Boot Camp by Todd Strasser

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Boot Camp by Todd Strasser

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Category: Teens
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A smart lad ends up in boot camp, somewhere in the US. A gripping read follows, with a stunning conclusion.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: November 2007
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Childrens Books
ISBN: 978-1847380890

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Garrett Durrell does not like the situation in which we first find him - he's been flown and driven through the night with his hands cuffed behind his back, slowly going numb, with two escorts. You might think he had been kidnapped, but he knows, and we know because we've read the book title, that he's off to boot camp.

Oh dear, you might think, knowing nothing of this book - a current issue book, through the eyes of a naughty little brat of a first-person narrator. But Garrett is not the usual boot camp inhabitant. He might have been wired before he went there, as on arrival he has a caffeine withdrawal headache, but he recognises this for what it is. This, then, is no hyperactive nasty, but possibly the smartest kid in any American boot camp.

This is certainly not ITV documentary territory.

Garrett is a mature fifteen year old - large in physique and very intelligent. There are two reasons for his ending up in boot camp - one I'll let you discover as it is a breath of fresh air for teenage fiction, but the principal reason is that he simply fails to meet his competitive parents' society world, club-going life expectations.

Garrett soon encounters the cruel and unusual punishments meted out to all the children in Lake Harmony, as this camp is called. He also notes the indemnifying contract quoted to let him know he has no rights at all. This raises the question in my mind of how realistic all that follows is, but the teenage reader will be less worried about this, I think, and instead greatly empathise with the inmates, as the emphasis on the parent always being right is drummed into them.

Of course, the boot camp, before rubbish TV introduced the concept to us Brits, is a very American institution, but this book is very much universal. It might even work to our favour when Garrett has a visit from his father, and the only note-worthy contact they have is a hand-shake, for this is very much alien to our British way of interacting with our parents.

For some reason the second half of the book has a couple of ticks that interrupted my reading. One bit of camp internal propaganda talks to the inmates of dental hygiene, and Garrett scoffs at that considering how much sugared food the menus consist of, yet mere chapters earlier he said nothing sweet was ever given. I think the definition of being drawn and quartered is a bit incorrect (and I'll leave it to you to find what that is doing in such a contemporary book).

This then is a darker twin of Louis Sachar's Holes, the Darth Vader to its Anakin Skywalker. The story is a lot gloomier, darker and drabber, with slightly less charm as a result, but it does not lose out in comparison of quality. The message of the camp, to stop thinking one is a know-all and respect the parent, is going to be recognised by all the young readers, and with the obvious scoffing response.

However here my notes for this review degenerate into one word, and one punctuation mark. ENDING!, in huge letters. All thoughts that there may have been slight spells where the book lost some of its freshness, any comparisons with other books just pale at such a climax. I can't say any more, other than to note that I have not had such a visceral reaction to anything I've read for many a year.

It is that that turns this book from a four star, verging on four and a half, to a out and out five star read. I cannot just recommend this to the teenage reader, the 12+ audience. This book has to be considered by all of any age. The subject may be teenage, but the characterisation, plotting - with evident disarming scenes and entertaining cliff-hangers - and that ending deserves as wide an audience as any novel I've read this year.

I can only thank the publishers for sending the Bookbag a copy to read, and hope this book is as successful for Todd Strasser as I think it should be. Is that the sound of Hollywood coming to camp outside his door?

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