I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Killing Time by Brenna Ehrlich
Published by Harlequin, Inkyard Press on March 8, 2022
Genres: Young Adult Fiction / Family / Multigenerational, Young Adult Fiction / Girls & Women, Young Adult Fiction / Lifestyles / City & Town Life, Young Adult Fiction / Thrillers & Suspense / General
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"An exciting and whipsmart mystery... Keep your eyes on Ehrlich."
—Courtney Summers, New York Times bestselling author of Sadie and The Project
“Deathly smart, twisty, and at times wickedly funny, Killing Time is a pitch-perfect mystery.”
- Kara Thomas, author of The Cheerleaders
Summer in Ferry, Connecticut, has always meant long, lazy days at the beach and wild nights partying in the abandoned mansions on the edge of town. Until now, that is.
Natalie Temple, who’s never been one for beaches or parties in the first place, is reeling from the murder of her favorite teacher, and there’s no way this true-crime-obsessed girl is going to sit back and let the rumor mill churn out lie after lie—even if she has to hide her investigation from her disapproving mom and team up with the new boy in town…
But the more Natalie uncovers, the more she realizes some secrets were never meant to be told.
"Expertly-plotted and brimming with suspense, Killing Time is more than just a mystery. It's a thoughtful novel about true crime stories and how we tell them. Brilliant, fun, and utterly compelling."
- Jessica Goodman, New York Times bestselling author of They'll Never Catch Us
It’s been a hot minute since I’ve read a young adult novel, but the book description for Brenna Ehrlich’s KILLING TIME sounded right up my alley. Here’s an excerpt and stick around afterward for my review.
Natalie didn’t ask her mom if she wanted to come to Lynn Halsey’s memorial, which was just as well because, apparently, Helen did not want to go. When Natalie came down for breakfast that morning, she found a note under the orange juice saying that Helen was heading to dojo in the next town over to train for a while—which meant she was either stressed, angry, or both. (Helen said a while back she had started doing karate for self-defense, not that Natalie was aware of anything she’d need to defend herself against in Ferry.)
Natalie balled up the note and threw it on the floor, equal parts relieved and pissed off by her mother’s absence, but she quickly forgot all about it when she saw the envelope leaning against the box of cinnamon cereal her mom had left sitting out for her. It was your standard business envelope—plain, white—and it had only one word neatly typed across the front: Natalie.
Plopping down on a rickety kitchen chair, Natalie pulled her feet up onto the seat and ripped the envelope open, expecting, perhaps, some spending money from her mom—a small contrition for avoiding the memorial—but instead finding a piece of computer paper with a single message typed out on it: Stay out of it. I’m warning you. Her heart did a cold, little leap like it always did when the first body was found in one of her books, then confusion set in. She blinked, scanning the words again, flipping the paper over to see if she’d missed something—a name, an address, anything. But that was it. Just those two ominous sentences. She shivered despite the heat of the kitchen, which was barely mitigated by the lazily oscillating ceiling fan. Her mom was too cheap for AC.
Cereal forgotten, Natalie pushed away from the table and scanned the room as if the toaster or the microwave might suddenly fill her in on where, exactly, the letter had come from. The kitchen seemed eerily quiet in the diffuse morning light, the only sound the birds that spent the day gossiping at the feeder in the backyard. Natalie pulled out her phone, typing off a quick message to her mom.
Did you leave me a note?
It seemed the mostly likely scenario, since the envelope had been on their kitchen table, but a vague threat wasn’t exactly Helen’s style. No, her mom was more direct than all that, much to her daughter’s annoyance. And then there was the it she was supposed to be staying out of. She could guess what that was: Mrs. Halsey’s murder was the only thing that had happened in Ferry for decades, as far as she was concerned. But someone would have to know about her podcast to suggest that she stay out of anything, and no one really knew about that aside from Katie and the internet randos. They had one all the way in Mount Carroll, Illinois (wherever that was). Could one of them have turned stalker? Broken into her house to… What? Warn her not to discuss a very local crime with her audience of roughly three people who had probably clicked on her podcast by mistake?
Three bubbles appeared immediately on her phone screen. Natalie scoffed. Her mom was supposed to be sparring. Did she keep her cell phone tucked into her black belt?
Yes, honey, I’m at the dojo. Be back around 4.
