ALAN Picks April/May 2019
Awake in the World by Jason Gurley
Roaring Brook Press, 2019, 336 pp., $17.99
Realistic Fiction/Teen Romance/Family and Peer Relationships
Zach is a high school senior clumsily trekking through a life that he sees as nothing but a dead-end. He has no plans to apply for college as he is convinced that his destiny is to end up an oil worker just like his older brother and deceased father. While Zach’s sketchbooks paint a portrait of an extremely talented and passionate young man, his reality sheds a much bleaker light. He is trapped and unable to pursue his dreams since his free time must be spent working in order to help his mother make ends meet.
Vanessa is a new addition to the senior class, moving to Orilla del Cielo because her stepfather is a wealthy oil executive who owns most of the land and drilling platforms in town. She is ambitious and plans to follow in the footsteps of her idol, astronomer Carl Sagan, by majoring in planetary studies at Cornell.
Though opposites in almost all aspects of life, Zach and Vanessa are inexplicably drawn to each other. Vanessa attempts to convince Zach of his artistic worth and need to apply for art school while Zach provides Vanessa with a dose of the struggles of blue-collar life. As Zach and Vanessa grow closer, however, the universe seems to be conspiring to keep them apart.
Gurley’s debut young adult novel is brimming with relatable characters, authentic dialogue, and important lessons about believing in your dreams and believing in love. He skillfully captures the fear of not being in control of your own destiny and juxtaposes that emotion flawlessly with the exhilaration of first love. Awake in the World is a book that teenagers from all walks of life will connect to, particularly those on the precipice of adulthood.
Reviewed by Jessica Harris, Wethersfield, Connecticut
In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2019, 320 pp., $17.95
Coming of Age/Family/Civil Rights
Carlton based her historical novel on the 1958 bombing of Atlanta’s oldest synagogue, the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, where she was a member in the 2000’s. Ruth Robb is trying to straddle two worlds as her mother has moved her and a younger sister to Atlanta after the sudden death of their father in New York City. They now live in their grandparents’ guest house, and her liberal, socially aware mother works as a reporter on her grandfather’s local newspaper. Ruth longs for the popularity that her mother once had as Magnolia Queen, so her grandmother Fontaine encourages and enables her entry into the pastel posse she dreams of joining. The Robbs are Jewish, and their faith prevents them from acceptance into the genteel world where the War of Northern aggression still rages. Ruth quickly becomes part of the in crowd and captures handsome Davis Jefferson’s attention. She hides her religion from the elite group at Covenant, the private Christian school she and her sister Nattie attend, thanks to Fontaine’s money.
Ruth makes a pact with her mother to attend services Saturday mornings at the local temple while becoming a pre-debutante in the afternoon and evening. At Shabbos services, she meets budding activist Max who, like the local rabbi, is deeply committed to social justice and begins to build an awareness of the emerging battle for civil rights. The novel opens in a courthouse and predicts an incident which involves Ruth’s awareness of an anti-Semitic act of violence. She will have to determine how deeply she wants to fit in while acknowledging her budding awareness of the injustice surrounding her. This story of a young girl’s coming of age will grab readers’ attention in a compelling, gripping narrative featuring a likeable, though often confused, protagonist in Ruth Robb.
Reviewed by Judith A. Hayn, Little Rock, Arkansas
As She Fades: A Novel by Abbi Glines
Feiwel & Friends, 2018, 272 pp., $18.99
Vale does not want to leave her boyfriend’s side. Crawford and Vale have been together since they were six and she is not going to leave him now after they were in a car accident that left him in a coma on the night of their high school graduation. But wouldn’t Crawford have wanted Vale to start college as planned, even if it was his dream college, not hers? But wouldn’t Crawford have wanted Vale to go try to live as normal as possible, even if he was the one that always made the decisions, not her? Crawford’s mom and Vale’s family finally convince Vale to go to school. Fortunately, Slate Allen, Vale’s brother’s friend who has been visiting his sick uncle in the same hospital as Crawford, is there to help Vale get comfortable. Maybe too comfortable.
Readers will find themselves devouring this book to discover what the future holds for Vale and Crawford, and Slate. Glines’s newest young adult romance novel considers what constitutes a healthy relationship, how one person or one event can change the course of lives, and how college freshman are still searching for their identity.
Reviewed by Kellee Moye, Orlando, Florida
What We Buried by Kate A. Boorman
Henry Holt and Company, 2019, 297 pp., $17.99
Eighteen-year-old Liv Brewer questions her life as a child beauty contestant. In fact, she is suing her parents for ruining her life. On the day they are to assigned to court, her parents disappear. A twisty road tale ensues, and includes blackouts, sibling rivalries, unexplained fires and more. What begins as a road trip turns into more than a quest to find their parents, it becomes a mission to comprehend the events in their own lives.
