ALAN Picks March 2016

ALAN Picks March 2016

This month’s issue contains lots of great reviews! As a bonus, Bryan Gillis interviews Jay Asher, author of Thirteen Reasons Why, and reviews his upcoming book, What Light.

Holding Smoke by Elle Cosimano
Disney-Hyperion, 2016, 336pp., $17.99
Contemporary/Romance/Social & Family Issues
ISBN: 978-1-48472-5979

John “Smoke” Conlan is not living the life he thought he’d lead, serving time for two murders in a rehabilitation center for serious juvenile offenders in Denver, Colorado, but nothing is ever what it seems.

The near-death experience that led to his extended-stay at the Y allows John to shed his physical form and extend his reach beyond the concrete walls of his present physical confinement to gather information on and about fellow inmates and their families. These experiences teach him that life is fragile and precious as he quickly learns when he meets hardened-by-life former classmate, Pink. Intrigued by his story, Pink wants to prove Smoke’s innocence, yet the intangibility of his situation gets in the way.

Forced to choose between doing what is right and what is easy, John “Smoke” Conlan’s final choice will have readers racing to reach the thrilling conclusion of Elle Cosimano’s new young adult novel, Holding Smoke.

Reviewed by Kelly D. Vorhis, Nappanee, Indiana

The Haters by Jesse Andrews
Amulet Books, 2016, 325 pp., $18.95
ISBN: 978-1-4197-2078-9

Sixteen year-olds Wes and Corey have been friends since middle school. Their love of music, specifically jazz, has created a lifelong bond between the two. But the summer before their junior year in high school, a girl named Ash would test the strength of that friendship. While participating in Bill Garabedian’s Jazz Giants of Tomorrow Intensive Summer Workshop, Ash convinces the boys to form a three-member band and tour the country. In the middle of the night, they secretly gather up their instruments and hit the road. As they travel across the southern U.S. in search of venues to play, Wes takes us on the adventure with them. Through his perspective, we not only meet people they encounter along the way, but we learn how each happenstance leaves them learning something knew about themselves and each other. From Tennessee to Louisiana, “The Haters Summer Tour of Hate 2016” would prove to be more of a self-exploration tour than a musical one. For in the end, Wes, Corey and Ash discover that even though they all come from different walks of life, they have more than just music in common.

Andrews has penned a compelling story of adolescent self-discovery and adventure. The Haters is much more than just a band name. It is a story of friendship, first love, family, tolerance, and acceptance. It is a journey that every teenager can relate to.

Reviewed by Paula Greathouse, Cookeville, Tennessee 

Everland by Wendy Spinale
Scholastic Press, May 2016, 320 pp., $17.99
Action & Adventure/ Fairytale & Folklore Adaptation/Steampunk
ISBN: 978-0-545-83694-4

Sixteen-year-old Gwen Darling’s beloved London has been ravaged by war, and what remains is Everland. Almost all of the adults are gone. Adolescents scavenge the remnants of the once great city, desperately searching for sustenance and hoping to find a cure for a disease, one that is especially lethal for the young adult women. Only Gwen appears to be completely immune from its symptoms, and she is hunted because of this. In her parents’ absence, Gwen is provider and protector for her younger siblings, Joanna and Mikey. However, her trips to supply her family are constantly threatened by the city’s invaders; Marauders under the leadership of a malevolent adolescent, Hans Otto Oswald Kretschmer, dubbed “Hook” by his minions. On one such excursion, she is saved by a pair of adolescents, Pete and Bella, who introduce her to the “lost boys” of the city.

Spinale’s first novel offers readers what might be described as a dystopian version of Neverland. Fans of the original J. M. Barrie play or novel will find most of key elements here, recast in intriguing ways and apropos for young adult readers. For example, Spinale employs first person point of view, alternating Gwen and Hook as narrators. The climactic scene is takes readers to new levels not explored in Disney and other versions of Barrie’s tale.

Reviewed by Rick Williams, Hubbard, Ohio

The Last Full Measure by Trent Reedy
Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic Imprint), 2016, 464 pp., $17.99
Adventure & Action/ War & Violence/Teen Bravery & Wisdom
ISBN: 978-0-545-54877-9

Imagine a civil war in the U.S. that results in fourteen separate republics. Imagine NYC and DC obliterated by nuclear bombs, China’s WWIII against her neighbors, a re-established Soviet Union invading eastern Europe, Israel against Iran, and imagine too, the chaos and violence, the lack of communications and the rise of the vigilante, in what was once the United States of America. All of this and more is the background for Reedy’s continuing story of sensitive teenager Danny Wright, who has moved in three books from well-intentioned but naive soldier toward maturity and responsibility through lessons of love and loss.

