When Brown University student Kevin Roose told his parents he wanted to attend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University for a semester, they were obviously shaken. After all, they had raised him to be a good liberal with solid Democratic values—where had they gone wrong?! Then Kevin explained that he wanted to enroll undercover in order to write a book about what it was really like inside the cloistered world of Christian college, and they relaxed…a little. The result of Roose’s anti-secular semester sojourn is this enlightening, balanced and highly entertaining book, where he shares his experiences with dating Liberty girls (“Hand holding and hugging are the only official displays of physical affection allowed at Liberty…and hugging only for a three-second maximum”), taking Liberty science classes (one professor provides physical dimensions for Noah’s ark and explains how the animals were in a state of hibernation so they didn’t need as much food), and checking out Every Man’s Battle meetings, “Liberty’s on-campus support group for pornography addicts and chronic masturbators.” But while some aspects of Christian collage were exactly what he expected, Roose was also surprised by how honest, kind, and funny his dorm mates were, and how much they struggled with the strict rules of Christianity that they professed to completely agree with. Although he was deeply troubled by the rampant homophobia that existed on campus and the anti-evolutionary stance taken by the faculty (some of whom are highly respected and published scientists) he was also deeply touched by the sincerity of these same students and faculty when it came to praying and helping one another through difficult times. Roose also really loved singing in the church choir, waking up on Sunday mornings without a hangover, and the surprisingly lack of pressure when it came to asking out Liberty girls. As someone who graduated from a (slightly) less strict Christian college than Liberty, and who no longer follows that spiritual path but still has friends who do, I really appreciated Roose’s tone, which was always open-minded and respectful and never condescending or patronizing. You can read more about Roose’s evangelical experience on his blog and website.
Fourteen-year-old Loren’s first mistake was torching the golf course. His next was trusting his mom’s slimy golf pro boyfriend when he said they were going “camping.” Instead, Loren’s mom and her vindictive beau end up dropping him off at Camp Ascend!, a run-down boot camp for wayward teens. The golf course fire was the last straw in a long line of military “maneuvers” the Green Beret-obsessed Loren carried out that finally land him in the dubious care of the “Colonel,” a professional scammer who wouldn’t know a Green Beret from a Navy Seal. The Colonel, his uber-high maintenance wife Kitty and her Neanderthal brother Donovan are the camp’s only staff, and their methods of tamping down turbulent teen behavior are less than orthodox. But they’ve never dealt with a kid like Loren, who actually has some knowledge of espionage & guerilla warfare–even if it only comes from movies. Loren proceeds to turn the camp on its ear by kidnapping Kitty, smoke-bombing Donovan, and stealing the Colonel’s Swiss bank account numbers. But Donovan, whose brain really is the size of a bottle cap, finally gets wily Loren under his ape-like paw. And that’s when the fun REALLY starts. This raucous send-up of a Dr. Phil-type teen boot camp special is a clever indictment of the pop psychology media that touts “tough love” as the answer to all teen troubles. At times Donovan’s pea-brained violent behavior is truly terrifying, but Kitty’s vapid obsession with mail-order spa products and Loren’s dumb-luck escapes help lighten the sometimes dark story. This is the perfect book for those of you who always suspected that adults aren’t nearly as smart as they pretend to be!
This generous helping of superhero soup will quickly sate the appetites of those of you who continue to crave tales of men (or women) in tights outside of comic books. Going way beyond Superman or Wonder Woman, these superheroes range from the bizarre to the merely banal, each one unique in his or her own quirky way. The opener, “Girl Reporter,” tells how one famous superhero’s initial rough edges were smoothed by his unsung journalist girlfriend, creating the classy crime fighter we know and love today. In “The Quick Stop 5,” several slacker convenience story employees discover they have been granted powers by a particularly aromatic batch of diesel fuel, and become a national brand faster than you can say “Hannah Montana.” I also quite enjoyed the stories of America’s most disgusting superhero, The Silverfish (“Remains of the Night”) and it’s most unusual (“The Meerkat”—I know, I’m still scratching my head over that one, too. But trust me, it works). And then there’s “The Pentecostal Home for Flying Children,” where one womanizing superhero has left behind all his red-headed airborne offspring to be raised by a forgiving woman of God. In the darker themed “Roe #5,” a woman discovers that her past has come back to haunt her in not-quite human form, and in “Man Oh Man, –It’s Manna Man,” one man uses his powers of persuasion to make crooked television evangelists donate to the needy instead of themselves. But my favorite stories may have been in the last section, “Super Ordinary.” There, David Yoo relates the tale of “The Somewhat Super,” those who have the dubious ability of not having to go to the bathroom (EVER), or the less than impressive power of…static electricity. Kelly Braffet explores what it feels like to have the power of bad luck in “Bad Karma Girl Wins at Bingo,” while Jennifer Weiner tells of the story of a down-and-out writer who suddenly discovers she can speak to dead people—and find missing children. Finally, David Haynes ends the collection with “The Lives of Ordinary Superheroes,” which explains what happens to old superheroes—do they retire, or just fade away? Awesomely illustrated by Chris Burnham, this super-sized collection (22 stories in all) should keep you busy at least until the sequel to Ironman comes out!
Benjamin and Tom are two entrepreneuring eighteenth-century grifters who need a sympathetic third body to help them tug at potential marks’ heart and purse strings. Enter Ren, a small dirty orphan with only one hand. Grateful to have found a new “family,” Ren agrees to play his part, though his sensitive conscience (well developed at the Catholic orphanage) often pains him. Using Ren’s wan face and prominent disability, the two crooks clean up until they turn their illegal attentions to grave robbing. Caught at the dirty deed, the trio are targeted by a shady local mill owner, who holds an entire small New England town in his tight fist. As they try to escape his murderous intentions, a surprising secret about Ren’s past comes to light, changing, well…everything. This quirky historical yarn, reminiscent of the writing of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, is full of colorful characters and unexpected twists. Both absorbing and exciting, often absurd and sometimes deeply sad, The Good Thief is a darn good read.
This epic story of a lonely boy, his loyal dog, and his family’s betrayal at the hands of his bitter uncle has haunted me (in a good way) since I read it, and I hope it will resonate with some of you as well. Set in rural 1970’s Wisconsin and employing some of the same elements as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the novel explores the inner life of mute boy Edgar Sawtelle and his family’s amazing fictional breed of near-mind-reading dog, simply called the Sawtelle dogs. (You can’t get one, because they don’t exist, but by the end of the book, you’ll want one!) Edgar’s life raising and training dogs on his family’s farm is idyllic until his father dies suddenly and Edgar suspects his uncle was involved. Determined to bring the man to justice, Edgar makes several crucial decisions that will change the course of his life and the fate of the Sawtelle dogs. Now, just because this buzz book is going to be all the rage in your mother’s book club next year is no reason to dismiss it out of hand. Trust me, underneath all the heaps of praise from frou-frou literary critics, a passionate, frustrated heart of adolescent angst beats at the center of this big book. (And don’t complain about the length, either. You ran right out and bought that monstrously huge Stephanie Meyer book, and didn’t even blink at the number of pages of the last Harry Potter. I just don’t buy that “I don’t read books this long” argument anymore.) So drop by your local library and grab it off the best-seller table or your dad’s desk and have at it. Then come back here and tell me about it…
In a world where evil magicians called Danisoba steal away small children who display any hint of mystical talent, orphan pirate girl Kestrel works hard to hide her ability to whistle up the wind. But she may be forced to show her hand when her beloved Captain Binns is arrested by the Royal Navy and sentenced to hang for his dastardly deeds. Kestrel is frantic to save him. But if she allows her talent to show, any sailor worth his salt will sell her out to the nearest Danisoba for top dollar. So instead she relies on more earthly means to orchestrate the save of the century. Hampered by a mutinous crew, a disappearing ship, and a double-dealing jack o’ napes named Philip McAvery, (who may or may not be on her side but is far too good looking to be trusted either way) Kestrel has to decide if she’s willing to risk life and liberty to save the man who has been like a father to her. Shiver me timbers! This thrilling paperback original reminded me of my all-time favorite series, Bloody Jack(except with magic). So if you’re a fan of the nefarious Jack Sparrow, or just partial to spell-casting buccaneers and swashbuckling acts of derring-do, sail out the door to your nearest bookshop and drop some gold doubloons for this high seas fantasy adventure penned by newbie author Misty Massey.
