The Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas

The Darkest CornersThe Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thanks to Random House Publishers for my advance review copy of The Darkest Corners.
As an intro: The Darkest Corners, by Kara Thomas, is a YA mystery/thriller with a superficial coating of grit, a Pretty-Little-Liars vibe, and an emphasis on twists and turns which left me ultimately unconvinced.
The plot centers around Tessa, who in the present day is a high school senior in Florida who lives with her grandmother. Tessa wants nothing more than to put the traumatic events of her childhood behind her, but when she gets word that her father, a criminal sentenced to life in prison, is on his deathbed, Tessa feels compelled to return to her home town of Fayette Pennsylvania, to bid him goodbye.
However, once Tessa gets “home,” she realizes she is in for way more than she bargained for. A mystery from her past, involving a serial killer who she helped put behind bars, starts to reassert itself in her present. As bad things begin to happen, Tessa decides to investigate the decade-old mystery on her own (after all, if the police haven’t been able to solve it, maybe she can!).
So where to begin? First, I was not impressed or especially drawn to Tessa as a character. Her actions proved her to be a decent, thoughtful person, but I got the feeling that author Kara Thomas was trying to add some cool angst a la the characters of Gillian Flynn. So, as well as a whole lot of “life sucks” attitude, Tessa also occasionally threw in an intentionally witty one-liner which seemed entirely out of character, and instead, like something that a writer had spent an awful lot of time crafting.
The problems I had with Tessa were amplified with the rest of the cast of characters, who never felt coherent or real to me. This was a problem for me as a reader, because the mystery is primarily character based…it’s about discovering secrets that people “you thought you knew” were hiding. Since I didn’t have a strong sense of the characters to begin with, the reveals lost any kind of deep emotional impact.
Finally, I didn’t like the ultimate twist that the story took, again, based largely on the fact that it didn’t seem supported (or unsupported) by anything that came before. It didn’t feel organic. I also had a problem with some of the logic that went into a main action sequence…I think this is one of those stories which may not bear up under careful scrutiny.
So ultimately, The Darkest Corners didn’t work for me. On the plus side, it was a fast read which kept my attention. But the characters, world, and plot, never seemed real, or absorbed my attention in the way I had hoped that they would.

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Thereby Hangs a Tail by Spencer Quinn

Thereby Hangs a Tail (A Chet and Bernie Mystery #2)Thereby Hangs a Tail by Spencer Quinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m so glad I discovered this super-sweet and also funny series featuring PI team Chet (a dog, and our narrator) and Bernie (his human).
The Chet and Bernie mysteries remind me in some ways of Bunnicula for adults (with the caveat that I consider Bunnicula appropriate and perhaps necessary reading fare for EVERYONE, adults included!).
What primarily makes this an “adult” book is that as Chet and Bernie solve crimes, Chet is witness to events, often not fully understood, that the reader realizes have serious implications, either regarding life and death, relationships, or even contemporary environmental issues.
Although at first glance, the story seems so funny as to be almost “fluff” reading, Spencer Quinn (a pseudonym for a well-known crime writer) actually writes with the talent of capturing deep feelings and wisdom, with a few simple, carefully chosen words.
Since the story is told from a dog’s perspective, we’ve got a narrator who is totally loveable, and also totally grounded in the things that matter in life. I loved this aspect of Thereby Hangs a Tail.
Chet’s perspective, in which the concept of worrying doesn’t make sense, in which life is full of joy and wonder, and in which his human is loved totally and unconditionally, are qualities which I value, and want to remember more in my daily life.
Thereby Hangs a Tail is a fast read, with a lot of humor, a great sense of place (the American Southwest), and two characters who will leap right off the page and into your heart. A great book to brighten your day.

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In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned CountryIn a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Still one of my all-time favorite books, period.
I first read In a Sunburned Country ten years ago, and loved it (and folded over page corners like folding was a new skill that was going out of style).
On rereading, which was actually a listen to the audio version read by the author, I still found this love-story to a country to be very, very funny, as well as enchanting, thought-provoking, melancholy, and wise.
What I love about Bryson’s voice is how he’s able to make you laugh really hard-truly-this book should come with a warning label for those who dare to read it in public: “This book WILL cause sudden and unexpected outbursts of laughter which may appear especially unusual if you are in the middle of jogging on a treadmill with a serious expression on your face.”
But also, underneath the humor, Bryson speaks with wonder and curiosity about the world around him. He notices the gigantic lobster sculpture, as well as the Sydney Opera House, he notes the absurdity that frequently accompanies our adventures, historical, and present.
Bryson seems, at heart, to deeply like the world around him, and the people in it. I highly recommend In a Sunburned Country to anyone interested in Australia, travel, or learning something new. Perhaps even more importantly, I’d rank this in my top ten list of books to read when you’re feeling sad. It will brighten your day.

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Ghost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite

Ghost on Black MountainGhost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An atmospheric family saga which I really enjoyed. Included plenty of sad bits, and maybe went on a little too long in parts. Told through the viewpoint of several different female characters whose lives are interrelated. Some of the characters felt more fully realized, and some drew me in more than others. But overall, I am so very glad I discovered Ghost on Black Mountain, and author Ann Hite. Hite is a storyteller in the southern tradition, and one who I am so glad is sharing her gift.
*My hardback edition included a short interview with the author which gave fascinating insight into her creative process, and what inspires her. Love this stuff!

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The Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth

The Secrets of MidwivesThe Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really loved this book, which tells the story of three distinct women-grandmother Floss, mother Grace, and daughter Neva-who are all midwives, who all love each other deeply, and who all sometimes drive each other crazy.
What I love about it:
Author Sally Hepworth writes with respect, awe, and warmth for women who are pregnant, giving birth, and supporting other women.
Hepworth clearly has done a lot of research about the state of present-day midwifery in the United States, as well as how it has been regulated and practiced during the past 50 years.
The Secrets of Midwives goes back and forth in time between Floss beginning her practice in England in the 1950’s, and Neva and Grace practicing in Rhode Island, in the present day.
If, like me, you were fascinated by the novel Midwives by Chris Bohjalian, (and in particular, by the complex dynamics of being a midwife in a time and place in which modern western medicine often promotes hospital births as THE RIGHT way for a woman to give birth) you will also find much to chew on in Hepworth’s novel.

Neva is a midwife who works in a birthing center, where there are pediatricians and ob-gyns present, whereas her mom, Grace, a certified midwife, mostly assists in home births (unless a complicated birth necessitates hospital intervention.)
However, even if you’re not fascinated by this stuff, you’ll still find a lot to enjoy in The Secrets of Midwives.
For one thing, Hepworth writes a rollicking good tale. In Floss, Grace, and Neva, she has created three women who I cared about (though I will admit to feeling frustrated with all of them at times).
I also loved the settings…rural England, present day coastal Rhode Island…this was great summer escapism.
The Secrets of Midwives is by no means as intense or dark (for the MOST part) as Bohjalian’s Midwives. It reminded me tonally  of the novels of Kate Morton mixed with those of Julie Cohen. The Secrets of Midwives was a book I was pretty sure would end happily, even though it contained tragedy.
There were a couple of things which I didn’t love about this book. First, it was, at times, disappointingly superficial/gender oppressive. For example, the men that Neva falls for obviously have to be gorgeous, obviously, Neva is gorgeous, (in ways that are in alignment with all our cultural expectations for today!) Not a big surprise, but it would have made me happier, if this book, with so much going for it, could have challenged those norms.
I also felt bad for Floss’s lover Lil, who was long-suffering, quiet, and mostly ignored by the three main characters. It really ticked me off, to be honest, the way she was treated, and how it seemed that everyone just assumed that she had no story of her own, other than as a support to them.
That said, I ENJOYED The Secrets of Midwives. When Sally Hepworth writes another tale, I will be right there reading it.

