How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao #bookreview #mystery #thriller

Students at an elite prep school are forced to confront their secrets when their ex-best friend turns up dead.

Nancy Luo is shocked when her former best friend, Jamie Ruan, top ranked junior at Sinclair Prep, goes missing, and then is found dead. Nancy is even more shocked when word starts to spread that she and her friends–Krystal, Akil, and Alexander–are the prime suspects, thanks to “The Proctor,” someone anonymously incriminating them via the school’s social media app.

They all used to be Jamie’s closest friends, and she knew each of their deepest, darkest secrets. Now, somehow The Proctor knows them, too. The four must uncover the true killer before The Proctor exposes more than they can bear and costs them more than they can afford, like Nancy’s full scholarship. Soon, Nancy suspects that her friends may be keeping secrets from her, too. 

One of the comp titles for this novel is One of Us Is Lying, a book I enjoyed from beginning to end, so I went into this with some high expectations.

The competition to be the best at Sinclair Prep is cutthroat. These teens put an enormous amount of pressure on themselves and each other, while some of their parents demand the best no matter the cost. Stress levels are through the roof. Most of the student body look up to these five students, so when Jamie turns up dead and the mysterious Proctor begins making accusations and threatening to reveal dark secrets about the other four, their reputations are tarnished to say the least.

This is a short, quick read that I finished in less than twenty-four hours. It moves along at a brisk pace, and the developments come pretty fast. These characters are supposed to be best friends, especially Nancy and Jamie, but I sure wasn’t feeling the love between most of them. I even wondered how and why they became friends considering the way they treat each other. Of the five of them, Nancy and Jamie are especially unlikeable, but I’m not sure if that’s what the author intended. I can’t imagine many readers would feel sympathetic toward them for most of the book. I figured out the identity of the Proctor – kind of (no spoilers) – but the reveal requires quite a big suspension of disbelief. Looking at other reviews, several have mentioned that fans of Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girls would be the intended audience for this book, but I haven’t seen either of those shows. Maybe that’s why It didn’t work for me as much as I’d hoped, but I’m glad I read How We Fall Apart and will look for future novels by this author.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Small Favors by Erin A. Craig #bookreview #YA #darkfantasy #thriller #TuesdayBookBlog

Ellerie Downing lives in the quiet town of Amity Falls in the Blackspire Mountain range–five narrow peaks stretching into the sky like a grasping hand, bordered by a nearly impenetrable forest from which the early townsfolk fought off the devils in the woods. To this day, visitors are few and rare. But when a supply party goes missing, some worry that the monsters that once stalked the region have returned.

As fall turns to winter, more strange activities plague the town. They point to a tribe of devilish and mystical creatures who promise to fulfill the residents’ deepest desires, however grand and impossible, for just a small favor. But their true intentions are much more sinister, and Ellerie finds herself in a race against time before all of Amity Falls, her family, and the boy she loves go up in flames.

This is the second book I’ve read by this author, and I’ll be waiting in line for her third no matter what it is.

Don’t be deceived by the calming, flower-filled cover. Inside is a chilling, dark fantasy that will make you hesitate before entering the woods ever again. I count the movie The Village directed by M. Night Shyamalan as one of my favorites, and this book shares many similarities with it – a small, tightly knit community, strange activities in the town, deadly creatures in the forest, and a MC who’s determined she and her family will survive. There are also shades of Stephen King’s Needful Things with some of the townfolks’ deepest desires being fulfilled.

The first few chapters introduce readers to a simpler kind of life and allow them to become acquainted with the isolated town, its residents, and their daily activities. Ellerie’s idyllic life of learning beekeeping from her father, cooking with her mother, and playing with her little sister begins sliding away a piece at a time after a supply party goes missing. Visitors, a rare event, show up in town, and one is especially intriguing to her. Whitaker’s motivations were a mystery to me throughout the story, and I wasn’t sure if I should trust him. Soon the town is plagued with deformed animals, strange bouts of weather, and a lack of food before neighbors turn against each other in vengeance and hatred. I’m talking a serious spiraling of events, folks. Some of these scenes aren’t for the faint of heart.

