Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

A compelling read that sent shivers down my spine.

This book was on my TBR for so long and I don’t know why. I’d heard mixed reviews—overall great—but most included trigger warnings. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed it and found specific parts interesting, particularly the protagonist’s struggle to recognize and categorize the abuse she endured, and how she continues to carry around the trauma from her past. “In someone else’s mouth the word turns ugly and absolute,” she argues. “It swallows up everything that happened.” I rated it a five-star read due to the originality and depth of the characters, and for the beautiful execution of such a dark subject matter. To those interested in the bottom line, this book isn’t a light read and it won’t make you feel good. It’s dark, complex, and thought-provoking. So be warned.

Kate Elizabeth Russell is an American author. Her debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, was published in 2020 and became a national bestseller.

The story is split between two alternating timelines from the protagonist’s perspective. The current timeline establishes her routine, working a desk job at a hotel in the city and drinking and/or getting stoned in her spare time. The past timeline conveys adolescence and her budding relationship with a forty-two-year-old English professor. The chapters, although on the longer side, flow effortlessly, and I didn’t once find the pace slow, or catch myself wanting to stop reading.

From the very beginning of the book, themes of consent, complicity, and trauma vs memory are clearly depicted. We are first introduced to Vanessa as she’s getting ready for work while monitoring comments on a Facebook post from a former student accusing Jacob Strane—her old English professor—of sexual assault. We know Vanessa still keeps in touch with him. We also know her memories of what transpired between them all those years ago are foggy at best, recategorized as something other than abuse. More of a romantic retelling of a pedophile and his victim. Not only was she abused at the hands of someone who should have protected her, but now she’s suffering because of that abuse, caught in a trauma cycle, finding other ways to cope including excessive drinking, smoking marijuana, and engaging in degrading sexual acts. When Taylor, another victim, speaks out on Facebook against Strane, it triggers Vanessa to reach out to her abuser. And as the timelines unfold, her past becomes shockingly clear, and Vanessa is forced to choose between complicit silence and finally facing the ugly truth.

The cast of characters are so different I had no issues following along with the story. Each one well fleshed out and different from the last. Jacob Strane’s character was the most disturbing, especially reading of the manipulative ways he minimized his actions, groomed and gaslit Vanessa, making her believe she was the one responsible for allowing their ‘relationship’ to transpire. “I never would have done it if you weren’t so willing,” he’s noted saying. The most painful thing about reading this book is how the author makes it inevitably clear to the reader how much of a predator Strane is, and yet, Vanessa (past and present) cannot recognize it. She often sides with him and feels complicit, as a subconscious way of deflecting the truth. She was a victim of abuse. This is perfectly executed through the use of first person point of view, pulling the reader into Vanessa’s twisted psyche.

So many scenes in the book haunt me, but probably none more than the first night Vanessa goes to stay at Strane’s house. All the details clearly signal to the reader actions of a sexual predator, but which Vanessa finds romantic and thoughtful. It’s terrifying. The food he bought for her: ice cream, chips, soda. She packs black silky negligee of her mother’s to wear, while he prefers her to wear a childlike pijama set with a pink strawberry print. What kept me reading was hope. Hope that Vanessa would see the light, look inward, and realize what happened to her wasn’t right. Hope that she would find solace in knowing she wasn’t alone. The ending was sad and yet satisfying.

5/5 ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy dark academia, dual timelines, compelling female narrators, and dark, complex psychological themes.

Published January 23rd, 2020

Plot:

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Book Review: When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain

Vivid, clever, and steady-paced.

Hauntingly descriptive with pulse-pounding twists and a vulnerable yet highly intuitive protagonist. Paula McLain writes about a very chilling topic with the elegance and ease of a pro.

Paula McLain is an American author best known for her novel, The Paris Wife, a fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage which became a long-time New York Times bestseller. She has published two collections of poetry, a memoir about growing up in the foster system, and the novel A Ticket to Ride.

