“Gem & Dixie” by Sara Zarr

“Gem & Dixie” (Balzer & Bray 2017) by Sara Zarr is a story of two sisters who were once close, but now growing apart. Gem, the older sister has always taken care of Dixie, because their mother couldn’t even put food on the table and their father was absent. Now that they’re teens, Dixie is street-smart and popular, Gem is friendless and still trying to care for her family.

Zarr, a National Book Award Finalist, writes nuanced honest descriptions about relationships that are gripping. As Gem, she says, “[Dixie] wanted to pretend like Mom was another one of her friends, another girl with boyfriend drama and body issues and money problems who didn’t need to hear shit from anyone about how she should live her life.” Unfortunately, that’s what Mom think, too.

About Dixie, Gem says, “I stared, she stared back. For her it was a game. She thought I was trying to get her to look away first. But really it was me trying to see who I was through Dixie’s eyes, me wondering if she evaluated me and my face and clothes and body, the ways I made it through the world, like I evaluated hers.”

With so few strokes Zarr brings to life secondary characters such as Gem’s in-school counselor: “Mr. Bergstrom leaned back and put his hands behind his head. I liked that about him, how relaxed he could be like the only thing in the world that he had to do was listen to me.”

It’s rough having an absent father, but it can be worse if he returns. Gem seems to be the only one who views the situation realistically. But the ever-so-errant father leaves something behind that allows the sisters to go on a road trip near their Seattle home. The adventures and people they meet bring Gem to the realization of what she must do. “I couldn’t think who I was without Dixie to take care of, or Dixie to avoid, or Dixie to be mad at. Dixie to feel hurt by, Dixie to feel jealous of.”

When an author speaks this well, I think it’s best to let her do most of the talking—about her book. In spite of having a totally different background, I saw so much of my sister and me in these sisters. If you have a sister, read this. If you want to understand sisters, read this. And read anything else by Sara Zarr, as well. You won’t be disappointed.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com



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“One of Us Is Lying” by Karen M. McManus

High School student, Simon, created an app called “About That,” which outs his classmates of every mistake they commit—big and small. So everyone is afraid of him and, well, he doesn’t have a lot of friends, in Karen M. McManus’s debut novel, “One of Us Is Lying” (Delacorte 2017).

Simon and four of his classmates are held for detention by Mr. Avery, on charges of having their phones on them during school. The phones were planted on them. They’ve been framed.

But detention takes a terrible turn when Mr. Avery is called away and Simon starts choking, unable to breathe, and no one can find his asthma EpiPen. Simon is taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Left behind are two girls and two boys of differing demographics and descriptions.

Bronwyn, the brain, is the child of a wealthy Colombian businessman and caring mother who met at Yale where Bronwyn is set to go.

Cooper is a talented baseball player, part of the popular crowd, boyfriend to the gorgeous Keeley, with an overzealous lower middle-class sports-obsessed father, and caring mother.

Addy, a prom-queen beauty, is the child of a single-mother who has trained her daughters to catch a man. In Addy’s case that’s Jake, who’s pretty controlling. They’re equally attractive.

Nate is the guy with an alcoholic father and vanished mother, who is on probation for dealing drugs.

(I’m looking at this and thinking how the mothers here get a bad rap—or are at least subsidiary. But that’s not the story).

Simon dies in the hospital—so now what we have is a murder mystery, set near San Diego. Simon had the goods on all four of his classmates, and all four have secrets. How far would each of them go to keep his/her secret? And in spite of Simon being dead, social media keeps running a little more dirt on each of the four suspects, via “About That.” But Simon has gotten it wrong for one of the suspects. Information exists that would ruin the individual, so why hasn’t Simon, who seems to be omniscient, not have gotten that one right?

That piece of information can leave the reader/mystery-solver running down the primrose path. Throughout the whole book, you’re thinking, I’ve got it. Then a bit later, No, now I know who did it. But you’re not sure. This is why this is a best seller and being translated into 30 languages and was shortlisted for the National Book Award.

It’s being described as “The Breakfast Club” meets “Pretty Little Liars.” I think it’s better than that. It’s a page-turner supreme—not just for young adults, but for adults, too.



Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com



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“Spinning” by Tillie Walden


“Spinning” (First Second 2017) is Tillie Walden’s graphic novel memoir about living the disciplined life of a competitive skater. The story follows Tillie from a very young age to eighteen years old, and a move from one skating program in New Jersey to a less elite program in Texas, giving the reader a somewhat varied look at this competitive world.

Every morning young Tillie, unsupervised, gets up at 4:00 a.m., and makes her way by bus, in the dark, to takes figure skating lessons. After school there’s synchronized skating and on weekends there are competitions, which she frequently wins or places. At times, Tillie finds a certain ecstasy in skating. Plus it takes her away from being bullied at school and from tensions within her family. Her parents pay her fees, but no family member attends her competitions. There are rink fees that Tillie is unaware of and hasn’t paid and other skaters’ mothers cruelly bring this to her attention. It makes you wonder about this competitive world. Are the mothers more competitive than their children? Does competition promote cruelty?

Which is better? An aloof family or a hovering family?

The illustrations superbly show Tillie growing up over the years, as well as the emotional strain that she feels—without the whiz-bang-pow that is found in so many comics. One feels Tillie’s isolation, her sadness, her awkwardness. The drawings also show the beauty of the body skating, that only a skater/artist could depict so accurately. You feel the chill of the ice rink. You experience the odor of artificial freezing.

Each chapter opens with a specific skating trick and Tillie’s personal connection to it—such as “A camel spin is basically a spinning spiral. It was a dizzying move and always sent my glasses flying off my face.” Or flip jumps. “I loved flips. You would launch yourself in the air by slamming the tip of your blade in the ice.” The pictures show the moves.

You feel Tillie’s strength—both physically and emotionally. She seems to have little or no adult guidance, except from her coaches. Early on, she knows she’s gay. One of her early skating coaches is the object of her affection and perhaps this young woman is why Tillie continues skating. The coach cares about Tillie—really sees her.

Tillie finds her first girlfriend in middle school—which is very sweet—until a parent disrupts the relationship. The honesty of the story, without sensationalism of any sort, gives this book so much integrity. We see Tillie soar and fall, soar and fall.

As an aside, Tillie takes cello lessons, and eventually she’s able to confide in her teacher—another wise woman to whom Tillie gives credit. Along the way, Tillie finds art, which draws more of her passion than skating or music does—and for this, the reader can be grateful.

And all this from an author who is just now twenty-one years old. I feel certain we’ll be seeing more from the talented Tillie Walden.



Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com


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“Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds

Fifteen year old Will is burning to avenge his brother’s murder, in “Long Way Down” (Simon & Schuster 2017) by Jason Reynolds. Most of the novel-in-searing verse covers about one minute of Will’s life.

Will knows the rules of the hood: “No crying. No snitching./And always get revenge.” And those rules? “They weren’t meant to be broken./ They were meant for the broken/ to follow.”

His brother Shawn was shot on the playground. Of course Will is devastated. “Couldn’t hear nothing./Ears filled up with heartbeats/ like my head was being held/ under water.”

And: “In the bathroom/ in the mirror/ my face sagged,/ like sadness/ was trying to pull/ the skin off.”

So, Will knows who killed Shawn. He’s sure of it. He finds Shawn’s gun in his drawer, tucks it in the back of his jeans: “felt the imprint/ of the piece, like/ another piece/ of me,/ an extra vertebra,/ some more/ backbone.” Will enters the elevator on the seventh floor on his way to get to the basement apartment—to the guy who did it.

On the sixth floor Buck gets on. But Buck is dead. But he’s in the elevator, smoking. It turns out Buck gave Shawn the gun. He tells Will to check to see if it’s loaded. Will discovers one bullet is missing. Shawn must have shot the gun. Will didn’t know Shawn had ever taken a shot.

