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Descent is my favorite book of 2015 so far, and one I expect to see on best lists come next winter.
Why? Tim Johnston combines edge-of-your-seat suspense with family drama, tragedy, and an unforgettable setting. The characters are real, which is what makes their fates so suspenseful, of course. And it is incredibly well-written. There are beautiful passages throughout. The author is able to turn the narrative from thoughtful to nail-biting on a dime.
Now, I started my review with the word “intense” for a reason. There were moments when I was literally reading with one eye closed. I’ve never done that before! I had to put it down for a couple days about halfway through. I sobbed my heart out at the end, something else I rarely do. This is for mature teen readers who can handle violence, especially the threat of violence including rape. (Thankfully, most of that violence takes place off-stage, so to speak.) I think there are lots of readers out there for this book including teens who ask for crime novels or suspenseful mysteries, and teens who like to read about abduction victims like Elizabeth Smart or Jaycee Dugard.
This intense, literary thriller begins with a typical American family summer vacation in the Colorado Rockies. Caitlin, 18, is headed to college on a track scholarship, and is excited to practice running at a high altitude. The first morning, Caitlin sets off up a mountain road with her younger brother Sean riding his bike alongside her. Hours later, the local sheriff arrives at the motel to take their parents, Grant and Angela, to the hospital where Sean is in surgery after being run down by a vehicle. Caitlin is nowhere to be found, as if she disappeared into thin air. After weeks of searching, Angela returns home to Wisconsin. But Grant can’t leave. He sets up house on the property of the sheriff’s father’s ranch, helping elderly Emmet with daily chores. After his leg heals, Sean takes Grant’s truck and drives away, finding work as he needs it, coming of age as a drifter pretending to be 18. What became of Caitlin? Chapters in her voice lend the novel a nearly unbearable suspense. The horror of the situation and the power of the writing come together to create something wholly unique, with echoes of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (Little Brown, 2002), the beautiful prose of Ron Rash, and the Western setting of Kent Meyers’s Work of Wolves (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). This is family drama, psychological suspense, survival, and coming of age all set in an awesome, vast wilderness where anything can happen. A frightening but also life-affirming read thanks to the love, hope, and determination of these wounded, imperfect characters.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City
About Angela Carstensen
Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.
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