24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Tag: thrillers

Abby Reads: If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio

If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio
Flatiron Books, 2017, 368 pages
Literary Fiction

I received this eBook from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. If We Were Villains will be available for purchase April 11, 2017.

Beginning in 2007, Oliver Marks is greeted on his last days of imprisonment by the detective who put him there in M. L. Rio’s debut novel, If We Were Villains. Soaked in Shakespeare, Villains tells two stories: Oliver’s release from prison and his following conversation with Detective Colborne and the conversation itself: a retelling of what, exactly, happened at the Dellecher Classical Conservatory in 1997. One of seven remaining fourth-years at the elite school in the theatre department, Oliver is, compared to his six friends, decidedly ordinary. There’s Richard, who can nearly be described as a high school jock stereotype (though, not, as he is somewhat more complex and is a twenty-two-year-old theatre student), always cast as some king or equivalent; Meredith, his on-and-off girlfriend who is consistently cast as the temptress; Alexander, the moody and intense — too intense for his own self as he self-medicates with various substances — naturally and often cast as a villain; Filippa, nearly as much a bystander as Oliver, somewhat androgynous and cast just the same; James, a source of comfort for Oliver who is regularly cast as some hero or other; and Oliver himself, James’s sidekick both on- and off-stage. With a group so tightly wound around each other to the point of near-exclusion of other students and a natural inclination toward drama and theatrics, it’s no surprise that their lives implode when one of the students dies, or is killed, or has an accident, or who-knows-what and there’s the question of whether it’s better to know or to not know.

Having followed Rio as DukeofBookingham on Tumblr for a few years, I know a little bit about how this story came to be and the author’s work on it. It’s been a strange experience, coming into this piece of literature that I feel relatively intimately connected to, compared to any other book I’ve ever read. It made me look at the book differently and, I think, more critically. Rio regularly provides writing advice to her followers, so I went in expecting the best and, really, (probably unfairly) specifically looked for flaws. There weren’t many.

Rio, a big fan of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, incorporated much of one of her favorite novels into Villains: the setting, the tormented students, the relationships that spur on problems, death, an obsession with a scholarly pursuit. What I preferred in Villains over History, however, was that the novel’s narrator wasn’t quite so periphery as in History. I love periphery narrators (perhaps one of the biggest reasons I really enjoy The Great Gatsby — while Nick is present in the lives of the people he speaks of, he doesn’t act a whole lot. In fact, his inaction probably leads to a good amount of the tragedy that occurs — but I digress). Rio, however, made an excellent choice in giving Oliver more agency as a character in this instance. She very well could have made him a simple bystander, but Oliver’s guilt in all of this is far more interesting for his action, both direct and indirect.

Oliver as a narrator is observant and detailed. Readers learn about the specific architectural history of Dellecher (which I felt at points was overkill, but did do some work to build the scene). As the seven students live in what is known as the Tower, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Gryffindor dormitories of Harry Potter fame. I don’t believe this was intentional, but it did cast a sort of magical shimmer on the events of the novel without any other sort of magical realism going on, beyond, perhaps, some delusions. But back to Oliver’s narration and Rio’s skill with description: rarely, if ever, did the language become cliché. With Shakespearean quotes strewn about the text (again, perhaps too much, though it certainly served to demonstrate the characters’ immersion), anything said outside of that context was fresh. The description of the dead character’s body, in particular, was so striking I skipped lines and came back, skipped lines, came back — unusual, for me.

Also a bit overwhelming was the sheer number of primary characters. One of the female characters (I won’t say who so as to avoid leading you to figuring out which student dies) I could have done without as her involvement throughout the novel seems relatively minimal. Despite this, nearly everyone was well-developed and their individual relationships with each other similarly so, which was especially impressive given how many there were. Colborne, as a character, leaned toward a detective stereotype, though as his role as character in the novel was small, I ignored him, mostly. Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s presence felt lacking. Although his words can be found on nearly every other page, there was something missing in his influence on the students, particularly as Oliver blames Shakespeare for “all of it.”