This slow burn dark fantasy pulls you in a page at a time, and before long you’ll notice the book is super glued to your hands. It felt like 350 pages instead of nearly 500 to me. Fans of The Village, Needful Things, and dark fantasy will spend several engrossing hours reading Small Favors and shutting out the world around them. Just be careful when you go into the woods.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould #bookreview #YA #thriller #LGBTQ

Courtney Gould’s thrilling debut The Dead and the Dark is about the things that lurk in dark corners, the parts of you that can’t remain hidden, and about finding home in places―and people―you didn’t expect.

The Dark has been waiting for far too long, and it won’t stay hidden any longer.

Something is wrong in Snakebite, Oregon. Teenagers are disappearing, some turning up dead, the weather isn’t normal, and all fingers seem to point to TV’s most popular ghost hunters who have just returned to town. Logan Ortiz-Woodley, daughter of TV’s ParaSpectors, has never been to Snakebite before, but the moment she and her dads arrive, she starts to get the feeling that there’s more secrets buried here than they originally let on.

Ashley Barton’s boyfriend was the first teen to go missing, and she’s felt his presence ever since. But now that the Ortiz-Woodleys are in town, his ghost is following her and the only person Ashley can trust is the mysterious Logan. When Ashley and Logan team up to figure out who—or what—is haunting Snakebite, their investigation reveals truths about the town, their families, and themselves that neither of them are ready for. As the danger intensifies, they realize that their growing feelings for each other could be a light in the darkness. 

All I needed to read was strange happenings and ghost hunters to jump at requesting this book. Dark, intense, intriguing, mysterious – does the description give you an idea of what this story is like? I honestly could have read it in one sitting but had to split it into two days.

Snakebite, Oregon isn’t very welcoming to newcomers or even to some of the previous residents who visit. It’s a small town, but cliques are prevalent in both the teenage and adult crowds and, like most small towns, secrets are nearly bursting out of the closets they’re barricaded in. Logan’s dad, Brandon, has been in Snakebite scouting the location for his TV show ParaSpectors. When Logan and her other dad, Alejo arrive, they learn a teen boy disappeared around the same time Brandon rolled into town six months ago. The locals don’t consider this a coincidence and make it known to Logan and her family at every turn. Logan is the curious type and isn’t content to sit around the hotel room watching TV all day and before long, she’s caught up in a tangled web of secrets involving her family. Although adversaries at first, Logan and Ashley, a local resident, make a pact to discover the truth together after it becomes evident Ashley’s mother is involved.

Something I really liked about this novel is the relationship between Logan and her dads. In most YA books parents don’t play large roles, but that’s not the case here. She enjoys an easy camaraderie with one of them, but has a strained relationship with the other (which is explained, but no spoilers here). Besides the paranormal occurrences, a parent’s overwhelming love for their child, finding your place in the world, and learning acceptance are strong themes in this story. Readers will also be shipping the budding romance between Ashley and Logan.

I guessed a couple of major plot points early on, that didn’t prevent me from devouring this book. Murders, ghosts, mediums, and some cool ghost hunter gadgets held me spellbound. The story skillfully builds to a nail-biting climax, but I did feel like the ending wraps up a little quickly. This is a strong debut novel, and I’ll be looking out for future releases by this author.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig #bookreview #horror #thriller #TuesdayBookBlog

A family returns to their hometown—and to the dark past that haunts them still—in this masterpiece of literary horror by the New York Times bestselling author of Wanderers

Long ago, Nathan lived in a house in the country with his abusive father—and has never told his family what happened there.

Long ago, Maddie was a little girl making dolls in her bedroom when she saw something she shouldn’t have—and is trying to remember that lost trauma by making haunting sculptures.

Long ago, something sinister, something hungry, walked in the tunnels and the mountains and the coal mines of their hometown in rural Pennsylvania.

Now, Nate and Maddie Graves are married, and they have moved back to their hometown with their son, Oliver.

