The Hideaway, by Pam Smy, (Oct. 2021, Pavilion), $19.95, ISBN: 9781843654797
Pam Smy follows up her wonderfully chilling novel Thornhill (2017) with The Hideaway, which looks at themes of abuse, toxic masculinity, families, and forgiveness. Billy is a 13-year-old who cannot live in his home any longer. He feels guilty about leaving his mother to her abusive boyfriend, Jeff, but he is unable to bear hearing him hurt her and unable to live with this man any longer. He sneaks out one night and takes refuge in a small hideaway at a local cemetery, where he meets an old man who’s cleaning up the cemetery for an upcoming special event. The old man promises to keep Billy’s presence a secret for a couple of days while Billy works things out, in exchange for some help in cleaning up. Meanwhile, at Billy’s home, as his mother searches for Billy, she also finds the courage to reach out and ask for help – something she’d had drummed out of her until now.
Pam Smy breathes incredible life into her characters. Grace, Billy’s mother, is a strong, smart woman who learns to take back her power, discovering that asking for help is the first step in recovering that power. Billy is conflicted, a victim of trauma who escapes for his own sake, but struggles with the guilt of leaving his mother behind. Supporting characters steer the two toward good decisions, never forcing either into actions they aren’t ready to take. Billy addresses toxic masculinity by throwing off Jeff’s verbal barbs about “manning up”, and takes action when he sees a potential assault in the cemetery one night. Grace remembers that she had the strength to go it alone with Billy once before, and is fully prepared to do it again. Pam Smy creates moody, ethereal landscapes with her black and grey illustrations. The event that Billy and the old man prepared for unfolds over several pages of pure illustration, which will grab reader’s hearts and hold on, staying with them long after they’ve closed the book for good.
The Hideaway is just a wonderful story; a visceral family story with a touch of the magical. See more of Pam Smy’s illustration work at her website. Don’t miss her Instagram, either.
The Cresswell Plot, by Eliza Wass (June 2016, Disney-Hyperion), $17.99, ISBN: 9781484730430
Recommended for ages 14+
Castella Cresswell is a 16 year-old living in rural upstate New York with her 5 siblings, her disabled mother, and her father, a religious zealot who believes that everyone except his family is evil and doomed to Hell. To keep the devil away from his family, he limits their interactions with other people; the kids go to public school, because they must, after a previous visit from Child Protective Services, and he insists that the siblings will marry one another in the afterlife. He’s even matched them up accordingly. I’ll let that sink in for a sec before I continue.
Castella is caught between loyalty to her family and the desire to be a normal teen, going to parties and having friends. She’s increasingly unsure about her father’s prophecies and revelations, and she just wants to save her siblings and break away from their controlling, abusive father. Her siblings have mixed emotions about Castella’s actions and ideas; whether they stem from truly being brainwashed by their father or being fearful of making waves, we never quite get: I expect it lies somewhere in between.
The Cresswell Plot is a book you sit down to read, and don’t move until you’re finished. It’s a fast read, it’s a disturbing read, but there were parts to the story that were missing; chunks that I feel could have made for an even more compelling read. I wanted more background on the Cresswell patriarch, and an entire suplot feels glanced over, really needing more development. The characters were all on the verge of being fully fleshed out, but missed nuances that really would create fully realized personalities. More conservative readers will find the subject matter – domestic violence, child abuse, references to incest – disturbing.
I enjoyed The Cresswell Plot, I just wanted more of it. I’ve heard this book compared to Flowers in the Attic, but I found more in common with Lisa Heathfield’s Seed.
The Dogs, by Allan Stratton (Sept. 2015, SourcebooksFire), $16.99, ISBN: 9781492609384
Recommended for ages 12+
“Mom and I have been on the run for years. Every time he catches up with us, we move to a new place and start over. But this place is different. This place is full of secrets. And they won’t leave me alone.”
Cameron and his mother are on the run from his abusive father. They make their way to their latest home, a broken-down farm with a history that no one wants to talk about. Their next door neighbor/landlord has secrets of his own, and he’s bullied by the kids at school who taunt him about the dogs they say haunt the farm. Tired of pulling up stakes at a moment’s notice and living an invisible life, Cameron is drawn to Jacky, a young boy he sees on his property. The thing is, Jacky isn’t there – or is he? Is Cameron imagining things, or is he talking to a ghost? What are the mysteries surrounding the house and the dogs, and are Cameron’s memories about his own past able to be trusted?
I love a good thriller, and The Dogs is one of the best ones I’ve read this year. Cameron, as an unreliable narrator, keeps the readers on their toes as he shifts between memory, imagination, and reality. The plot and subplots are woven together beautifully to give readers a creepy, often chilling, adventure that left me with a clenched jaw and the cold sweats. Stratton takes the mental and emotional toll that domestic violence takes on a family; the constant fear that a mother on the run deals with, and weaves them into a murder mystery, adding a dash of ghost story to the mix. There’s something for everyone here, and I can’t wait to get this book into my teen patrons’ hands. There are so many great topics for discussion here; I’m thinking of featuring this as a kickoff selection to a Teen Reads book club I want to begin this Fall.
Fight Back, by Brent R. Sherrard (2015, Lorimer), $9.95 CAD, ISBN:9781459408586
Recommended for ages 12+
Tyler has been his father’s punching bag for as long as he can remember. After his mother takes his younger sister and abandons him to his abusive father, he sustains a beating that gets him removed from the house and placed with his grandmother, who doesn’t really want much involvement in Tyler’s life, either. Tyler becomes a street kid, fighting and getting into trouble, angry at life, until his grandmother wants him out, and he’s placed into foster care with the Conway family, a husband and wife who’ve raised their own kids and open their home to Tyler.
While staying with the Conways, Tyler has no idea how to accept the kindnesses they give him. He’s afraid to open a birthday gift from them, so he sleeps with the box, not wanting the moment to end. Mr. Conway is finally able to reach Tyler by introducing him to the world of boxing. A former boxer himself, Wayne Conway is able to train Tyler to fight his problems and get his head clear in the boxing ring, not out on the street. With the discipline of training giving Tyler a new lease on life, he’s got the tools to fight his demons, but he has one last fight left – the one inside himself.
This is another great selection from Lorimer’s Side Streets line of Hi-Lo fiction. Tackling the gritty life of a street kid and examining the abusive environment that spawned him, Tyler is a sympathetic character that risks being passed through the system until someone steps up and cares. Teens may recognize themselves or friends and family in Tyler. Adults may see someone they know in Tyler, and step up to do something. Make resources available to teens reading this book, including information on domestic violence and programs that offer an escape, whether it be information on shelters, academic programs, or athletics. Know the teens in your life and get this book into those hands.