Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Reading Roundup, Part Two

Here are a couple of books I had high hopes for when I started them. Unfortunately, I think neither of them quite holds up to their early promise. But your mileage may vary.

The Chaos Code by Justin Richards
3Q 3P; Audience: M/J

When Matt Stribling's mother breaks the news to him that he's going to be spending his vacation with his father, rather than at home with her, he's not happy. His dad is a nice guy, but he's so busy with his archaeological work that he barely pays attention to Matt. Sure enough, when Matt arrives at the train station, Dad's not there. But Dad's not at home, either, and little by little, Matt comes to the conclusion that something is seriously wrong. Maybe it's the mess (but Dad's place is always a mess). Maybe it's the sandy footprints leading through Dad's office and out onto the lawn. Maybe it's the rough, sandy fingers he feels closing over his face and cutting off his air until he passes out. Or maybe it's the missing mail that was on the floor when he arrived and wasn't there just a few hours later. Or maybe it's the coded letter from his father, telling him to go to his Aunt Jane's and to worry if he doesn't hear from him soon. Or maybe it's all of the above.

When Matt heads to his Aunt Jane's, he has no idea that he will soon be meeting some of the richest and most ruthless men in the world, or that he will soon be swept up in an adventure that will find him in remote jungles and ancient pyramids, and threatened by advanced technology he couldn't have imagined existed. He isn't facing these things alone, of course. Aunt Jane works for multimillionaire collector Julius Venture, and Venture has a daughter, Robin. They are just the kind of people you want on your side when things get tense. But that doesn't mean that Venture and Robin don't have significant secrets of their own. Can Matt and Robin stop what seems inevitable? They hope so, because the fate of the entire world depends on their doing just that.

I was hoping that the book would continue in the same vein in which it started, with Matt having to decode various puzzles and clues as he gets closer and closer to discovering what happened to his father. Instead, the book is more of a cat-and-mouse game, with lots of action (which is a good thing) and chases. But I felt the whys and hows of what was going on got muddled. It felt as though the author hoped that if he threw enough things into the pot, his readers wouldn't really notice that the recipe isn't quite as filling as it ought to be. I had a few too many "Didn't you already say that?" and "I didn't quite get what you were going for there" moments as I read. I'd also have appreciated a more nuanced villain and fewer lucky coincidences. But perhaps that's just me. Readers who like a lot of action and suspense may not care or notice those things as much as I did.

Bunker 10 by J. A. Henderson
3Q 3P; Audience: J

At 2000 hours on Monday, 24 December 2007, Pinewood Military Installation exploded. The blast ripped apart acres of forest and devastated the remote highland valley where the base was located. There were no survivors and no official cause was given for the incident. Inside Pinewood were 185 male and female military personnel -- a mix of scientists and soldiers. There were also 7 children. This is the story of their last day.

Okay, a story can't open with much more of a grabber than that.

Pinewood is a secret military installation. Very few people know what goes on there, and even fewer people know that the seven children in the installation aren't ordinary kids. Each of them is a genius, and each has an ability that the army prizes highly. As a result, they have each been conned, coerced, or invited to work at Pinewood, with the understanding that they will join the military when they turn eighteen. In the meantime, they study, work on their own special projects (time travel is a big draw), and follow the dictates of those in command. Those officers haven't gone out of their way to make the school particularly comfortable or welcoming to the kids. That they aren't allowed to go home for Christmas is a pretty good indication that their choice to come to Pinewood wasn't the best decision they ever made. The rules are strict, the barracks are barren, and their life is about their studies. Given the situation, it's not surprising that a couple of the kids are ready to break loose. All Jimmy and Leslie want is go on a simple date. Off campus. It's all fairly innocent, really, as far as treason goes.

Getting off the base involves jamming signals and locks (for these kids, that's child's play) and otherwise deceiving their military guards. What Jimmy, Lesley, and the other kids don't realize is that they aren't the only ones who have secret plans. Messing around with the security system might not have been such a great idea. The plans of the others are potentially a whole lot deadlier than sneaking out for a date.

Lieutenant Dunwoody and his special teams force are on their way to Pinewood. All Dunwoody knows is that he is being sent to a facility that specializes in advanced virtual reality technology (all the better to train soldiers in combat techniques) as well as things like three-dimensional mapping, biohazards, and alternative fuel resources. But those are not his concern. His concern is whatever is in the lower levels of Pinewood, an area so highly classified that nobody will tell him what it is he's about to encounter.

The third group prowling around Pinewood this Christmas Eve consists of Sherman, a virtual reality simulation specialist who works for the military; Madrid, a tall, athletic woman sent from High Command; Darren, a computers and electronics whiz kid; and Nulce. What does Nulce do? He kills people.

While Jimmy, Lesley, and the other kids are concentrating on their date, Dunwoody and Sherman's teams are about to learn about Bunker 10. What's in the super-secret Bunker 10? May-Rose. May-Rose used to be just one of the kids. Not anymore. May-Rose has...evolved. And if she breaks out of Bunker 10, the world is going to regret it. She must be stopped at all costs. At any cost.

Believe me, the costs are high (as if you couldn't tell, given how the book begins). This is a book for readers who like gore, violence, and mayhem. It also requires readers who have the patience for discussions about time travel, virtual reality, genetic manipulation and the like, as well as the ability to follow several storylines at once. One of the storylines has a neat little twist/premise that I don't want to spoil. Suffice it to say that it will leave you wondering what's really going on. Some readers will like that. Some won't. One aspect of the book that I found problematical was a mention that each of the kids in the story supposedly have the traits of various despots of the past. I spent a fair amount of time trying to identify those traits and looking for similarities with Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc., but I wasn't successful. It bothered me that that was presented but not (or poorly) followed through. If it wasn't important to the story, why mention it? (I do have a guess about that, but I don't like that answer.) If it was important, why wasn't it more developed? I was bothered even more (because it's constant) by the jive talking of Dave, one of the teens. I found it utterly unconvincing and increasingly irritating. I'm sure it was an attempt to individualize him, but the end result for me was a character that seemed fake rather than authentic. Other characters, including Lesley, May-Rose, and the colonel, are either barely developed or essentially play the same note throughout. Characterization is not the strong point of this novel.

Ultimately, I found Bunker 10 disappointing. It has an intriguing premise and a terrific start. Henderson is excellent at ratcheting up the tension and keeping the action going. But I found the parts more coherent than the whole, with the "what it's all about" ultimately confusing and unconvincing. However, readers who like a thrill ride of a read may be willing to overlook things that I could not.

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