Destination Human (2013), by K.L. Denman

Denman - Human…or better yet: Destination Human; or, The Death of a Mosquito. What fun! Rather corny, but fun for all that. Welkin is a Universal: a highly developed life-form that is nonetheless schooled in a fashion similar to readers in our world. Its assignment: to infiltrate a human host on Earth as part of its bioethics class—which it has already failed a number of times. It’s obviously not very good at this. Welkin is a stereotypic teen: uninterested in school and tuned out when its teacher describes the assignment. As a result, Welkin’s entrance into his teen host (high school society has been deemed an excellent site for exploration of the human race) is compromised and it is unable to completely control its host. Its negotiations with Chloe are the source of humour in the novel; their two voices, while different, both scream “teen attitude.”

The plot is relatively non-existent; the focus is on Welkin’s learning about human (teen) society, and comparing it to the textbook information it has been given about the human race. What captures our attention, and makes us think there might be something a little deeper in the novel, is a teeny moment on page 10. Welkin inadvertently enters a mosquito and, through its sting, enters Chloe’s body: but “All bodies occupied by Universals die when we depart. So as I leave the mosquito behind, its body dies. And just like that, I am inside the human.” Chloe remains oblivious to this aspect of their relationship, but readers remain conscious the entire time that the growing mutual respect between host and parasite is not destined to end well.

Despite this possibility of trauma, the tone of the novels never really slips out of the lightheartedness brought about by the interplay of the two narrative voices. The somewhat contrived denouement is thus in keeping with some of the other groan-worthy moments in the book—and by that I mean those groans that escape when something is so corny as to be funny, like when a pun is both so obvious and so unexpected that we hide our faces in our hands—as we groan—for missing it. This was my response to Destination Human; I am not sure it is what the author intended, but I hope so. As a simple, chuckle-worthy story that nonetheless says something about what it is to be a friend, Destination Human succeeds admirably.

Homecoming (2014), by Diane Dakers

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 20.1.

Dakers -  HomecomingThe title Homecoming brings up images of The Waltons, and nostalgic Christmases surrounded by love and family. This is not 15-year-old Fiona Gardener’s experience of life. Far from it. The homecoming in her story is something she dreads: her father has just been released from prison, having been incarcerated for the rape of one of Fiona’s classmates, Morgan. Fiona is fairly certain he is innocent, but struggles to deal with her uncertainty, especially when validated by the behaviours of those around her. Deemed a social pariah when her father was first charged, then again during his trial, Fiona dreads his return and the accompanying notoriety it brings.

Diane Dakers deals sensitively with the complicated emotional space that Fiona finds herself in, but also the awkwardness of those around her: her mother, her aunts and uncles, her father’s friends… people who tell her that “your father didn’t do what he was accused of doing” (20), but nonetheless walk on eggshells in his presence. Her friend Lauren is forbidden to come over; the bullies at school warn her that her father “will be looking for another playmate” (27); and the school social worker is explicit in telling Fiona what to do if she “ever feel[s] scared or threatened” by her father (35). It’s therefore not surprising that Fiona accepts the dubious friendship of Charley, a grade-twelve girl from the “hard-core crowd” (50). This friendship, again unsurprisingly, leads Fiona somewhat astray, but Dakers does not let her slip out of character: she knows what she is doing is wrong, that her parents will not approve, and yet she goes: rebellious, but also guilty and conflicted. When she is asked to trick a host’s step-father into giving them some alcohol, and resists the request, her “friends” tell her it is easy: if he is being difficult, just “pull a Morgan” (101). The pieces of the puzzle fall into place; her suspicions are confirmed. Her doubts dissolve and her new-found certainty gives her the strength to stand up and speak out. The fall-out is as expected: Fiona is “seriously grounded” (104), but content at having released her father from the social stigma that hounded him.

Alibi (2014), 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 20.1.

Butcher-AlibiOnce again, Kristin Butcher has created a protagonist teen readers will readily identify with. Christine is curious, attentive, and logical, but still sometimes can misinterpret her world. When she visits her Great-aunt Maude in the fictional Witcombe, BC, and learns of a spate of petty robberies in the area, her interest—and imagination—are piqued. At first she suspects Simon, an amateur magician who is working his way west to Vancouver from Calgary. When his alibi is established, she has to dig past the obvious to find clues to the real identity of the thief—or thieves. Other suspects’ alibis complicate Christine’s investigations, but with Simon’s help she narrows the field until a trap can be set to catch the thief in the act.

Underlying this simple story—part of the Orca Current series of high-interest novels aimed at reluctant readers—is a truth we all (one hopes) learn at some point: as Simon tells Christine, “the first law of magic [and life] is that things are not what they seem” (92). Christine, like most teens, is troubled by “the realization that [she] can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys” (58). We’d most of us like our world to be easier to interpret: none more than teens who are learning to negotiate the complications of the adult world. Alibi provides the necessary (if somewhat stereotypic) elements of a narrative of teen-enablement: the eccentric (read: non-parental) adult who nonetheless provides security; the somewhat mysterious outsider, a narrative foil who provides companionship; a threat presented by the adult world; and the internal means (awareness, psychological strength, intelligence) to face the threat successfully. Christine doesn’t learn an important “life lesson,” but she grows in self-awareness and understanding of the word around her, both necessary qualities on the road to adulthood.

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.