Natalie snorted. Well after the memorial. No, another one, she typed, her fingers shaking slightly. This was all too bizarre. In an envelope?
There was one with the paper that I brought in for you. More dots, as if her mom were trying for casual. Why? Who is it from? Katie?
Natalie rolled her eyes. Helen would have implanted a tracking device in her daughter’s neck if she could, like those chips they have for cats and dogs—watched her roam the town on her trusty path from school to Katie’s to home, called the cops if she veered off course. It was a wonder she hadn’t just opened the envelope herself. There wasn’t time to fume, though, now that there was a mysterious, threatening letter with her name on it. Which Natalie was aware sounded like a sentence from a bad teenage soap opera. That didn’t negate its existence, though.
She sank back into her chair, staring at the words marching across the page. Stay out of it. I’m warning you. It could be Katie playing a bad joke, but that didn’t seem likely, as Katie could never keep a secret and would have spilled that morning, when they were texting about the memorial. Feeling silly, Natalie sniffed at the paper. Nothing. As if it had just materialized on the table, origin-free. She considered calling the police, but that would mean telling them about her podcast, which would mean telling her mom about her podcast, which would mean never seeing the sun again. Instead, she shoved the note into her backpack—not bothering to put away the juice and cereal—and trundled outside to her bike and Mrs. Halsey’s memorial. She would let it all stew, she decided. Maybe an answer would come to her while she was biking to the high school. She always thought better when she was in motion, legs pumping and lungs full of clean air.
It was as hot if not hotter than yesterday, and beads of sweat rolled down Natalie’s forehead into her eyes as she crested the hill toward the school that had been her de facto prison for the last four years—the only bright spot being a woman who would no longer walk its halls. The only teacher who didn’t hold her eccentricities at arm’s length.
The Halsey house wasn’t on Natalie’s route, but she could feel its presence a few streets over—could imagine the yellow police tape and silence—and a tremor traveled over her neck like phantom fingers.
The True Crime Club had only lasted for one year, officially; after Jessica graduated and her parents effectively bought her way into Columbia, Katie and Natalie were the only members, meaning that the club was no longer valid in the school’s eyes. (No yearbook picture, which was good since Natalie didn’t relish explaining that to her mom. She used to lie and say she was staying after school to study until, well, it all went to hell when she said what she said.) Still, Mrs. Halsey kept up their meetings, critiquing the relative merit of different podcasts, documentaries, and true-crime books through the lens of story. She was a fan of gripping, well-researched accounts of criminal investigations, like Michelle McNamara’s inquiry into the Golden State Killer, but felt a decided disdain for podcasts like this really popular one called My Murder Obsession, which was basically just two guys discussing their favorite murder mysteries. She thought the name was bad enough, but she couldn’t stand the gleeful, error-riddled way the hosts talked about crime. She was a stickler for accuracy—and empathy. “If you can’t get the facts straight, you don’t deserve the story,” she used to say.
As she coasted past Sammy’s Shack and the flinty sea, Natalie wondered what Mrs. Halsey would think of the note on her kitchen table: Stay out of it. Her legs pumped harder, sweat running down to her eyes as she squinted into the sun, her breath getting ragged. Lynn Halsey was the only person she wanted to talk to right now, and she couldn’t because she was dead. The thought brought sudden, angry tears to her eyes. She was dead, and there was nothing Natalie could do about it. Who was the letter writer to tell her stay out of it? How to care? Maybe her mom had written the note. Maybe she had found out about her podcast somehow and wanted to punish her. Helen hated Lynn Halsey; Natalie knew that. Tears flooded her eyes as she pulled into the school parking lot, dropping the toes of her black shoes to the ground to steady herself as her vision swam.
The last time she had spoken to her teacher was at the diner midway through senior year. She had been crying—or trying not to, rather. Her shift had ended, and she was crammed in a booth where her mother couldn’t see her—couldn’t send her home and straight to her room. The night before had been bad. The kind of bad that made your stomach heavy and your mouth flood with acid when you thought about it. She and Katie had been celebrating getting into the colleges of their choice by having a clandestine marathon of the worst true-crime movies on offer. Straight-to-streaming shit. Cheesy cable fare. Trash. Helen’s rules were pretty clear when it came to her daughter’s interests: fine, she could study it in school, but true crime as entertainment was completely off-limits. Sure, she got away with the occasional horror movie or novel, but true stories were, for some untold reason, strictly verboten.