Rio incorporates a fair amount of twists toward the end. While each one was at least a little surprising, the overwhelm of them felt somewhat gimmicky and insincere. This, too, was how I felt about a major decision made around the death of the one character, which featured a thought process I just couldn’t buy into. The character was awful, to be sure, but that awful? I wasn’t convinced. Additionally, the remaining character’s decision seemed moot: the time it would have required to act was not equal to the time in which things wrapped up (and, apologies for the vagueness here, but I don’t want to spoil it!). It’s a grand idea, just perhaps not executed well and, certainly, not easy to execute.

Rio’s first novel is clearly well-plotted, well-constructed, and well-written, if a little insincere at parts. I always felt a bit aware that I was reading fiction, as if Rio held back somewhat — perhaps due to her background in theatre in some way or other, but I won’t speculate too much on why, because I don’t know that it matters. Villains is a good next-pick for fans of The Secret History or Paper Covers Rock. Ultimately, I hard a hard time putting it down. With great attention to detail, Rio has a good amount of success with Villains and I’m looking forward to whatever comes from her next.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #2, “Read a debut novel,” and I leave it behind with four-and-a-half hearts.

❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Vicious Little Darlings by Katherine Easer

Vicious Little Darlings by Katherine Easer
Bloomsbury USA, 2012, 320 pages
YA Thriller

Vicious Little Darlings by Katherine Easer came into my life as a result of looking for books that take places at women’s colleges. In my attempt to find such novels for the purpose of writing one of my own, I’ve been severely disappointed at the lack of them. I can’t say I’m really all that surprised about it, though. I came upon Vicious Little Darlings and felt optimistic about it — after all, it had been written by an alumna of a women’s college, so she had to know what she was talking about.

The disappointment continued. The title pretty much sums up everything as simply as possible. Easer’s depiction of women — and of vaguely-identified lesbian, bisexual, and asexual women in particular — is almost hateful. Let me set the scene for you. We begin with Sarah, who, living with her grandmother is sent to a women’s college across the country due to her boy-crazy lifestyle. Sarah, the first-person narrator, spends a good deal of the book slut-shaming herself while simultaneously criticizing the lack of boys at her school and desperately pursuing any opportunity to meet boys. But, okay — humans have conflicting and complicated feelings and, while I disagreed with Sarah on her attitude, I held out hope that through her narrative, she would come to a change in the end, having learned empowerment.

No such luck. Sarah talks about feminism as a sort of disease one contracts while attending a women’s college. Yikes. This kind of talk is especially prevalent toward the beginning of the book, but persists throughout, even when she starts to recognize some of her own actions as feminist (debatable, I think). It’s at this point she considers herself maybe-infected and she’s disturbed about it. Another yikes.

Anyway, Sarah makes friends — sort of — with the strange and lying Maddy and the off-putting Agnes. Despite Maddy’s lies, Agnes is obsessed with Maddy and they have this really odd friendship going on that makes Sarah uncomfortable. The three decide, however, to rent a home to live in off-campus and drama ensues.

Through much of this book, I was waiting for some kind of supernatural element to appear — it never did. It felt like it should, given the generally oddness of the entire novel and the tension that never felt real, but there was nothing. Despite the odd tension, the book moves very slowly with little action until the final few chapters, where everything happens all at once and oh-god-make-it-stop-it’s-too-fast-what-just-happened goes down. And, too, despite the drama of these last moments (melodramatic, even, like a lot of the prose), the direction of the main plot wasn’t strong enough for me to get a grasp on. It wasn’t until the very end that I understood how things had led to other things. In some novels, this works incredibly well; not so much, in this one.

The novel’s events are ridiculous — some of them I couldn’t help but share in a live-blog fashion through Facebook. It was just too much. As they say, I couldn’t even.

