Bellamy and the Brute (2017), by Alicia Michaels

In Bellamy and the Brute, a popular, well-off high school senior is punished for his arrogant and entitled behaviour. Cursed by a disfiguring disease, he retreats into solitude in the upper floor of his family mansion. Enter Bellamy, who is hired as a summer babysitter for his younger siblings. Expressed this way, you can see how Alicia Michaels’s novel is in fact a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, even if the title weren’t so suggestive. But I have to admit that I had to actually think about the underlying teen-angst portion of the tale in order to draw the comparison. The story is so much more interesting than this superficial description leads one to believe, containing as it does murder, ghosts, political corruption, and familial conflict.

FBI Camilla Vasquez is on administrative leave pending a psychological evaluation. Her younger sister, Isabella, had been found dead in a hotel room, but Camilla refuses to believe it was suicide as claimed. It doesn’t surprise us when her brakes mysteriously fail and her car plunges over an embankment. It does surprise us when her spirit looks down on her dead body, takes the hand of her sister, and walks away from the accident. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me, but I was already so engaged with Camilla as an intelligent protagonist that I was shocked. I had forgotten that I was still reading the prologue. And Camilla, it turns out, is not the protagonist.

Bellamy McGuire is shunned by her schoolmates, teased because of both her scholarly aptitude and her father’s eccentricities. In the two years since his wife’s death Nate McGuire has been seeing ghosts, and the townsfolk consider him deranged, if not actually dangerous. This impacts the income from the family bookstore, so Bellamy takes a summer job as a babysitter for the Baldwin family to help out. Their generosity is curtailed by only one demand: do not go up to the third floor of the house.

Cue mysterious music…

It should be corny, but it isn’t. When Bellamy first sees the ghosts of Camilla and Isabella, she is (not surprisingly) terrified; the plot thickens when she discovers that Tate Baldwin, the disfigured eldest son of the house, can see them too. This revelation (again not surprisingly) draws the two together in a complicated relationship of antagonism mixed with empathy. As Bellamy and Tate begin to work together to unravel the mysterious connections between Tate’s illness and the ghosts’ demand of justice, their investigations lead them deep into a web of corruption ultimately implicates even members of Tate’s family.

Part of what makes this novel so successful is that readers really don’t know the extent of Tate’s family’s involvement in the plot that the two are uncovering. Even when we begin to see what really is going on, we are uncertain how various characters will respond; this unpredictability is an essential component of an effective mystery. As the story progresses, numerous mystery novel tropes can be easily envisioned, and we are not certain which direction Michaels will be taking us. To her credit, her choices do not cater to our narrative expectations.

Continuing this trend of upsetting our predictions, just when we think the threat is gone—the corruption is revealed and the perpetrators headed towards justice—Bellamy and Tate’s lives are knocked sideways by the almost-forgotten high school bullying that landed Tate in his mess in the first place. While the adult world of political corruption is presented as a more serious threat to life, the conflict between Tate and his ex-friend Lincoln has more tragic results. Again, Michaels does not give clues to where she is going to take us; we really believe that bad things can happen to good people. The two separate narratives parallel each other effectively; the explicit message in both is that we are all ultimately responsible for all of our choices, not only our actions. In spite of the rollercoaster ride, karma ultimately plays a strong role in this very griping mystery novel.

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Barracuda (2016), by Sigmund Brouwer

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.

Barracuda (2016)

brouwer-barracudaI 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.

A Boy Called Bat (2017), by Elana K. Arnold

arnold-bayBixby Alexander Tam (aka BAT, for more than just the obvious reason) finds navigating life a bit difficult. When we are introduced to him, he is in a conundrum: he wants a snack, but has to have the fridge open to find one, but hates having the fridge open because that wastes energy. To top it all off, there is no food there to eat… which is to say that there are no vanilla yoghurts left, and he won’t eat the yoghurts with the fruit chunks on the bottom. Well, I mean, who would, right? It is a scene from our household, but apparently not everyone’s.

There’s not much action in A Boy Called Bat, but that really isn’t the point. What the novel lacks in excitement it more than makes up for in depth of understanding and characterization. The little ways that Bat responds to his world—his unique way of sorting his room; his sensitivity to smells and sounds, unless he is fascinated by something else; his inability to understand what others sometimes mean; his frustration when he knows he is not understanding—are really the essence. I wonder to what degree readers who do not have first-hand experience of children who refuse to eat mushrooms but want mushroom-flavoured ramen, or cannot focus on math but will spend hours learning the names of dinosaurs, understand what is going on in Bat’s world. At what point in the narrative do all of the little clues coalesce into understanding? Is it the opening confrontation with his sister Janie over the yoghurt? Or when he makes his mother reset the trip meter for each trip to school? Or when he “ran through the list of things he was supposed to remember to say to people?” (96)? Or when his father makes chili?

