Thursday, March 18, 2021

Charlie Thorne and Cassidy Blake

Gibbs, Stuart. Charlie Thorne and the Lost City (Charlie Thorne #2)
March 2nd 2021 by Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

After her adventures in Charlie Thorne and the Last Equation, Charlie is hiding out in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, where she is renting a house, pretending to be 18, and keeping her head low. Since she is the only person to have Albert Einstein's Pandora code, her brother Gabriel and his CIA partner Milana want to turn her over to the government. When she is found by Esmerelda Castle and asked to solve a code carved on the bottom of a giant tortoise, presumably by Charles Darwin, Charlie isn't happy. However, she has noticed strangers in town whom she suspects are after her. She knows that Esmerelda came in a small plane, and asks to be taken to the research station. She has already solved the riddle, and be they know it, the two are on a path to get other clues left by Darwin. Esmerelda has not told Charlie the whole truth, and Charlie is savvy enough to have figured this out, so after going to a church, finding a clue, and climbing to the top of the church spire to get another clue, Charlie escapes. She has hidden a mountain bike nearby for a quick getaway, but is soon chased by two cars. Luckily, one of them is driven by Gabriel. He and Milana join Charlie as she travels down the Amazon, looking for the next clue. One of their stops is an ecotourist hotel run by indigenous residents, and run by Segundo. He advises that the next step of their journey, to the fabled lost city of Paititi, is impossibly hard. There are several groups of evildoers hot on their trail, including the Russian Ivan who is to bring Charlie back uninjured to his government, Esmerelda and her treasure hunting brothers, and several others whom they meet on the way who think they can overcome Charlie and get the treasure themselves. Still, the three head off down the Amazon to where it is closer to a wetlands to a river. What is the treasure that Darwin found? Actual treasure? A link between hominids and humans? Or something more shocking and treacherous?

Charlie Thorne is the most serious of the Gibbs' series, but still has moments of fun. There are deft turns of phrase that made me chuckle, and Charlie getting the best of everyone she encounters is always good. But her challenges are real, and traveling across the Amazon is a daunting proposition. Still, Charlie is able to blackmail her brother in a humorous but really intimidating way, refer to something as the world's largest Chia Pet, use her freshly manicured nails to save the day. 

The research that went into this is astonishing. From information about Darwin and his travels, to different types of codes, to the flora and fauna of Ecuador and the Amazon, the details about what it is like to take the journey Charlie does are fascinating. There are even small things, like Esmerelda's genetic predisposition to not feel pain when injured, that prove very important down the line in very clever ways. I knew from Scott Westerveld's Peeps not to pee in the water in the Amazon, but I found myself debating the merits of wearing a wet suit if I ever find myself cruising down that waterway. Would the barrier against the mud and bugs be more important than the heat, as well as the fact I could never go to the bathroom? Also, I need to remember to bring a canister in which I can save bullet ants. 

Unlike Horowitz's Alex Rider, Charlie is not necessarily a reluctant hero. She does not like the situation in which she finds herself, but is willing to use her skills to actively pursue adventure in ways that Alex is not. We get hints that she is going to investigate clues that Cleopatra may have left behind, and is on her way to Egypt as the book ends. She also has her own funding and must rely on her own resources, whereas Alex has the support of MI5. I almost wish that, like Alex, Charlie were 14, and that she weren't so freakishly smart. It would be easier for me students to put themselves in Charlie's shoes and imagine that they are the ones having the adventures. 

For pulse-pounding, non-stop adventure, this is a fantastic book, and it is also very instructional. If I am ever on a boat hurtling down the Amazon and I am attacked by people in a plane throwing dynamite, I know exactly what I need to do. I just need to pack my emergency bag, find an unlimited source of funding, and continue the conversation with one of my friends about how we can weaponize quilting tools to use on our own Mrs. Pollifax type adventures. Charlie Thorne has provided a lot of fertilizer, much of it bat guano, for my imagination! 

Schwab, Victoria. Bridge of Souls (Cassidy Blake #3)
March 2nd 2021 by Scholastic Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Just back from her whirlwind tour of Paris (and her creepy encounter with a skeleton specter) in Tunnel of Bones, Cassidy joins her parents in New Orleans. In this hot and humid city, ghosts and spirits seem to be everywhere, and Cassidy can't shake the feeling that something is badly wrong. It doesn't help that her friend Jacob is becoming more and more corporeal, and can even move objects. After several creepy encounters with the skeletal creature she saw in Paris, Cassidy texts her friend Lara Chowdhury for advice. She thinks Cassidy is being chased by an Emissary of Death, who feels that Cassidy cheated death and now owes her life. Soon, Lara has made her way to New Orleans as well. Her parents travel a lot, and she didn't want to be stuck at home in Scotland with her dead uncle, so the group gets to see some of New Orleans' more interesting side. It is home to the Black Cat Society in which Lara is very interested, and after some sleuthing, their headquarters is found. They are also concerned about the Emissary, but don't have a lot of help to offer. They are great at backup, though, and there when the three try to take care of the Emissary, which ends in Lara being taken. She's an in-betweener as well, and had cheated death when she was very ill. It's up to Cassidy, Jacob, and the members of the Black Cat Society to save Lara and deal with the Emissary so he is no longer on Cassidy's trail. Will Cassidy be able to save both of her friends?
Strengths: If you want to write a middle grade ghost stories, it is essential that some of the ghosts be murderous! If séances, a ghost friend, another friend willing to travel around the world to help you, and clueless adults are also in the mix, all the better. While this story has lots of adventurous elements (the travels into the spirit world behind the Veil are wonderfully scary), Cassidy is an interesting character whom I found myself really watching in this book. She's scared, she's questioning her role in dispatching ghosts, and she's wondering if she really did cheat death, and what the ramifications of that are. Lara is such a fun character, and it's too bad that there isn't some way to have them hang out more. Perhaps her parents will let her travel with the Blakes indefinitely? I also found myself being a little wistful about Jacob. He has to move on at some point, but he is really the only full time friend that Cassidy has. Bridge of Souls was an excellent addition to this series. 
Weaknesses: New Orleans sounds horrible. I know it is a vibrant city with lots of history and culture, but the humidity alone is enough to make me never want to travel there. Perhaps next the Blakes can travel to Rome? Or San Francisco?
What I really think: This series has been very popular (I have two copies of the first book, and they're always checked out!), and it's one that I enjoy as well, even though I'm not a huge fan of creepy books. Cassidy's off beat relationship with Jacob, her travels with her parents, and the descriptions of local ghost lore all combine in a delightfully creepy way. There's definitely at least one more book needed to finish off the story, and my feelings would not be at all hurt if there were two!

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