ALAN Picks September 2017
Welcome fall and a new round of ALAN Picks for September! Check out the newest young adult titles reviewed by the ALAN Picks cadre of reviewers.
On The Free by Coert Voorhees
Carolrhoda Lab, 2017, 271 pp, $17.99
Survival/Wilderness/Camping/Juvenile Delinquency/Hispanic Americans
Santi agrees to go on a weeklong wilderness “therapy program” instead of spending more time in juvenile detention. Amelia, one of the program leaders, signs up to prove that she isn’t just a shallow debutante. Victor is sent to learn self-discipline. The therapy program doesn’t seem to challenge anyone, that is until a tragic accident leaves Santi, Amelia, and Victor stranded together in the Colorado wilderness. Dependent on each other and desperate to survive, they must learn each other’s secrets and rely on each other’s strengths.
Victor’s secret involves a plan for revenge, and it has the power to warp their relationships and put them all in danger. Soon their struggle for survival is about more than just the elements. But Santi and Amelia have a few secrets of their own, and they are determined to make it out of the mountains.
Coert Voorhees has written a suspenseful survival adventure full of intrigue and informed by a first hand love for wilderness camping. Voorhees excels at writing believable and clever teenage dialogue. The book is stylistically interesting, with well-timed shifts in the viewpoints of Santi, Amelia, and Victor, with Santi emerging as the main character and hero. The final scene, while satisfying and cathartic in many ways, is not a terminal ending for this story and invites a sequel. It presents an interesting opportunity for classroom instructors to lead a deliberative discussion on each character’s perspective in the last scene. I particularly enjoyed how Voorhees translates familiar teenage struggles into a wilderness survival situation- the need for acceptance, the desire for parental approval, the desire to protect loved ones, and the strain of choosing between what is safe, and what is right.
Reviewed by Ryan K. Strader, Atlanta, Georgia
Romeo, Juliet & Jim by Larry Schwarz & Iva-Marie Palmer
Henry Holt and Company, 2017, 278 pp., $17.99
Young Adult/Love/Paris (France)/Romance
The novel begins with the authors telling readers that the best loves to write about are the doomed ones. Shakespeare said that love is merely madness. What better story to explore then than the story of the star-crossed lovers Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. Schwarz and Palmer set the story in modern Paris. The two families own the most successful fashion houses in Paris. Romeo and Juliet attend public high school, despite being heirs to the wealthy fashion houses. Both feel cloistered by their wealthy families but enjoy the privileges their families provide. Romeo and Juliet are, of course, secretly dating, and their love is all the more urgent because the feuding Capulet and Montague families can separate them from each other forever if they find out.
While Juliet, who is uncommonly beautiful, models all the forthcoming punk fashions (Dior, Gucci, and of course Capulet), she also loves shopping at flea markets for secondhand goods. As she struggles to break free of her constraints, she longs to reveal her hidden relationship with Romeo. Meanwhile, her brother, Henri, suffers from a difficult drug addiction. The pressures of being a Capulet are intense.
Romeo, dark and intense, is struggling to be a good son. He thinks he and Juliet still need keep their relationship hidden from their families. His past was a pursuit of amorous conquests, but those days are over. He finds Juliet singular and perfect for him. The reader sees him struggle with his feelings about being a good boyfriend to Juliet and a good friend to Jim.
Jim is a cocky, mysterious American boy who owns exotic motorcycles and rescues Romeo and Juliet from being caught together. The three become good friends. However, Jim’s father wants to purchase the rival fashion houses of Capulet and Montague and has instructed him to keep an eye on Romeo and Juliet. Torn between his deep need for his father’s approval and his friendship with Romeo and Juliet, he feels lost.
The first book of a young adult trilogy, Romeo, Juliet & Jim effectively explores themes of love and friendship, and what those themes mean to teenagers. It is easy to empathize with the characters as they struggle to trust each other amidst jealousy, possessiveness, and the pulls of physical desire. They are looking for both independence and love. Will they succeed? Readers won’t know until the trilogy is over.
Reviewed by Dana Greci, Fairbanks, Alaska
Flight Risk by Jennifer Fenn
Roaring Brook Press, 2017, 373pp, $17.99
Social and Family Issues/Runaways/Adventure/Survival/Juvenile System/Sensationalized News Coverage/ADHD
Robert Jackson Kelly lives with a myth of his own making, the story of his his father as a rebel who successfully evaded police and is most likely living in the Canadian wilderness. Even though several adults try to help Robert recover from small missteps, his problems escalate until he believes his only option is to follow his father’s imagined footsteps and make a run for it.
Although Robert struggles in high school, he discovers his own perseverance, resourcefulness, and critical thinking skills as he tries to escape. He takes huge risks, like attempting to fly a stolen Cessna, because he feels desperate to get away from places where he feels trapped. He remains a considerate yet untethered teen, forced into choices he never imagined having to face. Interviews, news clippings, and excerpts from the book about his exploits fill in the details of his final attempt at flight.
