In the small town of Clemency, Texas Sunday morning worship is even more important than Friday night football. With a population of 1,236 and only two churches in town, everyone looks forward to putting on their Sunday best and lifting the Lord’s name on high.chop! chop! read more!
From the start, O’Sullivan pulls readers in with well-crafted characters and a beautifully painted setting. She drops the reader deep into the South with Hurricane Katrina looming offshore. The opening pages saturate us with the warmth, hospitality, and food that are so true to this geographical location. But we aren’t allowed to get too comfortable. Not with the bad weather reports and the life-changing storm churning at sea.chop! chop! read more!
Twelve-year-old Mischa Love—or Ish—wants to be among the first colonists on Mars more than anything, and has applied to a program in Iceland offering this chance (and been rejected) nearly 50 times. She knows pretty much everything there is to know about Mars. When it comes to science, her convictions are strong. “Global warming is a real thing,” she tells us with unwavering certainty. “You can pretend it’s not, but that’s just dumb. It’s science.”chop! chop! read more!
Alejandra Mortiz is a bruja. She lives her life in the presence of death. She comes from a long line of brujas, each with their own unique manifestation of power.
But Alex, as her family and friends know her, does not revere the magical legacy of her family; she fears it. After seeing her Aunt Rosaria rise from the dead as a child, Alex is burdened by the sense that magic is not a gift, as her sisters Rose and Lula believe, but a curse. Her fear grows more acute as her Death Day approaches. This is a bruja’s coming of age celebration when the manifestation of her power is blessed by her ancestors.chop! chop! read more!
In Jennie Yabroff’s debut young adult novel, If You Were Here, Yabroff shows the normal struggles of growing up combined with the confusion of dealing with a parent suffering from mental illness. If You Were Here follows Tess Block, a girl who relishes summer vacations where she can hide away in her grandmother’s country cabin and not have to deal with high school or family. It means no contact with her best friend, Tabitha, because there’s no cell service, but Tess enjoys the freedom of escaping NYC for a few months, and the freedom from what’s going on at home with her mother.chop! chop! read more!
In her debut young adult novel Rani Patel in Full Effect, Sonia Patel takes us back to the era of faded box cuts, high-top Adidas, and gold chains as thick as your wrist; to the era where hip-hop reigned supreme and rhymes flowed out of boom boxes like water down Moaula Falls.chop! chop! read more!
When Mike and his family move, just before his freshman year, Mike starts high school in a new state and begins to forge some tentative friendships. But Victor, also low on the totem pole in terms of the high school hierarchy, seems to have a personal beef with him. Mike tries to lay low and mind his own business but Victor’s attention is unsettling…chop! chop! read more!
To make a book about school shootings stand out among an influx of young adult books about the topic takes skill and in her new novel The Light Fantastic Combs delivers with detailed characters and a unique premise. Told from several different points of view, the novel covers the span of a few hours across multiple time zones as a new day starts and a nationwide school shooting epidemic begins.chop! chop! read more!
Books labeled as science fiction and young adult can conjure many stereotypical images; a first kiss awkwardly felt on a playground swing set or a gothic vampire trying to survive an unknown universe. Emily France’s Signs of You defies these stereotypes as it takes on the story of a loss, friendship, and healing.chop! chop! read more!
Ellen Wittlinger’s Local Girl Swept Away is a gripping story of loss, denial, and deception wrapped up in a page-turning mystery that’s hard to put down. When Lorna is pulled underwater during a storm, her death shakes the community of Providencetown, but no one is more shaken than her best friend Jackie Silva. Lorna was everything Jackie feels she isn’t: untamed, beautiful, brave, and outgoing – not to mention lucky enough to have had Jackie’s crush, their best friend Finn, as her boyfriend. Jackie is the undisputed number two and it’s something she has accepted about herself. But, with Lorna gone, life becomes confusing and uncertain. Who is she now?chop! chop! read more!
There’s something compelling about orphan stories and Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon draws on this fascination. When I look back at my favorite childhood books, they all have one thing in common—main characters who are orphaned or abandoned. Barnhill’s story opens and immediately draws the reader in with the tragic, forced abandonment of a baby girl in the forest, an annual sacrifice meant to appease the Witch so that the villagers of the Protectorate may live safely for the next year.