For all her anti-feminism and slut-shaming, Sarah is, compared to Maddy and Agnes, pretty normal. She’s fairly believable as a character, though she takes on the I’m-really-good-at-drawing trope like the millions of other young adult protagonists. She’s manipulated by both Maddy and Agnes as humans are wont to do, so I don’t find the manipulation and, frankly, abuse unbelievable — but Maddy and Agnes? I think I half-expected to find out they were figments of Sarah’s imagination. No such luck. The most glaring personality trait I found was Agnes’s style of speaking. It’s tight, it’s lofty, and it’s completely unlike anything I’ve ever heard come out of the mouth of a teenager or twenty-something in earnest. I can handle some of this in light doses when it’s intended to convey the personality of a character, but the heavy-handedness of it made it to unrealistic. Maddy, meanwhile, could perhaps be explained by a psychological disorder, but I still found much of her character to be unbelievable.

Truth be told, none of the characters had likable personalities. This wasn’t the horrible kind of character you like, either (you know, the ones you shouldn’t sympathize with, but do, anyway? Loki? Kylo Ren? Pretty much the whole cast of The Secret History?) Make of that what you will, but I found it disheartening especially when the women I knew at my women’s college will full of heart and bravery while being so kind and thoughtful.

If you’re looking at this story for lessons, the one I come away with is, “See?! This is what happens when you have an environment of all women! Chaos! Violence! The collapse of society as we know it!” It’s silly and ridiculous and, honestly, kind of offensive. I had sincerely hoped that as an insider to women’s institutions, Easer would flip the tables on her anti-feminist character in a way that wasn’t a cliche or an attack on the values so many women’s institutions hold. I was severely disappointed.

I can’t, in good faith, recommend this book, even my own feelings about equality and such aside. I so wanted this to work out, but with a lack of direction, characters I can’t believe, and a plot I can’t make much out of, I leave Vicious Little Darlings with one heart.

❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfeld

Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfeld
Speak, 2013, 288 pages
YA Thriller

I was lured into this book by its absolutely stunning cover. Gritty and ethereal, I thought the artwork would reflect the inner contents. I stand by judging a book by its cover — it actually and typically is a fairly good gauge when it comes to all kinds of information about a book — but, overall, in this case I was wrong. Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone  by Kat Rosenfeld has quite a bit going for it in the prose department, but fails to present an engaging plot or character.amelia-anne

When an unidentified college-aged woman is found dead in new high school graduate Becca’s hometown, there’s no knowing who could have killed her. The close-knit town, despite its efforts, doesn’t seem interested enough in this mysterious murder and, with college approaching and the days with her on-again-off-again boyfriend numbered, Becca can’t help but turn her attention to the outward violence that has cast a shadow on her vacation town. As her obsession grows, readers are introduced to the unidentified woman: Amelia Anne. In a tumultuous relationship of her own, Amelia Anne is caught between a new love (theatre) and an old (her boyfriend).

In recent years, I’ve come to appreciate literary fiction more and more. It’s a hard thing to do and relies on character development over plot. I’d argue it’s especially less common in young adult fiction than it is in adult fiction. The likelihood, then, of finding a well-written work of young adult literary fiction is slim. Going into Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone, I didn’t necessarily know I was getting into something more character-driven. It occurred to me, by the end, that was exactly what I had done. It didn’t sit well with me.

There’s a lot of transformative power in death, regardless of how close the person who has passed is to the central individual. With Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone, the thematic weight of everything in transition in Becca’s life is heavy and made heavier by the presence of a dead girl. Coming to terms with graduation, a breakup, a loss of innocence, the verge of adulthood is all part of the traditional Bildungsroman. There’s the expectation that any Bildungsroman will have at least some literary fiction element as the primary focus is on the internal changes of the character from girl to woman, from boy to man, from child to adult. The problem with Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone is more that I didn’t get the sense Becca had really changed. She’d spent months being obsessed and accusatory and introspective, but she hadn’t grown up. She was not now entering the final weeks of her summer as more worldly: she was just traumatized.

