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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review of "Popchuck's Ghost" by Paul Toffanello

Product Details

3.5 Stars 

I must begin by stating that I am no expert on Teen Fiction.   I am considerably older than the intended audience of 10 – 15-year-olds, and I have no memory of ever liking ghost stories, so I am not the best reviewer of this book.  I read it because it was written by a friend and former colleague.  With those provisos, here’s my review:

Twelve-year-old Neil Wybred  arrives at summer camp with his best friend Adam.  The week  has the usual fun activities, but Neil is soon pre-occupied with other things:  why are odd things happening in Cabin 5, why are his athletic feats strangely sabotaged, and who is that “old geezer . . . [who] was wearing old, raggedy clothing and had long scraggly hair and a beard” (15) whom no one else seems to see?  Neil and Adam and their friend Ally discover secret tunnels which seem to have some connection to the strange happenings at Camp McAbre.  But the trio must investigate while avoiding the watchful eyes of the camp director, Charles Atrom.

The book opens with sufficient suspense to catch the reader’s interest.  The opening mentions a “lonesome figure” (5) waiting at the camp, and the first chapter ends with Neil’s brother warning him, “’Make sure you don’t get stuck in Cabin 5.  Seriously’” (8).  Within the first ten pages, Neil twice spies a mysterious figure who just seems to evaporate.  From there, the plot moves at a quick pace.

Neil and Adam are clearly differentiated:   Neil is the brave one whereas Adam is his foil, being constantly nervous and fearful.  Unfortunately, they do not emerge as fully round characters.  The other cabin-mates and campers remain largely opaque, though the touches of humour added by the Chung brothers are welcome.  The inclusion of Ally is a nice touch, extending the appeal of the book to girls, especially when it is mentioned that “both boys had not-so-secret crushes on Ally” (7).

There are some unanswered questions which are problematic for me.  Why is Neil the camper chosen by the ghost to be his “contact”?  Neil first sees the eerie apparition staring at him when he’s on the bus enroute to the camp so how can the ghost know that Neil is curious and courageous, the two traits he needs to have?  Why can another person “neither see nor hear Arnold Popchuck” (175) even though that person is of especial interest to him?

And there are some other events that indicate plot weaknesses.  Adam claims to win a race because he was so angry at Neil, yet there is nothing in the earlier conversation between the boys that indicates Adam was so upset.  Later the three sleuths are told by the camp director to report to the campfire after their walk (111), yet they return directly to the cabin (118) and risk Mr. Atrom’s wrath?  Ally does something in the tunnel for which no explanation is given (136); her action becomes important later so a logical motive should be provided.  Why is everyone struck silent by the ghost when one of the group cannot see or hear the ghost (175)? 

The book should appeal to young teens and might be especially useful for reluctant middle-grade readers.  The plot does not drag, and there is a lot of dialogue and no unnecessary lengthy description that might be a turn-off.  There is considerable suspense so interest should not lag.  My only reservation is those unanswered questions and plot inconsistencies, but perhaps they would not be noticed by young readers?