The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

Really, really weird. I read the whole book, and then I re-read the ending—twice. But I’m still not sure what happened at the end. I’ll give you the Amazon summary since I don’t think I could summarize this story accurately or write a teaser:

On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement.
On the inside, within the walls of the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom.
Tying their two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries . . .
What really happened on the night Orianna stepped between Violet and her tormentors? What really happened on two strange nights at Aurora Hills? Will Amber and Violet and Orianna ever get the justice they deserve—–in this life or in another one?
In prose that sings from line to line, Nova Ren Suma tells a supernatural tale of guilt and of innocence, and of what happens when one is mistaken for the other.

I want to say that this is a book inspired by the popularity of Orange Is the New Black, but I don’t have any idea whether that is true or not. And I’ve never seen the TV show, so I may be totally off on that comparison. A lot of the story does take place in a juvenile detention center for teenage girls.

I found the book confusing and creepy, not necessarily in a good way. I couldn’t tell who was dead or who was alive or when the events in the story were taking place or what the chronology was or even whether good triumphs or evil wins. It seemed as if everybody died—the guilty, the innocent, and everybody in between. But maybe the innocent character that died haunted the guilty party until she died, too? Or maybe the innocent one came alive and took the guilty murderer’s place? I don’t know, but if you like creepy, Edgar Allan Poe-ish, but YA and set in modern times, you could try it.

Not my cuppa, but I did read it to the bitter end.

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.

Young Adult Nonfiction: Cybils Suggestions

Do you need a suggestion for a book to nominate for the Cybils in the category of Young Adult Nonfiction (my judging category)? Nominations are open through October 15th, and anyone can nominate a book, as long as the book was published between October 15, 2014 and October 15, 2015. And here’s link to the nomination form.

The following books are a few titles that haven’t been nominated yet that I’ve read or heard good things about:

Cyber Attack by Martin Gitlin and Margaret J. Goldstein. Semicolon review here.

Place Hacking: Venturing Off Limits by Michael J. Rosen. Semicolon review here. NOMINATED

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Student Edition) by Eric Metaxas. Thomas Nelson, May 2015. Bonhoeffer’s own writings and Eric Metaxas’ biography are quite inspiring. Someone should write a teen version of The Cost of Discipleship, or teens should just step it up and read the original. NOMINATED.

Stories of My Life by Katherine Paterson. Dial, October 16, 2014.

Hidden Gold: A True Story of the Holocaust by Ellen Burakowski. Second Story Press, October 1, 2015. NOMINATED

The Boys in the Boat (Young Readers Adaptation): The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics by Daniel James Brown. Viking, September 2015. I read the adult version last year, and it was great. NOMINATED

Unbroken (The Young Adult Adaptation): An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive by Laura Hillenbrand. Delacourte, November 2014. If ever a book cried out for a wide audience, this one does. NOMINATED.

Give Me Wings: How a Choir of Former Slaves Took on the World by Kathy Lowinger. Annick Press, August 2015. NOMINATED.

Springs of Hope: The Story of Johann Sebastian Bach by Joyce McPherson. CreateSpace, May 2015. I have a wonderful biography of John Calvin by this author in my library, and I would very much like to read this biography of Bach.

Make It Messy: My Perfectly Imperfect Life by Marcus Samuelsson and Veronica Chambers. (Teen edition of autobiography Yes Chef) Delacourte, June 2015. NOMINATED.

The Making of a Navy SEAL: My Story of Surviving the Toughest Challenge and Training the Best by Brandon Webb. St. Martin’s Griffin, August 2015.

The Case for Grace (Student Edition) by Lee Strobel. Zondervan, February 2015.

Noah Webster: Man of Many Words by Catherine Reef. Clarion, August 2105. I read her book on the Bronte sisters and really enjoyed it.

The Courage to Compete: Living with Cerebral Palsy and Following My Dreams by Abbey Curran and Elizabeth Kaye. HarperCollins, September 2015. NOMINATED.

Real Justice: Branded a Baby Killer: The Story of Tammy Marquardt by Jasmine D’Costa. Lorimer, September 2015.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Young Readers Edition) by William Kamkwambe and Bryan Mealer. Dial, February 2015. I read the adult version and found it to be quite an inspiring story.

Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow. Calkins Creek, March 2015. NOMINATED in Elementary and Middle Grade Nonfiction. I think it’s YA.

