Review | Off the Page, Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer

23278280Off the Page by mother and daughter team Picoult and Van Leer, is a sequel to their earlier collaboration Between the Lines

If, like me, you haven’t read Between the Lines, here’s a quick overview (spoiler warning): shy and bookish Delilah falls in love with a prince, Oliver, in a fairy tale book. It turns out Oliver wants to escape the monotony of fairy tale life himself (he and the other characters have to act out the story each time someone opens the book). They track down the author of the fairy tale, who modelled the character of the prince on her own son Edgar, and by the end of the book, somehow manage to have Oliver and Edgar switch places.

Off the Page takes place a couple of months after. Delilah is thrilled to have her fairy tale prince as a real life boyfriend, until she realizes that the traits she finds so charming about him are also making him the most popular boy in school. The high school queen bee wants him for herself, and Delilah is beginning to wonder if bringing him into her world is worth having to share him with everyone else.

Other complications arise as well. The fairy tale begins sending Oliver messages to return home. Other real life and fairy tale characters accidentally switch places. And Edgar’s mother reveals something that may mean Edgar needs to return to the real world.

This is a fun, lighthearted read. It was entertaining to read about Oliver’s reactions to ordinary things in the real world, and it was easy to see why he was so immediately well-liked. Delilah was a bit more annoying. It seemed selfish of her to be jealous of Oliver’s social success, and her pouty jealousy over an on-stage kiss seemed petty. That being said, I do remember bouts of irrational insecurity as a teenager, so her responses are likely realistic.

What I loved the most was the relationship between Delilah’s best friend Jules and Edgar. They bond over zombies and oddball references, and while Jules’ prickliness could at times be over the top, I did find myself pulling for them even more than I was for Delilah and Oliver.

This is a great book for younger readers. I can imagine myself at ten swooning over the idea of a fairy tale prince coming to life and head over heels in love with me, and then getting all worked up about the circumstances that may keep us apart. The storytelling has a bit of a fairy tale feel as well — a straightforward, simple story line, beautifully illustrated, and featuring a flying dragon, a string of words taking physical form in the air, and a special star you can hold in the palm of your hand. The ending too has a nice, family friendly feel, with a son’s love for his mother being the driving force. There’s an almost Disney-like feel that sets this apart form the grittier, more realistic YA that are very popular these days.

It’s not a Jodi Picoult read by any means — if you’re a fan of her in-depth tearjerkers, this is more an escape from real life than a dive into it. Nor does it completely transport you into the idea of literature as magic — for that, Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart is far more magical.

But it’s a nice read, a great way to spend a lazy afternoon. And if you happen to know a ten or eleven year old bookworm who is a true blue romantic, this would be a great gift.


Thanks to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Boo, Neil Smith

23012503On the first week of school in 1979, thirteen year old Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple dies in front of his locker while reciting the periodic table. A shy, socially awkward aspiring scientist, Boo wakes up in Town, a bit of heaven populated by thirteen year olds. A few days later, he is joined by his classmate Johnny, a friendly popular boy who reveals that both he and Boo had been killed by a school shooter.

Despite technically beginning with death, Boo started out almost whimsically. It was fascinating to see Neil Smith’s vision of heaven for thirteen year olds, and it was great to see Boo, who was friendless on earth, fitting in with the other souls in Town. There’s something reassuring about having an afterlife that’s so similar to our own world, yet there’s also something disquieting about how the old souls (thirteen year olds who’ve been in Town for decades) act older (some of the female souls are referred to as “mothers), yet are still kept childlike in some ways, dependent on god (called “Zig” in Boo’s narration) to provide the basic necessities. Once in a while, something discordant arrives, like a photocopier, and the teens are left to wonder what Zig wants them to do with it.

This foray into a thirteen year old heaven is what I expected when I began the book, and if it remained on that storyline, with perhaps a romance or two sprinkled in, I would have called Boo charming, a fun, entertaining read.

