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 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.

Between Heaven and Earth by Eric Walters

David, Junior, aka DJ, has been given a task in his grandfather’s will: to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and scatter his grandfather’s ashes at the summit. DJ, a typical oldest child/oldest grandchild, is hyper-responsible, committed, and a tad bit over-confident. He’s sure he can complete the climb in two or three days and return home, having done the job that his beloved grandfather, also named David, has asked him to do.

But climbing Kilimanjaro is not as easy as DJ thinks it will be.

This book is part of a Canadian series from Orca Books called The Seven. There are also The Seven Prequels and The Seven Sequels, so a total of twenty-one books in the entire series, three books for each of the fictional grandfather, David McLean’s seven grandsons. Each set of books (prequel, series book, and sequel) has a different author, and each one deals with the tasks and legacy that Grandfather McLean left to each of his seven grandsons. The authors are all award-winning Canadian YA writers: Eric Walters, John Wilson, Ted Staunton, Richard Scrimger, Norah McClintock, Sigmund Brouwer and Shane Peacock. And the stories themselves are real-life adventure quests that are designed to draw in reluctant readers, especially middle grade and teen boys.

In fact, I read that the idea for the series began with Mr. Walters and that he invited the six other authors to join him in writing the inter-linked books that are also good as stand-alone novels. I do want to read the other books about D.J. and his cousins now, even though a series of twenty-one books sounds like rather a big project to take on.

I’m rather intrigued to see whether the other authors’ books can stand up to the quality of this first book in the series. Has anyone else heard of these books or read any of the books in this series? I only discovered them because I read another book by Eric Walters last year and enjoyed it immensely. So, I went looking for more of Mr. Walters’ fiction. I have heard of Sigmund Brouwer, but not of the other Canadian authors who are collaborating in the series.

The Prequels (published in Fall, 2016)
Jungle Land by Eric Walters.
The Missing Skull by John Wilson.
Speed By Ted Staunton.
Weerdest Day Ever by Richard Scrimgar.
Slide by Norah McClintock.
Barracuda by Sigmund Brouwer
Separated by Shane Peacock.

The Original Seven (2012)
Between Heaven and Earth by Eric Walters.
Lost Cause by John Wilson.
Jump Cut By Ted Staunton.
Ink Me by Richard Scrimgar.
Close to the Heel by Norah McClintock.
Devil’s Pass by Sigmund Brouwer
Last Message by Shane Peacock.

The Sequels (2014)
Sleeper by Eric Walters.
Broken Arrow by John Wilson.
Coda By Ted Staunton.
The Wolf and Me by Richard Scrimgar.
From the Dead by Norah McClintock.
Tin Soldier by Sigmund Brouwer
Double You by Shane Peacock.

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

Very piratical. And romantical.

Not really bloody. Or violent. Well, not very. I mean, there are pirates. But Captain Peter Blood (that’s his real name) is a gentleman pirate. He only kills bad guys. And a lot of the really bad, violent stuff occurs off-stage, so to speak. Captain Blood reminds me of Captain Jack Sparrow, sort of quirky and not always trustworthy. He lives by his own code of honor and morality, and it’s not exactly the traditional one of his time and culture. Still, Captain Blood sees himself, and others mostly see him, as a gentleman, forced into piracy by circumstances beyond his control and trying to make the best of it.

The story begins in England, 1685. (You can read an article with detailed historical background to the novel here.) Peter Blood is a “bachelor of medicine and several other things besides.” He becomes inadvertently involved in the Monmouth Rebellion against King James II of England. Although he is innocent, guilty only of sheltering and assisting medically one of the fleeing rebels, Blood is convicted of treason, and in lieu of a sentence of execution, he is sent to Barbados as a slave. Eventually after years of captivity, Peter Blood escapes from his master in Barbados, but since he is an outlaw and an escaped slave with a price on his head, he has little choice but to become a buccaneer, or privateer, or in common parlance, a pirate.

Some of the events in Peter Blood’s career as a pirate sound very similar to the exploits of the actual pirate Henry Morgan, fictionalized in John and Patricia Beatty’s book, Pirate Royal. Sabatini explains this similarity in his book by saying that Captain Morgan’s biographer, Esquemeling, must have read the ship’s log of Captain BLood’s ship. “Esquemeling must have obtained access to these records, and he plucked from them the brilliant feathers of several exploits to stick them into the tale of his own hero, Captain Morgan. I mention it chiefly as a warning, for when presently I come to relate the affair of Maracaybo, those of you who have read Esquemeling may be in danger of supposing that Henry Morgan really performed those things which are veraciously attributed to Peter Blood.”

