Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

May Your Aim Be True

One surefire sign of a captivating story with memorable characters is when nearly seven hundred pages are consumed in a few days. (Insert three for the word few.)  Another clear indication is when you pause in your reading or finish the first or second book in a series, but you're not sure where or when you are.  It's as if your real life has been replaced with another place in another time.  What makes this even more mind-boggling is if the fictional people you've been reading about are struggling with the same issue.

On February 6, 2018 readers were introduced to the first book in a unique fantasy adventure series.  Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire (Roaring Brook Press) written by John August is a white-knuckle ride through a blend of worlds. A twelve-year-old boy's already chaotic life takes an enormous shift.

Pine Mountain
True, it had many of the things you expect to see in a house---singles, windows, bricks---but they didn't seem to be arranged in a house-like way.  Instead, the building slumped against the wooded hillside like a pile of debris left over from a proper home.

Arlo, his fifteen-year-old sister, Jaycee and their mother have arrived at her childhood home in Colorado.  They are sharing it with their Uncle Wade.  They have moved from place to place since their father fled to China three years ago to escape arrest by the FBI.  (Their father uses computers to decipher secret codes.)

In less than forty-eight hours and after his first day at school, Arlo is starting to believe their new community is more than mountains covered in evergreens.  Cooper, a ghost dog, his mom and uncle's former pet, visits the home on a regular basis with a fixed routine.  A girl from another place appears and disappears with warnings and information for Arlo.  What are faerie beetles (that cause people to be covered in purple goo and jingle like tiny bells) and how can the Long Woods be everywhere?  An invitation and Tuesday night meeting of the Rangers adds a whole new dimension to Arlo's thinking.

Arlo is assigned to Blue Patrol of the Rangers with his two new friends, Wu and Indra.  Given the Ranger Field Book, he is sure many of his questions will be answered but Arlo has no idea how many new challenges will pop up in and around Pine Mountain.  On the first hike the Rangers take after Arlo is sworn in, the Wonder, thunderclaps, wisps, and snaplights become a part of his new vocabulary.  He also narrowly escapes death.

Arlo, Indra and Wu frequently consult the Culman's Bestiary of Notable Creatures held by the school librarian, Mrs. Fitzrandolph, under lock and key.  What Arlo believed is fiction or legend is proving to be true.  When snow comes to their community, the Rangers' focus shifts to the upcoming Alpine Derby.  This event, involving multiple patrols from other regions, tests members on their sled racing sprint,

signals, knots, rescue, identification, fire

and above all, teamwork.

A compass given to Arlo by his uncle leads to more than the four points, a Night Mare (as in evil horse with horns) tries to destroy Arlo, and the Alpine Derby leads to a life and death situation for the Blue Patrol.  There is more than one kind of being with unimaginable powers after Arlo.  Is it because he has one green eye and one brown eye?  There is also someone who might help him.  It certainly won't be an adult.  Even though most of them were Rangers as children, it's been erased from their minds.  Why?  Puzzles, clues, other-worldly beings and split-second choices lead readers to a heart-racing, satisfying conclusion but leave them wanting much more of Arlo, his friends, family and the Rangers. 

When John August writes you want to read and keep reading.  His creation of worlds within worlds is spellbinding.  Between his descriptions of place and time, the point of view in which he writes and conversations among his characters, you simply can't turn the pages fast enough.  He has layers of questions and answers and clues and false leads.  His characters are fully developed, each with their special skills and gifts and importance to the story.  Many times, he will end and begin a chapter with a cliff-hanger thought or comment. Here are a few passages.

Uncle Wade continued.  "For now, it's probably best you stay out of the forest.  Just in case."
Arlo's mom got out of the car.  "Would you help me bring in the groceries?" she called.
Arlo asked his uncle what was in the forest.
"Again, it's not bad, it's not good.  It's just dangerous if you're not ready."

Loyalty was not an oath you swore in front of witnesses, or spitting in your hand before you shook to seal the deal.  It wasn't a contract.  It was just there.  Loyalty was a promise you never needed to make.

Then he heard a dog barking.  It was frantic.  Ferocious.
Arlo pulled down the blindfold, squinting in the light.  He was indeed facing the road.  Cooper was barking at the forest, which wasn't so unusual.  Except, Arlo realized, I shouldn't be able to hear him.  The ghostly dog's bark was loud and clear in the cold air.
Closing the compass, Arlo took a few steps forward.  The dog glanced back at him, then continued barking at the forest.  Its tail was down.  A ridge of fur stood up along its spine.  
"What is it?" Arlo asked.
The dog couldn't answer.  It didn't need to.
Something was coming out of the woods---a dark shape moving quickly through the trees.

