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by Laurie R. King
Bantam, June 2017
389 pages
ISBN: 0804177937

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Laurie King is a master of intelligent suspense, and her new standalone offers the narrative drive, the rich characterization, and the surprises that her readers have come to expect. It also offers something different a collective perspective on a small community that tells its secrets in a chorus of voices, a Spoon River Anthology for the era of school shootings.

Though each short chapter some no more than a paragraph is told in a different voice, those voices are vivid and distinct enough that it's not difficult to follow each living thread through the story. A school principal is nervous about holding a Career Day program in a middle school where gang violence has not only taken a student's life but threatens to ignite a chain reaction of retribution, a school that made national news when one of its students vanished without a trace. It's a school that faces the usual challenges of managing hundreds of young adolescents as well as the contemporary issues of including immigrants and refugees in a school community while conducting active shooter drills regularly.

Page by page the principal's perspective is joined by those of students: a troubled athlete with an abusively strict father and a plan to do something before the day's end that will change everything, a girl who blurs the pain of losing her sister to violence with pills, a boy who wants to prove he exists with spray paint, another student who is slowly coming to terms with his best friend's disappearance. And we begin the day with other adults whose lives touch the school: a police officer, a custodian, a coach, a school psychologist, the principal's retired partner who has some unspecified threat hanging over him, all of these threads twining together with a sense of impending menace. It's clear something is going to happen to this school before the day is over. The suspense isn't simply in waiting for the violence to start, it's trying to figure out which direction it will come from.

Short chapters counts down the minutes, interspersed with longer sketches that round out characters' pasts. The principal, we learn, met her partner when she volunteered at a mission in Papua New Guinea, where he worked as a mercenary for a shady security firm. The police officer had to locate a missing child and got help from a homeless monk who speaks in riddles and a San Francisco inspector named Martinelli. A student struggled to explain to his therapist how his friend who vanished one day forever might have found a way to a better life. A boy struggles to reconcile his feelings for a girl with the fact that his brother killed her sister, lighting the fuse for gang retribution.

King weaves these lives together expertly, pulling the tension tighter with every page, accelerating toward a conclusion that is suspenseful, surprising, and satisfying as it creates a rich tapestry of a school community.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, May 2017

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