Locker Combinations is a Book Case feature by BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan. Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, Jill guest blogs about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field. This month, Jill looks at Chris Bohjalian's new novel and its crossover appeal.
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian, a novel about a teen girl navigating a post-apocalyptic world, was published for adults. But it could easily function as a YA novel for a number of reasons:
Narrator Emily Shepard tells her tale from a first-person point of view, with an immediacy and focus that's arguably one of the defining characteristics of YA literature. Her speech is peppered with the kind of neologisms and pop culture references that a real teen might use. Bohjalian credits his then-19-year-old daughter Grace for helping make Emily's voice authentic, writing in his acknowledgements that "she [Grace] taught me a lot—and I mean a lot—of new expressions."
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is divided into sections before and after an important event (Emily's quasi-adoption of the homeless 9-year-old Cameron). This before-and-after format is probably best known from Looking for Alaska by John Green, but it also figures prominently in older YA books like Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas and newer ones like the 2013 William C. Morris YA Debut Award winner Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn. Bohjalian's book also jumps back and forth in time freely, a technique familiar to readers of, for example, E. Lockhart's We Were Liars.
How many times have you heard book recommendations along the lines of "If you like Harry Potter, you'll like ______"? Comparisons help readers find books they might like, but they also serve as a metaphorical space to define genres, audience and other categories. By citing Karen Hesse's similar 1994 YA novel Phoenix Rising as inspiration (again, in his acknowledgements), Bohjalian grounds Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands in the section of this space occupied by YA lit.
While trying to survive their new world, Emily and her fellow teens use drugs, work as prostitutes and carry X-Acto knives to cut their skin. At first glance these topics—and in particular Bohhalian's non-condemnatory treatment of them—seem rather adult in nature. But in fact these ideas are standard fare for other boundary-pushing works of contemporary YA lit. For example, the upcoming Love Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson includes a character whose drug use is rooted in complex circumstances. Similarly, Blythe Woodson's recent Black Helicopters shows its protagonist trading sex with an older man for shelter for herself and her brother.
As Jennifer Miskec and Chris McGee explain in "My Scars Tell a Story: Self-Mutilation in Young Adult Literature" from Children's Literature Association Quarterly, contemporary YA lit embraces nuanced psychological and cultural views about cutting. In Violet & Claire by Francesca Lia Block, for example, the protagonist stops cutting when she channels her frustrations into filmmaking instead; in Pretties and Specials by Scott Westerfeld, "cutting is a way [for teens] to gain strength and clarity about the world around them." So when Emily describes cutting as a substitute for creative journaling and as a means to feel "almost human," Bohjalian's not flouting conventions of YA lit; instead, he's locating his story in an established pattern of others.
The number of YA novels that take place in crumbling worlds is dizzying. Some of my favorites from this year include Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle and Rick Yancey's The Infinite Sea, the sequel to last summer's The 5th Wave.
In some ways the apocalypse is a natural metaphor for being a teen: For teenagers, everything is the end of the world. And as high school ends and teens leave home for college, work or other pursuits, the world as they know it is, in a way, literally ending.
So the question remains: Why is Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands an adult novel? Or rather, why isn't it YA?
A book's target audience can be as much a marketing decision as a content one—and no wonder, considering the debate that raged this past summer. When the movie adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars hit theaters in June, cultural critics like Slate's Ruth Graham immediately started lampooning grownups who read YA books that "abandon the mature insights . . . that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults." And just today, film critic Anthony Lane blasts YA lit in The New Yorker, writing of "the über-mantra of young-adult narrative: everything is a choice—your boyfriend, your college application, your breakfast, your playlist, the color of your scrunchie, and your ontological status. No reference must be made to principles beyond your reach, because those do not apply."
Bohjalian already has an established adult readership; would these fans buy a YA novel? By publishing Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands for adults, Bohjalian's publisher could avoid the issue entirely.
But, as surveys like Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age show, adults actually do often buy, read and enjoy YA books. And as Salon's Laura Miller points out, YA fiction—like adult fiction—can do "everything a written text can do that other forms of storytelling cannot."
And just like adults can and do pick up YA books, teens can do and read books published for adults: Awards like YALSA's Alex Awards recognize adult books of high interest to young adult readers.
In the end, a good book can be a good book, whether it's categorized as adult or YA. So even though Bohjalian's readership is dominated by—and his new novel is targeted toward—adults, I'd bet on a new generation of Bohjalian fans. He's certainly earned it.
