Efrain’s Secret by Sofia Quintero

“Being brown and broke has been a seventeen-year-test in just how badly I want an average life…  Why does the valedictorian have to choose between my class ring and this SAT prep class?  Why does a clean-cut teenager have to decide between showing up to my minimum-wage job and going to the movies with the most popular girl in school?  Why do I have to fight so hard just for the mere chance to have it all?” (pg. 52.   Quotes taken from ARC – language is subject to change.)

Efrain Rodriguez is the highest-achieving student at his high school in the South Bronx, and despite lots of people telling him that he will never get in (and couldn’t pay for it even if he did), he has his heart set on the Ivy Leagues.  But money weighs heavily on his mind – his mom is working long hours just to get by, and his dad hasn’t exactly taken a strong interest in Efrain’s life since having a baby with his new girlfriend.  Efrain feels like he needs to take his financial situation into his own hands, and his afterschool tutoring job doesn’t cut it anymore.  So when an old friend who deals drugs approaches him with a chance to make a lot of money fast, Efrain thinks about all those choices he is forced to make in his life because of money.  He surprises himself by saying yes.

As Efrain is drawn deeper into the world of dealing, and as his lies to friends and family multiply, the reader can feel the moment when everything falls apart looming over Efrain.  You know that it’s coming, and that the fallout is going to be awful – it’s just a matter of when.  And if that reader is me, the reader will be banging her head against a wall and shouting “No Efrain Stop Stop Stop No!”  Because he genuinely doesn’t want this life, and he really doesn’t need this life if he will allow himself to rely on the people around him.  But when Efrain starts to list the things that are stacked against him, you can feel his desperation and start to understand how he could possibly make this decision that goes against every part of his judgment and his sense of morality.

Efrain’s relationships with his girlfriend, mother, and sister, are well drawn, but his relationships with the men in his life are especially complex.  Efrain grew up with two best friends, Chingy and Nestor, but the group split when Nestor started dealing drugs.  Chingy will no longer have anything to do with Nestor, and his changing relationships with these two boys over the course of the book are one of the most compelling parts of the story.  Nestor, who brings Efrain in to the drug trade, could easily have been a stereotype of the bad drug-dealing kid.  At first glance that is all you see.  But as the story digs down a little bit deeper into his life, he becomes a genuinely sympathetic character – a choice that makes the story much more interesting and less reductive.  Efrain’s relationship with his absentee father follows a similar arc.

I did find the dialogue uneven, especially between Efrain and Chingy – sometimes it flowed freely and genuinely, and other times it sounded a little bit like a skit written by a guidance counselor about getting in to college.  Efrain and Chingy go from slangy, loose conversations to this:

“In order to be as accurate as possible, I couldn’t just develop one code.  I had to create a unique algorithm for each and every college.”

It takes me a second to grasp his point. “Because Hunter College may place more emphasis on your SAT score than, say, Harvard might?”

“Exactly!  And there’s no way to assess that unless you talk to someone at every admissiosn office or, better yet, compile statistics on incoming freshmen.” (pg. 81.  Quotes taken from ARC – language is subject to change.)

Suddenly we’re inside some kind of college admissions manual.  I appreciate that the author is trying to get some information on college admissions into the hands of teens who pick up this book, but it could have been done a little bit more organically.  And honestly, I’m a big fan of letting a story be a story.

While I found that I did have to suspend my belief a couple of times during the course of the novel, Efrain’s voice and his struggles were enough to pull me into the story.

Sofia Quintero on the web

Review copy provided by publisher at ALA Midwinter

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Ash by Malinda Lo

“‘Have you ever wanted to be a princess?’ Ash challenged her.

‘That depends,’ Kaisa said.

‘On what?’

‘On whether I would have to marry a prince.'” (pg. 199)

I love fairytale re-tellings, but I find that many of them fall into two camps that make them less rewarding to read: either the author is so faithful to the original story that there is very little mystery and the reader has little new to discover, or the re-telling is so widely divergent from the original story that the reader loses the added depth of meaning that the base of a traditional story can bring to a novel.  Ash is one of the re-tellings I’ve read that manages to walk the fine line between those two extremes, finding ways to make the story fresh and new while expanding and building on the original fairytale’s themes.

