Tag Archives: young adult literature

This Dark Endeavor (The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, book one), by Kenneth Oppel, 2011, Book Review

this dark endeavorHave you ever read Frankenstein? There have been so many film adaptations that Frankenstein has become part of American pop culture, but the original book is actually considered classic literature. Written by Mary Shelley, the wife of well-known Romantic poet Percy Shelley, it was originally published in 1818 and has been popular with readers ever since. It tells the story of Victor Frankenstein who creates a live creature from the bits and pieces of dead criminals and then is horrified by what he has done.

I have read the novel a time or two, so I was curious when my librarian friend recommended this new YA series which is a prequel to the original novel. It’s the story of young Victor and how he comes to be the mad scientist who seeks to overcome death. I loved it!

Book one was very intriguing. It has the same dark Victorian feel to it as the original. It also establishes the main characters of Victor and his adopted sister Elizabeth very well. Victor starts as a normal fifteen-year-old boy, but when his twin brother Konrad grows ill with a malady that baffles the doctors, Victor begins to change. He discovers a library of old alchemy books and grows intrigued with the dark craft. And as Konrad’s health continues to decline, we see Victor take risks, challenge authority, and grow more violent, more brooding, and more power-hungry. Then in one of the old alchemy books, he discovers the Elixir of Life. Should he pursue it to save his brother? Yes, he decides, at all costs. “I would have the power to bring him back from the dead,” he tells himself. Then, even more revealing, he wonders,“What else might I have the power to do?”

To complicate matters, Victor finds out Konrad and Elizabeth, who is actually a distant cousin, have fallen in love—at the same time he is discovering Elizabeth’s beauty and charms for himself. But Victor also sees the wildness, the daring, the fire of Elizabeth’s personality and thinks she’s really much better suited to him. He also realizes that if Konrad were to die, he would “get the girl.” Elizabeth and Victor are extremely complex, well-written characters. Coupled with the love triangle and life-and-death nature of the conflict, I couldn’t put this one down.

This Dark Endeavor also introduces the science vs. religion debate that has been raging since about this time period. I really like how it’s done. Victor has adopted his parent’s atheism, but Elizabeth, who was rescued from a nunnery, has a strong faith in God. Both views are strongly represented, and that drives the conflict even deeper. It gives it a powerful sense of historical setting as well.

I love the way this series has the same feel as the original. It’s a perfect intro to the classic, and I highly recommend it. Language is clean beside two mild profanities, and the sexual awareness between teenagers is also very appropriately done and kept under wraps. Alchemy did involve spirituality, but this book has no unsettling occultic  practices, only the working of mysterious recipes. I can’t wait to get my hands on book two (got it already!) then I’m going to reread my copy of Frankenstein. 

I’d advise a high school reading age of 14+.

Book two: Such Wicked Intent

Insurgent, by Veronica Roth, 2012, Book Review

Veronica Roth has created a page-turning second novel in Insurgent, which continues the dystopian YA series set in futuristic Chicago. There, society is split into factions based on predominant character traits: Dauntless, Amity, Erudite, Candor and Abnegation. These exaggerated strengths have always helped maintain balance and morality among the whole. Until Erudite sought to overpower the others.

In Divergent (book one), Erudite developed a serum that, once injected, can control groups of individuals. Using Dauntless as involuntary mercenaries, Erudite initiated their destructive plan. Insurgent continues the story of Tris and Four, two loyal Dauntless who are working to end the violence, but a faction no one considered is rising in the chaos: the factionless, those poor and misfit souls who failed initiation of their chosen faction. The factionless want to utterly destroy Erudite and do away with the old system completely. Can Tris and Four stop them even when a difference of opinion threatens to rip their relationship apart? Even when they become privy to information that could change everything—including known history?

This was intense! I liked the first one just a bit more, but Ms. Roth does a tremendous job keeping the momentum moving through a sequel. I sympathize with Tris, but I don’t like her quite as much in this one, yet I admire her courage and still rally behind her. I missed the honesty and sweetness that so defined her relationship with Four. This time around, they bicker and hide things from each other constantly until I just wanted to shake them! Yet there’s still enough between them to hope they continue. And this book contains a tremendous element of suspense. What is the information the Abnegation leaders were going to make public, the information that started the war? It’s alluded to often, and Tris risks everything, including Four, to learn it. In the end, I thought the info was a little anticlimactic, but then I haven’t really taken the time to work out all the implications. I’ll leave that for Ms. Roth and simply anticipate book three!

