________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 20 . . . . May 30, 2008

cover The Spell Book of Listen Taylor.

Jaclyn Moriarity.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2008.
479 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-0-88899-888-0.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

** /4


She closed that notebook, took up another, and wrote the heading: “Prize-Winning Novel”. It had occurred to her that she might write a prize-winning novel in italics. Italics, she thought, had both gumption and mystique. Also, a particular italicized sentence was floating around her mind these days:

“How is your ocean bream, my love?”

She was not sure what she meant by this sentence, but found it very moving. It would presumably be spoken in a restaurant.

She sent a text message to her sister, Marbie. HOW IS YOUR OCEAN BREAM, MY LOVE?  Just to see what Marbie would say.

Then she returned to the first notebook and ruled another box…….

Marbie was taking the train home from work when her sister’s text message arrived. A LITTLE OVERCOOKED, she texted back, ON THE FLAKY SIDE.

Like her sister, Marbie had a sentence floating in her head these days. Her sentence was this:

“It was a decision she would regret for the rest of her life.”

Because she was so excited by her good luck in meeting Nathaniel and his lovely daughter Listen, she feared she would take one tiny wrong step and lost them.

For example: Let’s say she opens her wardrobe and sees her short blue dress hanging alongside her long floral skirt. Which one should she wear? Hurriedly, she chooses the long skirt. “It was a decision she would regret for the rest of her life” – because later! On her way to work? The skirt gets tangled in her sandals and trips her up! And she breaks her ankle! And she has to go to the hospital! And Nathaniel comes to visit with flowers, and the nurse says to Nathaniel, “What lovely daffodils”, and he says, “Actually they’re tulips,” and then their eyes meet, and they fall in love, and Nathaniel and Listen leave Marbie for the nurse!!”


The Zing family members are as bizarre as some of their names: Marbie, Fancy, Listen, Cassie, Nathaniel and Radcliffe. Their world is a strange combination of seemingly ordinary life mixed in with magic spells, surveillance cameras, and private meetings every Friday in the garden shed to deal with the Family Secret.

     The title character, Listen, is in grade seven, and she and her father, Nathaniel, have recently moved in with his girlfriend, Marbie Zing. Just as the school year begins, Listen discovers a spell book, but it doesn’t seem very useful since the spells are so mundane. For example, there is a spell to make a vacuum cleaner break and another to make somebody eat a piece of chocolate cake. What possible excitement can that provide? Only at the end of the book do the various spells begin to make some sense, but they are peripheral to the plot and not the main focus as the title would indicate.

     Fancy Zing is convinced her husband is having an affair and also is on the verge of an infidelity of her own, if she can take time away from writing wilderness romance novels. Meanwhile, Cassie has a grade two teacher named Cath Murphy who seems to have some sort of weird connection to the entire family - or does she? Like many of the other adults, Cath forms a large part of the subplots of the novel.

     The novel defies any real synopsis because of the detail and complexity of the plot. The story moves more or less chronologically but with a definite stream of consciousness feel to it. Often characters reveal quite clearly their thoughts and their emotions, resulting in a whimsical mixture which reminds one of looking at the colours at the end of a kaleidoscope. You no sooner detect a pattern than suddenly the pieces move and you have to begin all over again.

     The novel is overflowing with characters and subplots. Typical of a young adult novel, one subplot is Listen’s change to a new school and the difficulty she has penetrating the cliques and making friends. She is a very lonely young teenager at many times in the book. However, the adults are really the focus of the novel, and plots revolve around adult themes such as adultery and divorce. Mixed throughout are the elements of mystery and suspense since the Family Secret is guarded carefully and is only revealed to readers near the end of the book.

     The Spell Book of Listen Taylor doesn’t fit easily into any category. Some sections are very funny and “over the top,” leaving readers marveling at Moriarty’s zany wit and her ability to combine seemingly totally disconnected ideas and events. Other parts deal with love and relationships and how difficult they are to both obtain and sustain.  

     There are moments when one wonders if Moriarty really knows just what book she is writing since it is full of contradictions in theme and tone. Originally Moriarty wrote the novel as I have a bed made of buttermilk pancakes, an adult fairytale. Perhaps is should have remained there. Although the details aren’t too lurid for teen readers, almost 500 pages of non sequiturs and quite unbelievable and complicated plots make it challenging for all but the most determined of young adult readers.


Ann Ketcheson is a retired teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French who lives in Ottawa, ON, where she has turned her love of travel into a new career as a travel consultant.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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