Category Archives: Young Adult Fiction

Commentary on Young Adult Fiction

Dickensen Academy

Title:  Dickensen Academy
Author:  Christine Grabowski
Publisher:  The Wild Rose Press
Publication Date:  2018
ISBN:   978-1509221233

Book Summary:
High school brings a lot of change and uncertainty but for 15-year-old Autumn Mattison, the start of her freshman year introduces more than just new teachers and new friends. After an invitation-only application and summer filled with testing and interviews, Autumn is surprised to be accepted at Dickensen Academy. Nestled in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, the remote location ensures few distractions, spotty cell-service, and some distance from the high expectations of her father.

Swept in the usual courses of Algebra, Science, and Language Arts, Autumn makes connections with her roommate Adita and Ben, the boy she met at the summer testing. The students however quickly realize that there is much more to their fine arts education than painting and writing. Creative Core presents challenges beyond students honing their artistic and creative skills; it shows them the power of dreams. Soon, their educational classes take on greater depth with incredible experiences through their field trips, and a world of possibilities opens up. Yet, when the line between reality and memory becomes blurred, sometimes dreams become nightmares.

Autumn and her friends begin to question why freshman aren’t allowed to leave campus, what happens to students who cannot master the skills, and what does the Fence keep out . . . or in. When a devasting accident occurs, Autumn must decide what matters most to her and whether her abilities truly can be deemed worthy as a student of Dickensen Academy.

Book Commentary:
I received an advanced copy of this book and really enjoyed the story. What most intrigued me was how magical the books were without the use of magic. The power of dreams and thoughts presents a wealth of options for insight and reflections, but Grabowski has taken them one step further and applies their usage to educational experiences. Often times, however, I was unclear as to whether the actions and events were real or part of a dream. It was this uncertainty that fueled my imagination and created a captivating story.

I really liked how the power of perception and memory conflicted and made the reader uncertain about what was real and if the characters could really be trusted. Although the book is not a thriller in the traditional sense, this element of uncertainty can play tricks on the reader and force them to question their perception and understanding in their own lives. I think this would be a great book for students with a science interest; the cognitive power and ability to manipulate the human brain opens the door for discussion about brain research, the trustworthiness of memory, and the ethics of control.

Who might like this book:
Dickensen Academy will appeal to middle school readers, as they can relate to the stress of school, the pressures of family expectations, the uncertainty of friendships, and the flutter of a first crush. Fantasy novels are so popular with young adult readers; this book asks them to view the magic in themselves. This unique perspective may encourage young readers to consider the powers that they possess themselves.

I hope this book will be the first of a series as I feel that there is much more that can be explored with the power of dreams in many future adventures for these characters. This book is available on September 12, 2018.

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Walk on Earth a Stranger

Title:  Walk on Earth a Stranger (The Gold Seer Trilogy 1)
Author:  Rae Carson
Publisher:  Greenwillow
Publication Date:  2015
ISBN:  978-0-06-224292-1

Book Summary:
Although gold has been found in the hills of Georgia, most prospectors agree that the land has dried up and in 1849, the rush is bound for California.  Fifteen-year-old Leah Westfall is content in her loving happy home with her father and mother.  Times are tough and her father’s lingering cough and lack of another male in the household necessitate Leah mucking out the stalls, hunting for fresh meat, and helping her mother with the daily chores.  Leah’s father “Lucky” Westfall has a small store of gold that is parceled out sparingly to help support the family.  The secret that the family keeps is Leah’s ability to divine gold; her witchy-sense directs her to the precious mineral found deep in the earth.  Her best friend is half-Irish, half-Cherokee, Jefferson.  With a mean drunk father, Jefferson grasps an opportunity to escape and head West in the quest for gold and asks Leah to go with him.  But, she is reluctant to leave her family and the home that she loves.

