BLOCK, Francesca Lia. The Elementals. 320p. St. Martin’s. 2012. Tr $24.99. ISBN 978-1-250-00549-6. LC 2012028277.
Adult/High School–Block’s latest is a perfect example of the “new adult” trend. While she is best known for Weetzie Bat (Harper, 1989) and its sequels, which won her the Margaret A. Edwards award, she has also written adult novels throughout her career, and this book straddles both age groups. Ariel and her friend Jeni had planed on attending UC Berkeley together, but when Ariel can’t go on a college visit due to her mother’s illness, Jeni goes without her and promptly disappears. Ariel decides to head to Berkeley anyway, as much to locate Jeni as to further her education. Once there, her search for her friend at first overtakes her life but then leads her to a beautiful mansion and the three older students who live there. Despite warnings from classmates and her own conscience, she can’t seem to stay away. Many of Block’s common themes are present–California as a place of ethereal mystery, damaged girls, slightly magical creatures, and unusual familial arrangements, complete with a baby. Most of the book reads very much like a young adult novel, and there are just a few instances of erotic sex that probably pushed the publication from teen to adult.–Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD
DEBORDE, Rob. Portlandtown: A Tale of Oregon Wyldes. 384p. Griffin: St. Martin’s. 2012. pap. $15.99. ISBN 978-1-250-00664-6.
Adult/High School–This paranormal Western features an undead man searching for his gun, a book of spells whose author is trying to retrieve it, the possessor of the book who is gradually succumbing to its power, a marshal who is digging up graves but can’t remember why, and the psychically skilled Wylde family. These characters come together in a story that is as creepy as it is enjoyable. The Hanged Man is an outlaw who was hung for his crimes and buried, but he didn’t die thanks to a curse from the wayward spell book. With the assistance of a man also bound by the curse, he makes his way out of the grave. They head to Portland, determined to retrieve the Hanged Man’s legendary gun that never misses and never needs reloading. This sets in motion a series of paranormal events coinciding with the Portland rain festival, which is relying on some otherworldly elements of its own. The rain festival turns into something bigger, wetter and more terrifying than anyone could have imagined; the dead are rising as quickly as the waters. This skillful blend of Old West, mystical activity, and other disparate elements works well. Though the ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel, this is still a satisfying novel. Fans of paranormal fiction will appreciate Portlandtown‘s innovative storytelling, a refreshing change in a genre that often lacks originality.–Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, CA
GREAVES, C. Joseph. Hard Twisted. 304p. Bloomsbury. 2012. Tr $25. ISBN 978-1-608-19855-9.
Adult/High School–Lottie Garrett, 13, is not ignorant of the ways of the world as she has been hoboing around dustbowl era Texas with her alcoholic father, but certainly by today’s standards she is naïve and an innocent when she meets Clint Palmer, who is in his late 30s. Lottie is forced via coercion or rape into Clint’s web, his bed, and ultimately his murderous crime spree. The remarkably accurate historical voice, including trial excerpts that start each chapter, will draw teens into this beautifully written fictionalized account of real western murders. Readers will hunger to know more of Lottie’s motives and thoughts as she seems relegated to the background of her own story, which seems appropriate to the ways in which girls and women were seen at the time. So, too, will the use of racial slurs jolt at first, but ultimately the language enriches the feeling of being there, in the West of the 1930s. The story crosses from Texas and Oklahoma to New Mexico and Utah. Lottie becomes pregnant and loses a baby, and Clint goes from somewhat charming to ever more scary and dangerous, and readers will hang on to the bitter end, trying to figure out exactly what happened and what will become of Lottie.–Jake Pettit, American School Foundation, Mexico City
MCEWAN, Ian. Sweet Tooth. 304p. Nan A. Talese. 2012. Tr $26.95. ISBN 978-0-385-53682-0.
Adult/High School–In 1972, young English women had restricted opportunities in the professional world. Thus 22-year-old Serena Frome, a new MI5 recruit, is intrigued when she is plucked from lower-level clerical work for a role in a secret operation. Serena has three important qualifications for the job: She is beautiful, intelligent, and a voracious reader. Her role is to find a promising young writer and offer a fake grant from a fake foundation that will allow the writer to concentrate on producing a book. The underlying intention of the operation is to sway popular culture away from communist influences, still a vital threat in the continuing Cold War. Serena selects writer Tom Haley as her mark, after obsessing over his wonderful and strange short stories. Their first meeting ends in Serena’s bed, beginning a passionate love affair always overshadowed by the truth of Serena’s covert mission. McEwan immerses readers in this bleak era of English history, replete with its inherent anxiety over Cold War fears, the stubborn oil crisis, and escalating violence in Northern Ireland. His extraordinary storytelling, nuanced with secrets and twists aplenty, blends wit and literary allusions without pomposity, making it accessible to readers of all backgrounds. Although the espionage element makes this novel an excellent recommendation for Tom Clancy fans, there are also strong currents of mystery, historical fiction, and romance. Offer this one to sophisticated teens looking for an absorbing, literary novel.–Diane Colson, Palm Harbor Library, FL
MATHIS, Ayana. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. 243p. Knopf. 2012. Tr $24.95. ISBN 978-0-385-35028-0. LC 2012010779.
