Review: The Fashion Committee

Susan Juby
Penguin Teen, 2018

 I enjoyed The Fashion Committee so much! It has angst and moments of social realism, but also moments of wry humour and a quirky premise. Charlie and John are high school students pitted against each other, and several of their classmates, to win a highly desirable scholarship to a school of art and design. Charlie is fashion crazy: it’s where she puts the vigilance and anxiety that living with an addict causes. John couldn’t care less about fashion but yearns to go to art school; but coming from a home with a fixed income, he simply can’t afford such dreams. For a while Charlie and John operate on parallel tracks, but we know they’re destined to collide.

Several reviews of this novel point out some improbable plot points, and while I recognize these concerns, I’m not convinced fiction has to operate as a perfect mirror of this world. Similarly, some readers are likely to notice that the “journal” structure of the novel doesn’t hold consistently, but it’s still narratively satisfying. I was pleased that Juby didn’t pair Charlie and John romantically — which would have been an easy choice — and I felt the resolution of the scholarship plot was fittingly balanced.

The Fashion Committee offers readers something like watching a John Hughes movie — but without the saccharine aftertaste or the 1980s attitudes. It’s a strong, smart novel by a novelist who understands her craft and her audience well.

 

Originally published on LibraryThing on July 15, 2018.

 

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Review: Ebb and Flow

Heather Smith
Kids Can Press, 2018

Twelve-year-old Jett has had a difficult year. A series of bad decisions has led to serious consequences, and Jett is spending the summer with his grandmother while his mother figures out what to do. A summer of reflection, however, with a good listener and a healing ocean leads Jett to an admission of his actions and a will to change.

It’s unusual to read a book told from the perspective of a bully — especially when the bully himself is a victim of another, bigger bully. What I especially admired about this verse novel is the way it uses stories as a form of both teaching and healing. Grandma tells stories about herself to create a safe space, and Jett in turn uses storytelling to reveal — slowly, carefully — what happened with Junior (his friend/enemy) and Alf (a mentally challenged man Jett has befriended). His grandmother’s unconditional love and empathy help Jett wrestle with his uncomfortable emotions and make a plan to atone for his actions. The free verse has some lovely musical lines, and readers who enjoy poetry will find numerous symbols and motifs to trace, enhancing the narrative.

Ebb & Flow is a warmhearted, compassionately observed novel that demonstrates that redemption is a quality we can achieve for ourselves. As our culture grows more aware of difference and vulnerability, this book offers readers a rewarding perspective on simple kindness.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2018.

Review: Miss Mink: Life Lessons for a Cat Countess

Janet Hill
Tundra Books, 2019

Miss Mink: Life Lessons for a Cat Countess is a charming book about cats and embracing your independence. Miss Mink, a Flapper-style New Woman, has been declared a cat countess. She and sixty-seven cat companions sail the world in a steamship enjoying days of play, rest, good dining, and camaraderie.

This is a sweet, fanciful picture book, executed in Modernist style with oil paint on canvas. The paintings are dreamy and rich. I’m not sure how much child readers will enjoy this book, apart from chasing and counting the various cats, but many adult readers will enjoy the illustration style (think the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries television series) and the cat-approved lessons for living your best life.

A great pick for picture-book collectors, and a nice addition to any home library complemented by cats.

 

This review was originally published on LibraryThing on February 17, 2019.

 

Review: Great

Glen Gretzky and Lauri Holomis
Illustrated by Kevin Sylvester
Puffin Canada, 2016

Great is a cute book about grit, determination, and staying focussed. When Taylor is recruited to a team by Coach Wally, he is intimidated by a blond-haired star called Wayne. But Coach Wally reminds Taylor that he is the star of his own game, with his own skills and talents that make him great.

Great offers a charming selection for any early reader who loves hockey, loves sports, or needs to remember that we are all great in our own ways. The illustrations are wonderful: comic-style yet thoughtful and rich in detail. And the book’s connection to hockey’s Great One, Wayne Gretzky, by way of the foreword, completes the package. GREAT is a smart seasonal pick.

 

This review was originally published on LibraryThing on November 19, 2018.

