Saturday, July 8, 2017

Ranger's Apprentice Roundup

Worth a read for any fan of medieval fantasy in the vein of King Arthur or Lord of the Rings. There actually isn't any sorcery, but in my reading of the books, I just imagine Halt to be a sort of shorter and smaller version of Strider.

Also, a tip: If you want to read the books chronologically, after Book 4, read Book 7, and then go back to Books 5 and 6! There is an Author's Note in Book 7 explaining how he realized after the fact that he should have filled in the period of time between Books 4 and 5.

Halt's Peril (Ranger's Apprentice #9) by John Flanagan

★★★

*** Warning: This review contains spoilers! ***

This book is like the "Part 2" conclusion to The Kings of Clonmel.

First, there were a number of things I liked in this book. I liked the camaraderie shared by Will, Halt, and Horace, and I even liked the continued references to Halt's aging, which made clear the idea of him passing on the Ranger torch to Will. I also really enjoyed the appearance of Malcolm.

Unfortunately, there were also things that irked me in this book. Some of the descriptions seemed to go on too long, almost like the author was just purposefully trying to stretch out the book. I noticed this most during the scene in which Will and Halt were walking into the Genovesans' ambush. I got impatient thinking, "Yes, okay, I get it! They are slow and careful as they make their way through the forest, they have to stay quiet and out of sight. I get it, already, I get it! Just get on with the story!"

On the opposite end of the spectrum, at one point I was anxiously awaiting an upcoming scene, which ended up being excluded entirely! As Will raced towards Malcolm, I was looking forward to reading about Will's unexpected arrival, and how Malcolm and his band of people would react to seeing Will again. I was disappointed when the book just leap-frogged over that event.

Mostly, I was bothered that people seemed to act out of character. After being told repeatedly that Will had an exceptionally uncanny ability to always shoot his target, it was hard to accept that Will missed the second Genovesan, when it sounded like he should have had a pretty clear shot. Later, when Will and Horace were tracking Tennyson, somehow Horace - always bumbling loudly - was suddenly able to make a decent show of moving quietly, a skill that literally took Will years to develop. Also, Horace is supposed to be the "brawn", happy to leave all the heavy thinking to the Rangers, yet Horace is the one who thought of the clever way of getting the Genovesan to tell the truth about which type of poison he used, Horace was the one who spotted the smoke confirming Tennyson's presence in the caves, and Horace was the one who came up with the idea of Halt impersonating Ferris to discredit Tennyson!

And even Tennyson himself seemed to act out of character. Once they tracked Tennyson to the caves, I just can't believe that Tennyson would not post guards outside the caves, especially since he didn't know for sure where the Genovesan, Will, and Horace were. Sure, he's arrogant, but he didn't manage to take over 5 entire kingdoms, and almost a 6th, by being sloppy.

Overall, I did enjoy the read, I think mostly because I am already a fan of the series and happy to be caught up in the characters and the world in which they live.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Kings of Clonmel (Ranger's Apprentice #8) by John Flanagan

★★½

*** Warning: This review contains spoilers!! ***

Well, I agree with Sebastien, who said this book somehow didn't seem to "fit" with the rest of the series so far. I think because the threat - a cult involving a false prophet in collusion with raiding bandits - seemed convoluted and unlikely to have actually succeeded in overtaking 5 kingdoms before finishing off Hibernia with Clonmel. It's clear that King Ferris was a weak leader, and that's why Clonmel is in such danger, but does that mean that all 5 of the other Hibernian kings were equally weak?! And if Tennyson is so much the sole leader that Halt is confident that by taking him down, the whole house of cards will fall, then how is it possible that the other 5 kings didn't manage to take back their kingdoms once Tennyson left their borders? NO ONE else in a position of power in all of Hibernia saw through the con game!? Only the Araluen Rangers were smart enough to see it and brave enough to fight it? All very hard to believe, even in this make-believe world.

Even Halt's royal past seemed a bit much.

And, I was sorely disappointed when the author seemed to make Will momentarily less intelligent than he had led us to believe. With all of Will's quick-thinking stratagems, you mean to tell me that when he was tasked to follow a Genovesan known for poisoning their victims, and when he saw that Genovesan leave Horace's tent, it didn't occur to him that he poisoned Horace's water!?!? That was just too out of character.

Horace seemed to increasingly take on a kind of comic relief role, as his constant state of hunger was a frequent joke. That, I enjoyed! Also, with his integrity and straightforwardness, Horace is perhaps becoming one of my favorite characters.

Lastly, for those who might care, towards the end of the book there is a battle scene that ends, very swiftly, with a beheading.

Overall, a slower read than others in the series, and it never really got me hooked. Still, can't wait to read the next book in the series!

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Siege of Macindaw (Ranger's Apprentice #6) by John Flanagan

★★★★½

*** Warning: This review contains spoilers! ***

A very satisfying conclusion - all loose ends tied up! - to the events that began in Book 5.

I think the author is really good at character development. He keeps Will, Horace, and Alyss interesting while also introducing all sorts of new and different characters. He even had me feeling sorry for Keren at one point!

The book was probably on track for a 5-star rating, but then I reined it in because I felt like there were some major holes in the action. When Will and Horace are hiding for hours under the upside-down cart, it just made no sense to me that the castle defenders wouldn't just walk out and physically inspect the cart after it's abandoned. Why wouldn't Keren order some men to investigate the cart, to see if there might be any hint of what kind of siege they might be planning? And when he orders the cart burned, the flaming arrows fail, so they just give up!? How lazy can you be! Why not walk down to investigate why the cart isn't burning, and then break it apart for firewood or something!?

Then there was the climactic scene when Alyss was on the verge of killing Will. Of course Will wouldn't harm Alyss, but surely Alyss isn't so skilled with a sword that Will wouldn't be able to evade or restrain Alyss, right? He's one of the best-trained Ranger's after all, and managed to avoid being killed by the Scotti general in hand-to-hand combat! I think the implication is that Keren could easily have picked up the sword and finished the job, or held Will down while Alyss struck the fatal blow. But in a book where nothing goes unsaid, and battle scenes are described in great detail, it seemed like the logistics of this scene could have been fleshed out some more.

Anyway, I loved the ending, and left the book with lots of positive feelings.

As usual, a few mild swears ("damn" and "hell") thrown around. My third-grader who is reading the series is always especially entertained when he comes across a swear word!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Sorcerer of the North (Ranger's Apprentice #5) by John Flanagan

★★★★

This book - which brings us to the small coastal fief of Seacliff, and then to the remote northern fief of Norgate - is exactly what I had wanted to read earlier in the series, when Will and Evanlyn being whisked off to Skandia derailed my enjoyment of being immersed in Araluen lore. I almost gave this book 5 stars for its pure entertainment value, but then I ended up downgrading it to 4 stars because there wasn't quite as much humor, or anything particularly remarkable, as in other books. A solid adventure and a good story, but maybe lacking that "something extra".

I don't want to give anything away, but maybe what I found most memorable about this book is the brief lesson of compassion that pops up towards the end. It was a quick glimpse, and I'm hoping we'll see more of that part of the story in the next book. This one ends on a complete cliffhanger with nothing resolved, so I'm assuming Book 6 is more like "Part 2" to this book.

Oh, and for parents previewing books for children - this book has multiple mild occurrences of "damn" or "dammit", and it also includes the word "bitch" once, but it is actually used to refer to a female dog.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Erak's Ransom (Ranger's Apprentice #7) by John Flanagan

★★★★★

Oh, I liked this book quite a bit! Isabelle and I read it as a read-aloud, maybe that added to my enjoyment.

I was tipped off by other readers that this book - Book 7 - actually chronologically follows Book 4. It says as much in the Author's Note, but you'd never know if you were just reading them in order!

