Book Review: The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan

It’s not that I don’t enjoy YA fantasy. In fact, it’s one of the nicest things to escape into – since it tends to be light without being sappy and gritty without being crass. Nevertheless, I don’t often venture into that world.

I’m not sure why exactly. Certainly, YA fiction is a world where you can end up with just about anything – and a lot of YA fiction IS sappy and crass. Also, fantasy and sci-fi often overlap; and while I enjoy fantasy, I am not at all fond of sci fi (notable exceptions: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Ender’s War). So I don’t spend a lot of time browsing the YA section of my local library.

But when my sister-in-law was visiting over Memorial Day, she mentioned that she’d been reading and enjoying these YA fantasies – John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice. Like I do with so many things, I made a mental note of the series and promptly forgot about it entirely. Thankfully, my husband has a better memory than I and he asked me about a month later if I’d picked up that book Joanna was telling me about. Of course, by then I’d forgotten the name of the series, so I had to text Joanna for the title. I put in the request at the library and dutifully picked it up and put it in my bookpile – where it languished for months as I devoured everything pregnancy-related I could get my hands on.

But one day, I guess I’d had enough of pregnancy (actually, it probably was right around the time where I was feeling terribly one-dimensional, like all I did was talk about pregnancy and babies) and I picked up The Ruins of Gorlan.

I read it straight through and it was tremendous fun.

Five orphaned children, 15 years old and wards of the castle, prepare for choosing day – when they will offer themselves as apprentices to craftsmen and will be accepted or rejected into apprenticeships that will set them into their lives courses. Alyss, Jenny, George, and Horace know exactly to whom they wish to be apprenticed. They have already shown interest and aptitude in their desired life’s calling and some even have agreements with their chosen masters that need only to be approved by the baron.

Will, on the other hand, knows what he wants to do – but fears being able to do it. Will dreams of being a hero. He never knew his parents, doesn’t even know their names – but the note left on his basket when he was delivered to the castle in hopes that the baron would take care of him declared his father to be a hero in the last great battle against Morgarath. Will had been cherishing fantasies of his father for years – and dreamt of following in his noble father’s footsteps.

Which meant battle school, of course, and knighthood afterward. But Will is small and not particularly strong, frequently bullied by the clearly battle-school-ready Horace. Will intends to request an apprenticeship to the battle school, but fears that he will instead be rejected by all the castle masters – and end up being sent off to the fields like a common peasant.

Choosing day arrives and goes off exactly as expected. Alyss is accepted as apprentice to the diplomatic corps, Jenny to the castle’s chef. George will learn law and Horace will go to battle-school.

Will requests battle-school and is rejected. He is allowed a second choice and offers horseschool – and is rejected there as well. The mysterious ranger, who many suspect performs magic, slips a piece of paper to the Baron, informing him that there is something he should know about this Will. And the class of castle wards is dismissed. Tomorrow, the apprenticed students will report to their craftsmasters – and Will will go off to the fields.

Except for one thing – Will simply *must* see what is on that piece of paper.

In my opinion, The Ruins of Gorlan is the perfect sort of YA fantasy. It’s set in a medieval-type world with strange creatures, but seems to distance itself from actual magic – thus avoiding the deus ex machina I detest so in a fantasy tale. The protagonists experience a physical and mental coming-of-age, in which they are forced to reexamine old beliefs and establish character through fire. Both the plot and the characters are engaging. It’s just right.

Now that’s not to say that I felt the writing was particularly amazing – the occasional awkward construction and odd simile reminded me that the author is not a genius at his craft – but one can be very good without being a genius, and what Flanagan lacks in genius in writing, he makes up in skill as a storyteller. I can definitely recommend this book.

Rating: 4 stars
Category: YA fantasy
Synopsis: The orphaned Will dreams of becoming a hero like his noble father, but finds himself on a very different path than expected after he is rejected as an apprentice by his preferred craftsmaster.
Recommendation: Recommended for anyone looking for a good coming of age story or light fantasy. An engaging story well-told.

