ALAN Picks August 2019

ALAN Picks August 2019

Greetings YA lovers! I trust everyone had a restful summer. I hope you enjoy our first installment of YA reviews for the 2019-2020 school year. Bryan Gillis, Editor 

Past Perfect Life by Elizabeth Eulberg
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019, 336 pp., $18.99
ISBN:  978-1-5476-0092-2
Family Relationships/Kidnapping/Identity

When our phones light up with amber alerts, our hearts go out to the victims and their families.  In the rare instances when the child is found, we are relieved. However, once the cameras are turned off and the news feeds slow, perhaps another type of alert is in order: “Warning!  Unimaginable life changes ahead!”

Small town Wisconsin teen, Ally Smith, could have used a heads up like this when the secure life she knew with her single dad turns out to be a total lie. In mid-senior year, while submitting college applications, Ally’s inaccurate social security number sends up red flags to authorities. This information leads to her father’s arrest for kidnapping Ally from preschool in the midst of a nasty custody battle. This battle is reignited when her estranged mother is given the startlingly wonderful news that her missing child has been found. Yet Ally cannot share in this joy. Wounded by the loss of her father, home, school, and friends, frightened and angered by a forced return to a life with a mother whose face she does not recall, Ally is near the breaking point.  What can she do when she is expected to celebrate reentry into a life she has never imagined while mourning her lost life with a father who has failed her so utterly? When one bough breaks, the tree can survive; when the tap root is damaged, only time will tell.  My money is on Ally.

Award-winning author Elizabeth Eulberg expertly speaks the language and reaches the hearts of adolescent (and adult) readers. Her sense of place, time, and topicality is spot on. Looking through the distinct lenses of both the lost and the found is an eye-opening take on this tragic and, sadly, growing plight of families caught in the cross-fire of custodial wars. This book will prompt much discussion.

Reviewed by Karen Dunnagan, Louisville, Kentucky



Call It What You Want by Brigid Kemmerer
Bloomsbury, 2019, 369 pp, $18.99
ISBN 978-1681198095
Contemporary Realistic Fiction/Romance

New York Timesbestselling author Brigid Kemmerer’s latest is written from the alternating first person points of view of Rob Lachlan and Maegan Day, who are paired for a calculus class project. Both have quite the reputations at Eagle Forge High School. Rob’s father embezzled money from local citizens, including many of his friends’ parents, while Maegan cheated on the SAT exam, causing everyone else’s scores to be invalidated. Rob’s father attempts to commit suicide after his wrongdoing is exposed, which leaves him in a near vegetative state. Maegan’s father is an overbearing police officer and her mother is extremely nosey. As a result of Rob and Maegan’s pasts, they are treated as outcasts at school. As Rob and Maegan and forced to spend time together in order to complete their math project, romance begins to blossom.

Supporting characters provide both conflict and support in Rob and Maegan’s lives. Rob is continually encountering his former best friend, and current arch enemy, Conner Tunstall, who believes that Rob participated in his father’s embezzlement scheme. Due to Rob’s social isolation, enforced by his former lacrosse teammates, he finds new friends in Owen Goettler, a gay student with his own outcast issues, and Mr. London, the high school librarian. Maegan’s eighteen-year-old sister, Samantha, returns from Duke University unexpectedly and announces that she is pregnant. Maegan also must deal with her best friend, Rachel, who is not supportive of her new romance with Rob.

Call It What You Want explores many issues that will be familiar to high schoolers, including romance, exclusion, and conflict.

Reviewed by Darryn Diuguid, Shiloh, Illinois



The Kingdom by Jess Rothenburg
Henry Holt and Company, 2019, 335 pp., $18.99
Trials/Cyborgs/Amusement Parks/Love/Freedom/Science Fiction
ISBN: 978-1250293855

Ana is a Fantisist, a stunningly beautiful and delightfully pleasing hybrid half-human, half-android, whose sole purpose is to make every happiness a reality for visitors to The Kingdom, an enormous, futuristic Disney-like amusement park. But Ana, and her princess-like “sisters,” along with a few of the park’s various other hybrid creatures, are becoming ill. Sisters Eve and Nia deliberately challenge their existence and their future as they start to unravel the sinister intents of the investors. Ana, too, becomes suspicious, but more importantly begins to feel love for the man Owen, whose job is to monitor her viability. Owen’s manipulation and deceit drive Ana to unspeakable acts of passion the likes of which seem to indicate the demise of The Kingdom and all it promises.