Sarcastic, twenty-something amateur sleuth Madeline Dare, grown-up child of hippie parents, takes a job as a teacher at an elite, if fairly cult-ish private school for troubled teens. The head guru in charge, Santangelo, promises desperate parents results, no matter what technique he has to employ to get them, including isolation and humiliation. Madeline, who’s having nasty flashbacks about her own dad’s bizarre child-raising methods, is having serious doubts about whether she can continue to teach using Santangelo’s “unorthodox” techniques. Then, two of her fav students turn up dead and Madeline rejects the hypothesis that the kids offed themselves and instead begins to dig for evidence of corruption at the highest levels. Turns out that pseudo-suicides are the LEAST of what shady Santangelo has under his ridiculously pretentious opera cape. This bitterly funny mystery by Edgar Award-nominated author Cornelia Read has a great cast of teen characters, but the best voice is that of jaded, wickedly witty slacker sleuth Madeline Dare herself. This is one seriously dark comedic nailbiter.
Sometime in the near future, silvery parasitic aliens infiltrate the human population, bringing peace and love but causing their hosts’ personalities to be erased. Melanie Stryder is a seventeen-year-old post apocalyptic street fighter with a bad attitude who also happens to be stunningly gorgeous. Wanderer is a 1,000-year-old well-traveled female alien soul who, despite being parasitic, is altruistic to the point of martyrdom. The two of them are both attempting to occupy Melanie’s body and making a sorry hash of it. (Souls are surgically inserted into the base of the neck by doctors who have already been Body-Snatched.) Melanie is trying to keep the location of her small rebel human outpost a secret from her parasite, but eventually the soul breaks through and seeks out Melanie’s man, Jared, her little brother Jamie, and a rag tag assortment of other folks who have managed to evade having their brain stems coated with memory-wiping silver silly-putty. When Melanie’s body first shows up at the secret desert camp under the direction of Wanderer, the insurgent humans are all for murdering her on the spot, but Wanderer wins them over by giving voice to Melanie’s thoughts and discovering to her own surprise that she actually digs these passionate, violent, lusty life forms. Things get complicated when two of the men in camp both fall for the dystopian Sybil—Jared, Melanie’s hot, older-man savior-type, and Ian, a brooding bad boy who has lost his heart to the selfless Wanderer, who he calls “Wanda.” Sound familiar? It should–Meyer treads some of the same supernatural romantic love triangle ground she traveled so well in her enormously popular Twilight series. If you liked those books, you’re gonna love this one. Personally, Meyer’s melodramatic dialogue drove me a little nuts, but I did dig her descriptions of Wanderer’s past worlds, and the sympathetic alien’s fascination with this planet. Clocking in at over 600 pages, it’s also not going to be easy to stuff in your backpack. If you prefer your interspecies romances with a few less pages and a bit more grit, you may want to pick up a copy of the now classic Blood and Chocolate, one of my all time fav romantic horror stories, instead.