On the fifth floor a really cute teenage girl gets on. She knows Will. Or knew Will. It turns out she’s the one that got killed by a stray bullet when they were about five years old and together at the playground.

On each floor another person gets on. They’re all dead people. His father, who was killed in the neighborhood, following the rules. But then the next guy was going to follow the rules. And do you always pinpoint the right murderer? The chorus of ghosts consider this.

This moral thriller is a poignant look at teenage gun violence, Longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People, and on virtually all the “Best Books of 2017.”

Reynold’s author biography printed in the book is a heartfelt love letter to his readership, letting them know that he cares about them. First and foremost he is a young black author speaking to his young black readership. He addresses reluctant boy readers, saying he doesn’t like “boring” books either. He makes the point: if the books are exciting enough, boys will read them. The verse, besides driving the perfect percussive rhythm for the story, allows plenty of white space on the page and is highly accessible.

The story and the driving verse makes this a universal read.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com


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“I Believe in a Thing Called Love” by Maurene Goo

Desi, a smart nerd and president of her senior class, has never had a boyfriend in “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” (FSG 2017) by Maurene Goo. Desi’s attempts at flirtation are so disastrous, that her two closest friends, Wes and Fiona, call them “flailures”—flirtation and failure? Get it?

Her neurosurgeon mother died when Desi was quite young. Desi lives with her auto mechanic father, Appa. Both parents came to California from Korea before Desi was born. Desi works hard to make Appa happy, but it’s hard for her to understand why he’s smitten with Korean soap operas, called K dramas. Until she realizes that here is the formula for romance. So she analyzes them for the steps to snag a boyfriend.

Goo both honors and deconstructs the romance formula via Desi’s analyzed steps. The first three of twenty-four steps, which also become the chapter titles are: “1. You are the Living Embodiment of All That is Pure and Good. 2. Have a Sad-Sack Family Story. 3. Meet the World’s Most Unattainable Guy.”

Unattainable Luca, transfers to Desi’s California high school. He’s a gorgeous graffiti artist and his social media presence reveals his fame. Desi’s heart starts a-beating. None of this would work if it weren’t so funny:

Desi asks Luca for a ride home from school.

“He cleared his throat. “Uh, well, I don’t know if we live close to each other.”

“What! We both live in Monte Vista, how freaking far could I possibly be from your house.” . . .You’d think I’d asked him to make a colonoscopy appointment.”

Desi is no shrinking violet. She’s flighty, smart, funny—and smitten. The combination makes for a charming character. Her flailures are pretty extreme. She didn’t want to look like she was coming on to him so she wears baggy sweatpants when she joins Art Club, where she figures she’ll see Luca. At the moment she asks him a favor, her sweatpants fall to the floor into a puddle at her ankles. Of course she’s humiliated. And everyone, including the reader, is laughing. Even before she begins her ridiculous pursuit, Luca is charmed by nerdy Desi.

In not too long, Desi and Luca are a couple. Desi accompanies Luca when he illegally “tags” public property. Specifically, he adds to and deepens other taggers’ existing graffiti and the art sounds pretty amazing.

Of course Luca eventually finds Desi’s written list of steps and his high-integrity artist self freaks and drops her. Desi is devastated.

The story plays out exactly along the lines of the analyzed steps/chapter titles, but Desi is oblivious. Still, Desi has a lot of life outside the romance.

Along the way you get a contrast between Korean and American cultures—the meaning of a hug; Desi’s description of Korean class distinctions. One gripe: the gorgeous girl on the book cover is not the girl I read about. Desi has so much more going on than physical beauty.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com

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“Far From the Tree” by Robin Benway

“Far From the Tree” (HarperTeen 2017) by Robin Benway is a story of biological teen siblings, living separate lives, who find each other.

The book opens with Grace, 16 years old, who is giving up her own baby for adoption, just as her mother had given her up. Grace has gone through an agency and carefully chosen the family who will give Peach—as she calls the baby—a good life. Still she’s left with a painful, hollow spot in her body and psyche. Her adoptive parents to whom she’s an only child are terrific—warm and smart. Grace steels herself to return to school after the birth and is met by merciless taunts. She decides she will find her siblings, and maybe her mother.

