ALAN’s Picks is a monthly book review column compiled and edited by Drs. James Blasingame of Arizona State University and Bryan Gillis of Kennesaw State University. The most recent column is published here; archives can be accessed by scrolling to the bottom of the page.
The most recent picks column is below; you can access the archives from this page.
We have a special treat this month: Bryan Gillis has an interview with Tom Leveen, author of Party, Zero, and manicpixiedreamgirl. Read it here!
by Tom Leveen
Random House Books for Young Readers, 2013 256 pp., $16.99
High School/Friendship/Dating/Emotional Problems
Tyler Darcy is a guy who likes to stay behind the scenes. He has been writing ever since he can remember, and now, in his junior year of high school, his big day has finally arrived. His first short story has just been published in a literary magazine. Tyler, however, is not so much happy as he is terrified that everyone will see through the “fiction” that he has written. His short story is loosely based on his relationship with his dream girl, Rebecca Webb, whom he has obsessed over since his freshman year. The problem is that Tyler and Becky’s real life relationship has never progressed beyond hanging out and talking because Tyler feels that he is not worthy to be any more than a friend to her. Tyler’s fictional version of their relationship is created in his mind as he acts on his obsession for Becky by observing her from afar (not stalking, he claims) and writing about who he imagines her to be. He even goes so far as to befriend an attractive and intelligent girl named Sydney so that he can get information about Becky. He eventually begins a relationship with Sydney, but continues to pine for Becky.
Tyler is oblivious to the fact that his friends, his sister, even Sydney know of his infatuation. In an attempt to get closer to Becky, Tyler joins the drama club. They talk, hang out, and as he spends more time near her, he begins to see and hear things that don’t mesh with his perception of Becky as the perfect girl. He becomes temporarily disenchanted, but then quickly decides that he can be her knight in shining armor. Still, he finds himself unable to take action. So he continues to write, creating a story that he is too afraid to live.
Tom Leveen has created a truly believable cast of high school characters with whom the reader will immediately connect. The dialogue, the most difficult aspect of a YA novel to capture, is spot on. What is particularly enjoyable is how he brings the female characters to life, specifically Becky, and Tyler’s long suffering girlfriend, Sydney, not just through their own actions and dialogue, but through Tyler’s thoughts and actions. Leveen has also created a fascinating plot in which present and past story lines slowly merge.
In his first two novels, Party and Zero, Leveen does a masterful job of portraying high school relationships, from going steady and summer loves to hooking up. In manicpixiedreamgirl, he delves into a much more complex relationship built on the hopes and dreams of a young man who will do just about anything to keep the vision of his dream girl alive. Party and Zero were great reads. Manicpixiedreamgirl is Leveen’s best work to date. Finally, if you are wondering about the significance of the title, do an Internet search and you can draw your own conclusions.
Reviewed by Bryan Gillis (Kennesaw State University)
A Moment Comes
by Jennifer Bradbury
Antheneum Books for Young Readers, 2013, 288 pp., $16.99.
Identity/Coming of Age/Middle East/Historical Fiction
Margaret, a British teenager hiding from her past, finds herself in India at the moment when India’s history is about to change forever. While her father struggles to divide India along religious lines, Margaret must decide whether to follow her heart or be the perfect daughter her parents expect her to be. Tariq is a Muslim who dreams of going to Oxford so that he can make a difference for himself and his country. He finds himself working for Margaret’s father and must decide whether to journey to Pakistan with his family or chase his own dreams in England. Anupreet, a Sikh who has already been harmed once due to the religious fighting within her country, is caught in the middle. These three teenagers, so different and yet so alike, must learn to trust one another in order to achieve their dreams and survive the turmoil in India. Bradbury has created an intriguing look at a pivotal moment in India’s history, from the viewpoint of three very different teenagers. More importantly, she comments on the universal struggle for identity, the need for love, and the difference one person can make. Readers will find themselves rooting for all three characters to achieve their goals as they stand up against a history of oppression.
