ALAN Picks September 2013

ALAN Picks September 2013

We’re pleased this month to share an interview with Matt De La Peña on his newest young adult book. Scroll to the bottom of the reviews for that interview!

Game On, by Monica Seles and James LaRosa
Bloomsbury USA Children’s, 2013, 256 pp., $12.78
ISBN-13: 978-1599909011

Sixteen-year-old Maya is finally accepted to The Academy, the premier sports training facility for the talented, rich and famous. However, as a hard-working scholarship student, Maya only has talent on her side. Until some of The Academy’s most elite clientele, including the owner’s striking son and football star, Travis Reid, take an interest in her. Suddenly, she is caught up in the exciting and glamorous world of the rich and popular. All is not well, however, as Maya struggles to define the boundaries of friendship and love.

Game On, the first in The Academy series, will lure young teens into its fast-paced drama. Graduates of popular middle school drama series will enjoy this slightly more mature version of their familiar favorites. Tennis star Monica Seles has started the book series that could easily become teens’ new favorite lively and fun beach read.

Reviewed by Tara Michelle Campbell, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia

The Wall, by William Sutcliffe
Walker Books, 2013, 291 pp., $17.99
Occupation & War Zones/ Loss & Grief/Segregation/Religion/Stepfathers/Modern fables
ISBN: 978-0-8027-3492-1

Thirteen-year-old Joshua has gotten used to The Wall he lives behind. He has been told it protects Amarias from attack, and why wouldn’t he believe it? Searching for a lost soccer ball, Joshua makes a startling discovery: a tunnel to the other side of The Wall. What he finds and who he meets there are life-altering. Back on his side, Joshua has questions that need answering¸ and loyalties that need questioning. It’s not only The Wall that looms over Joshua. His grief for his dead father punctuates his life. And then there’s his stepfather – whose occupation of Joshua’s family is every bit as imposing as The Wall.

It is impossible not to fall in love with Sutcliffe’s exquisite prose. He is a master of description and we are with Joshua through every inch of his journey. This is a book filled with beautiful horrors, and horrible truths. A fable mirroring Israel’s West Bank, this story forces readers to join Joshua in asking questions. Just as there are no easy answers or simple solutions in real life, there are none in these pages. Joshua must come to terms with drastic physical consequences, along with the realization that “…once you know something, you can never unknow it.” (p.286)

Reviewed by Selene Castrovilla, Island Park, New York

Awaken, by Meg Cabot
Point, 2013, 343 pp., $17.99
ISBN: 978-0-545-28412-7

In the third book of the trilogy, seventeen-year-old Pierce and her boyfriend, John, are the rulers of the Underworld – or at least the entrance to it, but something is amiss. The ferries transporting souls to the Underworld are set on a collision course and only John can stop them by sacrificing himself. Pierce’s family continues to be decidedly unhelpful as she tries to save John from permanent death, defeat the Furies, settle a score with a corrupt developer and his son, and restore the balance of the Fates. With her best friend, her cousin, and John’s henchman, Pierce must return to her hometown in the middle of a hurricane in order to figure out how to fix the Underworld and bring John back to life.

Cabot’s dry humor and quick wit add a new dimension to this loose retelling of the Persephone story. Constant action keeps the story moving as Cabot pushes the importance of getting involved rather than standing by idly. Surrounded by a supportive family of her own creation, Pierce overcomes the dysfunction of her biological family. Readers will want to root for Pierce and John’s relationship as well as their fight to defend their home and their friends.

Reviewed by Liz Carr, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan

If I Ever Get Out Of Here, by Eric Gansworth
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012, 359 pp., $17.99
Reservation Narratives/Ethnic, Cultural and Class Dynamics/Friendship/ Friendship between Boys
ISBN: 978-0-545-41730-3

