YA Thriller/Suspense

A LESSON IN VENGEANCE by Victoria Lee

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Dalloway is much the same as Felicity left it nearly a year ago. The floors of the old dorm still creak, and there’s still an aura of mystery from the ancient bones on which the boarding school was built, the witch who was buried alive and the other four witches who perished in equally gruesome but less explicable ways. But this year there’s a new ghost haunting the halls: Felicity’s girlfriend Alex.

In the year that Felicity was away, the doctors at the psychiatric hospital tried to convince her that Alex’s accidental death wasn’t her fault and that magic isn’t real. There is no way that the rituals she and Alex performed could have released the ghost of a witch. She promised the doctors and her mother that if they let her go back to school this year, she wouldn’t dabble in magic and she would choose a new topic for her senior thesis, one that wouldn’t require more research in to the history of the Dalloway witches. But one of her new dorm-mates is Ellis Haley, the eccentric, Pulitzer-winning teen novelist, and Ellis believes that Felicity’s doctors are wrong. The only way for Felicity to come to terms with the past is to face it–to return to the rituals and the study of the witches and to act out their murders–proving once and for all that humans and not evil spirits were the culprits. As Felicity gets sucked back into the dark world she swore she’d left behind, she is forced to face the darkness in the girls around her–and in herself.

This novel walks the line between psychological thriller and horror. (For me, most of the suspense came from the atmosphere and the questionable sanity of the narrator, so it felt more like Kingian horror than a thriller.) Character drives the novel, and though the key reveals weren’t particularly surprising, the suspense and tension are so high throughout that I had trouble putting it down. I’d recommend it to fans of the genre(s), especially readers who enjoyed books like WHEN ALL THE GIRLS ARE SLEEPING by Emily Arsenault.

A Lesson in Vengeance

WHEN ALL THE GIRLS ARE SLEEPING by Emily Arsenault

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It’s almost a full year after Taylor died when the video comes to Hayley’s inbox. Hayley assumes it’s The Video, the one Taylor took of Jocelyn and Charlie making out and subsequently posted to social media, causing Jocelyn to change schools. But when she clicks the file, it’s something very different: Taylor in her room at the boarding school, eyes wide in terror as whispers come out of the darkness around her.

Hayley never fully accepted the official explanation of Taylor’s death (marijuana-induced suicide) but the video makes her wonder if one of the many people she hurt was targeting her. Or… Hayley never believed the stories of the ghost that supposedly haunts the senior dorm each winter, but there are some things in the video that are difficult to explain. As she digs deeper into the history of the school and its ghost, patterns begin to emerge, leading Hayley to the alarming conclusion that not only might the ghost be real, but another senior girl might be this winter’s target.

I read this book in one day–could not wait to find out what happened! There were so many red herrings that complicated the mystery, plus the horror-like ghost story atmosphere added a lot of suspense. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Highly recommend to YA mystery and psychological thriller fans!

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

When All the Girls Are Sleeping by Emily Arsenault: 9780593180792 |  PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books

ROOM SERVICE by Maren Stoffels

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When they arrive at the fancy hotel to celebrate Kate’s birthday, the four friends have an unspoken rule: they will not mention Isolde or the horrible events of 364 days ago.

But the stalker that’s been following them has other ideas.

Fender, Isolde’s ex, seems to be his main target. He leaves Isolde’s suicide note in a golden envelope on a room service tray outside Fender’s room. Next is the newspaper clipping with Isolde’s obituary. Fender wants to keep these things to himself, but when the stalker tries to abduct Linnea–the new girl who had nothing to do with the tragedy surrounding Isolde–he realizes they’re in too deep to keep secrets. If they want to stay alive, the four friends will have to play by the stalker’s rules and try to get a step ahead. Otherwise, they’ll all end up like Isolde: dead.

I usually guess twists in YA thrillers (and to be fair I guessed a couple of the twists in this one) but the ending still managed to surprise me! Fans of the genre will love the suspense, the character building, the subversion of tropes, and the big reveals. It also has some crossover horror appeal (four kids trapped in a hotel with a lunatic but for some inexplicable reason do not call the police when it is obvious that they should be calling the police why are they not calling the police??!!). If you’re in the mood for a fun page-turner, check this one out!

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Room Service by Maren Stoffels: 9780593175989 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

THAT WEEKEND by Kara Thomas

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When Claire’s ex cheated on her, her dreams of a fun prom weekend evaporated. Maybe that’s why she accepted her best friend Kat’s offer to join her and her boyfriend at her grandmother’s lake house in the mountains. She should have said no. A weekend away with Kat and Jesse would either be torture or another opportunity for her to let it slip how in love with him she’s been all these years.

But Claire could never have imagined the horrors that would actually occur that weekend. In fact, she can’t even remember them. She was the only one who descended the mountain at the end of it–with a head wound and amnesia and covered in someone else’s blood. As the days pass and her closest friends change from “missing” to “presumed dead,” Claire is the only one who might be able to uncover the truth of what really happened on the Saturday that’s missing from her memories.

