Saturday Review of Books: October 1, 2016

“All her life, Sophie had been taught that books are precious. Each one holds people and worlds. Each one is a piece of someone’s heart and mind that they chose to share. They were shared dreams.” ~The Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst


Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

The Skeleton Tree by Iain Lawrence

Alaska. Boat capsized. Two teens marooned on the coast with no means of communication. Survival fiction. If these are your buzzwords, The Skeleton Tree should be your next read. It’s not as feel-good as the classic, My Side of the Mountain, but it is a well written, as far as I can tell well researched, survival story about two boys who learn to cooperate in spite of their deep differences.

Chris is twelve. His father just died a year before the book begins, and his Uncle Jack wants to take him on a sailing adventure down the Alaska coast from Kodiak. When Chris arrives to join Uncle Jack on the boat, he finds that there is another person on the boat, a sixteen year old boy named Franklin. Almost immediately after they cast off, with the boys’ questions about each other still unanswered, a storm overtakes the sailboat, and tragedy strikes. Uncle Jack is lost at sea, and the two boys must survive in the wilderness with bears, wolves, and imminent starvation as their immediate adversaries. Unfortunately, Frank is a bully and a braggart, and Chris is a boy who is used to being bullied, but tired of taking it. So, their relationship and lack of cooperation threaten to be more of an impediment to their survival than the outside dangers.

I was impressed with the details in this book about how to (or how not to) start a fire, how to treat an infected wound, how to catch salmon and preserve it, and other survival skills. The author says that he lived on the coast of British Columbia for many years within sight of Alaska and that he learned a lot about living in that “surprisingly wild” environment. The title, Skeleton Tree, is taken from the tree that the boys find that is a Native American burial ground, for lack of a better term. The skeletons of dead people are in coffins wedged in the tree, not buried and not on the ground. According to the author who got his information from a book about Alaskan history by Charles Haddock, “tree burials were once common in Alaska.” Mr. Lawrence also recounts his story of once having seen a still-living skeleton tree himself somewhere on the Northern Pacific coast.

The book is older middle grade or young adult with some difficult family situations referenced, but not described in detail. I’d say any fan of survival stories from age twelve to sixteen or seventeen might want to check this one out.

The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan

Patricia MacLachlan wrote the wonderful, Newbery award winning book, Sarah, Plain and Tall. Sarah is her most successful and most read novel. The books for children that she has written since Sarah, aside from the sequels to that novel, have mostly been innovative and different and even quirky, but just not as accessible and not as captivating as Sarah.

The Poet’s Dog follows in this same vein, interesting but not exactly an instant classic or even a best seller. The story is about a talking dog, an Irish wolfhound, who rescues two children who are stranded in a snowstorm. I don’t quite understand why the children decide to leave the car where their mother left them when she went to look for help. They say, “People came and knocked on the car windows, telling us the car was going to be towed off the road before it got covered with snow.” So the children left the car in a blizzard? Why would people knock on the car windows and then leave two children there in the snow? Why would the children not wait for the tow truck to help them get to somewhere safe? Or wait for their mother to come back? Nicholas is twelve years old, old enough to know better than to go off with his little sister into a blizzard.

That bit of illogic aside, the dog is sweet. He used to belong to a poet named Sylvan who lived in a cabin in the woods, low technology and high on the poetic, free spirit, Wendell Berry kind of a life. But Sylvan is gone, and the dog, Teddy, lives alone in the cabin until he finds the two children. Teddy can talk, but the only people who can hear him are poets and children. Nice touch.

I also liked the references to picture books and the recognition that many good picture book texts are also poems. Specifically, Sylvan says that Ox-cart Man by Donald Hall is one of his favorite poems. Other poetic picture books: Summer Is . . . by Charlotte Zolotow (almost anything by Charlotte Zolotow), Wake Up, City by Alvin Tresselt, The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown, Umbrella by Taro Yashima, A Good Day by Kevin Henkes, Madeleine by Ludwig Bemelmans. Actually, most of the picture books that are more about the language, and the rhythm of reading the book aloud, and the word pictures than they are about plot and characters are really little illustrated poems. That’s not an original thought with me or with Ms. MacLachlan, but it was a nice thought to be reminded of.

