Review: Saying Good-bye to London

by Julie Burtinshaw
Second Story Press, 2017

Saying Good-bye to London is a hard-hitting yet sensitively written novel about teen pregnancy, told primarily from the perspective of fifteen-year-old Francis, a quiet boy whose first romance leads to a baby, an adoption, and a rapid transition to the responsibilities of adult life.

The novel spans a little more than a year. Francis meets Sawyer, their relationship blooms, and within a few months they’ve broken up over the news of Sawyer’s pregnancy. When Francis first learns that Sawyer is pregnant, he reacts very, very badly. It is only through the persistent direction of his friends that he starts to change his attitude. As such, readers are invited to grow with Francis — and with Sawyer. Although most of the time readers experience the story through Francis’s eyes, now and then the author lets readers slip into Sawyer’s point of view, as well as that of various other characters, lending a much broader view to the unfolding events. The plot never drags; the narration is direct and matter of fact, and it communicates without becoming preachy, a tone books about teen pregnancy sometimes adopt.

At its core, however, Saying Good-bye to London is a novel about fathers. Sawyer’s best friend, Jack, is homeless because his abusive father has thrown him out for being gay. At the same time, Francis’s best friend, Kevin, is living through the death of his father, who has been an important figure in Francis’s life. Francis and Sawyer both have complex relationships with their own fathers. Though boys may be reluctant to read a book apparently about pregnancy, this one offers some deep thinking about what it means to be a good man, what it means to be a father (rather than just a “sperm donor,” as Sawyer crisply comments), what it means to be a good partner.

This novel is likely to evoke strong responses. It would make an excellent selection for a teen reading group or as an independent novel study in grade nine or ten. Readers are sure to have opinions about Sawyer’s choice to have the baby, the process of private adoption, the couple selected to adopt baby London, and Francis’s treatment of Sawyer. Layers of complexity in the text will encourage conversation and reflection, and there are numerous themes readers can evaluate against their own morals and ethics. Saying Good-bye to London is a rewarding book on many levels.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2017.

 

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Review: Kat and Meg Conquer the World

by Anna Priemaza
Harper Teen, 2017

Kat and Meg Conquer the World is a joyous, funny, endearing novel about an odd couple united by a science project and a Youtube video star. The story follows them, from alternating points of view, through their grade ten year. Kat, a transplant from Ontario, resents having to be a “freshman” again; Meg, bruised from previous relationships gone sour, is eager for a new school and a new start. As they navigate the perils of high school, boyfriends, and growing up, they learn to trust each other and themselves.

This novel surprised me: it’s so fresh and engaging! The author touches on highly topical, sensitive issues such as race, mental wellness, and family stress, but lightly, without engaging in the miserablism that has overtaken so much of YA writing recently. Although privileged in different ways, Kat and Meg are not naïve. They face situations involving drinking, drug use, and sexuality directly and intelligently (albeit reluctantly, in Kat’s case). They talk, they think, they sometimes brood (and call each other out for brooding), but in the end they act, informed by their own good sense. I applaud the author for drawing her still-maturing characters with such a complicated mix of agency and fallibility. Many girls will find either Meg or Kat someone to identify with, empathize with, learn from.

Both girls are anxious, but the expression of their anxieties is very different. Kat is aloof and silent, trying to be invisible. Meg is outgoing, loving, and impetuous, sometimes to a fault. It took me a few chapters to warm up to Kat; initially she reads more as prickly than as anxious. But I was won over immediately by Meg’s persistent friendliness and optimism, and was rooting for the girls’ friendship. Though Meg believes she and Kat are BFFs from the start, for Kat the friendship emerges slowly but solidly, as in the scene when Meg takes Kat to the hospital after Kat’s grandfather collapses in a grocery store. Not being a relative, Meg cannot go into the grandfather’s room in the ICU with Kat, who is paralyzed by fear, sadness, and guilt.

Meg unzips her coat, revealing her favorite black cardigan with the oversized purple plastic buttons. Out of nowhere, she grabs one of the buttons and pulls. There’s a snap, and then she’s pressing the button into my palm and folding my fingers around it.

“There,” she says. “Now it’s like I’m with you.”