I’d recommend this one to readers who like thrillers that are driven by twists and suspense and care less about character development. Most of the interesting character building starts about 50% of the way through, when Claire finally makes the jump from amnesic victim to amateur investigator. Since I prefer character-driven narratives, it wasn’t until that halfway point that I really connected with the story, and even then, some of the twists weren’t founded enough for me. But there were lots of twists, and because the novel started with full-throttle suspense, thriller readers who don’t need that character connection will be sucked in immediately.

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher to write this review.

That Weekend by [Kara Thomas]

SMOKE by Darcy Woods

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Honor’s dad has suffered from flashbacks since he returned from Iraq before she was born, but lately they seem to be getting worse. When she discovers a letter in his dresser announcing a change to his benefits–and a loss of money they count on to make ends meet–Honor is horrified to imagine losing the house. Or worse, losing the greenhouse business that’s their livelihood. Honor doesn’t want to burden her older brother, who already takes it upon himself to protect her from bullies, so she comes up with a plan on her own. If she could set up her own grow-room, she could sell marijuana, just until she earns enough money to pay off the family’s debt. But breaking into the drug business has its dangers, and when she begins to suspect that her bullies aren’t behind all of the mysterious harassments she’s been facing, Honor has to decide what she’s willing to sacrifice–and who she wants to be.

So refreshing to find a book “about” PTSD that isn’t soul-crushing! The depiction of Honor’s dad’s mental illness is gritty and real–as is the anxiety Honor experiences as a result–but what this book is really about is the lengths to which a person will go to help the people they love. So despite the heavy thematic material, the suspense and thriller elements, and the nebulous shades of morality, hope and love are consistent threads. For all her questionable choices, Honor’s deep, emotional motivations compel readers to cheer for her–even at the moments where we’re watching her destroy a relationship. This book is excellent. The drug trade might preclude it from many classrooms and book clubs, but there is a lot of meat for discussion here. I highly recommend it to fans of YA contemporary and character-driven thrillers.

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher to write this review.

Amazon.com: Smoke (9780593305904): Woods, Darcy: Books

TELL ME WHEN YOU FEEL SOMETHING by Vicki Grant

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Davida has known Viv for seven years. She knows Viv wouldn’t have taken Ecstasy. She doesn’t even drink! But she can tell the cop doesn’t believe her. He just thinks Viv is another drugged up kid ended up in a coma through her own bad choices. And maybe he’s right. Davida’s seen the videos of the party. It’s obvious the pill Viv took wasn’t a multivitamin. As Davida struggles to come to terms with her own misconceptions about her friend, her own musings and the police officer’s investigation keep circling back to the hospital where Davida and Viv both worked as simulated medical patients and the unconventional relationships between teen volunteers and staff.

This one is a page-turner! A self-professed #MeToo book, TELL ME WHEN YOU FEEL SOMETHING needs a trigger warning for scenes of sexual assault. Though the rape survivor spends the book in a coma and is unable to pursue justice for herself, the heroine is also a young woman whom the sexual predator has been grooming. There’s plenty of misdirection and suspense that make the book difficult to put down, but I missed a certain amount of character depth found in other #MeToo books–even thrillers (think: GROWN)–possibly due to the split of narration between the survivor, her friend, a boyfriend, and police interrogation transcripts. But as a thriller, it delivered, and I’d recommend it to mature fans of the genre.

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher to write this review.

Amazon.com: Tell Me When You Feel Something (9780735270091): Grant, Vicki:  Books

THE EXISTENCE OF BEA PEARL by Candice Marley Conner

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Bea’s brother has ceased to exist.

At least it seems that way when the whole town turns out to his funeral, even though there’s no body, even though he’s only been missing for six months, even though Bea saw someone rescue him from the flood waters. But her parents and the sheriff have written her off as crazy and insisted on declaring him dead so that Bea could move on with her life.

Of course no one asked Bea what she wanted, and she has no intention of moving on. When she finds the out-of-towner who pulled her brother from the flood, she begins her own investigation into Jim’s disappearance. But her small Alabama town has more secrets than she imagined, and every clue she finds seems to complicate the case. As her detective work begins to attract attention, Bea starts to wonder whether Jim got himself mixed up in something seriously dangerous–or if maybe she’s as crazy as everyone believes.

This new title checks all the boxes you look for in a teen thriller: a kidnapping, parental drama, a supportive but skeptical BFF, a love triangle, ill-defined danger, and a protagonist you’re not sure you can trust. While it’s not in the same league as a Megan Miranda or a Karen McManus, the lower intensity and lack of violence allows this thriller to skew younger, and it might have an easier time getting past gatekeepers. (FYI, there are references to drugs, but the teens don’t use the drugs, and it felt a bit like “drugs” was the token crime the way that every Hardy Boys book seems to involve smugglers…) I’d put THE EXISTENCE OF BEA PEARL in the hands of a thriller-hungry reader in grade 8 or above.

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher to write this review.