Legends: The Best Players, Teams and Games in Baseball by Howard Bryant. Philomel, March 2015.

Remembering Inez: The Last Campaign of Inez Milholland, Suffrage Martyr by Robert P. J., Jr. Cooney. American Graphic Press, March 2015. Semicolon review here.

Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Roaring Brook Press, September 2015. NOMINATED

Smart and Spineless: Exploring Invertebrate Intelligence by Ann Downer. 21st Century Books, August 2105.

Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler’s Army by Greg Rauch. BYR, February 2015. NOMINATED

The Prisoners of Breendonk: Personal Histories from a World War II Concentration Camp by James M. Deem. HMH Books for Young Readers, August 2015. NOMINATED

Somewhere There Is Still a Sun: A Memoir of the Holocaust by Michael Gruenbaum and Todd Hasak-Lowy. Aladdin, August 2015.

Speak a Word for Freedom: Women against Slavery by Janet Willen and Marjorie Gann. Tundra Books, September 2015.

This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon by Nancy Plain. University of Nebraska Press, March 2015.

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom by Linda Lowery, with Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley. Dial, January 2015. NOMINATED. Semicolon review here.

The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy by Peggy Caravantes. Chicago Review Press, February 2015.

What have you read in the category of Young Adult nonfiction this year? What book(s) can you recommend? What will you nominate for a Cybil award?

Saturday Review of Books: September 19, 2015

“Heaven must be a place where the library is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. No … eight days a week.” ~Flavia deLuce in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley


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.

You can go to this post for over 100 links to book lists for the end of 2014/beginning of 2015. Feel free to add a link to your own list.

If you enjoy the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon, please invite your friends to stop by and check out the review links here each Saturday.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

A couple of years ago I made a “bliss list” of 52 subjects that hook me into reading and enjoying a book: everything from community to eccentricity to Winston Churchill. Number 3 on that list was “insanity, mental illness, and mental differences and disabilities. Everything from schizophrenia to autism to deafness and blindness and how those affect perceptions and ideas.”

All the Bright Places certainly taps into that particular fascination, even though Finch, one of our two protagonists, doesn’t like labels and refuses to think of himself as bipolar or mentally ill. Finch refuses to be characterized by his illness, doesn’t believe that he is the “freak” that the other kids call him, but he definitely isn’t quite normal. He thinks about death and suicide nearly 24/7—until he meets Violet Markey at the top of the school bell tower where he talks her down from the ledge. Everyone else thinks it was Violet who talked Theodore Finch, the Freak, down from jumping off the bell tower, but Violet and Finch know the truth. And now Finch is fascinated with Violet, and vice-versa.

I liked the book, sort of. Ms. Niven did a good job of showing the quirky thought processes of boy who, whether he wants to be labeled or not, is dealing with serious mental illness. And I liked the way the book shows that Theo Finch is actually a real person, not defined by his mania or depression, but definitely becoming more and more enslaved to the sickness as the story progresses.

That said, I had issues with some of the plot and characterizations in this book. Theo’s family is a joke. His father is alternately abusive and absent, and his mother is . . . out of touch? She doesn’t feel like a real person. Theodore lives in a closet half the time, and his mother doesn’t do anything at all. He doesn’t sleep, and he goes out running at all hours of the day and night, and mom is oblivious. He disappears, and she still doesn’t do anything. Do these kind of people exist? Maybe, but I don’t get it.

Then there’s the financial aspect of the story. A lot of YA fiction seems to be written by people who are unaware or actively ignoring the financial realities of middle class life. Theo has a car (why?), but no job. I couldn’t see how he managed to pull twenty dollar bills out of his pocket to pay for books, or keep his car gassed up, or buy gallons and gallons of paint, or buy a huge bouquet of flowers for Violet. His dad didn’t seem like the type to chip in any funds, and Theo’s mom worked two part time jobs, one of them at a bookstore. Violet, too, has all the money she needs to eat out, travel around exploring Indiana with Theo, and do anything else she happens to want to do. Violet also has no job. And both Theo and Violet have the excruciating problem of simply deciding which university they want to attend, with no discussion or consideration of cost. This lack of financial limitations seems to be the case in a majority of YA novels. It only matters which university sends you an acceptance letter; money is no object for these basically middle class teens.

