Angela and I were talking last week about what a great year this is shaping up to be for adult books with teen appeal–we have a backlog of great books that we still want to review, and another list of books that we had to give up on getting to because too much time has passed since they came out (has anyone out there read Paula Varsavsky’s No One Said a Word or Jane Porter’s The Good Daughter?). I have no doubt that some of this bounty is because there are two sets of eyes looking for books this year, when last year it was just Angela. But it certainly seems to be more than just that–and I don’t at all envy the Alex Committee who is trying to read through all the great contenders this year.
With that in mind, nothing in particular ties together the five books reviewed below, except that they were published in January and February and we want to get the word out on them.
The big name here is Sister Souljah–whose books have been hugely popular with teens for almost fifteen years–but no less impressive are a trio of crime novels (two debuts), and an unclassifiable SF/Horror/Fantasy/Something.
Jamie Mason, Holly Goddard Jones, and Timothy Hallinan each take a unique angle at the crime novel. For Mason, the crime genre trappings of Three Graves Full bely the beauty of her prose and her deeply weird sense of humor. Jones’s The Next Time You See Me, meanwhile, revels in its unreliable narration, not a frequent feature of your average procedural. And as I say in my review, Timothy Hallinan has almost too much fun turning noir inside out in his Junior Bender series. Little Elvises is the second in the series, but stands alone admirably, and is the best of the three published so far.
Finally, we have Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere. Bennett has a heap of awards for his speculative fiction, and some have described this novel as horror–indeed, early on, I was making comparisons with Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers–but really, as I say below, this novel defies categorization of any kind.
JONES, Holly Goddard. The Next Time You See Me. 384p. Touchstone: S.& S. Feb. 2013. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781451683363.
Adult/High School–Thirteen-year-old Emily is an odd girl. She seems to have no instinct for social survival in eighth grade, where classmates circle like hungry sharks. When she discovers a decomposing body in the woods, she tells no one. Rather, she begins stopping in the woods on her way home from school to visit it. Emily’s teacher, Susanna Mitchell, is unhappy in her marriage and preoccupied with problems of her own. It seems the final straw when her husband shows little concern over the disappearance of her sister, Ronnie, a notorious bad girl around town. Meanwhile, a middle-aged factory worker, Wyatt, is conned by some younger coworkers to drink himself senseless and then leave him with the tab. This is how Wyatt becomes the last person to see Ronnie before her disappearance. The narration skips among these characters and more, as the mystery of the body in the woods and Ronnie’s disappearance tumbles towards an obvious conclusion. Nothing beyond that is obvious in this novel, however. Readers must decipher where the truth lies in the confluence of all these points of view. Someone here is not who they appear to be… but who is it? The blend of foreboding mood and psychological tension is similar to that in some of Stephen King’s or Tana French’s novels. An excellent example of unreliable narration.–Diane Colson, formerly at Palm Harbor Library, FL
MASON, Jamie. Three Graves Full. 320p. Gallery: S & S. Feb. 2013. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781451685039.
Adult/High School–Mason’s strangely powerful debut begins with an elaborate, macabre joke: Jason is so skittish of the overgrown yard where he has buried a body that he hires a gardener to assuage the imagined suspicions of his neighbors; in due course, the gardener discovers a corpse, leading directly to the discovery of a second corpse, but neither one is the body of the man Jason has killed. As Mason follows the murder investigation, headed by detectives Tim Bayard and Ford Watts, with generous diversions examining the events leading up to each murder, she manages to maintain this precarious balance between the psychological realism of her characters and the barely contained ridiculousness of the situations with wit and verve. At times the plot–which veers between the stories of Jason; Leah, the wife of one of the dead men; Boyd Montgomery, the second murderer; and the two detectives–threatens to run off the road, but Mason holds it steady with her fabulous prose–highlighted by a tremendous facility for fresh metaphors, often based in the natural world–and her carefully detailed characterizations. The dark humor and aura of surreality won’t appeal to everyone, but readers in sync with the novel’s tone will be clamoring for more from Mason.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
BENNETT, Robert Jackson. American Elsewhere. 680p. Orbit: Hachette. Feb. 2013. pap. $13.99. ISBN 9780316200202.
