ALAN Picks June 2012
Ashfall by Mike Mullin
Tanglewood, 2011, 456 pp., $16.95
After the supervolcano at Yellowstone erupts, Alex finds himself plunged into an ash-covered world. Eager to find his family, who has gone on a family trip, Alex traverses 140 miles of dangerous terrain as he meets people who have resorted to primitive ways of living in order to survive, including extreme acts of violence and utter hopelessness. Along the way, he meets Darla, another teenager who finds herself alone in this uninhabitable wasteland, and the two embark on an unforgettable journey.
As in Susan Pfeffer’s Life as We Knew It, Mullin manages to create a believably devastated world in which there are few people to trust and even fewer resources. He deals with some of the more adult aspects of life many teenagers encounter such as having sex and the embarrassment of relieving bodily waste in public. Readers who appreciate a little romance with their action adventure stories will enjoy Alex and Darla’s.
Reviewed by Jacqueline Bach, Baton Rouge, LA
Battle Fatigue by Mark Kurlansky
Walker/Bloomsbury, 2011, 241 pp., $17.99
The main character Joel Bloom uses flashbacks to narrate his childhood against the background of the post-WWII era, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Cold War. As a young man he is faced with the decision of whether to go to Vietnam. On this turbulent path, Joel Bloom finds his voice and asserts his identity.
The historical events in the novel are only briefly discussed, but it is these events that shape and influence the main character. Having background knowledge of these events will facilitate discussion of the choices made in the book. High school students will be more able than younger students to relate to the character’s ethical and existential dilemmas. This novel could be used as a complement to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or as a stand-alone novel. Through fiction, Battle Fatigue gives voice to a different perspective on war, the perspective of a young man deciding whether to dodge the draft or fight the war.
Reviewed by NoÃ«l Monea-DeJonge, Tampa, FL
Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition by Karen
Roaring Brook, 2011, 154 pp., $18.99
Prohibition/Temperance/History/Alcoholic Beverage Industry
Opening with a short descriptive passage about the Valentine’s Day massacre of 1929, Karen Blumenthal proceeds to provide the reader with an informative account of prohibition, the people who were for it, those who were against it, and the very interesting years before, during, and after the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment. People like Morris Sheppard, the Father of National Prohibition, Frances Willard, the leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and Carrie Nation-the Bar Room Smasher-are introduced. Those known for other roles in America’s history are situated in the prohibition movement as well. Henry Ford hated alcohol, banning drinking by his employees whether they were at work or at home. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the proclamation that ended prohibition. Blumenthal furnishes the reader of this book with the positive and negative aspects of prohibition, finishing the book with a short epilogue entitled “Success or Failure?” In the bibliography and acknowledgements, Blumenthal shows young readers how resources are located and used in writing, encouraging them to extend their learning by grouping her sources by topics.
With a Flesch-Kincaid readability level of 8.8, the book is well-written and informative. Blumenthal describes the people and groups on both sides of prohibition respectfully, adding humor as appropriate. As a teetotaler who began reading with no particular interest in the issues surrounding bootlegging and prohibition, I was drawn into the topic by Blumenthal’s writing style and the pictures that accompany the text, finishing the book a much more knowledgeable person about this very interesting part of our nation’s history.
Reviewed by Kandy Smith, Carthage, TN
Callie by Jessica Lee Anderson
Milkweed, 2011, 184 pp., $16.95
Foster Children/Family Relationships/Gay/Lesbian Parents
Callie Adora Gilbeaux records in diary-like entries written from April 17 to May 21 the turmoil of being a foster sister. Callie believes that as a foster sister, she will be able to make a difference in Cherish’s life. But Cherish, Callie’s foster sister, fractures their fragile relationship by kissing Callie’s boyfriend in the all too public setting of Calcasieu High School. If this affront is not enough, Cherish writes gender slurs on Callie’s locker. Because Callie has two moms (her father left when she was a baby) she has faced a range of bullying behaviors since middle school, but the combination of embarrassment from her foster sister trying to steal her boyfriend and the graffiti on her locker drives Callie to retaliate. She hides a necklace and locket belonging to Cherish. Callie ends up hurting those she least intends to hurt, including her biological mom who battles lupus.
