ALAN Picks February 2017
This month’s ALAN Picks features an interview with first-time author Corrie Wang, creator of the marvelous novel, The Takedown. (Scroll to the end of this month’s column for the interview and book review.)
Who Killed Christopher Goodman?: Based on a True Crime by Allan Wolf
Candlewick Press, 2017, 288 pp., $16.99
True Crime/Social and Family Issues/Fiction
Christopher Goodman is a good kid. Those that know him well like him. Those that have only crossed his path from time to time can recognize the good and kind nature he possesses. As the summer is ending and school is about to start, the small town of Goldsburg, Virginia celebrates the annual Deadwood Days. Christopher enjoys the day, hanging out with new friends and speaking with casual acquaintances. Unfortunately for Christopher, at the end of the night, his kindness may have cost him his life.
Wolf gives us a fictionalized version of a true crime from his hometown, a crime that still resonates with him and many others to this day. Who Killed Christopher Goodman? is told through the viewpoints of six different characters (including the 15-year-old killer), all who had crossed the path of this special young man both in the days leading up to the festival and on the actual day of his murder. Beginning weeks before his death and ending weeks after, the six characters tell about their experiences with Christopher and discuss the grief and guilt they felt afterwards, each trying to come to grips with it in their own personal way.
Reviewed by Joe Godina, Hutchinson, Kansas
Splinter by Sasha Dawn
Lerner Publishing Group, 2017, 304 pp., $18.99
Social Issues/Family Issues/Teen Fiction/Mystery/Thriller/Crime
Ten years ago, Sami’s mother disappeared. Though suspicion has surrounded Sami’s father for those ten years, Sami has always believed that her father is innocent and that her mother is alive. When new information comes to light, sixteen-year-old Sami is forced to reexamine everything she has always believed about her family, her friends, and her neighbors. Suddenly, her mother’s fate is not so clear, and everyone she knows becomes a suspect in her disappearance.
Sasha Dawn (Oblivion, 2014) takes us on an exhilarating ride in Splinter and keeps us guessing until the very last pages of this fast-paced thriller. She leaves many breadcrumbs throughout that will compel readers to keep reading. However, the complicated and detailed plot may put some readers off, as will events which seem to stretch credulity. However, there is plenty of angst and emotion here that teens will identify with. Complicated family and social relationships also ring true.
A good read for those who are entertained by spine-tingling mysteries and thrillers. Those who enjoyed Jodi Picoult’s Leaving Time will find similarities here.
Reviewed by Terri A. Evans, St Michael, Minnesota
Point, Claw by Amber J. Keyser
Carolrhoda Lab, 2017, 278 pp., $18.99
Best Friends/Friendship/Ballet Dancing/Diseases/Zoonoses
Jessie, a ballerina training for a company spot in the elite Portland Ballet des Arts, uses her body as a precise instrument. Nothing about Jessie is ever out of place. Control is her goal; every day she bends her body to the breaking point in hopes of achieving perfection. Dawn’s body constantly betrays her. She wakes in strange places, always being driven by animalistic tendencies. She is breaking apart. While her body continues to fail her, her brilliant mind easily unravels genetic complexities that guarantees her acceptance at Stanford University. Jessie and Dawn were once inseparable, two peas in a pod. Together they made a whole. When circumstances tear them apart, they fracture. They become the opposite sides of the human condition: chaos/control, dark/light, primal/polish.
Intertwining issues of sexuality, gender inequality, and evolutionary conundrums, Amber Keyser creates a raging storm of friendship, passion, and love as all aspects of their communities try to shove Jessie and Dawn into labels that do not fit and that they refuse to wear. Keyser pulls the reader into their struggles between agony and ecstasy, crafting a duality in her protagonists that moves the plot faster than Jessie can pirouette and quicker than Dawn can reign destruction, hurdling the reader toward the explosive ending.