In her debut novel, Jennifer Fenn draws upon her experiences as a classroom teacher to provide readers with a detailed picture of life for a likeable, yet troubled teen. The book is loosely based on a true story, and openly reflects Robert’s favorite book, Hatchet by Gary Paulson. Fenn challenges us to examine why we are rooting for someone who has committed several crimes, and what else someone could have done to help him. Readers will find much to discuss in this compelling look at how family, the juvenile justice system, and sensationalized news shapes Robert’s story.
Reviewed by Kathryn Mitchell Pierce, Saint Louis, Missouri
Suspect Red by L.M. Elliott
Disney Hyperion Books, 2017, 304pp, $17.99
Richard Bradley lives the life of a typical fourteen-year-old boy growing up in Washington D.C. in the 1950s. Yet what appears to be a “normal” teenage life is anything but that for Richard, who also happens to be the son of an FBI agent during the height of the McCarthy-era hearings. Anyone during this time who appeared to host a shred of disloyalty toward the U.S. government could be blacklisted, fired, or ousted from political life. Richard also happens to live in a premiere neighborhood of the Washington elite, whose residents include FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover and Vice President Richard Nixon. Because of his dad’s stature and proximity to the political elite, even newlywed Jackie Kennedy makes an appearance.
Readers travel with Richard through a series of vignettes based around real-world events during 1953 and 1954. He befriends a new boy in the neighborhood, Vlad, whose family originated from Czechoslovakia. Richard and Vlad share a love of music, girls, and books, especially the books that were being removed from library shelves due to fears of subversive themes, the books Richard’s dad forbid him to read. Vlad’s family, however, is not the typical family in the neighborhood and suspicions about their loyalty are quickly raised. Richard must begin to decide where his own loyalties lie and whether or not to trust his instincts.
In this compelling mix of fiction and non-fiction events, L.M. Elliott takes the reader back to a time of hysteria and wild suspicion. Richard’s inside knowledge about the FBI creates a rich discord within his internal battles. He struggles as he learns more about his friend’s family, yet suffers from the urgency of a country desperate for loyalty from its people, a country trying to heal after a distressing world war. The people with whom Richard interacts might be legendary Washingtonians or average housewives depending on the day, yet his access to Washington allows him a front seat at many newsworthy events. Weaving news photos, press releases, and real-life events allows readers to experience this distressing time of censorship, persecution, and panic through the lens of an average teenage boy thrown into a very atypical time and place in history.
Reviewed by Gretchen Oltman, Omaha, Nebraska
Disappeared by Francisco X. Stork
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2017, $17.99
Action/Adventure/Family Relationships/Immigration/Life Choices
As an aspiring journalist, Sara Zapata writes articles about the young women in her city of Juarez, Mexico that go missing– most either found dead or never seen again. Those among the missing include Sara’s best friend Linda, whom she is determined to find. Sara takes pride in her weekly column and feels that she is keeping the missing girls’ memories alive. When Sara’s articles attract the attention of the criminals behind the kidnappings, they issue an anonymous threat to cease writing about Linda or Sara and her family will be killed. Sara must decide if she wants to continue fighting for what she knows in her heart is right, even if that means putting her family at risk.
Emiliano, Sara’s brother, is also caught up in a moral dilemma that could greatly affect his family. Emiliano has become the man of the house since his father left them. He does his best to provide for his mother and sister but is very aware of the poverty in which they live. An opportunity arises for Emiliano that will provide him with more than enough money to give his family a good life and impress the rich girl he is desperately in love with. However, this opportunity will force him to become a player in a drug-smuggling scheme. Emiliano must decide if he is willing to compromise everything he believes in, including hard work, integrity, and honesty, in order to make more money.
Unfolding over four harrowing days, Sara and Emiliano’s worlds collide as they face seemingly impossible choices and are eventually forced to flee Mexico together in order to seek asylum in the United States.
In Disappeared, Stork has not only crafted a powerful narrative about morality and family but has also given readers an unflinching and timely look at issues such as political corruption, immigration, silencing of journalists/media, poverty, and human trafficking. The chapters alternate between Sara and Emiliano’s points of view, allowing readers to empathize with both characters and understand the complexity of their emotions and the motivation behind their actions. Stork’s storytelling is fast-paced, full of twists, and will have readers breathlessly turning pages with the same sense of urgency and anxiety that Sara and Emiliano feel throughout the book.
