May 28, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Reviews: Adult Books 4 Teens, May 2012


CHUNG, Catherine. Forgotten Country. 304p. Riverhead. 2012. Tr $26.95. ISBN 978-1-59448-808-5. LC 2011047577.
Adult/High School
– Like Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (Putnam, 1989) and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (Houghton, 2003), Chung’s graceful debut novel portrays immigrant family life in modern times. Tied to the traditions of Korea, Jamie’s parents expect the world of her, and more. Her younger sister, Hannah, feels many of the same pressures, but doesn’t have the coping mechanism to deal with them. When Hannah packs up and leaves one day, leaving no note, Jamie is expected to find her and bring her back. Chung weaves haunting stories from the family’s past, of sisters from each generation who go missing, and of survival during war, with promises for the future in Jamie’s schooling and the heartbreak of illness. Jamie’s desire to be everything her parents wish her to be while longing for a path of her own will resonate with teens as will Hannah’s departure. The Forgotten Country showcases a family whose members struggle to stay together while finding their individual identity. This lyrical tale filled with heartbreak and forgiveness illustrates the bonds that hold a family together.–Sara Campbell,Rowan Public Library, Salisbury, NC

DAU, Stephen. The Book of Jonas. 272p. Blue Rider. 2012. Tr $24.95. ISBN 978-0399158452. LC 2011047494.
Adult/High School
–The most banal of circumstances spared 15-year-old Younis from being annihilated with the rest of his family during an attack on his village by American troops tracking terrorists. Severely wounded, he escapes to a cave in the mountains where he is cared for by an American soldier who deserted during the fight. He survives and is relocated to the U.S. by a relief organization. He changes his name to Jonas and pursues a college education. During counseling sessions to help with Post-Traumatic Stress issues, he struggles with survivor’s guilt, excessive alcohol use, and the repressed memories of his time in the cave with the American soldier. Slowly, he pieces together recollections that add to the horror of his survival. First-time author Dau creates a disturbing portrayal of war as it destroys ideals and innocence and makes victims of civilians and soldiers alike. The novel is composed in a way that’s similar to how a painter creates with watercolors: with delicate, barely substantive layers that blend together to reveal depth, nuance, and meaning. Jonas is an orphan and an outcast longing for home and love, but he is also Muslim, yearning to avenge the loss of his family. That teen readers will be drawn to him even as they are repulsed by his choices is one of the ways Dau demonstrates the tragic paradoxes of war in this brilliant and deceptively simple novel that will provide ample discussion for high school classes studying Middle East conflicts.John Sexton, Greenburgh Public Library, NY

DERMONT, Amber. The Starboard Sea. 320p. St. Martin‘s. 2012. Tr $24.99. ISBN 978-0-312-64280-8. LC 2011041100.
Adult/High School
–On the day he turns 18, Jason Prosper leaves Upper East Side Manhattan and heads north to Bellingham Academy, a last-chance boarding school for kids expelled from better institutions, caught by the “safety net of parents’ wealth.” That first afternoon he spies what looks like a cormorant wading several yards out to sea, only to realize that it’s a girl about to do herself harm. Aidan only laughs when he plunges in to save her, easily walking to shore. Jason is entranced by this strange creature with a troubled past of her own. Their budding relationship helps him begin to heal from the loss of Cal, his best friend, roommate, and sailing partner. One year earlier, when their relationship moved beyond friendship, Jason’s betrayal precipitated Cal’s suicide, and Jason likens his loss to losing a limb. Now he kicks around with a group of disaffected, immature fellow seniors, Race, Kriffo, and Tazewell. The 1987 stock market crash places the novel in historical context, as does the faculty’s cavalier attitude toward student discipline, particularly the ubiquitous hazing. Otherwise, today’s young adults will recognize the ever-shifting tensions and alliances among teen boys, the agony of losing a friendship, the shame of disappointing a parent, and the exhilaration of being young and talented. Jason is a champion sailor and his descriptions of sailing are exquisite. After the arrival of a hurricane coincides with a student death, he focuses on solving what he comes to believe was a murder by fellow students. Aidan and Jason’s relationship brings to mind Alaska and Miles’s relationship in John Green’s Looking for Alaska (Dutton, 2005), and this more contemplative novel shares a similar central suspense and tension.Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

