November 20, 2017

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Blast to the Recent Past | SLJ Spotlight

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Would a novel set in the 1980s be considered historical fiction? Teens of today would likely think that time period ancient history. The following YA titles take place from the 1970s to the mid-aughts, each offering a glimpse of the recent past, and perhaps a little bit of hindsight.

Benoit, Charles. Snow Job. 288p. ebook available. Clarion. Mar. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780544318861.BENOIT, Charles. Snow Job

Gr 9 Up –It’s the end of 1977, and high school senior Nick is trying to reinvent himself. In his effort to become a better person, he makes a list consisting of four phrases to live by: Stand Up, Stand Out, Stand By, Stand Fast. Adhering to the list proves to be difficult when Zod, a lowlife from Nick’s past, reappears and persuades Nick to deal drugs. Nick is able to convince himself that delivering cocaine is just a means to an end —a way to get enough money so he and his new crush, Dawn, can escape snowy upstate New York and move to Florida. Despite the danger and illegal nature of his activities, Nick comes to believe that he has achieved his metamorphosis into a better self through his drug deals. While the plot moves along quickly and will hold readers’ interests and the characters are well drawn, there’s a disconnect in the narrative. Nick’s conviction that he has achieved his goals in the course of his drug running does not seem reasonable. At no point did he truly Stand Up, Stand Out, Stand By, or Stand Fast, and as such, his transformation feels hollow. Also, the cartoonish cover and large font will cause this to appeal to middle schoolers; however, it’s largely about drugs and drinking (even the deceptive cover features a bag of cocaine). VERDICT An entertaining yet implausible read that teenagers will nonetheless enjoy.–Melissa Kazan, Horace Mann School, NY

Cassidy, Yvonne. How Many Letters Are in Goodbye? 456p. ebook available. Flux. Mar. 2016. pap. $11.99. ISBN 9780738747453.CASSIDY, Yvonne. How Many Letters Are in Goodbye

Gr 9 Up –Cassidy’s epistolary novel skillfully explores the trauma of family tragedy against the backdrop of New York City in 1999. As her 18th birthday approaches, Rhea wrestles with experiences of homelessness and confronting the tragedies in her family’s past by writing a series of letters to the mother she lost when she was only three. After running away from her aunt’s home to survive in the city she had obsessed over as a child, Rhea is given the opportunity to work at a seaside summer camp for homeless youth. At camp Rhea begins to heal from the pain of her mother’s death and her father’s alcoholism and learns to accept herself and her sexuality. Rhea’s undeliverable letters provide insight into her past and present, progressively revealing the tragedies of her past interwoven with the stark realities of her life on the street. Rhea’s frustration over being perceived as disabled due to the childhood incident in which she lost her arm feels authentic, even as her denial of family history sometimes borders on naïveté. The individuals whom Rhea encounters are appropriately portrayed with varied degrees of complexity, shaking Rhea’s assumptions about the appearances of lesbians, people who eat in soup kitchens, and alcoholism. References to sexual abuse and spare descriptions of sexual experiences make this work appropriate for mature teens. A heartbreaking story about the challenges of trusting, healing, and saying goodbye. VERDICT An additional purchase; give this title to readers looking for emotional impact.–Amanda Foulk, Sacramento Public Library

Hitchcock, Bonnie-Sue. The Smell of Other People’s Houses. 240p. ebook available. Random/Wendy Lamb Bks. Feb. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780553497786. HITCHCOCK, Bonnie-Sue. The Smell of Other People’s Houses

Gr 7 Up –In the 1970s, in Fairbanks, AK, four teenagers’ lives intersect in unexpected ways. Dealing with problems that continue to propel modern teens—unwanted pregnancy, alcoholism, difficult family situations, and ambition—they try to find a future that is theirs. Their struggles feel especially poignant set against the backdrop of a young state also battling to define itself. Uniquely Alaskan issues and industries weave throughout the background of the story by an author who is a fourth-generation Alaskan. Point of view moves among the four characters. But rather than appearing disjointed, this vantage allows readers a multifaceted glimpse into the rich cast of characters. Perhaps the primary flaw of this book is its brevity—each character has a unique journey and personality that readers will want to spend more time with than they are allotted. This leads to a glossed-over treatment of the relationships among characters, implied rather than shown. However, that is not enough to rob this work of its beauty and gentle emotional richness. VERDICT An excellent debut sure to appeal to teens who prefer relationship-based fiction.–Elizabeth Nicolai, Anchorage Public Library, AK

Manzer, Jenny. Save Me, Kurt Cobain. 272p. ebook available. Delacorte. Mar. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780553521269; lib. ed. $20.99. ISBN 9780553521276.MANZER, Jenny. Save Me, Kurt Cobain.

Gr 8 Up –The year is 2007, and 15-year-old Nico Cavan has led a dreary existence since the mysterious disappearance of her mother, Annalee, 11 years before. Nico is often left alone at home while her father works long hours for little pay; school is no better, with her classmates treating her like a pariah. The only things that give Nico comfort are hanging out with her best friend, Obe, and listening to her music: 1990s alternative rock and grunge. When Nico stumbles upon a hidden box of her mother’s old CDs, she discovers she and Annalee shared an interest in the same bands and a spark is ignited within her. Determined to learn what happened to her mother once and for all, Nico sets out to visit her aunt in Seattle, which gives her the perfect opportunity to search for the answers she so desperately seeks. References to Nirvana and Kurt Cobain periodically feel forced, and although nonlinear storytelling is not a new device, Manzer stumbles in her use of it throughout the first few chapters. This sometimes causes more confusion than clarification but is offset somewhat by Manzer’s pleasantly understated writing, which itself is underscored by occasional moments of raw emotion that will resonate strongly with teens. Nico’s character is reckless but on the whole believable, both in her obsessions and insecurities, and while the resolution occurs a little too quickly, it is also something of a happy relief. VERDICT An additional purchase; good for libraries that have a need for angsty, character-driven stories.–Alea Perez, Westmont Public Library, IL

Palmer, Robin. Once upon a Kiss. 304p. Puffin. Jan. 2016. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780147509888.PALMER, Robin. Once upon a Kiss.

Gr 6-10 –This eager, time-traveling tome is a homage to John Hughes mixed with elements of movies, such as Back to the Future and The Breakfast Club, that paint a vivid picture of the 1980s. In a twist, the novel starts in 1986 and takes the main character, Zoe, an unpopular teen, on a time-traveling journey to 2016, where she is the most popular girl in school. Like a character in any Hughes flick, Zoe has a quirky guy best friend, Jordan, and a popular boyfriend, Brad, and is focused on exploring the stereotypical groups that exist within a high school. Zoe must decide whether her newfound popularity is worth sacrificing her values, opinions, and dream to unite all of the differing groups within the high school community. Should she give up her queen bee status and her popular paramour to fulfill her dreams of a united student body and a romantic partner who shares her beliefs? The idealistic tone of the book is reminiscent of a sitcom. With the exception of Zoe, Jordan, and Brad, almost all of the other characters are one-dimensional, seeming to exist merely to point out something about the major characters or drive the familiar plot forward. There is no new ground explored here; this is simply a tame romance with a time-travel twist. VERDICT Purchase where 1980s movies circulate well or gentle romance novels are popular.–Cindy Wall, Southington Library & Museum, CT

These reviews were published in the School Library Journal January 2016 issue.

Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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