________________ CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 9 . . . . November 2, 2012


Drummer Girl.

Karen Bass.
Regina, SK: Coteau Books, 2011.
231 pp., trade pbk., $14.95.
ISBN 978-1-55050-462-0.

Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.

Review by Kris Rothstein.

***½ /4



"So here's how it'll play out. You practice with us all week. 7 o'clock. My place. We just got a gig for Saturday. Some carnival day at a community centre on the east side. They had two bands booked and both cancelled. It'll be a brutal long gig. They want dance music for teens and a bit older. No heavy metal shit."

Sid didn't dare show the grin wanting to break loose. "I can do dance beats."

He pinned her with a narrowed gaze. "No drugs, booze, or they kick us out."

"I'm not Wes. I told you I like to play clean."

He went on as if she hadn't spoken. "Clem told me you admitted you aren't gay. I don't care. Show off some boob, flirt with the audience but don't even look at any of us."

"That'll be easy since none of you interest me."

Rocklin's sharp gaze was skeptical, as if he couldn't imagine any girl not wanting to fall down and kiss their feet. "You stir things up between us and I'll kick your ass off the stage." The corner of his mouth lifted. "Or let Clem do it. He's pissed. Don't prove him right."

He shifted into reverse. Apparently the conversation was over. Sid got out and said, "Seven o'clock." She stepped back. The convertible whipped out of the driveway and tires squealed as Rocklin roared down the street.

"The price of fame," Sid muttered. "Putting up with jerks."

Sid loves to drum, and she's ambitious about her music. That's why she sees The Fourth Down, the only serious band at her school, as her best option for the future. They need a new drummer, and she knows she's the best. But the guys in the band are cool jock types who don't approve of her tomboyish appearance and don't have much respect for girls. With the help of her pert, generic cousin, Sid plans a sexy makeover and a new practical attitude. But while she tries to win the chance to prove herself to the band, she punches out Wes, a rival drummer, who keeps calling her gay and grabbing her butt. That means a suspension, and now the school counsellor is on her back. And her old friends don't appreciate the new Sid. This plucky heroine navigates high school politics, sexual harassment, her distracted single dad, her confused best friend, a new boyfriend and a love of music to figure out who she is and where she really belongs.

      There is a lot going on in this novel which establishes and develops the character of 16-year-old Sidney. She transforms from a passive girl hiding inside a big Metallica t-shirt into a young woman who starts to realize the power of her own appearance and her own decisions. That she is sexy and attracts attention is something she appreciates but not something she actually wants or is comfortable with. She preferred just hanging with her old friends who didn't care what she looked like, but she's a pragmatist and knows that image is a part of the music business. Her new appearance does have the added bonus of attracting Brad, whom she meets at her cousin's wedding. She can't quite believe this fun smart guy likes her, but her cousin Heather brands him a loser and a geek. Luckily Sid doesn't care what Heather thinks she and Brad have chemistry and conversations and that's good enough for her. The nuances and complexities of teenage social hierarchies are really on display here.

      The book could have taken the high moral ground and suggested that Sid never needed to come out from behind her gender neutral drummer identity, but I liked that Sid is trying to navigate the real world, trying out the tools at her disposal and seeing which ones might work for her. The story sometimes borders on being preachy about teen "issues" but usually stays on the right side of the fence. However, I wondered about author Karen Bass's decision to write this book in the third person. Sid's distinct perspective on the world might have been even stronger if this had been a first-person narration.

      The narrative unfolds in an unusual way. There are quite a few unexpected twists and turns, but none of them come out of left field, and all seem believable. Sid isn't able to morph herself into someone the popular boys approve of, and she gets dumped from the band. The cool boys show just how sleazy they are when they set Sid up by tricking her into a situation where they can kiss her, film it and post it online. They get taken to task and Sid considers legal action, but, in the end, the consequences are pretty light for sexual harassment. The one plot strand which doesn't quite work as well concerns Sid's best friend, Taylor, who stops talking to her after her makeover. Their reconciliation after a motorcycle accident feels melodramatic.

      Sid is always wearing band t-shirts, and she's pretty enthusiastic about a few drummers, Neil Peart from Rush in particular, but her passion for music doesn't shine through as much as it should. She loves playing the drums, loves the physicality of it. But Sid is supposed to be a bit of a music nerd, and there should be some more specific musical content. Sid never goes out to shows or talks much about bands she really loves. She doesn't really share music with her friends either, except her brother Devin, who is away at college. He is preoccupied and busy, and this is partly what prompts Sid's identity crisis, but Devin is a big influence in her life who is perhaps a little too absent in her psychic world.

      Drummer Girl is not perfect, but it is a very entertaining book with a likeable heroine who handles herself well in complex situations. High school, family life, friendships and personal passions are all on display and bundled well into a good story.

Highly Recommended.

Kris Rothstein is a children's book agent and reviewer in Vancouver, BC.

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

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