Astute readers of this column may have noticed that several of the books we selected as our favorites of 2015 hadn’t been reviewed here yet. This post is here to remedy that. These titles have very little in common except that our reviewers think they are among the Best Adult Books 4 Teens of the year, so let’s dive right in.
Our review of Carolina De Robertis’s The Gods of Tango has been sitting on my metaphorical desk for a couple of months now, but it is such a special, one-of-a-kind book that I haven’t found a way to fit it into a column until now. A tender, literate work about tango and Argentinian history, featuring beautifully written erotic scenes, this is not a novel for every teen, by any means. But for mature, well-read young adults, this is a masterpiece worth treasuring.
It should be no surprise that Purity, written by the National Book Award–winning Jonathan Franzen, works at an equal level of literate maturity. While I’ve certainly heard of The Corrections (Farrar, 2001) being taught in high school classes, Purity seems like the much surer bet for teen appeal—with a young-20s protagonist and full engagement with modern trends in social media.
On a very different note from those two subtle novels, Shannon Kirk’s Method 15/33 is a dark thriller about a kidnapped girl whose calculating attempts to free herself and mete out revenge on her captors leave readers both cheering and deeply disturbed. A violent, psychological thriller with a psychopathic hero: this is another novel that will be appreciated by a very different set of teens from those who may love The Gods of Tango and Purity.
Patricia Park’s Re Jane would have made our “Retelling and Sequels” column, but the review came in too late. Nevertheless, it makes a great addition to that line-up: a retelling of many a teen’s favorite gothic romance, Jane Eyre. One of the black marks on Brontë’s novel is its reflexively imperialist treatment of both Caribbean and French culture—a miscue mined to great effect by Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. So it is a joy to find this retelling placing cultural politics front and center: with a Korean American Jane and an adopted Chinese daughter standing in for French “ward” Adele. Set in contemporary New York and Seoul, this is a moving update of a classic story.
Building off the cultural politics of Re Jane, we also have a couple of nonfiction titles about sex and race, respectively. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is well known for her fabulous fiction, including Americanah (2013) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006, both Knopf). Her new book is an extended essay called We Should All Be Feminists. To which I can only reply, “Yes. Yes we should.” Unfortunately, the word feminist has gotten some undeserved baggage in recent years, and Adichie tries to unload that baggage to show the importance of feminism for all. A great and important read for young men and women who (hopefully) have not yet been turned off of the term.
The other cultural topic, race, is picked up by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his Between the World and Me. I imagine most readers have already heard of or read Coates’s book by now, but regardless of how well you think you know it from reviews, it is still worth reading. In a moving series of letters to his son, Coates writes about the history of race in America to stunning effect. It recently won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and is a must-read.
Amazon.com tells me that one book frequently bought with Coates’s is Naomi Jackson’s The Star Side of Bird Hill. I’m not entirely sure what the connection is, although Jackson’s novel does touch on issues of ethnic identity. Two young teens are sent to live with their grandmother in Barbardos: one remains devoted to her old home in New York, while the other becomes immersed in her grandmother’s practice of Obeah—a Caribbean religion similar to voodoo and similarly tied to the slaves of the West Indies. Or perhaps the connection is merely that these are two of the best books of 2015, and Amazon.com readers want to read them both. And we agree.
DE ROBERTIS, Carolina. The Gods of Tango. 384p. Knopf. 2015. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781101874493.
This beautifully lyrical story opens in 1913, when Leda, a young woman from a small village in Italy, sails to Buenos Aires to join her husband, Dante, who emigrated three years earlier. Upon arrival, she learns Dante was killed; she now has to figure out how to survive in a place with no opportunities for women. After many nights of listening to musicians playing on local streets, she picks up her violin and begs to be taught how to play the tango. This is a scandalous request—at this point in history, the tango is played only in brothels and back alley clubs, never in places frequented by respectable people, particularly women. Yet her request is granted. Rather than risk falling into poverty and prostitution, Leda takes her husband’s clothing and name and decides to live as a man, which enables her to find work as a musician. Leda, now Dante, slips away to a distant neighborhood where no one knows her and begins her new life. The evolution of her life as a man and as a musician is told alongside the social history of Argentina as well as the history of the tango as it changes over time, affected by assorted cultural and class influences. Beautifully written erotic love scenes make this book better suited for older teens. VERDICT This lush story of love, passion, and tango will appeal to older teen fans of romance and historical fiction.–Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, CA
FRANZEN, Jonathan. Purity. 576p. Farrar. 2015. Tr $28. ISBN 9780374239213.
