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If You Tell

Title: If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood

Author: Gregg Olsen

Genre: True Crime

PopSugar Reading Challenge Prompt: A book from your TBR list chosen at random

I’ve read some pretty horrific stories in my life. The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum comes to mind. Although it’s fiction, it’s based on a true story. This book is extraordinarily difficult to read. Another rough book was one I read last year: The Road Out of Hell which was the true story of the Wineville Murders. But, I think this one takes the top prize of “Most Horrific.”

From Goodreads: After more than a decade, when sisters Nikki, Sami, and Tori Knotek hear the word mom, it claws like an eagle’s talons, triggering memories that have been their secret since childhood. Until now.

For years, behind the closed doors of their farmhouse in Raymond, Washington, their sadistic mother, Shelly, subjected her girls to unimaginable abuse, degradation, torture, and psychic terrors. Through it all, Nikki, Sami, and Tori developed a defiant bond that made them far less vulnerable than Shelly imagined. Even as others were drawn into their mother’s dark and perverse web, the sisters found the strength and courage to escape an escalating nightmare that culminated in multiple murders.

Shelly Knotek is truly one of the worst people I’ve ever read about. The horrors she inflicted on the people in her house, family or otherwise, is just beyond terrifying. I was in shock reading about the atrocities she inflicted on those around her. And from what I’ve read, she has zero remorse. As much as I’ve read about serial killers, it seems like most either had a terrible childhood or have some sort of mental illness that leads them to a propensity for violence. Note: having a mental illness does NOT make a person more violent. But there are enough documented cases of serial killers with a mental illness, such as schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.

Shelly Knotek didn’t have a terrible childhood. She had a bit of a rough start, but once she ended up in a stable home, she was loved and taken care of by parents who cared about her. But the second she stepped into their home, she was a difficult child. But enough people have difficult childhoods (look at her daughters, for example) and turn out just fine. I’m not going to diagnose a person based on one book, but she’s definitely missing any kind of empathy. She is cruel, manipulative, and downright evil. This book is a difficult book to stomach, knowing that it’s all true. But it was also a fascinating look into how people (her daughters) persevere and overcome.

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Different Seasons

Title: Different Seasons

Author: Stephen King

Genre: story collection, horror, psychological thriller

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: A book that has the same title as a song

You can’t beat old school Stephen King. I’ve been digging through his old works that I’ve yet to read and just find the early stuff to be so rewarding. Last year I read Night Shift and was blown away by the story collection. Not a bad story in the entire book. The same goes for Different Seasons and its four novellas. You’re probably familiar with two or three of them.

From Goodreads:

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption–the most satisfying tale of unjust imprisonment and offbeat escape since The Count of Monte Cristo. Apt Pupil–a golden California schoolboy and an old man whose hideous past he uncovers enter into a fateful and chilling mutual parasitism. The Body–four rambunctious young boys venture into the Maine woods and in sunlight and thunder find life, death, and intimations of their own mortality. The Breathing Method–a tale told in a strange club about a woman determined to give birth no matter what.

Three of these have been turned into movies, two of those are classics. Shawshank Redemption is one of the best all-time movies, and the story itself was fantastic. The movie features some entire passages of dialogue from the novella. Red, the narrator, is actually an Irishman in the book, but I couldn’t help but hear Morgan Freeman’s voice. The movie fleshes out the plot, but overall the similarities are fantastic. I loved it.

Also, The Body is the movie Stand By Me, which is a movie I’m not as familiar with, but I believe is still a great adaptation. I remember a lot of similarities between the two. And it’s just a beautifully written story. The friendships and heartbreaks of childhood. This novella was, in my mind, a precursor for IT.

Apt Pupil is the most horrifying thing I’ve read of King’s. Scary clowns, vampires, haunted hotels, just don’t scare me. They aren’t real. And most of his books have enough of a supernatural element that they are unrealistic enough not to terrify me. But Apt Pupil, written in the early 80s is about a teenager obsessed with Nazis. I read Rage, which is about a school shooting, and it was pretty terrible subject matter. But Apt Pupil takes the terror to a completely different level.