So, Captain Blood, the epitome of the pirate adventure story, published in 1922, is a good bet to recommend to teens and adults looking for pirate books. The Sea Hawk is another pirate story from the pen of the prolific Sabatini. Both of these novels were adapted into movies by the Hollywood film machine of the 1920’s and 1930’s, twice each, first as silent films and again as “talkies”, the latter starring the swashbuckling film hero, Errol Flynn.

Silent to the Bone by e.l. konigsburg

When Z-baby was about nine years old, her favorite book was E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. She mostly listened to the audiobook, sometimes following along in the print book, and she listened so many times that she had portions of the book memorized. It’s a book perfectly suited for eight, nine, ten and eleven year olds who enjoy the adventure of Claudia and her little brother Jamie, running away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.

All that to say, Silent to the Bone is not Mixed-up Files. Silent to the Bone is a good mystery/psychological thriller YA book, rated PG13. The seduction scenes and the details about male adolescent physicality are appropriate for teens, but not really very relatable for the eight-twelve year old audience of Mixed-up Files.

Connor, our narrator, is willing to help his friend Branwell, but it would help a lot if Branwell would just tell everybody what really happened when Bramwell’s baby sister Nikki fell ill and went into a coma. The au pair, Vivian, says that Branwell must have dropped the baby, but she didn’t really witness the injury. And Branwell won’t, or can’t, talk at all. So it’s up to Connor to find a way to communicate with Branwell and to figure out what really happened to Nikki.

Ms. Kongisburg told a good story in this YA novel. Connor and Branwell are fine young men, thirteen years old, dealing with family tensions, growing up, and adolescent sexual changes. I would recommend this story to any twelve or thirteen year old who is beginning to deal with adolescent issues in himself or in friends. It’s a decent, well-written mystery with underlying themes that will speak to young adolescents, especially boys.

Code of Honor by Alan Gratz

Kamran Smith, football star, West Point applicant, and homecoming king, has spent his entire life admiring, following, and emulating his older brother, Darius. But now Darius is accused of a heinous crime: Darius’s face is all over the news, and he’s acting like a terrorist. Can an Army Ranger, West Point graduate, and all-around good guy like Darius really be brainwashed or persuaded into joining al-Qaeda or some shadowy group of radical Muslim terrorists?

Code of Honor is a timely and opportune look at honor and treachery and the psychology of the family member of an accused terrorist. The action in the book is pretty much non-stop, and yet Kamran has time to think a lot about trust and and loyalty and commitment and whether or not people are good or bad or some mixture of the two. Karan’s unrelenting faith in his brother is a little hard to swallow since by all appearances Darius has changed and become an adherent of jihadism. And Kamran’s escape from a secure government facility (CIA prison) was really difficult to read without a large dose of suspension of disbelief. However, I went along for the ride and enjoyed it for the most part.

The book could have taken a deeper look at what makes someone decide to become a jihadist or terrorist, but that’s not the direction the author chose to take. Instead, it’s an action thriller for young adults with an understated moral lesson about not judging by appearances and keeping faith with friends and family. I can deal with that.

Other YA books about Afghanistan, terrorism, American military in Muslim countries, etc.:

If You’re Reading This by Trent Reedy. As his senior year in high school begins, Mike receives a series of letters from his father who died in Afghanistan when Mike was eight years old.

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy. The fictional story of Zulaikha, a Muslim girl living in northern Afghanistan, based on the story of the real Zulaikha and on the stories of other people Mr. Reedy met during his time in Afghanistan.

Bull Rider by Suzanne Morgan Williams. When Cam’s brother, Ben, returns from Iraq with TBI (traumatic brain injury) and confined to a wheelchair, Cam sees only one way to impress Ben and get him to work at his own recovery: a bull-riding challenge.

The Last Thing I Remember by Andrew Klavan (and sequels). A thriller series that celebrates faith, karate, self-defense, and American values without being didactic or cheesy.

