Archive for the ‘Survival’ category

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

June 24th, 2013

If you read my Steelheart review, you’ll remember that one thing I loved about it was that the dystopian government took on such a different look that it was refreshing.

Under the Never Sky does not do that. It’s still a crazy government that does not want its secrets to get out to the public and the super technological control (I mean, the domes of Logan’s Run are back) is justified to keep the order. Okay, I get it. I loved it when The Giver did that (or, more accurately, Fahrenheit 451.) The villain is the same, just with a different name.

That being said, I like the world that Rossi has created. People out in the wild have developed enhanced powers revolving around one sense. Some people can see like falcons, others can smell like wolves (you know, they have a sensitive nose – they don’t actually give off canine odors). Trying to figure out which character had which enhanced sense was part of the fun.

The narrative alternates between two protagonists that have distinct voices, so Rossi did well with that. The male protagonist was a bit too angsty for me, a tortured anti-hero rebel with a hidden heart of gold (translate: dangerous yet safe, like the “bad boy” from a boy band) but I’m guessing that I’m not the target demographic.

When it comes down to it, though, it was an enjoyable read, albeit formulaic, and I’m interested in reading the sequel.

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

June 20th, 2013

A few years back I asked students to interview their families about their experiences when the family members were teenagers. One student from Cambodia started the interview with his dad only to have it interrupted quickly with a somber, “You don’t want to know.”

I found out that my student’s father had survived the Killing Fields of Pol Pot, a violent dictator that led Cambodia in the 1970’s. The Khmer Rouge came to power and murdered anyone who didn’t agree with them or fit with their racial plan for the world. This was the 1970’s, a generation after World War II and the Nazis, and yet genocide was still happening (as it is in other parts of the world even today).

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick tells the story of Arn, a young boy caught in the violence of a country in upheaval. McCormick does a phenomenal job with taking very, very serious topics – topics that have such a huge scope – and making them accessible to audiences that otherwise may not have known (let alone related to) the issues in her books. Protagonist Arn is someone you can connect with as he experiences the sorrow of being separated from his family, the terror as he tries to survive in the Cambodian jungle, and the remorse as he is drafted into the Khmer Rouge army.

The serious tone is not overwhelming to the point of depressing, though, because there are glimmers of hope throughout the narrative. Even in the worst circumstances, people are reaching beyond themselves to take risks for what they know is right and to help fellow strangers. Arn expresses the full range of emotions, reminding the reader of humanity in the midst of tragedy. It’s so expertly done by McCormick that it just seems natural.

One thing that really caught my attention was McCormick’s diligence with Arn’s grammar. As he’s telling the story in English and not Khmer, his word choice reflects a grammar sometimes found in non-native speakers. McCormick’s linguistic rendering is impressive in its accuracy and yet readability.

Never Fall Down, a title that has so many connotations throughout the story, is a perfect gift to the real-life Arn Chorn-Pond. The man has gone on to found the Cambodian Living Arts foundation to preserve the amazing culture that could have been lost when 2 million people died (25% of the people in a population of 8 million) during the Khmer Rouge rule. Yes, the book deals with harsh stuff, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is one that will stick with me. Just like Cambodian Living Arts preserves a nation’s culture, Never Fall Down will preserve Arn’s story. It’s one that I’m backing for the Grand Canyon Reader Award.

Fear by Michael Grant

November 27th, 2012

At its core, Michael Grant’s Gone series is about children transitioning into adulthood – and, you know, superpowers and horrific monsters and all that. That theme of transition carries through to the very last page of Fear and it’s done very well. Yes, the story is action-packed and suspenseful, but it’s the tough life situations that the characters grapple with that floors me.

When we transition from our teen years into adulthood, we look at what we’ve been taught all our lives and then form our own opinions and beliefs. Multiple characters in Fear go through this process and are stuck at different stages. That developmental dissonance does get edgy, though, since the same doubts and fears that the characters have are ones that students have and it may hit a little too close to home – or, on the positive, provide a voice for students who may not have someone to talk about with these issues.

