Whisper (2014), by Chris Struyk-Bonn

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.4

Whisper

Struyk-Bonn - WhisperThe eponymous Whisper whispers because her voice is “nasal, airy and distorted (38). Author Chris Stuyk-Bonn does not use the term until much later in the novel, but it is obvious that Whisper was born with a cleft palate (palatoschisis), for which her society has rejected her. She lives in the forest with Jeremia, who has a truncated arm (meromelia); the child Eva, who has webbed fingers and toes (syndactyly); the baby Ranita, also with a cleft palate; and the adult Nathaniel, who is not a “reject” but has chosen to leave society for his own reasons. Together, they form a “tribe,” a small family that look out for and love one another, living off the trade of Jeremia’s woodcarvings for supplies. Whisper is lucky: her mother—powerless to avoid the ostracization of her daughter—visits once a year. On Whisper’s 15th birthday, though, she fails to show up, sending a violin as a final gift. Whisper has an innate talent—doubtless inherited—and learns to play the music of the forest, and the joy of her family.

When, few months later, Whisper’s abusive father shows up and takes her back to his home as a servant, her life spirals down into rejection and abuse. She struggles to remain strong while being assaulted both physically and psychologically, then functionally sold into slavery in the city. At this point, it is hard for the reader to go on, so devastatingly presented is Whisper’s life. All that she has, all that supports her materially and emotionally, is her music. When fate finally intervenes, and she is given a chance at success, she is almost too traumatized to believe in the possibility of altruism. The strength of the novel lies in Whisper’s ability to stay true to herself, even damaged as she has become. The dénouement, though, seems trite and simplistic, compared to the profoundly troubling and intricately developed images of poverty and destitution that Struyk-Bonn has given us. While the sense of loyalty and love created between Whisper and her chosen family is heartfelt and inspiring, the joy and satisfaction felt in the end does not sufficiently overcome the distress experienced in the reading.

The Voice Inside My Head (2014), by S.J. Laidlaw

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.4.

Laidlaw-VoiceAs an avid reader of mysteries, I was delighted to discover that S.J. Laidlaw’s The Voice Inside my Head presents as sophisticated a construction of suspense as many “adult” mystery novels. The only obvious distinction is that the protagonist of The Voice Inside my Head is a teen. This is as it should be: Laidlaw in no way writes down to her audience, and adolescent and adult readers alike will engaged with the complex web of characters and events that constitute her novel.

Seventeen-year-old Luke Carrington, whose sister Pat has been reported missing and presumed dead on the small Honduras island of Utila, refuses to believe that she is dead. He hears her voice telling him to seek her out, to come find her. Breaking away from parental bonds, he travels to Honduras to discover for himself what has happened to her. The relationships he builds with the islanders as well as the diving and research community on the island form the backdrop for his investigations. All the while, Pat gives him guidance even as he discovers how little he really knew his older sister, the responsible loving “mother” their own mother has never been.

The people who know Pat (or Tricia as she is known in the Utila community) create a welcoming if confusing circle who support Luke’s endeavours at the same time as they doubt the possibility of his success. Zach, who “worships” the “Holy Trinity… diving, drinking and drugs, my man!” (15), claims to have been Pat’s best friend, and latches onto Luke. Seemingly a dubious advantage at first, Zack’s friendship proves invaluable to Luke in his search for both his sister, and an understanding of himself and relationship to his family. Like Pat, Luke comes to appreciate the islanders and their home more than he thought possible. In exploring the world Pat ran away from home to find, Luke manages to find a way to return to his family with a more secure sense of self, and answers to many of the questions he left with.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies (2014), by Raziel Reid

Reid - moviesRaziel Reid describes his When Everything Feels Like the Movies as “Sweet Valley High meets 120 Days of Sodom”; Marquis de Sade describes his 120 Days of Sodom as “the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began.” Reid’s assessment, then, is not far wrong, which does raise the question: What on earth were the judges thinking in awarding this novel the Governor-General’s Award for Children’s Literature for 2014? It certainly isn’t, in my estimation, children’s literature. Not even if you include YA literature therein. Middle-school protagonist notwithstanding.

The story is based on that of “Lawrence (Larry) Fobes King, an openly gay 15-year-old who was shot to death by an eighth grade classmate inside a school in Oxnard, Calif., in 2008. The incident happened after he’d asked the teen who was convicted in his murder to be his Valentine.” This is a fairly accurate synopsis of the plot of Reid’s novel. What the author has done (as is true in most such cases) is to attempt to provided a psychosocial rationale for the incident: in Reid’s case, from the perspective of the victim, not the perpetrator. So Jude, the protagonist, is in Grade 8 in an American school, the flamboyantly gay son of a stripper mother who lives with her abusive partner, Jude’s father having left early in his life. Jude’s best friend is Angela, a “hard, fast volt” who, “when she got a text from one of her boyfriends immediately got horny and said she had to go” (9).

