The Big Apple Effect (2014), by Christy Goerzen

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.

Goetzen-Big AppleIt’s really hard to like Maddie, the protagonist of The Big Apple Effect, but one can understand her somewhat, given her rather flakey mother, who works as “Lady Venus,” a New Age psychic charlatan. Maddie is awarded a trip to New York, to an art opening for young artists (Maddie included) whose paintings have won an award. Her friend Anna, from a guest-farm in the BC Interior, accompanies her.

Anna is everything Maddie is not: laid-back, reasonable, and grounded in reality. Maggie is obsessive-compulsive and socially unaware. Their time in New York before the art opening is spent fulfilling Maddie’s dreams—her list of 134 “things to see in New York” recorded on a colour-coded map. When Maddie’s mother shows up as a surprise—Maddie’s birthday falls on the second day of their visit—Maddie feels cheated: her only chance at escaping her mother’s over-the-top, mollycoddling weirdness has been taken away. But Maddie actually has very little chance of escaping her upbringing: like all of us, she lives it.

She develops a crush on Anna’s older brother, Thomas, which she almost subdues after meeting his girlfriend, and she revels in her experience of New York, seen through the rose-coloured glasses of her dream of what New York should be. In this, Maddie is well characterized. Young girls like her doubtless exist: star-struck, naïve, thoughtless, and self-centred. Maddie’s epiphany comes when she overhears two women deriding her piece at the gallery, and she begins to recognize her real place in the universe. Her ego is saved by Timber, the son of the great artist, Louise Bergville—keynote of the opening—who had cancelled at the last moment. Called away by her distraught mother who is “lost” in the city, Maddie despairs of seeing Timber again. But it all works out in the end: Maddie learns that she needs to think of others as well as herself; her mother realizes that she needs to give Maddie her space; Timber—who will be visiting Vancouver—contrives to reconnect with Maddie; and Louise Bergville wants to buy her cow-art. It’s too bad we can’t believe in the dénouement.

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).

Born Confused (2002), by Tanuja Desai Hidier

E940_SCH_BornConfused_0.tifAt first I was unimpressed.  The author seems unable to maintain an authentic teen voice, fluctuating between frankly unbelievable slang (“frocking” instead of “fucking; “Dear Claude” instead of “Dear God”) and a mature, fluid, and poetic narrative, purportedly from the mind of the one central protagonist, Dimple Lala.  (Why do South Asian authors call their protagonists Dimple so readily? There are thousands of beautiful South Asian names that are not a silly word in English…)

Once I got past the questionable narrative voice, I began to like the character and her life. Granted, her best friend Gwyn is an appalling creature, selfish and self-centred, but Dimple’s responses to her friends, family, and life are honest and explored with sensitivity.  Dimple learns a significant amount about herself and her culture through well-structured plot machinations, and the characters she meets are as carefully and fully created as she is.  I do ask, though, if it is necessary in the narrative of adolescent development always to encounter and learn from lesbians, gays, and in this case an attractive and wise transvestite… It seems that this level of engagement with this variety of alternative lifestyle within the New York Desi scene might be a bit of a stretch of authenticity, as is a grade 11 girl having her photos chosen for a complete spread in a flash (literally Flash!) New York magazine, without her knowledge… Plot manipulation aside, I think the characterizations in Born Confused redeem the text, and make it worth recommending.

Transmigration (2012), by Nicholas Maes

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 17.5.

Transmigration

Whoa. What a ride! Nicholas Maes’s Transmigration is brilliant: a well-conceived fantasy with a unique premise and a gripping storyline. The novel begins with a talking bunny, but there is nothing cute or cuddly about the sinister alternative world history that Maes creates so carefully. It should perhaps have been a clue that a West Coast bunny talks with a Brooklyn accent, but I admit I found it only a bit out of place—until the plot progressed. In Maes’s history, a species of souls—bolkhs—coexists with humans as we have developed through the evolutionary process: a species that wants now to take back what was once theirs, destroying all human life. Young Simon Carpenter, of Vancouver, BC, is a tool they need for their war against humanity. When he learns this, his comfortable world is shaken to its foundations, and he must flee for his own safety and that of his family. The complicated relationships between players—different types of souls and their various connections with physical bodies—are adeptly explained to the reader through Simon’s own learning experience. I almost needed to create a rubric, but Maes brings in the terms just often enough to help the reader learn his nomenclature and the associated characteristics of his world.
The talking bunny seems an unlikely scenario for the introduction of a YA mystery-fantasy, but the bunny’s very cuteness is the first tool used against Simon by the bolkhs in their battle for supremacy. The bolkhs inhabit animals, as well as some humans, and their plan would have all bolkhs incarnate and powerful, at the expense of humankind. What ensues is a series of flights and confrontations that takes the protagonists from Vancouver to Europe—both of which the author obviously knows well—where Simon confronts the leader of the bolkhs, Tarhlo, who almost convinces him of the righteousness of the bolkh cause. Tarhlo’s logical argument is based on empirical scientific knowledge: the bolkhs argue that their ascendancy now is a natural part of the evolutionary process, as right and understandable as the Cro-Magnons prevailing over the Neanderthals. So well-crafted is Maes’s story that we are honestly not sure what Simon’s choice will be.
Ultimately, Simon travels to New York and a final confrontation, after which we are left with the protagonists safe for the moment, but still threatened: the final sentence assures us that “[w]hile the first confrontation with the bolkhs was over, the war was only getting started” (244). This is the one flaw in this otherwise spectacular piece of YA fiction: the end does not present any closure; it demands—rather than merely anticipating—a sequel. Please, authors: write novels that stand alone as narrative entities; refrain from publishing what amounts to the first installment of an indeterminately long narrative cycle. It is not fair to readers to create a book-length cliffhanger: leave such commercial tactics to the pulp serials. The degree of disappointment in the inconclusive ending is proportional to the level of engagement Transmigrations elicits: if it were a less engrossing story, we wouldn’t care so much that the ending disappoints.