ALAN Picks March 2014
(scroll to the end of the reviews for an exclusive interview with Laurie Halse Anderson)
Tommy Stands Tall, by Gloria L. Velásquez
Piñata Books, 2013, 118 pp., $9.95
This novel continues the story of Tomás (Tommy) Montoya’s struggles with coming out as gay, a story Velásquez began in Tommy Stands Alone (1995). Tommy Stands Tall (the ninth title in the author’s Roosevelt High School series) presents a more confident Tommy, now a senior, who reaches out to another student, Albert, the victim of a gay bashing assault. Tommy’s feelings of frustration in trying to help Albert, who doesn’t seem to want his help, lead him to join with other students and a faculty member to form a Gay Straight Alliance Club at Roosevelt High School. They hope to foster tolerance and awareness as well as push for revision of the school district code on discrimination to include sexual orientation. Tommy learns who his true friends are, is accepted to San Francisco State University, and begins to contemplate a future career choice as he gets ready to say goodbye to the friends who have stood by him throughout the troubles he faced during his high school years.
While uplifting and optimistic in tone, Velásquez does not provide pat, unrealistic solutions or resolutions to the issues the book raises. For instance, the community forum that the newly-formed Gay Straight Alliance Club organizes does not suddenly end in all sides coming together in one happy celebration where differences are put aside. However, the novel includes relatable, likable characters and provides important information and realistic steps that readers can follow in order to work toward a climate of tolerance and acceptance.
Reviewed by Diana Dominguez, Brownsville, Texas
Are You Experienced? by Jordan Sonnenblick
Feiwel and Friends, 2013, 294 pp.
Historical Fiction/Music/Family Dynamics
Rich is a fifteen-year-old who likes to play guitar. He has studied all the great rock guitarists, and Jimi Hendrix is his idol. One thing that has eluded Rich is a close relationship with his father. They rarely talk and when they do, the conversation is kept to a minimum. One day Rich plays a secret power chord and his whole life changes. He is transported back in time to Woodstock where he attends the festival with his Dad and an uncle whom he never met. Rich hopes to meet Jimi Hendrix, but in the process, he may learn a few things about his Dad, his uncle, and himself. Follow Rich as he embarks on this journey of discovery with the Woodstock Festival as the backdrop.
Jordan Sonnenblick has created a wonderful book for anyone interested in music from the Woodstock era. He uses accurate details from the Woodstock documentary to tell his story. Everyone can relate to the journey of self-discovery experienced by a fifteen year old.
Reviewed by Michael Dean, La Grange, Kentucky
Followers, by A. Davies
Scholastic, Inc., 2014, 216 pp., $9.99
Social Media/Outsiders/Shakespearean Drama/Horror
When private boarding school and small town public school drama students compete for starring roles in an unprecedented update of Hamlet (complete with synchronous twitter feeds from known and other-worldly sources), outsider and Ophelia-wannabe, Briana, finds she has developed a following that no one would ever want. Isolated in a deep Maine woods winter, residents of the tiny town of Forsyth collide as fear and accusations link an unsolved murder from decades past to current town versus gown jealousies. Snarkie tweets from Hamlet’s Ghost fill Briana’s screen and shift her focus from her tense relationship with her hopeful stage mother to the safety of her talented yet helpless peers. Each post foreshadows the horrific demise of key players in this on and off-stage tragedy of errors. If Briana is to find her dramatic voice, she must move through the shadows and act – not for an audience but for her life, and without a script.
Fans of edgy plots, on-point dialogue, clever Shakespearean allusions, and unpredictable hair-pin turns will be glad they joined the audience for a winter’s tale that will prompt curtain calls and leave Anna Davies’s followers begging for more. Followers is the latest offering in Scholastic’s Point Horror series, begun by R. L. Stine in 1986.