Although the family lives poorly, someone else has sensed the bag of gold dust hidden under the cabin and Leah returns home one evening to discover her mother and father murdered and the gold missing.  At the funeral, Leah learns that her Uncle Hiram has inherited the homestead; estranged from her father, her uncle welcomes her into her own home with warmth.  But there is a deeper purpose to Hiram’s attention and Leah soon realizes that he knows about her ability and wants to control it.

Dressing as a boy and sneaking her beloved horse Peony and her father’s gun out of the house, Leah becomes Lee and flees West.  Along the way, she is robbed, works on a flatboat on the Tennessee River, reconnects with Jefferson, and joins a wagon train heading West.  The adventure, the struggles, and danger have only begun as the group travels toward the rich, fertile California life . . . and gold.

Book Commentary:
When I picked up this book, I had no idea it was a young adult book.  The depth of characters, historical details, and intricacies of the plot make this a very engaging and exciting story.  At the front of the book is a map of the United States that shows the journey that Leah takes.  As she faces hardship and loss, her depth of character and her self-reliance grows.  She is a fantastic literary role model for young girls, and there is a wonderful blend of fact and fiction, adventure and reality, magic and mystery that would entice any reluctant reader.

In the author’s note, Rae Carson describes herself as a writer of “adventure, magic, and smart girls who make (mostly) smart choices.”  Leah is admirable but believable.

There are a number of secondary characters who help the story along but this is essentially Leah’s tale.  Her magical ability to divine gold is referenced but is often not used as the primary purpose of finding gold.  The story ends with a hint that this won’t be the case in the future.

Who might like this book:
In addition to having a strong female protagonist, this story presents a realistic fictional account of the trek across the country for the Gold Fields of California.  It presents history in a dynamic and appealing story.  This would be a great fictional read to accompany a study of the United States in the 1840’s.  I’ve always felt that history truly can come alive through believable stories of the time period.

I think this book is very appropriate for middle grades and up.  As a woman, Leah is very naïve and presents her views of the world around her in an innocent way.  There is a little romance and a bit of violence, but the reader views everything through Leah’s naïve perspective.  Two other books follow in the Gold Seer Trilogy: Like a River Glorious and Into the Bright Unknown. I enjoyed the first book immensely and look forward to continuing with the series.

The Battle of Hackham Heath

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Title:  The Battle of Hackham Heath (Ranger’s Apprentice: The Early Years 2)
Author:  John Flanagan
Publisher:  Philomel
Publication Date:  2016
ISBN:  978-0-399-16362-6

Book Summary:
Although Morgarath has been discredited to many and escaped treason by hiding out in the Mountains of Rain and Night, the kingdom of Araluen has not found peace.  King Duncan ascends to the throne after the abdication of his father.  King Oswald never fully recovered from his capture and mistreatment by Morgarath as he attempted to discredit the King and his future lineage to the throne.  Duncan is young, but fair, and his experiences have made him cautious and intelligent.  Unfortunately, not all the Barons are able to comprehend Morgarath’s deceit and some of them have chosen to align themselves with the fugitive.  Also, under Morgarath’s previous control, the Rangers, a group of skilled archers who have perfected the art of unseen movement, were disbanded and discredited.  As the eyes and ears of the kingdom, the Rangers are essential for securing peace and maintaining trust and honor for the new King.

Crowley, the Ranger Commandant, and his fellow Ranger Halt, were instrumental in restoring Duncan’s right to the throne.  Now they work together to reform and rebuild the Ranger Corp as they are ever vigilant about the happenings and mutterings in the Kingdom.  When a rumor starts about Morgarath’s building of an army, Halt braves the treacherous Three Step Pass to spy on the exiled Baron.  Three Step Pass is the only access to the Mountains of Rain and Night and is heavily guarded.  Halt’s climbing ability serves him well as he ascends the steep cliff side.  What he discovers is horrifying.  Morgarath has found a way to enslave and command an ancient group of creatures – the Wargals.  Part bear, part beast, these savage, simple-minded creatures will follow the order to kill to its culmination, or perish trying.  Araluen’s weakened defenses and army have no recourse against these terrifying monsters.

