Three coming of age books ‘beyond the rye’

What exactly is a coming of age book? A couple of weeks ago, I was intrigued to attend a discussion class at Politics and Prose (lovely independent bookshop in Washington DC) to consider three ‘coming of age’ books ‘beyond the rye’, Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, and The Wanderers by Richard Price. The class was run by author James Grady. 

I have a massive soft spot for coming of age books, so proved a feisty student. We had an interesting discussion about whether ‘coming of age book’ and ‘novel about children’ were synonymous and indeed whether we adults favor the more pretentious-sounding genre to justify our childish reading choices… In fact other than books where the kids are frozen in eternal youth, like the Famous Five, I personally find it hard to think of many novels starring a child character which couldn’t be characterized as ‘coming of age’ – can you? That transition phase as a child experiences and learns things that mould them from innocence and simplicity into their grown up selves is to me the most fascinating time of life to read about – that pluripotent time where anything could happen, when their life could still take any direction. I love how such a universal process always feels so unique and yet resonant. There’s rarely a coming of age book I don’t manage to enjoy (especially, I confess, if it takes place in a dystopia). 

And yet, my experience at this class made it clear to me that I very much prefer the coming of age stories that focus on girls, or gay boys (of which I’ve probably read hundreds), to the violent, posturing, and foreign-feeling boyhood world in which these three set books took place (one of my few forrays into this domain). I admit I didn’t enjoy any of them much except Black Swan Green which was wonderful. There was indeed that horrible stereotypical schoolboy violence but there was a fascinating backdrop, sensitively-rendered relationships, a stammer which almost felt like a character in its own right, and there was charm and joy and quirk. The English countryside was well-depicted but still, gender simplification as it may be, I finished it thinking “gosh, I’m so glad I’m not a boy!”

Next I read The Wanderers, about gangs in the Bronx, and I had the same thought a thousand times over. It was so infused with violence I almost found it too stressful to read, even though I could tell it was very well done, in a sort of West Side Story way. 

I’d been particularly looking forward to Dandelion Wine as I always have high hopes of Ray Bradbury,  but then found it so self-consciously dull I soon ended up skipping it altogether. 

A strange little batch of reading but sometimes it’s nice to find myself obliged to read something I otherwise wouldn’t. I think it’s good to know what else is going on in the land of coming of age before I settle down with my beloved The Painted Garden by Noel Streatfeild – which, on three thousandth reading, is a glorious antidote to gang warfare. Even though the characters don’t change all that much, I’m still calling The Painted Garden a ‘coming of age book’ to comfort me that I’m not just reading a children’s story. Ahem… Anyone want to stop me?

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The Silo Series by Hugh Howey

One sentence plot: The world’s air has been poisoned long ago; the only survivors live underground in a silo. 

In the mood for a nice new dystopia for holiday reading, I happened across Hugh Howey’s Silo series (Wool, Shift and Dust) and I was hooked. Each of these books is over 400 pages making this a real epic read, but very much an easy read, and pretty consistently compelling (though some friends disagree!). 

Essentially we have the standard dystopia formula of people living in some socially very different evolution from our present day society following an unspecified disaster with the population going along with the rules enforced by those in charge, til some lone person wants the truth, and a better life, and starts asking questions. What is fun about this trilogy is that after the first book it’s told from two different sides, the dystopic world we have met, and another dystopic world that’s linked in fascinating ways… 

I felt the world of the silo was very well crafted and full of great detail. The characters were interesting and relatable and generally well drawn. At times this was a compulsive page turner. I particularly enjoyed one of the main characters, Juliette, and liked that gender is a fairly irrelevant fact in this world. There are a lot of very good characters, some less compelling. The writing is more than competent (though not expecting a Booker Prize nomination for this one). But really I most appreciated the well-imagined plot. Despite being written in serial form, it comes together very well. I admit to pulling a couple of very late nights just to find out what happened next. 

I could find out, because there’s a sequel, Sand. Can’t decide if I like the sound of it, but I expect I’ll cave and not regret it. Good dystopia, Howey!

The verdict: 4/5 shoes

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

One sentence plot summary: A Mexican family move to Delaware after their daughter has an accident that leaves her with brain damage, and they find a community in this foreign country. 

Do you ever feel you’ve had a run of reading things that were… just okay? Well thank goodness for The Book of Unknown Americans for breaking my rut of pleasant mediocrity. 

Maribel’s parents reluctantly leave their lovely Mexican home behind in hope of accessing the special education they hope will help their daughter after an accident that leaves her with brain damage. They end up living in a depressing apartment block in Delaware where Maribel’s father braves a depressing job while Maribel’s mother Alma tries to make a life for them all. 

The book is primarily about this family’s story, but interwoven is the story of the other immigrant families living in the apartments. The narrative, which is beautifully done, moves between Maribel’s family members and, as Maribel makes a friend of Mayor, those of his family across the hall. Their voices are charming and compelling and real. Every so often a short chapter flits to another apartment dweller, building up a sensitive, nuanced, happy and sad and very human picture of how each individual ended up converging in that Delaware building that they’ve all unexpectedly found themselves calling home. It’s smart and reflective. 

Don’t relax, because worse things happen than you might expect. But the message of the book seems to be that life isn’t about blame, recriminations, or dwelling on the might-have-beens and what-ifs. And ultimately, that’s an uplifting, hopeful thought. This book is very well done. 

Rating: 4/5

Among Others by Jo Walton

One sentence summary: After surviving an incident involving magic, that killed her twin sister, 15-year-old Morwenna’s love of science fiction books help survive her boarding school and build a new life. 

I like coming of age books set in boarding schools. I like books about reading. But I’m not sure I like books about fairies and magic… This book is a combination of these, and in the end I did quite enjoy it. But would I recommend it? Not sure. 

When we meet her, Morwenna has fled her home in Wales, where her mother was mentally/magically dangerous, and is placed with her estranged father in a posh English boarding school. They bond over a shared love of sci fi, but thanks to his never-explained bizarre social situation, she finds herself sent to a boarding school where she overcomes the town/gown divide to make friends who also love science fiction books. Oh, and some talking to fairies, and a bit of magical peril. 

What was confusing about this book to me was the seemingly random magical bits inserted amidst a fairly standard and enjoyable coming of age story. Some parts are all a bit too neat (the people she meets become perfect friends); other parts are insufficiently neat (OMG the aunts may be trying to steal her magic by piercing her ears, you say? Errr… Why? Are they magical too? Mysterious family suicide… Why are there no answers or elaboration?) And then the end: eh?!

I kept wondering if the magic bits were supposed to be metaphors but I’m not convinced – I think they were intended to be taken as read. Maybe… I liked Morwenna, I enjoyed her detailed book enthusiasm (if I knew more about 70s science fiction literature it would have been even better, but not necessary to enjoy). I even enjoyed the relationships she made between the other characters. But I found it hard to suspend disbelief and embrace the magic, personally. 

Rating: 3/5

The Forever Watch by David Ramirez

One-sentence synopsis: The world has ended, and Hana happily lives aboard the Noah, a giant spaceship transporting the remainder of humanity on a hundreds-of-years journey to a distant planet – until she discovers there’s a grisly secret.

It’s a bad sign when you go to write a review of a book finished a couple of days ago and think: “gosh, what was that about again?” The Forever Watch was recommended to me by a friend, and as a dystopia enthusiast, I was excited about reading it. I was partly rewarded, but mostly left unfulfilled.

First, I will say that this is an ambitious and well realised sci fi world. The author sets up a meticulously detailed civilisation inside the massive spaceship Noah where a whole population lives and works together to keep the spaceship running as efficiently as possible on its long journey to the distant planet where humanity will eventually repopulate. Everyone has a role according to their talents, and everyone’s talents are somehow augmented. There is a complicated, cool system of tapping into humans’ powers to achieve different things and to communicate in a way that is fascinating and compelling (and explained with slightly too much detail).

Descriptions of life onboard the Noah take up the first third of the book, and this was my favorite part – though I’ve read other reviews complaining that this part dragged. It clearly depends on whether the reader’s taste is for daily life in a dystopia (me) or murder mystery hijinks and peril (really not me). The last two thirds of the book involves a complicated hunt for the truth, involving a certain amount of highly complicated technology use. This was done reasonably well though I kept getting confused about what was happening.

The element of the book that put me off the most was Hanna’s relationship with ‘my man’, ‘my lion’, ‘my beast’, aka her unconventional boyfriend, a policeman with a mission to uncover a secret, which he draws her into. Every time she spoke about him like that, it made me cringe, and like both of them less.

There were all sorts of fascinating questions explored in this book, and the dystopia was well realized. Other than her sloppy soppy way of referring to her boyfriend, I liked Hanna a lot as a main character. Plus the ending is good.

The reviews I’ve read have mostly been glowing. Personally, I can name about 30 sci fi books I’ve enjoyed more. Nevertheless, an interesting read. But one I nearly ditched with a third of the book to go due to boredom, irritation, and lack of taste for murder mysteries…

Rating: 3/5 shoes

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

One sentence synopsis: Pastor Peter leaves his beloved wife at home (where unbeknownst to them, the apocalypse is approaching) to travel to a far-off planet, where he relishes his job ministering to the ‘Jesus lovers’, a Christianity-devoted alien race.

