Last year, I found the nominees fun and interesting to read. I also was able to decide with a fair degree of certainty, which would win…and I was right. This time around, it won’t be so easy and I’m glad I won’t be the one getting up at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City on May 2nd to make the announcement. The five books all have some pretty interesting plot elements and lots of twists. There’s also a heck of a lot of sadness and dark times in this bunch and it’s that latter element which I suspect might cancel out the appeal of several books because their emotional impact run so closely that judges may decide it’s too difficult to separate them.
The five are: Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things by Kathryn Burak, The Edge of Nowhere by Elizabeth George, Crusher by Niall Leonard, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.
To recap my initial post about the nominees, I had this to say about Crusher after I finished reading it: I finished Crusher this morning and have to say that the other four books will have to scramble to top it for grittiness and dandy plot twists. It’s a very mature teen read with language and violence that are quite significant, but integral to the plot. Given how much a lot of teens deal with these days, those elements aren’t over the top in terms of what they see and what, sadly, some experience first hand. I think those elements will give it strong crossover appeal into the world of adult mystery readers. I pretty much read it in a couple sittings.
Here’s a summary: The story opens with Finn Maguire letting his down and out dad, an actor turned destitute would-be writer in late one evening after he loses his keys. You get a quick stream of consciousness intro to Finn’s lack of education, minor criminal record and his relationship with his father. The scene shifts to him at his lousy counter service job at a fast food place where he hates the job and the boss and you meet Zoe, a mysterious teen who he has to ask to buy something else or leave the restaurant by his beyond jerk boss (think Dilbert’s pointy-head boss with an English accent). She blows him off and leaves. You also learn that Finn is an amateur boxer who loves to run and feels he’s behind the eight ball thanks to his criminal record, dyslexia and lack of education. Finn, however, is anything but dumb.
When he returns home that evening, he notices things are amiss before he even sets foot inside. When he does, his dad is at his desk, the back of his head bashed in with the acting statue he won years before. One of the cops first on the scene, a cynical, heavyset sergeant named Prendergast who makes it clear he thinks Finn killed his dad. Once out of interrogation, Finn decides to do some investigation on his own. He visits the pub his dad frequented to see what his drinking buddies might know that could have gotten dad killed. They are very sympathetic at first, but as he starts to dig into the possibility that a local gangster with legendary abilities when it comes to avoiding arrest might have been the subject of his father’s latest writing project everyone suddenly seems to have someplace else to go.
Add in a female social worker who isn’t who she seems, Finn’s foolhardy attempt to penetrate the estate of McGovern, the gangster, what happens that gets him a meeting with the man and a job offer, how Zoe reenters the picture along with some really evil folks, some of whom Finn thought were trustworthy and you have a story with enough twists to make a pretzel envious. Niall Leonard has written a dandy first book. It kept me engrossed, had me guessing and not once did I roll my eyes at something poorly done. Granted, this is the first of the lot I’ve read, but the others are going to have to be pretty riveting to beat out Crusher. I’ll continue sharing my thoughts as I read the remaining nominees. Thus far only three Maine libraries have copies: Hartland, Lewiston and South Portland…A pity.
Where do the other four stand in comparison? Well, let’s begin with a synopsis of each. Emily’s Dress ans Other Missing Things is a sad and beautiful book, pulling readers through not only the aftermath of the main character’s mother’s suicide, but through her feelings surrounding not only being the one who found her dead, but those generated by two prior suicide attempts where Claire was present. Add to that the lingering uncertainty of what happened to her only real friend Richy, who vanished on a night when they were to meet and he was to find a man who might turn out to be his lover, and the accompanying sadness and guilt (She’s sure he wouldn’t be missing if she had arrived at their meeting place on time that night). Toss in the feelings every high school senior has regarding the scary challenge of stepping out into the world after graduation and a dad who is s stuck in his own grief as she is and you have enough emotion for three books.
Claire reacts to all the things swirling about in her head by stealing Emily Dickinson’s dress from the house where she grew up. The events following this involve her odd relationship with Tate, the student teacher from her English class who becomes her after the fact accomplice in the dress caper. Neither can be honest about the reasons for their attraction to one another and a large part of the story involves the development of this. When Richy’s body is discovered, she and Tate revisit the last night of his life, unearthing a huge clue about what really happened that night.
By the end of the book, you feel rather wrung out by everything that’s happened and are heartened by the solution to the mystery surrounding Richy’s death as well as how all the broken relationships in Claire’s life have, like damaged nerves, regrown or regenerated in ways that leave you hopeful for not only her future, but Tate’s and her father’s as well. There’s a lot of sadness wrapped around the mystery, but it develops a lot of beauty by the end of the book, leaving you with a sense of satisfaction.
