Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

One of my younger charges is a fan of the Swedish translation of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. His birthday is coming up, and I think he’s at the point where he can appreciate the English original. Of course I couldn’t resist the temptation to sit down and read his birthday present before I wrap it up and give it to him.

Cover of Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid."

Author: Jeff Kinney

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.97

Language scaling: B1+

Summary: Middle schooler Greg Heffley’s life and times.

Recommended audience: Elementary and middle school students

In-depth thoughts: Some children’s literature continues to hold up, even when you’re an adult. Other children’s literature seems to have a narrow appreciation window. Diary of a Wimpy Kid falls firmly in the latter camp for me. I imagine there’s some appeal to watching the snarky and frankly sociopathic Greg come up with plans and then fail horrendously at them when you’re still 10 or 11 years old—it’s a lot of the same kind of hijinks that make certain grating YouTube celebrities so popular with young fans—but as an adult there’s not much to enjoy.

The art is cute, at least, and you have to credit Kinney with inspiring a bunch of copycats. There’s also a few scenes of Greg’s dad being surprisingly (or not so surprisingly) adamant about Greg not having “girl toys” that Kinney could have done something with but just…didn’t. I’m not expecting a treatise on gender in a book for elementary school kids, and I’m glad he brought it up at all, but there was more that could have been done with it.

In the end, though, Greg is too unlikable for my taste, especially in how he treats his “best friend.” I think some parents might want to sit down with their young readers and talk about, for example, what kind of “friend” Greg really is and the difference between what’s funny in a book and what’s acceptable in real life.

Take This MOOC: Literature and Mental Health

Literature and Mental Health is actually a course I stumbled on thanks to Learning How to Learn (which I’ve previously reviewed here) and their weekly email newsletters. I was too late to sign up for it initially, but opened again in January and finished up the first week in March. (Don’t worry: these courses often repeat! Sign up now if you’re interested in taking the course in the future.)

Literature and Mental Health is another offering from FutureLearn, like Inside IELTS (see my review here, including some comments on FutureLearn). It’s presented by Jonathan Bate, Paula Byrne, and was developed by the Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick. As the name would suggest, Literature and Mental Health looks at how literature, particularly poetry, might be beneficial in treating mental illness. The course focuses on six particular issues related to mental well-being:

  • Stress
  • Heartbreak
  • Bereavement
  • Trauma
  • Depression and Bipolar
  • Aging and Dementia

Literature and Mental Health, like Inside IELTS, is presented only in English. The literature in question is English, and the course draws particularly from the British literary traditions. Nonetheless, the course seems to have been enjoyed by learners all over the world, judging by the comments in the course discussion.. There are transcripts of every video, which EFL students will no doubt find helpful. (There is the occasional hiccup in the transcripts, but for the most part they’re quite good.)

As I mentioned earlier, the course focuses almost exclusively on poetry. I am notoriously indifferent about poetry, and so I would have appreciated equal attention paid to prose throughout the course. Nonetheless, I appreciate that Literature and Mental Health drew from a broad scope of English literature, from the 1600s until today. The poems selected represent a lovely cross-section of the English language and how it’s developed over the last 350 years. EFL students might find some of those older poems intimidating, but you might be surprised at how how much you can take away from a poem, especially if you read contemporary discussion and analysis alongside of it.

There are no quizzes or other recall assignments involved. Instead, there are periodic, optional “activities” connected to literature-adjacent research: can reading poetry improve mood? what makes poetry easy or difficult to memorize? Students who find themselves stressed over MOOCs because of assessments or grades would do well to start with this one, as it’s incredibly low stakes.

Finally, the course draws inspiration from a wide variety of sources. Every unit includes interviews with other writers, poets, or British cultural luminaries. Additionally, a medical professional always anchors the initial discussion on the week’s focus, so that the discussion of the literature is always grounded in what the medical world knows about that particular condition. Even if you don’t get anything out of the poetry, you might learn something new about mental health!

Book Review: The Power

I first heard of The Power thanks to the half-dozen book bloggers I follow. A while ago, I started using GoodReads’ “to-read” function as a storehouse for all of the books I heard about that sounded really cool but that I would otherwise forget after a couple days. Then the universe aligned: I received a free copy of The Power from a New Year’s book club exchange buddy, and then my feminist science fiction club decided on it for February’s book.