This seems to be the inadvertent month of ‘If you liked this book, try “. Last year I adored The Sparrow, and its sequel Children of God by Maria Doria Russell on the same sort of topic. It was utterly compulsive, inventive, heartbreaking and redeeming. I haven’t cared more about characters or a plot for ages. When I realised she wrote a sequel, I dropped interest in everything but reading it.

For me, though Strange New Things was very good, it couldn’t compete with Russell’s wonderful worlds. While some say the Book of Strange New Things ending was ambiguous (I don’t agree), I wouldn’t rush to read a sequel.

I very much enjoyed Faber’s construction of a space station and its quirky inhabitants in an alien land. I liked his alien species, with their weird communication style and enthusiasm for Christianity (thanks to a previous pastor). I was fascinated by Peter’s experience of trying to care about what was happening to his wife back on Earth, and increasingly struggling. The characters and plot were interesting, though I couldn’t really understand why Peter had actually signed up, and agreed to leave his wife behind, or believe why he’d been so specifically chosen to do so. The passages from the Bible that some have criticised in the book as excessive seemed to me pretty appropriate within the context. I even shed a tear at one point, when we learn something sad about the alien species.

And yet, I wasn’t bewitched like I was with The Sparrow. This time, I could put the book down and do something else without feeling at all resentful. This book is well done and worth reading. But if you’re only going to read one book this year about a Christian Missionary going to a far-off planet to bring the word of God to the locals, your first call should really be The Sparrow.

Rating: 4/5 shoes

Greyhound by Steffan Piper

One sentence synopsis: negligent mother sends her 12 year old son alone on a 3-day cross-country Greyhound bus trip where he learns about life.

Greyhound was an enjoyable romp through a depressing theme. Sebastian’s mother is rubbish and ditches him in favour of her latest boyfriend. He’s sent across America to live with his grandparents on the Greyhound bus, and 95% of the book is that journey. Various alarming things happen, but he befriends a guy and various other characters who give him insights into life and try to look after him in their own ways – more looking after than he ever received at home.

It’s not great literature, but it’s fairly well done and certainly the story is compelling – I stayed up late to finish it. Its main problem is failing to capture the voice of this 12 year old boy – the author constantly uses words that clearly Sebastian would never use, or even know, which jolted me out of the story every time. And some of his musings would only make sense if he was looking back on the trip as a worly weary older man, which he isn’t. This failure to grasp the right tone for the book’s protagonist and narrator is fairly distracting.

Sebastian himself doesn’t have much character to him – he’s more of a blank slate on which the other, colorful characters write. But somehow it all pulls together despite its flaws. This is a road trip book in the American tradition, with a pleasing sprinkle of bus nerdery. It is surprisingly satisfying.

Rating: 3/5 shoes

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

At the end of 2014 I was obliged to read The Bone Clocks for a book group, and despite essentially enjoying it in the end, found it full of frustrating, over-complicated, belief-stretching annoyingness. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, on the other hand, was like an expansion of all the good bits of Bone Clocks, and elimination of all the annoying parts, with a pleasant addition of a Life After Life component. If you’ve liked either of these books, I suspect you’ll love this one.

The premise is a group of people who are born over and over again into the same life, with varyingly retained memories of their last lives, and the various ways in which they use this predicament/gift. The characters are engaging, and the plot is utterly compelling. I particularly enjoyed all the practical aspects (how many times can you go to school without getting incredibly bored, for instance, and how to get out of it), and seeing the different approaches to having a life destined to infinitely repeat. Sure, as with all this sort of thing, a bit of suspension of belief is called for. But it was absolutely worth it. The best book I’ve read in this genre and an excellent, you-can’t-make-me-put-it-down start to my 2015 reading.

Rating: 5 shoes

What I read in 2014

I set out to read 100 books in 2014. And oh dear, ladies and gentlemen, I did not succeed. I managed 70. On the other hand, knowing I was aiming for 100 meant I read significantly more than in 2013. I rated them all out of 5, based subjectively on my perceptions and reading experience re quality and enjoyment.

The top 18 books I read in 2014 (5 shoe rating)

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Girl who saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

