World War Z

World War Z Cover

“The only rule that ever made sense to me I learned from a history, not an economics, professor at Wharton. “Fear,” he used to say, “fear is the most valuable commodity in the universe.” That blew me away. “Turn on the TV,” he’d say. “What are you seeing? People selling their products? No. People selling the fear of you having to live without their products.” [Effin’] A, was he right. Fear of aging, fear of loneliness, fear of poverty, fear of failure. Fear is the most basic emotion we have. Fear is primal. Fear sells.”

Historical fiction is often an interesting genre for literature. Basing a story in a past and playing with the history a bit, perhaps manipulating it to fit the story, an author can create a beautiful story that the reader can relate to. These books may bring accounts of real life situations into the story and can be told from the perspective of those in the heat of the battle. In my opinion, Max Brooks’ World War Z is a piece of historical fiction, albeit a fictitious history. World War Z is an oral history of the zombie apocalypse on earth, told from the perspective of survivors from around the world. It is a very intriguing book, as it details the story of the outbreak of a zombie plague that surrounds the world and how each area of the world dealt with each phase of the plague’s spreading and ultimate defeat.

Using multiple perspectives on similar events makes a fantastic story weaved together with elegance. Brooks uses several different voices that each present haunting stories that reveal government cover ups, issues with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and lost loved ones. But Brooks also includes the beauty in humanity, with stories of collaboration, grit in the face of adversity, and hope for the future. It is a story with many themes and many angles that provides several different ways a teacher could employ it in their classroom. And the way that Brooks weaves it all together from an oral-historical perspective, makes World War Z a unique story of survival.

The unique way in which World War Z is told makes in an extremely engaging story. The interviewer/interviewee style makes it feel like the stories coming from the people are real, instead of just some fictitious story. However, there is some strong language and some haunting scenes  in this book and I would only recommend this book for grade 12 students. The most apparent theme, humanity and the human reaction to challenge, is very compelling and harkens back to books like Lord of the Flies or 1984. It is a book with many different themes and ideas so it leaves many opportunities for students to provide written responses. I would pair this book with Pat Barker’s Regeneration, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, or Timothy Findley’s The Wars, as they all deal with PTSD, the issues of seeing horrors first-hand, and the brokenness of war. World War Z is one of the most creative zombie apocalypse books I have ever read and it is an extremely engaging read.

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Ranger’s Apprentice Book One: The Ruins of Gorlan

Ranger's Apprentice Book 1

“People will think what they want to,” he said quietly. “Never take too much notice of it.”– Halt

When you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, you often hear similar responses, such as a policeman, a fireman, and, here in Canada especially, a hockey player. These children choose careers that are often idealized, jobs that are highly sought after, but very challenging. And over time, many of these children learn that the idealized careers of their childhood are not the ones they are best suited for. Will, the main character of John Flanagan’s first Ranger’s Apprentice novel, has a similar view of his impending career. He wishes to become a member of Battle school, to be trained as a warrior, but he is slight of stature and would struggle to survive the hardships of the school. However, Will is quick and agile, which allows him to move without being seen and climb to heights where no one seems to look. Although he longs to be a knight, he is not chosen to enter Battle school, but he does receive a warrior’s training as a Ranger’s apprentice, where he learns the art of stealth.

Will struggles with the realization that becoming a Ranger is a better fit for him. He had always seen himself as a warrior, and his constant battles with his fellow orphan and bully, Horace, had hardened his resolve to become one. But, as he develops under the tutelage of Halt, a Ranger with immense skill, he comes to understand why it is his destiny to become a Ranger, and why his skill set fits so perfectly in that role. His journey to that point, including the facing down of a charging wild boar, helped Will realize who he was and gave him the confidence to help Halt when they needed to stop a pair of monstrous beasts, known as the Kalkara, from assassinating members of the royal court.

Outside of Will’s bildungsroman development story, the issue of bullying is a strong component to the story, one that is great for teens to read about, even if they hear about it a lot in school. The interesting aspect to this story is that Horace, the bully for Will during his childhood, becomes the target of bullying once he enters Battle school. It is heartbreaking to witness the tortures that Horace must endure and the brokenness he feels inside from being rejected by his peers, but it is also so beautiful to see the redemption he receives when he and Will reconcile. Flanagan weaves an interesting story that allows for the reader to feel the pain of the former bully and see his emotional change over time.

