Death Drop (2016), by Melanie Jackson

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 22.2.

Death Drop (2016)

jackson-dropThe Orca Currents series, high-interest books with a simpler reading level aimed at teens, address issues as diverse as geo-caching (Kristin Butcher’s Caching In), archeological mysteries at the Royal Tyrrell Museum (John Wilson’s Bones), and normal teenage antics gone wrong (for example, Deb Loughead’s Caught in the Act). Sometimes, though, we get a seemingly simple mystery, such as Melanie Jackson’s Death Drop. Protagonist Zeke’s legitimate concern about being late to practice, and thus losing a scholarship, is set against his worry about a little girl lost at Playland and his desire to unravel what turns out to be an increasingly interesting mystery. The newest ride at the fair—Death Drop—is based on the myth of Persephone’s time in Hades—including “a famous painting of Persephone, on loan from England” (3). Zeke’s classmate Dieter, the “class bookworm” (7), who is writing a report on the financial situation at the ride, has read classical mythology, and is familiar with the pre-Raphaelite painters, fills Zeke in on the juicier details of the myth and the intrigue surrounding the ride. Readers are thus shown a teen world in which learning plays a positive role in the success of the characters.

Approached by a little blonde girl as he queues for Death Drop, Zeke is stereotypically loath to help her: “I was a boy. Kids with problems needed a nice lady. A middle-aged, motherly type” (4). His attitude softens as she points to his LA Angels t-shirt: “Angels help people.” Faced with the uninterested, disengaged staff at the ride, Zeke takes on the task of finding her aunt and in the process discovers the illegal activities that lie beneath the fun of the fair.

A lost girl, a death-defying thrill ride, financial fraud involving a stolen painting, international intrigue: all bound together in a plot that works. Death Drop does not have Zeke and Dieter learning deep life lessons so much as employing their inherent compassion and generosity to counter the ill effects of adult greed. A short novel, certainly, but containing a fast-paced story centered on protagonists whose integrity and intelligence is essential in a satisfying narrative resolution.

Aesop’s Secret (2012), by Claudia White

white-aesopI’ve just finished Claudia White’s Aesop’s Secret (well, obviously, because here I am reviewing it). They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case I think maybe you can. Larissa Kulik’s drawing of Melissa, one of the two protagonists, is alluring, whimsical yet uncanny, and thus very fitting with the content of the book.

I have to admit it took me a little while to get into the story; the language is not as light and flowing as other books I have read recently. But then it began: I sunk deeper and deeper into the story, completely uncertain where White was taking us. The more I read, the more I honestly didn’t know, couldn’t tell, where we were headed… which of course drew me deeper still.

The concept in Aesop’s Secret is refreshingly original. A race of Others living among us (okay, not so original yet), called Athenites, used to live in harmony with humans but were forced by history to conceal their abilities. This name is purportedly based on the Greek goddess Athena’s ability to transform into other animals. Now, if you think about Ovid’s Metamorphosis (the title is a bit of a give-away), it is not only Athena, amongst the gods, who has this ability. But I’ll give White that one; after all, Athena’s mother Metis was known—more than other mythological characters—as a shape-shifter. Melissa and Felix Hutton’s mother is about to publish a treatise revealing that Athenites are real, not mythological. She seems exactly the right anthropologist to do so, as the Huttons themselves are Athenites. But someone doesn’t want that research published.

Athenites’ abilities manifest as they mature; shape-shifting is genetic and connected in some way to their hemoglobin. This sets up nicely for a plot involving biological manipulation for at least one character’s nefarious purposes. I really don’t want to say more than that; you’ll have to read the book. The originality lies largely in the parts I am not telling you: sorry. While there is some catering to the narrative expectations of child readers—I can tell you that it all works out in the end—there were quite a few “oh—didn’t see that coming” moments to keep readers on their toes.

