March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

YA Xpress Reviews | April 2017

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1704-Xpress-YA-CoversColfer, Chris. Stranger Than Fanfiction. 304p. Little, Brown. Feb. 2017. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780316383448.

Gr 10 Up –Steeped in pop culture references, this work tells the story of four friends, Topher, Sam, Mo, and Joey, who just graduated from high school and are about to embark on a two-week-long road trip from Chicago to California as one last hurrah before heading their separate ways. The common thing that has united them since adolescence is the popular show Wiz Kids. The friends regularly got together to watch the weekly episodes and have a shared sense of admiration for the star of the show, Cash Carter. The book opens with a chapter about rebellious Cash, who is going out of his way to do anything other than what his producers and costars would like. The production team would not like to see his recreational activities publicized, so Cash is immediately presented as the bad boy. Readers learn the history of the foursome and how they came to be friends before embarking on the cross-country rite of passage. These chapters go into more depth about each of the individual characters and their secrets. As avid computer and social media users who often send Cash fan mail, the four decide to invite him on their road trip. Cash responds with two words: “What time?” This quick read touches on many current trends, using teen jargon and references while also tackling identity issues of gender, race, and sexuality, among others. The characters all have absent parents, who neither understand nor listen to their kids. This title evokes a reality TV show, complete with teen angst and poor decision-making. VERDICT An additional selection.–Jessica Lorentz Smith, Bend Senior High School, OR

Grant, Michael. Silver Stars. 576p. (Front Lines: Bk. 2). HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks. Jan. 2017. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780062342188.

Gr 8 Up –In this second installment of the series, readers continue to follow Rainy, Frangie, and Rio during World War II as they travel from North Africa to Italy. Rainy is given a mission that involves her father. Frangie and Rio grow as characters as they are tested. This series puts a twist on historical fiction by exploring war through female soldiers on the frontlines. The story is told by different narrators, giving teens a multifaceted experience of war. There is no masking the horror and inhumanity and little room for sentimentality. Sexism and racism are blatant, and the offenders are unapologetic. If readers are easily offended by violence, this is not the book for them. Fans of the first volume, though, will want to see what happens to these strong young women. Give this work to those who enjoyed Ruta Sepetys’s Salt to the Sea and other World War II historical fiction. VERDICT Recommended for YA collections in need of alternative history speculative fiction titles.–Maureen Sullivan, Calumet City Public Library, IL

Harrison, Emma. Finding What’s Real. 304p. S. & S./Simon Pulse. Mar. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481442152.

Gr 7-10 –This sequel to Escaping Perfect shares many of the flaws of its predecessor. Cecilia Montgomery, daughter of politicians and famous for having been nearly kidnapped as a small child, spent the first book running away from home and finding adventure (and a hot guy) in a small town. The second installment begins just after she’s been found, with her parents trying to orchestrate damage control. For the rest of the book, Cecilia tries and fails to assert her independence even as her mother moves to the small town and announces her candidacy for president of the United States. As Cecelia’s friends get caught up in the hype, she wonders who is a true friend and who might be using her for her fame. It’s an interesting premise, but it doesn’t ring true. There are unrealistic elements: a senator can’t just uproot to a new state because her daughter ran away, and the friendships and romantic relationship that Cecilia managed to form seem a bit more intense than the two-week span of her initial running away would allow. VERDICT Skip unless the first volume is popular.–Sarah Jones, Clinton-Macomb Public Library, MI

Kearney, Meg. When You Never Said Goodbye: An Adoptee’s Search for Her Birth Mother; A Novel in Poems and Journal Entries. 224p. Persea. Mar. 2017. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9780892554799.

Gr 10 Up –In this introspective conclusion to the trilogy that began with The Secret of Me and continued in The Girl in the Mirror, 18-year-old Liz McClane chronicles her first semester at NYU and her quest to find her birth mother. Written in the form of soul-searching poems and journal entries, this novel is not plot driven—it will appeal most to those who would appreciate a young woman’s meditative reflections on her relationships and identity. An author’s note reveals that although this book is not autobiographical, much of it was inspired by Kearney’s experiences of her father’s death and her attempts to locate her birth mother. VERDICT Readers who love contemplative poetry and want a simple story of self-discovery will appreciate this title. A good selection where the previous volumes are popular.–Heather M. Campbell, formerly at Philip S. Miller Library, Castle Rock, CO

Livingston, Lesley. The Valiant. 384p. Penguin/Razorbill. Feb. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780448493787.

Gr 8 Up –Livingston shifts genres from fantasy set in modern New York City, as in the “Wondrous Strange” trilogy, to historical fiction set in ancient Rome. Fallon, the younger daughter of a Celtic king, sets out on a revenge mission the night of her 17th birthday and is captured by slavers, who sell her to a training academy for female gladiators. As she deals with her new status and the expectation that she will fight (and possibly kill) as a form of entertainment for others, Fallon confronts her feelings about what it means to be a slave and a warrior. After a slow start and some predictable plot developments, the story gains momentum and continues in the dynamic style of the author’s previous books. This engaging tale is woven with historical details relating to Celtic and gladiator life. With the exception of Decurion Caius Varro, who seems to fall instantly in love with Fallon, the characters and relationships are well developed. The ending is sudden and leaves a side plot unexplained, but this may be resolved in the planned sequel. VERDICT This will likely appeal to fans of Livingston’s earlier novels and to those who enjoy history-based adventures, especially those set during this time period, which is not well represented in YA literature.–Judy Poyer, Odenton Regional Library, MD

Locke, Thomas. Recruits. 384p. Revell. Feb. 2017. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780800728656; pap. $12.99. ISBN 9780800727895.

Gr 7 Up –Twins Sean and Dillon Kirrell are on the cusp of 18. The mysterious Carver moves in next door. Hardened, physically imposing, and gruff, he intimidates and intrigues the twins. Inside Carver’s house, Sean and Dillon discover a portal to another dimension. Earth is merely a lonely outpost in a human-dominated galaxy that is ruled by powers yet incomprehensible to the brothers. While the premise is intriguing, the execution is weak. Despite the well-drawn imagery, exposition overwhelms every page, and perspectives switch constantly. Locke (a pseudonym for Davis Bunn) co-opts phrases from Star Wars and The Matrix; Carver describes the lowercase “force” as the energy surrounding them, there is an ominous “Empire” exercising control over the galaxy, and the twins are threatened with “mind-wiping” if they cannot successfully complete the training Carver has been sent to administer. Additionally, depictions of race and gender are problematic. Carver is confusingly depicted as “dark-complexioned, like he’d been blasted by some foreign sun for so long that his skin was permanently stained.” Examiner Tirian, one of Carver’s counterparts, is “tall and black, not normal African-American dark-skinned” and “angry.” Though these portrayals are of non-Earth humans, they are clunky and perplexing. The main female character, Carey Havilland, is a “lyrical beauty,” and readers first see her through the male gaze. The twins step into a heated argument between Carey and an ex-boyfriend; the confrontation predictably and troublingly ends with Dillon’s violent punishment of the boy to save Carey, whom the author later refers to as a “damsel in distress.” VERDICT Pass on this fragile sci-fi foray.–Chelsea Woods, New Brunswick Free Public Library, NJ

Lukens, F.T. Ghosts & Ashes. 258p. (Broken Moon: Bk. 2). Duet. Mar. 2017. pap. $16.99. ISBN 9781945053184.

Gr 8 Up –Continuing a few months after the events of Star Host, this sci-fi novel begins with Ren and Asher at odds with each other. Ren is having trouble moving on from the traumatic events he’s experienced, and he struggles with his technopathic powers now that he’s aboard a ship chock-full of technology. Asher’s training as a soldier doesn’t allow him to place his loyalty to Ren above his devotion to the Phoenix Corps, no matter what he feels for Ren. As Ren slowly slips further and further away from humanity without his anchor, the crew of Star Stream decide that a trip to Ren’s home planet might be best for him. What they find there devastates Ren and his friend Jakob. Though the conflicts are more internally focused in the beginning, they feel no less dire than they did in the previous volume. Ren’s post-traumatic stress disorder is presented realistically alongside his challenges with his powers. Readers will cheer him on as he struggles to maintain control of himself. Ren and Asher’s relationship is more hot and cold this time, with the justification for their ever-changing feelings toward each other becoming increasingly weaker as the plot moves forward. There are also a few side plots on Erden, Ren’s home planet, that feel underdeveloped. However, there is enough to keep readers engaged until the cliff-hanger ending. VERDICT A solid purchase for libraries with a sci-fi reader base or those looking to develop LGBTQ genre fiction collections.–Kathryn Kania, Goodwin Memorial Library, Hadley, MA

Lövestam, Sara. Wonderful Feels Like This. 320p. Flatiron. Mar. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781250095237.

Gr 8 Up –Fifteen-year-old Steffi Herra spends every free moment listening to classic jazz recordings, writing song lyrics, or practicing walking bass lines on her guitar. This love of music provides a welcome distraction from her nonexistent social life, annoying family, and taunting classmates. Steffi has been the butt of cruel pranks for years and feels powerless to stop the abuse. One day, she hears her favorite song coming from a window on her way home from school. It is the local nursing home, and the tune is being played by Alvar, an elderly bass player. Steffi becomes a regular visitor, and the garrulous gent spins records on his gramophone and recounts his journey to Stockholm to be a part of the nascent jazz scene during World War II. Alvar was actually there and making a name for himself as a working musician when the tunes were recorded. Not only do Steffi and Alvar bond over their love of music but he also empowers her to see beyond the confines of her small town and to pursue her passion. The period details of the war years and bits of Swedish culture are rich and evocative, and Steffi’s story is universal and will appeal to music lovers and outsiders anywhere. VERDICT This is an offbeat (in a good way) and engaging novel that riffs on issues of bullying, gender identity, self-esteem, and life choices. It is ultimately a coming-of-age tale of a young artist and is as soulful as it is triumphant. A good choice for most YA shelves.–Luann Toth, School Library Journal

Mayer, Jamie. Painless. 304p. Rare Bird. Feb. 2017. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9781942600855.

Gr 10 Up –This debut YA novel is a fast-paced and dialogue-centric look into the world of 17-year-old Quinn, who is suffering from an extremely rare disease called congenital analgesia, the inability to feel physical pain. Quinn stumbles through his journey to find meaning in his life while avoiding dealing with complex feelings arising from his father’s recent death. He relies mostly on his hobby, creating a graphic novel, to escape his world. Quinn is a flawed but likable character for whom readers will be rooting. Other highlights include Quinn’s sister, Caitlin, and his love interest, Theresa. Both women are strong and independent in their own way. The point of view shifts are somewhat awkward and often disrupt the flow of the story, sometimes causing confusion. The book is written primarily in the first person from Quinn’s perspective but sometimes switches to other points of view. The development of secondary and background characters doesn’t scratch the surface. Stereotypes of Italian American families and caricatures of bikers, punks, and hipsters are sprinkled throughout. VERDICT For fans of Ned Vizzini and Nic Sheff; a fine addition to libraries that need to expand their mental health collections.–Melanie Leivers, Palm Beach Country Library System, FL

Montgomery, Anne. The Scent of Rain. 386p. Amphorae/Treehouse. Mar. 2017. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9780996390149.

Gr 10 Up –Rose lives in rural Arizona, in a fundamentalist Mormon community where daily beatings, stringent regulations, and the promise of becoming a child bride and a sister wife are the norm for a teenage girl. Adan, recently placed in the foster care system, is on the run from the dangerous group home where he’d been living. Multiple events bring the two teenagers closer together until their paths converge in a life-and-death escape. Each must decide whom to trust: each other or the many adults who block the door to safety. Tackling the brutalities of the foster system, the limitations of Child Protective Services, and the horrors of child abuse, this work aims high but ultimately falls short. The descriptions of those with physical and mental disabilities feel awkward and stiff and play into existing negative stereotypes. Sincere, well-meaning adult characters often break the flow of the narrative to hammer readers with preachiness. The issue of deportation is raised at the end in a big reveal but is tidily resolved, dismissing the emotional weight of its reality. While the brief, cliff-hanger chapters might appeal to reluctant readers, the points of view shift so often that they create a confusing patchwork of story lines. At times, it isn’t clear exactly who the protagonists really are: the two teens on the run or the well-intentioned adults trying to help them. VERDICT An additional purchase where realistic survival stories are needed.–Leighanne Law, Scriber Lake High School, WA

Simone, Ni-Ni & Amir Abrams. Heels, Heartache & Headlines. 288p. (Hollywood High: Bk. 5). Kensington/Dafina. Feb. 2017. pap. $9.95. ISBN 9780758288561.

