July 23, 2017

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Global Tales of War, Family, and Identity | Adult Books 4 Teens

A little more than a year ago, we traveled around the globe. In this column, we take a similar journey, highlighting can’t-miss books set all over the world.

Lisa Ko won the biennial PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction for her debut novel, The Leavers. The narrative weaves a fascinating path between China and New York, past and present, and mother and son, whose identities are defined as their names change from Chinese (Peilan and Deming) to English (Polly and Daniel) and back to Chinese. This rich work about immigration, identity, and family should resonate with many teens.

Over the past two decades, novels set in Afghanistan and Iraq have been on the rise. Brian Van Reet’s Spoils adds to this growing body of literature. Like one of this column’s favorite works of fiction of 2012, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, Spoils is written by a combat veteran with an academic background. Sensitive readers beware: Van Reet delves deeply into the brutality and senselessness of war. But for those with strong stomachs, this is a powerful novel that’s not to be missed.

Set in India, Amita Trasi’s The Color of Our Sky is similar to The Leavers. Like Ko’s work, it sets up a double time line and double narrative, this time bouncing between two friends from different castes. Though Trasi’s novel ultimately affirms the bond between these girls, there is no doubt that their different castes set them apart and lead to horrifying consequences for one of them. This thought-provoking offering will leave many teens eager to know more about India and the traditions of the caste system.

As our reviewer points out, the Second Boer War is rarely a setting for fiction, and many young people in the United States may be unaware of this historical event. Dave Boling’s The Lost History of Stars should act as a partial remedy for that blind spot. Boling seems to be making a habit of shedding light on blind spots, as his previous novel, Guernica, focused on a war crime that many know only from the Pablo Picasso painting. Originally published in the UK under the title The Undesirables, The Lost History of Stars focuses on a family of Afrikaners displaced into concentration camps by the events of the Second Boer War. Perhaps it’s not quite as searing a novel as Spoils, but it’s nevertheless heartbreaking and every bit as compelling.

Next, we have a book set in Sweden and originally written in Swedish. Fredrik Backman—best known for 2014’s A Man Called Ove, which continues to fly off my library’s shelves—is back with Beartown, another novel with a rural Swedish setting. The titular town is rocked when a local hockey player is accused of rape, and members of the town must decide where their loyalties lie. Replace hockey with football or basketball and you could easily set this tale in any number of small (or even large) American towns. So while the details are specific to Sweden, the story and dilemmas should hit home for U.S. readers.

It seems appropriate to end this column with a book called Exit West. Strictly speaking, Mohsin Hamid’s novel is set in an unnamed country, and unlike the above titles, it features more than a bit of fantasy. Nevertheless, the themes and plotlines seem appropriate—like The Lost History of Stars and Spoils, Exit West centers on a war-torn country, and like many of the above selections, it focuses on the obstacles faced by immigrants and refugees. Plus, it has a secret portal to a Greek island, so I have a great excuse for including it in this column. This is an excellent work that deserves close attention.

FICTION

BACKMAN, Fredrik. Beartown. tr. from Swedish by Henning Koch. 432p. Atria. Apr. 2017. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9781501160769.

In rural Sweden, a team of junior hockey players are on the cusp of changing everything for the small town of Beartown. If the players can win the championship, Beartown may attract new businesses, improve its ailing economy, and recover its dignity. Everyone, from the local bar owner to the mother who cleans the rink, is linked to the boys and has a stake in whether they win or lose, making the teammates demigods within the community. After a night of celebrating a memorable semifinals win, the star player is accused of raping the general manager’s daughter. The community must decide between holding the alleged rapist accountable, and thereby forfeiting their chances at success, and overlooking the crime. While this book has Backman’s deep character development, it has none of the lightheartedness or mysticism of his previous best sellers, such as A Man Called Ove. This is a serious look at how the actions of one or two people can affect an entire town. VERDICT This title deserves a place on high school shelves for its complex characters and tight narrative. Schools with avid hockey fans won’t want to be without it.–Krystina Kelley, Belle Valley School, Belleville, IL

BOLING, Dave. The Lost History of Stars. 352p. Algonquin. Jun. 2017. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9781616204174.

In this title set at the turn of the 19th century in South Africa, Grandpa “Oupa” Gideon sneaks Lettie Venter outside at night to study the constellations before he goes away. Soon the Venter women and children will watch as the British army burns their farm to the ground and relocates them to a concentration camp while their men fight in the Second Boer War for South African land, diamonds, and gold. Once Lettie shared with her grandfather a dream of becoming a sea captain. “Don’t be silly” was his reply. But as 14-year-old Lettie comes of age, the old ways begin to change and being in charge becomes synonymous with growing up female. Although segregation separates Lettie, who is Dutch, from Bina, a servant and respected member of the family who’s sent to a camp for native South Africans, Bina’s advice lives on: “Deeds live.” Lettie’s mother adheres to Bina’s counsel initially, teaching her children not to flinch even as a soldier holds his rifle against the neck of her youngest son. While hate consumes Lettie’s mother, whose brother-in-law cooperated with the enemy to save his own life, Lettie decides that her deed will be forgiveness. A convincing plot twist unites the family. The novel was based on the story of Boling’s grandfather during the war, and the author has dedicated the book to his family. VERDICT Centering on the maturation of a relatable protagonist, this well-written work that spotlights a military conflict rarely covered in fiction is an excellent addition to most collections.–Georgia Christgau, Middle College High School, Long Island City, NY

HAMID, Mohsin. Exit West. 240p. Riverhead. Mar. 2017. Tr $26. ISBN 9780735212176.

