As summer approaches, ALAN Picks reviews six new novels, including Andrew Smith’s newest, Rabbit and Robot (September, 2018). Make sure to check out Bryan’s interview with Andrew following the Rabbit and Robot review.
Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Disney-Hyperion, 2018, 361 pp., $17.99.
Social and Family Issues/Immigration/LGBT/Suicide/Teen Fiction
Secrets. Family secrets. Friends’ secrets. Eighteen-year-old Danny Cheng has his life in front of him. Everything seems to be going his way following acceptance into his dream art school, but secrets begin to unravel and threaten his future. One day, Danny finds a sealed box in his parents’ closet with files on a stranger, forcing him to question his family’s history- a sister who died before he was born, an unexpected move across country, and the lack of visits to his parents’ home country of China. Meanwhile, Danny and his friends are also facing the one-year anniversary of a tragedy and the unspoken truths related to it. When Danny’s father loses his job, causing another mysterious move, Danny rebels and all of the secrets surface.
Gilbert explores powerful topics associated with the Asian-American community with love and care. She exposes the raw underbelly of people’s flaws while intertwining their beauty, revealing the complexity of humanity. Carefully crafted plot twists and turns that lead to climactic events will keep readers on the edge of their seats.
Reviewed by Cindi Koudelka, Wenona, IL
The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed
Simon and Schuster/Simon Pulse, 2017, 416 pp., $17.99.
Sexual Assault/Rape Culture/Cyberbullying/Christianity/Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder/Advocacy
Grace is new to Prescott, and as the chubby pastor’s kid, she doesn’t quite fit in. Grace discovers “Kill me now. I’m already dead” carved on her bedroom windowsill, and soon learns that these words were written by Lucy Moynihan, a teen who was gang raped and then run out of town when she named her perpetrators. Grace teams up with two other misfits- Rosina, a queer, punk Latinx girl, and Erin, a gorgeous science geek with Asperger’s. The three girls initiate a successful grassroots revolt, rallying their fellow females to seek justice for Lucy, protest the misogynist culture at their high school, and come to the aid of sexual assault victims.
Reed is meticulous in her characterization, including the perspectives of Grace, Rosina, Erin and “Us,” which gives voice to other females at Prescott High; those that are empowered to seek and enjoy sexual activity, those that lack self-esteem and use sex as a way to cope, those who seek answers, and those who are lonely. Reed’s exploration of Asperger’s through Erin’s character adds welcome dimension. The plot ventures into unique territory, unapologetically wedding conversations about teenage sex and consent with the ways that morality, authority, and religion, especially Christianity, dictate norms. In addition, this book brings about crucial conversations about sex as pleasure, adult expectations, female empowerment, slut-shaming, empathy, and truth. Readers will be intrigued and encouraged by this utterly believable and uplifting story as they witness the multiple ways nearly every female character learns to believe, and support, one another.
Reviewed by Gretchen Rumohr-Voskuil, Zeeland, Michigan
All That Was by Karen Rivers
Macmillan Publishing Group, 2018, 379 pp. $17.99.
In their seventeenth year, best friends Sloane Whittaker and Piper Sullivan are inseparable. They dress the same, mimic each other, they drink the same smoothies, they love the same boy. They are one until an ultimate betrayal: Sloane kisses Piper’s boyfriend, Soup Sanchez. The next morning, Piper is found dead, her young body washed ashore. The novel begins with Piper’s post-mortem realization that all she is now is the blood in the water. All that was before is over.
In the aftermath of her death, both Sloane and Soup are left in shock. What does it mean to lose someone you love? What does it mean to lose someone in the midst of a fight? Is there any chance of redemption? of forgiveness? On top of their grief, the question of Piper’s death lingers in the air like the cigarettes the two girls once shared.
In her latest young adult novel, Karen Rivers challenges the reader to consider the aftermath of love lost with her poignant prose. In the first part, through Sloane’s narration, readers can understand the complicated, dependent relationship between Piper and Sloane before she died. In the second half of the novel, we are privy to an alternating perspective between Sloane and Soup, and how they decide to love each other or let go in remembrance of their friend.
Reviewed by Tita Kyrtsakas, Windsor, Ontario
The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla
Harper, 2017, 336 pp., $16.99.
Family Life/Illness/Special Needs
Anne Lamott wrote about writing in Bird by Bird, and that is exactly what Sally Pla does in her first novel. The story unfolds bird by bird (literally), character by character, event by event, emotion by emotion. Twelve-year-old Charlie, who narrates the story, is a neuro-diverse young adolescent. He washes his hands twelve times, is obsessively organized, doesn’t like being touched, tries to distinguish emotions from visual clues, and is fixated with and passionate about birds. Charlie’s father was an English teacher and a journalist. On an assignment in Afghanistan, he sustained a brain injury and now he does not appear to be aware of his family. He has been living in a hospital where a mysterious, bossy young woman visits him daily.
When his father is transferred from California to a hospital in Virginia for further treatment, Charlie, his younger twin brothers, and his 15-year-old boy-crazy sister, find themselves driving cross country with the stranger from the hospital room, a Bosnian woman named Ludmila.