Bat didn’t like chili. Dad knew he didn’t like it. Bat didn’t like mushy foods. Except for oatmeal with brown sugar. [Which isn’t the same as mushy legumes: duh.]
“I don’t like chili,” Bat said.
“Maybe you’ll like it tonight,” Dad said. “I tried a new recipe.” (70-71)

I almost cried: his father—who of all people should—doesn’t understand that texture, not taste, is the issue. How can we expect outsiders to get it? Bat marches to the beat of a different bagpipe.

Bat is not autistic in the same way as Christopher in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003), but Elana K. Arnold’s technique of letting us see the world through Bat’s eyes, rather than telling us what is going on for him, echoes the effectiveness of Haddon’s classic narrative. I’m not sure that young readers on their own would necessarily understand why Bat is different (the text is aimed at about a grade 3-5 audience). If they recognize Bat’s characteristics in some of their classmates, having seen the world through Bat’s eyes will help them empathize in a way that Bat is only himself learning to do.

The Blackthorne Key (2015), by Kevin Sands

I was discussing Kevin Sand’s The Blackthorne Key, which won the John Spray Mystery Award for 2016, with a friend, who thought that it was a little bit predictable. No (she thought a bit about it)… it was just that perhaps the protagonist, Christopher, should have figured things out more quickly, given his purported intelligence. I had to ponder why I didn’t have this same criticism, because when she pointed out some examples, her position made sense. But I didn’t have that response: I was so immersed in the novel, so convinced by the characters and intrigued by the plot, that no criticisms had the space to rear their ugly heads. In teaching rhetoric, I tell my students: “If as an author you make a mistake, and your reader notices, you will have lost them. So don’t make a mistake.” As far as I could tell as I read The Blackthorne Key, Kevin Sands makes no mistakes: I was enthralled from start to finish.

Sands really does understand his setting. Christopher, his friend Tom, even his master Benedict Blackthorne and the other apothecaries, do not sport modern sensibilities lurking beneath the narrative trappings of the seventeenth century; their characters are, rather, consistent with a world in which the boundaries between science and faith and magic are blurred. Christopher, for all his innate intelligence, is still a young boy at the same time as he approaches manhood: his youthful exuberance hatches the (illegal but oh-so-much-fun) plan to build a cannon; his intelligence gives him the means to do so; his lack of experience results in his blowing up the stuffed bear in his master’s apothecary shop. By the end of the novel, though, as he is thrust into the adult world, he has gained a maturity far beyond either his earlier self or the middle-school readers the novel is aimed at.

In the case of the bear, as throughout the novel, Sands creates a balance between authenticity and reality: Christopher is not beaten for his exploits, but we are let know in no uncertain terms that others in his position would have been. Benedict Blackthorne is presented as a reasonable, intelligent master, who values Christopher’s sharp mind, even as he strictly controls his activities. As the novel progresses, though, and Christopher and Tom are pulled into the shady dealings of the apothecaries’ guild, we—as much as they—are uncertain where Blackthorne’s loyalties really lie. The plot is sufficiently complicated, the events sufficiently believable within Sands’s carefully constructed temporal and social setting; questions the reader might have about Christopher’s world are all ultimately answered, and we are left satisfied.

What really engaged me first as a reader, though, is Sands’s sense of humour, slightly sarcastic narrative voice, and clever word play. Christopher narrates the story with language that melds a sense of the period (1665) with a typically boyish irreverence and delight in really bad ideas. When Tom comments that “people can’t just build cannons,” Christopher responds: “But that’s where cannons come from: People build them. You think God sends cannons down from heaven?” And he later laments, “I wished God’s warnings would be a little clearer. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard for the Almighty to write STOP STEALING STICKY BUNS in the clouds or something.”

Throughout the novel, I grew more and more fond of Christopher; as he gains knowledge and maturity, he loses nothing of his boyish charm. The Blackthorne Key introduces us to Christopher; his story continues in The Blackthorne Key: The Mark of the Plague. Happily, though, The Blackthorne Key is completely self-contained; we do not need to read the second book, but I, for one, certainly will.