Book Review: With Malice by Eileen Cook

 

With Malice by Eileen Cook. Bonnier Publishing, June 2016

18-year-old Jill wakes up in a hospital with a badly broken leg and a huge gap in her memory. Her parents tell her that was in a car accident, and it happened on her much anticipated school sponsored trip to Italy. What they don’t tell her right away is that her best friend Simone died in the crash, and the Italian authorities believe that Jill planned to kill her friend.

Jill is devastated, and while she protests her innocence, she is tried in the court of public opinion and found guilty by most. Simone’s parents have turned against her, and everything she has ever done or said is dissected on social media. Many of her classmates and other students on the trip leap at the opportunity to be part of the drama, even to point of fudging the truth to sound more connected and important.

Not only is she trying to cope with all this, she also faces pressure from the hotshot lawyer her wealthy father hired to spin her image from potential murderer to potential victim. Jill is angry at this because it seems to presume her guilt, and truth should be enough–but is it? She struggles to regain her memory of the accident, but there is always the possibility that her brain may use suggestions to create false memories. Furthermore, the narrative is first person, underlining the potential unreliability of the narrator.

Cook not only gives the reader a detailed portrait of Jill but also presents a lot of information about Simone, who comes across as manipulative and sneaky. She lies glibly and often hides behind Jill, allowing her to take the blame. The revelations about Simone makes the girls’ relationship even more complex, and it is clear that they are in conflict on the trip. The plot is nail-bitingly suspenseful as the story cuts from Jill to associated police reports, e-mail messages, and social media posts, right up to the resolution. Readers who enjoy psychological suspense novels will want to add this to their to-read list.

[Received a copy of the title from Netgalley.com in return for a review.]

 

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Book Review: The Number 7

The Number 7 by Jessica Lindh. Merit Press, 2015.

Lindh’s debut novel is a ghost story that demonstrates how the dead can go on living through their actions.

Louisa, sixteen, goes with her father to clean out his childhood home in Pennsylvania after his mother dies, and it is his first visit home since he left years before. While exploring the attic, Louisa finds an antique phone, and when she picks up the receiver, she can hear someone breathing on the other end.The problem is that the phone is not connected. Later, the phone starts to ring, and when Louisa answers it, a woman begins telling her a story about Louisa’s grandfather, saying that he was a murderer. Louisa wants to ask her father about this, but he does not like to talk about his parents or his childhood.

Her father makes the decision to move  the family from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, a unilateral decision about which Louisa seems neutral and her older sister Greta is not happy. Their mother died five years previously from breast cancer, and that is another thing the family does not discuss.

Louisa starts school and finds herself the focus of attention of two boys: cheerful Gabe, son of the local grocery store owners and moody mysterious Chris. Her father takes an interest in a neighbor, Rosemary, who turns into a good friend, and Greta slowly adapts. In between school and homework, Louisa listens to the story about her grandfather, Gerhard, a man she never met, while she struggles with her own issues, family, and memories.

The novel is engaging, and Louisa’s pragmatic approach to the mysterious calls from beyond is refreshing; she is unnerved but nevertheless pays attention and wants to hear about her grandfather and the actions he took while living in Sweden. It was a neutral country during World War II but nonetheless sold iron ore to Nazi Germany and allowed the Nazis to transport soldiers and materials to Norway. Louisa’s grandfather was the conductor of one such train–the eponymous Number 7–and while he was cooperative at first, he decides to work with his twin brother Lasse to defy the Nazis.

Lidh tells a good story, and she has a remarkable grip on how teens think and act. Louisa is level-headed and becomes confident, exhibiting growth in all her relationships, including her family. Some of the side stories, such as the girl upset at Louisa’s involvement with Gabe or Greta’s bout of cutting, seemed superfluous, and it would have added to the book to have a note about activities in Sweden during World War II.Still, minor flaws can only lead to improvement, and readers will look forward to seeing more from this talented author.

Book Review: Tease by Amanda Maciel. Balzer + Bray, 2014.

Tease is a debut young adult novel about the consequences of bullying. It is the story of five teenagers charged with bullying another teen to the point where she commits suicide and has its basis in actual events, although it is not a retelling of the actual case in fictional form.

Sara Wharton, one of the accused teens, narrates the novel in first person present, using flashbacks to show the events leading up to the suicide of sixteen year old Emma. She also recounts the endless meetings with her lawyer and a therapist pending her trial. The most striking thing about Sara is her total disconnect from any responsibility in contributing to Emma’s pain. Rather, Sara feels that Emma’s suicide, and by extension, Emma, has ruined her life.

In the flashbacks, the reader sees learns that Sara’s best friend and co-defendant is Brielle, a classic “mean girl” with money, confidence, and attitude. Brielle is thoroughly unsympathetic and unlikeable, and she has Sara in thrall. Together, they ramp up an anti-Emma campaign that involves slut-shaming, cyberbullying, and intimidation, perpetuated by the complicity of most of the other students who contribute to the nasty posts, tweets, and too-loud comments that drive Emma into deep despair.

Sara now can’t go anywhere without people reacting to her anywhere from glaring at her to yelling at her. She can barely stand to read about the case on the Internet because the comments are so brutal. In short, she is experiencing the same behavior she dished out, and she can’t understand why. Is her public treatment over the top? Yes, it is, and the people who engage in it are behaving like bullies. Does she ever stop to think that Emma might not have understood why she was targeted? No, she does not.

As a first person narrator, Sara is unreliable. Everything is shaded through her experiences, and by the time she begins to comprehend just what has happened, it is difficult to trust her. It is too little, too late. Yes, she has problems too, but she is whiny and self-absorbed for most of the novel. She cannot comprehend why Emma’s mother would call the school to complain about her daughter’s treatment, and she cannot understand why Emma’s parents might seek restitution of some kind after her death. Sara thinks that because Emma “stole” her boyfriend, she is the victim, not Emma.

This disconnect is a huge flaw in the book. If Maciel intended to show the “other” side of the situation, she fails. The sheer nastiness of Sara and Brielle’s actions, even if mostly instigated by Brielle, seems to justify, not leaven, the accusations against them.

Another flaw in the book is that one never learns much about Emma or her motivations. Is she really “stealing” everyone’s boyfriend? Is she really sleeping with every guy in the school? These are the assumptions everyone makes, and no one ever gets to know her. Every so often, one of the characters would say “She was nice” but the reader does not learn why.

Clearly, no one intends for Emma to be driven to suicide, but we all know what road is paved with “good” intentions. Insecurity, low self esteem, thoughtlessness, being a “kid” are all explanations but they are not excuses for the behaviors heaped on Emma. While it is important to understand the psychology of those who bully, attempting to portray the bully as a victim equal to the target is difficult to accept. In this case, Sara has her life ahead of her. Emma’s is over.

While it is true that there are at least two sides to every story, in this scenario, it is not possible to balance one side with the other. Perhaps a more successful narrative would have been not from the point of view of the bully, but the perspective of the silent bystander who does not contribute to the bullying but also does nothing to stop it. Tease may be as edgy and shocking as the blurbs from other YA authors say, but it is hard to imagine for whom it is written.