Reviewed by Anne Cramer, Moravia, New York
Roseblood by A.G. Howard
Amulet Books, 2017, 410 pp., $18.95
Seventeen-year-old Rune Germain is possessed by music. When she was a toddler, her beloved father’s virtuoso violin awoke in her a preternatural ability for singing. She could match any octave he played and perform in languages she did not even speak after hearing a song but one time. But these musical episodes leave her physically drained, and years after the early death of her father, what was once a fanciful parlor trick—a mere child singing German arias for stunned guests—is now a full-blown affliction. In search of help, Rune’s mother enrolls her in an elite French boarding school where she hopes her daughter might learn to harness her gift. But the mysterious school unnerves Rune, as it has rumored connections to The Phantom of the Opera, the classic tale of jealousy turned into madness over unrequited love.
Once at the school, Rune is drawn to Thorn, a masked, mysterious boy whose own violin strings soothe the girl’s horrific urges to sing. But Thorn has a secret. He befriends Rune for his Phantom father who lurks in the bowels of the school and has insidious intent to use her gift to his advantage. And as the pair’s friendship deepens into adolescent love, Thorn must choose to honor his father or protect his songbird, Rune.
Howard’s imaginative retelling of Gaston Leroux’s tale offers young readers musical prosody that matches the narrative’s dominant tone and mood. Those who are blossoming writers will likely enjoy the rich descriptions of the school and surrounding grounds and will appreciate the intricate connections between Rune’s dreams and her waking hours. Moreover, the epigraphs before each chapter frame the action while introducing young readers to The Phantom of the Opera and to other Gothic literatures.
Reviewed by Angela Insenga, Carrollton, Georgia
Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity by Kristin Elizabeth Clark
Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2017, 259 pp., $ 11.99
The last time Jess talked to her Dad, he called her Justin and refused to accept that Jess is transgender. Now a high school graduate, Jess and her best friend, Christophe, aka Chunk, set off across the country to attend Jess’s dad’s wedding to Jan, Jess’s mom’s former best friend. Along the way, we learn about Jess’s transition, her parents’ divorce, and her relationship with Chunk.
Poignant moments include the friends’ careful planning to ensure Jess’s safety in spaces that are hostile to LGBTQIA+ folks and the candid talk about body dysmorphia. In a world that needs books that portray diverse characters, Clark brings us a realistic portrayal of a young person living her truth despite her father’s inability to accept her. Jess is privileged in that she has incredible support from her mother and her best friend and his family.
Jess isn’t a perfect friend to Chunk, but that is what makes her character so realistic. The tension between the friends as they cross the country may be at times a little too accurate for some readers; however, the journey brings Jess some of the answers she has been looking for and her friends closer than ever before.
Reviewed by Courtney Johnson, Columbus City Schools
Beck by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff
Candlewick Press, 2017, 261 pp., $17.99
Beck by Mal Peet is about the many lives a person can live over the course of just one lifetime. An orphan, Beck is sent to the Catholic Brothers in Canada. There, Beck is sexually assaulted and sent to work on the Giggs’ farm. After escaping the harsh conditions of the farm, Beck stows away on a truck delivering hooch during the time of Prohibition, where he is discovered by Bone and becomes part of Bone’s family. But Beck knows that good things never seem to last too long or be too real in his life. And just when Beck starts to feel like he is part of a family, he is forced to leave yet again. It’s on this journey that he meets Grace. And while working on her farm, he falls in love for the first time and finally gets to decide if this is the life he wants to live.
By completing Beck, Meg Rosoff honors the work that Peet began. Peet, diagnosed with cancer in 2014, passed in 2015. Told in four parts, Beck is a true coming-of-age story, and readers will quickly come to admire Beck’s resilience as he works to make sense of the lives he has lived while he reconciles those with the one he can choose to live in the end.
