April 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Tying Up Loose Ends | Adult Books 4 Teens

After a few months unexpected but unavoidable absence, we’re back! We’ve missed all of our dear readers and the opportunity to introduce you to wonderful adult books for teens. So for this first column of the new (hopefully much better) year, we’d like to catch you up on the highlights of the 2016 books that we missed in the last quarter of the year—which is another way of saying that there’s not nearly as much connection among the books in this column as usual.

Still, by pure coincidence, four of the five novels reviewed below are historical fiction, adding even more titles to the list we started in our last column.

Starting with the most recent history: Scott Stambach’s The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko treats the life of a teenager affected by the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. Stambach presents the novel as if it’s Ivan’s diary and has labeled himself its “editor”—a very old and seemingly worn-out trick but one that gives extra life to this extraordinarily sensitive portrayal of adolescence. As a Cold War child who remembers Chernobyl, I find it hard to realize that this may seem like ancient history to most teens, but that unfamiliarity makes this novel all the more important for young people today, especially in the light of more recent near misses such as the Fukushima accident in Japan.

Moving back to the 1960s (and now ancient history to me), Caroline Leavitt’s Cruel Beautiful World focuses on the lives of three women in 1969—16-year-old Lucy, her older sister Charlotte, and their mother, Iris. Lucy is seduced by her English teacher, and they run off together to hide in a secluded farmhouse, leaving Charlotte and Iris to deal with the fallout, along with their own lives and struggles. This is a deeply introspective coming-of-age story that gives priority to the needs, desires, and devastations of women.

Yesternight is a historical novel set in Oregon in the 1920s, but since it is by Cat Winters, there’s also something creepy and paranormal going on. Like Cruel Beautiful World, Winters’s latest centers on the lives and psychology of women and girls, in this case a seven-year-old, Janie, and her school psychologist, Alice. Janie believes that she is the reincarnation of a woman who drowned, and Alice is dealing with her own traumatic past and grappling with the sexism that comes along with working in a predominantly male profession. Mystery, the supernatural, well-crafted characters, and much more make this a strong recommendation for young adults.

Our final historical novel takes us back to Reconstruction-era Texas. Pauline Jiles’s News of the World was a finalist for last year’s National Book Award, and our reviewer compares it to Kent Meyers’s Alex Award winner The Work of Wolves—both pretty good recommendations for fans of literary fiction. The book follows a Civil War captain who agrees to escort a 10-year-old girl across Texas to reunite with her family. Westerns can be a hard-sell for teens, but the shades of True Grit—the relationship between a grizzled Civil War vet and a young girl, and the Reconstruction Texas setting—may appeal to teens who have seen the Coen brothers’ recent adaptation of that novel.

Those four novels ended up having some strong similarities after all, but I promise that the last two books under review are as different as can be. First up is a series-starting science fiction title. Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight is set in a world with three suns, where true night is rare. Kristoff’s protagonist is Mia, a 16-year-old out for vengeance for the murder of her father and the imprisonment of her mother and brother. To achieve her goal, she trains as an assassin for an organization called the Red Church. Similarities to several YA series spring to mind—“The Hunger Games,” “The Darkest Minds,” and many works by Kiersten White—so this should be a supremely easy sell for sci-fi fans.

Finally, on a completely different note, there’s Rabia Chaudry’s Adnan’s Story. Adnan, of course, is Adnan Syed, whose trial for the murder of Hae Min Lee became a national sensation with the podcast Serial. Chaudry is a lawyer whose brother was a good friend of Syed’s, so she is able to provide an insider’s account of the trial, the national attention brought to the case by Serial, and the newest developments, including the granting of a new trial in June 2016. While the podcast and the book are understandably more interested in the mystery of Syed’s innocence or guilt than in the very real truth of the violations of his constitutional rights, this is nevertheless essential reading for anyone interested in the case.


newsJILES, Paulette. News of the World. 224p. Morrow. Apr. 2016. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9780062409201.

Kidd, a retired Civil War captain, didn’t have babysitting on his mind when he drifted into town, but he ends up escorting a 10-year-old to her family for a $50 gold piece. Johanna was captured by the Kiowa after her German immigrant parents were attacked and killed, and now the unlikely duo must travel through rough Texas country together. Capt. Kidd raised money by reading newspapers to townspeople (hence the title) and tries to “civilize” Johanna, all while the two of them fight off raiders and thieves of all types. As the journey continues, the pair become closer, and when they finally arrive in San Antonio, Capt. Kidd must make the hardest decision of his life. A National Book Award finalist for fiction, this slim Western novel set in crooked Reconstruction Texas is simultaneously brief and expansive. The author is a poet, and the book, with its carefully turned phrases, is reminiscent of Kent Myers’s Alex Award–winning The Work of Wolves. VERDICT The feel-good ending will bring tears to the hardest of readers, and the overall tone will speak to teens who want a short, uplifting read.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

, Jay. Nevernight. 448p. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne. Aug. 2016. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9781250073020.

