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One Good Hustle, by Billie LivingstonOne Good Hustle
Random House Canada (2012)

Review by Kim McCullough

Sixteen-year-old Sammie is a street-smart, take-no-crap young woman. Her parents are con-artists; her father lit out for the east a long time ago, leaving Sammie and her mom on their own. Lately, Sammie’s alcoholic mother, Marlene, has slipped into a suicidal depression, leaving Sammie to try and hold the edges of their tattered home life together.

Unable to take any more of her mother’s suicidal meltdowns, Sammie leaves the chaos at home and goes to stay with her friend Jill’s family. Sammie’s judgments about Jill, and Jill’s more traditional parents, Ruby and Leo, are at once harsh and hilariously honest. It soon becomes obvious that no one can escape Sammie’s skewering wit: not her teachers, not her friends, and certainly not Drew, the boy she likes. But before long, Sammie’s carefully constructed tough-girl facade starts to crack, and the reader catches glimpses of a lost girl in need of direction.

This vulnerability in Sammie returns again and again. She seeks someone to care for her, someone that she can allow to see her pain, even as she endeavours to hide it from her family, friends, teachers, and a young man who seems to really care for her. Sammie walks the line that all teens walk—desire for autonomy and freedom, while at the same time, not quite being able to let go of the need for home and a touchstone.

Livingston’s writing is so clear and straightforward that, like the flashes of Sammie’s vulnerability, it takes a few pages to realize the depth of the layers of story that lie beneath the surface. The timeline shifts seamlessly between the present and past events that have brought Sammie and her mother to their life in a small Burnaby apartment. Livingston is a master of dialogue, delivering snappy, realistic teen-age conversations, laugh-out-loud sarcastic comments, and heart-breaking subtext, sometimes all at once.

Though the events are coloured through Sammie’s eyes, Livingston deftly exposes the shades of the other characters a bit at a time. By the last page, the other main characters in the book are vibrant, living entities, as entrenched in the plot as Sammie. Drew, Sammie’s not-quite-love interest, is torn between being a good friend to Sammie, and wanting more. Marlene almost takes on the dimmed shimmer of an old movie star, her glory days behind her. Even Rub, grating as she is to Sammie, stays with the reader long after the book is closed.

One Good Hustle was long-listed for the Giller and short-listed for CLA’s YA Book of the year, cementing its place as a work of not only literary fiction, but also crossing genres to find a strong audience with young adults. It’s clear that Sammie’s struggles and the vivid, heartbreaking world inhabited by a cast of well-crafted characters will resonate with readers of any age.

On Thursday: An interview with Billie Livingston.