October 16, 2017

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Contemporary Reads from Celeste Ng, Stephen King, & More | Adult Books 4 Teens

Contemporary fiction is often ripped from the headlines, and today’s column contains many relevant novels. Tabish Khair, an award-winning Indian poet living in Denmark, tackles religious fundamentalism in Just Another Jihadi Jane, first published in India and now available in the United States. In this realistic work, two Muslim best friends from northern England are slowly radicalized through interactions on Facebook.

Nick White’s debut novel, How To Survive a Summer, focuses on an equally horrifying experience. Fifteen-year-old Will is sent to a conversion therapy camp to “pray the gay away.” Now in graduate school, he must confront his past when a horror movie is filmed at the camp.

Laurie Frankel has been vocal about her experiences raising a young transgender daughter, and her book This Is How It Always Is offers a parental perspective. Penn and Rosie do their best but encounter difficulties when their fifth child, Claude, declares that she is a girl and wants to be called Poppy. The family’s love and support make this novel a welcome addition to most libraries.

On a lighter note, Abby Stern’s escapist, rom com–esque According to a Source centers on a twentysomething who becomes immersed in Hollywood drama as she works undercover for a celebrity magazine.

Like many readers of my generation, I find it difficult to believe that books set during the 1970s and 1980s are historical fiction, so I had to slip Stephen King and Richard Chizmar’s new novella, Gwendy’s Button Box, about a girl who’s given an apocalyptic power, into this column. Though it’s set decades ago, it has universal appeal and will easily entice today’s teens.

Finally, I’m including three literary tales for advanced students. Celeste Ng’s sophomore novel, Little Fires Everywhere, is generating just as much buzz as her first, Everything I Never Told You, which received a starred review from Adult Books 4 Teens and was a 2015 Alex Award winner. Ng returns to Ohio for her latest title and again addresses racism and family drama while ratcheting up the tension by examining teenage pregnancy, abortion, and adoption. It’s a quiet read, much like Bryn Chancellor’s debut, Sycamore, in which a teenager’s body is discovered 18 years after she vanished. Through flashbacks, readers learn more about young Jess’s relationships and disappearance. Mystery also takes center stage in Rosecrans Baldwin’s The Last Kid Left, which opens with a drunk teenager crashing his vehicle en route to Mexico—with two dead bodies in the backseat. Plenty of social media drama feeds the sensationalized plot line, but our reviewer notes that this book is “just the thing for compulsive mystery lovers.”

FICTION

BALDWIN, Rosecrans. The Last Kid Left. 400p. Farrar. Jun. 2017. Tr $27. ISBN 9780374298562.

The minute he saw Emily Portis, Nick Toussaint knew it was love. Though Nick, 19, is three years older than Emily, their feelings are strong. But when readers first meet Nick, it’s clear that things have gone wrong. Nick, exhausted, drunk, and hoping to reach the Mexican border, is driving an SUV with two corpses in the back. But during a moment’s inattention, the car crashes into a neon cowgirl sign in New Jersey. Now Nick and Emily, who’s back in their hometown of Claymore, NH, have a lot of explaining to do. But Nick is set on taking the blame. Newly retired police chief Martin Krug is convinced that the young man is innocent. But Nick is sent to Claymore to be tried, where the sheriff, Emily’s father, is willing to accept Nick’s guilt. Krug, though, takes an investigative job to find out the truth. Meanwhile, a floundering journalist from Claymore realizes that returning to her old high school could give her the best scoop. This is an excessively complicated novel, with subplots involving Emily’s nude photos and Nick’s alcoholic mother, all of which may distance teen readers from the epic love story. But those who enjoy twisted tales will appreciate these side trips. VERDICT Just the thing for compulsive mystery lovers.–Diane Colson, formerly at City College, Gainesville, FL

CHANCELLOR, Bryn. Sycamore. 320p. HarperCollins/Harper. May 2017. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780062661098; pap. $19.99. ISBN 9780062677129.

When a newcomer discovers human bones in a dry wash in Sycamore, AZ, members of the small college town suspect that they belong to Jess, a 17-year-old who vanished 18 years earlier. Debut novelist Chancellor expertly moves between this present-day discovery and the story of Jess’s brief life in Sycamore. As a new arrival at 15, Jess had a hard time making friends. Through flashbacks, readers learn about her, her mother, her close friends, and her lover. Since it’s clear up front that Jess vanished, her interactions are all the more meaningful. This moving story of teen problems and adult longing crackles with tension. Believable characters and a twist ending add appeal. VERDICT For fans of mystery and suspense.–Karlan Sick, formerly at New York Public Library

FRANKEL, Laurie. This Is How It Always Is. 336p. Flatiron. Jan. 2017. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9781250088550.

When Claude, who has always resisted stereotypical male behaviors, wants to wear dresses to kindergarten, Rosie and Penn help their young child deal with classmates, parents, teachers, and administrators who don’t understand why Claude, who now identifies as female, wants to be called Poppy. After an incident with another parent almost turns violent, the family of seven pick up and move from Madison, WI, to Seattle. Poppy’s history remains a secret—until she’s in fifth grade. Penn, an aspiring writer and stay-at-home dad, also experiences a journey of self-discovery as he develops his talent for storytelling. Though the third-person perspective revolves mostly around the parents, it will still resonate with teens. Those who feel boxed in by labels will recognize Poppy’s confusion, while those who have never questioned their gender identity will gain fresh perspective. VERDICT This thought-provoking, accessible work would make an excellent parent/teen book club choice.–Carrie Shaurette, Dwight-Englewood School, Englewood, NJ

redstarKHAIR, Tabish. Just Another Jihadi Jane. 176p. Interlink. Jan. 2017. pap. $15. ISBN 9781566560672.

