In the midst of this world is Susan “Jinx” Marshall, who lives with her mother, a teacher; her stepfather Jay, a security expert at a bank; younger brother Charles; and stepsister Makeeba. Her stepbrother Tyrell, on whom Jinx has a huge crush, is away at school. Jinx’s dad, Dr. Maxwell Marshall, is Dr. Doomsday, a survival expert whose book Dr. Doomsday’s Guide to Ultimate Survival provides advice for how to survive if (when?) an apocalypse hits. Advice from Dr. Doomsday appears throughout Day Zero, reminding us that “Everyone in this world seeks power. Those who will stop at nothing to attain it will also never willingly relinquish it” (loc. 483). He is also friends with Ammon Carver, a fact that drives another wedge between Jinx and Makeeba, a fierce advocate for The Spark and its failed Presidential candidate David Rosenthal.
Jinx is a compelling protagonist. She’s still getting used to her new family and has a truly sisterly relationship—non-stop bickering—with her new step-sister. She is incredibly protective of her little brother Charles, an adorable, eight-year-old herbologist who is diabetic, which has a big impact on events. Jinx’s relationship with her parents is complex: she both wishes they would have stayed together while understanding why her mother left her father, who forced the family to run extreme survival drills that left her disconnected from her peers . . . and society. Jinx is brilliant but often has a better understanding of computers and the virtual world than she does of the people around her. Each person in her family pulls or pushes Jinx in a different direction, and her reactions to each reveal a new facet of her identity. Terminus, Jinx’s best friend and her father’s protege, who she knows only virtually, and the mysterious and handsome Gustavo Navarro, who also knows her father, provide additional complexity as we come to understand Jinx.
DeVos creates a clear, distinct, and well-developed world within a chapter or two and then sets off a series of explosions that changes everything. Jinx, Makeeba, and Charles escape because of Dr. Marshall’s survival training and then return to a home in chaos to find that Jinx’s stepfather has been accused of being part of a conspiracy against the government. As she tries to keep her family together, Jinx must deal with a shifting understanding of who to trust. Pursued by agents of The Opposition, Jinx and her family work through one challenge after another, striving both to survive and for something more, to act morally as they come to understand the roots of an insidious and power-hungry corruption that goes deeper than they initially understand.
Day Zero strikes the balance between the personal and the political beautifully, reflecting the tension that dominates Jinx’s own life. The secondary characters work well to help the reader understand Jinx: her maturity, the moments when she falls into a natural self-interest, and her conflicted loyalties. I thoroughly enjoyed both the adventure-packed plot and deVos’s attention to deeper political and psychological issues. Watching the way these characters react to the changing society provided insight into the world of the book and—as the best books do—raised fascinating questions about our own world. I thoroughly enjoyed Day Zero and look forward to Kelly deVos’s conclusion to this duology.
Matthew Dicks’s novel is, in fact, composed solely of Dan’s lists as he tries to make sense of a chaotic life. The convention works fairly well through most of the novel, providing insight into Dan’s perspective. After a while, though, the device wore thin for me, and the novel’s conclusion defied credulity for me in a way that I could not recover from.
There’s still plenty to enjoy here: as a teacher and book lover, Dan’s lists of principles for administrator and ideas about the importance of books for children resonated. The book is organized into months, and each month, he shares his book store’s picks, stories about customers, and philosophies about reading. Those moments are, I think, my favorites.
Overall, Matthew Dicks’s Twenty-one Truths about Love is a pleasant enough book with an empathetic protagonist but not a book I’d strongly recommend.
Tristan is the third generation of his family to pursue boxing, so when his first bout ends in failure, he faces both his own disappointment as well as the disapproval of his father and grandfather. Almost immediately, Tristan’s parents decide that he should spend the summer with his grandparents. Though he has conflicted feelings about his granddad, who is tough on him, but he is quite fond of Nana, who has built a strong relationship with Tristan infused with storytelling.Tristan also shared a love for stories with his friend Eddie, whose death he is still mourning and blames himself for. Tristan holds tight to Eddie’s journal, which contains the West African and African-American stories that mean so much to both of them. It’s here that the magic of the novel begins: Tristan has known since he received the journal that there’s something odd about it (for starters, it glows!).
Tristant Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky centers on stories, and it establishes that focus early as Tristan tells his tale directly to the reader:
“They didn’t want to hear the rest . . .
“Oh, you do?
“Well, what if I told you that I went to war over my best friend’s glowing journal? . . . Would you believe me?” (loc. 72).
Naming is also important. Tristan constantly bemoans the inappropriateness of having “Strong” as a last name when he considers himself to be a coward, weak, a failure. He knows that being a Strong means he’s expected to be brave and to work hard, but he’s not sure he can live up to those expectations. Tristan and the other characters in the book constantly remind each other to be careful with names and with stories because “stories are powerful magic” (loc. 656).They avoid saying their enemies’ names whenever possible so as not to evoke them, and Tristan comes to use stories as a weapon in his arsenal that is stronger even than his fists.
Tristan’s journey to mythological MidPass begins when Gum Baby, “a doll Anansi used to trap an African fairy while he was on a quest” (loc. 293), steals Eddie’s journal, and Tristan pursues her. Their battle ultimately ends in the midst of the Bottle Trees on his grandparents’ farm when Tristan, in an attempt to retrieve the journal, punches one of the bottles and unleashes Uncle C, a demon, though a hole that joins the ground under his feet and the sky of MidPass. Tristan and Gum Baby fall through the hole Tristan has made into a mythological world, and they immediately have to escape bone ships and the threat of the Maafa preying upon the Midfolk. He meets a brave young woman named Ayanna and legendary gods like Brer Fox and John Henry who help him understand the seriousness of the situation.
There’s so much to love here. Of course the mythology, and particularly stories that we (or at least I) aren’t as familiar with, is a big draw. But watching Tristan’s very real personal journey—his consideration of what bravery means, of when violence is appropriate, of what it means to know one’s story—is as compelling as the focus on the gods. Tristan is still trying to reconcile what has happened in the reality of his life back home, where he’s seeing a counselor who talks to him about not “hid[ing] from [his] fears.” Mr. Richardson says, “we have to be able to talk about them, or else they’ll fester like poison, eating us from the inside” (loc. 873). We see similar wisdom from the legendary figures Tristan meets: “Brer Fox told me we can’t harp on past mistakes” (loc. 884). As Tristan begins to reconcile the lessons of these two worlds, his confidence and agency grow.
Watching Tristan contend with symbols of slavery—the Fetterlings, Brand Flies, and bone ships, among others—is a powerful thread through the novel. For Tristan, considering that past has been a part of life, instilled by Nana, who reminds him that “A lot of times . . . little facts get smudged out of the history books. If you gon’ tell a story, you better be sure you’re telling the right one” (loc. 959). It’s in MidPass that Tristan learns to apply so many of the lessons his Nana and Eddie taught him, where the ideas that seemed abstract take on a concrete and immediate urgency. Kwame Mbalia here unites intention and execution in the fabulous Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky.
Through the novel, they discuss the merits of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), make commitments to attend HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and resist their white friends attempts to make them the monolithic voice of blackness in answering their questions (like whether a white person wearing dreadlocks is committing an error of cultural appropriation). Kiera considers these topics as she strives to be a good daughter, to dampen the tension between her sister and boyfriend, and to lay the foundation for a successful future.
Beyond her public life, however, Kiera has a hidden identity as Emerald, the creator, developer, and co-moderator of SLAY, a video game “where every word [she] speak[s] reflects the black goddess [her boyfriend] sees in [her]” (9). Malcolm, however, disapproves of video games, which he thinks encourage black people to “waste their lives” and serve as “distractions promoted by white society to slowly erode the focus and ambition of black men” (10). Kiera feels, partially because of his disapproval, that she cannot let anyone in on her secret. Instead, she and Cicada, her co-moderator, work in hiding to develop the game and to expand its cards, which reflect elements of black history and culture from around the world. Their creativity, based on experience and thorough research, has resulted in a phenomenon for hundreds of thousands of players that is open only to black people.
When a young black man is killed because of something within the game, SLAY becomes the center of a public debate that Kiera tries to navigate from her secret life. She must decide what responsibility lies with her as the media--and her friends and family--consider the implications of a video game that excludes anyone who is not black.
Morris’s book, dedicated “To everyone who has ever had to minimize who you are to be palatable to those who aren’t like you,” grabbed me from moment one. The novel moves sequentially through Kiera’s journey as she struggles to act responsibly as SLAY’s creator and to stay true to her intentions; it also includes vignettes from players within the game, allowing the reader to see the role SLAY plays in each life. The discussions at the novel’s center are compelling and thought provoking--I’d absolutely love to teach this book, which offers such nuanced situations for the reader’s consideration. I am so excited to see the conversations that arise when Brittney Morris’s SLAY is published!
Sullivan’s young adult novel uses this story, Frank R. Stockton’s “The Lady, or the Tiger?,” as a springboard for a story about class division, corruption, and power. At the novel’s heart is Kateri, the daughter of the powerful king who rules a small kingdom built on a formerly lush oasis. Now, the kingdom suffers because of a murderous drought that requires strict rationing of water for its citizens.
