Friday, February 12, 2010

Booklist Additions

A list-maker’s work is never done. Just when you think you can cross a booklist off your list of lists, someone recommends a book, or you rediscover an old book, or a brand-new book fits the topic perfectly. A booklist can never truly be complete, and that’s all part of the fun. Here are some fine, thrilling additions to booklists that are already on the shelves.

More Jane! for the Jane Austen Purist

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, 2001 Penguin Classics, originally published in 1847 (Fiction Classics)

There are plenty of less-than-ideal women in Jane Austen’s novels. Lucy Steele is a pert, pretty kiss-up in Sense and Sensibility. Innocent Catherine Moreland is completely taken in by the flirty, wily, money-hungry Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. The noisy/ nosy Musgrove sisters can’t keep their hands off Persuasion’s dashing Captain Wentworth. Sister Lydia runs off with the wicked Wickham in Pride and Prejudice and cousin Maria is ruined by that charming cad Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park. Not a one of them can hold a candle to Becky Sharp, our delightfully devious anti-heroine of the classic Vanity Fair. Becky, daughter of a starving artist with the barest pretensions to gentility, is a cunning young woman who is determined not to let something as trivial as social status stand in the way of greatness. Becky is the opposite of her fellow classmate Amelia Sedley, a wealthy girl who’s everything a lady should be—delicate, kind, simpering, and simple. Becky, like any good heroine, seeks the security of a good match, but she’s much keener on money and rank than love and companionship. Becky hitches her wagon to the Crawley family, who employs her as a governess and is a perfect target for her sugary charms and seductions. The Crawleys have a handsome son, and Becky can play the sweet young thing to a tee. Becky and Amelia meet again as wives of fellow soldiers and as their fates unfold against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, author William Makepeace Thackeray playfully satirizes both the upper-class society of his day and the novel-of-manners style of literature with this “novel without a hero.” The unscrupulous Miss Sharp has remained a perennial favorite of classic literature due entirely to her wit, charm, considerable sex appeal, and dead refusal to play by the very strict rules of her era. For readers who wish Jane Austen had occasionally pushed the envelope just a bit more, the exploits of Becky Sharp are ideal indeed.

Young Adult Books Too Good to Miss

The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle, 2008, Henry Holt and Co. Books (Children’s Fiction/ Teen Fiction/ Poetry/ Historical Fiction)

The subtitle of this book is Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, but don’t let the word “poems” fool you. You don’t have to be a poetry reader to appreciate this remarkably unique story. Told in free verse (a poetry style that doesn’t rhyme and concentrates instead on a realistic rhythm), The Surrender Tree is a complete narrative, a novel, a work of historical fiction that tells a version of Cuban history we don’t read about much in history texts. In 1868, a few Cuban plantation owners freed their slaves and declared independence from Spain’s rule. For the next three decades, the tropical isle was wracked by nearly constant warfare. Amidst the turmoil and bloodshed emerges Rosa, a slave-turned-healer who spends the tumultuous years of the war hiding in the jungle and healing anyone and everyone she comes across—runway slaves, Cuban rebels, Spanish soldiers (many who change sides after Rosa helps them) and even the legendary Lieutenant Death, the son of a slave hunter who becomes a cruel soldier and Rosa’s most feared foe. Rosa and her husband José spend years camped out in make-shift hospitals in huts and caves, constantly on the move but always connected to the land by the plants, flowers, and herbs that Rosa uses as medicine. Rosa, José, Lieutenant Death, and others like Spain’s General Weyler, who in 1896 called for all Cuban peasants to be herded into “reconcentration camps,” and Silvia, a young girl who escapes from one of Weyler’s death camps, take turns telling the story of Cuba’s fight for freedom from their own point of view. This is where the verse poetry comes in; every poem is a glimmer of light into the world of one of the book’s characters. The story becomes an interwoven, haunting story full of brutal tragedy, quiet triumph, and, above all, the beauty and history of the nation of Cuba. Author Margarita Engle (whose mother is Cuban) writes about real historical figures, though she takes a few liberties with the facts of their lives to weave a more completely unified story. In the end, she tells a powerful story in an elegant style to create a work that won her a Newbery Honor (the first Latino author to do so), a Pura Belpré Award (for Latino authors and illustrators), and a Jane Addams Award (for children’s books that promote peace, equality, and social justice). The Surrender Tree may be a book for young readers, but is truly a book that should be ignored by no audience.

For the Dorky Boy in All of Us

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak, 2005, Alfred A. Knopf Books (Teen Fiction/ Literary Fiction)

Ed Kennedy has been a loser all his life. Born on the wrong side of the tracks, an underachiever in school, in unrequited love with his best friend Audrey, Ed's only cheerleader is his ancient, stinky dog. At the tender age of nineteen, he's an underage cabdriver facing a long life of mundane routine.... until he spontaneously commits an act of bravery during a bank robbery. Then Ed begins receiving playing cards in the mail, aces with cryptic notes that direct him to certain people and places. By following these clues, Ed finds himself in a position to help--stopping crimes, uniting people, playing the hero (even if he sometimes has to play the bad guy first). And every time he chooses to care, Ed is challenged and changed. Whether those changes are for the better or for the worst is tied up in the mystery of who sends the aces, and why, and it's a mystery that's as important to the reader as it is to Ed. Author Markus Zusak invents some unique characters to wander in and out of Ed's adventures, and makes Ed himself a lovable loser, a thoughtful, honest kid with a supporting cast of smart-ass friends and an original narrative voice. First published in Australia in 2002 as The Messenger, this redemption tale won the Children's Book Council of Australia's Book of the Year Award.

Be More Chill by Ned Vizzini, 2004, Miramax Books (Teen Fiction)

Jeremy Heere is a dork. No car, no girlfriend, no high school status. An endless existence as a nerd who keeps track of his daily humiliations and consoles himself with Internet porn seems to stretch out in front of Jeremy—until someone tells him to take a squip. A squip is a supercomputer in pill form, a bit of nanotechnology that lodges in Jeremy’s brain (after he buys it illegally from the back of a Payless shoe store and washes it down with a Mountain Dew) and tells him what to wear, say and do to be Cool. Before you can say “take a chill pill,” Jeremy is leading a squip-enhanced life that has him partying with the guys who used to torment him, hooking up with the school’s hottest girls, and maybe even impressing his beautiful, untouchable crush Christine. But life with a piece of experimental talking technology in your head isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and Jeremy struggles to find a balance between the sex-and-drug-fueled exploits his new popularity demands of him and getting the girl to really care about him. Author Ned Vizzini invents a clever could-be world that confronts the challenges of teen life with a biting sense of humor and a working knowledge of what that life is really like (Vizzini, twenty-three years old when Be More Chill was published, began writing about his experiences at New Jersey’s Stuyvesant High School when he was just fifteen). Jeremy’s squip may have some unconventional ideas, but Jeremy himself—a typical, smart-ass, desperate teenager—is the sort of dorky boy the world (alternate reality or not) needs more of.

Never Mind the Swine Flu

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy, 2003, Clarion Books (Nonfiction/ Teen Nonfiction/ American History)

This Newbery Honor book, Robert F. Sibert Medal recipient, and National Book Award winner claims young readers are its audience, but it recounts a chapter in American history that should be ignored by no one. During the sweltering summer months of 1793, the city of Philadelphia was fraught with controversy. President George Washington was refusing to assist the French in their new war with Britain, and the freshly minted American citizens were angry. The French had helped them with their revolution, after all, and many believed the favor should be returned. So the increasing number of dead animals, insect swarms, and festering smells went unnoticed, even while church bells rang daily to announce more and more deaths. Eventually, one brave physician dared to put a name to the disease that was sweeping through the city: yellow fever. To 18th century ears, this was a death sentence. Yellow fever spread fast and had no cure. While some citizens fled as fast as they could, other remained to sooth the fevered brows of their friends and neighbors. Heroes emerged during the crisis—from famous countrymen like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who tried to keep the new government stable during this early emergency; to eminent physicians like Dr. Benjamin Rush, who possessed the energy to confront the disease; to the under-appreciated men and women of the Free African Society, whose members voluntarily stayed and became nurses and comforters of the ill. Journal entries, newspaper articles, and photographs fill out the story and provide those all-important first-hand details and points of view. By the time the temperatures cool and health is restored, you’ll be very glad you live in the 21st century, and deeply inspired by the men and women who fought the fever so long ago.

