Book bits

A review of 'Peak' by Roland Smith, three kids' books about mysteries, readers' picks of children's books, and kids' books for fall.


By Roland Smith

If you know a recalcitrant reader, a teen or preteen perhaps, who swears that he could more easily scale Mount Everest than finish a novel, try handing him a copy of Peak. Not only will he gain a more realistic sense of what's involved in climbing a mountain, but he might even enjoy himself.

"Peak" is a newly released young adult novel nicely packed with all the things that ought to abound in a good summer book: a breezy style, an appealing narrator, a healthy dose of nail-biting adventure, the occasional fact, and just a pleasing soupçon of sentiment.

The story is told through the notebooks of its protagonist, 14-year-old Peak Marcello who's just been nabbed by the New York City police for climbing the Woolworth Building.

Peak comes naturally by his attraction to heights: His parents Joshua Woods and Teri Marcello were once daring young "rock rats,"mountaineers busy shattering world climbing records left and right.

But Josh long ago vanished from his son's life – that is, until Peak's arrest and threatened incarceration. Then Josh swoops in from Nepal and offers to take his boy under his wing and out of the country. Eager to keep Peak out of jail, Teri agrees. Peak is to live with his dad in Thailand and attend school there.

Or so Teri thinks. Actually Josh has other ideas and before Peak knows it he's in Nepal getting ready to scale Mount Everest with his dad. If he succeeds, he'd be the youngest climber ever to do so – an event likely to benefit Josh's struggling outdoor-adventure company.

Peak is no fool. He knows when he's being used but he also recognizes the chance for the adventure of a lifetime – and the chance to get to know his dad.

So he begins his climb and starts to fill a pair of Moleskine notebooks with his story.

For readers it's an opportunity to revel in descriptions of climbing equipment and techniques, but also to face some of the harsh realities of the sport – everything from oxygen deprivation to belligerent Chinese border guards to the frozen corpses that litter the path. But it's also a chance to watch a teen grapple with questions about his own nature: Is he a driven loner like his dad or does he share some of the softer qualities of his mom?

The answer to that last question is never really in doubt but Peak's ascension to the top of Everest is anything but a certainty. His struggle en route might just keep that reluctant reader engaged till the end.

– Marjorie Kehe

Three books about mysteries

A mystery set in ancient Rome to be solved by seven schoolboys in togas? It may seem an odd concept but somehow Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld neatly succeeds in constructing a lesson in ancient history around the plot of a whodunit and spinning the whole thing into a great tale for middle school readers. In addition to learning a thing or two about daily life at the heart of the Roman Empire, kids will have fun. (Also by Winterfeld: "Mystery of the Roman Ransom.")

Make room, Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy. Award-winning children's author Wendelin van Draanen has created yet another smart, likeable young female detective. This one is named Sammy Keyes. She's only a kid and she lives in the Seniors' High Rise with her grandmother, but that doesn't prevent her from leading a rich life of intrigue and (gentle) crime solving in books such as Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief.

The very youngest of readers – those not yet ready for words – can enjoy a mystery tale of their own in the award-winning picture book Tuesday by author/illustrator David Wiesner. Wiesner's gorgeous drawings tell of mysterious things that fly in the night. There's nothing to fear but plenty to observe in this evocative visual treat.

– Marjorie Kehe

Fall books for children

Come fall, predicts trade magazine Publishers Weekly, these children's books will be among "the hottest":

Adult authors writing for kids:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (Little Brown, Nov. 1)

Slam, by Nick Hornby (Putnam, Oct. 4)

Books by celebrities:

Freckleface Strawberry, by Julianne Moore with illustrator LeUyen Pham (Bloomsbury USA, Oct. 2)

Ana's Story, by Jenna Bush (HarperCollins, Oct. 2)

Picture books:

Knuffle Bunny: A Case of Mistaken Identity, by Mo Willems (Hyperion, Sept. 4)

Olivia Helps for Christmas, by Ian Falconer (Atheneum, Oct. 2)

Skippyjon and the Big Bones, by Judy Schachner (Dutton, Oct. 8)

Readers' picks

I am enjoying the beloved Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. Set in turn of the 20th century Minnesota, these books follow the friendship of Betsy and Tacy from age 5 until, as adults, they send their husbands off to fight in World War I. My favorite is Betsy and Joe, which describes Betsy's senior year of high school, full of ageless challenges– how to make writing one's career, how to know when one has met a soul mate, how to cherish hometown and family yet seek adventure in the world. I highly recommend this series for readers of all ages. Constance Martin, Watertown, Mass.

My 4-year-old grandchild spent a few days with me. This meant an overnight and the opportunity to read. I pulled out two books from my old collection, both by Marjorie Flack, Angus and the Cat and Ask Mr. Bear. There is something peaceful and loving about these books. My grandchildren ask for them over and over. Jane Moginot, Rockport, Mass.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken has everything a little girl dreams of – dark moors, wolves, rich relatives who suddenly become poor and/or dead, mean relatives who gleefully take advantage of newly poor relatives, an orphanage where nobody gets enough to eat, a kind and clever hero who helps the orphans escape, lost relatives who reappear and make everything right again. Completely satisfying in every way. Lisa Carper, Roslindale, Mass.

My teenagers and I really enjoyed Pamela Aidan's three-book series, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman, covering Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" story from the gentleman's view - and it was with great angst that we waited for that third book to be published. Our copies of the first two would be "valuable first editions" if we hadn't so thoroughly enjoyed them. Helen C. Watts, Portland, Me.

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