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 18.3.
Concerned that my opinion of Adrian Chamberlain’s Facespace was biased by my age and gender, I gave the novel to my daughter’s grade 8 classmate—let’s call him Lucas—to read. Lucas, a remarkably articulate critical thinker for a twelve year old, not only validated my position, but shared his own opinions regarding the actions of the novel’s protagonist, Danny.
I begin by not liking stories that are based on dishonesty, unless they are handled extremely well and to good purpose. While Chamberlain’s intent is obviously not only valid but important—to teach readers the necessity for honesty and integrity in their social media interactions—I felt that the delivery was lacking to such an extent that young readers would not engage with the message. To begin with, there is no legal reason, as far as I know, for not calling “FaceSpace” either MySpace or Facebook, which it is obviously based on. Young readers like veracity in their novels; they like to see what they know to be real, not a fictional representation of something as central to their lives as social media sites, when there is no reason to avoid that verisimilitude. And—as Lucas points out—such social media sites, regardless of what one titles them—are international. Danny’s British “friend” James would have had numerous British FaceSpace friends, had he been real, and no high school student would miss that oversight… but that is getting into the plot, which I have not explained.
The premise is that young Danny is unpopular, and longs—as many young teens do—to belong. He invents a British “friend” on his social media site, one who is as popular as he wants to be himself. His experiment is a success, until he is discovered. There is a subplot in which Danny takes images of his popular best friend and alters them in Photoshop into unattractive and even grotesque images, reposting them anonymously. His friend is extremely upset, but Danny never owns up to his authorship of the images, which is a problem, as this situation is never resolved. The most significant obstacle to enjoyment of this novel—for me—lay in the character of Danny, who is implausibly naïve and more, well, stupid, than readers would believe themselves or any of their friends to be. Lucas agreed, noting that Danny “seemed to jump into trouble almost willingly,” and that his actions “seemed like a sequence of convenient and unconnected events rather than a narrative flow” (his words: honestly). Even as part of the Orca Current series, which is designed to have an easier reading level, I feel that FaceSpace fails to engage: it feels far too much like a character like Danny would not exist, and if he did, we would have little sympathy for him.
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 18.1.
Coming Clean is more edgy than many of the Orca Soundings novels, even given their intent as “short high-interest novels with contemporary themes, written expressly for teens reading below grade level” (Orca website). The protagonist, Rob, finally lands a gig as DJ at the local club, but things go horribly wrong when a girl from his class—to whom he has been attracted but to no avail—is found dead behind the sound system at the end of his shift. His brother—with whom he has a complicate and not always positive relationship—is involved in the drug scene that caused her death, and Rob must decide what to do as an innocent yet not uninvolved party. The choices he makes are completely understandable, but not necessarily those that all young people would make. Jeff Ross provides his readers with a scenario that causes them to think “what would I do in this situation?” The answers—as both Rob and the reader soon realize—are neither obvious nor easy.
Ultimately, the choices Rob makes are the right ones… but they do not come without a cost. Readers will appreciate the ethical dilemma he has to struggle with, and his ultimate decisions, whether or not his choices are the same as they might have made. Good literature gives rise to such questioning in the readers: while short, and simply written, Coming Clean counts as extremely effective literature.
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 18.2
“A Cautionary Tale for Young Divas” is how I would subtitle Wren Handman’s Last Cut. The protagonist—16-year-old Caitlin—is carefully crafted as a self-interested aspiring actress with talent, and serious attitude. Initially, I wondered whether young readers would continue with the book; there are perhaps too many subtle clues of Caitlin’s real nature for readers to like her. Maybe that’s not necessary, though, for all readers. Those who persevere with the novel will be rewarded with an intimate glimpse into the dangerous and damaging problems into which naïve hubris can lead one.