What other books do you love that cross YA/adult category lines like this? Add your thoughts in the comments!
The Rosatis thought they were safe from the war hidden away in their ancient villa, until two soldiers walked into their lives. Twelve years later, the Rosatis are being targeted by a serial killer. Serafina Bettini begins investigating the case, but every step closer to an answer brings back her own hidden past. In a world that is trying to recover from the pain of war, Bohjalian expertly knots the threads of his characters, creating a story of love and revenge.
Chris Bohjalian, New York Times best-selling author of The Sandcastle Girls, delivers another mysterious novel, this one set in the beautiful hills of Tuscany. Our reviewer calls The Light in the Ruins "a brilliant blend of historical fiction and a chilling serial killer story."
Be sure to read the full review here and check out the trailer below from Knopf Doubleday for more:
Will you read The Light in the Ruins? What other mysteries have you read during Private Eye July?
Best-selling author Chris Bohjalian is back with The Light in the Ruins, which was released last week. Set in Florence in 1955, the novel is described by our reviewer as "a brilliant blend of historical fiction and a chilling serial killer story." No doubt it'll keep readers briskly turning the pages until the very last one.
We were wondering which books Bohjalian hasn't been able to put down lately, and so we asked him to recommend three recent reads. Here they are:
I read this novel as a galley and was mesmerized. (It goes on sale in September.) Searles, whose previous novels include Boy Still Missing and Strange But True, has given us something absolutely wonderful: A coming-of-age tale that is poignant and touching . . . and will scare the living hell out of you. I loved every single page of this book. I loved the two sisters and the story and the lush, atmospheric, page-turning mystery. I just may never go downstairs into my basement again.
This is a collection of short stories, and I really don't read many short stories. I'm more likely drawn to doorstops that have a novel hiding somewhere inside them. But I enjoyed Russell's 2011 novel, Swamplandia!, so I gave this collection a chance—and I'm very glad I did. They are all a little quirky and more than a little disturbing: Humans are transformed into silkworms. The meaning of life for a lonesome teenager may exist in the objects that a seagull is hoarding in its nest. And, in a tale set among the Nebraska homesteaders in the 19th century, a windowpane anchors one boy’s terrifying ride across the plains.
Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles
By Ron Currie Jr.
Earlier this year, I was nearly asked to leave the waiting room outside the endoscopy clinic at a Vermont hospital, thanks to this novel. A friend of mine had just turned 50 and was getting his first colonoscopy. I drove him to the hospital and brought Currie’s novel to read while he was sleeping through what we euphemistically refer to as “the procedure.” I reached a scene so blisteringly funny that I laughed as I hadn’t laughed in years: We’re talking demonic, unstoppable, don’t-sit-next-to-that-guy howls. It was the narrator’s confession that he’s incapable of moving his bowels in the same building as his girlfriend and the efforts he’s made to hide from her the fact that he has ever gone to the bathroom. I’m not sure what it says about me that I found Currie’s potty humor brilliant, but it does make me a bit like his narrator, who is filled with buckets of self-loathing. The book is actually a sentimental rom-com, and—just for the record—I really like sentimental rom-coms.
Reader: Cynthia Gray of Valley Center, Kansas
Favorite authors: John LeCarré, Tana French, Bernard Cornwell, P.D. James, Chris Bohjalian, Henning Mankell, Minette Walters, Dennis Lehane, Ruth Rendell
Favorite books: The Name of the Rose, Heart of Darkness, Cold Mountain, Rebecca, The Poisonwood Bible, House of Sand and Fog, The Lost, A Life for a Life, To Kill a Mockingbird
OK, Cynthia, we'll start with some suspense suggestions first, since that seems to be your primary interest. Readers of John LeCarré should pick up David Downing's Station series (starting with Zoo Station) and The Geneva Trap by Stella Rimington, which are full of satisfying spy action. Another suggestion: The Expats by Chris Pavone.
For the psychological suspense and across-the-pond charm of James, French and Rendell, try the Simon Serrailler series by Susan Hill (starting with The Various Haunts of Men), Proof of Guilt by Charles Todd, the works of Sophie Hannah or Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton.
On the more literary side, à la Lehane and The House of Sand and Fog, you might enjoy these recent releases: Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kruger, Visitation Street by Ivy Pochada or The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud.
You mentioned Bernard Cornwell, Cold Mountain and The Name of the Rose among your picks, so we'll serve up a few historical novels for good measure! Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White mixes the Gothic atmosphere of Rebecca with vibrant Victorian detail. Fans of Charles Frasier should check out Paulette Jiles, especially Enemy Women and The Color of Lightning.
Reader Laurie Kavanagh from Marietta, Georgia, writes:
"As a retired English teacher, I look for authors who can use the English language to engage, surprise and inspire me, as well as tell a good story. Love intrigue, suspense—just great, original stories that rip my heart out or intrigue me and leave me thinking about the story for days after. And I love BookPage—it is an excellent source for me to discover good writers!"
Favorite recent books: Tell the Wolves I'm Home, The Dog Stars, A Killing in the Hills, The Round House, The Prophet, Beautiful Ruins, Flight Behavior, Ghost Man, Life After Life.
This is a wide-ranging list, but if I had to try to describe Laurie's tastes in just one sentence, I'd say she's looking for thoughtful literary fiction that doesn't sacrifice plot, as well as suspense novels with strong characters and writing. Laurie sounds very well read, so we'll stick to lesser known authors who meet this criteria in the hopes of digging up something new!
Readers who like Stephanie Kallos, Haven Kimmel or Julia Glass should give Joshilyn Jackson's gods in Alabama or Sheri Holman's The Mammoth Cheese a shot. Both are accomplished, big-hearted novels full of entertaining characters and thoughtful moments. Better still, both authors have backlists to devour—and Jackson has a new book, Someone Else's Love Story, coming in November.
As for the well-written mysteries, don't miss Louise Penny’s Canadian whodunits about Chief Inspector Gamache and his homicide department in Quebec—the ninth book in the series, How The Light Gets In, will be published on August 27.
We also loved Owen Laukkanen's truly unpredictable debut, The Professionals, the first book in the Stevens and Windermere series about an FBI special agent and a Minnesota state investigator. Book #2, Criminal Enterprises, was released in March.
Laurie R. King is best known for her series starring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, but her standalone books, like Touchstone and Keeping Watch, are terrific, smart reads that will please fans of Kate Atkinson. Plus, she has a new one, The Bones of Paris, coming in September.
It's been nearly a year since Defending Jacob, William Landay's third novel, was published—but this chilling psychological thriller doesn't show any signs of slowing down. After months on the New York Times bestseller list, it recently came in at a whopping #3 on our Readers' Choice list of the Best Books of 2012. (There's also a movie in the works from Warner Brothers.)
Like John Grisham and Scott Turow, Landay is a former attorney who turned to writing crime fiction. Also like those superstars, he is adept at crafting an irresistibly suspenseful tale. Defending Jacob is about an assistant D.A. in an affluent suburban Massachusetts town whose life is completely turned upside down when his 14-year-old son is accused of murder. So what does he do next? The father sets out to defend his own son in court.
If you are one of the many readers who got hooked on Defending Jacob, I hope you'll enjoy these suggestions for what to read next.
Novels like Defending Jacob are so compelling, in part, because they make us think about how life can irrevocably change in a single moment. In Lupton's second novel (after 2011's Sister), that moment is the outbreak of a fire at an elementary school—where Grace's son is enrolled as a student and her teenage daughter works as a teaching assistant. Was it arson? And how are Grace's children involved? Like Defending Jacob, this is a family-centered thriller that focuses on the great lengths a parent will go to protect his or her child.
It may initially seem that a thriller and a massive nonfiction book have little in common—but in fact they address similar themes. How does a child grow up to commit criminal acts? How do parents react to major unforeseen life events? How do they move on after these events, if such a thing is even possible? For one chapter in his book, Solomon interviewed (and spent hundreds of hours with) the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre. This chapter is incredibly thought-provoking and sobering and would make an appropriate supplement to Defending Jacob—especially in light of the tragedy in Newtown, CT. (Solomon has written thoughtfully about that event, as well.)
Bohjalian's 1997 book about a midwife accused of murder (by performing an emergency c-section) is one of my favorite courtroom novels of recent memory, pitting doctors against midwives and townspeople against one another—all the while raising plenty of ethical dilemmas. Like Defending Jacob, this novel takes place in a small community and shows what it's like for a family after a criminal accusation.
