Little Do We Know by Tamara Ireland Stone

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Little Do We Know by Tamara Ireland Stone
Hyperion, 2018

Stone explores complex aspects of faith and trust in this respectful, character-driven novel. White seniors Hannah and Emory had been best friends for 17 years but, after a shattering argument 3 months ago, have not spoken to each other since. They go their separate ways – Hannah to her father’s church school and Emory hanging out with her boyfriend Luke – until one night Luke has an accident and everything changes for all three of them.

Hannah’s family is deeply Christian and so was she, but now she is questioning this blind faith and she looks for alternatives. Religion has not been a factor in Luke and Emory’s lives, but after his near-death experience Luke starts finding comfort in it.

Hannah and Emory are distinct and fleshed-out narrators in alternating short chapters as they gradually unpeel what happened three months ago to drive them apart and what is happening now that might bring them back together. As they deal with the secrets that can undermine even the closest relationships, they also find the glue that keeps friends and families together.

Ideal for teens interested in unusual and unexpected ideas.

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Ship It by Britta Lundin

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Ship It by Britta Lundin
FreeForm, 2018.

Set in the world of comic cons and fanfic, this warm-hearted and funny debut novel takes a sharp look at identity and representation. High school junior narrator Claire is obsessed with Demon Heart, a TV fantasy show, and she writes romantic and explicit fanfiction about the two male leads, Smokey and Heart (in the vernacular, she ships SmokeHeart). Second narrator Forest plays Smokey and is openly appalled when Claire asks at a con panel about the possibility that his character is gay.

Over the course of several cons, both Claire and Forest evolve, understanding more about themselves and the importance of empathy. Claire’s connection with Demon Heart has grown from from her nerdy misfit loneliness in small town Idaho and her nascent understanding of her sexuality. As she finds more friends who get her and even tentatively starts a relationship with Tess, a black “homoromantic pansexual” she realizes there is more to real life than SmokeHeart going canon.

Forest is laser-focused on a career in action movies and believes  any suggestion of homosexuality in his role would be a death blow to his ambitions. But he come to (maybe unrealistically quickly) realize the importance of representation of all communities in the media and that once something is on screen it is up to the audience how they interpret it.

The support cast, including Rico who plays Heart, Claire’s somewhat overinvolved parents, and the PR team are all warmly supportive of Claire’s struggles. Tess is an interesting love interest – though seemingly sure of herself in many ways, she is also ashamed of her fandom and there are several missteps between the two young women.

TV writer Lundin creates a frothily manic, if slightly idealized world, informed by her knowledge of the realities of TV show production, social media, and the intense world of comic cons. She acknowledges the lack of diversity in mainstream TV shows and though the ending suggests that attitudes are changing, it’s probably slower in real life.

Ideal for teens who enjoy shipping their favorite TV and movie characters.

What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

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What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera
HarperCollins, October 2018.

In this appealing YA romance, Arthur Seuss (written by Albertalli of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda fame) and Ben Alejo (written by Silvera who also wrote the wonderful They Both Die at the End) meet cute in a New York Post Office. Both are rising high school seniors: Arthur, from Georgia, is interning in a law office; Ben is at summer school trying to keep himself from repeating junior year.

But when they fail to get a way to contact each other, it looks like their romance is fated not to happen – and Fate is big in this book – but Arthur doesn’t accept that and finds a way. Though it does seem that the universe wants them together, in the end it can only do so much. Their romance stutters at first and they need several do-overs (also a theme) until they hit their groove. But there’s still problems as Arthur obsesses over Ben’s relationship with his ex, Hudson, and hanging over them is Arthur’s return to Georgia at the end of the summer.

Both boys have loving supportive parents and both have a “squad” of typical YA novel witty and delightful friends. The authors explore the idea of the complications for friendships when the friends begin to date especially when it’s each other. Ben wants to have both friends and a boyfriend but that doesn’t always seem possible.

There is something of a rose-tinted fantasy hue over this novel. New York is a gorgeous backdrop to their romance and Arthur is the gawping tourist who wants “that New York feeling like they talk about in musicals – that wide-open, top-volume, Technicolor joy.” With the exception of an ugly confrontation on the subway, it seems like New York has sprinkled magic dust over our couple. Though Arthur muses on the difference between Lonely Messy Real Arthur and Upbeat Instagram Arthur, it does feel like both he and Ben lived charmed lives.

An epilogue set fifteen months later introduces some hard reality, but it’s still soft focus enough not to break the spell. I was thoroughly charmed by this two-hander and I suspect fans of Albertalli’s and Silvera’s will be too.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

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Pride by Ibi Zoboi
HarperCollins, September 2018.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has been used as the basis for many a retelling; in this “remix”, Ibi Zoboi sets her charming and breezy YA romance in present day Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Janae, Zuri, and their three younger sisters live with their Haitian mother and Dominican father, all squashed together in a rundown but joyous 2-bedroom apartment. For Zuri, home is “my parents’ love, my loud sisters, my crowded and cluttered apartment, and the lingering scent of home-cooked meals.”

When the black Darcy family moves into a remodeled mini-mansion across the road, the scene is set for Zuri to be prejudiced and Darius Darcy to be proud. But it also opens up the novel’s larger theme of the gentrification of neighborhoods: “Outsiders moving in to change things up and throw things away.” (And a recent Bloomberg headline “Brooklyn’s Bushwick Zooms Up the List of NYC’s Priciest Neighborhoods” bears Zuri’s fears out). Even though Zuri resents these, mainly white, incursions, she does concede “that the new people moving in, with their extra money and dreams, can sometimes make things better.”

With Janae just back from her first year at Syracuse and narrator Zuri getting ready to apply to Howard, these young women are far from the restrictions placed on the Bennet sisters of the early 19th century: “We’re thinking about our careers and goals and breaking barriers.” Their parents are also much more reasonable than the Austen Bennets: Mami is the life and soul of the block, cooking up a storm at the drop of a hat and Papi keeps the household going by working two jobs.

Darius and his older brother Ainsley (the Bingham love interest for Janae) have wealth and privilege and just don’t fit into Zuri’s idea of the neighborhood: they speak differently, they behave differently, and they seem to be negatively judging the people and the place. On the other hand, Warren, a young man from the neighborhood who headlines himself as “Black Teen Boy from the Projects with Absentee Father Makes It into New York City’s Top Private School” has a lot more appeal for Zuri: “There’s a little bass in his voice, a little hood, a little swag, not like these Darcy boys.”

Ms Zoboi stays close to the structure of the Austen plot, only taking a few liberties with characters’ relationships for the sake of brevity, and it works naturally and really well. Given that it is contemporary YA, Pride does not have the same leisurely pace and depth of character development as Pride and Prejudice, though to be fair most teens I know (and many adults) find Jane Austen interminably slow. And it isn’t really a spoiler to say that pride and prejudice are overcome in satisfying ways and resolution is reached without Zuri compromising her ideals.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.

Algeria Is Beautiful Like America by Olivia Burton; illustrated by Mahi Grand and translated by Edward Gauvin

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Algeria Is Beautiful Like America by Olivia Burton; illustrated by Mahi Grand and translated by Edward Gauvin
Lion Forge, 2018.

In this elegant graphic memoir, originally published in France in 2015, the white French author goes to Algeria to visit the places her settler family had lived in before they left in the 1960’s after the War of Independence. Olivia has her grandmother’s written memories to guide her along with a local contact called Djaffar.

The novel switches between the present day, her family’s time in Algeria, and Olivia’s and her mother’s early years in France. Olivia’s views on France’s presence in Algeria had been formed by her relatives’ rosy stories of their colonial past, but these were challenged by her school and college friends. It is only now, years later, when she is actually in the country that she can form her own perspective.

A map on the endpapers – clean at the front and marked up with the route and notes at the back – gives a guide to the trip. The detailed black and white illustrations, augmented with the occasional color “photograph” from Olivia’s trip, show the present and the past and their frequent overlap. The scenes of her quest capture the charms of the people, the buildings, and, with an occasional double page spread, the landscape of Algeria and she finally understands why her mother could never find anywhere to settle in France.

As Olivia and Djaffar drive into the Aurès mountains, they find many people who knew her family and are happy to show her their old houses. Even in Algiers, she is welcomed into the family who have lived in her grandparents’ apartment since they left.

Some of this historical background might be a bit challenging for Americans as it assumes at least a basic familiarity with France’s troubled relationship with Algeria, and though there are footnotes to help on specific points, there is no author’s note with some more general background. Nonetheless, it is an evocative memoir about uncovering the past and exploring how it has impinged on the present.

Autonomous by Andy Marino

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Autonomous by Andy Marino
Freeform, 2018

In this thought-provoking present day YA scific thriller, high school graduating senior William Mackler wins a top of the line Autonomous self-driving car prototype and also the chance to take his three best friends on the road trip to end all road trips before they go their separate ways.

The four kids in the car are the archetypal team from any number of action and heist movies: Melissa is the fixer, Daniel is the muscle, Christina the tech genius, and William is the wildcard (all the teens appear to be white with the exception of Guatemalan American Christina). They jokingly assign the role of brains to Otto little realizing how sophisticated its AI really is.

Each teen cultivates an image on social media and for each other, but they all have secrets and never show their real selves and the reader only sees this through their individual chapters, written from a third person POV.

The tech behind Otto and Christina’s hacking is fictional but credible, and as Otto mines his passengers every online communication he takes them at face value without understanding the nuances of their behaviors and interactions. This leads to revelations and potentially catastrophic events as they wind their way cross country from the top of New York State to the Moonshadow festival in Arizona.

Will appeal to readers looking for character-driven (no pun intended!) speculative fiction.

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

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The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor
Katherine Tegen, 2018

7th grader Mason Buttle is tall, sweaty, and something of an innocent. He is dyslexic and has synesthesia – he sees his mood as colors. All of this makes him a a bit of a loner and target for bullies. Two years ago, his best friend Benny Kilmartin died in an accident, and though Mason doesn’t realize it, many people in the town including one of the police officers, think he is responsible.

Two things happen to change Mason’s life: His empathetic and kind counselor gets Dragon,  some voice recognition software, so Mason is able to write his story and, secondly, he becomes friends with Calvin Chumley, a particularly small and smart neighborhood boy.

Mason’s family has checked out since the death of his mother (his father is out of the picture) and grandfather several years ago, and Benny’s death was a further blow: “Bing, bang, boom.” They have sold off family land, stopped working the orchard, and let their house turn into a “crumbledown”, but a crisis involving Mason galvanizes them all back to life.

Connor captures Mason’s voice through both his narration of the book and his Dragon-dictated account of his life. Short sentences, straightforward vocabulary, and thoughtful musings show Mason to be a boy with a lot of challenges, but who ploughs on regardless. His naïveté, good heart, and openness to friendship shine through.

I enjoyed Connor’s Crunch (2010) and this is a similarly quirky perspective on that hazy age between being a child and a teen. Though Mason and Calvin are outliers, their friendship and experiences will resonate with many middle graders.