Reviewed by Joanna L. Anglin (Conyers, Georgia)
by Sarah Skilton
Amulet Books, 2013, 288 pp., $16.95.
Imogen, a sixteen-year-old black belt in Tae Kwon Do, lives by the teachings of her martial arts training, particularly the precept of defending the weak. When she witnesses but does not act during a fatal robbery attempt at the local diner, she questions both her courage and the validity of her past achievements. Carrying a crushed ego, Imogen abandons her principles and sets out on a self-destructive path, seeking a human punching bag, even if it is herself. Along the way, she maintains dysfunctional relationships with her popular older brother Hunter, who plays love ‘em and leave ‘em with Imogen’s friends, her mother, who treats her daughter as though she exists in a hug free zone, her wheelchair bound father who has given up on life, and an estranged best friend who was part of “Hunter’s Harem.” When Imogen discovers a boy named Ricky, who shared her harrowing experience at the diner, she forges a mutually healing relationship until the repressed trauma of that night resurfaces and moves her toward a rocky but fulfilling reclamation. Sarah Skilton has crafted a character who spends much of the novel bruised (and often battered) both physically and emotionally. The author’s skillful sensory passages move from clothing caked with thick dried blood to kisses deep and ravenous. Imogen’s voice, damaged yet determined and always self aware, may remind readers of Melinda from Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.
Reviewed by Michael Anthony (Reading, PA)
by Debbie Levy
Walker Books, 2013, 304 pp., $17.99
Fifteen-year-old Danielle Samuelson has been hired as the summer babysitter to Humphrey, a five-year-old boy living in her suburban Maryland neighborhood. The two develop an unlikely friendship that is founded on imaginative play dates at the park and football lessons. Their lighthearted summer takes a tragic turn when Humphrey is involved in a car accident and Danielle is unable to protect him. She is suddenly confronted with a series of adult issues– a police investigation that reveals the involvement of an illegal alien, neighborhood upheaval, and resentment from Humphrey’s parents. Danielle isolates herself from friends and family until she meets Justin, a frequent visitor of Humphrey’s favorite park. Yet as details of the accident continue to surface, Danielle learns that Justin may not be the person she thought he was. In order to forgive herself for Humphrey’s death, Danielle must first overcome her grief and accept the truth that awaits her. Imperfect Spiral is a heartfelt drama that touches on the themes of friendship, love, fear, and death. Moreover, Levy brings insight to debates surrounding immigration laws by illustrating its impact on her characters. Readers will find a relevant and inspiring story in the thoughts and actions of protagonist Danielle as she learns to cope with loss and forgiveness in order to overcome a period of uncertainty and honor the memory of a loved one.
Reviewed by Ellen (Assimos) Grzymkowski (Montclair, New Jersey)
by Andrew Smith
Simon and Schuster, 2013, 440 pp., $16.99
Being a fourteen-year-old is hard. Being a fourteen-year-old boy named Ryan Dean West is even harder. Ryan is sent to boarding school where he is stuck in a dorm called Opportunity Hall, aptly named for the group of thugs who are assigned to live there. Ryan Dean doesn’t feel that he fits into the group, or any other group for that matter, but it is a place that he comes to think of as home. He loves drawing, playing rugby, and a girl named Annie – not necessarily in that order. Annie is his best friend in the whole world. She is also a full two years older than Ryan Dean, just about completely out of his league. Ryan Dean reminds readers of just how hard it is to navigate through the teenage years. Winger is sweet, simple, and ultimately, heartbreaking. Narrated in first person, this book will appeal to young male readers due to its focus on sports and strong male friendships, as well as to young female readers who will likely be drawn to the love story that develops. It is an easy read, illustrated with occasional comics, drawings, and diagrams, all created by the main character. These help to illuminate Ryan Dean’s many struggles, often in a clever, tongue-in-cheek way. The book’s cover suggests a reading range of 12 and up, but some of the conversations between Ryan Dean and his friends seem more appropriate for readers age 14 and up.
Reviewed by Nickie Babcock (Chester, Virginia)
by Sharri L. Smith
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013, 324 pp., $17.99
New Orleans/Viral Diseases/Science Fiction
In the year 2020, an epidemic of incurable Delta Fever and catastrophic storm-related death rates resulting from six hurricanes of increasing magnitude that occured post Katrina has led to a quarantine and separation of the affected states from governance by the U.S. In 2056, survivors in Orleans are divided into tribes by blood type. When members of an AB tribe–they have the fever and need repeated transfusions to stay alive– raid the fever-resistant O-positive tribe, 15-year-old Fen flees with her chieftain’s newborn baby. Intent on getting the baby over the Wall to a better life, Fen comes in contact with Daniel, a scientist from the Outer States, who has entered Orleans illegally in hopes of developing a cure for Delta Fever. The unlikely pair bond as the embark on a harrowing adventure with only the narrowest hope of survival. Smith does a beautiful job of world building in this dystopian novel. This thought-provoking futuristic tale ends with uncertainty for the survival of Daniel, the baby girl, Enola, and Fen as well as for those in both Orleans and the Outer States as the threat of Delta Fever remains.
Reviewed by Carolyn Angus (Claremont, California)
Being Henry David
by Cal Armistead
Albert Whitman & Company, 2013, 308 pp., $16.99
When he awakens in Penn Station, a frightened teenage boy with a bloodied head, and no idea who he is or why he’s alone, all he knows is that he must keep a homeless man from eating his one possession, a copy of Thoreau’s Walden. He calls himself Henry David in hope that somehow that connection will help spark a memory, is befriended by another runaway who christens him “Hank”, finds himself embroiled in more violence during a run-in with the dangerous criminal Magpie, and fearing the police, is on the run again. This time he has a destination, Concord and Walden Pond, where he finds unlikely allies in a potential love interest, a school janitor and a biker librarian. Hank begins the ultimate journey of self-discovery as he tries to survive the mounting terror that his slowly surfacing memories bring. The spirit and words of Thoreau permeate Hank’s experience as he tries to stop running, face some hard truths, and choose to live deliberately. Imbuing a YA coming-of-age “when bad things happen to good people” story with classic literature could be an English teacher’s dream. We feel Hank’s dread of discovering his past with every turn of the page, and while a photographic memory explains how he quotes entire passages from Walden, his moral and philosophical inward journey is one we applaud. Debut author Armistead leaves some interesting secondary characters hanging, but the combination of mystery, romance and examination of self is one readers will embrace.
Reviewed by Mary Arnold (Maple Heights, Ohio)
by Megan Miranda
Walker Books, 2013, 323 pp., $17.99
High school junior Mallory should be having the summer of her life- young and in love with Brian, the popular boy with a hot temper and a possessive side. Less than two months later, Mallory finds herself dealing with the aftermath of killing him. Although it is officially ruled self-defense, there are suspicious details that Mallory herself may not remember. When Brian’s family begins to retaliate and her own family relationships become too strained, she is suddenly sent away to prep school. Melanie seems to systematically isolate herself from others by avoiding the opening events and rejecting most friendly overtures. Is she trying for notoriety or is she right to separate herself from others for their safety? The unique narrative perspective forces the reader to suffer through her sleeplessness, nightmares, and feelings of being followed; it is unclear if her living on the edge of blind panic is reasonable caution in the face of real danger or signs of a genuine mental breakdown. This is hysteria. Miranda has created a fast-paced, psychological thriller that explores the ideas of identity, rejection, loneliness, and groupthink. Similar to Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Hysteria will cause readers to vacillate between viewing group experiences as “safety in numbers” or as dangerous mobs that could viciously turn on a common target without warning. Melanie is an engaging character because of her unreliability as a narrator; the suspense of discovering the truth will keep readers turning pages until the end.
