ALAN Picks February 2016

ALAN Picks February 2016

Breath to Breath by Craig Lew
Relish Media, 2015, 432 pp., $14.95
Recovered Memories/Sexual abuse/Trauma/Friendship
ISBN: 978-1939775-08-5

William’s anger lands him in trouble with the law, resulting in a move to a new town to live with a father he has not seen since he was a child. Once the arrives, he catches glimpses of a small boy named Patches who is being abused by an older man. During school hours, William is easing into the social scene- befriending Ollie the bio-nerd and stealing the football star’s girlfriend as well as challenging his star role on the field. However, always hovering just out of reach is the presence of Patches and the discomfort of William’s own hazy past. What is the truth of his mother’s absence in his life? What is on the second floor of his father’s home? And from what source does William’s own anger come?

Written in free verse, Lew’s work is realistic and graphic. He forces the reader to examine the effects of sexual abuse both on children and the teenagers they become.  Readers will see the importance of friendship and the value of bearing witness and listening to those who are speaking their trauma.  The book reads quickly because of its intensity and readability. The characters are finely drawn and readers will care about their lives.

Reviewed by Lottie Waggoner, Bloomington, Indiana

On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis
Amulet, 2016, 464 pp., $17.95
Apocalypse/Autism/Diversity/Science Fiction
ISBN: 978-1-4197-1903-5

Denise Lichtveld has autism. Her mom has a drug addiction. Her sister Iris has to get back to Amsterdam from Belgium soon, because a massive comet is about to hit the planet and plunge it into nuclear winter. When Denise and her mom offer a ride to some stranded motorists, they find themselves not at their assigned shelter, but on a generation ship–one capable of surviving the comet blast–that is traveling to a distant planet to start a new world. The only problem is that everyone on the ship has to be useful– a huge challenge for an autistic teen and a drug addict. Denise and her mom survive the blast, but can they survive the selection process to stay on board until the launch?

Although Denise’s autism colors the whole novel, the story is not about autism– it is about human nature, relationships, and individuals’ behaviors in extreme circumstances. Readers will see what some characters will do and what others refuse to do to secure a place on the ship. The plot moves briskly without seeming forced. When Denise decides that who she is matters more than what she can do, the story reaches a satisfying conclusion. (And there’s no sequel!)

Reviewed by Tom Thompson, Charleston, South Carolina

The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl by Melissa Keil
Peachtree Publishers, 2016, 304 pp., $17.95 (first published in Australia in 2014 by Hardie Grant Egmont).
Relationships/Art/Apocalypse/Leaving Home
ISBN: 978-1-56145-905-6

As is the case with many young adult romance novels, this story revolves around two handsome guys and a girl and the girl’s inability to see the romantic possibilities awaiting her, even when they are right before her eyes. As she and her friends prepare to leave high school, some for more exotic locations, others for those nearby, Alba has no ambitions other than to stay at home in small town Eden Valley. Despite all her self-described confidence and daring, she is almost paralyzed when it comes to stepping out of her comfort zone and leaving for parts unknown. Instead, the talented artist lavishes her creativity on menus for her mother’s bakery while on the side creating cartoon panels featuring an imperfect superhero called Cinnamon Girl, a superhero with more than a passing resemblance to Wonder Woman. In many respects Cinnamon Girl functions as Alba’s alter ego and dares to take the risks that Alba doesn’t. Still, Alba is supported by a loving mother and some terrific friends, including lifelong buddy Grady, who has shared many adventures with her.

Sassy, original, and independent, Alba reconnects with her childhood friend, Daniel–who has gone on to an acting career–when he returns to this small Australian town that suddenly becomes the center of the universe when the end of the world is predicted. There are all sorts of folks who come to town for one last end-of-the-world party, and many of the locals take advantage of these unexpected visitors to make money. Despite her intelligence, Alba is clueless as to the machinations of Daniel. For such good friends, they manage to keep a lot of stuff hidden. As Alba’s town prepares for the end of the world as they know it, she also learns some earthshaking news that just might send her spinning in a completely different direction.

Teen readers may identify with Alba’s indecisiveness and her complexity. In many respects she epitomizes the notion of an exotic big fish in a small pond, seemingly disinterested in venturing into that larger pond. The book is filled with snarky dialogue and social commentary that add to its appeal.

Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington

Devil and the Bluebird by Jennifer Mason-Black
Amulet Books, 2016, 327 pp., $17.95
ISBN: 978-1-4197-2000-0

Seventeen-year-old Blue Riley is drowning in the emptiness of losing her mother to cancer and her sister to a wayward spirit. With no one else to count on, Blue makes a pact with the devil for help in finding her sister. In a startling exchange for her voice, Blue is given six months to find her sister or she will lose her voice permanently. Unfortunately, the devil keeps changing the rules of the game and Blue doesn’t know who she can trust. She has three days with each new acquaintance before she must move on or cause them damage. With her mom’s guitar and the devil’s magical boots, she begins a cross country trip from Maine to California to find her sister Cass. Changing her name to Interstate, Blue encounters both good and evil in all sorts of places and all sorts of people. Using her musical talent along the way, she finds friends, family, and most importantly, finds herself.

