Camille Preaker, journalist to a small Chicago newspaper, recently out of a mental institution after an in-patient stay to address her long-standing inclination to cut words into her body, has been asked by her boss to go to her hometown. Two little girls have been found murdered–with their teeth pulled out. Camille is not inclined to go home. She’s barely spoken to her distant, southern belle mother since moving out years ago and hardly knows her half-sister, 13-year-old Amma. But home she goes, staying with her mother, step-father, and half-sister to save money, drinking to cope as her demons haunt her, and investigating the murders that have shaken the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri.
This book hit my radar around the time there were all those articles judging Gillian Flynn for writing female characters who are bad/evil. I immediately was supportive of Gillian Flynn (bad women exist, hello) and interested in more of her writing. I started with Gone Girl so I could read it before seeing the movie, but Sharp Objects has been in my sightlines for a long time. The mere idea of an adult self-injurer going to her hometown and facing her demons was something I would want to read even without knowing how much I enjoy Gillian Flynn’s work. What I found was a tightly-written, fast-paced mystery with multiple complex characters and simultaneously breath-taking and heart-breaking lead.
I thought through most of the book that I knew the solution to the mystery. Whodunit. That didn’t bother me. I liked everything leading up to what I thought was going to be the ultimate reveal. The plot twists, though, surprising myself and characters in the book. While part of me likes the twist, part of me felt it was more cliche than the original ending that I thought I was getting. Ultimately, while I didn’t necessarily find the resolution satisfying, I did find it surprising and something to chew on. It will stick with me in a I’m thinking about it way like eating something unusual you’re not sure if you liked, rather than in an I remember feeling so pleasantly satisfied way, like how you might look back on Thanksgiving dinner.
The pacing in the book is superb. I read it in audiobook format, and I found myself using time to listen to it as rewards for accomplishing other things. I listened to it every chance I had because the pacing was so spot on. It never felt too quick-moving or too slow. Every scene felt like it had a reason for being there and kept me on the edge of my seat.
There is a lot of mental illness represented in this book, and that is wrapped up in the characters. I’ll talk first about the spoiler-free mental illnesses.
Camille is a self-injurer who has had a stay in a mental hospital where her roommate managed to commit suicide. Camille never names more of a diagnosis the doctors gave her than self-injurer. However, much of her behavior, including her self-injury, points to PTSD from her childhood. This includes the foreboding feeling she gets when returning to her hometown. How she feels driven to drink herself numb for dealing with certain triggering situations. Her impulse to inflict hurt on herself, etc… All of that said, the representation of Camille as a cutter is superb. This is an adult woman who still struggles with the impulse to cut. Who talks about how most people think of it as an adolescent problem. Camille manages to describe her urges to cut, what drives her to cut, without ever actually definitively saying what causes it. And this is great because we don’t actually know. Camille is nuanced. She is a woman who used to (still wants to) cut herself but that is not, not by a long-shot, all she is.
The book also secondarily depicts alcoholism and drunkenness as a self-medication technique. Camille drinks as a lesser evil compared to cutting when she needs to relieve her stress and discomfort from dealing with terrible situations. It shows how alcohol and cutting both can end up being used as coping mechanisms when no healthier ones are learned or taught. It also shows how stressors can impact sobriety and health.
Despite being both a self-injurer in recovery and a woman who abuses alcohol, Camille is depicted as a heroine. Her investigative journalism helps break the case open. She exhibits care and concern for her half-sister and loyalty to her boss and career. She is ultimately depicted as resilient in spite of her struggles, and I loved seeing that.
If you are interested in reading about other depictions of mental illness in the book, they are in the spoiler section below.