Reviewed by Kevin English, Belleville, Michigan
The Secret Sea by Barry Lyga
Feiwel & Friends, 2016, 448 pp., $16.99
Lyga delivers a solid middle grade entry featuring a trio of diverse characters. Zak Killian is a normal boy, save his unreliable heart, looking to enjoy a bit more independence from his divorced parents, which they reluctantly agree to grant. All is well in Zak’s world until he begins to hear the whispers of a disembodied voice pushing him to make impulsive and seemingly irrational decisions. His parents don’t believe the voices are real, and the therapist they drag him to certainly doesn’t believe the voices are real. Luckily Zak’s friends, Moira and Khalid, are more than willing to join him on his search for answers. Their search becomes a dangerous adventure that breaks the laws of science and takes them to a world not quite their own; a world full of dangers and decisions, progress and oppression, science and magic.
Lyga should be applauded for writing a middle grade novel with realistic middle grade characters. Their every action and reaction rings true to adolescents teetering on the edge of independence and agency while still grappling with the uncertainty of childhood. Lyga’s characterization beautifully balances the two sides of middle schoolers. As with any adventure story, there are moments when Zak, Moira, and Khalid too easily solve the problem or escape the harrowing situation. These small moments of disbelief only add to the novel’s breathtaking pace. Lyga has written a novel that spends most of the time racing towards a conclusion that comes a little too quickly, but is no less satisfying. When Lyga delves into quantum physics and the ideas of “wild science” the adventure feels weighed down and even confusing at times, but not enough to warn people away from a novel that manages to weave together the truth, the probable, and maybe even the possible. A good addition to a school or classroom library, and a welcome novel for science lovers.
Reviewed by Alison Daniels, Hanover, Maryland
Heartless by Marissa Meyer
Feiwel & Friends, 2016. 453 pp., $19.99
Fairytale & Folklore Adaptation /Science Fiction/Romance/Prequel
In the Kingdom of Hearts, the daughter of the Marquess is expected to have no other aspirations than to marry the wealthiest man she can attract. Lady Catherine Pinkerton, however, has dreams of opening a pastry shop and being recognized as the Kingdom’s best baker. When her lemon tarts earn her the unwanted courtship of the King, Cath must choose between societal pressures and her own sense of destiny. To further complicate matters, Cath’s true affections lie with the mysterious new Jester. As Cath and Jest pursue their secret courtship, a Jabberwock rampages through the kingdom, until its attack at the royal theater exposes the King’s cowardice and Cath’s bravery. In an effort to mend Cath’s broken leg, Jest lays bare a wicked secret that sets Cath on the path to becoming the evil Queen of Hearts.
In the vein of Gregory McGuire’s Wicked, Marissa Meyer has crafted this fanciful origin story for the Queen of Hearts. Meyer breathes depth and fresh life into Carroll’s Wonderland, creating a likeable young version of the queen everyone will come to hate. An infusion of well-known characters from the world of nursey rhymes and the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe adds complexity and a sinister subplot.
Reviewed by Kathy Higgs-Coulthard, Niles, Michigan
The Takedown by Corrie Wang
Freeform Books, 2017, 384 pp., $17.99
The Takedown is set in the not so distant future, where practically the entire world socializes and does business through “ConnectBook,” an app that utilizes a feature known as Worldwide Facial Recognition- WWFR for short, pronounced Woofer. WWFR has the ability to recognize and tag anyone who appears in anyone else’s photograph, even if they are, for example, “twenty rows back” at a baseball game. Privacy has disappeared and popularity no longer means being most liked, it means being most viewed.
In the first paragraph of the story, our protagonist, the self-proclaimed beautiful and intelligent Kyle Cheng, senior at an exclusive Brooklyn high school, likely valedictorian and debate team champion, tells readers that she doesn’t expect us to like her, and she is okay with that. After all, she and her three best friends are the IT girls. She then proceeds to let us in on a not so little secret. Her life has recently taken a turn for the worse. But remember, she expects no sympathy because we probably don’t even like her.
