I hope that everyone had a rewarding and restful summer. The August/September ALAN Picks features 17 brand new YA novel reviews. Enjoy!! Bryan
These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas
Swoon Reads, 2016, 296 pp., $9.99
Paranormal Romance/Mutants/Victorian England/Mystery/Medical Ethics
A sister is kidnapped, strange powers are revealed, multiple love triangles develop- These Vicious Masks drops the reader into the fascinating world of mutations resulting in the discovery of power set against the back drop of Victorian era London. Evelyn believes her sister, Rose, has a remarkable talent and passion for healing the sick. However, their society-minded mother refuses to allow such endeavors. Frustrated with society’s confinement, Evelyn promises to change their mother’s mind. However, Rose mysteriously vanishes from their home, and while her room shows signs of struggle, her parents want to avoid a scandal. Incensed, Evelyn goes against her parents’ wishes and heads to London to reveal her sister’s kidnappers. The mysterious Mr. Braddock and indulgent Mr. Kent both offer their assistance. In London, Evelyn discovers a world where masks are not just accessories for a ball.
Shanker and Zekas have created witty characters to play out a quick paced story that effectively examines the masks people wear in polite society. While some of the dialogue struggles for a balance between Victorian era sensibilities and modern phrasing, Evelyn is endearing in her feisty, independent creativity, Mr. Braddock is brooding and mysterious and Mr. Kent is solicitously helpful. The tagline “Jane Austen meets the X Men” appropriately fits this mystery so full of unexpected twists and red herrings.
Review by Elizabeth Carr, Holland, Michigan
A Taste for Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby
Scholastic Press, 2016, 346 pp., $18.99
Evelyn, an orphaned young woman, is desperate to get off the streets of 1888 London, which are being terrorized by serial killer Jack the Ripper. Even though she grew up comfortably, an accident at her former job has left her homeless, extremely disfigured, and very insecure. With no family to turn to, she searches for sanctuary in the London Hospital. Her deformity secures her a job as companion to the famous Elephant Man, or Joseph, whose previous attendants could not bear to even look at him.
Meanwhile, as their friendship begins to grow, the serial killer rips through the slums of London. They begin to be visited nightly by the ghosts of the Ripper’s victims, which drains the remaining strength out of frail Joseph. Evelyn must find a way to help her new friend before the visits cause his demise, even if it means conquering her fear of being in public.
Kirby has effortlessly stepped into a historical 19th century London, mixing factual detail with the supernatural. With important underlying messages of self-love, confidence, and discrimination based on gender and appearance, this novel is sure to appeal to a wide variety of readers. A Taste for Monsters is a page-turner, a race to learn about the victims’ pasts and Evelyn and her new friend’s futures. Evelyn, while slightly sheepish, will have readers rooting for her from start to finish.
Reviewed by Kelyn Bortz, Wallington, New Jersey
Flicker and Mist by Mary G. Thompson
Clarion Books, 2017, 384 pp., $17.99
Racial Conflict/ Families/ Fantasy
Sixteen-year-old Myra lives in a city run by Plateau People or Plats. Myra herself is of mixed race- Plats and Lefties. Lefties live in a different part of the country called the Eye. They are treated as second class citizens and work hard in the mines to pay triple the taxes of the Plats. Myra’s mother is a Leftie. Her father is a Plat on the City Council and Myra lives the life of a rich Council member’s daughter. But Myra doesn’t really look like all the other Council member’s children because of her heritage. All Myra wants to do is ride her beast in the games and hang out with her friends. She has a crush on the Deputy’s son and her best friend Porti is the outspoken winner of last year’s games. After an unexpected death, old prejudices are heightened, causing friction between the races.
Thompson has created a world that comments on racial tension, hatred, torture, and finding a common ground that is for the good of all people. Flicker and Mist is a fast paced read full of excitement, action, and love. Myra is a wonderful protagonist and readers will quickly identify with her and her friends.
Reviewed by Michael Dean, La Grange, Kentucky
Flip The Bird by Kym Brunner
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 368 pp., $17.99
Fiction/Social and Family Issues/Peer Pressure/Values and Virtues
Fourteen-year-old Mercer has a mission- to get his apprentice pin in the sport of falconry. His father and brother are both accomplished falconers and Mercer wants desperately to live up to their high standards. Then Mercer meets Lucy, the girl of his dreams, who just happens to be a dedicated animal rights activist. Now he is on a collision course, trying to keep his love of hunting and falconry separate from his budding relationship with Lucy. Things get even more tense when Mercer joins HALT, an animal rights group that is extremely confrontational. Sooner or later, Mercer is going to be in a lot of trouble with either his family or Lucy, or, worse, with both of them.
This realistic fiction novel gives the Romeo and Juliet story a contemporary twist. Despite Brunner’s reliance on several male adolescent clichés, she manages to convey the message that being true to one’s self is more important than nabbing the girl of your dreams. The story also gives the reader an interesting look into the sport of falconry.
Reviewed by Jan Chapman, Medina, Ohio
Radical by E. M. Kokie
Candlewick, 2016, 437 pp., $17.99
Realistic Fiction/Conspiracies/Doomsday Preppers/Families
Radical describes everything about Rebecca Mullins,’ a.k.a. Bex, life- from her haircut to her doomsday preparations to her family relationships. Even though her family does not really support her preparations, she continues to train and prepare for any worst case scenario. Her life becomes increasingly complicated as she engages in training at a new local facility, then meets a new girl outside of the facility. Bex soon has so many different stories to juggle that she becomes wrapped up in her own life and fails to notice the big warning signs around her. Her life soon takes a turn for the worse, and Bex has to learn that sometimes trust comes from unlikely places.
Kokie’s novel takes readers through multiple twists and turns. Bex’s world is not quite post-apocalyptic, but she believes it to be close. The novel provides interesting commentary on family relationships, specifically, one child receiving preferential treatment over another for being “different.” The story is evenly paced and takes a turn that readers won’t see coming, giving a new meaning to the term “survival.”
Reviewed by Jessica Copous, McKenzie, Tennessee
The Light Fantastic by Sarah Combs
Candlewick Press, 2016, 307 pp., $17.99
Millennial Experience/Social Media/ School Violence/ Family Relationships
On Senior Skip Day, most students’ biggest worry is getting busted. But eighteen-year-old April Donovan spends her day obsessing over the tragic events that have darkened her birth month: Waco, Oklahoma City, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and just four days ago, the Boston Marathon. Meanwhile, across the country, dozens of teens calling themselves Assassins are about to act out their own tragedy to add to the list. April, along with her best friends Gavin and Gina, must survive together, as do other students in states across the nation whose choices will redeem or destroy them.
Told from seven narrative viewpoints, Comb’s novel provides chilling insight into the mastermind of the plot whose anger and powerlessness drive him to social media to gain a following of similarly disaffected disciples. But it also offers moving portraits of an English teacher who weeps for her students, of a lost boy whose father was killed in the Twin Towers, and of a would-be assassin saved by the love of her sister. Weaving in ties to 9/11 and other touchstones of the millennial generation, The Light Fantastic offers commentary on what troubles these media-saturated teens, and also offers hope for what can save them- the love and unwavering support of caring adults and family.
Reviewed by Leigh Ann Chow, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania
The Long Game by Jennifer Lynn Banks
Bloomsbury Children Books, 2016, 360pp., $17.99
Dysfunctional Family/Political Intrigue
Tess Kendrick Keyes is a high school junior at a private school where her Keyes name aligns her with a wealthy, influential grandfather, a grandfather she has only recently come to know. Her mother is a Washington “fixer,” someone who helps with the most sensitive of political issues. Tess even finds herself fixing problems for her friends, using what she has learned about influence and secrets. When the sister of a good friend calls in a favor for help with the student council elections, Tess unenthusiastically agrees. But, the job unexpectedly turns deadly and leads Tess into an international plot that puts all the students at Hardwicke School into grave danger. As Tess gets pulled into the political malfeasance, she comes to learn more about her family, about her mother’s workings in Washington, and about her own skills and abilities.
The intrigue in this novel is nonstop and the protagonist is clever, intelligent, and likeable. This is the second in what may well be a series of novels carrying “A Fixer Novel” subtitle. The background from the original is cleverly interwoven throughout this story, keeping the reader aware of Tess’s life and experiences without interfering with the current action. The action doesn’t let up as readers join Tess amidst the political intrigue of Washington’s rich and famous.
Reviewed by Janis Flint-Ferguson, Wenham, Massachusetts
The Bombs That Brought Us Together by Brian Conaghan
Bloomsbury Press, 2016, 300 pp., $17.99
Fourteen-year-old Charlie Law has learned how to survive the tough life in Little Town, a place run by a gang of thugs led by Big Man. Charlie befriends Pavel, a refugee from Old Country, but when Old Country bombs and occupies Little Town, existence becomes even more challenging and complicated. To obtain the inhalers his mom needs to survive, Charlie finds himself in debt to Big Man, and he’s terrified of what he’ll be asked to do for payment. How will he settle his debt to Big Man, maintain a friendship with Pav, and maybe even win over Erin F., the girl of his dreams?
The Bombs That Brought Us Together will appeal to adolescents who enjoy a page-turning adventure. Readers will find themselves identifying with Charlie or Pav as each makes difficult choices throughout the novel. The story will also cause readers to consider the nature of friendship, the treatment of refugees, and the place of violence and killing in war.
Reviewed by Bonnie Ericson, West Hills, California
RoseBlood by A. G. Howard
Amulet Books, 2017, 432 pp., $18.95
When Rune gets a tune in her head the only way to deal with it is to sing it out loud. Her natural talent, nurtured from a young age by her father, has become more of a curse since Rune’s father died. In an effort to help her daughter cope with the loss and regain her confidence, Rune’s mother sends her to RoseBlood, an opera house-turned school for the arts. At RoseBlood, Rune meets Thorn, an enigmatic boy who could very well be her soulmate. When Thorn realizes that he is falling in love with Rune, he must decide whether to save her or surrender her to the Phantom who haunts RoseBlood.
Howard effortlessly guides readers through this modern day version of Phantom of the Opera. Rune and Thorn both hunger to belong and to be loved- feelings every reader will understand. Fans of Marissa Meyer’s Cinder will enjoy this novel.
Reviewed by Janie Flores, San Antonio, TX
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
Amulet Books, 2016, 384 pp., $17.95
Fourteen-year-old Faith Sunderly and her family have left their home in Kent and come to the isolated island of Vane. The island’s magistrate has invited Faith’s father, Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, a celebrated natural history scholar, to assist and consult on a paleontological excavation on the island. Faith suspects that their hasty move to the island has a darker motive. Her suspicions are confirmed when news from the mainland reveals that the Reverend’s most famous scientific find is a fraud, causing the islanders to turn against the family. Soon after this revelation, her father brings Faith into his confidence to help him hide a strange plant, the Mendacity Tree, that only thrives in dark, damp conditions, feeds off lies whispered to it, and bears bitter fruit that delivers a hidden truth. On the morning after Faith and her father hide the plant in a cave on the coast of the island, he is found dead under mysterious circumstances, a death first deemed an accident, then a suicide.
Faith, who tries to live up to the Victorian expectations of a demure, well-mannered, and dutiful parson’s daughter, begins her own secret investigation into her father’s death, certain he was murdered. She possesses a clever scientific mind like her father, but she lives in an age when women are considered intellectually inferior and incapable of true scientific thought, so she knows she will not be believed if she directly voices her suspicions. She pores over her father’s notes about the Mendacity, or Lie Tree, using it to uncover the secrets and lies that abound among the island’s inhabitants, including her own Uncle Miles, who she finds out arranged for the family to come to the island in the first place. Along the way, she also uncovers uncomfortable truths about her father, the man she both idolized and feared all her life. She discovers, as readers do, that it is all too easy to spread lies that people are willing to believe, but much harder to accept the painful truths about people and their motives when they are revealed.
The Lie Tree is a fast paced, suspenseful story filled with rich, vivid period details. In addition to the mystery and fantasy elements, Hardinge provides a complex window into a society on the brink of cataclysmic change brought on by the discovery of fossils that contradict a long-held Biblical understanding of the earth’s creation and age, especially in the aftermath of the publication of Darwin’s Origins of the Species. Woven into these religious and scientific matters is a feminist thread that provides a look into the differing models of femininity that were emerging at the same time that traditional religious and social rules about gender were breaking down. Ultimately, the novel is a satisfying and nuanced coming-of-age story, as Faith must confront the fallibility of her parents, the reality of what it meant to be a woman in this era, and a loss of innocence when she must come to terms with the consequences of both lies and truth.
Reviewed by Diana Dominguez, Brownsville, Texas
The Forgetting by S. Cameron
Scholastic Press, 2016, 403 pp., $18.99
Identity/Trust/Romance/Loss/Genre Bending/Dystopia/Fantasy/Science Fiction
Nadia, the Dyer’s middle teenage daughter, lives in constant fear, knowing that soon everyone she loves and cares about will once again not only forget her but also their very own identities. She will see fear and confusion in her mother’s and older sister’s eyes, and the little sister she adores will no longer remember how much Nadia loves her. The Forgetting is almost upon Nadia’s community. During the last Forgetting, twelve years earlier, Nadia lost her father. She knows this because her memories stay intact. Nadia remembers every brutal detail about the day everyone else in her community forgot every aspect of their lives- twelve years of living gone in an instant.
