Kate’s Review: “Saint X”

43782399Book: “Saint X” by Alexis Schaitkin

Publishing Info: Celadon Books, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Claire is only seven years old when her college-age sister, Alison, disappears on the last night of their family vacation at a resort on the Caribbean island of Saint X. Several days later, Alison’s body is found in a remote spot on a nearby cay, and two local men – employees at the resort – are arrested. But the evidence is slim, the timeline against it, and the men are soon released. The story turns into national tabloid news, a lurid mystery that will go unsolved. For Claire and her parents, there is only the return home to broken lives.

Years later, Claire is living and working in New York City when a brief but fateful encounter brings her together with Clive Richardson, one of the men originally suspected of murdering her sister. It is a moment that sets Claire on an obsessive pursuit of the truth – not only to find out what happened the night of Alison’s death but also to answer the elusive question: Who exactly was her sister? At seven, Claire had been barely old enough to know her: a beautiful, changeable, provocative girl of eighteen at a turbulent moment of identity formation.

As Claire doggedly shadows Clive, hoping to gain his trust, waiting for the slip that will reveal the truth, an unlikely attachment develops between them, two people whose lives were forever marked by the same tragedy.

Review: Whenever I hear the phrase ‘missing white woman syndrome’ I immediately think of Natalee Holloway. Holloway was an eighteen year old on a school sponsored trip to Aruba when she went missing. Her disappearance was all over the news, her face practically everywhere even as little new information came up. While her case is technically still unsolved, the general consensus is that she was murdered by a local whose father was a judge, and therefore had a lot of protection (it just so happens the same guy was eventually convicted of murdering another woman in Peru). A very sad and mysterious case all around, and it was all I was thinking of when I read the description for “Saint X” by Alexis Schaitkin. But instead of a run of the mill thriller that takes inspiration from real tragedy for lurid entertainment (I know that I’m one of the people who perpetuates that problematic issue by reading books like that), I instead found a literary thriller that had a lot of deep thoughts and haunting themes.

“Saint X” is less about Alison’s disappearance, and more about the fallout and consequences for those involved with the case, specifically her sister Claire and one of the accused but cleared suspects, Clive. Both Claire and Clive have had their lives completely upended by what happened to Alison. For Claire, it’s the grief and trauma of loss that her family never recovered from, and her obsession of wanting to find out what happened. This is sparked when she sees Clive in New York City. For Clive, being suspected and never officially cleared made his life back on Saint X one of suspicion, and he felt the need to start over and leave it all behind, which meant leaving everything he ever knew and loved. They are both damaged people with one commonality, and Schaitkin really brings out the pain that both of them have been dealing with. Along with these two and their trauma, we also get snippets of other people’s associations with Alison’s death. These bits are left to the end of chapters, and not only shed light into how Alison’s death sent shockwaves through many lives, but how she was as a person before her ill fated trip and during it as well.

Alison herself is a bit more of a mystery, but I thought that that was deliberate and I enjoyed that. We see her through Claire’s eyes, and Clive’s eyes, and the eyes of others. But those eyes can’t really know who Alison was as a person. Even the audio diary entries that Claire finds and listens to don’t quite capture who Alison was, because Alison was still trying to figure all that out. It’s a really interesting way to call out this obsession people get with missing and murdered (usually white and attractive) women, and how we project our own ideas of who they are upon their memory, even if those ideas are totally of the mark. I also liked that what we DO know about Alison is that she is very human, in that she isn’t perfect. Alison is at that tenuous age where she is trying to find herself, and yet still trying to be seen in a certain way by others. She is privileged and naive, and sees the colonizer issue of a resort in the Caribbean, but doesn’t see that her presence, as judgemental of the system as she is, is still perpetuating the problem.

And that was another thing that I liked about this book: Schaitkin definitely takes shots at the resort society on Saint X. It’s an industry that drives the economy, but relies upon a population group that is underprivileged and taken advantage of. Clive is doing his best to support himself and his loved ones, and has to kowtow to wealthy white tourists who see his home as an escape, but doesn’t see the inequities outside of the resort walls. This theme wasn’t at the very front of the story, but it was simmering underneath.

I wasn’t expecting what I got from “Saint X”, in that I was ready for a tense and addictive thriller. What I got instead was a little more ruminative. That isn’t a bad thing, but I will admit that had I known it was more literary I would have probably enjoyed it more. I did enjoy it, but it didn’t grab me as much as I think it would have had I had the expectations it called for. That said, I think that “Saint X” is a worthwhile read. Just go in expecting something more nuanced.

Rating 7: A haunting and evocative literary mystery. It wasn’t what I was expecting. But it’s definitely worth the read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Saint X” is included on the Goodreads list “Psychological Suspense for 2020 (U.S. Publications January-July).

Find “Saint X” at your local library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Storm from the East”

45043929Book: “Storm from the East” by Joanna Hathaway

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, February 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Battles, revolution, and romance collide in Joanna Hathaway’s stunning, World Wars-inspired sequel to Dark of the West

Part war drama, part romance, Storm from the East is the second novel in Joanna Hathaway’s immersive, upmarket YA fantasy series that will appeal to readers of Sabaa Tahir, Marie Rutkoski, and Evelyn Skye.

War has begun, and the days of Athan’s and Aurelia’s secret, summer romance feel a world away. Led by Athan’s father, the revolutionary Safire have launched a secret assault upon the last royal kingdom in the South, hoping to depose the king and seize a powerful foothold on the continent. Athan proves a star pilot among their ranks, struggling to justify the violence his family has unleashed as he fights his way to the capital—where, unbeknownst to him, Aurelia has lived since the war’s onset. Determined to save the kingdom Athan has been ordered to destroy, she partners with a local journalist to inflame anti-Safire sentiment, all while learning this conflict might be far darker and more complex than she ever imagined.