At the age of 10, Mia Corvere was forced to watch as her father was hanged from the city scaffold, her mother and baby brother were marched off to prison, and her precious cat’s neck was broken by the man who was planning to kill her. Mia has wanted nothing but vengeance from that day forward, and now she is finally ready to train as an elite assassin for the Red Church. Her unique affinity with the shadow world gives her an edge. But competition is fierce, only a small number are chosen, and notwithstanding her deadly skills, Mia is not the sociopath that many of her fellow students seem to be. Murder, she believes, should be deserved. Kristoff has created a medieval-style world lit by three suns, where true night is a rare occurrence, magic is shunned as evil, and religion is derived from belief in a family of gods whose love has turned to hate. The first in a new series, this violent, nonstop science fiction/horror story is an intense read from start to finish. It’s hard to imagine that Kristoff didn’t intend this as a young adult book, but a few graphic consensual sex scenes explain the adult designation. VERDICT Older high school and college fans of speculative fiction will appreciate this addictive title.–Cary Frostick, formerly at Mary Riley Styles Public Library, Falls Church, VA

cruelbeautifulworldLEAVITT, Caroline. Cruel Beautiful World. 368p. Algonquin. Oct. 2016. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781616203634.

Sixteen-year-old Lucy is drifting through her sophomore year of high school when her handsome English teacher takes an interest in her writing—and then in her. After Lucy and her teacher run off together, the teen’s older sister, Charlotte, is devastated, unsure whether to pursue her college plans or stay with their adoptive mother, Iris, in the house Lucy left behind. It’s 1969, a time when teenage girls were fleeing their conventional lives in search of peace and love. But Lucy’s idyllic escape leads only to a lonely farmhouse where her older lover intends to keep her hidden until she turns 18. Lucy’s narrative alternates with those of Charlotte and Iris, each of them grappling with sexuality, personal accomplishment, and the need to belong. Their individual tales are surprising, revealing the secret depths of each woman’s interior life as well as characters’ fledgling attempts to truly know one another. Leavitt (Is This Tomorrow; Girls in Trouble) delivers another deeply introspective coming-of-age tale. VERDICT For readers hooked on novels set in the 1960s.–Diane Colson, City College, Gainesville, FL

invisibleSTAMBACH, Scott. The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko. 336p. St. Martin’s. Aug. 2016. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9781250081865.

The story of 17-year-old Ivan Isaenko’s tragic existence is revealed through an abandoned notebook. He was born with severe disabilities as a result of the Chernobyl disaster and uses a wheelchair. Abandoned by his parents at birth, Ivan has lived his entire life at the dismal Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus, where meals consist of watered-down cabbage soup. Human contact is limited to the nursing staff and other “mutant” patients in the hospital. Despite his limited physical abilities and small world, Ivan is extremely bright and imaginative. He spends his days observing those around him, reading, and spying on the hospital staff. The protagonist’s inner voice and crafty dealings with the hospital staff bring levity to the narrative—particularly when he pretends to slip into a comalike sleep so that he can better eavesdrop. Ivan is like any other young adult, and he longs for a connection to a mother he never knew. He falls in love with a clever leukemia patient named Polina, a bittersweet experience, and his inevitable heartache will resonate with readers. Many teens will appreciate the humor and the realistic interactions between Ivan and Polina. Unlike many of the characters in YA novels, who appear confident and wise beyond their years, these adolescents are awkward and self-conscious until they develop a comfortable rapport. VERDICT Highly recommended. Though the setting may be unfamiliar to readers, teens will be charmed by this most unusual protagonist who remains hopeful despite his bleak situation.–Sherry J. Mills, Hazelwood East High School, St. Louis

yesternightWINTERS, Cat. Yesternight. 400p. William Morrow. Oct. 2016. pap. $15.99. ISBN 9780062440860.

This work of historical fiction set in the 1920s centers on Alice Lind, who became a school psychologist to understand her own childhood nightmares and sporadic violent behavior. When Alice is sent to the wild coast of Oregon to help young Janie, a seven-year-old who believes she was once an adult woman who drowned, Alice’s own past haunts her, and she becomes convinced that reincarnation is real. There are too many coincidences for her to accept that Janie is just a genius mathematician. A brief dalliance with Janie’s divorced father complicates matters—is Alice really a “loose” woman with no morals, like her ex-boyfriends say? Or is she a professional woman ahead of her time? Teens who have read Winters’s Morris Award finalist In the Shadow of Blackbirds will find the hints of the paranormal in this novel familiar. At times, Alice seems more like a teenager in modern times than an adult woman in the 1920s, but her investigation into the two incidents of possible reincarnation will fascinate readers. The Oregon, Nebraska, and Kansas rural settings are enthralling, as are the problems Alice encounters as a psychologist in a male-dominated field. VERDICT Perfect for teens wanting mystery, historical fiction, and some of the unexplainable.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon IL


adansstoryCHAUDRY, Rabia. Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial. 416p. illus. index. St. Martin’s. Aug. 2016. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9781250087102.

Chaudry was a law student when her younger brother’s good friend Adnan Syed was arrested for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Back in 2000, the case made local headlines, but nothing could be compared to the national attention it attracted when Sarah Koenig decided to produce the podcast Serial for This American Life in 2013. Thanks to the national publicity of Serial, the following podcast Undisclosed, and the hours of work by Chaudry and other prominent lawyers and friends, Syed was granted a new trial in June 2016. Chaudry, with Syed’s approval, details even more mistakes and travesties of the murder investigation and the trial. As recently as August 2016, controversies over Syed’s alibi have been in the news, and many high school students listen to the podcast in class. While the book is a bit clunky toward the end, readers will still want to acquire all the facts to decide for themselves if Syed is guilty or innocent. VERDICT Fans of Serial will eagerly read more about the case, and true crime enthusiasts will download the podcast after reading this title.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL


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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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  1. Very glad you’re back! I depend on you to point the way to good books!