It Will Just Be Us – Jo Kaplan

In Wakefield Manor, a decaying ancestral mansion brooding on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, there is a locked room.

And this is the sort of opening sentence that immediately sucks me into a book. A decaying mansion, a swamp and a locked room? Please tell me more!

Sam and her sister, Elizabeth, grew up in Wakefield Manor with their neglectful mother. Since it was built, the mansion has witnessed both the mundane and the horrors experienced by those who have lived there, and it has not forgotten them.

Now adults, the sisters have returned to Wakefield Manor, where the locked room from their childhood remains a mystery and a new ghost has appeared.

I love haunted house stories so couldn’t wait to get into this one. I loved the house. I loved the swamp. I loved the way the ghosts made their way into the story and I wanted to spend more time with them.

The past is everywhere, here, wrapped up in the present.

There were a couple of times when I managed to forget what was happening in the story’s present while exploring the past. I never really connected with any of the characters so, although I was interested in learning what happened to each of them, the emotional investment was missing. There were also a number of potentially superfluous paragraphs that took me out of the story.

I tend to gravitate to horror that is more visceral so after the set up of the first couple of chapters I found myself getting antsy. The action picks up towards the end of the book but I spent a good amount of time around the middle simply waiting for it to begin. There was an overall atmospheric feel to the book.

It is a door that should not be opened.

Content warnings include mention of abortion, alcoholism, assault, death by suicide (including method used), domestic violence, neglect and slavery. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with a couple of scenes.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Crooked Lane Books for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

They say there’s a door in Wakefield that never opens …

Sam Wakefield’s ancestral home, a decaying mansion built on the edge of a swamp, isn’t a place for children. Its labyrinthine halls, built by her mad ancestors, are filled with echoes of the past: ghosts and memories knotted together as one. In the presence of phantoms, it’s all Sam can do to disentangle past from present in her daily life. But when her pregnant sister Elizabeth moves in after a fight with her husband, something in the house shifts.

Already navigating her tumultuous relationship with Elizabeth, Sam is even more unsettled by the appearance of a new ghost: a faceless boy who commits disturbing acts – threatening animals, terrorising other children, and following Sam into the depths of the house wielding a knife. When it becomes clear the boy is connected to a locked, forgotten room, one which is never entered, Sam realises this ghost is not like the others. This boy brings doom …

As Elizabeth’s due date approaches, Sam must unravel the mysteries of Wakefield before her sister brings new life into a house marked by death. But as the faceless boy grows stronger, Sam will learn that some doors should stay closed – and some secrets are safer locked away forever.

Love, Heather – Laurie Petrou

Spoilers Ahead!

I gave myself some homework to complete before I would allow myself to pick up this book. I watched Heathers for the first time and it really helped having it fresh in my mind when I began reading. I understood references that likely would have whooshed over my head unnoticed otherwise and having just watched a revenge fantasy story, I had some idea of what was to come.

No one knows what she can do. No one has ever known.

Lottie and Stevie have been best friends all their lives. Stevie spends so much time at Lottie’s house she’s practically family and Lottie’s mother, Rhonda, is like a second mother to her. Lottie is a bookworm and Stevie loves movies (primarily those made between 1975 and 1995) so much that she’s had her own YouTube channel, FlickChick, since she was twelve.

Woepine High is like every other school: there’s a hierarchy.

The popular kids in their year have an undisputed leader – Athlete Barbie, A.K.A, Breanne. Then there’s Paige, Breanne’s “second in command”, and Paige’s boyfriend, Aidan. Lottie and Stevie have recently and quite accidentally become friends with them.

Some kind of wall went up when we started hanging out with all of them, and I’m not sure where the door is.

When a series of events results in Stevie being relentlessly bullied by ex-friends, other students and even complete strangers, her entire world comes crashing down and she has no one to turn to. Except Dee, the new girl.

“It’s people like us against the world, Stevie.”

Dee, who understands what Stevie’s going through. Dee, who decides it’s time the bullies were taught a lesson. Anonymously, of course. Each prank is accompanied by a message written in red lipstick: “LOVE, HEATHER”, an homage to teen revenge movie Heathers.

These acts of “mischief” soon take on a life of their own. The stakes are raised exponentially, with creative and sometimes brutal acts of revenge being played out across the school and beyond. What began with bullies being targeted becomes something where it’s harder to draw a line between bully and victim.

I mean, it’s hard to know who to root for, isn’t it?

I’ve agonised about what to write in this review for a couple of days. There was so much I loved about this book but there were also a couple of key points in the story that didn’t ring true and/or disappointed me. Please keep in mind that while yes, I had some niggles, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will agree with me.

After establishing the history of Stevie and Lottie’s friendship and Stevie’s sudden social pariah status, I felt this book then took off like a rocket. I was immersed in the acts of revenge and am fairly certain teenage me would have imagined some creative vigilante themed fantasies if I’d read this book then, much like when I conceived (but never acted upon) my own versions of poetic justice as I cheered Matilda on from the sidelines. Revenge fantasies are always fun, with their drama and the opportunity to cheer on underdogs.

If nothing else, this book reinforced my gratitude that I didn’t grow up surrounded by social media. Bullying is horrific enough when it’s physical and/or verbal. I can’t even imagine how the effects are compounded now that it follows you into your home, on your phone and spreading like a virus on the internet, where strangers can add fuel to the fire. Besides bullying, this book also delves into other complex and emotionally charged areas, including rape culture and gender identity.

Because I’m old now I have seen, or at least knew the general plot of, most of the movies referenced in this book but I’d be surprised if most young adults would have heard of the majority of them, unless their parents have introduced them to the movies they themselves grew up with. The lack of familiarity with these movies could potentially lead to the target audience not understanding some of the references to them in this book.

I found Lottie and Stevie’s friendship relatable and empathised with Stevie as she was bombarded with bullying and dealing with isolation. I ached for her as she was consistently let down by her parents. I kept wanting to read more about Pete and couldn’t decide if I was more interested in having them as my friend or teacher. I had problems with the character of Dee but can’t be specific because … spoilers.

I really enjoyed the majority of this book but I had a couple of fairly significant problems with it. When I got to the twist, my reaction pretty much mirrored this:

(Yes, I am binge watching Hart of Dixie at the moment.)

Variations of this particular twist have been done so many times before in so many other books and movies. Because I’ve come across it too many times I’m desensitised to it and I expect I probably even have a bias against it now. It would take something remarkable to occur in conjunction with that particular twist for me to not groan or roll my eyes when I encounter it. My main problem with that twist being in this book was that the psychology of it just didn’t sit right with me. However, to partially undo this entire paragraph, I need to acknowledge that because this book’s target audience are young adults, (i.e., not me) this may well be the first time some readers encounter this particular brand of twist and I hope they are blindsided by it.

My biggest problem with this book was its ending. It felt rushed and too neat. All things considered, the consequences seemed minimal and peoples’ responses to the character in question were too easy. After spending sufficient time setting up the important aspects of the friendships, bullying and pranks, the finale fizzled for me. This was quite a dark book in places and the end felt much too polite. Where was the rage and all of the other complicated feelings that would be expected after what happened?

Sidebar: Had I known before reading this book that Lottie and Stevie had exchanged best friend necklaces I would have called the demise of their friendship immediately, without even reading the blurb. Those curses that came in the innocent forms of hearts that declare you’re ‘BEST FRIENDS’ and break in two so you each get half of the words and heart were the present when I was growing up but whenever anyone I knew shared them, they wound up having a massive, often irreparable, fight shortly afterwards. You may think that this is mere coincidence or paranoia talking but I kid you not: those cutesy charms have some sort of friendship voodoo attached to them! Exchange them with extreme caution! 😜

Content warnings include bullying, eating disorders, sexual assault, racism, transphobia, mention of homophobia and suicide, rape culture, gun violence and mental health.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Crooked Lane Books for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Award-winning author Laurie Petrou makes her YA debut with this atmospheric thriller exploring the addictive pull of revenge.

What you see isn’t always what you get.