When the Stars Go Dark is the first of McLain’s novels I’ve read but it definitely won’t be the last. The book combines psychological suspense with a little mysticism, creating an intriguing angle for the overall story which pulled me in immediately. I loved the setting, based in northern California, and enjoyed following Anna and the wide cast of characters around the small town of Mendocino.

The story follows Anna Hart, orphaned as a child and passed through the foster system, which only better prepared her for a career as a detective, committed to finding murdered and missing children.

I’m always intrigued by female detectives and especially love when they’re painted in a relatable light. I found the characters believable, and their arcs very satisfying. The plot was compelling albeit slow-burning at times; different from what I usually read. But it was a fresh change and I was immediately drawn in by the narrator and her back story.

“For as long as I could remember, I’d had reasons to disappear, I was an expert at making myself invisible.”

Anna Hart – When The Stars Go Dark

I particularly loved the setting and picturing the west coast was a nice backdrop compared to the usual grungy cities a lot of detective novels take place in. A scene that sticks in my mind sees Anna visit a psychic who tells her: “This is your life’s work for a reason. The things you’ve lost have drawn you to help these children and young women,” the psychic says to Anna then goes on to hit the bull’s eye, “The ghosts of the kids you’ve helped, they hang on you like stars.” I loved the added layer of mysticism that scene brought to the story.

4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is an atmospheric suspense novel that I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend to readers who love a relatable protagonist, realistic twists, beautiful settings, and a steady pace with a slow-burning end. Think of pragmatic characters like Mare Sheehan in HBO’s Mare of Eastown and AMC’s Sarah Lindon from The Killing, placed against a beautiful California backdrop.

Plot

Anna Hart, orphaned as a child and passed through the foster system, only better prepared her for a career as a detective, committed to finding murdered and missing children. When unspeakable tragedy strikes, she turns to the Californian village of Mendocino to grieve. Seeking comfort in the chocolate-box village she grew up in, Anna instead arrives to the news that a local girl has gone missing. The crime feels frighteningly reminiscent of a crucial time in Anna’s childhood when an unsolved murder changed the community forever. As past and present collide, Anna is forced to confront the darkest side of human nature.

After reading her author’s note, I learned that McLain, along with her two sisters, grew up in a series of foster homes. McLain’s biological mother disappeared when she was 4, and her father spent time in and out of prison. During the 14 years she spent in foster care, McLain endured sexual abuse. Detective Anna Hart, the protagonist in “When the Stars Go Dark,” is also a survivor of abandonment, and mirror’s the author’s own personal experience in the system. Anna, the story’s protagonist, uses her trauma as a tool to help in her police work of tracking down the predators who brutalize children.

Book Review: Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

Twisted, gripping, and insane. I raced to the end!

I was late reading Alice Feeney’s debut novel but after hearing so many amazing reviews, I’m so happy it lived up to the hype. This book was an emotional whirlwind and after finishing, I needed some time to digest it. I don’t give many five-star reviews because there are so many incredible books I enjoy but feel they lack that extra something—whatever ‘that’ is. Originality is a quality I always find compelling, and in a genre that is so over-saturated with murder and unreliable female narrators, it’s hard to find a book that stands out from the crowd. Well, this book accomplishes just that, and then some.

Alice Feeney is a New York Times bestselling author and journalist. Her debut novel, Sometimes I Lie, was an international bestseller, has been translated into over twenty languages, and is being made into a TV series by Warner Bros. starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. Other notable works include but are not limited to His & Hers, Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Daisy Darker (releasing August 2022).

When we first meet the protagonist she tells us three things.

My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me:
1. I’m in a coma.
2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore.
3. Sometimes I lie.

Amber Reynolds – Sometimes I Lie

From that point on, Feeney leads the reader through a story of cat and mouse as Amber tries desperately to piece together the fragmented memories of her life before the accident. Told through dual timelines and intermittent diary entries from twenty years previous, the suspense is palpable as both character backgrounds and motives are revealed.