Book Review: “The Diary of Pelly D” by L.J. Adlington

Toni V is just another teen on the demolition crew, working his jackhammer. Day after day he tears up the ruins of City 5 to make way for the new city the general promises.

The rules and regulations say that everything that is found has to be reported. But when Toni V finds a water can with a diary inside, he defies the rules and regulations. He keeps and reads it: The Diary of Pelly D.

Pelly D lives in luxury in City 5. She’s rich, she’s pretty, and she leads the pack at school. Oh–and she has a holographic pool, which is pretty cool.

Pelly D is completely unconcerned about school work or about politics, or really about anything but her own pleasure and popularity–well, except for the little niggling doubts she has about the new gene stamping.

It’s an Atsumisi thing, this “Heritage Clan” thing. According to them, the world is divided into three groups: the haves and the have nots. The haves (Atsumisi and Mazzini) have the gene (even if it’s only turned “on” in the Atsumisi)–the have nots (the Galrezi) don’t.

It starts out innocently, people getting tattoos on their wrists to identify which gene clan they come from. But before long, Pelly D wonders if there might be discrimination on the planet (despite the colonials resolve to not even have a word for discrimination since they were so determined not to let any exist on their new planet.)

I’m not sure what to say about this book. The diary reads a little like Bridget Jones’ Diary (in other words, it’s awful). Reading Pelly D’s self-absorbed rants is painful. It’s a mercy that the author flashes back to Toni V every so often–he’s a breath of fresh air from the drama queen Pelly D.

At the same time, there’s something compelling about this novel. I can see how young adults might enjoy it. And–as far as young adult novels go, it’s relatively clean. There’s some allusions to making out and one not too descriptive sex scene. There’s a divorce that takes second stage to the real storyline. There’s some bullying, some definite rudeness. But it’s not like it’s celebrating deviant behavior.

And the ending. Oh, the ending.

I had to verbally process the entire plot with my little sister after I was done. It was that disturbing.

It was a good disturbing.

The kind that makes you think. The kind that makes you recall history, real events on Earth that resemble the events in the book. The kind that makes you question political correctness and what the world calls peace. The kind that makes you wonder how the evil in the heart of man can be eliminated.

The Diary of Pelly D is bad in that the diary itself is just the sort of thing you’d expect from a self-absorbed queen-of-the-brat-pack teen. The Diary of Pelly D is good in that the story sucks you in and gets you thinking (without you knowing that you’re thinking until you get to the awful, awful end.) It’s good in that the ideas it brings up stick with you, forcing you to grapple with reality.

I’m glad I read it. I’m not quite sure if I recommend it.

Rating:1 Star/5 Stars
Category:YA Dystopian Fiction
Synopsis:Toni V, a postapocalyptic teen, finds the diary of Pelly D–written before the war that ended the world as she knew it.
Recommendation: Decide for yourself. You can see how I had an awfully hard time even giving it stars–the one star is for the painfully insipid Pelly D’s diary writings, the five stars is for the completed effect of the novel.

Book Review: “Only You, Sierra” by Robin Jones Gunn

Anna got Starry Night by Robin Jones Gunn for Christmas one year–and the two of us were quickly hooked on the adventures of Christy Miller, Midwestern transplant to crazy California.

We *adored* Christy–reading each of those books over and over and over again. We were in love with Todd. We hated Rick. We cracked up over dead hamsters. We started shoebox P.O. Boxes for our future husbands.

And then we reached our teens–and skipped the teen spin-offs to jump directly into Gunn’s adult “Glenbrook” series.

Of course, I’d “met” Sierra Jensen with Christy when she went to Europe in A Promise is Forever–but I’d never actually read any of Sierra’s story until Waterbrook Multnomah offered a free Kindle edition of The Sierra Jensen Collection, Volume 1 containing Only You, Sierra, In Your Dreams and Don’t You Wish.

Only You, Sierra started out in familiar territory–Carnforth Hall in England, during the missions trip Sierra, Christy, Katie, Tracy, and Doug had ended up on together.

Sierra flies home from England–but home isn’t the same place she left. While she was on her trip, her family had moved in with their Granna Mae in Portland. Granna Mae has good days and bad days with her dementia–and Sierra’s family is there to help.

