January 27, 2015

Modo: Ember's End

by Arthur Slade
Illustrated by Christopher Steininger
88 pp.
Ages 12+

If you ever get to be part of an indiegogo or kickstarter campaign that aims to publish a book by authors or illustrators with whom you are familiar, do it.  It's a worthwhile endeavour that allows you to become part of an inner circle of benefactors, and provides you with great perks! OK, don't do it just for the perks; do it because it's a good thing to do (though the perks are great too!)

I was fortunate to get on board with Arthur Slade's graphic novel project that reintroduces characters from his ever-popular The Hunchback Assignments series:
Modo, the titular hunchback who can transform his deformed face at will, and his companion Octavia (Tavia) Milkweed are British agents who worked under Mr. Socrates to bring the Clockwork Guild to justice.  Last seen in 1874, the two have reappeared in 1885 Nevada, inquiring about jobs in the wild west town of Ember's End. Fortuitously (or maybe not) the town needs two deputies and Modo and Tavia accept, though their relentless squabbling suggests their different styles may clash.  This is especially evident after they are attacked by a ninja-like swordsman who demands they leave town and the "magnificent device" for him to possess, and they meet Miss Annette Ember, the daughter of the town's founder, inventor Ebenezer Ember.

Tucked away in her monstrous mansion, Miss Ember has had a deck of cards and a key stolen from her, with only a ninja star (shuriken) left behind, thus linking the theft to the swordsman Modo and Tavia encountered earlier.  In a dust storm of attacks by outlaws Ogden Bull, ninja Katashi and grass-chewing hick Slayne, Modo and Tavia must fulfill their deputy duties, help Miss Ember, and solve the mystery of the "magnificent device", while endearingly bickering with one another. 
[Tavia:] Now that's a rather curious name for a pub.
[Modo:] Yes. Very Curious. Philósophos is Greek for 'Lover of Wisdom.' You may feel out of place inside.
[Tavia:] Hmmph. Always showing off your fancy education.  How predictably boring. (pg. 6)
By embedding Modo and Tavia's adventure in graphica, Arthur Slade has opened up new opportunities to showcase the two at their best, and not so best, allowing the reader to see more into the characters and their relationship than always evident in text alone.  While this can be a positive aspect of the graphic novel format (all the more positive for Christopher Steininger's sharply detailed images), it can also restrict the text from delving deeper into their relationship, so magnificently embedded in affection and respect.  The addition of detailed illustrations often necessitates shorter and simpler text to prevent it from saying more than can be depicted graphically.  Perhaps it is because I was a fan of Modo and Tavia before they became graphic elements that I prefer the richer text of The Hunchback Assignments' novels.  But I know many readers who don't know the two steampunk agents and will only latch onto the series after reading Modo: Ember's End.  This book accommodates those readers' need for illustrations to support the text, even to help comprehension, with a more linear plot and minimal subplotting.

Modo: Ember's End has given The Hunchback Assignments a final (?) "Yippee!" by sharing Arthur Slade and Christopher Steininger's vision of two much-loved characters and providing another action-packed steampunk mystery that has them thwarting, with much aplomb, New World villains. Yeehaw!

January 25, 2015

The Case of the Missing Moonstone: The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, No. 1

by Jordan Stratford
Art by Kelly Murphy
Alfred A. Knopf
216 pp.
Ages 9-13
January, 2015

Devastated with the loss, to marriage, of the only governess she has ever known, eleven-year-old Ada Byron finds comfort in numbers and the wicker basket of her hot air balloon tethered to the house in Marylebone Road, London.  Except for the silent butler, Mr. Franklin, and two house maids, Ada is virtually alone.  Her father, Lord Byron, was killed years earlier and her mother, Baroness Wentworth, bitter with her husband's infidelity and life choices, is often absent.  But all changes for Ada when her new tutor, Mr. Percy Snagsby, and fellow student, Mary Godwin, 14, arrive.

While Ada is disinclined to accept her new educational situation, calling Mr. Snagsby "Peebs" and imaging a cannon from which to shoot him, Mary is very appreciative of it, thrilled with being tutored alongside the titled and wealthier Ada at her much grander home.  With time and the benefit of Mary's compassion and social competencies, the two girls become friends, complementing each other beautifully.  In fact, reading about criminals in the newspaper, the two decide to become a secret constabulary, the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency.  Still trying to work within the social confines experienced by women at the time, the girls take on the case of Miss Rebecca Verdigris, whose maid falsely confesses to stealing her Acorn of Ankara pendant, a birthday gift from Rebecca's late uncle. With Ada's quirky brain and logic and Mary's benevolence and civility, the partners attempt to exonerate the maid, Rosie Sparrow.

