Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Ranger's Apprentice

Titles:  Ruins of Gorlan; Burning Bridge; Icebound Land; Battle for Skandia; Sorcerer of the North; Siege of Macindaw; Erak's Ransom; Kings of Clonmel; Halt's Peril; Emperor of Nihon-Ja; Lost Stories; Royal Ranger

Author:  John Flanagan

Rating:  * (1 stars out of 3 possible, "C")
              Recommended with Reservations

Audience:  Middleschoolers

If you've tired of darker fantasy steeped in sorcery and violence, John Flanagan's series will seem like a breath of fresh air.  I recommend it as "safe" fantasy, the downside being fairly simplistic plots and some tedious writing.

The first book, Ruins of Gorlan, basically offers the medieval time period of knights, craftsmen, apprentices, kings and lords with minimal focus on magic.  Think of LOTR-lite: an evil character  named Morgarath accompanied by wargals and Kalkara in the Kingdom of Araluen and the Mountains of Rain and Night.  If those don't seem familiar enough, take a mysterious, sullen protagonist and name him "Ranger."  (Viggo Mortensen, anyone?)

Originality aside, young fantasy adventure fans will love the story of 4 orphans receiving their apprenticeships on "choosing day":  Alyss to become a diplomat; Jenny, a chef; Horace, a knight; and Will to study under the curt tutelage of the legendary Ranger Halt.

Chocolate, Chocolate and More Chocolate

Titles Reviewed:

Chocolate Fever by Robert Kimmel Smith
     *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")  Recommended with Reservations
     1st-3rd Grades

The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling
     *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")  Recommended with Reservations
     1st-3rd Grades

The Chocolate War and Beyond the Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
     *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")  Recommended with Reservations
     Junior and Senior Boys

The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull
     *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")  Recommended with Reservations
     4th Grade and up

As you can see, i spent a lot of my summer sampling chocolate!  It was important to me to straighten these titles out, because one doesn't want to confuse harmless first grade morality tales (Chocolate Fever and Chocolate Touch) with warnings of bullies and psychological abuse along the lines of Lord of the Flies (Chocolate War and Beyond the Chocolate War).

Chocolate Fever (1972) and The Chocolate Touch (1952) both deal with boys who love chocolate and candy and the consequences of their greedy habits.  The plots are humorous and the lessons clear:

"Although life is grand, and pleasure is everywhere, we can't have everything we want every time we want it!"

"You've been eating so much sweet stuff that there isn't room for eggs and meat and milk and bread and spinach and apple and fish and bananas and all the other things you're supposed to have to make you grow big and strong."

"Don't you think there's such a thing as enough?"

These books are doubly useful if you have a picky eater or a sugar hound in your family!  My own children have benefitted from this type of outsourced nagging.  There's absolutely nothing wrong and everything right with families using literature to instruct!

Far different messages for a far different audience come from Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (1974) and it's sequel Beyond the Chocolate War (1984).

Friday, September 19, 2014

Counting by 7s

Author:  Holly Goldberg Sloan

Rating:  *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")
              Recommended with Reservations

Audience:  Middle School Girls

Counting by 7s is a paradoxical book.  Sometimes written in first person, sometimes third, it feels both quirky and edgy while it explores both despair and hopefulness.

I suppose that's how adolescence often feels, and this book would especially appeal to youngsters who don't fit into typical teen scenes and/or have been identified (for better or for worse) as "gifted."

Willow Chance is one such girl.  She thinks in patterns of sevens, researches science and medicine, studies words and pi, analyzes behaviors and gardens.  Wearing her gardening clothes to middle school, and toting wheeled luggage instead of a backpack, Willow doesn't stand much chance of peer acceptance.  But she really doesn't mind, if she can just find one person that interests her.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm

Author:  Nancy Farmer

Rating:  *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")
                  Recommended with Reservations

Audience:  Middleschoolers

Assigned for my 7th grader's Language Arts class, this 1995 Newbery Honor book is set in Zimbabwe in 2194.  Essentially science fiction, it offers a unique view of the future along with a backward glance to Zimbabwe's tribal culture.

Military General Amadeus Matsika and his wife have 3 children:  Tendai, a 13 year old boy; Rita, his capable 11 year old sister; and little brother Kuda, 4 years old.  When the three children are kidnapped by the evil Mask gang they must employ all their wits to escape several fantastic scenarios.  Meanwhile, Father and Mother hire 3 unusual detectives (the title characters) to search for the children.

With the book's background in Zimbabwean culture, the reader must become familiar with a number of animistic terms:

Mwari-the supreme god of Zimbabwe, valuing the traits of loyalty, bravery and courteousness.
Shona-the dominant tribe, to which the Matsika family belongs
mhondoro-the spirit of Mwari, and the spirit of the Zimbabwe land
vlei people-a ghost-like people that wander the outskirts of Harare, the capital city
Gondwanna-terrorist gang from northern Africa
shave-a wandering spirit who enters a person to teach a special skill
ndoro-talisman with a connection to the spirit world

Considering all this talk of the spirit world and spirit possession, one might ask if the book is even appropriate for young Christians.  That's why my review basically warns families to proceed with caution.  With a view towards animist tribes still in existence today, I believe the story provides an enlightening contrast to Christianity.