Millhouse (2014), by Natale Ghent

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.

Ghent-MillhouseMillhouse tells the story of a naked guinea pig, caught in a life he did not choose, unappreciated by those around him, teased for being a misfit. Millhouse used to have a warm and welcoming home with a celebrated actor, but after Sir Roderick’s death, he ended up in a dusty, dreary pet shop. He yearned to return to his old life, to satisfy his thespian aspirations, to be appreciated again. The premise seems promising to those who appreciate stories of anthropomorphized animals, and can sympathize with Millhouse’s situation. Millhouse is an interesting character, and his over-dramatizing of his life is highly entertaining and appropriate to his self-conception as an actor. He is certainly the strongest character in the story; the other characters (even the assortment of animals in the shop) are similarly hyperbolic, and thus overtly stereotypic. There are the other, beautiful guinea pigs who deride Millhouse for his appearance, the crafty ferret who considers him (but not apparently the other animals) as a potential meal, the constantly reproduced baby wild mice who come to listen to Millhouse perform Shakespeare. The usual antics occur, with the escape-artist ferret attacking Millhouse, with Millhouse becoming depressed by the insinuation that the is intended only for scientific experiments, by Millhouse’s attempted escape to see Sir Peter Ustinov perform, and the final heart-warming conclusion that finally places him is a home. One problem I see is that Millhouse (like the ferret, but not the other animals) can easily escape his cage, yet doesn’t think to leave until the end. Another troubling element is that Millhouse is the only character with a name, rather like Franklin in the children’s cartoon (equally problematic in terms of children’s ability to identify with any of the supporting cast). Overall, the characters and story seem to limp along, either predictably or irrelevantly.

By far the best aspect of Millhouse is the author’s own illustrations, which in and of themselves justify the creation of a story to accompany them. Millhouse’s dramatic expressions, the ferret’s malicious sneers, the wild mouse Sargent’s military nobility, the adorable mice babies… Perhaps Natale Ghent’s unquestionable artistic ability would be better used in producing graphic novels for young readers; in Millhouse, she has created an almost-sufficient story in just the illustrations.

Better Nate Than Ever (2013), by Tim Federle

Federle-NateNate is a bit of a drama queen, but a drama queen with a hilariously sardonic sense of humour. In the backstory that he’d “rather not start with” (1), he admonishes the reader: “But I’m getting off track—you’re distracting me—and there’s a lot to do” (3). There certainly is a lot to tell. Nate sees himself as nothing special, as an over-weight, undersized target (“my first word was ‘Mama,’ and then ‘The other babies are teasing me’” [2]), but as usual he is selling himself short. Enough backstory: we are launched on page 3 into the drama that Nate’s life has become. With his best friend, Libby, running interference, Nate is running away from home: Running from Jankburg, Pennsylvania, to New York City. There’s a lot of running. But Nate knows he needs to be “back by tomorrow night” (3).

There is so much to Nate’s life that he brushes aside in his insecurity. It doesn’t help that he has a homophobic brother, an alcoholic mother, and a father who thinks music is for sissies. Hence the running away to New York, to audition for a part in E.T.: The Musical. He doesn’t have much of a plan, except knowing that his Aunt Heidi lives in New York, somewhere…

Author Tim Federle manages to create a believable, poignant balance amongst the troubles Nate encounters, the ways he manages to get out of them—given his youth and naïveté—and his unquenchable ability to see the humour in himself and in life around him. We are taken on a trip into New York, with its strange assortment of individuals, following Nate as he encounters a word that is unforgiving in some ways and yet accepting of difference. He meets his Aunt Heidi and her friends, and learns finally why it is that he has always been outside in small-town society. “What do you like about New York so much?” Heidi’s friend asks him. “Two boys were dancing together in a club… and nobody stopped them” (203) … but as in so many of his insightful observations, his words are only in his mind; he can never give voice to his clever observations, never articulate his feelings to the adults around him.

For Nate, after everything that happens, acting is still a passion—“To be part of this club! It’s intoxicating” (265)—but he has learned about much more than the auditioning process. He has learned that there are people in the world who accept him as he is. He overcomes his insecurity-induced silence spectacularly: “Sometimes,” he notes, having called a homophobic trick-or-treater by a well-earned epithet, “there is no greater act of adulthood than swearing in front of your own mother” (271).

