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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Review: Bluefish by Pat Schmatz

Beautiful Contemporary YA: poignant yet positive 

This book has a quiet kind of greatness. Well-written and character-driven, it achieves emotional depth without being in the least cloying or over sentimental. I shed the odd tear reading it (which is unusual for me and rather awkward on the bus...), yet it is an uplifting and cheering book despite its poignancy.

We get the story through two viewpoints: Travis, who's recently moved to town, and Velveeta, who persists in talking to him despite his taciturn nature. Travis is missing his old home in the country, and especially his beloved dog, Rosco, who went missing just before they moved. Velveeta is lively where Travis is withdrawn, colourful and outgoing where he wants to blend in and stay unnoticed. Travis's viewpoint is given through third-person past-tense narration which is closely focused into his perspective, while Velveeta's first-person diary entries, all addressed to a mysterious Calvin, appear between his chapters.

The characterisation is exquisite: I don't see how anyone could read this without aching for these characters, both grieving and struggling to find their niche in their own way. Both have had inadequate family lives and both keep secrets to hide their problems. A third beautifully-drawn teen, Bradley, is also important to the key YA themes of identity and finding your niche. His interaction with Travis and Velveeta contributes to the novel's gentle humour, and allows the author to introduce other angles to these perennial teen issues, as Bradley's experiences are very different to Travis's and Velveeta's but he also has his own secrets and worries.

"Sometimes life is hard to read" is the tagline featured on the cover and there is a strong theme of reading and books. One particular English teacher, Mr McQueen, is important to the story and is another gem of a character. Unsurprisingly, I'm a sucker for a nice teacher cameo, and this is a particularly good one. Another theme that appeals to me personally is that of the outdoors: one of the reasons Travis feels like an outsider is because he's a country boy at heart, interested in nature and animals, and is struggling to manage in the town where he can't use the woods to regain peace.

This is a rich novel, with much to say about relationships and families. It is old-fashioned in all the best ways: not difficult or distant, but warm and comforting, despite delving into some difficult subjects. It would make a good class reader as there's a lot to discuss, has beautiful writing and is accessible and engaging. I'm struggling to explain why it feels old-fashioned to me; it may be partially because it isn't focused on romance, even though a boy-girl relationship is central to the novel.

Overall, I would absolutely recommend this for the full YA age range. The characters are at the young end of the YA scale, but a lot of the themes - especially the family issues Travis and Velveeta both face - give the book plenty for older readers to digest.

From the Back Cover:

First day, new school, no way out.

Travis hates being in this new town with Grandpa. He hates that they left their old home without finding their dog, Rosco. Travis doesn't see the point of trying anymore. He feels stupid, angry, alone.

Then, suddenly, there's a girl. Velveeta is as loud as Travis is quiet, as outgoing as he is shut in. She can see that Travis has a secret. And she should know, because she's got a few of her own.

Velveeta is on the case: it's time for Travis to tell the truth.

Published in January 2013 by Walker
Find more information on Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy

1 comment:

  1. In my opinion this was a great a book. Usually i only read fiction books like the chronicles of Vladimir tod or the slayer chronicles. but this book was great. I felt like i can relate to Travis a lot, because i kinda act like him in school. I'd recommend this book to anyone who can read:)
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