Shine by Lauren Myracle

Things happened. Things changed. A girl full of light could get that light snuffed out, and when everything around her was dark, she could roll up in a ball and ignore the whole world, starting with her best friend.

I decided to read Shine by Lauren Myracle (Amulet Books, May 2011) because a few years ago I read ttyl and liked it. I hadn’t even read the blurb of Shine and expected something light and fun, um no. Since I’d only read one of LM’s books I wondered if her books were diverse, but someone on twitter said Shine was very different from LM’s other books. And I agree, Shine is amazing. It’s more like the books I usually read, full of angst and heartache, so I was quite at home, despite initially expecting something different. And Lauren Myracle has quite a way with her words, my favourite kind of author.

It was delicious telling secrets in the hushed privacy of the forest, where not even the sunlight could cut a path to the leaf-covered ground.

Shine is the harrowing tale of the brutal beating of Patrick because he’s gay. He’s left for dead at the Come ‘n’ Go gas station where he works, with a gasoline nozzle shoved in his throat and the words “Suck this, faggot” written on his chest in blood. Patrick’s friend Cat narrates the story of her search for who did this horrific crime. During her search for the truth she has to face the demons which have plagued her for the last three years. The story encompasses a myriad of issues: growing up gay in a small town with its ingrained homophobia; poverty; domestic violence; rape; drug abuse; as well as the mystery of who attacked Patrick. There’s even a slice of romance on the side.

Patrick and Cat grew up best friends, but when Cat’s narration begins a week after the crime, she’s been estranged from Patrick and her other friends for three years. Why, Cat is unwilling to admit, but it becomes apparent something awful happened to her when she was thirteen and she felt she lost everything.

I lost the strength to face the world head on. I lost my friends, I lost my brother, and I lost Patrick, which was like dying, since losing Patrick was nearly the same as losing myself. And what if Patrick never woke up? What if I’d lost him for good?

Cat finds it hard to even think about the event, thus can only allude to it in her narration,

it lurked in my heart…snapping its sharp teeth when I least expected it.

At one point Cat calls the little brother of a friend an unreliable narrator, but he proves more truthful than Cat. Her unreliability is not intentional but caused by her psychological distress at that past event and never having shared what happened with anyone, not even her Aunt Tildy, her main carer. Her mother died when she was two and her father loves his “sweet pea,” but he’s an alcoholic and lives in a trailer out the back.

LM weaves the past and present flawlessly. Despite being in a coma for the whole story, Patrick comes to life in the past episodes Cat recounts. I was constantly surprised by what she reveals, bit by bit, about her younger life as she talks to each member of the “redneck posse,” her name for Patrick’s group of friends which includes her brother Christian and the leader Tommy, who Cat hates. They were with Patrick on the night of his beating, but told the county Sheriff they left him at 1:30am, prior to the attack. Cat is sure they know more than they’re letting on, and she’s right, it’s just their lies aren’t quite what Cat expected, the truth being a lot more complicated than she (or I) imagined. I did wonder why what seemed such an easily solved crime took 350 pages.

LM paints a bleak picture of the tiny town of Black Creek: its dwindling population since the paper mill closed, the grinding poverty of most of the inhabitants, and the boredom leading to gossip among older residents and teenagers behaving badly. The drug use and its invasiveness came as much of a shock to me as to Cat. Being more worldly than Cat I know teenagers everywhere look for fun wherever they can get it.

I’d heard a saying about meth, that it took you down one of three roads: jail, the psych ward, or death.

Having a friend last year follow the third road, with meth a contributing factor, I found the story hard to read from this point and this review very difficult to write. But teenagers need the opportunity to read about drug use and the terrible consequences which may result. (Although I’m not sure the average teenage reader is as likely to become a tweaker as her classmates who don’t find reading appealing. Of course, I shouldn’t make assumptions.)

Shine includes characters who are straight edge, as well as those who overcame their addictions in different ways, thus the fourth road available is getting clean. While Cat is vehemently straight edge, one character had “gone clean for Jesus” (his ex-girlfriend rolled her eyes) and another saw how bad things were and wanted her life back. She still partied, “just no more hard stuff.”

Homophobia in all its hateful forms is insidious in Black Creek, including passing from one generation to the next. An 11 year old boy calling his older friend a faggot made me wince in horror, but the truth of children following those they look up to is sadly apparent. Patrick’s friends jokingly taunt him. At his work when he won’t sell alcohol to college kids with fake ID, they respond with abuse, “calling him a fag, telling him not to be so gay.” A gossiping church-goer says of the comatose Patrick in the hospital, “they didn’t stick him with them sick kids…He’s got a room all to hisself.” Cat knew she meant, “What if he turned those kids into faggots?” Even Gwennie, who has a crush on Patrick, calls clothes he wore “faggy.” Cat is deeply religious and is a welcome change to the stereotypical Christian who believes being gay is punished by God. Cat has known Patrick her whole life and knows he is a good person, her God would not send a person to hell for who they loved. She says,

I just don’t believe God would do that.

