Monday, November 23, 2015

Drawing From Memory by Allen Say

Drawing From Memory is the story of Allen Say's rise to become a renowned artist.

Allen Say was born in Yokohama, Japan in 1937. According to Say, his mother did not like him playing near the ocean, so she taught him to read. This kept him at home where he spent time reading comic books to his friends. But it also peaked Say's interest in the illustrations and he decided to become an artist when he grew up. When his parents discovered Say's fascination with drawing they were not pleased because being an artist was not considered a respectable profession in Japan.

War began in 1941, resulting in Allen's family moving to the village of Tabuse near Hiroshima while his father worked in Tokyo. After the war, the family reunited in Kyushu. Allen's first grade teacher was impressed with his artistic abilities and so encouraged him. Sadly, Allen Say's parents did not stay together after the war. His father left his mother, taking Allen and his younger sister Sanae and remarried while his mother returned to Yokohama to work and live. Eventually Sanae went to live with their mother, while Allen was sent onto Tokyo to live with his grandmother and to attend school. As his parents were, Allen's grandmother also did not approve of his drawing.

In an attempt to stop him from drawing his grandmother told Allen that they would pay for his own apartment if he studied hard and gained entrance to the prestigious Aoyama Middle School. When he succeeded, Allen found himself, at thirteen living in a small apartment. However, Allen had no intention of studying - the apartment was to be his art studio. He soon discovered another person who was like him - someone who wanted to be an artist but whose parents did not approve. This person was supported by Noro Shinpei, a famous cartoonist in Japan. Shinpei was Allen's idol. And he wondered would Shinpei consider taking on yet another student? Allen Say had the two weeks before his school started to find Shinpei and ask him to take him on. Would Shinpei accept him and what would his parents say?


Say's story is one of courage and determination. Intent on achieving his dream of becoming an artist, Say was willing to sacrifice everything to achieve what he wanted for his life. He could not see himself as anything but an artist. To that end, he took matters into his own hands and was able to direct his path in life to achieve his dream of creating art.

His story is beautifully enhanced with his appealing black ink drawings and realistic watercolour illustrations. The second part to Say's story has now been published in a picture book titled The Inker's Shadow.

Book Details:

Drawing From Memory by Allen Say
New York: Scholastic Press      2011
63 pp.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs

Library of Souls begins where the previous novel, Hollow City left off,  with Jacob Portman, Emma Bloom and the talking dog (yes that's right!) Addison MacHenry trapped by a hollowgast. However, Jacob has been able to neutralize the hollowgast with his newly discovered ability to control and speak to hollowgasts. He, Emma and Addison are able to escape out of the tunnel and into the subway station, hoping to track their fellow peculiars who have been captured by the wights. They decide to leave the station but discover a severely injured man in the train tunnel. That man is Sergei who tells Jacob he has the gift of speaking in the monster's tongue. Their plan to leave the station is thwarted by the appearance of two wights dressed as ambulance drivers. Attacked by the wights and the hollowgast, once again Jacob is able to control the hollowgast and make it kill one of the wights.

Escaping on a train, the three peculiars are followed by the hollowgast who latches onto the train. When they pull into the next station, Addison warns them that there are wights waiting for them. One of the wights boards the car behind the peculiars and he soon discovers them. Off the train, they are pursued by the wight and the hollowgast, through a crowd attending a ComicCon. Addison is certain the peculiars have passed this way. The wight is called off and Jacob, Emma and Addison work to find loop entrance. They discover that they are back in present day London. Addison, following the peculiars trail, leads them to a rotting, rat-infested jetty and indicates that they must take a boat to follow the scent. At the jetty they meet a creepy man named Sharon. They decide that it is likely their friends and the ymbrynes have been taken to the loop called Devil's Acre, a lawless slum. They negotiate passage to Devil's Acre with Sharon. They enter the loop and encounter a place resembling hell. "The foundations of every house were decomposing into mush. Crazy wooden footbridges, some no wider than a board, crisscrossed the canal like a cat's cradle, and its stinking banks were heaped with trash and crawling with spectral forms at work sifting through it. The only colors were shades of black, yellow, and green, the flag of filth and decay, but black most of all. Black stained every surface, smeared every face, and striped the air in columns that rose from chimneys all around us..."

Sharon guides his boat along the river called Fever Ditch and begins to look for a place to land. However, before he can accomplish this, they encounter ditch pirates who are curious about Sharon's now hidden cargo of the peculiars. Things get further complicated with the arrival of the hollowgast, which latches onto the bottom of Sharon's boat. In the struggle with the pirates, Jacob manages to order the hollowgast to sink the pirates boat. However, unable to get the hollowgast to release their boat, Jacob has Emma burn one of the tongues, causing the hollowgast to crash into a bridge.

Sharon lands the peculiars in Devil's Acre but discovers his boat is badly damaged. While he goes in search of someone to repair it, the peculiars are invited by a woman named Lorraine to visit her house of curiosities. Jacob, Emma and Addison discover that she has hundreds of peculiars imprisoned and drugged in the house. Determined to set them free, Emma confronts Lorraine who tells her that the wights often come and take her peculiars and return them damaged. She tells Emma that the wights bring in trucks of peculiars and that one just recently came through. Believing this to be their friends, Emma learns that the trucks go over a bridge at the end of Smoking Street.

Jacob, Emma and Addison decide to travel to Smoking Street and the wight's bridge. Smoke Street turns out to be a desolate area of Devil's Acre. The land is charred black and "Sulfurous smoke rose from deep cracks that fissured the pavement. Fire-stripped trees loomed like scarecrows over the ruins." The wight's bridge leads to their fortress, a high white tower. Crossing the bridge proves to be not only dangerous but deadly as Jacob, Emma and Addison are attacked by a hollowgast hidden in the bridge. This leads to a deadly fight in which all are injured but saved by Jacob's ability to control the hollowgast.

After their fight with the hollowgast, Emma and Jacob are attacked by the crazed people of Devil's Acre and just barely rescued by Sharon. Addison manages to cross the bridge hidden beneath a wights truck. They are taken to the house of Myron Bentham where they are healed by Mother Dust. Myron reveals that he knew Jacob's grandfather and that the Siberia Room they discovered in the house is a time-loop to Siberia. He also tells them that the house is a peculiarium where he collects and preserves peculiar artifacts. The house itself is a machine which he calls the Panloopticon which he created.

Bentham tells Jacob and Emma that his house is a collection of entrances to loops leading to areas where peculiars live. Bentham and his brother, Caul/Jack collected and created them with the intent to link all the peculiars together so as to organize them.

Legend states that when peculiars died they went to a special loop called Abaton that led to a repository holding their souls - a library of souls. The souls could be borrowed but when a peculiar died the soul had to be returned. Someone began breaking into the library and stealing the most powerful souls to use for evil purposes. The library guardians killed this person and recovered the stolen souls. This led to battles for control of Abaton and library of souls. The King of Abaton was killed during the war, ending the fighting, but the loop to the library had vanished. This led Perplexus Anomalous to hunt for the loop, creating many detailed maps as he did so. Bentham's brother soon forgot their goal of mapping became obsessed with discovering the lost loop to the library of souls. Bentham reveals is sister is Alma Peregrine. This revelation shocks Jacob and Emma who were told by Miss Peregrine that her brothers had become hollowgasts and then wights. In order to stop Caul from trying to gain control of the Panloopticon and to stop him from destroying the ymbrynes, Bentham made the hollowgasts, Bentham turned Caul into a hollowgast. He tricked Caul and his supporters into entering a loop that could be collapsed and closed. However, the hollowgasts escaped the collapsed loop to feed on peculiars, normals and animals. The peculiars stayed in their loops for safety. Eventually Caul returned to Bentham's house. "He'd consumed enough peculiars to fill his hollow soul and turn himself into something that resembled my brother...A wight is to the peculiar he once was as a thing copied many times is to its original. Detail is lost, and color..."

Jack continued to be obsessed about locating Abaton. He needed Bentham's machine and he also needed to capture all the ymbrynes because they were the ones who locked the loop before it was lost. Jack has spent years tracking and capturing all the ymbrynes, including Miss Peregrine. Bentham tells Jacob and Emma that Jack does not know that even if he finds Abaton and the Library of Souls he will not be able to simply see and touch the jars containing the souls. Bentham tells them "We share a common goal...To destroy my brother and his kind, and to save my sister and hers." Can Bentham, Jacob and Emma stop Jack from finding Abalon and the Library of Souls and save their fellow peculiars?