Kateri’s father has raised her in luxury but with a hatred for the Desert Boys, a wild gang of outcasts who killed her mother and infant brother when Kateri was a child. She has trained as a warrior both to defend her home—she promised her mother that she would take care of her people and rule with kindness—and to seek vengeance on those who broke her family.
Kateri lives in the world that Stockton first imagined, one where justice is meted out by chance. Kateri’s father forces criminals into an arena, and they are given a choice between two doors: the first holds a bloodthirsty tiger, and the second holds some sort of treasure. As the novel opens, a young Desert Boy is in the midst of his choice, and his prize is the cart of goods that he had tried to steal. Kateri watches as the boy makes away with the object of his theft . . . and then comes to realize that her father had controlled the fate of this criminal all along.
Since Kateri is old enough to marry, her father has set up another series of competitions: she is to fight twelve potential suitors. If she wins the battle, the suitor is banished from the kingdom. If he wins, the suitor will marry her. As he does with the sentencing of criminals, Kateri’s father controls her fate, wresting from her the power she thought she had earned.
The plot really ramps up as Kateri begins to realize the full scope of her father’s betrayal and seeks to regain control over her life by leaving the kingdom and seeking training among the Desert Boys. Along the way, she comes to see herself, her father, and her world hold depths—good and bad—she had not dreamed.
While Sullivan’s novel kept my attention throughout, and I appreciated the world building and mythology that she weaves into the story, I was disappointed by the predictability of the plot. Kateri is the typical strong female protagonist whose epiphanies about the world around her spur her to work for change and to make a series of correct decisions. Those epiphanies come so easily that they are nearly instantaneous. Her training montage—one of my favorite elements of any action book or movie (think The Karate Kid or Rocky IV)—is enjoyable but also so, so quick. She picks up incredibly difficult skills in a day because she is so preternaturally gifted. The novel’s revelations progress as expected for those who have read this type of YA novel before, which means that moments meant to have great emotional resonance fall, unfortunately, short. Tiger Queen is a pleasant enough read but not one that offers anything new . . . or anything as complex and sinister as its source material.
These dueling sister towns in Washington hold a sort of joint claim to fame: Christie Romney’s Unicorns vs. Dragons YA teen fantasy series (which is set in Carthage) and Caleb Sloat’s band Rainy Day Knife Fight (Caleb, Billy’s uncle, grew up in—and escaped from—Rome).
The world here is gritty; both teenagers are familiar with poverty and hunger, and both are outcasts who are deeply lonely. Billy’s grandmother has raised him in a home of hoarding and neglect, while Lydia’s father Larry is a single dad. After her mother died in a car accident in the midst of abandoning them, Lydia has built emotional walls around herself, choosing loneliness over vulnerability. Billy, conversely, is constantly reaching out only to be turned away by everyone. When Billy approaches Lydia after the consolidation of their schools, Lydia responds with her typical bristly comeback . . . but she also leaves the door open to friendship.
We come to know Billy as someone who is constantly trying. He tries to be better, to learn more, to be kinder, more helpful. He relies on the “twenty-four-hour AA meeting channel” (loc. 284) and television therapists for advice because no one in his life cares enough to offer any. Lydia, meanwhile, has walled herself off from her father just as she has from everyone else. Her only hope seems to come in the dancing that serves as her emotional outlet and her inspiration.
The friendship between Billy and Lydia, which is absolutely my favorite part of the book, grows slowly as their world becomes stranger. The leader of the U.S. is the King, and his behavior becomes more outrageous as the plot unfolds (yes, there are some shadows of our real political situation here!). Billy’s house turns against him, disintegrating and seeming to hold something threatening in its walls. Lydia is followed by a shadowy figure of which she can’t quite get a clear view. And then there’s the fog, which grows thicker and smells and becomes more malicious as the story continues. Through all of this growing magic, Billy and Lydia nurture—sometimes grudgingly—their friendship, fighting through the easy urge to turn against each other when their lives go wrong. Watching them come to know each other and to understand the other’s weaknesses and strengths is a beautiful journey.
I really appreciated the gradual growth of the dark magic that surrounds Rome and Carthage: there’s much that’s sinister in this novel, but none of the fantasy evil overshadows the malevolence rooted firmly in reality, in the casual cruelty of the people who are supposed to care most for these teenagers or in the easy aggression of their peers. Amy Reed is brilliant at making us feel the loneliness and sadness against which Billy and Lydia fight, and because that depression is so vivid, I found the moments of hope and courage and earnestness to be so, so moving. The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World isn’t easily categorized into a single genre and should therefore appeal to a multitude of readers.