I can’t say much more about the plot because that would ruin the great endings of the other books in the series, but I will say that there is a countdown again in this book and I am impressed with how Michael Grant can pull off a satisfying, climactic ending each time and yet keep it pretty free of clichés (even though you know there’s going to be a super-powered brawl at the end of each).

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

May 9th, 2012

This matches up extremely well with Lost Boy, Lost Girl to compare fiction and nonfiction about the Second Sudanese Civil War. While Linda Sue Park says this is fiction, she does mention how closely she based it on the real Salva Dut’s life. Like in Lost Boy, Lost Girl, the depiction of human perseverance in spite of horrible circumstances is amazing.

The really cool part about Long Walk is that it has an interwoven story from 2009 with an update on how southern Sudan is doing. What I love is that Salva Dut, just like John Bul Dau, hasn’t just enjoyed his time in the United States; he has gone on to found Water for South Sudan, an organization to install wells for clean water. Go check them out.

Lost Boy, Lost Girl by John Bul Dau and Martha Arual Akech

February 14th, 2011

Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan is a nonfiction retelling of two people’s escape from war-torn Sudan.

Civil war has been going off and on in Sudan since the 1950s. In the early 80s, though, violence intensified and millions of Sudanese people were removed from their homes (the death toll from the fighting is two million). Two kids that fled were John and Martha. Both were separated from their parents and had to rely on the kindness of others to survive.

The book alternates between those two narrators. What makes their story that much more compelling is that they don’t exaggerate their story to make it more exciting. There are no embellishments, just straight facts. In one chapter, John describes what it’s like to choose to swim in a river infested with crocodiles because men in Jeeps are shooting at the refugee children. Martha describes life on miles worth of road as she takes care of her three year-old sister. Martha was six at the time.

Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan is a necessary read. Not only is it informative, but it is challenging. As much as we hear complaints about the United States, it was encouraging to hear both refugees say, “We need to get to America” to try and start a new life. That safe-haven is a reminder of what makes the United States such a great place to live.

John Dau is now an activist for health care in Sudan and has his own foundation that set up a clinic to help the people of his hometown. You can click here to learn more.

Lies by Michael Grant

August 18th, 2010

Lies is the third book in the Gone series. (Check out my thoughts on Gone and Hunger to catch you up to speed.)

The whole series has so many characters already (sometimes I get confused who is Brittney and who is Brianna), but usually Sam is the main focus. In this one, he pulls a Superman and retreats in angst and leaves everyone else to pick up the pieces. We finally start to see Astrid and Albert step up as leaders. The council takes action, but who gives those kids the authority? Great stuff that earns the series the comparison to Lord of the Flies.

The only thing that drives me nuts is the grammar. Usually I’m not too big of a language snob, but some of the sentences run on into ambiguity. I’m still trying to figure out if he does this to match the style of the character or if they’re legitimate errors. Not a big deal, but it’s noticeable.

The action is still there and doesn’t become tired. Grant finds new ways for the kids of Perdido beach to use their powers. A theme that we’ve seen in other novels is humans vs. mutants, freaks vs. normals. It’s done well in Lies and is a logical progression of the chaos.

Like always, the countdown is appreciated and adds to the tension. Lies is definitely a continuation of a series and doesn’t resolve too much, but it’s still an enjoyable read.

Only the Good Spy Young by Ally Carter

July 4th, 2010

I finished Heist Society a few minutes before 2010 began, so it’s fitting that I finish Only the Good Spy Young on July 4.

Ally’s writing keeps getting better with each book, which is something that I’ve mentioned in other reviews. She’s not a slacker author and works to make each installment of the series memorable. I keep saying, “This one’s my favorite” only to have the next one be my favorite.

Only the Good Spy Young will answer a lot of your questions. But, like with any decent covert operation, with more answers comes more questions. Zach does return, so I know my girls at school will be excited. A new staff member at Gallagher shows up: Agent Townsend, a member of MI6 (you know, like James Bond and Alex Rider). He adds his fair share of complications and leaves you wondering if he’s there to help Cammie or not.

Anyone who has talked with me for an extended length of time knows that I cheer for the villains in any story. It’s a strong villain that brings out the hero’s qualities and tempts them to compromise what they believe in (see also Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight). The Circle of Cavan returns. We find out that their connections reach deep into the CIA and other clandestine organizations.

Cammie doesn’t know who to trust and it’s for this main reason that I love the series. Junior high and high school students are surrounded daily by situations that break their trust. The books frame that dilemma in a spy context. It’s also during junior high and high school that we start to view our parents as real people and not idealized portraits. Cammie is searching for what happened to her father. Throughout her adventure she sees good and bad examples of parents (a moment where she chats with Bex’s father was so simple and yet so awesome) and tries to make sense of her situation.

The boy trouble returns. These two quotes sum up how Cammie has regular teen drama on top of life-and-death situations:

“I didn’t know whether to hug him or hit him (a feeling that I frequently associate with Blackthorne Boys, to tell you the truth)”

“‘He’s a guy, Cam.’ Macey pushed past me and led the way down the hall. ‘And a spy. He’s a guy spy. There’s always going to be something he’s not telling.'”

Readers are able to realize that other people are struggling with the same issues they are and that they are not weird. Cammie has a believable balance between confidence and doubt. She is maturing, though. Gone are the training missions. Every time the Gallagher Girls take on a mission now, it’s a risk.

I remember a conversation I had with Ally when she visited my library (librarians, you need to have her come talk with your students!). I told her how I love spy stories and how there’s a prerequisite for helicopters. Only the Good Spy Young met my helicopter quota. Something else I mentioned, though, was that I respect any YA author who can threaten her characters. Many times there’s too much suspension of disbelief.

I appreciated Mikaelsen’s Touching Spirit Bear because when Cole tries to stab a bear, he gets worked over. Moral of the story? Don’t stab bears. When spies are in the field, there’s a decent chance of them being captured, tortured, and shot. Saying anything more will reveal too much plot from Only the Good Spy Young.

Students, you might want to buy the book on your own. I will have multiple copies, but I can tell you that there will be a wait list. If you are new to the series, I recommend starting with Love You, Kill You. You’ll appreciate the growth of the characters and the depth of what being a Gallagher Girl means.

Ally, keep ’em coming. I’m excited for senior year.

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

June 7th, 2010

During the last week of school I finished Incarceron by Catherine Fisher. It’s a blending of sci-fi and fantasy elements. Part of the plot takes place inside a living prison, complete with HAL-9000 red eyes stalking the characters’ every move. Part of the plot exists in Protocol, a forced culture shift backwards to a simpler time where people solved their problems through stabbings and poison like civilized people.

Finn lives in the prison but there are rumors that he is a starseer, someone who has actually seen the outside world. Claudia is the daughter of the prison’s warden and needs to make contact to someone inside the prison so she can avoid an arranged marriage.

The general plot points of the book don’t take too many risks. There’s no real deviation from the standard “I’m just a simple boy” “No, you’re the Chosen One” (Galileo Figero!) fantasy arc. Where Incarceron does keep your attention, though, is in its characters.

I think there’s something wrong with me. I always cheer for the villains in epic stories. Darth Vader doesn’t deserve all the bad press he gets.

The character I rooted for in the prison was the gang leader. Catherine Fisher does a great job describing him. I could picture him sitting on his throne with his food taster chained nearby, much like Jabba the Hutt. Add the villain’s superstition that he holds people’s souls in his rings and you have me intrigued.

Finn has a counter-part, Keiro. He’s Finn’s oathbrother but you never know if he’s going to betray his best friend when the opportunity arises. Keiro is uber-overconfident and struts around Incarceron as if he owns the place. Any scene with him usually has conflict and grabs your attention.

The plot does try to surprise with some character reveals of the “Oh. The hermit was actually a hero the whole time” variety, but you can see it coming. Towards the very end, though, the characters call each other by multiple names, signifying everyone’s hidden identity. It could have been the fact that I was reading during the last week of school, so there’s a potential I had temporary memory loss, but the end seemed a little confusing. It doesn’t take away from the story, but I caution my students ahead of time to pay attention as you near the last third of the book so you know who’s who.

