October 20, 2017

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A World of Hurt: 7 Dark, Compelling Titles | Adult Books 4 Teens

Every year around this time, I look around and realize it’s June, a month that has a nasty habit of showing up right after May. It’s the month of starting summer reading, finishing fiscal year budgets, coping with staff vacations, and turning a year older (for me at least). And it’s the month that I realize how behind I am in this column. Amazingly, we have a review of a book published in December of last year, along with a heap of January and February titles. These are all great books—one’s a starred review—but they just haven’t fit any of the themes we’ve written about so far this year. Fortunately for my obsession with themes, many of these titles do have commonalities: for one thing, they’re all fairly depressing. So without further ado, it’s time to catch up on (some of) the books we missed from the last six months.

Let’s begin with three historical novels set in three different countries in the British Isles. All three also take aim at the role of women in their respective time periods. Janet Ellis’s The Butcher’s Hook is set in 1760s England and tells the classic story of girl meets boy, girl’s parents try to marry her off, girl becomes a psychopathic killer. Though the narrator’s psychotic behavior has put off some readers and reviewers, Ellis poses legitimate questions about how much responsibility her narrator bears for her actions and how much her behavior is dictated by societal pressures on women. Moving north and forward in time, Kaite Welsh’s The Wages of Sin takes us to 1890s Edinburgh. A female medical student becomes convinced that the cadaver she is examining met her end through homicide. Blending a social history of women at the turn of the 20th century with a grimy murder mystery, Welsh’s grim novel offers a bracing take on feminism, today and a century ago.

V.S. Alexander’s The Magdalen Girls, our final historical novel, jumps the Irish Sea and 70 years to bring us to Dublin in the 1960s. Magdalene Laundries were asylums for “fallen women” in Ireland, the last of which continued to operate until 1996. Alexander’s work focuses on two fictional girls sent to live in one of these institutions and will give readers a sense of some of the atrocities that went on there.

Things don’t get more fun from here, folks. Our reviewer aptly compares reading Daniel Magariel’s One of the Boys to “watching a disaster unfold on the evening news.” A story of a father’s long, slow manipulation of his two sons, Magariel’s debut is just as bleak as the titles above. But its brevity, compelling plot, and young male narrator make it an excellent choice for reluctant teens. Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, on the other hand, is for literary readers. The plot bounces between the narrator’s memories of her difficult childhood and the period when she, at age 14, becomes entwined in the lives of a young mother and her four-year-old son unprepared for the harsh winter. Dense, nonlinear, and steeped in its Minnesota setting, Fridlund’s tale is evocative but for higher level readers.

Clare Mackintosh’s I See You is perhaps the most enjoyable book in this column. Like many of the titles above, this straightforward thriller concerns women in impossible situations. Zoe realizes that women who are going to be killed are seeing photos of themselves in the escort pages of a local tabloid. Meanwhile, the police officer involved with the case has a difficult past. Together, these women must solve the mystery, which may bring Zoe closer to home than she thinks.

Finally, we have Kevin Deutsch’s Pill City, a nonfiction account of two high school boys who took advantage of the chaos in the wake of the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who was killed in Baltimore while in police custody, to loot pharmacies and set up a prescription drug business. The enterprise led to a series of overdoses and violence that spread throughout the country. Deutsch, a crime reporter for Newsday, carefully reconstructs the lives of the two teen masterminds as well as the drug ring they created and its consequences. This book touches on several crucial contemporary issues: the urban decay of cities such as Baltimore, the ever-present threat of police violence against people of color and the resulting protests, the ongoing epidemic of opiate addiction, and the misuse of technology.

Not a happy group of books, but an important one. I seem to be writing more and more in this space about sociopolitical issues. I hope that means that more teens today are thinking about, grappling with, and maybe coming up with solutions for these problems than in decades past.

FICTION

ALEXANDER, V.S. The Magdalen Girls. 304p. Kensington. Jan. 2017. pap. $15. ISBN 9781496706126.