Jude has a crush on Luke, a straight boy who hangs with the crowd who delight in bullying Jude. Apparently a sucker for punishment, Jude sets his goal to ask Luke to be his date at the high school Valentine’s Day dance. The plot swirls inexorably towards what we know (even without the news story, which, fortunately, is obscure enough for most readers to avoid the spoilers) can only be a bad scene in the movie that is Jude’s life. For that is how Jude sees himself: an actor in a movie over which he has little control, but which he can deconstruct at will, rationalizing changes in director’s instructions, costar’s caprices, and even the script. This self-deception supports him through the bullying, the slurs, the ostracizing he experiences, and this is one of the strengths of the novel. Reid manages to sustain the palimpsest of Jude’s Hollywood illusion over reality such that we see the protective artifice that he weaves around himself for what it is, while Jude does not. Even in the final moment, Jude’s spirit does not abandon the deception: “I just stood there with my arms crossed like I was refusing to film this last scene, like this wasn’t the ending I’d signed on for” (166)—which of course it isn’t.

Paralleling Jude’s self-perception as a great Hollywood prospective is his less-than-ideal reality. This is where the novel slips away, descending from “artistically interesting” into the realm of inauthenticity. Reid notes that one of the reason he wrote the book is that “a lot of teenagers think that fame is the ultimate love, and that they need to obtain it to be happy.” In this, as much else I think, he is overgeneralizing. At rare times, Jude and his fellow students feel like they might be the middle-school students that they are cast as, but Angela’s abortion-as-birth-control habit, and the characters’ explicit drug-related and sexual language (and activities) suggest not only older students, but youth who are edgy in a way that would set them farther apart from society than Reid’s characters are positioned. His characterization of Jude has aspects of an individual who might almost exist, but is inconsistent as well as unrepresentative. Unrepresentative is fine, of course: most students are not overtly and proudly gay in Grade 8, and representation of homosexuality in literature for children and young adults is not only good but necessary. Heteronormative literature still has far too much shelf-space for marginalized voices to be heard. But is Jude representative of any real psychic space? To me, it feels as if Jude were a character written by a 24-year-old gay male who cannot step outside of his own experiences to create a young gay student who thinks like, well, a young gay student. The narrative voice he has constructed uses sexually explicit language and analogy that even some adults would not follow. The allusions to Hollywood film stars and gossip are common knowledge that can be googled, but the mature content of Jude’s thoughts and responses to his world seem completely out of keeping with the lived experiences of any small-town 15 year old. (And his is a small town, despite that his mother works fairly successfully as a stripper, which seems unlikely in a town where “the movie theatre had only one screen, which played only one movie a week … The town had one newspaper… There was a mine where everyone worked…” [18].) Reid’s world-building is manifestly flawed; without an internally consistent narrative world within which to act, his characters are set adrift.

When I first attempted to read this novel, I stopped at page 8, less than a page into the novel, when Angela is talking about Jude’s mother:

“Forty years old and still dressing like an underage slut,” Angela laughed. “I think I’ll make a facebook fan page for her when I get home.”

I licked a picture in the tabloid I was holding. “Sorry,” I said, “I have to make the Hemsworth brothers as wet as they make me.”

“No need to apologize, dude,” Angel[sic] snapped a polaroid. “I’d do them both at the same time.”

“You’d do them both in the same hole,” I laughed. “But who wouldn’t?” (8)

This is the way the characters communicate throughout the text. As a moment of bravado, posturing for each other or their friends, such language could be understandable, but it is not just the language they use with each other that is problematic. Jude’s thoughts never crawl out of this sexual slough. He describes a classmate as wearing “glossy red lipstick that made her lips look juicy, like she had just sucked on a tampon” (19-20); he talks about his “dream of being a prison bitch” (47)—certainly not something to be glorified; he chastises himself that he was “born with a cunt in [his] head” (106); he tells us that they called Angela’s drug pipe “Liberace, partly because it was so sparkly and partially because Angela used it as a anal dildo” (109); he thinks of his father’s hands, so much like his: “I always thought of him when I looked at my hands. Especially when they were around my dick” (130). An equal-opportunity offender, Reid bases his off-colour comments on both secular and religious sources: talking about her most recent abortion, Angela notes that “the nurse looked at me as if I was masturbating with a crucifix” (25); and Jude describes his younger self as excited to live with his grandmother, who “had a pool. I could pretend I was Natalie Wood!” (34). While not sexual, that is just gratuitously offensive.

While I find the veiled stories of Angela and Luke intriguing, Jude’s persona is not just disturbed (understandably) but highly disturbing. I return to my suspicion about Reid’s possible inability to extricate himself as an author from the fiction he has created. When the announcement of his award came, Reid told a CBC interviewer, he “couldn’t help but jump out of bed to do a ‘little naked dance around the apartment,’” and that winning makes him “feel like I just popped three Molly and I’m going to dance for the rest of my life.” Check out his blog, too: Blitz & Shitz in the Daily Xtra: Everything Gay, Every Day. (There is, sadly, even a music video for the song he wrote to accompany the book.) His authorial voice is not sufficiently different from Jude’s narrative voice for me to consider Jude—as a fictional creation—to be well-conceived and objectively constructed.

