Favorite Books!

Here is a list of my favorite books!

This list is by TITLE with explanations and further information. Also available:

By AuthorBy Genre
Plain list by author

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Andrew Smith
100 Sideways Miles
Finn's dad is an author who wrote a book that has peculiar connections to his life, and he's spent his teenagerhood trying to figure out how to get out of the shadow of his life story. His best friend, Cade, is a leader while he is a follower, and as he struggles with his seizures and his romantic life, he philosophizes broadly about choice, friendship, college, sex, and his place in space and time. (Tough to do when you keep thinking about a horse that fell on your mom.) It's tough to get the ground under you sometimes when you're traveling twenty miles a second through the blackness of space and sometimes all the words fall out of your head.

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Shannon Hale
The Actor and the Housewife
Becky is a cheery Mormon housewife, happily married to Mike and proud mom of four children. She's also an aspiring screenwriter, and when she has the good fortune to sell her first script, while in L.A. to sign the contract she accidentally meets Felix Callahan, a famous actor. Magic happens, and Felix and Becky find themselves suddenly getting extremely chummy. Being that they're both married, they're unsure of both what their relationship is and what it will look like to others, but they find their rapport so refreshing and so unlike anything they have elsewhere in their lives that they go out of their way to keep being pals. Even though he does NOT fit in her conservative family-centered community and she does NOT fit into his glitzy Hollywood life, they make sacrifices and wrestle with their feelings, trying to figure out if their friendship is "more." Through more than a decade of everyday life both ordinary and extraordinary, Becky and Felix communicate, visit, support each other, and confuse each other. Can a man and a woman who really shouldn't have anything in common really be simply treasured lifelong friends, or is it inevitable that the romantic boundary will be crossed?

Neil Gaiman
American Gods
A friend lent me this book in an attempt to show me that Neil Gaiman's non-Sandman work is pretty good (though I hadn't enjoyed the other ones I read up to that point), and I did thoroughly enjoy it. Very cool balance between the old and the new, and I loved the main character's, erm, Shadowyness. :) Shadow is an ex-prisoner who somehow gets caught up in a war featuring the mysterious Mr. Wednesday . . . and as more and more unusual characters surface, Shadow begins to get clues to their identities. A huge battle is brewing between the old gods and the new ones who have popped up to serve the modern era, and Shadow just might end up with a place among them as he gains and loses aspects of himself most people don't even comprehend.

K.A. Applegate
The Animorphs series
Yes, these are intermediate kids' series. Lots of people think Animorphs is stupid based on their (wrong) assumptions about the books or because they have seen the less-than-stellar television show. But the series is amazing. You can laugh, now shut up and get the first one (The Invasion). Basic premise: Five kids get the ability to morph into any animal they can touch (to acquire their DNA). A dying alien (an Andalite) gave them the power because there are other aliens, slug-like creatures called Yeerks, trying to take over the planet by squirming into people's ears and taking over their bodies. So it's a quiet invasion, people are being taken one by one and then made to act as though everything is cool . . . and of course, they become recruiters for getting more people to infest. The Animorphs—Jake, Rachel, Cassie, Marco, and Tobias (and later, an Andalite kid named Aximili, Ax for short)—are all that stands between the rest of the world and total slavery; they're trying to hold off the Yeerks until the backup Andalite fleet gets there. They use their morphing technology to spy on the Yeerks and to destroy their facilities and whatnot.

But what makes these books so amazing is that these are kids, having to pretend they're normal kids so no one knows they're the "Andalite bandits," and they are fighting the enemy while living right out in the open, under their noses. Internal Andalite and Yeerk politics make the situations complicated, and through the fifty-four (and then some) book series it slowly escalates to an all-out war, with a child (Jake, leader of the Animorphs) as basically the president and general of the forces of Earth.

Thousands of humans and aliens die, sometimes in violent and horrible ways, and stunning moral crises present themselves all through the series. The Animorphs form alliances with other species and with each other; they have the beginnings of romantic relationships in some cases; they still have homework and family problems (in some cases, serious ones). These six kids put their personal problems aside as best they can and become warriors, completely losing their innocence and most of their humanity in the process. Though they're considered kids' books and the TV show was a bit lame, I have no doubt that if marketing had been different and the thin serialized books had combined into fourteen or fifteen thicker books, it probably could have been accepted by adults. But since it's an intermediate series, you probably think I'm kidding around about how good these are. But I'm serious. Ms. Applegate's books are not without flaws (there are occasional continuity errors and little speed bumps), but they are highly recommended. I also have a fansite about this series if you'd like to see more detail.

G. Clifton Wisler
The Antrian series
Mr. Wisler is primarily a western author, but he tried his hand at kids' science fiction once, and I appreciated his effort in these books. The Antrian Messenger, The Seer, and The Mind Trap are about a normal kid named Scott finding out he is not of this world, and after several strange occurrences are attributed to his alien abilities, he has to leave his family and go with his companion Tiaf, to move from town to town trying to make a difference. It was kind of an emotional roller coaster when I was a kid, to watch him trying to belong but always having to leave in the end, it kind of hit close to home. The books are out of print, but I recommend you try to find The Antrian Messenger in a used bookstore or out-of-print search, if you're looking for good kids' literature.

Eoin Colfer
The Artemis Fowl series
This series features the young genius, Artemis Fowl, whose goal at the beginning is to steal enough riches to make up the money his father once lost. His plan this time around is to hatch a scheme to steal gold from the fairies. Most people insist they don't exist, but the young Mr. Fowl not only believes they exist; he has a plan to capture one. At which point he will, of course, force her to take him to the gold. This story portrays fairies in an unusual way: For instance, they have evolved and progressed through the years just like humans have, and have their own armies and cities and whatnot. (This is a far cry from most children's fairy tales, which usually feature fairies behaving much as they did in the folklore of hundreds of years ago.) Also, the books have an extra quirk: If you can decode the fairy language, you can read another little tale that is printed in code along the bottoms of the pages of the whole book. (I did that.)

The adventure continues with the next Artemis Fowl book--The Arctic Incident--in which Artemis is again drawn into the fairy world and ends up fighting on the same side as they are, displaying quite a few more familiar human qualities than he did in the first book. The next volume, The Eternity Code, is also smashing (if possible, even better than the first two), involving the fairies' police squad reluctantly helping Artemis regain the stolen C Cube, a device he created from fairy technology and his own computer knowledge. (If it is not recovered, the results could be disastrous for humans and fairies, of course.) Artemis's human qualities continue to emerge in this book, and his secret feelings about his parents are revealed more poignantly. In The Opal Deception, Artemis has to be recruited to help catch escaped villain Opal Koboi, though it's difficult because his memory was recently wiped and he has to remember what the heck happened. The Lost Colony deals with some issues as the estranged demon race seeks to rejoin the fairies, while Artemis deals with annoying side effects of puberty (i.e., a crush). And in The Time Paradox, Artemis has to go back in time to find a cure for his sick mother, only to have to fight a ten-year-old version of himself. All in all, super-highly recommended. Colfer has other books such as The Wish List and The Supernaturalist, and those are also very good, though in my opinion Artemis Fowl tops them.

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Nancy Kress
Beggars in Spain
I have the complaint that this author's characters seem to *be* their situations--I never really felt like I *knew* any of them--but her storytelling is smooth and her plot and CONCEPTS were pretty wowing. This involved people genetically modified to not require sleep. Partially inspired by this book to wish I didn't have to sleep either, I did a sleep experiment using polyphasic sleep and have had much success with it. The main character, Leisha, is one of the first Sleepless, though she has an accidental twin sister who is normal. She's brilliant and beautiful and has just about everything a girl could want, but of course the world is a little weirded out by people who don't sleep. Eventually there are a lot more of them besides Leisha and the first round of experimentees, and she ends up having to choose sides because the Sleepless form their own society and start using their advantages to beat out Sleeper competition in all their industries. Further experiments lead to even more genetically modified Sleepless in the next generation, and the world is left wondering what to do with the phenomenon even as they struggle for an identity of their own.

Julie Anne Peters
Between Mom and Jo
Nick has two moms--well, technically he has Mom and Jo, lesbian parents whom he loves very much. But of course he deals with classmates who don't understand, who think he must be gay because his parents are, etc. The real trouble begins when he gets older and his parents split up. Problem is, since Mom and Jo were never "legally" married, that leaves Jo with absolutely NO rights with regards to visitation for Nick . . . to Nick's own dismay. This book deals realistically with the trials and tribulations inherent in alternative family life, and it highlights how much unnecessary heartbreak results from society's refusal to protect gay people's families with the rights heterosexuals receive automatically.

Linda Rosenkrantz & Pamela Redmond Satran
Beyond Jennifer & Jason
I love books about naming trends. This is one of the best, a book that not only has heaps of usual and unusual names but talks about their images and nationalities and whatnot. I have a few of their books including the one on cool names, which helps a lot to name my characters in my books.

Christopher Moore
Bloodsucking Fiends
A love story. Dude is in love with a vampire. Very sweet and some interesting little emotional bits that surprise you in the midst of such an outwardly humorous and bizarre novel. You also might want to take a look at the sequel, You Suck, which I also enjoyed.

Keith Miller
The Book of Flying
Written in a sort of whimsical (but kind of dark) fantastical way, this book is about love, determination, and self. Pico, the librarian, is a gentle and lovable soul who goes through unbelievable difficulties and changes to make himself acceptable to the one he loves. More than anything, it was the sort of episodic quest feeling with an emphasis on loving stories that made this story so easy to love.

Shannon Hale
Book of a Thousand Days
A teenage noble girl, Saren, is shut in a tower because she refuses to wed the bad guy, and her maid, Dashti, goes with her into the prison. Dashti tells the story of their imprisonment--and the time after--by way of a cheery diary in which she chronicles the events and draws little pictures (the illustrations are included). Dashti refers to herself as a "mucker"--part of a group of low-status people who carry various folk traditions given life through song--and she is just pleased as punch to be locked in a tower with Saren because hey, she's fed and clothed and has a roof over her head. Of course, the plot thickens when Dashti is drawn into the noble girl's predicament. She's been locked away because she refuses to marry a rather mean nobleman, and she supposedly loves a khan who wishes to save her. (The two are only acquainted through letter-writing.) Dashti ends up fronting for Saren in a Cyrano-like situation, but doesn't acknowledge her own feelings for the khan.

Difficulties arise when their kingdom is attacked and no one remembers the poor girls in the tower. Dashti manages to drag Saren along to their escape, and soon they have to make a living in the next city over. One by one the different kingdoms are falling to the cruel Khasar, who presumably is coming for Saren, and Dashti tries as best she can to continue to be a good lady's maid even though she's being pushed into the spotlight. Overall, because it is based on a fairy tale and those are often predictable, it does have that one down side that the reader sees what's going to happen long before Dashti does, but I think the fact that she's so naïve is part of what helps her seem so real. She rolls with the punches and finds a way out; she gives of herself until it hurts (and threatens her life); she sacrifices and sweats and sings people to health without even knowing how special she is, and yet she's not an annoying heroine because we know her innermost thoughts through the diary. She does occasionally admit to having selfish thoughts and despising people she's supposed to serve. You'll like this book for its unforgettable main character, but other treats await you too; Hale is a master at realistic-but-magic-touched fantasy settings with many layers, and since this is a diary you get to experience her first person narration for once. What a treat! Recommended for fairy tale fans especially.

Shannon Hale
The Books of Bayern series
Shannon Hale has an easy style that is so eloquent without seeming like it's trying to be, and I'm surprised at how well she gets into people's heads considering she writes in third person. The Books of Bayern begins with The Goose Girl; it's loosely based on the original folk tale, and involves Isi, who has to live in hiding as a goose girl to avoid a fate her original kingdom had in store for her. The most interesting aspect of these books is that a small but significant portion of the population has elemental abilities of various sorts, but these are mysterious and those who possess them sometimes either don't know it or don't know how to control them. Isi is a wind-speaker, and she's able to use her ability to protect herself. Isi's tale of hiding her identity as she learns about her inner strengths and forges bonds with the other commoners at her station is very engaging. The second book, Enna Burning, switches the protagonist to Enna, a friend of Isi's, who finds herself to have an ability to fire-speak. Not wanting to meet the same fate as her brother, she struggles to control her burning ability before it consumes her, but her relationship with Princess Isi is going to be the most important thing in saving her. River Secrets, the book about Razo, was endearing and interesting--Razo doesn't have any of the cool abilities the previous books discussed, but he still has his important part to play in the Bayern army . . . because even though his talents are less than magical, the ability to pay attention and notice details can be very useful. And the fourth book, Forest Born, delves into the mental anguish and soul-searching of Forest girl Rinna, younger sister of Razo and holder of confusing and powerful abilities. I love the characters and the reality of their world, and Hale's ability to portray people realistically while telling a personal story in an epic plot is nothing short of astounding.

David Levithan
Boy Meets Boy
At first glance, it seems unrealistic that this book features a largely utopian school and town, where gay people and straight people get along and don't bat an eyelash over a 6'4" mtf transsexual quarterback who's also the homecoming queen (and a lesbian). But the fact that there is plenty of prejudice outside the town--and sometimes in the heads of local students who should know better--lets me trust the author and just love what I'm seeing. The main character is a boy who's always known he's gay (ran for third grade class president with the slogan "Vote for me, I'm gay!"), and young Paul is very interesting. His relationships with others are distinct, realistic, and unusually felt; Paul seems aware of their emotions on an unusual level, though that certainly doesn't exempt him from having his share of romantic woes. On the contrary! (Duh.)

The main plot of the story involves high school sophomore Paul trying to get to know the new guy, Noah, and dealing with the fact that both of them have been hurt before in pretty serious ways that are still quite raw. Paul still has feelings of love--though not being IN love--for his previous boyfriend, and the previous boyfriend comes back into his life at an inconvenient time. And his desire to help his previous boyfriend find happiness does lead to some mistakes, which he has to undo to prove that he is worthy of Noah.

Plenty of other relationship woes are woven into this brilliant tapestry of high school life. Paul's best girl friend is involved with a guy who seems to be changing her (and she doesn't see how bad this is for her). (The jerky boyfriend is characterized so well; he instinctively blows up at being addressed as "gay boy" even though the address was aimed at Paul and another gay friend, and his beverage choice is made obvious by a collection of "crushed Pepsi cans" in his backseat; yes, he's exactly the kind of guy who would crush cans after drinking them, isn't he!) Paul has a sad friend in another town whose religiously oppressive parents won't acknowledge that he is gay, and they think Paul is a bad influence when he's just a friend. And let's not forget Infinite Darlene (never figured out why she's "Infinite"), the aforementioned trans quarterback/homecoming queen who is always about to rip into a girl who challenges her authority on a committee.

The way the high school runs is very unusual on some levels, but it is familiar to any one of us who's gone to public school--the drama, the note-passing between classes, the OMG HE'S GONNA THINK I DON'T LIKE HIM BECAUSE I DIDN'T MEET HIM AT HIS LOCKER, MY LIFE IS OVER! mentality. I was amazed at how well this came across and still held a riveting story of teen love and angst, and how great Paul as a character was. He knew who he was and never fretted over the whole gay phenomenon; he just was who he was, was almost always honest without seeming unrealistic, and again the portrayal of his sensitivity was really gorgeous.

I do have to wonder what happened to that note Paul dropped in the wrong locker. . . .

William Sleator
The Boy Who Reversed Himself
All of William Sleator's books are good science fiction for young people, even though most of them take overdone subjects for yet another ride. Sleator somehow does it differently and in a more character-oriented fashion.

This one's about alternate dimensions. A girl discovers a really interesting secret about her neighbor, and she steps into a whole new world . . . literally! The fourth dimension is all around us, on top of us, and if you know how to do it, you can go there and see the world differently. Unfortunately, you can also get lost in the scary 4-D world. Oh, guess what happens to her? Yeah.

I loved that the main character was no model citizen--she manipulated her neighbor and had crap values sometimes, and, ya know, almost really screwed lots of things up. I also liked the depiction of 4-space and the descriptions of how things would look if you only had three dimensions to your body but were forced to deal with a "fourth" dimension. Even though some of the science kinda doesn't make sense really, I thought it was a really intriguing concept.

After reading this book I really wanted ketchup to taste like pudding. You'll see why if you read it.

Stephen Hawking
A Brief History of Time
I only read the occasional science book, but this one was great, and didn't have so much math in it that I couldn't understand. Hawking's explanation of how the actual laws of reality might be not quite how we think of them now under super-extreme conditions really helps understand how something like the Big Bang would actually be possible.

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Spider Robinson
The Callahan Chronicals
All I can say is, I want to go make a toast at Callahan's Place, and become a regular at this bar where the patrons are lifelong friends and "family" first, rotten punsters second, and drinking buddies last. (I have no idea why "Chronicals" is spelled that way; Chronic-cals, maybe?)

This is a collection of short stories about Callahan's Place, a rather odd bar in which patrons come to have a drink, see friends, play games, and--more often than not--spill their guts (no, not literally). This saloon has more than its fair share of alien, non-human, and otherwise weird clientele, which is odd considering it's not in space or in the future or in any situation in which one would expect it to experience such a thing.

This is indisputably science fiction, but if you're not a person who's historically liked science fiction, you'll probably still really enjoy it. (That is, if you can stomach the characters' propensity for puns.)

"Shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased. Thus we refute entropy."

Dav Pilkey
Captain Underpants series
Yes, the abject silliness of these illustrated children's books caught my attention. Though the target age of these is about eight, I enjoy them because they have some wacky humor and remind me what was so funny about being a kid. (I never stopped thinking poop was funny, so this just encourages me.) Basic premise: George and Harold, school troublemakers (but not bad guys!) order a magic hypno ring from a catalog, and end up hypnotizing their principal, Mr. Krupp, into believing he is one of their comic book characters: Captain Underpants. Now, whenever anyone snaps their fingers, he thinks he IS Captain Underpants and promptly strips down to his underwear, tosses off his toupee, ties a towel around his neck for a cape, and leaps out the window, yelling "Tra-la-laaaaa!" He tries to fight whatever absurd crime is occurring, though he doesn't have any powers (at first, anyway, until he drinks super-power juice in one of the sequels). These zany books are lovingly illustrated and usually feature flip-book action to mimic violence. Their charm is difficult to convey in text, so it is recommended that you pick up the first one immediately and see what it's all about. Also, that "Name Change-O-Chart" you may have seen floating around the 'Net, the one that changed my name to Poopsie Bubble-Buns, is from one of Mr. Pilkey's books: Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants. You may also appreciate the related Super Diaper Baby if you like this.

Louis Sachar
The Cardturner
This very odd book is about a young man who learns to play bridge while bonding with his great uncle. After Great-Uncle Lester becomes blind and can no longer play bridge without a cardturner, Alton is roped into the task, and eventually develops an unusual relationship with his elderly relative. Other relationships grow out of his slow acquisition of bridge skills, as does his appreciation for certain aspects of the generations that came before him. It's hard to make this book sound interesting because a lot of it really is about bridge and the bridge stuff is pretty detailed, but I can't say any more besides you have to read it to see what I mean.

Stephen King
Carrie
An awkward, sheltered teenage girl becomes a horrible person to cross when she becomes empowered. Carrie is painfully shy and abused in more ways than one by her mother and her classmates alike. When a rather popular classmate begins feeling sorry for her, she tries to help her out and asks a boy to take her to prom, and this does wonders for Carrie's self-confidence. She has trouble believing that she might be wanted and cared about, but other popular kids are plotting against her. Interestingly, Carrie realizes that she has some unusual abilities, and she struggles to both come to terms with her telekinetic powers as well as learn to use them. Soon enough she is able to stand up to her abusive mother, and she accepts that she can be powerful and well-liked. But all this could come to a screeching halt if the scheming popular kids have their way, and no one could have foreseen the fury of a social misfit scorned. . . . I kinda have a rough time with this book because, well, the ending should die. But there was a lot of stuff about it that had me sympathizing with Carrie and I can't ignore that.

Joan D. Vinge
The Cat series
Vinge is my favorite author (if it's really possible to play favorites). Ms. Vinge writes science fiction books mostly, and my favorites are the ones about Cat. Cat is a half-human, half-alien (specifically, Hydran) dude who gets wrapped up in a whole bunch of things that are way bigger than he is. Ms. Vinge's novels are very character-oriented. I am influenced by her in my own writing, in a major way. She does a great job making strange people in strange situations seem totally familiar and understandable. Thanks to Ms. Vinge, I've attempted to do the same. :)

In the book Psion, Cat begins his life in this series as a street punk in the distant future who has no idea he's half alien. After an arrest, he's talked into participating in a government program instead of going to jail. Therapy is the key to unlocking Cat's deeply buried psionic gift: He's a telepath with mental damage, but is finally able to work through it. Finally he has something to really call his own and a group to belong to, though he's been raised with the usual human prejudices so there's also a bit of self-hatred going on there. He forges relationships with the others (most notably Jule, a girl who can teleport and feel others' emotions) and gets caught up in a messy battle against a psionic bad guy. Cat has to make deep sacrifices in order to protect himself and his own.

When we move on to Catspaw, we find Cat again getting talked into using his telepathic talents for the good of other people, so this time he's a reluctant bodyguard. Normally he wouldn't ever think of being a corporate tool, but this is a relative of Jule's, and he has a soft spot for her. Again he's caught up in a web of lies and politics, finding that the person he's trying to protect might also lose an election because of him. He is again set up to sacrifice himself in order to protect others, though this time scarily enough making himself the bait is his own idea. . . .

The last book in the series, Dreamfall, shows Cat trying to better himself at a university, but he gets distracted because the planet his field trip brings him to actually has an indigenous Hydran population, and he's curious about the alien side of his heritage. Going to the Hydran Homeland lands him in a heap of trouble again (as always), but Cat finds love with Miya, a Hydran woman who's wanted for supposedly kidnapping a human child. Cat's struggle to choose a side and awaken/embrace his Hydran heritage is the main purpose of this book.

I have a Joan D. Vinge fansite here on swankivy.com if you'd like more detail about these amazing science fiction books.

Joseph Heller
Catch-22
Yes, this novel coined the famous phrase. In this classic novel, the protagonist Yossarian is subjected to the horrors of war . . . and war is made to look as absurd as it really is. Of course, "catch-22" refers to when a person is allowed to get out of flying bombing missions: You can't fly if you're crazy, but if you admit you're crazy because you want to get out of flying them, then you must be sane, because nobody sane wants to go on these missions. But if you want to get out of flying them, you're sane and you have to. Which is crazy. Ahem. . . .

J.D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye
Holden is a different sort of narrator. He's frank, cynical, and honest, and the story fits comfortably in his voice as he relays to the reader a typical few days of his existence. Holden is very good at telling people what they want to hear, but he spends a lot of time thinking about his place in the world, what some girl named Jane Gallagher is doing, and where the ducks go when the pond freezes. Set in the early 1950s, Holden is wandering around having been expelled from school, treating us to long bouts of philosophy in which he expresses his confusion and alienation. He sees through so many others' acts while putting on a face himself, but he doesn't want to be fake. He wants to be the person who's there to catch other people. Holden's bad language is refreshing, though very dated (he tends to use words like "phony" and "lousy"), and even though the book is more about how he thinks and who he wants to be than about anything in particular happening, I think it's a very important and enjoyable novel.

Chuck Palahniuk
Choke
Palahniuk's usual gruesome descriptions and gritty writing are employed in this book. Victor is a sex addict, a tourist attraction, a professional con artist, and . . . the savior of all mankind? Okay then. Because of his weird relationship with his mother and a lifetime of abandonment/security issues, Victor finds comfort in tricking unsuspecting restaurant patrons into thinking he's choking and saving his life, after which he manipulates them into "adopting" him and checking on him--once you save someone's life, you see, it's like they're your responsibility. (None of his victims suspect he has dozens of patsies.) I enjoyed this book despite its really graphic sexual language and whatnot. Word to the wise: If you can't handle descriptions of anal beads being used and misused, don't read this.

Timothy Zahn
A Coming of Age
If you look at the listing of works this author has written, it is obvious he's written a BUNCH (lots of it series work for multi-authored storylines), but this is the only book of his I've read, and I enjoyed it muchly. I was very young when I first read it, though, and the way Zahn created a world based around a different balance of power was quite appealing to me. (Children developed amazing powers around the age of five, which went away as puberty hit; as a result, the world had to be rearranged to control them during this period.)

The protagonist is Lisa, who has been living at her "hive" since she first developed her telekinetic powers around age five like every other kid on the planet. Thing is, she's getting to the age now where most kids start going through puberty, which means they're going to lose their powers very soon. Only after they're completely devoid of telekinetic power can they attend school, which is how the adult world has managed to keep the children in check (with the help of other kids who are indoctrinated in the morals of society from birth, if they need their help against any uprisings). Lisa wants to learn to read, but hopes puberty will take its time because she doesn't want to lose her powers. Her coming-of-age issues and the plot surrounding a scientist's plan to prolong the children's powers (possibly indefinitely) are the focus of this well-thought-out novel.

Louise Rennison
Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series
Georgia Nicolson is a rude British schoolgirl who has embarrassing parents, a mad younger sister (well, mad in that cute toddler way), a carnivorous and constantly misbehaving cat, and a lot of guy trouble. The books are written in a journal style, though the way they're written makes it completely unbelievable that they WOULD be someone's real journal. What I think attracts me to this series is the writing style itself, because if truth be told I don't really care if she gets to snog who she wants and if boys are interested in her. I like the portrayal of the group of friends and their arsenal of insults and dumb nicknames for their enemies, and I find the author's verbing funny; for instance, she mentioned "watching the lads" and said they were "ladding about." Georgia's shameless pursuing of boys to satisfy her "Cosmic Horn" is quite amusing, and there is even a dictionary in the back of the American releases to help dumb Yanks understand the English slang. (This glossary is written in the same sarcastic and slightly batty style as the book itself.)

Pamela Redmond Satran & Linda Rosenkrantz
Cool Names for Babies
I like naming trends and am interested in how names become what they are, but this book stands apart from others because it not only shows you some cool names but some strategies on how to look for/create your own and what to do to consider whether you should actually bestow those names on children or what. I like baby name books not only because they're interesting in and of themselves, but also because I can sometimes use them as resources in naming characters in my novels.

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Francesca Lia Block
Dangerous Angels series
Francesca Lia Block is an amazing writer whose books are very well-received by the young adult community. However, they are not geared *only* toward older younger readers; they are beautiful and poetic and have something for all ages, even if they are marketed mostly to a "young adult" audience. I started reading and liking her material when I was already in college, for instance, and she does also write some adult material. If you like to step into an alternate world, into a world hauntingly like our own but where magical things happen, a world that is really just our own with the magic revealed, then you will like her work.

Weetzie Bat is the story that started it all, and pretty much made Ms. Block as famous as she is now. Her book was well-received even by people who don't really like to read, because of the unusual, easy-to-follow poetically "real" style. It is the urban fairy tale of a girl, Weetzie Bat, who adventures through life with her best friend Dirk. All the girls think Dirk is hot but it is their bad luck that he is gay, and searching for his "duck" (their term for the perfect guy). And Weetzie, she just wants to find her secret agent lover man. Weetzie rubs a magic lamp one day and finds a genie. She wishes for a duck for Dirk, "My secret agent lover man for me," and a beautiful house for them to live in. Things don't quite turn out how she wants them. . . .

The second story is Witch Baby. Witch Baby is, of course, about Witch Baby, the product of My Secret Agent Lover Man's affair with a witch when he was mad at Weetzie for letting Dirk and Duck father a child with her. The baby had turned up on their doorstep and is now being raised as an "almost-sister" to Cherokee, Weetzie's daughter. But she doesn't feel at all like she belongs. She feels ugly and unappreciated in Weetzie's golden, shining, happy family, and spends lots of time taking pictures, collecting news clippings of horrid events, and skating around in her cowboy-boot roller skates. Witch Baby is the story of Witch Baby trying to track down where she does belong.

Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, the third one, is about Cherokee Bat, Witch Baby, Raphael Chong Jah-Love, and Angel Juan Perez--also known as the rock band The Goat Guys. Because of gifts they receive from each other and from fans, the band changes, and get sucked into lots of experiences that almost take them under to the point that they can't escape. With their parents away on vacation and Coyote the only advisor, they have to pull themselves out before they drown.

The fourth book--my favorite--is Missing Angel Juan. It is the only book of the Weetzie series that is told in first person and in present tense. Witch Baby misses her boyfriend, Angel Juan, who has had to move back to Mexico. She goes on a search for him and finds instead the ghost of her "grandfather," Charlie Bat. This is the story of her adventure through the world and through her own mind.

And then Baby Be-Bop, the last book, goes back in time before the Weetzie days to when Dirk was young, and details his experiences growing up gay. Because he has so many questions and fears about his sexuality, he is worried that his love is wrong and there is something the matter with him, especially since his grandmother insists it's "just a phase." But through a series of magical experiences, Dirk begins to see that the way he is different is not bad; it just takes some getting used to, for him and for other people.

I have Francesca Lia Block fansite here on swankivy.com .

R.A. Salvatore
The Dark Elf trilogy
This is the only straight-up D&D-esque fantasy that I've ever enjoyed, because I tend not to like that traditional high fantasy stuff. The writing in this, however, was very good, and I was able to happily consume the whole trilogy. It is the tale of Drizzt, a dark elf--also known as a drow. Drow live underground and have a very violent lifestyle, and when Drizzt is born he narrowly misses having to be sacrificed to the drow's dark deity. He is a different sort from the beginning, because even though he loves to fight and is good at it, he does not possess the mad urge for power or the bloodthirstiness typical of his kin. When he has to separate from his people due to the fact that even his mom wants to kill him, Drizzt ventures forth into the empty tunnels of the Underdark, with only his spiritual panther companion, Guenhwyvar, for company. Because the drow are known as vicious and all the other races fear them, Drizzt finds difficulty being accepted even by other outcasts of the Underdark, so even though it is not in his nature to live on the surface, he ventures out from the abyss and tries to make a living aboveground. Becoming a ranger there but ultimately living a mostly lonely life, Drizzt's life story blends into another storyline, which I haven't picked up.

This trilogy is special because Drizzt is a very conflicted, sympathetic character whose feelings of sadness and alienation come across as realistic and touching rather than an overdone puddle of emo like most misunderstood navel-gazing characters of fantasy. He is strong, charismatic, and multi-layered, not to mention a total badass. I must say I'd love to get a look at him swinging those scimitars.

Stephen King
The Dark Tower series
I've only read the first three of this series, because there was a huge gap between release dates that had me forgetting what the heck happened and left me wary of picking up book 4 until I'd refreshed my memory. This is the tale of the Gunslinger and various associated characters who inhabit alternate worlds; it really started to come alive for me when the second book, The Drawing of the Three, started to bring in people from "our" world to play their parts in an epic plot whose momentum just kept building. I will be able to explain in more detail once I have re-read these and gone on to the last four volumes, but that won't be for a good long time, I'm afraid.

Douglas Adams
The Deeper Meaning of Liff
This is a book of definitions . . . words that need meaning, and things there should be words for. How often have all of us wished there was a good word to describe a thing, a phenomenon, or a feeling? Isn't the world a better place now that we have Douglas Adams's answer to this puzzling problem? Isn't it nice to know that a grimsby is a lump of gristle that is either in your food through careless cooking or sometimes placed there deliberately by Freemasons? Or that a sidcup is one of those hats you make out of a handkerchief with the corners tied in knots? I don't know about you, but I'm glad to know that someone has done this . . . and on top of that, it's roaringly funny sometimes, prompting a reader to bookmark favorite words and read them out loud to similarly minded friends. It's got that very typical English "scent" to its language, as well, and the maps in the beginning that get sillier and sillier as you go on are priceless.

Rebecca Wells
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
Ms. Wells writes about those "insignificant" things that make up every inkling we have of our childhoods and our lives. She puts down the detail that most of us forget, the amazing stories that were usually forgotten even though they were hilariously funny or amazingly meaningful at the time. She introduces us to her characters, the Ya-Yas, and their children, in little bits and pieces of their lives, showing us who they are and making us realize we're all mirrors of them, on this strange road of life. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood was my favorite of this author's books, since it actually had a story as well as lots of anecdotes and memories. I guess what I like about her work is that it so perfectly captures the human experience, the way we're all screwed up by our parents and authority figures in our lives and how we go on to screw up everyone else and somehow it's all all right. Her work is amazingly emotional and well thought out, and I am very glad I read them.

Siddalee's mom Vivi gets royally pissed at her when she reads a story about Sidda's "unhappy childhood" (which is really an exaggerated account of some things she said to a reporter when being interviewed about a play she wrote). Vivi threatens to disown Sidda and Sidda decides her mom is crazy. So enter the Ya-Yas: Teensy, Caro, and Necie. These ladies are Sidda's mom's lifelong friends, and they charge her with going through the group's "divine secrets" scrapbook so she can try to understand her mom--and see the events she didn't understand as a child through the eyes of her mother. Many flashbacks ensue, showing the four Ya-Yas growing up in Louisiana in the difficult past, when everything was different from race issues to family expectations. Eventually, the two have to come to an understanding--and it's not just Sidda who has to do the learning.

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Octavia Butler
The Earthseed books
The Earthseed story begins with Parable of the Sower, involving Lauren Olamina and her plans for a sort of utopian society called Earthseed, which is destined to take root among the stars and foster the only god she believes in: Change. So this book is set in the near future where society is rapidly collapsing--it's sort of dystopic, and the main character is a headstrong teenage girl named Lauren who suffers from a congenital condition caused by her mother's use of an experimental drug, and it causes a psychological echo effect called hyperempathy; she experiences what she imagines to be other people's pleasure and pain. Makes it very difficult to hurt anyone (or see anyone hurt) in a rather violent world, so poor Lauren feels pretty vulnerable.

But this is about when Hell really does break loose in her own "safe" neighborhood, and what she has to do to become strong and venture off to safety in search of a place for herself and her kin to replant themselves . . . and what she has planned for humanity's future among the stars. The sequel, Parable of the Talents, is about Lauren's daughter, and what happens during a religious backlash after society has seriously started going down the toilet. Lauren Olamina and her Earthseed community are pretty much considered heretics and aren't allowed to practice their lifestyle of fostering change toward mankind's growth, and we get to follow the story of her people.

Lynne Truss
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
It's a book about punctuation, yes, but it's not nearly as dull as it sounds. Ms. Truss speaks of having feelings of dismay, horror, and violent impulses in response to seeing mispunctuated signs in abundance (such as "apple's" in the grocery store, or "Bobs' Motors"). She even tells us about standing in protest outside the theater showing Two Weeks Notice and holding up an apostrophe on a stick to show where the apostrophe should be. Amongst little lessons on punctuation, she gives us funny anecdotes and personal responses, tying it all together in a wonderful little package for us English dorks. The book does display British usage, but it gives little nods to American usage where appropriate. She writes novels too, but I haven't yet managed to see any of them. I'd like to, because I have no doubt that they'd be very well punctuated!

Francesca Lia Block
Ecstasia
In a carnival-town called Elysia, the band Ecstasia lives its enchanted life. Calliope, Rafe, Paul, and Dionisio are the members, each with his or her own story. Though they were born in the desert, siblings Calliope and Rafe are products of the young, bedazzled culture of Elysia, and they have accepted that they will live the good life until signs of aging drive them--willingly--to the Under, where the old ones live. Their own mother fled there at her first signs of aging, and Calliope, who sees true visions in her mind, hears her mother dying below the city. She goes to her, and her brother follows to bring her back, helped in his quest by following Lily, a tightrope-walker with whom he has become obsessed. How the various characters come to terms with who and what they are is the plot of this novel, and it has a sequel: Primavera, also one of my favorites.

Rainbow Rowell
Eleanor & Park
This is the story of two high school kids growing up in the 1980s and falling in love. Both have their own issues at home--Park struggles with a dad who polices his masculinity, while Eleanor lives in poverty with an abusive stepfather--and though they reluctantly meet by chance on the school bus, they soon begin to treasure their time together. Beginning with sharing comics and music, they soon progress to conversations and kisses, and soon they are each other's whole world. Too bad other things in their worlds are awfully good at coming between them. This author does a fantastic job of writing authentic-sounding teenagers and capturing the awkward and inspiring experience of high school life and first love.

Gail Carson Levine
Ella Enchanted
This was about a girl who was cursed by a fairy at birth to always do everything anyone told her to do. It had to be a command, not a suggestion, but if someone said it, she had to do it. After some changes occur in her life, Ella has to try to live in a couple of different situations while still bearing her curse. In the way of Cinderella, Ella is trying to be with the boy she likes, but things keep interfering. In the end, she has to find a way to break her curse or endanger the whole kingdom. Very cool book, though there were some goofy parts.

Sam Harris
The End of Faith
Sam Harris's very blunt, interesting, specific, and CORRECT discussions of the dangers of religious faith are deserving of some kind of award. I'm sure he's already won several. He really makes a great case for logic and skepticism while still allowing for the validity and importance of "spiritual" experiences, and points out all kinds of misconceptions and stupidities of the faithful. I agree with him when he says it's time for us to stop letting religious faith be the only aspect of human experience that is taboo to judge. He restates a lot of stuff I've been saying for years and brings to the table a few arguments I hadn't thought of but happily agree with. Um . . . can I vote Harris for President? Oh wait, according to polls, people would be more likely to elect a homosexual than an atheist, because obviously what someone believes about God and the afterlife has a lot to do with how well that person will govern.

Edith Wharton
Ethan Frome
This old book was assigned to me as high school required reading, but I found it truly compelling. Much of the book takes place in a cold climate out in the snow, and it says something for the believability of the story that I felt cold the entire time I was reading it.

Ethan Frome lives on a rather unsuccessful farm, along with his wife Zeena (who's kind of the bane of his existence). But then Zeenie's cousin Mattie comes along to help them out with their difficult physical tasks, and Ethan starts really noticing her over his wife, becoming totally preoccupied with how this other woman is a symbol for the happiness he could have achieved. Eventually he confesses that he wants to run away with Mattie, though his own morals have prevented him from fully realizing his goal. This forbidden love is shared by Mattie, and the two of them have to figure out what they want to do about it since tearing apart their family and going against their deeply instilled moral upbringing does not appeal to them. What they choose is tragic--not in the way you might think--and the beginning of the book is tied to its ending by a narrator's description of this ruined man.

Riichiro Inagaki & Yusuke Murata
Eyeshield 21 manga
This is a manga about football--American football. Sena is the mysterious Eyeshield 21, and he's a kid who learned to run really fast because he was always bullied and had to be saved by a girl. Now he's in high school and he got dragged into using his running talents for the football team. And when I say he got dragged, I don't exactly mean literally, but I think there might have been some dragging at some point (along with some threatening, some physical violence, some lying, some cajoling, and some general abuse). That's because, well, that's how quarterback Hiruma does things. He's evil. Or something very close to it.

It is his fault that the team for his school, Deimon High, is called the "Deimon Devil Bats," and it is his fault that everyone plays as well as they do . . . because he never lets up and he's not interested in anything but winning. He is the quarterback with questionable morals, and at the beginning he's all about trying to get Sena on the team. Well, not that there's much of a team to begin with. Before Sena joins, it's just Hiruma and his lineman, Kurita. The girl who's protected Sena since grade school, Mamori, thinks it's dangerous to play football and says he'll be bullied and smacked around. So, one of the basic plot points is that Sena ends up joining the team secretly, pretending that he's the secretary, and then when he actually plays in the games he puts on a helmet with a green eyeshield so no one can tell who he is, including Mamori. So she doesn't know that he's their team's secret weapon . . . and as for her, she joins the team as the manager. Sena and the team evolve during their practices and tournament games, and it's not long before Sena is a real sports hero. The team dynamics and character interaction are really cool, but the games--and, in my opinion, Hiruma and his strategies--are the highlight.

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Rainbow Rowell
Fangirl
Cath is into a very popular book series called Simon Snow, and she's made quite a name for herself online as a popular fanfiction author. Her twin sister Wren used to be her biggest supporter (and sometimes coauthor), but now that they're in college, the girls are growing apart. Wren craves individuality and wild parties, while Cath shrinks into her stories and finds herself intimidated by the world of original creative writing. Her forays into romance leave her confused, and her father's mental health and encroachment of her estranged mother make her wonder if she ever should have gone to college in the first place. Cath has to establish priorities and learn what her bond of sisterhood is really about.

Julie Anne Peters
Far from Xanadu
In a small town, it's difficult being the only lesbian. A girl who goes by the name "Mike" is Coalton's only gay girl (though she has a gay guy friend), and that makes it very unlikely that she'll find someone to have a relationship with if she wants to stay in town. She likes softball and is good at plumbing and does a lot of typically boyish things, and even though her peers and the townspeople in general don't really "get" her, she's never felt like an outcast. Coalton is "home" and she belongs. But then she gets a crush on a straight girl: Xanadu, who's been transplanted into the town as basically a punishment. Fascinated, Mike tries pursuing Xanadu, but all Xanadu wants to do is pursue hot guys who are jerks to both of them. Unfortunately, she strings Mike along just enough to keep a glimmer of hope alive in her dreams. Mike has to figure out what to do with her unrequited love before her unrealistic expectations and her broken heart lead her to follow in her father's footsteps. This book expertly tackles the subject of being in love with someone who can't love back.

