Review | Loyalist to a Fault (Dead Kid Detective Agency 3), Evan Munday

DeadKidLoyalistI’m a huge fan of Evan Munday’s Dead Kid Detective Agency series, so I was thrilled to hear that book 3 was coming out this Fall. Loyalist to a Fault has all the trademarks that make Munday’s writing such a treat — 1980s/90s pop culture references, middle school hijinks (school dance!) and a historical mystery. Throw in a ghost pirate who breaks into the town’s museum, and my little museum nerdy heart was all a-twitter.

The unifying thread behind the Dead Kid series is a mix of Scooby Doo meets Nancy Drew goes goth — October Schwartz befriends some tween ghosts in her neighbourhood cemetery, discovers that they’ve all died under mysterious circumstances, and vows to solve each of their murders in turn. The ghost whose death is investigated here is 18th century British settler Cyril Cooper, whose story involves spies, pirates and some mysterious historical documents involving his family.

Munday ratchets up the antics in this instalment, which wasn’t a huge draw for me, but which I admit may appeal to the kids this book was actually written for. Among the ghosts’ superpowers is the ability to detach and reattach body parts, and all the tossing about of heads and limbs was just a bit much for me.

I did enjoy the middle grade romances in this book’s subplot, in particular a couple of romantic possibilities for October herself and a potential match between a couple of the dead kids. The scene at the school dance was hilarious and fun, and shows just how perfect a battleground a school gym can be. I did wish the subplot involving October’s living friends was explored a bit more (the resolution felt a bit of a letdown), but I’m glad there are several more books in the series for this to play out.

I’m a total museum geek, and I especially geek out over historical archives, so I was glad that Munday made the Sticksville Museum such a huge part of this story. As a fan of British cozy mysteries in small towns, I have to admit being disappointed that the Sticksville historical celebration wasn’t quite given as much focus as I’d hoped, but to be fair, I can imagine that most other readers would have chosen to focus on ghostly pirate battles as well.

The mystery behind Cyril’s death is solved, somewhat, but a whole lot of other questions remain. We end the book knowing who the murderer is, but unless I missed it completely, still completely in the dark on the motive behind the killing. Instead, Munday teases us with some big revelations about the overarching mystery of the series, hinting at a major series-end reveal that would explain everything. More significantly, he also hints at a link to October, which ties her in even more with the ghost kids and possibly explains the mysterious phone calls she’s been receiving.

Munday is as witty and full of pop culture references as ever, but none of the lines quite struck me as much as the witticisms in his earlier books. I’d also be curious to know how his middle grade readers respond to the humour — I geek out over it because I understand the references to 80s cartoons and 90s TV shows, but I’d love to know how it connects with kids born after 2000.

Overall, this is a solid instalment in the series, one that seems stronger as an instalment in a larger story than as a stand alone title. I’m intrigued by all the various plot threads Munday has in the air, and am curious to see how they all tie together in the end. And if you’re looking for a fun book to read this Halloween, you just can’t go wrong with a ghost pirate mystery.

Review | Playing with Matches, Suri Rosen

20578768When her sister’s heart is broken, 16 year old Raina Resnick decides to set up the anonymous matchmaking service “Match Maven” and help her sister find true love. Leah, after all, is twenty-three and unmarried, and as Raina points out, this is a big deal because “you have to think in dog years when you’re single in a traditional Jewish community” (page 31).

Playing with Matches is a hilarious tale of matchmaking, filled with increasingly ludicrous scenarios and yet anchored throughout by Raina’s very real desire to reconnect with her sister. The Match Maven dates are hilarious — a scene involving a Porta Potty is just so over the top that all you can do is laugh. For anyone who’s tried online dating and had some pretty horrific experiences, this book will make you feel better about your love life. And yet there is also the story of Esther, an elderly woman who lost her husband to a brain aneurysm years ago and is now looking for a second chance at love. Just as Raina does, we can’t help but feel invested in these singles asking for help, and just like Raina, we want them to find their perfect match.

