Category Archives: YA

“The Mysterious Benedict Society” by Trenton Lee Stewart


A group of extraordinary children infiltrate a boarding school run by a genius scheming to take over the world via mind control.  Hilarity a somewhat mediocre adventure ensues.  (Yeah, not really target audience, I get it…)


“The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen” by Lloyd Alexander


Prince Jen of T’ang (a fictional China) undertakes a journey to the far-off utopian Kingdom of Tienkuo to figure out what makes it so great.  He brings six gifts for the king, each rather ordinary on the outside but actually (as we find out) possessing unique magical powers.

In the series of unfortunate events which disrupts the expedition, each gift is lost, given, or used up to get out of trouble.  But, as it often turns out, the journey IS the destination and Prince Jen learns what he needs to from his mysterious teacher, Master Fu/Hu/Wu/Shu/Chu. (did I forget any?  I guess they are all manifestations of the same guy.)

Really a good read.  Some pretty humorous parts.  I loved Moxa, the honorable robber who always follows the Robber Code: basically don’t rob from anyone who doesn’t deserve it.  Unfortunately he is not a very successful robber, since the Code pretty much exempts almost everyone in one way or another.  But at least he has the Eye of Discerning Perception and the Nose of Thoughtful Inhalations!

“The White Mountains” by John Christopher

Hmm yet another weird-looking cover.  My wife thinks I read strange books.

I put this on my “to-read” list a while back when I was researching YA books.  This one has great Amazon reviews, but I can’t say I liked it a whole lot.  Probably would have really liked it when I was 9 or 10; now it seems a little simplistic.

It takes place in the future, but humanity has reverted to a medieval existence via an alien invasion and mind control via “capping.”  Kind of interesting to see the boys’ descriptions of the decaying remnants of past technological glory like cars, trains, subway, guns, hand grenades.  Also fun to figure out the geography, which is never explicitly stated – we start in England, cross the Channel, wander through post-apocalypse Paris, end up at the White Mountains — the Alps of Switzerland, free man’s last redoubt.

The idea of capping – surgically induced mind control to keep the people subjugated – reminded me of the similar premise in The Uglies.  In that book, the operation made you beautiful as well.  In The White Mountains, the metal-mesh cap is a symbol of adulthood and just about equally longed for by most of the children.

The ending leaves many questions unanswered; this is most definitely the start of a trilogy.  Like, what’s the whole White Mountain resistance plan?  I cheated and read the synopsis of the series on wikipedia.  Mildly interesting; but I think I’ll skip the other books.  Or maybe send them back to my 9-year-old self if they ever get time travel worked out.

“The Twenty-One Balloons” by William Pene du Bois

Du Bois (Pene du Bois?) does a good bit of world-building, as it might be called now, but then unfortunately doesn’t do anything with it.  The whimsical Krakatoa Island he conjures, where twenty families live in harmonious luxury provided by plentiful secret diamond mines, is quite the place.  Every day a different family takes turns cooking the meals for everyone.  Although they are all originally from San Francisco, each family adopts a culture or country on which they base their housing and cooking style.  They even change their names – “Mr. A” for American, “Mr. B” for British, “Mr. C” for Chinese, etc.

Sadly, the narrator is just getting to know the place when Krakatoa erupts, destroying the island.  Luckily the families flee (by balloon, of course!) in the nick of time.  The families parachute off the balloon contraption in India and Belgium and are never heard from again (well, at least by readers of this story).  The narrator, newly arrived in Krakatoa via balloon across the Pacific, crash lands the balloons in the Atlantic, where he is rescued.  His story attracts a lot of attention due to his inadvertent around-the-world travel.

