Friday, January 21, 2011

By Teresa Duran; Illustrations by Elena Val
ISBN No. 978-1-55498-098-7

By Maxine Trottier; Illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault
ISBN No. 978-0-88899-975-7

Both available at

The first lines of “Benedict” are very disturbing. They tell us that the little boy of the book’s title “lives in a very hot place. It is red, red, red.” And in case you didn’t get the point of all that red, Elena Val draws you a picture: battling snakes, pitchforks, and the gaping maws of hell itself. Your mouth will be gaping too when you consider that “Benedict” is about a kid living in H E double hockey sticks – but only until you realize that “Benny” is actually tired of seeing all that red. So with one springy coil of his tail (just picture the slingshot on the iPhone app “Angry Birds”) he vaults himself from a red place to a white one (the North Pole). Here everything is cold and snowy. Another “sproing!” and Benny is in the desert where everything is yellow. And so on and so on, until he’s visited earth’s whole colour scheme. “Benedict” is a cute book – and a conversation piece. I would have enjoyed it more had Teresa Duran set the whole story in various imaginary places (religious zealots, no e-mails please) and the book’s font more rousing than rudimentary.
“Migrant” is even more to the point. It’s the story of a Mennonite/Mexican child named Anna who travels north with her family each Spring to work on farms harvesting fruits and vegetables. Speaking patchy “Low German” or “Plautdietsch”, Anna doesn’t make new friends; she just tries to acclimatize herself to the new culture. At the supermarket she “listens to all the voices – to the woman with pink hair at the cash register, to the tattooed men who put cans on the shelves. But she only understands some of their words. Dollars. Peas. Meatballs.” With a child’s-eye view the book compares her life with that of a bird or rabbit migrating north each Spring and then south in the Fall. There’s Anna’s observation of her mother making “a home of yet another empty farmhouse, the rooms filled with the ghosts of last year’s workers.” Her sisters sleep in one bed, her brothers in another. In a year when immigration is a hot-button election topic, “Migrant” should be a hot-button book – and it is. It’s just so culturally sensitive and beautifully told that it’s hard to take exception with its closing message that migrants “be treated with the same respect that is extended to citizens and visitors alike.”

Sunday, January 9, 2011

"The Guardians"

By Andrew Pyper
ISBN No. 978-0-385-66371-7

Trivia quiz: Remember “Sleepers”? The 1996 best seller about four men who conspire to kill a guard who molested them when they were juvenile delinquents? It was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. Remember the 2003 best seller “Mystic River”? It was about the abduction of a boy, his return, and a murder and made into a movie starring Sean Penn. And what about “The Secret History”? Do you remember that book? It was about cookie-cutter college kids who try to commit the perfect murder and hasn’t been made into a movie yet. No problem if you missed them. This year’s version of “Sleepers”, “Mystic River” and “The Secret History” is called “The Guardians” and I’m thinking Russell Crowe would make a great lead as a Parkinsons patient returning to the scene of a crime he and three boyhood friends committed decades ago. Unfortunately, given the depressing state of movies today the part will likely go to one of the “Gossip Girl” guys.
This time the scene of the crime is a grisly town aptly named Grimshaw. The guys are reunited when one of them commits suicide and the remaining three realize that three people really can keep a secret – if two of them are dead. “I know now that you can do terrible things without an idea,” one of them writes in his Memory Diary. “You can do them without feeling it’s really you doing them.” And in that one sentence Pyper sums up the thoughtless crimes of youth; his book becomes a “Crime and Punishment” x 4. But “The Guardians” is also a character study about WHY kids do awful things and then say they don’t know why they did what they did. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about just watch a few episodes of “Judge Judy” when she grills a stupid teen about his/her DUI.) Giving his lead character Parkinsons is a nice touch (literally; doorknobs feel like a “ball of ice”) even if it reminds you of the pulpy vulnerabilities Stephen King favours for his own characters (it seems like someone in every King novel has asthma). Pyper is a better writer, though (no nasty e-mails, please). There’s something epic about “The Guardians” – and not in a populist, corny way. The ground it covers should feel well-tread and obvious and yet it instead feels fresh, inventive and engaging. For instance, a Grimshaw restaurant is underlit not for ambience “but to hide whatever crunches underfoot on the carpet.” “The Guardians” is a psychological thriller with actual idiosyncratic smarts.