This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel
Kenneth Oppel takes Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and looks into his adolescence for clues to the man he became. In Oppel’s telling, young Victor lives in a centuries-old fortress in Geneva with his parents, his identical twin brother, Konrad, and his beautiful cousin Elizabeth. Konrad is easy for everyone to love; Victor has a more complicated personality—competitive, brooding and rebellious. Konrad falls ill and a series of nineteenth century doctors try to cure him. In this time period, medicine and science are on a cusp, turning from alchemy and magic into sound logic and method. It is not at all clear that even the most modern doctor will cure Konrad and Victor wants to turn to the older ways and be the one to bring his brother back to health.
To do this he lies to his parents, seeks out forbidden contacts, and put himself Konrad, and Elizabeth in serious danger. Herein lies the action of the story—the perilous ventures, the near escapes, the blood and gore. But Victor is not completely in this for his love for his brother. He wants glory; he wants to be more powerful than his parents and the doctors. And most of all, he wants Elizabeth to love him and not his brother. Action does abound in this story, but the torque of psychological angst never lags behind.
Kenneth Oppel is a master craftsman of the young teen novel. He knows how to give the young reader’s mind exactly what it wants and then dole out a whole lot more: to be swept up in the thrill of adventure, to recognize oneself often, and then to be challenged to do something particularly delicious—to think deeply…
While much of Oppel’s earlier books appeal to upper elementary and middle school readers of both genders, this novel will appeal to readers of both genders from middle school on into high school. Like all of his work, this book will also be loved just as much by adults as by their kids.
The Great Wide Sea by M. H. Herlong
A grieving father who has just lost his wife sells everything, buys a sailboat, and leaves with his three sons to sail the Caribbean for a year. Readers would expect that this might be a journey that gives them back their life as a family unit. And it is, but it is much more than that. The oldest son, Ben, is fifteen–old enough to feel some responsibility for his younger brothers, old enough to be thinking of his life as separate from that with his family, and of the age to question the character of his own father. So the journey does become a test for each family member’s strength as well as the bonds with each other. But the other journey, the journey of Ben’s perception of his father from failure to fallible is an equally perilous journey.
There are similarities between this book and Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Paulsen captures the fear and desparation of a young boy alone in the wilderness with nothing to help him survive but a good knife. Herlong’s story doesn’t deliver as much of the urgency of surviving the ferocity of nature, but it delivers much more in the interior workings of a teen-age boy and the ferocity of coming of age.
Kids who like to sail from age nine on up should enjoy this book. While there is plenty of suspense, this is not an action packed story. It is more of a tale that rings true. I am no sailor and well past nine-years-old and I loved it.
Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer
It is 1797 in London and a young girl has just been put out on the street. All of her family has died of the pestilence and she has nothing but the clothes on her back. Oh, wait! Soon she is robbed of even those by a gang of orphans in need of new clothes. The girl who has her new clothes looks back at her and says, “Well, come on then. And quit your sniveling.” The girl, who narrates this story, writes, “I snuffles and gets up.”
She weeps, she trembles, she mourns, but she keeps getting up throughout this highly entertaining story of a girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can become a ship’s boy, avoid being hung for thievery, and get enough to eat. I usually demand more than pure entertainment from the books I read–I want to be able to see the world in a new way or learn something thrilling–and I usually don’t like series books, but I finished this book with a single thought: I wanted the next book in the series.
The character of Mary who becomes Jacky leaps from the pages. The endless series of riotous adventurous never seem contrived. All resolutions feel perfectly apt. Danger never dissipates, but evil always gets its satisfyingly just desserts.
Bloody Jack will be enjoyed by kids who liked The Unfortunate Series of Events in their younger years, middle school and younger experienced readers who will not be confused by the occasional “guttersnipe” dialect of the narrator (“prolly” for probably; me mum and me pop, etc), high school readers who need a break from fantasy, teen-age angst, and vampire genres, and adults who just like to have fun reading. Attitudes towards the innate differences between the genders are of course amply explored and the romance is tender and true and not excessively graphic. I recommend not trying to find out if the author is male or female until you have read at least one book in the series.