EMMONS, Sherri Wood. The Sometimes Daughter. 320p. Kensington. 2012. pap. $15. ISBN 978-0-7582-5325-5. LC number unavailable.
Adult/High School
–Her mother named her “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes,” because Crosby, Stills & Nash were playing it when Judy was born in a tent at Woodstock. This unorthodox beginning heralded a childhood several steps removed from ordinary. Cassie filled her daughter’s life with the exuberance of a free spirit. Young Judy cherishes the memories of her mother’s bright skirts swirling as she dances; the fragrance of fresh herbs mingling with marijuana and incense filling their apartment; and the big-hearted adults happy to sit and play with her. When Cassie whisks Judy to a communal farm, however, her father comes to take her back home, much to her relief. Now she thrives in a stable life of school, birthday parties, and family dinners. Cassie remains distant, on her own adventures, making occasional, chaotic contact with Judy. Finally, after she has moved to California and borne another child, Judy realizes that her intense feelings towards her mother are composed of both love and fury. What kind of mother leaves her child as Cassie did? Teen readers may find themselves identifying alternately with Cassie, the eternal adolescent, and Judy, a young girl who struggles to maintain the normalcy of a home life. As Cassie tries on some of her generation’s most foolish, idealistic guises (doped-up free love hippie, farm-commune free-love practitioner, member of Jim Jones’s The Peoples Temple,) Judy longs for Cassie to return and simply be her mother. Teens who appreciated Lauren Myracle’s Bliss (Amulet, 2008) or autobiographies by Augusten Burroughs and Jeannette Walls of dysfunctional family survivors should also enjoy this novel.Diane Colson, Palm Harbor Library, FL

HAIMOFF, Michelle. These Days Are Ours. 304p. Grand Central. 2012. pap. $13.99. ISBN 978-1-4555-0029-1. LC 2011012929.
Adult/High School
–Haimoff’s assured debut is a melancholy paean to New York City before 9/11 and as it was in the immediate aftermath, when even New Yorkers looked up and around and at one another. Hailey, a 23-year-old unhappy child of divorce and immense privilege, narrates this slightly episodic tale of fear and loss as she job hunts, bar hops, and spends time with friends (the dialogue is pitch perfect). The focus here is not the loss of lives on 9/11 but on the loss of purpose and safety that day precipitated, enhanced by the simple truth that even without it, being 20-something, unemployed, and caught between childhood and adulthood is a pretty miserable set of circumstances. Hailey has focused her energy on Brenner, perfect Princeton grad (actually a douchebag), with whom she fantasizes a future of married security. But even as she longs for Brenner, she falls for Adrian, a genuine and genuinely likable middle-class boy from Pennsylvania. Hailey’s sadness despite all the advantages of her life should make her unlikable, but she recognizes this, which makes her sympathetic. There are wink and nod moments foreshadowing the present that distract from an otherwise thoughtful and compelling read, but for sophisticated teen readers whose childhoods were shadowed by 9/11 just as Hailey’s emerging adulthood is, the book will strike a chord. Give it to those who enjoyed Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero (S & S, 1985), which is referenced within the text, or even former “Gossip Girl” fans ready for the real thing.Karyn N. Silverman, Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, New York City