Reviewed by Latoya Anderson (Covington, Georgia)
by Bill Konigsberg
Scholastic, 2013, 336 pp., $17.99
Gay Teenagers/Identity/Homosexuality/Prep Schools
Boulder, Colorado, is so socially conscious, so hip and progressive, so welcoming of diversity, so down with alternative gender and sexual identities that it makes Rafe Goldberg sick. Sick and tired of everyone bending over backwards to be accepting, sick and tired of his mother being president of PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), sick and tired of being “the gay kid.” He wants to be Rafe, just Rafe; in fact, he’s afraid that he’s actually losing his identity as Rafe to the public persona that has been forced on him by everyone including the local newspaper, the Boulder Daily Camera, which featured him in a story entitled, “Gay High School Student Speaks Out.” And so he leaves. He says goodbye to Boulder, to his parents, to his best friend Claire Olivia, and to being openly gay. His plan is to say hello to the new and improved Rafe, the Rafe who transcends gayness, at a new school far away. Rafe enrolls in a prestigious prep boarding school in New England, the Natick School, where he can finally be Rafe, just Rafe, not Rafe the gay kid, or Rafe the gay soccer player, or Rafe the gay anything. He will be appreciated for who he really is.
From the first day, the experience seems to be all he imagined and more. The other young men accept this new, athletic, enthusiastic guy immediately. It doesn’t hurt that he is a talented athlete who can jump into an informal game of football or score goals on the soccer field against Natick’s traditional rivals. Rafe loves being in the midst of all this masculine camaraderie with its excitement and male bonding rituals, something he has never experienced. He doesn’t have to worry about implications of showering with the gang or putting his arm around a friend or vice versa. He is just one of the boys. He experiences access to real friendship with other boys, friendship that has been denied to him as a matter of course in Boulder. In his previous life, the expectation was always that he would have much in common with any and every other gay guy. At Natick, for the first time, he makes good friends among his classmates. These are real friends who base their regard for him on his personality, his courage on the field of play, his wit, and his friendliness.
And then there’s Ben. Ben is as good looking as he is likable. He is kind and good-natured, intelligent and sincere, and Rafe loves his company from the start. When Ben’s roommate has to leave the school and Rafe moves into his dorm room, the two become fast friends. This friendship grows into something much larger as the semester progresses. Survival of good and bad events on the playing field and in the classroom strengthen their bond as the days go by. Eventually, however, their level of physical intimacy suggests Ben may have more in common with Rafe than Rafe at first thought.
When Thanksgiving rolls around, Rafe invites Ben home to Boulder. Ben will avoid his archconservative family, whose views on everything from politics to religion make him uncomfortable, and Rafe will have the opportunity to introduce his new comrade to his own family and friends. The only problem will be keeping Rafe’s Boulder persona (the gay kid) a secret. A few close calls nearly end Rafe’s masquerade, but either Ben is naïve or Rafe’s orientation is not that obvious because Ben seems not to suspect.
Back at the Natick School, Ben and Rafe return to a society that accepts both of them as heterosexuals but is not entirely accepting of gay classmates. When a secret relationship between two students is revealed, the students split in their acceptance/opinion of what is important about the fundamental identities of their classmates. Ben and Rafe are clearly engaged in gay relationship although Ben refuses to acknowledge it as such. Ultimately, both young men will have to decide what is most important in claiming your own true self and being proud of who you are. Their decisions may not match.
Bill Konigsberg’s second young adult novel goes where his Lambda Award winning first novel, Out of the Pocket, was not yet ready to go. Gay dating in the first book is nearly absent and fairly innocuous, but in the second book, the author depicts a physical, if rather adolescent, attraction and sexual interaction that makes this novel a much more mature read. It also makes for a book that has much to say about identities, both those we choose for ourselves and those others choose for us. Konigsberg’s first book was good, but this book is even better as he addresses some seldom-acknowledged intricacies of growing up GLBTQ in our society.
Reviewed by James Blasingame (Arizona State University)