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REVIEW:  The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman

REVIEW: The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman

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Dear Ms. Wasserman,

Even though there are so many YA novels coming out every month, I personally think there is a dearth of books in the horror subgenre. Yes, I know. Horror is out of fashion, having peaked in the late 80s and early 90s. But I loved Anna Dressed in Blood and wished there were more novels like that one. Alas, I didn’t even have much luck, not even with its sequel. So even though I was lukewarm on your previous novel, I decided to give your latest effort a try. It sounded like the kind of horror I grew up on and have missed all these years.

Oleander is a small Kansas town. It’s the kind of town where families have lived for generations and everyone knows your business. That all changes one day when, without explanation, five people go on homicidal rampages. We’re talking opening fire on the customers in a drugstore, running someone down with a car, and crucifying a parishioner and setting a church on fire. Four of those people killed themselves. The fifth tried but failed. She’s now locked up in what she believes to be a high-security mental institution.

One year after that fateful day, Oleandar has settled back into a — while not entirely normal — regular routine. Unfortunately the events of that infamous day come back to haunt them when a tornado tears through town and reveals its secrets. As Oleander descends into madness, only five teenagers are left unscathed, wondering what is happening to their relatives and neighbors. What do they have in common? Four of them are each the sole survivor of the rampages from one year ago, and the last is the lone perpetrator who survived.

Readers who love Stephen King and his brand horror and are interested in a YA take should absolutely pick up this book. The storytelling style is strongly informed by his books, right down to the retrospective narration of the characters:

Later, after he’d trashed his bloody clothes, and stood under the cold shower long enough that the water circling the drain had gone from red to pink to clear, Daniel Ghent would wonder if some part of him had known what was to come — or should have. If there had been something false, something crafty, in Gathers’ crookedly welcoming smile, or some too-still quality in the air, like the pressure drop before a storm. He would wonder if there was some reason he had walked into the store on exactly that day, at precisely that time, if despite all previous indications to the contrary, he had been meant to be a hero and save the day. He would wonder whether, if he had seen it coming, he could have done something to stop it, or whether he would simply have backed out of the store and run away. But that was later.

For me, this is what horror is. It’s not the violence and gore — though that certainly can be present. It’s the dread of what’s to come. It’s the tension that increases with each second as you wait for the axe to fall.

The classic staples are all here. Small town. Ragtag band of unlikely allies who, in each their own way, are outcasts even if it’s not immediately obvious. An inexplicable madness sweeping over a town, changing its inhabitants — or revealing their true natures. A mysterious government agency who may or may not be involved. In another book, these elements could have been cliche but they worked well here.

People used to the deep introspective characterization of many YA novels might be taken aback by the distant POV here. It’s not entirely omniscient but it’s close. Again, I thought it was well-done and suited the style and tone, but it’s not every reader’s bag. Subtle, multilayered characterization is not this novel’s strength but it’s also not the point. I wouldn’t call the character’s shallowly characterized because the way everyone changed after That Day and when the tornado tore up the town, told me a lot about these people.

At its heart, The Waking Dark is a novel about the darkness that lurks within all of us, just waiting to come out. In many ways, I thought the concrete explanation behind Oleander’s disintegration was a little too neat, a little too handwavy. Part of that is because up until that reveal, the novel had been grounded in solid reality, with everyday mundane explanations for the horrible things that happened. Everything was possible in real life without the help of any outside paranormal force, so the true cause jerked me out of the book.

But as Jule, one of the core group of teens, says: It’s easy to blame that outside cause. To place entire blame at its feet. In that way, people can absolve themselves of their guilt and pretend they bear no responsibility for their actions. But what if that cause doesn’t make people do terrible things? What if, instead, it simply lifts the inhibitions and morality that prevent people from doing awful things? In the end, it’s still your finger that pulls the trigger, not some mysterious paranormal force. That’s the question. Which is stronger? Impulse or morality?

