Pages & Paws

Writing, Reading, and Rural Life With a Border Collie

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Review of ‘The Last Summer of the Death Warriors’

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors

By Francisco X. Stork

Seventeen year-old Pancho is one tough hombre.  And he’s royally ticked.  With a deceased mother, his father recently killed in a work-related accident, and his mentally challenged sister, Rosa, dead, he lands in a New Mexico orphanage mad at the world and aiming to make the world pay.  Detectives say Rosa’s death was due to “natural causes,” but Pancho suspects foul play.  He formulates a plan to identify Rosa’s killer and wreak his revenge.

Pancho encounters an unexpected wrinkle when he meets D.Q. (Daniel Quentin) at the orphanage.  D.Q. has authored “The Death Warrior Manifesto.”  (“Rule number one: No whining.”)   Impish, intellectually buoyant and devilishly mischievous in spite of a cancer diagnosis, D.Q. pegs Pancho to be a fellow “death warrior.”  The Panda (priest) who runs the place assigns Pancho as D.Q.’s helper for the summer, a prospect that thrills Pancho about as much as a cat in cold bath water.  Will he choose death and revenge or the way of the “death warriors” – fighting for every last shred of life and love as long as they last?

Francisco Stork’s young adult novel is gutsy.  It asks tough questions and avoids patty-cake, trite answers.  It engages quickly, combining elements of both a murder mystery and a romance story as main characters battle doubt, disease, abandonment, despair and their own inner demons.  The novel is artfully written with realistic, three-dimensional characters and crisp dialogue (may be too gritty for gentle readers).  A unique story with some unusual plot twists, Last Summer is worth a look.

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Review of ‘Lost December’

He’s amazing.  Just when I think he’s penned his final shimmering literary star, Richard Paul Evans flings another into the firmament of fine fiction.  Lost December (Simon & Schuster, 2011) is a case in point.

I loved this book.*    I read all 346 pages cover-to-cover in a day and a half, including the Epilogue.

Based on the biblical account of the prodigal son, Lost December introduces us to Luke Crisp, son of copy center mogul Carl Crisp.  Dad wants to turn the family business over to his son once Luke earns his M.B.A. from Wharton, an endeavor Dad urged Luke to pursue.  At Wharton, however, Luke falls in with would could be charitably dubbed a bunch of nihilist husks of humanity masquerading as intellectuals and fellows students.  Under their influence and at the urging of his smooth-talking, blood-sucking leech of a “room mate,” Sean, Luke has other plans.  He dumps Dad’s business – and Dad – and jet-sets to Europe with his new pals, footing the bill for everyone.  Once on the continent, Luke and friends make a career out of running up outlandish bar tabs and room service.  But Luke’s million dollar trust fund doesn’t last forever.  When the money runs out, so do his “friends.”

Luke returns to Las Vegas and soon hits rock-bottom.  Friendless, penniless, and homeless, Luke Crisp is the highly educated son of a Fortune 500 corporate exec. whose entire worldly possessions fit into the backpack he carries from one street to the next.

Too embarrassed and ashamed to contact his father, Luke winds up living “underground” in a culvert.  After being robbed and beaten up, Luke is rescued by Carlos, a Good Samaritan who runs a convalescent care center.  Carlos gives Luke a place to stay and hires him.  Luke soon takes on a second job at a local Crisp’s Copy Center, where no one knows who his father is – and he’s not about to spill the beans.  He comes closes when he meets the distant, detached Rachael, a single mom with a painful past.

What follows is a remarkable, poignant story of forgiveness, reunion and the true meaning of love.

Told in vintage Evans style – first person narrative, with an engaging, intriguing plot and three-dimensional characters you feel like you know – Lost December is a holiday treat.  Get a copy for yourself this holiday season.  Better yet, get several and share.

*  I admit it.  I love all of Evans’ books.  If you have a “reluctant” teen reader, check out Evans’ Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25.  My twelve year-old couldn’t put it down!

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Huckleberry Creek: Mount Rainier’s Best Kept Secret?

The Huckleberry Creek Trail to Forest Lake Camp may be one of the best kept secrets in Washington State’s Mount Rainier National Park.  That’s because you have to be part mountain goat to hike out.  Yep, the return trip is almost entirely uphill.  Think Empire State Building without an elevator.  But this is one trail that’s worth every grunt, groan and creaking knee.


You’d never guess that a world-class wildflower meadow, gurgling creek and glassy tarn are tucked into the conifer-clad valley below Sourdough Ridge at Sunrise on the eastern flank of Mount Rainier.  Their secrets are revealed only to the truly intrepid or utterly clueless.  Consequently, we had the entire hike to ourselves on a beautiful Thursday in late September, save for one other couple from Holland.  And they were lost.  See?  Everyone with brains headed toward Frozen Lake or Mount Fremont.  We, on the other hand, opted for “the road less travelled” and were rewarded with one of the most beautiful alpine settings in the park.  And aching knees.   But I digress.

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Dog-legging off Sourdough Ridge, the Huckleberry Creek trail narrows and turns treacherous as it juts into Huckleberry Basin, especially through a rock-strewn avalanche chute below the basin.  Past the chute, the trail slims further to ribbon-width as you dip into a riotous romp of Renoir pastels cleverly disguised as a serene alpine meadow.  While the wildflowers aren’t as plentiful on this higher, more exposed side of the Mountain as they are in Paradise, they still paint the landscape in rich floral hues where  yellow mountain daisies, purple aster, lupine, fire-engine red Indian paintbrush and white-tufted bear grass splash the landscape like a Louvre-worthy canvas.

Huckleberry Creek winds through tall, thick grass and plays hide and seek with the trail as it skips around gentle knolls and ridges bristling with evergreens.   Once you’ve reached the valley, cross a couple split-log foot bridges and elbow the creek on your left.  It’s a short walk to Forest Lake Camp.

While its shores are lined with the sun-bleached bones of fallen trees, Forest Lake is as still as the Sphinx.  If you’re part polar bear, go for a swim.  We lunched at the camp for about an hour, listening to warbling wrens and varied thrushes.  Chipmunks scurried nearby as gray jays, those shameless panhandlers, thought we were opening a traveling cafeteria.  We left reluctantly as afternoon faded and snow-scrubbed breezes began whining off the Emmons Glacier.

As for the return hike, well, be sure to fuel up the after-burners. Both creek and camp are well worth the hamstring-hollerin’ climb out.   Just don’t tell anyone.