The Sharp Time

The Sharp Time

Sandinista Jones is a high school senior with a punk rock name and a broken heart. The death of her single mother has left Sandinista alone in the world, subject to the random vulnerability of everyday life. When the school system lets her down, her grief and instability intensify, and she ponders a violent act of revenge.

Still, in the midst of her crisis, she gets a job at The Pale Circus, a funky vintage clothing shop, and finds friendship and camaraderie with her coworker, a boy struggling with his own secrets.

Even as Sandinista sees the failures of those with power and authority, she’s offered the chance to survive through the redemptive power of friendship. Now she must choose between faith and forgiveness or violence and vengeance.

“Palpable grief plus irreverent humor equal one extraordinary debut novel.”
– Kirkus Review 
(starred review)

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Sandinista’s life is not going as planned. Her mother has just died; she lives alone, terrified in their house; and an abusive teacher has made her flee school. Something different is in order, so Sandinista goes to her favorite vintage shop, the Pale Circus, and takes a job. Now she is living in two worlds. One is work, the not-yet-gentrified neighborhood that also hosts a pawn shop, an erotic bakery, and a monastery, home to jam-making monks. The other is the world of her imagination where she plots to kill her teacher. Though the central will she-won’t she question moves the plot, what will hold readers spellbound are the words and images that swirl through the pages. Set in the winter, the story is wrapped in cold: Sandinista’s icy inner dialog, the frigid feel of a pink gun against her hand; the “sweet lacquered crescendo of glass crashing on snow,” when she throws a granite toad through the teacher’s window. But there is also warmth, especially in the form of the Pale Circus’ other young employee, Bradley, whose own pain allows him to know how to ease Sandinista’s. O’Connell’s references to the beauties and evils of Catholicism add elements in equal parts transcendent and gritty. The book takes place over the course of a week, but there are so many thoughtfully drawn characters and intense emotions that it reads like a small lifetime. Which, for Sandinista, it is. (Top Ten First Novel for Youth, 2012)

―BOOKLIST (Starred Review)

Palpable grief plus irreverent humor equal one extraordinary debut novel. After algebra teacher Mrs. Bennett inappropriately chides ADD-suffering Sandinista Jones (named for the seminal Clash album) for not paying attention in class, the 18-year-old, whose single mother has recently died, gives up on school and life. The situation reminds Sandinista of all the times she failed to stand up for a mentally challenged student during Mrs. Bennett’s endless taunting. To fill her days, the teen quickly finds a job at the Pale Circus, a vintage clothing store, a companion in heartache with co-worker and “druggie Robin Hood” Bradley and in possession of a handgun. Her resonant, thought-provoking first-person narration reveals her mounting helplessness, tension and guilt as on each passing day the school fails to call her (who’s not paying attention now?) and makes readers gulp in anticipation as she plots revenge against Mrs. Bennett. It takes a village, or at least a street full of eclectic shop workers in her rundown Kansas City neighborhood, to raise Sandinista out of despair. From her newfound community, comprised of the  HIV-positive Pale Circus owner, Erika of Erika’s Erotic Confections, a sympathetic pawn-shop owner and friendly Trappist monks, she finds faith, the will to go on in and unexpected beauty in an often cruel world. Sharp storytelling indeed.

―Kirkus Review (Starred Review)

The Sharp Time spans just one week in the life of high school senior Sandinista Jones. Her post-graduation plans fell apart when her mother died unexpectedly, and after a conflict with a teacher makes school seem like anything but a safe haven, she’s alone and frightened, but also very angry and out for revenge. A possible channel for her angst appears when she takes a part-time job at a vintage clothing shop, The Pale Circus, and finds a potential soul mate in co-worker Bradley. Yet such intense focus on her own drama causes her at first to miss the fact that Bradley has significant troubles of his own. Maybe their friendship can lead them both to some healing and resolution. If not, her punk rock name isn’t going to be the scariest thing Sandinista turns loose on the streets of Kansas City. Mary O’Connell has given us a bright, energetic heroine who manages to keep a sense of humor despite suffering some very hard knocks. The book opens up discussions of a lot of big issues—teacher-student bullying, Catholic sex abuse, gun control, grief, revenge, vandalism, theft—and doesn’t offer any pat answers, making The Sharp Time a good pick for reading groups. You can’t call it a happy ending, but there’s comfort in seeing Sandinista learn that when bad things happen, “you just have to take it, you have to feel it. There is nothing else.” That, and a friend who’s got your back, just might be enough.


In an evocative first novel, O’Connell introduces an injured teen, whose sharp-edged grief and loneliness are deeply felt. After her single mother’s death, 18-year-old Sandinista Jones cuts off communication with friends and concerned adults, so she has no one to turn to when she’s targeted by an abusive teacher. On impulse, she stops going to school and takes a job at Pale Circus, a vintage clothing store that becomes a welcome escape (“Opening the door of the Pale Circus is like falling into a morning dream of Oz-bright Technicolor: you walk up any old flight of stairs, open a random closet door and find a dance hall in full swing”). Yet Sandinista’s violent urges to seek revenge against her teacher grow stronger each day. O’Connell shows exceptional skill in building tension and creating atmosphere, particularly that of the neighborhood where Sandinista works. Minor characters—Sandinista’s co-worker, her boss, neighboring monks and shopkeepers (many of whom carry burdens of their own)—add color, depth, and comic relief. Their vulnerabilities and compassion have a strong impact on the heroine as she cautiously reaches out for support. Ages 14–up.

―Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)