Liv and Jory Brewer are both unreliable narrators. Jory, born with a facial paralysis, is difficult to understand. This contributes to readers’ confusion when he reveals the back story of his life. Can we trust him? There is reason not to, but readers will have to decide for themselves as the accounts of events and time itself are twisted. Each clue can be misleading, but also inviting. A thrilling ride of a read.
Reviewed by Kevin Cordi, Columbus, Ohio
Comics Will Break Your Heart, by Faith Erin Hicks
Roaring Brook Press, 2019, 340 pp., $18.99
Superheroes/Coming of Age/Family Relationships/Romantic Relationships
Miriam Kendrick has a complicated relationship with comic books, sparked mostly by her family’s history with them. Her grandfather, a comic book artist, drew the lead characters of what grew to be a modern day billion-dollar empire, the TomorrowMen Series. But, under circumstances that involved a multiple decade lawsuit, the only name presently attached to the franchise is Warrick Studios, the family of her grandfather’s original partner and current producers of the comics, toys, and newest superhero action film to hit the big screen. Living far from Los Angeles, the home of Warrick Studios, in Sandford, Nova Scotia, Miriam’s family enjoys a quirky, small town existence. But, the decades old lawsuit, and all of the drama that comes with it, seems to shape everything that has happened in her life.
When Miriam meets Weldon, a boy who seems to love the original TomorrowMen as much as she does, her world is turned upside down. Weldon represents so many things that Miriam has carefully avoided, including the fact that he is the son of David Warrick, of those Warricks, the current CEO of Warrick Studios. As Miriam gets to know Weldon, she realizes that relationships are complicated, especially when family feuds are involved.
Hicks has created a novel that is a light, modern take on the classic forbidden love story. Readers will find themselves rooting for Miriam and Weldon as they explore both who they are and who they want to become. Hicks’ story will especially resonate with teens as it tackles an issue familiar to many- what are the next steps for my life and my story? Both Miriam and Weldon grapple with finding their place in the world, in their families, and with one another.
Reviewed by Ashley Arnold, Louisville, Kentucky
Castle of Lies by Kiersi Burkhart
Carolrhoda Lab, 2019, 342 pp., $18.99
Elves, zombies, and political intrigue anyone? Castle of Lies has all of this and more. Thelia is trained in the art of reading people and kroga, a form of martial arts. She is best friends with Princess Corene and is waiting for her chance to become queen. Parsifal trades secrets for favors and singlehandedly tries to keep his failing family estate afloat, all while nursing a secret love for Thelia. Bayled is a foreign refugee, sheltered and declared heir by the king, who plans to marry his love, the princess, until a prince from a nearby kingdom arrives to claim her and the throne. While the three are busy negotiating the intricacies of life at court, the threat of the all-powerful race of elves looms in the distance.
Sapphire is an androgynous elf hoping to impress their commander after being drafted into an elite squad of soldiers readying to march to war. Sapphire believes that humans are stupid, lazy, and careless, and now, limited as they are, they have let magic get out of control in their lands. Through secret tunnels and trickery, the elves descend upon the humans and quickly take control. Sapphire learns that what they have been told about humans is mostly true, except Thelia and Parsifal don’t seem to fit that mold. In fact, Sapphire is strangely attracted to the two and reluctant to put them through what promises to be an excruciating and life-altering cleansing of magic. As humans begin to leak magic, the dead rise, and the very air seems to catch flame, Sapphire will not be able to protect their humans much longer before magic destroys everything.
Through shifting perspectives, Kiersi Burkhart tells the tale of four characters trying desperately to maneuver their way through the truths, lies, and machinations of a corrupt court controlled by a greedy king. This story piles one fantastical catastrophe on top of another. A godlike race descending upon unsuspecting humans? Check. Magic busting the seems of the world? Check. Impossible to kill zombies invading? Check. Add a little politically inspired romance and a touch of the forbidden, and voila! Kiersi Burkhart’s Castle of Lies.
Reviewed by Sarah Valingo, Columbiana, Ohio
Skyjacked by Paul Griffin
Scholastic, 2019, 240 pp., $17.99
Action & Adventure/Survival Stories/Social Issues/Friendship/Transportation/Aviation
Five teens are trapped on a private plane as they are returning from an end of the summer camping trip. Who is responsible? Is it the pilot? The chaperone? Or is it one of the teens? The story takes the reader on a flight full of dips and dives while the clues unfold. Is the scheme personal, political, or just a random attack? All the characters have something to lose, and something to gain.
