November 18, 2017

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“The Unraveling of Mercy Louis” and Other Coming-of-Age Novels | Adult Books 4 Teens

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Whenever I see the phrase coming-of-age in a review, I immediately bookmark it for this column, since this is one of the primary things adolescence is about. But what reviewers and readers mean by this somewhat nebulous expression is a bit tricky, as we’ll see from the books below. My instincts agree with Wikipedia’s definition, which says, “Coming-of-age stories tend to emphasize dialogue or internal monologue over action, and…often [are] set in the past.” In other words, books like To Kill a Mockingbird. But in the following titles, we have several different genres represented—fantasy, historical fiction, realism, Holocaust fiction, and memoir—characters with very different backgrounds and ages, and many different narrative styles. Still, what these works have in common is their protagonists’ inescapable confrontation with the reality of becoming adults and making adult decisions.

make your home amongThe most traditional of these coming-of-age stories are Jennine Capó Crucet’s Make Your Home Among Strangers and Keija Parssinen’s The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. Capó Crucet sets her novel in the near past, 1999, and focuses on her protagonist Lizet’s struggles to come to grips with leaving home for college, differentiating herself from her family, and finding a place in her new life for her Cuban heritage. Make Your Home Among Strangers is perfect for teens who have just left or are about to leave home for the first time. This incredibly beautiful, moving work earned a starred review from us. Parssinen’s novel, meanwhile, is set in a small Southern town obsessed with high school basketball and religion, where young Mercy Louis is beginning to doubt both. The book is full of well-drawn characters and dramatic happenings, but at the heart of this novel is Mercy’s realization that she can be more than her town expects.

On the opposite end of the genre spectrum is Mitchell Hogan’s A Crucible of Souls, a rollicking fantasy series opener full of magic and the battle between good and evil. Nevertheless, teens should find the hero, Calden, easy to identify with: he’s an orphan, trying to find his way in the world, newly aware of his new abilities and responsibilities. As our reviewer says, it is a wonderful crossover fantasy title that will leave readers waiting breathlessly for the next installment. But it is also a wonderful character study of a boy becoming a man.

Moving from extreme fantasy to the real world, Cole Cohen’s memoir, Head Case, tells the story of Cohen’s perplexing young life before her eventual diagnosis of a literal hole in her brain—specifically a hole in her parietal lobe, which, among other things, controls spatial sense. Cohen’s coming of age involved first and most importantly her newfound understanding of why she had always been different and then later her struggles and eventual triumphs to compensate for her disability.

book of aaron_Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aron is a novel, but it deals with the very real events of the Holocaust—specifically the real life Dr. Janusz Korczak, an advocate for children’s rights who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto. But Korczak is only a side character—the protagonist is young Aron, whose coming-of-age is marked by the kind of horrible decision most of us will never have to make. A thought-provoking novel that includes a list of more resources on the Holocaust for interested readers.

For a less intense experience, teens can try Brian Doyle’s Martin Marten, a quirky take on the coming-of-age novel that juxtaposes the adolescences of Dave, a 14-year-old boy starting high school, and Martin, a small woodland mammal called a marten, who’s ready to leave his home on Mt. Hood, OR, for the first time. The two characters’ lives intertwine and parallel each other in surprising and fascinating ways. A unique, compelling story of the commonalities between animals and humans.

Finally, moving back into more traditional bildungsroman territory is Diane Chamberlain’s Pretending to Dance. Though half the chapters relate Molly’s life as an adult, as she attempts to adopt a child, the other half reflect back on the summer she turned 14—a momentous summer of sexual awakening that has continued to impact Molly’s life in the present.

All these books feature young characters who have to make momentous decisions: about life and death, sexuality, identity, religion, and more. However, it is not just these decisions by themselves but how these choices affect one’s life that truly makes all of them coming-of-age stories and thus perfect for teens making their own choices about many of the same topics.

FICTION

redstarCAPÓ CRUCET, Jennine. Make Your Home Among Strangers. 400p. St. Martin’s. 2015. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9781250059666.
In this beautifully written and compulsively readable coming-of-age novel, Lizet is the daughter of Cuban immigrants and the first in her family to attend college—and it’s not Miami-Dade Community College, either; it’s Rawlings College, an elite liberal arts school in upstate New York, where Lizet has received a full scholarship. While Lizet is away from home, experiencing snow for the first time and finding out just how poorly Hialeah Lakes High School prepared her for higher education, her family and boyfriend Omar continue their lives in Miami and don’t understand what Lizet is doing. It’s 1999, and Lizet’s mother is caught up in the case of five-year-old Cuban refugee Ariel Hernandez (a fictionalized but essentially accurate version of the Elián González case), a case that serves as a mirror for Lizet’s own situation of being torn between two cultures. Lizet’s trips home at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter reveal the growing distance between where she came from and where she wants to go. VERDICT Crucet has created an utterly believable character in Lizet, whose struggles with family, studies, friendships, culture, identity, and the nature of home will resonate with older teens who are preparing to leave their own childhood homes.–Sarah Flowers, formerly at Santa Clara County (CA) Library

