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.

Cursed by a Sea God: Odyssey of a Slave, Book II (2013), by Patrick Bowman

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 18.4.

Cursed by the Sea God

Bowman-Sea GodI have been waiting for the next installment of Patrick Bowman’s Odyssey of a Slave ever since I finished the first book, Torn from Troy (2011). Cursed by a Sea God did not in any way disappoint. Torn from Troy is a retelling of Book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus begins to recount the ten years since his departure from Troy after its conquest: he tells of their encounters with the Cicones, the Lotus-eaters, and the Cyclops. In Cursed by the Sea God, the Trojan protagonist, Alexias, commonly known as Alexi, continues his journey as a slave on Odysseus’s boat, the Pelagios. After their dramatic escape from the Cyclops at the end of Torn from Troy, the Greek soldiers and sailors, and their Trojan slaves, find themselves in a land where the king has harnessed the winds—he thinks… but the winds have become powerful, and his erstwhile reasonable punishments have been resulting in his peoples’ deaths. Alexi’s outspoken nature again serves him well; with his help, Odysseus reveals the truth to the King, who grants them the powers of the wind to sail to their home in Ithaca. Bowman’s subtle humour comes into play, when King Aeolus insists that instead of “Your Majesty,” they call him “Your Inclemency.” When the sailors inadvertently release the winds, Alexi is blamed, and it takes all his wit and verbal abilities—as well as most of the novel—to regain Odysseus’s trust.

The story from Homer that readers will most likely recognize is that of Circe, who turns the crew into pigs. Alexi, a pig himself, has not part in this rescue, but learns from Odysseus’s behaviour that all is not black and white. While Circe is a wicked enchantress, she is also the source of information that helps Odysseus and his crew to survive on their journey, which includes a decent into—and return from—Hades. Through it all, we are shown the complex mixture of compassion and ruthlessness that Alexi recognizes—and resents—in Odysseus: he knows that Odysseus treats him well, but knows also that he is still a slave, and a pawn in Odysseus’s clever manipulations of his crew. We are shown the depths of Alexi’s internal turmoil, and care greatly for his success and happiness. Once again, Bowman has created for young readers a faithful representation of Homer’s plot, presented in a narrative that is fantastical, fast-paced, and sure to captivate young readers.

The Proof That Ghosts Exist (2008), by Carol Matas and Perry Nodelman

Matas Nodelman-Ghosts1This is a delightful book that makes me want to run out and read other books Perry Nodelman has written… as I know him mainly as an academic.  (Carol Matas’s books I have read quite a few of…) Matas and Nodelman’s characters are believably drawn, and their plot fairly cohesive.  There are minor issues, such as the grandfather ghost, who should have died in 1978, not knowing “pastrami,” but using the term “salted beef.”  Even for a British character, that seemed strange… and his “hippy” hair and language as well… The resolution is a little too tidy and trite, as well… the suspense is not developed sufficiently and the answers the children need come too readily to hand.  This makes it seem like a book you might not want to read, but it really is far from that.  I looked forward anxiously to the launch of the second in the Ghosthunters series, as the larger mystery is only partially solved by the children’s discoveries in this book.  Matas and Nodelman have an engaging style, one example of which is having both children be narrators, often remarking upon the same incident or memory, or using a similar reference, but in diametrically opposed ways: as Adam and Molly are chalk-and-cheese siblings, this technique works marvellously.

Ghosthunters #2, The Curse of the Evening Eye, came out in 2009; Ghost hunters #3, The Hunt for the Haunted Elephant, in 2010.


Who Is Frances Rain? (1987), by Margaret Buffie

What is it about Lizzie? Why, out of all of the marvellous protagonists that YA literature contains, does Lizzie captivate me? Every time I read Who is Frances Rain?—and this is the fourth time—I want to know more of Lizzie’s story: I want to see how her final years of highschool progress; I want to know (despite statistics regarding the permanency of highschool romances) more about her relationship with Alex; I want to follow her on the rocky road that the next few years will be. For, once again, Margaret Buffie has created a novel in which there are no solid answers in the end, only hope and promise. Her characters are so real, in both their flaws and their strengths that we implicitly trust in the truth of the narrative, and I at least want to travel with the characters for quite a while longer.

The plot of the novel is fairly simple. Lizzie’s dad has left them, which is difficult for the whole family, but especially for her annoying older brother, Evan. Her mother has recently remarried, and Lizzie and Evan both actively reject Tim, the new husband, and his legitimate attempts to both fit in to and help the family. Here, Buffie’s ability at characterization shines, for Lizzie, Evan, and Tim are all presented in honest human terms: no sugar coating to Evan’s rudeness or Lizzie’s self-centred attempts to sabotage Tim’s positive contributions. Eventually, not surprisingly, Tim can take no more and leaves. This is not a spoiler; it is the guaranteed outcome of the narrative situation Buffie constructs so deftly. But while it is the basic premise of the plot, it is also not the central point. Lizzie’s relationships with Tim—and Evan, and her mother—are a vehicle for the novel’s message that family—and indeed community—does not function unless there is communication, understanding, and forgiveness amongst its members. This is a lesson that Lizzie must learn, and she does so not only through her experiences—both contemporary and paranormal—but also through the pointed jibes of those around her who have had quite enough of her selfishness. At one point, Alex, who has been her brother’s summer friend since childhood, tells her: “You’re running a close neck-and-neck race with Evan for pill of the year, I don’t know why I bother with you” (114). Sometimes we need to hear comments like this; they pull us out of our more self-indulgent emotional moments.

While all of the clues to help her develop a more balance perspective on her family and her own role within it are present in her contemporary world, what really feeds Lizzie’s budding empathy is her experience on Rain Island, where she meets the ghost of Frances Rain. Who is Frances Rain? is more than just an interesting approach to the time-slip novel; Lizzie’s experience of the past crosses the borders of believability in a way that most time-slip novels remain pure fantasy. What she learns through helping Frances Rain’s ghost teaches Lizzie a lot about personal strength and responsibility; by helping Frances Rain find peace, she helps herself understand the difference in degree between her own troubles and those of the adults around her.

Who is Frances Rain? has been challenged and banned a number of times, for its inclusion of both the paranormal and an unwed mother. The illegitimate child in Buffie’s book is born in the early years of the twentieth century, but more than suggesting that such happenings belong in the past and our society has improved since then (a trope that was common in the first six decades of the twentieth century), Buffie is providing a continuity between women of the past and young women such as Lizzie, who are learning to make their own way in our modern world. The physical and emotional fortitude Frances Rain presents is a strength that both Lizzie and the reader can draw on in their own lives: Frances Rain is a part of Lizzie’s past, and shows Lizzie a way to move forward into her future. Perhaps that is why I want Lizzie’s story to go on: I want to be part of her continuing to grow into the strong, self-sufficient woman who was Frances Rain