The Ranger’s Apprentice Series: An Appreciation

When a favorite series comes to an end, it’s time to pause for a moment of appreciation.  John Flanagan started the Ranger’s Apprentice series in 2005 and completed it in 2013.

The books are:
  1. The Ruins of Gorlan
  2. The Burning Bridge
  3. The Icebound Land
  4. The Battle for Skandia
  5. The Sorcerer of the North
  6. The Siege of Macindaw
  7.  Erak’s Ransom
  8.  The Kings of Clonmel
  9.   Halt’s Peril
  10.  The Emperor of Nihon-Ja
  11.  Ranger’s Apprentice: the Lost Stories
  12. The Royal Ranger

As a children’s librarian, I don’t have time to read every book in every series.  Just one or two samples have to satisfy me. But there was something about the saga of young Will Treaty and his training under the gruff Ranger Halt that had me compulsively checking out each one, in order, and placing a hold on the last volume as soon as I could.

Certainly I’m not the only fan; these books have been on bestseller and award lists over the years. I’ve been ruminating about just what generates their appeal.

First of all, the fantasy world they are set in is not all that different from our own, if we could set back the clock to medieval times. The countries where Will travels have rough equivalents in history:  The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is the quintessential Samurai, and Erak of Skandia is a most intriguing Viking. Will’s best friend Horace is a knight worthy of King Arthur’s court.  Flanagan combines these cultures in a single compelling narrative with lots of battle action in every locale.  There are some mythical creatures and fantasy touches, such as the Rangers’ ability to “talk” to their horses, but overall it’s a realistic world.

Even more, Flanagan has created a cast of characters who are so appealing that you want to find out what happens to them next. Will: the small but quick apprentice with a mind for military strategy; Halt, the legendary, taciturn Ranger who imparts his skills for archery and intrigue; Horace, the natural-born swordsman who is not as quick as Will but has a knack of perceiving the truth; intelligent Alyss, who is training in the diplomatic service, and Evanlyn, the princess who packs a mean slingshot.

Sure, their adventures are exiting.  I particularly like the scene where Will scales a tower wall like a rock climber to visit the imprisoned Alyss (who eventually becomes his wife).  But ultimately it is their good character and humor that endear them to readers.  In every book, you know that Horace will be hungry at an inopportune moment, that Will’s addiction to really good coffee will have to be satisfied, and that Halt will be shown for the softie he really is.

If you start this series now, you won’t have to wait for the last installment like I did. Go to it!


Literary Orange 2014: Ivy Pochoda

Ivy Pochoda is the author of Visitation Street and The Art of Disappearing. Visitation Street bucks the norms of the mystery genre. Instead of focusing on the investigation, the book focuses on the community. In this gritty crime novel, characters have the power to hear the dead speak and a crumbling neighborhood proves it still has a little magic left in it. The Art of Disappearing is Ivy Pochoda’s previous book and it is an enchanting story about a woman who marries a Las Vegas magician only to find out that he is practicing real magic.

Visitation Street is both a literary mystery novel and a coming of age story. While girls and women going missing are common things in mystery novels, the story that unfolds in this novel is quite different from the average mystery novel. The story centers on two girls, best friends who are starting to grow up and grow apart from each other. It is a hot summer night and the girls are looking for something to pass the time, they decide to take a plastic raft out on a bay in the East River. One girl is found washed up on the beach nearly dead and the other girl doesn’t come back at all. The investigation into what happened to the girls involves the whole community. The neighborhood of Red Hook is so prominent in the story that it nearly becomes one of the main characters in the novel. I highly recommend both Ivy Pochoda’s novels.

Fans of Ivy Pochoda can see her at Literary Orange on Saturday, April 5th. She is one of the great authors scheduled for the Magical Realism panel. This upcoming panel will be a great opportunity to meet authors who are crossing over literary genres and bringing a bit of magic into psychological fiction and literary fiction novels.