Eric Schlosser
Fast Food Nation
Since I have long thought McDonald's was evil, I decided to read this book, and it confirmed my suspicions along with giving me an almost too in-depth look at the meat-packing industry and the aspects of life that the fast food industry affects.

Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club
Every book I've read by Palahniuk is absorbing and kind of has that "can't-look-away" low-grade horror embedded in it. In this one, the psyche is the author's playground. Fight Club is the story of a man who is so disenchanted by the materialistic, drone-infested workaday world that he is attracted to the violent, manipulative underworld of Tyler Durden. The protagonist has always comforted himself by collecting "stuff" for his apartment and diving into his work, but his morally ambiguous job starts to eat at him. Soon he can't sleep and starts going to self-help groups pretending to have whatever disorder the group is for, which somehow helps him release his emotions. But soon his life becomes so meaningless to him that he feels almost freed when his apartment burns, destroying everything he owned. Desperate, he calls a man he met on a plane--Tyler Durden--and ends up staying with him. One day Tyler says he's never been in a fight and says "Hit me," so the two end up in a fight and realize how good it feels to release themselves like that. They set up "fight clubs" where men who feel like they do can get their frustration out on each other and then still go back to the everyday world in the daytime, where they don't talk about Fight Club but feel it transform their lives. Soon Tyler is transforming more than just lives; he's screwing with society itself, encouraging the members to perform anarchist acts, and the protagonist slowly starts feeling himself losing control. But what is the true nature of their relationship, and what does it all have to do with that nutty girl Marla Singer, whom he discovered as a self-help-group impostor just like him?

I appreciate the way these characters were portrayed, and how the character's insomnia (and way of curing it) drew me in so fast. Tyler was fascinating, and the camaraderie between the Fight Club group members was really interesting--how they found so much meaning in rejecting the meaningless and striking out in sick but scarily sane ways.

Stephen King
Firestarter
Little Charlie has a strange ability: She can light fires just by thinking about it. This is because her parents met each other at an experimental drug testing--which they both participated in for extra cash--and they both have weird powers as well. Her dad's mental domination ability causes him severe headaches and nosebleeds, but he's forced to use it to keep people from attacking him and his daughter once "The Shop" finds out what they can do. Eventually, of course, they're captured, and Charlie doesn't want to perform any mental tricks for the bad guys until or unless they reunite her with her dad. Sadly, she's easy to manipulate because they have a man on their staff who slowly earns her trust, but what's gonna happen if she finds out what's going on? Trust me, you don't want to piss this kid off. Obviously some aspects of this book are horrific, but the trust the dad-and-daughter team has between them and the desperation that drives their mission is realistic and heartwarming just as much as it's heartbreaking.

Vanna Bonta
Flight
Ms. Bonta writes some neat speculative stuff that I really enjoy; Flight is about Aira, a light/thought-being who is "condensed" into human form. Mendle is the one she loves, and the one who loves her, human as well. It's a great story that will probably change how you think about life, love, and reality. It is now decidedly dated because it names a date for "the future" when everyone in the world sang at the same time, and now, well, that date is in the past. It doesn't destroy the message, though.

Since reading this book as a college kid, I have grown to have less patience with novels that aren't really novels but are really avenues for the author's idealistic message--also known as frame stories--and I have to say I probably would have liked this book more if it had been presented as philosophy in a nonfiction way. But I agree wholeheartedly with so many of the sentiments the author presents that I can't really knock it. It really is a wonderful book. I had some really nice e-mails/conversations with the author many years ago, as well, and she's a really neat person.

Daniel Keyes
Flowers for Algernon
This is a book about an intellectually disabled man who agrees to have an experimental treatment done to "make him smart." The book, told in his journal entries, keeps getting smarter and smarter-sounding as he approaches normal intelligence and then surpasses all his doctors. He begins to realize that even though he is smart and capable of intelligent thought now, he is still treated no more like a person; the nurse he has a crush on won't treat him like a man, and the other doctors still seem to believe they are superior and require him to be on display for them. He has many experiences, but then discovers something disturbing about his mouse, Algernon, who's also had the same treatment. . . .

Rodman Philbrick
Freak the Mighty
Two outcast kids become more than they ever were before when they join forces. The narrator is Max, who's commonly thought of as a dumb giant--he's huge, and he's a slow learner. People have pigeonholed him for it all his life, plus people think he might be violent because he looks like his father, who's in prison for murder. Then there's Kevin--mainly known as "Freak"--who's very smart but he's got a growth disorder which keeps him ill and makes it difficult for him to keep up with normal kids physically. But when they meet, Freak shares his brain and Max shares his legs, and when Max carries Freak on his shoulders they become "Freak the Mighty." Through their friendship, Max realizes he's smarter than he thought--even though for most of the book he thinks he's just using Freak's brain--and Freak finds strength he didn't know he had. But even though they're a great team, Max will have to recognize his abilities for what they are when he doesn't have his friend to depend on anymore. The book is rendered in Max's naïve voice, much like a journal to the reader, and it's a great book for reluctant readers.

Alison Bechdel
Fun Home series
Alison Bechdel is known as sort of a feminist icon and a great lesbian artist, but her book Fun Home is deeply personal and unlike anything I've ever read before. It does a great job summing up her experience in the unusual microculture of her family, focusing primarily on her relationship with her father and many of the formative incidents that have affected her life. The art is consistent and evocative despite being cartoony and sketchy, and the details are really what makes it. This tale of a girl becoming a woman, coming into her identity, and realizing where it links to her father's experiences (and where it deviates) is just incredible to read. The second autobiographical book in this vein, entitled Are You My Mother?, explores similar ground with her mother, though it focuses more on the aftermath of her father's suicide, the fallout from her first book, and her fixation on psychoanalysis. A musical has been made of the first book.

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Katherine Dunn
Geek Love
I wasn't sure if I liked this so much as I was just kind of fascinated by it. Check it out if you like . . . well, let's just say real strange stuff. It's about circus freaks, told from the point of view of one of them, a bald albino hunchback dwarf named Olympia. She's one of five children who were the result of weird drug combinations given to her mother by her father for the express purpose of making kids to use for free in their freak exhibits. Olympia has a complex about being the LEAST freaky of the bunch. Explaining any of the plot would take a lot of your enjoyment away if you read it, so just take my word for it.

Lois Duncan
A Gift of Magic
This is a story about a family whose grandmother gave her grandchildren "gifts"--Kirby got the gift of dance, Brendon got the gift of music, and Nancy got something else that she doesn't quite understand. She doesn't know much about ESP, but when she reads up about it and realizes it describes what she can do, she's both kinda afraid and kinda interested in developing it. But then, of course, it ends up hitting her that she might have a responsibility that comes with her unusual talent, and she's not sure what to do when it seems to become bigger than she is. This is really well-written. You totally get inside this character's head. I loved it as a young girl and really related to the main character.

Francesca Lia Block
Girl Goddess #9
Girl Goddess #9 is a collection of short stories by Ms. Block. All of them are about girls who are very special in some way. "Tweetie Sweet Pea" is a story about a young baby and her life with her sister, Peachy Pie. "Blue" is about La, and her imaginary (or is she?) friend Blue, and her mother's role in her life of feeling unpopular. "Dragons in Manhattan" is about Tuck Budd and her confusion over who her dad is in her parents' relationship, since they both appear to be female. "Girl Goddess #9" is about lady ivory and alabaster duchess, two girls who write about their idolization of a rock star in their 'zine. "Rave" is actually written in the voice of a guy, about a girl named Raven, and how they are both "freaks." "The Canyon" is about Désirée and escaping reality and death. "Pixie and Pony" is about best friend girls and girl relationships. "Winnie and Cubby" is about Winnie and Cubby, and their relationship and strange conversations. And "Orpheus" is about a girl's relationship with a photographer while reminiscing about a dead friend named Jacaranda. All of the stories are easy to read and let you get lost in their liquid language. You'll be glad you read it if you do.

Richard Dawkins
The God Delusion
Dawkins is a brilliant scientist--mainly a biologist--who has become rather popular lately (some say infamous!) for being so vocal about his status as an atheist. This book examines so many different aspects of religious beliefs that it left me with a very full feeling of understanding--everything from the danger of extremism to the abuse of children's sense of logic; from the problem of morality to the beauty of a world that delights in truth without having to be intellectually dishonest with itself--it's all there. Absolutely, 100% recommended.

Pete Hautman
Godless
This was an honest and irreverant tale of an agnostic kid who decides to start his own religion for kicks. What I really liked about it was that the followers he recruits are all in the joke cult for different reasons (just like real religion) and all practice differently (just like real religion) and some would rather split into their own sect than follow rules the founder sets (just like . . . well, you know). What's also WONDERFUL about this book is that the cult members--"Chutengodians," who worship the town's water tower as a god--do some stupid and dangerous things as a show of their faith, and in most books a preachy author would use this pattern of "kid doubts faith, kid gets in HUGE trouble or gets hurt due to events following directly from his lack of faith, kid returns to established faith and finds happiness." But in THIS book, that does not happen (thank the Ten-legged One). Despite not having any actual belief that the water tower is God, the main character, Jason Bock, manages to have "religious experiences" in association with his Chutengodian adventures, and admits that they were wonderful and will be remembered his whole life. Some of his followers, he finds, are doing it to prove they're rebels. Some are doing it because everyone's doing it. Some are doing it to impress someone else. And some . . . as Jason finds out all too bizarrely . . . actually believe the craziness, even with full evidence in front of them that they made it up themselves. The narration is borderline blasphemous at times without being nasty (like when Jason tells his dad that Catholicism is just as made up as Chutengodianism, or his suggestion that transsubstantiation can be described thus: "the host the priest places on your tongue is actually a sliver of Jesus meat"). I'd also like to say Mr. Hautman gets brownie points for making his main character decidedly overweight without making it this big point or sticking in dumb self-improvement messages where he loses weight as a symbol of bettering himself. It always annoys me when the fat kid is either the comic relief, the obvious target of bullying, or a symbol of something to get past. It's nice to just see a fat kid once in a while and have nothing made of it except he's a fat kid.

Andrew Smith
Grasshopper Jungle
What happens if the end of the world actually makes more sense than your love life? Austin is a confused teenage boy who is as in love with his male best friend as he is with his girlfriend, and he's not sure if that means he's gay or what. He's quite good at connecting dots and discerning history, so he uses his skills to fill journals with his odd observations concerning sex, history, family, responsibility, and how the apocalypse was kind of his fault. As he and his friends accidentally set some events in motion that trigger the rise of a race of human-eating (and cannibalistic) giant bugs, they explore their questions about life and their connections with each other. When it's time to fight, die, or hide, they make their choice. Delivered through a strange stream-of-consciousness ramble that's surprisingly insightful for something that's also occasionally vapid, this is a memorable and very weird read.

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William Shakespeare
Hamlet
Shrouded in the stilted archaic English every high school student fears, Shakespeare hides some very funny and relevant-to-modern-times situations. The play within a play is very intriguing. It still amazes me how much this author revolutionized not only our concepts of literature and drama but our use of language itself. . . .

Hamlet, as you probably know, is the story of a Danish prince who apparently goes mad when his father dies and his uncle takes the throne practically before the body is cold. Hamlet attempts to use a bunch of traveling performers' theatre production as a ruse to draw out a reaction from his uncle and mother. His relationships with his friends and with fair Ophelia suffer, and he ponders mortality. In the end, as with most Shakespeare battles, there is a bloody swordfight involving much poison and death. There's something fishy in the state of Denmark. . . .

Mark Frauenfelder, Carla Sinclair and Gareth Branwyn
The Happy Mutant Handbook
I read this thing cover to cover and have had loads of fun with it. If the word "happy mutant" appeals to you and seems to describe you, you might consider checking this book out and learning about how to do things that have amused others of your kind. There are many pranks (of which I am very fond myself) and cool stuff that you can do on the computer. It is a rather disorganized book, but that doesn't really matter. I've learned a lot from this weird little book and you will too. Recommendation: Look for it in used bookstores or in out-of-print book searches, 'cause it's old and a bit outdated, from when the Internet was a kooky playground that was half barren wasteland and half high weirdness.

J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter series
Most people who read have read Harry Potter, I think. These books are actually quite good, which is surprising considering that they're popular too. (Most of what the masses like is trash.) If you haven't read these (or--please don't let this be the case--if you are boycotting them because of witchcraft or something) . . . then you should really give them a try. Harry Potter is a boy who has been (barely) raised by his mother's sister's family . . . and finds out at a late age that he is not only a wizard, but that he is a famous wizard, and everyone in the wizarding world knows who he is because as an infant he survived the attack of Lord Voldemort, the dark wizard.

The first book is about his discovery of his heritage and his first year at the Hogwarts magic school. The next books each cover one year of his magical education. The books are exciting, and even though they're not as character-oriented as I like, they're ingenious as far as plot goes. I have always been somewhat surprised by the outcomes because Ms. Rowling is the queen of red herrings--it actually gets a little tiresome now and then because you start to feel like the author is spending more time trying to trick you than trying to tell the story. She also has an annoying habit of steering characters according to an obviously predestined plot instead of giving them control (though I see evidence that they occasionally wrest control from their creator) . . . and beyond that, she does suffer from "big revelation syndrome" (meaning she likes to create a big build-up of suspense and then let the villain explain the reasoning to the hero in the last chapter, or something).

