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.
Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Emily Bird was raised not to ask questions. She has perfect hair, the perfect boyfriend, and a perfect Ivy-League future. But a chance meeting with Roosevelt David, a homeland security agent, at a party for Washington DC's elite leads to Bird waking up in a hospital, days later, with no memory of the end of the night.
Meanwhile, the world has fallen apart: A deadly flu virus is sweeping the nation, forcing quarantines, curfews, even martial law. And Roosevelt is certain that Bird knows something. Something about the virus--something about her parents' top secret scientific work--something she shouldn't know.
The only one Bird can trust is Coffee, a quiet, outsider genius who deals drugs to their classmates and is a firm believer in conspiracy theories. And he believes in Bird. But as Bird and Coffee dig deeper into what really happened that night, Bird finds that she might know more than she remembers. And what she knows could unleash the biggest government scandal in US history.
I am so disappointed! Government scandal, martial law, and epidemic disease are all great ingredients for a book, but they just didn't work this time. The general idea of Love is the Drug is fantastic, but the details are more flawed. Most of the plot of was made up of vague impressions, which got very confusing very fast. If you asked for a detailed synopsis of the book, I honestly wouldn't be able to give it to you. In a nutshell, the government did something very scandalous but not very surprising and a bad guy tried to keep it hidden but failed. Of course, the only reason he failed is because he scared Bird into uncovering the scandal, but that's a discussion for another time.
The bad guy is Roosevelt David, who is supposedly a very dangerous rogue homeland security officer. Only problem is, he's not that scary. Most of what he does is speak cryptically and act like a poorly-scripted character in a low-budget Bond knockoff. If you're going to cast a character as terrifying, you have to give readers some reason to fear them, and there wasn't really any reason to fear Roosevelt until the end of the book (you can argue that he should be feared in the beginning, too, but at that point there's no concrete evidence, so I hold my ground).
The other characters - especially Bird - are what saved this book. They represent a range of personalities, and they are almost all people of color, which is great to see with so many white characters in YA books. Bird herself was the best character, in my opinion. I admired her rebelliousness, and her bravery, especially during her final few confrontations with Roosevelt. However, I lost a bit of respect for her when she fell victim to typical YA-romance stupidity.
Speaking of the romance, not all of it was stupidity. Johnson did an excellent job of building Bird and Coffee's relationship, and I have to admit the two of them were pretty cute together. The only fault I can really find with Bird and Coffee's romance is that they treat it like it's true love. Not to say that you can't fall in love when you're seventeen, but the idea of finding the one and only person you could possibly be happy with is an overused cliche - and not just in YA. The otherwise sweet romance suffered a bit because of that.
Love is the Drug had so much potential, and I really wish it had lived up to it. Had Roosevelt been a better villian, or the plot been easier to follow, or the romance not so cliched, I might have given it one or two more stars. As it is, I wouldn't recommend it to readers looking for stories about government scandals or epidemics; I might recommend it to romance readers who want something a little more exciting than boy-meets-girl.
No One Else Can Have You by Kathleen Hale
Small towns are nothing if not friendly. Friendship, Wisconsin (population: 688) is no different. Around here, everyone wears a smile. And no one ever locks their doors. Until, that is, high school sweetheart Ruth Fried is found murdered. Strung up like a scarecrow in the middle of a cornfield.
Unfortunately, Friendship’s police are more adept at looking for lost pets than catching killers. So Ruth’s best friend, Kippy Bushman, armed with only her tenacious Midwestern spirit and Ruth’s secret diary (which Ruth’s mother had asked her to read in order to redact any, you know, sex parts), sets out to find the murderer. But in a quiet town like Friendship—where no one is a suspect—anyone could be the killer.
This book is strange and wacky and I absolutely love it.
No One Else Can Have You starts off with the discovery of Ruth Fried's body, stuffed with straw and hung from a tree in the middle of a corn field - a pretty gruesome scene. As Kippy investigates her friend's death, she uncovers shocking police negligence, small town secrets, and the darker side of Friendship. But this is not an overly serious story.
