ALAN Picks September 2014
The Truth about Alice, by Jennifer Mathieu
Roaring Brook Press, 2014, 199 pp., $16.99
Alice Franklin’s junior year in high school is a lesson in bullying, popularity, friendship, and the sometimes unfairness of life. Alice lives in small-town Texas where everyone knows everyone else and his or her business. And, rumor has it that Alice not only slept with two boys in one night at a party, but that she also had a hand in the death of one of the boys, the most popular boy in school and Healy High School’s best quarterback in years. As the rumors swirl, Alice goes from semi-popular to town pariah in little more than a few weeks. Her “crimes” against the town are immortalized on the “Slut Wall”, a stall in the girls’ bathroom that has Alice-bullying graffiti written all over it in Sharpie.
Written in first person from the point of view of five students, the novel presents life for these teens, who are trying to get through high school, vying for positions of popularity, and protecting their hard-won status. It illustrates the potential cruelty of people and how it can develop over time as things get out of hand. It also shows how, when everything has hit rock bottom and it seems that there is no way out, rescue can come from the unlikeliest of places and things can start to look up.
Reviewed by Frankie W. Huff, Seminole State College, Sanford, Florida
Perfectly Good White Boy, by Carrie Mesrobian
Carolrhoda Books, 2014, 295 pp., $17.95
Sean Norwalt had been waiting for his high school senior year his whole life because it was finally the time when he could be among “the ones who knew the most” (p. 47). So when he is dumped by the beautiful Hallie as she leaves him behind for college, he pledges not to be fazed. Instead, he finds himself in shifting states of dismay and frustration as he struggles with his feelings towards an alcoholic father, a disengaged older brother, and a thrift store job where turning 18 holds the promise of operating the clothes baler. Not interested in college, he considers two possible futures: one offered by a local Marine Corps recruiter and one held out by his co-worker Neecie, to whom he finds himself increasingly drawn. But Neecie is leading her own complex life as she persistently hooks up with the high school hockey star, uncertain in her steps as she moves toward independence.
Mesrobian is an observant storyteller with an eye and ear for realistic characters and dialogue. She takes on complicated coming-of-age issues with a frank and at times graphic stance that resists melodramatic narrative turns or too-easy resolutions. With crisp writing, she creates Sean as a thoughtful, smart, witty, and realistic narrator who portrays the transition of leaving home as both ragged and liberating.
Reviewed by Teri Holbrook, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia
sinner, by Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic Press, 2014, 357 pp., $18.99
“I came back for you, Isabel.” After two years in obscurity following a drug-addicted fall from grace, Cole St. Clair, charismatic lead singer of the wildly popular rock band NARKOTIKA, appears in L.A. to star in a reality TV show that will document his comeback. He has a complicated past with the beautiful Isabel, who is wary of his return. Both Cole and the producer want Isabel to be part of the reality show, but since the show has seen its share of former fallen celebrities return to their destructive ways, Isabel is reluctant to get involved and risk opening her heart again to Cole. Isabel is already troubled: she is grieving her brother’s death, her parents are separated, and she works in a place where the fake glamour and celebrity that she finds contemptible are cultivated. Cole seems sincere in his desire for a relationship with Isabel, but are his past sins, which include shifting into a wolf, behind him?
Readers of the Wolves of Mercy Falls series will enjoy Cole and Isabel and the opportunity to see their story continue. It is told alternately from each of their points of view. Cole’s occasional shift to wolf and his ease at turning on the affected charm are sometimes hard to take, as is Isabel’s icy demeanor toward others. But their behavior highlights their inner struggles and compels readers to cheer for them. Supporting characters Leon, Sofia, and Jeremy give the story a gentleness that the main characters often lack.
Reviewed by Dawn Henretty, Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan
High & Dry, by Sarah Skilton
Amulet Books, 2014, 258 pp., $16.95
Sarah Skilton skillfully adapts the mystery and crime suspense genres to young adult literature. Charlie, cranky, irascible high school senior, is up to his neck on two cases. What is on the missing flash drive, what evidence of corruption at the school does it hold? And who drugged and hospitalized Maria Salvador, for which Charlie was initially framed? Foremost on Charlie’s mind, however, is how to redeem himself and restart his relationship with Ellie, who broke up with him over the Christmas break.
As callous and socially brusque as Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, Charlie plunges ahead, bearing down on the guilty parties, plotting solutions, sketchy or not. But what Charlie doesn’t realize is that while he sorts out these cases, while he works to win back Ellie, he himself is being played by others. As in the best crime fiction, it is not easy to separate good from bad. Skilton has deftly crafted characters that navigate these gray spaces.
Reviewed by Crag Hill, Oklahoma University, Norman, Oklahoma
The Geography of You and Me, by Jennifer E. Smith
Poppy (Little, Brown and Company), 2014, 337 pp, $18.00
Love/Voyages and travels/Social classes
Lucy lives on the 24th floor of an upper eastside apartment building in New York. Owen has just moved in with his father, the new building manager. They meet unexpectedly when a black-out traps them together in the elevator. Both feel like they don’t quite fit in, and both long to travel to faraway places. They feel a strong connection to each other, but before they can explore it, they both end up on unexpected journeys—Owen on his way west across the United States as his father searches for a job, and Lucy to Europe to be with her parents. In all the new places they travel to, they still think of each other and stay in touch through postcards.
Smith vividly describes the many places to which Owen and Lucy journey and the ways these new places help them to learn about themselves and what kind of love each wants to have. Readers who long to be in a new place, in a new part of their lives, will find much to help them imagine the life and love they want, too.
Reviewed by Gretchen Hovan, Minneapolis, Minnesota
The Secret Hum of a Daisy, by Tracy Holczer
GP Putnam’s Son, 2014, 312 pp., $16.99
Relationships/Loss/ Love/Coming of Age/Realistic Fiction
Grace finds herself alone in the world after her mother, the only family she has ever known, dies in an accident. Forced to live with her estranged grandmother, Grace tries to work through each day in this new place and around new people, discovering Grandma may not be the cruel figure her mother portrayed her to be. When Grace begins to find small origami cranes, she believes they are a sign from her mother– a treasure hunt similar to those she would send Grace on whenever they moved to a new city. With the help of the cranes and the community of people who also once loved her mother, Grace embarks on a memorable journey of finding a place to call home.
Holczer has written a lyrical story with lovable characters. Grace, although wise beyond her years, embodies the child that remains in all of us. Holczer’s beautiful words and insights resonated with each page. The Secret Hum of a Daisy not only takes you on Grace’s journey, but on your own journey through childhood, friendships, and the meaning of home.
Reviewed by Dana Gilligan, Granville, Ohio
Love is the Drug, by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2014, 352 pp., $17.99
Emily Bird tries so hard to be the perfect student as she finishes her senior year at a prestigious Washington, D.C. prep school. She does everything she can to make her scientist mother proud: she gets straight A’s, strives for an Ivy League acceptance, even relaxes her hair the way her mother likes (well, demands). She even has the perfect boyfriend, Paul, who takes her to a swanky party so he can network and score an internship with Roosevelt, a private contractor for the CIA. But if Paul is so perfect, why does Emily wake up out of a coma eight days after the party with no memory of how she got there? Everyone blames Coffee, her drug-dealing classmate, yet Emily feels Coffee may be the only one she can trust. As a deadly flu rages around the country and quarantines the D.C. area, Roosevelt is sure that Emily knows something about the secret scientific work her parents are doing that could be harmful to the government. But Emily doesn’t know, and isn’t sure she wants to remember. Yet with Coffee’s help, Emily Bird may be brave enough to find out.
Love is the Drug is a sharp, complex story of politics and science, with enough danger and romance to keep teens intrigued. Readers will appreciate Emily Bird’s journey from “Emily” to “Bird” as she matures and starts to live her life for herself rather than for her mother. With a detailed plot that includes drug use and sex, this is a book for older teens looking for a smart, developed read.
Reviewed by Nicole Hochholzer, Combined Locks, Wisconsin
Pig Park, by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez
Cinco Puntos Press, 2014, 233pp., $15.95
Fiction/Urban Life/Coming of Age
Pig Park, a neighborhood in Chicago, is virtually deserted since its main job supplier, American Lard Company, closed its brick-and-mortar processing plant and outsourced production to China. Fifteen-year-old Masi Burciaga is a part of one of the remaining twenty-five families dedicated to reviving the community. Together, they agree to trust a university expert who tells them that building a large pyramid will attract people to their area, which will in turn provide their businesses with consumers and create jobs. Once they have invested personal resources, including time, toil, and cash, they discover the professor is just another opportunistic snake oil salesman.
Though the plot is overburdened with mundane details, description, and nonessential characters, readers who stay committed will enjoy subplots that focus on Masi’s family’s bakery, her first romance, and her heartbreak when mom leaves the family unexpectedly.