Grace finds Maya who was adopted by parents who, classically, got pregnant once they cared for their adopted infant. So Maya has a sister, Lauren, 13 months younger than she with red hair like both her parents. Maya looks like the odd man out with black hair.

She is gay, which is a badge of honor to her liberal parents, which amazes the other siblings once they discover this. The bad news is, Maya’s parents are splitting up. In her confusion, Maya sabotages her relationship with girlfriend Claire. Maya protects herself with sarcasm, but she is also wise. “Maya had never realized how much power there was in loving someone. At first, she thought it was a source of strength, but she was realizing that, in the wrong hands, on the wrong day, that power was strong enough to destroy the very thing that had built it.”

Joaquin – the oldest at 17 has been in the foster system since his mother gave him up as a toddler. Twice he’d been adopted, but each adoption was short-lived, which of course is devastating.

When Maya reports that her parents put a rainbow sticker on their car, “Joaquin couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to swing with that kind of net waiting to catch you.” One foster mom found out Joaquin’s foster sister was gay and kicked her out. “Bio always trumps foster.” In another home the bio son decided which fosters would stay. Joaquin was out in a month.

Joaquin has good foster parents now, in fact they want to adopt him, but it’s his decision and he’s saying no. “To call Linda and Mark Mom and Dad on purpose would mean that Joaquin’s heart would form into something much more fragile, something impossible to put back together if it broke, and he could not—would not—do that to himself again.”

He breaks up with his girlfriend Birdie. She is confident, has life-plans and expects the world. And he’ll never be able to give it to her. No discussion, he just ends it. She’s furious, hurt, confused. But Joaquin is shamed by a violent act he committed years ago. We wait till the end to find out what he’d done.

This beautiful story of family and love is the National Book Award Winner for Young Readers—a wonderful read for adults as well as young adults.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com

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“What Girls Are Made Of” by Elana K. Arnold

By its name, “What Girls Are Made Of” (Carolrhoda Lab 2017) by Elana K. Arnold might be a women’s health book like “Our Body, Ourselves.” But it’s a novel. However, it could serve as a woman’s health guide. In no-nonsense prose we watch Nina with her first period, first gynecological exam, intercourse, abortion, and heartbreak.

What makes this book important? It’s a story about the erasure of women.

Nina watches her mother endure yearly miscarriages, marking each when her glass of vodka reappears on the dining table. Her mother says there’s no such thing as unconditional love—not even for mother and child. Mother is a beautiful rich iceberg, and a non-working art historian. Her father supplies his family with a luxurious (cold) house and all the trimmings. That’s his role.

Nina, 16 years old, knows that her boyfriend Seth’s love is conditional. Those conditions include: she may not call him (he’s rude) and they must have sex. Nina and her best friend have been in love with Seth since fourth grade, but Nina won him and dropped her friend to be with him.

Seth calls the shots—what they’ll do, where they’ll do it, and the music they’ll listen to. The reader knows that Seth is a jerk and Nina has a self-esteem issue.

Is the issue Nina’s background? Her not being unconditionally loved? But there are plenty of teenaged girls who are unconditionally loved by a parent, and yet their major job is pleasing boys. After all these years, how can this be true?

The very fact that this title has been short-listed for the National Book Award says this is an important work—a necessary read.

Before high school, when her parents attempted to break-up, her mother took Nina to Italy—a trip meant for the parents. Mother and daughter visited endless museums in Rome, Florence, and small villages. They viewed thousands of tortured virgin saints—her mother’s specialty. Nina sees paintings of women on the rack and suffering the pear. (Read the book). Nina sees sculpted virgins in a state of ecstasy visited by Angels.

Her mother says. “When people don’t have words to describe what they’re experiencing, they think it’s magic. Or mystical. Or God.” She explains, in this case, “It’s an orgasm.”

