Strong Like the Sea – Wendy Swore

*I received a free ARC of this book, with thanks to the author, Shadow Mountain Publishing and NetGalleyThe decision to review and my opinions are my own.*

Blurb: Even though twelve-year-old Alexis was born in Hawaii, she won’t surf or swim with her friends—not since the ocean and its hidden creatures swept her out to sea. Instead, she grabs her best detective hat and decodes her mom’s latest challenge.

Alex’s mom works in counterintelligence and leaves codes, ciphers, and puzzles behind for Alex to solve, always with a “treasure” at the end. It’s a brilliant game between them, and Alex loves figuring out her mom’s puzzles—especially the tricky ones—but when an emergency at sea puts her mom in possible danger, solving the next one suddenly feels far more urgent.

Friends help as Alex races to decipher each clue before time runs out, but when the trail leads to grumpy old Uncle, his enormous dog Sarge, and a sea turtle unlike any other, the challenge changes into something bigger than any before. With storms on the horizon and lives on the line, Alex must face her fears to solve Mom’s challenge and save those she loves. With her ohana to help, she must be strong like the sea.

Featuring a secret ocean code with a hidden message for YOU to decipher!

From the very beginning, and throughout the story, I was struck by the atmospheric setting. Hawaii came to life, to the extent that it almost felt like another main character: the language, the food, the flora and fauna, the sea and shore, the cultural practices and beliefs. These touches pervade the narrative, without ever overwhelming it, weaving smoothly in and out of the plot and characters, inseparable from any of them. I felt completely transported to somewhere unfamiliar, but inexplicably ‘home’.

Alex has an unusual life though, even when compared to her local friends instead of a middle-aged blogger in the UK! Her mother works for the government, doing top-secret, classified work, and leaves Alex spy-type challenges to solve while she is away on her missions. Meanwhile, her dad deals with his worries about her mum’s dangerous career by scheduling every second of their lives minutely, but forgetting to check what Alex might want or need to add to The Schedule. And if it isn’t on The Schedule, it isn’t happening.

So far, so much pressure. I spend the majority of the book wondering how on earth Alex was managing to function at all, crushed by the weight of her parent’s expectations and issues, and even more so by her own burning desperation to follow in her mum’s footsteps exactly – every milestone, every prize, every clue solved. Where is the time to just be a child, to just be herself, Alex?! Add to that a crippling fear of the ocean – living in Hawaii! – and you have the perfect recipe for an emotional breakdown.

Still, as a reader I was apart from all of that pressure and able to just enjoy trying to solve the puzzles myself! There is loads of fun to be had here: word puzzles, picture puzzles, symbols and ciphers. I can’t say I beat Alex to many of them (maybe not ANY of them!) but I got a lot of enjoyment from trying anyway. And there is an added bonus of a puzzle hidden in the book just for eagle-eyed readers to solve: a ‘secret ocean code’. Not a spoiler – I didn’t solve it, so let me know if you do!

I felt just a little flat at the end, because I didn’t feel that the big climactic moments in the story fully resolved that huge tension between the plans Alex’s parents have for her and the desires she has of her own. They touch upon the subject, and skirt around each others feelings about it, and the tension does lower from the boiling point to a background simmer, but I couldn’t help feeling that it may crop up again, as soon as the next stressful situation comes along. The more I reflected on it though, the more realistic I felt that was, as most huge, emotional family dramas cannot easily be resolved within such a short period of time.

I’ve been really impressed by both of the middle-grade books I have read from this author, and can’t wait to introduce Minishine to Alex and Sophie (A Monster Like Me) – a brilliant pair of young heroines, in a pair of thoughtful and thought-provoking coming-of-age/family-issue standalone novels.

Mom might love me with riddles and codes, but Dad loves me with golden spirals and supply bags. I’ll have to do something extra nice for him to say thank you. Maybe I’ll pick up some li hing strawberry belts or crack seed from Sam’s store on the way home.

– Wendy Swore, Strong Like the Sea

Find more from Wendy S. Swore at her website here, or follow her on FacebookTwitterInstagram and Goodreads.

Strong Like the Sea releases on 25th May 2021, but you can preorder it on Amazon right now!


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