Truly Devious

Rating: 
Author: Maureen Johnson
Genres: Mystery, Young Adult
Pub date: Jan. 2018 (read Dec. 2018)

Well this was a huge disappointment. I’ve heard pretty good things about Truly Devious on Booktube and I was really looking forward to reading it. I was expecting a bit of an Agatha Christie type mystery with the secluded setting and isolated cast of characters, but this book pretty much failed to deliver on almost every front in my opinion and was extremely disappointing.

Truly Devious is set at an elite boarding school in the mountains outside Vermont. The school was constructed and sponsored by Albert Ellingham, a wealthy businessman in the 1930’s. Students are not charged to attend the school, but they do have to go through a rigorous application process to be accepted for two years – their junior and senior years of high school. Unfortunately, the school has a bit of a dark history. Albert’s wife and daughter were kidnapped from the school in 1936 and a student was killed. While someone was prosecuted for the crime, many believe the real criminals were never caught and the crime never solved.

Stevie Bell is a crime aficionado and hopes to one day work in law enforcement. She has extensively studied the Ellingham murders and is accepted to Ellingham based on her interests. However, once there, strange events start to occur that Stevie believes may be connected to the original crime and she takes it upon herself to investigate.

My biggest problem with this book was that I thought it was very poorly plotted. It’s a book about murder, it should be engaging, but somehow the beginning is incredibly slow and it took about half the book for things to finally start to get interesting. The story is told in two timelines, jumping back and forth between 1936 and present day. The 1936 storyline is probably only about 20-30% of the book and takes you through some of the events of the original crime. Unfortunately though, I found this timeline REALLY boring. For some reason Johnson takes the whole book to reveal the extent of the original crime. I really don’t think this was effective because she forces you to read all these knit-picky accounts of what happened without really telling us what happened. I don’t care what the maid and the cook were up to because I don’t even know what really happened. Plus, in the current day story, everyone knows what happened and references it, but it’s just confusing because we don’t have all that much information about it.

Secondly, the current day plot is also really boring. The first 200 pages is pretty much just Stevie adjusting to life at Ellingham and nothing really gets going until about halfway through. We are introduced to the other characters and students at the school, but it’s really not very compelling until more mysterious stuff starts to happen. Plus, Stevie just felt really juvenille to me. I’ve been starting to think that I may finally be growing out of YA, but then a really great YA book will come along and remind me why anyone can love YA. But this reminded me a little bit of Ten by Gretchen McNeil (another YA mystery novel I read earlier this year) where I kind of just felt like I was reading about caricatures of teenagers.

Mostly I think this just wasn’t clever. I feel like Johnson tried to create a larger sweeping storyline and mystery (since this is going to be a multi-book series), but it didn’t work. The plotting just really failed for me. There’s two crimes going on simultaneously, as well as a ton of characters that act really suspiciously to make you wonder what they’re hiding. But at the end of the book, NEITHER of the crimes are solved. Look, I’m all for multi-book, ongoing plotlines, but you have to give us something in this book. There are tons of mystery series with ongoing character issues, but they at least address some of the crimes in each novel. I feel like Johnson tried to weave in some different mystery elements and things to wonder about, like Janelle’s missing pass and how there was something off about Hayes and David. But overall I thought the mystery was just lacking. There was no hook. We’re supposed to wonder about the 1930’s crime, but it really needed some kind of interesting hook to get you to care, and it didn’t have that. It really just read like a classic hostage/ransom situation and there was nothing that made me wonder how the culprit got away with it.

Likewise, Johnson came up with some small things on the modern day crime that clued Stevie in that there was something else going on and led her to an accusation, but again, I just didn’t think it was that clever and I wasn’t impressed with it. There are still just so many open-ended questions at the end of this book that I really wonder what even happened for 400 pages. The author didn’t really resolve any of the plot questions, everything was left open ended, even down to the riddle from Ellingham’s desk. It’s just very unsatisfying for a reader and makes me question why I wasted time reading 400 pages of nothing. The climax was weak and literally nothing is resolved. It felt like the book just ended when there should have been another 50 pages to clue up some plot points. I think it might come down to the fact that this is just not a strong enough mystery to suspend over multiple books. It’s not layered at all and I honestly just don’t care. Why bother? Do I want to know what happened? Yes, of course, but will I be reading a second book to find out? Not likely.

