52 LIKES, BY MEDEIA SHARIF
52 LIKES, by Medeia Sharif, is part thriller, part social drama, and part ghost story. It’s also a survivor’s tale, an affirmation that another person’s crimes should never keep a person from living, nor from hoping for a brighter future.
Our hero is Valerie. As the book begins, she survives a horrific assault, barely escaping with her life. Sharif does an outstanding job of painting this honestly, and the reader is forced to endure the aftermath with Valerie—every step of it: from her initial treatment and the collection of evidence, to the longer, slower daily grind of Valerie trying to heal her own damaged soul, as well as trying to reintegrate herself into a society that had already pretty much written her off.
Thank God for loyal friends, the embodiment of whom we meet in Cookie, Valerie’s steadfast defender and confidant. Her single mother is a sympathetic character too; and her unofficial counselor, a crisis counselor named Brenda, helps her through the trauma that accompanies recovery. And that’s a good thing, because her guidance counselor at school isn’t worth a damn.
Still, in the end, it’s up to Valerie to save herself, both figuratively and literally, as it becomes clear that her assailant most likely attends her school. Worse, Valerie is not his first victim—and so Valerie, armed only with her own damaged courage and determination, must achieve the reclamation of her life by meting justice upon her attacker … and not only for herself, but for victims past and, potentially, future.
This is the third book I’ve read from this author, and there simply is no comparing one of her books to another. Sharif is not tied down to any one particular genre. She’s a pure storyteller, and whatever story it is that she deems needs telling, she tells it. In a market stuffed with genre and series writers (like myself), she has a way of standing out. The only thing that unifies her tales is her style—direct and elegant, unusual and somehow comforting at once, even when she explores the very worst kind of human cruelty and evil.
So, yeah. I’m a fan. And the great news? Medeia Sharif is only getting better and better with each book she writes.
AN ABSENCE OF LIGHT, BY MERADETH HOUSTON
Leah Madison is exceptional. She started college at age 16, after all. She sees things that others don’t. She senses things that are invisible to most. Unfortunately, what she sees and senses are … well, unbelievable, to society at large. And these things have murder on the mind.
Leah’s extraordinary gifts are not enough to save her family. Nor are they enough to keep her from being implicated in their deaths, and ultimately driven towards a fateful confrontation that will determine the destiny of the entire human race.
What she sees—what she senses, can even talk to—are “Shadows.”
They live among us, but they are not native. They know all about Leah, and her gifts. They do not wish to kill her—not yet, anyway. Because they need answers, too.
This is the stage upon which AN ABSENCE OF LIGHT, by Meradeth Houston, is set. To give away any more secrets (as the cliché goes) would be a crime. Suffice it to say, O Reader, when you crack back the cover and unveil the first page, you’d better be ready to GO—because you’ve just embarked upon a science fiction-horror novel that hits the pavement like a stolen BMW with back tires squealing, leaving blackened, shadowy tread marks over your unsuspecting brain and heart.
Keeping the “secrets” sacred, however, I will tell you this: You will accompany Leah to a sanctuary, in the form of a gas station, where she will make new friends—and something like family—even as she learns how to battle the evils that ruined her earlier life. Here, she may even fall in love again, if only for a moment.
And you’ll fall in love with Leah, but not because she is perfect. Far from it, she’s actually moody, often snippy, and at times indecisive. But people confide in her, and she never betrays—even when it might be in her best interests to do so. She tells the truth, at least as she sees it. In a word, she’s decent, and the reader roots for her.
This book is rife with desperate action. Just when you feel like you might get a break from it—after an especially tender scene, for instance, or even following the book’s essential set-piece climax—a new complication arises. Yet, there is a resolution. AN ABSENCE OF LIGHT is a story unto itself, while at the same time leaving the possibility that there may be more of this story for Ms. Houston to tell.
If so, Houston, we don’t have a problem.
THE ATTIC OF SANDS AND SECRETS, BY MEDEIA SHARIF
“The biggest dangers are here in this world.”
Meaning that they are not in Lily’s attic. At least, she doesn’t think they are. And she’s going to go in there, whether her father wants her to or not.
