can be wrought by angels who have Fallen.

Then there is Crow the self-described Angel of London. Claiming the entire city as his dominion, Crow works as a consultant with the police and for select clients. His focus is singular, his crow-like wings are massive and prone to toppling furniture when Crow is excited, and he is in need of a flatmate.

Moving into 221B Baker Street, both Crow and Doyle have secrets they would prefer to keep. But they also have work to do as Doyle is drawn into Crow’s investigations of murder scenes with strange words on walls, locked room mysteries, and even the case of the Whitechapel Murderer who has been butchering prostitutes with increasing frequency in The Angel of the Crows (2020) by Katherine Addison.

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The Angel of the Crows started life as Sherlock wingfic (fan fiction which imagines one character with wings) and, in many ways, that is still the story readers have in the finished book.

While Crow and Doyle live in a distinct and well-realized fantasy world filled with elements of steampunk and magic, between their original adventures (notably their hunt for Jack the Ripper) Addison also retells some of the most familiar cases from Sherlock Holmes’ long canon. Readers familiar with “A Study in Scarlet,” “The Sign of the Four,” “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” and “The Adventure of Speckled Band” will immediately recognize the stories being retold here.

Addison stays very close to her source material while imbuing each story with the magical elements intrinsic to her version of London. A story element with a double edge as it makes the book both immediately familiar and, in certain cases, nearly too predictable.

The Angel of the Crows is strongest when Crow and Doyle are in their element and exploring new territory–albeit often with fun references to the class mysteries that inspired this novel. Addison also raises interesting questions about gender identity and agency throughout the story from both Doyle and Crow’s experiences. While some of this gave me pause in that it felt very much like a plot device, the execution over the course of the novel as a whole was handled well and raises more questions and avenues of discussion than concerns.

The Angels of the Crows is an incredibly thorough and original retelling. Whether or not they are a fan of Holmes and Watson, readers can only hope to see more of Crow and Doyle.

Possible Pairings: Soulless by Gail Carriger, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal, Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, The Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley, The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lillith St. Crow

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Take Me With You: A Review

Take Me With You by Tara AltebrandoBefore the school messaging app summons them all to an empty classroom after school, they barely know each other.

Eden is struggling with anxiety while she grieves her father. Her mother tries to be there, be present, but Eden still feels alone with all of these fears and even scarier feelings.

Marwan has two priorities: excelling enough in soccer to get a college scholarship and getting out of Queens. His immigrant parents don’t understand either and would prefer Marwan channel his energy into working at the family’s Persian restaurant that he will one day inherit.

Eli loves all things tech and gaming. But it’s hard to focus on either while his grandfather is dying a slow death in a nursing home and Eli feels like even more of an afterthought in his own family.

Ilanka has always prided herself on keeping other people at a distance–the better to plan an exit strategy from her claustrophobic family, the rhythmic gymnastics she isn’t sure she cares about, and ignore the fact that her “best” friend isn’t much of a friend at all.

None of them know why they’re summoned to the classroom. They don’t even notice the device at first.

Until it lights up and starts telling them the rules: Don’t tell anyone about the device. Never leave the device unattended. No one leaves.

Later, there will be other rules, a few mistakes, and a lot of questions but first they’re told to take the device with them. Brought together by a mysterious device Eden, Marwan, Eli, and Ilanka will have to work together to uncover answers or suffer the consequences in Take Me With You (2020) by Tara Altebrando.

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Altebrando’s latest standalone thriller is a dynamo alternating between multiple points of view with tension you can cut with a knife.

This character-driven thriller has an intense plot situated perfectly between suspense and speculative fiction. At the same time, while answering questions about the device motivates all four characters, the story’s ultimate focus is on the unlikely connection formed between themin the most unlikely of circumstances.

Take Me With You is a tense, thoughtful thriller with a perfectly executed denouement; the eerily possible thriller you’ve been waiting for. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock, Infinite in Between by Carolyn Mackler, One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus, All Our Twisted Secrets by Diana Urban, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

When We Vanished: A Review

When We Vanished by Alanna PetersonAndi Lin and her mother are doing everything they can to keep anyone from finding out that her father’s new job is actually participating in a clinical trial at the food corporation Nutrexo.

After Andi hears executives whispering about a dangerous research study at a company party, she worries it might be the same study her dad is involved with–especially since she hasn’t heard from him in over a week. When Andi asks her neighbor Cyrus Mirzapour to help, they wind up in over their heads when a nonviolent protest ends with a bombing and both of them being held captive alongside Cyrus’s older brother, Naveed and younger sister, Roya.

Trapped and desperate to discover the truth and save themselves, Andi and Cyrus find themselves at the center of a conspiracy with consequences that are hard to imagine–and closer to home than either of them realize in When We Vanished (2020) by Alanna Peterson.

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When We Vanished is Peterson’s debut novel and the start of her Call of the Crow quartet. The book is published by Peterson’s newly created publishing company Rootcity Press which, as their website states, “operates on a not-for-profit model, and donates a portion of all proceeds to grassroots-based organizations focused on racial justice and food equity”

As such, this eco-thriller works to raise awareness about the dangers of fast/processed foods and genetically modified foods some of which can be seen on the book’s companion site Nutrexo Truth.

Unfortunately in sharing these timely messages Peterson’s novel highlights graphic scenes of animal cruelty with “EcoCows” kept in unsanitary and inhumane conditions at Nutrexo and scenes of torture when Naveed is sprayed with a noxious pesticide as part of the villain’s continued experiments leaving him with lasting nerve damage.

While these scenes viscerally showcase the dangers of modifying foods, particularly the increased spread of antibiotic resistant infections, the violence that will stay with readers far longer than the message.

When We Vanished is an unflinching eco-thriller best suited to readers comfortable with gore and grit.

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal*

Two Can Keep a Secret: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Welcome to life in a small town. You’re only as good as the best thing your family’s done. Or the worst.”

cover art for Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManusWelcome to Echo Ridge, population 4,935. Echo Ridge looks like small town America at its finest. But looks can be deceiving.

Ellery knows about all about the secrets hidden in Echo Ridge because her family is at the heart of them. Her aunt went missing from the town when she was Ellery’s age–sixteen. Five years ago their family was in the news again when a homecoming queen was murdered, her body found at the local Murderland amusement park.

Malcolm wishes he could forget Echo Ridge’s darker side and the role his brother played in the murder five years ago as prime suspect. Declan was never arrested but a small town’s memory is long and he was never cleared either. Even when Malcolm’s mother remarries it isn’t enough to change what the town thinks of his family. Not really.

When Ellery and her twin brother Ezra are sent to live with their grandmother while their mother is in rehab it hardly feels like a fresh start. Instead, Echo Ridge seems to be choked by past tragedies it can’t forget. When another girl–another homecoming queen–goes missing both Ellery and Malcolm will have to explore Echo Ridge’s darkest secrets to uncover the truth and the killer in Two Can Keep a Secret (2019) by Karen M. McManus.

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McManus’s latest standalone mystery is a tense exploration of a town with a dark past. The novel alternates between Ellery and Malcolm’s first person narration. This novel capitalizes on the strengths of McManus’s debut novel One of Us is Lying (multiple narrators, tense pacing, conversational and readable prose) without the problematic resolution.

Two Can Keep a Secret is a refreshingly realistic mystery where, although Ellery identifies as a true crime buff and would-be amateur sleuth, she still gets things wrong and still needs help from actual investigators to crack the case.

The contrast between Ellery with her connection to one of the town’s victims and Malcolm with his connection to one of the town’s suspects is striking. Their chemistry and nearly immediate rapport is countered by these preconceived identities that should place them on opposite sides. Instead their friendship is made of stronger stuff with rock solid loyalty and hints of romance that add much-needed levity to an otherwise dark story.

The story’s secondary cast including Ellery’s twin bother Ezra and Declan’s best friend Mia are also welcome additions who flesh out the cast in this short but evocative story.

Two Can Keep a Secret is a taut mystery filled with unexpected turns and surprises that will keep readers guessing right until the last line. Recommended for amateur detectives, mystery lovers, and true crime enthusiasts alike.

Possible Pairings: Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, This is Our Story by Ashley Elston, The Body in the Woods by April Henry, Havenfall by Sara Holland, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, People Like Us by Dana Mele, The Amateurs by Sarah Shepard, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, Sadie by Courtney Summers