Book Review

Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Thriller, Fantasy
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

The stage is set in pre-second-world-war New York with an oracle, an assassin, and an underworld gang about to lose its alpha—all thriving in a be-bop jazz bar, brazenly ignoring the Prohibition. Phyllis Green, blessed with saints’ hands, is mob boss Victor Dernov’s executioner. Known to some as Victor’s angel, and to most as Victor’s knife, she goes by Phyllis LeBlanc in downtown Manhattan, meting out mob justice with her holster of knives.

That is until she meets Dev. Playing judge, jury, and executioner turns out to be a lot more complicated when she falls in love. Devajyoti Patil, bartender at The Pelican, is also blessed with saints’ hands – he can detect threats on a single touch. But unlike Phyllis, he does not use them to throw knives. Just when Phyllis believes she can act on her promise to Dev of never killing again, she is given a task that forces her to go back on her word.

Someone is killing people with “the hands” and leaving the corpses behind with bleeding stumps and clear signs of having involved them in some form of dark ritual. It’s obvious—they’re trying to steal the power of these hands. Victor’s lieutenant, Red Man, tells Phyllis that the murderer is Trent Sullivan, and that she must take him out.

Having grown up in an all-Black neighborhood, Phyllis has spent her whole adult life trying to pretend that she’s not. Owing to her lighter skin, she passes scrutiny in most segregated places in 1930s New York. She has even taken care to change her name, so no one can trace her back to her old neighborhood—it’s how she has survived. But a decade after she executes Sullivan, and Dev leaves her for it, she finds that her heritage is about to be revealed, and that, suddenly, her life depends on her proving her whiteness.

A lot of factors wrestle for priority as Dev returns unexpectedly to her life as she’s simultaneously given a new assignment. Not to mention, the draft creeps up and starts upending the lives of everyone she holds dear.

Thoughts

The struggles of people of color before World War II that changed society in many irreversible ways are depicted in sincere detail in this book. Skin trumps economic status as Phyllis, Dev, and their friends find themselves increasingly vulnerable as they try to get away from the criminal element that has protected them so far.

It is really promising to find that BIPOC literature is finally making its way into the limelight. The story is set at a time when very few would think to write a novel with a black woman and an Indian man as the lead duo. Hopefully, we are at a time when we can look back at these immortal years from a different perspective than we are used to.


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Thriller, Bildungsroman
Pages: 784
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

The Goldfinch follows thirteen-year-old Theo Decker, the son of a loving mother and reckless father. The young New-Yorker’s life is forever changed when he miraculously survives a terrible accident that kills his mother. Theo unwittingly steals a masterpiece from the museum where the tragedy occurred, and the captivating little painting provides a source of hope and comfort, as it reminds him of his mother. Theo is soon taken in by a wealthy friend, but he lives tormented by longing for the life he once had.

In adulthood, Theo’s stolen painting propels him deep into the art underworld, and he finds himself leading a double life as an antique dealer and as a con. He soon becomes entwined in a dangerous web of deceit, one that leaves him alienated and at risk of losing everything. Theo’s story is one of self-discovery, legacy, and the ways in which a single event can forever alter the course of our lives.

Thoughts

It goes without saying that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is a real page-turner—as the title suggests, the story largely revolves around an (accidental) art theft. The plot is brilliantly weaved together, and the reader is plagued with the same anxieties as the protagonist when it comes to the stolen masterpiece. Theo is a thoroughly interesting character to follow, in that his life is tinged with loss and continual sorrows, and the reader witnesses first-hand how these trials change him from a hopeful boy to a cynical adult. Theo also meets a host of interesting characters throughout the novel—from Pippa, an impish musician who was also present during the bombing, to Hobie, a kindly antique store-owner turned father-figure, the book is certainly not lacking in personality.

The only fault I found in this book comes from the way it tended to drag on in places. Some plot points (such as the time Theo spends with Boris, his bedraggled, drug-addicted friend) felt unnecessarily drawn out and did little to advance the plot. The only purpose I could see this serving would be to make sudden plot advances all the more jarring for the reader—you are lulled into a false sense of security, only to have the rug immediately pulled out from under you as the plot thickens.

