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Adult Books 4 Teens
Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

Weekly Reviews: Identity

As promised, we have our full complement of reviews for the week, all in one omnibus post.  These week’s books are all about identity.  In our first book, Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan, Cahalan recounts her harrowing experience of grappling with a rare brain disease called autoimmune encephalitis, which brought on hallucinations, paranoia, and almost sent her into a coma.  In the book trailer (which you can see here) Cahalan talks about how she has almost no memory of the month she spent in the hospital, so that not only did her illness completely change her personality, but the process of writing the book was a process of uncovering who she had been during that time, and who she had become since recovering.

In Kate Morton’s new novel, The Secret Keeper, meanwhile,  Laurel, who has kept a horrible secret about her mother for over 50 years, at long last sets out to discover the truth about who her mother is, and how she could have committed a terrible crime.  Finally, Tim Crothers’s The Queen of Katwe recounts the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a young girl from a poor village in Uganda, and a missionary named Robert Katende.  Phiona’s encounter with Katende led her to both new levels of religious faith and a passion for chess which eventually led her to national and international championships.

As we discussed yesterday, there is no one easy answer to what makes a book have teen appeal, but certainly questions of identity and personal discovery are among the most potent that teens encounter.  As different as these three books are, they all share a profound interest in how we determine who we are and how we relate to the people around us, and as such all three should be greatly interesting to teens.

CAHALAN, Susannah. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. 288p. Free Pr. 2012. Tr $25. ISBN 9781451621372.

Adult/High School–In 2008 Cahalan was a successful 24-year-old reporter at the New York Post when she began to behave out of character. Paranoia, forgetfulness, and flu-like illness progressed to numbness in her hands and feet to terrifying seizures, hallucinations, and blackouts. Within days she checked into the hospital with a diagnosis of postictal psychosis. Normally cheerful and cooperative, Cahalan fought the nurses and made multiple escape attempts. She remembers very little of her month in the hospital, but her father spent every day by her side and her boyfriend took over in the evenings, realizing that her quality of care improved dramatically when she was not alone. Meanwhile, a growing team of doctors struggled to figure out a diagnosis. Cahalan lost her short-term memory and her ability to speak and read. At the end of the month she had a diagnosis of autoimmune encephalitis. No one knows how encephalitis is contracted or how it is triggered, and a diagnosis did not guarantee a cure. However, she was lucky to have excellent doctors, good health insurance, and a family who could afford any procedures not covered. One million dollars and seven months later, the author returned to work at the Post. She will never be the same person, but she survived. Cahalan pasted her story together from doctors’ records; hospital videos; her father’s journal; and interviews with doctors, nurses, friends, family and co-workers, applying her journalistic skills to her own life. This nearly unbelievable account of a medical mystery, told by the subject herself, will be irresistible reading for teens curious about mental illness or medicine.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

, Kate. The Secret Keeper: A Novel. 463p. Atria. 2012. pap. $26.99.  ISBN 9781439152805.

Adult/High School
–It’s 1960. Laurel, 16, has climbed up into the tree house for a few minutes of quiet, away from her four younger siblings. Dreaming of the theatre and an especially handsome boy, she’s distracted by voices outside. As she breaks her reverie and glances toward the yard, Laurel sees her mother, Dorothy, murder a strange man. The shocking images, and all the unanswered questions about that day, are still burning in Laurel’s mind more than 50 years later. Now her elderly mother is dying. Middle-aged Laurel becomes a detective of sorts, working backwards through Dorothy’s life to discover her own answers. The narration alternates between young Dorothy (Dolly) and her life in London during World War II, and present-day Laurel. Dolly’s story is filled with ambition, passion, and betrayal, with unexpected twists that astonish Laurel–and readers. Teens will enjoy Dolly’s bold seduction of Jimmy, a good-hearted young man who falls madly in love with her. Dolly, in turn, is obsessed with her beautiful neighbor, Vivien. Despite the chapters written from Laurel’s point of view,  this lengthy novel thrums with youthful energy. The World War II backdrop, peopled with young men and women trying to survive until adulthood, is reminiscent of Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear (both Spectra, 2010). The plot twists as unexpectedly as Chris Bohjalian’s novels, particularly The Double Bind (Crown, 2007). A fascinating read.–Diane Colson, Palm Harbor Library, FL

, Tim. The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. 214p. photogs. Scribner. 2012. Tr $26.  ISBN 9781451657814.

Adult/High School
–Phiona Mutesi, a girl from the slums of Katwe, Uganda, was nine years old when she wandered into Robert Katende’s clubhouse for kids to watch her brothers play chess. She was intrigued by the game and, unlike many of the other children, she was willing to sit through the many hours it takes to learn how to play well. She succeeded in beating her brothers and her tutor, and eventually made her way to the National Championship and on to larger competitions where she and her Ugandan team (made up of her brothers and other children from the slums) became International champions, something no one expected. While this is Phiona’s story, it is also the story of Robert Katende. His abiding faith led him to create a safe haven for slum kids in the hopes of giving them a refuge from the daily struggle with incredible poverty, neglect, disease, and a hopeless future. Phiona’s story, along with those of her family and friends and the teacher who brought chess to Katwe, will break readers’ hearts. Phiona’s perseverance, courage, faith, and hope will have the very same readers rooting for her success. Phiona is a 16 now and still hopes to achieve her goal of Grandmaster. With  Katende, the chess community, and many other people working behind the scenes for her, Phiona has a chance to reach her goal. American teens will enjoy a new perspective on a life they will find to be completely different from their own.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA
About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark