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Book Review: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi

Publisher’s description

Scott Ferdowsi has a track record of quitting. His best friends know exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives, but Scott can hardly commit to a breakfast cereal, let alone a passion. With college applications looming and his parents pushing him to settle on a “practical” career, Scott sneaks off to Washington, DC, seeking guidance from a famous psychologist who claims to know the secret to success.

He never expects an adventure to unfold. But that’s what Scott gets when he meets Fiora Buchanan, a ballsy college student whose life ambition is to write crossword puzzles. When the bicycle she lends him gets Scott into a high-speed chase, he knows he’s in for the ride of his life.

Soon, Scott finds himself sneaking into bars, attempting to pick up girls at the National Zoo, and even giving the crossword thing a try—all while opening his eyes to fundamental truths about who he is and who he wants to be.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

down andWhen Scott (given name Saaket) is left alone for a month while his parents go tend to an ailing family member in Iran, it only takes a few days for him to quit his summer internship and overhaul his life. Scott has a history of quitting things, much to the chagrin of his demanding father, who thinks he should be focused on a path to a successful career (despite Scott only being 17). His dad tells him how he recently read that the best predictor of success is grit—the ability to stick to something, focus, and follow through. After his parents leave the country, Scott becomes rather obsessed with the idea of grit and decides to head from Philadelphia to DC to meet with the professor who penned this article. He plans to stay a day or two, but ends up staying most of the month. He meets Fiora on his bus ride to DC and she immediately takes him under her wing, roping him into hijinks and spending most of Scott’s month-long stay with him. Fiora and Trent, his other new friend, help him figure out how to spend some time with the professor he came to see, and basically act as his guardian angels/instant best friends.

The overall message that grit is within us all, that failure is both inevitable and productive, is a good lesson (especially for teenagers to hear). Readers also trying to figure out their lives will relate to Scott’s quest for independence and purpose, while also being reminded that it’s okay not to have everything figured out while still just in high school. Scott’s month in DC is filled with unpredictable adventures, new friendships with a diverse group of people, and many revelations. YA readers who like books with slightly older characters (all Scott’s new friends are in college) will be drawn to this book full of charismatic and complex people. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780425289877
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 02/06/2018

Book Review: City of Angels by Kristi Belcamino

Publisher’s description

city of angelsNikki Black has been self-imposed lone wolf since her mother died, fleeing suburban Chicago to escape her painful past. But when her so-called boyfriend reveals why he really lured her to Southern California, she ends up on the streets of Los Angeles with only the clothes on her back and a destitute twelve-year-old named Rain following in her shadows. The girls seek refuge at a residential hotel above a punk rock bar in downtown L.A. a few months before the city erupts into chaos during the 1992 riots that nearly razed the city of angels to the ground.

At The American Hotel, Nikki makes friends and, for the first time in years, feels as if she has a real family again. But everything changes when Rain disappears. Everyone believes Rain succumbed to the seductive allure of addiction and life on the streets, another life lost that seemingly nobody will miss—except for Nikki. Determined to find Rain, Nikki burrows deeper into the underbelly of a city that hides darkness beneath the glamour. And when she unveils a sinister cover-up by a powerful group that secretly controls the city of angels, she could lose everything, including her life.

City of Angels is an edgy, gritty, and riveting Young Adult mystery about a young woman’s struggle to not only belong ― but survive.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Nikki thought escaping to L.A. with Chad, a decade-older guy she barely knew, would get her away from all of her problems. Unsurprisingly, it just lands her in a whole new set of problems.

 

Nikki’s family has fallen apart–her addict mother is dead and her father, unable to cope, blames Nikki and cuts all ties with her. Once in L.A., she meets Chad’s director friend, the one who will (of course) make her a star–except that’s not true at all. The sketchy (but powerful) director and Chad would like to put her in some films, yes, but they’re child porn flicks. She manages to get out of the director’s house with Rain, a 12-year-old she meets there, in tow. Now not only is she homeless in L.A., where she knows no one, but she’s got this young girl with her. Nikki finds a cheap room in the American Hotel, above a punk rock bar, where she hopes Rain will stay, too. But Rain’s hooked on heroin and Nikki, not only scarred by her mom’s drug use and death but totally out of her element here, has to help her detox. It’s just another thing that Nikki unexpectedly finds herself dealing with. Thankfully, the other residents of the hotel are friendly and help her with Rain. But when Rain takes off–and appears to be kidnapped–things become really interesting.

 

In addition to waitressing and trying to survive on her own in L.A., Nikki now is wrapped up in figuring out who took Rain and still worrying about being found by Chad and the director she escaped from. Before long, people she interacted with are ending up dead. Nikki and her hotelmates work to put all the pieces of this mystery together, finally focusing their investigation on people associated with The Church of the Evermore Enlightened and the Star Center, a Scientology-like group full of celebrities and secrets. They begin to amass evidence that points to who took Rain, but have learned that the LAPD has many members in cahoots with the Star Center people, so they’re unsure what to do with their information when it seems like they can’t trust anyone. Things come to a head as the city explodes in the aftermath of the verdict in the Rodney King case. Nikki and friends make their way through the more-dangerous-than-usual city in hopes of saving Rain, but learn that nothing is as it has seemed.

 

Belcamino usually writes for adults, and her foray here into YA is good for older readers looking for a little more edge and slightly older characters in their YA books (Rain–who is absent most of the book– and Nikki are younger than the rest of the residents of the hotel). Though at times the plot requires a suspension of disbelief, and Nikki makes some choices that will leave readers shaking their heads, this is a well-paced story full of plenty of action and distinct, diverse characters. Nikki is tough, resourceful, determined, and just the right amounts of naive, sheltered, and foolish. This gritty look at the life of a runaway girl trying to keep off the streets in early 90s L.A. will easily appeal to fans of mysteries and thrillers. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781943818433

Publisher: Polis Books

Publication date: 05/09/2017

Book Review: Run by Kody Keplinger

Publisher’s description

RUNBo Dickinson is a girl with a wild reputation, a deadbeat dad, and a mama who’s not exactly sober most of the time. Everyone in town knows the Dickinsons are a bad lot, but Bo doesn’t care what anyone thinks.

Agnes Atwood has never gone on a date, never even stayed out past ten, and never broken any of her parents’ overbearing rules. Rules that are meant to protect their legally blind daughter — protect her from what, Agnes isn’t quite sure.

Despite everything, Bo and Agnes become best friends. And it’s the sort of friendship that runs truer and deeper than anything else.

So when Bo shows up in the middle of the night, with police sirens wailing in the distance, desperate to get out of town, Agnes doesn’t hesitate to take off with her. But running away and not getting caught will require stealing a car, tracking down Bo’s dad, staying ahead of the authorities, and-worst of all-confronting some ugly secrets.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Well, this was fantastic. The narrative voices, the vivid setting, the story, the writing… all fantastic. The girls take turns narrating the two timelines of the story, with Bo narrating the present and Agnes narrating the backstory. This is a great friendship story about opposites attracting. Bisexual Bo has a bad reputation—she comes from a “bad” family and her peers label her a slut and spread infinite rumors about her. Legally blind Agnes is a good girl, a “poor sweet blind girl” who’s never been given the chance to be “bad.” Or the chance to do anything. Both girls are in desperate need of a real friend. Despite their differences, they grow close, forming a tight bond based on respect, support, kindness, and true friendship. We see their friendship grow through Agnes’s narration. Meanwhile, in Bo’s timeline, we know the girls are on the run, but we don’t know why. It appears that they are headed to make a new start somewhere… that is, if the police don’t catch them first.

 

Also, and probably obviously, this book is noteworthy because it features a blind main character. Agnes uses a cane, talks repeatedly about using enlarged print or braille and other school accommodations, and has lived her whole life with people treating her like she’s some kind of special angel because she’s blind. Agnes longs to be given more freedom. Bo knows Agnes doesn’t need her help to do lots of basic stuff, but is always there for her if she does need assistance. Agnes’s relationship with her parents and her expectations for her future are both heavily shaped by her disability. We learn a lot about what being blind means for Agnes on a day-to-day basis but also what it means for her in a larger sense.

 

One of the main problems with alternate narration is that it’s often so hard to tell the characters apart. Keplinger does a great job of making Bo and Agnes sound very different both in the things they say and how they say them. We can tell early on that Bo isn’t as tough as she seems and Agnes isn’t as meek as people believe her to be.  This is an easy recommendation for anyone who likes a road trip book, an adventure, a Thelma and Louise-type story, a friendship story, or an opposites attract story. Highly recommended. 

 

 ISBN-13: 9780545831130

Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.

Publication date: 06/28/2016