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.