At 23, Pip is trying to pay off her enormous student loan by working at a glorified call center job. She’s so poor that she stays with other squatters in a dilapidated house in Oakland—so maybe Pip can be forgiven for coming across a tiny bit hostile. Unfortunately, she has developed the qualities of an emotional leech, constantly seeking approval from father figures in a pathetic attempt to fill the void left by her own unidentified father. Then two Germans show up at her house, and Pip becomes part of a decades-old tangle of stories that link her mother to her father and to the enigmatic Andreas Wolf, an East German expat with a terrifying interior life. The individual tales are epic, nonlinear chronicles that brush up against one another, leaving tantalizing traces of what remains untold. Pip’s mother is a mysterious personality despite her overbearing possessiveness. And Wolf has an obsession with a journalist named Tom Aberant. All of these people are vitally connected to Pip, whose youthful mix of intelligence, cynicism, and desperate yearning will hook teens. Readers with an interest in history, politics, and the implications of social media will enjoy the characters’ intellectual discourse. Recommend this extraordinary novel to teens ready for a complex yet engaging read that delivers international events and trends with the same insight as the best nonfiction but is peopled with figures who will be impossible to forget. VERDICT An exceptional introduction to fine literature for mature teen readers.–Diane Colson, Nashville Public Library, TN
JACKSON, Naomi. The Star Side of Bird Hill. 304p. Penguin. 2015. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9781594205958.
Two sisters—Dionne, 16, and Phaedra, 11—are suddenly shipped off from Brooklyn to Barbados by their mother in the summer of 1989 to live with their grandmother, a midwife and practitioner of obeah, because their mother can no longer take care of them. The siblings struggle to find their places at Hyacinth’s home in Bird Hill: Dionne longs to fall in love and return to New York; Phaedra immerses herself in her grandmother’s practice. They discover family secrets and are confronted with their long-absent father, who comes to reclaim them. Soon, the sisters have to choose between familiar Brooklyn and the island. In this lyrical debut, the two protagonists come of age against the backdrop of the sumptuous and vibrant Bird Hill, Barbados. Woven throughout are tender moments of love and loss, along with deep issues such as mental illness, sexuality, and betrayal. The protagonists are multilayered and nuanced, and the island becomes a character in itself. Equally heartbreaking and triumphant, this narrative is filled with the pain and hope of growing up. VERDICT Unforgettable characters, a lush setting, and family drama will keep teens reading this deft and stunning work.–Shelley Diaz, School Library Journal
KIRK, Shannon. Method 15/33. 226p. Oceanview. 2015. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781608091454.
She is taken in a flash, thrown into the back of a van, tied up, and blindfolded. She is 16, pregnant, and in trouble. The room she is taken to is three floors up—a farmhouse, perhaps? The man who kidnapped her comes in at precisely the same time three times a day to give her food. A doctor comes to check on the health of her baby, and once, a couple comes to be assured that their new baby—her baby—will be blue-eyed and healthy. She waits. She collects “assets,” such as the handle from the bathroom bucket, a towel, or a blanket. She practices her escape and plans her revenge. Kirk’s brilliantly executed novel alternates between the kidnapped girl and Special Agent Roger Liu—the detective assigned to find her. He and his partner slowly and methodically collect clues as they make their way to the remote hideaway. Meanwhile, the kidnapped girl is stuck in the room awaiting her certain death at the hands of the brutal man and his partners. But her brilliance is exceeded only by her ability to plan, calculate, observe, and wait. The abductors never have a chance as she orchestrates a conclusion that will leave readers satisfied and possibly unsettled. Readers wait with her as she ponders the right moment to make a move even as they suspect that it might not work. VERDICT Give this to teens who read Stephen King and other psychological thrillers, especially those with a penchant for dark and violent suspense.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA
PARK, Patricia. Re Jane. 352p. Viking/Pamela Dorman Bks. 2015. Tr $27.95. ISBN 9780525427407; ebk. ISBN 9780698170780.
