ALAN Picks May 2017
A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
Amulet Books, 2017, 496 pp., $19.95
In the underground city of Caverna, master craftsmen create wondrous luxuries for the rich elite, such as cheeses that show the eater visions of the stars and wines that erase memories. With no memories of her family or where she is from, Neverfell has been raised secluded from the rest of Caverna, believing it is because she has a face too ugly and horrible for others to see. In truth, her face is unlike any other in all of Caverna- It is a face like glass, able to display a myriad of unrehearsed expressions. In a city built on every kind of lie possible, a person with a face unable to lie makes Neverfell a new and unexpected type of danger that could upset the delicate balance of the Court. All too soon, she crosses paths with dangerous people who find her unique talent to be useful in their schemas and leads her to become a pawn in a dangerous power struggle.
The majority of the story follows the slow-building character growth of Neverfell, who for the most part is little more than a pawn in a game she can never hope to understand. This is a whimsical young adult fantasy that at times borders on more of a dark fantasy tale. The prose is beautifully written bordering on poetic and harkens the reader back to Lewis Carrol and Alice and Wonderland.
Reviewed by Symantha Reagor, Seattle, Washington
More of Me by Kathryn Evans
Amulet Books, 2017, 320pp, $17.95
Mystery/Cloning/Family and Peer Relationships/Emotions and Feelings
On the outside, sixteen-year old Teva Webb appears to be a normal teen girl with her whole life ahead of her. She dreams of going to college and a future in fashion design. She has a loyal best friend, Mads, and devoted boyfriend, Ollie, but Teva never invites them into her home. She has never shared her deepest, darkest secret. Due to a genetic abnormality, Teva must clone herself every year. The previous versions of Teva hide away at home, while each year a new Teva clone assumes the role of the previous year’s clone.
Sixteen-year-old Teva knows that seventeen-year old Teva is growing inside her. She has just six months to find a cure before the new clone rips free, and Teva Sixteen is left to spend the rest of her life hiding from the outside world. She is accustomed to fighting with herself and her former selves, but does she have what it takes to win the ultimate fight for her life?
In her debut work, Evans has crafted a fresh and intelligent work. Readers will sympathize with all of the Tevas, but especially the sixteen-year old main character. Evans captures perfectly the physical and emotional pains of growing up. Beneath the urgency of finding a way to hold onto her life, Teva struggles with issues familiar to all teens: her relationship with her mother, her desire to be independent, her struggle to fit in, and growing apart from her first love.
Reviewed by Nancy Gillis, Kennesaw, Georgia
Max by Sarah Cohen-Scali
Roaring Book Press, 2012, Translation copyright 2017, 421 pp., $21.99
Nazi Germany/Genetic Engineering/World War II/Historical Fiction
Konrad von Kebnersol begins life as the perfect Aryan specimen, genetically engineered, born on April 20th, the Fuhrer’s birthday, to an unwilling mother who lovingly calls him Max. Max’s mother is soon relocated and Max begins his journey toward becoming the perfect example of German youth. The novel follows Max through his participation in the kidnapping of Polish children for the purposes of Germanization (or purification), his brutal education at the hands of Germany’s military elite, and his struggles to fight against a childish need for connection and love through Lukas, who is secretly Jewish and attempts to poison Max against his beloved Germany. World war descends on Max and he is suddenly forced to decide where his loyalties lie.
Max is a paradox. The childlike voice of the narrator is a contradiction to the violent and hateful experiences he is forced to live through. Sarah Cohen-Scali lulls her readers into quiet disgust with her simplistic descriptions of the Nazi ideology and way of life told from the perspective of an infant, toddler, and then young boy, and then shocks them into awful awareness with horrifying acts of violence. Max’s ready acceptance of and even eagerness for the Nazi philosophy will leave readers wondering at the atrocities suffered by German children during Hitler’s reign. Max is a unique look into a seldom explored facet of Hitler’s Germany.
Reviewed by Sarah Valingo, Berlin Center, Ohio
The Last Thing You Said by Sara Biren
Amulet Books, 2017, 309 pp., $10.62
Grief/Friendship/Guilt/Brothers and Sisters/Romance/Realistic Fiction
You would never know that Ben and Lucy were headed for romance last summer if you saw them now. It was love at first sight when they first met as kids. Just moments away from finally admitting their attraction to each other, Ben and Lucy are torn apart by the untimely death of Trixie– Lucy’s best friend and Ben’s sister. Both are crushed by the loss. Just after the funeral, Ben verbally lashes out at Lucy and creates a rift between them that seems impossible to cross. Now, Ben and Lucy can’t even look each other in the eye without one wounding the other. Rather than being honest with each other and dealing with their grief and guilt together, Ben and Lucy find countless ways to sabotage their true intentions, and living in a small resort town is making it harder and harder for them to avoid each other. The summer following Trixie’s death, the two still haven’t found a way to move on. After a year of dating other people and making new best friends, Ben and Lucy are pulled back together by the anniversary of Trixie’s death. Is their love strong enough to pull them back together?
Sara Biren’s debut novel is full of emotional twists and turns as Ben and Lucy try to heal in their own ways. Written from each character’s point of view, the reader sees the intention as well as the result of Ben and Lucy’s actions. Each time Ben and Lucy come together, the reader will find themselves asking “will they or won’t they.” Biren is successful at creating a story about grief and loss that shows multiple ways in which friends and family make sense of and move on from the loss of a loved one, without making the story too sad or complicated.
