ALAN Picks January 2019
The Chaos of Now by Erin Jade Lange
Bloomsbury Books, 2018, 336 pp., $17.99
After the suicide of Jordan Bishop, life at Haver High School changes and all social media is legally subject to adult review. Computer prodigies March and Mouse take action by launching a new platform that can’t be censored. They convince Eli, also a talented coding geek, to join them, and all three use their site, “Friends of Bishop,” to find vengeance and potential glory. They succeed, but at a cost that can’t ever be retrieved. Eli’s journey, which begins with secrets, uncovers other secrets and leads to darkness despite its original intent.
Eli’s character is incredibly well developed and honest. His intentions are good, but he remains an angsty sixteen-year-old struggling with popularity, girls, and his father’s new girlfriend/wife. Secrets are exposed and lives are ruined, but there is light at the end of this timely narrative.
Reviewed by Jennifer Desloges, Plymouth, NH
Mother Tongue by Julie Mayhew
Candlewick Press, 2019, 304 pp, $16.99
Tragedy/Trauma/Life Narrative/Grief/Family and Peer Relationships/Fate/Redemption
Eighteen-year-old Russian Darya’s life has been diverted twice by outside events. She is “mother” to her younger sister Nika since their mother became a passive bystander following Nika’s birth six years before. Now on Nika’s first day of school, as Darya turns away from her at the school door imagining her own future in Moscow, tragedy erupts. A siege of the school by revolutionaries results in Nika’s death and Darya’s new direction.
Darya’s town is inundated by grief and journalists following the school shooting. In the aftermath, she battles not only her own guilt and mourning, but the expectations of her father, her newly-resurrected mother, and the remnants of her own shattered dreams. She heads to Moscow to pick up at least one of the shards of that future, only to encounter situations she is unprepared to handle. Darya’s understanding of herself stretches and expands as she is driven by circumstance to survive and surpass events outside her control.
Based on a school siege in 2004 in Beslan, Russia, this novel illustrates the power of one person’s story to bring empathy to many. Mayhew’s novel uses Darya’s Russian voice and culture as well as her emerging English skills to heighten her message of the elasticity of time and how we deal with tragedy. Darya carries the weight of her sister Nika’s death after the schoolhouse siege, musing in her English workbook on what and how to remember and what and whom to forgive. Mayhew’s overall attention to the redemptive power of language, voice, and story make it a strong, compelling novel.
Reviewed by Lottie Waggoner, Bloomington, Indiana
We Are Not Yet Equal: Understanding Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson with Tonya Bolden
Bloomsbury Books, 2018, 270 pp., $19.99
Carol Anderson’s text spans the history of race and politics in the United States from the Civil War through the Obama presidency. In the forward, YA novelist Nic Stone writes that the book exposes, “the roots of American racism, as well as the branches, boughs, and still-sprouting leaves.”
Anderson’s text reads like a history book, but one is quickly drawn in by Anderson’s bold commentary, which distinguishes this work as one of thoughtful, challenging ideas. The text moves with increasing intensity from the Civil War, to reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, school integration, voting rights, to the now lingering effects in our political and social systems. Anderson cites how resistant lawmakers exploited changing laws to continue and even deepen segregation. Sharecroppers were held in such debt to dishonest landowners that freedom was virtually impossible; officials chose to close all public schools rather than integrate following the Brown decision; gerrymandering, citizenship tests and other voting suppression efforts kept segregationist whites in power; pundits cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Obama presidency.
Anderson sustains the case for systemic racism as strongly in the Civil War chapter as she does in chapters about more recent times. Anderson exposes how Reagan’s charge against “big government”–though presented with race-free language–was astoundingly stacked against the black community. A reader may wish the text brought its insights into more current days, but it does not extend past 2015.