This is a love story told through flashback narrative and murder trial transcripts. The character of Ana makes the reader question human connections and what it means to do whatever the consumer wants. While the narrative begins harmlessly and innocently, it slowly changes, much as a piano starts to go out of tune. Eventually, the tune is discordant and dark, but the reader eventually comes to appreciate the new sound. The story contains many levels of depth, and reveals both the basest and best of human/hybrid nature.

Reviewed by Jennifer Desloges, Plymouth, New Hampshire



The Spaces Between Us by Stacia Tolman
Henry Holt and Co., 2019, 304 pp., $17.99
ISBN: 978-1250174925
Coming of Age/Identities/Friendships/Social Mobility

Serena and her best friend, Grimshaw, are tired of their tiny, rundown town. Grimshaw dreams of making it in the city as a dancer, and Serena dreams of living anywhere but Colchis. The two have been inseparable since grade school but couldn’t be more different. Grimshaw’s family may be the poorest in Colchis. Her older brothers are infamous for cars, guns, and breaking the law. Serena’s mother is the principal of her high school, and in a forgotten factory town her family is classified as wealthy. Where Serena wants to fly under the radar, Grimshaw is almost always standing out. Serena doesn’t even look at boys, but Grimshaw has a reputation for borrowing boyfriends from the cheerleaders at their school.

When Serena and Grimshaw both fail Western Civ (Serena on purpose) and are forced into repeating the class, summer seems like a welcome relief. But, Serena leaves to spend time with her extended family in Maine and when she returns, her life takes many unexpected turns. Serena’s obsession with communism and Grimshaw’s obsession with becoming famous take them on a wild, cross country adventure, one that ends in a way neither of them likely imagined.

A coming of age story, with subtle overtures about social mobility and the difficulties that face those who try the climb, The Spaces Between Usreads like a modern Catcher in the Rye. In Serena, Tolman creates the perfect teen protagonist, a combination of angst, grit, and that attitude of invincibility only a young adult can have. This story will resonate with any teen who dreams of leaving their small town behind in search of the wider world beyond. Tolman provides the open space for discussion around what it really means to find, define, and overcome one’s self.

Reviewed by Ashley L. Arnold, Louisville, Kentucky


Hold My Hand by Michael Barakiva
Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers 2019, 278 pp., $17.99
ISBN: 978-0374304867
LGBTQIA/Coming of age/Armenian American/Religion/Family

Hold My Hand is a coming of age love story that explores tensions surrounding first love, religion, family, and culture. The sequel to One Man Guy, Hold My Hand shares the development (both good and bad) of the romantic relationship between Ethan and Alek.

In addition to dealing with his parents’ many rules and restrictions and his somewhat competitive older brother, sixteen-year-old Alek must also navigate his personal relationships- with boyfriend Ethan, best friend Becky, and members of his church. Realizing the history and traditions of inequality that the church in general, and his Armenian Orthodox religion in particular, teaches, Alek must decide if he wants to take a stand, and if so, how best to do so.

Full of rich descriptions of Armenian culture including religion, history, and food, the story shares examples of what it means to be a good friend, a loving and supportive family member, and a role model for others. Moreover, it shows how there are many ways to be brave, including standing up for one’s self as well as for the equality of all people. Above all, Hold My Hand is a story of true love that will have readers rooting for Alek and Ethan throughout.

