Category Archives: YA fiction

Book 29 – Ready Player One

“Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline (2011)

Audio book narrated by Wil Wheaton

This all started when Damian recommended the book to Luke. So Luke bought it. And then he left it lying around. And then I read a bit. And then I downloaded the audio book. And this is, hands down, no contest, the best book I have read in years. I love, love, loved it.

Set in 2044, the novel follows the story of Wade Watts, a suburban kid who spends all of his time online, attending virtual school, hanging out with his best friend in his virtual basement and accessing every book, film, song, anything, ever created in the endless archives within the Oasis, a virtual utopia. The creator of the Oasis, James Halliday, died 5 years before the story begins, and upon his death, left an Easter Egg in the Oasis and instructions that the person who found it would win ownership of his entire fortune. Like millions of people around the world, Wade is hunting for the Egg. He is a Gunter, working solo, competing against other solo players, clans and a huge corporation called IOI whose only business is winning control of the Oasis.

Doesn’t really sound like my kind of book, does it! The thing is, while the publicity for this book will tell you that all the pop culture references are from the late twentieth century, the truth is they’re all pretty much from the 1980s, and there isn’t really a single reference that I don’t get. When Wade is trying to win the first of three keys needed to unlock the egg, his opponent advises him that they will need to joust and Wade asks, “Won’t we need horses?” When his nemesis responds, “No, we will need birds…” I screamed out loud in my car, “OH MY GOD! THEY’RE GOING TO PLAY JOUST!!!” In 1982, when I worked night shifts at St Leonards Bowling Centre, I worked the shift that Joust was installed in an upright at the centre. My great friend and work colleague, Scott, and I played Joust every night after work for months. I am honestly a bit of a gun at Joust. Or at least I was, 33 years ago.

All of the characters, competing against all the odds in this book, are appealing and the plot keeps you engaged throughout. A really well written, highly entertaining book that I thoroughly recommend. I gave a copy to my brother, Patrick, for his 50th birthday a couple of weeks ago. I hope he loves it as much as I did.

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Book 28 – Loyal Creatures

“Loyal Creatures” by Morris Gleitzman (2014)

I’m a big Gleitzman fan and I see his books on students’ desks in wide reading lessons all the time. He has a natural flair for engaging writing and kids love him.

I saw “Loyal Creatures” in the book shop in Huskisson last time we were there and read the blurb. I don’t usually buy his books because mostly they are better being left to be loved in their own right than to be ruined by a rotten English teacher. But something about “Loyal Creatures” suggested a good teaching text, so I picked it up.

The book is about Frank and his Dad. And their horses. And World War I. And the Australian bush. And the Light Horse. And Egypt. It’s got sad bits and happy bits and bits that make you laugh out loud.

What I loved about this book was the easy authenticity of the voices. I think it would be a really successful text in a voices of war unit or any close study focusing on the concept of voice. It is an easy read and would make a great text for lower ability year 7 or 8.

I’m definitely adding this one to my book room wish list.

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Book 26 – We Were Liars

“We Were Liars” by E Lockhart (2014)

I hadn’t heard of this book until it was reviewed by someone in a book review group I’m in and then my colleague, Amy, asked if we could buy a class set, so I thought I should give it a read.

The premise of the story is a rich family on a private island and a group of cousins (and one ring in) who spend every summer together. Everything is too perfect for words, so of course something goes wrong.

The success and popularity of this book relies on the shock twist being a really significant shock twist. Unfortunately, for me, it was the most ridiculously obvious ‘shock twist’ that I was convinced it wasn’t what it was. Add to this the cloyingly angst-ridden yawn fest of a putridly rich, whinger protagonist and a whole lot of thoroughly unlikable characters and you get the picture of my response.

However, to be fair, I didn’t chuck it in, and I did look forward to getting back to it. But that was because I was so thoroughly convinced that some awesome shock was coming. But. Nope.

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Book 24 – Paper Towns

“Paper Towns” by John Green (2008)

I am part of group on Facebook that reviews books for high school and we are in the middle of our first cyber book club. This was the first book set to read and I was quite pleased as Green is a very popular author with our students, but I hadn’t had a chance to read any of his books apart from “The Fault in Our Stars” so far.

