Review | This Might Hurt, by Stephanie Wrobel

ThisMightHurtIn This Might Hurt, Nat Collins goes to a remote island to save her younger sister Kit from a cult. I’m a sucker for thrillers involving sisters, and cults are prime material for a thriller. I still remember being disturbed by how cult leaders feed on people’s vulnerabilities when I read that Sweet Valley High novel where Jessica Wakefield’s twin sister and friends have to save her from one.

This Might Hurt starts off as a fairly solid thriller, if a bit slow-moving at times. The story is told from three perspectives: Nat, Kit, and an unnamed girl who grew up in an abusive household. I loved the story about Nat and Kit’s relationship — their loving yet complicated relationships with their mother and with each other, and their shared grief when their mother died. I also loved the tension that’s gradually revealed between the sisters — a major secret that Nat rushes to the island to keep Kit from finding out, and the way Nat had to step in as both older sister and mother for Kit, because of their mom’s depression.

I was less interested in the unnamed third narrator. Even though she later turns out to be pivotal to the plot, the mystery surrounding her identity felt forced, and it took a while for her story to take shape. The child abuse inflicted by her father were also emotionally difficult to read about, so heads up if that kind of content is a trigger for you. (I’ve put some examples at the bottom of this post, if you want to get an idea of the content.)

The structure of Nat and Kit’s chapters also slowed the pace down for me. We don’t get Kit’s narration until a bit over a third through the book, which does set up the mystery around her situation, but it also lessens the degree of our immersion into the story’s atmosphere. Nat’s search for Kit is urgent, but there’s a detachment to the narration that makes it feel less so, and the unnamed narrator’s chapters only serve to slow down the narration even further.

All that being said, the final few chapters of the novel saved it for me. There’s a reveal late in the book that reframes our understanding of the story and the characters to-date, significantly ratchets up the action and emotional urgency of the story, and sets up an exciting new direction for the story. Some of the elements of the ending are a bit too convenient to be believable — one character in particular acts in a way that’s completely out of character for them — but I was interested enough to willingly suspend my disbelief. I found the ending chilling, unexpected, and rather sad, which is just the complicated mess of emotions that makes a good thriller such a fun read. I only wish I’d had more of this from the very beginning.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.

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Some examples of the child abuse: The man required his daughters to complete a certain number of points to earn their right to sleep that night, and things like kneeling on broken glass are given extra points. In one scene, he forced the unnamed narrator to stay afloat in cold, dirty water for an hour, even though she didn’t know how to swim, and forced her older sister to keep watch for him. And in another, he forces his daughter to do a task that risks breaking her mother’s beloved family heirloom; that scene ends with an act of deliberate psychological cruelty towards the mother.

Review | Magic, Lies, and Deadly Pies, by Misha Popp

MagicLiesDeadlyPiesThis was just a lot of fun. It’s not quite a cozy mystery as I expected, nor, in fact, is it much of a mystery at all, despite the cover design and the ‘Pies Before Guys Mystery’ branding. Rather, it’s more of a lighthearted contemporary with magic and thrillerish elements.

Daisy Ellery is gifted with the ability to infuse her pies with magic. Sometimes, as with the pies she bakes for a diner in exchange for getting to use their kitchen, she infuses her pies with nostalgia and a touch of home. Other times, as with the pies she sells from her food truck / mobile home at a bustling college campus, she adds a touch of calm and mental clarity. And then there are the pies she bakes for men who abuse women, which, depending on their capacity to change, either gets them to stop the abuse completely, or kills them without a trace. Those pies are available only through word of mouth, for women Daisy meets at support groups, or women who have been referred to Daisy’s Pies Before Guys business by satisfied customers. In making them, Daisy also abides by a few core rules, such as no killing innocents, and no killing women.

Unfortunately, someone is on to Daisy’s secret. They send an order, not through the Pies Before Guys app that maintains Daisy’s anonymity, but with an anonymous note dropped off at Daisy’s mobile home. The note gives her a list of three women, with no context around why the person wants them dead, and threatens to reveal Daisy’s secret if she doesn’t comply.

