ALAN Picks September 2019
Among the Fallen by Virginia Frances Schwartz
Holiday House, 2019, 304 pp., $15.99
Secrets/Dickens, Charles/Sexual Abuse/Orphans/Great Britain-History-Victoria
The time…January, 1857. The place…Tothill Prison, London. Sixteen-year-old Orpha Wood is struggling to survive the last few months of her horror-filled imprisonment when, because of her good behavior, she receives an invitation to live at Urania, a “refuge” for fallen girls, upon her release. Because she has been orphaned, and she fears what is waiting for her on the grimy streets of Victorian London, she accepts the invitation. At Urania, where “among the fallen” girls who have experienced the unimaginable reside, Orpha meets the mysterious Mr. Dickens, who supervises the young women at the home. By gradually revealing and coming to terms with her dark secrets, Orpha prepares for life in another country, and equips herself with what she will need to begin again.
Through well-researched and meticulous detail, as well as evocative imagery, author Virginia Frances Schwartz successfully creates the external world of Victorian England. In addition, Schwartz vividly brings to life the internal world of these complex characters. This is particularly true of Orpha, whose inner dialogue we are privy to. Readers become invested in each of these young women as they struggle to survive in a patriarchal society in which they have been victimized, only to eventually finding their own voice and power.
Schwartz also reveals interesting details about Dickens, or “Boz,” the pen name under which he first published. The preface, author’s note, biography, and glossary reveal much about the man, his life, and his writing. Though he worked tirelessly in the name of social justice to bring attention to those who were abused and forgotten by the system, his personal life presented some contradictions.
Despite the fact that Among the Fallen is set over a century and half ago, there is much here that will appeal to contemporary readers- activism and the power of the written word, women’s rights, finding one’s own voice, overcoming obstacles, and hope are all current relatable themes.
This crossover title is appropriate for young adults and up, and would be of particular interest to those who enjoy historical fiction, classic British literature (especially the work of Charles Dickens), writing, and stories with strong female characters. Definitely recommended!
Reviewed by Terri Evans, St. Michael, Minnesota
The Chosen (Contender #1) by Taran Matharu
Feiwel & Friends, 2019, 368 pp., $18.99
One moment, Cade Carter is sitting in his dorm room at reform school, six months into his forced stay there, six months to go. The next, he is standing on a small ledge in a canyon. He’s just high enough above a strange, unidentifiable but clearly dangerous creature to take a moment to wonder how on earth (or not Earth?) he got there.
After his first narrow escape, Cade encounters numerous people and creatures- familiar faces from school, some more welcome than others, dinosaurs, artifacts from various time periods. Cade and his classmates have a lot of questions. Where, and why is they here? It seems that they are all part of a game, a fight to the death, designed by an unknown figure. To get any answers, they will have to win.
The beginning of the story shifts between Cade’s time at school and his present situation in this mysterious new place, but eventually the story narrows to focus solely on the present. Themes include self-reliance versus teamwork, bullies and the bullied, racism, sexism, creative problem solving, violence, human nature, life-altering mistakes, guilt, salvation, and the perils of stereotyping. In addition, the author grounds the story in true stories of people and places who have vanished from Earth throughout history. Readers looking to fill a Maze Runner sized hole will find much to entertain them in this new trilogy.
Reviewed by Megan M. Gunderson, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Take the Mic: Fictional Stories of Everyday Resistance Edited by Bethany C. Morrow
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2019, 272 pp., $17.99
Short Stories/Social Issues/Prejudice and Racism/LGBT
In an anthology of stories and poems from award-winning authors and new authors alike, Take the Mic addresses the everyday acts of resistance that students (and adults) enact. Helping your neighborhood during a scary time. Calling out those who would take advantage of you because of your gender, your sexuality, your appearance. Any of the elements that define us as individuals.
In a wonderfully anthologized collection, authors share some examples of what resistance looks like in everyday situations. Not large, publicized protests, but the smaller ways in which anyone can resist and affect change. alternating between short stories and poems, the authors explore diverse communities and characters, and suggest several ways to take action. Overwhelmingly positive and outwardly inspirational, anyone who reads this book will find themselves looking for ways to take steps toward fighting the good fight.
Reviewed by Sydney King, Murfreesboro, TN
All We Could Have Been by Te Carter
Feiwel and Friends, 2019, 291 pp., $17.99
Brothers and Sisters/Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
When we first meet Lexi Lawlor, she is waiting for the school bus outside the ironically titled Castle Estates, a public housing complex, watching three men scrub a spray-painted penis off the figure of the knight that graces the entrance. She is embarking on the first day of her senior year at yet another new school. Lexi cautiously enters this new world, worried that she may reveal information about her past or her identity. She steels herself against striving for normalcy or allowing herself to be vulnerable to real friends.
