Archive for the ‘Senior Project’ Category

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova 

This one isn’t on my summer reading list, but I want to make a quick note of it because I have a couple of students each year who want to read something with vampires that doesn’t fit the teen ‘Twilight’ mold. These students are happy to read a longer book and are looking for some serious vampire lore. Well, it’s been a few years since I read The Historian, and while I don’t remember many of the details (ah, aging!), I can tell you that it’s the perfect book for those students who want to read something that encompasses the vast store of vampire mythology.

The Historian centers around a sixteen-year-old American girl in the 1970s whose father is a diplomat and travels a lot, leaving her with a caretaker in Amsterdam. (Her mother is dead. And although I’m calling her ‘the girl,’ that isn’t just because my memory is bad. She remains unnamed.) One day she discovers a weird journal in her father’s paper. It has nothing written in its pages, but it does have a strange dragon image on the first page with the word “Drakulya” imprinted there. With it is a packet of letters. She begins to read, “My dear and unfortunate successor…” Right then, she knows that her dad has a second, secret life, that he is in constant danger and that he has been protecting her from the truth.

Basically, when her father tells her how he got the journal and how it has affected his life—it appears that his own mentor, history professor Bartholomew Rossi, was killed over it—she starts a trip across Europe seeking out the historical and cruel Vlad the Impaler. And she has to go it without dad because he mysteriously disappears (as did Rossi years before). However, she isn’t entirely alone; she has a companion (and romantic interest) to help her.

The novel will take you through all the folklore that causes people to associate the real Vlad with the preeminent vampire Dracula (and tell you all the horrific stuff the historical Vlad actually did to people—they didn’t call him the Impaler for nothing). One of the most important things that she has to do is figure out whether Dracula is still alive, not an easy task. If he is dead, where was he really buried? She tracks down all the places that legend says he has been interred. Did someone really cut off his head? This novel is as much a mystery as it is a book of the supernatural. Reading it, you’ll become engrossed in the heroine’s search as she uses research, maps, old manuscripts—anything she can find—to go from city to city throughout Europe in her quest for Dracula and to find out what happened to her father.

Generally, I review books that have wide appeal, but I needed to add this because it is such a ‘big’ story—large scale, romance, gothic/horror, intense vampire lore—that it’s perfect for the two or three of you each year who seek just such a novel. And, hey—one of the details that I do remember is that it has a truly evil, living-dead librarian. Enjoy.



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Death Cloud: The Sherlock Holmes Legend Begins by Andrew Lane

A note on the book jacket tells us that this is the first teen series endorsed by the Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) Estate. I’m happy to see a Sherlock Holmes book for teens that incorporates details from the life of the original character.

It’s 1868 and Sherlock Holmes is fourteen years old. His mother is ill, his father is on a military expedition and his older brother is working in London; so rather than having the summer holidays he’d hoped for, Sherlock has to go to Hampshire and live with an eccentric aunt and uncle while being tutored by an American, Amyus Crowe. But the summer doesn’t turn out as deadly dull as he thought it would—that is, it’s not dull, just deadly.

While staying true to Doyle’s character—there are even incidents that hint of Sherlock’s adult drug problems—this teen Sherlock is also updated. The poor guy is falsely accused and tortured while he tries to solve the mysterious death of local men. They appear to have died of a plague, as they have swollen boil-like pustules all over their bodies. But Sherlock is on to a ring of evil-doers and these deaths have something to do with the weird ‘death cloud’ that rises above the bodies.

Thankfully, Sherlock has the help of Matty, a self-reliant street urchin, who, while he can’t read or write and hasn’t been taught anything about logic or induction, knows a lot about human behavior at its worst—and about how to survive. Virginia, Crowe’s independent daughter, eventually joins in the fray.

The descriptions of the evil Baron Maupertuis are positively macabre. What he is able to do through the help of his minions is so creepy, it will stick with you for a long time. But even if you are reading for your senior project (Chaffey), and want some details of life in England (and a bit of France) in the mid-nineteenth century, there’s much to note. (The descriptions of what happens at a country fair are an interesting. Dog fighting—ugh! Bobbing for eels, anyone? Sherlock being forced into a boxing match?)

Sometimes YA books have quotable quotes that jump out at me, and the following fits the bill. I imagine many teens find themselves in the middle of a bizarre situation with just such thoughts.

 “’It would be nice if one person could always make a difference,’ Crowe replied . . . ‘but in this complicated world of ours you sometimes need friends, and you sometimes need an organization to back you up.’

