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Review: OCDaniel

Review: OCDaniel

OCDaniel
by Wesley King
294 pages
Simon & Schuster
Ages 8-12

 

 

 

For about fifteen years, starting from the time I was in my late teens, I was convinced I could die at any moment. Doctors appointments and trips to the emergency room wouldn’t sway me — I was certain I had a heart ailment that was getting overlooked by every medical professional and every ECG, echo, halter monitor, blood test, and stress test I had talked them into giving me. Many times I was told “it’s in your head,” which to me meant “you’re imagining symptoms — they’re not real.” They were real, and they were physical.

One night I had the worst episode I’d ever experienced. It was muscle quivering that started in my lower back and spread through my entire body. My heart raced, and I couldn’t breathe. The emergency room doctor diagnosed it with two words that changed my life: “panic attack.” And he also described what I’d experienced in a way no other doctor head: a physical response to anxiety. That is, he acknowledged that the physical symptoms were real — I wasn’t imagining those. But they had a trigger.

For me, simply knowing what was happening helped me to get my anxiety under control. The attacks became less severe and then stopped entirely as I was able to recognize them for what they were.

During those years when my anxiety disorder went undiagnosed, few people knew about any of the hospital visits, and no one knew how frequent they were. (At the peak, I was at the hospital at least once a week.)

Daniel Leigh, the thirteen-year-old main character in Wesley King’s OCDaniel, also keeps his problems to himself. No one knows about the “Routine” he has to go through every night before going to bed — a Routine he HAS to do because if he doesn’t, he fears “something bad” will happen. No one knows about the tightness he often feels in his chest, or the breathing difficulties. And, like me, Daniel doesn’t even know that what he’s going through is a mental health issue — an anxiety disorder. Specifically, in Daniel’s case, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

Much of the novel sounds like well-trodden ground if you remove the OCD element from it: an underdog on the school football team finds himself starting in the Big Game(s); meanwhile, he has a crush on a girl, but there’s another girl who he doesn’t think of that way, and he doesn’t realize that love is right under his nose. It sounds like a cliché, and that’s the point: there are people we know who seem to be going through life doing all the familiar things, but they are suffering. Just as the novel takes on a completely different feel and significance because of Daniel’s OCD, our understanding of what others are experiencing changes if we know they are in a battle we can’t see.

By placing an OCD character in what would otherwise be a cliché storyline, King shatters the cliché and shows us that beneath the surface, mental health issues are the overlooked part of our world. And we can’t lose sight of the fact that Daniel is thirteen, and that mental health issues do affect the young — severely, in Daniel’s case.

Daniel is befriended by someone who experiences anxiety of her own — Sara. It’s Sara who recognizes what Daniel is going through, though she tells him that she first noticed his problem two years earlier. Why didn’t she say anything? Because Sara doesn’t talk. Daniel has gone to school with her for years but was never friends with her because she had not spoken a word to anyone the entire time. Daniel even thought she couldn’t speak. She talks to Daniel now because she needs help — her father has disappeared, and she thinks Daniel can help prove that he was murdered by her mother’s new boyfriend. But, of course, Sara is also helping Daniel find out what’s wrong with himself.

When, with Sara’s help, Daniel finds out that he has OCD, it’s the start of the process of dealing with the problem rather than hiding it. Do his episodes disappear? I’ll leave that for you to find out. The only spoiler I’ll give is that you should not stop reading when the story ends: continue to the author’s note. It’s rare that an author’s note feels like part of the narrative, but in this case, Wesley King ends his emotionally powerful novel by showing why he is able to tell Daniel’s story with such clarity.

Review by Barry Jowett

Review: Calvin

Review: Calvin

Calvin
by Martine Leavitt
180 pages
Groundwood
Ages 13+

 

 

 

 

 

In Bill Watterson’s comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, the lines between what was real and what was fantasy were blurred. While you often were aware that something you were seeing came from Calvin’s imagination, sometimes you were fooled into thinking something “real” was happening, only to have the rug pulled out from under you.

And so, Watterson’s strip was the perfect background for Martine Leavitt’s YA novel Calvin — a book about a seventeen-year-old with schizophrenia who has trouble distinguishing between what is real and what is imaginary.

It’s a book in which the reader is constantly wondering which parts of the story are true. The main character shares his name with Watterson’s creation: Calvin … though the reader has to wonder if even that much is true, since so much of what Calvin tells us is a product of his own mind.

Calvin once believed that he was, in fact, Watterson’s character, and had a stuffed tiger that he believed was Hobbes. At the point in which the main story takes place, our Calvin is aware of his schizophrenia and knows that he is not Watterson’s Calvin, and he also knows that Hobbes is not real … though that doesn’t stop Hobbes from hanging around.

This is where any certainty Calvin has ends. It’s also where any certainty the reader has ends, and it’s this uncertainty that gorgeously, delightfully, and poignantly powers the novel.

Calvin — our Calvin — has a friend who we are told is named Susie. He also has a bully named Maurice. People familiar with Watterson’s comic will know that his Calvin has a frenemy named Susie Derkins and a bully named Moe. And if you really know your stuff about Calvin and Hobbes, you’ll know that one of the monsters who lives under his bed is named Maurice.

So, we have to wonder if Maurice is real, and is really named Maurice. But Maurice is a minor character. More important to the reader is whether Susie is real, because Susie is Calvin’s companion on the journey that he ends up taking.

And what a journey it is. Calvin has given himself the idea that he can clear his head of his delusions if he can meet Bill Watterson and convince him to draw one more strip of the comic he walked away from in 1995. To do that, Calvin is determined to walk all the way from Leamington, Ontario, across frozen Lake Erie, to Watterson’s home in Cleveland, Ohio.

And Susie is going with him.

The planned journey is so outrageous that the reader has to immediately doubt that Susie exists, because it’s almost unimaginable that a real person would follow Calvin on his trek. But this Susie does.

We also wonder if Calvin is really making this journey at all.

They run into an ice fisherman along the way across Lake Erie — and get advice on how to know when the ice is safe to walk on. The advice is so specific and so solid that we begin to believe the journey must be happening and that, since the ice fisherman acknowledges Susie’s presence, she must exist too.

But that, of course, presumes that there really is an ice fisherman.

And as if we don’t have enough layers of uncertainty already, Leavitt even takes a moment to make us question whether what we perceive as reality in our own world is reality after all.

The suspense remains high throughout the book. But there’s far more than suspense, because Calvin’s story grips the heart. The reader, like Calvin, is in a constant battle between what they want to be true and what they know to be true. And Susie is a big part of the battle. As Calvin and Susie become closer, and even romantic, we hope, desperately, for Susie to be real, because we want Calvin to find real happiness. And we do more than just wonder if she is real: we fear that she is not, and that fear becomes intense.

The emotional battle has another element: we want for Calvin to win his mental health battle, even though that means conquering the illusions. If Susie is one of the illusions, there is sadness attached to winning the battle.

Of course, we also have another concern: walking across a Great Lake in the middle of winter sounds extraordinarily dangerous, and it sounds that way because it is. The questions about what is real and what is not real start to take a back seat to the worry that not everyone on this journey — whoever is actually on this journey — is going to survive.

Calvin is deeply thoughtful and thought-provoking while telling an engrossing story. Every step of Calvin’s journey is a treat. And though the copyright page tells us that the book was written and published without the approval of Bill Watterson, one hopes that he will enjoy that readers of Calvin are likely to go back and re-read Calvin and Hobbes comics with a different perspective.

Reviewed by Barry Jowett

Bookcave’s Reviews in Review: The Last-Minute Gift Items You’ve Been Looking For (For All Ages!)

Bookcave’s Reviews in Review: The Last-Minute Gift Items You’ve Been Looking For (For All Ages!)

 

It’s the holiday season, with many gift-giving opportunities rearing their heads in the coming days and weeks, so many people are preparing their “best of” lists and gift recommendations. I’m going to do something a little different. Yep, recommendations, but I’m going to take every book we’ve reviewed on Bookcave (easier than it sounds since we’ve only been up for a few weeks) and tell you which people they are ideally suited for. If you can’t find a book for that hard-to-buy-for person, it’s because we haven’t reviewed it yet.

Some of the books cross over nicely to “adult” fiction, so I’ve included recommendations for anyone who is buying for adult friends and relatives. (That is, adult friends and relatives who don’t typically read kids’ books.)

Links to Bookcave’s reviews are at the bottom of each recommendation.

 

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

You know who will love this? Your friend who likes those mysteries where you marvel at the special skill or brilliance of the detective. A Sherlock fan? That’s a good target recipient. The publisher sets the age as 10-14, which is a broad range, and I’d lean towards the older end of that if buying for a young person (12+). But there really need not be an upper age on this one as it’s more than satisfying for any reader of adult mysteries. (I published adult mysteries for many years, so I bring a familiarity with the genre to the table.)

See Bookcave’s review.

 

 

 

Mission Mumbai by Mahtab Narsimhan

This is a fun look at some of the differences between North American and Indian culture, so it’s great for any young person with an interest in learning about other countries and cultures, or for a person familiar with India and Mumbai, who will get a kick out of seeing the mishaps that sometimes occur when cultures collide. The publisher set an age range of 8-12 and I think that works well for this book, though I might narrow it slightly to 9-11.

See Bookcave’s review.

 

 

 

 

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

It would be underselling this book to simply say it’s great for fans of dystopian fiction, though it certainly is great for them. But it’s perfect for people who like speculative fiction that is intelligent, and that takes you places beyond the book. My review focused on artificial intelligence, but I could have written many pages about identity, diversity, sexuality, politics, environment, and more. It’s also a page-turner, though, so you shouldn’t worry about it being bogged down in science and philosophy. The publisher sets an age range of 14 and up and that works for me. You can go up as far as you want.

See Bookcave’s review.

 

 

Masterminds by Gordon Korman

Lots of action, lots of fun, lots of mystery. Your friend or young person who likes stories about isolated little towns with big mysteries should like this. The reading age for the book could drift a little higher, but 8-12 is a solid target. Korman’s been around for a long time despite being relatively young (he famously wrote his first novel when he was twelve, of course); that makes anything he writes a gift option for that adult friend of yours who grew up with Bruno and Boots and Bugs Potter but hasn’t read anything by Korman since the eighties — they’ll enjoy the visit from an old friend.

See Bookcave’s review.

 

 

Young Man with Camera by Emil Sher

A young person with an interest in photography or the visual arts will find inspiration in this book. There’s a lot of heart to this book, too, and the empathetic reader with a social conscience will find it gripping. The core gifting target would be early teens, who are the clear audience for the book. (The publisher lists it for ages 12+.)

See Bookcave’s review.

 

 

 

Missing Nimama, written by Melanie Florence, illustrated by François Thisdale

Listed by the publisher for readers 8+, and that “+” is appropriate, because there really should be no upper age for this book. Though it is technically a children’s picture book and is packaged as such, the writing and illustrations will be appreciated by adults. It’s a gut-wrenching story about a daughter and her mother, who is one of the missing and murdered Indigenous women in the ongoing crisis. Parents might want to read the book before deciding whether to give it to young children, as it is a rather heavy topic and you’ll want to be prepared for the potential emotional responses. I’m of the opinion that young people are stronger than we often give them credit for and can handle tough subject matter, but if I’m making a recommendation I don’t want a parent to get upset with me. So, give it a read, then give it to your young person when you realize it’s a book they really should read.

See Bookcave’s review.

 

I Am Not a Number, written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland

This is another hard-hitting book for young readers, and it takes us inside a residential school. I don’t think I’ve seen anything that serves as such an effective primer on the history and experience of residential schools. It will appall rather than traumatize, so parents might not need to be as cautious about giving it to younger readers (the age range from the publisher is 7 to 11). It’s a great gift for the socially conscious or those with a specific interest in First Nations issues.

See Bookcave’s review.

