Today’s reviewed novels are most likely to appeal to strong, mature teen readers looking for a challenge. Yet each includes a teen character, an authentic teen voice, that will keep the adventurous reading.
The starred review belongs to A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. This novel is difficult to categorize. It begins with diary entries by a teenage Japanese girl, but becomes more of a puzzle when the reader realizes that the entries are being read by an American novelist named Ruth who has discovered the diary on an island off British Columbia. Still, it is Nao’s voice that anchors the novel, and wins the reader’s sympathy.
The Gods of Heavenly Punishment also begins with a Japanese teenager and alternates between Japanese and American characters, but this is a novel about war, specifically World War II. Again, it is the teen character, Yoshi, who brings the various strains of the story together. For readers fascinated by John Hersey’s Hiroshima (widely read by the students in my school), this novel will provide additional, this time fictional, insight into the devastation experienced by Japan during the war.
A Map of Tulsa has been the subject of some rather heady comparisons. A starred Publishers Weekly review begins, “If Catcher in the Rye has lost its raw clout for recent generations of Internet-suckled American youth, here is a coming-of-age novel to replace it. Instead of running away, the pretentious narrator of this updated version of Salinger’s bildungsroman travels headlong back home to claim the town where he came of age.” While I don’t believe Catcher in the Rye has lost its caché with teen readers (I recently heard a group of 9th graders proclaim their love for it), this is a useful touchstone for understanding A Map of Tulsa.
Still, the other comparison Lytal’s debut nobel is winning is to Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. While A Map of Tulsa will appeal to thoughtful, mature teens, it is perhaps more likely to appeal to slightly older readers – those who have already experienced the return home after that life-changing first year of college. “I came back to Tulsa … for different reasons,” Jim says. “To prove that it was empty. And in hopes that it was not.”
Adult/High School–At first there are two stories. Nao, a 15-year-old Japanese girl, is writing a diary entry that speaks directly to readers: “Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.” Across the Pacific, a novelist named Ruth finds a barnacle-encrusted plastic bag. Inside this bag is a Hello Kitty lunchbox, which in turn holds a few items. One of them is Nao’s diary. Ruth is fascinated to the point of obsession with Nao’s writing, which describes the teen’s close relationship to her Zen Master great-grandmother, whom Nao texts constantly; Nao’s suicidal father; and the vicious bullying Nao endures at her school. Ruth launches an investigation into the whereabouts of Nao. As the novel progresses, the distinction between the two stories blurs. Ozeki brilliantly manages the intersection of the two worlds. Time is presented as both an unyielding barrier and an unceasing flow of possibilities. Ozeki’s writing includes a surprise at every turn. Like a Zen koan, or possibly like quantum mechanics, all that is possible is present. Teens will find Nao’s quirky narration irresistible, and the inclusion of topics as diverse as kamikaze plane fighters, Schrödinger’s cat, and Pacific currents are bonuses for inquisitive readers. This is the kind of book that invites immediate re-reading to fully appreciate the concurrent themes and sly foreshadowing.–Diane Colson, formerly at Palm Harbor Public Library, FL
Adult/High School–In 1945 war torn Tokyo, 15-year-old Yoshi ignores the air-raid warnings yet again. But ignoring them this time means that Yoshi is there as American airplanes fly over, dropping napalm fire onto the city. Devastation is complete and life for Yoshi–and Japan–changes forever. The story alternates among characters from both sides of the war. In the United States, Cam, a young pilot. overcomes a debilitating stutter and gains the confidence to join up, only to have his disability reappear to devastating effect. Lacy, his wife, awaits his return. Anton, an American architect, and his photography-loving son living in Japan before the war must leave when it becomes apparent that war is imminent. In Japan, Hana, Yoshi’s mother, raised in England and summoned home to marry, is determined to raise her daughter to find the freedom that eludes her within her traditional Japanese life. Yoshi’s father is a builder whose brutal actions set the stage for Yoshi to bind these characters together into one story. Describing family life in pre-war Japanand the United States through the 1960’s, Jones shows the horror of war and the complete devastation of a city and its culture at the mercy of incredible firepower. Yet while this is a novel of war, it is equally about the relationships of family, culture, survival, forgiveness, and hope. It is a complicated story that not all teens will gravitate to, but mature, well-read young adults who know and like history should be introduced to this book.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA
Adult/High School–Lytal’s story about the transitional period of life after high school will resonate with certain older teens. Jim Praley has returned to his hometown of Tulsa after his first year of college where he becomes involved with exotic, artistic, and somewhat wild Adrienne. Though readers can see that Jim and Adrienne are a terrible match, Jim views her as opening a new chapter of his life, one where he sees the city through wonderful, sophisticated eyes. During that summer, Jim struggles to reconcile his high-school personality with the new one he believes he is creating (new Jim is wild, hangs out with society, and takes drugs). In Part II, a few years have passed and a tragic accident brings Jim back to Adrienne and Tulsa. Once again he experiences conflict between an old and a new life and is drawn to staying in Tulsa. Slow paced and lyrical, this book will probably not have broad YA appeal, but its themes will certainly speak to teens on the brink of college and leaving home. The exploration of how one views one’s friends, parents, and town after being away on one’s own will be appreciated by thoughtful readers, and possibly to those who are worried about moving into adulthood.–Sarah Debraski, formerly of Somerset County Library, NJ