Library of Souls is the satisfying finale to the Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series, tying up all the loose ends. While the entire series is fascinating and very original, the final novel was at times, tedious and drawn out partly because of the excessive details and descriptions throughout the story. This slowed down the middle of the novel, as Riggs sets up the grand finale - Jacob and Emma must save the thousands of peculiars who have been enslaved, protect the Library of Souls and destroy the evil wights bent on stealing the powers of those peculiars stored in the library.

Although Riggs used photographs throughout this series to enhance his story, their inclusion was probably least effective in this novel - although still intriguing. The basic storyline is fleshed out with detailed descriptions of settings and characters. These descriptions are particularly well written, giving the reader a strong sense of the Victorian-era slum that Devil's Acre is, and the hollowed sacredness of the Library of Souls.

The strength of this novel is its unusual characters and their strange abilities and Riggs portrayal of Jacob Portman's transformation into a heroic character.

Although the conclusion to Library of Souls was exciting, it seemed at times as though it was written with a screen adaptation in mind. Riggs ties up all the loose ends and realistically has Jacob's parents believing their son is mentally ill. The resolution to this problem and to Jacob and Emma's dilemma feels somewhat contrived, but in a world of unbelievable characters and situations, seems quite reasonable.

The first novel, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children will be brought to the big screen in late 2016. I can think of no better director than Tim Burton to do this. Jacob and Emma will be portrayed by Asa Butterfield and Ella Purnell.

Book Details:

Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs
Philadelphia: Quirk Books          2015
458 pp.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, Deborah Biancotti

Westerfeld's ability to craft unique stories is showcased in his newest series, Zeroes, about a group of teens with strange superpowers.

Five teens with strange superpowers narrator this story. Ethan Cooper is Scam. His superpower is "the voice" which seems to know details about other people. Ethan has no idea how this knowledge comes to him, but somehow he knows just what to say. The voice gets Scam anything he wants. His narrative opens the novel because what happens to him sets the stage for the story.

Ethan began the night before on a date with a gorgeous woman. After leaving his date on the street, Ethan decided to try and hitch a ride home from people leaving the nightclubs in Cambria. However things go awry when "the voice" intervenes and Ethan finds himself in the company of a scary man called Craig who drives to a remote house outside of town. Terrified, Ethan steals Craig's car after the voice lures him out of it, and heads back to Cambria. There he waits at the Moonstruck Diner for the Cambria Central Bank to open. It turns out Craig's duffel bag, which was left in the back seat of the car, is filled with rolls of money.

Ethan enters the bank to deposit the money he's stolen from Craig only to be caught up in a bank robbery. With the vault locked, the robbers begin taking customer's wallets and jewelry. When one of the robbers becomes interested in Ethan's duffel bag, the voice speaks up wreaking havoc by convincing the robber, Jerry, that his partners are not loyal. This leads to a shootout and one of the robbers is killed.

Meanwhile after a night of clubbing, a young woman, Kelsie Laszlo, gathers a group of friends around her to go for breakfast at the Moonstruck Diner.  Kelsie (Mob) has the innate ability to draw people together and to control the emotions of that crowd. Kelsie notices Ethan in the diner, but she doesn't know who he is. She also notices a black car driving past the diner several times. When the car returns once more Kelsie is horrified to see her father in the back of the car. Kelsie understands what is happening in the bank and using her usual abilities, attempts to keep all those inside, calm. This succeeds until the shootout. She is relieved to see that her father has survived but also notes that the boy from the diner is escorted out by police and taken for questioning.

For Ethan, his troubles are only beginning. He is taken to the Central Cambria Police Department and is questioned by Detective Fuentes and King who suspect Ethan may have been part of the robbery. King asks Ethan if he has ever met Jerry Laszlo. Ethan denies knowing Laszlo they tell him that the girl next to him in the bank, Sonia Stoller told them that he talked to the him. She also shot a video of the robbery in progress. The video clearly shows Ethan talking to Jerry like he knows him and mentioning a girl named Kelsie. When they ask what is in the duffel bag, Ethan decides it's time to give them the number of his "lawyer". That lawyer happens to be Nataniel Saldana (Nate), also a person with an unusual ability -  to focus the energy of a group onto a single goal. Nate who goes by the pseudonym of Bellwether,  is the unofficial head of the Zeros and is often referred to by the other Zeroes as "Glorious Leader". He also happens not to be Ethan's friend anymore like the other Zeros because of what the "voice" spewed out during a meeting over a year ago.

At this point the narrative moves to Flicker whose real name is Riley. Flicker is blind but can see by entering the vision of the people around her. This gives her a unique perspective on what's happening around her. Her twin sister, Lily, often reads to Flicker or tells her stories which help Flicker understand life. Flicker is in therapy because her extremely well educated parents are struggling to discover why she stopped reading braille and is basically illiterate. They don't know that she can see through other people's eyes. After her session, Flicker gets a message from Nate who tells her that Scam has contacted him asking for help and the he will contact the others.

A third Zero, Chizara known as Crash,  is working at Bob's fix-it shop. Crash has the ability to bring down electrical systems. Technology with its microchips and electronic signals cause her intense pain. When Crash gets Nate's message about helping Scam she feels conflicted - she's at work but she'd love to go to the police station and have the opportunity "to check out some serious tech up close, and maybe bring some of it down -- to do exactly what she spent her whole life holding back from." On the other hand,  Scam is not someone she really wants to help. Chizara remembers how Scam told her "You're a demon. You're a walking massacre waiting to happen!"

Flicker, Crash, and a fourth Zero,  Anon whose real name is Thibault and whose super power is that no one ever remembers him, meet outside the Central Cambria Police Department. Nate directs the operation telling Crash that Flicker will help her get inside by directing her where to go (as she can see through the different people in the building where Ethan is and the layout of the building). Once inside, Crash is to bring down various electrical systems allowing Crash and Scam/Ethan to simply walk out. However, once inside, the complex electrical systems make it difficult for Crash to act subtly and safely. As she begins bringing down systems, Crash begins to lose control, crashing all the systems in the building. In the ensuing panic Scam and Crash manage to leave the CCPD building.

The four Zeroes meet at Nate/Bellwether's home. A year earlier Nate had brought the five Zeroes together to help them train and develop their unusual powers. However the group splintered after Ethan's "voice" antagonized each of them, causing tension and division. Nate wants to learn how Ethan/Scam got himself into trouble. At first Ethan isn't honest with the group but eventually does tell them how he found the money and came to be in the bank when it was robbed. When Tibault/Anonymous shows up he tells the group that the money is the least of their problems. Chizara's crash of the police station resulted in a mass escape of prisoners from the basement cells including Jerry Laszlo, the man involved in the bank robbery.  The group decides that Anon will hide Ethan until they can determine how to fix things.Flicker will hold on to the money until it's needed.

Anon takes Ethan to his "home" which is located in the penthouse of the Hotel Magnifique, a luxury hotel in Cambria. He's able to live there unknown to the staff because of his ability to be forgotten. However when Ethan leaves the hotel to try to contact his mom, he is quickly recognized as the guy in the video Sonia posted of the robbery. Meanwhile Kelsie meets her father and learns that he is in deep trouble. His accomplice in the robbery was related to a Russian mobster, Alexei Bagrov. Kelsie's father owes Bagrov a great deal of money and he asks her to get money owed to him from a friend. Kelsie goes to see her father's friend, Fig who gives her the money. Fig tells her he can't understand how the guy in the bank knew about the robbery. As she's leaving, Kelsie notices that Craig and a group of guys are headed out to try to find the boy in the bank video. He's been sighted at the Hotel Magnifique. Determined to get to him before Craig does, Kelsie runs to the hotel and manages to get to the penthouse apartment. Ethan's voice tells Kelsie he can help her father with the Bagrovs and Kelsie warns both Ethan and Thibault that Craig will be at the penthouse within minutes. Very quickly it becomes apparent Ethan, Kelsie and Thibault are going to need the combined powers of all the Zeroes if they are to stay ahead of Craig, the Bagrovs and the police. Will this new mission finally bring them closer together or tear them apart?


Zeroes is a collaborative effort by three authors and is the first in a planned trilogy. It is about a group of Millennials who share the same birth date in the year 2000 and are gifted with special powers that are in the words of Westerfeld, "crowd-based".

