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English students review top recently published books

January 29, 2013

Students in English professor Mary Bendel-Simso’s American Literature course were tasked with reading and reviewing award-winning popular novels in order to analyze “what real Americans are reading.”

According to Bendel-Simso, the 16 students in the course selected a genre, such as fantasy, graphic novels, horror, romance, science fiction or suspense, to analyze within a group. Then, the students each chose to read a book from that genre that had been written within the past 10 years that also had won some kind of an award.

The 16 students used Blackboard to create wiki websites for each genre. Their wikis included information about each genre, as well as an author page for each novel and book reviews written by the students in various styles, including, Publisher’s Weekly, The New York Times Book Review and a MagillOnLiterature Plus™.

The 16 popular novels reviewed by the class were:

  • “Blankets” by Craig Thompson (Graphic Novel)
  • “Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman (Romance)
  • “Camouflage” by Joe Haldeman (Science Fiction)
  • “Catch of the Day” by Kristan Higgins (Romance)
  • “Don’t Tempt Me” by Loretta Chase (Romance)
  • “Eifelheim” by Michael Flynn (Fantasy)
  • “First Grave on the Right” by Darynda Jones (Romance)
  • “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by Alison Bechdel (Graphic Novel)*
  • “The Lost Symbol” by Dan Brown (Suspense)
  • “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold (Horror)*
  • “The Ranger” by Ace Atkins (Suspense)*
  • “The Speed of Dark” by Elizabeth Moon (Science Fiction)*
  • “The Truth About Forever” by Sarah Dessen (Romance)*
  • “Those Across the River” by Christopher Buehlman (Fantasy)*
  • “Watchmen” by Alan Moore (Graphic Novel)
  • “Who Fears Death” by Nnedi Okorafor (Fantasy)

Sampling of book reviews:


Review of “Those Across The River” in the style of The New York Times Book Review
Written by senior Cory Anderlik of Sykesville, Md.

Failed academic Frank Nichols and his wife, Eudora, have arrived in the sleepy Georgia town of Whitbrow, where Frank hopes to write a history of his family’s old estate—the Savoyard Plantation—and the horrors that occurred there. At first, the quaint, rural ways of their new neighbors seem to be everything they wanted. But there is an unspoken dread that the townsfolk have lived with for generations. A presence that demands sacrifice.

It comes from the shadowy woods across the river, where the ruins of Savoyard still stand. Where a longstanding debt of blood has never been forgotten.

A debt that has been waiting patiently for Frank Nichols's homecoming . . .  Those Across the River offers a refreshing take on the fantasy/horror genre. By combining a strong sense of history as well as an overwhelming creepiness, Buehlman is able to create a believable setting that leaves the reader cringing at each line but unable to put the novel down. Those Across the River is a more than impressive novel, especially considering that it is Buehlman’s debut.

Graphic Novel:

Review of “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” in the style of Publisher’s Weekly
Written by first-year student Charley Olman of Little Silver, N.J.

The autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home by Alison Bechdel is not only a depiction of her own battle for self-identity, but for that of her father as well. The novel focuses mainly on their strained relationship throughout her childhood and how their closeted lives strained each other even more. Bechdel delves deeply into the possible correlation between her own father’s sexual orientation and how he covered it up, and her coming out to him as a lesbian only days before his death. This novel explores the father-daughter relationship on a whole new level, and with it comes realizations and revelations for both the author and the reader.


Review of “The Lovely Bones” in the style of Publisher’s Weekly
Written by sophomore Foster McDaniel of Hendersonville, Tenn.

Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones is a horrifying mystery that leaves the reader on edge. The novel follows a family from a suburb of Philadelphia in the 1970s whose daughter/sister has been forced into intimacy and murdered. Though the main focus is about the heinous crime and how the family copes with it, the victim of the crime, Susie Salmon, tells the story while she is in heaven. With every page, the reader is captivated in what will happen as she haunts the family and they deal with her death.


Review of “The Truth About Forever” in the style of
Written by sophomore Sarah Watcher of Westminster, Md.

Sarah Dessen examines what it takes to be a teenager in “The Truth About Forever.” From the outside, Macy Queen seems like she has her life in order. This could not be anything farther from the truth. Since her father’s unexpected death, she has been hiding behind perfect grades, a perfect boyfriend, and perfect behavior. On the inside, her world is falling apart. The summer has just started and her boyfriend Jason has gone off to Brain Camp. After a few weeks, he ends the relationship and Macy feels even more lost. Everything in her life is crumbling to pieces. One day, she happens upon a catering company called Wish. Run by Delia and her staff of nephews, Wish makes Macy feel more at home than she has in a long time. Soon she starts working for them and life takes a turn for the better. Wes, one of Delia’s nephews, is especially interesting to Macy. He is artistic, intelligent but, most of all, understanding. He listens to Macy and allows her to open up. Her heart had shut down after her father’s death, but Wes is determined to teach her the truth about life. The future is all about starting over. Through a summer of sneaking out, playing games, and running as fast as she can, Macy learns the truth about forever, and about falling in love. Highly recommended. (Ages 12 and up)

Science Fiction:

Review of “The Speed of Dark” in the style of
Written by junior Nathaniel Winer of Bethesda, Md.

A compelling, high-quality book with sharp writing and excellent characters. It tells the tale of an autistic man being pressured by his boss to engage in an unproven procedure to “cure” his autism, although he isn't sure that he wants to change who he is. Lou Arrendale is compelled to start investigating his boss, while fending mysterious assaults on his property and figuring out his strange and confusing feelings for his female fencing partner. The ending is surprising and entirely appropriate. A book that earns two thumbs up.


Review of “The Ranger” in the style of The New York Times Book Review
Written by first-year student Justin Doak of Keedysville, Md.

Ace Atkins novel “The Ranger” is a dark, noir-style southern novel that resembles a cross between an old-time western story and a detective novel that takes place in Mississippi. The diction is sparse and laconic, reminiscent of a stereotypical southern man. It doesn’t provide much in the way of description, but Atkins does a good job of conveying what type of people the characters are through dialogue and situational actions. However, that being said, the characters are not anything new. They’re easily categorized as the valiant and courageous sheriff and his sidekick against the evil drug dealers that are corrupting the town. Furthermore, the story’s plot isn’t inspired. The tough guy returns from war to clean up his hometown. Who hasn’t heard that before? No, where this book shines is in the characterization and the twisted people who populate this rural backwater town. They show a strange picture of the not-so friendly Deep South that can be just as frightening as the heavily populated urban environments that serve as the backdrop for other detective-style stories.

The main character is a man named Quinn Colson, an Army Ranger who returned from Afghanistan to attend his uncle’s funeral. While there, he hears disturbing news: His uncle, also the town sheriff, is rumored to have been murdered. Stunned by this, as well as the state of the town he once called home, Colson takes up the investigation with the help of a local detective. Together, they delve deep into the sophisticated underworld of a southern town that is slowly drowning in the drug trade. They deal with addicted teenager and crazed dealers, even hinting at connections as far away as Memphis, implying that there might be a sequel that takes place where Quinn pursues these Drug Bosses. If so, I would definitely return for another trip into this Deep South-Heart of Darkness.

This novel definitely has weaknesses. The characters are stereotypical, and the plot itself doesn’t stray outside of what you would expect from the noir-style detective story. Despite these faults, the characterization and the location work to create an unexpectedly dark and complex group of criminals who beg to be brought to justice. The dialogue is rich and complex and the story itself flows well and keeps the reader engaged throughout the entire experience. My problems with the book are minor and I would heavily recommend it to anybody who loves murder mysteries.

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