Review: Downside Up

by Richard Scrimger
Tundra Books, 2016

downsideRichard Scrimger’s new novel opens with an intriguing premise: there’s a parallel world, just like this one, except the things we have lost remain there. Fred has recently lost his dog, Casey. When he finds an entryway to the Downside world, he begins spending much of his time there, playing with Casey, talking with his other-world self, Freddie, and observing his family and classmates from a new angle.

Downside Up is a fantasy novel embedded in a realistic novel about emotional trauma. We are well into it before we learn that the story is about much more than Fred and Casey, as this passage suggests:

“There’s lots we can’t control,” I said. “Bad things happen. Accidents, luck, whatever—these things are not our decision. But we can decide what we do about the bad luck, about the accidents. We can’t stop the dragon coming after us. But we can decide to get away.”

Although grief and depression are the dominant emotional themes, the book is really about resilience. (And dragons, by the way, are real in the Downside world.) Sensitive readers — especially readers who have experienced trauma or loss in their own lives — will appreciate the gentle unspooling of this narrative and the message of courage it conveys.

This tender, thoughtful novel is deeply moving. Its scenes and images will stay with me for a long time, and it’s a book that will reward reflection and re-reading. It is sweet and sad, and funny, and touching without being treacly. It deserves to be cherished. I hope adults will put Downside Up in the hands of younger readers who need it and will love it.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2016.

 

 

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Review: Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles

by Shari Green
Pajama Press, 2016

rootbeerRoot Beer Candy and Other Miracles is a gentle verse novel for middle-grade readers. Bailey, the sensitive, perceptive narrator, is living on a West Coast island with her little brother and her estranged grandmother for the summer while her parents try to repair their marriage. She soon meets Jasper, a man who was once a village leader but is now an outsider, and Daniel, a boy with a camera and a secret. One day Jasper locks eyes with Bailey as he utters one of his prophecies. His words set the villagers gossiping and push Bailey to search for miracles.

Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles tackles some serious problems common among kids today. Its resolution is gentle and hopeful, but also realistic. When Bailey asks for help, people — even people she believes dislike her — come to her aid. From the climactic event Bailey discovers personal resilience and the value of expressing her feelings and her fears. Not everything can be fixed, but sharing a problem with someone who loves us makes it easier to bear. This is a message middle-graders cannot hear too often.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s an excellent choice for thoughtful middle-grade readers and would make a valuable addition to a school or classroom library. It’s also a fine complement to the verse novels of K.A. Holt, and a stepping stone to the work of authors like Sonya Sones, Virginia Euwer Wolff, and Martine Leavitt. Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles is also a physically beautiful book, generously designed and appealing in the hand. Watch for this one!

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2016.

 

 

Review: Weerdest Day Ever!

by Richard Scrimger
Orca Book Publishers, 2016

weerdestIn Weerdest Day Ever!, Bunny (his grandfather prefers Bernard), his brother Spencer, and their grandfather David McLean go on a weekend camping trip. Bunny discovers that a war is about to break out between Canada and America, and somehow the man who’s stolen Spencer’s cell phone has something to do with it. Can Bunny retrieve the phone and stop a war? Well, if anyone can, it’s Richard Scrimger’s Bunny, a fascinating, quirky character whose view of the world is unconventional but delightful.

I have to state up front that I deeply enjoy Richard Scrimger’s books and have been following his writing since The Nose from Jupiter (1998). So I was pleased to learn about the Seven Prequels. In this series, the writers of Seven (the Series) and the Seven Sequels reach back in time. The framing story of Weerdest Day Ever! introduces Bunny as a teenager writing down his story as an English assignment; in the story itself he is only twelve. The story is told in Bunny’s inimitable way, self-conscious spelling errors and all.

What makes Weerdest Day Ever! work is its sense of play. The book is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Scrimger has a great sense of comedy, amplified by Bunny’s wobbly spelling and unusual way of making sense. Bunny lurches from scene to scene in a chain of near-misses with Spencer, Grandpa, and the man Bunny is chasing. Along the way he meets Tyler and Beth, whose own issues add depth and poignancy to the plot. Everything turns out, of course. (Readers who want another take on the weekend can read Speed by Ted Staunton, which recounts the story from the perspective of Bunny’s brother Spencer.)