If We Survive by Andrew Klavan. Teenager Will Peterson and three friends, along with their youth director from church, go to some unspecified country in Central America to build a school. While they are there, a revolution takes place, and Will and his group are caught up in the violence and politics of the country.

The Terrorist by Caroline B. Cooney. Eleven year old American Billy is handed a mysterious package in a London Underground station, and his family’s lives are changed forever.

Venture at Midsummer by Eva-Lis Wuorio

I picked this book out of a bunch of ex-library discards because I had heard of the author somewhere. In fact, I have one of Ms. Wuorio’s books, To Fight in Silence, a fictional World War II story based on interviews with “hundreds of Norwegians who were training in Canada for the war, and dozens of Danish officials who were trying to explain their country’s predicament to the outside world,” on my To-Be-Read list. Someone, somewhere recommended the book to me, and I thought it sounded good.

So, Venture at Midsummer is set after World War II, maybe in the 1960’s; it was published in 1967. Lisa, a Finnish girl, has invited two boarding school friends, Gavin and Jordain, to spend the summer with her family in Finland, near the border with Russia, or the Soviet Union as it was called back then. The young people experience traditional Finnish customs such as a sauna bath and the celebration of Juhannis, Midsummer’s Day, and then they become involved in a dangerous journey across the border into Soviet Russia to help a new friend, Kai, pay a “debt of honor” to his guardian. The four teens kayak into a part of the country that used to be part of Finland, but was given to the Russians after World War II. There they find, of course, much more than they were looking for, and they learn to trust one another and work together as a team.

The setting in the borderlands of eastern Finland is particularly vivid and interesting since I didn’t know much about post-war Finland. I didn’t know that part of Finland was turned over to the Russians after the war or that thousands of Finns, given the option to swear allegiance to the Communist government of Soviet Russia, instead decided to leave their homes and make new lives within the new borders of Finland. In fact, I didn’t know much about Finland at all before reading this book, and now I know a little more.

I’m planning an around the world reading project, and I just realized that this book can be my first one for that project. I found this blog post about author Eva-Lis Wuorio and learned that she was a Finnish Canadian, having emigrated to Canada with her family when she was thirteen years old. I picked up another book by the same author from the same discard pile, Return of the Viking, and I’m looking forward to reading it. According to what I read, it’s a time travel book about some children who meet Norse explorer Leif Erickson.

Black Dove White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Emilia and Teo have always lived unorthodox lives in a free-spirited and unconventional family. Emilia’s Momma is a pilot and a barnstorming performer, as is Teo’s mom, Delia. The two pilots travel the country and perform together as the Black Dove and the White Raven, since Momma Rhoda Menotti is white while Delia is black. Papa Menotti is an Italian aviator, but Emilia and her mom haven’t seen him since Em was a baby. Theo’s father is Ethiopian, and he died in France when the two children were infants. So, Teo and Em have grown up together as brother and sister.

Delia’s dream is for all of them to move to Ethiopia where Teo can grow up without the prejudice and racism that is prevalent in the U.S. in the 1930’s. When tragedy strikes, derailing the dream, the little family is more determined than ever to fly away to Ethiopia, even though things in Africa aren’t all good. Slavery is still legal, although restricted, in Ethiopia, and the European powers of France, Britain, and Italy are squabbling over who will influence and exercise power in the kingdom ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie.

This historical novel, by the author of Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, was riveting. It’s mostly set in a place I know very little about, Ethiopia, and chronicles events that I knew nothing about. Mussolini’s troops used mustard gas in 1936 on Ethiopian soldiers armed with only spears and on civilians? Emperor Haile Selassie himself fought the Italians, shooting at their planes from the ground? Eight black American aviators tried to go to Ethiopia as military support for the Ethiopians during the Italian invasion, but the U.S. would not approve their passports? There’s lots of other history embedded in the story, but aside from that, it’s just a fine tale of adventure and friendship and war and flying and growing up.

Some of the religious and political ideas of the main characters are debatable, to say the least. But that display of odd and varying opinions and beliefs just made me want to meet the characters in the book and talk to them and really understand their beliefs and attitudes, especially in regard to Christianity, better. Momma Rhoda Menotti grew up in a Quaker family, and her attitude toward marriage and religion is liberal and far from orthodox. Teo finds meaning in the liturgy and practices of the Ethiopian Coptic Church as he watches it in Ethiopia, but he realizes that the Ethiopian church is not his church, since he is really an American despite his having an Ethiopian father. Em is not very religious at all, but she has the best lines in the book in regard to religion, telling Teo when he is having a superstitious moment of blaming himself and God for bad things that happen, “God works through us. Through people doing the right thing. Through you. Through Momma giving you her gas mask and covering you up.” She’s acquired sort of a Quaker/Inner Light attitude toward God and religion.

