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 loner 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 bog, 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 installments of their story.

Caching In (2013), by Kristin Butcher

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.

Orca publishers’ Currents series is a well conceived and executed enterprise, creating fast-paced, age-appropriate texts for teens who—for whatever reason—have problems engaging with reading. Kristin Butcher’s Caching In is another excellent addition to the series.

Eric and his clever and hyperactive (and I don’t mean that in any clinical sense) friend Chris have discovered geocaching, an activity that satisfies their need for intellectual challenge and for the freedom to break boundaries. When a set of geographical coordinates leads them to a wedding in a cemetery, they know that something strange is afoot. They are doubly sure when the cache contains no logbook to sign (a required item according to geocaching rules), but only a clue to a second cache. Even more mysterious is when the coordinates disappear from the online list later the same day. How can two teenaged boys resist?

The search for the final cache challenges the boys’ understanding of language in a New York Times-crossword sort of way, and they rise to the challenge. Local knowledge and having paid attention to current events help them to decipher the complex clues. The message is subtle: engagement in the world around you can be highly rewarding.

The boys bring complementary abilities to the quest: Chris (who doesn’t share Eric’s fear of heights) can climb out over a cliff-edge, while the smaller Eric can climb up one of the city lampposts. Despite their friendship and ability to work well together intellectually, a conflict of wills sometimes threatens the endeavour. This adrenalin-induced strive will be well recognized by most teen readers—especially boys. The conclusion is predictable, but the end result only solidifies the feeling of reward the readers will share with Eric and Chris, who have together succeeded where either alone would likely have failed. Being an adventurous teen has its advantages: “someone is actually going to reward [them] for doing what [they] like to do” (102), and “all [they] needed was a GPS” (3).

Bee and Puppycat (2014), by Natasha Allegri

Allegri - Bee and CatI found the second issue of this comic book lying about on the dining-room table, and thought I should probably avail myself of the opportunity to plunge into the depths of teendom. Fascinating place.

The covers of Bee and Puppycat are very young and very pink (generally more so than this issue), rather like Hello Kitty with a mutant dog-cat. You can see how questions arose: I was wondering why my 15-year-old daughter reads these. I then realized the underlying irony in the juxtaposition between image and attitude. Bingo. Irony and attitude sound like my girl.

There are only three characters in the volume I read: Bee, Puppycat, and the sentient computer, Temp-bot. We open with Temp-bot trying to understand why people would “own clothes you’re embarrassed of?” “They’re pajamas, Temp-bot!” Simple, and establishes Bee’s dominant role in the narrative. Yes, I am over analyzing this. Teen humour comes in when Bee explains to Temp-bot that “sleep is when you reboot your system and sometimes drool on yourself.”

TARDIS-like, Temp-bot carries Bee and Puppycat into another world… in this instance to fix a music box on Snowglobe Planet. Again, naïvely simplistic. I have to say, too, that apart from the odd quip from Puppycat (the Jeeves to Bee’s Wooster), the comic has little to recommend it.

Allegri - Bee and Cat page 1What I did find fascinating was that when Bee and Puppycat are trying to determine which music box is broken, the reader is required to access the internet through QR codes in music-box thought-bubbles. The first three work; the fourth apparently not. This is all we can tell without a QR reader app and smart-phone.

Allegri - Bee and Cat code 1The fourth (broken) QR code has—instead of music—rude bodily sounds. The pair fix the music box by telling a story with the figurines that have fallen out of it. When they construct the expected narrative (King in castle, Queen on throne, Princess in garden, Princeling in a crib), it doesn’t work. Only when they revise the story to have the Queen and Prince dead, and the King searching for his daughter, who is lost in the snow of the snow-globe, does the music box play a song. Fixed. The End.Allegri - Bee and Cat code 2

So I remain slightly confused about the actual audience for this comic: it is overly simplistic for teens, but contains some elements that are not necessarily appropriate for younger kids. (The second story in the issue is seemingly more mature, but completely meaningless… at least to me. I must remember to ask if it signifies anything to The Girl.) The only reason I am sharing this is because of the technologically interactive nature of the story. Perhaps I need to get out more.