This story is fairly accessible and I would easily offer it to grade 7 students and up. I have used it in my class this year with my grade 8s and have received fairly good feedback. In my personal opinion, I was not as engaged by the story as I have been by others recently, but I have also been told by some of my students that the series gets more engaging as the books move along. Thematically, I would pair it with Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, as they all deal with bullying and the need for the learning of a new career or skill. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy or medieval settings.

Leviathan

Leviathan

“Maybe this was how you stayed sane in wartime: a handful of noble deeds amid the chaos”– Alek

What if? It is one of the great questions asked about history. What if one of the plans to assassinate Hitler had been successful? What if Rome had not been sacked by the Goths? What if Darwin had not made his scientific theories about evolution? The answers to these questions will never be known, but many authors have taken this concept and put it into print. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan is one of those books. Leviathan takes the era around World War One and changes the setting somewhat. The global powers are not divided based on old alliances, but based around their reliance on either steam-powered engines and war machines, which dubs those people the Clankers, or genetically fabricated beasts, which gives those nations the name the Darwinists, due to Darwin’s genetic discoveries. Westerfeld has created a fascinating alternate universe in which two differing paths of science have created world-wide allegiances. But, much like the state of affairs in Europe leading up to 1914, the European superpowers wanted to start a war and test their technological power.

However, Leviathan is not a novel about the grandly sweeping movement of a World War and the interactions of world powers, it is the story of a young prince forced from his home by his own nation, it is the story of a young girl hiding her gender from the British Air Service to escape into the airborne world, it is the intertwining of these two stories. Alek is the heir to the Hapsburg dynasty in Austria-Hungary after his parents are assassinated, but his country does not want him to take control, so he must run for his life. Deryn is a girl, dealing with the loss of her father and the attempt of her mother to “girlify” her, so she lies about her gender and joins the British Air Service. Once they come together, the two bond over common backgrounds, although one is a commoner and one is royalty, as they both have lost their fathers and they both have a secret to keep, Alek hiding his royalty and Deryn hiding her gender. They also end up working together against a common enemy, as the old saying goes “an enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Courage is a strong theme throughout the book, as both protagonists must overcome their fears and obstacles to support their countrymen. Deryn is constantly trying to keep her fellow crewmen alive and fight for her country. Alek risks his own life and safety to save the downed crew of a massive British Air Service beast. Both must test their boundaries as they push to keep their men safe and prove their worth to their elders. This is a common theme for war novels, as it is often the courage of singular men and women that helps contribute to the victories of nations. Leviathan is no different in its presentation of war and its impact on those involved, but Westerfeld puts the reader in the shoes of two teens experiencing this steampunk war first hand. This allows students to be more engaged in a war novel by seeing from someone in their age group.

I would recommend this book for grades 7 and up, as the plot moves fairly quickly and the vocabulary is not overly challenging; however, I would also recommend it to students who have covered World War One and could make comparisons to that which they have learned about it previously. The story is engaging, and the theme of courage is one that is always interesting for students who want to life vicariously through the adventures of others in novels. For Lit Circles, I would pair it with Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, or Lisa McMann’s The Unwanteds,as they all deal with the need for courage in the face of danger or war erupting around them. I enjoyed Leviathan, especially the steam punk alternate universe, but it was not quite as engaging for me as Westerfeld’s Uglies was. I am hoping that the second book in the series, Behemoth, will ramp up the excitement.

Rot & Ruin

Rot & Ruin

“It’s just that I’m fifteen, and I have this crazy idea I might actually have a life in front of me. I don’t see how it’s going to do me much good to believe that the world is over and this is just an epilogue.” – Benny Imura

Zombies, it’s the hottest theme right now. You see it in video games, television, movies, graphic novels, and there are varying levels of success behind each of those genres with regards to the zombie theme. The world of YA Fiction is not devoid of this craze either. A slew of zombie novels have arisen in the past five years targeted at teens, once again with varying success. With experience writing zombie fiction previously, Jonathan Maberry threw his hat into the YA zombie ring, but the thing is, his book, Rot & Ruin, is a step above the rest. What sets it apart from most other zombie novels is that it isn’t about the shock factor, but about the story of a teen boy dealing with life in a post-apocalyptic, zombie infested world.

Rot & Ruin follows Benny Imura, the little brother of the renowned zombie hunter, Tom Imura. But Benny doesn’t look up to Tom because he thinks Tom is a coward who ran away from danger and left their parents to die on First Night, the night of the zombie outbreak. Benny instead looks up to two other zombie hunters, Charlie Pink-Eye and the Motor City Hammer, a pair of ruthless killers who toy with their zombie prey before quieting them. It is in this misinterpretation of what strength really is that Benny develops as a person. In the early parts of the story, he thinks that because Charlie Pink-Eye and the Hammer are tough, ruthless, and can get the job done, that they are strong and deserving of his admiration. But, as Benny apprentices with his brother, he learns to respect the “zoms” just as people respect the dead in our society. Tom’s view of the zombies and the way he deals with them shows Benny that Tom is not a coward, but a truly strong individual, who shows his strength in the respect of others, even in a broken society.

