Friday, May 8, 2015

Book Review: Mister Death's Blue Eyed Girls

Book Review: Mister Death's Blue Eyed Girls by Mary Downing Hahn 

Goodreads Description: Based on an actual crime in 1955, this YA novel is at once a mystery and a coming-of-age story. The brutal murder of two teenage girls on the last day of Nora Cunningham's junior year in high school throws Nora into turmoil. Her certainties, friendships, religion, her prudence, her resolve to find a boyfriend taller than she is - are shaken or cast off altogether.

Most people in Elmgrove, Maryland, share the comforting conviction that Buddy Novak, who had every reason to want his ex-girlfriend dead, is responsible for the killings. Nora agrees at first, then begins to doubt Buddy's guilt, and finally comes to believe him innocent - the lone dissenting voice in Elmgrove.

My Review: It's taken me a bit to actually write this review, mostly because Mister Death's Blue Eyed Girls left me in such a funk. It's an incredible book and so different from what I'm used to seeing in YA that it was a stark breath of fresh air. The story followed Nora in the days leading up to and the weeks after her friends' murder. The whole town is abuzz, certain that one of the girl's ex-boyfriend, Buddy, was behind it, though Nora isn't quite so sure. Aside from the fact that this story is based on a true crime, the events feel so starkly real. Not in the murder or the reactions of people, which were all very well done, but in the little minute details most writers easily overlook. We get to see our MC "fall" for nearly every guy who pays her the time of day, we see our MC and her friend badmouthing their murdered friends before they realize what has happened to them. We get to see the complexities of emotion-- like how Charlie really likes Nora, and yet can't be around her after the incident due to the conflicting feelings and memories. Yes, all of these little tidbits may look unfavorable on a character, but the reason they stood out so strongly is because they were true to being human. Teenage girls don't meet "the one" off the first bat. They fall in love with anyone, (or at least that's what it felt like), they turn to sharp words easily because they don't realize the lasting effect, and most of all, the feeling of confusion and uncertainty remains strong throughout the teenage years. The little negative characteristics creeping out really brought that dose of reality in. The character felt like real people because of, not just what they experience, but how they experienced it.

Mister Death is a powerful loss of innocence tale and a strong period piece. Through every moment in that book, the time period bled in and didn't let you forget it. Records are playing. Long shorts have been introduced. The girls talk about how it sucks that James Dean passed away. Some writers may think they're being overbearing when trying to set a scene or time period, but this book only proves that you simply cannot overdo it. Adding more to instill scenery or setting really has a big impact. Aside from the time period, even just the way the author described the town and the summer heat left a lasting impression and made the setting come alive like another character. As well, the loss of innocence is stark. The first few chapters we get to see our MC, Nora, and all her friends living their lives as normal, which allows for the sharp contrast to what happens when the murders take place. Because of this, most of the characters can come off as a little bit like boy-crazy bimbos in the beginning, but I believe this is more reflective of the time period and their naivety than anything else.

This book is strongly character driven and best when you're in more of a reflective mood. Aside from the murders, there isn't a whole lot of action that goes on, and it is a story of a personal journey and discovery. The only thing I would complain about is having a bit more closure with the actual killers. The book spends time alternating between POVs and we get the chance to see things through the killer's eyes. However, I felt like it was left a little unfinished and would've liked to see one or two more scenes from them. Other than that, the relationships in this story are really what's gold, my personal favourite being the relationship between Buddy and Nora. There's something really beautiful in their scenes together, and not in a lovey-dovey way, but in a way that speaks to the truth and mystery in human relationships.

I would greatly encourage anyone to pick this up, especially if you've ever faced some sort of tragedy. Though not a lot happens, the pace is swift and makes for a quick and invested read.

TL;DR: 4/5 stars. A great period piece and a strong loss of innocence story with some intense ideas explored.

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