ALAN Picks is a regular book review column compiled and edited by Dr. Bryan Gillis of Kennesaw State University.
Access the archives of previous Picks columns from this page.
The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015, 336 pp., $12.95
Family Stories/Multigenerational/Social Issues/Friendship/Homosexuality
Carson Smith is not your average Billings, Montana resident. As The Porcupine of Truth opens, Carson and his psychologist mother have just arrived in Billings in order to take care of Carson’s alcoholic father, whom he hasn’t seen in fourteen years. Mom wants to scout out the situation at Dad’s home first, so she drops Carson at the Billings Zoo, where he meets the beautiful and intriguing Aisha Stinson. Aisha has been sleeping at the zoo since coming out to her conservative “Christian” father, who then kicked her out of the house. Once Carson manages to suppress his heterosexual desires for Aisha (he battles with this throughout the story), he and Aisha become kindred spirits. Carson invites Aisha to stay at his father’s home, and while going through some boxes in the basement, they discover some family secrets that may provide insight into generations of Smith family discord. Aisha and Carson set out on a road trip in an attempt to find some answers about Carson’s grandfather, and along the way, both teens struggle with their own demons as they process and discuss their dysfunctional family relationships.
Konigsberg has created the perfect narrator for this story in Carson- smart, troubled, likable, funny, and of course, flawed. Aisha and Carson’s father are equally intriguing, well crafted, and complex. One of Konigsberg’s real strengths as an author is the way in which he develops characters through their interactions with other characters. For example, the “conversations” between Carson and his psychologist mom, who speaks to Carson like she would speak to a patient, brilliantly illustrate the emotional chasm that exists between them. For example, when Carson arrives at his father’s home, his mom says “‘My suggestion is to get yourself settled and locate yourself a bit. Pay him a visit in his room.'” Carson’s response? “My mom is all about self-locating. It’s one of the infuriating things she always says” (14).
The Porcupine of Truth deals with seeking out, intelligently questioning, and ultimately developing sound wisdom. Throughout the story, Carson and Aisha struggle with the concepts of God, religion, and prayer as they attempt to understand and accept themselves. Readers will find themselves hoping that this search for wisdom leads both characters to a better understanding and acceptance of others as well as themselves.
Reviewed by Bryan Gillis, Kennesaw, Georgia
Thirteen Chairs by Dave Shelton
Scholastic Inc., 2015, 246 pp., $17.99
Ghost stories/Tall tales/Thrillers
Thirteen Chairs opens much like any typical ghost or horror story: Jack has sneaked into a deserted house. He discovers a dark hallway and spies a line of light flickering from the bottom of the third door. Jack is a curious boy and, of course, he turns the doorknob and enters the room. Here is where the book departs from the usual. What Jack finds is a circle of twelve chairs, each occupied, and all surrounding a wooden table. On the table in front of each person is a lit candle, and Jack cannot clearly see any of the people in the room at first, but he is relieved to find they are not ghosts. A chair is offered to Jack, and he joins the circle. Jack listens in awe as, one by one, participants tell the group a frightening, creepy tale- a gruesome death at sea, a house obsessed with writers, a tree that murders those who climb it. Some are set in the past, but some are as recent as yesterday. Jack is rapt with the thrill and intrigue of each story. The last tale is Jack’s as the book comes full circle. Astute readers may catch the inferred ending, but the book still packs a surprise.
Thirteen Chairs is a skillful example of the framework format, the story-within-a-story concept. Readers cannot help but speculate about the main plot of Jack’s experience in the house even as they are lost in the various stories along the way. Jack’s comments and reactions keep that thread alive. Shelton is a masterful writer, completely convincing us that there are 13 unique voices spinning this narrative.
Reviewed by Kris Myers, Granville, Ohio
Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 240 pp., $17.99
“Extra! Extra! Read all about it! ‘Mary Mallon Infects Twenty-four People with Typhoid Fever!'” This headline has more truth than the headlines printed in the early 1900s. Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant who earned her living as a cook. There was never anything negative to say about her until George Soper, an “epidemic fighter,” accused Mary of having typhoid fever germs and spreading them through her cooking. Mary had her civil rights violated as Soper, along with a few other doctors, began running tests on Mary, which by today’s standards would be considered inconclusive and inadmissible in court, since they were done without her consent. Was Mary Mallon really infecting people or was she wrongly accused so that George Soper could make a name for himself?
Bartoletti’s story of Mary Mallon is based on her research from newspaper articles, letters, academic journals, and medical studies. No one knows the truth since Mary was a private person and only a few letters were found written by her hand. Terrible Typhoid Mary will have readers questioning their own hygiene habits and wondering how someone could possible be ignorant to spreading germs. It will also cause readers to question the amount of power given to certain professionals. Terrible Typhoid Mary is vibrant storytelling that will keep readers interested.
Reviewed by Janelle Nagle, Placentia, California
The Rise & Fall of the Gallivanters by M.J. Beaufrand
Amulet Books, 2015, 279 pp., $16.95
Friendship/Music/Family Problems/Missing Children/Abuse
Noah lives in the suburbs of Portland in 1983, along with his fellow punk rock friend Evan (who’s suffering from an unspoken illness) and former band mates Sonia and Jaime. Teenage girls are disappearing from Portland at an alarming rate, and almost everyone in town suspects one of the sleazy Pfeffer brothers, owners of the local brewery, which happens to be hosting a battle of the bands and offering a huge prize for the winner. Noah is compelled to get the band back together, convinced that in some way the event will spare another female victim and save Evan as well.
Full of magic realism, the novel includes an ominous personified cloud called The Marr, which speaks to Noah of its evil intentions to kill more girls (as well as Evan), and an enigmatic David Bowie lookalike named Ziggy, who repeatedly comes to Noah’s aid just when things look bleakest. If that sounds like a lot, Noah has only begun to reveal the extent of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, who is certainly dead, probably by suicide, and how Noah himself was involved in that event.
Though the book has its imperfections (a boy using the word “gewgaw” three times?), and its focal shifts, Beaufrand’s refreshing narrative more than makes up for these imperfections with its heart. Many people are suffering in this novel, and they have all hidden their pain in different ways. As the peeling away of armor occurs in each—including many minor characters—they evolve from literary grotesques into beautifully complex, haunted individuals that readers can’t help but root for. Finally, the true theme of the novel is revealed: beneath the veneers, all is not what it seems, even to ourselves. Sometimes that is a bad thing, but often it is for our own good. The Rise & Fall of the Gallivanters is a very rewarding read.
Reviewed by Jim Nicosia, Clifton, New Jersey
Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone
Hyperion, 2015, 355 pp., $17.99
Samantha belongs to the popular crowd, yet she constantly worries that if she wears the wrong clothes or says the wrong thing that she will displease the group and will end up alone. She also has OCD, which causes her to fixate on her thoughts, especially the negative ones. “What if I’m crazy?” is her secret worry (p. 9). She hides her disorder and her weekly visits to the psychiatrist from the group, not wanting to appear anything other than normal.
One day when she is feeling particularly different, she meets Caroline, who leads her to a secret room at school called Poet’s Corner. Here, a group of misfits share their poetry, exposing their innermost thoughts to each other. In this safe place, Samantha begins to view herself differently. She keeps her relationship with the Poet’s Corner group hidden from her popular friends. However, with Caroline’s encouragement, poetry writing helps Sam learn who she really is and who her true friends are. She begins a relationship with one of the “misfits” and finally feels that she is normal. However, this feeling is short-lived once she learns the truth about Caroline, and once again, Samantha begins to question her sanity.
This realistic novel will reach teens who feel they aren’t normal and don’t fit in with the rest of the high school population. Bullied teens, teens with anxiety, depression, and other psychological disorders will identify with Samantha, who strives for the approval of her popular friends, hiding how she really feels and who she really is until the therapeutic value of writing helps her find strength in herself.
Reviewed by Michele Mosco, Tempe, Arizona
A List of Things That Didn’t Kill Me: A Memoir by Jason Schmidt
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2015, 419 pp., $18.99
Early Childhood/Single parent families/Fathers/Adolescence/Genius/Drug addictions/HIV/AIDS/Homosexuality
If Mark Twain came of age in the 1980s, was raised in abject poverty with sporadic schooling, had an absentee mother and an abusive, drug-addicted and drug-dealing gay father whom he watched slowly die from AIDS, and yet somehow managed to emerge relatively whole, he would be Jason Schmidt. Schmidt succinctly summarizes his life through the age of seventeen in this way: “I didn’t have to worry about accidental fluids exposure any more. I’d survived my dad. But surviving a trauma and being able to live with it were two different things” (410). Beginning with his earliest memory (at age three) and ending with his first (failed) attempt at college, Schmidt offers the reader glimpses of a life lived on the edge. He does so, however, with humor, irony and a caustic wit that consistently evokes laughter. He narrates the tragic as well as the mundane events of his life, such as experiences with pets, friends, girlfriends, and complicated relationships with his school experiences in way that is both familiar and unique.
