Speed of Life by J.M. Kelly
Portland-born writer J.M. Kelly calls Canada home now, but she uses the Rose City as the setting for her new Young Adult novel, “Speed of Life.”
For identical twins Crystal and Amber, though, Portland is more like a bed of thorns. They live in poverty with their mom and stepdad, a dog named “Bonehead,” and their baby, Natalie.
Like many twins, they are very close. Even after one of them accidentally became pregnant during their junior year in high school, these tough emergent women made a plan and vowed to stick to it: They’ll finish high school, move out of the dumpy rental where their folks are behind on the rent, and build a better life for themselves and Natalie through hard work and determination.
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Crystal is the narrator of this story, which takes place in their senior year of high school. As if caring for the baby weren’t enough, a couple more developments threaten to foul up their plan.
First, Crystal’s job as a grease monkey at a local gas station/body shop was going OK, but she got scheduled for fewer hours; her boss is bringing in his rich nephew who needs work experience before college.
Second, Amber still hasn’t entirely reined in her penchant for partying, and she’s been having trouble keeping up with her schoolwork, so Crystal has to pitch in to help her.
That’s about when the school’s new guidance counselor calls Crystal into her office to tell her she has the grades to consider going to college. This has never been on Crystal’s radar. She rejects the counselor’s advice, telling her that she already has a plan for after she graduates, and that’s to work as an auto mechanic.
But a seed has been planted, and when the counselor follows up with news of a four-year college that offers a degree in automotive restoration, that seed germinates and begins to grow. It’s such an audacious idea that Crystal knows the chances of its happening are close to nil, so she doesn’t mention it to Amber. But before she knows it, she goes from avoiding the topic with her sister to equivocating and finally to outright lying.
Meanwhile, Amber has some ambitions and setbacks of her own that she doesn’t share with Crystal. Even though their plan for the future requires that they stick together, the sisters are beginning to define their own identities, and are growing apart.
This book nails the alienation, aimless parties, low-income jobs and survival tactics of kids living in poverty with few options. But this is far from a depressing tale. Instead, it shows how people can make a difference in one another’s lives as well as their own. It may be through an act of kindness, or a brave step taken. It may be pushing back when someone tries to do the wrong thing.
Although “Speed of Life” has some pacing issues in the second half, that doesn’t diminish the overall appeal of this story.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com.