Mainstream publishing, indeed anything devoted to mass appeal, depends on categories. There are, of course, subcategories, variations, and niches. These proliferate the further one travels from the center but they are, each and every one, labels devoted to a need for predictability. It’s why every town has a McDonalds: people are comfortable with the familiar. There’s less risk that way but, as is often the case when one reduces risk, the reward is reduced as well.
Jenny Pox is a risky book. It’s exactly the kind of book that requires independent publishing to thrive. It starts as a coming of age story. The main character, Jenny, is a high school senior in a small town. She plays the role, for a little while, of the oddball student who has been persecuted and mocked all her life for being different. There are some classic tropes here like the popular girl in control of the school who deliberately persecutes the main character, the high school jock who is both kinder and more intelligent than he seems, and the poor drunken father who needs his daughter to look after him. But Jenny’s quirk, the odd bit that has kept her permanently on the outside, is that she always wears gloves and the reason she always wears gloves is that she is poisonous. Her touch raises blisters and boils and, if continued long enough, kills gruesomely. She’s a walking font of pestilence and she’s the good guy.
No one but her father knows about Jenny’s problem, and it’s a doozy of a problem. It’s also just the beginning. One of the things I liked most about this book is the way it continued to defy my expectations. Each time I found myself expecting or predicting, the path twisted. Aha, I’d think, and then it would twist again.
That’s part of the risk here. I can’t pin it to a nice convenient genre for you. Coming of age, yes. Fantasy elements, yes. More than that, I can’t say. More than that, I won’t say because the surprises are some of the best moments. This isn’t a McDonald’s, or even a “burger joint.” This is some curious fusion restaurant that mixes tastes that you have to experience for yourself.
The book isn’t perfect. It has its disappointing moments and its rough patches. The most egregious is, unfortunately, the introduction when the author struggles to find an appropriate voice for a six year old Jenny. When she gets to high school, things get smoother (for the reader, if not for Jenny) and despite the occasional bump, the overall result is excellent. While I won’t tell you any more of the plot, I can tell you of the effect: intense. I hated, I feared, I worried, and I hoped. These characters go through the ringer and I went right along with them. It’s not a gentle book. It’s not clean or sanitized. I’m still not certain if I enjoyed the book or not, but I am certain that I’m glad I read it.
I won’t do something so foolish as to guarantee you will like it. I can’t. This is a risky book, but I believe the rewards are worth it.