Contains some war-type violence and a few mild profanities. Ages 12+

The Outside of a Horse, by Ginny Rorby, 2010, Book Review

the outside of a horse“There’s nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse.”

The Outside of a Horse is an emotional, eye-opening novel that has pushed me into some new areas of thinking. I’m afraid my review may grow rather controversial before I’m done.

Hannah’s mother died of cancer five years ago, and her father returns from Iraq minus a leg and exhibiting some terrifying effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To escape, Hannah volunteers at a nearby stable that rehabilitates abused horses. There, where their stories merge, where love and trust are allowed to grow, healing is found for girl, for man, and for beast. It is a feel-good story of spirit and triumph, but it contains some disturbing undertones.

I learned a good deal about the dark side of the horse racing industry. For every champion, tens of thousands die, often before they take ten breaths. The worn out, the used up, those who never measure up, all sold for slaughter. And the pharmaceutical industry, particularly producers of women’s hormones, make their money at the dreadful expense of equine lives. An incurable animal-lover, one who wishes those first innocent days of creation might have lasted, I cried during parts of this book.

Yet we live in a world where animals are eaten. If we slaughter cows and chickens for food, I cannot on moral grounds argue against the slaughter of horses, or even cats or dogs. And as the book points out, if we close American slaughterhouses, no fewer animals die. They are simply shipped to Canada or Mexico. Yet I can protest inhumane treatment of these animals, the torturous means of killing them. I can heartily applaud those who work to better the lives of men and beasts. And I can look forward to a time when “all things will be made new.”

The book makes several social statements I’d like to point out. Again and again the war in Iraq is compared to Vietnam, with American government as the bad guy. I have mixed feelings about the war. I remember 9/11 vividly, and I know we need to take a hard line with Muslim terrorist groups and governments. We need to protect America. But sometimes I wonder, is that what we’re doing? Regardless, I have the highest respect and appreciation for our veterans, and the book honors them too.

It also puts in a few subtle arguments for the euthanasia of terminal humans. When Jack, an aging horse, is gently put down, Hannah recalls the suffering her mother endured. “Seeing how easy this was for Jack, I think it shouldn’t have to be so hard for humans.” The problem with this sentiment, the logic of which the book does not think through, is that lowering human life to the status of animals would easily create the same over-slaughter which the author laments for horses. The sick, the defective, the old, the useless–it would become too easy to kill.

And finally, the book makes a plea for saving animals everywhere. I love animals, and I wholeheartedly agree with volunteering at shelters, adopting dogs and cats, treating them with kindness, protecting them with laws, etc., etc., etc. Yet animal activism always draws strong parallels in my mind to other innocents legally slaughtered each year with less protest, the human ones. I cannot pursue protection for the first without equal or greater energy for the second.

 

Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater, 2009, Book Review

shiverShiver, a young adult paranormal romance by Maggie Stiefvater, has been extremely popular, but as I’m writing this blog partially for the purpose of previewing content for parents, teachers and kids, I’m going to give it a very poor grade. It contains much that goes against traditional values, and it’s true I didn’t even like it.

Sam and Grace are two teenage lovers, but Grace can’t understand why she’s so drawn to Sam. Because Sam is a wolf. A wolf that saved her from being killed by other wolves six years ago. He is her special wolf. Her wolf. She doesn’t understand that the pack are werewolves, or that she should be one too.

Sam, inexplicably drawn to Grace as well, has been there in the woods watching Grace for six years, waiting for her to change. But she breaks all rules and never does. It seems she can’t.

After a classmate is bitten Grace sees a new wolf in the woods, one she recognizes from school by his eyes and she knows. Soon after she and Sam (human) meet, and so begins a whirlwind romance. But werewolves only get so many summers to change back into human form before they remain wolves for good. And Sam knows this is his last.

