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Weekly Reviews: Debut novels
Can I really call Jeannette Walls’ The Silver Star a debut novel? After all, everyone knows The Glass Castle. And Half-Broke Horses was a novel, wasn’t it? Well, yes, but it was a fictionalization of her grandmother’s life. The Silver Star is Walls’ first work of pure fiction. It touches on many of the same themes as her previous work, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.
My student bookgroup chose The Glass Castle for their May read this spring, and they were simply crazy over it. I had students coming up to me within 2 or 3 days of receiving the book telling me how they had read the whole thing, how they just hadn’t been about to put it down. It gave me great pleasure to be able to tell them that the author had a novel coming out in a few weeks — I know a bunch of teenage girls who will be reading The Silver Star this summer.
Kiese Laymon‘s debut novel is a sort of time travel, coming of age, novel within a novel. It’s hard to define, and that makes it exciting. I’m not going to try to say more than that — see Diane’s review below.
There is an excerpt from the novel on Gawker, and check out this interview with the author, including both text and spoken word. Laymon also has a book of essays scheduled for publication in August, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America (also from Agate). The title essay was first posted on Gawker last year, where it went viral. It is a powerful, personal examination of racism in America.
A bit of a sneak preview — you’ll see both of these books on our Best Books of the Year so far, 2013. Coming soon!
Adult/High School–Walls wrote about growing up in a dysfunctional family in her brilliant memoir, The Glass Castle (Scribner, 2005). In this novel, set in 1970, 12-year-old Bean, the narrator, and 15-year-old Liz are sadly familiar with their mother disappearing for days at a time. However, this time, she has been gone for two weeks and because of their dwindling money and fear of being discovered by the police, the sisters decide to travel across the country to stay with their uncle in Virginia. Uncle Tinsley, an eccentric widower, lives in the family’s once-grand mansion and is at first unhappy to have his nieces appear on his doorstep. Bean soon learns of her mother and Tinsley’s family’s past importance as mill owners in this small town, her father’s background (including his Silver Star from the Korean War) and his family, with whom she becomes deeply connected. Bean and Liz’s lives also intersect with the unscrupulous and vile Jerry Maddox, the mill foreman. When the girls decide they need jobs, Maddox is the only one who will hire them. The foreshadowing of trouble is palpable and when it comes, it is horrifying. Charlotte appears several times and her mental instability is developed masterfully, including her poignant comment, “no one understands how hard it is to be me.” Period details are woven through the story including school integration and the Vietnam War. Teens will clamor for this novel with its many endearing characters, its emotional honesty, and the plot twists and turns.–Jane Ritter, Mill Valley School District, CA
Adult/High School–“City” Coldson is a loquacious 14-year-old sentence wizard competing in the live TV competition “Can You Use That Word in a Sentence?” There is only one other black competitor. When City stands up for his word, the judge gives him “niggardly” and promptly rejects his use of it in a sentence. City lets loose with some more words, letting everyone in the country know how messed up it all is. By the next day, the video clip is viral, and City is sent to stay with his grandmother in Mississippi while things cool down. But before leaving, he acquires a book titled Long Division, which is about another boy named City Coldson, set in 1985. In Long Division, alternate-City has a crush on a girl named Shalaya Crump. Together, City and Shalaya travel through a time portal to 1964, the onset of the “Freedom Summer,” when Klan activity is still high. City is a funny, unreliable narrator who speaks important truths. Perhaps most striking, and frustrating to City, is the protective behavior that black people assume around white people in all three time periods; the vibrant black community is not particularly interested in desegregation, only justice and respect. Layman’s debut novel is bursting with colloquial language from three generations of Mississippi African Americans, mixed with gut-piercing truths about a long racial divide that persists to this day. City himself recommends Long Division, explaining that it’s short and more of a young adult book for adults.–Diane Colson, formerly at Palm Harbor Library, FL
Filed under: Weekly Reviews
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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