ALAN Picks January 2020
Eight Will Fall by Sarah Harian
Henry Holt and Company, 2019, 359 pp., $18.99
Magic/Miners/Outlaws/Good and Evil/Fantasy
Larkin, a seventeen-year-old “Empath,” is forced to work the mines on the isle of Demura in search of the precious metal luminite. On Demura magic is forbidden, and luminite offers protection to non-Empaths from the illegal magical powers that Empaths, like Larkin, possess. When the villagers and soldiers of Demura begin to disappear, rumors of destruction magic abound. In response, Queen Malay forces Larkin and seven others to enter the Reach, the underworld where Otheil Kyran reigns, and use their magic in order to defeat the evil that threatens to destroy all those on the surface. As Kyran, the God of Darkness, has promised, “Though I have fallen, darkness will rise once more.” On their perilous journey, as the eight are horrifically struck down one-by-one, the survivors uncover many secrets as to the real reason they have been chosen for this task, and what the purpose of their mission truly is. In the end, they discover that, “Darkness cannot exist where there is light.”
Author Sarah Harian does a good job of creating interesting and diverse central characters whom the reader will invest in and root for, particularly Larkin and Amias. There are also moments of impressive world-building here that put the reader right in the middle of the Reach and the horrors that it contains.
There are many positive messages for teens here, especially the ideas of persisting when things get tough, and the importance of family. Larkin’s brother, Garran, has told her on several occasions to just get up and “keep going” when a situation seems impossible. It is her family and the lessons that she has learned from them that give her the courage to face the darkest of times on her journey. Also important for teens is the idea that you must understand your past in order to fully understand your present and your future.
Eight Will Fall will appeal to lovers of fantasy, horror, and magic. It should be noted that Harian’s website lists the following content warnings: “graphic violence/gore/ body horror/torture/character death/emotional abuse (off page) /scenes of war.” Yes, there is an abundance of each of these things! The novel is definitely not for the faint of heart and is best suited for older, more mature readers. Harian has definitely left the door open here for a sequel.
Reviewed by Terri Evans, St. Michael, Minnesota
The Light in the Hidden Places by Sharon Cameron
Scholastic Press 400 pp., $18.99
Historical (F)/Holocaust/Military and Wars/Romance
Most of us are secret keepers of one kind or another. Some of us pinkie swear, stick a needle in our eye to never tell. Few of us, however, keep secrets (or at least promise to) that if shared, if found out, could result in death. This is the kind of secret Stefania and Helena, her six-year-old sister, must keep. Set in occupied Poland during World War II, The Light in Hidden Places provides a glimpse into the evilness mankind can deliver and survive. Main character Stefania discovers that hatred can breed hatred, that trust should be given with caution, and that human beings with a strong will to live can survive most anything.
Throughout the novel, Stefania, Helena, and the 13 Jewish people she shelters learn a lot about living and dying. They recognize their own strength as well as their own insecurities. They realize that dividing lines of cultures, ethnicities, and social classes do not have to separate people, that kindness and love, as well as cruelty and hate, can blossom in unexpected places and at unexpected times. All of these lessons, however, come at a cost. Living in constant fear that her secret will be discovered, Stefania battles the war within. Should she turn her back on people in need because they follow Moses rather than Jesus? Is aiding them worth endangering her own life and that of the sister she is responsible for? While these questions have no easy answers, Stefania knows that if she were to deny help to people who cannot help themselves, she, though surviving, would never be able to live with herself. So, she does the only thing she can do. She hides 13 people. And lives to tell about it.
Every once in a while, a book comes along that is so powerful its message stays with readers beyond the last word on the last page. The Light in Hidden Places is such a book. Based on the real-life story of Stefania Podgorska, author Sharon Cameron speaks of hate and the destruction it can produce as well as the saving grace love offers. The book’s message is capable of moving people to anger, to empathy, to sympathy, to question humanity, to look inward, and to feel deeply. Readers learn that humans are multidimensional, capable of unspeakable acts of cruelty as well as sacrificial actions of love.
Reviewed by Melissa Comer, Oak Ridge, Tennessee
Furious Thing by Jenny Downham
David Fickling Books / Scholastic, 2020, 384 pp., $18.99
Family/Alternative Family/Social Issues/Emotional Abuse/Social Topics/Self-Esteem & Self-Reliance
Lexi has bursts of uncontrollable anger- screaming, throwing and slamming things. One of her outbursts ruins her mother’s boyfriend John’s birthday party. Lexi tries to stay calm, push the anger down, but it just boils back even stronger than before. Her mother is getting married to John in a few weeks and wants Lexi to get her anger under control before them. John wants her to see a doctor and get a prescription, but Lexi fears that medication will take away her personality. The boy she loves, Kass (who is also John’s son from his first marriage) is away at college and Lexi worries he has forgotten her.