This middle grade fantasy is a story with a magical twist. Baby Luna is not completely abandoned because a good witch saves her. In fact, the kind-hearted witch Xan has been saving the babies of the Protectorate every year and taking them to towns across the forest where they are beloved by their new families. These are the Star Children, so called because, on the journey, Xan feeds them magic from the stars. During the journey with baby Luna, two unusual things occur—one, Xan falls in love with Luna and decides to adopt her as her grandchild, and, two, she accidentally feeds the child from the moon and not the stars, infusing her with powerful magic.chop! chop! read more!
Jessica Spotswood has collected fifteen authors, including herself, to contribute short stories that reflect the perspectives of girls across different time periods of American history, starting from 1710 and ending in 1968. The collection spans different regions, cultures, classes and linguistic traditions. As a writer, I can imagine the challenges these authors faced to create this wonderful array of stories, to compress the unique historical and regional circumstances into one young woman’s voice, and fulfill her story arc in just twenty or so pages. Other authors have written four hundred-page historical novels that have had difficulty accomplishing this task. Beyond that, how does a writer avoid explanation that bogs down the reader, keeps the story suspenseful, and leaves the reader feeling satisfied, while avoiding emotionally simplistic endings?chop! chop! read more!
Breakfast with Neruda is a true journey of the self, taking us deeper with every turn of the page. It shows us that healing can only take place once we dismantle the walls we painstakingly build around ourselves and that our most vulnerable selves might hide our strongest truths.chop! chop! read more!
When I sat down to read Beth Kephart’s newest novel, This Is the Story of You, its title and cover art caught my attention—personal, serene, then chaotic. I read the first line of chapter one—Blue, for example—and fell in love with the writing. A quarter of the way through the book, I adored each character, and connected with Mira, the narrator and protagonist. Kephart’s mesmerizing writing, wonderful characters, and themes of strength and endurance thrilled me from beginning to end.chop! chop! read more!
Lucas Knight and his father come to Puerto Rico every summer from Houston, Texas. Lucas’s father transforms abandoned, historical buildings into extravagant resorts, while Lucas is content to find trouble with his friends—at least until he’s old enough to take over his father’s business.chop! chop! read more!
In the Texas town of Greenton, the talented few become mythical figures in the eyes of the locals, leaving those outside the spotlight to contemplate where they stand in the scheme of small town life. This could be a familiar story about growing up in someone else’s shadow, but, in this case, Seeing Off the Johns explores what happens in the aftermath of disaster; the loss of young life on the cusp of greatness.
Jon Robison and John Mejia, or “the Johns,” as the Greentonites call them, are two high school sports stars who receive scholarships to play baseball for the University of Texas at Austin. The day they prepare to leave town is met with celebration and sadness as they two young men sever ties and move on from the place that nurtured and worshipped them. On the way to Austin to move into their dorm rooms, the Johns’ tire blows out on the highway, killing them both in the crash.chop! chop! read more!
BURN BABY BURN
by Meg Medina
Candlewick Press, 305 pages
reviewed by Rachael Tague
New York City is one of my favorite places to visit. I adore Broadway, Times Square, and ice skating at Rockefeller Plaza. But thirty-some years ago, the Big Apple was not the magical tourist attraction it is today, especially if you had “the wrong skin color or a last name like López.” Disco, dancing, free love, and women’s rights typically define 1970’s America, but, for Nora López, New York City in 1977 means arson, looting, serial murders, a struggling mother, and an increasingly dangerous brother. In Burn Baby Burn, acclaimed children’s and young adult author Meg Medina presents a strong female protagonist in one of New York City’s most tumultuous years.
Nora should be able to look forward to college, boys, and an all-night dance party with her best friend Kathleen to celebrate their eighteenth birthdays. She should be care-free, dancing to Parliament, Heatwave, the Ramones, Donna Summer, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin. Instead, she’s worried about police brutality, scorching summer temperatures, and navigating the dangerous suburbs of NYC as an attractive young Latina in a sea of sickos and psychos like Sergio, the drug dealer in the basement who harasses her and corrupts her younger brother.chop! chop! read more!
