December 16, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

7 Dazzling Debuts | Adult Books 4 Teens

It’s the middle of November, and I’m already surrounded by reminders that the holiday season is upon us. In my household, that means screenings of the movie Elf, so here’s my version of one of Buddy’s lines: “I just like debut authors. Debut authors are my favorite.” Those of us who work in libraries are always on the lookout for the next Big Deal. Today I’ll introduce you to seven writers offering their first titles, ranging from fantasy to literary to memoir.

First up is one of my favorite epic fantasy novels since Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass. Featuring a rich Middle Eastern setting; fascinating, diverse characters; and nonstop action, this title has garnered plenty of well-deserved buzz. It will fly off your shelves, and your patrons will be clamoring for the next book in the series—promise!

Any fantasy novel compared to “Harry Potter” is easy to booktalk. Brad Abraham’s Magicians Impossible has the magic school, the whodunit mystery, and the murky family origins, but the main character is 30, though he acts like a teenager. Abraham is known for his “Mixtape” comics series, but this urban fantasy in the vein of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is his debut novel.

The feminist in me cringed when I read Gabe Hudson’s Gork, the Teenage Dragon, but I assume that feminist dragons aren’t very common on Planet Blegwethia. Gork is obsessed with sex and finding a mate, like every other teenage dragon at his school, and his angst is evident in this coming-of-age fantasy debut. Dragon novels can be cataloged as bildungsroman, right?

There’s nothing humorous about Egyptian American Omar el Akkad’s American War. His second American Civil War sounds eerily familiar—drone warfare, droughts, and global warming are causing nightmarish conditions for the Chestnut family. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, this dystopia can be exhausting as readers draw parallels between our current world and the disturbing possible future of the United States. 

Down City, Leah Carroll’s powerful memoir, is relatable yet never sentimental. Her mother was found murdered in a cheap hotel, and, years later, her father meets a similar fate. Comparable to Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, this is another gritty autobiography that ends on an uplifting note.

Finally, we have two literary works that are perfect for more advanced readers. Uprooted from Italy by her Hollywood-bound parents, Eugenia struggles to fit into her new life in San Fernando Valley. The riots and earthquakes of 1990s Los Angeles mirror Eugenia’s coming-of-age struggles in Chiara Barzini’s Things That Happened Before the Earthquake. In Weike Wang’s contemporary and smart first novel, Chemistry, an unnamed graduate student suffers a breakdown as the result of the pressures to succeed. Teens will relate to the protagonist, for whom failure is not an option.

Which of these debut authors do you think will have staying power and produce another adult book perfect for teens? Let me know in the comments.

FICTION

ABRAHAM, Brad. Magicians Impossible. 400p. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne. Sept. 2017. Tr $27.99. ISBN 9781250083524.

Like an American millennial Harry Potter, 30-year-old Jason Bishop discovers that neither he nor his parents are quite who he thought they were and that magical gifts are real. His absent dad, who sent him to be raised by an aunt and uncle, may have been protecting rather than neglecting him. When Jason attends his father’s funeral, he realizes that someone else is to be buried—a Diabolist of the Invisible Hand, an organization locked in battle with spell casters of the Golden Dawn. He becomes involved in an ancient battle between those who are born to magic and those who learn and manipulate it through spells. Jason’s initiation and training at the Citadel are much more intense and brief than a long education at Hogwarts, and he must quickly step up from recruit to soldier. Abraham’s tale has more blood, tattoos, and snark than J.K. Rowling’s books, but the narratives share colorful characters, levels of magical prowess, and a sense that trust should be only very carefully bestowed. Romps through the Louvre and Dan Brown–like adventures involving artwork, conspiracy, and revelations will delight readers. Characters here don’t come to life with the same mastery as in Rowling’s titles, but few will notice, considering all the magical motion. VERDICT Young adult readers who enjoy spy mysteries and fantasies will clamor for this inspired mash-up.–Suzanne Gordon, Lanier High School, Gwinnett County, GA

BARZINI, Chiara. Things That Happened Before the Earthquake. 320p. Doubleday. Aug. 2017. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9780385542272.

Despite the distinctly 1990s setting, Barzini’s dryly funny, sophisticated tale of angst and alienation will resonate with today’s teens. Eugenia’s parents relocate from Rome to the San Fernando Valley, where her father hopes to make it as a screenwriter. Absorbed by their own ambitions, Eugenia’s parents leave her to fend for herself in a city still reeling from the 1992 riots. Finding it difficult to fit in (in part because of her limited knowledge of English), she resorts to casual sex to seek out companionship and power, choosing her male conquests carefully. But it is the beautiful Deva, from the isolated Topanga Canyon, who captures Eugenia’s imagination and, eventually, her heart. Topanga Canyon is a magical, beguiling respite from the concrete wasteland where Eugenia lives, but the canyon is an insular community with a code of its own, and Eugenia is trespassing. Barzini’s characterization of Eugenia is vivid and immediate, while the protagonist’s parents offer welcome comic relief. VERDICT Though sex, drugs, and alcohol figure prominently, this novel brilliantly portrays the teen experience—perfect for those who love coming-of-age stories.–Cary Frostick, formerly at Mary Riley Styles Public Library, Falls Church, VA

redstarCHAKRABORTY, SA. The City of Brass. 531p. (Daevabad Trilogy: Bk. 1). Harper Voyager. Nov. 2017. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780062678102.