The UK edition of "The Power" by Naomi Alderman, featuring a geometric Art Deco design in black red, and white.

Author: Naomi Alderman

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.93

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: One day, women around the world develop the power to produce electricity out of nowhere. Everything changes.

Content warning: There are some gruesome scenes of violence and sexual assault throughout.

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans

In-depth thoughts: The Power posits that if you gave women the ability to produce electricity out of nowhere thereby making them all walking weapons, within less than a decade you’ll see an entire global culture shift. That’s really the point that the book turns on, and how much you enjoy the book is probably based on how much you buy into Alderman’s thesis. Less central to the story is that it’s pure power (hah, hah) that drives sexual objectification and sexual entitlement. Still, if you disagree with Alderman’s implied stance on this, there will be moments of characterization that fall flat for you.

Speaking of characterization, this is another book with an ensemble cast, a total of five major perspective characters (plus asides here and there). I’m not entirely convinced that all of those characters were entirely necessary to the story. And while Alderman included a graceful nod to the complexities of biological sex with how inconsistently the physiological source of the power manifests (i.e. some men have semi-developed skeins, and some women don’t have skeins as developed as other women), the absence of any trans characters or an examination of what this development would mean for them is notable.

Despite these issues, The Power is a quick and snappy read with a lot to say about women, sex, and power (hah, hah) in society. Grounded as it is in real life (as opposed to distant post-apocalyptic futures or even more distant space-faring ones with dozens of new alien races and languages), The Power is a solid choice for EFL students who are also sci-fi fans.

Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

This was another selection from one of my three book clubs, this one based on Discord and more generally YA focused. The earlier book I read with them was Roar.


The cover of "The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue" by Mackenzi Lee

Author: Mackenzi Lee

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.17

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: On the eve of his entry into adulthood, Henry Montague is going on a tour of Europe with his sister and his best friend and love interest, Percy. What starts out as a sedate tour of arts and culture ends up being a cross-continental treasure hunt.

Recommended audience: 19th century adventure novel fans; those interested in GLBTQ+ literature

In-depth thoughts: This was a book that I was really excited about. I watch a couple of Booktubers now and again, and The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue had come up in a lot of their videos. The concept sounded interesting and these were people whose tastes I trusted, so when my Discord book club chose this book for February I was glad that, for once, I was going to read the new release I was interested in fairly close to release. (This doesn’t happen often! Too many books!)

Once, as a kid, I took a sip from a cup without looking and expected apple juice. It actually had milk. The moment of confusion where my brain tried to sort out expectations versus reality meant the drink didn’t really taste like anything, at least anything I was familiar with. It was just uncomfortable and disconcerting.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is that moment in book form. I think I was expecting a subtle, more character-driven slow burn romance; when it turned out to be a Return the MacGuffin adventure story I was disappointed and slightly uncomfortable for the remainder of the story.

Additionally, Henry (or “Monty,” as he’s known for most of the book) takes a breezy, ironic tone that feels anachronistic, too modern for a book taking place in pre-Revolutionary France. Confession: I love 19th century adventure novels, as racist and sexist and issue-laden as they are. And The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue doesn’t read like one of those at all. This wouldn’t be a problem except I think Lee wants this book to be a more inclusive version of exactly those books.

To her credit, Lee gives a very thorough accounting of all of her research and inspiration for a number of aspects of the books (the Grand Tour, European politics, queer history, race relations) at the end. When it comes to Henry, she cites the journals of James Boswell as inspiration. This has made me rather keen to read them. His diaries about his own Grand Tour are a little hard to come by, but his account of traveling to the Hebrides is available for free on Kindle.

While my expectations may have soured the book for me overall (apple juice and milk), it’s still a good book that, thanks to the narrator’s unusually modern voice, can be a great choice for EFL students.

Book Review: The Sky is Yours

We should all know better than to judge a book by its cover, but when I saw The Sky is Yours in my NetGalley menu, with the neon dragons in the ouroboros pattern against a brick wall backdrop, I was instantly intrigued. The premise only further cemented my interest, and I was lucky enough to get a review copy.

The cover of The Sky is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith

Author: Chandler Klang Smith

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.53

Language scaling: C2

Summary: A estranged betrothed couple and a feral girl try to make sense of their lives in a post-apocalyptic New York, which ends up having city-wide ramifications.

