Moving from Hawaii to Nebraska was supposed to give high school senior Makani Young a chance to start over. Her past is full of dark secrets, and she’d like to keep it that way. She’s found friends and has started dating Ollie Larson, but just when she thinks things might start to go her way, her classmates start getting murdered in really gruesome ways. Can Makani confront her past and maybe save some lives at the same time? Or is she next?
Perkins takes a sharp turn out of the YA romance genre to explore YA horror with a bloody, fast-paced slasher story. While Perkins doesn’t shy away from the violence in this one (seriously, it’s super, super gory) and it’s clear that she has a love of horror movies, her talents at writing budding love stories still manage to shine through here. This overshadows the slasher storyline significantly.
Makani’s burgeoning relationship with Ollie is sweet, compelling, and believable. They have a nice rapport and chemistry that jumps off the page. Perkins works hard to not reveal Makani’s secrets nor the killer’s identity in an attempt to ramp up the tension, it’s the two teen’s relationship that allows readers to feel any connection to the characters. The result is a mixed bag: it’s not a scary read, but it is a bloody one.
The novel’s very bloody end wraps things up, providing the killer’s identity as well as their motivations, but it feels like almost too little too late. While teens are likely to gobble this one up quickly, there’s not a lot of substance here, and it could have been a lot scarier than it was. Still, it’s an interesting direction for Perkins to go, and it will be equally interesting to see what she does next.
There’s Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins. Dutton Books for Young Readers: 2017. Library copy.
Joan and her son Lincoln are spending a late afternoon at the zoo, enjoying the sunshine and each other’s company. It’s just before closing, and as Joan and her son leave the zoo, she sees something so horrible that she turns around and runs back into the zoo, looking for a place to hide. The next three hours are spent trying to keep Lincoln alive as they are literally hunted. Relying on her knowledge of her son and of the physical layout of the zoo, Joan will stop at nothing to keep him safe.
Part literary fiction, part suspenseful thriller, readers will not want to stop turning pages until the very end of this taut, well-crafted novel. Told in real-time over the course of the few hours they are trapped in the zoo, this novel whizzes by as fast as the bullets that are being spewed in the zoo. Although the majority of the novel is told from Joan’s perspective, readers also get glimpses into the other people in the zoo, including one of the shooters.
The crafting of the characters in addition to the tight pacing of this novel make it a standout. Her prose is strong, and her characters are well-developed, allowing readers to get inside the minds of the people who populate this book. Timely, poignant, and terrifying, this is a standout novel of 2017.
Not for the faint of heart. Although the novel’s descriptions of violence are not particularly graphic, the premise alone will hit too close to home for some readers (and animal lovers will have a hard time with this one especially). The ambiguous ending also means that some readers will be left disappointed or angry. But readers who love their thrillers complex and literary will tear through this one. Recommended.
Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips. Viking: 2017. Library copy.
In August of 1892, Lizzie Borden called out to her maid that someone had killed her father. News of the brutal murder of Andrew and his wife Abby flew through town, and it wasn’t long before the Borden daughters, Lizzie and Emma, are embroiled in a police investigation. As the police work to solve the crime, Emma deals with her sister’s increasingly bizarre behavior.
See What I Have Done is Sarah Schmidt’s re-imagining of the Borden murders, but it’s a clever take on the infamous event. While she presents some facts to keep readers grounded in the historical realities of what took place all those years ago, she’s far less interested in presenting a new version of what “really” happened to readers. Instead, she focuses on just four days in the Borden household, and presents it in shifting perspectives to keep things interesting (and unreliable). The result is a claustrophobic fever-dream narration, and it really works.
The writing is compelling, as Schmidt allows Lizzie’s narration to verge from almost lucid to something closer to baby talk, while the mysterious stranger Benjamin’s narration also hints at being somewhat unhinged. Schmidt plays with her prose, allowing nouns to become verbs and relying heavily on sensory language to build tension and also a sense of place. Repetition is used to great effect.
A master at telling readers just enough while leaving many blank spaces for each individual to fill in with their own imaginations, this is a deeply unsettling read. It’s compelling, horrifying, and absolutely riveting. Readers won’t be able to put this one down. Recommended.
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. Atlantic Monthly: 2017. Library copy.
Kat and Dane met on a beach and got married on one. Now they’re two years into their marriage, and they might as well be strangers to one another. Kat is obsessed with her work and married to her phone, constantly checking in with her company. Dane is drowning in his own secrets, secrets he’s never told Kat but knows he must if they can salvage their relationship. On a last-ditch effort, the two take a 10-day trip to Belize to try to reconnect and see if there’s anything left worth saving.
Meghan March’s Take Me Back is best categorized as romantic suspense. The book favors euphemisms for its sex scenes (“to the hilt” is used several times, and it is never not completely distracting), is heavy on the dialogue and unbelievably light on the character development. It’s a quick read, to be sure, and is guaranteed to attract fans of the romantic suspense genre in general, but it’s also kind of a mess as a whole.
