Friday, July 29, 2011

SHELTER by Harlan Coben (from the ARC, due September 2011) from Penguin Canada, 304 pages

You may be familiar with Harlan Coben’s protagonist Myron Bolitar, the Manhattan-based sports agent turned exquisite bad-guy ass-kicker, in his crime fiction series. In SHELTER (Coben’s YA debut) Myron acts in loco parentis for his estranged teenaged nephew Mickey, who is trying to accommodate the very different losses of his parents in his life: one to accidental death, the other to addiction.

For a while it seems as though Mickey’s complicated life is improving, until his new girlfriend Ashley goes missing and he is drawn into a nefarious circle to try to find her, a seedy underworld where it is uncertain if he will be able to escape. When he sees the legendary Bat Lady for the first time, he is creeped out by two facts: she calls him by name and tells him that his father “is very much alive.” But, standing there, bearing witness, Mickey knows that “what she was telling me wasn’t true. Because I had seen my father die.”

Navigating the social hierarchy of a new high school is another challenge that Mickey faces, and he ends up making genuine friends with a goth girl called Ema and a geek he nicknames Spoon, “outcasts who… had been sitting alone for so many years that it wasn’t so much cruelty as habit.” Because Spoon’s dad is a janitor at the school, he has access to keys that will enable them to snoop for clues that might lead them to uncovering the secrets behind Ashley’s enigmatic disappearance.

The title gestures to missing pieces: The Abeona Shelter in Africa, an NGO from which Mickey’s dad Brad resigns in order to provide Mickey a chance to call “one place home” and “pursue his passions, especially basketball;” and, Mickey’s predisposition to protect the disenfranchised. As a tattoo artist tells him, “You, like Ema, have a pure spirit. You have blessed energy centers and true balance. You are a protector. You look out for others. You are their shelter.”

If you know a reticent teenaged reader, then SHELTER is the book you need to thrust into their hands. Coben’s authentic depiction of high school foibles, rife with recognizable bullies and jockeying for social status, will have them feeling right at home and the breakneck twists and turns of the narrative will have them flipping pages right through to its satisfying end.

In this first of a YA series, Coben will hook a new generation of readers with his trademark wry humour and masterful plotting as they cheer on courageous 15-year-old Mickey Bolitar.

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