Weerdest Day Ever! invites readers inside a sly joke and tells an absurd tale of mystery, courage, and friendship. It’s wonderful fun.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2016.

Review: Hamburger

by Daniel Perry
Thistledown Press

hamburgerHamburger, Daniel Perry’s new collection of short fiction published by Saskatoon’s Thistledown Press, is loaded with clever, provocative, thoughtful tales.  Perry’s stories span moments from comedy to horror to pathos, and the collection explores familiar themes such as travel, discovery, loss, and false belief. But Perry’s fresh voice, narrative twists, and playful telling will keep readers turning pages.

Even the briefest of Perry’s stories are peopled by ordinary folks at unusual, sometimes awkward moments. Some involve little epiphanies, such as “Rocky Steps,” which features a single mother with thwarted dreams. Some reveal universal human failings, such as “Gleaner,” which looks at small-town life and how rumours work. Several stories involve dying parents and how their families are affected by grief and change. What stands out about these stories is their emotional core: the basic humanness of characters in stark circumstances.

Also impressive is Perry’s reach. Some of the stories take experimental forms, from the second-person address of the title story to the alternating narration of “Pleasure Craft,” in which waterskiing becomes an opportunity for remaking a relationship. There’s also the short speculative fiction “Aria di Gelato,” which explores the tiny important moments of a life, and “Be Your Own Master,” a twisted noir-ish story in which a program of self-improvement goes horribly wrong. The self-consciously David Foster Wallace-inspired “Vaparetto,” in which a writer traces the extremes of personal attachment and intellectual detachment, is written with a wry voice and a dab hand. It’s tight, sly storytelling.

Speaking of writers, quite a few of the stories in this book are about writing and the privilege and costs of the writing life. Perry has said that the arc of the volume reflects the development of a young writer, from aspiring to accomplished. The final story, “Three Deaths of James Arthur Doole,” uses various forms of storytelling, including a professional writer’s take, to explore how people create the stories they need from the materials they have. It’s admirably done.

From witty micro-fictions to fully developed short stories, Perry’s narratives are engaging, appealing, and surprisingly emotional. Hamburger is a rich, tasty pick!

 

This review was originally published on http://www.skbooks.com.

Review: Showtime: Meet the People Behind the Scenes

by Kevin Sylvester
Annick Press, 2013

 

showtimeThanks in part to the increase in large-scale touring productions like Cirque du Soleil and Broadway Across Canada, today’s kids are much more likely than their parents were to attend live performances like concerts, musicals, and plays. Showtime introduces a range of diverse and fascinating people working behind the scenes to make live stage experiences fun, safe, and memorable.

Kevin Sylvester writes in a clear voice, at an accessible level, without talking down to readers. The book is presented as a series of profiles of people working in various sub-sectors of the performing arts. Profiles include a set designer, a pyrotechnician, a choreographer, and a costumer designer, among others. But the book doesn’t examine only stage craft; it also looks at jobs like tour driver, promoter, and graphic designer, and shows a balance of men and women in backstage and front-of-house roles. Certainly, not every stage-related option is listed, but there are more than enough intriguing, creative, dynamic jobs mentioned to fire anyone’s imagination.

The book is appealingly presented with full-colour photography of the workers profiled and their work environments. The profiles are compact but loaded with detail. The main text is supported by numerous sidebars, and every profile wraps up with tips for readers who can envision themselves doing similar work in the future. I particularly liked seeing manual jobs being presented — and valued — alongside more white-collar jobs. My one minor concern with the text was the abruptness with which it ended: I would have been happy to read a few more profiles. I would also have liked to see a little more back matter, such as a list of resources for further reading and research.

This is a great book for introducing students to the numerous jobs available in the performing arts beyond being a performer. As our economy continues to evolve, there are more and more opportunities to work in the cultural industries, and this book provides an excellent introduction to some of them. I strongly recommend this book for inclusion in school and classroom libraries.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, June 2013.

 

Review: Shadow Girl

by Patricia Morrison
Tundra Books, 2013

 

shadowgirlShadow Girl is a haunting book about alcoholism, poverty, and their social consequences. The cover copy describes this novel as heartbreaking, and I agree. I found Shadow Girl very affecting and sad, but it’s a powerful realistic novel that offers strong observations on how immediately family problems and social problems affect children’s lives.

