fiction · horror · YA

#TheWriteReads Blogtour Presents: Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis

Welcome to the latest stop on TheWriteReads’ blog tour for Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis (Penguin, 2020). Harrow Lake is a young adult thriller, and you’re going to want to turn on every light in the house before you crack the spine on this one- or start reading long before it gets dark.

The book begins with an interview with Nolan Nox, famed horror movie director, whose daughter had gone missing a year before. Fall back in time and the story is now narrated by Lola Nox. After finding her father having been stabbed, Lola is unceremoniously shipped off to Harrow Lake, Indiana, to the home of a strange, distant grandmother she’s never met before, the mother of Lola’s own mother, who left, then disappeared, when Lola was five. Harrow Lake, the filming site of Nightjar, Nolan’s most famous film, is a spooky town. Collapsed mines that led to hundreds of deaths have provided the town myriad legends, including one resident-turned-mine-dwelling-cannibal, Mr. Jitters. Refusing to believe in stories, Lola begins to comb Harrow Lake for information, hoping to get to know the mother she barely remembers, but her search is impeded at every step.

Creepy townfolk. Eerie abandoned, caved-in mines with a collapsed church inside. A grandmother that seems half-mad on her best days. A mysterious figure who always seems to be watching Lola. Tiny hand-carved wooden insects that skitter and chatter on their own. Ominous shapes that move behind the wallpaper. NO INTERNET OR PHONE SERVICE. It’s every horror movie you’ve ever watched packed into one spine-chilling book, and Lola will need to gather all her wits about her if she wants to really learn the truth about Harrow Lake and what happened to her mother.

EEK. This was SUPER creepy. I haven’t read horror in years, but I loved it as a kid, and I deeply loved horror movies when I was young, so this was a flashback to my younger days. The hand carved wooden ‘jitterbugs’ in Lola’s mother’s room creeped me the HECK out, as did the constant references to Mr. Jitters. Harrow Lake seems about the worst vacation destination ever, and the weirdo townspeople add the perfect touch. Kat Ellis has really created a terrifying place- not quite Children of the Corn weird, but Gatlin and Harrow Lake could be sister cities.

Ms. Ellis really knows how to keep the reader guessing. It’s cliched to say that there are twists and turns on every page, but it’s the absolute truth here. Weirdness abounds in Harrow Lake and Lola, who is trapped there, is constantly thrown off by someone’s odd behavior, a strange noise, the phone lines not working, something else terrifying happening in the woods. It’s a mark of good horror writing for the reader to have their guard up THIS often because the terror never stops, and I don’t know how many times I said some version of, “OMG, just get on the road and WALK back home!”

The ending is as twisty as it gets, with a majorly satisfying conclusion that I found to be absolutely brilliant (and will remember Lola’s friend’s tactic should I ever need to use it!). Harrow Lake is a wild ride through a town I never, EVER want to visit. I’ll stay at home, where there are no collapsed-mine-mass-graves-with-creepy-cannibal-monster-people. But if you enjoy edge-of-your-seat horror that will keep you guessing until- I’m not at all exaggerating here- the very last pages, you’re going to want a copy of Harrow Lake.

Harrow Lake is set for release on July 9th, 2020.

Thanks to Dave at #TheWriteReads, NetGalley, and Kat Ellis for including me on this tour!

Visit Kat Ellis’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

(If you dare! *spooky laughter*)

fiction

My Sister, the Serial Killer- Oyinkan Braithwaite

And back to the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge! One of their prompts is for a book you meant to read in 2019, and…really, that could apply to a lot of books, but the one that really stuck out in my mind was My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Doubleday Books, 2018). This book made the rounds of the blogs last year and I always wanted to read it, but the only time I came across it in the library, I was already so backed up with books that I knew I’d never get to it if I took it home at that time. So on the shelf it stayed, until my final pre-COVID-19-shutdown trip to the library, where I grabbed it and stashed it in my stack (I still have three books left to read…and like an entire library of books on my own shelves, shhhhhh).

A phone call from Korede’s beautiful younger sister Ayoola more than likely means trouble, and three times now that has proven to be true. Three bodies that Korede has helped move, three clean-ups that she’s now participated in, three dead boyfriends is the number that officially makes her sister a serial killer. But what’s a big sister to do? Protecting her little sister has always been her job…even now, when she doesn’t understand why her sister keeps killing the men she dates.

