Into the Light by Mark Oshiro

Into the Light

Into the Light is a YA suspense/thriller that tackles the US fostering system, religious ideology, family, and finding your true place in a world full of prejudice, discrimination, and injustice.

I always love a culty premise, so I didn't hesitate to ask for an ARC when I found this on NetGalley. I found Manny's homelessness and defenselessness compelling and heart-wrenching. His mistrust of anyone willing to help him was sad but realistic, when you take into account the poor foster care system in the US.

Despite liking the premise and enjoying Manny's character, the pacing of the novel was all over the place. The first 75% was too slow; there was a great deal of repetition, and it felt like not much happened until the big reveal. From then on, it was a sprint to the finish. The book would have been more gripping if it had been shorter and Manny didn't spend so much time getting to Idyllwild.

The following contains some minor spoilers.

I didn't appreciate the unexpected reveal. Having a supernatural twist made the rest of the novel seem bland in comparison. If there was an otherworldly presence at the camp, why hadn't it ever been tapped before? Why not use that to bolster the cult's following and create an atmosphere outside of what can already be stripped from the headlines? I feel that, with the twist, the book lost a lot of weight.

End of spoilers.

Despite the pacing and twist issues, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who likes reading about religious camps, cults, and found family.

*Thanks to Tor and NetGalley for the ARC.*

How Can I Help You by Laura Sims

How Can I Help You

How Can I Help You is a dual narrative that follows two unlikable characters: Margo (a nurse in hiding) and Patricia (a failed novelist turned reference librarian).

While I thought the premise sounded great—I love novels set in libraries and thought a thriller set in one was a great idea—the story didn't feel fully formed. The main characters are terrible people, and generally I wouldn't take issue with unlikable characters. However, I feel cheated as a reader when they feel partially developed or unrealistic. Margo's "desires" are written in a way that is meant to unsettle but comes off exaggerated on paper. Patricia is annoying, constantly talking about her failed novel while penning a new one, using Margo as her muse. There was nothing to her character other than "I will do anything to be become a published novelist". As a writer, I found this overblown and obnoxious. There needed to be more to her character, and Margo's. Sure, Margo's past is revealed—fairly vaguely, I might add—but none of it mattered at all to me.

I also really disliked the sprint of an ending. It was rushed and sloppy, as if Sims couldn't be done with the story fast enough.

As an occasional reader of thrillers, I realize much of my gripes are likely my tastes and not a jab at this novel in particular. While I didn't love this book, I didn't hate it either. I read it in one sitting, so it gripped me from the start. It just left me wanting something with more depth by the end.

*Thanks to Putnam and NetGalley for the ARC.*

The Yellow Oak by Victor Vahl


If you're looking for something weird and dreamy with a fair amount of body and psychological horror sprinkled in, The Yellow Oak might be the book for you.

Victor Vahl crafted an intriguing story about two men who get lost in a forest run by living, cannibalistic trees. Though the premise is decent, and much of the visuals are fantastic, I was hoping for more atmosphere. I would have appreciated a slower pace to build up the tension and flesh out the characters. My favorite thing about psychological horror, and what really makes House of Leaves phenomenal, is the slow build toward the climax. Not everything is thrown at you at once, meaning there's a ton of detail and hints at the full picture before the terror is revealed. In The Yellow Oak, things happen to Rye and Spencer too early. Due to the near-immediate dive into the horror, I didn't care about what happened to the characters. Backstory came too late; I already felt detached from the main cast when the story reached its peak.

From the editorial side of things (and how could I not touch on it given my background in copy editing), the diction was occasionally problematic. There were plenty of words that took me out of the narrative. It felt like the author had a thesaurus handy and ended up choosing words that were technically synonymous with the obvious word but that didn't fit within the text. This is where I'd have to side with Stephen King's advice; the first word you choose/write is likely the one you should use. Don't worry so much about how sophisticated your prose sounds. The point is to tell a great story and you hinder your reader's enjoyment if they have to weed through odd words and/or phrases. When in doubt, keep it simple.

Overall, the book was interesting and I had no idea where it was going the majority of the time. Though not everything worked for me, I'm sure it will appease much of the horror/thriller fan base.

