The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad, #5)The Secret Place by Tana French
Published by Viking Adult

From the publisher:

Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

The level of excitement that I feel when Tana French publishes a new novel can’t quite be explained. I think she is so incredible, so thoughtful in her plotting and characterizations, so insightful with how she uses her characters and their motivations to tell a story, I can’t get enough of her.

There was so much about this book I loved. The fact that teenagers were in the spotlight here was something different from her previous novels and a welcome surprise. Who among us bookish people doesn’t appreciate a good boarding school drama? Although, to be honest, these teenagers certainly got on my last nerve more than once. Since I don’t have a teenager at home, I’m not as familiar with their particular mess of anxiety, self-hatred, overconfidence, bitchiness, etc., but friends of mine with teen daughters say that French was spot on with these girls.

I liked Stephen a lot and appreciated his relationship with Conway. I’m REALLY hoping Antoinette Conway gets to be the focus of French’s next book – while I liked Stephen, it’s possible I found her slightly more compelling than him. I liked how well French got Stephen’s personal feelings about Mackey and Mackey’s daughter mixed into this story and how it was clear that his relationship with Mackey was clouding his judgement about Holly. It was just enough to make me question a LOT of where my own head was at with this story.

In the end, the culprit was not the person I had guessed, but looking back it would have been easy to figure out if I was looking for the right clues. (And if I was even remotely good at guessing these things, when in fact I am not.) I loved The Secret Place, just as I’ve loved all of her novels, and even an imperfect Tana French is almost perfect for me. Highly recommended!

The Three by Sarah Lotz

The ThreeThe Three by Sarah Lotz
Published by Little, Brown and Company

From the publisher:

The world is stunned when four commuter planes crash within hours of each other on different continents. Facing global panic, officials are under pressure to find the causes. With terrorist attacks and environmental factors ruled out, there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the crashes, except that in three of the four air disasters a child survivor is found in the wreckage.

Dubbed ‘The Three’ by the international press, the children all exhibit disturbing behavioral problems, presumably caused by the horror they lived through and the unrelenting press attention. This attention becomes more than just intrusive when a rapture cult led by a charismatic evangelical minister insists that the survivors are three of the four harbingers of the apocalypse. The Three are forced to go into hiding, but as the children’s behavior becomes increasingly disturbing, even their guardians begin to question their miraculous survival…

The premise of The Three didn’t grab me like it did a lot of others, but when everyone and their mother began raving about it, I knew I had to get on board. I chose it for one of my book clubs – meeting later this week – because I thought it might generate some discussion and because everyone who loved it couldn’t possibly be wrong, right?

Right! I totally get why people loved this novel, and while I didn’t LOOOOVE it myself, I liked it a LOT. It’s the kind of book that is unputdownable, and I definitely raced through it as I desperately hoped for some answers as to why the heck these three kids survived, and just what exactly was behind these simultaneous plane crashes.

This is actually a story within a story, as the entire book is a book written by a fictional journalist, using interviews, newspaper articles, and other medium to create the full story of these plane crashes, subsequent investigations, and getting to know the families of the three children who survived. It’s kind of hard to explain, but it’s incredibly creative and I think the format worked really well.

Lots of people said they found this book creepy, and that wasn’t really the case for me, with the major exception of the very beginning, where one of the plane crashes is lived through in meticulous detail by someone who perished in that crash. The rest of the book wasn’t exactly scary, but it was tension-filled and had me on the edge of my seat. The kids were a little creepy, but actually the media hysteria and attention surrounding them was even more so. It caused me to really think about how strong of an impact the media has on our day-to-day lives and how the media can take one event and turn it into a complete circus – way, way more than necessary.

Unfortunately, I kind of hated the ending. I don’t always mind ambiguous endings but in this case I wanted more answers. I felt like the book was racing toward an actual conclusion and one wasn’t provided for the reader at all.

Overall – highly recommended! I couldn’t put this book down and I loved the creativity of the whole thing. While the ending left much to be desired, it was still a worthwhile read for me.

That Night by Chevy Stevens

That NightThat Night by Chevy Stevens
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Review copy provided by SheReads

From the publisher:

As a teenager, Toni Murphy had a life full of typical adolescent
complications: a boyfriend she adored, a younger sister she couldn’t relate to, a strained relationship with her parents, and classmates who seemed hell-bent on making her life miserable. Things weren’t easy, but Toni could never have predicted how horrific they would become until her younger sister was brutally murdered one summer night.

