Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Dark PlacesI was one of the odd few who hated Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Naturally I was less than thrilled that my book club picked Dark Places for it’s October read, and so I didn’t even attend. However, the urge to read something in theme with my favorite holiday plus the encouragement of friends who claimed that I’d probably like it more, finally convinced me to read it.

Seven year old Libby Day survives the brutal massacre of her mother and two sisters. Traumatized and injured, she testifies against her fifteen-year old brother Ben, who is found guilty of “The Satan Sacrifice.” Twenty-five years later, the news has moved on to other victims, but Libby’s still stuck in the past, unable to live. As her trust fund of donations from well-wishers dwindles, she agrees to help the Kill Club, a secret society obsessed with true crimes and convinced of Ben’s innocence, discover the truth. But her attempts to reconnect with and interview the players from her childhood end up revealing secrets that the killer would rather keep buried.

Although the description sounds like a bad Hallmark movie, I still nurtured hopes of a good read. Unfortunately, from the first pages, I detested Libby (though in fairness, possibly not more than she detests herself). I don’t want to victim-blame, but she hasn’t even tried to pull herself together, instead living off the generosity of others and being cruel to anyone who tries to be kind to her. Thirty-two is too old to be playing the angsty teenager card. She’s a detestable human – not to get into this debate again, but while characters don’t necessarily need to be likeable, they need to be tolerable to read about. I couldn’t stand the pages upon pages of her sniveling and mindless self-absorption.

I did enjoy the alternating chapters between the past and the present, both because it served to build anticipation towards the mystery and because it offered a break from Libby’s perspective. I at least sympathized with her mother Patty for having to raise such shitty children alone and for doing the best she could in bad circumstances, but am not particularly interested in the struggles of being a poor farmer in Kansas or being a wannabe-Goth teenage boy in a small town. Ben was cast from the same mold as Libby, all rage and sulkiness. Thankfully Flynn writes that type well and it’s not surprising that he was suspected of murder.

The truth of course is even worse, and I won’t spoil it except to say that at least Ben embraced the consequences of his actions. Libby never does, ending her story in only a marginally less pathetic way that it started. To be honest, any character development in between I probably missed because I skimmed over a good chunk of the middle out of boredom. Needless to say, this is the last time I’ll pick up this particular author. She triumphs in creating twisted characters, but with so much of that in the news, I don’t need it also pervading my fiction.

2 Stars

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Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive

Luckiest Girl AliveI’m sick of things being labeled “the next Gone Girl.” Maybe because I didn’t love Gone Girl (I know, blasphemy, right?) or maybe because of half of the books with that label are absolutely nothing like it. Like Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive.

Ani FaNelli seemingly has it all – good looks, a glamorous NYC job, and a filthy rich fiance. But a dark secret from her past haunts her, threatening all she’s worked to achieve. When a documentary crew seeks to reveal the truth behind a terrible incident that occurred when she was a teen at the prestigious Bradley School, will it ruin her perfect life or will it set her free at last?

(Spoilers ahead)

In addition to having the worst fictional name ever, (Tif)Ani FaNelli is no Amy Dunne – I admit Amy was creepy brilliant, even if I couldn’t stand reading her voice, but being in Ani’s head is mostly dull. She tries too hard at being bitchy, at being cool, at being anything but the bland needy crazypants she is. I understand that her childhood trauma has screwed her up, but unfortunately I can’t feel that bad for her because she’s so awful to nearly everyone in her life and, until basically the last few pages, has had no character growth over the last 15 years.

The pacing is off throughout the story. It was so slow to get into, especially with chapters shifting between the past and the present, and there’s like 0% twist. Painful hidden past, yes – Ani was drugged and raped as a fourteen year-old, which partially led to a series of incidents that culminated in a school shooting. This is all terrible, but not terribly surprising as it’s heavily foreshadowed. I thought the twist would be that Ani had something to do with the massacre as retribution on her the popular kids who assaulted and bullied her, but she only thought about revenge and didn’t actually do anything wrong except killing her ex-friend (one of the shooters) in self-defense.

