Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line book coverI rarely review books here that aren’t YA, but I enjoyed this one and think some of you might, as well. This is a rare suspense novel set in India (at least it’s rare to me—when I think of suspense, it’s almost always with white characters).

Jai is a nine-year-old Hindu boy in what I think is a slum in a fictional Indian city. He has two good friends, Pari, who’s a girl and smarter than him (though he’d be loathe to admit it), and Faiz, a Muslim boy. Jai is a little obsessed with crime shows and thinks he’d make a great detective. So when a classmate of his goes missing, he takes it upon himself to find out what happened, enlisting Pari and Faiz as his assistants. He feels this is necessary, since the police came, bribed the missing boy’s mom for her one valuable item, a gold chain given to her by her employer, and left promising to do exactly nothing. Bringing the police in is a source of tension for the entire slum, because they are always threatening to raze it, which would obviously make a huge number of people homeless. The three kids start investigating, but before they make much progress, another boy goes missing. Then a girl. As things escalate, so does their investigation, at least until it seems positively impossible.

One of the things I loved the most about the book was the authentic feel of a culture far removed from my every day life. Anappara has lots of details about living in the slum, because it’s all told through the perspective of someone who knows nothing but that (even if he thinks otherwise). There’s even a glossary in the back for all the Indian terms used for things like foods and slang, even though you can generally tell from the context what things are (I mean, not necessarily exactly, but you get the gist). But this really added to the flavor of the book. In general, Jai's voice is very colloquial, with statements like, “I like headstands a lot more than the huff-puff exercises…” so it makes complete sense that he’d be throwing in Indian terms.

Jai is a very annoying little brother to his twelve-year-old sister, even though he thinks she’s the annoying one. It’s interesting to see his perspective in this and everything else, because the reader can see clearly how wrong he is about things, which is often funny. For example, he’s trying to be the boss of his friends, and be the official detective:

“How come you get to be the detective?” Pari asks.

“That’s very true,” Faiz says. “Why can’t you be my assistant?”

“Arrey, what do you know about being a detective? You don’t even watch Police Patrol.”

“I know about Sherlock and Watson,” Pari says. “You two haven’t even heard of them.”

“What-son?” Faiz asks. “Is that also a Bengali name?”

I really enjoyed this book and recommend it for anyone looking for a different kind of suspense novel that also touches on social issues in India.

Review: Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard

Pretty Little Liars book coverI know this book came out a while ago (2006) and is a TV show now, but I picked it up based on a recommendation for my suspense/thriller class for my MFA. I’d obviously heard of it, but never read it.

The book opens with the disappearance of Ali, who’s friends with Emily, Hanna, Spencer, and Aria, during the summer between their seventh and eighth grade years. Three years later, the four remaining girls have grown far apart, each having their own circle of friends. But they also each hold some secret that Ali also knew, and they still worry that the secret will get out somehow. But they’re all especially nervous when they start getting creepy text messages and emails from someone who appears to know all their secrets—current and past—the same way that Ali did. It doesn’t help that the person sending the messages is signing them —A.

There’s of course more going on than these mysterious messages. Emily has lost interest in swimming (the thing everyone in her family does) and her boyfriend, and has found a surprising interest in a girl who’s just moved to town, Maya. Hanna wants to be perfect but keeps getting herself in trouble through not-the-best choices. Spencer has a huge crush on her sister’s boyfriend and Aria has a crush on her new high school English teacher—and neither appears to be unrequited.

Although the book was interesting, I had a little trouble connecting to these ostensibly perfect, beautiful girls. But this is a novel you read for the secrets, really. Still, I have to admit that the book felt incomplete to me. There isn’t really a resolution to the main question, and you’re obviously supposed to read the following books to get that answer. This annoyed me.

But if you like long series, suspense, and tales of high school girls—and haven’t read this already—you might enjoy finding a new series (17 books!) to read.

Review: The Hanging Girl by Eileen Cook

The Hanging Girl book coverI’ve been reading a lot more YA suspense lately, partially because there’s more of it coming out, and partially because I’m interested in trying my hand at it at some point.