“You Never Forget the First Time,” a guest post by Catherine Egan

Today is Thanksgiving Day here in Canada, and one subject of gratitude for me is the number of fresh voices in YA fantasy literature, building new worlds for us to explore, new characters to love and hate. I am also grateful that one of these voices, Catherine Egan, will be a guest blogger here today. In preparation for the release of the final book in her Last Days of Tian Di trilogy—Bone, Fog, Ash & Star—Ms. Egan has constructed a blog tour discussing some of her favourite villains.

Catherine Egan grew up here in Vancouver, but lived for a number of years in Asia before  ending up in New Haven, Connecticut: far too far away for regular author visits at Kids’ Books… which of course saddens me greatly. It will have to suffice that she is willing to share her lively intelligence with us through her blog tour.

The Last Days of Tian Di tells the story of Eliza, who is told she is a sorceress and taken from her father to be taught her craft. She is flung into a world of political conflict that takes her alternatively into the far North, into danger, into the heart of her father’s culture, and into a deeper knowledge of who she truly is. In Sword & Sorceress (2012), she learns her true identity; in The Unmaking (2013), she learns to use the power she has discovered. I am really excited to see where her journey takes her in Bone, Fog, Ash & Star (2014), and where the story leaves us all.
 
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“You Never Forget the First Time: Jadis from the Narnia Books and Mrs. Coulter from His Dark Materials,” by Catherine Egan

When I was little, I didn’t want to learn to read. It was hard work, and when I was struggling with every word I couldn’t enjoy the stories. I used to make a great fuss about it. But then, as is so often the case when a small child learns a new skill, it seemed to come all at once. When you haven’t been able to read and then suddenly you can, you might notice something you’d always taken for granted: that every bookshelf in the house is full of books, and that you can take any one of them off the shelf and read it by yourself. It is obvious, of course, but I remember how stunned I was when the realization first hit me – that all these stories were mine for the taking, as I pleased. That is how, as a Very New Reader, I came to read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe for the first time.

I didn’t know what a wardrobe was, but I was interested in the witch. I liked witches! But this witch was nothing like the funny, friendly witches from Jill Murphy’s series. This was the White Witch, Jadis – my first encounter with a truly scary villain. For the first time in my life, I was reading about evil.

Reading the book to my own son thirty-plus years later she seems fairly standard fare, as villains go. She’s cruel and imperious and remorseless, and what she wants is to rule all of Narnia – power for its own sake, since she has no desire to rule well. I’ve long since lost interest in pure, uncomplicated evil. I like my villains more conflicted. The grey areas where villain and hero meet are more exciting than the sharp good and evil divide. But still, even rereading the book as an adult I get a chill around my heart when the White Witch invites Edmund into her sleigh. I always identified uncomfortably with Edmund, though I wanted to be like Lucy. We know how false she is, how wicked her intent must be; but Edmund is taken in, stuffing his face with Turkish delight. It takes a lot to scare and horrify me now, but then? I will never forget how frightened I was, how I nearly had to stop reading but I couldn’t stop reading, and whenever she came sweeping and raging into the story I read faster and faster, heart racing with fear and a new kind of delight. You never get over your first villain.

Years later, sometime in my twenties, I read Philip Pullman’s dazzling trilogy, His Dark Materials. The resonances from Narnia were subtle but unmistakable, and I was interested but unsurprised to discover later on that Pullman had written the books partly to stand in philosophical opposition to the Narnia books. Of course, as a child I did not recognize at all the Christian theology underpinning the Narnia stories, and reading His Dark Materials as an adult, I have to confess (at the risk of sounding like a dunderhead) that I was and am basically uninterested in the philosophy put forth by Pullman. Ironically I found the third book in the series, in which his message becomes more overt, altogether too “message-y.” The connection to Narnia that struck me may not have been intended by Pullman at all. But as soon as Mrs. Coulter appeared in the first book, I thought of Jadis.

