Publisher: Corgi Books, 2010
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
My Rating: 3.5 stars
This was the second book I read for the RIP VI Challenge. Because I don’t want to get too far behind writing these reviews, I’m reviewing all my RIP books by answering the 5Ws―Who, What, When, Where, Why. Plus I’ve included my patented Scare-O-Meter Rating system so you can decide if you can handle the level of fright induced by the book.
Scare-O-Meter Rating: 6 screams out of 10. The book cover alone accounts for 2 screams, while the creep factor (pedophile/serial killer) is very high. In place of screams, you could replace it with “skin crawling disgust.”
WHAT is this book about?
A 12-year-old boy named Steven Lamb lives a sad life in a family that was broken long before he was born. Years ago, his Uncle Billy (age 11) was abducted and murdered by a serial killer. At least that is what everyone thinks happened. Billy’s body has never been found, and the killer never admitted that Billy was one of his victims. Broken by the loss of her beloved son, Steven’s Nan is the only one who never believed that Billy was murdered. She still waits for him every day, looking out the window for hours at a time. This distance and preoccupation with Billy led to the neglect of her other child, Steven’s mother Lettie. Now, Lettie has brought her two young sons, Steven and Davey, to live with her mother. Yet the family dynamics of anger, sadness, emotional distance and instability are so strong that even young Steven can sense it. He feels that if he can just find Billy’s bones, he will be able to fix what is wrong with his family.
This is why Steven has spent the last three years digging up Exmoor, the moor that surrounds his home in the small village of Shipcott. Exmoor (known locally as the Blacklands) is where the bodies of other victims were found, and Steven is sure that if he digs long enough, he’ll find his uncle’s bones and bring peace to his family. His obsession with this quest has resulted in an isolated existence—causing tension with his best (and only) friend Lewis. But Steven cannot let go, despite his realization that his quest may well be impossible. One day, Steven has an epiphany. There is one person who knows exactly where his uncle’s body is buried―the person who buried it. So Steven writes a letter to the killer in prison―triggering a dangerous game of cat and mouse between him and the killer.
WHO do we meet?
- Steven Lamb is the young boy who is doggedly trying to fix all that is wrong in his family. I found his courage and determination so touching and sad. He knows that there is something wrong in his family, and he’s trying everything in his power to fix it. This kind of naivete and innocence makes Steven’s sad and lonely life pierce the reader’s heart. For me, the best chapters were those told from Steven’s point of view. Whether he is avoiding the bullies that constantly dog him, trying to please “Uncle Jude” (one of his mother’s boyfriends) so he’ll stay, or attempting to keep his friendship with Lewis on an even keel, Steven is the kind of child that you can just imagine falling through the cracks. When his own teacher can’t quite place him (except as the child who smells like mildew and once wrote a good letter), I just wanted to reach out and give him a big hug.
- Arnold Avery is the pedophile/serial killer who has been biding his time in prison ever since his capture. Striving to be a model prisoner so he can reduce his sentence and resume hunting children, Avery has made peace with his incarceration. That is, until Steven’s letter arrives and sparks Avery’s imagination. Interested by the possibilities that Steven’s letters conjure up, Avery becomes even more involved and motivated when he discovers that Steven is a young boy. This realization ignites Avery’s long dormant base instincts and motivates him to win this particular game no matter what the cost.
WHEN and WHERE does the book take place?
The setting of the book is Somerset (located in South West England), with the action taking place primarily on the moors, Steven’s village and Avery’s prison located in Dartmoor (south Devon, England). The setting is the present day, with Avery’s occasionally flashing back to his “glory” days two decades before.
WHY should you read this book?
For me, the heart and soul of the book is Steven Lamb. He just broke my heart. His struggles to fit in and save his family just ripped at my heart. Every maternal instinct in me wanted to pluck him from the pages of the book and take him home with me. This is a child who is “benignly” neglected and living a secret life that becomes very dangerous without anyone having the faintest idea. Bauer, alternating narrations primarily between Steven and Avery (with occasional forays into the minds of Lettie, Steven’s teacher and Lewis), ratchets up the tension as we learn of Avery’s increasing interest in Steven. Reading the book is very much like watching a horror movie where you know the hero is in big trouble but he continues on, oblivious and clueless to the danger lurking around him. You want to yell “Watch out! Don’t go there!” but, of course, you can’t.
Although Steven made the book worth reading, I did struggle with some of Bauer’s decisions. First of all, (and I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers here), there is a wild bit of coincidence in the last part of the book that I found completely distracting and unnecessary. Why Bauer made this particular decision (a bit of “karma is a bitch and can repeat herself in each generation”) is beyond me. I didn’t think the story required it, and it took me right out of the narrative.
My other issue was with the Arnold Avery character. Obviously, he is unlikable and horrid. In addition, he is full of himself―fancying himself to be very smart and clever. Although Bauer is giving us Avery’s view of himself, I felt unsure about Avery’s true character. Was he criminal mastermind who just happened to get caught? Is he as clever as he thinks? There are a few indications that Avery is not quite the genius he makes himself out to be, but Bauer’s vagueness on this point led to some frustration on my part. Is he a “Hannibal Lecter” type or more of a “garden variety” pedophile/killer who is ruled by his desires rather than his intellect? It makes a difference, and I started to think Avery was less menacing than he should have been. It began to feel less like a “cat and mouse” game and more like a “slightly smarter rat and mouse” game, if that makes any sense.
Still, the book goes by quickly, and you definitely want to find out what is going to happen next. Despite its flaws, I thought it was a decent read and perfect choice for the RIP Challenge. This was Bauer’s first book, and I think she has definite potential. I’d be willing to read her second book, Darkside, which was released earlier this year.
What are other bloggers saying about this book? You can find out at the Book Blogs Search Engine. However, I happen to know that Kelly at Kelly’s Thoughts and Ramblings wrote a review that is, not only much shorter than this one, but will definitely make you want to read the book.