The story involves six teens who are social misfits because of their very unusual abilities. These abilities bring with them moral implications and create intense conflict for some of the Zeroes. This is most evident in Crash whose ability to take down electrical systems can cause great havoc and even result in the death of others. When Crash enters the CCPD to spring Scam she has no intention of hurting anyone. But as she begins to knock out various systems she is unable to control her craving for more, leading her to crash the entire building. This results in a police officer being seriously wounded by escaping prisoners. When questioned by her mother about what happened at the station, Chizara remembers her mother's beliefs about her special powers. "You've got to be responsible about what's inside you. If you hurt anyone -- whether you mean to or not, Chizara -- you've got to find some way to make it right. Settle with your conscience...Square things with the people whose stuff you break. Every time, girl, do you hear me?"  Reflecting on these words of wisdom by her mother make her feel intensely guilty.

When Chizara learns of policeman, Reggie Bright, being seriously injured in the breakout, she is devastated.  She remembers what her mother told her: "Any kind of gift, you can use it wisely or stupidly. Whether it's strength or a good brain, every time you use it: Is this going to hurt anyone? Is this going to do any harm?" Her deep conflict leads Chizara to leave the Zeroes and to question what it is they are trying to accomplish.

Nate's attempts to reconcile with Crash, telling her "we all need each other" leads Chizara to tell him they need to stop "playing with these powers." But Nate insists by using them, they are learning how they work and that she needs to learn how control her powers. Chizara tells Nate that in taking out the police station she has discovered her powers have changed and that she can now "uncrash things". This is new and appears to support his idea that they need to practice in order to understand the limits of their abilities.

When a new Zero, Kelsie - named Mob,  is brought into the group, Nate is excited because this now gives him six Zeroes - which will bring what he calls, "the Curve" into play - the point where his (and the other Zeroes) power is most effective. However, Chizara refuses to be a part of the Zeroes. She believes that she can work on her own to control her abilities but more importantly Chizara recognizes that having a group of six will allow Nate's power to affect them all; it will give him too much control over the Zeroes, leaving no one to resist him.

In contrast to Chizara are Nate and Ethan. Nate is the consummate leader who has an "Ultimate Goal". Because of his ability to focus the energy of a group on one goal, Nate tends to focus on the goal without considering the consequences of the means used. In his mind he tries to downplay Chizara's concerns, telling himself, "So what if she'd slipped a little?" Instead, he blames the prisoners for escaping and hurting the police officer and not the fact that Chizara lack of control crashed a system designed to protect the policeman. Despite this Nate remains determined to understand and develop the Zeroes powers.

Ethan seems to be the one with the least control over his strange ability. The voice is always trying to get what Ethan subconsciously wants. This makes Ethan the least liked in the group and fuels his hurt. When he meets Kelsie, Ethan gradually begins to change. He likes Kelsie and uses the voice to try to help her save her father. But even when that doesn't go right, Kelsie tells him that the other Zeroes have hope for him. This leads Ethan to use the voice to help Jerry, who is trapped with them and dying to find some peace with what has happened in Kelsie's family.

Thibault/Anonymous's power which is his ability to be forgotten is perhaps the most poignant. One on one, people remember Thibault. But once he's in a crowd, or out of sight, he's quickly forgotten. He can't turn his power off, but he can snip the connection between himself and individuals if need be. He tells Ethan how he came to be living alone and his story is tragic. Seriously ill when he was thirteen, Thibault was taken to hospital by his mother. When his mother decides to leave to tend to his brothers, he begs her not to go, telling her she will forget him. Which is exactly what happens. When he returns home, he discovers his bedroom has been given to his grandmother - his family has forgotten him. He decides he will never have a connection to anyone. However, Westerfeld et al. give Thibault some hope - each of the Zeroes works hard to maintain a connection to him and

Westerfeld et al manage to incorporate a bit of romance into the story with Tibault/Anon and Flicker developing a blossoming affection for each other, while Ethan/Scam and Kelsie/Mob see the beginnings of a friendship. The relationships between all members of the Zeroes is complex and interesting and is part of the most engaging aspect of this novel. It will be interesting to see where this trio of authors takes the Zeroes in their second novel.

Overall the multiple narratives work well, but the novel is a lengthy book to wade through. 

Book Details:

Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti
Toronto: Simon Pulse     2015
546 pp.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Listen, Slowly is another story of Vietnam, following on the success of author,  Thanhha Lai's debut, Inside Out and Back Again.

The first day of summer vacation, twelve year old Mai Le finds herself on a plane to her family's home country of Vietnam and she's not happy about it. Plans to spend her days at Anita beach with her best friend Montana and possibly with the boy she's crushing on, have all collapsed. Mai, her father and her grandmother, Ba, are returning to Vietnam together for six weeks this summer. Her father, a doctor will be spending his time setting up surgical clinic to fix cleft palates and treat acute burns. But the main purpose of the visit to Vietnam because Ba has always had questions about whether her husband, Ong Ba, could still be alive. During the Vietnam War, Ong went missing in action, leaving Ba to raise their seven children by herself. Mai's father was only two years old when his father disappeared. They left Vietnam and came to American where the family thrived; "one doctor, four engineers, a professor and an accountant."

All this leaves Mai disoriented and unhappy. "What's so important? All her children and grandchildren are in California. Her life is there. My life is there."  But Mai's father points out, "Ba has had questions for decades. Be with her as she finally accepts...I thought she already did, but that quack calling himself a detective wrote her. I seriously doubt it's possible but..."  Although Mai's father hopes this trip will provide closure for Ba, he is concerned because "Ba thinks Ong might be alive..." because of the information she received from a detective in Vietnam.

When they arrive in Vietnam, Mai notices that every person has yellow skin and looks like her. The airport is clean and orderly, not at all like Mai thought it would be. But Vietnam is hot and sticky, and the city is crowded. "Tall buildings, jumbled electrical lines, tons of mopeds weaving between cars and buses. Every single driver is beeping." They arrive in Ha Noi,where the plan is to meet the detective and then travel to Ba's village. Her father warns her not to mention politics as this is not something talked about in Vietnamese society. The detective tells Mai's father and grandmother that he has spoken with a guard who was with Ong Ba but he will not travel to talk to Ba. After the meeting, Mai's father heads out to the mountains, while she and Ba travel to Ba's village. When Mai complains about not going home, her father tells her, "Listen, Ba has sacrificed everything for us. We've raised you to be considerate, so act like it. Be good, listen to Ba. The detective has to find the guard and that might take two weeks. I should be back before then."

Mai is further upset by the fact that she will have to stay for at least two more weeks while they wait for the detective to locate the guard,  but her mother, via cellphone, encourages Mai to do this for Ba. They travel to Ba's village, eighty kilometers from Hanoi, set in a land of rice paddies and water buffalo. At the village Mai and Ba are welcomed by many relatives who are especially fascinated with Mai's braces, her height and her henna-highlighted hair. During a huge meal, Mai meets Ut, whose real name is Muong and who carries around a gigantic frog. Unfortunately, they do not get off to a good start, when Mai causes Ut's frog to ingest a stone while it is eating flies.

Mai's first days in Vietnam consist of coping with the large voracious mosquitoes and getting use to having a nap in the afternoon because of the excessive heat, They walk to Ong's ancestral home, where his younger brother now resides. Ba and Mai share a bedroom that was once tiled with blue tiles of a goddess. Ba tells Mai that they were betrothed when Ong was seven and she was five, but due to the war they were married earlier than planned at eighteen and sixteen respectively. The room with the faded blue tiles was their bridal chamber. Ba at first refused to let Ong in but eventually relented. Now, after years without her beloved husband, Ba thinks the time lost and tells Mai that against reason she continues to hope he is still alive.

Mai also meets an older boy, Minh, who has a crush on Ut's older sister Lan, and who will be acting as a translator and guide. Minh who is a junior at a boarding high school in Houston, explains village life to Mai, how the boys and men work at a shrimp hatching facility the village purchased.

Mai's manages to access her facebook account and also speaks with her mother for the first time since arriving. She desperately want to return home but her mother tells her that being away will test her friendship with Montana and asks her to be open about what will happen during her visit in Vietnam.

