ALAN Picks is a regular book review column compiled and edited by Dr. Bryan Gillis of Kennesaw State University. The most recent column is published here and you can access the archives of previous Picks columns from this page.
Ask the Dark by Henry Turner
Clarion Books, 2015, 256 pp., $16.99
Single Parent Families/Poverty/Suspense-Thriller/Mystery
Fourteen-year-old Billy Zeets lives a life that no one envies. He loses his mother at a young age, his father cannot work due to an accident, and his teenage sister just found out she is pregnant. Labeled as white trash that will never amount to anything, Billy plays into the community’s evaluation of him through vandalism, theft, and truancy. While casing his next theft, Billy comes across a beaten, bloody corpse that he recognizes as a classmate who went missing several months ago. Fearing he will be punished, he flees, but not before taking evidence. As more and more boys go missing, Billy finds himself face-to-face with a cold-blooded killer who plans to make him the next victim.
Turner’s debut novel creates an intricate, fast-paced suspense thriller that sends chills down the reader’s spine. Billy’s unique voice and storytelling draws the reader into his world of suffering and instability, creating compassion for a boy who is good at heart even if his actions fail to reflect it. In contrast, as each detail of the murderer unfolds, the true horror of man’s dark side becomes exposed.
Reviewed by Courtney Krieger, Moore, Oklahoma
Read Between the Lines by Jo Knowles
Candlewick Press, 2015, 336 pp., $16.99
Realistic Fiction/High School Life/Family Life/Empathy
Read Between the Lines tells the story of one eventful day from the varying perspectives of nine teens and one high school teacher. Nate is bullied at home and at school, until he breaks his finger. The resulting splint allows him to flip people off with impunity, and gives him the confidence to stand up for himself at school. Claire briefly crosses paths with Nate in the school nurse’s office after cutting class in an attempt to ditch her friends. She is a cheerleader who is tired of the meaningless pursuits of her clique. As she explores the city, two strangers give her the finger in situations that amplify and clarify her feelings about not belonging.
Nate and Claire’s stories wrap up a bit too neatly and quickly, but as the story threads become more interwoven, the novel gains richness and develops the theme that no one should be taken at face value. Several characters lead double lives. For example, Sammy is completely put-together at school but never invites anyone home due to her mother’s hoarding disorder. Ben is dating Grace but really wants to be with Stephen. Stephen wishes he could see his father as a hero, the way his mother does. Dewey seems to care for nothing but order, bossing around his fast-food restaurant subordinates and his messy neighbors alike, but what he really wants is for his mom to come home. Even the school janitor has a secret, and it’s not of the stereotypical wise-man-in-overalls variety.
Knowles dedicates Read Between the Lines to “the man driving the Volvo station wagon who gave my family the finger in 2003 even though we didn’t deserve it.” While the shock value in encountering or giving the finger varies for the characters in the book and surely for its readers, the motif, and therefore the novel, is effective for its intent, to explore empathy.
Reviewed by Mary Malhotra, La Canada, California
Arcady’s Goal by Eugene Yelchin
Henry Holt and Company, 2014, 227 pp., $15.99
Sports/Family/Historical Fiction/Soviet History
Ever since he can remember, twelve-year old Arcady Olenin has been alone. Shuttled from one “children’s camp” to another after his parents are pronounced enemies of the state, Arcady dreams of escaping his hard life and earning a spot on the Soviet Union’s premier soccer team, The Red Army Soccer Club. When he catches the eye of Ivan Ivanych, a camp inspector who decides to adopt him after witnessing Arcady’s skill, Arcady can’t believe his luck – a home, enough food, and a chance to play on a real soccer team. And yet, he wonders, is Ivan Ivanych using him? Does Ivan Ivanych want to exploit Arcady’s talent for his own glory?
Inspired by a picture of the author’s father who captained the Red Army Soccer team in 1945, this fast-paced, beautifully illustrated novel depicts the hardships of living under Stalinism from a child’s perspective. Young readers will identify with Arcady’s single-minded desire to prove his worth, share his anger at the prejudice he confronts in adults and peers, and appreciate his complicated feelings for Ivan Ivanych who, like Arcady, wants a better life for them both. Arcady’s Goal is a hopeful book about courage, compassion, and risks worth taking.
