Welcome to one of the stops on the Raincoast Books blog tour for J.M. Kelly’s contemporary YA title, Speed of Life!
Read on for my thoughts on the book as well as a special excerpt from the novel!
Speed of Life by J.M. Kelly
Source: ARC courtesy of Raincoast Books. Thank you!
Publication: October 11, 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Twins Crystal and Amber have the same goal: to be the first in their family to graduate high school and make something of their lives. When one gets pregnant during their junior year, they promise to raise the baby together. It’s not easy, but between their after-school jobs, they’re scraping by.
Crystal’s grades catch the attention of the new guidance counselor, who tells her about a college that offers a degree in automotive restoration, perfect for the car buff she is. When she secretly applies-and gets in-new opportunities threaten their once-certain plans, and Crystal must make a choice: follow her dreams or stay behind and honor the promise she made to her sister.
You may already be familiar with author J.M. Kelly, a Canadian writer, as she has authored a few books under her name Joëlle Anthony! Her newest YA novel, Speed of Life, has been well-reviewed and received in journals ranging from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly to School Library Journal, and it is indeed a terrific addition to the genre of realistic young adult lit.
Speed of Life is told through the strong, candid and revealing first-person narrative of Crystal Robbins, a high school senior in Portland, Oregon. Crystal and her twin sister Amber live in substandard conditions with their mom and step dad (both of whom are arguably ineffective as parental figures and providers). Not only is their money, or lack-thereof, an ever-present consideration and worry in everything that the girls do- including juggling school, homework, working their part-time jobs as much as they can- Amber and Crystal also have a daughter to look after. Sharing responsibilities as moms to a bright and gorgeous baby girl named Natalie, Crystal and Amber do everything together and have planned to live together and co-parent Natalie after high school. That changes, however, when Crystal finds that her passion in life- the restoration of vintage muscle cars- might actually be a career that she can pursue with education beyond high school. While Amber is content to stay in Portland and work at a family-owned tavern full-time after graduation, Crystal starts feeling the push and pull of stepping out from Portland and her family’s name.
Crystal’s first-person narrative is such a great surprise: a memorable, wonderfully-defined voice, blunt and guarded yet full of reflexiveness and care. Kelly certainly puts her characters through multiple emotional and physical wringers throughout the course of the novel; you can’t help as a reader but to root like crazy that Amber and Crystal (and Natalie) find some kind of better-after for themselves. While the teen mom/teen pregnancy component is a major aspect of the novel, Kelly rather fascinatingly leaves the reveal of which of the twin sisters actually gave birth to Natalie until a late point in the novel. Another significant topic which Kelly broaches in Speed of Life is that of class and poverty, as narrated through Crystal’s uncompromising eyes. The introduction of a character named David, who becomes a co-worker and classmate of Crystal’s, and is from a relatively wealthy family, works especially to highlight the severe discrepancies that Crystal faces: not only as a young mom trying to pursue a non-traditional career but also as a young woman who is held back by financial limitations and missing parental support.
Overall, Speed of Life is a solidly written, thoughtful and weighty contemporary YA novel. It is a compelling read with well-developed protagonists that places characters in arduous, serious (and real-life) situations, but a read that ultimately proffers a lot of hope. Readers who tend toward the more uncompromising realistic YA novels, or who appreciate the writing of authors such as Sara Zarr, Jessica Martinez, Holly Goldberg Sloan, or C.K. Kelly Martin might especially enjoy J.M. Kelly’s Speed of Life.
Read on for an exclusive excerpt from Speed of Life!…
“If you could do anything at all,” Ms. Spellerman asks, “what would it be?”
What she doesn’t get is that I plan to do exactly what I want to do. It just doesn’t involve more school. As soon as we graduate, me, Amber, and Nat are getting out of this dicey neighborhood. First we’re gonna get a nice apartment, but someday we plan to buy our own house. That way we won’t waste our money paying rent. Amber’s going to waitress at the Glass Slipper, and Aunt Ruby’s going to teach her how to run the tavern so Amber can take it over from her someday. And I’m counting on Jimmy to give me at least forty hours a week at the gas station and garage. We know we can do it. We have it all worked out.
At least, I thought we did. Until yesterday, I’d always assumed Jimmy would be glad to have me full-time. Anger flares up when I think of his stupid nephew. Still, David won’t be around forever; he’s probably going to Yale or somewhere anyway. But I’m in it for the duration. Me and Amber know what we’re doing, but somehow I doubt Ms. Spellerman would agree. So I don’t answer.
“Miss Robbins?” She shuffles her papers some more. “You must have some dream. Something you love to do . . .” I’m starting to think she’s never going to let me go back to class if I don’t come up with something, so I tell her, “I like cars.”
Her smile brightens and then immediately fades. “Cars?”
I figure this answer will get me off the hook. Girls aren’t supposed to like cars, so this will make her think I’m a lost cause. “You know,” I say, sure she has no idea. “Working on cars. Restoring them.”
I shrug. “I wouldn’t mind doing an antique car sometime. But right now I’m mostly interested in muscle cars.”
Ms. Spellerman looks at me blankly.
“High-powered, two-door cars. Usually with a V8.”
I know she has no clue and probably isn’t interested, but she’s got me going now and I can’t stop. “I’m restoring a Mustang for me and my sister.”
Her eyes light up. “You have a Mustang? My brother has one.”
“Really? What year?”
She scrunches up her forehead. “I’m not sure.”
“From the sixties?” I ask. “Or the seventies?”
“Oh, no, it’s newer,” she says. “Maybe 2014?”
Big deal. I thought she meant a cool old-school Mustang, not a cookie-cutter one. I realize I’ve been talking too much. When we were freshmen, I discovered the best way to get through high school was to keep quiet with my head down. I zip my lips.
Ms. Spellerman sits there, smiling, waiting for me to go on, but I don’t. She tries to revive the conversation by faking interest. “What year’s yours?”
I’m a sucker for any questions about my car. “’Sixty-nine fastback. It’s pretty rough right now. I need to save some money to paint it. But I’ve overhauled the engine, and it’s a smooth ride.”
“You overhauled the engine?” she asks. “By yourself?”
“Well, I had help,” I admit. But not the kind of “help” kids like David get. I got grease under my fingernails, and I knew what I was doing. “I work at Jimmy’s Gas and Auto Repair shop. The owner helped me.”
“That’s very impressive.”
“I can’t wait until I can do the interior,” I say, while my head’s screaming at me, Shut up! My big mouth keeps going, though. “It doesn’t look perfect yet, but it’s never been wrecked.”
“Is that important?”
“Well, yeah. If I ever want to sell it, it’s worth a lot more if it’s never been in an accident.” Not that I would ever part with my Mustang.
“Well . . . that’s . . . great.” Ms. Spellerman stacks her papers and moves a file with my name on it off to one side like she’s not sure what to do with me. No one’s supposed to come into a guidance counselor’s office and say they don’t want to go to U of O because they’re going to work on cars. But then she brightens. “I’m pretty sure the community colleges offer mechanic courses.”
Be sure to check out some of the other stops on the tour!
I received a copy of this title courtesy of Raincoast Books in exchange for an honest review and for the purposes of this post. Speed of Life excerpt is courtesy of Raincoast Books. All opinions and comments are my own.