So let's talk about that plot. It's a quest. Leilani and her dad, a University of Hawaii at Hilo professor, have to get home after commercial flights are cancelled and they're stuck a few islands away from Leilani's mom, brother, and grandfather. They encounter all kinds of obstacles while trying to get home when society and law have completely melted into something... just... ugly. I found the situations in the plot quite believable and easy to understand the implications if they chose a different course of action. About two-thirds of the way through the book, it takes a turn for the sci-fi. A twist that you sort of see coming, but sort of don't because you don't know enough to put the pieces together. Just take my advice that the seemingly irrelevant, info-dumped Hawaiian mythology does come into play and it becomes relevant, despite what your reader instincts might tell you. And there's a lot of mythology to learn, which makes me want to make excuses for the info dumping, but I'm still not happy with that aspect.
As far as character development goes, Leilani, bless her heart, seems to act, then process, rather than having questions flying through her mind the entire time she's making decisions and making moves. She doesn't recognize others' emotions until she has reflected on them. However, you see definite growth for her across the arc. I really enjoyed that the characters didn't make every choice correctly. They screw up. And they try to correct their course before it's too late, but they don't always end up in peachy heaven. In fact, I really like that. Also, the fact that there are no throw-away characters earns bonus points.
The sci-fi element was really hard for me though. It seemed forced and convenient, but then again, sci-fi twists usually feel that way for me. But the setting, ohhh the setting. It's almost poetic. Which is a weird way to describe the setting, I understand. But it is. And most of the plants and geography are important to the story, so I really appreciated that it didn't meander and maintained purpose throughout.
As a reader, I'm satisfied with the first book in the series, but curious about book 2. We had the opportunity to meet Austin at Phoenix Comicon, and that was really fun. He was a great part of the Debut Authors panel bringing a much needed male voice and perspective to the room. He's here in Arizona for the time being, working on a PhD in geology. All of his education comes out in his writing, and you can tell he has a passion for learning all things sciency that have to do with nature (an affinity that I share), and that he's spent a lot of time in Hawaii.
I recommend that you give this book more than the customary 10 pages I usually suggest. It does get better after the info dumps ebb, and the plot is almost magnetic, making you wonder what could conceivably happen next and how they can possibly get out of the situation they're in.
Parents: There is graphic gun violence inside. Two instances jump out at me, both of which are reflected upon by Leilani later. It's appropriate for the kind of book this is, but as always, know your child and how this will affect them. There is also a scene where Leilani and her dad get high on a local plant they find in the jungle. They use an empty tuna can to smoke it. That high leads Leilani to her discovery and then segways straight into the sci-fi twist, so it's integral.