Ms. Stiefvater creates overwhelming sympathy for Grace and Sam and their insurmountable problem, telling the story alternately from either perspective (which, honestly, feel too similar). But I simply can’t get into a story in which obsessive romance is the main focus. Grace looses her individuality and personality, her own importance, in this mad passion. I would hate for real girls to think this is normal or healthy. (And the sappiness is nearly enough to make me choke.) In addition, the book is liberally sprinkled with profanity, and Grace and Sam, not surprisingly, end up having sex. As a parent, this book contains nothing I’d like my daughter to emulate. So I give Shiver, despite its popularity, a singular thumbs down.

Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne, Book Review

around the world in eighty daysThis entertaining novel was first published in 1873 by French writer, Jules Verne. It is the story of a rich English gentleman who accepts a bet to travel around the entire world (no easy feat in 1873; one that had only recently become possible) in 80 days. The gentlemen of the Reform club, of which our hero, Phileas Fogg, is also a member, do not think it can be done. Disregarding the whole notion of adventure, Fogg simply sets out to prove them wrong in his calculating, mathematical, unemotional way.

Fogg isn’t cold through and through, however. During his travels we catch glimpses of his chivalry and strong sense of duty.  Such as when he rescues an Indian princess from a horrible death, or when he recaptures his servant, Passepartout, from the Sioux Indians. And Fogg often displays extreme generosity, particularly ironic in his dealings with Detective Fix who, unbeknownst to Fogg, believes the adventurer is a London bank robber and strives continually to obstruct his plans. Also, Fogg holds no lasting grudges and even finds true love before the final cover closes.

The story does a great job chauffeuring readers across the British Empire. Through the Suez Canal, over India via its railroad system, through Hong Kong, across America, and finally over the Atlantic to England. We’re treated to wonderful sights and a series of fantastic events (even a ride on an elephant!), but Mr. Fogg, of course, scarcely notices. He derives his primary enjoyment from continual games of whist.

I got a huge kick out of the whole stereotypical concept of Americans in this book as greedy, rough-and-tumble Yanks. After the culture of India and the Orient, Fogg steps out of his steamer in San Francisco to a political riot. The streets are filled with tussling men fighting to elect, of all things, a justice of the peace. Later, the narrator observes, “An American can scarcely remain unmoved at the sight of sixty thousand dollars.” And when a train bridge’s stability is in serious question, rather than consider a safer, more time-consuming option, one of the Americans suggests backing up, giving the train all full steam and leaping that sucker across! Which they do quite successfully. Though I laughed, I admit there’s a grain of truth to some of these observations. At least, there was before Uncle Sam opted to take our safety upon himself.

Fogg’s huge wager of 20,000 pounds (half his fortune) builds a desire in readers to see him succeed, but the suspense often feels contrived. Again and again Mr. Fogg and his entourage encounter obstacles that delay their trip. His servant chaffs. The reader chaffs. Fogg takes it all in stride. Then voila! Somehow miraculously, just in time, every time, things seem to work out. It would be rather predictable if Mr. Verne’s imagination didn’t come up the most unusual conveyances.

Overall, I enjoyed Around the World in Eighty Days. It’s a fairly simple, straight-forward read, and, like so many of the classics, it successfully draws a reader back in time, revealing much about the world it was created in. It certainly is original. I’d recommend it. Kids, I think, even as young as 8 could grasp and enjoy this one if it was read aloud. Ages 12+ could handle it independently.

Available as a free Kindle download.

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Gravity, by Abigail Boyd, eBook Review

gravityI don’t usually gravitate toward the paranormal. I hold some strong religious views and am of the opinion that the occult can be dangerous. But I’ve agreed to review Gravity, so I will judge Ms. Boyd’s craft, not her subject matter. And my conclusion? Abigail Boyd is a gifted writer!

In Gravity, Ms. Boyd has created three wonderful characters. Ariel is a fifteen-year-old girl whose best friend has vanished without a trace. She lacks confidence, struggles with “what ifs,” and she’s totally confused by her sensitivity toward the paranormal, not to mention her difficulty dealing with overprotective parents. Ariel’s new friend, Theo (feminine), holds to her own unique but personable style, and Henry, well, who knows what Henry is? Despite her hopes, Ariel certainly can’t figure it out! The shifting relationships between this cast of well-rounded and oh-so-normal characters provides the foundation for a page-turning plot.

