Sadie by Courtney Summers
A missing girl on a journey of revenge. A Serial―like podcast following the clues she’s left behind. And an ending you won’t be able to stop talking about.
Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.
But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.
When West McCray―a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America―overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.
Sadie is a complex, tense, powerful novel that doesn’t shy away from the very real darkness in our world, and I think it could appeal to a lot of readers and a lot of tastes.
One of the most unique and striking elements of the book is the dual narrative structure. I’m not a big podcast person, but I was impressed by how well the combination of the podcast format and Sadie’s perspective worked, especially with the time gap between the two. It helped keep tension and curiosity high, while also allowing for a broader look at not only Sadie’s life and family, but the town and culture she grew up in.
Speaking of the town and culture, while it would be easy to define this as a character-driven novel, it’s almost as much about the settings as anything else. Cold Creek, Wagner, Montgomery, and even The Bluebird reflect places and towns not often seen in young adult fiction, and they feel like their own characters nearly as much as the people in them. The people are also well-drawn – every side character, however small, clearly has their own inner life that Summers shows in as little as a few lines of dialogue or descriptions.
With a fascinating central character, rich world-building, and a taut plot, the biggest drawback to Sadie is that, to me at least, it read much more like an adult thriller than a young adult novel. The podcast sections focused heavily not only on the adults in Sadie’s life, but on adult host West McCray’s character and emotional journey. And although she’s only 19, I often forgot how young Sadie was and found myself thinking of her as someone a few years older than that. There is something powerful about her too-early adulthood, but since most of the novel was set after the years that thrust her into that role, it also meant that I frequently forgot I was reading a young adult novel. The true-to-life ending, which leaves a very big question unanswered, I likely to be frustrating for a lot of readers, though there are plenty who might like its realism.
Overall, this is an exciting, deep, and thought-provoking novel, perfect for fans of true crime, suspense, and character-driven books.
The obvious answer is sometimes the right one – a Podcast would be the perfect way to adapt this book. In fact, I’ve heard the audiobook is almost exactly that, and works very well. The time between episodes would not only add tension, but give listeners plenty of time to discuss their opinions and theories about the action.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.
Dread Nation is a phenomenal combination of horror, history, and very recognizable modern issues. A mash-up like that could easily fail, but author Justina Ireland delivers an action-packed, emotional journey. Ireland’s writing manages to evoke an earlier time without ever becoming archaic or unreadable, and her action sequences are breathtaking.
Although Dread Nation starts slowly, the world-building in the early part of the book is key. The reader slowly sees that while zombies have disrupted the Civil War and, in theory at least, brought a measure of freedom and opportunity to the formerly enslaved, the reality is much grimmer than that. And when the scene abruptly shifts to a much more openly racist and frightening Wild West-esque setting, the action picks up considerably.
One of the best parts of this book is the characters. Other reviewers have already commented on the refreshing depiction of asexuality and bisexuality, but in a largely romance-free book, it’s the friendships that shine. Jane and Katherine’s relationship in particular was a joy to read about from start to finish. The nuanced exploration of how their experiences in Summerland differ while still both being difficult helps cement their friendship, as well as expand the world-building in meaningful ways. Jane’s character development goes further, with the slow reveal of her backstory helping to shed light on her choices as the story goes on.
The biggest weakness of Dread Nation is the abrupt shift between the settings, a shift that almost makes this feel like two separate books. But both sides of the story are interesting, and the earlier part of the book informs the second, so it was easy to adjust and continue enjoying the book. Although the slow start might deter some readers, most will be intrigued enough by the mystery, compelling characters, and zombies to stay engaged.
I would hand this book to readers looking for strong central characters, plenty of action, a nuanced exploration of institutional racism and 19th century history. It would also, of course, be a great choice for readers looking for a new take on the popular zombie genre.
With its careful world-building, exciting action sequences, and varied settings, Dread Nation would serialize really well as a TV-show. I picture it as a one hour dramedy with excitingly choreographed battles, immersive historical settings and costumes, and of course, a kick-butt lead character.
The Winner: dread Nation by justina Ireland
Choosing a winner between these two books was hard. They’re both really wonderful, very different novels, although I found they had plenty in common as well. They both started slowly then built tension; they both did an excellent job combining excitement, suspense, and plot with some very solid world-building and character work; both features villains so stomach-churningly awful it makes the reader want to turn away from the fact that such real-world villains did and do exist, but never allows us to do so; and they both are ultimately about young women trying to claim the power they deserve in a world where most of that power is in the hands of white men.
While both of these novels are excellent, with only one or two drawbacks, and while both will find many avid readers, my final choice is Dread Nation, mainly because it feels more like a young adult novel while Sadie seemed to share more with adult suspense novels than other YA novels. But either would be a great choice for readers looking for an exciting, engaging book featuring strong central characters fighting against ingrained power structures, and both were great choices for a librarian looking for a good read!
Hannah Rapp is Head of Readers Advisory and Teen Services at the Berwyn Public Library. When she’s not working she’s usually listening to audiobooks, running or walking by Lake Michigan, or watching Park and Recreation while she cooks.