ALAN Picks October 2018
To Be Honest by Maggie Ann Martin
Swoon Reads, 2018, 304 pp., $16.99
Superheroes/Social and Family Issues/Romance/Siblings/Parents/Clean and Wholesome
When Savannah’s older sister and closest friend, Ashley, leaves for college, Savvy focuses on making it through her senior year as unscathed as possible. Her overbearing mother, who’s weight loss obsession is fueled by a recent appearance on a weight loss reality show called Shake the Weight, has not made it easy. Savvy and her mom have been at odds since her parents’ divorce because her mother began coping by focusing on health, which is making full-figured Savvy feel self-conscious and out of place in her own home. Now, with Ashley gone, there is no buffer, which causes Savvy’s relationship with her mom and her mom’s relationship with weight to spiral out of control.
Savvy manages her anxiety by being an all-star student so that she can graduate and enter the engineering program at the same school where Ashley attends. But, when an investigative journalism study leads her to uncover a major funding discrepancy between male and female sports, specifically wrongdoing in the well-funded baseball program, Savvy discovers a passion that could change her perfectly planned future.
Savvy’s world also changes when she meets George, a new student who is terrible at math, but a gifted musician. After getting off to a rough start, Savvy begins tutoring George and suddenly the walls she has built begin to crumble as she embraces George’s kindness. Their relationship teaches both of them to let go and to accept change.
For fans of Julie Murphy and others who write body positive-focused realistic fiction with a focus on the complicated issues that teens face, To Be Honestwill be a fast favorite.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Peter, Flushing, Michigan
Black Wings Beating by Alex London
Farrar, Strauss Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2018, 426 pp., $17.99
Falconry/Brothers and Sisters/Twins/Fantasy
Brysen and Kylee, Uztari twins, grew up with a father who was violent with Brysen and a mother who did not protect him. Physically and mentally scarred from his father’s rage, Brysen was prone to self-loathing and recklessness. Though Kylee tried to help her brother, she was immobilized by her father’s scorn for him and her mother’s inability to get involved. Brysen was striving to be a good falconer, though his skills were questionable, while Kylee, who was gifted at it, had no desire to be one. As the story begins, the twins find themselves lonely and estranged from each other.
In an effort to save his boyfriend’s life, Brysen says he will get the ghost eagle, the most powerful bird in the land, for the cruel and powerful Tamir family. His father went to the ghost eagle filled with rage and was eaten. Brysen will follow in his footsteps but will do it as an act of love. Kylee wasn’t to protect Brysen when they were younger, so this time she vows to follow her brother and not to let him down. But their challenge is great. The ghost eagle will reveal parts of human nature that will be difficult to cope with, and bands of mercenaries from rivaling king and queendoms follow the twins, with plans to gain control of the bird so that they can control the land.
What unknown vulnerabilities will the twins face when they take on the ghost eagle? Will they find their buried selves? Will they find the way back to each other? Will they stop the bloodshed among their people? This first book of the Skybound Saga comes to a satisfying conclusion and leaves the reader wanting to read on. With lyrical language, London delves into the mysteries of this difficult journey to reveal the self and the Uztaris’ intricate relationships with the birds they love.
Reviewed by Dana Greci, Fairbanks, Alaska
The Lying Woodsby Ashley Elston
Disney-Hyperion, 2018, 336 pp., $17.99
Mystery/Parents/Emotions and Feelings
Seventeen-year-old Owen has lived a blessed life. His father owns a fracking company that has revived their small Louisiana town, providing jobs and opportunities for related businesses. The family owns a large mansion on the grounds of the local country club, takes luxury vacations, and even sends Owen to a boarding school in New Orleans. This life gets torn apart when his mother arrives at his school to tell him that he has to leave his friends and move back to town, where they now live with his mother’s older sister. His father has disappeared with millions of dollars, hiding from an FBI investigation. The company is bankrupt, the entire town is on the brink of economic ruin, and as Owen discovers when he has to attend public high school among his former classmates, everyone believes that he and his mother were complicit and have the money.
