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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Dark Rooms (March 3, 2015) by Lili Anolik

Dark RoomsDark Rooms by Lili Anolik

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Thank you to William Morrow for my advance reader’s edition of Dark Rooms, by Lili Anolik.
Dark Rooms has been variously promoted as a combination of Twin Peaks, Megan Abbott, and The Secret History. To me, these descriptions didn’t fit the book, and so, I felt disappointed.
There is a little of the wonderful creepy, quirky, hallucinatory quality of Twin Peaks, especially in one scene at the end of the novel, but the strangeness that made Twin Peaks so unique is
lacking in Dark Rooms.
In the same way, Dark Rooms can be compared on the surface to the subject of Megan Abbott’s novels-the social lives of teenage girls-but whereas Abbott’s writing style is visceral and impressionistic, Dark Rooms was told in a much more straight-forward writing style. Megan Abbott describes the sex, jealousy, and cruelty of adolescence in a way that is unsettling and powerful. Lili Anolik used actions, rather than hinting at the deep, shadowy, feelings behind them, to tell her story. And, as to The Secret History comparisons, all I can say is that both novels take place in schools on the East Coast of the United States, and contain characters who do “shocking” things. The gothic mystery of The Secret History is absent in Dark Rooms. In fact, if anything, I am surprised at how little the author of Dark Rooms took advantage of what could have been a gothic setting; attending a private prep school next to a graveyard has never felt so prosaic!
Ultimately, I did not connect strongly with any of the characters. I wanted to root for the narrator, Grace, as well as to Damon, her partner in trying to solve the mystery of her sister’s death.
But they both acted, (or thought) in ways that seemed slightly sociopathic- not all the time, but enough that I just couldn’t fully empathize with them.
In the end, Dark Rooms was readable. It just wasn’t any of the things I had hoped it would be, and, a few days after finishing it, I find myself forgetting it. Dark Rooms is the kind of novel I’d recommend reading on a plane or while waiting for a doctor’s appointment. It’s easy to lose yourself in, but not something you’ll miss if you get distracted.

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One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis (US Release 27 January 2015)

One Step Too FarOne Step Too Far by Tina Seskis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thank you to William Morrow publishers for this wonderful debut novel by author Tina Seskis.
The following review will be, to the best of my ability, spoiler free.
One Step Too Far is a thriller that manages to be exciting, escapist, and compulsively readable, as well as well-written, subtly plotted, and touching. It surpassed my expectations of a run-of-the mill domestic-noir novel, and instead, left me impressed and moved.
Here’s what you should know about One Step Too Far if you’re considering reading it:
The first chapter is written in the first person, and after reading only that, I was concerned that I was in for just another vague, amateurish attempt at a mind-trip, of the type which have been abundant in the wake of Gone Girl.
However, happily, I turned the page on chapter one, and continued reading chapter two, which shifts perspective, and time, into the past. Immediately, we are drawn into the middle-class, 1970’s, brown-carpeted world of Frances, a wife and mother in the process of giving birth for the first time. The shift to the third person also came with a shift in writing style, and all of a sudden, I felt like the IQ of the novel had gone way up.
Without being at all derivative, the writing reminded me of that of Kate Atkinson. Tina Seskis captures the foibles, humor, and tragedy that combine in our lives as human beings.
From here on out in the story, Seskis moves in and out of different perspectives and time periods, but I continued to be impressed and enchanted by her narrative voice.
One Step Too Far is a lot of things. It is, of course, a thriller with a big plot twist which took me completely by surprise. It is also a novel filled with subtle dark humor, especially at the beginning of the novel. As the novel progresses, it is very much a drama and character study of one woman’s choices, her experiences, and how she copes and moves through the world. It is a novel which is absorbing in its gritty descriptions of poverty, as well as the glitz of wealth and privilege. Towards the end of the novel, as the twist is revealed, there is tragedy and grief, and eventually, a sense of catharsis. The pacing is not always even. For example, the last couple of chapters confused me as the narrative abruptly jumped ahead years into the future.
In this way, One Step Too Far is not a perfect novel. But it is immensely enjoyable, it is well written, absorbing, and it has a soul.
As a side-note, Tina Seskis mentions in an afterword that she wrote this novel compulsively in the last few months of her mother’s life. Her mother read the novel as it was written, and Tina Seskis dedicated One Step Too Far to her.
One Step Too Far is a novel that is clearly written from a place of passion. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to reading more from the creative mind of Tina Seskis.

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Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American FortuneEmpty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I would like to thank Goodreads first-reads program for my review copy of Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.
Empty Mansions is a meticulously researched nonfiction book that also manages to be fascinating and thought-provoking.
Coauthored by journalist Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr., Empty Mansions recounts the life of heiress Huguette Clark, born in 1906 to the copper baron and multimillionaire William Andrews Clark. The story of the Clark fortune is interesting in part because until recently, it was lost to history. Although W.A. Clark was the contemporary of businessmen like Rockefeller and Carnegie, the way he chose to structure his empire, as well as the actions of his descendants, mean that the great fortune of the copper king has diminished over time.
So Empty Mansions is partly a story about history; it chronicles the life of W.A. Clark, a pioneer and advocate of the American dream, who moved west from humble beginnings in Pennsylvania to make his fortune in copper in Butte, Montana.
W.A. was born in 1839, when the long-distance telegraph was still a recent achievement, and the Lewis and Clark expedition an inspiration as the young boy’s bedtime stories. In his lifetime, W.A. would participate in the American gold rush, lose relatives on the Titanic, and experience the first World War. W.A.’s daughter, Huguette, lived to be 105, and thus, in her lifetime, she was witness to such disasters as the Santa Barbara Earthquake of 1925, World War II, and world politics leading up to 9-11, not far from where she lived in New York. Between W.A. and Huguette, the reader is given a personal account of nearly 200 years of history.
As well as being a story with global reach, Empty Mansions is also a personal tale. It follows the Clark family, showing how they created, and were shaped by, great wealth. Huguette, in particular, became a recluse, withdrawing almost completely from society after her marriage in 1928. Though she would live for over 80 more years, her honeymoon photo would be the last public image of her displayed while she was alive.
Although Huguette retreated to her opulent New York City apartment, and then, for her final years, to a hospital room, she continued to maintain meaningful human contact with close friends, her lawyers, nurses, and a few select relatives. She was shy; she chose to remain hidden, but she lived an full life nonetheless.
Huguette was first and foremost an artist, obsessed, from childhood onwards, with dolls and dollhouses. She later became fascinated with Japanese culture, as well as with the French fairytales of her childhood. She commissioned detailed and accurate dollhouses of scenes from stories and from history, and took great pleasure in designing these beautiful things. Huguette was also an accomplished painter, and a lover of music.
Through interviews with people who knew her (many of whom had never met her in person) the authors put together a comprehensive picture of Huguette’s life. Empty Mansions is nonfiction, but as the authors suggest, there is so very much material that they are able to work with, in the form of photos, letters, bank statements, and interviews, that this book is able to evoke a very real sense of Huguette as a person.
Moreover, the records that the authors used often speak for themselves in intriguing, and sometimes, disturbing, ways. As can be expected, as the heiress of an immense fortune, Huguette was attended throughout her life by businesspeople, physicians, nurses, friends, and family, whose motives have sometimes been called into question. Huguette gave huge monetary gifts to her longtime nurse, Hadassah Peri, writing her checks for thousands of dollars sometimes more than once a day. She was also repeatedly importuned by hospital officials to donate vast sums of money in ways which have been interpreted by some as close to blackmail.
Finally, at 456 pages long, this hefty tome also contains a variety of photos, and copies of letters and interviews. As a side note, the audio version of this book contains recorded telephone interviews between Huguette and her cousin, co-author Paul Newell. These extras in the written book, as well as the audio version, add insight into Huguette’s life, and into history.
In the end, I really enjoyed reading Empty Mansions, in part, because it gave me a fascinating, “insider’s” view, into almost 200 years of American history. But even more than that, I appreciated reading about Huguette herself. This woman, quiet, shy, and unique, was an heiress to one of the greatest fortunes in American history. But she was also, separately from that, a very special person. Her letters, her art, and the memories of those who knew her, demonstrate that she was kind, passionate about art, appreciative of beauty, interested in the world around her, and deeply connected to those whom she trusted and loved. I am glad that Huguette’s story has been recorded. While the Clark family fortune made may fade, Empty Mansions means that Huguette Clark will be remembered.

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Kilmoon (18 March 2014) by Lisa Alber

Kilmoon, A County Clare MysteryKilmoon, A County Clare Mystery by Lisa Alber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received an arc from the author in exchange for an honest review. Here are my thoughts on Kilmoon, the debut novel in the County Clare mystery series by Lisa Alber.
Like good Irish whiskey, Kilmoon is an acquired taste. It is complex, subtle, with hidden depths, but it may not be for everyone.
Kilmoon tells the story of Merrit Chase, a troubled young woman who travels to Ireland to investigate her family roots after suffering through the protracted death of her stepfather in America. In Ireland, Merrit hopes to meet Liam, a famous matchmaker. Each year, Liam presides over a popular festival each year in which he is known to have almost a supernatural ability to pair up couples.
When Merrit arrives in the small village in County Clare which is Liam’s home, she encounters a cast of complex characters, many of whom hold secrets to her own mysterious past. As Merrit gets to know the people in the village, the gentle drunk Marcus, the hot-headed but loyal Kevin, the honorable but torn Garda officer Danny, and the opportunistic “Lonnie the lovely,” she becomes embroiled in a web of lost love, deceit, and murder.
That said, the plot of Kilmoon, while complex and well-written, is not the most memorable feature of the book. What really stood out to me was author Lisa Alber’s unique voice, and the way in which she captures an Irish sense of place. I was amazed to find that Lisa Alber is in fact an American who has traveled frequently to Ireland, as her writing would have led me to assume she was a native to that country.
That being said, as a US reader, I often found the dialogue between characters difficult to understand. Furthermore, I was surprised by the tone of the story; I had expected there to be more of an enchanting or alluring atmosphere in the small village in County Clare, but instead, I found myself repelled by the constant drinking and scatological references made by the characters.
I was surprised by how unappealing Merrit’s experiences in County Clare seemed. The location should have had all the elements of a gorgeous and mystical sense of place; there was the crumbling old church of Kilmoon, an annual matchmaking festival, and the location itself, a small community in a beautiful area near the west coast of Ireland. Yet somehow, the focus of the mystery remained mostly on slimy characters and broken relationships.
As a comparison, two other books I have read recently that I felt capture a sense of Ireland (albeit in a different way) were The Likeness by Tana French, and The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan. In both of those novels, I was impressed by the way in which the dialogue gave me a strong sense of a uniquely Irish mentality, in a way which I felt went beyond stereotypes. In The Likeness, I wanted to live in the world that French created, while in The Spinning Heart, despite the struggles of the characters suffering in the post Celtic Tiger economy, I was able to relate to their frustration. However, for most of Kilmoon, I literally felt like the characters and their world-view made me less inclined to visit Ireland.
All that said, as the disparate threads of the story came together in the final chapters of the novel, I gained new respect for the way in which the author had injected some emotional depth into the mystery. I felt more compassion towards the characters as more of their pasts were revealed.
In the end, Kilmoon was absolutely not what I had expected. It was not sweet, not charming, not gentle, and definitely not a “cozy” mystery. It was also not a pure whodunit, and although I would say that it was character-based, it did not go deeply into the psychology of its characters. All that said, Kilmoon was never generic, and it was written with a distinctive and assured voice. I was genuinely surprised to find that this was the author’s debut novel.
I think there is no doubt that author Lisa Alber has talent. Kilmoon is a novel that will appeal to some readers, but not to everyone. I will be interested to see the insight and reactions that others have to this well-written, unique novel.

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The Girl with a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson

The Girl with a Clock for a HeartThe Girl with a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you are thinking about reading this book, please, please, don’t read any of the summaries floating around, because they give away important plot twists.
That said, I would recommend The Girl with a Clock for a Heart to anyone who enjoys thrillers with a bit of action, romance, and atmosphere. This debut novel does all these things adequately, but, given the high praise it has received from writers like Wiley Cash and Dennis Lehane, as well as being described as having “shades of Hitchcock,” I was a little disappointed by what to me was simply a passable thriller. I think that perhaps the superlative praise used in promotion of this novel led me to have high expectations which unfortunately, were not fulfilled.
The Girl with a Clock for a Heart follows the relationship between George, an ordinary, good guy, and the mysterious and beautiful Liana, his onetime college girlfriend who he lost, but has never forgotten. When Liana reappears unexpectedly in George’s life 20 years after he last saw her and asks him for help, he is irresistibly drawn into her dangerous world.
The story takes place in Boston and Florida, and I enjoyed the author’s descriptions of the steamy summertime, of dark old pubs, and of abandoned, creepy, houses buzzing with flies. At times, the descriptions reminded me of a movie (which I think this book could be very successfully adapted into) such as Along Came a Spider. As well as the strong sense of place, the author also creates a well-paced story that is never boring.
However, although, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart was a fun, effortless read, unfortunately, for me, it was nothing more than that. I was especially disappointed by the character of Liana, who was billed as being a deeply mysterious, complex, femme fatal, but who didn’t seem to me much more than a troubled and selfish woman. She wasn’t especially brilliant or conniving. So the relationship between George and Liana wasn’t psychologically compelling for me. Secondly, after seeing the novel described as “electrifying,” “twisty,” and “nonstop,” I found myself waiting in frustration for a big reveal that never materialized. And third, some of the scenes, while enjoyable, reminded me so much of blockbuster thrillers, that I felt like what made the book work was more that the author was relying on tried and true genre tropes, rather than on new ideas.
So in the end, while there was nothing really wrong with The Girl with the Clock for a Heart, for me, it didn’t live up to the hype surrounding it. The plot was nothing exceptional, and the characters were not especially unique or complex. It was pleasant to read, but definitely not thrilling.
I would like to thank the publisher for my advance reader’s edition of The Girl with a Clock for a Heart.

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