Adult/High School–In 1925, Hattie, 17-years-old and newly transplanted from rural Georgia to Philadelphia, loses her babies, twins, to pneumonia. This early tragedy combined with her disappointing marriage to August, the country boy she only dated to spite her mother, changes Hattie. The remaining chronological chapters read like connected short stories, each one introducing one or two of Hattie’s nine living children, all touched by her anger and distance. Floyd, a trumpeter, fears his homosexual tendencies when he sees the vicious treatment others receive. Six, physically scarred by a fire, becomes a tent preacher after he is sent south at age 15 to escape prosecution for almost killing another boy. The focus never shifts far from Hattie. In one chapter, she finds love with another man, and tries to run away with him. Bell, a teenager scarred by knowledge of her mother’s affair, later exacts a revenge that doubles back and almost kills her. In the next chapter, Hattie prepares for the ultimate sacrifice–giving her youngest daughter away to her sister Pearl and a more comfortable life down south. Although most of her children’s issues originate in their youth, in reaction to their mother’s harsh treatment, their concerns are largely adult. However, even as adults they struggle to find their way. Each chapter focuses on moments of transition, momentous decisions, or actions that determine their ultimate fate. This book is recommended to teens for its accessible writing, the author’s skill at juggling multiple dramatic stories and characters within a transparent structure, and for what these (never didactic or cliché) stories reveal of growing up poor and African American in 20th century America.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City
ROORBACH, Bill. Life Among Giants. 333p. Algonquin. 2012. Tr $24.95. ISBN 978-1-616-20076-3. LC 2012016965.
Adult/High School–When 17-year-old David “Lizard” Hochmeyer’s parents are gunned down in front of him, it is only one link in a chain that connects his family with that of the neighbors across the way in the palatial “High Side”: a famous (now-dead) rock star named Dabney and his ballerina wife, Sylphide. Moving back and forth between his teenage years in 1970s suburban Connecticut, his stint as a professional quarterback, and his post-football career as a restaurateur, Lizard narrates this tale of con artists, greed, love affairs, insanity, revenge, and exquisite cooking. Both Lizard’s and his sister Kate’s lives are dominated by the fact of their parents’ deaths, and by their respective obsessions with the residents of High Side. Lizard finds it difficult to have a permanent relationship because he is still fixated on Sylphide. Kate is certain that she knows the truth of a conspiracy behind their parents’ and Dabney’s deaths; Lizard is less certain, until the day his father’s former boss and the man Lizard recognizes as the shooter walk into Lizard’s restaurant together. When he discovers that the shooter is connected with Dabney and Sylphide, he ecomes involved in a scheme to get revenge and find out the full truth about his father’s life and death. Full of memorable characters, this is an intriguing mystery as well as a moving coming-of-age story, comically absurd at times and touchingly tragic at others. Recommend it to older teens who like John Irving or Richard Russo or are just looking for a well-written, character-driven novel.–Sarah Flowers, formerly at Santa Clara County Library, CA
VILLALOBOS, Juan Pablo. Down the Rabbit Hole. tr. from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey. 75p. Farrar. 2012. pap. $12. ISBN 978-0-374-14335-0. LC 2011048052.
Adult/High School–Tochtli is the motherless child of a Mexican drug lord. Because his life is circumscribed by the walls and guarded gates of a villa compound in the mountains, he has met few people and has no friends. He spends his time almost entirely on his obsessions: a collection of hats, the honor of Samurai warriors, his dictionary, the Liberian pygmy hippopotamus he wants for his zoo, and the ways bodies become corpses. He is also a keen observer of his father, Yolcaut, and the henchmen, prostitutes, and corrupt politicians who populate his home. A precocious innocent coming of age is insulated within a world of violence, corruption, wealth and death, and Tochli remains unaware of the psychopathy that envelops him. He only knows that certain words from his dictionary fit his experience: “pathetic,” “disastrous,” “sordid,” “devastating.” While this novella details the illegal procurement of hippos for Tochtli’s exotic zoo, it is also an allegory about the impact of the drug war and its public violence on Mexico–the names of the characters derive from Mexico’s indigenous language, Nahuatl (Tochtli means ‘rabbit’ and Yolcaut means ‘rattlesnake’). Villalobos dispatches simple words with the precision of a marksman to create a powerfully disturbing novella that teens will find accessible, dark, humorous, and provocative. Teachers will discover a literary tool that expands the discussions of perception versus reality in the context of the drug war that continues to plague Mexico and its people.–John Sexton, Greenburgh Public Library, NY
WRIGHT, Camron. The Rent Collector. 288p. Shadow Mountain. 2012. Tr $22.99. ISBN 978-1-60907-122-6.