Neither Dane nor Kat are at all developed as characters (Kat’s main trait is that she’s work obsessed, but her actual job is never mentioned, a detail I found both hilarious and weirdly upsetting), and the book jumps so quickly into the action that there’s no time to get a sense of either character, nor their relationship to one another. The other characters, the few there are, are so underdeveloped it hardly matters. The villains are one-dimensional and the plotting is obvious.
Of course, that’s not really the point of a book like this. It hooks readers from the start and keeps the pace so quick that the book flies by. Dual narration on the part of Kat and Dane allows readers insight into what little motivation each one has, and the sex scenes are plentiful. This is standard romantic suspense, with a happy ending readers will see coming from page 2.
Give this one to fans of Maya Banks and Lora Leigh.
Take Me Back by Meghan March. Red Dress Press: 2017. Library copy.
Cousins Liv and Nora take their families on a holiday cruise instead of spending the Christmas vacation at home. Lulled into a sense of security on the luxurious ocean liner, the families decide to take a day trip into one of the Central American countries when the ship docks. But things go quickly awry, and it isn’t long before the children have gone missing. Lost in a country they don’t know, away from their parents who begin to turn on one another in a game of who’s to blame, the children must tap into resources they didn’t know they even had at their disposal.
One of the things that works so surprisingly well in Meloy’s excellent, taut novel is the way in which she distinguishes between her myriad characters. There are a great many characters in play here, and nearly all of them are given a chapter or two in which they are the narrator. While this could become overwhelming or even collapse the narrative, it doesn’t–Meloy keeps a firm grip on each of these people, and each one is distinctive in memorable ways. The result is an ensemble that propels the narrative while also grounding the reader in a multitude of different lived experiences.
The book is at once a “what-would-you-do?” thriller while also a deceptively deep rumination on life’s coincidences and unlucky moments as they inform a given individual’s character. The plot relies heavily on the concept of “ifs,” for example, if the the children had not swam to shore, if the paper bag with diabetic medicine had not fallen out of a pocket, if the mothers hadn’t fallen asleep on a beach…and the result is a genuinely suspenseful and completely plausible nightmare. This is made stronger by the fact that Meloy knows her characters so well and allows them to be kind of the worst at times.
This harrowing novel from Meloy is a gripping read from start to finish. It’ll be next to impossible for readers to put it down once immersed in the book’s pages. Tightly plotted, beautifully written, and full of vivid, memorable characters–no easy feat as there are over a dozen important people at play–this is a knockout of a suspense novel. Highly recommended.
Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy. Riverhead Books: 2017. Library copy.
Linus is 16, a runaway, and living on the streets of London when he gets abducted by a strange man in a van. When he wakes up, he finds himself in an underground bunker. He’s alone, but there are other empty bedrooms. Soon, those bedrooms are filled by people who were taken just like him. They’re being watched and punished. There is no escape. As time passes, the people in the bunker come to the horrifying realization that they may have to result to the absolute worst possible outcome if they have any chance of survival.
Kevin Brooks’ The Bunker Diary is a disturbing read. This is not a title for every reader, because Brooks doesn’t shy away from the harshest aspects of human life and death and that includes some pretty horrific gore. But the book is beautifully written in sparse, haunting prose, and the pace is whip-fast, guaranteed to glue readers to every page as they race to find out the fate of the characters trapped underground.
There are certainly parallels to be made here to Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (this might be lost on most teens, but there it is), and the book examines existentialism through its various characters. This is going to work best for sophisticated readers who are able to stomach violence and introspection in equal doses. It is, at times, simply brilliant. It is a novel that demands to be reread to pick up on the details of plot construction, character development, and insight into humanity.
Readers who finish this one will be haunted by the characters and the book’s overall message. It’s one that will garner a lot of discussion, which is good, because there’s lots to think and talk about within the book’s pages. A winner of the Carnegie medal, this is a must-read for anyone who can handle the suspense, the horror, and the darkest parts of what makes us human. Highly recommended.
The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. Carolrhoda Lab: 2014. Library copy.
Alice is haunted by memories of the fire that killed her boyfriend Jason. Her twin sister Cellie set it, and the result was his death. Committed to a mental institution at Savage Isle, all Alice can think about is exacting revenge on her sister, who Alice is convinced is still alive. With the help of a new boy, Alice starts to put the pieces together regarding her past. But who is telling the truth? And where is Cellie?
This psychological thriller from Emiko Jean is a page-turner guaranteed to keep readers glued to the page. Told at a fast clip and featuring some twists and turns many readers won’t see coming, Jean’s novel is a fun, thrilling book that is especially perfect for people who like their books scary but not full of gore.
Savvy readers will guess the novel’s biggest reveals early on, but it doesn’t make it any less satisfying to see Alice get to the end. The novel is fleshed out by compelling secondary characters which help carry the novel’s plot. Alice herself is a strong narrator, believable and sympathetic. This works well for collections looking to add stories with strong female protagonists.
Mostly recommended. Emiko Jean is an author to watch.
We’ll Never Be Apart by Emiko Jean. HMH Books for Young Readers: 2015. Library copy.