Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: VOYAGE NORTH by Julia Jones

Cover illustration by Claudia Myatt

This is the seventh and I think final book of the Strong Winds series, which I’ve been enjoying for over ten years. Julia Jones was inspired by the books of Arthur Ransome about children sailing and having adventures, but her books are very much of their own time. They are more complex than Ransome’s stories, and they include topics he wouldn’t have considered appropriate for children, like social inequity issues, racism, crime, and international politics. My only complaint has been that there often isn’t enough sailing in the series, but this final one has plenty, even if some of it is motor driven. Plenty of action and excitement, too, and loose threads from the other books are sewn up nicely.

Donny Walker has been living on the Suffolk coast of northeast England with his deaf mother Skye, and they’ve made many friends there, but the biggest mystery in Donny’s life is the identity and career of his father, who he never knew. At the end of the sixth book, “Pebble,” Donny is offered a chance to learn about his father from someone who knew him, the Russian oligarch Aradky Ivanov, if he will join the former Russian Admiral on his super-yacht, MV Raisa as it flees the English coast with an illegal radioactive cargo, heading North toward Finland. Donny agrees, leaving everyone he knows behind, and he’s soon wondering if he made the right decision. Ivanov is badly wounded and in need of medical care, but because of their cargo, no port will allow them to land. On board it’s just Captain George, Donny, and the possibly dying Ivanov until three stowaways surface. They are Russian teenagers Tatiana and Vasily and German AWOL soldier Luther, who hid on the boat to escape authorities. They consider themselves eco-terrorists, and planned to take over Raisa, but things don’t work out for them, and soon they are conscripted into the crew, forced to help keep the ship going and all of them alive. When it finally reaches a port that will accept them in Finland, even more trouble is in store for everyone. In this suspenseful story, twists and turns abound. There are kidnappings, a damaged sunken submarine with friends of Ivanov on board, fierce storms, frantic escapes on sea and land, political intrigue, surprising heroics, and some hair-raising sailing. Donny Walker eventually finds out much more about his father and family than he ever expected.

Recommended, but start with the first book of the series, I’ll list links to all of them.

The Salt-Stained Book by Julia Jones

A Ravelled Flag by Julia Jones

Ghosting Home by Julia Jones

The Lion of Sole Bay by Julia Jones

Black Waters by Julia Jones

Pebble by Julia Jones

Voyage North by Julia Jones

Rereading: THE WITCHES’ BRIDGE by Barbee Oliver Carleton

Cover illustration by Edward Gorey

Dan Pride has been raised in Europe, but the death of his parents brings him back to his family’s ancestral home in the marshes of coastal Massachusetts. The Pride home sits on an island in the marsh reached by two bridges. One includes the equally old Witches’ Bridge, named for Dan’s Puritan ancestor Samuel Pride, who was accused and executed as a witch. Samuel, like Dan, played the violin, and people of the area claim he haunts the island, and that his violin can still be heard when the fog rolls in from the ocean.

Dan hopes his uncle Julian will be a friend and welcome him, but Dan is met by the hired man Billy Ben, who is quick to fill Dan with the superstitions and fears of the locals. Uncle Julian proves a cold, sickly person who seems to have little understanding or friendliness for Dan, leaving him sad and fearful. Dan tries to help Billy Ben with chores, but doesn’t get on well with those. Then he meets a boy from a nearby cottage on the mainland, Pip, and they explore the marsh together. Dan is happy to have a friend, but later finds out that Pip might not really be the friend he seems, and feels alone again. A great mystery surrounds the death of Dan’s grandfather, who was planning to settle the family’s long feud with the Bishop family nearby when he was found dead near the Witches’ Bridge, without the briefcase he was bringing to the Bishops to close a deal on the purchase of a shipyard. Dan decides he must find out what really happened, and find the missing papers. He gets some help from a hermit living on his own small island and others, but he also finds many in the town against him, and soon Dan is also being accused of terrible things. How can he prove he’s innocent and solve the mystery?

I enjoyed reading this again, though this time I found it more melodramatic than I remembered, almost gothic in tone. I liked the characters and plot, the setting is well envisioned, and the mystery and its solution is satisfying, so in all, this book is recommended.