Ms. Boyd’s narration is nearly flawless. She scripts sentences that are easy to maneuver, with smooth transitions and unlabored prose. It’s just edgy enough to appeal to kids, but not so slangy as to appear dated in a few years. For instance, “McPherson (the principal) had always thrown me a vibe that screamed wrong.” I talk like that. I love it. And here are a few of her absolutely fabulous details and word pictures:

“My math teacher, Mr. Vanderlip was a twitchy little man with a paisley tie.”

“Her cloying cloud of fruit punch scented perfume hit me in the face like a chemical warfare attack.”

“It was comforting talking to someone I actually could talk to. I no longer felt like a target, dodging around waiting to get hit.”

“He had the personality of a dripping towel.”

Great stuff, ain’t it? And now let’s talk about suspense. When weird stuff starts happening, the knocks on the wall, the slamming lockers, the visions and dreams, you have to keep pushing on, because you have to learn what’s happening. And exactly what is Principal McPherson up to (the scumbag!)?

The book isn’t quite perfect. Ariel’s first day of school, in the early chapters, explains much, but I was starting to feel a little restless from its length. There’s also some scattered profanity. Not much, but I always question its necessity in a book classified for children. And apart from my own personal discomfort with a séance scene, I think séances are overdone. Every book, every movie, every television series, it seems, includes one. I also found lots of typos (which I’ve sent on to the author and trust will shortly be fixed) and a few logistical problems, where narration contradicts itself. Again, easy fixes.

Now back to the stuff I appreciated. Ms. Boyd has a great feel for a book’s movement. Her relationships work in slowly, naturally. Scenes build on each other. She plants fabulous clues that are easily glossed over until suddenly those detail take on significance. The whole book is skillfully wrought.

The ending, however, I hated. Not because it sucks, but because the suspense is so well done that I now have to wait for her next installment to come out. Because I must keep reading. I must learn what happens!

Seranfyll, by Christina Daley, Book Review – Bargain eBooks

seranfyllSeranfyll, a  brand new novel by Christina Delay, will take readers to a wonderful place where horses fly and houses sneeze, where mops and pails bark like dogs and clean of their own accord, where trees walk and butlers are created – willy-nilly – out of chickens.  It’s a delightful place.  A place of animation and imagination.  A place I thoroughly enjoyed visiting.

Ms. Daley’s story is lengthy, but I never felt I was jogging in place.  It flows well and contains a nice mix of action, intrigue, fantasy, dialogue and interaction between characters.  In fact, this play between three well-defined characters is one of the book’s greatest strengths.  Rain, a slave with a sweet, affectionate spirit; Coal, another slave who’s distrustful, rude and impatient; and Domrey, the drunken, eccentric, wonderful lord.

The book is also chuck full of wit and sharp one-liners, especially from Domrey, whom I particularly enjoyed.  His unpredictability kept me laughing.  Knitting on the roof, dancing on the table, leaving a chicken in charge of the manor.  But Seranfyll is not without its serious moments with its powerful message against slavery.  At times, it feels almost biblical, such as when Domrey invites the destitute to his banquet, or when he takes Coal’s whipping on himself.  Seranfyll celebrates honor, goodness, loyalty, patriotism, friendship and love.

I must say the book is in need of a light edit to fix typos, slash some adverbs and adjectives, and eliminate “wordiness” in some sentences.  (It has since been re-edited.)  But don’t let these small issues sway you in your choice.  Seranfyll is magical, highly imaginative and fun.  I recommend it for children age 10+ and adults who enjoy fantasy with a fairy tale flavor.  Check out the sequel, Eligere.

Seranfyll is only 99 cents!  Here’s where to find it:

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, Book Review

mockingbirdProbably ten million folks have written opinions on Harper Lee’s classic during the last fifty years, but I’m going to add my ten cents to the pot anyway. Because To Kill a Mockingbird is worth every coin we toss in.