Eighteen-year-old Skye Thorn is a fake psychic, something we learn immediately. She is good at reading people, which helps her pull off the trick. She does tarot readings for a little extra cash, even though what she really needs is some Serious Cash. So she gets involved in a kidnapping plot to get some of the money she desperately needs. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go exactly to plan and leave Skye a nervous wreck and having to improvise a bit. Although the main twist is a little predictable, how it came to be is not (at least, I didn’t think so).

Skye a slightly unreliable narrator. I mean, we know she lies and she isn’t totally open with readers in the beginning. This makes it an interesting book where the suspense keeps on going. There are several twists in the story, one relatively close to the beginning and a couple near the end. But what really makes it work is the characters. Skye is engaging and pretty unusual for a YA main character, I think. Her best friend, Drew, is very sympathetic and supporting, though she’s a little oblivious about what Skye’s life is like. The other major secondary character I’m not going to name because it would give too much away, but the character is also complex and intriguing. We get a few chapters from this character’s point of view, as well, which adds to the story. There are several other good characters that are very real. Her mom in particular is interesting, and also a source of embarrassment for Skye. And the tarot and psychic aspects of the book are fun even if you don’t buy into it at all.

If you’re looking for a YA thriller with an unusual and unreliable narrator, give this one a try. Note that the paperback version has a different title: One Lie Too Many. (I think this might be a British version, though this is what comes up in the Amazon search.)

Review: The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas

The Cheerleaders book coverI’ve been reading more suspense and thrillers lately, partially because I’m interested in turning one of my books into a suspense so I need to study up, and partially (of course) because I enjoy reading them. This was my first Kara Thomas book, but she apparently has some others, so I will be checking those out.

The book’s main character is Monica, whose sister was the last of her school’s five cheerleaders to die five years earlier. The first two were killed in a strange car accident that seemed to have no cause. The second two were murdered, with the murderer being killed by police (Monica’s stepfather) the next day. The final one was Monica’s sister, Jen, who killed herself—presumably out of despair over the other deaths.

Early on in the book, Monica stumbles across her sister’s old phone, stashed in the bottom drawer of her stepfather’s desk. There are also yearly anonymous letters saying

Connect the dots. Find the truth.

Monica doesn’t know what to think, but she has the guts to contact the number of the last call on Jen’s phone, which took place the morning she killed herself. And this kicks off Monica’s search for the truth. She figures out who the phone number belongs to and learns some critical information from him. She makes a new friend in the process of investigating and the two of them undertake some risky tasks.

The book also offers Jen’s point of view in some chapters (Monica has many more). This provides the reader with a little extra information, but it isn’t until the very end that we see how it all ties together (or doesn’t).

This is an engaging book with a few twists that surprised me. I won’t say it’s perfect—there were a couple of connections Monica made that I thought were a stretch, but not enough to keep me from wanting to know what happened. So if you enjoy YA thrillers, you should check this one out.

Review: Burnout by Stacia Leigh

Burnout book coverThis book’s been sitting on my shelf a while (in very good company) and I decided I wanted a quick read that was not for my MFA, so I picked it up. It turned out to be perfect. Even though I’m in a bit of a reading slump, I read it in two days because it’s pretty fast-paced. It’s billed as a contemporary YA romance, but I’d argue it’s romantic suspense, although the suspense doesn’t get started right away.

Will Sullivan, who we met as J.J.’s drunk friend in Dealing with Blue, is having a rough time. His mom was killed by a drunk driver a year earlier and he’s never dealt with it. Instead, he drinks the beer left behind by his dad’s and brother’s biker friends. After wrecking his own bike, drunk, he’s in a world of pain. But he’s part of the Hides of Hell family even though he doesn’t want to join, and when they decide to ride to a rally and at the same time spread his mom’s ashes, he’s got to go with them. But he doesn’t have a bike anymore, so…

Miki Holtz is the daughter of the new president of the club and she’d love to get his attention at least every once in a while. She’s also Will’s ride to the rally. They have some history—they’ve played together since they were little kids, but now Miki likes him more than as friends. But she messed it all up a year earlier, and he’s not forgiven her. So it’s going to be an awkward ride.

