Review originally appeared in Library Journal, January 2018.
Young Esme Silver was born in pre-WWII Hollywood to Dina Wells, a 16-year old wanna-be actress star with the right looks, but very little talent. Her father, “Magic Ike,” gambler and small-time crook, spends his days at the horse track, dragging “Baby E” along as he makes one poor decision after another. Though she had little formal education and an unconventional childhood, Esme is street smart, tough, and resilient. After battling severe depression, Dina passes away in unfortunate, sudden circumstances. Ike then follows Benny Siegel to Las Vegas to start up the Flamingo hotel and casino. Esme, a knockout like her mother, is soon a showgirl in post-war Vegas. Using her looks and body, Esme, 18, becomes romantically involved with rich, casino boss Nate Stein, a ruthless man in his fifties. Esme secures a position as a burlesque dancer, using Stein and his money to keep her father in a job, but she doesn’t realize how deep Stein and his wealth penetrate every pore of sin city until it’s too late. The ending is unsettling, leaving readers unsure where 21 year old Esme will end up. Esme’s story shows a little known side of Vegas, that of a showgirl trying to earn a living in a city where everyone is out for themselves. VERDICT: Sharp’s coming-of-age tale paints a unique, detailed picture of both the 1940’s Hollywood movie industry and 1950’s Vegas and the difficult, often violent lives of mobsters, casino bosses, and showgirls living in the city of bright lights. (Publication date 4/10/18)
Originally published in School Library Journal, May 2017.
Grade 9 & up: Van, 17, was forced to grow up quickly in the slipstream of her mentally ill, brilliant mother. Her father died of a drug overdose when she was an infant. Van, her mother Sophie, and Ida, a surrogate grandmother, have lived as vagrants, following Sophie’s work. Leaving their home in Uzbekistan, the women land in Vegas, the city that never sleeps, for Sophie’s job at the Silver Saddle Casino. Van is tutored and left to spend her free time inside the lavish place with, Alex, a handsome college student, as her guide. Alex becomes her first true friend and love interest. Playing the guitar has always been Van’s true joy and form of escape, and she is now given the opportunity to join a band. Then, tragedy strikes and her family unit is falling apart before her very eyes. With Ida ill and Sophie caught in a scam, taken to the Sedona desert for “healing” by a cult, Van follows, determined to save her mother. The pacing is quick, parallel to the constant movement of Van and her mother Sophie. Van has an out of body experience and ends up fighting to survive in the desert. The end is filled with heavy-hearted goodbyes, but also hope and promise for Van’s future. It’s more of a beginning as Van makes a tough decision to set out on her own. The mood throughout is laced with worry and uncertainty, and readers will empathize with Van. Burian’s debut realistic fiction novel is based upon real-life events she witnessed. VERDICT: Recommended for general purchase, teen readers will enjoy the story line and well developed characters, while rooting for the strong female lead to survive what life has dealt her.