We get asked by many families at conventions if we have any recommendations for families to read together, so here are some suggestions from among the middle-grade and teen books released this year. For the middle grades, Rick Riordan books are always a good choice with the newer Heroes of Olympus and Kane Chronicles series being our favorites. 2012 saw the release of Book 3 of both series, The Mark of Athena and The Serpent’s Shadow. Riordan’s writing craft has improved since his Percy Jackson series, so readers should definitely give these newer series a try.
Newer on the scene but definitely worth the attention of adults and middle grades is the Darwen Arkright series by A.J. Hartley. The first book, Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact was released in paperback in September 2012 and Book 2, Darwen Arkwright and the Insidious Bleck was released in Nov 2012. The Exploding Spaceship reviewed Insidious Bleck here: http://bullspec.com/2012/11/19/the-exploding-spaceship-review-of-a-j-hartleys-darwen-arkwright-and-the-insidious-bleck/ .
A new book for middle grades, Hollow Earth, has not received much bookstore attention in the US, but deserves more, is from John and Carole Barrowman. It was released in October 2012 from Aladdin. They did a few signings but did not venture to the Carolinas, which was unfortunate since the Scottish setting should be well received here because so many people are of Scots-Irish descent. Hollow Earth is a fantasy featuring 12-year-old twins who draw things to life and is set on a Scottish island made up by the authors. The adult and children in the book are quite interesting characters and their relationships are very well done. The setting has a definite Scottish feel to it but would be easily understood by US children. The plot is complex enough to keep parents interested as well, so would be a good choice for a family to read together. John Barrowman is a UK media personality known for acting, singing, dancing and presenting. US fans may know him from Doctor Who or Torchwood. His sister Carole teaches English and creative writing at a college in Wisconsin.
For quite some time there has been very little teen science fiction released which was actually readable by adults, most of the good teen titles were fantasy. That has changed because David Weber has entered the teen market with new Star Kingdom novels. David Weber’s Honorverse is enjoyable even without the space battles.
A Beautiful Friendship is the first release from Baen Books in the young adult (YA) genre. The book tells the story of young Stephanie Harrington (an ancestor of the famous Honor Harrington) and her discovery of the treecats.
There are no space battles to be found in this story: it is set entirely on the planet Sphinx, and it is there that Stephanie has her adventures. Over the course of the tale, Stephanie ages from twelve to fourteen, and Weber does a good job of exploring how her thought processes evolve over time. The story also provides a peek into the minds of the treecats themselves, which greatly enhances the reader’s understanding of the species.
The story is written so that a newcomer to the sprawling and complex Honorverse won’t be overwhelmed, but presents enough details about the planet Sphinx (which is detailed only cursorily in other Honorverse books) to keep experienced readers interested.
Anyone who enjoys character-oriented space adventure will find A Beautiful Friendship to be a very good read.
The Exploding Spaceship already reviewed Book 2 Fire Season released in November 2012 here: http://bullspec.com/2012/12/03/the-exploding-spaceship-reviews-of-fire-season-and-captain-vorpatrils-alliance/ .
For teens, a couple of classic Heinlein tales have been re-released with new afterwards and gorgeous new Bob Eggleton covers by Baen. Starman Jones, while originally classed as a juvenile work, is actually appropriate for any age, and tells the Horatio Alger-esque story of Max Jones, a highly intelligent but troubled youth who runs away from home and joins a starship crew.
Bad boy Max is pulled into the situation by worse boy Sam Anderson, and there is plenty of excitement for them both, including a young woman who rivals Max in intelligence and 3D chess-playing ability, a landing on a previously unknown planet, and first contact with that planet’s strange inhabitants.
Like all stories of this kind, Max and Sam both live up to their potential, but in unexpected and very different ways. The rapid pace of the story lets the reader easily overlook the outdated technological depictions and focus on the characters and what they are going through.
In his Afterword, Williamson does a wonderful job of showing that this story about growing up and learning to face the difficult, often painful choices of adulthood is still very relevant today.
Baen’s new edition of The Star Beast will introduce this classic Heinlein tale to a new generation. The book was first published in 1954, and the passage of almost 60 years has in no way diminished the appeal of the adventures of teenager John Thomas Stuart XI, his ten-legged alien friend Lummox, and his surprisingly modern-thinking (for 1954) girlfriend Betty Sorenson.
Lummox was brought to Earth by one of John’s ancestors and has lived with the Stuart family for generations, during which time the alien has grown from the size of a puppy to truly mammoth proportions, becoming something of a local nuisance, walking through fences and eating the neighbors’ flowers, cars and the occasional noisy pet. John and Betty are Lummox’s most staunch defenders, and the legal red tape and jurisdictional conflicts they come up against could come right out of today’s headlines.
The stand-out character in the story is Betty, who is what would today be called an emancipated minor, having divorced her parents because they restricted her career choices. She knows what (as well as who) she wants, and is unafraid to follow those desires by any means necessary, an attitude which probably shocked more than one 1950s-era reader.
The themes of young people working their way toward adulthood and making important life and career decisions in the face of resistance from parents and other authority figures will resonate with modern readers, especially teens, and the futuristic, starfaring society depicted in the story remains believable despite a few amusing technological errors.
In her Afterword, Wen Spencer talks about how her discovery of this 1950s-era book changed her life in the 1970s, and how she holds out the hope that it will do the same for the young readers of the twenty-first century and beyond.
A good fantasy choice for teens which may have been missed by many because of its lack of bookstore presence is the War of Seasons series from Janine Spendlove. War of the Seasons, Book Two: The Half-Blood was released in June 2012. This is the second book of Spendlove’s young adult fantasy adventures of a teenager who falls into another universe and finds herself in Ailionora, a land where fairytale creatures like selkies, pixies, elves and dryads are real. Story Sorenson (and her pack containing her father’s Marine Corps Ka-Bar knife and some spelunking gear) fell into Ailionora in Book One, where she ended up rescuing the elves by saving their tree, during which time she formed a relationship with Eirnin, the first elf she met. This makes for a complicated life with the elves because they are not used to having to respect non-elves and having half-elf children is still viewed dimly by many.
Prince Morrigan, the vanquished villain from Book One turns out to not be quite as bad as Story first thought, and may prove useful on her quest to find the cure an illness that afflicts Eirnin. Her half-sister Adair joins her on the quest, and Spendlove does a good job developing their relationship. Story loves and cares for Adair but also finds her to be a typical younger sibling (that is, a royal pain.). Another source of pain is the questing party: In addition to her half-sister, Story is saddled with her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, Morrigan, and a selkie named Pel, and everyone is at cross-purposes with everyone else. And of course the quest is not nearly as straightforward as it first appeared. Spendlove deftly handles the group dynamics and rivalries, creating an engaging and complex quest tale.
The story ends on a suspenseful note, and promises more love-life complications to come. Hopefully, Book Three of War of the Seasons will be coming out soon.
With its large cast of complex characters, this book has a remarkable level of depth and texture, especially for something billed as YA, and fantasy fans need not be put off by the teen label; this story is great for any age of fantasy reader.