Monday, July 15, 2013

Book Review: Mandatory Release

By Kathryn Hamilton

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to run into that one person you had a devastating crush on in high school? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work in a prison? These two questions would appear to have nothing in common, except that they are the backdrop for Jess Riley’s third novel, Mandatory Release. Graham Finch is a social worker in a medium security prison who spends his nights trying his hand at the world of online dating (which would probably be more successful if he didn’t hide a very big secret from potential partners). Graham’s world gets put on its side when he sees Drew Daniels, the girl he adored in high school, walk into the prison as the newest Special Education teacher. Both are painfully damaged for different reasons. Both are in need of rehabilitation of the heart. Can they be the salvation that the other needs? Will they let their self-imposed barriers get in the way of finding happiness?

One wouldn’t think that the often gritty setting of a prison would be inspiration for a chick-lit novel, but Ms. Riley uses her personal experiences and those of her parents (who met while working at the same prison) to create a unique and intriguing tale of broken people trying to find a way to heal that is thought-provoking and entertaining. One noteworthy aspect of this novel for me is the fact that it is separated into two narration styles: first person in the Graham chapters and third person in the Drew chapters. I know that this is not new in the literary world and is actually utilized frequently; however, I also think it is an interesting choice, particularly to have the male voice in the first person. I will admit that I didn’t know what to make of the alternating narrations and still am not sure I am a fan (I’ll also admit that I’m probably more of a traditionalist than I realized and need to think outside of the box when it comes to writing styles). Does the narration make or break the novel? No, of course it doesn’t. Readers are still aptly able to understand both characters and the circumstances that have brought them to this place in time. This may not have been the case had Ms. Riley only relied on one narration style, and it is essential that both of their stories are told.

How do you sum up Graham? He is brash, bitter and incredibly sarcastic. Although he has every reason to be bitter, I found it difficult to empathize with him, but also appreciated that he had such an in-your-face tell-it-like-it-is attitude. He is not unlikeable as a character though and one of his biggest redeemers is his compassion for the inmates and genuine desire to help these men. I was definitely more drawn to Drew throughout. As readers, we do not find out what happened to Drew that broke her heart so completely until near the end of the novel. Sometimes when there is a delay in discovering this kind of information, it is a let-down once the secret is revealed, but Ms. Riley does not disappoint. I was not expecting the situation that ended Drew’s relationship and it made me wonder how I would have reacted if it had been me in her position.

The prison and the inmates are important characters in the story as well. An underlying theme of the novel is that of underdogs and second chances, and the inmates certainly are the epitome of this. As individuals convicted of crimes, it is often difficult to see beyond the rap sheet; Drew herself struggles with this as she works with the men in the classroom, having read the details of their crimes. Drew does her best to demonstrate respect for the men as individuals and to help them open up doors upon their release so they can make the most of the second chance.

One of my favourite parts of the novel that isn’t actually part of the story is the playlist that Ms. Riley includes at the end. Music is such an integral part of our culture as it shapes so many memories and experiences for people. The description of why each song was included is an added perspective to the story and characters. And yes, I have downloaded many of the songs already.

Mandatory Release is described as a combination of lad lit and chick lit. It has elements of both that balance out and make for a good read that has laughter, romance (including a little sex of course), and great characters. Take a journey with Drew and Graham as they discover that to be truly happy, one must release that which holds you back.

Thanks to BookSparks PR for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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1 comment:

Jess Riley said...

Thank you Kathryn and CLC for such a thoughtful review!! I really appreciate it. :) (You all do such a wonderful job here, I'm honored to be included!!!)