Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Belly Up

Belly Up
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 11+

Despite its deceptively juvenile cover design, the sleuth in this mystery is a mature-for-his-age 12-year-old named Teddy, who lives at a zoo/theme park called FunJungle where his mom does gorilla research and his dad shoots wildlife photos. Brought up in the wild, he's still got a wild streak in him, frequently putting him on the outs with park security – such as when he arms the chimps with water balloons so they can fight back against zoo guests throwing stuff at them. He definitely has a higher opinion of animals than of people. And so, when the park's head vet suspects foul play in the death of Henry the Hippo – FunJungle's mean, unwisely chosen mascot – it's murder as far as Teddy is concerned.

To be sure, Teddy didn't think much of Henry in life. In death, however, he sets out to solve his murder, whether or not anyone at the zoo cares to know who done it. He's aided by Summer, the park's owner's daughter, a celebrity kid whose every move makes it into the tabloids. But it's hard to tell whom to trust when everyone seems to have a motive to kill the hippo, and other animals are mysteriously dying as well. The closer Teddy gets the truth, the more danger he finds himself in, as first one dangerous animal and then another is set loose when he's around. By the time he cracks the case, everyone will be after him, leading to disaster at a hippo's funeral, a madcap chase through SafariLand and a desperate race to get the evidence to Summer's dad.

The vividly drawn setting and unusual victim elevate this book above your common or (zoological) garden murder mystery. Teddy's a sharp kid who's up to outrageous adventures, with a witty narrative voice and an irrepressible attitude that make him a fun character to follow. Also, he has the coolest parents, and they mix professionally with a wide range of quirky characters, from the public relations wonk who tells the press that a hippo is a whale on legs to the vet's assistant who names every large animal that comes to the zoo including the ill-fated Carl the Capybara and Alistair the Anaconda. It's a tale that makes the Texas sunshine seethe with intrigue on multiple levels, and fills the shadowy corners with chilling dangers. My only complaint is that I'd have read it sooner if the cover art hadn't made it look like a little kids' book. Actually it's right on target for my mental age.

This is the first of going on eight books in the FunJungle series, followed (so far) by Poached, Big Game, Panda-monium, Lion Down, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks, Bear Bottom and the upcoming Whale Done, set for release in February 2023. Gibbs is also the author of the "Last Musketeer," "Moon Base Alpha" and "Charlie Thorne" trilogies, the "Spy School" series, and Once Upon a Tim.

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