The Last Full Measure is the third installment of Reedy’s Divided We Fall trilogy which follows Danny as he adjusts to the new order in the Republic of Idaho, learns to stand up to the destructive Brotherhood of the White Eagle which is nothing more than a group of racist and sexist hooligans, begins with others to build a new community for the future, and sees the importance of seeking peace across borders as a fragile war-torn continent begins to implement The Pan American Peace Treaty.

This is a well-plotted, action-packed (and often graphically violent) story of survival told in the first person which celebrates teen friendship, loyalty, sacrifice, and wisdom. The story also raises issues that should interest today’s teenagers, who could soon be living in the world Reedy imagines. Issues in the story will prompt good debates in civics and government classes about ideology, law and order, propaganda, militarism, racism, centralized government, political leadership, heroism, and the problem of discerning truth amid a variety of media seeking one’s allegiance.

Reviewed by Rudy Almasy, Morgantown, West Virginia

RUN_FNLCVRRun by Kody Keplinger
Scholastic Press, 2016, 304 pp., $17.99
Social & Family Issues/Friendship/Bisexuality
ISBN: 978-0545831130

Agnes Atwood and Bo Dickenson are extreme opposites. Agnes dreams of her first kiss, her first date and staying out past her ten o’clock curfew. Living in a small town, she feels her world is confined to her home, with her parents’ overbearing rules in place to protect their legally blind daughter. Agnes is often warned to stay away from the Dickinson family as they are “trailer park trash” and only mean trouble. But Agnes is drawn to Bo after listening to her interpret Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Taken” in English class and recognizes she is much more than a girl with strawberry blond hair as wild as her reputation. Bo lives her life not caring what anyone thinks. Through circumstances that both girls encounter, the two develop a deep, genuine friendship. Then, Bo calls Agnes in the middle of the night. With sirens in the distance and two girls desperate to leave a small town, it doesn’t take much for Bo to convince Agnes to take off with her. After stealing a car, avoiding the authorities and constantly being on the run, the friendship between Agnes and Bo is tested again and again as they encounter some dark secrets.

Run is told through alternating narrations of the two main characters. Agnes’ narrative develops the story from the time when they first meet, and Bo’s story shares the girls’ flight from their small town. Keplinger weaves a brilliant story about two girls with an unbreakable bond willing to take risks to save their friendship and themselves.

Reviewed by Cynthia Dawn Martelli, Naples, Florida

Desert Dark by Sonja Stone
Holiday House, 328 pp., $17.95
Thriller/Suspense/Espionage/Secret School/Teen Romance
ISBN 978-0-8234-3562-3

Nadia Riley has been betrayed by her boyfriend and her best friend, so when the opportunity to leave town and high school suddenly presents itself, she is ready to leap. Because of her skills with cryptography, she has been selected to fill an unexpected vacancy at a prestigious government funded top-secret CIA feeder school in the Arizona desert. A quick decision is made and Nadia is whisked off to her new life, learning survival skills, government policy, and espionage techniques. She takes the place of a deceased student, Drew, in a team of four. Libby, is Nadia’s southern belle roommate, Damon practices learning the details of every space in which he finds himself, and Alan is an unfriendly sort who brags constantly of his superior intellectual skills. Senior Jack serves as team leader.

It soon becomes known that there is a double, a traitor, somewhere in the school and the suspense grows. Each member of the team has a secret which may or may not indicate that the traitor is one of them. Mysterious events lead to the realization that Nadia is being set up as the double. Is her budding romance with handsome Jack clouding Nadia’s judgment? Trust becomes a commodity in very short supply at Desert Mountain Academy. The tension builds to an explosive climax where the traitor, and much more are finally exposed.

Stone creates a mood of mystery from the first few pages, which depict a tense scene three months in the future, one that will be revisited near the end of the book. Readers will turn back to this scene for clues as the mystery develops. Readers get a hint as to what really happened to the dead student before we step into the beginning of Nadia’s story and her arrival at the camp. Short chapters follow each of the five main characters, offering varying angles on what is unfolding without disturbing the narrative flow or the depth in character development. The writing is clear and brisk and chapters often end with a tantalizing moment that compels the reader to dive right on to the next page. Sonja Stone uses her experience at a survival school and her knowledge of jujitsu to add credible details to her story. A solid mystery with references to today’s headlines, lots of suspense, realistic dialogue, and a dash of romance, this book will take readers on a page-turning ride.

