Dark Times (2006), edited by Ann Walsh

Walsh - Dark TimesI once write a chapter for a book about Robert Cormier, an author well known for his starkly realist novels for young adults. Cormier explained his novels’ popularity by stating readers “say I tell it like it is. This is the way life is, and they are tired of books where everyone walks off into the sunset together” (in Herbert Foerstel’s “Voices of Banned Authors,” in Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries (Westport, CN: Greenwood, 2002) 150). The collection of short stories in Dark Times strikes a similar note of stark realism, revealing a number of harsh incidents and situations that real teens in our world have to deal with every day. Dark Times, however (unlike Cormier’s more lengthy and troubling œuvre) contains glimmers of hope. The protagonists’ situations are not always alleviated; the adults don’t ride in on white horses to save them; there are not always happy endings and walking off into the sunset. That is not reality now, any more than it ever has been, but in these stories “as in real life, the darkness lifts” (Walsh 9). Ann Walsh has chosen stories that show readers the strength that young adults can have: perseverance and optimism even in the darkest of times.

I have to admit that I have never reviewed a collection of stories before, and I found it difficult. It seems impossible to address the collection as a whole, sufficiently, when each of the stories themselves is so rich in meaning. Dark Times comprises 13 stories, all dealing with some form of loss; each character’s loss is unique, however similar the feelings of grief can seem. In “Snow Angel” (Carolyn Pogue), adopting a cousin with fetal alcohol syndrome has a devastating effect on Mary’s family. In “The Canoe” (Lee Maracle), a son needs to restore his relationship with his distant father after the loss of his mother. In “All is Calm” (Ann Walsh), Katie struggles with her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, until one of the “popular” boys in her school shares his own story. In “Kick” (Betty Jane Hegerat), Justin has to find closure when the bully who taunted him dies. In “Sisters” (Sarah Ellis), the family complications of Charlotte’s “foster grandmother” are revealed at her death, helping Charlotte come to terms with her own sister’s desertion. In “Explaining Andrew” (Gina Rozon), James feels smothered as a “baby-sitter” for his brother Andrew, who suffers from schizophrenia. In “Cold Snap” (Diana Aspin), Cassie is filled with hatred when she discovers her father is having an affair. In “the sign for heaven” (Carrie Mac), Della learns to love a little girl she is teaching sign language to, only to lose her to pneumonia. In “A Few Words for My Brother (Alison Lohans), Hailey’s adopted brother, Devin, who has fetal alcohol syndrome, is responsible for the death of a friend and his other sister’s hospitalization. Hailey struggles to come to terms with her brother’s crimes and the guilt she feels for her sister’s injuries. In “Dear Family—” (Donna Gamache), Melinda reconnects with her estranged mother, who left to “find herself” as an artist in the wilds of BC. In “Dreams in a Pizza Box” (Libby Kennedy), a mother and her two daughters run from an abusive situation and end up on the streets. Struggling with illness, poverty, and homelessness, the mother does the best she can for her daughters, but in the end must leave them at a women’s shelter, where she hopes they can be cared for properly. In “Hang On” (Patricia McCowan), Kevin feels guilty when his dare-devil friend Randy ends up in a coma after a prank. The final story in the collection, “Balance Restored” (Jessi May Keller), takes us through the stages of grieving with Alexandra, whose boyfriend has died in a car crash she survived.

Together, these stories reveal a depth of human situations and responses that, taken all at once, could be overwhelming—rather like reading Robert Cormier’s novels one after the other, only (being short stories) somewhat less traumatic. Perhaps the best way to approach the collection would be to read one a day, and really think about what the story is saying. The messages are strong; each separate story—each separate voice—should be heard on its own.

Ethan (2013), by P. T. Michelle

Michelle-EthanA prequel to Brightest Kind of Darkness, Ethan gives us some of the back-story of how Ethan begins to form his connection to Nara. While the text itself gives only a short moment in Ethan’s life—from his arrival at Blue Ridge school until he meets Nara after the bomb threat—it contains glimmers of moments that help construct his self-knowledge much later in the series. P. T. Michelle obviously had the overarching narrative of her intricately constructed series well developed at this point. It was in rereading the series that I began to notice the subtle foreshadowing that Ethan contains, and saw that the more savvy of readers might not be as surprised as I was by the inklings of knowledge that Ethan and Nara use to build their understanding of the situation and their relationship.