Nahri, a common Cairo thief who can sense sickness in others and sometimes heal them, is thrust into a magical Middle Eastern world when she accidentally summons a powerful djinn. The handsome Dara insists that he escort Nahri to the magical hidden Daevabad, the City of Brass, where Nahri will be protected by Prince Ali’s family, who have the power of Suleiman’s seal. Never sure whom to trust, Nahri must rely on her street smarts to survive the dangers of the beguiling city and the duplicitous natures of those who surround her. Chakraborty’s compelling debut immerses readers in Middle Eastern folklore and an opulent desert setting while providing a rip-roaring adventure that will please even those who don’t read fantasy. Though Nahri is in her early 20s, young adults will recognize themselves in her. The other narrator, Prince Ali, is an 18-year-old second son who doubts the current class structure of his kingdom. Chakraborty’s meticulous research about Middle Eastern lore is evident, but readers won’t be bogged down by excessive details. VERDICT A must-purchase fantasy for all libraries serving young adults.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

EL AKKAD, Omar. American War. 352p. Knopf. Apr. 2017. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9780451493583.

Benjamin Chestnut, a historian of the Second American Civil War (2075–93), chronicles the life and times of his aunt Sarat. When he first meets her, she is a stoop-backed woman who hides in the shed behind his house, sleeps on the floor, and speaks to no one. When readers first meet her, she is a feisty six-year-old, ready to take on the world. And what a world it is: climate change has created sea rise that wiped out both U.S. coasts for miles inland, and searing heat burns the soil so that food must be brought in from foreign shores. Sarat is caught in the middle of a burgeoning war between the states, based on Northern demands that the South give up fossil fuels. This hardship breeds resentment, and violence seeps into Sarat’s life. The girl’s mother insists they leave their home in Louisiana for points north, but they make it only as far as the refugee camp at the border of the northernmost Southern state. Here, Sarat learns her cultural history from those who recruit her to serve the South. Interspersing the work with news, government reports, and interviews, Benjamin describes Sarat’s growing resistance, willingness to fight fiercely, and subsequent capture and torture. Twenty years later, when Benjamin meets her, she is broken but unrepentant; Sarat serves up one last horrible act of revenge to ensure victory for the South. VERDICT Give this fascinating, terrifying dystopian novel to mature or politically or environmentally minded teens, who will undoubtedly connect events in 2017 with those of the 2070s.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

HUDSON, Gabe. Gork, the Teenage Dragon. 400p. Knopf. Jul. 2017. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9780375413964.

Gork the Terrible isn’t having a good day on planet Blegwethia—his grandfather half-blinded his schoolmaster last night and is in hiding, his spaceship is turning against him, and he can’t find the love of his life to ask her to be his queen for EggHarvest. Despite reciting epic poetry and trying to grow his horns quickly to make himself more attractive, Gork, nicknamed Weak Sauce, is a struggling dragon who doesn’t live up to his Terrible family name. His heart is too big, and he has feelings, which result in taunts from classmates. His Ferris Bueller–like one-day adventure will decide his future—discovering his queen and conquering a planet or becoming enslaved to other dragons. Fantasy readers will enjoy this playful romp that pays homage to popular literature and movies. Gork is a dragon version of Andrew Smith’s Austin Szerba in Grasshopper Jungle—he’s consumed by hormones, an obsession that may become repetitive to some readers. VERDICT Give to fantasy fans who appreciate dark comedies, dorky dragons, or feel-good first romances.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL 

WANG, Weike. Chemistry. 224p. Knopf. May 2017. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781524731748.

The unnamed heroine in this touching novel is plagued with uncertainty. She is a Chinese American woman struggling to earn a doctorate in chemistry when her white boyfriend proposes marriage. Contemplating the notion of matrimony after witnessing her own parents’ bitter union, fearing failure in the lab, and growing increasingly depressed, she has a destructive breakdown. As she tries to resurface, she questions everything, and science offers the answers. This brief yet potent debut asks profound questions with an altogether unique voice. Imagine a blend of Chris from Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Lydia from Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, and you may begin to know the protagonist. Wang addresses, in spare, staccato prose, a wide range of topics (romance, friendship, mental illness, dogs, science, and Chinese American culture across generations) with quirky scientific anecdotes that serve as tangential diversions. VERDICT This funny and unforgettable book will appeal to thoughtful teens who like humor with a serious undercurrent.–Tara Kehoe, formerly of the New Jersey State Library Talking Book and Braille Center, Trenton

NONFICTION

CARROLL, Leah. Down City: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Memory, and Murder. 240p. photos. Grand Central. Mar. 2017. Tr $26. ISBN 9781455563319.

It can’t have been easy growing up the daughter of a cocaine addict who was executed in a sordid hit sanctioned by the Rhode Island mob in 1984. Leah Carroll’s memoir reveals the scarring effect of losing her mother, a petite Jewish woman who loved her child, photography, dogs, and drugs. The motherless four-year-old grew into a writer who pursued the truth about the murder, which was sloppily prosecuted by a system more interested in evidence of organized crime than justice. Carroll combines information she learned from police, court, and medical examiner records with anecdotes and family revelations about Joan Carroll. Carroll’s father had issues of his own, namely his struggles with alcohol. Kevin Carroll was a trusted and charismatic longtime employee of the Providence Journal, but Leah, world-weary and skeptical by the age of 18, wasn’t shocked when her father was found dead in a flophouse. Carroll’s clear writing is authentic, but her tale is not as arresting as other memoirs of growing up victimized, such as Cylin and John Busby’s The Year We Disappeared or Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. Still, this one will find an audience among young adults. VERDICT Recommend to readers of gritty true crime or memoirs of hard-luck childhoods.–Suzanne Gordon, Lanier High School, Gwinnett County, GA

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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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