The Power of One meets Cheaper by the Dozen in this hilarious, heart-breaking memoir by Robyn Scott. When Robyn was seven, her New Zealand hippie parents moved her and her brother and sister to live in rural Botswana, where her father took a job as a bush doctor. He flew a small engine plane three days a week to different far-flung clinics where he would see more than 100 patients a day, and treat everything from pnemonia (real) to witch doctor’s curses (fake) and soon, the terrifying symptoms of AIDS. Robyn’s mother was into holistic food, medicine and home schooling, and her wacky lessons were like nothing you’ve ever seen in OR outside a classroom. Robyn and her sibs grew up swimming with crocodiles, taming house snakes, and riding bareback on half-broken horses. But they all managed to make it to adulthood with their limbs intact. This well-written and rollicking memoir may be just the ticket next time you’re feeling a little bored with your suburban existence. I guarantee you’ll get at least ten giggles and ten lumps in your throat from reading Twenty Chickens!
Four upper crust NYC siblings take on the stone cold world of celebrity in this brilliant debut novel by playwright Theresa Rebeck. After a picture of the three girls in the title is published with much fanfare in an issue of the New Yorker, the newly minted celebriteens must learn how to navigate the shark-filled waters of fame. Each sib takes his or her turn at telling the story of how reporters staked out their school, how their aging ex-beauty pageant mother sold them out, and how they finally brought their borderline evil agent to heel. After her wild ride on the unstoppable fame machine, eldest sister Daria decides that fame “feels like a disease to me, and everyone is sick, the reporters, and the photographers and the commentators and the people, everyone has this disease, and what the disease does is it makes them hungry all the time…only for everyone else in America, me and my life and my family’s lives are the things that they’re hungry for, and they can never be satisfied, and so there is no ending.” Consider THAT next time you snap open your latest issue of People magazine! Sharply observed and incredibly well written in realistic and riotous teenspeak, this is THE novel for fans of Britney, Perez and Entourage. Consider it the perfect beach book for you AND your mom.
Seventeen-year-old Luke is a self-described loser skate punk who begins to ponder the meaning of life after he correctly predicts the day, time, and method of his best friend’s untimely demise. Hailed as “the prophet of death” by the media and hounded by the local minister to come to Jesus, Luke nearly self-destructs under the intense public scrutiny. Until he finally figures out what it is he wants to live for–his dead friend’s girl. Can Luke handle both the guilt of loving dead Stan’s gorgeous girl Faith and the feeling (if not the seeing) of dead people who keep passing through his nerve endings on their way out? This outrageous, day-in-the-life chronicle of a basement-dwelling, pot-smoking burn-out turned modern day mystic manages to be philosophical, sad, and uplifting all at once. It powerfully reminded me of one of my all time fav teenage male manifestos, Rule of the Bone. Take a walk on the Other Side with Joanne Proulx’s semi-supernatural debut.
In modern day L.A., Lark is a savvy, white-collar criminal trying to assemble a new crew to assist in his perfect plan-to-end-all-plans. Peabody is a tired middle-aged cop who cares more about his family than his dead-end job. And Anthony is a newly hired dogcatcher who’s just fallen in love. These three men couldn’t be more different. But their lives become intertwined when Peabody is called on to investigate the disappearance and deaths of several of Anthony’s kennel colleagues. Suddenly, L.A.’s dogcatchers are dropping like flies. But Anthony’s too ga-ga over his new flame to wonder if he’s next. If he only knew his girl’s true nature, he wouldn’t just be worried, he’d be outta there faster than you could say, “here, boy!” Because she wears fur under her silky smooth skin, and answers to Lark, who, besides being a criminal mastermind, also happens to be a werewolf bent on world domination. Anthony’s girl is just one of his many disciples. Anthony and Peabody don’t know it yet, but they’re about to come into uncomfortably close contact with some very sharp teeth! You follow me so far? Good, because that’s only the first twenty pages or so. What comes next is an intricately plotted dog-eat-dog tale of blood, money and fangs that defies definition. First time adult novelist Toby Barlow has written a romantic supernatural noir mystery (in blank verse, no less!) that will keep you guessing right up until the final dogfight. If you are addicted to Stephen King or devoted to Dean Koontz, then Sharp Teeth is right up your dark alley. A four-star thriller—go fetch ST from your nearest library or bookstore asap! This one can’t wait to be read in paperback, it’s that cool AND that hot!