And with good reason. The most interesting part of the novel is the twist. I don’t feel it’s handled particularly well and it feels so out of place in this book, but there’s something chilling-but-commonplace about the twist that really grounds the rest of the book, which is already so far grounded in reality so as to make it almost boring. The twist grounds the book with a swivel of the heel into the dirt while the rest of the day-to-day content drops a shapely rock onto the earth’s surface. The tension — and the way I looked at humanity and people for a brief moment — was shifted into something not extraordinary, but certainly odd.

This heightened the interest in one character who did not get the page time they deserved, honestly. Pages were allocated for other characters who were uninteresting and clearly placed as intentions to distract the reader from the reality of things. This wasn’t necessary, though — the reader doesn’t have enough clues to piece together what really happened to Amelia Anne until it’s revealed. There are parallels that suggest things throughout and you find yourself thinking, “Oh yes, I see how this happened.” And you’re probably right, to some extent — but I can almost guarantee you haven’t figured the whole thing out, even if you’ve trained yourself to ignore the superfluous characters and their explosive violence.

This book is, by the way, explosively violent. It’s unsettling in some passages and, while it’s not a gore-fest, it’s not for those who like pretty depictions left and right. In any event, I finished Amelia Anne decidedly unsatisfied. The effort didn’t pay off, despite the promises I felt Rosenfeld was making. She’s lauded for her poetic ability throughout reviews for Amelia Anne but without enough direction, the book doesn’t amount to much.

❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Widow by Fiona Barton

The Widow by Fiona Barton
NAL, 2016, 336 pages
Thriller

Fiona Barton’s The Widow is a debut novel about the life of a woman before and after the death of her husband, who has been accused of the kidnap and assumed murder of a little girl. Although Glen, the widow’s husband, maintains that he had nothing to do with Bella’s disappearance, both the media and the law are convinced otherwise. Now that Glen has died in apparent bus accident, the truth will out. With a nonlinear pattern and nebulous characters, Barton’s first novel is not all it’s cracked up to be.

The Widow came to my attention through Book Riot’s podcast, Dear Book Nerd. Show host Rita Mead discussed the book with glee, holding back spoilers for the “big reveal,” of the book and essentially convinced me to read it with her enthusiasm in an episode from several months ago. I generally prefer not to take recommendations from others, especially if I don’t actually know the person giving the recommendation. I should have stuck with my unspoken policy on this one, because, while The Widow was a quick read and not the worst book I’ve ever picked up, it’s not something I would have chosen for myself.

One of the reasons I’ve been so hesitant to get into “adult” fiction (as opposed to the young adult or YA fiction I usually read), is that I’ve found many of the adult fiction “bestsellers” I’ve picked up have been shallow in various ways. The Widow was a prime example of this. Although there’s nothing trivial about the subject matter of (and if I haven’t made it clear by now, this review might use some upsetting language, concepts, etc., so read on at your own risk) the abduction, sexual abuse, and murder of a child (or anyone), I ultimately felt that Barton’s writing was more about pure entertainment than anything else. That might be okay for some people, but I personally feel that if you’re going to use a topic like such as in The Widow, there needs to be more substance than just shock value.

Part of what drew me into the novel to begin with was Mead’s promise that the twist was stunning. I’m always up for a big twist, so I went in expecting and anticipating it inThe Widow. Frankly, the “twist” wasn’t a twist at all. I can’t blame this entirely on the book because I obviously had some expectations going into it, but plenty of context within the book suggested a twist was coming – the nonlinear timeline, the withholding of information, the use of multiple points of view – and it simply never did.

This brings me to my next grievance: multiple points of view. The Widow is told in both third and first person, with chapters in which the widow, Jean, stars, being in first person and all else in third. Third-person chapters primarily focus on a police detective intent on proving Glen Taylor’s guilt and a journalist equally fixed on worming the real story out of Jean. Other characters, too, have their chapters. As a general rule, I dislike books that use multiple points of view or lenses and there are few exceptions where it’s done well. In The Widow, this strategy felt more like Barton’s attempt to do some literary tricks rather than attempt to accomplish anything. There was really no benefit to this method.

