YA: Dark Magic, The "Descendancy," and a Teenage Scrooge | December 2017 Xpress Reviews

Historical fiction meets sci-fi in 20th century Philadelphia during the flu epidemic; recovered memories spark a teen to question her ex-boyfriend's tragic death; and debut author Maaren crafts a stellar fantasy for A Wrinkle in Time fans in this month's Xpress.

Aitcheson, Julie. Being Roy. 190p. Harmony Ink. Oct. 2017. pap. $14.99. ISBN 9781635337129.

Gr 8 Up –Although she’s reluctant, young artist Roy engineers a means of escaping her trailer park home through an elite all-girls private school. Desperately missing her boyfriend and unsure of her gender or how to relate to these rich girls, Roy finds inspiration in her art teacher and the affections of new friends. Although there is a dearth of representation of the rural LGBTQ experience in YA literature, this book is not the title to help fill that gap. The ’90s setting and nostalgic tone make this feel like it is coming from an adult rather than teen perspective, and that distance makes it all the harder to connect with Roy. This title also attempts to do far too much. Important threads that deserve the whole attention of the narrative are picked up, lightly explored, and then dropped without achieving any kind of depth that would make them feel real to readers. Gender, class, race, family, sex, addiction, secret societies—all are capable of being the crux of the book, but without focus on one or two, none of them are. VERDICT An entirely missable title.–L. Lee Butler, Hart Middle School, Washington, DC

Arrieta, Vik. Dangerous Networks. tr. from Spanish by Beñat Sagartzazu Ibarluzea. illus. by Ciervo Blanco. 132p. Owl Canyon Pr. Sept. 2017. pap. $18.95. ISBN 9780998507316.

Gr 7 Up –Lucila, Natacha, Anita, Piru, and Clarita spend their weekends at one another’s houses, modeling clothes and conducting photo shoots of their fashion shows. Afterwards, Lucila painstakingly edits each photo and posts them to their joint Facebook page to share with all their classmates. Unknown to them, their classmates aren’t the only people watching. After a comment made by a user only named “Hunter,” each girl goes missing in different ways, until Lucila is the only one left. Determined to find out what has happened, Lucila teams up with Tomi to find the girls and save them. Translated from the original Spanish, some details are lost. Lucila is the only one of the girls who owns a computer and has Internet access at home. There are references to the girls being in 11th or 10th grade. The girls are kidnapped to be sold by one of the girls’ teachers, and the story is based loosely on a true story from 2002. While the topic may be important, the author’s approach feels dated. The story does not feel authentic to current teenage experience. VERDICT Not recommended.–Natalie Struecker, Cedar Rapids Public Library, IA

Doty, Joël Henning. The Good Citizen. 236p. Four Wise Monkeys. Aug. 2017. Tr $10.99. ISBN 9780692897614.

Gr 7 Up –A dystopian novel that is accessible to all readers. The story line is a cross between Julie Ann Peter’s Define Normal and Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series. Jenny and Hannah are thrown together through a buddy program and realize that they have more in common than they ever imagined. The alternating viewpoints in each chapter explain the extremely harsh government in the world that Doty has built. It is through each of their lenses that readers get an understanding of the separation of people into two sects: those who live in the Homestead, the Opportunists, who are not allowed to have Protectors (guns); and those that live in the city, the Citizens, who are required to carry Protectors at all times. Escalations of protesting people cause problems and tension in the government ranks that seem like a futuristic projection of current government issues, but at extremes. It is an action-packed book with a predictable ending but enjoyable nonetheless. VERDICT Purchase where there are avid dystopian fans.–Lenore Catalano, Hammarskjold Middle School Media Center, NJ

Hand, Cynthia. The Afterlife of Holly Chase. 400p. HarperCollins/HarperTeen. Oct. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062318503.

