FIC PAU (Reviewing “Northwind”)

So traditionally, a Gary Paulsen novel wouldn’t be the first thing I reach for to read. I reach “Hatchet” in 5th grade (like so many millennials did) and while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t overly enamored with it. Fantasy and sci fi are wicked temptresses that always pulled me away. But THIS book….

Cover of "Northwind" by Gary Paulsen, looking into a fjord with rocky cliffs. In the water, a small one-man canoe paddles away, closely followed by a small ground of orca whales.
Cover Image of “Northwind” by Gary Paulsen

I read most of “Northwind” by Gary Paulsen in the school pick-up line (like parents do) and I cried quietly in my car. Multiple times. Thinking about it now while writing this, I’m STILL getting choked up. And it’s not even a “sad” book (although it does contain sad things). If anything, the book is filled with hope, longing, self discovery, peace, and a greater understanding of one’s place in this greater world we live in. Drive. Purpose. Remembering. Storytelling. Perhaps the thing that makes me MOST choked about this particular read is that I’ll never get to thank Mr. Paulsen for the impact that the book had on this 30-something mother of two who needed the message and catharsis provided by this novel. Sure, it’s written for young adult/old middle grade readers like all of Paulsen’s other books are, but this book definitely hits different if you’re a grown up. Honestly, this book felt so different than a typical Paulsen text in some ways and I wonder if it was because this was a world Paulsen so intimately knew (based on the author’s note at the end), or if it was because Paulsen tried his hand at ambiguous historical fiction, or if it was some grander combination of both.

Okay, after all that emotional spew, onto a brief summary & some defects and delights. Phew.

The book starts with The Saga of Sea Child, a viking-esque saga/poem that provides the exposition for our main character, Leif, who’s mother died bringing him into the world and who’s father had “passed to Valhalla fighting a whale” and was, as the saga tells, “was born an orphan. Alone.” Leif, going into the story, knows no other life than the one handed to him by fate – a life of hardship and work, taken onto the hunting/whaling boats as soon as he was able to walk, growing up to know nothing but the sea. When the story begins, Leif (now a young teenage), along with a few other older men and a little orphan boy, have been left ashore by their larger ship to catch salmon and process them into preserved rations for the whole company when they return to pick them up. But the larger vessel never returns for them, likely lost to the sea, and the small company of men & boys realizes that they’ve been left and they need to figure out how to survive. Things are going well for this small group until, as the saga says, “death found them”.

A large unpiloted ship, filled with the smell of death and “men who have lost their shadows” washes ashore. These men bring disease and all of men start to become gravely ill and die horrible deaths. Hoping to keep the disease from the two young boys and save them, Old Carl, the de facto leader of Leif’s group, loads a large canoe the group has managed to create with supplies he’s able to gather quickly, and he pushes Leif and Little Carl (the little boy) out to sea, telling Leif to “go North… keep going North and never come back. Never come back to this place. Never.” And thus begins Leif’s journey to find himself and survive along what I can only believe takes place in Scandinavia, particularly the coast and fjords of northern Norway.

3 Defects

  1. The book doesn’t shy away from the grittiness of real life. The men are dying of cholera (we learn this in the author’s note) and that death is filled with constant vomit and diarrhea. Paulsen didn’t shy away from the descriptions of this. Fish and other animals are killed and gutted. The men are hunting whales and seals. Orca’s eat salmon… in the way that orcas are sometimes known to “play” with their food. It’s gritty.
  2. SPOILER (skip to #3 if you want to avoid this): The little boy placed in Leif’s care dies from the sickness (and Leif very nearly does, too). Leif very matter-of-factly cares for and buries the little boy’s body. But for a reader who has lost a parent or sibling or who has lost a child (if an adult reader), I can imagine that this book would be very difficult, especially because Leif fondly remembers the boy throughout the novel.
  3. Readers (particularly lower-level readers) may struggle with the saga/poetry interspersed throughout this novel. I LOVED it, but I could imagine a young teen reader instantly being turned off by the exposition of this story because it’s tricky to follow for someone who may not have really read or experienced poetry/sagas.

3 Delights

  1. This book is BEAUTIFUL. The descriptions of the world that Leif is experiencing are deep and filled with a musical, magical quality. It’s obvious to the reader that Paulsen experienced this world of being on the water in a northern/artic climate and that he must have had a great fondness for it.
  2. This is a novel that’s going to mean different things to you, depending on when you come to it. My theatre teacher in high school always said that the best plays could be revisited at different times in your life and they would have completely different meanings based on where you were in your growth, and I think this novel is definitely that kind of text. You could visit this as a pre-teen/teen and the book would have one meaning. Visit it again as a 20-something and the book would speak to you differently. As a 30-something who is a stay-at-home mom currently drifting a little, this book speaks differently again. I look forward to revisiting this one as a 50-something woman and seeing how it speaks to me then.
  3. The vast number of deep themes you could talk about in this book, man. I highlighted one phrases in the text that I thought summarized the book well:
    “But you faced those things as they came and either were successful or you went to Valhalla. That simple. You lived or you died. And in between the two, if you kept your mind open and aware and listened and smelled and watched… In between you learned.” This book is about learning and finding yourself and a million other affirming messages and ideas. Mr. Paulsen will be truly missed – he crafted a beautiful final opus.