Set in Dublin in the early 1960s, this novel examines a dark chapter in the history of the Catholic Church. The story follows 16-year-old Teagan, who is disowned by her parents and sent without explanation to the Magdalen Laundries after innocently tempting a young priest. Teagan befriends the rebellious Nora, who was sent away for being insubordinate, and their friendship helps to ease their lives of physical labor and abuse at the hands of the nuns. Readers learn that though the mission of the laundries was to lead young female “sinners” onto the path of salvation, many girls grew into adults who were ill equipped to deal with the outside world. Alexander stresses the powerlessness of the young women. Teens will appreciate this tale that effectively incorporates themes of friendship, loyalty, and independence. More important, the book illustrates what “fallen women” (unwed and pregnant) endured up until fairly recently in many parts of the world. Readers will empathize with the young mothers who were often forced to give up their babies for adoption. VERDICT This poignant, thoughtful narrative is recommended for most collections.–Sherry J. Mills, Hazelwood East High School, St. Louis

ELLIS, Janet. The Butcher’s Hook. 368p. Pegasus. Jan. 2017. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781681773117.

At first this title may seem like an oft-told tale—a poor little rich girl in Georgian England must marry an unappealing man, but she falls in love with someone beneath her station. However, the story goes deeper, and fast. Anne’s teacher takes advantage of her, leaving her with a skewed idea of the power of sex. When Anne meets Fub, the butcher’s apprentice, her sexuality is unleashed and she will let nothing stand in her way. She has no use for the unfortunately named Mr. Onions, who has been promised her hand in marriage; Margaret, Fub’s intended; or even the aforementioned teacher. What begins as a bit of a slow burn turns horrifying as Anne becomes willing to do anything for Fub, even as she realizes he’s not worth it. The heroine is amoral but not entirely unsympathetic. Debut novelist Ellis uses cunning turns of phrase (“He carried a great deal of his luncheon in his beard, and often it was not even the luncheon of the day, but of several days before.”). Does Anne get her just deserts? That question would prompt a spicy book discussion. VERDICT Part horror, part historical fiction, this offering will appeal to those with darkly gothic tastes.–Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library

redstarFRIDLUND, Emily. History of Wolves. 288p. Atlantic Monthly. Jan. 2017. Tr $25. ISBN 9780802125873.

Winter falls hard in northern Minnesota. So 14-year-old Linda watches with interest when, months before the thaw, a young mother and her son return alone to their summer house across the lake. Linda is drawn into their lives when the mother, Patra, asks her to watch four-year-old Paul while Patra edits manuscripts. Linda is deeply affected by the intensity of Patra’s care for Paul, so different from the nonchalance of her own mother. The teen is an untamed storyteller, and her past and present swing about as she interrupts one plot thread in pursuit of another, as if the emotional connections among events supersede chronology. A succession of days spent with Patra and Paul veer into a deluge of memories from Linda’s childhood in a commune or recollections of her former history teacher, who may have molested a classmate. Fridlund’s crystalline descriptions keep the narrative focused, but nearly everything else in the book, including Linda’s true name, is subject to interpretation. The author foreshadows tragedy, which arrives with the unimaginable brutality of a Minnesotan blizzard. VERDICT Teens who appreciated the natural settings and poetic writing of Ron Rash’s The World Made Straight and The Cove or the stylistic complexity of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House will love this one. This strikingly original tale, so rooted in its natural setting, will captivate readers with a penchant for powerful, unorthodox prose.–Diane Colson, Librarian, City College, Gainesville, FL

MACKINTOSH, Clare. I See You. 384p. Berkley . Feb. 2017. Tr $26. ISBN 9781101988299.

Zoe Walker leads a quiet life, commuting on the London metro to a dull job. One glimpse at her local paper sets her on edge. As Zoe struggles to figure out why she is seeing her photo on the lurid back pages of the daily news, she is pulled into what could be a much larger, more perilous operation. Other women’s photos begin appearing in the paper, and as Zoe learns their identities, she discovers that the women are being murdered. Assigned to Zoe’s case is PC Kelly Swift, who’s hit rock bottom after assaulting a rape suspect. Dogged by a long-ago attack on her sister, the officer must prove her worth to the higher-ups, and Zoe’s case may provide the perfect opportunity. With Kelly’s help, Zoe draws closer to uncovering the shocking truth. The deft character development of this haunting, claustrophobic work sets it apart from more typical thrillers. Though Zoe appears to be an ordinary suburban mom, her relationships with her grown children and live-in boyfriend add depth. While Kelly is a more familiar character, her motivations, mistakes, and redemption make her compelling. VERDICT Fans of Harlan Coben’s domestic suspense will enjoy this portrait of a woman facing inexplicably dangerous circumstances, and the technological components will please dedicated viewers of shows such as Mr. Robot.–Erinn Black Salge, Morristown-Beard School, Morristown, NJ

MAGARIEL, Daniel. One of the Boys. 176p. Scribner. Mar. 2017. Tr $22. ISBN 9781501156168.