So overall I think it’s safe to say I didn’t like this one. In addition to the plot being weak, I thought the characterization was also weak. I don’t think Stevie really grew at all in this book and I didn’t really learn anything meaningful about any of the characters. David pissed me off the entire book. He was rude and I had whiplash from his constantly changing moods. Plus I thought the cliffhanger was dumb. What right does David ever have to be mad about anything Stevie has done when he’s sitting in a NEST OF LIES. Janelle and Nate were pretty much the only likeable characters.

Props to you if you liked this one, but I’ll be taking a pass on subsequent books. I’m between 1 and 2 stars with this one. I definitely didn’t like it, but I don’t like rating books 1 star unless they have some really problematic elements because hey, the author still wrote a whole book, which is a lot more than I can say.

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You

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Caroline Kepnes
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub date: Sep. 2014 (read Nov. 2018)

This book wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it is definitely unlike anything I’ve read before and I thought the author did a great job on blurring the lines of morality and exposing our human ability for empathy.

I was really intrigued about this book because I heard it was written in 2nd person and it’s not a POV that we often see. It didn’t have quite the same shock value I was anticipating because I was already expecting this to be creepy and it reminded me a little of JK Rowling’s, Career of Evil, which is partially told from the point of view of a serial killer. It also reminded me of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Both protagonists are obsessive and violent and have a very flawed way of looking at the world. But even though both of these books are told from the point of view of the villain, You definitely had a unique narrative style that I think was very effective in this story.

You tells the story of Joe Goldberg, a book seller who meets a woman named Beck in his shop and falls hard and fast for her. His whole world centers around Beck; he hacks her email and manipulates her and those around her in order to insert himself into her life. Joe’s voice is jarring and crude, but felt authentic. I’m curious what kind of research Kepnes did for this book because Joe definitely suffers from mental illness and I would like to know how she got into his mindset. Even though it’s crude, I say his voice is authentic because some of the things he says definitely mirrors some of the offensive things men say on the internet and in toxic tinder threads.

Joe eludes to another woman he’s been obsessed with in the past and it becomes obvious that he is extremely troubled and has stalked and hurt people before. He doesn’t have personal social media accounts, but he has learned how to manipulate other people’s accounts to discover disturbing amounts of information about them. Kepnes explores so many themes in this book, one of which being the way social media has transformed our lives and the inherent dangers of it.

Personally, I didn’t find the social media stalking that creepy, but I think that is probably a byproduct of having read this in 2018 as opposed to 2014 when it was originally published. Social media has really blurred the lines and changed what hasn’t always been considered appropriate social behaviour. It’s so easy now to cyber-stalk people that I think many of us don’t even really think twice about it. We’ve become accustomed to having instant access to information, and while most of us aren’t trying to figure out where people live so we can stalk them, I think the average person does a lot more creeping on others than say 10 years ago.

Social media has also normalized some pretty asshole-like behaviours. People feel bolder voicing their thoughts and opinions on the internet than they do in person and repeatedly seeing hurtful and violent opinions voiced on the internet emboldens other people to say more hurtful and violent things in turn. Internet trolls have made it the norm to harrass and bully people (disproportionately women) who threaten their way of life or thought. Suddenly it’s okay to send death threats to female gamers who call for better depictions of women in video games, or say hateful things about immigrants and refugees just trying to escape their unfortunate circumstances. Joe has come to believe that he is entitled to a relationship like those he has seen depicted in books and movies and that there is no consequence too high to achieve that relationship.