Callie, a relatively brief novel, will be appealing to teens in foster care as well as those in families who provide foster care. Additionally, Jessica Lee Anderson creates in Callie the authentic voice of a teen with parents who are lesbians and explores some of the challenges these teens experience. Callie’s first-person narrative dominates the novel, and her character is the most completely developed. Given the brief span of the book and the in medias res presentation of the conflict with Cherish, the story of Lemond, an eight-year-old foster child taken in by Callie’s family after Cherish has to leave, lacks full development. Lemond does offer Callie the opportunity to be a successful foster sister, though, lending an optimistic ending to a story ripe with teen angst.
Reviewed by Mary Warner, San Jose, CA
Deviant by Adrian McKinty
Amulet/Abrams, 2011, 356 pp., $16.95
Alternative Schools/Serial Killers/Mystery/Violence
Deviant is a dark mystery featuring Danny Lopez who attends Cobalt Charter Academy, a super-controlled school offering troubled students a second chance. All instruction at Cobalt is scripted and silence is the order of the day. This school has moved way beyond school uniforms to help control behavior. In this oppressive environment secret student societies flourish, creating cliques which exclude others on a whim. Strange events begin to occur, including cat killings. The community blames coyotes. However, the students know better. Danny and his newfound band of supportive friends try to solve the mystery, which only involves them in increasingly dangerous events leading to Danny’s attempted murder by the hand of a serial killer. From the creepy first chapter to the final page, the reader is uncertain of who is guilty. This book, like Acceleration by Graham McNamee, is an unsettling psychological thriller.
This is certainly not a book for every reader. Readers not easily upset with violence and who enjoy psychological mysteries will probably admire the poetic writing style and well-drawn characters. The writing is crisp, the dialogue authentic and the action is wild. The story will certainly keep the reader guessing. We know the crime, but who is guilty and what is their motive? As we reflect on what happens at the Cobalt Academy, we might also examine the direction taken by some of our post-Columbine schools where innovation and creativity have been replaced by a quest for positive test scores. Deviant, despite its dark moments, includes an ample dose of humor and in the end good triumphs.
Reviewed by John Jarvey, Cleveland Hts., OH
My Beating Teenage Heart by C. K. Kelly Martin
Random House, 2011, 272 pp., $16.99
Two teenagers interact as their stories intertwine in chapters written in first person. Ashlyn Baptiste cannot seem to find her way out of this world because she has somehow entered the life of Breckon Cody whose seven-year-old sister Skylar has just died in a tragic home accident. Breckon’s grief and guilt overwhelm him, and Ashlyn watches in horror and amazement as he continues to disintegrate. His grieving parents, his friends, and his girlfriend, Jules, are unable to stop his slide into depression and self-destruction. Why is Ashlyn the unseen observer at this disaster? What is her mission regarding Breckon? Will she be able to stop the impending tragedy?
Any reader who has suffered a profound loss like Breckon’s will identify with his emotional upheaval as he struggles to find a reason to exist; his grief is compounded because he was babysitting Skylar when that fatal accident occurred. The book also offers alternatives to teens who are suicidal; if one teen heart contemplating suicide continues to beat after reading this book, it is worth its place on a shelf. The fragility of life coupled with the importance of family and friendship provide both Ashlyn and Breckon the strength they need to exist wherever and however that may occur.
Reviewed by Judith A. Hayn, Little Rock, AR
My Brother’s Shadow by Monika Schroder
Foster/Macmillan, 2011, 217 pp., $17.99
Germany/World War I/Journalism/Political Activism
As World War I draws to a close, sixteen-year-old Moritz knows better than anyone how his homeland of Germany has been torn apart. His father has died in the war, his brother still risks his life in the trenches, and his mother, angry at the Germany monarchy, attends secretive socialist meetings. Moritz does not know what to do, but he does know that his family is barely surviving; therefore, he takes a job for the Berlin Daily, and there he finds himself uncovering the very injustices his mother decries. To make matters more intriguing, he meets and falls in love with a Jewish girl who teaches him to understand the quest for social justice, the desire to change Germany into a new democracy, and of course, his own emotional awakening.