The Flavia Files

Flavia de Luce is a one-of-a-kind character, a quirky blend of Harriet the Spy and Sherlock Holmes, all blended with a keen interest in poisons and chemistry. Alan Bradley, the 70-something Canadian man that he is, ingeniously gives voice to the 11 year British genius that is Flavia. If you haven’t yet indulged in a Flavia de Luce mystery, in each of the six novels, calamity strikes Buckshaw, the crumbling de Luce manor, and the nearby village of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia has a talent for finding dead bodies and, luckily, for solving mysteries, bringing into play her prodigious acting, eavesdropping, researching, and chemical analysis skills. Buckshaw is home to Flavia and her older sisters Daphne and Ophelia, their father, and troubled jack-of-all-trades Dogger, with Mrs. Mullet to feed them all. The looming specter at Buckshaw is the girls’ mother Harriet, the beautiful, daring, unforgettable woman who disappeared in the Himalayas a decade before. 
Bishop’s Lacey has a cast of characters that would make Agatha Christie proud, from the Vicar and his wife to the former German prisoner of war turned farm hand, Dieter. The mysteries themselves take a back seat to this rich tapestry of post-war life, and it’s the characters themselves that compel the novels.

To read them in order:
  1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (audio)
  2. The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag (audio)
  3. A Red Herring Without Mustard (audio)
  4. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (audio)
  5. Speaking from Among the Bones (audio)
  6. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (audio)  
Jayne Entwistle’s narration is outstanding, one of the more perfect audiobook castings I have ever heard, so I definitely recommend them.

If you have read them, and were sad that the series was set to finish at #6, the good news is that Bradley has signed on to write four more of Flavia’s adventures, and Sam Mendes has optioned the series for television, although it’s not due out for another year at least.

In the meantime, learn more about Dogger’s wartime experiences (an important part of his character, and much is revealed in #6), look for Eric Lomax’s memoir, The Railway Man: A POW's Searing Account of War, Brutality and Forgiveness (also coming to theaters as a feature film starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman in April).

If Buckshaw fascinates, I would recommend two other novels where a moldering manor house and old family secrets take center stage: In Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours (audio), a long lost letter pulls Edie back in time to Milderhurst Castle to untangle family ties, and in The Little Stranger (audio), Sarah Waters adds a supernatural twist to post-war village life.


Literary Orange 2014: Lisa Napoli

Often when we travel,  we go somewhere on a whim, have a great time and come back with wonderful memories, but then never have the desire to revisit the place. However, if we are very lucky, the place will change us and leave us scheming for ways to get back. This is what happens in Lisa Napoli’s Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth.  

What started as a random travel tip, ends up life-altering. An acquaintance happens to be heading to Bhutan. He offers, “Hey, get a visa and come with us.” Well, she doesn’t end up going with him, but he does set her up with a short-term job at a start-up radio station, which initiates her love affair with the country. Located in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu, the radio station, Kuzoo FM, was created by the crown prince—a rather forward-thinking monarch—for the young people of Bhutan and needs some guidance that Napoli, as seasoned journalist, is able to provide. She lives and works side by side with Kuzoo’s staff, finding friendship and community in a place so different from the United States. She gets some distance from her everyday world and even gains a new perspective on her life in Los Angeles.

You can come hear Napoli speak at Literary Orange in the panel, Travel: Journeys in Writing, on April 5th. Gail D. Storey, author of I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail, will also be appearing. The panel will be moderated by Catharine Hamm, editor of the award-winning Los Angeles Times Travel Section. I can’t wait to hear their travelers' tales. Our annual event is only a month away. You can register here. We hope to see some of Book Talk’s readers there!


What About Steve Harvey?

Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady Think Like a Man is a book that might make some feminists and other thoughtful adults scream. It is a very simplistic advice manual outlining what it is that men want in the woman that they date (admiration, loyalty, intimacy) and lecturing women that they need to set their standards high and make specific requirements for dating and getting involved at an intimate level; specifically repeating that their intended needs to follows through with promises to them, friends and family and that they require being treated in the way that they deserve.  

This book assumes that all men are simple creatures with a few simple needs and that women are more complex and often not understanding the differences which Harvey outlines. The book gives the impression of being written hastily and with certain strong biases about faith, appearances, and manners, perhaps from Harvey’s own point of view and personal background. Do all women always want the car door opened for them? Do men always like the looks of high heels best?

But are some thoughtful ideas here for young women starting to date that might make this a good mother-daughter read or thought for any woman wanting some dating advice. And the advice might even be useful for some men who need some insights into the female mind. And there are suggested ground rules laid out for all that set the standards high.

Comedian and talk-show host Harvey seems to have taken his own twist on the Men Are From Mars ideas. He is clear that his ideas emanate from his own past mistakes and successes and his experiences offering his talk-show dating advice. Is this good advice?  The book was a new York Times bestseller so it definitely has attracted attention. He has also written a second book, Straight Talk, no Chaser : How to Find, Keep, and Understand a Manwhich has even more of Harvey's insights into relationships. And now the successful box office Think Like a Man movie is also in our library collection.