Welcome to Dystopia

The Maze Runner by James Dashner, 2009, Delacorte Press (Teen Fiction/ Fantasy)

Thomas wakes up in the Glade. He has no idea how he got there; he has no memories of his life before this. The Glade is a small safe haven in the middle of an enormous labyrinth, and Thomas is in the company of sixty other memory-less boys who have been delivered up to the same fate—solve the Maze before nightfall, or else. If they don’t make it out, the half-machine, half-animal, all-monstrous Grievers will attack and destroy. The Glade is the only refuge from the hazards of the Maze, but the existence the boys manage to eke out is meager indeed, and the desire to get out is overwhelming. Food is supplied via the same freight elevator that delivers a new boy every thirty days, but two years have gone by since the first batch of fellows arrived, and no one has solved the Maze yet. Thomas struggles with the rules of his new life until one day the elevator opens and a new Maze Runner is flung into their midst. But this time it’s a girl, and she comes with a terrifying message: There will be no more deliveries of food or supplies, no more amnesiac kids. There will be no help, no rescue. The Maze needs to be solved—now or never. An action-packed story hints at a dangerous, devastated world outside the Maze, and as soon as one question is answered a new problem emerges to demand a life-or-death solution. Thomas is an intelligent protagonist, curious and determined to unlock both the puzzle of the Maze and the secrets in his head, but it’s the anticipation of what comes next that will keep the pages turning. The first book of a planned trilogy, The Maze Runner reveals a mysterious dystopia where survival, rebellion, and adventure reign supreme.

Mortal Engines: The Hungry City Chronicles, Book One by Philip Reeve, 2001, Scholastic Books (Teen Fiction/ Science Fiction/ Fantasy)

Tom Natsworthy is a lowly apprentice in the Guild of Historians. Kate Valentine is the beautiful daughter of Head Historian Thaddeus Valentine. Hester Shaw is a young woman with a hideously scarred face, a would-be assassin whose attack on Thaddeus Valentine is thwarted by young Tom. And the city of London, where this event takes place, is a Traction City: a towering mobile metropolis with metal jaws that rolls across Europe in pursuit of smaller towns to capture and use as resources, food, and fuel. The world’s cities took to the road hundreds of years ago to escape the constant wars and natural disasters that ravaged the planet, and that’s the future that Tom, Kate, and Hester have grown up in. The Hunting Grounds of Europe used to be flourishing, but things have taken a turn for the worst and it’s become a city-eat-city world. When Tom saves Valentine from Hester’s attack, he expects to be a hero—but instead he’s thrown out of London after Hester and stranded in the wide, open, dangerous Out Country, at the mercy of every roving town, pirate, airship, or Stalker robot that might pass by. Tom’s confusion is matched only by Hester’s desire for revenge and, back in London, by Kate’s overwhelming curiosity about the girl who wants to kill her father. As Tom and Hester try to get back to London and as Kate explores the hidden depths of her city, a secret plot with an ancient but deadly weapon is revealed, and Kate’s father, London’s dastardly Lord Mayor, and a league of cities that have chosen to dwell on the bare earth, are all implicated. Author Philip Reeve seamlessly combines social commentary with action-packed adventure and a richly detailed future world. The first of a series (as so many dystopian sagas are), Mortal Engines is followed by Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices, and A Darkling Plain.

The Knife of Never Letting Go: Chaos Walking, Book One by Patrick Ness, 2008, Candlewick Press (Teen Fiction/ Science Fiction) 

When things got real bad, a few pioneers left the messy Old World (earth) and resettled on New World. They were in search of a fresh start, a simpler way of life, but they were in for one hell of a shock--an alien race already in residence. The human settlers were able to win the war for their new home pretty easily, but not before the aliens released a germ that made the men able to hear each other's thoughts and killed the women. All this is ancient history to nearly thirteen-year-old Todd Hewitt, who was born on New World and has only ever known a life among the miserable leftover men of his town and the unending chaos of thought (called Noise) that accompanies them. But just as Todd is on the cusp of the birthday that will make him officially a man, he uncovers a secret so shocking that everything he knows to be true is called into question. Somewhere out there Todd detects a hole of silence in the constant barrage of Noise, and the consequences of that discovery will challenge and change everything in New World. Now Todd, his faithful dog Manchee, and a surprise visitor are running for their lives from the men of Prentisstown. And don't forget: Todd's enemies can hear every thought in his head--and those of his little dog, too. This is one of the most gut-wrenching, brutal dystopias out there. Author Patrick Ness writes an action-packed punch of a novel that just about breaks your heart--but he always keeps just a tantalizing glimmer of hope dangling to keep you reading, and the drama is well worth it. The cliffhanger at the end of the book is so shocking that you're not going to want to spare even one second--make sure you have The Ask and the Answer, book two of the Chaos Walking trilogy, immediately at hand.

