writer, editor & phd candidate

Category: Genre: YA Crime & Thriller

Review: Stolen – Lucy Christopher

Stolen book coverStolen is an extremely cleverly written book. It’s essentially a book about Stockholm Syndrome, written for a young adult audience, and its greatest feature is the way that Lucy Christopher takes the reader along on the same emotional ride experienced by protagonist Gemma. At the beginning of the book, Ty – her captor – comes across as creepy and unappealing but, as he reveals more of himself and more of the past that led them both to the Australian outback, he becomes a surprisingly sympathetic character. I never found him truly likeable, because there always remains something dangerous about him, but many other readers have been completely won over by the end of the novel. Manipulating one’s readers in such a fashion takes a lot of writing skill. Although Stolen has its faults, I came away from reading it with a healthy respect for the author’s talent. I love a book that can mess with my head.

As suggested above, however, Stolen isn’t flawless. At times, it feels over-long. There is a lot of description of the Australian outback and I’m not sure whether I’m just jaded to that, as someone who lives in Australia and has been fed images and romanticised perspectives of the outback all my life, or whether the description really does take over a little at times. For the first half of the book, I wasn’t very engaged at all. I kept reading because the premise interested me and the writing style is elegant and clever, but I wasn’t invested in the characters or their actions. I think the beginning of the change in Gemma’s attitude towards Ty also marked the beginning of my greater interest in the novel. Perhaps it was a case of my needing more movement in terms of character development and plot or perhaps it just comes down to me being in a more receptive mood by the time I reached the second half of the book. Either way, my near-indifference was not lasting and I definitely enjoyed the latter half of the novel and the book as a completed whole.

I think that’s really how Stolen should be assessed. Its power doesn’t lie in its characters or even in the artfully described and ever-present setting. The true power of Christopher’s work is its ability to draw its readers in and to make them feel a little of what Gemma is feeling. Her confusion became my confusion. And that’s the sign of a good author.

Review: A Pocketful of Eyes – Lili Wilkinson

A Pocketful of Eyes book coverI’m amazed that there aren’t more Young Adult mysteries out there. It’s such a well-loved genre when it comes to junior and middle grade fiction, what with the massive popularity of the Enid Blyton mysteries and series such as Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but then there’s a real hole in the market in the section between those books and their adult counterparts. I was excited, therefore, to discover A Pocketful of Eyes. I knew of Lili Wilkinson from her excellent Pink and was very pleased that she had produced an Australian, Young Adult take on the murder mystery.

Just like the stories that are regularly referenced in the novel, A Pocketful of Eyes is great fun. There’s an ever present sense of its place in the world of the whodunnit, but Wilkinson is also aware at all times of her audience. There’s no stuffy Poirot here. The protagonist, Bee, is just as keen a detective as her literary ancestors, but she’s also very much a teenage girl. Her sleuthing is often derailed by her growing crush on her sidekick, Toby, and she has her geeky mother and her new boyfriend to deal with as well.

I knew I’d love A Pocketful of Eyes from the moment that it started talking about Bee’s childhood obsession with Trixie Belden. I, too, wanted to be Trixie when I grew up, and I received far too much pleasure from the references to her and the book series throughout the novel. I have to wonder whether Wilkinson was also a big childhood fan of junior mysteries, because they are all spoken of with such love.

The mystery itself is nicely paced and cleverly constructed. While I picked up on the murder weapon reasonably early in the piece, due to the various hints given in the pages, I had not predicted the other details of the death at all, which is always good. (To be fair, I am not the type of person who tends to think a lot about whodunnit, preferring to let things unfold at the author’s pace.) As with most books in the genre, the reader has to suspend disbelief a little, but I think that’s part of the fun of mysteries. There’s an escapist element to lay detectives that really appeals to one’s own, personal sense of potential adventure.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of A Pocketful of Eyes, given the aforementioned lack of YA mysteries, but was very pleased to find that I enjoyed it very much. I’d love to see more books about Bee, or at least a few more whodunnits from Lili Wilkinson.

Review: Rosebush – Michelle Jaffe

Rosebush book coverIt was very interesting picking up Rosebush not long after having read The Lying Game, because both books involve characters trying to remember the events that led up to them dying/almost dying and both focus on a group of popular kids who are not very nice. The key difference is that you find out who the attempted killer was at the end of Rosebush, which was a good thing for my poor, frustrated brain, as it probably couldn’t have taken a second cliff-hanger!

Because of the nature of the novel, Rosebush incorporates a lot of flashbacks, most of which work very well. I have to admit that I skimmed over the lake nightmares, though, because they felt unnecessary and didn’t fit very well with the style of the rest of the book. On the whole, it’s a very smooth and easy read, capturing its readers through plot rather than overly clever language.

