About a month ago, I won a Goodreads Giveaways contest for the book The Underdogs by Sara Hammel. It’s marketed as a middle grade mystery/thriller with a breathtaking twist. Naturally, as a middle grade lover, I jumped at the chance to win the book and was ecstatic when I did! Receiving this book, as an advanced readers’ copy, did not and does not affect my review.
In this review, I’ll provide a spoiler free general overview and my main likes/dislikes, then I’ll do an in-depth, spoiler discussion.
This book follows Chelsea and Evie, two best friends, at a summer camp/tennis club. Evie’s dad Lucky works as a tennis instructor at the club, and Chelsea’s mom Beth works as the front desk manager. Because of this, the two were brought together and are inseparable. However, mystery kicks in when one of the club’s most popular regulars, the young and beautiful and popular Annabel Harper, was murdered at the club.
The premise of the novel, on the back of the novel, states…
“Who killed Annabel Harper?
“When a popular teen beauty’s body is discovered by the pool at an elite tennis club, the regulars are shocked—especially twelve-year-old Evie and her best friend, Chelsea. While everyone else is haunted by Annabel’s death, Evie and Chelsea jump on the case, dogging the footsteps of the lead detective as he investigates. As temperatures soar over the summer, tensions rise, fingers are pointed, and a heroic act sets in motion a chain of events readers will never see coming.”
Even though Evie and Chelsea are the main characters, and Chelsea narrates the book, the novel includes a cast of characters. I think this was a brilliant plot choice by author Sara Hammel, because one, it widens the depth of the plot, and two, adds to the mystery of the novel. With an entire cast of characters, there are tons of people who could be the suspect in the murder of Annabel. And just as most murders go, basically everyone and their mother are suspects in this novel.
The entire novel was set at the summer camp/club, and I thought it was a great setting for a middle grade novel. It gave a summer vibe that was great for its classification and made the book more fun to read. I felt like I was genuinely at the camp. It brought me back to my elementary/middle schools days when I’d spend my time reading novels about summer camps and wishing I could be at one during the summer. I really enjoyed the tennis aspect of it, too. I’ve never read a novel that had a main focus on tennis, and this book provided a nice change.
Something that surprised me in this novel is that it didn’t read like a middle grade novel, nor did it have the plot for a middle grade novel. Perhaps that’s also a flaw, too. It is marketed toward middle grade, but had a much more advanced plot and writing and twists than I think middle grade books typically have. Another flaw, possibly, could be that it’s marketed as a mystery, but only the first half of the book really, truly focuses on the murder. The novel is mainly about character development and teenage struggles, with a murder shaping the drama that normally happens in a teen’s life. The murder is used to enhance the development of the two main characters and their attitudes. It’s a coming of age story with sprinklings of thriller qualities.
The twist at the end was something I definitely didn’t expect! I think that was one of the best parts of the novel—typically I can see twists coming, but not this one! It made me question the entire novel.
There were minor errors that I noticed, but of course, with this being an ARC, that was to be expected! Overall, I’d rate this 4/5 stars. There were some flaws, mentioned above, that could easily be rectified, but other than that, it was a great novel with breathtaking moments—especially toward the end. If you’re a fan of middle grade and are an adult who enjoys mysteries and coming of age novels, this is definitely for you!
Almost everyone in this novel was a suspect. Seriously, I made a list.
People who were suspects
Lisa (Annabel’s enemy)
Patrick (Insanely into Annabel)
Goran (Annabel’s boyfriend)
Gene (Club owner)
Beth (Heard Annabel and Lisa arguing the day of her death)
Harmony (Found Annabel’s body)
Joe (Enemy of Annabel’s dad)
People who weren’t suspects
Selene (Tennis player and camper)
Celia (Tennis player and camper)
Evie (12-year-old main character)
Nicholas (Annabel’s brother)
Pretty quickly, actually, I predicted who the murderer was, and I was correct. Annabel’s brother, Nicholas. To me, that was the obvious twist, and at first I thought that was the only twist, and I was a bit disappointed. After watching so much Dateline episodes, it’s almost always a jealous/insane family member.
However, the other twist… That one I did not see coming.
It turns out Chelsea, our narrator, is a dog.
Yes, a dog. And suddenly, all the “dog” references made sense. (The Underdogs, dog days of summer, dogging the footsteps, etc.)
During the novel, I kept wondering why Evie was so unpopular and why her best friend, Chelsea was so popular. I wondered why Chelsea never described herself, except for her horrible background filled with abuse. I wondered why we never got any dialogue from her. I wondered why she didn’t fight Evie’s bullies. But it all made sense when the twist was revealed. Chelsea was a dog, not a human!
Throughout the novel, I kept thinking that the narration style was too advanced for a twelve-year-old narrator, but it’s because the narrator wasn’t twelve. She was a dog, who understood more than the humans did. Chelsea ended up being the hero in this novel, saving Evie from being shot by Nicholas.
Another part of this novel, a main focus of it, was about animal abuse and how it affects animals. Author Sara Hammel did an excellent job of showing a dog’s mind and what he/she feels and experiences during and after animal abuse, and it was heartbreaking. Animal abuse breaks my heart, and when that turned out to be a huge portion of the book, I was devastated. I was also very happy that Chelsea got away from her abusers and ended up with Beth and Evie.
I think this is the most unique twist I’ve ever read, and never in a million years did I see it coming. Not only is it a mystery/thriller and coming of age novel, but also, it’s an advocate for animal rights. I genuinely loved this novel. For a lack of better words, it was adorable.