ALAN Picks December 2017
Renegades by Marissa Meyer
Feiwel and Friends, 2017, 556 pp, $19.99
Marissa Meyer opens Renegades with a brief backstory. Prodigies, humans with a range of X-men-style superpowers, had long been oppressed and seen as villains. Then came the Age of Anarchy, when the prodigies overthrew civilized society. Some prodigies pursued good, others ill, and normal people struggled in a lawless, brutal world. Finally, a new order arose–a band of Renegades–who offered hope and promised to serve as heroes, superheroes, to the world.
Meyer immediately undercuts this vision of hope, however. Her protagonist, Nova, is a prodigy herself, gifted with the ability to put people to sleep. Because of her misplaced belief in the power of the Renegades, though, Nova does not trust in her own power. Instead of fighting to save her parents and baby sister from assassination by a murderous gang, she runs, cowers, and waits for the Renegades to come and save the day. They don’t.
And therein lies the theme of Meyer’s novel. Is humanity better off under the protection of a seemingly benevolent group of gifted prodigies? Can this kind of omnipotence truly be benevolent? Has humanity been diminished by this misplaced hope for protection by powerful leaders? What are the dangers of hope, especially when it comes dressed as a superhero?
Meyer’s novel is packed with action as Nova struggles to make sense on the one hand of her loyalty to the Anarchists who take her in after her family is murdered and on the other hand the earnest band of Renegades she infiltrates who are forging a new world order. Just as she grapples with the mysteries of her past and the question of whom to trust, her male counterpart, Adrian, whose two adopted fathers lead the Renegades, navigates his powers and past.
Renegades is full of engaging characters who are far more than just superheroes with nifty powers. To learn what Nova and Adrian uncover about themselves, their pasts, and their connection, however, readers will have to wait until November 2018 for the concluding volume to Renegades.
Reviewed by Audrey Fisch, Westfield, New Jersey
The Wicker King by K. Ancrum
Imprint Books, 2017, 307 pp, $17.99
Teen Friendship/Mystery/Mental Health/Adolescence
Unlikely best friends August and Jack make increasingly difficult and dangerous choices together as they navigate high school, trying to conquer–or at least survive–their demons and histories. First, they break into the toy store, but that is just child’s play.
August and Jack are each other’s secret, and each other’s secret-keepers. Jack is the popular one, and August the drug dealer with a file full of detention slips. Still, it’s Jack whose world becomes unraveled with hallucinations and obsessions. August does his best to support and save Jack from what appears to be a plunge into mental illness.
As their friendship turns from adolescent recklessness to more serious conflicts and questions, even the pages of the book fade from white to gray to, finally, black. This visual effect makes the growing uncertainty palpable.
K. Ancrum’s novel is written for mature readers. The story communicates a strong sense of tension and urgency through its short, distinct chapters. Ancrum’s disciplined writing requires and rewards readers with a story about brokenness and healing, loyalty and connection.
Reviewed by Sherri Larson, Howard Lake, Minnesota
Meant to Be by Julie Halpern
Feiwel & Friends, 2017, 320pp, $17.99
Science Fiction/Romance/Contemporary/Peer Relationships
Agatha “Aggy” Abrams believes in free will. Unfortunately, for the last six years almost everyone has started to believe in destiny instead. That’s when the Names started appearing on people’s bodies who are 18 or older. No one knows why or how. But that name is your “meant to be,” or MTB. Or as Aggy calls it, your “Empty.”
Meant to Be begins as Aggy is graduating from high school and turning 18. She sees a stranger’s name tattooed across her chest, and somewhere in the world, her signature is emblazoned across a stranger’s chest. Aggy’s resistance to fate contrasts with her best friend, Lish, who is all in. Lish’s MTB comes to stay for the summer, and she falls in love quickly and completely.
Using the theme of summer love, Halpern creates an alternative to the “forever love” Aggy is facing. At her summer job at a Halloween-themed amusement park, Aggy agrees to a no-strings-attached relationship with Luke. Crush worthy Luke is not as strongly against MTBs but is equally unready to meet his supposed soul mate. Yet how long can they avoid what’s meant to be?
The conceit of the Names heightens feelings that are immediately relatable to the reader. Who are you? What do you want to do with your life? And why do you have to decide right now? Aggy is desperate for things not to be planned for her, yet unsure of the choices she must make for herself.
Halpern crafts a story that is humorous and surprisingly heartfelt. Aggy swears liberally but believably. She is very frank about sex, both in words and actions. Pop culture references place the story firmly in the now. A good choice for readers who enjoy a dose of sci-fi with their contemporary, almost-realistic fiction.
