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Cultures Clash In Twisty Mystery For Young Adults

Cover: 'Reality Check'
Reality Check
By Peter Abrahams
Hardcover, 336 pages
HarperCollins
List price: $16.99

Read An Excerpt.

Author Peter Abrahams counts Vladimir Nabokov and Graham Greene among his favorite authors. Lily Gray/Courtesy of HarperCollins hide caption

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Lily Gray/Courtesy of HarperCollins

Author Peter Abrahams counts Vladimir Nabokov and Graham Greene among his favorite authors.

Lily Gray/Courtesy of HarperCollins

It's a comment on the sorry state of the American thriller that one of the most engrossing suspense novels of the year is a Young Adult title printed in large-font type. Thrillers increasingly fall into two categories: The author concocts an outlandishly grisly crime (psycho removes victims' spleens, say) to grab our attention, or cooks up a far-fetched conspiracy featuring an ancient Hebrew manuscript, Renaissance painting and/or the Vatican. Peter Abrahams does neither. Like his excellent and undervalued novels for adults (and his superb Echo Falls series for children), Abrahams' Reality Check is reality-based, character-driven and riveting.

Small-town Colorado high school football star Cody Laredo is devoted to his beautiful, brainy girlfriend Clea Weston. But Clea's rich parents don't approve of her romance with the D-student from the wrong side of the tracks, so they send her off to a New England boarding school where, one wintry day, she disappears.

Though the cops are on the job, stout-hearted Cody heads east to find his girl. Undereducated, inarticulate and athletic, he's a character straight out of Friday Night Lights who's about to enter the world of Donna Tartt, where effete kids drink brandy, edit lit magazines and throw around phrases in French.

Cody isn't pretentious or self-aware, which is not to say he's stupid. Part of the pleasure of this novel is watching an unworldly young man acquire a little sophistication and self-understanding while solving an agreeably modest, twisty mystery. His tools are determination, intuition and a random scrap of poetry, one of the few bits of learning he took from his high school English class: "Screw your courage to the sticking place/And we'll not fail." The way this rousing line from Macbeth (Cody feels the meaning, but can't name the source) directs both his inner journey and intrepid sleuthing says far more about the power of poetry than any prep school lit magazine.

Is this the best work Peter Abrahams has published? No. Abrahams' most dazzling novels are, in order, End of Story, Oblivion, Nerve Damage and The Tutor. But even second-tier Abrahams is smarter, sharper and far more richly rewarding than the latest fatuous gorefest or Dan Brown knockoff.

Excerpt: 'Reality Check'

Reality Check
By Peter Abrahams
Hardcover, 336 pages
HarperCollins
List Price: $16.99

It was dark when Cody woke up, and for a few moments he didn't know where he was. He got up, felt his way around the room, parted curtains, looked out at the unfamiliar. On the other side of the wall, a woman was saying, "I've had it up to here with the bastard." Cody thought of turning around, going home, a thought he overcame after a minute or so. He took a shower, changed clothes, went to a diner across the street, where he was the youngest person in the place by far. Cody ate two cheeseburgers with sides of fries and cole slaw, drank a Coke, felt better. He paid the check, calculating the tip by doubling the sales tax, the way experienced restaurant-goers did it, according to Frank Pruitt. Taking his change, Cody realized he was still hungry and bought himself a KitKat, the biggest size they had.

By dawn — a gray, colorless dawn and the New York State Thruway cutting endlessly through brown scenery — he was hungry again. Just past Syracuse, he took a pit stop. He gassed up, bought coffee and muffins, found an ATM and withdrew another $400, leaving a balance of $946 — not bad. A school bus parked beside his car just as he was getting back in. Some kids who looked about his own age gazed down. A window slid open and a girl called out, "Hey, Colorado!" And behind her another girl said, "Take me with you." Balancing the tray with coffee and muffins, Cody glanced up at them, couldn't think of anything to say. "Are they all as cute as you in Colorado?" the first girl said.

"I'm the cutest," Cody said. "They threw me out." Hey, all of a sudden thinking of something to say.

The girl looked surprised, then started laughing. "What did he say?" said the other girl.

Cody got in his car, rolled back onto the Thruway. The kids on the bus seemed a lot like the kids at County High. He felt good to be out on his own, crossing all these states. Just another driver on a long, long road: If he didn't screw up, no one would care about his age or anything else. It was a free country.

Cody left the Thruway in Albany, continued east on a smaller road that slowly rose into greenish-brown hills. Just as he crossed into Vermont, the sun came out, and the hills grew prettier, if not quite so nice as the mountains back home. But as he turned north, the hills got taller and nicer, took on all sorts of interesting, rounded shapes; and he realized he'd never seen anything like this; every size was just right, if that made sense. Cody went through a beautiful little town with a village green and a white church, and then a few more, even more beautiful. At 1:07 — Cody noted the exact time — he drove into North Dover, the most beautiful of all.

He went down a road lined with tall old trees and big old houses, came to a main street, parked by a café called the Rev, a cool place, you could just tell. Cody got out of the car, intending to ask directions to Dover Academy. He paused; he'd been out of touch: Was it possible Clea had turned up, that everything was all right? He reached for his cell phone, about to try her number, but as he did, heard a drone from the sky. Cody looked up and there, over high wooded hills to the north, saw a helicopter flying low. That answered both his questions. He got back in the car.

From Reality Check by Peter Abrahams. Copyright © 2009 by Peter Abrahams. Published by HarperCollins. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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