The Lost Island of Tamarind by Nadia Aguiar
Oh, boy! Oh boy oh boy oh boy! For kids who like their adventure with a little adventure thrown in, with a shot of adventure in a test tube shoved down in the middle to add in later after the adventure gets diluted by the melting ice!
No, wait, that's a Key West piña colada - there is no ice in this book. BUT - the Lost Island in question, somewhere within the Bermuda Triangle, IS vivid and unpredictable, full of characters who are lost, or found, or looking for their lost shaker of salt... just like Key West. Instead of Hemingway's six-toed cats, there are flying fish and giants and thuggish apes.
And not only is the setting marvelous - with a fabulist retro vibe reminiscent of Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard, or Edgar Rice Burroughs - but the characters are full, modern, and believable. Our heroes are Maya and her younger brother Simon, who have been stranded on the island after their marine biologist parents were swept overboard in a storm. In some ways they are your typical brother-sister team (think Cryptid Hunters, The 39 Clues, The London Eye Mystery), sometimes chafing against each other, sometimes working together as smoothly as only family can. But these characters have an astringent emotional core: their mom and dad are missing, and Maya and Simon are worried. Too many books and movies get the parents out of the way so that the plot can proceed, and you could almost forget that there ever were parents. Not so here: Maya's anxiety wafts through The Lost Island of Tamarind like acrid smoke through the jungle.
In addition, the kids are carrying and caring for their baby sister, who, although a remarkably easy-going nine-month-old, is not some super-baby à la Sunny in A Series of Unfortunate Events. The hardships faced by these young people ring true, and they surmount them using skills consonant with their background and age. Having grown up on a boat, they both can read a ship's log and navigate (and change a diaper), and Simon is a star at knots, but neither is a genius, and they each have their flaws.
I have been pressing The Lost Island of Tamarind into the hands of every eager reader who has come my way recently. There are enough ooh-aah moments (mermaids!) to satisfy the fantasy readers, but not so many as to put off the anti-swords contingent. It's astonishing to me that this is Nadia Aguiar's first book: the sweet, lush setting and the sharp, clean characters make one fine tropical cocktail. I want another.