Reviewed by Jessica Harris, Wethersfield, Connecticut
Vanilla by Billy Merrell
Push/Scholastic, 2017, 306pp, $17.99
Hunter and Vanilla have been together since seventh grade. Theirs was a love that they were sure would stand the test of time. After all, they started out as friends, realized that their relationship might be something special, came out together, and became two parts of a whole in a match that everyone knew would last. While it was true that they had different interests, those differences complemented each other, simply adding depth to their love. But trouble looms on their sunny horizon as Hunter begins pressuring Vanilla to have sex. Vanilla is sure he loves Hunter, but he isn’t so sure that he wants to take the relationship to that particular level. Kissing, hugging, and touching are one thing, but for some reason he fears the next step. As the two teens try to compromise, neither one is satisfied since Hunter realizes that he wants more than Vanilla is willing to give and Vanilla is confused that someone who knows him so well would be so persistent and determined. As the two of them try to sort out their relationship and decide whether they have a future, it becomes increasingly clear that they are growing apart and moving in different directions. As Vanilla watches Hunter being drawn to a different group of friends who are loud and into partying, he feels uncomfortable and left out, knowing that he just cannot fit with that group. When the inevitable break comes, it is no surprise, but it still leaves both of them licking their wounds and trying to figure out where things went wrong. Although this is primarily their story, it is also the story of another character, Clown/Angel, an onlooker whose flashy surface belies the soft gentleness and confusion hidden inside him. Readers can’t be blamed if they judge him solely by the image he projects, especially at first, but they will be pleasantly surprised to realize that there is much more to Clown/Angel than meets the eye. He knows both Hunter and Vanilla and provides emotional support at crucial moments.
Although the story will resonate with LGTQIA readers, it will also touch the heart of anyone who’s ever been in a relationship and tried to make sense of the changes that threaten it or tried to make love stay when it seems determined to leave. Because the story is told as a novel in verse, alternating among three voices—Hunter, Vanilla, and Clown/Angel—readers have the chance to see different perspectives on some of the same events. Acclaimed poet Billy Merrell, who also edited The Full Spectrum: A New Generation of Writing about Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Other Identities with David Levithan, relies on different fonts, typefaces, and writing styles to distinguish the three voices through which the adolescents’ emotions are explored. Because it challenges several assumptions about identity, gender, and sexuality and pushes against some boundaries, this book is sure to evoke discussion and stir up controversy about choices.
Reviewed by Barbara A. Ward, Pullman, Washington
Truthers by Geoffrey Girard
Carolrhoda Lab, 2017, 352 pp, $17.99
Searching for the truth is never easy, especially when mired in controversy. Truthers follows Katie Wallace, a teenager who has never really considered the events surrounding 911. Why should I? she thinks, I was barely a year old when the towers were hit. However, she soon discovers that this information may help free her father from a mental institution. Government and hospital officials claim he is mentally unbalanced. Is this true or simply part of the conspiracy? Is Katie’s father holding on to his secrets to protect her?
As Katie attempts to decipher bugged computers, witnesses an attempted murder, discovers classified data, and faces armed soldiers, she (and readers along with her) begin to question what is truth and what is fiction. When she attends a Truthers’ convention, she meets conspiracy theorists who further complicate her quest for the truth.
Girard has created a high interest read that addresses questions many in our country may be afraid to ask. Like all good mysteries, every turn leads to a series of crooked trails. This fast-paced thriller will keep youth reading.
Reviewed by Kevin D. Cordi, Ada, Ohio
House of Ash by Hope Cook
Amulet, 2017, 320 pp., $17.99
Gravenhearst, a derelict mansion in the Canadian woods, burned mysteriously in 1894, but somehow remains alive and calls to seventeen-year-old Curtis from the trees near his home. Curtis is consumed by anger, frustration, and distrust as he struggles to maintain a stable home environment for his sister Sage while keeping their mentally ill father under control. When medications fail to keep Dad stable and he finally goes off the rails, Curtis lets his hot temper overwhelm him at school. After his suspension, and despite the loyalty and support of his best friend Avi, Curtis follows the eerie voices and whispers to what could be his eventual doom even as he fears he may suffer from the same mental health issues as his father.
As he searches for the key to unlocking Gravenhearst’s secrets, Curtis finds a photograph of a lovely Victorian girl, Mila, who apparently died in the flames many years ago. However, Mila appears to have time traveled forward and is very much alive. Her past is disturbing and twisted into the history of the destroyed house. Mila’s mother Ada married the heir to the Deemus fortune in order to provide for the three of them; however, both self-centered Ada and Mila’s beloved sister Wynn have disappeared into the eerie portraits and mirrors on the walls of the house. Even though her enigmatic stepfather continued to pursue his obsession with her, Mila’s decision to escape by burning the terror and dread away over a century ago still haunts her.
Will Curtis solve the house’s riddle? Will his soul and sanity survive to rescue Mila? Can Avi become the trusted friend Curtis needs? Will he and Sage survive as a family? This mix of Gothic horror and romance by debut author Hope Cook is filled with violence, blood, evil, and chaos involving two believable teen protagonists—enough to satisfy fans of the genre.
Reviewed by Judith A. Hayn, Little Rock, Arkansas