When the two reunite at last, Athan longing to shake the nightmare of combat and Aurelia reeling from the discovery of a long-buried family truth come to light, they’ll find the shadow of war stretches well beyond the battlefield. Each of them longs to rekindle the love they once shared . . . but each has a secret they’re desperate to hide.

Previously Reviewed: “Dark of the West”

Review: I really enjoyed “Dark of the West” when I read it last spring. It wasn’t a book that had been on my radar much, but I was instantly drawn in by the complicated world-building and the even more complicated deep dive into themes regarding revolution, warfare, and a world shifting between monarchy, democracy, and everything that lies in between. The sweet romance between our two teenage main characters who represent vastly different positions was also a big draw. So, when I saw the sequel was coming out, I placed a request immediately. I did struggle with this one a bit more than the first, but it still comes out solidly in the “win” category.

Athan and Aurelia are separated by much more than distance, as Athan, unknown to Aurelia, is the son of the war-mongering leader of the Safire nation. They now find themselves involved on opposite ends of a war to determine the future of the last kingdom of the South with a monarchy at its heart. Aurelia finds herself in this capital in an attempt to use her family connections through her mother (born a Southerner herself) to stave off a growing war. But while there, Safire makes its move, and with it Athan, leading the aerial forces, they draw ever neared to the city where Aurelia is staying. But as they each move unknowingly closer together, they discover new truths about their parents, about themselves, and about the people and causes they’re fighting for.

This is a complicated book, and that’s both a good and bad thing. One way in which this complication is a good thing is the very honest approach it takes to themes that are very complicated and all to often are written about in black and white terms, with good guys and bad guys seeming to pop straight from the earth fully formed in their one-sided moralities. But this book lives in shades of grey. At one point or another, the reader finds themselves sympathizing with every angle involved in this quickly changing world. And I say angle, and not side, because that’s another good thing the book does: there aren’t just two sides to the conflicts here. Sure, it’s a war with one country invading another. But we also see the complicated relationships that allies have with both the invaders and those being invaded. There are other forces involved as well. Some would call them terrorists, others would call them freedom fighters. These names are completely dependent on who is doing the telling and who is listening, and even that can change with just the slightest readjustment of context, history, and priorities. But this same nuanced look at the fact that there are no “good guys” in war also leaves the reader in a precarious state, emotionally.

At the beginning of the story, it is all too easy to dismiss Aurelia’s viewpoints and plans as foolishly optimistic. And they are. Of the two main characters, she has the more limited view of  the world. Growing up in a privileged and traditionally monarch-ruled country has left her with a very simplistic idea of how the world work. Like many young people, she thinks that only she sees the full picture and if others would simply listen to an argument from her, they’d all see that their feuds are pointless and agree to a peaceful resolution. It was both heart-breaking and a relief to see her have to confront the folly of these views.

But it was also just a very depressing story arc, overall. By the end, between Athan’s struggles in the midst of some truly terrible acts of warfare and Aurelia’s slow sink into the grim realities of the world, it was hard not to feel a bit hopeless. We see all the shades of grey. We see all the wrongs committed by every group, each playing victim and aggressor in different points of history and with regards to various groups. It’s very realistic and believable, but also a tough story to feel happy reading.

I also wish there was a prequel series to this story. We learn much more about both Athan and Aurelia’s parents in this book, and it’s all pretty fascinating. One part really stood out, a moment when Aurelia discovers a secret about her mother and realizes, in a very honest and true-to-life moment, that her mother was a person with a life before Aurelia was born. It was the kind of moment that is hardly ever felt in YA books. Aurelia comments that she has fallen into the trap of feeling like these conflicts and histories all started in her own life. But this moment reminds her that people had lives, had fights, had secrets, had allegiances and enemies, all long before her. That she was plopped down in the middle of it all. Just like her parents were plopped down in the middle of it all. And back. I loved this thought. Like I said, most YA books do nothing to discourage this way of thinking in its protagonists, that the world starts and ends with them. And yes, they are the main character of their story and thus their’s is the one we care about, but it’s a nice reminder that there is more to it than all of that. I mean, most YA books either kill off the parents or conveniently forget to mention them for much of the story. They definitely rarely presented as fully fledged people with histories of their own (outside of some direct connection to the main character). But this series is really excelling at creating a story that is clearly about Athan and Aurelia but still puts them down in the middle of an already complicated world, not making them the whole world in and of themselves.

But yes, it’s all very complicated. Having a year-long break between these two books was frankly very challenging. It took me a long time to re-orient myself to the world and the players in it. I’ve been reading e-ARC versions which don’t have maps, and I’m not sure if the finished books do either? If not, they could really benefit from one. It took me quite a while in the first book to picture this world, and almost just as long here in the second to re-create it in my mind. And all the weavings in and out of secret relationships and allegiances were hard to keep up with. I’d have to constantly remind myself who knew what, who had betrayed whom, and which of our main characters knew which pieces of the greater puzzle. It was a lot.

The pacing was also pretty slow in the beginning, so between these two factors, it took a bit to really get into this story. Having liked the first book, I was wiling to do the work, but for anyone feeling more middling about the series, this could be a challenge. But one definitely worth facing if you’re looking for a complicated political series! And ultimately, fans of the first book should be happy with this second outing, and, like me, anxious to see where it all ends up in the third book. We still have that prologue from the first book looming over us. How, oh how, do our main characters get to that awful place? And, more importantly, how do they get out of it??

Rating 8: A beautiful, horrible world of greys where I just want my two precious main characters to be happy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Storm from the East” is a newer title so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on “Original Stories . . . a Breath of Fresh Air.”

Find “Storm from the East” at your library using WorldCat!