Long-time fans of Kristen Ashley will be pleasantly surprised—I sure was! Very plot-forward and emotionally wholesome, The Girl in the Mist is the start of a new leg for KA.
Emotional angst: ★
Let's get two things out of the way right at the top: This book felt EXACTLY like a Kristen Ashley book in many ways. It also, surprisingly, did not.
Ashley's extremely distinctive writing style was present here—in particular, her dramatic pacing of single sentences as paragraphs used in a blatant way for dramatic layering of thoughts. This is a "love it or hate it" style, and I'll be honest, I have to be in the perfect mood for it. (I also seem to feel differently about it based on the format I consume the story? Kindle is the way to go, folks. The printed page really highlights this style and drives me nuts to look at from a distance, whereas the ebook format disguises this technique and you get into the groove.)
However, the distinctive KA styling aside... I was taken aback by this story. The Girl in the Mist was a different type of romance for my expectations, and the setting/plot/characters were a refreshing experience.
Unlike many, many other KA stories, this one makes a fantastic entry point into the KA universe and could be read as a standalone series too.
Delphine LaRue is a famous actress-turned-author who has a stalker. At the beginning of this novel, we learn that Delphine's stalker has escalated to the point where she needs to leave town and go lay low for while—she's not in the witness protection program, but she's in the KA commando version of it. (Longtime fans will recognize some names, even though none of the names are actually present as active characters in this story.)
So Delphine escapes to a cabin on the lake in the small Pacific Northwest town of Misted Pines.
It's a small town where everybody knows everybody. And everybody already knows Delphine LaRue.
This interesting, small town vibe aside, Delphine also has an interesting development. She meets her smoking-hot neighbor—single dad and retired FBI profiler, Cade Buchanan.
When a local girl is discovered dead, Misted Pines circles the wagons and Cade Buchanan gets involved. Delphine, being an empty-nest mother herself and an independent woman of means, also gets involved.
Sparks fly and situations escalate as the murder mystery at the core of this small town exposes the rotten roots of the "picture perfect" Misted Pines neighborhood.
I have some complicated feelings for this story. On the one hand, I think it's one of the most well-plotted and well-built worlds that I've read from this author. The mystery had some twists that I didn't see coming. The characters experienced quite a lot of emotional growth and unique situations. The town as a character was strong.
But... your girl loves drama. (Me, it's me, I love the drama.)
And I come to Kristen Ashley for that bad-boy, ridiculously Alpha male drama that involves a lot of running around, relationship drama complete with fights, making up, and all that jazz.
And Delphine and Buchanan just...didn't engage in any of that. I think it was a combination of their ages (they've done that before, they're wiser, they don't have the time for that B.S.), and the fact that the romance wasn't the core of this story. Their real-life drama was the murder mystery, so they didn't bring that into the home space.
Which was... fine. But there were several moments where Delphine and Buchanan had lots of reasons to have a lovers' drama and/or at least a playful dialogue about things and KA just... dropped it. We didn't get any of those highs and lows. This was emotionally wholesome to the point of being flat for the romantic pairing.
And, because of that, I found myself taking forever to finish this book. (Forever in KA standards, at least, whereas I usually start a KA book and don't put it down until it's done.) I think this book will have a wide readership, and it deserves it, but I do hope that the further books in the series give us a little Drama Drama for my drama-queen soul. Lol!
I went to from super hyped about this concept last year...to a lukewarm reading experience....and then a few days later to the realization that—despite my love for Roshani Chokshi—I just did not like this at all. I think this has a certain readership, and I'm sad I'm not one of them.
Sense of uniqueness: ★★
Investment into the characters: ★
Once upon a time, a man who believed in fairy tales married a beautiful, mysterious woman named Indigo Maxwell-Casteñada. He was a scholar of myths. She was heiress to a fortune. They exchanged gifts and stories and believed they would live happily ever after—and in exchange for her love, Indigo extracted a promise: that her bridegroom would never pry into her past.
Indigo is the beautiful and enigmatic muse woman of everyone's dreams. She's too flawless, clearly a bit dangerous, and so beautiful that you can't look away. The Bridegroom certainly can't. He loves his wife more than life itself and is willing to follow her into the dark.
One day, Indigo receives a message that her aunt is dying in her childhood home, the House of Dreams. Taking her bridegroom with her—this man is never named, so apologies for using "bridegroom" over and over again, it's a part of the dream-style repetition in this novel—they arrive at the surreal and darkly Other house.