Monster Love

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, 2009, Scholastic Books (Teen Fiction/ Fantasy/ Romance)

Shiver is a werewolf’s hungry reply to the best-selling, blockbusting, fan-favorite Twilight Saga, and Shiver’s young lovers Grace and Sam are more than a match for the moody intensity of Bella and Edward’s love affair. Grace is a solitary, intelligent girl who relishes the wild tranquility of the woods behind her house. The wolves that dwell there are especially fascinating, and one wolf in particular—a yellow-eyed handsome creature who once saved her from the rest of his pack—holds a unique attraction for her. That wolf is Sam, a werewolf who was bitten as a boy and who is just as smitten with Grace as she is with him. For years Grace and Sam keep their distance despite their curiosity, but during Grace’s seventeenth year they are thrown suddenly and violently together when wolves kill a boy and human hunters retaliate. Now, Grace finds herself nursing a wounded yellow-eyed boy who must be her beloved wolf, and the star-crossed lovers finally get to know each other. Sam and Grace’s romance is tender and true but fraught with danger. Author Maggie Stiefvater creates a werewolf mythology that keeps the creatures in wolf-form during the frigid winter months and allows the warm weather to transform them into humans for the few brief summer months. Sam’s injury makes him revert to teenage boy form, but the wolves, the humans, and the winter cold are swiftly approaching and threaten to destroy this new relationship and Sam and Grace’s very lives. Shiver is told from Sam and Grace’s alternating points of view, making this Romeo and Juliet plot (with a sequel, Linger, due in July 2010) all the more suspenseful, passionate, thrilling, and chilling.

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, 2007, Thomas Dunne Books (Fiction/ Horror/ Fantasy)

Republished as Let the Right One In after an internationally successful movie adaptation of the same name, the originally titled Let Me In is Scandinavia’s contribution to the vampire fad that is sweeping the globe—and for good reason. Vampires are creepy and fantastic, and when the setting is a lonesome snow-covered suburb in Sweden, the moody intensity just grows and grows. Oskar is a twelve-year-old boy who is constantly bullied and beaten at school. With no friends to turn to, Oskar’s outlets are daydreaming, shoplifting, and keeping a scrapbook of gruesome crimes clipped from the newspapers. Then he meets Eli, a girl about his age who moves into the apartment next door. Eli only comes out at night and smells a bit funny, but Oskar is desperate for companionship and Eli’s quirks suit his own oddness. Meanwhile, a series of brutal deaths begin to plague the area—bodies are drained of blood. It doesn’t take long to discover that Eli is a vampire stuck in a permanent childhood, a deadly little creature who is both desperate to survive and genuinely fond of Oskar. Their sweet, awkward relationship is a splendidly creepy contrast to the blood and gore of the murders. Author John Ajvide Lindqvist adds some original twists to an occasionally predictable story that is part crime novel, part horror story, part paranormal crush. The dark, atmospheric quiet of the film is an excellent companion to the novel and will allow you to be delightfully creeped out on both page and screen.

If Animals Were Authors

Watership Down by Richard Adams, 2005, Scribner Books, originally published 1972 (Teen Fiction/ Fantasy)

Did you forget about this classic of animal-authored literature? Me too. Yet Watership Down is without a doubt one of those few and far between books that are well worth reading years after they’ve been assigned in high school. That’s because the story of talking bunnies works on so many levels and contains touches of everything from mythology and legend to modern history and politics. Fiver is a prophetic rabbit who, one day, senses the swift and unstoppable upcoming destruction of his warren’s home. Sure enough, the field is bulldozed and led by Hazel, a few lucky bunnies set out to found a new promised land in a far-away haven known as Watership Down. Many dangers lurk along the way—the hardships of the homeless, the trials of travelers, a stay along the way in seemingly-idyllic warren that quickly turns nasty, and the ruthless demands of a dictator-like rabbit named General Woundwart. Brother bunnies Fiver and Hazel prove their worth on this Odyssey-like journey, and author Richard Adams blesses his critters with a richly detailed culture that includes social castes, language, poetry, and religion. The long-lasting appeal of Watership Down likes in its superbly-crafted mini-civilization, its powerful insight on human behavior as seen from the animal’s point of view, its epic nature, and its ability to be read as everything from adventure to allegory. If you haven’t ventured out of the den with Hazel, Fiver and company since middle school, it’s time to pick up the book and join the quest again.


  1. Thanks for these great reviews. Just one thing FYI- Ned Vizzini's high school, Stuyvesant, was in New York City, not in New Jersey.