The note-writer’s identity forms the central mystery of the novel, as Daisy scrambles to protect herself and the life she’s built. However, the big reveal happens about halfway through, and the novel is really more about how Daisy responds to this reveal, and how she comes to terms with her particular brand of magic.

As interesting as the blackmail subplot was, I was more drawn to Daisy’s grappling with her place in her family’s history. Both her mother and grandmother used their magic purely for good, either in making clothes or styling hair. While Daisy comforts herself that her pies kill only men who can’t change for the better, she can’t help but feel that she’s broken somehow, that the darker application of her magic reflects something darker in herself. I love her journey of self-exploration, and I absolutely love the strong bonds she still clearly feels with the women in her ancestral line. I hope future books in this series dig a bit deeper into her family history, and reveal a bit more, to both Daisy and to us, about this wonderfully rich matrilineal line of magic.

I also adored the romantic subplot in this novel. There was a love triangle element, involving both a male love interest and a female one, which I don’t see too often, so that’s super cool. The love triangle did feel organic at first, but I admit one of the potential love interests annoyed me to the point that the love triangle began to feel forced halfway through the novel. One of the love interests just struck me as too narrow-minded, and I think they would have hindered Daisy’s growth. And later in the novel, this character also engaged in some truly toxic behaviour; they totally disregarded Daisy’s boundaries, and attempted a horrifically misguided grand romantic gesture. The narrative seems to frame them as misguided more than malicious, but I legit considered them a mini-villain at points. All that to say, I’m glad the romantic subplot turned out the way it did, and I was super cheering the couple on the entire way.

And I especially love that the author also delves into the more mundane aspects of Daisy’s pie-baking. There’s a subplot about her entering a pie-making contest, and I loved reading about the recipe she created for it. Honestly, that pie sounds delicious, and while I’m not even much of a pie fan, the author’s descriptions made me super crave Daisy’s pie. The author does included some recipes at the end, for any readers who also love to bake. Daisy also reveals the non-magical magic secret to her pie: she uses sugar rather than beans or weights to blind bake her crust. The sugar caramelizes while the crust bakes, which adds to the crust’s flavour, and the roasted sugar is then used to sweeten future pies. The technique sounds intriguing, and if I ever do get to making a pie, I may try it for myself!

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Thank you to Crooked Lane Books for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.

Nine Lives, by Peter Swanson

NineLivesAnd Then There Were None is by far one of my most favourite Agatha Christie novels, so this contemporary homage to the concept definitely hooked me in! Nine people from across America all receive an identical note in the mail: a list of their names. None of them know the others, and none of them could think of a reason why anyone would hold a grudge against them. Yet, one by one, the people on the list end up getting killed. And the FBI is frantically trying to track down the killer before the next victim.

It’s a classic set-up for a thriller, and Swanson does a great job in introducing us to his large cast of characters. He gives us just enough detail to make us care whether a character lives or dies (one person in particular made me actively wishing the killer would move them up the list), without overwhelming us with so much detail we can no longer keep the characters straight.

I had a particular soft spot for two of the characters — a musician who was inspired by the list to write a love song, and an English teacher who lived with her two cats — and I absolutely love how the random experience of both being on a murder list led them to find, and semi-fall for, each other. I also must give kudos to Swanson in setting up one of the people on the list, an FBI agent, as the super obvious primary point of view character, only to prove me wrong partway through. While the novel does track the investigation into the series of murders, we mostly see it unfold through the eyes of the characters on the list more than through the FBI agents investigating the deaths. This adds to the classic, Christie-ish feel of the mystery, and just as we root for the characters on the island in And Then There Were None, we also can’t help but root for the various ordinary people who are trying to outrun their fates.

It’s a testament to Swanson’s characterization that some of the deaths made me truly sad. Even with characters who appeared for only a couple of chapters, I could feel the loss of their passing. The murderer’s motivation was as convoluted and personal as anything out of Christie, and while part of me figures I really should have seen that reveal coming, I applaud the author for keeping me genuinely in the dark until the final two names.

The novel isn’t perfect — the overt references to And Then There Were None got a bit too repetitive after a while, and a last minute reveal, while making the ending semi-happy, seemed totally random and unwarranted. But overall, it’s a lovely read, and I’d recommend it for fans of classic whodunnits.

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Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.