On his second visit the detective tells Ba that he has located her husband's guard in Hanoi but the guard refuses to travel to Hanoi. Ba tells him the guard "...held my husband captive; he must come to me to release his past." Later on Mai again complains about going home, this time to her grandmother. Ba asks her for more time, that her presence brings her joy, but she does give Mai the option of contacting her father and arranging for her to travel back to America. However, Mai tells her grandmother "Khong sao." No worries.
"I chant "khong sao" to myself over and over. Perhaps after a while, I will wholeheartedly believe it'll be all right to wait. What can I do but wait? Things will happen in Laguna whether I stress or not."

Ba tells Mai about the day she learned that Ong Ba was missing in action and how she carried this date with her to America, about the last day she saw Ong before he left on a mission. She also reveals that he closed each letter to her with Mong Nho Em Dem Tung Hat Mua - which means Longing Missing You Counting Each Drop of Rain. These words are also the names of their seven children.

Mai's settles into life in a small village in North  Vietnam. Gradually her decision to stay with Ba on her journey to learn about what happened to her husband and Mai's paternal grandfather bring about a change in perspective and a deeper understanding and appreciation of her Vietnamese roots. It is a journey that will provide some closure for Ba, and many changes for Mai.


Author Thanhha Li proves once again that the best novels are those written about what we hold dearest to the heart. Listen, Slowly is really two stories, one which focuses on the tragedy of a couple torn apart because of war and a second which deals with  a young girl's journey toward embracing her culture and her family's past.

At the beginning of the novel, we learn that the primary reason for the family's trip to Vietnam is to bring closure for Mai's elderly grandmother who seems unable to accept that her husband is dead. New revelations from Vietnam appear to indicate that there is a possibility he might still be alive. However, once in Vietnam, Ba tells her granddaughter, Mai, that she although she is hopeful she is also realistic. It is her recounting of her marriage to Ong, that the depth of their personal tragedy becomes apparent.
"I do not live on butterfly wings, my child. His chances of remaining among us rank as likely as finding an ebony orchid. Yet I hold onto hope because I have been unable to imagine his ending."
Ba and Ong promised that if they ever became separated, they would meet again under the blue goddess. Mai asks herself, "How do you know someone almost since birth, then one day you know absolutely nothing more about him at all?"

Despite knowing all this, Mai is not really sympathetic to Ba's quest. She knows, as do her father and mother, that Ong is dead. However, gradually Ba's knowing becomes important to Mai. She and Ut trick Ut's mother into sending them to Saigon. With the detective's notebook and the help of two guides, Mai and Ut find the guard's home and Mai begs him to help her. "Then I start crying...It's so embarrassing, but the possibility of Ba not knowing any more about Ong rips a hole in my gut. Right now, I want Ba to get her wish even more than I want to go home...That's just how I feel."  This along with help from the detective lead to Ba traveling south to see the message Ong wrote her in the tunnel he was forced to dig so many years ago. That message is the same one he closed every letter to Ba with and it confirms to Ba that he is indeed gone. It is his final signing off.

Mai feels very different from the spoiled, self-centered girl who first came to Vietnam weeks ago, as she looks at the "alphabet letters scraped into the dirt by a shaky hand." She recognizes the "familiar line Ong had written in every letter home, the line that came alive each time he called their children's names, that line that ached with longing for his wife as he counted his last years, months, weeks, and days."   "While I stand there, nothing else matters, not the heat, the air, or the stench rising above a floral spray. Nothing matters as long as I can hear Ba's breathing elongate into full, satisfied breaths." For Mai, nothing matters except that her beloved Ba has closure.

In the end, Mai decides to stay on for another twelve days, for Ba and even for Ut, to help her learn the scientific names of the frogs for her examination. "Maybe I can stay and maybe I would enjoy it. What's in Laguna that's so urgent? Mom is exhausted with her trial and I will see Kevin when I see him. As for Montana, I can wait." No longer consumed about whether or not Montana is with Kevin, or what is happening in Laguna, Mai has put her life into perspective. What matters is the time in Vietnam.

The title, Listen, Slowly is a reference to the dominant theme as young Mai struggles to adjust to Vietnamese culture and to understand her grandmother's desire to uncover what happened so long ago. The theme of listening is woven into every aspect of Lai's novel. When Mai arrives in Vietnam she is examined closely by her relatives, one of whom asks her if she is obedient. Mai acknowledges that he is really asking if she listens to her parents and like most young people she's not about to admit "I just pretend to listen."  By her own admission, Mai used to "listen" to Ba, "Twice a day I used to hear long stories, one at nap time and one before bed. Then I went to kindergarten and stopped listening."

When Mai's mother calls, Mai complains that she wants to return home but her mother urges her to stick it out for her grandmother. At her grandmother's meeting with the detective, Mai finds that if she listens, she can understand. But often she finds herself not listening, especially at the beginning when she is so focused on herself and on returning home. She asks Anh Minh why, if everyone agrees the Ong is not alive, they are staying in Vietnam. Ahn Minh tells her what her father and even Ba have told her, that acceptance is difficult leading Mai to realize that in her desire to go home,  she has "missed listening."

Mai becomes ill after inadvertently drinking pond water and is given a local remedy and required to rest her stomach by not eating. When she does resume eating again, the pho stand owner tells her "Eat just noodles and broth, all right? Let's listen to what your stomach does with that." By listening Mai will know whether she can begin to eat food again. 

Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Returned Sword)
The guard who comes to speak with Ba about the last time he saw her husband reveals that Ong wrote her a message. Ba believes the message to be a letter but when she asks for it, the guard refuses telling her she must go to the south for the message. In a reversal, when Mai remembers all the times she would listen to Ba at night "whisper all kinds of maybes to herself...maybe Ong escaped, maybe Ong lost his memory but was healthy and happy..." she suggests to her grandmother that maybe the message is not a letter. "But Ba isn't listening."

In Saigon, when Ba and Mai attempt to cross a street to get Banh canh, they find it impossible because of the numerous mopeds zigzagging past. They are helped the the hotel clerk who tells them "The trick calls for not looking at any driver but listening to the engines...".

Finally,  Ba, after having seen the message Ong left for her so many years ago in the tunnel,  tells Mai that the hurts and joys of life become a part of us, that they are important. "I tell you of loss, my child, so you will listen, slowly, and know that in life every emotion is fated to rear itself withing your being. Don't judge it proper or ugly. It's simply there and yours. When you should happen to cry, then cry, knowing that just as easily you will laugh again and cry again. Your feelings will enter the currents of your core and there they shall remain."

Listen, Slowly is a poignant story about a terrible war that tore apart a nation and affected its people deeply. The themes of reconciliation and forgiveness (Ba forgives the guard after seeing the tunnel) and of the importance of family predominate as well.  Beautifully crafted, capturing the atmosphere and culture of Vietnam for those of us who will likely never visit the country, Listen, Slowly is highly recommended for ages 8 to 12.

I hope Thanh ha Lai will write more stories set in Vietnam, perhaps continuing the saga of Mai Le.

On her website Thanhha Li reveals that her first name means gentle (Thanh) river (ha).

The map included at the front is very helpful in orienting readers who are certainly not familiar with the locations in Vietnam. This map also contains minor spoilers.

Book Details:

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai
New York: HarperCollins Childrens Books     2015
260 pp.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

DVD: Testament of Youth


Violets from Plug Street Wood
Sweet, I send you oversea.
(It is strange they should be blue,
Blue, when his soaked blood was red,
For they grew around his head:
It is strange they should be blue.)

Think what they have meant to me -
Life and hope and Love and You
(and you did not see them grow
Where his mangled body lay
Hiding horrors from the day;
Sweetest, it was better so.)

Violets from oversea,
To your dear, far, forgetting land
These I send in memory
Knowing you will understand

Roland Leighton April 1915

Testament of Youth is based on the memoir of the same name written by Vera Brittain, who became a prominent peace activist in the twentieth century as a result of her experiences during the First World War. The movie focuses on Vera's life just prior to and during the war years and the devastation war wreaked upon her life and the young people of her generation.

Vera Brittain was born on December 29, 1893 into a well to do family in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Her early life was comfortable as her father, Thomas Arthur Brittain, was the owner of several paper mills. Her family moved several times during her younger years, eventually settling in the town of Buxton. She boarded at St. Monica's in Kingswood, Surrey when she was thirteen years old.

As portrayed in the movie, Vera was very much a rebel who went against the social conventions of the time. Education was not seen as a valuable undertaking for women, who were expected to marry and run a household. Vera was determined to become a writer, to have and higher education and wasn't interested in marrying. When she learned about women being allowed to study at Oxford, she begged her father to allow her to sit for the Oxford exam.

