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REVIEW:  The Body in the Woods by April Henry

REVIEW: The Body in the Woods by April Henry


Dear readers,

Help me. I think I’ve done something to anger the universe. Why do I say that? Because I am lost in a swamp of books that, at best, can be described as meh. And at worst –

At worst, I get The Body in the Woods.

The premise is promising. Teenaged volunteers for a local search and rescue team stumble across a dead body while looking for a missing autistic man. Investigative shenanigans ensue. I can dig this. Search and rescue volunteers? Awesome. Teenaged amateur sleuths? I loved Scooby Doo and Nancy Drew as a kid. How can this go wrong?

Plenty of ways, apparently.

Let’s start with the three main characters: Ruby, Nick, and Alexis. Were their characters poorly fleshed out? Yes, but that’s not actually my complaint. All three of them have rather problematic depictions.

First, we have Nick. Nick’s father presumably died fighting in the Middle East and because Nick idolizes him, he dreams of becoming a soldier and living as a hero. And for various reasons, he’s prone to exaggeration and self-aggrandizing. Perfectly reasonable characterization. Then we discover Nick also has ADHD and I start to squint. Nick’s ADHD is referred to multiple times in the story as something both his mother and older brother worry about and I found myself asking that if this diagnosis is so well-known, is there any treatment happening? Is he taking medication? I don’t remember either being the case but if I’m wrong, please correct me.

But the main reason for my squinting at Nick? He’s a creeper. During the sections from his perspective, we see him ogling girls, finding excuses to talk to disinterested girls and thinking up ways to touch them. What the hell, I’m supposed to sympathize with this guy? Combine this behavior with the fact that Nick has ADHD, and I feel uneasy with the narrative implication.

That brings us to Ruby. Ruby is prone to obsessive behaviors. She’s viewed as strange by pretty much everyone around her. I read her as being neuroatypical — but perhaps undiagnosed. It’s not just the way she fixates on things. It’s the way she doesn’t understand human relationships and interactions and the way she assumes “roles” (“Good Daughter,” “Best Friend”, etc) when dealing with people. It’s the way she doesn’t know what’s appropriate behavior in various situations. I’m on board with all this but the way the narrative treated her — Ruby is played up as the odd duck and class weirdo. There are scenes where, due to her inability to read other people and determine what’s appropriate, the other characters find her annoying and I personally thought the narrative reinforced this impression.

Which brings us to Alexis. Alexis is poor. Her mother is mentally ill. Bipolar, of course, because all the “bad” parents of YA have bipolar disorder as far as I can tell. And this is not the dubious depiction of bipolar disorder that we see in books like Fangirl where the manic phases coincide with creative highs. No, this is full out off her meds and needs to be committed because the mother is a danger to herself and others but especially her daughter.

I don’t even know what to do with Alexis’s backstory. It’s classic “child takes care of mentally ill parent” played for sympathy and pity. Poor Alexis! She has such a hard life! No dad in sight, she lives off food stamps, and has a sick mom who refuses to take her meds!

Any one of these characters presented alone probably would have made me squint but all together? Side eye. Maybe the narrative is not intentionally saying anything but it’s definitely implying some things I don’t like. I don’t think I’m imagining it. There are some hinky things being said about people with mental disorders and who aren’t neurotypical, right?

As for the actual plot, save me. It was a mess. After finding the body, the team of Ruby, Alexis, and Nick decide that they can do a better job than the police themselves. Well, no, Ruby does because her obsessive behaviors make her pay closer attention to details than the police themselves and through the powers of Google, she quickly realizes the police have overlooked the fact that there is a serial killer on the loose targeting homeless girls.

(I am not even joking.)

Because of this, Ruby recruits Alexis and Nick in her impromptu investigation even though they’re not actually friends. Why? Because Ruby doesn’t have friends (she’s the class weirdo, remember?) but since Alexis and Nick were on her SAR team, they’ll help her, right? And they sort of do — except Nick uses the opportunity to inflate his own self-importance and Alexis vanishes for several chapters because she has to look for her mentally ill mom who has run away from home. But that subplot is not really extraneous because Alexis’s search leads her to mingle with homeless people (which included sleeping in a homeless shelter) and that offers her some insight into the case!

In case it wasn’t readily obvious, these were not the shenanigans I had hoped for when I picked up this mystery thriller. Of course, there are the more familiar tropes: multiple suspects, red herrings, wrongful arrests, and the killer targeting one of our protagonists. But combined with the other things, I just couldn’t take any of it seriously. If you’re going to include mental disorders in your book — even if it’s not the focus as in a problem novel — please treat the subject with the care it deserves. Not as a convenient plot device or personality quirk.

I just can’t recommend this book to anyone. It does move fast so I can see why some readers would find it a quick read but the characterization left much to be desired. That’s not even addressing the issues regarding mental disorders. It is the first of a series and based on the premise of the next book — budding creeper Nick is the main suspect of a murder because he’s a loner who plays first person shooters — it continues along the same vein. F

My regards,

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REVIEW:  Nil by Lynne Matson

REVIEW: Nil by Lynne Matson


Dear Ms. Matson,

I was a big fan of Lost during its early seasons. My attention wavered as the series progressed, but I do recall my obsession when it first aired fondly. Your novel, Nil, reminded me of Lost and I was interested in seeing how a YA novel would handle it.

