Updated: Jun 14
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Review by Rae Richen
I have a young friend who used to have trouble reading. We meet twice a week and he works on his skills in reading. He is now in the eighth grade.
When we first met, he had the habit of skipping lines, not thinking about the meaning of the words, phrases and sentences he read. When confronted with long words, he would pick a word out of the air that might make sense.
That was some time ago.
By this year, he has leaned to use his plastic ruler to stay on the same line. We frequently have stopped reading to discuss the ideas he just read about. And he contributes greatly to that discussion, guessing what might happen next and talking about what just happened with insight.
I read every other page to him, so he sees me following along with my finger, in order to keep track of where I am. He also has seen me stop, go back and say, “Oh, I read the wrong word there. Let me read that sentence again.”
He now does those things and pays a lot more attention to meaning.
So, this year, I asked his teacher to get him a copy of Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen.
And Wow! He is anxious to read because between our meetings, he has been worried about Brian. Our thirteen-year-old character had set out with a private pilot who would have taken him to visit his father in Alaska. When things go very wrong, Brian has to land the plane in a long lake deep in Canada’s north woods.
Brian is there, alone, away from all humans and has to find a way to stay alive when there is very little hope of anyone ever knowing where he is.
My young friend cared about Brian. He wanted to read. He learned a whole lifetime’s worth of skills from Gary Paulsen’s deep story of survival and perseverance.
Read this book with your family. Read this book with your reluctant reader. Read it with friends. Read this book. And when you have finished, you will want to read Paulsen’s other Brian stories, Brian’s Winter, Brian’s Hunt, The River, and Brian’s Return. Those other Paulsen novels are among my gifts to my young friend for his summer reading.
Note: Gary Paulsen died in October of 2021. His novels will inspire young readers for many generations to come. A very good interview with Paulsen can be found at
Updated: Jun 14
by John Le Carré
Review by Rae Richen
John Le Carré’s last novel, edited by his son Nick Cornwell, is a delightful exhibition of characters and insights. Julian Lawndsley, a relative naïve in the political and spy world, narrates his encounters with a con artist, Edward and his mysterious family.
When Lawndsley leaves his city job and opens a bookstore in the beach town in East Anglia, he becomes enamored of the obvious people user and irrepressible liar, Edward Avon.
Edward, his wife, his daughter, and his hidden love in London become an adventure for Lawndsley and for us.
In alternate chapters, Le Carré introduces us to spy chief, Stewart Proctor, ostensibly of MI5, or is it MI6? or is the British spy business now dying or defunct? Is Proctor overseeing its burial?
Proctor, well-aware of the bumbling in the upper reaches of British Intelligence, sets out to discover the truth behind Edward Avon.
In one amazing chapter, Le Carré’s Proctor descends into the bowels of what once were command shelters during the Cold War and there, he carries on a conversation with his tour guide about how things work, used to work, maybe still work and why they might not work – a very revealing conversation.
Does British intelligence have a problem? A financing problem? A trust problem? A moral problem?
Every conversation in the story is replete with Le Carré double meaning, or empty spaces that can be filled with guesses as to meaning, and off-hand comments by Proctor or Edward or Julian that makes you laugh out loud.
Aside from revealing maybe more than Le Carré wanted to reveal about the state of British Intelligence (he seemed to his son to have been reluctant to publish this finished novel), this story captures the reader, hoping Julian and others really are as naïve and as innocent as they seemed. Or were they, in truth, part of the web of distrust?
Or was the author's reluctance to publish related to the character of Edward Avon and his resemblance to people that the author knew?
Well worth adding to your collection of Le Carré novels. Buy a new bookcase, if you have to.
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
How to Write A Damn Good Novel
Introducing James N. Frey – a Guide to Dramatic Storytelling
I first met James N. Frey in a workshop he taught at the coast in Oregon. It was early in my writing career, and he was the first in-person teacher I had the privilege of working with. I had a feel, by that time, for the shambles of the publishing industry – companies buying other companies, agents acquiring clients and then unable to make use of their usual connections to get book deals for those clients.
I was wary of the industry but dedicated to the idea that writing could bring important ideas to life and be a catalyst for change on behalf of the people I knew and loved.
I had a feel for the rhythms of storytelling but couldn’t have explained them to anyone else. I had practiced the rhythms of the pithy joke, the rhythms of an essay, and the rhythms of myth. I knew that the beat of a piece led the reader from page to page.
I had started to use this knowledge to write a novel.
And then, I met James N. Frey. He had the vocabulary I needed to understand the beats of a longer story. He had the knowledge of mythic heroines and the movement of their story from call to action through conflict, the inexorable rise to the climax and the satisfying resolution.
And James N. Frey knew how all of this had to be tied to the through-line of my premise – the core that held my story together.
When I got home from that workshop, I also had James N. Frey’s book – How to Write a Damn Good Novel, to help me recall all I had learned from him. We had discussed every aspect of being a writer, from the design and development of character to the hard and satisfying fun of the rewrite and the search for action and emotion in prose.
James N. Frey cared about each person in that workshop. He helped each one move toward success. The book I started in his workshop was A Fool’s Gold. When I had finished a sixth or seventh draft, he read and critiqued it and made it better. And I know that I am not the only student he treated with such thoughtful care.
Since that workshop, I have taken other workshops with very thoughtful and clear teachers. I learned a great deal from each one of them.
The building blocks of storytelling success came from that first encounter with James N. Frey, from the writers’ vocabulary and the storytelling knowledge he gave all of us during that week in Rockaway Beach, Oregon.
Since that year, James N. Frey has had many successful students. He has written How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, The Key: How to Write a Damn Good Novel Using the Power of Myth, How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, and How to Write a Damn Good Thriller.
He is the author of nine novels, including the Edgar Award Nominee A Long Way to Die.
Learn more about him at his website: www.Jamesnfrey.com