With the rise in nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment, Khair’s novel about an English teen who runs away to join Daesh is timely. Jamilla, raised in a devout Muslim family, takes pride in adhering to the teachings of the Koran. Her best friend, Ameena, also Muslim, isn’t a strict follower of the religion, but when the boy she loves breaks her heart, Ameena turns to her faith for solace. It soon becomes her obsession, and she encourages Jamilla to join her on social networking sites that connect to a worldwide Islamic community. Drawn to the postings of a woman who runs an orphanage in Syria, where her husband is fighting for the “faith,” the girls are convinced to join the cause and soon are making travel arrangements but end up trapped in a terrifying, unexpected situation. Khair describes how, especially for Muslim youth, alienation can drive teens to seek kinship. Jamilla is adroitly rendered, and readers will feel as though she’s sitting by them, relating her tale. VERDICT This riveting, intimate story should be required reading in high schools, followed up with group discussion.–Cary Frostick, formerly with Mary Riley Styles Public Library, Falls Church, VA

KING, Stephen & Richard Chizmar. Gwendy’s Button Box. illus. by Keith Minnion.  180p. Cemetery Dance. May 2017. Tr $25. ISBN 9781587676109.

No evil clowns or rabid dogs in this novella—instead King and Chizmar have created a tale of what-ifs. Gwendy is only 12 when taunts from classmates spur her to attempt to lose weight. Every day, she runs up the steep metal steps on the side of the cliffs in Castle Rock, ME. Even though she knows not to talk to strangers, let alone take gifts from them, she can’t resist the man in the dark coat and bowler hat. She has been chosen to receive a box with buttons on it, and he quickly instructs Gwendy on its use. What do the buttons do? Destroy. As Gwendy matures, the box also graces her with intelligence, luck, and beauty, but what happens when she can’t resist pushing a button? Nine somber illustrations help set the tone, but readers are left to imagine the infamous box. Depictions of Gwendy’s loss of her virginity and an attempted sexual assault aren’t overly graphic. VERDICT This smooth, fast-paced suspense is a great introduction to King’s work and a good choice for reluctant readers and mystery and horror fans.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

redstarNG, Celeste. Little Fires Everywhere. 384p. Penguin Pr. Sept. 2017. Tr $27. ISBN 9780735224292.

Shaker Heights, a wealthy suburb of Cleveland, is home to the mostly content Richardson family of six. Mia, an artist, and her teenage daughter, Pearl, decide to settle down and rent an apartment from the family. Pearl bonds with the Richardson teens, and life seems idyllic until a custody battle erupts. Elena Richardson’s friend is adopting a baby whose biological mother, a friend of Mia’s, regrets her decision to abandon the child. Ng sensitively examines adoption, privilege, and race as the well-off white couple and the child’s biological mother, a Chinese immigrant who initially gave up the child out of financial necessity, fight for parental rights. Through Mia, the author also explores the sacrifices that artists must make and the tension between passion and parenthood. An unwanted teen pregnancy and long-held secrets add to the impact of this emotional story peopled by sympathetic characters. VERDICT For fans of thought-provoking literary works, especially those who enjoyed Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You.–Karlan Sick, formerly at New York Public Library

STERN, Abby. According to a Source. 304p. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne. May 2017. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9781250106797.

Ella Warren loves her job as a freelance undercover spy for The Life, an online Los Angeles gossip mag. She spends her evenings in swanky restaurants and nightclubs, searching for a juicy scoop for the morning edition, and her best friend, Holiday Hall, a gorgeous British heiress and up-and-coming actress, invites her to all the best parties. Ella has always refused to turn Holiday’s doings into gossip fodder. But everything changes when a cutthroat manager takes over The Life with plans to drastically reduce freelance staff. Reporters must deliver exclusive stories or else. As the pressure mounts, Ella jeopardizes her relationships with her friends, lover, and family members to keep her job. Teens will see themselves in Ella, and Stern’s use of descriptive aliases, combined with teasing bits of familiar entertainment news, will keep them guessing about the real celebrities behind the sobriquets. VERDICT Fans of celebrity gossip and fashion will be riveted by this predictable though entertaining read.–Cary Frostick, formerly with Mary Riley Styles Public Library, Falls Church, VA

redstarWHITE, Nick. How To Survive a Summer. 352p. Penguin/Blue Rider. Jun. 2017. Tr $26. ISBN 9780399573682.

Will Dillard is working on his film theory dissertation when he learns about Proud Flesh, a slasher movie about a group of straight teens who try to rebuild a dilapidated gay conversion therapy camp only to be stalked and killed by a former attendee. Will is transported to his adolescence, when he was sent to Camp Levi, the inspiration for the film’s setting. There, he and four other boys were subjected to a month of torture. Meanwhile, the movie is causing rifts in the LGBTQ community yet also garnering a following. White’s stark but beautiful debut is about rebuilding one’s past and having the strength to accept oneself. Will’s journey, told through flashbacks from when he first discovered that he was gay up through his days at Camp Levi, is searing. Funny and anxious, Will is likable, and the portrayal of the LGBTQ community is free of stereotypes. VERDICT For those looking for a cathartic novel or an exploration of the obstacles that many gay teens face.–Tyler Hixson, Brooklyn Public Library

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Sarah Hill About Sarah Hill

Sarah Hill is SLJ's Adult Books 4 Teens cocolumnist and an information services librarian at Lake Land College in Mattoon, IL.

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