This is the 2nd part of a series of book recommendations. The first part, 15 Books for Teens who Hate Reading, featured books that made use of graphics, activities and new approaches to storytelling to appeal to readers who might not want to wade through page after page of text.
The novels on this page are more traditional and the genres include family drama, action and adventure, fantasy, science fiction, suspense and horror. Some of them could be considered Young Adult Fiction (YAF), while some are intended for adult readers (and include mild violence and sex scenes) but could still be enjoyed and appreciated by mature teens.
I wrote these book introductions and mini-reviews for a newspaper column (for Ming Pao), the purpose of which was to introduce books for students taking Hong Kong’s DSE exam in English, so the articles were quite short and the books chosen had to be
- Not too difficult to read and,
- Meaningful enough that they could be easily presented or discussed in class.
1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
One book that I would highly recommend is the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. The novel starts out as a mystery. The narrator and protagonist, Christopher, is a 15-year-old boy trying to discover who killed his neighbour’s dog. Christopher is a special character—though he is mathematical genius, he is also suffering from a psychological condition known as autism. He has great difficulty understanding the world around him and cannot understand why people are lying to him or why it is not acceptable for him to attack a policeman.
As Christopher solves the mystery of the murdered dog, he makes a shocking discovery and the novel starts exploring themes of honesty, family relationships and how to reach one’s full potential.
It is a touching novel and has quite a few humorous moments. Christopher’s difficult in understanding slang and idioms makes it especially suitable for ESL learners. Either these special terms need to be explained to him of he has to find some way to figure them out. Therefore, the book provides lots of opportunity for non-native speakers of English to pick up some useful everyday expressions.
The show has been adapted into a hit play on Broadway and the West End.
2. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
‘The Lovely Bones’ is a best-selling novel by Alice Sebold. Most coming-of-age stories about teenagers describe the process of growing up, detailing the period in our teens when we start to lose our childhood innocence and gain a better understanding of the world and our place within it. In this story, however, the main character, Susie, has been deprived of the chance to grow up; she is dead before the story even begins. The novel opens with the following lines:
My name is Salmon, like the Fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.
Susie is in heaven, her own personal heaven, sometimes chatting with her intake counsellor (something like an angelic social worker/guidance counsellor), sometimes playing and chatting with visitors, but mostly remembering her brief life and looking down on the world below as her father searches for the killer and her mother withdraws into sadness. She watches as her brother and sister grow up and as her boyfriend, with whom she had shared a single kiss, mourns for her for a while before starting to date another girl.
Her heaven is only a temporary one, however—a place where she can come to slowly accept what has happened to her and loosen her ties to the people that she had to leave behind. Once she can do that, she may able to take the next step in her journey.
This novel is easy to read in terms of language. Susie’s narration, especially at the beginning, is written in the bright, lively and humorous voice of the teenage girl that she is. The content is quite dark, though. The way she describes her own rape and murder with a chilling mixture of innocent disbelief and attention to detail might be too disturbing for some readers.
Loss and mourning are things we all have to face. The story teaches us the importance of healing. No matter how painful our wounds are and no matter how unfair and cruel life is, with time we will heal. With time will be able to move on.
The book was made into a film by Peter Jackson in 2009 (www.imdb.com/title/tt0380510/). The film received very mixed reviews, with many people loving it and many others hating it.
3. Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
Kira-Kira, a novel by Cynthia Kahodata, is the touching story of the changing relationship of two Japanese-American sisters. The story is told from the point of view of the younger sister, Katie, and is written in a clear and easy-to-read style.
When the story begins, Katie and her sister Lynn are best friends. Katie learns her first word from Lynn—kira-kira, a Japanese word meaning ‘glittering’. To Katie and Lynn, almost anything can be kira-kira, from the reflection of the sun off ocean waves to butterflies, puppies and a clear blue sky.