Adult/High School–There is something deeply wrong with the town of Wink, NM. When former police detective Mona Bright inherits a house that her mother once owned, she feels compelled to see the home of her long-dead mother, but the town fails to appear on any map of the area. Once she has finally located it, she immediately senses something strange about the townspeople–houses and lawns too perfect, people somewhat off, like something out of The Stepford Wives. Then there is the strange, noiseless blue lightning, the perpetually pink moon, and the fact that locals never leave their houses at night. And what about the fact that the laws of space and time seem to work just a little differently here? Mona begins to believe the strangeness has something to do with the deserted government research lab where her mother once worked, but as the novel proceeds, it becomes clear that the lab’s science is just one small piece of a pandimensional mystery. The novel’s movement from the simple human oddity of the early chapters, to the science of the mid-novel, to the much larger, world-shattering revelations of the conclusion recalls TV’s Lost, but Bennett handles the ratcheting movement of his novel with far more deftness and coherence than that show ever managed. Horror? Science Fiction? Fantasy? Mystery? Family drama? Readers may not know what genre they’re reading until the very end, but anyone with a taste for the strange and creepy should enjoy every moment.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
SOULJAH, Sister. A Deeper Love Inside: The Porsche Santiaga Story. 1. 432p. Atria. 2013. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9781439165317.
Adult/High School–Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever (Pocket, 1999) is arguably one of the best books of life on the streets; the voice of its protagonist, Winter, is flawless. This stand-alone sequel doesn’t come close. On the upside, readers find out what happened after the drug bust that destroyed life as Winter and her family knew it. Porsche, Winter’s younger sister, escapes from juvie with the help of Riot and her brother, Revolution. She reunites with her momma–who is now a crack addict–and she falls in love. On the downside, the plot is inauthentic and slow, predominantly narration rather than action. As a result, there is little opportunity to form an emotional connection to the characters. Porsche, who is anywhere from 8 to 16 though the book, sounds as if she were 30 with a few exceptions. She seems to have multiple personalities, but readers may be challenged in figuring that out. The metaphorical promise of Riot and Revolution’s names does not materialize. It’s a grim reality that close to 95% of girls living on the streets are sexually assaulted, yet Porsche escapes that fate, unrealistically amassing $50k by the time she is 14 by working at odd jobs, never being questioned by authorities or other adults. In the end, Porsche is married with two babies, happily cooking organic foods and loving her 18-year-old husband. In spite of its lack of realism and disjointedness, fans of all ages have been waiting for this book and they will ask for it.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA
HALLINAN, Timothy. Little Elvises. 352p. bibliog. Soho Crime. 2013. Tr $25. ISBN 9781616952778.
Adult/High School–In Hallinan’s second “Junior Bender” mystery, Junior is reluctantly drawn into solving two mysteries. The first is thrust upon him by a cop whose uncle is suspected of murder. It seems that the uncle, Vinnie, was a famous music svengali in the ’50s and ’60s, churning out dozens of “rock” records by squeaky clean, good looking boys–“Little Elvises.” Now, a tabloid reporter has been found dead on the Hollywood Walk of Fame star of one of Vinnie’s singers, and Junior has to find the real killer before Vinnie is arrested. Meanwhile, the owner of the garish, Christmas-themed motel where Junior is staying begs him to find her grown daughter who was last seen living with a very shifty character. Hallinan’s sly take on the hard-boiled genre is fresh, lively, and very funny, often involving a flip in its polarities: instead of an anti-hero detective who is willing to break the rules, Junior is an genuine burglar who is willing to solve some crimes; there may be some femme fatales, but they tend to be somewhat less than fatal; and nothing is quite hard-boiled enough that Junior can’t stop in to check on his 13-year-old daughter, whose cheeky presence is a joy. Readers need no background knowledge of the ’50s music scene–although they may miss one or two jokes–or detective fiction, but teens out there with knowledge of both will find this novel especially rewarding.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA