Six years ago, when Calliope was in middle school, her mother lost control of a minivan and plunged into a lake. Calliope and her two sisters, Lorelai and Serafina, survived the crash, but their mother died. The investigation into why the car crashed was inconclusive. Despite the pain of losing their mother, Calliope’s sisters and father were able to move forward. But Calliope has never been satisfied. She suspects that something else is at work behind her mother’s death, and she’s determined to find out what it is.
Now a junior in high school, Calliope has earned a spot at Tipton Academy – the school her mother once attended. For the first time, she is separating from her family in order to get closer to her mother’s past, hoping that it will bring closure. While Calliope struggles to adjust, she joins Haunt and Rail, a secret society that is responsible for influencing important decisions at the academy. After attending the initiation, Calliope is wary of the society’s role and motives. She also learns that her mother was once a member of Haunt and Rail, or a “Ghost,” too. Feeling that she is closer than ever to discovering her mother’s past, Calliope’s doubts subside as Haunt and Rail secretly – and successfully – launch a campaign to increase pay for the food staff at Tipton. Calliope plunges headfirst into her responsibilities as a Ghost, and she finally feels like she belongs and is inspiring change at Tipton.
Things start to go awry for Calliope when rumors arise that one of Tipton’s English teachers, Mr. Ellis, is having inappropriate relationships with female students. At first, Haunt and Rail seek to vindicate the affected women, but soon their desire for change becomes more ambitious. Calliope becomes caught up in a crime she never expected as the truth behind her mother’s death comes to light.
Very Bad People lives up to its title. Readers may pick up this book expecting a boarding school mystery, but they may not be ready for the story’s twists and deceptions. As for the narrator, Calliope is a curious, driven character, who often reflects on her choices. At times, Calliope realizes that she is a bad friend and tries to be better. Plus, she struggles with her allegiance to Haunt and Rail. Even though Calliope is trying to be a good person, she is often complacent even though she knows something is wrong.
Unfortunately, Very Bad People has many flaws. For example, while Calliope’s complexity makes her more interesting, readers may be surprised by the story’s dark nature. In the end, Calliope’s story feels secondary to the mystery and setting. In addition, her romance with Nico is almost unnecessary. The plot is bogged down with lots of detailed information about the school and a long list of characters that can be difficult to keep track of. Very Bad People is a story for an experienced reader of the mystery genre – not for someone looking for a romance or a detective tale.
Sexual assault and murder are the main conflicts of this story, and it is very dark at the end. The conclusion shows that Calliope can’t trust anyone—not even her family. The events in the story are traumatic for Calliope and she will never be the same. Regardless, the story has a somewhat happy ending. The conclusion is satisfying because Calliope is finally brave enough to make the right choice.
Very Bad People is a page-turning thriller. The betrayal between friends and family is shocking to the core and Calliope’s investigation of her mother’s death is thorough – too thorough for her own good, leaving her entangled in a secret society whose motives are questionable. Overall, readers who want a mystery full of twists and turns in an intricate setting should give this story a try, particularly those who enjoy dark academic themes. Readers who aren’t afraid to jump into an exciting book with complicated characters who face evil should read the Truly Devious Series by Maureen Johnson. Readers who want an excellent mystery that isn’t as graphic should grab a copy of Endangered: A Death on a Deadline Mystery by Kate Jaimet.
- A few weeks after starting school, Calliope begins dating another student, Nico. They hold hands occasionally.
- Calliope and Nico kiss. Nico “leans forward and tilts his chin just slightly to the left. Our lips brush lightly once, then come together, and I am falling, falling, and I don’t have to think anymore.” They kiss a second time but it is not described.
- Calliope’s aunt, Mave, is bisexual. She uses the words “bisexual” and “queer” to refer to herself, and she is also married to a woman, Teya.
- At a Haunt and Rail celebration, Calliope sees two students kiss. “Akari and Lucas finish their dance and collapse onto the couch to a round of applause and hoots. Her body drapes across his, and he presses his lips to hers.”
