Score: 86/100 (8.6 out of 10)
In this adventurous little middle grade book, a character named Suthor retreats to a cabin in the woods following a tragedy that leaves him with a deep sense of emptiness. These aren't just any woods, this is the infamous Cold Wood, an inhospitable place filled with bears where it is said no one has lived for decades. He intends to live out his days as a hermit and a woodsman, trapping and hunting—a simple life away from civilization and closer to nature.
However, he's in for the shock of his life when he finds a mysterious severed hand in one of his bear traps with the rest of the body missing. Who does the hand belong to? Where is the rest of the body? How did it get there? Should he avoid suspicion and try to hide it or do the right thing and try to get to the bottom of it? What is the Dream Gully and why is it shrouded by so much mist and mystery? And, also, why does the hand move on its own?!
That's right, this mystery has both a grotesque and a supernatural slant to it, though probably not too much to turn away kids and parents. In fact, if you have a kid in your home who has a little bit of Bart Simpson in 'em, this might actually appeal a lot to them. It kinda has a coolness and an edginess factor to it, things that are missing from many middle grade books.
Here's the thing though: look at that opening paragraph. That's a whole lot of questions raised and not a whole lot of time to answer them. It's sorta like season six of Lost in that sense. For about four-fifths of the book, the story seems to get more and more complex without much reprieve. Next thing you know, you're looking at the number of pages left, and you're wondering how on earth the author plans to unravel all of this and stick the landing in time. Does he stick the landing? Well, you can decide that for yourself. We honestly felt like the ending was pretty confusing for kids and fell a bit flat. It has to do with some sort of prophecy that the main character was given before all of these events occurred. And what do we know about prophecies in fiction? They always come true, just not in the ways you think. Another thing: why would you reveal a prophecy at the very end of a book? Shouldn't it be near the beginning or middle as a form of foreshadowing? Just a little thing to think about.
There are times when things just seem to happen in this book, which suggests that the author is a pantser—someone who writes by the seat of their pants or as they go along. And there is a degree to the story that seems self-insert. The character of Suthor does sound a lot like how the author describes himself in the “About the Author” section. And that's fine. In fact, being a pantser and self-inserting yourself as a character can work. It just doesn't feel like this story or its characters have enough room to breathe in such a tight space. Does that make any sense? It's like trying to shove a four-book series into a 60-page middle-grade novel, and it's really only about 30 pages without the large spacing and short margins. That's about 25 minutes of content.
But we digress, because 25 minutes fits well with the attention span of a young person, and there's a high degree of accomplishment that a young people feels completing a whole story. Furthermore, large spacing and short margins are very helpful for young readers who can be overwhelmed by wordiness.
If you've read SRA (student reading assessment stories) and children's books in general, its not unusual for the stories to feel a bit... flat and unrefined while looking at them from the lens of an experienced reader. Being an experienced reader, you tend to have overly high expectations based on other books you've read.
What you'll usually get from an SRA story is a very clear moral message and a very clear beginning, middle, and end. The problem is, this book doesn't really seem to have an end. The ending is very abrupt. All this mystery and suspense is built up, and then you hit the “About the Author” section like a brick wall at the end of a 50 MPH drive.
This book does have redeemable qualities. We liked some of the subtext and moral of the story as well as some of the characters.
The moral of the story isn't so difficult to uncover, and it can be quite powerful. Loss is something that every single human being will have to go through, and it can especially be confusing and hard on kids. Kids and adults alike run the risk of becoming reclusive and repressing their true feelings rather than expressing them or putting them in a manageable context. Suthor is clearly someone who is choosing to become reclusive and repress his feelings—literally locking himself in his room and becoming antisocial. He is an empathetic character in that regard.
Sometimes, it takes a crazy, unpredictable, unexpected situation to get someone like Suthor back on their feet and back into society.
Another part of this story we liked is the character of Dog, the husky who adopts Suthor as its owner. He's a really compelling, cute character. Who doesn't love a charismatic, loyal husky? And there's almost like a Sven and Kristoff (from Frozen) relationship between them. Suthor is always trying to read Dog's thoughts, but it usually turns out that it's actually his conscience that's talking to him.
So, this book is a solid one for middle-grade kids (8-12) and could be entertaining for older audiences as well. Also, as mentioned before, it does have an edginess to it that many middle grade books lack. And, let's be honest, there's a coolness to following a rogue woodsman.
Check it out on Amazon!