________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number . . . .March 17, 2017


Desert Slam. (Orca Soundings).

Steven Barwin.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2017.
134 pp., pbk., pdf & epub, $9.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-1372-4 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4598-1373-1 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-1374-8 (epub).

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Susie Wilson.

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



Cristina started to dance, pulling Ruby and me in. She twirled me around. In the blur of spectators I spotted the guy from the store again.

I kept smiling as I spoke to the girls, so as not to tip him off. “That weird is following us.”

Cristina took the lead, and we broke off dancing and folded back into the crowd. Moving quickly past pedestrians, I looked over my shoulder. Stars-and-Stripes was catching up. Our celebration night was quickly turning into an escape from stranger danger. My heart raced, fueled by our fast pace and nerves. Suddenly the crowd of strangers felt less comforting. “Where are we going, Cristina?”

She pointed. “There.”

Ahead was a large collection of painting on tall pedestals. There was everything from landscapes to abstracts.

We pushed through shoppers until we were surrounded by paintings. Out of breath, I asked, “What now?”

“Hide!” Cristina ordered.

I scrunched up beside a painting of a large red flower. Behind it were thousands of different-sized interconnecting circles. Staring at the pattern, it looked like they were changing shape between big and small.

I leaned forward just past the edge of the painting and scanned the faces of the crowd until I found the man in the stars and stripes. He was looking in every direction, like he had lost something. That’s when I recognized him. He was the tow-truck driver from the night of the accident.


Desert Slam is an addition to Orca’s line of high-interest low-level readers, in this case bringing together a Californian vacation, tennis, and a small time crime ring. It is a quick read, but unfortunately any reader engagement it gains it also loses with its gaps in logic and lack of realism. It will definitely appeal to some readers, especially girls drawn to Nancy Drew-like mysteries, but there are better books for this age and reading level that I would recommend in its place.

     Readers first meet Maya, a 16-year-old girl from Vancouver who has just arrived in Palm Desert, California, to visit her grandparents who have a condo in a fancy retirement community. She makes fast friends with Ruby, a similarly aged girl from New York, also visiting her grandparents, and they bond over their love of tennis. As luck would have it, Maya’s grandparents have tickets to a big tennis match that night, and so Maya, Ruby, and her grandfather head out for a night on the town. On the way home, Maya, who recently got her driver’s license, is driving when they end up in an accident with a driver who, minutes before, was driving erratically and cut them off in traffic. The man, who was driving his visibly pregnant girlfriend, initially apologizes and exchanges information with Maya’s grandfather, but with the quick arrival of a tow-truck and driver, the interaction quickly changes to pressuring Maya and her grandfather to just pay the other driver in cash and keep the insurance companies out of it. After some haggling, the price of $750 is set, the money is exchanged, and a very shaken Maya drives everyone home.

     Going off photos that Ruby took at the scene of the accident, the girls determine where the pregnant woman from the other car likely works, and they decide to visit the next day to make sure she is okay. They see her at the mall, but with one notable difference from the night before: the woman, Laurie, is definitely not pregnant.

     As news of the accident spreads through the retirement community, more and more people come to Maya and Ruby with eerily similar stories of either themselves or their friends being in accidents where they rear-ended a car and ended up paying the other driver in cash. It is at this point when readers meet the final member of the crime-solving trio, Cristina, whose mother runs the cleaning service for most of the community and who had also been the victim of what is looking more and more like a criminal enterprise. The girls speak to Javier, Cristina’s cousin, who is also a journalism student, and they embark on an adventure to get to the bottom of the ‘crash for cash’ scheme they have all been victims of.

     Desert Slam is a quick, fast-paced read, but some of the plot twists were a little too unbelievable to keep engagement in the story. It seems as though every second person in the retirement community is either directly victimized by the car crash scam or knows someone else who was, and yet nobody has reported their accidents to the police or their insurance companies. It also seems like the sums demanded by the criminals are suspiciously small - $750 would barely cover any body work needed on a car, let alone all the medical costs paid by patients in the United States. The scheme, itself, seems too suspicious not to have been uncovered already.

     There is also the problem of Laurie. Laurie, as it turns out, is an unwilling accomplice to the two men. She was initially a victim of an accident herself, and when she did not have the money to pay off the men, they forced her to become part of their act, dressing up and acting as a pregnant woman to garner more sympathy and concern from future victims. The logic of this set-up, unfortunately, holds no water. The men admitted to setting up the accident, and then force Laurie to work for them to pay off the ‘debt’ that she clearly doesn’t actually owe them, and she goes along with them with barely a complaint. She even pretends to help Maya, Ruby, and Cristina catch them in the act, but instead she sells the girls out to her criminal partners.

     Faults aside, the action and suspense sequences are written with a deft hand and can keep readers on the edge of their seats even though the initial set-up seems a bit too unbelievable. In the interest of not ruining the entire story, I will leave it at that, but I will say that, after a few close calls and narrow escapes, Ruby, Cristina, and Maya get a satisfying end to their amateur sleuthing.

     Desert Slam, in spite of its faults, is an engaging book and will definitely appeal to girls who want an adventurous detective story with strong female characters.


Susie Wilson completed her MLIS at SLIS at the University of Alberta. She lives and works in Prince George, BC.

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

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