Rarely has a book touched me as profoundly as this engaging and thoughtful read. Complex in design and content, this is a perfect read for adolescents who enjoy provocative and sensitive historical fiction. The young teen is not perfect-as we learn how he first succumbs to teen pressure and becomes the “bully” he later detests. Still, young Moritz realizes the errors of his ways and slowly becomes more intrigued with how to right the daily wrongs he sees. Subtle, strong, and perceptive, this good book has something for everyone-a sweet and passionate teenage romance, a profound coming-of-age story, a brutal look at the cold realities of war, and a perceptive and impassioned plea for social and moral freedom in the wake of devastating brutality. To be sure, our lead character’s matter-of-fact narration does not offer up easy answers, but his words do make for a most compelling and conscious-raising read.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kaplan, Orlando, FL
The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafron
Little, Brown, 2010, 224 pp., $17.99
Set in 1943, The Prince of Mist is essentially a ghost tale. When the story opens, thirteen-year-old Max Carver’s father announces that he has elected to relocate the family from the city, which has grown too dangerous in the face of an encroaching war, to a house in a sleepy seaside community. In route to their new home Max’s father explains that he acquired the house for a low price, a result of its having sat vacant after its previous owners, a wealthy doctor and his wife, abandoned it following the death of their son, Jacob, who drowned in the sea. Shortly after settling into the new house, Max discovers an overgrown enclosure on the property that contains a number of strange statues. Later, after his father comes across a collection of old home movies in a shed behind the house, Max deduces that Jacob made them, and he begins to suspect that they may hold clues about his death. Accompanied by his older sister, Alicia, and their friend Roland, he sets out to learn more about the history of the house and the tragic circumstances that surround the boy’s demise. In the process of doing so, he learns of a mysterious figure named Cain who purportedly arranged to make others’ dreams come true in exchange for their souls. Convinced that a link exists between Cain and Jacob’s death, Max embarks on a journey to resolve a mystery that threatens to engulf him and his family.
The endings of mysteries for adolescents often feel contrived. I enjoyed reading The Prince of Mist, however, precisely because its author understands that some mysteries are best left unresolved. A fast-paced narrative with the power to entertain, Zafron’s novel takes a number of unexpected twists, and promises to hold younger readers in suspense.
Reviewed by Sean P. Connors, Fayetteville, AR
The Project by Brian Falkner
Random House, 2010, 275 pp., $17.99
Friendship/Leonardo/Sci Fi/Rare Books/Time Travel
The Project by Brian Falkner is not the most boring book in the world. Leonardo’s River, a rare book worth over a million dollars, wins that title. Best friends, Tommy and Luke volunteered to help save rare books when a flood threatened their town’s library. Leonardo’s River comes into their hands. End of story, not so. Someone else wants to get their hands on the book and will do anything to gain possession. The book contains a secret that might just change the world, and not for the better. The best friends are kidnapped and travel through time to the chaotic last days of Nazi Germany. What will happen to the world now that evil forces are in charge?
Teens who like adventure stories should enjoy reading The Project. The action is somewhat slow to start, but once it does, the pace is breathtaking. The time travel element coupled with constant danger faced by its two young heroes make for a very readable novel. The characters are well developed and fun to get to know. Falkner should be credited for introducing the reader to much information about Leonardo and his fantastic creations, as well as Germany during the final days of World War II. There are several coincidences used to move the plot along, but they do not seem to dampen what is essentially a thrilling saga.
Reviewed by John Jarvey, Cleveland Hts., OH
Skyship Academy: Control the Pearls, Control the World by Nick James
Flux, 2011, 380 pp., $9.95
Skyship Academy takes the reader on a zigzag journey of adventure, danger, and search for identity. Earth in the year 2095 has been devastated by chemical bombings and is in need of hope provided by pearls, tiny green orbs of mysterious power, capable of supplying enough energy for entire cities. Two civilizations, one housed on earth (the evil empire) and the other above it (mankind’s hope) vie for ownership of the most pearls. The government possessing the most pearls will rule the world. Jesse Fisher, a lazy underachiever, from the sky civilization, and Cassius Stevenson controlled by earth’s autocratic female ruler, cross paths triggering hidden abilities. Jessie and Cassius travel to Seattle, a city in ruin, uncovering the truth about their unexplainable powers and who they really are. How these teens react to their newfound knowledge and learn to use their nascent powers make for one remarkable novel sure to please even the most reluctant reader.
With its constant twists, short chapters, and unpredictable events, this book moves beyond simple classification because of its believable characters and nonstop action. Just try to stop reading this science fiction thriller before reaching the last page. This book is certain to become the first of a series. This reviewer looks forward to following more adventures of Cassius and Jesse in the land of make believe. Although this is a first published book by Nick James, he has written many comic books and chapter books, while honing his talents so evident in Skyship Academy: Control the Pearls, Control the World.
Reviewed by John Jarvey, Cleveland Hts., OH
Edited by Pam B. Cole, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, GA