One of the things I found most memorable about The Goldfinch comes from the fact that the message of the story doesn’t become apparent until the end of the book. Throughout the novel, I found myself (worriedly) wondering if the plot was building towards any meaningful revelations, and was delighted to find that Tartt did an excellent job of tying the events of the novel to universally contemplated aspects of the human experience (you know, for those of us who can’t personally relate to Theo’s dabbling in art theft). Of the many themes expressed, there is a beautiful message about our loving art because of the ways that loved objects take on a life of their own, as well as serving to connect us to some greater beauty. The novel also tackles ideas such as whether or not to follow a heart that can’t be trusted, the times when bad actions can still lead to good outcomes, and challenging the notion of free will. In short, Tartt poses some of the great questions that we as humans should be contemplating without necessarily giving us the answers. Instead, she plants seeds of thought and leaves you as the reader to ponder the subject yourself and arrive at your own conclusions.

Overall, this book is a vastly entertaining story about a young boy placed in increasingly despairing circumstances. Beyond this, however, The Goldfinch will be especially loved by those looking for a revelatory piece dealing with topics such as legacy, love, fate, and beauty.

Book Review

Seven Lies by Elizabeth Kay

Publisher: Penguin Random House
Genre: Thriller/Suspense
Pages: 335
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Summary

This novel follows best friends Jane and Marnie as they navigate adult life. The girls have been best friends since they were 12 and don’t know what a life without the other would look like. That is, until Marnie gets a boyfriend, Charles, whom Jane despises. When Marnie asks her if she likes him, Jane lies and says he is great. Jane’s one lie spirals into six more, each slightly worse than the last. Each one adds strain to a seemingly unbreakable friendship.
So when Charles dies, Jane is left wondering—if she didn’t tell that first lie, would he still be alive?

Thoughts

A lot can be said about the way in which a story is told, especially a retelling of events. Often, when we tell stories about ourselves, we subconsciously make ourselves seem better, or justified. Jane is the narrator of this story, meaning the recap of events we get is from her perspective. This allows the story to be extremely personal and unique, which I absolutely loved—it felt like sitting down with a friend and having them tell you a story. She wasn’t just telling the story, she was having a conversation with the reader. There were moments when she would directly address us to try and justify her actions. It made the story even more compelling and I found myself hanging on her every word. It forces the reader to look past the narrator and see her actions, good and bad, for what they are.

The story itself is extremely captivating. The narration style pulls you in, but the unfolding of events keeps you there. As each lie grows more intense, the reader is pulled further in until you are tearing through the pages to get to the end. While the things that take place seem impossible, they could happen to anyone; it makes us as readers contemplate the intentions behind our actions. We can often trick ourselves into thinking we are doing the right thing, but that doesn’t mean we’re fooling the people around us. Jane is the perfect character to remind us that even though we are the protagonist of our stories, that doesn’t make us perfect. It is often said that people will do anything for love, and Seven Lies reminds us that that includes platonic love, too.

Kay perfectly weaves suspense with heartfelt narration to create a novel that is sure to keep you on your toes. You never know what is around the corner and the end will leave you pondering this novel for days. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a new book. It will be in stores June 16 and is available for pre-order from Changing Hands Bookstore here.


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.


Book Review

The New Girl by Harriet Walker

Publisher: Ballantine Books, May 19, 2020
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 293
Format: Paperback
My Rating: 4/5 stars

Pre-order the book locally.

Summary

As fashion editor for Haute magazine, Margot seems to have the glamorous, picture-perfect life of any girl’s dreams. Looking forward to deepening her relationship with her oldest friend Winnie through their shared experience of pregnancy, Margot prepares and looks to the future, even handpicking her maternity replacement, Maggie.

But when Winnie’s baby dies, their friendship falls apart as Winnie rejects Margot’s attempts to reach her. Margot spirals into negative cycles of neuroses as she grapples with her repressed trauma from an accident years before, her fears of her own baby’s death, paranoia that Maggie is too good of a replacement in her job, and the intense pressure from a social media harasser that seems to know a little too well how to jab her where it hurts.