Reviewed by Karen Dunnagan, Louisville, Kentucky
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, by Ambelin Kwaymullina
Candlewick Press, April 2014, 384 pp., $17.99
Emerging from an ocean of human self-‐destruction, the Balance detains Boomers, Firestarters, Sleepwalkers, and all other children with abilities deemed unnatural. Unless, of course, these children die during assessment, or, like Ashala, the leader of the Tribe, they escape. Having been betrayed by her would-‐be love and now top-‐ level guardian, Ashala Wolf, has been recaptured. At the risk of scrambling her brain forever, Chief Administrator Neville Rose probes and extracts Ashala’s memories illegally to use against the Tribe and the Serpent whose threat is suspected but not yet understood. However, memories prove to be fluid, layered and altering in this story that bounces intriguingly from present to past to present and leaves us with hope for Ashala’s and the Tribe’s future. Maneuvering between the established society called the Balance, grasslands fraught with flesh-‐ eating “saurs,” and Firstwood forests, Ashala’s friends help her carry out an ingenious rescue plan using the very best of their talents and fears, while crushing the nefarious and corrupt Neville Rose Kwaymullina creates an original setting flavored with her native Australia, but what makes this story unique is the unexpected treatment of memory in a brilliant manipulation of post-‐apocalyptic fiction. The supernatural abilities the characters possess are both familiar and new as myth melds with religious symbolism in subtle yet essential ways. The result is twist after twist of surprises in a fast-paced challenge of wits.
Reviewed by Jennifer Desloges, Plymouth, New Hampshire
Fallout, by Todd Strasser
Candlewick Press, 2013, 258 pp., $16.99
Cuban Missile Crisis/Families/Bomb Shelters
When Scott finds himself the only boy among his friends whose family is building a bomb shelter, readers are thrown into the family’s nightmare as Scott’s father makes the decision to prepare an underground shelter in preparation for the USA’s coming war with Cuba. Scott develops a nervous habit of pulling out the hair from behind his ears as his parents fight about the need to have a shelter built and the tensions that they must negotiate as their neighbors start asking questions about the shelter. But when Scott, his brother Spike, and their parents are forced to climb into the bunker, Scott’s father has to fight off the neighbors who beg him to let them in to the shelter before the bomb drops. The six adults and four children who remain in the bomb shelter for two weeks, find out what it means to live in close quarters with strangers, very little food, a negligible amount of water, and the potential of sudden and life-threatening violence.
Strasser has written a very personal story based on his family’s experience during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fallout is an intense analysis of the behavior that erupts when people live in close quarters under the oppressive conditions created by fear, bad health, and unsanitary conditions. The emotional tension will keep readers biting their nails throughout. Scott is a sensitive and believable pre-adolescent who comes into his own by the end of the novel.
Reviewed by Joanne Kilgour Dowdy, Kent, Ohio
The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant, by Joanna Wiebe
BenBella Books, 2014, 318 pp., $16.95
High school junior Anne Merchant has just transferred to the prestigious private boarding school Cania Christy, a school so exclusive that the wealthy and the powerful will pay any price to give their children this opportunity. What parents would not want their child to have the best possible future? The student chosen valedictorian of Cania Christy is guaranteed a life of unlimited possibilities. But Anne was not born into a life of privilege. She has no idea what sacrifice her father had to make to get her accepted. The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant is a supernatural mystery with quite a few twists and turns. Readers will not encounter vampires, witches, or zombies, and the high school characters seem fairly stock at first glance- the stern head master, the clique of beautiful mean girls, the gorgeous, yet unattainable boy, and the lecherous teacher. These characters, however, are anything but typical. They all have secrets and Anne will have to focus on more than her studies if she is to uncover the reasons behind everyone’s overwhelming desire to be valedictorian.
Despite a trite scene or two (at the school dance, a mean girl challenges Anne to a dance-off), The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant is a rewarding read, full of surprises right up to the very last page. This first book in the V Trilogy is sure to have readers anxiously awaiting the second installment.
