Sunday, 15 April 2012

A review of "Beat the Band" by Don Calame

Hey Folks in the Smoke,

   I really enjoyed Don Calame's debut YA "Swim the Fly". It followed Matt as he spent the summer trying to master the butterfly stroke in an effort to impress an unworthy girl. It was full of high school angst, teenage high jinx, a smattering of gross out scenes, uncomfortable and farcical situations and healthy doses of sexual frustration and choice swearing. It was brave, funny, clever and filled with endearing characters including Matt's best friends Coop and Sean. So I was very excited about Calame's latest release.

   In this follow-up, we see the lads starting a new school year and Coop is our narrator. At first glance, he is the least likeable of the trio but we climb into his head and his skin and start to understand what's underneath all the bravado. Coop is someone who's not totally sure who he is yet or how and when he should stand away from the crowd.

   He's assigned the school pariah, Helen, as a partner on a health studies project on methods of contraception. Coop decides to take defensive action. For the sake of his rep, he signs his not-so-musical trio up for Battle of the Bands. There ensues a cascade of plagiarism, band practice, detentions and slow, poignant falling in love. And that love is accompanied by confusion about identity, school bullies and dignity. Helen grows in Coop's eyes, and he moves from despicable and gauche, to somebody who learns the truth about both high school reputations and love.

   The band stuff is fun, especially the sequence that sees them experimenting with stage image - it goes distinctly awry. The peripheral characters, including Coop's aged rocker dad and Helen's incapacitated mother, are three dimensional and important. Helen is touchingly rendered and feels very real and relatable. Sexual health facts are quite subtly included, they don't seem forced, and Calame has written a squirm-inducing father-and-son prophylactic demonstration - I spluttered, I giggled, I guffawed.

   Calame really knows, and loves, his characters. They are true and important. The plotting and rhythm are punchy throughout - the trivia and turmoils that they face are cleverly interlaced. His style is relaxed, Coop's voice is very sincere and loud. And the teen phraseology is never overdone or obtuse. It's a laugh-out-loud story that also has heart along with a respect for its readership. It's a great addition to the boy YA shelves that are often understocked and particularly lacking in tales of friendship, love and schoolhood drama.

   Thanks for reading,

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