The Witches’ Bridge by Barbee Oliver Carleton

Rereading: THIEF ISLAND by Elizabeth Coatsworth

Here’s another old book from my collection that I’ve recently reread before listing it on eBay. Coatsworth was a prolific author of children’s books, but little remembered today even though she won the Newbery Award for “The Cat Who Went to Heaven” in 1931.

In a harbor town on the coast of Maine, the Little family: father Dave and his children Susan and John, are forced to leave their home because of a bad investment deal their father was talked into, which caused them to lose their house and land. Dave Little is a hard-working lobsterman, first out and last in, and his children work hard too, at home and in school. What will they do, and where will they go? The auction sale of all their belongings will give them some cash, but it won’t be enough to buy or rent a new home. The answer lies out in the ocean a few miles from town, Thief Island. The Little family has property there and a house that’s in poor shape, but one that can hopefully be restored to living conditions. The Littles pack their remaining belongings, buy food and supplies, and travel to the island on Dave Little’s lobster boat, where they find things in even worse shape than they expected. There was once a small community on the island, but it’s been abandoned for some years after superstitious stories about a ghost haunting the lonely place. The Littles are not afraid, and ready to tackle the hard work of making their old family home livable again. Dave returns to his lobster fishing as soon as he can, while Susan and John explore the island and work on the house and grounds. The children find evidence that someone has been there, and Susan hears a horrible shriek in the woods that scares her. Despite that, they are determined to make Thief Island their home. Then a fierce storm approaches while their father is away in town. What will happen when the flooding tides and fierce winds attack?

A fine story, hard to find, but worth reading.

Thief Island by Elizabeth Coatsworth

Rereading: THE MYSTERY OF BURNT HILL by Keith Robertson

Keith Robertson was and is one of my favorite writers of novels for young readers. He wrote dozens of books, and produced two series, one telling the humorous adventures of Henry Reed, the other featuring teenagers Neil and Swede and their Carson Street Detective Agency. This is the first of those. It’s an extremely rare book, I’ve searched for a copy for about fifty years with no luck, and finally recently got one on eBay. It was expensive, but worth it to me, first because I really wanted to reread it, second because it’s the only Keith Robertson book not in my collection. I found it in early December, the seller raises funds through eBay to support Mare’s Rest, a sanctuary for retired thoroughbred brood mares, which I thought was a worthy cause, but I hesitated to write about the book here because I knew interested readers wouldn’t be able to find it. I even considered scanning the entire book and offering to readers. Fortunately, this week someone sent me a link to a scan of the book on the Internet Archive, which I will share at the end of this post. Finally you can read the book yourself in pdf form if you like, and I highly recommend it.

Neil and Swede live in a small town in west central New Jersey, an area Robertson often wrote about once he moved there, I think in the late 1940s. As the book opens, their “detective agency” has yet to receive a single case, but the boys have fun in their headquarters over the garage. Neil has trained several pigeons to carry messages, using invisible ink to keep them secret from Neil’s sister Eileen. They also enjoy fishing, and a hike to a remote lake brings them to the area of Burnt Hill, several miles from town, where they meet elderly Clara Hankin, who lives alone in her ramshackle farmhouse, the last survivor of her family. She gets on well enough to impress the boys with her skills as a gardener, hunter and homemaker, but Clara is obviously just getting by financially. While they visit, Clara offers to give them an old desk she doesn’t want that’s in the way in her barn, and the boys decide it would be just right for their detective agency office. They come back with a friend who has a truck to get it another day. Neil and Swede have plans to paint the desk green, but when Neil’s mother sees it, she tells them it’s a valuable antique that should be restored and refinished. The boys agree, taking it to a furniture repair shop in town owned by Clem Auerbach. A plan is made to restore the desk and sell it at an antique show, giving most of the proceeds to Mrs. Hankin.

Clem Auerbach has a shifty reputation, though he’s good with furniture, and Neil and Swede decide to keep checking up on him. While spying on him in the shop, they see him find a secret drawer in the desk containing an old notebook. Thus begins the mystery and the adventure that will put their lives in danger and take them to unexpected places and discoveries, making for a great read. The Carson Street Detective Agency has its first case, and it’s a dangerous one.

