Friday, May 20, 2022

Escape (Gordon Korman)

The Island trilogy, Book 3
Gordon Korman
Fiction, MG Action/Thriller
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: First the storm and explosion destroyed the schooner Phoenix, where their parents had sent the six troubled youth to learn life skills. Then the island that was their salvation from death at sea turns out to be a meeting spot for dangerous smugglers. Now they've discovered a new danger - a top secret atomic bomb from World War II - hidden on the island. Plus one of their own, Will, has a bullet wound to the leg, which could easily turn septic in the tropical heat and germ-ridden jungle. With odds of rescue via passing ship or plane essentially nil and Will getting sicker by the day, Luke and the others are pushed to a desperate plan, a Hail Mary plan that will either get them help, or get them all killed.

REVIEW: The third and final Island installment finally brings all the kids together in the same reality; Will rejoins his sister and the others after his self-imposed exile and J.J. finally has to shake off his persistent belief in "rigged" events and hidden cameras (which even he was starting to admit to himself was more about the fantasy of safety just around the corner than actually believing some hidden camera crew and project director would let them nearly die on multiple occasions to build character in wayward children) and step up to the plate to help his fellow castaways. Using equipment and drugs scavenged from the old military base, the kids struggle to survive, but each of them understands that they're only putting off the inevitable if they can't find a way off this island. Their plan involves putting one of them in immediate peril in the off chance that doing so will result in survival for all, but it's a long shot, and they all know it. The stakes have never been higher, and it comes together in a thrill ride of a climax and a conclusion that doesn't overstay its welcome. Overall, the Island trilogy's a decent, fast-reading tale of survival and danger.

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Survival (Gordon Korman)

The Island trilogy, Book 2
Gordon Korman
Fiction, MG Action/Thriller
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Not long ago, they were six strangers, sent on a "character building" adventure aboard the schooner Phoenix in the Pacific Ocean. Now, stranded on an uncharted island, they're each other's only chance at survival. It seemed that getting off the deadly waters would improve their situation, but while there's food aplenty to be scrounged in the jungles and lagoons, there's no fresh water... and, worse, no sign of boats or planes or anyone else passing near enough to signal for help. Will is also suffering a form of amnesiac delusion, convinced he's been abducted and the others are out to get him. Then they learn that they aren't, in fact, the only people who know about the island - and the people who do know about it are not the kind of people they want to be found by. They're the kind of people who shoot companions in cold blood, let alone perfect strangers.

REVIEW: This continues the Island trilogy on the unnamed, uncharted desert island. The kids start coming together into a group for mutual survival, though friction still lies just under the surface. TV addict Ian finds his knowledge from endless hours parked in front of documentary TV shows coming in handy, while Charla's athleticism comes in very handy for snagging fish and knocking down coconuts and Luke finds himself thrust into a leadership role. The arrival of bad guys adds an extra layer of danger and dread, if a mildly contrived one. (One starts to wonder if J.J. has a bit of a point about it maybe all being staged.) It loses a half-mark for that sense of contrivance, plus drawing out Will's delusional isolation and J.J.'s obnoxious insistence on none of it being real. Still, it keeps the tension pretty high and sets up even more trouble going into the final volume.

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Shipwreck (Gordon Korman)

The Island trilogy, Book 1
Gordon Korman
Fiction, MG Action/Thriller
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Charting New Courses advertised itself as a life-changing experience for troubled youth, taking them aboard the working schooner Phoenix in the Pacific Ocean to teach them teamwork and discipline and other life skills. Nobody asked the "troubled youth" what they thought of the plan, though of course none of them have a say in the matter. Luke is here as part of a plea deal after being caught with a firearm in his school locker. J.J.'s increasingly dramatic stunts to get his actor father's attention ended with a motorcycle flying through an art gallery window and Dad finally running out of patience. Will and Lyssa's sibling rivalry culminated in violence that landed them both in the hospital. Charla's athletic talent became an obsession, while Ian's parents just wanted to force him out of the house and away from the TV and internet that absorbed all of his time. None of them really expect anything like what Charting New Courses promised their parents; it's just going to be a few weeks of misery and drudgery and seasickness, then back to their normal lives.
The sea has its own agenda, however, and soon drudgery's the last of their worries, when a storm takes out their engines, their captain, and their hopes of survival.

REVIEW: While it may not break new ground in the survival/thriller subgenre, Shipwreck takes a credible turn at a familiar idea, with a cast of kids carrying personal baggage into a situation that's literally life and death. Friction flies between them almost from the start; Will and Lyssa can't go five seconds without antagonizing each other, while J.J.'s spoiled brat persona (and conviction that the dangers they face are just part of the program, rigged or arranged by CNC for "character building") gets on everyone's nerves. The first mate, dubbed Ratface, doesn't help much, his antipathy towards the troubled youth clear from the outset; he doesn't even bother learning names, just calling all males "Archie" and females "Veronica". The storm, naturally, levels the playing field, a situation made worse by one character's impulsive and ill-thought actions and another's rank cowardice in the face of calamity. Given that this is the first in a trilogy, it goes without saying that they're still in a decent level of danger by the end... those who get through the storm, at least.