Defending Jacob begs comparison to Shriver's 2003 Orange Prize-winning novel, in which a teenager commits a grotesque act of violence against his classmates. As you read descriptions of parental anguish and the violent actions of a disturbed boy, you will want to cover your eyes. For better or worse—this book may give you nightmares—you will be unable to stop reading thanks to Shriver's clever plotting.
This is another natural pick for readers who enjoyed Defending Jacob. In both novels, the narrator is a father who is unable to believe that his son committed murder—though in this case, the son is an adult, and the victim is a prominent presidential candidate. Why did the son do what he did? Could his parents have prevented the act of violence? A harrowing (and heartbreaking) story.
Readers: What books would you recommend for fans of Defending Jacob?
Did you miss Defending Jacob? The mass market paperback ($7.99!) comes out on February 26.
ALSO ON THE BOOK CASE: See what to read after Gone Girl.
Inspired by his Armenian heritage, Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls takes on the story of Armenian genocide during the First World War.
Bohjalian sheds light on his inspiration for the novel in a behind-the-book essay in our July issue: "The Proustian Madeleines that Inspired a Novel." Here's an excerpt:
When I decided that it was time to write a novel about the genocide—what my novel’s narrator calls glibly, “The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About”—I found myself focused on children and food. Because of the Proustian madeleines from my own childhood, this seemed a viable entry into a story that might otherwise be one mind-numbing horror after another.
Will The Sandcastle Girls make your vacation reading list?
Even though I don't have summer homework assignments or go to camp anymore, and come June I'm more likely to spend my afternoons at my desk than by the pool, I still love compiling a huge summer reading list (then checking books off on my TBR).
Here's what the editorial staff of BookPage is looking forward to this summer—what about you?
Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes (Harper)
Police intelligence analyst Elizabeth Haynes burst onto the scene with this novel, her debut; it was named the best book of 2011 by Amazon UK. This summer, it will be available for U.S. readers. The chilling story revolves around Catherine, a woman whose charismatic boyfriend turns violent. Years later, when she finally thinks she’s free of him, her living nightmare returns. (Psst: In June, look for a Q&A with Haynes on BookPage.com!) June 5.
The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore (Knopf)
Harvard professor and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore gives us a fascinating look at the human life cycle. From the publisher: "How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when we die? 'All anyone can do is ask,' Lepore writes. 'That's why any history of ideas about life and death has to be, like this book, a history of curiosity.'" June 5.
Porch Lights by Dorothea Benton Frank (Morrow)
Summertime favorite Dorothea Benton Frank takes readers back to Sullivans Island, South Carolina, where widow Jackie takes her 10-year-old son to reconnect with family after the death of her husband. Packed with Lowcountry charm and Frank's trademark humor, this family story is sure to delight readers. (Psst: Look for a handwritten Q&A with Frank in the June issue of BookPage!) June 12.
Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin)
The best-selling author of A Reliable Wife does not disappoint with his follow-up novel, which is set in the Shenandoah Valley after World War II. Goolrick's descriptions of small-town life are so lyrical they beg to be read out loud, and his subtle humor rewards readers who savor his prose. A Reliable Wife fans will be happy to hear that this novel also includes a sizzling love story. (Psst: Look for an interview with Goolrick in the June issue of BookPage!) June 12.
The Red House by Mark Haddon (Doubleday)
The author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has written a family drama that takes place during a vacation—one that dissolves into a “symphony of long-held grudges, fading dreams and rising hopes, tightly-guarded secrets and illicit desires.”
Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf)
Shipstead's debut novel is a social satire set on a private New England island, as a father prepares to give away his (already pregnant) daughter, and other wedding guests and family members face lust, old rivalries and obligations that come with privilege. June 12.
Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury)
Kate Summerscale captivated readers with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, and her latest book, Mrs. Robinsin's Disgrace is sure to be equally compelling. This nonfiction book chronicles the life of a Victorian woman who is put on trial for adultery. Her private diary was actually read in court—and is supposed to be just as explosive as Madame Bovary.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (Random House)
This page-turner is the sensitively told story of Julia, who is just 11 years old when it becomes apparent that the world’s rotation is slowing. As the days—and nights—get longer, the world must decide how to cope. Juxtaposing this extreme situation with Julia’s discovery of her first love and other coming-of-age dilemmas makes for a compelling read. (Psst: Look for an interview with Walker in the July issue of BookPage!) June 26.
