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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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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The Predictions (May 5, 2015) by Bianca Zander

The PredictionsThe Predictions by Bianca Zander

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have contradictory feelings about this novel by author Bianca Zander.
British-born Zander has lived in New Zealand for 20 years, where she is a creative-writing lecturer and recipient of writing awards and bursaries. In The Predictions, she spins a tale that spans the globe from New Zealand to Great Britain.
The Predictions is the story of Poppy, a young woman growing up in a commune called Gaialands in New Zealand in the 1970’s.
Part of what I didn’t like about The Predictions was the way in which it was narrated; Poppy tells us the story of her life in linear fashion, as if she is writing her memoir. The narrative style gives the story a sense of already having been completed and thus set in stone. This diminished my emotional engagement with the characters.
The memoir style also meant that Poppy tells us about her life in hindsight, which serves to distance her from her own experiences. As she reflects on her life, she judges people and interprets events in a way which sometimes feels didactic and self-satisfied.
Although Poppy encounters many diverse situations and types (“types” being an operative word here) of people in her life, she herself begins and ends the novel as much the same person.
Finally, I think it’s worth noting that The Predictions ends with Poppy in her 30’s. As the novel concludes, we very much get the sense that Poppy has completed her life arc…her biggest troubles and struggles are behind her. As a reader, I wasn’t satisfied or impressed by this.
What I did like about The Predictions was that it was an interesting story, with settings ranging from a commune in rural New Zealand to the heavy metal/glam rock scene in London in the 1980’s, to women’s right’s marches. What I didn’t like was the perspective from which these potentially fascinating and complex situations were viewed.
Thank you to William Morrow Publishers for my review copy of The Predictions.

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Humber Boy B (April 1, 2015) by Ruth Dugdall

Humber Boy BHumber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A quick preface: I loved Ruth Dugdall’s first two novels published by Legend Press: The Woman Before Me, and The Sacrificial Man.
These novels feature probation officer Cate Austin, whose perceptions of guilt, evil, and the motivations behind criminal behavior are challenged as she takes on what she expects to be routine cases. Dugdall, like her main character, worked as a probation officer for many years, and now volunteers within the prison system in Luxemburg. Dugdall’s experiences lend authenticity to these first two narratives, and her characters are complex and emotionally compelling.
That said, when I received an arc of Humber Boy B from the publisher through NetGalley (big thanks!) I had extra high hopes for this novel.
Humber Boy B started out with an interesting premise. Eight years ago, two brothers were involved in the murder of their 10-year-old friend, Noah. In the present, the younger brother, now known as Humber Boy B by the media, and as Ben by the justice officials working with him, is being released from prison.
The hook is that Ben was convicted of murder at 10 years old, branded a child killer, and labeled evil. His crime, like others which Dugdall has written about, is one which society finds difficult to comprehend.
Cate Austin is the probation officer in charge of Ben’s case as he attempts to reintegrate into society. As the story begins, Cate (and the reader) wonders, what really happened on the day that Noah fell to his death from Humber Bridge? Why did Ben do it? And what’s going to happen now that Ben has legally served his sentence? Although the justice system says he has served his time, the people directly affected by Noah’s death may not be so willing to let Ben move on.
I was intrigued by the first few chapters of Humber Boy B. However, as the story went on, it failed to develop in a satisfying way. I’ve thought a lot about why Humber Boy B didn’t work for me.
Here are some of the main reasons:
First, the grammar and sentence structure were poor to the point that they became a barrier to my engagement with the story. I read a digital copy of the novel prior to its publication date of April 1, 2015. However, there was nothing I could find on the arc that described it as an uncorrected proof. Furthermore, the writing grew noticeably poorer as the novel went on, such that I wondered if Dugdall had been extremely rushed to finish the novel, or whether there had not been time to properly edit the entire thing.
I was also, unfortunately, disappointed with the development of the characters and plot. In an afterward to the novel, Dugdall writes that like her main character Cate Austin, she has wondered about the reasons that children commit murder. Dugdall states that she has “taken inspiration from the young men I met” while working with real-life offenders.
I admire and share Dugdall’s desire to comprehend this seemingly incomprehensible crime. However, I think her comments are telling, because ultimately, the character of Ben seemed like a mishmash of multiple people. His personality and motivations were never explained in a coherent or convincing manner. Humber Boy B offered various ideas about what contributes to this kind of tragedy, but it did not succeed in creating a particular, believable character. It seemed to me that ultimately, Dugdall was unable to answer her own question, so, as a reader, I felt let down.
Perhaps because of this, I felt that there was at times a preachy tone when Dugdall (through her characters) talked about who was really to blame, or who deserved the most sympathy, in tragedies of this kind. And finally, I felt uncomfortable with the relationship that begins to develop between Cate and Olivier, a detective who joins the case from Luxemburg. Cate struggles with her strong attraction to Olivier, despite the fact that he treats her in what she perceives as a sexist manner.
So, that’s my rather long, but honest, response to Humber Boy B. This novel didn’t work for me, but I would definitely recommend The Woman Before Me to anyone interested in reading Ruth Dugdall for the first time.

