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Tim Wynne-Jones begins his novel, The Uninvited, with wild Mimi Shapiro, a college freshman from New York City, driving north to escape a romance gone sour. On the back roads of Ontario her mini-cooper is chased by a dog and she swerves to avoid two farmers talking through the windows of their trucks. When she finds the old house that her father owns, a place that is supposed to be empty, it is occupied by Jay, a young musician. Mimi, a brash city girl, flounders in a rural world she never knew existed. The house only gets dial-up internet and people commute in canoes. Wynne-Jones writes
[Mimi] was afraid, suddenly, that she might cry again. Did the Canadian border guards mysteriously strip you of your chutzpah once you crossed over?
The Uninvited ticks right along in snappy prose as a mysterious stalker at the bucolic farmhouse breaks in to steal and leave strange messages. Chapters in The Uninvited alternate between the voices of three young people, Mimi, Jay and Cramer, a hardworking local. It’s cleverly constructed so the reader knows more than the characters do and the suspense builds to a suitably dramatic climax.
Bug Boy doesn’t have the smooth prose of The Uninvited but its chock full of details about horse racing in Depression era Saratoga Springs. Jack Walsh is an exercise boy on the track. The scrawny fifteen year old cleans out stables and keeps the racehorses in shape. By saving everything he earns and sleeping in a stall he can send money home to his destitute family. Luper does a good job contrasting the wealth of the “fat cats” who come to Saratoga to bet on the horses and the staff behind the scenes.
In the beginning of the book a shady character offers Jack a small fortune if he will hide a sponge up a nostril of a favorite horse, throwing an important race. When Jack declines, the man roughs him up, and keeps coming around the stables. Later an accident promotes Jack to bug boy, or apprentice jockey, and a beautiful and wealthy girl takes an interest in him. Jack says, “As she heads back to the grand stands, I realize that, even wearing fancy high heels in the rutted dirt, Elizabeth still struts better than a world-class sprinter.”
Before Jack can race he has to make his wiry body even lighter and drop ten pounds in two days, down to 106. Vomiting, a rubber hot suit and endless running and calisthenics get him close to collapse. But he’s all business when he gets on a horse and a series of wins brings him attention and money.
Of course this is horse racing and as Jack says, “low things happen around the track all the time.” Jack’s success unravels in the last race of the season. As he pounds down the track on the back of Fireside, the favorite, he realizes how he’s been duped and that his career at Saratoga is over.
While both The Uninvited and Bug Boy are targeted for teens, I must admit I enjoyed their quick pace and young protagonists. YA, or Young Adult, literature has its super stars—the Twilight series and Harry Potter for example—but less well- known authors are also producing good books. And some of those books are set in our own backyard.