In addition to dealing with the uncertainty of Morgarath’s next move toward impending war and the unease in the kingdom, King Duncan does have one bit of joy in his life.  He has married the beautiful Lady Rosalind and she now carries the heir to the throne.  The stakes in this battle have been raised and the future of the kingdom and its rulers lies with the Rangers and their king as they must fight against an unrelenting foe.

Book Commentary:
Sigh.  This is one of those series that makes me so happy!  John Flanagan fans will not be disappointed.  The same attention to detail, witty humor and banter, and enduring characters are present as in all of his books.  Flanagan truly is a master storyteller; his description and focus on detail create true pictures in the reader’s mind while still finding just the right balance of action and exposition.

In some ways, I feel that this book is written for the fans, as we learn the answers to some questions that have plagued readers throughout the series: questions about Duncan’s wife, the discovery of the Wargals, Halt’s early relationship with Lady Pauline, and Halt’s future apprentices.  The dry and wonderful banter between Halt and Crowley and Halt and Abelard are truly at their finest.  A delightful book throughout that I finished in a single day.

Who might like this book:
I have said this before, but really, there is no better way to explain this:  This is a book for all ages, but you MUST . . . seriously, I won’t talk to you ever again if you don’t . . . read the entire series in order.  It is kind of like the Star Wars saga: read the books in the order that they were written, not in chronological order.

The Ranger’s Apprentice Series in Order:
Book 1:  The Ruins of Gorlan
Book 2:  The Burning Bridge
Book 3:  The Icebound Land
Book 4:  The Battle for Skandia
Book 5:  The Sorcerer of the North
Book 6:  The Siege of Macindaw
Book 7:  Erak’s Ransom
Book 8:  The Kings of Clonmel
Book 9:  Halt’s Peril
Book 10:  The Emperor of Nihon-Ja
Book 11:  The Lost Stories
Book 12:  The Royal Ranger

The Ranger’s Apprentice: The Early Years
Book 1:  The Tournament at Gorlan
Book 2:  The Battle of Hackham Heath

Additionally, John Flanagan wrote (and is still writing) a spin-off series to the Ranger’s Apprentice that focuses on Skandia.  Those books have some overlap to characters and settings to the original series.

Brotherband Chronicles
Book 1:  The Outcasts
Book 2:  The Invaders
Book 3:  The Hunters
Book 4:  Slaves of Socorro
Book 5:  Scorpion Mountain
Book 6:  Ghostfaces

These Shallow Graves

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Title:  These Shallow Graves
Author:  Jennifer Donnelly
Publisher:  Random House Teens
Publication Date:  2015
ISBN:  978-0-385-73766-1

Book Summary:
Josephine Montfort is of the New York Montforts, and that means Miss Sparkwell’s School for Young Ladies, balls and galas, and finding a suitable husband.  It does not mean writing school newspaper stories about the abuses of young girls in the textile mills.  Even in 1890, after Nellie Bly’s exposés, true journalism is not an opportunity open to Jo.  However, when Jo’s father dies from an accident while cleaning his gun, her world crumbles.  Her mother descends into a depression and Jo is all but cooped up in the house of mourning.

When a chance opportunity occurs for her to deliver an item bequest in his will, Jo jumps at the prospect of visiting one of her late father’s holdings, the Standard, a city newspaper.  In awe of the bustle and excitement of the newspaper, Jo overhears the shocking accusation that her father’s death wasn’t an accident; it was suicide.  Overwhelmed by grief and confusion, Jo searches her father’s study for some indication of rationale and finds her father’s agenda.  Questioning of her uncle reveals that the cause of death was suicide but Jo continues to search for more answers.  The further she delves into the mystery, the more uncertain the facts become until Jo realizes that her father’s death wasn’t an accident or suicide; it was murder.

With the help of a scrappy ace reporter, a talented pickpocket, and a budding forensic doctor, Jo stretches out further from the home and life she has known and faces a new, sometimes exhilarating and sometimes terrifying, world.  The question is how much of her old life is she willing to let go and how much does she not want to return to.  The stakes of status, honor, and integrity are high but the threats to her sanity and life may be even greater.

