Friday, 21 June 2013

Rise of the Geek Girl: The Zigzag Effect by Lili Wikinson Review

In order to pay for a photography course she desperately wants to attend, Sage takes a part-time job at a supposedly haunted theatre working for The Great Armand, a once great stage magician who has now been reduced to performing school holiday magic shows for kids. Sage soon finds herself enjoying her new job and becoming good friends with magician’s assistant Bianca and stagehand Herb. However, when Sage accidentally breaks a wand on stage, bringing down a curse on the group, and shortly afterwards Armand goes missing, Sage must uncover the secrets of the old theatre before she too is made to disappear – permanently.

Australian author Lili Wilkinson has really nailed the YA geek girl novel. Starting back in 2008 with The (Not Quite) Perfect Boyfriend (about spelling-bee champion Midge who invents an imaginary boyfriend in order to impress her best friend while at the same time falling in love with a nerdy fantasy geek), Wilkinson has subsequently perfected the genre with Pink (former goth Ava decides to reinvent herself by transferring to the Billy Hughes School of Academic Excellence); A Pocketful of Eyes (while working a summer job at the taxidermy department of a museum, mystery fan Bee investigates the death of her supervisor); Love Shy (aspiring journalist Penny gets more than she bargained for when she sets out to discover the identity of a love-shy classmate) and now The Zigzag Effect.

Wilkinson’s books follow a simple formula: they’re light-hearted; the heroine is always smart, with an unusual hobby or interest; there is an equally geeky boy who falls instantly in love with our heroine in between spouting quirky facts; and much kissing is used to fill in the dead places in the plot. Normally, I would avoid books this girlie like the plague, except for the fact that YA books with smart, geeky female protagonists are hard to come by, and they’re actually pretty good.

As with A Pocketful of Eyes, in The Zigzag Effect Wilkinson adds to her formula by also giving her heroine a mystery to solve. The mystery in The Zigzag Effect is, admittedly, not as front and centre as in A Pocketful of Eyes – a missing magician is easier to overlook than a dead supervisor - but this simply gives Wilkinson the opportunity to explore the other equally fascinating aspects of her story, including the ghost of the theatre in which Sage works and the world of professional magic. As someone who spent her childhood dreaming of growing up to be a magician, I actually found the descriptions of magic tricks and life in the magic community to be the best part of this book (Wilkinson has certainly done her research in this respect) and I particularly appreciated Wilkinson’s decision to draw attention to the importance of magician’s assistants (who are cut up and tied up on a nightly basis) and how poorly they can be treated – something which is rarely mentioned in other books about magicians and which I had never given any thought to.

I’m not sure how much longer Wilkinson will be able to continue with her geek girl novels – after all, there are only so many unusual hobbies and jobs that teenage girls can have. However, as long as she keeps writing them, I will keep reading them, and if and when she moves onto something else, I will probably read that, too. The Zigzag Effect and A Pocketful of Eyes are like Nancy Drew novels for girls of the 21st Century, and although I’ve never subscribed to the notion that YA authors have an obligation to write characters who serve as role-models for their readers, in The Zigzag Effect, as with all of her other books, Wilkinson does an excellent job of achieving this.

Verdict: Although far girlier than my taste would normally dictate, this is, nevertheless, still the sort of  book I wish had been around when I was a teenager.

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