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: Queen of the Crows

by Harmony Wagner
Acorn Press, 2016

queencrowsHungry and afraid when her mother fails to come home yet again, Elsa finds comfort in a crow that seems to be following her — until that crow talks to her. As Elsa tries to hold her precarious life together, she is drawn into a life-or-death battle for dominance among the local crows. Watching the crows resolve their crisis, Elsa learns that birds and people aren’t so different after all.

Eleven-year-old Elsa is incredibly resourceful. She knows she’s growing up too quickly because of her mother’s illness, but loyalty and fear prevent her from reaching out for help. She’s fairly nimble at deflecting attention from herself in the adult world, but at school she is the target of bullying by mean girls, as well as by a teacher who misrecognizes Elsa’s struggle to hold her tiny family together as either stupidity or an indifference to schooling. (I was impressed the author included this point in the narrative, because it’s a topic rarely acknowledged by teachers or even in teacher training.) Elsa is remarkably warm-hearted for a young person in such dire circumstances, as readers will observe through a subplot that involves the integration of Karen refugees into Canadian society; and while her life isn’t going to improve immediately, at the story’s end Elsa is stronger and wiser.

The crow story centres around Cracks, who introduces himself as a jester; this plot provides an imaginative counter-narrative to Elsa’s bleak experiences. The Queen of the Crows has disappeared, and the rest of the crows, including the Queen’s court, are unsettled. When a power vacuum appears, an older, scheming crow called Lustre attempts to exploit the flock’s distress. The reason for the Queen’s absence, however, underlines how the resolve of a supposed outsider can mask something valuable and rare.

This closely observed realistic fiction is nicely balanced with animal fantasy for middle-grade readers. Queen of the Crows is Harmony Wagner’s first novel (it’s based on a film), so there are admittedly a few rough spots, but the larger story is compelling enough to keep readers going. That said, this is a tough plot that doesn’t pull back from the harsh reality of Elsa’s circumstances, so it’s best suited to readers who will give Elsa a chance. Adults should also be prepared to answer questions readers may have about Elsa’s situation.

Readers who have enjoyed books like Brian Jacques’s Redwall series and who are ready for plots based in realism, diversity, and social justice should enjoy this novel. The themes of loyalty and independence will resonate, and regrettably the issue of bullying is still relevant in classrooms across the country. Queen of the Crows is a poignant story of poverty, hardship, and resilience that will reward attentive, sensitive readers.

 

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

 

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: Journeys in Community-Based Research

by Bonnie Jeffery, Isobel M. Findlay, Diane Martz, and Louise Clarke, eds.
University of Regina Press, 2016

journeysincoverTo many people, pure academic research seems obscure, even irrelevant. Some organizations pointedly ridicule curiosity-based research, implying that only applied research – research undertaken to be put to use – is valuable. And then there is community-based research, a third form directed at positive action, social change, and advocacy, and also the subject of a recent book published by University of Regina Press. It might just change your mind about the significance of academic research.

Journeys in Community-Based Research examines ten years of community-based research in Saskatchewan. This research has been underwritten by two bodies – the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit (SPHERU) and the Community–University Institute for Social Research (CUISR) – that work with various partners to address community issues and create positive change. Readers may be familiar with some of the projects and their outcomes.

Community-based research (CBR) connects academic rigour with real community needs, producing valuable relationships among universities, policy-makers, non-governmental organizations, and social agencies. The goal is always to discover and deliver benefits for communities at large. As the volume editors explain, CBR relationships emphasize “the central values of power, voice, and control throughout all aspects of the partnership and process.” To realize the bigger goals of a project, partners need to be responsive, flexible, and willing to learn. The projects discussed in Journeys in Community-Based Research demonstrate how to set up partnerships and how to build trust and earn respect. The writers also reflect on what they have learned from specific projects and encourage others to adopt CBR to make lasting social change.

This is an important book for Saskatchewan readers. It discusses urgent local matters and examines how groups are working together to address communities’ most immediate needs. One idea that the book’s contributors take seriously is that successful solutions and directions for change must not be imposed on people. Decades of bad policies and failed initiatives have taught policy-makers this, yet it continues to happen again and again. When they adopt CBR, community agencies can direct researchers’ interests to questions that the members of a community want to address, such as the needs of women escaping domestic violence or the health outcomes of Aboriginal youth. Such an approach gives the community a leading role and encourages member empowerment. In view of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, community leadership and empowerment are vital to our social well-being and healing.

Journeys in Community-Based Research is not a book for everybody, but its potential reach is impressive. Most chapters are fairly accessible, if serious, and suit a broad readership. The book should be of interest not only to scholars and students, but also to community leaders, policy-makers, managers and frontline workers in helping agencies, and anyone interested in learning how on-the-ground research makes our communities stronger.