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The Mistake I Made (September 8, 2015) by Paula Daly

The Mistake I MadeThe Mistake I Made by Paula Daly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thank you to the publisher through NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review The Mistake I Made by Paula Daly.
If you’re a fan of Paula Daly, one of the hot new domestic-thriller novelists in the UK, then you will enjoy her latest offering. Having read Daly’s two previous novels, I came to this one with high expectations.
Unfortunately, I enjoyed this book less than Daly’s previous two novels. For me, The Mistake I Made was high on the “ick” factor, with our protagonist Roz in just a bunch of awful situations. The beautiful backdrop of England’s Lake District (which also features Daly’s other novels) was not enough to lift the pall of desperation that lay heavy on this story.
On the plus side, The Mistake I Made Was gripping and held my attention. On the minus side, the novel made me feel stressed rather than offering excitement or escapism. (In this way, tonally, it reminded me of The Girl on The Train, by Paula Hawkins.)
Ultimately, several weeks after finishing the novel, I find myself unable to recall much more than the introduction featured on Goodreads and NetGalley.

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Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense (August 11, 2015) by Julia Heaberlin

Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of SuspenseBlack-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense by Julia Heaberlin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense, by Julia Heaberlin, is a book which was both more, and less, than I had anticipated.
This thriller is compared (as is everything else these days, insomuch as the comparison now seems almost meaningless) to the novels of Gillian Flynn. It is also compared to the novels of Laura Lippman.
I’m a fan of both Flynn and Lippman, but I think they write very different kinds of novels.
In this case, I think that both comparisons were apt, and it is in part because Black-Eyed Susans does have similarities to the work of two dissimilar authors that it is not entirely successful.
Black-Eyed Susans has a wonderful sense of place; it is set in Texas, which author Heaberlin clearly knows intimately and loves. In this way, Black-Eyed Susans reminded me of the southern-gothic atmosphere that Flynn crafts so well.
However, Black-Eyed Susans is much less dark in tone than Flynn’s novels. Instead, it feels wholesome in the same way that Lippman’s mysteries do. In the end, Black-Eyed Susans felt like a psychological-thriller that chickened out when it came to going to any truly “dark places.”
In a nutshell, here are a few other things that really stood out to me about Black-Eyed Susans:
I loved how Heaberlin included facts and idiosyncrasies about the Texas justice system. Her depiction of the death penalty in Texas was both enlightening and disturbing, an intimate look at what the town of Huntsville, with its “death house,” is really like.
Heaberlin’s description is based on research and interviews with experts (police, forensics experts, defense attorneys, advocates) and the novel never seems voyeuristic. Instead, in Black-Eyed Susans, Heaberlin gives insight into a powerful, disturbing reality that most of us know little about.
What I didn’t like as much was the way Heaberlin worked out the part of the plot which centered around our unreliable narrator Tessa’s buried memories.
The story flips between Tessa as an adult, counting down the days to her convicted “monster’s” execution, and her memories from childhood, as she first recovered from being assaulted by a serial killer. In the end, I found the explanation of what really happened to Tessa to be a bit of a letdown. The resolution detracted from the power of some earlier scenes in the novel.
Also, I was disappointed that the “fairytale” element of the story was never fully developed.
Ultimately, I think Heaberlin had two or three separate (and very intriguing) ideas for the type of story she wanted to tell. I hope as she continues writing, she develops more tonal clarity and confidence.
I highly recommend Black-Eyed Susans, especially for the fascinating peek into forensics, DNA, and the criminal justice system today. And I think many readers, will, like I did, really enjoy some of the wonderful and complex main characters, like Tessa, her daughter Charlie, their eccentric neighbor Effie, and the team of advocates who made them, and me as a reader, see the world in a new way.
Thank you to the publisher through NetGalley for my arc of Black-Eyed Susans: a Novel of Suspense. This review also appears on Goodreads and Facebook.

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