Reviewed by Nancy Gillis, Marietta, Georgia
Hollow City, by Ransom Riggs
Quirk Books, 2014, 396 pp., $17.99
Picking up where the book Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children left off, Jacob and his new found friends are on the run from wights and hollogasts, racing against time not only to find shelter but also to return their beloved Miss Peregrine to her human form. Traveling from “loop” to “loop,” and traipsing across the war-torn cities of Europe on their way to London, the children come face to face with new peculiars and learn that hiding from the world is no longer a viable option. With new obstacles around every corner and a budding romance with Emma to figure out, getting Miss Peregrine and her peculiar children to safety is proving to be much more of a challenge than Jacob could have imagined.
Hollow City is a thrilling combination of fantasy and horror, with a touch of romance thrown in, and the occasional thoughtfully placed, vintage photograph to help bring to life the multitude of characters living between the pages. Readers will quickly find themselves rooting for Jacob Portman as he outwits, outmaneuvers, and outsmarts each enemy with the help of his friends and his own newly discovered peculiarity. Riggs has created a truly one-of-a-kind story of survival and coming of age, and filled it with nonstop adventure that will keep the reader enthralled from beginning to end.
Reviewed by Lindsey Bosak, Tempe, Arizona
Bruised, by Sarah Skilton
Amulet Books, New York, 2013, 274 pp., $16.95
Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome/Realistic Fiction/Family Problems/Love Story
Imogen is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, but when a gunman holds up the local diner, her reaction is not in keeping with her expectations of herself as a fighter and as a master of marital arts. She holds herself responsible for the death of the gunman and suffers Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. But PTSD is not the only factor for her depression and anger. As we get to know her family, we find there are other issues that contribute to her sense of frustration, fear and floundering. As she works through her issues with a counselor, her brother, her family and her few remaining friends, Imogen comes to learn a great deal about herself and her reactions to others as she struggles to visualize a future for herself, one in which she is back in control.
Sarah Skilton has created a tough protagonist who is dealing with a number of serious issues, many one of which plague teens today. The book is fast-paced and easy to read. Many teen readers may identify and feel triumph with Imogen as she finds first love and a sense of self.
Reviewed by Wendy Edelman, Mechanicsville, Virginia
Five, Six, Seven, Nate, by Tim Federle
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014, 304 pp., $13.03
Author and Broadway veteran Tim Federle first introduced readers to Nate Foster in his debut young adult novel, Better Nate than Ever, a story that chronicled the escapades of an undersized thirteen-year-old boy with oversized dreams of making it on Broadway. A hilarious and heartwarming tale, readers were left craving more of Nate’s quick humor and spectacular adventures. Federle is back with the sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate, and his protagonist is as funny as ever and on the fast-track to making his dreams come true. Sure, Nate is only an ensemble member who doubles as E.T’s understudy’s understudy, but he is featured in a real-life Broadway show and determined to make the best of it. Unfortunately, Nate soon realizes that Broadway is harder work than what his best friend, Libby, made it out to be, and New York isn’t, perhaps, the best confidence booster for a 13-year-old with pimple problems who forgets to wear deodorant. Nothing, it seems, is going as Nate planned. When he is given the chance to stand-out from the other children and impress the producers with his soaring soprano, his voice cracks on the high note. When he is slated to perform in a television broadcast, he is told that he is being replaced by a more experienced Broadway player. Even worse, he is constantly overshadowed by Jordan Ryland, the show’s uppity child star. However, when a key player falls ill, putting the whole show in jeopardy, Nate learns a few things that he didn’t initially set out to discover on a Broadway stage.
