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: Ramadan: The Holy Month of Fasting

by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Orca Book Publishers, 2018

Ramadan is the holy month of fasting observed by Muslims to teach and uphold key beliefs. It is a period for reflection, empathy, and renewal; it is also a time for family and community — particularly at the arrival of Eid-al-Fitr, the end of the fast.

Ramadan provides a clear, accessible introduction to Ramadan and Islamic beliefs generally. The author explains the stages of Ramadan and the practices associated with the holy month. Her presentation includes a survey of Ramadan traditions from diverse societies around the world, as well as her personal reminiscences and short profiles of young Muslims’ individual choices and needs during a month-long fast. The text also includes quotations from young people explaining what Ramadan means to them, an excellent extension of Ausma Zehanat Khan’s own story. The text is supported by a glossary and a short list of references. There are even a few recipes for readers who want to sample the flavours of other cultures. Throughout, the author’s voice is warm and friendly, but also respectful — nicely balanced.

Ramadan is a new volume in the Orca Origins series, which has been uniformly well researched and attractively presented. The colour palette of this book is soft and appealing, while the bright full-colour images add interest to every page. This series has been insightfully planned and carried out: books like Khan’s Ramadan make intercultural discovery and understanding fascinating and fun. I particularly like how prominent girls and women are in this text. And while the book is intended for kids, there are many adults who would benefit from reading it to dispel their misunderstandings. I emphatically recommend Ramadan: The Holy Month of Fasting to any class or community interested in reading for multicultural understanding.


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


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.


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: The Wolf and Me

by Richard Scrimger
Orca Book Publishers, 2014


Wolf and meThe opening chapter of The Wolf and Me finds Bernard — Bunny to his family and friends — wearing rented ice skates and trapped in the trunk of a car. From that unlikely moment a story of epic proportions unwinds, involving national terrorists, aggressive border guards, a lost baby, and a daring last-minute rescue.

The story is propelled by a wild cast of characters, such as the beautiful but treacherous Vi, the good-hearted Bet, the elderly but surprisingly resilient Katy, and the wolf of the title. At the centre, however, is Bunny, who is such a likeable character — if perhaps not the most reliable of narrators. Bunny reminds us regularly that he’s “dumb” but we see how clever he really is and how many strengths and gifts he possesses. As he lurches repeatedly from frying pan to fire and back again, Bunny demonstrates lateral thinking, problem solving, and determination — admirable qualities in any character.

I found this book great fun. Bunny’s adventures veer toward the edge of implausible, but his frank and lovable voice made me cheer for him. Somehow Bunny always comes out OK, thereby leavening the consequences of the story for younger readers who may not be ready to see their protagonist serious imperilled. The introduction of the wolf was an effective way to signal themes of maturity, responsibility, and honour — within the context of a series where these themes are trickily entangled.

Like Richard Scrimger’s previous novels, this book is playfully and smartly written. Readers who have already explored the original Seven, the Series books will welcome another delightful, if improbable, adventure with Bunny (see previous post for more details). The Wolf and Me is an all-around rollicking read!


This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2014.


Review: Ink Me

by Richard Scrimger
Orca Books, 2012


inkmeIn the opening pages of Ink Me, Bunny’s grandfather gives Bunny a simple task: go to a particular location and get a tattoo. That simple task sets in motion an almost fantastic chain of moments, increasingly violent and frightening. Fifteen-year-old Bunny innocently enters the world of gangs but lacks the understanding to get out before he is irremediably caught up in events that cannot be easily resolved.

Bunny is “dumb,” as he describes himself. The exact nature of his disability is not made clear, but readers will understand immediately that Bunny does not possess a conventional intelligence. Yet Bunny is a likeable, engaging narrator whose storytelling style is captivating both in its naïveté and in its omissions. In its idiosyncratic rendering of the ambiguities of language, the text reveals many moments of unexpected insight and brilliance. As the story gets darker, readers are likely to be squirming, trying to figure out how Bunny will extract himself from the situation; the resolution may be surprising.

The events of the story are, for better or worse, highly topical, and the story reflects themes that have appeared in some of Richard Scrimger’s other novels. There is serious violence in this text, although it is somewhat muted; the threats characters make are palpable, and the atmosphere of the story, despite Bunny’s comic tone, is distinctly ominous. Readers may want to talk about the book after it ends, and the text would lend itself well to group discussion in an appropriate classroom or book group. There are so many directions this conversation could take; this is a surprisingly rich book, despite its casual presentation.

I really liked Ink Me. It is clever in its execution and wise in its thematic treatment. I am also intrigued by the concept of the series this book belongs to, involving seven interlocking but non-sequential texts written by seven distinct authors. I look forward to reading the other volumes in the series.

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2012.

** Addendum: If you enjoy Bunny’s adventures, check out Weerdest Day Ever! by Richard Scrimger, available in September 2016. It’s a prequel to Bunny’s Seven series books that takes place several years earlier and is intended for a middle-grade audience. It’s very, very funny!


Review: Capricious

by Gabrielle Prendergast
Orca Book Publishers, 2014

capriciouscoverOne who is capricious is given to changing mood or behaviour frequently and rapidly; capriciousness may also refer to the impossible, that which is based in fancy or fantasy. In Capricious, sequel to 2013’s outstanding Audacious, Gabrielle Prendergast uses the verse-novel form to explore both senses of capriciousness and the consequence of being so.