Dutiful Jane Re, a half-Korean/half-American orphan living in Flushing, Queens, and working in her strict uncle’s grocery store, tries to escape her lot in life by becoming the au pair for the Mazer-Farleys, English professors in Brooklyn who have adopted a Chinese girl. She soon falls in love with Mr. Ed Farley, despite the existence of Beth Mazer, his feminist wife. An emergency trip to Seoul because of a death in the family pushes her to consider her choices, especially her budding affair with her boss. The contrasts among the different environments in which Jane finds herself—her uncle’s grocery store, the Mazer-Farleys’s Brooklyn neighborhood, and modern-day Korea— are vivid and pronounced and reflect the different cultures that make up and sometimes cause conflict within the heroine’s identity. The young woman’s struggle to find the balance between what her family and tradition expect from her and what she hopes to fashion for herself will ring true for teens. The witty and charming protagonist will win over readers. Pair with Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea for a nuanced look at Jane Eyre retellings. VERDICT This fun, contemporary, and moving reimagining of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre offers an honest look at life between two cultures and the importance of living for oneself.–Shelley Diaz, School Library Journal
ADICHIE, Chimamanda Ngozi. We Should All Be Feminists. 64p. Anchor. 2015. pap. $7.95. ISBN 9781101911761.
A personal essay adapted from the writer’s TEDx talk of the same name. Adichie, celebrated author of the acclaimed Americanah (Knopf, 2013), offers a more inclusive definition of feminism, one that strives to highlight and embrace a wide range of people and experiences. Drawing on anecdotes from her adolescence and adult life, Adichie attempts to strike down stereotypes and unpack the baggage usually associated with the term. She argues that an emphasis on feminism is necessary because to focus only on the general “human rights” is “to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded.” Her focus on women of color is also an aspect of the movement that hasn’t always been given its due, and Adichie works in her own experience and life as a feminist within a more conservative Nigerian culture in an organic and eye-opening way. She also points to examples in Nigeria that are unfortunately universal: a young woman who is gang-raped at a university and is then vilified and blamed for the crime, which unfortunately, happens often in the United States. Injustices such as these, she posits, are reasons enough to be angry and outspoken. The humorous and insightful tone will engage teens and give them an accessible entry point into gender studies. This title would also work well as a discussion starter in debate and speech classes. VERDICT An eloquent, stirring, must-read for budding and reluctant feminists.–Shelley Diaz, School Library Journal
COATES, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. 176p. photos. Spiegel & Grau. 2015. Tr $24. ISBN 9780812993547.
In a series of essays, written as a letter to his son, Coates confronts the notion of race in America and how it has shaped American history, many times at the cost of black bodies and lives. Thoughtfully exploring personal and historical events, from his time at Howard University to the Civil War, the author poignantly asks and attempts to answer difficult questions that plague modern society. In this short memoir, the Atlantic Monthly writer explains that the tragic examples of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and those killed in South Carolina are the results of a systematically constructed and maintained assault to black people—a structure that includes slavery, mass incarceration, and police brutality as part of its foundation. From his passionate and deliberate breakdown of the concept of race itself to the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, Coates powerfully sums up the terrible history of the subjugation of black people in the United States. A timely work, this title will resonate with all teens—those who have experienced racism as well as those who have followed the recent news coverage on violence against people of color. Pair with Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys (S. & S., 2015) for a lively discussion on racism in America. VERDICT This stunning National Book Award–winning memoir should be required reading for high school students and adults alike.–Shelley Diaz, School Library Journal
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