Mason-Black has created a realistic view of the challenges and heartaches in life interlaced with teenage fantasy. Readers will agonize with Blue over her heartrending loneliness and will cheer for her as she finds her place in the world with friends who become family.

Reviewed by Krista Taracuk, Columbus, Ohio

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken
Hyperion, 2016, 496 pp. $17.99
Time Travel/Romance/Relationships/Science Fiction/Suspense
ISBN: 978-1-4847-1577-2

In one fateful evening, one of seventeen-year-old Etta Spencer’s rare abilities seems to fail her while another manifests itself for the first time. After freezing during a performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Etta, a violin prodigy, finds herself miles and years away from everything she knows. Seventeen-year-old Etta Spencer possesses a rare gift.

One moment, Etta is preparing to perform at an event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The next, she finds herself miles and years away from everything she knows when she finds herself on a privateer ship during colonial times and learns that she has the rare gift of being able to travel through time. This hereditary gift is shared by Nicholas Carter, an illegitimate member of the influential and wicked Ironwood family. Nicholas wants to be free of his life of servitude to the Ironwood family as well as the guilt he feels for his role in the death of his half-brother. Cyrus, Nicholas’s grandfather and the head of the Ironwood family, offers Nicholas the chance to earn his freedom and get a hefty reward in return for befriending Etta. Etta simply wants to return to the moment before her performance in order to save Rose and her mentor. This results in Nicholas and Etta traveling through time and across continents to try and decipher the clues that Rose has left for Etta. During their adventures, as they encounter different obstacles and try to separate friend from foe, Etta and Nicholas become closer, which further complicates their separate but intertwined missions.

This might sound like a lot of plot to include in a single book (even one with over 400 pages), but Alexandra Bracken handles the twists and turns masterfully. Although the book slows when Etta first travels to the late 1700s due to the amount of exposition that is revealed, the pace picks up once she and Nicholas leave the colonies and go from one exciting time and exotic locale to another. The resulting story has the feel of an epic in terms of scope and setting, and like epics, it packs in a great deal of action, adventure, and romance. To her credit, Bracken manages to balance all of this with deft descriptions and character development, and it never feels like she sacrifices her characters in order to focus on the plot. By the time readers reach the cliff-hanger ending, they will find themselves waiting impatiently for the next book in the series.

Reviewed by Terri Suico, South Bend, Indiana

With Malice by Eileen Cook
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, 2016, 320 pp., $17.99
Mystery/Friendship/Divorce/Car Accident/Social Media
ISBN: 978-0-544-80509-5

High school senior Jill wakes up to find herself in the hospital with no memory of how she got there, or indeed, how she spent the last six weeks. Jill soon finds out that her memories are not the only thing she’s lost. Someone has died and only Jill’s broken mind holds the answer to how it happened, but everyone is willing to fill in the gaps with theories of their own. As the media and her former friends turn on Jill, she tries to piece together her missing time and determine what type of person she really is.

The mystery starts on the very first page and the tension grows from there. Readers are immediately engaged, working to uncover the truth right alongside Jill. Cook has created an exciting read that also manages to explore exactly what friendship, truth, and identity mean in a media soaked age where anyone and everyone can have a voice, and an agenda.

Reviewed by Ethan Warner, Middletown, CT

The Cresswell Plot by Eliza Wass
Hyperion, 2016, 272 pp., $14.96
ISBN: 978-1-4847-3043-0

More than anything, 17-year-old Castley Cresswell wants a normal life, one in which she can wear regular clothes, hang out with friends, and eat real meals in a house with running water and central heat. Instead, she and her five siblings are forced to submit to the will of their father, a self-proclaimed prophet of God who uses fear and violence to ensure his children are not led astray by the evil world around them. Considered freaks by their classmates and community due to their strange lifestyle and dress, and knowing little beyond their father’s teachings, Castley and her siblings have had little choice but to bind solely to each other for safety and acceptance. Soon, however, rules are broken and boundaries tested as the children reach beyond the security of each other to question their supposed fate and search for a truth outside their father’s words. But just as Castley uncovers some long-buried secrets that hold the possibility of a different life, her father’s plans for the family become increasingly ominous. Castley quickly realizes that while her quest for a normal life could bring her the freedom she desires, it could also cost her everything she loves.

Wass’ novel is a non-stop series of questions that lead the reader on a journey to discover the “real” truth concerning the Cresswell family. Snippets of the past are tossed in alongside new discoveries, which adds to the intrigue. The characters are relatable and entirely human in their confusion about love and life, whether their questions are simply about fitting in or directed at such larger real-world issues as child abuse and religious fanaticism.  With its twists and turns, The Cresswell Plot is a bit of a scary ride at times, but it’s one worth taking.