However, it is Leah’s search for a match that really propels the story. As the anonymous “Match Maven,” Raina is able to offer advice and connect with Leah at the same time as Leah is pulling away from her sister in real life. Honestly, Leah’s conversations with Match Maven made me really uncomfortable — it’s Leah’s decision whom to trust with her feelings, and she was really being tricked into revealing them to her sister. I understood why Raina felt she had to do it, and how because of her persona as Match Maven, Raina couldn’t really do much to stop it. Still, it felt like an invasion of her privacy, and despite the way things eventually turn out, it still felt like a betrayal of trust. More a criticism of a character’s actions than a criticism of the book itself, but I do wish this aspect of it had been explored a bit more.

The novel also stretches credibility, though that might just be my unfamiliarity with Jewish matchmaking customs in the 21st century. If a matchmaker is supposed to broker the deal from the first date all the way to the wedding, and if, like a wedding planner, she must be on hand to help deal with disasters as Raina is, is it believable that the matchmaker remain anonymous? Also, do matchmakers render the service for free, or are they usually paid? None of Raina’s clients ever enquire about fees, or, if she is anonymous, about methods of payment. Given the level of commitment required and the significance of the task, I’d think matchmaking would be a profession, and therefore a paid service, rather than something one does for strangers just out of the goodness of their hearts. I of course know nothing about traditional Jewish matchmaking rituals — for example, I didn’t realize it was still so prevalent in the 21st century — and this book makes me want to learn more.

Still, Rosen speaks of Jewish customs with an ease and confidence that Eve Harris lacks in The Marrying of Chauni Kaufman, an “Orthodox Jewish Pride and Prejudice” that struck me as presenting an expertise on a culture without adequate understanding. I don’t know how accurate Rosen’s portrayal of Jewish customs is, but her book is at least much more natural in tone and affectionate about these customs. Playing with Matches is also less concerned with detailing all the various aspects of the traditions — rather, it concerns itself much more with the story, providing enough details that I knew what was going on but not bombarding me with so much information that it felt like more like a Wikipedia article than a novel.

Playing with Matches is a great book for the weekend. The book blurb describes Raina’s matchmaking service as a cross between Jane Austen’s Emma, Dear Abby and Yenta the matchmaker, and that’s pretty much on point. Some of the plot threads were too neatly resolved and at times, Raina’s streak of bad luck felt like a ploy by the author to garner sympathy for the character. But overall, the story was a lot of fun to read, and featured a cast of characters you want to succeed in their search for true love.

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Thank you to ECW Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | Project Superhero, E. Paul Zehr and Kris Pearn (illus.)

20578719I have to admit, the minute I saw this cover, Project Superhero went right to the top of my TBR pile. I also have to admit that I mistakenly thought it was a graphic novel about a young girl who creates actual superhero powers for herself. The actual premise of the story is somewhat similar, though much more grounded in reality and real-life heroes than the caped crusader teen my mind had conjured up from this cover.

13 year old Jessie and her classmates are given a year-long research project on superheroes, which culminates in the Superhero Slam, a head-to-head debate about which superhero reigns supreme, given a set of characteristics like agility, recovery and teamwork. A shy comic book nerd, Jessie is both thrilled by the subject of the assignment and terrified at the need for public speaking at the end of the project. She decides to champion Batgirl, who doesn’t have superpowers but rather relies on training and hard work to achieve great things. Through the year, Jessie documents her work on the project, which involves training in karate to become as strong as Batgirl, and which also connects her with real life heroes such as Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser, NASA astronaut Nicole Stott and Batgirl writer Brian Q. Miller, among others.

According to the advance reading copy I received, author E. Paul Zehr is known for using superheroes as a metaphor to communicate science. The book does a good job of teaching scientific principles, using both Jessie’s research on superheroes and her karate lessons. For example, an observation about how karate lessons are affecting her mentally as well as physically leads to a brief description of the cerebellum and the 100 billion neurons in the brain. Because the science is presented in line with something tangible like karate training or Batgirl powers, it’s a fun, easy way to learn. Heck, I learned things I don’t even remember taking up in school.

I love the premise behind this book, particularly the question on what makes a hero, and the vibe that girls can do anything, because science! Even a shy comic book nerd like Jessie can become a physically strong karateka with the confidence to debate her classmate in front of the entire school. I love that real-life heroes took the time to contribute to this project, and practically every other chapter is a brief interview or note from a notable name that inspires Jessie (and therefore the reader) to have confidence in her ability to achieve her goals.

The book is most valuable as an educational resource and a source of inspiration from these real life individuals, rather than for the story itself. The idea of the Superhero Slam held promise, but the debate itself wasn’t exciting. Part of me wishes Jessie’s class had been allowed to create their own superheroes rather than use ready-made DC and Marvel characters. If you could be any kind of superhero, what would you be and why? I believe those answers will be much more interesting, and much more revealing, than a canned debate on why Ironman isn’t as agile as Captain America. As well, due to the format of the story, superheroes other than Batgirl herself are given fairly short shrift — we learn next to nothing about the actual superhero characters, and so Jessie’s nervousness about some of her match ups fail to register any actual impact. And the way the debate ended made no sense to me. The framing device helps target the message towards its readers, but almost feels superfluous by the end.

Jessie is 13, but the book itself seems to skew more towards a younger demographic. The illustrations are absolutely awesome, and will definitely keep readers turning the page. The premise is inspiring, and I hope the letters from familiar names will inspire young readers to become real-life heroes themselves.

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Thank you to ECW Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | Depth of Field, Chantel Guertin

20344869At the end of the first Pippa Green novel, Pippa had just won admission to the prestigious two week Tisch Photography Camp. Depth of Field picks up pretty much where the last left off, and some of the threads left hanging in the first book are resolved here.

The Tisch Photography Camp is Pippa’s dream come true, mostly because it’s in the same school her father graduated from. Unfortunately, while her boyfriend Dylan and best friend Dace were originally going to come to New York with her, both had to back out at the last minute. Instead of the fun NYC trip she’d planned, Pippa was stuck with the annoying Ben Baxter, who used her work to cheat his way into the programme.

Part of it may that I’m just too old for this kind of drama, but the entire time Pippa complained about her boyfriend and best friend being out of reach for the two week camp, all I could think of is that it’s just two weeks. You can survive two weeks — grow up.

Depth of Field is better than the first book — we learn a bit more about Pippa’s relationship with her father, and why photography is so important to her. The photography projects in this book were also more interesting, and I especially love the group of students who did a pigeon’s eye view series of the city. I wish the photography angle had been explored more. For an experience that had been such a dream for Pippa, we learn a lot more about her life outside the camp than about photography lessons she’d learned.

The book is written well, and a quick entertaining read. I only wish the story had been a little less predictable. For example, Pippa gets to know Ben a bit better in this book, and realizes he’s much more complex than she’d originally thought. Personally, I think his reason still doesn’t excuse his actions in the first book, and I much prefer Dylan’s witty flirtation to Ben’s complete 180 into a sensitive guy. But Dylan isn’t answering Pippa’s calls, and Ben’s turning out to be a tortured soul, so you do the math. With Pippa so adamant that Ben would ruin her Tisch experience and with Ben so bafflingly nice to her from the beginning, it seemed pretty obvious where this was headed. And normally, I may not mind, except Pippa’s cluelessness throughout just got annoying.

Beyond Ben, Pippa’s also dealing with David, her Tisch mentor and a renowned photographer with unexpected ties to her parents’ past. The truth is a bit of a surprise, though to be honest, he seemed so sleazy that I was expecting something much more sinister — a sign, clearly, that I need to stop reading/watching all those creepy psychological thrillers.

To Pippa’s disappointment, one of the most important things she learns from her mentor is that he’s unprofessional and a flake. This leads to one of the most unbelievable twists in the series yet, which, I’m sorry to say, is pure wish fulfillment. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s impossible that such a thing would happen, but it’s highly unlikely and sets Pippa up as a special snowflake type of heroine.

