Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner
Scholastic, 1980

Ten-year-old Willy and his grandfather run a small farm just outside Jackson, Wyoming. One day, Grandfather wouldn't get out of bed and wouldn't talk. Doc Smith insisted nothing was physically wrong with him but that he had given up, and neither Doc nor Willy knew why. For the next few months, Willy takes care of Grandfather and the farm with his beloved dog Searchlight by his side. When a tax collector shows up and insists that they pay him $500 or the farm will be taken away, Willy must figure out a way to get that money. A local sled race looks to be the best bet, and a very large gamble it is.

I read a blog post on the first day of the Iditarod a few weeks ago, and this book was reviewed as a great example of a dog race story. I checked the elementary library and it was there, so I snatched it up and finally read it last night.

The review I read was correct: this is a superb dog race story. But it is far more than a book simply about a dog race, as I hope my above synopsis indicates. Willy is a remarkably capable young boy who not only takes care of himself and his grandfather by cooking meals and tending the fire but harvests the potato crop, sells the potatoes, purchases provisions for the winter, and attends school, all of which he takes in stride. Granted, this book is set at an indeterminate point in the past - probably around the turn of the 20th century - when rural children had many responsibilities from a young age, but his determination and independence is no less impressive.

The title of the book is taken from the name of Willy's main competitor in the dog race, a First Nations man of seemingly incalculable height who has never lost a race and never speaks. Although the word Indian is used to describe Stone Fox (likely due to the book being written 30 years ago), I appreciated the brief description of his use of his winnings to purchase land for displaced members of his Shoshone people to live on. The correlation between his motivation to win and Willy's motivation to win was not lost on either of them.

Ah, Searchlight. Searchlight, Searchlight, Searchlight. Why do I keep reading books that make me want a dog? I don't have room, I'm not a fan of fur or drool, and vet bills would have me owing terrifying amounts of money to Visa. But geez, do I ever want a dog like Searchlight! She's so devoted to Willy that she waits for him all day outside his school and she adores racing home through the woods. I mean, who wouldn't want a dog that could haul you a few miles home while you rode a dog sled behind them? Going dog sledding is on my bucket list though, so perhaps it is just me.

Gardiner packs a lot of heart into 81 pages. Great story, great characters (both human and dog), and great ending.

The Hidden Gallery (The Incorrigible children of Ashton Place, book 2) by Maryrose Wood
Balzer + Bray, 2011

Governess Penelope Lumley is off to London with her three pupils - Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia Incorrigible - and their guardians, Lord and Lady Ashton. Penelope is excited to be able to visit with her beloved former headmistress, Miss Mortimer, and begins planning educational walking tours around the city for herself and the children using the guide Miss Mortimer sent to her. Things begin to go awry as soon as she and the Incorrigibles step off the train, from getting lost to strange proclamations from a fortune teller, but Penelope continues to be optimistic. When a luncheon with Miss Mortimer takes a mysterious turn, Penelope becomes determined to get to the bottom of who may be threatening her beloved Incorrigibles and why they were left in the woods to be raised by wolves in the first place.

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place books are spoofs of classic governess novels (such as Jane Eyre) and poke a lot of fun at Victorian life and culture, and this second book in the series certainly delivers on those counts. The fact that the children were actually raised by wolves is a gimmick that is still paying off in The hidden gallery, although I find that the children have stagnated a bit in their development and acculturation. In the first book (which I read a few months ago so have not reviewed here), the children had just been discovered so could not speak human language and were terrified of their new situation. The process of their linguistic and cultural acquisition was handled in a manner that was both charming and hilarious, as were Penelope's reactions to and methods of teaching the children. In this second book, while still charming and often hilarious, the children did not develop very much further. True, they are all clever and learn quickly, whether it's navigation techniques or geometry, but their skills did not seem to improve very significantly. Perhaps it is inevitable that they would not develop as much as during the first book, but more individual character evolution would have been nice to see, as in my mind the three children are almost interchangeable.

This lack of character development does not apply to Penelope, who is earnest and also very clever, if a bit naive. She doesn't shy away from a challenge (if it wasn't already obvious when considering her pupils), even if that challenge is befriending the moody, spoiled Lady Ashton. Indeed, Penelope has the sort of astute intellect that would be a menace if she discovered the powers of sarcasm. The addition of Simon Harley-Dickinson - whose surname I nearly always misread as Harley-Davidson - to the cast of characters was welcome, and I also enjoyed learning more about housekeeper Mrs. Clarke.

There is an entangled mystery to the Incorrigible Children books, and that is why the children were raised by wolves in the first place and what connection Lord Ashton has to them. Penelope is also tied up in all of this as an orphan who has the same hair colour as the Incorrigibles. Now, by the end of the first book it was obvious what was going on with Lord Ashton (I won't ruin it for you though), and by the end of The hidden gallery Penelope seems to have it figured out although it is not spelled out to the reader. True, perhaps Maryrose Wood assumes all the readers know what is going on with Lord Ashton, but it seems drawn out longer than necessary. I worry that, as much as I delight in these books, the mysteries will be drawn out to the point that the books will become episodic. I sincerely hope that does not come to pass.

As soon as I found out that there was a second book about Penelope and the Incorrigibles, I was determined to get my hands on it, and overall this sequel does not disappoint with its pokes at Victorian culture that made me giggle out loud. I am now waiting to get my paws on the third.

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R. L. LaFevers
Houghton Mifflin, 2007

Theodosia's parents both study ancient Egypt and work for London's Museum of Legends and Antiquities. As a result, eleven-year-old Theodosia spends almost all her time at the museum which is wonderful since she is interested in antiquities, but it's not so great because she can sense the ancient curses that surround many of the Egyptian artifacts. When her mother finds and brings the legendary jeweled Heart of Egypt to the museum, Theodosia is not the only person who knows of its devastating powers, but it appears that she may the only one who can save Britain from the doom to come.

What a rip-roaring adventure! It's almost like The Mummy but with children as protagonists (and I mean that in the best possible way: action, adventure, Egyptian curses, chase scenes, but unfortunately for me no Medjai, sigh). Serpents of chaos also involves pickpockets, a stowaway, hidden burial chambers, a demonized cat, and a secret brotherhood. How's that for excitement!

Amidst it all, Theodosia as a character is solid as a rock. She is clever, independent, daring, and is rather attached to her cat's presence while she sleeps in an empty sarcophagus most nights (her father is the Head Curator and rarely leaves his place of work while his wife is away on a dig). She also realizes that her ability to sense curses makes her different from her parents, and as a result she is essentially an expert in neutralizing Egyptian curses due to her extensive studies while she is stuck at the museum. The adults who surround her on a daily basis fail to recognize her knowledge, which causes Theodosia much frustration. This frustration drives many of her actions throughout the book, and she is determined to prove to her parents that she is of great worth.

The historical setting is an interesting one. The events occur in what seems to be early 1914, and the author does a stand-up job of simply explaining the complicated international relations that existed at that time and which provide a backdrop to the significance of the Heart of Egypt. I'm curious to read the sequels to Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos for many reasons, but one of the main ones is to find out how the advent of the First World War will be incorporated into the plot if, indeed, it is.

This is a novel that should appeal to boys and girls with its wit, adventure, and magic, and will likely spur interest in ancient Egypt as well.