Gr 8 Up –The classic tale of Scrooge in a YA romance package readers will love. The story follows Holly Chase, a beautiful, rich, and very mean-spirited 17-year-old girl. Holly is visited by the classic ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future but does not heed their warnings. After her untimely death a few days later, Holly is not completely dead: she is now the ghost of Christmas past. She works for a company called “Project Scrooge” that reenacts Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol each year to try and save a soul. When the new Scrooge for the year is revealed, Holly can’t keep her eyes off of the handsome Ethan Winters. She must decide what is best for her, Ethan, and Project Scrooge. Taking on a classic is a tall order, but Hand does it well. The author adds many original quotes from the source material, a nice nod to Dickens that might inspire young readers to pick up his work. The romance between Holly and Ethan takes center stage through the middle of the story to set up for the twist ending that will keep readers guessing. A strong message that people can change, along with a call for kindness in humanity, rings throughout the narrative as well. VERDICT A heartwarming holiday romance to get teens in the spirit of the season. A definite title to be shared where classic retellings, like Lost by Gregory Maguire or the original Dickens tale, are popular.–Elizabeth Pelayo, St. Charles East High School, IL

Johnson, Abigail. The First To Know. 336p. Harlequin Teen. Nov. 2017. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781335007940.

Gr 9 Up –An easy and entertaining realistic YA tale. Ambitious 17-year-old softball player Dana Fields plans to surprise her dad with “the birthday presents of all birthday presents.” En route to the surprise, Dana discovers a brother that no one knew about. Readers are introduced to Dana’s struggle with handling this news among her family and handling her newfound sibling, who also comes with a love interest. As all the information comes to the surface, the protagonist must find the right words and approach to keep all the important relationships in her life together. Dana is a character many teens can find pieces of themselves in, and the challenges she experiences and overcomes make her a relatable protagonist. All the characters are brought to life with nuanced depiction. Filled with drama, the narrative has notes of comedy, romance, and an underlying softball theme, which makes it accessible for all kinds of readers. Young people will find the ending heartwarming and satisfying. VERDICT An overall enjoyable choice for realistic fiction collections.–David Roberts, Salem Public Library, OH

Jones, Gareth P. Death or Ice Cream? 256p. David R. Godine. Oct. 2017. pap. $15.95. ISBN 9781567926101.

Gr 6 Up –In Larkin Mills, only the children seem to notice that things aren’t as they should be. There is a company that erases memories and a house that can only be entered through the chimney (because it’s full of water for the sharks), among other strange occurrences. The adults, who don’t mind the weirdness, are ridiculous during ordinary interactions as well as tense revelations. For example, at dinner, the fastidious mayor demands her son polish his silverware between bites as she downplays a past murder. Characters, information, and jokes from the 13 short stories build upon one another as the kids’ confusion or horror or acceptance grows in response to the bizarre and sometimes downright creepy events. The absurdity of the situations doesn’t take away from the book’s deeper themes of good versus evil in the world. Some of the existential messages may go over the head of younger readers—Who wouldn’t choose ice cream over death?—but the stories are entertaining and accessible. Roald Dahl fans who are aging out of his books and looking for something a little more edgy will be particularly interested in this British import. VERDICT Highly recommended for those who love dark humor with touches of horror.–Elissa Cooper, Helen Plum Memorial Library, Lombard, IL

Kang, Lydia. The November Girl. 323p. Entangled Teen. Nov. 2017. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781633758261.

Gr 9 Up –Told in alternating points of view, this is the story of Hector and Anda, who both meet on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. Hector is 17 and running away by taking the last ferry to the island, knowing that it is closed to visitors over the winter season. He is shocked to find another teenager on there, one who appears to have been left by her father. Hector is not at all prepared for life on the island, and Anda seems very naive about life off Isle Royale. Their slowly blossoming romance is tinged with the knowledge that each is withholding secrets. This is a romantic thriller with an original premise. As the chapters alternate between characters, readers are given a glimpse of each teen’s secret, but information is doled out slowly. This builds a solid level of tension that keeps the pages turning though the pacing sometimes becomes uneven. Hector’s character is complex. He is biracial, caught between worlds, and seemingly abandoned by both parents to an uncle from whom Hector is running. Anda is fey, with a encyclopedic knowledge of geology, history and myth, but she appears to be completely impractical. The novel is quite dark in places, with strong language, drug use, and sexual abuse featured. The subject matter and the complexity of the plot make it more suitable for older readers who will be hooked by the writing style all the way to the neat and satisfying ending. VERDICT Purchase where paranormal romance is still popular.–Michelle Anderson, Tauranga City Libraries, New Zealand

Kassel, Meg. Black Bird of the Gallows. 309p. Entangled Teen. Sept. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781633758155.

