I’ve realized how to know when I’m reading a book I’m just not that into. When I find myself playing Words With Friends for 30 minutes instead of reading, I know that the book I’m reading has just not enthralled me. That’s how I knew that I was loving “Surface Tension” by Mike Mullin; I couldn’t put it down. I started the book in the morning and had finished it by evening. I read every spare minute because I was dying to know what was going to happen next.
Mullin is no neophyte author, but in this story, he’s gotten a perfect combination of sympathetic characters (even the one who should be so easy to hate) and a gripping plot. It’s about Jake and Betsy, two teenagers who have lived in the same city but are worlds apart in terms of how they were raised and their life views.
Jake was raised by his single parent mom because his dad died when he was young. She does the best she can, but there isn’t a lot of money. His joy in life is bike riding, and he’s been competing competitively. His girlfriend is Laurissa, a young black woman, and her father is extremely wealthy, so she has been raised with advantages Jake didn’t have. The other main character is Betsy. Her father is a white supremacist who thinks that by creating acts of terrorism and blaming Muslims, the repercussions will become stronger and will gain increasing support. Her father and his friends hate diversity, and they are actively fighting against it.
The reader meets Betsy in the first chapter. And talk about starting with a hook? The first two sentences in the book are:
“Twenty-five minutes from now a plane will crash. I’ll watch about a hundred and fifty people die.”
In the second chapter, the reader meets Jake. He’s practicing on his bike and riding an eight-mile loop he calls the cornfield loop. On a quiet road where he rarely even sees a car, he’s surprised to see a tanker parked alongside the road. On his second loop around, he sees more tankers. But it’s what happens on the third loop that starts the action of the story and the non-stop thrills that Jake and Laurissa become a part of.
The story is narrated alternately by Jake and Betsy. Betsy has her own problems, including a mother who disappeared from her life many years ago. She really wants to find her mother, but her father isn’t inclined to help. Betsy’s goal in life is to help her father so that she becomes an important part of his organization — even if getting into it means she has to kill Jake, who has been a witness to the plane crash.
Kids and adults will find that the more they read, the more they care about the two young protagonists. It will be a book that will be very difficult to put down. But it’s a very thoughtful book — and especially important in light of what is going on in our world. It seems that the book was written with many recent atrocities in mind, most notably Charlottesville, where a neo-Nazi actually ran down a protester. It’s about the lengths to which fascist groups will go to foster hatred and violence against minorities and anyone who is different.
Truly a book for our times, this one should be required reading in middle school English Language Arts classes. It’s appropriate for older middle grade readers as well as young adult (and adult) readers. This would be a fantastic choice for a mother-daughter book club or any book club. And while this book has a definitive ending, Mullin makes it obvious that for at least one character, the adventure is far from over.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Tanglewood Publishing and SoCal PR for review purposes.