Monday, February 15, 2021

Owen Laukannen’s new book, The Wild is aimed at a young adult audience, but it’s certainly smart and sophisticated enough to appeal to a lot of adult readers as well.

The protagonist is a seventeen-year-old girl named Dawn who has suffered an emotional trauma and has made some very bad decisions in consequence. She can’t stand the man her mother recently married; she’s run away from home several times; she’s abusing drugs, and she’s moved in with a drug dealer who’s nearly old enough to be her father. And at that point, her mother and stepfather basically kidnap her and send her off to Out in the Wild, a “wilderness therapy program for troubled youth.”

Boot camp would be more like it. The “therapy” involved here centers on marching a group of troubled teenagers through the woods and up and down steep mountain trails, in cold, miserable weather, with no comforts at all—not even so much as a backpack and a tent—unless and until you can earn them.

Dawn is issued a tarp, some water, and a bare minimum of food and is sent off with several of her fellow campers on a forced march under the supervision of two “counselors,” whose sole approach to “therapy,” is to drive the kids to exhaustion and, apparently, to break down their resistance to authority.

Dawn’s fellow hikers turn out to be a mixed bag of kids, some of whom are emotionally disturbed while others who simply mean and violent and probably belong in prison rather than in a wilderness program. And it’s clear going in that trouble is going to follow.

Dawn is a very sympathetic protagonist, and Laukkanen moves the action along briskly with short, fast-paced chapters that keep the reader turning from one page to the next. By implication, Out in the Wild is a pretty suspect organization, and it’s hard to imagine how the program they offer would ever actually benefit anyone, save for the people who are making money by convincing parents to enroll their children in this program.

I’m a huge fan of Laukkanen’s earlier novels, which have been aimed at an adult audience, and while reading The Wild, I found myself thinking repeatedly about his book, The Stolen Ones, which is not only an excellent thriller but an eye-opening examination of the sex trade business. I wish he would have had the opportunity here to more thoroughly examine the entire “boot camps for kids” industry, but I imagine that probably wouldn’t have been appropriate in a book designed for younger readers.

Even as an adult, I was pulled along by the book’s propulsive pace; I can only imagine how quickly I would have been turning the pages had I read this at the age of fifteen or so. All in all, this is another excellent novel from Laukkanen who has conveniently solved the problem of what I will be getting my teenage nieces and nephews for their birthdays this year.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

This is an excellent stand-alone novel from Adrian McKinty, who is also the author of the Sean Duffy crime novels, a series which is among my very favorites. The protagonist here is a woman named Rachel O'Neill who has been having a very bad run of luck. Her husband has left her for a younger woman and she's been ill with cancer. Then, on a morning when it appears that her cancer may be returning, Rachel gets the worst news a parent could possibly imagine: her thirteen-year-old daughter, Kylie, has been kidnapped.

Inevitably, of course, a voice on the phone tells Rachel not to contact the authorities. But in addition to demanding a monetary ransom, Rachel is told that in order to get her own daughter back, she must kidnap someone else's child and hold that child until the parents agree to pay a ransom and kidnap a victim of their own. Rachel, Kylie, and the other parents ensnared in this trap are now a part of The Chain, a devious criminal conspiracy that perpetuates itself and enriches its developers, by forcing ordinary citizens to do the unconscionable work of kidnapping children. Should Rachel or anyone else break the chain, they and their children will be killed.

Like the other victims of the chain, Rachel, a moral, upstanding, law-abiding citizen, is forced to confront the question of how far she is willing to go to protect her own child. And the answer, of course, is that she will do literally anything.

This is one of those stories that grabs the reader from the opening page and refuses to let go. It's also a variant on the theme of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations and forced to save themselves and their loved ones. Part of the book's power is that, in watching Rachel react, the reader is forced to imagine how he or she would behave under similar circumstances.

The Chain requires a fairly healthy suspension of disbelief, especially as the book reaches its explosive climax, but I was so caught up in the story that I didn't even stop to think about that until after I had finished reading it. I suspect that a lot of readers will have the same reaction, and that, also like me, they will be up late into the night, turning the pages of this one.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

A Great Historical Thriller from Paddy Hirsch

Set in the New York City of 1799, this novel introduces Justice (Justy) Flanagan who has just returned to America after graduating from law school in Ireland. Several years earlier, in the wake of the new nation's first financial panic in 1792, Justy discovered his father's body. The father had apparently hanged himself after suffering serious losses in the panic. While in Europe, Justy also spent some time studying the developing science of criminology, and he returns to New York convinced that his father was actually murdered. Justy is determined to find the killer.

The search will take him across the city, both geographically and socially, bringing him into contact with the destitute who inhabit the worst neighborhoods in the developing city, the gangsters and other thugs who roam the waterfront and control the city's vice, and the elite movers and shakers who run the city. A number of historical figures, including Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and others appear, along with a wide variety of invented and very well-imagined fictional characters.

In searching for his father's killer, Justy will run afoul of some very dangerous characters from both ends of the economic and social spectrums, and it's a lot of fun watching the inventive ways in which he copes with them. But the real joy of this book lies in the author's portrayal of New York City in the later 1790s. Hirsch has clearly done a great deal of research on the topic and the reader feels as if he or she has actually been transported back to the time and place. This is a book that should appeal to large numbers of readers who enjoy historical fiction, thrillers, or both.