In the end, though, this book had several “nice touches” but not much substance. I can’t see it being popular with dog lovers, in spite of Teddy’s cuteness, or beginning readers, in spite of the large, sparse text and abbreviated length (88 pages), or poetry fans, in spite of the poetry connection. Maybe eight to ten year old poetry fans who like short books with talking animals? How many of those are out there?

Assassin’s Heart by Sarah Ahiers

A society is built on the foundation of legalized murder, purchased assassination, killing as an offering to the goddess. Nine families serve the goddess Safraella. They are her acolytes, killing people in her name with the promise of resurrection to a new life for those who die in the goddess’s good graces. Lea Saldana is one of Safraella’s clippers, those who clip people’s lives short in the name of law and order and the goddess.

In this book, murder is good, family loyalty is the paramount value, and revenge is an obligation to one’s own honor and to the gods. This world turned upside down could have been worth exploring. What happens to a society in which murder is legalized within strict boundaries and rules? Is it possible to become a cool, dispassionate murderer for hire and at the same time retain a passionate love for family and for friends? Or does that kind of conscience-bending to the breaking point carry over into all relationships? Why does one of the nine Families decide to follow the God of Light instead of remaining true to Safraella, the Goddess of Death and Resurrection? Is it possible to worship death and resurrection (life) at the same time? Does legalized murder really make a more well-behaved populace because people are afraid to offend anyone lest they be marked for assassination?

Lots of questions to explore in this story, but the emphasis is on Lea Saldana’s love life, her revenge for the murder of her family, and her assassin skills. The deeper questions are sometimes raised, but not pursued. Instead, Lea rather blithely falls in love while plotting her revenge, and why she is able to trust one stranger when another lover has just betrayed her and her entire family is barely questioned and unresolved.

Because I misread a review, I started this book thinking it was a middle grade fiction novel. It isn’t. It’s definitely Young Adult, but I wouldn’t recommend it for that age group either. There’s a Romeo and Juliet-type love affair in the beginning pages of the novel, but for that plot and characterization, teens would be better off with Shakespeare’s play or with watching West Side Story to get a much more realistic view of the consequences of star-crossed lovers in a lawless and honor-based society. Assassin’s Heart gives readers a cold-blooded assassin with a tender, loyal, and trusting heart, not a likely combination. And it turns traditional morality upside down without really asking the important questions about what such a revolution in moral standards would do to individuals and to a culture as a whole. Cheap thrills and unexamined rebellion are not an adequate foundation for a good novel, just as assassination and revenge are not adequate values to sustain a society. In fact, these things undermine good novels and good communities.

The Lost Compass by Joel Ross

In Book one of this series (or maybe it’s just a book and a sequel), The Fog Diver, Chess, the foggy-eyed tether boy, and his crew escape from the slums of evil Lord Kodoc, and the slum kids make it to the “promised land” of Port Oro. However, in The Lost Compass, Chess continues to be a target for Lord Kodoc’s diabolical plans to rule the world above the fog. And the Fog itself continues to be both a menace and a possible concealer of rich and useful secrets. Furthermore, the citizens of Port Oro may want Chess to pay them back for their rescue of Chess and his friends and for their healing of Mrs. E, Chess’s mentor, by doing something that will risk the loss of everything that they have gained.

The characters in this series are the draw for me. Chess is brave and bold, yet self-effacing and unsure of what his true destiny is. Hazel, the crew’s captain, is described as “bossy”, but she’s bossy in a good way. She usually has good ideas and knows what to do and how to do it. Bea, the gear girl (engineer), is my favorite. She talks to engines and other machines—and they talk back to her. Swede is the pilot, more than competent and kind of grumbly. And Loretta, a raw and uncivilized slum brawler, is an extreme example of what a kid without a home or family or love could turn out like. Her attitude is summed up in this quote from a discussion of information found in books: “Books . . . What’s the point? You can’t wear’em, you can’t eat’em, and you can’t even stab someone with’em.”

The Lost Compass depends on the same kind of sci-fi and pop culture jokes and the same kind of non-stop action as The Fog Diver. If you read and enjoyed The Fog Diver, you will also enjoy this more than adequate sequel. The ending feels complete to me, but Mr. Ross may have one or even a dozen more novels in this series yet to be revealed. The very last words in the novel are: “Maybe our story wasn’t over. Maybe the world was bigger than I’d ever imagined.” Take from that what you will.