Anyway, it’s a good book with much fodder for discussion. It’s billed as a YA fiction, but I think it’s essentially an adult book, aside from the fact that the two narrators and protagonists are in their late teens. Certainly, adults, both young and old, can enjoy this between-the-wars story of friendship and resilience.

Beneath by Roland Smith

So, first I thought the premise of this young adult novel was intriguing:

“Exactly one year to the day after my brother, Coop, ditched me, I got a package in the mail.
It came to the school, not our home.
The secretary handed me the package with a warning that I was never to use the school as my personal address.
I was going to tell her that I hadn’t when I saw my name: Pat Meatloaf O’Toole, scrawled in Coop’s familiar handwriting.
Meatloaf is not my middle name.
I told her that I would never do it again, grabbed he package, locked myself in a restroom stall, and tore the box open.
Inside was a handheld digital voice recorder, a supply of memory sticks, and a note written on a greasy hamburger wrapper.”

As the story continued, and Pat began to fill in the background about himself and his runaway older brother, Cooper, I began to think the details were a little corny. Coop is an oddball, to say the least. He sleeps in school and stays awake all night. He spends his nights either digging tunnels or tap dancing on bridges and overpasses. The entire family is odd. Mother, a former astronaut turned astrophysicist, and father, a molecular biologist and Nobel laureate, are somewhat uninvolved parents–but loving, nonetheless. The boys have identical twin nannies who speak only Spanish and can’t be distinguished from one another. It was all just a little too quirky, but still intriguing enough to keep me reading.

Then, Pat goes to New York City to look for Coop, gets involved with a homeless community of underground dwellers, and goes from danger into disaster. Maybe I’m easily amused and easily befuddled, but I didn’t see the twists and turns coming. I enjoyed the “thriller” aspects of the novel, and I was able to suspend disbelief, even though the whole story is pretty unbelievable.

Throw in murder, terrorism,, a love interest for Coop (nothing explicit), sophisticated criminal activity underneath the sidewalks, homes and buildings of NYC, and a couple of brothers who are the only ones between those master criminals and the destruction of great swaths of the United States. It was a fun ride, and there’s a set-up for a sequel. However, the ending was satisfying, not frustrating.

Recommended for those who like this sort of story (maybe fans of Kiki Strike or of Carolyn Cooney and Margaret Peterson Haddix) –ages twelve and up.


Soulprint by Megan Miranda

The premise of this YA novel is that souls enter new bodies when people die, i.e. human reincarnation. And someone has a computer database record of whose soul has gone where and what that soul did in a past life. This database is controversial, secret, and important because of the other premise in the novel: souls of evil people (in new bodies with new identities) tend to repeat their past crimes. In other words, if I was thief in this life, my thieving soul gets passed on to the next person who inherits my soul.

So, in spite of the philosophically flawed idea of reincarnation, I found the book’s questions intriguing. Nature vs. nurture. Can we overcome or transcend our own past mistakes and sins, even those in this life? How? Why do we often repeat those bad decisions and sinful patterns? How do we become something better than what people expect us to be?

The book begins with seventeen year old Alina Chase, in seclusion on an island by order of the government to keep her from repeating the crimes of her past life. Alina doesn’t know much about who she was in her past life or what she did, but she’s tired of being blamed for something she didn’t really do and can’t even remember. When three other young people help Alina to escape the island, the four go on the run together, but Alina finds that the others have their own agendas and want to use her to gain their own ends. There’s romance, a bit of a triangle, but it’s fairly chaste as YA novels go these days: lots of heavy breathing and some intense kissing.

I liked the book, but the reincarnation thing bothered me because I just don’t believe in it. I found it hard to suspend disbelief and take the “database of past lives” seriously. However, that’s a flaw in my imagination. Otherwise, I thought it was deftly plotted and intriguing enough. It’s for teens looking for a psychological romance thriller in a sci-fi world.