Chronal Engine, by Greg Leitich Smith (Clarion Books, 2012, middle grade, 192 pages) Imagine being transported back to the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, desperately driving your time-transported VW Bug across a landscape filled with danger, while searching for you kidnapped sister and wondering if you will ever get home. That's what happens to Max, the narrator of Chronal Engine.
Max and his siblings didn't want to dumped on their grandfather while their mom was off on a dinosaur dig in Mongolia. 13 year old twins, Kyle and Emma, and Max, a year younger, had never met their grandfather, or visited his isolated ranch in Texas (famous for its trail of fossilized dinosaur footprints). But they have no time to be bored or mopish. Just a few hours after they unpack and meet Petra, the housekeeper's daughter (a crack shot with a bow, as indicated by the rabbits she's killed for supper), their grandfather makes a surprising announcement.
"It is time," Grandpa began...."for you to see the family legacy. Downstairs. In the workshop. Petra, this concerns you as well."
"You don't want dessert?" Mrs Castillo asked, setting her napkin beside her plate and looking vaguely alarmed. "The pecan pie will be ready in a moment."
Grandpa stood. "Perhaps the children would like some when we're done. As for me...." He hesitated. "Thank you, no. In fifteen minutes the ambulance will be here to take me to the hospital after my massive heart attack." (page 12)
In that short space of time, Grandpa shows the kids the Chronal Engine--built by an ancestor in the early twentieth century, and perfected (?) over the years. It's a working time machine. But then the heart attack happens, as predicted. And then, the next day, Emma is kidnapped, and taken back in time. The three other kids must use the Chronal Engine to go after her...and fortunately Grandpa had predicted this too, stocking a Volkswagen bug with all the gear they'd need for a trip back to the time of the dinosaurs.
The days that follow will push the kids (and their car) to the limit as they race across the prehistoric landscape, outwitting/desperately fleeing from the assorted fauna (many big scary things with teeth!). It's non-stop action as they follow the sparse clues that will, they hope, lead them to Emma...if they don't get eaten first.
Max is a dinosaur buff, and his knowledge proves very useful. The author generously shares lots of it with the reader--the kid who already knows dinosaurs will doubtless be pleased, the kid (or adult) who doesn't will be educated. Much as I like being educated, though, I found this information dropping to be a bit much in places, overlaying the emotional tension of the dinosaur encounters with too heavy a hand.
And indeed, in general the emotional side of the adventure plays a distant second-fiddle to the survival quest aspect of it. Which is fine--it's fast paced, fierce, and exiting story! But don't expect much nuanced character development or even much reflection on the part of the characters about what is happening--they are too busy surviving. Petra's archery skills come in very handy...the Volkswagen, however, bites the dust (although I'm surprised it lasted as long as it did...).
This very straightforward, descriptive and to the point approach to the story makes this a good one for young middle grade readers, those who enjoyed the Magic Treehouse books, perhaps, and who are looking for something a tad older and more sophisticated. Older readers, however, might feel the lack of emotional responses. And they might, as I was, be disappointed that the climax of the story is rather abrupt, and is accompanied by a brief third party explanation. The central characters don't directly figuring out things for themselves, and turn out to be latecomers to a pre-existing story, The way the ending is written, however, clearly sets things up for a sequel in which, perhaps, the kids will have a more active role.... (and in which we might find out what happens to the baby dinosaur Petra has adopted!)
So, in short, a good one for a younger reader who likes adventure stories; not so much one for anyone much older than twelve.
Note on diversity: Max and his siblings are half Japanese, half Caucasian; here's Greg Leitich Smith talking about this (and other aspects of the book) at Writing With a Broken Tusk.
Here are a few other, more enthusiastic, reviews: Jen Robinson's Book Page, BooksYALove, and Popcorn Reads