Reviewed by Bonnie Withers, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis
Amulet Books, New York, 2016, 456 pp., $17.95
Dystopian/Apocalypse/Autism/Transgender/Single Parent Families/Social Structures
ISBN: 978-1-4197-19035

The world will never be the same, and what sixteen-year-old Denise, a teen living with autism wonders where she and her drug-addicted mother and transgender sister will fit in it. In 2034, the world’s governments have been preparing for a comet that is about to hit Earth. A lucky few landed on generation ships that have left the planet for outer space in an effort to save the human race, but there are thousands left behind. Assigned to a temporary shelter, Denise, her mother, and her sister are sure to die in post-apocalyptic Amsterdam. However, their fate changes when they help out a couple struggling to get to their shelter, only to discover that shelter is a generation ship that has not yet left the planet. Denise begins her campaign to ensure that she and her family can stay on board by proving her worth to the captain and his crew.

Duyvis has created a frightfully believable futuristic setting. She withholds nothing to spare readers from her visions of the state of human kind if there were ever to be an environmental disaster such as this in the future. Denise is a strong protagonist, who perseveres in the harshest of situations, even while living with a disability. On the Edge of Gone is a thought-provoking novel that forces readers to question how societies place value on a single human life over another.

Reviewed by Lisa Allocca, Colchester, Connecticut

Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate
Harry N. Abrams, 2016, 352 pp., $17.95
Social & Family Issues/Performing Arts/LGBT
ISBN: 978-1419719448

Seven students at conservative Paloma High School in Kansas narrate their alternating, yet entangled stories of navigating life in the first semester of their junior year. As each reveals past history, whether it is a family conflict, an unresolved breakup, or a challenging friendship, each story also becomes a window into one of the deadly sins. These sins become both the way characters strive to conceal their failings and the keys to their redemption.

The seven narratives unfold under the pressure of a disquieting, open investigation by administrators, who seek the identities of a teacher and student rumored to be romantically involved. As the investigation continues, the students’ lives become more interdependent and they learn that growth comes from a willingness to dig deeply and reach out. Rather than sinners hiding from their flaws, they make the courageous moves to accept themselves and others and in return, gain hope for the future.   

Written by a young author still in college, this first novel carries a ring of authenticity and urgency that will engage readers and sustain them through the intertwining narratives. Rather than sensationalize the teacher-student romance, the author handles this and issues dealing with sexual identity sensitively and ethically. Readers are likely to be moved by the theme of self-empowerment through honest relationships and brave conversations.

Reviewed by Mary Adler, Camarillo, California

Drag Teen by Jeffery Self
Push, 2016, 261 pp., $17.99
Humor/Gender Identity/Parent Issues/Friendship/Self-Esteem
ISBN: 978-0-545-82993-9

JT is determined that he will get out of his boring hometown of Clearwater, Florida. He cannot envision his future working at the family gas station. When he has a chance to compete in the Miss Drag Teen contest for a scholarship, he becomes a contestant. He is hoping to win so that he will have the opportunity to leave Clearwater and his seemingly unconcerned parents. He and his two friends convince their parents that they are headed to Daytona for spring break, but instead embark on an adventure to NYC. They experience disappointment, sadness, self-discovery, and new friendships. JT learns that all of his experiences help to define who he is and build his self-esteem. He becomes a markedly different person in thought and confidence from the person he was when he and his friends commenced their journey.

Reviewed by J. Morgan, Indianapolis, Indiana

One Hundred Hours of Night by Anna Woltz
Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books, 2016, 242 pp., $17.99
ISBN: 978-0-545-84828-2 Hardcover

Emilia December De Wit has run away from her family in the Netherlands, and the scandal that involves her father, to New York City. She rents a studio apartment in lower Manhattan only to learn that the studio is a scam. She meets Seth, the boy who lives in the apartment and his eleven-year-old sister, Abby. While considering her next move in a strange city, she helps Jim, a young man with a wounded hand as he falls in a drunken faint and, when he regains consciousness, takes him to his room. Emilia seeks the help of Seth and Abby to take care of Jim at the same time New York City is bracing for Hurricane Sandy. Together they create a warm, clean hurricane haven in Seth and Abby’s apartment, until the power and water go out.