I found the cast of characters realistic albeit somewhat terrifying at times, their backgrounds and relationships well fleshed out and intriguing. The arcs were believable and the endings satisfying, right up until the last page when it threw a curveball and left me hanging by a thread. At certain points, it wasn’t even clear who the real enemy was, which I love. This book kept me guessing (with dread) right up until the very end.

I found it gripping, and the plot propulsive, finishing the book in two sittings. The writing style is told in first-person, gradually building suspense throughout. There was never a point in which I felt the story dragged. When first introduced to the diary entries I wondered how they would relate to the main storyline, creating more intrigue, until finally revealing one of the biggest plot twists in the book.

There are so many scenes that haunt me from this book, but if I had to pick one in particular it would be when Amber’s husband leaves her in the hospital one night after visiting, convinced she can hear him and that she’ll move somehow. He ends up setting up a secret camera and catching something he never could have imagined.

5/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Recommended to readers who enjoy unreliable narrators, compelling female protagonists, secrets, and endless twists. This could easily be one of my favorite 2022 reads so far!

published march 23rd, 2017

Plot:

Amber wakes up in a hospital. She can’t move. She can’t speak. She can’t open her eyes. She can hear everyone around her, but they have no idea. Amber doesn’t remember what happened, but she has a suspicion her husband had something to do with it. Alternating between her paralyzed present, the week before her accident, and a series of childhood diaries from twenty years ago, this brilliant psychological thriller asks: Is something really a lie if you believe it’s the truth?

Book Review: Blood Will Tell by Heather Chavez

Gripping, with multiple layers of mystery.

How far would you go to protect someone you love? Even if you suspected them of murder…

From the author of the searing debut, No Bad Deed, comes a story about family bonds, and the secrets sisters keep in order to protect each other. Blood Will Tell is original, captivating, and layered with mystery. The backgrounds of the characters are unique and believable, their relationships complex and intriguing, revealing a number of possible antagonists, which kept me guessing until the very end. The past and present timelines are weaved together perfectly, allowing time to digest and reveal possible psychological motives for the crime. I loved how different Frankie and Izzy are and felt that it brought so much life to the story. The scene descriptions are vivid, and the plot steady, giving a real sense of mystery as Frankie leads us through the puzzle of what actually happened that dreaded night, five years ago. One scene that sticks in my head involves the night Frankie drove to her sister’s aid only to find her passed out in the driver’s seat of their parent’s car, a streak of blood, and a clump of human hair on the hood. So chilling!

4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy compelling female characters, family secrets, and edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Plot

Schoolteacher and single mom Frankie Barrera has always been fiercely protective of her younger sister Izzy—whether Izzy wants her to be or not. But over the years, Izzy’s risky choices have tested Frankie’s loyalty. Never so much as on a night five years ago, when a frantic phone call led Frankie to the scene of a car accident—and a drunk and disoriented Izzy who couldn’t remember a thing.

Though six friends partied on the outskirts of town that night, one girl was never seen again . . . 

Now, an AMBER alert puts Frankie in the sights of the local police. Her truck has been described as the one used in the abduction of a girl from a neighboring town. And the only other person with access to Frankie’s truck is Izzy.

This time around, Frankie will have to decide what lengths she’s willing to go to in order to protect Izzy—what lies she’s willing to tell, and what secrets she’s willing to keep—because of the dangerous game that six friends once played on a warm summer night isn’t over yet . . .

Book Review: Animal by Lisa Taddeo

Witty, fierce, and unapoligetic. My favorite book of 2021!

Lisa Taddeo is the author of three books: Three Women, a compelling nonfiction account of women and sex, Animal, a fictional depiction of female rage and visceral exploration of the fallout from a male-dominated society, and her newest book, Ghost Lover, a collection of fearless and ferocious short stories (available June 14th, 2022 in the US).

“I drove myself out of New York City where a man shot himself in front of me.”