Anderson’s text is heavy with strong opinion, but equally girded with documentation. The book includes relevant photos in each chapter, an extensive index and several notations of primary texts, including the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, an excerpt from Justice Warren’s opinion on Brown, and text from the voting rights act of 1965. There is a helpful discussion guide as well as a list to encourage additional reading to further engage readers in thoughtful and critical reflection.
Reviewed by Sherri Larson, Buffalo, Minnesota
The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman
Disney-Hyperion, 2019, 368 pp., $18.99
Violet Saunders is still reeling from the death of her sister when she moves to Four Paths in upstate New York. Her mother’s hometown is run, and protected, by descendants of four founding families. Unease and creepiness abound, from the odd reverence the townspeople have for the founding families to the stone bells hanging above each doorway. Everyone stares at Violet on her first day of school, but she can tell it’s something deeper than simply being the new kid. As Violet soon learns, the Saunders are a founding family, something her distant mother never revealed to her.
Members of the founding families each possess unique powers, from raising the dead to seeing the future. These powers are used to protect the town from the Gray, a sort of parallel world to Four Paths, which acts as a prison for an unseen, murderous monster. The monster has always taken victims from the town, but never this many, or this quickly which leaves the founding families struggling to hold back the Gray and hold on to their power in the town.
Violet’s powers are beginning to emerge, but she doesn’t immediately understand them and she can’t seem to control them. She has help from other founding family teens, yet each has their own agenda when it comes to helping Violet understand the Gray, the town, and her place in it. No one reveals the full truth to her, and therefore no one can be fully trusted.
Herman creates an eerie atmosphere from page one. The strange, still, colorless Gray makes comparisons to Stranger Things fair, but her story takes its own direction. Herman leans into themes of friendship, love, grief, trust, reverence, change, and power. Bits of information about each character’s distant and recent past filter through slowly, adding nicely to the suspense. The reader is constantly aware of the oppressive, fog-like Gray, which makes every character and the town itself feel isolated and trapped. An epilogue leaves the story wide open for a sequel, which is already in the works.
Reviewed by Megan M. Gunderson, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Song of the Abyss by Makiia Lucier
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, 2019, 341 pp., $17.99
As an apprentice mapmaker, Reyna researches landscapes then draws and paints beautiful maps, but when the ship she’s traveling on is attacked by pirates with a mysterious power of hypnosis, she must strike out on her own and form unlikely alliances in order to save her missing shipmates. Reyna barely escapes from the pirates with her life, and as she crawls ashore, she meets Levi, a prince wracked with grief from the loss of his father. The two find themselves on opposite sides of every possible political conflict, but as their relationship grows, they find ways to work together to locate and rescue the mysteriously kidnaped sailors.
Lucier builds a fascinating range of historical periods and cultures into a fresh fantasy landscape that combines the familiar with the new. But her real genius lies in creating a heroine who is brave without being unrealistic, who is smart and very good at her job without being an implausible polymath. Reyna ranks with Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games and Dashti from The Book of a Thousand Days as one of those rare characters who feels completely realized in her strengths and depth as well as her limitations. Reyna’s friend Blaise, a doctor in training, shines through with equal clarity. Their story plays out in a compelling and tightly plotted adventure, and in a gorgeously realized landscape in which friendship and kindness are rewarded as much as intrepid heroism. This makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read peopled with satisfyingly complex villains to serve as foils to heroines and heroes who will stand the test of time.
Reviewed by Maggie Burns, Winterport, Maine
Summer of ’69 by Todd Strasser
Candlewick Press, 2019, 384 pp., $17.99
Drugs/Woodstock/Coming of Age/Vietnam War
After graduating from high school, Lucas Baker’s bright future includes heading to Goddard College, which is only thirty minutes away from Middlebury, the college his smart and beautiful girlfriend Robin will attend. Although the tension between his parents is palpable, they are still a functioning family. His future plans focus on driving to the Woodstock Music and Art Festival with his friends in his minibus. Life is quite carefree for Lucas as he lives in the moment, smoking marijuana and dropping acid without much thought to the consequences.