Book Commentary:
I’ve read a few of Jennifer Donnelly’s adult books and enjoyed them, but this mystery book really caught my attention.  It is a young adult book but is unique in that it is a true historical mystery; mystery books are a rarity among young adult fiction.  Although I could see where the plot was going, I enjoyed how the author showed the growth of experience and knowledge in the young protagonist.  The concept of a young girl from a well-to-do family exploring the seedier side of the world is not a new one; what makes this story a bit unique is her clear awareness of both sides of life.  She realizes what sacrifices must be made on both sides while still maintaining a realistic naivety and open-eyed outlook on the world.

I found the book to be very enjoyable and I loved the gothic feel.  Amazon recommends the book for 9th grade and up and I think that is appropriate.  Although there is no sex, references and discussions are made in a youthful questioning and reflective way.  As the character learns what a brothel is, what it entails, and what it means for girls less privileged that she, the innocence is almost heart-breaking.

Who might like this book:
My daughter and I have had numerous discussions about the dearth of good young adult mysteries – historical or not – that don’t involve vampires, dystopian societies, or sappy emotions.  I think this book is a refreshing change and one that adults – both young and old – may enjoy.

The Hired Girl

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Title:  The Hired Girl
Author:  Laura Amy Schlitz
Publisher:  Candlewick Press
Publication Date:  2015
ISBN:  978-0-7636-7818-0

Book Summary:
When fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs’ mother dies, Joan must leave school and remain at home to tend to the house and farm for her brothers and father in Pennsylvania.  Devastated at leaving her beloved teacher Miss Chandler and Miss Chandler’s library of books, Joan finds some comfort in the beautiful journal that Miss Chandler gives to her.  Joan promises to write in her journal “with truth and refinement.”  Thus begins her journal in the summer in 1911.

Unfortunately, truth and refinement are challenging to find when she is cleaning the house, cooking the meals, and tending the farm; her brothers and father view her as servant more than a daughter and scoff at her interest in books and learning.  Joan dreams of being a hired girl; where she might wear clean clothing, earn six dollars a week, be able to purchase books of her own, and have a future far away from the monotony and servitude of her current situation.

When her father frightens off Miss Chandler who has come to visit, Joan chooses to strike in an effort to earn some small amount of money for herself.  This exercise proves disastrous and when Joan’s father does the unthinkable, she has no choice but to run.

Life in Philadelphia is a far cry from the muck and dirt of the farm, but there are still dangers.  Through a somewhat comic but heart-wrenching ordeal, Joan is able to find a place in the home of a Jewish family.  Although her own faith is Catholic, Joan strives to find her way in the world and become the woman her mother had always hoped she would be.

Book Commentary:
What a magnificent story!  Author Laura Amy Schlitz won a Newbery Medal for her book Good Master! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, which is also fantastic.  The details about Jewish life in the early 20th century add so much depth to the story and contrasts with Joan’s innocent look at her own faith.  The lessons and acceptance that she learns resonate in our own current society.  But religion and faith are just a small part of this story.  Through the details about early 20th century life and beliefs told from a young girl’s perspective, the reader truly gets a sense of her growing up and facing both the joys and heartaches of life.

The author was inspired to write this book by her own grandmother’s journal and the reader can see it is a labor of love.  The novel is written in journal form, but with more structure and depth than is sometimes seen in modern journal writing.

The other fascinating part of the book is that each major section of the journal has a coversheet with a work of art and the title of the artwork is the title of the chapter.  I think this would be a fascinating novel to teach and to meld the story with the history of the time period and an analysis of the artwork.  What a great writing assignment for students to choose a piece of art that represents a time in their own lives.

Who might like this book:
Although technically a young adult book, this novel really can be appreciated at all ages.  I think it would be a wonderful book to use in a book group with members of different backgrounds.  Followers of the Jewish faith and followers of the Catholic faith could reflect on the prejudices, stereotypes, and commonalities of the two religions.  Grandmothers and granddaughters could discuss how different and similar the hardships and dreams are of both the past and present.