Korede takes solace in her job as a nurse, unburdening herself to a comatose patient and attempting to begin a romance with her handsome doctor co-worker Tade. Just when it seems like things are beginning to take root, Ayoola shows up at Korede’s work and it only takes one glance from Tade before his gaze is permanently fixed on Ayoola. Korede is not only bitterly hurt, but concerned for Tade’s safety. When her comatose patient awakens with full knowledge of the assistance Korede has given her sister and Tade reveals his plan to propose to Ayoola, things look dire, but there’s more than one inevitable conclusion to this dark story.

My Sister, the Serial Killer was definitely worth the wait. I loved everything about it- the setting (I have a map of the world with little magnetic ‘pins’ hanging on my wall, and I place a pin in the countries where a book I read is set. I was thrilled to be able to place one in Nigeria for this book, which brings me up to 13 different countries so far this year, not counting the US); Korede’s stoic support of her sister, even through her disapproval; Ayoola’s arrogance and narcissism- what a frustrating character!; Tade’s complete buffoonery when it comes to Ayoola; the comatose patient’s reawakening; the very premise itself! Not only is there a female serial killer, she’s young and arrogant enough to assume her sister will always be there to cover up her crimes for her. This is one fascinatingly dark story!

I had some inkling of how the story would end when I spotted the original Nigerian title in the copyright info (you can see it on Goodreads; I won’t post it here in case any of my readers are about to read this book!), and it did ultimately play out in the way I suspected it would, but it was still absolutely worth every second of the read. It’s dark, but not heavy, and it made for a surprisingly fun read, if you can call a book about a serially murdering sister fun. It would make for a fun summer beach read, if you’re lucky enough to be able to read on the beach and not, say, worry your child is going to drown the second she steps off the towel. *laughs nervously*

Have you read and enjoyed this? I’ve heard a few people say it was too dark for them; for me, it was just dark enough, the kind that made me kind of laugh at how terrible Korede’s situation was, like, “GIRL! NO! Don’t help her, just run and change your entire identity!” I’d love to hear your thoughts on this book!

Visit Oyinkan Braithwaite’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Catfishing on CatNet- Naomi Kritzer

The first read (that I’m blogging about; I finished reading The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis out loud to my daughter, but I usually don’t blog about those reads) of the new year, and one of the promts of the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge that I would be the most difficult to fulfill: a book with a robot, cyborg, or AI character. I’m not the world’s biggest sci-fi fan, and I wasn’t quite sure what I would read for this…and then I remembered Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen, 2019), which I’d already requested that my library buy, both thanks to this article on NPR, and other reasons I’ll get to in a bit. It fits this prompt perfectly and kept me on the edge of my seat (and laughing!) until the very last page.

Steph has spent her whole life moving from town to town; she and her mother have been on the run from Steph’s arsonist father for as long as she can remember. Steph knows the rules: don’t get too close to anyone, don’t give out any important information, and never share your picture online. All of these rules have made making friends impossible, but Steph has found solace on CatNet, a social network where cat pictures are currency and where the people in her group (known appropriately as a ‘clowder,’ the term for a group of cats) totally get her, and she gets them. It’s the one place Steph feels like she belongs.

This new school, despite its lack of rigorous academics and its lame sex ed-teaching robot, shows signs of promise. Rachel, an artist, seems like someone Steph could be friends with. But Steph’s past- along with a few mysterious truths- comes calling, and after a member of her clowder steps in to help, she learns this friend isn’t the human being she’d been picturing, but a sentient AI (who goes by the screen name CheshireCat). With Rachel, CheshireCat, and the other members of her clowder, Steph goes on a cross-country dash in order to save herself and her friends, but there’s so much more at stake than just that.

Again: I’m not really a fan of sci-fi, most thrillers that involve people being on the run, robots and AI, etc, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Catfishing on CatNet has been on my list since before its release. I read Naomi’s Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories in 2017 and absolutely loved every single story- a rarity for me, as I usually don’t care for short stories (thanks for ruining those for me, seventh grade English teacher…). Cat Pictures Please is one of those books I recommend to everyone; my friend Sharon describes it as “great science fiction short stories that (usually ) start out as normal domestic scenes and then get turned a little sideways,” and this description is spot-on. They’re a little like Stephen King’s less creepy and more fantastical short stories, which I always loved. The other reason Catfishing and Cat Pictures Please ended up on my TBR lists…

