ALAN Picks February 2020
Smooth by Matt Burns
Candlewick Press, 2020, 368 pp., $17.99
Realistic Fiction/Mental Health/Self-Esteem/Friendship/School
What’s harder than navigating 10th grade? Navigating it with raging acne. Fifteen-year-old Kevin is desperate to get his face under control, so he asks his doctor to prescribe Accutane, despite a lengthy list of side effects he decides are worth the risk. The prescription comes with required monthly blood draws, which lead him to monthly waiting-room conversations with Alex, a girl he soon can’t stop thinking about. For awhile, she provides an escape for Kevin, separate from school and friends, both of which have become increasingly irritating.
As the school year progresses, Kevin finds everything more difficult. His friends join activities without him and make new friends. His once inspiring English teacher now seems like he doesn’t understand Kevin at all. Creative pursuits like movie making and writing no longer seem worth his time. As he further distances himself from his friends and social life, readers will likely find themselves breaking out of Kevin’s inner monologue and starting to worry about him.
Burns provides readers great laughs and witty observations, but also a number of uncomfortable situations, including a couple of homophobic comments. Seeing everything from Kevin’s perspective provides great insight into his mindset, but is he a reliable narrator? When his thoughts about school and girls and sex and friends border on obsessive, is it the medicine talking, or is it just typical of the high school experience?
Reviewed by Megan M. Gunderson, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Alien Echo by Mira Grant
Imprint, 2019, 304 pp., $12.26
Science Fiction/Horror/LGBTQ Romance/Siblings/Family/Survival
On the newly settled human colony of Zagreus, teenage sisters Olivia and Viola Shipp attempt to live a normal existence despite being the children of prestigious xenobiologists who research cryptic alien biology. A normal existence is nearly impossible, however, when a terrifying race of aliens begin to wreak havoc on Zagreus. Olivia quickly realizes that survival depends upon her own knowledge of xenobiology and her relentless determination to keep her sister safe. As the colony falls prey to the violent aliens and a shocking family secret comes to light, Olivia must find the strength to guide her sister and her crush, Kora, through the unexplored wilds to her family’s transport ship. Getting offworld is their only chance at survival.
Mira Grant weaves a stunning web of science fiction, romance, and horror. Though the novel is a tie-in with the Alien movie franchise, the character-driven storyline, world-building, and nightmarish descriptions of the aliens enables newcomers to the universe to dive right in with ease. For readers familiar with the franchise, Grant plants just enough clues, such as a reference to a shady megacorporation on Earth, to make fans feel as if they have some insider knowledge.
Most notable about Alien Echo is its strong, intelligent female protagonist, Olivia. Her lifelong exposure to and interest in xenobiology via her parents’ work enables readers to view the world just as she does– in vivid, analytical detail. Olivia’s descriptions of local terrain and alien wildlife are fascinatingly detailed, and her analytical reflections on the biology of the horrifying Xenomorph aliens leaves no doubt in readers’ minds as to just how deadly these creatures are. Best of all, rather than using the traditional shoot-to-kill survival tactic employed in many alien invasion stories, Olivia uses her knowledge and common sense to make informed decisions on the best way to survive. In Olivia, readers get a glimpse of the extraordinary power of knowledge and learn that it is truly your choices in life that define who you are.
Reviewed by Jessica Harris, Wethersfield, Connecticut
Past Perfect Life by Elizabeth Eulberg
Bloomsbury, 2019, 328 pp., $18.99
Family Relationships/Peer Relationships/Emotions
Ally Smith lives with her father, Jason, in the small Wisconsin town of Valley Falls. They are as close as a father and daughter can be, with weekly rituals like Chinese Food and Classic Movie Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, Bad Movie and Pizza Wednesdays, Game Night Thursdays, and Football Sundays. As a high school senior, Ally’s biggest worries are getting accepted to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (so she won’t have to move too far away from her father) and earning as much scholarship money as possible since her father’s construction salary is their sole source of income. The town is run by the Gleason family and Ally’s best friend is Marian Gleason. She also has feelings for Neil, Marian’s cousin. One day, Ally’s life comes crashing down when Sheriff Gleason shows up at her door with an FBI agent and arrests her father for kidnapping.