The Goblin’s Puzzle by Andrew S. Chilton

The Goblin’s Puzzle: Being the Adventures of a Boy with No Name and Two Girls Called Alice by Andrew S. Chilton.

I was reminded of the movie and book The Princess Bride while reading this debut middle grade fantasy novel, and that is high praise indeed. For a book to remind one of The Princess Bride, it must be clever in a similar way to the the wit and wisdom of that classic. It is. I can also say that I wanted to see The Goblin’s Puzzle as a film and that I think it could be a good one. Other than The Princess Bride, which may or may not have been an inspiration, Mr. Chilton’s sources seem to be good and quite varied:

From the author’s website at Penguin Random House: “Andrew S. Chilton drew inspiration for The Goblin’s Puzzle from a wide variety of sources, ranging from The Hobbit to Monty Python to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. As a kid, he gobbled up fantasy novels and logic puzzles, and as an adult, he spent over ten years as a practicing lawyer before launching his career as a writer.”

The book stars a nameless slave boy, a girl called Plain Alice (to distinguish her from all the other Alices in the kingdom), Princess Alice, heir to the throne, and a goblin named (something long and complicated), Mennofar for short. The Boy is running for his life from an unfortunate incident that ended in the violent death of his master’s son. It really wasn’t The Boy’s fault, but it will be blamed on him anyway, and he feels quite guilty about breaking a lot of the 99 rules for being a good slave, most of which he can’t even remember. Meanwhile, Plain Alice, who wants to become a sage but can’t get an opportunity because she’s a girl, has been kidnapped by a dragon. And Princess Alice, who should have been the object of the dragon’s kidnapping, is worrying King Julian, her father, with her frequent giggling and lack of a serious education. The goblin, Mennofar, is running away, too, and he owes The Boy for his help in the goblin’s escape from captivity. But Mennofar is indeed a goblin, and “it is hard for a goblin and a human to be friends. Goblin honor and human honor are so very different.” Mennofar feels obligated to do something for The Boy, but his “goblin honor” also demands that he make the whole thing into a particularly difficult and complicated puzzle.

There’s a afterword to the book that explains a bit about the basics of the study of logic, which is the main theme and framework for the story. But it’s a subtle use of logic, not an in-your-face teaching of logic. (Don’t worry. If you aren’t at all interested in the study of logic, it’s still a great story, and you won’t be tricked into learning logic—much. Although goblins are kind of tricky that way.) I enjoyed the discussions between Mennofar and The Boy and between Plain Alice and the dragon, Ludwig, that were illustrations of the different aspects of logic, which is the study of how we prove things, according to Mr. Chilton. I might have guessed, if I had thought of it, that Mr. Chilton was a lawyer before he decided to write a book for middle grade logicians and fantasy lovers.

I also just liked this story. Do I have to prove that it’s a good book for this to be a good review or for you to believe me when I say that you would probably enjoy it, too? I don’t think so. After all, we’re humans, not goblins. We don’t have to be strictly logical. Or tricky.

Saturday Review of Books: September 24, 2016

“What I like best is a book that’s at least funny once in a while… What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” ~Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger


Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

Viking’s Dawn by Henry Treece

Henry Treece (b.1911, d.1966) was a British teacher, editor, and Army intelligence officer who became a poet and playwright, then a writer of historical fiction for children. Many of his books are set in early Britain, before the Norman conquest. Viking’s Dawn is the first book in a trilogy about the Vikings and their incursions into the British isles during the mid-eighth century.

In this novel Harald Sigurdsson, a Norse boy, signs onto a Viking ship, The Nameless, and agrees to serve its master, Thorkell Fairhair. As the ship sails out to plunder the coasts of England and Scotland, Harald sees men injured, drowned, and killed in battle, and Harald himself kills his first man with his Viking sword. I won’t give too many spoilers, but suffice it to say that voyage does not go as planned and the plunder is somewhat lacking.

Viking’s Dawn is a violent book, but the Viking life was a violent, and sometimes short, life. The story feels authentic, not watered down for young readers, but also not steeped in gratuitous blood and gore. If your young reader, middle grades through young adult, wants to get an idea of how real Vikings lived and fought and thought, this book is well-researched and detailed, without getting bogged down in too much explication to the detriment of action.

I would be interested to find and read Mr. Treece’s other two books in his Viking trilogy, The Road to Miklagard and Viking’s Sunset.

