Here are two books. Two books written for adults but featuring teenage protagonists. This happens quite a lot, and more so lately, and I suppose it is for the simple reason that teenagers lead more interesting lives than adults do. They get out more. Sometimes adult books featuring teen main characters are absolute must-reads for teens - but sometimes they are what they are: emphatically adult literature featuring young people in starring roles.
Kate Riordan has lived in the depressed, left-behind Appalachian river town of Swan River all her life. A lot of people have. Swan River is just not the kind of town that people manage to leave - and there's nothing particularly sinister about that, it's just that Swan River's falling-down shacks, meager businesses, and dark wooded roads inspire little in the way of hope.
Kate fears this. Kate has an older sister, Maggie, whose intelligence and musical talent might have propelled her up and away from Swan River for good, but instead Maggie drinks wine coolers in the Tastee Freez parking lot with her girlfriends and works at the town coffee shop. She lives with her high school boyfriend, Kayak Boy, described by Kate as "uncurious," which is such a great word for those who never leave towns such as this one.
But there is something else that Kate fears. Sometimes, in Swan River, a teenage girl will go wild. In one night, she will murder all her siblings, or burn down the mill. During the Civil War, five girls were known to have flown over the woods and torn several Union soldiers limb from limb. Kate's own sister had a wild night once - flew out a window and torched the library.
The one solvent economic force in Swan River is the Academy, a private boarding school attended by rich girls, the kind of girls whose last names are on the buildings. Thanks to her mother's job as secretary to the headmaster, Kate gets to attend the Academy. Although she knows that this is her ticket out of Appalachia, she also knows that it is by no means a sure thing - Maggie went to the Academy too, and still was not protected from Swan River's twin perils of rage and inertia.
Prose as sharp and pungent as a red autumn leaf describes Kate's vertiginous passage through her senior year at the Academy. And while Wild Girls hits a very large number of tropes that have become crushingly familiar in recent YA - boarding school, magic realism, mean girls - it never NEVER feels formulaic. This is GREAT YA.
Hemlock Grove is such a legitimately surprising book that I am hesitant to give away any of the plot, or even describe its characters. Suffice to say that Peter also shares Kate's acceptance of the unexplained as part and parcel of everyday life. Peter's a Gypsy - a Roma - and in this book, the Roma have a relationship with the unseen world that is half BS and half true as balls. Peter is excellent.
And oh my gosh is this a book to read! But for grownups. You grownups, go read it right now. If you liked Twin Peaks when it was on, if you like humid gothic cut with acerbic dialog, just go read it.
Because while Wild Girls is perfect YA - thrilling and vivid and authentically possessed by Kate all the way through - Hemlock Grove is told from the points of view of many characters, including some of the adults. There are grownup relationships - a sad marriage full of animosity, a sad man, a gloriously hideous long-term sexual relationship between two people who by and large despise each other - and while I have NOOOO problem with sex in YA novels, THIS sex is so closely associated with decades of loathing and obsession that... well, it's just not going to parse for teenagers.
Put it this way - there are a a lot of True Blood parallels you can draw here, and NONE of the sexual relationships in Bon Temps, LA are nearly as twisted as the ones in Hemlock Grove, PA. And that includes when Sookie was boning Erik when he had amnesia.
Here endeth Part LXXVII in What Makes a Book YA Or Not. Thanks for playing along!
Mary Stewart Atwell came up with a playlist for the characters in Wild Girls for Largehearted Boy.
The Wall Street Journal reviewed Hemlock Grove, reporting the production deal that has already been struck. Congrats Brian McGreevy! Eli Roth is to direct - hubba hubba!
And I'll link to the PW review of Hemlock Grove too. Interesting - none of the usual suspects in the YA world have reviewed either book. Maybe it's just me that read these and immediately jumped to the 'Adult books for teens' conclusion.