But then he receives a rejection letter from Goddard College, and understands that he will inevitably be drafted to fight the war in Vietnam. He doesn’t want to go. Lucas doesn’t support the war, but to make matters worse, his friend’s letters from the front lines depict a seriously dangerous situation where the probability of making it back alive is low.
So, with Robin in Canada for the summer, Lucas has ample time to contemplate his options, or lack thereof. He writes frequent letters to her expressing his love and devotion while at the same time trying to avoid becoming involved with the tempting Tinsley and her free-love. As the tension between his parents escalates and the draft letter arrives, all he has left is Woodstock, but will that be enough?
Strasser convincingly depicts the experience of the war and the opposition to it, the hippie culture of Woodstock, and the reality of using drugs. Much of the book is based on his personal experience as he explains in the author’s note. Strasser realistically portrays Lucas coming of age in the tumultuous free love defined by Woodstock.
Reviewed by Michele Mosco, Tempe, Arizona
Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore
Feiwel and Friends, 2018, 384 pp., $17.99
Fairy Tales/Magic Realism/Sisters/Gender Non-Binary/Latinx
The title characters in Anna-Marie McLemore’s latest lyrical offering are caught up in a family curse. Generations before, a mother raised her daughter among swans, who in turn taught that daughter grace and beauty in appearance and manner. This daughter had three sons, but no daughters. Yearning for a daughter of her own, she asked the swans for help. They agreed to give her not one but two daughters, with the proviso that one of these daughters would be taken back by the swans. In the generations that follow, every subsequent del Cisne family has lost one of two daughters to the swans. No one ever knows which of the two sisters the swans will take.
The novel centers around the sisters Blanca and Roja, and their determination to defy the swans and stay together. Blanca is fair and good, Roja, dark and defiant. Their lives always shaped by an impending separation, the two have spent a lifetime resisting their differences and trying to become so alike and intertwined that the swans will not be able to choose between them and will not tear them apart.
The sisters’ maturity into unique young women disturbs this plan. The forces of family and community threaten to disentangle the two sisters as much as do the swans. Roja seethes in resentment against the expectations that her fair sister is the sweet princess and that she, with her dark edges, strength, and temper, is the unwanted witch, whose removal by the swans is a predetermined and deserved destiny. Blanca also struggles, with expectations as the good girl, pure and virtuous.
Of course, the story unsettles this easy dichotomy between fair and dark, strong and weak, princess and witch. Blanca and Roja struggle against a plotline and a mythology determined to pit one sister against the other, but, as she revises “Snow White” and Swan Lake, McLemore affirms the strength of female sisterhood.
At the same time, the novel offers readers an extraordinary parallel plot of two young men, facing their own struggles with gender, family, and society. Barclay Holt, a blue-eyed boy from a wealthy family, flees injury, family violence, and corruption and finds himself embraced by the woods and transformed into a yearling (young) bear. Page Ashby, who identifies as a boy, but embraces both the pronouns him and her, follows Barclay into the woods to escape his parents and a community that struggles to solve what they perceive to be the problem of his nonbinary identity. Page is transformed by the woods into a cygnet, a young swan.
Escape into animal identity is no solution, however, and Barclay and Page emerge from the woods and their animal identities just as Blanca and Roja are grappling with the onslaught of the swans. Together, these four forge new relationships and reject the problematic racial and gender politics of fairy-tales and of societal expectations. The sisterhood of Blanca and Roja, which seems doomed by the swans and society to rupture, remains the central love story.
Readers will find Blanca & Roja an engaging, surprising novel that embraces the struggle of young adults to carve their own paths in a world shaped by inscrutable curses, historical injustice, and a bit of magic. McLemore, like the best young adult writers, has also written a novel that confidently assures its young readers that, in collaboration with each other, they can solve generational problems, fight the limitations and constraints of the past, and write their own new stories.
Reviewed by Audrey Fisch, Westfield, New Jersey