ALAN Picks February 2018
Blink by Sasha Dawn
Lerner Publishing Group, 344 pp., $17.99
In Sasha Dawn’s Blink, Josh seems like an ordinary small town high school football player looking for something bigger and better. Nothing here is what it seems because while Josh is a small town high school football player with big dreams, he also deals with a troubled and often violent home life. A life filled with twin four-year-old sisters to whom he is brother, father, and protector, a dangerous and abusive former stepfather, and a mother who doesn’t yet possess the strength to walk away. Josh does his best to hold them together and keep them all safe, but even good people can break.
On the last day of summer, Josh meets Chatham Claiborne, a mysterious dark-haired girl. Josh thinks she’ll be a sliver of happy in the midst of his chaotic life, but she comes with more baggage than Josh may be able to bare. Chatham is searching for her runaway sister, but she has secrets to keep and lies to tell, so neither Josh nor the reader are ever sure of what’s real and what’s camouflage. Dawn’s characterization of Josh and his growth over the course of the novel feel incredibly authentic. He’s only 16, but possesses all the qualities of the good man he’ll grow to be. Readers will root for Josh, but Dawn’s deft storytelling never suggests that he will find happiness. Blink is filled with tension and suspense that will propel readers forward. The novel feels relentless in the best way.
Dawn has a real talent for mystery. Blink is a carefully constructed puzzle, and the answers are all there for the careful reader, but beware the red herrings. Dawn captivates and teases the reader with her tale of broken people and small towns. The protagonist, Josh, is incredibly appealing as a lead who carries the story and the other characters in this incredibly satisfying and suspenseful read.
Reviewed by Alison Daniels, Hanover, Maryland
Munmun by Jesse Andrews
Amulet Books, 416 pp, $18.99
Size/Social Classes/Brothers and Sisters/Homelessness/Poverty/Science Fiction
From Jesse Andrews, author of Me Earl and the Dying Girl and The Haters, comes Munmun, a dystopian alternate American– “Yewess”–reality where one’s physical size relates directly to one’s wealth- the number of “munmuns” one has in the bank. Fourteen-year-old Warner and his older sister Prayer are “littlepoors,” the size of rats, the lowest of the low. Their world is fraught with danger, indignity, and hopelessness. The only place where they experience equality (and in Warner’s case, power) is in Dreamworld, where everyone is “middlescale.” When their father is crushed by a “middlerich” boy, and their mother is mauled by a cat, Warner, Prayer, and their friend Usher set off in search of a means to acquire munmuns and “scale up.” They learn, however, that upscaling is nearly impossible and comes at a huge price.
Warner, Prayer, and Usher’s plight and journey is a metaphor for American life, in particular where economic inequality is concerned. There is endless fodder for discussion to be found in the pages of Munmun. The novel provides the reader with a mirror in which the current American political climate is reflected. Issues of power inequity, sexual abuse, the lack of value for human life, religious extremism, the value of education and reading, economics and taxation, second chances, and the American Dream are debated in the news daily. The reader is asked to consider how change for the better can be achieved in each of these areas and, indeed, whether or not change is even possible.
Andrews’ writing is exceptional. Through humorous, yet heart-breaking first-person narration, we get to know a very complex, layered, interesting protagonist in Warner- a flawed anti-hero. Andrews’ use of inventive spelling and language as a way to underscore Warner’s lack of education and to keep the reader engaged is extremely effective.
Highly recommended for mature, thoughtful readers grades ten and up. This timely, thought-provoking novel will definitely be talked about in 2018. A must for all libraries that serve teens!
Reviewed by Terri Evans, St. Michael, Minnesota
Honor Code by Kiersi Burkhart
Carolrhoda Lab, 2018, 312pp, $17.99
Rape/Preparatory Schools/Schools/Reports and Reporting
Freshman Sam Barker begins the school year at the exclusive Edwards Academy. A scholarship student, Sam is worried about fitting in and making friends among her wealthy peers. She is lucky enough to hit it off with Gracie Caleza, her roommate, and the two become best friends, joining the Drawing Club and tennis teams together. Sam is even lucky enough to catch the eye of senior all-star Scully Chapman, despite being given a “needs improvement” in a callous, mortifying hazing ritual. Unfortunately, Sam’s burgeoning relationship with Scully threatens her friendship with Gracie. After an embarrassing fight at the school dance, the friendship becomes strained, nearly breaking. When Scully takes advantage of Sam, she learns the dark side of the honor code and that Edwards Academy hushes up more than just smoking, drinking, and hazing.