Well, not to give anything away, but I loved the beginning, which delved into the personal developments in the lives of some of the main characters. The overarching theme is that Will is on the verge of becoming a full-fledged Ranger, and even though he's just about completed his apprenticeship, he doesn't feel like he's really ready to be on his own.

By now, I'm liking the idea of meeting new peoples in different parts of this world. In this installment, we meet the Arridi (reminiscent of an Arabian culture) and the Bedullin (like Bedouins). There's a bit of international intrigue here, and it's fun to see where alliances lie.

There were almost "too many" characters caught up in the main events, so frequently I'd even forget that Horace or Gilan were there, too. But that's okay. It was nice to see the whole gang together, even though they were facing danger. And I will say that even though I waver in my feelings towards Cassandra / Evanlyn, she did hold her own in this book.

As usual, I really enjoyed the author's chuckle-worthy humor!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Battle for Skandia (Ranger's Apprentice #4) by John Flanagan

★★★★★

*** Warning: This review contains spoilers! ***

This book is my favorite in the series so far!

Finally, Will and Halt are back together again! There's a battle to fight in Skandia, but ultimately we see our heroes return home to Araluen, and that's all I really wanted.

The author continues to favor "grim" and "uncanny" as his two favorite adjectives. Humor was a solid strength in this book, as Halt's small size was juxtaposed with Erak's massiveness, and the Skandians' simple tactic-less fighting was pointed out in matter-of-fact ways.

My feelings for Evanlyn continued to wax and wane; I got annoyed at her behavior, and then she'd redeem herself. I think in the back of my mind I'm always fearful that a romance will blossom between her and Will, or her and Horace, and it's one my biggest pet peeves to see an action/adventure movie get sidetracked by superfluous romance! I know we barely knew them, but I thought Alyss was meant for Will, and Jenny for Horace. I guess with Horace becoming a great knight, he's far above Jenny's station now, which is unfortunate. I'm still disappointed that we've now pretty much lost sight of Alyss, Jenny, and George, and I wonder if we'll see much of them at all in the remaining books.

I'm also still a bit indignant that King Duncan "got away" with his daughter never knowing that he completely forsook her to her fate in the hands of her Skandian captors.

Those minor quibbles aside, it was great to see Halt and Will and Horace back in all their glory. And I have to admit, I enjoyed being won over by Erak. Fine, he's the one who kidnapped Will and Evanlyn in the first place, but I guess he, too, redeemed himself after all.

Finally, just an added tip: If you want to read the books chronologically, after Book 4, read Book 7, and then go back to Books 5 and 6! There is an Author's Note in Book 7 explaining how he realized after the fact that he should have filled in the period of time between Books 4 and 5.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Icebound Land (Ranger's Apprentice #3) by John Flanagan

★★½

*** Warning: This review contains spoilers!! ***

From the very beginning, this book didn't sit well with me. I realize there's a whole world out there to explore, but I wasn't ready to leave Araluen yet. Already we're off to Skandia and Gallica, but I still wanted to read more about Celtica, the fiefs of Araluen, and even this Hibernia that was mentioned a time or two. And after Will received his hero's welcome for his role in taking down the Kalkara, I was looking forward to reading about what kind of honor and praise Horace would get for taking down Lord Morgarath himself! Alas, any recognition he may have gotten went completely unmentioned in this book.

I spent the first several chapters increasingly annoyed that Halt had to go to so much trouble to get himself banished in order to be free to search for Will. You're telling me that King Duncan was perfectly content to let his daughter suffer in the hands of the Skandians, safe in the assumption that she would be treated well and that the King would only have to pay a ransom to get her released!!? So he's just going to sit around for months and months and wait for a ransom message?! He didn't think it was worth sparing ONE RANGER to go in search of his kidnapped daughter!?