The last story isn’t enough to be a movie (I say that now, but Lawnmower Man certainly wasn’t movie caliber and that happened…) but I still enjoyed it. Unlike the others, this had a touch of supernatural or mystery to it, but it was also just a bit of a ghost story, so who knows what really happened.

I’m loving going to King’s older works and digging through them. I’ve read so much of his new stuff, which is great, but it’s like listening to The Beatles. There’s the early stuff, the middle starting to get weird stuff, and there’s the super crazy late stuff (my favorite). With King there’s the super crazy early stuff, the middle cocaine fueled stuff, and then the lighter newest stuff. I’m pretty sure the super crazy early books are my favorite. They just never disappoint.

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The Son of the House

Title: The Son of the House

Author: Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia

Genre: Nigerian fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: book published in 2021

Thank you Netgalley for this book!

I’m hit or miss with Netgalley. I take chances and sometimes, ugh, the books are just the worst. Sweet Water, The Residence, The Other Side of the Door, and No One Knows come to mind as ones that sounded great, but ended up disappointing. However, ones like Hurricane Summer, When the Stars Go Dark, Before She Disappeared, The Hollow Places, and My Sunshine Away turned out to be excellent. I absolutely love Netgalley and am thankful they keep sending me books, even the ones that are underwhelming to me. This book, however, this book just might be the best one Netgalley has ever sent me.

From Goodreads: In the Nigerian city of Enugu, young Nwabulu, a housemaid since the age of ten, dreams of becoming a typist as she endures her employers’ endless chores. She is tall and beautiful and in love with a rich man’s son.

Educated and privileged, Julie is a modern woman. Living on her own, she is happy to collect the gold jewelry lovestruck Eugene brings her but has no intention of becoming his second wife.

When a kidnapping forces Nwabulu and Julie into a dank room years later, the two women relate the stories of their lives as they await their fate.

Pulsing with vitality and intense human drama, Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s debut is set against four decades of vibrant Nigeria, celebrating the resilience of women as they navigate and transform what still remains a man’s world.

I will be shocked if this book isn’t on every “best of 2021” list. Set in Nigeria, the story is familiar. Two women trying to find their place in the world. No matter the culture, this theme is easily relatable. You spend more time with Nwabulu (it felt like to me, at least) and her story is truly heartbreaking. She and Julie are excellently contrasted, but have so much in common as well. The story is simple: two women’s lives and what unites them, but it’s just a beautiful story. I absolutely loved it and hope it doesn’t fly under the radar. It’s a must read.

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This Is Where It Ends

Title: This Is Where It Ends

Author: Marieke Nijkamp

Genre: YA thriller

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: book with something broken on the cover

This book was on my kindle because I had bought it at some point, but I couldn’t remember why or even what it was about. But when I was scrolling through the books on my TBR and saw the broken chalk on this cover, it was an easy pick for the prompt. Turns out, it’s about a school shooting.

Columbine changed this country. I was actually in my first year of teaching when it happened. The ramifications were immediate. Dress codes changed, security changed, lockdown drills were created. Then Sandy Hook happened. I was at home with my new baby watching that unfold on the news. I remember wondering if I would ever be comfortable sending him to school. And I mostly am okay with it due to our school’s security, but having him at home virtual learning because of the pandemic definitely makes me worry less. Then Parkland happened. And…. nothing changed. No laws changed. No action taken. Apparently, this country needs guns more than it needs children.

From Goodreads: Everyone has a reason to fear the boy with the gun…

10:00 a.m.: The principal of Opportunity, Alabama’s high school finishes her speech, welcoming the entire student body to a new semester and encouraging them to excel and achieve.
10:02 a.m.: The students get up to leave the auditorium for their next class.

10:03: The auditorium doors won’t open.
10:05: Someone starts shooting.

In 54 minutes, four students must confront their greatest hopes, and darkest fears, as they come face-to-face with the boy with the gun.

Given the terrible topic, this book was good. It’s odd to me that books like this are published, when Stephen King wrote about a school shooting in one of his earliest books, Rage, but he has let it go out of print due to the horrific subject. Are we desensitized to school shootings at this point? Seems like it. No one is shocked anymore when they happen. And nothing changes. I wonder when people will take a stand and do something about it.

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Sweet Water

Title: Sweet Water

Author: Cara Reinard

Genre: women crime fiction, domestic thriller, women psychological fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: A book featuring three generations (grandparents, parents, child)

Thank you Netgalley for this book.

Somehow this book ended up on my TBR list. I can’t remember where I first heard about it, though. In any case, when I saw it available on NetGalley, I gladly requested it. Any books that I can knock off my TBR, I’m excited to find. Sadly, this one didn’t live up to my expectations.

From Goodreads: It’s what Sarah Ellsworth dreamed of. Marriage to her childhood sweetheart, Martin. Living in a historic mansion in Pennsylvania’s most exclusive borough. And Finn, a teenage son with so much promise. Until…A call for help in the middle of the night leads Sarah and Martin to the woods, where they find Finn, injured, dazed, and weeping near his girlfriend’s dead body. Convinced he’s innocent, Sarah and Martin agree to protect their son at any cost and not report the crime.

But there are things Sarah finds hard to reconcile: a cover-up by Martin’s family that’s so unnervingly cold-blooded. Finn’s lies to the authorities are too comfortable, too proficient, not to arouse her suspicions. Even the secrets of the old house she lives in seem to be connected to the incident. As each troubling event unfolds, Sarah must decide how far she’ll go to save her perfect life. 

Plot holes abound in this one. The Ellsworth family truly is the worst, and the fact that Sarah didn’t see through it was absurd. The hints as to who really did the crime were so obvious. I saw the ending coming a mile away. As a book editor, I just don’t see how a book goes through the entire editing and publishing process and ends up so riddled with issues. Plot and character believability should never been in question. Unfortunately, this book had both issues.

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Pretty Little Wife

Title: Pretty Little Wife

Author: Darby Kane

Genre: thriller

PopSugar Reading Challenge Prompt: A book from your TBR list that you meant to read last year but didn’t

In my quest to get through all my BOTM books before they stack up too much, I’m prioritizing the ones that don’t fit into a specific PopSugar prompt, like this one. The prompt I used for it is really vague, so I shoehorned it in. I’m trying to read more of what I want vs. books that I don’t really want to read but happen to fit a prompt. But if I can find one on my giant TBR list AND fits a prompt, fantastic. And since I’m a thriller junkie, most books from BOTM fit in this genre. Some have been great, some mediocre. Sadly, this book fits into the latter category.

From Goodreads: Lila Ridgefield lives in an idyllic college town, but not everything is what it seems. Lila isn’t what she seems. A student vanished months ago. Now, Lila’s husband, Aaron, is also missing. At first these cases are treated as horrible coincidences until it’s discovered the student is really the third of three unexplained disappearances over the last few years. The police are desperate to find the connection, if there even is one. Little do they know they might be stumbling over only part of the truth….

With the small town in an uproar, everyone is worried about the whereabouts of their beloved high school teacher. Everyone except Lila, his wife. She’s definitely confused about her missing husband but only because she was the last person to see his body, and now it’s gone.

Lila is such an unlikeable character. I didn’t feel any sort of connection to her at all. The plot reveal was obvious, the minor characters fell flat, and I didn’t care about the ending at all. But since I didn’t hate the book like I did others, I went ahead and gave it three stars.

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Recursion

Title: Recursion

Author: Blake Crouch

Genre: technothriller, science fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: a book about forgetting

Blake Crouch is one of my favorite authors. I make a point to read all his work. Abandon, Dark Matter, Wayward Pines, the Andrew Thomas series, Perfect Little Town, Snowbound, Summer Frost, and Famous have all been great, fun reads. There’s usually some sort of mystery and some science fiction. This book is heavier on the science fiction than others, but still just as fun.

From Goodreads: Memory makes reality. That’s what NYC cop Barry Sutton is learning, as he investigates the devastating phenomenon the media has dubbed False Memory Syndrome—a mysterious affliction that drives its victims mad with memories of a life they never lived.

