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When I was twenty, three years into an education degree that now collects dust and cobwebs, I did a few observations at an alternative high school. Not the kind of alternative high school where teen moms or kids who have failed classes can get diplomas, with flexible schedules and individualized lesson plans. This school was alternative in the sense that the students it served had severe emotional and behavioral problems that prevented them from functioning in a typical school environment. 

I sat in a blue plastic chair in my cardigan and dress pants, watching with wide eyes as a middle-aged social studies teacher led her group of eight students in a lesson. The students' task was to read a section of the textbook and answer a few questions at the end. A couple of them were quiet, but hardly anyone was actually doing the work. Almost all were boys. Some of the more vocal kids tried to talk to me and my observation partner, with increasing profanity when we didn't engage. Someone threw a textbook to the floor. The air felt charged, as if just a spark of static electricity from the touch of a hand could set off a brawl.

Looking back, and knowing now how my face telegraphs every thought that passes through my brain, I'm sure the kids were performing, putting on a show for the white-bread teacher wannabe. That's probably why their teacher, who seemed to me at the time to be serene bordering on robotic, reacted with nonchalance. I remember her unshakable calm in the center of the chaos and wondering how she managed it. “Just another day at the office,” her demeanor seemed to say, as she announced the page number for the third time. Just another day in the eye of the hurricane.

Needless to say, I was too intimidated to pursue a special ed certification after that experience. This latest book, though, brought me back to that time and reminded me what it's like to be around high-needs kids. I know several special ed teachers who willingly choose to serve these kids and help them learn how to be in the world, and let me tell you, it takes serious balls. Also, lots of love. Balls and love, the winning combination for a successful special ed teacher. You can quote me on that.

Lana Granger, the narrator of In the Blood, is one such special person. She's in college pursuing a degree in psychology. She wants to spend her life helping people with mental illness. She takes on a part-time job, babysitting a boy with severe behavioral issues. However, Lana has some psychological problems of her own—her mother is dead, her father on death row for the murder, and that's just the tip of the iceberg that is her twisted childhood.

Lana has worked hard to cover up her past, constructing elaborate lies to keep herself safe, but she lets her roommate and best friend Beck get a little too close to the truth. Then Beck goes missing in the woods, and suddenly Lana and her secrets have everyone's full attention.

I had so much fun trying to guess what was going to happen next for Lana. Even when she narrates a pivotal scene, she does so selectively, leaving out everything that's uncomfortable to talk about—which is, of course, everything we're dying to know. Unger peels back the layers with painstaking, relentless deliberation. It's a slow burn rather than a big bang, which is atypical for a thriller, but I couldn't argue with the results.