Meg’s apparent fearlessness teaches Kat to trust love; Kat’s careful, measured friendship later reflects the lesson back to Meg. Both grow stronger for it.

I liked this novel so much! It’s filled with lovely touches and good humour, and it underscores the importance of women’s friendships as a source of strength and resilience. I hope to read more from Anna Priemaza.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2017.

 

 

Review: Hit the Ground Running

by Alison Hughes
Orca Book Publishers, 2017

When a Children’s Services staffer rings the doorbell one morning, sixteen-year-old Dee Donnelly knows the game is up. Her father has been gone from home for six weeks, the money jar is almost empty, and Dee fears what happens to siblings apprehended by Children’s Services. She quickly assembles her resources and packs her brother, Eddie, in the car with food, water, bedding, and assorted keepsakes. She can’t legally drive and she may be an illegal alien, but she’s determined to get out of Arizona and up to the Canadian border before a state agency can tear her family apart.

What’s striking about this novel is how funny it is. Dee’s situation is desperate, no doubt, but her telling of the story is leavened by eye-rolling, sarcasm, silly jokes, and pratfall comedy. Whether she’s making an early-morning escape from a stranger’s yard in which she accidentally parked or charming a state trooper to avoid having to cough up a driver’s licence, Dee’s sardonic delivery is perfect. A brave, resourceful young woman, Dee is observant, quick thinking, and clearly mature for her age; but those qualities don’t stop her from playing in the pool with Eddie — or put a filter on her potty mouth. Dee is beautifully written, the kind of character that will stick with readers long after they finish the book.

Another striking element of this novel is its frankness about being poor. At least some readers will identify: in this decade, many households live precariously close to financial disaster. The disappearance of Dee’s father (who is clearly a fragile person) suggests how easily any domestic problem — a persistent illness, a mental health breakdown, the abrupt end of a relationship — could bring the façade of “doing just fine” tumbling down around a teenager like Dee. Dee is practical about her poverty; she works around it, but it’s always present, always threatening, and eventually it leads to a frightening scene in which Dee and Eddie are chased by a “creeper.” Alert readers may perceive how little control Dee has over her situation, despite her careful choices; here, the author raises an intriguing critique, inviting readers to ask bigger questions about an individual’s circumstances and outsiders’ judgements.

The novel ends hopefully, but not happily. The future for Dee and Eddie is far from certain, despite the timely arrival of their Auntie Pat. Alison Hughes leaves the novel ambiguously resolved, yet ambiguity is the more believable — and, frankly, more satisfying — ending.

Hit the Ground Running is an excellent choice for teen reading groups and for classroom libraries, as well as public and school libraries. Readers are sure to enjoy following Dee on her helter-skelter road trip to Canada. I certainly did!

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2017.

 

Review: Those Who Run in the Sky

by Aviaq Johnston
Inhabit Media, 2017

Those Who Run in the Sky is the haunting, lyrical story of Piturniq, a boy on the edge of manhood whose life is overturned when he learns his destiny is to be a shaman. A gifted hunter and a much-admired leader, Pitu finds himself stranded during a blizzard, his sled dogs, tools, and packed food gone. Can he survive the tests of the spirits? Will he ever see his beloved mother or his intended bride again?

It was such a pleasure to read this coming-of-age novel by young Inuk writer Aviaq Johnston. The story is captivatingly told, and the novel has an almost hypnotic voice; it was a book I read in a single sitting because it was so eerie and beautiful. Strands of the Inuit worldview are woven into the story, and people, objects, and ideas are referred to by Inuktitut names, immersing readers in Pitu’s reality from the first page (the glossary, including pronunciations, will help readers negotiate the language). Illustrations by Toma Feizo Gas add a further layer of drama and beauty to the text.

Educators and librarians looking to bring more Indigenous texts into classrooms and collections should include Those Who Run in the Sky. The book offers all readers a wise, identifiable protagonist and provides a brilliant way, as the author suggests, to “continue the tradition of sharing and teaching.” I hope this book is read and recognized widely; though very different from much of what teens are reading today, it has relevant and timely themes and ideas to share.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2017.