Pretending to Dance

CHAMBERLAIN, Diane. Pretending to Dance. 352p. St. Martin’s. 2015. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9781250010742.
Molly and her husband, Aidan, want to adopt a baby. A young pregnant girl who thinks that they may be the couple to become her baby’s parents. But though Molly knows that she wants this baby, she is also unsure about being an adoptive mother. Her past looms close and hides a secret that she fears will unhinge not only this adoption but possibly her marriage. Alternating chapters tell the story of Molly’s life during the summer she turned 14 in her small North Carolina town, juxtaposed with chapters about her life today as a lawyer in San Diego. She was raised in a loving family with a pharmacist mother and a therapist father with multiple sclerosis. During that critical summer, Molly befriends a new girl who introduces her to an older boy, and subsequently drugs and sex. When a devastating event occurs and her beloved father dies, Molly is unable to reconcile the actions of her family. She is unable to trust them and leaves them behind, first to boarding schools and then to her adult life in San Diego. It is only her fear that the past is beginning to influence her present that pushes her to deal with those past events. VERDICT An excellent choice for mature teens who will follow Molly’s burgeoning maturity as she tries to keep her father close and safe.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

marten martin_DOYLE, Brian. Martin Marten. illus. by Katrina Van. 309p. St. Martin’s/ Thomas Dunne Bks. 2015. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781250045201.
On the slopes of Mt. Hood, OR, a young marten goes from birth to adolescence quickly, while Dave at 14 slowly becomes a young man. Sections of the novel alternate between the marten’s and the human’s life. The wild animal is not anthropomorphized, although he is called Martin by the author. He is a fascinating creature of the woods whose survival becomes important as readers learn about him and his family. Dave and his younger sister, Maria, are treasured by their hardworking parents, who live a quiet, simple life in the isolated area. When Dave’s father loses his job, Dave seeks employment at the local general store. There, he works for the unusual young owner, a woman who does not accept the idea of marriage. Her story and that of her suitor are cleverly introduced into the plot, and teens will learn to care about them. Gradually, more beautifully portrayed and eccentric characters enter the narrative. At the same time, the marten is becoming fully grown and looking for a mate and Dave is shyly running with a special, athletic girl in his new high school. Maria, Dave’s sister, deserves a novel of her own. As a first grader, she wants to apply for fourth grade and sees no reason why students should stay in their designated class. There is adventure, near tragedy, and romance in this luminous novel. The descriptions of the woods will inspire any city dweller to go on a hike. VERDICT Teens will want to read about the lives of Dave and his friends and be introduced to the fast, clever Martin.–Karlan Sick, Library Consultant, New York City

A crucible of souls_HOGAN, Mitchell. A Crucible of Souls: Book One of the Sorcery Ascendant Sequence. 512p. Harper Voyager. 2015. pap. $17.99. ISBN 9780062407245.
Caldan, a young man raised in a monastery, accidentally injures a nobleman’s son with a wooden sword and is expelled to survive on his own. His parents were murdered violently years ago, but he doesn’t know why or how. Luckily Caldan received a well-rounded education from the monks, and his background in sorcery, tactical gaming, and craftsmanship enable him to snare an apprenticeship with the Sorcerers’ Guild. When his city is attacked, Caldan and his friends must try to defend themselves from evil. Originally self-published, this fantasy novel won the Australian 2013 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel. It’s a perfect crossover adult fantasy title for teens—a coming-of-age story about a teenager with unknown powers and great friends. Caldan is a likable main character, and readers will root for him and hope that he finds love and happiness. Give this to teenagers who are patiently waiting for the sequel to Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind (Penguin, 2007). Caldan’s world is shady and violent but not as menacing as that of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (Viking, 2009). This novel does end in a cliff-hanger—the second installment, Blood of Innocents, will be published in February 2016. VERDICT Highly recommended for fantasy fans.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