That’s what neuroscientist Helena Smith believes. It’s why she’s dedicated her life to creating a technology that will let us preserve our most precious memories. If she succeeds, anyone will be able to re-experience a first kiss, the birth of a child, the final moment with a dying parent.

As Barry searches for the truth, he comes face to face with an opponent more terrifying than any disease—a force that attacks not just our minds, but the very fabric of the past. And as its effects begin to unmake the world as we know it, only he and Helena, working together, will stand a chance at defeating it. But how can they make a stand when reality itself is shifting and crumbling all around them?

At once a relentless page-turner and an intricate science-fiction puzzle-box about time, identity, and memory, Recursion is a thriller as only Blake Crouch could imagine it—and his most ambitious, mind-boggling, irresistible work to date.

I really did have to pay attention when reading this because the timelines not only jump around between Barry and Helena, but also between years and events. This book isn’t so complicated that I was lost or confused, but I’m a fast skim reader, which didn’t work on this book. No complaints about that here, though, because this book was great. I was engaged from the beginning, kept guessing, and wholly satisfied by the end. I’m going to keep Crouch’s books on the top of my “to read” list.

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Winter Counts

Title: Winter Counts

Author: David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Genre: American indigenous literature, vigilante justice thriller

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: book written by an indigenous author

In my effort to dig my way through my giant TBR pile, I’m prioritizing books that fit into the PopSugar challenge and books I’ve gotten from the Book of the Month club. As I was scanning the book jackets of several, I discovered that this one fit a PopSugar prompt. Fantastic! And not only is this book by an indigenous author, it’s also about indigenous people, namely the Lakota. Growing up in Oklahoma, the plight of the indigenous people of this country was part of my education. Of course that was a couple of decades ago, so the white-washing of the situation was a given. With my vow to read more books written by more BIPOC authors, I was glad to see this one as a BOTM option.

From Goodreads: Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  When justice is denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, Virgil is hired to deliver his own punishment, the kind that’s hard to forget. But when heroin makes its way into the reservation and finds Virgil’s nephew, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal. He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend and sets out to learn where the drugs are coming from, and how to make them stop.

They follow a lead to Denver and find that drug cartels are rapidly expanding and forming new and terrifying alliances. And back on the reservation, a new tribal council initiative raises uncomfortable questions about money and power. As Virgil starts to link the pieces together, he must face his own demons and reclaim his Native identity. He realizes that being a Native American in the twenty-first century comes at an incredible cost.

Winter Counts is a tour-de-force of crime fiction, a bracingly honest look at a long-ignored part of American life, and a twisting, turning story that’s as deeply rendered as it is thrilling.

This book wasn’t as much of a thriller as I was expecting, but that’s okay. I still really enjoyed it. Virgil is a great character, although not one who participates in Lakota traditions, he’s surrounded by those who do. Taking place in present day, the author does a fantastic job of portraying the difficulties indigenous people still face. The book included some Lakota words, which I loved and had no trouble understanding them within the context. Thanks to BOTM for spotlighting this book. I really enjoyed it.

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Booth

Title: Booth

Author: Jason Pellegrini

Genre: Time travel fiction, science fiction, historical fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: a book about a fresh start or do-over

At some the author Jason Pellegrini entered my twitter feed. He’s a Stephen King junkie like I am, so I’m pretty sure I followed him for that reason. When he offered up a pdf of one of his books in exchange for an honest review, I gladly took him up on it. And since I’m King fan, he felt Booth was the one I’d like the most. And this novel is very reminiscent of 11/22/63. In this King novel, a character goes back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK. In this book, not only does a character go back in time to prevent a death, the story is also one of redemption, like A Christmas Carol.

From Goodreads: At dawn, on the day of his execution, Joseph Bateman finds himself reflecting on his life, one filled with poor decisions and evil people. Even his lifelong best friend played a pivotal role in earning Joseph his seat on death row. A phenomenon occurs as the electricity meant to kill Joseph is sent through him, and his essence is ripped from the body he has known his entire life and thrown into a new one. Only the body he now inhabits isn’t new at all; it is the body of a person who lived over a hundred years before Joseph’s birth. Now living in an unfamiliar era of history and trapped inside a foreign body, Joseph learns he has been sent back for a reason: to earn redemption for his damned soul and to find a sense of peace he has never known. All he needs to do to get there is to prevent one of history’s most infamous murders.

