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People, it’s close to midnight and while something may not be lurking in the darkness of my hallway, it is getting late. I want to scream, but my terror of waking the small humans in the apartment takes the sound from me. Yeah…I wanted to write up a hilarious but dark introduction that played with all the conventions of thrillers, but instead all I’ve got is a weak reference to MJ. What can I say, we all pay the price at the end of the year as we try to get all our reviews in.
But all of that does mean that today we get the fun of discussing two thrillers in the YA world — Joy looks at a new take on an old tale (Macbeth), and look at a new take on a less-old tale (The Bad Seed)!
As I Descended, Robin Talley
HarperTeen, September 2016
Reviewed from an ARC, 1 star
Robin Talley is an author I’ve been meaning to read but As I Descended is my first experience with her writing. I expect that Talley will continue to be a name to watch when it comes to Printz speculation, but it’s doubtful that she’ll be recognized for her reimagining of Macbeth. Setting Shakespeare’s plays in high school is a form of adaptation that’s a genre of its own, done in countless novels and films. Talley does an admirable job reworking the Scottish play to feature a lesbian couple amidst the scheming and drama of an elite southern boarding school. (And seriously, the plot makes a crazy good elevator pitch.) The tragedy unfolds, faithfully following its source material; the novel’s even structured in “acts.” There are some clever surprises in how certain plot points are modernized—the murders, for example, are not quite so bloody here, although terrifying nonetheless.
For Printz consideration, however, the adaptation would have to be superior for the book to excel when considering story, theme, and character. Talley’s choices are clever but don’t reveal any new truths about the nature of power, fate, guilt. In addition, I’m still a tad unsure if the use of a Mexican ghost called La Llorona is respectful or a convenient way to work ghosts into the narrative. Nothing struck me as obviously offensive, but I’m not familiar enough with the legend to make a definitive call. Where the book truly shines is in the depiction of a same-sex couple with complexity and nuance. Being closeted in a conservative setting is a part of their story, but sexual identity is just one facet of Maria and Lily’s lives.
Talley’s next book, Our Own Private Universe, comes out at the end of the month. She’s such a strong writer of LGBT teen relationships, I wouldn’t be surprised if we revisit this discussion of her work next fall. — Joy Piedmont
With four stars, the RealCommittee is probably looking closely at Larbalestier’s newest. Fortunately, they have a lot to talk about; this title explores the nature of evil, the responsibilities of families, and the cost of loyalty — among other things. She plays with an unreliable narrator in Che, and the twists and turns that come in the course of the plot are satisfying, sometimes surprising, and always gripping. The characters are relatable and well developed. There is conscious, casual diversity among the supporting characters; none are defined by any single aspect of their identities, but Larbalestier allows the characters to be explicit in naming and describing themselves. Leilani’s friendship with Che was the relationship that most (emotionally) engaged me throughout the course of the narrative; it’s carefully nuanced and thoughtfully developed. Che’s interest in boxing is also a part of the story, and provides a lot of the detail and texture that keeps the story grounded. The romance he experiences with Sojourner is also a part of the story — but a minor part; the focus is on his relationship with Rosa and with his family, and his understanding of himself.
This is a thriller, but it’s a unique one with a slow buildup. There are twists and turns, but they don’t get really flashy until the second half. In some ways, there are two novels at work here: Che’s day-to-day life and adjustment to a new city, and the thriller half — the tension and intensity of Rosa and the Taylor-Klein family dynamics. Che’s narration makes it work, mostly, because he’s an engaging narrator — smart, perceptive, and quietly funny.
The dramatic tension is derived naturally from Che’s situation at home, and largely from his relationship with Rosa, who’s another captivating character. She’s carefully delineated, and sympathetic — particularly as filtered by Che. His empathy for her absolutely colors our experience of Rosa. Anxiety comes, in part, from our worry about what Rosa will do next. The other source of suspense is from our worry about Che — can he help, how responsible is he for helping, and how much will helping cost him?
There’s a great deal of information about psychology, and the diagnosis of psychopathy. It’s there in part to help give us context as readers, and it mostly works. It makes sense that Che would have done a lot of research and easily recall all of this information. But sometimes it reads a little like an infodump. The twist at the end is brutal, but it wasn’t totally shocking for me, either. In some ways, that means that Larbalestier has done her work well; the small details included at the beginning had big payoff at the end. But the big-thriller-drama is sometimes subsumed between the slow pace of the first half, and the complicated family dynamics. None of these are major flaws; this is a memorable, compelling read. It asks provocative questions. But this is also a year with a lot of strong contenders, so I’m not sure this will get a medal. — Sarah Couri
But what do you all think? What do you think RealCommittee will have to say?
Filed under: Fiction
About Sarah Couri
Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.
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