With no compelling characters (though snaps to Mr. Larson for mostly not being a pervy teacher!), no shocking plot points, and after all the millennial bride-angst, not even a wedding (!!), I can’t give this book anything but a mediocre rating.

3 Stars

 

Buzz Kill by Beth Fantaskey

Buzz KillAfter intrepid high-school reporter Millie Ostermeyer and the friendly janitor accidentally stumble across the recently murdered corpse of the unlikeable football coach, all clues point to Millie’s father being the murderer. Desperate to clear his name (and prevent her arch-nemesis Vivienne from getting the scoop), Millie begins to investigate with the help of mysteriously handsome classmate Chase and her local librarian, who are both struggling to hide their own secrets. 

Beth Fantaskey’s Buzz Kill was billed as a Nancy Drew meets “Clueless” kind of book, but both Nancy and Cher are far superior to Millie, who comes across as self-absorbed and slow-witted. She spends the book bumbling into near-death/illegal situations, far more concerned about her childish rivalry and blooming crush than her own father’s impending imprisonment. The real (unsung) hero of the story was Baxter, an adorable basset hound, who deserved far better than being adopted by Millie and does more detecting than she does. Chase wasn’t terrible, but he and all the other supporting cast, including Vivienne and the librarian, were basic high school caricatures.

The writing style also felt very young, with copious use of sanitized teenage slang and a plotline that meandered like a toddler. The story was neither funny nor fresh, more suited to a middle-grade than young adult audience. Overall, Buzz Kill quickly buzzkilled my enthusiasm for a light mystery. It wasn’t even mediocre, it was as actively annoying as a lingering fly.

2 Stars

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

Bellweather RhapsodyA few reviewers have called Kate Racculia’s Bellweather Rhapsody a cross between Glee and The Shining – so how could I resist?!

Twins, shy Rabbit and diva Alice, arrive at the crumbling Bellweather Hotel for a high school music festival that could make or break their dreams. Escorting them is slightly alcoholic failed musician turned high school teacher Natalie, who is wrestling with her own demons, including sociopathic Viola, the scheming new head of the festival. But can the music go on when a young music prodigy disappears from her hotel room, one that is haunted by a murder/suicide of a newly married couple years prior?

This Clue-like plot rivets the reader, but unfortunately there’s too many side plots and sprawling characters that take up valuable written real estate. Minnie, who witnessed the tragedy as a young child and is returning to the scene of the crime as a dysfunctional adult to help herself recover from the trauma, and Alice seem to be the only ones who care about Jill, the flute phenom who disappeared after Alice reports seeing her hanging. Jill’s mother Viola simply seems intent on striking terror into the hearts of the attendees, including Natalie, while the other ostensible chaperone is seven-fingered conductor Fisher, who is his own brand of crazy. Rabbit is distracted by his struggles to come out to his sister and his impending basoon solo, while the hoteliers seem to be largely ignoring the chaos. It takes a few hundred pages and more death for the police to arrive.

By the climax, most of these threads come together, yet I found them to be a distraction from the mystery I really cared about. Agatha Christie it isn’t. The ending was twisted, in an entirely good way, except for the fact that the why of the murder/suicide was unexplained. For some reason, this really bugged me even though it really didn’t matter that much to the story.

It’s a quick, most likeable read, but the jumble kept me from loving it. Good for those who enjoy dark humor and with a macabre spirit, but not nearly as great as it aspires to be.

3 Stars

We Were Liars by E. Lockheart

We Were LiarsBefore I start my review, I want to say that E. Lockheart’s We Were Liars was majorly trumpeted as one of The Reads of The Year when it came out last year, so if you’ve come this far without spoiling yourself – congrats! But also, stop reading now! I typically try to avoid major spoilers, and definitely warn people if I don’t, but it was too challenging for me to write this review without speculating on the twists that it’s all a lost cause down below. Hence,

READ AT YOUR OWN RISK! 

OR YOU’LL BE SO SPOILED THAT YOU’LL FEEL LIKE OLD MILK. 

