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.

Tin Soldier (2014), 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 20.1.

Brouwer - Tin soldierSigmund Brouwer certainly knows how to weave an intriguing mystery, and protagonist Jim Webb’s blend of hard-earned cynicism and innate compassion stand him in good stead as he unravels the secrets of his grandfather’s past. Tin Soldier is part of the second “Seven” series, which takes Webb and his six cousins on further adventures, this time self-imposed, to defend the reputation of the grandfather they all loved.

Spending the week between Christmas and New Years at their grandfather’s cabin, five of the seven cousins discover a World War II pistol, a hidden cache of fake identities and money in the wall of the cabin. The discovery sets wheels in motion, and Jim finds himself in Alabama talking to Ruby Gavin, who he met as part of his first adventure, Devil’s Pass (2012).

Tin Soldier, though, is only superficially about the mystery Webb solves; its most poignant impact comes from the lessons Webb learns. This may sound trite and clichéd, but Bouwer’s message of tolerance is not only apropos to our current sociopolitical situation, but a truth that each generation needs to learn for itself. Webb is introduced by Ruby to Vietnam War veteran Lee Knox who, she says, will be able to help determine why Webb’s grandfather had hidden two veterans’ ID cards; or, rather, two veteran’s ID cards, for while the names are different, the pictures are the same. Lee’s questions, weaving upwards through his personal contacts from the war, soon result in drastic consequences, and the two unlikely associates set out to find answers.

Webb carries serious anti-military baggage from abuse at the hands of his ex-step-father; Lee harbours deep racial anger from his experience as an activist in the Civil Rights movement. Their common purpose only mostly overcomes their seeming antipathy, but they both recognize the similarities that bind them together more than their prejudices hold them apart. Webb’s previous abuse and subsequent life on the streets of Toronto help him to empathize with the trauma Lee has experienced through the upheavals of the 1960s and 70s. His growing respect for Lee fosters a belief in Lee’s opinion that Webb’s generation have the power—like Lee’s in their time—to make a positive statement in the world: “Guy like you,” Lee asserted, “maybe you could come up with another song like ‘One Tin Soldier.” Make a difference, not just make money” (109). Brouwer provides a few lines of the song by the Canadian folk group Original Caste for his readers, and I wonder how many will seek out song—will get past the very 1970s folk feel and really listen to the meaningful words. Reading Tin Soldier I was struck with the similar pertinence of “The Fiddle and the Drum,” by a more well-known Canadian artist, Joni Mitchell. “Fiddle and the Drum,” though, is a cappella, and would not lend itself to Webb’s transposing of the song from major to minor key, reinventing it for his own generation. Brouwer takes the issues of Webb’s parents’ generation and builds an analogy that readers will not only understand but feel. Webb—and in a lesser way Lee—learns that self-respect and forgiveness are key to letting go of anger. Racism, tolerance, compassion, self-respect, and the power of song resonate through the novel. In the end, as he performs his adaptation in a small club, we cheer for Webb as much as does his audience.

Whisper (2014), by Chris Struyk-Bonn

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 19.4


Struyk-Bonn - WhisperThe eponymous Whisper whispers because her voice is “nasal, airy and distorted (38). Author Chris Stuyk-Bonn does not use the term until much later in the novel, but it is obvious that Whisper was born with a cleft palate (palatoschisis), for which her society has rejected her. She lives in the forest with Jeremia, who has a truncated arm (meromelia); the child Eva, who has webbed fingers and toes (syndactyly); the baby Ranita, also with a cleft palate; and the adult Nathaniel, who is not a “reject” but has chosen to leave society for his own reasons. Together, they form a “tribe,” a small family that look out for and love one another, living off the trade of Jeremia’s woodcarvings for supplies. Whisper is lucky: her mother—powerless to avoid the ostracization of her daughter—visits once a year. On Whisper’s 15th birthday, though, she fails to show up, sending a violin as a final gift. Whisper has an innate talent—doubtless inherited—and learns to play the music of the forest, and the joy of her family.

When, few months later, Whisper’s abusive father shows up and takes her back to his home as a servant, her life spirals down into rejection and abuse. She struggles to remain strong while being assaulted both physically and psychologically, then functionally sold into slavery in the city. At this point, it is hard for the reader to go on, so devastatingly presented is Whisper’s life. All that she has, all that supports her materially and emotionally, is her music. When fate finally intervenes, and she is given a chance at success, she is almost too traumatized to believe in the possibility of altruism. The strength of the novel lies in Whisper’s ability to stay true to herself, even damaged as she has become. The dénouement, though, seems trite and simplistic, compared to the profoundly troubling and intricately developed images of poverty and destitution that Struyk-Bonn has given us. While the sense of loyalty and love created between Whisper and her chosen family is heartfelt and inspiring, the joy and satisfaction felt in the end does not sufficiently overcome the distress experienced in the reading.

Coming Clean (2012), 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 18.1.

Coming Clean

Ross-cleanComing Clean is more edgy than many of the Orca Soundings novels, even given their intent as “short high-interest novels with contemporary themes, written expressly for teens reading below grade level” (Orca website). The protagonist, Rob, finally lands a gig as DJ at the local club, but things go horribly wrong when a girl from his class—to whom he has been attracted but to no avail—is found dead behind the sound system at the end of his shift. His brother—with whom he has a complicate and not always positive relationship—is involved in the drug scene that caused her death, and Rob must decide what to do as an innocent yet not uninvolved party. The choices he makes are completely understandable, but not necessarily those that all young people would make. Jeff Ross provides his readers with a scenario that causes them to think “what would I do in this situation?” The answers—as both Rob and the reader soon realize—are neither obvious nor easy.
Ultimately, the choices Rob makes are the right ones… but they do not come without a cost. Readers will appreciate the ethical dilemma he has to struggle with, and his ultimate decisions, whether or not his choices are the same as they might have made. Good literature gives rise to such questioning in the readers: while short, and simply written, Coming Clean counts as extremely effective literature.