“Uglies” by Scott Westerfeld

Hot on the heels of reading “The Hunger Games“, here’s another tale of a future dystopia.  Only this time the dystopian elements are not so overt.  Humanity has overcome the final obstacle to true equality – each individual’s looks.  At the age of 16, everyone is given “the operation” which transforms them from an “Ugly” to a “Pretty,” conforming their body to the pinnacle of beauty according to the standards of evolutionary biology.  Pretties then live a life of non-stop fun and excitement.  Sounds good, but the Smokies, a group of runaways and defectors, have decided that they want to live on their own terms.  The secret police, “Special Circumstances,” Does Not Approve and uses Tally, the main character, to infiltrate the Smokies.  She eventually becomes converted to the Smokie ideal (falling in love with their leader doesn’t hurt) and learns that the operation changes more than just outward appearances….  I won’t get into the plot any further; suffice it to say that all is not happily ever after once Tally joins the Smokies.

I couldn’t help but comparing the book to “The Hunger Games” since I just read it.  I enjoyed “The Hunger Games” much more than “Uglies.”  I thought it had more believable characters and was more exciting and suspenseful.  The future it presented was more interesting as well.

I think that “Uglies” missed out on being a commentary on what equality really means.  I kept expecting it, but it never materialized.  (It’s more a book about not being so willing to believe everything you are told.)  Even still, it made me think about what it means to be equal.  In the “Uglies” future, (at least on the surface) equality is achieved by making everyone equally beautiful – bringing everyone up to the same high standard.  Contrast that to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” where everyone is made equal by bringing them down to the lowest common denominator – the beautiful must wear masks, the intelligent are drugged so they are dopey, the strong must carry heavy weights, etc.

The first way is the better alternative, but probably impossible – how can you make every equal in not only beauty, but everything?  The second way is more doable, but stupid – you’ll end up with a society of morons and weaklings.  Perhaps the best way is to overlook our differences, realize that everyone is trying the best they can, help when needed but just don’t be so critical of each other.  Easier said than done I guess….

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins

In a future dystopian North America, the sparkling Capitol represses the outlying Districts and keeps them in line partially through the annual Hunger Games.  Each District must send two teenagers, a boy and a girl, to a televised, weeks-long, fight to the death.  Think “Survivor” but with swords, spears, daggers, bows and arrows.  Lest the competitors (the “tributes”) refuse to fight, the Gamesmakers spice things up a bit by occasionally sending in forest fires or packs of rabid animals to stimulate the violence.  Only one competitor will emerge to glory and fame; the rest will die.  Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take the spot of her little sister when she is chosen for the Games.

They are called the “Hunger” games because the competitors are dropped in a wilderness area and have to scavenge for themselves for food.  Also, the normal life in the Districts is pretty tight and food can be hard to come by.  This is underscored by Katniss’ detailed descriptions of food whenever she gets some – I thought this was clever of the author, because food IS what someone with Katniss’ experience would really take notice of.

I really enjoyed the book – lots of suspense at wondering at the competitor’s next moves and also at Katniss’ “partner” from her District, Peeta.  Is he friend or foe?  Hard to tell until nearly the end.  Another clever thing by the author is that although brutality and violence reigns in the Games, the reader’s impression of Katniss is not diminished by her taking part; she strictly acts in self-defense and in the protection of others.

Not sure I am looking forward to the sequel or not … I have a feeling it is going to be a “Do I love Edward? Or do I love Jacob?  I can’t decide!!!” type of Twilight-esque teenybopper romantic quandary blah.  But who knows.

“Nation” by Terry Pratchett

Another audio book listened to during the commute.  Kudos to Stephen Briggs for a spot-on narration.  Reminded me of the work of another Brit, Jim Dale’s narration of the Harry Potter series – distinct voices for each characters, etc.  But I digress.

“Nation” is not set in Pratchett’s Discworld, but like those novels it also contains a very high witty humor density.  In “Nation” though, along with the enjoyable story which contains plenty of laughter-inducing moments, there is a treatment of weighty philosophical matters.  More on those in a bit.

The story takes place in the past of a world quite similar to our own.  The boy Mau is the sole survivor of a tsunami that wipes out his whole island’s tribe (the Nation).  The girl Daphne (Real given name: ‘Ermintrude.’  You would prefer Daphne as well, wouldn’t you?) is from Victorian Britain, daughter of minor royalty, and the sole survivor on the island of a ship wrecked by the same giant wave.  Mau and Daphne learn to work together for survival, first for themselves and later for other islanders who soon find their way to the Nation.