 

Review: Slip Jig Summer

by Elizabeth J.M. Walker
Orca Books Publishers, 2018

Natalie usually studies ballet with Amber and Yumi, but summer vacation pulls the girls apart. Given the chance to join her cousins’ dance class, Natalie can either turn up her nose or take part to maintain her fitness and skills. But when her best friends seem not to miss her — even seem to be glad she’s away — Natalie’s confidence collapses. Can Natalie be a dancer if she’s not practising ballet?

Slip Jig Summer offers a fun twist on the fish-out-of-water story by putting a ballerina in an Irish dance class. It’s a short book with a fast-moving plot, so there’s limited space for character development. Natalie reads as a somewhat flat character, and the stakes in her conflict don’t feel terribly high. Similarly, Amber’s turn to “frenemy” seems unmotivated and is predictably resolved. That said, familiar interpersonal issues, portrayed in an accessible storyline, will help lower-literacy readers move through the text easily.

Slip Jig Summer is a new volume in Orca’s Limelights series for students interested in the performing arts. I enjoyed the fresh focus on dance and predict the novel will lead its readers to other dance novels (of which there are many). It’s an energetic selection for high/low readers.

This review was originally published in Resource Links, February 2018.

 

Review: Reawakening Our Ancestors’ Lines

by Angela Hovak Johnston
Inhabit Media, 2017

Reawakening Our Ancestors’ Lines describes the process a group of women in the Canadian Arctic followed to revive the tradition of women’s tattoos. Historically, Inuit women wore tattoos on their hands, arms, and faces to represent a range of personal and social messages. After contact with European missionaries, women stopped being tattooed and the cultural knowledge of traditional tattooing was nearly lost. Thanks to Angela Hovak Johnson, however, the practice is being reclaimed with striking results.

This resolutely woman-positive project turns on its photography. The photos present both the tattooing process and a portfolio of an emerging generation of tattooed women, from teens to elders. The editorial photography is clear and straightforward, accompanied by explanatory text and the women’s individual stories of their tattoos’ meanings. The portrait photography captures the women in strong poses as they display their tattoos, often in northern landscapes. For non-Inuit readers, the book offers a powerful (and sometimes playful) way to understand elements of Inuit culture. For Inuit readers, the book represents the pride and resilience of women and culture.

I would underscore, however, the book’s stern warning that these tattoos, no matter how appealing they may be for non-Inuit women and men, are the cultural property of Inuit women, who are struggling to retain and reclaim their traditional knowledge and practices. Non-Inuit should emphatically not consider seeking similar tattoos but rather learn to appreciate the beauty and significance of these tattoos for the women who wear them today.

Reawakening Our Ancestors’ Lines is a glorious book that documents important work of cultural reclamation. It belongs in libraries across Canada, and I hope it will find a broad audience. It is a proud declaration of women’s strength and beauty and a profound testament to cultural recovery.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, June 2018.

 

Review: Racing Manhattan

by Terence Blacker
Candlewick, 2018

Racing Manhattan offers a fresh twist on the fish-out-of-water trope. Jay loves horses and has been riding successfully in “unofficial” (that is, illegal) pony races when her situation changes abruptly. She finds herself in Newmarket working as a “lad” for a stable that’s down on its luck. There she meets Manhattan, a moody mare who has reached her last chance. When Jay connects with Manhattan, their fortunes seem to change. But there’s not much room in racing for a young female jockey, and Jay’s rivals are only too happy to squeeze her out. Can Jay save Manhattan — and her own future?

I was not a girl who adored books about horses when I was growing up, so I am happily surprised by Racing Manhattan. This novel features great storytelling that kept me reading eagerly. Some of the characters around Jay are thinly drawn, but Jay herself is well developed and intriguing — I wanted to know who she would grow up to be. Some of Jay’s male antagonists are thoroughly menacing, and the novel moves briskly between well-told passages of Jay’s work with Manhattan and the obstacles Jay must overcome to reach her goals.

Racing Manhattan won’t suit every taste, but I can see it working well with athletic teens and readers who identify as “square pegs.” It’s a long book for YA, but it’s nicely paced and rewarding. I recommend this book enthusiastically.

Originally published on LibraryThing on January 7, 2018.