The Bex Factor by Simon Packham

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The Bex Factor by Simon Packham

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Linda Lawlor
Reviewed by Linda Lawlor
Summary: Bex auditions for 'The Tingle Factor', but it is Matthew, the boy who is simply there to accompany her on the guitar, who gets chosen. While Bex generously helps look after his sick mother, Matthew learns that showbiz people aren't always as charming in real life as they are on screen.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Piccadilly Press
ISBN: 978-1848121638

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Reality TV, especially the kind of talent competition where the backstory of the contestants is as much a part of the programme as their performance on stage, is a part of most young people's lives. A whole culture has grown up which dangles big breaks, lucrative contracts and happiness-ever-after to those talented few who can sing or dance, or, better still, do both at once. Fourteen-year-old Bex dreams of singing her way to stardom via the latest TV show, called 'The Tingle Factor'. All she needs to do is persuade geeky Year Ten Matthew to accompany her on the guitar.

The story is told by these two young people in alternating chapters, a useful ploy which allows the reader to see both sides of each situation. Bex, being more outgoing and chatty, comes over more clearly, but it is introspective Matthew who gives the story its depth. He is the one who is eventually selected to attend the Celebrity Conservatoire, a month-long residential mentoring course where the chosen few are put through their paces in the relentless glare of the cameras, and it is his story which allows the author to parody the whole celebrity industry. Members of the group are manipulated, bullied, exposed and cajoled, all for the sake of TV ratings, while back at school poor Bex, having been humiliated at the auditions by the famously vicious Jason, finds herself the butt of jokes and ridicule.

So far so good, but there are major twists to the story. Matthew lives with his ailing mother and his younger sister, and it is only when Bex offers to help look after them that he is able to accept his place on the course. His mother is not coping well with her MS, swinging wildly between histrionic despair and surly tantrums, and Bex has her hands full. Matthew, safe in his London hotel, becomes more and more distant from his family as he falls for Twilight, a vampire-lite whose family background is so tragic that it captures the hearts of the TV viewers and garners her shedloads of votes each week.

There is plenty to like in this story. The main characters are fresh and authentic, allowing readers to identify easily with them, and whatever mistakes they make they do come over, in the end, as likeable people. The topic will draw readers too, because it is so pervasive in current culture, and there is much vicarious pleasure to be gained both from Matthew's success and from the ritual shaming of his nastier rivals. What's more, Bex and Matthew find themselves in situations which are rich ground for comedy, and this adds a welcome lightness.

There are, however, a few caveats. There are several sub-plots which in the end prove distracting, and use up pages which could have been better used for the fuller development of the story. The social divisions between the two main character's families, a crazy older brother, an occasionally feckless young mother, a disloyal friend and a greedy father are only some of those who wander across the plot, apparently serving simply to add to our hero and heroine's woes. And the ending, possibly because of these minor characters, seems a little rushed, and almost as happy-ever-after as the one promised by the TV programme. Still, it's a pleasant read, just right for the beach, and its message, while not subtle, will provide excellent opportunities for thought and discussion.

Further reading suggestion: Younger readers who would like to read more books about talent shows will enjoy The Talented Clementine by Sara Pennypacker and Dork Diaries: Pop Star by Rachel Renee Russell. And for older readers, a book which doesn't have a show, but does deal with issues they will readily identify with, is Kisses for Lula by Samantha Mackintosh.

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