Although based on historical figures, Ada and Mary are truly unique young ladies, befitting those of different social standings and family situations.  Ada has learned to be self-reliant, appreciative of her books and numbers i.e., that upon which she can depend. Mary, more mature and attentive to those around her, is fully aware of society's expectations and allowances, and acts as the voice of reason in their friendship and the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency.  Take this sample dialogue between the two girls.
"Because," Mary said guiltily, "sometimes you need to be careful about what you say and when you say it."
"That's silly.  There are just things to know, and people should know them and that's that."
(pg. 127)
Luckily, Jordan Stratford plays up their differences, similarly depicted in Kelly Murphy's quaint drawings, and demonstrates the innate humour of their attitudes.
"How are we to find Rosie in here?"
Ada pointed to the right. "This way."
"How do you know?" asked Mary.
"I don't.  I'm just guessing. But if I'm wrong, the other way will still be there."
(pg. 111)
Though Jordan Stratford takes some liberties with historical timelines–making Ada eleven and Mary fourteen years of age–he stays true to the essence of the two girls and their interests and personalities.  Ada who will become better known as Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), mathematician, writer and essentially the world's first computer programmer, is the beautiful mind of The Case of the Missing Moonstone.  Mary Godwin, daughter of writer Mary Wollstonecraft, will marry poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and become Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (1818).  Similarly, Jordan Stratford uses the known friendship between Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, as well as Ada Lovelace's relationship with Charles Babbage, for additional historically-accurate subplotting.

The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency is a welcome series for middle-grade readers, providing an offbeat historical perspective to solving mystery.  I look forward to further cases, including The Case of the Girl in Gray, No. 2 in the series, scheduled for release August, 2015.

January 22, 2015


by Lisa Harrington
Dancing Cat Books
240 pp.
Ages 13+
September 2014

On the day Lyssa Thomson, 18, buries her mother, she's on a bus, leaving her drunken, step-father Vince–who used to lock her in her room–in River John and heading to Halifax to move in with her boyfriend, Kyle, hopeful of starting at Dalhousie in the new year.  Finding Kyle with another girl, Lyssa wanders in the rain until she finds some shelter at a coffee shop where an employee, university student Liam Stewart, helps her contact Vince's son–Lyssa's step-brother–Aidan with whom she'd always been close before he left without telling her two years earlier.

Though still hurt about Aidan's departure, Lyssa accepts his offer to stay at his house, which is near campus and the coffee shop where she gets a part-time job.  Aidan is still not forthcoming about anything though she learns through his girlfriend, Marla, that he manages a bar and they'd met in a psych ward when Marla had attempted suicide. Not knowing that Marla and Lyssa had already met, Aidan continues to tell his step-sister half-truths about Vince accusing him of trying to kill him and having him sent to Halifax for a psych evaluation.  

But, Lyssa is starting to see discrepancies in what Aidan says and does, and turns to Liam for some advice and perspective.  Liam, a pre-med student, does all he can to help Lyssa out, though his own relationship with his girlfriend, Lynnie, is becoming complicated.  Everything must seem complicated to Lyssa: her much-adored step-brother is thinking about returning home and wants her to go too; the boy she's crushing on seems into her but still has a girlfriend; Kyle is coming around asking for a second chance; and Vince is looking to track Lyssa down. But Lyssa has a good head on her shoulders and, with her helpfulness and work ethic, she establishes a good support system at work, something she's going to need if she is to endure (survive?) some harrowing situations.

Mental illness can be debilitating but imagine if you are teen who has never been privy to discussions about a family member's illness.  While being unaware of triggers or symptoms, you may also feel that others are being unfair to that family member when labeling him as insane or crazy or irrational. Lyssa shows incredible fortitude in the face of extraordinary circumstances like her mother's death and boyfriend's unfaithfulness.  But, with Aidan being the only one she still considers family, she is reluctant to castigate him for his reactions, until she accepts that his thinking is twisting his perceptions, the truth and their lives.  Lisa Harrington brings the issue of mental illness out of the closet and into the danger zone, where secretive discussions and ignorance are preventing effective treatment and establishment of a supportive family.  By not speaking about it, everything goes from bad to worse.  And Lisa Harrington's writing is oppressive with the tension of Lyssa's tenuous relationship with Aidan. If Twisted is anything beyond a young adult story of finding love and support under difficult circumstances, it's a cautionary tale of the dangers of refusing to talk about mental illness and shaming those dealing with it.

