Some books get you in their talons and won’t let go. You know a book has you in its grip when…
… you choose to make risotto for dinner because all that stirring will buy you reading time.
… you find yourself hauling your laundry bag, plastic tub, detergent, and sack of quarters all in one hand so you can hold your book with the other.
… you ignore texts and phone calls you actually should take because the pages are just too compelling.
I could have made up funnier, more extreme examples, but all three of these really happened the other day when I was reading Chris Crutcher’s Period 8. I have always been a Crutcher fan, but hadn’t read a book of his in a while. In fact, the last one may have been his HILARIOUS memoir of childhood, King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography. So this new Chris Crutcher was a hot item staring out at me from my galley shelves, and I snapped it up — and then couldn’t stop. It’s got all the chewy goodness of a Crutcher teen athlete novel, ramped up with a mystery that unfolds in a most creepy way. Won’t say too much more about the plot because then you’ll feel you’ve read it, and that would be a big loss for your soup-stirring, laundry-sorting afternoon.
I’ve always loved how this author manages to tread teenage territory realistically, neither pretending teens don’t have and/or think about sex a lot, nor making it the raison d’être of the book. Well, hmm, that’s not entirely the case here, actually, since the suspenseful part of the plot rests on a certain kind of trafficking — which is clear from the first couple of pages. So don’t hand this to a 12-year-old. Still, Crutcher has such a fabulously even-handed, rational, realistic way of addressing issues that you want teens to read and talk about his books. He goes for ethics rather than morality, and he lets his characters make stupid choices, be honest about them, then work through the murkiness — with some help from friends and maybe even some trusted adults — to come out the other side.
I also love how “guy” his books are; I always feel like I’m hanging out with my male buddies when I read him — that specific mix of humor and heart, bravado and doubt. His characters are, for the most part, trying to be good (not goody-two-shoes) people — and to figure out what exactly that means. Which pretty much sums up being a teenager, if I remember accurately. There’s also a real adult in Period 8, a caring teacher who isn’t perfect but one every kid might dream of having: an easy-to-talk to grownup who will listen, isn’t quick to judge or freak out, has a sense of humor, who calls you on your stuff and gives you the straight response you need to hear, who’s involved with the kids he teaches without being too involved (or creepy, or needy).
Okay, so sure, maybe aspects of the plot and the bad guys and the action climax in Period 8 are a bit over the top, but isn’t that what we look for in an escape read? It’s popcorn, but popcorn as written by a thoughtful, funny soul.
When you’re done with Period 8 (Greenwillow) and are looking for similarly compulsive suspense reads, try Michael Northrup’s Gentlemen (Scholastic/Push) and Tim Wynne-Jones’s The Uninvited (Candlewick).
Readers, what are your telltale signs of being gripped by a terrific book?