Reviewed by Emily Meixner, Ewing, New Jersey
You and Me and Him by Kris Dinnison
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2015, 288 pp., $17.99
Friendships/Boy-Girl Relationships/Self-Concepts/Overweight Issues
Maggie and Nash are best friends who share everything, including Maggie’s ongoing battle with her mom over her weight and Nash’s caregiving for his alcoholic mom. They also commiserate over food, Maggie for comfort and Nash because he doesn’t cook and relies on Maggie’s generosity. When Tom arrives at Cedar Ridge High School, Nash is immediately attracted to him and tries to bring him into their group. Maggie and Nash are not members of the “in crowd” at school; nevertheless, Tom pals with them, ignoring the more popular kids at school. Soon, Maggie and Tom become more than friends, and she realizes that she needs to tell Nash that Tom is not interested in a relationship with another boy. Will she tell Nash, or will she let her feelings for Tom destroy her relationship with her best friend?
Dinnison’s story explores many current high school issues- affections, bullying, friendships weight consciousness, and straight and gay relationships. The triangle of “You, Me and Him” pulls the reader in to the story quickly and completely.
Reviewed by Carolyn Lot, Oxford, Mississippi
Eden West by Pete Hautman
Candlewick Press, 2015, 310 pp., $17.99
Seventeen-year-old Jacob has lived the majority of his life in Nodd, the land of the Grace, a religious group that promises its constituents a utopian existence away from the harsh realities of the Worldly life. He had never questioned his life in the Grace until Tobias, a Worldly teenage boy who scoffs the more primitive ways of the Grace, joins the group. Jacob also meets Lynna, a Worldly girl from a Montana ranch whose land borders Nodd. As Jacob’s feelings for Lynna grow, so do his questions about his religious beliefs and the routines of life in Nodd.
Hautman uses the theme of teenage angst in a fresh new way. Jacob struggles to reconcile the beliefs of peers from a strange world with the teachings of the adults he has always trusted. Throughout the novel, it is clear that the isolation under which Jacob has been raised has not been the utopia that his parents originally sought. Readers will feel both frustration surrounding Jacob’s decisions as well as a deep understanding for why he makes them, and finally, a profound hope that he will find his own happiness.
Reviewed by Rebecca Marsick, Fairfield, Connecticut
Infandous by Elena K. Arnold
Carol Rhoda Lab, 2015, 192 pp., $18.99
Mothers and Daughters/Single-Parent Families/Sculptors/Sex
Seventeen-year-old Sephora is obsessed with myths and legends—not the Disney versions, but gruesome tales involving rape, deceit, and murderous revenge. She lives with her single mother in a run-down section of Venice Beach, California, where she skips school as much as possible to pursue art, surfing, and skateboarding. Although close to her beauty-queen mother, who gave birth to her as a teenager, Seph keeps a secret from her mother involving a brief sexual relationship with a mysterious and creepy older tourist who has come back to town and wants to see her again.
The language is descriptive and sensual, immersing readers in the world of surf bums and other people living on the edge. We experience the sound and feel of a skateboard rolling over broken pavement and the canister of pepper spray that Seph always carries in the pocket of her hoodie. Through a weekend visit to her aunt’s mansion in Atlanta, Arnold contrasts Seph’s hardscrabble life—the consequence of her mother’s choices as a teenager—with the life her mother could have had. In the course of a hot and turmoil-filled summer, Seph learns that she, too, can survive bad choices and through art and stories can begin to recover.
Reviewed by Lyn Miller-Lachmann, New York, New York
Watch the Sky by Kirsten Hubbard
Disney-Hyperion, 2015, 262 pp., $16.99
“Trust was a fragile thing. So was belief. And both were starting to crumble” (200). Jory’s life is falling apart. Twelve-year-old Jory is taught by his step dad, Caleb, to always be on the lookout for signs- dead animals, strange birds, anything unusual. Jory never quite understood what he was looking for and why. He is told to silently question everything his teachers tell him. Since returning to school after being homeschooled, he can see how different his family is, from the clothes they wear–combat boots and cargo pants–to the food they eat–powdered milk and home canned food. His nine-year-old sister, Kit, was discovered in a melon patch one night three years ago and she has not spoken a word. Jory has no friends, but Alice Brooks-Diaz, the most popular girl in school, is determined to crack Jory’s shell and learn more about this kid who doesn’t talk to anyone. Then comes the night of the meteor shower, and Caleb tells the family that this is the sign they have been looking for. The family begins digging a shelter at the bottom of the canyon, which causes Jory to daydream at school and neglect his homework at night.
Watch the Sky is a middle school view of a survivalist family. While the book reveals some of the preparations, it allows readers to decide when the plans go too far. Jory becomes comfortable with his schoolmates and begins to doubt Caleb, but he also wonders, if the end is coming for his family, what about everyone else?
Reviewed by Teresa LaRocco, St. Cloud, Minnesota
X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon
Candlewick Press, 2015, 350 pp., $16.99
Historical Fiction/Fathers/Racial Tension/Transformation
An adolescent Malcolm Little (Malcolm X) recounts his early years in Lansing, Michigan during the Great Depression. His painful childhood includes the death of his father at the hands of white supremacists, the institutionalization of his mother, grinding poverty, and the dispersion of all his siblings to different foster care homes. Though his siblings maintain contact after separating, Malcolm decides to pursue a different path by moving to Boston to live with his half-sister, Ella. Despite her well-intended guidance, Malcolm discovers an underground world of gambling, marijuana and alcohol use, and theft. He pursues an ill-fated romance with a white woman, Sophia, and moves on to Harlem, New York, where he begins to snort cocaine and burglarizes wealthy homes. Caught in a police sting, Sophia testifies against him, and he serves a prison sentence. After years of raging against the system, Malcolm finds the Nation of Islam and dedicates himself to his parents’ original ideals, working for the betterment of the black race and vowing to “never succumb” (350).
Shabazz and Magoon have painted a compelling portrait of the teenaged Malcolm Little before he became Malcolm X. Shabazz’s fictionalized account of her father’s early years rings with honesty throughout as she recreates his struggles, failings, and foibles during his most vulnerable years. Readers will find sympathy for young Malcolm even as they revile his life of crime. This is an important addition to the legacy of a key civil rights leader.
Reviewed by Jennifer McQuillan, Milford, Michigan
This Side of Home by Renée Watson
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015, 336 pp., $17.99
Race, Diversity/Urban Renewal/Siblings/High School/Friendship
Maya, her identical twin sister Nikki, and best friend Essence have life plans after leaving Richmond High. The story begins the summer before their senior year. For as long as Maya can remember, they have shared the goals of graduating and getting accepted to Spelman College, a historical black college in Atlanta, Georgia. The girls have grown up together in a Portland, Oregon neighborhood that is experiencing an influx of new businesses and families with money. Essence and her alcoholic mother are forced to move across town, Nikki is becoming best friends with a white girl, and Maya isn’t sure how she feels about her “perfect” boyfriend. As student body president, Maya has big plans for Richmond High but on top of everything else, there is a new principal who wants to change some of the best things about the struggling school. Maya feels as though all of the plans she was so sure of are slipping away one by one.
Maya’s first person point of view gives readers perspective on a teenager wrestling with things both in and out of her control. While she has no trouble speaking up in defense of her neighborhood, school, and culture, Maya struggles to be honest with herself about her own feelings. Although the tone of the book is didactic at times, readers will gain insight into the topic of urban renewal. Watson’s use of dialogue provides perspective on past and current events of African-American communities in Portland. Ultimately, this book gives readers much to consider in terms of how we think about our own culture, race, and the places we call home.
Reviewed by Kristin K.A. McIlhagga, East Lansing, Michigan
Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst
Bloomsbury, 2014, 366 pp., $17.99
Sixteen-year-old Kayla has promised her mother, Moonbeam, who has plenty mojo of her own, not to use her telekinetic powers. The two of them have been “hiding in plain sight” from Kayla’s abusive father, and don’t want to attract any attention. But Kayla has been secretly using her power to shoplift and squirrel away enough money to flee if her father ever manages to track them down to the small California city where they’ve been living for the past eight years. Kayla does attract someone’s attention – a mysterious (and gorgeous, of course!) boy named Daniel, who literally appears next to her on a city bench one day. He knows about her secret powers, and claims his mother has been kidnapped, and only Kayla can help him save her. She refuses, but when he threatens to expose her telekinesis, she reluctantly agrees.
An Indiana Jones-like adventure ensues, with Daniel teleporting Kayla first to a voodoo queen in New Orleans, and then to the Temple of the Great Jaguar in the ancient town of Tikal, Mexico, in search of three magic, but evil stones. Someone else is trying to get to those stones as well – Kayla’s father, and the sister she and Moonbeam thought he had murdered!
This fast-paced adventure story combines the paranormal, romance, mystery, and action to keep the reader entranced, right along with Kayla!
Reviewed by Martha Marsot, Keokuk, Iowa