YA – Muted: A Novel in Verse

Charles, Tami. Muted: A Novel in Verse. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-67352-4. $18.99. 386 p. Grades 9-12.

Author Tami Charles, who once belonged to rhythm and blues girl group, relates a compelling story reminiscent of the R. Kelly scandal. She chooses a real-life small town between the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania and the Catskills in New York. Drawn to each other because they are the few persons of color in their predominantly white high school, three talented girls are overwhelmed and overjoyed to get the notice of a leading recording artist and record producer, Sean “Mercury” Ellis. Denver LaFleur, a curvy, African American with a powerhouse voice, her talented friends Dalisay Gomez and Shakira Brown, sneak behind their parents’ backs to meet with Merc. When Shak drops out because she has suspicions about Merc’s intentions, Merc whisks Denver and Dali to Atlanta where he grooms them to be performers separately in his mansion on Pristine Road. Gradually, Denver takes center stage, while Merc tells Dali she is not ready. Though Denver finds Merc’s methods stringent and mercurial (he limits her calories and takes away her cell phone and internet) and he adapts and takes credit for her original songs, she does get the chance to cut a demo record and make money. Both girls stay with Merc with their parents’ permission (they are only seventeen when he takes them under his wing) because of the possibility of fame and fortune. However, not long into the novel, Denver has difficulty sorting out the rigor becoming a lead singer requires from the torture of being blocked from her family and true love, Dali. Thinking Dali has returned home to Sholola, their hometown, Denver makes clandestine phone call to Shak and discovers Dali is not back in Pennsylvania. Where is she? Using her wiles, Denver explores Merc’s mansion, uncovering a maze of rooms, each one holding captive girls Merc kidnapped. Told in verse, the book is not graphic, but it is brutal. The ending brings some resolution, although not happy ones. The realistic subject matter conveys successful people get away with incorrigible acts is troubling, yet highly readable.

THOUGHTS: Students will draw parallels between this verse novel and R. Kelly, the R & B singer, and similar allegations of captive girls and sexual misconduct. Denver is a sympathetic, authentic character and her involvement in the glittering world of celebrity makes for an interesting, if depressing, read. The setting in Sholola, Pennsylvania, too, is a draw for local readers. The print in the book is extra tiny; hopefully, the published version will be standard size font. Some cursing and descriptions of sexual activity.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Best friends Denver LaFleur, Dalisay (Dali) Gomez, and Shakira (Shak) Brown are the trio that make up Angelic Voices, a singing group with hopes of making it big and getting out of their small town Sholola, Pennsylvania. When Denver sees their opportunity to get noticed in front of Sean “Mercury” Ellis (Merc), she grabs her friends’ hands and presses play on a cell phone to cue up the music. Time stands still as the group beautifully blends harmonies, and they begin to see their dreams within reach. Denver is ready to do whatever it takes to make it. But Shak has doubts about Merc who creeps her out, and she has other obligations with her family, church, and basketball. Shak isn’t ready to sneak around and lie to her family to get her big break, so the trio becomes a duo under Merc’s guidance. Denver and Dali leave their families and move into Merc’s Atlanta mansion. Despite small doubts, Denver is mostly okay as long as Dali is by her side (no one else knows of their secret relationship). Merc has rules, though, to keep his legacy safe and keep the creative juices flowing. The girls hand over their cell phones, have no internet access, sleep in separate parts of the house, and only come out of their rooms when permitted, all in the name of getting into the zone. The next time Denver sees Dali, though, Dali has been on a trip with Merc to have a complete makeover including having work done on her teeth so she no longer needs braces. Denver feels a hint of jealousy with the attention Dali’s been getting while she’s been stuck at home with a personal trainer and very limited food. And there’s Merc’s ever present old school camcorder. Fame isn’t quite what Denver thought it would be, and not being in contact with her family starts to get hard. In a few short months Denver’s life looks entirely different, but is it all worth losing herself and everyone she loves in the process?

THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Denver and cringe at the warning signs she misses. This one would pair well with Tiffany D. Jackson’s Grown and is a must have for high school collections.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder

Jackson, Holly. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. Delacorte Press. 2020. 978-1-984-89636-0. 400 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

Pippa Fitz-Amobi is a good girl: high achiever, faithful friend, devoted daughter, and big sister. So it’s a bit out of character for her to solve a murder for her senior capstone project, especially because it’s one that’s already been solved. Five years ago, high school senior Andie Bell disappeared from their small town of Fairfield, Connecticut. Her body was never found, but the remains of her boyfriend, Salil “Sal” Singh, were discovered in the woods along with evidence that he had killed Andie and then committed suicide out of guilt. Pippa’s instincts, honed on true crime podcasts and documentaries, tell her that Sal is innocent. She aims to raise enough doubts about Sal’s guilt to convince the police to revisit the case. With the help of Sal’s younger brother, Ravi, Pippa susses out one lead after another, untangling clues and connections hidden within interview transcripts, journal entries, and text messages. Meanwhile someone with much to lose is watching their every move — and he (or she?) is unafraid to follow through on threats against what Pippa holds dearest when she refuses to stop digging. Holly Jackson skillfully weaves the elements of a solid mystery into her debut: suspense, red herrings, breathless amateur surveillance, and even a spooky dark alley. A huge twist, revealed just when the crimes have seemingly been solved, propels the pace right to the final page.

THOUGHTS: Mystery fans, take note: You’ll be hooked from the “Murder Map” that appears on page 29! This fast-paced whodunnit is perfect for fans of Karen M. McManus’ thrillers, especially Two Can Keep a Secret. Note that this novel’s potentially sensitive topics include suicide, sexual assault, and an animal in peril.

Mystery          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Pippa Fitz-Amobi has everything going for her: She’s a good student with good friends and a great family. Pip is a “good girl,” and she can’t help but notice how local missing (presumed murdered but never found) Andie Bell also seemed like a good girl. A fan of true crime podcasts and documentaries, Pip can’t ignore the feeling that the five year old murder/suicide of two local teens has some gaps in its investigation. She knew Sal when she was younger, and he couldn’t have possibly killed Andie then himself. Or did he? Though she sells it to her advisor as a look at how media sensationalizing can impact an investigation, Pip decides her senior capstone project will be to look into the Andie Bell case. As she uncovers one clue after the next, she begins to hope that she can prove Sal’s innocence. When Pip receives a threat telling her to stop digging, she knows she must be onto something. Then again, maybe someone is just playing a sick joke. Getting closer to Sal’s little brother Ravi during her investigation doesn’t help Pip keep her feelings separate from the case. When a threat hits close to home, Pip is ready to give up. She might be paranoid, but it seems like someone in Fairview doesn’t want her to keep looking. Told throughout Pip’s investigation, readers will be on the edge of their seats to learn what really happened to Andie Bell and if Pip will successfully complete her project.

THOUGHTS: Told in a variety of formats, readers will not want to put down this fast-paced mystery. The full cast audiobook is excellent. Fans of other YA Thrillers by authors like Karen M. McManus, April Henry, and Gretchen McNeil will be happy to have a new author to enjoy. Mature topics (drug use, drinking, and suicide) make this one best suited for high school readers.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – Dress Codes…; The Free; Little & Lion; Dreams Beyond the Shore

Stevens, Courtney. Dress Codes for Small Towns. Harper Collins. 9780062398512. $17.99 Gr. 8 and up.

Billie McCaffrey, the tomboyish preacher’s daughter and her five friends are in their senior year trying to make the most of their last year as kids, knowing that their world will be changing soon. When they accidently set the church building on fire, they must all make amends to their small town community of Otters Holt in Western Kentucky. All the while the annual Harvest Festival with its Corn Dolly competition, the town’s claim to fame, is in danger of ending this year. “The Hexagon”, the nickname for the friends, is determined to regain their standing in the community and save the small town’s tradition. Filled with humour, teenage pranks and creativity, the heart of this book is the acceptance and love between the six friends, some of whom are questioning their own selves, sexualitites and ambitions. The friends offer each other unwavering support  as they explore their own identities and their place in the world. The small town itself comes to terms with the changing realities of our world as faith and goodwill and church and expectations are sometimes at odds. THOUGHTS:  Overall, a positive tale of friendship, love and romance and all the nuances between them.