I have been told before that Green writes to a winning formula and boy is that true. Although in this case, not so winning for me. The plot is simple – boy and girl neighbours, friends since forever, she’s popular and gone off the rails, he’s perfect and nerdy but unpopular. She drags him out of his room one night, a few weeks before graduation, to cause some mayhem in the name of revenge and the next day she disappears. The entire book is then about his attempts to find her, and his sudden popularity as a consequence of his involvement on the night of mayhem.

I kept waiting for something to happen. It never does. The kids are far too witty and smooth to be likable, the parents are ridiculous stereotypes, and the vanished girl is positively un-likable.

No way in the world would I ever teach this book. I wouldn’t recommend it to students either.

Endings matter a lot to me, which you’d know if you are a regular reader of this blog. This book’s ending sucked worse than toffee.

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Book 14 – Rangers Apprentice (Book Four): Oakleaf Bearers

“Rangers Apprentice (Book Four): Oakleaf Bearers” by John Flanagan (2006)

I read my first Rangers Apprentice book about three years ago, after hubby was adamant I needed to give fantasy more of a chance. I have blogged previously about Books One, Two and Three and described this series as fantasy lite – the only kind of fantasy I’m likely to read willingly.

In Book Four, our hero, Apprentice Ranger Will, and his companions Horace and Evanlyn, are found in the outskirts of Skandia, far from home, by Will’s mentor, Halt. They become embroiled in an impending war between the Temujai and the Skandians. All of them find something of worth to offer to the warmongering Skandians, with their focus solely on getting Evanlyn (who is really Princess Cassandra, daughter of King Duncan of Araluen) back to her father.

The widespread appeal of this series is obvious as the adventures are exciting and engaging. The characters are appealing and believable and the narrative, albeit formulaic, is not too predictable.

I wouldn’t teach the Rangers Apprentice books, but I have recommended them many times to junior students who are looking for something new to read. This was just the right book for my first holiday read.

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Book 13 – The Recruit

“The Recruit” by Robert Muchamore (2004)

I’ve read this book about twelve times in the last 7 years, so it feels like a bit of a cheat to be blogging about it now, but I really wanted to share my most recent reading of it on my blog, and in the process maybe attract some new devotees to all things CHERUB.

“The Recruit” is a wonderful young adult novel about a kid called James who hates school and has a short fuse and gets himself into trouble on a regular basis. Within the first chapter he has had a fight with a girl in his Science class, hurt her (unintentionally), knocked his Science teacher flying (no, he really didn’t mean to) and gone into hiding to avoid the obvious storm that is about to explode all over him.

The next 24 hours don’t turn out quite the way he was anticipating, though, and after he finds his Mum dead on the couch he is taken to a children’s home and life is looking grim indeed. After almost immediately getting caught up with the wildest boys in the home, James finds himself in more trouble than he’s ever known in his life… But just when things look impossibly hopeless he is knocked out and wakes up in the most amazing facility he has ever seen. Set on acres of bushland with sprawling buildings, tennis courts, basketball courts, fitness courses and smiling, healthy looking kids everywhere, James can’t believe his luck. But no one will speak to him and he has to find out for himself what he is supposed to be doing there. James, it turns out, is on the CHERUB campus, a secret training facility for kids who are going to become spies. The question then becomes, will James sit the entrance exam? Will he pass? And does he actually want to be a spy for the British government at just 11 years of age?

The reason I decided to blog again about this book this year is because of the experience I have had, teaching it to my year 10 class. Normally, The Recruit is my ‘go-to’ novel for year 7. It’s also been my novel of choice for year 11 or year 12 English Studies when teaching the Part of a Family module. And a couple of years ago I taught it to a year 10 class of boys who were put together because of their behavioural challenges. I experience massive success every time I teach this book. James is a very likable and realistic character and, unlike a lot of stories that start in a classroom, James reminds my students of someone they know… maybe themselves.

This year I am teaching our Learning Support year 10 class. My students are not diagnosed at a low enough intellectual level to qualify for placement in a formal support environment, but their literacy and comprehension levels are so low that they would be totally lost in a regular mainstream class. So, thanks to the commitment at my school to assisting students in this situation, and the hard work from the Learning Support faculty (this is not the same as the Support Unit, where IM or IO students are enrolled), classes like mine exist. Generally, the Learning Support faculty also teach our ESL classes. There are 14 students in my class, and each one needs about 5 times the level of one-on-one assistance that a mainstream student requires. For 4 of my 6 lessons a teacher from the Learning Support faculty – the wonderful and dedicated Peta – joins me to team teach. And every lesson a School Learning Support Officer (SLSO, formerly known as a Teacher’s Aide) – the fantastically patient and kind Rose – is there too. So, together, our aim is to try to assist the students to succeed in an academic environment that all too often they find totally incomprehensible.