It is ultimately revealed that Adora, Camille’s mother, suffers from Munchausen by Proxy (MBP). This MBP is what ultimately killed Camille’s other little sister, Marion. Camille escaped this same fate because her mother didn’t love her and thus also didn’t really enjoy caring for her or garnering attention through her in this way. What Adora does is unforgivable and certainly causes a visceral reaction in the reader. However, there are scenes that discuss things such as how Adora’s mother didn’t love her. The implication is that some of the mental illness in the family is learned or a reaction to poor environment. It manages to keep Adora human rather than monstrous.
Similarly, it is ultimately learned that Amma is a sociopath. Camille seems to be uncertain if this is just Amma’s nature or a reaction to Adora’s “mothering” or some combination of the two. I feel that not enough time is given to analyzing Amma, once Camille learns her true nature. This depiction, compared to the others in the book, is just much flatter due to the lesser amount of time Camille and other characters spend pondering Amma.
The book ends with Camille wondering if she is able to love in a healthy way or if she’s doomed to repeat her mother’s unhealthy, hurtful mothering. Essentially, she wonders if MBP is inherited or if she can escape that. Some time is spent discussing what made Camille more resilient than either of her sisters. I think this is some of the more valuable portion of the book, as it really highlights the nuances of some of the things we still just don’t have a solid answer to about mental illness. What makes some people more resilient, more able to overcome bad childhoods and genetic tendencies than others? What makes some people better able to cope with a mental illness than others? They are important questions, and I like that they are addressed.
There are some scenes that will bother some readers. While rape is never depicted, it is discussed, as well as the idea of what counts as rape, with one female character arguing that a woman who is intoxicated is still responsible for any sexual activity that occurs. The character saying this was a victim of rape while intoxicated herself, so readers should bare in mind that this reframing of a rape as not a rape is very normal for rape victims who have not fully addressed the rape yet. Additionally, at one point one character has consensual sex with a character who has just barely turned 18. Also an adult partakes of illegal drugs and alcohol with characters who are extremely underage. All of these scenes work within the book and are necessary for the plot, however.
Overall, this is a fast-paced mystery with a strong yet flawed female lead and an engaging and thought-provoking plot that presents many different nuances of mental illness. Recommended to those looking for a fast-moving book with a unique depiction of self-injury who do not mind the violence or gray moral areas innate in a mystery revolving around serial killing.
4 out of 5 stars
Aiyana Gamelle has been sleepwalking, waking up on the beach of the half Gullah, half Native American Sa’Fyre Island off the coast of South Carolina. But she knows she’ll soon be transitioning to being Queen of the Gullah half of the island, due to being directly descended from both the founders and a mysterious African goddess, so she brushes it off and focuses on the festival she’s organized on the island to bring in more revenue. But when an important island guest is murdered and her grandmother passes away before the official crowning ceremony, an unwanted family curse is slowly revealed.
This is one of the six indie books I accepted for review on this blog in 2015. Everything about it from the title to the description stuck out to me both as something that I hadn’t seen a mainstream publisher get around to trying in many years and also as something that piqued my interest. An island that’s half Gullah and half Native American? (Never heard of the Gullah? Check out this informative article about them). A woman inheriting a position of power from another woman? A family curse? Yes please! I am happy to say that the book more than lived up to my expectations, it also had some unexpected elements that I was delightfully surprised by.
The known history of the island and the Gamelle family is well told early in the book. It comes through in bits and pieces at just the right times. There is never an info dump. Similarly, Aiyana and her siblings are slowly revealed, going from how you may first perceive them to more well-rounded characters throughout the book. The island and the people on it are incredibly well described. I had no trouble imagining what this island may be like, despite having never been to the Carolinas myself.
One thing that caught me by surprise in the book and that I think should be promoted more in its promotional materials, as it’s something that is often sought after, is the romance between Aiyana (who is half-Native American and half-Gullah, since her mother dated her Native American father against the wishes of both sides) and one of the Native American men on the island. It’s an inter-racial relationship….with no white people. I can’t remember the last time I saw that in a book, frankly, and I was happy to see it.
This is primarily a mystery/horror book though, so let’s talk about the mystery plot. It takes many twists and turns, none of which I expected but all of which ultimately made sense. I found it at times grotesque and at other times it kept me on the edge of my seat. All the time I was always rooting for Aiyana, which is exactly what I generally want out of a mystery.
One negative I would say is that it’s a bit unclear if the book is the first in a series or a standalone. Amazon mentions it being the first in a series, but neither the GoodReads record nor the page about it on the author’s website mention it being the start of a series. If it is the start of a series, the book’s slightly abrupt ending works. If it’s a standalone, then I would want a bit more closure at the end. If it is the start of a series, then I’d say perhaps a quick “Look for more Sa’Fyre Island adventures coming soon!” at the end would be an excellent addition to help the reader know to expect more and to keep them coming back.
Overall, this is both a fun and a quite different entry into the mystery genre. A Gullah woman takes the center stage of the mystery, rather than being a prop. The mystery is well crafted and told, and there’s even the bonus of a bit of romance in the book. Recommended for readers looking for a completely different mystery from what they may be used to reading and who don’t mind a bit of the fantastical showing up in the plot.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
It’s Halloween, and Pali Moon, Maui’s wedding planner, is happy to be back to planning a normal wedding after her adventures earlier in the year. Even if she’s being sent out on Halloween night to Lahaina to look for a bridesmaid who’s gone missing. Pali expects to find her drunk and lost, but what she finds instead is her ponytail in the backseat of her car. Cut off. Pali is very worried about the missing bridesmaid, but no one else–not the bride, groom, or even the police–seem to care. When she starts getting threatening messages, Pali decides it’s up to her to figure out just how much danger the bridesmaid is in.
This second entry in this near cozy-style mystery series finds the reader again following a wedding Pali is planning gone criminal.
Perhaps some would expect every entry in a mystery series about a wedding planner to involve some wedding going haywire. I suppose that’s fair, although personally I would prefer the source of the mystery to be a bit more shaken up. Something like maybe Pali’s neighbor in the business district going missing, and Pali having to still manage to plan a big wedding while investigating the missing neighbor. However, I can see how some readers would enjoy the predictability of “wedding gone awry” as a mystery plot. In fact, it’s probably a mystery niche I was previously unaware of. Potential readers should know, though, to expect the “wedding gone awry” plot from this series.
Even if readers are ok with the “wedding gone awry” idea being brought back in the second entry, how it goes awry could perhaps be executed a bit more uniquely. In the first book, a groom is missing. In the second book, a bridesmaid is missing. The mystery would read quite differently if, for instance, the bridesmaid winds up dead at the bachelorette party, and Pali has to help clear the bride’s name in time for her wedding. That at least wouldn’t be a missing person all over again.
That said, the reason behind the missing bridesmaid, and the plot that goes along with it is quite different from the first book. Once the reader gets past the first 1/3 of the book or so, things definitely do start to develop differently. The plot particularly surprised me at the end, again, in a way that seemed plausible and logical. I just wish the beginning had been more unique.
Pali’s characterization continues along the same way as the first book. If you liked her in the first, you’ll like her here. If you didn’t, you won’t.
The romance plot is also quite similar to the first book. Pali is still waffling between two men and doing a rather bad job of handling it in an adult-like manner. Again, if you enjoyed the romance in the first book, you’ll enjoy it here. If you didn’t, you won’t.
The setting is still as lovely as in the first book. Hawaii and its culture are beautifully depicted. It’s easy to feel swept away to Hawaii when reading this book.
Overall, this mystery has a plot that starts quite similar to the plot in the first book but that is saved by a drastically different ending and reasons behind the missing person. The main character and romance continue to be a bit ho-hum, but if readers enjoyed them in the first book, they will enjoy them here. Recommended primarily to those who greatly liked the first book in the series.
