The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas

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The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas
Delacorte, July 2018.

Kara Thomas has created another atmospheric and tense thriller about teen girls, that sadly promises a little more than it ultimately delivers.

Five years ago, two of the cheerleading team of Sunnybrook High died in a car accident, a few days later two were murdered and then shortly after that one killed herself. Now junior Monica Rayburn, sister of the girl who committed suicide, discovers that there may be a connection between the girls’ deaths. The novel moves between Monica’s present day narration with occasional breaks into a third person perspective of the events from five years ago leading up to the deaths.

Monica is unraveling as she investigates the deaths and uncovers some inconsistencies: Her emotions are fraught as she deals with being dumped by her boyfriend and then having a summer fling with an older man which ended poorly. She makes a connection with Ginny, a girl who has always been there but has been invisible to Monica and her friends, but now Ginny provides support and encouragement to Monica as she digs deeper.

Monica’s parents have tried to protect her from getting caught up in the events of five years ago, but now this protection feels more suspicious: her stepfather, a police officer, was the one who fatally shot the neighbor who he believed was the murderer.

Using technology, connections, inspiration, and old-fashioned sleuthing, the two girls close in on the truth. But will it bring closure or will it rip the community apart?

As with her previous novels, The Darkest Corners (2016) and Little Monsters (2017), Kara Thomas does a terrific job of creating a slippery atmospheric mystery combined with the seesaw emotions of a teen girl being pushed to her limits. While not quite as satisfying as the masterful Little Monsters, the plot resolves in an unexpected twist and Monica is able to move forward.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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Little Monsters by Kara Thomas

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Little Monsters by Kara Thomas
Delacorte, July 2017

Kara Thomas’s second psychological mystery builds on all the good things from her debut, The Darkest Corners (2016), and resolves all the issues I had with that book. In short, it’s a thrillingly menacing and atmospheric chiller in which none of the characters are quite who they seem to be.

High school senior Kacey has only recently arrived in Broken Falls, Wisconsin, moving in with her dad and his blended family after one too many blow-ups with her single mom’s endless stream of boyfriends. She makes friends and becomes the third leg of “BaileyandJade and Kacey.” All in all, she can’t quite believe how easygoing her new life is.

But then one night Bailey goes missing and at first the local police show little interest – just another teenage runaway. But Kacey and Jade start digging up evidence that points to a local boy with a grudge against Bailey.

Once again Ms Thomas brilliantly evokes the milieu of a white working class town: Most of the highschoolers have no escape and are trapped there for the rest of their lives, the lucky few can’t wait to get out. The heavy snows adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere, and the local tall tale about a murdered family piles on the eeriness.

The plot is perfectly paced; layers are gradually peeled off the emotional lives of the characters exposing the depths of their pain and desperation, gradually leading to a wildly twisty (and for me, unpredictable) denouement.

Ideal for teens who like a side of creepy with their mysteries.

Thanks to Delacorte/Random House for the review copy.

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The Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas

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darkest-cornersThe Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas
Delacorte Press, April, 2016

Inspired in part by the West Memphis Three, this is a gripping but muddled and overwrought mystery set in the white community of Fayette, PA.

Ten years after Tessa Lowell and Callie Greenwood were key witnesses in the conviction of the Ohio River Monster, killer of four young women including Tessa’s cousin, another murder takes place which raises doubts that the right man is now on death row. Filled with guilt that they may have been instrumental in an innocent man’s conviction, Tessa and Callie, now 18 years old, decide to investigate the murders themselves.

The blue collar milieu is evoked well, particularly that of the bored and prospectless teens, and the author does a good job of showing the long term effect the murders had on the families in this small town community. Tessa’s narration is fairly standard disaffected teen girl, though her dysfunctional family background is vividly written.

The oddly paced plot is filled with wheel-spinning dead ends followed by an overstuffed finale that lacks suspense. Coincidences abound, and a late entering twist offer a satisfying, if not particularly credible, solution.

I reviewed this from an ARC, so it may well be tightened up before publication, and heavy promotion suggests that the publisher has confidence that this serial killer psychological thriller will intrigue teen readers.

Broken Things by Lauren Oliver

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Broken Things by Lauren Oliver
HarperCollins, October 2018.

