Why I Like to Emotionally Destroy My Readers (And Four Thrillers that Emotionally Destroyed Me)

Join New York Times bestselling author, Edgar Award Winner, and self-proclaimed optimist Courtney Summers as she shares her list of four thrillers that emotionally destroyed her. Her latest thriller—The Project—is the follow-up to her breakout hit, Sadie, and it's available this month!

Sign-in and comment on this post after you read to enter for a chance to win one hardcover copy of The Project!

When Wednesday Books and I began to finesse the messaging that would frame the promotion of my new novel, The Project, “COURTNEY SUMMERS WILL DESTROY YOU” seemed like the most obvious choice. 

For over a decade, I’ve built a brand around my utter delight in emotionally traumatizing my readers with hard-hitting books about young women just trying to make it in the world. There’s a bit of gallows humor to it; as an author, it’s hard to spend long stretches of time exploring and unpacking the worst of what this world has to offer. This grim levity helps me to ultimately finish what I start.

It’s also, well . . . sometimes the easiest way to communicate what your novel is about without scaring off prospective readers is to turn it into a challenge, a dare. I don’t always convince everyone that 300-odd pages of an attack on your feelings and sense of self is worth the cost of the admission—though it ABSOLUTELY is—but sometimes, when I suggest to people that it’s no small feat being part of my Survivor’s Club, they rise to the occasion of being left in pieces.

I used to wonder what it was about me, that I would be so compelled to write such dark material. From Sadie’s heartbreaking road trip across Colorado to seek revenge on the predator who murdered her little sister, to The Project’s exploration of the cost of the most vulnerable and well-intentioned sides of ourselves through one young woman’s infiltration of a cult—this stuff doesn’t go down easy. 

More: Q&A with Courtney Summers, author of Sadie

So why do I go there? 

Over the years, I’ve been able to distill my reasons to two: the first is that my work is often a response to the anger I feel about these subjects. The moment we become complacent to the pervasive violence that women and girls are confronted with every day—both subtle and overt—is the moment we, all of us, are lost. 

The other reason is . . . I’m an optimist. Bear with me. Each novel I write, at its core, is a love letter to our ability, as people, to fight through our darkest moments and find something meaningful on the other side. If you really dig into my work—you’ll see it. The Project is my latest testament to that.

But all this begs the question: when Courtney Summers isn’t destroying readers, what does Courtney Summers read to be destroyed? Because when I’m not writing to shake myself out of the complacency this cruel world wants to bury us in and ultimately finding hope in the fight, I’m looking for books that will make me feel that way. Without further ado, here are four thrillers that did just that—and destroyed me emotionally in the process. I’m grateful to them for it.


A Better Bad Idea by Laurie Devore

Every sentence Laurie Devore writes is an uncompromising takedown of a cruel world that makes little compromises for the young women forced to navigate it. Her forthcoming novel, A Better Bad Idea (out March 16th, 2021) is no exception. This is a book about two teens—Evelyn and Ashton—whose lives have been absolutely torn apart over their love for and fascination with the same girl. So why not take a match to what’s left? A Better Bad Idea is a devastating examination of poverty, domestic violence, and the way girls have to weaponize themselves against the world just for the promise of—or the promise of the illusion of—safety. How do you win in a world like this? And what does it look like when you do?


Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

Angeline Boulley’s ambitious debut is one you won’t soon forget. Firekeeper’s Daughter (out March 2nd, 2021) is a mystery-slash-thriller-coming-of-age that does a lot and does it all beautifully. It follows Daunis Fontaine, a biracial unenrolled tribal member who is determined to define herself on her own terms. This provides no small amount of difficulty, as others are equally determined to do that for her. When a dangerous new kind of meth begins to ravage her community, she’s forced to go undercover for the FBI to get to the bottom of it. This is a story of family, identity, and love and Boulley offers a searing portrait of the stakes at play, and how our own complicity makes the gross injustices featured in the book possible. It had me on the edge of my seat when I wasn’t clutching at my heart. 


Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

Tiffany D. Jackson’s ability to hook readers from page one and have them eagerly following every twist and turn to endings they’re guaranteed to never see coming is unparalleled. Grown is exciting and breathtaking in all the ways you can expect from one of Jackson’s books, but it’s devastating on a level that really demands your attention. When young and talented singer Enchanted Jones catches the eye of famous singer, Korey Jackson, she’s whisked into a world beyond her wildest dreams—and worst nightmares. Not only is Grown a taut, page-turning mystery, it’s a bold, important, and powerful examination of our continued failure to listen to voices that need and deserve to be heard. 


That Weekend by Kara Thomas

From The Darkest Corners to The Cheerleaders, Thomas’s brutal explorations of crime, punishment, and girlhood stand shoulder-to-shoulder with authors like Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott. That Weekend (out June 21st, 2021) cements her as a master of her craft. What’s supposed to be a fun getaway with her two best friends ends with Claire alone and Kat and Jesse missing. What could have happened in 48 hours? You would not believe me if I told you—but in the end, it all makes perfect sense. And I have still not fully recovered from it. What I love most about Thomas’s work is her commitment to shining a light in the, well, darkest corners we’re determined to ignore. It takes a bold author to force herself to look at them and an incredibly talented one to keep readers from turning away.

*Author Photo Credit: Megan Gunter

About The Project by Courtney Summers:

“The Unity Project saved my life.”

Lo Denham is used to being on her own. After her parents died, Lo’s sister, Bea, joined The Unity Project, leaving Lo in the care of their great aunt. Thanks to its extensive charitable work and community outreach, The Unity Project has won the hearts and minds of most in the Upstate New York region, but Lo knows there’s more to the group than meets the eye. She’s spent the last six years of her life trying—and failing—to prove it.

“The Unity Project murdered my son.”

When a man shows up at the magazine Lo works for claiming The Unity Project killed his son, Lo sees the perfect opportunity to expose the group and reunite with Bea once and for all. When her investigation puts her in the direct path of its charismatic and mysterious leader, Lev Warren, he proposes a deal: if she can prove the worst of her suspicions about The Unity Project, she may expose them. If she can’t, she must finally leave them alone.

But as Lo delves deeper into The Project, the lives of its members, and spends more time with Lev, it upends everything she thought she knew about her sister, herself, cults, and the world around her—to the point she can no longer tell what’s real or true. Lo never thought she could afford to believe in Lev Warren . . . but now she doesn’t know if she can afford not to.

Welcome to The Unity Project.

Sweepstakes Alert!

Sign in and comment on this post for a chance to win 1 of 5 Advance Reader Copies of The Project by Courtney Summers!

To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

The Project Comment SweepstakesNO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/why-i-like-to-emotionally-destroy-my-readers-and-four-thrillers-that-emotionally-destroyed-me/ beginning at 1:30 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) February 1, 2021. Sweepstakes ends at 1:29 p.m. ET February 15, 2021. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 120 Broadway, New York, NY 10271.

Learn More Or Order A Copy


  1. lasvegasnv

    interesting books

    • Marilyn Kartje

      I love mysteries.

  2. Karl Stenger

    Sounds exciting.

  3. downeaster

    Adding this to my list

  4. Diane OLeary

    I am always interested in new suspense and thriller authors and Courtney Summers sounds like an author I would enjoy

  5. Lori P

    I hope there’s a lot of light at the end of these tunnels!

  6. Shirley Evans

    This novel looks so exciting. Would love to win.

  7. jane

    I would like to try a new author & read this book.

  8. Jennifer Whittington

    So many great sounding read!

  9. Teresa Warner

    New author for me, sounds good!

  10. susan atkins

    I am always looking for new authors to read, These books will keep me reading for a long time, thanks

  11. Rebecca Read

    I read Sadie back in January of 2019 and was blown away. I am an avid reader of thrillers, true crime and love an unexpected ending. Ms. Summers delivered all in Sadie and I cannot wait to get my hands on The Project. I anticipate another 5 star read in my future!

  12. spartabookworm

    I can’t wait to read this!

  13. Sarah Bowe

    I would love a copy of The Project! Sadie is the book that I first posted to start my bookstagram!

  14. Annie

    Captivating and enthralling.

  15. Debi K

    Looking around my various social accounts and online book clubs I saw two things today. One is a 5 star rating for The Project from an IG account that I follow. And 2, on some FB book accounts many readers requesting from other members books that will devastate them. Emotional upheaval required. The Project seems like just the book to not only fit the bill for all the feels but done in a quality way. Looking forward to this one.

