I received an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
A long history with drug addiction means this isn’t the first time Percy’s mother has disappeared, but that doesn’t make Percy worry any less. When she receives a tip on where to find Carletta, Percy braces the oncoming snowstorm to get her mother home. She doesn’t find Carletta, but she stumbles upon Jenna, a neglected baby, and has to brace the biting cold, her almost-step dad’s sarcasm and the gun-wielding drug dealers on their heels to get Jenna to safety.
Sweetgirl isn’t what I’d usually look out for in a bookstore, but the description caught my interest, so I requested it on Netgalley, and I wasn’t disappointed. After the bad luck I had with ARCs at first, I’m kind of amazed that this is my second five star ARC in a row. Mulhauser’s writing is clean and atmospheric and will weave a web of icy roads, gritty characters and a spark of hope around you. It’s rare that an author’s writing really immerses you into the setting of the book, but this is one of those cases. I felt like I was trudging through the snow storm with Percy and Portis, but – more impressively – I felt with the “villains” of the story. From Percy’s perspective, I had to fear them right along with her, but once I got into Shelton’s head, I understood what made him tick – at least a little.
Percy’s mother, Carletta, isn’t present throughout most of the book, but she’s always on Percy’s mind, so we get to see quite a bit of their relationship. I really liked how Mulhauser described both the good and the overwhelmingly bad parts, because it made me understand why Percy still cared so much about her mother. One of the crucial moments of the book for me was when Portis states that Percy used to be Jenna, because Carletta wasn’t much better at caring for her child than Jenna’s parents were for her. Percy doesn’t react to it much at the time, but it makes you realize that Jenna has the potential to lead Percy’s life – maybe worse – and why it’s so important for Percy to save Jenna and to realize she needs to save herself too.
One of my favorite things about the book was Portis and his dramatic and yet hilarious and articulate replies to Percy’s comments. It brought some light and comedy to a dark subject. There were aspects of Portis’s character I didn’t like at all, but I couldn’t help but like him. I wouldn’t classify this book as humor by a long shot, but it definitely had its moments. I also enjoyed Percy’s voice a lot. I knew I was going to like the book when I read this part:
I pushed through the drifts, but of course the snow found a tiny crease of skin beneath the boot lining and decided to pile up there and rub me raw. And that’s the problem with the winter in Cutler County – it’s not so much the cold, it’s the fact that at some point the ass kicking feels personal.
Percy isn’t fearless like the blurb suggests – but she’s brave and obstinate. I can’t say I agreed with all of her decisions, but I understand that she’s a 16-year-old in a tricky situation and doing the best she can. She and Portis were both clever and witty, so of course I liked them and rooted for them and Jenna all the way.
The majority of the book deals with Percy’s attempt to get Jenna to a hospital and away from her parents, so she has a fighting chance. While there was a lot of suspense and adventure, I would have been slightly disappointed if that had been all the book was trying to say. Luckily, Mulhauser brings it all together at the end – why it was so vital for Percy’s own development to get Jenna to safety, the consequences of drug addiction and the importance of not only saving others, but saving yourself. The writing, the characters, and the pacing all worked for me, so I might even buy a physical copy of the book, so I can push it at friends and ogle it on my shelf.
If you like gritty fiction and the blurb intrigues you, you should give this book a try. I haven’t read a lot of other books in the genre, so the only book it reminded me of was Survive by Alex Morel, because that also features hiking through snow under bad conditions, but it’s also quite different. I think even if you do happen to have read a lot of similar books, you’ll like the writing and the characters though, so I’d say give it a try! Five cupcakes.