All of the Renaissance and medieval art is executed by men, of course.

It would be difficult for me to like Nina if it weren’t for her wildly imagined—though dark—stories. In one, a bird-girl lived in a nest. She “pulled a feather from her side . . .dipped its quill end in ink, and . . . began to write.” This marks the beginning of Nina’s path to empowerment.

It helps that Nina works in a dog rescue center, doing service that was once penance for a cruel school misdeed that we don’t discover until the end of the story. But that is depressing, too, as it is a high-kill shelter. A lot of realism here.

Give this book to the girl who needs to be empowered. Is that all girls?


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com



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“You Bring the Distant Near” by Mitali Perkins

Starting with the matriarch, Ranee Das in the 1960s, we experience three generations of Bengali women as they assimilate, having moved from India to Ghana to London to New York and beyond, in Mitali Perkins’ “You Bring the Distant Near” (2017). The novel includes fathers and spouses, but the story centers on each of the five complex, flawed, interesting women and her narration. Sister love is a strong component, but there’s also mother/daughter relationships, father/daughter relationships, and romances.

At the outset, we meet Ranee’s teenaged daughters, Tara and Sonia. In 1970s London Tara samples identities, first as the super model Twiggy, but when the family moves to New York she chooses an American persona. Sonia who craves reading and writing, becomes a feminist. It’s beautiful the way the sisters, who are so different from one another, act as a team as they navigate a new world together. We see each grow to womanhood and find a spouse. Their choices are vastly different leading to vastly different lives. Sonia falls in love with African American, Louis—another great character.

Tara’s marriage is a surprise to the reader, but I won’t spoil it here. Tara and Sonia each has a daughter which brings us to the present day. Marriages for the five happen outside and inside their culture, giving special views into Bengali and Bengali/American customs and food.

The situations and personalities feel so authentic you wonder how autobiographical the novel is. It turns out—pretty autobiographical. The author calls it a “memoir on steroids, with freedom to fabricate.” I’m pretty sure she’s Sonia in the novel.

In the story, Sonia has a daughter, Chantal, with Louis. Chantal is smart and athletic. Tara has a daughter, Anna, who is somewhat threatened by her older cousin, but as Anna comes into her own, the cousin relationship becomes a warm supportive sister-like relationship.

Fortunately we readers can refer to the family tree drawn in the opening pages, to ground ourselves as we read about the five “hyphenated” Americans.

Each character struggles with how she fits into the framework of assimilating from one culture to another; or Chantal’s experience of being bi-racial and of mixed cultures. Always the strength of the family serves as solid ground for the individual issues that each woman experiences. There is much more peace and harmony than conflict in this story, yet I was drawn to find out how things unfold, rather than what unfolds.

The character most transformed from beginning to end is the matriarch, Ranee Das. She is one of five great characters, but the secondary characters are also deftly drawn. I’d particularly liked to have known Baba, Sonia and Tara’s father and Ranee’s husband.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com

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“American Dream” by Ibi Zoboi

Ibi Zoboi does not shy away from the ecstasy of first love or the horrific violence of Detroit’s west side in “American Street” (Balzer & Bray 2017).

Teenager Fabiola Toussaint is on her way to Detroit from Haiti to find a better life, when her mother is detained by U.S. immigration on their New York stop. Fabiola, on her mother’s insistence, continues on to the home of her loud Detroit cousins known at school as the “Three Bees: Donna (slut); Pri (tough dyke); Chantal,” the wise one. Will innocent Fab become the Fourth Bee? Smart Chantal says, “If these girls think you’re scared and that you’re not gonna fight back, they will mess with you.”

Fabiola falls for the loveable Kasim. How you root for these two! But what might be best about this book is the turn of phrase. What great writing. What great insights, beautifully stated.

Here’s one about dancing. “A song I know comes on and my body obeys the familiar rhythm.” So right.

