High Note (2016), by Jeff Ross

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.

High Note (2016)

ross-high-noteHigh Note is part of Orca Publisher’s Limelight series, each novel of which presents a teen character experiencing life in the performing arts. In High Note, Hailey and her best friend Crissy are both contenders for an important role in the production of The Marriage of Figaro being staged at the Paterson Centre for the Performing Arts, which they both attend. This sets the stage for conflict and jealousy, competition that could be handled by the two girls in a number of ways. Hailey is essentially part of the opera group because Crissy asked her to join; she has other interests, although her singing abilities and love of music make opera her dream. For Crissy, on the other hand, opera is everything; she is driven to succeed, pushed by her mother, and has focused on little else in her schooling. As these truths unfold, we can see the direction the plot will take, yet still wonder how the girls will react. The tensions are palpable; the outcome remains uncertain until the end. Caught up in the backstage drama—Crissy championed by the famous Isabel Rosetti and Hailey by the rising star Denise Cambridge—the girls are shown first-hand the drama that rages behind the curtains. In solid narrative tradition, the choices that they make reveal their true characters, and readers are satisfied with the realistic ending Jeff Ross provides us.

High Note is told in Hailey’s voice, an excellent choice for explaining to the reader the intricacies of the operatic world. Hailey tells the reader the basic plot of The Marriage of Figaro much as if the reader were a classmate who had asked. This technique does not always work, but Hailey’s character is well-constructed, her narrative voice consistent, so that we really do feel that she is talking to us, not the author. We feel more keenly, then, the betrayal Hailey struggles to come to terms with, and her mature realization that one cannot be responsible for others’ choices and behaviours. In a world of stiff competition, Hailey learns, it is difficult but necessary to retain one’s integrity and sense of self above all else.

Homecoming (2014), by Diane Dakers

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 20.1.

Dakers -  HomecomingThe title Homecoming brings up images of The Waltons, and nostalgic Christmases surrounded by love and family. This is not 15-year-old Fiona Gardener’s experience of life. Far from it. The homecoming in her story is something she dreads: her father has just been released from prison, having been incarcerated for the rape of one of Fiona’s classmates, Morgan. Fiona is fairly certain he is innocent, but struggles to deal with her uncertainty, especially when validated by the behaviours of those around her. Deemed a social pariah when her father was first charged, then again during his trial, Fiona dreads his return and the accompanying notoriety it brings.

Diane Dakers deals sensitively with the complicated emotional space that Fiona finds herself in, but also the awkwardness of those around her: her mother, her aunts and uncles, her father’s friends… people who tell her that “your father didn’t do what he was accused of doing” (20), but nonetheless walk on eggshells in his presence. Her friend Lauren is forbidden to come over; the bullies at school warn her that her father “will be looking for another playmate” (27); and the school social worker is explicit in telling Fiona what to do if she “ever feel[s] scared or threatened” by her father (35). It’s therefore not surprising that Fiona accepts the dubious friendship of Charley, a grade-twelve girl from the “hard-core crowd” (50). This friendship, again unsurprisingly, leads Fiona somewhat astray, but Dakers does not let her slip out of character: she knows what she is doing is wrong, that her parents will not approve, and yet she goes: rebellious, but also guilty and conflicted. When she is asked to trick a host’s step-father into giving them some alcohol, and resists the request, her “friends” tell her it is easy: if he is being difficult, just “pull a Morgan” (101). The pieces of the puzzle fall into place; her suspicions are confirmed. Her doubts dissolve and her new-found certainty gives her the strength to stand up and speak out. The fall-out is as expected: Fiona is “seriously grounded” (104), but content at having released her father from the social stigma that hounded him.

Hexed (2014), by Michelle Krys

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 20.1.

Krys - HexedYou’ve got to love a book that disses Twilight not once, but twice. That being said, there are myriad other reasons for reading Michelle Krys’s Hexed, not the least of which is Krys’s engaging characterization and willingness to subvert narrative expectations.

Indigo Blackwood is having a rotten day. Her best friend, Bianca, is being a hag (in the colloquial rather than supernatural sense); her undesirable neighbour, Paige, successfully corners her for a ride (which seriously infringes on Indigo’s cool factor); and a body lands in front of her car as she drives home. What is most disturbing, though, is that the dead man was holding a paper inscribed with Indigo’s mother’s Wicca shop address.