Lastly, All the Bright Places almost glamorizes suicide. Yes, we need to be sympathetic and offer help and not stigmatize those are mentally ill or those who are victims of their own suicidal thoughts. However, the other extreme is to make suicide look good, so cute and quirky. Theo is so creative and intelligent. He’s romantic, even in the throes of suicidal compulsions. He’s the only one who understands Violet. He manages to make his bipolar ravings sound like some kind of esoteric wisdom. SPOILER ALERT: Theo dies, but Violet halfway believes that “[p]eople like Theodore Finch don’t die. He’s just wandering.” At the end of the book, Violet writes an epitaph for Theo: “I was alive. I burned brightly. And then I died, but not really. Because someone like me, cannot, will not die like everyone else. I linger like the legends of the Blue Hole.”

I wanted to say, loudly, to whomever might read this book:

Suicide is NOT glamorous.

It hurts (you and other people).

You won’t linger like a legend.

At the end, you really do die.

Warnings: mild language, and of course, obligatory YA sex.

Down Ryton Water by E.R. Gaggin

Down Ryton Water is a 1942 Newbery Honor book about the Pilgrims–published back when children’s books were really meaty and challenging reads. It’s 369 pages of pilgrim wanderings and family building and moving and rearranging and traveling and birthing and marrying.

The (sainted) Pilgrims come across as real people with personalities and foibles and humor and salty language (nothing that’s shocking for nowadays) and full lives. The book focuses on the Over family: Mother Orris Brode Over, a gardener and herbalist; Father Matt Over, a farmer; Young Matt, five years old as the story opens in Scrooby, England; and baby Remember, “the damp woman child” as Young Matt calls her. The family soon grows: Young Matt’s young uncle John Brode, an adopted orphan child named Winifrett, a new baby boy born in Holland and named for the Dutch St. Nicholas, and later a young Native American teen named Wisset, all join the Over family.

It’s a book about family and about continuity of that family amidst pilgrim upheavals and separations and reunions. I found it encouraging and full of wisdom nuggets:

Orris to Young Matt upon the occasion of the Overs leaving Scrooby for Holland: “Strangers and pilgrims on the earth. That’s what we are . . . Because pilgrims, my lad, are strangers in a strange land. And so will we be–and my poor simples! Pilgrims wander about the earth in search of the blessed vision that keeps ever out of reach, just ahead of them. . . . Our vision is a place to live where we may have freedom to think, freedom to worship, and freedom to dig in the muck once more.”

Uncle John, when the Pilgrims are leaving Holland: “Freedom must be earned; it must first be understood and then fought for. It must be forever guarded, lest it slip away. It is the most precious thing in life.”

William Bradford at the first Thanksgiving: “We have been in a race for life. But a halt must be made in such a race sometime. A halt to consider what has been accomplished with God’s help, and to give thanks to Him for His blessings. A halt for–for–well, for laughter and feasting and pleasantry. Both young and old need a bolus of merriment now and then to keep them in good health.”

When Young Matt is building himself a house, his uncle John tells him: “Get some beauty into the design! No dwelling is too simple for beauty! There’s a correctness for every need. In building, as in garments.”

This fictional family of Pilgrims, the Overs, shows young (and old) readers the vicissitudes of life in colonial America as the first Europeans came to settle in the New World. It would make a good November read aloud book for upper elementary or even middle school children. And for skilled readers in that age group who are interested in history, this book would also be a fascinating and challenging independent reading choice. The book is long and descriptive passages abound, so patience and a tolerance for such is required. I found it a good antidote to the internet-based reading that I often get accustomed to and have to wean myself from in order to read deeply and enjoy fully the reading that I do.

Julia Ellsworth Ford Foundation Award for Children’s Literature

The book I reviewed yesterday, The Wonderful Year by Nancy Barnes, was a Newbery Honor book. However, curiously enough, the copy I read had no Newbery sticker on it. It did have a medal sticker proclaiming it to be the recipient of the “Award of the Julia Ellsworth Ford Foundation (for) Children’s Literature.”

Mrs. Ford seems to have been a prominent New York socialite and author and patron of the arts. I looked for information about her on the web and found this brief bio at an art website dedicated to the paintings of John William Waterhouse:

Julia Ellsworth Ford, neé Shaw, was a New York socialite, philanthropist, author of children’s books and doyenne of a salon that included the Lebanese mystic Kahlil Gibran, Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, and American dancer Isadora Duncan. Her husband was Simeon Ford, financier and noted host of the old Grand Union Hotel, New York (co-owned with Julia’s brother Samuel Shaw).

