ALAN Picks November/December 2019
City of Beasts by Corrie Wang
Freeform Books (An imprint of Disney), 2019, 374 pp., $17.99
Dystopian/Science Fiction/Action and Adventure
In the post-nuclear world, women and men are living in separate societies as fees and beasts. Their communities are divided by a river. This division allows each group to live peacefully and free from influence of the opposite gender. Glori has spent her life learning to protect herself and her fellow fees from a potential beast attack.
Glori, however, has a secret. Her family has been raising her brother, a beast, for five years. She cares for him deeply and begins to wonder if beasts are really that bad. When her brother is taken in a raid, she and her friend Su secretly go to the City of Beasts to rescue him. What they do not expect is the adventure that ensues. They join forces with a group of beasts and learn the truth behind their societies. Are the two sexes really meant to be separated? Was there a plan to reunite them all along?
Wang’s second novel is sure to please dystopian teen readers. It is fast-paced, full of fun pop culture references, and focused on likeable adolescent characters and seedy villains. Glori is a strong heroine, often realizing her own strength in moments of turmoil. As a great leader, Glori helps others to see their power, understand their purpose, and find hope in troubling times. The City of Beasts examines life with a separation of the sexes, considers present day stereotypes, and challenges readers to consider how we are most powerful when we are our true selves together.
Reviewed by Rene-Stites Kruep, O’Fallon, Illinois
Lifestyles of Gods & Monsters by Emily Roberson
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2019, 337 pp., $17.99
Greek mythology/Theseus/Minotaur/Social Media/Reality Television
In today’s world, social media is an integral part of our lives. We share photos and carefully curate a “story” for the world to see. We follow celebrities and are fascinated with their lives. But, what would it have been like if social media and reality television had existed in Ancient Greece? In Emily Roberson’s debut YA novel, Lifestyles of Gods & Monsters, readers get a glimpse of how social media and reality television might have looked in the world of Greek mythology and storytelling.
In this book, the main character, Ariadne of Crete’s royal family runs an entertainment empire. Her father, mother, and twin sisters are stars of social media, the tabloids, and reality television. Ariadne, on the other hand, does not crave fame, she simply wants to save her baby brother, Asterion, who has been cursed to take the form of a Minotaur. While her older sisters, Xenodice and Acalle, are stars of their own reality show “The Paradox,” which reminds readers of modern day celebrities such as Kim Kardashian or Kylie Jenner, Ariadne becomes the keeper of an intense maze that is under the stadium in Crete where Asterion has been forced to live out his days.
Ariadne’s father, Minos of Crete, creates a reality show, The Labrynth Contest, with his son Asterion (i.e. the Minotaur) featured as the star. Each year, The Labrynth Contest includes 14 young, beautiful Athenians that face off against the Minotaur. The contestants are beautified and showcased, and eventually each contestant chooses a number that dictates the order in which they will enter the maze. If one of the young Athenians defeats the Minotaur, they will earn fame and fortune. However, each year for the past ten years, the Minotaur has ended the lives of all fourteen Athenians, in front of the television viewing audience. Since the plot of the show has become too predictable, ratings have taken a dive. As the show’s producer, Minos searches for a new plotline to earn back viewers and make the contest interesting again.
In the background, Ariadne continues to search for a way to help her brother. As the latest contestants of The Labyrinth Contest arrive in Crete to face the Minotaur and fight for their chance of fortune and fame, Ariadne is taken by surprise. Even though she has tried to remain invisible to the television viewers, someone has taken notice of her. Along with the newest batch of contestants for the show, Prince Theseus of Athens has decided to take his chance with the Minotaur. Ariadne is surprised by Theseus and begins to develop feelings for the handsome, young man. With cameras always watching, Minos and the producers of the show find the plotline they’ve been looking for. With her every move being recorded, Ariadne has to find a way to help Theseus and her brother.
Will Ariadne succumb to the lure of fame on social media and television or will she stay true to herself?
Reviewed by Shelly Shaffer, Cheney, Washington
Light It Up by Kekla Magoon
Henry Holt and Company, 368 pp., $18.99
Contemporary Realistic Fiction/Social Issues/Prejudice and Racism
Two years ago, the community of Underhill was torn apart by the shooting death of teen Tariq Johnson. Now Shae Tatum–a thirteen-year-old unarmed Black girl–has been shot by a white police officer. There are no witnesses.
The events of the next 17 days unfold through a series of first-person vignettes, interview transcripts, and tweets. Tariq’s best friend, Tyrell, is living with a white college roommate outraged by the shooting and confused by Tyrell’s quiet reaction. White supremacists who support the police officer host a protest, which the local community action committee counter-protests. And Tina –younger sister to Tyrell and friend of Shae– expresses her feelings through poignant poetry. The stories converge during a demonstration at the courthouse as the Underhill community waits breathlessly for the grand jury decision.
