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.
Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 336 pp., $17.99
Set in the Arizona Territory of 1877, this adventure story begins when 18-year-old Kate Thompson returns home to find her father murdered and their homestead burnt to the ground. Vowing to avenge her father’s death, she dresses as a young man to track down the perpetrators–the notorious Rose Riders–and to recover the mysterious journal they stole from her father. The race is on for Kate to find the Rose Riders before they use the journal to locate a secret gold mine in the Superstition Mountains. Along the way, Kate befriends the Colton brothers, Jesse and Will, as well as a young Apache woman named Liluye. These relationships push Kate to question her beliefs, feelings, and, ultimately, the worthiness of her goals.
True to the Western genre, the book is action-packed and includes several violent scenes, which may be inappropriate for younger readers (the book is recommended for ages 14 and older). Although Bowman has created strong and engaging characters, especially in Kate, who is a relentless protagonist, the mixed use of the vernacular can be distracting at times. Nevertheless, young readers will definitely appreciate the novel’s compelling plot and Wild West setting.
Reviewed by Pamela Papish, Pleasantville, New York
Forbidden by Eve Bunting
Clarion Books, 2015, 224 pp., $17.99
After losing her parents to disease, sixteen-year-old Josie Ferguson is sent to live with an aunt and uncle she has never met. Though Josie tries to make the best of the situation, she quickly realizes that life with her new guardians in the small coastal Scotland town will be much more difficult than she anticipated. As she attempts to familiarize herself with her new surroundings she comes across Eli, a young man who is nothing but kind to her, but like the other locals, is harboring secrets. Josie is determined to uncover the truth, but doing so will put her in grave danger.
Bunting creates a captivating mystery set in the early nineteenth century. Josie’s curiosity and determination make her a very admirable protagonist. The reader will certainly feel as determined as Josie to find out what is really going on in the town. Though a love story begins to develop between Josie and Eli, the most engaging part of the plot will be the truths Josie uncovers. Forbidden is a page-turner to the end.
Reviewed by Jen O’Connor, Downers Grove, Illinois
The Way Back From Broken by Amber J. Keyser
Carolrhoda LAB, 2015, 207 pp., $18.99
Grief/Death/Brothers and Sisters/Camping/Survival/Racially Mixed people/Canada
Fifteen-year-old Rakman and his family are devastated when his infant sister, Dora, dies in his arms. Everyone processes the death differently. While his father, a nurse, uses alcohol and avoidance, Rakman and his mother attend therapy sessions at Promise House. But attending the support group, talking, and writing in his journal doesn’t change the way Rakman feels- guilty. His grades plummet and after a brawl that leaves him bloodied and with a broken rib, his parents decide to ship him off on “vacation” with a ten-year-old girl and her mother—Rakman’s high school science teacher, Mrs. Tatlas, who is grieving her still born son. The camping trip does not go as planned- an infestation of mice and flooding in the cabin, and eventually, Mrs. Tatlas snaps dragging the two children Au large through the Canadian wilderness.
Keyser’s debut novel is an emotional journey through the grieving process, seen from a variety of perspectives. Rakman, and his sidekick, Jacey, are likable protagonists who struggle to survive the extreme mental and physical challenges thrown in their paths.
Reviewed by Kim Piddington, Ozark, Missouri
Young Man with Camera by Emil Sher
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015, 240 pp., $17.99
Social Issues/Bullying/Homelessness & Poverty/Art & Architecture
Emil Sher’s thirteen-year-old main character in Young Man with Camera hides his burn scars from a childhood accident with a hoodie and a camera that he keeps close to his face. T – (he hides his name as well) manages to highlight both the beautiful and the ugly through the photographs he takes of others and through his own startling narrative. T – uses his camera to break the boundaries of assumptions and the superficial on the streets of his urban neighborhood as he defies what it means to be a victim of bullying. As T – endures heartbreaking harassment from the boys who appear to do no wrong, he silently fights for those who cannot fight for themselves. The story takes a suspenseful and thrilling turn as T- tries to defend his friends and learns about the complicated nature of power and silence.
Sher’s book is powerfully written and complemented with original black-and-white photographs and references to Diane Arbus’s photography. These elements work together to highlight the juxtaposition of the grotesque and the beautiful. T- and those he represents are often depicted as the voiceless victims, and, indeed, in this novel Sher artfully omits quotation marks in the dialogue of his characters, suggesting that these voices are not often heard. Their stories are outside of mainstream dialogue, and yet T – finds ways to show the stories of the marginalized. This book is terrifying and beautiful, despairing and courageous. Young Man with Camera is not simply a story of bullies and victims, but rather a close look at power and fear, and the ever-shifting nature of both. Readers will immediately connect with T– as they see the world through his unique perspective, a tightly gripping their books to the very last page.
Reviewed by Melissa Page, McDonough, Georgia
Worlds of Ink and Shadow by Lena Coakley
Amulet Books, 2016, 352 pp., $17.95
For the Brontë siblings—Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne—stories serve as an escape from a rigid and pre-determined lifestyle. This escape was more than figurative. When Charlotte and Branwell begin to write, they are transported into a shared world, escaping the rigid lifestyle imposed upon them by their father. When the older siblings become haunted in the real world by the characters they have created, they must figure out how to extricate themselves from this world before they are driven mad.
Coakley combines the Brontës’ history with Charlotte Brontë’s juvenilia to weave a Faustian-like tale about the power of stories, the bond siblings share, and the developing maturity of a writer.
Reviewed by Laura Oldham, Las Cruces, New Mexico
Faceless by Alyssa Sheinmel
Scholastic Press, 2015, 352 pp., $17.99
Social Issues/ Self-Esteem & Self-Reliance
Sixteen-year-old Maisie Winters is considered “lucky” by those around her, but she doesn’t believe it. After surviving an electrical fire that consumed her body and destroyed her nose, cheeks, and chin, she is chosen for a rare medical procedure: a face transplant. Yet as Maisie attempts to adjust to her new face and a return to her old life, she finds that she does not quite fit with that old life, but is instead a stranger to herself.
Sheinmel blends Maisie’s personal journey towards self-acceptance with the passing of the seasons. For example, while Maisie’s tale with the electrical storm occurs during the hot summer days that mirror the searing physical changes she experiences, it is during the slow passage of the longer days of fall and winter that Maisie’s movement through her grief and anger become apparent and a bit lengthy. Like her last name, the events that occur during the winter months reflect Maisie’s very barren view of her new life and her dark thoughts regarding her new physical appearance. Eventually, Maisie joins a support group and forms a close bond with Adam, a disfigured veteran, and readers will root for her as she begins to work towards healing and acceptance.
Reviewed by Jennifer Ontog, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz
Candlewick Press, 2015, 280 pp., $16.99
Dystopian/LGBT/Science Fiction/Mother and Daughter/Friendship
In a grim futuristic society where the “Gov” determines all the rules, fifteen-year-old Kivali struggles with her identity. Is she a boy or a girl? A lizard or a human? After Post Gender Decision Training, Shelia, Kivali’s rebellious foster mother, sends Kivali to crop-camp where she is forced to learn how to conform. Though Kivali initially resists, she eventually becomes content for the first time in her life when she makes friends and contemplates her future. However, just as she begins to fit in, Kivali learns that the camp has a secret agenda. Between the rigid rules and the required kickshaw, Kivali must uncover many secrets, which she attempts to do with the aid of Lizard Radio.
Lizard Radio is a dystopian novel that addresses themes of gender identity and coming of age in a heartfelt manner. The author’s use of invented language will allow adolescent readers to connect with larger themes in a fun way. Kivali is a protagonist that readers will cheer for.
Review by Tim Oldakowski, Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion Books, 2015, 192 pp., $17.99
Jack, a sixth grader, lives on a farm in rural Maine. His simple life changes when his parents take in a foster child, an eighth grader named Joseph. Joseph only looks like a typical eighth grader. He is accused of attempting to kill a teacher, has spent time in juvenile detention, and has a baby. The kids at Eastham Middle School are looking to challenge Joseph’s bad boy reputation and give him a less than warm welcome. To make matters worse, the principal has it in for him too.
As Jack learns Joseph’s story, he realizes that Joseph is not who everyone believes he is. Joseph longs for the girl he loves and their baby girl, Jupiter. Jack’s empathy for Joseph is solidified when Joseph’s father shows up drunk, wielding a gun, and demands the return of his son.
Schmidt’s story unfolds gently, revealing the importance of foster care and the negative power of stereotypes. Readers will relate to both Jack and Joseph and will find themselves hoping that these “brothers” will triumph. An unexpected and heartbreaking twist in the end leads to a shocking conclusion.
Reviewed by Georgia Parker, Winter Park, Florida