by Marieke Nijkamp
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
10:00 a.m. The principal of Opportunity, Alabama's high school finishes her speech, welcoming the entire student body to a new semester and encouraging them to excel and achieve.
10:02 a.m. The students get up to leave the auditorium for their next class.
10:03 The auditorium doors won't open.
10:05 Someone starts shooting.
Told from four perspectives over the span of 54 harrowing minutes, terror reigns as one student's calculated revenge turns into the ultimate game of survival.
(synopsis from Goodreads)
This book was the selection for this year's Big Library Read. I enjoyed last year's choice, so I thought I might like this year's. It was on my want-to-read list anyway, and even though I'd read some less-than-stellar reviews of it, I thought I'd give it a try.
Please, dear author, I want some more...
This is the first book about a school shooting that I've read. I know there are a few of them out there now, an unfortunate reflection of the world we live in today. Not having read anything in this vein (and not really reading much contemporary YA fiction in general), I wasn't sure what to expect. The book starts off strong, introducing us to the four characters who narrate the story, all of which (with the exception of the epilogue) takes place within one hour. There's Claire, a member of the track team who happens to be outside at practice when the shooting starts inside; Tomás, a kid banished to the principal's office with his friend, Fareed; Autumn, an aspiring dancer and the shooter's younger sister; and Sylv, Tomás's twin sister.
It's all a matter of taste...
The problem with these characters is that they all sound the same. Without looking at the section headings to see who's narrating, it's often difficult to know who's telling the story (with the exception of Claire, who isn't inside the school at all for the duration of the book). Their voices are all alike... and not quite right. These are supposed to be teenagers in Alabama, but they often come across as the middle-aged products of a finishing school. It doesn't help that their speech patterns are almost ESL, with uneven and unnatural use of contractions and odd turns of phrase; whether this can be attributed to the author being Dutch, I'm not sure. But these kids definitely didn't strike me as being from Alabama.
The biggest character problem I have, however, is the villain. I've read other reviews complaining that Tyler is over the top, a caricature, a pure evil villain with no nuance. For the first part of the book, I couldn't figure out if I was reading the same book. I thought he was nuanced, painted in shades of grey, and relatable as a hurting kid who'd experienced so much loss that he just couldn't process it.
But then the author went too far. Way too far. And all those negative reviews suddenly made sense. After about the first quarter of the book, I began to see what people were talking about. Tyler walking around, talking aloud about his hurts, almost twirling his mustache, didn't help me see him as a tortured villain; all I saw was the author behind the scenes, saying, "See? See how evil he is?" It didn't work, and it didn't make sense. For me, it would have been far more effective if the author had chosen from a couple of other options: 1) She could have used Tyler as a POV character, eliminating the need for the melodramatic monologuing to explain why he was doing what he was doing; or 2) She could have left him silent as he went on his rampage, leaving his motivations more ambiguous, but making the situation more realistic. There was one character in this book who was a true villain, but who was never properly addressed. Instead, that person is left as a mostly faceless bogeyman lurking in people's memories but never really seen. Tyler's perspective on this person could have added a lot more to the story. I know that it might be uncomfortable for authors to write from the point of view of a murderer. Instead, they write about them. It's easier. I get it. Unfortunately, I think that that may have been what this book needed to make it more than the superficial story that it turned out to be. (Then again, the author pushed Tyler so far into the insanely irredeemable category that there might not have been a way to salvage his character.)
And as long as we're talking about characters, let me just say that I didn't particularly like any of them. The girls all blamed themselves for everything (even things that didn't make sense). Tomás was (quite literally) too stupid to live... although, that's kind of the author's fault, since she had some pretty big plot holes drilled through the last part of the story. (So, at one point, some of the kids escape to the second floor... which apparently only has one staircase, which must be against fire codes, but I digress. They get out onto the roof, and then are supposedly trapped... so Tomás goes back to confront the shooter to buy his sister and friend some time. And then we find out in the epilogue that it's possible to sneak onto the roof... implying that there's an easy way off. But, hey, who needs logic?)
Let's get technical...
As I mentioned earlier, the biggest technical problem with this book is the language. There are weird things (like one of the characters referring to the shooter's father as "old Mr. Browne" as if he's some old curmudgeon who turns the hose on the neighbour kids to keep them off his lawn), and the locking of the classroom doors between periods (how long is the break between classes?!), and spiking the milk in the cafeteria with food colouring (not realizing, I guess, that kids in North America usually get individual cartons or bottles that would be pretty much impossible to tamper with). I encountered similar problems with another USA-set book by a Dutch author last year. I really wish authors would either write what they know or do a lot more research.
Overall, this book was a disappointment. In the beginning, I thought it would be getting a fairly high rating from me, but as the pages passed, things just kept deteriorating. I can't really recommend this one. One-dimensional characters, plot holes, and an unrealistic depiction of a school shooting dragged the whole story down.
I stand. No one notices me. All eyes are fixed on Ty and his next victim.
"Tyler." My voice is nothing more than a hoarse whisper. I swallow hard. Numbness trickles down my spine to my fingertips.
Murmurs surround me. Heads turn. The broken silence gives me strength. I clear my throat again before Tyler can shoot another student in my stead.
"Tyler. I'm here."
Overall Rating: 2.13 out of 5 ladybugs