I'd just like to say a couple things: I like the magical-ness of her world, but I don't like the lack of practicality inherent in a segregated Wizarding society--take the kids when they're in fifth grade and then teach them history, chemistry, and literature only with regards to the magical community? All the adult wizards are walking around with an elementary school education on mundane science, politics, and language? That is just weird. I like the modern-ness of the wizards, but it still strikes me as odd that a lot of their conventions (such as the quills, the robes, the scrolls) remained ancient instead of evolving with society. And I liked the "it could have happened to ME!" idea that children can relate to when Harry finds out he is a wizard after thinking he was a normal kid. But the "hide everything from the main characters even if it's ridiculous to do so and have the bad guys reveal everything in the end" syndrome is very high with this author.

Philip Pullman
His Dark Materials series
Please note that this series is a bit difficult to get into if you expect your books to string you along, tell you everything, and keep checking in on you to make sure you're excited. Patient readers of literary fiction will be able to handle it fine, but a lot of people just have trouble with this book because it takes its time. PLEASE KEEP AT IT. YOU WILL BE REWARDED.

This is marketed as a kids' series sometimes, but some bookstores can't tell the difference and put it in the adult fantasy. The truth is, there is nowhere to draw the line. Probably the only reason they end up in Kids' in the first place is the fact that the main characters are juveniles. Unlike most books that are supposedly "written for kids," this one just happens to have a child protagonist and is NOT necessarily "for kids."

The first book, The Golden Compass, takes place in another dimension, much like ours with some differences in society and everyday life. The protagonist is Lyra, and her dæmon is Pantalaimon. (All the people from Lyra's dimension have dæmons--animal-shaped extensions of themselves--that change form when they are children but settle on a permanent form when they are adults. They really don't hit you over the head with this concept, though, because to every character in the book this is obvious so it takes a while for the discerning reader to piece everything together.) They are thrown into a series of strange and complicated events when they begin to study the mysterious "Dust." Through this book and the rest of the trilogy, the mysteries of Dust are unraveled and hundreds of other complicated storylines tangle in each other. Lyra starts on her adventure when her friend is kidnapped, and she discovers that the link between dæmons and people is something this crazy group is studying--with the intention of exploiting it while severing it. This is horrifying to Lyra and most of her friends, but this group sees it as a spiritual evolution and a maturing of the human identity.

As Lyra goes further into her uncovering of mysteries by following clues given to her by the amazing golden compass (really known as an alethiometer), we meet great characters like Will Parry, a kid from "our" world, and Serafina Pekkala, a witch from Lyra's world; there are angels, shamans, talking armored bears, tiny spies, ghosts, and other nameless creatures, all with special parts to play. And Lyra's destiny as a bringer of salvation is all the more powerful when it turns out she's on the opposite side from the religious authorities.

From a Christian point of view these books can be taken as blasphemous (even though really the enemy is institutionalized religion that regards thought as dangerous), so I'm surprised I haven't heard anything about book-burning parties for this series. I cannot describe the intricacies of the plot because they are so in-depth and more fun to sort out for yourself; just know that these are super-highly recommended books that should not be ignored just because they are shelved as children's books. Recommendation: Start with The Golden Compass.

Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is about Arthur Dent, a normal Earth man, who happens to get rescued from the demolition of the Earth by his friend, Ford Prefect, who is from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. It is a highly hilarious, silly British comedy adventure sci-fi thing, with lots of paradoxes, stupid humor, and brain-numbing weirdness. Though it is called a trilogy, there are five main books, and they occasionally contradict each other and make no sense as they tell a fascinating story. The Hitchhiker's Guide, a computerized ultra-encyclopedia, coughs up interesting and funny tidbits all through the very ridiculous novels.

Louis Sachar
Holes
This book tells the tale of a young man who is unjustly accused of a crime and sent to a detention camp where the punishment involves digging holes. But are they really digging "to build character"? Somehow I doubt it. . . .

Stanley Yelnats IV--whose first name is his last name spelled backwards--is the victim of a curse that has affected the men in the family since his ancestor, Elya Yelnats, left the old country. (Or so the family legends say.) Stanely is accused of stealing a pair of sneakers (which were supposed to be sold for charity, once belonging to a basketball star), and even though he claims the shoes fell on him from the sky, he is sent to a detention camp. There, he meets other misfits, including a boy who is known only as Zero. The boys must all dig one hole a day under the strict observation of the ruthless Mr. Sir, who works for the Warden. Heavy, out-of-shape Stanley has difficulty digging his holes, while wiry Zero is always finished first; eventually, the two strike a deal by which Stanley teaches Zero to read in exchange for help digging. When Stanley finds an interesting object in his hole and sees that the Warden makes a BIG deal out of it, everyone begins to believe they're really digging for something in particular, so Stanley and Zero try to solve the mystery, but end up being discovered and have to run away. Out in the desert, living is difficult, and the two have to help each other survive. Past events that all lead to the mystery of the treasure, the relationship between these boys, and Stanley's curse all come full circle.

I thought the way the past events related to the present ones was very inventive. I really didn't see the ending coming because of some clever writing, and I thought it was touching that there was an outlawed interracial romance outlined in the distant past which kind of lined up with how Stanley (a white kid) and Zero (a black kid) ended up cooperating--there was a lot of synchronicity there. I also read and liked the next related book, Small Steps.

Dan Simmons
The Hollow Man
Mr. Simmons's works are usually full of horrific occurrences, and this one is no exception, but what made me like it was the gentle core of the characters. In this book he has his main character, a telepathic man, find a woman who is just like him, only to lose her to cancer. His times with her are reviewed in flashbacks, but in realtime he's caught up in some kind of crime b.s. It's a bit of a confusing book (being that it does have a mathematical equation for human thought somewhere in there), but it remains interesting and builds toward a very odd conclusion. I tried some of Mr. Simmons's other work but was put off by the gory details.

John Novak
How to Meditate
I won't go into a lot of detail but this book really changed my life when I was in ninth grade. Learning to meditate was really easy from this small, inexpensive book, and I still use watching-the-breath and visualization exercises from it many years later!

Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games series
Amazingly popular bestseller turned blockbuster, this series about a young girl fighting to the death in a post-apocalyptic world has captured the imagination of young adults and grown-ups alike. In post-disaster North America, the country of Panem has taken over, with twelve poor districts being ruled cruelly by the nearly omnipotent Capitol. Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old girl from District Twelve, has been taking care of her mother and younger sister since her father died in a mining accident. She's had to become tough and resourceful, and has been sneaking into the woods to kill animals with her archery skills. Unfortunately, once a year children from the districts have to enter a gruesome lottery; one boy and one girl from each district is chosen to participate in a televised battle with each other which doesn't end until all but one are dead. And despite the fact that Katniss has done everything she can to protect her family, her sister is chosen against all odds. She has no choice but to volunteer in her place. And so it begins.

The action of the battle is exciting, and though the world itself is sort of poorly fleshed out, there are some political struggles as Katniss becomes an unwitting pawn/figurehead of an effort to rebel against the Capitol. However, what really stands out in this series is the character writing. Katniss is not your average heroine. She thinks love makes a person weak, because it's the only thing that people can use against her. She is not obsessed with boys or with love. She isn't at all perfect; she is frequently irrational; she has difficulty with self-awareness like most teenagers; she suffers legitimately from post-traumatic stress disorder without having rosy paint splattered on her; she makes mistakes; she isn't universally loved. I had some very small nitpicks with the writing and some slightly larger nitpicks about the simplicity and contradiction in the invented world, but Katniss's realistic emotion was brilliant. I love when a female protagonist is not primarily centered on love or family or something girly, and I love the realism in the fact that when all was said and done she was actually a confused, extremely damaged child, and the extent of her trauma was not immediately erased by some of the things she tried to do to heal. This book does have some gory bits and some emotional flailing, but I recommend it--especially for older teen girls who need to see a protagonist who isn't perfect and/or obsessed with a man to give her life meaning.

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Wally Lamb
I Know This Much Is True
Dominick and Thomas are identical twins, so it's odd that Thomas is schizophrenic and Dominick isn't. Feeling responsible for his brother, Dominick makes a lot of sacrifices and feels that his life is being screwed up a lot by the attention he has to pay to his twin. The book is a long family drama that brings in family history and childhood stories from the main characters, and everything ties in together to show how the current adult twins ended up how they are. Dominick is exasperated by but devoted to his brother, and he puts everything into trying to get him released from a mental institution after he sacrifices a part of his body to God. In so doing, he finds himself in therapy himself, and slowly starts to realize that he has rather big flaws himself--they manifested differently from similar events. Even though he has some character flaws, it's easy to fall in love with him and sympathize with him greatly as he struggles to resolve his relationships and get on with his life.

William Sleator
Interstellar Pig
This one's about what seems at first glance to be a fun, imaginative role-playing game . . . but, of course (hah), it's . . . REAL! Aliens are here playing on YOUR PLANET! And . . . what exactly IS involved in winning, anyway? ::scary music::

This book was great. There were some things that never really got explained and seemed contrived, but I enjoyed the heck out of it when I was a kid. It also has a sequel: Parasite Pig.

Daniel Quinn
Ishmael
Here we have a frame story about the urgent need for humans to care about their environment, wrapped in the guise of a man talking to a rather special ape. The narrator isn't expecting to have a talking ape for a teacher, but soon enough he's glad he suspended his disbelief and listened, because the message Ishmael has for him--and all of mankind--is all about saving the world, and not in the usual way you'd expect with all the stories of superheroes and villains. Is there still a chance for humanity to end the damage they've caused, or will we continue to see ourselves as outside the web of life that "mere animals" are a part of? We can't transcend nature because we're a part of it, and if we truly forget that, all will be lost. It's unfortunate that the actual writing leaves something to be desired, and that the whole "frame story" presentation is so obvious as a philosophy lecture, but I really appreciate the attempt to deliver a "we are NOT the center of the world" message to those who sorely need to hear it. And while I don't believe we have to retreat into caves and become "primitive" to save the world, I do believe we need to find ways of coexisting with our environment rather than conquering it.

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Roald Dahl
James and the Giant Peach
I got so hungry for peaches when I read this as a kid. The main character's mean aunts were the target of my hatred, and even though I was kinda creeped out by the bugs who were characters in this weird book, I enjoyed the adventures James had and was happy he made it in the end. This is the tale of a young boy who's being raised by his aunts, who have ended up saddled with him because his parents died in a rhinocerous accident. They treat him badly, but his salvation comes when a magical encounter results in a huge peach growing in his yard. His aunts try to capitalize on it, but James ventures into a tunnel that had been dug in the peach, and he meets giant bugs who have also been altered by the magic. But when the peach starts rolling, that's when the adventure really starts! Dahl's style, interspersed with songs in the form of rhyming poetry, is whimsical and fun but also grounded in reality enough for children to relate to the characters.

Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre
Some people say this is a bit of a romantic cliché (by today's standards), but OH, this book is beautifully character-oriented and full of emotion even within the strict confines of its quaint 1800s language. I could cry and tremble and laugh along with Jane, and I adored every minute. Jane is a kind-hearted girl whose life usually involves being on the sidelines, and most of her experiences lead her to believe she is nothing special and worthy of little. But when she joins the service staff in the house of Mr. Rochester, perhaps this man will help her learn to love herself . . . and maybe he loves her too! Is that possible for poor plain Jane? One way to find out. . . .

Stephen Gould
Jumper
I read this as a young teen and was impressed by both the grittiness and the realism of the main character's world. A movie came out recently that was based on this book, but I was almost offended by the movie version because it did such a crap job of capturing that "everyday life of an extraordinary person" feeling that the book did so well.

The main character is a teen who discovers he has teleportation powers and starts using them to make a life for himself. What's nice is he actually does the things you'd expect a kid to do if he had power; he steals and goes places he's not supposed to go. Seems too often "having powers" suddenly makes someone turn into either a superhero with squeaky-clean morals or a villain who has some kind of tragic past. Davy? He's not bad at heart, but he does some bad things sometimes, and behaves in irresponsible ways. There were aspects of this book that bothered me a little, and sometimes it seemed a little uneven, but overall Davy was a character I could believe in, and I really enjoyed reading about him.

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Julie Anne Peters
Keeping You a Secret
Julie Anne Peters's characters are beautifully real and complex and believable, and I LOVED the fact that she tackled a difficult subject like teenagers dealing with their alternative sexualities--in this case it was a girl finding out she's a lesbian and coming to terms with it. Wonderfully and powerfully written, so emotionally REAL--any teen, gay, straight, or bi should read this, and perhaps a lot of adults wouldn't have the patience for the "who am I?" routine but some will still relate to it. What I like best about it is that it helps gay teens not only by providing characters like themselves but by being realistic about the possible outcomes of coming out--i.e., you WILL experience rejection and you WILL be denied certain things for the rest of your life if you commit yourself to being true to your orientation. I think it's important that gay kids are provided with a story that depicts what could actually happen to them and why they should do it anyway--reassuring them that though the road might be bumpy, it will ultimately be for the best . . . just not particularly easy anymore. I love that there was no sugar-coated ending.

Patricia Telesco
A Kitchen Witch's Cookbook
I normally like Patricia Telesco's work (though sometimes her stuff seems a little unnecessarily "hip" to me and sometimes I disagree with her basic principles). However, it's undeniable that she really knows her stuff, and this cookbook contains a lot of recipes I have personally made again and again. I know it should go without saying, but these recipes are actually edible. (Believe me, sometimes Pagan cookbooks sacrifice this necessity in the name of trying to include symbolic ingredients or to herald back to an earlier age. I want my food to connect my celebrations to ancient folk customs and all, but I still want it to taste good!)

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Christopher Moore
Lamb
"The Gospel according to Biff, Christ's childhood pal." Funny and "blasphemous" account of the missing years of Jesus (or, as the book refers to him, Joshua). But in the (paraphrased) words of the author, if your faith is rattled by a collection of funny stories, you have a lot more praying to do. Highly recommended for anyone who likes irreverent, smartly written novels.

