The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B (2012), by Teresa Toten

Teresa Toten’s Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature, strikes close to home. I bought it in paperback when it first came out, and Teresa was at Granville Island presenting with Eric Walters. I was anticipating with excitement talking to Teresa, with whom I was Facebook friends, at the end of the presentation, but it was not to be. I had received a call from my daughter’s school, and had to run; she had just switched meds, and they needed me to come. Teresa signed the book to my daughter as I ran out the door.

More than that, though, I discovered early in the novel how insidious my own (mild) OCD is. (I’ve been told by the professionals, though, that it is only “D” if it gets in the way of living a meaningful life… so I’ve got this.) Still, the first time Adam contemplates numbers, my mind grabbed on and wouldn’t let go. Prime numbers are particularly wonderful; it’s true. And 51. I love 51. It’s not prime, but it is in fact the product of 17 (my favourite prime number) and 3 (another number I love). Also 7. Seven is great. And 151 because of the symmetry. Six is probably the worst number, though, and is bright red. Three, on the other hand, is a gentle green and 7 fluctuates between icy and vibrant blue. Letters, too: B is a nasty tawny yellow. But perhaps I am revealing too much weird…

Still, you can see how Adam’s character resonates. Teresa Toten’s novel enables readers to begin to understand how deeply traumatic it can be when innate neurodiversity is compounded by puberty and exacerbated by familial difficulties. Adam walks a tightrope, suspended by his mental acrobatics over an ocean of uncertainty, excessive responsibility, and self-recrimination.

When Adam’s counsellor, Chuck, suggests that his therapy Group take superhero names to help them feel empowered, Adam chooses “Batman,” partner to the new girl Robyn’s obvious choice of “Robin,” “like the … well, you know.”

 … And even though he had never noticed girls before, not at all—okay a bit and sort of, but not really—Adam knew he had to save her, must save her, or die trying. For her, Adam would be and could be normal and fearless. He so wanted to be fearless. He could do it. He would be her superhero. … “Batman,” he said in a strong, clear voice. Adam Spencer Ross would be her Batman.

As Adam and Robyn grow closer, the complex dynamics of the therapy Group and his two-family life weave together with his insecurities, his sense of guilt, and his embarrassment regarding his OCD. Adam becomes more and more Robyn’s Batman, but he begins to drown in the overwhelming responsibilities both that he takes on and that others thrust upon him. His mother struggles with her own mental health issues, and Adam refuses to betray her confidence, certain that if he tries to get her help, he will be taken away from her and sent to live with his father. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except it would be abandoning his mother, who needs him: “His mother was fierce. Until she wasn’t.” His father’s home, in contrast, is neat and structured — but Adam is often the only person who can calm his five-year-old half-brother, who tends towards OCD himself. To top it all off, someone is sending vile anonymous notes to his mother, which she tries unsuccessfully to hide from Adam. It all becomes just. too. much. Something has to give.

Part of the answer is Adam’s growing maturity and greater engagement with the world around him.

Adam wasn’t sure why  he was getting these blinding little insights, but lately he’d started to notice the world around him a bit more. Just how much Chuck, Brenda [his step-mother] and his father had to put up with. Adam noticed it and it sucked that he noticed.
It was hard enough when he didn’t notice.

This growing awareness also enables him to take on some of the truths people around him are seeing:

“Yeah,” said Snooki. “Like, you are so here for everyone in here, all the time. I don’t think it even registers with you how much you carry. You worry about too many people, like your mom, and your fat friend, and your little brother, and“—she shot Robyn a look—”and God only knows who else. Cut yourself some slack, Batman.” …

“No crap, man. Too much is too much.” Iron Man was shaking his head.

Robyn’s rather snark reiteration of Snooki’s opinion reinforces the message:

You know you can’t save everybody, right? … It’s part of your problem, like Snooki was saying as she was gripping your knee. Once in a while, even that over-toasted airhead stumbles onto something. … You just have to save the world, don’t you. … But really, my very own Batman, you’ve got to let go of all those distractions, all those extra worries, and concentrate on yourself.

And most importantly for both Adam and the arch of the novel, their neighbour Mrs. Polanski delivers the sage advice that “It’s the really hard part of growing up—knowing when to leave.” So when Adam notices how well Robyn is recovering, he makes a truly heroic gesture:

“This—we, us—is not good for you, Robyn. … I need to concentrate only on me. I’m falling apart, Robyn. You can’t save me. You’re making it worse.” Everybody lies.

This is a pivotal  moment for Adam’s psychological growth; and what follows is the pivotal moment in the plot of the novel, but saying more would involve unwelcome spoilers. Adam’s small act of extreme courage sets the stage for recovery, and at the end of the novel we have no doubt that he will eventually move towards, not normalcy (“normal is a dryer setting”) but an inner strength that enables him to find balance.

At one point, Chuck tells Adam that “OCD has a more neurobiological than a psychological basis, although one’s emotional environment is critical to the presentation.” In this, as in so much of the depiction of neurodiversity in the novel, Teresa Toten is powerfully honest. Finding the balance of focus between self and environment is hard, and with Adam we have an example of both the difficulties and a path forward.

