I am now half way through my third ND Wilson book and I have to say, he really likes to beat the tar out of his main characters - all of whom are boys. Leepike Ridge is Wilson's first published book, his second, 100 Cupboards, is also the first in a trilogy. Having been a female my whole life, this getting beaten up and bashed about thing is still pretty alien to me as I (women in general?) try to stay out of scrapes as much as possible. And, while I do think it is possible to write suspenseful, adventurous stories without the main character having to endure cuts, burns, scratches, bruises, bloody noses, lips, ears and the like, I am getting much more used to this as a rule. I have to agree with the always excellent and enthusiastic Elizabeth Bird over at School Library Journal when she says in her review of Leepike Ridge which ran in the fall of 2007, "I am a traitor to my sex. I must be. All evidence clearly points in that direction. If 2007 is remembered as anything, for me it will be the Year of Boy Books That I Adored While My Female Friends Slowly Shook Their Heads." I have to agree, Leepike Ridge is one great book, just a notch or two below the superlative classic that I am ashamed I have yet to review here (do I need to, though, really?) Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Hatchet and Johnny Tremain were two "boy books" I staunchly refused to read for many years, but when I did, I was blown away. And grateful. While these are two books that sell themselves, it's always good to be able to put in my two cents when suggesting them to reluctant or uninterested male readers while I am at work.
But back to ND Wilson, for whom my appreciation of his works continues to grow, deepened by an excellent interview by Robbie over at the brilliantly (wish I'd thought of it) named blog A Fort Made of Books. While the interview sheds more light on Wilson's fantasy writing than the reality based Leepike Ridge, I encourage you to check it out. If you forget to, you can see large chunks of it in my review of Book 2 in the 100 Cupboards series, Dandelion Fire. Leepike Ridge has been compared to Tom Sawyer. As Elizabeth Bird aptly notes, it is "an adventure novel with a soul." Wilson's writing and his poetic way with language is what sets him apart from other writers (of fantasy, anyway) like (please, please forgive me) JK Rowling. His turn of a phrase can make readers sit back and observe the scene that Wilson has just laid before them. His way with words can make a reader pause and read a sentence over again. Sometimes Wilson's writing can be clunky, like his opening sentence, "In the history of the world there have been lots of onces and lots of times, and every time has had a once upon it." However, if you find yourself stumbling here and there, that is all the more reason to go back and read a sentence, and occasionally a passage, again.
The story of Leepike Ridge is an adventure story with a treasure at it's heart. I really don't want to give anything away, which is EXTREMELY difficult since there seems to be one surprise after another, a plot twist around every corner. I can tell you this, though. The first two chapters of Leepike Ridge contain some of the best writing about a boy in nature that I have ever read. Thomas Hammond, main character (soon to be beaten and bloodied no end) an only child, lives with his mother in a house at the top of Leepike Ridge. I included an image of the hardcover jacket, front and back, to help you visualize this house that is perched, chained in some places, on this small peak that was once shaped like a crescent moon. At the foot of the peak is a valley of willow trees growing by a stream. It is here that we first meet Tom, in the stream collecting leeches, as he watches a delivery truck carrying a new refrigerator. When he reaches the top of the steps that lead to his house, he finds the empty fridge box "lying on its side, carefully arranged and waiting for him" with a small stack of cookies placed inside on top of the white styrofoam packing. I love Tom's mother. She knows enough to leave the box for him and disappear. She also knows that, at the age of 11 he might feel he is a bit too old to be playing in boxes so she leaves the cookies - inside - to lure him. Being a boy of 11, Tom kicks the box and watches it skid off the ridge, tumbling to the ground far below. As Wilson writes, "The box bounced in the gravel drive and rolled into the long grass, but the foam floated nicely, clearing the first willow trees. The plastic bags disappeared." The scene doesn't end here. Irked by the knowledge that Jeffrey, his mother's boyfriend is coming to dinner and by the fact that his mother has told him to clean up the "trash you just spread through the valley," Tom heads back out to the stream. Once there, he ends up playing with the packing foam and not the box. By the end of chapter two, titled Voyage, that foam will have saved his life.
The story that Wilson churns up is as breakneck and twisted as the river that carries Tom, who has fallen asleep on top of the floating foam, away. If you want to discover the rest for yourself, STOP READING MY REVIEW NOW!
(however - if you plan to read it out loud to your kids without pre-reading it, I need to tell you that there are some bad guys with guns and explosives and plastic bags. There is a murder, or two, also.)
If you want a preview of the plot, READ ON!!
So, Tom gets sucked into this underground river and shot through cavern after cavern, it seems, until he finally finds himself on a quiet, albeit pitch black, shore. Lost inside a cave in the mountain that his house is perched on, Tom bumps into a dead body. Sickened at first, he soon realizes (just like Brian in Hatchet) that this corpse might be holding some important tools. Sure enough, he finds a headlamp, batteries, a small knife, a big ring and a can of sardines - although not without having to reach under the dead guy's bloody beard... He decides that his only chance of survival, battered though he is, is to get back in the river and see where it takes him. But not before he realizes that he can use the knife to scratch a message onto the boots of the dead guy and send them down the river also. Tom is not alone, however. A dog has shown up in the cavern as well, paddling about, and the two head off together.
I'm not telling you the rest, where Tom and the dog end up, who/what they find and if/how they get out alive because, if you've read this far I know that you really do want to read this book and be surprised all on your own!!! Go back and read Elizabeth Bird's review if you really want the beans spilled.
I'll just leave you with this tempting bit - Reg is a character you don't want to miss!