Aesop’s Secret is the first of a trilogy, all of which are written, published, and available now to be read: the second book is Key to Kashdune (2014) followed by Servalius Window (2015), itself a novel in three parts. White avoids the “well, I might as well write another volume” problems that so much series fiction has these days. At the end of the novel, you can see how the story can go on, but you are still left satisfied. The best place to be: you can read on, but you don’t have to in order to find closure.

white-2-and-3

The Blackthorne Key (2015), by Kevin Sands

I was discussing Kevin Sand’s The Blackthorne Key, which won the John Spray Mystery Award for 2016, with a friend, who thought that it was a little bit predictable. No (she thought a bit about it)… it was just that perhaps the protagonist, Christopher, should have figured things out more quickly, given his purported intelligence. I had to ponder why I didn’t have this same criticism, because when she pointed out some examples, her position made sense. But I didn’t have that response: I was so immersed in the novel, so convinced by the characters and intrigued by the plot, that no criticisms had the space to rear their ugly heads. In teaching rhetoric, I tell my students: “If as an author you make a mistake, and your reader notices, you will have lost them. So don’t make a mistake.” As far as I could tell as I read The Blackthorne Key, Kevin Sands makes no mistakes: I was enthralled from start to finish.

Sands really does understand his setting. Christopher, his friend Tom, even his master Benedict Blackthorne and the other apothecaries, do not sport modern sensibilities lurking beneath the narrative trappings of the seventeenth century; their characters are, rather, consistent with a world in which the boundaries between science and faith and magic are blurred. Christopher, for all his innate intelligence, is still a young boy at the same time as he approaches manhood: his youthful exuberance hatches the (illegal but oh-so-much-fun) plan to build a cannon; his intelligence gives him the means to do so; his lack of experience results in his blowing up the stuffed bear in his master’s apothecary shop. By the end of the novel, though, as he is thrust into the adult world, he has gained a maturity far beyond either his earlier self or the middle-school readers the novel is aimed at.

In the case of the bear, as throughout the novel, Sands creates a balance between authenticity and reality: Christopher is not beaten for his exploits, but we are let know in no uncertain terms that others in his position would have been. Benedict Blackthorne is presented as a reasonable, intelligent master, who values Christopher’s sharp mind, even as he strictly controls his activities. As the novel progresses, though, and Christopher and Tom are pulled into the shady dealings of the apothecaries’ guild, we—as much as they—are uncertain where Blackthorne’s loyalties really lie. The plot is sufficiently complicated, the events sufficiently believable within Sands’s carefully constructed temporal and social setting; questions the reader might have about Christopher’s world are all ultimately answered, and we are left satisfied.

What really engaged me first as a reader, though, is Sands’s sense of humour, slightly sarcastic narrative voice, and clever word play. Christopher narrates the story with language that melds a sense of the period (1665) with a typically boyish irreverence and delight in really bad ideas. When Tom comments that “people can’t just build cannons,” Christopher responds: “But that’s where cannons come from: People build them. You think God sends cannons down from heaven?” And he later laments, “I wished God’s warnings would be a little clearer. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard for the Almighty to write STOP STEALING STICKY BUNS in the clouds or something.”

Throughout the novel, I grew more and more fond of Christopher; as he gains knowledge and maturity, he loses nothing of his boyish charm. The Blackthorne Key introduces us to Christopher; his story continues in The Blackthorne Key: The Mark of the Plague. Happily, though, The Blackthorne Key is completely self-contained; we do not need to read the second book, but I, for one, certainly will.

The Case of the Missing Moonstone (2015), by Jordan Stratford

stratford-moonstoneIllustrated by Kelly Murphy.

Jordan Stratford begins the notes at the back of The Case of the Missing Moonstone by telling us that “the year 1826 itself is practically a character in the book,” and it seems that in fact the year 1826 might just be the most historically accurate character in the book. In his story, Stratford brings together a plethora of well-known historical personages (Ada Lovelace and her half-sister Allegra Byron, Mary Godwin and her step-sister Jane (Claire) Clairmont, Charles Babbage, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Dickens), adjusting their ages, rewriting their characters, and conflating their stories to construct his narrative. He provides factual accounts of each of their lives in his notes, wherein he explains his decisions, and how the real historical characters were connected (and they all are, in interesting and complicated ways).

The novel opens with the unconventional young Ada being upgraded from a governess to a tutor. Mary Godwin is introduced into the equation when she comes to learn with Ada under the tutelage of Percy Bysshe Shelley—Peebs, as Ada calls him, based on his initials. The two girls form The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, named after Mary’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous advocate for women’s rights. As such an enterprise would be unacceptable for young ladies in their time (Mary Wollstonecraft’s advocacy notwithstanding), the young Charles Dickens is co-opted as their courier. At the end of the novel, the girls are joined by Allegra and Jane, in preparation for the sequels to follow.

The two protagonists’ reflect the complementary strengths of their namesakes: while Ada Lovelace is famous as a mathematician, Mary Shelley—as Mary Godwin eventually became—is known for her literary prowess, writing Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818. “In real life,” Stratford tell us, “Mary was eighteen years older than Ada … But I thought it would be more fun this way—to cast these two luminaries as friends.” Despite that Stratford does tell us that Percy Bysshe Shelley “ran off with sixteen-year-old Mary to Switzerland, and they were married two years later,” the difference between his Mary Godwin and Mary Shelley the author is not only striking but problematic. It would be difficult, however, to create a novel for middle-school readers that tells the truth of the extremely unconventional lifestyles that Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary, and her step-sister Jane (Claire) Clairmont (who was the real Allegra Byron’s mother) engaged in before Shelley’s early death by drowning. “While in reality Peebs had died even before our story begins, I have extended his life so that he, Ada, and Mary can be in this story together.” “As with Mary,” Stratford continues, “Jane’s timeline is moved so that she can be young alongside Mary and Ada,” and “in real life, Allegra died of fever at the age of five.”

These alterations do a great disservice to young readers; Stratford’s intent of creating an engaging story peopled with historical figures is perhaps well intentioned, but more problematic than effective. Young readers interpret story as reflecting reality in some way: the expressive-realist error, no doubt, but not surprising in the middle-school audience this mystery is intended for. While it is fascinating to read a well-written novel set in a historical period and learn from the research the author has engaged in, when it is difficult to discern where history ends and fiction begins, the novel becomes far less valuable as a vehicle of knowledge acquisition—which young readers will take it to be.

It really is a shame that Stratford plays so lose and easy with the characters, as his research is strong, and he incorporates the factual history smoothly into his story. Ada is brilliantly constructed as an excessively intelligent young girl, with strong characteristics of high-functioning Asperger’s. Anyone who lives with such a child will recognize both the frustrating and the rewarding aspects of living with someone like Stratford’s Ada. Ada’s mathematical and scientific investigations are described in just enough detail to inform the reader without boredom, and the dynamics between the socially oblivious Ada and the more psychologically astute Mary are delightful. When the characters are this engaging, and the plot interesting and well constructed, we can forgive the author some degree of liberty with historicity.

And herein lies another issue with The Case of the Missing Moonstone, at least for me: as I read through it, having suspended my disbelief regarding the characters—I quite enjoyed Ada’s youthful eccentricities and Mary’s rampant imagination—I couldn’t help but feel that I had read this plot before… The title should have been a dead giveaway, but it didn’t occur to me that an author would unabashedly copy an earlier plot.

Again in his notes, Stratford is entirely forthcoming, telling us about Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), commonly accepted as the first detective novel written in English. “Our mystery,” he admits, “is a nod to some of the elements of this classic.” More than just a nod, Mr. Stratford, when your plot can be so readily anticipated through knowledge of Wilkie Collins’s. Middle-school readers will almost certainly not have read The Moonstone, so we can see how Stratford’s idea that “it would be fun to have the world’s first computer programmer and the world’s first science-fiction author solving the world’s first fictional detective mystery” could appeal. The writing is of course all Stratford’s, and he has an effective authorial voice, hints of sarcasm underlying the more straightforward narrative that young readers will really enjoy. But yet the novel bothers me. The use of an already well-known and successful premise, the drastically changed biographies of well-known historical figures: for me, these infringe upon my appreciation of the strong characterization of Ada and the interesting explorations of nineteenth-century science and literature. If it were only Ada, with a supporting cast of unknowns, in a story with an original plot… but it is not, and it is up to my readers to decide to what degree the lack of historicity and originality impacts their enjoyment. For me, it was too much.