This month’s challenge – to read a book with an arrow on the cover – was picked by my co-founder Chloë (from SSJTimeLord and Her Books), who is an archer, and therefore I’m almost certain that she meant “arrow” in the bow-and-arrow sense, but one of my favourite things about the LSH is that the challenges can be interpreted however you choose. 🙂 I did give the fantasy section a quick browse for archers when I arrived at my local library, but after not-very-much-time spent searching (during which the only relevant book I found was Fire by Kristin Cashore, which I already own, and have read several times…), I moved on to the YA shelves, in search of something more contemporary. At which point I stumbled across an interesting-looking book, which was absolutely covered in arrows. 😛
Nick Dane has a relatively ordinary life: He finds school boring, but gets decent grades, he has a good – if sometimes annoying – mother, and some really great friends. Then one day, he comes home to find that his mother has overdosed on heroin and died, leaving him with no immediate family to rely on, and in a mess with Social Services. He’s eventually shipped off to a place called Meadow Hill – a Boys’ Home with a stellar reputation – but he quickly comes to realise that it’s not as great a place as it seems on paper, and he has to deal with hazing, an abusive house-master, and the seemingly-friendly deputy headmaster, Mr. Creal.
This book isn’t my usual fare – this amount of criminal activity (and stealing in particular, which is something that happens a lot in this book) is somewhat outside my comfort zone – but I found that I really enjoyed this book. I started reading on Sunday evening, expecting to get through maybe about 100 pages or so, and ended up staying up until the small hours of the morning in order to finish it; the story and writing were both incredibly gripping, and the rather chilling situation that Nick found himself in was also very thought-provoking.
I wasn’t immediately sold on Nick as a main character (he initially seemed rather arrogant, ungrateful and opportunistic), but he grew on me a lot. I spent much of the first third of the book with an ominous sinking feeling that life was going to get very unpleasant for him, very quickly – and once it did, I was a little bit overwhelmed with a kind of horrified sympathy for him. His more redeeming characteristics also come over a lot more as the story goes on: He’s bright, and incredibly loyal (if temperamental), and always looks out for his friends.
His friends at Meadow Hill I also liked a lot: Oliver was an intriguing mystery, and Davey was a really fun counterpoint to all the rage and hurt that this book has to offer. I also liked Jenny – Nick’s mother’s best friend – a lot, and his uncle Michael was an interesting character, too. The book’s villains – Mr. Creal and Mr. Toms – were wonderfully hateful, and even Jonesy (a less pure-evil-type villain) was legitimately terrifying at times.
Overall, this was a really great read, full of (very) gritty realism; interesting, sympathetic (if not always likeable) characters; and hard-hitting themes – it made me think about a lot of topics that I don’t often consider, and feel a lot of powerful emotions. The writing was fast-paced and engaging, and had me hooked almost from beginning to end. I’ve knocked off a star only because I felt that the epilogue-style ending was rather rushed; there was just a huge amount of material crammed into a few short pages. I also really would have liked to have found out more about what happened to Oliver, but I suppose that’s also a realism-thing; you don’t always manage to keep track of everyone in your life…
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