Joan

Joan leads us on a journey across the country filled with abrasive revelations as she searches for a woman called Alice, who is connected to the traumas of her past. Having left New York City for Los Angeles, she rents a small apartment on a shared compound located in Topanga Canyon. While there, she becomes romantically involved with two men. A handsome young man named River who lives in a yurt, and a senile landlord called Leonard. Both men have a profound effect on her future. Slipping in and out of traumatic flashbacks, Joan describes various atrocities committed against her in great detail. We know these are the catalysists driving her, even if the details are somewhat concealed in the beginning. What we do know, by her own words, is that Joan is “depraved.” Her trauma defines her and she moves through the world seeking just that.

What I love most about this book is Taddeo’s natural ability to tackle taboo subjects with such literary boldness and grit. The focus on the link between trauma and sexual violence both shocked and intrigued me, and the way Joan lived inside her pain felt relatable and reasurring. I couldn’t pull myself away as her twisted psyche led her down a dark path of exploration, where she describes being victimized while also using her beauty and sexuality as an exploitive tool. And as the story unfolded I found myself concerned and anxious as she walked the fine line between prey and predator.

Certain statements ring true in Taddeo’s novel, highlighting feelings of anxiety, shame, and deep-rooted fears women endure daily. Experiences we encounter but don’t always find the support or opportunity to voice: “I had the fear of angering a man. Of not being an amenable woman. I had the fear of being murdered.” Another scene: “He was picking a pimple on his chin and staring at me. There are a hundred small rapes every day.” Women relate to each other’s pain in a different way than men do, Taddeo mentioned in an interview, stating that it’s something we, as women, are drawn to in one another. Whereas, for men, it’s the sort of pain that makes them feel very uncomfortable. Taddeo explains, “‘Bad women’ aren’t allowed to tell their stories.”

A woman has to be a victim in the right kind of way.

Lisa Taddeo – 2021 – Salon Talks

The vivid and at times, dreamlike, descriptions Joan speaks of are particularly disturbing. A scene that sticks in my mind recounts a night she suffers a painful loss while living in the canyon, and the vivid portrayal of death as the howling coyotes circle outside, drawn by the smell of blood.

I didn’t know what to expect from the story going in, which is my favorite way to read. I’d read Taddeo’s nonfiction book, Three Women, right before this one and loved it, so I could see certain themes repeated in Animal. I’ve read a lot of conflicting reviews about this book and I’m here to say, read it and decide for yourself. I read Taddeo’s nonfiction book first and connected to it immediately. So much time and effort was put in, gathering those women’s stories, and in the end it definitely paid off. When I started reading Animal it felt very different, and I was able to separate the books from each other and enjoy the fact that the world of fiction is a place where one can write more freely with more control over the content.

5/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend this book to those who enjoy complex female anti-heroes, unreliable narrators, slow-burning suspense, and uncomfortable topics. Described as “American Psycho” for the #MeToo era. This is my favorite book of 2021!

published June 8th, 2021

Plot

Joan has spent a lifetime enduring the cruelties of men. But when one of them commits a shocking act of violence in front of her, she flees New York City in search of Alice, the only person alive who can help her make sense of her past. In the sweltering hills above Los Angeles, Joan unravels the horrific event she witnessed as a child—that has haunted her every waking moment—while forging the power to finally strike back.

Book Review: The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

One word: WOW! Whip-smart, thought-provoking, and inventive.

Leading up to the release of this book I’d read comps like: The Devil Wears Prada meets Get Out and I was so curious how the twist was going to reveal itself. Especially with the very white backdrop of a corporate office in a New York City publishing house. And since I come from a New York corporate background, everything about the premise intrigued me.

The Other Black Girl is the debut psychological thriller written by Zakiya Dalila Harris—a former editor at Knopf/Doubleday. She joined the publishing house after receiving her MFA in creative writing from The New School.