Content warning: It’s a borderline anarchic apocalypse so there’s low-key brutal violence throughout that doesn’t happen entirely off page, plus some sex scenes here and there.

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans, 19th century novel of manners fans

In-depth thoughts: Sometimes I read a book and even if it’s not entirely my cup of tea, I stand in awe of the craftsmanship. So it is with The Sky is Yours. Smith’s world building is par excellence and the way she incorporates elements of our present and past is seamless and, of course, entirely plausible. Small things like: one character happens to find a book of poetry by her father and notes in the copyright page that it was “print on demand.” Her immediate thought is that he must have been a writer of incredible renown, to have his book so constantly in demand. Or another character suffering “affluenza” that needs the occasional administrations of an inhaler.

What kept me from rating it any higher is how much of it there is. Smith includes a lot of asides and multiple perspectives, which results in a complex and gritty world that feels very real, even though there are a pair of dragons flying around and laying waste to New York City. The multiple voices are handled deftly, so that you can always tell which character with you’re with. It’s an altogether big project and Smith pulls it off well. Nothing wrong with any of that.

On the other hand, much of it doesn’t serve the plot in any significant way. I don’t think plot should be the be-all, end-all of novels, but there’s a fine line between complexity and getting lost in yourself. There are bits and asides here and there that mostly seem to be written for the sake of a gag or two, and whether the payoff is worth it will always be a subjective issue. Not all of the characters Smith chooses to develop in their own chapters are interesting enough to warrant the attention, either. (Spoiler alert: some of them end up dead pretty quickly, so there’s not much point in getting to know them.)

Serious students of writing will be interested in the pineapple-on-pizza quality of genre mash-up at work here: post-apocalyptic dystopia plus classic novel of manners sounds like it wouldn’t work, but it does—and well, at that. Sci fi fans and 19th century literature fans might well enjoy it, to the extent they feel The Sky is Yours draws on their respective genres. EFL readers might want to approach with caution: there is a combination of faux-archaic English, portmanteaus, in-jokes, and puns that forms the bedrock of the book, so I would only recommend it for fairly advanced speakers.

Book Review: One Day in the Life of Denis Ivanovich

I’ve long been interested in Russian literature, so when this title came up in the comments section of my favorite writing blog, I added it to my towering GoodReads “to read” shelf. A book club buddy gifted me a copy earlier this year and so I immediately sat down to read it.

The Penguin Classics cover of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, featuring a black and white photograph of someone in a prison.

Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; H. T. Willetts, translator

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.95

Language scaling: C1+

Summary: One day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet gulag.

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in hyper-realism; anyone interested in Russian literature from the Soviet era

In-depth thoughts: Nothing happens, which will either bother you or it won’t. I’ve long been a fan of the “slice of life” kind of stories, where small struggles gain epic proportions (television shows like The Adventures of Pete and Pete or Seinfeld, movies like Clerks), and that’s largely what One Day… is. It’s just that the backdrop is a prison camp instead of American suburban life. If your tastes overlap with mine, then you’ll get a lot out of it. But if “a book about nothing, set in a gulag” sounds tedious to you, then it probably won’t be a lot of fun to read. (Not that it was “fun,” exactly.)

Because of the specific setting, and because so much of it centers around very small details and very small, easily overlooked items, reading the English translation might be difficult for lower level readers. (Unless you want to look up a whole bunch of new words about army barracks and stonemasony and so on). But for those already familiar with the original, or with a higher level of English, this translation is of interest.

Var blev du av Bernadette

This review is maybe a first for the blog: a Swedish translation of a book originally published in English. But: doctor, heal thyself; teacher, teach thyself. My advice to students is always first and foremost to read as much as possible. Why shouldn’t I follow my own advice?

The Swedish cover of "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" with a cartoon portrait of a white woman with brown hair, wearing a yellow scarf tied over her hair and oversized black sunglasses.
Image courtesy Wahström & Widstrand

Author: Maria Semple

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.91

Language scaling: ??? (best guess, based on the Swedish translation: B2+??)

Summary: Bee has just gotten top marks at her alternative school and as a reward, her family books a cruise to Antarctica over the Christmas holiday. Everything goes topsy-turvy when Bee’s mother, Bernadette, goes missing.