The novel unfolds in three acts, told from three points of view- Sam, Harper Brooks, a young newspaper reporter, and an anonymous blogger. Honor Code moves from Edwards Academy to Instagram to the courtroom with some dramatic twists along the way. The story deals with themes of friendship, peer pressure, loyalty, and courage. Sam receives vitriolic messages from her schoolmates, yet she uses the abuses thrown at her in a social media campaign, #JusticeatEdwards. Will she prevail?
Burkhart immerses the reader in the social life of a private school. The plotting is well paced, and the use of social media to forward Sam’s agenda reads true. A thought-provoking and dialogue-inducing read, it will generate conversations about consent, victim shaming, and finding one’s voice.
Reviewed by Leslie Roy, Norfolk, Virginia
Relative Strangers by Paula Garner
Candlewick Press, 2018, 368 pp., $17.99
Social & Family Issues/Adoption/Romance/ Teens
Jules has spent her entire 18 years envying what her friends have- loving, happy, normal families. For Jules, family has always been…complicated. The only family she has ever know is her mother, a woman who between work, painting, and battling an alcohol addiction, has very little time for her. Jules is able to cope with everything that comes her way until a yearbook assignment sends her scrounging in her mom’s closet for a baby picture. What she finds instead is a secret truth- Jules had spent the first two years of her life in foster care.
A few clicks and Jules is faced with her foster brother’s Facebook profile. Despite her fears of rejection, Jules reaches out to Luke and is immediately scooped up by a family that not only fostered her but had planned to adopt her. This foster family seems like the answer to all of Jules’s dreams, until she realizes that the feelings she has for Luke are not exactly sisterly. Telling Luke how she feels could wreck everything but ignoring her feelings could be passing up her chance to truly be happy.
Readers will be swept up in the whirlwind of emotion Jules faces as she struggles to choose between a boy who could be her brother or her boyfriend, the mother who lost her, the mother who found her, and the most difficult choice of all, the life she has always longed for vs the one she is meant to live.
Reviewed by Katherine Higgs-Coulthard, Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana
Isle of Blood and Stone by Makiia Lucier
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2018, 400pp, $17.99
Eighteen-year-old Elias is a well-known navigator in his homeland of Cortes. Elias’s father had been the Royal Navigator before his disappearance and death, eighteen years previous. Having been raised by his step-father, and the navigator school, Elias has been on many adventures. After returning home from a voyage where his ship crashed, and preparing for a longer trip, Elias is brought before his long-time friend Ulises and the King of del Mar. This reunion is far from cheerful, as two mysterious maps have turned up while Elias was away, maps that could change everything they knew about the fatal events surrounding Elias’s father. Ulises asks Elias to take on the challenge and solve the puzzle, leading readers to wonder what Elias will find in the maps.
In a story with twists at every turn, Lucier paints a vivid world where sea serpents abound, royal mapmakers spend their lives at sea, and friendship and romances are tested. Elias is a sympathetic character, and readers will delight in his (mis)adventures. Readers who enjoy fantasy novels will love traveling with Elias and Ulises on an adventure that starts with a puzzle and ends with a question: Can knowledge be dangerous?
Reviewed by Sydney King, Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Ship It by Britta Lundin
Freeform Books, 2018, 384pp, $17.99
Fan Fiction/Identity/LGBTQ+/YA Fiction/Fandom
In Ship it we meet Claire, super fan of the television show Demon Heart and writer of slash fan fiction about the two main characters, Smokey and Heart (she totally ships them). We also meet Forest, a young actor who is currently playing Smokey but dreams of action hero stardom on the big screen. With season two on the line, the Demon Heart cast and crew set off on a three-city tour of comics conventions to boost their viewership. Claire jumps at the chance to see the actors in her favorite show and attends a panel discussion. On a whim, Claire asks the cast when their characters will finally acknowledge their mutual attraction. Forest rudely laughs-off the question, worried that his action hero future could end with his playing a gay character. This triggers a PR nightmare for the show. In an effort to fix the disaster, Claire is invited along for the rest of the Comic Con tour.