THE ATTIC OF SANDS AND SECRETS, by Medeia Sharif, escorts the reader through a magical, dreamlike mystery. Lily is a learning disabled junior high school student. She struggles in school, especially in reading. She’s the daughter of wealthy, loving parents. Her dad is the vastly successful owner of a chain of Florida bakeries, her mom an Egyptian-born socialite who stores her family heirlooms—and a world full of secrets—in the attic of their expansive, beachside home.
And one day, Lily’s mother is kidnapped. The suspects are manifold: the creepy writer-neighbor-guy across the street, Dad’s jealous brother and his wife, everyone who knows the family and their movements … and they all have alibis. Dad is only too willing to pay the exorbitant ransom demands, but the police inadvertently botch the transfer, ratcheting up the suspense and leaving Mom’s fate in the hands of Lily herself. Because Lily has unlocked help from another world—a world to which her mother apparently belonged, at least at one time—and in the second half of the book, it’s the proverbial race against time as Lily works out clue after clue in a frantic rush to save her mother’s life.
Her “coach” on the other side is an ancient, flute-playing wise woman named Khadijah. She directs Lily to visit various locations in a nighttime Egypt frozen in time: into a pyramid, through a bustling bazaar, onto a strange riverboat with a strange conductor, all to piece together what happened in the “real” world before it’s too late.
And Lily has to research. Lily has to read. She has to overcome her own shortcomings to become the “smart” girl the reader has always known that she is. In other words, in order to save her mother, Lily must first, in effect, save herself.
I’ll say no more, other than to encourage readers of this review to check out THE ATTIC OF SANDS AND SECRETS, and to embark on a road of trials that is both harrowing and … oddly beautiful …
BLACK AMARANTH, BY SASHA HIBBS
Black Amaranth, a dark fantasy by Sasha Hibbs, wastes no time plunging the reader into its world.
Ally has just graduated high school. After years of being tormented by Brandi, her oh-so-popular nemesis, she’s coerced her friends Michael, David, and Jessica to crash Brandi’s graduation party. And crash it they do—in a most wholesome and satisfying manner, despite Ally’s sullen mood. This mood is born of her resentment towards her caregiver, Uncle Argyle, who failed to attend the ceremony—but if Ally thinks that’s bad, it’s only because she has no idea what’s to come.
Within the first several pages, Ally—and the reader—learn that her whole “normal” life has been a lie, that she is an immortal tasked with righting an ancient wrong, and in doing so, changing the world—or destroying it. At first incapable of grasping the full implications of what she is and what she must do, she focuses instead on saving her uncle, who it turns out has been sheltering her, for all of her life, against the terrible truth of what she has been from birth. Sheltering her from the truth of her parents, her “aunts,” and most significantly, her own perilous destiny.
And to think, just yesterday, her biggest problem had been the prospect of breaking the news to her uncle that she’d be moving out and going to college …
There’s a veritable rogue’s gallery of paranormals in Black Amaranth: a host of seraphs, a community of gypsies who practice magic—and Malik, of the Nosferati, who seems to be Ally’s appointed consort, whatever her “friend” Michael may think of that.
Yet, in spite of all of this magic, this complex cauldron of interweaving plots that involve the fate of the world as we know it, it’s the human characters who propel this story. Ally’s friendship with Jessica and her insufferable twin brother, Dave (think “Ron” from Harry Potter, as a rough reference) lend a constant reality to a plot that moves fast and sometimes requires some re-reading to keep up. These are teenagers you recognize from your own past, or wish you did, and their loyalty is genuine, touching—and hopefully enough, as so much hangs in the balance. As Ally leans on them, and yearns for her first kiss with Michael, we lean with her.
It is through those characters that we relate to problems bigger than ourselves, and root for a brave young woman whose very destiny seems the appointed destruction of us all.
DORIANNA, BY CATHERINE STINE
What would you give to be accepted? What would you give to be popular?
What would you do to be worshipped—by everyone?
Dorianna Gilliam is a plain, buck-toothed girl, shunned by teenage society. When her father is imprisoned, her distraught mother ships her off across the country to live with her aunt. But the kids who live near Coney Island aren’t much of an upgrade from the ones Dorianna left behind in Indiana. Her first day at school proves that, far from this being a second chance, isolation and loneliness are her preordained destiny.
Until she meets Ander—a charming would-be novelist on the rebound, both from a toxic relationship and from a life-altering sports injury.
And until she meets Wilson Warren, Ander’s “friend.” Wilson lives alone on Coney Island, with only his heavy metal music, gothic Victorian clothes, and his video camera for company. He’s got plans for Dorianna, a makeover that involves much, much more than her appearance. But there’s a price, of course. There always is.
DORIANNA, by Catherine Stine, is a reimagining of a much older tale, and yet is wholly original in its own right and interpretation—a theatrical horror written in three steadily escalating acts. These acts aren’t strictly defined by chapter breaks or book sections, but rather by the three parties the reinvigorated Dorianna throws for her new friends … for her new “followers.” As her sphere of influence blossoms, however, there is a beast, too, growing deep inside of her. It whispers to her, compels her towards acts that are both malicious and self-destructive. This beast propels her towards an apocalyptic climax that simply shudders with both suspense and inevitability. And, just maybe, one chance at ultimate redemption.
The novel is also a searing indictment of high school cliques and, in a larger sense, the superficiality of society itself. Friends and enemies—and “frenemies”—are all fish to be caught, collected, and nailed up as trophies on bedroom walls. Be careful what you wish for, the pages warn (through showing, not telling), because by the time you remember what real love and friendship are, you may have already lost them for all time.
DORIANNA is devilish and enchanting, a troubling parable wrapped in story cloth both classic and modern. Highly recommended!
FOLLOWING CHELSEA, BY SHARI GREEN
“Strange how being the center of attention can make a person invisible.”
That line, from Shari Green’s FOLLOWING CHELSEA, perfectly captures both the spirit and the loneliness of its leading lady and first person narrator, seventeen year old Anna Richards.
Anna is not an easy girl to love, and she knows it. Abandoned by her father, tolerated by her mother, banished from school, and betrayed by both her best friend and her boyfriend, the reader might think Anna would welcome a change of scenery. But Anna’s not really like that. She clings to what is familiar: the Laundromat where she goes to find solace, the house her mother just put up for sale. She manages tension by secretly scrunching her toes inside of her shoes. Unable to wholly process the loss of so many people and things that had defined her world, Anna’s natural response is anger, her demeanor combative.
And yet, it’s only when she and her mother move away that things get really complicated.
Mom, of course, sees this as an opportunity for a “fresh start” for both of them. The only problem, Anna realizes upon embarking on her first days at her new school, is that Anna looks just like another girl at that school. A girl named Chelsea.
And everyone loves Chelsea. And Chelsea is dead—the victim of a drug overdose completely at odds with her so-sweet-girl-next-door reputation.
Hold on, O reader, before you make any judgments. This is not a ghost story, not a paranormal dream—in fact, there’s nothing overtly supernatural in the entire novel. Anna’s uncanny resemblance to the dead girl everyone loved is a matter of pure coincidence. Although Anna herself (and the reader who takes this journey with her, by extension) may feel rather cursed at every turn, there is no point within this striking and poignant novel that removes her from absolute reality. This is a world the reader can occupy without resorting to fantasy, a horror that fans out not from what our imagination may conjure but from an honest and sometimes merciless accounting of the way real people often are—and from what our own questionable choices may cost us.
Fortunately, Anna finds Doran, even as she decides to embrace her likeness to Chelsea and, if possible, exploit it. Doran is a “goth,” a “loser,” a fringe dweller that, at one time, Anna may never have even given the time of day. But he’s a brilliant artist, too—and soon becomes Chelsea’s tutor.
“You’re the densest person ever,” Doran tells her at one point, even as Anna seems to actually become the Chelsea everyone misses--and as her relationship with Chelsea’s old boyfriend, Ryan, morphs into something both delusional and dangerous. “”I’m your friend. Friends care.”
It’s a good thing, too. As FOLLOWING CHELSEA edges closer and closer towards its touching and dramatic climax, there are points along the way where the reader will feel certain that Anna can never recover herself. There’s a sense that she can never again be who she once was, nor the person she so unwisely chose to follow.
Without giving it all away, however, just know that redemption and forgiveness—to the extent these things can be had at the end of an uncompromising novel such as this—are rendered with the same realism and grit as were the conflict that made them seem unattainable in the first place.
