Framed for a stranger’s near-fatal overdose at a party, blackmailed into finding a mysterious flash drive everyone in school seems anxious to suppress, and pressured by his shady best friend to throw an upcoming game, high school soccer player Charlie Dixon spends a frantic week trying to clear his name, win back the girl of his dreams, and escape a past that may be responsible for all his current problems.
Quick recap for those who haven’t memorized my reviews from time immemorial. Last year, I read Bruised by Sarah Skilton and was floored by how much I loved it. Straight contemporary fiction, especially those involving issues, is not my thing. NOT. MY. THING. But Ms. Skilton completely drew me in to Imogen’s world, and I enjoyed my stay immensely. So of course I wanted to read High & Dry, and of course I was terrified that Ms. Skilton wouldn’t be able to keep the magic going. But she did. Not only did she SURPASS my love for Bruised, but she inspired me to sit down and write a gushy email immediately after finishing, which I almost never do.
High & Dry is Charlie’s story. Charlie is a boy adrift in Palm Valley, a dusty, dead-end town known for its high winds and the school system his mother designed. He’s stuck with two well-meaning but disconnected parents who talk about him instead of to him, a best friend whom he hasn’t really spoken to since middle school, and the perfect girlfriend who just became an ex. Charlie is so many things, but the most impressive thing that he is is genuine. Ms. Skilton NAILS Charlie’s voice. He feels right. From the first chapter, even before I knew about Charlie’s life and his problems, I could settle comfortably into his skin and feel the doom trickle from every pore.
When the story opens, Charlie thinks his biggest problem is his ex-girlfriend Ellie. All he wants is to win her back. But when he drunkenly charges his way into a party she’s attending and the next day finds his car’s been used to drop off an attempted murder victim, he finds out just how wrong he was. Not only does Charlie now have a vested interest in finding out who tanked local drama geek Maria Salvador’s brain with a batch of bad LSD, but also his other ex Bridget is blackmailing him to help her find her missing flash drive. It’s a mess for Charlie, but it’s a fun mess for the readers.
Honest to goodness, I felt like I was in a dual-mystery Nancy Drew computer game, and it was awesome. Charlie skulks around Palm Valley interviewing suspects with a scowl on his face and a flask in his hand and at one point literally makes a list of everyone he talks to with their respective motives and pertinent questions.
When it comes to interrogating people, Charlie really is the best person for the job. As his high school’s next-best beckham (soccer player), Charlie has the authority and connections to facilitate meetings with members from other groups. Whereas most other high schools have strong but unspoken cliques, the kids at Charlie’s school take their factions seriously. Joining a group as a freshman is the only way to keep from being harassed and bullied all four years. There’s safety in numbers; to pick on one is to pick on all. Or, as the drama kids phrased it in a scene that made me giggle between my fingers:
Charlie Dixon, you will fall!
An attack on one is an attack on all!
Trust me, when you get there, you’ll giggle, too.
The drama group isn’t the only game in town. There are the beckhams (soccer players), cleats (football, I think), lincoln-douglases (debate), songbirds (choir), and a whole host of others. Some, I suspect, might find the concept laughable, but I thoroughly enjoyed not only learning about each group and how it fit into the ecosystem that is Palm Valley High School, but also how their various members intersect with Charlie’s cases.
From Bridget, a songbird, we learn about fellow songbird and LSD victim Maria Salvador and her arch-rival Maria Posey.
“We call them Sound of Music Maria and West Side Story Maria. If we’re feeling generous, that is. Most of the time we call them Maria and Other Maria.”
“Why don’t you call them by their last names? That’s what guys would do.”
“Because then no one would feel bad.”
Cherkhoffs, journos, arts kids, and more pop into the story to offer Charlie information, misdirection, promises, or threats. Around and around it goes as seemingly distinct groups twist and weave through each other like the strands of mystery that make up High & Dry‘s plot.
High & Dry is a classic mystery with shifting pieces that spiral tighter and tighter toward the resolution as everything comes together, but it’s still a contemporary book with issues at its heart. Through it all thrums Charlie’s sense of doom and his overwhelming thirst for… well, everything. For the alcohol that numbs him, for the soccer fame that eludes him, for the girl that’s left him, for the peace and direction that evade him, he thirsts and thirsts and thirsts.
She was my water, the thing I’d been thirsting for, the thing that would save me. But how do you hold onto water? It never stops moving. It flows away, it changes shape, it returns to its source. It evaporates.
I’m still thinking about High & Dry long after I turned the last page. Charlie, Ellie, the Marias, and Charlie’s friend Ryder (whom I want to hug to pieces) have carved out a space in my heart. There are so many things I still want to say about this book—what it has to say about loyalty, ownership, responsibility, right and wrong, and the screwed up state of American education. And Ryder. Always Ryder. But, alas, I have gushed enough and this review is at its end.
TL;DR? READ THIS BOOK.
Favorite Non-Spoilery Quotes:
I’ve played soccer long enough to know that it wasn’t exactly what you’d call fair. There’s no objective reality to it. The ref either sees you foul someone or he doesn’t, and if he doesn’t, well, it’s like it never happened. I’ve pushed guys out of the way and flatout stolen the ball, and they’ve done the same to me. Everyone does it at some point. Were you offside? Doesn’t matter—unless the ref saw. Did the ball bounce over the line into the box and then bounce back out? Doesn’t count as a goal—unless the ref saw.
“So you and Bridget spent the better part of last night and early morning texting each other questionable messages?” Mom asked.
“I think it’s called ‘sexting,'” said Dad. It was the worst sentence uttered in the history of my life.
The idea was to anger the drama kids, not hurt any of them. I’m not a deer hunter. I decided to prey on their most basic, cherished fear. “This play sucks! No one likes it. Not even the junior high bloggers will review this lame excuse for a Moliere,” I yelled, and chucked tomatillos at the stager, over, under, and past the ducking, traumatized performers in French aristocrat costumes.
Points Added For: Ryder, very few clearly white hat/black hat characters, the consistent themes/motifs, the school’s factions, Charlie’s secret geeky passions (esp. his car Amelia), the classic mystery feel, the shifting pieces, Charlie’s authentic voice, an ending that is happy but not TOO happy.
Points Subtracted For: Charlie not knowing what “snow” is (c’mon, man). I’m also not sure Charlie got enough of a smack for how he treated Ellie.
Good For Fans Of: Authentic male narrators, contemporary books with issues that won’t drag you down, mysteries, these books according to Goodreads.
Notes For Parents: Underage drinking, drug use, making out, innuendo, language, off-page sex.
Note: I received a digital review copy of this title from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.