Ash was brought up on her mother’s tales of fairies – menacing stories that have horrible consequences for the mortals who get involved in the fairy world.  But her father and her new stepmother have no faith in the old stories, so Ash keeps her worries to herself even as she is slowly getting pulled into a strange sort of friendship with a fairy who seems to be protecting her.  Even though Ash is constantly aware of the fact that the stories never end well for mortals, and that every thing she gains from her fairy protector will make her consequences deeper, she almost seems to court the danger of the fairy stories.  And of course her father dies, and of course she is pressed into service in her stepmother’s house.  But then some thing unexpected happens – over and over again Ash finds herself in the company of Kaisa, the King’s Huntress.  And soon she finds herself seeking out Kaisa’s company.

Malindo Lo creates a lovely and atmospheric world, where the woods are deep and full of magic and the important things are often expressed through fairy stories.  The writing is lyrical and has the feel of a traditional fairy tale, but I did find the pacing a bit off – slow in the first half of the book, and then rushed in the second half.  I found myself wishing that the ending, especially the climactic scene between Ash and the fairy Sidhean, had been fleshed out further and given more time to develop.  This was definitely one of those books where you take a look at how many pages are left and wonder how the story can possibly be resolved before you run out of book.  And while it was resolved, it did leave me wanting a little bit more.

The love between Kaisa and Ash is refreshingly not one in which the characters are swept off their feet.  It grows slowly and naturally, starting with curiosity and awkward conversations and moving into a wonderful slow-burning tension between the two characters.  Also refreshing was the lack of any agonized questioning of Ash’s sexuality – while she sometimes seems surprised to be falling in love with a woman, the different genders of her potential lovers do not seem to play in her decision.  All in all, this was a book that I really enjoyed.  I will be looking forward to more from Malinda Lo.

Malindo Lo on the web.

Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore

Ever since Nimira came to the country of Lorinar with the intention of making her fortune, she has been leered at, exoticized, and made to feel inferior by virtually everyone she meets.  While dancing with a troupe of fellow dark-skinned “trouser girls” from Tassim who are treated as a salacious novelty act, she dreams of being discovered by a gentleman who will care for her.  Nimira cannot imagine the turns her life will take when it actually happens.

Enter Hollin Parry: handsome gentleman, scholar, rich benefactor to young singers.  Nimira cannot believe her luck when Hollin asks her to accompany him to his manor house to sing along with his automaton, a strangely realistic mechanical man who plays tunes on the piano.  When she arrives, Nimira finds that her life at Hollin’s is not all it seems, and she begins to unearth his many secrets.

I was really excited when I thought that Hollin was going to be the bad guy.  Despite having made a couple of really bad choices in his life, he’s a genuinely likable character who seems to love Nimira for all the right reasons.  And there’s nothing I like better than a well-intentioned bad guy.  But there’s a much bigger villain pulling the strings – one who’s not likable in any way.  Hollin is still a believably conflicted character, both in his thoughts and actions, and I enjoyed seeing him struggle with his decisions.  Interestingly, I feel like I came away from the book with a better understanding of Hollin than either of the romantic leads.

The biggest secret Nimira unearths is the true nature of the automaton, which is really a fairy who is trapped inside a mechanical man by a curse.  It is not a surprise that Nimira, who has been made to feel like something inhuman for most of her life and now feels indebted to a man who she does not love, is immediately attracted to Erris, who is similarly trapped and without agency in this world.  However, I didn’t feel that love develop since their conversations were so short and stilted – for reasons that make perfect sense in the plot, but it still left me wanting more.  And let’s be honest, creating really great sexual tension is tough when one of the characters is made of metal and can’t move.  This was one of a few places where I would have liked a little bit further development, which would certainly have been possible in this very short book.  I didn’t find their budding romance unrealistic, I just didn’t feel like I saw it grow.

Despite the fast-moving pace of this short book, the world-building is really well done.  The reader gets a good sense of both Nimira’s home country and of Lorinar, and they are each given their own specific character and customs.  We haven’t seen much of the fairy world at this point, but I’m sure that it will be similarly developed in later books.  Dolamore did a really nice job of using the characters’ cultural backgrounds as a base for their personal viewpoints and choices – you could see the differences between the countries in the way that characters reacted to a situation, even when they are going against tradition.  I would have loved to hear more about the politics of Dolmore’s world.  Many political intrigues are hinted at in the book, and I hope that they will move to center stage as Nimira and Erris’ story continues.

I was shocked, only a few months after the cover change to Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, to see Bloomsbury publish another book featuring a dark-skinned, black-haired protagonist with a very white-looking girl on the cover – especially since this looks like it is a cover that was created with a dedicated photo shoot rather than using stock photos.  (I could, of course, be wrong about this not being a stock photo.)  I think it’s probable that the cover for Magic Under Glass was finalized before that controversy took place, but it’s still truly disheartening to see. I hope that we will see changes when the paperback comes out.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Jaclyn Dolamore on the web.

Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers has written a new novel that will strongly appeal to teens who loved Monster.  I don’t really have to say anything else, do I? You’re going to buy this book and put it in your libraries and share it with your teens.  I know I can’t wait to do exactly that.

Like Steve in Monster, Reese is a kid who made a mistake and is facing consequences that are much bigger than he ever anticipated.  Now he’s finding out firsthand how one mistake can spiral into a lifetime of them.  Reese is in a juvenile prison for stealing prescription pads from a doctor and selling them to a local drug dealer.  He’s a good kid who was in a tough situation, trying to care for his younger brother and sister while also trying to keep any money he made out of his drug-addicted mother’s hands.  And he has committed what he saw as a victimless crime – if all went well, the doctor might never even notice that the pads were missing.

Reese is a pretty self-aware young man, and even considering his difficult family life he recognizes that it is ultimately his own choice that put him in his current situation.  What he did not anticipate is the repercussions of ending up in a jail system that seems designed to drag inmates further down.  And it’s not just the dimmed job prospects and difficulty of finishing high school after he gets out – so many decisions he must make every day do not have a good option.  Should Reese ignore it when gang members brutally beat up a defenseless younger kid, or defend him?  Reese cannot be passive in situations like these, and by trying to do the right thing he ends up making enemies of other prisoners while also getting himself labeled a troublemaker by guards and risking being sent to a more dangerous facility.  Reese is quickly finding out the truth behind some of his dad’s words: “One time when my pops wasn’t being too stupid he said the streets were like quicksand covered with whip cream. You knew when they were slowing your ass down, but it always came as a surprise when you got sucked under” (pages 98-99).

At least one person in the prison system recognizes some potential in Reese and presents him with an opportunity to keep from getting sucked under.  When Reese is selected for a program that sends young, nonviolent prisoners into the workforce during the day, he makes a connection in the nursing home where he is assigned to work.  Like Steve in Monster, Reese is starting to look at his life and experiences through a new lens – not through the literal lens that Steve used in his screenwriting and movie planning, but the lens of another person’s life experience.  Reese and Mr. Hooft, a grumpy old man who at first pushes Reese away with racist comments and needling remarks about prison, are both surprised by the similarities they discover in their lives.

And while Reese’s relationship with Mr. Hooft is illuminating, it is in his interactions with his younger sister Icy that he really shines.  Even in the times that Reese is most hopeless about his own future, he is determined to protect and support his funny, precocious baby sister in achieving her goals.  And we’re not talking about just any goals – we’re talking Princeton, following that up with the White House, and finally stopping war by giving everybody free food.  This girl is going places – and her big brother is going to make sure of it.  Reese’s life never feels hopeless as long as he sees the promise in this little girl who he loves so much.

Walter Dean Myers’ ability to channel the voice of urban black teenagers is second to none, and it is this skill even more than his choice of subject matter that makes his novels appeal so strongly to urban teens.  The really astonishing thing is that he doesn’t do it by using lots of slang or dialect, which would date the book quickly – it’s almost entirely in the rhythm of his writing, and it comes through both in the dialogue and in Reese’s narration.  The reader can hear Reese’s voice, and it makes his story so much more immediate and compelling.  And Reese’s voice and story are both worth hearing.

Walter Dean Myers on the web.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Ice by Sarah Beth Durst

IceA conversation about metaphysics between a teenage scientist and her husband, who is a giant talking polar bear.  Right now you’re either pulling a face at me or you’re hooked, right?

I was pretty hooked.  This is not a story that pulls punches with the absurdity of it’s premise.  Durst’s novel is a re-telling of the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon.  Now, the original is a strange and compelling story that leaves a lot of strange gaps in the plot – gaps that are just begging to be filled in and explored by an enterprising YA author.  So it’s no surprise that this story has already been tackled multiple times, most memorably in Edith Pattou’s exquisite East. The strangeness of this particular story is brought into sharp relief by Durst’s choice of a modern setting, and it can be jarring – both for the reader and the characters.  But if you’re willing to suspend a little disbelief, you will find a wonderful love story and an epic adventure in Ice.

Durst’s take brings in some unexpected elements.  Myth and science are married in many ways in this novel – most literally in the actual marriage between Cammie, an 18-year-old arctic scientist, and Bear, a giant mystical polar bear.  Durst also throws an interesting touch of religion into her explanation of Bear’s strange powers.  It’s a wonderful mix, especially when Cassie and Bear find an elegant way to bring their talents together, using Cassie’s scientific expertise to help Bear’s magical purpose along.

In the original story, the heroine saves the polar bear through her exceptional laundry skills.  Cassie brings a little bit more to the table.  She is a dedicated scientist even at 18, and her passion for the arctic is palpable even at times when the brutal wilderness is moments away from killing her.  She is a risk-taker who will throw herself whole-heartedly at a problem, usually without much of a plan.  But her determination and ingenuity see her though, making her a pleasure to read.

I did sometimes find the plot of the book fragmented.  Cassie’s goals change several times over the course of the novel, and some of those goals feels much more urgent and are better at driving the story.  I felt this most in the parts of the story that dealt with Cassie’s mother, who Cassie is so dedicated to saving in the book’s beginning, but who never becomes an important part of the story after she has been saved.  I would have liked to see more growth in that relationship.  The second half of the novel gives Cassie one clear goal – to find Bear and bring him home.  This brings the story into sharper focus, and also brings Cassie’s best qualities – her determination and fortitude – to the forefront.  Cassie is a kick-ass girl, and she gets to show her grit when this thoughtful story turns into an epic survival adventure in the frozen north.

Sarah Beth Durst on the web.

Review copy provided by the publisher at the author’s request.

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr

Once Was LostKidnapping.  Alcoholism.  Loss of faith.  Budding romance.  Distant parents.  Distant friends.  Depression.  All in a novel that’s about as thick as my pinky finger.  Sounds sort of awful, doesn’t it?  Luckily, this novel was written by Sara Zarr, who is more than capable of packing a lot into a slim volume – both in terms of content and emotional impact.

In Once Was Lost, Zarr parallels the many small tragedies in one person’s life with a larger tragedy in the community.  Sam is hurting, and the religion that has been a comfort to her for so long has turned confusing and constricting.  But where can Sam take her questions?  Not to her dad, the local pastor, who seems to have time for everyone’s crises except Sam’s.  Not to her youth group friends, who can’t help seeing Sam as the pastor’s kid and don’t include her in social activities that Pastor Charlie might frown on.  And certainly not to her mother, who hasn’t called Sam once since being forced into rehab after a drunk driving accident.

While Sam is dealing with her own difficult issues, a young member of the congregation goes missing.  Jody Shaw’s disappearance brings the church and town communities together in many ways, and Sam throws herself into the search efforts.  While the mystery of what happened to Jody may seem like it would be the center of the book, in reality it acts more as a catalyst for Sam’s personal issues.  By pushing her dad even further into his work and bringing a sense of immediacy to Sam’s questions about her faith, this tragedy becomes a major part of Sam’s internal struggle.

Perhaps the saddest and most fully realized part of Zarr’s novel is Sam’s relationship with her father.  Every time Pastor Charlie dashes off to help a member of his congregation, leaving his struggling daughter to fend for herself in questions of faith and questions of what to have for dinner, my heart broke a little bit.  Sam’s pain is so obviously visible, but the person who has always been closest to her cannot see it – or chooses not to.  The difficulties Sam faces in the community and in relating to her dad are handled exquisitely in the novel.  This seems to be a story that hits close to home for Zarr, and in writing it she has given us her best book so far.

Sara Zarr on the web.

Review copy provided by publisher at BEA.

The Blonde of the Joke by Bennett Madison

blonde of the jokeNo one has ever looked at Francie without doing a double-take.  Everything about her is big – her hair, her make-up, her boobs.  Francie’s the kind of girl who ends up wearing the “whore’s raincoat,” an ankle-length lime green coat that is doled out to cover up inappropriate clothing, on her first day at a new school.  No one has ever looked at Val twice.  Why would they?  She’s practically invisible, her hair “brown like something you looked for and looked for and couldn’t find until your mom told you to check under your bed, and there it was, crumpled in a dusty corner where you couldn’t reach it” (pg. 4-5.  All quote taken from ARC – language may change.)  But Francie notices Val.  She sees something in her, and soon Val is drawn into Francie’s orbit.

There is a delicious hint of magical realism in Madison’s version of suburbia, but it’s not a pretty kind of magic.  It’s slippery and sneaky, and a little bit dangerous.  The book’s magic centers on two things: Francie and shoplifting.  When Val is with Francie suddenly anything is possible, and the Montgomery Shoppingtowne Mall may just hold the most beautiful thing in the world.  And the magic changes Val, as she pulls on her stolen motorcycle jacket and uses  a heavy layer of eyeliner like armor.

Bennet Madison’s character descriptions shine.  He has the ability to sum a person up in one biting line.  Not much time is spent on Val’s mother, but when she is described as “the kind of person who saw that there was a thunderstorm and went out without an umbrella anyway, because it seemed futile trying to stay dry so why bother” (pg. 75), the reader knows exactly what kind of person she is.  And since she is the center of Val’s world, the descriptions of Francie are exquisite:

You should understand that she was not exactly a supermodel. I mean, she was beautiful, but she wasn’t. Yeah, she was tall and blond and booby with amazing legs, but there was something a little funny about her jawline – something square and sharp and almost masculine. Her shoulders were too broad; one eye was just the tiniest bit wonky; her nose had a slight hook; and if you looked closely you could see small blossoms of acne under the crust of her caked-on makeup. It didn’t matter. There was just something about her. If you thought too hard about it, she was almost ugly. But then you looked again, and your jaw would drop.

She was a more perfect body pieced together from spares and defectives. From day to day, her appearance was never quite the same. No picture resembled the last. And sometime I wondered if she was replacing her own parts with things she had lifted, one by one. A rhinestone where her left eye should have been. A fist-sized crystal paperweight for a heart. It’s possible that she was a robot or a hologram. But aren’t those things real, too? (pg. 66-67)

And the descriptions aren’t just evocative – they’re something Madison uses to drive the plot.  It’s through Val’s shifting descriptions of Francie that we start to see the chinks in her armor and to recognize Val’s growing independance from her friend.

I’m always fascinated by a good writer’s ability to make something important by leaving it out.  It’s a tough line to walk – how to bring up a subject just enough that the reader recognizes that it is important, but skirt around it so that it is clear that the narrator is avoiding the subject.  Val refuses to so much as think about her older brother, Jesse, for much of the book – but she does it in a way that makes it very clear just how important Jesse is. 

I have seen several mentions of the language in this book.  And while I don’t have a problem with the swearing, which I think is used effectively in the narrative, I did cringe at the casually homophobic language.  Is it realistic to have a teenager call something they don’t like “gay”?  Absolutely.  And I certainly recognize that Val and Francie are supremely flawed characters.  I think teen readers will recognize that, too.  But I do wonder why the author thought it was necessary.  (A side note: Am I feeling a little bit uncomfortable calling out an openly gay author about homophobic language?  Yep.  I really would like to hear his input on this.) 

Since reading this book I’ve been thinking about why I have such a strong reaction to homophobic language in YA literature.  I think it comes down to this: when teens read about Val and Francie shoplifting, they recognize that what the girls are doing is wrong.  When a character in a book uses racist language, just about every teen I know is going to recognize that the author is making a choice in using that language, and is going to recognize that the language is hateful and hurtful.  From the conversations I hear every day, I don’t think that’s true with homophobic language.  To keep my library a safe and comfortable space for all patrons, I regularly try to talk to my young library users when they use homophobic language.  In my experience from these conversations, the understanding of why it is wrong just isn’t there yet with a large number of kids and teens.  I hope that parents, teachers, and librarians will use this book as a starting point for having these important conversations.  And I would love to hear everyone’s input on this issue.

The Blonde of the Joke on the web.

Bennett Madison on the web.