FOREIGN EXCHANGE, BY DENISE JADEN
Foreign Exchange, by Denise Jaden, is an unexpected twist on teen romance. Don’t get me wrong—lovers of the genre will find all they want of that in this book. But there’s more here, too, a startling parable without the preaching, a cautionary tale that is story-driven, not sermonized.
Jamie Monroe is a teenager with more than a kid’s fair share of responsibility. A multi-lingual would-be world traveler, she’s mired in drudgery in her less-than-ideal home life in suburban Michigan. With no father at home and her disgruntled single mother working late most nights, it falls to Jamie to be the caregiver for her severely disabled little brother, Eddy. Though she loves him, she yearns for something better for herself, and it is with no small degree of jealousy that she bids farewell to her best friend, Tristan, to a foreign exchange program that will, for the moment, leave her behind.
But Jamie and Tristan have a plan. A reckless, dangerous plan that the reader knows will go terribly wrong before it ultimately does—and yet the suspense builds, even as the inevitable outcome edges us further and further down the road of bad decisions and their consequences.
Because Jamie is going overseas, too—on a class trip that she plans to abandon, all in the hopes of re-uniting with Tristan and, ultimately, a father she has not seen in ten years. Taking the journey with her will be Tristan’s “playboy” brother, a surprisingly vulnerable character the reader will love as much as Jamie comes to love him … all against Tristan’s wishes and advice.
Don’t worry. I haven’t blown anything for you, O Reader. That’s all relatively early in the book. What comes after, especially in its breathtaking final act, transforms a story of family conflict (and, even more, conflicted young love) into a whirlwind thriller. Along with a lot of Spain and Italy, the reader is plunged into a dark, seedy underworld of ruthless, bottom-feeding human parasites who promise fame with one hand, holding misery and worse in the other behind their backs.
There’ll come a time when you want to close the book. But you won’t. And in the end, you’ll be glad you didn’t.
Foreign Exchange is an excellent novel of friendship, family, and love—a story of victims and heroes, with the same character often alternating as both. It’s a fantastic read!
KEEPER OF THE GATE, BY PAULA KENNEDY
Reading KEEPER OF THE GATE, a paranormal horror adventure by Paula Kennedy, is quite a bit like what I imagine parasailing through a meteor shower might be like. It’s fast, chaotic. There’s so much going on, your mental reflexes will struggle to keep up. And—if you’re into that kind of thing—one Hell of a lot of fun.
The capital H on “Hell” is intentional, by the way. But wait. I’m getting ahead of myself.
Annalisa Harold is a senior in high school, with family, friends, and an inexplicable interest in a mysterious boy named Devin. She pals around with her BFF Stacey (whose almost-emo twenty-something brother, Charlie, turns out to be very important, early in the story). She attends classes, plays the game of life with only a passing misgiving at her self-imposed severance from church services—which she does not, herself, understand. She’s going to be a nurse. Here, on the cusp of adulthood, she seems to have most things figured out.
That’s until she’s attacked in a dark alley by a shadow monster. And rescued by Devin. Well, to say she’s “rescued” by Devin might not be giving Anna enough credit—because the secrets Devin so closely guards serve only to unlock Anna’s own dormant power, and a sleeping secret identity of her own, one that tremulously cradles the fate of the world in her seemingly human hands.
Devin’s got a brother, too. And if you think your family has issues …
I have to be careful about giving things away, here. You see, Anna does not, herself, remember much of what she truly is, or was, and that story device serves two essential purposes. First, it’s critical to the plot, as we learn toward the end of the tale. Secondly, it allows the reader to reawaken with Anna, experiencing with her the fulfillment of her cataclysmic potential, even as she expresses her fears and reluctance in terms any 21st century teenager will relate to.
This is not a “pretty” paranormal tale—not unless you find self-mortification, immolation, and death by clouds of razor blades attractive. This is a real horror story and a starkly imaginative subterranean fantasy, complete with a tour through the city streets and sewers of the Underworld. Think “Dante’s Inferno” meets “Degrassi,” and you’re close to the vibe created here.
I’m guessing that what we have here is the opening salvo of a much larger tale. At its end, there is still much to be learned, and a virtually infinite landscape of conflicts still needing resolution. But it’s a self-contained story, as well, as Anna—and the reader—emerge from out of one darkened ally, exhausted but still alive, and look out onto a blossoming, and wholly new, story universe.
