Review: The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas

The Cheerleaders
by Kara Thomas

There are no more cheerleaders in the town of Sunnybrook.

First there was the car accident—two girls gone after hitting a tree on a rainy night. Not long after, the murders happened. Those two girls were killed by the man next door. The police shot him, so no one will ever know why he did it. Monica’s sister was the last cheerleader to die. After her suicide, Sunnybrook High disbanded the cheer squad. No one wanted to be reminded of the girls they lost.

That was five years ago. Now the faculty and students at Sunnybrook High want to remember the lost cheerleaders. But for Monica, it’s not that easy. She just wants to forget. Only, Monica’s world is starting to unravel. There are the letters in her stepdad’s desk, an unearthed, years-old cell phone, a strange new friend at school. . . . Whatever happened five years ago isn’t over. Some people in town know more than they’re saying. And somehow Monica is at the center of it all.

There are no more cheerleaders in Sunnybrook, but that doesn’t mean anyone else is safe.

(cover image and synopsis lifted from Goodreads)

Series: Standalone
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Expected Publication date: July 31st 2018
Source/Format: eARC/Netgalley
Pre-order links: Amazon | Barnes&Noble | Indiebound | Book Depository
My Rating: ★★★☆☆

My Thoughts:
Before fully diving in to this book, I’ve read an excerpt first. In Monica’s voice, the book’s first line is “This house was made for someone without a soul.” It’s a pretty strong statement that I was instantly smitten and I wanna find out why Monica would say that. Looking back after I’ve finished the book, there was never really a definitive answer to my question. My best guess is that Monica is referring to herself as the “someone without a soul”. Maybe she thinks very badly of herself for opting abortion to an unwanted pregnancy with a summer fling. I can only make conjectures for Monica because her own belief systems and personality are vaguely drawn in the book. She is merely the reader’s conduit to the unfolding of what really happened to the five cheerleaders of Sunnybrook High five years ago. She is just the designated Nancy Drew.

The inciting incident for Monica to investigate was when she accidentally discovered four anonymous mails addressed to his stepdad, sent yearly on her sister’s death anniversary. The mails contain a group photo of the five cheerleaders with a note, “Connect the dots. Find the truth.” Later, Monica found her dead sister’s old cellphone on the stepdad’s desk. Why does her stepdad has it in his keeping? Then looking through the call log, she saw an unnamed caller right before her sister died. Who was the anonymous caller? What if her sister’s suicide was a murder to cover up the deaths of the other cheerleaders? With those ominous questions in mind, Monica went off amateur sleuthing to solve the mystery.

As she starts snooping around, Monica ditched her usual popular clique, Rachel and Alexa, and befriended the quiet and reserved, Ginny. ‘Coz what’s a sleuth doing without an unassuming sidekick? You know, like Sherlock and Watson? But I digress. Ginny is actually one of my favorite parts. The one and only chapter in her PoV, which is also the last chapter of the book, is the most chilling thing in the book. It drives to an unsettling realization that, to borrow a line from another Kara Thomas book, “ some point, every little girl grows up and gets ruined.”  The book is solid with that ending. But I have to admit that Ginny also felt like a plot device in some parts. Like when Monica just uses her as her ride to go places or to gain access to things that she needs in the investigation. I also never really felt any emotional connection in Monica’s friendship with Ginny.

Speaking of emotional connection, let’s talk about Jennifer, Monica’s dead cheerleader sister. When a book decides to play the dead sibling card to me, I try to find things that will make me care about what was lost when the sibling died. To some extent, the book delivered. After reading the chapters in Jennifer’s 3rd person PoV, I even find myself liking her more than Monica. I related to her when she saw that her friends were slowly slipping away. I felt her loneliness even as she was on the top of the high school social strata. I understood her when she was confused with her feelings for an unpopular boy. I only wished that there was more between her and Monica. The joys and pains of sibling relations are things that I enjoy reading about but they were scarce and unexplored in this book. It mentioned that they stopped being close once Jennifer started middle school and except for a scene of Monica braiding Jennifer’s hair on one of the cheerleader’s funeral, that’s that. And yet the book cared to have Jennifer being friendly with Ginny on gymnastics class. Ginny even looks up to Jennifer as her angel but I am not sure how Monica feels about Jennifer except for the obligatory grief for a dead relative.

