High & Dry by Sarah Skilton
Genre: Young adult contemporary
Publisher: Amulet Books
Release date: April 15 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
The nitty-gritty: A tantalizing mystery, an unreliable narrator, high school hijinks, and one of the worst fictional high schools I’ve ever run across.
When you find yourself tied up in the chem lab supply closet, surrounded by jars of formaldehyde, about to be maimed by a microscope-wielding thug, it’s a pretty good indication that something in your life has gone wrong.
High & Dry was not at all what I expected. I knew from reading Sarah’s first book Bruised that I would most likely love it, but I honestly didn’t pay much attention to the story synopsis before I started reading. This is always the best approach that I’ve found to reading if you don’t want to have your expectations squashed. In any event, I was surprised and delighted by this book and the sarcastic narrator whose life is more or less falling apart. High & Dry is a comedy of errors, as one unfortunate event escalates to another. Skilton’s dialog is some of the best I’ve ever read. Not only does she really understand the way teens talk, but her dialog is snappy and natural. The most surprising thing about this book, however, was the way the author depicts high school. Now, I understand that this is a fictitious school, set in a fictitious town, but I hope places like this don’t really exist. More about that later, because I have lots to say on the subject.
It’s Charlie Dixon’s senior year of high school, and his future is set. He’s planning on attending the local college where his father works, so he’s not scrambling around stressing out about college applications like his friends are. But Charlie’s life is less than perfect at the moment. His girlfriend Ellie has broken up with him, for no reason that he can see, and it’s ruining his life. He can’t concentrate on school and he’s been drinking more than usual.
One evening he decides to crash a party to talk to Ellie about their break-up, but after drinking way too much, a girl named Bridget insists on driving him home. The next morning Charlie finds out he’s been framed for the near-overdose (LSD) of a girl who was at the party. Now he has to prove that someone else dropped the girl off at the hospital (someone who “borrowed” his car). Not only that, but Bridget has blackmailed Charlie into helping her find a lost flash drive. With a large cast of characters who are also looking for the flash drive, it’s all Charlie can do to locate it first, try to get Ellie back, and graduate from high school before his life implodes.
High & Dry was a fast-paced caper with so many twists and turns it made me giddy. Skilton really knows how to pace her story, and just when you think you know what’s happening, she turns the tables on the reader and takes things in another direction. This book could also be called “The Journey of a Flash Drive,” because much of the plot concerns various characters trying to find the flash drive first—obviously there is something very important on it.
Charlie is a difficult character to love—at first. But I quickly grew to appreciate his snide remarks and sarcastic approach to looking at the world. His entire world is shaped by the fact that Ellie has broken up with him, and he’s suffering terribly because of it. He drinks all time—clearly he’s an alcoholic—mostly to dull the pain of being rejected. But he puts on a stoic face at school. He’s a star on his soccer team, or at least he’s developed a reputation for being aggressive and sometimes violent on the field. And because of soccer, he’s a well-respected senior. But Charlie has a vulnerable side, and it turns out he’s also got scruples. When he catches an old friend breaking the law, he manages to step up and do the right thing.
One of my favorite side-plots involves Charlie’s friend Ryder. Charlie and Ryder have drifted apart over the years, but they are forever bound by a poignant moment during a baseball game when they were younger. I loved the emotional impact their relationship had on the story, and how Charlie is unable to see Ryder as anyone other than the boy who helped him that day on the field.
I also loved Charlie’s grandfather, who is unfortunately the person who has taught Charlie how to drink (by giving him a flask for his birthday and offering to fill it up for him whenever Charlie visits), but who is also one of the few people in Charlie’s life that understands him and accepts him as he is.
But as much as I loved this book, I was completely thrown off guard by Skilton’s portrayal of Palm Valley High. I’m sure there must be schools like this somewhere, but I fervently hope my own kids will never have the terrible experiences that these kids have. The school’s social structure seems to be built on a bullying system, where freshmen who don’t belong to one of the groups on campus are fair play for upper classmen attacks. (And when I say “attacks,” I mean they beat the shit out of the freshmen.) Groups like the “songbirds” (choir kids), “poms” (cheerleaders), “beckhams” (soccer players) or “chekhovs” (lit freaks who study Chekhov) are safe havens, but if you don’t have a group, watch out. Worst of all, the adults at this school seem to be either oblivious to what’s going on right under their noses, or they simply don’t care. Comparing this to my own kids’ school district, where something as innocent as shoving another student in the hallway can get you kicked out of school, you can see why I find this educational environment hard to wrap my head around. And don’t even get me started on why none of the teachers seem to notice that Charlie shows up at school drunk.
But as much as I hate the thought of bullying, I couldn’t help but love the story and the characters anyway. There is a tinge of noir to High & Dry—mostly in the way Charlie narrates—like these favorite lines of mine:
“I glanced down to where her curves seemed to be inviting my hands on a date.”
“She looked like a sad girl in search of a tragedy. I could steer her toward mine, but it would cost her a finder’s fee.”
Skilton’s California desert setting plays nicely with Charlie’s feeling of always being thirsty—both literally and figuratively, and when the play-on-words of the title hit me, all I could think was, BEST TITLE EVER! We eventually find out exactly how Maria, the girl at the party who winds up in the hospital, was dosed, and I have to say I learned more about LSD than I ever wanted to know! High & Dry ends on a reflective note rather than an action-packed ending, but I thought it was perfect. If you love quirky, multi-layered stories, High & Dry will surprise you too—in a good way.
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.
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