Dragon Teeth – by Michael Crichton (2017)

Dragon Teeth

The newest Michael Crichton novel, published by his wife almost a decade after his death, is a gem of a book. However, don’t expect “Dragon Teeth” to read like most of his other books. Instead of technology, you will find a young man growing up. Instead of pure fiction, you will find a story based on real people who feuded with each other in the 1870s. Instead of the future, you will find the past.

The tale begins with William Johnson, a pampered young student at Yale University in 1876. When another student says he would never survive in the Wild West, William impulsively joins Othniel Charles Marsh’s archeological team to search for dinosaur bones in Indian territory. Part-way through the trip, he is abandoned, and joins a rival paleontologist Edwin Drinker Cope. What began as something fun for William turns into life and death, and by the end of the story the Wild West has made him tough as nails.

I loved the fast pace and the simple plot of the story. There was nothing complicated about it, no great mystery, just a great historic novel about human rivalry and the challenges of growing up.

 

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – by Judith Kerr (1971)

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

Nine-year-old Anna lives in Berlin, Germany with her parents and brother Max. Her father is part Jewish, and has written a number of newspaper articles that are critical of the Nazi party. Just before the election which catapults Adolf Hitler to power, the family flees to Switzerland. In the hasty exit, Anna leaves behind her stuffed animal Pink Rabbit. When a bounty is placed on her father’s head, they flee to Paris. Several years later, they leave France for England.

This story is semi-autobiographical, and portrays the early years of World War II through the eyes of a child. The author’s parents, like Anna’s parents, were fortunate enough to escape from Germany and save their lives. But they gave up a great deal – friends, a well-to-do lifestyle, a spacious house and almost all their possessions. Despite becoming refugees, downsizing to tiny living quarters, becoming impoverished, and learning new languages, they survived and thrived because the four of them stayed together as a family.

There have been so many books written about World War II that spell out the grizzly facts of what the victims suffered. This book tells the story on the level of a child’s understanding of the war. Anna knows a little bit about the war, but is mercifully ignorant of many details. Instead, the story focuses on the everyday life of a family that gives up their homeland to becomes refugees in a new country. Although the setting of the book is serious, there are many humorous parts, especially as Anna tries to learn French. It is well-written, and appropriate for anyone ages eight and older to read.

The Last Photograph – by Stephen Bransford (1995)

The Last Photograph

It’s the tale of two brothers – Gordon the older, and Stephen the younger. From earliest childhood, they were as different as night and day. Gordon was rough and tough, unafraid of anything or anyone. Stephen was thin and gangly, and a frequent target of the bully at school. As they reached adulthood, their paths continued to grow apart. Gordon went off to Vietnam, while Stephen went to seminary to avoid the draft. It seemed that the two of them would never be close as brothers.

Years later the family planned a ten-day hunting expedition. The brother who loved the outdoors and horseback riding led the group, while the other brother spent the majority of his time taking pictures with his camera. But for once, they weren’t fighting or competing with each other.

The story was fascinating. At several points in the book, I remember thinking, this just seems too real to be fiction. The feelings expressed by Stephen were so authentic and raw. The end of the book left me wiping my eyes with a tissue and blowing my nose. I have rarely read a book with such a moving ending. The afterword states that the book is based on events from the author’s life. Barnes and Noble’s bookstore website classifies the book as “autobiographical fiction”. Although there is no way of knowing exactly how much fiction was added to the facts, the book gives a beautiful account of the journey of the Bransford brothers.

Shoofly Pie – by Tim Downs (2003)

Shoofly Pie

“Shoofly Pie” introduces us to forensic entomologist Nick Polchak, aka “the Bug Man”. Nick’s whole life is devoted to studying and understanding every type of fly or insect. His dream is to discover some unknown insect. His adoration of bugs tends to put people off a bit, but it’s hard not to admire a guy so devoted to his line of work.

Into the story comes Kathryn, who has lost a dear childhood friend, supposedly to suicide. But she can’t bring herself to believe he would take his own life. So she hires the Bug Man to investigate, much to the irritation of the local police chief. I loved Nick’s clever ways of questioning people, and getting to the bottom of things. If you enjoy this book as much as I did, there are five more Bug Man mysteries!

Bug Man novels include:
1 – Shoofly Pie
2 – Chop Shop
3 – First The Dead
4 – Less Than Dead
5 – Ends Of The Earth
6 – Nick Of Time

Little House On The Prairie – by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1935)

Little House On The Prairie

I have enjoyed reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books many times over the years. This time I listened to the audiobook version, which is read by Cherry Jones, who has a fine, deep reading voice. (You may remember her as the actress who played the female president on the TV show “24”.) She reads with enthusiasm and joy; obvious she loves the books too.

Growing up, I was under the impression that Laura’s books were totally biographical, and was puzzled when I noticed them in the fiction section of the library. Turns out that although the incidents in the book actually happened, some basic facts were changed to satisfy the publisher. For example, Laura was only 2-3 years old during the time they lived in Indian Territory, not 5-ish as the book portrays. Also, baby Grace didn’t arrive in the Territory with them, but was born just a few weeks before they moved out. Other facts were altered as well.

That being said, don’t let that stop you from reading this book! It’s totally amazing to hear how they built a house from scratch, dealt with fire, lived in wolf territory, and survived malaria. You’ll get a good picture of both the harshness of prairie life, and the joy of a close-knit family living a simple life together. Written in 1935, it’s still enjoy by millions of people.

 

 

The Long Winter – by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1940)

The Long Winter

 

Of all the books in the “LIttle House” series, this has always been my favorite. It focuses on the terrible winter of 1890-91 in De Smet. Although Laura wrote her books as a mixture of fact and fiction, this book was a very accurate picture of that winter in the Dakota Territory. The blizzards did indeed begin in October, the Chicago and North Western Railroad did actually stop running by Christmas because the rails were impassible, people died of starvation, and the train didn’t make it to De Smet until May.

The Ingalls family, like everyone else, depended on supplies coming in regularly on the trains. When they didn’t come, they were forced to ration supplies and think creatively to survive the winter. Two young men, Almanzo Wilder and his friend Cap Garland, risked their lives to save the people in town from starvation.

The story is written so compellingly that you can hear the wind howling, and feel your feet freezing as you read it. Read it in the winter, when you don’t think you can bear any more cold, and it will fill you with gratitude for a warm house and nearby grocery stores.

A Newbery Honor Book