Although a lot of heavier themes run through the book (murder, grief, PTSD, etc), No One Else Can Have You is funny and, above all, entertaining. Most of the dialogue contains "okeydokeys" and "don'tcha knows", the story takes a number of unexpected turns, and the characters are hilarious. Some of them are almost caricatures, but Hale rounds them out and gives them realistic and endearing qualities along with their goofier ones. Kippy herself has a lot of personality, as eccentric as she is lovable. Her honest, occasionally foot-in-mouth narration kept the story interesting. Actually, she's pretty badass. And although she's no Sherlock Holmes, Kippy was better than a lot of YA "detectives."
The murder, in all its grotesqueness, was the perfect offset to the strangeness of Friendship and its inhabitants. Kippy's investigation was amateur, as to be expected (what sixteen-year-old has access to a forensics team?), but it also carried a lot of weight with it. As Kippy uncovered more evidence that the killer was still on the loose, and as that evidence was repeatedly ignored by the police department, the more dire the situation became. Friendship's smiling, happy populace contrasted with all the secrets the town kept buried like black and white, and the contrast kept the book from being too dark or too light.
There were a few little things in the book that I didn't like as much or weren't, technically, politically correct (ie, referring to Norse mythology as "Nazi stuff"), but overall it was a solid read. The pacing is perfect, all the crazy things work, and even the romance is good. If you're looking for a cold, hard mystery novel, this isn't it. But No One Else Can Have You is a wildly entertaining story with a dark side, and the most fun you'll ever have reading about murder.
Endless Night by Agatha Christie
When penniless Michael Rogers discovers the beautiful house at Gipsy’s Acre and then meets the heiress Ellie, it seems that all his dreams have come true at once. But he ignores an old woman’s warning of an ancient curse, and evil begins to stir in paradise. As Michael soon learns: Gipsy’s Acre is the place where fatal “accidents” happen.
Sometimes when an author gets a reputation for being excellent, there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. Not so with Agatha Christie. She deserves every ounce of praise that's been given to her.
The first few chapters of Endless Night are a bit of a mishmash, and didn't really seem to be going anywhere. Around chapter three, the book started to have more of a direction. From that point on it was much more interesting, but it was more about Mike and Ellie's love story and the difference of their social classes that it was mysterious. Christie added in a few idiosyncrasies and foreboding signs to remind the reader that death was in the cards.
It might have gotten exhausting, a story about a young married couple with only a few warnings of danger thrown in, but it wasn't. I liked Mike and Ellie, and I couldn't shake the feeling that something was off. I was noticing the idiosyncrasies without really registering they didn't fit. Things like the lack of fuss made over the death that only made sense after the plot twist hit. I don't want to say to much and spoil the book, but let me say that Christie is a master of her craft. The twist blended seamlessly into the story, shocking without jarring the reader, and once I read it I just sort of gaped and mumbled "What?" for a few minutes before rushing to find out the rest.
I'm sorry if this review is vague, but the genius of Endless Night lies in the surprise, so I don't want to give anything away. Christie writes straightforwardly even as she misdirects readers. It's impossible to guess the endings to her books, but once she reveals the truth, readers can see all the evidence they overlooked. Because of that talent, Agatha Christie truly is the Queen of Mystery.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
A beautiful and distinguished family. A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret. Lies upon lies. True love.
This book was a birthday present, and it is probably the best present I got this year. I finished it, sobbing, close to midnight, and it now holds a place of honor on my shelf.
We Were Liars starts off as a story of a girl recovering from a traumatic incident she can't remember, and it becomes a story about love, privilege, and tragedy. I was almost afraid, after reading the summary, that it was going to be a story about rich kids on their private island with problems that don't really matter, but the book proved itself to be so much more from the first page.