In the movie her father at first refuses, partly because although women could study at Oxford, their efforts were not recognized in the form of a graduation or the conferring of a degree. Despite feeling that education is a waste of money, Vera's father reconsiders after her cause is taken up by her younger brother, Edward. Vera diligently sets out to prepare for the examination, applies to write the exam in 1913 and is astonished to learn that despite not knowing Latin, she passes.

In 1913 she also met one of her brother's friends, Roland Leighton, and they immediately fell in love. In 1914 all three planned to be studying at Oxford. Their world is portrayed in the movie as somewhat idyllic; Vera, Edward and Roland are shown swimming in a pond in the forest, there are long walks and their biggest worries are the choices they will make about their futures.

However, world events far away on the continent are set to change the course of their lives forever. In response to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Austria declares war on Serbia,  Germany declares war on Russia, and on August 4, the United Kingdom declares war on Germany. Edward, Roland Leighton, and two other friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, all enlist believing that it will be months before they are called up. In the movie, Vera and Edward's father will not allow him to enlist so he asks Vera to convince their father, which she does. The young men believe that the war will be over by Christmas and that they will be back at Oxford in the new year.

Vera feels unsettled and worries about Roland being sent to the front, but he assures her that this will likely not happen. However, he does get sent into the trenches and when he returns home after three months at the front, it is evident that the war has had a profound effect on him. He's withdrawn and depressed.  He accuses Vera of not understanding what is really happening.

Roland Leighton
Image © The Vera Brittain Fonds,

Although she initially begins her studies at Oxford, Vera finds she cannot continue while her brother and her friends are overseas. In 1915, Vera decides to leave Oxford to train as a voluntary aid detachment nurse. Roland asks Vera to marry him the next time he is home on leave and she agrees. However, on their wedding day, Vera receives a call from Roland's mother telling her that Roland has been killed at Louvencourt, France. It is December 23, 1915. Roland was only twenty years old.

Completely devastated, Vera seeks out any information about his death, from the military and eventually from a man who survived the battle and who lay in the bed next to Roland. Although the military claimed that Roland's death was quick and painless, Vera learns it was anything but. The soldier tells her that Roland was shot in the stomach by a sniper while attempting to cut the wire. He was operated on. There was no morphine available at the time of his death.

Through her nursing, Vera hopes to save her brothers and his remaining friends. She decides to volunteer to serve overseas and is sent to Malta and France. When she arrives in France she is sent to a hospital to care for the wounded - all German soldiers. It is during this experience that Vera realizes that the German soldiers are men suffering just as terribly as the British soldiers. They lose limbs and eyes, and die in agony just like the British do. Ultimately Vera loses all those she loves dearly to the machine of war.

Postwar, Vera returns reluctantly to Oxford, where she struggles to cope with a life so profoundly different than the one she had before. The final scene shows her speaking up at a rally about seeking German reparation to argue that revenge only breeds hatred and war. And in war everyone loses.

Swedish breakout actress, Alicia Vikander gives an outstanding emotional portrayal of Vera Brittain capturing her courage and determination. Viewers experience the horror of war through Vikander's remarkable performance, as she suffers through the anxiety of not knowing what is happening to her fiance Roland and through her work at the war hospitals. Kit Harington as Roland Leighton, captures some of the havoc wreaked by the trauma of trench warfare in scenes where he returns home - a completely changed man, clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Testament of Youth offers a powerful remembrance, one hundred years after, of the horror and futility of war, but especially of World War I - a war meant "to end all wars". The poetry of Roland Leighton, an example of which begins this post, is an evidence of the talent and gifts lost because of war. Director James Kent captures some of the brutality of war through the hospitals scenes and the suffering of the soldiers.  One memorable shot, just before Vera discovers her badly injured brother, shows rows of wounded men awaiting treatment at a hospital completely overwhelmed.

Testament of Youth is an intense movie that will leave viewers wanting to know more about Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton. Like the memoir, it provides insight into and epitomizes the experiences of the women of the "Lost Generation" - the label given to those who came of age during World War 1.

For more information on Vera Brittain please visit the learn peace website.

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive - Roland Leighton Collection.

Oxford University World War 1 Centenary  - Roland Aubrey Leighton

Amazingly Vera Brittain's archives are held at my alma mater, McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario Canada.
From Youth to Experience: Vera Brittain's Work For Peace in Two World Wars

Friday, October 30, 2015

Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko

Chasing Secrets is a historical fiction novel about an outbreak of the bubonic plague which began in the city of San Francisco in March, 1900 and continued for a number of years. This novel is set in the year 1900, at the very beginning of the outbreak.

Thirteen-year-old Elizabeth (Lizzie) Kennedy lives in San Francisco with her sixteen-year-old brother, William (Billy) and her father who is a doctor. Lizzie's mother died five years ago from stomach cancer. She attends Miss Barstow's School for Young Women which is a finishing school for young girls. The girls learn how to run a household and how to attract and marry a wealthy man. Unfortunately, they do not study science and math classes stop after the third grade. Lizzie was enrolled in the school on the advice of her Aunt Hortense when she turned eleven. But she hates the dancing, etiquette and entertaining classes and much prefers to accompany her father on his house visits.

Lizzie is driven to and from Miss Barstow's by their Chinese cook, Jing, who also cares for their garden, horses and chickens and their cat. Lizzie has a strong attachment to Jing, who makes a special cake on her birthday. Lizzie's home is next door to her Aunt Hortense and Uncle Karl Sweeting's house which is on Nob Hill. Her aunt and uncle are extremely wealthy as Uncle Karl has made a great deal of money in the sugar business. Unlike her sister, Lizzie's mother married a doctor who often doesn't charge for his visits if people cannot pay.

The novel opens with Lizzie taking the next three days off from school as she accompanies her father on his house calls, something Aunt Hortense doesn't approve of. Their first call is to attend Mrs Jessen who is in labour but discover that her daughter, Caroline is also in need of medical care as she has broken her arm. Lizzie's father assigns her to set Caroline's arm, while he delivers the baby. However, Lizzie find this is easier said than done because Caroline won't let her near. Lizzie realizes that Caroline is frightened for her mother so she works on allaying her fears. Lizzie eventually sets the arm and helps her father deliver the Jessen baby, a healthy boy. When Mr. Jessen, who is a policeman in San Francisco, returns in the morning, he mentions about the enormous number of dead rats found in the walls of a restaurant in the city. Later when Jing picks up Lizzie and her father from the ferry, he tells them that Chinatown is under quarantine for the plague. Dr. Kennedy tells his daughter that there was an outbreak in Hawaii but no confirmed cases in San Francisco. As a result of the quarantine, Aunt Hortense asks Lizzie's father not to take her on any more calls. He agrees to this much to Lizzie's dismay.

Stuck at home with their maid Maggy Doyle, Lizzie decides to investigate the third floor after hearing strange sounds. On the third floor she discovers a Chinese boy who identifies himself as Jing's son, Noah, living in Jing's room. Noah tells Lizzie that he lives in the house unknown to everyone. Noah is worried because his father has not returned and he believes he has been caught in the quarantine when he went to Chinatown to work as a translator. Lizzie promises not to tell anyone about Noah's presence and to help him find his father. When she brings Noah dinner, Lizzie tells him she will ask her Uncle Karl about getting Jing out of the Chinatown quarantine.

That evening when Lizzie visits her uncle's home, she learns that many doctors do not believe the plague has come to San Francisco. Uncle Karl who owns the evening newspaper, the Call, has refused to publish anything about the plague, unlike his rival, Randolph Hearst. Karl believes that Hearst is publishing the reports of the plague so he can sell more newspapers. Uncle Karl tells Lizzie not to worry about Jing but that he will make some calls in the morning.

The next morning Lizzie tells Noah that her Uncle Karl will try to find out about Jing. Lizzie learns that Noah's mother still lives in China giving them something in common - they both miss their mothers. Noah tells her that he was living with his Uncle Han but came to live with Jing before the quarantine set in because his father was afraid he would starve.

Next Lizzie attempts to enlist Billy to take her to Chinatown. Lizzie notes Billy's black eye but he simply tells her he ran into a door. When Billy refuses to help her, Lizzie harnesses their horse, John Henry, and tries to leave without Aunt Hortense noticing. Of course she does, but Billy rescues Lizzy and together the two of them travel to Chinatown. During their drive Lizzie learns that Billy has been fighting but she promises to keep his secret since their father would never approve. At Chinatown, they find the area roped off and guarded by the police. Even Lizzie dropping Karl Sweeting's name doesn't help. As they drive around the area, Lizzie overhears two police mention about "waiting on the monkey". Desperate to find Jing, she asks for Officer Jessen but he too is unable to help.

