The Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas
There are ghosts around every corner in Fayette, Pennsylvania. Tessa left when she was nine and has been trying ever since not to think about it after what happened there that last summer. Memories of things so dark will burn themselves into your mind if you let them.
Callie never left. She moved to another house, so she doesn’t have to walk those same halls, but then Callie always was the stronger one. She can handle staring into the faces of her demons—and if she parties hard enough, maybe one day they’ll disappear for good.
Tessa and Callie have never talked about what they saw that night. After the trial, Callie drifted and Tessa moved, and childhood friends just have a way of losing touch.
But ever since she left, Tessa has had questions. Things have never quite added up. And now she has to go back to Fayette—to Wyatt Stokes, sitting on death row; to Lori Cawley, Callie’s dead cousin; and to the one other person who may be hiding the truth.
Only the closer Tessa gets to the truth, the closer she gets to a killer—and this time, it won’t be so easy to run away.
I love a good murder mystery, especially one with a big twist. I was certain that The Darkest Corners would deliver the shocking, double-check-your-locks thrills of a good mystery, but it just...didn't.
Not too long after starting the book, I got the feeling that Kara Thomas had read Gillian Flynn's books, decided she wanted to write mysteries too, and then wasn't quite able to write a book that set itself apart. The Darkest Corners has a lot of similarities to Flynn's Dark Places, from the title to the basic plotline (girl witnesses murder as a child and puts a potentially innocent man in jail; years later she must revisit her podunk hometown and re-investigate the murder) to the use of non-police true-crime-junkie groups and prostitutes as sources of information.
I want to make it very, very clear here: I am in no way accusing Thomas of plagiarizing Flynn; I am simply saying that The Darkest Corners emulates Flynn's Dark Places in enough ways that it doesn't really feel like a new story, so there's no need to read both. And if you're only going to read one, it should probably be Dark Places, which is infinitely better written.
The Darkest Corners was interesting enough to keep me reading and didn't lag, but I also think it didn't lag because it didn't spend enough time on things. The relationship between Callie and Tessa - which had been broken for ten years - healed very quickly; major themes, like corruption in the police, were barely touched upon; and all of the events at the end of the book were resolved so rapidly that I hardly had time to start worrying for the characters before they were out of trouble again!
All of that aside, the end of the book was dark and twisted enough to save The Darkest Corners from a 2 star rating. The last few chapters are the only part of The Darkest Corners that readers really see the darkness alluded to in the title; while the rest of the book is implicitly dark, it's overshadowed by teenage politics and randomly inserted backstory from Tessa, to the point that you have to stop and think for a second before you realize just how messed up something is. Maybe that was Thomas' intention, but it's not what I was hoping for from this book, so it only earns 3 stars.
If you're thinking of reading The Darkest Corners as a follow-up to a Gillian Flynn novel, don't waste your time. But if you're looking for a YA-friendly murder mystery with a good twist, you could do worse.
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
It is 1950 when Norton Perina, a young doctor, embarks on an expedition to a remote Micronesian island in search of a rumored lost tribe. There he encounters a strange group of forest dwellers who appear to have attained a form of immortality that preserves the body but not the mind. Perina uncovers their secret and returns with it to America, where he soon finds great success. But his discovery has come at a terrible cost, not only for the islanders, but for Perina himself. Disquieting yet thrilling, The People in the Trees is an anthropological adventure story with a profound and tragic vision of what happens when cultures collide.
The People in the Trees is the (fictional) memoir of A. Norton Perina, a renowned scientist and train wreck of a man who manages to be both extremely unlikable and compelling in telling his story. There is quite a lot I don't like about this book - which I'll get to later - but almost none of it is due to the way it's written. Perina's voice is clear and well-developed, but because it's also racist, sexist, and misanthropic, after a while it's more tiring than anything. Perina's attitude towards his colleagues, his research subjects, his brother, even his children, is obnoxiously derisive and dismissive. His constant disdain for the people and things around him - often unreasonable and always detailed explicitly - reminds me a little of Holden Caulfield, but not in any of the ways that make The Catcher in the Rye's narrator a good character.
