Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

In 1897, during the Klondike Gold Rush, a dog named Buck lives a pampered, serene life on the Santa Clara, California, estate of a wealthy judge. Buck is large and strong, a mix of St. Bernard and Scotch shepherd, and the undisputed ruler of all the dogs on the estate.

The gold rush has created an insatiable demand for dogs to pull the sleds of the prospectors across the frozen North. Buck, big, strong, healthy, and well-furred, is stolen by a worker on the judge's estate and sold to pay his gambling debts. Buck is crated and transported north, away from warm California where he led a life of easy nobility, to the frigid North, where dogs are ruled by the clubs and whips of men and the fangs of other dogs.

Buck is broken to the harness and spends his days hauling in the traces with the dog team. He is clubbed and whipped when he makes mistakes and disciplined by bites from the dog team when he fails to perform his duties correctly. He quickly learns the job of pulling the sled and becomes the best dog in the whole Klondike, renowned for his formidable strength and keen intelligence.

As he becomes accustomed to his new life in the North, Buck becomes aware of his latent wild nature, and the instincts of his wild ancestors rise in him and begin to govern him. The pull of these wild instincts and urges grows stronger and stronger the longer he stays in the North, until he can resist them no longer.

Jack London lived a life of adventure. He was a gold prospector during the Klondike Gold Rush, a seal hunter in the North Pacific, a sailor, a war correspondent, and a prizefighter, among other pursuits. His lust for life permeates his work. The Call of the Wild is one of his best works and is one of the most famous dog stories ever written. He died young, at the age of 40, leaving behind a great body of work. Another of his famous stories which you might enjoy is White Fang, also set in the wilds of the North.

A classic of American literature. Rating: 5

Friday, June 29, 2012

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This is the second book of the beloved "Little House" series. Set in 1869-1870, little Laura, older sister Mary, baby Carrie, and Ma and Pa leave the snug little house in the big woods of Wisconsin and head out to Indian Territory in Kansas, territory that Pa is certain soon will be cleared of Indians and opened for white settlement. He is determined to get there first and get the pick of homesteads.

These books have endured as classics for good reason. They are detailed in their descriptions of pioneer life as lived by a little pioneer girl. Laura remembers everything--how they traveled, what they ate, how it was hunted and cooked, how Pa built the log cabin, the songs they sang, and the clothes they wore. One could not get a more-complete child's-eye view of pioneer life.

Most important, the books celebrate the strong families that make up our pioneer past. Laura's family in particular shines as an example of familial love, strength, resourcefulness, and resilience in the face of discouragement and disaster.

Rating: 5

The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin

Nikki is beautiful. Nikki is charming. Nikki is crazy. Nikki is the mother from hell. From the time Matthew is a preschooler, he has taken on the job of protecting his younger sisters from the unpredictable moods of their mother, Nikki. He never knows when she will turn from loving mother to abusive mother. But he knows that when she does, it is up to him to keep him and his sisters safe.

One hot summer evening, when Nikki has gone out to have fun and left the kids locked in the apartment, Matthew and his sister Callie sneak out to buy popsicles at the grocery story. While there, they witness an encounter among an enraged father, his little boy, and Murdoch, a man who comes between them to defend the little boy. After seeing Murdoch step up, Matthew becomes convinced that he is the man who can help them get away from Nikki. After this night, he searches for Murdoch for months, hoping to meet him again, become friends, and ultimately be saved from his mother.

Murdoch does eventually enter the lives of Matthew and his sisters, but not in the way Matthew wants. His efforts to get help from the various adults in his life--Murdoch, his aunt, his absentee father--are fruitless, until Nikki turns the corner into true mental illness and her behavior becomes something no can ignore anymore.

Matthew is a realistic character who embodies the "rescuer" mentality many abused children possess. He figures out "rules," things to do to try to turn Nikki from her rages. Sometimes he is successful. Sometimes not. Readers will be riveted by his struggle.

Rating: 4

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

Thomas has no last name and no memories. He comes to consciousness in a cold, dark, metal elevator, making a slow and noisy ascent to the Glade, acreage surrounded by 100-foot-high stone walls that grind closed each night, keeping the occupants in and keeping out the nocturnal monsters known as Grievers who roam the enormous Maze outside the Glade.

In the Glade, he finds teenage boys like himself, boys who don't know why they are there, cannot remember where they came from, or who they used to be. All Thomas has is questions, and all the boys in the Glade have to offer is a rigidly controlled life of survival with strict rules. Rules for which there are harsh penalties for breaking. The biggest rule? Don't go out of the Glade after dark.

Each boy in the Glade has a job, and Thomas is supposed to spend his first weeks in the Glade rotating from occupation to occupation until he finds his niche. But, he knows right away what he wants to be. He wants to be a runner, one of the boys who leaves the Glade each morning and runs the miles of the Maze, trying to uncover the exit that will mean freedom for the boys of the Glade.

From the very first, readers of this book will be filled with questions, the same questions that Thomas has. Why do the Glade and the Maze exist? What happened to the boys' memories? What are the Grievers? Why are the boys imprisoned there? The promise of answers to those questions keep you turning the pages. The ending will have you smacking your forehead and eagerly searching for the sequel, The Scorch Trials.

Rating: 4

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies by Sonya Sones

You would think from the title of this book that it is completely depressing and darkly dramatic, but the author uses humor to lighten the basic plot line, which is that fifteen-year-old Ruby's mother does indeed die a horrible death from cancer, and Ruby does have to leave her beloved aunt and her best friend and her boyfriend to go far away to live with a father she has never seen before BUT. . .

Her father is a handsome movie star who is amazingly rich and lives in a fabulous house next door to Cameron Diaz. He has a collection of incredibly cool vintage cars and buys Ruby all sorts of trendy and expensive clothes and gadgets. He enrolls Ruby into an exclusive school where the children of other movie stars go and where Ruby's elective is dream interpretation, of all the kooky "California" things. So even though you feel sad for Ruby for losing her mom, and she goes through tremendous grief trying to deal with it, you have the comic element of Ruby dealing with this impossibly fantastic life that most kids would love to live.

Told in the first-person, in engaging free verse, the reader sees what Ruby sees and learns what Ruby learns as soon as Ruby herself does. And the end is a surprise. So, get over the title and give it a read.

Rating: 3.5