In Review: What Waits in the Woods

A decent thriller for teens.

What Waits in the Woods by Kieran Scott

Published by Point, March 31, 2015. Hardcover of 288 pages at $17.99. Intended for ages 12 and up, grades 7 and up.  

The cover: Two-thirds of the cover is devoted to the illustration by Larry Rostant. It’s a good introduction to the premise of this book without giving the reader any information. Four teens are walking into the woods, with one looking back — perhaps for the last time — at the reader. I took this to be Callie, since she’s the protagonist of this story and didn’t really want to go on this trip to begin with. The forest landscape dominates the image, literally swallowing the girl farthest. The title is in gothic letters at the bottom, colored orange, making it pop out from the dark imagery above it. Kieran Scott’s name appears under the title in a muted yellow. This jacket was designed by Christopher Stengel and it’s pretty slick. Overall grade: A

The book design: I’ve never brought this up before because there hasn’t been a need to do so, but something must be said of the book cover once the jacket is removed. The color is a deep forest green, obviously chosen to match the surroundings that the teens find themselves in. However, there is an embossed design on it that should be brought to readers’ attention. It’s designed like the cross section of a tree trunk, complete with cracks, splits, and the rings that tells the tree’s age. This was an unexpected and very cool addition to the book that instantly made the tale told a little more real. The book design is credited to Christopher Stengel, so I direct a good amount of praise for going beyond what was expected. Overall grade: A+

The premise: From the inside front cover, “For city girl Callie Velasquez, nothing sounds more terrifying than a night out in the wilderness. But, wanting to bond with her popular new best friends, she agrees to join them on a camping trip. At least Callie’s sweet new boyfriend, Jeremy, will be coming, too. But the group loses half their food supply. Then they lose their way. And with strange sounds all around her — the snap of a twig, a sinister laugh — Callie wonders if she’s losing her mind. Tensions swirl among the group, with dark secrets suddenly revealed. And then, things take a fatal turn: Callie stumbles upon a cold dead body in the woods. Is the murderer close by, watching them? Callie has to figure out where she can turn and whom she can trust, before her own life is at stake. Kieran Scott weaves a thrilling mystery that explores loved, loyalty — and the dangerous choices we make in order to survive.” This sounds like the typical PG-13 teen thriller of kids out of their element being stalked. This isn’t my usual reading fare, but I’m game for this. Overall grade: B

The characters: Callie Velasquez is a good protagonist for this book. She’s trying to fit in, befriended a pair of popular girls, and agreed too readily to going for a five day hike in the woods. By being so eager to fit in, readers can see the mistakes she’s about to make before the character does so. She wants to tell these new friends how she really feels about things, but sacrifices her own opinions to fit in. A classic error that many teens can relate to. Callie is going to have to learn to speak her heart, or get overruled by the group. Lissa Barton is the brassy know-it-all of the group whose strength and sarcasm seems to be hiding someone who’s as sacred as Callie is. Lissa has a boyfriend, Zach Carle of the football team, but she thinks he’s clingy. She’s a button pusher that might have pushed someone too far. Penelope Grange is the quiet follower of the group. She’ll do anything that Lissa tells her tp do, even if that means going against how she feels. She has a really big secret that comes to light during a night of truth or dare. Unexpectedly along for the trip is Jeremy Higgins, Callie’s boyfriend. Having him along makes her feel better, but angers Lissa, who wanted this to be a girls only event. He’s a nerd, though a cute one, and doesn’t have much knowledge going into the woods. The book opens with an unnamed character writing in a Recovery Journal about what happened in the woods. It’s only on Page 244 who the writer is revealed to be. Another male character enters the book on 81, but his motives and trustworthiness aren’t revealed until much later in the book. All of these characters fit into the typical types that populate such predicaments. They weren’t horrible, just expected and unsurprising. Overall grade: B-

The settings: Picture the woods. The deep woods. The kind of woods where another person will not be encountered. That’s it; you’ve got the setting for this book. Author Scott does a good job describing this setting, moving the group through the expected parts of such a rural setting: flatlands, through a roaring river, the mountains, a forested area, etc. A specific location becomes the goal at about a third of the way through, and it’s questionable even if such a location exists. Without spoiling this plot point, what the group finds there was equally well described. Overall grade: A

The action: The chapters are very short, about five or six pages on average. At the end of each chapter there’s a cliffhanger or a realization. Constructing the novel in this manner always keeps readers on their toes, and I admit to wanting to keep reading to see how the problems would be addressed. There are also occasional interruptions from the psychopath who’s writing in his or her Recovery Journal, stating how the teens deserved to die and that it took effort to refrain from punishing them immediately. This, too, creates a strong sense of tension, with the reader awaiting this killer’s appearance. Not only does the setting and the psycho provide tension, but the drama among the group — honesty, loyalty, trustworthiness — flare up constantly, putting them at odds with each other. Scott nicely keeps the conflict within and outside of the group. Overall grade: A

The conclusion: The payoff of who the killer is and why the group is stalked didn’t work. It came off as cliche to me. Now this might be because I’ve read too many books and seen too many movies with this type of ending, so this was nothing new. However, for the intended audience this may be a much more fitting ending. The justifications are reasonable, just something I’ve encountered many, many times before. Knowing this, the grade for this category could be much higher. Overall grade: C

The final line: A decent thriller for teens. It has enough angst to be relatable for readers and enough scares to keep them reading. Overall grade: B

Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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