 

 

 

The Mask That Sang by Susan Currie

The Mask That Sang is another book with a strong Indigenous theme, though this book focuses less on a specific issue and more on a page-turning story that introduces readers to Indigenous themes. Residential schools ultimately play a significant role in the background of key characters, but along the way we learn about Orenda, Iroquois false-face masks, and some of the racism directed towards one of the characters. It’s good for readers with an interest in Indigenous culture. It should also appeal to readers who like stories with elements of magic. The publisher sets the age range as 9-13, and I’d stick with that range in gifting the book.

See Bookcave’s review.

 

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

Review: I Am Not a Number

Review: I Am Not a Number

IANAN_cover.inddI Am Not a Number
Written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer
Illustrated by Gillian Newland
32 pages
Second Story Press
Ages 7-11

 

 

Good presses and good authors don’t shy away from heavy subject matter. For the second week in a row, we’re reviewing a book from Second Story Press that covers the subject of Canada’s residential schools.

I Am Not a Number brings the full force of this dark subject. Author Jenny Kay Dupuis (who worked with co-author Kathy Kacer on this book) has based the story on that of her grandmother, Irene, who we see taken from her family and put in a residential school.

This, in itself, is horrifying; during Canada’s shameful history of residential schools, Indigenous families were required by law to allow the government to take their children and place them in schools far away from their homes to be assimilated into “Canadian” culture. Readers learning of this for the first time will find it astounding.

But it doesn’t stop there, and we see Irene punished at school for speaking her own language — she’s told she’s not allowed to speak anything other than English. Her hair is cut and she is told her Indigenous heritage is meaningless. And she is not even allowed to keep her own name — she is given a number.

The book sugarcoats nothing. The darkness of this chapter in Canadian history is present throughout, and a historical note at the end of the book makes clear that Irene’s story was not unique. But rather than rely solely on bleakness to carry the story, the authors allow for optimism in the form of Irene’s silent defiance. Though she’s told she has to forget her name, she refuses to do so, telling herself that she is not a number, and recalling her mother’s final words to her before she was taken away: “Never forget who you are.” This provides the story arc that turns Irene’s story into one of triumph on the final pages.

Second Story Press is one of Canada’s finest independent presses, and their commitment to telling the uncomfortable history of Canada’s relationship with the land’s Indigenous people is among the many commendable things they do. The disgrace of the residential schools system is something every Canadian should be familiar with and Second Story, along with authors Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, and illustrator Gillian Newland, have provided a superb book that will tell this necessary story to readers at a young age.

Review by Barry Jowett

Review: The Mask That Sang

Review: The Mask That Sang

MaskThatSang_fullcover.inddThe Mask That Sang
by Susan Currie
192 pages
Second Story Press
Ages 9-13

 

 

 

One of the challenges writers are often faced with when writing for young readers is how to introduce a subject without creating a book that feels like a teaching tool. In The Mask That Sang, Susan Currie is up to the challenge.

We’re introduced to Cass, a twelve-year-old living with her single mother. Cass’s mom, we soon learn, was abandoned as a newborn by her birth mother. She’s carried bitterness about this her entire life — so much so that when a lawyer tracks her down and informs her that her birth mother has left her her life savings and her house, Cass’s mom wants no part of either.

Cass, though, wants a new home away from the bullies at her current school. But what’s more, she wants the connection to her family’s past that her mother is determined to run away from.

Many authors would fall into the trap of overexplaining a theme, but Currie does not spell out that the mother is shutting out the past and the daughter is seeking it. It’s a theme that’s there for readers to explore, but it’s not shoved down their throats. Instead, she keeps the plot moving forward.

When Cass’s mother finally relents and they move to the new house, Cass finds more “past” than she was expecting. Cass hears singing in her head, and it draws her to a dresser containing an Iroquois false-face mask. Cass feels an immediate connection to the mask — the reasons for which we learn towards the end of the book (though most readers will see that coming, particularly if they’ve read the author bio and seen that there’s a touch of autobiography woven into the story).

When Cass’s mother sells the mask to a pawn shop, Cass begins having dreams that give cryptic clues to the mask’s location. But Cass will need help deciphering the clues, and she gets that help from Degan, a classmate who is from the Cayuga nation and knows something of the history of false-face masks.

