Jenny Pox
J.L. Bryan
CreateSpace, 292 Pages, e-book
Reviewed by Darkeva

Description: Jenny is a shy, small-town South Carolina girl whose touch spreads a deadly supernatural plague. She can’t touch anyone for long without killing them. Her life is painfully lonely until she meets a boy named Seth with the opposite power, a healing touch. Jenny’s love for Seth brings the wrath of Seth’s beautiful, popular and devious girlfriend, Ashleigh, who secretly wields the most dangerous power of all–the power to inspire love.

Review: If you haven’t heard of J.L. Bryan yet, you’ll definitely keep an eye out for his other works after you read “Jenny Pox,” which is the compelling story of a girl who can’t touch anyone because she passes plague and death onto them.

The novel begins interestingly enough with a seemingly ordinary girl, Jenny, who turns out to be not so ordinary when we find out her touch spreads plague and death. It’s particularly heart-wrenching when Jenny, who is a small child when the novel begins, learns from her father that snakes are poisonous and thus dangerous and she identifies herself as poisonous, saying “poze-nuss,” which although it’s cute is ultimately heartbreaking.

With a Rogue-like predicament – the inability to touch people – except in Jenny’s case, it’s because her touch causes sores to other peoples’ skin–it’s definitely easy to identify with Jenny, even as she goes to school, which turns into a big disaster.

Like Rogue, Jenny realizes that she can never have a normal relationship with a boy – any boy – because of her “ability,” for lack of a better word, and she especially can’t touch them, which means kids definitely aren’t in the future. Except Jenny is worse off than Rogue, because while Rogue’s touch can steal powers temporarily, or kill if she holds on long enough, Jenny’s just gives people the Plague.

The first playground scene between Jenny and three bitchy girl bullies is riveting in spite of its simplicity, and made me twitch the whole time, glad that the head bully, Ashleigh, got what she deserved, but fearful at what would happen to Jenny, who violated her number one “no no” of not touching anyone.

We soon learn how the term ‘Jenny Pox’ came about, which is really clever if you think about it — instead of accusing Jenny of causing chicken pox, they say ‘Jenny Pox.’

Jenny instantly sets herself up as a protagonist who wins the reader’s attention, sympathy, and heart, because despite her relative simplicity, she’s a very compelling character, even though she’s so young. Kudos to the author for getting children’s dialogue right, by the way.

And even though I found the introduction of Seth Barrett, who Jenny likes, and his subsequent identification as Ashleigh’s boyfriend to be predictable, I found that the possibilities for what could happen were probably unpredictable, which is what excited me about his introduction.

Most of all, I loved the author’s gift for descriptions – they reveal so much about Jenny’s character, as when she’s describing Ashleigh’s features, but what she hates about them (bare skin, suntanned breasts, round ass, etc), which is even more important.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Oh, great, another high school misfit who is mistreated horribly goes apeshit and gets revenge on her classmates a la Carrie.” Jenny Pox is so much more. It has way more depth than the standard “girl gets made fun of by classmates and cries a whole lot until she gets revenge.” Jenny is definitely not your typical mopey heroine, for one thing. And she’s more afraid of her powers than anything, conscious of the fact that the power to bring sickness and death is not something to be trifled with.

No matter how many descriptions of high schools kids being mean to the outcast I read, I never tire of them, having gone through similar experiences myself, but in Bryan’s hands, the scenes come off as poignant rather than forced or filler, which is great.

Ashleigh is a very manipulative girl who knows how to use the temptation of sex without actually having to give anything up to get what she wants. And she’s one of those unfortunate types who gets active within the community, with parents and children, and gets that kind of large-scale support behind her so that other characters who don’t know her would think only good things of her. She’s been sneaky for years, and has built a reputation based on a foundation of lies, which is why it was useful to get Ashleigh’s point of view to know what was going on in her head.

It’s ridiculously scary how meticulously and fastidiously Ashleigh has everything planned out–from which college she and her boyfriend are going to, and if that first option fails, then another university. She’s also a judgmental little bitch.

The only creature that Jenny has any real connection with is her dog, Rocky, and from the get-go it’s clear that this relationship is ephemeral (animals only live so long), but I liked the interesting twist that we got midway concerning what happens to the dog. The scene starts off in one way and you’re pretty sure of where it’s going, then it just gets more anguishing, but a whole new surprise twist that I wasn’t expecting occurred, which made me devour the rest of the book from that point on.

The way that the narrative is structured is brilliant when it comes to characters – Bryan leads you down one path and makes you think one thing but then completely pulls a 180 on you and surprises you – genuinely.

There’s so much more to each character than you think.

Jenny’s desires are completely understandable and believable, and realistic–the girl who knows she can never have the guy she’s crushing on but secretly hopes that something might happen, just might … even if it is Ashleigh’s boyfriend and she’s not planning on letting him go anytime soon, epsecially not when she has her own power – a hypnotic thrall that causes everyone she touches to basically worship her and do whatever she wants, similar to how vampires compell their victims.

It’s pretty agonizing watching Jenny go through some of her trials, but one of the characters who helps motivate her is the local shopkeeper, Ms. Sutland. She’s the kind of woman who you’re thankful that the main character encounters, because at least she has someone who’s nice to her. Jenny’s dad, as well-intentioned as he is, doesn’t let Jenny go on with her life, and that’s a big problem.

The minor characters have their moments, as well, including Seth’s dad, Mr. Barrett, who reminds me of the villain from It’s a Wonderful Life with his coldness towards ruining peoples’ lives.

Ultimately, the love story between Seth and Jenny is what makes this book that much more compelling. If the premise had been set and stuck on “girl who can spread diseases is made fun of by ruthless classmates and then eventually goes berserk and kills them all” it wouldn’t be as interesting. Cool for a minute or two maybe, but not as heartfelt, which is why I’m glad that the love story was there.

Neesha and Cassie are more than just dumb sidekicks to Ashleigh, as well – Neesha can prepare press kits–press kits, for crying out loud – to promote Ashleigh’s abstinence crusade. It makes for some very entertaining reading.

Eventually, Ashleigh’s master plans come to fruition and everything is revealed and laid out, which is where the second-last chapter is most helpful because it explains Jenny’s origins and best of all, it involves Egyptian mythology.) I won’t spoil it for you, but I asked the author where the Egyptian influence ultimately came from and why he included it, so read our interview to find out what he has to say on the subject.

This is one of the best novels of the year I’ve read so far, and I absolutely enjoyed every minute of it. The ending has a satisfying resolution, and I think that Bryan is one of the most talented writers I’ve had the privilege to read.

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