Overly sure of her acting ability, Caitlin tries out for—and lands—a role in a “professional” movie. To take part, she has to skip school, which requires lying to her parents. She also has to be 18, which requires lying on her contract… which she doesn’t read anyhow. In telling her friends about the audition, she lies that “they totally loved me … they even asked me to stay for, like, a second audition afterwards that they only give to the people they really want to see” (31). My patience with Caitlin by this point was growing thin, but my respect for Handman’s authorial abilities was increasing. I may not like Caitlin, but I have to admit that she and her friends seem very much like high school girls I know, with the same relationships, the same catty games, the same petty jealousies, well expressed. When Caitlin surfaces from her work to attend a party, her friends Hannah and Suzanne are overjoyed to see her; her response is telling: “they’re overdoing it just enough that I can tell they don’t mean it. I mean, it isn’t that they’re not happy to see me. It’s just that they know they hurt my feelings on Wednesday, so now they’re overcompensating to try to make me feel good. They’re acting so excited to see me that it really feels fake, and I have a hard time mustering any enthusiasm” (89). The relationship between honesty, sincerity, acting, and artifice finally comes home to Caitlin, but it is too late: in the end she learns a hard lesson, and has gambled away most of what she thought she had for a dream of stardom that was doomed at the outset by her own dishonesty.
My one real reservation about the novel lies in where we are left. Topless photos of a Caitlin, aged 16, are circulated by the movie’s publicity people before her age is discovered. The severity of this situation is earlier alluded to by the casting director—before we know any photos have been released—but we are left with no indication of what this ultimately will mean for Caitlin, for her family, or for the movie producers. Child pornography is a very serious issue, and it feels like Last Cut trivializes the situation by leaving it unresolved. The final scene exacerbates the problem; Caitlin’s boyfriend is angry enough to leave her, telling her that her concerns are pointless, that “the whole world doesn’t revolve around you” (141), when in fact her concern is at least partially founded on the fact that her stupidity has caused considerable legal problems—perhaps criminal prosecution—for the movie producers who gave her a chance. Perhaps the teen reader will not care, but personally prefer to have real-world legal problems not left hanging. The criminal justice system within which Handman—as a realist author—is writing provides many possible answers: it would be nice if we were told which Handman envisions for her characters.
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 18.1
Orca Soundings books are becoming increasingly more interesting and poignant. Dead Run begins in media res, with the protagonist surging forth from a stoplight, set on winning a cycling race that afternoon. Immediately, we are wrapped up in Sam’s life, his expectations, his dreams. The story is written in the first-person present tense, which contributes significantly to our feeling of involvement in Sam’s life. Sam’s life, however, is not going so very well. Despite his obvious abilities as a cyclist, he is part of a team whose leader does not give him any chance of success. When his youthful impatience causes him to be kicked off the team, his hopes are shattered. Then an apparent rival, impressed with his abilities, hands him hope in the form of an introduction to Viktor: previous Russian Olympic gold medallist, now a refugee and owner of a cycle courier business. Sam not only learns from Viktor, but ultimately becomes involved in his business in way that he suspects is not quite legitimate… but like Viktor’s pride in his business, Sam’s desire for cycling stardom gets in the way of his sense of right and wrong.
Sam’s story is one that most young people will be able to relate to. Sean Rodman has created characters and a situation that are both intriguing and yet believable. The moral lesson he learns is not specific to his situation, but an essential consideration of honour or cultivated blindness to what one knows—or at least strongly suspects—is wrong. As Viktor says, “Sometimes you want something so badly that you make yourself blind. To reality. To the truth. You trade away your honor. Your freedom” (101). In the end, Viktor and Sam make it right, but only at significant expense to themselves. This is as it should be, Rodman is careful to portray: if you break the law, or even a moral code, you must pay a penalty. The penalty Sam pays is fitting, as is Viktor’s, and the reader comes away feeling that not only has justice been served, but that Sam has become a stronger, better person for his experience. Not all tales of youth involvement in crime are so honest and yet so ultimately hopeful; Rodman has given us a story that is powerful and effective—I hope that all young teens have an opportunity to learn the lesson he gives us.
Parallel Visions was available for only 99¢ on a website for ebooks, which seems rather odd, as many cheap or free ebooks are, to be candid, complete trash. I found Cheryl Rainfield’s Hunted to be a gripping story of trial and compassion, so I was interested in what I might find from a cheap ebook by the same author. While Parallel Visions is shorter, at 96 pages, it is equally imbued with a sense of the power of human connection, of how love and compassion ground us within our realities, no matter how alternative those realities may seem.