In preparation for the Forgetting, the governing Council requires the head council member to read from the First Book during the Dark Days Festival. The text of the First Book includes the origin of the Forgetting. For this reason, every man, woman, and child record the daily details of their lives in a handwritten journal. The journal must stay attached to the author and when full, deposited into the Archives, at which time the author attains a new journal. In this way, community members can read their histories after the Forgetting, thus helping them recreate their identities. Community members are forbidden to go outside the city walls, having been told that it is unsafe, however, this is exactly where Nadia finds refuge, a place where she can be herself without the feeling of constantly being watched. It is also where she begins to fall in love with Gray, the Glassblower’s son.
Cameron constructs a world that will seem both familiar and strange to readers. Familiar because family and peer relationships are explored; strange because of the detached mood and unfamiliar environment created. Will Nadia finally be able to place her trust in someone other than her little sister? Will she be able to trust Gray; a young man she knew as a child but who has forgotten their earliest experiences together? Whether or not Nadia has the courage to trust in others could potentially change the lives of the people in her community and the world she calls home, but whom should she trust? And if given the opportunity, would the people in her life choose to remember? After reading the prologue of The Forgetting, readers will have a very hard time escaping Nadia’s world.
Reviewed by Wendy Farkas, Marquette, Michigan
Factory Girl by Josanne La Valley
Clarion Books, 2017, 272 pp., $17.99
Women/ Social Justice/Asia/Social History/Human Rights/Poetry
Roshen narrates what life is like for her as a poor young woman of the Uyghur (Weeghur) culture of East Turkestan. With the receipt of a dictate from the Chinese government Roshen knows her life will change. She is taken from her loving family and placed in a factory where living and working conditions are inhuman. Roshen must abandon her plans to become a teacher and postpone her courtship and possible marriage. She is determined to survive this ordeal with her innocence and Islamic faith intact. This proves more challenging than Roshen ever imagined but she has the loyalty of fellow ‘scarf girls,’ anonymous signs of kindness and the words of poetry written by and for Uyghurs. Still, her Muslim faith is shaken by the brutal physical violations to which she is subjected. How will Roshen survive and return home?
La Valley’s novel puts a human face on a part of the world that appears often in Western news media. This story celebrates the resiliency of the human spirit in the midst of cultural and political oppression. The book also offers educators many connections to curriculum, including language arts, geography, history and female empowerment. An eye opening and deeply touching story.
Reviewed by Barb Dean, Prince George, British Columbia
A List of Cages by Robin Roe
Hyperion, 2017, 308 pp., $17.99
Friendship/Foster Care/Special Learners/Physical Abuse/Realism
“What’s the assignment?” “Will this be on the test?” “Will it count?” “Does it matter?” Repeated queries like these, posed by countless teens slumped over school desks, become essential questions for two young men who must find their own answers through acts of heroism on small and large scales. As high school senior Adam Blake comes face to face with a tangled childhood memory in the form of a thin, poorly clothed, distraught freshman misfit named Julian, the daily patterns of life change for them both in extraordinary ways. While Adam’s ADHD learning challenges were recognized early and managed effectively, allowing him to excel academically and socially, Julian’s dyslexia was never properly addressed, and he suffers through each school day alone.
Although three years separate these two, their learning challenges initially brought them together in elementary school when 5th grader Adam was assigned to serve as 2nd grader Julian’s reading buddy. Their unlikely bond was forged through their love of high adventure stories and laughter. When tragedy overwhelmed Julian’s life, transforming him from reading buddy to foster brother, Julian was brought too deeply into Adam’s world. Changes occurred. Five years elapsed since the boys shared a home. Five years for Adam to count on his mom, friends, accomplishments, and dreams; five years for Julian to count the minutes waiting in darkness, his losses, secrets, and torments. Adam, however, is still on the job. He has a new assignment, and it counts. Both boys will be tested, and it will be a matter of life or death.
Roe gives readers a gripping view of two lives told through two compelling voices. The language alternates between the outrageous fun of teen smack to the lyrically poetic yearnings of young people choosing life and hope.