Toni and her boyfriend, Ryan, were convicted of the murder and sent to prison.

Now thirty-four, Toni is out on parole and back in her hometown, struggling to adjust to a new life on the outside. Prison changed her, hardened her, and she’s doing everything in her power to avoid violating her parole and going back. This means having absolutely no contact with Ryan, avoiding fellow parolees looking to pick fights, and steering clear of trouble in all its forms. But nothing is making that easy—not Ryan, who is convinced he can figure out the truth; not her mother, who doubts Toni’s innocence; and certainly not the group of women who made Toni’s life hell in high school and may have darker secrets than anyone realizes. No matter how hard she tries, ignoring her old life to start a new one is impossible. Before Toni can truly move on, she must risk everything to find out what really happened that night.

But the truth might be the most terrifying thing of all.

I was a huge fan of Stevens’ first novel, Still Missing, but was less than thrilled with her second, Never Knowing, and didn’t even bother with her third. So I have to admit that I went into this novel with a bit of trepidation. But I have to say, That Night really impressed me – she’s completely back to the place she was at for her first novel, and I might have even liked this one better than Still Missing.

The thing about this book is that you go into it knowing that you have an unreliable narrator on your hands. Toni’s past isn’t the best, she’s made some serious mistakes, and the love of her life, Ryan, could possibly be a shady character. We have Toni’s memories, which color everything in her favor, although she does admit to being somewhat of a troubled teenager, and then we have the people around her who assumed she and Ryan were guilty based on their preconceived ideas of what kinds of people they were.

Even though I knew I couldn’t trust Toni, I wanted so desperately to believe her from the very beginning. I just couldn’t let myself believe that she would do such a horrible thing and I had my fingers crossed throughout the entire novel for her to find the real killer and get the opportunity to clear her name. I kept going back and forth in my mind as to whether I could really trust her story or if she was playing me, the reader, for a fool the whole time. The book takes a ton of twists and turns and while I didn’t guess the ending, it was one of those “aha” moments for me and things finally clicked into place. It made so much sense and I loved how Stevens took me on this wild ride and delivered a shocking, but perfect, answer to all of the questions I had along the way.

I’m not sure that Stevens meant for this to happen, but That Night does an excellent job showing just how difficult it is for ex-cons to make any kind of lives for themselves after their sentences are over. Also, it illuminates the fact that once you are labeled something in life, it’s extremely difficult to get out from under that label and make something of yourself. Every single time Toni had something good going for her, her past would rear its ugly head and find a way to drag her down. People would frame her for things and accuse her of things, and immediately it was assumed she was guilty because of her past. It made me stop and think – this is how we treat people who have been convicted of crimes, or even suspected of crimes – crimes they may not have even committed. I know this is a thriller and not a social commentary, but it was a surprisingly interesting element of the novel for me.

Anyway, I was thoroughly impressed with That Night and I’m once again a fan of Chevy Stevens. Highly recommended!

This House is Haunted by John Boyne

This House is HauntedThis House is Haunted by John Boyne
Published by Other Press

From the publisher:

Written in Dickensian prose, This House Is Haunted is a striking homage to the classic nineteenth-century ghost story. Set in Norfolk in 1867, Eliza Caine responds to an ad for a governess position at Gaudlin Hall. When she arrives at the hall, shaken by an unsettling disturbance that occurred during her travels, she is greeted by the two children now in her care, Isabella and Eustace. There is no adult present to represent her mysterious employer, and the children offer no explanation. Later that night in her room, another terrifying experience further reinforces the sense that something is very wrong.

From the moment Eliza rises the following morning, her every step seems dogged by a malign presence that lives within Gaudlin’s walls. Eliza realizes that if she and the children are to survive its violent attentions, she must first uncover the hall’s long-buried secrets and confront the demons of its past. Clever, captivating, and witty, This House Is Haunted is pure entertainment with a catch.

