Thursday, July 23, 2015

Secrets of Selkie Bay, middle grade built of love

I wish I could be about 10-years-old again so I could discover Secrets of Selkie Bay as a kid, curled up with the book, lost in the magic on the pages. I did that anyway even though I’m long past childhood (on the outside only). This latest middle-grade novel by Shelley Moore Thomas stole my heart.

On the first page Cordie Sullivan’s hollow pain is clear as she says her mother is gone and her father can’t or won’t say where she is because “there just aren’t that many words left anymore.”

Cordie, 11, is left to watch over her two younger sisters, one still a baby, while her father tries to find enough work to keep food on the table. She takes on responsibility beyond her years: “Someone had to pick up, since Da left his things everywhere—socks that were on the floor and never found the hamper, and waterfalls of blankets that trailed down the side of his unmade bed.”

After a couple of months, Cordie finds a letter addressed to her from her mother tucked in an old copy of A Child’s Book of Selkies, a collection of folklore about seals that sometimes become human. The letter says Mum doesn’t want to go but must. And here the magic weaves into the story. Are selkies real? Is their mother a selkie gone home to the sea? Is that why she had to leave?

The fishing village where the Sullivans live cashes in on selkie lore during tourist season, but Cordie is skeptical. Her sister Ione believes fervently that their mother has gone to the secret island she once tried to show them. Aside from the mystery, the story delivers realistic sibling relationships, parents with flaws but lots of love, and a nudge toward respecting nature.

 I love so much of the writing—crisp, moving: “Facing west toward the waves, we stood and did the only thing we could think to do . . . Just us, the three Sullivan girls, crying our seven silver tears into the sea and letting them float atop the foam, hoping they would bring our mum back to us.”

 There is a surprise at the end. I could easily have read more, but I’m pleased that the magical elements remain elusive, leaving the reader to wonder and question. There is no question at all about the power of love, which is the heart of the story and shines on long after the final page is read.

Highly recommend for middle-grade readers. Disclosure: Shelley is a friend I met through blogging, Twitter, and face to face at SCBWI.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Crooked River, great title, satisfying read

Crooked River is such a great, evocative title for the debut YA novel by Valerie Geary. The setting of this story is a strong character in its own right taking the reader to a secluded meadow along a river in Oregon where two suddenly motherless girls live with their eccentric father in a teepee.

 The story is deep and crooked and wild like the river, opening with the girls finding a dead woman floating near the “best swimming hole this side of anywhere.”

Beautifully written, it’s told in alternating chapters from 15-year-old Sam’s perspective and 10-year-old Ollie’s. The girls have been traumatized by their mother’s recent death and seem detached at first. Sam finally decides they should do something about the woman. Ollie says nothing at all.

When Sam tries to pull the woman from the water she loses her grip and the body is sucked away. “I splashed in after her but stopped when the water reached my knees. Heavy spring rains and melting snowpack had turned Crooked River into a thundering flood. Boulders protected our swimming hole from the violent current, but past that, where I stood now, the river gathered itself up again...”

 After the woman disappears, Sam thinks maybe she hadn’t been real. “But my heart was thumping so fast it hurt and the hair on my arms stood on end, and I could still feel her cold flesh under my fingers, still see her face, her hollow eyes staring up at me. She was as real as real gets, and we had lost her.”

 Loss is a recurring theme in the story. The girls’ father disappeared from their lives for years without explanation. Their mother died without warning. They are confronted with violent death, as well as a real threat of losing their father again as a murder investigation focuses on him. Sam is torn between her love for him and a distrust born of past experience. Ollie is battered by something no one else knows is happening—she sees the ghosts of the dead, following, clinging, whispering.

 I was captivated by this atmospheric story start to finish. There are moral dilemmas, secrets, lies, heartbreak, and trauma. Sam trying to protect her father by withholding evidence makes the case against him stronger. The girls sometimes are crazy reckless trying to prove their father’s innocence, but I understand the desperation and that kids learn as they go, making costly mistakes, as we all have done.

The ending doesn’t tell the reader what happens to all the players, but it doesn’t need to. What it does is deeply satisfying, bringing us back to family, love, and a special place where nature continues its cycle of renewal, as do the humans who dwell there.

 I can’t complete this little review without mentioning the bees. Sam helps her father care for his beloved hives and sell the golden honey, which sent me to my honey jar with a spoon more than once. (The Secret Life of Bees had the same effect on me.) All that talk of honey. “…warm and fresh from the hive when it tasted like all the best parts of summer melting sweet on your tongue.”

This story is going to stick with me. I highly recommend Crooked River for teens and adults. (Disclosure: I’ve never met Valerie in person, but I know her through blogging and Twitter)