Space Race 2.0 plus Gen Z’s thirst for reliable news. Internet fame. Young love. Debut author (debut author?!) Phil Stamper brings it all together in a YA novel that’s original and so, so readable. Cal is a social media journalist living in and reporting from NYC. He gained most of his half million followers from an election story and some coverage of NASA’s highly publicized upcoming mission to Mars. The NASA updates had some of Cal’s highest view numbers ever, so why has he stopped reporting on it? In a word? Dad. Much to Cal and his mother’s surprise and displeasure, Cal’s airline pilot father applied to be part of the Mars mission. Not long after, it is confirmed that Cal Senior and his family are being sent to Houston so Cal Sr. can begin his training. In an instant, Cal’s life is turned upside down. Goodbye, Brooklyn. Goodbye, summer Buzzfeed internship. Goodbye, best friend. Goodbye, Senior year. Cal is the kind of guy who has Plans. He has carefully planned his future and going to Houston is NOT in that plan. But go, he must. The world he enters is surreal. Starwatch is the media outlet doing all of NASA’s publicity for this mission. Because this includes a reality TV show all about the astronauts and their families, Starwatch controls the homes in which they all live. Because they’re going for 1960s Space Race nostalgia, all the homes look like reproductions of the Brady Bunch house or like the pages of the LIFE magazines Cal Sr discovered in his youth, which fueled his space obsession. Like the astronaut families from the 60s, these new families, including Cal’s very, very imperfect family, are also expected to be perfect. The only good thing to happen during this intro to his new world is meeting Leon, another “Astrokid” whose mom is slated to lead the mission to Mars. It’s not long before these two realize their feelings for each other run much deeper than friendship. And their love story is really sweet, but not easy. Something else not easy and the main plot of the story, is Cal’s social media reporting amid Starwatch’s control. Cal decides to go rogue, screw Starwatch, and cover the NASA behind the scenes stuff his own way. Sure, his coverage boosts his followers into the millions, but at what cost?
So much to love in this book. The writing. Dang, Phil Stamper! This is quite the freshman novel. I love when an author is bold enough to write a super-smart teen character who knows what he wants. Cal is not perfect, though. He is very self-absorbed and is very slow to consider how his actions will affect others. Space Race. Not a subject matter often seen in YA. I love it (I read and loved another space-related book recently - The Weight of Stars). Cassette Tapes. Here’s something that BLEW MY MIND. Cal has a funky obsession; he collects cassette tapes. What??? This is a thing??? LPs? I get it. You’ve got the gorgeous album covers, the feel of the vinyl, the act of placing the needle on the record. What in the world is the appeal of a plastic cassette tape with the brittle cases and fold out liner notes? I honestly had no idea that was a thing. Oh, Cal. You would have been so jealous of my cassette collection in the 80s. It’s now in a landfill somewhere (where it belongs - no offense to the environment). Crazily, in the book I read immediately after finishing this one (Start Here by Trish Doller), a character also collected cassette tapes! Crazy. The audiobook. It was fantastic. Narrated by Michael Crouch with Starwatch reports narrated by some big wigs, including January LaVoy and Bahni Turpin. Highly recommended. I’ll end my review with something Cal says when he’s asked about why he chooses to do live reporting on social media. He explains that young people are desperate for real information without needing to sort through fake news and clickbait. A live report is real. No chance of BS. I found that to be incredibly powerful and something I’ve not previously considered.