Content warning: Bernadette clearly has a host of psychological conditions and I’m not in a position to judge if the book handles that well or not. I’m also not a fan of Semple’s treatment of the Asian characters.

Recommended audience: Anyone who needs a dose of whimsy and humor

In-depth thoughts: Semple does interesting things with form and switches between Bee’s own first-person perspective and an assemblage of documents to build this story, which could have gone wrong but didn’t. I had no problems switching back and forth from documents to Bee’s narration to documents again. Bee, especially, was fun to read and the best kind of teenage protagonist: sometimes insightful, sometimes naive, never stupid. And I appreciate Semple staying away from working in any kind of shoehorned romance or love interest for Bee. It’s like adults who write for or about teenagers can only remember the boy- or girl-crazy part of teenagerdom angst, nothing else.

The transitions between sections feel sloppy sometimes, due to a jumbled-up timeline. The little blurb at the beginning of the story makes it sound like Bernadette has been missing for years, not mere weeks. I think Semple or her editor had an intuition that the timeline would be an issue here, and that’s why every extract is clearly dated. I have my own opinions about how I would have handled it as a writer or editor, but whatever, those aren’t that interesting!

The one thing I’m not entirely sure about is the Asian gags. There are two and half points here: the fact that Elgin’s secretary (who I read as Korean-American but I realize now could also be Chinese-American) is an overall kind of insufferable character (depending on your preferences) and the one-liner Bee has comparing her to Yoko Ono. As another blog points out, this grates both because Soo-Lin is pretty obviously not Japanese, and because the “Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles!” meme is incredibly tiresome. So even when Bee apologizes later for the remark and realizes how it must have come off, the “Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles” meme persists. On the other hand, Bee has just graduated middle school and so is around 14 years old. I’m sure I hated Yoko Ono when I was 14, too. Even though my favorite Beatle was/is George. So that’s half a point.

It’s Soo-Lin’s gossip-y insufferability that’s more cringe-inducing than the Yoko Ono gag, especially when the only other Asian characters that appear are a group of Japanese tourists on the Antarctica cruise Bee takes with Elgin. There is an inherent fish-out-of-water humor that comes with foreign tourists, a group of people who are plopped down outside of their normal context, but still. They don’t add anything to the plot; their presence is just a comic device intended to render the setting of the cruise as absurd as possible. That’s one point.

The other is that Soo-Lin’s partner in crime and even more insufferable gossip pal, Audrey (who is the semi-accidental antagonist of the whole book) gets to have a redemption arc while Soo-Lin remains just…there. Still kind of an awful-but-you-feel-bad-for-thinking-so character, no redemption, just literally handwaved away by one of the other main characters.

Despite this small misgiving, overall I had a really good time with Var blev du av Bernadette. It was a compelling read, and it was just the thing for me to kickstart my Swedish reading in 2018.

What Makes a Classic?

One of the very few online groups I belong to is The Classics Club. (Not by way of this specific blog, but via another one.) The idea is simple: come up with a list of 50+ classics to read in the next five years, contact the moderators, and you’re (probably) in! But if you’re not much of a joiner, you can still follow the blog and make use of their spins, check-ins, and the backlog of monthly blog prompts. A recent post on the blog brought up the question: How do you define “classic”?

My own Classics Club list was based on the Top 100 Novels of All TIME. After I graduated from college, I took a year-long break from reading fiction. I’d read and written too much of it over the course of the last four years, and truthfully I was a bit despairing of fiction generally. What’s the point? Who cares about reading made-up stories about made-up people? What’s the value in that? (I don’t know where that streak of hardcore utilitarianism came from; maybe I was actually depressed at the time.) I binged on nonfiction for a while, because I felt like I wanted to learn something about the world. When I felt like I was ready for fiction again, I didn’t know how to direct myself—how to choose my own books. The TIME list was as good as any, so I picked that and went to work.

An old cover of TIME Magazine with the headline "CYBERPUNK: Virtual sex, smart drugs, and synthetic rock 'n' roll! A futuristic subculture erupts from the electronic underground." over an image of a young white male wearing a headset and PowerGlove-like aparatus, seated at a CRT monitor, with a neon purple and pink spiral behind him.

(Obviously not a cover from 2005 but I couldn’t resist using the most hilarious cover of TIME magazine I could find.)

Over time, I made alterations; the list is 79% men (73% white men), which seems a little disproportionate considering how actual America population demographics break down. I didn’t achieve gender parity, but I got closer (26% women / 74% men). I searched out more writers of color. If this list were to accurately reflect US racial demographics in 2005, there would be:

  • 13 Black writers
  • 14 Latinx writers
  • 5 Asian writers (this definition of “Asian” being a broad swathe of nations and ethnicities, from Middle Eastern to East, South, and Southeast Asian; Middle Eastern wasn’t tracked according to the above Pew Center data)

The above statistics don’t list any numbers on Native populations, but later Census data puts it at around 1%. Needless to say, these numbers aren’t reflected in Grossman and Lacayo’s list.

My criteria for replacing a book on the list, such as they were:

  • Authors listed twice had one entry booted (farewell, A Pale Fire; so long, Animal Farm; nice knowing you, A Handful of Dust).
  • Any book whose summary I found really unappealing (Falconer) or whose story or subject matter I felt I was already familiar with via cultural osmosis (Deliverance, Dog Soldiers, Gone With the Wind) could be jettisoned.
  • Any book that I still found boring after a good faith effort (around twenty to fifty pages) could be considered read and/or taken off the list to make room for another book (Revolutionary RoadThe Man Who Loved ChildrenA Death in the Family).
  • If a woman was taken off the list, she could only be replaced with another woman. The same would have been true for writers of color, but I never ended up taking any of them off the list.
  • Another book by the same author counted, if the book on the list was unavailable at the library (Martha Quest instead of The Golden NotebookThe Handmaid’s Tale instead of The Blind Assassin).
  • Books that I had already read could be retroactively counted if I felt they were classics of their own accord (Name of the Rose).
  • Writers of color were given preference when possible.

All in all, this meant that I added the following books to the list:

* this book is out of bounds of the time limit I arbitrarily decided on, which was 1999 (to make a list of great 20th century novels)

** this book is technically out of bounds of the time limit dictated by the original list, since it was published before 1923

So what made those editions “classic” for me? As opposed to other books I read but didn’t add to the list? It’s a very uneven list there, and honestly some of those I might even take off later in favor of something better, but then again the original list was also uneven so if Grossman and Lacayo can usher in some duds, so can I.

The best definition of classic is the quote from Italo Calvino: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

(Surprising that I would quote Calvino when I find him to be an uneven writer overall, but there it is.)

People gush about classics being “timeless” but that means different things to different people. There are a lot of mediocre writing instructors out there who insist students avoid using things like Facebook or text messages in their stories because “good writing should be timeless,” yet they’re okay with combustible engines and electricity. (Surprise that people of a certain generation always find new technology and developments disturbing! I wonder if writing instructors in the 1920s railed against the use of horseless carriages and radio in stories for the same reason.)

There are universals of human life that have remained the same over time, even if shifting social mores and new technologies have added wrinkles to those experiences. Love, rejection, insecurity, anxiety, hope…nothing can make those irrelevant or passe. Even when you set a story in a very specific historical context (and yes, true, all stories have a historical context), the conflict and the issues related to that context are still around themes relevant to today. Cry the Beloved Country is about troubled race relations immediately preceding apartheid South Africa, but it’s also about forgiveness and fatherhood. Events in The Poisonwood Bible are intrinsically tied to the political upheaval in the Belgian Congo during the 1960s, but it alongside the white supremacy that fuels the cottage industry of Christian missionaries to Africa, it also tackles overambitious hubris, responsibility, and culpability.

But what separates a classic from a didactic lesson (“racism is bad, mmmkay?”) is complexity. Your favorite fantasy novel will definitely have an epic good-versus-evil scope. Some will have nuance, with a character who ends up being a turncoat or engaging in morally questionable choices for the greater good, but how many of them will address the complex issues that lead to the rise of evil in the first place, or the kind of evil that is the crushing indifference of a runaway system rather than a tyrannical evil overlord?

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

Book Review: Whistler’s Mother: Portrait of an Extraordinary Life

I make the best effort I can to read at least one non-fiction book every month. I think there is always benefit and enjoyment to be had in learning about the world around you (or, in the case of history books, the world before you), and it also is an important part of maintaining my chops as an editor, something like unofficial continuing professional development.