Jane works well as a protagonist because, although she’s extremely popular in a school situation, she’s not presented as being cruel to people around her. She is very flawed, however, in that she’s quite a weak individual who places popularity before friendship and has a desperate need for the love of the people around her. This might be a little more grating if such behaviour hadn’t stemmed from the loss of her father. Instead, the reader is given reasons for her interactions with her peers and for the initial state of the relationship between Jane and her mother.

One thing that didn’t seem quite as well-explained by Jane’s loss was the way she reacted to the different romantic options that were presented in the novel. One love interest in particular seemed to be extremely sudden and not very well justified, despite being the one that sticks. I think the bisexual (?) side plot could have been done better as well.

That said, Rosebush is not a romance novel, and such minor criticisms detract little from the book. The key to Rosebush is its plot and in the mystery of which of Jane’s friends is trying to kill her, and this mystery does a very good job of holding the reader’s interest until the very end. A well-paced and entertaining novel that made for a great public transport read.

Review: Erebos – Ursula Poznanski

Erebos coverI’ve been keen to read Erebos since first hearing about it at the Publishers’ Showcase at the State Library late last year, so I was thrilled to get my hands on an advance copy. I had rather high expectations for the novel, given that a young adult thriller centred around a computer game seemed right up my alley. Luckily, my expectations were met and possibly even exceeded.

There are a lot of things that make me feel like playing video games, but reading isn’t usually one of them. Until now. With Erebos, Ursula Poznanski has created a real page-turner of a thriller where, along with the strong urge to continue reading, there is also a temptation to put down the novel in order to play a game yourself. The gameplay inside the novel is so well described, however, that it feels a lot like watching a friend play, which takes care of the cravings while the reader devours the book!

On the most basic level, Erebos is a book about a computer game. In fact, a good amount of the text is devoted to describing Nick’s in-game journey as Sarius. These sections are written in the present tense, as opposed to the rest of the book, which employs the past tense. In addition, they are told from the perspective of Sarius, rather than Nick, which further distances them from the rest of the text, allowing the reader to become immersed in the game itself.

As a protagonist, Nick grows on the reader as the book progresses. At first, he seems a little whiny and rather foolish, and he, like many of the novel’s characters, is negatively affected by the game’s addictive quality. He is not without growth, however, and by the end of the book he has becoming a likeable character, due in part to the influence of Emily and Victor, as well as his own experiences with the game.

Initially, I found Emily a little flat as a character, but she is fleshed out more as Nick has further contact with her, and she ends up being one of the strongest characters in Erebos. In contrast, I struggled a little with the characterisation of Brynne. We are told that she is not likeable, but never really shown it, so Nick’s constant negativity towards her and callous dismissal of her obvious feelings for him can feel very uncomfortable at times.

Really, though, the key supporting character in Erebos is the game itself. Poznanski has created a game that reads very much like the roleplaying games that will be familiar to so many readers and has then infused it with a deeply sinister element that gives the novel its edge. The escalating real life tasks asked of the game’s players are cleverly constructed and the portrayal of addiction is very well done. I think Poznanski did an excellent job of explaining why a group of teenagers could find themselves so deeply embroiled in circumstances they never would have considered before playing the game.

I personally loved Erebos. It is a well-paced thriller and an interesting exploration of human nature. It is also a book about gaming, and it was the combination of these two elements that made me enjoy it so much. I do wonder whether it would hold so great an appeal to readers who are not familiar with (or who are unimpressed by) the world of video games. I can imagine that the in-game sequences, at the very least, may be a lot less enjoyable.

Beyond this limitation, however, I think that Erebos should have a very wide appeal. Although it is marketed as a young adult novel and most of the characters are teens, I think that it would be equally suited to adult readers. It is an exciting and clever novel that well deserves the amazing sales that it has achieved in Europe.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Lying Game – Sara Shepard

lyinggameThe Lying Game has an extremely interesting premise, in that it’s narrated by a dead girl who is watching the action through the eyes of the identical twin sister that she hadn’t known existed. Therefore, while it is essentially told in the first person, it usually reads like a third person perspective, with the ghostly Sutton relating Emma’s experiences as she tries to fit into Sutton’s life and work out what has happened to her sister. It sounds a little confusing when described and it took me a while to adapt to the concept but, once I did, I found it a very clever take on the whodunnit format.

The plot of the novel is very engaging, and I quickly found myself guessing at who might turn out to be Sutton’s murderer. I found Sara Shepard’s mystery writing to be quite reminiscent of Agatha Christie, in that she is very good at ensuring that there are numerous suspects, all with very good reason to want Sutton out of their lives. I certainly have my own strong suspicions about the murderer, but I will most likely be proven wrong!