A wonderful, entertaining, and inspiring read!

The Ghostfaces

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Title:  The Ghostfaces (Brotherband 6)
Author:  John Flanagan
Publisher:  Philomel
Publication Date:  2016
ISBN:  978-0-399-16357-9

Book Summary:
Hal and the rest of the Heron crew have just departed Castle Dun Kilty in Clonmel after securing King Sean’s signature on the treaty renewal between Clonmel and Skandia.  Such missions are common for Hal and his crew, as the ship and the crew are fast and reliable.  However, as the crew sets out for home, they encounter a terrible storm.  Thrown adrift and moving further and further from land, the ship and its crew are tossed about for eight days.  When the skies finally clear, Hal realizes that he has no idea where he is and their water supply is in serious danger of running out.  In an effort to save his ship and his crew, Hal sets course out into the uncharted waters of the Endless Sea, from where no sailor has ever returned.

As the crew is about to lose all hope, land is sighted.  A river is found and the crew sails upstream to find a seemingly uninhabited land full of fresh water, plenty of game to hunt, and a sandy beach on which to make repairs.  As Lydia is out hunting, she makes two very surprising discoveries.  One is that a very large bear is roaming the forest, and two is that there is evidence of other humans.  The crew encounters the bear in the woods and again when it attacks their camp.  When it comes back again, the crew finds that it has chased two small children up a tree.  Using a secret weapon on the Heron, the crew kills the bear and the children escape unharmed.

Soon, Mohegas, leader of the Mawagansett people, comes to the camp to offer friendship and appreciation for the crew’s defeat of the bear and rescue of the children.  The Heron crew is shocked to discover that the Mawagansett people speak in the common tongue until they meet Orvik Eelcatcher, a Skandian who was deserted on the island when his ship was lost in a storm twelve years prior.  As the crew and the Mawagansett people join together for food and fellowship, a common friendship and appreciation is formed.  The land, though primitive of weapons and transportation, seems idyllic.

But, not all is perfect.  The Mawagansett people are haunted by the attacks of the fierce Ghostface tribe from the north.  Every few years, they come destroy the crops, kill the villagers, and burn the community, and it is soon evident that they are on the warpath again.  In the past, the woefully outnumberd and peaceful Mawagansett people have hidden and allowed their homes to be destroyed, but this time they have Skandian warriors on their side.  Will that be enough to defeat this violent and brutal tribe?

Book Commentary:
So . . . you know how much I love John Flanagan books!  Finished this one in one sitting!!!  The Brotherband series is a spin-off of the Ranger’s Apprentice Series that focuses on a young crew of Skandian sailors.  Although there are a few crossovers of characters and it is the same universe as Ranger’s Apprentice, the Brotherband series focuses on the lives and customs of the Skandian people.  I admit when I read the first two books, I enjoyed them but they didn’t hold the same appeal for me as the Ranger’s Apprentice.  By the end of book 3 however, I was just as hooked on these and I think this book 6 might be the best yet.

Coupled with John Flanagan’s amazing creation of a world and realistic, descriptive details, these stories follow a crew of misfit sailors who come together to truly create a team and a family.  As a sailor, I appreciate the nautical explanations and adventures, but Flanagan uses such amazing detail that even someone unfamiliar with sailing can truly visualize what is happening.  I also enjoyed his lush description of the new land and its inhabitants.

The characters of Hal, Stig, Thorn, Lydia, Stephan, Jesper, Ulf, Wulf, and Kloop continue to grow and develop as both individuals and as a crew.  I enjoy how each is truly a unique personality and that characterization is very evident throughout the story.  Ranger’s Apprentice fans will enjoy references to old favorite characters and familiar places.

On a side note, this is my 100th blog post; how fitting that it should be one of my favorite authors!