The Existence Of Bea Pearl - By Candice Marley Conner (paperback) : Target

FIGHT FOR HER by Liz Plum

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When her brother Max died, something inside Scarlett broke. Being alone was almost torture–a chance for her mind to spin out of control in an eddy of what ifs. Fortunately, since she started dating Jack, she’s rarely had to be alone. Between attending Jack’s football games and parties, hanging out with Jack’s friends, studying, and working at her dad’s auto mechanic shop, Scarlett is almost too busy to think.

But after a chance encounter with the school freak, Elijah, makes her realize the effect of Jack’s bullying, she starts to see the flaws in her relationship. And when she and Elijah become friends, she gets sucked into an underground boxing ring and uncovers secrets from her past.

Though you wouldn’t know it from my blurb above, the second half of the book reads like a thriller–street fighting, guns, gangs, murder… But the gradual, romance-centered start makes FIGHT FOR HER a much better pick for fans of YA contemporary/romance than for the mystery/thriller crowd. Pick it up if you like love triangles and bad boys.

ROSIE LOVES JACK by Mel Darbon

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When Jack doesn’t arrive at the cafe on time, Rose knows something is wrong. She races up the hill to their inclusive college and is just in time to share one last hug with Jack before the police take him away. He’s had another outburst, and this time, he’ll need to go to a special facility to help with controlling his anger.

Rose’s dad is happy that Jack has been sent away. He tells Rose to forget him and confiscates all the postcards Jack sends her. But Rose can’t forget Jack. She loves him. And she knows that her dad is being overprotective because she has Down syndrome. Rose is not going to let her dad or her disability keep her away from Jack. She runs away from home, determined to find Jack in his new home in Brighton. But a fierce snowstorm turns her travel plans awry, and Rose will need to rely on her thinking cap and her love for Jack to survive the dangerous journey ahead.

Heads up: this book gets DARK…. Rose’s journey pits her against bullies, thieves, and even sex traffickers. As she faces each challenge, her love for Jack and hope for their future keep her from giving up. While Darbon does an excellent job in creating Rose’s voice and an action-packed plot, she falls short on Rose’s overall character development. The romance is certainly heartwarming–and shows Rose’s acting with her own agency when her parents want to limit her choices–but throughout the book, Rose defines herself only in terms of her relationship with Jack. It was really all I knew about her interests by the end of the book: Jack, Jack’s artwork, her future marriage to Jack. This would annoy me in any romance, but is particularly disappointing in a romance featuring a couple with disabilities.

The strength of the book is Rose’s courage in facing–and ultimately assisting the police to take down–the sex traffickers. Her “friendship” with the fifteen-year-old imprisoned in the brothel and the ways in which they ultimately help one another was my favorite aspect of the book. And the courage she finds to go to the police in the end is incredible. The challenges she faces would (and do) daunt even typically-abled characters, and you will reach the end of the novel knowing that Rose’s disability does not make her weak.

In short, I’d recommend ROSIE LOVES JACK as a thriller or contemporary fiction with a unique narrative voice, but as a romance ft. a couple with disabilities, I wish it were more nuanced.

GROWN by Tiffany D. Jackson

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Enchanted needs to sing like she needs to breathe. The white girls at her school say she sounds like Beyonce, but that’s only because they don’t know many Black singers. Enchanted’s passion is the classic singers–the ones she and her grandma used to sing along with–Gladys Knight, Aretha, Nina Simone.

When she auditions for Music LIVE, the judges aren’t impressed with her dated sing choice or her timid performance, but 28 year old superstar Korey Fields is. He convinces her parents to let Enchanted tour with him, his newest protege. But there’s a darkness to Korey that Enchanted didn’t see at first, and the whirlwind that she thought would lead her to fame and love instead carries her down into terror, abuse, and ultimately a pool of blood on the floor of Korey’s penthouse.

I cannot adequately express how powerful and moving this book is. Enchanted’s voice is so strong. Even with the immense power her abuser holds over her, even when she is confused and heartbroken and doubting herself, she holds on. She fights when she’s able (and when she isn’t able to fight emotionally, mentally, the author makes it very clear that it is NOT her fault that she is in this situation). And she survives.

And the community around her! Reading this book as an adult and a parent, I wept at some of the scenes where her parents defend her. Jackson incorporates their voices directly through police interview transcripts and minutes of mom group meetings to provide a deeper perspective on how a whole community is affected by and responds to the violent abuses of a powerful man. Not all adults react in a positive way, but many do–from the parents, to the psychiatrist, to the flight attendant who notices something amiss. A reader will come away from this book knowing that there is help out there. That they are not alone in their experiences and they do not need to be alone in their rescue and recovery. As dark as the subject matter is, a reader will come away from this book with hope.

TW: This book could definitely trigger survivors of sexual violence and/or abusive relationships, but FWIW it didn’t trigger me. I think it was the strength of Enchanted’s voice and the knowledge from Chapter One that she will escape–that there will be some form of justice–that kept me from going to a dark place. But every survivor’s journey is different, so definitely exercise caution.