Uber-nerd Denis Cooverman (aka “The Coove,” as dubbed by his equally dweeby and possibly closeted best friend, Rich) decides to go for broke in his valedictorian speech and declare his love for head cheerleader Beth Cooper for all to hear. Unfortunately, “all” includes her huge military boyfriend, Kevin, who drives a Hummer and wouldn’t mind driving it over Denis after learning of his latent love for Beth. Even though perpetually sweaty Denis does manage to entice the intrigued Beth over to his house for a little “fat-free sourdough Gorgonzola pretzel dip” and then on to Queen Mean Girl Valli Woolly’s parent-free graduation party, they are dogged by Kevin and his squad of muscle-bound goons every step of the way. Will Denis ever get Beth alone long enough to figure out of they are meant-to-be, or just meant-to-be-friends? This Say Anything send-up is so freakin’ funny that I pretty much giggled my way through each page. Each chapter starts with a quote from some teen movie, (which is a party game in and of itself to try and figure out which movie is being referenced) along with a cartoon image of Denis, showing his increasing anxiety and worsening facial contusions as he continues to collect punches from Kevin and Co. each time they make a pit stop in Beth’s Cabriolet convertible. There were so many priceless moments of almost peeing my pants in this naughty teen sex dramedy that if I started listing them, I’d never stop. I’ll leave it at this: If you heart Superbad, then you are going to be McLovin’ I Love You, Beth Cooper.
Bec is a college student at loose ends. Not crazy about her advertising major, she’s successfully avoided deciding what to do with her life thus far by partying hard with her roommate and best friend Jill and carrying on a guilty affair with a married professor. Then, while looking for a new part-time job that pays more than waitressing, she answers an ad for a home health-care aide. Expecting a weak, bed-ridden old lady, Bec is surprised to find that wheelchair-confined Kate, afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease, is young, smart, and sophisticated, with a wicked sense of humor. Like this exchange: “‘Oh my god,’ I said embarrassed. ‘You think I’m like those TV movies where the person with the disease teaches everyone how to live.’ Kate laughed soundlessly. ‘It’s always so nice of us.’” When Bec begins working for Kate and her husband Evan, she discovers a whole new world of witty conversation, gourmet cooking, and urbane dinner parties. Soon Bec is so immersed in Kate’s life that it becomes difficult for her to distinguish where Kate’s life leaves off and her own begins. Kate is dying, but Bec’s life has just begun. Will she ever be able to establish her own identity and personality while under Kate’s charismatic shadow? This sharply observed novel, full of painful realizations, hilarious conversations and some of the best food descriptions I’ve ever read, perfectly captures that time in our early 20’s when our adult identities are beginning to form and we are so easily influenced by those around us whose personalities are set and stronger than our own.
Margaret Lea leads a reading life in her father’s antiquarian bookstore, making a modest living writing short biographies of interesting, if little known, dead people. Then the famously reclusive author, Vida Winter, asks her to write Winter’s own biography. Margaret is puzzled by the invitation. The solitary woman is known for her habit of publishing conflicting accounts of her life, all of which have been proven to be utterly fictitious. Still, Margaret is intrigued, so she accepts the challenge of teasing the truth out of Vida. As Vida begins to spin a Gothic tale of an insane mother, a set of feral twins, a ghostly gardener, and a tragic fire, Margaret begins to question whether or not she’s being told the truth. She wants to believe Vida, but her own deep, dark secret, also having to do with damaged siblings, makes her question the writer’s every word. Can Margaret trust Vida’s story? And as the tale grows more grisly, does she even WANT to? This wonderfully chilling suspense novel, a 2007 Alex Award winner has a slow build and a stunning conclusion. This book reminded me of Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and of course, the now classic Flowers in the Attic. Go ahead, try and put it down after the first chapter–I dare you!