Reading this short but forceful debut novel is like watching a disaster unfold on the evening news. Teens may wish they’d never tuned in, but they won’t be able to look away. The story shifts backward and forward in time to reveal how a father systematically gains his two sons’ complete devotion to further his own ends. Scheming with the boys to deprive their mother of her custody rights and using them to shield his growing drug addiction, the father knowingly pits the brothers against each other. But his constant demands isolate them from their peers. As their father turns increasingly violent, the brothers have only each other to turn to in their desperation. First-person narration from the younger boy, 12, is effective. His divided loyalties, guilt, and need to please his father in spite of everything are intensely relatable. Though this work moves toward an inescapably bleak climax, its brevity, surprising snippets of humor, and compelling plot make it a good pick for low-level or reluctant readers. VERDICT Schools and libraries that serve at-risk teens who use book discussion as part of their counseling will want this in their collections.–Cary Frostick, formerly at Mary Riley Styles Public Library, Falls Church, VA

WELSH, Kaite. The Wages of Sin. 400p. Pegasus Crime. Mar. 2017. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9781681773322.

First-year medical student Sarah Gilchrist, one of her school’s 12 newly admitted women, spends her off-duty time treating the poor at an infirmary nestled in the dark, damp backstreets of 1892 Edinburgh. Disease, prostitution, gambling, and drugs flourish here, but Sarah finds her calling in helping young women caught in the depths of poverty. In school one day, Sarah recognizes the body of Lucy, one of her patients, on the dissecting table. Certain that Lucy was murdered, Sarah sets out to discover the killer. She takes to the streets to investigate and learns that her professors indulge in the vices of the city. As Sarah begins to make connections, she gets into trouble, but her past haunts her and compels her to seek answers despite possible repercussions. Welsh examines poverty’s harsh effects, a strongly patriarchal society, demanding cultural expectations, and the consequences for 19th-century women who wanted to forge a path of their own. Balancing her medical studies, her formidable relatives, and her work in the infirmary with her obsession with identifying Lucy’s murderer, Sarah is stretched to the limit. This gripping, thought-provoking historical mystery will open teens’ eyes to the reality of life for independent women in the 1800s. VERDICT For readers interested in women’s history or those who enjoy delving into Victorian society.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

NONFICTION

DEUTSCH, Kevin. Pill City: How Two Honor Roll Students Foiled the Feds and Built a Drug Empire. 288p. bibliog. glossary. notes. photos. St. Martin’s. Jan. 2017. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9781250110039.

In April 2015, Freddie Gray died while in the custody of the Baltimore police, spurring protests. Millions of Americans witnessed scenes of violence through television and social media broadcasts. What viewers didn’t see was the looting of thousands of opiate pills from pharmaceutical stores. An ingenious distribution scheme that relied on technology to deliver these pills directly to addicts (“an Uber of drug dealing”) kicked off a spate of deaths that would extend across the country. The masterminds of “Pill City” were two high school boys, born to heroin addicts in one of Baltimore’s bleakest neighborhoods. Dubbed “Brick” and “Wax” by author and veteran reporter Deutsch, the teens launched their unorthodox business model out of a desire to make money, like “those white boys in Silicon Valley.” Using firsthand accounts from Brick, Wax, gang members, recovered addicts, police detectives, medical personnel, and others, Deutsch skillfully twists together a horrifying narrative. Were this fiction, readers could close the book with a shudder. But Deutsch makes it impossible to forget the people, both living and dead, who bring new urgency to the term opioid epidemic. VERDICT Recommend to teens interested in true crime, political activism, and the ethical issues surrounding technology.–Diane Colson, Librarian, City College, Gainesville, FL

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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. All these seem like gripping reads! Thank you for your recommendations

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