The Secret Place by Tana French

Have you ever read a book that feels tailor made for you? Like someone hopped inside your brain, picked out exactly what you love in a book, and then actually took the time to write said book? That’s what Tana French’s The Secret Place is for me. It’s an ideal balance of crime fiction and YA drama. Never has an author so perfectly portrayed the delicate balance between uncontrolled innocence and terrifying insecurity.

I received a copy of this book through the First to Read program with the agreement that I would write a review (and it’s going to contain spoilers in case you haven’t noticed the tags and the site notice) before the release date. That meant that I had to read this book out of order in the series. I cannot explain how much this would normally bother me. I have put off books for years so that I could read the ones that come before it. But, I had no choice this time. How much I liked this book, knowing I still needed to read the ones between it, speaks to the talent of the author. She crafts this world of the Dublin Murder Squad in a way that weaves seamlessly together from book to book, but also allows a reader to pick up any book in the series and enjoy it without ruining anything from a previous book.

I’ve read In the Woods, and part of The Likeness. That means I haven’t met Stephen Moran yet, but I know he’s going to show up in one of the books, as is Holly. I know a little bit about his story, but it hasn’t been spoiled for me. I noticed the same skill in the portion of The Likeness I’ve read. The strength of this book has made me more excited to get back to the other ones. Tana French is eating my life!

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In the Woods – Tana French (@tanafrench)

