You may have noticed that I am reading and reviewing the work of more than my share of debut authors this year. This is partly because I was asked to publish an interview with a debut author every other month in the SLJ Teen newsletter, in conjunction with a review on this blog. In case you missed them — so far we have published interviews with Téa Obreht (author of The Tiger’s Wife) and Conor Grennan (author of Little Princes). The next interview will appear in the June 15th newsletter.
Now for Touch. I cannot lie, I completely fell under the spell of Alexi Zentner’s debut novel. It is difficult to be objective when a novel impresses to such an extent, and I won’t guarantee that Touch has wide teen appeal. But after a lot of thought and examination, I do believe it should be recommended to young adults who will enjoy it for the elements I list in the review.
This book centers on a 40-year old man looking back on a mystery from his youth. Touch could have come across as a group of short stories connected by his life musings, but Zentner’s construction is much more accomplished than that. As an adult, I enjoyed everything about this novel, but teen readers may be put off by the connective musings. It helps that the opening pages start right up with the story of the narrator’s grandfather at age 16. Both its strong sense of place and its larger-than-life characters make this novel immediately engaging. And did I mention the otherworldly creatures??
Interesting to note that Zentner won the O. Henry Award in 2008, for short story writing. Also, both Alexi Zentner and Téa Obreht live in Ithaca, New York. Is there something in the water?
Adult/High School–Jeannot arrives in the unspoiled north Canada woods at 16, having walked clear across the continent. After a disembodied voice speaks his name, his dog refuses to move from the spot, so he stays to pan the river for gold. His mediocre success attracts enough prospectors to establish the town of Sawgamet, and Jeannot builds a successful logging business. Decades later, his grandson Stephen, the narrator of Touch, returns home to Sawgamet to take over the local parish and sit with his mother during her last days. He relates stories about his grandfather and father and the women they loved, stories of their young adult years that have been told again and again, interspersed with memories of his own childhood. Some of the stories come across as tall tales; Stephen has difficulty “separating the myth from the reality.” Some are passionate, usually tragic, love stories. All serve to illuminate the central mystery of the novel: why Jeannot left Sawgamut as a young man and why he returned 30 years later, when Stephen was a boy. Although the stories take place in the past, they are vivid and thrilling, interspersed with sudden chilling moments of horror. Otherworldly creatures lurk in the woods and in the river, though they are not to be outdone by fire, blizzards, or the dangers of floating logs down the rapid river. Zentner’s flawless, fluid execution allows central moments of life, death, and love to layer into a haunting accumulation. Teens will be attracted to the adventure, passion, tragedy, horror, mystery, and the tales of men who live life to the fullest.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City