Winter Light


Young Adult - Coming of Age
260 Pages
Reviewed on 07/27/2020
Buy on Amazon

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Author Biography

WINTER LIGHT will be published Oct. 6, 2020, by Vine Leaves Press. Martha Engber is also the author of THE WIND THIEF and GROWING GREAT CHARACTERS FROM THE GROUND UP. She’s had a full-length play produced in Hollywood and over a dozen short stories, essays and poems published in anthologies and literary magazines such as the Aurorean, Watchword and the Berkeley Fiction Review. A workshop facilitator and book editor, she currently lives in Northern California with her husband, bike and surfboard.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite

Winter Light by Martha Engber is a coming-of-age novel that gives us a stark reminder of the narrow line between success and failure, sorrow and joy, contentment and destruction that so many of our teenagers are forced to navigate in those dangerous and yet potentially rewarding years of high school. Fifteen-year-old Mary Donahue lives in suburban Chicago during the brutal winter of 1978-79. Mary is part of the high school clique known colloquially as the “burnouts”. She lives right at the edge of the precipice, binging on drugs, alcohol, and fast cars. Her mother died when she was just a young girl and her father buried himself in a bottle from that day forward. Her siblings, apart from her beloved brother Danny, are no use to her and the rest of her relatives also seem to be buried in their own misery and alcoholism. Smart and beautiful, Mary knows there has to be more to life than this self-destructive dive into pain and ultimately an untimely death but she has no way of knowing how to break the downward spiral her life seems to be on. In desperation, she tries to reach out across the social teenage divide and befriend a preppy girl, Kathleen. When Mary begins to see just how a “real” family is supposed to operate and that there are opportunities to be had if she is prepared to put the effort in and use her brain, she desperately wants what her new friend Kathleen has. Mary has struggled to exist almost every day of her young life and she figures it can’t be that difficult to redirect purpose and strength in a positive direction – can it?

Winter Light is one of the most powerful narratives I’ve read in a long time. Author Martha Engber perfectly captures the angst, the sense of loss, the total aimlessness, and the intense frustration at being unable to change what it is that bedevils Mary. Mary is edgy, tough, and yet infinitely vulnerable and sweet underneath the tough exterior. I found myself talking to Mary, imploring her not to go that way, not to get in the car, not to be so darn stupid. Any author that can make a reader respond so emotionally to her written words is an author of rare talent and Engber is such an author. With all the odds stacked against her, it is clear Mary has what it takes to break free but can she summon the persistence and courage to do exactly that? The plot is tight and the writing stark and real. Yes, there are times you may cringe from the words or the action but it is realistic in a way that is often sanitized and glossed over in literature. Although many of the situations in which Mary places herself or finds herself are entirely predictable, it doesn’t detract from the action-packed narrative that equally allows time for quiet reflection and insight from the main characters. Looking back at one’s own teenage years through the eyes of Mary is something this story compels and it doesn’t take much for one to reflect there but for the grace of God, go I. It is rare that a novel evokes such a visceral response in a reader as this story did in me and I can highly recommend this read.

Paulette Boudreaux

Winter Light is the tightly woven story of several pivotal moments in the life of scrappy 15-year-old protagonist, Mary, who is on that precipice where the choices she makes will set the trajectory of her life. Her decisions can send her soaring upward toward the brass ring of life, or irrevocably spiraling toward chaos and destruction. But neither the moments, nor the choices are simple or straightforward. Mary, motherless and saddled with an irresponsible alcoholic father, must navigate these rough deep waters on her own. At some point the associate principal of Mary’s high school says to her, “If a person goes out to sea with nothing to protect him—no boat, no life preserver, nothing to prepare him for his ordeal—that person, no matter how smart he is, how witty, how streetwise or strong, will, without question, drown.” And yet, that is precisely the situation Mary is in—“out to sea” in a hardcore urban world of deprivation, drugs, alcohol, and sexual predators. She has nothing to protect her except her wits and a feral inner strength and wisdom that give her the determination not to become a victim. She wants something more and better for herself, and her beloved older brother Danny, even as she feels herself trapped by circumstances that are beyond her control.

In Winter Light, Mary and the reader are in the hands of an excellent storyteller. Engber has crafted a well-paced, thoughtfully structured, insightful novel that draws the readers’ compassion for Mary and the motley collection of “burnout” teens that are Mary’s friends. The reader is taken on a suspenseful ride through a few months with our young heroine. We witness Mary’s heartrending struggles to break free of economic and social class boundaries, the effects of careless parenting, and the low expectations of others. Engber handles these subjects with great skill and subtlety. She plunges us into the cold, deep waters with her protagonist, lets us drop to the bottom, and reminds us of the fragility and vulnerability of teenagers, and the incredible power of a little kindness.

Jana McBurney-Lin

Winter Light tugs at your heart, reminding you of what it’s like to be a young person growing up, unsure of what to wear, how to behave, who and what to care about. Unsure of anything. The story is a ride through Class V rapids that will keep you hanging on white-knuckled till the end. A great read.

Joylene Nowell Butler

Winter Light is the extraordinary and intricate story of Mary Donahue, a teenager from the darker side of life whose struggles, resilience, and courage will be forever seared in your brain and your heart.

Penny Lapenna

Give this book a chance. I started out thinking it was normal teen YA territory, but quickly got a sense that this character went deeper than the average teen read. It's more like Shameless meets Catcher in the Rye!

This author knows that some teens have really been around the block a few times before they leave school. And yet, they still want what all kids want - security, love, hope, friendship, a place to belong, new pj's and some sweet treats. But the real world is out there lurking, and before they have even had a chance to work out who they are, and what they might be able to achieve, there's someone or something trying to knock them down.

Be prepared for the story to turn harsh and gritty. I appreciated the author's subtle steering of the story, and the powerful emotional moments packed a punch, without being being too gratuitous. Worth a read, and if you have an older teen who can handle it, pass it on.