Tag Archives: adult books with teen appeal

“The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers


I rarely review books written for the adult market, but I must make an exception for debut author Kevin Powers’ exceptional new Iraq War novel, “The Yellow Birds.” This is a devastating novel about the effects of war, a topic, sadly, that remains ever relevant. Our local high school students read Ernest Hemingway’s WWI novel “A Farewell to Arms” and Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War short story collection, “The Things They Carried.” “The Yellow Birds” is at least as relevant, at least as gut wrenching, and certainly as timely as those now-classic novels. When our nation’s wars are primarily being fought by teenagers and those in their early 20s, high school students should damn near be required to read a book like “The Yellow Birds.” In my humble opinion, anyway.

Private John “Bart” Bartle, a 21 year old native of Richmond, Virginia, has been deployed to Al Tafar in the Nineveh Province of Iraq in the fall of 2004. This is a volatile region, with streets taken and surrendered in brutal fashion, with random violence, mortar attacks, gunfire, and, everywhere, without end, death. The action flashes back and forth to Bart’s pre-war training in Fort Dix, his drunken despair at a German bar / brothel with the heroic and deeply flawed Sergeant Sterling, and Bart’s lonely disconnection and unraveling at home in Virginia. We know early on that Bart’s closest friend, 18 year old private Daniel “Murph” Murphy, is dead. We slowly discover what happened and how Bart failed to fulfill a spontaneous promise to deliver Murph home safely. What we see clearly, even without knowing the details of Murph’s death, is Bart’s pain, his jagged grief at his perceived cowardice, the disorientation of living in a constant war and adjusting afterward, and the soul-crushing burden that witnessing, causing, and ignoring so much death creates.

There are many scenes that depict the terror and chaos of war: an interpreter is shot on a rooftop in mid-sentence; a disemboweled boy dies in agony after a gunfight in an orchard; a human bomb explodes, raining human matter down on a bridge; and a young girl feebly tries to drag an old woman’s dead body across a dirt road. There is dust and blood and all manner of sickening odors and deafening sounds. Everywhere. All the time. Powers, a veteran himself, does an astounding job of conveying how war floods the senses, overtakes the brain, and strangles even basic human compassion.

There is a stark grace in Powers’ word choice and descriptions. He mainly writes in spare, evocative language. This quiet lyricism is contrasted with long, almost run-on passages as Bart delves into his inner turmoil. In these instances, we are caught in a swirling midst of Bart’s cycling thoughts and his version of psychic tail chasing. These philosophical ramblings — Bart’s breakneck effort to reason out a meaning in memory, guilt, death, and forgiveness — are extraordinary. I had to stop and re-read so many passages in an attempt to distill their larger meaning, digest their emotional weight, and savor the beauty of the words used to describe such ugliness and pain. These are two of my favorite sections, in which an agonizingly depressed Bart has returned to Richmond and is completely broken:

You want to fall, that’s all. You think it can’t go on like that. It’s as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for a lack of will, but a lack of space. The possibility of another day stands in defiance of the laws of physics. And you can’t go back. So you want to fall, let go, give up, but you can’t. And every breath you take reminds you of that fact. So it goes …

Or should I have said that I wanted to die, not in the sense of wanting to throw myself off of that train bridge over there, but more like wanting to be asleep forever because there isn’t any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually kill them and it was like just trying to kill everything you saw sometimes because it felt like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone and knowing from being taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you are doing, you’re taught that your whole life, but then even your mother is so happy and proud because you lined up your sight posts and made people crumple and they were not getting up ever and yeah they might have been trying to kill you too, so you say, What are you gonna do?, but really it doesn’t matter because by the end you failed at the one good thing you could have done, the one person you promised would live is dead …

Powerful stuff. For all barbarity of war and the awful claustrophobia of alcoholism and post traumatic stress disorder, Bart achieves a measure of peace by novel’s end, giving “The Yellow Birds” a kind of quiet victory in simply showing the soul’s ability to survive. Some years later, alone in a mountain cabin, Bart is able to, as he says, become ordinary again. “There are days ahead when I won’t think of him or Sterling or the war.” Yes, that’s a small triumph, but it is still a hopeful note in a novel about how violence ravages its victims, perpetrators, and our larger society.

I think high school students, or those young people with the maturity to handle some incredibly jarring — but never gratuitous — imagery and language, should read, analyze, and discuss “The Yellow Birds.” In a mere 226 pages, Kevin Powers has created what is destined to become a masterpiece of modern fiction. Please read this National Book Award-nominated novel now. You will never forget it. And keep this stunning book in mind the next time some politician somewhere argues for the deployment of US troops.

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Posted by on October 20, 2012 in Uncategorized


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“The Pact” by Jodi Picoult


So I was on vacation at my very favorite beach in the entire world, sitting under an umbrella, listening to the sounds of the waves … and, duh, obviously reading a book. I am a librarian, after all! I read an absolutely fabulous new novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,” that is clever, insightful, quirky, and weirdly heartwarming. Check it out! Alas, I do not review it here, because it is an adult novel with little YA crossover. [But the narrator is an eighth grader AND I LOVED IT. Hee. That is all.]

Luckily — or unluckily! — for you good people, I also read Jodi Picoult’s 1998 teen-themed novel “The Pact,” and that, my friends, I am all over in the review department. It’s the story of lifelong friends, teenagers, who become a couple because of love, remain a couple because of expectations, and ultimately confront a promise of mutual suicide. Yeah, that’s heavy stuff, and Picoult, for all her many literary talents, does tend to dip into the old melodrama at times. But, overall, “The Pact” is a gripping novel that deftly explores the complex web of family, friendship, love, hatred, and grief. If it’s a little soapy at times, eh, so be it, because when it’s good, it’s seriously, ridiculously good.

Chris Harte and Emily Gold literally grew up together, as we discover in a series of extended flashbacks. Their moms, Gus Harte and Melanie Gold, are best friends and next-door neighbors who are both pregnant at the same time in 1979. [Remember, folks, this book is a little old, but other than a few jarring technological details — Gus has a beeper! — it’s not at all outdated thematically.] While Chris and Emily begin life as instant friends and constant companions, they eventually fall in, out, and sort of back in love again. I know “The Pact” is a book about suicide — and I’ll get to that issue, I promise! — but I felt that aspect of Chris and Emily’s relationship, that pressure to be something together at almost all costs, was so strikingly real. Emily’s crushing disappointment in not living up to that long-ordained love, in loving Chris but not LOVING him, sends her to a dark place. That pain, coupled with buried sexual abuse, an unexpected occurrence, and a crushing bout of prolonged depression, leads her to contemplate not just her own suicide, but Chris’ as well. Indeed, as the book opens, Emily tells Chris, “I love you,” which is followed by this line:

And then there was a shot.

So the kicker here — and there’s really no way to avoid spoiling it, because it happens at jump — is that following the night of the pact, Chris remains very much alive. While he’s suffering from a gaping but hardly life-threatening head wound in the ER, Emily arrives DOA. As the respective families (and friendships) just about disintegrate from pain, rage, and confusion, we start to learn more about Chris, the survivor at the center of this storm. Chris was the stalwart one, the reliable, smart, kind boy who excelled at two things: swimming and loving Emily. When Chris is arrested for Emily’s murder, it’s not too hard for us to believe that while he may not have killed her out of malice, he clearly could have done so from a toxic mix of adoration and perceived loyalty. Chris’ arrest further rips apart his family and the Golds, while also strangely bringing Chris and his distant, repressed father closer together.

Chris is imprisoned for months while awaiting trial. Picoult flashes back and forth from his prison life, filling in more and more details of Emily’s deepening pain and Chris’ ceaseless devotion. While the jail scenes can play out as a bit over the top, Chris’ pervading sense of fear and heartache is nicely conveyed, and the legal wranglings are easily comprehended. We’re ultimately set up for a splashy trial, complete with surprise witnesses and “shocking” testimony. While perceptive readers will likely view Chris’ confession as telegraphed, the details themselves — and his palpable shame and guilt — trump any obviousness. I saw much of this coming and was still utterly shocked by the depth of Chris’ misguided loyalty and sacrifice.

One of our neighboring school districts requires high school students to read “The Pact” over the summer, and I can see why. From a purely cautionary standpoint, it provides lots of useful information about the warning sides of suicide, and it depicts, with incredible emotion, the devastation left behind in the wake of such a death. Chris and Emily’s evolving relationship — complete with all its joys and disappointments — is also incredibly authentic and will likely resonate with many teens. Perhaps best of all, this book is a page turner, y’all. Beach or no beach, I would’ve devoured it in a day. It truly is that engaging.

“The Pact” is out there, so please give it a read if it now seems interesting. I should note that this one is definitely a high school book, as it contains sexuality, language, drinking, etc. If you really like “The Pact,” the Lifetime network created a movie version a few years back. Check out the trailer below. Happy reading! Wouldn’t you like to be back at the beach right about now? Sigh.


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Posted by on September 19, 2012 in Uncategorized


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“The Age of Miracles” by Karen Thompson Walker


As if being an unpopular sixth grade girl isn’t difficult enough, try adding the slowing of the Earth’s rotation — and all its cataclysmic effects — to the mix. That’s the premise of Karen Thompson Walker’s remarkable debut novel “The Age of Miracles.” While I don’t normally review books written for the adult market, “The Age of Miracles” should appeal to teens, as it is essentially a coming of age tale set against a dystopian backdrop. Although more subtle and literary than novels geared directly toward teens, its subject matter and almost cringe-worthy realism should win over many younger fans.

We meet Julia and her family on an ordinary sunny Saturday morning in California. Except, this particular morning isn’t so ordinary after all, as Julia soon learns that the Earth’s rotation has slowed overnight. The slowing will continue to increase to a point where sunlight — and darkness — will last for long days on end. As the Earth slows even more, vegetation dies, animal life is depleted, strange weather patterns emerge, sunlight becomes toxic, and people begin to suffer from “gravity sickness.” If all this sounds terribly bleak, quite surprisingly, it’s not. These events are all filtered through Julia’s sensibilities, and she presents much of the horror in a stark, matter-of-fact manner. Julia’s almost detached observations place the slowing in the background as a quiet force that is never sentimental, overpowering, or showy. The real drama, interestingly enough, occurs among the human beings.

A conflict erupts between “clock timers” (folks who adhere to the dictates of the clock, regardless of sunlight or darkness) and “real timers” (those people who follow the natural rhythms of sunrise and moonrise, regardless of when they occur). It’s a classic “us against them” struggle, with all the attendant fear outsiders can generate in a trying time. A class schism also erupts, as those with money can afford artificial lawns, personal greenhouses, steel shutters, and sunlight radiation shelters. But none of these are the central source of human tension in “The Age of Miracles.” Instead, it is the family interactions and middle school relationships that form the real heart of this novel.

Here’s what I found most amazing about “The Age of Miracles”: middle school kids can be just as horrible, careless, and insensitive as ever, even when life as they know it has been catastrophically altered. Julia is bullied at the bus stop, dropped by her best friend, used by a popular classmate, and excluded from the birthday balloon tradition at school. She pines away for Seth Moreno, the mysterious skater boy who lost his mother to cancer and is alternately warm and indifferent toward Julia. She worries about her unshaved legs and buying her first bra. She tries to mediate the cold hostility between her philandering father and controlling mother, all while seeking her own small piece of independence. Above all, much of “The Age of Miracles” is about one girl’s overwhelming loneliness, which almost trumps the fact that her entire world is, literally, falling apart around her. And you wondered why I called this a “remarkable” novel? Because it is!

I’ll give nothing else away, because Julia’s story should be savored by the reader. Walker is a beautiful storyteller who uses spare language and quiet emotion to convey Julia’s fears, pain, and small triumphs. There is not one moment here that is artificially rendered. Everything is conveyed with an almost heartbreaking honesty and stillness. Although written for adults, aside from a bit of language, minor drinking, and the themes involved, older teens should do just fine with this novel. “The Age of Miracles” is a stunning, haunting book about growing up. Please go out and read it now.

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Posted by on August 13, 2012 in Uncategorized


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“Have a Little Faith” by Mitch Albom


Mitch Albom is the Detroit-based sports reporter famous for his two hugely bestselling books, "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" and "Tuesdays with Morrie." Since both these titles are staples of high school reading lists everywhere, I figure some teens will check out Albom's latest non-fiction work, "Have a Little Faith."

True to its title, in this book Albom explores questions of faith. When Albom's lifelong NJ-based rabbi, affectionately dubbed "The Reb," asks him to write his eulogy when the time comes, Albom is floored. The Reb was a towering figure of Albom's youth and a fixture in his rare temple visits back in NJ, but, beyond that, the two had no relationship. Albom agrees, and over the course of the next six years, he makes regular visits to the Reb when he's in the NY area. Although initially designed to provide material for the eulogy, the visits quickly become larger discussions of life, religion, family, love, marriage, forgiveness, and, of course, God.

In recounting lessons learned from the Reb — a feisty, goodhearted man who often breaks into song — Albom also relates the story of Pastor Henry Covington. Henry, a recovered drug addict, former dealer, and convicted felon, is the leader of the I Am My Brother's Keeper Church in downtown Detroit. He oversees a small congregation in his gritty neighborhood, providing food and shelter to the homeless and compassion to worshipers who have been badly battered by life. Henry's church has little money, few congregants, and a gaping hole in the roof, but he still manages to do God's work and help people transform their lives. As with the Reb, Albom begins visiting Henry for a specific purpose — here, to consider making a donation from his homeless foundation — only to develop a much deeper relationship.