FIC VED (Reviewing “The Bone Spindle”)

So… this post isn’t going up on a Sunday. Oops. Blame the 100+ assignments I graded and the Benadryl I took.

This week’s read was the genre where my heart and soul lie: YA fantasy! “The Bone Spindle” by Leslie Vedder is a gender-bent, queer positive retelling of Sleeping Beauty that’s mixed with a little Noah Wyle “The Librarians” style magical archeology/anthroplogy.

Gray background covered in thorns and roses. In foreground, two young women, one in a white shirt with braided hair holding a large ax over her shoulder and the other, in a sleeveless blue shirt, has her short hair pulled back and a leather messenger style bag slung over her shoulder. Text in fron of them reads "The Bone Spindle" in gold lettering.
Cover Image of “The Bone Spindle”

In Vedder’s twist, 100 years have passed since the Kingdom of Witches, Andar, fell to the Spindle Witch, one of the Four Great Witches who was spited by the royal family. In order to try and prevent the complete collapse of the kingdom, the other three Great Witches placed Prince Briar Rose (and the entire court) under a sleeping spell until the Spindle Witch’s curse could be broken. Since Andar’s fall, witches have been hunted and persecuted (and as we learn, hidden by those who are sympathetic to them) and treasure hunters, witch hunters, and anthropologists/archeologists have rifled through witch strongholds, preserving and/or destroying the books, treasures, and magical artifacts found within.

The adventure starts when the two main characters, Lady Filore Nenroa (called Fi) and an ax-wielding hunstwoman named Shane, meet over an ancient map that shows the location of a witch’s sanctuary that hasn’t yet been discovered and destroyed by Witch Hunters. But when Witch Hunters overhear and then target the two young women, it forces them to flee through the wilderness. When they eventually reach the witch’s stronghold on the map, it proves to be more than meets the eye and Fi finds herself pricked by the same Bone Spindle that cursed Briar Rose, setting into motion her Fate to be the one to wake Briar Rose from his sleep. Although Fi is determined to take on the journey on her own, Shane (prompted by the Paper Witch, a character who helps Fi and Shane after their experience at the witch’s stronghold goes wrong) demands that she accompany Fi and remain her loyal partner in this new mission set upon the two of them. The rest of the novel is a twisting and turning adventure to reach Briar Rose and wake the sleeping prince.

This book is definitely a YA novel, but is definitely appropriate for a 7/8 grade YA reader.

3 Defects

  1. Like many fantasy novels, this book has a lengthy exposition. This may be a turn off for readers not accustomed to a longer build up to the main action of the story.
  2. IT’S A SERIES (okay, so this is a delight, too, but I wasn’t expecting to start a brand new series and now need to wait a significant period of time for a 2nd novel). I wasn’t expecting a cliff hanger until I realized how few pages were left in the novel for a potential wrap up.
  3. The book bounces between characters and time periods. While this isn’t a problem for more advanced readers, this may make the novel more difficult to follow and understand. I found the chapters labeled appropriately and was able to tell the difference between past/present flashbacks, but a more novice reader may not.

3 Delights

  1. It’s a series! I’m excited to read the next parts of this story (and I hope they’re published sooner rather than later).
  2. It has queer characters! While one of the main love interest stories is F/M, the other story (Shane’s story) is a F/F pairing and it’s not considered “weird”, or “different”, or a “problem” or questioned in any way in this world and it causes no “weirdness” between Shane and Fi being partners. It just *is*. It’s normal. It’s mundane. And that’s wonderful.
  3. Details, details, details! Like so many of the fantasy novels I love, this novel brings on the details in the setting descriptions, the character descriptions, the characters’ thoughts and feelings, etc. I’m a fan of deep detail in fantasy novels and this one did it! (It also helps that once the story breaks free of the exposition, this book MOVES and is action packed).

FIC STR (Reviewing “It’s Not Me, It’s You”)

Dumped publicly right before her senior prom, Avery Dennis decides that she needs to understand what happened – she’s always been the one to dump her significant other, NOT the other way around. So Avery swears off dating and decides that in order to better understand why all of her relationships have ended, she’s going to interview ALL of her previous boyfriends to collect data. Every single one of them, starting with her first “boyfriend” in kindergarten. And Avery won’t be doing this alone – she’ll drag her friends along for the ride, especially her best friend Coco Kim and her trusty science lab partner, James “Hutch” Hutcherson. Each chapter focuses on one of Avery’s many failed conquests and as she examines each one, she realizes something new about herself that starts to reform the way she thinks about what makes a good partner and a good relationship.