Ostensibly, The People in the Trees is about the fallout caused by Perina's discovery of "immortality" among a remote Micronesian society. The time Perina spends on Ivu'ivu unraveling the mystery of the "dreamers" is interesting enough that I didn't mind the narrator's exasperating narcissism. The inevitable decline of the island and the fate of the dreamers is emotional, though only briefly detailed. This part of the book is probably eighty percent of the reason I'm giving it three stars.
After Perina's discoveries on the island force it into the Western world's spotlight, the book moves away from Ivu'ivu, the dreamers, and their "immortality." The themes of discovery and scientific ethics are abandoned, but the theme of moral ambiguity remains. Yanagihara explores the idea a little bit with the a'ina'ina ceremony on the island, and in that context it's thought-provoking and basically anthropological in nature.
In the interest of not giving away spoilers, I'm not going to do into much detail, but the moral ambiguity in questions concerns Perina allegedly raping at least one of his 43 children. Both Perina and his friend Kubodera, who narrates the introduction and epilogue, are extremely lax about the issue, even trying to pass it off as okay. Kubodera especially, remarking that whether or not Perina is guilty shouldn't matter because of his contributions to science, and even going so far as to propose that Perina raping his son was an act of pure, untainted love. Perina himself is unapologetic and even acts as if he's the one who's being victimized. Honestly, it just gets sickening towards the end. Exploring the idea of moral relativism with the Ivu'ivuan culture was provocative and poignant, but Yanagihara takes the idea much, much too far.
Most people, like me, would probably pick up The People in the Trees expecting an adventure story - complete with science, a mysterious disease, an unkown people, and terrible consqeuences - but instead they'll find the rather ugly and disquieting confessions of Perina. The People in the Trees is engaging mostly because of its portrayal of the lives Perina ruins or damages, whether they're his children's, the Ivu'ivuans', or the dreamers'. The only people I would feel comfortable recommending this book to would be budding anthropologists and psychologists, and I strongly urge anyone who reads this book to make sure they know what they're getting into.
Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months in the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187-424 - one of the millions of people who disappear "down the rabbit hole" of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman's story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison - why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they're there.
One of the more surprising things I realized while reading Orange is the New Black is just how little most people know about what goes on in prisons. Movies and such paint it as a place where everyone is your enemy and you'd be dumb not to carry a shiv, while a few people describe minimum security as a retreat! And most people don't even give a second thought to what happens to prisoners - out of sight, out of mind.
Kerman breaks down a lot of misconceptions about prison life. She highlights the strong bonds forged and tough lessons learned behind bars while also showing the triviality of many rules. Some of the stories she tells - about prisoners locked in solitary for no good reason or the apathy of staff towards prisoners - clearly point out where our justice systems fails. More than just telling her story, Kerman's memoir is a call for prison reform.
Kerman's intent is clear, and many of her stories highlight it, but Orange is the New Black reads more like a series of anecdotes than a political argument. She writes very well, portraying the women she was imprisoned with distinctly and without reproach. Kerman never talks about the other women in Danbury as if they're below her, and she takes full responsibility for her crime several times throughout the memoir.
Orange is the New Black is a powerful new perspective. Kerman is respectable and familiar, challenging stereotypes left and right. She writes with sentiment but without getting sappy, and she buffers her personal experience with factual statistics - both of which give the book more credibility. I would recommend Orange is the New Black as both an entertaining true story and as an expose on the federal penal system.
(And because I know you're wondering - no, the book is nothing like the TV show. Netflix's version is much more dramatic, sexual, and stereotypical than Kerman's memoir, although the general idea is the same).
This Fleeting World by David Christian
This Fleeting World is a summary of human history , from the earliest Homo sapiens to the modern era. In less than a hundred pages the trends and changes of the three main eras of human history are laid out and explained by historian David Christian.
