Category Archives: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller

Review: Where There’s Smoke by E. B. Vickers

Where There's Smoke by E. B. Vickers cover shows the title words blended into orange and red flame-like shapes.

Where There’s Smoke
E. B. Vickers
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Published December 12, 2023

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About Where There’s Smoke

In this fast-paced thriller, eighteen-year-old Calli finds herself alone after the loss of her father—until a bruised and broken girl shows up on her property, forcing her to face the present, rethink her future, and unearth the skeletons of her own past.

Life has never been easy in the small desert town of Harmony, but even on the day Calli Christopher buries her father, she knows she is surrounded by people who care about her. But after the funeral, when everyone has finally gone home, Calli discovers a girl on her property. A girl who’s dirty and bruised and unable to speak. And petrified.

Calli keeps the girl secret—well, almost secret. She calls her Ash and begins to nurture her back to health. But word spreads in a small town, and soon a detective comes around asking questions about a missing girl from another town. But these only raise more questions–about Ash and about the people Calli knows well. Still, she must ask: is Ash in danger…or is she the danger?

My Review

I love the way the author has chosen to tell this story. It’s got prose chapters from Calli’s perspective, and some short chapters or scenes in poetry in between them. The poems tell several other characters’ perspectives, and they’re a little bit veiled, really anchored in the context of what Calli learns in the scenes from her point of view.

It’s hard to talk about some of my feelings about this book without spoilers, but I’m going to do my best.

One of the things that made a lot of sense but sometimes frustrated me as a reader is the way that Calli waffled back and forth in her theories about what had happened to Ash. Sometimes, minute to minute, she’s convinced this person is totally guilty of harming Ash, and the next minute, she’s certain they’re innocent, and it must be someone else. It makes sense because new things keep happening, and she’s never sure who’s telling her the truth.

I did see some of the reveals in the book coming, but I think they were ones that maybe you were supposed to figure out ahead of time. There were definitely plenty of things I didn’t expect and some things that made me look back at earlier scenes with new eyes.

On the whole, I think the author did an amazing job creating a suspenseful story and including commentary on faith and faith communities in a neutral way that allows readers to draw their own conclusions about the characters separately from religion.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
I think the major characters are white? Several characters are people who fled from a local cult.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Strong profanity used somewhat infrequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Calli references a past dating relationship with a boy. She also wonders if she’s falling in love with another boy.

Spiritual Content
Calli’s dad used to be the Bishop of her local church. Now, her dad’s cousin serves as Bishop. Calli still maintains her faith, and she references some Bible verses in times of need or when she faces tough decisions. Not far from Calli’s hometown is a small, very closed cult. There are rumors of children forced into marriage with much older men and girls who disappear, possibly murdered. Several characters have escaped from this group.

Violent Content
References to domestic violence and sexual assault. (Nothing graphically described or shown on scene.)

Drug Content
Calli finds empty beer bottles in a cabin that should be empty. References to adults drinking alcohol. Calli’s dad preached against drinking any alcohol at all.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of WHERE THERE’S SMOKE in exchange for my honest review.

Review: No One Left But You by Tash McAdam

No One Left But You
Tash McAdam
Soho Teen
November 7, 2023

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About No One Left But You

A trans teen is swept up in a whirlwind friendship with lethal consequences in this taut YA thriller, for fans of Sadie, K. Ancrum and HBO’s Euphoria.

BEFORE

Newly out trans guy Max is having a hard time in school. Things have been tough since his summer romance, Danny, turned into his bully. This year, his plan is to keep his head down and graduate. All that changes when new It-girl Gloss moves to town. No one understands why perfect, polished Gloss is so interested in an introverted skater kid, but Max blooms in the hothouse of her attention. Caught between romance and obsession, he’ll do whatever it takes to keep her on his side.

AFTER

Haircuts, makeovers, drugs, parties. It’s all fun and games until someone gets killed at a rager gone terribly wrong. Max refuses to believe that Gloss did it. But if not Gloss, who? Desperate to figure out truth in the wake of tragedy, Max veers dangerously close to being implicated—and his own memories of that awful night are fuzzy.

Both sharp-edged thriller and moving coming-of-age, this gorgeously wrought novel is perfect for readers who want stories with trans characters front-and-center.

My Review

I’m going to go ahead and admit that I laughed at some things in this book that I don’t think were meant to be funny. For example, at one point, the main character is making a point that he’s noticing some recovery from previous depression. He says something like, “I’m finally asking myself normal questions, like ‘do I want to do mushrooms in the woods with a girl I might like.” And I don’t want to minimize the shift in his mental state or the joy of noticing a new distance from depressed thoughts.

But also, I couldn’t help laughing at how differently I defined “normal questions” in my own high school experience. It struck me funny.