January 19, 2015

Gertrude at the Beach

by Starr Dobson
Art by Dayle Dodwell
Nimbus Publishing
32 pp.
Ages 4+
October, 2014

When Gertrude Allawishes, the goat, joined young Starr's family in My Goat Gertrude (Nimbus, 2011), she began an illustrious career of chaotic entertainment for the family and also for young readers.  Now Gertrude returns for a second literary adventure in Gertrude at the Beach, with Starr Dobson, the author and the little girl whose family adopted Gertrude, sharing Gertrude's exploits when the family goes to their summer cottage.

With Gertrude's exuberance, it's no wonder that Mom is apprehensive about having the goat roaming freely around their cottage by the water.  While Chips, the dog, is called trusty, Gertrude is deemed mischievous, and Starr and her two sisters are expected to keep track of Gertrude's activities.  Both animals love to race around, though Chips sticks to playing fetch while the goat gets stuck under an old rowboat and chews up a dried jellyfish.  But when Gertrude goes missing and is found swimming farther and farther out towards a boat and needs to be rescued, the family realizes that Gertrude isn't just getting into trouble.  She's trying to tell them something.

Having never lived with a goat, I can't imagine the turmoil a goat can cause.  Sounds like Gertrude ate just about anything and put herself in some compromising circumstances. But, as Starr Dobson demonstrates in Gertrude at the Beach, Gertrude's shenanigans are not always selfish pursuits, though they are often interpreted as such.  Her haedine heart is as full as her joie de vivre but the tone of the story does not capture the affection the family must have for her.  On the other hand, while Dayle Dodwell's illustrations have the feel of traditional picture book realism, her use of colour and perspective do much to warm the story to the summer days of the past when playing in the sand with family, human and pets, was relaxed and carefree.  Surprises, whether through discovery or calamity, were few but only helped to accentuate the freedom and ease of the season. Gertrude at the Beach reflects a singular calamity on one summer day that ends on a happy note, though I wish the depth of Gertrude's positive impact on the family, whether through words or actions, might have been characterized better.

January 17, 2015

The Almost Truth

by Eileen Cook
Simon Pulse
248 pp.
Ages 14+

Sadie has big plans.  Now that she's finished high school, she's determined to leave her trailer park life on Bowton Island and head to Berkley to study architecture.  Although she's most upset about leaving her best friend, the very hot Brendan, she's been saving her money–often from small cons she pulls, as learned from her father who is currently in jail–and finally has enough.  That is, until her mother, a hotel maid who is always pinching pennies, guiltlessly tells Sadie that she took it for Dad's lawyer.  (Nice parents, eh?)

A poster of a three-year-old child, Ava McKenna, who went missing 15 years earlier gives Sadie an idea for a con that would help her get the money she needs for school.  The wealthy McKenna family who is offering $250,000 for information about Ava's disappearance from the island is slated to attend a big fundraising event for their McKenna's Children's Foundation and Sadie, with Brendan's help and information she gleans from hotel staff, devises a way to get close to the family.

While working to insinuate herself close to Chase Parker, the young man in charge of organizing the charity event, Sadie finds herself at a crossroads with Brendan and navigating her own family obstacles, including her mother who has difficulties with the truth.
For years I thought I was going crazy, since I didn't remember all these things, but then I realized she just made them up.  Cut out any parts of her life she didn't like and squished in a new and better memory to fill the gap. (pg. 59)
The mystery of what happened to little Ava becomes wrapped up in Sadie's desire to know herself better, though she's running from Brendan and can't trust her parents to think about anyone but themselves.

Though the reader might be chagrined by some too-obvious coincidences, the story of Ava McKenna's disappearance is a true mystery that is not solved until the very end, so don't be so sure that you've got the whole truth at any time before then.  Often the truth is tailored for those receiving it and can be interpreted far too many ways.  The Almost Truth makes it clear that sometimes the truth is hidden by a strong desire to make that truth a reality, rather than as a result of omission or outright lies.  But when untruths are piled upon untruths by different parties, it is vey difficult to discern the truth under the burden of imagined realities.  

Having previously reviewed Eileen Cook's Unraveling Isobel (Simon Pulse, 2012), I knew I could expect a well-crafted plot that involved some mystery, romance and teen angst, but I was impressed by the depth of the plotting in The Almost Truth.  While I wondered why Sadie could not see how much Brendan cared for her–I suspect that this is not unusual among teens–and I was convinced that the solution to Ava's disappearance was obvious, I soon realized that there was much more to the story.  And that's because Eileen Cook has established characters who choose to see circumstances that work best with their own interpretations and that become their reality.  They're not living lies, at least they don't all know they are, but they're working with the reality they see.  It can be confusing and sometimes you want to shake one of them and yell, "Don't you see it?" but it wouldn't do any good.  The Almost Truth demonstrates that sometimes the almost truth is the only truth there is, until one person pulls out a single truth that allows the burden of imagined realities to collapse.