As Lexi tries to get her anger under control, she begins to understand its cause. John dominates her mother, belittles her, emotionally abuses her, then apologizes, sends her flowers, and wins her back. With the help of the few friends she has left, Lexi begins to realize that her raw anger will only make things worse. If she wants to reclaim her life (and perhaps her mother’s as well), she will need to find her voice.
What is remarkable about this book is the way Downham uses the first person perspective to put readers in the same emotional state as Lexi. At first, readers share in her frustration as she tries to figure out why she keeps sabotaging her life with destructive tantrums. Then, alongside of Lexi, we share in her dawning awareness that perhaps she isn’t the problem in her family. As it becomes clearer that John is controlling and abusive, readers experience Lexi’s feeling that there is nothing she can do. And, after a series of incidents in which Lexi’s hopes of getting out from under John’s control each end in hopelessness, we feel the change when Lexi channels her anger into a powerful voice that changes her landscape.
Lexi’s relationship with Kass deserves some mention as well. At first, he seems to be her only hope for escape, and when she runs away to see him in college, readers feels some relief. But Lexi herself realizes that she is playing her mother’s part, seeking safety in a romantic partner. She also realizes that Kass may have more of his father in him than he (or she) thinks.
Furious Thing is an in-depth exploration of fury and how society tries to repress or ignore it. It is not always easy to read, but the story is, in the end, rewarding and affirming.
Reviewed by Bill Boerman-Cornell, South Holland, Illinois
Castle of Concrete by Katia Raina
Young Europe Books, 2019, 287 pp., $15.95
Fifteen year old Sonya moves to Moscow to live with her mother and must decide whether she will embrace her Jewish heritage or pass for Russian. At her new school, two boys embody those choices. Ruslan is a forthright and somewhat dangerous boy who approaches Sonya directly, while Misha is a gentle reader who is kind to Sonya and bullied by Ruslan. The reader’s sympathies are immediately with Misha over Ruslan, but Sonya must work through all of her anxieties and hopes and dreams connected to her indecision over these boys before she can face the ugly truth about Ruslan’s membership in a violent anti-Semitic movement. Even then, things are not that simple, and the complicated relationships among the students at Sonya’s school culminate in a group of students going to the barricades together on the most dangerous possible day. It’s not until the very last page that we find out who survives that crisis.
As a story about finding one’s identity, this novel is completely new in the approach it takes, because Sonya plays an almost allegorical role as she tries to decide what will ultimately be the fate of a nation, which we see played out in Sonya’s mother, who gives up her dissident poet life to pursue a life for them in America, complete with jeans and McDonald’s and all the trappings of capitalism. Nothing is clear-cut or easy for Sonya or her mother, or for any of these characters, as they all love their country and try to find the best road forward. Ultimately, Sonya is compelling and sympathetic, and her moments of choice at the demonstrations and especially at the Syrets memorial break the reader’s heart. This novel brings to life not just these vivid characters but a time of choices in history that must not be forgotten.
Reviewed by Maggie Burns, Winterport, Maine
Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Katherine Webber
Scholastic 2020, pp., 342, $18.99
Hiding can be exhausting, and healing can be even harder. Only Love Can Break Your Heart introduces readers to perfect Reiko Smith-Mori. Smart, beautiful, and popular, Japanese-American Reiko appears to have it all. But she is hiding so much- a trauma from which she still hasn’t recovered, a maybe boyfriend who is not part of the it crowd, a ghost from her past, and a guilt from which she can’t seem to recover.
Reiko spends her days going through the motions, trying to fulfill expectations she has put on herself to be the perfect daughter and student, and to live for those who no longer can. Through her relationships, with true and not so real friends, boys and breakups, her parents and her siblings, Reiko struggles to figure out who she is, and more importantly, whom she wants to be.
The novel is set under the backdrop of the Californian desert, the only place where Reiko can explore, escape, and truly feel free. It is a book of love, loss, grieving, and healing that will leave readers with the feeling that it’s not only love that can break our hearts, sometimes books can, too. But books, and characters like Reiko, can also heal, and it is in that healing that we can find both who we are and hope for the future.
Reviewed by Janine J. Darragh, Moscow, Idaho
Elysium Girls by Kate Pentecost
Disney-Hyperion, 2020, 394 pp., $23.49
When the Dust Soldiers arrive to Elysium, Oklahoma, the Dust Bowl begins. The once lush landscape is transformed and the diverse community challenged by the goddesses Life and Death to prove themselves worthy within ten year. For the goddesses, it is merely a game. For the powerful witch leader Mother Morevna, Sal her oddball named Successor, and every human in the Elysian community, it is truly a struggle for existence as they use their dead to build a wall around the city and begin to amass a sacrifice of food and goods all while slowly dying of Dust Illness. When Asa, the humanized daemon, arrives as a flashy, exotic wildcard on the side of Life, the reader is left to wonder about Death’s wildcard. Events point in many directions including into the wasteland of dust and steel outside the city walls where Sal and Asa are exiled after a devastating, fiery, magic accident. When the Dust Soldiers return for the apocalypse, however, Sal and her powerful and determined group are there to fight and survive.
Appealing to fantasy lovers as well as mythology buffs, Pentecost’s rag-tag collection of strong heroic women (and a clever human/daemon man) share their pain, endurance and love of each other with passion. They truly demonstrate the power of unity and acceptance in a matriarchal society. Though readers will never doubt that they will prevail, precisely how that happens and the repercussions lead to a satisfying twist and outcome.
Review by Jennifer Desloges, Plymouth, New Hampshire
Girls Like Us by Randi Pink
Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, 2019, 310 pp., $18.99
Sexual Assault/Teen Pregnancy/Abortion/Vietnam War/Socioeconomic Status
During the summer of 1972, before Roe v. Wade, several young women–different races, different socioeconomic standings–are pregnant. In rural Georgia, Izella encourages her pregnant sister, Ola, to abort while her clueless, holier-than-thou mother cares for Missippi, whose pregnancy is the result of incestuous rape. When Missippi’s father sends her to a “safe” house for pregnant teens, Missippi meets Susan, a white, privileged daughter of a pro-life Senator. Whether rich or poor, each woman–and each’s community–must contend with life-altering choices that bring joy as well as sorrow.
The Vietnam-era setting of the novel explores interesting perspectives about America’s attitudes toward unmarried pregnant teens, and Pink’s honest, realistic characterization of Izella, Missippi, and Sue will bring empathy and understanding. The plot addresses all aspects of teen pregnancy- the assumptions others make about its causes, how it impacts self-identity, how others respond to it, what choices were/are available, the dangers of illegal abortion, how parents can help or hinder support for young women, and the value of a supportive community, regardless of what choice a young woman makes. While the novel has wide appeal, young women will especially connect with themes of innocence, sisterhood, friendship, and loss.
Reviewed by Gretchen Rumohr, Zeeland, Michigan
Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim
Hyperion, 2020, 327 pp., $18.99
Silverfish was sold to Captain Zharo to work on the Brackish, a debtor ship where other children known as the Water Bugs work off family debts. As her release date nears after years of hard work, Silverfish spots a stranger in the water about to drown and she launches a net to save him. Due to her actions, she tears the net which sentences her to an extra month, but she is released early after finding a large pearl which she uses to pay for her release. After a chance meeting with Boon, the stranger she helped save, they plot to seek revenge on the three men who wronged her- the wealthy and mysterious Kamon Mercado, Captain Zharo who treated her so poorly for years, and the debt collector who sold her to the Brackish. Now, with the help of Boon, she returns to her hometown of Moray, posing as Countess Amaya in order to infiltrate the wealthy society, seek revenge, and discover her past. Now disguised, Amaya meets Cayo Mercado, the son of Kamon, and an attraction grows between the two. Amaya unearths the connection between the Slum King of Moray and owner of the city’s casinos, Kamon Mercado, and Boon.
Tara Sim, the acclaimed author of The Timekeeper trilogy retells the The Count of Monte Cristo in a unique and intriguing narrative. According to the front flap, it is “a gender swapped retelling packed with high-stakes adventure, romance, dueling identities, and breathtaking betrayals.” Pair this trade book with its counterpart to notice the unique style and character development that makes Sim’s writing so interesting. Scavenge the Stars is the first book of an expected two-part series.
Reviewed by Darryn Diuguid, Shiloh, Illinois
Stolen Justice: The Struggle for African American Voting Rights by Lawrence Goldstone
Scholastic Focus, 2020, 288 pp., $18.99
Nonfiction/Prejudice and Racism/Social Issues
If you’ve ever heard Lawrence Goldstone speak, you know he’s passionate about bringing forward the ongoing injustices faced by the marginalized and underrepresented. With the 2020 election looming, Stolen Justice is a timely novel that traces the history and importance of voting rights for African Americans, from a Supreme Court decision in 1787 to recent voter suppression. Goldstone makes a compelling case for holding the Supreme Court responsible for the disenfranchisement of African Americans. Stolen Justice shows the Supreme Court as a willing and key participant in white supremacy, as well as the suppression of voting rights for African Americans. It is a charge he brings not simply against the court of the past but the one that rules in the perilous present.