And now what happened long ago is happening again . . . and it is happening to Oliver. He meets a strange boy who becomes his best friend, a boy with secrets of his own and a taste for dark magic.

This dark magic puts them at the heart of a battle of good versus evil and a fight for the soul of the family—and perhaps for all of the world. But the Graves family has a secret weapon in this battle: their love for one another.

How I’ve made it this long without ever reading a Chuck Wendig book is a mystery to me, but he can now count me among his devoted fans.

This book weighs in around 550 pages, but trust me when I say it doesn’t feel that long. You’ll be so caught up in this family and their treacherous situations the pages will fly by. These characters had me from nearly the first page. They made be a small family of three, but this is one tight unit, and the love runs deep. After Nate, Maddie, and Oliver move into Nate’s childhood home after the death of his father, the action begins almost immediately. Each of them are dealing with everyday kinds of problems – Nate settling into a new job, Oliver dealing with bullies at school and finding new friends, and Maddie experiencing creative struggles with her art. Soon each of them are dealing with situations of a more supernatural nature. You’ll feel like a part of this family and find yourself fighting alongside them on every page. I can’t go into much detail without giving away spoilers, but I went into this book expecting a certain type of story. Wendig certainly delivered a captivating horror story, but he elevated it to the next level. I was shaking my head in disbelief and nearly speechless at certain twists, yet they were absolutely perfect and fell into place like the gratifying click of the last puzzle piece.

With magnificent character development (including supporting characters) and arcs, chilling scenes that raise the hairs on the back of your neck, and a gripping storyline, The Book of Accidents gave me early Stephen King vibes. The ending was absolute perfection, and one I’m still thinking about. This is an easy five stars for me. Horror fans, don’t miss this one!

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix #bookreview #horror #thriller #TuesdayBookBlog

A fast-paced, thrilling horror novel that follows a group of heroines to die for, from the brilliant New York Times bestselling author of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires.

In horror movies, the final girl is the one who’s left standing when the credits roll. The one who fought back, defeated the killer, and avenged her friends. The one who emerges bloodied but victorious. But after the sirens fade and the audience moves on, what happens to her?

Lynnette Tarkington is a real-life final girl who survived a massacre twenty-two years ago, and it has defined every day of her life since. And she’s not alone. For more than a decade she’s been meeting with five other actual final girls and their therapist in a support group for those who survived the unthinkable, putting their lives back together, piece by piece. That is until one of the women misses a meeting and Lynnette’s worst fears are realized–someone knows about the group and is determined to take their lives apart again, piece by piece.

But the thing about these final girls is that they have each other now, and no matter how bad the odds, how dark the night, how sharp the knife, they will never, ever give up.

If you’re one of those people who enjoying yelling at the characters on screen during slasher movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, this book is for you. You’ll find yourself reminiscing.

This support group is exactly what it sounds like – these six women are literally the final girls left standing, each the survivor of real-life horrific situations that were turned into movies. What the slasher movies never show is the fallout of surviving, the paranoia, guilt, and fears these women are left to struggle with. Some are dealing with things better than others, but Lynnette isn’t one of those people. Except for the support group, she’s cut herself off from everyone, has essentially barricaded her apartment (where her roommate is a beloved pepper plant she speaks to – and he talks back), stashed weapons and cash in hiding places, and has numerous escape plans. She’s certain it’s only a matter of time before someone else shows up to finish her off. And then her worst fears are realized when someone kills one of the final girls and then makes attempts on the lives of the other five.

As with the classic slasher movies, you can expect gruesome and gory scenes, some cheesy lines, and poor decisions made by the characters. The climax of the book plays out exactly like the final movie scene – a little long, kind of over the top, with plenty of injuries and blood. I’d guessed the “villain” early on, but I still enjoyed watching the characters piece it together. Another review I read pointed out that the final girl characters are named after the actresses who played final girls in slasher classics from the 70s and 80s, something I thought was a clever detail added by the author.

