CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 20 . . . .May 25, 2007
The Secret of Grim Hill.
Montreal, PQ: Lobster Press, 2007.
187 pp., pbk., $10.95.
Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.
Review by Caitlin J. Berry.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
"I wish I could go to Grimoire!" I told the crows. But I knew there was no hope. One of the crows fluttered by and landed on top of a signpost. Then another crow landed on the sign, and another. Below the three crows was a poster with the same eerie, green-faced witch that I'd seen in those flyers in the cafeteria. When I walked over for a closer look, the witch had a sly smile and seemed to be grinning right at me. The poster advertised a Halloween soccer match.
"This can't be true." Because I wasn't exactly having a run of luck since my parents divorced, I tried not to get excited. But my heart beat faster anyway. Grimoire school was sponsoring the soccer match. Tryouts were next week after school. Athletic scholarships to Grimoire would be awarded to everyone on the winning team. If I made the team and won, I could be attending Grimoire by December! I'd never heard about anyone winning a scholarship from a single soccer game, but so what? This was my chance! I'd do anything to get away from Darkmont High – anything. Before I raced home, I hesitated for a second and looked back at the poster. I swear the crows on top of the sign were laughing at me.
Cat Peters is new to town and wants nothing more than to fit in to her new school, Darkmont High. But luck is not on her side: it seems all of her teachers are out to get her, and none of the students want to get to know her, except for nerdy Jasper Chung, her younger neighbor. After one cafeteria humiliation too many, Cat is decided: she wants to transfer to Grimoire—the mysterious, posh private school at the top of Grim Hill—but it seems virtually impossible: the tuition is astronomical, and her single mother is already working hard enough as an administrator (coincidentally, at Grimoire) to make ends meet for Cat and her younger sister, Sookie.
When Cat happens across a flyer advertising tryouts for the big soccer match at Grimoire (and full scholarships to everyone on the winning team), her hopes soar. It seems too good to be true: it just so happens that soccer is Cat's specialty. If only she could make the team and then win, all of her troubles would be over... or would they? When Cat tries out and, indeed, makes one of the teams, Sookie, who had been waiting on the bleachers, warns Cat that she had received a strange feeling about the school—and that a mysterious girl named Cindy had approached her and warned her that Cat should be careful. Cat isn't dissuaded; since tryouts, things have changed for the better. For one, touted as the new soccer star, she's become very popular—even good-looking Zach is now paying attention to her. She's not about to give that up, now is she?
Yet even Cat can't ignore that things have begun to change a little too much. Although she appreciates her mom's newfound exuberance for her soccer game, isn't she a bit too exuberant? And isn't it odd that even though Cat hasn't done her assignments, her teachers are now letting her off the hook so easily? And why is everyone in town suddenly so obsessed with the big soccer match? When Sookie goes missing from Cat's Halloween party, (and Cat's mom doesn't even remember that she has a second daughter named Sookie) Cat realizes something truly horrible is going on. Sneaking into Grimoire, Cat discovers that the school is run by nasty fairy folk who have infiltrated the human world and have enchanted the entire town. Worse yet, it turns out that those who win the Grimoire game won't get full scholarships after all... instead they'll be enslaved in a fairy ring for the rest of their lives in order to keep the bridge between worlds open. Too good to be true, indeed.
Rounding up the help of Jasper, Ms. Greystone (an elderly woman who lost her own sister, Cindy, to the fairy circle in a Grimoire soccer game seventy years prior) other townspeople with long-lost siblings, and the current soccer team, Cat braves the wrath of the fairies, breaks the enchanting, and rescues Sookie, as well as many others who had long ago been enslaved in the fairy ring. Things now back to normal, Cat, sadly, must forgo her newfound stardom. Yet she's discovered that it isn't popularity that matters after all. Cat won't miss her social status half as much as she missed her little sister, Sookie.
With The Secret of Grim Hill, DeMeulemeester gives readers a fast-paced fantasy/adventure that is, unfortunately, of mixed quality. While Cat, her sister, and her mother are a realistic and well-rounded bunch, the secondary characters such as Jasper, Amerjeet, and Mia, as well as the antagonists, Ms. Maliss and Ms. Sinster, are not fully developed and dangerously border on the cliché. Craft wise, DeMeulemeester leaves too many plot points and too much explanatory information lumped towards the end of the novel, and as a result, the plot, smack dab during the climax, feels convenient, rushed and contrived.
The writing itself, while clear, lacks a certain nuance, mood and subtlety. For example, all too often readers are told blatantly what Cat is feeling, rather than shown it, and, as always, such a thing detracts from creating a compelling narrative. Instead of being immersed in sensation and emotion, readers watch from afar. With regards to world building, despite working with fascinating fairy lore, DeMeulemeester, in her portrayal of the fantastical world, relies too heavily on recycled ideas (bats flying in the stairwell, giant furry spiders, a secret passage behind an old
bookcase) and thus waters down the world's potential intrigue.
That said, DeMeulemeester does have an unique way of inserting Celtic mythology into a contemporary setting, and the idea of using a soccer match to perpetuate a fairy world's hold on the earth is quite fresh and interesting. Moreover, Cat's realistic ambivalent feelings about her little sister, her very visceral desire (to which teens, as well as adults, can relate) to be popular and accepted, as well as her likeable and feisty nature, do help readers to care and root for her, and thus read on.
Despite plotting and other issues, to DeMeulemeester's credit, creating a compelling, likeable and realistic character in Cat is certainly nothing to be scoffed at. Likely kids will enjoy Cat and her adventures anyhow, and will be willing to look past the book's shortcomings, for Cat Peters is a lively hero, and perhaps one who can transcend, as a character, the book's otherwise shaky—and fairy-haunted—ground.
Recommended with reservations.
Caitlin Berry, who lives on Vancouver Island, is a graduate of Vermont College's Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults program. She is also a guest reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine.
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