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.

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.

Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

Winston Mawdsley Graham was twentieth century British novelist best known for his series of Poldark novels, set in the late eighteenth century, just after end of the American Revolution or War for Independence. The series takes place in Cornwall, and the protagonist and eponymous hero is a former soldier in the British army in America who comes home to find the girl he left behind, Elizabeth, engaged to be married to his richer cousin, Francis. Ross returns to the land he has inherited from his deceased father and attempts to make a living and a life in the stark and poverty-stricken mines and fields of southern England.

After the first novel, Ross Poldark, published in 1945, there followed eleven more books in the series. The novels have been adapted for television at least twice by the BBC, once in the 1970’s and again (the first two novels with perhaps more to come?) in 2015. I saw the 2015 version which was what got me interested in reading the books. I must say that although I enjoyed the television mini-series, I wish I had read the books first. I think, having read the first book in the series, that the books will be the better stories, less sensationalized and more true-to-life. But now I have the actors, Aidan Turner as Ross and Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, in my head, and I can’t help but picture those actors as I read the story. Mr. Turner is certainly handsome in a tall-dark-and way, and I don’t mind picturing him. But I wish I had formed my own mental pictures first and then maybe super-imposed the actors onto my conceptions.

I was a bit disappointed in the ending of the first book, too, since I didn’t realize at first that the mini-series was based on the first two books. I expected certain events to unfold that didn’t happen. However, I’m now primed and ready for the next book in the series, titled Demelza. In fact, I’m looking forward to reading the entire series. It’s reminding me, for some reason, of the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. Perhaps it’s the disadvantaged and maltreated hero, handsome and debonair, but also dark and tormented. Or maybe the emphasis on finding one’s love amid the toils and vicissitudes of business (Poldark) and politics (Lymond) is what binds the two series together. And the historical setting is vivid and well-drawn and researched in both series.

In case you should want to pursue the series of Poldark novels, the titles are:

1945 – Ross Poldark (original U.S. title: The Renegade)
1946 – Demelza
1950 – Jeremy Poldark (original U.S. title: Venture Once More)
1953 – Warleggan (original U.S. title: The Last Gamble)
1973 – The Black Moon
1976 – The Four Swans
1977 – The Angry Tide
1981 – The Stranger from the Sea
1982 – The Miller’s Dance
1984 – The Loving Cup
1990 – The Twisted Sword
2002 – Bella Poldark

I’ll probably be back with more Poldarkian observations soon.

Booked by Kwame Alexander

Whether I like to admit it or not, awards and public acclaim do influence my interest and enjoyment of a book. I read and wrote about Mr. Alexander’s first book, The Crossover in 2015, before it won the 2015 Newbery Award (and many other awards). My review, as anyone can see, was lukewarm: “if you do like stories in verse form, or if you don’t, but you really, really like basketball, you might want to check out Kwame Alexander’s basketball slam/rap/verse novel.”

Fast forward to 2016 and Kwame Alexander and verse novels are all the rage. Booked, his second verse novel for middle graders/young adults, at least has a title I can get behind, and I’m inclined to give it a fair shake partly because of all the acclaim for The Crossover. Booked is about books and words and family brokenness and well, soccer. I must confess that the soccer stuff I skimmed, hard to do in a novel written in tightly woven poetry, but easy for me because the few soccer-centric poems interspersed throughout the novel did not give me a picture in my mind. Because I’m soccer ignorant.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Booked. The drama in Nick Hall the protagonist’s family, Mac the rapping librarian, Nick’s dad and his book full of words, Nick’s crush on April, Nick’s mom and her easy way of relating to her teenage son—all of these aspects of the book were fun and good to read about in creative, poetic forms and types. The parts I didn’t like were the tired, old excuses and platitudes about divorce, the disrespect Nick showed for his parents, especially his dad, and the unresolved ending, which you will have to read for yourself.

I did like wading through the poems this time to capture the plot and the images and the feelings of being Nick Hall, a thirteen year old with a lot of hard stuff going on in his life. It was sort of like a game—find the plot thread. I’ve seen verse novels capture the interest of a reluctant reader in my own family this year, and I’m more sold on the genre than I was before. And I must admit that Mr. Alexander has a way with words, and poetry.

So, boys and soccer fans and just plain old readers should give it a try. Or try one of the other, mostly verse, novels that Alexander not-so-subtly recommends by way of his character Nick in this book:

All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg.
Rhyme Schemer by K.A. Holt
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.
Peace Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson.
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose.
How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-sized Trophy by Crystal Allen.
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit.

By the way, Nick is emphatically NOT a reader as the book begins, but by the end of the story he’s looking for his next read. Librarians and teachers and parents might want to read this one just to watch the transformation, which is realistic, fits and starts, with the added attractions of a persistent librarian, a pretty girl, and some parental discipline.

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine. (2016)
The Mystery of the Jeweled Moth by Katherine Woodfine. (2016)
The Mystery of the Painted Dragon by Katherine Woodfine. (February, 2017)

Around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, Sophie Taylor-Cavendish is the recently orphaned fifteen year old daughter of a military man and world traveler, her beloved “Papa.” However, since Papa died in an accident way out in South Africa, Sophie must make her own way in the world. And a job as a shopgirl in the millinery department at the fabulous new Sinclair’s Department store in Piccadilly, London, is just the place for a young girl with sense of adventure and a need for a regular source of income.

