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All These Perfect Strangers: A Novel by…
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All These Perfect Strangers: A Novel

by Aoife Clifford

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Clifford's first novel starts out promisingly. Penelope (Pen), our narrator states up front that her role in the events played out in the novel could be construed in a number of ways depending on where you start the story. Pen begins her story by escaping her small provincial town to start law at university. There are clues that Pen has been involved in a tragedy - one that has included her best friend and also made her a pariah in her home town. Through her sessions with a psychiatrist The Reader gradually learns of this episode. When Pen starts university, unexplained deaths begin.
The period is specific: late 1980s; it may be pedantic of me but there's something unsettling about the locale of this novel, presumably the uni is in a large-ish town or city, but there's so little detail provided it's distracting. The university itself - large or small; with such a small cast of characters should we assume it's tiny? And for a law student Pen doesn't appear to take any classes or even study. ( )
  PPLS | Nov 10, 2016 |
None of us ever pick up a book with the expectations of disliking it, nor do most of us enjoy writing negative reviews. But it happens, and this is one of those instances for me.

I'll start with a positive note: I love the premise for this story. The author writes well, as far as engaging sentences and showing action.

Sadly, my enjoyment stops there.

So much of this book didn't work for me. I'll start with the most glaring irritation. This story is told in three different timelines, all from Pen's perspective. We have the present timeline, which turns out to be a very small part of the story. Then we have the recent past, in which we spend a whole lot of time. This takes place during Pen's first year of college. And then we have the more distant past, in which we visit her teen, pre-college years. These timelines are jumbled together and the story winds up feeling disjointed.

I almost gave up at the beginning, and perhaps I should have so I wouldn't be writing this uncomfortable review. We spend an inordinate amount of time doing nothing but hanging out at college, watching young adults interact, talk about each other, drink, and have sex. No one studies. Ever. There was no suspense here, and not even much of interest going on. These young adults were mostly rude to each other, and they were not particularly likable.

It took me a while to figure out that this part is a flashback of sorts, as Pen tells her story to herself as she works out what to tell her psychologist in the story's present timeline.

The plot's execution took what could have been a dark, suspenseful story and dragged us around to the point where the eventual unveiling was anticlimactic. A point exists in which a tantalizing detail is held out as suspense for so long that the constant alluding to that detail becomes an annoyance. This book far surpassed that point.

Then we have the characters, who are lacking a spark of life. Here we have a bunch of college kids, with murders happening all around them, yet no one seems particularly disturbed by this. Pen herself is the quintessential unreliable character. She lies to her friends, to her mother, to her psychologist, to the police, and to herself. Her constant lies, combined with the jumbled timelines and dragged out attempt at suspense left me wondering what, if anything, was real in this story.

The major twist toward the end didn't surprise me much at all, because of the way the particular character stood out throughout.

The ending isn't a complete ending. We're left to conjecture and assumptions as to how the rest of the story played out.

Overall, the story is a confusing accumulation of events that left me feeling disconnected from any emotion or suspense.

*I was provided with an advance ebook copy by the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.* ( )
  Darcia | Aug 6, 2016 |
This is about three deaths. Actually, more if you go back far enough. I say deaths, but perhaps all of them were murders. It’s a grey area. Murder, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. So let’s just call them deaths and say I was involved. This story could be told a hundred different ways.

It is 1990 and Pen has left both her dysfunctional life in a small town and her secrets to attend university. She is surrounded by people whom she starts to think of as friends but quickly discovers that she isn’t the only one with secrets. Then these new friends begin to die, and it looks like her past is catching up with her.

All of These Perfect Strangers is the debut novel of author Aoife Clifford. The story moves back and forth through time and is told by Pen in the first person in the present while we learn about the past often through diary entries that she has written as therapy. Each chapter starts with a date and I discovered very quickly that it was important to note them because, otherwise, the story could be very confusing. But once I figured that out, I found myself immersed in the story enough to care what happened to Pen even when it seemed like she was not the innocent she portrayed herself.

The novel is well-written and, if it was less a pageturner than an intriguing puzzle, it kept me guessing throughout especially as Pen often hints that she is an unreliable narrator and a very good liar. Clifford gives plenty of red herrings and diversions to keep the story moving and the reader involved. She also raises some very interesting and timely moral issues eg. how much should age, intent, and victim be a factor in a murder case. ( )
  lostinalibrary | Jul 29, 2016 |
I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion of the book or my review itself.

I love mysteries and thrillers set in schools, particularly The Secret History, one of my all-time favorite books, and a novel All These Perfect Strangers is itself compared to.

And All These Perfect Strangers more than holds its own in the tradition of on-campus mysteries.

Taking the readers on a twisting journey back and forth in time, All These Perfect Strangers tells the story of Pen. She has fled her past to enroll in university, but now three of her friends are dead.

Through flashbacks, journal entries, and therapy sessions, readers learn the tale of Pen's past and present. But Pen is our only narrator, and one must constantly question just how much we can trust her.

Clifford builds suspense until it is almost unbearable. This is a book you won't be able to put down. ( )
  seasonsoflove | Jul 25, 2016 |
4.5 stars

All These Perfect Strangers is Aoife Clifford's debut novel, which you would never know from reading it. This is a well-crafted tale with plenty of plot twists, delivered by a classic unreliable narrator. The framing device is the narrator's diary, which she is reluctantly writing at the behest of the psychiatrist who both treated her after the first of the three deaths around which the novel revolves and has been retained to render an expert opinion of her emotional state after the last death.

While there are elements here reminiscent of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Donna Tartt's The Secret History, Clifford poses her own moral dilemma: when should criminal responsibility be attached to someone who is "involved" in another's death but who neither sought that death nor delivered the fatal blow? This question is further complicated when we consider the youth of Clifford's protagonist Pen Sheppard, whose perception and interpretation of events differ from those of an adult. This is not a rhetorical question but one with current, real-life implications; just before I sat down to write this review, I was reading the July 1 decision of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in the Michelle Carter case, addressing whether the teen can be held criminally responsible for involuntary manslaughter in the suicide death of her boyfriend Conrad Roy.

As Clifford's epigraph suggests, "[m]urder, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder." With All These Perfect Strangers, each reader will have to draw that line for himself.

I received a free copy of All These Perfect Strangers from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. ( )
  BrandieC | Jul 20, 2016 |
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