“’You think we should go to the peelers?’ Matty asked, obviously nervous.

“‘The police?’ Crowe shook his head. ‘I doubt they’d believe you, and even if they did there’s little they could do. Whoever lives in this big house of yours will deny everythin’. They’ve got the power and the authority, not you. And you’ve got to admit, it’s a preposterous story on the face of it.’

“’Do you believe us?’ Sherlock challenged.”

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The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan    

If you’re already a fan of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, you’re going to love this book. And if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Riordan yet, start here.

I picked up this book because a few CHS students, looking for a (easy) novel to start their senior project with, asked me for something on ancient Egypt. While this novel fits that description, it isn’t historical, even by the loose definition we use for our project. However, I believe it will work perfectly for any student who’d like to form questions on ancient Egyptian culture, particularly on religion.

At the center of the novel are the current-day Carter and Sadie Kane. Their father is a famous Egyptologist and their mother, who died mysteriously six years before the book opens, was an anthropologist. After their mother’s death, the children are separated, Carter then traveling the world with his father and Sadie settled with her maternal grandparents in London

Dr. Kane only has visitation rights with Sadie two days of the year. On Christmas Eve Day, he picks her up, and, along with Carter, they go to the British Museum to visit the Rosetta Stone. There, working magic, Dr. Kane blows up the priceless artifact and unleashes powerful Egyptian gods, including the evil Set, who encases him in a magic sarcophagus (coffin). The children run for their lives.

From here on out, it’s all action as the sharp-tongued Carter and Sadie discover their true natures and powers. While they are fighting ancient evil forces, much of Egyptian culture is mentioned—various pharaohs, a number of gods and their special divinities, famous architecture and archeological sites—all great teasers just perfect for posing research questions about ancient Egypt.

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The Women by T. C. Boyle

Yes, this is an odd book to include in a blog of book reviews for high school students. But when the CHS seniors were looking for works of (loosely historical) fiction to read before being required to develop a research question based on something in the novel, two students asked me if I had any suggestions for books about architects. And, unfortunately, I didn’t.

Considering that I could be asked this question again, I decided to read The Women by T. C. Boyle.  The women of the title are the wives and mistresses of Frank Lloyd Wright, a genius who crafts plenty of drama as well as original designs. Boyle gives the reader an egomaniacal Wright, one whose vision was preeminent. He considered other people to exist in order to service it. Thus he secured loans that he had no intention of repaying. He rarely paid his staff’s salary, and yet he always had a cook and handymen about.

The story’s narrator, Sato, is a Japanese youth and one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s interns—budding young architects who paid Wright for the privilege of working for him, but who were required to do household jobs and run errands. Sato arrives at Taliesin (Wright’s home in Wisconsin) after Wright is married to his third wife. The narrative alternates between Sato’s own experience as an unpaid intern and his knowledge—and imaginings, as he couldn’t know what passed between characters years before he arrived on the scene—of Wright’s history with his wives and mistresses. The narrative moves backward in time from the third wife to the first. This is a great choice because it leaves for a climax the great tragedy of Wright’s life—the ax murder of his mistress, her children and four others, and the burning of Taliesin.

Wright designed Taliesin for Mamah Cheney. For her, he left his first wife, Kitty, and their six children. Mamah was the wife of a neighbor and an advocate of free love who also left her children to live with Wright. It is about her experience and tragedy that the final section of the novel revolves.

Starting at the end of the series of Wright women, the reader meets Olga, another Wright mistress who will later become his third wife. Her presence is the goad for Wright’s second wife, Miriam, to come to life. She is described in the publisher’s blurb as a passionate southern belle, but she is also portrayed as an opium-addicted mad woman with an ego to match Wright’s, bent on revenge against the new mistress. Her behavior is ironic (to say nothing of hypocritical) as before marrying Wright, Miriam had been his mistress while he was still married to Kitty. She will engages the newspapers in her fight to tell her side of the sordid story. And Wright was quite the celebrity, so the public gobbles up his personal drama in the same way it now seeks news about movie stars.

Though the true beauty of this novel is Boyle’s astonishing ability to create the intimate emotions and conversations of his characters with perfect-pitch dialogue and brilliant imagery, there is talk throughout of Wright’s architecture—his projects are named and his ‘natural style’ is discussed.

So, if you are looking for a novel with a discussion of architecture to start your senior project, you will be absolutely engrossed in the outrageous lives and terrible tragedies detailed in The Women. And even if there is never another student who asks me for a book about an architect, I’m so thankful that those two students did—because without their requests, I would never have picked up this wonderful novel.

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