Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Sham by Ellen Allen

Title: The Sham
Author: Ellen Allen
Publisher: BookBaby
Rating: WORTHY!

p122 "...Mary Poppins Stylie..." should be "...Mary Poppins Style..."
p172 "-Whose 'they', Jack?" should be "-Who's 'they', Jack?" or better, "-Who're 'they', Jack?"

Nothing is labeled in this novel - no chapter numbering, and so on. It's highly unconventional - which just goes to show that it can be done! I skipped what appeared to be the prologue because I don't ever do prologues, and I began at what appeared to be chapter one, which was titled, 'The argument or how "muzzling a sparrow" can kill a friendship'.

I didn't know this when I chose to read this for review, but the novel is set in Britain, which soon became apparent from certain word choices. Since I was raised in Britain, this was a bonus for me. It was really nice to read a YA story which was not set in the USA. There actually are other nations on this planet and I fear for American youth that some of them, fed a constant diet of US based children's and YA stories, may not actually realize this!

This is a first person PoV novel which I normally detest, but in this case it wasn't written obnoxiously, so the author escaped another one of my traps! Well done! Rebecca Pearce, Becky, Catherine Emms, and Kitty Jelfs are evidently the school bullies, but the twist is that one of them and the main protagonist, Emily Heath, are indirectly related. It's one of the rules in novels that no two characters ever have the same name, so it was nice to see that trope being given the finger here, but I have to say it was slightly confusing in the opening chapter because it was not at all clear to me initially that Becky and Rebecca were not the same person.

Nor was it clear which one was Emily's step-relation. It's explained later. It was obviously not Cath or Kitty, but I honestly got to wondering if Rebecca and Becky actually were the same person, yet perceived as two people by Emily for some reason. It actually also occurred to me that Emily might also be Rebecca and Becky, suffering from a weird personality disorder, but that seemed to be stretching things a bit too far! I later learned that all of them are in fact separate people.

I love the way the author enjoys the English language as exemplified by the dichotomy between the two meanings of 'cleave' which she defines for us (with an end note referencing yet!). This - not the reference, but the delight the author took in the contrary definitions of the same word - was one of several things which initially lent me confidence that here might be a worthy tale for me. I love authors who share the same relish for the language that I do.

The four girls are not only the school bullies, but also the out-of-school bullies, and the story begins with them bullying a ten-year-old boy whom they apparently abducted from a supermarket, and who's scared to death of them. This takes place on Xmas eve, in a children's play area, where Emily happens to be pushing her young sister Lily, on the swings.

It's cold and wet, already a miserable evening, and Emily is scared of these girls, but she finds the guts to at least confront their antics, if not their actual behavior pattern. Someone needs to, because their bullying is vicious and calculated. These girls behave as if they have nothing to lose, but fortunately Jack shows up to save the day. Rebecca and Becky are quite well-drawn; Cath and Kitty not so much. I have to say that it was really creepy the way Rebecca's every statement was phrased as a question, and no one remarked upon it. Actually this is a creepy story, and perfectly titled as you'll see when you reach the end...and all becomes clear.

I was warned by the author and in some reviews I read, that this is a pretty graphic novel for a novel that's actually not a graphic novel, and I phrase it that way purposefully, because although the abuse depicted in this first chapter is nasty and beyond what we normally find in YA books, it was tame compared with what I'd expected after all those warnings I received! Indeed it was tame as compared with what we see in many actual graphic novels.

Make no mistake - it's mean and evil, but it's not as bad as I'd been led to believe it would be. For me, the interesting issue here was why these warnings were even felt necessary. The age range for young adult literature is typically given as 14 - 24, which to me is too big of a range given the changes which occur to children as they mature from one age to the other, and end up as adults, but the upper end of that range should not have to be warned that there's a novel out there which depicts real life! Are our young adults so sheltered and coddled that this is a requirement? That's truly sad.

PG 13 movies typically show activities of the kind depicted here, so I don't really get what the issue is. Do people think YA novels should be fairy-tale like? Because we get way too many of those, and too many of those are awful. Clearly people who had issues with this writing have never seen a movie like To Sir, with Love which actually featured one incident reminiscent of one featured during this episode. I don't know what that movie was rated, but it's an ancient movie and I don't know of any scandal that was associated with it even back then, regarding inappropriateness of subject matter. Young adult readers need to tighten their sphincter.

There were some glitches in the writing (I'll give some examples), but in general this novel is very well written. No huge grammatical faux pas or spelling mistakes (unless you think British spelling is a mistake lol! - but the Brits had it first, remember?!). So here's the first: judgment was spelled as judgement on page 116, but I don't recall if that's acceptable in Britain.

There were one or two instances where I wondered if the wording sounded right, such as, on page 28: "...grabbed my hand. I took it willingly...". If a person grabs your hand, you're not in a position to take their hand, so this sounded odd to me. If it had read "...and I accepted it willingly..." or "...and I let him..." it would have sounded better.

I realize, of course, that these might be purely picky and persnickety personal preferences (great alliteration, huh?), but I would question the use of "sites" versus "sights" on page 42 (and again on page 123 and 126). There was also the use of 'eking it out' (page 151). I would have chosen 'sticking it out' since the phrase which is used just doesn't seem right to me. Another example is "He took the keys out of the engine" (page 159). Unless car design has dramatically changed in Britain since I lived there, the keys aren't in the engine but in the steering column! One last example that struck me: on pages 168-9 we read: "…Piggy wasn't on his way back in, pulling on his sweats." Emily was the one pulling on the sweats, but this made it seem like Piggy might be on his way back in pulling on his sweats!

I must confess to serious misgivings over Emily's treatment of her young sister - who is at one point in a pram (perambulator - a rather elaborate stroller) covered with blankets. So far so good, but it's dark, it's cold, we're told it's "pelting" with rain, yet instead of getting Lily home, Emily is romping around with Jack (yes, I'll get to him in a minute). Fortunately for poor Lily, the rain seems to disturbingly quickly morph to sleet and then snow. We are told at one point that Lily is toasty warm, but I found that hard to credit because we're not told that she has any waterproof cover tacked across the pram to keep the rain out, so we're left to assume that this cold shower is seeping into the blankets and percolating through to the child, yet this doesn't appear to concern Emily.

At one point Emily leaves Lily completely unattended - just for a short time, but nonetheless unattended - on the dark tow path by a river, while she goes off into the bushes with Jack to look at something he's obsessed with: a sign that's been appearing all over town "Igertay" in red letters. This is no excuse to leave a toddler unattended on a dark path in the pouring rain. It's irresponsible behavior for both of them. OTOH, people do behave irresponsibly, especially teenagers, so this isn't a problem with how the character is represented, but it was a serious impediment to me as a reader, actually liking that character. I didn't like Emily.

Now about "Jack". Yes. I have what almost amounts to an allergy over the use of the name 'Jack' for characters in YA stories. It's the most over-used and clich├ęd name ever, and it's frankly nauseating to read it any more. Can we not have a hero who isn't named Jack? Is every adventurous scallywag forced to have this name? Can we not have a sullen, deep, hair-in-his-eyes bad boy named something other than Jack? Please?

In the interest of full disclosure, I had vowed never to read another YA novel which boasts a main character named jack and I knew, going into this particular novel, that there was such a character. I did warn the author that this was a problem for me, but I promised that I would endeavor to overcome this almost insurmountable set-back.... I will try and deal with these characters, every man-jack of them! The truth is that I relented because I love the author's symmetrical name - with only one vowel difference between the two halves! (Really?!).

Emily lives with her family over a grocery shop that they run. Jack shows up much later that same day at the shop, which is open after midnight on Xmas eve. This seemed highly improbable to me, but not completely impossible, I guess. This is really where the story starts, because shortly after this, bodies start turning up - and they all seem to be part of that fearsome foursome with which Emily tangled on Xmas Eve. The main suspect is Jack!

The ending, I felt, would have been better had it the explanation been organically arrived at by someone, rather than being revealed in the way it was. The revelation scene didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. The police did not behave, it seemed to me, as they would have in real life, but then we'd had it made quite clear prior to this, that they were incompetent, so maybe this did work!

Both Emily and Jack needed serious hospital treatment, which both of them seemed to brush off. This wasn't realistic to me. Personally I felt that if each of them had truly cared for the other, then they would have been far more concerned about each other's health and welfare than they were, particularly given Jack's condition.

Anyway, enough rambling and meandering asides. I don't do stars (as I like to make quite clear) because to me a novel is either worth reading or isn't. I can't rate a novel half worth reading, so every novel I read is either a five star or a one star (since zero stars isn't an option!). This one, to me, was a worthy read despite the issues I had, because overall it was inventive, it was original, it was strongly written, it had decent characters (if behaving improbably at times), and it had something intelligent to say and an intelligent way to say it, so I recommend it.