The romance was spot-on. Cadence never sounded whiny, and the love story never felt forced. The characters were all gorgeous and drove the plot well. Written in Cadence's clear, almost lyric voice, the story unfolds with perfect pacing. I wasn't bored for a minute.
And then the plot twist hit. Seriously, honestly, the best plot twist I have read in YA. I wasn't expecting it at all, but I could see all the little hints Lockhart had left throughout the story. It was done so well I had to pause and re-read the paragraph three times before I convinced myself that I hadn't read it wrong. And then I dissolved into a puddle of tears.
There's a good amount of suspense and mystery throughout the whole book, which starts to subside a little towards the end, after the climax of the novel. After that point, I was nothing but a mess of shock and awe for Lockhart's talent. This book ripped my heart out, but it made me happy about it.
Read it. Weep. And then come back for more.
Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan
The man who calls himself David Loogan is hoping to escape a violent past by living a quiet, anonymous life in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But when he's hired as an editor at a mystery magazine, he is drawn into an affair with the wife of the publisher, Tom Kristoll - a man who soon turns up dead.
Elizabeth Waishkey is the most talented detective in the Ann Arbor Police Department, but even she doesn't know if Loogan is a killer or an ally who might help her find the truth. As more deaths start mounting up - some of them echoing stories published in the magazine - it's up to Elizabeth to solve both murders and the mystery of Loogan himself.
I have to admit: the summary of this book didn't seem all that impressive. I read a few pages and see if I liked it, even though I wasn't expecting to, and got so caught up in the story I put everything else aside to read it. Loogan was enigmatic and slightly threatening from the beginning, which is what really drew me in. Plus, I was hoping Waishkey would be the femme-Sherlock Holmes the summary promised.
I'm a little disappointed in how Waishkey turned out. She was a great character and probably is a very good detective, but almost all of the "sleuthing" in Bad Things Happen was just speculation. The leads they uncovered never proved or disproved anything, just added another theory to the list of possibilities. So Waishkey wasn't really discovering any vital clues; no one was. One of my favorite parts of mystery novels is figuring out the importance of new leads, but most of the leads in Bad Things Happen led nowhere. There was absolutely no way to guess who the killer was until the killer was revealed. Almost everyone in the book was under speculation at one point, and the theories were all equally plausible or unlikely.
Normally a plot that corkscrews like that would seem badly planned and ill-fitting for a mystery novel, but it kind of worked for Dolan. It never felt like any of the characters were in all that much danger, barring a few scenes, so the only source of suspense was from not knowing who the killer was. The book was constantly interesting and the plot never dropped off, but I wasn't on the edge of my seat until the end of the book. When the mystery started to fit together, it picked up really quickly and everything started to make sense; Dolan didn't leave any loose ends lying around. Because of that, even without suspense and solid clues, Bad Things Happen was still majorly intriguing. I was captivated from the first page to the last.
The characters in Dolan's book are all subdued but well-depicted. They were likeable, and the bad guys were well-hidden. If they hadn't been, the whole book would have fallen apart, but I didn't figure out who they were until they drew their weapons, so to speak. Loogan's character was particularly interesting, as was his personal mystery. I was not disappointed when his past was revealed.
The biggest disappointment I have with this book is that none of the murders were "echoed stories published in the magazine." One of the killings was based off a murder in a (fake) mystery novel, but none were based on a story published in Gray Streets. I looked forward to seeing how Dolan worked that into the book, but it wasn't there.
On the other hand, the best part of the book was probably the interactions between the characters. The dialogue is witty and smooth, and Dolan doesn't waste a word. I usually find characters who don't give straight answers annoying, but Dolan worded their responses in such a way that it was hard to tell who was lying and who was telling it straight.
Bad Things Happen is a great book simply because it keeps you guessing. There are certainly better mystery novels out there, but I'm satisfied. I might even read the second book in the series.