MY SUMMER ROOMMATE, BY BRIDIE HALL
Meet Chloe, a new high school graduate facing the prospect of living out from under the dubious shadow of an inattentive mother for the first time in her life; a would-be psychology major who is grasping to understand what love means to her. Grasping to understand herself.
The camera pans.
I’m a simple guy, I like a simple life.
Enter the love-addled mind of Christopher Quinn, who narrates the “guy” perspective in this same story. Straight-spoken and generally kind, Chris nevertheless has real difficulty understanding anyone who does not approach life from the same point of view—especially when it’s the girl he cares for. The one he “likes.” Yeah. Likes.
These two are about to spend the summer together. Hold on to your proverbial (or literal, if it applies) hat, because this is not going to be easy. But it’s the complications, after all, not the simplicity, that make life interesting—and also make for a good read.
Together, these two characters anchor a wrenching story about love trying to bloom between a girl and a boy, both struggling to bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood. It happens just as the sun has set on high school for one of them, and on the premature end of a promising career as a professional athlete for the other.
My Summer Roommate, by Bridie Hall, is a short, alternatingly sweet and bitter confection of a teen romance novel. Younger readers will enjoy the genuine modern banter, while we older folks reflect on all the promise and all the misfires of our own time in the sun, back in the day when life was still long and filled with both opportunity and angst.
The tale flips back and forth between both points of view, inviting readers of both genders to root for, or sympathize with—or scream obscenities at, with the book held at a distance—one character or the other, even as the events that unfold strike you as absolutely real and believable.
Spend an afternoon living out the summer with Chloe and Chris. It’s not always fun—life has a way of throwing curveballs at you—but it is fulfilling, in the best possible book-sense. You won’t regret it.
THE SEVENTH BY S.D. WASLEY
She goes by Mimi—never Miette, which means “crumb” in French. At age 16, she’s moving to a new home in Etherall Valley and rebooting her life at a fancy prep school for unusual kids. She’s got a knack for art, two parents who don’t know what to make of her, and three ghosts for company. Ah, teenagers.
In spite of her attempts at social invisibility, within a week Mimi is elevated above the other unusual students and invited into their exclusive “gifted” program, which—until she joins them—consists of only six kids. There, she learns that she is not insane, her ghosts are real, and her presence in the program completes a circle. The “gifts” of these seven kids are all different: everything from empathy to animal control to conjuration. And Mimi? She’s a necromancer. She “calls the dead.”
And here I thought I was weird, back in high school, being in chess club.
THE SEVENTH, by S.d. Wasley, isn’t so much a coming-of-age story as it is an emerging-from-the-shell story. Mimi is, at first, quiet and withdrawn, filled with self-doubt and a lifetime’s worth of insecurities—brought on by years of labeling by her peers and her parents’ misguided attempts to somehow cure her of her oddities. As the tale progresses and Mimi comes to understand that she is not, in fact, broken in any way, our hero emerges as everything she never thought she could be: brave, outgoing, even popular. And, as unthinkable as it may at one time have been, beautiful.
There’s a lot of teenage dating drama in the first half of this book. Seriously, I haven’t seen so much angst since J.K. Rowling introduced her American readers to the word “snogging” in Order of the Phoenix. And that’s okay, even if that’s not your genre. What Wasley has going for her here is that most of the players in this drama are just so insufferably likeable, the reader doesn’t know who to root for in the dating game and who to pity. When the reader’s that invested in the characters, even the most jaded of us can comfortably genre-hop our norms and find ourselves engaged in the action.
Some of these characters appear on the surface as familiar archetypes: the surfer, the match-maker, the death metal Goth kid, the shrinking violet—each of them further characterized by whatever gift, our power, they are gradually learning to master. Wasley, however, manages to deconstruct our first impressions and peel the outer layers away, revealing complex and unexpected individuals who struggle to discover not only what they are, but also why they are.
If there’s anything missing here, it’s an iconic (or, at least, present) antagonist. Or so it seems in the early running. But Wasley has that covered, in the end, too—and the way she plots her story makes it clear that she was aware of this threat from the outset. You have to get to the end of the book to know where S.d. Wasley was going from the beginning. By the time Mimi has to confront this emerging menace head-on, the reader has realized that Wasley had all of this carefully planned before she invited us along. Now that her tale is ready, we are guided by a steady, sure hand.