Though the two sisters are very close, they are different in many ways. Lynn, for example, is a hardworking straight-A student while Katie is satisfied with barely passing. Their relationship changes when Lynn becomes a teenager and starts treating Katie more like a kid sister than a friend. It soon changes once again when Lynn falls ill with a life-threatening disease. The girls’ parents work around the clock to pay for Lynn’s medical bills, so Katie ends up helping take care of her frail older sister. As Lynn’s condition worsens, Katie becomes increasingly frustrated. In her despair, her grades fall even lower and she breaks the three most important rules of her family (no lying, no hitting people and no stealing).
The story is set in the 1960s in Georgia, at a time when racial segregation was still being practiced and workers’ rights were virutally non-existent. In Kira-Kira, no one treats Katie or Lynn badly or calls them racist names, but the family remains isolated—mainly socialising with the other Japanese families, whose bread-winners all work in the town’s egg hatchery. The adults have few options. For example, Katie’s uncle Katsuhita used to dream of working as a surveyor but is now resigned to fact that no one there would hire a Japanese man for that job. The adults in the story realise that society is changing, however. For their children, the future is limitless. With hard work, they can be anything they want to be.
4. Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang
With the film version by director Ang Lee gaining critical acclaim, Eileen Chang’s short story Lust, Caution has been translated into English by Julia Lovell. The book does not contain the explicit sex scenes that made the film so controversial, but with its underlying themes of power, love, sex and self-deception, the story would be more suitable for adults or older, more mature teens.
The story is set during World War II. Large parts of China are occupied by the Japanese Army and ruled by a puppet government in Nanjing. The story opens slowly with mahjong game at the home of Mr. Yee, the ruthless head of the collaborationist government’s secret police. One of the women playing mahjong with Mr. Yee’s wife is a spy—Wong Chia Chi. She is pretending to be a well-to-do married woman called Mrs. Mak, but in reality she is a university student and amateur actress from Hong Kong who has joined a resistance group. Her job is to have an affair with Mr. Yee and lure him to a spot where he can be killed.
On the day of the mahjong game, the group has its chance. After the game, Mr. Yee takes Wong Chia Chi to a jewelry shop to take a look at a pink diamond he has agreed to buy for her. The group plans to kill him as he leaves, but inside the shop Wong Chia Chi begins to have second thoughts. She now wonders whether her feelings for Mr Yee could really be love. She is faced with an important choice—warn Mr Yee or let him be killed—and only seconds left to make the choice.
Why Wong Chia Chi would have feelings for Mr Yee is a mystery. In the story, he is a selfish, charmless, and physically unattractive. He is an unfaithful husband and a traitor to his country—the sort of person the Wong Chia Chi in Hong Kong would have hated the most. The narrator hints that Wong Chia Chi may have been attracted to his power or that her feelings for him may have evolved out of their sexual relationship. Perhaps she was acting for so long and gave up so much of herself that she began to think her affair with Mr. Yee was real. In the end, she makes her choice but naively fails to understand its consequences.
The story is thought-provoking and can lead to interesting discussions, especially if you are focusing on Wong Chia Chi’s motives. The additional essays by Ang Lee, James Shamus and Julia Lovell can give you further insight into the story.
5. Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn
Across the Nightingale Floor, the first novel in Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori, is a fantasy adventure set in a land similar to feudal Japan. The story’s sixteen-year-old hero enjoys an idyllic life in a remote, peaceful village until the village is destroyed by a cruel warlord named Iida Sadamu. The boy is the only survivor and during his escape is rescued by a rival lord, Otori Shigeru. Shigeru treats him as a son, gives him a new name—Takeo—and trains him in martial arts. It turns out that Takeo was born with special abilities; he has amazing hearing and can appear to be in two places at once
Takeo needs to make use of these abilities as Shigeru has plenty of enemies. Iida wants him dead and Shigeru’s own brothers are trying to kill him. To protect himself and his people, Shigeru plans to kill Iida first. He learns that Iida sleeps in a room with a nightingale floor. If someone tries to walk across it, the specially designed floorboards will sing out. With his special abilities, however, Takeo might be able to cross the floor silently and kill the warlord in his sleep.