We’ve all experienced the feeling of being stuck. Whether it’s situational or emotional, sometimes it feels like there is no getting out of the dark tunnel that lies ahead. In The Girl In The Well Is Me by Karen Rivers, the main character, Kammie, is literally stuck in a cold, dark, tunnel with no way out.chop! chop! read more!
A 52-HERTZ WHALE by Bill Sommer and Natalie Haney Tilghman Carolrhoda Lab, 197 pages reviewed by Kristie Gadson When a humpback whale becomes separated from its pod, it emits a unique song in an effort to find its way back to its loved ones. When certain people experience feelings of isolation, they seek companionship through indirect social interaction. Bill Sommer and Natalie Haney Tilghman’s A 52-Hertz Whale explores the nature of loneliness through a series of email correspondences, all between people with little else in common other than the desire for understanding. From the conversations of these starkly different people springs a series of beautiful, if uncanny, friendships. A 52 Hertz-Whale reveals that some of the most meaningful relationships can be forged even when the only thing we have in common is the fear of being alone. Fourteen-year-old James Turner (“firstname.lastname@example.org”) sends his first email after discovering that his adopted … chop! chop! read more!
OUT OF DARKNESS
by Ashley Hope Pérez
Carolrhoda LAB, 402 pages
reviewed by Leticia Urieta
Out of Darkness is broken into parts: before the disaster and after. This compelling novel is rooted in history, and the book begins with the aftermath of the 1937 New London school explosion in East Texas and a town reeling from disaster. Volunteers move debris, collect the severed limbs of school children, and build caskets for the dead. The narrative voice embodies the horror, the grief, and the growing need for someone to blame. This is how the story begins, with a sense of impending doom, and this feeling of dread pervades the rest of the novel, the “before”, leading up to the “after.”
The story encompasses a school year, oscillating between the third person points of view of a family hoping to make a new start. Naomi Vargas moves to New London from San Antonio with her twin brother and Sister, Beto and Cari, to live with their father, her stepfather, Henry Smith. From the beginning, the rules are clear; no Spanish at school or around town; watch where you go; attend church revivals and socialize with the locals. New London is an oil town, a white town, and Naomi is immediately aware of how she doesn’t fit. Henry changes her siblings’ names to Robbie and Carrie Smith and expects her to keep his house, get to know the church wives, and learn how to cook proper southern food and biscuits, not tortillas. Each short vignette is set in one perspective at a time. And the hopes and fears of this new life are revealed.
Naomi fears living with Henry, the stepfather who has sexually abused her as a child, and being responsible for her twin siblings now that her mother, Estella, is gone. She hears Henry’s promises, the born again song and dance that he performs, but is constantly triggered by his presence. Henry is filled with self-righteousness, that this is God’s plan for his redemption from a life of drinking and sin. Beto, the sensitive, quiet twin, loves the new encyclopedias he gets to read at the new white school, and the childhood wonders of a new place, and new possibilities.chop! chop! read more!
BREATH TO BREATH
by Craig Lew
Little Pickle Press, 432 pages
reviewed by Heather Leah Huddleston
Seventeen-year-old William has been dealt a bad hand in life. Raised for as long as he can remember by his grandparents, Gramps dies and G’ma can’t take care of him, so William is shipped from Kansas to California to live with his estranged father. He has no real memories of his mother, except the fictionalized ones he makes up for his friends. And there’s this: he has a history of violence; he nearly killed someone in Kansas.
The novel unfolds like both a mystery and a coming-of-age story as he tries to come to an understanding of who he really is. Though violence seems to follow him, we learn that the violence has a reason; he saves a girl from being raped; he saves a boy from being beaten by bullies; he saves himself after being finger raped by the captain of the football team. Within the gray area surrounding all the violence lies the question: is there ever a time when violence is okay? Or at least understandable?
William’s sleep is haunted by nightmares of whales being hacked to death by faceless people and his waking moments are haunted by the vision of a four-year-old boy, Patches, who both reveals himself to William and hides from him just as quickly. On their initial meeting, the boy tells William that he is being sexually abused and, each time William catches a glimpse of the boy’s red shirt or hears his familiar giggle, he chases him in order to help him. The more William asks questions about him around the neighborhood, however, the less the boy seems to exist. And then there’s the mysterious blue-eyed dog that guides him, not only to Patches, but, to other people who need his help.chop! chop! read more!