It’s an enjoyable book that falls into the Hunger Games/Maze Runner Kids Being Stalked in an Enclosed Arena genre of fiction. If you liked those books, you should pick up Incarceron. You won’t be disappointed.

And yes, like any good YA fiction, it seems, we need a series. Book two, Sapphique, comes out this December.

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

September 21st, 2009

I started this book at the end of the previous school year and continued into the summer, but I had to stop for a while. The book was stressing me out.

Life As We Knew It involves the moon getting hit by an asteroid. At first everyone goes out to celebrate the event but then people start to realize that life is going to change.

The moon gets knocked out of its current orbit. It’s still going around the Earth but is now a little closer. That shift in gravity affects the weather, tides, and even volcanoes. The first part of the book has the feel of a disaster movie.

The second half, though, surprised me. Shops start shutting down, food starts running out, and protagonist Miranda must work hard at collecting enough supplies to last an indefinite winter.

It shares some similarities to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books, gathering firewood and tending to the stove, all apart from the rest of the world.

During the scenes where characters are limited to one small section of the house, the story resembles the Diary of Anne Frank. Sickness, starvation, and an insane frustration with others threatens Miranda’s family at each turn.

It’s a good story that stands on its own, but it especially works as a bridge to other novels for the Language Arts/English classroom.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

June 16th, 2009

What’s the toughest part about Hunger Games? After finishing it, the next book that I read just doesn’t have as much grab for me.

I wonder if that’s a problem for Suzanne Collins. As I talked with students and staff about what to expect with Catching Fire, we had no clue how the author would follow up such a great story.

Now I can’t figure which one’s my favorite.

We knew that there would be rebellion. There’s no way that Capitol officials would let Katniss’ act of defiance go unnoticed. In the first book it is made very clear that Panem resembles Ancient Rome, hosting the games to crush the spirits of the rebels by crushing their kids.

Book two starts out with Katniss on a victory tour. The haunting President Snow warns her that her actions affect more than herself, a poorly veiled threat that her family is in danger unless districts are calmed down into obedience.

While people hold on to a strand of hope, they can still fight.

Katniss has been swept up in events larger than herself and has become the face of the resistance. In this way it keeps with characteristics of a successful YA book: a protagonist that ends up on her own and must figure out who she is, what she truly stands for, as forces push her from all sides.

I’ll be honest: in the first book, I cheered when the games started. I couldn’t put the book down once we had seen the tributes standing on the platforms in the minefield. I stayed up until the early morning, finishing the book and many caffeinated beverages.

In Catching Fire, seeing people thrown into the Games sickened me. I was literally distressed for the characters and angry at Panem’s injustice. I couldn’t stand the Capitol citizens’ compliance with how things were being run.

I have a renewed sense of social activism after reading the book. Seeing food so readily available, with Capitol socialites purposely vomiting so that they could gorge on more, reminded me that there are so many hungry people out there, in our country and others. We need to take action to help our fellow humans – and we’re running out of time.

If there’s one theme repeated throughout the book, it’s that your own mortality is a countdown. We have limited time. Katniss realizes what her goal is and is in a race to meet that goal before her life is snuffed out. She sees the other victors for who they are, as people scarred from the previous Games, people who need compassion but have been dehumanized for society’s entertainment. (One of the victors paints his nightmares from the Games. He has not slept a solid night since being thrown into the arena.)

Pretty challenging stuff for a teen book. But what Suzanne Collins does extremely well is take issues like social concern and mortality and blend it with an engaging, action-packed story. It’s a story that junior high and high school students can connect with, as evidenced by my students constantly having this book on a wait list.

When September 1 comes around, make sure you grab a copy (or four) to continue one of my favorite series. With book two, we knew that there would be rebellion. Book three is scheduled to wrap up the trilogy – I think I have a clue as to what will happen next, but I know that Suzanne Collins will blow away my expectations.