Realistic Fiction         Nancy Summers, Abington School District

 

McLaughlin, Lauren. The Free. Soho Teen, 2017. 978-1616957315. 288 p. $18.99. Gr. 9 and up.

Lauren McLaughlin’s novel will engage teen readers from the beginning to the end. Teenager Isaac West has ended up in Haverland Juvenile Detention Center after a carjacking gone wrong. He took the fall for his accomplice (an act lauded by his automotive teacher, who is the ringleader of the car-thieving business) and received 30 days in the detention center. Isaac’s goal is to survive his sentence as quietly as he can. His middle-school aged sister, Janelle, depends on him for help and guidance, since their alcoholic mother can provide neither. While at the center, Isaac joins the computer class to be able to communicate regularly with Janelle via email. He also attends regular group therapy, an environment which encourages participants to relive and understand their crimes. Isaac is an interesting and relatively reliable narrator, and the cast of characters in his group therapy unit are carefully drawn, allowing the reader to empathize with them and hope for future redemption for all. As Isaac’s story and past come to light, the reader will be rooting for him to achieve freedom. THOUGHTS: An engaging and quick, yet complex, read for students who enjoy realistic fiction.

Realistic Fiction    Lindsey Myers, Shady Side Academy Senior School

 

Colbert, Brandy. Little and Lion. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2017. 978-0316349000. 336 p. $17.99. Gr. 9 and up.

Brandy Colbert’s novel is a powerful tale of love: the love between siblings, the love of parents for their children, and the love teens experience, including the difficulty of navigating love and lust for the first time. After it was discovered that her stepbrother, Lionel, has a mental illness, Suzette’s parents sent her to boarding school to allow for more normalcy in her life. When she returns to Los Angeles for the summer, she left a complex relationship with her roommate behind, and is unsure as to how to engage with her brother. When she realizes she has an attraction to both a male childhood friend and a new female coworker, she struggles to develop her own sexual identity. Compounded with that is her brother’s illness and her need for him to love and trust her. Colbert packs a lot into this short book: blended families, mixed-race families, religious differences, sexuality, and mental health. But, her story flows easily from one element to the next and leaves the reader to believe that they are simply catching a glimpse into the lives of one very real, very relatable American family. THOUGHTS: This wonderfully engaging book will fill a definite need in any high school library for more diverse literature for young adults. Highly recommended!

Realistic Fiction     Lindsey Myers, Shady Side Academy Senior School

 

Gibson, Tamika. Dreams Beyond the Shore. Blouse and Skirt Books, 2017. 978-9768267061. 180 p. $19.87. Gr. 9 and up.

Dreams Beyond the Shore is a sweet, quick, and thought-provoking novel that will introduce students to the lives of teens on the small island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Chelsea Marchard’s supports and assists with her father’s run for Prime Minister, even though she abhors his domineering and controlling personality.  He believes that Chelsea’s only path after high school should be to Oxford to become a lawyer, subsequently returning to her country to serve in his government. But, Chelsea, a budding writer, wants to apply to a prestigious writing program at Georgetown. Soon, however, she meets Kyron, whose presence in her life causes as much excitement as it does complications. Chelsea must decide for herself what is more important- her father’s wishes or her own dreams. The story is short and does not go into much depth, and I found myself wishing to read more of Chelsea’s life, and of Kyron’s as well. Kyron himself is an engaging character with a background, story, and future that may or may not include life on Trinidad. The typical teen romance cliches are present, yet the setting and the plot rise this novel above the normal teen novel. The dialogue can be hard to follow, since the characters speak in the colloquial language. Yet, I believe that this only encourages the reader to want to learn more about this small nation. THOUGHTS: This is a great debut novel by a young author, and I hope to read more of her works in the future. This should be added to young adult collections that are in need of diverse voices.

Realistic Fiction     Lindsey Myers, Shady Side Academy Senior School