Regarding Hearn’s writing style, a the sentence structures are quite simple, though the vocabulary can be challenging.
A warning for educators, though: the book does contain several scenes of violence (beheadings, dismemberments and even a crucifixion) and sex (our teenage hero visits prostitutes, there are attempted rapes and there is some…well…sex).
Like many martial arts stories, the heroes—Takeo and Shigeru—act according to a strong sense of honor and fierce desire for vengeance. In this book we see Takeo develop from an innocent youth to a young man who is willing to kill for revenge and honor. But how does this change affect Takeo’s soul? What is the true nature of honor?
6. The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
Magic battles, love, philosophical debates, vampires and werewolves, mystery, office politics —what more could you want in a fantasy-action novel?
The Night Watch is the first in a series of four books by Russian novelist Sergei Lukyanenko. The novel has been adapted into two films: Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006), both of which were record-breaking successes in Russia. They are not written with the Young Adult Fiction market in mind, but they would be suitable for graduates of the Harry Potter series. Both series deal with two magical forces battling unseen by normal humans, but in the Night Watch, the line between good and bad is blurred to the point where it may no longer exist.
The novel is set in modern-day Moscow. A secret society of people possessing magical power co-exists with our world. When these magical ‘Others’ discover their powers, each witch or wizard must make a choice—to join the light or join the dark. Light Others work for the benefit of all mankind; they want to create a better world. Dark Others, in contrast, use their powers for their own benefit and don’t want anyone restricting their freedom. The light and dark follow a carefully controlled truce. If any magician breaks the rules of the truce, he or she may be caught and punished by one of two supernatural groups. The Night Watch polices the activities of the Dark Others while the Day Watch monitors Light Others.
The main character of the series of novels, Anton Gorodetsky, is a low-level light magician who works for the Night Watch as an investigator and computer programmer. While saving a young boy, Anton kills a vampire. This angers the Dark Others, especially their leader, the powerful wizard Zabulon. Anton must try to stay alive and protect the boy. He also needs to watch out for his own boss, who appears to be using him as a pawn to be sacrificed in the battle against the dark.
We use the expression ‘see the world in black and white’ to describe a simple view of the world—some things are very good and some are very bad. The Night Watch world is not a black and white one. The Dark Others are not evil; they are simply self-centered. They don’t want to destroy the world; they would rather enjoy its pleasures. And the Light Others are not faultless. They may try to make the world the better place, but they are not always right and their actions sometimes do more harm than good.
Throughout story, Anton is filled with doubt. He sees the dangers in the philosophies of both groups so he follows his own conscience to guide his actions.
If you had a choice, would you join the light or dark? Or would you, as Anton does, try to find your own path?
Caution: this following trailer presents the story as a kind of horror film, so it is quite scary in places.
7. Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Stardust is a novel by Neil Gaiman, who describes his book as a fairytale for grown-ups. The story begins in a small village called Wall, which is named after a wall that separates our world from a magical and dangerous world of witches, elves and unicorns—the Land of Faerie.
Tristan Thorn, a young man in the village, is madly in love with Victoria Forester, “the most beautiful girl for a hundred miles around”. Victoria, however, has no interest in Tristan. One night, Tristan finally finds the courage to ask her on a date. When Victoria rejects him, he promises that he would do anything to win her love. To get rid of him, Victoria gives Tristan an impossible task. She jokingly tells him that she will marry him if he brings back a star that has just fallen from the sky. Tristan takes her seriously and begins his journey into the land of Faerie to retrieve the star. After a few adventures, he is able to find it, but his problems are just beginning.
Now on Earth, the star has turned into a bad-tempered young woman. Her bad mood is understandable. She is furious at having been knocked out of the sky, and she has injured her leg and cannot walk on her own.
