Kokila/Penguin, 2019 318 pages
Jay is in the spring of his senior year of high school and plans on spending his final spring break with his best friend, messing around and playing video games, when devastating news reaches him. His cousin Jun has been murdered in the Philippines as a result of the government's war on drugs. Jun's father, a police chief, claims that Jun was selling drugs, but Jay does not believe this. He and Jun were pen pals much of Jay's life and he knows his cousin better than anyone. There is no way Jun got messed up in this lifestyle. To find the real cause of his cousin's death Jay travels to his homeland of the Philippines. Here he reconnects with family and meets a girl with whom he feels an immediate attraction, even though she has a boyfriend. Together with his female cousin (Jun's sister) Jay follows Jun's path, which leads him to the slums and into the secret world of the drug trade and its effect on the Philippine population. Jay eventually finds the answers for which he seeks, yet they are not the ones he wants to find. Through the journey he reconnects with his Philippine roots and family and grows and changes in unexpected ways.
A National Book Award finalist, Ribay offers information about the terrible war on drugs happening in his native country through a carefully crafted mystery. I think this is the first book set in the Philippines that I have read for young people. It highlights the culture, as well as the current social situation. Readers will get to know the state of affairs in the Philippines, all while trying to solve the mystery of what actually happened to Jun. Ribay takes us on quite a rollercoaster as the truth is slowly revealed-in very unexpected ways. Through the story we see that the world is not black and white and all of us humans are both flawed and capable of love and forgiveness. Jay reconnects with his heritage and extended family, allowing him to also reconnect with his nuclear American family in a meaningful way. The answers to Jun's death may not have been the ones Jay was looking for, but he gains closure, perspective, and a direction for his future. I avoided this book, hating the cover, yet once I fell into it, I could not climb out. A completely absorbing read and page turner perfect to recommend to hard to please male readers, though it may require some hand-selling.