I’ve known Naomi since 2002, when we were both part of the same small-ish online parenting group. She’s always been one of my favorite posters and I’ve been delighted to watch her success as a writer grow. (And another huge delight is being able to hear Naomi’s voice in her writing. Sometimes- and it was way more obvious in Cat Pictures Please, though she came through loud and clear in Catfishing– a line or a paragraph would pop up that sounded so much like her that I would actually laugh out loud to be able to ‘hear’ my friend’s voice in such a format.) If Catfishing weren’t up to snuff, I’d have no problems saying so; our parenting site taught us well to take seriously harsh criticism (it was that kind of site, the gloves came off at the door!), but Naomi being a friend is just incidental to this (and I wanted that out there as full disclosure). Catfishing is fabulous (and I’ve been joking in our private groups that Naomi totally named her main character after me).

CheshireCat, the sentient AI, is a joy to read. While they’re able to parse information at lightning-fast speeds, they’re still figuring out emotions and how to interact with humans, and they don’t always get it right, leading to scenes that had me laughing out loud multiple times in public. During one scene, Steph and crew conspire to get ChesireCat to take over her sex ed class’s robot (which only provides information on abstinence; all other questions receive a curt, “You’ll have to ask your parents about that”) in order to teach them actual, factual information. No spoilers, but the results are amazing.

Steph is sympathetic, a friendless teenager who’s been on the run her entire life, desperate for a place to fit in and to call home. Her clowder fills in the gaps for her lack of social life (total #goals, by the way; they’re placed together by CatNet, which- no spoilers!- has done a fabulous job of grouping together kids who need and understand each other, and I loved this so much), but real-life Rachel, and to a lesser extent Bryony, are the real-life connection Steph has been dreaming of.

This ends on a cliffhanger, and there will be a sequel. I’ll be pestering my library to purchase that one as well, because frankly, I want more of Steph, her ‘meatspace’ friends, her clowder, and definitely more of CheshireCat. Catfishing on CatNet really made me want to live in a world where AIs can become sentient (at least, in a benevolent CheshireCat-like manner), because I could really use someone like CheshireCat in my life, someone to have my back and save the day by zipping through the internet at a moment’s notice. Couldn’t we all use that?

So, to sum it up, if you like fast-paced YA, or you’re looking for something to fill the robot/cyborg/AI prompt in this year’s PopSugar challenge, Catfishing on CatNet is one you won’t want to miss! (And do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories, because it’s AMAZING.)

Visit Naomi Kritzer’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

The Child Finder- Rene Denfeld

I’m not the biggest thriller fan- my brain makes enough anxiety of its own so I don’t need to go in search of it- and I’m not the hugest fan of missing and abducted children, either, but occasionally a book that ticks both of those boxes finds its way into my pile. A walk to a Little Free Library a few streets over had me grabbing a copy of The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (Harper, 2017). I mean, it’s about a woman who finds children, right? Not just kids going missing or being abducted. That sounded like something I could handle.

Naomi Cottle has turned her nebulous past- a found child who came of age in the home of a loving foster mother- into a career, using her sharply honed instincts to search out children who have gone missing. Running from her own past and from connecting too deeply with others, she relies on word of mouth and her phenomenal success rate to give parents the answers, both miraculous and devastating, they’ve been denied for far too long. The subject of her latest case, Madison Culver, went missing months ago in Oregon’s beautiful but desolate Skookum National Forest, and Naomi has promised her desperate parents a resolution one way or another. The only things that might distract her from the case are her past, Mrs. Cottle, her dying foster mother, and the attention and growing affection from Jerome, the foster brother with whom she was raised.

Deep in the snowy mountains of the forest, the Snow Girl has developed a way to stay strong, stay alive, first in the dark basement of a man named B, and then as his companion, trapping animals in the woods. The stories she tells herself about what her life has become have helped her to survive this far, but things are changing, and the Snow Girl may not have much time left.

Content warnings for child abduction and captivity, and mentions of child sexual assault and death.

The Child Finder is a page-turner. I blew through the book within less than twenty-four hours, I think. I tend to shy away from thrillers because I can’t stand every page being so tense, but this book was a slow, simmering build, leading to a single major tension-filled climax (expected in a story like this, so I wasn’t bothered by it). Naomi has a mysterious backstory, having been found running in the night by migrant farm workers when she was just a child and dropped off at a police station miles away. She has no memory of her past, only wisps that come to her now and then, and that she fights against, scared and resistant to letting too much come back to her.

