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by Cornelia Read
Grand Central Publishing, January 2008
336 pages
ISBN: 044658259X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Oh damn. There was me being all high and mighty and saying I wouldn't review books by people I knew. But that's another resolution down the pan when confronted with THE CRAZY SCHOOL. As I'd probably slag off my own grandmother's book if I didn't like it, you'll have to trust me that I'm an impartial reviewer!

Cornelia Read's A FIELD OF DARKNESS was a blow your mind debut novel. THE CRAZY SCHOOL is even better. It's witty, it's dark, it's disturbing and it will stick in my mind for ages.

Madeline Dare, the ex-deb main character from A FIELD OF DARKNESS, is even further down on her luck. She and husband Dean have escaped the rust-belt small town where Madeline was earning a pittance on a local newspaper. The Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts look far more promising.

Except there's a hitch or two. Dean, who's been working on the railroad, has designed some rail grinders that the railroad company want to put into production until the San Francisco earthquake puts paid to any money in the budget for things like that. So Dean is pacing the apartment, unemployed, and Madeline is teaching at the Santangelo Academy, a school for disturbed teenagers.

The regime there is terrifying, disguised, as it is as hippy-dippy therapy. What Madeline sees is both staff and students subjected to mental abuse (done with hugs and smiles, naturally) as directed by the bizarre Dr Santangelo. And when two suspicious deaths occur, Madeline and a small group of badly damaged teenagers are the ones fighting to find out the truth.

What made A FIELD OF DARKNESS an exceptional debut the feisty and funny voice of Madeline, combined with an eclectic supporting cast continues here with interest. Lesser writers than Read simply wouldn't have got away with what is in effect a character-driven book.

The crime plot is fine, incidentally, but it makes me wonder what Read would do if she broke out of the constraints of the genre field I suspect she'd soar even higher. In less confident and talented hands a lot of the dialogue would be smart-arsed and gum up the plot. Here it adds perfectly to the atmosphere. The only bit I have doubts about is the epilogue which shifts point of view rather abruptly and is almost too tidy.

The 1980s setting seems more obvious and appropriate here than it did in A FIELD OF DARKNESS. A knowledge of US history will help as well, although my sketchy background didn't feel too problematic. In fact, I enjoyed sitting in on Madeline's lessons with the pupils!

THE CRAZY SCHOOL is apparently based on truth. I read it with horrified fascination, like picking at a scab that you know is going to bleed and hurt like hell. This is one sensational book.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, December 2007

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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