Reviewed by Karen Dunnagan, Louisville, Kentucky
The Call by Peadar O’Guilin
David Fickling Books, 320 pp, $18.99
Nessa is a teenager in a modern-day Ireland that has been completely cut off from the outside world by a misty barrier. Sometime during puberty, every teen on the island experiences the Call. For three minutes and four seconds they will disappear from the world and during that time, they will spend a full day in a hellish otherworld being hunted by the Sidhe, the beings who form the basis for Irish folklore and mythology. Most of those who are caught die in horrible agony as the Sidhe engage in their highest art, the transformation of human bodies. All children are sent to schools where they learn skills that transform them into warriors, in an effort to help them survive. Nessa faces a greater challenge than most because her body was weakened by childhood polio.
O’Guilan’s work is certainly gripping. The plot moves rapidly and the suspense steadily builds. The world-building is subtle, and despite the extreme circumstances and fantastic elements, the characters are relatable and realistic. Some readers may find the body horror elements in the depiction of the Sidhe’s domain to be extreme.
Reviewed by Robert Todd Bruce, University Heights, Ohio
Falling Over Sideways by Jordan Sonnenblick
Scholastic Press, 2016, 272 pp., $17.99
Middle School/Family Trauma/Teen Fiction
Claire’s eighth grade year is off to a bumpy start. She fails to move up in her dance class, her frenemy Ryder relentlessly badgers her about saxophone chair auditions, and her brother Matthew’s prolific performance in school and athletics only serves to diminish Claire’s few successes in life. However, her middle school drama takes a backseat when her father collapses in front of her during breakfast. When Claire finds out that her father has suffered from a stroke and may never be able to speak again, her life is thrown into a tailspin. She struggles in trying to connect with her father, who has lost the ability to move or speak, and feels as if she has no friends or family to confide in. Claire does, however, finds comfort and support in some rather unlikely people. This support helps Claire navigate some traumatic times as she tries to rekindle her relationship with her dad and get over her perceived shortcomings in order to survive her final year of middle school.
Sonnenblick does a nice job of exploring how traumatic medical events can impact family dynamics and the adolescent psyche. Falling Over Sideways masterfully paints the picture of the teenage world through the eyes of a sarcastic young lady, whose penchant for histrionics and feeling misunderstood is suggestive of many young adults today. In keeping with the style of Sonnenblick’s other YA novels, readers will find themselves relating to Claire’s struggles while wishing they could reach into the pages of the book to give her a warm hug.
Reviewed by William J. Fassbender, Athens, Georgia
The Firefly Code by Megan Frazer Blakemore
Bloomsbury, 2016, 340pp. $16.99
Coming of Age/Friendship/Social Skills/ School Life/Friendship
Twelve-year-old Mori and her three friends live a predictable and controlled life in the gated utopian community of Old Harmonie. That is, until the mysterious new girl arrives. Mori becomes fast friends with the charismatic and talented Ilana. This new friendship helps Mori find the courage to explore the mysterious and abandoned house number nine, revealing startling secrets about her new friend, Ilana and their community. What she and her friends learn cause them to question everything they have been taught to believe about life in New Harmonie and themselves.
Blakemore crafts an eerie, yet fast-moving dystopian novel that touches on friendship, community and what it means to be human. Readers will be drawn to Mori and her four friends, the Firefly Five, as they struggle to maintain old friendships in the face of growing up and learning who they are. With elements of mystery, The Firefly Code is a warm-hearted and refreshing twist on the dystopian genre. It is sure to leave readers hoping for a sequel.
Reviewed by Tara Campbell, Douglasville, GA
Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2016, 340 pp., $17.99
Seventeen-years-old and awkward, Yuri is one of the world’s leading physicists beckoned by NASA to save Earth from an imminent collision with an asteroid. Honored to have been chosen, Yuri is eager to collaborate, and sees the opportunity to share his work on antimatter. However, when Yuri realizes that he won’t be permitted to return to Russia because of the secrets he has seen, his own world begins to implode. He feels the ultimate loneliness until he makes his first ever friend, Dovie, a high school hippie with sparkly eyeshadow. While Yuri helps Dovie survive high school, Dovie and her family help Yuri prevent yet another unexpected collision.
Clever and full of wit, Kennedy’s characters connect with anyone who has ever felt alone or out of place. An unexpected ending will gratify the reader while leaving some ethical questions unanswered.
Reviewed by Jennifer Desloges, Plymouth, New Hampshire
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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