Things We Do in the Dark Review

Book: Things We Do in the Dark
Author: Jennifer Hillier
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Year: 2022
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “In the dark, monsters are real. When Paris Peralta is arrested in her own bathroom – covered in blood, holding a straight razor, her celebrity husband dead in the bathtub – she knows she’s in serious trouble.
In the dark, it never happened. But as bad as it looks, the arrest is not what worries her the most. With the unwanted media attention now surrounding her, it’s only a matter of time before someone from her old life recognizes her and destroys everything she’s worked so hard to build.
In the dark, she could be anyone. Because Paris has a dark past. And she’ll do anything to keep it hidden.”

Review: Things We Do in the Dark has a promising synopsis, it sounds intriguing and dark, mysterious and interesting. To say it falls flat is an understatement. To be completely honest, I found myself bored reading this book. There was a tiny section where I grew more interested somewhere around 3/4 of the way through, but it was short lived and the book returned to it’s dull story-telling for it’s finale. Hillier skirts the more graphic details of Paris’ previous life, stopping short of telling you what’s really going on, leaving it up to the reader’s imagination. I personally think if you’re going to tell a story that requires some content warnings, and this does, you might as well go all in and embrace what you’re telling rather than apologize for it by simply not describing or naming the thing. So let’s talk about the content warnings: Things We Do in the Dark contains implications of pedopohelia, assault, domestic violence, and PTSD. It references harm to a minor, incest, and contains racist language. While all of the above sounds fairly graphic, this book would likely receive a PG-13 rating as a movie, do with that what you will.

Though this book has little to nothing to do with music, each chapter begins with a quote from a popular song. The song lyrics rarely, if ever, tie into the chapter, and the effect is meaningless. It adds to my distaste for how this book was put together, giving the impression that perhaps there are places in the book that should have been highlighted in order to tie in with the chapter lyrics. Why go through the trouble of choosing lyrics for each chapter of a book that has nothing to do with music? I believe it’s referenced one, maybe two times through the entire 397 page book. This is the least of my issues, however. While the writing was fine and I found almost no grammatical errors that seem to be common in ARCs, it lacked that thing that makes you want to keep turning pages. It took me much longer to read this book than the past few ARCs simply because I didn’t care what happened. Not only did I figure out what was going on long before it was revealed because it was glaringly obvious, the “twists” were revealed much too early to give the reader any incentive to keep going. I’ve said it many times before, you don’t have to be a good writer to write a compelling story. I’ve read many books that were poorly executed but I kept turning the pages because I needed to know what was going to happen. What We Do in the Dark is simply not that book.

Hillier doesn’t stay true to her character, Paris, toward the end stating “[she] had been trained not to cry.” But by this point, we’ve seen the main character cry several times. This might seem small, but this sentence was 301 pages into the book and by this time the main character has cried no less than five times that we know of. Hillier tells Paris’ story by jumping back and forth between Paris’ point of view in the present, her point of view in the past, and the point of view of her former best friend / roommate, Drew. Paris has lived a hard life full of oppression, abuse, and trauma, yet when she reconnects with Drew, supposedly the best person in her life, potentially the love of her life, he is condescending, offensive, and patronizing. While she stands up for herself, she doesn’t demand apology or change from Drew, she simply allows him to continue to be the bully he has always been. I’m not sure why he’s painted to be a savior figure here, but he becomes someone she relies upon once again as her perspective jumps back to the future (she relied on him a great deal in her younger years, before she had the wherewithal to stand up for herself), and I found myself feeling completely disgusted as I read.

Things We Do in the Dark, lastly, is entitled far too closely to the hit TV show What We Do in the Shadows and contains names of characters that share names of characters in other TV shows. While none are related, and I suspect are just coincidence, I couldn’t read through the book without making the connections and I have to wonder why an editor wouldn’t suggest some name changes. Least of all, the title of the book should be at least slightly more different, as What We Do in the Shadows is a current, and wildly popular show that has absolutely nothing in common with this book. These are semantics, I suppose, but added to my pile of issues with reading through this book, end up being more than small irritants I could look past.

Advice: Skip this book. There are no surprises, there are no twists that you won’t see coming a mile away, there’s nothing interesting here. While it may be sort of unique in plot, it’s not wholly unique and could be supplemented with several other suspense novels, including any of the past suspense novels I’ve read and criticized for being cookie cutter versions of each other. This one is not worth the read.

The Grimrose Girls Review

Book: The Grimrose Girls
Author: Laura Pohl
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Year: 2021
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “After the mysterious death of their best friend, Ella, Yuki, and Rory are the talk of their elite school, Primrose Academie. The police ruled Ariane’s death as a suicide, but the trio are determined to find out what really happened.
When Nana Estes arrives as their newest roommate, it sets into motion a series of events that no one could have predicted. As the girls retrace their friend’s final days, they discover a dark secret about Grimrose – Ariane wasn’t the first dead girl.
They soon learn that all the past murders are connected to ancient fairy-tale curses…and that their own fates are tied to the stories, dooming the girls to brutal and gruesome endings unless they can break the cycle for good.”

Review: This book left me frustrated. The cover is compelling and interesting and the synopsis sounds like this will be an enjoyable YA read, but frankly it was none of the above. Covering themes that are played out and tired in a way that is not fresh or new feels like a waste of time. How many times can we reread or re-watch Cinderella before we find that we no longer need to engage in the latest adaptation? The fact is, we already know how that story goes. Pohl crafted a story that revolved around fairytale stories, which could be interesting especially knowing that the fairytale stories she’s referencing in the book are the original versions and not the Disneyfied ‘happily ever after’ versions. But, sadly, we meet yet another character named Ella who lives with an evil step mother and two terrible stepsister. She’s literally covered in ash at one point, and spends her weekends cleaning the house – to the extent that her hands are covered in scars. There’s nothing new to this retelling other than the fact that the remainder of the characters barely resemble the fairytales they’re based on and there’s no continuity between them.
I’m not sure where Pohl was going with this book and I’m not sure we’ll know until the second (of how many?) book comes out. There’s a slow buildup followed by a quick and confusing falling action at the end, leaving me googling whether or not there would be a second book because honestly, it’s not clear. Pohl ties up enough of the loose ends to assume the end could truly be the end, but leaves just a few strings untied – instead of feeling like a cliffhanger that I need to see resolved, it feels like the mark of poor writing to leave just a few pieces untouched while the rest finds itself resolved. In fact, yes, there will be a second book to tie up the few remaining loose ends and, I assume, create new ones. I’m frustrated with how disappointing this book turned out to be, and I’m tempted to say “even for a YA read” but the fact of the matter is, a YA read does not have to be disappointing or poorly written. A fantasy YA read, for that matter, doesn’t need to be disappointing or poorly written! Where’s the precedent for a higher standard of book? Nowhere to be found in The Grimrose Girls, sadly, though the opportunity did exist. The challenge was simply not risen to, and I find myself yet again let down by poor writing.

Advice: The phrasing throughout this book was off, the pacing was slow, and the characters were shallow and lackluster. This book seemed like it had the potential to be engaging and interesting and it fell flat. There are better YA fantasy books out there. If you’re looking for something light where you won’t have to think much, if at all, this is going to do the trick. If you’re looking for compelling, interesting, and/or challenging, this is not it.

The Other Black Girl Review

Book : The Other Black Girl
Author : Zakiya Dalila Harris
Publisher : Atria Books
Year : 2021
Rating : 4.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis : “Nella Rogers is an ambitious young Black woman trying to make her mark at the legendary Wagner Books. Needless to say, she is thrilled when Hazel joins the team and is eager for the friendship she assumes will be just around the corner, easy, and immediate. but when a moment of support goes horribly wrong (in a very public way), Nella retreats and finds herself watching and questioning Hazel’s every move. Urgent, propulsive, brilliant, and hilarious, The Other Black Girl is a psychological masterpiece, where micro aggressions and gaslighting turn a company’s “civilized” atmosphere into a slowly unraveling horror.”