Eulberg’s story explores the emotional toll that Ally endures as she reconciles with losing her father to prison, how she feels about him and what he did, meeting her mother who she thought was dead, and possibly moving away from Valley Falls and all of her friends. The reader spends much of the novel inside Ally’s thoughts, experiencing all the emotions with Ally, hoping that she can find happiness in her new reality. Eulberg writes in a straightforward style making Past Perfect Life an easy read. This novel would be a great choice to bring along on a summer vacation.
Reviewed by Mark A. Lewis, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA
Incendiary by Zoraida Cordova
Disney Hyperion Books, 2020, 450 pp., $18.99
Fantasy/Romance/Identity/Relationships/Coming of Age
Renata has no memory of the family from which she was torn at a young age. Only after being rescued by the Whispers, does she realize that she was an unwitting pawn in service to the notorious King’s Justice, ripping memories and life from thousands of her own magical Moria people. Vowing to make up for her past, she struggles for the Whispers’ forgiveness and trust. But they can’t trust a girl with such a rare gift who is also responsible for the deaths of so many. After falling in love with Dez, the beloved leader of her spy group Lynx, she realizes that Dez is all that stands between her and the hatred of her own people. When Dez is captured by the King’s son Principe Dorado, she must complete his critical mission to save her people and prove herself.
To complete his mission, she must confront her past–memories that are locked away along with the memories of thousands of others–and return to the sumptuous palace as a spy. Only then, can she hope to save Dez from by the new weapon King Fernando has discovered to eradicate the few remaining Moria. Her memories hold the key to finding the weapon and changing the fate of the entire kingdom.
Cordova’s thirteenth book weaves a magical tale set in old Spain of a lost girl trying to discover who she is. Teens will sympathize with her outcast state and desire to be accepted despite her past while dealing with the overwhelming issues of identity, coming of age, and true love. Renata’s is an adventurous tale, fast-paced and fluid, sure to capture the imagination of reluctant readers.
Reviewed by Renee Brown, Acworth, Georgia
The Color of the Sun by David Almond
Candlewick, 2019, 224pp., $12.99
Fiction/Mystery/Contemporary/Coming of Age
Davie wants to escape his hometown of Tyneside. Everything about it is boring. He knows everything and everyone, especially now that his father is gone. Just like every other normal, boring day, Davie’s mother sends him out to enjoy the fresh air and wander. When Davie’s best friend, Gosh, tells him that there has been a murder, Davie’s normal day takes an unexpected turn. He decides that he should venture to the top of the hill near town and see if he can find the suspected murderer. Along the way, he meets many unique characters who help show him that Tyneside might not actually be as boring as he first suspected.
The characters that Davie meets are both real and imagined. From the town’s priest to his dead father, each discussion teaches Davie something different about how he views the world. Almond gradually adds more magical elements that portray Davie slipping into a dreamlike state and connecting to the overarching theme of religion throughout the book.
The Color of the Sun weaves a beautiful and lyrical tale about grief and how to find beauty again after a loss. Almond portrays Davie’s journey through well-crafted character development and progressive stylistic changes to the writing, e.g., deeper and more intricate details of the setting. Readers can easily follow these changes and empathize to what Davie is experiencing.
Reviewed by Kailyn Bettle, Cedar Falls, Iowa
The Hummingbird Dagger by Cindy Anstey
Swoon Reads Press, 340 pp., $17.99
The year is 1833.The novel begins with a carriage accident. A young lady is injured, but who is she? Is this more than just an accident? Why has she forgotten who she is? Why does she dream of a bloody hummingbird dagger? Once this young lady enters Hardwick Manor, everything changes. Lord James Ellerby and her family tell her that her name is Beth, but she still does not recall. Beth has endless nightmares and her screaming wakes up the manor. Lord James finds he interested in young Beth, but is she married? Can he act on these feelings? His sister Caroline is more than protective and sharp as they investigate and work to ensure her safety. Is everyone who they say they are. After all, they have been tricked before, so who can they trust?
The Hummingbird Dagger is an inviting tale of mystery, romance, and perhaps murder, that will keep readers guessing until the last pages.
