Bench Brawl (2014), by Trevor Kew

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 20.2.

Kew - BrawlIn 1994, the title of Canada’s National Sport was divided into Canada’s National Summer Sport (still lacrosse) and Canada’s National Winter Sport (now hockey). It is surprising that it took so long: for decades before that, hockey dominated the sport scene from early autumn until late spring in most communities in Canada. An easy-read, high-interest novel about the dynamics between hockey teams and players is thus fitting for its Canadian audience. The message in Trevor Kew’s Bench Brawl is admirably one of tolerance and the benefits of teamwork, but the delivery fails to hit the goal.

Luke plays for the Upper Great River “Helmets,” firm rivals of the Lower Great River “Gloves,” and Luke is our spokesman for the aggression he and his teammates feel towards the only opponents in their small-town junior league. When the town is given the opportunity to participate in the Vancouver Invitational Hockey Tournament, the coaches determine that their only chance is to amalgamate the Helmets and Gloves into one larger team with the manpower to perhaps succeed. The players are irate, and Luke is one of the most vocal against the decision.

While team rivalry and even antagonism is perhaps common in team sports, the attitudes presented by almost all of the characters in this book leave a bitter taste. Some of the players refuse to play; some of the parents refuse to let their sons play. Few characters (the coaches, and Luke’s best friend, Cubby) articulate a balanced understanding of the situation, and their voices are not sufficiently loud. Luke’s responses, even to Cubby, are excessive: “I don’t care if Cubby is my best friend. Right now, I feel like grabbing him and shaking him and shouting, Not a big deal? What’s wrong with you? Right in to his stupid, fat face” (26). The language the boys use is often highly derogatory, and while high school students would use such language, there is little to balance against Luke’s aggressive narrative voice. Kew attempts to create this balance through Jean-Baptiste (JB), who has recently moved to Great River fro Quebec. JB lives on the Lower side of the river, but is introduced when he comes over to shoot in Luke’s drive with Luke and Cubby. He is exceptional at hockey, and incites Luke’s adversarial nature as much as he creates any bond between the rival factions.

In the end, at the tournament, the players are still at odds (Luke noting that “This team is a disaster, just like I knew it would be” [101]) until Cubby’s rich father provides a new set of hockey jerseys. All of a sudden, “something has changed [, Luke] can’t tell what it is” (108): they become a team—the Great River Vikings—working together to win a crucial game. The turnabout is too abrupt, though, too unfounded in the characterizations of Luke and his teammates. The lesson provided is valuable and one that all of us need to learn—and team sports is one of the best places to learn it—but we do not feel, at the end of Bench Brawl, that the lesson has sunk very deep.

The Truth Commission (2015), by Susan Juby

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 20.3.

Juby-TruthNormandy (“Norm”) Page lives in the shadow of her almost-megalomaniac sister, Keira, author of a popular and successful graphic novel series… based on their home life. Norm has never revealed how deeply her sister’s biting commentary—positioned as humour—has hurt her. Her pain remains hidden; she has never dared to probe into the truth of her feelings towards her dysfunctional family, always on edge to ensure that the sensibilities of Keira, artistic prodigy, remain undisturbed.

Enter the Truth Commission, organized by Norm and her two best friends, Neil and Dusk, in an attempt to reveal truths hidden in the lives around them. The dynamic between these three friends is so real; the way they communicate, the way they respond to their world, rings true. Like many teens, their youthful focus on what seems important (for them, the revealing of objective truth) misses a greater fundamental understanding of human nature and society. But that’s okay; they get there in the end. This is essentially what The Truth Commission is about: Norm and her friends growing into a deeper—if painful—understanding of the relationship between objective and functional truth. This understanding has been explored in a multitude of fictional forms (Ibsen’s 1884 Wild Duck springs to mind, as does a particularly poignant set of panels from Berkeley Breathed’s 1980s comic, Bloom County… ). The Truth Commission stays true to the message in these representations: knowing the truth does not always increase human happiness, or as Norm puts it, “The truth … is like an onion. You don’t want to peel that sucker all at once or you might never stop crying” (308).

The Truth Commission is presented as Norm’s Grade 11 “Spring Special Project” at Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design, a fictional fine-art school set in Nanaimo, BC. The school-epistolary narrative structure may seem somewhat derivative, but Susan Juby raises the bar in the subgenre, avoiding the expected clichés and self-indulgent narration. Norm exhibits both the insecurities of a 16-year-old following in the footsteps of an excessively successful older sibling and the sardonic voice of a verbally precocious, intelligent young woman exploring her own artistic and psychological space. Norm’s project is a creative non-fiction writing assignment, suggested by and written for her creative writing teacher, Ms. Fowler, whom she addresses in numerous footnotes. The project-based nature of the novel allows Norm (and Juby) to play with notions of genre, voice, structure, and selection of detail in a way that forces readers to think about the metanarrative: the story is not only about Norm, but about Norm writing her own story and in so doing learning what that story really is.

While at times the footnotes seem a little more like Juby talking to the reader than Norm talking to her teacher, one of the most successfully aspects of The Truth Commission remains Norm’s narrative voice: intelligent, humourous, mildly approval-seeking, self-aware and self-deprecating, both deferential and cheeky. Norm is naïve about her effect on others at the same time as she actively strives to understand the complexities of her own life and the motivations of those around her; this combination of confusion and self-assurance are revealed subtly in the way she tells her story.

Norm learns a number of truths—some good, some bad, some painful. In retrospect, Norm tells her readers, knowing the truth didn’t obviously set her free: “that’s kind of the thing about the truth. It’s never complete and it’s never simple” (309), a lesson Norm learns to both her benefit and detriment.

Breathed - Carrot

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.