Cassie, Tim, Emily, Brandon, and Jay are friends and classmates at The Hartwell Academy. Cassie’s father owns the plane, and the pilot, Tony, has been with the family for as long as Cassie can remember. The newcomers to the group are Jay, the scholarship student, Sofia, the substitute co-pilot, and Reeva, the chaperone. Are these three innocent bystanders, or are they behind the hijacking?
Filled with a healthy dose of drama and suspense, Skyjacked will have readers glued to their seats as the passengers unravel the mystery. The teens on the plane struggle to decide which adult to trust, as each one exhibits reasons to believe, and suspect, their story. In this fast-paced work, Griffin provides readers with just enough information to piece together a case for, or against, the teens and the adults.
Reviewed by Bethany Lanphere, Loveland, Colorado
Good Enough by Jen Petro-Roy
Feiwel & Friends, 2019, 272 pp., $ 16.99
Teen Friendship and Family/Eating Disorders/Self-Concept
Riley is obsessed with her weight and with the way her parents fawn over her younger, thinner, athletic sister Julia. Her parents have tried to get her to eat more, but 12 year old Riley is terrified of being fat. She forces herself to work through the hunger of not eating enough to sustain herself, and runs to keep herself in check. The more she runs, the faster she runs. If she works at it hard enough, others will accept her.
Between the running and the refusal to eat, however, Riley is getting dangerously thin. Her parents are worried about her, yet their efforts to help Riley feed into her distorted perception that she doesn’t measure up. Riley’s sister Julia is a successful gymnast and the family spends a great deal of time traveling to meets and cheering her on. The more trophies Julie collects, the more Riley feels invisible, unacceptable. Finally, Riley’s desperate parents admit her to a hospital where the staff engages her in group and individual therapy sessions, forces her to eat, and listens to her in the bathroom to be sure she isn’t throwing up.
Told through Riley’s dated journal entries, the story reflects her flawed and evolving insights into her eating disorder, and the responses of those around her. The specific details offer an inside look into the complexities of eating disorders, the role of counselors and therapists in supporting life changes, and the power of community to bolster individuals. Through Riley’s descriptions of the sessions with her parents and the staff, we see how her eating disorder has affected the way she interprets others’ words and actions, and the anxieties and misperceptions of her parents. Ultimately, Riley realizes that the responsibility for her success is hers alone.
Riley’s primary therapist, Willow, offers messages that encourage Riley, and readers, to acknowledge her gifts and flaws, to own her fears, and to speak up about her needs. Equally compelling is Riley’s ongoing struggle between wanting to get well and not wanting to leave the safety and acceptance she feels among the other patients.
Petro-Roy‘s novel is grounded in her own experience with an eating disorder, adding depth to the characters and vivid details to their experiences. She doesn’t shy away from sharing the reality that an eating disorder can lead to death, yet she maintains a sense of hopefulness. She slips in subtle commentary on the way insurance companies fund mental health treatments and how financial insecurities can exacerbate an already difficult situation for a family affected by a child with an eating disorder. Marketed toward nine to eleven-year-olds, the book offers older students much to appreciate including compelling characters and insights into the realities of eating disorders.
Reviewed by Kathryn Mitchell Pierce, St. Louis, Missouri
A Soldier and a Liar by Caitlin Lochner
Swoon Reads Books, 2019, 342 pp., $17.99
Thrust into a society where individuals are separated based on their “giftedness” or innate special abilities, or lack thereof, Lieutenant Lai Cathwell is caught in the middle of both worlds. As the novel opens, readers find Lai sneaking in and out of her prison cell. Her quest is for peace in the midst of the war between the Nytes, those who host some sort of innate gift like reading minds or seeing into the future, and the Etioles, those without special gifts. Lai’s military service and training have landed her in prison, but she is called back into service for a special mission. Lai must join a military team seeking to destroy the Nyte rebels, a group of Nytes working to exterminate all Etioles. A Nyte herself, a skilled fighter, and highly-intuitive person, Lai reluctantly complies. She joins a team of other highly trained military partners– Jay, the team leader, Al, a quick-tempered fighter with some dark secrets, and Erik, who has recently lost all memories from his past. The team struggles to learn how to work together and ultimately must survive by protecting each other. While all are proficient on the battlefront, their personal struggles at times overwhelm their innate talents and training, leaving the team vulnerable to defeat.
Lochner’s debut novel is unique and compelling. The author creates some complex characters by amplifying the inner struggles of each while avoiding the typical we versus them war scenario. Once familiar with the fictional world setting, readers will become intimately involved in the minds and conversations of these characters– with help from the characters’ special gifts, e.g., mind reading, or through intimate conversations. The narrative voice shifts between characters, providing different viewpoints in each chapter. Events are not simply retold from various characters’ points of view. The storyline evolves through the unique storytelling ability of each character.
Reviewed by Gretchen Oltman, Omaha, Nebraska