Mrs. Ford “though extremely wealthy, was more interested in meeting famous people, whom she collected as others did stamps or butterflies, than in disbursing her capital: ‘the woman who aspires’ was the way he described her to Florence Farr.” (from a 1905 letter by John Quinn quoted in Prodigal Father: The Life of John Butler Yeats, William Michael Murphy.)

“Mrs. Ford had a great interest in the Pre-Raphaelite painters and later artists such as JW Waterhouse and Arthur Hacker, both of whom she knew personally. She went to Germany to meet the German painter Franz von Stuck and to get photographic reproductions of his work. She created her own wallpaper for her upstairs study by arranging on the walls as a mosaic over two hundred photographic reproductions of pictures by these artists.”

Ms. Ford was the author of the children’s book, Snickerty Nick and the Giant, illustrated by famed artist Arthur Rackham, and also of other children’s tomes, somewhat less well-known than old Snickerty Nick. I couldn’t find a list of the books that Ms. Ford’s foundation gave awards to, but I did find some of them individually attributed here and there across the internet. Apparently, the award was a competition for the best children’s book manuscript submitted to the foundation. Here are a few of the award winners that I could find:

Singing Paddles by Julia Butler (Hansen). Holt, 1937. The story of Sally Ann Blair and her family who travel from Kentucky to Oregon in 1842.

My Brother Was Mozart by Benson Wheeler and Claire Lee Purdy. Harcourt, 1937.

The Stage-Struck Seal by James Neal. Holt, 1937.

Hello, the Boat! by Phyllis Crawford. Illustrated by Edward Laning. E.M. Hale and Company, 1938. The journey of a store-boat down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati. This book won a Newbery Honor in 1939.

Falcon Fly Back by Elinore Blaisdell. Messner, 1939. In medieval France, 12-year-old Anne de Hauteville trains a falcon and later rescues it when it escapes.

The Listening Man by Lucy Embury. Illustrated by Russell Hamilton. Messner, 1940. In sixth century Ireland, Ollave wants to become a “listening man” rather than a fighting man.

Walt Whitman: Builder for America by Babette Deutsch. Messner, 1941.

Journey Cake by Isabel McLennan McMeekin. Messner, 1942. In 1793, the father of the Shadrow family whose mother has recently died goes into the Kentucky wilderness to establish a new life for his family. The children leave their home in North Carolina in the spring to meet their father in Kentucky. Along with their freed slave woman and her husband they face drudgery, opposition and danger along the way. During their travel they participate in a pioneer wedding and meet Johnny Appleseed.

Valiant Minstrel: The Story of Harry Lauder by Gladys Malvern. Illustrated by Corinne Malvern. Messner, 1943. Sir Harry Lauder was a vaudeville singer and comedian from Scotland.

Raymond L. Ditmars: His Exciting Career with Reptiles, Insects and Animals by Laura Newbold Wood. Messner, 1944. Ditmars, according to Wikipedia, was an American herpetologist, illustrator, writer and filmmaker. He wrote several books of his own about snakes and about his adventures as a Bronx Zoo curator and naturalist. Mr. Ditmars died in 1942, so this biography was rather timely as well as informative, I’m sure.

The Wonderful Year by Nancy Barnes. Illustrated by Kate Seredy. Messner, 1946.

A Horse to Remember by Genevieve Torrey Eames. Illustrated by Paul Brown. Messner, 1947. Joker the Pony and Jarvis solve a mystery together.

The Canvas Castle by Alice Rogers Hager. Illustrated by Mary Stevens. Messner, 1948. Ms. Hager “worked as a reporter in Los Angeles, California, and was the Washington editor and war correspondent throughout China, Burma and India during WW II.” I’m not exactly sure what the book is about. A memoir of her travels, perhaps?

Tomas and the Red-Headed Angel by Marion Garthwaite. Illustrated by Laurence J. Borjklund. Messner, 1950. The spirited young Spanish girl, Angelita, befriends an Indian boy, Tomas.

After the first couple of years of the contest, there seems to have been some sort of arrangement with Julian Messner Publishing Company to publish the winning manuscripts. I couldn’t find any award recipients after 1950. Julia Ellsworth Ford died in 1950, so I suppose the foundation and the award died with her.