Here’s the link if you’d like to read the book in digital form:

The Mystery of Burnt Hill at Internet Archive

The rest of the series is equally good, here are my reviews and possible ways to buy them, though the second and third books are also rare and also available at Internet Archive:

Three Stuffed Owls

The Crow and the Castle

The Money Machine

Amazon links:

Three Stuffed Owls by Keith Robertson

The Crow and the Castle by Keith Robertson

The Money Machine by Keith Robertson

Rereading: FIVE BOYS IN A CAVE by Richard Church

Illustration not credited

For over a year now I’ve been downsizing my extensive library. The ones I think will sell, I try on eBay (seller name tklein28). Any that don’t sell, or I think aren’t worth trying there, go to a local thrift shop as donations. At first I cherry picked what I thought would be in-demand titles and authors, and most of those did well: Stephen King, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, etc. That worked for a while, but then I felt I needed to go through all the fiction hardcovers more systematically to decide which ones I really wanted to keep, and to start getting rid of anything I didn’t have an interest in reading again. I’ve been doing that for a few months now, eliminating about two-thirds of the hardcover fiction, and listing about ten to twelve books on eBay each week (most weeks). As I go along, I’ll be rereading more books from the collection to help me decide if they’re keepers, or if one more reading is enough, so my reviews here will include more old books. This is one of those. First published in England as “The Cave,” I read this 1951 American edition in my local library and liked it a lot. Later, at a library book sale, I found the copy I’d read and bought it. I haven’t read it since.

John Walters has been sent to live with an aunt and uncle in a rural part of England among limestone hills. A planned summer vacation boating with his brother had to be scrapped, and he’s been sent here instead, where life is boring, and only a few new friends have made his time more pleasant. While out walking in an open field near town, he follows an animal to a large hole that seems intriguing. It’s just large enough for him to crawl into, and he discovers it’s the entrance to a large cave, but the tunnel ends in a steep drop. To explore it, he’ll need equipment and help from his friends, who have banded together as the Tomahawk Club: quiet, sensible neighbor George Reynolds, impatient and energetic Harold Soames, genial heavyweight “Meaty” Sanders, and bossy Alan Hobbs, who considers himself the leader of the club. John and the others plan a day-long expedition to explore the cave, and decide not to tell any of their families so they won’t worry, but in the end John decides to tell his uncle, Dr. George Walters, just in case something goes wrong. Uncle George gives his permission, and some climbing gear to help, but cautions that if they’re not back by sundown on the day of the expedition, he’ll call out the authorities. But he feels John and the others will be careful, and have a fun adventure.

The boys assemble at the hole at sunrise with lots of gear, flashlights, and food, and enter one by one. From the beginning, things don’t go as expected. While most of the boys can get through, Meaty gets stuck, and it takes the gang a while to get him free. Once inside, flashlights reveal a deep drop of about 100 feet. John volunteers to be let down on their one long rope held by the others. It’s scary, and he cuts his leg on the wall going down, but reaches the bottom, though his flashlight gets broken. Back at the top, Harold agrees to go down next, and that’s accomplished, but then there’s an argument among Alan, Meaty and George at the top about what to do next, and in the heat of it, the rope is dropped over the edge. Now the group is separated with no way to get John and Harold back up, unless they can find another way down. There is a ledge going sideways from the tunnel, but it’s narrow and treacherous. The rest of the story follows the two groups as they struggle past physical obstacles and mental ones, trying to rejoin and find a way out of the cave. The adventure has turned deadly serious.

I enjoyed rereading this, it’s exciting and thrilling at times. The psychology of each boy is well handled, and something I didn’t appreciate as much as a child as I do now. It’s almost like a military sortie minus the chance of enemy gunfire. The cave itself is an important character in the book, and full of surprises. Definitely recommended if you can find it, my copy will go on eBay some time in the near future, as I don’t feel I’ll want to read it again.

Five Boys In A Cave by Richard Church