This may not sound all that suspenseful, but that comes in once they’ve been on the road a bit. They end up spending the first night in a cheapo motel because Will made the mistake of taking one too many pain pills, and he can barely stay on the bike. The motel clerk acts kind of fishy and seems to recognize Will’s name. The next night, they flee the campsite and backtrack to the motel because they think the motel clerk knows something. That next morning all hell breaks loose.

Will and Miki are both cool characters. Miki a bit more so—she’s quite plucky, while Will’s a bit broody and depressed, but not overly so. He’s still quite interesting and it’s rewarding to see him finally deal with his mom’s death. Miki also has her own things to deal with, mostly her relationship with her dad and how she sees herself.

If you’re looking for a gritty (but not too gritty) romance with a couple you definitely root for, this one is for you.

Review: Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus

Two Can Keep a Secret book coverTwo Can Keep a Secret is the followup (not the sequel, that’s a different book) to McManus’s One of Us Is Lying, which I liked and reviewed on this blog. The two books are a little different, as I feel Two Can Keep a Secret is quieter and less complicated than the first. It was still a good suspense that kept me guessing.

The book’s narrated by two characters: Ellery and Malcom. Ellery and her twin brother Ezra are moving in with their grandmother in Echo Ridge, Vermont while their mother is in rehab. Malcolm is the younger brother of the guy everyone thinks murdered a girl five years earlier.

Things go wrong for both of them right from the start. When Ellery and Ezra are getting a ride from the airport, they stumble across a body in the road at the edge of town. At a fundraiser for the murdered girl, Ellery finds Malcolm standing with a can of spray paint next to a message sprayed on a wall:

MURDERLAND

THE SEQUEL

COMING SOON

Murderland was the name of the Halloween park where the girl’s body was found. In its new incarnation, it’s called Fright Farm, and Ellery and Ezra get jobs there like most of the other teenagers in town. Ellery also becomes acquainted with the queen bee of the school, Katrin. When meeting her, she thinks,

We all murmur hellos, and it feels like some sort of uncomfortable audition.

Who can’t relate to that? Soon, Ellery’s been sucked under the threat implied by the graffiti Malcolm might have written. But she doesn’t think so. And it’s not long before she’s hanging out with him as well as her brother and Malcom’s friend Mia.

In addition to being the shoe-in for homecoming queen, Katrin is also Malcolm’s step-sister. Malcolm isn’t overly fond of this situation, but there’s not much he can do about it. Plus, he’s got more to worry about: his infamous brother is back in town, and he doesn’t know why or what he’s doing there. The timing is bad with the graffiti, more of which appears later.

With this set up, there are quite a few suspects as well as a real threat against Ellery. I wasn’t blind-sided by the resolution, but there is a small but significant twist at the end that I didn’t at all expect. Additionally, there are several minor twists and reveals along the way that surprised me.

If you enjoyed One of Us Is Lying, or YA suspense in general, you’d probably like this one, too.

Review: Sadie by Courtney Summers

Sadie book coverWhen I first heard about this book, I was sort of freaked out because of similarities it has with my own Sadie Speaks (still unpublished). I’m hoping I don’t have to change the name of my character because of it. Still, it sounded like an interesting book, so I bought it.

Sadie makes an interesting format choice. The book alternates chapters between the character Sadie’s narrative and the transcript (basically) of a serialized podcast called The Girls, narrated by West McCray (an adult man). It opens with the show, which gives Summers an easy and legitimate way to provide the setting and backstory. Thirteen-year-old Mattie was murdered and her older sister, Sadie, disappeared soon afterward. The Girls came about because Sadie and Mattie’s unofficial, stand-in grandmother, their neighbor May Beth, contacted West. Thus began his investigation and the show.