As the violence against Owen and his mother grows, he retreats to a local pecan farmer’s land, where he discovers his father had worked before Owen was born. In a novel told in alternating chapters between his father’s story of the summer of 1999, notes from the farmer’s farm book, and Owen’s contemporary story, the plot layers of intrigue slowly unwind, with a satisfying but unexpected twist.
As Owen attempts to unravel the truth about his father’s secrets and rebuild relationships with his former friends, readers will empathize with his desire to protect his family and discover his place in the community while experiencing love for the first time. Elston’s novel offers well-written characters in both timelines and a plot that keeps readers guessing.
Reviewed by Jennifer Ansbach, Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey
American Road Trip by Patrick Flores-Scott
Henry Holt and Company, 2018, 323 pp., $17.99
Coming of Age/Relationships/Journey/PTSD
Teodoro Avila, a junior at Sea-Tac High School, is barely passing, even with the help of his best friend, Caleb Ta’amu. After older brother Manny left for Iraq, staying for several deployments, the family fell apart. The 2008 financial crisis left them living in a pre-fab rental with little room for study and self-exploration. When Manny comes home, Teodoro, his older sister Xochitl, and Mami and Papi hope his return will initiate some changes. Severely damaged from the war, Manny’s symptoms may prevent Teodoro from achieving his dream of a college education. While waiting on Manny’s return, Teodoro meets his inspiration for joining a boot camp college prep group at school. Wendy Martinez, a childhood pal, provides the spark for Teo’s reformation. Studying and working with Caleb and a tutor becomes challenging when Manny’s PTSD causes disruption and chaos in the home.
The 2009 summer American road trip traces the journey of Manny, Xochitl, and Teodoro as they travel up the northern West Coast to reconnect with old acquaintances and family and then south to fellow vet Tio Ed’s chile farm outside Las Cruces, NM. Teodoro agrees to remain for the summer in hopes of helping Manny heal through therapy and hard work on the farm. Told through the younger brother’s first-person narrative, Teodoro’s revelations alternate with rapid-fire texting and poignant phone calls. His voice is strong and convincing as he struggles with the confusion of first love, the complexity of familial relationships, Manny’s violence and mental instability, and the commitment to his dream of a college education. Interspersed with talented songstress and composer Xochitl’s lyrics, the plot moves through the ups and downs of disappointment and triumph. Flores-Scott writes a positive, upbeat novel full of hope and redemption with characters readers will love and applaud.
Reviewed by Judith A. Hayn, Little Rock, Arkansas
A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney
Imprint, 2018, 384 pp., $18.99
Fantasy/Action and Adventure/Modern Retelling
To most people in her life, Alice seems like an ordinary high school teenager. She wrestles with a demanding school schedule, an overprotective mother, and a best friend who needs more time and energy than Alice has to give. Alice, however, is anything but ordinary. She is a Dreamwalker, a human sensitive to the Veil that separates the real world from the realm of dreams known as Wonderland.
Alice, along with her dream realm mentor Addison Hatta, must slay monstrous creatures called Nightmares before they cross the Veil and wreak horror in the real world. As Alice devotes more and more of her time to battling Nightmares, her friends and mother begin to question and worry about her absence. Just when Alice decides to cut back on the amount of time she spends in Wonderland, Hatta is poisoned with The Madness. To save Hatta’s life, Alice must travel further than she’s ever been in Wonderland to find the cure, and all while keeping her magical double life a secret from her mother and friends.
Debut author L.L. McKinney has crafted a whimsical Wonderland re-imagining that gives a nod to the original while also creating newly diverse characters that will resonate with today’s teenagers. McKinney uses her Wonderland setting to tackle traditional fantasy tropes of the hero’s journey and the battle of good vs. evil. In parallel, she uses the urban setting of Atlanta and events such as the killing of a young black girl in Alice’s neighborhood to harken to the true-to-life nightmares existing in our world today. McKinney’s skillful intertwining of these two worlds and her creation of a strong, dagger-wielding African American heroine makes A Blade So Blackone of the must-read young adult novels of 2018.