Barton’s writing style is campy in some places, particularly when she inhabits the mind of the obsessed detective. In moments as Jean, the author makes a naïve and child-like caricature of the character, which perhaps says something about Glen’s pedophilia, but never feels realistic or natural. The reader can hardly believe Jean is able to take care of herself, let alone keep the secrets she’s charged with and harbor conflicting feelings about her late husband. Drawing from her own experience as a journalist, Barton also writes her journalist character as a quippy woman I’d sooner expect in a cheesy-ish cop show.

The Widow is a surface drama, never truly assuming the literary fiction it could be, but failing to deliver a cohesive and comfortably-flowing plot. The book isn’t a total disaster and has its merits with small details that make scenes interesting, but it’s not a masterpiece.

❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Astray by Amy Christine Parker

Astray by Amy Christine Parker
Ember, 2015, 352 pages
YA Psychological Thriller

Astray is the sequel to Amy Christine Parker’s Gated. Now that Pioneer’s community has been disbanded by local law enforcement, his trial approaches while Lyla tries to fit in at school and reconcile the life she had before with the life she has now. Parental members in Lyla’s former community cling to the life they had while outsiders begin to join them despite the larger community’s disdain for Pioneer’s followers. Lyla, meanwhile, is breaking down relationships with those still in the community, including her parents, while building up relationships with new people like Cody’s siFullSizeRender (1)ster and mother. Relationships of all kinds trouble Lyla, from her new therapist to her old friends. But at the center of it all is one relationship: Lyla and Pioneer.

Maybe I went into Astray with too high expectations, but I was admittedly disappointed by Gated‘s sequel. I read the two books about a year apart, so it’s possible my perception of the books had more to do with my personal growth or life or what have you than it had to do with the books themselves, but Gated would have probably been better off alone. The psychological intrigue and other aspects that made Gated special were absent in Astray. Where the subtle play of psychology influenced the events in Gated, a more heavy-handed approach made Astray feel less mature, less realistic, and less gripping than its parent.

I also struggled with Lyla. She came across as less likable and, while playing the new girl in school, became a cliché. In fact, she became, in many ways, a non-speculative-fiction version of Bella Swan, complete with the new frienemies, angst over dates, and difficulties with parents. And yes, these are all things that are often inherent in young adult novels. These are the things that real teens encounter on a daily basis. But with Gated‘s unique take on these challenges, Astray felt far too flimsy in comparison. Decisions Lyla made in Gated seemed, from my outsider perspective, generally sensible. Dangerous, perhaps, but still sensible in the bigger picture. Astray showed a side of Lyla that was far more willing to take risks for reasons that, from my perspective, simply weren’t worth those risks. So often the risk came down to death and, while this may have been an indication of Lyla’s delicate mental state, the logic didn’t follow.

The turn of events in Astray was not as believable as Gated, either. Where Gated was more a book of the mind, Astray falls more into the category of physical violence. Pioneer attacks less with psychological warfare — though he does that, too — but imagery of physiological harm shows up again and again: a broken toy owl, illness, torture, shrapnel. This jarring difference positions the books to appeal to different audiences. I absolutely support authors playing with audience intentions by series, but within a series, doing so can make books in a series feel disjointed.

On its own Astray might not be bad. It’s not bad as it is. It just can’t stand up to Gated.

❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Asylum by Madeleine Roux

Asylum by Madeleine Roux
HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2013, 310
YA Thriller

Asylum follows Dan during his summer at the New Hampshire College Prep program in fictional Camford, New Hampshire. Dan, his two friends Abby and Jordan, and other students will stay in the Brookline dorm, which used to be a mental hospital of sorts. As the three friends explore the dorm and learn more about the history of Brookline and IMG_2655Camford, strange things begin to happen. Dan receives anonymous letters with cryptic messages, Abby begins finding information about a lost aunt, and students are finding the bodies of their peers left in posed positions. It all points to 1960s serial killer, the Sculptor, but despite research and visions, no one believes Dan.

