Initial reaction: I'm going to think about what I want to say in the larger discussions of this work before I write this review (which I'll try to write tonight in a little while.)
But to sum up my thoughts in a short statement: Very shallow, oftentimes offensive presentation of a tough subject matter. And this is even in consideration of the audience it's oriented toward. I got the message and I even understood the intent, but the execution left so much more to be desired and felt more like a sensationalistic piece for drama, rather than a coming to terms story and fulfilling mystery/crime expansion.
I'll start this review by conceding that this is a very difficult subject matter to approach in any respect, and I highly value that Sara Hantz chose (at least in premise) to tackle it within a work oriented towards a YA audience. The blurb and the beautiful cover were both aspects that drew me in and made me excited to have the opportunity to read it.
But upon finishing the novel, I grimace just thinking about the portrayal of the matter here. It's not so much that the book doesn't propose to take the matter seriously, and it's not even that I didn't understand the intent behind the work.
More like I felt at every opportunity in this work, this book shoved everything down my throat in a repetitive measure.
The execution was awkward, harried, and clinical. Very shallow and immature presentation for the gravity of the matter in the work, even considering the protagonist himself is flawed, young, and dealing with a lot of purported emotional curveballs thrown his way. When the narrative info and emotion dumps all of the character's purported sufferings in repeated measures in such a short span of time, and doesn't allow you to even consider some of the statements in an open format for yourself as a reader - it's not only inappropriate, but it doesn't do justice for the subject at hand. Not to mention it felt like many of the situations that the MC faced were thrown in just for dramatic value, and they truly felt like they were narrative inserts, not situations that the protagonist was really dealing with and had to come to terms with. And that sours the intent, seriousness, and sincerity of the matter faster than week old milk.
Conflict plot points are also dropped faster than hot potatoes.
Let me consider for a moment the angle/argument that this book is intended for a YA audience, maybe even a reluctant reader audience. It's a quick read, but even if the narrative only had a limited amount of time to fit these conflicts in, and even for the raw emotion it tried to portray with the character's blunt reactions to what he faces, it still came across as far too repetitive and forceful to really take a step back and say "Man, he's going through so much, I really feel sorry for him."
The character's not talking with you, he's talking AT you for much of this narrative.
Jed Franklin is a 17-year old kid whose life is turned upside down when his father is arrested and charged with abusing, molesting and killing several boys - with one boy still missing in the mix. Jed's notably, and understandably, devastated. I even understood that he was afraid of falling into his father's footsteps given not only what he initially thinks following the revelation, but also what he learns from conversations with his father and the reveals over his family history.
We hear a lot about how Jed thinks what his father did was "messed up," "fucked up" and constant streams of WTF. And you know - I understand this, but I did not like how it comes across. To give you an example of how repetitious the narrative gets in places of this book, I'll take the first page of Chapter 9:
I wake with a start, my breathing heavy and labored. Blinking furiously, it takes a few seconds before I realize, with relief, that I’m in bed. That I’d been having a nightmare. A fucking disgusting nightmare.
It was the most sickening and scariest thing ever. I was in my dad’s head while he went child hunting. He stood behind a tree, watching boys in a playground. And all the time he was fixated on a small boy with blond curly hair, who looked about six. And I could hear all his thoughts. Except they didn’t seem like normal thoughts; they were like sound-bites:
Come to Daddy, little boy, it won’t hurt a bit.
You know you want to.
I shake my head to bring myself back to reality. I spit into a tissue the bile that had shot into my mouth as I was reliving the dream and wipe my lips over and over, to try and rid the foul taste of the whole experience.
The narrative's like this through much of the book. For one, it's juvenile because it's telling AND repeating the emotion rather than having places and spaces between and showing the gravity of the situation, allowing the emotional resonance to come through on its own and make its impression on the reader, rather than telling the reader what to feel. For another, the emotion's oversaturated, and instead of feeling the disgust for what his father has done and Jed's respective reactions having merit, it makes the portrayal come off as forced and numbing.
Jed's father's name is Benjamin Franklin, which - I don't normally judge names, but really? Unfortunate naming is unfortunate, but in a story like this, it makes the juvenile tone seem that much more prominent. From the courtroom scene covering the man's trial, to where Jed has to meet with his father in order to strike a deal to potentially find the body of another missing boy who may be alive or dead at the time the story transpires, a lot of it comes across as wayward drama.
What really made me angry was an assertion that Jed makes towards a guy (Foster) that bullies him over his father's crime. It's not that I didn't feel sorry for Jed getting blacklisted over a crime his father committed (though this factor is emphasized over and over again to the point where it went in tandem to the idea of this being forced down my throat), but it's awfully hard to feel sorry for someone who would say something like this for any reason, given the context of the situation:
“I’m warning you, Foster,” I roar, my fists balled and ready to take a swing at him. “Cut it out or you’ll be wishing you were one of my dad’s victims by the time I’ve finished with you.”
For a character who just spent the vast majority of the time telling us what his father did was disgusting and sickening, I had a hard time believing he would say something like this. He felt remorseful after, sure, but this felt like an obvious milking of the dramatic context and it angered me. Not to mention that even when his statement's caught by an authority figure, the conflict this assertion presents is dropped by the wayside.
Jed's met with contentions and accusations against his own person when not only one of the boys he befriends in the neighborhood goes missing, but yet another boy accuses Jed of "touching him inappropriately." Jed questions his own actions/reactions because of the lies he tells and sometimes blacking out from drunken stupors which make him think he's guilty of what his father's done. By this point I wanted to throw the book down and not have anything to do with it, because my mental note is screaming to me "Nothing about this is real, nothing about this is emotionally coherent and it's playing upon my sentiments on a subject matter that deserves far more maturity in approach than this."
Even when dealing with Jed's inner demons and fears of becoming what his father was, I couldn't believe how juvenile the emotions came through on that as well. Even the conversation where Jed talks to his father, and his father reveals that he "restrained" himself from harming Jed and his sister, I probably wanted to throw up right along with Jed at the revelation, but at the same time, later on when Jed's expressing his fears of touching other kids like that I thought "No, just no."
The book attempts to have Jed coming to terms with his situation, particularly with Summer as someone who stands firmly with him. But I couldn't understand the forced, inappropriate attempt at romance when Summer made a perfectly legitimate claim for Jed to get his crap together, while saying she loved him, but yet he focuses on the measure "She actually loves me?"
Dear goodness no.
I think Summer's character was forced to be the moral guide for Jed through all these events, and she's also the purported love interest, but again - much of this is told, not shown, and it felt like it was forced down my throat. Even the relationship between them. It's one dimensional, and it made me think of the characters across the board here in one dimension for the purported situations and measures here.
There are other books that treat this subject matter with far more sensitivity, resonance, gravity, and seriousness than this book. I cannot recommend it, personally speaking.
Overall score: 0.5/5 stars
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Entangled Teen.