A BLIND GUIDE TO STINKVILLE
by Beth Vrabel
Sky Pony Press, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing Inc., 288 pages
reviewed by Mandy King
A Blind Guide to Stinkville is a story told through the fuzzy eyes of 11-year-old Alice, whose albinism and near blindness give her the unique perspective to uncover hidden stories of the people in her new town. The genius of Vrabel’s approach is that the reader meets the other characters through nuances of feelings and impressions rather than stark physical descriptions. The book is not a page-turner plot-wise and there are no major catastrophes; instead the novel peers beneath the superficial to reveal important lessons about what it means to be a member of small town community.
Despite the fact that Alice has to use a magnifying glass to read a book a few inches from her face, she is the only person in the story who truly sees what is going on around her. Initially, Alice thinks her new hometown of Sinkville, aka “Stinkville,” is a horrible place dominated by the terrible smell emanating from the local paper-mill. It’s nothing like where she grew up in Seattle. It smells foul and everything is different.chop! chop! read more!
THE DEVIL AND WINNIE FLYNN
by Micol Ostow
illustrated by David Ostow
Soho Teen, 326 pages
reviewed by Rachael Tague
I don’t like to be scared. I can’t stand that chill-in-the-air, breath-on-my-neck, sweat-in-my-palm terror that comes with horror stories. The last time I tried to read a scary book, I was twelve, and I flipped to the epilogue before I was halfway through to relieve the tension. That’s the only time I’ve ever read the end of a book without reading everything in between. But if I had the option to stop in the middle of The Devil and Winnie Flynn, I would have given up during the séance in the criminal ward of an abandoned insane asylum. As it was, I had to shut the book, take a breath, and reorient myself to reality before I could continue with this creepy tale.
Brother-Sister duo Micol and David Ostow (So Punk Rock (and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother)) team up for the second time to write and illustrate The Devil and Winnie Flynn, packing the pages with ghostly spirits, exorcisms, demons, psychics, and all manner of haunted locations, its characters seeking communion with the dead and the damned. Cleverly twisting the paranormal with mystery and pop culture, the Ostows invite their readers into Winnie Flynn’s haunted adventures.
When her mother commits suicide, Winnie Flynn meets her long-lost Aunt Maggie, “the creator, director, and producer of the Fantastic, Fearsome USTM series.” Her life becomes “a family-tragedy-turned-last-minute internship in television—in reality television!—smack-dab dead center in America’s armpit.” Winnie relocates from Portland, Oregon to a shady motel in her late mother’s home state of New Jersey. From their headquarters in Asbury Park, the cast and crew are within driving distance of spirit-filled destinations like Overlook Insane Asylum, Ghost Boy Bridge, the Pine Barrens, and the Devils portal. Their goal: to hunt down the famed New Jersey Devil, a creature Winnie believes is a myth.chop! chop! read more!
INK AND ASHES
by Valynne E. Maetani
Tu Books, 380 pages
reviewed by Leticia Urieta
Valynne E. Maetani’s debut novel, Ink and Ashes, begins with the narrator Claire’s eerie statement: “I stared at my pink walls, wishing away the smell of death. I imagined the wispy smoke snaking its way through the narrow spaces around my closed door, the tendrils prying at tucked away memories.” This observation cements her voice as protagonist, a mixture of sensitivity, uncertainty, and fierceness. As the smell of incense wafts up to her room – part of a ritual to honor her father since his passing ten years ago – she struggles to reconcile memories of her father with what she later discovers about him. And it’s this powerful voice that leads us through a heart-pounding narrative journey, exploring the nebulous nature of memory and trauma.
At seventeen, Claire deals with the typical issues of a teenage girl: homework, relationships with boys, and overprotective parents. Still, her life is colored by the loss of her father. Looking back through his old journal, Claire discovers a mysterious letter from her father addressed to her stepdad George, whom she believed her father had never met before. Suddenly, the stable life she thought she knew is thrown into doubt. Claire must reconcile the memories and ideas of her father with a new and haunting legacy.