This review was originally published on www.skbooks.com.

 

Review: The Serpent King

by Jeff Zentner,
Tundra Books, 2016

serpent king-coverFirst-time author Jeff Zentner’s YA novel The Serpent King follows Dill and his friends Travis and Lydia through their final year of high school and explores their struggles to break free of heredity and inheritance. It’s a typical problem novel, and this trio faces a pile of problems indeed. But of course, because the book is intended for “children”, it must somehow end happily.

Dill is the central character. Dill and Travis have hard lives, while Lydia’s is privileged, apart from the “hardship” of growing up in a small Southern town. Numerous forces — such as poverty, abusive fathers, school bullying, small-minded religiosity, and a general nastiness — may keep the friends from achieving their dreams. The plot, told in their alternating voices, describes what happens and how it affects them.

I read A LOT of YA books and understand why many adults dislike the genre. Problem fiction always risks overdoing the drama; mishandled, problem novels turn into miserablism for teens. That’s how this novel reads. Every plot point feels heavy and overdetermined — but perhaps that’s what a reader should expect when the novelist sets his story in a town named after a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. (The author’s comments suggest that he based the book on his own experiences of growing up in the American South.)

Novels like this often receive heaps of praise for being sensitive, gritty, and realistic, and certainly this novel is realistic. Many teens do struggle with serious problems, and the political and social fracturing of communities — particularly between urban and small-town rural and between haves and have-nots — amplifies the already significant challenge of growing up. But writing about individuals’ problems does not necessarily make a great book. Perhaps for people who don’t read much YA literature, this book feels fresh and aware because of the ground it covers; for anyone immersed in the genre, however, it feels overburdened with types and tropes (not to mention a heavy-handed attempt to update the character of Atticus Finch in the form of Lydia’s dad). The dread-filled atmosphere was so thoroughgoing and unrelieved that I found the book a challenge to grind through. And the conclusion, when everything is set as right as it can be, was far too long. I stopped caring about the characters and their futures — that’s not a good sign for any book.

If you’re a straight white Christian boy growing up in a small Southern town, The Serpent King confirms that “it gets better” when you grow up and leave. Such a conclusion frankly makes me wonder what small-town America will be in another decade — but perhaps current US politics already tells *that* story.

The Serpent King is a fine book, but just that: fine. I am not the audience for this novel and didn’t care for it.

 

Originally published on LibraryThing on May 22, 2016.

Review: Revenge on the Fly

by Sylvia McNicoll
Pajama Press, 2014

RevengeFly_C_Dec5.inddWill Alton and his father are new immigrants to Canada. They are learning that Ontario in 1912 is not a welcoming place for Irish immigrants and that the grand life they dream of is elusive. Will sees a chance to better their circumstances when he enters a fly-catching contest. The question is, how far is he willing to go to catch enough flies to win?

I enjoyed this book tremendously. The story moves quickly, and Will is a immensely appealing narrator. Will is intelligent but also crafty; honest, but not above bending the rules to his own interests. He’s also sensitive, having lost his younger sister and then his mother, and it is this aspect of his personality that makes Will’s ultimate revenge on the fly so complex and so satisfying. The idea of the fly-collecting contest — as disgusting as it might seem to us today — was inspired by real events and real historical figures. This inspiration offers a unique and unexpected way to explore Will’s larger story.

Beyond the main plot, readers will find many absorbing themes, such as issues of poverty and class, bias and discrimination, sickness and loss. The story identifies emerging urban tensions (such as cars displacing horses, the luxury of indoor plumbing, which only some possess, and the need for government-mandated public health policy), but does so within the context of Will’s telling, so that the text never feels didactic, dry, or stuffy. This is a book that will reward follow-up conversations, and it could be well used in the classroom.

One feature I particularly appreciated about this book was its intense focus on Will’s physical world. Sensory details are brilliantly captured, enriching our sense of history and the immediacy of the story. We smell with Will the awful garbage and rotting manure he digs through in pursuit of flies, see the ragtag boardinghouse he and his father inhabit, taste the sweet and tart Christmas memory an orange evokes, feel the sting of the strap he receives for disobeying the principle and its throb for hours afterward. And of course we see and hear and feel the thousands of flies Will kills — an ick factor that adds a delicious frisson to the story. Certainly part of the enjoyment of the book comes from its physical presentation. The copy I read has a gigantic, highly detailed fly laminated on the back cover (as well as numerous smaller laminated flies on the front cover), so that as I read, I was constantly touching the raised graphic and reminded of the fly and the evil it represents to Will — a very effective design decision!

Revenge on the Fly is an excellent book, one I expect to see nominated for awards in the coming months. It will make readers laugh, cringe, shudder — and think. I recommend it highly.

 

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