Federle invites readers into the world of Broadway. Woven into the story are snippets of New York life that could only be written from experience. From Nate’s obsession with using Broadway flops as swear words to his cravings for a hot dog from the vendors on the street, the city of New York and the life of a Broadway actor become positively alive in Federle’s writing. Paired with laugh-out-loud moments and honestly written, age appropriate characters, Five, Six, Seven, Nate is an enjoyable read from front cover to back. Most importantly, though, Federle’s story explores the valuable themes of acceptance, friendship, learning new things, and, of course, following ones dreams; it is surprisingly poignant while also managing to be wicked(ly) fun. Definitely a must read for any dreamer, doer, or lover of adventure, Five, Six, Seven, Nate is written for young readers but sure to make a reader of any age give a big standing ovation for both Tim Federle and Nate Foster.
Reviewed by Haley Marshall, Tempe, Arizona
Interview with Laurie Halse Anderson
(Bryan Gillis, Kennesaw State University, spoke with Laurie by email)
Bryan: I’m not going to ask, what was your inspiration, but, What can you tell us about your new book, The Impossible Knife of Memory?
Laurie: “What was your inspiration for this book?” is always the worst question. There is the easy answer, of course: my experiences as a confused, frightened teen when my father’s PTSD blew up our family. But that’s just a part of it. This book is fragments of memory and road signs from today and the smell of whiskey and sweaty palms and hope. The process of thinking about the book flipped back and forth between Now and Then. My father became a college chaplain when I was in first grade and we moved to a house a block away from the campus, where we had front-row seats to the anti-war movement. Watching the TV news show countless body bags being loaded into helicopters in the jungles of Vietnam, I thought that there would never be another war, not after we had all seen the cost. A few years ago I met a local veteran who had just caused an auto accident with his road rage. No one was hurt, thank goodness, but he broke down in sobs and talked for hours about how many of the soldiers under his command had died. When he narrowly missed plowing head-on into the other car, he saw their faces. The inspiration for this book was every teen I’ve met for the last fifteen years, every kid who tried to blink away the tears as he told me his dad was a drunk, or every hug from a girl who could only speak up in a whisper. The obituaries in my local paper next to the stream of photos of new boot camp graduates. The shy smiles of people who are falling in love. The snap of the American flag in the wind. The ease with which the elderly veterans can cry. How hard young veterans fight against the tears. I wanted this to be more than a war story, though. I wanted the book to make people laugh, because laughter is one of the best weapons we have against darkness, depression, and fear. Love is the other one. It struck me a few years ago that I hadn’t written a love story and that I wanted to. It seemed like the perfect way to balance the sadness in The Impossible Knife of Memory and I really enjoyed it. While I don’t know how or when, I can guarantee there will be more romance flowing from my pen! The challenge for me is not to find inspiration, but to find the time to focus on a few threads of inspiration long enough to weave them into a story that might connect with readers. If there is any downside to the success my books have enjoyed, it’s that I have to spend a big hunk of every year traveling and doing publicity-related things. It’s always fun meeting readers, but my favorite days are the quiet one spent scribbling in my cottage in the woods.
Bryan: On a lighter note, you seem to be fascinated with school mascots. Many of your stories, including your newest, contain some pretty silly references to them. What’s the story there?
Laurie: I’ve always been fascinated by mascots. A few weeks ago I visited the American Community School in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. They were originally known as the Falcons, but many American schools in the Middle East use that mascot. Now they are the Sand Vipers. Hsssssssss…….. What interests me is the notion of identity; how school communities shape it, and how students choose (or fight) the identity that school tries to give them. The current debate about using Native American names, images, and words like “Redskins” as school mascots gives us important insight into a) how many non-Native Americans view the cultures of Native Americans, and b) how racist and insensitive people can be when their cherished traditions (i.e. football teams) are challenged. Also, I am a very immature person and have always snickered whenever a team is called Trojans. For the record, my high school mascot was Hornets. My colleges were the Lazers (Onondaga Community College), and the Hoyas (Georgetown University), which are all ridiculous, and therefore, worthy, mascots.
Bryan: Finally, what are you working on now?
Laurie: I’m working on ASHES and on the text for the graphic novel version of SPEAK!!