ALAN Picks November 2017

ALAN Picks November 2017

The Wood by Chelsea Bobulski
Feiwel and Friends, 2017, 313 pp, $17.99
ISBN: 978-125009426
Fantasy/Mystery/Teen Relationships

Sixteen-year-old Winnie Parish is a guardian of the Wood, a mysterious place of rules and portals to different times, and time travelers. Her innate mission is to guard the Wood and to return lost travelers to their own dimension of time and space. Winnie prematurely stepped into this role when her father mysteriously disappeared from the Wood one day, leaving Winnie to take his place as the guardian and leaving her mom to worry each time the sun sets and Winnie has not returned. Things get interesting when a traveler from 1783 Brightonshire, England, with more information about the Wood than the typical disoriented traveler, refuses to return to his own time. Winnie also notices that parts of the Wood seem to be diseased and blackening. As a guardian, Winnie is compelled to connect all these unusual circumstances and make sense of it all.

Bobulski convincingly juxtaposes Winnie’s very human concerns of coping with the loss of her beloved father and the pressures of high school with all the attendant teenage drama, against the demands of being a guardian of the Wood outside her door, woods filled with enchantment but also growing malevolence. Add a time-bending love interest and The Wood is a read that will satisfy teen readers, even those that may not typically be drawn to the fantasy genre.

Reviewed by Maria Zafonte, Grand Canyon University, Phoenix, Arizona

Backfield Boys by John Feinstein
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017, 353 pp., $17.99
ISBN:  978-0374305925
Football/Mystery/Racism/Peer Relationships

Tom “Bull’s Eye” Jefferson and Jason “White Lightning” Roddin have grown up in New York City as friends since the early grades, partly based on their common love of football. Tom is an excellent quarterback and Jason a remarkably fast wide receiver. When they both get recruited to attend a prep school in the south that is known for its alumni who go on to play pro ball, they leap at the chance. But when they get to the school they find it a much different place than they imagined.

The trouble starts when Tom is assigned to be a wide receiver and Jason is assigned to train with the quarterbacks. When they bring up the mistake with the coaches, they are met with stubborn belligerence and punishment for questioning authority. They had signed up to room together but find that they have been assigned other roommates. Based on some of the comments from the coaches, they begin to wonder whether the problem might be that Tom is African-American and Jason is Jewish.

Tom and Jason enlist the help of some new friends- Jason’s roommate who, despite his stereotypical name Billy-Bob, is eager to help fight the discrimination, and two local reporters.  With the reporters’ encouragement, Tom and Jason start to find out more about the school they are attending, including some interesting connections between the founder of the school and David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan.

While author John Feinstein is known for skillfully weaving together sports and mystery, this book proves he can also tackle social justice issues in realistic and inspiring ways. Backfield Boys models critical questioning and engages readers in thinking about social justice issues ranging from the prevalence of concussions in football to racist responses to interracial dating and systemic discrimination and how to combat it.  Feinstein includes a bit of civil rights history, religious discrimination, and even some presidential politics in the mix as well. The final product is a highly engaging sports mystery that will get readers thinking about civil disobedience and working for justice.

Reviewed by Bill Boerman-Cornell, Palos Heights, Illinois

Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake
Houghton Mifflin Books for Young Readers, 2018, 304 pp, $17.99
ISBN: 978-1328778239
Coming of Age/Gender Identity/Romance/Family and Peer Relationships 

Mara is starting her senior year at a Tennessee school for the arts when her world is turned upside down, for the second time. Her best friend, Hannah, accuses her twin brother, Owen, of rape. Mara is torn between the belief that Hannah is telling the truth and the hope that Owen is not guilty.

At a time when Mara desperately needs to focus on healing her own emotional wounds, she finds herself in a tug-of-war between two of the people she loves the most. Mara’s voice ranges from raw and vulnerable to fierce and defiant as she tries to uncover the truth of her own experiences and those of the ones she loves. As the story unfolds, Mara must learn to trust herself and what she believes, rather than the voices of those around her.

Blake addresses multiple issues in this novel. Mara identifies as bisexual, and walks the halls of her high school navigating a barrage of judgment from males and females alike. The alleged rape occurs within the boundaries of an already sexual relationship. Finally, Hannah experiences extreme slut-shaming and bullying. The multiple layers of narrative are relevant and authentic for teen readers, but also parents and educators. Within the current political and social climate, Girl Made of Stars provides powerful context and talking points for assailants, survivors, and the people who love them.

Reviewed by Cathy Walker-Gilman, Denver, Colorado

Hiding by Henry Turner
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018, 261pp, $17.99
ISBN:  978-0544284777
Psychological Mystery/Relationships/Identity

Ever wonder what goes on behind the gates, shuttered windows, and locked doors of the neighbors?  What really happens when no one is watching or listening to those strained family dynamics that most people would rather keep hidden? When a quiet young man gives in to the temptation to slip unnoticed into his former girlfriend’s house one night only to be trapped by the alarm system, his act of trespass opens his eyes and ears to things he had not thought possible of such a perfect family and leads him to a decision he had never dreamed he would have to make.

For many young adults, to see and be seen is integral to knowing and being known. Creating and maintaining a virtual presence is of utmost importance and must not be ignored or left to chance.  Yet not all teens yearn for their “fifteen minutes of fame.” For Laura, a beautiful gymnast from the upper class, and a shy, self-possessed skateboarder from the working class, to be seen or known by others is the last thing either of them want.

Through his first-person account, the protagonist (whose name is not divulged until he finally deems his listeners and himself ready for identification), invisibility, or hiding, is the super power that enables him to navigate incognito the concentric worlds of neighborhood, school, home, and friendship while he runs the gamut of emotions that first love evokes. His whispered thoughts track his journey through these circles of inner and outer self as though he were captioning his life in a film. The narrator himself is seldom on the set, but his essence is echoed in the voices of his divorced and distant parents. His odd, loser pal, Carol, is another candidate for invisibility, not by design but through lack of others’ patience with his perpetual hyperbolic lies.  His like-minded first real friend, Suzie, nearly brings the narrator’s features to light when they discover through shared interests no need to hide their true selves behind the usual masks of empty teen stereotypes. It is the lovely Laura, however, his first true love, who unmasks them both. A slow, measured, surprising revelation of the power of love, this book is a treasure worth the wait for the final unveiling.

Reviewed by Karen Dunnagan, Spalding University, Louisville, Kentucky

March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine by Melba Pattillo Beals
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2018, 224 pages, $16.99
ISBN: 978-1328882127
Non-Fiction/Historical/Memoir/Young Adult

In this moving memoir, Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine, relates the story of what led to her being one of the nine students chosen to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Beals describes her younger years growing up in the 1940s and 1950s when Jim Crow laws were still in effect. Always an inquisitive child, Beals wonders why she and others like her are considered the inferior race. Her experiences, including a terrifying encounter with the KKK, portray Beals as a scared little girl who is gradually transformed into the resilient teen who takes on the Little Rock Board of Education.

Long before her brave integration of Central High, Beals questions why she must follow the unwritten rules imposed upon her by her mother, grandmother, and father about how blacks should walk, talk, look, and behave in the segregated South. Why, for instance, couldn’t she as a six-year-old child touch any of the toys in the store, but the white children could? Why did her family always close the windows and curtains, turn down the lights, and silence the radio lights at night? Why did blacks have to step off the sidewalks for whites, why did they have to step aside at the meat counter, and why did they have to bow their heads subserviently to the whites?  Her biggest question, though, was why no one fought back. Beals was consumed by these questions and by the constant worry for her family and herself.

Readers will empathize with the young Beals as she grows from a scared three-year-old to the teenage girl who fights for integration at the magnificent Central High School, a school that she had always dreamed of attending. Readers will learn about the psychological effects of Jim Crow laws, prejudice, and discrimination on not just Beals, but her family and her community.

