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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

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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?

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.

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.

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.”

Every Single Second by Tricia Springstubb

“Twelve year old Nella Sabatini’s life is changing too soon, too fast.” Nella, who lives in an Italian American neighborhood with her very Italian American parents and her four “snot-nosed” little brothers, has one best friend, Clem, and one former best friend, Angela. When Angela’s troubled family brings trouble to the entire neighborhood, what will Nella do about Angela, Clem, Angela’s older brother, Anthony, and her own very mixed-up feelings and allegiances?

I liked this book. Really. The girls talk about important things—war, guns, God, time, change, and friendship—in a very natural and twelve year old way. And Nella’s life and relationships with her family and friends and great-grandmother and her friends’ families were also well-drawn and believable. I was drawn into the story, and I really wanted to know what would happen to these girls and their changing neighborhood.

However, there were two problems that got in the way of my enjoyment of this middle grade novel. First, one of the minor characters uses God’s name in vain (OMG). Why is this necessary in a middle grade novel, especially for a minor character who doesn’t get much character development anyway? It’s offensive to some people, and unnecessary, so leave it out.

Second, there were these little short interlude chapters in which a statue, named Jeptha A. Stone, tells what it would say if it could speak. A bird makes its nest in the statue’s lap. I have no idea how these interludes related to the main story. I’m a bit dense, I suppose, but I think the book would have been better with the statue thoughts edited out completely.

Then, there is the part that wasn’t problematic for me, but might be for others. The main crisis of the novel deals with an accidental shooting of a black man by a white (Italian) man, Angela’s older brother, Anthony. Anthony goes to jail, and everybody is appalled at his shooting of this young black man, implying or stating that the shooting was racially motivated. However, as far as Anthony and his family and Nella are concerned, the shooting was an accident. So, some people might be offended that the shooter is “innocent”, since many, at least some, shootings of young black men are racially motivated. Others might be concerned because Anthony is not totally exonerated, although he is a sympathetic character. Like all the news these days related to police and people of color and guns and shooting, it’s complicated. It makes the book itself timely, but subject to controversy and misunderstanding.

I recommend Every Single Second. Skip the sort of talking statue.

New Children’s Fiction in the Library: September, 2016

I’m going to start posting here about the books that I acquire for my library. For those of you who don’t know I have a private subscription library in my home, mostly for homeschoolers, although others who are interested in quality books are welcome to visit or to join. I have a lot of older books that are no longer available from the public library as well as some new books that I think will stand the test of time.

Here’s an annotated list of some of the new/old books I’ve acquired (from thrift stores, used bookstores, library sales, donations) in the past month:

The Striped Ships by Eloise McGraw. In 1066 the Normans defeat the Saxons, and eleven year old Juliana, a Saxon miss, becomes a captive and a servant in a Norman castle. However, when she escapes captivity, she even comes to have a part in the creation of the famous Bayeaux Tapestry.

All in Good Time by Edward Ormondroyd. Sequel to Time at the Top. A young girl is granted three rides in a magic elevator that transports her to the end of the nineteenth century.

Hannah’s Fancy Notions: A Story of Industrial New England by Pat Rose. A short chapter book, historical fiction, about a young girl who helps her impoverished family by making hatboxes, or bandboxes as they were called, to sell to the mill girls of Lowell, Massachusetts in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

Winnie’s War by Jennie Moss. I used to have a copy of this book, but it got lost. Now, this World War I novel, set in Coward’s Creek (really Friendswood), Texas is back in my library. Semicolon review here.

The Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson. This book, set in the Florida Everglades, alludes to Beowulf. Semicolon review here.

The Potato Chip Puzzles: The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin. For readers who enjoy puzzles, games, wordplay, and mathematical dilemmas.

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope. In this 1894 adventure novel, Rudolph Rassendyll’s life is interrupted by his unexpected involvement in the affairs of Ruritania whilst travelling through the town of Zenda. He is shortly on the way to Streslau, the capital, where he finds himself engaged in plans to rescue the imprisoned king.

Mr. Tucket by Gary Paulsen. Francis Alphonse Tucket, who is traveling on the Oregon Trail with his family, gets separated from the wagon train and kidnapped by a Pawnee raiding party. First in a five book series, will Francis ever get to Oregon and find his family?

2016 Middle Grade Fiction: Short Takes

Lizzie and the Lost Baby, by Cheryl Blackford. (realistic fiction)I thought this one was a good little story. The themes of truth-telling and treating others with respect and forbearance were well integrated into the story. A family of gypsies accidentally lose their baby girl, left alone and immediately rescued in a pasture, and the nearby community (in England) treat them with disdain and prejudice. One child, Lizzie, stands up for what is right against all the adults who are perpetuating an injustice.

Mrs. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson. (realistic fiction) Topher, Brand and Steve’s favorite teacher, Mrs. Bixby, announces she’s leaving school to go into treatment for cancer; the three boys make a plan to provide Mrs. Bixby with a day she will never forget. I wish Mr. Anderson had kept the language above board, and the boy humor toned down a little (or a lot). As it was, I loved the story but can’t really recommend it. If your tolerance for mild swearing and boogers and such is higher than mine, you should check it out.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker. (talking to each other animals) If you love foxes and nature and if you think people are the bad guys, spoiling the foxes’ natural habitat . . .

Ramie Nightingale by Kate diCamillo. (unbelievable supposedly realistic fiction?) If Ramie Clarke can just win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, then her father, who left town two days ago with a dental hygienist, will see Raymie’s picture in the paper and (maybe) come home. Maybe it was my mood, but I found this one, by one of my favorite contemporary authors, entirely too “precious”, something I don’t often have a problem with. I’m all for kitsch and cuteness usually, but in this one the girls and the peripheral characters were just not believable.

The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner. (fantasy) This book about a ten year old girl and her drug-addicted older sister would be great bibliotherapy for middle graders with a family member who is drug abuser, but I’m not sure whether issue-driven fiction is appealing to the general reader or not. On the one hand drug abuse is rampant, and many kids might encounter it in themselves or in family members. On the other hand, well, the whole protecting kids while they are young and not scaring them about horrible stuff is a good thing, too. I’m also not sure what exactly the message is about magic/wishes/prayer. Pray and hope and wish, but don’t expect too much? Prayers and magical wishes are similar ways of coping, but be careful what you ask for?

The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg. Eleven year old John Watson moves to New York City, and his first (and only) friend is the great detective Shelby Holmes, who is a bit eccentric and difficult to understand, to say the least. Shelby, a nine year old wonder at solving mysteries, is definitely lacking in the area of people skills. Can she and John become friend and colleagues in spite of Shelby’s off-putting manner? Can they solve the mystery of the missing show dog—together? Good introduction to the Sherlock Holmes genre and to the idea of difficult personalities and grace extended for personal quirks.

Guile by Constance Cooper. (probably YA fantasy) “Sixteen-year-old orphan Yonie Watereye scrapes a living posing as someone who can sense the presence of guile (magic), though in fact she has no such power–it’s her talking cat, LaRue, who secretly performs the work.” (Goodreads) Creepy, but good, with themes that are probably a little too mature for middle grades.

The Worst Night Ever by Dave Barry. I love Dave Barry’s newspaper columns, but I’m not sure he has the best style for middle grade fiction. I meant to read the first book in this series, The Worst Class Trip Ever, but I never got around to it. In this one, which is about a kidnapped ferret and a ring of illegal rare animal importers, there’s a lot of repetition of jokes that aren’t very funny to start with: “My best friend Matt is an idiot”, repeated over and over. “It’s a komodo dragon, not a kimono dragon”, repeated at least three times by three different characters. Stupid dad. Crazy mom. That sort of thing. Maybe some kids would like the humor, but I was bored.