Room by Emma Donoghue

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

The Girl with All the Gifts by MR Carey

These Things Happen by Richard Kramer

The Bees by Laline Paull

Euphoria by Lily King

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

The Martian by Andy Weir

Every book I read in 2014, in reading order, rated out of 5

The Room of Lost Things by Stella Duffy 4/5

Light Boxes by Shane Jones 3/5

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells 3/5

Americanah by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie 4/5

The Outward Urge by John Wyndham 3/5

The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin 4/5

Astray by Emma Donoghue 4/5

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett 5/5

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride 4/5

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd 5/5

We Are Water by Wally Lamb 4/5

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman 5/5

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman 4/5

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman 3/5

TransAtlantic by Colm Toibin 3/5

The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin 4/5

Flora by Gail Godwin 4/5

Close Range by Annie Proulx 3/5

The Colour by Rose Tremain 5/5

Daughters of the River Huong by Uyen Nicole Duong 4/5

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue 4/5

Bark by Lorrie Moore 4/5

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd 5/5

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion 5/5

Wishin’ and Hopin’ by Wally Lamb 4/5

Mastering Public Health by Geraint Lewis 3/5

The Moon King by Neil Williamson 4/5

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante 2/5

The Girl who saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson 5/5

The Museum of Lost Literary Souls by John Connolley 4/5

Making Sense of Critical Appraisal by Olajide Ajetunmobi 3/5

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer 5/5

Perfect by Rachel Joyce 3/5

Room by Emma Donoghue 5/5

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt 5/5

The Girl with All the Gifts by MR Carey 5/5

These Things Happen by Richard Kramer 5/5

Safe area Gorazde by Joe Sacco 4/5

The Girl who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow 4/5

The Bees by Laline Paull 5/5

We Were Liars by E Lockhart 4/5

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami 4/5

The Provincial Lady by EM Delafield 4/5

Euphoria by Lily King 5/5

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green 4/5

East of Eden by John Steinbeck 5/5

We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler 5/5

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters 4/5

The Provincial Lady Goes Further by EM Delafield 3/5

The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley 5/5

Oy vey, My Daughter’s Gay (in draft)

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer 4/5

The Provincial Lady in America by EM Delafield 4/5

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell 4/5

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut 4/5

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani 4/5

The Humans by Matt Haig 4/5

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion 3/5

Echo Boy by Matt Haig 4/5

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell 5/5

Love, Ellen by Betty Degeneres 3/5

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell 4/5

Tokyo on Foot by Florent Chavoulet 4/5

The Library by Haruki Murakami 4/5

Six Stories by Clayton Littlewood 2/5

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell 5/5

My Japanese Husband Thinks I’m Crazy by Grace Buchele Mineta 4/5

Prep by Curtis Sittenfield 3/5

Academy Street by Mary Costello 2/5

The Martian by Andy Weir 5/5

In 2015 again I plan to try for 100 books in a year. And a better attempt to review them on this blog! If you have any recommendations, let me know in the comments section. And wish me luck!

A batch of holiday reading: We Are Water, His Dark Materials trilogy, TransAtlantic, and The Dispossessed

I recently returned from a delightful trip to Costa Rica. In between all the hiking and rafting and tubing and cocktail drinking, I was of course reading. And now I return, faced with an intimidating prospect of six book reviews. So, dear reader, I shall cheat. Behold, some short reviews of  the books I read during my 11 day vacation!

We Are Water by Wally Lamb


One sentence plot: Told from the perspective of several characters, this is a study of families, abuse, marriage, and how to be happy – plus art, gay and race subplots.

One sentence review: This took me inexplicably long to get through, considering it was compelling, funny, interesting, distressing, intriguing, engaging, and clever – all the good stuff I’ve grown to expect from Wally Lamb, and it was indeed good.

The verdict: 4/5

His Dark Materials Trilogy – The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife and the Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman


One sentence plot: An epic coming of age/fight of good against evil where the boundaries blur as young Lyra moves between parallel universes in a race to save the world.

One sentence review: This is a suspenseful, complex and intelligent adventure, with compelling, multidimensional characters, and lots to say about the institution of religion, in a beautifully, imaginatively, believably drawn set of worlds, full of their own customs, joys and terrors.

The verdict: The Golden Compass gets 5/5, The Subtle Knife gets 4/5 and the Amber Spyglass gets 3/5. If this is your sort of thing, beware of finishing the first book without ensuring the next one is close at hand…

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann


One sentence plot: A series of intergenerational, interlinked stories spanning from the first TransAtlantic flight, between the US and Ireland, that depict various personal and sociopolitical elements of the US-Ireland relationship over 150 years.

One sentence review: McCann is trying to recreate the luminous Let The Great World Spin but the same device that worked so well for that book is awkward and self-conscious here, sometimes giving moments of beauty and delight, but often feeling labored and a bit irritating – though I really liked the history of the first TransAtlantic flight…

The verdict: 3/5

The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin


One sentence plot: A utopia/dystopia sci fi book set between the two societies of a capitalist world and its anarchist/feminist/communist moon, through the eyes of a brilliant scientist who loves his own world, but faces disillusionment when he looks for science to rise above politics.

One sentence review: This is a rather clever and thought provoking story of two beautifully drawn societies, embodying some really interesting ideas about politics and power, while providing intricate, fascinating detail of life in each society, with an interesting, suspenseful plot and a main character who provides a good lens through which to view it all.

The verdict: 4/5 stars