Viviane’s sister Natalia and Natalia’s daughter Maxine take in Raven, supporting her as she struggles to recover her memories and her sense of self. She also balances the travails of high school, where she takes on mean girls, a romantic interest in Tommy Torres, . . . and a realization that she is hearing both strange voices and other people’s thoughts. Oh, and her shadow sometimes looks like a raven. The mystery of Raven’s past and powers grows as she comes to rely more on her new family, whose support and love for Raven was my favorite part of the book.
As Raven works to reconcile the slow emergence of her memory, the reader comes to know her snarky personality, sympathy for the underdog, and total girl power. The narrative is layered with humor, a respectful treatment of voodoo, and nods to the greater DC mythology. Garcia and Picolo have created a great merging of story and art, with the beautiful purple wash of the book providing a gorgeous reinforcement of the central story’s tone and as a nod to its protagonist. Solid graphic novel introduction to this superhero backstory.
At the novel’s center is an alternate reality that I, for one, would love to live in. The winner of the 2016 U. S. Presidential election was Ellen Claremont, a blonde, divorced Texan with a second husband and mixed-race kids who is seriously dedicated to liberal causes. Our protagonist is her son, Alex Claremont-Diaz, a college student who is ready to launch his own political career upon graduation. Alex is driven, brilliant, mouthy, and a social icon for the country along with his older sister June and their best friend Nora, the granddaughter of the Vice President. Together, the White House Trio plays with the media, throws amazing parties-that-are-fundraisers, and begins working on Ellen’s reelection campaign.
Everything is going smoothly until the Trio’s attendance at a royal wedding. Alex and his friends travel to England where Alex dreads seeing his nemesis, Prince Henry. Since their first meeting, when Henry asked his staff to get rid of Alex, Alex has loathed Henry, his list of crown-approved hobbies and interests, and his ridiculously good looks. When they face off during the reception for Henry’s brother and his new wife, Alex and Henry cause an international incident. After the pair creates some unfavorable headlines, the two governments craft a plan to convince the world that the two are best friends. That plan goes awry, however, when romance blooms (love it!).
I absolutely adored this novel. McQuiston does a beautiful job building intriguing, realistic, nuanced characters who are relatable, even though they’re in the White House and Buckingham Palace. (Also, somewhat trivially, I loved it because Alex is a perfect fictional descendant of his namesake Alexander Hamilton, with whom I--along with the rest of the world--am obsessed because of the musical.) The romance is the perfect balance of steamy and tender, and the subplots behind the main storyline are thoughtful and brilliant. I picked up my Kindle, not knowing what to expect, and had a hard time putting it down. Please pick up Red, White, & Royal Blue as soon as you can and love it as much as I do.
The book opens after Nikolai’s abdication, when the family has been moved to Tobolsk, Siberia. Anastasia, the 16-year-old narrator, is known as Shvibzik, or imp, and her nickname reveals a great deal about her character. Nastya is a strong-willed and mischievous trickster who enjoys entertaining her family to maintain a sense of normality and playing pranks on the soldiers who are their captors. Brandes does a brilliant job establishing the strong bonds within this family, which includes Nastya’s parents, her three sisters, and her 13-year-old brother Alexei, who suffers from hemophilia. Nastya’s father, Nikolai, acts with a humility surprising for his prior role, and he urges Nastya to honor life, to find forgiveness, and to prioritize the Russian people. Alexei was also a strong character for me, dealing with the pain of his hemophilia and the loss of his destiny as tsar with bravery and grit.
The world building is just great, and Brandes’s vision of magic centers on spell ink, a rare substance that allows spell masters and their apprentices (like Nastya) to “write” their spells as a way of enacting them. This grounding of magic works well both to expand the story of the Romanovs and to anchor it in practical concerns that occupy much of Nastya’s thoughts.
Brandes telegraphs clearly a romance with a Bolshevik soldier who serves as one of the family’s guards; it took me a while to warm to the authenticity of the match, but eventually (no spoilers here!) I appreciated the complexity of its development. Successful for me, from the beginning, is Nastya’s character arc. Watching her struggle, with her family, to acclimate herself to her new living situation, to accept that her family does not have control over their own destiny, is quite moving. Her constant attempts to be worthy of her former title and of her father’s care enhance this already-nuanced character.
The novel’s basis in history allows those familiar with the legend to appreciate the character development and the addition of magic and those unfamiliar with the stories to feel firmly grounded in what happened. (An excellent Author’s Note is also helpful!) While I don’t want to give anything away, I think that the way Brandes played with the mythology surrounding Anastasia is incredibly smart. This strong YA novel bridging history and fantasy is a great addition to the collection of works studying the royal family. Look for Nadine Brandes’s Romanov on May 7!
A Note from Ashley, Jen, and Sara
We're pleased to share some of our book reviews with you all here. Note that the title of the post also indicates the author of the review. The books reviewed are linked for purchase.