unRequired Reading Blog

Ranger’s Apprentice 1: The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan

Ever since he was a small boy, Will, hero of The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan (Book 1 of The Ranger's Apprentice series), has dreamed of Choosing Day and the moment he can start training as a knight. Will, along with Horace, Alyss, Jenny, and the other castle wards raised by Baron Arald’s generosity, is now 15 years old, and about to leave the familiar confines of the castle to start his career apprenticeship. The other wards have obvious talents that will translate easily into their apprenticeships: Horace, a muscular boy and natural athlete is destined for battleschool; willowy and sophisticated Alyss for the Diplomatic Service; and friendly, food-loving Jenny to Master Chubb’s kitchens. Will’s destination is harder to predict, for where will this tree-climbing, wall-scaling teen fit in?

It turns out that Will is not selected for battleschool, but rather to become the apprentice of Halt the Ranger, part of an enigmatic group of men who use camouflage, superior bow skills, and secrecy to achieve their missions on behalf of the King. Over the next few months, Will’s disappointment over battleschool changes to grudging respect for Halt and the grueling training that the Rangers undergo to become proficient in their craft. He also starts to see in the quietly competent Halt the father figure that he has been without for his childhood.

The Enemy by Charlie Higson

The plot of Charlie Higson's The Enemy reads like an inverted fairy tale: one day, everyone over the age of 16 starts getting sick. Some of them die early on, and others leave their families voluntarily to try to protect them. The unlucky ones become something else: boil-covered, dim-witted zombies whose only goal is to consume flesh.

The kids who are left behind face incredible odds against their survival. The older ones are responsible for eluding the zombies, taking care of the young ones, and finding food in a precarious world where there is little left of anything, including hope. The Enemy follows groups of kids in London-- particularly, the "Waitrose kids," so named for the supermarket that they have secured and defended for the last year. They are lead by Arran, a natural leader who is both sensitive and fearless; defended by the gifted fighter Achilleus; and kept peaceful by Maxine, the second in command. But their resources are running low, and "the grown-ups" (their name for the zombies) are becoming more daring, picking them off one at a time.

One day a strange boy in a multicolored coat appears at their gate, bringing them tales of a peaceful life that another group of kids has made for themselves at Buckingham Palace. Allegedly, the kids live in security, where they are well-fed by the fruits of their own garden. He invites the Waitrose kids to join them, and they decide to embark on the dangerous journey from Waitrose to Buckingham Palace.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

This is Week 12 of a 12-Week series of blog posts reviewing new young adult books. To see all of the reviews, click here.

In Kathryn Erskine's "Mockingbird," Caitlin’s world is black and white, and she likes it that way, whether it’s her view of life or her meticulous monotone drawings. Since The Day Our Life Fell Apart when her brother Devon was killed in a school shooting, she and her widowed father keep to simple routines. This is important to kids like Caitlin, a fifth grader with Asperger’s Syndrome. Clear boundaries make it easier to cope, especially when she’s trying hard to follow her counselor’s advice to Look At The Person and Mind Your Manners. 

As I followed Caitlin through her days at school – meeting with the school counselor when she has a TRM (Tantrum Rage Meltdown), trying dutifully to make friends even though she prefers to be a “team of one” – I began to see the world as Caitlin does. She may be socially inept and literal-minded, but she also has a startling gift for humor and truth-telling. 
 

The Daughters by Joanna Philbin

This is Week 11 of a 12-Week series of blog posts reviewing new young adult books. Check back each Monday for a new review.

Imagine that your mom is a world-famous supermodel or actress, like Angelina Jolie - constantly surrounded (and hounded) by the paparazzi. What would your life be like? How would your parent’s fame shape your own childhood, teenage years, and adult hood? This is the premise of The Daughters by Joanna Philbin, a new young adult novel that explores growing up in the shadow of fame, and it how alters (and in many respects doesn’t change) the trials and tribulations of the teenage years.
 
The Daughters follows the life of Lizzie Summers, daughter of a famous supermodel, and Lizzie’s two best friends, Carina and Hudon, daughters of a billionaire media mogul and pop star, respectively. In many respects they are just like many 14 year-olds, trying to navigate through high school academics, crushes on boys, and changing relationships with their parents. But in other ways, their parent’s fame is almost like another character to explore in the book, drawing constantly unwanted attention. 

Philip K. Dick and History Unrealized

The late Philip K. Dick's works were one of the strongest influences on science fiction writers in the first decade of the 21st century, including the fields of alternate history and paranoid thrillers.

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

This is Week 10 of a 12-Week series of blog posts reviewing new young adult books. Check back each Monday for a new review.

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl is a page-turning story of star-crossed teenage love with a Southern gothic twist and a side of magic.

In the town of Gatlin, South Carolina, everyone knows everybody's business and nothing exciting ever happens, unless you count the annual re-enactment of a local Civil War battle. Unbeknownst to the residents of Gatlin (at least most residents) beneath the thick Southern accents and Spanish moss lurks a whole other magical world, one of hidden underground libraries, voodoo and deadly family curses.

