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Books in Brief: Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean; One of Us Is Next by Karen McManus


Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean, Flatiron Books, 336 pages ($18.99) Ages 12 and up.


British author Geraldine McCaughrean weaves a kind of magic in this haunting, unforgettable tale of survival based on an actual event "at the end of the world" – the St. Kilda archipelago, the remote westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides off Scotland.

In 1727, eight boys and three men were delivered by boat from their homes on the island of Hirda for what was to be a three-week stay on a sea stack  –  a steep column of rock jutting up from the sea four miles away – to hunt birds. (In this version, there are nine boys). But three weeks go by, and the boat does not come to retrieve them.  As the birds depart and the weather grows cold, they wonder: has the world ended, and have they alone been left behind?

From what little that is known about the stranding of the fowling party, McCaughrean spins her marvelous tale, through the eyes of an older boy named Quilliam, a brave, kind, sensible lad who looks after the younger ones and earns the title Keeper of Stories for his storytelling ability. (In one very amusing sequence, Quill saves a boy from embarrassment by reimagining the Bible story of Jesus walking on water as actually treading on ample supplies of herring that held him above the waves.)

McCaughrean vividly evokes the harsh reality of the Warrior Stack, the terror of the landing by sea, the threatening ocean waves, the winds, the perilous climbs, the deadly drops, the different bird species, the realities of the hunt and the fowler's craft. Soon after landing, Quill earns the title of King Gannet, a prize awarded the boy who kills the the bird who serves as sentinel protecting the flock.

McCaughrean is a descriptive writer, and her prose is rich with humor:

"Reading classes were anxious, troubling times for the children of the island, who strained and struggled to read down a page of words, like trapped sheep trying to get down a cliff." Or describing the gannets: "A colony of gannets is a noisy, heaving mass of feathers, eggshells, bird lime and birds...The canny old ones walk over the backs of their neighbors, pairs sit contentedly side by side staring out to sea, the airborne home-comers crash-land on their fellow birds, crops full of fish." 

Among the adults on the stack are the schoolmaster Mr. Farriss, a kindly man with a family back on Hirda, and dour church sexton Col Cane, who anoints himself the pastor in charge, compelling the boys to confess their sins, urging them to tattle on each other and inflicting harsh punishments including stoning. As time goes on and rescue does not come, as the coming of age adventure morphs into a battle for survival and the adults abdicate their responsibilities, the situation becomes dire. But Quill finds hope and a refuge from the hunger and cold, wrapped up in dreams of the schoolmaster's niece. Dreams of Murdina Galloway and her beautiful singing keep him alive; she even seems to appear to him as a garefowl (an auk) who befriends him. (All the bird species mentioned are pictured and described at the end of the book). How fascinating, a community whose sole income is birds, as meat, oil and feathers, whose payment to the landlord is in birds.

"Where the World Ends" won the Carnegie Medal.


One of Us Is Next by Karen McManus; Delacorte Press, 372 pages ($19.99) Ages 14 and up.


Fans of "One of Us Is Lying" (and TV shows "Riverdale" and "Pretty Little Liars") will whip through the pages of this deliciously well-crafted sequel set in the same universe of Bayview High School a year after the events of the first book. (Knowledge of the first book is not required to enjoy this one.) The tale unfolds through the alternating perspectives of main characters Phoebe (whose father was killed in a terrible workplace accident), Maeve (now in remission but a year older than her classmates due to repeated hospital admissions for leukemia) and Knox, younger brother of four sisters and a close friend of Maeve's.

In the year since the events of the first book, copycat gossip apps have appeared but none have really caught on until an unknown party starts a texting game of "Truth or Dare," spilling uncomfortable secrets or issuing dangerous challenges. McManus has a gift for creating appealing characters and dialogue, and her intricate puzzle of a plot with its surprise twists and turns keeps the reader guessing until the final pages. The cellphone and social media are the weapons of the digital age, and McManus makes good use of this new reality in this entertaining thriller.

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