Sam Harris
Letter to a Christian Nation
A follow-up to his last book, The End of Faith. This short book's purpose is to answer and address some of the most common arguments Christians have made against some of his assertions in the first book he wrote. This book has simpler language and its length is not off-putting, so perhaps more people of faith who NEED to read this book in order to understand both others' perceptions of them AND their own reasons for faith might not be scared away by getting a long lecture. It's a very important and bold book and I am very proud of this man for having the balls to say this crap.

Yann Martel
Life of Pi
Pi Patel is a teen from India with an interest in religion. During a move to Canada, the ship he's traveling on with his parents and their zoo animals sinks and Pi ends up aboard a lifeboat in the ocean with some animals keeping him company. They're not your usual cute puppies and defenseless mice; Pi ends up sharing the boat with a huge tiger who makes short work of the other animals before long. Pi has to figure out to use his only weapon--his intelligence--to tame the tiger. After a healthy respect is pounded out between them, Pi can trust the tiger not to eat him, but then their shared enemy is the ocean and the lack of food. Day after day Pi carves out a living, starving for intellectual sustenance as well as the more literal type, and he spends most of a year aboard that boat. Many adventures and strangely poetic and surreal passages fill that time, including the pair's finding of a strange carnivorous island that roams the seas unattached. But when the ordeal's over, will Pi's tale hold up? Read it and find out.

J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings trilogy
Sure, the movies were great, but you should check out the books if you never did. They're much richer in detail and have all the stuff that was missing--the sense of passage of time, the knowledge of who everyone is and what their significance is, that fabulous twisty plot, and of course all the songs, poetry, and chanting. It's not to be missed if you want to see the original story that revolutionized the fantasy genre forever. Recommendation: Pick up The Hobbit--the prequel to the trilogy proper--and get cracking.

Julie Anne Peters
Luna
This was a book told from the point of view of a girl with a transgender sibling. Make no mistake, it's not the trans* girl's story; it's her sister's. I think reading it would still help young trans* people understand that they're not alone, but it's more focused on the family relationship and the experience of having a family member who's trans*. The writing style is realistic and the characters are well-written. I especially appreciated that Regan--Luna's sister--is supportive but not unrealistic; she sometimes gets angry at her sister and misgenders her as a brother, experiencing selfish teenage thoughts and getting annoyed that keeping this secret and being supportive is causing friction in her own relationships. Telling the story from a family member's perspective helped because it showed the family issues in first person--the voice is mainly sympathetic but not empathetic, which is an important difference. The reader can really pick up on Luna's frustration and deep-seated desire to be recognized as female, and it is realistic in that her transgender status is shown to not be the same as being a transvestite or being a person with a fetish or sexual quirk. In Luna's case, she experienced herself as a girl since childhood, and many trans* kids have thought of themselves as a different gender since they were old enough to know what gender is. That's reflected in Luna's experience--she liked Barbie and taking the role of the mother while playing house, and even though her father pushed her toward baseball and her mother was in denial about her being trans*, she always knew who she was. This is the story of her trying to come out and embrace the woman she really is--and the story of the sister who helps her realize her dreams.

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Roald Dahl
Matilda
I enjoyed the movie of this book, but it was very different. I kinda consider them to be different stories completely even though they have common elements. In this one, Matilda is a little girl who's the black sheep of her family--she's the only one who likes to read and she is appalled when she figures out her dad is a dishonest salesman. Finding solace in her relationship with her teacher, Miss Honey, Matilda starts to realize that the world might NOT be as full of dumb adults and disappointment as she thought, but then Miss Trunchbull enters. As principal, she's just as mean and unfair as the adults Matilda has been used to, but now she has something she wants to defend. In her anger over the Trunchbull terrorizing her sacred place of learning, Matilda figures out that she has unusual powers: She can move very small things without touching them. Matilda has to figure out how to use this ability to teach the Trunchbull a lesson once and for all. I liked the sense of wonder she had about what she learned to do, and the fact that because she was a child who believed she could do anything, she pretty much could! And of course it's awesome to have a little kid standing up to the unfairness of the world and ending up making the world a better place.

Arthur Golden
Memoirs of a Geisha
This is the story of an indentured servant girl who ends up learning to take care of herself by becoming a geisha, fending for herself in a world that both abuses women and puts them on a pedestal. Poor little Chiyo gets sold by her parents at age nine, along with her older sister, and the two get separated. She's taken in by a woman who runs a geisha house, and she has to work very hard at housework in order to pay off the price her new caretaker paid for her. She wants to escape and meet her sister again, but their plans don't work out, which is devastating. Things get worse when a geisha at her house forces her to make a staining mark on a rival geisha's robe and she has to work off that debt too. She feels so lost and destroyed, without a friend in the world, but when a kind older man sees her crying in the street, he buys her a confection and treats her with kindness. Chiyo knows that men in this guy's position tend to associate with geishas, and she resolves to become one herself. The geisha whose kimono she soiled ends up becoming her tutor, and eventually her talent is honed and her beauty emphasized, making her become a successful geisha and allowing her to finally find her Chairman again. She renames herself Sayuri and outshines her former rival. Even though there was a lot of abuse and a lot of rather ambiguous practices (the auctioning of mizuage comes to mind), I found that I appreciated this strange power the women found in their art and practice. I also thought the whole thing with Chiyo/Sayuri having blue eyes was neat, though I don't know what the hell the explanation was supposed to be for it. I saw the movie first and thought it was a good adaptation.

Jeffrey Eugenides
Middlesex
My friend Jessie wrote about how much she loved this book (and compared its through-the-generations epic-ness to my book Bad FairY), so I decided to read it. Holy smokes! Eugenides is a fantastic storyteller, and the realistic bits and pieces of an unusual person's usual life were touching and intriguing. I love the concept of having to go back into family history to really figure out who you are, and I liked the narrator Cal's rationale on why he did not want to continue being Calliope. The storytelling style was the biggest attraction for me. Cal is an intersex man who was raised as a girl, but his gender issues are only one part of his strange life. You get to go deep into his family history, back to his grandparents and their incestuous relationship, as well as his parents and his brother and his early relationships and feelings. This character is a story all by himself.

Jerry Spinelli
Milkweed
This is the most convincing story told from the point of view of a young child that I've ever read. Through the eyes of a lost orphan child, the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust becomes a very interesting place. Homeless and fairly independent, this nameless child who's taken in by other street rats is fairly upbeat for being in such a crap situation, and his protector, Uri, decides to call him Misha and teaches him a made-up background to recite to the Nazis if he's asked. (His invented ancestry is one of Gypsy blood, so that the bad guys won't think he's Jewish.)

This kid is naïve and always has his head in the clouds, and tends to do things like viewing scary stampedes of terrified people as "Oh boy, it's a race!" He sees the beauty in small things and doesn't know the bad guys from the good because he pretty much likes everyone. It's not surprising that his kind-heartedness leads him to start trying to help a Jewish girl (which then leads to him getting lumped in with her family), and even though most of the story is filtered through the childish lens, we do get to travel into the future and see Misha as an adult with realistic, lasting impressions of his childhood of terror forever branded upon him.

Shel Silverstein
The Missing Piece Meets the Big O
This book is kind of my anthem. It's a seemingly simplistic story about a "missing piece" that's looking for another shape with a piece missing out of it that it can fit into and become complete. Obviously this is an allegory for relationships; the poor piece looks everywhere for a place it fits, and it both experiences and witnesses others experiencing so many different kinds of "fits" where the two partners are able to roll together.

The piece even finds one place it fits, but then the piece grows and no longer fits the hole it used to. Such a great metaphor for a relationship that works at first but changes when the two grow apart.

While searching, it even sees pieces that find other ways of latching onto each other despite how they're "built," which I kinda thought might be Shel's nod to gay relationships (where of course people always argue that men and women are made to "fit together" so that's the only right way, but there are plenty of couples who believe otherwise and demonstrate it!).

But eventually, of course, the piece meets "the Big O." And it's not missing any pieces and is complete all by itself. The piece has to learn to become a complete thing--something that can roll on its own--by slowly trying to roll so its corners round out. The last page shows the smaller "piece"--having become a little O--catching up to the Big O and rolling beside it. They're not stuck to each other or completing each other; they're just enjoying life as two separate but complete entities.

How cool is that!!!

Eloise McGraw
The Moorchild
This Newbery Award-winning book really captured my attention. It is about the half-fairy Moql, who doesn't know she's half human until she is unable to become invisible in front of a human, and he ends up almost catching her and endangering the other fairies, or Folk as they call themselves.

They have a strange way of handling emotions; they aren't affected the same as humans and don't have the same morality (or even the same way of living within time), so they have no qualms about casting her out, switching her with a nearby un-Baptized baby named Saaski.

She then is raised as Saaski, having had her heart broken by the exile and her memory drowned in wanting to move on. She knows she is strange for a human, but doesn't know why, or why people seem to look at her strangely and call her "changeling." The book is all about her trying to find her identity and how to be accepted, and where she belongs.

This very much appeals to me because the books I write involve a character who doesn't quite know if she is human either, and has similar problems fitting in. (Well, that and I like stories about fairies.) Besides the subject matter, the book is very well-written and has a sort of old-timey feel about it without sounding forced. It's a very enjoyable read, even for adults.

Jaclyn Moriarty
The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie
My friend Jeaux told me I needed to read this, and I am grateful. It was quite good, and the ending was really unexpected! For literally the first seven eighths of the book I thought it was a normal sort of teen novel in which a rather unusual, socially awkward, brainy girl learns that she--gasp--really is a teenager after all. And that was good by itself, but then something else happens. Man, I liked it, and it managed to NOT be annoying even though the whole thing was transcripts, e-mails, and written communication of various sorts.

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Francesca Lia Block
Necklace of Kisses
This is a long-awaited additional volume in the Dangerous Angels storyline, but it has a different feeling from the first five and explores different themes entirely. The tone is still poetic but less wandery and indistinct, which allows the storyline to explore the themes in a more mature way. This one is focused on Weetzie Bat's mid-life crisis as she enters her fortieth year. Feeling a lack of kisses in her life, she withdraws to the Pink Hotel in search of the kisses she never received when she was a teenager, and ends up learning about love, intimacy, and family from various fantastic characters sharing her stay. Weetzie's family's reaction to her disappearance is also touched upon, and the book contributes to a deeper understanding of who everyone--especially Weetzie--really is.

Eli Wiesel
Night
Many people have this on their required list in high school, but I somehow escaped that and read it on my own anyway. Mr. Wiesel writes a lot of autobiographical information on Judaism and the Jews' persecution and his own experience in concentration camps, covered in intense, horrid detail. I hated reading it, but I loved knowing that he went through this and survived. It serves as a much-needed warning about the dark corners of human nature.

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Stephen King
On Writing
This is Stephen King's autobiography-plus-writing-instruction book. The first half details some of his life details, highlighting bits where writing came into play. The second part, referred to as "the writer's toolbox" by him, is very useful and informative for writers. I was very surprised to find that he "digs up" his novels like archaeological finds, just like I do; starting a story with very little besides a notion of "where to dig."

Ken Kesey
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
This was also made into a movie, which was excellent. The main character, a criminal everyone calls "Mac" (short for McMurphy), is checked into an insane asylum to avoid prison. He begins making trouble with the inmates, trying to bend the head nurse's rules and encouraging the other inmates to be rebels. The story is all told from the point of view of a very large American Indian that Mac calls "Chief," and though he can speak he pretends to be dumb, just pushing a broom and eavesdropping all the time. Through several very traumatic incidents, "Chief" becomes inspired and unexpectedly embarks on the road to recovery.

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Octavia Butler
The Patternist series
The Patternist series (beginning with Wild Seed) is the story of Doro, an immortal person who "breeds" people with special talents until a large percentage of humans begin making telepathic connections and forming their own society. The series covers the early "seeds" of the people Doro bred (Wild Seed), the early days of the society's first formation (Mind of My Mind), a novel set far in the future where the Patternists are the main society (Patternmaster), and even a novel in which an alternate non-Patternist society emerges (Clay's Ark). The writing is very character-oriented and compelling. You can get a collection of three of the novels in the book Seed to Harvest.

Stephen Chbosky
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
This was surprisingly good; I thought it'd be a silly little emo boy story (which in a way it was), but I know people like that and I've felt like that and it's legit, not artsy just for the sake of it. I enjoyed Charlie and his special take on the world. I wish I had someone like him to write ME letters and make me mix tapes. The main character, Charlie, is shy and sensitive, and even though a lot of people think he's stupid or geeky because he doesn't open up, he has a secret intelligence and has very full emotions that he expresses well in his letters (which make up the book). He discusses all sort of staples of high school life--falling in love, dealing with his friends, questions about sex, getting into bad crowds, and his relationship with a special teacher. Charlie's observations show him to be wise beyond his years even as his experiences are appropriately youthful. I liked watching him figure out what it means to "be infinite."

Paul Zindel
The Pigman
Lorraine and John's relationship with the Pigman starts as a joke. To distract them from the pressures they experience at home and at school, they like to play pranks, and one of their victims is Mr. Pignati, whom they dub "The Pigman." Even though he becomes the guileless dupe of one of their pranks, these kids are kinda impressed by this guy's attitude toward life, and they start trying to figure out ways to spend more time with him. Sadly, their immaturity and inability to avoid taking advantage of the Pigman leads them to commit acts they later regret. These two kids tell the true story of the Pigman in alternating journal-entry-type narration.

Barbara Kingsolver
The Poisonwood Bible
"Tata Jesus is Bängala!" You mean he'll make me itch? An engaging and emotionally charged story of Africa told by a preacher's wife and his four daughters, who end up in Africa when the Price family goes there for mission work. Everyone involved is transformed in different ways by Africa and infected by its terribleness and its beauty. It follows the mother and daughters through their lives and you feel like you get to know them--I enjoyed it.

Garth Ennis
The Preacher graphic novels
Even though this comic is kinda horrifying, I really enjoyed the storytelling and got caught up in the characters' issues. Preacher is about a preacher (surprise) who ends up sorta possessed by a creature that was created when a demon and an angel had sex and spawned or whatever, and now he has this "voice of god" ability where if he uses it on someone he can tell them what to do and they are compelled to do it. Frightening thing for a preacher to have, oh yes. Not to mention he has a really screwy girlfriend and a vampire for a friend. . . . The art is rendered in realistic style, and many of the horrific images are displayed in gritty detail, but that only enhances the enjoyment if you can get over your initial gag reflex. (Stay away from it if it would bother you to look at drawings of a dude who got his jaw shot off, or demons and angels having sex.)

Francesca Lia Block
Primavera
Primavera is one of my favorites of Ms. Block's work. Told mostly in first person from Primavera's point of view, this is a magical novel! Primavera is the daughter of Calliope and Dionisio, and they live in a desert paradise. Feeling alienated by unrequited love and smothered by the flowers that spring up when she sings (and by her mother's constant knowledge of her thoughts), Primavera goes off to find her fortune in the city her parents fled: Elysia. On her journey she encounters a strange boy with bird ancestry, and when she gets to Elysia she meets a relative, with whom she descends to the Under to pursue eternal beauty. Death finds them instead. She and the family she left find out what she means to them and to the desert, and through her journey they discover what being whole is all about.

Shannon Hale
Princess Academy
It seems like a simple idea--the prince has to choose a bride from amongst a group of appropriately aged but rough mountain girls, and they must become educated to be proper princesses--but I was impressed at how this book ended up being a lot more than just the answer to "which girl will be chosen?" Miri and her classmates' culture on Mount Eskel is well-thought-out and realistic; the "quarry-speech" is a neat idea that is uncovered for the reader's discovery through the main character's realistic lack of experience with it; the predictable nature of a few of the events is easily overshadowed by the enjoyability of watching it all play out. It was great to see a girl who thinks she's weak and useless transform herself through education and courage into a strong and helpful person without making it seem like it'd all be a waste if she didn't get chosen as the princess. Miri's relationships with her classmates, her teacher, and her family were all very realistic and interesting . . . especially the in-fighting between the girls, the alliances and feuds carried between them, and the transformations that occurred on all fronts. I loved that Miri often became conflicted about what she wanted; it's so rare in children's literature that authors respect their audience and their characters enough to give them layers and personality facets as if they are real people. This book has a sequel, Princess Academy: Palace of Stone, and it follows Miri's second set of adventures when she ventures out of her Mount Eskel home and learns more about how her kingdom is governed. She again tests alliances, forms relationships, treasures knowledge, and finds out how much of home she carries with her.

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J.C. Fann
The Queenschair series
I never would have heard of J.C. Fann if we weren't critique partners, I'm sure, so there's my full disclosure for you. This self-published series is miles better than most others of its ilk, and to be honest I think it could have been released by a mainstream publisher if that had been the path the author chose to take. In any case, this is a fantastic female-friendly fantasy with a large cast of diverse and complex characters, all centering around the Kingdom of Yenmas and its beleaguered King Ebreyon Marin, who was a war hero and doesn't know how to lead a kingdom in peacetime. As his family pushes him to get married, every potential bride is a political statement, while Ebreyon is still bitter about a broken betrothal. All of the female characters get their perspectives highlighted too, and none of them act entirely as tools of the patriarchy--a refreshing choice. There's so much to love about this series, and it just seems to be getting better as it goes on!

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Alex Haley
Roots
This is a multi-generational epic that begins in eighteenth-century Africa. The now-famous character Kunta Kinte has his tribal life revealed, but all his family ties and his native life end abruptly when he's captured and sent to the United States to be a slave. Many people die horribly on the boat, but as one of the healthiest and hardiest, Kunta survives . . . but is this a good thing? Forced to acclimate, he's subjected to the white man's cruel tortures and treated as less than a person, and it's a very long time before he grudgingly accepts that he isn't going to get to go back to Africa. After he takes a wife and has a child, his daughter's life becomes the focus of the story, and her lot is just as cruel. Her existence as a house slave is detailed, and her children after her . . . descriptions of their relationships with each other, with their masters, and with their society continue until the modern times, ending with the author himself as a descendant. All through this convoluted family tree, Kunta Kinte's preserved knowledge and language has been passed down, and even many generations later, these people still have their roots. (It's also said to be fiction even though the author appears to be claiming these folks are his ancestors, but I read it as a story rather than as a history.)

Tom Stoppard
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
This brilliant play depicts the two minor characters in the Shakespeare play Hamlet, showing what their lives are like as they find themselves in an eternal existential quandary whenever they're not part of the actions of the play proper.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are traveling to the castle, where they were sent for. Who wants them? They don't know. Why? They don't know. Where exactly are they going? They don't know that either. And when it comes right down to it, they're not entirely sure which one of them is Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern. When they intercept a band of players (seemingly impromptu theater performers, but they do circus-type acts and offer other services too), they realize these guys have also been sent for, and they wonder what their purpose is. When they arrive at the castle, their friend Hamlet speaks with them, and then Hamlet's mom speaks with them and assigns them the monumental task of figuring out why Hamlet is acting weird. Unfortunately, they are very well aware that they are caught in a maze-like trap of a situation, and they hardly know which way is up as they are manipulated without any control whatsoever. By the end of the play, they've struggled for meaning hundreds of times, finding out that they still don't really know which way is up, and perhaps their whole purpose in life is to be an instance of incidental death in this overall plot, just to show how much of a jerk Hamlet is. . . .

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Edain McCoy
The Sabbats
This is the single most useful book on the Pagan holidays that I've ever read. The first half was the most useful to me; it details folklore, recipes, crafts, customs, and rituals to use when celebrating the eight major Pagan holidays, or Sabbats. The second half is geared toward groups, so it didn't help me much, but I love the fact that there's just the right balance of history, resource, and practice in each section to stir up a perfect holiday celebration.

Neil Gaiman
The Sandman graphic novels
These graphic novels just have a richness about them even as they float on dreams. . . . They tell the story of Morpheus, Dream of the Endless. He has encounters with others in his Endless family (older siblings Destiny and Death, younger siblings Desire, Despair, Destruction, and Delirium--who was once Delight). He has encounters with many mortals of different types, and with gods, demons, and mythological heroes. The artwork and storylines and characters are all stunning, and the whole series just has this otherworldliness about it, which can't be experienced without reading. Pick up the first Sandman graphic novel, Preludes and Nocturnes, or if you'd like to read more about the graphic novels at my detailed site, check out SwankiVY's Simple Sandman Site.

Sue Monk Kidd
The Secret Life of Bees
Protagonist Lily Owen is a neglected teen who doesn't remember her mom. She's a 1960s white girl who has a black nanny named Rosaleen, and things go back when her nanny incurs the wrath of some white men while trying to vote and has to escape. Lily decides that they should go to a place she connects with her mother: Tiburon, South Carolina. There she discovers a group of spiritual, loving black women who give her the beginnings of what she needs as far as maternal understanding despite the fact that she is white and the odd duck out. She learns more about bees and honey--the bees provide the livelihood of the family--and searches for herself and the remaining shreds of her mother's life. It's a great story for anyone who likes coming-of-age books with strong female characters.

John Knowles
A Separate Peace
I loved and could believe in the friendship between the main characters, and it was an interesting peek into both the past and the world of young men as they trusted each other and kept secrets. The writing is absolutely extraordinary. Just a word to the wise: If you cry at books, you'll cry here. If you don't cry at books, you may nevertheless want to have some tissues handy. . . .

Lemony Snicket
A Series of Unfortunate Events books
This is a multi-volumed work chronicling the lives of the unlucky Baudelaire orphans. These stories, though made to sound very negative and horrifying, are actually funny, mostly because of the way the author writes them down. Several idiosyncracies include the humorous definition of words used in the story; the "translating" of the youngest orphan's baby talk into complicated sentences; and the off-the-wall dedications of the books to a mysterious (and always dead) Beatrice. I very much enjoy following the misadventures of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire as they try to escape from the evil Count Olaf, who wants to steal their fortune and cause them bodily harm, preferably in that order. Recommendation: Try reading the first volume, The Bad Beginning, and see if this is up your alley, or check out my Lemony Snicket site here on swankivy.com .

Stephen King
The Shining
Danny is a precocious kid with telepathic abilities--his power is referred to as "the shining," and he and his family are off to temporarily take up residence in a hotel. Unfortunately, the hotel has a bunch of evil stuff in it, and poor Danny is sensitive to it. His dad drinks too much and comes under the influence of the ghosts in the hotel, and Danny keeps seeing strange, scary signs of murder (or, backwards, REDRUM). There is another person who possesses "the shining" in the book, which is really cool for Danny, and his relationship with this man seems to be one of the few oases for the poor kid. I think King did a great job portraying how the child thinks, and while I didn't care for the goriness (as usual), I really liked the portrayal of this kid's experience.

Usamaru Furuya
The Short Cuts manga
This is a funny manga with no real continuing storyline, just a bunch of gag comics. Funny stuff about Ko-gals. :) It's different from other Japanese comics because it doesn't have an overarching story; it's more like individual skits, and it was quite hilarious. There're a lot of jokes about sex in these comics, like one about a new computer that is shaped like a robot, and its "turn-on" switch looks suspiciously like a penis . . . and when a girl has trouble turning hers on but the (male) teacher manages fine, it is discovered that her computer is gay. Haha! Many of the jokes are related to Japanese culture and it might be difficult for someone completely unfamiliar with it to "get" everything, but some of the toons quite simply transcend cultural barriers. . . .

William Sleator
Singularity
This one's about a room where time doesn't move the same as it's supposed to. Some of the book is dedicated to some kids figuring out its mysteries. But . . . then one of them figures out how to use this room to buy him some time for his own advantages. This was my favorite William Sleator book, hands-down. When the main character spent a whole bunch of time in that room and learned to discipline himself and pass the time, it seemed groundbreaking to me when I read it as a kid, watching a character remake himself like that. He wanted to be free once and for all of the dominance of his twin brother, and he got what he wanted. . . .

Ann Brashares
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series
This is the story of four friends who have known each other since they were kids because their parents were in the same birthing class. Other than that, their families have little in common, so each girl is unique. Despite that, their friendship endures, and they decide to deal with the difficulty of being apart one summer by sharing a pair of "magical" pants. Carmen, Tibby, Lena, and Bridget discover this pair of pants in a thrift store, and for some reason the jeans fit all four of them even though they have very different heights and shapes. They invent a ritual and a series of promises surrounding the Pants, deciding to wear them and send them to each other over the summer they're spending apart with detailed documentation of what sorts of miracles the Pants brought them. Then the story separates and follows each girl as she pursues her summer destiny.

Lena goes to Greece to get in touch with her family's culture and her grandparents, and she works on her art in the inspiring environment. There she meets an amazing man named Kostos. Can she let herself love him? Bridget's part of the story involves going to a Mexican soccer camp, where she sets her sights on one of the male coaches, trying to get his attention. But when she actually gets him, she feels disillusioned and depressed by the whole thing, and her storyline is plagued with the sadness surrounding her loss of her mother. Carmen, who is the daughter of divorced parents, is excited about going to see her dad until she finds out he is getting married and he has this "perfect" new family where she just doesn't fit. (Her mother is Hispanic and she values that culture herself, but her dad is acting like it doesn't exist, and she's the black sheep among all these golden people.) And lastly, Tibby is the only one who stays home for the summer, and she has an annoying job at a drugstore where she ends up meeting an obnoxious kid who turns out to have cancer. This girl, Bailey, has a weird relationship with Tibby, alternately idolizing her and insulting her as she tries to make a documentary. They meet Brian, who's good at video games, and Bailey helps here and there but gets sick toward the end, which scares Tibby and makes her distance herself. When all four girls come together again, changed by their experiences, it's their friendship that gets them all through the tough times.

Louis Sachar
Sixth Grade Secrets
I read this as a kid when I was going to be going into sixth grade the next year. I loved it and shared it with my sister. The characters were all multi-layered--amazingly so for a kids' book, too!--and I loved these kids having competing clubs with warring anthems, not to mention the hilarious things they did to collect dirt on each other in exchange for membership. And I related to Laura, the main character, because everyone knew her for her long hair. :) The kids really act like kids in that they do some cruel but cute things while battling each other, and kids will relate while adults will understand.

Carl Hiaasen
Skinny Dip
Joey isn't as dumb as her husband thinks. This is about a girl whose husband tries to murder her by tossing her into the ocean during a luxury cruise, but she has a history of swimming championships and happens to survive. (He thought she knew about his corrupt business operations and decides he has to get rid of her.) Ex-police-officer Mick helps Joey blackmail her husband and drive him crazy while defending the Everglades. (Her husband is fudging water-test results in favor of big business because a big baddie is making it worth his while.) The revenge Joey and Mick pull off is more than gratifying.

Jhonen Vasquez
Squee's Wonderful Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors
Poor Squee; he's just an unlucky boy who has the devil's son for a friend and seems to be noticed by aliens too often. This is by the artist who invented Invader Zim and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, and I like his off-kilter, strange art and concepts very much. (For instance, the front of this book warns you that if you do not purchase this book, Squee will die.) This disjointed graphic novel about a kid with crappy luck is likely to both delight and disturb you.