This is unfortunate, because when it comes to realism, Guertin is amazing at capturing depth of emotion. When Pippa wears a Tisch sweatshirt in memory of her father for her first day at Camp, for example, or when she has a breakthrough for her final Tisch project — these are all beautifully written moments, and they ground the story. Even when Pippa has a series of misadventures in various projects for Camp, it’s fun to read, and the reader can relate to the feeling of being out of your depth in a big city. And while I didn’t like the predictability of Ben’s storyline, there’s a moment when he pursues his own reasons for going to New York, and it’s sad, and I wish more had been done with it.

With both the books in the series, there’s a lot going on and a lot of real emotion being explored, and yet there’s always at least one big scene that feels completely false and takes me right out of Pippa’s world. The photography aspect is great, and I think girls who dream of becoming professional photographers themselves will enjoy reading about Pippa Greene. The ending of this book sets up for a sequel, and I’d be curious to see where Guertin takes Pippa’s story next.

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Thank you to ECW Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Rule of Thirds, Chantel Guertin

9781770411593Sixteen year old Pippa Greene is an aspiring photographer preparing for the competition Vantage Point, where the top two entrants will gain admission to Tisch Camp, a pre-university training course at Pippa’s dream school. She also has to volunteer at a hospital, a place that still gives Pippa panic attacks — literally — ever since her father’s unsuccessful battle against cancer. Pippa is also keeping a secret from her best friend/aspiring supermodel Dace: despite their long-ago pact to be a fashion photographer/supermodel tandem, Pippa finds herself drawn to a different type of photography, featuring objects that deal with the theme of memory. Finally, Pippa is torn between two boys: fellow aspiring photographer Ben and musician/potential slacker Dylan.

There’s a lot going on in Chantel Guertin’s The Rule of Thirds but not much reaches its potential. The love triangle is forced — it’s pretty obvious throughout whom Pippa really likes, and it’s just a matter of time before the characters figure it out too. The conflict between Pippa and Dace also seems rather forced. I do remember being a teenager, and how important such best friend pacts are. But there just wasn’t enough lead up in this book; when this situation comes to a head, I was mostly wondering where all the drama suddenly came from.

Near the end, someone does something pretty horrible, and when the person explains their motives, something tells Pippa she’s still not getting the whole story. According to the back cover, this is the first book in a series, so perhaps that unresolved plot thread will be picked up in a later book, but considering the extent of the act, I wish it could have been explored more. As well, that particular plot point leads to a really far-fetched action-adventure scene, involving a drunk individual who miraculously maintains their wits and balance. Not necessarily a bad scene, but when compared to some really strong quieter moments, a disappointment.

That being said, there are several things that Guertin does really well in this novel. I love the text conversations between Dylan and Pippa — the flirtation over gross food is adorable, and I love Dylan’s understated wit. For example, after an aborted date where Pippa has a panic attack at an ice cream parlour, he texts: “Thank you for saving me from what’s obv. v. bad ice cream. A bit dramatic but I’m impressed by ur dedication to cause. (U OK?)” [p. 120]

I also love Pippa’s reflections on dealing with her dad’s cancer. For example:

I felt special. I was the girl whose dad had cancer.

And then when I realized I was about to become the girl whose dad died of cancer, I stopped feeling anything at all. [p. 137]

Beautiful and potent.

Finally, I like the bits about photography. Another character makes a snarky comment about Pippa’s chosen theme of “Memory” and indeed it is beyond cliche. However, I do like how the act of taking pictures centres Pippa. The title of the book should be familiar to anyone with a visual arts background (the Rule of Thirds on Wikipedia), but it did set up the expectation that the protagonist would be a photographer extraordinaire. She is a good photographer, and certainly well-versed in the mechanics of composition (at one point, she observes that a fellow photographer’s work shows no sense of composition, and is just a regular photo of trees). However, I do wish she’d come up with a more unique theme than Memory. Something Claudia Kishi-level unexpected, but her talent makes it work.

Still, there’s this passage that I found very striking:

Who can remember every photo they’ve ever taken? I can. There’s an iPhoto album in my brain where very single one is collated and tagged, easy for me to call up — the composition, the thinking process, the set-up and capture. And I’d certainly remember a shot like [that]. Any real photographer would. It’s a great photo. [p. 134]

I modified the original quote somewhat to avoid anything remotely spoilerish, but the point remains. And will possibly resonate with any photographer, or any artist really, who reads this.

