I’ve read a couple of books lately about middle school and they’ve really hit the nail on the head with their portrayals of these kids!
It’s clear from his writing that this author has personal experience with middle schoolers. I’m not sure how a murder mystery ties in, but it makes for an entertaining read!
Juggling Kittens by Matt Coleman
Ellis Mazer is a soon-to-be father, a first year English teacher, and a directionless twenty-something entering the directionless 2000-somethings. Local and national tragedies feed Mr. Mazer’s seventh graders the essay fodder that almost makes his job bearable. But when Spencer–trailer trash with more ring worms than friends–stops coming to school, Ellis discovers that he may be the only person who even notices, much less cares. What begins as a good-natured attempt to deliver some make-up work tumbles headlong into a quest deep into hillbilly noir in an attempt to verify that there is still some good in what appears to be a crumbling world.
Ellis is partnered with The Drew–full-time assistant principal, part-time private detective. He and The Drew explore the shadows and calluses of backwoods Arkansas to find that Spencer’s disappearance is directly linked to the disappearance of a little girl. And it doesn’t much feel like anyone wants the truth of what happened to either kid to emerge. Even Ellis is unsure of how much he cares. He only knows that in order to believe in his ability to be a husband or father, for some reason, he must find Spencer.
Among the swirling depravity of society, the crippling panic of impending parenthood, and the mounting scrap heap of seventh grade essays, one Arkansas town sees two kids go missing. Ellis Mazer only wants to find one of them. And if he can pull that off, he might not ever become a good teacher, but he might at least become a good person.
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Now, though my set-up earlier might make it sound suitable for a younger audience, this is definitely a dark novel. There are grisly portrayals of violence and several vulgar characters, although they provide much of the humour, so it’s not your typical murder mystery (which still isn’t necessarily suitable for younger audiences but this one really isn’t). It begins more as a narrative story, following one man’s first real teaching job, but we quickly slip into the dark underside of this quiet town and all the goings-on that are ignored by most of its inhabitants.
I was first drawn to this book because of the comedic aspects, but again it’s dark comedy so this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I really enjoyed the jokes throughout, especially those of The Drew, who has an unnatural ability to whip up comebacks one after the other. I loved the nicknames he had for Ellis, which were constantly changing from one moment to the next. I could never be that quick with jokes and it always impresses me (even if he’s fictional!) when someone is that good at it!
I’d say some of the humour reached absurd levels but it suited the story. Ellis is somewhat of an outsider in Ruddy Creek and much of his time here is spent trying to navigate this wacky town and its confusing mesh of characters. The set-up of the writing allows the reader to share in Ellis’ confusion as several times he speaks directly to us, letting us in on the joke or just commenting on what has happened. It’s not a traditionally narrated piece but the occasional broken fourth wall works to let us see more of this character and really understand his side. I included one of those moments below (not to worry, no spoilers!):
“Captain Awesome wore really tight t-shirts which appeared to be bedazzled, and blue jeans with back pockets that snap. His hair was spiked up with enough gel to – I don’t have the energy to finish that one. He wore a thick silver chain with a cross. That’s enough, right? That’s got to be enough.” (p. 112)
What I enjoyed most though were the themes driving the plot (and which were almost purposefully hidden behind the laughs and horror, only to spring up and make you rethink everything). The main one was set up with the dedication, “To all the students I allowed to be invisible…and to all the teachers who never let it happen to me.” Quite a powerful statement to start off with.
While it doesn’t seem to be a concern of Ellis’ initially, this struggle to ensure no student falls through the cracks is what motivates much of his attempt to track down Spencer. The work of a teacher is much more than teaching the curriculum, though possibly more by choice than job requirements. The author’s comments throughout on helping these students, and oftentimes failing them, provided much more depth than I was expecting out of a humorous thriller. It’s one of those books that will likely leave you thinking long after you’ve read it.
I did enjoy this book but there were some things that prevented me from giving it a higher rating. The main reason was its consideration of POC characters. There is only one POC in this novel, specifically mentioned by the characters, and he is stereotyped and degraded by the others in the book. He’s written and described as the base of humanity, more so even than the main villain of the book, and only ever referred to in relation to his race. While Ellis does comment on this unfair portrayal of the character, perhaps as a way of commenting on small town life, it doesn’t make up for only having one POC and using derogatory language as this book does.
I also had some issues with other characters, though not to the same extent. As Ellis is a middle-school teacher, there are several middle schoolers as characters and in real life kids this age are quite awkward. However, some of the ones in this book felt like they were written older than their years and their dialogue was too mature to fit with what I know of this age.
Overall, I liked the story and it’s a great book if you’re looking for a darker spin on the mystery genre, with some comedy thrown in. But the characterization, especially of the POC character, did not sit well with me so that’s where it lost some stars for me.
About the Author: Matt Coleman works in the fields of writing and education. His short fiction has appeared in various journals and web publications such as apt Literary Magazine and Shotgun Honey. He also spent three years writing for The City Life Supplement, a comedy podcast. JUGGLING KITTENS is his debut novel. He has spent fifteen years in public education and is currently a school improvement specialist in Texarkana, Arkansas, where he lives with his two daughters, two rescued dogs, two rescued cats, and a fish who refuses to die.
Thank you to the author for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
All opinions are my own