We learn a lot about Sadie from May Beth, but we learn even more about how people never really know the people they care about. Obviously we learn the most from Sadie's own narrative. What we know early on is that she’s heartbroken over Mattie, who she basically raised because their mother was an addict who eventually disappeared, and she knows who killed her. And she’s going to kill him. In the first chapter, we see her clumsily buy a car and learn that she has a significant stutter that makes most of her interactions with people difficult, or at least awkward. Thus begins her quest.

The show and Sadie’s narrative are on two different time lines, but they interact seamlessly, where basically something happens in Sadie’s chapter and afterward West will figure out that part of her journey, just in time for Sadie to describe her next steps. It takes a little while for West to “catch up” to Sadie in terms of the book, but it still works very well. What’s interesting about it is that despite the fact that we’re with Sadie for her journey, sometimes we learn more about it—in the wider context—from West.

Sadie’s a very interesting character. Even though she’s on a dark path, you eventually figure out why and sympathize with her. Despite that, I had a little trouble connecting with her, but I had no trouble rooting for her. The characters in the show storyline are pretty well drawn given the format. We can see West is credible, and he learns a little more about the darkness of the world and how it impacts him given that he has a young daughter. May Beth also is very believable and she too learns about the dark side of things. The characters that Sadie interacts with for fleeting moments are less developed as they’re seen entirely through her slightly distorted perspective, but the most important of them get revisited with West, which is interesting.

If you’re in the mood for a different kind of thriller, this might be for you. Like a lot of thrillers, it deals with some of the unpleasant aspects of the world, which makes reading it demanding at times. But it’s engaging and unusual and has an ending that will stay with you.

Review: One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

One of Us Is Lying book coverThis is quite a book, very addictive. It’s a debut, too, which makes it extra surprising, because it feels a little masterful. It’s a tricky psychological thriller with four unreliable narrators. Actually, I’m not sure if the label “psychological thriller” quite fits because it’s not particularly intense like you’d expect with a thriller. Although the book messes with your head, it’s a little mellow compared to Gillian Flynn’s books and The Girl on the Train, I think because there’s more of a sense of danger in those than in One of Us Is Lying. In this book, the mystery is at the forefront. Who killed Simon and how are they hiding that from us despite the fact that we’re in their heads?

Simon has a regularly-updated gossip app that publishes humiliating secrets of the kids at school. When he ends up in detention with four other kids and then ends up dead during that detention due to a well-known peanut allergy, it’s pretty clear that one of them must have poisoned his drink (with a particularly potent type of peanut oil). Bronwyn is the perfect academically-inclined girl; Nate is the delinquent everyone knows sells drugs on the side; Addy is the somewhat personality-less girlfriend of a football star; and Cooper is a baseball star in his own right.

The strange thing is that someone obviously engineered it so that all five kids ended up in detention for the same reason—a cell phone planted in their bags during a class with a rabid cell-phone-hating Luddite teacher, Mr. Avery. So we are pretty sure that at least some of the kids have been set up. But with the way things went down, it seems unlikely that at least one of them didn’t put the oil in the cup Simon ended up using.

The police think this, too. When it comes to light that Simon was about to publish a post that would out some damning secrets (whether true or untrue) of the four remaining kids, they become strong suspects and (as it appears as the story unfolds), the only ones. Which is admittedly odd because Simon had humiliated plenty of other kids along the way, any of whom might have framed the four.

The writing is great, with fantastic and realistic dialogue. Bronwyn, Nate, Addy, and Cooper are all wonderfully complex. Bronwyn is so driven that she’s actually done a stupid, reckless thing that could destroy her chances of going to her dream school. She seems the least complicated of them all. Nate is a delinquent, yes, and he’s a playboy, but he’s got a nasty home life and still doesn’t seem like a killer. Addy has let herself be metaphorically absorbed into her boyfriend. So when something messes that up, she’s got to dig deep to redefine herself. Finally, Cooper is a very talented baseball pitcher likely to go pro after graduation. But the question is, is he on steroids? And what’s his other secret? We’re not sure. Even the secondary characters—especially Bronwyn’s and Addy’s sisters—are also interesting. There are layers to the book, too, with multiple engaging subplots.

Really, you should go read this one now if you like good books.