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
It is 1875, and Ann Eliza Young has recently separated from her powerful husband, Brigham Young, prophet and leader of the Mormon Church. Expelled and an outcast, Ann Eliza embarks on a crusade to end polygamy in the United States. A rich account of her family’s polygamous history is revealed, including how both she and her mother became plural wives. Yet soon after Ann Eliza’s story begins, a second exquisite narrative unfolds–a tale of murder involving a polygamist family in present-day Utah. Jordan Scott, a young man who was thrown out of his fundamentalist sect years earlier, must reenter the world that cast him aside in order to discover the truth behind his father’s death. And as Ann Eliza’s narrative intertwines with that of Jordan’s search, readers are pulled deeper into the mysteries of love, family, and faith.
I was born in Salt Lake City, where almost all of our neighbors were Mormons and sacred underwear hung on the laundry lines. We left when I was still a baby, so I don't remember living there, but my mom's stories about the city and her Mormon friends always interested me. And of course the scandalous history of polygamy was a draw to Ebershoff's book.
The 19th Wife is centered mainly around polygamy (which is a fascinating topic itself), but it also recounts the beginning of the LDS Church and their evolution. Ann Eliza's story is a mixture of praise for the church and scorn for it. Her story offered a really cool look at the beginnings of a religion and life in a theocracy. Jordan's story allows readers a glimpse at modern-day cult life as he revisits the Firsts of Mesadale. The practices of both the early Mormons and the Firsts are controversial today, but Ebershoff points out the flaws in their belief systems without condemning the Mormons.
Both Ann Eliza and Jordan's stories are both well researched, though I'm not sure which of the historical documents included (if any) are real and which are fabricated. Either way, the variety of texts, from letters to diaries to interviews, creates a many-sided and cunningly interwoven story. Jordan's story and Ann Eliza's go together well, combining the historical fiction and mystery dramas. They are both fantastically paced for the most part, although the book begins to drag towards the end. The romance in Jordan's part of the book also felt a little bit forced, but that and a few slow spots were the only major flaws I found.
Right about now you're probably wondering why I read this book when it says right in my Policy that I don't read religious titles as a rule. And here's the reason - Ebershoff manages to write about religion and characters who are extremely devout without shoving the religion's values down your throat. The sermons included in The 19th Wife serve as background to the story, not as incentive to join the Latter-Day Saints. The 19th Wife is more about education than indoctrination, which suits me just fine.
The 19th Wife appeals to many audiences, and it should be equally fascinating to all of them. If you're looking for a historical epic, this is your book. If you want a book with a little murder, mystery, and Mormons, this is your book.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
As a kid, Jacob formed a special bond with his grandfather over his bizarre tales and photos of levitating girls and invisible boys. Now at 16, he is reeling from the old man's unexpected death. Then Jacob is given a mysterious letter that propels him on a journey to the remote Welsh island where his grandfather grew up. There, he finds the children from the photographs--alive and well--despite the islanders’ assertion that all were killed decades ago. As Jacob begins to unravel more about his grandfather’s childhood, he suspects he is being trailed by a monster only he can see.
Eerie and suspenseful, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children was a stunning read. It's a perfect intertwining of reality and fantasy, as well as history and modern-day. The small, secluded Welsh town is the perfect setting, like all those ghost stories from the English moors. I fell in love with this book in every way. I never knew what to expect and was always surprised and delighted by the plot twists.
The characters were equally exciting; they were interesting, original, and eccentric. Jacob, the narrator, was believable and likeable, though my favorite character was Emma Bloom. I adored her character, although I'm still not sure how I feel about her as the love interest. It's just a little off to me, even though it was executed better than eighty percent of YA romances.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children was a beautifully haunting read. The vintage photographs throughout the text add to the text, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality even more. Fans of mystery and monsters will devour this book.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Abandoned: Page 183
Mikael Blomkvist, a once-respected financial journalist, watches his professional life rapidly crumble around him. Prospects appear bleak until an unexpected (and unsettling) offer to resurrect his name is extended by an old-school titan of Swedish industry. The catch—and there’s always a catch—is that Blomkvist must first spend a year researching a mysterious disappearance that has remained unsolved for nearly four decades. With few other options, he accepts and enlists the help of investigator Lisbeth Salander, a misunderstood genius with a cache of authority issues.