Reviewed by Laura Brown, Potsdam, New York

Concentr8 by William Sutcliffe
Bloomsbury USA Children’s 2016, 256pp., $17.99
ISBN: 978-1-61963-919-5

In a not so distant future Troy, Femi, Lee, Karen, and their charismatic leader Blaze aren’t bad kids exactly, but no one would consider them good either. Raised in poverty on London’s Southwark council estates, they and all the “difficult” kids just like them have been coerced by school principals and parents to take a Ritalin-type drug called Concentr8 since preschool. When the government suddenly yanks Concentr8 from circulation, teens across the city go mental, rioting and looting as adolescent passion courses through their brains for the very first time. In the heat of the moment, Blaze and his gang kidnap a lowly government worker for kicks. They have no demands; instead they hide out in an abandoned warehouse drinking vodka, eating fried chicken, and spray painting the clothes of their terrified hostage. In the six days that follow, allegiances are tested and egos flare as they come to realize that their lives and futures mean absolutely nothing to the powers that be.

Inspired by the London riots of 2011 and the over prescription of ADHD drugs, William Sutcliffe uses taut alternating first person chapters to comment on society’s responsibility to young people. Quoted research on the history of Ritalin and ADHD will force readers to question our own culture’s manufacture and misuse of behavioral modification drugs. Readers will revel in the East End slang and swagger of these authentic and well drawn characters up to and including the novel’s riveting conclusion.

Reviewed by Arlaina Tibensky, New York, NY

An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet
Clarion Books; 2015, 388 pages, $17.99
Family Relationships /Grief/Fantasy/Apocalyptic War
ISBN: 978-0-544-28111-0

Roadstead Farm, jointly willed to sixteen-year-old Hallie and her sister Marthe, who is ten years Hallie’s elder, looks bleak from the war that killed half the harvest. Hallie strains to keep up the farm, be the responsible one, and support her sister, who is many months pregnant, while holding on to hope that Marthe’s husband Thom will return.  First a mysterious stranger, known only as Heron, arrives, asking to be hired on and to have a place for the winter.  Then a “Twisted Thing,” one of the Wicked God’s monsters, pelts Hallie’s windowsill, burning everything it contacts. Hallie wants only to save the farm and prove her love for Marthe, but has she the strength to mend the rip separating the Wicked God’s world and the land surrounding Roadstead Farm?

Through narrative layers, An Inheritance of Ashes poignantly conveys more than just the events of an apocalyptic war. Family history, pain, and fear wedge their way into relationships- between Marthe and Hallie, between Hallie and war-scarred Tyler, and between mysterious Heron and his true identity. The book’s appeal lies in the hauntingly powerful story of the courage Hallie, Tyler, and Heron demonstrate in order to save a broken world.

Reviewed by Mary Warner, San Jose, California

Rebel Bully Geek Pariah by Erin Jade Lange
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016, 320 pp., $17.99
Outcasts/Drug Addiction/Unlikely Friendship/Thriller
ISBN: 978-1-61963-498-5

Sam Cherie is invisible, and that’s just how she likes it. She’s had enough trouble in her life, between her addict of a mother and the horribly disfiguring scars that cover her head, without the added worry of trying to fit in. However, one tiny bad decision forces Sam to go on the run with three other misfits into the most terrifying night of their lives. Amidst the fear and adrenaline, Sam finds friendship in the most unlikely of places: Andi, the Barbie-turned-rebel, Boston, the OCD genius, and York, the hot angry jock. But not everyone is what they seem, and when the kids discover exactly how much trouble they’re in, they will need to rely on each other to get out alive.

While readers are focused on the very real and relatable characters, Lange sneaks in a fast-past thrill ride, including car theft, gunshots, and a drug deal gone wrong, that is sure to interest reluctant readers. This book is for the misfits, the rebels, and anyone who feels they have been mistakenly labeled. Sam, Andi, Boston and York are all of us and none of us all at the same time.

Reviewed by Sarah Valingo, Berlin Center, OH

The Art of Not Breathing by Sarah Alexander
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, 2016, 288 pp., $17.99
Families /Memory/Family Tragedy /Siblings
ISBN: 978-0-544-63388-9

Some memories are too painful to keep, as sixteen-year-old Elsie Main knows all too well. Her twin brother, Eddie, drowned five years ago, and Elsie still struggles to remember what really happened that day at the beach on the Black Isle. Unlike her popular and smart older brother, Dillon, Elsie is an outsider, disinterested in appearances and grades and popularity. She spends her time hiding out in an abandoned boathouse, avoiding the jibes and disappointment of her schoolmates and her family. When Tay McKenzie, a secretive boy just returned to the Black Isle, discovers her refuge, Elsie’s life begins to change direction. Tay and his friends introduce Elsie to the world of free diving, teaching her to tap into strengths she never knew she had and helping her bring to the surface her memories of the tragic events surrounding her twin’s death.

Reminiscent of The Impossible Knife of Memory and Belzhar, The Art of Not Breathing looks at the devastating power of trauma. Sarah Alexander’s narrative is both funny and heartbreaking, and her nuanced, believable characters bring to life the countless ways sorrow bubbles up and the indomitable strength of the human spirit.

Reviewed by Kat Spradlin, Tallahassee, Florida