The Spell Book of Listen Taylor – Jaclyn Moriarty

Macmillan, September 2007, 9780330423489 (Young Adult)
(Review first published in Viewpoint, vol. 15, no. 4, Summer 2007)

The Zing family have a secret. Every Friday night they meet in the garden shed to discuss it. Listen Taylor’s Dad has just moved in with Marbie Zing. Listen wonders if it might be the secret of happy families, as her real mother ran away to Paris. Listen finds an odd spell book and follows the instructions carefully. As things begin to unravel she relies on its promises.

Cath teaches Grade 2 and studies Law part-time. Everything in her life has always fallen into place. Now she is facing a potential romantic disaster. There is a girl in her class called Cassie Zing, whose mother writes her notes almost daily. What has Cath got to do with the Zing family secret?

The young characters in this book, Listen and Cassie, aren’t paid quite as much attention as the adults – Cath and the Zing sisters, Marbie and Fancy. The book is written whimsically but deals with some very adult themes – secrets and deception, weakness, self-doubt, and adultery. The characters are victim to their own secret desires. There is a lot of cheating going on and it makes the reader nervous when it is interspersed with passages about hot-air-balloons, spying and surveillance, and multiple references to the ‘Valerio’ corporation, who own everything and infiltrate the characters’ lives. There could be a deeper message here but the novel is just too light and flippant to warrant it. Parts of it are fun, but then those moments are overturned. People who love each other cheat, some people fall out of love, some were abandoned and never loved, and some pretend to be loved in the fear they never will be. The significance of the spell book is learned at the end but it is quite incidental throughout. The title is not really warranted as it promises a book of a different genre.

This book is actually a rewritten version of I Have a Bed Made of Buttermilk Pancakes, which was essentially an ‘adult’ fairytale. Moriarty rewrote it to bring out the voice of Listen Taylor, and while that voice is sad, desperate and definitely strong, it still competes with all the other voices in the novel. Overall, this is still somewhat an adult-themed book that contradicts itself in tone and style. Moriarty writes with quirk, beauty and enthusiasm but one can’t help feeling that the book has a secret identity of its own, one that may have been better left for adults.

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