Her budding relationship with the man who was her foster brother is carefully written, sweet, and doesn’t feel at all creepy (years ago, I read a book, whose name escapes me, where the main character ended up hooking up with her stepbrother and I seriously could. not. even with that; everything about it felt wrong and gross, but Ms. Denfeld steers clear of that territory). Naomi is a complex character, and it’s fascinating watching her make the connections between the cases she’s working and her complicated emotions towards her past.

The Snow Girl’s chapters are occasionally difficult and painful to read when you remember how young she is and the horrors that have been and are currently being visited upon her. Her voice and strength feel authentic, which isn’t surprising, considering that Rene Denfeld has worked as an investigator and helped victims of sex trafficking (along with being a foster parent, which also lends authenticity to Mrs. Cottle’s and Naomi’s voices).

In some books, the setting is as much a character as any of the living people, and the isolated, snow-covered landscapes of the Skookum National Forest really give this book a creepy feel. The description never veers toward the long-winded, but instead allows just enough to create a menacing ambiance and a sense of desperation for Naomi, Madison’s parents, and the reader. It’s not a place I’d ever want to go after reading this, that’s for sure!

I tend to shy away from series, but there’s a follow-up to this book, The Butterfly Girl, and I enjoyed The Child Finder enough that I might actually pick #2 up (which is pretty high praise for me!).

Do you enjoy that edge-of-your-seat feeling when you read, or are you more of a read-to-relax person?

Visit Rene Denfeld’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Gated- Amy Christine Parker

Yikes, I’ve been hitting the cult books kind of hard lately, haven’t I??? I’ve got another one coming up as well. I mean, I guess it’s a great time of year to read creepy things, but yeesh, maybe I should throw a ghost or a demon in there along with all the manipulative cult leaders, eh? Gated by Amy Christine Parker (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2013) ended up on my TBR after I read another book blogger’s review; I was lucky that my library had an ebook copy, and so onto my Kindle it went!

Lyla’s family has been hurting badly ever since the disappearance of her older sister when Lyla was young. One moment the girls were playing together happily; the next moment, Lyla’s sister was gone forever, and just a few days later, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 pushed the story of the missing girl out of the news. Enter Pioneer, a charismatic young man who convinces the family to leave everything behind and follow him to live in a community where everything will be safe and there will be no more worries.

But the visions Pioneer sees, visions that Lyla’s parents and other adults who make up the community entirely buy into, grow dark, and the community ramps up their preparations for the end of the world, where their community will hunker down in their specially constructed underground bunker. Their reclusive community hasn’t escaped the attention of the local law enforcement community, however, and after a visit from the chief of police and his son, Cody, Lyla, who is promised to her childhood best friend Will, finds herself with a major crush. It’s Cody who prompts Lyla to begin questioning everything she’s ever believed to be true, and after a near-deadly accident, her eyes are fully opened to the reality of Pioneer and the place she lives. But can she convince everyone else before it’s too late?

Gated is a really great example of how easily it is for even fully grown adults to be manipulated. Pioneer is obviously a smooth talker with enough charisma to convince an entire community of families to sell their homes, turn the money over to him, and spend their lives secluded from the rest of the world. He found Lyla’s family via the news about the disappearance of their older daughter, and he absolutely preyed on them during the worst time of their lives. (What is never covered and is something that I wondered throughout the entirety of the book, is if he was responsible for the older daughter’s disappearance. I would have liked to have seen this questioned, because it was entirely in the realm of possibility for his uber-creepiness.)

There’s some insta-love going on between Lyla and Cody, and I found the whole process of Pioneer matching the teenagers up so early on in order to marry them off when they’re adults to be super creepy, along with the parents’ easy acceptance of this! Ms. Parker has really set up a creepy mini-society where the parents have blindly accepted a stranger’s proclamations of what the future will hold and on which they’re willing to bet their children’s entire lives. There’s a good sense of balance, though; she’s also taken great pains to show the best parts of living the way Lyla and her family do: fresh food grown straight from their own gardens, being able to take care of their own needs with building and repairing, a close sense of family and community. There’s a not-too-graphic scene that depicts, off-camera, the death of animals, and while the reader isn’t witness to it (Lyla understands what’s going on when she wakes up in the middle of the night and runs to the commotion at the barns), there’s some description that might be hard to read for younger or more sensitive readers.

There is a sequel and it sounds like something I’d be interested in, but given the reviews, I’m thinking it’ll be better to just leave this series where it is and not continue on. If you’ve read the second book and want to change my mind, i’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments!

Visit Amy Christine Parker’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.