When I started reading TOBG I was immediately transported into the world of tricky office dynamics, and the added layer of racism and cutthroat competition created a sinister portrayal of corporate America. I was fascinated to learn more about Nella Rogers, an ambitious, career-savvy, young woman who yearned to have another Black colleague in the workplace to share the pressures Black people face in corporate America, particularly in industries like publishing that have long been places of privilege and racial discrimination.

The narrative slow burned between Nella and her new colleague, Hazel-May McCall—a new editorial assistant who sits in the cubicle next to her—and they seem to be getting along just fine. That is until Hazel throws Nella under the bus during the annual marketing meeting and in front of the entire staff at Wagner, including the CEO. Nella is furious but also confused: was this new girl a friend or foe? And Hazel seems to have a knack for getting involved in Nella’s projects and having cozy closed-room conversations with her boss and mentor, Vera.

The direction of Nella and Hazel’s paths are wildly different with one girl holding on to every ounce of authenticity while the other strives for full-blown success. And as the story develops it begs the question: can one have both?

I loved the fresh take this novel took in a genre that is often over-populated with white suburbia and cheating spouses. The change of scenery and complex racial themes intertwined throughout made it one of my favorite reads of 2021. I rooted for the main character, Nella, and wanted her to succeed and be heard in an industry that is predominantly whitewashed. I found the characters believable and intriguing, the story gripping me from page one.

***NO SPOILERS***

It might sound obvious but, the scene that hit me hard and fast was the main plot twist at the end, making it immediately clear where the GET OUT comparison came from and I was left stunned at the originality and expertly plotted twists leading up to that point.

5/5⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy slow-burning suspense, witty narration with unsettling/unexpected twists.

Plot

Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. Fed up with the isolation and microaggressions, she’s thrilled when Harlem-born and bred Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers. They’ve only just started comparing natural hair care regimens, though, when a string of uncomfortable events elevates Hazel to Office Darling, and Nella is left in the dust.

Then the notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk: LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.

It’s hard to believe Hazel is behind these hostile messages. But as Nella starts to spiral and obsess over the sinister forces at play, she soon realizes that there’s a lot more at stake than just her career.

Book Review: Don’t Look For Me by Wendy Walker

Sharp, suspenseful, fast-paced, and satisfying. One of my favorite books of 2020!

Regardless of whether or not you’re familiar with Wendy Walker, this book will make you an instant fan. With a background in law and psychology, Walker crafts compelling female protagonists and eerie settings into twisted mysteries. Two of my favorite books are The Night Before published in 2019 and Emma in the Night published in 2017 by St. Martin’s Press, both of which I tore through. More recent notable works of hers include American Girl, an audiobook released in 2021 which received rave reviews. The atmosphere and suspense Walker creates in Don’t Look For Me is palpable as the story immediately takes a sharp turn, unfolding through a carefully structured dual narrative and timeline.

It’s the five-year anniversary of her youngest daughter, Annie’s death. Since then, Molly Clarke has watched her family drift apart as she blames herself and struggles to cope; she was, after all, the one responsible. She’s often wondered if they’d be happier without her, toying with the idea of disappearing altogether. So when she goes missing the night of a severe hurricane it raises the question, did she plan it?

Walker is a true master of the genre, her descriptions vivid, and plot twists believable. Her use of structure to create suspense is clever and creative. Themes of trauma, motherhood, and child psychology are expertly intertwined throughout, the scenes between characters very real and complex. I found both main characters, Molly and Nicole, relatable and likable, and I was desperate for them to reunite and heal their relationship. I enjoyed the slow reveals of each supporting character and their connection to Molly which kept the story alive in my mind. One of the big twists was so surprising it left my jaw on the floor. I was instantly hooked from beginning to end, desperate to learn what happened to Molly, revealing an ending I honestly, did not see coming. Walker is such a huge inspiration to me, not only as a fan but as a fellow writer, and I can’t wait to see what she’s working on next.

