The Impossible Fortress

by Jason Rekulak
Reviewed by SA

This book was not at all what I expected, and yet it was a fun and awesome read. A book that made me feel like I was living the teen years my parents had, a book that made me fall in love with coding, a book that conjured up the magic of the 80s in a way you only see in movies like War Games and Tron.

Summary30753698

The Impossible Fortress begins with a magazine…The year is 1987 and Playboy has just published scandalous photographs of Vanna White, from the popular TV game show Wheel of Fortune. For three teenage boys—Billy, Alf, and Clark—who are desperately uneducated in the ways of women, the magazine is somewhat of a Holy Grail: priceless beyond measure and impossible to attain. So, they hatch a plan to steal it.

The heist will be fraught with peril: a locked building, intrepid police officers, rusty fire escapes, leaps across rooftops, electronic alarm systems, and a hyperactive Shih Tzu named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Failed attempt after failed attempt leads them to a genius master plan—they’ll swipe the security code to Zelinsky’s convenience store by seducing the owner’s daughter, Mary Zelinsky. It becomes Billy’s mission to befriend her and get the information by any means necessary. But Mary isn’t your average teenage girl. She’s a computer loving, expert coder, already strides ahead of Billy in ability, with a wry sense of humor and a hidden, big heart. But what starts as a game to win Mary’s affection leaves Billy with a gut-wrenching choice: deceive the girl who may well be his first love or break a promise to his best friends.

Musings
Billy is not your usual nerd – his grades are awful, he doesn’t care for books or role playing games. He is, however, more than slightly obsessed with his Commodore 64. He codes for fun, and he’s outstandingly good, not just for a 14 year old. It’s a hobby he doesn’t expect his friends or family to understand, but it’s something he loves to do.

So when he meets Mary, a girl his age who might just be better at coding than he is, a friendship blossoms that could change everything.

It’s important to remember that we’re int he mind of a 14 year old, here. Billy’s friends Alf and Clyde share one goal – to get the newest issue of Playboy, and get a look at the nude goddess that is Vanna White. It’s all they can think about, and they’re hatching a plan to get their hands on it. And they need Billy to seduce Mary as part of it.

This doesn’t seem like a problem for Billy: it even gives him an excuse to hang out with this brilliant girl, and work together on their video game, the Impossible Fortress, which could win them fame and fortune… all without getting mocked by the boys. You see, Mary is a little chubby. Or outright fat, if you believe Alf and Clyde. She isn’t really worth Billy’s time, they say. Plus, she has a reputation – if you know what I mean.

Some of the characters felt a little flat to me, but I don’t think it’s a problem, since Billy and Mary have so much depth. The story is about them, after all. It’s partially love story, partially friendship – though maybe you could say the real love story is between Billy and coding, or the reader and the 80s.

And while part of the story was a little predictable, the real twist came right out of left field. Totally unexpected, though made perfect sense all in the end, answering questions we didn’t know we had. It’s also fun to read a book intended for 14 years olds as an adult, seeing how bad a lot of the decisions are, wanting to reach in and tell a character to their face that what they’re doing is a bad idea.

It’s also fun, if you want to go deeper, to look into the symbolism of impossible fortresses through the book. There are the evident ones: like the game itself, impossible to code, or the school at the very end, or even the heist itself. But you’ve also got the impossible fortress of Mary herself – can you break down her walls, and navigate the maze of her personality? Maybe life itself is an impossible fortress.

It’s a book about expectations, a book about first impressions, a book about being a teenager in the age of arcade games. It combines the tropes of the teenage heist with the ultimate competition, all wrapped up in a coming of age story. I mean, what’s not to love about a love letter to the 80s?

Expected publication: February 7th 2017 by Simon & Schuster

By the way, you can actually play the game Billy and Mary create, On the author’s website! http://jasonrekulak.com/ (Click ‘play the game’ at the top!)

When Reason Breaks

by Cindy L. Rodriguez

Reviewed by SA

I am always nervous when I pick up YA novels (I say pretty much the same thing every time I start a review of a YA), as it is so hard to find a book that defies formula, breaks into new territory, and rips your heart out. Guess what? When Reason Breaks (Cindy L. Rodriguez) is most definitely a great novel. Plus, it’s a diverse book!

When Reason BreaksTwo sophomore girls come from different worlds. Emily is the sweet, smart daughter of a lawyer/politician father who controls most aspects of her life; she loves her friends Sarah and Abby, and her boyfriend, Kevin. Elizabeth is a dark goth girl whose father has recently run out on, making her the ‘basket case’ of the school, with anger issues and a tendency to draw dark pictures. When their English teacher, Ms. Diaz, places them together in class, they grow together over a love of Emily Dickinson, whose poetry will push them to reconsider many aspects of their lives.

The novel deals with the harsh topics of mental illness and suicide, while drawing parallels between the lives of the two young protagonists and Emily Dickinson herself. It will have your heart racing, your hands stuck to the cover, unable to put the book down.

Full disclosure; for the first half of the novel, I wasn’t convinced about if I liked it or not. I found the protagonists slightly pretentious, slightly predictable, and I felt as if I had seen them before. But as the plot progressed, I realized that the feeling of familiarity came from the fact that I did  know people just like them. I recognized their thoughts and feelings as those I had myself felt, or had experienced second hand as I stood alongside a friend through a tough time.

It was honestly the end of the third act (if you would want to call it that – you’ll know what I mean when you read it yourself) when the book grabbed me. The book begins with a dark chapter, after which the novel then takes you back eight months, to show what series of events has brought them to this point. Just like Ms. Diaz, I made assumptions about this moment; when I saw that I was wrong, my entire perception of the book shifted. My heart raced as I realized… “I am part of the problem,” a scary thought. I suddenly saw the novel in a different light; when I finally finished it, I had to put it down, stare at the ceiling, and think everything over in my head. Just… wow.

But what made it so much more interesting was the introduction of Emily Dickinson as the inspiration for the women. During the course of the book, the protagonist offer different interpretations to some of the most famous poems, making them their own. And after the novel ends, the author offers insight into the life of our favorite lady poet, showing us just how every character reflects part of her past. It’s fantastic how she is able to do this without making the book feel like a perfect replica of Dickinson’s life, or preachy in any way: it’s subtle.

It was an actual emotional roller coaster; it reminded me of Thirteen Reasons Why (Jay Asher), crossed over with The Breakfast Club. I recommend tissues!

When Reason Breaks comes out February 10th.

Oh look, a book trailer!