We first encounter Mrs. Coulter kidnapping a child. She is beautiful, dark-haired, wearing a long fur coat. She offers him chocolatl, tells him: “As it happens, I’ve got more chocolatl than I can drink myself. Will you come and help me drink it?” And the boy? “He’s lost already.” I thought of Jadis offering Edmund a hot drink, “something he had never tasted before, very sweet and foamy and creamy, and it warmed him right down to his toes.” Mrs. Coulter is initially very seductive. When she turns on Lyra, she is terrifying – ruthless and strong – and then Lyra’s fear and regret echoes Edmund’s when the White Witch shows him her true, wicked self.

Even Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father, seemed like a potential echo of Aslan. He is essentially good, but frightening too – his expressions and features are described as “fierce” and “savage” – “all his movements were large and perfectly balanced, like those of a wild animal, and when he appeared in a room like this, he seemed a wild animal held in a cage too small for it.” Lyra’s relationship to Lord Asriel – of fear and love and respect together – is much like the Pevensie children’s reaction to Aslan, just as her initial devotion to and then terror of Mrs. Coulter echoes Edmund’s relationship with the White Witch.

While Lewis is writing about the clash of Good and Evil in their truest and most elemental forms, Pullman wants to create a more complicated moral universe. Mrs. Coulter is a wonderful villain, absolutely vicious – but she finds herself loving Lyra in spite of herself, and her final act is her redemption. She does not stop being evil but nor can she stop loving her daughter, and that love does not vanquish her evil either, but it does prove more powerful in deciding her self-sacrifice. Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are complicated figures, imperfect and driven by their passions – very human, in other words, and I suppose that is Pullman’s point: that both good and evil are very human, and that rarely is anyone purely one or the other.

Jadis is not meant to be human or to elicit our sympathy. She is simply the embodiment of Pure Evil, hungering for power, inflicting eternal winter on her subjects. There is no possibility of redemption for her, and love is quite beyond her. The stories get put in opposition to each other regularly, mainly because of Pullman’s comments on the Narnia books, but putting aside the theological questions they grapple with, I think that as stories one leads nicely to the other. The Narnia books are written for younger children, and the story, whether you read it as a Christian allegory or not, has resonated with one generation after another. The White Witch on her sleigh, imperious and then suddenly, falsely kind imprinted on me as the Ultimate Villain, and no villain in any story since has ever scared me quite so much. When I read The Golden Compass, the first in Pullman’s series, Mrs. Coulter offering the little boy chocolatl brought it all surging back – that first shivering pleasure at reading something scary, my awe at this figure of towering evil, the horror at the idea of being tempted and deceived, of falling into her power.

Mrs. Coulter, for all that she may be a more interesting figure for a teenager or an adult (and particularly a mother) to read about, remains, for me, a mere shadow of Jadis. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was my own magical doorway to the immense power of stories – the fear and grief and wonder a story could evoke – and the Witch, with her white face and her red lips, offering sweets, will always be the first nightmare figure to get under my skin and scare me witless.

* * * * *

This is one in a series of blog posts on villains; you can check my blog for a list of villain-posts. Let me know in the comments: who are your favorite fictional villains? Choose villains from books / movies / comic books / TV – just not real life! A winner will be selected by random number generator (I’ll post a screenshot) and I will send you a book bundle – all three books in The Last Days of Tian Di series – chock-a-block with villains and their villainy.

Contact Catherine Egan

me_pic
Website:
www.catherineegan.com
Blog (contests! give-aways!): bycatherineegan.wordpress.com
Twitter: @bycatherineegan
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/byCatherineEgan

 

The full blog tour schedule

October 10th: Isn’t he scary? Isn’t he beautiful? with many thanks to Helen Kubiw for hosting! You can also read her review of the third book here.

October 13th: You Never Forget the First Time: Jadis from the Narnia Books and Mrs. Coulter from His Dark Materials at https://karynskidlitreviews.wordpress.com/author/karynmadam/

October 14th: I love you and I want to kill you; let’s make out: Bad Boy villains in YA at http://www.yahighway.com/

October 15th: There is nothing on earth that we share: Javert from Les Misérables at http://www.theyaclub.com/

October 16th: Sometimes the bad guy just wants to be a big snake: Mayor Wilkins from Buffy the Vampire Slayer at http://booksbonesbuffy.com/

October 17th: An exchange of gifts: Linay from Plain Kate at http://me-on-books.blogspot.com/