Lena Duchannes and Ethan Wate bridge the gap between these two worlds - two worlds that were never meant to meet.

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver opens during one particularly brutal winter, when the wolves in Mercy Falls, Minnesota are starving. Desperate to eat, they pull an eleven-year-old girl off of her tire swing in her back yard. As they begin to pull at her clothes, she catches the beautiful, golden eyes of one of the wolves and they both connect in an inexplicable way. The golden-eyed wolf saves her life, defending her from the pack.

Fast forward to the present, and that same girl, Grace Brisbane, is now in high school. She has a few good friends at school and a pair of scatterbrained, distracted parents. What particularly grounds her is watching “her wolf” who lives in the forest behind her house. What Grace doesn’t know is that the wolf is named Sam, and he turns human in the warm weather and stays a wolf during the cold.  Sam and Grace’s worlds collide when a local boy is believed to have been killed by the wolves, and the town launches into a full-scale wolf-hunt. The tension is heightened by the fact that each time Sam changes into a wolf it becomes less likely that he will change back into a human. He has to struggle after each change to throw off the wildness, the dreams of howling and blood on his lips.
 

Show Off by Sarah Hines Stephens

I don't care if you are a kid, teen or adult - it feels great to be able to do some impressive tricks for your family and friends at the next backyard barbecue, like blowing a bubble within a bubble or slicing an unpeeled banana. If you want to move beyond mere parlor tricks, you can learn how to identify clouds, ride a boogie board or fold fortune cookies thanks to the super-easy directions in Show Off: How to Do Absolutely Everything One Step at a Time by Sarah Hines Stephens and Bethany Mann.

What makes "Show Off" a fantastic book are the step-by-step picture directions. Since I am a graphic learner, this makes it so much easier for me than trying to decipher a page of text describing how to fold a ninja star. The ingredient lists tend to be very slight, which is a bonus for parents. If you want to learn more about an activity, several of them have longer descriptions in the back under "tell me more." The 224 activities are grouped under the categories of "amaze," "investigate," "create," "explore," "cook," and "move." Most of these are easy to do by yourself if you're at least 10 years old, while others will require adult help.

12 Weeks of Hot Summer Reads: Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve

This is Week 7 of a 12-Week series of blog posts reviewing new young adult books. Check back each Monday for a new review.

Fever Crumb, heroine of Philip Reeve’s Fever Crumb, is a 14 year-old girl with an unusual appearance. First of all, she’s bald. Second, she has two differently-colored eyes – one blue, the other brown. And third, she’s absolutely beautiful. But she doesn’t know that. She has been raised by Dr. Crumb and the Order of Engineers since she was a baby, and they’re not in the habit of telling her that she’s beautiful. Her upbringing has been rather dry and very self-composed, with both emotion and beauty being looked down upon.

Fever lives in London, but it’s not like any London that we know of. London is recovering from being occupied by “the Scriven,” a different species with speckled skin and long lives. The Scriven were overthrowed by the Skinners, and the New Council now rules the land. No one is as hated in London as the Scriven are, for being different and for being harsh rulers.
 
Fever is called out on her first official Engineer assignment, to assist archeologist Kit Solvent on a dig. While traveling to her job, Fever’s eyes attract some unwanted attention, and she is quickly branded “a Patchskin” or Scriven. A renowned Patchskin hunter follows her, determined to find out if she is human or Scriven.  Events occur that lead to rioting in London, even while barbarians are approaching the city to conquer it.

First Light by Rebecca Stead

First Light by Rebecca Stead is a compelling story told by two different narrators. First there is Peter, the only child of two talented scientist parents. His father, a glaciologist, receives a grant to travel to Greenland and study global warming. He takes along Peter and Peter's mother, a molecular biologist, who is writing a book about mitochondrial DNA. Peter, like any normal 7th grader, is excited to leave behind New York City for 6 weeks, but he's worried about his increasingly frequent headaches. Is he going to end up like his mother, whose headaches cause her to simply "check out" for days at a time?

Second, there is Thea, a 14 year-old girl who lives in Gracehope, a community entirely hidden under Greenland's ice. Thea's ancestors fled here a long time ago to escape persecution. Thea has never seen the sun. Her people's population has expanded to the point where resources must be severely rationed and births are limited. Thea feels that her people were meant to return to the surface, but her grandmother, who leads Gracehope, is set against expansion.

Peter and Thea's tales alternate as the plot's tension increases, and they eventually come together in this exciting story that mixes adventure with science and fantasy. Both characters are strong and independent thinkers, trying to make the best decisions with their limited knowledge. The adults in this novel seem strangely paralyzed by the past in many respects, unlike Peter and Thea, who are constantly looking forward to and advocating for the future.

You can read an excerpt from the book here and explore the world of First Light in its own Web site. A similar read is The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau. The library owns both the book and audiobook, which our family enjoyed listening to. Recommended for ages 10-14.