Though focused primarily on Margot’s anxieties and struggles, this engaging thriller also contains scenes from Maggie and Winnie’s perspectives, as the three women’s lives become more progressively, and darkly, intertwined.

Thoughts

I picked up this book one evening intending to read for fifteen minutes before starting my homework—only realizing that I had forgotten about my homework hours later when I actually gasped out loud at the unexpected ending. Walker’s writing pulled me in immediately, and the characters felt so real I forgot I was reading until the very last pages.

Besides being totally gripping and engrossing, The New Girl also provides insightful glimpses into female insecurity, motherhood and career, and the effects of cyberbullying, among other subjects. By dusting the veneer off of an outwardly perfect life, Walker reveals the gritty reality of the anxiety of comparison and compulsion for her vivid characters.

With consistent pacing and a surprising ending, this page-turning debut would be good fit for those who like thrilling surprises, complex relationships, high fashion, and/or unreliable narrators.


Thanks to the Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Sisters in crime: A visit with the Daring Dames of High Desert Intrigue

The moon cut the night sky, a razor-sharp glint casting only enough light to throw all into shadow. Pools of light cut feebly into the night, outlining the figures that moved swiftly through them, in and out of darkness. The figures hastened towards a brightly lit building in the distance as if pulled there by some unseen force. There was a metallic taste to the air, and the girl breathed in deeply, sucking the hint of electrical current deep into her lungs.

Tonight was the night of the gathering. Her pulse quickened as she took her first step through the maze of shadows. Perhaps she would be met by only whispers and furtive glances, huddled figures gathered closely in dim corners. The fabrics of their elegant clothes swishing softly, the deep folds capable of hiding any number of perilous items. Instruments edged with the same precision as the neatly honed words of the authors of mystery and suspense who collected inside. Fear mingled with excitement, and her curiosity drove her onward towards the distant glow which broke the darkness.

My Night at Croak & Dagger

Though this may be a highly romanticized version of the night I visited with the New Mexico chapter of the Sisters in Crime organization, neatly titled Croak & Dagger, my excitement was no less palpable. I was elated at the idea of a network of women writers who share my love of characters that cannot be trusted, moonless nights whispering the promise of death and betrayal, and the thrill of the hunt. I knew upon learning of this society that here I would find kindred spirits, here I would find women laced together in ink and blood.

The Sisters in Crime is a world-wide network of writers and bibliophiles boasting more than 60 chapters with over 4000 members. Self-described on their website as “authors, readers, publishers, agents, booksellers and librarians bound by our affection for the genre and our support of women crime writers.” With more than 50 chapters existing in the United States, the syndicate’s wide-spread reach is indicative of the enthusiasm which permeates its meetings.

I arrived with notebook hand, armed with the name Charlene Dietz, president of the local chapter with whom I had corresponded. The room itself was in stark contrast with my gloomy musings, brightly lit and inviting, packed with chairs in neat rows. There was a colorful array of scarves, jewelry and cozy sweaters to stave off the chill of the late winter air outside. A buzz filled the room, people happily chatting, leaning close in to each other in their excitement. I was greeted at once by a warm smile by a woman who introduced herself as Ann, and gently pulled me into the fold. We were greeted, in turn, by a tall woman with perfectly bobbed, silvery hair and an equally gentle look. As she introduced herself, this was Madame President, she welcomed me with a hug and I felt immediately at ease.

I took my place in the front row as the meeting commenced with a jovial feeling. There was light banter back and forth between the speakers and crowd. A change in future meeting venue was being discussed, and as one speaker stated, “I cannot stress to you how hard it is to find a parking spot,” she was answered with a mischievous “How hard is it?”, the company bubbling with laughter. This was the business portion of the evening, and topics ranged from upcoming meetings to community events were discussed. The line-up of speakers for the next few months included a court reporter, a fellow author, and a neurologist. Each of these presenters selected for the knowledge they could impart which was relevant to the crime genre. The members discussed an upcoming “speed dating” event which would consist of a conversation between one writer and one reader for three minute increments in several rounds.

