Wednesday, October 30, 2019

REVIEW: Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon

John August's first novel, Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire, was my most anticipated book of last year. This year's sequel was no different. This middle-grade fantasy series imagines scouting as training for surviving the both the wilderness and the supernatural world. Campfire songs and canoeing meets spirit tracking and monster fighting. In this year's sequel, Arlo wanders through a doorway no Ranger has ever gone before.

For Arlo Finch and the Rangers of Pine Mountain Company, summer camp is more than canoeing and hiking. It’s also a chance to search for ancient forest spirits and discover mysterious messages encoded in tree bark. But when Arlo and his best friends Indra and Wu stumble upon clues about the long-lost Yellow Patrol, Arlo uncovers a stunning history that leads right back to his very own family.

I've followed a lot of book reviewers over the years and a lot of them tend to repeat this idea that certain books are better read in certain seasons, specifically autumn. And not just horror books at Halloween time, books set in boarding schools or small towns are apparently perfect for autumn. I never got that until I read this book in October.

Despite taking place in July, the novel creates an atmospheric world that truly does remind the reader of the changing season between summer and winter. This is partially due to the book almost entirely taking place in the summer camp as opposed to scenes at school or the restaurant where Arlo's mom works. There's nature on every page.

With a book like this, I am sure someone somewhere has called it "Harry Potter with Boy Scouts," probably me. And this time around, the comparisons go beyond "kid learning about magic." Arlo and his friends uncover a series of mysteries at Camp Redfeather. I love me a good supernatural mystery solved by middle-schoolers. And here, August wrote the best kind of mystery: one the reader can solve alongside the characters. Due to my age, I am usually one-step ahead of the characters in a middle-grade novel. But as Arlo and his friends stumble upon more and more clues, everything starts to slowly unravel to the point where I had a few theories but never truly knew where the book was going.

One thing this book was shockingly well is handling the social anxieties that come with the early years of puberty. The sequel specifically tackles themes related to friendship including whether or not the friendship even exists. In just the first chapters Arlo begins to wonder if Indra and Wu are actually friends or if they're just both friends with Arlo. He finds out Wu has a phone and silently wonders why he doesn't know his number. The group questions letting the rest of their troop in on the new mystery despite the fact that they don't hang out together outside of Rangers activities. All of these anxious feelings are very real and totally hit home with me.

The fantasy elements are out in full force this time around. Things felt a lot smaller back when Arlo spent most of the first book in a town with one street light and we kept hearing about thunderclaps and snaplights like they were the only magical things in the world. Here, Arlo's world expands with lessons on all kinds of new magic while also encountering creatures and spirits he's never even imagined. It's a real shame there won't be more than three books because I could spend hours in this world.

There's also a big twist that's alluded throughout the book and doesn't really come into play until the third act and I really want to talk about it but it's kind of a spoiler? Let's just say the this book blows Prisoner of Azkaban out of the lake.

John August's follow-up to his debut novel is bigger and better in every way. It captures the spirit of the wilderness it's set in, reminds you of the days when your school friends meant everything, and takes you to a magical world that could very well live in your own backyard.

Click here to get your copy of Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon. Click here to check out my review of the first book which you can click here to order.