CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 5 . . . .October 27, 2006
Strange Times at Western High. (A Natalie Fuentes Mystery).
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2006.
224 pp., pbk. & cl., $11.95 (pbk.), $19.95 (lib. bd.).
ISBN 1-55451-039-2 (pbk.), ISBN 1-55451-040-6 (lib. bd.).
High schools-Juvenile fiction.
Detective and mystery stories.
Grades 7-11 / Ages 12-16.
Review by Vikki VanSickle.
*** ˝ /4
"When do you plan on doing this?" he asked.
He spat out a mouthful of coffee, hastily mopped it up with a napkin.
"It's Saturday," she said. "The building will be empty."
"Not necessarily. There'll be at least one caretaker watching it, and sometimes the teachers with no lives come in on weekends to catch up on marking or prepare lessons."
"Almost empty, then. You have to admit, it's the quietest time of the week."
She could practically see the gears turning in his head.
"True. But we'll need some supplies."
"I've already got one." She pulled out her penlight keychain and shone it in his eyes. He blinked.
"You, my dear Watson, are an amateur when it comes to gear. Let's go back to my place and plan this covert op."
"Only if you admit that I'm Sherlock in this partnership," she joked.
"You're more like Nancy Drew," he shot back.
"Then who does that make you, Joe Hardy?"
The corners of his mouth lifted. "Try Ned Nickerson."
Emily Pohl-Weary is in the process of creating a cultural phenomenon for today's teen girl readers. Her heroine, Natalie Fuentes, is smart, feisty, and unafraid to be an original in a school dominated by skinny blonds in miniskirts. Pohl-Weary writes in the tradition of Carolyn Keene's Nancy Drew series, and there are many references to the titian-haired sleuth throughout the text, as well as in the author's blurb. Like Nancy, Natalie relies on a variety of well connected and well intentioned friends but acts of her own volition and gets herself into more than a few sticky situations. She lives alone with her father, who, like Carson Drew, demonstrates fatherly concern but ultimately respects his daughter's intelligence and aides her in her sleuthing endeavours.
The strongest part of the novel is Pohl-Weary's protagonist, Natalie. The daughter of journalist parents, Natalie is used to travelling the world and has seen more than her fair share of injustice and intrigue, yet nothing can compare to the trials of attending high school in downtown Toronto. Although intimidated by the high school experience and a particularly nasty group of girls, Natalie handles herself with confidence and never compromises her individuality. She has the ability to break through the superficial but seemingly impenetrable walls of the high school clique and makes friends with a variety of people.
There are plenty of well defined, interesting characters who come to Natalie's aid, including a wisecracking Graffiti artist, a cartwheeling free-spirit, and a computer hacker. At times, the author relies a little too heavily on stock characters from the American high school genre, citing dumb jocks and mean skinny blond girls, but these characters are few and far between. Instead, we get a diverse group of students that reflects the ethnic diversity of an urban centre, such as Toronto, where the novel takes place. The principal and the teachers in the school are a little flat and not as authentic as the teens, although I doubt that the teen reader would notice or mind.
The text is peppered with pop culture references that may date the book in the long run, but which help to create a portrait of a modern urban teenager that kids will be able to relate to today. Pohl-Weary's teens are very high tech, operating their own webpages, relying on cell phones with Bluetooth technology to gather incriminating evidence, and hacking into computer systems; all in the name of the truth, of course. On the whole, the novel is fairly tame and completely digestible. Natalie is generally mindful of the law, and all of her discretions are minor. The reader never gets the feeling that Natalie is ever in mortal danger, which is in keeping with the light, high-spirited fun of the Nancy Drew series.
Natalie, herself, is a fan of graphic novels, indie music, and t-shirts that make a statement. She writes her own zine, “My Very Secret Life.” Although the book is written in third person, the reader is often directly in Natalie's mind, and the pages are designed to look as though they might be part of her zine. Each page is adorned with Natalie's cartoons, doodles, quotations, and photographs. The front cover of the book features a prominent cartoon of Natalie in the style of anime, a savvy attempt on the part of Annick Press to capture the attention of Japanese Manga fans.
Pohl-Weary has created a website for her heroine where readers can read Natalie's blog and search her room and learn about books, music, and people that inspire 'Natalie.' There is also a section where users can post photographs or interesting stories.
A Nancy Drew fan myself, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Natalie Fuentes in Strange Times at Western High. The novel is fast paced and entertaining, with fun characters, intrigue, and the slightest suggestion of romance. A solid start to what looks to be a promising series.
Vikki VanSickle is a student in the Master of Arts in Children's Literature at the University of British Columbia. She is originally from Woodstock, ON, and is now residing in Vancouver, BC.
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