The members enthusiastically planned for events such as a library tour in Albuquerque and the surrounding area, as well as celebrating each other’s publishing and writing successes. One author was scheduled as a panelist for a literary conference in California, another had just gotten his 600th Amazon review. Yes, there were also a few men sprinkled throughout the meeting, illustrating the inclusivity which I had already felt. Perhaps the greatest excitement in the room came when the premiere event of 2020 was reviewed. Having a submitted a request to the national syndicate, Croak & Dagger was proud to announce that it had been given permission to have an event with best-selling mystery author Rhys Bowen. With discussion of sister chapters and the appearance of a nationally known writer, it was apparent that while this chapter was local, the interest and the network itself was ubiquitous. I got the feeling that no matter where a person might visit the Sisters in Crime, they would be greeted with as much warmth and literary fervor as I had been.

The latter half of the meeting consisted of a panel discussion, consisting of the voices of readers, the subject of which was “What Do Readers Want Authors to Know?”. Introductions of the panelists were made by Charlene, prefaced with the statement “this may or may not be true.” Some of the biographical information she shared was fictional, and everyone present was delighted by the creative energy. After being asked what they looked for in covers when choosing a book, ideas such as “interesting details” and “what other authors have blurbed about the book” on the back cover were mentioned. One panelist looked for an interesting font on the spine of a book when choosing. The members of the crowd paid close attention, each visibly storing away the information for future perusal. Some plot dos and don’ts were also brought up, such as not killing off an important character, or not allowing for a character to betray the reader by acting against their nature.

The final question of the night was, “What happens when you close a book?” A panelist replied simply, “If you’ve created a world that I can inhabit, I will remember.” This heady idea was agreed on by all the panelists and the discussion closed with all present reminded of the reason that we all love the written word. The panelists were each given an engraved silver-toned letter opener, marked S in C (Sisters in Crime) Croak & Dagger to mark the occasion.

As the meeting ended, the chatter crested throughout the room once again, this time filled excitement for the future and abuzz with fresh ideas. Members dwindled out, heading to the nearby coffee shop to continue the lively exchange. I hung back taking it all in. Several members spoke to me and expressed their pleasure at my presence and encouragement to me as a writer. Ann even shared with me some of her own story, telling me about her days writing as a both a student and teacher. I left with a feeling of deep satisfaction. I had not only found a meeting of like minds, I had found a sisterhood (ahem, and brotherhood) of kind and creative souls.


The Sisters in Crime is a world-wide network of authors and book enthusiasts open to any new members with a passion for finely crafted words and crime. For information on how to join, please visit https://www.sistersincrime.org/. Pages for Croak & Dagger, as well as the Arizona chapters Desert Sleuths (Phoenix metro), and the Tucson Sisters in Crime can be found both here and on the website.


Sharp Objects: Book-to-Miniseries

Book

Author: Gillian Flynn
Publisher: Broadway Books
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Pages: 272
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Like any lover of books and cinema, I’m always excited to watch a film adaptation of a book I’ve finished reading. Most recently, I’ve been interested in the literary miniseries trend, where producers transform a book into several television episodes, often adding complexity to the story with additional characters and storylines. The HBO miniseries Sharp Objects, based on the book by Gillian Flynn, does exactly this.

Both the book and miniseries follow Camille Preaker, a mediocre reporter who is sent on an assignment to cover the murders of two preteen girls in her tiny hometown, Wind Gap. Camille’s editor, Curry, senses a compelling story is waiting to be uncovered in the southern town, but he also believes sending Camille to her hometown could be healing for her since she recently had a brief stay at a psych hospital after self-harming. Once in Wind Gap, Camille receives a chilling, unwelcoming greeting from her mother, meets her half-sister for the first time, and struggles to find any information on the case from townsfolk, the police, or the dapper detective from out of town. Amidst her own troublesome memory and trauma, Camille feels she must unravel the story of her town and her own past to make sense of this mystery.

While I think the miniseries was excellently cast, I think actress Patricia Clarkson (as Adora, Camille’s mother) was particularly accurate. From her appearance, to her mannerisms, costume, voice, and acting, Clarkson’s portrayal of Adora felt spot on. Clarkson captured the Adora I had imagined while reading the book, and it was amazing to see her acting on screen in this series.