After failing to buy back the mask themselves, they learn the mask was bought by someone they’d rather not have to deal with — Ellis, a school bully who, among other things, has taunted Degan about his Indigenous heritage. This is a clever detail for the author to include. The sale of false-face masks to non-Indigenous persons is a contentious issue — the masks are sacred, after all. Currie doesn’t harp on this detail or even exploit it — she leaves as a nugget for readers who have explored beyond the book.

At this point I need to dance around spoilers, so without saying why, I’ll say that residential schools, a shameful part of Canada’s history, turn out to be significant in the lives of the characters. And again, Currie introduces this information without overplaying it.

The Mask That Sang is fast-paced and magical. There’s a simple story, but one that has richness and complexity behind and beyond the text. Readers simply looking for a lively read will be satisfied, while anyone with an interest in the history and the present of Indigenous peoples in Canada will find inspiring starting points.

 

Review by Barry Jowett

Review: The Blackthorn Key

Review: The Blackthorn Key

blackthorn-key-coverThe Blackthorn Key
by Kevin Sands
371 pages
Aladdin Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Ages 10-14

 

 

 

A quick description of Kevin Sands’ The Blackthorn Key might not do it justice. It’s a historical novel about a young man with an analytical mind and specialized knowledge who sets out to solve a series of murders. But Sands takes the time-worn and makes it fresh. The result is one of the best mystery novels for young readers I’ve read in a long, long time, and one with a much-deserved list of awards and other honours.

Christopher Rowe was living in an orphanage when master apothecary Benedict Blackthorn took him in as his apprentice. It was a life-changing gesture that has benefited both; Christopher has a new life, while Blackthorn has a brilliant apprentice who is not only a quick learner, but also adept at cracking codes … even if Blackthorn isn’t always thrilled when Christopher is able to figure out secret and sometimes dangerous recipes.

It’s a mentor-apprentice relationship that borders on father-son, so when Blackthorn becomes the latest victim in a series of murders of apothecaries, the blow devastates Christopher. He sets out to find out who the killer is … or, perhaps, who the killers are, because he believes the Cult of the Archangel may be behind this … if the group actually exists.

Solving the crime involves being his master’s apprentice one more time: Blackthorn, knowing he could be the next victim, left his protege coded clues that could lead directly to the killer.

The Blackthorn Key ticks a lot of “things we really like” boxes: stories with code-breaking, analytics, and a healthy dose of science have become mainstream in recent years. But there’s always a risk that a book full of puzzles will rely too heavily on analytical tumblers falling into place, and the result can be a cold, clinical feel. That doesn’t happen here: The Blackthorn Key is driven by emotion, and that’s what sets it apart. Christopher has lost the person who gave him a life and a future, and the person who believed in him. It’s a profound loss.

Christopher isn’t completely alone in the world without Blackthorn, though. Sands has given him a friend, Tom. Tom serves two purposes. One is to be a character Christopher’s age — much needed in a book filled with adults. The other is to be the “Watson” figure, but not in the way such sidekicks are typically used in detective fiction. Usually these are the people of normal intelligence who the audience can relate to, and they serve as a story’s narrator so that we can view the genius detective through eyes like our own.

But Sands upends the Holmes-Watson cliché. The author boldly tells the story through the eyes of Christopher, the “Holmes” figure. It’s a superb bit of writerly instinct because in doing so and in reminding us throughout the book of Christopher’s emotional attachment to Blackthorn, the “brilliant detective” is beautifully humanized. We don’t see him as a freak; in fact, we see him as quite normal. He is young, and young at heart, as is apparent in the book’s opening chapter when, unable contain his youthful excitement at figuring out how gunpowder is made, he gets Tom to work with him to build a small cannon, with slapstick results.

Christopher is a character we can relate to. He is “like us” — he just has a different knowledge base. He happens to be excellent at breaking codes and knows how to mix powders, liquids, and chemicals. So, why the “Watson” character in Tom? Because he is someone Christopher can relate to. He ties Christopher to his age.