3 out of 5 stars
Maui wedding planner Pali Moon wouldn’t normally accept a last-minute request to plan a wedding when the groom is lost at sea, but the client wants to pay cash, and she is in debt up to her ears. Plus, the bride assures Pali that the groom’s best friend will stand in as his proxy if the groom hasn’t been found by the wedding date. What could possibly go wrong? Well, when a body washes up on shore….it turns out, a lot.
This would be a cozy mystery if it offered any type of recipes or patterns in the back, as it is, think of it as a light-hearted mystery with very little blood and some steamy kissing scenes. The story transports the reader to Hawaii with lovely described settings and keeps the reader there with an intriguing plot.
A wedding planner in Hawaii is just an interesting job to begin with. Plus, Pali has a bit of mystery to her. She admits from the very beginning that Pali isn’t her name, but the reader never finds out (in this entry in the series anyway) what her real name is. Why is she keeping it a secret? Plus, Pali’s friends (and enemies) are an interesting bunch. Her Native best friend who also runs the general store and officiates weddings is a breath of fresh air to the story. Her gay roommate may feel a bit expected at this point, but the author keeps him from verging too far into stereotype and gives of a hint of the three dimensions he could have in future installments. The bad guys may veer a bit toward caricature sometimes, but that lends the book part of its humor and lack of tension that is key to this type of mystery.
The mystery and plot consist of two main points of conflict. First, Pali is at risk of losing her business. Second, the missing groom and the bride’s family may not be precisely what they appear. This lends some realness to the character. She has more going on than this mystery that fell in her lap. It also gives her a reason for accepting a client who has a clear iffy feeling about them. That said, the will she or won’t she hold onto her business lacks some real tension, as it’s fairly clear that Pali will figure a way out of losing her business. With the missing groom conflict, while we know Pali will probably be safe, since she’s the main character, the rest of the characters are basically up for grabs for danger. This gives it just enough tension to stay interesting but not be stressful. Similarly, this plot was more well-written, with some unexpected yet believable twists. It also takes into consideration the local laws of Hawaii, so events stayed grounded in the real world.
The romance consists of two potential love interests. I am always a bit turned off when a main character has two people interested in them. It will never not feel a bit fake to me. However, the two potential love interests are handled in a balanced and modern way. Neither is the clear “right choice,” and readers could easily prefer one over the other while still liking the main character with either.
I also would like to mention that there is a good minor plot involving characters revealing that they are alcoholics who have been in recovery for a while. It’s good to see people with a mental illness that they have worked on and are actively managing in a positive way. I appreciate this diversity being included in this book.
Given all of these positives, why is it only an average read for me? There was nothing unexpected for this type of mystery. It is very similar to others I have read in the genre. Additionally, the main character can kind of rub me the wrong way sometimes. How she handles her love interests is not as up-front as it should be. It is also unclear as to how she managed to get herself into so much debt. It seems she might just be bad at balancing books but all for taking favors from friends. Similarly, she’s a white woman, albeit raised in Hawaii, but she goes by a Native name and never explains why, beyond the fact that she doesn’t like her own name. Add to this the fact that the romance didn’t really work for me, and this is why I consider this a rather average read. It may be more than average for you, if these factors I have named are not an issue for you.
Overall, this is a light-hearted mystery that transports the reader to the tropical island of Maui. Some readers may be a bit turned off by the main character or the romance secondary plot. Those who enjoy a non-tense mystery set in a tropical locale will most likely enjoy the read, however.
3 out of 5 stars
Jake Wood plans to visit his cousin, Jana, in Los Angeles. He hasn’t seen her in over 10 years, and he’s hoping the visit will help snap him out of the guilt he’s feeling after being the sole survivor of a workplace shooting. But when he arrives in LA, Jana fails to meet him or return his phone calls. He’s not worried at first, since he knows that she just got an exciting job working for the renowned scientific researcher Dr. Gregory Mirek. When he drops by Jana’s house and finds her best friend, Laurie, who hasn’t heard from her in days either, he starts suspecting she’s missing, and it might have something to do with Dr. Mirek.
I like a good mystery, and the description and cover of this book gave it a bit of a noir feel, so I was excited to see what twists on the noir mystery genre the book could bring. Unfortunately, a potentially interesting plot was held back by both some awkward writing and portions of the book that just left a bad taste in my mouth.
The plot is interesting and different enough from other mysteries to keep the reader engaged and intrigued. I personally have not seen a modern mystery revolving around a missing cousin, and I liked how different this felt. The inclusion of a mystery about Dr. Mirek and just what he’s researching into what happened to Jana, who is working for him, gave it another level of interesting information and twists that keeps the reader reading. On the other hand, the inclusion of Jake’s past trauma being the sole survivor of a work-place shooting felt tacked on and did not add much to the plot. If anything, at the beginning of the book, I was wondering if this book was the second in the series, since it felt like I was supposed to already know what had happened to Jake.
The writing really doesn’t support the plot very well, however. There is quite a bit of showing instead of telling as well as passages that just read awkwardly, instead of building the suspense they were supposed to. The quote below is an example of this.
After a long pause she said, “Yes, sacrifices,” in a faraway voice. At the time, I didn’t realize that she was referring to issues much more meaningful than gridlock. (loc 673)
There were also passages that just felt out of touch with modern life, particularly for the age of Jake, the main character, who sometimes reads like an old man. For instance, when Jana first doesn’t show up he googles her for the first time ever and looks at her Facebook page for the first time ever. There is no way cousins that got back in touch after a decade of low contact would wait that long to google each other or look at each other’s Facebook pages. Even people in this age-range who don’t use Facebook themselves will still google a new contact. Jake’s lack of technological and social media savvy just felt really wrong for his demographic.
As far as the characterizations of the main characters goes, Jake is moderately well-rounded but he also isn’t much of a noir hero. He’s clumsy, bad at appearing bad-ass, and hesitant, and yet simultaneously he’s good at fist-fighting (thanks to wrestling moves from high school), and he keeps being asked to be in porn by random people on the street (or if he is in porn). When his character isn’t thrust into noir-style encounters, it is well-rounded and interesting. When his character is, however, it feels awkward and unnatural. Laurie is relatively well-rounded and interesting, as is her boyfriend. We don’t see anybody else enough for them to be more than a passing two-dimensional character, and these are handled well.
The book does, however, put a bad taste into my mouth both in how it deals with fatness and how it deals with bisexuality. The book comes across as fatphobic. Any overweight character is also bad, and Jake judges them for being fat. I’m not saying an overweight person can’t be bad, but when every single overweight character is bad and the “good guy” main character judges them for it, it comes across as fatphobic.
Dr. Mirek is revealed to be bisexual, and the reveal is in the most insensitive way possible. Jake is pretending to be a journalist who had a tough interview with Dr. Mirek. He’s talking to an undergrad journalist student who previously interviewed Dr. Mirekto under the guise of getting more information on him from her than he could himself. She states that he was really creepy toward her in her interview and then reveals that she thinks he might be bisexual in a tone that implies that this is just as bad as creeping on her during her interview. To this Jake responds,
I don’t think my editor wants me writing that Dr. Mirek is a bi-sexual creep with a gambling problem. (loc 1594)
First, bisexual is spelled wrong, and it is never spelled correctly in the book. Second, this entire conversation implies that bisexuality is just as bad as being addicted to gambling or engaging in inappropriate come-ons. Just as with the fatphobia, there is nothing wrong with a bad guy character being bisexual, but equating his bisexuality with his badness, implying that it is part of what makes him bad, is a problem, and it is biphobic.
