Some books receive more “buzz” than others in the lead-up to publication. Today we review three books that have received more than their fair share.
First, our starred review of the day — The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. Wolitzer’s fiction is always excellent and often provocative. Everyone, from the New York Times to EW and People, is wild for this one, calling it her break-out book. Comparisons to Jonathan Letham and Jeffrey Eugenides abound. This is about a group of friends and what becomes of them, and it all begins at an arts camp for teens. Wolitzer herself had a similar experience, which she describes in an interview with Jane Ciabattari on The Daily Beast, “Like my main character Jules in my novel, I’d grown up in the suburbs. Unlike her, my mother was a writer, so I came from a house filled with good books. And my parents had always taken us into the city to MOMA and to see what were known as “arthouse” movies. But you probably can’t do all that with your parents and have it change your life; you have to do it on your own. It wasn’t until I could go off and enter that world by myself that I came to really love it and feel excited by it. My closest friend, to this day, is someone I met that summer.”
That idea of having to be on your own to experience major change as an adolescent is such a good one. Wolitzer also tackles the idea of comparing oneself to others and the envy that can result, even in comparison to a close friend. Teens are certainly susceptible to that feeling.
You is the second novel by Austin Grossman, whose 2007 debut, Soon I Will Be Invincible, is a terrific riff on superheros and villains. Grossman is a videogame designer, and his experience shows in You. Teen gamers will relish the insider look at game development and design. No, this is not at all like Ready Player One. No dystopian future here. This is the story of a guy who needs a job, and goes back to a group of high school friends made good to get one. Like The Interestings, this is an examination of friendships, especially those that begin during adolescence (during summer computer camp!) and continue into adulthood.
Amity & Sorrow is a whole ‘nother story. Peggy Riley‘s debut follows a mother and her two daughters as they flee a polygamist cult and end up on a farm in the Midwest. Everything is new. Neither of the teenagers has been taught to read, has heard of such a thing as a library, or even seen a town. Putting the two sisters at odds with each other (one relishes their new life, the other longs to return to her father) was a genius move, creating conflict even after escape has been achieved. There is an excellent interview with the author in the Los Angeles Times.
Adult/High School–One summer in the early 1970s five teenagers–Ash, Goodman, Jonah, Ethan, and Jules–meet at a summer camp for artistic kids, and form a bond that affects the rest of their lives. The story follows them well into adulthood, where it sometimes seems that they are all still teenagers inside. Although some readers might not be especially interested in middle-aged adults, by the time they get to that part of the book, they will be attached to the characters and invested in their lives. More importantly, Wolitzer explores personal questions that should resonate with many teens: those who wonder if their friendships will last and how they will play out; or simply wonder how they will turn out–if they’ll find love, success, or a valid career in the arts. And what happens when expectations and dreams aren’t met or are derailed? The author also explores the big question of what happens when your life turns out very differently from your friends’ lives. As an adult, Jules observes that if the group were to meet now, they wouldn’t be friends, but because they became friends as teenagers they have an unbreakable bond. This is an undeniably appealing premise and one that is sure to attract many readers.–Sarah Debraski, formerly of Somerset County Library System
Adult/High School–“So what’s your ultimate game?” So begins Grossman’s ode to great video games that provide an escape from the fear and uncertainty of young adulthood. In a job interview, Russell is asked to create his ultimate game on-the-fly in order to land a job at the innovative and exciting gaming company Black Arts. It is also his chance to re-join his high school friends and the founders of Black Arts: Darren, Simon, and Lisa. After years of wandering through college and graduate programs, he’s beginning to think he should have never ditched them at the end of high school. Russell is hired as Black Arts is feverishly releasing the next version of its award-winning Realms series, a game with a terrible secret hidden in its code. Russell’s story unfolds in flashbacks to high school, learning how to program with his friends and attending computer camp together, where the seeds of Realms were sown. While he plays through the Realms catalogue, trying to find the bug that threatens the future of both the company and Russell’s first shot at a career he loves, he examines his friendships with the company’s founders, especially the mysteriously deceased Simon, and sees parallels of both his life and the lives of his friends in the battles and dark bargains in the games. Grossman is not afraid to experiment with almost hallucinatory passages of video game play, and readers who feel equally passionate about how games can transport players and make real life bearable will be up for the challenge of You.–Meghan Cirrito, formerly of Queens Library, NY
Adult/High School–Amity and Sorrow, now almost teens, have grown up on an Idaho compound and never been anywhere or known anything else. They have 50 mothers and their father is considered God to the cult. Amaranth–their birth mother–is the first wife. It is a shock, then, when a fire (the end of the world?) breaks out and their mother gets them in the car and drives off the property. Days later, when she crashes the car in rural Oklahoma near Bradley’s farm and gas station, there is nothing to do but sleep on Bradley’s porch. The story is really Amaranth’s; it’s told through her eyes and experience, but Sorrow’s story is the one that will haunt readers. Beautifully written at a slow, nuanced pace, the novel gradually reveals spare details of their life, past and present. Their isolation, their conflicts with their new situation are completely believable. Sorrow has the most difficult time. She wants to go back. She belongs with her father; she was his Oracle. She continues to “read” and even create signs, and there is no changing how she sees the world and her place in it. Amity sways between protecting her sister and the excitement of her new situation. Teens on a roll with Emma Donoghue’s Room (Little, Brown, 2012), Shelley Hrdlitschka’s Sister Wife (Orca, 2008), and Michele Dominguez Greene’s Keep Sweet (Simon Pulse, 2011) will want to read this book.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA