Love is the Drug, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Love is the DrugI had picked this book up as an advance copy at last year’s ALA conference because, I mean, that cover, but it went straight into the teen giveaway box and not into my grubby little hands. But after the umpteenth time the internets told me good things about it, I was like, fine, internets, I will read this book.

And I’m glad I did! I was disappointed that the book wasn’t quite the suspenseful thriller I was promised, but when I eventually figured that out, I started liking it a lot more.

See, what happens is, a teenage girl called Bird goes to a fancy-pants networking party at a classmate’s house, talks some dangerous talk around some CIA-type dude, and then wakes up eight days later to find out that she apparently got both super drunk and super high and got herself in a car accident. CIA dude, Roosevelt, is rather pointedly wondering if perhaps she remembers anything from that night, and in fact she does — but what she remembers doesn’t quite match up with what he’s telling her.

So Bird starts asking around, trying to figure out what really happened, while meanwhile a terrorist-spread flu virus is taking down city after city around the world and her drug-dealer friend is hiding from the cops because he’s accused of giving Bird whatever made her so high and also Bird is just trying to make it through senior year in the hopes that there will be a college for her to go to next fall.

Oh, and, love triangle. Ish. It’s not a terrible one but it still made me roll my eyes quite often.

I enjoyed the story a lot, and I very much wanted to know what Bird knew and why anyone wanted to know it as well and what exactly was up with her parents and their top-secret everything. I liked the DC setting a lot, including the juxtaposition between Bird at fancy private school and Bird at “home” with her uncle in the decidedly-not-fancy part of DC and Bird with her various rich and scholarship friends at school. There’s a definite focus on class and race and especially what it means to be Black and how much presentation matters in being taken seriously.

Things I didn’t like include the ending, which is practically epilogue-ish in its efforts to tie everything up in a pretty bow, and the fact that so much of this entire story could have been avoided if only people would just freaking talk to each other. On the plus side, the lack of communication is actually well done and feels different depending on who is failing to communicate. Bird just really really needs to get new friends. And parents. And probably enemies.

So, all around, a pretty good book! I’ll definitely be checking out more from this author in the future.

Recommendation: For fans of teens solving problems and getting into fairly dangerous situations in the process.

Rating: 7/10

Delicious Foods, by James Hannaham

Delicious FoodsI didn’t know much about this book going in, but as soon as I got through the first few pages, in which a seventeen-year-old kid called Eddie uses the bloody stumps where his hands used to be to drive a stolen car from BFE Louisiana to Houston and eventually to Minnesota, well, I was hooked. Why did this kid have no hands? What was he escaping from? Why did he leave his mother behind and why wasn’t he in any hurry to go back and get her?

Luckily this is the kind of book that answers all of the questions it asks, even if it takes its sweet time doing so. After the tense and urgent opening we travel back in time to nicer days, when Eddie’s mother, Darlene, was a young college student sweet on her sorority sister’s boyfriend. As all sorority girls know, this never ends well, but Darlene takes things in stride, doing the best she can until the absolute worst happens and she finds herself broke, crack-addicted, selling herself, and being a terrible mother to her son. When the Delicious Foods minibus rolls up with the offer of a great job with housing, it doesn’t take much for Darlene to say yes, leaving Eddie to fend for himself. But as you can probably guess, the job is not great, and in fact the workers are basically slaves to the family that runs the company.

As the story goes on, the narrative jumps between Eddie and Darlene, or, well, Eddie and “Scotty”, which turns out to be a street name for crack cocaine. Yes indeed, half this book is narrated by a controlled substance. But that’s actually pretty cool — you can see how Darlene’s thoughts are affected and pushed around by Scotty to become the thoughts that eventually win out or turn into speech. Scotty is almost a completely reliable narrator, in that regard, and it is going on my list of favorite book characters for its honesty and sass.

Also pretty cool is the way that Hannaham portrays the farm and the mentality that keeps all the workers working there even when it is obvious even to them that they have the strength of numbers to get out. Why would they leave a place that offers a poorly maintained roof and questionably nutritious food and 98 percent impure crack cocaine? Where would they go? What would they do? At least they know what they have if they stay.

Less cool is the ending, which wraps things up in a saccharine blanket. I would have preferred the book end a bit more ambiguously, but I know a lot of people like that whole closure thing and will appreciate the sappiness as well. I’ll just be over here ignoring the quasi-epilogue, as usual, and appreciating Hannaham’s fascinating story and lovely sentences.

Recommendation: For those who don’t need a strong plot, those intrigued by people who take scam jobs, and anyone who can survive chapters narrated by narcotics.

Rating: 8/10