Review : The Other Black Girl was a slow burning, psychologically thrilling, completely haunting novel. I’m torn, generally, between love and hate for a book who jumps between characters; it’s either done well or it’s not, there’s very little middle ground. Harris nearly-perfectly executes this technique (nearly, hence the .5 rating) throughout the entirety of the novel but lost me briefly at the end with a chapter that was not entitled and left me trying to guess who the character was supposed to be – probably the point of the chapter, but ultimately it felt disjointed. Aside from the minor disjointedness from the final chapter, the rest of the book read easily and enjoyably. Finally, a thriller that doesn’t follow the same, old, stale routine. It’s a miracle.
I loved the pacing of this book. It’s not clear it’s even entering into the world of thrillers and horror until you’re well into it, setting the stage for a deeply personal encounter. All of the build up had a point, it all lead to a conclusion that was surprisingly twisty, and I never once felt like there was story just for the sake of filling pages. I’m grateful when I find a book that engages details that further the plot rather than a book I come away from wondering why I read half of what I read.
Harris leaves us wanting more as she wraps the book up and for that I’m both frustrated and glad. I wish there was more! I still have questions and there are characters I was hoping to hear more from, but it doesn’t feel empty or come across as incomplete. It reads like a good book should: realistically (as much as can be expected from a thriller / horror novel). Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t always want a book to tie up a story into a neat little bow, they read as stilted and unlikely. Harris proves that you can have an unlikely story without creating a book that feels unlikely.

Advice : If you like thrillers, psychological movies, or an unexpected ending, you’ll love The Other Black Girl. It is a truly well written novel that will suck you in and keep you coming back for more. I highly recommend this book!

Five Midnights Review

Book: Five Midnights
Author: Ann Dávila Cardinal
Publisher: Tor Teen
Year: 2019
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución.
If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping through Puerto Rico. But the clues lead them out of the real world and into the realm of myths and legends. And if they want to catch the killer, they’ll have to step into the shadows to see what’s lurking there — murderer, or monster?”

Review: Five Midnights is the forthcoming debut YA novel from Dávila Cardinal, a Puerto Rican who currently lives in Vermont. What Dávila Cardinal has created is a riveting story of a 16-year-old girl, Lupe, coming of age while visiting a country she has allegiance to, being half Puerto Rican by descent. Over the backdrop of a YA fantasy novel, Lupe struggles with her own heritage as a half Puerto Rican, half Irish girl hailing from the mainland United States (Dávila Cardinal’s own Vermont) who doesn’t feel that either location is quite “home”. As she struggles with the idea of being light skinned and light haired, a trait she inherited from a mother who left several years ago, she tries to move into her role as a Puerto Rican but finds to her dismay that she is identified as “other” to native Puerto Ricans.
Dávila Cardinal’s novel is an engrossing tale of cultural heritage, Island myths, and young teenage love. Lupe, spending the summer in PR with her extended family, shares a love for true crime with her Tío who happens to be the local police chief. When she arrives on the island she quickly finds her way into the middle of his investigation into the strange deaths of two young men who died on the eve of their 18th birthdays. The following story is quick moving, enjoyable, and peppered with just enough mythology to spark interest without overwhelming the story with fantastic beasts or creatures.
As someone who has a vague knowledge of the Spanish language, I found this book to be fun to read as it’s filled with Puerto Rican jargon and often challenged my understanding of the context in which it was written. The dialogue is quick and believable, the characters are relatable, and while the story errs on the fantasy side, it is grounded in reality. I had a hard time putting the book down and ended up plowing through it in just under 48 hours – the mark of a quality novel.

My Advice: Do you enjoy the YA genre? If you said yes, this is the book for you. It’s a quick read, perfect for summer with a release date in early June of 2019, and it introduces the reader to an interesting Latin American myth that proves just spooky enough without giving nightmares. Other reviews call this novel “unputdownable” (Paul Tremblay) and they’re correct. It’s a great dive back into YA fiction and with the personal and profession knowledge possessed by Dávila Cardinal being both Puerto Rican and VCFA’s leader of a Puerto Rican residency, it reads with an air of authenticity that can’t be beat.