While there were several changes made in the miniseries—including an additional storyline about Camille’s rehab roommate, a scene about Calhoun Day that created a toxic Southern Gothic atmosphere, and more town drama in general—I think the most substantial change between book and television was the removal of the first person narrator.

In Gillian Flynn’s novel, we receive all of our information through the mouth of Camille Preaker. On the other hand, in the HBO series, we lack this narration and are not limited to one perspective. I think this cinematic choice made Camille’s alcohol abuse much more apparent in the story. While there were certainly murmurs of alcoholism in the novel, the first person narration did not emphasize this self-medication issue as seriously as the miniseries did.

The choice to remove the first person narrator also makes it harder for the viewer to access Camille’s complex mental states. In the book, the reader gets to see Camille’s thoughts and trauma unveiled—or, at least, as unveiled as Camille is willing to let her thoughts be. In the miniseries, the viewer must rely on fairly chaotic flashbacks to Camille’s haunting memories to understand her mind instead. This reliance on flashbacks to explain Camille’s mind seems to downplay Camille’s sexual trauma, which was more apparent in the book. It also makes Camille’s mental illness more mysterious since the viewer is left to fill in his or her own conclusions.

Of course, most obviously, the miniseries’ removal of the first person narrator also allows the viewer more information to which Camille is not privy. For example, the miniseries provides much more insight into the out-of-town detective and Camille’s editor, making them both more likable characters.

Another (albeit less significant but still interesting) change was the miniseries’ inclusion of music. The soundtrack is entirely diegetic, so whenever a song is featured, it’s because a character turned on a radio, pulled out an old iPod, or started a record. In order to accomplish this feat and avoid creating a dull soundscape, the miniseries gave Alan (Adora’s husband and Camille’s stepfather) a strange obsession with music. In much of the series, the viewer finds Alan tinkering with his stereo system, turning a blind eye—and ear—to the more sinister things happening around him. The miniseries also gave Camille a cracked iPod, which belonged to her old roommate from her stay in the psychiatric hospital. These two additional items provide most of the soundtrack for the series.

In large part, I think the television series and original novel both use their literary and cinematic advantages to highlight the dangers of denial. Throughout this suspenseful story, we see both young and grown characters deny traumatic memories of rape, abuse, and bullying. We see Camille struggling to accept herself and denying vulnerability, pain, love, healing, and truth. We see a townswoman named Jackie who denies a horrible truth she has uncovered about a lifelong friend that she refuses to reveal. And we see the town denying the reality of the two murders as they place more importance on maintaining their own social reputation and standing.

I usually say the book is better than the film adaptation, but I think this HBO miniseries gave Sharp Objects a run for its money. All the same, I recommend starting with the book so you have the opportunity to see dreary, ominous Wind Gap through Camille’s own eyes first.

Miniseries

Network: HBO
No. of episodes: 8
Rating: TV–MA
Main actors: Amy Adams (as Camille Preaker), Patricia Clarkson (as Adora Crellin), Eliza Scanlen (as Amma Crellin)

Book Review

Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Genre: Thriller/Horror
Pages: 706
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Summary

20 years in the making, Stephen Chbosky’s second novel Imaginary Friend takes on a whole new genre compared to his previous best-selling novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Imaginary Friend follows seven year-old Christopher and his mother, Kate Reese, on the run from her abusive ex-boyfriend. She decides the small town of Mill Grove, Pennsylvania is the perfect hidden gem. However, one afternoon, a mother’s worst nightmare occurs when Christopher wanders into the woods and doesn’t come back out for six days.

When Christopher does return, he is different. He can do things he couldn’t do before, thanks to the nice man. His only goal is to build a tree house in the woods by Christmas, with the voice in his head guiding him the whole way. If he fails, the world as he, and everyone in the town, knows it will change forever.

Thoughts

Going into this, I was not sure what to expect because the premise itself is so different from my beloved The Perks of Being a Wallflower. But, I can say with confidence that Chbosky did not disappoint—I found myself tearing through the pages, desperately wanting to solve the mystery and connect the dots. Every character revelation and plot twist felt surprising yet inevitable, leaving me speechless by the end of it.