Even though the move had been planned in advance, Sierra finds herself struggling to catch up to her family, who has already settled in–and struggling to find her place in Portland, where her uniqueness isn’t quite so unique.

I devoured Only You, Sierra, reading it in two nights. It’s definitely Robin Jones Gunn, but it’s more realistic than Christy’s drama-filled existence. Unlike Christy, Sierra has no fairy-godmother-like rich aunt ready to introduce her into the high-life. Instead, Sierra has an older sister who she shares a room with, two little brothers, a loving but confused Granna Mae, two parents, and a crush she barely knows. As I said, much more realistic (at least, from my perspective.)

When I finished Only You, Sierra, I was gravely disappointed to find that I couldn’t access the second and third books on my Kindle edition. I realize that my copy was an ARC–and therefore may not be reflective of the final copy–but I worry that fellow Kindle Readers would find themselves getting only one book when they’re promised (and itching for) three.

I’m thinking these books would appeal most to the sort of reader I was when I first started reading the Christy Miller books–in my early adolescence. While I read those when I was ten or so, my guess is that these will probably appeal to the 12-14 crowd best.

For those worried that familiarity with the Christy Miller series is necessary for understanding these books, I think you’ll find that isn’t the case. I’ve framed my review around my childhood memories of Christy–but she certainly isn’t necessary for reading or enjoying the Sierra Jensen series.

Rating:4 Stars
Category:Teen Girls Series Fiction
Synopsis:Sierra struggles to find her place in a new community while wishing she were in SoCal with her “European friends”.
Recommendation: Good, clean, engaging–and not too drama filled–fiction for teenage girls. If you’ve got girls around 12-14 years old, these would be a good option. (Definitely a better option that the “Princess Diaries” franchise or “Gossip Girls”.)

Book Review: “The Big Crunch” by Pete Hautman

According to the book jacket:

“Jen and Wes do not ‘meet cute’. They do not fall in love at first sight. They do not swoon with scorching desire. They do not believe that they are instant soul mates destined to be together forever. This is not that kind of love story.”

Except that it pretty much is.

So Wes doesn’t start off considering Jen to be double-t-hott and Jen dates Wes’s dorky friend before she and Wes start going out–but those are mere footnotes to what this story really is–a sappy love story between high-schoolers.

Now here’s the thing. I love chick-flicks, I enjoy romances, I like love stories (especially sappy ones.)

What I do not like is sappy high school love stories.

Why? Because I think high school is the wrong time to be “falling in love”. And I especially think high school is the wrong time to be having sex.

Which is why when Wes and Jen started having sex (or seemed to me to be getting close to it), I shut this book for good.

I don’t need to be filling my mind with that sort of trash–and there was nothing redeeming in the plot to make me skip over the raunchy bits and keep going.

This may have been a Cybils nominee, but it’s certainly not a winner in my book.

**Side Note: The title “The Big Crunch” comes from a scientific theory Jen’s science teacher teaches as fact–that the universe expanded in the “Big Bang” and will someday contract in a “Big Crunch” in preparation for another Big Bang. While I wouldn’t be surprised at this being taught in a high school (since high school science is generally around 15 years behind true science), it still managed to tick me off that it was presented as truth in this book. You see, that theory, known as the oscillating universe theory, was devised in an attempt to avoid the most obvious implications of the Big Bang–the necessity of an infinitely powerful uncreated Creator who is outside our space-time continuum. Problem is, there’s absolutely no evidence for an oscillating universe–which is why today’s astronomers and cosmologists have, by and large, abandoned this theory (the honest folk for what one astronomer called “the first church of the God of the Big Bang”-generally Christianity; the naturalist ideologues for unfalsifiable theories such as multiverse theory.**

Rating:0 Stars
Category:YA Fiction
Synopsis:Wes and Jen meet, are attracted to one another, begin sleeping together. Imagine that.
Recommendation: Don’t read it. It’s trash with nothing whatsoever with which to redeem itself.

