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A List of Things That Didn’t Kill Me

Jason Schmidt. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $18.99 (432p) ISBN 978-0-374-38013-7

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Schmidt’s memoir—which spans his childhood to late adolescence and chronicles his abuse and near homelessness at the hands of his drug-addicted gay father—is an emotionally demanding read. The memoir finds its strongest foothold in the primary relationship between father and son, particularly the wrenching scenes of Schmidt’s father’s rage and misguided devotion, packed between descriptions of a 1970s and ’80s West Coast counterculture childhood. As the author grows and begins to connect his own abusive actions and self-neglect to his childhood, the main relationship becomes buried in a jarring deflection of his father’s death from AIDS, the sudden adoption of a friendly volunteer as guardian, and overwrought details of his own burgeoning dating life, infused with Star Wars references (before his first kiss, Schmidt writes, “The best model I had for this kind of thing was Princess Leia and Han Solo at the end of The Empire Strikes Back”). If the turnaround moment for a teenage Schmidt arrives too late in the book to have the impact it might, the heavy burden of his early life is keenly felt. Ages 12–up. Agent: Jill Grinberg, Jill Grinberg Literary Management. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Earmuffs for Everyone! How Chester Greenwood Became Known as the Inventor of Earmuffs

Meghan McCarthy. S&S/Wiseman, $17.99 (48p) ISBN 978-1-4814-0637-6

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From Benjamin Franklin to Steve Jobs, inventors have long had a hold on the American imagination. But exactly what makes something an invention? McCarthy (Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton) again proves her nonfiction storytelling chops by using the humble earmuff and the man associated with it as a way to delve into some deliciously big ideas: what constitutes originality, the slipperiness of origin stories (note the careful wording of the subtitle), and the philosophy of patent law. Like any meaty topic, this one leads readers into side stories and digressions (Greenwood married a suffragette; the early promoters of Chester Greenwood Day mostly made stuff up about its namesake), all captured with crisp, slyly funny acrylics and populated with McCarthy’s customary goggle-eyed characters. McCarthy is the ideal raconteur: funny, curious, and eager to involve her audience in her pursuit of the truth (“What do you think really happened?” she asks at one point). Readers will come away knowing a lot more about earmuffs, and feeling like they’ve spent time with a very smart, very cool friend. Ages 4–8. Agent: Alexandra Penfold, Upstart Crow Literary. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage

Selina Alko, illus. by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko. Scholastic/Levine, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-545-47853-3

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In their first picture book together, the husband-and-wife team of Alko (B Is for Brooklyn) and Qualls (Freedom Song) skillfully chronicle a vital moment in the civil rights movement, telling the story of Richard and Mildred Loving. Because interracial marriage was illegal in their native Virginia in 1958, the couple married in Washington, D.C.; after returning to Virginia, they were jailed for “unlawful cohabitation.” The Lovings settled in D.C. and had three children before returning to Virginia in 1966, when “Brand-new ideas, like equal rights for people of all colors, were replacing old, fearful ways of thinking. Alko adeptly streamlines the legal logistics of the Lovings’ groundbreaking Supreme Court case, which found prohibitions on interracial marriage to be unconstitutional, emphasizing the ethical and emotional aspects of the story. Hearts, stars, flowers, and facsimile family photos dot the warm mixed-media illustrations, visually underscoring the love that kept the Lovings’ union strong. An author’s note provides added context (including the contributors’ closeness to the subject, as an interracial couple themselves), while drawing parallels to ongoing efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. Ages 4–8. Agent: Rebecca Sherman, Writers House. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Law of Loving Others

Kate Axelrod. Razorbill, $17.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-59514-789-9

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Seventeen-year-old Emma returns home from boarding school for winter break to find that her mother is having a psychotic break—her parents never told her that her mother was diagnosed as schizophrenic years ago and has been taking medication for the condition since college. Emma’s mother’s subsequent institutionalization is like an earthquake in Emma’s life, threatening her romantic relationship with her boyfriend Daniel and her own sense of security. Emma worries whether she, too, is genetically disposed toward schizophrenia and starts down a path of self-harm. Heavy on Emma’s internal monologue, debut novelist Axelrod’s prose is careful, intelligent, and contemplative, and the past-tense narration gives the impression of an older Emma looking back at a painful, but critical episode in her teenage years from a safe distance in the future. As Emma cheats on her boyfriend, turns to scarring her body, and seeks connections in whatever ways she can, her actions never feel anything but realistic in this reflective and incisive exploration of the far-reaching effects of mental illness. Ages 14–up. Agent: Melissa Flashman, Trident Media Group. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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All the Bright Places

Jennifer Niven. Knopf, $17.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-385-75588-7

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Seniors Theodore Finch and Violet Markey run into each other on their school bell tower, contemplating what it would be like to jump. It’s more dark-cute than meet-cute, which also describes the book. Finch thinks about suicide every day; Violet was happy until her sister died in a car crash. While Finch, aka “Theodore Freak,” is a marginal presence in their high school, he’s smart and handsome—a musician who, readers gradually realize, suffers from undiagnosed manic depression. Violet is equally smart, and as they traverse Indiana for a geography project, looking for “wonders,” they flirt, argue, admit dark secrets, and fall in love. In her YA debut, adult author Niven (Velva Jean Learns to Drive) creates a romance so fresh and funny that it seems like it could save Finch; she also makes something she foreshadows from the first line surprising. The journey to, through, and past tragedy is romantic and heartbreaking, as characters and readers confront darkness, joy, and the possibilities—and limits—of love in the face of mental illness. Ages 14–up. Agent: Kerry Sparks, Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Playlist for the Dead

Michelle Falkoff. HarperTeen, $17.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-231050-7

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Sam find his best friend Hayden dead of an apparent suicide the morning after a party—the two boys were both bullied at school, but Sam still feels responsible. Hayden left Sam a playlist of music as a suicide note (the songs correspond to the book’s chapters), which Sam listens to, eager for answers. Then strange things start to happen. Sam receives messages from someone using Hayden’s IM handle, a girl named Astrid with connections to Hayden appears in Sam’s life, and someone starts getting revenge against the “bully trifecta” who made life hell for Hayden and Sam—all of which make Sam question everything he thought he knew about Hayden. Debut author Falkoff gives Sam a strong voice to narrate his grief over the loss of his best friend and his confusion about the events that follow. Her efforts to add mystery to the circumstances surrounding Hayden’s death are forced, however, and as the novel progresses, the revelations test plausibility. This aside, Falkoff treats a difficult topic with delicacy and care. A Spilled Ink Productions property. Ages 13–up. Agent: Richard Abate, 3 Arts Entertainment. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Tunnel Vision

Susan Adrian. St. Martin’s Griffin/Dunne, $18.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-04792-2

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Government surveillance. Psychic abilities. Family secrets. All 18-year-old Jacob Lukin wants is a girlfriend and acceptance to Stanford, but when he makes the mistake of “tunneling” (psychically identifying a person’s location through an object) at a party, he gets caught in a string of lies that ends in a shadowy government agency he can’t shake. The deeper Jacob falls into the agency’s clutches, the more dangerous he becomes—to himself and others. Only Jacob’s grandfather, himself a wanted man, understands what is happening to him. As they plot their escape, Jacob and his grandfather uncover an even greater threat to Jacob’s well-being. Debut author Adrian offers a refreshing spin on the suspenseful spy novel with brisk scenes, adrenaline-fueled cliffhangers, and a sympathetic protagonist. Though the motives of the main characters become muddled by the end, and Adrian’s descriptive passages are typical, there is much to savor in this thriller. It comes as no surprise that Adrian introduces the whiff of a sequel in the final pages. Ages 13–up. Agent: Kate Schafer Testerman, KT Literary. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Thane

Travis Daniel Bow. Mask and Mallet, $9.99 paper (322p) ISBN 978-0-9914657-0-5

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Bow makes an ambitious debut with this initial offering in the Everknot Cycle, a fantasy adventure that follows two kidnapped teens as they learn to strike back at the forces occupying their country. Fifteen-year-old Timothy and his adopted brother, Robert, are stolen, meant as unwilling recruits for the Huctan army. Instead, they are rescued by Selena, a young member of the secretive Band, a rebel force planning to drive the Huctans out of Botan. As Timothy eagerly joins the Band, he undergoes intensive training as a Thane—one of their elite operatives—while Robert chooses a more sedate path as an apprentice blacksmith and burgeoning strategist. All too soon, the day comes when the Band is shattered from within, and the remnants are forced to fight for their very survival. Bow’s narrative is engaging and imaginative, with plenty of attention and detail given to Timothy’s daily training as a spy and warrior. However, this comes at the cost of worldbuilding, leaving intriguing characters to occupy a generic fantasy landscape. Predictable elements and an inevitable cliffhanger further undermine the promising story line. Ages 12–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Hope for Garbage

Alex Tully. Ann Phillips (www.alextullywriter.com), $7.99 paper (268p) ISBN 978-0-692-02483-6

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In this overwrought coming-of-age drama from first-time author Tully, 17-year-old Trevor McNulty endures numerous travails while trying to put a positive spin on a life filled with tragedy. Trevor’s uncle, his only remaining family after a mysterious accident claimed his mother and siblings, is a bully. His only true friend is Mr. T., his 70-year-old neighbor whose favorite hobby involves garbage-picking and restoring what he finds for resale or donating to charity. Things change when Trevor meets Bea Stewart, a rich girl from a troubled family. Their initial bliss is shattered after Bea’s mother makes advances toward Trevor, setting in motion a catastrophic chain of events. In recovering from this, Trevor must face a past he’d rather forget. Tully’s concept is solid, but Trevor’s rapidly compounding troubles verge on the ridiculous, while his eventual triumph doesn’t entirely hold up. Many characters are two-dimensional—they’re either saintly, like Mr. T. or Bea’s housekeeper Lorene, or irredeemably flawed like Trevor’s uncle and Bea’s mother. The narrative dwells in extremes, creating an imbalanced, unrealistic tale of perseverance against tribulations. Ages 12–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Confessions of Jonathan Flite

Matthew J. Beier. Epicality Books (www.epicalitybooks.com), $28 (392p) ISBN 978-0-9838594-3-7

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This genre-defying series opener from Beier (The Breeders) spans a generation and is told from multiple points of view. In 2010, seven teenagers disappear into the Moon Woods of Minnesota, becoming known as the Idle County Seven. Molly, one of the missing, narrates the events leading up to her vanishing; she also leaves behind a journal detailing her fixation with ghost hunting. Decades later, Jonathan Flite, a volatile and unsociable 13-year-old, claims to possess intimate knowledge of the vanished Seven. A curious psychologist seeks out Jonathan, who lives in a home for troubled youth, while numerous other characters become preoccupied with the unsolved mystery. Meanwhile, a controversial leader of a radical new wave of atheism is ominously linked both to a nuclear bombing in Switzerland and to the Idle County Seven. Beier’s narrative range is formidable, weaving a tapestry of multiple characters and plot tributaries; the story’s paranormal and quantum physics elements are perhaps more evocative than the underdeveloped thriller aspects. The many shifts in perspective and time frame can be disorienting, but Beier’s engrossing storytelling leaves many questions intriguingly unsettled. Ages 12–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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