When they arrive home, Billy and Lizzie discover that Aunt Hortense is moving into the spare room because their father will not be returning until the following week due to a smallpox outbreak. With Aunt Hortense's eagle eye on everything, Lizzie wonders how she will feed Noah and how she will ever manage to locate Jing and bring him home. Her attempts to find Jing lead Lizzie to uncover the truth about the plague in Chinatown and San Francisco and to reveal many secrets both in her family and the city.


Chinatown circa 1900
Chasing Secrets is a well-written historical novel about life in early 1900's San Francisco. Choldenko fills her story with interesting details about what life was like for a young girl from a reasonably well off white family. Well-to-do young girls like Lizzie lived in large, clean homes with servants and good food, had access to what medical treatment existed at that time, and attended dances such as the cotillion (a kind of debutante social event). Although young girls received some schooling, their teen years are spent preparing to run a household. Noah life would have been very different from Lizzie's, partly because he was a boy but also because he was Chinese. He may very well have had just as much difficulty attending college as she would. At the turn of the 20th century, the Chinese were restricted in where they could live in cities including San Francisco, and the general population did not like the Chinese.

In Lizzie Kennedy, Choldenko has crafted a courageous, determined heroine, intent upon forging her own destiny. She is determined to find her family's beloved missing Chinese servant. Without betraying Noah's secret, Lizzie continues to search for his father, Jing, even if it means breaking social conventions of the time. She harnesses the family's horse and buggy, preparing to drive herself to Chinatown until Billy intervenes to help her. When that fails Lizzie even attempts to pass herself off as a nurse to gain access to Chinatown. At the cotillion, Lizzie sneaks into the bar in an effort to learn more about what it happening in Chinatown. Later on she even dresses as a boy and attempts to ride her horse into Chinatown at night to warn Jing and Noah that people are intent upon setting the area on fire.

One of the themes in Chasing Secrets is that of friendship. Through Noah, Lizzie learns the meaning of friendship. At Miss Barstow's, Lizzie has not made many friends. "Now I'm thirteen, and my friends are the cook, the maid, our horse, and my father." When she meets Noah, she confesses to him that she doesn't have any friends because she's different and she seems to say the wrong thing. Noah advises Lizzie to pick out one girl she likes best and to start with her. When Lizzie declares that they are friends now, Noah points out to her that outside her home, they cannot be friends but Lizzie tells him "We decide if we're going to be friends. Not them." Noah helps Lizzie learn to dance and he crafts her a "button-head lion", "so you'll remember to be brave...With everyone. Be your best true self. That's what Baba says." After the quarantine is lifted, Lizzie worries about whether she will ever see Noah again. She considers him her best friend. Eventually Lizzie does make friends at Miss Barstow's by following what Noah told her. She becomes friends with Gemma Trotter and her twin brother, Gus, who it turns out has a crush on Lizzie.

Another prominent theme is the Kennedy children's struggle to forge their own path in life. Lizzie's father wanted his son Billy to become a doctor. Even though Billy shows an aptitude for medicine as evidenced by his ability to stitch his shoulder himself, he wants to be a fighter. It is something he likes to do but his father is horrified. Billy tells his father, "I don't want people to take advantage of me. I need to be able to back up what I say. Otherwise it's just talk." Billy believes his father does not have much respect in the community because he doesn't stand up for himself when people don't pay him for his services. When Dr. Kennedy tells him he doesn't want his son fighting for a living, Billy states, "I'm not going to live my life as 'your son.' I'm going to live it my way. Make my own decisions. Think for myself." One of those decisions is to not get vaccinated against the plague.It is a decision that has profound repercussions for the Kennedy family.

In the same way, Lizzie finds herself at odds with the life her Aunt Hortense wants her to have. She had enrolled Lizzie in the finishing school with the idea that she will eventually marry and manage a household. Aunt Hortense She doesn't like Lizzie accompanying her father on his medical trips. But with the death of Billy things change. Eventually even Aunt Hortense comes to realize that young people want to live as they choose. When Lizzie tells her that she wants to go to college, she is shocked when her aunt agrees. " 'I wanted a different life for you. Your father wanted a different life for Billy. But that didn't work did it? You'll have to' --she can hardly get the words out over the welling in her throat--'live your life your way.' "

The theme of "chasing secrets" is woven throughout the novel. Almost every character is keeping secrets or as Billy states, "Everybody has secrets...even Orange Tom."   Lizzie is keeping Noah's presence in her house a secret as well as her friendship with him which would not be considered appropriate for a girl her age or social status. Billy is keeping his fighting a secret because he knows his father disapproves. Uncle Karl and his friend Peter are keeping secret the efforts of Dr. Kinyoun (who has injected the plague pathogen into a monkey, a rat and two guinea pigs) to prove the presence of bubonic plague in the city. Dr. Roumalade is keeping secret his triaging of patients based on their social status and his unethical use of a vaccine known to kill those already exposed to the bubonic plague. Jing's secret revolves around the existence of Noah and his work in Chinatown, while the Chinese in Chinatown and the city officials are keeping secret the deaths from the plague by hiding the bodies in barrels and sneaking them out of Chinatown.

Fans of historical fiction will enjoy Chasing Secrets. Choldenko captures the atmosphere of San Francisco at the turn of the last century with strong, well developed characters and an exciting mystery.

Choldenko provides her readers with a wonderfully informative Author's Note at the back that provides information on the city of San Francisco, Chinatown, medicine in 1900, the plague and the plague epidemic of 1900 in San Francisco. There is also a map at the front of the novel so readers can understand the setting of the novel.
Dr. Joseph Kinyoun

These websites may provide valuable information on the bubonic plague in San Francisco:

A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries: Bubonic Plague Hit San Francisco  

Bubonic Plague in Chinatown from the Library of Congress.

A Forgotten Hero of Public Health Now Remembered  (about Dr. Kinyoun)

Book Details:

Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko
New York: Wendy Lamb Books     2015
278 pp.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Islands At The End of the World by Austin Aslan

Set in Hawaii, The Islands At The End of The World tells the story of a father and daughter trying to survive in world devastated by the presence of an alien entity.

Sixteen-year-old Leilani Milton lives with her parents and seven year old brother Kai in Hilo, on the big island of Hawai'i. Her father who was originally from New Mexico, is Dr. Michael Milton, a professor of ecology at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo and white. Her mother is pure Hawaiian and also a professor of ecology at UH at Hilo too. They have only lived on the island for three years.

The story opens on Sunday, April 26 with Leilani surfing with her best friend, Tami. On their way to get ice cream afterwards, Leilani and her father hear the siren warning of a tsunami. A few hours earlier, there was a meteor strike in the northern Pacific, eight hundred miles south of Alaska. Eventually the threat is downgraded.

Leilani, whose name means "Flower of Heaven", is leaving at six the next morning with her father for Honolulu, on the island of O'ahu. She will undergo special tests and a drug trial for her epilepsy. It was epilepsy that resulted in her being dropped from the gymnastics team when she was twelve. That was the age Leilani had her first grand mal seizure. She had been having petits mals for years. Once at O'ahu, Leilani will stop her meds, then started start a trial medication. If the medication works and she has no grand mal she will continue. If she has a grand mal, the trial will stop. All of this is making Leilani very nervous.

Before she leaves though, her grandpa arrives that evening so he can see her off in the morning. Leilani's grandpa is determined to keep alive the cultural practices of his Hawaiian ancestors. He was in the navy and then become a cop on Maui. Now retired, grandpa is Leilani's kahuna or spiritual adviser.  Grandpa tells her that Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of lightning, lava and volcanoes is her guardian spirit.

Their forty-minute flight on Monday, April 27 takes them over Maui, Lana'i, Moloka'i to O'ahu. In Honolulu, they drive to the clinic where they meet Dr. Makani who tells them more information about the trial. Meanwhile, bizarre things begin to happen around the world. Leilani and her dad learn that the U.S. President is recovering from surgery for appendicitis. At the clinic while some tests are being done on Leilani, they learn that the stock exchange has been shut down, the Vice President is missing as is the Prime Minister of Japan, Congressional offices have closed, the Euro has collapsed and several British banks have failed. Trying not to worry, Leilani and her father check into their fancy hotel on Waikiki Beach.

