nerdy girl reads: the secret place by tana french

It’s no secret by now that I have a thing for mysteries and thrillers. I try not to pick them up too often, because let’s face it, most of the time they’re about as substantial as the latest CSI: Wherever, but I always come back to them like a junkie needing a hit. And besides the Robert Galbraith (aka, JK Rowling) series and the occasional Stephen King, I shy away from the bestsellers like good old J. Patt and John Grisham, even though I’m sure they would be highly addicting and I doubt I’d be able to stop gobbling them up once I started. Which is why I hesitated to read any of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. I needed a little more substance under the usual fluff of a thriller and didn’t think she’d be able to deliver, despite numerous recommendations from library staff and my own mother-in-law who may be one of the two or three people who read as much as I do.

Well, I was wrong, and I should have picked up these books from the minute they hit the shelves.

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The Secret Place follows Detective Stephen Moran who has been biding his time, waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—basically the rock stars of the Dublin police. It’s where all the cool kids are, obvi. One morning, sixteen-year-old Holly, daughter of a Murder Squad detective and a witness to one of Moran’s previous cases, brings him a photo showing a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of the girls’ boarding school she attends. It says, “I know who killed him.” The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is basically your average mix of teenage gossip and mean-girl cruelty, which is why the card stood out and the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome Chris Harper is resumed. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

In the course of a day, yes the book takes place in one singularly riveting day in basically one or two rooms, everything Moran and Conway uncover leads them to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. As the publisher says, “Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.”

Gah, right?

I won’t lie, I read this book in a matter of days and by about 300 pages in I was thankful I was on vacation and could read for hours to my heart’s content because I was not putting it down for anything. I loved the boarding school setting — it provides such a neat little bubble of drama and intrigue, especially when you add in the teenagers. I thought French did an immaculate job capturing the attitudes and wild emotions of the girls, especially in dialogue. I could precisely picture and hear their phrasing and tones of voice. For being a novel centered around hours and hours of interrogations, the pacing is lively and the flashbacks to the months before the murder (I loved Ms. French’s repeated turn of phrase: “Chris Harper has three months and six days to live.”) help give the reader insight to the characters and their motives. I’ll admit that I figured out who the murderer was before the detectives, but it was still shocking and satisfying.

Underneath the murder, The Secret Place is a beautiful, if not dark, exploration of friendship and loyalty. The friendship between Holly and her friends was touching and made me (and Detective Moran) nostalgic for those perfect early-teen friendships where you exist in this tightly-knit cocoon and everything you need is right there. Obviously it’s not healthy, nor sustainable, which is why we grow out of them. But it’s nice to look back. One of my favorite parts of the story is when the girls make a pact to simply stop giving a damn about boys or makeup or fitting in because they don’t want to change who they are just to fit someone else’s mold of beauty or their expectations of what they should be. I wish I had known people like this growing up because even as an adult, it was incredibly affirming. I also loved the relationship between the detectives. At first Moran was hesitant to work with Conway because she seemed to be everything he wasn’t. He loves beautiful things and uses his rough, poor past to motivate him to be better and more refined, where she embraces her equally bad upbringing and is abrasive, tough, and has been alienated in the squad. They definitely do not trust each other and neither want the other as a partner…at the beginning. The dynamics shift and though I like that French’s series focuses on different detectives in each book, I’d like to see how they get on together.

All in all, if you like mysteries and thrillers or like novels set in boarding schools (and who doesn’t?), you will love The Secret Place. When I finished I immediately began In the Woods, the first in the series, and it’s fantastic too. I just can’t stop, guys.

Rating: 9, Just shy of perfect (Can’t put it down! Well rounded with exceptional characters and style.)

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nerdy girl reads: night film

There’s really no rhyme or reason behind the books I decide to read or review. Some I write about because they’re just SO GOOD I want everyone to love them and some books are so popular, I feel like I’d be missing out if I didn’t throw my two cents out into the interwebs. And most of the time, I can go weeks after reading before finally getting to my review. But some books. Some books become an insidious weed in my brain and I can’t do anything else until I clear it all out here. Night Film is definitely one of those.

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Marisha Pessl’s Night Film was published last year, I believe, and isn’t one of those ultra-popular reads every book club known to man is going to pick up. Mostly because it’s creepy as hell and ridiculously over-the-top in the best possible way. The book follows Scott McGrath, a disgraced investigative journalist who lost all his credibility years earlier when he tried to take down the brilliant, mysterious, and reclusive horror film director, Stanislas Cordova. Cordova’s enigmatic daughter Ashley has apparently committed suicide, but Scott thinks that’s just too convenient. He starts digging deeper into her death with the help of a ragtag team of people who knew Ashley and were the last to ever see her alive. The path they take winds them through mental institutions, voodoo curses, summer camps for wayward teens, a secret internet fan site for the “Cordovites,” foot chases through Manhattan, and, finally, a night or two within the military-fenced walls of The Peak, Cordova’s massive estate (a.k.a., the WORST acid trip ever).

