N.D. Wilson’s Leepike Ridge

Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson

Random House, 2007.

224 pages, hardcover.

was face out at the Library & remembered I meant to read this, as I had read and enjoyed the 100 Cupboards series.

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Have you (or yours) read a book by N.D. Wilson? He is one of the juvenile fiction authors I would like to see recommended more often, especially on all those lists titled “reluctant male readers?”  While I adored 100 Cupboards, both the first book and the series, Leepike Ridge is a great place for introductions.

Eleven-year-old Thomas Hammond has always lived next to Leepike Ridge. He never imagined he might end up lost beneath it!

What Tom finds under Leepike Ridge–a corpse, a dog, a flashlight, a castaway, crawdads, four graves, a tomb, and buried treasure–will answer questions he hadn’t known to ask and change his life forever. Now if only he can find his way home again… ~publisher’s comments.

The narrator wants to share a story he’s heard, about “this valley and the stream and the old, dry house chained to the top of the enormous rock beside the foot of the mountain” (2). A boy lives there with his widowed mother and she is about to receive a wedding proposal from a repulsive gentleman who has been courting her a short while now. But before the arrival of the proposal a new refrigerator is hefted up the steep and winding staircase to their house. The mother does not realize her son has grown past the age of playing with the discarded box and saves it for him. The foam that cushions the appliance is the very one that carries the sleeping boy down the stream to Leepike ridge which hides a strong and potentially fatal current that sucks the water beneath the ridge and into who knows what exactly. There is supposed to be treasure amidst all the caverns and winding waterways. But little comes back out that is pulled under, little that is alive anyway.

Wilson does not appear to be interested in coddling the reader too fiercely; which you can guess with the mention of “corpse” in the synopsis. Tom gets dinged up pretty badly, and he is in serious trouble when he washes up on the invisible shore next to said corpse; it is a breath-holding moment as he reaches out and touches the corpse’s boot, then leg, and then in the search for supplies… There are bad men who will kill to get what they want. There are dogs that will eat anything. Leepike Ridge can be violent and gruesome at turns; but with its audience in mind, of course.

Tom is determined to survive and works to remain calm, even in the most terrifying fix. You get that he learned this from a father who was in the Navy and a mother who, while her son has gone missing and is presumed dead, is equally determined to be calm and pragmatic about her situation. Tom is resourceful, but is still subject to the whims of his fate and his is left to chance. It doesn’t feel a given that Tom will get out alive, sooner or much later, and certainly not with all his limbs. And you really worry about the dog. To add to already perilous matters, there are the treasure hunters who will not let anything get in the way of their desperate search for the rumored loot and are still in the thick of it.

There are mysteries, plenty of adventure, and some musing on what it would take to survive beneath the ridge, and what it would take to finally escape. There is also a bit about those who have come before, ancient civilizations and not so ancient predecessors; and what constitutes a treasure. In Leepike Ridge as in 100 Cupboards, Wilson writes in families who love each other, and have healthy if not sometimes flawed relationships–and he doesn’t make it mushy; it’s just matter of fact.

The action/adventure, Wilson’s imagination, his graspable metaphors/similes, and his quirky characters will draw the younger reader. His ability to write and weave a good story will keep everyone happy. However, one of the things that sets Wilson apart from many of his peers is his way of establishing/describing his characters. I noticed this right away in 100 Cupboards, I example it here with Leepike Ridge.

[Tom] was the sort of boy who had many friends when he was at school, but what they knew about him was limited to his freckles, brown hair, long arms, and the clenched determination that settled onto his face when he was angry or competing. His smile, which was wide and quick, was always surprising, and his laugh, which lived in his narrow belly, was unpredictable. In games, any games, he was the first to dive for a ball, to slide on concrete, or to get a mouthful of dirt. He was taller than many of the boys in his class, but not the tallest, and he always seemed to have scabs.

Wait for the rest of the story, and you will know him better when I am done. (3)

If you were not this boy, you knew him, and if anyone could come back from the dead, he could; not necessarily brash, but certainly bold, definitely the risk-taker.

