Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Category: YA 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: 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: 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.)

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