I confess: I am a huge history nerd. Half my "I Can Read!" books were about Tutankhamen and the Aztecs (the other half were about dinosaurs). I was one of the few people who was excited to read this for summer reading, and one of the few people who actually enjoyed it. This Fleeting World is very factual, but it doesn't read enough like a textbook to qualify as a sleep aid. Plus, it's a very general overview of world history (only 100 pages) that focuses on the big themes and most important events. Which means that if you want to be able to discuss the Paleolithic Era but don't want to put much effort into learning about it, this is a great tool. Rejoice, all you lazy history buffs!
(This book is out of print, so you may have some difficulty obtaining it.)
What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell
In What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell brings together, for the first time, the best of his writing from The New Yorker over the last decade.
Here you'll find the tale of the inventor of the birth control pill, and the dazzling creations of pasta sauce pioneer Howard Moscowitz. Gladwell sits with Ron Popeil, the king of the American kitchen, as he sells rotisserie ovens, and divines the secrets of Cesar Millan, the "dog whisperer" who can calm savage animals with the touch of his hand. He explores intelligence tests and ethnic profiling and why it was that employers in Silicon Valley once tripped over themselves to hire the same college graduate.
The first thing I should say is that Gladwell is a very good writer. Every article in What the Dog Saw was intelligently and clearly written - I can't fault Gladwell for my complete inability to understand the stock market - and he got me to read about things I'm entirely uninterested in.
The second thing I should say is that Gladwell wrote about a lot of uninteresting things. From the workings of Enron to the science of ketchup, there were quite a few articles I wouldn't have read, had I been given the choice. However, I also really liked a number of the articles I might not have read otherwise, and several others were extremely interesting.
Gladwell repeatedly went off on long tangents that were only marginally related to the topic of the articles (like talking about satellite photos in an article on mammograms). Sometimes it worked well, and sometimes it didn't, but it did make some of the drier articles more bearable.
The articles I found most interesting were the ones where Gladwell investigated how something in our society works or explained some bit of human psychology. He explained a number of broken systems we use in our everyday lives and the surprisingly simple solutions elegantly and without condescension. He also explained a few historical events and their impact on the world at large.
What the Dog Saw isn't the most thrilling book in the world, but some of its articles are important to our understanding of the world. For that reason alone, What the Dog Saw is worth the read, even if you don't really love it.
Let's Get Lost by Adi Alsaid
Five strangers. Countless adventures. One epic way to get lost.
Four teens across the country have only one thing in common: a girl named LEILA. She crashes into their lives in her absurdly red car at the moment they need someone the most.
There's HUDSON, a small-town mechanic who is willing to throw away his dreams for true love. And BREE, a runaway who seizes every Tuesday—and a few stolen goods along the way. ELLIOT believes in happy endings…until his own life goes off-script. And SONIA worries that when she lost her boyfriend, she also lost the ability to love.
Hudson, Bree, Elliot and Sonia find a friend in Leila. And when Leila leaves them, their lives are forever changed. But it is during Leila's own 4,268-mile journey that she discovers the most important truth— sometimes, what you need most is right where you started. And maybe the only way to find what you're looking for is to get lost along the way.
It is impossible to stay sad while reading this book. The sweet, never-fail happy endings alone will boost your mood, but add in the adventurous, unconquerable Leila, and your frown will do a backflip.
Each character narrates only a short portion of the book, their own little adventure that ties into Leila's larger story. In the short amount of time each character gets to narrate, Alsaid develops them fully, not only with backstories, but with hints at what their futures might hold. Readers get to know Leila as she pops up in the other characters' lives, but it isn't until the last part of the book that she tells her own story - which was a creative and brilliant way to develop her character. Leila and the mystery she presented worked well to tie all the stories together.
Leila herself was exciting and witty, constantly getting into trouble. The various and often hilarious ways she helped the other characters reach their happy endings were heartwarming; sometimes a bit cheesy, but sweet all the same. There was quite a bit of romance, too (some of which was also cheesy). Only one relationship seemed a bit sudden and potentially underdeveloped; the other two were believable but cutesy.
