Nicholas and his sisters - twins Hayley and Hetty - are spending the summer with their great-uncle Nick at Forsaken Lake while their father, Will, works for Doctors Without Borders in Africa. While there, they uncover The Seaweed Strangler, a film started by their dad during his childhood and left mysteriously unfinished. Together with their uncle and a local tomboy named Charlie, Nicholas and his sisters try to learn the truth about Will’s past and work to finish the film he began long ago.
The final line of the NetGalley blurb for Summer at Forsaken Lake reads, “In this lovely middle-grade novel, Michael D. Beil has invoked one of his own favorites, We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea, as well as other great summer books of years-past.” The reference to a novel by Arthur Ransome, whose first three Swallows and Amazons titles I have read and reviewed, was all it took for me to click that “request” button. Somehow I got the idea into my head that invoking a Ransome novel would be enough to make this novel great as well. I soon realized that my expectations were too high and destined to be dashed.
My first major problem with the book is that it spoils so much of We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. It would be fine, I think, to refer to many key plot points if We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea was a book commonly read by Michael Beil’s audience. But I don’t think most readers are as familiar with it as the author obviously is, and his characters’ constant references to it got old after the first chapter and became downright irritating as the book went on. I would have appreciated the homage to Ransome much more if it hadn’t been so pervasive and so obvious. It’s fine to give a subtle nod to a beloved book from childhood (as Rebecca Stead did in When You Reach Me); it’s not okay to essentially ruin that book for other readers.
The other major issue I had was that I never became immersed in the world of the story. A well-written children’s story is woven in such a way that the reader cannot see the seams. This book lacks that artistry, and instead feels like a collection of ideas pasted together haphazardly. I was always aware of the author’s attempts to manipulate my emotions. I do want to be manipulated when I’m reading a book; I just don’t want to be so hyper-aware of the author’s tricks that it detracts from my enjoyment.
Finally, I think kids might have trouble engaging with this book because so much of the action revolves around the adult characters. It almost felt like the story would have been more exciting if it had been set in the past, when Will was still a child. Nicholas, Hayley, and Hetty do learn quite a bit from their experiences staying with Nick, but the story really belongs to their father, and the reader’s emotional connection to that story is severed by the decision to distance the reader from Will by a generation.
All in all, I didn’t enjoy this book, even though I really wanted to. Sailing fanatics will find much better storytelling in the original Ransome books, and mystery readers have so many other wonderful choices it won’t hurt to skip this one in favor of a classic Hardy Boys or Boxcar Children tale.
I received a digital ARC of Summer at Forsaken Lake from Random House via NetGalley.