After volatile experiences with both the law and the court of public opinion, Ella (formerly Raphaelle) is a subdued but still fiercely independent Grade 11 girl. Her life is as complex as ever. She’s intimately involved with one boy while considering dating another. As a condition of her return to school, she’s attempting to maintain a truce with a group of mean girls. And she’s worried her little sister Kayli is trying to grow up too fast. Add to that her persistent questions about life’s bigger issues — religion, morality, freedom, honour: for all the flightiness the title suggests, Ella is contemplating deep and serious matters.

Overall, I enjoyed Capricious. Characters we met in Audacious are back, with more developed roles in the story. Ella’s past actions continue to have consequences, some of them cruel, yet Ella’s responses are generally thoughtful and consistently authentic. I like that Ella stands firm in her individuality and owns both her vulnerability and her non-conformity. I also like the passages about Ella’s maturing artistic talent, expressed in the sketching and displaying of various people’s hands. Finally, I enjoyed the variety of poetic techniques and forms the author has used. I found this novel immensely readable and rewarding. I did, however, feel the novel stands on its own imperfectly. It can be read on its own, of course, but to understand Ella’s insecurities and idiosyncrasies fully, readers really need to know her trajectory from the previous book.

Capricious ends optimistically, if not entirely happily, and acknowledges the ongoing difficulty of realizing one’s true self. There is space for another volume in this series, and I hope the author is working on a third book about Ella. Capricious could make an excellent independent study text for any high school reader who enjoys poetry, and it should be very popular in the teen section of public libraries.


This review was originally published in Resource Links, April 2014.

Review: About That Night

by Norah McClintock
Orca Book Publishers, 2014

aboutNightAbout That Night is a suspenseful, fast-moving mystery that will hook readers from the very first page. An elderly woman wanders away from her home during a snowstorm, apparently very confused and very frightened. At the same time, boyfriend and girlfriend Derek and Jordie are quarrelling about a bracelet Jordie’s ex gave her. Jordie thinks Derek has stolen it out of jealousy; Derek sets off for home in the storm to retrieve the bracelet and prove his innocence. That’s the last night of Derek’s life. Who would want to kill such a promising young man? And what a horrible coincidence that his next-door neighbour — the woman who wandered away — is now also dead. Very soon, Jordie must figure out who’s responsible for Derek’s death and who she’s willing to protect.

The novel moves like a film, cutting rapidly from scene to scene and character to character. The text is masterfully executed, with all the hints and red herrings a good mystery should offer. The characters are fairly standard figures, but the author has given them some complexity and nuance; there is also marked sophistication to the various story elements. The romantic conflicts at the centre of the novel may draw in YA readers who wouldn’t normally read a mystery, and the breakneck pace should keep them engaged. Avid mystery fans may connect the plot details before the characters themselves do, but even then various twists and turns will keep readers guessing right up to the last sentence — and maybe after.

Norah McClintock is a talented writer, and this taut, deftly plotted novel is an excellent choice for mystery readers, readers who prefer a high-action plot, and anyone who enjoys a well-told story. I highly recommend this novel.


This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2014.

Review: Audacious

by Gabrielle Prendergast
Orca Book Publishers, 2013

AudaciousHaving left trouble behind and looking to make a fresh start, Ella — formerly Raphaelle — reinvents herself as she arrives in a prairie city. But she can’t make herself too plain: she is, after all, an artist. When she meets Samir, a Muslim boy, art and trouble come together again. Ella must grapple with what it means to be forbidden, to be authentic, to be audacious — even if it means losing almost everything she’s come to value.

Audacious is a well-crafted verse novel. Some of the best-known book in this genre include Ellen Hopkins’ Crank (which follows a teen girl addicted to methamphetamine) and Sonya Sones’s books Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy and One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, among others. (For those interested in exploring the genre, I’d also recommend Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade trilogy and Martine Leavitt’s stunning 2012 novel My Book of Life by Angel.) Audacious stands up well against the best representatives of the genre. The narrative is thoughtfully structured, and the verse form allows the author to engage in more word play and ambiguity than is typical in a prose novel.

I really liked Audacious. It’s smart, funny, clever, and bold. Ella is a quirky, appealing character with a complicated back story and realistic, identifiable problems. I found it a pleasure to get to know her and to understand her art and artistry. While there are many strands to Ella’s story, the main plot involves a piece of Ella’s artwork. Ella creates a photo montage organized around the word audacious and featuring a problematic image at the centre. When her art is challenged, Ella has to make difficult decisions about her values and principles, where she is willing to compromise and where she must stay true to herself. Her decisions affect her boyfriend, her teachers, her peers, and her family as well as herself, and force her to examine issues she’s run away from in the past. We see real growth in Ella, but she remains a resistant creator, not ready to make nice quite yet.

I strongly recommend Audacious for school and classroom libraries. It explores important, highly topical themes in an intelligent way, and never moralizes or patronizes. Some readers may need to know that the central plot involves a controversial word (and image); the “forbidden” word appears in the text several times in acrostics, for readers who might not be reading closely, but other so-called bad words appear with asterisks in them. This decision engages some of the central themes of the book itself and could lead to valuable discussions about censorship, appropriateness, and context.

Happily, this is not the end of Ella/Raphaelle’s story: the next volume, Capricious, has been announced. I’m looking forward to it.

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