The denouement was a bit melodramatic for my liking, but it certainly ratcheted up the tension and I couldn’t put the book down once this scene began. The conclusion was very neat, leaving no messy consequences, which real life would have thrown up. I really should stop wanting absolute reality in my fiction, especially as there was a bit too much for me in the drug use.

The word shine and shining light are a recurring motif, cleverly interwoven in the story. LM’s dedication is to Sarah Mlynowski and Emily Lockhart “Your love is so bright, I have to wear shades.” A church-goer had hoped Patrick would “take a shine” to Cat and Cat’s favourite benediction is “The Lord bless you and keep you. May He lift His face to shine upon you.” “Goodness, rather than meanness, shone through” one character and another’s “smile shone on his face.”

Meet Maria T. Middleton

The book design of Shine mesmerized me. Before I read a word, I was an ardent admirer of Maria T. Middleton’s work. In the proof copy I read I saw the internal design and black and white version of the cover before the final cover and initially preferred the internal design to the cover. (I know this is backward. The internal design comes from the cover design, but this is how I came to the book.) The photos of a derelict house and empty road surrounded by grassy scrub looked so eerie in black and white and coloured what I thought the story would be; more spooky than its gritty reality. As I read, the photos reminded me of the (psychological) desolation of Black Creek and also the spaces empty of people that surround the town. I loved the repetition of these photos at the break between every day of Cat’s narration.

The bare branches of a tree with the single blossom from the cover adorn each chapter. This is the flower Cat will blossom into and on the black and white version of the cover in the proof copy, the flower shines with light. When I first saw the actual cover, I really disliked the colouring. I think it’s growing on me because I now notice the flower isn’t just red, but it’s shining with a golden glow at the petal’s gold edges. Now I just have to get used to the background colours. I want a bluer sky, it almost seems aqua to me, but I’ve never seen an NC sky, so what do it know?

I also love the font of the title, days of the week on the photo pages, and chapter numbers, Gor Light (was it chosen for its name?) The 2 is an upside down 5, but the 5 is slightly different from that 2 turned over, a little more squiggly at the top than the bottom of the 2. The last text in the book acknowledges Maria T. Middleton’s design and discusses the history of the text font, ITC Century Light (more with the shining light!?) I liked reading about its history and it’s not something I often see in a novel.

I just discovered MTM blogged about the design process for Shine yesterday. (So that’s why I waited til today to finish my review.) I didn’t know Shine started it’s life titled “Speechless,” the change in title was a good idea. Despite Cat being shy and in her shell for three years, during the story she had so much to say. MTM’s comps just got better as they went along. The final cover is definitely the best and I love it even more now, colours and all! And *swoon* the dust jacket is tactile, with a case foil stamp. Oh, I want it! (see below for why I don’t have this embossed delicitude *sob*)

Shine dust jacket

My first ebook

I read Shine on my ipad as an ebook of the proof from NetGalley. All those things I could do! that a paper book doesn’t let me. I could search, although this wasn’t as helpful as I wanted because I had to know the exact words written in the book.

I could highlight quotes and write notes about them – no more lost-their-sticky-post-it-notes falling out and me wondering where they came from. At a certain point I highlighted too many and bringing up the Bookmark list became a lot slower. Bookmarks could be ordered by date I last changed them or page number. I often added more to a bookmark’s notes as I read more, because I was constantly reassessing what I thought was going to happen – all those surprises Cat kept dropping in my lap. What I didn’t like about the bookmarks was when I went from the Bookmark list to the text and then back to the list; it showed the beginning of the list, not the bookmark I was up to. With 214 bookmarks, this caused a lot of scrolling to find where I was up to in the Bookmark list while writing the review. Also I couldn’t work out how to highlight a phrase across a page break and I had to write in the notes, “includes sentence on page before” or some such.

I thought ebooks didn’t allow pictures but because the proof was a pdf it had all the pagination and design elements of the hardback, including the newspaper articles about Patrick’s beating and photographs dividing the days. The publisher told me the Kindle edition also has all the design elements.

Due to the amazing book design I almost felt I held the actual book in my hands. I wouldn’t feel that so much with a book designed without pictures and beautiful fonts, but then I wouldn’t care about holding such a book in my hands. The distressing part is I will lose this beautiful piece of writing and art in two weeks *more sobs* I kind of wish I reviewed that truly divine hardcopy, so I could put it on my bookshelf (and then take it down to marvel at) but because I got the review copy from a US publisher, I wouldn’t have got to review it if the ebook wasn’t available.

And regarding Australia, I laughed out loud when (a younger) Cat said there was “no such place as Tasmania.” Guess they didn’t have a map of the world in class.