Seventeen-year-old Charley is at her local Target, on her way to return some clothes, when she falls through a transdimensional gate in the parking lot. As you do. I wish there were a way to make this sound less ridiculous but that is actually what happens. One minute she’s in a parking lot, the next she feels like she’s on fire.

When Charley wakes up, she’s on an island and naked. Of course she is. Luckily she’s not naked for long because she conveniently manages to find a pair of shorts and cloth she can wrap around her breasts. She then spends the next weeks, trying to gain her bearings and survive. I was actually pretty impressed that a teenaged volleyball player from Georgia could manage to survive on a deserted island by herself and with no supplies.

But it turns out Charley is lucky. The island isn’t deserted. She just hadn’t run into the miniature “city” of teenagers who’d also found themselves mysteriously transported here. From them she learns the ugly truth about the island: she has 365 days to find a gate to take her back home. Because even if she survives that long despite the island’s various pitfalls and traps, it’ll find a way to kill her when one year is up.

If there’s one thing that Nil highlights, it’s this: every story must have a point. Every book must have a driving force that propels the reader to finish it and to feel satisfied when they reach The End. Otherwise why did she spend that time reading?

As I began reading Nil, everything seemed to be in place. Here we have a heroine with a problem. She’s thrown through a gate to a strange island and must find her way home. She meets a hot boy named Thad who she develops feelings for. Another problem! Will they both survive? And even if they get off the island, will they be able to find each other again?

But as I continued, I felt this growing sense of unease. Stories are tricky things. Things need to happen but those things also need to be arranged in a compelling way that — and this is key — tells a cohesive narrative with a point. By the time I was halfway through the book, I was growing increasingly convinced Nil didn’t have a point.

Oh sure, there are attempts at making a point. Why are the kids sent to the island? Is there a reason? Are they supposed to realize something about themselves? Why is this revelation so important? After all, if they can’t figure it out in a year, they die! What is the island? Is it an experiment gone awry? Is it just the unfortunate side effect of a solar flare? Or does it follow Lost‘s lead and is a sort of purgatory? I don’t need a definitive answer but as a reader, I’d like some exploration of these ideas rather than having them haphazardly thrown in my direction. Pick something! Take a stand! Will all readers like it? Doubtful, but at least it’d give me something to digest.

(For the record, I don’t consider Charley’s “We’re here for a reason!” stance and Thad’s “Nah, this island is just screwing with us” outlook to be a worthwhile exploration.)

But even with thematic elements of dubious, unclear worth, I might have forgiven the book if there’d been interesting character dynamics happening. It’s a bunch of teenagers from thirteen to eighteen, from all over the world, thrown together on an island. How do they get along? What culture clashes are there? What personality friction? They set up a miniature city. Surely there’d be factions! Even when people are cooperating, there are disagreements and conflicts simmering under the surface.

Nil barely has any of that. The closest we get is Bart, a member of the city who doesn’t get along with anyone. You can tell he’s trouble because he butts heads with Thad, acts sketchily towards Charley, and tries to steal outbound gates meant for other people. Subtlety is not at all on display here.

For book that’s about survival, Nil is vastly uneven in tone. With the countdown-type premise, you’d think there’d be more urgency. Instead, at times, it read like teens on a vacation. They play volleyball. They surf. They have parties. I’m not saying it has to be doom and gloom all the time, but going from someone dying from a tiger attack to people playing volleyball is a bit of a whiplash.

The nail on the coffin came with the ending, however. I’ve certainly read books where I had mixed feelings for the majority of the narrative but thought the ending was brilliant. That didn’t happen here. The ending fizzled for me and left me wondering, “What did I just read? Why did I just read that?” It was a fail for me.

It’s hard to discuss why without spoilers so I will do so under the cut:

Spoiler (ending spoiler): Show

Thad’s time on the island has run out. He’s on his 365th day and has to find an outbound gate. He does but instead of taking it, he pushes Charley through. She wakes up in Switzerland (naked, again), is reunited with her family, grieves (because she thinks Thad is dead), and recovers.

But don’t worry — despite giving his gate to Charley, Thad is lucky and finds another gate. He jumps through and wakes up (naked, of course) in Afghanistan. We have no idea what happens to him during this time period but we are assured that it was Bad, but after a couple months, he tracks Charley down and they have a happy reunion. The End.

As you can see, there’s nothing wrong with the events that happen in that ending exactly. The problem is that it doesn’t live up to the promise of the book and is quite unsatisfactory. Do they deserve a happy ending? Of course. I’m a big fan of happy endings. But I’m not convinced they earned this one.

Nil could have been an epic survival story. Teens struggling to stay alive on an island determined to kill them while trying not to turn on each other. I thought that was the story I was getting. Too bad I was wrong. It didn’t actively make me mad but I definitely felt like I wasted my time reading this. D

My regards,

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