The cover "Whistler's Mother: Portrait of an Extranordinary Life." The title is set within the famous "Whistler's Mother" painting, to the left of the sitting woman.
Image courtesy Yale University Press
 Author: Daniel E. Sutherland & Georgia Toutziari
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.33
Language scaling: C2+
Summary: The biography of Anna McNeill Whistler, mother of the modernist painter James McNeill Whistler and the woman in the portrait Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1., known colloquially as “Whistler’s Mother.”
Recommended audience: Those interested in art history, nineteenth century American history, or feminist history.
In-depth thoughts: Biographies are some of my favorite non-fiction to read, as they can help contextualize what historical events and epochs would have meant for the day-to-day lives of more or less ordinary people. Whistler’s Mother does just that. Even though the focus is ever on Anna McNeill Whistler, Sutherland and Toutziari seamlessly tie her life into larger events happening around her and show how she was immediately affected: outbreaks of influenza and cholera; the American Civil War; the railroad boom that led to the Panic of 1873; the reign of Tsar Nicholas.
Like other, more historical non-fiction I’ve received from NetGalley (The Radium Girls)*, there is an abundance of names and people to remember. Anna came from a large family and maintained a large social network (via copious letter-writing); as a result there is a large cast of secondary characters, as it were, to keep track of. This can be hard going in ebook or Kindle form, at least for me. On the other hand, it is as exhaustive and detailed a biography of an individual as you could possibly want. Unsurprising, then, that it’s from a university press (in this case, Yale). The result is hardly light reading and relies heavily on excerpts and quotes from Anna’s own correspondence. This is part of the reason I would grade the language as highly as I do: this is correspondence that is 150 years old, give or take a decade.
But for anyone with a committed interest in the subjects I mentioned earlier (art history, 19th century American history, or either of the two through a feminist lens), it may be a read that is worth the work.
*in exchange for this review

Book Review: Dark Places

The Facebook book club I mentioned in my last review also organizes a yearly book swap around New Year’s. My book swap partner in 2016 (going into 2017) was incredibly gracious and sent me not one but two books! One was Both Flesh and Not, which they sent based on the prodigious amounts of David Foster Wallace in my GoodReads, and one book they had really enjoyed during the year: Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. I tore into Both Flesh and Not right away, but kept on putting off Dark Places. I don’t normally read thrillers (though I love mysteries, so go figure) and everything I knew about Gone Girl was so unappealing that I was afraid Dark Places would be more of the same.

I put off reading Dark Places for so long that it became eligible for my annual goal of “read one book that you’ve owned for over a year but never read,” and so in the absence of anything else left on that list (which also included Journal of a SolitudeGösta Berling’s Saga, and Bödeln, among others), I finally picked it up on New Year’s and finished it within a few days.

The cover of "Dark Places" by Gillian Flynn. The title is in a lime green sans-serif font on a black back background, with a photo negative image of weeds in the bottom left corner.
Image courtesy Phoenix

Author: Gillian Flynn

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.92 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: As a child, Libby Day’s testimony helped put her brother away for the gruesome murders of her mother and sisters. Fresh out of money and still traumatized by the memory,  Libby finally takes it upon herself to investigate what really happened that night at the behest of a group of armchair detectives who are obsessed with her case.

Content warning: Descriptions of violent, gruesome murders appear throughout, as well as a few scenes of a sexual nature; there’s also (dry, clinical) discussion of childhood sex abuse.

Recommended audience: Mystery and thriller fans; true crime fans (though it’s not a true crime novel, much of the story is centered around true crime enthusiasts); people interested in the “Satanic panic” that swept the US during the 80s; aspiring crime and thriller writers.

In-depth thoughts: Ultimately, I’m glad that I finally got around to reading Dark Places. I’m still not much of a thriller fan, but there’s a neat symmetry to the way that Flynn builds the story as it alternates between present-day and the day of the murder. It’s worth reading just for the structure alone, to see the way things are set up and subverted, to see how clues are revealed, to see how even small things turn up again in the end when you least expect them, to see how people can interpret the same events or scenes or scrap of evidence completely differently (sometimes tragically so). Dark Places is an excellent book to dissect if you’re writing your own story in a similar genre.