I gritted my teeth and scanned the holoscreen again. The mail was due to arrive in less than a minute, and although the forest above me looked harmless, I knew better. The shadows between the trees were too silent, too watchful. I hit the refresh button. The drill was simple—refresh the screen, scan for a full minute, refresh again and scan the opposite direction. I imagined it was similar to what parents used to teach their kids about crossing the street, back when there were still streets to cross and cars to drive on them.
Esteemed Reader, there is nothing quite so enjoyable as a middle grade action novel that's taut and exciting with characters you can care about and root for. Many have tried and failed, but Laura Martin succeeds on every level. In fact, I'll give Edge of Extinction - The Ark Plan the highest compliment I have to give: I wish I had written it. Plucky middle grade characters with a handful of futuristic gadgets traveling across a post apocalyptic Indiana inhabited by dinosaurs in a story containing subtle Biblical overtones? Dude, I should've been all over that, but now I can't because Laura Martin got there first.
On the upside, I did get the experience of reading such a wonderful novel without any effort on my part. You can have that same experience and better because this first book in the series, while self contained, builds plenty of promise to be fulfilled in the second book, Code Name Flood, which just became available. You can read the whole saga now (you're going to want both books) and please do so we can convince Laura Martin to write a third Edge of Extinction novel, perhaps subtitled Two of Every Deadly Species or maybe Forty Days and Forty Nights of Blood. Should anyone at Harper Collins be reading this, help yourself to these subtitles free of charge:)
Also, there's a decent chance yours truly might get thanked in the back of a third volume just as Laura will be thanked in the back of Banneker Bones 2 (coming soon-ish). Laura wrote a guest post for us last year and anytime an author does that, I at least browse their book. Edge of Extinction - The Ark Plan sucked me in at once and I knew I wanted to meet Laura because I respected her work and our brains clearly run on a similar track creatively (she also likes stories about fun conspiracy theories). Turns out she's a fellow Hoosier and a short drive from my house, and yadda, yadda, yadda, she's now a member of my beloved writing group, the YA Cannibals.
Okay, full disclosures out of the way, let's talk about this book. I imagine if I made a pie chart of all the elements of books I've discussed in these reviews over the years, the largest wedge by far would go to my admiration for a great opening. In my mind, chapter one is the most important in the book as it either hooks me and interests me in the story or it doesn't and I imagine it to be the same for my readers. I've read great books with lousy openings I was glad I stuck with, but more often, a lousy opening promises more of the same, and if I'm still struggling to care about what I'm reading two chapters in and I haven't promised to review the book here, I'm usually looking for a new book. I imagine younger readers to be even more impatient.
We're about to meet eleven-soon-to-be-twelve-year-old Sky Mudy, her best friend Shawn Reilly, and later, my personal favorite character, the nearly feral Todd. We're going to learn their backstories, the rules that govern their world, and their motivations for the adventures they're about to have. In chapter two we'll learn Sky has gray eyes and curly red hair (that's how you know she's a middle grade character). But we don't care about that in chapter one.
The first 100 pages or so of Michael Crichton's classic--you know the one I mean and so does Harper Collins, which is why it's mentioned heavily in Edge of Extinction's marketing--are devoted to a mystery of strange animals appearing in Costa Ricca, which is its own brilliant opening as the reader has convinced himself of the reality of dinosaurs having returned from extinction before they arrive in the story to find the reader's disbelief already suspended. That's all good and well for a book targeting older readers, but middle grade readers want to know that they're going to get dinosaur action and plenty of it. Laura Martin gives it to them straight away, promises more, and delivers:
Turning on my heel, I sprinted for the compound entrance. I spotted the disturbance to my left when I was still fifty yards from safety. The ground began to tremble under my feet, and I willed myself not to panic. Panicking could happen later, when I was safely underground with two feet of concrete above my head.
I spotted the first one out of the corner of my eye as it burst from the trees. Bloodred scales winked in the dawn light as its opaque eyes focused on me. It was just over ten feet and moved with the quick, sharp movements of a striking snake.
My stomach lurched sickeningly as I recognized the sharp, arrow-shaped head, powerful hindquarters, and massive back claw of this particular dinosaur. It was a deinonychus. Those monsters hunted in packs. Sure enough, I heard a screech to my left, but I didn’t bother to look. Looking took time I didn’t have. I hit the twenty-yard mark with my heart trying to claw its way up my throat. The deinonychus was gaining on me
Laura hints at backstory and supplies the most necessary of details to involve us in the action, but what she cares about is what the reader cares about: people are going to get chased by dinosaurs in this story. Count on it. By the end of the chapter, she's established the broad strokes of what sort of novel we're going to read and the tone has been set:
One of the deinonychus’s nails screeched across the metal hatch that separated their world from mine, forcing me to clap my hands over my ears. The creatures were still scrabbling and roaring, furious at their lost meal. And I wished, for the millionth time, that I could feed them the idiot scientists who had brought them out of extinction in the first place. Although being ripped to pieces might be too kind for the people who had almost wiped out the entire human race.
Speaking of Michael Crichton, this novel leans in on the inevitable comparisons and pays homage up front, which I think is smart and a thing I usually do myself. It's hard to imagine readers sitting back with arms crossed, scoffing that Laura is just trying to tell a Jurassic Park-type story when the author herself acknowledges the similarity and takes the contention off the table, as if to say "yes, this is a dinosaur action story, yes you've read one or two of these before, but this one's also darn good, and do you want another dinosaur story or don't you?" It's not unlike naming the beverage that causes my The Walking Dead-esque zombie apocalypse Kirkman Soda:)
“All right, Miss Mundy,” Professor Lloyd said, glancing down at the port screen in front of him. “If you wouldn’t mind giving the class an explanation of the similarities between the events that transpired in Michael Crichton’s ancient classic Jurassic Park and the events that have taken place in our own history.”