In 1976, a boy going nowhere and a boy on the move become friends in seventh grade. Lewis Blake feels he may never leave his home on the Tuscarora Reservation, despite his academic potential. Air Force kid George Haddingfield just moved to Niagara County, NY, yet another temporary stop before his high-ranking father is reassigned. While George eagerly shares his middle class home and culture with Lewis, Lewis is reluctant to ask George to the reservation, to a home with no indoor plumbing, taped windows, and a sizable hole in the kitchen roof. George is more forthcoming, but both dodge questions that require mutual trust and humility as they navigate having a best friend for the first time. Lewis attempts to hide his poverty. George’s motives for befriending Lewis are unclear. But when George sees how their peers and teachers treat Lewis with suspicion and contempt because he is poor and Indian, even to the point of ignoring bullying wealthy Evan Reiniger’s constant assaults — so brutal Lewis stops attending school — George takes irrevocable action, creating tangible social consequences for both. With albums by The Beatles, Queen, and Wings as their soundtracks, the boys and their families practice a peculiar dance of getting close enough to share realities yet worrying getting too close will widen the wedge of difference. When the blizzard of ‘76 yields the exact situation Lewis fears most, an inescapable coming together of friends and family at his decaying abode, the results will show the two families may have more in common than Lewis thought.

Gansworth’s contribution to young adult reservation narratives –regarding both a key setting of the novel and in terms of the emotional state of having reservations about acting and sharing – develops methodically but earns its place via dual protagonists with hearts of gold who want to do the right thing by one another but must trump their anxieties of ruining the strongest friendship either has experienced. Bullies, girls, stereotypes, privilege, power politics and socieconomics challenge and redefine their relationship, as does fate, but readers will want this pair to stay friends as much as Lewis and George do, and neither will be the same for knowing the other.

Reviewed by James Bucky Carter, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington

Doomed, by Tracy Deebs
Walker Books, 2013, 480 pp., $17.99
Virtual Reality/Computer Games/Fathers/Science Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-8027-2373-4

Pandora is alone on her birthday. Estranged from her father and left on her own by her mother, a busy corporate lawyer, Pandora doubts that this day will bring her much joy. When she receives a birthday email from her father with his promise to answer any questions she might have about him, her interest is piqued. Attached to the email is a link to twelve pictures from her childhood. But when she opens the attachments, she unwittingly unleashes a computer virus that shuts down the global power grid. The only thing running is a virtual reality game designed by her father called Pandora’s Box. With the help of two teen neighbors, Eli and Theo, Pandora must use clues from her childhood to solve all the levels of the game. At stake is the future of civilization.

This is a fast-paced science fiction thriller that addresses the issues of global warming, pollution and sustainability. Pandora must quickly learn how to survive in both the virtual and the real world, as the clock ticks down and civilization begins to fall apart. Deebs also introduces a classic love triangle to the adventure, as Pandora struggles to decipher her growing attraction for both Eli and Theo.

Reviewed by Jan Chapman, Strongsville Library, Strongsville, Ohio

The Twelve-Fingered Boy, by John Hornor Jacobs
Lerner Publishing Group, Inc., 2013, 264 pp., $17.95
Juvenile detention homes/Supernatural/Adolescent males/Adventure/Fantasy
ISBN: 978-0-7613-9007-7

Meet fifteen-year old, fast-talking, quick-thinking Shreve, eldest son of an absent, alcoholic mother and big brother to Vig. Shreve, an inmate at the Casimir Pulaski Juvenile Detention Center, runs a successful, covert candy sales business. He is a survivor, a hustler, and a loner; his world view shifts when assigned a new cellmate, Jack, a quiet, frail-looking boy who has six fingers on each hand. Jack suppresses a troublesome past, full of pain and anger. When these emotions emerge on the surface, a magical seismic energy converges on all who are near. Jack has special powers and is watched by a mysterious, dangerous man. This man, Quincrix, also possess supernatural powers, powers that invade and violate people’s minds and bodies. Shreve and Jack turn to one another once they escape from the juvenile detention center and attempt to stay ahead of Quincrix and his followers.

John Hornor Jacobs has created an intense, fast-paced fantasy novel. Readers will quickly become invested in the lives of the two teenagers who lean on their resourcefulness and resiliency to continue despite the disappointments of the past, dangers of the present, and uncertainty of the future.

Reviewed by Shanetia Clark, Salisbury University, Salisbury Maryland

Extremities by David Lubar
Tor Teen, 2013, 208 pp. $15.99
ISBN: 978-0765334602

In one of the most gripping of the 13 tales in David Lubar’s collection of horror stories, the main character, Don, remarks that the works of Poe come into his mind “at the oddest of moments.” Like Don, Lubar himself channels the granddaddy of the horror genre in each of the pieces in this chilling collection. After struggling to publish the collection elsewhere, Lubar eventually managed to convince Tor Teen, publisher of his best-selling “Weenies” stories, to take a chance with Extremities. Poe, one of the early champions of the American short story, is surely cheering from beyond the grave.