While Emma is a likeable character, the twin she is pretending to be is very much not, which is one of the most interesting things about The Lying Game. Ghost!Sutton has very little memory of her life, meaning that she discovers just how unpleasant she was at the same time as Emma and the novel’s readers do. I think this helps the character to be a lot more sympathetic than she otherwise would be, which is important in a book that is populated largely by people who aren’t very nice.

There are a few things that aren’t very believable here – like Emma being able to bluff her way as a tennis captain despite only having played the sport on a Wii – but it’s not so bad that it detracts from the plot. And it’s the mystery here that’s the book’s biggest strength. In the end, the characters and Emma’s charade are secondary to the question of who killed Sutton. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is not revealed in this first book of the Lying Game series. Indeed, The Lying Game does not exist very well as a stand-alone novel, lacking as it is in any real conclusions. Luckily, the story is interesting enough that I’m happy to read on to get the answers I need.

Review: He’s After Me – Chris Higgins

He's After Me book coverWhen Anna meets handsome, doting Jem, it feels like her life is finally going right. Still struggling to cope with her father having left her mother for a much-younger workmate, she is glad to have something positive to focus on. Quickly, Jem becomes the centre of her world. But soon her friendships and schoolwork begins to suffer. Is Jem the perfect boyfriend she thinks he is?

He’s After Me is a quick and easy read, written as it is in an informal style with a lot of short sentences, dialogue and internal monologues. Despite this, it deals with a subject that is far from easy. Anna is involved in an obsessive relationship and Jem is an overly-possessive boyfriend, who isolates her from her friends and former life and instead leads her into a life of lies and crime.

As a commentary upon abusive relationships, the novel works well. Chris Higgins does a good job of capturing the pull of different emotions experienced by Anna and the conflict between her desire to be with Jem and her reluctance to completely leave her old goals behind and enter an adult life she’s not quite ready for. Because the story is told from Anna’s unreliable viewpoint, the reader is shown all of the positive sides of Jem’s personality, while his bad points are quickly glossed over.

Unfortunately, the effect of this is lessened by the inclusion of short, italicised sections of text that sit between one or more of the main chapters and give the perspective of an unnamed male character. I assume these are included in order to add a sense of tension and suspense to the novel, but I personally found that they had the opposite effect. I guessed the twist in the tale very early in the piece and found that the overly-sinister comments felt clichéd and detracted from the real horror portrayed in He’s After Me: the loss of self to a toxic relationship.

Indeed, I think it was the combination of realistic relationship story and melodramatic thriller that just didn’t work for me. I felt like I needed He’s After Me to be one or the other. It wasn’t intense enough to work as a thriller and not measured enough to truly explore the issues involved with obsessive relationships. In addition, I was not able to connect with any of the characters, so the ending didn’t move me at all.

Other readers have definitely enjoyed He’s After Me and there was nothing bad or offensive about it; it just wasn’t for me.

Review: Hushed – Kelley York

Hushed book coverArcher would do anything for his best friend, Vivian. He’s proven that several times over by now – in the most drastic of ways. But then Evan arrives in town and, for the first time, Archer begins to question the hold that Vivian has over him. Evan’s love may have the power to change Archer, but is it too late?

Hushed is a tense novel that will have its readers hooked from the opening pages right through to its conclusion. It presents themes of love and loyalty and explores the aftermath of trauma and the choice to follow a particular path. While its content and focus are definitely gritty, Hushed doesn’t feel unduly dark. Indeed, I came away from the book feeling almost uplifted; for every depressing or sordid occurrence, there is a helping of love or hope.

The thing that really makes Hushed is the artful depiction of its protagonist, Archer. Multiple times within the novel, Archer is referred to as a “monster”, but somehow he is also extremely sympathetic and, amazingly, highly likeable. If someone were to tell me about a book with a loveable murderer, I would scoff, but that is exactly what Kelley York has produced. The reader can’t help but hope that, in spite of his crimes, things will work out well for Archer.

In contrast, Vivian is very difficult to like. Although we are given reasons for her behaviour, we are also shown that there were other paths that she could have followed. There is just something about her character that made me wary from the start. Archer’s devotion to her is perfectly plausible, however. She is cleverly described as just the sort of person who possesses that kind of hold over people.

Evan is sugar where Vivian is poison. He is perfectly understanding, perfectly devoted… and fairly perfect all round, for that matter. He offers the kind of unconditional care that Archer needs to start to break free of Vivian’s hold over him. The difficulty I had with him as a character, however, was the fact that he mostly is shown as being a positive force in Archer’s life. We don’t learn as much about Evan himself as I would have liked – just glimpses of the way he fits into Archer’s world.

The romance here is very nicely done, with little focus on the genders of the people involved. While there is definitely a place in YA literature for tales of coming out and the establishment of sexual identity, I think they tend to dominate the market more than they should. It was refreshing to read a book where the romance plays out much as it would with a heterosexual couple, but without ignoring the social implications of a same sex romance.

