by Julie HaleFebruary, 2008
Best bets for book clubs
This timely, provocative novel—Picoult's 14th—focuses on a shooting incident that takes place at a high school in Sterling, New Hampshire. Peter Houghton is a lonely outsider taunted by the popular kids. One day, he brings a gun to school and shoots 10 people, an episode of violence that lasts exactly 19 minutes. After this horrifying incident, the small town of Sterling is changed forever. Deftly employing flashbacks to tell Peter's story, Picoult creates a convincing portrait of this alienated 17-year-old. Bullied at school, Peter immerses himself in violent computer games, creating one of his own called Hide-N-Shriek, in which the tormented hero murders his enemies using weapons found in a school building. Writing with remarkable empathy and insight, Picoult examines the repercussions of Peter's actions through the perspectives of various characters, including the conflicted judge, Alex Cormier, who handles Peter's case, and her daughter, Josie, who knew Peter and witnessed the killings. In the aftermath of the murder, as Sterling residents try to make sense of Peter's actions, some come to realize that forgiveness and mercy are required in order to move on, while others feel only hatred for the boy. This is a haunting chronicle of a grief-stricken community that is sure to resonate with readers. A reading group guide is available at simonsays.com.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation
Set during the Revolutionary War, this inventive coming-of-age novel examines issues of class and race though the story of Octavian, a young black boy. Octavian grows up in Boston, in the home of a group of unconventional philosophers and scientists. Along with his mother, Octavian lives a life of seclusion, although he is treated well and receives a first-class education. Once Octavian becomes a teenager, however, he realizes that something is amiss. As it turns out, he and his mother are being used as part of an experiment. The scientists and philosophers who surround him are trying to evaluate the mental capacity of Africans. When his mother dies as a result of the experiment, Octavian runs away. He joins the Patriots in their campaign against the British, but is soon captured and returned to his old home. Back in captivity, he is tied up and forced to wear an iron mask, until one of the philosophers takes pity on him and helps him escape again. Written in the style of an 18th-century novel, this skillfully crafted book—winner of the National Book Award for Young People's Literature—concludes with Octavian's escape. Anderson has created a complex yet highly readable narrative, a beautifully written book with wonderfully inventive plot twists that will appeal to adult readers as well as inquisitive teenagers. A reading group guide is available at candlewick.com.
The Translation of Dr. Apelles
In his third novel, Treuer offers a complex, multilayered narrative about a pair of mythical Native American orphans and the man who discovers their story. A scholar and linguist, Dr. Apelles is 42 years old and devoted to his intellectual pursuits, which include the translation of rare Native-American texts. When he comes upon a manuscript about two Native American children who were orphaned in the Midwest during the 19th century, he knows he has made a special discovery. The twins—a girl named Eta and a boy named Bimaadiz—are adopted by different families and grow up as friends. When they come of age, they fall in love, experiencing an idyllic romance, despite circumstances that threaten to separate them. One of Bimaadiz's friends wants Eta for himself, and she is captured by the members of a brothel. As Dr. Apelles translates the tale of the twins, he has a sort of epiphany: After a lifetime of bachelorhood, he finds he is desperately lonely and in need of love. He is drawn to a young woman named Campaspe, who works at the library where he does research, and his developing relationship with her parallels the story of the twins as the novel unfolds. Moving skillfully between the past and present, Treuer—an Ojibwe Indian from Minnesota—constructs a wonderfully rich narrative about the power of stories and the importance of love.