January 16, 2015

Winter's Coming: A Story of Seasonal Change

by Jan Thornhill
Illustrated by Josée Bisaillon
32 pp.
Ages 5-8
October, 2014

Sure, reviewing a book called Winter's Coming before winter would have been more logical–hence Owlkids' October release for the book–but isn't it just as great to read a book about the changes that come with winter while in the throes of that season's cold and snow?  (Apparently I thought so.)

Lily, a young snowshoe hare, is surprised by the changes she sees in her surroundings, which she'd always enjoyed as green.  Now there are colour changes in the trees and massive flocks of birds heading south because Winter's coming.  If they have to escape, she wonders whether she should be evading this danger as well.  Luckily the squirrel who is preparing a cache of food tells her she won't need to do the same, and Lily is relieved to know that, "Whatever Winter was, at least it wasn't interested in her food." (pg. 9) Also inquiring of the chickadee, mosquito, tree frog, caterpillar, snapping turtle and black bear, Lily still finds Winter a mysterious entity.  
Would it be as tall as the trees and have humongous, smelly feet?  Or would it be stretched out like a weasel, with a hundred pointed teeth?  Would it have a bald head like a turkey vulture?  Or would it have hair so long that it swished along the ground?  Would it make noise like thunder? Or would it fly on silent wings like an owl?  Lily had no idea, but she was convinced that Winter would be big and powerful. (pg. 20)
It's not until she watches Winter arrive and the black bear points out Lily's own change for winter that Lily understands what all the animals have being sharing with her.

Winter's Coming is as charming a book as it is educational, explaining animal adaptations to the coming of our coldest season as seen by a young snowshoe hare who doesn't know what to expect having never experienced winter.  Lily is inquisitive, but never precocious (thank you, Jan Thornhill!), always taking in what she sees and hears and tries to make connections with what she knows already.  She's on guard for potential threats, as a wise hare will be, but insightful and thinking beyond Winter as a predator.  Her thinking is probably similar to that of a child for whom a new concept, whether it be math or behavioural or whatever, is just out of reach of understanding.

Complemented by Josée Bisaillon's collage illustrations that emulate the bits and pieces of the natural world as it changes in response to the coming season, Jan Thornhill's newest nature book (she has an astounding repertoire of award-winning non-fiction) will be enjoyed just as easily as a story as much as an information book.  Winter's Coming will be an worthy addition to any library, personal, school or public.

January 13, 2015

The Gospel Truth

by Caroline Pignat
Red Deer Press
328 pp.
Ages 12+
October, 2014

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all
                             ~Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson would not have written this poem yet but her words would still ring true for an enslaved young woman named Phoebe on a Virginian tobacco plantation in 1858. Phoebe is attuned to listen to the birds for their messages of hope and freedom, while keeping her own song quiet, having stopped speaking since her mother Ruthie was sold by Master Arnold Duncan ten years earlier.  And though she doesn't speak, Phoebe is chosen to accompany Doctor Ross Bergman, a guest at the plantation, and Miss Tessa, the marriageable daughter of Master Duncan, when he visits the plantation from Canada to study the birds of Virginia.

Taken under the wing of Bea, the housekeeper, and given to Miss Tessa as her personal maid, Phoebe understands well enough what is expected of her but also what she needs to do for herself, including learning to read so that she may find her Momma.
Cause a slave can't have words.
Or hope. 
But I do. 
I got both,
buried deep in the hollow part of me. (pg. 36)
However, not everyone feels as Phoebe does, including Shad, the young slave who has feelings for her. Though the younger brother of a powerful slave who has runaway three times, Shad is still convinced the best recourse is obedience to Master Duncan, and it is this attitude that threatens everything for Phoebe.

Told in free verse and in six voices (Phoebe, Master, Miss Tessa, Doctor Bergman, Bea, and Shad), The Gospel Truth tells more than just of the life of slaves on a tobacco plantation in the mid-19th century.  It speaks of a change coming, of those who see it and those who don't, and those who risked so much to be part of that change–love, security, family, life–sometimes even without choice.  Every voice that speaks from Caroline Pignat's pen is clear and resounds with every word spoken or not.  

The power of Caroline Pignat's words would compel me to cite so much of her text. She has the gift for novel in verse, not simply writing prose in verse form.  Just as a good novelist doesn't tell everything, allowing the reader to interpret, surmise and read into the text, a great writer of novel in verse tells even more in fewer words.  Pamela Porter, Martine Leavitt and now Caroline Pignat.  As for the story, think The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill in free verse for younger readers and with more soul.  A perfect bundle of story, voice and form–that's The Gospel Truth by Caroline Pignat.