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Weekly Reviews: Debut Novels
Today’s reviews are all notable debut novels by women.
I spent part of my spring break tearing through Kimberly McCreight’s Reconstructing Amelia, and let me tell you — teens are going to eat this up. It came out just yesterday, so go order a couple copies now.
There are several appeal elements here. First, the need to know what happened. Did Amelia jump off the roof of her school or was she pushed? Either way, the reader needs to know why. Second, an engaging mix of narratives. We hear from Amelia and her mother, as well as a school gossip blogger, text messages, and Facebook posts. Third, while the adults are as integral to the plot as the teens, the teen characters are particularly well-drawn. And finally, secrets. Amelia joins a secret society, even though she and her best friend Sylvia had always vowed they would never do such a thing. One leader of the society is really mean to Amelia and dares her to do dangerous things. Amelia falls in love with the other leader. Her first relationship, and it’s with a girl. She doesn’t know how to tell anyone, even her best friend. Or her mother. And speaking of Amelia’s mother, she keeps her own secrets – most importantly, the identity of Amelia’s father. If she had shared that information, everything might have been different.
The Death of Bees has garnered quite a bit of acclaim, and has an immediate hook for teen readers. Witness the opening sentences:
Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard.
Neither of them were beloved.
Teens will be drawn in by the short chapters, the intriguing, alternating narratives of the two sisters, 15 and 12, as well as the older neighbor who eventually helps them. Violence, drugs, foul language, this one has it all. It also boasts distinctive voices and, despite its grimness, a real warmth.
On the surface, The Guilty One has a lot in common with last year’s (terrific) Defending Jacob. Both are psychological, courtroom thrillers that feature the nature or nuture debate. Both move back and forth in time between a current murder case and a past incident. In The Guilty One an 11 year old boy is accused of killing an 8 year old, and the attorney defending the 11 year old has a back story involving his own violent coming of age.
Adult/High School–This fast-paced and suspenseful debut novel revolves around the fact that even the closest parents and children keep secrets from one another. Kate is a high-powered litigation attorney in Manhattan. She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her 15-year-old daughter, Amelia, who attends the prestigious Grace Hall School. Kate is called to the school to pick up Amelia, who has been found cheating, but by the time she arrives, Amelia is lying dead on the ground, presumably having jumped from the school’s roof. The police and the school are eager to call it a suicide and move on, but Kate isn’t ready to believe it yet, especially after she receives an anonymous text that says “Amelia didn’t jump.” The story is told in alternating voices, both Kate’s and Amelia’s, as well as with text messages and Facebook and blog posts. The tension ratchets up as it becomes clear that Amelia was involved with a secret club at Grace Hall, and that she was receiving anonymous texts of her own. Meanwhile, she was also falling in love for the first time, trying to maintain her loyalty to her oldest friend, and developing a relationship with a new friend. Kate struggles to reconstruct the last weeks of Amelia’s life, and her efforts reveal that Amelia was searching for her own answers about Kate’s past. This a page-turning mystery and thriller will appeal to teen fans of Jodi Picoult.–Sarah Flowers, formerly of Santa Clara County Library, CA
Adult/High School–A functioning family, regular meals, and a safe home are possibilities for sisters Nelly and Marnie only after they bury the bodies of both of their parents under backyard lavender. Each thinks the other smothered their father with a pillow in response to years of abuse. Their alcoholic mother hung herself in the shed soon after, and the sisters can only think to pretend that their parents have gone on an extended trip to Turkey. Letting outsiders discover their circumstances will lead them to separate foster homes. If they can make it undiscovered for one year, Marnie will turn 16 and be considered an adult in Glasgow. Their plan seems too desperate to succeed until they make the acquaintance of their elderly neighbor Lennie. He has no one in his life after his partner passed away and has become isolated since his arrest for soliciting a minor in the local park. Nelly, Marnie, and Lennie narrate the progression of their relationship in brief, alternating chapters. Together all three have forged the loving family they’ve always deserved, but the outside world cannot help but interfere. This novel is remarkable for evocative writing that is grim and painfully poignant. A quick but often uncomfortable read, the story has an underlying sweetness that contrasts with its disturbing events. Teens will respond strongly to this engrossing exploration of relationships, and especially to Marnie, whose authentically rough and vulnerable voice lingers with readers long after the final page.–Priscille Dando, Fairfax County Public Schools, VA
Adult/High School–This is the story of two very similar boys, both from difficult homes, both with sometimes uncontrollable tempers, and of their very different paths. Daniel is the product of a single, drug-addicted mother whom he adores; when he runs away from his foster placements, he always runs back to her. Placement with Maddie is his last stop before reform school, and–after a runaway attempt and several temper tantrums–he finally settles in and allows her to adopt him. He goes to university and reads law, eventually becoming a solicitor in London. Sebastian is one of Daniel’s clients, accused of murdering a younger child in the neighborhood. Something in Seb appeals to Daniel, perhaps a vision of his former self, and as readers learn more about each young man, it’s obvious that Daniel could have ended up in Seb’s place but for Maddie’s influence. As the trial progresses, questions are raised: how much does environment influence behavior; how culpable can an 11-year-old be in a murder case (the age for being tried as an adult is 10 inthe U.K.); and is a diagnosis of PDD-NOS the equivalent of a diagnosis of Asperger’s or autism? The criminal trial’s give-and-take between the lawyers and witnesses will appeal to viewers of “Law & Order” and the psychological background on Daniel, as well as the question of whether or not Seb is guilty, will appeal to those who enjoyed Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (Counterpoint, 2003).–Laura Pearle, The Center for Fiction, New York City
About Angela Carstensen
Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.
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