At the end of the book, it is revealed that Dr. Mirek had a relationship with Laurie’s boyfriend (implying the boyfriend is also bisexual, I might add), and that the boyfriend only participated in kidnapping Laurie and covering up the illegal animal experiments because of this relationship. The implication from the tone of the book is that getting into a same-sex relationship with Dr. Mirek is what brought the boyfriend down into crime. Even in the trial, the defense lawyer
conceded that Dr. Mirek and Danny Clarke had a consensual homosexual relationship. (loc 3694)
I would like to note that since this was a review copy submitted to me last November/December for review this year, I was extra offended at the biphobic content, as my review policies explicitly state that I do not wish to review anything with biphobic content. I am offended that an author who read my review policies well enough to submit properly and get accepted, who also knew one of his characters was bisexual, did not take a moment to check and see if this representation could possibly be biphobic. It is offensive to me as a person, and I feel that the author owes me an apology for putting me through reading something I very clearly stated I did not want to read. It is often impossible to know from a blurb if a book will be biphobic/homophobic/transphobic, and it is really up to the author to self-censor and not submit for review something like that to a reviewer who explicitly stated they do not wish to read that content. In all honesty, though, rather than an apology from the author, I would prefer he take some time to read up on bisexuality and biphobia to correct this biphobia in future writing.
Overall, the plot is interesting but the writing at the sentence level struggles. Additionally, the tone of the book is fatphobic and biphobic, which will both offend some readers and shows a lack of writing three-dimensional characters, since people are bad based on their bodies and sexualities and not their character. I recommend readers looking for a modern LA noir look elsewhere.
2 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
Dominic Gray, ex-government worker, ex-military, and once professional jiu-jitsu fighter, is seeing a lull in his work as assistant to Professor Viktor Radek on private detective cases involving religious mysteries and the occult. He’s set up shop in New York City, teaching jiu-jitsu to inner-city youth. But when a high-ranking Satanist is murdered in front of his entire congregation by a mysterious figure who sets him on fire at a distance and then disappears himself, Dominic is quickly pulled into a new case with Viktor. High-ranking Satanists worldwide keep dying in the same, or similar, mysterious ways, and the odd thing is, it’s not the Christians doing it.
I’ve enjoyed this series from the very beginning. The combination of religious studies, private detectives, and international intrigue suck me in every time. This latest entry in the series does not fail to deliver, bringing once again the perfect combination of religious philosophy, mystery, and private detective intrigue.
This entry brings us back to the more mystical origins of the series. Rather than biomedicine as in the second book, what’s involved here is ancient occultism and what may or may not be magic tricks. I was happy to see this occult mysticism represented in the developed world this time, pointing out that it’s not just surviving in developing countries in modern times. The actual religion of Satanism is well explained and given room for both good-hearted followers and evil fanatics, just as may be seen in every religion. Green keeps an even hand when writing about religion, even when writing about Satanism, and that’s to be commended. A drop of mysticism is provided, and it’s left up to the reader to decide if it was science or magic ultimately responsible for the mysterious occurrences, which is ideal for this type of book.
The entwining of Viktor’s backstory with the mystery was well-done, and it was certainly time for the reader to learn more about Viktor. Unfortunately, I must say that Viktor’s backstory made me dislike him more than I had previously, but it certainly also helps form him into a more well-rounded character. There’s a delightful femme fatale, enshrouded in both beauty and mystery. Her ending, however, did feel a bit abrupt. Dominic goes very quickly from one opinion of her to another, and not enough known, factual information is provided for the reader to keep up with this. On the other hand, the ending was surprising and also made logical sense, and it also put the main characters in a frightful level of mortal danger. Exactly the kind of ending one looks for in this type of book.
Overall, the third entry in the series continues to deliver the private detective exploration of moral and mystical gray areas. Those who enjoyed the first entry in the series more than the second will be happy to see the return to the mysticism found in the first book. Those who enjoyed the science of the second will be glad to see the science of magic covered extensively in this entry. Recommended to fans of the series to pick it up as soon as possible.
4 out of 5 stars