Even after I got over those two hurdles, the book just keep veering farther and farther away from what I had come to enjoy about the first two books, which were safely in the upper elementary reading range. Now, suddenly, this book jumped into the upper middle school range, with all kinds of more mature content. The Skandians keep slaves, the Gallic warlord tortured and murdered those who "displeased" him, wanton drunkenness is portrayed more than once, and there's even a case of drug addiction! It's a bit shocking - even though the addict is never truly at fault. I do have to give the author credit, though, for depicting all of the above as negative, contemptuous things that clearly contrasted with the disciplined and honorable ways of Rangers and knights.

Anyway, I kept holding out, figuring that surely the book would be redeemed when Will and Halt are reunited in the end! Alas, again, I was disappointed.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy this book at all. I liked the drama of Halt's banishment - though it seemed unbelievable that it wasn't automatically clear to everyone why Halt did what he did. And I liked that when they said their farewells, Halt, Gilan, and Crowley - hardened Rangers as they were - all teared up.

Evanlyn also grew on me, while Jarl Erak remains a conflicted character. Am I supposed to like him because he helped Will and Evanlyn escape, even though it's ALL HIS FAULT that they were enslaved in the first place!?

Well, I'll just have to read book 4, and see where all this goes...

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Burning Bridge (Ranger's Apprentice #2) by John Flanagan

★★★

*** Warning: This review contains spoilers! ***

The action continues as Will and Horace play their roles in the coming war with Morgarath.

A good continuation of the first book, with Will still eager to learn, this time mostly from Gilan, who I enjoyed getting to know. Along the way, Will picks up some good advice and interpersonal skills, much of which I hope transfers to the young readers of the book!

I thought it was a bit too easy for the titular bridge, and the tunnel behind it, to have been left unguarded. But I guess even if there had been guards, Will could have just taken them out with arrows or something.

I think my relative rating of this book as lower than my rating of the first book is mostly because this installment had an awful lot of fight scenes. I thought they were well-written - exciting and descriptive, but not gory - but I think I'm just not personally too interested in reading about the battles themselves. Also, I'm not sure yet what to make of Evanlyn. I guess I'll withhold judgment until I see how her character and story line develops.

The cliffhanger ending was quite unexpected!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Ruins of Gorlan (Ranger's Apprentice #1) by John Flanagan

★★★★

*** Warning: This review contains spoilers!! ***

The inside flap text of my library copy sums up the premise this way: it's a cross between King Arthur and Lord of the Rings. I agree! There aren't any hobbits or elves, but alongside the castles and knights and scribes, we have Rangers (in the vein of good old Strider) and powerful ancient beasts that live in the mountains and are rarely seen.

This is an entertaining beginning to a lengthy series that I am looking forward to reading. There are adventures and battles, but also some solid character development. Will, the Ranger's apprentice, was not immediately likable to me, but I warmed up to him easily enough. The author seems especially fond of the word "uncanny", which might have irked me if I wasn't such a fan of the word myself. He also throws in some light humor, good for a chuckle now and then.

While listing a bunch of shortcomings doesn't really do the book justice, my intent is to explain why I didn't just give the book 5 stars.

First, I think this book is geared towards upper elementary and middle school readers - both my 3rd grader and 5th grader are eagerly devouring the series now. The word "damn" is used just a couple times, and towards the end, the author made a comically explicit effort to make sure we readers knew that the apprentices were drinking "non-alcoholic beer...brewed from ginger root" (p. 234), instead of just calling it ginger ale or ginger beer. So, in that light, it seemed a bit unnerving that the bully storyline involved a violent resolution at the bullies' expense. Sure, it was satisfying to see the bullies get their due, but it was a bit too much of "an eye for an eye" for me. And it seemed especially odd that Halt - an adult in a position of authority - oversaw the humiliation of the bullies, rather than simply turning them over to Sir Rodney for discipline. And then, with the bullies being expelled from both the Battleschool and the fiefdom, it seemed like a loose thread being dangled - What would become of them? Where would they go? Were they contrite and willing to accept their punishment? Or would they seethe with resentment until they had a chance to exact revenge on Horace, Halt, and possibly the whole fiefdom!?