I was a fan of those movies in their day so I found this to be a nostalgic, entertaining read. If you’re not familiar with those films, keep in mind they’re a little campy, and this book follows that pattern. Not recommended for the squeamish when it comes to gore and violence – you may want to steer clear.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

The Girl in the Headlines by Hannah Jayne #bookreview #YA #mystery #thriller

The headlines say she killed her family. The truth? She doesn’t remember.

Andrea McNulty goes to sleep on her eighteenth birthday with a near-perfect life: she’s a high school field hockey star, a doted-upon big sister, the beloved daughter of two happy parents. But when she wakes up in a motel room the next morning, unable to remember what happened the previous night and covered in blood, Andi is a fugitive.

According to the news, Andi’s parents were brutally attacked in the middle of the night. Her father is dead, her mother is in a coma, her little brother Josh is missing–and Andi is the prime suspect. Terrified and on the run from the police, Andi teams up with Nate, the sympathetic boy working the motel’s front desk, to find the real murderer. But while the police are getting further from the killer, the killer is getting closer to Andi–closer than she could ever have imagined.

Waking up in a motel room covered in blood with no memory of what happened? I needed to know this girl’s story.

The hook for this novel is compelling and a perfect setup for an intense, thrilling novel. I felt Andi’s confusion, grief, and strong need to find her little brother. Seeing her home with police tape around it on television and hearing she’s a suspect in the investigation is surreal. I was as outraged and frustrated as she was over the media’s assumption that she’s guilty. Luckily for her she comes across street smart Nate working at the front desk of the motel, because she wouldn’t have survived a day without him. He’s a voice of reason and prevents her from making some (a couple at least) questionable decisions. I found it difficult to believe an eighteen-year-old girl could be this naive about the world around her.

A quick read, the story moves at a brisk pace. There’s plenty of action as Andi and Nate gradually piece together what happened that night, and it’s pretty clear from almost the beginning who’s involved. With such a breakneck pace wrapping up the plot, I was surprised when it ended abruptly and left many questions unanswered.

While this book begins with an intriguing mystery, puts the MC in a harrowing situation, and introduces a strong, very likeable supporting character, I was left scratching my head over the ending. I honestly expected an epilogue to wrap up the loose ends.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Simulated (Calculated #2) by Nova McBee #bookreview #YA #thriller #TuesdayBookBlog

From Young-Adult author Nova McBee comes the second book in the gritty, action-filled Calculated series.

Jo Rivers, safely back in Seattle, asks the same question daily—how does a math genius go from taking down international criminals and saving the world economy to living a normal teenage life? The only answer she can come up with is—she doesn’t.

With an overprotective father on her back and Kai on the other side of the world, Jo accepts an offer from Prodigy Stealth Solutions (PSS), who may have found a way to get her gift back. Using a newly developed technology, PSS tries a simulation process on Jo to restore her abilities, but during the attempt, PSS is hacked and a blacklist file containing some of PSS’s most sensitive secrets is stolen. Meanwhile, a mysterious caller who seems to know more than he should delivers a warning to Jo about Kai, who then goes missing.

Despite her father’s concerns, Jo sets off on a risky trip to Tunisia with a PSS team of teen prodigies to find an urgently needed solution for PSS and locate Kai. All the while, Jo has to trust the mysterious informant who, frighteningly, is like no one she has ever met before.

I just finished the first book in this series, Calculated, in November so I was thrilled to see the sequel available so soon on NetGalley.

The second book starts with a slower pace of life for Jo back in Seattle. In the first book, she relied on her gift, the ability to see numbers everywhere and in everything, to make mathematical-based decisions. While Calculated is intricately plotted and full of action, Simulated has a bit of a different feel. At the end of Calculated Jo had lost her gift and is now like a fish out of water struggling to live without it. With the help of PSS and their simulations, she’s fighting to awaken it, but things aren’t going so well. Without the numbers to back her up, Jo is unsure of herself and her decisions, but then a mysterious hacker appears in her sims and guarantees he can help her regain her gift. I feel like most readers will figure out the identity of this hacker early on. Wickedly intelligent and good-hearted, he brings an addional layer of mystery and intrigue to the story. Jo wants to trust him, but her team and boss aren’t as convinced, and she finds herself at a crossroads in her life.

Jo is soon on a plane headed for a mission in Tunisia, but also with a secret agenda of locating Kai. As with the Shanghai setting in the first book, this novel immerses the reader in the country and culture of Tunisia (I especially enjoyed the food!). There’s no sophomore slump here. This heart-pounding sequel offers just as many dangerous and harrowing moments – especially since Jo can’t rely on the numbers and doesn’t hesitate to take risks. Several new characters are introduced, and I enjoyed meeting the other prods (prodigies) on her team.

I wasn’t sure if this was a duology or trilogy, but upon reaching the end I was thrilled to learn there’s a third book in the works. The epilogue offers a surprise that gives a hint where the next story may be headed. If you enjoy intelligent thrillers with spies, covert missions, and surprising twists (and math that’s faaaar out of your lane), add this series to your TBR.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Harbinger (Wake-Robin Ridge #3) by Marcia Meara #bookreview #supernatural #suspense #TuesdayBookBlog

Continuing in the tradition of Wake-Robin Ridge and A Boy Named Rabbit, Marcia Meara’s North Carolina mountain series takes a shivery turn with the Appalachian Legend of Ol’ Shuck, the Harbinger of Death.

“. . . he felt the wet slide of the dog’s burning hot tongue on his face, and the scrape of its razor sharp teeth against the top of his head. A white-hot agony of crushing pain followed, as the jaws began to close.”

The wine-red trillium that carpets the forests of the North Carolina Mountains is considered a welcome harbinger of spring—but not all such omens are happy ones. An Appalachian legend claims the Black Dog, or Ol’ Shuck, as he’s often called, is a harbinger of death. If you see him, you or someone you know is going to die.

But what happens when Ol’ Shuck starts coming for you in your dreams? Nightmares of epic proportions haunt the deacon of the Light of Grace Baptist Church, and bring terror into the lives of everyone around him. Even MacKenzie Cole and his adopted son, Rabbit, find themselves pulled into danger.

When Sheriff Raleigh Wardell asks Mac and Rabbit to help him solve a twenty-year-old cold case, Rabbit’s visions of a little girl lost set them on a path that soon collides with that of a desperate man being slowly driven mad by guilt.

As Rabbit’s gift of the Sight grows ever more powerful, his commitment to those who seek justice grows as well, even when their pleas come from beyond the grave.

I’ve said it before, but I’d love to join this family. Although fictional, I guarantee they feel very real when you’re immersed in these books.

Rabbit captured my heart in the second book, and I adore him even more now. His interactions with his little sister are so sweet, and he’s a perfect big brother. One of my favorite parts of the story is when Rabbit is struck nearly speechless when meeting the sister of his best friend – and then tells his mother what he saw in his future. These lighthearted times are a balance to the bleaker parts of the story as Rabbit takes a lot on his young shoulders while using his gift to find the body of a girl murdered several years before. Although not even a teenager, he’s an old soul wise beyond his years and is very insightful when it comes to people and their actions. His adoptive parents, Mac and Sarah, are protective of him, but also understand how his gift can help people and are there with him every step of the way.

It’s no secret who the villain is. Cadey Hagan believes he’s remade himself (he’s still deplorable), and no one will ever discover what he did all those years ago. The author did an amazing job crafting his gradual mental deterioration, and by the end the reader may wonder if Ol’ Shuck is actually mythical.

I can’t recommend this supernatural suspense series enough. I’m excited to read the next book so I can spend more time with these lovely characters (my fictional family).

Vanished by Mark Bierman #bookreview #thriller

Tragedy . . . heartache . . . how much more can Tyler Montgomery and John Webster take? This missions trip, the “healing” one, has only added fresh layers of pain. Construction of an orphanage in Haiti’s northwest . . . yes. But a doomed rescue operation, human traffickers, human anomalies, extreme personal danger . . . risk of death? They hadn’t signed up for any of those.

