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Weekly Reviews: Setting
We write a lot about genre and the types of books that teens enjoy reading. But what about setting? Do teen readers care about sinking into the setting of a book?
This is an element that teens rarely mention when they share what they enjoy reading, or how much they liked a particular book. But many teens like to explore far-away parts of the world with which they are unfamiliar. In The Fever Tree, a romantic saga of a novel, Jennifer McVeigh introduces readers to colonial South Africa.
Other teens want to immerse themselves in a particular place during a certain time period. World War II occupied Paris is certainly a fascinating setting, and one used by many and varied authors. All the Light There Was provides a new slant. Like Orringer did for the Hungarian experience in The Invisible Bridge, Kricorian represents the Armenian experience. Her special interest is in the daily life of her characters — see her website for more about her inspiration. All the Light There Was is also a romance, and the first person narrative makes it fresh and exciting.
In The Fate of Mercy Alban, the house in which much of the novel takes place is a character in itself. Alban House is more like a mansion, and although the book’s cover brings to mind an English country estate, this one is on the shores of Lake Superior. Wendy Webb’s latest spooky gothic mystery of family secrets was inspired by a visit to a specific place.
MCVEIGH, Jennifer. The Fever Tree. 432p. Amy Einhorn: Putnam. Apr. 2013. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9780399158247.
Adult/High School–The Fever Tree starts with a trope of historical romance: a respectable young woman of considerable wealth and a bright future is plunged into destitution with a father’s bad investments and unexpected death. Frances Irvine is faced with two equally undesirable prospects: be nursemaid to her aunt’s young children or marry an awkward doctor and move to South Africa. With her choice made, she leaves England behind, and her adventure begins. Soon, a love triangle emerges as Frances must choose between the dashing rebel of questionable morals and the obsessed, goody-two-shoes doctor: the age-old Darcy versus Willoughby played out in the dusty plains of Africa. The novel moves beyond its genre trappings with its palpable setting and sure characters. McVeigh has penned a story where the place, in this case South Africa, is a central character. At the same time the characters evolve from their clichéd introductions. Teens will experience both exasperation and empathy toward Frances. The novel underscores, as historical novels often do, the limited choices available to women, and elements about African colonization, the ethics surrounding diamond mining and trading, as well as a small-pox outbreak provide further depth to this coming-of-age tale. The romance propels the story, but it is an old-fashioned saga at heart. Readers watch Frances grow up, hoping she will make decisions that lead to her own happiness.–Karen Keys, Queens Library, Jamaica, NY
Adult/High School–For Maral and her older brother, Missak, Paris is home; they know little of the terrors their parents endured when they were forced to leave their homeland of Armenia. Fourteen year-old Maral is nearly top in her class. Her secret love is Missak’s best friend, Zaven, and she is thrilled to discover that Zaven also has feelings for her, but this happy first love is tarnished when the German army marches into Paris. At first, a resistance activity such as distributing pamphlets seems a lark, a secret outing to hide from the parents. But as Jewish friends disappear, and young activists are arrested and sent to work camps, the sense of foreboding increases. Zaven and Maral pledge themselves to each other even as they fear their romance may have no future. Indeed, the war lasts much longer and is far more ruthless than their young minds could have anticipated. Maral, who narrates the story, never sees a battlefield, but her life is completely fractured by the war: some of her friends die, while others return broken. Readers should be intrigued by the many teen characters, striving to be as brave and dutiful as circumstances demand. Like the teen characters in Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity (Hyperion, 2012) or Chris Bohjalian’s Skeletons at the Feast (Shaye Areheart, 2008), dreams of high school proms are pushed aside by the will to survive.–Diane Colson, formerly at Palm Harbor Library, FL
WEBB, Wendy. The Fate of Mercy Alban. 344p. Hyperion. 2013. pap. $15.99. ISBN 978-1-4013-4193-0. LC 2012027376.
Adult/High School–Even for a rich family, the Albans of Minnesota are a bit different–their mansion is made from imported Irish stone; there are altogether too many deaths for there not to be a family curse; and the women are all named after some attribute (Grace, Amity, Charity, Fate). Twenty years ago, Grace left town, escaping not only her family, but the repercussions of surviving a storm that led to her brothers’ drownings and father’s suicide. When her mother dies, Grace returns for the funeral, bringing her daughter Amity with her. While looking through her mother’s room she finds letters from David Colville, a reporter who committed suicide on the grounds of Alban House in the summer of 1956, just before Aunt Fate disappeared–one of which discusses a novel based on the history of the Albans. Then at the funeral reception who should appear but Aunt Fate. Where has she been? In Switzerland, in a private “institution” named Mercy House, which is actually a home for the criminally insane. Indeed, Aunt Fate is really Aunt Mercy, Fate’s supposedly dead twin, and she’s not just insane, she’s psychotic, locking Grace (and hunky Reverend Matthew Parker) in the church vault when they find the missing Colville manuscript. Gothic novels rarely have happy endings, but they do have satisfying ones and The Fate of Mercy Alban definitely satisfies. This novel is for fans of Victoria Holt, Daphne Du Maurier (think Jamaica Inn not Rebecca), and a good introduction to adult gothic for fans of Joan Aiken and Billingsley’s Chime (Dial, 2011).–Laura Pearle, 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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