I don’t read ghost stories all that often, but when I do, I need them to also have good writing and well-written characters I connect with, otherwise I’ll simply get scared and want to put the book in the freezer indefinitely. I was super excited upon picking up this book and reading the first ten pages or so, as I discovered that This House is Haunted has both of those things. I was captivated by Eliza from the very instant I met her, and I absolutely loved Boyne’s writing – even though I anticipated hating it as I didn’t think Dickensian prose did anything for me – so while this book wasn’t perfect overall, it was perfect for me.

The fact that the creep-factor in this novel starts before Eliza even gets to the house added to my enjoyment of the book. Right from the start, I knew I was in for a sinister, twisty novel that wouldn’t provide easy answers. The kids are super strange and Isabella especially is like something out of Children of the Corn. Just NOT normal. I was pulled into This House is Haunted so quickly that I read this book in pretty much one sitting, racing through the pages to find out what exactly is haunting this house and why. And WHY on earth were these parentless children so freaking strange?

I read this for one of my book clubs and not everyone enjoyed it as much as I did. A few of us felt that the ghost story part was too obvious, too contrived, that Boyne did way too much explaining, especially toward the end. Not everyone likes their ghost stories to make sense, I suppose. I totally get that – and I agree – but since I read so few of these kinds of books, when the writing is this good and the characters as interesting, I don’t really care. So the lack of ambiguity didn’t bother me one bit.

Oh! And I loved that just when I thought things were wrapped up in a neat little bow at the end, BAM! – so not the case. Boyne made me want a sequel!

I really liked This House is Haunted and can definitely recommend it. Highly entertaining, is what this novel is.

Mini-reviews – wrapping up 2013 reading part 2

And here are the final four books I read this year and haven’t reviewed.

The LowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri – I absolutely loved Lahiri’s short story collections and her first novel, The Namesake, so I was beyond excited for this one. The writing is just as gorgeous as I knew it would be, and she sure can tell a story about strained family dynamics. It gave me a glimpse into politics in India in the 1960′s, a place and time I know very little about. As I was reading, I felt deeply connected to the characters, to these two brothers who were so close as children but grew so far apart in adulthood. The novel is brimming with tragedies, but it never felt heavy-handed, it felt like a true family saga in which the family is struck with bad luck, bad choices, and inability to find peace. I loved The Lowland even though it didn’t quite live up to her earlier books for me – I still gave it five stars! That should tell you how much this author can do no wrong in my eyes.

Allegiant (Divergent, #3)Allegiant by Veronica Roth – This was one of my most highly anticipated books of this year and overall I did like it. I found the plot to be a bit meandering at times in the middle but the end was satisfying. A lot of people didn’t like the way Roth chose to end the series but I personally thought it was absolutely perfect. After closing the book, I just can’t imagine another way she could have resolved things for these characters. I’m really looking forward to the movie series now!

The Silent WifeThe Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison – This was a book club pick and one I would have read anyway because I was so compelled by the premise. I was expecting to be taken for a ride and I was not disappointed. The one thing everyone at my book club could agree on was that we hated all of the characters. They are selfish, immature, and have zero redeeming qualities to speak of. But despite that I couldn’t put this book down. I read furiously til the end, desperate to know how things would turn out for these despicable people. And the ending was a complete shock and was kind of genius actually. I really liked this one.

Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow (Marie Antoinette, #2)Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow by Juliet Grey – This is a sequel to a book I really loved (Becoming Marie Antoinette) but I have to admit that this one disappointed me. Marie Antoinette came across as incredibly selfish, spoiled, caring little for the people around her and only seeking out her own pleasure. She was so detached from the realities of life beyond Versailles that truthfully it disgusted me. I gained a bit more interest when she begun having children but overall this book was not what I was hoping for. The final book in the trilogy was recently released and honestly I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to it.

Mini-reviews: The Preservationist and How to Be a Woman

I’m not reading a ton these days but I’m blogging even less, so if I ever plan to get through my backlog of unreviewed books I realized I need to start doing some more mini-reviews. So here are minis of a couple of the books I read in September! Stay tuned for more of these coming soon. :)

The Preservationist by Justin Kramon
Published by Pegasus
Review copy provided by the author

