When Adam Blake lands the best elective ever in his senior year, serving as an aide to the school psychologist, he thinks he’s got it made. Sure, it means a lot of sitting around, which isn’t easy for a guy with ADHD, but he can’t complain, since he gets to spend the period texting all his friends. Then the doctor asks him to track down the troubled freshman who keeps dodging her, and Adam discovers that the boy is Julian–the foster brother he hasn’t seen in five years.
Adam is ecstatic to be reunited. At first, Julian seems like the boy he once knew. He’s still kind hearted. He still writes stories and loves picture books meant for little kids. But as they spend more time together, Adam realizes that Julian is keeping secrets, like where he hides during the middle of the day, and what’s really going on inside his house. Adam is determined to help him, but his involvement could cost both boys their lives.
+++Triggers for graphic abuse, violence, claustrophobia.
I had a hard time rating this book. I had to sit and think about it before I could put a label on it. It’s taken me almost 2 weeks to get to this point. On one hand, some sections of this book were so engrossing that I didn’t realize time was passing, sound stopped, everything became about the story and the horror taking place there. On the other hand, the pieces didn’t mesh well, secondary characters were so-so, and it all felt kind of random and strung together.
A List of Cages is told from two POVs-Adam’s and Julian’s. The first is a graduating senior who seems like he’s on top of the world. He’s likable, full of light and laughter, charisma, and charm. He kind of floats through life on a cloud. Julian’s life is polar opposite. He’s disconnected, scared, isolated, and suffers sickening bouts of abuse. The thing they have in common? Once upon a time Julian lived with Adam before he was placed with his abusive uncle and from that point on Julian has always been influenced by Adam, even if they’re no longer friends and Julian doesn’t notice it himself. What’s interesting about the choice of these two protagonists is that it depicts the discovery, the realization, and the war within that someone so young goes through when they find out that their friend is being abused. But this is also problematic, though realistic. The two narratives, though they collided more towards the end, felt like two very different stories and didn’t combine. It was jarring, the pacing was off, and I kind of got super annoyed with Adam. Though I know he had to live his life and whatever, his character grated on me. Here’s the thing, Adam didn’t resonate with me. Sure, he’s a nice guy, he’s occasionally funny, and always compassionate, but his story was bland. He felt like any other character. He didn’t feel especially developed or complex, he just was. There were some scenes when I almost felt something for Adam, like in the flashbacks to his and Julian’s relationship when they were younger and the climax scene. I think sometimes it’s hard to find a balance when one story is so intense and their voice so powerful.
One thing I loved was how persistent Adam was. Though I wasn’t exactly a fan of his character, I did respect and adore his actions. He tried to include Julian, to get him out of his shell, and he understood when Julian was getting overwhelmed; he’s deeply perceptive.
Now for the hard stuff. There is so much I want to say about Julian. His POV broke me every single time. OMG my heart. It kills me how kids live in these situations everyday because of poor screenings or people dropping the ball or because legally a relative might seem like a creep but unless there’s evidence…I just. There are so many wonderful, amazing social workers out there, but there are so many kids that fall through the cracks too. Julian has so much trauma. Developmentally he is behind because his learning disability was undiagnosed and no one has patience with him, on top of the fact that he’s terrified all the time and can’t focus. He gets so scared. He chooses to isolate himself because he doesn’t know how to cope and all the chaos frightens him. He also believes that no one can possibly like him. Just stab me in the heart. On top of these issues, he lives in fear and walks on eggshells. He tries to be the best he can to avoid getting beaten at home, but it’s like nothing he does is right and he can’t win. And the abuse. If you’re sensitive to this issue, I’d probably tell you to avoid this one. It’s like you’re slammed with these graphic, terrifying scenes and the emotions are crippling. Between the imagery and the pleading and confusion in Julian’s voice, it’s chilling and emotionally it’s hard, so hard to read. Some reviewers have complained about this book because they said they feel the author took the violence too far. That it was too graphic, and while I do see how readers would feel that way, it’s not unrealistic and children in abusive homes face violence like this sometimes daily. I won’t lie to you, you know when you’re watching a particularly bloody and scary scene in a movie and you feel that tension building, your heart racing, your stomach bottoming out? This happens several times throughout the book. Be forewarned, you might be consumed by rage and anguish for Julian. There are two scenes in particular that gave me nightmares (if you’re claustrophobic, you might want to step back from this too). And it is a piercing pain that turns into an almost numbness thinking about this injustice in the world. It’s definitely eye-opening and will make you want to act.
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