Is anyone else familiar with this contest/award or with any of the books that won the award? As I said, I just read The Wonderful Year, and enjoyed it. I have also read other books by author Gladys Malvern and would love to have any of her books in my library. Are any of these authors or books familiar to any of my readers? Don’t some of them sound interesting?

Some Kind of Magic by Adrian Fogelin

Book #4 for the 48-hour Book Challenge
223 pages, 3 hours

The last summer before high school. Things are changing for Cass, Jemmie, Justin, and Ben, and some of them are ready for a change while others just want to keep things the way they have always been.

The four friends, plus Ben’s almost seven year old little brother Cody, discover an old hat that might be magical and an old abandoned building that seems to be just the right place to spend their summer before high school. As relationships between the four friends and others in the neighborhood shift and change, Cody has to figure out what the hat is telling him and whether to listen. And Justin must decide whether to try to think and speak for himself or give up before he ever gets started. Cass has to learn to accept the changes that are inevitable. Ben needs to deal with the restlessness inside him. Jemmie just wants to enjoy the summer and then head for high school, new people, and new adventures.

I liked this book a lot. I’m not sure the pacing is just right for some readers. The book sort of moseys along like a long, hot summer. And the way it’s arranged in chapters from different characters’ viewpoints made it hard at first for me to keep the characters straight. The chapters from the point of view of the teens–Cass, Jemmie, Justin, and Ben—are written in first person, and the chapters told from Cody’s vantage point are all in third person. Because Cody’s so young, only six years old, and couldn’t really “tell” his parts of the story in a mature voice? Anyway, the shifting voices and the slow pace might throw some readers off, but I didn’t have any trouble sticking with it and becoming engrossed.

Ben is reading To Kill a Mockingbird for summer reading, and there’s a bit of a TKAM feeling to this story: a neighborhood story with kids trying to figure out an old mystery from way back, family history, serious stuff going on under the surface of a summer’s recreation. The neighborhood setting is in Tallahassee, Florida, where the author herself resides. And although one of the young people in the story, Jemmie, is black, there’s not really a hint of racial tension in the story, unlike TKAM.

However, I looked up the author, and learned that Some Kind of Magic is the sixth and final book in a series of books about the same neighborhood, called appropriately enough, The Neighborhood Novels. And the first book in the series, Crossing Jordan, is about Cass and Jemmie when they first met, and it definitely deals with racial tension and bridging the gap between white and black residents of this multi-racial neighborhood. I am really interested in reading the first five books in this series so that I can get the backstory of these characters and of other residents of The Neighborhood. Maybe that backstory would have helped me keep the characters straight as I began to read Some Kind of Magic. Still, I recommend this book on its own, and on the basis of having read this one, I also recommend that you look up the other books in the Neighborhood Novels series:

Crossing Jordan
Anna Casey’s Place in the World “Anna Casey must deal with the loss of her family and adjust to living in a foster home. Feeling abandoned and alone, Anna turns to her closest companion, her explorer journal.”
My Brother’s Hero “When his aunt and uncle win a Christmas cruise Ben and his family are off to watch their marina in the Florida Keys. This is Ben’s chance to live aboard a boat, swim and snorkel, fish for the big ones, and have some adventures for a change.”
The Big Nothing “When everyone in his life lets him down, Justin Riggs discovers something inside himself—a hidden talent that helps him survive.”
The Sorta Sisters “Anna and Mica have the same problem. They’re both lonely. Although separated by the entire state of Florida, they keep each other company through the exchange of letters and strange and sometimes mystifying objects.”
Some Kind of Magic

Yep. Gotta add these to the TBR list.

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The Faraway Lurs by Harry Behn

Book #3 for the 48-hour Book Challenge
190 pages, 2 hours

First of all, what are lurs? A lur is “a Bronze-Age musical instrument in the form of a conical tube that is roughly S-shaped, without finger holes. It is end blown, like a trumpet, and sounds something like a trombone. Lurs often come in pairs, so they are often referred to in the plural.”

The Faraway Lurs, published in 1963, honored by ALA as a “notable book”, is a book I read back in the day when I was a teen. I didn’t remember much about it, but I did think it was notable in my reading past as a story with a different setting and feel from most historical fiction set in the distant past. Most fiction based on ancient history is either set in Egypt, Palestine, Greece or the Roman Empire. This one has an early Bronze Age setting in Denmark, about 3000 years ago.