“Enter a world of bonbons, hats, perfumes, and mysteries around every corner! Wonder at the daring theft of the priceless clockwork sparrow! Tremble as the most dastardly criminals in London enact their wicked plans! Gasp as our bold heroines Miss Sophie Taylor and Miss Lillian Rose break codes, devour iced buns, and vow to bring the villains to justice.”

I think those two paragraphs pretty much capture the general atmosphere of this series of middle grade/YA mysteries. I read the first two books, and I hope to read the third book in the series when it comes out next year. These are not profound, literary, or even particularly well-plotted. There are few glitches in the mechanism, and suspension of disbelief is required. However, the setting and characters are just so enchanting and delicious that a few creaky or inconsistent plot details can and should be overlooked. I’m not sure the London of these books ever really existed, but it’s a delightful place for a mystery romp, nevertheless.

The books are appropriate for middle grade readers; the romance parts of the story are tame and miss-ish, as would be appropriate for the time period. However, there is a murder that takes place in each of the first two volumes in this series, and if a sensitivity to plain but not-gory descriptions of violence and crime are an issue, then younger readers may not be ready for these books. It’s not Agatha Christie, but it’s a good introduction to the genre that Dame Agatha owned.

There’s an ongoing mystery in these books concerning Sophie’s family and background, and I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series to see if there’s a resolution.

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.

Theodosia, Daughter of Aaron Burr by Anne Colver

My daughters have become engrossed in listening to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical, Hamilton, and therefore I have listened to bits and pieces of it quite a few times over the past couple of weeks. (Warning: there’s some fairly foul language in the lyrics to the musical, as well as some lurid gossip about the main characters. On the other hand, some of the lyrics are quite funny and witty.) As one thing leads to another, I noticed this book on the shelves of my library and decided to read it. Theodosia Burr Alston was the only (legitimate)* daughter of Aaron Burr, who figures prominently in the life and, of course, death of Alexander Hamilton.

Anne Colver wrote this book for children or young adults, and it was published in 1941. The content is largely pro-Burr, although various characters can’t help speculating that Burr may have lost at least some of his reason and judgment after the duel with Hamilton. Aside from murdering Hamilton, Burr does do other fantastical and ill-judged things: in particular he becomes involved in a plot to invade Mexico and either to deliver it to the United States or to set up a rival empire with Aaron Burr as emperor.

We see Aaron Burr in the book from the point of view of the adoring Theodosia. Her love never fails. She always believes in her father, always expects the best of him, always stands her ground in defending him. However, Theodora’s husband, Joseph Alston, makes a telling statement about his father-in-law, which becomes the summary judgment of this take on Aaron Burr: “It’s hard to pity a man who can never admit he’s been mistaken. Your father has so much to make him a great man, Theo. He has brilliance and ambition and energy. And magnificent courage. But he has more pride than any man is entitled to in this world.”

And yet, Theodosia, and the readers of this lightly fictionalized biography of Theodosia Burr Alston are impelled to pity Theodosia and her infamous father by the end of the book. He almost became president, but he was also thwarted and insulted at every turn by Alexander Hamilton and his political allies. Burr lost his wife (also named Theodosia) during Washington’s presidency. He endured Hamilton’s calumnies for many years without reply. Then, came the duel, which Burr initiated, and the people of New York were so incensed at Burr that he felt he had to leave the country. And he owed so many debts that he fled with hardly any money to France where he lived in near-poverty. Then, after the Southwestern Empire debacle, Theodosia’s only child, a son named for his grandfather, died of a fever. And in the final tragedy of the book, Theodosia set out from Charleston to travel by ship to New York to visit her aging and still beloved father, but the ship she was on never arrived. Lost at sea.

I don’t really know what to think about Aaron Burr or his daughter. Anya Seton wrote a novel, My Theodosia, also published in 1941, which apparently paints a much different picture of Burr and his daughter. I haven’t read Seton’s novel, but according to Wikipedia Seton portrays a traitorous and hugely ambitious Aaron Burr and again, an adoring and manipulable Theodosia. Burr offers his daughter the opportunity to become Princess of the Western American Empire, and young Theodosia has a brief romance with Meriwether Lewis, thwarted by her protective father. I prefer the Colver version of Theodosia and her father, but I’m not at all sure what is actually accurate or true.

And so the Burrs remain an enigma to some extent, but fascinating nevertheless.

*I went on a bit of a rabbit trail after reading the Wikipedia article about Aaron Burr, which stated that he had two illegitimate children with his East Indian servant, Mary Emmons. These two children, John (Jean) Pierre Burr and Louisa Charlotte Burr, grew up to become influential members of the free black community in Philadelphia, and Burr’s grandson, Frank J. Webb, wrote the second African American novel ever to be published. What would Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan preacher and Aaron’s Burr’s grandfather, have thought of his illustrious, infamous grandson and his progeny?