Into this classroom I brought James and his adventure. Now that I think about it, there was never any doubt that I would choose this novel. And in the last 5 weeks, I have read this book to the students, a few chapters at a time, and they have completed lots of work on it. I mean it when I say lots of work. These are students who for the most part need support to write one sentence. But they have written so many sentences, and paragraphs while we have studied this book. They have done all of the same work that I have set for previous classes. I am so proud of them and how well they have worked. Their efforts are a testament to the success of this novel. It works. It works for bright and enthusiastic year 7 students. It works for senior students who brag about having never read a book for school, ever, until this one. And it works for students who are barely literate.

Never underestimate the power of an old fashioned adventure story. When it is a well written one, it gets them every time. Trust me, you want to read this book. And if you’re a teacher, you want to teach this book. Two years ago, after teaching this novel to a group of boys who openly and gleefully bragged about never having read any book set for English, not one, not ever, one of the most challenging boys in the class slipped me a note as he was leaving one lesson. It said, “Hey, Miss, sneak me the next book about James when no one is looking, OK?” These are the moments we live for. This is a book that creates them.

This time, the glory goes to a boy called Julian who said to me in week one of the term, “I hate books, Miss. I don’t like any of them.” I accepted the challenge to find him a book he would admit he liked. As it turned out, Julian was one of the most vocal students in the class during the last five weeks, as we recapped and ensured everyone was up to date before we did any work or reading each lesson. In his last lesson with me he was still reluctant to admit anything… but the proof was there in his enthusiastic recounting of the plot and his focused attention on the final few chapters. Finally, after a little gentle cajoling, Julian admitted it, he really did like the book. And I left that lesson with a smile on my face, knowing that, for this term at least, my work there was done…

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Book 12 – The Maze Runner

“The Maze Runner” by James Dashner (2009)

Audiobook narrated by Mark Deakins

I have seen this book on quite a few students’ desks during wide reading, and I know there’s a movie, so I added it to my wish list on audible and picked it up for $4.95 on a recent sale day.

Like almost all popular YA fiction at the moment, this book is set in an imaginary, and I would guess far-distant, dystopian future. Thomas wakes up to find himself in a dark ‘box’ that, when opened, reveals a crowd of teenage faces all staring at him curiously. He has no idea who he is, who they are, or where he is. He has no personal memory, but accurate functional memory, so that he knows, for example, to recognise friendly interactions from angry or dangerous ones almost immediately.

The place Thomas has appeared in is called The Glade, and it is at the centre of an enormous maze. All of the boys arrived the same way as Thomas, one each month, apart from the original group, who arrived there together about two years previously. Throughout the two years the boys have been focused on one thing – finding a way out of the maze. However, the runners have a disadvantage. Every night, the walls surrounding the glade close, the walls within the maze move around, changing the maze completely, and, worst of all, the ‘Grievers’ come out, making it impossible for the boys to stay out in the maze after nightfall.

Thomas adapts astonishingly quickly. Within less than a day he has comprehended the situation and begged to be a maze runner, determined to help. Then, just 24 hours after Thomas’ arrival, another newcomer is signalled. This sends the crowd of boys into a frenzy. Arrivals have always been like clockwork, one per month. Another new arrival within a day of Thomas’ arrival is a real shock to them all. When the box opens and the new arrival is a GIRL, all hell breaks loose. Then the girl tells them everything is about to change, and that she is the last person who will enter the maze. Events rapidly escalate from that moment and to say that Thomas becomes the centre of the ensuing mayhem would be an understatement.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this book and frequently sat in the car for a few extra minutes to hear to the end of a chapter, which is not normally my style. My only criticism, and it’s getting a bit repetitive the more dystopian fiction I read, is that the ending is not an ending, it is the next beginning, making it impossible to know how everyone fares in the end unless you read book two and three and then the prequel… oh, and, yay, apparently there’ll be another prequel soon. As I’ve said many times before, I yearn for the talented YA writer who just writes one book without going for the obvious sales of a series. Aside from John Greene, I mean.

I would not choose this book as a teaching text for two reasons, both simple. One – the movie. Two – the kids are already reading it. I am pretty much dedicated to introducing students to things they wouldn’t normally read, not the best sellers.

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