Lubar makes clear that Extremities is not intended for his usual “Weenies” audience. “This is not a book for children,” he emphatically states in his author’s note (a caution reiterated on the back dust jacket). Revenge on a sadistic gym teacher, a hot girl who turns out to be a succubus, voodoo spells ending in patricide — the dark nature of the tales definitely makes them inappropriate for middle school readers. But for more mature teens, these macabre stories might draw in even reluctant readers. This collection might even serve as a gateway text to more sophisticated masters of the genre such as Stephen King, and indeed Poe himself. Cheers to both Lubar and his publisher for offering today’s teen readers with a more approachable, but no less terrifying, collection of horror to enjoy.

Reviewed by Leigh Chow, Mechanicsburg Area Sr. High School, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

The Different Girl, by Gordon Dahlquist
Dutton Books, 2013, 230 pp., $16.99
Experiments/Island Life/Shipwrecks/Science Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-525-42597-7

Veronika, one of four nearly identical girls who live on a remote island, narrates the story of their life with caretakers, Irene and Robbert. The girls lead a peaceful, if rather repetitive life, of preparing meals and learning from Robbert and Irene until a mysterious girl washes ashore after a shipwreck. As the story unfolds through the voice and somewhat limited viewpoint of Veronika, the reader remains in the dark, quite like the four girls who struggle to understand their new visitor, her many secrets, and through her, their own curious existence on the island.

Dahlquist weaves an intriguing story of many mysteries, leaving the reader to discover the truths of the island and its inhabitants along with the four girls who have been taught to carefully and precisely analyze their surroundings each day. The intrigue and cryptic rules of the caretakers—never go into the water, never climb the cliffs—leave the reader questioning the island, the outside world, and who or what the girls might be right up until the end of the story.

Reviewed by Ruth Caillouet, Clayton State University, Morrow, Georgia

The Living, by Matt De La Peña
Delacorte Press, 2013, 320 pp., $17.99
Adventure Fiction/Mystery Fiction/Post-Apocalyptic Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-385-74120-0

Shy Espinoza is a Mexican-American teenager from Otay Mesa, a community in the south end of San Diego, just north of the U.S.–Mexico border. Shy takes a summer job on a cruise ship so that he can make enough money to help his mom and sister pay the bills back home. As the Paradise cruise ship heads toward Hawaii, Shy has already made some good money and a few good friends, including Carmen, a beautiful, older Mexican-American who, like Shy, is from a working-class neighborhood not far from Otay Mesa. Both Shy and Carmen have lost loved ones to Romero Disease, a quick hitting, fatal affliction that seems to be spreading from Mexico into the U.S. Shy immediately develops strong feelings for the alluring Carmen, but alas, she is engaged to be married, so even though a few sparks fly, both manage to keep their emotions and bodies in check. But this is more than a romance novel.

On a previous cruise earlier in the summer, Shy was unsuccessful in his attempt to save a passenger from committing suicide. As a result, he is having recurring nightmares and being followed and questioned by a mysterious man in a black suit. To make matters worse, after Skyping with his mother, Shy discovers that his nephew Miguel has now been diagnosed with Romero Disease. But this is more than a realistic fiction novel.

A massive earthquake, “the big one,” hits California, and as a result, a giant tsunami hits the cruise ship. Shy and other “fortunate” survivors are thrown into the sea, along with a few broken lifeboats and small rafts that they must try to salvage to keep from dying, even as the tsunami rages around them. Shy attempts to help as many passengers as he can, but is eventually thrown from the ship and finds himself on a raft with Addie, an attractive, blonde, rich, and spoiled passenger whom Shy had briefly spoken to earlier. Together, they must learn to co-exist and survive under the harshest of conditions. But this is more than an adventure novel.

There is a mystery to unravel here. The suicide, the man who is following Shy, even the strange and fatal Romero Disease all play a part in this mystery. But this is more than a mystery. An earthquake has virtually leveled the West coast. If Shy and Addie do survive, what sort of post apocalyptic America will they return to?

De La Peña’s has always been adept at crafting genuine, appealing characters who reflect the context, themes, and emotions of the story he is telling. Both Shy and Carmen are honest, well-thought-out characters with whom readers will immediately connect. The Living serves to showcase De La Peña’s incredible storytelling ability. His descriptions of the storm and shipwreck are completely enthralling. Perhaps most surprising, however, is the authors ability to shift genres–one moment a romance, the next a mystery, the next an adventure/life threatening disaster–all the while maintaining the perfect narrative restraint.