Gr 9 Up –This volume keeps the antics of the Pampered Princesses grandiose with alternating narratives from the four girls: Spencer, Heather, London, and Rich. The book begins on a serious note as London recovers from a suicide attempt, but the girls are already scheming and plotting, backstabbing, and talking trash to one another. Rich may have hooked up with London’s fiancé, Justice Banks. Spencer is seeking revenge, using the endless supply of alcohol to get Heather to divulge secrets. Heather decides to use Rich’s birthday to drop the juiciest revelation in the book: that two of the princesses may share more than they thought. Their exchanges are equal parts playful and spiteful, depending on whose guy is with whom and whose parent is adding drama to their already chaotic lives, which are filled with paparazzi, alcohol, and money. Language is habitually used to heighten the drama, along with the frenemies’ sexual escapades. The seriousness of the girls’ experiences isn’t sugarcoated; the humor that Simone and Abrams inject regularly adds to the engrossing theatrics. The authors have created an epic finish that sets up fireworks for the sixth installment, which will have fans ordering ahead. VERDICT Followers of the series won’t be disappointed. Purchase where “Hollywood High” is popular.–Alicia Abdul, Albany High School Library, NY

Waltman, Kevin. Quicks. 216p. (D-Bow’s High School Hoops: Bk. 4). Cinco Puntos. Dec. 2016. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781941026618; pap. $11.95. ISBN 9781941026625.

Gr 8 Up –In this conclusion to the YA sports series, Derrick returns to Marion East for his senior year. Now that he is back in playing shape after his junior year injury, he is expecting a year full of adulation and recruiting trips. Instead, Derrick finds that he has a new teammate who is an aspiring point guard and giving him a run for his money. When the new player is made starting point guard, pushing Derrick back to shooting guard, the protagonist becomes concerned about his future in basketball. As in prior volumes, Derrick must learn lessons about life and teamwork in order to lead his team to a triumphant season. The author presents a realistic portrait of a young African American man growing up in an inner city environment. The setting makes clear the challenges that those raised in such a place face, but it also shows good models of success juxtaposed against examples of those who lack proper emotional support and go astray. Those who see themselves in Derrick’s off-court world will find this book affirming; those who do not will find the setting eye-opening. VERDICT This title delivers the conclusion that fans of the previous volumes have been waiting for. Lots of detailed basketball action and a peek into the life of an elite player will draw in basketball fans, even those who are reluctant readers.–Kristin Anderson, Columbus Metropolitan Library System, OH

West, Kasie. By Your Side. 352p. HarperCollins/HarperTeen. Jan. 2017. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780062455864.

Gr 7 Up –Finding themselves unexpectedly locked in the library together for a long weekend, two seemingly dissimilar teens bond. Autumn takes photographs for the yearbook, belongs to the “in” crowd, and has a budding flirtation with the fun-loving and popular Jeff. Rumors abound about bad boy Dax, who has spent time at a juvenile detention center, been raised in foster homes, and doesn’t seem to care what other people think about him. Unable to communicate with the outside world and surviving on PayDay bars, Autumn opens up to Dax in a way she never has with her friends; she tells him about her anxiety disorder. Upon liberation from the library, Autumn faces her true feelings for Jeff, deals with guilt as he recovers from a dreadful car accident, and increasingly wishes that her friends knew the real reason she often flees group gatherings. She and Dax act not just as “distractions” for each other but also as supporters, pushing each other to confront fears. Going beyond a light tale of teen love, the story delves deeper by weaving in themes of the foster care system, absent parents, and mental illness. Although the start is a bit contrived, West’s multidimensional protagonists experience growth as their romance evolves. The snippets of kissing at the end ring true to the book’s wholesome nature. VERDICT Real-life issues enhance this engaging novel, which will appeal to fans of Sarah Dessen. A good choice for realistic fiction shelves.–Kate Reid, The Allen-Stevenson School, New York

This article was published in School Library Journal's April 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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