As Lexi reflects on her past schools, her parents, her therapist, and the various coping strategies she has acquired, we see her begin to find her way. She meets a community of theater friends who are generally warm and welcoming. But when she decides to reveal a secret from her past to her small group of friends, many of them cease to be friendly.
Lexi’s struggles with self-hatred, self-pity, and self-harming as she attempts to cope with her past and the hatred that surfaces when she tries to open up to her friends at her new school are written with empathy and power. All We Could Have Been makes a powerful, timely case for the importance of choosing a different path.
Reviewed by Audrey Fisch, Westfield, New Jersey
Anthem (Sixties Trilogy #3) by Deborah Wiles
Scholastic Press, 2019, 480 pp., $19.99
Historical Fiction/Family Relationships/Identity
Seeking her beloved older brother Barry, 14-year-old Molly corrals her cousin Norman to drive to San Francisco from their home in Charleston, SC in the summer of 1969. Norman outfits Barry’s dilapidated school bus, and the two embark on their journey. Barry disappeared after a blow up with his conservative father over the Vietnam War, and now his draft notice has arrived. His mom wants Barry home so the family can make the decision about his future.
Along with an omniscient narrator, the two cousins alternate in chronicling the trip. Just like the 60’s, the plot is held together through the music of the times. Each chapter begins with a song title and production notes. The lyrics intertwine to set the tone and mood for what follows. Norman’s dream of being a drummer in his own band provides a motif as the travelers hear the Allman Brothers in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, visit Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama, encounter Estelle Davis at Stax Records, meet Elvis Presley at American Sound Studios in Memphis, Hal Blaine, the famed session drummer at Capital Records, in Los Angeles, and fulfill Molly’s dreams of seeing The Association and Iron Butterfly perform.
Like her heroine, author Deborah Wiles knew the name of every Top Forty song in 1969 when she was 16 and growing up in Charleston. Anthem completes the trilogy–Countdown (1962) and Revolution (1964)– by continuing the documentary novel format. Montages of startling photos, pieces of news stories, moving quotations, slogans, and song lyrics precede each of the five sections.
The music drives the storyline, but additional historical figures and events add further authenticity. Wiles validates these incidents in a timeline and appends a bibliography, plus further reading. Readers will thoroughly enjoy accompanying the cousins on this road trip through a cultural moment in time in an era defined by unrest, rebellion, and dissension.
Reviewed by Judith Hayn, Lawrence, Kansas
Deadly Little Scandals (Debutantes, Book Two) by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Freeform Books, 2020, 345 pp., $17.99
Mystery/Family Secrets/Identity/Secret Societies
When Sawyer, Lily, and Campbell each receive a white glove with an invitation to a mysterious gathering, Lily sees it as their opportunity to join an exclusive society whose recruitment process is rumored to be secretive and risqué. Campbell tells Sawyer to think of the White Gloves as “the Junior League, by way of Skull and Bones.” This description soon proves to be accurate as the friends receive their first challenge, to jump from Fallen Springs Cliffs at night. Naked. As Sawyer and her friends follow the orders of the White Gloves, the risks grow deeper and so do the secrets.
The White Gloves are ruled by Victoria Gutierrez. Anyone seeking membership in the White Gloves would do well to earn her favor. But Sawyer has ulterior motives for getting to know Victoria. Victoria might be related to Ana Gutierrez, a girl who disappeared twenty years ago following a pregnancy pact with Sawyer’s mother.
Fans of Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s Little White Lies will eagerly cliff-dive into this scandalous world of Southern debutants to discover where Sawyer’s quest for answers takes her next. Told through multiple timelines, this part mystery, part-soap opera layers twist upon twist in a way that will keep readers guessing right up to the end.
Reviewed by Katherine Higgs-Coulthard, Niles, Michigan
Every Other Weekend by Abigail Johnson
Ink Yard Press, 2020, 512 pp., $18.99
Marriage and Divorce/Friendship/Grief and Loss
After the death of their older brother, Adam Moynihan and his brother Jeremy find themselves dealing with not only that loss, but also the separation of their parents. Their mom and dad couldn’t deal with the grief associated with Greg’s death and have decided to deal with it separately. Now Adam is staying with his dad every other weekend and he isn’t pleased. But when he visits his dad’s apartment for the first time, he meets Jolene, a girl who is also on the every other weekend plan with her dad. Jolene is witty, spunky, creative, and passionate, but unfortunately is stuck in the middle of a nasty relationship between her parents.