Reviewed by Kevin D. Cordi, Columbus, Ohio
The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake
Hyperion, 2019, 391 pp., $17.99
Family and Peer Relationships/Identity/Sexuality/Emotions and Feelings
Sixteen-year-old Violet Larkin is descended from survivors. Her great great great grandmother was the lone survivor of the shipwreck, the Lyric, off the coast of Maine. She sees the shipwreck as symbolic of her family’s story, a broken ship slowly sinking to the depths of the sea. As the story opens, Violet’s younger brother Sam has attempted suicide and Violet is enjoying the New York teen party circuit, but is beginning to spiral out of control due to the abundance of sex, drugs, and alcohol. She feels alone and rudderless. Her parents place Sam in a treatment facility in Vermont and send her to the family home in Lyric, Maine, to live with her uncle.
It is in Lyric where Violet’s journey of identity, self-realization, and growth begin. It is there where she develops true friendships, something she realizes she has never experienced before,. She learns more about her family’s history, searches the ocean for the wreck of the Lyric, and falls in love for the first time. The book is cleverly organized into three parts aptly labeled- Wreck, Search, and Survival. Each section takes the reader through an understanding of the physical aspects of these headings as well as a metaphorical journey of Violet’s maturation process.
In her debut novel, Julia Drake beautifully weaves the concept of “The last true poets of the sea” where the treasure is the actual process of the discovery, not the treasure itself. Drake’s story portrays a deep understanding of adolescent angst, personal turmoil, and the slow and often painful process of growing up and discovering who you are and who you can become.
Reviewed by Rachel G. Salas, Reno, Nevada
The Starlight Claim by Tim Wynne-Jones
Candlewick Press, 2019, 240 pp., $17.59
Four months ago, Nate Crow’s best friend, Dodge Hoebeek, was in a boating accident. Dodge, his father, and his younger brother embarked on a risky trip across Ghost Lake, a place where the Crow and Hoebeek families have neighboring camps. The bodies of Dodge’s father and brother were found. Dodge is still missing and presumed dead.
Nate is haunted by frequent nightmares, his memories of Dodge, and the fact that he didn’t accept the invitation to travel with Dodge’s family on that fateful day. He feels, at his core, that he might have been able to step in and be the voice of reason. He could have been the one to talk them out of the risky boat trip that ended their lives. He needs more answers, so he decides that a trip to his family’s remote camp in the Canadian wilderness is the best way to find out what really happened to his best friend.
Nate plans to take a Spring Break trip to the Ghost Lake camp with his friend, Paul. Just before he is about to leave, Paul gets grounded. This doesn’t stop Nate. He decides to make the solo trek north without Paul, setting off a string of events that will keep readers on edge and guessing until the final pages. When Nate arrives at Ghost Lake, he quickly discovers that the Crow camp is occupied by strangers. It doesn’t take him long to realize that these are the men who have recently escaped from a maximum-security prison. There is no turning back, either. He is snowed in by a blizzard and has no cell service to call for help. He expected the blizzard, but having to survive 48 hours hiding from dangerous criminals was not part of his plan.
What was supposed to be a trip that might finally give Nate some peace quickly becomes one that will test his survival skills, create more questions than he ever could have imagined, and introduces him to someone whose presence is equal parts blessing and curse. The Starlight Claim is a fast-paced, exciting novel that will challenge readers to consider whether we ever really know the friends and family we love.
Reviewed by Erin Vogler, Nunda, New York
What Makes Us by Rafi Mittlefehldt
Candlewick Press, 2019, 340 pp., $17.99
Family/Social Issues/Self Esteem
Eran Sharon, a high-school senior, whose father died when he was young, plans a peaceful protest rally against a new policy that he feels gives the police too much power. At the rally, Eran is confronted by someone, loses his cool, and his mother steps in before he punches someone. A reporter covering the rally recognizes her and publishes a story about her hidden past. Fifteen years ago, her husband, in an act of domestic terrorism, set off a bomb that killed four people during a parade. The knowledge of what his father did, and the fact that his mother changed their names and hid it from him, makes Eran question who he really is. His world is turned upside down, and he finds out who he can really trust. Eran must work through the fact that everything his mother did was to protect him, and that the past does not have to negatively effect his future.
Activism and standing up for injustices are a hot topic, and author Rafi Mittlefehldt has created a novel that motivates readers to take action, but not at the expense of considering the consequences. The alternating perspectives help create this nuanced narrative. Eran’s journey of learning about his father’s past, finding his true friends, and discovering himself will resonate with readers. Mittlefehldt weaves an intriguing story of identity, patriotism, and social justice.
Review by Elizabeth Nebeker, Houston, Texas