Sleuths in their youth
There’s much talk -- too much, if you ask some people -- about how to make sure young people will read books in our technological age. Heartening results come by way of the young adult section in bookstores (cf. Rowling, J.K. and Meyer, Stephenie) which is why a number of big-name writers for adults are plying their wares toward the next generation. Some crossovers, such as mystery writer Rick Riordan’s Greek mythology-tinged Percy Jackson novels, comic novelist Carl Hiaasen’s “Hoot” and Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolute True Diary of a Part-time Indian,” fare phenomenally well, attracting strong critical notice and big sales in tandem. Others seem more calculated gambits that lose sight of the fact that kids are savvy readers who won’t settle for warmed-over leftovers.
That’s why I was saddened and puzzled to read “Chasing the Bear” (Philomel: 164 pp., $14.99 hardcover), Robert B. Parker’s newest foray into young adult territory. It’s billed as a “Young Spenser” novel, in that the book purports to recount the adolescent adventures of Parker’s iconic, influential private eye, but it ends up being an opaque window into Parker’s continued creative decline. He’s famous for writing fast (“Chasing the Bear” is the third book published this year, with one more to come out in 2009) and for disdaining rewrites, which may explain why the main story line, which has 16-year-old Spenser learning life lessons from his father and three uncles to fight neighborhood toughs on behalf of a picked-on minority youth, keeps getting interrupted by current-day Spenser ruminating about his oh-so-happy life with Susan Silverman, his permanent psychologist paramour. Die-hard Parker fans will pick this book up, but will contemporary teens care a fig about the entrails of a character far removed from his 1970s glory days?
Better instead for mystery-loving teens is this year’s Edgar Award winner in the young adult category, “Paper Towns” (Dutton: 306 pp., $17.99 hardcover) by John Green. Chances are, however, they’ve already found it, based on the deserved success of Green’s prior novels, both of which display an acute understanding of how the current teenage boy thinks, feels and acts. “Paper Towns” has plenty of big moments, starting with the unforgettable all-night adventure that smart-mouthed, car-deprived protagonist Quentin Jacobsen (but call him Q or, on instant messenger, “QTHERESURRECTION”) gets sucked into by his unrequited crush, the perfectly named Margo Roth Spiegelman. The next morning, hoping for a replay (or at least a chance to get to know Margo better), Q’s hopes are dashed with the news that Margo has disappeared, possibly for good, but not before leaving tantalizing clues for Q and his crew to find her.
But Green, a natural at creating comic moments borne out of human behavior, makes “Paper Towns” stand out by letting his serious side shine, carefully doling out small moments of great insight and showing the ease with which adults and young people alike are so caught up in the idea of someone that they misunderstand who that person really is.
At 31, Green is still within spitting distance of his adolescent years -- close enough to form a deep rapport with his growing audience, though being relatively young should have little bearing on whether thrills and chills strike the appropriate chord with this demographic. Caroline B. Cooney is roughly twice Green’s age but has always had an understanding for what scares kids most -- which is why her quartet of novels, starting with “The Face on the Milk Carton,” proved to be such indelible works of young adult literature. Being prolific, her oeuvre is a bit hit-or-miss, but “If the Witness Lied” (Delacorte Press: 214 pp., $16.99 hardcover) is a gem stripped down to the narrative bone, bouncing from perspective to perspective as it ratchets up tension within a single 24-hour period.
Cooney’s spare style and short paragraphs enable the reader to buy the somewhat high-concept premise: that a 2-year-old boy named Tris Fountain is considered to be responsible for both his parents’ deaths, and in the aftermath of being orphaned his three older siblings -- Jack, Madison and Smithy -- disperse across the Northeast. Jack has stayed put in their parents’ house, ostensibly to protect Tris from the limelight, but his mother’s younger stepsister Cheryl -- conveniently arriving on the family scene between parental deaths -- catalyzes assumption-upending and sibling reunification when she wants to create reality television out of the broken shards of the Fountain bonds. Cooney brings on the twists like the seasoned master that she is, but it is the way she presents sober reality out of conceptual conceit, and the dull pain of grief that leads to self-protection even when others are in danger, that marks “If the Witness Lied” as a nerve-jangling, disquieting read.
Finally, though it won’t be in stores for another few weeks, keep in mind “The Morgue and Me” (Viking: 314 pp., $17.99 hardcover), John C. Ford’s memorably titled debut. It may be housed in the young adult section, but Christopher’s summer stint as an intern in the Michigan morgue jump starts a throwback-style detective novel that readers of all stripes should pay attention to. There is blackmail, cover-ups, misunderstandings with best friends about taking relationships to the next level, families in danger and secrets -- a plethora of them. There’s also a scenery-chewing sidekick journalist named Tina whom I hope to see return in future novels. And there’s a chance to get in on the ground of what looks to be a promising career in crime fiction -- regardless of bookstore classification.
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