A couple of years ago, I attended a children's lit conference at the University of Arizona. The theme was a sense of place in children's and YA lit. Ever since then, I've had an eye out for those kinds of books, and I look at the way location affects the story and the characters. My conclusion is, I like it--when it's done right.
I'm not talking about the guidebook kind of location-- "She walked down 5th Avenue and stopped at [insert landmark store here]." I mean the kind of location chosen because it reflects the characters and the story. In some cases (like Meg Cabot, who obviously loves NYC) it reflects the author as well.
Liz Gallagher's recent The Opposite of Invisible is one of those. It takes place in Seattle, and not just in a faceless suburb, but Seattle itself, with the Fremont Troll playing host to a couple of important scenes and other parts of the city holding equal importance.
New York City is a popular one, with a number of books taking place there. Aimee Friedman's The Year My Sister Got Lucky and Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries series are two recent examples.
I liked Laura Resau's Red Glass because it took place partially in Tucson, and was obviously written by someone who'd been there and wasn't just using it as shorthand for "dusty desert town." 4th Avenue, chickens in the backyard (this is legal in Tucson; I know because while I was studying at the university, I rented a room from a woman who did have a coop), the desert just outside the city limits, and immigration concerns all play a part.
I'm currently living just north of L.A., so when I read Gordon Korman's Son of the Mob: Hollywood Hustle and Jessica Blank's Almost Home, I noted how the city featured. In the first book, L.A. is semi-obligatory for a film student, and it provided a good foil for the New-York-grown main character and his family, but it felt a little like L.A. by the numbers. Beaches, check. Complaints about traffic, check. Glittery people, check.
In the second, Blank shows a seamy underbelly of LA that's rarely mentioned in the guidebooks. In fact, the whole book takes place in about a six-block square area--quite a feat for a city that's got the worst case of urban sprawl known to motorists.
Did the choice work for both books? I think so. Hollywood Hustle used L.A. a symbol and a foil, a new world for Vince. Almost Home turned the traditional view of L.A. on its head to make the situation of the characters all that much more horrible.
How about you? What are some recent books with a strong sense of place? Was it done right?