I won’t lie, as far as crime novels or thrillers go, this one is a slow burner. It’s not one to cause obsessive 2 a.m. reading from word one. But what it lacks in initial fire, it makes up for it in spades later on. It is probably one of the most detailed stories I have ever read, fitting since the subject of the investigation is known as a meticulous and exacting creative genius. Cordova is such a great villain! He’s always just out of the picture, hiding in the shadows and pulling all the puppet strings to fit his narrative. Or so Scott believes because actors never talk about their work with him and the secrets all point to dangerous and deadly things happening behind those walls. Pessl truly created an enigma in Cordova – he is in turn evil and magical, brilliant and horrific. And he’s not the only great character. Nora and Hopper, the rest of the ragtag justice league, are so clearly depicted that you really feel their hope and sadness throughout the relentless search for the truth. Usually the characters are my favorite part (in the absence of a love story, obvi) but in Night Film I LOVED the inclusion of fake newspaper and magazine articles and photos and webpages from Scott’s investigation. So brilliant! It was like you got to be detective too and added so much to the narrative.

Ostensibly, Night Film is very simple. It follows pretty classic crime novel moves. But thanks to Pessl’s attention to (and inclusion of) all the details, it gets pretty deep. I found myself thinking about the book long after I would finish reading (and not just in some pretty effed up dreams it made me have), thinking about how in the search for the truth about Cordova, Scott is really searching for how he/you/me/everyone defines “truth.” If you fiercely believe that something is true, it becomes a part of your reality. In the book’s case, Ashley believed she was marked by the devil and Scott believed Cordova was an evil murderer. Were either of these things true? Can you really say they were false? I for one can’t say for certain and it makes me wonder what other “truths” out there are as malleable. Like I said, deep.

I really enjoyed reading Night Film and think it’s perfect for anyone who likes crime mysteries that veer a little to the creepy. Perfect before Halloween! (Just make sure to read the part in The Peak during the daytime!)

Rating: 7, Darn good (Highly recommended book that is well paced and enjoyable with a few flaws.)

nerdy girl reads: the shining girls

Do you like to be scared? Growing up, I hated it. I’ll chalk that up to an unfortunate viewing of Scream at way too young an age. While I still don’t like the startling, pop-up or gory horror, I’ll watch (and love!) Dexter or The Walking Dead or The Silence of the Lambs with the best of them. And of course, I’ll dive into a literary thriller or two. The creepier the better I say! I mean, half the fun of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects or Gone Girl is that they give you major creepy-crawly feelings. Perfect for reading at the pool, right?!?

Last year, like so many of the books I read, the cover for The Shining Girls caught my eye as I walked one of my many trips to the printer through the library’s processing department. Because look at this thing, it is pretty chilling:

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I love its retro feel and the woman’s creepy stare, which is perfect because this book is about a time-traveling serial killer. Yup. I knew I was going to be hooked from the word, “go.” While the premise of the plot doesn’t seem that original (it is a crime thriller after all), Lauren Beukes’ writing is fantastic and the characters she has created, especially the “shining girls,” are something special. Oh, and it’s creepy as hell. I mentioned that, right?

The book begins with Harper, our serial killer and master creeper, stumbling around in Depression-era Chicago. He enters The House, which is his portal to time travel – and his victims. His victims have a sort of glow or buzz about them (hence they’re “shining”) that drives him crazy until he, well, kills them. He is masterful at stalking his prey; becoming a part of their lives, stealing a trinket or leaving one from another of the girls, until he finds the perfect moment to strike. And of course he always gets away. You would too if you could walk in your house in the 40s and walk out in the 80s! He’s all but untraceable…until Kirby. The last of the girls. Saved at the last moment. (I won’t give away how she survives, but it’s kinda sad and the husband couldn’t read that chapter just like we had to fast forward through the very first scenes of House of Cards. Sniff.) She is convinced (correctly) that Harper’s still out there and is determined to find him before he finds her again. She joins the Sun-Times to work with Dan, the homicide reporter who reported her case years ago. Impossibly, they catch a trail and the race to find Harper is on.

I loved Kirby and Harper. I know, I know. You’re not supposed to like the bad guy – and trust me, he’s a really, really bad guy – but he’s so relentlessly evil, I can’t help it. His interactions with the girls are gruesome and he’s so sick…such a good villain! The deranged machinations of his mind were fascinating to me and I really enjoyed the puzzle he created with the trinkets he took and left with the girls. And Kirby. Kirby is one tough cookie. I thought she was smart and a smart-ass and nutty and determined as all get out. Her interactions with Dan are fantastic and while not a love story (time travel and serial killing are enough for one novel I think), their relationship was a bright and funny spot in this otherwise dark novel. And let’s not forget about the girls. Traveling through the past to meet the girls (and sadly, watch them die) was like reading little historical short stories in the midst of the overall novel. Beukes’ research was incredible and really depicted the times, and the types of woman in them, perfectly. From a circus performer to a lab tech to an underground abortion clinic nurse, the “shining girls” couldn’t have been more different, but each of their stories were memorable and exciting.

The Shining Girls really hooked me in and I would recommend it to anyone who loves crime thrillers or creepy serial killers. Like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I think it’s awesome that there are thrillers out there with strong female protagonists, and I hope we start to see more of them.

Rating: 8, Excellent (Memorable and above par, highly entertaining.)

Weigh in: Do you like to be scared? What’s your favorite creepy book?