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Can I Get A Witness?

Kelly Loy Gilbert's Conviction is a stunning look at two very different forms of the word.

Can I Get A Witness?

BOOK REPORT for Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert

Cover Story: You Have The Right To Remain Minimalistic
BFF Charm: Big Sister
Swoonworthy Scale: 6
Talky Talk: Hit and Run
Bonus Factors: Patty Chase Award for Awful Parenting, Law & Order, Baseball, Central Valley, Tasty Business
Anti-Bonus Factor: Terrible Lawyers
Relationship Status: If You Do Not Have A Reader, One Will Be Appointed For You

Cover Story: You Have The Right To Remain Minimalistic

This cover is a great example of the minimalist cover trend sweeping YA: mostly text, with some graphic elements to add interest. I love these covers—not just because I don’t want to take an embarrassing stock-cover-hand-holding-staring-longingly-into-each-others’-eyes deal out in public, but also because they’re giving the actual young adult reader some credit, too. This one is particularly fantastic, with the blood-red background and the tagline in the car’s headlights.

The Deal:

Braden is an extraordinarily talented high school baseball pitcher, son of a famous Christian radio talk show host, and little brother to Trey, who left years ago. They’re getting by, and Braden’s future looks bright—until the foggy February night his father runs over and kills a police officer. Was it an accident?

Now Braden’s life is in chaos: his father is in jail, facing the death penalty, his distant and angry older brother has reappeared to take care of him, and the trial looms ahead. Braden is the key witness—and what he says on the stand will be crucial to his father’s fate. On top of it all, the officer’s nephew is on a rival baseball team, and Braden dreads the day they’ll come face-to-face on the field—let alone in the courtroom.

Kelly Loy Gilbert has written an astounding novel about the strength of one’s own conviction, in the face of a legal conviction, which will keep you guessing until the end.

BFF Charm: Big Sister

Braden needs a hug, dammit, and I don’t mean the facile “God has a plan, you and your father will get through this” type from Braden’s church community. His life has not been easy—his mother is not in the picture, his brother left him and his father as soon as he could, and his father is a grueling personal baseball (and life) coach—but he somehow has made it through all this to be a kid with a lot of integrity and grit. (Even if he thinks otherwise.) The poor kid keeps looking for signs from God that everything will be okay, and trying to live up to his end of an impossible bargain. I spent the entire book wanting to adopt him (and get him away from his father’s terrible defense attorney—but more on that later).

Swoonworthy Scale: 6

Romance isn’t the focus of this story, but there are some sweet moments with a girl Braden is crushing on. It’s a welcome relief from the tension permeating the rest of the plot.

Talky Talk: Hit and Run

Gilbert’s prose switches between spare and sharp, to dreamy ruminations on baseball, the almond-orchard-dominated Central Valley landscape, and abusive family dynamics. You really get the sense of being inside Braden’s head; even though you, as an adult, will spot his father’s issues from a mile away, Braden’s struggle to deal with what life has in store for him seems real and visceral. 

Gilbert particularly shines when she writes the dialogue between Braden, Trey, and their father—their father’s casual cruelty has different and breathtaking effects on both of the sons.

Bonus Factor: Patty Chase Award for Awful Parenting

I only use this as a bonus factor because Gilbert does it brilliantly: slow reveals that uncover more and more subtle-to-outrageous parental abuse. Braden normalizes it all, because it is all he has ever known.

The conviction that Braden’s father instills in him is also his Achilles’ heel; he has to reconcile the moments of love and comfort with the cruelty and stringency that punctuate his life. Even when others try to save him, his loyalty remains true—but will it ever be good enough for an abuser? And is that abuser redeemable?

Bonus Factor: Law & Order

There is a real dearth of legal system books out in the YA world today. Apocalypses and the supernatural are horrific—but so is being part of a criminal trial, whether you’re the accused, a witness, or a victim. Gilbert plumbs the depths of what it is like to be an unwilling star witness in a trial that has gained national media attention, and it’s as real a demon as anything you might read in a fantasy novel.

