March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Through a Genre, Darkly | Adult Books 4 Teens

Soon after reading Sarah’s first column about reviewing more potential Alex Award winners, I picked up Kate Tempest’s debut novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses, which immediately became my first contender of the year for the Alex. This is a phenomenal work on every level. As Tempest explains in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, “It began as an idea for a story that became the plot of an album, that turned back into the narrative for the novel.” That album, Everybody Down, was a critical hit in 2014 and told the story of four down-and-out Londoners, a broken drug deal, a love triangle, and more. The title of each song on the record is now a chapter title in this book, which fleshes out the story while making a critical change: switching the gender of the main character from male to female. The novel is Tempest’s first, but because of its long gestation (she says in the interview linked above that she’s been working on the plot for three years), this first attempt at writing rap form feels so lived-in that it is hard to believe it is a debut. And the language is simply exquisite, as should be expected from Tempest’s poetry, which we reviewed here. I’m somewhat in awe of Tempest’s myriad talents, and I’ll probably be talking about this novel all year long, so do yourself a favor and pick up a copy so we can all sing its praises together.

To go along with Tempest’s novel, we have four more grim, realistic stories (two of which are literally real, since they are nonfiction). The novels take a look at the darkness within their protagonists, while the nonfiction narratives deeply examine the ways dark deeds affect the victims. Our reviewer’s description of Minette Walters’s The Cellar reminds me of one of our favorite books of last year, Shannon Kirk’s Method 15/33. In both novels, a female protagonist is held against her will, only to turn the tables on her captors through cold, calculated planning. The difference is that while Method 15/33 reads like a thriller, The Cellar is darker and more realistic, with its younger protagonist, detailed African setting, and much longer captivity.

Like The Cellar, Nayomi Munaweera’s What Lies Between Us begins with a young woman being uprooted from her childhood home. At first, the two titles seem anything but similar: in this book set in the 1980s, a young woman is sent to the United States and gets to live life as a typical American teenager. But then the darkness settles in. Any time I see a novel compared to Ellen Hopkins’s work, I know two things: it has instant teen appeal and it’s going to be very depressing. This novel gets that deserved comparison for its treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, cutting, sexual abuse, and much more.

The title of David Kushner’s nonfiction Alligator Candy refers to a toy young Kushner asked his brother Jon to buy for him at the 7-Eleven on the day Jon disappeared. The memoir tracks Kushner’s attempts to grapple with Jon’s disappearance and murder, from the author’s perspective as a very young child, and later as a teenager, when he began to look into what really happened to Jon. This is a powerful book about the real-life effects of the kinds of horrors described in the novels above.

Meanwhile, Skip Hollandsworth’s The Midnight Assassin tells the story of America’s first documented serial killer. Because the unknown killer began with black servants, his crimes went ignored for far too long, but once he started preying on white women, he sent the city of Austin into panic. This incredible account of a little-known piece of American history is also a model of excellent nonfiction writing: thoroughly researched and footnoted, this is a great example for teens working on their own research assignments.


MunaweeraMUNAWEERA, Nayomi. What Lies Between Us. 320p. St. Martin’s. Feb. 2016. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9781250043948.

Ganga’s childhood is turned upside down by the unexpected death of her father. She and her mother must take advantage of her aunt’s hospitality in America—a huge lifestyle change from her father’s ancestral home in Sri Lanka. Ganga’s relationship with her mother has always been tumultuous, and it doesn’t improve when the girl becomes a typical 1980s American teenager. Once in college, Ganga finally finds love, acceptance, and a relationship, but the young couple’s intimacy is tested by an unexpected pregnancy. Ganga isn’t sure she can be a good mother—she has too many secrets and is terrified that the cycle will be repeated with her own daughter. The lush and sultry Sri Lankan setting provides a fitting atmosphere for the beginning of this dark and tense novel. From the outset, readers know that Ganga has done something horrible to her child, and the sense of foreboding grows throughout the narrative. While the latter part of the novel is written from Ganga’s point of view as a new wife and mother, teens will still want to continue reading to find out what happened to the young child and what caused the violence. VERDICT Subtle prose, sexual abuse, estranged relationships, post-traumatic stress disorder, cutting, filicide—give to teens who appreciate Ellen Hopkins’s Identical or the classic Medea.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

BricksredstarTEMPEST, Kate. The Bricks That Built the Houses. 416p. Bloomsbury USA. May. 2016. Tr $26. ISBN 9781620409015.