Summerland by Elin Hilderbrand (Reagan Arthur)
Bestseller Elin Hilderbrand has written a tension-packed story of life after tragedy. The story unfolds after a car accident on the night of Nantucket High's graduation, when popular student Penny dies and her twin brother is left in coma. Who is responsible? (Psst: Look for a handwritten Q&A with Hilderbrand in the July issue of BookPage!) June 26.
The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner (Atria)
Reader favorite Jennifer Weiner is back with a novel that was surely inspired by her time in Los Angeles as a writer/executive producer for a sitcom. In her new novel, a young woman moves to LA and eventually makes it big when the show she writes is accepted for production. Expect lots of Hollywood insider scoop. July 3.
Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness (Viking)
The follow-up to Deborah Harkness' A Discovery of Witches may be THE most anticipated book of the summer. It kicks off right where the first book in the All Souls Trilogy ended, when vampire Matthew and Diana, a witch, traveled to Elizabethan London on the journey to crack the code of the mysterious manuscript called Ashmole 782. July 10.
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian (Doubleday)
In his latest novel, New York Times best-selling author Chris Bohjalian taps into his Armenian heritage for a sweeping, layered historical love story that travels from Syria of 1915 to modern-day New York. (Psst: Look for a behind-the-book essay by Bohjalian in the July issue of BookPage!) July 17.
Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussman (Little, Brown)
This debut novel sounds like what The Great Gatsby would be if it were set in the era of “Mad Men.” The story spans two decades in the lives of a wealthy family with a summer house where significant events (murder!) take place. Klaussmann is the great-great-great granddaughter of Herman Melville and has worked as a journalist for The New York Times. July 17.
Where We Belong by Emily Giffin (St. Martin's)
As usual in an Emily Giffin story, the book puts its (successful, smart) female protagonist in a sticky situation. Marian Caldwell is a TV producer in her 30s who has put her youthful indiscretions behind her: until the most memorable of them, 18-year-old Kirby, comes knocking at the door of her New York apartment. July 24.
Broken Harbor by Tana French (Viking)
Tana French’s particular brand of psychological suspense really strikes a chord with readers. Her fourth novel in the loosely connected Dublin Murder Squad Series is narrated by Scorcher Kennedy as he investigates what seems to be an open-and-shut domestic murder-suicide. July 24.
The Roots of the Olive Tree by Courtney Miller Santo (Morrow)
Courtney Miller Santo's debut is about five generations of California women—including the 112-year-old matriarch—living together on an olive grove. A geneticist believes these women hold the secret to defying the aging process. August 21.
New York Times best-selling author Chris Bohjalian (Midwives, The Night Strangers) has a new novel coming out on July 17! Set in Syria in 1915 and present-day New York, The Sandcastle Girls taps into the author's own Armenian heritage for a sweeping, layered historical story.
Elizabeth Endicott, a wealthy young American, arrives in Syria in 1915 to help refugees of the Armenian genocide. Armen, a young Armenian engineer who enlists in the British Army, finds himself falling for her and begins to write her letters from Egypt. In present-day New York, novelist Laura Petrosian discovers her Armenian heritage after an old friend claims to have seen a newspaper photo of Laura's grandmother. She begins a quest into her family's history to uncover love and a long-forgotten secret.
According to Doubleday, Bohjalian's heritage is "a subject his legions of fans have been asking him to write about for years."
Be sure to check out our video interview with Bohjalian about The Night Strangers:
Tamye’s three favorite novels are impossible to resist because they couple suspense with a fiction lover’s favorite question: What if this terrible thing actually happened? One author who is, of course, a master of this sort of drama is Anita Shreve. The Pilot’s Wife may be her most famous book (What if your husband died in a plane crash—and it turned out he may have led a double life?); I also like A Change in Altitude. (What if a year-long adventure in Africa turned horribly wrong?)
Another winner is the expertly paced Midwives by Chris Bohjalian, which will surely prompt fierce discussion in any book club. (What if a home birth took a fatal turn—and the midwife was consequently persecuted?)
Finally, you can always count on Sue Miller to provide similar satisfaction and conversation. Her latest, The Lake Shore Limited, is especially good. (What if you planned on leaving your lover on 9/11/2001—the same day he happened to be on an ill-fated airplane?)
Put your name in the hat for you own book fortune by sending an e-mail to bookfortunes (at) bookpage (dot) com.