cover image BORN BLUE


Han Nolan, . . Harcourt, $17 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-15-201916-7

Nolan (Dancing on the Edge) uses boldly honest first-person narrative to recount the saga of an emotionally disturbed teen, whose life-affirming passion for music constantly conflicts with her self-destructive tendencies. Abandoned by her mother, neglected by her foster parents and later kidnapped and sold by her mother to a drug dealer, Janie finds her only source of happiness when she hears "the ladies"—Etta James, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan—sing. Janie is lily-white, but she identifies more with the music, culture and rhythms of her African-American foster brother, Harmon. When, at a young age, she discovers her own remarkable singing voice, Janie (who changes her name to Leshaya) begins getting the attention she so desperately craves. Her talent proves to be both a blessing and a curse, however, bringing her opportunities and, at the same time, magnetically pulling her into a world where fellow musicians use drugs and sex to heighten their performance. The protagonist's serpentine narration often picks up characters then drops them just as abruptly, mirroring Janie's treatment of others. Some of the developing relationships—her reunion with Harmon and her interest in a gifted songwriter, especially—demonstrate Janie's inability to connect with others to chilling effect. But other examples feel gratuitous once her pattern of behavior is established. By the time readers reach the novel's conclusion, they will have gained an understanding of the tragic heroine's fears, desires and warped perception of family, but Janie herself remains hauntingly elusive, adding to the impact of the book. The question of whether or not Janie will break her cycle of abuse remains unanswered, yet young adults mature enough to bear the story's intensity will also likely recognize the characteristics of this deeply troubled girl from their own communities. Ages 14-up. (Oct.)