Bellamy and the Beast (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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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.

Whatever (2013), by Ann Walsh: Resource Links review

This review was 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 19.2. I have previously reviewed this novel on my blog, as it was so good I did not want to wait to share it with my readers. This is the first-written but second-published review.

Whatever

Walsh-Whatever“Whatever”: one of the most annoyingly dismissive epithets known to the adult world. Ann Walsh encapsulates the attitudes of surly teenhood admirably in the open pages of her novel. Darrah is angry; she feels neglected; to a large extent she is neglected. Readers thus understand completely the feelings that drive her to pull a fire alarm in the hospital where her younger brother is taken—yet again—by her excessively protective mother after an epileptic seizure. Once again, Darrah and her needs are subsumed in her parents’ concern for Andrew, and this time Darrah misses an important audition for a community play.

What follows is an intimate look at Restorative Justice, a program instituted in British Columbia in 2010 in which minor offenders who show remorse for their actions are given the opportunity for reparation in a meaningful way within their community. When Darrah is sent to assist Mrs. Johnson, who broke her leg in the fiasco that Darrah caused at the hospital, we are introduced to a curmudgeonly old lady with a strong will, strong opinions, and a deep, seldom-expressed sympathy for Darrah’s situation. Working with “Mrs. J,” Darrah not only learns some essential life skills—from cooking to compassion—but also finds a happiness that was missing from her family’s overly busy lifestyle.

This sounds relatively predictable as a plot, but Walsh’s characters—functioning within recognizable familial and social structures—are complex and deeply nuanced. We feel empathy for Darrah, experiencing her anger, her doubts, her pride, her joy, and ultimately her sorrow. For teens struggling with difficulties of all types—familial, legal, emotional—Darrah’s story provides solace through identification; I cannot recommend this novel strongly enough.

A Follow-Up Activity Guide is also available for Whatever from Ronsdale Press, Vancouver, BC.

Caught in the Act (2013), by Deb Loughhead

Loughead-CaughtThis 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 19.1.

The Orca Currents series serves a very necessary function in the literary world: adolescents who for whatever reason are not keen on reading are presented with interesting stories that speak to their real lived experiences, with characters in whom they will recognize themselves and their friends—or enemies. Deb Loughead’s Caught in the Act is a fabulous addition to the Orca Current library, with characters who speak and act like the teenagers who hang out in our upstairs TV room, or inhale all the food from our fridge as they walk out the door.

Dylan and his friends have an end-of-the-school-year ritual: they sneak out into the woods and burn all their school notes in glorious, but unfortunately careless, abandonment. You can imagine how that goes wrong. That is only the beginning of Dylan being in the wrong place at the wrong time, compounding his troubles by some of the choices he makes. Notably, he does not “rat” on the school bully, who he suspects of stealing from local summer cottages, out of fear of retaliation. Given his earlier transgressions, the police suspect him. His claim of innocence is not helped by his clothing (which disappeared while he and his friends were skinny-dipping) being found near the scene. When he discovers who the actual thief might be, he again doesn’t tell, because it might jeopardize his new job. We watch him struggle with when to tell what to whom, wondering all the time what he will decide and where it will leave him. Loughead constructs her characters carefully enough that we cannot predict Dylan’s decisions any more than adults could a real teen. Through it all, we really like Dylan, despite cringing over some of his choices, and are relieved at the end when all comes out well. It is to Loughead’s credit that while narrative expectations led us to expect a satisfactory ending, Dylan’s story in no way ensures one.