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 22.1.
I first met Jim Webb in Sigmund Brouwer’s contributions to Orca publisher’s Seven series (The Devil’s Pass, 2012) and the Sevens Sequels (Tin Soldier, 2014). Of all of the Sevens, I liked Webb the best; Brouwer brings the troubled Webb to life in a way that grabs the reader and pulls them in. As a teenager, Webb has a deep affinity for music and a guitar gifted to him by his dead father. He explores this musical talent not only in the Sevens books, but in two of Orca’s Limelight novels (Rock the Boat, 2015, and Billboard Express, coming in October 2016): shorter novels incorporating teens’ experiences of the performing arts. Brouwer, himself a musician and lecturer on the power of music as an educational tool, includes on his website a music video of an older Webb busking; the actor in the video is remarkably well-cast for Webb as we know him in The Devil’s Pass and Tin Soldier. An accompanying webpage devoted to Barracuda is promised; hopefully it will be live by the time Barracuda is released.
In Barracuda, a prequel to the other novels, we get a glimpse of Webb at thirteen, vacationing with his grandfather in the Florida keys. Webb, as a character, is almost as engaging in Barracuda as in the novels for older readers, and it is enriching to be privy to his relationship with a living David McLean, the grandfather he loved, and who left him the legacy of mystery explored in the two later books.
Barracuda melds the song by the 1970’s group Heart with Webb’s experience in the Keys, where he meets his grandfather’s dying friend and an entrancing young musician named Kristie. Needless to say, Kristie turns out to be the metaphoric barracuda, pumping Webb about the fortune in diamonds David’s friend had apparently hidden in his past. The Florida Keys, pirate treasure, fellow young musicians, Webb’s first kiss, all combine to allure; in contrast, Webb has to visit a dying man—reminding him of his father’s death—and be coerced unwillingly into deep discussions with his grandfather. “I didn’t know this trip was about getting me alone so you could grill me about my life,” Webb complains (19), but David’s obvious affection and Webb’s love and respect for him open the channels of communication. Spring Break for Webb isn’t feeling much like a vacation—there is too much going on, emotionally and socially—but the mystery of the lost diamonds provides a respite from the tensions for both Webb and the reader.
While some of the narration seems a bit trite (unlike Brouwer’s writing for older teens), the balance between the development of Webb’s newfound maturity and the dangers of the more quickly paced mystery is finely crafted. Webb’s discussions with David—and the context for such discussions—are genuine, as are the mixed feelings Webb has for the ultimately deceptive Kristie. You can see from Webb and David in Barracuda the foundation of Webb’s sorrow at David’s death, and the source of the loving memories he has of his grandfather.