You can read more about OCD on the Canadian Mental Health Association website.

Charlee LeBeau & The Gambler’s Promise (2019), by C.V. Gauthier

15 October 2020

Hopefully no unforgivable spoilers, but this review does involve plot summary.

Charlee LeBeau & the Gambler’s Promise promises to be one of a trilogy; Charlee LeBeau & the Salish Wind is due out February 2021. I can’t wait! Those of you who follow my blog will remember my rants about both series fiction and cliff-hangers. Charlee LeBeau, although the first in a yet-incomplete trilogy, still satisfies. C.V. Gauthier manages to leave the narrative in a place where her readers are both reassured and yet anxious to read on. This is a difficult balance to achieve.

Charlotte—Charlee—LeBeau is the daughter of a Métis ranch foreman in Sonoma, California, in the mid 1850s. Highly intelligent, she tutors the ranch-owner’s son—her best friend, Jake Miller—in mathematics. His interest lies more with governmental history and policy (which I am guessing will become significant later in the trilogy). Charlee’s affinity for numbers, on the other hand, is a life skill she draws on throughout this first novel.

Life on the ranch is complicated: both wonderful and fraught for a fourteen-year-old girl. While friends with Jake, as her father is with his, she is taunted by his younger step-sister, Bernadette, and denigrated by his step-mother. Her father and her surrogate mother, the African-American cook, Miss Molly, help to guide the headstrong, mercurial Charlee as she begins to experience the injustices of society: the injustice preventing her father from an open relationship with Miss Molly, the injustice of the power The Missus wields, the injustice of young Bernadette’s jealous taunts and lies. The situation between Charlee and the female Millers grows progressively worse, and when Charlee’s father is killed in an accident—trying to save Bernadette from being trampled—Charlee is left with little choice. No longer welcome on the ranch, bitter and angry at having her father taken from her, Charlee feels abandoned by all except Miss Molly. With few other options, despite misgivings, Charlee chooses to move to San Francisco with father’s brother, Uncle Jack, who promises her an education.

“Papa had no use for Uncle Jack. Going with him would mean leaving everything I’d ever known. … I fought to balance myself between opposite forces. Staying and leaving. Work and school. Grief and joy.” (122)

With the promise of an education, the knowledge of some personal funds from the sale of her father’s estate, and a generous gift from Mr. Miller, Charlee’s future does not seem all that bleak.

“Don’t like this one bit,” Miss Molly tells her, though, as she prepares to leave, “you going to the city with Mr. LeBeau. Don’t care he’s Luke’s kin. … I got a bad feeling, you going to San Francisco with him. I don’t like him one bit.” (142-43)

“That part made me nervous,” Charlee admits. “Miss Molly was usually right when she had one of her feelings.” (143)

At least we were warned.

The hardship of Charlee’s life in the city is thus, although harrowing, not unexpected. Here I think is where Gauthier’s sensibilities and writing ability really come to light. We are given a troubling yet honest glimpse into the dangerous, illicit world of the San Francisco docks in the 1850s, and the struggles Charlee has with a drunken gambler for an uncle; with hiding her gender, working as a stable-boy to feed herself when her uncle won’t; with the simple act of walking safely from their hovel of a room to the stables and back every day. The life of the docks was truly multicultural, and in the 1850s that meant prejudice and discrimination leading to conflict and abuse. The book’s strength is founded on more than just good research, though: Gauthier’s description is highly evocative, her narrative solid and convincing. The hierarchy of class and culture and race, the little details of characterization, give a richness to the narrative that makes the reader really feel the atmosphere of Charlee’s world. And her isolation. Despite that some people she encounters do help her—mostly the disenfranchised, like herself: the African Americans, the Chinese, other immigrants—Charlee has no one she can trust. Her final interaction with Tubby, the stable owner, shows how really alone she is. Despite her help with his accounts, and preventing him from signing a exploitative lease, she—and thus the reader—is honestly uncertain of her position when he comments that her uncle “forgot his niece when he blew town” (250). I’m not expressing well the power of that moment, when we think that Charlee has found a safe space, and her confidence is ripped away with her disguise. At her parting, Miss Molly had told Charlee: “You have trouble with Mr. LeBeau, you find Amos [her brother] straight away. Promise me you will” (143). In the end, finding Amos, Charlee’s only viable option, turns out to be not only complicated but dangerous. Seeking help from Jake, who she had located but been too proud to approach, she prepares to meet with Amos and beg to head north with him on the Salish Wind.

There is, of course, much more going on, much more that Charlee learns, including how to cheat at gambling, the use of gunpowder in fireworks, and the law governing mining shares in British Columbia. As she moves towards an uncertain future, we are confident that she has learned well, and will do well. The self-confidence developed through the hardships she has survived alone is complemented by the realization that her pride has made her more alone than she needed to be.