Stevie never meant for things to go this far. When she and Dee – defiant, bold, indestructible Dee – started all this, there was a purpose to their acts of vengeance: to put the bullies of Woepine High School back in their place. And three months ago, Stevie believed they deserved it. Once her best friend turned on her, the rest of the school followed. Stevie was alone and unprotected with a target on her back. Online, it was worse.

It was Dee’s idea to get them all back with a few clever pranks, signing each act Love, Heather – an homage to her favorite 80’s revenge flick. Despite herself, Stevie can’t help getting caught up in the payback, reveling in every minute of suffering. And for a while, it works: it seems the meek have inherited the school.

But when anonymous students begin joining in, punishing perceived slights with increasingly violent ferocity, the line between villain and vigilante begins to blur. As friends turn on each other and the administration scrambles to regain control, it becomes clear: whatever Dee and Stevie started has gained a mind – and teeth – of its own. And when it finally swallows them whole, one will reemerge changed, with a plan for one final, terrifying act of revenge.

Little Darlings – Melanie Golding

I’m not usually a fan of unreliable narrators, on the page or in the flesh. I also don’t tend to seek out stories that include potential changelings, so I’m not entirely sure what drew me to this book. Whatever the reason, I’m so glad I found it. I love any book that challenges me to want to read outside of my comfort zone and this one succeeded.

Lauren and Patrick are first time parents to twins, Morgan and Riley. Despite some initial hesitation as she waited for the instantaneous motherly love for her babies to arrive, Lauren is smitten. Exhausted, but smitten. After terrifying encounters with a strange woman who threatened to steal her perfect bundles of joy and replace them with her own creatures, Lauren refuses to let her twins out of her sight. The staff at the hospital are certain that Lauren’s experiences are mental health related and DS Joanna Harper is the only police officer who isn’t entirely convinced they’re correct.

Weeks later, Lauren’s babies are missing and when she sees them again she knows they’re not her babies. They’ve been switched but, because they look identical to her own, there’s little she can do to prove it. She knows what she needs to do, but if she’s wrong there’ll be no turning back.

I know what I believe happened but I can’t give you definitive evidence to prove my point. I could just as easily argue the opposing view and that, to me, is proof of how well Melanie Golding writes. It’s not only what really happened that is up for grabs in my eyes; I could argue motives of different characters as well, chiefly Lauren’s husband.

I didn’t trust him from the very beginning and I still don’t. I felt he was a condescending, manipulative slimeball but I still don’t know if it was my instincts kicking in or if I’m judging his actions through Lauren or Joanna’s eyes. Regardless, I love a book that messes with me like this.

I had anticipated this story ending during a specific series of events and was surprised when it continued for another couple of chapters, but would have been satisfied either way. I do have a couple of niggling outstanding questions, mostly relating to the book with the old-fashioned gold lettering and Natasha.

I’m really interested to see how this book translates to film, especially the portrayal of Lauren’s thoughts and whether it encourages the viewer to make up their own mind or if it weighs the evidence in a way that provides a definitive answer. Despite my own (thankfully unfounded) prejudices going into this book, I finished it feeling its early hype is warranted.

Thank you to NetGalley and Crooked Lane Books for the opportunity to read this debut.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Everyone says Lauren Tranter is exhausted, that she needs rest. And they’re right; with newborn twins, Morgan and Riley, she’s never been more tired in her life. But she knows what she saw: that night, in her hospital room, a woman tried to take her babies and replace them with her own … creatures. Yet when the police arrived, they saw no one. Everyone, from her doctor to her husband, thinks she’s imagining things.

A month passes. And one bright summer morning, the babies disappear from Lauren’s side in a park. But when they’re found, something is different about them. The infants look like Morgan and Riley – to everyone else. But to Lauren, something is off. As everyone around her celebrates their return, Lauren begins to scream, These are not my babies.

Determined to bring her true infant sons home, Lauren will risk the unthinkable. But if she’s wrong about what she saw … she’ll be making the biggest mistake of her life.

Compulsive, creepy, and inspired by some our darkest fairy tales, Little Darlings will have you checking – and rechecking – your own little ones. Just to be sure. Just to be safe.