Book Review: Pitch Dark by Courtney Alameda

 

Review by Mark Oshiro

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Set against a future of marauding space scavengers and deadly aliens who kill with sound, here is a frightening, fast-paced YA adventure from the author of the acclaimed horror novel, Shutter.

Tuck has been in stasis on the USS John Muir, a ship that houses Earth’s most valued artifacts—its natural resources. Parks and mountains are preserved in space.

Laura belongs to a shipraiding family, who are funded by a group used to getting what they want. And they want what’s on the Muir.

Tuck and Laura didn’t bargain on working together, or battling mutant aliens who use sound to kill. But their plan is the only hope for their crews, their families, and themselves.

In space, nobody can hear you scream . . . but on the John Muir, the screams are the last thing you’ll hear.

MY TWO CENTS: I read Shutter years ago and was blown away by the seemingly effortless nature of Courtney Alameda’s genre-bending craft. She managed to craft a world that made an unquestionable amount of sense, and it combined disparate elements you don’t often see in the same story. Pitch Dark is no exception. Somehow, Alameda has been able to borrow the visceral, gory, and heart-stopping brilliance of a film like Alien and mix it with the adventure of Tomb Raider or Uncharted. Oh, and there’s also a generation ship. (Sort of.) And horrific monsters. And burgeoning love. And commentary on subjugation, imperialism, and racism.

AND THIS IS ALL IN THE SAME BOOK.

Pitch Dark wastes no time, and while there’s a bit of a steep learning curve at the beginning—the book has alternating first-person narratives that don’t seem connected at all—the worldbuilding pays off just past thirty pages into the book. We are introduced to the shipraiding universe of Laura Cruz, who is exuberant about her love for what her family does. (It’s a neat twist on the trope of kids hating the family business.) She thrives when she gets to dig deep into the history of humanity… which is a big deal within Pitch Dark, set over four hundred years in the future. Humanity is haphazardly spread about the galaxy after a terrorist attack forced them to abandon Earth, so the Cruz family mission is an integral part of the story.

Then there’s Tuck, the nerdy, reference-happy member of the John Muir, one of the ships that left Earth nearly four hundred years prior. He awakes from stasis to find out he’s been unconscious far longer than he was supposed to be. Even worse, something contaminated the stasis machines, and his fellow humans have…well, let’s just say they’ve evolved since then.

Of the two, I preferred Laura’s narration more than Tuck’s, though Tuck grew on me over time. In Laura Cruz, Alameda has crafted a memorable and awe-inspiring character, one I hope is the focus of other books in the future. (Pitch Dark is a standalone, but this could easily be a multi-book series.) Laura’s Spanglish is comforting to read, since I grew up with it in Southern California, and the Cruz family is an eternal delight. If you’re looking for a book with a loving Latinx family, look no further than Pitch Dark.

And if you want an addictive, insightful page-turner, get Pitch Dark for that reason, too. This book is downright horrifying, and when you learn what the Muir crew became, it becomes a significant source of tension and terror within the novel. The two storylines intersect (literally so!) in a shocking way, and seeing each character deal with the world of the other character’s ship is satisfying and exciting. It helps that Alameda manages to imbue all of this with an inventive social commentary about the nature of imperialism and control, most of which appears in Laura’s POV. Who controls a story? What version gets told? And how do you resist a narrative that purports to make you a villain to everyone else?

Above all: I had a blast reading this book, which I devoured in just two sittings. I’ve been itching for more YA horror, and Alameda absolutely delivers. The pacing is incredibly quick, the dialogue is snappy and contains an in-universe context for all the pop culture references, and there are a few sequences in here that made me want to crawl under the covers and never come out. Bravo, Courtney Alameda.

TEACHING TIPS: I imagine that most teachers might shy away from a horror novel, and admittedly, Pitch Dark is very, very violent and gory. But the visceral story is part of the extended metaphor for the environment of current day politics. Alameda crafts a subplot between Laura Cruz and the Smithson family that touches on issues of consent, sexual assault, and colonialism, particularly since the Smithson family is horrifically desperate to do whatever they can to center anthropology on themselves and their own power. There’s a lot of potential for discussion in the interactions between the Cruz family and Tuck, which touch on racism, stereotypes, and white savior tropes.