When the text opens in December 1963, Jules is an eleven-year-old girl carrying heavy burdens. She is hungry, her father hasn’t bought groceries for a while, and there is nothing but a small amount of spoiled food left in the fridge. Except for Patsy, her best friend, Jules has few friends at school and is sometimes the object of bullying. She spends much of her out-of-school time at the Six Points Plaza, hanging around the Zellers toy department and pining after a doll she hopes to get for Christmas. Jules is resourceful and responsible, however; she keeps herself quietly amused, stays out of her father’s way when he’s drunk, and takes care of the house and herself as best she can.

One night, however, her father’s rage gets out of control, and he abandons Jules, leaving her by herself for several days. Eventually, a caring adult intervenes and Jules is taken into custody of social services. All she wants is for her father to come back to her, for things to be the way they once were. Slowly, Jules learns that that’s simply not possible. The book follows Jules as she comes to terms with life in foster care and the choices her father has made.

This is in many ways a difficult, unflinching book. Jules’ father, Joe, is an unlikeable character, and the adults he associates with are also negative and unattractive. One social worker is kind but ineffectual; another is bureaucratic and cold. The members of the first foster family Jules joins range from indifferent to hostile, and it’s only when Jules’ situation reaches a crisis that another solution is considered. I deeply appreciated the integrity with which the author examined the entwined issues of alcoholism, poverty, neglect, and forms of bias and prejudice. I also admire the author’s courage in producing such a bleak and unsparing study of her characters’ lives.

There are a few weaknesses in the text. The balance of showing versus telling is sometimes off, so at times the novel feels somewhat stilted. The narrative style — though not the content — emulates that of books from the early 1960s, and the exposition can feel somewhat didactic, particularly when Jules reflects on poverty and on religion. The conclusion also arrives very quickly, with limited resolution; to me, it felt truncated and not entirely believable.

Still, this is fiction for children, so the ending is modestly happy. Jules is clearly still deeply troubled, but readers see that she now has the potential for real hope in a genuinely caring foster situation. It’s muted hope, but still hope, and readers are left with the idea that positive change is possible no matter one’s circumstances.

Shadow Girl is certainly not for every reader, but thoughtful readers who seek out realistic fiction will likely enjoy this book. It’s sensitively and authentically written and very emotionally moving.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, April 2013.

Review: If, By Miracle

by Michael Kutz
The Azrieli Foundation, 2013

 

ifbymiracleToday, most people who lived through World War Two belong to the generation of grandparents or great-grandparents. The legacy of the war — and particularly of the Holocaust — seems somehow diminished as we lose the witnesses to this terrible period. For this reason, If, By Miracle is an important book: it captures the first-hand story of extraordinary survival.

Michael Kutz was ten years old when he escaped from the Einsatzgruppen, a killing unit that gathered the Jews of his town and led them to the forest to be shot en masse. Every other member of his family was murdered (with the exception of his father, who had been mobilized by the Red Army and died in battle). A few months later, Michael joined a resistance group and spent the next two years fighting the Nazis and their collaborators in eastern Poland. When the war finally ended, he was shunted from place to place, trying to find any living relatives and hoping to be selected for life in the new state of Israel. Michael eventually ended up in Canada, where he lived an astonishing adult life of service to others, including advocacy, fund-raising, and leadership.

Despite its significance, this is not a book for every teen reader. If, By Miracle is a straightforward memoir, written at an advanced level; it is a serious book that demands attentive, thoughtful reading. It includes an extensive glossary, which I found very helpful; a context-setting introduction; maps of Europe prior to and during the war; and a section of photographs of Michael Kutz, often featuring people mentioned in the text. This book is an excellent, vital resource, but only some young-adult readers will be able to navigate the style and presentation.

Michael Kutz is clearly a phenomenal individual and should be recognized for both his work with the resistance during the war and his work on behalf of the Jewish community since coming to Canada. We must not forget the Holocaust, and individual stories of survival are critical to gaining a fuller understanding of this horrifying crime. If, By Miracle should be in school libraries and public libraries across Canada, not only for teen readers but for everyone.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, February 2015.