Amulet Books: 359 pp., $16.95, ages 14 and up
When it comes to sex and drugs, teen interest and parental tolerance tend to run in opposite directions. Simultaneously titillating and taboo, alluring yet off-limits, underage sex and illegal drug use are an irresistible combination that is a sort of calling card for Lauren Myracle, a young adult author who has not only topped the New York Times bestseller list with her blunt depictions of modern adolescence but also the American Library Assn.'s list of most challenged books for "ttyl," "ttfn" and "l8r, g8r," a trilogy written in text messages.
Myracle's latest, "Shine," continues to trade in the forbidden. It just does so in literary prose, following a 16-year-old girl as she attempts to solve an antigay hate crime in a small North Carolina town where methamphetamine use is rampant and illiteracy and unemployment rates run even higher.
"Shine" is dramatic in both content and presentation. Its end pages are jet black, a not-so-subliminal indication of the novel's dark subject matter. Before Chapter 1 has even begun, that subject is revealed with a newspaper clipping. Seventeen-year-old Patrick Truman has been beaten and bound to a guardrail outside a convenience store with an antigay slur written in blood across his chest. Patrick was well known in his hometown of 743 residents for being "light in his loafers" or "swishy," as some of the townspeople called him. The question at the center of "Shine" is, who would beat him bloody with a baseball bat and leave him for dead?
There isn't any family to demand justice, because Patrick is an orphan. And the sheriff of Black Creek doesn't seem inclined to find the criminals. That leaves Cat, who had been Patrick's best friend three years earlier but had "dropped him cold" along with the rest of her friends in the summer after eighth grade because she had been sexually molested and decided to retreat from the world.
Cat's quest to bring Patrick's aggressor to justice is also the story of her decision to embrace rather than hide from what happened to her. "Ugly things … had to be dragged into the light or they'd keep growing," Cat says, as she begins to understand over the course of a story told from her perspective. Cat's mother died when she was 2, and her dad is a drunkard: Serving as a surrogate parent is a churchgoing aunt who avoids life's inconvenient truths, including Cat's molestation and Patrick's homosexuality.
Myracle, however, looks those truths square in the eye, revealing the small minds that occupy this tiny, impoverished town and its inhabitants' motivations. Although Cat is the narrator, she isn't the one who's talking trash. She's merely relaying what she's seen and heard. Her narrative is otherwise intelligent and emotionally evolved as she gathers knowledge about Patrick's beating and reveals details of her own assault.
Cat has an older brother, but he's part of a group she calls "the redneck posse" — a pack of motorcycle-riding, moonshine-drinking bad boys Cat had been avoiding since her sexual assault. The posse started acting differently after Patrick's assault, and Cat is determined to find out why. Bravely confronting her demons, Cat finds out more than she'd imagined: that several of the boys in the redneck posse have been running, dealing or using meth. Myracle gives readers a bird's-eye view into the inevitable destruction of body and soul that goes with drug use.
To adult readers, the details may seem a bit heavy-handed. But for its intended teen audience, this scared-straight tactic could be sobering. "Shine" is, at its core, a morality tale about fear — and the power of knowledge to overcome it.