While talking with her mother and Kai, Leilani and her father also watch the President of the United States as he addresses the nation. However, the transmission dies as does their internet connection with her mother and Kai. All they know is that president was trying to tell them something very important and to warn them about something. Leilani experiences a petit mal seizure during which she hears a voice saying strange things in what seems like a dream. "These islands and their sacred tides call me forth." and "Come drift upon me, and spread. Bring me the means of life." Later on Leilani recalls these words and finds them to be strange, since she never dreams or hears things during seizures.

The next morning they awake to a power outage, satellite networks and electronics inoperative and flights grounded. At the clinic, Dr. Makani tells them that his neighbour with NOAA indicated that there is some kind of geomagnetic storm or something that is interfering with the Earth's magnetic field. That night from her room at the clinic they notice "a hazy green knot dominates a quarter of the night sky". The next morning a local astronomer indicates that there seems to be a correlation between the green light seen at night and the blackouts and malfunctioning electronics. By Thursday morning, all the equipment at the clinic is not working and the newspaper has dubbed the green cloud the "Emerald Orchid". They also learn that tsunami struck O'ahu's Kailu Bay earlier on Wednesday as well as the area around Hilo on the Big Island. The tsunami's are believed to be due to the Emerald Orchid. Leilani's dad decides that they need to get home and they need to begin looking for ways off of O'ahu now.

Leilani is released from the clinic however, their attempts to leave Waikiki are hampered when Leilani has another seizure. Again she dreams and hears a strange voice, "These islands are here for me, and I crave what they will offer. It is a good thing...I am Leilani. Spellbound, I blossom." By Friday chaos reigns. There are gasoline shortages, the National Guard and coast guard have been deployed, there is no way off the island for tourists, and no communication with the outside world. The government decides to send tourists to the Marine Corps Base at Kaneohe Bay to be evacuated by navy ships to the West Coast. First they try to leave via one of the smaller island airstrips, Kalaeloa Airport, but discover they can't book a flight until the following Tuesday. Talking with people at the airport, Leilani and her dad learn that the military is simply shuffling people around. Leilani's father decides to try to find someone to take them to the Big Island by yacht or sailboat. This too is unsuccessful. Leilani witnesses the brutal murder of a man who is caught stealing a boat and this brings on yet another seizure. Again Leilani dreams and hears a strange voice. "This is right. I am here. It is time. And this one spits fire. It oozes heat. This one has not warmed before. I will linger, then as I have done on other shores, and we both shall have our fill."

Two days later, on Monday morning, Leilani wakes in the hotel room in Waikiki. Their hotel is now under attack by gangs who are after the tourists. Waikiki has been looted and buildings are on fire. The Emerald Orchid now dominates the sky at night, complete with lightning bolts and meteor showers. Their attempt to reach Kaupa Pond is thwarted when they are diverted by the military to the Marine Corps Base. Arriving by bus at Kailua, Leilani and her father are forced to surrender their backpacks and food and are eventually placed in a makeshift camp. They are told to they will be called when their turn comes to be transported by helicopter to their home on the Big Island. While waiting, Leilani meets a handsome soldier, Aukina. As conditions deteriorate in the camps, Leilani decides to induce a seizure in the hopes they can get out of the camp. But like the other seizures, Leilani continues to hear voices. "You are Leilani. I am Leilani. Suckle. Gather your strength...Time to linger and grow strong on the heat."

Leilani's father now becomes determined to break out of the camp. Aukina tells Leilani that people on the islands are breaking into factions according to race. The Sovereign Nationers want to secede from the United States. He reveals that all the military are taking potassium iodide tablets in anticipation of the radiation fallout after the nuclear reactors fail. He tells them that the military is out of fuel and that what is left is being conserved for a special action which he wishes he could take her with him. The only thing he can do is provide Leilani with wire cutters. After stocking up on food from the warehouse, which Leilani breaks into, they flee the camp into the night.

The first place they flee to is the abandoned home of the chancellor of UH Hilo. After cleaning up and getting some rest, they are warned to leave. They manage to steal a boat, but Leilani's father is shot during the escape. They head towards Moloka'i but when they run out of gas, Leilani and her father now risk being smashed against the rocks of the island. Leilani manages to jump onto a ledge and eventually pull her father to the safety. Then from the direction of Kalaupapa, an outrigger canoe comes to rescue them. They are taken to a clinic on the beach where Leilani's father is operated on and she receives stitches for a gash on her forehead. The older man who rescued her tells her that he is a healer. Identifying himself as Uncle Akoni, he abruptly questions Leilani about her epilepsy and suggests to her that maybe her epilepsy is an "opportunity". As they both recover from their ordeal, they find Akoni's community a refuge. Akoni begins dropping hints to Leilani, referring to the Emerald Orchid as a ship that likes the radiation or "hotness". After four days, Akoni indicates that he must go to deal with other factions on Moloka'i. Akoni indicates that things might begin to get worse and he offers Leilani and her father a way to get to Maui. He tells Leilani's dad that through a ham radio, they have confirmed that nuclear reactor meltdowns are occurring all over the world as power systems fail and there is no means to cool the reactors. These meltdowns will continue as more and more reactors fail. However the strange thing is that no radiation has been detected. Akoni tells them that they cannot even read normal amounts of radiation. It is at this point that Akoni reveals what he knows to both Leilani and her father; that the Emerald Orchid, whatever it is, is preventing a catastrophic nuclear winter from happening. He tells Leilani that people with epilepsy like himself and Leilani can "hear" the Emerald Orchid and he begs her that upon her arrival in Hilo, to go up the mountain, listen and try to contact them.

As life on the islands begins to unravel further, the military abandons the islands and Leilani and her father struggle through the last part of their journey, Leilani begins to understand what is happening to her planet and how they are tied to the Emerald Orchid. She realizes she may be the only one who can save her dying planet.


The Islands At The End Of The World is a story of journeys - human and alien. It is well-written piece of science fiction that uses the alien-comes-to-earth trope but with a twist. Instead of the aliens being highly intelligent beings, those of the Emerald Orchid are compared to sea turtles who follow their instinct to migrate to their ancestral breeding grounds. In this case that ancestral home is the atmosphere of the planet Earth. The first foreshadowing of this comes when Leilani and her father are on Moloka'i watching a sea turtle. Her father mentions that "some turtle species cross the entire ocean to lay their eggs...When the supercontinent of Gondwanaland was just breaking apart, the turtles would simply swim across a narrow strait, lay their eggs, and then head back home. Over the next hundred-or-so million years, the continents drifted apart, about an inch a year. The turtles went about their business, doing what they used to, what their parents used to do, each generation unaware of the imperceptible change. Now they cross oceans. And they'll be here still, following their ancient paths, inch by new inch, long after we're gone."

It is this exchange that helps Leilani to piece together the circumstances behind the Emerald Orchid five weeks after its appearance. It is while resting at a small plot of marijuana plants and smoking pot, that Leilani and her father have a detailed discussion of the "Emerald Orchid." They both notice that the Emerald Orchid has changed and seems to be made of two entities. It reminds Leilani of the jellyfish she's seen at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Remembering "those dark seizurescapes, the snatches of imagery, the voice, the echoes of thought flowing through with my own consciousness" results in Leilani realizing that the "Emerald Orchid" is alive and that like the sea turtles, it has come to Earth to give birth.

"I only put this together just now! But it is a ... cosmic sea turtle! It was born here. It's just returned to lay its eggs, or spawn, or whatever it does. It's feeding on the atmosphere. That's how it works!"

Leilani's father believes the "Emerald Orchid" may be the explanation behind the mass extinctions throughout Earth's history. For both Leilani and her father, this realization is overwhelming. "I catch a glimpse of my father's wonder: if our terrestrial turtles will cross oceans, unaware of the drifting continents, then how much grander are these creatures, who voyage between worlds?"

But the Emerald Orchid is different from Earth's sea turtle as evidenced by its response after Leilani makes contact and explains that they need it to stay and "to take up all the hotness until it is gone." Although the "Emerald Orchid" and its young one want to leave, they want also to help. "I want the depths, but I want to do the good thing more. The good thing is to stay." They decide to stay a feast on Earth's radiation, so that they can grow strong and so that Leilani can protect her young.