 

Review: The Liszts

by Kyo Maclear
Illustrated by Julia Sarda
Tundra Books, 2016

lisztsThe Liszts is a lovely story about fitting in in your own way. The Liszt family are list makers. One day, a stranger arrives at the Liszt home only to be rejected by everyone but Edward, the middle child who makes “Lists to quiet the swirl of his midnight mind.” The stranger is a questioner. Turns out, so is Edward.

This is a slightly off-kilter story. As with most of Kyo Maclear’s books, the text may read very differently for adults than for children, but it is lovely and sweet and touching. And the illustrations should be a joy for any reader. They’re quirky and rich with unexpected details, both humorous and eerie.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s well patterned for younger readers, and its story is so nuanced that the book should grow in its appeal as young readers age.

 

Originally published on LibraryThing on November 16, 2016.

Review: Cammie Takes Flight

by Laura Best
Nimbus Publishing, 2016

In Cammie Takes Flight, readers find Cammie Turple at the Halifax School for the Blind in the early 1950s. Having left a pile of trouble behind, Cammie is meeting new people and making new friends, but she hasn’t forgotten her best friend, Evelyn Merry, and she can’t seem to shake her overbearing Aunt Millie. But now she’s also free to find her long-lost mother and solve the mystery of her origins. What kind of trouble could that possibly lead to?

This middle-grade novel is the sequel to 2014’s Flying with a Broken Wing, but stands alone just fine. Cammie is a plucky, refreshing heroine who will charm her way into readers’ hearts. She has a quizzical way with a simile, and her command of mid-century “tough” talk is endearing. Even more endearing is Cammie herself, though. Cammie is one of those rare characters a reader might like to have as a friend in real life. A poignant blend of loyalty, vulnerability, bluster, and plain good sense, Cammie doesn’t allow her limited eyesight — or anything else — to hold her back. Her quest to find her mother may not turn out the way she expected, but we know that Cammie will be okay.

Readers who like historical fiction will enjoy this novel, as will readers who like character-driven stories. Cammie Takes Flight is a funny and touching book about friends, family, and making the best of what you have. It deserves to be widely read and celebrated.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, June 2017.

Review: Drawn Away

by Holly Bennett
Orca Book Publishers, 2017

Drawn Away by Holly Bennett is something of an urban ghost story novel, something of a literary mash-up. It draws on Hans Christian Andersen’s heart-rending tale of the Little Match Girl to tell a contemporary story about mothers’ love, romantic obsession, and cooperative problem solving.

Jack is an ordinary guy living a fairly ordinary life when he is pulled into a shadowy, misty space where he meets a thin, intense girl. Then zap, he’s back in the real world and flirting with Lucy, his soon-to-be girlfriend. When Lucy and Jack discover they’ve both encountered the thin girl, Klara (who turns out to be the ghost of the real-life inspiration for the Little Match Girl), they must work together to keep Klara from luring Jack back to the shadow world forever.

I liked this novel; it has a brisk-moving plot and raises issues of both historical and contemporary significance. The Klara subplot invites readers to consider domestic violence, the consequences of poverty, and the plight of women in a morally punitive society. The plot thread of Jack’s diabetes turns his insulin pump into a character and normalizes the process of managing the disease. The figure of Hans Christian Andersen introduces themes of authorship and responsibility, and also allows the novel to represent a very difficult, and frankly harsh era, in an intriguing manner. That said, the Andersen subplot is something of a tangent; it is resolved a bit too tidily through Lucy and her mother. I also found the relationship between Jack and Lucy unusually pitched. Although they are seventeen and eighteen years old, and do engage in some behaviours of older teens (such as drinking alcohol and smoking pot), their romantic relationship is very restrained. But perhaps this decision reflects more about the sensibilities of classrooms and public librarians than it does about modern teens.

In short, Drawn Away is an energetic, accessible novel for grades eight and up. It’s likely to appeal to readers interested in the recent revival of fairy tales through popular texts like Into the Woods, Once Upon a Time, and Beauty and the Beast (as well as the junior retellings of the Whatever After series). Drawn Away could also provide a stepping-stone to more sophisticated retellings like Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper and The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge.

Originally published on LibraryThing on April 11, 2017.