Which was why she and Katie had waited until Helen went to a Garden Club cocktail night to indulge. Helen, not being the biggest drinker, had come home in the middle of a truly terrible early-thousands clunker called Teacher’s Pet—all about a TA who had an affair with his student, then killed her—and had lost her shit. She’d gone so far as to threaten to move to college with Natalie and live in her dorm room, which seemed like an empty threat if you didn’t know Helen, who wouldn’t let Natalie sleep over at Katie’s until she was thirteen.
“You okay, Natalie?” Mrs. Halsey asked, sliding into the booth across from her, holding a to-go bag of burgers and fries. She was wearing her leather jacket and had her hair up in a blue paisley scarf, her cheeks pink from the early spring chill; she brought with her the smell of the omnipresent daffodils that blanketed Ferry this time of year.
Natalie shook her head mutely, picking at a plate of cold fries she had pilfered from the cook. People in town knew her mother was strict, but she wasn’t quite sure she wanted her role model to know that Helen had had a meltdown over a Lifetime Channel movie.
“I dunno,” she muttered, chastising herself internally for her lack of eloquence. She always tried to speak as intelligently as possible in front of her favorite teacher, but right now she was too wrung-out to care. Her mother’s overprotectiveness was a shroud, stifling and heavy. And what was so ironic was Natalie had gotten into true crime because of her mom in the first place—she’d found a box of old books in the attic when she was twelve about the Manson murders, the Night Stalker, all the big ones. She had read them under the covers until all hours, equal parts scared and thrilled. She loved it when the killers were caught, the intricate work it took to track them down. That is, until her mom found out and burned all the books in the yard with the autumn leaves. She wouldn’t even tell Natalie where they’d come from in the first place.
“Did something happen with Katie? A friend?” Mrs. Halsey pressed, her voice so gentle and caring that Natalie caved.
“My mom flipped out on me last night,” she choked out, studying the table. “I was watching some stupid true-crime movie, and she just…lost it.” Natalie dug her chipped nails into the red vinyl of the booth and let it all spill out. “She’s just so controlling. Like, why does she care what I watch? I’m eighteen. I’m an adult, basically. And I’m good!” She raised her eyes to look at her teacher, who was studying Natalie with a furrowed brow. “I don’t break curfew. I have, like, no social life. I don’t drink. So why can’t I just…read and watch and do what I want? Who am I hurting?”
Mrs. Halsey gave a sad smile. “I understand, Natalie. It’s hard being eighteen. Almost independent, but not quite. But, I promise, it’ll get easier. You might even miss your mom worrying about you.”
Natalie grunted and folded her arms. “I doubt it.”
Mrs. Halsey laughed, then steepled her hands on the diner table. “I’m confused, though, Natalie. Why would a movie upset your mom so much when you’re in a true-crime club at school?”
Natalie swallowed hard. In her fit of rage, she’d forgotten all about forging her mother’s signature all those years ago to join Mrs. Halsey’s after-school group. She had forgotten the countless lies she’d told. Or maybe she was just subconsciously tired of it all.
“You’re in what?” Helen appeared behind her like the ghoul from that horror movie—the one that just slowly wanders after its prey until it wears it down and eats it. Natalie didn’t turn around. Instead, she gritted her teeth and dug her nails even deeper into the booth, anchoring herself to the spot. She couldn’t even sit with her favorite teacher for five minutes without her mom butting in. Without her ruining everything.
“You didn’t know about this?” Mrs. Halsey asked Helen, as if Natalie weren’t there, which Natalie found hard to believe, considering anger was radiating off her like a bad aura. Why did everyone treat her like a child? Like she couldn’t make her own choices without consulting her mother first? Why didn’t they see her?
Helen shook her head, her eyes locked on Natalie’s teacher, a twin rage coursing through her. The pencil she used to take orders snapped in her hand, but she didn’t seem to notice the pieces as they clattered to the floor and rolled to rest under the booth.
“I’m sorry, Helen,” Mrs. Halsey sputtered, getting to her feet, looking between mother and daughter, both practically vibrating with indignation. “I thought you knew about the club.” She raised a conciliatory hand. “And, really, it’s all educational. We talk about story and methodology and…” The words died on her lips as Natalie’s mother shook her head again.