Having been disappointed by recent YA horror before, I approached The Waking Dark with cautious hope. I’m glad to say it exceeded my expectations. Because of this book, I’m looking forward to future novels and excited to see what the future may bring. I recommend The Waking Dark to all horror fans and especially to lovers of Stephen King. There’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this one. Oh, and don’t worry. Despite what I said earlier about gore and violence not necessarily being the defining traits of horror, like many Stephen King novels, the body count is very high. B

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  Prep School Confidential by Kara Taylor

REVIEW: Prep School Confidential by Kara Taylor

Dear Ms. Taylor,

I admit I have a weakness for Gossip Girl-esque novels, even though they are inevitably about rich, white kids. So when I heard that your debut, Prep School Confidential, was a prep school murder mystery with a Gossip Girl flair, I had to give it a try.

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Anne Dowling is the queen bee of her NYC private academy. But when she accidentally burns down part of her school (as you do), she gets shipped off to a Boston-area prep school (as so often happens). It’s awkward being the new girl but Anne couldn’t care less about her new classmates. Instead she finds herself bonding with her new roommate, Isabella — until Isabella goes missing one night and is found dead the next morning.

Concerned for the school’s reputation, the administration effectively puts a hush order on the student body while the murder is under investigation. But the ominous silence holds secrets linked to Isabella’s death, and Anne is determined to unlock them all. Unfortunately, some people would prefer she leave those secrets buried.

I can see why Prep School Confidential evoked the specter of Gossip Girl. There are indeed some mean girl antics. But only some and overall the novel isn’t nearly as over the top. It’s very much a murder mystery with all the hallmarks of the genre: clues, multiple suspects, and red herrings. That said, I’m not sure mystery fans will enjoy this because it’s not very subtle with these elements and lacks that certain finesse I associate with the genre. I realize the target audiences are different, with different sets of expectations, but it’s worth pointing out.

One thing I didn’t quite grasp was why the other students at the prep school were so eager to elevate Anne as their new queen bee. Does that actually ever happen to the new girl? I realize Anne is from the Upper East Side but she herself felt like an outcast at the prep school because her father is “only” a lawyer versus a senator or some other type of dignitary. I just don’t see a tightly knit student body doing this.

Unless, of course, we’re supposed to believe the school is trying to position Anne against the resident wannabe queen bee, Alexis — the daughter of the aforementioned senator. I can see this being the case but I suspect I’m reaching for an explanation. There really isn’t any evidence for this in the narrative. And besides, throwing Anne to the wolves like that? Doesn’t that make her new friends rather terrible?

I was rather unimpressed by the romantic subplot. Anne has two potential love interests: Brent, the boy in her class that every girl wants but can never have and Anthony, Isabella’s twin brother. Despite being the cliché dichotomy of the good boy and the bad boy, I had no problems with the love interests themselves. A rarity, I know. I didn’t even really have an issue with Anne’s wishy-washiness and how she’d swing back and forth between the two. I can buy that.

No, what made the subplot fall apart for me was how it was resolved. One of the potential suitors is neatly eliminated as an option. Too neatly, in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong. I dislike love triangles and how pervasive they’ve become in the YA genre. But I don’t like contrivances and the way one love interest was removed from the picture screamed it to me.

Despite these things, I couldn’t help but like Anne. Yes, she’s a privileged screw-up who’s used to charming her way out of trouble. But when that fails, she has to adapt and she does. It’s also hard not to root for someone who wants to see justice done, when it seems like the system has failed.

One thing I would have liked to see more of was more delving into the class differences. Yes, privilege is touched on. Anne easily transferred to an elite prep school after she essentially committed arson, all thanks to her father’s connections. Isabella’s stalker gets off with no problems, all because his father is on the school’s board. But the class differences also play a big role: Anthony’s attitude towards Anne and everyone at her school, and the fact that Isabella attended the prep school on a scholarship and supposedly hated everyone there. There was a lot of potential to delve into this aspect, and that never really happened.

Prep School Confidential is a likeable read that’s a welcome change of pace from all the paranormal and UF fantasy out there. While I personally didn’t think all the elements gelled together well, I can see people being fans of the multiple secrets and revelations laid throughout the novel. It is the first book of a series though, so I will warn that the next book’s mystery is set up in this one, and it’s not the most graceful integration. C+

My regards,
Jia

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