[ hehe I think I’m funny 🙂 ]

Cadence is a Sinclair, an idolized, perfectionist Kennedy-like family that summers together on their own little island and experiences the struggles of the wealthy. Her closest friends are her cousins Johnny and Mirren and outsider Gat, the Indian-American nephew of her aunt’s boyfriend and Cadence’s first love. Only something happened two summers ago that caused Cadence to lose her memory and to lose touch with her friends. Now she’s determined to return to the idyllic island and regain what she has lost.

We Were Liars is incredibly difficult to describe, but it follows four friends, the titular Liars, whose friendship becomes destructive to everything they know and love. Told from Cadence’s point of view, we are as equally lost as she is at the beginning, having no knowledge of the events that led to her amnesia and subsequent ill-health. While it proved to be an ideal setup for mystery, it also resulted in the author’s use of oddly poetic prose that I presume was supposed to be a side-effect of Cadence’s theatrical, delusional mind. Emotions are personified, choppy rhymes are harshly punctuated – being in Cadence’s head often felt like a badly written melodrama.

Overall, I’m just not nearly as invested in Cadence the narrator as in the rest of the characters. Admittedly, I felt bad as she struggled to regain her memory but she seemed like such a dull person even pre-accident. Gat I liked mostly because he was half-Indian, but I hated that he was toying with two girls’ emotions and he came across as a pretentious blowhard. Mirren and Johnny were my favorites, so sweet and hopeful and under-appreciated. I loved the fragments of the group’s bond that were glimpsed through flashbacks, but I wish it was developed more.

One thing I don’t understand though is why the group is nicknamed “The Liars.” When Cadence mentions they’re called that, it’s before they’ve done any discernible lying. And she said that the family gave them that moniker. I get it in retrospect, since the whole plot was based on lies, but how can they have known that when they were younger? Mind-boggling. Also perplexing is how the Liars didn’t communicate outside the summer in an age of Facebook and cell phones. I feel like the island was a time warp.

Despite these plot potholes, the story unraveled beautifully, to the extent that I went back immediately and reread several sections to gain some clarity on plot points I didn’t pick up on, reveling in the shocking reveal. I admit that I did not guess the twist. I was thinking of some dark shit (abuse, incest, etc) but it turned out to be even darker than I would’ve thought as Cadence accidentally burnt her friends (and dogs!) alive in her grandfather’s house. I read some reviews that take it even a step more twisted, speculating that Cadence meant to kill the others so she could inherit, but I’m going to assume that wasn’t the author’s intent.

In spite of that, the atmosphere is figuratively and literally haunting from the beginning. Reviewers seem divided on the ghost versus hallucination debate (i.e. whether the Liars were spirits or figments of Cadence’s imagination/drug use), but I come down firmly on the side of ghosts. Why else would no one else see them and why would they stick around the same house? Also, one of the little siblings mentions hauntings and another has a new obsession with the paranormal, which makes me believe they can at least sense the presence if not see them. It makes the cover cooler with a fuzzy ghost-like picture of the deceased Liars, but also the whole story more tragic as the Liars hung around out of love to give Cadence closure.

I do highly recommend this book to lovers of mystery and family drama. Despite the elements of teen angst, I think this is a YA that even real adults could get into. Plus it’s a great, gripping beach read, one that I may even read again myself.

4 Stars

Elizabeth Little’s Dear Daughter

Dear DaughterLA IT girl Janie Jenkins was wealthy, attractive, and infamous – even more so when she was convicted of brutally murdering her Swiss-American socialite mother, Marion Jenkins-Elsinger. Ten years later, Janie is released on an evidence mismanagement technicality and, with the help of her idealistic lawyer Noah, immediately goes undercover to hunt down the truth about what happened the night her mother died. Despite her blank memory and her dislike of her mother, Janie believes she is innocent, but the vengeful media believes she has gotten away with murder. Now, she has to find proof by following the only lead she has to small town South Dakota, where posing as mousy academic Rebecca, she finally discovers who her mother really was.

