"Calma's assured and mostly comical account is well-nigh irresistible," wrote PW about The Crimes and Punishments of Miss Payne. Her life seems just as complex in Am I Right or Am I Right? by Barry Jonsberg: someone tries to hold up the Crazi-Cheep where Calma works as a shelf-stocker, her father resurfaces after a five-year absence, and her mother and best friend both seem to be leading double (or at least secret) lives. Can she fix everyone? Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT - Claire Rosser
Jonsberg is an Englishman living in Australia; he is the successful author of The Crimes and Punishments of Miss Payne (reviewed in paperback in this issue). This second book has a lot in common with a standup comedy routine, with each page filled with humorous images and one-liners. Calma is the narrator. She is brilliant and a know-it-all (hence the title). She lives alone with her hardworking mother; she has one friend, Vanessa. One day at the local convenience store, when she is buying some feminine products, she meets a cute new boy at the cash register. This is enough for her to apply for a part-time job at the same place. Her father decides to come back into her life, but she holds him off. She discovers her mother is leading a secret life; she is afraid for Vanessa's safety when she sees bruises and cuts on her bodythat's the basic plot. But it's the almost over-the-top humor that makes this story what it is. Here are some samples"It felt like I was confronting a charging rhinoceros with a koala for backup." About wearing contact lenses: "Every time I blinked I felt like confessing to crimes I hadn't committed." The language is occasionally earthy, with obscenities here and there, which might limit the book for middle school libraries, but it certainly would be fine for YA sections in public libraries. Calma is exasperating but original. Her comments about soccer (after watching one game on TV to impress Jason) are impressive"Getting injured at soccer is drastic, if short-lived. I mean, these guys react as if they're in the last stages of disembowelment, but within moments they are running around again, locks flowing and chiseled features intact." Thehumor and Calma herself tend to hold the reader at arm's lengthshe is difficult to get close to and care about. Still, this book will be amusing for many readers.
VOYA - Lisa A. Hazlett
Calma is sixteen and expresses her caustic, me-only attitude through her sarcastic narration. Her strident persona developed during her parents' long-ago divorce and is exacerbated by her father's reappearance. Calma refuses to see her father, and for additional avoidance, begins employment at a grocery where she bonds with a female customer, gains a boyfriend, and brazenly thwarts a robbery. Dating preparation results in a disliked haircut, remedied by shaving her head and claiming leukemia research participation. After discovering her mother dating her best friend's father, whom she thinks is an abusive criminal, her subsequent vitriolic accusations create her alienation, forcing the realization that others also matter. Calma states that she is an unreliable narrator and uses various formats, such as imaginary screenplays, to relay the story, which was originally published in Australia in 2005. Its structure is sophisticated, but techniques are defined and explained. Her unending sarcasm is tempered by usually being hilarious and dead-on accurate, and her audacity and genuine belief in her perceptions and actions create sympathy if not always likability. Two endings appear: The imaginary first matches Calma's perceptions; the second portrays reality. Calma herself had shunned her father, but he returns because of terminal leukemia, the favored customer turns out to be his wife, and Calma's mother's boyfriend is honorable and assisting his self-mutilating daughter. Calma's views and the novel's intriguing, unusual structure will appeal to literary-minded females.
VOYA - Amanda Zalud
The novel's complicated structure obscures its minimal plot. Calma hurts others physically and emotionally, and because she acts on impulse, her character is largely unrealistic. Her gorgeous boyfriend's attraction seems improbable, as does her best friend being dragged along with them without question. The neat ending shows Calma remaining cavalier, but with an opposite-yet still skewed-perspective, believing that fixing her mistakes will be easy. It's all worth overlooking, however, just for Calma's over-the-top narration.
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up
Calma Harrison, 16, is a bright, eccentric loner who loves English lit and brightly colored eyeglasses. Her only friend is Vanessa, a hippie so mellow she's nearly in a coma. Calma and her mother communicate via notes on the refrigerator. Then, her long-absent father appears in their tropical Australian town, desperate to speak to her, and her mother starts sneaking around at night, causing Calma to fear that her parents may be dating. When Vanessa becomes even more withdrawn and Calma notices cuts and scratches on her friend's body, she starts sleuthing. For the first quarter of the book, Jonsberg lays the teenage sarcasm on so thickly it backfires, and Calma, despite her raw language, sounds cutesy instead of edgy. Fortunately, she's more and more engaging as the plot progresses, and her depth and sincerity become obvious. Moreover, her jaunty narration creates a farcical mood that keeps the increasingly heavy subject matter from descending into melodrama. The supporting characters are drawn in broad strokes and seem present just to people the novel's abundant, and sometimes extraneous, subplots. Calma's sweet courtship with Jason, a gorgeous, disarming soccer freak, is an exception, but, with so many plot threads to weave together, the author leaves their relationship unexplored.
Johanna LewisCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
From Australia comes another great piece of YA literature with wit, zing and depth. Sixteen-year-old Calma lives for literature and finally has a good English teacher, but problems with love, family and friends tear her away from her passion. She instantly falls for handsome Jason, but her best friend is clearly suffering from some hidden anxiety, her despised, long-gone father has suddenly returned and her always-working mom seems to be involved with a mysterious man. Even as Calma constantly missteps, she remains confident in her superior intelligence, sure she can ferret out what's really going on. Jonsberg inserts a leitmotif about literature, with poetry and Calma's warning about the unreliable narrator. Plenty of on-the-spot humor mingles with looming tragedy, as Calma simply can't imagine that she might be making some mistakes. Readers will laugh, cry and, without trying, learn. (Fiction. YA)
From the Publisher
“From Australia comes another great piece of YA literature with wit, zing and depth. Plenty of on-the-spot humor. . . . Readers will laugh, cry and, without trying, learn.”–Kirkus Reviews
“The book’s greatest strength is its deftly drawn characters. . . . YA readers will be attracted to the humor, as well as the mystery and drama constantly surrounding Calma’s life.”–Booklist
Read an Excerpt
It was a wet-season day in the tropics. Swollen clouds swept in from the south and squatted over my house. A massive clap of thunder shook the floors and gave the signal for the clouds to discharge their load. A gentle drumroll of rain on the roof built to a thrumming crescendo. The temperature dropped instantly by ten degrees. Through the window I could see water flooding off the roof, a curtain enveloping the house. The roar of rain drowned out all other noises.
No one deserved to be outside in that.
The doorbell rang. It usually had the decibel count of a nuclear warning siren, but I could barely hear it against the background clamor. I put down my book and peered out the front window. Even under the best viewing circumstances you could see only a small portion of anyone standing at the door. Perhaps a profile of buttocks and, if you were lucky, the back of a head. But with the rain the way it was, I couldn’t see anything.
I hesitated. Mum was at work and I was home alone. Not normally a problem, but the weather made me wary. Who would be out in such a downpour? To my mind, there were only two possibilities—a mad axe murderer or a religious fundamentalist. If I was really unlucky, it would be the latter. I suppose I could have pretended not to exist, but I’m a person with a social conscience. The weather was foul. I’d have let in a cane toad for shelter and a mug of cocoa.
So I opened the door.
The man was below medium height. Actually, well below medium height. He was wearing a white shirt and a broad silk tie decorated with Santa Clauses. He held a dripping bag in one hand and swept sodden, thinning hair from his eyes with the other. Niagara Falls flowed over him. His clothes stuck to his body and as he shifted position I heard the squelch of rainwater in shoes. He looked at me and blinked rain. A small smile, hesitant, unsure, played around his lips.
“Hello, Calma,” he said.
“Dad!” I yelled. “My God! Dad! Don’t stand out there in the pouring rain, Dad.”
His smile broadened.
“No,” I added. “Piss off!”
And I slammed the door in his face.
My local grocery store glories in the name of Crazi-Cheep. It’s one of those places that advertises on local TV channels by assembling a cast of plug-ugly employees dressed in spectacularly nasty uniforms and forcing them to sing a song with banal lyrics, written by a tone-deaf lower primate. The employees all look embarrassed, and so they should. You could force slivers of red-hot bamboo up my fingernails and lash me with rusty barbed wire and I still wouldn’t do it.
