REVIEW: The Fossil Hunter by Tea Cooper
Buried secrets. An ancient fossil. And one woman’s determination to unravel a nineteenth-century mystery.
Australia, 1847. The last thing Mellie Vale remembers before the fever takes her is sprinting through the bush with a monster at her heels—but no one believes her. In a bid to curb Mellie’s overactive imagination, her benefactors send her to visit a family friend, Anthea Winstanley. Anthea is an amateur paleontologist convinced she will one day find proof that great sea dragons swam in the vast inland sea that covered her property millions of years ago. Mellie is instantly swept up in the dream.
1919. Penelope Jane Martindale arrives home from the battlefields of World War I intent on making peace with her father and commemorating the deaths of her two younger brothers in the trenches. Her reception is disappointing. Desperate for a distraction, she finds a connection between a fossil at London’s Natural History Museum and her brothers’ favorite camping spot—also the last place they were seen before falsifying their ages to join the army. But the gorge has a sinister reputation: seventy years ago, several girls disappeared from the area. So when P. J. uncovers some unexpected remains, the past seems to be reaching into the present. She’s determined to find answers about what happened all those years ago . . . and perhaps some closure on the loss of her brothers.
Dear Ms. Cooper,
I’ve looked at the blurbs of several of your books but given my interest in reading about paleontology, I decided to start with this one. Truthfully dual timelines are not my preference but a book with ones that are closer in time can often work for me so … away we went.
I’m going to try to avoid talking about too many details of the plot. It’s complex, things take time to set up, but in the end it all comes together. And despite the fact that once I hit the 2/3 mark I could guess most of it, I was happy to just settle down and watch how things were going to play out. Part of the reason I didn’t get (too) impatient and jump to the end is because of these characters and part is wanting to see how it was all going to be handled. There were a lot of different characters in both timelines but thankfully they weren’t all dumped on readers at once. That’s a big bugaboo of mine and it didn’t happen here.
The large number of characters did present a bit of an issue though. The nasty Cook and shrewish maid who reinforced Mellie’s nightmares as well as the kindly museum men who answered PJ’s questions in London and Lyme made impressions on me. Some characters were difficult – and it was immediately evident that they would be – for seemingly no reason. I guess that was supposed to be chalked up to children being bullies to someone they saw as weaker. Another person was little more than a stick figure caricature villain from the start. But there were so many of these secondary and tertiary characters that sometimes, beyond Mean Girls and Aussie diggers, there wasn’t a whole lot to them.
Of the main characters, PJ, Mellie, and Anthea were my favorites. I felt we got into their heads, knew what they were thinking, and thus their motivations and actions made more sense to me. They also were very fleshed out having both foibles and strengths. They were human to me. One of the best parts of the story was watching Anthea realize the wonderful mind Mellie had, then begin to nurture it, as well as see her heart and willingness. Mellie beginning to flower under Anthea’s care and guidance was delightful.
PJ’s father needed a few revealing facts, that we didn’t get until late, to understand him. Practical and direct Mavis (yay for a female doctor in 1919 who also gets taken seriously by the men) was a great character. PJ’s brothers Dan and Riley also remained hazy for most of the book before their actions were explained allowing the reader to finally understand the wrenching hole that their loss created for the Martindales. But one main character, Sam, often left me baffled.
That last bit was a problem because Sam was PJ’s love interest. Their romance was a bit of a bust for me. When (early on) Sam popped the question to PJ, her reaction was more “but we’re just friends.” This was followed by “I have to go home to Australia first to settle things with my father and you need to ask him before I say anything” which made me think she was trying to duck out of it. Then when they arrived there, she … liked him more? But the relationship never got past lukewarm to me before suddenly “we’re in love and getting married” by the end. Without Sam’s POV and due to him haring off to do things without telling PJ where he was going or why (which often felt like he was gaslighting her), he often annoyed me as much as he (at times) seemed to annoy PJ. Perhaps this was an attempt to give him “American impulsiveness” but I was not a fan of it. So yeah, this part of the plot wasn’t my favorite.
The paleontology stuff was interesting and the way it was discussed served to fairly painlessly convey details to readers who might not know much about the subject. The repeated statements that PJ didn’t know why she was so hell bent on continuing to delve into the mystery surrounding the fate of Anthea got to be annoying. I mean PJ knew she wanted to discover more about Bow Wow Gorge in order to try to memorialize her brothers – I got that. But she just jumped down the obsessive rabbit hole about Anthea because … why? I never understood the motivation beyond being told “I can’t let this go.”
I ended up thinking that the 1847 parts were more interesting to me. Yet even though these were mainly told from the POV of a twelve year old, the book still isn’t suited to YA readers. I doubt they would understand aspects of the 1919 section enough to enjoy it. And since the romance didn’t work well for me and PJ’s determination to find out about Anthea was based on something the heroine couldn’t even explain to herself, these sections fizzled a bit. A final plus though is Australia itself. The landscape descriptions were rich – though strangely lacking in fauna – and I enjoyed reading more about the plants, locations, and what might be behind bunyips. Overall, I’d have to say this is a C for me.