Light It Up can be read as a standalone book or as a companion to Magoon’s 2015 Coretta Scott King Honor book How It Went Down. Both books examine difficult topics from a number of perspectives, illuminating the complex social issues in communities across America. At times painful to read, Light It Up provides needed context surrounding the rash of police shootings and opens up opportunities for meaningful, necessary conversations.
Reviewed by Rachel Smoka-Richardson, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Mighty Moe: The True Story of a Thirteen-Year-Old Women’s Running Revolutionary by Rachel Swaby and Kit Fox
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2019, 299 pp., $19.99
Women are too fragile. Women’s insides would shift and be damaged. Women are just too delicate. It is in defiance of these beliefs and the subsequent prohibition of female long distance races by the world of competitive running that this story takes place. Mighty Moe: The True Story of a Thirteen-Year-Old Women’s Running Revolutionary recounts the true story of young Maureen Wilton in Toronto, Canada and her world record marathon run in 1967, one that had mostly been forgotten to time.
Set against the backdrop of sexism in the world of female running in the 20th century, Swaby and Fox weave both a credible and readable account of one little known female runner’s historical feats. In addition to the appealing actual photos of Maureen, the book also includes an index and a strong sweeping introduction to the history of the marathon and women’s running. The authors provide a backdrop of young female runners around North America, defying expectations and keeping up with men, despite restrictions, rules and conventions that barred them from officially participating in the sport they loved. Filled with information and context, the authors provide information on running against a compelling narrative so that even the most sedentary of readers will follow along and be inspired by both Maureen’s love of running and her group of female competitors and friends. While the obvious audience for this book would be young runners or athletes in any sport, the depictions of ambition, hard work, and friendship make this a book that any young person could take inspiration from.
Reviewed by Maria Zafonte, Phoenix, Arizona
Odd One Out by Nic Stone
Random House Children’s Books/Crown Books for Young Readers, 2019, 309 pp., $17.99
Young love and modern relationships seem to be increasingly complex, and as this novel demonstrates, it never feels good to be the odd one out. Set in Atlanta, it is unlikely that teens have ever read a modern romance quite like this one. While the title and the cover hint at the novel’s contents, readers won’t be sure exactly whom is the one left out in this complicated romantic equation. While none of the drama that fills the pages would have existed had the characters been honest with each other about their feelings, it is also true that teens like these three are often busy exploring their own sexual identity, and sometimes they just don’t know to whom they are attracted. Because the story is told from three different perspectives, readers can understand the characters’ actions and, to some extent, sympathize with all three of them while also becoming annoyed at all three at various points. Ultimately, by the time the last page has been reached, it’s clear once again that love and sex are complicated and not mutually exclusive.
Courtney (Coop) Cooper is a high school basketball star who has nurtured a long-standing crush on his best friend, Jupiter Charity-Sanchez. He’s straight, and she has always known that she’s gay, but the two of them are very close and share just about everything, even snuggling together and sleeping in the same bed without having sex. When Jupiter befriends new girl, Rae Evelyn Chin, and starts feeling romantic feelings toward her, she is surprised and more than a little disconcerted when Coop and Rae seem interested in each other. Rae, in turn, is attracted to both Coop and Jupiter. Feeling confused and somewhat jealous, Jupiter decides that she needs to be Coop’s first sexual partner, and then she will cut him loose to be with Rae.
If you’re thinking that all of this seems a bit messy, you’re right, and things get even messier as all three characters weigh in with their thoughts. It will be clear to almost everyone except Jupiter that she and Coop belong together at least momentarily, no matter what her declared sexual preferences are, but it takes her quite some time to sort out her feelings. This will be a great read for anyone who is uncertain about whom they love or to whom they might feel an emotional or a physical attraction or both, while also challenging assumptions about sexuality being static.
Barbara A. Ward, Pullman, Washington
The Day the World Stopped Turning by Michael Morpurgo
Feiwel and Friends, 2019, 284 pp., $16.99
Art/Artist/France/World War II/Gypsies/Flamingos/Farming
Surviving a near-death experience by a Vincent Van Gogh painting, young Vincent Montague sets off on a journey to visit the beach where Van Gogh painted Fishing Boats on the Beach at Les-Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer. Falling seriously ill along his trek, Vincent is rescued by Lorenzo, a strange man who lives on a farm in the marshes of the Carmague, and finds himself cared for by Kezia, Lorenzo’s dear friend.
As Vincent recovers from his illness, he asks Kezia what he thinks is a simple question, how did she learn to speak English so well? In answering this query, Kezia tells Vincent how she came to the Carmague, travelling in a caravan with her parents, and ended up living on the farm during the tumultuous times of World War II. After the violent mistral winds knock the large town tree onto her family’s carousel, Kezia and her parents relocate to Lorenzo’s farm just as German soldiers arrive in the town of Aigues-Mortes. Kezia, Lorenzo, and their parents work together on the farm and, gradually, rebuild the carousel, finding help from a German Caporal whose kindness bespeaks the humanity inherent in all of us.
