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.