The employees are very young, presumably so the company can pay them about two dollars an hour and pass on the savings to customers. Crazi-Cheep closes the checkouts by degrees during peak times, so ultimately there is a line of fifty people at one register, staffed by a pubescent operator prone to pimples, lank hair, and narcolepsy. You can visibly age in one of their lines. Not that anyone would notice, because most of the customers are so old they’d be candidates for carbon dating.
Crazi-Cheep is not high on my list of not-to-be-missed shopping experiences.
This, however, was an emergency. I braved the depress- ing canned music—a compilation CD probably entitled Major Manure of the Seventies—and took my place in a line whose length might have been justifiable if they were handing out free hip replacements. The old lady in front of me was certainly a worry. It was only the fact that she wheezed from time to time that indicated she was still breathing.
Time passed. I grew a few centimeters and the old lady shrank a few. The CD was on repeat and a particularly annoying track came on again. Finally it was almost my turn to be served.
In Sicily they call it the thunderbolt. I read about it somewhere. It’s when you see someone and all these hormonal reactions kick in. Your heart thumps, you sweat profusely, your stomach dips to your shoelaces, and bits and pieces you didn’t know you possessed start tingling like you’ve been plugged into an electric socket. Well, that’s what happened to me when I saw . . . him.
I don’t want you to think I am a shallow, superficial person, so I won’t start with his physical appearance.
Stuff it. Of course I will.
He was tall and rangy. As I watched him scan a tin of Spam (and he did it so effortlessly, with such grace and ease of movement, like a balletic sequence), I caught the hint of lean muscles flexing beneath the uniform. I could picture him on a beach, the sun reflecting off defined biceps and pectorals you could graze your knuckles on. His face was classically sculpted, high cheekbones framing a pert and flawless nose. His eyes were deep brown, liquid with sensitivity and hidden passion; his olive skin gleamed beneath the overhead fluorescent lights. During a particularly tricky scanning maneuver, involving shrink-wrapped bok choy, he parted his full lips to reveal faultless, even teeth. Glossy black hair fell in a perfect curtain over his left eye.
Basically, he was all right, if you like that kind of thing.
As for his personality (the most important factor, of course), well . . . hey, how the hell would I know? I stood there with a glazed expression on my face, like someone had smacked me around the head with a frozen chicken carcass. Luckily the old dear in front of me was not the most efficient of customers. The Greek god had finished scanning her groceries and she was gazing into the middle distance with rheumy eyes.
“That’ll be twenty-five dollars and fifty-five cents, please,” he said.
I loved him for the “please.” What a polite and consider- ate young man! And his voice was like honey dripping over truffles . . .
“Hey?” said the crone.
“Twenty-five dollars and fifty-five cents, please.”
She looked amazed, like the last thing she had been expecting was to have to pay for the groceries. I knew what would come next. She’d burrow into her bag for her wallet, which would be right at the bottom. She’d pull out bus passes, framed photographs of her grandchildren, a prosthetic leg, and a packet of surgical bandages and each item would be placed carefully on the counter. Finally, when she had accumulated enough mate- rial to fill a dumpster, she’d find the wallet, count out the sum in nickels, and painfully repack. Then she’d want her FlyBuys card, which would be in a secret compartment at the bottom of her handbag, and we’d go through the whole process again.
This time, though, I wasn’t complaining. It gave me the chance to drink in every detail of Jason’s appearance. Jason. He had a little name tag. I love the name Jason. Don’t you love the name Jason? It’s classical and conjures images of flashing swords, short tunics, and Golden Fleece. I was so struck I didn’t have time to panic. It hadn’t occurred to me that once the old lady had hobbled off it would be my turn to be served and, for a moment at least, Jason’s attention would be focused on me.
When he turned to me, my hair clogged up with grease and four pimples spontaneously erupted on my nose. I wanted to die.
And then it got worse. I remembered what I had been standing in line for half a millennium to purchase. It was clamped in my hand. I froze. I wanted to turn back, but forty-five pensioners were behind me and they didn’t look friendly. With a sinking feeling, I placed my purchase on the belt and watched it slide towards Jason.
Feminine hygiene products. Or FHP, as I like to call them.
From the Hardcover edition.