Rapper, performance artist, and poet Tempest has taken the main plot lines contained in her critically acclaimed hip-hop album Everybody Down and expanded them into this spectacularly moving debut novel. The work centers on two pairs of 20-somethings in modern London—a drug dealer named Harry and her best friend and “tough” Leon; and an erotic masseuse and dancer named Becky and her overprotective boyfriend Pete. As Tempest follows these four young people trying to find their place in the gritty underbelly of London and introduces readers to their friends and families, it becomes apparent that they are connected in seemingly preposterously coincidental ways. But Tempest justifies these coincidences. She has an ostensibly compulsive need to toss off new stories and characters: nearly every time readers meet a character, Tempest discusses their tangential backstories and family histories. Each tangent works as a perfect miniature short story, giving weight to the way they later connect back to the main plot. More importantly, the structure of the novel makes the coincidental nature of the plot necessary. The two overarching themes are the characters’ conflicting relationships with work and family—nearly every character comes from a broken home, and all work problematic jobs while secretly longing for middlebrow successes, such as owning a café. When it becomes clear that these characters and the plot are tangled together specifically by familial and business connections, the themes of the novel blossom into deeply felt catharses. VERDICT Fans of Margo Lanagan and Adam Rapp will be entranced by Tempest’s brutally modern prose and her tender understanding of young people coming of age in an unforgiving world.–Mark Flowers, Rio Vista, Library, CA

CellarWALTERS, Minette. The Cellar. 192p.  Grove Atlantic/Mysterious. Feb. 2016. Tr $24. ISBN 9780802124517.

Stolen from her home in Africa six years earlier, 14-year-old Muna lives as a slave to Ebuka, Yetunde, and their two boys. When she is not cleaning or tending to the family, she is hidden in the cellar, her one refuge. Daily beatings and berating by Yetunde leave her silent and wary. And even the cellar provides no real safety, for she is raped regularly by Ebuka. But when the younger boy goes missing, things change for Muna. Brought up from the cellar and into her own room, given new clothes, and disguised as the family’s mentally deficient daughter, Muna relishes her new position as the police question her and the family. Weeks go by, but the boy’s disappearance remains unsolved. Throughout the questioning, it becomes apparent that not only is Muna not mentally deficient but she is intelligent, has learned English, and is determined to create a life for herself, by using those who have cruelly taken advantage of her. Not knowing whom to trust and unaware of the wider world, Muna works step by patient step, exacting revenge upon this family. One by one, family members begin to realize that Muna has more power than they thought possible. By the end, readers will be pondering: Are killers born, or are they created? VERDICT Offer to mature teens who can handle the dark side of the human condition.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA



MidnightredstarHOLLANDSWORTH, Skip. The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer. 336p. bibliog. ebook available. notes. photos. bibliog. index. Holt. Apr. 2016. Tr $30. ISBN 9780805097672.

Before Jack the Ripper mutilated prostitutes in the dark corners of London in the late 19th-century, Austin was besieged by a vicious killer whose victims were African American servants. He cut up women with an axe to the head and left them bloody in their beds. Husbands of the first three victims were arrested in succession, even though they had alibis and swore their innocence. Racism delayed justice for a year. Black men became so terrified of the police that they rubbed their feet and legs with asafoetida, a natural paste slaves had used when running away from their masters to throw off bloodhounds. Nicknamed “the midnight assassin,” the murderer left an eyewitness, a nine-year-old boy who thought the man who killed his mother—the first victim—was white, but no one listened. Then on New Year’s Eve, in 1885, two prominent white women were hacked to death within an hour of each other, and a wider search was undertaken. This is a painstakingly researched book written by a Texas native that examines prejudices, which still keep justice at bay. VERDICT  This work introduces students to a grisly piece of American history and models footnote and bibliographic research. A must-have.– Georgia Christgau, Middle College High School, Long Island City, NY

AlligatorKUSHNER, David. Alligator Candy: A Memoir. 256p. S. & S. Mar. 2016. Tr $26. ISBN 9781451682533.

On October 28, 1973, 11-year-old Jonathan Kushner hopped on his bike and took off for the 7-Eleven. Jon’s four-year-old brother, David, stood on the sidewalk and watched him peddle away. It’s a small moment that might have been lost in years of subsequent moments, except that this was the last time that David saw Jon alive. Over the years, the questions that haunt him stem from this moment: Could David have changed Jon’s mind? If David hadn’t begged his brother to buy him a toy, would Jon have gone? Readers experience the sequence of events through the perspective of David as a child: Jon’s bike found off the path, Jon’s body in the trunk of a car, Jon’s funeral. Kids at school said that the killers had pickled Jon’s body and put it in a jar. David’s father said that David was inside when Jon left and could not have been the last one to see him. What really happened? At 13, David started furtively hunting through the library’s microfilmed newspaper articles, searching for information about Jon’s death. Teens will relate both to David’s need to uncover the truth and his desire to protect his parents from what he discovers. The crime is always presented from David’s intensely personal perspective, and his sense of horror is excruciatingly amplified as he realizes that his parents have known the disturbing details all along. More than 40 years later, Kushner, now an acclaimed author and journalist, is ready to tell the story. VERDICT Teens looking for graphic details would do better with titles such as Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. But those seeking to understand how life continues after a grave loss will love Kushner’s eloquent words and personal viewpoint.–Diane Colson, Gainesville City College, FL

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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