A young couple meet and fall in love as their city disintegrates into violence in this spare, allegorical novel. Cloaked in a black robe, Nadia is a free spirit who lives independently, while Saeed is faithful to the traditions of family and prayer. Any semblance of normal life, to say nothing of courtship, is obliterated by the danger surrounding them, so Nadia and Saeed decide they must find a way to escape. They learn of doors, fantastical portals that defy the laws of physics and grant passage to distant locations. It seems a stroke of great fortune when Nadia and Saeed access a door that takes them to a Greek island. But the respite is illusory. The world’s population is on the move, and desperate migrants like Nadia and Saeed are swarming through doors in overwhelming numbers. The pair’s love is tested as they ponder strategies for survival. Should they stay, or find another door? Hamid describes with fluid insight the displaced lovers’ despair and longing for stability. His use of contemporary details such as cell phone dependence will remind readers that Nadia and Saeed are but a few steps removed from any college-age couple fleeing a homeland at war. VERDICT This short but potent work offers teens a visceral understanding of the world’s refugee crisis. Those who are aware of the current political climate regarding immigration will be moved by this poignant love story.–Diane Colson, formerly at City College, Gainesville, FL

KO, Lisa. The Leavers. 352p. Algonquin. May 2017. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9781616206888.

Ko is the deserving recipient for the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for this socially engaged novel. Raised in rural China, bold Peilan realizes she is pregnant and decides she does not care to be a wife. She knows the best opportunities are in the United States, so she pays a loan shark to be smuggled to New York. Years later, Peilan, now “Polly,” and her son, Deming, live in a cramped apartment in the Bronx. For Deming, life is good. But the day Polly doesn’t come home, 11-year-old Deming must start a new life. Adopted by a white couple from rural New York, Deming Guo becomes Daniel Wilkinson. In a predominantly white town, Daniel’s coming-of-age is difficult. At a low point in his college years, he unexpectedly discovers a link to his mother and embarks on a journey to find her—and, thus, himself again. Ko adroitly moves back and forth in time and between New York and China. The two parallel and sometimes overlapping stories come full circle as Peilan becomes Polly, Deming becomes Daniel, and the two return to their original names. Mastering English becomes an important status symbol to Polly, just as reclaiming his childhood language of Fuzhounese becomes vital to Daniel’s own identity. VERDICT Ko’s characters and their experiences ring true and will resonate with most readers. This moving work will particularly appeal to students interested in issues such as undocumented immigrants, poverty, cross-racial adoption, and second-generation Americans.–Tara Kehoe, formerly at the New Jersey State Library Talking Book and Braille Center, Trenton

TRASI, Amita. The Color of Our Sky. 416p. Morrow. Apr. 2017. pap. $15.99. ISBN 9780062474070.

Set in Mumbai, India, this memorable novel is alternately narrated by two girls from different castes who become friends. Tara is from a solid, middle-class, two-parent home and afforded many privileges, while Mukta is the daughter of a sex worker and an absent father. The girls’ lives intertwine when Tara’s father, who helps orphaned children, brings Mukta home to work as a servant rather than as a temple prostitute. As the book moves back and forth through time, readers learn that Mukta has been kidnapped from her adopted home and Tara feels responsible. Tara returns to India as an adult to try to find Mukta and ease her own guilt. Readers will relate to the bond between the protagonists and sympathize with Mukta’s situation. Teens who wish to learn more about the grim reality of life in brothels should also seek out S.J. Laidlaw’s Fifteen Lanes. VERDICT Fans of Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home and other stories of unlikely friendship will appreciate this eye-opening, beautifully written tale of friendship and the dark side of tradition.–Sherry J. Mills Hazelwood East High School, St. Louis

VAN REET, Brian. Spoils. 304p. Little, Brown/Lee Boudreaux. Apr. 2017. Tr $26. ISBN 9780316316163.

First-time novelist Van Reet trains his dispassionate eye on three soldiers in post-9/11 Iraq: Cassandra, a 19-year-old marine specialist; Abu al-Hool, an aging Afghani mujahideen fighter challenged by a younger leader; and Sleed, an older marine who wears hardened cynicism like armor. Van Reet’s credentials—he was an Echols Scholar who left academia to join the U.S. Army after September 11—lend authority to this unnerving tale. No detail is superfluous. Van Reet forces readers to confront a daily existence that brutalizes even the toughest characters. We stand alongside Cassandra, who outside a bunker overhears men gossiping about who among them might have raped a female soldier—someone Cassandra knew but was too afraid to support. We feel al-Hool’s grief as he mentors a disciple who reminds him of his son, who was killed on a suicide mission 10 years earlier in Chechnya. We lie next to Sleed in the dirty sand as he’s awoken, after a blast knocks him unconscious, by a stray dog licking his face as he marvels, “It’d been so long since [I]’d touched any living creature in a gentle way.” The capture of Cassandra connects these three lives, resulting in more death. This war novel with a human heart is powerful stuff. VERDICT Strong language, violence, and death pervade this narrative; recommended for mature teens only.–Georgia Christgau, Middle College High School, Long Island City, NY

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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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