The book’s length (419 pp.) and its content is more appropriate for high school than middle school readers. The story will speak to those struggling to find their own place in the world amidst difficult family circumstances. To quote Nietzsche, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Schmidt never pulls any punches, and he is often the recipient of his own blows. Ultimately, his narrative is a tribute to the human spirit, an ode to a great mentor (Frank W. Ross), and an unforgettable read. Schmidt has been made strong indeed.
Reviewed by Matt Newcamp, La Plata, Maryland
Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein
Hyperion, 2015, 343 pp., $17.99
Set in the 1920’s and ‘1930’s, the title Black Dove, White Raven refers to a stunt flying team, Delia and Rhoda. When a bird strikes their airplane, Delia, a black woman, is killed in the crash, and Rhoda, a white woman, is left to bring up Delia’s son, Teo, and her own daughter, Emilia, by herself. The children face much discrimination in their rural Pennsylvania community. Rhoda decides to follow Delia’s dream and moves the family to Ethiopia. Since Teo’s father was Ethiopian, Teo is an Ethiopian citizen, and they believe this is the only place that their family can live without having to face racism and discrimination. All three fall in love with their new country, but when war with Italy threatens, many tough decisions must be made. To prevent Teo from being sent off to war, carrying a spear against Italian machine guns, Rhoda makes the painful decision to teach Teo and Emilia to fly, and they become the new Black Dove and White Raven. Caught between two worlds, the children have to decide where their loyalties lie, and find themselves having to fight to protect their family and their new home.
An epistolary novel with alternating narrators, the story is told through the children’s school essays, flight logs, letters to the Ethiopian emperor, and the imaginary adventures they narrate about the heroic Black Dove and White Raven, who always know what to do and always manage to save the world by the end of the story. This beautiful coming-of-age novel is about a family torn apart by death, depression, and war, and portrays how the characters find the courage to do whatever it takes to protect their new home and keep their family together. Whenever danger threatens, Teo and Emilia ask themselves, “What would Black Dove and White Raven do?” But when real life becomes more dangerous than any story the children can make up, they take inspiration from their fictional characters, and finding hidden depths within themselves, they do what they must to save their family and Ethiopia.
Black Dove, White Raven tackles issues of slavery, racism, depression, and war. The book is full of adventure, suspense and rich descriptions of Ethiopian culture and the joys of flying. Teen readers will identify with Teo’s and Emilia’s struggles to fit into two different cultures while growing up but not growing apart, and they will be rooting for Black Dove and White Raven to overcome the many obstacles they must face from beginning to end.
Reviewed by Megan Mueller, North Syracuse, NY
No True Echo by Gareth P. Jones
Amulet Books, 2015, 274 pp., $14.96
Time travel/Murder mysteries/Science fiction
Welcome to the middle of nowhere, Welcome Valley, where nothing ever happens. Eddie Dane, a high school student, describes his hometown as so boring that “you had to go out of your way to find anything even remotely thrilling to do” (page 8). As Eddie heads to school on a miserably rainy day, he prepares himself for another long, dull day, with nothing to look forward to but spending the upcoming midterm break climbing trees with his friend Angus. What could be worse? Eddie soon finds out.
His situation greatly improves upon meeting Scarlett, the beautiful, mysterious, and strangely familiar new girl. After following her to the home of scientist David Maguire, Eddie witnesses multiple murders and is then instantly thrust into a seemingly endless time loop in which he continuously repeats the last two days. While his oblivious classmates listen to the same school assembly, eat the same lunch, and sit through the same introduction to Frankenstein, Eddie finds that he is the key witness in an echo time investigation. Only he can determine the point in time that events were altered and history changed. He can’t trust anyone and time is running out.
No True Echo, originally published in the UK, has been revised and will be available to American audiences in October 2015. No True Echo is a thrilling page-turner that will leave the reader asking, “If I could alter the past, would I? Should I? What if it meant saving the life of someone I love?” Readers age 12 and up will love this engaging story.