The accessibility of the novel is also evident in Sands’ use of language. One of the challenges in historical fiction is to write using language that is readable to contemporary audiences but that carries some historical authenticity. In general with middle grade and young adult fiction, it’s best hint at, not mimic, period language. Sands’ language is spot on. There’s a historical feel, but the language is familiar and comfortable to readers. Anyone thinking of writing historical fiction could learn a lot from reading this book.

The Blackthorn Key has become an instant favourite of mine and is highly recommended for any fan of historical crime fiction. It’s a reminder that no matter how thrilling it is to find answers, the heart of a great novel lies in the people asking the questions.

 

Review by Barry Jowett

 

 

 

 

Review: Mission Mumbai

Review: Mission Mumbai

mission-mumbai-coverMission Mumbai
by Mahtab Narsimhan
262 pages
Scholastic
Ages 9-12

 

 

 

As an editor, reading a new book by an author you’ve published is always an anxious experience. It doesn’t matter if you’re the publisher of the new book or not — you want it to be good.

I’ve had the good fortune of publishing two of Mahtab Narsimhan’s books, The Third Eye and The Tiffin, so I had those editor’s nerves working as I opened her most recent middle grade novel, Mission Mumbai. Not only does Narsimhan come through with another excellent book, but her versatility is on display. She’d already shown herself capable of shifting course when she went from the Tara Trilogy — fantasy rooted in Hindu mythology — to The Tiffin — gritty realism; Mission Mumbai returns to the same setting as The Tiffin (the city of Mumbai), but does so from a very different angle.

The story features two New Yorkers: our narrator, Dylan, and his friend Rohit. The pair have travelled with Rohit’s family to their home city of Mumbai, India, where Rohit’s cousin will soon be married. Already we’re in different territory from The Tiffin: these are not India’s disadvantaged, struggling to get by. These are people with enough money to be comfortable, and to travel. (Rohit’s family is not as wealthy as Dylan’s, but definitely have a higher standard of living than the characters in The Tiffin.)

There is also a very different point of view. The reader is seeing Mumbai through the eyes of Dylan, an American who is visiting India for the first time. This allows Narsimhan to explore many of the cultural differences between India and North America, and to have fun with them. Dylan comes to Mumbai with little knowledge of Indian culture, and Rohit hasn’t done much to help him learn. So, when the book starts with Dylan trying to clear a cow from blocking traffic by hitting it with a stick, we know he’s in for some trouble on this vacation. (Cows being sacred to Hindus, Dylan’s help is not terribly well received.)

Food mishaps, heat intolerance, and experiencing Indian toilets for the first time are among Dylan’s comical misadventures. For readers with little familiarity with India, it’s a great introduction to the country’s largest city. For readers who know a lot about India and Mumbai, there are plenty of laughs to be had at Dylan’s expense.

He’s not merely the butt of jokes, though. Readers can sympathize with Dylan, who is clearly out of his depth and trying to fit in, but getting little help from Rohit, as the two have begun to squabble about their personal situations.

Rohit’s life is in New York now, but a stubborn aunt is trying to convince his parents that he should live with her in India. Dylan’s advice to wait out the dispute backfires. But Dylan has problems of his own, as his father is trying to convince him to devote his time to “manly” pursuits like playing soccer, while Dylan dreams of being a photographer.

Both characters prefer blurred lines to sharp definitions. Rohit has blended his Indian heritage with his American life, while Dylan has rejected being put into a box. How perfect, then, that the pair are in India to attend a wedding — people coming together. Contrast this with Rohit’s aunt trying to separate Rohit from his blended culture, and the symbolic contrast of Dylan’s parents, who are separating.

But while it’s a book with depth, it’s also a lot of fun, and it doesn’t spoil anything to say that it ends with a celebratory event — the wedding. Does that event go off without a hitch? That much I won’t spoil.

 

Review by Barry Jowett

Review: The Scorpion Rules

Review: The Scorpion Rules

scorpion-rules-coverThe Scorpion Rules
by Erin Bow
400 pages
Margaret K. McElderry Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
Ages 14+

 

 

 

It’s only been a few years since Erin Bow’s first novel for young readers, Plain Kate, caught the attention of the Canadian kidlit community. It went on to win the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, perhaps the country’s highest honour for children’s books. With The Scorpion Rules, her third book for young readers, she proves herself to be one of the heavyweights of Canadian kidlit.