“I appreciate all you’ve done for Natalie, Lynn, but we have rules,” Helen said in a voice befitting an android. “This stuff is not entertainment. If she wants to go to school and learn the proper way to engage with it, then fine. But no clubs. No movies. No bullshit.”
Mrs. Halsey cut in. “I would hardly call our club bull—” Natalie couldn’t help smiling, which didn’t make matters any better. Her mom gave a look filled with such pure menace she dropped her eyes to her feet.
“I don’t care,” Helen snapped, smoothing her apron as if eradicating the wrinkles would fix everything. As if she could control the world with her nervous hands. “My kid, my rules. Now, I think you should leave.”
Mrs. Halsey opened her mouth, shooting Natalie an inscrutable look. She took a step toward the door.
“Please, don’t go,” Natalie asked in a small voice before she knew the words were coming out of her mouth. “You don’t have to listen to her. Please.”
With her hands tucked into her jacket pockets and her hair coming free from her scarf, the teacher suddenly looked younger than she was. She was probably the same age as her mom, thirty-eight, but Helen’s face was much harder. Likely because she’d had Natalie so young, because she’d been worrying for eighteen years. “I’m sorry, Natalie.” She glanced at her bag of food but made no move to pick it up. “I think I should go…”
Natalie got to her feet then, leveled her eyes at her teacher, watching her one tether to everything she cared about cut her free, let her go. “You never cared about me,” she said finally, seething and holding Mrs. Halsey’s eyes for a long moment before retreating to the kitchen so she wouldn’t have to see her mentor go, regretting the words as soon as they left her mouth. She turned back to stop her, to apologize, but her teacher was already gone.
Mrs. Halsey deserved more than that. More than her mom’s disdain and her own parting words. She deserved to be remembered. To be avenged. And no anonymous note writer could tell Natalie otherwise. An idea that prompted a mix of excitement and shame deep down in her stomach germinated in Natalie’s head as she pushed through those familiar swinging doors and entered the bizarre world that is school during summer.
Excerpted from Killing Time by Brenna Ehrlich, Copyright © 2022 by Brenna Ehrlich. Published by Inkyard Press.
Killing Time focuses on Natalie, a recent high school graduate who loves to read and podcast about crimes. She keeps her interests secret from her overbearing mother Helen, who protects Natalie so much that she teachers her karate in the back yard–all in the name of being able to protect oneself. While Natalie and her best friend Katie have a podcast together, they will be going their separate ways come fall when it’s time for college. But what should have been a slow, hot summer of working in her mother’s diner and getting ready for college turns tragic when Natalie’s mentor, high school teacher is murdered. Natalie is convinced that only she can get to the bottom of this murder–and come hell or high water, no one can stop her from investigating to get some closure for the deceased, as well as a podcast with the personal touch since they knew her.
While Natalie’s investigation takes place in the present day, we also get mother Helen’s story from when she was a student reporter and a woman in one of her classes goes missing. While these flashbacks from Helen’s point of view were a bit brief at times, you get a good look at the events that have shaped Helen into the overprotective woman that she is today–and why she disapproves of any crime shows or podcasts.
Natalie meets a boy named Kurt through Katie’s cousin, and while there’s a banter that goes back and forth here, Natalie seems a bit too smart to get involved with someone right before she’s leaving for college. But when Kurt offers to drive Natalie around for her investigation, their relationship grows–even though he’s a bit odd and off kilter sometimes. No podcast actually gets recorded for her teacher’s murder, though, and that was a bit of a let down. It would be nice to see them have successful episodes.
I give KILLING TIME a 3.5 out of 5. While often engaging and suspenseful, I was a bit let down when the flashback subplot wasn’t fully explained. Right at the end, a lot was glossed over to focus on the present timeline. You get pretty invested in Helen’s story about the missing college woman, only for it to be cut short and summarized briefly. It took away all that it was building up to. Natalie’s story was more fully explored to completion, but I was disappointed that I knew who the bad person was for a good chunk of the novel. There wasn’t much reading between the lines, and while Natalie didn’t see it until it was almost too late, the reader can see it coming a mile away.
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About Brenna Ehrlich
Brenna Ehrlich is a journalist, YA author, and editor who has worked everywhere from MTV News to Rolling Stone. She resides in New Jersey with her husband Morgan and their two cats, Nimbus and Hazel. She enjoys horror movies and romcoms in equal measure.
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