But I think the main theme Kepnes explores is our human nature to want to root for someone. It becomes increasingly clear to the reader that Joe is sick, and yet Kepnes somehow makes you care about him. It makes you wonder what that says about you as a person and how you can have anxiety about a stalker potentially getting caught! Part of you wants Joe to get caught with what he’s doing, you know it’s eventually inevitable, yet at the same time you’re like, ‘OMG Joe, how could you let it slip you know her favourite movie is Pitch Perfect, she’ll guess you’re cyber stalking her!’, ‘Don’t go into her apartment, what if you get caught!’, ‘Be careful around Peach’s beach house, they might see you!’ You simultaneously want him to get caught for the betterment of everyone involved, but at the same you worry for him….the crazy stalker.

The other thing I liked about this book is that Kepnes made her other characters incredibly flawed. I think this probably helped in our ability to empathize with Joe, but the fact that Beck, Peach, and Benji are all self-obsessed, toxic people too messes with your head even more. It would be easier to condemn Joe if they were all perfectly lovely people, but they are all extremely flawed to the point that you start understanding why Joe hates them all. They’re all pretty annoying and you find yourself wishing them out of the picture as well because they are foils to Joe and Beck’s happiness, but at the same time, you know none of their actions are justification for what Joe does to them. I thought Peach was an especially great character because she’s also super obsessed with Beck and is super dislikable, but she still stays firmly on the ethical side of the line. In the same way, Beck is also a very unlikable character, which makes it easier to empathize with Joe, which makes you think you’re going crazy to actually empathize with the stalker!

I can’t pinpoint exactly why I didn’t love this. I think it’s a pretty solid 3.5 stars, but I sometimes struggle with disturbing plots like this and I think that prevented me from loving it. I appreciate these kind of books because they make me think, but they also creep me out so much, especially when they mess with your mind.

I fully anticipated how this book would end, although I did really hope I would be wrong. Overall, I am impressed with the book, but I have no desire to see this series any further. I didn’t realize it had a second book until I was almost done this book (I thought Hidden Bodies was a completely unrelated novel), but I don’t think I can see this story through any farther. As sad as it was, I liked the ending of this book and I think You works well as a standalone.

I have my book club discussion of this book tomorrow and I suspect it is going to have mixed reviews, so I’m excited to see what the rest of my club thinks of this one!

Lethal White

Rating:
Author: Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub date: Sep. 2018 (read Oct. 2018)
Series: Cormoran Strike Book #4

Wow, I feel like I have been waiting for this book FOREVER… pretty much because I have been. I know Rowling’s busy making movies and writing plays, but I love her writing so much, I always crave more books from her (not screenplays – totally doesn’t not count in my opinion).

Okay, so I obviously loved this because I love everything Rowling writes and I’m obsessed with both Robin and Strike, but I do have one compliant about this novel. It’s nothing unexpected, but I’m kind of tired of Rowling’s style of mystery reveal. I do think she is genius at writing mystery. Harry Potter has some of the best mystery elements and I love the way Rowling can carry a story arc (and mystery plot) through several novels. Prisoner of Azkaban is the favourite book of so many Harry Potter fans and most of what it made it so beloved for me is Sirius’ storyline. Rowling does a wonderful job misleading us to his notoriety throughout the entire book, only to completely blow everyone’s minds with like 3 chapters of plots twists at the end.

I adore this structure in Prisoner of Azkaban and I liked it at the start of the Strike novels, but I find she relies heavily on this structure in all of her mysteries, with the exception maybe of Career of Evil, which I found very refreshing in that she only had 4 (I think?) suspects for the serial killer. Lethal White reminded me a little bit of The Silkworm in that I knew I was never going to guess the mystery. There’s such a large cast of characters and their relationships are so intertwined that I knew there was going to be a huge convoluted reveal at the end that I was never going to guess (same as The Silkworm). Because I knew this, I put little effort in trying to even guess at the mystery, which takes a bit of the fun out of it. I was never going to be able to guess this one and I was just a little tired of the format of the multi-chapter reveal at the end of the book. I wish Rowling would give us a little more to go on. She always indicates when Strike has a revelation, but she almost never reveals it, leaving us in suspense until the very last minute. I would rather experience the discoveries with Strike in real time. It still leaves room for last minute reveals of motivation, but I’d prefer to get bits and pieces of the puzzle throughout rather that as a huge info dump at the end of the novel. It doesn’t work that well in a 650 page novel because that’s a lot of mystery to try and keep your reader engaged in without ever throwing us a bone.

So that’s my beef with this novel and Rowling’s writing style in general, but let’s talk about what I like about this book, because there was a lot that I liked too. Disclaimer, there are minor spoilers ahead about some of the characters, but nothing about the mystery element.

First of all, I adore Robin and Strike, as individuals and as partners. In previous novels, Strike has been the one slowly falling apart, pushing himself too hard, failing to take care of himself, making desperate decisions and poor romantic choices. He still pushes himself too hard and is as emotionally unavailable as ever, but I feel like he finally got some of his shit together. He acknowledges that he’s a bit of an asshole and that he treats his body like shit – he even takes a case for monetary reasons instead of moral ones, but he ultimately is still looking for the good in people and to set things right by exposing the truth. He also acknowledges some of his repressed feelings for Robin and I liked that he really looked out for her and her best interests.

In contrast, Robin is the one falling apart in this book and it’s about damn time. I like Strike, but Robin is definitely my favourite character. I love her passion and compassion. She’s intelligent and clever and I really felt this came across in this book. Strike gives her much more challenging assignments and I liked watching her pursue her own means of investigation. The conflict with Matthew finally comes to a head and good riddance, it’s about time. I love Robin’s anger in this book. Women are always taught to be amenable and nice no matter what the circumstances, but I loved watching Robin finally say enough is enough and finally get mad. Robin and Strike’s character development is really what makes this such as a great series. In my opinion, the mystery is only half of what matters, creating complex, flawed, but likeable characters is what makes a book great.

While I do have my complaints on the mystery structure, I love the amount of thought that Rowling puts into her plotlines. There are no throwaway comments. Every detail matters and you never know what minor comment may turn out to be a plot point of huge significance. Every character has a role to play and Rowling does a great job a crafting a complex cast of characters. This was a bit on the long side for a mystery novel, but I was pretty much on the edge of my seat for the entire second half of the book. I love that there’s just as much character drama as mystery. My only regret is that I read this way too fast and who knows how long it’s going to take for Rowling to give us another book. At least no cliffhanger this time!

Neverworld Wake

Rating: ⭐
Author: Marisha Pessl
Genres: Young Adult, Mystery, Science Fiction
Pub Date: June 2018 (read Sept. 2018 on Audible)

I finished Neverworld Wake a few days ago as an audiobook and I’ve been thinking about it over the last few days and I’ve been struggling to come to a conclusion about how I felt about it. I decided I didn’t really like it, but then when I sat down to write the review I discovered that there were elements to the story that I did really enjoy. So I think I’m landing on a borderline 3 star review.

Neverworld Wake has a great science fiction concept. It brings together a group of friends who have somewhat lost touch in the year since graduating high school at Darrow. Our main character Beatrice was once very close with her group of 6 friends in high school, but after the death of her boyfriend, Jim, at the end of senior year, she cuts herself off from the rest of her friends. Jim’s death is marked down by the police as a suicide, but Beatrice and her friends still have a lot of questions about what really happened to Jim. They reunite one night a year later and a car accident catapults them into an event known as the neverworld wake. A old man appears and informs the 6 friends that they will be forced to relive the same day over and over again until they can all agree on a decision to a specific course of action (I won’t explicitly state what decision they must make to avoid spoilers).

I’ll talk first about what I liked. Most of all I liked that the story had two key elements driving the plot. There’s the Neverworld Wake, which is a fascinating concept in itself and is what makes this a science fiction novel. The 6 friends are forced to relive the same day over and over again. They could do whatever they like, initiate any sort of consequence, but at the end of each day, time will reset for them at the start of the same day. Whatever sequence of events they set in course during the day are effectively rendered moot at the end of the day and they are forced to start over. It raises a lot of interesting questions about human behaviour and how a group of individuals will react when faced with a dire decision. In this case, it involves a lot of frustration at the beginning and then a certain amount of avoidance by each of the characters as they struggle to come to any kind of consensus.