Courtney Author Photos2013_117.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: A veteran bookseller and librarian, Courtney Alameda now spends her days writing thriller and horror novels. Her debut novel, Shutter, was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award and hailed as a “standout in the genre” by School Library Journal. Her forthcoming novels include the science fiction/horror mashup, Pitch Dark (Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends 2018), and Seven Deadly Shadows, an urban fantasy set in Japan. (Co-authored with Valynne Maetani. HarperTeen 2018). Courtney holds a degree in English literature with an emphasis in creative writing. She is represented by John M. Cusick of Folio Literary. A northern California native, she now resides in Utah with her husband, a legion of books, and a tiny five-pound cat with a giant personality. Member HWA, SFWA, SCBWI; and SDCC Creative Professional.

WHERE TO GET IT: Pitch Dark releases February 20! To find it, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Oshiro_Mark.jpgABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mark Oshiro is the Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and television series unspoiled. He was the nonfiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and the co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2015. He is the President of the Con or Bust Board of Directors and is usually busy trying to fulfill his lifelong goal to pet every dog in the world. His YA Contemporary debut, Anger is a Gift, is out May 22, 2018 with Tor Teen.

 

Book Review: Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez

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DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: “This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?”

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Smith and Wash Fullerton know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But there are some forces even the most determined color lines cannot resist. And sometimes all it takes is an explosion.

Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

OUR TWO CENTS: 

Cindy L. Rodriguez: As soon as I finished Ashley’s novel, I wanted to reread it as a writer. I want to pull it apart and study it because it’s that good. One of the things I appreciate most was the slow burn of the narrative. The novel opens with the explosion, and then flashes back to show how the characters’ live intersect before the event. The fuse lit in that opening scene coils through the narrative, gaining in intensity as the story leads back to the explosion and then its aftermath. The tension in Naomi’s home, school, and community is palpable throughout the story and increases slowly as we’re led into the heartbreaking climax.

Ashley masterfully balances the big picture and the smallest details. Her writing made me think of a photographer who could both go wide and capture a panoramic view and then zoom in for a close up and not lose anything in this process. She also beautifully balances the swoony magic of falling deeply in love for the first time and the absolutely brutal realities faced by African-Americans and Mexicans at this time in history. BRAVA!!

Lila Quintero Weaver: Ashley’s command of narrative is impressive! In Out of Darkness, she tells a story set in the American past and makes it feel of the moment. It holds all the markers of a historical novel, starting with the cataclysmic explosion of 1937 that looms with ominous eventuality over the characters we come to care about. Threaded with lively detail, the historical richness comes through in social customs, daily activities, and the speech patterns and cultural attitudes typical of 1930s east Texas. No easy feat. I detect a massive amount of research behind it all.

This devotion to authenticity translates into contemporary meaning through the story’s characters and the complicated problems they face. Naomi’s most serious problem is a predatory stepfather whose capacity for evil keeps her in a constant state of vigilance. There is no escape. She has no money or resources and she feels deep loyalty toward her two tender stepsiblings. Because Naomi is Mexican-American and lives in a part of Texas where Mexicans aren’t numerous, she has no community to fall back on and is looked upon by some white classmates as dirty and worthless. When she falls hard for Wash, a young black man who offers her a chance at true happiness, Naomi steps into the arena of forbidden love—one she must keep hidden from society and the stepfather who follows her every move with lecherous eyes. What a story!