From the moment of her discovery, Claire embarks on a mission to learn more about her father’s past, his suspicious cause of death, and whether he was the upstanding man she believed him to be. Meanwhile, her locker is broken into at school and Claire’s anxiety rises as she notices a black SUV following her around. On top of these worries, Claire is forced to come to terms with her feelings for her best friend Forrest. He is always on hand to comfort and defend her, keeping Claire from retreating into herself when her thoughts get jumbled or anxiety takes over.chop! chop! read more!
ARE YOU SEEING ME?
by Darren Groth
Orca Book Publishers, 278 pages
reviewed by Allison Renner
Books are often seen as a respite from everyday life and road trip books can be an even greater escape. They let you travel without having to go through airport security or get stuck in a strange city’s traffic. Darren Groth’s Are You Seeing Me? takes readers from an Australian airport to several stops in Canada and the United States, journeying alongside nineteen-year-old Justine and her twin brother, Perry.
The trip is a big undertaking, but it’s meant to be a send-off, a farewell to the lives the twins have always known. Justine and Perry’s father died a year ago and, since then, Justine has been Perry’s caregiver. Before his death, their father secured Perry, who has autism, a spot at an independent living facility. Justine is conflicted: Perry says he wants to move away; her boyfriend wants to move in; and she can finally live a life without caring for a brother with disabilities. But she doesn’t really mind taking care of Perry, and worries that he’ll forget about her as he establishes his own independent life. She knows how to prevent his behaviors (sometimes!), how to calm him down, and how to explain his condition to others with a rehearsed speech. She promised their father that she’d take care of Perry, but is she doing that by letting him go off on his own?chop! chop! read more!
A HOUSE MADE OF STARS
by Tawnysha Greene
Burlesque Press, 189 pages, 2015.
reviewed by Kathryn Kulpa
In the very first scene of A House Made of Stars, Tawnysha Greene’s debut novel, the ten-year-old narrator and her sister are awakened by their mother, who spirits them to a darkened bathroom where all three sit in the bathtub, towels piled over them, while the house shakes with thuds so loud even the narrator’s deaf sister can feel their vibrations. Their mother tells them it’s a game. She tells them they’re practicing for earthquakes. But even at ten, the narrator knows it’s not nature’s rage they need to fear. It’s their father’s.
Greene’s voice in this novel is pitch perfect, an eerie and convincing combination of innocence and prescience. The hard-of-hearing narrator is homeschooled and isolated; her mother believes public schools will not teach “Godly things.” Yet her understanding of their family dynamic and her father’s mental illness are intuitive and profound. Without adult labels or filters, we see his depression, his paranoia, his moments of happy, expansive mania that can change in an instant to brutal outbursts, and the scars he carries from his own violent childhood. We see her mother’s hapless attempts to keep the family safe and fed continually thwarted by her father’s whims. After the family loses their home and moves in with relatives, the children go hungry while Daddy spends his money on lottery tickets. Mama already knows not to question his choices. The girls learn it, too, in a particularly brutal fashion.
While the scenes of violence against children are harrowing and at times hard to read, A House Made of Stars also has moments of beauty and hope. There is a timeless, quiet feeling to the story, especially when the two girls are alone with their mother, that makes it feel almost as if it is taking place in a long-ago world. Despite her inability or unwillingness to protect the children, we sense Mama’s love for them. It is her mother’s stories of the stars and the myths behind them that help sustain the narrator, as well as the letters she writes to her cousin, describing what is happening with her family. Later, when the family are on the road, the narrator leaves these notes hidden along the way, both memoir and cries for help.chop! chop! read more!
SURVIVING SANTIAGO by Lyn Miller-Lachmann Running Press Teens, 312 pages reviewed by Leticia Urieta Many authors employ a tried-and-true formula for young adult novels with a female protagonist: girl is displaced for a period of time to live with a relative or parental figure from whom they feel disconnected, girl meets love interest, and adventure ensues. Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s Surviving Santiago, the sequel to her first novel Gringolandia, meets these expectations with the inclusion of some of these tropes: the displacement to another country, the disconnected parent, the dangerous love interest and the naïve teenage girl, but the novel partially subverts this formula. It explores complicated relationships and the self-empowerment that occurs when one accepts people for who they are. Christina “Tina” Aguilar is sent off to her homeland of Santiago, Chile for the summer at the insistence of her estranged father, Marcelo. It’s been eight years since she has returned … chop! chop! read more!