It's while we're exploring this elaborate house filled with the echoes of secrets that we meet our second POV: Azur.
Azur's timeline is during Indigo's childhood, and she was Indigo's everything. A childhood spent surrounded by magic and twin ties and secrets and oaths, Azur and Indigo were two sides of the same coin. It was going to be Indigo and Azur, forever and ever.
But there's no Azur here with Indigo and the bridegroom.
As the bridegroom explores the House of Dreams, Azur's tale unfolds in the chapters in between. The House of Dreams has witnessed a lot of secrets, and it has some secrets of its own.
Will the bridegroom be able to keep his promise?
Or will he look back into the dark and find out the truth about Indigo's past?
Alright. So I'm not going to dissect the plot or anything here. I think this is a story that is intentionally like a fable, and more importantly, intentionally like the echoes of a story arc that some of us readers have likely read before. It's also a story that cares more for its ominous atmosphere and sense of lyrical flow than its concrete plot.
There's nothing wrong with any of that. But I will say that I wish this book had brought some more things to the table. For how drawn out it felt, for the amount of actual plot that happened in its pages, I needed more as a reader. I wanted something surprising, I wanted this very familiar arc to bring something fresh as a payoff for its very slow pacing. I needed to feel closer to these characters that felt, emotionally, like they were separated from me by layers and layers of glass. I just needed... more.
So, if you're like me and the above items bother you, I'd skip this one. But if you like the concept and don't mind that kind of thing, I do still recommend this one.
This was an intentionally messy story. And for...why? I don't know, and the more I sit with this the more I find myself bothered. (But who knows, that's likely the point.)
Overall message: ★★★
The best thing about this novel is its title. That's not as mean as it sounds, hear me out. I Have Some Questions For You relates to our main character's profession—she's a podcaster, she is literally paid to ask questions as talking points—and it also clearly relates to how this book is both posing its own questions at its audience and also meant to make us, as audience, ask questions.
A never-ending chain of questions, if you will.
And that's where this novel frustrated me to no end.
It's 2018. Bodie Kane has accepted a job at her old high school alma mater. Granby, a prestigious and private boarding school for elite high school students, has called her back as a short-term teacher for a podcasting class.
Bodie's got complicated feelings about Granby and her relationship to it.
In 1995, her one-time roommate was murdered. Thalia Keith, the beautiful and enigmatic girl whom everyone liked. The police quickly convicted the Black gym assistant, an early 20-something man who was convicted on hearsay, drug charges, and trace amounts of DNA.
This story is one that you've heard before. As the novel brings up throughout its pages, "you know the one." The one where she asked for it. The one where she was on birth control, and therefore consented. The one where she was found in the pool / the basement / the trunk / the woods. The one where it was the man she trusted. The one who was a beautiful white girl who died. The one where there was a Black man present, and that was enough.
Now armed with middle-aged wisdom and a 2018 lens on gender interactions, police bias, racism, and more, Bodie has feelings about this case. And she's never been able to let that go.
Her podcasting class sees 1995 as ancient history, so when one of her students asks Bodie if she can cover the infamous case of Thalia Keith, Bodie agrees. She's worried that this might be too biased. She's worried about her position of power as a teacher and if this will open up a can of worms she won't be able to justify. But like many things in Bodie's life, she lets it happen around her anyway and she justifies it to herself.
Tangled up in this story are themes of inappropriate conduct, gender imbalances, racism, unsolved justice, the #MeToo movement, messy relationships, and flawed perspectives. And all of the above sits in a messy knot, endlessly looping from one thing to the next and getting tighter and tighter as the novel progresses.
I don't know. I honestly don't. This novel covers understandably heavy topics that are meant to provoke an emotional response. I think it does this element well.
But I think that this novel boils down to one thing: it was messy and unsatisfying.
I Have Some Questions For You seemed to want to poke at everything and everyone indiscriminately—look at all of this injustice, look at all of this bias, look at all of these selfish people protecting themselves, look at this racism, look at this misogyny, look at this horror of endless fetishized female murder.
Every single piece of this story—Bodie's home life, Bodie's work life, Thalia's timeline, the narration style, the side characters, the endless plot points meant to mirror the core themes—seemed to want to simultaneously be a thesis moment confirming the story's overall message and also serve to be its own counterpoint in the argument.
