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Burning Blue - Paul Griffin I’m enough of a cynic these days to greet reference to the theme of inner beauty with an eye roll. In my experience, much of the messaging around the nature of true beauty is either trite or saccharine and comes with generous helpings of condescension or overt moralising. I need another “lesson” on the superficiality of judging someone’s appearance like I need another makeover montage in a high school rom-com. So while the blurb of Burning Blue piqued my interest, the mention of “the notion of where beauty lies” triggered an alarm bell. Despite, or possibly because of, that early misgiving, Burning Blue exceeded my expectations. It’s a taut, compelling mystery that examines the social, physical and psychological ramifications of an act of shocking cruelty. If the novel does not entirely succeed in answering the question of why someone would perpetrate such a crime, it admirably examines the effects, and the fact that support and empathy can be found in unlikely places. Griffin does an excellent job of reinvigorating the somewhat tired and over-used character archetypes of the mysterious, loner guy and the beautiful, popular girl. Ostensibly, Jay Nazarro and Nicole Castro fall neatly into these stock roles - Jay is an outsider from the wrong side of the tracks and Nicole is a pageant-winning beauty queen – yet their characterisation is substantially developed and layered. As the story progresses, they are each shaded and defined with strengths and flaws; Griffin peels back layers of their outward image to reveal the vulnerabilities and motivations beneath. Jay suffers from seizures induced by a head injury and is returning to school following an incident in his freshman year, when he experienced an attack during a pep rally. A skilled hacker, Jay becomes consumed with identifying Nicole’s assailant and in the process of his investigations and burgeoning friendship with Nicole, is compelled to consider whether victim and perpetrator could be one and the same. Jay and Nicole have convincing chemistry throughout the novel, and I don’t mean this merely in the romantic sense. While Jay admits early in his narration to being attracted to Nicole, the dynamic that develops between them is complex and believable, based on their mutual recognition of a shared experience, what it is to be labelled and isolated. Griffin succeeds in showing why these two teenagers are drawn to each other, and also the fragile balance of trust that tempers their connection. The dialogue is sharp and intelligent; much of the humour comes from the passages of conversation between the characters, and occasionally Jay’s own dry observations. Related primarily through Jay’s first person account, the story is fleshed out with excerpts from Nicole’s journal and her psychiatrist’s notes. These secondary channels of communication are used sparingly, to provide detail that Jay couldn’t possibly know, but also to remind the reader that Jay’s observations are fallible. While I found Dr Nye’s (fortunately few) portions of the novel to be less realistic, the voices of both Jay and Nicole are well-rendered and distinct. Griffin has a firm grasp of Jay’s astute, yet guarded, commentary and also captures Nicole’s raw, more emotive language. This isn’t a novel that bludgeons the reader with a lesson about it being what’s inside that counts. While it would have been easy to draw a painfully laboured parallel between Nicole’s scarring and the relative depth of physical beauty, the novel fortunately avoids any too obvious clichés. Of course, that’s still a theme in the book – that a person is more than the sum of their physical attributes – but it’s handled in an accessible manner. Further, I appreciated the fact that Griffin points out that even those we consider to be inwardly beautiful are not free from their own issues or faults. It’s evident from the novel that idealising a person on the basis of their appearance or their personality is to do them an injustice. A more shrewd reader than I may succeed in unravelling the mystery sooner, but I was kept guessing up to the end. On a slower read through, perhaps I would have picked up on more clues or questioned some of the more obvious conveniences in the plot, but honestly I read this so fast I didn’t have time to scrutinise for weaknesses in the action. (Also, I’m not a hacker [sorry!] so I have no idea how feasible Jay’s exploits in technological espionage really are). I consider it worth mentioning, however, that I didn’t want to put the book down. I thought the tension was particularly good, Griffin maintains a steady, steep build up that feels in keeping with Jay’s own increasing sense of urgency and subsequent sleep deprivation. Finally, I would recommend reading the author’s comments in the acknowledgements and notes (not before you finish though, or you will completely spoil the book – you have been warned) as it gives his decision to write this particular story some greater context. As to whether he adequately unpacks the questions raised (could I be more ambiguous?), reader mileage will vary. I don’t think this was necessarily the most nuanced analysis of the motivations behind such an abhorrent act – yet I do think that he handles the repercussions thereof in an effective manner. It’s a sensitive and insightful portrayal of teens dealing with trauma in their own way, framed in a twisted, suspenseful thriller.