Little Brown: New York, 2013.
Zoe has a secret that she's only able to share with her pen pal, Mr. Stuart Harris, a death row prisoner in a Texas prisoner. He's the only one that she feels can understand, and time is running out to share her story with him. She's drowning under the weight of her guilt, and writing to him in the dead of the night in her parents garden shed is the only thing that helps her keep treading water. She fell for one brother, won the heart of two, betrayed them both, and killed one. Her family is struggling with their own load of guilt, in-fighting, and bitterness, and fraying at the edges. This epistolary tale is initially bleak, yet it is gripping and hopeful. The emotions are real, as are the problems. Though sometimes our protagonist can come across as a little self involved, it is recommended and will be an easy sell with girls ages 13-16.
Despite the hugely depressing premise, and my natural inclination to be like, "Okay, teenage drama queen, you unreliable protagonist you - let's not blow this confession out of proportion, but DUH. Love triangles are never a good idea," I grew to really enjoy reading this book. Sure, Zoe totally meets this description. But there's enough redemption and understanding that builds through the story to understand why she feels terribly responsible. Any sophisticated reader will figure this one out, but it's not so much the story as the exploration of how things can go so wrong and how we can find redemption and forgiveness that makes me want to recommend this title. I'd say go for it, even though Zoe is kind of thoughtlessly cruel to Mr. Harris with her blunt statements like:
"I'm less brave than you, so don't feel too bad when you go for the lethal injection, which I wouldn't worry about, because when my dog was put to sleep it really was peaceful" (5)
Or this one, which I'm having a lot of trouble swallowing, to be honest:
"All I can hope is that I'm wrong about Death Row and there's a friendly inmate in the cell next to yours. I'm crossing my fingers that he's a chatty rapist who knows a few jokes as well." (57)
Maybe it's gallows humor...but it's a little tasteless, especially that second line. It does prove a point later though, when Zoe become more attached to and supportive of Mr. Harris, increasingly familiar (addressing him as Stu), voicing her dismay over his imminent expiration date, etc.
There are other redeeming qualities, like Dot, who is Zoe's deaf 5 year-old sister. It's kind of great to both acknowledge the difficulties therein, but to show that Dot is totally healthy, happy, delightful, and thriving. I also loved the descriptions of a culture similar to but different from American culture; Guy Fawkes day you guys! If you can stomach my earlier quibbles about Zoe's initial callousness and are okay with the appearance of teenage drinking (remember, this is an English import, and it's a slightly more socially acceptable behavior with our colonial masters), check this one out.
If you've read this and are in need of a warming hug, and/or a book club recipe, I did some cooking inspired by the title/cover art, which I'm calling Cloud Soup, but which is actually probably better dubbed Roasted Cauliflower and Eggplant Soup. It's making miso hungry (recipe joke, self low five).