HARRISON, Kathryn. Enchantments: A Novel. 336p. Random. 2012. Tr $27. ISBN 978-1-4000-6347-5. LC 2010053369.
Adult/High School
–In 1917, after the death of their father, the “mad monk” Rasputin, 18-year-old Masha and her younger sister, Varya, are sent to be wards of the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia. Hoping that Masha may have her father’s healing powers, the Tsarina asks her to befriend the young Tsarevitch, Alyosha, who is ailing with hemophilia. Within months, the Russian revolution forces the abdication of the Romanovs and the entire family is sequestered within the palace. The story of who Rasputin was, his influence on the Tsarina and, ultimately, on the Russian people unfolds in a series of stories that Masha tells to Aloysha while they are confined. The narrative shifts throughout the novel. Masha narrates directly to readers in first person, but her stories to Alyosha take on a different voice. Toward the end, he describes his final days through the journal he successfully smuggled out of captivity before his death, which made its way to Masha in America. This is a love story, and a story of history and a tragedy. Teens who know their world history will be able delve into the book easily. Those who don’t may be challenged to follow the shifting narrative. Aloysha’s determination not to die without experiencing normal teen activities, including sex, is an important theme reflecting his hopefulness even as he knows his own murder looms. Masha’s optimism and practicality allows her to survive the tragedy that surrounded her life in Russia. This book begs readers to head to their nearest library to find out the “real” story.Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, NY

HEPINSTALL, Kathy. Blue Asylum: A Novel. 288p. Houghton Harcourt. 2012. Tr $24. ISBN 978-0-547-71207-9. LC 2011029653.
Adult/High School
–Dr. Cowell, a recognized expert in all forms of lunacy, treats patients at the Sanibel Asylum. The island sanctuary is home to a quirky set of inmates who come to be made whole again. As the Civil War rages on, the asylum becomes a retreat for those with wounded spirits. Iris is an independent woman who, responding to the cruelty and injustice her plantation-owning husband invokes on his slaves, creates a tragedy she cannot forget and for which she is sentenced to the asylum. While she is clearly not a lunatic, she does not fit into the expected norm for women of her time. The egotistical Dr. Cowell is determined to “fix” her and yet becomes fascinated by her quick mind and spirit. She quickly decides to plan an escape, even as she begins to interact with the others who inhabit the asylum. She falls in love with Ambrose, a soldier suffering from the horrors of the war, and is certain that her love will cure him. Iris takes advantage of the doctor’s lonely 12-year-old son to help her plan and execute her escape, which now includes Ambrose. Told in short chapters from varying points of view, Blue Asylum has a depth of story and theme. It is rich, vibrant, and poignant as it leads readers through the thoughts, fears, and dreams of its characters. Teens will not believe that women could be condemned as lunatics for behavior that would be considered normal today, and Ambrose most certainly is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. A fascinating look at psychology, loneliness, trauma, and love.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

IVEY, Eowyn. The Snow Child. 400p. Little, Brown. 2012. Tr $24.99. ISBN 978-0-316-17567-8. LC 2011024937.
Adult/High School
–The Alaskan territory seems an unlikely haven for Mabel and Jack. Mabel hopes that the peaceful quiet and beauty of nature will offer solitude and solace. She and Jack have never talked about the stillborn baby, their only child. But the middle-aged couple is utterly unprepared for the challenges of homesteading in the harsh wilderness. In a rare moment of playfulness, Mabel and Jack build a snow girl from winter’s first snowfall. Late that night, Jack ventures outside their cabin and catches a glimpse of what appears to be a lost child, darting through the trees. Ivey weaves a rich story built on a yearning so strong that it suddenly becomes palpable. The child, Faina, is a lithe young huntress, a mercurial girl who comes and goes as she pleases. Mabel looks forward to the rare moments spent in her company, offering food, clothing, and a place to rest. But Faina prefers to be out in the cold on the trail of rabbits, marten, and ermine. Meanwhile, Jack befriends George Benson, a miles-away neighbor. Mabel has never met a woman like his wife, Esther, so practical, outspoken, and unladylike. The Bensons offer camaraderie, advice, and connection to the real world. Mabel accepts their friendship cautiously, but when Jack is horribly injured out in the fields, the Bensons send long term help in the form of their son, Garrett. As time goes on, Faina continues to visit, maturing into a beautiful, enigmatic teen. Garrett becomes enchanted by her, introducing a different kind of love and longing. Ivey’s poetically descriptive blend of period realism and classic folk tale will find an audience with sophisticated teen readers.Paula J. Gallagher, Baltimore County Public Library, MD

LANSDALE, Joe R. Edge of Dark Water. 304p. Mulholland. 2012. Tr $25.99. ISBN 978-0-316-18843-2. LC 2011030557.
Adult/High School
–In depression-era rural east Texas, teenagers Sue Ellen Wilson and Terry Thomas join Sue Ellen’s father and uncle as they fish on a river. Instead of fish, they pull out the body of Sue Ellen and Terry’s friend May Lynn Baxter. May Lynn dreamed of going to Hollywood to become a movie star so Terry and Sue Ellen, along with friend Jinx Smith, decide to make sure that she gets there. It’s well known that the victim’s late brother was a thief and was rumored to have hidden a stash of money. When the friends go to May Lynn’s house to collect her treasured movie magazines (her alcoholic father is nowhere to be found), they find a map, which leads them to the money–and into their adventure. Any hesitation about going on the mission evaporates once they learn how many unscrupulous, violent people are after the money. Joined by Sue Ellen’s alcoholic mother, who wants to escape her abusive husband, they pack up May Lynn (whom they’ve cremated in a conveniently located brick kiln) and set off. Despite the grim circumstances, this book is a fun and enjoyable read. The characters and language are colorful, and the story manages to be funny and suspenseful at the same time. Reminiscent of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Getting Mother’s Body (Random, 2003), it will appeal to fans of character driven, darkly humorous stories.Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, CA

LUTZ, Lisa. Trail of the Spellmans. Bk. 5. 384p. (The Spellman Series). appendix. S & S. 2012. Tr $25. ISBN 978-1-4516-0812-0. LC 2011032509.
Adult/High School
–This addition to the series continues to follow the comic adventures of a family detective agency. While there are references to the previous books, it can stand alone. The cases private detective Izzy Spellman takes on are hardly dark or dangerous. Walter’s anxieties require that he have someone check his home when he’s out, just in case he left the bathtub running or forgot to unplug the toaster. At first when Izzy is called to verify that everything is OK in the apartment, she considers it a simple service for Walter’s peace of mind. Then small signs of an intruder start escalating, and she has to identify who is playing games with Walter’s psyche. Another case involves over-protective parents who want their college-age daughter followed every moment to ensure she isn’t tempted to get into trouble. Finally a wife’s surveillance of her husband makes little sense until Izzy discovers her true motive. As in the other installments, the cases are secondary to the melodrama of Izzy, her parents, her younger sister, and her older brother and his family. Izzy narrates the one-upmanship that characterizes family relations through a wickedly sarcastic and immature point of view, with a sprinkling of wise-cracking footnotes bringing additional humor. Colorful secondary characters contribute to the overall madcap feel. Recommend the entire series to teens who enjoy the light tone and flavor of Janet Evanovich’s “Stephanie Plum” series.Priscille Dando, Robert E. Lee High School, Fairfax County, VA

MCCLEEN, Grace. The Land of Decoration: A Novel. 320p. Holt. 2012. Tr $25. ISBN 978-0-8050-9494-7. LC 2011038132.
Adult/High School
–While 10-year-old Judith McPherson and her widower father John try fervently to hold to their apocalyptic religious beliefs, they are both mercilessly bullied: John by local tough Doug Lewis for being a scab at the town factory, and Judith by Doug’s son Neil. When a pair of freak snow storms and a strict substitute teacher begin to foil Neil’s pranks at school, Judith begins to believe that she has caused these miracles and is herself an Instrument of God. But these miracles only push Neil to escalate his violent bullying after school, and soon John and Judith each must face severe crises of faith. McCleen’s exquisite debut recalls at various times such disparate works as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (Farrar, 2004), Jo Walton’s Among Others (Tor, 2011), and (strangely) Roald Dahl’s Matilda (Viking, 1998), mining those novels’ themes of the paradoxical relationship between power and powerlessness; the richly interconnected worlds of faith and imagination; and the tragic delicacy of the relationships between single parents and their children. These are enormous themes for a first-time novelist, but in McCleen’s deft hands they dovetail naturally into one another, at the same time that they flow effortlessly from the intricately wrought characters of Judith and John. They are also themes that are at the very heart of what it means to grow up, and though some teens uncomfortable with the overt religiosity of this novel may require a push, they will be greatly rewarded by a work that speaks deeply to the rich ambiguity of young adulthood.Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

MCMORRIS, Kristina. Bridge of Scarlet Leaves. 352p. notes. Kensington. 2012. Tr $15. ISBN 978-0-7582-4685-1. LC number unavailable.
Adult/High School
–On the eve of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Maddie Kern, a young white woman, elopes with Takeshi “Lane” Moritomo, her Japanese-American boyfriend. Overnight, their friends become their enemies, and the plans they’ve made evaporate. Despite Lane and his family being evacuated to the Manzanar internment camp, he and Maddie fight to hold on to their marriage. As the separation wears on her, Maddie makes a controversial decision–she joins other non-Japanese people who refuse to be away from their spouses and children and moves into the camp voluntarily. Once the evacuation order is lifted and they can leave Manzanar, life does not get any easier. The choices the couple has are few and difficult but they remain committed to each other. This well-researched book explores life during World War II through a number of lenses. Readers follow Maddie’s brother as he leaves college, enlists in the military, and fights overseas. They see life at Manzanar through the eyes of the internees as well as through Maddie’s experiences. McMorris also explores the fate of both the Japanese-Americans who were stuck in Japan after the bombing, and the Japanese linguists who served in a secret branch of the US army. The informative author’s notes and inclusion of several “Asian Fusion” recipes make the book even richer. Fans of romance, historical fiction, or World War II stories will all find enjoyment here.Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, CA

RICE, Anne. The Wolf Gift. 416p. Knopf. 2012. Tr $25.95. ISBN 978-0-307-59511-9. LC 2011043740.
Adult/High School
–Reuben, dubbed “Sunshine Boy” by his celebrated and wealthy parents, is just out of college and working as a reporter with the San Francisco Observer. On assignment, he travels north to research a famous Mendocino Coast property coming on the market. He is captivated by the house and grounds, and by Marchent Nideck, the striking heiress who shows him her uncle’s estate. That night he is the only survivor of a horrendous attack on the house, during which he is bitten in the face by a savage beast. Nothing can explain his incredible recovery; within two weeks he leaves the hospital unscarred and stronger than ever. Even before his release, Reuben is tortured by the cries of those in harm’s way. Eventually, his need to save them brings about the change and he leaps across city rooftops to rescue a woman from her rapist, an old woman from a younger woman’s torture, and a gay teenage boy from bullies, brutally killing their attackers in the process. When he learns that Marchent has left him the Nideck estate, he escapes there, where the surrounding redwood forest shields him from what has become a national obsession with the “Man Wolf.” What begins as a thriller morphs into an origin story that reveals the mythology of the creature Reuben has become. Wrapped up in the action are musings on human nature, justice, good and evil, the existence of God, and the importance of family. In pondering his own monstrous actions and reconciling his human and wolf natures, Reuben moves beyond his family’s expectations and comes into his own.Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, NY


HARDEN, Blaine. Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. 224p. maps. notes. Viking. 2012. Tr $26.95. ISBN 978-0-670-02332-5. LC 2011019555.
Adult/High School
–Curriculums are filled with atrocities from the past, such as the Holocaust and slavery, but this book brings to light one that is happening in our lifetime and has been happening for 50 years. In North Korea, more than 100,000 people are held in prison labor camps for often the smallest of crimes, or in the case of Shin Dong-hyuk, the crime of being born there to parents who were “given” to each other for good behavior. Raised in starvation conditions (the day he licked spilled soup off the floor is not even the worst attempt to feed himself), Shin had no idea there was another world out there. That is, until he was thrown into prison at age 13 and brutally tortured when his mother and brother tried to escape. There, for the first time, he met someone who had lived on the outside, and a small seed of potential was planted. At age 23, Shin finally made his escape into China, the first known person who was born in the camps to escape them. However, it’s no surprise that in his late ‘20s, he doesn’t always make wise decisions and is unprepared for life on the outside. Harden originally wrote Shin’s story for the Washington Post, and he brings a journalist’s eye to filling in backstory on North Korean policies and conditions. For example, why does South Korea turn a relatively blind eye to these atrocities? The answer may surprise. This is the kind of eye-opening book that motivates change and involvement.Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD

Graphic Novels

ALLISON, Rachel Hope. I’m Not a Plastic Bag. 88p. Archaia. 2012. Tr $19.95. ISBN 978-1-936393-54-1. LC number unavailable.
Adult/High School
–Allison’s beautifully rendered art shows what life–yes, life–is like on the world’s largest “garbage patch,” a floating mass of plastic and other detritus that has been caught by the Pacific’s swirling currents to form a kind of gelatinous island. Using words only as they might appear on pieces of debris, including the I “love” New York logo on a shopping bag, the manuscript-style “please” that would have decorated an old tin sign, and the like, the story moves accessibly through time, giving readers entry at the point where a child’s umbrella, an empty shopping bag, a tire, a bagged goldfish in transit from shop to home, and a businessman’s binder are all caught in the weather to be cast adrift. Readers see them arrive on the “great garbage patch” and then the well-plotted story opens out as readers see how tides and wind reconfigure the mass and each of the pieces in it, how gulls and squid use and even view it, and other aspects of its makeup, from a condom to a bit of rope. But best of all, in Allison’s imaginative tale, is that the garbage patch itself is expressive, its flotsam forming gesturing arms, tires positioning themselves as eyes, and those worded signs so often appearing in its innocently smiling “mouth”: “Welcome,” “Playground,” and the binder’s front tag, “Hello, my name is…” Science and fantasy are perfectly entwined in this narrative, offering readers a way to imagine feelings and values beyond their own.Francisca Goldsmith, Infopeople Project, CA

GAULD, Tom. Goliath. 96p. Drawn & Quarterly. 2012. Tr $19.95. ISBN 978-1-77046-065-2. LC number unavailable.
Adult/High School
–Gauld, who frequently draws for The New Yorker and The Guardian, brings his simple but evocative style to a retelling of the Biblical story from the giant’s point of view. In this version, the Philistine army is a bureaucratic organization and Goliath is a content administrator, a gentle soul with no love of bear fighting or boasting. In simple line cartoons, burnished with an era-appropriate bronze, readers accompany him to a mystifying meeting with the king and watch his befuddlement as he is provided with a nine-year-old shield bearer and a large but rather haphazardly built coat of armor. Then there is the 40 days’ wait for an answer from the enemy to the challenge Goliath reads aloud daily. And, in the end, poor Goliath–as readers’ sympathies have come to lie with him not as opposed to the Israelites but as opposed to his fellow Philistines–is killed. Gauld’s panels offer wonderful portraits of Goliath’s final six weeks or so of life, including the unchanging rock piles in the desert and the brightness of the moon against a black sky. Quick to read but easy to consider and reconsider, the humor and pathos in Goliath’s worldview requires longer thought than reading time. An eminently discussable graphic novel.Francisca Goldsmith, Infopeople Project, CA

HERMANN. Afrika. tr. from French by Jemiah Jefferson. 56p. Dark Horse. 2012. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-1-59582-844-6. LC number unavailable.
Adult/High School
–Hermann’s short story provides a front row seat on the nexus between contemporary international politics in Africa, the volatile conditions of a wildlife preserve, and interpersonal relationships. In large, lushly painted panels, the jungle, the natural interactions of large mammals, and the fear-mongering behaviors of political leaders and of seemingly apolitical men all become real. Readers’ viewpoint is largely focused on a white preserve keeper, Ferrer, a man willing to bend to few social graces both in his professional and private life. When a female reporter descends on his home and requests a “tour” of his purview, his eventual permission is grudging. Meanwhile, political leadership backing the “trade” profits that can be realized by poachers set out to rid themselves of Ferrer’s interference. While the ranger and the journalist escape into the jungle and toward another country, his wife is sweet talked into giving up hope of his return and leaves the country to pursue the material world available to her new lover in Europe. Violence, sexual expression, and a simplification of political ends are all appropriate here, and Hermann depicts them with art but not by neglecting the ugly plot and visual details that make his slice-of-life story so compelling.Francisca Goldsmith, Infopeople Project, CA