Tag Team (2013), by W. C. Mack

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.2.

Mack-Tag TeamOwen and Russell are twins, but fraternal rather than identical. Still, they are the only set of twins in the school, and that makes them special: until the “Minnesota twins” (26) arrive. Marcus and Mitchell Matthews are “real twins” (12); their interest value as identical twins, as well as their athletic coordination as a two-person team, immediately raise Owen’s ire: “So, if the perfectly coordinated new transfer students were ‘real twins,’ what did that make us? Fake?” (13). Owen is a star on the Pioneers basketball team; Russell has his own space as an important member of the Masters of the Mind team. Owen and Russell’s world is further shaken when they discover that Marcus and Mitchell are not only athletic, but also top-grade students. While Owen struggles with his jealousy on the court, Russell tries to prevent the Matthews twins from being asked to join the Masters team. Watching Marcus and Mitchell, though, Russell begins to wonder if being an identical twin is actually better than what he and Owen share. When Mitchell—the kinder, more humble of the Matthew twins—is injured out of the game, Russell recruits him for the Masters team, convincing him with difficulty that it will be good for him to have an activity he doesn’t share with his brother. Helping Mitchell to stand up to Marcus and claim some psychological space for himself shows Russell the strength in his relationship with his own twin. Owen, too, comes to realize that he has very little to be jealous about, and all four twins learn that individuality does not preclude closeness, any more than similarities ensure it.

The plot is well structured, the characters interestingly portrayed and certainly consistent. The only thing that bothered me about this book is its overtly American setting and audience. Not that there is anything wrong with books set in the States, but readers who expect to be immersed in an educational setting they are familiar with will be disappointed. The boys play on the Lewis & Clark Pioneers team (obviously Portland); talk is all about American basketball teams and players; Owen’s jealousy over the Matthews’ “letterman jackets” (11) seems a particularly American preoccupation. The numerous little details are not sufficiently generic, and could easily alienate a Canadian reader—should that reader be expecting to see their school experiences reflected back from the pages.

Brightest Kind of Darkness (2011), by P. T. Michelle

Michelle-Brightest“… and I dreamed your dream for you, and now your dream is real…” (“Romeo and Juliet,” Dire Straits, 1980)

Nara and Ethan both struggle with unique paranormal abilities, but far from being merely part of the growing plethora of “paranormal YA fiction,” Brightest Kind of Darkness presents as a realist novel, in which Nara and Ethan struggle to find some normalcy, some balance between the world they live in and the powers that underlie humanity’s religions and mythologies—and are nonetheless very real. Every night, Nara dreams her following day; every time he touches someone, Ethan absorbs their negative thoughts. While Nara sees her ability as a boon, Ethan’s is the cause of emotional trauma that has alienated him from almost everyone he knows: until he meets Nara. The combination of their abilities fuels an attraction between the two teens that leads them not only into a firm relationship of trust and love, but also onto a path towards an understanding of why they are connected, and their roles what is commonly known as the supernatural realm.

Like The Discovery of Socket Greeny (2010), Brightest Kind of Darkness was offered for free online, a ploy used by many authors of series, as an attempt to get readers to purchase the following books in the series. I seldom purchase the second book, but every once in a while the teaser novel is so spectacularly engaging that I not only purchase the rest of the series, but anxiously await the release of the next installment. I now know how readers felt about Charles Dickens’s and Arthur Conan Doyle’s works… Desire, the fourth in Michelle’s series, is set to be released in April 2014, which I view as a marvellous opportunity to reread the series again…

It is in the little errors of detail that careless authors lose their audiences, and there are unfortunately far too many such authors out there these days. P. T. Michelle has constructed her narrative very carefully and completely. Brightest Kind of Darkness is internally consistent as an individual novel; even more,  the entire series (so far…) not only maintains that consistence, but loops back to subtle foreshadowing, causing readers to constantly hold the series—Michelle’s fictional world—in their minds.