Others agree with us, too! Out of Darkness received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews. Here are some quotes and links with more information about and praise for the novel:

“The beauty of Perez’s prose and her surefooted navigation through the dangerous landscape of the East Texas oil field in the late 1930s redeem the fact that anyone who dares read this agonizing star-crossed love story will end up in about six billion numb and tiny pieces. Absolutely stunning.” —Elizabeth Wein, author of Code Name Verity and Michael L. Printz Award Honoree

Teen Library Toolbox (an SLJ blog): http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2015/09/book-review-out-of-darkness-by-ashley-hope-perez/

Detailed review from The Midnight Garden (YA for adults): http://www.themidnightgarden.net/2015/08/outofdarkness.html

Q&A on NBChttp://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/out-darkness-latina-author-n419026

Diversity in YA post: http://www.diversityinya.com/2015/08/words-that-wake-us/

Q&A on our site earlier this weekhttps://latinosinkidlit.com/2015/09/09/qa-with-ashley-hope-perez-about-out-of-darkness/

And this post by Forever Young Adult nails the “casting call” for novel if it were made into a movie. Their picks of Christian Serratos as Naomi and Titus Makin Jr. as Wash were spot on! Nicely done, Forever Young Adult!

   

TEACHING TIPS: Although the New London, Texas, school explosion was the worst school disaster in our nation’s history, it’s one many (most) students have probably never learned about but should, as it has interesting implications concerning race and class worth exploring. Out of Darkness asks readers to think beyond the black and white dynamics of U.S. race issues by adding Latin@ children to the segregated schools system and portraying the daily concerns and realities of Mexicans who could or could not “pass” as white. Also, the violent consequences of marginalized romantic relationships isn’t often explored in curricula, but might be/should be considering the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. A book like Out of Darkness could help teen readers appreciate the long history of struggle and violence experienced by people who have wanted to live and love freely.

2012AuthorPhoto500pixelsABOUT THE AUTHORAshley Hope Pérez is a writer and teacher passionate about literature for readers of all ages—especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences. She is the author of three novels, What Can’t Wait (2011) and The Knife and the Butterfly (2012), and Out of Darkness (2015). A native of Texas, Ashley has since followed wherever writing and teaching lead her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature from Indiana University and enjoys teaching everything from Spanish language and Latin American literature to the occasional course on vampires in literature. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Out of Darkness, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Q&A with Ashley Hope Pérez about OUT OF DARKNESS

A Star is Born

We’re so thrilled to begin our third year online with a celebration of Out of Darkness by our amiga and co-blogger, Ashley Hope Pérez! Her third novel, which released September 1, is historical fiction, with a deadly school explosion in East Texas in 1937 as its central event. Using multiple points of view, Ashley develops a cast of complex characters who confront brutal racism and violence in addition to the beauty of first love. Amanda MacGregor of Teen Librarian Toolbox said, “Pérez’s story is nothing short of brilliant”, and we wholeheartedly agree! In fact, we think it’s one of the best 2015 releases! If it’s not on your to be read list, it should be. Click here to read Ashley’s post about her work on this novel, and for more insight, see our Q&A with her below.

Ashley, in the last two years, you finished your doctoral dissertation, changed jobs and geographical locations, and gave birth to a second child. How did you manage to write such an ambitious novel with so much else going on in your life?

When you put it like that, it does sound pretty outrageous! The short answer is that, when our first son was one, we moved to Paris for a year. I taught a ton of university English classes, ate yards and yards of bread, and worked on the first draft of the novel. I gave myself that year off from academic research. When we got back, I used the novel as a daily carrot to motivate my academic writing: if I got my words on the dissertation done, I got to take some time for the fiction.

You don’t shy away from controversial territory! This story contains sexual abuse, incest, brutal racism and frank sexuality. Talk about shaping these elements within the boundaries of young-adult fiction.

Wait–there are boundaries to young adult fiction? No one told me!! Really, though, I shouldn’t be glib. It’s just that Andrew Karre (my editor for Out of Darkness as well as for The Knife and the Butterfly and What Can’t Wait) has always seemed more interested in pushing or crossing boundaries than in upholding them. He’s probably one of very few YA editors who sends emails that say things like, “could the sexual details in this scene be a little more explicit, not so coy?” Speaking more broadly, I’ve found it useful to give myself permission to cross even my own boundaries if I felt like doing so would help me get a scene closer to where I wanted it to be. As Andrew puts it, it’s easier to go too far and then scale things back than to strike the right note by trying to tiptoe forward.

You can tell that the frank depictions of consensual sexual activity is where I feel myself most challenged, but the racism and abuse that are part of the story in Out of Darkness are probably what’s harder for readers to contend with. The reality of racism in the world of 1937 East Texas didn’t seem like something I could—or should—varnish in any way. And sexual predation, now as in the past, flourishes in response to the social and economic vulnerability of potential victims. My main character, Naomi, is extremely vulnerable in both of these areas because of her ethnicity and precarious situation in the household where she lives. Being beautiful only puts her at greater risk.

WHITESonlyWhat went into your decision to use multiple points of view?

I was thinking about angles on the story and contrasts from the time I began feeling my way into the historical material for Out of Darkness. Part of what attracted me to the story was my curiosity—almost entirely unsatisfied by historical sources—about how the African American community experienced the explosion of the (white) New London school. The tensions and interplay between characters’ visions of the world seemed integral to the telling of this particular story. This was especially true since I wanted to recenter the narrative on experiences and perspectives that have been, at best, marginal in mainstream history.

I think readers needed to see the world through a range of characters’ eyes in Out of Darkness to grasp how dramatically different our experiences can be even when we are living in the same community. This understanding is not just a source of interest vis-à-vis the past; it can help contemporary readers reckon with the reality of inequity now. For example, it makes possible reflection on dramatic contrasts in schooling experiences or interactions with police for people of different backgrounds.

The racial complexity in this story is fascinating. As a brown-skinned person, Naomi falls between racial identities and finds doors closing in both the white and black communities. Was New London a mostly white settlement in that era? Did your research turn up instances of Mexicans caught between, as Naomi was?

 Prior to the East Texas oil boom, New London was a small agrarian community with  deeply segregated black and white communities. The discovery of oil meant the influx of many outsiders, both those who were working in oil and those who were simply attracted to the possibilities of a more prosperous community. Even though African Americans were mostly excluded from oilfield work (digging ditches was an exception), newcomers also arrived in search of jobs as chauffeurs, maids, busboys, line cooks, and craftsmen. I could not confirm the presence of a Mexican American like Naomi. Although I strongly suspect that a little girl named Juanita Herron was Hispanic, it’s impossible to know for sure. Still, I was satisfied that it was at least plausible for light-skinned children like the twins to slip into the school in much the way that families in Texas with American Indian backgrounds did. For example, the Drinkwater family in New London probably had Cherokee heritage, and their children attended the white school.

newlondonexplosionNIGHT

What was it about this particular event in history that made you want to dive in and create this narrative?

The New London explosion happened close to home (about 20 minutes from where I grew up), but I knew almost nothing about it and only rarely heard it mentioned. When I started, I didn’t know where the explosion would be in the timeline of the novel, but I knew that I wanted to incorporate it. The more I explored, the clearer it seemed to me that my way “into” the story would be different from the approach taken by historians, although historical detail is of course very important to the world of Out of Darkness. I wanted to think about what the explosion meant for the victims and their families, but I was even more interested in following its repercussions outward.

What becomes possible in a community that has been shattered in this way? What forms of brokenness in the community beforehand might have been overshadowed by the deaths of almost 300 children? For example, I wanted to explore the quieter, but no less terrible, effects of segregation. After all, black children were spared from the explosion precisely because they had been excluded from the opportunities at the white New London school, which was billed in newspapers as “the richest rural school in the country.”

And, as is usually the case, I began imagining particular characters. In the case of Out of Darkness, Wash and Naomi came first, then the twins, then their stepfather Henry. Once I had Wash and Naomi, I had to find a space for them to be together (a special tree in the woods), and that’s how the Sabine River and the East Texas landscape became important to the story. I loved writing about the natural spaces of my childhood. Sometimes describing that physical beauty was a bit of a reprieve from the harshness of my characters’ circumstances. And I think I even managed to fall a bit in love with Wash myself.

