June 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

All the (Psychological) Feels | Adult Books 4 Teens

Thanks to the media, I’ve had a little too much access to thoughts and feelings lately, but, like other readers, I still need to tap into my emotions in order to become vested in a good book. The market shows that I’m not alone—scores of titles labeled as psychological fiction are making the best sellers lists. Readers want more than just action—they crave inner thoughts and intense characterizations. In this column, we’ll take a look at four novels and two nonfiction works that all have something in common—deep emotions.

First is a debut novel that received a huge advance push last year—Lindsey Lee Johnson’s The Most Dangerous Place on Earth. Many students would argue that, yes, school is the most dangerous place in their lives. At Mill Valley Middle School, bullying leads to a ridiculed student committing suicide. Compared to Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, this psychological novel is complex, with each chapter following the point of view of a different student or teacher.

Emotional trauma is the catalyst in Alice Hoffman’s Faithful, too. Shelby feels guilty for surviving a car crash that left her best friend in a coma. Hoffman knows how to write for teens—Green Angel and Green Witch were on YALSA book lists, and this column has covered her books before (see The Museum of Extraordinary Things). In my opinion, this is her best yet; it’s beautiful to read how Shelby’s darkness turns into love and acceptance.

Next up is another gorgeous novel, which might be too dense for some young adults, but fans of Elizabeth Kostova know what to expect if they read her debut, The Historian. In The Shadow Land, a young teacher is dropped off at the wrong hotel in Bulgaria and accidentally acquires a suitcase from a stranger. When she finds ashes in a box, she begins a long (477-page!) journey to find the deceased man’s family. The unfamiliar Communist takeover of Bulgaria will be new to most readers, but if the complexity of the past is too difficult, try giving them a pop fiction psychological novel from the British Isles instead. J.P. Delaney’s The Girl Before has already been published in multiple countries, and Universal acquired the movie rights (Ron Howard is slated to direct). You might as well read it because you’ll be hearing about it for months! Through a narrative told in alternating viewpoints, readers learn about Jane, who moves into a minimalist London flat after a traumatic event, and Emma, the previous tenant, who died mysteriously. Anytime that a house almost becomes a character in a novel, I think of Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is for Witching, but Delaney’s novel is much more mainstream.

Speaking of mainstream, is casual sex common on college campuses? Lisa Wade’s American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus may surprise you. Like Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, this is a must-have for libraries that serve teens, if only to prepare new adults as they transition away from home. The psychological effects from hooking up last long into their adult years, affecting their self-esteem and relationships.

And, finally, we address one of the ultimate psychological experiences: war. Michael Anthony’s Civilianized: A Young Veteran’s Memoir chronicles his return home from Iraq. Dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, he’s angry, often intoxicated, and suicidal, but he finds his hope through writing. If you’re reading this column, you might be like me and find hope through reading. I know it’s how I create a quiet time in my noisy world, even if what I’m reading is an emotional roller coaster like the books mentioned in this column.


girlbefore2DELANEY, JP. The Girl Before. 352p. Ballantine. Jan. 2017. Tr $27. ISBN 9780425285046.

Emma and Jane have a lot in common; they even look alike. Each has been through a traumatic experience and needs to move into a new London apartment, but neither has much money. They both see a gorgeous, glamorous (but minimalist) flat on Folgate Street that is, miraculously, within budget—assuming that the renter meets the owner/architect’s strict requirements: no alterations, no rugs or carpets, no pictures, no potted plants, no throw pillows, and about 200 other stipulations. The flat should be experienced as-is and, in fact, is meant to transform the occupant rather than the other way around. But there’s something very compelling about the apartment. When Jane moves in, she learns that Emma was the previous resident—and that she died there. Told in chapters that alternate between Emma’s and Jane’s stories, the book ratchets up the tension page by page, as Jane can’t resist looking into Emma’s life and death. By the end, readers will have no idea whom to believe or how far any of the characters will go to get what they want. VERDICT Teens who gobbled up Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl will be clamoring for this page-turning psychological thriller, which is already being made into a movie by Ron Howard.–Sarah Flowers, formerly at Santa Clara County Public Library, CA

hoffmanHOFFMAN, Alice. Faithful. 272p. ebook available. S. & S. Nov. 2016. Tr $26. ISBN 978147679920.

When Shelby and her best friend, Helene, are in a car accident, Shelby is the lucky one. Or so everyone tells her since Helene is now in a coma. Shelby’s guilt becomes all-encompassing, and she spends years in a dark place, wanting to self-harm and unable to leave her parents’ basement. It’s a very slow process, but eventually, Shelby heals enough to try a new life in New York City with a boy from high school. Caught in a state of arrested development because of her guilt and low self-esteem, Shelby ultimately learns to forgive herself and love again. Teens will love Shelby—her angst will feel real and honest, while her journey to absolve herself is understandable and sincere. Hoffman writes coming-of-age novels well, and her inclusion of a little bit of magic (or miracle, if you’re a believer) fits the urban setting and Shelby’s neuroses perfectly. While a tale of redemption, this slim title also tackles family relationships, first jobs, first loves, first apartments, and breakups. Readers who push through the sad opening chapters will cheer for Shelby as she rescues abused dogs and finds herself. VERDICT For Hoffman’s fans as well as those who enjoy redemptive stories.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

MostdangJOHNSON, Lindsay Lee. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth. 268p. Random. Jan. 2017. Tr $27. ISBN 9780812997279.

