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While We Were Burning

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Member Reviews

Special thanks to NetGalley for the ARC!

When Elizabeth’s life starts to spiral out of control after her “best-friend-out-of-convenience”’s death, she eagerly accepts the help of her new personal assistant. Her picture-perfect life as the ideal wife centred around her ideal husband soon starts to inevitably crumble to dust at the hands of someone else.

I picked this one up because of the premise and blurb, and I was not disappointed. The author explores the underlying themes of race, class, power, and morality beautifully. There is simply something about watching horrible characters burn. Something I sometimes felt was lacking was more depth to the characters and more in-depth exploration of motives. All in all, readers will find a well-crafted debut with much potential.

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2.5 stars. I rounded up to reward the fast readability of the book.....I was able to breeze thru it quickly, it did keep my attention....even though it felt like it was 'way out there'/ implausible. It read quite fast despite a kind of confusing start, introducing several characters/names & using a 'now & earlier' time frame & different locales. I don't think I ever became overly invested in any of the characters....wouldn't describe any of them as overly likable! The best thing about it is how fast it reads, despite all of that description! There was some 'what?!/who dun it?!/who is that?!' at various points, kind of a 'lukewarm mess' kind of a thing.......but a rather fast read..... so there is that!
I received a e-ARC of this book from the publisher Penguin Group Putnam via NetGalley, with the understanding that I'd read it & post my own fair/honest review.

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3.5 stars. A strong debut with an interesting premise. An unlikeable main character - which I always enjoy. What is the nature of female friendship?

"After her best friend's mysterious death, Elizabeth Smith’s picture-perfect life in the Memphis suburbs has spiraled out of control—so much so that she hires a personal assistant to keep her on track. Composed and elegant, Brianna is exactly who she needs—she slides so neatly into Elizabeth’s life it's almost like she belonged there from the start, and proves herself indispensable. Soon, the assistant Elizabeth hired to distract her from her obsession with her friend's death is the same person working with her to uncover the truth behind it.

Because Brianna has questions, too.

She wants to know why the police killed her young Black son. Why someone in Elizabeth’s neighborhood called the cops on him that day. Who took that first step that stole her child away from her. And the only way she’s ever going to be able to find out is to entwine herself deep into Elizabeth’s life, where the answers to her questions lie. As the two women hurtle towards an electrifying final showdown, and the lines between employer and friend blur, it becomes clear that neither of them is what they first appear."

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin Group Putnam for the free ARC in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

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This novel was a mixed bag for me. Likened to Such a Fun Age, and based on the synopsis I imagined a more literary tale, instead While We Were Burning reads like a fast-paced thriller with a few race and gentrification callouts throughout.

Protagonist Elizabeth Smith is such an annoying and flat character, that it’s hard to feel an empathy for her. She recently lost a friend, whom she claims more closeness than is really there, and subsequently falls apart. Popping pills left and right to keep her husband and therapist happy, she doesn’t seem to do much for herself. Clearly struggling, her husband suggests she gets a personal assistant to help get her life back on track, which seems elitist considering her living and working situation. Overall, Elizabeth comes across as self centered and vapid, trying too hard to connect with her new assistant.

Brianna is still reeling from the loss of her son, and she has moved to the grieving stage of anger, looking for someone to blame. Someone called 911 on her son, who was doing nothing but riding his bike, but because he is black, he ended up dead. After tracking down the phone transcripts, Brianna knows the call came from her new employer’s neighborhood. Getting close to Elizabeth will hopefully allow her to figure out who the guilty caller is that ruined her life.

Filled with several twists and sordid relationships, While We Were Burning, is a nonstop psychological thriller. Though it is a fast-paced read, I wish it was marketed as a thriller rather than a literary/social commentary novel, as it was not.

Thank you to NetGalley, Penguin Group Putnam, and the author Sara Koffi for the advanced copy of the book. While We Were Burning is out now. All opinions are my own.

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Thank you to @NetGalley, Penguin books and @putnambooks for my #gifted arc. I voluntarily leave my review!

Woah! The author took me on a wild ride with all the highs and lows! So THRILLING! A definite fast read! While you are aware of the whole story as you're reading, there aren't many surprises, but this book is still very worth the read! I thoroughly enjoyed it!

A story about loss, vengeance, justice, prejudice and grief with a twist! Secrets and betrayal. Murder and lies.

Fans of Emily Shiner and Jeneva Rose will love this book!

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Ummm… okay? I had such high expectations for While We Were Burning. But from the thoroughly unlikeable characters to the range of distinct scenes that lacked any type of flow amongst them, I had a hard time getting invested in this tale of revenge. To be frank, I had a hard time even figuring out the genre. I anticipated a mystery/thriller, but when the big twist was laid out flat within the first 100 pages, very little suspense seemed to develop from there. Don’t get me wrong, this wrecking ball of destruction did quite the thorough job, but due to my lack of connection to any of the characters, I just didn’t care.

Unfortunately, those weren’t my only issues. With a promising premise and a plot that could have been reminiscent of B.A. Paris, I was unsurprisingly discouraged to find the beginnings of an illicit affair that took the storyline into the bizarre. Then there was the frank unbelievability of it all. Going beyond the need to suspend all disbelief, the direction in which this one went felt cringey for the sake of being uncomfortable. Or so it felt. But then, maybe that’s just me.

Don’t get me wrong, there were some definite pluses to this debut novel. A startling expose on racism and the disastrous repercussions of one’s unthinking actions, the plot made me think long and hard. As a white woman living in a society primed against those of color, the daily difficulties that others must endure often slips my mind—despite my earnest attempts to understand. I also absolutely adored the snarky banter and exploration of identity. Even if it still wasn’t quite enough to make this into a winner.

All in all, I just felt there could’ve been so much MORE to this one. More emotion. More poignancy. More grab-me-and-don’t-let-go connection to the characters. If all of that had been true, then maybe I would’ve loved the climax and finale. As it stands, there was a definite lack of appeal, especially with the conclusion. From one-dimensional personas to over-the-top behaviors, none of it quite rang true to this thriller lover. And let me spare you that as well—for 90% of this novel, it was a long, slow burn with no thrills in sight. Still, I did finish it in one sitting so I will give the author that. Rating of 2 stars.

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Honestly this was kind of painful to read. The writing was generally awkward and the dialogue extremely so. Especially the use of the characters names when talking to each other. So unnatural. The overarching concept of the plot had potential but the writing and pacing and characters did not deliver.

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Sara Koffi’s debut thriller WHILE WE WERE BURNING seems like a mystery wrapped in a mystery that kept me reading well past my bedtime. It delves into such topics as race, class and privilege.

When Elizabeth Smith’s best friend Patricia Hugh Fitzgerald is found hanging, the police and community believe it to be a suicide. But Elizabeth does not believe that as they had made plans for the following day, just hours before Elizabeth found Patricia. Wracked with uncertainty and doubt, Elizabeth’s life begins a downward spiral and she hires an assistant, Brianna Thompson, to help keep her on track. But Brianna has her own agenda in that she is trying to find out what happened in the death of her son, Jay, who is somehow connected to Patricia and her death. As a black woman, Brianna wonders if there were racial undertones to this connection.

As the two of them begin to investigate Patricia‘s final days, Elizabeth learns a few things about her friend that she might rather have not known. Was Patricia having an affair? What was going on at the learning Centre where she worked? And now that she’s gone, will she be made a martyr in her in the community?

This book was entertaining and an easy, smooth read. I found myself sifting through the clues as Brianna and Elizabeth uncovered more details of Patricia’s hidden life. This is a debut by this author and she will definitely be one I intend to watch.

Thank you too NetGalley and GP Putnam’s Sons for this ARC opportunity. All opinions are my own and given voluntarily.

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I’m not sure how I feel about this one still. I liked it while I was reading it but I found it very forgettable. I did really like the characters and the story line.

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Sara Koffi's WHILE WE WERE BURNING had me from the very first page. It's a stunning debut. The pace is excellent, and the examination of race/privilege is razor-sharp and poignant. Honestly left me wanting more. Excited to see what this author does in future.

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Elizabeth Smith has always been something of a loner. Despite having the perfect marriage and job and a seemingly perfect life in the affluent Harbor Town neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee, she always feels a little dissociated from her neighbors. Gregarious Patricia Fitzgerald is perhaps her best and only friend in the area. So when Elizabeth finds Patricia strung up in front of her house in an apparent suicide, she begins to spiral, having now lost almost all emotional ties to the place where she lives.

Her husband David is her one positive constant, but even he seems to be growing ever more distant from her, especially with her continuing refusal to believe that Patricia killed herself. In an effort to save their marriage, she agrees with his suggestion to hire a personal assistant. Her new assistant will help her cope not only with her job teaching underprivileged kids at the nearby Learning Center, but also with all the details of everyday life that keep slipping out from her grasp in a haze of anxiety and numbing medications.

Enter Brianna Thompson. She’s the perfect assistant: warm, funny and thoroughly professional. Quickly, she becomes so integral to Elizabeth’s life that the latter is often surprised by how little time they’ve actually known each other, as here when Elizabeth takes her to the Learning Center for the first time and is surprised at how impressed Brianna is with the beautiful new building:

QUOTE
But then I remembered that Brianna and I hadn’t been to the Learning Center a million times before.

<i>I’d</i> been to the building a million times before, and Brianna had only been working as my assistant for a week.

<i>Huh</i>.

It was strange how ingrained Brianna already was in my psyche, despite how little we knew each other. Still, I couldn’t pretend like I wasn’t comfortable around her, more comfortable than I felt around the majority of people in my general orbit. As pathetic as it sounded, Brianna was on track to being one of my closest friends in the whole goddamn city.

<i>Yep</i>.

That sounded pretty fucking pathetic.
END QUOTE

Just as Elizabeth begins to think that maybe she shouldn’t be so reliant on only one other person for so many basic things, Brianna surprises her. Elizabeth thought that she’d been doing a good job of keeping her side investigation into Patricia’s death a secret, but clearly not well enough to evade Brianna’s observant eye. Gratifyingly, Brianna believes her theory that Patricia was murdered, and offers to help her figure out whodunnit.

But Brianna has secrets of her own. Her teenage son was killed by the police here in Harbor Town, and Brianna is determined to figure out who made the 911 call that sealed his fate. Elizabeth is her gateway into the neighborhood and, as she gets to know her boss a little better, perhaps the only person Brianna can trust:

QUOTE
Her isolated nature, combined with her work at the Learning Center, made Brianna start to suspect that Elizabeth never would’ve called the cops on a <i>child</i>. Because unlike Patricia’s other friends, Elizabeth would’ve known what calling the cops on a <i>Black child</i> could do, the consequences that could come from it.

She was too close to it, too surrounded by it.

She just knew better.

Which meant that she was the one person who Brianna could rule out.
END QUOTE

As the women’s quests for justice intertwine in shocking ways, they find themselves careening towards a showdown that will change their lives forever. Will their burgeoning friendship be able to survive the terrible revelations that lie in store for them?

This was a gripping thriller that provides a nuanced portrait of two very damaged women, both obsessed with uncovering the truth. Sara Koffi’s genius lies in her refusal to ignore the sociocultural aspects of their situations as women of different races and social classes living in the American South. Instead of letting these differences be mere window dressing, they become an integral part of the story, resulting in two protagonists who are deeply troubled yet still somehow sympathetic, as their problems are very much a manifestation of greater societal ills.

To be clear, Ms Koffi lets neither woman off the hook for what they choose to do. Elizabeth and Brianna are both capable of terrible things, and each winds up in an entirely realistic place at the end of this compelling novel. The fantasy of cut-and-dried justice withers in the face of the punishments the women devise for themselves, in an all-too-common parallel with the ways so many people deal with their own shame and guilt, never owning up to it, but choosing to live with it regardless. While We Were Burning doesn’t quite hit the sociopolitical mark I think it’s aiming for – a generous interpretation of the ending is that white patriarchy gets everything it wants when women let racism divide us – but it’s still an excellent, unflinching look at the state of race relations in America today.

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Fast paced, twisty, timely. This debut is taut and should be on more readers' radar with its incisive and compelling look at race and privilege.

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I received this book as an ARC early last year, and I was shocked. It didn’t have a cover yet, but for me, it was a no-brainer when I read the description: two women seemingly so different, yet connected by one event that would change everything for one of them. When Brianna starts her job as Liz’s assistant, we don’t know much about her. However, with each chapter of her own, it becomes evident that she has ulterior motives because she wants to know who killed her son. What surprised me the most was that there was no mystery within the mystery. The identity of the culprit was revealed super early, and when I encountered the author’s description, I understood why. Koffi is an author who aims to give black women a voice in situations where they have none—to allow them to repair the narrative and seek justice. Of course, I’m paraphrasing, but this was the essence of what I learned.

The book’s exploration of Liz’s descent into chaos under the guise of mental illness was both fascinating and thought-provoking. Liz constructed a bubble—a personal altar—where she basked in adoration and attention from everyone around her. It’s refreshing to see an author challenge the notion that difficult behavior can always be excused by mental conditions. Toxic traits exist in all characters, and Koffi skillfully navigates this complexity.

Brianna, seemingly a background character, subtly weaves her presence throughout the narrative. Some moments unfold from her perspective, while others allow us to observe her actions without explicit words. This silent interplay adds depth to the story, emphasizing that not everything requires verbalization.

And then there’s David—the loving husband who embodies male energy. His red-flag behavior is palpable, leaving readers questioning his intentions and motivations. Sometimes, it’s what remains unsaid that speaks volumes.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It flowed smoothly, evoking emotions at unexpected turns. Koffi’s commitment to amplifying black women’s voices and their pursuit of justice shines through.