A video of Kyle having sex with her English teacher has been uploaded to her school’s website for everyone to see. It instantly goes viral, but Kyle tells anyone else who will listen that it is not her in the video. Her friends don’t really believe her, so she sets out to find the hacker/stalker who posted it. She soon discovers what being popular really means and how difficult it is to erase others’ perceptions of you, from their minds and from the internet.
First time author Corrie Wang has created a powerful female protagonist in Kyle who readers will fall in love with. Wang seamlessly blends teen angst, mystery, romance, and some pretty impressive high tech concepts into a very satisfying story. I also loved the frequent references to some interesting food dishes (see interview with Corrie for details).
Reviewed by Bryan Gillis, Kennesaw Georgia
Bryan Gillis interviews Corrie Wang, author of Takedown
(The Takedown, Corrie’s debut novel, will be released through Disney’s FreeForm Books, April 11, 2017. Corrie and Bryan communicated via e-mail.)
Bryan: This is your first YA novel, correct? Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself and how you came to write The Takedown?
Corrie: Hey there! I’m Corrie Wang. I was born in Buffalo, NY, but spent a good chunk of my adult life living in Brooklyn. There I did everything from wait tables to run a three-story nightclub on the Lower East Side all so that I could write, write, write. Today, I live in Charleston, SC and own Short Grain food truck with my hubby, Shuai. In 2016, Short Grain was picked by Bon Appetit magazine as one of the country’s Top 50 Best New Restaurants. Woot! The Takedown is my first published novel.
Many, many things went into writing The Takedown, but I’ll try to stick with the two biggies.
The original conceit came from my own discomfort with social technology. I might be a part of the last generation that remembers this, but people used to walk around with both hands free, not checking a device every minute. Gasp! As you maybe can tell, right off the bat I hated that dependency — I still do, though I’m no less addicted — and felt like it was the end of our creative, real life social selves. At the time, I was also waiting tables in Brooklyn and I’d daily see parents hand their devices to their young children so they could have a little peace while they ate. And then I’d watch their babies, actual BABIES, swipe away comfortably at their screens. I couldn’t help imagining how these babies would interact with their technology when they were older (never having known a life without it), what that technology would look like, and how they would respond if it were to suddenly turn against them, as I felt certain it would, dun-dun-dun.
At the same time as my cellphones-are-the-evil-empire, it’s-all-a-conspiracy-to-hack-our-lives leanings were in full bloom, I was noticing this weird trend in YA where all the lead female characters were either social misfits or these super power heroines who had zero personality and even fewer feminine qualities. Like in order to write a tough girl, she couldn’t at all be a girl. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d have no friends if I didn’t like social misfits, but I found it extremely frustrating that anytime a fictional female character had her sh*t together, she was the villain. Just the other day I read a meme about how (poorly) women accept compliments in the workplace. Maybe if we got the message out earlier that, you know what, KitKats? It’s okay to unapologetically crush it, more of us would feel comfortable while doing just that.
And don’t even get me started on why so many stories crescendo when the girl gets the guy…
Bryan: The Takedown includes some descriptions of food dishes from several different cultures, I’ll assume that came from your years in the restaurant biz. But there is also some pretty technical computer jargon. Where did that come from?
