Sunday, 7 April 2013

Colin Fischer, by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz

Colin Fischer is a fourteen year old boy with high functioning Asperger’s Syndrome. He is very smart, has a remarkable ability to absorb information and detail, is interested in everything and anything to do with science and math, but has extreme trouble navigating everyday social circumstances, cannot function in the presence of loud sounds, and really really dislikes being touched. He also has trouble reading other people’s emotions and facial expressions and can’t tell when a question is rhetorical or a comment is sarcastic, instead taking everything as literal. This makes navigating the highways of school rather difficult, and makes him a high priority target for school bullies. But Colin is capable of more than he knows, as he's about to find out.

Colin’s hero is Sherlock Holmes, a character whom the authors, Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz, quietly make a convincing argument toward being on the autistic spectrum himself. And Colin is a Holmes at heart too: he likes to understand how things work and why things are the way they are, which means that whenever a new mystery presents itself, he feels the urge to investigate. A mystery like a gun going off in the school cafeteria one day. Witnessing the event, Colin sees details that others don’t pick up on, and he quickly becomes convinced that the boy the school and the police are blaming for the incident is not actually responsible. Colin puts aside the years of bullying he has suffered at the hands of this child and sets out to prove the boy’s innocence and identify the real perpetrator.

In Colin, Miller and Stentz have created an insightful and likeable character with whom it’s easy to empathise despite his occasional unusual behaviours. While his younger brother is remarkably unfeeling (though the writers make it clear that he’s stuck somewhat between a rock and a hard place), the boys’ parents are well-attuned to Colin’s anomalies. They are rather super-parenty though: a mum who simultaneously holds a rocket science meeting, folds laundry and looks after her Asperger’s son? This sounds distinctly unrealistic to me. However, the main part of Colin’s story is fun and informative, and written in a manner that taps into Colin’s character extremely well, with notes he makes in his precious Notebook scattered through the text, and, here and there, a footnote with interesting facts that blend both actual fact and a touch of Colin, thus keeping it light, interesting and amusing at the same time.

If Colin’s parents are unrealistic overachievers, Colin’s school sounds typically American and well-balanced. An early encounter between Colin and his new PE teacher had me fuming (granted, I have a rather poor personal history with PE teachers, so was somewhat biased), but then the teacher’s ‘no s**t’  yet subtly thoughtful attitude morphed into being a really positive thing for Colin. There are lots of quiet truths mixed into this book, from the good teachers and the bad teachers to Colin’s accounting of the Kuleshov effect, and his attempt to create a map of the social structure of the high school. It all flows together rather nicely.

Colin’s Asperger’s status and his determination to solve the mystery of the gun has drawn comparisons among reviewers with Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is understandable, but really they are two quite different books. Haddon is in a different league to Colin Fischer, but, that said, Fischer is a good read, enjoyable and with a simple but well thought out plot. For some reason Waterstones have classed this as suitable for the 9-12 age bracket, but it is really too grown-up for those readers I think, mainly because of one or two sexual references contained within. However, it serves as a good introduction to teenage fiction, is amusing and, as said before, quite insightful into Asperger’s Syndrome, thus also serving well as a pre-cursor to reading Mark Haddon. At it’s heart this is a book about friendship, making friends, being true to yourself, and finding your own unique place on the social ladder, and worth reading.

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