And Tristan is not the only one seeking the star. Three powerful and ancient witches also want her. If they eat her heart, they will be able to regain their youth and beauty. They are so desperate to be young again that they will kill anyone who stands in their way. Three princes are also looking for the star. The prince who finds her first will become king. Like the witches, the princes are also happy to kill others to reach their goals—they have already killed four of their own brothers (whose ghosts follow the princes around like a mini-audience waiting to see which prince will survive).
Stardust, with its murderous villains, disturbing deaths and occasional descriptions of lovemaking, certainly isn’t for children, but mature teen readers will find the story interesting and meaningful. Like many teens and young adults, Tristan is trying to win his true love. But can love be won with promises? Can it be earned with brave actions? Love can easily be lost, but can it ever be won?
There are several versions of the book, including a movie tie-in edition featuring shots from the movie and an illustrated version filled with beautiful pictures by Charles Vess. The movie adaptation of Stardust was released in 2007 (www.imdb.com/title/tt0486655/)
8. The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman
The Golden Compass is the first book in Phillip Pullman’s trilogy of fantasy novels—His Dark Materials. The story follows the adventures of a brave orphaned girl named Lyra as she tries to save her close friend, Roger, who has been kidnapped by mysterious, monstrous beings known as ‘Gobblers’.
The Golden Compass takes place on an alternative Earth. In many ways, the world is similar to ours, though familiar things are sometimes given unfamiliar names. Electricity is known as anbaric power; the Pacific Ocean is called the Peaceable Ocean. In some ways, however, Lyra’s world is very different. If you lived there, you could meet flying witches and talking polar bears. You would be accompanied everywhere you go by your dæmon—an animal that cannot leave your side. The dæmons of children can change into different animals, but once you become an adult, it becomes the animal that best represents your true nature and would never change again.
Another difference in Lyra’s world is that the Church has become all powerful. It is, in essence, the ‘bad guy’ in the story. Lyra comes into conflict with the Church when she learns that it is responsible for kidnapping Roger and the other children and that it is experimenting on them in horrible ways.
This dark portrayal of organised religion has created a lot of controversy. Is Phillip Pullman’s trilogy against God and Christianity or is it simply opposed to the use of religion to control, oppress and use people? The series’ exploration of faith, science, heaven, philosophy and God will encourage you to think deeply about serious matters while you are enjoying Lyra’s amazing adventures. Conversations about the nature of the human soul alongside battling, armored talking polar bears—what more could you ask for in a story?
The book has been adapted into a film in 2007 and, more recently into an HBO series.
9. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
You are nearly sixteen. On your birthday, you’ll get the ultimate makeover. Your face will be reshaped, your eyes enlarged, your body resized, your baby fat removed and your skin replaced. After the surgery, you will be beautiful, you will be perfect. Your older friends have all made the change are waiting for you to leave your ugly little town full of ugly little people and join them in Pretty Town, where everyone is young and beautiful and where every night there is a new party to go to. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
This is the world of Uglies, the first novel in Scott Westerfeld’s science fiction series. Tally, the story’s heroine, is eagerly awaiting the cosmetic surgery that will turn her into a Pretty. Before her birthday, however, Tally meets another girl, Shay, who tells her of a secret place for runaways who don’t want to change their appearance—a village called The Smoke. Shay decides to run away, but Tally stays behind. Though she is sad to see Shay go, she is not willing to give up her dream to be perfectly beautiful.
Fulfilling her dream is not as easy as Tally thought. A secret police organisation called Special Circumstances delays her operation and forces her to make a choice; she can become a spy for Special Circumstances and help them find and destroy the village of runaways or she can stay ugly forever.
What would you do if you had to make Tally’s choice? Would you betray a friend or sacrifice your dearest dreams?