  16. Darcia

    Sadie absolutely broke me, and I loved every minute of it! Can’t wait to read this one!

  17. paul klumbach

    sounds intreiging(sp)

  18. Brenda R Morgan

    I would love to win this. It’s my favorite genre!

  19. MM

    On my to be read pile! Hope I win and thank you for the chance!

  20. Laini Pearl

    Anticipating this book.

  21. Tiffany

    This one looks amazing!

  22. Lisa Garrett

    I’m an optimist also! Thanks for the chance

  23. Brenda

    Sounds like a great book!

  24. Barbara Bibel

    She has a definite agenda. I can’t wait to read it.

  25. Padmini Rao

    This sounds interesting. I like thrillers.

  26. John Smith

    But…I don’t want to be emotionally destroyed! —But I’d like to read “The Project”! It does sound interesting!

  27. sue

    Oh so many good books, so little time!

  28. Deb Philippon

    I haven’t read any books by this author yet, but sometimes I like a bit of dark in my reading material. I’d definitely give them a try.

  29. Jackie F

    I’m so excited for this to come out. I really enjoyed reading Sadie, and then listening to the podcast that went along.

  30. Jackie F

    I’m so excited for this to come out. I really enjoyed reading Sadie, and loved listening to the podcast that went along with it.

  31. Nicole Seabolt

    I love great thrillers!

  32. Shonda B.

    I would ❤ to win the book! Thanks for the opportunity!!

  33. Jackie Wisherd

    I would like to read your book if I win.

  34. Lisa Oquendo

    I’m really looking forward to reading The Project. Courtney Summers is such a great storyteller. If you haven’t read her book Sadie yet, I highly recommend it!

  35. Michael Carter

    This really sounds good.
    Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.

  36. Rebecca Joy Mensinga

    I love mysteries! I read Sadie in 2019 and loved Summer’s writing! I am excited about The Project!

  37. Tina E Redmond

    These books sound so good!

  38. susan beamon

    Now I have more books that I need to put in my to-be-read pile.

  39. Jeana

    I’m always looking for books to add to my TBR pile.

  40. Becky Hantsbarger

    Is this for “The Thief of Souls” or for “The Project?” Because I would LOVE to read “The Project.”

  41. Toni Tuve

    Would love to win a book by a new author. I love mysteries

  42. C

    This sounds very interesting. I’m happy to see so many promising books slated for release.

  43. Teri Hoffman

    I can’t wait to read this one!!

  44. TCasteel

    Another good one to put on my ‘to read’ list.

  45. Shawna Shrader

    I would love to win a copy of “The Project”! I absolutely loved “Sadie” and this book sounds just as good. Also, great thriller recommendations! I added “A Better Bad Idea” by Laurie Devore and “That Weekend” by Kara Thomas to my TBR list.

  46. Desmond Warzel

    Looks interesting.

  47. Tammy Brasic

    I would love to win an advanced copy!

  48. Paul Preston

    That cover is amazing. It sounds like a great experience

  49. Susan T.

    There’s something about cults that totally fascinates me. I love stories about them and Summers is such an amazing author I can’t wait to see what she does with this topic!

  50. Caroline W.

    This would be a great addition to my book collection. I’ve never read this author before. The red in the cover design reminds me of the Handmaid’s Tale.

  51. Sandy S.

    I can’t wait to get my hands on Courtney’s new book. I have read all of her previous books and she’s one of my favorite author’s. She’s amazing!

  52. Helen Allman

    I am looking forward to this one.

  53. Karyn M. Newton

    Nice add to the TBR list!

  54. Linda Leonard

    Would definitely like to read this intriguing book.

  55. Dianna

    And just like that, my TBR list grew by 3 books.

  56. KateT16

    Would love to win! Thanks

  57. LeMinou

    Sounds fantastic. Amazing cover.

  58. Daniel M

    looks like a fun one

  59. Tiffany

    I’m so excited for this one.

  60. Sally Schmidt

    More books for my TBR list and The Project sounds fascinating. Thanks for the chance to win.

  61. MissTaken71

    Another amazing read added to my TBR list! Thank you so much for the chance to make out like a bandit! 😉

  62. L

    Sounds like a great read!

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