Morpurgo builds a beautiful world of carousels and play kingdoms, of farmland and marshy wilderness where a young autistic boy is free to be himself. The story reveals itself to the reader much like a painting reveals itself to the viewer; the longer one reads it, the more details are uncovered. Lorenzo is a well-rounded depiction of an autistic person, and Kezia serves to question the injustices and cruelties of the world around her. The Day the World Stopped Turning is the bend in the road that allows readers to escape from the real world in to the farmland and marshes of the Carmague while learning how people help each other through the worst of times and how the best of friends can enter one’s life by pure chance.
Reviewed by Leslie Roy, Norfolk, Virginia
The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman
Hyperion, 2019, 355 pp., $18.99
Violet Saunders is grieving the death of her beloved older sister when her mother pulls her back to her hometown, the wooded and isolated town of Four Paths, New York. Something is different about Four Paths. Its citizens live in dark spooky mansions. People don’t leave town, and they all know each other. In fact, they seem to know Violet too. And most troublingly, people in Four Paths die horribly on a regular basis.
The Devouring Gray explores the issues of privilege and family inheritance through a paranormal lens. As Violet soon learns, she and three of her peers are descendants of the four founding families, each of whom protects the town from a monster. But the monster’s bloodlust is growing, and the ties that restrain it are growing thin. Meanwhile, a rebellion is brewing amongst the impatient townspeople.
Herman uses jagged, elemental language of bone, glass and stone to paint a picture of a town bleeding with loss. Yet her gothic storyline is also relatable for many adolescents. Much is expected of Violet, Isaac, Harper, and Justin by their families, and they often feel like impostors who fail to meet the older generations’ expectations. Forbidden desire entangles their relationships with one another. Like most teenagers, they begin to suspect that the adults in their life are lying to them. As they question their own privileged birthrights, the four main characters search for a way that the town can empower everyone, and not just a chosen few, to confront the monstrous Gray.
The Devouring Gray moves swiftly, and seamlessly integrates thoughtful discussions of LGBTQ+ issues into its map. Its discussion of power structure, legacy and family relationships will resound with many readers.
Reviewed by Sarah Whitney, Eerie, Pennsylvania
We Are Not Free by Traci Chee
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020, 400pp., $17.99
History/Family and Peer Relationships/War/Reality
This is a compelling account of young people enduring a travesty of American history often hidden in textbooks and other historical accountings- the Japanese internment camps during World War II. Through the voices of fourteen young people, ages 11-18, Traci Chee brings to light the trauma of being declared non-American and un-American in the land of their birth. Chee uses mixed media, e.g., poetry, prose, art, and historical documents to illuminate the young peoples’ struggles as they negotiate duty to family and their own personal identities as Japs, Nisei, and Americans.
Chee’s novel begins with the Exclusionary Order of 1942 and follows the lives of the youth as the government orders displacements. We Are Not Free serves to remind readers of the importance of current immigration policies and issues surrounding ideologies of global citizenship.
Reviewed by Lottie Waggoner, Bloomington, Indiana
The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen
Henry Holt & Company, 2019, 373 pp., $18.99
Fie grew up the daughter of a Crow chief- a societal position that should be worthy of note, but in her case, is not. The Crow caste was shunned by the rest of society. Known only for travelling around the country slitting the throats of sinners who had come in contact with the plague, the Crow were the only ones who showed mercy to those dying of the plague. Crows kept to themselves and followed one mantra- look after your own.
Called to remove the body of the prince from the King’s palace after his unfortunate demise to the plague, Fie is thrust into an adventure that tests not only her loyalty to her own caste, but to her duty as a future Crow chief. Fie learns that the prince is not dead, but rather the target of death threats by his stepmother, the Queen. In an exchange for the prince’s protection, an oath is exchanged that should he be returned to safety unharmed, the prince will vow to protect the Crow caste from its enemies, something no one in society had ever been willing to do.
In this fantasy journey to find safety for the Prince, and his body-double, Tavin, who was also assumed dead, Fie encounters creatures, villains, and assaults from entities with unbending, forceful powers. Fie is able to utilize powers from teeth pulled from sinners to call about fire, protection, and visions. She battles with the one she seeks to protect, proving her worth as a warrior and leader. Through their journey across the country, Fie, the Prince, and Tavin face death and dying in a multitude of forms and must learn to rely on each other, sometimes in spite of each other. Loyalty is tested as is ultimately the oath made between the Prince and the Crows as to whether or not he will truly seek to protect their caste if and when his safety is secured.
The Merciful Crow is powerful story, full of beautiful description and depth of character. It is an adventure that captures the imagination and challenges assumptions, and in doing so, illustrates the importance of loyalty and honor.
Reviewed by Gretchen Oltman, Omaha, Nebraska