Book Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (Audiobook narrated by Rebecca Lowman, Cassandra Campbell, Mark Deakins, and Robertson Dean)
Libby Day testified that her brother murdered her mother and sisters as part of a Satanic cult ritual when she was just 7 years old. Twenty-five years later, running out of money, she agrees to help a group known as The Kill Club investigate the murder. Their members disagree on how actually killed her mother and sisters, and with her connections they think she can help them crack the case. Libby is sure her brother Ben did it, but money is money, and it sure beats a regular job.
This is my third Gillian Flynn novel, and I must admit it was the one I liked least. I was actually suspicious it was a first novel, as it had that feel–a lot of what works in her other novels is present but it’s less well-executed. However, it actually was published after Sharp Objects (review), so who knows what happened here. Regardless, while I found the mystery intriguing and I definitely listened to the audiobook every chance I got, the plot is not as tightly told nor is the central mystery as believable as it is in her other works.
What worked the best for me was Libby, a childhood survivor of a gruesome murder, as some sort of modern day noiresque private investigator. A woman PI with a personal connection to the murders was just delicious to read. I’d love to see more of that in literature. I also liked seeing a thriller that included a queer person (her aunt is a lesbian) without that being used as a way of othering someone strange or being attached to a perpetrator. Her aunt is a bystander in every sense of the word. She is never a suspect, she provides Libby with a home environment after the murders, and her sexual orientation is just a part of who she is, not a plot point. I also liked the changing perspectives among Libby present, Libby past, her mother, and her brother. I thought it added to the mystery since seeing these other perspectives did not immediately reveal precisely what was going on. I also thought it made it harder to judge her mother than it might be if the reader hadn’t had her perspective.
However, this was the first time that I was both sure who the perpetrator was quite early in a Flynn novel and also that I was disappointed by who the murderer is. I thought there was nothing creative or exciting about it, and honestly it kind of bugged me a little bit. There is also one trope that shows up here that bothered me. It could be a bit spoilery (not too bad) so skip the next paragraph if you’re concerned about that.
Libby at the end of the book ends up in a scenario that is very similar to the first murders that she survived. It’s basically a trauma survivor finding that all their fears were right by improbably having almost the same scenario happen a second time. I think it was supposed to be scary, but it just irritated me.
I also must say that I felt the whole Satanic scare thing was very dated. Yes, I get it that was a huge thing in the 80s and this is a story about murders that happened 25 years ago but something about it just made the whole book feel dated to me. I couldn’t get into it partly because I was certain that the book would ultimately reveal Satanism had nothing to do with it, since that’s just the way that plot point always goes. I suppose you could sum up most of my issues with this book as the plot was too predictable to be much fun.
Overall, if you’re a big Gillian Flynn fan and just want to experience some thrills, this book will provide some of them with the dash of strong female characters you’ve come to expect. However, do expect to be a bit disappointed by a more predictable plot and twist that isn’t all that twisty.
3 out of 5 stars
Lara Lington’s boyfriend – the one she’s sure is The One – just broke up with her. But that’s ok. She’ll soldier on. He’ll realize his mistake soon enough. And her business partner (in her small business of three people – the two of them plus one secretary) ran off on holiday and just isn’t coming back, but she just needs to keep the place afloat until she gets back. Everything is going to be just fine. That is…it would be if the ghost of her great-aunt Sadie hadn’t decided to start haunting her at her funeral. Now she just won’t leave her alone until Lara finds her precious dragonfly necklace. How exactly is she supposed to do that, keep her business going, win back her boyfriend, and not let anyone think she’s lost her mind?
I know this may seem like it was an odd read to pick up in the month following my father’s passing. (Yes, I read this eons ago…in December). I was in the mood for a light-hearted chick lit. Something to cheer me up. I knew I liked Sophie Kinsella, and honestly the thought of a loved one haunting you in ghost form sounded kind of nice to me for once. So I picked it up, and I’m glad I did. I think this might be my new favorite Sophie Kinsella.
There’s a lot here that makes this different among chick lit. First there’s the focus on a relationship with the member of a far-flung previous generation of your family. Chick lit often focuses on the heroine’s children, parents, or friends, but a great-aunt is a new one. (For me anyway). Things start out awkward and funny. Lara feels weird being at the funeral for a great-aunt she didn’t really know, and when Sadie shows up, it’s as herself in her 20s in the 1920s…how she continued to imagine herself even in her old age. Since Lara hadn’t previously had a relationship with her, she gets to know her basically as just another 20-something in ghost form. But she also has to inform her of how she’s passed on, and Sadie has to start to come to terms with what her life was.
The ghost looking for her missing necklace plot very quickly turns into a romcom mystery. There’s more to Lara’s family than meets the eye! And while I had my suspicions, how things ultimately work out was still enough of a surprise that I enjoyed seeing how we got there.
There of course also is a love interest and a love triangle that for one didn’t drive me batty (probably because it’s hard to be a real love triangle when one of the sides is a ghost). The book was humorous, the romance fun, and the plot engaging. But what shot it up to 5 stars for me was two themes.
First there’s Sadie coming to terms with what her life was, and Lara realizing that there’s more to the elderly than originally meets the eye. The book says a lot of good stuff about both how we treat the elderly in Western cultures and the process of aging and living your life to its fullest. It also touches upon taking the time to listen to your elders and learn from their success and mistakes. Lara’s life improves once she treats Sadie as a person, rather than just an elderly relic. And Sadie learns to let go once she comes to terms with how she lived her life.
The book also fights against the trope of a heroine being certain that someone is The One and then being proved she is right when she wins him back. Sadie teaches Lara a lot about being brave enough to be on your own. About the value of learning to be alone before finding someone. About how important it is to know who you are before you can find the right match for yourself. It’s only when Lara grows as a person (and a career woman) and actualizes more into who she really is that she’s able to find true romance, and I really liked seeing that theme in a chick lit.
Overall, if you want some gut laughs watching a 1920s-era ghost with her great-grand-niece cavorting around England, you won’t be disappointed in this book. But be prepared to find yourself fighting back tears to as you watch the inter-generational relationship blossom and everyone learn a little more about being true to themselves.
5 out of 5 stars
It’s September 1768 in Boston, Massachusetts, and the King’s navy has sailed into Boston Harbor to start an occupation in an attempt to restore order and stop the stewing rebellion. Conjurer and thieftaker Ethan Kaille isn’t sure how he feels about the occupation but he is sure how he feels about the large spells he’s started feeling in Boston–not good. He feels even worse he finds out that all the men on board one of the British ships have been killed by a conjuring. The British navy hires him to investigate, while the mayor of Boston threatens to have all conjurers hanged in mere days if he doesn’t find the culprit.
I loved the first book in this series. Urban fantasy set in a historical time period in the city I actually live in just appealed to me so much. (I really do wish there was more historical urban fantasy. It is awesome). This book failed to capture my attention the way the first in the series did, and I’m uncertain if it was due to the tone, the plot, or the audiobook narration.
Ethan comes across as a bit more insufferable in this entry than in the first. Perhaps as an American and a Bostonian I just simply struggle to understand Loyalist leanings, but Ethan siding with the Crown over and over again, in spite of a literal military occupation just rubbed me the wrong way. It takes him far too long to be irritated by this over-reaction from the Crown, in spite of being on good terms with some of the Patriot leaders. I suppose what it comes down to is that I could take his waffling in the first book when rebellion was just beginning to brew. I thought he was closer to being on the Patriots’ side by the time period of this book, and he wasn’t. This would bother some readers less than it bothered me, I am sure.
Similarly, I had a hard time caring about the plot. I cared about Ethan solving the mystery in time to save the conjurers, but I simply didn’t care who had killed the men on the occupation ship. Everyone in the book, even the Patriots leaders, seemed to think it was this huge evil thing, and I just didn’t care much one way or the other. Part of this could be because I don’t see the difference between casting a spell and murder in other ways, whereas the characters in the book do. Part of it is that the reader never gets a chance to get to know anyone on the ship in a way that would make them sympathize. It felt for a lot of the book like Ethan was investigating a calamity of war, rather than a crime, and that just made it a bit dull to me.
All of that said, this book is a poor fit for an audiobook. I am certain I would have enjoyed it better if I was reading it myself, in retrospect. The pacing just isn’t suited to an audiobook’s speed. I wanted it to go faster, and I did speed up the narration speed, but I couldn’t speed it up too much or I’d miss important things. It was a bit frustrating, in spite of the narrator’s talents at creating unique voices for each character, which is something I always appreciate.
The ending of the book does speed up its pace, and the solution to the mystery is fascinating. This saved the book for me, although I am uncertain if I will continue along in the series. I may need to poke around and see if Ethan goes fully Patriot in the next book before I venture to pick it up.
Overall, this entry in the series fails to live up to the first, although an interesting ending will still spur the reader on to the next entry in the series. Readers who will be turned off by Loyalist leanings in a Revolutionary War book may wish to look elsewhere. But those who simply enjoy seeing urban fantasy in a historic era will not be disappointed.
3 out of 5 stars
One of Toby’s oldest friends is in dire trouble. Lily of the Tea Gardens is slowly fading away, and no one knows what’s causing it. On top of that, one of Toby’s worst nemeses whose name is feared throughout Fae, Oleander, is back. Are the two related or is something else going on? And can Toby save the day without losing herself?
I picked this book up expecting it to be another mystery of the week entry in the series, but what I found was a surprising development in the overarching plot that kept my heart in my throat but also left me dubious about the possible directions the next book could take.
The plot starts out similarly to the previous entry in the series. Someone close to Toby is in danger. In this case, it’s Lily, and she’s sick, slowly fading out of existence. Over the course of the book, others close to Toby end up sick as well, as it soon becomes clear (this is really not a spoiler, it’s revealed early on) that someone is poisoning them. When Oleander showed up, I nearly groaned at how obvious it felt that she is the one to blame for all of this. But it’s not quite that straight-forward, and there’s also a sub-plot of Toby possibly going crazy….which changelings are known to do in this world. The book then isn’t just about Toby trying to solve the mystery, it’s also about her trying to determine if her blood has doomed her to sink into insanity. This gives the plot enough depth to keep it interesting.
Long-standing characters receive more depth of character development and new ones are added. Toby cotinues to have the wit that keeps the book upbeat even when things are grim. One quote in particular I think would work pretty well as a fitspo positive argument:
I promised myself that if I lived, I’d start working out. Better cranky and alive than cheerful and dead. (loc 1815)
As for the plot twist, I can’t talk about it much without spoilers. The spoiler free review would be that I am concerned the big overarching plot twist moves things a bit too far into one hero to save us land, which isn’t a fantasy plot I personally usually enjoy. For the spoiler version of this, see the next paragraph.
It is revealed that Toby is not the type of Fae she thought, she is rather a very rare type of Fae. This type of Fae is capable of changing the make-up of their own blood. She can thus morph into more Fae, changeling, or human as she desires. It also turns out her mother is from the first born, which makes her kind of Fae royalty. My issue with this is one of the things I like so much about the series is that Toby lacks the magical powers to the extent the Fae have. She also doesn’t fit into the human world. But she fights for her right to be in the world she chooses to live in, and her value in the Fae world is due to how hard she tries and her brains, not her blood. This plot development feels like it’s making it all about her blood. Her power is due to whose daughter she is, not who she herself is. That’s just not a message I’m as fond of.
Overall, this is an action-packed entry in the series that visits another mystery with enough different sub-plots and twists to keep it interesting. Fans of the series will be surprised by the big overarching plot development toward the end of the book and will be eager to pick up the next one to see where this plot development goes.
4 out of 5 stars
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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