Every so often you stumble upon a book that is a real gem - and What I Was, by Meg Rosoff, is just such a book. I half wish it weren't so short, but I think its brevity (really only novella-length) is part of its charm.
Before you all go rushing off to read it, let me preface my review by saying that this book is not going to be for everyone. If you like your books fast-paced and crystal-clear, What I Was is not for you. Ditto if your reading preference is thrill-a-minute, macho, or comedic.
This book is for you if you've ever wished you could just NOT do the whole "rat race"/"American Dream" thing, if you've ever wished you could just go somewhere and be left alone to live as you wish. If you watched Castaway and wondered why he was in such a hurry to get home... if you have ever felt like you just don't "fit" in a modern world... then you might fall in love with this book.
Going into too much detail would spoil the story, but in brief, What I Was is the story of a teen boy attending the most recent in a long line of British boarding schools in the 1960s. (His name is Hilary; this is one of those books that doesn't name the protagonist until the very end, which drives me BATTY, so I hope you and the author'll forgive me for telling you his name up-front.) When the book opens, Hilary is an old man in the mid-21st century, reflecting on what was and what could have been. He then tells his story, that of a "square peg in a round hole" who can't seem to pass his classes or make friends, who gets bounced from school to school by thoughtless, frustrated parents who just want him to grow up and join the "real world" without any care to what he wants.
While out on the beach near the school, young Hilary meets Finn, an orphan living the free, simple life that Hilary hadn't yet realized he wanted. They strike up an awkward, sometimes one-sided friendship - the prep school boy with no real-world skills who is frantic for companionship, and the windblown, competent youth who doesn't really seem to have any need for any other humans.
Hilary and Finn's idyll is never perfect, and their friendship is never simple. It becomes more and more complicated as outside circumstances push into their lives - and as their relationship evolves, the reader is filled with a lot of questions about what, exactly, is going on here. If you are like me, you'll be surprised when it all becomes clear.
What I Was is a luxurious soak in a soft-hued story written in beautifully-crafted prose, a story that affirms one's choice to reject "normal" even as it acknowledges how difficult or even impossible that may turn out to be. I was reminded of Frances Hodgson Burnett in some ways, and maybe even a little bit of Maugham or Hemingway, if only viewed through a sheet of gauze. The story appealed to my love of mid-20th century British literature, even though it was neither written nor set in that time period.
Stephanie Meyer wasn't the first to write bestselling vampire books - at the very least, we've got Anne Rice to thank for that - but her Twilight series definitely rocketed vamp lit into the mainstream. Since then, the publishing market has been flooded with books (some pretty good, some pretty dreadful) populated by denizens of the night.
When I first heard about Christopher Farnsworth's novel, Blood Oath, I was intrigued but skeptical. Turns out I needn't have worried; Blood Oath was awesome. The gist of the story is that a vampire - pardoned from execution by President Andrew Jackson in the early 1800s - has been secretly working for the White House ever since, defending the President and the country from domestic, international, and supernatural threats. It's National Treasure meets Men in Black meets... I dunno, Batman? The X-Files?
And it TOTALLY works. The action keeps you turning the pages. The characters aren't the most rounded you'll ever encounter, but then again, it's an adventure novel, not a character study. It is well-written and well-researched, stuffed with fantastic little historical notes that are accurate and intriguing but not boring or plot-halting. (You know - the kind where you accidentally learn something while having fun.) The neat thing about this book is that you can enjoy it even if you don't read "vampire books" - and you can enjoy it if vampire books are your favorite type of literature. If you're interested in American history... if you're interested in the secret service or how we deal with domestic terrorism... if you're interested in old school horror movies and movie monsters (specifically Frankenstein and his monster, both of whom play an important role in this book)... if you like your heroes tall, pale, and bloodthirsty... then I think you just might love this book.
And the sequel (there are two books in print right now, another on the way, and a full series planned) apparently involves Osama bin Laden as some sort of demon that the vampire hunts and kills. Just, y'know, for what it's worth. :)
John Green is hands-down my favorite author of books for young adults. Why? Well, there are a few reasons. For one thing, I got to know him through his vlog before I ever read any of his books, so it sort of felt like reading something a friend had written.
More importantly, though, I love the fact that he respects teenagers. His books are funny and smart and aren't afraid to be real. He knows that teens live in a hard world, that even if their lives aren't particularly rough that they're surrounded by peers whose lives are. He knows and respects that teens worry about and deal with some serious issues, and when he writes about them, it is honest and unpatronizing - and not sensationalistic, either.
An Abundance of Katherines is probably Green's most lighthearted and silly book. It tells the story of Colin Singleton, a recent high school graduate with some fascinating quirks. He's obsessed with anagrams, for one thing - you know, the thing where you mix up the letters in a word or phrase to create a new word or phrase. (If you rearrange the letters in "The Morse Code" you get "Here Come Dots"!) His best friend, Hassan, is a plus-sized Muslim with a "thing" for Judge Judy. Colin refers to himself as a "washed up child prodigy."