Grayling’s Song by Karen Cushman

Just like her Newbery award winning book, The Midwife’s Apprentice, Karen Cushman’s new foray into fantasy/magical realism has a touch of medieval wisdom and a cartload of feminist historical perspective to bring to middle grade readers. The image of medieval “hedge witches” and “cunning folk” and “wise women” is rehabilitated and given respectability and even honor as Grayling, the daughter of one such herbalist and witch, goes on a journey to rescue her mother from an evil magic smoky shadow that has rooted her to the ground and is changing her into a tree.

Although it reminded me of the book I reviewed yesterday, Red by Liesl Shurtliff, this book was just a little too “witchy” for my tastes. In addition to Grayling’s mother, Hannah Strong, and Grayling herself, the story features a grumpy weather witch, an evil wannabe witch, an alluring enchantress, and a professor of divination, all of whom team up with Grayling to help her on her quest. I can like stories with witches—Baba Yaga, The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, Narnia’s White Witch—all are perfectly good stories in their own way. But this feminist version of medieval witches that reimagines them as harmless but wise healers and herbalists, and yet at the same has them wielding powers that are far from harmless . . . It’s just not my favorite storyline or characterization.

Grayling is the typical “strong female” character that’s all the rage nowadays. She tells a young man who tries to rescue her from drowning to quit rescuing her and let her rescue herself. She learns to rely on her own strength and courage, even when she doesn’t feel strong or courageous. One of the several songs that Grayling makes up during the course of the story to work her own kind of magic goes like this:

You cannot just sit here,
Dreaming and hoping,
March forward to battle
With pennants unfurled,
I call on your courage,
No fretting or moping.
Stand tall.
Stand tall.

If we stand alone,
It still must be done.
If it must be done,
You are the one.

That’s OK, as far as it goes, but something about it feels like a pep talk and leaves me wanting.

Nevertheless, there’s nothing really wrong with this coming of age story about a girl who leaves home to save her mother’s life, succeeds with the help of others, and returns to find that she’s outgrown the home she left. Amanda at The Willow Nook has a much better, and more positive, review of the book, and she makes some excellent points about the redemptive and heroic themes to be found in this short novel, only 200 pages. I predict it will find an audience, just not me.

Red by Liesl Shurtliff

Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood by Liesl Shurtliff.

In her author’s note at the end of the book, Ms. Shurtliff says that she wrote this story about Red and her Granny, the Witch of the Woods, in honor of her own grandmother who died while the writing of this fairy tale reimagined was still in progress. Somehow her grandmother’s death shook something loose in Ms. Shurtliff’s mind and enabled her to finish the book with its themes of living and dying, facing fear, and seeing things from different perspectives.

When Red goes to stay with her granny while her parents are away, she is happy to depend on Granny’s magic to ease the way and make things grow. However, when Granny falls sick, Red is determined to find the secret of eternal life, not for herself but for her beloved granny. Red is so afraid of life without Granny and of her own clumsy and sometimes dangerous attempts to make magic that she will do anything, except magic, to find a way to prolong Granny’s life.

With the unwelcome help of a blonde, curly-headed chatterbox named Goldie, Red sets off on a journey through the Woods on her own special magical path to find life for Granny. Along the way she learns about friendship (even with annoying chatterers), appearances (things are not always what they seem), and fear. What if a wolf can be Red’s closest friend? What if fear, not death, is the greatest enemy of all?

I really enjoyed this story of Red who is afraid that Granny will die and leave her alone, without Granny’s magical presence to comfort and sustain her. There were some wise themes embedded in the story, even though I’m not a fan of the whole “circle of life” philosophy that is employed by the author to explain the inevitability of death. Red does overcome her fears and come to accept that Granny, like everyone else, will die someday. And she does learn to see life and events from the perspective of others, including a grumpy dwarf and a harsh beast.

Favorite quotes:

“Some mistakes need to be made. Sometimes we have to fall down before we can stand up.”

” . . . you should never give up. Unless, of course, you’re doing something wrong, in which case you should give up entirely.”

“Fear doesn’t only twist our magic, it also makes us forget. It made me forget who I was, the strength and goodness I had inside me. But when I let go of my fear and faced what was before me, the memories came rushing back.”

“Funny, that we always told stories with wolves and beasts and demons as villains, but in real life it seemed the humans were always the worst enemies. You could be your own villain.”