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Once I read the eye-opening and chilling author’s note at the start of LITANI, I did not require any further encouragement to dive right into it. Jess Lourey discusses actual cases that she used as impetus for this tense and deeply layered novel. I will leave this a surprise for readers to discover on their own.

In the prologue we meet 14-year-old Francesca “Frankie” Jubilee. The year is 1984, and she has arrived in Litani, Minnesota, where she is about to begin living with the mother she barely knows. After her parents split in her early childhood, Frankie chose to live with her father. Her mother, Linda, did not contest this arrangement; she settled in Litani where she grew up and is a no-nonsense prosecutor. Her father, Paul, is a science professor and botanist; he involves Frankie in his love for this field to the point where she carries around a self-made book, which she refers to as Choose Your Own Plant Personality, fully resplendent with personalized illustrations.

"Lourey has accomplished quite a feat here with a coming-of-age novel buried inside a very dark psychological thriller that deals with some of the most vile crimes adults commit against children."

We also learn early on that Frankie claims to have killed her father. This will be explained in pieces within the narrative. Throughout the novel, there are various music references from songs straight out of 1984 that many will fondly recall. I enjoyed how Frankie claims that “Birds Fly (Whisper To a Scream”) by The Icicle Works is “her” tune with a catchy chorus: “We are but just children fighting our way around indecision.” All Frankie really knows about her mother (outside of the two cards a year she receives from her) is that, when she was much younger and visiting her in Litani, Linda took a pair of pliers to Frankie’s mouth to wrench out a loose tooth. Once her father found out about this, Frankie was on the next plane back to Pasadena, CA, never to return to Litani and her mother until he passed away.

Before Frankie heads out to explore Litani for the first time, her mother tells her to “only play with other children.” We will soon find out why this warning needs to be heeded. Frankie, who is an instantly engaging and delightful narrator and young lady, notices there are no children to be found in the park or playground area, so she sets off into the woods. There she spies a strange man apparently chasing a child. She is then confronted by three toughs, near-feral girls who beat her up and steal her sneakers. They also threaten her with playing The Game, which is not explained to her at the time.

Were it not for the intervention of 17-year-old loner Crane, sort of the Boo Radley of Litani, Frankie might have suffered far more than just a beating. She will learn more about the long-haired and odd Crane as their friendship grows. He refers to the three girls who attacked her as demons, but points out that they are merely products of their environment. Regrettably, Frankie --- who fancies herself an amateur sleuth --- will hear about rumors of rampant child abuse and allegations of a Satan-worshipping cult in Litani. She also will find out more about The Game; it is not child’s play by any stretch of the imagination.

There is so much good stuff and not a single wasted word in LITANI that it is difficult to cover and praise all of it in a single review. Lourey has accomplished quite a feat here with a coming-of-age novel buried inside a very dark psychological thriller that deals with some of the most vile crimes adults commit against children. You will get through this darkness because Frankie Jubilee is your beacon of light, and you will not be disappointed in the ending.

I really appreciated the Litani Editing Playlist at the end of the story, featuring all of the songs from 1984 that Frankie listened to and probably had on various mix tapes. How can you go wrong with a year in which Prince’s “When Doves Cry” was the top-selling record?

Reviewed by Ray Palen on October 23, 2021

by Jess Lourey