March Madness

Two of my all-time favorite books are historical novels that take place during the Civil War.  Both are wonderfully imaginative, and both are entitled March.

March by Geraldine Brooks is the fictional account of the Civil War experiences of Mr. March, the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  An idealistic Cleric, Mr. March is in his 40’s when the Civil War starts.  Too old to fight as a soldier, he enlists as an Army Chaplain, even though it means leaving his wife and 4 daughters behind.  Mr. March strongly believes all men should be free and feels compelled to join the Union cause, but he also feels guilty about the hardship his family will face while he’s away.

As Chaplain, he finds his duties to be more than just administering comfort to the dying.  He gets caught up in the middle of fierce battles and sees much death and mayhem, though in his letters home he leaves these details out.  If you remember the letters in the book Little Women, they were always upbeat.

The book Little Women is partly autobiographical, loosely based on Louisa May Alcott’s childhood experiences.  Geraldine Brooks researched March by reading the diaries and letters of Louisa May’s father Bronson Alcott.  March is a fascinating mixture of history, biography and fiction.

The March written by E.L. Doctorow refers to General William Tecumseh Sherman’s devastating 60-mile-wide march through Georgia and the Carolinas during the waning days of the Civil War.  A riveting blend of fiction and fact, reading this book is like witnessing  this historic trek first-hand.

Narrated by an engaging cast of characters, Sherman comes across as slightly unhinged in his determination to pound a stake through the heart of the South.  Pearl, a bi-racial slave whose father was a plantation owner, contemplates a new life as a free person. Confederate soldiers Arly and Will provide some comic relief as they switch allegiance as easily as they switch uniforms.

E. L. Doctorow has written a powerful book that captures the madness of Sherman’s march, and the madness of war.


Literary Orange 2014: Victoria Chang

A few years ago, at one of the last poetry readings of the now defunct Reading Series at the Casa Romantica in San Clemente, I discovered the work of poet Victoria Chang.  That night I picked up a copy of Work Backward, a CD produced during the third year of the series, which includes Chang reading two of her poems aloud.  One of these is “Seven Changs”, which I love and listen to often. 

When I learned that Victoria Chang will be on a poetry panel at this year’s Literary Orange (the yearly author festival of OC Public Libraries coming up on April 5th ), I knew that I wanted to read at least one of her collections in order to introduce you, our Book Talk readers, to her work. 

I chose first to read Chang’s 2005 collection, Circle, which won the Crab Orchard Review Open Competition Award.  I next plan to read her Salvinia Molesta (2008) and her most recent collection, The Boss (2013).  Although I am a poetry lover, I should note here that my undergraduate degree is not in literature, so you are definitely getting a layperson’s feelings about Victoria Chang’s work here and not  literary analysis.  But hopefully this may encourage you to pick up Chang’s and other poets’ works to read -- poetry is for everyone, no matter what our background.  I would go so far as to say that everyone needs poetry, but that’s another blog entry.
A major theme of Circle which stood out to me was that of romantic relationships, along with the subthemes of the search for love/connection, communication difficulties, jealousy, and women feeling unappreciated or trapped in unhealthy relationships.   One poem on these themes which I really enjoyed was “Man in the White Truck”, which Chang also reads aloud on the Work Backward album. I believe that this poem concerns the pursuit of a love that ultimately cannot be, and the narrator appears to reveal how her love interest actually feels when she writes, “And I wonder / why I am not on your list of the ten most stolen…”  Some of the other themes of the collection include parent-child relationships and the common female experience.  On these themes I especially enjoyed the poems “Holiday Parties” and “Year of the Bombshell” respectively. 

I really enjoyed the entire collection of poems in Circle and it is impossible to pick a favorite.  Chang’s poems are honest and original, creative and far-ranging in their subjects, and most of all, highly accessible.  But I did want to close with a few lines of the aforementioned “Seven Changs” which I feel illustrate Chang’s ability to combine honesty with humor.  The themes of this poem appear to me to be ambition, feelings of not measuring up and the often-thwarted desire to be unique, and it opens with: “At night your growth rate doubles and each morning I spot / yet another Chang / in the newspaper, staring at me with its dull lamps.  I limp up / a mountainside / towards a growing opal.  Oracle, is this the way up to the little office / with orange lights?” 

I highly encourage you to check out and read a collection of Victoria Chang’s poetry and come hear her speak at Literary Orange!