In every class, there is one kid who seems to attract bullies. At Mill Valley Middle School, that kid is eighth grader Tristan Bloch. Day after day, he eats lunch in the guidance counselor’s office, wearing the same yellow sweatpants. Fellow classmate Callie absentmindedly accepts an origami bird from Tristan, one of the dozens that he obsessively folds each day. But, to Callie’s shock, Tristan responds a few days later by sending her an eloquent love letter. Callie shares the letter with her BFF, Abigail, who in turn shows it to popular jock Ryan. On Facebook, Ryan and some of his buddies start deriding Tristan, with Abigail and other classmates piling on. Just before the end of eighth grade, Tristan kills himself. Readers catch up with these same kids for their junior and senior years of high school. The memory of Tristan seems to have faded, but his death has clearly left its mark. The rest of the book is told from the third-person perspectives of various students and teachers, revealing their suppressed grief and guilt. Each new protagonist offers such a unique point of view that the title reads like connected short stories. Despite the gritty, realistic theme, there is plenty of sly wit, such as when junior David Chu struggles with the strategies for SAT success. (“Pronouns: Mr. Ellison does not like He. He does not like You.”) Debut novelist Johnson creates full-bodied characters who are impulsive, irrational, and never beyond redemption. She submerges readers in a complex tale told with beautiful prose and raw emotion, focusing on a danger that adolescents know too well—the hubris of youth. VERDICT For those who appreciate dark, intense reads.–Diane Colson, City College, Gainesville, FL

ShadowKOSTOVA, Elizabeth. The Shadow Land. 496p. Ballantine. Apr. 2017. Tr $28. ISBN 9780345527868.

Alexandra, 26, is headed to her new job teaching English in Bulgaria when, exhausted from hours of traveling and confused at having been dropped off at the wrong hotel, she reaches out to help an elderly woman get into a cab. As the car pulls away, Alexandra hails a taxi to take her to her hostel but discovers that she has accidentally picked up the old woman’s satchel, which contains a beautiful box labeled with the name Stoyan Lazarov and filled with ashes. This is the story of her hunt to track down Stoyan Lazarov’s family and return his remains to them. After checking in with the local police, Alexandra and her cab driver, Bobby, set off to locate the urn’s owner. Following a slim trail of clues, they learn that the Communist takeover of Bulgaria came with an iron fist that enslaved thousands of suspected resistors, including the gentle Stoyan Lazarov. The more clues they uncover, the more the past catches up with them, until they, too, become a part of the mystery and find themselves in grave danger. This novel brings a horrific period of history to life, encapsulated in a mystery and stoked by Alexandra’s determination to return Stoyan Lazarov to his family regardless of the danger. Interweaving tales juxtapose the past with the present as the mystery unfolds VERDICT Those who enjoy a deep dive into the complicated lives of people both historical and contemporary will love this book.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA


CivANTHONY, Michael. Civilianized: A Young Veteran’s Memoir. 192p. Zest. Dec. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781936976881.

Teens who have grown up witnessing America’s involvement in wars and who may know veterans who experienced warfare firsthand will be drawn to this raw, unsentimental memoir. Upon returning home, Anthony—who spent the previous year in Iraq assisting doctors during surgery in a combat support hospital—realizes that he misses the adrenaline rushes, sense of purpose, and camaraderie. Thinking about misguided politics invokes a rage in the 21-year-old that is channeled by putting himself in dangerous situations. But far worse is the feeling of numbness. Alcohol and drug abuse lead to suicidal thoughts and the resolution that if he doesn’t recover in three months, he will kill himself. Believing that he has nothing to lose, Anthony signs up for a course on learning how to attract women. The narration has moments of levity as the instructor, whom Anthony describes as an “ape with ADD,” guides a group of misfits in ridiculous exercises. Anthony has ups and downs as he copes with post-traumatic stress disorder and addictions during the allotted three months. Ultimately, his salvation comes through writing about the truths of his deployment as well as through sobriety and a romantic relationship. The author’s message (that it’s not necessarily the horrors of war that break a soldier— it’s coming home) will resonate with audiences of all ages. VERDICT This fast, immersive work will especially appeal to reluctant readers for its grittiness and humor.–Sherry Mills, Hazelwood East High School, St. Louis

americanWADE, Lisa. American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus. 288p. ebook available. index. notes. Norton. Jan. 2017. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9780393285093.

The transition from high school senior to college freshman signifies far more than academic accomplishment. Moving from the constraints of the teen years to the seemingly unbounded freedom of de facto adulthood can be a precipitous adjustment. This shift is perhaps most evident in the increased opportunities for sex or, more specifically, within the casual sexual encounter known as the hookup. As Wade describes, hookup culture permeates recreational activities at campuses across the country. Citing examples from doctoral dissertations, popular magazine articles, and the journals of her students, the author explores the rules and rituals of hookups as well as the emotional impact these encounters may carry for participants. For example, young people often attempt to hook up with someone considered “hot,” or risk ridicule from friends, and pretend that the hookup never happened when seeing their sex partner the next time. Wade notes that participants are mostly white, heterosexual, and from money, although the predominance of hookup culture affects nearly all students. Teens will probably be less shocked than adults by the accounts of emotionless sex, since these activities frequently begin in high school. But the deeper, hidden aspects of the experience—the way it deliberately avoids committed relationships and focuses narrowly on sexual desirability—are important insights for adolescents as they embark on their own college adventures. VERDICT College-bound young adults will be better prepared to navigate hookup culture on their own terms after reading this informative, empathetic account.–Diane Colson, City College, Gainesville, FL


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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.



  1. The Girl Before cover image here isn’t from the Delaney book. Just a heads up!