Who might like this book:
It is not necessary to have read the Ranger’s Apprentice series first, but seriously, why wouldn’t you???  Great series for all ages; truly John Flanagan is my favorite author!  I know that I have said this before, but you MUST . . . seriously, I won’t talk to you ever again if you don’t . . . read the entire series in order.

The Ranger’s Apprentice Series in Order:
Book 1:  The Ruins of Gorlan
Book 2:  The Burning Bridge
Book 3:  The Icebound Land
Book 4:  The Battle for Skandia
Book 5:  The Sorcerer of the North
Book 6:  The Siege of Macindaw
Book 7:  Erak’s Ransom
Book 8:  The Kings of Clonmel
Book 9:  Halt’s Peril
Book 10:  The Emperor of Nihon-Ja
Book 11:  The Lost Stories
Book 12:  The Royal Ranger

Brotherband Chronicles
Book 1:  The Outcasts
Book 2:  The Invaders
Book 3:  The Hunters
Book 4:  Slaves of Socorro
Book 5:  Scorpion Mountain
Book 6:  The Ghostfaces

The Ranger’s Apprentice: The Early Years
Book 1:  The Tournament at Gorlan
Book 2: The Battle at Hackham Heath (Coming November 29, 2016)!!!!

Beastly Bones

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Title:  Beastly Bones (Jackaby 2)
Author:  William Ritter
Publisher:  Algonquin
Publication Date:  2015
ISBN:  978-1-61620-354-2

Book Summary:
Abigail Rook is settling in nicely as Jackaby’s assistant; granted, it is like being an assistant to a brilliant, but a bit mad, detective.  Life in New Fiddleham, New England is full of supernatural events, including some shape-shifters who disguise themselves as adorable kittens.  When their owner is murdered, Jackaby quickly wonders if this an isolated incident.  Soon after, Jackaby and Abigail are called to assist Policeman Charlie Cane on a strange case of missing dinosaur bones in nearby Gad’s Valley, and Jackaby is certain there is a link.

Abigail throws herself whole-heartedly into the case, as her father is a famous dinosaur expert, and she has followed his digs closely.  Her knowledge though is quickly called into question by Lewis Lamb, another dinosaur hunter who is egotistical and opinionated.  He and his former associate, Owen Horner, have a difference of opinion on dig procedures, bone identification, and just about everything else.  To complicate matters even more, Hugo Brisbee, the owner of the land where the bones are found, wants a piece of the action as well.

When the bones go missing, there is an uproar; however, their reappearance is even more confusing.  Mix in a very nosy reporter, a cunning and avid hunter, and Charlie Cane, who has secrets himself, and Abigail fears she is unprepared for what might happen.  When Jackaby confirms the identity of the bones themselves, Abigail knows that this adventure will be like nothing ever seen before in the paleontology field.

Book Commentary:
I thoroughly enjoyed the first Jackaby book and was very excited for the second installment.  As I previously noted, the stories feel like a Sherlock Holmes meets Doctor Who; however, there was a bit of a Harry Potter creature element in this second story.  I will admit that I found the story a little slow to start; there were a lot of seemingly unrelated characters and events.  I think the author made the reader feel a bit like Abigail by wondering how everything fit together.  Then, the reader hits a point not quite halfway through the novel, when the author sinks in his hook.  I speed through the rest of story with anticipation and rapture.

Abigail is an extremely likable character and I enjoyed how we got a bit more of her backstory.  I liked the references to her parents and hope that future books will provide even more depth.  We also see a bit of a budding, though unconventional, relationship building between Abigail and Charlie.  I am curious to see how that might work out.  Jackaby is once again an enigmatic character; a bit of his own history is revealed as well, but the reader really isn’t sure how much to believe.

The teaser in the final chapter hints of future adventures for Abigail and Jackaby and a quest to understand the history of another important character.  I look forward to what the author has in store for us!

Who might like this book:
Although a “young adult” book, I really feel that all ages will enjoy it.  I think this is a great story to engage reluctant middle school readers as well; there is just enough gore, suspense, and quirkiness that will keep any reader engaged.