Reviewed by Jessica Harris, Wethersfield, Connecticut
Words We Don’t Say by K. J. Reilly
Hyperion, 2018, 274 pp., $17.99
It’s been a rough year for Joel Higgins. Consumed by guilt over the death of his best friend Andy, Joel is sleepwalking through school. He harbors negative thoughts and berates himself for what he should have done and leaves voice messages on Andy’s phone as well as crafting but never sending almost 1,000 text messages to various acquaintances, even school administrators. Of those messages, 693 are written to Eli, the girl with whom he dreams of having a romantic relationship.
As part of his school community service, Joel works at a local soup kitchen with Eli and transfer student Benj Kutcher with whom he often seems at cross purposes. At the soup kitchen, he learns even more about life’s harsh realities and the vast number of homeless individuals in New York City. He listens to the stories of some of the men and women he feeds, even befriending a veteran he calls Rooster. Rooster doesn’t speak, but Joel is drawn to him and follows him to his outdoor shelter. He begins taking cans of food and socks from home and leaving them for Rooster, and one day, Rooster gives him something in exchange- a gun. The gun leads to unexpected consequences for Joel and his little brother. It’s clear that things won’t end well for Rooster without some sort of intervention, but the scenes between Joel and him are touching.
Teen readers may find some relevance in the books assigned by their own English teachers through the classroom scenes featuring English teacher, Mr. Morgan, who teaches the students about materials that might be challenged in this country but are banned in other places. When a student questions the use of what he terms a “gay book,” the teacher quickly asks what makes a book “gay” and points out that there are harsh consequences for reading books featuring gay characters in many parts of the world- arrest or death. Through Eli’s constant exploration of online resources for information about social issues, Joel learns that 41.2 million individuals in the United States are food insecure. He is disturbed at the number of veteran suicides each year as well. It’s clear from his saved texts and his own censored remarks that Joel has plenty to say but is afraid of the consequences.
By the end of the book Joel has changed and has come to realize that we all carry our own tragedies, but it’s what we do in the aftermath that defines us. Using our voices for change is much better than remaining silent. Although this book deals with several harsh topics, it does so with humor and originality, even exploring how much a penny will compound over several days and reminding readers that just as evil is compounded, so are hope and goodness. All it takes are a few brave acts of rebellion.
Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman, Washington
Girls on the Line by Jennie Liu
Carolrhoda Lab, 2018, 232 pp., $17.09
Teen Pregnancy/Chinese Policy/Human Trafficking/Teen Fiction
Unlike reality television, which glorifies teen moms, the truth is much more difficult. This narrative is even harsher in China where the government had enacted a one-child policy in 1979 as a way to contend with overpopulation. The policy has since been revised to allow two children, but limits still exist today carrying hefty fines that create impossible decisions for young girls, especially those already living in poverty.
This powerful novel introduces readers to Yuli and Yun, two orphans who have aged out of the system and work at a factory. When Yun gets involved with a young man who has questionable motives, she learns that the world outside the orphanage is just as cold and unforgiving. This fast-paced and compelling story is told from the alternating points of view of Yuli and Yun as they each navigate difficult choices amidst policies that leave them vulnerable to people who take advantage of disenfranchised girls.
It is particularly refreshing to hear the voices of the oppressed–factory girls who face insurmountable odds. Liu has created believable and complex characters who are vulnerable, flawed, and strong at the same time.
Reviewed by Cindi Koudelka, Wenona, Illinois
The Tomb by S.A. Bodeen
Feiwel and Friends Books, 2018, 249 pp., $17.99
Kiva and Seth grew up in ancient Alexandria– or so they thought. What is first introduced as a travel back in time is actually a glimpse into the future. Fifteen-year-old Kiva and her former best friend and local royal prince Seth must find ways to work together in order to save the future of humanity. Being kept in the past through virtual reality, both Kiva and Seth realize that what they think is real is in fact, a make-believe world they have been sheltered in after the Earth was destroyed by a volcanic super eruption. The few survivors were thrust into space on a series of airships forced to launch with whoever was on board at the time.
Kiva must come to understand her present reality- not the virtual reality she thought was her home. In this understanding, she faces a variety of challenges and feats, from learning about her father’s mysterious identity to coming to terms with her true feelings for Seth. In this journey, Kiva and Seth set out on a quest to retrieve a mechanical part for their home ship. Left on their own to approach and board other ships, Kiva and Seth are confronted with a homicidal physicist, fellow citizens frozen in sleep (called Versa Space), attempted poisonings, and coping with the reality that they may never go home again.
Bodeen has captured a story that even the novice science-fiction reader can appreciate. The story of Kiva and Seth vacillates between suspense, mystery, futuristic living, and adventure. In that, the main characters must resolve their conflicts with each other in order to survive. The story moves at a rapid pace with readers given just enough information to move from setting to setting. Suspense builds throughout each chapter. The story manages to capture an adventurous tone, yet one that finds Kiva longing to understand the world in which she really belongs.
Reviewed by Gretchen Oltman, Papillion, Nebraska
You Owe Me a Murder by Eileen Cook
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019, 352 pp., $17.99
Seventeen-year-old Kim is stuck going on a two-week school trip to London with her ex-boyfriend, Connor. The situation wouldn’t be so confusing if Kim didn’t still like Connor, if his new girlfriend weren’t also on the trip, and if a smart boy named Alex wasn’t trying to catch Kim’s eye.
Then Kim meets Nicky, a posh and daring British girl who seems to be everything Kim isn’t. While Kim feels trapped on the trip with Connor, Nicky feels trapped by her alcoholic mother. Nicky suggests killing Kim’s ex and in exchange, Kim will kill Nicky’s mum.
It seems like a joke, but then Connor dies in a mysterious accident. Nicky then expects Kim to uphold her end of the deal. What seemed to be a joke becomes a dangerous cat-and-mouse game, with Kim stuck uncomfortably between police investigators, and Nicky, who tries to blackmail and manipulate Kim into committing a murder. You Owe Me a Murderis full of surprise revelations about Kim and Nicky and their relationships with the people they claim to hate.
Cook has written a nail-biter in the tradition of adult authors S.J. Watson and Gillian Flynn. You Owe Me a Murder is structurally interesting, with an unreliable narrator and chapters that count down the days Kim has to either kill someone or outsmart Nicky. Cook tackles some important relationship issues related to trust, with a protagonist that struggles simultaneously with telling the truth and with recognizing deceit in others. Kim’s situation dramatizes the ways that the stories we tell ourselves can quickly become reality, and how important it is in relationships to understand the difference between attraction and affection.
Reviewed by Ryan K. Strader, Atlanta, Georgia
I, Claudia by Mary McCoy
Carolrhoda Lab, 2018, 317 pp., $18.99
Mystery/Teen Relationships/Power and Control
Modeled after Graves’ I, Claudius, Claudia limps and stutters and shies away from the spotlight in her new upscale private school. A quiet observer hoping to be overlooked, Claudia studies and documents the ways the powerful operate within the school. Suddenly, however, she is thrust into the role of candidate for an elected spot in the student government.
At times historian and other times investigative reporter, Claudia uncovers corruption, abuse of power, and embezzlement of funds at the hands of the student government leaders. Their power, it seems, is so absolute that even the school administrators are unable to rein them in. Claudia commits herself to exposing and deposing the very leaders who put her in office. Along the way, she struggles with her first romance, the tragic death of a classmate, and the heady confidence that comes with power. In the end, Claudia acknowledges that she misjudged some of the people she set out to destroy, and reveals herself to be an unreliable narrator.
Throughout, Claudia seeks to establish the veracity of her version of events by referring to her careful documentation of facts and to primary source documents. McCoy’s well-constructed narrative leads readers to consider the subjectivity of historical accounts and offers insights into the ways students as well as adults work to rig elections, sabotage competitors, and shift alliances to remain inside the circle of power.
Reviewed by Kathryn Mitchell Pierce, St. Louis, Missouri
Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc by David Elliot
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2019, 208 pp., $17.99
Biographical Fiction/Teen and Young Adult Medieval Historical Fiction/Christian Poetry
Many know the harrowing story of Joan of Arc, a young peasant girl thrust into national heroism by God, but David Elliot presents her tale in a new light. Young Joan, headed for an arranged marriage and life on a farm, dreams of something greater. One day, while working on her family’s farm, Joan is visited by Saint Michael and later Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret, who inform Joan that France will be unified once again and that it is her mission to accomplish.
Joan sneaks away from her family farm with nothing more than the dress on her back. Through the use of her keen mind and dogged determination, and with the help of her saints, Joan convinces men in power to provide her with a small army. As her quest continues and rumors of her seemingly impossible success grow, so, too, does her retinue of soldiers and common men who follow her into battle. Just when Joan’s saints cease to advise her, the men in power, who only grudgingly listened to her in the first place, begin to regret allowing her such power. They demand she give up her unnatural manly ways or else pay the price of her sins against God. Joan, refusing to submit, begins her journey down the path to her fiery demise.
David Elliot presents Joan’s story as a young woman’s struggle for power over her own life in an era of male domination. Through the perspectives of people and objects that touched Joan’s life, including her own, told in a variety of poetic forms appropriate to the time period, we learn of the men’s disgust, embarrassment, and even fear in the face of this young girl’s power. We learn of Joan’s own pride and how it contributed to her downfall. Elliot provides young readers with an opportunity to view history through the lens of a struggle that is still very real today.
Reviewed by Sarah Valingo,Columbiana, Ohio
Confessions of a Teenage Leper by Ashley Little
Penguin Teen, 2018, 291 pp., $17.99
Realistic Fiction/Humor/Illness/Family Relationships/Friendships/LGBTQ
The summer before her senior year, Abby Furlowe develops an annoying rash. It interferes with her otherwise idyllic life as a pageant queen, high school Texas cheerleader, and self professed ‘beautiful girl.’ Despite multiple doctors visits, endless treatments and creams, the rash continues to grow. She also develops other annoying symptoms including numbness, swelling, and muscle weakness. Ignoring her physical ailments, Abby is intent on remaining popular and ‘hot’, shrugging off warnings from her brother, parents, and soon-to-be ex boyfriend. Determined to remain on-track for a cheerleading scholarship to USC and her dreams of a life in Hollywood, Abby keeps up her usual routines, until a tumbling routine at a football game ends with a frightening fall that leaves her in a coma. When she wakes up, not only does she have a concussion and several broken bones, she eventually learns that she has Hansens’s disease (leprosy) and her formally annoying rash has spread to the point that she is unrecognizable to herself and those around her.
Realizing that she may be one of the rare cases of Hansen’s disease diagnosed from contact with an armadillo, Abby is convinced her life is over as she’s abandoned by her popular friends, the boy she was once determined to lose her virginity to, and her own brother, who seems to be hiding a mysterious secret. When she’s sent to a treatment center for others with Hansen’s disease, Abby has to do some deep soul searching about her own life goals as well as her identity. If she can’t be a cheerleader, a movie star, or even wear high heels again, she isn’t sure who she really is.
Darkly humorous and often bitingly ironic, Confessions of a Teenage Leperpaints a picture of a self-professed shallow girl on a path of discovery about her own identity, attitude, and what matters in life. Although Abby is often a deeply unlikeable protagonist, she is not without redemption. Her illness and her complicated relationship with her brother, Dean, both serve as catalysts for her reflection on who she can become, even if it means a life in orthopedic shoes.
Reviewed by Marie LeJeune, Monmouth, Oregon
What the Woods Keep by Katy de Becerra
Imprint Books 2018, 363 pp., $17.99
Hayden’s eighteenth birthday is far from ordinary. On her special day, she receives a message from her mother that she has inherited the Manor in Promise, the town where she was born, but only if she can unveil its dark secrets. She journeys back home partnered with her Brooklyn roommate Del, who holds secrets of her own. They discover more suspense than they imagined.
White ravens, a strange amulet, and a blend of science, science fiction and fantasy invite readers to join these strong female characters in a whirlwind of chaos, confusion, and clarity as they question her father’s sanity and try to determine if her mother is still alive. They search for Hayden’s childhood friend Shannon and try to determine if there is any truth to the stories of the folk creatures known as Niebelungs.
What the Woods Keepweaves science and humor to guide and confuse the search. In her debut work, Katya De Becerra tease readers just enough to want more. The manor is creepy, and the secrets found in the dark woods even creepier.
Reviewed by Kevin D. Cordi, Columbus, Ohio