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Review: The Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas

As an ardent fan of murder mysteries, harboring an obsession for true crime TV shows (Snapped, Forensic Files, The First 48, etc.), I was excited to receive an early copy of The Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas. This story is about as dark and twisted as a YA murder mystery can get!

Tessa has returned to her hometown of Fayette, Pennsylvania to say good-bye to her estranged father, as he lay dying in prison. She hasn’t set foot in Fayette in more than 10 years, and for good reason. When Tessa was a girl, she was a key witness, along with her then-best friend, Callie, in the murder trial of Wyatt Stokes, the Ohio River Monster; the man who they believe murdered Callie’s cousin, Lori, as well as several other young girls. Abandoned by her older sister and her mother, and whisked away to Florida after the trial by her grandmother, Tessa lost touch with Callie and tried to move on with her life. Now that she’s back, she just wants to say good-bye to her father, get through her awkward stay at Callie’s house, and start fresh at a college in Florida.

Tessa’s life has never been easy, however, and her visit to the prison only serves to dredge up more trouble; trouble Callie and Tessa thought was behind them. A mysterious name on her father’s prison visitor sheet, a niggling doubt in the back of her mind about her witness testimony all those years ago, and a shocking death that too closely resembles the Ohio River Monster murders will cause Tessa to question everything she thought she knew – about what really happened that night, about her dysfunctional family, about Fayette, and most importantly, about herself. She thought this last visit to her hometown would be quick, but she may not make it out alive.

The premise sounds great, right?! While it wasn’t exactly a home run for me, The Darkest Corners did keep me guessing ‘til the very end. It’s dark and gritty, with twisted characters, tragic back-stories, and so many different clues as to what’s going on, it will make your head spin! There were some aspects that worked, as well as some that didn’t, and I’ll do my best to cover them here.

What worked: The mystery aspect & the vibe

I was certain at a few points during the story that I knew who the murderer was, and that I had figured out some of the secrets other characters were hiding, but there are so many twists and turns, that the final reveals were unexpected. I like being surprised, so the actual mystery was probably the best part of the book.

The overall vibe of the setting and the story was so heavy and depressing, and really heightened the creepiness factor. I found myself wishing I never wind up in a po-dunk town like Fayette. This small town existing in a depressed economy, with residents just trying to get by and bored teenagers finding danger and trouble at every turn, is as real as it gets.

As a strict murder mystery, The Darkest Corners delivers. However…

What didn’t quite work: The characters & plot twists

Firstly, as a character-focused reader, I failed to really connect with any of the characters. I think a lot of murder mysteries have rather unlikable, untrustworthy characters, and perhaps they’re written that way to keep the reader guessing. Tessa is a hard nut to crack, but given her over-the-top tragic background, it’s understandable. She does make an effort to overcome her eccentricities, which serves in redeeming her from being a totally unrelatable character. The way her childhood is described, I’m surprised she’s as sane and “together” as she is, though she is clearly damaged. She can’t even ask for simple things, like using the computer at her old best friend’s house, because she doesn’t want to be disappointed and she doesn’t want to owe anyone anything. I found myself scrunching my nose as she described wearing the same clothes day in and day out. I don’t expect to read about each time a character showers, but throughout the story, Tessa’s lack of hygiene is rather conspicuous.

Callie, Tessa’s ex-best friend, is abrasive and mean for seemingly no reason at all. She lies to her parents, who seem to be the only remotely “normal” characters in the whole book, and she struggles with addiction. Her continued coldness to Tessa became frustrating, and when an explanation finally surfaced for her behavior, it was a poor excuse.

A whole cast of characters is slowly introduced throughout the book, which can sometimes work, if the author is very careful to make them distinct from each other. Unfortunately, that is not the case here. I found myself having to pause during my reading and think about who “such-and-such” was and how they were related to the scene or dialogue at hand. This is a jarring process for the reader, and it takes them out of the story, making it a chore to get back into. Some of the characters introduced seem unnecessary and as if they were put into the story more as a convenience mechanism to spur the story along and add to the confusion of the mystery.

Aside from the main murder mystery, there were a couple of plot twists thrown in that came out of left field, serving to make this story even more warped than it was to begin with. I feel these twists could have been made into their own story, and indeed, perhaps they should have been. Inserted into this story, though, they felt too rushed and contrived.

Summary: Worth a read

Overall, while The Darkest Corners had some flaws, it was still an engaging read. I even brought my iPad with me to the gym so I could keep reading on the elliptical. Yes, I’m one of “those” people! If you want to be simultaneously creeped out and entertained, while trying to solve the mystery behind the Ohio River Monster murders (thank goodness this is not based on a true story!), I suggest you pick this book up and give it a chance.

The Darkest Corners is published by Random House Children’s / Delacorte Press and will be found in bookstores on April 19, 2016. I received an early review copy in exchange for my honest review.

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