 

2012AuthorPhoto500pixelsAshley Hope Pérez is a writer and teacher passionate about literature for readers of all ages—especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences. She is the author of three novels, What Can’t Wait (2011) and The Knife and the Butterfly (2012), and Out of Darkness (2015). A native of Texas, Ashley has since followed wherever writing and teaching lead her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature from Indiana University and enjoys teaching everything from Spanish language and Latin American literature to the occasional course on vampires in literature. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Book Review: Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

SammyBy Cindy L. Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: A young adult novel Latino-style–the year is 1969. America is at war, Hollywood is a dirt-poor Chicano barrio in small town America, and Sammy and Juliana, about to head into their senior year, are in love.

MY TWO CENTS: Sáenz creates strong main and supporting characters long remembered after finishing the novel. Sammy’s voice was spot-on as a teen boy who grapples with the personal issues all teens do–friends, love, fears and hopes for the future–while also dealing with poverty, racism, and the Vietnam War era. Sáenz brilliantly mixes Spanish and English, local “neighborhood” issues with larger social issues like drug addiction and homophobia. While Sammy and Juliana are in love, as the book blurb states, this is not a traditional love story. Something tragic happens shortly into the novel that ends the love affair. I won’t spoil it, but the relationship was short-lived, and Sammy spends the rest of the novel dealing with this loss and many others. If you’re looking for something light-hearted with a happy ending, this one’s not for you. Sáenz left me feeling what it’s like to get pounded by life, as Sammy was and as many people are.

TEACHING TIPS: This book has many issues worth pursuing in the classroom: immigration, poverty, grief, drug-use, discrimination based on race and sexual preference. Parts of this novel could easily be used by teachers in different ways. I say parts because I don’t believe every novel used in class needs to be read cover-to-cover. A history teacher, for example, may want to zero in on certain aspects of a novel, but may not want to handle elements typically taught by an English teacher, like character development or symbolism.

The thread about the Vietnam War could be pulled from the novel and used to complement nonfiction pieces in high school history classes. The character Pifas is drafted and students protest the war by wearing black arm bands and staging a sit-in in the school cafeteria. These were among the most memorable moments in the novel. The conversation between Sammy and Pifas about being drafted is emotionally gut-wrenching, and my heart sank when Gigi gets out of the car and falls to her knees in reaction to news about Pifas.

English teachers could use nonfiction pieces about any of the novel’s issues to attack author’s craft, investigating the differences between an objective, factual version of events versus a fictionalized one. Students could then choose an issue from the novel that is still relevant today (hint: all of them) and write two short versions of an event, one as a nonfiction writer would and the other as a fiction writer would.

LEXILE: 390

AUTHOR: (information comes directly from Cinco Puntos Press and University of Texas at El Paso)

Benjamin Alire Sáenz was born in 1954 in Old Picacho, a small farming village outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico. After graduating from high school in 1972, he entered the seminary. He was later ordained a Catholic priest, but left the priesthood three and a half years later. At the age of 30, he entered the University of Texas at El Paso. He later received a fellowship at the University of Iowa. In 1988, he received a Wallace E. Stegner Fellowship in poetry from Stanford University. In 1993, he returned to the border to teach in the bilingual MFA program at UTEP.

Sáenz is an award-winning poet and author of books for children and young adults. His first YA novel, Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and won the Americas Book Award, The Paterson Prize, and the JHunt Award. It was named one of the top ten Young Adult novels by the American Library Association and one of the top books of the year by the Center for Children’s Books, The New York Public Library, and the Miami Herald.

His other YA novels are:

He Forgot to Say Goodbye   Last Night I Sang to the Monster   Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Sammy & Juliana in Hollywoodvisit your local library or book store. Also, check out Cinco Puntos Press, IndieBound.org,  GoodreadsAmazon.com, and Barnes and Noble.com.