Turning their backs on the crisis, however, is unthinkable, it’s just not who they are.

I have a difficult time reading about cruelty of any kind toward children or animals, so I knew going in parts of this book would be a challenge for me. It’s a horrific reality that human trafficking exists in this day and age and is actually quite common in some areas. So common that when a young girl is abducted by slave traders in Haiti, very little effort goes into trying to find her. Tyler, grieving the death of his wife, and his father-in-law, John, are shocked at the lack of response and vow to find the girl and return her to her mother no matter what. With two Americans in an unfamiliar country taking on such an incredibly dangerous task it won’t be an easy quest. Who can they trust? Where do they even start?

I’d be lying if I said this is an easy read – it’s absolutely not. Tyler’s and John’s journey is filled with obstacles and dead ends, harsh truths, unsavory characters, and violence. Even when their own lives are in danger, neither is willing to abandon their search for this child. The subplots are just as compelling and tragic. Although it portrays very real atrocities that occur far too often, this story is also full of hope and inspiration. There is still good in the world and people who are willing to go to battle against evil.

The author does a wonderful job dealing with such a tragic topic, and it’s clear the novel was thoroughly researched. Vanished is incredibly thought-provoking and will leave a lasting impression.

Calculated by Nova McBee #bookreview #YA #thriller #TuesdayBookBlog

Set in Shanghai and Seattle, Calculated is a gritty, modern day blend of The Count of Monte Cristo and Mission Impossible.

She has many names – Octavia, Double 8, Phoenix, Josephine. She’s a math prodigy, a calculating genius and everyone wants her.

In seventeen-year-old Jo River’s complicated world of numbers, there’s no such thing as coincidence. When she is betrayed by someone she loves, kidnapped by the world’s most wanted smuggler, and forced to use her talent to shore up a criminal empire, Jo deems her gift a curse—until she meets Red.

Fellow captive and unlikely sage, Red teaches Jo to harness her true potential, so she can do more than just escape. Before he dies, Red reveals a secret about her enemies and makes her vow to right his wrongs. But Jo has a vow of her own. With help from Chan, a bitter billionaire, and Kai, his off-limits son, Jo rises into a new role, ready to take down those who ruined her life. Until a mathematical error comes back to haunt her with a threat much more dangerous than the criminals on the loose.

To beat the odds, Jo must decide who she really is and if risking everything is worth it.

After all, history is not made—it’s calculated.

With themes of revenge and forgiveness, loss and identity, brainpower versus brutality, and the triumph of right over might, it will resonate with readers everywhere.

I haven’t read The Count of Monte Cristo, but I sure loved the movie. When I saw it was a comp title for this book, I couldn’t pass it up.

The first several chapters alternate between past and present. Jo in the past is portrayed as an excited prodigy eager to begin her first job in China. Present Jo is a jaded, bitter young woman who is imprisoned, forced to use her gift for illegal activities, and was betrayed by her family. I couldn’t wait to see what she’d experienced to alter her life so completely. It soon becomes obvious she’s not only incredibly intelligent and determined, but is also a survivor.

Because of her gift, Jo bases everything on numbers – they don’t lie and they make sense to her. But she soon learns there’s more to life than numbers and ideas that aren’t as concrete such as forgiveness, love, and finding your purpose. How perhaps there are no coincidences and fate puts you exactly where you’re needed and can make a difference in the world. Revenge isn’t everything.

With the setting in Shanghai, I felt as if I got to experience a bit of the city and Chinese culture while reading this book. I also appreciated how the author didn’t try to dumb-down any of the complex financial and mathematical details even though I might not have understood them. The plot is incredibly intricate, full of action, and well-paced. The last several chapters are like watching perfectly placed dominoes topple one after the other. Some plot points may have fallen into place a bit too easily, but I still enjoyed this book and was pleasantly surprised to learn there will be a sequel. I’ll absolutely be adding it to my list.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.