The good news is that although many questions are answered at the conclusion of The Living, so many more have not been answered. Not to worry, the sequel, The Hunted will be released in the Fall of 2014.

Reviewed by Bryan Gillis, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Georgia


Interview with Matt De La Peña
(Bryan communicated with Matt via e-mail)

Bryan: The Living is quite a departure from your previous four YA novels. Your protagonist is a recognizable one (a bi-racial male), but the post apocalyptic feel, the mystery, the adventure, what was your inspiration for writing this story?

Matt: Yeah, The Living is definitely a departure for me in terms of the contextual story. I’d written four quiet, class and race conscious novels, and I wanted to challenge myself and try something new, something outside my comfort zone. I also wanted to try burying my class and race exploration behind something big, hoping it would be a layer of the story instead of the story itself (though the book is still essentially about class). Growing up in southern California, I was always worried about the “big one” hitting, an earthquake so massive that it would level the entire state, so I started with that, natural disaster. And then I inserted my usual characters into this context (mixed race kids from working class neighborhoods) to see how they would cope. It’s interesting, as different from my other work as the books is in terms of plot, it’s actually quite similar in terms of theme.

Bryan: In the acknowledgement section, you mention that as research, you actually took a cruise. I love your comments to all the friends you asked to go with you who turned you down. What was it like, being on a cruise where you are (I imagine) taking notes for a story about a cruise ship that is going to crash? And since the story was told from a cruise worker’s point of view, did you get access to any of the places that us common folk don’t get to see?

Matt: It was very sad. Nobody would go on a cruise with me. I even put out a plea on Facebook. Nothing. Everyone said the same thing, cruises are cheesy. But I knew there was no way I could write the book without experiencing a cruise for myself. So I went alone. I spent five days at sea walking around with a notepad, writing down everything I saw, everything I felt. I basically walked Shy’s path before I wrote anything. The cruise staff was incredibly helpful. They let me explore the staff quarters and interview anyone I wanted. I got to hang out in a staff bar one night so I could eavesdrop on conversations. I shadowed a towel boy (Shy’s main job on the ship) one day. I’m so happy I went on the cruise, and at the end of the day I was probably better off rolling solo — it made me focus on the research. One of the details of Shy’s experience at sea is his evolving relationship with the massive ocean. The sea really does whisper to you. Especially at night. That was one of the most important discoveries I made when I stood on the deck in the middle of the night, alone, staring out at the never-ending blackness.

Bryan: Shy, like many of your male protagonists, although aware that females are attracted to him, seems to lack confidence when it comes to relating to girls whom he views as out of his league. Any personal connections to this type of character, and, has your perspective on your male characters, or on character relationships in general, changed at all since getting married?

Matt: Relationship dynamics are fascinating. I find myself more and more drawn to them in my work lately. (One day I’m gonna mess around and write a straight-up romance novel. Watch.) Shy is cool and confident, and he definitely digs the ladies. But that’s all from afar. When he gets up close and personal with a girl like Carmen, he gets spooked. The cool goes out the window. On the outside he might still be playing the mellow card, but inside he’s a jittery mess. I love watching the supposedly smooth kid get shook by a pretty girl. Teenage girls have no idea how much power they possess. Seriously. I wish I could run national seminars about this stuff. When I was a kid, my whole outlook on life could change in the time it took a pretty girl to walk across the room. Now that I’m married, I find myself wanting more than ever to expose the fragile heart of working class guys. They’re tough. But they’re vulnerable, too. Their little hearts are beating in the hands of girls who don’t “see” the leverage they hold.

Bryan: What can you tell us about the sequel to The Living?

Matt: Funny you should ask, I’m just finishing up the revision of the sequel now. It’s called The Hunted, and I’m super excited about it. I can tell you this, it starts with my characters landing in CA — which is actually the first image I had in mind before starting the two-book series. While The Living is set on the ocean, The Hunted leads Shy and company through a scorching-hot desert. On the surface it’s an action-packed adventure story, but underneath all that I’m really trying to explore issues of class and race and personal philosophy. These two books have really been a fun ride for me. I’m just hoping readers dig Shy’s story, too!