(Mild spoilers ahead)

Elizabeth Little’s Dear Daughter came out highly lauded last year, another in the series of Gone Girl-esque thrillers. Unlike Amazing Amy, Janie never comes across as sweet – she’s an entitled manipulative teen, who admittedly had an isolated childhood followed by incarceration, but has no real excuse for being so utterly terrible to people. If you’re judging a person on first impressions, no wonder everyone thinks she’s a murderess. Being inside her (bitchy) head still doesn’t make her someone you want to root for, in spite of my belief in “innocent until proven guilty” and all that. Nevertheless, her self-destructive streak made me at least pity her, as did the ruthless hounding of the media.

The most fascinating part of this book is its coverage of our 21st century creepy obsession with celebrity. From bloggers to nighttime news talking-heads, everyone was judging and speculating on Janie without even knowing her or the truth. Some part of me believes that’s the downside of the job, as every job has something, but it did make me feel bad for the Lindsay Lohans of the world who are basically zoo exhibits. The media snippets really round out the story for me, providing a much-appreciated break from Janie’s snark.

Given her personality, even with her horrible acting as dull-as-dishwater Rebecca, I’m surprised her investigations actually went anywhere. It was mostly dumb luck and courtesy of her newfound friends, who are just too easily accepting of her story. These supporting characters were Lifetime channel regulars, shallowly stereotypical and not as colorful as they thought they were. In particular, the murderer, whose final confrontation with Janie comes across as ridiculously cheesy, an overdone encounter that made me wish Janie had actually killed her mother. This mustache-twirling villain enters rather out of left field, though I shouldn’t have been surprised because by that point the book feels like a made-for-TV movie.

For all Gone Girl’s faults (IMHO), at least I admit it was innovative. Dear Daughter‘s plots and people have been seen before, in real life and in fiction. Dark, but not deep, this is one mystery that I can take or leave.

3 Stars

Woman with a Gun by Phillip Margolin

Woman with a GunStuck in a dull job at a law firm, aspiring writer Stacey Kim stumbles across a showing of acclaimed photographer Kathy Moran’s work at MoMA, the centerpiece of which is “Woman with a Gun,” a mysterious portrait of a bride holding a sharp-shooter barefoot on the beach. Finally inspired to begin writing her novel, Stacey discovers that the woman is Megan Cahill, suspected of murdering her millionaire husband Raymond Cahill on their wedding night. But the murder was never solved, until Stacey’s quest for background dirt on the story digs up the truth.

Author Phillip Margolin was inspired by a real photo when writing Woman with a Gun, and it’s curious how similarly protagonist Stacey follows in his footsteps. Margolin’s picture has less known back story, but Stacey’s is fleshed out through flashbacks to central moments that defined the case. First, it jumps to the night of the murder when Kathy photographs Megan with the murder weapon and the ensuing investigation in which Megan is cleared. Then, it jumps back further to trace the relationship of the witness Kathy with Jack Booth, one of the investigating attorneys on the Cahill case, who were opposing lawyers on the disastrous Kilbride drug-kingpin trial. Finally, it comes back to Stacey as she resumes the investigation by talking to all of the involved parties, scaring the murderer into taking definitive action once again. Thankfully, each story is told independently and comes together at the end rather than switching back-and-forth, though initially this led to much confusion as to the connections between the segments.

As a protagonist, Stacey was a little unbelievable, sleuthing a mystery that had no connection to her, uprooting herself to move across the country, falling in love immediately with one of the potential suspects. Worse in character though are disgraced lawyer turned photographer Kathy Moran and golddigger/probable murderer Megan Cahill, who are both femme fatales with cold hearts and sharp brains. However, the absolute worst is Jack Booth, an arrogant womanizer whose libido leads him to repeated downfalls. In addition, there’s a fair few stereotypical secondary characters from the drugged up ex-athlete to the sharkish business partner to bumbling criminal associates. Basically, none of these characters were likeable but they add color to the shady narrative.

I predicted fairly early on who might be the killer because of the killer’s suspicious sketchiness. The motive remained a mystery to me because it was barely alluded to until the last hundred pages, which made it slightly unbelievable when it came out. At least Margolin is enough of a thriller master to leave no loose threads, especially with how the photograph ingeniously connected to the plot solution, but Woman with a Gun was a mediocre mystery.

3 Stars