Monday, November 7, 2011

Envy: An Empty Coffin Novel Book Review

Author: Gregg Olsen. Release date: 2011. Publisher:  Splinter. ISBN: 9781402789571.
Annotation:  Fifteen-year-old Katelyn Berkley’s apparent suicide rocks the small town of Port Gamble, Washington, a close knit community where everyone knows each other. Twins Hayley and Taylor Ryan, however, are not so sure that Katelyn’s death was a suicide.
Personal thoughts:  I was really interested to read this novel, especially since it is written by not only a man but a best-selling adult author, two traits that you don’t find as often in young adult literature. My one thought throughout the novel was how obvious these two traits were in the construction of the book: from the language to the plot. That said, I did actually enjoy the novel. True crime is generally confined to an adult audience, but I think that Olsen has found an interesting way to bring it to teens. I’m looking forward to seeing what else he comes up with.   
Plot summary: On Christmas night, fifteen-year-old Katelyn Berkley’s mother is horrified when she discovers her daughter’s lifeless body in the bathtub. Although her peculiar death (a mini-espresso machine’s plunge into the water lead to her fatal electrocution) is deemed an accident, the general consensus in the small town of Port Gamble, Washington is that Katelyn committed suicide. Unsatisfied with both explanations, twins Hayley and Taylor Ryan set out to determine what really happened to the girl they used to be close in years past. Hayley and Taylor aren’t ordinary teenagers, however. They share a gift: the ability to psychically connect with energies left from those who have passed on. Using their gifts they discover that Katelyn’s life was far from perfect. After not making the cheerleading squad lead to a falling out with her best friend, the uber-popular mean girl, Starla, Katelyn had turned to an online boyfriend to help deal with the trials and tribulations of high school. As Hayley and Taylor dig deeper into her life, they learn that Katelyn’s online boyfriend might not have been who he said he was, and his true identity may hold the key to learning what really happened to Katelyn.
Review:  This first installment in best-selling author Gregg Olsen’s new series for young adults proves to be a bit of a mixed bag.  Even without reading the jacket, it is clear that this is Olsen’s first venture into writing for teens. The writing style is very much adult mystery with teen references and lingo tossed in. At first this style is difficult to get used to, but eventually becomes less noticeable as the story progresses. The plot of the novel is interesting, but has its peculiarities. The manner of Katelyn’s death is, in a word, odd. Death by electrocution from a mini-espresso machine in the bathtub? There are also oddities interspersed throughout the novel, from graphic descriptions of Katelyn’s autopsy, to psychic Scrabble, some of the plot points come off as simply strange. The ending of the novel in particular is quite peculiar. Despite these shortcomings, Envy is somewhat enjoyable. The connection between the twins, Hayley and Taylor, is intriguing as are the references to real-life crime cases that the novel is loosely based on. The setting, the small town of Port Gamble, Washington, plays a major role in setting the somber tone of the novel, and Olsen does a good job of describing the world in which the plot takes place. The next novel in the series, Betrayal, is mentioned in the final pages of the book as being set for release in fall 2012. Hopefully Olsen can improve upon this first novel in the sequel; if he can he has the makings for an original and interesting series.
Genre: Mystery
Reading level: Grade 8+
Similar titles: Lark by Tracey Porter.     
Themes:  Suicide, death, murder, loss, psychic abilities, cyberbullying, friendship, Washington.
Awards/Reviews:  Positive reviews from author Jordan Dane, written by New York Times bestselling author.
Series Information: First installment in Empty Coffin series. Second novel, Betrayal, to be released in Fall of 2012.
Discussion questions:
- When you first began reading the novel, did you believe that Katelyn’s death was an accident? Did your thoughts change as you read further? Why or why not?
- Do you think that it’s possible for people to have gifts like Hayley and Taylor?
- How do you think the setting of the story influenced the events of the novel?
- Did you like the ending of the novel? Would you have changed it? How?
- Research the real-life crime stories that the author mentions at the end of the book. What can they, and the plot of Envy, teach us about cyberbullying?

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