September 06, 2012


A Boy and a Bear in a Boat. By Dave Shelton. David Fickling Books. $16.99.

Summer at Forsaken Lake. By Michael D. Bell. Knopf. $16.99.

Heart of Stone: A Verity Gallant Tale. By M.L. Welsh. David Fickling Books. $16.99.

      Avast and ahoy – there’s adventure beckoning from the waves!  The type of adventure varies – just choose one.  A Boy and a Bear in a Boat is an offbeat, entertaining little fairy tale of the title characters’ journey aboard the Harriet, a rowboat that encounters some mighty strange circumstances.  There is no particular explanation of what the bear is doing there; the boy simply shows up and asks the bear to row him “just over to the other side,” and the bear agrees.  But then, as the boy sleeps, the Harriet encounters “unforeseeable anomalies.”  So this trip, to wherever it may be, is clearly going to take a while.  The boy and the bear eat some food – the bear is partial to a sandwich of anchovy, banana and custard – and the journey resumes.  The boy and bear play word games, and the boy finds a comic written in an indecipherable language (Dave Shelton provides two pages of it for readers to see), and the bear plays the ukulele, and the boy, who has been sure that the bear knows what he is doing, begins to have his doubts as the journey goes on and on.  The boy and bear look at a map, which is entirely blue, and the bear points to where they are (which is in the middle of nowhere), and the boy sends a message in a bottle, and event piles on event in a charmingly offbeat and rather peculiar way.  "A lot of time passed very slowly,” Shelton writes at one point, referring to time spent fishing although it could just as easily be said of the journey itself.  The boy and bear make not much progress, or not noticeable progress anyway, but this book is all about the little things they deal with aboard their boat – well, and some big things, too, such as the 19-eyed sea monster the bear hooks at one point, which is eventually defeated when it eats The Very Last Sandwich that the boy and bear have been avoiding because it has been getting stranger and stranger.  The book is strange, too, filled with word play, as when the boy complains about the bear nearly getting them killed and the bear responds, “There’s nothing wrong with nearly getting killed. Actually getting killed: now that would be annoying. But nearly getting killed is fine.”  Eventually the boy and bear get there, or somewhere, and then somewhere else, and by the end of the book it is obvious – if it has not been all along – that this story is all about the journey, not the destination.  With fascinating illustrations and an unusual underlying philosophical tone, A Boy and a Bear in a Boat will be too offbeat for many young readers, but those seeking something beyond the straightforward will find it here.

      Summer at Forsaken Lake is a much more ordinary narrative – a tale of a family summer in Ohio and the sailing that 12-year-old Nicholas does aboard his uncle’s boat, the Goblin.  Nicholas and his 10-year-old twin sisters, Hayley and Hetty, their Uncle Nick, and their uncle’s dog, Pistol, are nicely developed characters, if not particularly deep ones.  Nicholas befriends a girl named Charlie; later, he and his sisters find a hidden compartment in the tower room where Nicholas sleeps – and in the compartment are an old reel of film, a notebook labeled “The Seaweed Strangler” and a love letter written to their father long ago by someone named Franny.  A summer mystery!  Just what the kids need!  And so, in addition to sailing, swimming, bike riding, baseball, camping out, seeing shooting stars, and just generally enjoying the warm and lazy days, Nicholas learns bits about life.  For example, Charlie discusses her family situation, saying that her father is “The Ostrich King of Trumbull County, Ohio.  He got remarried last year to this woman named Linda.  She’s all right, I guess – she has two kids.  My dad is…well, the way Mom puts it, he’s kind of a dreamer. …[B]ut calling him a dreamer is sugarcoating the truth.  He’s always looking for some crazy way to get rich without really having to work.”  The solution of the decades-old mystery turns out to exonerate Nicholas’ father of an accusation – or maybe not; things are a touch complicated – and everyone reveals some long-buried secrets about the family that turn out, once revealed, not to be such big deals after all.  In fact, nothing in Summer at Forsaken Lake is much of a big deal except for the boats – the Goblin and others that appear and disappear in the course of the book – and the overall feeling of warmth pervading the rather slight story from start to finish.

      Heart of Stone is a meatier book, but in a different genre.  A followup to M.L. Welsh’s first book, Mistress of the Storm, it is again about the harbor town of Wellow and the four Keepers of the Elements – witch sisters who control earth, fire, water and wind.  Peculiar white sand comes to Wellow and starts causing odd shifts in the land, as if the town is somehow slipping away, and Verity Gallant takes it upon herself to figure out, with some help from her friends, what is happening to the town and why.  Using clues from ancient books, Verity uncovers a plan by the Earth Witch to eliminate all the world’s happiness, in revenge for being robbed of her true love long ago.  The concept is rather silly, although not much more so than the plots of other supernaturally oriented novels for young readers, and the ships here – the Storm, the Poor Honesty – have names designed to resonate within the plot, as do many of the characters, from Verity herself to Abednego, Daniel Twogood and others.  Welsh tries to keep everything atmospheric, but tends to be rather obvious about it: “The day was as bleak as their mood.  A sunless sky hung over them.”  “Above the cliffs and climbing houses, the velvet sky seemed to have grown larger: it looked in danger of swallowing the world.”  And of course, at the book’s climax, the dialogue is just what would be expected: “How dare you speak to me in such a way.” “All shall know our pain.”  “It is time to deal with you.”  Eventually the evil that led to the Earth Witch’s determination is discovered and unmasked, and the witch reverses her pledge to “destroy all the happy stories,” allowing this one to end positively, if unsurprisingly.  Better as a companion to Welsh’s earlier volume than as a standalone novel, Heart of Stone will primarily be of interest to readers who enjoyed meeting Verity in Mistress of the Storm and want to join her on a further, closely related adventure.

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