Listmania: Teens

What to do when a young person “graduates” from YA novels and wants to read books with themes and plots that are more complex? So much contemporary fiction today has situations and language that many parents wouldn’t find appropriate–for young teens, especially. (Imagine my shock one day at school when I saw Fifty Shades of Gray stacked casually on a freshman girl’s desk!) So I thought going through my own stacks from the past couple years might give both teens and parents some ideas for great reading. Most of the books I chose featured younger protagonists; I also noticed that many convey the idea that our world, difficult though life may sometimes be, is one where hope triumphs over despair, and healing over pain.

From my blog: 
Orphan Train ! Christina Baker Kline
The Rooms are Filled Jessica Null Vealitzek
Any of the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley (I’ve got posts for four of his books) !
Forgive Me Leonard Peacock *! Matthew Quick
Noah’s Rainy Day Sandra Brannan
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet Reif Larsen
The Dressmaker Kate Alcott
The Silver Star ! Jeanette Walls
Dear Lucy Julie Sarkissian
Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots Jessica Sofer
15 Days Without a Head * ! Dave Cousins
The Forgotten Garden ! Kate Morton
Blind Sight Meg Howry
Age of Miracles* ! Karen Thompson Walker
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Misfit Children Ransom Riggs
The Fault in Our Stars* ! John Green
If I Stay* ! Gayle Forman
Sarah’s Key Tatiana De Rosnay
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet ! Rief Larsen
The Help Kathryn Stockett

*indicates this is a YA novel–I must say, I love ’em!
! my absolute favs

Leaving home

The Rooms Are Filled (NetGalley)
Jessica Null Vealitzek
release date: April 2014

Michael Nygaard must leave the only home he’s ever known, an iconic Minnesota farm with a milk cow and chicken house, a white farmhouse surrounded by pines and oaks, a long gravel driveway. Michael and his dad shared early morning walks in the woods, watching and tracking local wolf packs, sometimes even disarming traps other farmers had set for the creatures. But after his father’s sudden death, all that is over and Michael and his mother Anne must move to Illinois where she can find work in her brother’s bar.

Rose and Julia have been inseparable since kindergarten. Wherever there was one, there was the other–“Kindred spirits are always kindred spirits. It can’t be helped,” said Rose. Even after college the girls were

roommates, and then they were more. Julia accepts a job as a teacher; Rose, a journalist, and together life’s possibilities seem limitless. But after an uncomfortable lunch date with Rose and  one of her student’s family, Julia yearns for freedom and anonymity, no longer certain whether she can live with a love not-yet-accepted. And so she leaves.

Their lives merge in small town Ackerman, Illinois. Michael’s mother struggles with her job as a waitress, while Michael adjusts to after school snacks at the bar instead of the kitchen table, sidewalks instead of wide-open fields, and their small, cramped house instead of the light-filled, breezy farmhouse. Julia breathes a little more freely in her apartment over the lunch counter; she starts a job teaching and Michael is her student. But like knows like and  Julia recognizes in Michael another fragile soul who just doesn’t fit. Even as she tries to protect him from school bullies, she faces a bully of her own.

The Rooms Are Filled is a tender story and there is much about this novel I liked. Writer Jessica Vealitzek captures the beauty of small moments well and some of her description was crystalline. Parts of the plot (especially the story of Rose and Julia) felt uneven. Since the novel was set in the early 1980s, their story was inevitably more closed because of attitudes at the time. But I couldn’t help but think the story would have been richer if she had explored that relationship more fully.

A promise unfulfilled

The Making of the Lamb
Robert Harley Bear
release date: April 2014

The plot line of Robert Harley Bear’s novel The Making of the Lamb was juicy and full of promise: that  Jesus of Nazareth traveled to the British Isles during the eighteen years that are “lost”–or at least not mentioned in Scripture. I’m familiar with the lost years tale of Christ in India, but this I’d never heard this legend. William Blake even asks “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon Englands mountains green” in a poem, now the lyrics of the hymn “Jerusalem”. How rich a story this could be, I thought, expecting something along the lines of The Red Tent or The Robe. Something that would give me a glimpse of the man Jesus in a way I hadn’t seen him before. Something revealing.

Bear begins the novel with the twelve-year-old Jesus, dressed in rough clothing, teaching in the temple. Even as a boy, in Bear’s take, the high priests were suspicious of his arguments and understanding of Scripture and feared revolution. Knowing he was being watched, Mary implores her uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, to spirit Jesus out of the country on one of his trips. Uncle Joseph was a wealthy tin trader and his son Daniel, Jesus’ cousin, sometimes accompanied him. And so with Romans chasing them, uncle, son, and nephew manage a too-close-for-comfort escape.

And finally land in England. But not before Bear introduces a present-day boy who becomes curious about a tunic he comes across in an old church  while traveling with his family. And along the way we visit 73 AD when the cross was first carved. Then Jesus, again, who is learning swordsmanship from a young Celt and studying with the druids and rescuing a slave who is really a captured Roman and sometimes conversing with God his Father … you get the picture. Maybe Jesus’ story would have been quite enough. But unfortunately, Bear had most of the characters speak in contemporary vernacular and the dialogue fell flat. This is Jesus, speaking to Mary, “Oh, Mother! What a wonderful way you have of putting things. You have brought that memory close to my heart, and I can relive it now forever.” Ouch.

There are a few glimpses of this Jesus that I found thought-provoking. As a boy, he knew God was his Father, but little else of his mission, other than it would someday be revealed. He had some incredible gifts–being able to speak a language fluently after only hearing a snippet of conversation–but didn’t perform miracles. He did, sometimes, see images or dream dreams that were intuitive and often got out of some tense situations by sharing what he saw. I was intrigued by Jesus’ curiosity about the druids, although, again, the dialogue got in my way.

Such great possibilities … but short on delivering anything divine.

A Storytelling of Rooks

Bellman and Black (Atria Books Galley Alley)
Diane Setterfield

I enjoyed Diane Setterfield’s Thirteenth Tale–but I wasn’t over the moon. It was almost too gothic for my taste: the rain, the insane sister, the crumbling country manor, the mysterious author. And more characters than I cared to keep track of. But I’m guessing, like many book lovers, the novel’s shortcomings were off-set by my love of a dark tale set in the English countryside, revolving around an authoress and her life’s work. Her latest novel, Bellman and Black … meh. I simply couldn’t figure out what sort of novel it was: a legend? fable? cautionary tale? I could feel in the writing that Setterfield knew exactly what she wanted to convey–but I also couldn’t help thinking she just never quite did so.

As a young boy, William Bellman (perhaps in the tradition of the Ancient Mariner?) carelessly kills a rook with his slingshot. And Setterfield would have us believe the rooks vow revenge. William’s life proceeds according to custom. He marries, has children, builds his textile mill, succeeds. Until death takes all he holds dear–perhaps the rooks’ retaliation? William then pledges every spare minute of his life to building an empire dedicated to all things funereal. He neglects his health; he ignores his only living daughter; he shuns the company of longtime friends. But still he grows more wealthy and successful. Even so, he is haunted by the glimpse of a man in black who attends every funeral and deathbed. A Mr. Black, it seems. To alleviate the menace the he feels, William begins paying Mr. Black profits which are secreted away in a separate account. And so it goes. Really. Nothing happens that is off-script.

Setterfield scatters the book with short explanations of the different collective noun for rooks–there is a clamour of rooks and a parliament of rooks and a storytelling of rooks–all, apparently, correct. But like so much else in the novel, I just don’t get it.

I see dead people

Ok, so if you’re still reading after that post title, I give you credit. But I really just couldn’t resist. I’ve read two books this week that provide us with a glimpse of what might happen to us after death–at least for a short time. Both novels see the dead lingering for a bit, maybe wrapping up loose ends or simply waiting for what might come next.