Now the philosophy stuff.  Really this is the point of the book, methinks.  Both Mau and Daphne, thrust into an unfamiliar situation, come into conflict with what they have been told to think their entire lives.  Mau wonders why the Nation’s traditions of the grandfathers and religion of the gods are what they are.  Daphne questions the justice behind the imperial attitude of her own nation, as well as why the manners and etiquette of the Victorian era really matter.  They both have to think for themselves, relying on the scientific method and simple pragmatism rather than (apparently) meaningless traditions.  The lesson here is to not blindly accept anything; questioning “why?” is nearly always a good idea.

A concept used in “Nation” that seems to be rather popular in sci-fi-ish literature of late (although I wouldn’t call “Nation” sci-fi) is the many worlds or parallel universe theory.  In a nutshell, the many worlds theory says that whenever there is a choice, made by man or nature, all possible alternatives actually happen, although each in a separate, newly branched, parallel universe.  (Interesting: Mau, able to sometimes see the “silver thread leading to the future” and possibly affecting the outcome of things, seemed a little like Fraa Jadd from Anathem.)

I just think this is too funny to skip mentioning:  The Southern Pelagic Ocean, where the Nation resides, is based on the South Pacific.  Islands in the Pelagic are often named after the day on which they were discovered by Western explorers, however unlike the custom in our world of sticking to major holidays, eg Easter Island and Christmas Island, the Pelagic boasts the Mothering Sunday (UK’s Mother’s Day, more or less) Islands and the Bank Holiday Monday Islands.  Ha!

“The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick

First a note: you may notice that this is a “YA” (Young Adult) book, and you may wonder why a somewhat more mature reader (ok, maturity is debatable) chose to read it.  Well, recently I was reading an old post by John Scalzi (great sci-fi author; I’ve got a few reviews to his books elsewhere on my blog) called “Why YA?”  — apparently a lot of good stuff is happening in the genre nowadays.  I’m up for any great story, no matter where it can be found.  It kind of resonated with me as well because I am always on the search for family-friendly fiction, and the YA category seems a safe bet.  Anyhow, I kind of went crazy scanning through Amazon Listmania and Goodreads lists looking up some hot YA books.  I got way too many through the library’s book reservation system, but likely I can churn through them pretty quick … this first one only took me an evening.

I can’t say I tremendously liked “Hugo Cabret.”  The book is an interesting combination of novel and picture book – about half the pages are entirely illustrations.  The story and characters are kind of boring though.  (But, like I indicated above, I am probably not the author’s target audience here.)  The illustrations are decent, but they are all in pencil and kind of blend into each other; nothing really outstanding.  I think Selznick should have cut most of the illustrations out, and focused on the remaining ones to make them really spectacular.  Another nit-pick is that both the kids in the story are kleptomaniacs – I lost track how many instances of thievery they commit – but apparently that’s a-ok….

The story has to do with a boy living in a secret room in a train station.  He’s obsessed with fixing up an automaton, a continuation of his dead father’s work.  About halfway through, the book takes an awkward twist and ends up being about the French early film director Georges Melies.  The iconic (and slightly creepy) image of the man in the moon with a rocket ship stuck in his eye (from “A Trip to the Moon“) was familiar to me, but otherwise I didn’t know much about the guy.

“The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Vol 1” by Diana Wynne Jones

This book is the compilation of two stories.  Chrestomanci is a title; he’s kind of like the magic police for a parallel universe.    Traveling between parallel universes (sometimes to our own world) is a big part of the stories.  Pretty fun YA fantasy.

“The Merlin Conspiracy” by Diana Wynne Jones

Pretty good story about crazy magic across multiple worlds. Two main characters that at first seem on totally different trajectories, but in the end their stories converge, as do all of the other minor characters. I thought that was cool, how it all got tied up together.