Reviewed by Kirstie Knighton, Gray, Georgia 

More Than We Can Tell by Brigid Kemmerer
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018, 408pp, $17.99
ISBN: 978-1681190143
Realistic Fiction/Family and Peer Relationships/Emotions and Feelings

When Rev and Emma cross paths, Rev thinks it is fate. As a young boy, he was raised in a biblically based home. Unfortunately, Rev was removed from his home at the age of seven because his father’s obsession with religion led him to beat Rev to remove any evil from within him. The scars that he left on Rev were both physical and emotional and would haunt him for eternity. When Rev turns 18, his father is legally allowed to contact him. He locates Rev and begins to harass him with emails. Rev has spent the last 10 years trying to put his past behind him, but one message from his father unleashes all his memories. His instinct is to hide what is troubling him and close himself off from his adoptive parents and others who are close to him.

Emma is also hiding from her reality by submerging herself in her online gaming hobby. She is the product of her father who works in the gaming industry, and her mother who is a doctor and will do anything to keep Emma from following in her father’s footsteps. Her parents don’t get along and neither of them have time for Emma. She finds herself alone and vulnerable as she becomes the target of an online bully. Determined to figure this out on her own, she hides her secrets from her friends and family.

When Emma and Rev meet, they realize that they both need someone to share their secrets with, and they become each other’s confidants. Life is complicated and messy for both of them, but they use their new friendship to get through it. As they navigate these unchartered waters, they learn that the people they love will stand by them if they can learn to trust.

Brigid Kemmerer does an excellent job creating believable characters with relatable hardships that all youth can identify with. Rev and Emma learn to open their hearts to love and forgive people in their present and past in this tender story of fear, trust, friendship, and love.

Reviewed by Trista Zobitz Rochester, Minnesota

Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
Hyperion, 2018, 336pp, $17.99
ISBN: 978-I484758052
Science Fiction and Adventure/Mystery/Romance

In Unearthed, Mia and Jules travel, separately, to Gaia, a newly discovered planet many light years from Earth. Mia is a scavenger hoping to find and sell artifacts from the Undying, the ancient civilization on Gaia, in order to rescue her younger sister in bondage on Earth. Jules is a budding academic who wants to study and preserve what remains of the Undying’s culture, although he also seeks knowledge in order to rescue someone close to him back home. Soon, circumstances require them to join forces. Mia and Jules enter an ancient temple where they must apply their unique skills to solve a labyrinth of deadly puzzles. They must work quickly to avoid being hunted by other scavengers and by the government forces that seek to seize the Undying’s technology in order to rescue a dying Earth. As they travel, they are confounded by conflicting messages in the Undying’s code, including dire warnings to stop their search. Their feelings for one another grow while exploring the temple and surviving numerous near-death escapes.

Alternately narrating the story, Mia and Jules are well-defined, intelligent characters with strong points of view. In addition to the fast-paced plot of the novel, readers will enjoy their collaborative approach to solving the linguistic and mathematical puzzles in Gaia. Science fiction fans will appreciate Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner’s detailed descriptions of the planet’s landscape and advanced technology. The novel’s cliffhanger ending makes the reader eager for the sequel in the duology, Unearthed 2.

Reviewed by Pamela Papish, Pleasantville, New York

The Devil’s Engine: Hellwalkers: (Book 3) by Alexander Gordon Smith
Farrar Straus Giroux, 312 pp., $18.99
ISBN: 978-0374301743
Horror/Action/Relationships/Young Adult 

Marlow is in hell. Not the kind with fire and a pointy-eared, pitchfork-carrying man in charge. In this hell, a brother repeatedly eats his sister, demons take the shape of loved ones to gain trust, and people knot together to create a wall of flesh. Lucky for Marlow, his friend/possible love interest Pan, is also in hell after both teens were torn to pieces by demons at the end of Book 2. The two travel through dangerous terrain, seeking a way out to rejoin their fellow soldiers back on Earth. But their escape comes with a terrible price. Truths are exposed and epic battles are fought, and the fate of New Jersey (and the rest of the planet) lies in the hands of the Hellraisers.

Hellwalkers will be enjoyed most by those who have already read Books 1 and 2, but the author provides enough backstory so readers new to the series can follow along. Fast-moving and action-packed, Hellwalkers is full of descriptive imagery grotesque enough to satisfy horror fans. Readers will cheer along as a pair of misfit teenagers attempt to save the world from destruction by the Devil himself.

Reviewed by Rachel Smoka-Richardson, Minneapolis, Minnesota