I recently tore through a terrific middle-grade novel, a crackling mixture of wilderness adventure, dry humor, and magical elements that captured my attention and fancy!
Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire, by John August
published in 2018 by Roaring Brook Press
Arlo Finch is a kid with every reason to be a bit more on edge than your average 12-year-old. His anxieties spring from some weird family circumstances: dad on the lam in China to elude the FBI; mom, thus, skittering on the brink of financial ruin and emotional exhaustion; somewhat angsty older sister; and, just to stir something new in the pot, this house where they’ve newly landed to live with his reclusive, taxidermist uncle, a guy who seems to fall somewhere between quirky and downright scary.
Upon arrival in Pine Mountain, Colorado, Arlo joins the local Ranger group, a wilderness scouting club that all the kids seem to belong to. Arlo quickly discovers, however, that this is no ordinary Scout troop, these are no ordinary woods, and the mission he’s embarked on is of a most perilous nature!
John August’s cinematic pacing and engaging writing style swept me right into this story. By the time I’d finished the first chapter, with it’s trippy little twist at the end, I was hooked. For here we are, rattling around a strangely dilapidated house in a Colorado mountain town, feeling the grit under our fingernails, hearing the rusty squawks of tired bed springs and the stark silence of dead plants on the windowsill –all so earthy and grounded in reality — when out of the blue a ghost-dog wanders onto the scene.
Arlo and his excellent friends earn their badges in both conventional wilderness lore and Potter-esque categories such as Advanced Wards and Abjurations as they compete in a brilliant scouting tournament and meanwhile combat terrifying supernatural creatures in the Long Woods. It’s a marvelous mixture of wit, warm relationships, careening adventure, wilderness lore, and terrifying, killer ghost-horses, with the next installment in the planned trilogy slated for Spring 2019.
I just have to add that this book is much better than what I anticipated from its cover. Grab it for brave kids ages 9 and up.