________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 6. . . . October 13, 2017


Nice Try, Jane Sinner.

Lianne Oelke.
Boston, MA: Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books), January, 2018.
416 pp., hardcover, $24.99.
ISBN 978-0-544-86785-7.

Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.

Review by Joan Marshall.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



I donít remember how it ended because it happened while I was asleep. Iíve watched the footage several times since then. Itís probably a GIF by now. It was dark. Marc was behind the wheel; I was sitting in the passengerís seat. Dozing against the door with my mouth half open. He moved very slowly, reaching across me. Leather squeaked, but I didnít wake up. Once his hand reached the handle, it was over. In one swift motion he opened the door and pushed me out.

I was a wretched mess splattered on the driveway. The first few seconds were very confusing. I was half asleep, half full of adrenaline. Half in shock, half in pain. A HOOcap stood next to my head and stared down at me with a camera. Someone else jogged up and stuck a hand in my face.


Sinner? You all right?

I hurt. Not just my twisted ankle or my face where it scraped the pavement. My whole body was cramped and aching. I had spent the last five days imagining how glorious it would feel to emerge from the van, stretching my muscles in the sun. Smiling. Triumphant. I donít think I seriously entertained the idea of losing until it happened. I lay still for a while, organizing my thoughts, breathing cautiously to see how well my lungs still worked.



The pavement smelled nice. Like dirt and rocks and rain.


Jane? You okay?

I stretched out my legs and they hurt like hell. I flexed my hands, and I could feel some of the tiny pebbles embedded in my palm fall out. My head throbbed.


Jane? Jane? Jane?




Yeah? Look, I hope youíre okay.Iímó




Jane Sinner, 17, struggles to bounce back after a suicide attempt with the help of her well-meaning, religious parents and devoted younger sister Carol. Jane decides to finish her high school credits at the local community college where she is accepted into a YouTube reality show called House of Orange (HOO), conceived by a community college student, Alexander Park, allowing herself to be videotaped living with five other students. Every so often, one of them is voted off the show by the others. Jane hopes to be the last person standing, winning herself a new car and a college scholarship. Jane forms an alliance with Robbie, falling ever so slowly in love with him, but, in the end he betrays her, and she is voted off the show, her journal posted online. Jane moves in with Alexanderís sister Jenna and eventually persuades Alexander to run a contest with the rejected players in which online viewers would vote for one of them to return to the show. Jane is successfully voted back in. Burning with revenge, sure that Robbie has wronged her, Jane competes with him in a test in which they have to return to Calgary from the wilderness over two hundred kilometers without vehicle help. Jane, realizing it is her sisterís birthday, an event she has never missed, ditches the contest. Robbie also gives up as he had wanted to beat Jane fairly. In the end, the third last competitor, Marc, wins, but Alexander asks Jane to be his co-producer on the next yearís show, Jane graduates, and Robbie cheers her on.

     Unfortunately, Janeís reasons for her suicide attempt are not very clear. Is she defying God and her parentsí beliefs, or is she suffering from depression? As the reality show progresses, Jane begins to recognize her own strengths at strategic thinking, organizing and relentless focus. She realizes how ambitious she really is as she leaves behind her parentsí church focus to meet the reality of the modern world. Not only does the show give her a sense of purpose, it also permits her to woolgather with her imaginary counsellor over her sanity only so often. Ruthlessly, she gradually puts this past in its place and opens up to a new future in which she can be happy.

     The other main character, Robbie, remains just mysterious enough to intrigue the reader who will question Robbieís motives for being on the show, applaud his warm generosity and sympathize with his OCD tendencies. Is he really in love with Jane, or is he determined to win at all costs?

     Janeís parents seem quite dotty, actually permitting their suicidal, underage, newly medicated daughter to move out into a situation they know nothing about, limit their contact with her, and hope for the best as it is all in Godís hands. This seems to be an adolescent wish fulfillment, unlikely in the real world. Janeís sister Carol is the straight shooter who calls Jane on her behaviour, reminding her with a punch how hurtful it would have been for her to lose her only sister to suicide.

     Secondary characters Alexander, Marc and Jenna all have both their strong, thoughtful moments and also their out of control moments of complete idiocy, not to mention their pasts that they have to overcome. The reader connects with Alexander who, in protecting Jenna from a drug charge, loses his place at the University of Calgary. On the other hand, this is the Alexander who is willing to betray any contestant for the drama in order to increase the show ratings. Could the Marc, who is often drunk and bulls his way out of any situation, be the same man who questions whether or not a girl might actually want to go out with him? Yes, and yes.

     This story takes place nominally in Calgary and could realistically occur in any community college in any larger Canadian city, but the nearby mountains do loom large in the final test. More importantly, the storyís taking place at the cutting edge of social media will attract any high school student.

     Dialogue, which dominates the novel, is relentlessly realistic, up-to-date and reflective of the language used by older adolescents. Janeís thoughts as she speaks are often as hilarious and sarcastic as her actual speech. Readers will envy Jane her fearless, sometimes tactless, voice as she struggles to maintain her sanity. The novel takes the form of a journal Jane keeps from March to August. There are some moments of longer narrative in Janeís first person voice so the reader does have access to her thinking.

     Although Nice Try, Jane Sinner is a book for older adolescent readers, it is unfortunate that it clocks in at over four hundred pages. Judicious editing could have trimmed it to a tighter, more driven focus that would attract a wider audience. Nevertheless, high school students will be attracted to Janeís predicament and the ups and downs of the House of Orange.


Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.

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

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