________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 1 . . . . September 4, 2009


Little Black Lies.

Tish Cohen.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2009.
305 pp., pbk., $14.99.
ISBN 978-1-55468-461-8.

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

*** /4

Reviewed from Uncorrected Proof.


"Brains are revered around here. And no one is brainier than Griff Hogan. His family lives in a shack in the south end that should be condemned, but his dad's some famous researcher who won the Nobel Prize in Physics about a million years ago. There's some serious cerebral wattage in that family. Any one of us could be begging him for a job one day and we know it. Like I said, Hogan's going to rule the world."

The parents who voted for uniforms were wrong. White shirts and ties might be able to camouflage Griff Hogan's crumbling house, but the real inequality between these students and me can't be erased. The cerebral wattage of my genetic background is comparatively low in volts and all the entrance exams and wool skirts in the world won't change that. Even the poor kids, the ones too gifted to need cram schools and tutors, come from brilliance. I don't belong.

I nod toward Carling. "And her?"

"Carling Burnack is kind of like the school mascot, our crazy-faced lunatic. The daughter of this major award-winning Broadway composer whose career is now seriously wounded. The chicks making googly eyes at her are her minions. The blonde, Isabella, is a prickly little know-it-all, totally devoted to Carling. The brunette who can't keep her eyes open is Sloane Montauk, about the laziest human you'll ever meet. If the boys offered to carry her from class to class on their shoulders, she'd be up for it."


Sara and her dad have just moved to Boston where she will go to Anton High School, an exclusive school which emphasizes academics so graduates are assured of acceptance at one of the major American universities. Unlike most students who write the entrance exam to qualify for admission into grade 9, Sara writes it just as she goes into grade 11. This exception is allowed because her father has accepted a position as custodian at the same school.

     But as Sara struggles to fit in with a new group of students and tries to establish friendships, it becomes clear that her background just doesn't give her the necessary ‘social qualifications.' So Sara lets people believe she is from London, England, not Lunden, Massachusetts. And it becomes easy to say her mother is in Paris as a chef, rather than that her mother ran off to Paris with a lover. Sara's father becomes a brain surgeon, not a janitor, and her address changes to a posh neighbourhood instead of the apartment above a hardware store. One lie just seems to lead to another. But gradually, predictably, her new classmates begin to wonder about her and check on some of the details. What will happen to Sara when this make-believe world she has created falls apart?

     Tish Cohen has written novels for both adults and children. Little Black Lies is her debut novel for teens. She captures the characters, particularly the females, exceptionally well. Although readers may not always agree with Sara's decisions and actions, it is easy to understand the psychology behind them. What's the harm in a few fibs if it eases your way into the popular crowd? Sara turns her back on her father, her former friend and her past in her efforts to fit in and feel comfortable. Carling is the unquestioned leader of a clique with fans such as Isabella ready and willing to comply with any and all demands. Poppy is something of an outsider, journaling events and people with her ever-present camera. The boys fit into similar roles: Griff, the typical nerd, and Leo, the popular guy who is Carling's boyfriend. Cohen paints clear pictures of each teen, and their actions and manners of speech underline the basics of their personalities. Readers have a front row seat for the back-biting and mean behaviour which seems typical of Anton High students and of the more and more frantic efforts of Sara to belong.

     The themes of Little Black Lies are typical of most young adult coming-of-age novels: finding friends in a new environment, fitting in with the popular crowd, relationships, dealing with teachers and other adults. However the overall theme, as the title implies, is one of honesty and integrity: honesty in what one says, what one does and how one relates to others. Sara tries hard to re-invent herself as someone else and, in the end, is upset, almost disgusted, at to whom she has become. Thanks to a variety of events she is finally able to –– indeed is forced to –– set things right.

     Some of the plot details seem a little too neat. For instance, Sara's dad suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder which obviously causes difficulties in his role as a school custodian. Yet, it is this disorder which finally brings about the climax in the book. The ending of the novel seems rather contrived when Dad accepts a new job selling vintage cars in New York, thus taking Sara away from Anton High and the bad memories surrounding it. As well, Mom re-enters the picture as does Sara's former friend, Mandy. To top it off, Leo aka "Mr Popularity," has shown quite an interest in Sara, and it happens that he will be working in Manhattan after graduating in June. Just a few too many coincidences to ring true for this reader.

     That criticism aside, this is still a young adult novel which does most things right. Cohen grasps the teen personalities and the school setting very well. The plot and sub-plots move along quickly, letting readers experience the anxiety of wondering if, how, when Sara will be caught by her web of deceit and consequent actions. Teen readers, especially girls, will be wrapped up in this interesting and arresting story, and the most avid among them will breeze through all 39 chapters and 300 pages quickly and easily, unwilling to put the book down until they know the consequences of building one's life on a foundation of little black lies.


Ann Ketcheson is a retired teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French. She lives in Ottawa, ON, where she has turned her love of travel into a second career as a travel consultant.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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