Click on each book cover for information about the book and author, and click here for the criteria I use to decide which books to put on this list. More great-reads coming soon…
It was the dialogue in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe that drew me into the story. I felt like I’d had that conversation… sat in that kitchen… swum in that neighborhood pool… It didn’t matter that the characters were Mexican-American boys in Texas, and I’m a white lady in Virginia. These characters so mesmerized me that I devoured all 300+ pages faster than any book I’ve read in the past year. I loved these guys! I cared about them. I wanted to know what they were setting out to learn about the universe and themselves and girls and themselves and birds and themselves and … life. That sounds sappy, but nothing about this book was sappy. The author, Benjamin Alire Saenz, manages to introduce all sorts of typical teen issues (drinking, pot, anger, angst, sexuality) in a way that doesn’t feel typical at all. The story is original, and the writing is stunning in its brevity.
John Green’s characters are smart and real and often funny, even when he puts them in no-laughing-matter situations. As they explore love and loss, friendship and forgiveness, the dialogue reads like an awesome conversation—the kind you have with a close friend at two in the morning, making you feel fully alive and your life inherently worthwhile even though the world is messed up and people are anything but simple. An Abundance of Katherines is worth the read for the footnotes alone (not to mention the anagrams). In Looking for Alaska Green deftly titles the chapters and crafts the plot in such a way that the structure of the novel, itself, reflects the before-and-after structure his protagonist seeks to escape. And in The Fault in our Stars, when you hit a line such as “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once,” you wish Green would write his novels faster so you wouldn’t have to wait so long for the release of his next masterpiece.
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier is a hard book to stomach… a war book… a brutal book… Some nights I had trouble sleeping after reading a few chapters, and I got to a point where I wouldn’t let myself read it before bed (my favorite reading-time), but instead had to carve time out of my day to finish it. Ishmael’s resilience… his thoughtfulness… his compassion… everything about this book made my first-world problems and priorities melt away. I loved the scenes depicting happy times—storytelling around an evening fire… reciting Shakespeare in a village… swimming in a river… I cringed during the war scenes. I choked up during the chapters about rehabilitation and forgiveness. Mostly, I’m thankful that Ishmael survived to tell his story to the world. This is a mesmerizing account.
296-pound, 17-year-old Troy Billings hates being the laughing stock of the school, but the self-conscious monologue running through his head is… well… really funny. Fat Kid Rules the World is the story of Troy’s unlikely friendship with Curt MacCrae, a charismatic, punk-rock guitarist whom Troy comes to see as “the vortex of the whirlwind.” (I love that line—one of many masterful phrases from author K.L. Going.) When Curt taps Troy to be the drummer in his band—nevermind that Troy can’t play the drums—things go from confusing to worse, and before long Troy is in so far over his head that there’s no going back. Unforgettable characters… magnificent prose… NYC described in new and compelling ways… a great read.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time defies easy description. You start by trying to wrap your brain around the way this quirky protagonist thinks. Pretty soon you’re laughing at everything society deems normal and wondering how you ever learned the meaning of idioms or the subtlety of facial expressions. Fifteen-year-old Christopher is mathematically brilliant but struggles to cope with everyday tasks that most of us take for granted. Through his no-nonsense worldview—totally lacking in emotion—his parents’ dysfunctional relationship unfolds in a series of laugh-out-loud scenes. Add the rudeness of neighbors and strangers, along with their well-meaning and mean-spirited blunders, and readers will cringe over the frustrations Christopher endures, all the while wanting nothing more than to hug him and tell him everything’s going to be okay. I’ve read this book three times now, and would read it a fourth if there weren’t so many other books begging for attention…
Finishing Going Bovine feels like getting off the best ride at Disney World—I wanted to run back in line for another go-round. From Mad-cow disease to Don Quixote, Libba Bray takes readers on an adventure like no other. SPEW (State Prescribed Educational Worthiness) tests, New Orleans jazz, fire giants, a talking yard gnome—the high school hero encounters them all on his journey to save the world and save himself. Sure, saving the world sounds same-old-same-old, but when wholesale snow globe distributors become the baddies, what can a reader do but laugh? Brilliantly imaginative, the story’s tone carries just the right mix of cynicism and angst, yearning and denial to hook readers on page one and hold them tight.