Set in the distant future — 400 years after world governments entrusted the cause of peace to artificial intelligence — the novel’s central character is a contradiction: Greta is a crown princess, but she’s also a hostage. So are the other young people who live with her in an isolated facility. Called the “Children of Peace,” they are heirs to the leadership of nations. By a centuries-old decree, leaders are forced to turn their first-born over to the Swan Riders — agents of the United Nations — who hold the children until they turn eighteen. If a leader incites war, their child is executed. This is how peace is maintained.

That’s the plan, anyway. The effectiveness is suspect, and in the first chapter Greta’s friend is hauled off for execution after his parent starts a war. So much for that.

In the early going, Greta is a conformist. But when a new hostage arrives, Elian, most definitely NOT a conformist, Greta begins to question the rules, and her destiny.

It’s a book about contradictions: the Children of Peace are future world leaders but also hostages; those in power are powerless when it comes to the fate of their children; the UN enforces peace with threats of death.

One of the most compelling contradictions is Talis, whose “Utterances” are the scripture that guides this dark world. Talis was born human, but his mind was uploaded and he became an AI (an artificial intelligence). He’s the thoughts, memories, and personality of a human, but he is also non-human.

The development of artificial intelligence is a part of our world, and is sometimes controversial. Some of the greatest minds of our day (Stephen Hawking among them) have cautioned that developing true artificial intelligence could doom the human race. There are many theories about how this could happen; one of the most basic is that if machines with artificial intelligence are programmed to seek ways to maintain their own existence, sooner or later they’ll figure out that the greatest threat to their existence is humanity. People know where the “off” button is. So, the best way for AIs to ensure their own survival is to destroy us.

Well, the AIs in this book don’t do that, but one of them, Talis, does come up with the nasty “Children of Peace” plan.

A question that becomes central to the book is whether a person can be given eternal life by uploading their mind to a machine. If all your thoughts, emotions, characteristics, and memories are made electronic, all that is “you” can be replicated and the rest of the world can experience what you are (or were), but is that new being really you? Do you have a continued existence, or is this new “you” just another being with access to your database? The question is really about what happens to your consciousness — whatever consciousness is. Recently, science has been looking at the consciousness, a subject so difficult to explain that science previously stayed away from it. Some have put forward that consciousness is a state of matter — different parts working together to give you that awareness that makes you you.

It’s a question that the characters in the book end up needing to consider, and as the series continues, I hope to see the question continue to be explored.

The Scorpion Rules is a book of big ideas that enthrall rather than overwhelm. The big ideas and concepts are made concrete and easy to grasp. It’s a novel that engages, and it inspires readers to think beyond the book, beyond themselves, and beyond their own lifetime.

 

Review by Barry Jowett

Review: Masterminds

Review: Masterminds

masterminds-coverMasterminds
by Gordon Korman
324 pages
HarperTrophy Canada
Ages 8 to 12

 

 

 

As an editor, I tense up whenever I get a manuscript that has multiple narrators. These tend to be the manuscripts I tell authors to rewrite and resubmit. It’s not that I’ve got my rules and people need to follow them; it’s that few authors can successfully pull off multiple narrators. Variety of voice is difficult to nail, and even when you achieve that variety, often the voices are so different that a reader will enjoy reading one narrative far more than the other.

Well, over the course of his forty-plus year career and eighty-plus books, Gordon Korman has probably written from every perspective there is, plus a few that haven’t been invented yet, so when he writes a book with five different narrative voices, he makes it look easy.

Masterminds is a small-town-where-something-weird-is-going-on book. We’re suckers for these stories. We love them in books, on TV, in movies, in podcasts. There’s something irresistible about these isolated small towns, seemingly cut off from the world, and the secrets they possess. And the town of Serenity, New Mexico is one such community.

