Review: The Last Mapmaker

The Last Mapmaker, Christina Soontornvat. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2022.

Summary: Sai, a girl from the Fens, daughter of a conman, manages to find a place with the last mapmaker of Mangkon just as he is enlisted on a voyage of discovery with great possible rewards, risks, and Slakes!

Sai was a twelve year old growing up in the Fens, a slumlike area of Mangkon. Her father, Mud, is a no-account conman in and out of prison. She longs for better things than working in a market. Yet she has no hope of receiving lineals on her thirteenth birthday, the mark of status. One day, she happens by the shop of Paiyoon, the foremost and last mapmaker in the land, just as he is lamenting his need of an assistant. She volunteers and he accepts and she does whatever he says, coming in earlier than he does.

Sai is talented at copying and her father wants her to forge an official letter. She is caught copying one of Paiyoon’s letters and he marvels at her skill. He discovers she can do this with maps as well. Soon after, Paiyoon learns he will be the mapmaker and navigator on an expedition ordered by the Queen to discover the Sunderlands, a continent that exists in myths, surrounded by the stormy and perilous Harbinger Sea, and guarded by the mythical Slake, a kind of sea dragon. He invites Sai along, and she jumps at the chance, giving up her hard-earned savings to be free of Mud.

But the rewards for the crew that discover the continent are good, along with lineals. And Sai gets to work with Paiyoon, further learning his craft, critical because his hands have begun to shake. The ship, the Prosperity, is the flagship of the Navy, captained by an illustrious war hero, Anchalee Sangra. There are two problems on board. One is Grebe, a sailor who had followed her one early morning in the Fens, until she eluded him. She fears she will be recognized, and her lowly origins in this status-conscious society betrayed. The other is Bo, a young orphan boy who had tried to pick her pocket on a port visit but was caught by her, but escaped arrest. He has stowed away and she discovers him and ends up trying to shield him. The two will ultimately team up. She also makes a friend with a striking young woman, Rian, popular among the sailors and ambitious to make the discover. She turns out to be half-sister to the captain.

It turns out the crew is divided, the Captain and Paiyoon and a few others on one side and Rian and most of the crew who want to take the risks to find the Sunderlands. The difference is not fear, as it turns out, but a recognition of the harms of Mangkon’s imperial ambitions. Sai and Bo will be caught up in this division, resulting in a conspiracy and a tumultuous finish. Sai and Paiyoon will be parted with Sai becoming mapmaker and navigator. Along the way are storms, shipwrecks, and the Slake!

This is a great adventure story that also raises thought-provoking questions about loyalties as well as the imperial ambitions of great nations. Is “discovery” really such a good thing for the “discovered”? It is written for an 8 to 12 year old audience, but this adult loved it. Christina Soontornvat first caught my attention when I had the chance to review her All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team. That was non-fiction but introduced me to her story-telling capabilities. She published two Newbery Honor Books in 2021. Her characters are “real,” her plotting makes this a page-turner, and there is an evident “moral compass” in these works in the real choices characters make amid pressures of personal and imperial ambition. I loved it.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Raft of Stars

Raft of Stars, Andrew J. Graff. New York: Ecco, 2021.

Summary: A coming of age adventure story of two friends fleeing down a river after what they think is the murder of the father of one of the boys, and the pursuit to save the boys from certain destruction from a danger unknown to them.

I would not have known of this book apart from an Ohio friend who put me onto this debut novel of Andrew J. Graff, a writing instructor at Wittenberg University. This was a delightful find.

The setting is the north woods of Wisconsin in 1994. It centers around two boys, Breadwin and Fish. Breadwin has a violent father he tries to stay away from as much as possible. Fish lost his father and his mother, Miranda lets him stay summers at her father Ted’s farm. Fish is concerned about the bruises he sees on his friend, and follows him home one night, to discover the father in the act of choking Breadwin. Fish spots a gun as the father spots him, fires, and the man collapses in a pool of blood. They think they’ve killed him and run for it, leaving a note at Ted’s, where they collect supplies. Fish proposes they take the path to the river that runs through the north forest to where it comes out at his father’s military post, not telling Breadwin he no longer has a father. Finding an abandoned shack by the river, they are able to turn it into a raft.

Sheriff Cal came from Texas. This little town was the perfect escape from a situation where he broke procedure in apprehending a bad character. He’s no longer sure about a career in law enforcement and drinks more than is good for him, but this seems to be the perfect place to get some peace and perspective–until he finds Breadwin’s father apparently dead and the boys on the run. He and Ted mount a search on horseback, kind of a series of mishaps for Cal, unused to tracking in a forest.

Then Fish’s mom Miranda decides to follow, along with Tiffany, a gas station attendant who colors her hair, has lived on the edge of poverty, but has come to appreciate the boys, and even the new sheriff. Miranda is a cross between a devout pentecostal and a mamma bear, the latter more urgent yet because she finds out Breadwin’s father had survived and her son was not a murderer.

The pursuit is urgent, not to apprehend the boys but to head them off from destruction from a river gorge they cannot raft through and don’t know is there. Much of the book is an account of how the boys elude capture while being pursued by their rescuers. Perhaps some of the best writing is the storm and tornado sequences, where one experiences the terror of encountering these phenomena unprotected.

What makes this debut novel so good? Is it the deepening relationship and resourcefulness of the boys? Is it the collaboration of people for whom life hasn’t been easy? Is it the lovable but seemingly ineffectual Constable Bobby (who plays an important role toward the end)? Is it the river journey, a literary trope featuring in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? Only here, instead of people becoming stripped of the veneer of civilization, they summons the means to become better versions of themselves. This is an adventure story, a coming of age story, and a love story wrapped into one. And in a rare achievement, the author does it without sex scenes or profanity and through characters with flaws and grit, not plaster saints.

I understand the author has a sequel in the works, set in northern Wisconsin, where he grew up. Sign me up. I look forward to seeing how he develops as a writer. This was a very good debut.

Review: The Three Musketeers

3 musketeers

The Three MusketeersAlexandre Dumas. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2011 (originally published 1844).

Summary: An adventure that begins with D’Artagnan, a young nobleman who wants to join the musketeers of the guard, and quickly gets entangled with plots to bring about war between England and France, and love affairs that endanger his life and break his heart.

Sometimes, a good adventure makes for a great summer read. The Three Musketeers was a book I read in a children’s edition more than 50 years ago. I remember little, but I suspect the adult version has a lot of material omitted in the children’s edition. The story begins when a young but poor nobleman, d’Artagnan, from Gascony sets off for Paris with a recommendation from his father for the Musketeers of the Guard for the King of France. On the road he has an encounter with the Comte de Rochefort (unknown to him at the time), an agent of Cardinal Richelieu, who might be the real power in France at this time (c. 1625). Insulted by de Rochefort, d’Artagnan challenges him to a duel. Instead, he is roughed up by Rochefort’s companions, and his recommendation is stolen. Nevertheless, he makes it to Paris, and while not admitted to the Musketeers by Monsieur de Treville, his spirit sufficiently impresses de Treville to recommend his admission to a kind of training academy. While awaiting the recommendation, he spies de Rochefort, runs after him, insulting three of the musketeers, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, who all challenge him to duels that afternoon. They are amazed when he shows up, nearly dispatching Athos before they are all set upon by Richelieu’s guards. They join up to fight and defeat the guards and become “one for all and all for one.”

The remainder of the story revolves around the further adventures of d’Artagnon and the three musketeers. There are affairs of the heart, between d’Artagnan and Madame Bonacieux, the wife of his landlord that begin when Madame is kidnapped and d’Artagnon sought out to rescue her. He also pursues an affair with de Rochfort’s conspirator, Milady de Winter, who he ends up spiting when he learns she does not truly love him and bears the mark of a criminal, discovering that she is a most dangerous woman, seeking his death throughout the remainder of the story.

Much of the story revolves around the plots of Richelieu, de Rochefort and Milady to involve France in a war with England. The Queen of France, unhappy in her marriage, is having a secret affair with the Duke of Buckingham. She gives a set of diamond studs as a keepsake, only to have the king of France, at Richelieu’s bidding, ask her to wear these at a ball. D’Artagnan, aided by the musketeers, recovers the jewels, earning the Queen’s gratitude. Later, once again they pursue a secret mission, this time to warn against Milady, who is on a mission to kill the Duke.

Milady is captured by her brother, the Lord de Winter, but escapes, beguiling her guard, Felton, who helps her, and accomplishes her mission. This section is perhaps one of the most suspenseful, counting down her days to exile, while tracing her step by step efforts to seduce her guard, despite the warnings of de Winter. Buckingham will not be her last victim as she avenges herself on d’Artagnan before the final denouement.

In between are the battle exploits of d’Artagnan and the Musketeers. Perhaps the most satisfying part of the book is the fraternity and friendship of these four. Richelieu comes off as a shrewd Machiavellian, far more savvy than his king, though outwitted by d’Artagnan. In the end, Richelieu decides to keep his friends close and his enemies closer. None of the women come off very well, perhaps revealing the options open to them in a male-dominated society. Milady comes off as the most fascinating, if also the most sinister, in the pursuit of her interests.

My sense is that by today’s standards, Dumas could have used an editor to pare down the prose, and perhaps, some of the intricacy of the plot. Nevertheless, he offered what I sought–a diverting summer adventure read.


The Month in Reviews: August 2015

This month’s reading began with the adventurous growth of global Christianity and ended with the struggle of an adventurous couple to live in the cutting edge while setting down roots in midwestern America. A couple of my books explored the follow of war–the illusion that World War I would be over before the leaves fell in autumn and the kind of frenzy of rhetoric and aroused passions that prevailed before the American Civil War. Back to back, I read a book for entering college students on academic faithfulness, and a guide to meaningful retirement. Mixed in this month was a book on mentoring, a collection of Charles Spurgeon sermons, and more! One of the more unusual was a gift from my wife–the story of a cattle rancher in the Great Plains that converted to buffalo ranching. I enjoyed it so much I immediately started reading the sequel.

Kingdom without Borders1. Kingdom Without Borders, Miriam Adeney. Adeney, a professor of global and urban ministries, chronicles the global spread of Christianity through stories of sacrificial and courageous Christians in the Majority World.

Prophetic Books2. Interpreting the Prophetic Books: An Exegetical Handbook, Gary V. Smith. This is a concise guide for those preaching from Old Testament prophetic texts covering issues of genre, themes, interpretation, preaching, and contemporary application.

Relational Soul3. The Relational Soul, Richard Plass and James Cofield. Our relational capacity is essential to being human but often hindered by the false self that struggles with trust, but may be transformed through God’s gracious intervention, often through other people, that allows us to receive the gift of discovering our true self.

Home before leaves fall4. Home Before the Leaves Fall, Ian Senior. This is a new account of Germany’s invasion of France at the beginning of World War I, describing how it almost succeeded and why it ultimately ended in stalemate.

An All Around Ministry5. An All Around Ministry, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. A collection of messages given by Charles Haddon Spurgeon as President of the Preachers College during their annual conferences.

Launch your encore6. Launch Your Encore, Hans Finzel & Rick Hicks. A guide to living purposefully from 60 onward, which many call “retirement” but the authors consider our “encore”.

Learning for the Love of God7. Learning for the Love of God, Donald Opitz and Derek Melleby. Written for undergraduate college students who are Christians, this book explores the idea of academic faithfulness as an integral part of the student’s discipleship and how this is cultivated.

Ecstatic Nation8. Ecstatic Nation, Brenda Wineapple. Ecstatic Nation explores the period of 1848-1877, and the heightened feelings and frenzy of a country contending over slavery, going to war with itself, and then engaging in the conflicts of westward expansion and Reconstruction.

Deep Mentoring9.Deep Mentoring, Randy D. Reese and Robert Loane. Deep Mentoring proposes that the development of Christian leaders of integrity is a lifelong, God-driven process that mentors play a crucial part in through attentiveness and focus on the spiritual and character formation of rising leaders.

Global Evangelicalism10. Global Evangelicalism, Donald M. Lewis and Richard V. Pierard, eds. This collection surveys the global growth of evangelicalism from historical and theological perspectives, including case studies of growth in each region of the world, and special concerns of ecumenism and gender issues.

Buffalo for a Broken Heart11. Buffalo for the Broken Heart, Dan O’Brien. Part memoir, part nature-writing, this book describes the story of a cattle rancher who hits bottom, and makes the transition to herding buffalo for economic and ecological reasons.

This ordinary adventure12. This Ordinary Adventure, Christine Jeske and Adam Jeske. The Jeskes describe what happens when their quest to live a life of “amazing days” meets up with the realities of returning to suburban America, parenting, regular work–and routine.

Best Book of the Month: Dan O’Brien’s Buffalo for the Broken Heart stood out as a spare but compelling account of ranching in the Great Plains, weaving ecological insight of the symbiotic relationship of buffalo, land, and other creatures in the Great Plains, and the human community trying to eke its life out on this unforgiving land.