And quirkiest of all, Colin has dated - and been dumped by - nineteen girls. Let me rephrase that: Colin has been dumped by nineteen girls - all of whom were named Katherine. And after this, the most recent of dumpings, Colin is determined to understand why. He and Hassan hit the road in search of enlightenment, truly original ideas, and a Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability.
This book is a goofy buddy road-trip story, stuffed with laugh-out-loud dialogue, annotated with even funnier footnotes, and liberally sprinkled with nerdiness. It's the sort of book that isn't for guys or for girls, even though the main characters are male (and if you happen to be, like me, a Katherine, it makes it doubly funny at moments). It will almost certainly appeal to you if you like smart humor, math and theoretical stuff, and really well-written characters. If you watch The Big Bang Theory or even How I Met Your Mother, you may very well fall in love with An Abundance of Katherines.
Qualifies for AERP and available from my classroom library!
When we talk about the Salem witch trials, we usually end up talking about the contagious nature of hysteria, or about how the repressed sometimes act out in an attempt to gain power. But what, as one of the characters in The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane asks, if the Salem witches really were witches? What if we've got it all wrong?
Deliverance Dane tells two interweaving stories. One of the stories is Connie Goodwin's. Connie is a graduate student, working on her PhD at Harvard. Her area of expertise is the Salem witch trials of 1692. The other story takes place amongst the people of Salem in the late seventeenth century, and follows the struggles of a woman who may in fact be a bona fide Salem witch.
As the book moves on - as Connie's life is increasingly complicated by her seemingly nutty mother, by her deceased grandmother's clutter, by her suspiciously aggressive professor, and by a man who steals her heart - we realize that these two storylines are twisting closer and closer to one another, and that sooner or later, they are going to intersect.
It's difficult to say what genre this book falls under. It's definitely historical fiction, but it's also a little bit fantasy and a little bit mystery/thriller. If you like your history spiced up with a liberal dash of magic, look no further. It's spooky, page-turning, sometimes confusing fun - and although Howe doesn't intend for this book to be historically accurate, so to speak, you'll never really look at the Puritans in quite the same way.
This book, named one of the top ten books of 2009, is not written specifically for young adults but would be a fascinating detour into an alternative look at early American history. If you like The Crucible, or are interested in how people lived in the pre-USA "New World" - and if you're not scared of a little bit of "what in the heck is going on here?" - then this might be a great book for you. Qualifies for AERP and available from my classroom library!
Neat sidenote: the author is a descendent of Elizabeth Proctor (yep, that Elizabeth Proctor) and Elizabeth Howe, the latter of whom was executed for witchcraft in Salem!
I think you know that a book is good when it can make you laugh and make you cry. Yesterday I finished Crutcher's book Deadline and wow... what a good book.
Chris Crutcher is pretty cool, IMHO, because he's an Idaho author who writes books about Idaho teens - most often teenage guys who like sports. But they're not frivolous little books that assume that all athletic boys are dumb jocks. Instead, Crutcher writes about very real-seeming guys who have to deal with tough, real problems. And they're set in Idaho, with jabs about the state and casual mentions of local curiosities; Crutcher's description of Boise, its footballmania, and its blue turf made me laugh out loud.
Deadline is about a high school senior named Ben Wolf who lives in Trout, Idaho. Ben is funny, smart, and smart-alec. Right before the school year begins, Ben goes in for his cross country physical and the doctor discovers that he has an aggressive form of terminal blood disease. In short, Ben Wolf has at most a year to live.
Instead of feeling sorry for himself, or milking the situation for special treatment, Ben decides that he's going to pack an entire life into his one year. That means going out for the football team (and proving that small guys can play ball), giving his small-minded government teacher a hard time, and getting the girl. And it means that he can't tell anyone. Ben decides that no one is going to know that he's dying until it's too late to hide it, because he wants to be able to live his last year on life as normally as possible.
What Ben discovers - in addition to the joys of football and feminine company - is that dying isn't for sissies, and neither is living. It turns out that he's not the only one with a tough secret to hide... and with only one year left to live, Ben finds out what the purpose of his life is to be.
If you love football - playing or watching - I think you'll like this book. If you like reading about places you know, you'll feel right at home in Crutcher's Idaho. And if you like reading realistic stories about how people get through tough situations, then this book is definitely for you. It's a light, easy read that really doesn't have any "slow bits," even when Ben talks philosophy with a dream figure named "Hey-Soos." It does have a few $5 words in it, and there are some tough "adult situations" in it (mentions of sexual events, but no details) that make it a solid PG-13 book. Qualifies for AERP and available from my classroom library!