This is the moment in Ruby's life where she will either make a change that will save her, or continue to live a life of pain and abuse. She takes a chance, a reactionary choice to a bully's words, and steps in a new direction she hopes will get her away from her abusive father and give her a chance at some semblance of normalcy. When it turns out that this new life involves some very dangerous people, Ruby must choose between staying loyal to new relationships or running for safety.
The themes of this book are quite compelling. Ruby faces abuse from her father, sexual intimidation from a young man who is supposed to be her friend, interest from a coworker that she very much wants to return but knows she shouldn't, and a boss that domineering but seems to be trying to help her while at the same time pulling her deeper into a dangerous world. The main storyline of this book kept me interested from start to finish. Each character was well crafted and had qualities that I could relate to. I cared about what happened to Ruby and Danny, and even Mr. Alessi. I was very invested in what happened to them from early in the book.
The relationships between the characters was what really made them shine. Ruby finagles her way into the law office, and Mr Alessi is the first to catch onto her trickery. Rather than toss her out, he sees her potential. He knows she can become something more than a troubled girl, but that hardly means he takes it easy on her. He often goes back an forth between trying to protect her and help her grow and berating her for mistakes. It's more than a little confusing to Ruby at times, but that made them both more human.
Ruby and Danny, her coworker, is another compelling aspect of this book. Danny is several years older than Ruby, and Ruby is still a minor, but the attraction between them is impossible to deny. What to do about it is the problem. Mr. Alessi forbids anything from happening, and Danny's struggle to maintain his distance was well written. I felt bad for him and Ruby, but the tension created was great. Their romantic struggle stayed pretty clean, as well, which I appreciated. Sutrman-Coombs did a very good job of keeping it interesting and anxious without resulting to graphic scenes.
The mystery itself of who Mr. Alessi's dangerous clients are and what is going on with them was well developed. To me, it did take a little bit of a backseat to the characters' personal stories, but that speaks more to the strength of the characters than anything lacking in the storyline. I was interested in the truth behind these clients the whole time, and they certainly amped up the tension and worry factor in several places. There were several surprises that I thought were well done, as well.
Overall, this was a highly entertaining book and I am eager to read more of Jessica's Sturman-Coombs works, but there were a few issues that will give readers some trouble.
The editing in this book was, too be honest, a huge struggle. This book needs to be re-edited right away or it is going to put readers off in the first few chapters. It was consistently filled with grammatical and punctuation errors throughout the book and it was very distracting at times.
Another issue was that the British school system, and other aspects of British life were not explained at all. For those unfamiliar with these areas, people like me, it was very confusing. I had no idea what was going on with the tests Ruby was supposed to take and why she wasn't still attending school. These really need to be broken down for non-British readers in order for them to get a better understanding of what Ruby is facing, and so they don't spend the first several chapters being confused.
The last main issue I had with this book was that even though Ruby was a great character that I really enjoyed, she was not very realistic as an abused child. I have worked with abused children, and I have done a decent amount of research on abusive relationships for various books I've worked on. Ruby's reactions and attitudes do not match a young woman who has spent her life being abused. She is very willful and combative, rather than afraid and submissive like many abuse victims tend to be.
To me, Ruby seemed to be the character that everyone wishes a young adult in an abusive situation could be. We all want them to be able to fight back and get themselves away from the person who is hurting them. In reality, that doesn't happen often enough. It is a very hard thing as a writer to make your characters do things you don't want them to do, like give in to their abuser and refuse to take an opportunity to leave. In this book, Ruby makes those choices that we as readers would want her to, but in the end readers know that isn't very realistic and something is lost for them in the connection to Ruby.
Despite these areas that need improvement, Jessica Sturman-Coombs is a fabulous storyteller. She obviously has a very creative mind and the talent to capture readers attention and hold onto it. I will continue to read more of her work. The areas I mentioned that need work are small in comparison to the overall strength of her ability and her book. I am confident that these few items will improve as she continues to write and hone her skills.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, it is a wonderfully compelling story that will pull in many readers. There are some issues with the book, but I don't think they are enough to overpower the story.
Who would I recommend this book to? This is mainly going to be for older teens (some of the themes are too mature for younger readers) and adults. There are elements that will attract mystery/crime readers, drama readers, and romance readers.
Stay up to date on Jess's books on her blog and website.
Poker Face is available now from Amazon US and Amazon UK.