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Wildalone (January 6, 2015) by Krassi Zourkova

Wildalone: A Novel

Wildalone: A Novel by Krassi Zourkova

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thank you to William Morrow for my advanced reader’s edition of Wildalone, by Krassi Zourkova.

I have so much to say about Wildalone.
I’ll begin with what got me interested in the novel in the first place – the promotions describing this debut as a “bewitching blend of Twilight, The Secret History, Jane Eyre, and A Discovery of Witches.”
This description confused the heck out of me, because I was not a fan of Twilight. On the other hand, I loved The Secret History, when I read it 10 years ago. The gothic darkness of Jane Eyre tempts me, and A Discovery of Witches was one of those books that theoretically I should have loved, but which just didn’t compel me.
To me, the novels above all seem very, very different, and like they would appeal to distinct audiences.
The second thing about Wildalone which interested me is that Krassi Zourkova is from Bulgaria, and includes the myths of her country in this novel. I love reading about cultures I am unfamiliar with, so this aspect of Wildalone intrigued me.
The first several chapters of Wildalone in fact mirror Krassi Zourkova’s own life, in that she attended Princeton, and shares the main character Thea’s interest in art history. I was fascinated by the cultural aspect of Wildalone…seeing things through the perspective of someone newly arrived in the United States, at just about the same time I was going to college.
I was also especially interested in the narrator’s insights, because I had a Bulgarian acquaintance in high school. Many of Thea’s thoughts were in alignment with those I recall hearing from my high school friend, and so for me, Wildalone had an authentic resonance.
However, I will say that this was one book in which I thought an awful lot about the author/narrator crossover…how much is this really Thea talking, and how much is actually Krassi? In a way, this made reading the story difficult for me when Thea began to behave in ways that I found frustrating, or expressed opinions which I had issues with.
If I had thought of Thea as clearly a fictional character, it would have been easier for me to place her in a literary world and not feel like her views were being shoved on me. But as it was, some of the opinions she expressed about romance, stalking, and relationship dynamics made me uncomfortable.
Now to the nitty-gritty of the plot-the good and the bad-without giving away any spoilers!
Wildalone begins with our heroine, Thea, arriving in Princeton on a music scholarship. She leaves two loving parents back in Bulgaria, and, in coming to Princeton, is following in the footsteps of another Bulgarian girl, who attended the university 15 years earlier, and was found dead on campus. I’m being specifically vague here, as a big part of the mystery revolves around this girl, and what she means to Thea.
In short order, Thea meets two men, who both fall madly, instantly, passionately in love with her.
Here’s the Twilight part of the novel; we’ve got Rhys, gorgeous, obsessive, moody, with a potential for violence, and we’ve got Jake, gorgeous, obsessive, quiet, gentle. Who will Thea choose? Also, there is Ben (who I was secretly rooting for) the balanced, steady, sweet, friend who is always there for Thea, until she runs away from him to have passionate adventures with Rhys or Jake.
Also, Thea is searching for what really happened to the Bulgarian girl who looks just like her, and who disappeared 15 years before.
Also, Thea is investigating this weird mystery involving Greek legends, Orpheus, daemons, maenads, and the Underworld. This is encouraged by her art history professor, Giles, who to my mind is inappropriate in his interest in Thea.
Also, Thea, as an uber-talented pianist, is practicing Chopin, and then Albeniz, for major recitals that she is (somewhat inexplicably) given the opportunity to perform in.
And did I mention that this whole time, Thea is going to parties with her RA and new college friends, traveling to the Hamptons with Rhys, and taking a full load of classes? She’s a very busy girl.
Ultimately, for me, Wildalone was just too much. There was beautiful description, but there was so darn much of it.
The best things about Wildalone were:

1. The interesting cultural perspective that Thea had regarding attending Princeton, as well as the insight she shared into life in Bulgaria.
2. Some of the description. There’s no doubt that Krassi Zourkova can create a sense of place. I also really enjoyed her descriptions of Chopin and Albeniz…giving new perspective to interpretations of music. Except that it kept going, and going….

What frustrated me about Wildalone:
1. The characters. This, for me, was the Twilight part… basically picture Bella, Edward, and Jake, a few years older, and with a lot more sex, and you’ve got Wildalone.
2. The attitudes towards sex, romantic relationships, true love, obsession, stalking. In brief, Thea tells us that in Bulgaria, there is not a word for stalking, and that what her concerned RA sees as worrying behavior from Rhys seems romantic to her. I tended to agree with the RA.
I would never, ever, date Rhys. I would probably never date Jake. Also, I would never, ever have dated Edward in Twilight. So I guess, depending on your preferences/viewpoints, you may either find the romance in Wildalone sexy and passionate, or it may just make you angry.
3. The too-muchness. There was everything in this novel. Music, art (painting, pottery, architecture), poetry, Greek myths, Bulgarian myths, astronomy and how it related to myths, secret codes in old texts and how it related to myths. I love each of these things, but they were all happening together, all over the place. And it was all described at length. It made everything lose impact, because it seemed like everything was gorgeous, there were no rules, anything at all could, and did happen. When everything is happening, then nothing really seems that incredible.
4. So I got tired. I got tired of the constant beauty, riches, sex, perfection.
5. And, when the book finally ended at page 374, I thought, “wait a sec!? Is this the first in a series?!!!” Because Wildalone did not end with any kind of a real resolution. There was a bit of explanation, inexplicably offered by one character at the end of the novel. But the action itself, and primarily, Thea’s love life, was not resolved. I didn’t even understand what she was doing at the end.
Wildalone left me lost. And worn out. There were a lot of things to enjoy about it, but ultimately, I was left with a feeling that nothing had really made much sense, that I really disliked several of the main characters, that I disagreed with the main character’s ideas, and that I had been shown a lot of flash, but not a lot of brilliance.