What follows is a fun romp through fandom with readers treated to some spicy fan fiction, behind-the-scenes action at comics conventions, a budding romance, and a peek inside the process of writing, producing, and acting in a television show. The story is told alternately through the perspectives of Forest and Claire, who initially appear to be polar opposites, but prove to have more similarities than they ever thought possible; primarily, their searching for friendship and identity, and questioning their sexuality.
Britta Lundin writes insecurities and doubts in an extremely authentic, believable voice. The characters’ fears and concerns are legitimate and provide readers with a much-needed insight into the issue of sexual identity. Both Forest and Claire find support from the people around them, and it warms the heart. While the peek into fandom and the drama surrounding the making of a television show are fun, readers need to be prepared to tackle gender identity, sexism, racism, and a healthy dose of same-sex romance, both emotional and physical. This book is a quick, fun read and would be appropriate for teens who love their fandom and especially for teens searching for identity and questioning their sexuality.
Reviewed by Jane Kaftan, Sandusky, Ohio
And She Was by Jessica Verdi
Point, an Imprint of Scholastic Books, 2018, 368 pages $18.99
Family/Parents/LGBT/Love and Romance
Dara Baker is a recent high school graduate who is working to fulfill her dreams. Since she was young, Dara has dreamed of becoming a professional tennis player, taking on the best in the game on the biggest stages. But achieving this isn’t easy. She lacks the financial resources of many of the other young players. To complicate things even further, her single mother is not supportive of what Dara is trying to accomplish. Mellie Baker offers little in terms of support, either emotionally and financially. Her mother is often distant, keeping the details of her past a secret.
When Dara needs a passport to play in her first professional tournament, she goes in search of the birth certificate her mom tells her is lost. What she finds changes her life forever. Her birth certificate contains the names of a mother and father. But the mother’s name does not match up with the woman who has raised her and the father’s name is one that Dara has never heard before. When Dara’s mom finally reveals the truth, it causes Dara’s world to spin out of control. But could that spin bring Dara to a greater place in her life?
In the latest novel from Jessica Verdi, she gives us a story about self-discovery, love, and family. The reader will see the growth, not only in Dara the narrator, but in her mom. Verdi does something in her story that isn’t often done in young adult literature. She presents to us the perspective of an adult in the story through the series of emails Mellie sends to her daughter. Readers will be able to gain a better understanding of the struggle she has gone through in trying to protect her family in a world that is not always kind to people who do not conform to the norms of society.
Reviewed by Joe Godina, Hutchinson, Kansas
Troublemakers by Catherine Barter
Carolrhoda Lab, 2017, 351 pp., $17.99
Family and Peer Relationships/Identity Formation/Mothers and Daughters/Politics/Activism
Fifteen-year-old Alena Kennedy’s emotions match the volatile political atmosphere of her East London home, where a bomber has everyone on edge. She has lived with her brother, Danny, and his partner, Nick, for as long as she can remember, since her mother, an imprisoned activist, died when Alena was three. Danny gave up his youth to take on guardianship of his sister and has never properly grieved his mother’s death, preferring not to discuss her at all. In fact, Danny struggles with direction in his own life, finding it hard to sustain a career, though Nick is the rudder that gives them direction.
Because of Danny’s stalwart reticence, Alena possesses more questions than answers about her mum. Her curiosity about Heather Kennedy is only satiated during visits with Danny to the old storage locker where she finds pieces of the puzzle that make up her past- an old postcard on which her mother is pictured, fist high in the air, protesting pit closures at Greenham, a pair of glasses, books with titles like Global Injustice. As the political campaigns and violence in London increase, Alena’s own emotions rage, and her conflicts with Danny about their mother intensify, even as he gains steady employment with conservative Jacob Carlisle’s campaign, whose ideology stands in direct conflict with what his mother would have believed and what Nick does believe.
Troublemakers expertly interweaves the turbulence of adolescent identity formation with political unrest. The result is a beautifully striated novel that, at once, provides a snapshot of politics and history in the United Kingdom and a portrait of a young woman embedded in this cultural context. Alena’s shifting consciousness mirrors the city’s disquiet, and her own emotions, as she attempts to find out who her mother was or if Danny ever wanted to be her guardian.
Reviewed by Angela Insenga, University of West Georgia