Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Dragon's Tooth by N. D. Wilson

I was recently given the honor of reviewing The Dragon's Tooth by N. D. Wilson for The Rabbit Room, a website started by musician and author Andrew Peterson. The Rabbit Room is described as "a place for stories. For artists who believe in the power of old tales, tales as old as the earth itself, who find hope in them and beauty in the shadows and in the light and in the source of the light." Additional information about The Rabbit Room can be found here, and my reviews of Andrew Peterson's books can be found here.

Below is my original review of The Dragon's Tooth. It's longer than most of my reviews, but I thought I'd post it in its entirety anyway. The Rabbit Room version is slightly different, includes an extended conclusion, and if you are interested, can be read here.

Fantasy novels are sneaky. At first they whisk readers away to a foreign land with an honorable family determined to rule justly or where hard-working folk live under a tyrannical ruler. Next come fantastical creatures, great flying beasts and smaller beings with mystical powers. Then there’s the tension-filled build up to an epic battle where good triumphs over evil.

Readers know what to expect… Or rather I know what to expect... Okay, honestly, I think I know what to expect when it comes to fantasy novels. But just as I’m prepared to escape into a world where dragons breathe fire or fairies cast spells or inexperienced youngsters unexpectedly save the kingdom, that’s when fantasy novels get sneaky. Suddenly, amidst all the fires and spells and savings, I find characters facing the same issues I thought I was escaping.

And I never see it coming.

Cyrus, Antigone, and Dan Smith live in and run the Archer Motel in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and it’s not much to look at. Paint peels, walkways rust, and thistles fill courtyard cracks. Twelve-year-old Cyrus filled the pool with tires. Thirteen-year-old Antigone avoids the Archer’s cigarette graveyard / mold farm smelling reception area. Twenty-going-on-thirty-year-old Dan runs the Archer’s restaurant - one table, a toaster, and a waffle iron. Even the motel’s neon namesake, a once proud lady archer on a pole out front, now aims her bow carelessly towards the sky away from her motel.

For two years the Smith kids have run the Archer by themselves. Ever since their father died and their mother went into a coma. Two years away from their home in California. Two years in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin of all places.

Until the evening William Skelton - Billy Bones - arrives, demanding room 111, Cyrus’s room. Before the night is over, the walls have been torn off Dan’s room revealing mounds of important yellowed papers, the Archer is torched, Dan disappears, Billy Bones is dead, and Cyrus and Antigone are left with a pot-bellied lawyer talking about Acolytes, godchildren, heirs to an estate, and the Order of Brendan.

None of which makes any sense to Cy or Antigone. What is clear, however, is simple. Their brother has been added to the list of missing loved ones. The Archer has been added to the list of homes where they no longer live. People wanting to kill them are close. And all they have left is each other.

Which leads us back to the sneaky part. Just when I’m prepared to learn what an Acolyte is, the amount of the inheritance, the purpose of the Order of Brendan, and to continue this explosion filled adventure, in sneaks family, choices, and the very real possibility dying. Soon.

Cyrus, Antigone, and Dan’s father was killed in a storm, lost at sea and drowned off the coast of California where they used to live. Their mom swam into the freezing sea to find their father. Dan pulled her out. She never woke up and continues to lie in a coma. When Dan disappears, Cyrus and Antigone face losing another loved one and must rely each other - for strength, support, encouragement, and love - to face the oncoming challenges without losing sight of saving their mother and brother. But is the challenge worth it? Is the struggle to remain strong, to keep focused, and to stay alive worth the risk of losing another family member? Each knows the risks they take could cost them their last sibling. Wouldn’t it be easier to say no? To turn and run away from the Order of Brendan and Ashtown? To accept their losses in order to prevent further harm?

Which brings us to choices. Cyrus and Antigone face the age-old choice of doing what is easy vs. doing what is right. Turning away from the Order of Brendan would allow them to grieve for their family, remain safe, and stay together. But Dan has been given the Dragon’s Tooth, the Reaper’s Blade, with the power of death. Immortals can die and the dead can be raised with the tooth’s power. Enemies want it and will kill to get it. At one point Cyrus is offered his family in return for the tooth. Give the tooth (and all personal risk and responsibility) and save his family. Or keep the tooth (and the risk and responsibility toward a greater good) and possibly lose his loved ones. Easy? Or right?

And death. Dying. Billy Bones asks Cyrus, “How do you feel about Death?” (and can that question ever be asked, whether in real life or fanciful fiction, without personally contemplating the answer?) to which Cyrus responds, “How do you think I feel about it? Death sucks. I don’t like it. How do you feel about it?”

But William Skelton’s reply is the opposite of Cy’s. “People say you can’t run from Death. People lie. Running’s all you can do, kid. Run like Hell’s on your heels, because it is. And if you’re still running, well, then you’re still alive.” Later he continues, “You know what happens when you run too long? Death becomes . . . a friend, a companion on the road, a destination. Home. Your own bed. The place where your friends are waiting. You stop being afraid. You stop running.” That night Billy Bones stops running, giving the Dragon’s Tooth to Cyrus.

Now Cyrus and Antigone are the ones running.