Reviewed by KaaVonia Hinton, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia
yolo, by Lauren Myracle
Amulet Books, 2014, 196 pp., $16.95
Instant Messaging/Friendship/College Life
The Internet Girls embark on their first semester of college, but the three friends are spread across the country at separate colleges: Zoe in Ohio, Maddie in California, and Angela in Georgia. Maddie has a plan to stay connected and make the most of their experience, and the winsome threesome agree to “Eat. College. Up.” (8) – to try everything that comes their way and face their fears. However, each friend is soon met with a trial that threatens her ability to meet Maddie’s “yolo” challenge. Zoe worries that Doug, at another college, is growing apart from her. Angela has growing doubts about pledging her sorority. Even “mad” Maddie struggles with self-doubt when she feels like an outsider in her dorm suite. By keeping their commitment to their pact and to one another, the girls discover new strengths and the courage to be themselves.
Told entirely through text messages, Myracle’s story captures the wonderful invention and playfulness of the medium. The theme of the book – you only live once (yolo) – plays out as circumstances force each character to handle adversity on her own. Myracle does not shy away from showing the darker side of college – uncomfortable roommate situations, sorority hazing, drunkenness – yet the tone of the book is relentlessly positive, and the challenges of college provide context for the growth of her protagonists.
Reviewed by Heather Henry, Lake Mills, Wisconsin
The Murder Notebooks: Killing Rachel, by Anne Cassidy
Walker, 2013, 320 pp., $16.99
Lately, Rose’s life has been a series of mysteries, loss, and clues – but no answers. When her mother and stepfather mysteriously disappear, the only clues seem to be contained in a set of notebooks. Unfortunately, these notebooks were written in code. Sometime after leaving Mary Linton High School to live with her grandmother, Rose begins to receive frantic, strange letters and messages from Rachel. Rachel claims that she saw Rose’s parents. Soon after sending the news, Rachel’s body is found in the school lake. Are the disappearance of Rose’s parents and Rachel’s death related? After investigating Rachel’s death, Rose uncovers shocking connections to her parents’ disappearance, and is that much closer to finding out the truth.
Killing Rachel, the second installment of The Murder Notebooks, is a young detective story with a modern-day twist. Cassidy writes about broken families, loss, finding true friends, and finding your past. Rose is realistic, strong, independent, and shows that hard work can bring you clarity in a world of secrets and lies.
Reviewed by Jessica Henry, Goldsboro, North Carolina
The Islands at the End of the World, by Austin Aslan
Wendy Lamb Books, 2014, 384 pp., $11.99
Science Fiction/Hawaii/Post Apocalypse/Disabilities
Sixteen-year-old surfer, Leilani, travels from Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawai’i, to O’ahu with her dad to participate in a promising pharmaceutical trial that may better manage her epilepsy, freeing her to finally be able to drive and live a normal teenage life. While there, a global natural disaster occurs, cutting them off from all traditional routes back home and disabling all contact with her mother, brother and grandfather awaiting their return to Hilo. They must fight their way through military encampments, warring factions killing to stake a claim on the islands, and desperate travelers from all over the world scrounging to secure their own passage home, all while dealing with Leilani’s strange new seizures through which the Hawaiian gods seem to be trying to tell her something. Is there a connection to the disaster unfolding around her? Can she save the islands and family she loves so much?
The Islands at the End of the World is a sci-fi melting-pot exploration of Hawaiian culture, religion, natural disasters, alien beings, global destruction, and science that are not as disparate as one might think. Austin Aslan creates a superb story that dares the reader to reconsider the universe. His characters are relatable to the young, adult and elderly alike. He uses literary devices to create a world and a story in which readers can immerse themselves. The allusions span cultural generations to unite older and younger readers alike. The voice and word choice are engaging, and the difficulty of the vocabulary is easy enough to enjoy, but challenging enough to expand learning.
Reviewed by Wendy Howard, Manhattan, Kansas
The Freedom Summer Murders, by Don Mitchell
Scholastic Press, 2014, 250 pp., $18.99
Nonfiction/Racism/Civil Rights Movement
In this nonfiction account of three murders that shook the nation, readers are transported back to the Deep South at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. There, they follow the stories of three young men, two white and one black, working together to register black Americans in Mississippi to vote during the sweltering summer of 1964. After brutally murdering these men, the Klu Klux Klan believed that the country would turn a blind eye to racial violence in the South, as it had long done. They were wrong. The furor resulting from these crimes helped bring about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This book offers readers detailed portraits of the three murdered young men, as well as their motivation for putting themselves in harm’s way for this cause. It also provides a lens for readers to consider the progress the country has made in race relations. Parallels can be drawn between the actions of the police in 1964 and those in the news today. After reading about the persecution blacks faced in the Jim Crow South at the hands of civilians and police, readers may be left asking the question, “How far have we really come?”
Reviewed by Caroline Hopenwasser, State University of New York New Paltz