This is the story of a black man standing trial in Alabama for a crime he didn’t commit. An honest, hard-working black man accused by the lowest of white men. But it’s much more than a local legal proceeding. Within these pages, the whole of American society stands trial.

Maycomb is a slow, tired, tight-knit southern community where everybody’s blood kin if you dig deep enough. It’s a town of contradictions. A town where good people are blinded by old prejudice and set habits. It’s where young Scout and her brother Jem are trying to work out just what makes people tick.

The narration is carried by an adult Scout, looking twenty-five years into the past to the recall the events of 1935. It’s rich with quirky, childish humor. With dry wit, exaggeration, understatement and innocent misstatements. For example, when Scout has a run-in with her new first grade teacher, she complains to Jem.

“Don’t worry, Scout,” Jem comforted me. “Our teacher says Miss Caroline’s introducing a new way of teaching. She learned about it in college. It’ll be in all the grades soon. You don’t have to learn much out of books that way–it’s like if you wanta learn about cows, you go and milk one, see?”

“Yeah, Jem, but I don’t wanta study cows.  I-”

“Sure you do. You hafta know about cows, they’re a big part of life in Maycomb County.”

I contented myself with asking Jem if he’d lost his mind.

“I’m just trying to tell you the new way they’re teachin’ the first grade, stubborn. It’s the Dewey Decimal System.”

Scout and Jem are guided in their reflections on the human race by their father, Atticus Finch. He’s old, as fathers go, but he’s the best shot in Maycomb County. And he’s level-headed, fair, unassuming, and the attorney of Tom Robinson, the black man on trial for his life. Miss Maudie, a neighbor, tells the children after Tom’s trial:

“There are some men in this world born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them…We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus Finch to go for us.”

But the Christians of Maycomb County aren’t found guiltless. In one starkly hypocritical scene involving the Methodist missionary society, pious Mrs. Merriweather laments the barbaric societies of the world that don’t adhere to the teachings of scripture. Yet with her next condescending breath, she recommends the church leaders “encourage” the unhappy Negro community after the unfair and fatal result of Tom’s trial. “If we just let them know we forgive ‘em, that we’ve forgotten it, then this whole thing will blow over.” She goes on:

“The cooks and fieldhands are just dissatisfied, but they’re settling down now–they grumbled all the next day after the trial…Gertrude, I tell you there’s nothing more distracting than a sulky darky…You know what I said to my Sophy, Gerturde? I said, ‘Sophy,’ I said, ‘you simply are not being a Christian today. Jesus Christ never went around grumbling and complaining,’ and you know it did her good. She took her eyes off that floor and said, ‘Nome, Miz Merriweather, Jesus never went around complaining.’ I tell you, Gertrude, you never ought to let an opportunity go by to witness for the Lord.”

And in a discussion of current events at school, German persecution of Jews is condemned, and rightly so. But as the teacher enumerates the qualities of Jewish citizens, their contributions to society, their difficult past, their being forced to leave their homeland, the reader’s mind draws strong parallels to the blacks overlooked and persecuted in the same way in Maycomb County. This blindness and hypocrisy is underscored when a student remarks, “…that ain’t no cause to persecute ‘em. They’re white, ain’t they?”

Old Families take a good hit as well. That cultured set of gentlefolk deprived during the War Between the States of everything but their land, their pedigrees and their snobbery. Scout declares, “Atticus told me one time that most of this Old Family stuff is foolishness because everybody’s family’s just as old as everybody else’s. I said did that include the colored folks and the Englishmen and he said yes.”

Against all this drama, we also meet Arthur “Boo” Radley, reluctant hero and victim in his own right. A harmless mockingbird whose protection warrants the bending of a few rules.

Published right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, To Kill a Mockingbird has left its mark on American society. And for the better. It captures a segment of history with all its nostalgia and preserves a slice of small town southern culture. But it uses neither the forgetful nor the rosy lenses we often prefer to view such subjects through. Rather, it takes a good hard look at where we’ve been, and gives us all the encouragement we need to never go back there.

Appropriate for young adult readers. Difficult vocabulary, complex sentence structures, abstract ideas and some adult material. Probably too advanced for readers younger than high school.

Read To Kill a Mockingbird  free online.