5/5⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend this book to all fans of the thriller genre and urge them to read it immediately. If you enjoy palpable suspense, compelling female protagonists, dual narrative/timeline, and psychological twists, this is for you!

published September 15th, 2020

Plot

Molly Clarke is driving home on a stormy night in Connecticut when her car breaks down less than a mile from the nearest gas station. For the last five years, she has been living in a state of torment and self-blame after accidentally killing her youngest child. Often toying with the idea of leaving everything behind, she thinks her family would be happier if she just disappeared. But when she accepts a ride to town from a man with a little girl passing by in a truck, Molly doesn’t make it home.

Book Review: This Might Hurt by Stephanie Wrobel

Gut-wrenching, gripping, and utterly original.

Picture Tranquillim House from Nine Perfect Strangers located on Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island and you’ll capture the essence of This Might Hurt. I’m always drawn to books that focus on complicated female protagonists, sinister settings, and psychological twists. This story definitely delivers and I have no doubt this will be one of my favorite books of 2022.

Stephanie Wrobel’s second novel, This Might Hurt, is a work of pure psychological terror. If you’re familiar with her debut, Darling Rose Gold, published in March 2020, then you know you’re in for a twisted ride. This Might Hurt delves into themes of childhood trauma, reinvention, and self-empowerment. The story follows a young woman whose younger sister appears to be under the influence of a cult located on a secluded island off the coast of Maine. The story unfolds using dual narrative and timelines, is expertly paced, and highly addictive. It kept me hooked with each reveal, leading to a very unexpected end.

I was transfixed from page one. The characters’ backstories are thoroughly fleshed out and masterfully intertwined. I felt a distinct connection to each of them and even found myself justifying their questionable behavior throughout. Each one was detailed, well thought out, and believable. A scene that stuck in my psyche involves one of the protagonists nearly drowning in a lake while learning how to swim.

5/5⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy psychological thrillers, compelling female protagonists, eerie secluded settings, and cult themes.

PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 22ND, 2022

Plot

Welcome to Wisewood. We’ll keep your secrets if you keep ours.

Natalie Collins hasn’t heard from her sister in more than half a year.

The last time they spoke, Kit was slogging from mundane workdays to obligatory happy hours to crying in the shower about their dead mother. She told Natalie she was sure there was something more out there. 

And then she found Wisewood.

On a private island off the coast of Maine, Wisewood’s guests commit to six-month stays. During this time, they’re prohibited from contact with the rest of the world—no Internet, no phones, no exceptions. But the rules are for a good reason: to keep guests focused on achieving true fearlessness so they can become their Maximized Selves. Natalie thinks it’s a bad idea, but Kit has had enough of her sister’s cynicism and voluntarily disappears off the grid.

Six months later Natalie receives a menacing e-mail from a Wisewood account threatening to reveal the secret she’s been keeping from Kit. Panicked, Natalie hurries north to come clean to her sister and bring her home. But she’s about to learn that Wisewood won’t let either of them go without a fight.

Book Review: The Lies I Tell by Julie Clark

The Lies I Tell by Julie Clark is a twisty, fierce domestic thriller.

The story follows two complicated women, fueled by revenge as they navigate the glitzy Los Angeles landscape in search of those who wronged them. I always enjoy domestic thrillers with strong female protagonists and this book checked all the boxes. Clark has created two very compelling characters with unique backgrounds that kept me frantically turning the pages. I found both Meg and Kat believable and likable (in their own ways), as the story gripped me throughout, carrying me to a satisfying end.

One of my favorite scenes described a TV in the background, broadcasting images of women marching in the street and holding up signs displaying the MeToo hashtag as both protagonists confided in each other regarding past experiences. It was a powerful tool to use, highlighting themes of sexual trauma that drive the plot. I found the pace steady, naturally ramping up toward the end. Clark’s writing style is vivid and impactful, her voice extremely compelling, pulling me inside the character’s minds where I found myself rooting for each of them.