Reviewed by Janine J. Darragh, Moscow, Idaho



Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey by Magdalena and Nathaniel Newman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, 2020, 321 pp., $16.99
Memoir/TC Syndrome

This is a true story about a boy named Nathaniel Newman who grows up with Treacher Collins Syndrome. This syndrome changes how others see him.  However, it is more than a story about a young boy’s over 60 facial surgeries, it is a gripping and inviting story about a family and how this syndrome affects their lives. Nathaniel’s mother Magda shares her doubts and and endless care for her son. We witness her resilience even as she battles twice with Cancer. We hear her voice as Nathaniel’s jaw is wired shut and he has to wear a metal “halo” for four months, he is temporarily blinded and even as she has to daily adjust metal screws attached to his head.  But we also hear from both Magda and Nathaniel as he plays videogames with his brother Jacob and comforts his father Russell as he cries about an upcoming surgery and the celebratory time to remove the “trach” from his throat.

We hear the story of a young boy who loves video games, puppies, and school. He echoes that we are never normal, we are all different. He cautions us as we read the book Wonder to remember that every kid is different. Palacio, the author, meets Nathaniel and he becomes part of the campaign of kindness, but from the daily accounts, we also see how Nathaniel is sharply different than the fictional August Pullman. At one point he is even auditions for the role of Auggie, but soon learns that he could not be Auggie, because he can’t stop being Nathaniel and that is more than enough. It is enough for him and his family.

This is a powerful account and works to remind us to avoid stereotypes of people with difference.  It is a window to the world of the struggles and promises of living as a family but making adjustments along the way.  It is a moving book with a powerful story about seeing people for who they are and not how they look.

Reviewed by Kevin D. Cordi, Lancaster, Ohio



The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel by Moe Bonneau
Henry Holt and Company, 2019, 260 pp., $17.95
ISBN: 978-1250170934
Romance/LGBTQ/Family and Peer Relationships/Emotions and Feelings

Moe Bonneau’s debut, The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel, is a familiar story of friendship, family, and love. Lucy “Lu” Butler lost her best friend, Eve, when Eve blossomed into an absolute stunner and abandoned Lu for the cool kids. They go their separate ways until a chance bathroom encounter brings them back together during their senior year of high school. As the two friends grow closer, Lu realizes it might be more than friendship she craves. On top of the seismic shift in her friendship, Lu must deal with the fear of losing an aging grandparent, a distant father, sibling drama, and uncertainties about her future.

The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel fills a need on the YA landscape in that lesbian love stories are often overshadowed by stories of two boys falling in love. Both are welcome and needed as we continue pushing for diversity, but The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel is a worthy addition to queer love stories featuring female protagonists. In a delightful sequence, the common crush on the teacher narrative is given a queer twist. Consumers of YA are often shown the male protagonist crushing on his female teacher, but here Lu crushes on her female teacher while raging against the idea of love itself.

The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel is faithful to what we have come to expect from young adult novels. It takes readers through the drama of senior year, prom, love, and grief, but the real magic is the clever and quirky use of language. Bonneau’s use of slang suggests the pulp novels of eras long gone, but often with a delightful twist reminiscent of Lewis’ Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky.” What could be nonsensical in the wrong hands becomes rhythmic and lyrical in Bonneau’s. Readers will get lost in the rhythm of the writing, but they’ll stay for the story- the normalized portrait of a lesbian navigating the ups and downs of being in love.

Reviewed by Alison Daniels, Hanover, Maryland



We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal
Farrar Straus Girous, 2019, 469 pp, $18.99
ISBN: 978-0374311544

To keep her community alive, Zafira hunts game in a forest no others can navigate, while Nasir is an assassin for his monstrous father, the Sultan. The two are brought together by the mysterious Silver Witch and form part of a group of mismatched adventurers who must search for the missing Jarawat, a book that holds the key to bringing magic back to the land and saving all of Arawiya from the terrible spreading forest that devours everything in its path. They travel to the mysterious prison island of Sharr to search for the Jarawat, but must overcome treachery, illusion, supernatural foes, and their own painful pasts, in order to save the world.