In Parallel Visions, the protagonist, Kate, is asthmatic; not only that, but every time she has an asthma attack, she sees visions. These visions sometimes reveal the past, sometimes the present, and sometimes the future. It is the future visions that disturb Kate most, because whenever she tries to prevent injury to someone else, she is scoffed at, disbelieved, or worse, ultimately blamed when the horrible predictions in her vision comes true. Kate hates being “the sick kid” at school, and pushes herself harder than she should. When she is helped in an attack by the boy she likes from afar—Gil—she has a vision of both her sister and his: both in future trouble, both safe at the moment. Unlike others, Gil believes her. Together, Gil and Kate work to save their sisters, and in so doing build a relationship founded on trust (with, of course, the requisite amount of teenage romance). Kate ultimately brings on an asthma attack to learn more about what will happen to their sisters, and readers are asked to consider the cost of helping others: at what point is it more important to look after yourself? Is it worth risking your own life, knowingly, to save another’s? While Kate ultimately answers this question unequivocally, the narrative leaves room for consideration by the reader. Kate’s relationship with her family, and with Gil and his, teach her the value of her own life as part of an organic whole that is not only family, but community, and the greater world.
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 14.3.
Another modern interpretation of the Cinderella story, Broken presents us with Ash Perrault, whose refreshing adolescent voice teenage readers will be certain to identify with. Ash is being saddled with the requisite step-mother and two step-sisters, but ultimately learns that “step-” is not invariably preceded by “evil.” In fact, the “perfect” step-sister is not only socially supportive of Ash, but has issues of her own. Nonetheless, combined with normal adolescent angst fostered by Ash’s crush on the most popular boy in school, his ex-girlfriend’s antagonism, Ash’s best-friend’s lack of understanding, Ash’s life has become too complicated. On top of all this, glass has a nasty habit of shattering when she is around (hence the title…). If you can get past the marked similarities between Ash’s affliction and Roald Dahl’s Matilda’s power, and the parallel between her relationship with Mouse, her best friend, and Mia’s with Lily in the movie version of The Princess Diaries, the plot is sufficiently captivating. While there is no single element that stands out as earth-shatteringly original, Alyxandra Fitzhenry manages to combine aspects of many young, teenaged girls’ lives into a unique situation, lived by a unique character. She also manages to have an obvious amount of fun in creating her tale, lacing her insight into adolescents’ troubles with subtle and not-so-subtle intertextual allusions (the protagonist’s name, for example) to keep reader’s thinking of more than just the plot.
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 15.3.
It is refreshing to find a novel with a teenaged protagonist who is not overcome with angst. Claire, in Struck, deals with normal highschool concerns: failing math, an unrequited crush, drama tryouts, catty classmates… When she is apparently struck by lightning while carrying a mysteriously discovered umbrella, she attributes changes in her life to the jolt she received. The author does not actually verify what happened to Claire, but leaves readers to think about the possibility of our unvoiced desires manifesting themselves in reality. “Be careful what you wish for…” springs to Claire’s mind a number of times during the week of the narrative. Ultimately, Claire’s world falls back into place, and we are left with the suggestion that it is not the paranormal that drives changes in our lives, but the power within ourselves.
Ms. Loughead has created story that will resonate with middle school and early highschool students; the emotions are valid and authentic, but not overpowering. The mandate of the Orca Current series is to provide “short high-interest novels with contemporary themes, written expressly for middle-school students reading below grade level” (www.orcabook.com). In Struck, they have achieved this goal admirably.
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 17.1.
Stuff We All Get
Orca Currents has once again hit the mark with K. L. Denman’s Stuff We All Get. The mandate of the series is to provide interesting, mature content in a simple writing style, to engage older yet less-advanced readers. Stuff We All Get succeeds in this respect admirably.
Zack, the protagonist, has sound-colour synethsesia, a rare but fascinating condition that causes him to see colours when he hears sounds. Geocaching with his mother (in lieu of staying home while grounded), he finds a home-made CD of music that moves him both emotionally and visually. The conflict in the narrative centres on his struggling to find the artist on the CD (while still grounded) and the emotional growth involved in learning that expectation is not always satisfied by reality.
The conflicts Zack encounters are not earth-shattering or dramatic, but the real day-to-day struggles a teen recently moved to the small city of Penticton, British Columbia, might face (or in Zack’s case, create for himself). A suspension of disbelief is required in one pivotal scene, wherein Zack is fog-bound on the hillside above Skaha Lake at noon; once we get past this meteorological anomaly, the setting and plot come together in a very satisfying way. The most powerful element in the text, however, is undoubtedly the emotional honesty of the characters Denman creates. Despite the simplicity of the narrative, Zack could be a real person, and his responses to the situations he finds himself in resonate with authenticity.