Expanding on a book by writing a sequel is a tricky proposition; you need to retain what made the first one (hopefully!) good and yet also give something new to make such an expansion worthwhile. Poached (2014), the second entry in Stuart Gibbs’ FunJungle series, thankfully does some very good work in building on the world of first book Belly Up (2010)…and throws in an impossibly-vanished koala for good measure to spice up the intrigue.
Following a prank gone wrong, 12 year-old Teddy Fitzroy hides out in the koala enclosure at FunJungle, the Texas-based billion dollar animal theme park where his parents work. Once the coast is clear — the park closed for the night, and the koala keeper having left and locked up while unaware of Teddy’s presence — Teddy creeps out and makes his way to his family’s trailer. Cue pandemonium the following morning when it transpires that Kazoo, the koala on loan from Australia at great financial cost, has vanished from the enclosure overnight…and Teddy is the only person seen on CCTV leaving or entering the enclosure during the crucial period.
“I don’t think there’s any way to get in and out of that exhibit without being filmed,” Mom said. “You can’t go anywhere in this park without being filmed.”
As with Belly Up, Gibbs does clever, swift work in establishing the problem and isolating Teddy so that he and he alone must investigate to solve the mystery. With FunJungle being “technically its own incorporated municipality”, the job of recovering the lost marsupial — before the news gets out and some awkward questions been answering, not least from the Australian government — falls to the park’s head of security, Teddy’s nemesis Large Marge. And, given Marge’s history with Teddy, and her not exactly cerebral approach to crime-solving, she’s happy that the CCTV footage of Teddy is sufficient to secure his guilt. And, well, she’s got a point: it doesn’t look good.
Of all the very commendable things done here — enlarging Teddy’s world to include more than the confines of the park, giving him an external and internal life filled with friends, social difficulties, and the pressures of being close to one of the most famous teenagers on the planet — arguably the most admirable is bringing home to Teddy the consequences of his behaviour. Because, see, I like Teddy Fitzroy. He’s great value at times:
“Are you here to see the koala?” the woman asked me. As if there might be another reason I was standing in the koala line.
…and his asides on the running of the park are always a highlight (“There were two of every costume, just in case one got dirty … A few days before, an actress who’d caught the flu had vomited inside Rhonda Rhino’s head.”) but his persistently going around to disrupt, however mildly, the running of FunJungle has grated on me since the first book. Given that, through Gibbs’ narration of such, Teddy knows the amount of effort the park’s billionaire owner J.J. McCracken has gone to in ensuring the best facilities and staff are laid on so that the animals are well cared for, it always seemed odd to me that he’d do some of the things he apparently did. Maybe I’m just getting old and crotchety (and I was crotchety long before I got old…) but this kid has apparently behaved like a real tool before, and seems to think it’s hilarious. Sure, the target market would rather read about a roguish scamp than a goody two-shoes — that’s why Harry Potter is the star and Hermione Granger a side character — but, well, my point stands.
So the fact that Poached takes the time — amidst all the other schemes going on — to really bring home to Teddy how thoughtless he’s been (“Both your parents are extremely valuable assets to this park. However, at a certain point, the trouble you’ve caused outweighs their worth to us.”) is pleasing, to say the least. And Gibbs writes this sort of stuff well, too — there are a lot of different threads to handle here, and his prose is always slick and easy to read, the various elements juggled without any clutter. When the school-based scenes, depicting trouble with bullies Vance Jessup and TimJim, and the various insecurities that come with being in the cliques that inevitably fall out of any large gathering of people, don’t feel like distractions wasting time away from the core mystery that attracted me…well, then you’re doing a good job. And Gibbs is doing more than merely a good job in fitting all these considerations into such a propulsive read.
And how’s that mystery?
Well, look, the establishment of this as a pure impossibility isn’t as rigorous as it might be — there’s one solution possible that’s never addressed beyond Teddy’s baseless insistence that a certain person “wouldn’t have” done it and, given the air of awareness that pervades events elsewhere I was expecting them to be guilty so that he’d learn an important lesson about not just trusting people at face value. Simple cheats are rules out neatly — the necessity of dynamiting the region to build the park in the first place makes it a practical certainty that no-one has burrowed underneath the exhibit, for instance — and you have to trust that the CCTV outside the exhibit covers every possible angle (the cameras inside simply being for show, since everything was put together quickly and the arrangement is only temporary)…but I’m going to allow this as an impossible crime if only because it’ll get some junior sleuths thinking and hopefully guide them towards the light in years ahead.
The answer to the vanishment when it comes is, honestly, both a little underwhelming and also sort of genius for reason that I can’t really go into here. There’s a clue that I really liked, as brazen as the day is long, which I completely missed in my obsession over just how tightly the situation had been sealed and…I have to hand it to Gibbs that he’s pretty brave to flaunt it so openly and make me miss it at the same time. Your mileage may vary — ah, who’m I kidding, I’m not convincing anyone who’s likely to read this review to pick the book up, I know how unpopular these Minor Felonies posts are — but that’s the fun of books. And, look, if you do read this and are disappointed, it’s not like it took you a long time to get there, is it? The pages really do fly past.
I get the feeling that Gibbs aimed these FunJungle stories, at least to begin with, at a younger audience than the Moon Base Alpha trilogy which was my introduction to his work, but I am — as the series title suggests I would — having fun. We end with that theme of awareness again, Teddy questioning the attitudes of people who claim to be favourably disposed towards him, and along the way I learned that “the koala is the only known animal whose brain only fills half of its skull”…add to that a mystery I failed to solve and an evolving narrator-sleuth I strongly suspect it’ll be even more enjoyable to spend time with from hereon out and, yeah, I’m really looking forward to more of these. At a time when certain authors and series are failing to make return visits too appealing, Gibbs makes me eager to come back and see what he’s cooked for up next time. Mission accomplished, I’d say.
Stuart Gibbs’ mysteries for younger readers:
- Belly Up (2010)
- Poached (2014)
- Big Game (2015)
- Panda-monium (2017)
- Lion Down (2019)
- Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (2020)
- Bear Bottom (2021)
Moon Base Alpha