Adam’s friendship is, at times, the only thing holding Jolene together as she struggles to find the self confidence to pursue her dream. As Adam’s family begins to heal, Jolene worries what will happen to her friendship if he is no longer visiting the apartment twice a month. Through the bond they have built, Adam is able to help Jolene through her worries and save her when she most needs saving. Can the future they have envisioned have a chance to become reality?
Every Other Weekend is a beautiful novel about the healing power of friendship and love. It reminds us that there is someone there for us, even when loneliness seems overwhelming. It will touch readers’ hearts as they navigate the immediate friendship and growing love between Adam and Jolene. It will have readers wishing for a continued future for these two characters as they deal with the grief and tragedy that they have already encountered. Most important, Every Other Weekend will fill readers with hope in the belief that these two are well on their way to a beautiful life.
Reviewed by Joe Godina, Hutchinson, Kansas
All our Broken Pieces by L.D. Crichton
Hyperion, 2019, 416 pp., $17.99
Obsessive-compulsive Disorder/Bands (Music)/Dating/Family Life
Musically gifted Kyler has a scar on his face from when he was burnt as a young child in a house fire. His classmates ostracize him and call him a beast. Lennon has a serious obsessive-compulsive disorder, which has been exacerbated by the recent death of her mother. Humiliated, vulnerable, and perhaps most importantly betrayed, these two mirror each other and fall in love. Both share the internal scars of feeling different, unacceptable, misunderstood by their peers, and both are held back by their fears from becoming who they want to be. When they meet in school and get assigned to work on a Romeo and Juliet project, they encounter the question of whether love is ultimately tragic or romantic.
Kyler and Lennon start out as two sad, intelligent young people, finding their way, a way that is definitely not simple, not ordinary. Like all heroes, they do much more than muddle their way through. By confronting each other, helping each other trust their feelings, and taking risks, they find their way home. Best of all, they do this while hanging out in a tree house and making up band names and slogans.
I cannot find enough good things to say about All our Broken Pieces by L.D. Crichton. It is a book for teens and older adults alike. The plot is harrowing, complex and exquisitely crafted, full of culprits and heroes, twists and turns, and surprises. The characters are real and possess emotional depth. Finally, the story is both romantic and healing, a satisfying exploration of the nature of true love.
Reviewed by Dana Greci, Fairbanks, Alaska
Hawking by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick
First Second, 2019, 304 pp., $29.99
Stephen Hawking gets the graphic novel treatment in writer Jim Ottaviani and artist Leland Myrick’s biography Hawking. The narrative alternates between Hawking’s life (chronicled from birth to his later years) and his physics theories and vast contributions to math and science. Interspersed throughout the narrative are pages devoted to other great scientific minds that influenced Hawking, such as Einstein, Newton, and Faraday. This graphic novel brings Hawking and his ideas to life in full color and reads like a love letter to science.
Understanding the intricacies of Hawking’s mind and world is a daunting task, but the use of graphic novel format makes this biography both accessible and engaging. Myrick’s illustrations are clean and simplistic, enabling young adults to more easily digest complex information that would be overwhelming if only represented in print. Readers will relate to Hawking’s social awkwardness during adolescence and be inspired by his passion for physics and his bravery in battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). In an age where superheroes dominate the culture, Hawking will serve as a reminder that the power of the mind is the greatest superpower of all.
Reviewed by Jessica Harris, Wethersfield, Connecticut
Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly
Scholastic Press, 2019, 352pp, $17.99
Have you ever wondered about Cinderella’s ugly stepsister? Why they were so mean, what made them ugly, and whatever happened to them after Cinderella married the prince and lived happily ever after? Readers get answers, and so much more in Jennifer Donnelly’s Stepsister.
We meet Isabelle, the younger stepsister, as she is desperate to fit her foot into the glass slipper left behind by the mysterious woman who stole the prince’s heart at the ball the night before. Cutting off her own toes to make the slipper fit is the least of the damage she inflicts upon herself as she tries (and fails) time and again to fit into a world that values beauty.
Isabelle believes she has a chance at beauty when she encounters the mysterious Tanaquill in the Wildwood and is given the task of recovering the broken pieces of her heart. In Isabelle’s search for these broken pieces, readers are treated to a lively cast of characters and numerous nods to the Cinderella fairytale so familiar from childhood.
Magic, intrigue, betrayal, and jealously are blended with a heaping dose of girl power, as Isabelle is set on a path and learns that only she can determine her destination. Jennifer Connelly fractures the Cinderella fairytale in all the right places, leaving it both familiar and surprising at the same time.
Reviewed by Jane Kaftan, Sandusky, Ohio