The Beginner’s Goodbye
Anne Tyler

The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted. 

Aaron Woolcott had just lost his wife Dorothy in a freak accident: an enormous oak tree fell on their house,

crushing her and destroying the better part of his world. He is a publisher at a small vanity press; she, a doctor. They met when Aaron was researching for one of his titles–The Beginner’s Cancer–and was immediately smitten by the self-sufficient, frumpy Dr. Rosales. Anne Tyler gives us yet another peek into the lives of folks who fumble their way through life, pushing through a tangle of frailty and foible to somehow find their way to love.

So we have their courtship, their matter-of-fact marriage, Dorothy’s untimely death. And then we have her return. Dorothy stands outside their home, watching repairs; she sits in the alley outside Aaron’s office, looking up at his window; she walks alongside him on his way to lunch at the corner cafe. Others turn away when they see the two approaching, or they avert their eyes and duck past quickly–uncomfortable, pretending she isn’t there. But is she? She spoke only to Aaron and only a few times, but it was enough. Enough for Aaron to make sense of what their marriage was missing. And what they had.

Tyler’s other characters are just as flawed: Gil, the contractor , a recovering alcoholic, who repairs Aaron’s house; Aaron’s sister Nandina, still in her thirties and seeming to will herself into spinsterhood with the housecoats she dons after work; the staff at Woolcott Publishing, especially Peggy, the office House Mother who is a-flounce with ruffles and lace and curls. Although maybe not as fuzzy-around-the-edges as Tyler’s earlier characters (who can forget Macon Leary from Accidental Tourist?) I adored them all–because, in the end, Tyler understands we are all of us pushing through our own tangles. And some of us–in what might be our finest moments–do find love.

The Uninvited Guests
Sadie Jones

In a Downton-ish Abbey time and place, Emerald looks forward to celebrating her birthday with a grand dinner, but only a few guests. Her family, of course (more on them later), a neighbor who, although he is a farmer, just might be a prospective suitor, and her childhood friends Patience and Ernest Sutton. What she gets is a houseful of survivors from a late-night railway crash–a few dozen (lower class all) huddle together, waiting for a Railway representative to transport them home.

And as period pieces often are, this is a comedy of manners. The Torringtons, funds rapidly failing, their privileged life falling to ruin, maintain their dignity by looking down at others–in this case, the survivors of that railway crash. The passengers are herded (there’s not other word for it) into the morning room, the fire lit, the door shut, and just as quickly, forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind Except more keep arriving and after hours of isolation, start to roam through the house. The guests are tired. They’re hungry. They are restless.

One guest, however, joins Emerald’s party, much to the dismay of her mother Charlotte, who seems to know the man, one Charlie Traversham-Beechers. Bawdy and crass, Treaverish-Beacon  Traversham-Beechers brings all sorts of mischief with him. The gentleman drink too much and wave cigars about at the table; the conversation is decidedly not posh; the women are insulted. And when a party game of Hinds and Hounds turns malicious, terrible family secrets are revealed.

And all the while there are the guests, who, increasingly, will not be contained. They appear on the landing; they stand in the hall–and then they don’t. Who are these passengers and where are they going? Ah! Their drab colors, sallow faces, the shivers, the drafts … Author Sadie Jones leaves a crumb trail of clues along the way–a trail that is delicious to follow and even more intriguing to think about.


And so just what exactly does await us? I’m hoping I won’t know for a while yet–which is why I’ve loved Peony in Love and If I Stay and Mrs. Perrigrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. They give me pause for thought. I’d like to think I’ll be back–hopefully not as empty as Jones’s wandering souls or as peevish as Aaron’s Dorothy. Perhaps just trailing behind my loved ones, hitching a ride as I hold loosely to their shoulders, not a hungry ghost like Peony, but one more satisfied–content to be close to, but not necessarily with, the ones I love.