ARC Review: “The Writing Retreat,” by Julia Bartz

Hi all, and happy Valentines Day! Everyone “celebrates” slightly different (I for one and seeing Book of Mormon with the hubby), but know that I love you all on this delightful week. One of the books I was looking forward to reading around the “holiday” was The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz, which comes out February 20th. So when I won the ARC from Netgalley and Emily Bestler /Atria Books, I was over the moon. Even though Retreat wasn’t necessarily for me (more on that below), thrillers are still the most fun books to read in a dreary winter. So without further ado…

From the Publisher:

The Plot meets Please Join Us in this psychological suspense debut about a young author at an exclusive writer’s retreat that descends into a nightmare.

Alex has all but given up on her dreams of becoming a published author when she receives a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: attend an exclusive, month-long writing retreat at the estate of feminist horror writer Roza Vallo. Even the knowledge that Wren, her former best friend and current rival, is attending doesn’t dampen her excitement.

But when the attendees arrive, Roza drops a bombshell—they must all complete an entire novel from scratch during the next month, and the author of the best one will receive a life-changing seven-figure publishing deal. Determined to win this seemingly impossible contest, Alex buckles down and tries to ignore the strange happenings at the estate, including Roza’s erratic behavior, Wren’s cruel mind games, and the alleged haunting of the mansion itself. But when one of the writers vanishes during a snowstorm, Alex realizes that something very sinister is afoot. With the clock running out, she’s desperate to discover the truth and save herself.

A claustrophobic and propulsive thriller exploring the dark side of friendships and fame, The Writing Retreat is the unputdownable debut novel from a compelling new talent.

What I Enjoyed

  • The Premise. A haunted mansion in wintery upstate New York, a group of women trying to write the best feminist horror/gothic novel, and an enigmatic host with a dark side? Count me all in. Alex’s writer’s block and her desperation at writing the Next Big Thing is very relatable to someone who has spent years writing then discarding one novel after another (oh look, it’s me). This premise was hook, line, and sinker for aspiring writers, especially women who feel like it is impossible sometimes to “make it.”
  • The Atmosphere. Bartz did a great job of making you feel the isolation and creeping horror of the haunted mansion, the race against the clock that Alex and the other contestants feel over time, and the comradery pushing and pulling with the competition element. Roza’s home is the perfect place to write a horror novel, and the perfect place to die for one. Publish or perish should be the tagline here. The girls, increasingly paranoid (or are they?), Roza increasingly erratic, and all of the ancillary characters with ulterior motives. The closed door setting is all the better backdropped as the novel begins in Alex’s New York City world.

What Didn’t Work For Me:

  • The Pace. The Writing Retreat starts slow and stays slow for a very long time, to the point where I wanted to DNF. Alex’s life in the city, subsequent trip to the mansion, and introduction to the other competitors comprised of more than half the book, and the thriller elements did not start until after this sequence of events. Once Roza starts acting more erratic and Alex begins to suspect something is not right, the book begins to fly. While the increased pace helped to create an air of horror , it took away from the eerie atmosphere that permeated the first half of the book. I am happy I stuck it out past the first half of the book, but felt like the build up to the thrilling part of Retreat could have created better tension.
  • The Characters. I am all for unlikable characters. The world is full of unlikable people, so why should books be any different? A nuanced flawed character can add flavor to a story. However when there is not a single likeable character (barring the fierce Keira, who presents a different set of problems), it is hard to root for anyone to survive. Alex, Lark, Roza, and Taylor were all, to say the least, awful. Either caricatures of their original environment, childish, stilted and unbelievable dialogue, petty, and confused. Having a large cast of unlikable people is great when everyone is a potential murderer (looking at you Agatha Christie), but not so good when readers are supposed to want people to survive. By the end of Retreat, I still did not care about the survivors.


I had a hard time writing a review for The Writing Retreat, because it really did not work for me. Barza’s debut had so much promise. I loved the spooky atmosphere, the slightest hint of the otherworldly, and the creeping horror for what was to come. But unlikable characters (particularly their dialogue) and erratic pace took me out of the horror and into a general feeling of annoyance and hope it would finish. It is my fondest hope that others find The Writing Retreat more compelling than I did, because I think Bartz has more stories to tell. This was two waves for me, but I strongly encourage others to check it out for yourself.

Pick up your copy next week on February 21st at Bookshop or Amazon, and let me know your thoughts!


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