Interesting comparisons aside, though, Max’s emotional journey through the book really packs a punch. The story travels from him peeling apart his feelings about an ex he’s not over to exploring new feelings for a girl who might be too cool for him to reeling from grief over a sudden loss. Every emotion felt real and raw, drawing me deep into Max’s story.

The cover copy hints that Max grapples with hazy memories of the time of the murder, but the story doesn’t really focus on that much. It’s much more about Max trying desperately to understand why this person died and what the relationship meant to him. Those threads are so well-spun that I rocketed through the book from start to finish.

I think readers who enjoy Caleb Roehrig’s mystery books will love this one.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 16 up.

Representation
Max is a transgender boy. A minor character is Black. Another character is gay but closeted.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used somewhat frequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between two boys. In one scene, two boys go into a tent to have sex. We know they undress and that one asks the other permission to have sex, and the scene fades to black. In another scene, a group of teens decides to skinny dip at the beach. Some people choose to keep their shirts on.

Spiritual Content
None.

Violent Content
Kids at school (often boys) bully Max after he comes out as transgender. They misgender him on purpose and shoulder-check him as he walks by. A boy shoves Max against a wall and kisses him hard enough to bruise and split his lip.

References to Max’s mom using his deadname. She misgenders him repeatedly in the couple of scenes where she appears.

Someone dies of a cut throat. One scene shows them dying.

Drug Content
Max smokes pot and drinks alcohol with his friends in multiple scenes. In one scene, he and a girl drink mushroom tea. In another, a girl pushes a pill from her mouth into his.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything but help support this blog. I received a free copy of NO ONE LEFT BUT YOU in exchange for my honest review.

Review: I Feed Her to the Beast and the Beast Is Me by Jamison Shea

I Feed Her to the Beast and the Beast is Me
Jamison Shea
Henry Holt & Co.
Published August 29, 2023

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About I Feed Her to the Beast and the Beast is Me

There will be blood.

ACE OF SPADES meets HOUSE OF HOLLOW in this villain origin story.

Laure Mesny is a perfectionist with an axe to grind. Despite being constantly overlooked in the elite and cutthroat world of the Parisian ballet, she will do anything to prove that a Black girl can take center stage. To level the playing field, Laure ventures deep into the depths of the Catacombs and strikes a deal with a pulsating river of blood.

The primordial power Laure gains promises influence and adoration, everything she’s dreamed of and worked toward. With retribution on her mind, she surpasses her bitter and privileged peers, leaving broken bodies behind her on her climb to stardom.

But even as undeniable as she is, Laure is not the only monster around. And her vicious desires make her a perfect target for slaughter. As she descends into madness and the mystifying underworld beneath her, she is faced with the ultimate choice: continue to break herself for scraps of validation or succumb to the darkness that wants her exactly as she is—monstrous heart and all. That is, if the god-killer doesn’t catch her first.

From debut author Jamison Shea comes I FEED HER TO THE BEAST AND THE BEAST IS ME, a slow-burn horror that lifts a veil on the institutions that profit on exclusion and the toll of giving everything to a world that will never love you back.

My Review

First, I have to say this author either has some up-close experience in the dance world or definitely did their research. The descriptions of what dancing en pointe does to your toes… YUP. Brought back so many memories. Wowza. Not the horrific element I expected to find here, but pretty real stuff nonetheless! Ha.

I found myself nodding along to a lot of the dance descriptions, like the ways the dancers do things, from breaking in a pair of shoes to techniques used on the dance floor. That’s a lot of stuff to get right, and the author really did that. It very much lines up with my own experience.

I thought Laure’s character was really compelling. I liked the moments she delivered commentary on the ballets the company chose to perform and how they were cast, as well as the expectations about how dancers were to look and act.

In some moments, I felt out of sync with the paranormal/supernatural parts of the plot. I felt like I was missing something. I’m not sure if I didn’t absorb a few critical details or what exactly happened there.

Still, so many parts of the book deeply fascinated me. I especially liked Keturah and Andor and the ways they impacted the story. I loved the complications Andor faced in his love life, too. It was so different and really emphasized the strangeness of the story.

On the whole, I am glad I read the book. I loved getting to be immersed in a ballet world– even one so toxic and tragic as this one.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
The main character is Black and queer.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used somewhat infrequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between boy and girl.

Spiritual Content
Laure and her friends encounter a river of blood and an ancient god who offers them temporary gifts for a price.

Violent Content
Graphic descriptions of dance injuries and injuries resulting from sabotage. Situations of peril. Laure discovers the bodies of two people who appear to have been murdered. One scene includes graphic descriptions of torture. Another includes a battle between two god-powered characters. In a couple of scenes, a character drinks blood from another person.

Drug Content
Laure, seventeen, drinks alcohol with an older dancer.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of I FEED HER TO THE BEAST AND THE BEAST IS ME in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Secrets Never Die by Vincent Ralph

Secrets Never Die
Vincent Ralph
Wednesday Books
Published August 29, 2023

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About Secrets Never Die

We call it the Dark Place. I don’t know who built it or when but, for us, it’s special.

Every year Sam Hall and his friends hold funerals for their secrets in an abandoned hut in the woods that they call the Dark Place. But this year, their secrets are coming back from the dead…to terrorize them.

Sam is a former child star whose career went up in flames – literally. And no one, not even his best friend knows why. His friends each hold a secret pertaining to the night. A secret they would all like buried.

Now someone from the past is blackmailing them with their dangerous secrets. Sam isn’t sure who he can trust, who’s watching him – or how far he’s willing to go to bury the past once and for all.

When you’re alone in the dark, some things won’t stay hidden.

My Review

This isn’t my favorite genre, but I feel like I’m growing to appreciate it more through books like YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO DIE TONIGHT and ONE OF US IS NEXT.

I liked that SECRETS NEVER DIE starts with a close-knit friend group, in which everyone hides a secret. I definitely didn’t predict the direction that some of those secrets took the story. There were a few things that I did successfully predict. They were pretty minor, though, so mostly, that made it satisfying that I was right.

One particular plot bend shifted the focus of the story away from the main characters. I found some of the things that happened at that juncture to be a little less engaging. By that point, though, the stakes of the story were so high, and it seemed like whoever had it out for Sam and his friends was closing in on them.

In one scene, Sam and his girlfriend need to make up after a fight. She sits at her desk reading her favorite book, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER. Sam wants to talk to her, but he says she makes him wait until she gets to the end of the chapter she’s reading. I thought that was funny because PERKS only has four chapters in the whole book, and they’re like 40-60 pages. That’s a LONG wait, unless she happened to be near the end of one already.

On the whole, I think the book does a great job in the way the story builds tension. I liked the characters, and I kept finding reasons to sneak another chapter in so I could keep reading.

I think readers who enjoy suspense/thriller stories will want to check this one out.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
One minor character is gay.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used somewhat frequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between boy and girl. Kissing between two boys. Brief reference to who’s had sex and who hasn’t within Sam’s group.

Spiritual Content
Sam and his friends have a yearly ritual in which they each go into a hut to speak their darkest secrets, to release themselves from guilt over their pasts.

Violent Content
Situations of peril. More than one person faces danger from a fire. One character survives a suicide attempt. Characters receive threatening messages and creepy items. Two characters are in a car accident. Someone attacks others with a knife. In one scene, a child appears to be in danger.

Drug Content
Teens drink alcohol at a Halloween party.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of SECRETS NEVER DIE in exchange for my honest review.

Review: The Reunion by Kit Frick

The Reunion
Kit Frick
Margaret K. McElderry Books
Published August 29, 2023

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About The Reunion

From the author of I KILLED ZOE SPANOS comes a YA thriller in the vein of THE WHITE LOTUS and Karen M. McManus’s THE COUSINS following a doomed family reunion gone wrong at a posh Caribbean resort, where old grudges and dangerous secrets culminate in murder.

Eleven Mayweathers went on vacation. Ten came home.

It’s been years since the fragmented Mayweather clan was all in one place, but the engagement of Addison and Mason’s mom to the dad of their future stepbrother, Theo, brings the whole family to sunny Cancún, Mexico, for winter break. Add cousin Natalia to the mix, and it doesn’t take long for tempers to fray and tensions to rise. A week of forced family “fun” reveals that everyone has something to hide, and as secrets bubble to the surface, no one is safe from the fallout. By the end of the week, one member of the reunion party will be dead—and everyone’s a suspect:
The peacekeeper: Addison needs a better hiding place.
The outsider: Theo just wants to mend fences.
The romantic: Natalia doesn’t want to talk about the past.
The hothead: Mason needs to keep his temper under control.

It started as a week in paradise meant to bring them together. But the Mayweathers are about to learn the hard way that family bonding can be deadly.

My Review

I KILLED ZOE SPANOS was one of those books I really wanted to read but wasn’t able to get a review copy of and haven’t (thus far) managed to pull from my backlist. All that to say that I’ve been looking forward to reading a book by Kit Frick, and THE REUNION is the first one I’ve read.

One of the things I found really intriguing about this book is the amount of screen time the soon-to-be-dead person gets. I don’t read tons of thrillers, so I’m not sure how commonly this is done. I can’t think of another book that I’ve read that does this, though. In any case, I found the idea that I got so much information about the murder victim really cool.