Let's Get Lost is a good book to read on the beach or on a road trip, or when you just need a literary pick-me-up. It doesn't deal with very serious matters (for the most part; there are a few heavier parts) and doesn't require as much thought as, say, A Tale of Two Cities. This is a book to read for pure enjoyment and leisure, one that will leave you with a smile on your face.
The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith
Lucy and Owen meet somewhere between the tenth and eleventh floors of a New York City apartment building, on an elevator rendered useless by a citywide blackout. After they're rescued, they spend a single night together, wandering the darkened streets and marveling at the rare appearance of stars above Manhattan. But once the power is restored, so is reality. Lucy soon moves to Edinburgh with her parents, while Owen heads out west with his father.
Lucy and Owen's relationship plays out across the globe as they stay in touch through postcards, occasional e-mails, and -- finally -- a reunion in the city where they first met.
As a rule, I stay away from romance books, because I am always disappointed. Maybe disappointed isn't the right word. I just find romances to be too cliched, with too little plot. I can appreciate a good love story, but there comes a point where I can't help but roll my eyes.
For fans of teen romances, this is a fantastic book: it's sweet and the characters are fairly well developed. There wasn't much happening besides the love story; even the travel was really an extension of the romance. Throw in some family troubles and you've covered the entire plot.
I'm being a bit harsh. Honestly, I enjoyed The Geography of You and Me. As someone with permanent wanderlust, I absolutely adored the world-travel aspect of the book. The romance was sweet and I was rooting for Lucy and Owen, I'll admit. That doesn't mean there wasn't a whole lot of fluff and a few nearly-painful cliches, but The Geography of You and Me is definitely in the top 20% of teen romance.
September Girls by Bennett Madison
When Sam's dad whisks him off to the beach for the summer, it doesn't take him long to realize this sleepy vacation town isn't what it seems. Time slows down around here, cell phones don't work, and everywhere Sam looks, he sees strange, beautiful girls. Girls who are inexplicably drawn to him.
As Sam begins to unravel the mystery of the Girls and their beach, he's forced to question everything he thought he knew about love, growing up, and becoming a man.
September Girls was a bit of a roller coaster ride - not emotionally, but in terms of how much I liked it. Some parts of the book were written almost lyrically, while other parts were more of a ramble. There were a few parts where Madison was clearly shooting for philosophical but didn't quite get there. Other parts were a bit more crude (there is a lot of talk about dicks/boobs/asses, and a lot of importance is placed on sex). Sam is especially guilty of that; case in point being this quote: "The moral of the story is that if you're ever offered anything that seems like it might lead to sex, there is no turning back. You just have to take it as it comes or you will remain a virgin for life." (page 123).
I have really mixed feelings about the Girls. They were mysterious and lovely and intricate, but they were also incredibly confusing. Madison didn't include much of a backstory for them; just enough for readers to gain a basic understanding. The Girls were an original twist on mermaids/sirens and they were fascinating, so I'm a little disappointed their history wasn't explained more.
The love stories had a lot of good points. Madison took the time to develop both of them, and they were both pretty sweet. I think the romance was my favorite part of the book, actually, except for maybe the end. That bit was very good. The characters, especially the main ones, but a few side ones too, were solid. They surprised me a couple times and were pretty realistic (barring the supernatural aspects of the Girls).
I enjoyed September Girls, especially the romance and mermaids, but I didn't find it all that amazing. A good beach book, but not the best read of the summer.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin needs to spend her summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie's grandmother's abandoned home near Salem, she can't refuse. As she is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the family house, Connie discovers the story of Deliverance Dane. This discovery launches Connie on a quest--to find out who this woman was and to unearth a rare artifact of singular power: a physick book, its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge.
This book was not "spooky" or "bedeviling." It was, however, an awesome piece of historical fiction. The interludes featuring Deliverance and her ancestors were the most interesting parts of the story. Unfortunately, Connie's end of the story didn't quite keep up. It wasn't boring so much as drawn out. Towards the end of the book, Connie's story was just as interesting as Deliverance's, although the two were very different. The historic parts of the book were fascinating because of the light they shed on the Salem Witch Trials and what it was like for the accused women. Connie's story was more academic, but the love story was sweet.