I found Tana French through another book reviewer I follow on Goodreads. While we don’t always have the same opinion on books, she’s always got an intriguing perspective. When she’s passionate about an author, it peaks my interest. I’m really glad I gave this recommendation a shot. French may be one of my new favourite crime writers. I read this book on a camping trip, and I’m glad I did because it is long. Like 600 pages long. If I’d been reading this during a regular work schedule, it would have taken much too long and caused many a sleepless nights.
This is definitely one of those books that will piss off a lot of people – it doesn’t answer all of the questions it starts with. It leaves some pretty giant holes at the end, but that’s just the way I like it. It was handled so well. We really should know from the very beginning that this isn’t going to be a neat and tidy story. We’re told right off the bat that Ryan is a liar by necessity. It’s part of his job. Detectives lie to suspects all the time. It’s how they get to the truth. But it’s more than that. He lies because it’s the only way he’s learned to survive. As the only survivor of a tragedy in his youth, lying became a survival technique. It’s now shaped every relationship in his life. Even with his parents, who know what happened to him and initiated his new identity, are part of his lies. He hates mac and cheese, but pretends it’s his favourite because it makes his mother feel better. It’s a little lie, but it’s supposed to be his one honest relationship.
His lies lead to one of the most interesting parts of the novel – the two simultaneous mysteries: the current death of Katy; and the twenty year old disappearance of Detective Ryan’s two best friends. If he hadn’t lied and changed his identity, he would never have been allowed to be the detective on this case. He is the only known witness to one of the area’s most prominent cold cases. His partner, Cassie, knows this, but when they take the case, they don’t realize what it will lead to. And even once they figure it out, they decide it’s worth the risk to find some answers.
From the beginning, there seems to be a clear connection between the two cases. What are the chances that two incidents involving pre-teens will happen in the same tiny community and not be connected? The story is positively lousy with questions: What the hell is up with Adam (now Rob) Ryan and his bloody shoes? What did Jamie and Peter hear in the woods? Where did they go? Why have they never found their bodies – especially if they’ve dug up most of the woods? Why was Katy killed? Why was she left on the alter stone? Was the old blood they found on the stone from the original case? And what the hell is wrong with everyone in Katy’s family?
Seriously, this family. There is nothing overtly ‘wrong’ with them. They seem like a pretty typical, mildly unhappy, family. They don’t have tons of money. The surviving twin seems to have some type of developmental delay. The wife is quiet. The husband throws all his passion into a project external to the family. The older daughter is desperate to grow up. Now, I knew something was weird with Rosalind right off the bat, but I thought it was maybe just that she was one of those girls that just tries too hard be a grown up. But then she called Detective Ryan and wouldn’t speak to Cassie. That’s when I knew there was something up with her, but I still thought she might just be trying to get the attention of a cute man. There was something up with her, but it could easily have been that she was nothing more than a pretentious twat.
There were lots of suspects. A couple obvious red herrings – Andrews and Mark. Their motives just didn’t seem legitimate. It could have worked out to be either of them with right content twists, but it just didn’t feel right. It felt closer to home than that. I was somewhere in the 400 pages when I turned to my camping buddy and said ‘I have no idea who did it!’ That’s the sign of a good mystery. I had my suspicions but I kept getting side tracked trying to figure out how the two stories connected.
Turns out, I was following exactly the red herring I was supposed to. The two crimes aren’t connected at all! But French creates just enough overlap to make us think there will be. Ryan remembers Devlin (the father of the dead girl) from their childhood. He was a few years older, one of the neighborhood hooligans. He and his friends were always getting into trouble. Eventually, Ryan remembers seeing Devlin participating in the rape of one of the local girls. As Ryan starts to remember his childhood, the reader can easily start to see the overlaps and start to find motives that would have lead from that event to this event. But nope. These are just distractions from the real villain – Rosalind. She’s not just a bitch. She’s a psychopath. Rosalind’s the oldest; she should get the most attention. At least that’s what she thinks. But then Katy starts to excel at dancing and suddenly she’s her father’s favourite. If Katy goes away for good, Rosalind’ll be back on the radar. She’s a manipulative bitch and she knows exactly the right moves to get men and children to do what she wants. She manipulates Katy into going to the dig site at night and she manipulated Damien into killing Katy. She gets Ryan to believe that she’s of age when she’s really only seventeen. She gets her sister to lie for her. And she’s got her mother totally hoodwinked.
One of the cleverest things French does in this novel is to introduce us to the killer in a very real way – he finds the body. And then she makes us dismiss him entirely. He becomes such a background character you kind of forget he exists. Even knowing he’s the murderer, I still had to go back and make sure I had his name right. He is the epitome of a patsy. Rosalind is the big bad in this novel. She twists everything. She’s the type of girl who makes people suspicious of accusations of abuse. She gives girls a bad name.
This is more than an action packed thriller. This novel is sad. I’ve come to realize that I’m drawn to stories with a touch of sadness. I’m not talking dying of cancer, women’s fiction type sad. I’m talking day to day events that break us in small, non-specific increments. Ryan and Cassie’s friendship is fundamental to the story. They make each other stronger. This is the type of friendship people long for. It’s easy and fluid and organic. They know the other’s secrets. They’re just sassy enough with one another to keep things fresh. The problem is that people assume there’s more to their relationship than just friendship. They assume they’re sleeping together. So, it will eventually go one of two ways. They’ll get together and become a happy, perfect couple, or they’ll sleep together and everything will fall apart. I’m so glad French went with the harder option. Their friendship falls apart. Is there anything worse than losing the person you rely on? Whether a romantic or platonic relationship, when it erodes because of misunderstanding and over reactions, it is heartbreaking. A moment of weakness and sadness destroys them. But it’s the catalyst that brings an end to the story. And it allows French an easy way to get Ryan off the murder squad. I don’t know if this was her intent from the beginning, but I loved Cassie and I’m glad the next book is from her perspective. I like her enough that I requested the second book before I’d even finished this one.
If I can make one complaint about this book, it’s not that the original mystery is never solved. That’s a complaint from a lot of people, but I actually like that we don’t get a resolution. He actually doesn’t remember what happened to his friends and he can’t let himself remember. It feels right that this is how it ends for him. My complaint is the length. It’s needlessly long. There aren’t any specific scenes that stick out as easily removable, but there were a lot of things happening. Scenes could have been tightened up, and we probably didn’t need to know that much about their dinners or Ryan’s roommate. A hundred pages shorter and it would have felt perfect. But all in all, it’s an excellent read. One of the best new crime fiction writers I’Ve encountered in a long time. I’ve already recommended it to several people.

Jaded by Kristy Feltenberger Gillespie (@KFGillespie)

There are two reasons I finish a book in a day. The first is because I’m so pulled in by the characters that I just want to keep reading and stopping seems like the worst idea ever. The other is because I know that if I put it aside, I’m probably not going to pick it up again. The second option usually only happens when I need to do a review and I’m not totally enjoying the book.

Now, I didn’t finish Jaded in a single sitting. I was about a quarter of the way through when I sat down with it Sunday morning. And the first chunk wasn’t terrible. In fact, the first 1/3 was actually kind of enjoyable. It wasn’t the best dystopian novel I’ve read, but it certainly wasn’t the worst either. The fact that I finished it is a good indicator that it’s not 100% awful.

The premise is neat. A commune existing in modern society but within its own restricted confines. Within the commune, a type of eye surgery has been perfected that divides people into factions. Three different colours each for adults and children, and blinding for those who try to escape. This could be crazy interesting!

Unfortunately, it feels like the author was so excited about the idea of the commune and the opportunity to come up with all these crazy colour names for people that she forgot to come up with an explanation for why the surgery is done in the first place. The fact that the surgery is extremely high tec is discussed at length, but the why is never actually explained. About halfway through the book, one of the younger characters is taken to view a video on the origins of the commune and the procedure. Yes! Finally. An explanation as to why this society even exists. Nope. The main character actually falls asleep during the video… what this leads me to believe is that the author doesn’t know the answer to this question. In any good dystopian fiction, the reason for any restrictive community is always explained. It’s integral to understanding why the characters want to escape. It’s engrained in the characters from a young age. They’re indoctrinated. Especially in communities where the people are required to follow rules as stringent as those in Nirvana. But that doesn’t happen in Jaded.

One of the greatest flaws in the book is the result of this omission. There’s no tension. Because we never know why they can’t leave and why the society exists, we can never really care if they get out. Why are the adults broken into factions? Red – medical. Yellow – teaching and tobacco. Blue – wine making. What about all the other professions? The division doesn’t seem to make any sense. And what’s up with the guards? Why are they dicks? What do they do other than drive around and make lewd comments? Oh, and get stabbed in the face with a pen and do nothing about it… How big is this restricted commune that the guards don’t know who people are? We get two events near the beginning of the book where Jade has run-ins with the guards – one with the aforementioned pen stabbing – and then other than guarding the Centre meetings, they disappear. No one appears to guard the fence. There’s exactly one location to turn off the power to the electric fence that surrounds the commune and no one guards it? Really? The guards literally do nothing. They’re set up to be these awful bad guys but then they just go away. Except for one weird appearance at the end that makes zero sense. Saffron is dating the guard…?

Other examples where events just kind of go away – Jade goes to Bronze for information from the outside. When she asks for it she just sits down in a public market and straight out asks for it. Without double checking to make sure they’re not being overheard. With no trepidation, even though she claims to hate this guy. He finds it for her in like a day and gives it to her with no fanfare. She’s just discovered that her grandparents aren’t dead. They escaped from a commune where apparently no one can escape and they live 40 miles away and are that easy to find? And Jades reaction is basically ‘huh’.

Kids appear from the outside after horrible car accidents that kill everyone but one child. And these happen about once a year? This is great tension. This is a story worth investigating. But once again, it’s mentioned once in passing and not talked about again. I’d rather Jade didn’t even consider it. It would be a great storyline for another book in the series, but why would she even thing about it? This is just the way the things happen in the commune.

Tyrian is colour blind because of a botched surgery. Mentioned in a throw away half page conversation. Never mentioned again!

Part of this is the fault of the writing. The author feels genuinely invested in the story, but the writing is clunky. “It’s like I opened a hope chest of truth and destroyed the lock of naivety”… Really? I was actually talking about this exact sentiment this morning with a writer friend of mine – the idea of killing your darlings. It’s something I find a lot in first time, and self-published authors. It’s something every author is guilty of. What I’m talking about is those sentences you can tell an author is in love with. They’ve written and struggled and massaged it until they think it is precious. It’s the shining jem of the novel. But what they really need to do is throw it away. The sentence is so over written that it actually takes the reader out of the story. I literally underlined it in red (I was reading a pdf. I do not write in my books, any of them.) and wrote ‘come on!’ beside it.

One of the Gillespie’s biggest problem in terms of writing is the which vs that conundrum. This is something that trips up many a young/new writer. ‘Which’ clauses are extraneous. They appear after a comma and can be removed from a sentence without changing the meaning. ‘That’ clauses are crucial to the meaning of a sentence. Their removal drastically changes the meaning of a sentence. This isn’t personal preference or writing style; it’s grammar. Gillespie uses which all the time. When which is used instead of that, it creates overly formal sounding sentences that don’t actually portray the writer’s meaning.

The dialogue is stilted and formal in some places and light and breezey in others. The lack of consistency makes it hard to figure out what this community’s relationship to the outside is. The Outside is supposed to be this great place of mystery, but they seem to have an awful lot of contact with it. People say things like wine o’clock. Where would they have learned this phrase? It seems like pretty much anyone could have access to the outside. Bronze was brought into the commune from the outside as a child and he’s allowed full access to the outside? That seems super counterintuitive. Wouldn’t you keep the kids you kidnap away from the place you took them from?

There are some inconsistencies within the story that are the fault of the editing, not necessarily the storytelling. In chapter fifteen, April Fool’s Day is explained in detail. It’s the focus of basically the entire chapter but later in chapter eighteen, Jade says that they’re running away on March 12 – 21 days later, so this thought is happening sometime in February. I’m sure it’s supposed to be May 1, but it’s a major error in the storytelling that should have been caught. At another time, Jade is grouchy because she’s going to be forced to have three children. But later her mother had her tubes tied because of a “commune law which states a woman may only give birth to two children”. Jade spends most of the book struggling to decide between teaching and winemaking but she can barely read? She says this over and over again. She and Peaches even bond over it. Reading is a struggle for her. But she’s still considering it as a career? A proper content edit would have caught these (along with other) mistakes and raised the story from mediocre to potentially really good.

I’m sure there are people that really love this novel, but it’s a little to surface for me. With a bit more depth, it could have been great. But as it stands, I won’t be waiting for the second in the series.

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman (@PollyShulman)

Loving fairy tales is not abnormal. Loads of people love fairy tales. Some people obsessively love them. Some just like them. I fall somewhere in the middle – closer to the obsession side, but not enough that I can reel off lists of obscure details. Fairy tales were a big part of my childhood. We owned the Reader’s Digest collection of traditional fairy tales – the ones where they boiled people in oil and chopped off hands and whatnot.

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These were not your Disney fairytales. Dark fairy tales have always drawn me in more than the ones with happy endings. This is why The Grimm Legacy caught my attention. I love the original Grimm stories. I’ll give pretty much anything referencing their stories a fair shot. It’s led me down good and bad paths. Shulman’s novel doesn’t choose one path or the other. It just kind of hangs out at the fork and keeps you company until you decide where you want to go. It’s not bad; it’s just not fantastic.

Elizabeth is stuck in her own version of a fairy tale. Her mother is dead. Her father has remarried. Her step-mother makes her do all the chores. Her step-sisters are pretty rotten to her. Sound familiar? It’s not super original, but it’s not a big enough part of the storyline to seem overly clichéd. Through the actions of a kindly mentor, she ends up working at the New York Circulating Material Repository – a library of objects. There are rooms of wigs, kitchen utensils, clothes, but even better – there are special collections like the Grimm Collection, the Wells Bequest, the Gibson Credo, and the Lovecraft Corpus – the one that gets no attention but is the one I’m the most interested in. Even grown up me wants to work at this place. The well of available plots is deep, but the one we get to follow falls short of its potential.

Items are going missing from the repository or are losing their magic. Elizabeth and her friends of course decide that they are going to take the investigation into their own hands. Breaking new literary ground? No, but this type of story can be pretty successful. I had grand hopes, especially when Elizabeth revealed her favourite fairy tale – The Twelve Dancing Princesses. This is my favourite fairy tale! This is never anyone’s favourite. I usually receive blank stares when I mention the story. I’m going to like Elizabeth. Nope. I might have, but her character is so underdeveloped that I can’t actually form any feelings about her. The lack of character development is at the root of all the rest of the problems in the novel. We’ve got four teens, from very different backgrounds, working together at the repository.

Their diverse backgrounds could have created depth. Marc’s basketball prowess is talked about ALL the time. It doesn’t seem like Marc is ever mentioned without reminding the reader that he’s a super star basketball player. And…? It adds nothing in the story. He doesn’t use those skills at any point other than when he’s playing basketball or taking the stairs. He comes from royal roots. A royalty that is lauded by people running the repository. They quote the prophecies of his ancestors all the time. So how come the fact that Marc is part of this lineage is never explored? The only time it’s mentioned is when it becomes the reason his is the only one able to steal a certain object. And he’s an obvious thief! He’s stolen things from the repository for his own gain, but this gets brushed over in a few sentences. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if Marc’s athletic skills were a result of his constant use of the seven league boots? I don’t even know why he was a basketball star. It served no purpose.

Anjali is beautiful and all the boys want her. She’s clearly interested in Marc and oblivious of Aaron. This is a great area for fodder. Not love triangle baloney, but interesting interactions. Anjali’s apparently good at everything, except dealing with her sister. Except she gives into Jaya all the time! Later, we find out that she also descends from royalty. Again, this means nothing to the story. It’s just a footnote to explain why someone wanted to buy her.

Aaron wants to date Anjali. He starts to use Elizabeth to get closer to Anjali. He comes off as just a jerk. For no obvious reason, he’s just mean to everyone. But not mean enough to feel like a possible villain. He’s just uptight. Except for when he’s teasing Elizabeth. The scene with the invisible chair is a glimmer that there could have been some story here, but it was the only moment that stands out for me. Eventually, Aaron realizes he’s attracted to Elizabeth, but he’s so caught up in his jealousy of Marc that he can’t convey his feelings. He’s the only one that suspects Marc is up to something, but he, like everyone else, just seems to forget about it.

There’s only ever one option for the bad guy. He’s introduced as the creepy guy in the library. The next time we see him, he’s being aggressively creepy trying to steal from Elizabeth. Then next time we meet him, he tries to turn the kids into figurines. There are no red herrings. There are no other options. The bad guy literally wears a hat and beard. Everyone else is acting either under duress or in ignorance. Good guys/bad guys. No overlap. Except for Marc – and we already know that that never gets addressed. Elizabeth keeps getting up in arms when Aaron accuses her and the other two of being untrustworthy. But he’s right. He’s the only one willing to address that something might be fishy might be happening.

The most annoying part of the novel is Jaya. She’s ten years old and she steamrolls these older teens with ease. They just let her take over. Not because they think she has the best ideas, but because they don’t appear to have enough insight to tell her no. She’s the most developed character in the book. She’s the only one you really get a picture of. She’s strong willed. She’s annoying. She’s damn stubborn. She’s smart enough to use skills she’s learned to accomplish something. She inadvertently becomes the central character and steals the story. If this had been done on purpose, maybe it would have been endearing, but it didn’t feel purposeful. It felt accidental. Really, with a sentence, Jaya convinces Anjali to take her on her date with Marc? Anjali may be pretty, but she’s got zero conviction – unless she’s getting Marc’s boots back into the Grimm room.

This story should have been a girl struggling to find friendship who finally discovers a place where she can connect with others. Then, through their burgeoning friendship, they end up on an exciting adventure that leads them through a world of magical artifacts and growing up. It doesn’t have enough romance to being a coming of age love story. It doesn’t have enough mystery to be a detective novel. It doesn’t have enough development to be a character study. Maybe this is supposed to be a middle grade book, but the characters feel too old. It’s a perfectly nice, middle of the road book that is probably more enjoyable for middle schoolers than young adults. If the characters were a couple years younger, I think the book might have hit its market perfectly, but as it stands, it’s left lacking.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Remember the spoilers notice over there on the left hand side of the page? Yeah, it’s particularly relevant to this review. I talk about the end just one paragraph from now. It’s worth not knowing if you plan to read the novel. You will either love it or hate it. That seems to be the end result of reading this book. There isn’t much middle ground – except for the people that don’t finish it. I know a surprising number of people who just didn’t finish this book. I do not understand it.

 

I was gripped from the very beginning. I needed to know what had happened – the first time I read it. I decided I wanted to give it a re-read far enough out from the movie release. I’m obviously in the love category for this book. I loved the mystery the first time. Did Nick do it? Did he not do it? What happened to Amy? Wait, Amy is still alive! She’s still alive and she’s framing Nick! What the hell is going on here?! And the second time, I loved the layers of complexity.

 

Re-reads are great with this type of book because you get to put all that what’s happening stuff aside. You’re no longer trying to figure out the mystery. Now you’re looking at the characters. You get to read fake Amy’s diary entries from a new perspective. You can feel the sarcasm dripping from the entries. And here’s where the underlying thematic content starts to arise. The really interesting part of the book – what makes a person a person. Both Nick and Amy touch on this idea at different parts of the book.

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What makes you you? What happened to form you into the person you are? Are you genuine or have you just adopted roles presented to you to form a personality? And if that’s what we do, is it a bad thing? How else do we figure out our likes and dislikes if we’re not exposed to multiple options? Is that putting on airs? Nick and Amy display the two sides of this argument pretty perfectly, and not in the way you might expect. Nick feels like the guy we should hate, but he’s a much better example of adopting personality traits and turning it into a persona – a flawed person, but a person none the less. Amy adopts personas, but switches them whenever she wants to fit her needs. She has no understanding of how to own her personality. She’s a righteous bitch, or more accurately a sociopath, because she never absorbs the things she observes. She simply takes the things she sees and figures out a way to use them against the people who have pissed her off.

 

By looking at how Amy manipulates not only her husband but the police, the media, and by proxy, the entire country, we’re forced to consider how the spread of media – written, visual, and social – influences crime and our perceptions of it. This is referenced when Nick’s lawyer is discussing their case. In crime fiction, the husband is always a suspect and almost always the perpetrator when a wife goes missing. Every time an episode of Law & Order/Criminal Minds/CSI airs, they show evidence that’s used to capture the criminal, techniques that are used to hide evidence, and ways that criminals get away with, or are caught for, their crimes. However truthful or fictional these actions are, they change the face of how criminals act. They allow people like Amy to manipulate the system to achieve the outcome they want and the entire system becomes a game of chase. The more people like me watch/read these – the more of shows/books are created – the more opportunities there are to learn to hide a criminal act. This isn’t a new trend. Crime fiction has existed for decades, but it’s so much easier to access now that it’s created a very strange ripple.

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While I hated Amy, I enjoyed the Flynn chose to make the villain the female character. I’m not saying Nick is the good guy. He’s a scumbag, but in the regular way. He’s cheating on his wife. That’s regular bad guy, not deserves to be framed for murder villainous. But Amy is a flat out villain. She is spiteful. She holds in every slight and when she can’t handle it anymore, she turns on the people who ‘hurt’ her. She became friends with Hillary in high school because it was someone she could easily control but when Hillary started to gain other friends, Amy used her powers of manipulation and turned her friend into an unbalanced stalker. She accused Tony of rape because he started dating someone else after their very short term relationship didn’t work out. And the worst one, she uses Desi’s infatuation with her to get her out of trouble and then kills him and accuses him of kidnap and rape. And she does it all in order to make sure that other people continue to look up to her and love her, even when she doesn’t like the people she wants these reactions from. She breaks the lives of the people around her. She continues to do it after she returns home and finds a way to convince Nick to remain in her life and under her control. She has no redeeming qualities, but she’s a great character to read.

 

More than just a who-done-it, this is a character study in social and personal manipulation. It forces you to take a step back and look at your own actions, and the actions of the people around you. Do we do what we do in order to get what we want, or because we know who we are? Can any of us ever really be genuine or are we so influenced by the broader society that we simply adopt the roles we think we need to – cool girl, good guy, sexy, smart, etc, etc, etc – until we’ve reach some goal set by people we’ve never met and don’t need to care about?