Reviewed by Megan M. Gunderson, Minneapolis, Minnesota
The Midnight Dance by Nikki Katz
Swoon Books, 2017, 320pp, $17.99
As a teenage ballet dancer, Penny works hard every day, training in a remote Italian manor with a group of girls under the tutelage of the sinister, domineering Master. The story takes place in the days leading up to the culminating midnight dance performance of the title. However, as Penny is training for this dance, she begins to have flashes of lost memories, and worse, discovers that her own thoughts and memories have been replaced with others. It’s eerie and deeply unsettling both for Penny and for the reader. Katz’s brilliance in this book lies in the battle between Penny’s irrepressibly independent mind and the Master’s technological gaslighting of these girls, as Penny begins to fight a seemingly impossible battle against the Master’s dominance from her position of utter dependence.
The story plays beautifully on the tropes of the Gothic novel, in which a young woman often finds herself confined to a house under the power of dark forces in a remote location. It turns out not to matter that the girls are being trained as dancers, though that vocation allows the author to evoke imagery of marionettes and puppetry that enhance the underlying themes of self-determination. Katz’s story gives profound insight into the ways that young women find themselves conforming to a social narrative, only to discover their own buried power and break free into fully realized individuals. It’s terrifying to watch Penny fight the Master’s control and gather her wits only to sink back under the Master’s spell and forget that she had previously broken free, just as it’s tremendously inspiring to cheer her on to the final satisfying resolution.
Reviewed by Maggie Burns, Winterport, Maine
Breaking by Danielle Rollins
Bloomsbury USA Children’s, 2017, 304 pages, $17.99
High school senior Charlotte thought her senior year would be perfect, a series of escapades and adventures with her best friends. But instead, both Ariel and Devon have committed suicide, and everyone wonders if Charlotte will be next. Instead of leaving Weston Preparatory Institute for her own mental health, Charlotte is determined to stay and discover the truth behind the deaths of her friends. Ariel has left a series of clues, including a mysterious vial of serum. The serum makes Charlotte stronger and more beautiful, but also puts her in grave danger.
Rollins creates a world that begins as a boarding school mystery, but quickly morphs into a mysterious and eerie funhouse. Charlotte was a miserable and unhappy rich girl who found a place and a family at Weston. Now she must forge a new identity for herself as a loner, not one of a tight clique of perfectly matched friends. Charlotte faces hard truths about her family, the school, and what society is willing to do to create winners. As the novel moves from mystery to horror, Charlotte and the reader must answer some unsettling and disturbing questions. What do we do to others in the name of science and progress? In the name of love?
Reviewed by Jennifer Nabers, Chicago, Illinois
Blood Don’t Lie by Aaron Levy
Goodreads Press, 2017, 252 pp, $10.99
“Today, I’m a man,” Larry Ratner proclaims at his bar mitzvah in the opening line of Blood Don’t Lie. Larry, who describes himself as short, Jewish, and unpopular, decides that his first manly act will be to ask Sara Rothman, the one girl who he feels understands him, to dance. She says yes, and as he dances with her, Larry realizes that he loves Sara, just in time for her to tell him that she and her parents are moving to Israel.
Larry is an introspective guy. He is quiet and tries to keep to himself. Larry has convinced himself that he is too short and too poor to fit in. Unfortunately, this does not deter Robert Bullock, the school bully, from paying an extraordinary amount of attention to Larry, tormenting him physically and mentally every day on the school bus. Larry doesn’t tell anyone–it wouldn’t be the manly thing to do–nor does he want to fight Robert, who is three times his size. To complicate matters, soon after Larry’s parents move the family to their current affluent Jersey suburb, they lose their jobs due to a yearlong teacher’s strike.
What Larry does do well is write. He begins writing letters to Sara in Israel. He asks if she is safe, if she has any friends, tells her he misses her. He writes 15 letters, but never sends any of them. In the classroom, Larry is learning about The Holocaust, and as he compares the hopelessness and loss of life that his people faced back then with his current situation, he wonders if he will be able to save himself from, well, himself.
One of the most difficult skills for an author of young adult literature to master is an adolescent character’s inner and outer dialogue. Levy hits a home run with his portrayal of Larry. Readers will find themselves rooting for Larry as he tries to live up to his newly appointed manhood and praying that he makes the right choices as life hurls itself at him. Blood Don’t Lie is a totally engaging rollercoaster ride that also provides readers with some great background on Jewish tradition as well as facts about The Holocaust. A must read!
Reviewed by Bryan Gillis, Kennesaw State University