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

Butterfly Palace by Colleen Coble

Butterfly PalaceAustin, 1904 – Newly orphaned and impoverished Lily Donaldson arrives at the famed Butterfly Mansion in search of a position. As soon as she arrives, she’s tested out by serving at the Marshall’s dinner party, where she recognizes one distinguished guest as her former fiancee Andrew, now hiding under a new identity and wooing Lily’s new mistress Belle. As Lily frets over his reappearance in her life after all these years, she also fears becoming the target of the Servant Girl Killer, who is leaving young women’s bodies all over Austin. After saving one of the killer’s victims, she becomes embroiled in the investigation and its potential connections to an assassination attempt, a counterfeiting ring, and the mysterious incident of arson that killed her father.

I didn’t realize Colleen Coble’s Butterfly Palace was in the romantic Christian lit genre until I popped by Goodreads to add this review. For those of you, who like me, aren’t fans, I would still give this a shot because it’s not overly proselytizing or swoonworthy outside of a few instances where the main characters, Lily and Drew, scold themselves for almost giving in to carnal temptation or become jealous of the other’s flirtations. The book does, however, provide a unique setting for a historical mystery that touches on the social issues of its time.

However, for a book that highlights class differences in the early 2oth-century, Lily’s character unbelievably straddles the barrier between the help and friend of the household. As a modern woman, I enjoyed her, but she behaves unrealistically for a woman in her position, especially in relation to her employer Belle whom she openly defies. Belle, who at first is selfish and vain, has a fabulously feminist growth arc that makes her the heroine of the tale in my eyes.

While the plot showed promise at the beginning, it dragged on for far too long with the addition of superfluous characters and ridiculous red herrings. The mystery’s unraveling was especially poorly executed, rushed and illogical, though I suppose the plot threads were mostly wrapped up. Overall, it was a light read that was mildly enjoyable, but not very thrilling in either the romantical or criminal sense.

3 Stars

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreDear God, do I love books about books! What bookworm doesn’t? And Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is one of the best out there.

Clay Jannon fell victim to the recession, losing his job as a web designer for a startup in San Francisco. In desperation, he stumbles across Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – hiring now. Compelled by Penumbra’s stocking his obscure childhood-favorite fantasy series, Clay takes a job as the night clerk with all its weird quirks, including the odd assortment of characters that appear at all hours. As Clay discovers the bookstore’s secrets with the help of his artistic roommate Mat, his Googler love interest Kat, and his nerdy millionaire best friend Neel, he realizes there’s more to Penumbra, and to the bookstore, than meets the eye.

Sorry, y’all, I know that’s a pretty terrible book summary – the book encompasses so much more (even books within books!) but it’s so hard to describe succinctly. It’s an epic quest filled with mystery and fantasy, and a love-song to both typography (Gerritszoon) and technology (Gerritszoon on Macs!). The conflict between the past and the future is present throughout the narrative, lending a heavier weight to Clay’s adventure as he confronts the moral and intellectual quandaries that all of us face in the new digital age.

I wasn’t too fond of Clay at first, thinking him a dull, one-dimensional creature in comparison to the fun oddball assortment of characters surrounding him. But as the story continued, his everyman persona helped me the reader adjust to and engage in the puzzle-solving, especially as the titular Mr. Penumbra remains almost mythological. Without a doubt though, my favorite character remains Clay’s childhood best friend Neel who, from his genius money-making breast simulation company to his enthusiasm for Dungeons & Dragons, is completely adorkable.

There’s a lot of 21st-century product placement here, particularly heavy-headed sections about Google with trips to Mountain View and homages to their book scanner. I love Google but I was kind of excited to see Google lose for once, and the underdog (i.e. old fashioned “technology”) to win. I guess in that respect, I’m more similar to the villain of the piece than Kat, especially as this book has made me more than a little suspicious of the evil genius lurking in the depths of Google. At least Kat demonstrated a strong feminist figure as an expert programmer and ambitious leader within Google, though she channeled a snotty teenage Voldemort with her obsession with immortality and technological fanaticism.

The denouement was disappointing and unclear, with Sloan having slowed down the plot pace significantly but still rushing to weave together all the threads. I found myself so annoyed by the ease of Clay’s ingenuity in solving the mystery and his extraordinary luck in having a veritable guild of skilled sidekicks that this was one conclusion I would’ve liked to be less definitive and more difficult. It was dispiriting all in all. For those reasons, I can’t quite give it 5 Stars, though the charm of the middle convinced me I would.

4.5 Stars