The execution doesn’t even happen until over halfway through the book. The first half is just getting to know Joseph and see how he got to this point in his life. I found the first half much more interesting. There’s a good chance that’s because I enjoy realistic fiction over science fiction. That said, the book was great overall. Once the execution happens, the plot quickly moves forward, and Joseph’s fate is, you assume, on the path to redemption. I found Joseph’s story captivating and definitely recommend this book.

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The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives

Title: The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives

Author: Dashka Slater

Genre: True Crime, LGBTQ+ issues

PopSugar Prompt: a book in a different format than you usually read (ebook, audiobook, graphic novel, etc).

As much as I love podcasts, I’m not a big audiobook person. I like that I can listen to podcasts in small chunks, doing dishes, laundry, running errands, but to listen to a book in small chunks is really hard. I just forget what happened last time. Yesterday, I had massive chores ahead of me. I knew I was in for the long haul of several hours. Through the amazing https://www.audiobooksync.com/ site, every summer I download free audiobooks. They give you two choices, you pick one. Knowing I wanted to listen to the whole book yesterday, I selected the shortest one and put it on 1.5 speed. Voila! Entire book in one day.

From Goodreads:

One teenager in a skirt.
One teenager with a lighter.
One moment that changes both of their lives forever.

If it weren’t for the 57 bus, Sasha and Richard never would have met. Both were high school students from Oakland, California, one of the most diverse cities in the country, but they inhabited different worlds. Sasha, a white teen, lived in the middle-class foothills and attended a small private school. Richard, a black teen, lived in the crime-plagued flatlands and attended a large public one. Each day, their paths overlapped for a mere eight minutes. But one afternoon on the bus ride home from school, a single reckless act left Sasha severely burned, and Richard charged with two hate crimes and facing life imprisonment. The case garnered international attention, thrusting both teenagers into the spotlight.

I’ve been told how amazing this book is. I knew it was non-fiction but that was all I knew. So when we first meet Sasha and learn that they are an agender person, I realized the magnitude of what this book was about. It wasn’t just about two teens involved in a crime, but it was potentially a hate crime against an LGBTQ+ individual. We learn Sasha’s backstory and how they came to be known as Sasha. Born a male, Sasha never really felt truly male nor truly female, hence the agender decision. They (pronoun of Sasha’s choice) renamed themself Sasha because it’s a gender neutral name and started wearing skirts because that was the clothing they felt was most comfortable.

One day riding the 57 bus in Oakland, Sasha’s life collided with Richard’s. He was a good kid, but he had made some dumb mistakes, fighting, skipping school, bad grades, but he was really trying to turn things around. He and a friend saw Sasha, wondered why a boy was wearing a skirt, and decided to play a prank, or so they thought. Richard took a lighter to Sasha’s skirt, fully expecting a little flame that Sasha would quickly pat out and would go on about their day. However, as Sasha was sleeping, the fire quickly erupted into a fireball, burning their legs from thigh to calf.

The entire book lets you into both Sasha’s and Richard’s lives before and after the first. You really get to know these kids. Richard made a poor decision, but had Sasha not been wearing a skirt, the fire never would have happened. Make no mistake: Richard’s decision was horrendous. He was also 16 and severely underestimated what would happen. That’s no excuse. He deserved any and all punishment he received. I’ve taught 16-year-old, and boy can they be poor decision makers. I absolutely do not justify his actions, but I see how Sasha and their family came to the realization that forgiving Richard (who took full responsibility) was the right thing to do.

This book was fantastic. Pieced together through social media posts, news articles, public records, and interviews, the author does an amazing job of telling the full story. The book, while telling a terrible story, is one of optimism. Sasha, despite the fire, has moved on to college, living a great life. Richard, since he took full responsibility and has the support of his family, could really turn his life around. This book is critical for students to learn empathy for people who might look different, act different, or feel differently than them. I’d love to see every high school student read this one!