Corrie: I hope to have delicious food scenes in every book I write. The technology aspect of The Takedown did require a little more work, but was just as fun to write. As soon as I come up with a story idea, I hit the library and read everything I could on the subject. I always like to incorporate some plot element I know nothing about because A, it makes writing the story more interesting and B, the research gives my fictional world a greater depth and life. This meant searching out lots of tech articles with a “what’s next” bent to them. The Takedown assumes a future where, thanks to facial recognition software, a person is tagged in a photo even if they’re in the way background. Some elements, like woofering, grew out of my own paranoia of what I’m certain will happen, but from that idea, I researched facial recognition software and discovered that technology existed that could distinguish people just based off a single patch of their skin. Perfect! I also knew my main character was going to have a fake video made of her, so from there it was simply following out the process. Why wouldn’t she be able to just delete it? Why wouldn’t anyone believe her that it was fake? What would a social media lawyer have to say about her situation? (Yup, it’s a real job and I just so happen to know a guy). When I couldn’t find articles to back me up, I hit up my more tech adept friends with lots of “what ifs.” The cool thing is, during the time it took the book to hit reader’s hands, I’ve had to go back and revamp a few things because today’s technology has already caught up to where I’d put it say ten years out. For instance, when I first wrote The Takedown there was absolutely nothing like Face Swap on the market. Then a year ago, suddenly there it was doing all the things the girls had said was impossible. So, we added a line to acknowledge it. Earlier drafts actually had a lot more techie jargon that we scaled back to make the plot move a little faster. But the one element I miss is a reference to gecko skin adhesive. It’s this funky tape that can hold objects up to 700 pounds. How cool is that? Undercover cops never had it so hard.
Bryan: Young adult literature at times can be a difficult genre to define, but most scholars agree on a few points, such as the protagonist must be an adolescent who is telling the story through an adolescents’ perspective, and the issues that arise should be issues that teens encounter. The Takedown is such an amazing combination of sci-fi, romance and mystery. Two-part question: 1. Did you set out to write for young adults, and 2. Do you read much YA literature, and if so, who do you love?
Corrie: I actually did not set out to write for young adults. However, the first novel I ever wrote had four sisters as the main characters, the youngest of which was around nineteen. It landed me an agent but not a publishing contract. (Let me repeat: most published authors have a few unpublished books in their back pocket, so if at first you don’t succeed… F’ em and keep writing!). The second novel I wrote had a fifteen-year-old as one of the main characters. While I was editing it, I was also working at a literary agency in Manhattan that represented Sarah Dessen. When the office was slow, I devoured her backlist. Prior to that, I hadn’t thought about YA being a thing. I just knew that growing up, I had a dozen or so books that were mini Corrie bibles. Still, it literally took one of the agents in the office saying: “You keep writing about teens, when maybe you should be writing for them” for the ah-ha! lightbulb to switch on. I never looked back.
And yes! I feel like I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t try to read as much YA as possible. Though to be honest, I am a horribly intolerant reader. So, if you don’t grab me in ten pages, I’m outta there. Thanks to Short Grain, I think I missed most of the 2015 and 2016’s lists. (I just read Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy. Fantastic!). So, I’m playing some serious catch up, but regardless, I’m a huge sucker for voice. Certain writers could narrate a walk to the grocery store and I’d hang on their every word. Oh, really, Rainbow Rowell? The mailbox was red, you say? Anytime I feel like my own writing is falling flat, I hit up Sarah Zarr. Ditto Sarah Shepard. (The Amaetures! So fun). Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything nailed it (but who doesn’t think that?). The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín was soooo good and creepy. Ryan Graudin ticking off her motorcycle racers in Wolf by Wolf still makes for one of my favorite scenes ever. Current nightstand TBRs are Denton Little’s Death Date by Lance Rubin and Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. (I told you I missed 2015). On a side note, I’m noticing Ms. Albertalli was blurbed by Tim Federle who wrote Better Nate Than Ever which was phenomenal. Dhoneille Clayton and I share an editor, so I have it on good word that The Belles (Feb. 2018) is going to crush it. And where would the world be without Maggie Stiefvater’s the Scorpio Races? It’s like all the books I adored in my youth BUT WITH HORSES THAT COME OUT OF THE SEA.
Bryan: Corrie, it has been so great conversing with you. As an aside, I just finished The Call after meeting Peader at NCTE in November. I agree, sooo good! One final question. The Takedown comes out in April, and I know readers are going to love it, but what are you working on now. Any hints?
Corrie: Thank you for having me. This is officially my first ever interview for The Takedown and I had an absolute blast. As for what’s up next…I am currently working on the most ridiculously fun thing I have ever written. And unfortunately, that’s all I can really say about that. So stay tuned!