ALAN Picks March 2013

ALAN Picks March 2013

Period.8 by Chris Crutcher
HarperCollins, 2013, 282 pp., $17.99
Mentor teacher-student relationships/Sex Trafficking/Mystery/Realistic Fiction
ISBN: 9780061914805

Period 8 is lunch period at Heller High School. Students who choose to meet in Bruce Logsdon’s classroom are provided the opportunity to broach topics that they don’t feel safe discussing anywhere else. Someone in the Period 8 group, however, is a spy, collecting information that is helping to support some very nefarious activities. Paulie Baum, Hannah Murphy, Justin Chenier, and Mr. Logsdon all must work to solve the mystery behind these activities.

In some ways, Period.8 feels like familiar Crutcher territory. Adolescent relationships, the significant roles, for better and worse, that teachers, parents and other authority figures play in the lives of adolescents, and the connections between the physical and mental challenges of a sport like swimming and real life human development, are all addressed here. But characters in Crutcher’s newest story wrestle with some issues readers haven’t seen before in any of his novels. In Crutcher’s words, “I put this one on steroids.” One thing never changes, however, in a Crutcher story: His protagonists deal with every situation in which they are placed with courage, dignity, and humor.

Reviewed by Bryan Gillis, Kennesaw State University

The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, 432 pp., $17.99
Mystery/Murder/Adventure/Secret Society/Romance
ISBN 978-0-375-86876-4

Imagine a modern-day battle between the Defenders of the Faith and the secret society of Hledači, who believe they can capture the power of God by building a machine, the Lumen Dei, with which they will dominate the world. The secret is contained in the letters of Elizabeth Kelly from the 16th century, letters a group of four teens have been hired to translate and organize. The adventure is narrated by high school senior Nora Kane, a lively and sassy heroine whose life parallels Elizabeth’s in many ways. As Elizabeth was pursued by the Hledači in the 16th century, so Nora is in the 21st. But in the course of the story Nora learns that she is vyvolená, the chosen one, for Hledaĉi.

The mystery begins with the murder of Chris, one of the four friends. Another friend of Nora’s, Max (who is part of Hledaĉi), leads her to Prague so the final secrets can be revealed and the machine built. Enter the intriguing Eli, who pretends to be Chris’s cousin but is actually working for the Defenders of the Faith. Nora is right in the middle of this complex and fast-paced tale of violence, kidnapping, and murder, with plenty of action, adventure, and romance thrown in. Author Robin Wasserman seizes every opportunity she can to teach some history, religion, geography, and linguistics to her teen readers. The protagonists in the story are academically gifted, and realistically developed teenagers. Nora, whose stress level is through the roof from the death of her brother and indifference of her parents, somehow manages to survive to the end with help from friends. One constant among all that happens in this exciting novel is Nora’s growing understanding of who she is, what she is capable of, what she values, and how strong her inner resources are. Mature high school students are probably the best audience for Wasserman’s new book.

Reviewed by Rudolph P. Almasy, University of West Virginia

Cartwheel by Sneed B. Collard III
Bucking Horse Books. 2012. 256 pp. $17.00.
Mystery/Coin Collecting/Road trips/Untraditional families
ISBN: 978-0984446032

Sixteen-year-old Mike is pulled from an uncomfortable summer with his father, new stepmother, and their crying baby by an invitation from his friend Kyle to take a short road trip in his souped-up Bel Air Chevrolet to visit Kyle’s sister, Annie. Along the way, Mike discovers Kyle’s true goal—to take Annie away from her restrictive aunt and uncle—and he must decide between loyalties to family, the law, and friends. Mike and Kyle’s keen interest in coin collecting, and particularly in the mystery of a rare silver dollar, form the backdrop and ultimately a solution for the teens on the run.

With a high interest plot, strong male characters, and relatively easy reading level, this novel reaches out to male reluctant readers. While developing an easy to read, fast-paced narrative, Collard engages the reader with fascinating historical details related to coin collecting, the operations of the Denver mint, and auto mechanics. Moreover, as a sequel, the book offers readers who identify with these characters the opportunity to follow them on an earlier quest for a rare coin in Double Eagle.

Reviewed by Mary Adler, California State University, Channel Islands 

Pinned by Sharon G. Flake
Scholastic Press. 2012. 240 pp. $17.99.
Social situations/Reluctant readers/Wrestling/Disabilities
ISBN: 9780545057189

Fourteen-year-old Autumn Knight has three loves: wrestling, cooking, and a classmate named Adonis–a shy, smart, bookish boy who was born without legs. Unfortunately, Autumn hates reading: she struggles academically and makes every excuse she can think of to avoid the subjects in which she doesn’t excel. Unfortunately for her, if there’s anything Adonis abhors, it’s an underachiever who hates books. Autumn half-heartedly volunteers in the library to be closer to him, but gets kicked off the wrestling team when her grades don’t improve. She begins to sink into depression, cutting class and acting out at home. The two are about to form an unlikely partnership.

Told in alternating points of view, this novel attempts to reach both ends of the reading spectrum. Autumn’s voice is clipped, simple and blunt while Adonis’s is peppered with complex vocabulary. Flake uses the wrestling motif to explain the reversals of power, strength, weakness, and success or failure that each character confronts throughout the book. While Autumn has some endearing qualities, like the pride and joy she takes in her culinary and athletic skills, Adonis’s contempt towards everyone he considers his intellectual inferior makes him easy to dislike. Autumn’s obsession with Adonis despite his arrogant, almost hostile treatment of her does not depict the healthiest relationship. These character flaws may alienate some readers, and the message about the importance of education may be heavy-handed at times, but most readers will still find relatable emotions at the heart of this story.

