Robyn Reviews: Don’t Breathe A Word

‘Don’t Breathe A Word’ is part YA mystery in the vein of ‘One of Us Is Lying’ and part dark academia along the lines of ‘Plain Bad Heroines‘. Like the latter, it takes place across two timelines – the present, where Eva has just started at a new, exclusive boarding school, Hardwick Academy, and 1962, where six students enter a bunker built under the threat of the Cold War – but only five emerge alive. It’s an engaging, twisty tale with plenty of surprises. There are elements that require a bit of suspension of disbelief but, taken at face value, this is a solid mystery with a highly satisfying ending.

Eva has always felt like she doesn’t belong. An accidental pregnancy, she was replaced in her mother’s affections as soon as her husband and legitimate child came along – and the final straw has seen her shipped off to boarding school against her will. At Hardwick, she’s on the outside of established social groups and more of an outsider than ever – that is, until she receives an invitation to join a secret society known as the Fives. With the Fives, she’s finally part of something – finally seen as special. But there’s more to the Fives than there first seems, and the more Eva learns, the more uneasy she becomes. Just how many secrets are the Fives ensuring stay buried?

In 1962, Hardwick Academy has constructed a nuclear fallout shelter to counter the escalating threat of the Cold War – and to test it out, six students are invited to volunteer to stay overnight. Connie would never have volunteered – except the exercise is being run by Mr Kraus, her best friend Betty’s latest obsession, and school golden boy Craig Allenby has also volunteered. She can’t pass up the opportunity to spend four days locked in with him. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more to the exercise than they first thought – and as things start to escalate, Connie starts to worry that everything will end in disaster.

Both plotlines are engaging. Reading about the threat of the Cold War and the psychological impact on those growing up in the sixties is fascinating, if horrific, as is the difference in gender roles and the way authority figures are treated. The politics of high school are incredibly familiar, and its hard not to feel for Connie. While it’s never stated on page, Connie also has a clear anxiety disorder, and it’s great to see this not glossed over and have a significant impact on how she acts. In the present day, it’s initially unclear how the timelines will intersect – but as reveals are slowly made, it becomes obvious that there’s a massive secret, and the tension steadily ramps up. At the same time, Eva must deal with the joy of being chosen for the first time in her life alongside the growing fear that the Fives are far darker than she initially thought. The way she grapples with her innate clinginess and fear of being alone is well portrayed, and while its always clear which side she’ll choose Woods does well to make her decision a difficult one.

The characters are delightfully complex. Initially, Eva can come across as hard to like – as a result of her childhood, she has an outward air of irreverence combined with an internal clinginess so strong its off-putting – but as the reader gets to know her, she flourishes into a practical girl with great instincts and a strong moral compass. Her character arc is excellent, and its wonderful to see her start to find happiness despite the circumstances. In contrast, the reader immediately feels sorry for Connie – the anxiety she suffers with is overwhelming, and she’s led along by her friend Betty who seems to mean well but doesn’t always go about things the right way. Connie is sweet and quiet, but also naive – and as events unfold, it becomes apparent that her view on things is far too black and white. Again, she has an excellent character arc, and its impossible not to root for her.

The supporting cast fall a little more into stereotypes, but they play their roles well and have enough dimension to avoid being caricatures. The story as a whole isn’t the most original, with elements reminiscent of other stories in the YA mystery genre, but again it holds its own well enough to prove a worthwhile read. Some parts are wildly implausible – its unclear how the original secret was covered up so well – but this is fiction, and allowances can be made. The story reads on the lighter side, so detailed criticisms of possibility seem unfair.

Overall, this is an enjoyable entry to the YA mystery genre with a highly effective two-timelines structure and two complex and compelling protagonists. The historical elements with the Cold War lend this a dimension which sets it apart enough from its compatriots to be highly worth a read. Recommended for fans of YA mystery and the lighter end of dark academia.

Thanks to Harper360 YA for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by HarperCollins
Hardback: 24th June 2021

Book Review: Dark Rooms

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Dark Rooms, by Lili Anolik, is set in and around a private, American boarding school and is largely populated by the privileged teenagers whose parents can afford the fees. Alongside the sex, drugs and decadent parties, which literature and the media portray as the staple activities in this demographic, we are offered an insight into the damage caused by petty bullying and loss of trust in significant adults.

The protagonist, Grace, is in her final year at the school. She is presented as a good student although this does not preclude her from attending the parties. She envies her younger sister, Nica, who is one of the popular, cool kids. Nica has friends who deal in drugs and, at sixteen, has been actively exploring her sexuality for some time.

The story opens at a party and we discover that Nica has been murdered, shot and left to die in a graveyard that abuts the school grounds. Grace is not coping well with her sister’s death. Her family has fallen apart and Grace seeks oblivion in drink and drugs. Although the murder case has been closed, the supposed perpetrator having hanged himself, there are many unanswered questions about Nica’s behaviour in the last few months before her death. As Grace considers all that she knows about her sister’s secrets she concludes that there is more behind the death than has been acknowledged. She decides to dig deeper.

I found it hard to empathise with the characters. Grace and Nica’s mother came across as sociopathic, but to blame her for all the daughters’ flaws seems too trite. The tough, poor guy who helps Grace out is beating a face to pulp one minute, the next he is gentle and caring. What he does to Grace shows a flaw in his psyche that I find it difficult to believe she could forgive.

The plot is intriguing and held my attention as it twisted and turned, easing out each of Nica’s secrets and showing how wrong initial impressions can be. It is not necessary to like characters to appreciate their value in a story but, in this case, I struggled to accept that so many of the cast could ever be real. Nica especially, with her ridiculous ‘titty hard-on’, repelled.

The idea behind the story, that a murder is not all it seems, is well executed. After a slow start I wanted to know what happened, and the denouement tidied up the loose ends. It was the development and depth of the characters that limited my enjoyment. This is not a book that I would recommend.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, HarperCollins.