As with any good horror novel, I will probably have nightmares for a couple of days, but it was worth it to go on this journey with Christopher and his mother. The characters were so vivid that I felt like they were telling me the story themselves. It was terrifying, but in a thrilling way that really makes you think about the world and speculate about what lies beyond it—what we have control over and what we don’t, and what may lurk in the shadows.

Imaginary Friend reveals the power of family, of friendship, and of a mother’s love in the most bone-chilling, mind-blowing way. 20 years after his debut novel, Chbosky is back to remind us that no matter who we are or what our past is, we are not alone: in the the real world or the imaginary.

Book Signing: Thrillers @ The Poisoned Pen

Snipers, missiles, and conspiracies—oh my!

You won’t want to miss next week’s book signing at The Poisoned Pen. The bookstore will be hosting three authors for a thriller book signing event from 7 to 8 p.m. on July 29. Authors include Jack Carr of True Believer, Mark Greaney of Red Metal, and Stephen Hunter of Game of Snipers. Be sure to check out the bookstore before the author event to order your books!

True Believer by Jack Carr. Former Navy SEAL James Reece’s skill and cunning are put to the test when the CIA recruits him to travel the globe and target terrorist leaders. But be careful who you trust in this political thriller—the conspiracies may prove to be more than simple rumors.

Red Metal by Mark Greaney. Amidst attacks from Russian tanks and satellite killing missiles, an American Marine lieutenant, French Special Forces captain and his intelligence operative father, female Polish partisan fighter, A-10 Warthog pilot, American tank platoon captain, and German sergeant must all work together on Operation Red Metal to defend America and her allies.

Game of Snipers by Stephen Hunter. Master Sniper Bob Lee Swagger decides to help a young woman who lost her son to war by finding the sniper who pulled the trigger. However, this favor soon turns into a consuming obsession, putting Swagger back into the action as he teams up with others to track the assassin whose skills seem to match his own.

Read more information about the book signing event here.

Location: The Poisoned Pen Bookstore, 4014 N. Goldwater Boulevard, Scottsdale

Date: Monday, July 29

Time: 7–8 p.m.

Book Review

The Reunion: A Novel by Guillaume Musso

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Thriller
Pages: 273
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: July 9, 2019
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

25 years after his high school love’s disappearance, Thomas returns to his childhood home on the Côte d’Azur to prepare for his former prep school’s class reunion—and his inevitable arrest. 25 years ago, he and his friends, Fanny and Maxime, buried a body in the school’s walls. Their secret is secure until the school plans a demolition for renovations.

However, as the day for demolition draws closer, the three friends begin to discover that perhaps there are far more secrets about to be unearthed than just the body in the wall—and they are caught dead in the center of them.

From France’s #1 author, Guillaume Musso, The Reunion packs everything from friendship and betrayal to affairs and dangerously addicting plot twists. Without a doubt, The Reunion will leave you with one massive book-hangover. Luckily, you can grab another one of Musso’s great books right after. Hair of the dog anyone?

Thoughts

This was my first time reading a novel by Guillaume Musso, and all I can say is that I’ve found one of my new favorite authors. Because the book was originally written in French, I was expecting some of the story to fall through the cracks of the translation; however, I was blown away. The translation was absolutely brilliant, and it felt like no nuance was lost on the pages.

The Reunion is definitely unlike any thriller (or book for that matter) that I’ve read before; I started off feeling like I had the whole story figured out, but each page showed me just how little I knew. It was delightful to unravel the story with the main character, Thomas, and as the novel finished I couldn’t believe how much Musso was able to subvert my expectations of the classic “who-dun-it.”

While thrillers run the risk of feeling dated and dry with the same formula, The Reunion surprised me in the most incredible and exciting ways. I cannot sing high enough praises of Musso’s newest masterpiece!

Due to a few graphic scenes of violence and a some more mature subject matters, I would recommend this book to be read at a high school level or above.


Thanks to the author and publisher for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.