I’m incredibly picky when it comes to the legal system in media, so it is the highest honor I can pay to say that there was only one time where I thought “OBJECTION!” during the trial procedure. Even then, I can see why it was written that way (and lawyers definitely get away with it in real life). (The trial also commenced extremely fast, considering it was a death penalty case, but it’s not detrimental to the narrative.)

Bonus Factor: Baseball

Baseball is…not my favorite sport, to say the least. Therefore, this is the highest compliment: Gilbert made me care about baseball, through Braden, and her haunting prose. I particularly loved this quote:

“…I thought about how there won’t ever be a time when I get up on a mound and all this doesn’t haunt me, doesn’t reach me, doesn’t come rising up again with every pitch. How baseball is a game you play with ghosts.“

Bonus Factor: Central Valley

Like Heather Demetrios in I’ll Meet You There, Gilbert captures the essence of living in the Central Valley of California perfectly. Though their two styles and stories are different, the curtains of tule (pronounced two-lee) fog, the dust, and the smell of cow are a hallmark of this heavily agricultural and conservative area. While Demetrios made it almost enchanting in its own way, as her protagonist found something to stay for, for Braden, it is smothering and limiting. (Having grown up there myself, I can vouch for both being valid perspectives.)

Bonus Factor: Tasty Business

Trey, Braden’s older brother, has started his own restaurant in NYC. He makes elaborate and amazing meals as if they are nothing; as someone who loves to cook (and eat) ridiculously fancy stuff, the descriptions of Trey’s meals—especially one memorable dinner—made me swoon.

Anti-Bonus Factor: Terrible Lawyers

This is another one of those books, like I’ll Meet You There and The Passion of Dolssa, where I am absolutely convinced it was written specifically for me. (Allow me to introduce you to the Jennie-centrism Theory of YA Literature. Step aside, Copernicus!) Not only does this book cover a trial in the Central Valley, as mentioned above, but there is a Terrible Defense Attorney. Having previously worked as a criminal defense attorney, nothing sends me into a rage faster than someone who regards clients as a notch on the resume instead of human beings. That is exactly what the defense attorney here does. From the moment he suggests the female prosecutor got her job because of her looks, I hated him, but when he starts providing Braden with some seriously shady study material, I wanted to reach through the book and strangle him.

I guess this anti-bonus factor is also sort of a bonus factor because, as with everything else in this book, Gilbert does it so well. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to stick a “Hey kids! Don’t worry, #NotAllLawyers! I hope you never have to deal with this crap, though!” bookmark in every copy I can find.

Casting Call:

Younger Ben McKenzie as Braden

Logan Marshall-Green as Trey 

Sorry-not-sorry for not being able to get the image of Trey Atwood from The O.C. out of my head while reading this book (which made it really easy to pick an actor for Braden!).

Pretty-in-Pink-era Harry Dean Stanton as Mart 

Harry Dean Stanton would totally nail the part of the mercurial Mart, Christian talk-show-host and man with a temper too big to hold in.

Relationship Status: If You Do Not Have A Reader, One Will Be Appointed For You

Book, you had been fervently recommended to me by a fellow book-clubber, and it wasn’t until I saw that you were on Kindle sale that I thought “now is the time.” You brought me straight out of a reading slump, and now I can’t believe it took me this long to read you. As penance, I will be pushing you on every single reader I know. ALLOW ME TO BE YOUR BIGGEST ADVOCATE.

FTC Full Disclosure: I bought my own e-copy, and then I bought a hardcover, too. I received neither money nor a pet unicorn for writing this review, despite how hard I wished for one. Conviction is available now.

Conviction is the FYA Book Club Selection for May 2017!

Jennie's photo About the Author: Jennie Kendrick lives in San Francisco and has an excessive fondness of historical fiction, spreadsheets, turquoise sparkly things, and bourbon. When she's not reading, writing, or writing about reading, she cooks obsessively, runs an Etsy shop, and thrifts for vintage everything.