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Stranger at Bay

by Don Aker

Young adult novels tend to follow a standard plot: basically decent kid suffers a disruption of normal life – loss of a parent, acquisition of a step-parent, a change in fortune. Kid acts out, falls in with a bad crowd, gets into a tight spot. Basically decent adults recognize the imbroglio as a cry for help and all ends well, everyone the wiser. The YA novel, in other words, reflects a standard pattern of adolescent life. Don Aker doesn’t mess with this formula in his second teen novel. He brings to it a tight, intelligent style, a keen ear for adolescent angst, and a cast of well-wrought characters.

His narrator, 14-year-old Randy, is a bright, motivated student at an elite Ontario school before downsizing forces his family to relocate. Battling Internet withdrawal and culture shock, Randy starts Grade 9 in a small-town Nova Scotia high school where too many brains can be bad for your health. In a vile mood for much of the book, he snarls at his father’s optimism, corrects his stepmother’s grammar, derides the school administration. He’d be insufferable if he weren’t equally hard on himself – and funny. Aker equips Randy with keen emotional radar that picks up on conflicting currents in his new environment as he tries to work out who runs things and who gets hurt and who goes along with it. Anger and hormones sometimes blur his reception, but we never really doubt that he will survive and even flourish. Aker, a high-school teacher in Middleton, Nova Scotia, won several awards for his previous title, Of Things Not Seen. This one consolidates his reputation as a fine writer. Only one complaint: is The Big Fight Scene truly obligatory for the genre? Randy’s ritual reduction to a pulp by school bullies is completely credible and terrifying, but does nothing ever change?