Science Fiction (stories are often set in the future, on another planet or on an alternate version of Earth. On the surface, science fiction describes fantastic worlds and strange creatures, but if you look more deeply, you will find that the stories can tell you something about life today. Sci-fi writers often look at current trends (e.g., our reliance on computer technology) or scientific developments (e.g., genetic engineering) and show what might happen if things go too far. The strange society of Uglies grows out of three social trends:
- An increasing emphasis on looks (How often have you wished you could improve at least one aspect of your appearance?),
- Misunderstandings about the nature of equality (If everyone is similarly beautiful, can anyone be discriminated against for being unattractive?),
- Attempts by governments to control citizens by satisfying their material desires (If people look great and are having fun, what more could they desire?).
In Uglies, Paul Westerfeld, does a great job of integrating Tally’s struggle to make the right choice with a unique and interesting vision of a deeply disturbing world.
10. The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke
Prosper, and his six-year-old brother Boniface (or Bo for short) have just lost their parents in an accident. Their aunt thinks Bo is very cute and wants to adopt him. She does not, however, want anything to do with Prosper, who is already about to enter his teens. To prevent being separated from one another, the brothers run away together to Venice. So begins the story of The Thief Lord, the best-selling novel by German writer Cornelia Funke.
Once in Venice, they come under the care of Scipio, the Thief Lord of Venice. Scipio is only a teenager, but with the money he obtains from selling the items he has stolen, he takes care of a small band of street kids: Hornet, a responsible and caring girl; Riccio, a hot-tempered pickpocket; and Mosca, a boy keen on electronics. Prosper and Bo join the gang and take shelter in an abandoned movie theatre.
Life for Prosper and Bo soon becomes complicated. Their aunt, determined to find Bo has hired a detective, Victor Getz. With Victor closing in on the gang, Scipio is contacted by a mysterious count who wants the Thief Lord to steal what appears to be a large wooden wing. Prosper hates the idea of stealing, though he realizes that without the money brought in by Scipio’s illegal activities, the children would struggle to survive. He also worries about Bo, who is attracted to the Scipio’s Robin Hood lifestyle.
Secrets soon start to reveal themselves. Scipio is not what he seems to be and the wooden wing turns out to have incredible magical properties.
At the end of the story Prosper and Scipio are faced with an important choice to make, a choice that could change them forever. There doesn’t seem to be a right or wrong answer. Each boy simply has to follow his heart and do what he thinks is right.
11. Cyrano by Geraldine McCaughrean
‘Cyrano’ is an ideal novel for readers interested in classic literature. Written in clear, modern English by Geraldine McCaughrean, this relatively short book (128 pages) tells the famous French tale of Cyrano de Bergerac. Cyrano is a bold and confident swordsman who is cursed with an enormous nose. To make matters worse, although he loves the beautiful Roxanne, he helps his friend win her heart by telling him what to say to her.
12. Koji Suzuki’s Ring Cycle
The English translations of the three books in the Ring Cycle by Koji Suzuki are now available (Ring, Spiral and Loop). The story begins with the mystery of four teens apparently killed by watching a videotape. You may have seen the Japanese or English movies that are based on the first book. These were horrormovies featuring a vengeful female ghost, Sadako.
In the first book a reporter investigating the murders, Kazuyuki Asakawa, finds the videotape and views it. At the end of the tape, there is a message telling him to that he will die in one week unless he carries out an action. However, the end of the tape, which specifies what he must do, has been overwritten. He then embarks on a race against time to unravel the mystery and find out what action he must carry out. Thus, the first book in the series is more of a mystery novel with supernatural elements.
The second book, Spriral, is more of a straight-up horror novel, while the final book in the series Loop is more like science fiction. Each book reveals something different about the creator of the videotape, a beautiful young woman named Sadako, and the world that we live in. If you are a fan of suspense novels, why not give this series a try.
The above book introductions and reviews were originally published in Ming Pao as part of a series of articles written to introduce senior secondary school students to novels and non-fiction books suitable for their School-based Assessment in English.
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