Faster than Truth (2019), by K.L. Denman


Before I begin my rant, know that 1) I think K.L. Denman’s Faster than Truth is well worth reading, and 2) M.T. Anderson’s Feed (2002) is even more fabulous, and a far more profound consideration of our complex society than this review suggests. (I really need to write a better review of Feed, but that is a much longer project, best put off until another day.) I link the two titles because both deal with a society in which technology—specifically media and digital propaganda—have become a concern. Feed is a future dystopia; Faster than Truth is set in our current world.

Faster than Truth: The Review

It’s not an easy task, making a far-less-than-ideal protagonist sympathetic; and I’m struggling with how well I think K.L. Denman does so in Faster than Truth. Unlike Titus—the protagonist of M.T. Anderson’s Feed (2002), and the epitome of self-absorbed adolescence—Declan admits his culpability, and ultimately forms an understanding of himself and his world that allows us to feel hope for the adult he will become.

Initially, though, I felt like smacking him. Declan is in many ways a normal, impulsive adolescent, but he grates on my nerves: the hypocrisy between his self-satisfied attitude towards journalism and his actions seems like poor characterization. He expounds high ideals of journalistic integrity and yet publishes a story based on a photo of a private email, which he knows is not the complete communication, without checking any facts; the incongruity seems too great. Then I remembered that he is an adolescent, and I remembered, too, how unthinking teens can be—including myself. But Declan is clueless on so many levels. His friend Ravi is a far more insightful character. Her eye-rolls and sarcastic comments are a foil for Declan’s obtuseness, and give credence to Declan’s ability to grow into a deeper understanding as the novel progresses. Still, I wonder how a girl as artistically talented and thoughtful as Ravi could be attracted to such a shallow, self-absorbed boy as Declan appears to be.

Perhaps because of his willingness to accept the responsibility for his actions and try to set things right, Declan does reach a better understanding—unlike Titus, whose friend Violet dies as a result of the sociopolitical forces that she stands up against.

More importantly than Declan’s growth as a character, the message that Faster than Truth presents is essential knowledge for everyone in our society today. Once a message—or photo—or comment—is uploaded into the digital cloud, there is no way to retract it. The damage is done. The onus is upon us all, not just the news media, as Declan learns, to be careful with what we publish, what we say, and what we believe. Without preaching, Faster than Truth informs readers of the need to be aware of the biases in what they read online, whether from individuals or the news media. That lesson, more than anything, makes me wish all students—all people—could read Faster than Truth and internalize its message.

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.

Deliver Us From Evie (1994), by M.E. Kerr

Many years ago, I supervised Dr. Rob Bittner as an undergraduate in his exploration of the intersection of Christianity with homosexuality in young adult novels. Back then, there were so few such novels published that it has been fascinating to watch Rob’s career develop along side a growing corpus of LGBTQ fiction for young readers. The following is his simple description of M.E. Kerr’s Deliver Us From Evie.

“This novel follows a short time in the life of Parr, whose sister, Evie, is a lesbian. At first, Parr [wants to support Evie], because he wants Evie to stay and take care of the farm so he won’t have to. As soon he finds out she has no plans to stay on the farm, in a situation complicated by other issues, he and another young man hang up a derogatory sign in the town square. These events lead to the escape of Evie from the town with Patsy Duff, her lover. This story is not ultimately about explorations of sexuality and literature so much as it is about the suffering caused by being different. There are some tender moments to keep the plot from becoming melodramatic, however, and so, in the end, there is some reconciliation within the family. … The treatment of sexuality as something negative that leads to the need for escape is [a strong] example of how homosexuality is treated for the most part prior to the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967), by E.L. Konigsburg

Feeling put-upon and ignored as the eldest sibling, Claudia takes her younger brother with her and runs away. Not liking hardship, they run to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, rather than to the woods, as Jamie first assumes. There, they encounter a statue attributed to Michelangelo, and Claudia becomes captivated, needing to discover the truth about the statue for herself.

While a little slow-paced, this novel is superb in not stretching the possibilities in two young children who have run away from home. What they do could have happened; thus, the reader is able to engage completely with the mystery and the stresses the children encounter. The ending is hidden from the reader until the end, then well resolved.

I was not so very entranced with the novel, which (despite my personal opinion) is heralded as one of the true classics of American children’s literature. It won the Newbery Award for Children’s Literature in 1968 and, as the Wikipedia entry notes, “in 2012 it was ranked number seven among all-time children’s novels in a survey published by School Library Journal.” But then, I didn’t like Norton Juster‘s The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), either, despite the language play that normally would appeal. But there you have it: It’s not you; it’s me.