Stephen King
The Stand
A post-apocalyptic tale of human nature, The Stand is one of the most compelling books by Stephen King that I've read. It has his trademark gory deaths, of course--after all, the entire thing begins with a plague that kills off almost all of humanity. Remaining are people who are naturally immune, and as they begin to find each other and choose sides in an upcoming war, a very epic battle between good and evil is set to occur. The creepiness inherent in the characters' travel through "dead" towns and their hope as they struggle to resurrect the world are all very realistic, and as in most Stephen King books you'll find varied, believable characters fitting into their classic "epic myth" roles such as the sacrificial hero and the antichrist himself. (Umm, sorta.)

Jerry Spinelli
Stargirl
I've read a couple of this young adult/intermediate author's other books, but this one was especially interesting to me. A friend told me to read it because apparently the character Stargirl reminded her of me, and though I can see that's not totally accurate, I can see where she got it. :) Spinelli tends to write books that deal with issues of individuality. Though the books are geared toward people trying to find themselves, usually younger teens and kids, there's still some relevance for adults if you want to take a chance.

Stargirl's story is told from the point of view of Leo, who likes her. She's the new girl in school and everyone thinks she's totally weird because she plays the ukulele and sings to people on their birthdays. Some people think Stargirl does this sort of thing just to get attention, but the truth is, she's just a very individual person who does what she likes regardless of what people think. She dresses how she wants, and doesn't have any preconceived notions about people regardless of whether they're geeks or prom queens. In fact, when she wants to join the cheerleading squad because she loves encouraging others, people don't know what to think. (Especially when her enthusiasm also causes her to cheer for THE OTHER TEAM.)

Leo investigates Stargirl because he's very intrigued. Turns out she changes her name regularly (and her parents are cool with this), has a passion for surprising people with pleasant gifts no one else would pay attention to, and has a way with inspiring enthusiasm in her fellow students. But because she loves everyone in general and not Leo in particular (that he can tell), he starts to get frustrated and wants her to stop being so weird. Because she truly cares for him, Stargirl obeys his wishes and experiments by reverting to "Susan," a "normal" persona . . . and it's not long before she becomes just like everyone else and isn't any better liked for it. Both Leo and Stargirl have to learn their lesson about individuality, though they both have different things to learn about it.

Robert Heinlein
Stranger in a Strange Land
Michael is a survivor of a manned trip to Mars. So, basically, when he's brought to Earth, he has the culture of the Martians (and, yes, there were some). He's very confused by Earth, and is basically institutionalized until he has a bit of an awakening and starts to understand Earthlings--well, he "groks" them as he says. He doesn't really understand his wealth or his basic difference from other people, but he has some strange abilities which come from the fact that he thinks in Martian, and he can alter his own chemistry and do some odd things. An old author named Harshaw adopts him (yeah, that's Heinlein's self-insert character), and he starts to realize all kinds of stuff about morality and relationships. So of course he founds his own church based on water-sharing, and becomes a messiah of sorts for his followers. Obviously I don't care for some of the weird misogynistic statements Heinlein makes through the voices of his characters (it's hard to believe this is an accident when such messages recur in his other books and they always seem to be spoken by his self-insert character, which he usually has), but other than that you end up seeing a side of humanity that isn't always pretty but definitely is relevant and important to this day.

Lois Duncan
Stranger with My Face
I really enjoyed this one when I was a kid--it's about a girl who can project astrally, and ends up finding out she has a long-lost twin sister who can do the same thing. But it's not necessarily a good thing to find your long-lost sister when that sister gives a new meaning to the term "evil twin." The climax of this was scary as hell, and the ending made me feel creepy for like a year. Brr.

Ivan Stang
SubGenius books
A strange collection of readings . . . incomprehensible to the average "pink" boy, but not to me. All about learning your true identity as a Yeti-descended superior being, and how to make the normals pay for how they treat us. Despite the fact that the Xists have now left me, a SubGenius reverend, on this stinking planet since they were supposed to visit in 1998, I have not yet given up hope that "Bob" will prevail! (The jerk.) Um, yeah. Check it out.

The main book is The Book of the SubGenius, but there is also Revelation X and a couple others. While reading Revelation X during a high school chorus class, I got some very funny attention. Some girls in my class were asking me if it was a religious book because of the word "revelation," and after some poking I explained the concept to them. One of them gave me a look and said, "Well, isn't that a little bit silly?" I immediately replied that it wasn't any sillier to imagine we were going to get taken to Heaven by a guy who'd been dead for 2000 years as long as we just believe it's true. I don't think she liked my answer. Ivan Stang did, though. (I told him about it in a letter and he actually answered me. Heh.)

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Louis Sachar
There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom
This book is about a boy who's always causing trouble because it's easier to do something to be hated on purpose than to not be accepted when he's trying to be. This is about the people in his life who help him change--including himself--and just like most of Sachar's books it involves a kid being helped by a special adult. This book made me want to be one of those kinds of grown-ups when I grew up, back when I read it as a child.

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Richard Adams
Watership Down
A group of rabbits live in a warren in England, and they have their own culture, language, and mythology. One day Fiver, a rabbit who sometimes knows the future, predicts disaster, but when Fiver and his brother try to tell the authorities of their warren, they're rejected by the Owsla (the executors of the chief). They try to persuade rabbits individually to escape with them, so they venture forth to try for a new home. The outside world proves dangerous and sometimes fatal for the escaping rabbits, and they encounter all sorts of setbacks. Eventually they find out that Fiver's vision was true, and the rabbits settle in a new warren and create their own society. They encounter more issues when they realize of course they're going to need females, so they have to help some escape from a warren that's run by a dictator rabbit. One of their big rabbits infiltrates in order to liberate the does (and the rest of the oppressed rabbits), which is the big conflict. I'm not usually big on cute talking animals at all, which is why I was happy with this one; it's nice and dark, and the violence is appropriate. I liked that the rabbits' plight was focused on survival, not attempting to demonize humans or dogs or anyone in particular as a main preachy point or something. And who wouldn't love Fiver, the weird psychic rabbit?

Wilson Rawls
Where the Red Fern Grows
A children's story about a boy and his two dogs. It's a rugged boys'-interest story (though it managed to interest me) in which the young protagonist has to take on the responsibility of caring for and training his two dogs to work as a team to hunt raccoons. It's very much a story of a boy coming of age, and is very inspiring even though it is sad at particular parts.

Eva Ibbotson
Which Witch?
Ms. Ibbotson writes for children, but many adults will find her fantasy books captivating, a bit the way adults are reading Harry Potter. My favorite is Which Witch?, the story of a famous wizard who is trying to hold a contest to find his future wife, so that he can finally have a baby and get an heir. The one of the group who has fallen in love with him is, unfortunately, a white witch, while his contest was designed to find the darkest witch of them all. Each witch has to perform some dark piece of magic before Arriman the Awful will choose between them. Through some plotting and scheming, the white witch's friends (including the wizard's secretary) attempt to make her performance come off as the darkest of them all, because they're all convinced that Belladonna and Arriman belong together even though she's a white witch. It's all very entertaining, a good book to read to or with kids.

Scott Cunningham
Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner and various Wicca instruction books
Cunningham is a writer for solitary Pagans, Wiccans, and Witches (though he seems to lean toward modified solitary Gardnerian-style Wicca as his path, combined with some folk magick, heavy on the herbalism). I'm an eclectic Pagan, not a Wiccan, but I was able to get a lot out of his books. They are written in a non-judgmental and easy-to-read style that makes learning about Paganism easier, and he's very good for beginners coming into the Craft. His books and writings on herbalism are fantastic. Some traditional Wiccans and Witches consider his stuff "fluff" or call it inaccurate because of the emphasis he puts on finding your own correct path rather than following the dogma, but that's nothing new. In any case, for the beginning Pagan, he comes highly recommended. Recommendation: To learn about Witchcraft without too much instructional "how-to" type, read his for-the-curious book The Truth About Witchcraft Today. If you're more interested in getting into it and need a good introductory book, go with Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. The sequel to that one, to help you move on, is called Living Wicca (also very good), and I really appreciate his book Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs as an herb reference.

Gregory Maguire
Wicked
This book is the first in a series of tales Gregory Maguire has woven inspired by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Long before Dorothy arrived, the Wicked Witch of the West--as she later came to be known--was born. Named Elphaba, her green skin, inability to tolerate water, and strange pointed teeth alarm people (including her parents), and though she later gets "regular" teeth when she gets older, her appearance makes people shy away. Her younger sister, Nessarose, was born without arms, and is spoiled by her family. Elphaba becomes a serious student and Nessa becomes a religious fanatic, and later both of them end up being named to rule parts of Oz (Nessarose is the one who ends up with Munchkinland, taking over from their father, while Elphaba pretty much ditches everyone). They have a younger brother named Shell, by the way. Anyway, it's in college at Shiz that Elphaba meets Glinda--well, she was Galinda then--and they become great friends until some bad things happen to Elphaba that cause her to kinda go off the rails. The politics and religion of Oz are woven in--particularly addressing Animal rights--and after Elphaba learns something about magic and becomes an outcast revolutionary, the rumors fly. This book is the convoluted tale of the big picture, and how one rather misunderstood and unbalanced woman affected the history of Oz forever. The sequel, Son of a Witch is told from the point of view of a boy believed to be Elphaba's son Liir, and A Lion Among Men is the third volume detailing the life of the Cowardly Lion.

George R.R. Martin
Wild Cards
This is a book of short stories set in one universe but written by different people. It's cool 'cause the basic idea is that the "wild card virus" got introduced to humanity from some aliens and it affected each person a different way. A lot of them died, a lot of them were transformed, and mostly the transformations were very bad--the ones who lived but were disfigured were "Jokers," and the select few who got some kind of beneficial transformation were called "Aces." This book had stories about both kinds of people, as well as about Dr. Tachyon, one of the aliens who helped develop the virus (but was against introducing it to humanity--obviously, he lost). I for the most part enjoyed the variation and the imaginativeness of both the universe and the stories themselves. I would read more "wild card" stories.

Mike Resnick
Will the Last Person to Leave the Planet Please Shut Off the Sun?
This is a book of short stories that I read as an adolescent and just kind of latched onto. It is full of stories from every "mood" and really gives you a taste of lots of different kinds of science fiction, though I don't think I've read anything else of his (I should). "Death is an Acquired Trait" is my favorite story in the book. Ever thought about immortality? You'll never think of it the same if you read this.

Emily Brontë
Wuthering Heights
This book is really kinda shocking. So much hate and discontent and wickedness and ugliness in what is ultimately a love story. It's almost violent with its passion. I really liked it. It looks into the dark side of romance, with our heroes Heathcliff and Cathy--childhood friends--who believe they're destined to be together. When they're separated, it ruins both of them. You can feel their anger, sorrow, and passion streaming out of the pages. It's a very dark novel and full of pain, and there's not much happiness in it, so be prepared for lots of angst and the brutal side of love if you want to read this.

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Octavia Butler
The Xenogenesis series
The Xenogenesis series (beginning with Dawn) is about a race of aliens who survive and grow by breeding with other races, and humans are next. It takes us from the beginning of their "invasion" through the peaceful integration and the resistance of some humans. We see the beginning of their appropriation of humans (Dawn), the story of life from the point of view of a part-human/part-alien boy (Adulthood Rites), and another perspective from a mixed-breed member of the aliens' strange third sex (Imago). The whole thing creeps me out a little to tell you the truth, but I think that's what's so good about this author--she makes it gritty and not all nice-nice, because after all it makes sense that integrating an alien species into humanity would get a bit, erm, messy. You can get the whole series in one volume by picking up Lilith's Brood.

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Daniel Pinkwater
Young Adult Novel
Pinkwater's book Young Adult Novel now appears to only be available as a part of the pictured 5 Novels compilation, but this is the one I appreciated as a teen. Pinkwater is a master of absurdity, and his characters from Young Adult Novel demonstrate this to excess as they behave in wacky ways in celebration of their Dadaist expressions. So . . . is it Dada, or is it just stupid? Only the Dada Ducks know for sure. You will have to read Mr. Pinkwater's work to see how unique he is, and you will come away from the experience knowing that no one else writes like he does.

Diane Duane
The Young Wizards series
Ms. Duane was writing about child wizards long before J.K. Rowling; I read her first two books in the eighties, and a third one that came out in 1990. Nita finds a book in the library, a book she's never seen before, with the enigmatic title So You Want to Be a Wizard, which causes her to begin to study wizardry. It seems so strange that this book that teaches real magic words would just be sitting there in a library . . . but then she finds that the book only makes itself available to those who have the power to be a wizard anyway. She and another wizard--who becomes her working partner, Kit--have many adventures together, trying to save the world and the universe from many different incarnations of the Lone Power--the closest thing to "evil" in the universe and the being that created entropy. So You Want to Be a Wizard details Nita and Kit's "Ordeal," which is their initiation; Deep Wizardry involves shapeshifting into whales to help the whale-wizards with their ritual to conquer the Lone Power in the sea; High Wizardry has the pair following Nita's sister out to the beginnings of the universe with the help of a computer, and A Wizard Abroad involves re-enacting an ancient battle against Balor (another Lone Power incarnation) to save modern-day Ireland. The Wizard's Dilemma covers a battle with cancer, and what Nita and her partner can do to beat it without paying too high a price. A Wizard Alone involves Nita and Kit's combined role in trying to help a new wizard through his Ordeal; the new wizard, Darryl, needs a little boost on this one, being the only autistic wizard they've ever heard of. Wizard's Holiday involves Nita and Kit getting to go on a "free" trip to another planet as exchange students . . . but, of course, everything comes with a price. And the eighth book, Wizards at War, involved a rather different battle with the Lone One, and how the characters react when wizardry gets turned on its ear. I don't think I'd have what it takes to be a wizard in their universe. . . . All in all, the series is very well-written and quite character-oriented while having an exciting plot as well. The characters' dilemmas blur the lines between right and wrong and make you want to take medicine for the headaches the characters get.

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