Reviewed by Nancy Gillis, Kennesaw, Georgia
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
Amulet Books, 2015, 408 pp., $17.95
After an unsettling accident, Triss enters a creepy and mysterious world. Readers will be drawn in as she tries to cope with unexplainable hunger, visions of supernatural beings, and dolls that move. Can any of this be a connection to her brother who died in the war? And, why is everyone acting so strangely?
Each of the unique characters add to the mystery that has become Triss’ life. Her doting father and mother could be just a little too protective. What are they hiding with their closed-door whispers about “Him”? Triss’s younger sister Pen is always throwing tantrums and accusing Triss of faking it. Would she really hurt Triss, or does she too need saving? After a chance meeting with a tailor in a dress shop, a Mr. Grace introduces Triss to jazz and claims to know just what is ailing her. What does he know, and can he be trusted?
Hardinge entices readers into a world of fantasy, encouraging us to believe in the unbelievable and to root for a girl who is neither good nor bad. In a coming-of-age story like no other, Triss must rely on herself to figure out who or what she really is.
Reviewed by Andrea Fox, Fargo, North Dakota
Shadow of the Wolf by Tim Hall
David Fickling Books, 2015, 471 pp., $18.99
Legends/Myths/Fantasy and Magic/Action and Adventure
When Robin Loxley is mysteriously abandoned by his parents, he sets out on his own, feeling as though he does not quite belong in his village. While in the woods he meets Marian, a girl of some means who has also run away from home. They live together for a few years surviving on their wits and a few baskets of food from Marian’s nanny. One day, Marian is taken by the diabolical sheriff and Robin is left alone. He is taken in by a knight as his squire and learns many skills before going on a quest to find Marian.
This is the first of a trilogy that outline a clever, yet dark, retelling of the legend of Robin Hood with a touch of fantasy and magic. Readers will enjoy the ways in which Hall lays the foundation for fleshing out this legend in a new and unusual way, including Marian’s portrayal as a strong, intelligent woman. At 471 pages, this is an epoch tale like the Game of Thrones series and will appeal to those readers who enjoy the genre.
Reviewed by Cheryl North, Baltimore, Maryland
Apple and Rain by Sarah Crossan
Bloomsbury, 2015, 320 pp., $17.99
Apollinia’s mother gave her a Greek name, but everyone calls her Apple. Apple lives with her grandmother in a seaside town near London. She sees her dad a couple of times a year, but she hasn’t seen her mum since she ran off to America eleven years ago. Apple is feeling frustrated by her grandmother’s strict rules and her stepmother’s pregnancy. Then, her mother shows back up in her life. For Apple, moving in with her mother seems like the perfect opportunity to get away from her grandmother and finally find the freedom she’s been wishing for, but everything isn’t as it seems with Mum’s sudden homecoming. Apple has a little sister, Rain, whom she didn’t know existed, and Mum isn’t much of a caretaker for two young girls. A difficult situation becomes dangerous, and Apple has to choose whether to depend on herself and retain her newfound freedom or reach out for help from her friends and loved ones.
First published in Great Britain in 2014, Crossan’s Apple and Rain contains a well-developed narrative and complex, believable characters. The plot stalls and almost stops at several points, but an interest in the characters’ fates will keep readers pushing through the slow parts. Writers will appreciate the references to poetry and how Apple uses her writing to aid her and Rain’s healing. American readers may be confused by many references to English culture, but Anglophiles will be in heaven.
Reviewed by Katie Moore, Raleigh, North Carolina
The Last Good Day of the Year by Jessica Warman
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015, 276 pp., $17.99
Suspense/Mystery/Interpersonal relationships/Realistic Fiction
The Last Good Day of the Year is a roller coaster ride through time with Samantha, her next door neighbor Remy, Remy’s older sister Gretchen and little sister Turtle as they relive and attempt to solve the mystery of the violence of their pasts. Each character experiences upheaval as lost memories begin to surface, and each confronts the fears that arise as it becomes increasingly apparent that what had been believed to be true was not. Narrated through flashbacks, the storytelling is masterful and the suspense is considerable. Readers will be left wondering, along with the characters, just what the truth really is.
Warman has created a story full of deep emotion, great suspense, and a darkness of feeling about the human condition, but it is not for the faint of heart. The flashbacks, the suspense, and the rapidly changing emotions of the characters will engage some readers and depress others. It is a story for the time, for those who value depth of character and suspense.
Reviewed by Kate Moore, Manhattan, Kansas