The description on the back of the Advanced Reading Copy of the novel reads:

When Everything Feels Like the Movies is an edgy, extravagant novel for young people and others, full of gender-bending teen glamour, dark mischief, and enough melodrama to incite the paparazzi. A boy who smells like Chanel Mademoiselle, calls Blair Waldorf his biggest childhood influence, and reads Old Hollywood star biographies like gospel doesn’t have the easiest path to travel in life, but somehow, Jude paves his road with yellow bricks and makes us all wish we could join him over the rainbow.”

Not me.

Bones (2014), by John Wilson

Well, this is a rather long review for a rather short book: my apologies, but it sparked thoughts that fly off in all directions…

I looked at the number of unread novels at the side of my desk (not yet overshadowed by the number of read-but-not-yet-reviewed novels) and was struck by the number of slim volumes with small killer whales breaching on their brightly coloured spines. It made me have to look up how many stories Orca has published in their Currents (82), Soundings (104), Limelight (10), and Sports (42) series, titles from all of which I have reviewed. The literary quality might be a bit uneven overall, but it is gratifying to see how many of my favourite Canadian authors for children and teens take the time and energy away from their longer works to fill the shelves of libraries and classrooms where disadvantaged students struggle to engage with reading. This is not to say that these books are only found in inner-city schools and the like, but I know for a fact how welcome they are in these spaces: I have been told so often when I take my review copies (never “advanced reading copies”!) for donation. Any of you who do have books in good condition to get rid of, please consider donating them to local libraries. School libraries in the Vancouver area, especially, can always use free books, given budgetary cut-backs, and even the Vancouver Public Library accepts donations of books for distribution as prizes in their reading camps.

The book that was on the top of my pile was John Wilson’s recent Orca Currents contribution, Bones. I expected good things, having greatly enjoyed Wilson’s The Heretic’s Secret novels, and having recently reviewed Wings of War for Resource Links magazine. I really look forward to his upcoming novel about John Franklin, especially given the recent discovery of one of Franklin’s boats—is it the Erebus? or the Terror?—off King William Island in the Canadian Arctic. But I digress.

Wilson - BonesBones (2014)

Bones lives up to my expectations, being another excellent example of Wilson’s care in research and presentation of data. In this novel, his topic is palæontology; the setting, the badlands and coulees surrounding Drumheller, Alberta, location of the world-famous Royal Tyrrell Museum. Wilson conveys to his readers the depth of his own understanding of his topic, yet avoids any patronizing or erudite tone in his narration: exactly what struggling readers need in order to engage with the story. Wilson has chosen this topic well for another reason, too: it seems to be true still today, that children all go through a “dinosaur” phase. I remember having memorized the names of dozens of prehistoric creatures; the rivalry between my brother and me was replicated 30 years later in my own children’s lives. [As an aside, the dedication of Bones thrilled me: “For Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Lost Worlds first sparked my interest in dinosaurs.” I read Lost Worlds in my youth as a result of my obsession with dinosaurs. The more I know of John Wilson, the more I like this author… But I digress: again.]

To return to Bones: Sam and his girlfriend Annabel have come from Australia to visit Sam’s mother, who lives in a commune near Drumheller. The highly intelligent Annabel is already fascinated by palæontology, and Sam feels somewhat excluded from her conversations with Dr. Bob Owen, his mother’s friend and a researcher at the museum. Sam’s annoyance turns to jealousy when they meet Glen, a research student working with Dr. Bob. This social aspect to the story underlies a mystery that the two teens become involved in: indeed, discover. They had previously run across Humphrey Battleford, a private art “collector” (read, in this instance: thief). Wilson’s allusions to his previous story, Stolen (2013), are suggestive but not intrusive, as is his hook at the end of the story, when Annabel ponders, “I wonder if we’ve seen the last of him?” (117). If you do follow my blog, you will know my opinion of series fiction that requires readers to continue. Bones is a fine example of how to do it right. We know there is a history with the dishonest Battleford, but the exact details are not given nor do they matter. What we do know is that his presence sets the teens on alert, and that their concerns are justified. When Sam, Annabel, and Dr. Bob discover that their fossils have been stolen, they recognize the futility of going to the police, a degree of realism often overlooked in teen fiction. The wheels of legal bureaucracy move very slowly indeed; in order to ensure his continued research, Dr. Bob understands that it is more important to get his fossils back than it is to have Battleford brought to justice. And thus the story ends. Annabel’s final comment to Sam leaves open the possibility—but not the requirement—of future instalments of their story.