November 18, 2017

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Around the World | Adult Books 4 Teens

Today we take another of our periodic trips around the world, with a group of novels set in four countries that don’t get nearly as much attention in our fiction reading as the usual suspects in Western Europe and Eastern Asia. With two novels set in the Baltics, one in India, and one in Lebanon, these stories should offer a welcome variety to teens interested in other countries and cultures.

Rufi Thorpe’s Dear Fang, with Love begins in America but quickly brings its two protagonists, an estranged father and daughter, to Lithuania. Seventeen-year-old Vera has had a mental breakdown, and her absentee father Lucas tries to help her heal by bringing her with him to his grandmother’s hometown of Vilnius. Vera, and her emails home to her boyfriend, will be the main draw for teens, but Lucas’s search for answers about his grandmother’s life in Lithuania, especially her daring escape from a Nazi concentration camp, will give readers a new look at the familiar topics of World War II and the Holocaust. This is a story about mental illness and the troubled relationship between a father and a daughter, but don’t discount teen interest in new-to-them corners of the world.

Crossing the Baltic Sea to Finland brings us to Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun. Finland has been lauded in recent years as a model of public education and progressive attitudes. Sinisalo explores the dark side of this Finnish progress, setting her novel in an alternate present in which the very things many Americans find admirable about Finland have turned it into a dystopia. Sinisalo coins the term eusistocracy—an extreme welfare state—for her alternate Finland, and extremity is its undoing. Focusing on public health and social stability above every other societal need, Finland has begun breeding submissive women called eloi (named after the race of so-called perfect humans in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine). This dystopian landscape is the background for the story of two sisters, Manna and Vanna, who have been bred as eloi but may not be what they appear. This is a challenging novel, but with its obvious comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, fascinating take on the line between dystopia and utopia, and central teen characters, it should be a natural fit for strong YA readers.

Bringing us solidly back into the real world of dysfunctional government is Rabee Jaber’s short but powerful novel Confessions, set during the brutal 15-year-long Lebanese Civil War. In some ways, the novel, about a teen who is trying to get an education and leave his old life behind, is structured as a classic coming-of-age story. But the awful secrets of the protagonist’s family—one brilliantly given away in the opening line, but others even more provocative—make this work something much more. Our reviewer’s comparison to Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner is apt, and as with that novel, look for Confessions to give teen readers a strong connection to a country and conflict they have probably given little attention to.

Our final stop is India, where Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs presents another look at the recent past. The novel begins in 1996 as a small bomb kills two boys and leaves behind a physically and psychologically scarred boy named Mansoor. It traces Mansoor’s life as he tries to recover from his wounds, moves to America to go to school and back to India for medical reasons, and grapples with the realities of being a victim of terrorism. Mahajan also explores the lives of the bombers and the family of the bombing victims offering a comprehensive look at the way terrorism affects all members of society.

These four novels provide teens glimpses at four different time periods and cultures, using these settings to locate deep human drama and thought-provoking ideas. Heady stuff, but important and engaging.

ConfJABER, Rabee. Confessions. tr. from Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. 120p. New Directions. Mar. 2016. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9780811220675.

“My father used to kidnap people and kill them.” Who can resist that opening line? In a long and sometimes rambling narrative, Maroun describes growing up in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. His father and older brother disappear for days with no explanation, and no one dares ask where they go. Maroun has an ailing mother, and he lives in the shadow of his dead older brother who shared his name. He doesn’t learn all the family secrets until his older brother tells all while their father is on his deathbed, and the guilt and turmoil almost destroys Maroun. Teens will understand the boy’s desire to use education to escape from his existing life—he learns English because he knows he wants to move away from Lebanon. Maroun copes with depression in college as he comes to terms with his personal history and the emotional abuse he endured as a child. Give to teens who enjoy reading coming-of-age novels that take place in other countries, such as Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. VERDICT This is an accessible Middle Eastern novel that will fill a gap in most libraries.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

AssocMAHAJAN, Karan. The Association of Small Bombs. 276p. Viking. Mar. 2016. Tr $26. ISBN 9780525429630.

Just as the author describes a market in Delhi, this novel “begins everywhere at once.” Readers are immediately thrown into urban India, piecing together the important players of this drama. Mahajan begins the novel by describing a singular, almost routine event of 1996: a car bomb in a crowded Delhi marketplace. In the years that follow, the lives of a survivor, the family of two deceased boys, and the bombers themselves become intertwined. For the most part, the story takes place in India, and readers could easily become bogged down with unfamiliar terminology in the first third of the book. However, the narrative begins to pick up speed when Mansoor, the bomb survivor and a Muslim, leaves India to pursue his education in the United States. He returns to his homeland because of medical concerns complicated by his injuries from the bombing. Teens will be interested in the change Mansoor undergoes after his return to Dehli and intrigued by the human side of both the bombers and those affected by this act of violence. VERDICT Purchase where there is a demand for titles set in India or an interest in antiheroes.–Krystina Kelley, Belle Valley School, Belleville, IL

coreSINISALO, Johanna. The Core of the Sun. tr. from Finnish by Lola Rogers. 320p. Grove Atlantic/Black Cat . Jan. 2016. pap. $16. ISBN 9780802124647.

Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and borrowing expressions from H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, yet set in contemporary Finland and uniquely thrilling in terms of voice, plot, and characterization, this dystopian newcomer offers meaty food for thought about what is worth sacrificing to make a “good society.” This heartbreaking story of two teenage sisters who were formerly close will resonate with young adults. One, Manna, conformed to her society’s rules, but now is missing. The other, Vera/Vanna, successfully hid the traits that her society considered flaws—her intelligence and her synesthesia. Now she relies on the capsaicin fix she gets from illegal chili peppers to stay sane as she tries to find her sister. It is becoming increasingly dangerous for Vera/Vanna to stay in Finland, but she can’t leave without knowing what happened to Manna. The disjointed storytelling style may challenge some readers, but others will appreciate the way the parts all come together in the end. VERDICT A discussion-worthy addition in a classic novels curriculum, this offering also makes for good recreational reading.–Hope Baugh, Carmel Clay Public Library, Carmel, IN

DearfangTHORPE, Rufi. Dear Fang, with Love. 320p. ebook available. Knopf. May. 2016. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781101875773.

Lucas has been an absentee father for most of his daughter Vera’s 17 years. After she has a psychotic break at a party and is diagnosed as bipolar, he decides it would be a good idea to take her to the city of Vilnius, his grandmother’s homeland. He signs up for a tour to learn about his family history, with the intention of helping his daughter heal. It immediately becomes clear to Lucas that he has no idea how to be a father. Through emails to her boyfriend, Fang, and comments to her father, readers become privy to Vera’s unraveling. The novel focuses as much on Lucas and his self-doubt as it does on Vera’s undoing. There’s a mystery involving Lucas’s grandmother and her escape from the Nazis as well as information on Lithuanian history. Vera has another psychotic break on the trip, with heartbreaking results. Crisp and captivating, the writing powerfully portrays a host of well-drawn characters. VERDICT Thorpe has created a persuasive, compelling, and heartfelt portrait of a troubled yet loving family. A striking look at mental illness that will long stay with readers.–Jane Ritter, Mill Valley School District, CA

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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