Gr 7 Up –Angie feels an instant attraction to her new neighbor Reece when she meets him at the bus stop. But there’s something unsettling about the boy he’s with, whose face seems to change in front of Angie’s eyes. As Angie gets to know Reece better, she learns that he’s not the typical boy-next-door but someone, or something, caught up in ancient dark magic. Meanwhile, the face-changing boy is capable of death and destruction and has played a part in the downfall of Angie’s now-dead mother. This is a paranormal teen romance with familiar themes. Angie sits with the band geeks and is bullied by the cool girl, but has a secret life as a DJ in a popular club. She and Reece fall in love, but his cursed, half-human existence means their romance appears doomed. In a massive environmental disaster, Angie saves the cool girl, who confesses that she is secretly jealous of Angie. There’s some violence, swearing, and sexual references but nothing is particularly graphic. VERDICT While there are some rather predictable tropes, the author has created an interesting world of mythical and paranormal creatures that will appeal to avid fans of the genre.–Michelle Anderson, Tauranga City Libraries, New Zealand

Kincaid, S.J. The Empress. 384p. S. & S. Oct. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781534409927.

Gr 9 Up –In Kincaid’s sequel, Tyrus is now the Emperor, with Nemesis on his side. However, his choice for a Diabolical as a spouse is causing great discourse. The politicians and religious groups are not ready to accept the young new Emperor, his unnatural choice for a bride, or their actions, which threaten the stability of the world they know. Without their acceptance, Tyrus cannot gain the power of the scepter and take full control. In a mission to save their world, Tyrus and Nemesis may be its undoing. Can their life survive the trials they must face? In this sequel, readers are taken on a roller coaster through the cosmos. Tyrus lived a life of deception in the first book, and he must do so again—but no one is sure who he is trying to fool this time. Even Nemesis is no longer sure of the man she loves. This sequel will leave readers anxiously awaiting the third installment of the series. After political and emotional upheaval, fans will want to finally know what is in store for the inhabitants of this world and the fates of the main characters. VERDICT Purchase where sci-fi and the author’s previous books are popular.–Jessica Strefling, U.S. Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit Library

redstarMaaren, Kari. Weave a Circle Round. 368p. TorTeen. Nov. 2017. pap. $15.99. ISBN 9780765386281.

Gr 7-10 –Fans of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time will devour this debut author’s adventurous new fantasy. Afraid of being called “weird,” Freddy Duchamp tries to be invisible at school, but her brilliant little sister Mel and deaf stepbrother Roland often draw too much attention to her. Making matters worse are the new next-door neighbors and quirky Josiah, a boy her age, who follows her to every class. Freddy senses something strange is going on with the newcomers, and soon she’s swept away with Josiah on an epic quest through time. Mingling with Vikings, warriors, mythical figures, and futuristic races, her journey becomes one of self-discovery as well as one of self-preservation. Even Roland, her clumsy, annoying stepbrother, doesn’t seem so bad with centuries keeping them apart. Yet Josiah seems to be harboring a secret, and Freddy must find the courage to seek the answers if she ever wants to return to her family. This is one of those rare books that surprises readers at every turn because Maaren’s deft writing keeps the story impossible to predict. Although the cast of characters is big and the science mind-bending, readers will relate to awkward Freddy’s desire to fit in and the coming-of-age lessons she learns from each character on her path. Ultimately, the theme of being true to yourself and yet still kind to others will resonate with young people. VERDICT This wildly imaginative book deserves to be on every YA fantasy shelf.–Sandi Jones, Wynne High School, AR

Miranda, Megan. Fragments of the Lost. 384p. Crown. Nov. 2017. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780399556722.

Gr 9 Up –Jessa Whitworth has blocked out everything and everyone around her since the day her ex-boyfriend Caleb died. She saw him briefly earlier that day, months ago. Later, a flood swept his car off the bridge, his body never recovered. Now, his mother has asked for Jessa’s help to pack up his old room, since his mother and younger sister are moving away. The room is filled with pictures and memories, and the further she gets into Caleb’s things, the more she finds pieces that don’t add up. Why was his email password changed two days after he died? Why is his mother making her pack up the room, even though she seems to dislike Jessa and maybe even blame her for Caleb’s death? Jessa tries to reason out her questions with Max, who was friends with both her and Caleb, but the clues they uncover might put both of them in danger. The growing unease that Jessa feels in Caleb’s house and his mother’s presence permeates the entire novel. The narrative moves back and forth in time, from the present to Jessa’s memories, sparked by the things she is packing, then races towards a thrilling conclusion. VERDICT An excellent addition to any library where suspense is popular.–Kelly Jo Lasher, Middle Township High School, Cape May Court House, NJ

Noble, Diana J. Evangelina Takes Flight. 202p. Arte Público. May 2017. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781558858480.

Gr 6-10 –This historical fiction title presents a little-known time period, namely, the beginning years of the Mexican Revolution. Set in 1911, it centers on 14-year-old Evangelina who loves the predictability of her life on the family ranch in Mexico. But that changes abruptly when the family learns that Pancho Villas’s soldiers are on the way, looting and leaving a trail of destruction and chaos in their wake. Immediately, her large family decides to move north to Texas to stay with relatives until the violence in the country subsides. Once there, Evangelina is ridiculed by racist, ignorant children and teachers, but finds some measure of hope in a friendship with the local doctor who sees her potential. Tensions rise as more immigrants move into the community, and it takes bravery and truth to ensure that the immigrant children receive a just education. Spanish terms are skillfully woven into this primarily English text, serving to build round characters for monolingual and bilingual readers alike. Although Noble’s debut novel is based on the life of her paternal grandmother, it does not provide source notes for its historical information. In particular, a subplot involving native people of the Comanche nation is problematic, as it is difficult to determine its accuracy. VERDICT Despite the important historical time period represented in this book, and its themes of U.S. immigration, any classroom or library use should involve students in critically examining its representation of native people alongside accurate historical sources.–Ruth Quiroa, National Louis University, Lisle, IL

Packebush, Nina. Girls Like Me. 204p. Bedazzled Ink. Nov. 2017. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9781945805356.

Gr 9 Up –A pregnant queer teen finds true friendship and maybe a little hope during the worst time in her life. Sixteen-year-old Banjo is briefly hospitalized in a juvenile mental ward in the wake of her genderqueer boy-/girlfriend’s suicide. There, she meets Pru (Ethiopian and adopted by white parents), a cutter who also identifies as queer. The two befriend Dylan, a gay boy from a conservative family. Together, the three share their experiences and feelings, finding relief in understanding after years of isolation and frustration, though their friendship is not without complications. Banjo struggles with what to do with the baby once it is born (keep it or give it up for adoption) while also being mired in memories of Gray and the way they died. Though it ends on a slightly encouraging note, the story of Banjo and her friends is unrelentingly miserable. Horrible things happen to these characters, especially to Gray, Banjo’s boy-/girlfriend. Adults and treatment are generally unhelpful, with Banjo’s mother thinking medication is poison. The psychiatrist at the hospital is ignorant, dismissive, and uncaring, quickly diagnosing all three teens as bipolar and threatening to forcibly medicate Banjo. This bleak view of what life as a queer teen looks like feels dated. Though Banjo eventually ends up with effective and caring doctors in her life, they don’t erase the overall message that hospitalization, therapy, doctors, and medication are ineffective, punishing, and harmful. VERDICT An additional purchase.–Amanda MacGregor, Parkview Elementary School, Rosemount, MN

Pixley, Marcella. Ready To Fall. 368p. Farrar. Nov. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780374303587.

Gr 9 Up –Max’s mother died of brain cancer. Her death was too sudden, and in his grief Max imagines that her tumor has become his tumor. Unable to cope with his mother’s death and his fear that he will be the next to succumb, the protagonist flounders at school and is eventually sent to an alternative school uniquely equipped to cope with teens with mental health issues. Max’s friendships and relationships grow, but as they do so does his refusal to confront his fears and grief. The more things improve in Max’s life, the more certain a collapse seems. This unreliable narrator’s tale is imbued with feelings of grief and regret and still manages to be humorous at the same time. Max’s relationships with his new friends, crush, teacher, and father are realistic, flawed, and beautifully written. Nothing in this world is perfect: the creative writing teacher is brilliant and curmudgeonly and ultimately makes very irresponsible choices; his father is loving but unable to help Max with his grief as he’s consumed by his own; and Fish (potential love interest) is understanding and beautiful but stuck in an unhealthy relationship with someone who refuses to let her go. Although occasionally relying on tropes (Fish is clearly a manic pixie dream girl), this work is ultimately an affecting novel about parental relationships, grieving, and recovery. VERDICT Recommended for most YA shelves.–Karen Brooks, Gig Harbor Pierce County Library, WA