Book Review: “What I saw and how I lied” by Judy Blundell

Evie is fifteen, her stepfather has returned from the war, and life is good.

Okay, so they still live with her step-father’s mother, who doesn’t quite get along with Evie’s mother. So Evie’s step-father is drinking more. So Evie’s parents are fighting more often.

But Evie’s main concerns are that her mother won’t let her wear grown-up clothes and that she can’t seem to attract the attention of her crush.

Then her stepfather decides to take them on a vacation to Florida–and Evie meets (and falls in love with) the dashing young Peter (who had served with her stepfather in the War.)

Awash with the headiness of a new environment, new clothing (one of her mothers’ new friends insisted), and new love, Evie thinks of little but how she can next see Peter. Then a hurricane hits and Evie’s world comes crashing down.

I added What I saw and How I lied to my TBR list on the basis of Semicolon’s review (I think), but by the time I’d gotten around to picking it up from the library, I’d forgotten the review and had no idea what to expect. (Even if I’d read Semicolon’s review more recently, I’m not sure I’d have known what to expect. Sherry does a good job of not giving spoilers.)

At any rate, I read with only the book’s title to clue me in on what was happening–and that kept me guessing for a good long time.

I knew something was wrong, that something wasn’t adding up in Evie’s idyllic world–but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. What’s more, if Evie (the narrator of the book) had seen something, why wasn’t she telling me? What had she seen? And how had she lied?

I was almost upset with her for not sharing–but I kept reading in the hopes that she would at last reveal.

And reveal she did, with a punch that left me gasping for air.

Other reviewers have called this a coming-of-age novel, and that it is. It’s about a loss of innocence, a loss of trust. It’s also a story about stealing, lying, adultery, and murder. As my grandmother would say, it’s a story of sex and violence.

But a well-told story.

This is definitely not a children’s book. But the sex and violence found in this book is not the gratuitous or experimental raciness of a typical YA novel. It’s tasteful (mostly) and integral, contributing to Evie’s awakening to the world of lies and truth, deception and integrity, lust and love.

I very much enjoyed reading this novel and recommend it for discerning, mature readers.

Rating: 4 stars
Category: YA-Coming of Age Novel
Synopsis:Evie grows up rather quickly after a winter in Florida where she encounters lust, lies, deception, and discrimination.
Recommendation: I think thoughtful readers are likely to enjoy this, while those looking for either escapist or sensational fiction will be disappointed. I personally enjoyed it a great deal.

Book Review: “The Adoration of Jenna Fox” by Mary E. Pearson

What does it mean to be human?

What makes me myself?

Is it the endless combinations of A T G and C that make up my DNA?

Is it the way my environment has shaped my genetic material such that I am expressed as a specific phenotype?

Or perhaps it is my memories that make me myself. Perhaps it is the collection of information and experience stored somewhere within my brain that makes me myself.

Then again, maybe it is some ethereal thing, something beyond my physical makeup, such that even if my physical being were to be completely annihilated, I would still be–and be complete.

Jenna Fox wakes up after a year-long coma to find that she’s not quite sure who she is.

She’s walking around in an unfamiliar body, remembering unfamiliar ideas.

She’s living in an unfamiliar world, watching videos of an unfamiliar her living an unfamiliar life.

She’s just starting to get comfortable in her own skin, just starting to remember herself, her life, her family…

when the truth smacks her in the face and she finds herself at square one again.

Who is she? What makes her herself? Is she herself? Or is she merely a product of her parent’ unceasing adoration?

The Adoration of Jenna Fox was my first ever dystopian novel–and oh what a first!

Set only a hundred or so years from now, The Adoration of Jenna Fox sees the world continuing on its current trend of helicopter parenting and biomedical advances–with disastrous results.

Adoration is a meaty novel, full of thought-provoking ideas about personhood (as mentioned above) as well as about ethics in medicine, genetic engineering, and beyond.

Nevertheless, this is by no means a novel intended as a text book. The Adoration of Jenna Fox is an engaging story in and of itself–and one that begs to be read, even if one would rather not think about the issues it raises.