“Similarities?” I asked, swallowing hard. I’d just finished reading the novel the night before, so I knew the answer, but I hated speaking in public. Facing the herd of deinonychus again would have been preferable. I wasn’t sure what that said about me.
“Yes,” Professor Lloyd said, a hint of annoyance creeping into his voice. “Quickly, please. We are wasting time that I’m sure your classmates would appreciate having to work on their analyses.”
“Well,” I said, keeping my eyes on my desk. “In Mr. Crichton’s book, the dinosaurs were also brought out of extinction.” I glanced up to see Professor Lloyd staring at me pointedly. He wasn’t going to let me get away with just that. Clenching sweaty hands, I plowed ahead. “The scientists in the book used dinosaur DNA, just like our scientists did a hundred and fifty years ago. And just like in the book, our ancestors initially thought dinosaurs were amazing. So once they had mastered the technology involved, they started bringing back as many species as they could get their hands on.”
This scene goes on a bit longer, but I can really only reproduce so much of this book on my free blog before I get a letter from Harper Collins' legal department:) Her due diligence done, and quite cleverly at that, Laura unfolds the details of Sky's life in an underground compound. She's a social outcast because her father ran off some time back and took some supplies with him, making him an enemy of the compound. But I wouldn't worry about the details too much. There aren't any dinosaurs underground, so you know our characters are going topside to be chased before too many chapters have passed:)
Sure enough, on Sky's twelfth birthday, a secret message is discovered in the compass her father gave her before he left. Yadda, yadda, yadda, he's still alive, she needs to find him, Shawn's coming with her, and the story is off and running... from dinosaurs. Turns out that a life spent underground has not equipped Sky and Shawn for the world above and after a few close calls with a T-Rex and other not-so-friendly dinos, they meet Todd, a surface-dwelling boy whose proficient at navigating among the beasts and even has his own pet dinosaur.
I smiled. I thought that I might like Todd. He had a spark to him, as though he was so full of life that it slipped out of his pores. I wondered if I’d be like that too, if I’d been raised in the sunlight and fresh air.
We meet Todd's family who live in a village composed of tree houses placed well above biting range. Laura keeps us there just long enough to learn some crucial plot details as well as some interesting insights as to how surface dwellers manage to cohabitate an environment overrun with prehistoric monsters. But safe from dinos is no place to keep our character in an action novel like this one and soon enough, they're on the run once again, being chased by both dinos and humans. There's some food for thought along the way and some pilosophical musings, but the majority of Edge of Extinction - The Ark Plan is devoted to what we all came to read:
The creature was gaining on me. Teeth snapped together only inches from the back of my head, and I knew that this was how I would die. There was movement off to my right, and I realized that the dinosaur might be part of a pack. I prayed that it would be quick, that the creature would break my neck and not rip me to shreds while I was still alive.
There's no graphic violence as this is a middle grade novel, but young readers will be thrilled to discover that's not the same as no violence. There' good times to be had throughout:) I know you'll love this book as much as I did, Esteemed Reader. I can't go into a great deal more detail without spoiling things that shouldn't be spoiled, so I'll share a tidbit I learned from this book because I've been chatting with its author.
While critiquing one of Laura's future novels that I've read and you can't because my life is awesome and involves awesome things, I suggested she not use forms of speech attribution other than 'said' as well as cut down on the adverbs accompanying them. This is sage advice I learned from Elmore Leonard and countless other writers and have tried to employ in my own work. Back in my day, this was surefire advice passed from many a writing instructor onto me like a sacred law never to be broken, but the Ninja is getting older and the world is moving on, as it does.
Laura asked me why I hadn't complained about employment of adverbs such as 'she huffed,' 'she breathed,' 'she complained warily,' and so on in this book. I admitted that I noticed their usage, but I rarely offer critique notes on a book that's already on shelves as they're of little use by then. Turns out Laura was encouraged by those in the know to use varying forms of speech attribution. An editor had even marked uses of 'said' and requested they be livened up. Another critique partner told me her daughter's class had held a funeral for the word 'said' and they were all being encouraged to use more creative words in their writing.
It's a brave new world, Esteemed Reader, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. As for me, I like 'said' as I still feel its nearly invisible on the page, but I'm become less rigid about it. I share this detail with you in the hopes of improving your own writing.
Edge of Extinction - The Ark Plan is a good story well told. You're going to love it. Trust me. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages:
“You are going to get killed.” He frowned. “And all for some stupid hunch.”
“I won’t.” I huffed into my still-wet bangs in exasperation, wishing that I’d chosen a best friend who wasn’t so nosy.
He had the greasy, unwashed appearance of a kid whose parents didn’t keep track of how often he bathed, and a hollow look that I’d seen in the mirror a bit too often.
Shawn cried out as the man scrambled for the hatch on his hands and knees. He made it inside, but part of his right leg did not
“You compound moles don’t have much of a sense of humor, do you?” Todd said.
“I’m actually hilarious.” Shawn grunted. “Just not when I’m hanging thirty feet above angry dinosaurs
“I did mention Sky was incredibly stubborn. Right?” Shawn asked, a crooked grin on his face.
“I prefer the word determined,”
I was snapped from my musings by the staircase Ivan was climbing. It seemed to disappear into the floor, and I stared at it in confusion.
“Escalator,” he called from above us. “An old-fashioned transportation device to bring people from one floor to the next. Our ancestors were lazy. And probably fat.”
STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn't happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.