The Edge of Nowhere is getting a fair amount of static in reviews by readers on Amazon.com. I read through several critical reviews there and came away thinking it was a tempest in a teapot. I flat out liked the book and it read smoothly enough so none of the things the critics were harping on stuck out to me.
Imagine you can ‘hear’ whispers-fragments of other people’s thoughts. This is the trait Becca King inherited from her grandmother. Her stepfather has been forcing her to use it to allow him to manipulate older clients of his financial adviser service. When Becca realizes he’s probably gotten so greedy he killed his partner, she freaks as does her mother and they try to disappear. The plan is for mom to settle in a remote British Columbia town she fell in love with years ago, while Becca hides out temporarily on Whidbey Island off the coast of Washington state with an old ‘new age’ friend of her mother. Mom drops her off at the ferry terminal with her bike and a backpack and promptly vanishes for the duration of the story. The first person Becca notices is a very handsome and very sad boy sitting in a Whidbey police cruiser on the ferry. She’s tempted to find out more about him, but her mother’s admonition to lay low, kicks in. Between Becca’s being out of shape and the bike being a piece of junk, it takes her until after dark to reach the home of the woman she’s supposed to stay with. When she arrives, she sees police cars and decides she better hide. It turns out the woman has just had a massive heart attack. End of safe place to crash. After a night hiding out with a bunch of big wet dogs, Becca stumbles into the small town desperate for food and some sense of where to go. Here Seth Darrow, another somewhat lost soul, enters her life. He’s getting a local market ready for opening and takes pity on her, giving her something to eat and sending her off to look for Debbie Greider, a recovering alcoholic who makes amends for things she’s done before getting sober by taking in strays like Becca.
In return for babysitting Debbie’s grandkids and doing some work around the rundown motel she manages, Becca gets a friend and a free room. Debbie pulls strings and gets her into the local school where things get even more interesting. The interplay between Becca, Seth, Derric, the sad boy she first saw on the ferry, whose a Ugandan orphan adopted by the local police chief, Hayley, Seth’s former girlfriend (there are still strong, but bruised feelings between the two of them) and a number of other kids at the school contributes to the main mystery which dominates most of the latter part of the book: Who pushed Derric down a steep drop in the forest and why won’t he come out of the coma when brain activity is essentially normal? There’s a bang up gotcha at the end of the book.
Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone has similar emotional elements to Emily’s Dress, but is a heck of a lot edgier. Two stories interweave through the book. One is the backstory of Amelia Anne, whose bloody body is discovered at the beginning of the book, but is unidentified. The other follows Becca who is about to graduate from high school and is facing a heap of anguish and dismay, not only about her boyfriend, James, who broke up with her in a pretty cruel way, but about what she really wants to do with her life. College has always been on her radar, but she’s beginning to question that. The book pulls the reader through a slow and bleak uncovering of how Amelia Ann came to die on the side of a road in a small Massachusetts town, why James broke up with Becca, how circumstances conspire to bring about the death of Craig, James’ fat, obnoxious friend who is suspected of killing Amelia, mostly because he leads everyone to believe he hid what little evidence might have remained to identify her and/or her killer.
This is more of a bleak commentary on the way death can suck the joy and hope out of people than it is a mystery. The ending left me feeling pretty sad for everyone involved as there were no winners.
The final nominee Code Name Verity was difficult for me to finish. That was in part due to the pace, but also because it didn’t seem to hold up to what I’d consider the standard for a YA mystery. In fact, I didn’t think it was particularly young adult after I closed the book and thought about it. Told in first person (which seems to weave from person to person as the story progresses), it starts out with a young woman captured in Nazi-occupied France being tortured and interrogated by the Gestapo. Ostensibly to buy time for her comrades still fighting in France and back home, she draws out her written narrative/confession extensively. This is pretty much the first part of the book. I won’t give any spoilers by telling you more as it shifts quite abruptly. I found it bleak and dark, even more so than the other two I described similarly.
So who wins? After reading Crusher, I was convinced that it would be hard to beat it. Now that I’ve read all five, I have to hedge my bet. Here’s my order of finish: The Edge of Nowhere by Elizabeth George, Crusher by Niall Leonard, Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things by Kathryn Burak, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Part of my decision is based on my personal enjoyment of the books, but I’m also factoring in a couple other things this year. First, the latter three all have a degree of sadness or bleakness which I suspect will make it difficult for judges to separate them. Crusher is a bit dark and gritty, too, but has a heck of a story line and a ray of hope at the end. That leaves The Edge of Nowhere which had a good element of mystery, a pretty fast pace and more author name recognition than any of the others. In a tight race, that might be the determining factor. We’ll all know in less than a month. Now it’s on to the juvenile nominees which I will cover in my next scheduled post on April 20th