I am the Messenger is the story of a dog-loving guy with a do-nothing life. Ed wants to make something of himself. Instead he plays cards with friends, pines for Audrey and feeds coffee and ice cream to Doorman, the dog. Then someone starts leaving him curious messages. As he deciphers each one, Ed begins to make a difference in the lives of ordinary people in his town. Set in Australia (“No worries, mate”), this quirky, funny book stretches the credibility factor at times, but it’s hard to put down until you figure out who the messenger is. And if you’re anything like me, when you figure it out, rather than putting the book down, you return to page one and re-read it. Brilliant, Zusak.
I finished Hole in My Life months before I could bring myself to add it to my website. The narrative is so raw and ultimately so disturbing that I couldn’t imagine encouraging others to read this book—Jack Gantos’ memoir of a time in his life that he’d rather forget. I listened to it on CD, read by the author, and got so caught up in the story that I found myself at a red light in Warrenton, VA, disoriented over having missed the bypass around town. As the months have passed since I finished it, I’ve thought of Gantos often, and have read many of his other books. Some have won significant awards, including the Newbery, Prinz Honor and Scott O’Dell Awards, but this one is unlike all of the rest. It makes me wonder how many people are languishing in prisons because of stupid and colossal mistakes they made when they were young. If more Americans would read this book and become aware of the depraved state of our penal system, the prison reform movement might get some traction.
Guests tend to leave my cluttered house feeling better about themselves because their own homes aren’t as messy as mine. So it is with Tilt by Alan Cumyn. Between a bed-wetting little sister, disappearing half-brother and re-appearing deadbeat dad, can Stan’s life get any more awkward? Well… yes, it can. The high cringe-per-page factor leads to laugh-out-loud moments in this tightly written and compelling coming-of-age story about 16-year-old Stan who just wants to make the basketball team and hook up with Janine. Readers are sure to leave feeling better about their own lives, even as Stan’s falls to bits around him. But at least his falls in a most delicious way…
The raw emotion on almost every page of Andre Agassi’s Open: An Autobiography puts this book on my great-reads list. This book is about endurance, about overbearing parental expectations, about the downside of perfectionism, about Agassi’s yearning for identity—his quest to find himself and his purpose long before he was lost in the tabloids. Those who followed Agassi’s tennis career will learn much about the man/boy the newspapers never knew. But readers don’t have to know anything about Agassi to find this book hard to put down. Only twice does he drift into a less-compelling People-magazine voice (reminiscing about his friendship with Barbra Streisand, and summarizing his final two years before retirement). Overall, the brutally honest, tell-all nature of the narrative, brilliantly crafted by ghost-writer J.R. Moehringer, makes Open a satisfying and compelling read.
Me putting a book about cell tissue research on a great-reads list? Gotta be kidding, right? I only picked it up because my book group selected it. But then I couldn’t put it down. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of the intersection of world-views. Take a young white reporter, an economically disadvantaged and very religious African American family, and a slew of researchers racing to find cures for human diseases, put them together, and… wow. Forget the weird title (although I’m not sure what a better one might be). The book explores issues of personal privacy, medical ethics, the business of scientific research and the Human Genome Project, all wrapped around the lives of a family struggling to understand how their beloved Henrietta could still be… alive. Well, not Henrietta, exactly, but her cells…? Just read the book.
Caveat: this is not so much a great read as it is a must read. This book disturbed me, but I stuck with it because I needed confirmation that my own book, Brotherhood, remained true to the facts. In They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: Birth of an American Terrorist Group, Susan Campbell Bartoletti has compiled historical accounts of atrocities committed by the Klan, allowing primary source documents to speak for themselves. By the time this book came out, I had already completed multiple drafts of Brotherhood and researched the Klan extensively, finding many of the same documents from which Barloletti quotes. Hers is a compelling nonfiction narrative, while my book imagines the K.K.K. from the viewpoint of a teenaged white boy. Either way—if you spend time wondering why anyone would join a gang, or how terrorists seek to justify their actions, or what the nature of humankind is and how people can be capable both of altruism and atrocity—read this book. Between the horror stories are tales of compassion and redemption, not suggesting that the struggle for civil rights is over—it’s never over—but that good can and does come from evil. There is hope.