The other thing that didn't sit right with me was Gilan's complete lack of involvement in the battle against the Kalkara at the Gorland Ruins. Sure, he gives up his horse to Will - instrumental in allowing Will to seek and return with help in time - and yet, when he asked what he was supposed to do, Halt said, "Follow behind me on foot." (p. 207) Like, what? Why not ride on Halt's horse with him!? It seemed ridiculous. I get that Ranger horses are smaller than battle horses, but can they not even hold the weight of two men? In a book with no shortage of explanations of why things were happening, or how people were thinking, a little more information here would have been nice. And then - to make things worse - once the Kalkara were defeated, Gilan just rides up the next morning on a useless plow horse like, "What'd I miss? Oh, I guess I'll just go home now." I liked Gilan from the start, so it bothered me that the author didn't have Gilan return just a little earlier, to help in some way - he was one of Araluen's most skilled swordsman, after all! - and instead just made him out to be a tagalong.

Other than those two incidences, I enjoyed the book, and will surely continue the series.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Frindle by Andrew Clements

★★★

This is the second Andrew Clements book I've read, and it had a number of similarities with the first one I read, Lunch Money. Both books feature a creative and highly motivated boy who gets an interesting idea, but the implementation of the idea puts him at odds with his school. In both cases, the ending has a bit of an over-the-top factor.

I know this book is wildly popular among schoolchildren - even Isabelle names it as one of her favorite books! - and I guess I can see why. The main character Nick takes initiative in a kind of silly way, creating a fad-like movement at his school. He doesn't actually break any rules, and sort of "sticks it to the man" - the "man" being his teacher, Mrs. Granger, and her rigid ways.

I think for me, though, I am too much of a fuddy-duddy adult to appreciate what this book offers. I felt kind of annoyed at the whole situation, and I have to admit, I was impressed in the end with the way Mrs. Granger handled everything. I guess that's why she's a career teacher and I'm not!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Mysterious Benedict Society Roundup

Having something of an old-fashioned feel, this series follows four children who are uniquely gifted in very different ways. Together, under the guidance of Mr. Benedict, they help foil the evil Mr. Curtain's plans for worldwide domination.

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma by Trenton Lee Stewart

★★★

I enjoyed this book mostly because I liked spending time with the children. I feel like I know them now, and it was nice to see them getting along, and knowing each other so well. I wasn't exactly engaged in the story, though.

Up til now, the children were special because together they had a set of skills that made them cleverer than most. It's not that they were objectively smarter than others, but Reynie was especially observant, Kate was especially handy and physically adept, and Sticky had a photographic memory. Constance at first just seemed especially willful, but we eventually learned she had a kind of sixth sense. In this book, however, her talents crossed into the downright supernatural realm, and that was kind of weird.

Not much happened in the first half of the book, though the second half seemed to make up for it in the action department. Still, I constantly felt like the story was not so much unfolding in front of me, as it was being explained to me. And oftentimes, the explanations seemed convoluted or contrived.

The book did wrap things up nicely, and though I was prepared to feel sad at the end, there was a surprisingly satisfying happily ever after sort of ending.

Monday, March 6, 2017

March Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

★★★★½

Every American should read this series in order to understand the full history and current state of racism in our country. Black Lives Matter is not new. In 1964, Ella Baker gave a speech saying, "Until the killing of black mothers' sons is as important as the killing of white mothers' sons - we must keep on." (Book 3, p. 99)

March is a trilogy of graphic novels. This series is first and foremost a history of the Civil Rights Movement. Though written in the first person by John Lewis, it is not an autobiography, and we are given very little insight into John Lewis's personal relationships.