Charlie decides that if he can find all the birds that he and his father had hoped to see (their Someday Birds), even the extinct ones, his father will be healed. Recognizing that this will at least serve to help Charlie feel better, Ludmila supports his endeavor and plans their trip around the needs of Charlie and the family. Meanwhile along the way they learn her story and her ties to their father. They have adventures, meet people, find birds that were not even on the list, and Charlie acquires the journal of his hero, ornithologist, artist, and philosopher Tiberius Shaw, Ph.D., who he hopes to meet when they arrive in Virginia.
The book’s cover recommends the book for ages 8-12, but the characters of Davis, Charlie’s sister, and Ludmila make this novel appropriate and interesting for adolescents of any age.
Reviewed by Lesley Roessing, Savannah, Georgia
Love, Hate, & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
SOHO Teen, 2018, 281 pp, $18.99.
Muslim Teens/Cultural identity/Family/Peer Relationships
It’s her senior year, and Maya is navigating generational differences with her parents, cultural differences with her parents and peers, and identity differences within herself. Maya Aziz dreams of leaving the safety of her Chicago-suburban home to attend film school in New York City. She lives behind the lens of her camera, making every moment a scene and every person a star. Her traditional Indian parents, however, want Maya to attend school close to home, find a career in medicine or law, and marry a suitable Muslim boy. Maya works hard to deal with teenage romance, to maintain friendships, and to convince her parents that she can break free while still holding strong to her roots.
Once Maya gets close to living her dream and heading to New York City, the horrific events of 9/11 crash down on the country. She and her family now face fear not just for our country, but from our country where racism and hate abound in their once safe and comfortable suburb. Maya is not deterred and fights even harder to live out her dream, even risking her family ties to do it.
In her debut novel, Samira Ahmed captures teen life perfectly. Maya is a complex, interesting, and relatable character that every reader will root for. Her relationships are revealing of the Muslim culture, but feel familiar to all backgrounds. This is a beautiful and honest novel about growing up, cultural conflicts, generational differences, and the constant pursuit of your passions.
Reviewed by Renee Stites-Kruep, O’Fallon, Illinois
Rabbit and Robot by Andrew Smith
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2018, 448 pp. $ 18.99.
Science Fiction/ Social and Family Issues/Drug Abuse/Humor
Sixteen-year-old Cager, his best friend, Billy, and their life long servant, Rowan, leave earth and transport themselves to the Tennessee, a giant lunar-cruise ship owned by Cager’s father. It is Billy’s plan to get Cager to a place where he doesn’t have access to Woz, the drug to which he has become addicted. Meanwhile, Earth is in the midst of thirty simultaneous wars, and is burning to ash beneath them. The Tennesseeis manned by cogs, robots who appear human in almost every way. Created by Billy’s father, they were designed to meet the passengers’ every need. Unfortunately, soon after the boys arrive, a worm begins infecting the cogs, turning them into insane, cannibalistic zombies.
Two other humans are aboard the massive utopian spacecraft, but because Meg and Jeffrie are stowaways, Cager, Billy, and Rowan are not immediately aware of their presence. They eventually do meet, and together, try to stop the cog apocalypse. However, the real stars of Rabbit and Robotare the cogs. Smith has given each one his or her own unique personality. Once the worm infects the first cog and the flesh eating begins (cogs eating other cogs), their personalities seem to magnify–to completely irritating and hilarious effect–whatever it is they were programmed for. The ship’s doctor becomes a know-it-all who never shuts up, the bartender whines about everything, and there is Parker, who appoints himself as Cager’s personal valet and is always horny. You will meet a French speaking giraffe cog named Maurice in the first chapter who will steal your heart! The novel’s dialogue is brilliant. I cannot do it justice here. You must read it for yourself.
Rabbit and Robotis another Andrew Smith masterpiece. Readers will find themselves laughing hysterically on minute, the next, overwhelmed with sadness. It’s a roller coaster, but well worth the ride. If you are wondering about the title, “Rabbit” is a slang word for soldier, and “Robot” refers to coders, those who tend to the menagerie of realistic mechanical human and animal cogs.If you have ever found yourself reading an Andrew Smith novel and thinking, it doesn’t get much weirder than this, you just wait.
Reviewed by Bryan Gillis, Kennesaw, Georgia
Interview with Andrew Smith, author of Rabbit and Robot
Andrew and Bryan communicated via e-mail.
Bryan:I just finished reading Rabbit and Robot and I am trying very hard not to ask a multitude of deep, literary analysis questions that are undoubtedly every author’s worst nightmare. So, let’s start with this. What inspired you to write this mind-bending story?
Andrew:First of all, I’ve kind of been obsessed with all these stories about luxury cruise ships and sewage. Like this one from 2013 that begins with the following lines: A nightmare cruise, in which passengers were reportedly left fighting over food on a vessel caked in urine and raw sewage, has finally come to an end.Doesn’t that sound like something I would NEED to write about? It stewed in my mind for a while.
