Unlike the movies, where it feels like all of the star-studded casts, A-list directors, and epic films are held until awards season, spring publishing is a present for the patient reader. At just about the time the best lists and book prizes are announced, preview copies from authors new and familiar start to appear like buds on the trees. This assortment of head-shaking premises, problems ripped from the headlines (PTSD, poverty, addiction), and colorful end-of-the-world stories will renew even those readers still caught in a wintry slump.
Anderson, Laurie Halse. The Impossible Knife of Memory. Viking. 2014. 391p. ISBN 9780670012091. $18.99.
Fans have waited five years (since 2009’s Wintergirls) for Anderson to explore again the depths of teen trauma with her distinct brand of wit and intelligence. Seventeen-year-old Hayley has been equal parts companion and caregiver to her father, Andy, since his return from four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now wracked by alcoholism and PTSD, he nevertheless attempts to give Hayley a “normal” senior year, turning their beat 18-wheeler homeward. After years on the road, Hayley finds herself out of step with her small-town classmates, haunted by worries of what could happen to her father when she is not there to care for him, and battling her own memories of better and worse days past. Nevertheless, she warms to the kindnesses of Finn, a boy who patiently scales her sarcastic defenses. Anderson is best at fleshing out the psychological undertow of issues (e.g., rape in 1999’s Speak and anorexia in Wintergirls) that would be mere problem novels in lesser hands, and Hayley’s story is no exception, giving voice to the frustrations of soldiers and their families everywhere by creating flawed, likable characters that persist in our memory long after the last page.
Bick, Ilsa J. White Space. Egmont USA. 2014. (The Dark Passages, Bk. 1). 551p. ISBN 9781606844199. $18.99.
While Chris Wooding delivers Silver thrills (reviewed below), Bick (the “Ashes” trilogy, see 35 Going on 13: Series and Sequels) scares us between the lines in White Space. Emma Lindsey is trying to forget a scolding by her lit professor (who accused her of plagiarizing the unpublished work of a popular, Lovecraft-esque horror writer, Frank McDermott) when she and a friend get caught in the mother-of-all-snowstorms. Bick’s brain bender fiddles with the stuff of perception and reality as the story starts to resemble a Russian matryoshka doll, and Emma’s life begins to mirror his work in a terrifying way. Is Emma herself a character in the one of the McDermott’s stories or the only real person in a growing cast of young people with similar powers of the mind? Or are they all the playthings of Lizzie, McDermott’s young daughter, trying to wrest her father from the Dark Passages that were the source of his frightening creations. This start of a trilogy juxtaposes existential anxiety and familiar horror tropes in a story that will satisfy every philosophy major with a copy of The Shining on the bookshelf.
Burgess, Melvin. The Hit. Chicken House. 2014. 293p. ISBN 9780545556996. $17.99.
Adam’s swank girlfriend, Lizzie, is his reason for being. Near-future Manchester, where he lives with his family, has so few prospects that the latest popular street drug, “Death,” comes with a guaranteed death sentence: a tempting week of glittering invincibility followed by a swift end. Miserable from a break with Lizzie and the news of his brother’s death, Adam swallows a stolen pill, and (predictably) discovers life was worth living after all. Adam and company misstep onto the path of Mr. Ballantine and his psychotic son, Christian, the criminals responsible for flooding the streets with Death, at the same time that a Zealot-led revolution is coming to life. What could have been a maudlin meditation on the meaning of life becomes a gangster caper, with a plot that twists and turns through posh digs and container shipyards alike, saving its best secrets for the nail-biting conclusion. The squeamish may be put off by Burgess’s signature affection for gory detail—Bloodtide (2002), his take on the Volsunga epic, lives up to its name—but fans of the films of Matthew Vaughn and Guy Ritchie will wish the rights are sold, and soon.
Oliver, Lauren. Panic. HarperCollins. 2014. 408p. ISBN 9780062014559. $17.99.
Panic is when your drunk mom takes your earnings for vodka and cocaine. Panic is wondering if your sister will ever walk again. Panic is seeing your boyfriend show up at a party with another girl. Feeling stuck with her family and depressed over a break-up, Heather throws herself headlong (by diving off of a cliff) into the Carp (NY) high school senior class tradition, a deadly game called Panic. New-in-town Dodge also plays, seeking revenge on the family he feels is responsible for his sister’s paralysis. Over the course of the summer, Heather, Dodge, and other competitors square off in increasingly dangerous feats of courage, with the most reckless winning enough money to start a new life. Best known for her dystopian “Delirium” series, Oliver returns to the realm of the (all too) real. With its trailer parks and “Meth row,” Panic is one of three books reviewed here to consider the impact of a shrinking economic outlook on young people; it is easy to understand why Heather and her friends go to such lengths when the $67,000 prize money is four times the annual income of someone earning minimum wage in their state. Even more than the prize, these young people are seeking a hopeful future.
Shinoda, Anna. Learning Not To Drown. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 2014. 338p. ISBN 9781416993933. $17.99.
Clare is your average overachiever—great grades, a job life-guarding at the lake—who wants nothing more than to shake off the snow of her small California mountain town and attend college far away from her family. Overly strict from years managing a drug-addicted and violent eldest child, Luke, her mom and dad are blind to the damage their devotion to him has wrought on Clare and her middle brother, Peter, still at home. Clare is torn between affection for the brother who defended her as a kid and the violent reality of a man always on the take, and she can no longer turn a blind eye when he implicates her in a fraudulent return scheme. Everywhere she looks, Clare sees the Skeleton her family will not acknowledge, an ever-present reminder of the terror she feels whenever Luke is back in their lives. This impressive debut examines the emotional price paid by a family whose defense of one of its members destroys everyone else. Readers will feel the tension—and relief—when Clare finally takes a stand against her enabling parents and puts the Skeleton to rest.
Smith, Andrew. Grasshopper Jungle. Dutton, 2014. 388p. ISBN 9780525426035. $18.99.
The town of Ealing, IA, dried up when the McKeon plant closed and the Ealing Mall began to go dark. Tenth-graders Austin and his best friend, Robby, are the kings of “Grasshopper Jungle,” the alley behind the few remaining open businesses: a thrift shop, liquor store, and Laundromat. A night’s misadventures in the Jungle involving a stolen bio-engineering experiment sets off a chain of events that will lead to the end of humankind, with the boys serving witness to its last days. Here combining the adolescent vigor of his recent Winger (2013) and the brand of grotesque detail that made Passenger (2012) such a stomach churner, Smith delivers with an engaging character who lives for music of the Rolling Stones and his next cigarette. Austin may be one of the horniest protagonists of recent years, but even his desires are eclipsed by the randy adventures of the giant mantis-like creatures that begin to lay waste to Ealing’s population. Austin battles the flesh-eating monsters, but his chief struggle is keeping his competing desires from harming the two people he loves most; he’s attracted to both Robby (who is gay) and to his long-time girlfriend, Shann. Recalling Vonnegut’s nonlinear style, Austin’s narrative vacillates from the comic to the horrifying to the tragic with uncanny ease, taking the reader on an unforgettable journey that lends fresh energy to the end-of-the-world story. You may never listen to “Gimme Shelter” the same way again.
Whaley, John Corey. Noggin. Atheneum. 2014. 342p. ISBN 9781442458727. $17.
This long-awaited sophomore effort from the Printz Award–winning author of Where Things Come Back (2011) plays on similar themes of absence, return, and family. Teenaged Travis is dying of cancer when he and his family are offered one last hope for life: freeze Travis’s head and await advances in cryo-science. No one is more surprised than Travis when he wakes five years later attached to the body of a 16-year-old donor. All the while adjusting to his new physique, he learns that everyone in his old life has moved on: his best friend is in college, his former girlfriend engaged, and his parents less than forthcoming about their own recent history. The catchy title and Ken doll–inspired cover lets the reader know this tale will contain more than its fair share of humor, but only those unfamiliar with the author’s earlier work will be surprised at its heart. Within this far-fetched yarn, Travis’s emotional journey will feel familiar to any young adult who has returned home from college or the military to discover that nothing feels the same.
Wooding, Chris. Silver. Scholastic, 2014. 313p. ISBN 9780545603928. $17.99.
Humanity’s end comes in the form of little green creatures in Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, but Wooding’s new work posits a shimmery conclusion. In the remote British countryside, Mortingham Boarding Academy is coming up on a weekend, with the few residents remaining on campus bracing for what looks like a storm. When the students and faculty begin catching glimpses of silver—on a beetle, on a dog—just before they are themselves attacked by the creatures, they do not yet comprehend the magnitude of what has been unleashed by a neighboring biotech contractor. This old-fashioned survival thriller plays out amid the dramas of the students struggling to find a way out of this glittering madness. Newcomer Paul is a natural leader with a past, Caitlyn and Erika have jealousy issues to work through, and Adam must prove he is something more than the school bully. The relentless pace (and escalating body count) keeps the pages turning and the tension high even as the prospect of a hopeful conclusion recedes from view. Gripping fun.