Overall, The Rule of Thirds has some really good moments, but still ends up trying to juggle too many elements that don’t really come together.

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Thank you to ECW Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Dial “M” for Morna, Evan Munday

Full disclosure: I absolutely adored the first book in this series. So much so that as early as last year, at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, I bugged the author to tell me when Book 2 would be published. Then, in May, I happened to meet his publicist at another author’s book launch, and again I bugged her for the release date of Book 2. She agreed to send me an ARC, and yes, I’m afraid I emailed her a week later to follow up and she admitted the ARCs weren’t even ready for mailing yet. So, to author Evan Munday and to his publicist: my apologies. I’m not a creepy stalker reader fan, I promise. But really, you publish a book about a Scooby gang of dead kids and a goth tween named October who is writing a book called Two Knives, One Thousand Demons, you do expect some rabid fangirling, don’t you?

Full disclosure number two: I already want to read Book 3.

9781770410732Dial “M” for Morna picks up about a few weeks after the events in Dead Kid Detective Agency. The next full moon is coming up and October is no closer to fulfilling her promise of solving the mystery behind Morna’s death. And as if solving a 100-year-old murder mystery weren’t challenging enough, October’s friend Yumi finds herself the target of anti-Asian harassment at school.

In my review of Dead Kid, I said that the mystery was more Scooby Doo than Agatha Christie — not much of a puzzle, but still an awesome ride. Munday sharpens his mystery writing skills with this volume, which is much more atmospheric than the last one. With the help of an awesome young history teacher (a Battlestar Galactica fan who wears Buddy Holly glasses), October uses a microfilm station to research Morna’s life. Yes, a microfilm. I’ve never used one (librarians, please tell me they still exist!), but the reference did take me back to Sweet Valley and Elizabeth Wakefield. I loved the historical research — October finds an old diary, a war memento, and other items that just thrill my geeky little heart. Seriously, that’s my type of mystery. Even the contemporary mystery about racial harassment has more of a Nancy Drew feel than the last book, and what Munday gives up in terms of madcap hilarity, he more than makes up for in a deeper, more complex mystery.

Dial “M” also features a mysterious, pre-rotary dial phone in the abandoned boarding house where Morna used to live. For some reason, it only works for October, and a voice on the other end provides her with cryptic clues along the way. I’ll be honest: this supernatural Deep Throat completely freaked me out. And when you’re a thirty year old woman huddling under the covers, terrified of having nightmares from a book written for 9-12 year olds, well, it’s rather tough on the ol’ ego. According to the author, “That phone was inspired by one of the more terrifying episodes of The Twilight Zone I remember from my youth.” Munday does manage to capture that Twilight Zone feel, at least for this reader, and I was never more glad to see the jokey narrator come in and break the mood.

There were some things I didn’t quite like in this book. First: the big reveal about Stacey Whatshisname’s last name. From October’s utter inability to remember it for over a book and a half, I was expecting something like Spock’s last name, so Stacey’s last name turned out to be a letdown. I do see the point in concealing it, plot-wise, but I still didn’t think it was necessary. The other point didn’t bother me so much as puzzle me, and I know it was the same with the first book, but for some reason, I wondered more about it with this one: why split the narration between October and the unnamed narrator? I like both narrative voices, but the assigning of narrative to one or the other seems mostly arbitrary.

Ultimately though, there are two things that make the Dead Kid series so awesome: Munday’s wit and unexpected moments of tenderness. I love the bit about Morna’s crush, and the scene where she asks for a vest almost made me tear up. I love the scene where October, who doesn’t approve of her father’s current girlfriend, asks him if he’s happy. I especially love the romance I sense (or perhaps wish for) beginning to develop between Yumi and Stacey (go, Stacey, go!). Surrounded as they are by creepy telephones and throwaway wisecracks, these moments stand out, and the story is richer for them. And as for the wit, well, here’s something to take with you next winter: “the snow was fiercer than Tyra Banks’s stare.” [p. 241]