THE TRAVELS OF DANIEL ASCHER
by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat
translated by Adriana Hunter
Other Press, 189 pages
reviewed by Melissa M. Firman
How well do we really know the people we love? What happens when the family stories and personal histories we’ve grown up believing turn out to be fiction—or, at best, a version of the truth?
These are the questions explored in The Travels of Daniel Ascher, the debut novel of Déborah Lévy-Bertherat. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, this is a quick, fast-paced read where much happens in this story-within-a-story novel.
Hélène, a 20 year old archaeologist living in Paris, is a typical university student; she’s exploring her new city, falling in love with Guillaume, and occasionally babysitting a young neighbor boy. Among the few people she knows in Paris is her great-uncle, Daniel Roche, a famous author. His books, written under the pseudonym H.R. Sanders, are bestselling literary travel adventures with dashes of fantasy and mystery. (Think Harry Potter.)chop! chop! read more!
THE BOOK OF LANEY
by Myfanwy Collins
Lacewing Books, 200 pages
reviewed by Kathryn Kulpa
When terrible acts of violence occur—as they do all too often in America—our thoughts naturally turn to the victims and their families. But what about the families of those who commit violent crimes? What if someone you grew up with was a school shooter, a terrorist, a mass murderer?
That’s the reality fifteen-year-old Laney is living. Her brother West and his friend Mark, two high school outcasts, boarded a school bus armed with machetes, knives, guns, and homemade bombs. Six people died; twelve were wounded. Mark blew himself up, but West made his way home to kill his mother, and he would have killed Laney, too, if police hadn’t stopped him. Left with the wreckage her brother left behind, Laney feels completely alone, unwanted, even hated. Her father died when she was young, and her mother’s boyfriend is only interested in leaving the state as soon as possible. Strangers phone the house with death threats. This is her only identity now: the killer’s sister.chop! chop! read more!
WHERE YOU END
by Anna Pellicioli
Flux, 299 pages
reviewed by Allison Renner
The trends of paranormal characters and dystopian worlds have played out in young adult fiction, just in time for Anna Pellicioli to step in. Her debut, Where You End, is a riveting work of contemporary fiction that will captivate an audience of both teens and adults.
According to the blurb on the back cover, Pellicioli’s book is about a girl getting over a passionate first love. The Library of Congress summary on the copyright page would have us believe it’s about a girl who is blackmailed when she ruins a museum sculpture. Yes, Where You End is about heartbreak and blackmail, but it’s not the best way to summarize the story. The book doesn’t have a simple, common problem to solve with a few dramatic encounters or wrap up neatly with a life lesson. There’s more depth than that.
A seventeen-year-old photographer, Miriam, is caught in emotional turmoil after seeing her ex-boyfriend with a new girl through the lens of her camera. Desperate to do something, anything, Miriam pushes a Picasso statue in the Hirshhorn Museum off its base. It falls and Miriam runs, glancing back to make sure she hasn’t been seen. But a witness follows Miriam to her next destination and asks Miriam to take photos for her, in return for her silence. Miriam gets sucked into the blackmailer’s world and learns that you can’t always know the whole of a person if you’re only on the periphery of his or her life.chop! chop! read more!
DR. RADWAY’S SARSAPARILLA RESOLVENT by Beth Kephart illustrated by William Sulit New City Community Press, 190 pages Reviewed by Michelle Fost When I lived in Philadelphia, I sensed its history underfoot. One pleasure of Beth Kephart’s lively new historical Philadelphia novel is the strong fit of the writer’s project and the story she tells. In Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, Kephart looks at material from the past that we might consider lost to us and demonstrates how traces of that past stay with us through research and writing. In her story of William Quinn in 1870’s Philadelphia, too, much has been lost. As fourteen-year-old William goes in search of what has been taken from his family and as he thinks about what he is missing (including a murdered brother and a father in prison), we see that a great deal of what is loved can be recovered. William internalizes his brother … chop! chop! read more!