Monday, June 17, 2013

Doesn't Play by the Numbers


by Rachel Ward

Published by Chicken House/Scholastic

3 Out of 5 Stars

Jem has an unusual gift--when she looks people in the eye, a set of numbers pops into her head. When she was younger, she thought nothing of this. However, when her mother dies of an overdose, the numbers suddenly make sense to 6 year old Jem: the numbers are the month, day, and year on which the person in question will die.

Now 15 years old, Jem has lived a tough life in inner-city London. Shuffled from foster home to foster home and understandably withdrawn and guarded because of her secret, Jem keeps to herself and avoids making contact with anyone else. Kind of tough to make friends when every time you look at them you’re reminded of the date they’re going to kick it, right? All of this changes for Jem when she meets Spider, an energetic boy from the wrong side of the tracks who forces his way into Jem’s life. The problem? Jem knows that Spider will die in two weeks unless she figures out how to manipulate the numbers. Things don’t get any easier for the two when they are spotted fleeing the scene moments before a terrorist attack on the London Eye. Now on the run, time and fate seem to be forcing Jem and Spider into dangerous situations that will surely result in Spider’s rapidly approaching expiration date.

I really enjoyed that Rachel Ward took some risks in this young adult novel. These are not the spoiled, beautiful teenagers that populate so much of this genre today. Life for Jem and Spider is grim and gritty, a lifetime of disappointment and failure all mapped out for them as victims of cyclical poverty and its associated pitfalls. They’ve both been in trouble with the law, and the reader can see how their inherent distrust of a system whose deck seems to be stacked against them leads to one poor decision after another. They’re also both stubbornly obtuse to the fact that they are as much perpetrator as victim in the downward spiral that is their lives.

The one fault that consistently nagged at me was that Jem’s gift is forgotten for entire chapters and seems almost secondary once the characters are on the run. From that point on, it’s a typical chase narrative with Jem and Spider struggling to stay ahead of the mounting manhunt. I was just expecting a little more of the plot to hinge upon Jem’s ability and was disappointed when it didn’t. If I had such a power, I would seriously be messing with some people’s heads. However, because of its strong characterization and one hell of an ending, I enjoyed it enough to give the sequel a shot when it becomes available.

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