Plozza, Shivaun. Frankie. 352p. Flatiron. Nov. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781250142993.

Gr 9 Up –From the time Frankie Vega was abandoned by her abusive mother at age four, she has been taken care of by her aunt Vinnie. Being raised with love, however, hasn’t stopped her from turning into an angry, troubled teenager, one whose most recent crime is lashing out at a classmate and breaking his nose with a large Shakespeare book. While working in her aunt’s kebab shop and spending many hours alone during during her suspension from school, Frankie is confronted by a younger brother, Xavier, whom she never knew existed. As she cautiously lets him into her life, she is haunted by old memories that she has suppressed for years. When Xavier goes missing, Frankie takes it upon herself to investigate. What she discovers shocks her and sends her into places darker than she could have imagined. Despite her sarcastic, defensive attitude, Frankie is a likable character whose witty one-liners and offbeat musings bring humor to the book. Though the plot is slightly underdeveloped and often contrived, the interactions between the teenage protagonists bring enough substance to move the story along. There are a handful of Australian slang words and expressions that may throw off some readers, but not enough to detract from the main action. The mature language, sexual references, and violence make this appropriate for older teens. VERDICT A moving if somewhat overwrought story about the long-term effects abusive parents have on childrens’ lives. Purchase for medium to large YA collections.–Karin Greenberg, Manhasset High School, NY

Tarquini, Mindy. The Infinite Now. 280p. BookSparks/SparkPress. Oct. 2017. pap. $16.95. ISBN 9781943006342.

Gr 8 Up –Historical fiction is portrayed in a new way. Set against flu-ravaged Philadelphia in 1918, the story centers on Flora Vincente, an orphan girl whose father was the local fortune teller. But when not-so-good things start to happen, Flora puts her community in a stagnant bubble of time, making her second guess her next steps. Told in first-person prose, this novel blends history with science fiction. Those who enjoy a story that appeals to the mind (and STEM topics) will gravitate to this work. Teens will be immersed in the intricate world-building and pulled in by the fast pace. Page after page, they will follow Flora’s journey until the bitter end. Twists and turns in the plot are unpredictable but still believable and will leave readers gasping for air each time the story changes course. Give this to teens interested in health and medicine, in addition to time travel and history buffs. VERDICT This is a title not to be missed.–Mitchell Berman, North Chicago Public Library

Wallach, Tommy. Strange Fire. 400p. S. & S. Oct. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481468381.

Gr 9 Up –Mankind’s taste for knowledge and power grew too great. It is said that the Lord sent his only Daughter to destroy the world with fire. In the generations that followed, the few survivors came together to form a pacifistic and deeply religious community called the Descendancy. Brothers Clive and Clover Hamill, the sons of an honored traveling Descendant minister, live happily by the rules of their community. However, when the brothers travel with their family to spread the gospel to nearby villages, a profound series of events is put into motion. The Hamill brothers, along with Clive’s childhood sweetheart, Gemma, and an anti-Descendant revolutionary named Paz, will be forced to navigate a maze of love, religion, death, and betrayal. Readers will discover an unforgettable world where faith seems to be the enemy of knowledge, where violence sometimes opposes ignorance, and where people are neither inherently “good” nor “bad.” Despite lacking definitive answers, Wallach’s latest is a haunting exploration of our world’s struggles with religion, war, and learning. His deliberate and graceful writing tells a striking story of humanity through the viewpoints of Clover, Clive, Gemma, and Paz. VERDICT While not a typical dystopian series opener, this will engage existing fans of Wallach’s work as well as attract new ones. This beautiful and heartbreaking tale will have all readers eagerly anticipating the next installment.–Ariel Birdoff, New York Public Library

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