Woltz, who was living in New York City in 2012, chronicles the lives of these four people in lower Manhattan, hit hard by the hurricane, as they discover resourcefulness, insight, and friendship they did not expect, as they cope with the personal challenges in their lives. Emilia discovers how she can create a nurturing place for herself and her friends, and comes to care for them, in the face of circumstances and events she can’t control. Readers will come to cheer for these characters as they face their individual pasts and deal with their shared present.

Reviewed by Sandip LeeAnne Wilson, Bangor, Maine

Firstlife by Gena Showalter
Harlequin Teen, 2016, 680 pp., $18.99
ISBN: 987-0-373-21157-9

Firstlife, Book One in the Everlife series, features seventeen-year-old Tenley Lockwood, who is incarcerated in the Prynne Asylum because she has defied her parents by refusing to commit to their realm. The Unending World Order is divided between Troika, where rules and regulations matter, and Myriad, where autonomy flourishes. Tenley is an Unsigned and highly valuable property, so both realms battle for her loyalty. When Ten was born, she released so much light that both realms seek her covenant for she is destined for leadership and greatness.

Each realm sends Laborers, often in the form of handsome, charming young men, to woo Tenley into the appropriate group. Romances with each, accompanied by flirting and misunderstandings, result. Violence, blood, death, and non-stop action pepper the pages. Will she escape her destiny as determined by her parents, or will death in the Firstlife move her to the Everlife where she will return to Earth to Fuse with another brand-new spirit in Book Two, Lifeblood?

Showalter writes romances that are often combined with fantasy, supernatural, and dystopian overtones. Tenley is powerful to the point of foolhardiness as her heart consistently over-rules her actions. Firstlife is an edgy choice for fans of the genre.

Reviewed by Judith A. Hayn, Little Rock, Arkansas

The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters
Amulet Books, New York, 2016, 335 pp.  $17.95
Prejudices/Murder-Fiction/Ghosts/Racially Mixed People/Oregon-History-20th Century
ISBN: 978-1-4197-1915-8

Living in predominantly white and rural Elston, Oregon, in the 1920s, biracial teen Hanalee experiences benign tolerance in her community until her African-American father dies in a car accident and her white mother suddenly remarries a white doctor. When her father’s teenaged killer, Joe, is released early from prison, he warns Hanalee about that her stepfather might have killed her father, possibly in collusion with the Ku Klux Klan. A gay man ostracized by family and community, Joe gains Hannalee’s trust, and they become partners dedicated to finding out the truth about her father’s demise. Meanwhile, Hannah takes a powerful elixir to speak to her father’s ghost, and what she learns changes her life forever.

This compelling story offers an index to the anxieties and injustices of an historical era marked by the eugenics movement, its campaign to create a superior white race, as well as by the Ku Klux Klan and its violence against those deemed different. Readers will find Hanalee a delightful gun-slinging protagonist, wily yet naïve, compelled to speak truth to power despite the consequences.

Reviewed by Mary Beth Hines, Bloomington, Indiana

What Light by Jay Asher
Penguin, October 2016, 272 pp., $18.99
Young Adult Romance/Christmas/YA Fiction
ISBN: 978-1-59514-551-2

I do not typically gravitate toward romance novels, but when I heard that Jay Asher had written a new book, and that it was a YA romance, I gravitated. What I was reminded of after reading this wonderful novel is that when an author creates believable, engaging characters and a unique story, the result is a great read. In other words, good writing is good writing, no matter the genre.

Sierra leads two separate lives. She lives in Oregon with her parents on their Christmas tree farm from January through most of November. Then, every year at Thanksgiving, they pack up and head to California, three hours south of San Francisco, to set up their Christmas tree lot for the season. Although Sierra misses her Oregon friends during the month of December, she truly loves spending the Christmas season selling trees and reconnecting with the friends she has made in California through the years. She can’t imagine a better place to be at Christmas time then living in her family’s trailer, surrounded by the smell of pine trees, hot chocolate, and peppermint sticks.

The tree lot workers are mostly guys from the local high school baseball team, and it’s not that Sierra doesn’t find some of them cute, she just knows better than to jump into something that won’t last more than a few weeks before having to turn into a long distance relationship. This doesn’t stop Heather, her best friend in California, from continually trying to set Sierra up on dates, and it doesn’t stop one the boys who works at the lot from asking her out. Sierra resists, being the sensible, grounded girl that she is, until she meets Caleb.

