Cover of Undercurrent by Paul Blackwell. A shirtless teen boy lays prone, a tear streaming down his face

About the Book

Title: Undercurrent
Published: 2013

Cover Story: No Boy Will Ever Read This
Drinking Buddy:
Which Way Did He Go, George?
Testosterone Level:
Talky Talk:
“Like that one episode of the Twilight Zone.”
Bonus Factors:
Alternate Reality, Crazy Science Teacher
Bromance Status:
I love you man…um, it is you, right?

Cover Story:

A wet, naked guy who looks like he’s crying. Yep, nothing draws male teen readers (who would probably really like this book) like pictures of sensitive, shirtless hunks.

The Deal:

When sixteen-year-old Callum Harris accidentally goes over Crystal Falls, he knows he’s lucky to be alive. True, the near drowning leaves him feeling a little disoriented. For instance, why is everyone calling him ‘Cal’ when he prefers his full name? Why does his town suddenly seem so skeezy and dirty? And why did his best friend Bryce try to suffocate him with a pillow while he was convalescing?

Things continue to get weirder. Callum was always kind of a shy, introverted guy. Now, everything acts like he’s some kind of mega popular jock. Girls throw themselves at him. Guys are afraid of him. But they can’t be serious, Callum has never thrown a football nor a punch in years. Something is amazingly f-ed up here. And who’s that strange hooded figure who keeps following him around?

But the worst part is what’s happened to Callum’s brother, Cole…

Drinking Buddy: Which Way Did He Go, George?

Two pints of beer cheersing

Callum is a very likeable guy. However, he’s not too terribly swift on the uptake. I worked out most of the plot twists fifty or so pages before he did. On the other hand, it’s easy for Callum to chalk his confusion up to his near death experience. And we all tend to latch on to the most rational explanation. After all, it’s easier to shave with Occam’s Razor than to accept that your entire universe is somehow the wrong one.

Testosterone Level: Overload

Before the accident, Callum was just a shy kid who liked hanging out with nerdy Bryce or playing music with his friend Willow. His brother was the one who was the macho athlete…at least he used to be. Now Callum is shoved into a world where he’s not only a football star and a Romeo, but kind of a bullying jerk as well. He’s naturally confused, but he kind of likes the awe and fear he now inspires. But why do so many people dislike him? Why are people like Bryce now afraid of him? And who keeps trying to kill him? Before he knows it, he’s selling stolen alcohol, fighting with a deranged park ranger, and disposing of a corpse. What the hell has happened to his life?

Talky Talk: “Like that one episode of The Twilight Zone.”

Jerry: It’s like that one episode of The Twilight Zone where the guy wakes up and he’s the same but everyone else is different.

Kramer: Which episode?

Jerry: They were all like that.

So Callum has to navigate through a world that is no longer his own. This obviously causes a lot of problems. For instance, he no longer knows his computer password or his school schedule. And what’s going to happen when he coach finally gets him back onto the football field? He doesn’t even know the rules of the game!

And is it right to make out with a girl who thinks you are someone else? And what about his friend Willow, the shy, sensitive band member who Callum was crushing on? Now she thinks he’s nothing more than an obnoxious meathead who she’s never said more than five words to. How will he convince her they used to be close friends and he needs her help working out what’s going on?

Undercurrent does what Quantum Leap couldn’t do in an hour program: deals with the nuts and bolts problems of a situation like this, as well as the emotional side.

Bonus Factor: Alternate Reality

Side by side photos of regular Mr. Spock and Evil Mr. Spock

So in case you haven’t guessed yet (I’m talking to you, Callum Harris), Callum somehow wound up in an alternate reality. One where he’s a popular jerk. But how did that change come about? It turns out, it was just one incident. One little choice he made years ago, that greatly affected not only his own life, but his brother’s.

Which of course begs the question, are there universes out there where another you is living the life you shied away from? What if you’d never taken that job? What if you hadn’t met that person you married? What if, in another strange universe, you’re Batman?

History is fraught with these situations. Once, a young politician named Winston Churchill was visiting New York, forgot about the right hand side traffic, and nearly stepped in front of a moving car. What does that world look like?

Callum’s is universe is crummy, but it’s kind of nice to think that somewhere, on another plane of existence, there’s a Brian Katcher who is dictator of all the world.

Bonus Factor: Crazy Science Teacher

The mad scientist from Robot Chicken

Callum had a teacher named Mr. Schroeder, who was a proponent of the multiverse theory. Unfortunately, he had a nervous breakdown and is no longer teaching. But he’s still around, and strangely hangs around the falls where Callum had his accident. Perhaps he knows something. Unfortunately, this Mr. Schroeder only remembers Callum as the jerk who constantly disrupted his class, and is loathe to discuss theoretical cosmology with him.

Bromace Factor: I love you man…um, it is you, right?

I really enjoyed this book. It was this book, right? Don’t make me check the ISBN number to make sure it’s not just something similar. Seriously.

FTC full disclosure: Harper Collins sent me a free copy of this book. I got no money, and I’m still waiting for that bottle of whisky, Cal.

Damn, I asked a lot of rhetorical questions in this review.


Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.