Over and Under by Todd Tucker
Paradise is being a fourteen-year-old boy and having a true friend to share complete freedom with–the forest is unspoiled and filled with wildlife and unexlored caves; the town is small and suitable for unsupervised explorations, and the bedroom windows are easy to climb out of at night. Though the summer of 1979 has more fodder for adventure than usual–a divisive labor strike, a deadly bombing, and a murderous drunk–it all serves as backdrop for the real story: the value and the power of a solid childhood friendship.
This authentic-feeling story is not represented as young adult fiction though it is written entirely from the perspective of one of the fourteen-year-old boys, essentially because it is about nostalgia–ah, the irretrievable days of youthful freedom! However, middle school boys and younger high school boys who like the outdoors and the freedom to roam and explore will enjoy this book. The adventure and excitement never ebb, and all the characters are richly drawn. The description of one of the boys in a drain pipe with a copper head snake by itself makes the book worth reading. It’s a great book for parents who like to read and enjoy the books their kids also read.
Silverwing, by Kenneth Oppel
When enough of my students tell me a book is good, I like to get around to reading it at some point–first because it probably is good, and second because I want to know what they like. I have a very low willingness to suspend disbelief when it comes to anthrophmorphic tales (aw come-on, would a wolf really say something like that) but I had no trouble with Silverwing. Shade, the endearing juvenile bat, and his enemy, the giant and cold-hearted carnivorous jungle bat named Goth, were both completely believable for me.
Shade is a runt and as such he has a relentless need to prove he is as brave and as tough as the other juvenile bats. This need leads him to make a terrible mistake that puts his entire clan in grave danger. In the first book of this trilogy, Shade shows great courage and intelligence as he strives to redeem himself and protect his clan. Goth is only one of the overwhelming dangers Shade must outwit; the adventure is non-stop, very visual, and well-paced.
Silverwing is perfect for kids in grades four through eight who like adventurous stories about other species, for reluctant as well as experienced readers, for boys and girls. It will make them want to read the rest of the trilogy and want to know more about bats–try Shadows in the Night by Diane Ackerman or some of the ones listed on Anastasia Suen’s 5 Books blog.
Trouble, by Gary D. Schmidt
In Trouble, award-winning author Gary D. Scmidt delivers a book that reminds me what a gift reading is. Not just beautifully written with exquisite imagery, a tightly woven plot, and myth-like symbolism, it is a story that nourishes the spirit. Enacted in the person of a fourteen-year-old boy, innate inhumanity and innate grace battle for hegemony.
Trouble brings sorrow. It strikes Henry’s family even though they may have every reason to believe they should have been able to avoid it. With his parents and sister engulfed in grief, Henry embarks on a quest with a good friend, a faithful dog, and a misunderstood enemy. Together, they overcome those who wish to do them harm, stumble upon one island of refuge, and battle their own demons.
This book is such a joy to read, I want to give absolutely nothing away. I would not recommend it for the reluctant reader, although experienced readers from middle school on up, both boys and girls, will most likely enjoy this book.Trouble is literature for kids at its finest.
Carpe Diem, by Autumn Cornwell
Being a high school girl is about finding your way from your childhood self to your adult self. At close view, that can look like making the right friends, snagging the “right” boyfriend, keeping ahead of the pack, and keeping a grasp of your appearance and dignity, while striving all the time to end up on top. If you’re lucky, as Vassar Spore is in this novel by Autumn Cornwell, you will get a chance to get sidetracked. Off the beaten track and at the mercy of fate, you may get a chance to find out who you really are and to realize that you like what you find.
Autumn Cornwell has written a story about an American high school girl who is just that close to having it all. When this fully Americanized teenager suddenly and unwillingly finds herself travelling through Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, we expect her horror at germs, unfamiliar food, lack of shower facilities, and large bugs. We even expect that she will change and find wisdom in her new surroundings because it seems the plot is directed towards this. But since the author was an avid traveller in her own youth, her descriptions of these countries are weighted with a profound fondness. What could have been a trite plot ends up being convincing and lovely.
Narrated in the voice of sixteen-year-old Vassar Spore, Carpe Diem (seize the day) reads like a teenager talking to other teenagers. I found it quite funny and I found the two main teenage characters very real and in the end, very appealing. Not a difficult read at all, there are still quite a few good vocabulary words thrown in. And, it is an entirely appropriate novel for the youngest of teenagers.