Cover of Dark Parks of the Universe by Samuel Miller. Dark cover with the outline of two drowning swimmers at the top.

About the Book

Title: Dark Parts of the Universe
Published: 2024

Cover Story: Dark
Drinking Buddy: Parents’ Liquor Cabinet
MPAA Rating: R (murder, alcohol and tobacco use, racism)
Talky Talk:
Bonus Factors: Mysterious Cell Phone App, Missouri Ozarks
Anti-Bonus Factor: Sundown Towns
Bromance Status: Distant Cousin

Cover Story: Dark

One of those covers where you don’t realize what it is until you actually make an effort to look at it. He’p me! He’p me!

The Deal:

When Willie was a toddler, his brother, Bones, shot him in the head while playing with his father’s loaded handgun. He technically was dead for a few minutes. But thanks to the prayers of the citizens of Calico Springs, Missouri, Willie survived without any lasting ill effects (except for the loss of one eye).

Now fifteen and with his older brother about to graduate high school, Willie isn’t sure what he’s going to do with his life. His no-good father has been kicked out of the house, his brother has a scholarship to college, and everyone in his tiny, south Missouri town just wants to sit around and get drunk.

But Willie’s friends have discovered a new cell phone app called Manifest Atlas. Just say what you want and the app will tell you exactly where to find it. And it really works. Everything they ask for, the app leads them to.

And one night, it leads them to a dead body.

Drinking Buddy: Parents’ Liquor Cabinet

Two pints of beer cheersing

Willie and his friends are like a lot of kids in rural towns. Nowhere to go, nothing to do but cruise, drink, or do harder stuff. The military or a college scholarship are the only ways out. Otherwise you turn into someone like Willie’s Dad, just a scam artist who leeches off his long-suffering wife.

One eyed-Willie isn’t getting any scholarships. For years he’s been popular by association because of his brother, and he’s been the miracle baby for so long, he finds it difficult to break out of that role. When the mystery of the weird app falls in his lap, he’s only too anxious to investigate it, out of a sheer desire to do something.

MPAA Rating: R (murder, alcohol and tobacco use, racism)

This is a dark book. Life in those isolated Ozarks towns can be surprisingly grim. There’s a lot of racial hatred, alcohol abuse, violence and just plain nastiness. Outsiders are viewed with suspicion. And this apparently psychic app is turning this isolated town on its ear.

Talky Talk: (banjo music)

This book was kind of a genre bender. The first few chapters made me think this was a techno thriller or a supernatural horror story, with something extremely sinister behind the Manifest Atlas app. Instead, the real nail biting scenes come from pure human hubris, duplicity, and hatred. And the whole bit about Willie getting shot by his brother didn’t add much to the plot. It’s a fine book, but it was not at all what I was expecting when I picked it up.

Bonus Factor: Mysterious Cell Phone App

Phone with simple square graphic of Shadowhunters rune

We all waste a lot of time with phone apps, be they Worlde or Connections or Adultfriendfinder. But this Manifest Atlas thing is different. Soon, the small town of Calico Springs is inundated with reporters, students of the paranormal, and curiosity seekers, trying to see if this app will really take them to what they’re searching for.

The first time Willie tried it, he asked to see his future. And the app directed him to a shallow grave.

Bonus Factor: Missouri Ozarks

When one doesn’t live in a major city, you resign yourself to almost never reading about places that you’re intimately familiar with. That’s why I was delighted when the book opened with a description of the Current River, a waterway I’ve been floating since the early 1980s. My first teaching position was in this area, and I recognized a lot of the little towns and areas referenced in the book.

Anti-Bonus Factor: Sundown Towns

cropped view of woman holding carton placard with stop racism sign on red background

So just across the river from Calico Springs is the town of Lawton. It might as well be on the other side of the world, especially if you don’t have a car. You see, Lawton is the ‘Black’ town. They have their own city government, their own churches, and their own high school. Separate but equal, am I right?

But economic times being what they are, the city fathers have voted to combine the two towns. One city, one school district, one high school. And certain people may not like that. People like Willie’s father, for instance. And that guy who turned up dead? He was one of the proponents of the merger.

Searching back through the town’s history, Willie and his friends discover a frightening history of segregation and racism. But that sort of thing happened a hundred years ago. Not today, right? Right?

Bromance Status: Distant Cousin

This wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, but it was still a nice, creepy mystery with a good message. I’ll be back for more.

Literary Matchmaking

The May Queen Murders

Sarah Jude’s The May Queen Murders is another creepy, small town mystery.

Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry

Racism and a town’s mysterious past also feature in Susan Vaught’s Things Too Huge to Fix By Saying Sorry.

Dead River

Cyn Balog’s Dead River also shows the unpredictability of natural waterways.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received a free e-copy of this book (but no money) from Harper Collins, who always formats their electronic ARCs weird and I had to squint to read on my tiny device. Then I realized my wife had the library book with her the whole time, but we didn’t realize it.

Float the beautiful Current River! Mention FYA at Jadwin or Aker’s Ferry Canoe Rentals and receive up to 50% off the purchase of a beer koozie. Restrictions apply.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.