The story is told from four points of view. The twins, Addison and Mason, each share their perspectives. Their cousin Natalia and their stepbrother-to-be Theo also tell the story from their viewpoints. As the outsider to the family, Theo has the least backstory drama, though he plays a pivotal role in some of the other characters’ conflicts. I think he was probably my favorite character. I loved Natalia, too.

Something about the book reminded me a little bit of BAD THINGS HAPPEN HERE by Rebecca Barrow, which I really liked. Both books include really wealthy characters who are used to getting what they want and explosive secrets. I think fans of Karen McManus will enjoy this one, and I’m even more eager now to check out I KILLED ZOE SPANOS.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
Natalia and her sister Mia are biracial: white and Puerto Rican. They have two moms. Theo is bisexual.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used somewhat frequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Some references to being attracted to someone off-limits.

Spiritual Content
None.

Violent Content
Addison and Mason’s dad is an alcoholic with anger issues who crashed his car while driving drunk, injuring his family members. References to a past accidental death. One scene very briefly tells about a boy beating up another boy. Some descriptions of a man losing his temper and accidentally or purposely injuring a restaurant worker. One scene briefly describes a person’s death.

Drug Content
Adults drink alcohol at the resort. One adult buys alcohol for a teenage boy and pressures another boy to drink with him.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of THE REUNION in exchange for my honest review.

Their Vicious Games by Joelle Wellington

Their Vicious Games
Joelle Wellington
Simon & Schuster
Published July 25, 2023

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About Their Vicious Games

A Black teen desperate to regain her Ivy League acceptance enters an elite competition only to discover the stakes aren’t just high, they’re deadly, in this searing thriller that’s Ace of Spades meets Squid Game with a sprinkling of The Bachelor .

You must work twice as hard to get half as much.

Adina Walker has known this the entire time she’s been on scholarship at the prestigious Edgewater Academy—a school for the rich (and mostly white) upper class of New England. It’s why she works so hard to be perfect and above reproach, no matter what she must force beneath the surface. Even one slip can cost you everything.

And it does. One fight, one moment of lost control, leaves Adina blacklisted from her top choice Ivy League college and any other. Her only chance to regain the future she’s sacrificed everything for is the Finish, a high-stakes contest sponsored by Edgewater’s founding family in which twelve young, ambitious women with exceptional promise are selected to compete in three mysterious the Ride, the Raid, and the Royale. The winner will be granted entry into the fold of the Remington family, whose wealth and power can open any door.

But when she arrives at the Finish, Adina quickly gets the feeling that something isn’t quite right with both the Remingtons and her competition, and soon it becomes clear that this larger-than-life prize can only come at an even greater cost. Because the Finish’s stakes aren’t just make or break…they’re life and death.

Adina knows the deck is stacked against her—it always has been—so maybe the only way to survive their vicious games is for her to change the rules.

My Review

This book reads something like an upper-class LORD OF THE FLIES. At first, the girls committed to the game called the Finish believe it’s a week of puzzles and games. At the end, a powerful, well-connected, wealthy family grants the winner’s wish. Once the game begins, they learn they’ll be expected to play hard, sabotage one another, and even kill the other competitors.

At first, they seem reluctant. But as the game progresses and the stakes ratchet higher, it seems that Adina, who is determined to survive without killing anyone, maybe the only one unwilling to shed blood.

The pacing is quick, with challenges and social games often happening in back-to-back scenes. At times, the characters seemed a bit caricature-like. However, that exaggerated style lent itself well to the kind of twisted, psychologically on-edge story told here.

I liked Adina’s character and her determination to stay true to herself despite the chaos and danger around her. I also liked the way the romantic elements were handled in the book. If things had wrapped up neatly, I think it would have been unbelievable or too easy.

On the whole, I think readers looking for a dark, twisty game with a commentary on classism will find a lot to like in this book. Readers who enjoyed THE MARVELOUS by Claire Kann or TO BEST THE BOYS by Mary Weber will also want to check out THEIR VICIOUS GAMES.

Content Notes for Their Vicious Games

Recommended for Ages 16 up.

Representation
Adina is Black. Her best friend is biracial. Another friend is Chinese and lives in Europe. Two minor characters (girls) are maybe in a secret relationship.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used pretty frequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between boy and girl. In one scene, a boy and girl sleep in the same bed.

Spiritual Content
None.

Violent Content
Several scenes show characters violently attacking one another. In one scene, a game of Simon Says turns torturous. The caller asks the players to slap each other and stab themselves with a fork.

Drug Content
Some characters (including Adina) drink alcohol. One character is rumored to drink too much and use recreational drugs. Adina finds a bag of weed on someone’s dresser.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of THEIR VICIOUS GAMES in exchange for my honest review.