Early in the book, Eli tries to ride his bike out of town with his friend Randy — it will be the first time he ever leaves town. But he gets sick on the way. Randy doesn’t.

And soon after, Randy’s family suddenly moves out of town. But before they leave, Randy gets a message to Eli: something weird is going on in Serenity.

And Eli realizes that maybe he got sick on his way out of town for a reason. Maybe someone is trying to keep people in. But not everyone — Randy was allowed to leave, after all.

Why? As Eli learns, Randy isn’t special. Eli is. So are a small group of kids, including our four other narrators — Amber, Malik, Hector, and Tori — who, one by one, start to realize that they are being controlled, and that they’re being kept in Serenity for a reason. They’re part of an experiment. And everything they’ve believed — including who their parents are — is false.

When they find out who their real parents are, they begin wondering whether their destinies are tied to the town in which they live, or the genetics they inherited.

That’s about as much as I’ll spoil for you. When you know more, you find out why our five narrators are “masterminds.”

Why do we enjoy these weird-and-isolated-small-town stories? In part, small town narratives are easy to like because when a book is set in a small town, almost the entire town can be described for us. We can feel like we know the place. We know the names of streets, places, and in this case, the big local industry — in Masterminds, the local industry is said to manufacture orange construction cones, but in reality, it’s up to something sinister.

But we’re also drawn to the idea that our world isn’t what we’re told it is, and that if we can figure out the truth about our world, we’ll discover some new, liberating reality.

As you would expect from Gordon Korman, Masterminds is fast-paced storytelling, but there is great depth. These are characters trying to figure out who they are and what their place is in their world, and in the world outside. And at the heart of the novel is the question of what makes us who we are. How much is built into our DNA and how much comes from our environment?

 

Review by Barry Jowett

Review: Young Man with Camera

Review: Young Man with Camera

young-man-with-camera-coverYoung Man with Camera
by Emil Sher
240 pages
Arthur A. Levine Books (an imprint of Scholastic)
Ages 12+

 

 

Emil Sher has written for radio, the stage, and for adults and children, but 2015’s Young Man with Camera was his debut novel for young adults. It took off, and was honoured with award nominations across the country, and won the Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature

The main character, only identified as T­­—, is a bullied thirteen-year-old with a passion for photography. The novel combines Sher’s text with photographs by David Wyman, and does so masterfully.

T— has few friends. He has Sean, Sean’s beloved dog, and his camera. He also has Lucy, a homeless woman named Lucy, whose mental health issues become apparent. But rather than being scared off, T— continues his friendship with Lucy, and she is one of his favourite subjects for photographs.

T—’s friends are outnumbered by his bullies, who torment him relentlessly. Photography is his escape, and he sets up a secret gallery of his work in an abandoned building.

Halfway through the novel, there is a tragedy that changes the direction of the story and of T—’s life. It’s a gut-wrenching moment that is punctuated by a series of photos that capture the soul of a character who has died in an act of cruel violence. This is a daring moment for the book’s creators. To present a series of images that perfectly capture the essence of a fictional character you have to have a superb photographer, a spot-on model, and some solid editorial decision-making. The novel moves beautifully from text into images. It breaks your heart, as it’s supposed to.

The use of photography is far more than a gimmick – it is essential to who T— is. T— sees the world more clearly through his camera than most of the other characters see with their eyes or comprehend with their minds. He focuses on individuals, and on truth, while the truth is lost on others. But it’s not only the truth of what crimes were committed and by who; T—’s camera captures what is true about people. In a homeless woman dismissed and ignored by everyone else, T— and his camera find a woman worth knowing and worth celebrating.

T— ends up framed for a crime. There’s some frustration for the reader: T— sees the setup coming. He seems to have an out — he has photographs that can help clear his name — but he doesn’t come forward with the photos. His reluctance seems almost implausible; the consequences of staying silent seem to greatly outweigh the consequences of coming forward — but then again, the mind of a thirteen-year-old who has been bullied and who has witnessed a horrific tragedy isn’t necessarily going to draw the right conclusions about actions and consequences, so while there might be some implausibility, that implausibility is still real.

 

Review by Barry Jowett