Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review: Are You Still There by Sarah Lynn Scheerger

Title: Are You Still There
Author: Sarah Lynn Scheerger
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Published Date: 1 September 2015
Buy: Amazon | The Book Depository | Dymocks Australia

I received this book through NetGalley from Albert Whitman & Company for review.

After her high school is rocked by an anonymous bomb threat, "perfect student" Gabriella Mallory is recruited to work on a secret crisis helpline that may help uncover the would-be bomber's identity.

Gabriella Mallory, AP student and perfect-daughter-in-training, stands barefoot on a public toilet for three hours while her school is on lockdown. Someone has planted a bomb and she is hiding. The bomb is defused but the would-be-bomber is still at large. And everyone at Central High School is a suspect. The school starts a top-secret crisis help line and Gabi is invited to join. When she does, she is drawn into a suspenseful game of cat and mouse with the bomber, who has unfinished business. He leaves threatening notes on campus. He makes threatening calls to the help line. And then he begins targeting Gabi directly. Is it because her father is the lead police detective on the case? Is the bomber one of her new friends. Could it be her new boyfriend with his complicated past? As the story unfolds, Gabi knows she is somehow connected to the bomber. Even worse she is part of his plan. Can Gabi reach out and stop him? Or will she be too late?
(summary from Goodreads) 

Are You Still There offers a sometimes poignant look into relationships and the consequences of bullying, but is less of a mystery than expected.

I was really hoping for a great mystery, one full of suspense in Are You Still There, but that just wasn't meant to be. Overall, the story is much too unoriginal and predictable. The identity of the would be bomber, who calls themselves "Stranger", is obvious right away. From the very first mention of this character, I said "Hello, Stranger", and I wasn't wrong. So immediately Are You Still There lost a little something for me. Stranger and their manifesto simply didn't work for me. Without the suspense and mystery there's only pity, and to be honest, a little boredom leftover for Stranger. On the one hand, I can see the message about bullying that Scheerger is sending, and I feel for it and agree. But on the other hand, the execution is off. Stranger often presents as petulant and cliche, and the whole idea of their manifesto has been overused so that empathy for Stranger's plight is thin. Despite this though, Scheerger wrote a heart-pounding ending, one with actual suspense that made for an intense few moments as you waited to see what the outcome would be. It's too bad this couldn't have been better utilised earlier throughout the novel, as it's proof Scheerger can certainly build tension. 

Instead of the thrilling mystery, Are You Still There is more of a relationship dream. Throughout the story readers get to know Gabi and her relationships with friends and family, as well as a new romance with Miguel. Gabi kind of comes out of her shell, trying new things, making new friends - experiencing high school while she can rather than studying it all away. In taking part in the peer counseling hotline, Gabi learns to look closer at the people around her and realise the issues they're facing. In this way, Scheerger comments on bullying, suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, self-esteem, class, and so on. This side of the story is really only touched upon though, as the plot is meant to be focused on Stranger and their agenda. I would have liked to see the secondary characters and their relationships and problems developed with more depth. This worked better than the Stranger storyline. I think part of the problem of Are You Still There is that the balance between thriller and drama isn't perfect. Each slightly undermines the other. Together they make a good story, but Are You Still There had the potential to be a really great story.

For me, Scheerger's secondary characters offer the intrigue. I wanted more of Chloe, Janae, Mel, Beth, Garth, and even Eric. I liked Gabi's relationship with each of these characters and their relationships with each other. Revelations about Chloe's romances, Mel's struggles, even Beth's reaching out, resonated with me. More so than Gabi's own story at times. The thing about Gabi is that for all the times her intelligence is noted, how she's going places, she makes a lot of dumb choices for such a smart person. Every time Gabi held back pertinent evidence regarding Stranger because her parents might pull her out of school and away from her new 'hottie' boyfriend, I wanted to scream. Mostly because it was annoying and shallow, not because I felt she put herself in more danger. Though the summary for Are You Still There heavily implies Gabi being targeted by Stranger, it's not as extreme as I expected. Which is probably a good thing, considering her choices to withhold evidence after all. As for Gabi's relationship with Miguel, I wasn't really feeling it, for a number of reasons. It's a little too insta-love, Miguel too quickly invested and heavy handed on the over-protectiveness, and Gabi's constant mention of dating the cleaner's son does not a solid romance make. It does offer a brighter side to what are, for the most part, deeper and darker themes though and I can appreciate that.

Are You Still There has moments that are great and really work, but in its entirety it's not everything it could be. It is a solid read though if its plot interests you. 


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