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While We Were Burning, by first-time writer Sara Koffi delivers everything that even the most discriminating reader could dream of. Wife Elizabeth is wracked with self-hate and loathes her husband. And to no avail; her affair is equally disastrous and deadening. Elizabeth's situation deteriorates when she discovers the corpse of her friend Patricia. David, Elizabeth's concerned husband, hires an assistant for his wife, partly to help improve his wife's increasingly deteriorating mental state, as Elizabeth is convinced that Patricia was murdered. Unfortunately, the new assistant has her agenda: hunting for the neighbor who called the police, which resulted in her son's death.
While We Were Burning is unpredictable and engaging. It keeps the reader's attention while examining important societal issues, such as racism, mental health, and the need for revenge. Readers will want more from Sara Koffi, a promising and hopefully prolific mystery writer.

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With comps like Parasite and Such a Fun Age, I was expecting something a little more literary/cerebral and twisty, which is not the fault of the author but rather how this book is being marketed.

Instead, you get a fast-paced, albeit kinda pulpy, thriller that tackles issues of race and class with two deeply unlikable but somehow relatable female protagonists.

Unfortunately, this type of thriller isn't quite my jam--the characters and their motivations weren't developed enough for me, it was hard for me to suspend disbelief on a few plot points, and the ending just fizzled out.

Hopefully this works better for you than it does for me, but I'm still looking forward to what Sara Koffi does next.

Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the ARC in exchange for my honest review!

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Happy publication day! Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin Group Putnam for this eArc. This was an interesting mystery that also incorporates a lot of social justice topics. I was surprised at how the story played out and I would read this author again.

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I didn't find anything "scorching" about #whilewewereburning. dropping us right into the action with jumbled internal monologue, uncompelling and tiresome. no, thanks.

p.s. thanks to #netgalley for the ARC.

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When I tell you my jaw dropped at parts…I was shook! I loved how Koffi weaved this story and was so engrossed the whole time. The characters were compelling and I was never sure of who to trust. I did absoltely lothe how much “baby” was used. If a man called me baby that much I would lose my mind. This quote tells you all you need to know - “Another man in a long line of men passing down the task of emotional labor, assigning it to the closest woman in the queue.” Oooop! Get em, Sara Koffi!

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While We Were Burning by Sara Koffi was a great domestic thriller!
I had a lot of fun reading this story.
The writing style is engaging, making it easy to immerse oneself in the story.
The character development is excellent, giving me a deep understanding of their motives and perspectives.
An excellent thriller, well written and equally entertaining.

Thank You NetGalley and G.P. Putnam's Sons for your generosity and gifting me a copy of this amazing eARC!

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When the novel opens, self-loathing Elizabeth is raging that her successful, handsome, and charming husband, David Smith, fails to pay her attention “for more than five seconds at a time" although “he cares about everyone he meets, even if he can hardly stand them.” She is annoyed at the generosity of her neighbor and co-worker, Patricia Fitzgerald, who had welcomed her to their upscale Memphis neighborhood with homemade brownies and a megawatt smile, but who Elizabeth had dismissed as a “fly in the ointment that was my attempt to not have a fly in my ointment.” She is bored with Nathan, the man with whom she is having an unfulfilling affair.

Elizabeth’s desultory life is upended when she finds Patricia’s lifeless body hanging from a lamppost and refuses to accept that Patricia, with whom she was supposed to go walking that morning, had committed suicide. It becomes Elizabeth’s mission to convince a newly attentive David that Patricia was murdered. She begins “looking for clues, searching for signs, sifting through every single errant thought that Patricia had ever posted to social media.” Enter Brianna Thompson, a beautiful “Lupita Nyong’o type,” who Elizabeth hires at David’s insistence because he is concerned that Elizabeth’s fragile emotional state will deteriorate further if she continues to ruminate over Patricia’s death. Brianna applied for a job as Elizabeth’s assistant to fulfill her own agenda. She is reeling from the shocking death of her young son, Jay, and the loneliness that followed when her husband left her to work through his own grief. Brianna hoped that if she could become Elizabeth’s right-hand woman, “she’d have access to everything she needed, everything she ever could’ve dreamed of” to determine who in Elizabeth’s neighborhood summoned the police who were responsible for Jay’s death.

Koffi’s debut novel is propulsive, with lots of twists and turns. Koffi moves back and forth from Elizabeth’s perspective to Brianna’s and she doles out information that consistently raises the stakes, such as the fact, as reported by Elizabeth’s vile mother, that Elizabeth’s freshman roommate jumped off the roof to her death. “Now, what does it say about you if people keep killing themselves just to get away from you?” Koffi addresses worthy themes, such as race relations, vigilante justice, racial injustice and mental health struggles, but the novel suffers a bit from a clunky execution and poor character development. The reader must suspend belief to accept that Elizabeth would become so unmoored by the death of a woman whom she referred to as a friend only in air quotes. Thank you G.P. Putnam’s Sons and Net Galley for an advanced copy of this fast-paced thriller.

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