The Fallen in Soura Heights by Amanda Jaeger


*I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review.*

The Fallen in Soura Heights is a phenomenal thriller debut. Fey is a great protagonist and Soura Heights is the perfect backdrop for a murder mystery. From the first page, I was hooked. It didn't hurt that the characters were compelling and the descriptions of the landscape and town were easy to visualize. Though the "twist" was an easy call, I appreciated the way everything played out. Amanda Jaeger is a writer to watch out for.

I recommend picking up this quick read if you enjoy a good thriller/mystery.

The Mad Girl by Andrew Colvin


*I received a copy in exchange for an honest review. *

The Mad Girl, at its core, is about trauma. Cee Stark finds herself under the influence of a cultish priest who instills in her shaky beliefs and questionable coping mechanisms. Because she believes so strongly in slaying the evil in the world and rewriting her story, Cee lashes out at a man who attacks her in the neighborhood park. Once the police take on the case, it soon becomes clear that nothing is quite what it seems.

What Worked

  1. Suspense and tension were sprinkled throughout, offering a fist-clenching read. It was difficult to determine who was telling the truth, and that's exactly what readers are looking for.
  2. Each character had an arc. Everyone had baggage or trauma they were attempting to cope with, offering more intricate storylines.
  3. I appreciated how unreliable Cee's scenes were. I could never tell whether her recollection of an event was true.
  4. A great deal of time was spent on the case. Oftentimes, writers don't put a lot of time into police matters unless it is an explicit detective novel.

What Didn't

  1. Instead of using typical descriptions, there were many mixed or otherwise confusing metaphors. It wasn't uncommon to have to reread a sentence to understand its meaning.
  2. Much of the dialogue was wonky. Either the conversations were too robotic or too concise. The sentence "Understand." was used multiple times in place of "I understand" or "understood". It was jarring and often took me out of the scene.
  3. The teen interactions were not accurate or realistic. As the story is set in late 2012, and I graduated high school in 2011, I feel I can say the following with confidence.
  4. On a similar note, girls would have generally avoided Chris Holman after how he treated other girls. Not everyone wants to be popular, especially when the only way to reach popularity is to sleep with the biggest asshole on campus.

Overall, I enjoyed the read. There were aspects of the plot I found lacking or didn't fully appreciate but I was gripped by the story and wanted to know how it ended.

The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins


*Warning: spoilers ahead!*

The Wife Upstairs is a passable retelling of Jane Eyre. I’d like to note that, apart from the names of the main characters and the “wife in the attic” plotline, there’s virtually nothing Hawkins includes from the original text.

Now, let’s assume (incorrectly) that I’ve never read Jane Eyre and, therefore, have no complaints about what did and did not make it into The Wife Upstairs. I’ll begin with Jane. She’s shallow, judgmental, and annoying. Her backstory was bland, though Hawkins did her best to offer her an arc — and perhaps an explanation — as to why she is so devoid of feeling. You can’t sympathize with her, unless you’re a reader who roots for the snotty young adult who believes she deserves everything handed to her just because she had a rough childhood.

Then we have Bea. She’s the perfect everything: wife, businesswoman, friend. That is, until she turns out to be anything but. All I can say is read the novel and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Eddie is your run-of-the-mill rich dude. He’s attractive enough but there’s nothing else to his character. He’s shallow, going after Bea initially because he knew she had money. Jane sees him as a ticket out of her mediocre life, even if his wife recently disappeared and everyone in Thornfield Estates is suspicious of their relationship. There’s nothing to him; he might as well be a cardboard cutout of the stereotypical wealthy male.

The ending, without spoiling anything, is lame. After reading Hawkins’ acknowledgments, I was surprised to find that this novel was her response to believing Jane Eyre deserved better from Rochester. If anything, she makes out much better in Charlotte Bronte’s work.

Overall, this book was okay. I was mostly interested in how the author intended to turn Jane Eyre into a modern thriller. I wasn’t surprised to feel dissatisfied after closing the book and returning it to the shelf, longing to reread the classic novel it borrowed from.