September 12, 2014


This is necessarily going to be a shorter review, since this is a psychological thriller and there is virtually not much other than the barest of plot summaries I can share with you without providing spoilers and clues that you don't need. What I can say is that Stephanie Kuehn is all kinds of talented, and it's a hoot to read a novel set so clearly in familiar areas of Northern California (A shout out to the Iron Triangle/Richmond, Danville/Blackhawk, Berkeley, and Mt. Diablo, woot!) Her fragmented, complicated and nuanced protagonists are perceived by most unfamiliar with YA lit as a rarity - but smart novels like this remind me of something like TANGERINE, by Edward Bloor, Mark Haddon's THE CURIOUS INCIDENT, or Robert Cormier's I AM THE CHEESE -- the plot is a mosaic of pieces the reader isn't sure all fit. Tautly paced, disturbing, steeped in mistrust and with a spooky-gorgeous cover in black, white and ...burnt, the novel is just packed with goodness. This is definitely a crossover - adults who love a good thriller will enjoy this.

And, a little warning -- that MFA professors of mine, the one who talked with relentless cheer about the necessity of the "kernel of hope" in all YA lit -- probably just hates the ending to this novel. It works for me, though. Sometimes, hope is a thing with feathers that get singed. The fact is, young adults aren't stupid. They already know that hope sometimes gets abandoned, and people go on with whatever else they've got.

Summary: All Jamie Henry wants to do is put the past behind him. Growing up rough with a single parent in the destitute Iron Triangle (an industrial area near refineries), he has few memories before the age of six, when he and his sister, Cate, at ten, were taken out of a group home and adopted by a wealthy, white-collar Danville family who have themselves lost two children aged six and ten. After flailing for a few years, he's found traction at sixteen -- a concert-level jazz pianist, a 4.0 student, a winner -- a replacement for the son his adoptive parents have lost. A winner, after having a loser's start. He still has a few tics and shivers - a few cracks in the armor which show where he's come from, but he's going places, now. He's seeing his therapist, taking his pills - he's stopped pulling out his eyebrows, he's gained some positive coping mechanisms, his hands even work reliably -- he'll be okay.

Only, it's not so easy, for Cate. She's... angry. At Jamie - at her adoptive mother, at everyone. She's destructive. She's -- terrifying. The kids at the high school talk about her making secret pacts with the girls in the woods, doing mental trances and finding spirit animals, and stuff -- crazy, noticeable stuff. Her adoptive parents can't reason with her - she's doing drugs and skipping classes. And, after a terrible fire which destroys lives and property, she's finally taken away - and Jamie honestly breathes a sigh of relief, even though he feels guilty.

It all falls apart one morning, when he receives a phone call. Crazy Cate's just been released after two years in juvenile detention -- and she says she's coming back -- for Jamie.

Hands numb and heart pounding, Jamie tries to strap in and weather the worst...

Peaks: Other than a simple story about adopted siblings, this novel is about our brains - knowing right and wrong, and being too sick to know right from wrong. It's about belief and perception -- responsibility, and guilt. Culpability. Complicity. How much we are to blame for what we tell ourselves. And, how much of what we tell ourselves is the truth. It's sharply realistic, deftly woven, nuanced, layered, and deep.

Jamie Henry is, bar none, the most untrustworthy narrator I've encountered this year. I went into the novel believing everything he said, and then, quietly, that solid belief shifted... was undermined ... one step at a time...somehow. That's where the author's deft touch comes in -- I don't know why I started thinking something was wrong. It's the choices he makes -- or doesn't make -- that begins the quiet wondering. It's the way he reacts -- or doesn't react -- that leads the reader to not quite accept what he says -- or at least question it. The reader comes to the end of the novel... worriedly reading over the beginning again, wondering if what they thought was right was right, or -- ??

What, that doesn't sound like a peak? It's a peak. No, seriously. That's good. Thrillers are supposed to keep you off-balanced, edgy, disturbed, guessing, yes? You will guess and guess and guess until you're second-guessing your first. You won't know quite where you've ended up when you've read through the novel and are done -- and I suspect the ending will cause a lot of rereading, frowning, and intense discussion. No two readers likely will entirely agree on what actually went down. Every reader will know that they've cause to fear for the characters' future, though...

Valleys: Once again, I don't really find valleys here. Kuehn's writing is assured and decisive -- you are where she puts you, for good or for ill, and you know what she tells you -- period. You're led along like a sheep to... well. You're guided through the narrative, let's just say.

There will be some who argue this novel's suitability for young adults, as it deals with many disturbing instances of psychological and mental aberrations. Also, there's that missing "kernel of hope." However, it's a pulse-pounding, scary, twisted, dark psychological thriller, and readers who didn't even know that's what they enjoyed might find themselves unexpectedly immersed - and have trouble sleeping nights after.

I found my copy of this book at the library. You can find COMPLICIT by STEPHANIE KUEHN online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

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