The second element of the story is the mystery of what happened to Jim. Beatrice was torn apart by his death and is really a wreck. All of the friends seems to be harbouring secrets about what happened the night Jim went missing and when they fail to come to a consensus to escape the neverworld wake, they decide to start investigating the circumstances of Jim’s death. I thought both the mystery element and the science fiction element were great and integrating both of them together made for a much more dynamic story. Honestly, either of these elements could have been a story on it’s on.

What I didn’t like was that for what should have been a really fast paced and dynamic thriller, I was kind of bored. What can be a strength for a novel (integrating 2 different storylines) can also work as a weakness if the author fails to do justice to both storylines, which is what I think happened in Neverworld Wake. Pessl had two great concepts that I wanted to see developed, but I think she failed to develop either in sufficient detail. The concept of reliving the same day over and over again raises so many questions about group dynamics. It’s a Lord of the Flies type scenario as we watch a group of individuals try to come to terms with what’s happening to them so that they can escape, but ultimately start to fall apart and descend into anarchy. There are no consequences for these teenagers. No matter what they do, time will reset for them at the end of the day. As a result, some characters lose hope and start to fall a part, while others are incentivised to figure out how to escape.

The friends research into what happened to Jim serves a similar purpose. For some it provides much needed answers and an opportunity for closure, while for others, it exposes truths they’d rather remain hidden. Both elements are great, but for the first half of the book, I struggled to figure out how they were related and there was no real urgency driving the story. I felt like the characters desperation at being stuck in the neverworld would drive a lot of action, but it actually stalls it in the beginning with an incapacity of any of the characters to move forward. I was surprisingly bored. I thought the main point of the story was going to be to examine this Lord of the Flies type scenario, but then it ended up really being about what happened to Jim. I feel like the author had two great ideas, but didn’t really know how to execute either.

Ultimately, I wanted to like this, but at the end of the day it fell a little flat for me.

The Last Time I Lied

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Riley Sager
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub date: July 2018 (read Aug. 2018)

I didn’t read Riley Sager’s first book, Final Girls, because it sounds too disturbing for me, but The Last Time I Lied takes place at a creepy summer camp where campers start to go missing, and I love everything to do with the outdoors (even creepy mystery thrillers), so I was like, “sign me up!”

This book wasn’t as scary as I was anticipating, it has a creepy ambiance through most of the story, but I didn’t think the tension really started to build until the last 30%. But I was still totally into the mystery of the story and I was dying to know what our narrator, Emma, wasn’t telling us.

Emma was just 13 the first (and only) time she attends Camp Nightingale, a summer camp for wealthy young girls just outside of New York. Emma shows up to camp late and ends up being put in a cabin with 3 older girls – Natalie, Allison, and the enigmatic Vivian. Emma is enamoured with Vivian and quickly becomes caught up in the older girl’s drama. Vivian acts like a big sister to Emma, but as Emma discovers some of Vivian’s secrets, their friendship starts to splinter. Then, one night, Vivian, Natalie, and Allison disappear into the night, never to be seen again, forever imprinted upon Emma’s memory.

Flash forward 15 years, wealthy camp owner, Frannie, has decided to re-open the camp and invites Emma to be the camp’s art instructor. Emma decides to return to Camp Nightingale to try and find our what happened to Vivian so that she can finally move on with her life. But she quickly realizes upon arrival that everything is not as it seems at Camp Nightingale.

I was convinced I knew who had made the girls disappear, so I was thrilled when I was totally off the mark. The last 30% of this book is a wild ride and I loved the whole “person vs. nature” element on top of the character conflicts. The ending was a little too coincidental, but the last little twist Sager throws in at the very end f the novel totally blew my mind! The book also has an interesting psychological element where Emma keeps seeing things and you’re not sure what is and is not real.

Overall a solid mystery/thriller book. I’ll still probably take a pass on Final Girls, but I’m interested to see what Riley Sager writes in the future.