Lauren Oliver has switched between realistic fiction and sci fi, but the common thread is always young women pushed to their limits. I’ve been a fan since Delirium way back and I think this new one is a perfect encapsulation of Oliver’s talents as a creator of credible and nuanced characters, sharp plotting, and an atmospheric setting.

Five years ago in Twin Lakes, Vermont, 13 year-old Summer was murdered in an apparently ritualistic way. Her two best friends, Brynn and Mia were suspected but never charged, as was her boyfriend Owen. Since then, as they’re still seen as the “Monsters of Brickhouse Lane”, Brynn has hidden away in unnecessary rehab facilities, Mia has withdrawn, and Owen’s family moved abroad.  But now on the five year anniversary of her death, the teens are all back in town and starting to work out who the real murderer was.

So far, so Kara Thomas which in itself is an excellent recommendation. Layering on top of this, the murder seems to be linked to an old children’s fantasy book called The Way into Lovelorn which the girls were obsessed with and wrote a sequel to, and which seemed to have come to life for them.

The narrative is split between Mia and Brynn and Then and Now, and a picture is built up of lonely “broken” girls on the fringes of their communities: Summer was with a foster family, Mia got so anxious she couldn’t speak, and Brynn expressed her rage through fighting. But together they made sense and Lovelorn helped them to do that. But when adolescence hit Summer and Brynn, Mia felt excluded and Summer’s attraction to older boys left the other two behind and Lovelorn is abandoned.

As with her previous realistic novels, the author does an excellent job of vividly drawing an insular small-minded community, and the pressure that brings on teen girls who don’t conform and the murder mystery on top of this works well.

The plot is neatly worked out as the teens (all significant characters in this book are white) unearth clues, both in real life and in the fanfic they wrote. A satisfying resolution is reached without stretching credibility, and both Mia and Brynn are on the road to dealing with their lives now that the weight of suspicion is off them and they can reach closure about Summer’s death.

Perfect for teen readers who enjoy mystery and/or realistic novels with a side of creepiness.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

My favorites of 2017

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Here are my favorite books for 2017. These are ones that I gave 5 stars to in Goodreads but don’t include the adult books I read (or, more often, listened to) as they are outside the purview of this blog. My shift towards YA and away from middle grade is virtually complete – I have read some middle grade this year but not very much and only one book makes it onto my list. While some of these YA novels read a little younger than others, they are all definitely intended for a teen, rather than tween, reader.

Realistic Fiction
Genuine Fraud by e. lockhart
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Little Monsters by Kara Thomas

Speculative Fiction
The Empty Grave (Lockwood & Co. book 5) by Jonathan Stroud
A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
Scythe by Neal Shusterman
Still Life with Tornado by A. S. King
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner

Nonfiction
Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman

There is also one late addition that I have read but not yet posted a review for, but will do at the beginning of the year:
A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

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Grit by Gillian French

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Grit by Gillian French
HarperTeen, 2017.

This evocative realistic YA story of secrets and small mindedness in a small white working class Maine town, Sasanoa, centers around rising high school senior Darcy Prentiss, a young woman with a reputation.

Rumors are rife and knowing about what Darcy was doing last year when her ex-best friend Rhiannon disappeared. Darcy’s loyalty to her family and her streak of independence means she won’t tell the truth because she’s keeping the secret of her cognitively disadvantaged cousin Nell.

The author wonderfully imbues the claustrophobia of the dead end town and its old fashioned, but not in a good way, views of how girls should behave. This setting reminded me of Kara Thomas’s Little Monsters, though the plot is more romance and less mystery.

Self-aware narrator Darcy and her family crackle off the page with life and seething resentments. I particularly appreciated Aunt Libby whose bitterness embodies all of the town’s phoniness, and Darcy’s sister Mags who knows who she is and expects Darcy to live up to those standards. There are other characters who are rooting for Darcy, even if she initially doesn’t recognize it.

Several storylines weave through the novel and each of them connects to Sasanoa’s attitudes towards those who are different: Rhiannon’s disappearance, tension between local teens and migrant workers as they harvest blueberries, Darcy’s fledgling romance with a boy who isn’t just interested in hooking up, and the competition for pageant queen which both Darcy and her mentally challenged cousin Nell are entered in. The strands all gradually converge and the hypocrisies of the town are laid bare as Darcy, with the support of others, disentangles herself from what other people’s opinions have made her.

Ideal for teens who enjoy novels driven by gutsy young women and laced with cultural consciousness.