Here’s a couple about the magical realism. (Afterall, the protagonist comes from Haiti where vudu prevails). Papa Legba is known as a crack addict. He lives outside the family’s west Detroit house, which by the way, is situated at the corner of American Street and Joy Road. Fabiola, who sees Papa Legba as a conduit to God, describes him by saying, “something about the way he grins and that eye patch makes him look like he’s been to the underworld and back.” And: “His voice sounds as if it’s coming from the depths of dark, broken places. I can feel it in my bones.”

About her unformed thoughts, she says, “I open my mouth to say something, but my mind has not formed the words yet.”

About her life as it progresses in Detroit: “Creole and Haiti stick to my insides like glue—it’s like my bones and muscles. But America is my skin, my eyes, and my breath.”

About the rough life in Detroit: “I try to walk a path that’s perfectly in between. On one side are the book and everything I have to do to make myself legit, and on the other side are the streets and everything I have to do to stay alive out here.”

Dray is just one of the villains—and he’s rough and powerful.

About Haitian dictator Claude Duvalier: “This dictator was the heavy boot on our skinny necks.”

Back in Haiti, there was an abusive boss of teenage girls: “ . . . He would watch us while we worked. We let him look. Eyes are only dull blades, but hands are as sharp as broken glass.”

You get the idea. Fabiola is in love, trying to stay alive in a violent setting. At the same time she is working to get her mother out of the prison system. Why was her mother incarcerated? Her links to voodoo.

This heart-breaker is a National Book Award Finalist for 2017 and it should be widely read. Please do.


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com

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“Genuine Fraud” by E. Lockhart

Two girls—two orphans. Both are pretty. They kind of look alike. One is an heiress. One is a liar. The book starts with Chapter Eighteen. “Begin here:” you’re instructed. The book works from the end to the beginning in E. Lockhart’s thriller “Genuine Fraud” (Delacorte 2017).

Imogen, the heiress is the kind of girl who everyone wants as a friend—or so “everyone” thinks. She’s generous, until she’s not. When friends annoy her in some way—if they take her generosity for granted or become boring—she drops those “friends” like scorching hotcakes. Imogen refuses to be the girl that “everyone” wants her to be.

As a reader, I think we try to find our own experience in the stories we read. I know no one like Imogen. Or like Jule, for that matter. Are they out there? At Vassar or Stanford—the schools the two girls drop out of? It doesn’t bother me that I don’t know these girls. It makes me wonder about them all the more.

On Imogen’s dollar, the girls live in a posh flat in St. John’s Wood, London, then a sprawling house that Imogen purchases on Martha’s Vineyard. When they want to ditch Imogen’s boyfriend, Forrest, they jet to Culebra, a Puerto Rican island. On Imogen’s dollar they wear expensive dresses and sports wear. Jule is penniless. Class status is a feature of the story.

There are other friends, but Jule doesn’t want them around. She wants the irresistible Imogen to herself. Does Imogen prefer Jule to her boyfriend Forrest or is that just what Jule wants? It’s hard to know.

Jule begins calling herself Imogen, stays at five star hotels on Mexico’s coast, then she’s in San Francisco, then hiking in the wilderness. The settings are fabulous and the adventures are enviable—to a point. Jule’s mysterious past is revealed little by little. She’s fabulously agile, strong, able—she can fight. She imagines herself an action hero. Insecure, but proud of her athleticism, she can take care of herself.

            Jule is an unreliable narrator. Do you like her? And who is this Imogen? Part way through you’re pretty sure that you know how it’s going to turn out, or something about how it’s going to turn out, but how will we get there? I turned the pages at a rate, in spite of the violence, which I normally shy from.

Lockart’s book has been likened to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and the author acknowledges the influence of that story in her endnotes. Some readers even consider Lockhart’s story a rip-off. Even if she used one book as a model, I’m in awe of her

plotting and pacing. This is Lockhart’s story.

For me “Genuine Fraud” is not as successful as Lockhart’s “We Were Liars,” but few books are. “Liars” kept me spellbound and its end shocked me. For the record, Lockhart also writes picture books under the name Emily Jenkins. And those are pretty marvelous—and at times controversial.



Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com

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