But it really is Mimi who keeps us reading. There’s something in her we all wish for and few of us have. When Mimi realizes her own self worth, she refuses to let go of it. When she’s given a purpose, she embraces it. When faced with the prospect of danger she cannot avoid, she’s unwilling to surrender to the fear of it. Mimi’s journey and transformation, so far removed from the bleak young soul we met at the beginning of the book, is where the true magic of this story lies.
STILL PHOTO, BY KIM HARNES
Still Photo, by Kim Harnes, is a shocking, unforgettable read.
Meet Jess Waterford, a more-or-less typical teenager who aspires to become a professional photographer. She lives with her single father and attends school with her boyfriend Brody Campbell, the local baseball hero. She works part-time at a photography studio with old George, learning the trade while enduring the drudgery of shooting vapid, half-naked pre-anorexic swimsuit models. In spite of a past she’d rather forget—one in which she was both abused and neglected by her own mother—Jess has found her place in the world, things to hope for and look forward to, a life to live and to love.
Incidentally, you will remember that the name is “Jess,” not “Jessica,” if you know what’s good for you.
The purchase of a first-rate camera by her doting and insecure father opens a thriller with more than a hint of the supernatural at play as several of Jess’s shots slowly begin to unveil a terrible secret in their backgrounds. In the first half of the book, Jess and Brody work to uncover that secret even as strange and terrifying afflictions—both psychological and physical—pummel them the closer they get to the truth. But don’t get to sure of yourself in your own predictions, O Reader, because you have no idea what’s coming. Approaching the second half of the book, you’ll say to yourself, “I know where this is going.” But you don’t.
You’ll think you do. But you don’t.
Saying any more about the plot would be a disservice to both the author and her audience. Kim Harnes has woven a completely unexpected tale rooted in the ordinary. Her characters talk like real people; her baseball fields, high school classrooms, and hospital wards come to life with the reality of the small town anyone could have grown up in. And when a small girl stands alone in the rain in the parking lot waiting past dark for her father to pick her up—only to have her worst nightmare, her mother, arrive in his place … well, let’s just say that Kim Harnes can make a grown man cry. And leave him troubled in his sleep long hours after …
In the end, readers will find themselves emotionally and intellectually exhausted—in the best possible way. What’s more, the reader will have been shown the value of believing one’s self (if not always believing in one’s self), even when the people who are supposed to love and protect you either fail miserably or betray you at every turn.
Surprising, upsetting, and unexpectedly funny at times, Still Photo resonates with storytelling prowess, a nightmare you’ll want to have over and over again.
UNREAL CITY, BY A.R. MEYERING
Be careful what you wish for, kids.
Readers who take on A.R. Meyering’s UNREAL CITY have no idea what they’re in for. I purchased the audiobook version of this novel (and so I hope you’ll forgive me if I misspell a character name or two), looking forward to what I expected would be a rather darker imagining of ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS. And so it was.
Much darker. Just as good. Seriously.
Meet Sarah Wilkes, a young college-bound woman, separated for the first time from her family even as she wrestles with the recent murder of her beloved twin sister Lea. She’s not ready for this, but there’s really nothing else for it. Her friends have given up on her. Her mother waits obsessively for the awakening of Lea’s boyfriend from a coma, for answers that may never come. Real-world forces propel her from the ruined life she has known into a future rife with uncertainty.
Enter Felix. Yeah, he’s a cat. But not really. And he’s only “Felix” because that’s what Sarah names him. He has promises for Sarah, an invitation that cannot be denied. Feed me, Sarah, and I’ll make it all go away. Far away.
We know this is a bad idea. Readers and listeners alike scream at Sarah to back away (No—take it, Sarah, do it, DO IT), because we’re pretty sure this is going to a bad place. Oh, and it is. Real bad. So bad, in fact, that we want to be there ourselves. And the good news is, for the length of this book, we really are.