Last Cut (2012), by Wren Handman

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 18.2

Last Cut

“A Cautionary Tale for Young Divas” is how I would subtitle Wren Handman’s Last Cut. The protagonist—16-year-old Caitlin—is carefully crafted as a self-interested aspiring actress with talent, and serious attitude. Initially, I wondered whether young readers would continue with the book; there are perhaps too many subtle clues of Caitlin’s real nature for readers to like her. Maybe that’s not necessary, though, for all readers. Those who persevere with the novel will be rewarded with an intimate glimpse into the dangerous and damaging problems into which naïve hubris can lead one.
Overly sure of her acting ability, Caitlin tries out for—and lands—a role in a “professional” movie. To take part, she has to skip school, which requires lying to her parents. She also has to be 18, which requires lying on her contract… which she doesn’t read anyhow.  In telling her friends about the audition, she lies that “they totally loved me … they even asked me to stay for, like, a second audition afterwards that they only give to the people they really want to see” (31). My patience with Caitlin by this point was growing thin, but my respect for Handman’s authorial abilities was increasing. I may not like Caitlin, but I have to admit that she and her friends seem very much like high school girls I know, with the same relationships, the same catty games, the same petty jealousies, well expressed.  When Caitlin surfaces from her work to attend a party, her friends Hannah and Suzanne are overjoyed to see her; her response is telling: “they’re overdoing it just enough that I can tell they don’t mean it. I mean, it isn’t that they’re not happy to see me. It’s just that they know they hurt my feelings on Wednesday, so now they’re overcompensating to try to make me feel good. They’re acting so excited to see me that it really feels fake, and I have a hard time mustering any enthusiasm” (89). The relationship between honesty, sincerity, acting, and artifice finally comes home to Caitlin, but it is too late: in the end she learns a hard lesson, and has gambled away most of what she thought she had for a dream of stardom that was doomed at the outset by her own dishonesty.
My one real reservation about the novel lies in where we are left. Topless photos of a Caitlin, aged 16, are circulated by the movie’s publicity people before her age is discovered. The severity of this situation is earlier alluded to by the casting director—before we know any photos have been released—but we are left with no indication of what this ultimately will mean for Caitlin, for her family, or for the movie producers. Child pornography is a very serious issue, and it feels like Last Cut trivializes the situation by leaving it unresolved. The final scene exacerbates the problem; Caitlin’s boyfriend is angry enough to leave her, telling her that her concerns are pointless, that “the whole world doesn’t revolve around you” (141), when in fact her concern is at least partially founded on the fact that her stupidity has caused considerable legal problems—perhaps criminal prosecution—for the movie producers who gave her a chance. Perhaps the teen reader will not care, but personally prefer to have real-world legal problems not left hanging. The criminal justice system within which Handman—as a realist author—is writing provides many possible answers: it would be nice if we were told which Handman envisions for her characters.

Molly’s Cue (2010), by Alison Acheson

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 16.1

Molly’s Cue

Molly’s Cue fills a niche in children’s literature similar to the one Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) fills for adults.  Like Emma, Molly has it all: she is confident, talented, and sure of her future.  Like Emma, Molly needs to learn to respect others for their abilities—more, less, or just different from her own—and to understand how she can best contribute to the world around her.  For Molly, this learning is painful, and takes most of her first year of highschool, the time-frame of the novel.  The superficial issue is drama, and its connection with Molly’s recently deceased grandmother, “Grand.”  When Molly learns the truth about Grand’s relationship to theatre and the stage, her belief in her legacy of dramatic ability dissolves.  Her confidence shattered, she almost drops out of drama class.  With the help of her teacher, her best friend, Candace, and Candace’s new boyfriend, Molly rediscovers her artistic voice, and begins a journey into her future that readers will not only appreciate but possibly emulate.
Entwined with Molly’s negotiation of stagecraft, Acheson weaves the story of the adults in Molly’s life: her friend Candace’s pregnant, unmarried mother; Grand, who worshipped the stage but never performed on it; Molly’s widowed mother, supportive but strained by the demands of those around her; and Molly’s immature uncle “Early,” whose own need to grow up is instrumental in Molly’s budding recognition of her place in her family and her community.  The characters are heart-warmingly real; their troubles are expressed sympathetically, in a manner that is not overwhelmingly angst-inducing.  The balance Acheson has developed between affectionate emotional attachment and interpersonal conflict strongly resembled one of my favourite authors, Glen Huser; Molly’s Cue can sit beside Huser’s Touch of the Clown (1999) with pride in achieving a positive and strong voice for the artistic child reader to hear.