- Calliope’s sister, Lorelai, says that she kissed a boy.
- Mr. Ellis, a teacher at Tipton, is accused of being a predator. It is revealed that he “watches teen porn” on his tablet and that he converses with female students via inappropriate text messages. According to a student, Ellis is responsible for, “Inappropriate touching, sexually explicit speech, and private invitations to visit his faculty apartment without other students or teachers present.” Multiple victims are mentioned in the story, including a girl named Lacy, who committed suicide after what he did to her. In addition, Brit, a member of Haunt and Rail, reveals that Mr. Ellis made sexual advances toward her.
- After a student, Aymée, is kicked out of Haunt and Rail, the group retaliates against her by sending pictures to the school. The pictures include depictions of Aymée’s past relationship with a teenage boy while she was in middle school along with a note that suggests she had a relationship with Mr. Ellis. In one of the pictures, Aymée is kissing the teenage boy.
- Aunt Mave admits she slept with Kathy (Calliope’s mother’s) ex named Danny.
- Calliope’s sister, Lorelai, admits that she knew that Kathy was having an affair with Danny. “I saw them together. . . When I walked into the house. . . Momma wasn’t inside. I went around back, looking for her, and she was in the woods behind the house with some stranger. They were half-naked, rolling around in the pine needles. . . Momma said Danny was her special friend and tried to sell me some bullshit story about what they’d been doing. I didn’t fully get what was happening, but I knew it was bad. I knew what kissing was, obviously.”
- Calliope’s mother, Kathy, died in a car accident. Kathy, Calliope, and her two sisters, Lorelai and Serafina, were in the car. Calliope frequently remembers this moment and her memory of the incident is crucial to the story’s plot. It is described in detail when Calliope says, “I woke to cold water – rushing in, filling the van, dragging us under. Screams and screams. Only our mother was silent in the front, slumped over the steering wheel . . . ” Calliope continues to describe how she and her sisters were able to escape the van, but had to leave their mother behind.
- Aunt Mave tells Calliope a story about a student who died when she went to Tipton. The student, Adam, died on campus and there were rumors that his death may have been a murder and that Haunt and Rail were involved. Mave says, “[Adam] died on campus, right in one of the dorms. Tripped down a flight of stairs in the middle of the night, and no one found him until the next morning.”
- Calliope finds out that Haunt and Rail members killed Mr. Ellis by poisoning his food. Calliope sees his dead body. “Mr. Ellis is slumped over in a wooden chair, head, chest, and arms draped across the top of his kitchen table. His eyes are open, empty bowls. A dark pool halos his head and drops down onto the tile. Blood – no, vomit.”
- Lorelai admits that she was the one who caused her mom’s car accident. “I never planned for it to happen. . . I just needed the car to stop, and I kept asking Momma, and she told me to be quiet. . . Momma still wouldn’t pull over, so I grabbed the wheel. I just wanted us to turn around, go home, but the van spun out, off the road. Then we were in the lake, and Momma wouldn’t wake up.”
Drugs and Alcohol
- At a Haunt and Rail party, someone brings champagne. No one gets drunk. Calliope takes a sip of it.
- Calliope’s classmate carries a flask and drinks from it when she visits Calliope’s room.
- Lucas calls Adam a “douchecanoe” and an “ass.” He curses while he describes Adam’s behavior. “Adam was a total daddy’s boy. He was this uber-privileged asshole. . . Adam was partying on campus… [After curfew] he kept the party going in his room, getting shitfaced by himself.”
- Students says “fuck” a few times. For example, one student says, “fuck this meeting” and calls Mr. Ellis a “fucker.”
- Akari (another student) says, “Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”
- “Shit” and “bullshit” are said once.
- When the senior Haunt and Rail students accuse Aymée of sabotaging their plan, Aymée says, “I’m not putting my ass on the line,” and, “You’re all fucking brainwashed.”
- “Jesus,” “Christ,” and “Oh my God” are all used several times.