Benny’s coming of age story is what drives the novel, but the concept of family and friendship is also a strong theme in the narrative. Benny’s relationship with his best friend, Chong, and his love interest, Nix, allow for a familial bond to develop, as he tries to rebuild his ties to his brother. These relationships end up driving the story forward, as Benny and Tom must face Charlie Pink-Eye and the Hammer to save Nix. As the teens spend time outside of their little town, they begin to see how their world has devolved and grow closer as a group, becoming the family that they lack. It is really an engaging book that draws the reader into their world.

Rot & Ruin is one of my favourite YA books I have read in a while. It drew me in with its post- apocalyptic theme and fast-paced, cliffhanger chapters. It had relatable characters and an engaging story. It even has some deeper understandings that the characters come to grips with, such as bullying, stereotyping, and morality. I think it is appropriate for Grades 10 and up, due to the darker aspects of the story, but I think it will draw those readers who are into the zombie craze that is infesting pop culture. For Lit Circles, I would pair it with some of my previous reviews, such as Lish McBride’s Hold Me Closer Necromancer, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted, or another one of my favorites, Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go. All are coming of age stories that have some deeper levels of thinking presented.

If you like zombies at all, this is the book for you. A great story filled with action, suspense, zombies, and a bit of romance. What else could you want in a book? Read it.

Twisted

Twisted

“Everybody told me to be a man. Nobody told me how.” – Tyler Miller

It is not very often that I find myself unable to fall asleep due to a book, but thanks to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted, I lost 2 hours of sleep a few weekends ago. Having started the book the night before, I found myself unable to put the book down when I went to sleep, and ended up finishing it all in a 24 hour span. I am not sure if it was the fact that I connected so strongly with the main character, or if it was the narrative that drew me in, but I could not sleep, and I had to continue reading until the last page.

Obviously, I feel Twisted is an engaging read, and I think a large part of that is my love of cheering for the underdog. Tyler Miller is the quintessential nerd underdog; former skinny kid and social outcast turned tall, brawny, and dangerous hunk thanks to puberty, a criminal record due to an ill-conceived prank, and the subsequent court-appointed backbreaking, muscle enhancing , volunteer work. Returning to school for his senior year after nearly being expelled for his school prank, Tyler has created a name for himself, and begins to attract the attention of his dream girl, Bethany Milbury. However, throughout the story, Tyler does not rise to the top of the high school social hierarchy, but is constantly beaten down by the world around him, and his own lack of confidence.

Maybe I was drawn to the book like a gawker is drawn to a car crash. It is so horribly uncomfortable, yet I could not look away. I pulled for Tyler throughout the story, hoping that he could overcome his obstacles, but much like Anderson’s other novels, the main character somewhat accepts his “worthlessness” without much of a fight. The fact that Anderson creates such believable characters is what makes her novels so engaging, and I found Twisted to be the best of hers that I have read.

The book deals with the classic bildungsroman teen issues such as fitting in and discovering identity, as well as powerful issues of emotional and physical abuse and suicide. The story flows well and is very easy to read and the characters are so well defined, that the growth that Tyler exhibits is contrasted by the inability of many others to change in their own circumstances.

I would recommend this book for grades 10 and up, but that is due to some of the emotionally charged scenes and sensitive subjects, not the challenge of the prose. This book would be great for upper level students who are struggling readers, as it is not a challenging read, but is an extremely engaging and relatable story. In Lit Circles, I would pair it with Anderson’s Speak, which can be seen as a similar story, but from a female perspective, as well as Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, which deals with suicide and fitting in, and John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines or even Lish McBride’s Hold Me Closer Necromancer from my last post, which both deal with discovering identity.

Twisted is a great book for lovers of the underdog, those who struggle to focus while reading, or fans of engaging fiction in general.

Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead

“No human being, when you understand his desires, is worthless. No one’s life is nothing. Even the most evil of men and women, if you understand their hearts, had some generous act that redeems them, at least a little, from their sins.” – Andrew Wiggin

DISCLAIMER: If you have not read Ender’s Game, the first book in Orson Scott Card’s Ender Tetralogy, please DO NOT READ THIS REVIEW. It contains SPOILERS to the plot of the first book. I thought it pertinent to cover Speaker for the Dead, as the film for Ender’s Game has recently been released, and some of my students just read it and may be looking at the next book.

Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead is the sequel to Ender’s Game, but takes place about 3,000 years after the end of the first book. The title comes from Ender’s new role in his society in which he is a Speaker for the Dead, a priest or cleric of a sort, who speaks about the life of a person after they have died. This role comes to be after Ender writes two books The Hive-Queen and The Hegemon, one about the Bugger Wars from the Formic’s perspective, and one about Peter Wiggin and his life. These books become somewhat of a holy set for many and heavily influence human society between the end of the first book and the start of this one. Ender, now going by Andrew, continues to be a Speaker for the Dead and travels to the colony Lusitania, the site of the first contact with a sentient alien race since the Bugger Wars, the Porquinhos, or piggies as they are nicknamed.

One thing that must be pointed out immediately about this novel is that it’s content and focus is quite different from that of the first novel in the series. Speaker for the Dead is a much more philosophical novel and contains much less “action”. Card discusses ideas of humanity and the fear humans have of the unknown, a fear they know too well from the time of the Bugger Wars. The story revolves around human interactions: people whose broken relationships lead them to be outcasts, the Catholic colony of Lusitania’s attempted rejection of Ender, and families broken by abuse. While Ender’s Game did have some philosophical moments, such as when Ender struggled with his humanity and fear of becoming like his brother, the book mostly revolves around action within Battle School and Ender’s experiences in his game.

This book is an interesting read, by all means, but I am not sure how well students would connect with it. In this story, Ender is no longer a child, but a 35 year old man. He is struggling with concepts that most teens are not, such as the need for a life-companion and children, the gnawing pain of lost family, and the continual struggle with his part in the genocide, or xenocide, of the Buggers. This last part is what motivates him to help the piggies create stable relations with the humans and their Hundred Worlds government. It really is a fascinating story, just one that needs to be approached with an understanding that it is not like its predecessor.

I would target this book at Grade 11 & 12 lit circles, where the students can tackle the deeper issues with some maturity. I would definitely not recommend it to struggling readers, as the occasional mix of Portuguese and futuristic vocabulary can cometimes cause confusion even in a seasoned reader. I would suggest pairing it with novels that deal with recovering from brokenness and deal with the search for belonging, such as Tim O’Brien;s The Things They Carried, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, or Pat Barker’s Regeneration. It is a good upper level book for those that have read Ender’s Game in previous grades, allowing them to connect with a character they already know, but in a new way.

This novel is great for fans of the series, as it takes the characters in a new direction. If you haven’t read Ender’s Game, I suggest doing so, as it is a fun book and Card is a fantastic writer.

The Fault in Our Stars

“Without pain, we couldn’t know joy” – Augustus Waters

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is the story of Hazel and Augustus, two star-crossed lovers struggling against the impediment of being cancer survivors in a culture that views them as very other. Meeting through a Teen Support Group, the two build a relationship based on a mutual love of literature, a quirky sense of humor, and an inner understanding of how different they both are from everyone else.

The true heart of the novel shows through in the interactions between Hazel and Augustus, as they analyze their perspectives on the challenges and purpose of life, the “cancer perks” they receive because of their otherness, and the after-life. Green portrays Augustus as an idealized romantic; suave, extremely attractive, and always able to say the right thing. Hazel is a quietly sarcastic wit, who has immersed herself in a world of literature above that of a teen her age. When the two combine, they drive the story with witty banter and an easy back-and-forth that shows a deep, almost instinctual, connection between the two teens. Green has a knack for creating rich characters that have depth beyond their years, and Hazel and Augustus are, in my opinion, his best creations.

I felt I connected best with Hazel, as the story follows her perspective. It shows the reader the daily life of a person fighting to keep cancer at bay and the arduousness of life under those constraints. However, as a father myself, I had to wipe away a few tears at certain moments of pain for the parents of Hazel and Augustus (Disclaimer: this book is not for the feint of emotional heart).

As for use in teaching, I would suggest it be used in a Grade 10 classroom or higher, although some motivated Grade 9 students could handle its vocabularial depth. The book deals with topics such as overcoming adversity, coming to terms with self, and the purpose of life. Most students who have read it find it heart-wrenchingly engaging and are voracious for the next John Green meal they can devour. For Lit Circles, I would pair it with Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, or even Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, as each novel deals with the development of selfhood.

This is a great book for those looking for a romanticly engaging read, or someone looking to see the inner-workings of an intellectually stimulated high school relationship.