The romantic protagonists are Heather Goodshade of the Forest People tribe and Wolf Stone, a young chieftain’s son from the tribe of the invading Sun People. A Romeo and Juliet story ensues, as Heather and Wolf Stone fall in love and try to bring their two very different tribal cultures together in peace so that they can be together as man and wife. Wolf Stone’s people are savage savages, worshippers of the Sun God and very warlike and violent both within the tribe and toward outsiders. Heather’s people are more gentle savages, but still the ending of the book demonstrates that even Heather’s gentle forest tribe is in cruel bondage to the whims of their “gentle” gods, an ancient Tree and a whispering Spring.

Of course, Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, and The Faraway Lurs, drawn from the discovery of a burial mound for a young beautiful Stone Age/early Bronze Age girl, ends in tragedy, too, as any reader who read the introduction, where Mr. Behn tells about the discovery that inspired his novel, would know. The girl in the burial mound died young, and so does Heather Goodshade. How that tragic ending comes about is the hook upon which the novel hangs, so I won’t tell you any more.

This book would be good for teens who are studying ancient history, lending to that study a different perspective and a different cultural understanding. The ancient world wasn’t all pharaohs and Roman legions. And it would be to pair the novel with a viewing of Romeo and Juliet and then a comparison of the two stories. There’s nothing sexually explicit in the novel, and the violence is mostly off-stage or described in unobjectionable but straightforward language. The presentation of the tribal cultures themselves would lend itself to a discussion of the need for all humanity in all its tribes and cultures to be redeemed, saved from our propensity toward sin, brutality, and idolatry. Particularly, as I compare Behn’s story with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and with the recent event of the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, I am reminded of how human sin and prejudice is only covered over by civilization with a very thin veneer. Our idols continue to betray us; our desire for both power and safety continues to lead us into sin and tragedy; and our separation from God continues to play out in divisions between the people He created as we do violence to ourselves and to others in futile attempts to heal the breach or destroy the other.

May God have mercy upon us all.

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The Island by Gary Paulsen

Book #1 for the 48-hour Book Challenge
202 pages, 2.5 hours

I’ve never read Gary Paulsen’s Newbery Honor young adult novel, Hatchet, although I have read a lot about it and seen it recommended frequently. It’s a survival story, about a boy who grows into manhood by surviving in a harsh natural environment. According to Wikipedia this “coming of age by surviving in the wilderness” theme is a frequently repeated one in Paulsen’s more than 200 novels:

“Much of Paulsen’s work features the outdoors and highlights the importance of nature. He often uses “coming of age” themes in his novels, where a character masters the art of survival in isolation as a rite of passage to manhood and maturity.”

The Island tells the story of Wil, a teen who, with his parents, moves to a rural area of northern Wisconsin near a lake, Sucker Lake, with an unnamed island in the center of the lake. Wil sees the island while riding his bike, and he also finds a small rowboat conveniently abandoned on the shore so that he is able to row out to the island by himself. On the island, Wil discovers something about himself and about the world that he tries to put into writing, or into drawings of wildlife on the island, or into words of explanation for his parents and for his new friend, Susan. He is somewhat successful in his writing and drawing, less so in his verbal explanations.

The Island is an odd little book. I can see myself recommending it to teens who are adventure and nature lovers and also quite thoughtful, even philosophical. I’m not sure how often that combination of characteristics coincides. Not much happens in the novel; there’s a lot of description of the natural environment and quite a bit of philosophical musing. I would think the pace of the story would be a bit slow for many young adult readers. There’s a hint of romance, but it’s not really developed. The characters themselves, Wil and Susan, nip any budding of romance, in the bud so to speak, since Wil is on a quest of sorts to know and understand the natural world and himself. He doesn’t really have time for romance.

I enjoyed reading about Wil and his search for understanding and enlightenment. The spirituality or philosophy in the book felt rather like Buddhism or nature worship, even though religion is never mentioned nor is any deity invoked. I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone, but for discerning readers there might even be some nuggets of truth. The natural world is given to us to point us to the Creator. Wil doesn’t have any experience of God, but he does begin to understand himself and his place in the world of The Island. Perhaps that’s a start.

Footnote: My mass market paperback copy of The Island is autographed by Gary Paulsen “for Kelli”, and the book itself is dedicated to Mike Printz, the librarian whose name adorns the Printz Award for Young Adult Literature.

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