Quite frankly, I hated this book. It’s highly praised and rated, but it wasn’t for me. I was drawn in by the adventure-hinting title and the promise of a kickass girl fighting crime. At the point where I gave up on the book, neither had been delivered. Eventually, I got too frustrated with it to continue.
The first several chapters were laden with technical details about business, finance, and corporate sabotage that were hard to follow (they referenced a lot of famous Swedes, who I did not know of) and not wholly necessary. The chapters could have been summed up in a few pages or less. I kept reading only because I hoped that the book would pick up.
It didn’t. The theme of dense, dry, and boring writing continued throughout the novel. Some of the issues I had with the writing may have been caused by the book being translated from Swedish, which it was written in. But that doesn’t account for the numerous bad transitions from Mikael’s point of view to Lisbeth’s, or for the fact that it read like a textbook. Although if you’re interested in bizarre Swedish families or corporate sabotage, you might find it interesting. Besides the unnecessary amount of details, the novel also had a lot of “product-placement.” Every time a character went shopping, the brand of practically everything was given, and when Lisbeth wanted to buy a new computer, Larsson turned into an Apple spokesperson for half a page.
The title of the book led me to believe that Lisbeth Salander was the main character, when in fact she was barely a side character and hadn’t even been connected with Blomkvist or into the main story by the time I abandoned the book. When she did appear, she was practically lifeless and had pretty much no personality. She was sold as anti-social and ruthless, but she came off as a coma patient whose body hadn’t caught up with her brain.
Out of all my problems with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, its offensiveness was probably one of the biggest. A lot of the female characters are depicted negatively, especially Lisbeth, who despite being healthy if not robust in the mental health department, was referred to quite often as “retarded.” She was also described as “anorexic” in one paragraph, but the next explained that she didn’t have an eating disorder and ate like a horse, just weighed 90 pounds anyway. The worst offense against Lisbeth was her rape, which Larsson handled awfully. Lisbeth doesn’t even react. If you’re going to write about rape, at least show how traumatizing and awful it is, don’t imply that it’s “the norm”!
If that weren’t bad enough, the original title of the book was Men Who Hate Women, which, I think, is a much more accurate description of the novel.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
Flavia de Luce is an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison. In the summer of 1950, a series of inexplicable events strikes her home, Buckshaw, a decaying English mansion. A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath.
For Flavia, both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. To Flavia, the investigation is the stuff of science: full of possibilities, contradictions, and connections.
I have read far better murder mysteries than Sweetness. Its rambling, often disjointed writing lends to the childishness of its narrator, eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, but makes the story hard to follow.
The biggest problem I had with Sweetness was Flavia herself. She goes from singing and switching topics constantly to scientific lectures on chemistry. For her to be eleven and know and understand as much about such a complex subject as chemistry, she would have to be a genius, and the murder would’ve been solved much faster. I found it difficult to believe that she had been experimenting in her own chemical lab for years, creating poisons, and understands more about chemistry than my entire ninth grade class combined.
Flavia also makes quite a few references to 1950s pop culture and famous chemists, which the reader knows nothing about, and which weren’t needed in the story. It got to the point where I’d see song lyrics and just skip over them.
The end of Sweetness was actually rather good, though. As the final pieces of the puzzle clicked into place, the story got much more interesting and captivating. About the last quarter of the book is excellent, but the rest of it left something to be desired.
Once Upon a Time...
As a longtime lover of stories and a believer in the power and magic of books, I've spent my life seeking out the best reads. This blog is dedicated to reviewing the books I read - good, bad, or magnificent - to help other readers find their next favorite books.