N. D. Wilson draws on mythology (Jason used the Dragon’s Tooth to fetch the Golden Fleece) like author Rick Riordan in the Percy Jackson series. He also weaves in history (Amelia Earhart, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ponce de León were all apparently members of the Order of Brendan) like The 39 Clues. In The Dragon’s Tooth Wilson has built a solid base for the five book Ashtown Burials series. The book has its share of action, but it isn’t nonstop. Wilson takes the time necessary to properly flesh out Ashtown, the Order of Brendan, and its history. Readers will get frustrated along with Cyrus and Antigone every time they hear “I’ll explain more later,” but significant gaps are filled by the end, and sufficient gaps are left open for subsequent books.

And if you’ve made it this far, hopefully you won’t be surprised when the choices and issues faced by Cyrus and Antigone hit so close to home.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Summer Camp Season - New Column Today

Preparing for summer camp can be a stressful experience. Getting to camp, putting all that preparation to good use, and actually leaving a child in the in the Wisconsin Northwoods with 150 other kids can take the stress to another level. My latest newspaper column tells how one family dealt with it this summer. Click here to see it on the newspaper's website.

The summer has nearly passed, and while no one is eager to see it go, our family is thankful we have successfully navigated summer camp season.

A child’s annual trip to summer camp begins weeks before departure and continues well after addresses are exchanged. Parents guide the pre-camp preparations. (Yes, really, you do need to pack underwear.) Parents tiptoe around the post-camp, down-off-the-mountain doldrums. (Why are you just lying there, staring, with your duffle bag as a pillow?)

Now, the at-camp part in the middle is nice. The peace. The quiet. The uninterrupted trips to the bathroom. Unless, of course, you enjoy sibling squabbles and brother-sister bickering.

So you got your before-camp (ugh!), your during-camp (ahhh...), and your after-camp (woe!). But the highest peak to scale for every week at summer camp is the time after leaving home and before arriving at camp.

The drive.

Especially when it’s the boy’s first time attending for a full week. Sure, there were some short father/son excursions and a couple weekends with friends, but for our youngest this was his first time away for a whole week. We spent three anxious hours in the van. Three hours fraught with worry, angst, and at times, raw panic. We heard it all, from homesickness to horrible, bloody death and digestion by wild animals.

“I miss you when we’re not together.”

“Maybe we should turn back. Maybe next year would be better for a whole week at camp. You know? Another year older, another year of experience.”

“There might be storms. Is camp safe when it storms?”

“What about the food? Do campers get enough food? Will it be good? What if it’s not good?”

“There are animals in the woods. Dangerous animals. Bears! And wolves! Bears and wolves eat people!”

“Who will tell me, ‘Goodnight,’ and ‘I love you,’ each night before bed?” Those are a lot of issues to deal with on one drive to camp, let alone the fact that we had already discussed most of them in the weeks prior. We’d been planning the boy’s trip to camp for months. How could we turn back now?

“We’ll only be apart for one week.”

“After all those weekends, anything less than a week would be a let down.”

“Camp has emergency plans in place for extreme weather.”

“No camper has ever starved at summer camp, and to the best of my knowledge, no camper has ever prevented a wild animal from starving.”

We repeated all the assurances previously shared in the days leading up to camp.

Results were mixed.

It wasn’t until we reminded her that husbands can say “Goodnight” and “I love you” just as well as little boys that Mom finally believed she’d make it through the week.

She let the boy stay.

And he loved every minute.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Five O'Clock Friday

The big out-of-town, extended-time-on-the-beach, time-to-read vacation week fell during July. Add to that some reading I needed to do for a committee I was honored to be a part of and I ended up with a fairly long list for July's Five O'Clock Friday post. Mights as well get after it ...

July:

  • The Thumb in the Box by Ken Roberts
  • Rich: A Dyamonde Daniel Book by Nikki Grimes
  • Star in the Forest by Laura Resan
  • What Really Happened to Humpty by Jeannie Franz Ransom
  • Loon Summer by Sandy Gillum
  • Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
  • Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (Reread)
  • My Papa Diego and Me by Guadelupe Rivera Marin and Diego Rivera
  • Snook Alone by Marilyn Nelson
  • Tap Dancing on the Roof by Linda Sue Park
  • Thomas and the Dragon Queen by Shuta Crum
  • Keeper by Kathi Appelt
  • Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon
  • How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Chrystal Allen
  • Cold Case by Julia Platt Leonard
  • Sidekicks by Dan Santat
  • Fantasy Baseball by Alan Gratz

Friday, August 5, 2011

Five O'Clock Friday


It's the end of the week and time for another Five O'Clock Friday update on books read but maybe not reviewed. Looking back, June was an odd month. You'd think that once summer starts for a teacher it would be time to get reading, but June is a little thin on titles. The end of the school year was crazy busy (no surprises there) and I didn't record my first book finished until June 17.

But it's looking like July more than made up for it.

June:
  • Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt (reread)
  • Horton Halfpott OR The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor OR The Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset by Tom Angelberger - Yes, that's the actual title. Yes, the book is as enjoyable as the title would lead you to believe. Yes, that's the author of Origami Yoda and Darth Paper.
  • Justin Case: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters by Rachel Vail - I got this book because Justin Case is the name my daughter and I suggested to my sister-in-law for her baby if it was a boy. She was convinced it was a girl and had a name already picked out, but we encouraged her to be prepared. (It was a boy. She named him Alex.) Turns out I liked the book almost as much as I like my new nephew.
  • The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander - You need a reason to read this book? Check here for an offer you can't refuse. (Okay, not exactly. But you'll get what I'm saying.)
  • Theodore Boone: The Abduction by John Grisham
  • The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt (reread)
  • Emmaline and the Bunny by Katherine Hannigan

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