4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy a steady pace with strong female protagonists, and a highly entertaining thriller that isn’t too dark.

Plot:

Meg Williams. Maggie Littleton. Melody Wilde. Different names for the same person, depending on the town, depending on the job. She’s a con artist who erases herself to become whoever you need her to be—a college student. A life coach. A real estate agent. Nothing about her is real. She slides alongside you and tells you exactly what you need to hear, and by the time she’s done, you’ve likely lost everything.

Kat Roberts has been waiting ten years for the woman who upended her life to return. And now that she has, Kat is determined to be the one to expose her. But as the two women grow closer, Kat’s long-held assumptions begin to crumble, leaving Kat to wonder who Meg’s true target is.

Book Review: Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian

Lightning-fast and whip smart. A fresh take on the genre.

Never Saw Me Coming is Vera Kurian’s debut novel, published September 7th, 2021, by Park Row Books. Kurian is a scientist first, novelist second. Per her bio, she’s spent time on both US coasts but now lives in her hometown of DC, which mirrors the setting of her novel.

I was immediately drawn in by the premise of the book: eighteen-year-old Chloe Sevre earns a full scholarship to Adams college when she agrees to participate in a clinical study on psychopaths. It’s new, it’s interesting, and I love unreliable female narrators. Once first introductions were over, the story hits the ground running and drops a couple of bombs in the first 50 pages (my favorite) including, the fact that Chloe is on a revenge mission to kill a childhood ‘friend’, and if that’s not shocking enough, one of the other students in the study is found murdered. After that, the pace continues full speed and we see Chloe teaming up with two other students—Andre and Charles, also participants in the psychopathy study—as they try to figure out the motive behind who is targeting them and why.

But can you really trust a psychopath?

For a debut, Never Saw Me Coming is long in length (389 pages) but since the chapters are relatively short it never slows in pace. I found myself racing through each new chapter as the POV alternated between Chloe (18 year-old hot girl next door), Charles (privileged, handsome, rich kid), and Andre (a student with a troubled past hiding a big secret). Each character is interesting, unique, and complex, bringing their own personal set of traits to the table. Kurian did an amazing job at displaying the nonchalant and calculative tendencies psychopaths are described to exhibit in textbooks to the page, specifically in chapter 47 where I found myself gliding through a particularly gruesome scene with ease, narrated by Chloe, in which I had to pause and go back, shocked at how cold and detached she was. The tone was executed perfectly and it sent shivers down my spine!

One of the things I love the most about this book is how fresh the story idea is. I have read and enjoyed numerous books featuring unreliable narrators for one reason or another, whether it’s addiction, trauma, or straight-up deceit, but it’s not often I read about a diagnosed psychopath who is not only unashamed but openly proud to admit it. And the fact that she’s not the only one makes for a very suspenseful read with an even more interesting cast of characters. The only downside is that sometimes I found it a little hard to follow all of them, nevertheless it’s an expertly plotted novel.

4/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy psychological thrillers, dark academia with a wide cast of characters, lightning-fast pace, and unreliable narrators.

Plot:

You should never trust a psychopath. But what if you had no choice?

It would be easy to underestimate Chloe Sevre… She’s a freshman honor student, a legging-wearing hot girl next door, who also happens to be a psychopath. She spends her time on yogalates, frat parties and plotting to kill Will Bachman, a childhood friend who grievously wronged her. 

Chloe is one of seven students at her DC-based college who are part of an unusual clinical study of psychopaths—students like herself who lack empathy and can’t comprehend emotions like fear or guilt. The study, led by a renowned psychologist, requires them to wear smartwatches that track their moods and movements.

When one of the students in the study is found murdered in the psychology building, a dangerous game of cat and mouse begins, and Chloe goes from hunter to prey. As she races to identify the killer and put her own plan for revenge into action, she’ll be forced to decide if she can trust any of her fellow psychopaths—and everybody knows you should never trust a psychopath.