In a matter of mere seconds after finishing Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire, it's guaranteed readers will be compelled to begin the second volume.  Hardly a heartbeat will pass before the first book is set to rest and Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon (Roaring Brook Press, February 5, 2019) written by John August is picked up and the first page is turned.  Immediately we find ourselves in a scenario real and highly impossible at the same time.

The Broken Bridge
He didn't blame them.  It sounded crazy, and he hadn't made much sense on the phone.  You just have to hurry!
But why?  What had he found?

Summer vacation is approaching.  Arlo is honing his skills with his compass and his ability to go into the Long Woods and return home.  When Indra and Wu arrive, Arlo takes them to a sight they can hardly believe.  Two gigantic architectural wonders are before them; two arches with a bridge extending from them across a chasm.  There is a large gap in the broken bridge.  The most intriguing thing is standing on the opposite side.  It is the Blue Patrol, Wu, Indra, the twins, Jonas and Julie but not Arlo or Connor.  How can Wu and Indra be in two places at once?  And where is Arlo?  What has happened to Connor?

After a discovery, a toss and a narrow escape from trolls, the trio now twenty miles from home, hitch a ride with Arlo's Uncle Wade.  Again, the topic of another patrol in the past, the Yellow Patrol, is asked but an evasive answer is given.  On the first day of summer vacation, Arlo's sister leaves for China to visit their father and Uncle Wade heads out to Jackson Hole to deliver some of his unique taxidermy creations.  Arlo and his mom have the house to themselves.  The time they spend together, except for the frightening stranger in the diner, is the proverbial calm before the storm.

The following week all the Pine Mountain company patrols are headed to Camp Redfeather for two life-changing weeks.  They are joined by other companies from other regions. Two strange circumstances happen immediately; Russell Stokes, a bully in the Pine Mountain Red Patrol has something unusual on his body and a new member is assigned to Blue Patrol.  What is attached to Russell?  And what or who is Thomas?

As each chapter is read, events seem to be leading and building toward the first chapter.  Connor is taken from camp by helicopter and Wu ends up leading the patrol.  A class in elementary spirits heightens mysteries for Arlo and his friends with yet another discovery in the middle of the lake at the Giant's Fist, a rocky island.  Messages from the past (or is it the future) are hidden beneath tree bark.  For readers, and perhaps Arlo, it's beginning to be clear, something is assuming each patrol members identity at various times.

A sudden storm creates a shaky alliance.  A crafty shapeshifter, of sorts, offers an explanation.  An old map of the camp supplies another clue.  A late-night ride in a canoe with a full moon tips the members into astounding revelations.  Lives in the present and the past hang in a precarious balance.  Events are swirling around all the characters so fast you have to remind yourself to breathe.  As in the first title, the end is more than rewarding but we are hooked.  We want more.  Take heart, it will be delivered.

As you read this second book in the series, you find yourself stopping repeatedly amazed at the intricate pieces author John August fits together.  The masterful mix of past and present and not one, not two but three worlds, supplies a high-octane pace.  The purpose and strength of the Rangers' vow is deftly woven into the narrative.  You find yourself more and more attached to all the characters as their personalities are more deftly defined. Here are some passages.

"I'm twelve," Arlo protests.  "Almost thirteen."
"And I'm almost forty.  But honestly, deep down, I'm still the
same girl I always was.  People don't really change.  They just get
more like themselves."

She smiled.  "If you follow these rules, you will likely never 
speak to me.  And that is as it should be.  I am not your mother.
I am not your teacher.  In the end, the confidence to solve your
own problems is the most important skill a Ranger must learn.
That is what this place can teach you, if you let it.  May your path
be safe."

None of their puzzles were in their original boxes.  Whenever
he'd buy a new one, Arlo's dad would immediately dump the
pieces into a plastic bag and discard the box.  "The point of a 

puzzle is to discover the answer," he'd say.  "It's the mystery, the
process, the surprise.  If you're trying to recreate the image
on the box, then what's the point?"

Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire and Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon (released today) both written by John August are books readers of all ages (adults, too) are going to thoroughly enjoy.  It's a given if either of these are read aloud to one, a few or an entire classroom, you will be able to hear a pin drop and multiple voices will be begging you not to stop.  Friendship, family, a preservation of the past, appreciation of the present and protection of the future and an underlying current of all-things-are-possible fill the pages of these books.   (You will never think of scouting in the same light again.)  I highly recommend both titles for your personal and professional collections.  The third volume, Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows is set to be released next year.

To learn more about John August and his other work, please follow the link attached to his name to access his website.  Excerpts from Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire and Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon are at the publisher's website.  John August has an account on Twitter.  John August wrote a post at the Nerdy Book Club.  There are articles/interviews about the Arlo Finch series at Publishers Weekly, SciFi Pulse and Entertainment.  There is a special Arlo Finch Tumblr account.  You can view the trailer for the series here and at the author's website.

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