I absolutely loved Kramon’s first novel, Finny, so when he contacted me asking if I’d be interested in The Preservationist, I jumped at the opportunity, even though I’ve been accepting very few review copies lately. Kramon’s second novel is completely different from his first, and in a way that’s a good thing – it shows he has talent writing more than one kind of book, in fact this one is in a whole new genre (thriller). To be honest, though, this departure from what I loved about Kramon’s work was a slight disappointment for me – I adored his first book so much that I was looking forward to getting my brain back in that space. This novel did have some stuff going for it, though, as I found the atmosphere to be deliciously creepy, especially towards the end when things start getting crazy for our main character, Julia. Also, while I had a good idea about what was really going on with these two men in her life, Sam and Marcus, I was impressed by how Kramon handled working out all the details and how he brought the two together in a shocking, although not altogether surprising, conclusion. The very end was a bit of a surprise, and one that I quite liked in fact. Overall, while The Preservationist wasn’t exactly what I wanted to read from this beloved author, I still enjoyed it and will continue to be interested in his work.

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
Published by Harper Perennial

This book is more a personal feminist manifesto than anything else. Moran’s wit and sarcasm add just the right amount of humor and snark to what are, in most cases, incredibly serious subjects she’s discussing. I particularly appreciated the chapters on sexism and abortion. The book is packed with insightful observations on everything related to being female and being a feminist in today’s world. I listened to the audio of How to Be a Woman and it was fantastic. Moran narrates herself, so it’s as if she’s telling her thoughts and feelings directly to the reader. I highly recommend this unique feminist memoir and especially would recommend listening to the audio for a fabulous listening experience.

Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet

9780385347341Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet
Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours

Patrick Cusimano is not having an easy time of things as he enters his mid-twenties: he works the overnight shift at a shady convenience store, his father is in jail for murder, and suddenly he is finding himself obsessing over his older brother’s live-in girlfriend, Caro. In addition, seventeen-year-old goth girl Layla Elshere has decided to become his friend, a fact that Patrick knows is probably wrong (due to the age difference) but for whatever reason, he can’t shake this girl.

Layla’s younger sister, Verna, is having a terrible first year of high school – her older sister’s deviant ways and her parents’ ultra-conservative Christian teachings have combined to make Verna the most prime target for the bullies at her school. Unable to cope with the awful treatment Verna receives, she decides to get in with Layla’s circle of friends, and unfortunately she learns a bit too late that Layla’s choices are far darker than Verna had imagined. When Verna finally decides to disentangle herself from the group, things go from bad to much, much worse.

I was looking forward to reading this book because I thought it would be dark and twisty, exploring the relationships between these characters and their choices in a way that would be compulsively readable. I definitely got what I was looking for, but I have to tell you that Save Yourself was MUCH darker, and way twistier, than I had bargained for.

The thing about this book is that the characters are way f*ed up. WAY. Patrick is such a sad excuse for an adult – he has an awful-paying job that he hates, is forced to live with his brother (who has just as awful a job, which he also hates), and is basically letting the fact that his dad is in jail ruin his life. He is just an unhappy person who is simply existing, walking through life rather than actually living it.

Layla and Verna are also pretty messed-up, and a lot of that is due to their parents, which honestly is really sad. Layla was a “good kid” for a long time, until an extremely publicized incident made her turn completely the other direction. And Verna just made me so depressed – she wanted to follow her parents’ rules and do the right thing, but she was so tortured, so harassed, bullied so horribly, that the only thing she could think to do was to follow her sister’s lead. After all, Layla didn’t get bullied because she was a bad ass – so Verna thought she could do the same.

Reading Save Yourself is like watching a car wreck in slow motion – you know things are going to be absolutely horrific, there’s no possible way it can end well, but you just can’t look away and you HAVE to see how it all unfolds. There’s this huge sense of danger that you can literally feel as you read the book, this feeling that NO WAY can things possibly end up okay, and yet when you get to the final pages it’s still an incredibly shocking moment. One you think you will see coming, but really, it’s not possible to imagine this ending. It’s part genius, part crazy.

I definitely appreciated this novel but it was a little more than I was expecting. Things get really heavy, creepy in an insane way, and I just wasn’t expecting THIS. I would absolutely recommend Save Yourself for those who like thrillers, books with that “creep factor”, and if you can deal with the wild ride Braffet takes you on, books with well-drawn characters and great writing. Because Save Yourself has all of these things and more. I don’t know that I can say I liked the book, exactly, but my appreciation level for it is extremely high. Does that make sense?