November 22, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Location, Location, Location | Adult Books 4 Teens

marauders_cooper_As we wrap up our reviews of 2015 books (we’ve still got a few more in upcoming columns), let’s take a look at some novels that focus intently on their settings. As we’ve discussed before, setting is rarely an element that teens specifically mention when looking for a book, but it is often the source of a great deal of pleasure—as readers get to know the ins and outs of a specific location, which is intrinsically connected to the characters’ journeys.

Tom Cooper’s The Marauders, for example, mines the swampy land south of New Orleans known as Barataria. After Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, this is a land in trouble, and so are the protagonists of Cooper’s novel—Wes Trench, an out-of-work shrimper; Gus Lindquist, a pill-addicted treasure hunter; the drug dealing Toup twins; and more. Cooper grounds these characters deeply in his Louisiana setting and allows their antics to flow out of the Delta and its troubles.

Kirstin Valdez Quade takes a similar approach with New Mexico in her story collection Night at the Fiestas. Like Cooper, Valdez Quade includes a vast assortment of characters from her rural working-class New Mexico setting, but rather than place them all in the same plot as Cooper does, she develops 10 separate stories. Still, they deal with common issues: the encroachment of new wealth, the poisonous racial attitudes of a border community, and the Catholic faith held by many of the characters.

dryland_jaffe_While taking just as much care with her setting as Cooper and Valdez Quade, Sara Jaffe uses Portland, OR, in her novel Dryland as a stand-in for America-at-large. Jaffe’s take on Portland is acutely observed, but she wants readers to be able to project it back onto their own hometowns, to understand the malaise and restlessness of her protagonist, Julie, as she grapples with sexuality, family, and identity. Our reviewer compares the novel to A.S. King’s Ask the Passengers (Little, Brown, 2012), another quiet, strongly literary tale, with a rock-solid sense of place.

After three looks at small-ish towns in contemporary America, what could be more different than Paris in 1862? In Paris Red, Maureen Gibbon takes readers to that glamorous locale and piles on the additional charm of Edouard Manet himself, who chooses the young protagonist, Victorine, as his model. There are some parallels here to 2013’s The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan (which we reviewed here), but rather than exposing the underbelly of Paris, as Buchanan’s novel did, Gibbon explores the “wild abandon” and the open sexuality of the time and place.

Shifting gears from contemporary America and 19th-century Paris, we travel to the war-torn Middle East. In a very different take on setting, Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue places readers in the heart of Afghanistan during the conflict between the Taliban and the United States. This is a thoughtful war novel from a new perspective—a young Afghani soldier fighting for the U.S.-backed anti-Taliban militia—and as anyone who has paid attention to the history of that country can tell you, the geography of the region is absolutely crucial to understanding the seemingly never-ending conflicts that take place there.

Ackerman_green on blueACKERMAN, Elliot. Green on Blue. 242p. Scribner. 2015. Tr $25. ISBN 9781476778556.
A different perspective on America’s war in Afghanistan. Rather than examining themes of ideology or heroic battles, this novel sheds light on the micro-view, seen through the experience of Aziz, of a young soldier. The focus stays on those most affected—fighters on both sides and those caught in the middle. After his brother Ali is grievously injured in a Taliban mortar attack, the only way Aziz can pay for Ali’s medical care is to join Commander Sabir’s American-backed anti-Taliban militia. An equally strong motivator is the need to restore his nang (pride) by exacting badal (revenge) against those who injured his brother. Many men in the militia have joined for the same reason; their belief in badal makes it a useful tool for keeping Sabir’s ranks full. The protagonist is committed but soon notices unusual connections between Sabir; Gazan, the leader of the opposing Taliban militia; and Atal, a resident of a village that Sabir and Gazan are fighting over. Aziz comes to realize the reason the fighting drags on has almost nothing to do with beliefs held on either side. As he understands the truth, he must make some hard decisions about the role he’ll play going forward. The young man’s efforts to sort out what he’s told versus the reality in front of him will resonate with teens. VERDICT Readers will appreciate the author’s honest, direct, and complex exploration of powerful yet hidden motivations for war, especially because of the work’s blurred lines between heroes and villains.–Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, CA

Photo by Sara Essex Bradley

Photo by Sara Essex Bradley

COOPER, Tom. The Marauders. 320p. Crown. 2015. Tr $26. ISBN 9780804140560.
Seventeen-year-old Wes Trench was working on a shrimp boat with his father, but as the shrimp got skinnier and grayer, his father got angrier and meaner. Life was already grueling enough in the marshy expanse of land and bay known as the Barataria, just south of New Orleans. But the one-two punch of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill has desperate residents settling their losses for a check of $1,500 from BP, a sum that will barely last three months. When Wes quits working with his father, he discovers that shrimping is all he knows and that anyone still trying to eke out a living that way is clearly insane. Wes is but one of the narrators in Cooper’s evocative novel, which features an extravagant range of viewpoints, such as the nefarious, marijuana-growing Toup twins; Lindquist, a one-armed pill-popping raconteur with an endless supply of crude knock-knock jokes; ne’er-do-well Cosgrove with his bandy partner in crime, Hanson; and Grimes, a Baratarian native pushing settlements for BP. All are marauders, plundering the land and sea for gold, illegal crops, or dying sea life. Just as there is beauty in the harsh surroundings, there is goodness, even in this ragtag cast of characters. Cooper’s exposition is lush with description without swerving from his narrators’ points of view. VERDICT Teens who like the oddball characters and environmental consciousness of Carl Hiaasen novels will also enjoy Cooper’s debut.–Diane Colson, Nashville Public Library, TN
*Check out an interview that reviewer Diane Colson conducted with Tom Cooper

Gibbon_Paris Red_GIBBON, Maureen. Paris Red. 224p. Norton. 2015. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9780393244465.
It is 1862. In the raucous streets of Paris, 17-year-old Victorine and her friend Denise are standing in front of a store drawing pictures when a wealthy man approaches them to watch. He invites them to dine. Victorine is taken with this man, and he, with her. They begin a love affair starting with small kisses and walks through the city until one day Victorine knows that she cannot continue to leave him each night to return home. They become lovers, and she leaves her work and her friend to become his model, for he is the artist Edouard Manet. Obviously intrigued by this young beauty, Manet draws her into this studio and his life. They make love and she poses for him each day as he draws sketch after sketch until he is finally ready to bring that sensuality to the large canvas he has waiting. Victorine begins to see that she is more than what she thought she could be. The wild abandon that makes up the Paris streets in 1862 can appeal to the teenager who loves French, history, or art. Teens who know little about Manet or the context of his painting of nudes will want to explore more in order to place Victorine within a context and discover more about her life. VERDICT Mature teens for whom sexual description is not an embarrassment will find Victorine to be a young woman ahead of her time.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

JAFFE, Sarah. Dryland. 216p. Tin House. 2015. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9781941040133
This debut reads like a journal of sophomore Julie Winter’s quiet life in Portland, OR, in 1992. Her world is uncomplicated: Browse the local craft fair and watch the skaters; go to school and cut insignificant captions for the yearbook; return home to avoid parental engagement; and try to forget her brother’s absence. The only indication of her restlessness is an obsession with swim magazines at the local store. Until Alexis, the swim team captain, notices Julie’s broad shoulders and connects her last name to her brother’s legend. Finally, Julie moves from wallflower to social participant as she lands a spot on the swim team and begins to piece together her brother’s history, starting with his childhood friend, Ben. The writing is simple, curious and aloof, morphing with each new social expectation and teenage urge. Julie is a likable character whose story reads like half of the diary entries pulled from Julie’s sophomore year as she struggles with understanding her sexuality, family dynamics, and her own identity. Its incompleteness leaves readers to hope for Julie’s happy ending in spite of ominous circumstances. Dryland is a special, realistic, and understated take on what it means to be a teenager in America. VERDICT For fans of A.S. King’s Ask the Passengers (Little, Brown, 2012).–Jamie Lee Schombs. Regis Jesuit High School, Aurora, CO

Night at the Fiestas_Valdez QuadeVALDEZ QUADE, Kirsten. Night at the Fiestas: Stories. 279p. Norton. 2015. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9780393242980.
Though not all of these 10 short stories are equal in their teen appeal, those that have it are clever and surprising. “Jubilee,” for example, concerns two neighbor girls home from Stanford for the summer. Parker, the oldest, is the daughter of a ranch owner, while scholarship student Andrea’s father is a worker on the ranch. Andrea has a chip on her shoulder about Parker’s wealth that spills over in ugly, unexpected ways. In the title story, teenage Frances rides her father’s bus to the downtown fiesta but gets in over her head when she flirts with a “painter.” Each of the stories is set in a rural New Mexico—a setting not often represented in fiction. Most feature characters with unrelenting hubris being forced to examine their often prejudiced attitudes toward others. The role of religion is examined in three different stories. In “The Five Wounds,” Amadeo is hoping to play the role of Jesus in this year’s Good Friday celebration when his foul-mouthed, pregnant teenage daughter arrives on his doorstep. In “Family Reunion,” Claire goes on vacation with her Mormon neighbors, but Mormonism isn’t what she thought it might be. Finally, in “Ordinary Sins,” a woman works at a rectory and gets drawn into a conflict between the beloved older priest and the strict newcomer. This work offers dark and often hopeless but thoughtful portrayals of working class New Mexicans from different perspectives. VERDICT Like many anthologies, pick and choose the stories to share/read/teach.–Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library

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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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