Twelve-year-old Sarah Robinson’s dad just re-married, and Sarah does not approve. No one could take the place of her mother, who died six years ago. Dad’s new wife Yvonne is gracious and sincere, but Sarah’s not having it. Complicating matters are Yvonne’s sons: twelve-year old Marco and little brother “Nacho,” two years younger. The newly-blended family embarks on a chartered cruise in the South Pacific in Shipwreck Island, the first book in a three-book tween series by young-adult author S. A. Bodeen. The story continues in a slender second volume, Lost.
After a long plane ride to Fiji, the family finds their chartered boat, Moonflight, a real downgrade from the gleaming, luxurious vessel pictured in the brochure. Against Dad’s better judgment, the family decides to undertake the ocean voyage anyway. Captain Norm is the owner, skipper, and chef; Ahab – a large Newfoundland dog – his only crewmate.
Captain Norm sets sail for a lush, private tropical island. Within hours, the Moonflight is battling an intense storm. The boat rolls, the mast breaks, and Captain Norm is missing and presumed dead. Miraculously, the Moonflight survives the storm, and the (Swiss family) Robinsons are marooned on an island paradise.
At this point I think I know exactly where this exciting, readable page-turner is going, and for a couple of chapters, I’m right. The new family needs to work together to salvage supplies from the boat before it sinks, find a source of fresh water, and build a secure shelter while waiting to be rescued. Amid the challenges, the three children learn to tolerate and eventually care about each other. The Brady Bunch meets Gilligan’s Island. I’m primed for a group hug as the rescue boat makes landfall.
And that’s where I’m wrong. Way wrong. Shipwreck Island’s third act makes a sharp turn toward creepy-land, with immensely satisfying results. The book's two 12-year-olds, Sarah and Marco, each witness odd hybrid animals – a kangaroo with lion’s paws and a bird with four wings and a full set of teeth! The family continues to experience odd, eerie phenomenon as they establish a home-base on the island.
Shipwreck Island ends too abruptly, with no real plot resolutions or cliffhangers. It’s one of those endings that has you looking at the blank pages at the end of the book to make sure you didn’t miss something. After 184 pages, it just stops.
The reader now turns to Lost, book #2 in the series for some sense of fulfillment, but the payoff never comes. A new character (who emerged briefly at the end of the first book) tells her 20-page backstory around the family campfire in the early chapters. This narrative provides details too quickly; I’ve invested 200 pages trying to solve the mystery, and now a minor character spills the beans?
(Spoiler alert-paragraph) As Lost continues, family members become separated, with Sarah and Marco exploring the island hoping to find Dad and Nacho. They work together, save each others' lives, and learn that having a step-brother/sister may not be so bad after all. They stumble upon more oddities, and eventually find the source of the weirdness. It’s a shape-shifting alien, whose collection of frozen animals includes Dad and Nacho!
Depending on the reader, the extra-terrestrial developments in Lost may be greeted with excitement, or scorned with an eye roll. On one hand the science fiction element gives the series a jolt of intrigue and suspense. Conversely, we’ve now “lost” all semblance of our original story, and we’re two-thirds of the way into a three-book series. The series’ first shift was an unpredictable hook, but the alien component feels more like inconsistency. Bodeen has written herself a literary magic wand. There’s a fine line between a plot twist and a gimmick.
Middle school readers will probably gobble-up Shipwreck Island. Lost is a necessary continuance of the story, but like it’s predecessor, it ends too abruptly. The final book in the series, Trapped, was released last month. Trapped may redeem the series, or it may sink it like Captain Norm’s boat. Feeling a bit shipwrecked myself, I’m not all that eager to find out.