3 Delights

  1. I could tell that the author is a fellow “old millennial”, because while most of the pop culture references will be recognizable by the modern teen, there’s definitely a lean toward adults who are young vs. young adults. This could also be considered a defect, but as an “old millennial” reader, I loved it. It also means that the novel will appeal to both your average high schooler or upper middle schooler, as well as adult readers.
  2. The failed romances are 100% relatable, especially the middle school romances and how both parties thought about what dating was supposed to be. Older teens are sure to feel the same horror/angst/embarrassment that Avery does in reliving each experience (heck, I sure did).
  3. I personally love when a book breaks the fourth wall – this book is written as if Avery is giving her interviews/writing to her social studies teacher, but this format gives it the feeling of breaking the fourth wall and that Avery is actually talking to the reader.

3 Defects

  1. The characters might be a little unrealistic or perhaps a little stereotypical – but no more so than any other humorous high school romance novel. There were points when I felt that the characters were a little over the top… but so are the characters in every other teen and adult romance novel I’ve read. I’ll put it as a defect, but maybe that’s just the genre.
  2. There are a lot of characters. A lot of named characters that you sometimes have to remember who they are and why they’re important to the story. This may be hard to track for some readers. I read novels with extreme amounts of named characters (LOTR, Game of Thrones, Dune, etc.), so this felt like a cakewalk, comparatively.
  3. The humor DOES lean a little “adults who are young” vs. young adults. So… 20/30 somethings may appreciate the pop culture references in this book more than some modern teens. Although I know PLENTY of high schoolers who are into the same stuff as the character in the book, so the cross over power of this one is there for sure. These references WILL make this book “dated” in a shorter span than others, though.

FIC SHA (Reviewing “The Light at the Bottom of the World”)

Though it took me longer to read than a book typically would thanks to the constant interruption of a 4-year-old, I thoroughly enjoyed London Shah’s “The Light at the Bottom of the World”.

Cover image of the book "The Light at the Bottom of the World"

Leyla McQueen is a sixteen-year-old submersible racer living in the ruins of London, which was “lost” beneath the sea after climate change and an apocalyptic level asteroid strike destroyed the world above the sea, causing massive tidal waves and global flooding and forcing humans beneath the waves to survive. Living independently after the death of her mother and the wrongful arrest of her father, Leyla is offered the opportunity to race in the city’s annual submersible marathon. If she wins, Leyla would be able to ask for “the Ultimate Prize”, which for her would be the release of her father from whatever prison he’s being held in.

When the race takes a surprising turn, Leyla finds herself in deeper water than she could have fathomed: facing a corrupt government, finding the truth about what has happened to her father, and having her previously black and white world turned upside down.

Shah’s writing is engaging and deep. She doesn’t pull punches and lets her characters face dark truths in a young YA appropriate way. The character of Leyla feels appropriately “teen” and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, which is hopefully in the works. *crosses fingers*

3 Defects

  1. There are a LOT of side stories in the novel, to the point where following/tracking all of them becomes a little tricky. I realize that Shah is world building in this premier novel, which lends itself to some amount of exposition throughout the book, but I think some of the side stories could have been eliminated.
  2. Teenage girls and emotions, man. I get it – possible love interest, angst, the whole deal – is usually a turn on for YA readers. As an adult reading YA, sometimes I’d love to do without it. The way Shah’s Leyla suddenly develops feelings for a boy isn’t my cup of tea, but I get why she wrote it the way she did.
  3. There’s a prologue that’s important but nearly forgotten because it takes awhile for us to understand why it’s important in the course of the story. Prologue is page one, revelation of why it’s important isn’t until after page 200. I wish the revelation would have come sooner so I didn’t almost forget the prologue AND my #2 defect about how quickly feelings for a boy develop would have had more time to be explored in the book.

3 Delights

  1. Shah’s universe is delightfully diverse. Her main character is a practicing Muslim of Middle Eastern descent (though born in the underwater world). Shah doesn’t shy away from Leyla reading the Koran, using Arabic phrases, and having her pray. I can appreciate that in a world where religion could so easily be done away with due to the post-apocalyptic nature of the story, Shah allows it to thrive and be somewhat integral to the main character (and even be a discussion point later in the story).
  2. The story is FAST PACED. There isn’t a lot of “down time” for the reader and exposition is handled throughout the novel instead of concentrated too heavily at the beginning. This book will instantly engage readers and I wouldn’t have to tell someone to “give it at least 50 pages”. By page 50, we’ve already lived an epic battle of a prologue, a fast paced, “illegal” race through the city of London, and nearing the start of the marathon.
  3. The underwater twist to a post-apocalyptic world isn’t something I’ve read recently and Shah does it very well. I appreciate the diversity of ocean life and the real “fear of the abyss” that works itself into the novel. It has a similar eeriness to deep space novels that I’ve read and the crushing depth of the water really plays with the main character’s head and heart.

Overall, this novel gets 4 out of 5 stars of approval from me and is something I’d easily recommend to my students grades 7 and up.