As mentioned, some of the content in Hushed is quite dark, and I would recommend it to readers from the late teens upwards. While the main characters are in their first year of university, I think that the plot and execution of the novel will endear it to adult readers as well. An engrossing and though-provoking read.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove – Lauren Kate

The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove coverFor years, Natalie Hargrove has been working towards achieving the ultimate high school goal – becoming the next Palmetto Princess. Coming from a less-than-exclusive background, she is always conscious of maintaining the necessary appearances to ensure her reputation remains unsullied as she pursues her prize. But then a tragedy causes Natalie’s carefully-constructed world to start to unravel…

I adore books about high school queen bees, and about the trials and tribulations of teen popularity, so I thought that The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove would be right up my alley. Unfortunately, it seemed to miss the mark, and I am struggling to articulate why it didn’t quite work for me, because there were so many elements that should have made me love it.

There is a thoughtful exploration of life and character that lies beneath the glitz and drama of Lauren Kate’s plot. The true nature of Natalie’s deprived and depressing past is gradually revealed as the book unfolds, and there are thought-provoking contrasts between the two very separate elements of society that can be found in the town and in Natalie’s own history. Kate presents a picture of people with no prospects and little hope, against which Natalie’s social climbing and ruthlessness become more easy to understand.

While the two socio-economic groups detailed in The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove seem worlds apart in some ways, Kate also shows that they’re a lot more similar than her characters might consider. Indeed, the reader is forced to ask whether Natalie was really any safer once she had “made it” than when she still lived in a trailer. On both sides of the tracks, sex, drugs and alcohol rule. Natalie tries so hard to put behind the world in which a girl like her is only useful for sex, but yet her relationship with her boyfriend – overtly described as loving – is shown to be largely based around sex. It is the main way that Natalie and Mike know how to relate to each other and, once sex and physicality are removed, they flounder. It is also sex, and her mother’s willingness to use it as currency, that got Natalie out of the trailer park in the first place.

On an intellectual level, therefore, I have a good amount of respect for this book. Lauren Kate says rather a lot beneath the facade of a fairly fluffy story. My trouble with The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove is that this facade just doesn’t work for me. The reader is presented with a cast of unlikeble characters. Natalie herself is self-focussed beyond the point where it is easy to excuse her behaviour through knowledge of her past, Mike is almost entirely bereft of personality and the supporting characters are either caricatures or similarly unlikeable. J.B was, by far, the most interesting character to me and he isn’t in the book much at all.

I found that the writing style also distanced me from the novel. The choice of first person seemed odd, given the book’s ending, and both the prologue and the epilogue felt over-written. More importantly, however, the world of The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove doesn’t feel real. It read to me like a fantasy of what it is to be popular and daring and to be dating a fabulous boy.

While, on the whole, The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove didn’t quite work for me, it certainly wouldn’t deter me from picking up Fallen. I saw a lot of promise in the ideas behind Kate’s writing, even though the style and characters of this work were not as strong as I would have liked.

Review: Games – Robin Klein

Patricia Miggs is excited when the two most popular girls in her new school, Kirsty and Genevieve, invite her to spend the weekend in the country with them at Kirsty’s aunt’s house. But things go steadily downhill when it becomes obvious that neither girl really wants her to be there. When strange things begin to happen in the house, Patricia assumes they’re all part of an elaborate prank, with her as the intended victim. But are Kirsty and Genevieve behind the games – or are they the work of a tormented woman who died in the house many years ago?

When I was in year seven,Games was the book to read. The queue to borrow it out from the school library was so long that I’m amazed the school’s copy didn’t fall apart by the middle of the year. For many of us, it was our first introduction to the horror/thriller genre. The Goosebumps series didn’t begin until the following year (and we were all too old for it by then anyway) and the Point Thrillers didn’t take off at my school until a year or two later. And we were scared by Games. It was so popular because it got to us in a way that most books didn’t.

Re-reading Games again as an adult, I was surprised by the way that the old feeling of spooky tension came flooding back to me. I predicted the ending quite early in the book, but that didn’t relieve the feeling of uneasiness as I read on. These days, I’m almost completely immune to horror due to absolute over-exposure, but there was a residual memory there that sparked into something when teamed with Klein’s excellent storytelling ability.

One of Klein’s strengths was always her characters. They had flaws and back-stories and more levels than might at first be apparent. Games is no exception. Certainly, none of the three girls are very likeable, but Patricia, at least, becomes more so as the book progresses and she begins to come into herself.

Klein teams excellent descriptive language with realistic teen dialogue to create a novel that is both appealing and well-crafted. It was a pleasure to re-read Games as an adult; I found that my enjoyment hadn’t been tempered at all by the passage of the intervening years.

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