Book 1: This book sets up the model for storytelling. It is the morning of President Barack Obama's inauguration. Brief scenes of John Lewis in Washington, DC are interspersed with flashbacks as he tells stories of his childhood to constituents visiting his office early that morning. Eventually the constituents and John Lewis need to go separate ways, and the reader remains the only audience for the flashbacks. I felt this book was the most accessible in terms of being a narrative, and setting the stage of what's to come. While I knew about the main events of the Civil Rights Movement - like the lunch counter sit-ins - I really did not know, before reading this book, just how much training, preparation, and planning went into them.

Book 2: After the success of the lunch counter sit-ins, civil rights groups initiated a campaign of stand-ins to de-segregate movie theaters. But mostly this book focuses on the Freedom Rides. Again, I was familiar with the general idea, but I had much to learn. By putting themselves into life-threatening danger, participants had to apply and were extensively trained. The horrible treatment they endured is almost unthinkable, and yet, there it was, illustrated on the page. Very powerful. This book ends with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Book 3: This book is the most intense of the three, explicitly detailing the horrific events surrounding the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL (in which four young girls died), and also of Selma, AL, which I was somewhat more familiar with because of the 2014 movie. The accounts in this book make it clear that the Civil Rights Movement was an agonizing series of demonstrations, arrests, marches, beatings, and funerals. So many funerals. This book also touched upon the internal controversies within the Civil Rights Movement, including disagreements between organizations in regards to methods of protests, and disagreements within organizations in regards to the role of white people in the movement.

It's worth noting that this series is targeted for a teenage audience. Besides the physical violence depicted in the drawings, the first book uses the n-word, the second book uses the s-word, and the third book uses the f-word and makes a passing mention of sex.

While supremely important for everyone to read, I gave the book just shy of 5 stars because the delivery of names and dates at times felt text-book-like, even despite the graphic novel context. I think the graphic novel medium was a genius method for illustrating - especially to younger audiences - just how violent the Civil Rights Movement was. But even as an adult reading this trilogy, I got lost in the names, particularly in the way every person was introduced solely within their role in the Civil Rights Movement. We did not get to know the private, surely complex people behind the names, and I sometimes felt I would have gotten even more out of the books if I had actually known more about some of the other players already.

Also, the series seemed to end on a cliffhanger. As Book 3 progressed, SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) became increasingly fractured, and one of the last lines of the story is, "It was the last day of the movement as I knew it." The trilogy ends with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, three years before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. But what happened to SNCC? What happened to John Lewis, as he adapted to the changing needs of the movement? An epilogue would have been nice. Guess I'll just have to pick up an actual biography of John Lewis to find out more about the man himself!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Sheerly

★★★★★

If you liked the movie, this book is definitely worth checking out. The movie was just the tip of the iceberg that is the full true story, which is rich in culture and history.

I was hooked from the first page of the prologue, when the author revealed her own personal connection to the NASA Langley Research Center. Though the movie focused on the space race, the story of black women at NASA actually started during WWII.

As it turns out, Katherine Goble Johnson joined her group during WWII, well before the space race, and in fact, West Computing was disbanded as part of the creation of NASA. Having loved the movie, I must admit to being somewhat disappointed that many of the most memorable parts of the movie were over-dramatizations and simplifications. Still, it was easy to set aside the movie as entertainment in order to focus on the book's steady reveal of fascinating information. From beginning to end, I was constantly calling out to my husband, "Listen to this!" I learned so much about the history of NASA, day-to-day life during WWII, and even a bit about aeronautics. Most importantly, the book described scientific progress alongside social progress for blacks and women, offering context and keen insight into race relations, segregation, and how WWII helped shape the advancement of racial justice and gender equality.

This book introduces to the reader lots of interesting pieces of history all interconnected at Langley, and many notable individuals who helped shape that history, from black computers and white computers to black professors and white engineer allies. Perhaps a bit like the Langley campus, the story is sprawling, but the author deftly ties it all together in a seamless story of talent, perseverance, and inspiration.