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

I have very mixed feelings about this book. First of all, it deals with a subject that is timely and necessary and at the same time horrible and unsavory. I wish it would go away, but it won’t, and ignoring it won’t make it not be. The subject is rape and sexual assault. If you don’t want to read a book about a girl who is raped and who not only survives but also refuses to be a victim, you can certainly come at the subject from another direction and another perspective. But the subject itself is unavoidable.

Who hasn’t heard about the Stanford sexual assault case and the terrible miscarriage of justice there that dominated the news a week or two ago? Exit, Pursued by a Bear tells a story similar to that of the Stanford case, except that Hermione Winters, the victim in this story, is an individual (as are all rape and sexual assault victims). She doesn’t just become “that girl who was raped” because this terrible thing happened to her, although the rape does change her life, make her life different, stronger in some ways, weaker in others. One thing that the story makes clear is that everyone deals with the aftermath of a sexual assault in their own individual way; there is no right or wrong way to react, no one way to recover or survive.

And yet, the book certainly hints strongly that there is only one way to deal with an unwanted pregnancy that is the result of a rape. Hermione decides to have an abortion when she finds out that she is pregnant, and no one dares to question that choice or speak for the unborn child. I doubt I would dare to do so myself, were I to be confronted with a teenage girl who had been raped and who was determined to abort the child who was conceived in that act. The subject is too fraught, too horribly conflicting and traumatic, for anyone to give glib advice or to moralize. Nevertheless, without the pain and the emotion of such a tragedy clouding my judgment, I can still say that the baby is not to blame for the father’s crime. The child is still a child and deserves to live, no matter what. Is it a difficult and painful decision? Yes. Does it help anyone to compound the tragedy of sexual assault/rape by adding to it the death of an innocent child? No, I don’t believe it does.

So many good things about this novel. Hermione Winters refuses to be just another victim, just another case number. She has the love and support of friends and family. She doesn’t deny the changes in herself and her life and her relationships, but she does not let the rape define who she is or limit what and who she can become. Trauma is real and evident in Hermione’s story, but so is recovery and even forgiveness, if not for the rapist, at least for those friends who fail to support Hermione because of their own conflicting emotions and reactions.

However, there are several not so good things about the novel, too: an unexamined, almost obligatory, decision for abortion, the stereotypical gay friend who is, of course, the secondary heroine of the story, and the ending, which was strangely unsatisfying and almost unbelievable. I was appalled and saddened by the “ending” of the the real-life Stanford sexual assault case, and I would like to see a book on this subject at least allows room for a pro-life perspective or that shows a person dealing with the aftermath of rape or sexual assault without the added pro-abortion messaging.

The Lark and the Laurel by Barbara Willard

The first in Ms. Willard’s series, The Mantlemass Chronicles, this romance novel is beautifully written. I compared it in my mind to another romance novel I read earlier this month (because it was set in Scotland; I don’t usually read romances), and this one by Willard is much more pleasing to the ear and to the imagination. The plot’s advancement depends on coincidence and on several fortuitous events that are almost unbelievable when threaded together to make a story. However, I didn’t care.

I just wanted Cecily and her fine, upstanding country friend, Lewis Mallory, to be able to get together in spite of all of the obstacles put before and between them. The blurb on the back of the book says that Christian Science Monitor called the book “an entrancing tale of cruel fathers, arranged marriages, sensible aunts, and a true love.” Library Journal named it “tender, solemn romance and a well-sustained mystery.” I agree. This book, published in 1970, holds up well as YA or even adult historical fiction, and the writing and the historical background require something of the reader that modern-day historical romances don’t usually—close and careful reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what a marriage truly is or isn’t. This book adds something to my rumination on that subject. Set in England in 1485, just as Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond came to the throne, ending the Wars of the Roses between the Lancastrians and the Yorks, the story features several characters, each with his or her own attitude about what marriage is meant to be. Cecily’s father sees marriage as a contract, a way to advance his own interests in terms of power and money. Cecily’s aunt, having lived through a bad marriage to a cruel husband, is interested in maintaining her own independence and in helping Cecily to become strong and independent, too. However, Aunt Elizabeth FitzEdmund is not opposed to Cecily’s marriage—to the right person and at the right time and for love, not to further Cecily’s father’s ambitions. Cecily herself is not sure what she thinks, not having been allowed to think for herself nor to have any philosophies about marriage or anything else.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books in the Mantlemass Chronicles:

The Sprig of Broom (1485)
The Eldest Son (1534)
A cold Wind Blowing (1536)
The Iron Lily (1557)
A Flight of Swans (1588)
Harrow and Harvest (1642)

These books take us through English history from the Battle of Bosworth, to the reign of the Tudor kings, to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, to the Spanish Armada, to another English civil war between Cromwell’s Roundheads and the king’s men, Cavaliers. During all these great events the families in and around the manor house Mantlemass—Mallorys, Medleys, Plashets, and Hollands–pursue their own ends and keep their own secrets. From reading the synopses of these other novels in the series, I can see that marriage and romance and family secrets and loyalty and independence continue to be themes that Ms. Willard explores in her books. I’m going to enjoy exploring with her and her characters.