The biggest reason Connie's story didn't interest me as much as Deliverance's is the book's extremely long exposition. Two thirds of the book, at least, are mainly exposition, detailing Connie's search for the physick book. It was interesting, peppered with historical facts with a good amount of research behind them. But a description of a scholarly hunt for a historical book should not take up over 200 pages. Again, however, once Connie's story picked up, it was really very good. It just took a while to get there.
I have a couple other little problems with The Physick Book, but nothing else major. Howe uses the suspense technique of keeping her character from realizing something excruciatingly obvious, which annoys me to no end. And I found some of her generalizations about New Englanders, "Yankees," a bit untrue. But I must admit that Howe is a talented writer, even if she draws her story out a bit too long.
Despite being a realistic, thought-provoking piece of historical fiction, I can only give this book three stars. After all, the actual historical fiction chapters make up less than a third of the book, and their contemporary counterparts don't quite match them in quality. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is a book I would recommend to anyone interested in the Salem Witch Trials or America's occult history, because Howe does a very good job with that material. I would not recommend it to anyone looking for a book about magic, spells, and Harry Potter-like things.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he's jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade's devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within the world's digital confines - puzzles that are based on the creator's obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them.
But when Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade's going to survive, he'll have to win - and confront the real world he's always been so desperate to escape.
The extent of my video gaming prowess is winning de Blob 2 last year and making painfully slow progress through Portal - so I guess you could say I'm not exactly a master gamer. Luckily, you don't have to be an expert Xbox player to enjoy Ready Player One, but you do have to be something of a geek.
The OASIS is basically nerd heaven, where fictional words are recreated and you can play as an elf, Vulcan, wizard, etc. The online world is incredibly detailed and comes with a backstory more complete than half the fictional universes out there. Occasionally that background information gets a little lengthy, but it was pretty neat to see that Cline put so much time and effort into developing Wade's world, both real and virtual. Both of them were fairly realistic for all the high-tech computer wizardry and mass video game addiction.
Halliday's Easter egg hunt, the focus of the book, was just as well-thought out as its backstory. It was exciting, but really only when Wade was about to get a key, crack the clue, or run in with the Sixers (the bad guys). In between clues, Cline's writing became really technical and boring, outlining minutiae of Wade's life and computer history. I learned more about the 1980s from Ready Player One than I did from five years living with a stepdad who never really left the decade. There are page-long tangents about this old video game or that early computer, some of which was interesting, but most of which felt like reading through a bunch of Jeopardy! answers.
Although some of the 80's trivia was a bit of a distraction from the plot, some of it actually was important. Cline also mentioned more recent nerd-culture phenomenons, like Doctor Who, which was pretty awesome. The whole book was one big tip of the hat to nerds everywhere. I also absolutely loved Cline's portrayal of online relationships, particularly the one between Aech and Wade. He completely refutes the "they're not real friends, it's just the internet!" argument by having 90% of the world's social interactions take place in a virtual reality. I really liked Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto, and how their relationships with Wade developed through the contest - that was pretty realistic.
I'm not such a big fan of the romance between Wade and Art3mis. He's been, and I quote, "stalking" her for years, and suddenly he gets the chance to meet her! It's pretty cliche. When Wade started getting all lovey-dovey, his character got a lot more annoying. The romance wasn't all bad, though, and the last scene of the book was actually really sweet; I loved it.
Speaking of endings, Ready Player One ended exactly like you'd expect it to. I was hoping for one last good plot twist, but Cline stayed the course of predictability. It wasn't a bad ending, it just wasn't a surprise. The predictable ending and overabundance of nerd trivia lose two stars for Ready Player One, but it's still an enjoyable story. Definitely worth the read for any nerds out there.
Ex Libris, Veritas
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As Simple as Snow