Best Quote(s) of the Month: I’ll give you two, the first being from O’Brien’s book:

“Was the increase in bird life on the ranch a partial result of a different, evolutionarily more compatible kind of grazing? Did the buffalo’s way of moving quickly from one part of the pasture to another affect the grass more positively than the wandering of domestic livestock? Was the entire matrix of the ranch’s ecosystem improved by the simple conversion back to large herbivores that had evolved to live here? In my heart I was coming to believe that the answer to all these questions was yes. I wanted to shout it to the skies, but I had learned long before that when profound questions are asked of the heart, the answers are best kept to yourself” (p. 168).

The second was from Spurgeon:

“We must cultivate a cogent as well as a clear style; we must be forceful. Some imagine this consists in speaking loudly, but I can assure them they are in error. Nonsense does not improve by being bellowed.”

Look for reviews in the coming days of a book on evangelical universalism (is this an oxymoron?), a historical fiction piece on the battle of Agincourt, the sequel to Buffalo for the Broken Heart. I’ll also be wading into some essays on the works of C.S. Lewis, and the Zaleskis’ The Inklings. With his passing, an Oliver Sacks book just found its way to the top of my TBR pile as well.

With cooler days approaching, I hope you’ll find some good books to curl up with along with a warm drink!

[Links in this post are to the full reviews in Bob on Books. In those reviews, you may find links to publishers websites.]

Review: This Ordinary Adventure

This ordinary adventureThis Ordinary Adventure, Christine Jeske and Adam Jeske. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Summary: The Jeskes describe what happens when their quest to live a life of “amazing days” meets up with the realities of returning to suburban America, parenting, regular work–and routine.

Take a young man and woman dedicated to living out their faith in a way that leaves its mark in the world for good, who train to do development work in Majority World countries, and then do it. They live with the poor, contract malaria and dysentary, and fear for their daughter’s life when she runs a 105 degree fever. And they meet extraordinary people from the African host who ferries Christine to catch a crucial flight on his beat up old motorcycle, to the health care worker who diagnosed their daughter with tonsillitis and got her on the necessary antibiotics. They help a village close a coffee deal that was still paying dividends ten years later. They had resolved to live a life of faith that chose risk and living “amazing days” over safety.

And then they came home to pursue graduate studies and work with a national organization as a writer. They lived in several locations in Wisconsin, finally settling in midwestern Madison. They find themselves settling into the routines and realities of work, raising Phoebe and Zeke, and engaging and resisting suburban realities and trying to figure out what “amazing days” look like in this different setting.

The book is co-authored by Christine and Adam and they contribute alternate chapters, that describe both their adventures abroad, and the ordinary adventure of early twenty-first century life as people of faith with high ideals who don’t want to settle for ordinary and predictable lives. The book alternates between painful struggle, funny stories, and revelatory moments like watching a spider weave a web in a kitchen window. “Amazing” can be a day at the parks with the kids, or a community gathering, or Adam’s crazy jello creation. it doesn’t have to be a harrowing adventure in a country most people haven’t heard of. The big issue seems willing to be attentive to the form “amazing” comes in and how the amazing God wants to encounter us in different seasons.

I have to admit that there was part of me that wrestled with the “amazing days” thing. The people I knew in the blue collar neighborhood I grew up in would never have dreamed of “amazing days” and would probably have thought this couple a bit strange, running around the world, and then struggling with life here at home. Those I knew who lived lives of faith said their prayers before they went to work while their wives prayed they would return safely. You sought to raise your kids right, helped your neighbors when they were in need, remembered the bonds of extended family. You didn’t think about “amazing days”–just what doing right by God, family, work, and neighbor required. Running around the world, or traveling farther than Niagara Falls, or indulging in all the suburban conveniences (attached garages and whole house air conditioning or introspecting about living simply) were luxuries that seemed beyond us.

Yet I remember when my wife and I bought a home in suburban Columbus years later. We were walking around our neighborhood and asked ourselves if we had “sold out”. We were also committed to a vision of living out our faith that was different than the American dream, which confronted us in the form of the array of leagues and lessons our peers thought was the norm for any child. We somehow never made the obligatory pilgrimage to Disney World but discovered the “amazing” in wandering dusty bookstores and exploring small towns in out of the way places within an hour of our home.

And I think this is the point Adam and Christine make in this memoir of their first eleven years of life together. The temptation to settle down and sell out is real–to abandon the ideals of our faith and become more “realistic” about life. But to settle, to put roots down in a place, to love God, people, and that place doesn’t require a sellout. At the same time, I think we (at least I) continue to need voices like Christine and Adam who keep us attentive to God’s invitation to the adventure in the ordinary. I need the suggestions, both zany and practical, at the end of each chapter. I might just take them up on taking a photograph every day for the next month!