Yet force you to think about the issues it does. This is no propaganda piece, intended to convince the reader to one side of a spectrum or another. Instead, it is does exactly what a good book ought–it forces the reader to think through sides of an issue he might not have thought about before, challenging his ideas regardless of which “side” he might have originally found himself on.

(For the record, I’m a conservative, evangelical Christian who believes that humans are created in the image of God and have intrinsic worth as such. I’m also the sister of a student of biomechanical engineering who is doing his graduate research with adult stem cells and who is always sharing fun stuff about manufactured skin and transplanted blood clots. And I found plenty to make me think in this book–things I agreed with and things I didn’t.)

This is a novel I highly recommend.

Rating: 5 stars
Category:Young Adult Dystopian Fiction
Synopsis:Jenna Fox seeks to discover who she is after a year-long coma leaves her in the dark–and discovers that who she is is scary.
Recommendation: Absolutely read this one! (Parents might want to read through it first before passing it on to their children–I’m not sure exactly what age group this’d be appropriate for, but I’m thinking probably older rather than younger. Like seventeen, eighteen year old kind of older. At least, that’s what I’m guessing. Not that the content is necessarily inappropriate–there’s a bit of girl/boy stuff but much less and less explicit than the usual YA fare; and a bit of violence I think–but I think the concepts and ethical questions would be much for a younger teen to think through.)

I originally added this book to my TBR list based on reviews from Diary of an Eccentric and Jennifer of 5M4B

Book Review: “Much Ado About Anne” by Heather Vogel Frederick

In my experience, lit about lit or books based on books tend to follow a fairly typical pattern.

You know, high school students perform “Romeo and Juliet” only to find that their own lives parallel the play in ways they never imagined (and generally don’t get until the end of the story.)

So I was expecting some orphans or a precocious redhead or at very least someone in need of a bosom friend when I picked up Much Ado About Anne.

When I got a couple chapters into the book and still hadn’t started to see parallels, I got a bit nervous.

It wasn’t what I expected at all.

And that’s a good thing.

Heather Vogel Frederick’s Much Ado About Anne doesn’t try to recreate Anne of Green Gables (as though another author could do it better than L.M. Montgomery!) Instead, Much Ado About Anne finds the mother-daughter book club experiencing their own story while reading through Anne’s story in book club.

Two great conflicts rise in the lives of the book club girls: first, their mothers invite the oh-so-stuck-up Becca Chadwick to join their club–and then Jess discovers that her family may be forced off their ancestral farm.

The girls (and therefore their readers) learn interesting factoids about L.M. Montgomery thanks to one girl’s librarian mother. And, just like good bibliophiles, they find ways of relating what they’re reading to their own lives.

And so, they realize that Becca is a Pye, and must be tolerated as a Pye. They relate to the utter mortification Anne felt when she dyed her hair green–although, of course, their mortification is over something entirely different. And they emulate their new heroine by naming the lands around them with fanciful names.

I enjoyed this book a great deal. It has just enough Anne to make it worth its title–but not so much Anne that it’s lacking any substance of its own.

I’m glad I took the opportunity to take a glimpse at Anne through the eyes of four fictional middle-school girls. As a long-standing Anne-fan, I found myself thrilled with these girls’ glimpses of Anne–and I’m willing to bet that this book would be a great way to introduce a young reader who’s reluctant to read “old” books into the great story that is Anne. Once she’s read this, I can almost guarantee she’ll want to read the “back-story”–the novels the mother-daughter book club read and discussed and applied to their own lives.

Rating: 4 stars
Category:Middle grade fiction (female)
Synopsis:The mother-daughter book club gets busy reading Anne of Green Gables, dealing with their very own Josie Pye, and racking their brains to save Half Moon Farm.
Recommendation: Great for lovers of Anne, or lovers of YA fiction/young chick lit, or anyone who wants to introduce a younger girl to the joys of Green Gables.

L. M. Montgomery Reading ChallengeI read this as a part of Carrie’s L.M. Montgomery Reading Challenge. Check out the link for more people’s comments on L.M. Montgomery. Visit my books page for more book reviews and notes by me.