A Hole in My Heart (2014), by Rie Charles

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 19.5.

Charles-Hole

Nora will never be happy again. Her mother has recently died, and her father has moved her to Vancouver to be closer to her older sisters, who are studying nursing at St. Paul’s Hospital. The year is 1960, and Rie Charles has nailed the historical moment. My mother graduated from Pen High in 1957, and from St. Paul’s nursing program in 1960. She taught me the “special tight corners and pulling the bottom sheet so hard your fingers almost fall off” (18) that St. Paul’s demanded of their students (my husband still teases me about them…). Like Nora, I was condemned to wear “saddle shoes,” and hated every minute of it, standing out from other students who had more graceful shoes or cooler runners. The foods Nora’s family eats, the clothes they wear, the names of classes at school, the level or responsibility 12-year-old Nora is given babysitting: these all bring back vivid memories. Adults will recognize the historical accuracy, but it is harder to convey the 1960s ethos to young readers today. Charles does a fairly good job, but occasionally over-explains things to the reader. For example, Nora’s cousin Lizzy – in Vancouver for open heart surgery – gushes to Nora when they wake up one morning: “I bet that’s Mum making her special applesauce to go with her usual at-home Sunday morning pancakes” (112). The girls have grown up together in Penticton, and are best friends as well as cousins: Nora would already know intimately her Aunt Mary’s special Sunday breakfast. Nora’s father tells her that he and Nora’s mother “both grew up just up the road from Penticton, in Summerland” (98), but anyone from the Okanagan (which Nora of course was) would know where Summerland is. Other things, too, like the complete elision of the Catholicism of St. Paul’s, or Nora checking the front step for milk in the evening rather than the morning, sit awkwardly with Charles’s poignant presentation of the internal struggles Nora goes through as her family grieves for their mother and worries about Lizzie’s upcoming surgery for Tetralogy of Fallot (“blue baby” syndrome), an experimental procedure at the time.

In the late 1950s, St. Paul’s was a significant player in the nascent field of pulmonary surgery research, one of the few non-university hospitals with a cardiac catheterization lab. As such, St. Paul’s was the site of a number of successful open-heart surgeries, the first performed in 1960 on a 12-year-old girl from Kelowna. It is not clear whether or not this historical moment was the impetus for Charles’s plot. Being able to link such an emotionally successful story with an actual historical incident would increase the power of the narrative, but there are almost certainly social or legal implications in telling the story of someone who is still living… Still, the parallels are real (for example, Lizzie is not the first such patient) and lend veracity to the overall narrative. Nora and Lizzie share a special bond, a friendship that helps them both to weather the uncertainty of Lizzie’s operation at a time when there was a real recognition that she could as easily die as live. This is the strength of A Hole in My Heart: the human players in this drama are honestly drawn and emotionally consistent. Despite the uneven historicity, the difficulties and ultimate success of Nora’s navigating her challenging, constantly changing adolescence make this novel well worth reading.

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Transmigration (2012), by Nicholas Maes

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 17.5.

Transmigration

Whoa. What a ride! Nicholas Maes’s Transmigration is brilliant: a well-conceived fantasy with a unique premise and a gripping storyline. The novel begins with a talking bunny, but there is nothing cute or cuddly about the sinister alternative world history that Maes creates so carefully. It should perhaps have been a clue that a West Coast bunny talks with a Brooklyn accent, but I admit I found it only a bit out of place—until the plot progressed. In Maes’s history, a species of souls—bolkhs—coexists with humans as we have developed through the evolutionary process: a species that wants now to take back what was once theirs, destroying all human life. Young Simon Carpenter, of Vancouver, BC, is a tool they need for their war against humanity. When he learns this, his comfortable world is shaken to its foundations, and he must flee for his own safety and that of his family. The complicated relationships between players—different types of souls and their various connections with physical bodies—are adeptly explained to the reader through Simon’s own learning experience. I almost needed to create a rubric, but Maes brings in the terms just often enough to help the reader learn his nomenclature and the associated characteristics of his world.
The talking bunny seems an unlikely scenario for the introduction of a YA mystery-fantasy, but the bunny’s very cuteness is the first tool used against Simon by the bolkhs in their battle for supremacy. The bolkhs inhabit animals, as well as some humans, and their plan would have all bolkhs incarnate and powerful, at the expense of humankind. What ensues is a series of flights and confrontations that takes the protagonists from Vancouver to Europe—both of which the author obviously knows well—where Simon confronts the leader of the bolkhs, Tarhlo, who almost convinces him of the righteousness of the bolkh cause. Tarhlo’s logical argument is based on empirical scientific knowledge: the bolkhs argue that their ascendancy now is a natural part of the evolutionary process, as right and understandable as the Cro-Magnons prevailing over the Neanderthals. So well-crafted is Maes’s story that we are honestly not sure what Simon’s choice will be.
Ultimately, Simon travels to New York and a final confrontation, after which we are left with the protagonists safe for the moment, but still threatened: the final sentence assures us that “[w]hile the first confrontation with the bolkhs was over, the war was only getting started” (244). This is the one flaw in this otherwise spectacular piece of YA fiction: the end does not present any closure; it demands—rather than merely anticipating—a sequel. Please, authors: write novels that stand alone as narrative entities; refrain from publishing what amounts to the first installment of an indeterminately long narrative cycle. It is not fair to readers to create a book-length cliffhanger: leave such commercial tactics to the pulp serials. The degree of disappointment in the inconclusive ending is proportional to the level of engagement Transmigrations elicits: if it were a less engrossing story, we wouldn’t care so much that the ending disappoints.