"Have a Little Faith" is another "small but mighty" book from this well-liked author. It's written in a folksy, conversational manner, meaning teens should gobble up the short chapters and gently imparted lessons. Although there's nothing earth shattering here, the book invites readers to examine their own faith and ponder the questions Albom poses to the Reb and Pastor Henry. It's also a nice character study of these two figures, as Albom does a lovely job in presenting the complexities of the Reb and Henry. Both come across as lively, real men whose very real heartbreaks and fears cannot shake their respective faith. As such, the book serves as a touching tribute to the Reb and a nice reminder for all of us about the role of faith in our lives.

PS – I listened to the audio book of "Have a Little Faith," which is narrated by a very capable Mitch Albom himself. Well done!

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Posted by on October 7, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“Columbine” by Dave Cullen


Although most teens likely have no firsthand memory of the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, they've undoubtedly heard of the tragedy. 13 people were killed and dozens more injured when a pair of seniors, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, stormed their school with guns and bombs before ultimately killing themselves. In gripping detail, author / journalist Dave Cullen's phenomenal book "Columbine" recounts the events of that awful day and the years of botched investigation that followed it. Just as powerfully, drawing on a decade of research and their own harrowing personal journals, he provides stunning insight into the killers' mindsets in the years leading up to the attack. Along the way, Cullen explodes many of the myths that reigned in the popular press, including that the boys were bullied outcasts, the county sheriff's office had no warning, and the slain evangelical proudly affirmed her faith before being shot.

I approached "Columbine" fearing it would be a dry, perhaps stale book documenting a horrific day of violence. I could not have been more wrong. It reads like a fictional thriller, with a frenetic pace and page after page of shocking — and sometimes truly disturbing — revelations. It's impossible not to be gripped while reading passages from Eric Harris' cold, angry journal, but Cullen expertly places his and Klebold's writings into a larger context. What emerges is a complex portrait of a psychopathic personality leading a depressive friend into unspeakable violence, all in a calculated, painstakingly planned manner. This is chilling stuff.

The poorly executed rescue, during which teacher Dave Sanders bled to death awaiting help, and the years of cover-ups by the sheriff's office add greater depth to the story, as we see exactly what went wrong and why it was never revealed. Cullen also had access to several of the survivors and some family members of the victims, so the investigative aspect of the book is always balanced by the human side, reminding us who paid the heaviest price for these killers' actions. Cullen's depiction of Danny Rohrbough's father, whose pain and anger eventually found an outlet in extremist politics, is especially searing.

I strongly recommend "Columbine" to parents, educators, librarians — anyone who works with teenagers. I also think teens themselves will find this an extraordinary, incredibly moving book with a lasting impact.

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Posted by on September 17, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch


While not written or marketed as a young adult novel, I'm sure teens will find Randy Pausch's "The Last Lecture" a poignant and valuable book. It's, flat-out, a great read. Maybe you remember hearing about Randy, either on Oprah or just generally in the news media? He was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, a guy in his late 40s with a beautiful family, a great job, and, stunningly, a diagnosis in August of 2007 that his pancreatic cancer had returned and spread, giving Randy only months to live. Randy returned to Carnegie Mellon that fall to give a lecture on "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," which covered everything from his being allowed to paint on his bedroom walls as a teenager to becoming a Disney Imagineer. The video of this lecture became an Internet sensation (you can still view it on You Tube here), leading Randy to publish a book version of the lecture's advice in April of 2008, shortly before he died.

This book is just about the definition of a quick read — I knocked it out in under two hours — but it's so meaningful and bittersweet, especially reading it with the knowledge that Randy, this vibrant, unfailingly optimistic guy, is no longer with us. His death lends a sense of urgency to his advice. Randy basically covers his childhood dreams and discusses how he achieved them (he met Captain Kirk!), or, as the case may be, what not achieving them (NFL stardom!) taught him. Randy comes across as brilliant but relatable, honest, and, in the best sense of the word, earnest. While his life advice may seem obvious at times — I think we all sort of know that we should, say, face down brick walls and tell the truth — he presents these life lessons in a way that makes them feel new, fresh, and unquestionably important.

I was very moved by reading this book (I suspect you'd have to be made of stone not to be!). Above all, I just so enjoyed Randy's plainspoken manner, his tons of real-life examples to support his advice, and the uplifting quality of the entire book. I know that some of the high school kids in this area are required to read "Tuesdays with Morrie" or "It's Not About the Bike" as their "inspirational" summer reading choices. I hope these same teens will check out "The Last Lecture," a book they'll both learn from and enjoy.


Posted by on December 15, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Dragon Tears” by Dean Koontz



I liked this book because it was well written, suspenseful, and full of some of the everyday stuff that made it more realistic, that you could connect to. It was suspenseful because you knew what was going on but the characters didn't; at the same time, you thought you knew what would happen, and then found out you were wrong.

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Posted by on July 24, 2007 in Uncategorized


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