YA – Aces Wild

DeWitt, Amanda. Aces Wild. Peachtree Teen, 2022. 978-1-682-63466-0. 345 p. $17.99. Grades 7-12.

Jack Shannon’s life falls apart when his Las Vegas casino mogul mother is arrested. It’s not that she doesn’t operate afoul of the law; it’s that she’s too smart to get caught. The high school junior knows her rival, Pete Carlevaro, is responsible. Jack and his two sisters, along with their father, gather at their casino suite home. Jack, closest to their mom, is determined to get revenge, with a little help from his friends. Jack has never been good with social relationships at his boarding school, despite running an illegal blackjack club; he met his best friends online, bonding over their ace (asexual) identities. These are the people he can rely on to help vindicate his mother. But when they meet IRL, Jack is disturbed to discover that he has a crush on one of his friends. Is that even possible? This riotous Ocean’s Eleven for teens is fast paced and fun. Jack, a loner from a dysfunctional family, is determined to out-con the con, but makes one bad decision after another, even as he acknowledges he’s making bad decisions. His first person narration is spot on, hooking readers from the first page. The twists and turns continue to the end of the book, although one big reveal is somewhat obvious. Jack’s friends are an amusing, endearing, diverse group: Latinx, Black and a Vietnamese American/German gender-neutral individual. Jack’s middle sister, Kerry, is hearing impaired. The ace issue is casually referred to throughout the book, but does not dominate the narrative, leaving the casino shenanigans to take center stage. 

THOUGHTS: This is a delightful, movie-worthy romp that is suitable for middle school and up. Mild language, but appropriate to the situation. The asexual narrative is deftly handled: informative but not overwhelming. This isn’t a book about ace kids, but rather about an engaging group of friends running a Vegas con, who happen to be ace. 

Mystery          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – 96 Miles

Esplin, J.L. 96 Miles. Starscape, 2020. 978-1-250-19230-1. 266 p. $16.99. Grades 6-8.

96 Miles by J. L. Esplin has the look and feel of an apocalyptic novel. Twelve-year-old John and eleven-year-old Stewart Lockwood are the offspring of single-parent and survivalist, Jim Lockwood. Their father is away on a business trip when a massive power outage strikes their area of the Nevada desert. The boys are unfazed because they have six months’ worth of water and supplies, plus a generator. What they don’t anticipate is the ruthlessness of people as materials grow scarce and the situation drags on. Forced at gunpoint to abandon their property, the narrator John immediately assumes the role of protector, a position his younger brother sometimes resents. He sets out to walk to Brighton Ranch, the home of a close family friend, 96 miles down the highway, in three days. Before long, the brothers are accompanied by two other children, Cleverly Iverson and her little brother, Will. John reluctantly accepts them on their journey at Stew’s urging, and he soon realizes the benefit of their presence, especially Cleverly, a selfless, intelligent girl who is mature beyond her twelve years. Newcomer J. L. Esplin unpacks the plot gradually, feeding the reader a bit of information to put together the puzzle. She transcends the expected blisters, sunburn, and dehydration to make 96 Miles a page-turner full of surprise and suspense that made this reader gasp aloud at least twice. Though the narrative is dire, the author provides the deftly drawn characters with senses of humor and sufficient depth to deem them worthy of their self-named tag, Battle Born. This moniker takes on a significant meaning when it becomes apparent that “survival of the fittest” is an innate impulse even in these likeable characters.

THOUGHTS: This book gives lots of survivalist tips that teachers may be able to incorporate into science lessons. Critical thinking skills are also relevant because John is challenged to make important decisions that effect his life and the lives of his companions. Different times in the story “survival of the fittest” is put to the test causing discomfort or generating discussion. Is there evidence at the end that the Battle Born are willing to let bygones be bygones? Stew and the family friend have diabetes, a factor that lends to the urgency of the quartet’s travels. Reminiscent of Susan Beth Pfieffer’s Last Survivor series and Mike Mullin’s Ashfall.

Action/Adventure          Bernadette Cooke, SD Philadelphia