Faizal has created nothing less than a true epic that can take its rightful place in the tradition of Tolkien and Rowling. The characters are vivid, each with rich histories of their own, fueling a powerful quest story that drives on to a tantalizing conclusion. The fantastical creatures that populate this landscape come from the mythologies of the Middle East and feel as familiar and dangerous as any we may have read. Most of all, Faizal writes like a poet, using language beautifully to create a vibrant tapestry both in the landscapes and in the complex inner lives of the characters. The result is a classic epic peopled with complicated characters who love doing their best despite being torn by their choices, their hopes, and their impossible dreams. This is an outstanding first novel.

Reviewed by Maggie Burns, Winterport, Maine



The Year They Fell by David Kreizman
Imprint Books, 2019, 374 pp., $17.99
ISBN:  978-1250179876
Family and Peer Relationships/Plane Crash/Emotions and Feelings

They were all best friends in preschool–Dayana, Archie, Harrison and the twins, Jack and Josie. Now high schoolers, Dayana is a drugged-out loner, Archie is an African-American nerd with white parents, Harrison struggles to hide his anxiety attacks, and Jack and Josie are at the top of the social ladder. Though their parents are all still friends, the teens now live in different social worlds.

Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view which, in this story, works perfectly. Readers begin to learn the forces that have driven the characters apart. Josie was abused by a baseball coach and Jack blames himself for not being able to stop it. Archie has always loved Josie, but since the night that she told him about the coach, she cannot look him in the eye and wants nothing to do with him. Harrison has lived his life to fulfil his mother’s dream of him getting into Harvard, but now that she is gone he cannot be sure if that is what he wants.  Dayana has felt like an outsider ever since her parent’s divorce, but as she connects to the others, she starts to wonder what it would be like to have friends who don’t come in a pill bottle.

In addition to the point of view shifts, what makes this story deeply engaging and its ending remarkably moving is the way in which the characters form community and rebuild relationships only to have them shatter again and again in the face of grief and emotional struggle. As they struggle through each setback, as more and more uncomfortable truths are revealed, and as greater challenges face them at every turn, their friendships grow stronger and the story becomes more and more real.

Reviewed by Bill Boerman-Cornell, Palos Heights, Illinois



Wild and Crooked by Leah Thomas
Bloomsbury YA 436 pp., $18.99
ISBN: 978-1547600021
Realistic Fiction/Murder and Mystery/Disability Perceptions/Friendship

Playing a role in someone else’s drama is never easy. There are parts missing, parts unknown, and parts that are cast incorrectly. Yet, this is where Kalyn and Gus find themselves, one the protagonist, the other the antagonist. They are starring in a tragedy that played out almost eighteen years previously, one that neither of them was alive to witness. Gus lives in the shadow of his dead father and his own disability, wishing that everyone could see him and not the things he cannot control. Kalyn is as tough as they come, she tells it like it is, and she has something to prove to the world and herself. She is more than her last name, more than the daughter of a murderer.

As Gus and Kalyn’s friendship grows, the tragedy that hangs over their heads almost destroys them. Gus’s dad, the rural town’s football hero was murdered before he had a chance to really live, leaving behind anger, grief, and vengeful townspeople. Kalyn’s dad, a poor kid from a violent family, confesses to the murder and is locked away for life. Two lives cut short, two lives separated by wealth and status, two lives so intertwined it is difficult to recognize the truth. This is the backstory Gus and Kalyn have been given, but it isn’t the whole story. The unlikely friends discover that the facts they have are not necessarily the truth. Armed with a blood-riddled jeans jacket, they research their parts, digging into what took place that changed their lives, looking beyond the wealth and poverty, beyond the small-town prejudices and into what really happened.

Leah Thomas realistically shows what rural life is like as well as what it means to move beyond others’ perceptions of who we are. She tells an honest story of secrets and the search for the truth, painting realistic pictures of biases in multiple forms. Readers will recognize the fallacies of human beings and hope that the Wild and Crooked path that society sometimes walks will straighten out.

Reviewed by Melissa Comer, Oak Ridge, Tennessee