Reviewed by Alethea Allarey, La Crescenta, CA

Adaptation by Malinda Lo
Little, Brown, 2012, 400 pp., $17.99
LGBTQ/science fiction/futuristic/conspiracy theory
ISBN: 978-0316197960

Adaptation is a suspenseful tale of two teenagers, Reece and David, whose visit to Arizona takes an unexpected turn when they become stranded at an airport after a debate competition. After hearing reports of flocks of birds flying into planes and possible signs of terroristic activity, Reece and David rent a car with Mr. Chapman, their debate coach and head home to San Francisco. With no phone service and an apparent removal of information about the crashes on media sites, Reece fears that the government may be withholding information. After leaving Mr. Chapman at a remote gas station and driving along deserted highways, the story becomes even more suspenseful when Reece and David’s rental car overturns. Reece awakens in a military hospital weeks later only to discover she has received experimental treatment to keep her alive. She soon discovers she is not the person she was before.

Lo has created a sci-fi thriller filled with multiple twists and turns. The novel keeps readers on edge with the unspoken attraction between Reece and David, as well as a developing lesbian experience between Reece and another character. Despite the number of edgy events that occur, there are often lulls where the reader may wonder where Lo will pick up the pace again. However, the author does a wonderful job of keeping the reader engaged. Readers will appreciate the surprise ending and the even more surprising love that Lo discloses between characters.

Reviewed by Eliza G. Allen, Georgia State University

Pieces by Chris Lynch
Simon & Schuster, 2013, 176 pp., $16.99
Grief/family dynamics/coming of age
ISBN: 978-1416927037

Pieces is the long awaited sequel to Iceman and stars the same irreverent and snarky teenaged boy, Eric. In this gripping drama, Eric loses the only familial connection he felt was important in his life when his older brother, Duane, dies. With several nods to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Lynch juxtaposes the grief of a teenaged boy with sometimes-nonsensical larger than life characters that frame the strange un-reality Eric is faced with when he starts to feel “the nothingness that is filling the Duane space, spreading like a gradual, internal bleeding.”

When Eric’s parents decide to donate Duane’s organs against Eric’s will, Eric makes it his mission to seek out those who received the organs in order to find closure through the pieces of his brother. The story follows the lives of those who received the organs, and who may or may not be living lives that would have made Duane proud. Lynch masterfully constructs the characters in this story eliciting the importance of making a human connection in a world that does not always give teenagers easy choices, and most certainly does not always make sense. 

Reviewed by Joanne Simpson, Kennesaw State University

Maximilian and the Mystery of the Guardian Angel: A Lucha Libre Thriller
byXavier Garza
Cinco Puntos, 2011, 160 pp., $12.95
Sports/Bilingual/Family Dynamics/Coming of Age/reluctant male readers
ISBN: 978-1933693989

In the world of professional action entertainment there is no more exciting and storied battleground than Lucha Libre, the Mexican version of professional wrestling. The wrestlers, known as “luchadores” (men) and “luchadoras” (women), wear colorful masks and wrestling uniforms, and use highly acrobatic wrestling maneuvers. They also use have highly stylized interaction with the crowd and referee depicting whether they are “technicos” (good guys who fight by the rules) or “rudos” (bad guys who break the rules when they can get away with it). In Mexico, the top wrestlers are national heroes who star in movies in much the same way as superheroes in American films, righting wrongs and standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. Lucha Libre stars often have secret identities, which is part of their appeal and also a catalyst for the mysteries and legends that contribute to each wrestler’s professional identity.  Grudge matches, vendettas, and nearly fatal injuries are all part of the showmanship that fans love even if they know it’s more fiction than fact.   

Lucha Libre is very popular on Spanish cable television channels and in American cities near the Mexican border, including San Antonio, the setting for Xavier Garza’s Pura Belpré Honor Book, Maximilian and the Mystery of the Guardian Angel: A Lucha Libre Thriller.  Garza’s protagonist, Maximilian (Max), is a young man enamored of Lucha Libre and is thrilled when his uncle and father procure tickets to see El Angel de la Guarda, the Guardian Angel, the most legendary wrestler in the history of Lucha Libre, at the arena in San Antonio.  Max especially loves the Guardian Angel because he is not only a good guy in the ring, but he also saves the world from killer zombies and other plagues on a regular basis at the cinema.  When Max, his brother Little Robert, and their Uncle Lalo stage their own pretend wrestling competitions at home, they often borrow the Guardian Angel’s persona, which fits Lalo especially well since he has an almost uncanny physical resemblance to the masked hero.

When the big night arrives, and Max, his brother, his father, and uncle wait for the show to start, a strange turn of events puts Max face to face with the Guardian Angel, and what happens next is right out of the melodrama that Lucha Libre thrives on.  Who is under that silver and blue wrestling mask, what his connection is to Max’s family, and how he will come to the family’s rescue seems right out of a Guardian Angel movie.

The Mystery of the Guardian Angel will have Lucha Libre or American professional wrestling fans smiling at the wit and accuracy with which Xavier Garza captures the nature of this staged competition, its practitioners, and the fantasy they create night after night and not just between the ropes of the wrestling ring.  The choreography of the story’s matches is as traditional and cherished as the folding chairs and illegal eye gouges the rudos pretend to use when the referee is looking the other way, and the connection among the good and bad guys behind the scenes is as heartwarming as a giant luchador stooping to help a young boy become the best man he can become.  Max is in early adolescence, making this book most appropriate for younger teens, but older readers will recognize some issues of family dynamics and parenting that are ageless. Alternating pages have the text in both English and Spanish, a powerful format considering that research shows that students who continue to read in their first language progress faster in their additional languages than if they are restricted to, for example, English only. Mr. Garza, we want the next installment of the “Lucha Libre Thriller” series!!  

Reviewed by James Blasingame, Arizona State University