“Blame had never gotten me anywhere but into spirals of anger and frustration. No wonder Papa had wanted me to learn forgiveness. I finally understood why. I wasn’t quite ready for it, not totally. But I could see the top of its sail on my horizon.” (295)

I look greatly forward to seeing where the Salish Wind will take her.

The Awakening: The Darkest Powers #2 (2010), by Kelley Armstrong

11 April 2019

I’ve just finished re-reading The Awakening as part of my friend’s research project, and have to admit that with my review of The Reckoning when it was first published (2010), and my recent review of The Summoning (2010), I haven’t really a lot to say. Still, I thought I would share my few thoughts. They relate, not too surprisingly, to my perhaps overly strong opinions about trilogies and series fiction, expressed elsewhere.

The Darkest Powers is unequivocally a trilogy not a series, which is not an issue. The problem I have is that the author wrote the beginning chapters of the second book, The Awakening, as if it were a stand-alone part of a series and the reader would not have read The Summoning. Even with the not-so-subtle reminders of the plot and characters, The Awakening cannot stand alone. As you know, I am totally fine with that, but authors need to know what it is they are writing. It seems to me that Kelley Armstrong did know, and yet was convinced (by self or others) to cater to the still-current trend in teen fiction of needing a series to be open-ended, permitting publishers to continue (should they so desire) with a solid franchise (should the story turn out to be one). The existence of the three books in Darkness Rising and a number of intermediary stories and prequels that form the series, suggest that Armstrong had an intended, overarching narrative that has been hijacked by financial or other expediencies. I have absolutely no basis for my opinion, of course, except my discomfort with the texts as a set. I have yet to read Darkness Rising; that trilogy is next on my list, and I will let you know then whether my perception changes.

Aside from my concerns about genre, The Awakening is a strong continuation of Chloe and her friends’ story. Armstrong leads her characters through a maze (or three) of doubts about who to trust, what to do, where their strengths lie, how to navigate a world that they don’t understand. As they slowly learn about themselves and their beginnings as part of a paranormal experiment, the reader is left—as are they—with a sense of confusion and tension that is still strong at the conclusion. At the end of The Summoning, Chloe and Rae are captured; at the end of The Awakening, the players on Chloe’s team have changed; allies have been killed or turned; and we watch them surrender themselves to the care an adult who may or many not be safe to trust. Like the teens, we really hope that after all the betrayal and emotional pain they have suffered they are finally heading to a safe space. That hope is mitigated, though, by the knowledge that there is still one more book…

The Summoning: The Darkest Powers #1 (2008), by Kelley Armstrong

4 April 2019

I’ve promised to fill in a questionnaire about Kelley Armstrong’s The Summoning for a friend’s research project, so I set myself to reread the series (the questionnaire rather requires it). I remembered reviewing The Reckoning (2010) when it came out, and being gratifyingly surprised at how much I enjoyed the series, but I guess time had mellowed my recollections. Picking up The Summoning for a second time, I was again immediately sucked in to the powerful world of Chloe and her friends. Fortunately, I have a horrible memory for plot (hence the need to reread), so it was (mostly) all new the second time around. But equally enthralling. I read it through in one sitting, only rising for a Skype meeting in the afternoon and to make dinner in the evening. Almost reneged on that responsibility, actually.

All that I said about The Reckoning remains true (and please read it so I don’t have to repeat myself). Chloe and her friends and associates are very realistically drawn—for teens who have paranormal abilities—and their struggles translate easily into the lives of less “special” teens in the general North American population (even better, I would hazard to guess, for otherly-“special” teens in the general North American population).

We meet Chloe as a young child afraid to go down into the basement: not an unusual childhood fear. Chloe, though, is afraid because there really are ghosts, and they speak to her. Sometimes they are benign, but sometimes they are evil and malicious. Her trauma causes her parents to move, and she settles into a normal life. We meet her again as a teen on the cusp of adolescence. Her repressed memories come back as she crosses over that cusp (gets her period) and the ghost of a dead custodian at her school reaches out to her. Things go downhill from there, and Chloe ends up in a group home for a two-week diagnostic and therapeutic visit. She finds herself in a classic situation of emotional and psychological tension: is she crazy, schizophrenic, as she is told? Are the other teens crazy? Why are they here, and is she in danger from them? Who can she trust? By the end of the book, she still hasn’t answered that last question, although the answers to the first two have become clearer. She is not crazy: she is a necromancer; the ghosts cannot actually hurt her, despite her fear. This is a powerful realization, but not sufficient to keep her safe. She learns the stories of some of the other teens, but not all. And she really doesn’t know who to trust. And she gets it wrong.

Cue the end of the book.

This would be troubling if the second novel in the series (yes, thankfully, series, not trilogy, as stated on the cover of The Reckoning) were not available, but at this point, one can just read on (if Book #2, The Awakening (2010), weren’t out of the library as usual even now). And this time around, I will be able to carry on immediately reading the second series, Darkness Rising: The Gathering (2012), The Calling (2013), and The Rising (2014). In rereading my own earlier review I note that The Reckoning leaves the teens set up to take on the world as they know it. I can’t wait to see how that goes for them.