Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: Don't Look Back by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Two music boxes with ballerinas, two missing girls, several suspects, and amnesia are the points that converge on Samantha and her best friend who is missing, Cassie. Sam has no memory of what happened nor does she know why there is blood all over her clothes. She doesn't know if all the blood is hers. She remembers nothing of the past four days while she has been missing or who she was before or now. She doesn't recognize her own face when she walks out of the night and into the swirling chaos that is the void that once was her life.

Jennifer L. Armentrout begins what is at first easily dismissed as a mystery where amnesia forms the central focus of the main character's life, and oh how boring and predictable that is. Except that Don't Look Back is anything but boring or formulaic. There are the usual elements of any mystery: lost memory, lost time, lots of suspects, and a confused protagonist. That is where the similarities end. Don't Look Back is also commentary about bullying and status and what happens when young people -- and adults -- succumb to the siren song of wealth, power, and fear. In the end, fear is what the book is really all about. Fear of not fitting in. Fear of being too different. Fear of other people's perceptions. Fear of peer pressure. Fear of wealth, and of losing wealth.

Sam was a likeable young woman, at least as long as her memory is missing. I'm not sure I'd want to know the kind of person who would gain pleasure out of bullying everyone around her. Her best friend, Cassie, is an equally nasty customer who is driven by popularity and fear and never hesitated to use both to get what she wanted, especially Sam's life and possessions.

Sam's twin brother and her best friend before Cassie, support her during this difficult time, but neither boy, despite being on the baseball team, are part of Sam's previous group of friends. Add Sam's previous friends and her very wealthy boyfriend and their on again-off again relationship, and Sams' parents' expectations coupled with her mother's drinking habit, and life just could not get any worse, except that Sam's life is worse. She cannot remember what happened to Cassie or who she really is. Someone keeps leaving Sam notes warning her that she does not want to remember her past or give the murderer any clue that she has begun to remember. And the police are taking a closer look at Sam because they think she might have murdered Cassie. So do Sam's old best friends and her boyfriend and everything keeps getting worse as Sam gets closer to the hired help's son.

The killer is not easy to spot. Most of the characters had a reason to get rid of Cassie and Sam. Although there are several candidates for murderer, I would have liked to get to know some of the major players better; however, it is a big cast with a lot of axes grinding in the wings.

Armentrout does a credible job of dealing with Sam's amnesia without resorting to manipulating the reader as the memories resurface. The characters are believable, though some are a bit one-dimensional. As Sam's relationships change in the wake of her memory loss, I wonder if the new Sam, so much like the Sam before Cassie, is who she would have been. As one character reminds Sam, she has gotten a huge break by being given a second chance to make herself and her life better.

Overall, I enjoyed Don't Look Back and was surprised by the ending. I did get hung up on grammar errors and the ubiquitous use of ahold, which is not a word and was yet used throughout. Ms. Armentrout would serve her readers and her novels better if she stopped using the word in place of hold, in place of ahold. One grabs hold of something, not ahold of anything, which, in my estimation, drops Don't Look Back from 4/5 to 3/5. Yes, grammar and word choice do count. 

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