unraveling of mercy louis_PARSSINEN, Keija. The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. 336p. Harper. 2015. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780062319098.
An adult title that could have easily been published as YA. The teen protagonists are complicated and damaged, and the adults around them are clueless and sometimes cruel. At the heart of the story is Mercy Louis, a basketball star with a lifelong streak of control and perfection. She is at the end of her junior year in high school and coming off a devastating loss at the State basketball championship. What was supposed to be a triumph for her, her team, and her small Texas town, Port Sabine, has her numb with embarrassment. Like a harbinger of bad news, the team’s loss begins a downward spiral for both Mercy and the town itself. The body of a newborn baby is found in a dumpster, and Port Sabine becomes a place that looks at its teenage girls with suspicion and contempt as police search for its mother. Along with the heat, tensions rise throughout the summer at home and in town. Mercy’s long-lost mother reappears in her life, and the teen falls in love. Mercy finds herself wondering if being perfect and staying in control for God and basketball is what she wants after all. Her doubts will resonate with teens, especially those who have become disenchanted with authority figures and adult hypocrisy. Port Sabine’s obsession with both Mercy and the virtues she represents make this dark coming-of-age story a compelling read. VERDICT Parssinen has created fully realized teen characters in a small, religious Southern town straight out of a Carson McCullers short story.–Meghan Cirrito, formerly at Brooklyn Public Library

SHEPARD, Jim. The Book of Aaron. 272p. Knopf. 2015. Tr $22.95. ISBN 9781101874318.
Shepard tells the story of the Nazi-era Warsaw ghetto through the life of a 13-year-old Jewish boy who fends for his family by joining other boys and girls smuggling needed food and other goods. At first, the adventure is entertaining, but Aron’s family members are taken away or die until he is left alone homeless and starving on the street. The boy is rescued by Dr. Janusz Korczak—a real-life figure who was a well-known advocate for children’s rights in Europe and worked tirelessly to save the denizens of his orphanage in the ghetto, although he could have departed. After being rescued by the doctor, Aron still suffers but at least he is not alone. The teen faces a moral dilemma when he is tricked by a Jewish ghetto policeman into cooperating. His attempts to extricate himself should provide thoughtful questions for young and adult readers alike. What could the protagonist have done differently? The further reading list in the back matter includes works that will be especially helpful for teens wanting to know more about the historical details, such as Larry Stillman and Morris Goldner’s A Match Made in Hell (Univ. of Wisconsin Pr., 2003) and Yehuda Nir’s The Lost Childhood (Scholastic, 2002). VERDICT The writing is simple and effective. Because of its emotional impact, it should prove to be a valuable addition to those studying the Holocaust.–Karlan Sick, Library Consultant, New York City

NONFICTION

head case_COHEN, Cole. Head Case: My Brain and Other Wonders. 240p. Holt. 2015. Tr $25. ISBN 9781627791892.
All of her life, Cole Cohen has struggled with being different. Educators and doctors failed to categorize her particular type of learning disabilities, marked by difficulties with time, space, and numbers. She got lost in a supermarket just as easily as en route to a familiar destination. Driving was an impossibility, as was taking public transportation without planning and practice. Cohen relates the particulars of her highly unusual eventual diagnosis in this fascinating memoir. An MRI when she was 26 finally revealed that she had a large hole in her brain, described by the neurologist as the size of a lemon. The void is located in Cohen’s parietal lobe, which affects spatial sense, navigation, and mathematical ability. Ultimately, her diagnosis is a relief, giving her essential information about who she is. Why couldn’t she seem to keep even the most basic of jobs? Why was money such a mystery? Luckily, she has parents who serve as a strong support system, allowing her to have a relatively independent life. Readers can’t help but marvel at how adept Cohen is with written language and how evocatively she tells her story with pathos and wit. She discusses making her way in the world, from difficulties with various college roommates to a tempestuous relationship with the brother of a friend. VERDICT Fans of well-written memoirs, especially those that focus on overcoming affliction, will be fascinated by Cohen’s honest, emotional story.–Paula J. Gallagher, Baltimore County Public Library, MD

 

 

 

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Mark Flowers About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens cocolumnist and a supervising librarian at the Rio Vista (CA) Library.

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Comments

  1. off topic….Any chance you will be reviewing MYCROFT HOLMES?

    • Mark Flowers says:

      Hi Mary,

      Thanks for the question. We won’t be getting to Mycroft Holmes. I’ve heard great things about it – and our sister publication Library Journal gave it a starred review – but it was one of many (many) deserving books that we just didn’t have time for this year. Have you read it? Does it have teen appeal?

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful review of THE UNRAVELING OF MERCY LOUIS! We’re thrilled to have it publishing in paperback this January. Just one thing–in the link to the page there’s a typo–Mercy LOUISE instead of Mercy LOUIS. Any chance you could fix this? Thank you!