Adult/High School–In a contemporary story of hardship and hope, guilt and forgiveness, 29-year-old Sang Ly lives with her devoted husband, Ki, and her sickly baby, Nisay, at Stung Meanchey, an enormous municipal waste dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Sang Ly and Ki are trash pickers, eeking out an existence by salvaging recyclables. The couple dreads the monthly visit of Sopeap Sin, the drunken, ill-tempered rent collector. But when Sang Ly discovers that Sopeap can read, she asks to learn and a tenuous friendship develops. Hoping to give her son a better life, she studies her lessons intently. As she works with her unpredictable but motivating teacher, Sang Ly uncovers Sopeap’s improbable past as a teacher and lover of literature and as a traumatized victim of the Khmer Rouge 1970′s reign of terror. When Sopeap disappears, Sang Ly’s understanding of Sopeap enables her to find the dying rent collector and to help her find redemption. Metaphoric dreams, fables, proverbs, and literary references are effectively woven into Sang Ly and Sopeap’s dual stories of salvation. Sopeap opens Sang Ly’s eyes to the heroes and positive aspects of her wasteland home. And, Sang Ly brings Sopeap face to face with a family that has haunted her life. Inspired by the lives of real people living in Stung Meanchey, Wright infuses this story with cultural nuance and authenticity. Initially, Sang Ly’s eloquent narration seems inconsistent with the limited realities of her life, but her engaging voice gains credibility as her compassionate, literary relationship with Sopeap unfolds. Through Sang Ly and the rent collector, readers will discover a wealth of insights: the lingering ravages of war, the common bonds of humanity, and the uplifting power of literature.–Gerry Larson, formerly at Durham School of the Arts, NC
LE GUIN, Ursula K. Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems. 196p. Houghton. 2012. Tr $22. ISBN 978-0-547-85820-3. LC 2012016363.
Adult/High School–The author of the “Earthsea Cycle” and of highly regarded works of science fiction began publishing poetry in 1959. This volume collects 70 selections from 6 earlier books and provides 77 new ones, including the title poem. Many teens should appreciate these sentiments: “My elegy, your clothes are out of fashion./I see you walking past me on a country road/ in a worn cloak. Your steps are slow, along/a way that grows obscure as it leads back and back./In dusk some stars shine small and clear as tears/on a dark face that is not human. I will follow you.” The poems about nature are sure to please observant readers. Anyone who has been lucky enough to watch pelicans diving will especially appreciate “Pelicans.” “They’re awkward, angular, abstruse,/the great beak on a head so narrow,/a kind of weird Jurassic goose/lurching into the modern era./But the blue arc of sky lets loose–/ look, now!–the brown, unerring arrow!/ and see how beautiful, how grave,/the steady wings along the wave.” Unfortunately, the poems written about war seem timeless. The Curse of the Prophetess begins, “Hear my curse on the nation of Israel and the nation of Palestine/ May the generals of your armies/ be little, heavy-burdened donkeys,/ and your leaders be patient, old sheep.” And continues, “Let the day come, let it come now,/when the name warrior will be a name of folly/and the word victory mean a vain thing.” Young adults will discover beauty and creativity in the poetry of an author whom they may already admire.–Karlan Sick, formerly at New York Public Library
PULLMAN, Philip. Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. 405p. bibliog. Viking. 2012. Tr $27.95. ISBN 978-0-670-02497-1. LC 2012027181.
Adult/High School–In his introduction, Pullman describes some of the essential characteristics of fairy tales: they contain “conventional stock figures” with “little interior life”; they are fast-paced; there is practically “no imagery”; and the tone is “serene and anonymous.” So it is somewhat strange to find that almost all of the changes Pullman introduces to the tales (and he introduces many) move them away from these characteristics, creating motivations and inner lives, adding color to the imagery and tone, and generally slowing the pace. But of course Pullman is following in the footsteps of no less a forebear than Wilhelm Grimm himself, who immediately began making the stories more literary, starting with the second edition of 1819 and running through the final and most familiar seventh edition of 1857. In fact, Pullman’s changes–which include adding dialogue, re-arranging events, and even finishing incomplete tales–are so extensive that this volume should not truly be seen as a new translation at all; it is closer to an eighth edition, expanding on Wilhelm’s project. What readers make of these changes depends on their attitude toward the original 1812 tales and their need (or lack thereof) for a strict translation of the Grimms, for which readers should always turn to Jack Zipes’s The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (Bantam, 2003). Setting that question aside, though, readers are left with what is certainly the most accessible, best-written version of Grimm available. Add to that Pullman’s indispensable notes on each tale and this is surely an edition that lovers of fairy tales everywhere should read.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA