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Undertow by Michael BuckleyIn Michael Buckley’s gripping new YA novel Undertow, Coney Island is a dystopia known as “the Zone, the DMZ and Fish City.” Its famed amusement parks and Mermaid Parade are long abandoned. The neighborhood has been fenced off from the rest of New York City and turned into a militarized zone since a warrior race of sea people called the Alpha swam ashore and raised a tent city on the beach.

The book’s narrator is Lyric Walker, a feisty 16-year-old Coney Islander who is thrust into the spotlight when her high school is opened to six Alpha teens. A movie version of the story would be a dream job for a make-up department: “Many have scales. Others have jagged rows of teeth, and mouths like open wounds,” Lyric says of the Alpha students who have to be escorted past violent protestors by soldiers, cops and FBI agents. “One of them is a teenaged mountain of power, a slightly smaller version of the giant warriors who led the way. He has sunken eyes and tiny spikes on his neck, shoulders and forearms.” There’s also a girl with gelatinous skin through which her veins and bones can be seen and a golden god with a bruised face and serrated knives that pop out of his arms.

The golden god is the Alpha prince Fathom, who does battle nightly on the beach with his father’s challengers and wears his bruises like trophies. A mutual attraction develops between the charismatic prince and Lyric when the principal assigns her to be his tutor and meet with him privately every day. When their meetings incur the wrath of the xenophobic governor, the safety of Lyric’s family, who have been harboring a secret from their friends and neighbors, is put in jeopardy.

Lyric Walker is an engaging protagonist, as are the other characters in the book, including her parents, making it a great summer read for both teens and adults. Undertow climaxes with an epic battle on the beach in which Lyric literally learns to make waves. Readers rooting for a human-Alpha romance will be happy to know this is the first novel of a trilogy.

In an interview, Buckley says that Undertow took its inspiration from a refugee crisis that made headlines last year. Tens of thousands of children fled Central America and came to the U.S. where they were imprisoned while elected officials called for electrified fences at the border, similar to the ones in his novel. The Brooklyn resident’s best-selling middle grade series the Sisters Grimm and NERDS have sold more than four million copies and appear in 22 languages.

On Tuesday, May 19, BookCourt at 163 Court Street in Brooklyn is hosting an author reading, audience Q & A and book signing at 7pm.

Undertow by Michael Buckley. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. Hardcover, $18.99

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