Enter Bishop: previously dead, seemingly stalking Indie, overflowing with sarcasm, yet apparently necessary in Indie’s quest for answers. Indie’s mother is almost paranoid about protecting her “Bible,” properly titled The Witch Hunter’s Bible. When she is accosted, and the Bible goes missing, Indie swears she will get it back and sets out to find Bishop, whom she knows is somehow connected. Instead, he finds her, and insinuates himself into her life, revealing to her the world of magic to which he—and Indie, it turns out—belongs. Magical stuff happens. I can say no more than this without spoilers; suffice it to say that lurking within the events that ensue are moments in which the reader’s expectations are—sometimes violently—disrupted. Krys manages nonetheless to retain her readers’ loyalty; her writing inspires readers’ trust in a way that is necessary to carry us through the rough patches. The one narrative expectation that is not subverted is our desire for an at-least-somewhat-happy ending.

The dénouement, though, is the one moment that disturbed me. I felt betrayed. Hexed contains an epilogue, three pages in length, which reveals the central conflict of the as-yet-untitled sequel. Why was this necessary? It is almost as if the publisher needed a hook to lure readers into purchasing the next installment… But Hexed in and of itself contains a successful, cohesive narrative arc. There is a hint of where the story might go, and that is enough. Krys’s characters, her plot, her narrative voice all engage the reader successfully: we want to stay in her world. The attempt to trick readers into further engagement seems crass and manipulative, when the story inspires reader loyalty on its own merits.

A Hole in My Heart (2014), by Rie Charles

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 19.5.

Charles-Hole

Nora will never be happy again. Her mother has recently died, and her father has moved her to Vancouver to be closer to her older sisters, who are studying nursing at St. Paul’s Hospital. The year is 1960, and Rie Charles has nailed the historical moment. My mother graduated from Pen High in 1957, and from St. Paul’s nursing program in 1960. She taught me the “special tight corners and pulling the bottom sheet so hard your fingers almost fall off” (18) that St. Paul’s demanded of their students (my husband still teases me about them…). Like Nora, I was condemned to wear “saddle shoes,” and hated every minute of it, standing out from other students who had more graceful shoes or cooler runners. The foods Nora’s family eats, the clothes they wear, the names of classes at school, the level or responsibility 12-year-old Nora is given babysitting: these all bring back vivid memories. Adults will recognize the historical accuracy, but it is harder to convey the 1960s ethos to young readers today. Charles does a fairly good job, but occasionally over-explains things to the reader. For example, Nora’s cousin Lizzy – in Vancouver for open heart surgery – gushes to Nora when they wake up one morning: “I bet that’s Mum making her special applesauce to go with her usual at-home Sunday morning pancakes” (112). The girls have grown up together in Penticton, and are best friends as well as cousins: Nora would already know intimately her Aunt Mary’s special Sunday breakfast. Nora’s father tells her that he and Nora’s mother “both grew up just up the road from Penticton, in Summerland” (98), but anyone from the Okanagan (which Nora of course was) would know where Summerland is. Other things, too, like the complete elision of the Catholicism of St. Paul’s, or Nora checking the front step for milk in the evening rather than the morning, sit awkwardly with Charles’s poignant presentation of the internal struggles Nora goes through as her family grieves for their mother and worries about Lizzie’s upcoming surgery for Tetralogy of Fallot (“blue baby” syndrome), an experimental procedure at the time.

In the late 1950s, St. Paul’s was a significant player in the nascent field of pulmonary surgery research, one of the few non-university hospitals with a cardiac catheterization lab. As such, St. Paul’s was the site of a number of successful open-heart surgeries, the first performed in 1960 on a 12-year-old girl from Kelowna. It is not clear whether or not this historical moment was the impetus for Charles’s plot. Being able to link such an emotionally successful story with an actual historical incident would increase the power of the narrative, but there are almost certainly social or legal implications in telling the story of someone who is still living… Still, the parallels are real (for example, Lizzie is not the first such patient) and lend veracity to the overall narrative. Nora and Lizzie share a special bond, a friendship that helps them both to weather the uncertainty of Lizzie’s operation at a time when there was a real recognition that she could as easily die as live. This is the strength of A Hole in My Heart: the human players in this drama are honestly drawn and emotionally consistent. Despite the uneven historicity, the difficulties and ultimate success of Nora’s navigating her challenging, constantly changing adolescence make this novel well worth reading.