But the story gets darker, much more disturbing than I expected from a YA book, and so much more powerful because of it. It begins with Johnny’s revelation that he and Boo were killed by a school shooter, who had then killed himself. Then the question: what if “Gunboy” had been reborn in Town as well? Haunted by nightmares of the shooting, Johnny becomes obsessed with this possibility, and takes Boo with him on a quest to track down their killer. The story then turns into a very Lord of the Flies type tale, with the Town residents cobbling together their own law enforcement and justice systems. In the afterlife, what could possibly be a fitting punishment for murder? And how far can a desire for revenge go before it descends into madness?

The search for Gunboy and the ensuing trial are among the book’s most disquieting scenes. The Town’s other murder victims see their own desire for justice in Johnny and Boo’s situation. In a particularly chilling moment, while discussing what to do with Gunboy, someone mentions that the other murder victims don’t just see Gunboy, they see their own murderers and abusers, the people in their own lives who caused their deaths and towards whom they are powerless to exact revenge.

And still the story progresses beyond this Lord of the Flies stage. We eventually do learn more about Gunboy, but more than that, we learn about Boo and Johnny and the lives they led before these were so violently cut short. We learn about inner demons, voices in people’s heads who say things people don’t want to hear. We learn about loneliness, and alienation, and all the things that at thirteen, we desperately want to believe “gets better” over time. And above all, we learn about friendship, about the power of a kind word to resonate with someone even beyond death.

Ultimately, I’m not sure what to say about Boo. It’s such a textured, multi-layered story, and I feel that if I read it again, I will parse something new each time. There’s not much going on in the plot, yet so much more happening between the lines, such that any pithy phrase I’d choose to describe it feels inadequate. I don’t even know how I feel about this book. I just know that it made me think, and that several days after I’ve turned the last page, I’m still thinking.


Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | When Everything Feels like the Movies, Raziel Reid

24043806When Everything Feels like the Movies is an unbelievably raw, powerful book. Reading this book is a visceral experience, and I almost didn’t write this review because there is no way I can express the power of Raziel Reid’s writing. He plunges us deep into the mind and heart of his narrator Jude, and creates such a rich, textured voice for his character that Jude will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

Jude is a hilarious narrator whose humour belies the depth of his experiences and pain. A young teen bullied for being gay, Jude copes by imagining himself a movie star. Boys chase him and call him Judy because they are rabid fans. Graffiti about him on bathroom doors are notes from secret admirers. Classmates stare at his outfits and made-up face because the school hallways are actually red carpet premieres and he’s the star. It’s a comforting fiction that crumbles with the first punch, even as he desperately attempts to cling to it. In a particularly heart-wrenching moment, he scrambles to his feet and races away from a group of bullies, describing all the while how he is really acting out a lush, beautiful scene from a movie.

The reason this book is so powerful is the language. Take this passage about bathroom graffiti for example:

They made portraits of me, too. They were my graffiti tabloids. I was totally famous. I’d imagine that the drawing in the handicap stall of my alleged crotch with “Hermafrodite Jude/Judy” scribbled next to it was the cover of the National Enquirer. Misspelled headline included. I was addicted to them. I’d look all over the bathroom and on all the walls in the hallway, and if there wasn’t one waiting for me on my locker for Jim to paint over at the end of the day, I was crushed. I wanted them to hate me; hate was as close to love as I thought I’d ever be. [p. 18]

Passages like that just blow me away. I mean, wow. The studied casualness of stating a desire for this graffiti, contrasted with the subtle dig at the spelling error, and then wrapped up at the end with an almost off-hand remark. Reid manages to pack more sincerity in that final sentence than in the rest of the paragraph, yet the emotion in that last line can be felt throughout, even as Jude pretends otherwise. Bravo, Raziel Reid, is all I can say.

Then Jude falls in love, with a popular boy who happens to be straight. If you know the author’s inspiration for this story, then you already know how that turns out. If you don’t, then I urge you to avoid spoilers at all costs. The ending seemed sudden to me and I thought it came out of nowhere. But I can imagine that’s how it would have seemed in real life as well, especially as Reid keeps us firmly locked within Jude’s perspective.

The controversy around the content of this book has brought it to the attention of many more readers, but it has also almost eclipsed discussion about the book itself, which I think is a shame. Read it to take a stand against censorship, if you like, but also read it just because it’s a very, very good book. Jude is a star, and his story will pull you right in and never let you go.