I love Tom’s observance of Jeffrey, his mother’s suitor:

Everyone said Jeffrey was a nice man. He was also tall, with lanky limbs and a saggy middle. Worse than that, he had a saggy chest and wore unbuttoned polo shirts. He always smiled, regardless of the situation, and taught fourth grade at Tom’s school. He drove a little green car the color of dry toothpaste. To Tom, he had been Mr. Veatch until this summer, when suddenly he had begun dropping by (from his house near school, about twenty miles away) and wanting to be called Jeffrey. (8-9)

You will not be surprised to find out later that Mr. Jeffrey Veatch still lives with his mother.

The ability to describe the physicality and personality of a character in a story without falling back on cliche or the passe is no small thing, and it a pleasure when a writer can do so as creatively and charmingly as N.D. Wilson does. He’ll establish a sense of the character with the visual and contextual and then either subvert it or enhance it. His application of humor doesn’t hurt the reader either.

Wilson has a new book out: Ashtown Burials (#01) : The Dragon’s Tooth which is already receiving good reviews. I look forward to the read as Wilson has yet to disappoint. He is an adventure author who should be on every young person’s reading list.

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When I say “everyone’s list” I especially mean: readers who like a bit of peril in their reading, and some unpredictability; and where the instability is societal, not familial. For those who like well-drawn characters, and are impressed with the ability on the part of the writer to translate the most difficult of action scenes and who doesn’t mind grossing out the reader with descriptions of textures and smells, or ridiculous grown-ups. Wilson is amongst the best of boy’s lit, but don’t exclude the daughters–or yourself, for that matter.

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Wilson is good in Leepike Ridge, but you can see improvement in his craft in 100 Cupboards, which is lengthier and more fantastical; which of course has me thrilled to read his new series if he just gets better and better.

my review of 100 Cupboards and of the second of those three Dandelion Fire.

the 2nd of 100 cupboards

Dandelion Fire: Book 2 of the 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson

Random House, 2009.

466 pages.

I wrote about N.D. Wilson’s first book (in this series) 100 Cupboards the other day. I was quick to put in a request for this second book in the series, Dandelion Fire. And of course, I went on to request the newest and third book, The Chesnut King.

I didn’t have to wait long for Dandelion Fire and I pushed it to the top of the reading stack. I enjoyed it. But first the reasons why I didn’t enjoy it nearly as well as the first book. Well, there is actually just one reason.

In the first book, the humor was delightful. I was laughing out loud with no concern for the looks I was given. It is true that the humor that seduces the reader into and through the first three-fourths of the first book begins to wane under the weight of the situation’s gravity. I thought maybe some of the wit would be back to tantalize the reader into the second book.  Instead, the second book returns to the tension it collected toward the end of the first.

Neither book is inactive. The quiet moments are brief. The first book gives twists and stomach-trembling turns. This is a favorable thing. Sure, the world is Wilson’s imagination but it was difficult still to anticipate the oncoming—which I love. There were more than not those moments of “where could this be going?”  Henry Neff does this; this idea that victory isn’t necessary inevitable. Dandelion Fire holds with the first.

Wilson is consistent with his characters, carrying those from the first into the second book, and adding some more. Yes, Henrietta is as annoyingly flawed as ever, and Henry, too, is learning. But Wilson is populating his worlds and adventures with more of the usual and the strange. Where the revealing of serious intentions for a fully realized series was muted in the first book, it is very real in the second. He is giving himself a cast with which to work more complexities into the series. And he is shedding the skin of the superfluous. His handling of the York’s, Henry’s adoptive peripheral parents, is quick and has received some criticism; and they are not unwarranted remarks either. Still, he didn’t kill them off while hostages in South America, he only tried to make them worth not caring about. But the lack of caring undermines Henry’s inner-conflict effecting his decisions as to what he should do with his future. For the reader, there is no real turmoil and there is ever only one solution; an unintended weakness early in the story.

Wilson is dependable in providing well-imagined landscapes.  I had read a review of this book with one of their criticisms suggesting illustrations and maps should have been added to the volume. The diagram of the cupboards was in Dandelion Fire but the reviewer thought there should be more visual aids. They also thought a flow chart of how people are related/connected should have been provided. True, Dandelion Fire is not for the lazy reader. And it not having the suggested aides does not detract; Wilson is a capable describer.

There was the criticism of indecipherability. Much of what is said and done is cryptic, enigmatic to the point of screaming frustration. If you’ve read the first book you’ll recall the passages from the Grandfather’s journal. They were horribly inaccessible (purposefully, I’ll wager). There are events and traditions in Dandelion Fire which are introduced but not explained. This is not unfamiliar to the reader of Fantasy Fiction. Wilson does ask quite a lot of the reader, to hold things in mind and persevere until such a time as it might be answered. Like any reader knowing that they are amidst a series, the reader hopes that enough is resolved before having to wait for another volume. I’m not sure if such satisfaction is found in this area: or if the imagination of the reader is to be enough a match for the author’s to make the leaps. How exactly does Henry free his father? Why is Henry’s christening as vital as it is? I can make some strong and perhaps evidence supported guesses… But Wilson doesn’t expend the dialogue to make summaries at opportune points along the way, or even the end. Not a complaint for me, but those used to the tidy, and those unfamiliar to Fantasy Fiction may not be so forgiving. As for following connections between people: at this point—really not that difficult; but to be fair I will test this out on the nine-year-old when she is available to read this one.

Wilson also forgoes the chapter or long paragraph of what happens to Uncle Frank and company once they arrive through the cupboard door. They appear near the end, established where Uncle Frank had led Henry to believe they could be found. It isn’t detrimental, but a slight, as Wilson does take the rhythm of moving between characters throughout, keeping the action and suspense moving and building.

The movement in the book is constant. The still moments are few and the intimate moments between characters that would establish relationship (and create sorrow if one should part) rob us of some emotional attachment and attraction. When a moment is shared it feels stilted and uncomfortable: no one wants to dwell on it. The relationships shouldn’t be supposed. And the estrangement is unfortunate for the reader.  The first book did better with affection. The second gaps are filled by the reader, and I know there was a lot to do in Dandelion Fire, but time should have been made.  The one plausible exception, the letters to Henrietta and Henry in case they made it back to the house, is not enough.

The Green Man is used in the lore of Dandelion Fire. I was thrilled to see it. And I was excited to see a re-assertion of the male as having a positive connection/rapport with nature.

The series has all the elements and devices people have seen, but Wilson uses them in his own way and creates wonderful story/adventure. His protagonist Henry continues to excel as a developing character, pulling us through the cupboards and worlds. Still, both Wilson and Henry do weird and hard to explain things. Wilson is valiant in his attempts and use of poetic language to ground the abstract. Some occasions are easier to follow than others. Our only comfort is in the understanding that Henry doesn’t quite understand it either. But the language of magic and foreign interactions within the strange realm becomes more comfortable by book’s end. The theme “that just because it is hard to understand does not mean it cannot exist” aides the reader in suspending disbelief; and really, the tension built in, any resolution is met with gratitude, explanations are saved for an afterthought.

As for “afterthought,” the queen representation is Henrietta. [note: possible digression ahead.]

Natalya (my daughter) read book one 100 Cupboards and really liked it; despite her growing and ever growling frustrations with Henrietta. Henrietta is Henry’s cousin and they are close in age. Henry acquires the name “Whimpering Child” by some, and his female cousin’s contempt almost from the start. He is afraid of everything, having been over-sheltered since birth. He also appears to lack imagination for adventure. Henrietta is fear-less and has an over-developed imagination for adventure. I say over-developed because she is impetuous and brash: and primarily thoughtless. Henrietta does not consider the uncomfortable consequences of adventures, where Henry considers them too readily.

Henry would move away from fear into opening himself to possibilities of things that exist in and beyond the imagination. And he would accept the less glamorous aspects of an adventure to pursue his goals/purpose. In Dandelion Fire he only continues on this course.

Henrietta does not bear well beneath the weight of her realizations.

Henrietta has always dreamed of a magical adventure; first to be struck by lightning, until she saw pictures of victims of lightning strikes; second to be carried off in a tornado. The cupboards are her opportunity and she would dive in—heedless of the effects of her actions. As Dandelion Fire explores, Henrietta has a great deal in common with her Grandfather. Her adventure and focus supersedes anything or one around her. She doesn’t even take steps to insure her own safety or retrieval.

This second book in the series plans to temper Henrietta a bit; its attempts in the first book to no avail. So early on, Henrietta is nearly killed on a lone expedition into a cupboard. Really, she is just an idiot.  She is later provoked to go into the cupboard, yet again, by herself and is put in peril—again. And then the less glamorous aspects of having an adventure (like walking for miles, hunger and thirst, vulnerability, riding a war horse, holding your breath, etc) come into play and she is a Complainer.

Where adventure would sharpen Henry and bring out his best, in Henrietta you see a failure…at least I do. And the book would continue to thump her on the head, and in the end try to redeem her some sense and maturing. We’ll see where Wilson goes with Henrietta next. It is good to have a character such as her. And I wonder at the possible criticisms available. But she is…obnoxious.

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The first book, 100 Cupboards had definite creepiness; so does Dandelion Fire: terrifying villains and plenty of peril. I think I will rank Wilson’s villains and peril up there with Adrienne Kress’ in Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, not as good but up there…Kress has some real terrors in hers.

Dandelion Fire is suggested for ages 9-12 and I should think no one younger. And I think a certain level of ability in comprehension and fact retention should be necessary. There are more than plenty of things to keep straight in those 466 pages; I appreciate the author not insulting the 9-12 set by questioning their capabilities.

Dandelion Fire is a book two and would overwhelm the reader without the first. As with the first book, you could stop with book two and keep to daydreams; it is not so much a bridge book. But I am looking forward to reading the third book, The Chesnut King.

of clever construction

100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson

Random House, 2007

289 pages

Yes, this is another review of another first book in another juvenile book series. However, I can begin with fewer sighs and groans over the matter, because this is a creatively fun series into which you should be drug. N.D. Wilson is wonderfully imaginative and humorous. There are no “if you like Rowling, you’ll like…”; at least none that I saw; which is refreshing. 100 Cupboards is fantasy adventure more in tune with the other series about a wardrobe and magical places, The Chronicles of Narnia, but with shorter sentences.

The narrator is the 3rd omniscient sort (refreshing!), who primarily follows Henry but is useful in giving us glimpses and tidbits of other things having gone or are going on (the felines’ perspectives are amusing). We’re glad he follows Henry because Henry is brilliantly funny. The poor 12 year old boy has been horribly sheltered, and is generally inept, and worse, lacking in imagination.

One of my favorite passages:

Henry had never ridden in the back of a truck before, and he had always assumed it was illegal, though on the one trip his parents had taken him on, a tour of early Southwestern settlements, he had seen an entire truckload of field workers drive by. As he had been strapped into a car seat in the back of a Volvo at the time, he was extremely jealous. Only a few miles later, he had learned to his surprise that nine-year-old boys do not usually ride in car seats. A laughing school bus full of children taught him the lesson at the stoplight. (5)

The book moves more quickly than most firsts in a series, laying its foundations while providing plenty of action and comedy to keep the pace and page light.

The illustrations of place and people are more than sound. Wilson has a nice voice. However, the complicated endeavor of describing the compass-like knobs and the wall of cupboards is aided by a drawing at the front of the book—thank you. Wilson does well, but the drawing is massively helpful.

The cast is small at this point, but glorious. The book begins with the quaint and amusing, but as the momentum of the book picks up at the end, all of the characters lift off the page and the seriousness of the endeavor is evident.  The ‘aw shucks’ sloughs off easier than the plaster that covered the cupboards. The fun promises to remain, but there is nice complicated project in this fantasy adventure. I love that tingling sensation. I hope Wilson can carry off his ambitions, and maintain his characters’ forms: he has some fantastic ones.

There is more than just entertainment in this book. I’m sure there is some cultural criticism to be found (or invented), but I am just basking in the entertainment portion of the day’s reading, for now.

Those concerned with boys not reading, introduce them to N.D. Wilson and his 100 Cupboards adventurer, Henry.

The suggested reading age is 8-12… I agree. And as Booklist points out, “The story is chilling, but the creepy quotient never exceeds the book’s target audience.”