YA Weekend: Dive Smack by Demetra Brodsky
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor Teen (June 19, 2018)
Length: 336 pages
Theo Mackey is a driven athlete, as the captain of his high school diving team. Outwardly, he also appears to be just your average hard-working student, pulling straight A’s and earning the respect of the faculty and his friends. But what most people don’t know is that Theo is in fact dealing with a lot of issues at home and in his personal life. Suffering from amnesia, he can’t recall the events of the night his mother died, only that he was the one who lit the match that started the house fire that killed her. Shortly afterward, his father also passed away from a sudden heart attack. Now he lives with his grandfather, who is often aloof and drinks too much. Theo also frequently seeks the support of his Uncle Phil, who is not actually his uncle but was a very close friend of his father’s. As a psychiatrist, Uncle Phil sometimes treats Theo and prescribes him medication to help him focus in school and in sports.
As graduation draws nearer, Theo is under even more stress as he works towards perfecting his dive in order to secure a scholarship to Stanford. However, a social studies project in which he and his crush Iris are partnered up to research their family history is suddenly making memories rush back to the surface. Gradually, Theo remembers more and more from the night of the fire, and realizes that the people closest to him have not been entirely truthful with the facts. The shocking revelations are sending him further into a spiral of confusion and paranoia, affecting his diving performance. With Iris’s help, Theo must now try to unravel the secrets of his newfound memories and piece together the puzzle of what really happened the night his mom died.
For a thriller, Dive Smack was lacking in the thrilling department, which is probably the only major criticism I have to level against this novel. In fact, I found the first half to be rather slow and uneventful, and the failure of the plot to hook me right away probably affected my feelings for the rest. But from a mystery point of view, I thought the story had a lot to offer, especially since the author uses its first half to tease all kinds of questions for the reader. What was Theo doing with matches that fateful night of the fire? Who is Uncle Phil and what was the real nature behind his relationship with Theo’s parents? What’s with the protagonist’s visions and the flashes of memories that may or may not be more than they seem? Amnesia stories can be tricky, but the best ones are those that create doubt and make the reader question reality. A hint at the supernatural (or at least the possibility of it) also helped in this case.
To the book’s credit, the pacing also picked up in the second half, and my interest was piqued along with it. Gradually, the plot threads started to come together to form a clearer picture, revealing a lot of secrets about Theo’s family history. While these developments didn’t quite make up for the duller start, the build-up eventually culminates into a climax that was at least worth the time investment. Also, the diving. I really enjoyed the story’s focus on the sport and getting to learn more about techniques and terminology.
However, a few other things kept gnawing at me, one of them being my dislike for the protagonist. Granted, he has a massive chip on his should because of his past, but in general Theo struck me as someone very unpleasant to be around. He’s irritable and snappish to others, especially to a rival on his team who hasn’t done anything to deserve it other than show better skill at diving. Seething jealousy isn’t exactly a good look for anyone, and Theo wears it particularly badly. And if he was truly that serious about the competition and earning a scholarship, he’d lay off the weed. I also wasn’t too keen on his relationship with Iris. To be honest, I found it much more interesting to learn about her character backstory (even before the bombshell reveals about her) than to follow the romance between her and Theo. That said, I liked that the romantic drama was relatively understated and didn’t distract.
In sum, I have some mixed feelings about this one, but my impressions are overall positive. Dive Smack is pretty solid for a debut in terms of writing and plotting, stumbling just a bit when it comes to pacing. It’s not so much the heart-stopping thriller I was expecting from the blurb, but it’s still a reasonably good mystery with plenty of surprises and intrigue.