Caleb has a reputation. He made a mistake years ago, and it seems that no one who is familiar with the situation has forgotten, much less forgiven him. Will Sierra see beyond his past transgression? While everyone around her discourages her involvement with him, Sierra sees something much different in Caleb.

Asher has written a romance novel that teens and adults–both male and female–will enjoy. I couldn’t put the book down, sometimes because I wanted to know what happened next, but more often because I didn’t want to leave the world that Asher had created. This is a beautiful story of forgiveness and redemption, as told through the eyes of a girl that any parent would be proud to have as a daughter.

Reviewed by Bryan Gillis, Marietta, Georgia

Interview with Jay Asher

(Bryan and Jay communicated by e-mail on March 23-27, 2016)

Bryan: Your new book, What Light, focuses on a very unique set of circumstances, a family that spends each December living on a Christmas tree lot in California, selling the trees that they grow on their tree farm in Oregon. Where did the idea for this story come from and how long have you been developing it?

Jay: I read an article in a local newspaper about a family who did just that, but the part that really caught my attention concerned their children. In elementary school, for a few weeks each winter, they transferred to a nearby elementary school. In high school, they had to keep up with their classwork online, but they also maintained the friendships they had developed. So they had two sets of friends, and a festive timeline to those friendships. There was a story there! And it only took me a decade to find it. What began as a fun look at a unique experience became a love story, but it wasn’t until forgiveness became a central part of their story that everything came together.

Bryan: Sierra is such a wonderful and engaging character. How were you able to create such a likeable and believable female protagonist?

Jay: Thank you! I like her, too. Each of my books have had female characters as either leads or co-leads. Maybe it’s because, throughout my life, there have been times when males were my closest friends and times when females were. Sierra’s character is simply the type of person I’d most like to hang out with. And I’ve never felt uncomfortable writing from either a male or female perspective. I do know writers, male and female, who say they get nervous when writing the opposite sex, thinking they might get it wrong. And I’ve seen a strong correlation as to whether or not they had relatives of the opposite sex they were close to–and felt safe around–throughout their childhood. I absolutely had that, and I’m very thankful for it.

Bryan: You mention forgiveness as the central part of the story. Why was the idea of forgiveness so important for you?

Jay: There are elements to forgiveness that can be difficult for a lot of people. I know it’s been difficult for me. Even when we deserve it or need it, it can be hard to accept forgiveness. And when we say we forgive someone, it can be hard to fully mean it. But I absolutely feel–along with empathy–that it’s one of the most beautiful words to wrestle with and understand. I’ve spoken all around the country in support of Thirteen Reasons Why, and everywhere I go I find myself in these heartbreaking conversations with teens. Whether they had been hurt, were currently hurting, or did the hurting, forgiveness was a concept that was always there, but difficult to address. The beauty behind reactions to that book came from empathy. So when I figured out the backstory for Caleb’s character in What Light, forgiveness became the idea I wanted to hang everything on. I could explore forgiving others, forgiving ourselves, as well as accepting that some people just will not forgive. It was also a natural way to make his love story with Sierra deeper, and it fit well with the seasonal setting.

Bryan: Speaking of Thirteen Reasons Why, can you share with us the latest in regards to the series that is being developed as well as any future projects that you have in mind?

Jay: On the strictly factual side, Netflix ordered thirteen one-hour episodes of Thirteen Reasons Why. Each “reason” gets a full hour, and the series is being written now. The lead writer, Brian Yorkey, won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and Tom McCarthy recently came aboard to direct the opening two episodes. His most recent directing job, Spotlight, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Now, from a more emotional side, I’m kind of freaking out! Spotlight was my favorite movie last year. And everyone, from the writers and producers to everyone I’ve met at Netflix and Paramount TV, understand this book at such a deep level. Several of the writers and one of the producers recently came to hear me speak at a library. When I introduced them, they were mobbed by some of my readers. It was great! It was so nice to see how much fun everyone had chatting with each other and talking about the book. As far as my next book, unlike my previous books, readers won’t have to wait several years. What Light comes out this October, and the next book is scheduled for later in 2017. In many ways it is very different than anything I’ve done before, but I can still see certain themes that connect all of my books.