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Thursday, May 19, 2022

Unflappable (Suzie Gilbert)

Suzie Gilbert
Perch Press
Fiction, General Fiction/Humor/Romance
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When environmental activist and animal lover Lune Burke's marriage hit the rocks, her billionaire magnate husband Adam decided to try wooing her back to their Florida estate with a gift: Mars, the male bald eagle she helped rehabilitate as a teenager in Pennsylvania. In taking the animal from its sanctuary home, he callously and unthinkingly separated the bird from Banshee, its mate... and ended any chance of reconciliation with Lune. Rather than let Adam hold the eagle hostage to get her to come back home, Lune reaches out to her friends in the animal rehabilitation community, plotting a daring birdnapping that breaks at least a dozen state and federal laws as she seeks to get Mars back to Banshee and both out of Adam's reach. All she needs is an accomplice, at least for the first leg of the trip - someone with a car big enough to hold a bald eagle-sized animal cage. Someone like Ned, the tech nerd who only showed up at the animal rehabilitation facility where she volunteers because his company forces their employees to do community service activities, but who happens to drive a classic convertible with the perfect back seat for Mars. Thus begins a cross-country flight from the law and from Adam's goons, and one nerd's baptism by fire into the close-knit world of wildlife activism.

REVIEW: Unflappable is just what it promises: a road trip romance starring a misfit couple who inevitably develop feelings for each other, a grasping man whose definition of love is possession, and a colorful cast of side characters (and animals), with an animal rehabilitation and conservation theme.
Lune is much like the eagle she loves: mishandled as a child in ways that leave her psychologically scarred, longing for nothing but a freedom that the world in general and her husband in particular seem determined to deny her. Like a wild animal, even the threat of a cage is enough to send her on the attack, be that cage tangible or intangible. Ned, her companion of circumstance, doesn't know or particularly care about animals in general or birds in particular; he was just at the rehab clinic to check off a box of his employment requirement, not to get roped into a crazy cross-country trek with a razor-clawed protected species in the back seat of his classic car. Along the way, he inevitably comes to understand just what all these strange people he meets are fighting for, if largely driven by his growing feelings for the peculiar Lune, and finds himself taking risks he never imagined for a bird he only ever develops a grudging tolerance of. They find themselves on the wrong side of the law, though the agent pursuing them can't help having mixed feelings about the whole affair, and on the wrong side of Adam, who never met an obstacle he couldn't outspend or outbludgeon. In a way, Adam's obsession with Lune is almost tragic; by his selfish, materialistic standards, what he feels and does for her count as love, and he just cannot comprehend how Lune is never going to be the pretty pet on the diamond leash and pedestal that he wants her to be. The very thing about her that first attracted him - her wild freedom and complete defiance of his expectations, her rejection of the money and the lifestyle he leads - is the very thing that's in their way, the very thing he keeps trying to destroy with his possessive behavior.
The road trip involves numerous encounters with numerous eccentric characters, some more helpful than others, and close scrapes with both the wildlife agent and Adam's thugs. The plot moves pretty well, with few people being outright obtuse to prolong or complicate things, and some memorable wildlife encounters. The weakest part, though, is the ending, which feels a little too drawn out and loses some of its impact. I also found the audiobook presentation, which changes off between male and female narrators almost at random, a bit odd, but I got used to it. All in all, I got what I expected out of this story.

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Friday, May 13, 2022

Willodeen (Katherine Applegate)

Katherine Applegate
Feiwell and Friends
Fiction, MG Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Screechers are ugly. Screechers are loud. Worst of all, screechers are so stinky they'd make a skunk smell sweet as a rose. That's why the people of Perchance treat them like pests, even as they welcome other creatures like the beautiful little hummingbears, whose glowing bubble nests fill the blue willow trees by the river every autumn (and whose annual migration draws tourist money to boost the small town's economy). As the numbers of screechers dwindle, thanks to the town council putting a five-copper bounty on their hides, only one person seems to care: eleven-year-old Willodeen. Like screechers, she feels unwanted and misunderstood, especially since she lost her family in a wildfire many years ago. She rarely talks to anyone but the old women who took her in, spending her days roaming the woods and hills with her notebook instead of going to school. So she is the only one to notice that, as the screecher population drops, so do the number of returning hummingbears - threatening Perchance's lifeline. When the last old screecher in the woods is shot by hunters before her eyes, it may spell the end of the hummingbears and Perchance... unless one shy girl can find her voice in time.

REVIEW: Willodeen is clearly a message about threatened biodiversity and the need for everyone to pay attention to something other than their own self interest, as well as species that may not be deemed "cute" or profitable but which are essential threads in the life web, but it's more than that. It's also the story of a traumatized girl who finds her purpose and her place, and a town that learns to listen. Willodeen struggles with shyness, not neurotypical by implication if not explicit statement, and suffers both with post-traumatic stress and being mocked as the "screecher girl" by children and adults alike. It takes making a friend, and having something to say that needs to be heard, to coax her out of her shell and out of the woods where she prefers to spend her time. There aren't any real villains here, just people who aren't listening and don't see the bigger picture beyond their own concerns, nor are there easy answers; Willodeen's search for the connection between the screechers and the hummingbears is not straightforward, and even knowing something of what's gone wrong in the ecosystem only raises more questions. Applegate is not an author who offers clean and easy answers in her writing, and doesn't start here, but she does offer solid characters and a decent arc, tackling issues in a way that doesn't talk down to the reader. There's a bit of a worldbuilding disconnect, where this fantasy world (which has just a touch of magic in it, as well as impending industrialization with steam engine railways and gas lighting in the bigger cities) also has Shakespeare, but the target audience likely won't scrutinize that closely. The story as a whole is enjoyable, offering hope that is sadly lacking in our own world.

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