I don’t want to give too much away. That’s all I’m saying, in terms of plot. But I assure you, readers and listeners both, that here you will find a tale rich in character, from the real-world Sarah and her selfless college friend Joy, to the phantasms, gods, and devils of Unreal City itself: Mama Stella, Blanche, Poe, Felix, the Antler Man …
The thing is, this book will hurt you. For those of us burdened with unresolved grief and the anger that comes with it, the trip won’t be easy. To those of us young enough (or fortunate enough) to not have dealt with these issues yet, perhaps UNREAL CITY will provide some kind of creative preparation for its inevitability. Live long enough, and this pain will find you. A.R. Meyering understands this, controls it, and she articulates it in a complex tapestry of story art that will simply floor you.
And now, full disclosure: I might never have gone down this rabbit hole were it not for the fact that the audiobook is narrated by Jessica McEvoy. I’m so, so glad I did—don’t get me wrong—but it was only by this chance connection that I was even aware of UNREAL CITY. Anyone who has followed Ms. McEvoy’s readings on the award-winning NoSleep Podcast knows the strength and resonance she brings to her narration and character voices. In this instance, she adopts various accents to meet the global demands of UNREAL CITY—Spanish, Scottish, Russian, French, drunken Americana—but far more importantly, she brings to life the hope and despair, the humor and terror, of our existence. And death. Yeah. There’s that, too.
But those are just the “voices,” the characters. What I’ve always appreciated the most about McEvoy’s considerable talent is her narration. In this particular reading, the listener is treated to an anguished lullaby, a magic carpet ride across a landscape of dreams and nightmares, bridged by dark tunnels of bleak reality with only one hand reaching out from the black to guide us though.
Jessica McEvoy has an uncanny ability to channel the exact intended voice for whatever author has the wisdom and good fortune to benefit by her delivery. The creative marriage is perfect for UNREAL CITY.
The journey is cheap. The therapy will probably be expensive, though. Fair warning.
VITAMINS AND DEATH, BY MEDEIA SHARIF
Sometimes, we read books to go on adventures to mythical places and have magical experiences. Other times, we read books to find romance, or even just friendship. Still other times, some of us read to scare ourselves out of the doldrums of our daily lives. In short, sometimes we read books to escape.
And then there are the times we read a book that delivers reality in a dark, desolate, and undeniably compelling damnation of the human condition. VITAMINS AND DEATH, by Medeia Sharif, is one of these books—and it’s a good thing that her protagonist, Deidra Battle, is someone worth rooting for. Otherwise, this might be a hard book to begin, much less finish. But because Deidra is such a character, the reader finds him(or her)self completely unable to set the book aside, even as our hero’s world spirals ever more chaotically out of control. The reader hopes—with a personal, emotional investment—that things will work out for Deidra, even as it seems progressively less and less possible that they will.
Deidra had something of a normal life, once, when she was a junior at Lincoln High—back when she had friends, when she enjoyed the flirtatious back-and-forth with boys, when school was a place to connect with people and build a future. Before her mom, a math teacher at the same school, was caught in an inappropriate (putting it in the mildest terms) relationship with another student.
Now, Deidra finds herself a senior at Hodge High—which, compared to Lincoln, is hell on Earth—trying to affect social invisibility, dreading the possibility that her mother’s past may follow her here. And well it may, because Mom has been acquitted of all wrongdoing, and she’s come to Hodge as well. Worse, Deidra’s mother seems bent on her own self-destruction, living on a constant diet of prescription medications—and blaming Deidra for everything that ever goes wrong at school or at home, even when she herself is clearly the cause. She’s physically and emotionally abusive, absolutely selfish, and heartlessly manipulative. Really, she’s the single most horrifying mother figure I’ve read about since the one in Stephen King’s CARRIE, and that is saying a great deal.
And yet Deidra finds, even when pitted against the worst kind of harassment and bullying at school (I’d be specific, but I don’t want to blow the whole plot here), that within herself is a blossoming potential for a future outside of this madness, one in which she can define herself on her own terms, and even help others in the profession she aspires to. She finds strength and compassion in her classmate, Malcolm, too—and the promise of ultimate independence after graduation because of all the hard work she’s put in.
The only question is, can she survive until after graduation? Or are the forces converging against her on all sides simply too great for even Deidra—who has spent her whole life at the whim and questionable mercies of negligent and hurtful adults—to overcome? The answer may surprise you.
But, in the end, it is definitely worth hanging around to find out.