Admittedly, I decided to read this book for a few reasons — (a) It takes place in New Hampshire and I’m all about that home-state fiction, (b) One of the characters has my name, and (c) I’d heard it was reminiscent of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, which I enjoyed well enough to give this novel a shot.

Asylum supports little-to-no character development throughout the novel. Dan’s character is inconsistent at best, which may be somewhat supported by his own apparent (and stated) mental illness, though does not quite add up. He goes from incredibly mature to immature within a matter of sentences if not words, and is never clearly defined in terms of personality. Abby hops off the cliché boat, taking on the artsy and disturbed manic-pixie-dream-girl trope with Dan chasing after her all the while. Jordan, perhaps, is the best of the three in terms of being an original character, but comes off as a third-wheel at all times. Other relationships among the characters are equally tired, as Dan struggles to understand his weird and inconvenient roommate, Felix, and wonders about the quirky and mysterious Professor Reyes.

Roux’s writing style is nothing to get excited about. Overall the sentence structure and vocabulary is not reflective of the target audience or cast of characters, nor does it support its “horror/thriller” tag. Roux throws in the occasional SAT word which makes the language even more uncharacteristic of its narrator (a third-person limited omniscient speaker) and its characters.

The plot of Asylum is equally underdeveloped and generally confusing. The end all but promises a sequel (and if that doesn’t, the “#1” after the title on Goodreads does), so it seems readers were deprived of plenty of information in the spirit of writing a series. However, rather than relying on a large story arc for a series and a small one that contributed to the larger arc for the novel itself, Asylum relies on just the one large arc, leaving the reader unsatisfied with the pseudo-conclusion.

If you’re looking for Miss Peregine’s again, this isn’t it. Like Miss Peregrine’s, pictures are included in the novel but lack a sense of authenticity. While the pictures in Miss Peregine’s are real photographs found with a story built around them, this is not the case for Asylum, which features photograph pulled from stock sites such as Getty Images. This move makes the plot of the novel far less creepy than it could be.

❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Gated by Amy Christine Parker

Gated by Amy Christine Parker
Random House, 2013, 335 pages
YA Thriller

When Lyla’s big sister disappears days before 9/11, a charismatic and empathetic man shows up at her family’s home. They’re meant to come with him and help build a community in preparation for the arrival of the apocalypse and the image1Brethren . Distraught over the loss of a child and the chaos of the events of September 11, 2001, Lyla’s parents decide to join Pioneer and his mission. Now, Lyla is seventeen and things in the community are tense. The local sheriff is checking in on them, along with his son, Cody. Now, Lyla doesn’t know who or what to believe as the days between the present and the apocalypse shorten.

Parker clearly did her research when completing this novel. Each chapter begins with a quote, most of them from famous leaders of the past. Pioneer exhibits textbook characteristics of manipulation, making the plot stand strong in the face of any unrealistic moments. The novel takes on a fascinating topic that can lead to a rabbit hole of research for the reader. While the pace and movement of the story feels a bit off, the overall content of the plot carries on well and is well-planned and just plain interesting.

Because of the textbook-like personality of Pioneer, some of his actions and words do come across as slightly campy. Given that readers are not supposed to trust Pioneer, I don’t feel that those moments draw too much on the book. Each other character was fairly well-developed and easily distinguishable from other characters in the novel. Parker also managed to avoid clichés, which I thought particularly impressive given how easy it would have been to fall into them in writing this novel. Lyla’s character development is relatively minimal — we see more of a change in what she knows as opposed to who she is, though it’s there if you look for it.

Parker’s writing style flows nicely with no distractions. If you’re looking for something a bit more descriptive and visceral, like Michael Grant’s Gone series, this might not be the thing. That said, if you enjoyed the Gone series, Gated is worth checking out if you don’t mind being a little underwhelmed in the visceral reaction department.

According to Parker’s website, Gated is followed up by Astray in a continuation of Lyla’s story and the consequences of the previous novel. I plan on checking it out as a testament to my enjoyment of Gated. Happy reading!

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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