Goldstone takes readers from the unfortunate birth of the Ku Klux Klan to the momentous 1965 Voting Rights Act, warning along the way that history repeats. Just as the Supreme Court played a detrimental role in reversing gains during the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction era, recent court rulings mean the fight for voting rights wages on while the promises of Reconstruction teeter on the precipice.
Larger figures loom large as Goldstone weaves a compelling story, but he also brings lesser known names to the forefront. The fight against disenfranchisement was and is waged by individuals and Goldstone educates the reader about those that stood in the shadows of history’s giants. The impact of Booker T. Washington and John Lewis stand alongside the personal stories of William Garner and Jackson W. Giles. It is these lesser known personal histories that have the largest impact. They are visceral and truly illustrate the cruel legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Stolen Justice is the young adult version of Goldstone’s On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights. The book is highly engaging and will grab students’ attention through the use of photography, political cartoons, and posters. A forward by the esteemed Henry Louis Gates, short chapters, and a glossary make the book perfect for every reader and every classroom.
Reviewed by Alison Daniels, Hanover, Maryland
Straight On Till Morning: A Twisted Tale by Liz Braswell
Disney Hyperion, 2020, 488 pp., $17.99
Fantasy/Adventure/Emotional Maturity/Women’s Roles
If the most memorable experience of one’s life has been inscribed indelibly during a mystical childhood adventure, it may be difficult to enter an adulthood that holds no promise of magic. This is especially true for Wendy Darling, who, along with her two younger brothers, once accepted an invitation from a mischievous boy emboldened by an impish fairy. They flew out of their window into a night lit by pixie dust to touch down in a fabulous land for encounters with mermaids, lost boys, monstrous pirates, and a crocodile bearing a grudge. The portal to that world has long since closed, but memories of her life of wild abandon outside of time never left Wendy’s dreams, and she weaves them into the stories she tells her brothers and writes in her precious notebook.
In this reimagined take on Peter Pan, sixteen year old Wendy is especially reluctant to obey her parents and close the door on her youth to begin a circumscribed life of tea parties, marriage, and motherhood. A humdrum life in traditionally conservative middle class early 20th century London cannot compete with improbably eccentric travels in Never Land. As Wendy hopes life will have more to offer elsewhere, a shadow looms. She longs for time to dream of Peter, lead piratical escapades, and take more leaps of faith into the exotic air of imagination. Must she dutifully fulfill the staid role society expects of her, or will she have the wit and courage to write her own script?
This is Liz Braswell’s fifth in the “twisted” series of reimagined traditional folk and fairy tales in the Disney canon. Braswell immediately engages readers in a zip-line of storytelling that builds multiple bridges from J. M. Barrie’s novel to her own richly expanded tale with surprising shades and shadows.
Reviewed by Karen Dunnagan, Louisville, Kentucky
The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah
Disney-Hyperion, 2019, 320 pp., $17.99
Dystopian/Science Fiction/Action and Adventure/Family
The year is 2099 and the world as we know it is now underwater. After disaster struck the planet, those who survived have had to learn to live in this new world. New threats include the Anthropoids, new humans designed to help the planet survive after the disaster and a new government that may not be all that it appears.
Leyla McQueen is a Muslim teen who loves racing through the streets of this new London, pushing her submersible to the limits. But she is on her own now, after the passing of her mother and the recent imprisonment of her father on false charges. When she is chosen to race in the prestigious London Marathon, she sees a way to save her father. But the government has other plans. In order to save her father, Leyla must set out into a world that has always scared her, a world of the unknown outside the boundaries of London. When an unwanted passenger is discovered on her submarine, Leyla is forced to open her eyes to a world that she has always been blind to. As she embarks on the dangerous journey to free her father, will Leyla be able to begin facing her fears and viewing the world in ways she never knew were possible.
The Light at the Bottom of the World is a fantastic and fast-paced journey through the depths of the world. It is a novel about family and the lengths we will go to protect the ones we love. It is a story about opening our eyes to the prejudices we hold and understanding that what we see isn’t always the truth. It is a story about facing our fears and coming out the other side even better. Most importantly, the novel is a story about hope and what hope can do for us during troubling times. London Shah has given us a tale of hope and family that will stick with the reader long after the last words have been read.
Reviewed by Joe Godina, Hutchinson, Kansas