Wishing Star Summer (2001), by Beryl Young

A simple text telling of the visit of a young Belarus girl suffering from the unhealthy atmosphere of the post-Chernobyl landscape.  Tanya comes to Vancouver on a relief program to stay with Jillian Nelson and her family, but despite wanting to have a friend badly, Jillian finds it difficult to be a friend. The story is written with a young beginning reader in mind (ages 6-8?)—or rather, the narrative voice is simplistic enough that older readers will find it too young.  The highlight of the story is not in the plot, but in Beryl Young’s insightful portrayal of the tensions between the protagonist and her Belarus guest: I don’t think I have ever read a text which manages to portray the protagonist so successfully as a jealous, spoilt, 11-year-old and yet retain my interest and affection for the girl.  The characterization of the other members of the cast is equally powerful, and raise an otherwise banal and predictable story to one worth reading and sharing.

Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse (2012), by Kevin Sylvester

You won’t be able to buy this one quite yet. It is set for release on May 8th. You can pre-order copies from the large online retailers, or (my preference) KidsBooks in Vancouver. Or, if you are lucky enough to live in the Toronto area, you can meet Kevin at the Toronto Public Library (40 Orchard View Blvd, Toronto) at 9 am on 12 May 2012. Or so the Simon& Schuster website tells me. They even have a map…

Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse

I am so used to Kevin Sylvester’s cast of characters representing the cultural diversity that I know as Vancouver that an important, subtly expressed, relationship in The Crusader’s Curse failed to surprise me sufficiently: or so I am told. It was called to my attention by another reviewer to whom I lent my copy, a reviewer who is prominent in the children’s literature world for his active support of GBLTQ literature for readers of all ages. In the penultimate chapter, Jean-Claude Chili comments that his friend Hugo Victoire “eez used to loud noises. I snore like a greezly bear” (274). They have been together for “many years” Jean-Claude admits, and he strove to keep Hugo, like his sister—the people he loves—out of what he knew to be a very dangerous situation. Nothing more. For years now GLBTQ critics have been asking for texts that aren’t about homosexuality, or about “coming out,” or focus on the conflicts raging within our strongly heteronormative society, but rather present alternative sexualities as a non-confrontational reality, as they should be. Such representation is slowly beginning to appear. Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse, even more than the first two culturally diverse texts in the series, lies in the vanguard of social tolerance.

More than that, though, The Crusader’s Curse is another delectable taste of mystery and adventure: an international Stanley Park for children. When the Neil Flambé cookbook comes out (I mention the possibility purely from desire, not from insider knowledge), I will immediately cook the recipes from this novel (if I can get my hands on some fresh seagull)! If you ever need to seriously cook your Canada goose—or hedgehog, or garter snake—Neil Flambé is your man, or rather, boy.

But Neil is growing up. As he hits his fifteenth birthday, he seems to have lost his panache; the food he serves his guests appalls them, and the arrogant boy-chef learns to eat humble pie. The reader, privy to the historical backstory upon which Sylvester loves to construct his narrative palimpsests, knows that the curse of the Flambés has descended: Neil’s culinary senses have desserted him. He is almost overcome, and readers are on tenderhooks as they follow Neil’s vacillation between depression, anxiety, and anger, with only enough information (such is Sylvester’s admirable narrative control) to trust that the plot will not burst into flame in the oven. It almost does, and I must admit that the final scenes were hard to follow, relying as they did on the reader’s ability to create visual images from the barrage of action words required. But the failing, I know, lies in this reader: the children to whom I lent the book loved the ending with all of its excitement combined with Sylvester’s inimitable sense of humour. But it made me wonder if there are anime artists and producers waiting to create a film version for us? And would we want that…? Perhaps not: Sylvester’s language not only reveals his subtle, sardonic humour in a way that film could not, but also creates layers of narrative that replicate the nuances of culinary artistry, drawing on all of our senses, not only the visual. So, Mr. Sylvester, back into your garret to garnish Neil Flambé #4 (Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure), or are you starting on that cookbook yet?