As the two mysteries begin to wrap up, a larger mystery begins to emerge, one that seems like it will span the rest of the series. In true Evan Munday style, this larger mystery promises to end up Buffy the Vampire Slayer type epic. That’s awesome enough to make me almost forgive having to wait several more books before seeing it resolved. Almost. Finally, Munday ends on a hell of a cliffhanger, which means that once again, I’m ridiculously excited to read Book 3. When I tweeted him about the ending, he responded: “I’m the worst, right?” Well yes, yes you are, Mr. Munday, and as a fan of the series, all I can say it, thank god for that.

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Thank you to ECW Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Miracles of Ordinary Men, Amanda Leduc

9781770411111_0Amanda Leduc’s Miracles of Ordinary Men is a lovely, deeply spiritual novel. What can an English professor who doesn’t believe in God do when he wakes up one morning with angel wings? What else, but ask the Catholic priest from his childhood for guidance, a priest who cooks a mean dish of scrambled eggs but is forced to admit that God’s will is as mysterious to him as it is to the professor, Sam. Along with Sam’s story is that of Lilah, a young woman whose brother wanders the streets of Vancouver and who assuages her guilt by allowing herself to be physically and sexually dominated by her boss. Miracles of Ordinary Men begins with a miracle — Sam brings his cat Chickenhead back to life — and turns into an exploration of belief, guilt and the ambiguity of human potential.

I’m not a religious, or even particularly spiritual, person, so it was a surprise to find myself getting really drawn into this book. I credit Leduc’s writing — her language is beautiful, I would even say spell-binding. In describing an experience of physical pain for example, Leduc writes, “She dreams of light that isn’t warm.” I love, absolutely love, that line.

A lot may also have to do with my own Catholic upbringing. Leduc’s story took me back to a time when I believed priests and nuns had a direct line to God and could give me the answers I sought. The story also reminded me of the moment when I realized they didn’t know everything, that spiritual searching, the big question about one’s purpose, or God’s plan, is inevitably a lifelong quest, and may never be answered. Even Sam’s angel wings, which propels the story, isn’t an incontrovertible fact — most people can’t see the wings; they only see rips in Sam’s shirt. Yet for this reader at least, the existence of the wings was never in question; much like Catholicism itself, Leduc’s story demands a degree of faith from the reader. Whether the wings exist or not matter less than whether or not you are open to the possibility that they do. Leduc situates her story firmly in this ambiguity, definitive answers always just a bit out of reach, and because of that, achieves a heightened sense of realism, even within a story about angel wings and demons in human form.

Despite the presence of angel wings, God’s presence in this story is conspicuously characterized by his absence. Leduc makes the wise choice not to let her characters get too embroiled in discussions about whether there is even a God in the first place. Even the atheist Sam is less concerned about finding a scientific explanation for his angel wings than he is about finding a spiritual one. As a result, the question “Does God exist?” is rarely uttered out loud. Rather, it simmers below the surface — every time Sam asks why he has wings, every time the priest admits he knows even less than Sam does — always, always is the unspoken question, the one the characters, and indeed many believers in real life, may be afraid to even dare contemplate.

In contrast, the devil is very much present, commandingly so. In the form of Israel, Lilah’s cruel, domineering boss and lover, evil is as certain and as present in this novel as God is left unclear. Lilah’s sexual relationship with Israel is a metaphor for her own need for penance, and a discomfiting reference to the mostly outdated Catholic practice of penitence through physical mortification. In the Philippines, some people still seek penance through self-flagellation, others through the less extreme measure of walking from one church to another on one’s knees. There’s something liberating in pain, and within the context of assuaging guilt, pain can become almost comforting.

Miracles of Ordinary Men is a novel powerful in its uncertainty, realism within the framework of fantasy. It offers no easy answers, nor does it even establish what the questions are. Rather, the story exists in ambiguity, drawing the reader in and asking, if not for belief, than at least for a mind open to possibilities.

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I purchased this book at the launch in Ben McNally Books, May 2013. Thank you to the author and the publisher for an invitation to the launch.