I wrote the book in 2015, and it was a vastly different book then, which reflected my state of mind at the time. Cager and Billy were completely different people in that version, and I didn’t want to publish the book because I thought it was too angry; too disappointed with so many things. I was afraid–not of what I was saying, but how I was saying it. So I did something with the book that I had never done before: I came back to it about a year later and tore it apart, rearranged it, and gave the characters new personalities. I also cut out some very disturbing (even for me) passages.
So I suppose that around 2015 I felt like I was marooned inside a machine floating in space that was “caked in urine and raw sewage” with a bunch of monomaniacal insane robots, and then I came to realize the machine I was trapped inside was in reality just social media, and I felt compelled to write about it.
Then, also, there was this creeping realization I’d come to about what school has been doing to kids in the past quarter-century–how young people’s choices and options for the future have been narrowing down to almost a binary choice: being a “rabbit” or a “robot”. That, and the whole war thing. I am very antiwar-as-a-means-of-problem-solving. And how we’re an over-medicated society. And Ouija boards, religion, capitalism, and tacos, and hope, and love, and what it is that makes humans human.
That’s why I wrote the book. Also, I think the Tennessee is cool, and I would love to go there, and not just because I named it from a poem by Wallace Stevens, who is probably my favorite insurance-salesman poet of all time. The jar in his poem is empty–like the Tennessee is empty–but its emptiness, juxtaposed with all the wildness of the universe, makes it somewhat remarkable.
Bryan:As I was reading, I found myself doing what Cager did throughout the story, feeling for and connecting with certain cogs–often more so than with the humans in the story–only to constantly be reminded that they weren’t human. I loved Dr. Geneva (a conduit for your love of history?), the ever-joyful Lourdes, Maurice, the French speaking giraffe, and Parker. Oh, how I loved Parker. Did you derive your cogs’ personalities from real encounters with humans, were they the result of your time “trapped inside social media” or maybe a combination of both?
Andrew:The cogs in Rabbit and Robotare based in part on real people, and partially extracted from my limited observations of the social masks people wear when “connecting” online (which isn’t really connecting at all). Dr. Geneva (and also Clarence, the maître d’) is my homage to mansplainers everywhere. And yes, I do have a thing about history, but those feelings are eclipsed by how badly I’d like to punch Dr. Geneva in the face. I guess that’s a sign that he’s a well-formed character, but I’d really like him to just shut the hell up.
Lourdes is like a compilation of kitten and baby goat videos, and there’s nothing wrong with kittens and baby goats. And Maurice the giraffe is actually named after a limo driver I had once. There’s something about coming home from a long tour that (I’m only guessing here) feels like being released from prison, and this French guy Maurice picked me up at the airport and drove me the two hours to my home. He was probably the nicest guy I’ve ever met, even considering my fragile state of mind, and I knew he would end up being a character in one of my books.
And what can I say about Parker? Some people just never stop, but there is something almost innocent and endearing about Parker–his loyalty and kindness–that makes up for his obsessiveness.
But my favorite cog is Captain Myron. I can’t even think about him without laughing, which is usually my reaction to anyone who explodes in rage over the most trivial non-issues. I love everything that happens to Captain Myron, especially what happens to him in the end. And here’s a story about Captain Myron: one day in the middle of a class I was teaching, some random unknown kid walked into my room and said this, “Are you Mr. Smith?” I affirmed my identity. Then he said, “If I can make this ball of paper into your trash can, you have to name a character in your next book after me.” My trash can was a good 25 feet away from his wad of homework, so I said, “Go for it.” I didn’t at the time know the kid was a standout basketball player, and he swished the trash can with the wad of paper. So I said, “Okay. What’s your name?” The kid said, “Myron.” And that’s how things get done.
Bryan:Can you give our readers any hints as to what you are working on right now?
Andrew: What I am working on right now is an awful lot of stuff. We are of course getting ready for the release of Rabbit and Robot, and we just finished up all the work on my first middle grade novel (and twelfth novel overall) called The Size of the Truth, which will be out in spring of 2019. I’m really excited about that book. Writing middle grade was a lot of fun. The novel is about Sam Abernathy, a character introduced in Stand-Off, the sequel to Winger. I think Simon & Schuster will be revealing the cover to The Size of the Truth in June. I’ve seen it, and it’s just perfect, but I’ve always been so lucky with all my covers. And isn’t Rabbit and Robot‘s cover incredible? And right now I am working with my editor, David Gale, on my thirteenth novel, called Exile from Eden: or, After the Hole, which is coming out in fall of 2019. This one’s a young adult novel, and it’s a sequel of sorts to Grasshopper Jungle. It’s wild (that’s an inside joke) and weird, and full of love, but it’s also very sad, too, so brace yourself. After we finish the edits on this project, I will be working on a second middle grade. So, basically, I am very busy at the moment.
ALAN Picks is a regular book review column compiled and edited by Dr. Bryan Gillis of Kennesaw State University. It features the newest YA titles, reviewed by teachers and librarians. A complete archive of all ALAN picks is available on this page.
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