As for Monica playing the amateur sleuth part, well it really is amateurish. Monica follows any lead she has by talking to a bunch of strangers. With these meet-ups with strangers, it’s one red herring after another red herring of who the murderer was. Halfway through, I got tired and stopped guessing about the whodunit. The reveal and confrontation happened with the real perpetrator spewing expositions about what happened the night of the murder while Monica, and then eventually Ginny beat the pulp out of the said perp. If the beating up was supposed to make the reader empowered for our sleuth and sidekick duo, then it did nothing of that sort for me.

For a book that is supposedly about teens doing detective work, the book is not so keen about details. For example, there’s a part where Monica meets up with the dead cheerleaders’ ex-coach. The ex-coach said that she’s going to order chai but then she came back to the table holding a latte. Is this an error on detail (note that I’ve read from an uncorrected proof) or the ex-coach got a last minute change of heart off the page? Okay, I’m giving that a pass and go to another example of a detail slip-up. I cry from disappointment when I noticed this upon close scrutiny because it has the potential to ruin the book’s great ending. The explanation that follows contain spoilers so I’m hiding it behind spoiler tags

The conflict of Monica’s character stems from her not wanting to talk to her family and friends about her own issues. I actually can’t blame her because their family’s kind of dysfunction is them keeping secrets from each other. Monica’s mom does not want her stepdad to know that they went to a clinic for the abortion. The stepdad in turn does not want Monica’s mom to know that he brings his stepdaughter to shooting range practices so she can learn to protect herself. And both parents in a problematic attempt to protect Monica, intentionally hid a key information regarding Jennifer's death to her

I am not saying that I despise the book. There were a lot of misses for me but still, it held my attention and I even liked some parts. It would’ve been better though if Monica was allowed to take off her sleuthing hat long enough so she could do more emotionally grounding things. Like process her feelings. Or make real connections with her newfound friend, Ginny. Or repair the broken ones with family and estranged friends organically, not the just-hug-it-out-and-now-we-good kind. It’s just funny that Monica couldn’t talk openly to her family and friends, but she actively searched and talked to strangers so she can pursue the case. The book treated Monica as a sleuth first, and a human second. Like I said, she is the story’s designated Nancy Drew.

Diversity Watch:
Monica Rayburn - brown-black hair, blue eyes
Ginny Cordero - pale skin dotted with freckles, sun-streaked strawberry blond hair
Jennifer Rayburn - Monica’s cheerleader sister, blonde, green eyes
Juliana Ruiz - Jennifer's cheerleader bestfriend, petite, dark hair
Susan Berry - Jennifer's cheerleader other bestfriend, blond
Colleen Coughlin - cheerleader who died in car crash, racially indeterminate
Bethany Steiger - cheerleader who died in car crash, racially indeterminate
Kelsey Butler - side character, in dance team with Monica, dark skin
Kelsey Gabriel - side character, in dance team with Monica, fair hair, freckled skin,
Mr. Demarco - Monica's guidance counselor, blue eyes
Jack Canning - man accused of murdering the cheerleaders, dirty blond
Daphne Furman - a reporter, blond
Ethan McCready - dark eyes, dirty blond hair
Brandon Michaelson - new track team coach, brown hair, brown eyes

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I'd love to hear from you! 
Have you read this book yet? If yes, how did you find it? Do you also snoop around like Monica when your Sherlock senses tingle or you just let a mystery be? Have you ever played amateur detective before? Tell me all about it.

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