I don't want to spoil this story, so I'll stop there, but let's just say that I did not feel like this tangled knot was justified, and I don't think it did anything to aid the genre or cultural dialogue. It just shone a light on all of the mess, which I guess highlights that I don't like those types of stories where their purpose is just to yell.
I recommend this story more to literary fiction fans as opposed to mystery fans.
Books like these are why I adore fantasy with all of my heart. A pirate queen cajoled out of retirement for one last payout. A deadly sea with supernatural consequences. And a myth in the making.
Narrative voice: ★★★★★
The Adventures of Amina Al-Sarafi reads like one of those great myths that creep up on your slowly. As your parents, schoolmates, books, and media tell it to you—it's almost like it's always been there, a fictional story existing outside of your own lived existence and yet wholly real somehow, grounded in historical fact and cultural relevancy.
To put it even more simply: Mention the concept of "greek gods" to almost anyone on the street these days and they have the story already. They know the strokes, or they know at least several small details that have made it into their brain via cultural osmosis.
When I read Amina's tale for the first time, I felt that stirring. That behemoth feeling in the deep that this is a tale that's more real than fiction, more muchness than just a fable told to mimic the 1100s Indian Ocean tales for a 2020s audience.
Like the best fantasy tales of new and old—Amina Al-Sarafi is here now, and she's always been here and always will be here. Her tale is too rich to ignore.
Combining elements of seafaring adventure, heists, monsters, and more, The Adventures of Amina Al-Sarafi struck me most in its unique and unputdownable voice. Amina's no-nonsense, middle-aged motherhood persona was a treat in its (unfortunate) uniqueness in today's fantasy market and also a hilarious narrator in her endless dry wit and "let me tell you how bad things went to shit" attitude.
There is nothing I did not like about this story. It stands proudly in the canon besides Chakraborty's already titanic City of Brass trilogy, and other fantasy legacies such as R.F. Kuang, Fonda Lee, Jacqueline Carey, Jenn Lyons, and more.
Oh, and there's the swashbuckling, seafaring, mythologically induced adventures with all of the plot points you could possibly want rolled into the most attractive package to any fantasy fan. I enjoyed the hell out of myself. I think others will too.
BEFORE I LET GO - Kennedy Ryan
Well I've clearly wasted many previous years without the joy that is Kennedy Ryan. Before I Let Go was nothing short of flawless.
Emotional Range: ★★★★★
Sense of Joy: ★★★★★
Yasmen and Josiah Wade are divorced. After a cataclysmic series of tragedies, the Wades couldn't keep their foundation strong—they fractured in the aftermath of a sorrow so deep they couldn't reach each other. Their vows included "til the wheels fall off." They never imagined that anything could shake that unbreakable, lifetime love.
But something did, and now they're two separate ships.
Well... Not quite.
They're still co-parents of two beautiful children, Deja and Kassim, which they both co-raise with love and daily support.
They're also still co-owners of their business—the highly successful restaurant, Grits, is something they grew together and is almost as important to them as their children.
So the Wades are still a team... even if that team looks a little (lot) different these days.
Yasmen's spent two years in therapy, and with a healthier way to cope and the assistance of her therapist and medication, she's finally starting to feel like herself again after two years of endless night. She'll never, NEVER stop loving Josiah, even though she's the one who forced their hand into the situation of separation.
Josiah's always been strong. He won't stop for the bad things, because if he keeps moving those bad things will fade. He's been in constant motion ever since the wrecking ball hit. Every bone in Josiah's body will always love Yasmen. However, he knows that door is closed and all he can do is try to pick up his pieces and love what's left.
But where there is love... there is always a way back in. And the Wades are going to find that the light and love could reach them if they find a way to follow it.
Before I Let Go is a story of pain, grief, and recovery. It's a second-chance phoenix rising from the ashes. I sobbed my way through this reading experience—sometimes sad tears, sometimes happy tears, sometimes more. This was an emotional release of a book!
I aspire to have a life as rich and beautiful as Yasmen and Josiah's. From the tears and pain to the light and love, this was such a beautiful, real journey and I feel blessed to have had this reading experience in my life. I have no complaints, besides of course my own internal AGH! that it took me this long to try Kennedy Ryan.
This book might include some serious darkness, true, but it is really about the light that shines in all the cracks. What a stunning, utterly perfect read. Pick it up!
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.