Reviewed by Bethany Lanphere, Loveland, Colorado
Seeking Mansfield by Kate Watson
Flux, Northstar Editions, 2017, 301 pp., $14.99
Seeking Mansfield is a loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic Mansfield Park. In this contemporary retelling, sixteen-year-old Finley Price dreams of becoming a director and attending the prestigious Mansfield Theater program, but she is doubtful of her own talent and is conflicted about leaving the duties she feels she owes to her godparents, the Bertrams, who are raising her after her father’s death. Finley is cautious and unassuming and prefers to stay out of the limelight, unlike the Bertram’s daughter, Juliette. Only the Bertram’s son, Oliver, notices Finley’s talents and clever personality, and he encourages Finley to pursue her passion for the theater.
Romantic tensions between Finley and Oliver escalate when famous teen heartthrobs Emma and Harlan Crawford move in across the street from the Bertrams. Love triangles abound as Juliette pursues Harlan, Emma pursues Oliver, and Harlan pursues Finley. Each character must make hard decisions about their futures while confronting their complicated pasts and balancing duty to family.
Told in alternating viewpoints between Finley and Oliver, Seeking Mansfield is a fast-paced read. Although much of the story is about the romantic tensions between the teens and Oliver and Finley’s complicated and unrequited feelings for one another, the book also features plot threads related to family issues, addiction, and loss. Interwoven details about the history of Chicago theater will captivate fans of the stage. Inspired by Austen’s romances, Watson has created a charming romance with complicated characters, love triangles, and themes related to family, duty, and finding oneself.
Reviewed by Marie LeJeune, Monmouth, Oregon
Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz by M. Bornstein and D. Bornstein Holinstat
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017, 313 pp., $16.99
Holocaust/World War II/Survival
This memoir begins in October 1939 as the Nazis come to the Bornstein family’s redbrick house in Zarki, Poland, and continues through the eyes of a four-year-old boy during the Nazi invasion of Poland. The book chronicles Michael Bornstein’s life in the Zarki ghetto and his family’s forced deportation to the Pionki, Poland labor camp, where his parents worked in the ammunition factory to keep the family alive. During the time in Pionki, Michael’s family is forced to live in a twelve by twelve-foot barrack in a barbed wired community. Finally, the family is deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp where Michael is separated from his parents, brother and grandmother, and life is ripped apart again.
Bornstein and his daughter, Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, wrote an intense memoir that details the horrors of the Holocaust. Not much is held back in this powerful historical piece appropriate for mature readers, and it is perfect for students who are searching for a personal account of the Holocaust. Readers will appreciate a glossary, historical photographs from Bornstein’s life, and A Bornstein Family Who’s Who section which provides a biographical sketch of the family members.
Reviewed by Darryn Diuguid, Shiloh, Illinois
Grit by Gillian French
Harper Teen, 2017, 304 pp., $17.99
Social & Family Issues/Coming of Age/Fiction
Seventeen-year-old Darcy Prentiss cannot escape the rumors that encircle her, not in the small town of Sasanoa where whispers spread quickly and secrets never stay buried. As Darcy toils the summer away raking blueberries with friends and sworn enemies, she struggles to cover up the dark truths of not only her past but those of her cousin, Nell, and of the missing girl (her ex-best friend), Rhiannon. But Darcy’s wild reputation hangs overhead as a constant reminder of the past. In the end, Darcy finds herself in a precarious dance with who she really is and who the citizens of Sasanoa believe her to be.
French offers an intimate and honest look into the far-reaching consequences of our decisions, revealing both the ugly and the noble in human nature. Her prose captivates and the characters continue to reveal their complexity in plot twists that will keep the reader’s attention firmly on the page. Darcy’s narration is (as the novel’s title would suggest) full of grit and, paradoxically, a gentle, ever-unfolding maturity that will encourage young readers to push beyond their self-imposed limitations.
Reviewed by Gina Schneck, Eagle Mountain, Utah
Sad Perfect by Stephanie Elliot
Farrar Straus Giroux/Margaret Ferguson Books, 2017, 313 pp., $17.99
Social Issues/Love/Depression and Mental Illness/Eating Disorders/Contemporary Realistic Fiction
Sixteen-year old Pea lives in Arizona with her parents and older brother, Todd. Pea’s best friend Kim convinces her to go on a river-tubing outing where Pea meets Ben. Ben helps Pea navigate the rapids, and in the weeks that follow a friendship develops between the two. But Pea is apprehensive due to her problems with eating. She suffers from Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, ARFID. Pea cannot eat most foods because she is controlled by what she describes as a monster in her, one that causes her nausea, anxiety, and sadness. Her parents have accommodated her to make sure she has foods she can eat, but she usually does not have meals with them. They have her start a therapy group for young women with eating disorders and she finds that the interactions do not increase her anxiety but she is apprehensive about starting school in the fall. Pea fears that she will have to deal with Alex, a former boyfriend who rejected her after she told him about the nature of the monster that controls her life. The memory of that spring and the demands of the monster weigh heavy on her in the new school year. This apprehension overshadows the joy she experiences in the accepting relationship with Ben.
As the relationship deepens, Pea becomes more anxious and restricted, fearful of losing Ben, and discovers that the only way to assuage the anxiety and fear is through her hardly noticeable cutting with safety pins, first the cuticles, then hands and wrists. Ben and Kim discover the cuts and when an anonymous tip is sent to the school, the administrators, her family, and a medical team meet to determine that, in light of her actions, short-term inpatient treatment is needed to keep her safe. The experiences she has in the hospital, meeting teenagers who have their own monsters, and her parents getting her home inspire her to take control of her life and choices as she and Ben reaffirm their feelings for one another. Pea’s story will engage readers, as they worry about what will happen to her, her relationships, and her life.
Reviewed by Sandip Wilson, Bangor, Maine