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.
The Dead I Know by Scot Gardener
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 201 pp., $17.99
Troubled Teens/Poverty/Death/Single-Parent Families
Sixteen-year-old Aaron Rowe is mysterious, even to himself. Haunted by a shadowy past, Aaron begins working at a funeral parlor and finds himself almost comfortable working with the dead. Calmed by and at the same time skeptical of the kindness Aaron’s new boss shows him, he begins to worry that his new job will ultimately unravel secrets–about himself, his home, and his family–that he has worked so hard to hide, or that have worked hard to hide themselves from him.
Gardener successfully weaves a vivid tale that is dark and mysterious yet warm and funny. The novel explores some of the complexities that rest behind the façade of the “bad kid.” Readers will be moved by Aaron as he straddles his two worlds, compelled by each quip and each clue that reveal the secrets of his past and present.
Reviewed by Desi Krell, Gainesville, Florida
When by Victoria Laurie
Hyperion, 2015, 336 pp., $17.99
Sixteen-year-old Maddie’s life has been defined by her unexplained ability to see the “death date” of anyone whom she faces or whose picture she sees. These numbers float like ghostly echoes on foreheads of the people she observes. Her mother, uncle, and best friend know about her ability, and since her father’s early death, Maddie and her mom have relied on the income generated from people interested in Maddie’s “readings.” When a rich socialite comes for a reading and Maddie tells the woman that her teenage son, not the child the woman is concerned about, will die in the next week, an avalanche of events is set into motion. Maddie and her best friend Stubby are accused of murder. As her world swirls out of control, Maddie tries to hold on to what she knows to be true.
Laurie creates a believable young protagonist who struggles with a powerful and unwanted gift and her desire to use it to set things right. Maddie’s actions propel a fast-paced, unpredictable plot to a stunning conclusion. Fans of murder mystery series and police-procedural television series will enjoy Laurie’s use of these conventions in a young-adult setting.
Reviewed by Kim McCollum-Clark, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Con Academy by Joe Schreiber
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 234 pp., $17.99
Prep Schools/Swindlers/Humor/Realistic Fiction
Will Shea, aka Billy Humbert, has bluffed his way into Connaughton Academy, an exclusive New England prep school where he plans to con his way into the social and financial worlds of wealthy classmates. Will quickly discovers, however, that classmate and fellow scam artist Andrea Dufresne has already claimed Connaughton as her territory. They make a bet over who can first swindle ten thousand dollars from another student. The winner stays at Connaughton. With the help of his shady dad and super con artist and mentor, Uncle Roy, Will is soon embroiled in a scheme to fleece the super rich Brandt Rush before Andrea can get to him first. Will finds an unexpected ally and potential romance with fellow student Gatsby Haverford.
Will’s friendship with Gatsby and his desire to distance himself from his abusive father push him to confront his life of crime. Though he has a gift for lying, Will’s voice is self-deprecatingly honest and funny. Schreiber provides a fast-paced plot with plenty of twists and turns and a satisfying ending.
Reviewed by Anne Miller, Pittsfield, Maine
The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond
Candlewick Press, 2015, 366pp., $17.99
Memoir/Post WWII England/Life Choices/Sexual Questioning/Rape
David Almond’s memories of growing up in Tyneside, England help craft the fictional tale of Dominic Hall. Read like a memoir, the story begins with Dominic’s earliest memories of moving into a new housing development built mainly for workers in the ship building industry. Dominic’s dad fought in the Second World War and for much of the story he struggles to adjust to his life as a caulker in the shipyards. This mirrors Dominic’s struggle to find his place as he grows up. A circus visit early in the book provides the sustained metaphor of the tightrope walker. Will Dominic stay on the wire that leads to his friend Holly and the opportunity to continue with his schooling as a means to move far beyond his village? Or will he leap from the rope to Vincent McAlinden, an angry young man, who violently rages against his lack of opportunities. Dominic is attracted to the danger and Vincent himself. As the story continues, Dominic drifts to Vincent and when circumstances force them apart, Vincent inserts himself one last time in a violent climax to the book.
Almond has written a book that will be mostly inaccessible to younger fans of his work like Skellig. This is a very mature (in language and content) retelling of childhood and young adulthood. As adults, our view on childhood is filtered through the knowledge won in adulthood and the melancholy associated with recalling the choices made. This mature response may be missing for younger readers and this is the strongest part of Almond’s narrative. In addition, much of the vocabulary and dialect is very specific to the region and may require clarification for a North American audience.
Reviewed by Dia MacBeth, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves Edited by Ann Angel
Candlewick Press, 2015, 300 pp., $16.99
Ann Angel has compiled a sensitive and wide-ranging collection of short stories with the theme of the secrets that each of us carry inside, whether we know it or not. The stories in this compilation range from the problems of hoarders, Hell’s spawn demons, eating disorders, sexual responsibility, and guidance counselors who overstep their professional boundaries. Some of the stories will be straightforward enough for teenagers to enjoy them alone. Others will benefit from guided discussions in order to reach deeper and richer understandings. This is a deeply thought provoking collection of stories.
In the story, “We Were Together”, the topic of the responsibility for sexual activity is explored when a young man seemingly feels no responsibility for cheating on his girlfriend and then giving her herpes. “Cupid’s Beaux” is an entertaining supernatural story in which a guardian angel is assigned to watch over a “wholly souled” vampire. The story also provides strong support and acceptance of diversity. In “Storm clouds Fleeing From the Wind” is a compassionate and touching tale with a surprise ending. “When We Were Wild” is a complex story about self-identity and the choices we make along the way that determine our future choices.
The fifteen stories that comprise this book explore many different aspects of the secrets we hold. Some of the tales are delightful and some are disturbing, but all are well worth reading and discussing with students.
Reviewed by Marian J McKenna, Missoula, Montana
Cut Me Free by J.R. Johansson
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2015, 298 pp., $17.99
After knowing only death and pain in an attic in a wilderness cabin, being drenched in life feels good to seventeen-year-old Piper, who—like the Pied Piper of Hamelin—dreams of saving children, in part to atone for the brother she could not save from abusive parents. When she finds herself in Philadelphia, she hopes to build a future without fear, so she secures the talents of Marco Cameron Angelo—aka Cam—who creates for her a new identity in Charlotte Thompson.
When the life that Charlotte has built, a life that she has killed and worked so hard for, begins to unravel, she wonders why the people she loves become collateral damage in the carnage of her life. Having lived through a nightmare-filled reality, she’s okay with “walking a bit on the crazy side of the sanity line” (41), but she begins to think she needs to walk alone. Haunted by her past and stalked by a psychopath, Charlotte rides a roller coaster of terror, giving up pieces of herself on the journey—sanity, security, and hope— and she begins to wonder how many pieces must be sacrificed for peace.
With Cut Me Free, Johansson creates a dark and twisted but beautiful story from which readers learn that we all hide scars under the surface that we all share pain and loss, and that love makes the difference in helping us survive the horrors that life brings.
Reviewed by Donna L. Miller Chinook, Montana
Rook by Sharon Cameron
Scholastic Press, 2015, 454 pp., $17.99
Action & Adventure/Fantasy & Magic/Love & Romance
Determined to empty the Tombs of its prisoners and destroy the corrupt government of the Sunken City, eighteen-year-old Sophie Bellamy, the daring Red Rook, deftly navigates her future as she uncovers and confirms the true identities and intentions of the family, friends, and foes who surround her. Betrothed to Parisian Rene Hasard as a means to save her family’s estate, Sophie at first views her fiancé as a charming nuisance. But like Sophie, Rene is much more than he appears and is as capable of executing intrigue and meting out justice as the Red Rook herself.
Rook is an inventive take on The Scarlet Pimpernel with a dusting of Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities. Set in the distant future in which technology has been wiped from the face of the Earth, buried treasure consists of bits of plastic recovered from digs, and a death sentence is only a coin flip away. Cameron’s future Paris is harsh; its prisons filthy, its rulers corrupt, and its use of the Razor as deadly as the guillotine of the French Revolution.
Known for her steampunk novels The Dark Unwinding and A Spark Unseen, Cameron’s skillful narration cascades down the page as it moves seamlessly between characters. And with quick tempo, Cameron’s characters act. LeBlanc ruthlessly plots to capture and execute the Red Rook at the same time a gaggle of his own relatives work in concert to keep Sophie beyond his reach. With a delightful mixture of cat and mouse, swordplay, pyro techniques, and the occasional fluttering heart and stolen kiss, Cameron takes readers into a future world whose brutal history is all-too familiar but where love truly does conquer all.
Reviewed by Christine Boardman Moen, Franklin, Tennessee
The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015, 336 pp., $17.99
Love & Romance/Fantasy & Magic/Social Issues/Dating & Sex
The game has been set into motion for Flora Saudade and Henry Bishop, two young teens that play the game pieces in the everlasting battle between Love and Death. Although Henry and Flora live within blocks from one another, their differences are evident. Henry is a boy with life handed to him on a silver platter, encompassed with family wealth, a college scholarship, and a wife-to-be if he so chooses, he cannot help but feel drawn to Flora. Flora is a young African American woman who aspires to become the next Amelia Earhart, but she cannot seem to escape the life of singing Jazz at The Domino. When Flora and Henry reunite after meeting as kids, the chemistry is electric. Taking a front row seat to each of Flora’s Jazz performances, Henry is set upon pursuing the once little girl in the blue dress. But will Henry’s adoptive family and the game set fourth by Love and Death keep them from one another, or does Love really always prevail in the end?
Brockenbrough has written a love story that illustrates just how hard love can be to find and keep. The Game of Love and Death is a story that will undoubtedly have readers questioning just how much control they have over their own love lives. Readers will not be able to do anything but hope that in the midst of a world separated by color and in the depths of The Great Depression, Flora and Henry will end up together and Love will finally win his game.
Reviewed by Orianna Moccio, St. Louis, Missouri