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I listened to the audio version of Station Eleven, read by Kirsten Potter.
I had high expectations going in, as the book came recommended by friends and in reviews. But especially on the heels of reading The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey, which blew my socks off, I found Station Eleven to be a bit of a let down.
What you should know, if you’re thinking of reading it:
Station Eleven is much more a story about people’s lives intertwining, than it is about exploring their lives in a specific, imagined, post-epidemic future.  This is not a bad thing, but what it means is that Station Eleven is
more a work of fiction, than it is a work of science fiction or suspense.
However, this said, Station Eleven left me curiously unmoved, feeling kind of flat. The structure of the novel, which includes looping flashbacks and perspective shifts, didn’t work for me. I believe the author meant to use this structure in order to show how everyone’s lives “interlock,” which I believe she mentions at one point. But the way this was done merely served to keep me from identifying strongly with anyone in the novel.
Also, rather than using this flashback/perspective shift structure to reveal new opinions and viewpoints, the author instead often ended up repeating the same facts multiple times. For example, several different characters described the same, unusual crossbow. The repetition added a Groundhog-Day element to the story, and was not necessary to clarify what was going on.
One clearly spelled-out theme in Station Eleven is the Star Trek quote, “survival is insufficient.” This quote is written on the caravans of the traveling symphony, which performs for the survivors of the post-apocalyptic world of the novel.
Unfortunately, the ideas presented regarding art and survival never crystallized in a powerful way. Station Eleven ended without a sense of completion, or of something new shared, or realized.
Although Station Eleven contained some beautiful scenes, it left me ultimately uninspired.

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Rooms by Lauren Oliver

RoomsRooms by Lauren Oliver

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

The more I read, the harder I find it to rate novels. The biggest challenge for me comes in the 3-4 star range, in which, there are books which are engaging reads, but which I’m also aware aren’t necessarily well written.
Also falling within this 3-4 star range are books in which I feel like the author has talent, and is trying to achieve something out of the ordinary, but which don’t fully succeed.
Rooms, an adult novel by author Lauren Oliver, was difficult for me to rate for these reasons. It was an engaging read; it kept my attention and the pages seemed to go quickly. But, I felt overwhelmed by all the perspectives, characters, “rooms,” mysteries….It was all very interesting, and at times the writing was beautiful, but I’m not sure that Rooms worked together for me as a powerful, cohesive whole.
There are scenes, such as those featuring sex addict and struggling single mother, Minna, which have strong emotional resonance. Minna’s self-destructive tendencies, combined with her insight that her decent high-school boyfriend (who refuses to submit to her sexual advances) might be just who she needs, are compelling and tragic. I wanted to know what would happen to Minna, and felt disappointed that her story was more fully explored.
I found some of the other characters’ stories to be less convincing. Rooms included just about every “big issue,” from domestic violence, to extramarital affairs, to car accidents, suicide, teen angst and alcoholism (plus others which I won’t mention as they would be spoilers). I think perhaps having so many characters, with so many problems, meant that each “big” issue lost impact.
This is the first novel I’ve read by Lauren Oliver, who has written several extremely popular young-adult novels (which I understand also deal with “big” issues). At times, I wondered what distinguished this novel as an “adult” story.  That is actually a question I would like to ask the author, as well as other readers who enjoy the blossoming young-adult genre.
Another thing which I found off-putting about Rooms was the author’s use of swearing and graphic descriptions of bodily functions in a way that seemed intended to shock the reader. I have no problem with swearing, or gritty descriptions as such. But you know how when some people swear, it seems put on, or forced, like a performance? This was how the swearing and crude toilet descriptions and metaphors came across in Rooms. These things seemed juvenile and out of place in a novel about longing, regret, and release.
Rooms reminded me in some ways of the recently published, A Sudden Light, by Garth Stein. Both feature haunted houses and dysfunctional families, and deal with the secrets of the past. I found Rooms to be less frustrating than A Sudden Light because it seemed less judgmental and didactic. But while I found the myriad of human stories in Rooms interesting, I’m not sure that I felt satisfied at the end of the novel. Rooms was an entertaining book, but I don’t know that it will stick with me, or change the way I view the world.

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