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Jungle of Bones

21 Jan

Today’s book review is for Jungle of Bones, by Ben Mikaelsen, published by Scholastic. It is scheduled for release on January 28, 2014. I received a free electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Jungle of Bones book cover

Dylan Barstow has a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas. Ever since his father died, he keeps getting in trouble. But when he steals a car from the junkyard to spin donuts in a field, his mother gives him an ultimatum: spend the summer before 8th grade in lockup or spend it with ex-Marine Uncle Todd. Reluctantly Dylan chooses Uncle Todd. Soon he discovers that Uncle Todd has bigger plans for the summer than early morning jogs–they’re going to take a trip to Papua New Guinea to join a team of 3 other people in search of the wreckage of WWII bomber Second Ace. When Dylan gets lost in the jungle, he finally has to confront the realization that he is not the center of the universe. If he wants to survive, he’s going to have to abandon his assumptions and anger.

Recently I realized that I’d need to push myself to read outside of my “comfort genres” in order to better serve my audience. The synopsis for this title sounded interesting, so I decided to give it a try. It turned out that the story was so engaging, I stayed up well past my bedtime to finish the book in one sitting.

It was the descriptions of Papua New Guinea, the jungle and the struggle for survival that really hooked me in. They were skillfully written. I could imagine the smells and the oppressive humidity. I could picture the shanties and villages. Everything felt so vivid, alive and alien. That sort of powerful description can be hard to master. Some writers over-do it, using purple prose and redundant adjectives. Mikaelsen nails it, though.

Sometimes it is hard for me to get into a book when I don’t really like the main character. And I did not like Dylan very much. That said, I knew him (because he was so much like other young men I’ve met in my life) and I cared about him. He was completely self-absorbed, disrespectful, and a real pain in the behind–but I could also recognize the pain underlying his behaviors and wanted for him to heal and move on with his life.

I could have done with a little less of the heavy-handed jingoism, though. The military history in the story was wonderful. In particular, I found the journal entries in the journal of Dylan’s grandfather to be well-done and informative. I also liked when they visited a veteran in a nursing home and got to hear his story. However, there was also a tone of military worship to the book, and a bit too much “The USA is the savior of everyone” attitude (as though Dylan’s uncle forgot that there were other countries fighting alongside the United States in World War II).

In the final assessment, though, I was able to get passes my discomforts and enjoy a well-crafted story. I liked how it encouraged inter-generational relationships, emotional healing, a respect for history, and valuing cultures that are vastly different from one’s own. It’s a great book for young people who enjoy the genres of adventure and survival. It might also be a good selection for young people who are lashing out at the world after dealing with a traumatic life event. I’m giving the book 4 stars.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

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