The story of Leilani and her father's journey back home is told entirely from Leilani's perspective. Her narrative is broken into five parts named after the Hawaiian islands. Fortunately for the reader, Aslan has provided basic maps both of the Hawaiian chain of islands as well as maps at the beginning of each new section that help to place the events for readers. At the beginning of their journey, Leilani and her father's world is encompassed by the Hawaiian islands. The islands located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean give the sense of isolation. By the end, they have a sense being apart of something much larger and much grander. In particular, Leilani has felt socially isolated because of her epilepsy; she was dropped from the gymnastics team and doesn't yet have her license because her doctor hasn't yet signed off on it. She's also of mixed ancestry on an island that prides itself on full-blooded Hawaiian ancestry. However, in this new world, Leilani's epilepsy is a gift that saves her world and her mixed blood is a call to all to co-operate in order to survive.

It's easy to recognize that author Austin Aslan lived on the Hawaiian Islands. The novel is filled with fascinating historical, geographical, cultural tidbits as well as some references to Hawaiian mythology. All are woven into the story seamlessly, both informing and engaging the reader.

One theme that appears early on is the conflict in Hawaiian society between the white and Hawaiian races. One group, whom grandpa refers to as "Sovereign Nation people" want the islands to be governed by those who are pure Hawaiians. While Leilani's grandpa acknowledges that "The seizure of Hawaii by the U.S. military was a despicable act." he is willing to recognize that people like Leilani's father who have married Hawaiians and now live on the island are just as much Hawaiian as he or Leilani's mother. This conflict becomes more dominant in the novel as conditions on the island worsen and civil authority collapses.

Overall, The Islands At The End Of The World is a debut novel well worth reading. Aslan has planned a sequel, ready for publication in 2016.

Book Details:

The Islands At The End Of The World by Austin Aslan
New York: Wendy Lamb Books      2014
358 pp.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass

Set in post World War II Germany, Graffiti Knight provides readers with a unique look at life in a divided Germany after the destruction of Hitler's Third Reich. Having lost the war, Germany finds itself a country divided into two areas: the American occupied west and the Soviet occupied east. Because of Nazi brutality and the tremendous losses suffered by Soviet troops during the war, every German is assumed to be a Nazi and the Soviets treat them accordingly.

Seventeen-year-old Wilhelm (Wilm) Tauber lives in what remains of Leipzig after extensive Allied bombing during World War II. He shares a bombed out apartment with his mother and father and his twenty-year-old sister, Annelise. Wilm's father was a German soldier who lost his leg during the war. Left for dead by his platoon, American doctors amputated his leg and sent him to POW camp.

Wilm, with his friends Georg Rohrbach and Karl, watches and listens from his hiding place as his father is beaten by four Schutzpolizisten (Schupos). The Schupos are German police who work for the occupying Soviets and are known for their brutality. Wilm and Karl feel they exist behind enemy lines with the occupation of part of their country by the Soviets. With the help of his friends, Wilm takes his father home in Frau Nikel's wheelbarrow as he is unable to walk. After a dinner of thin potato soup, Wilm's father sits down to drink and angry words with his son. That night Wilm sleeps on the rug in Annelise's room because he doesn't want to listen to his father rant about the war and the loss of his leg.

At school Wilm is a poor, unfocused student and his lack of effort is especially noticed in Herr Bader's mathematics class. He asks Wilm why his marks are so poor and suggests he learn what the problem is and fix it. For Wilm school means nothing because it will not alleviate his hunger nor get his family a larger apartment. After school one day, Wilm, Georg and Karl are challenged to a soccer game by a group of Schupos that includes Anneliese's old boyfriend, Ernst Weber. After the game, Johanna Fahr, a childhood friend of Wilm arrives. She has grown up now and is very beautiful and Wilm finds her attractive. Johanna tells Wilm she's meeting her boyfriend, Ernst, and this leads Wilm to wonder when Ernst started dating Johanna and the circumstances of his break-up with Anneliese. When Wilm questions Ernst as to why he broke up with his sister, he tells him "I like my women...untouched." Wilm has no idea what Ernst means.

On Saturdays Wilm travels to his Uncle Bruno's farm in Engelsdorf where he works in exchange for food. His mother works as a Trummerfrauen or "rubble women", clearing the rubble created by the Allied bombing of Leipzig in exchange for extra rations. Over a lunch of fried onions, potatoes and sausages, Uncle Bruno tells Wilm to finish his education and that there is no future in small farms like his. When a thunderstorm comes up that evening, Uncle Bruno teaches Wilm how to fire the Luger pistol under the cover of the thunder.

At home things grow worse between Wilm and his angry, drunk father, who refuses the food Wilm brings back from the farm. Wilm retreats to the roof of the house and is soon joined by Anneliese, whom he questions about Ernst. Wilm tells Anneliese that she has changed since she broke up with Ernst. She wears boys clothes and creeps to work at a seamstresses shop. He tells her that Ernst claimed she cheated on him. Anneliese tells her brother about the day she went to the train station to meet Ernst who was returning from a British prisoner-of-war camp. Their mother warned her that it was not safe, but she went anyway. Anneliese tells him that she was raped by four Soviet soldiers and that Ernst saw the attack but did not intervene because he couldn't. When Wilm asks her why, Anneliese states, "Because they were Soviets. They attack whomever they choose. They kill whomever they choose. To interfere is to die. Where have you been these last two years?" When Wilm confronts his mother the next day she tells him that this is the way things are now and that they "must bear up under it." and that talking about it changes nothing. "...This is the world we live in now. Understand it. What happened was awful. But do you think Anneliese is the only woman to be attacked since the Soviets arrived? Far from it. the best we can hope is that they don't kill us or our men when they're finished with us."

The next day after scoring a ninety-two percent on his mathematics test, Wilm is pressured by Karl to prove his loyalty, considering they are "behind enemy lines" after he walked past two Schupos without doing anything. Karl tells Wilm he must go to the missing person's registry office to see how many Schupos are present. While Karl and Georg watch, Wilm sneaks up to two military trucks. Calmly Wilm stabs the front and back tires of a truck and then walks towards the Barthelshof archway as the tires explode. When the three boys meet up Karl tells Wilm what he did was dangerous as the Soviets jail those who resist. Wilm states he's not a "Wolverine" but that "Crazy is playing at being behind enemy lines but never sabotaging the enemy if you get the chance." Karl is furious at Wilm and the two begin to fight. They are pulled apart by an older man who identifies himself as Otto Steinhauer. Otto tells them he works for the SED (the German Socialist Party) as an engineer contracted to inspect bridges. Walking away from Otto, Karl asks Wilm why he vandalized the Soviet military trucks and Wilm tells him it is payback and justice. Karl knows about Soviet justice as his father is languishing in a Soviet prison camp but he's not sure what Wilm is referring to.

The following Monday after school, Wilm seeks out Otto who tells him about how he uses mathematics to repair bridges. Otto also reveals that he knows Wilm was responsible for the damaged Soviet trucks and warns him that the Soviets do not consider what he is doing a "game". Otto gives Wilm his gold engineering band as a token of his trust. When Wilm arrives home the following Sunday after spending the weekend at his uncle's farm he finds two Schupos at his family's apartment. They have received an anonymous tip that some Schutzpolizei beat his father in the street. After questioning Wilm and later, Karl, they leave. On Tuesday, Wilm, Karl, Georg learn that a crowd has gathered at the Bahnhof (train station) where a train full of prisoners of war is returning. However the Soviets will not let any of the men off the train, intending instead to send them east to the camps. This result in an angry mob confronting the soldiers. Wilm starts trouble by cutting off a metal service bar from Schupo next to him. As he backs away from the fight he also helps a veteran who starts singing the "Deutschland Uber Alles". When Karl learns what Wilm did, he's furious because with his father as a Soviet prisoner of war, he knows how the families in the square felt. It is this situation that motivates Karl to help Wilm in his plan to humiliate their Soviet occupiers.

At first Wilm's acts are simple; bitumen is used to write graffiti on "the light-colored stones of the SED headquarters near Augustusplatz". After an altercation between Ernst, Anneliese and Wilm, which sets Anneliese's recovery back, Wilm becomes determined to wage a "war or embarrassment."  He can't strike at Ernst personally "But every Schupo I embarrass will have his face in my mind." When Otto realizes he cannot talk Wilm out of his "war" he gives him the name of a contact in Munich. His next action is to paint a large white marionette on the side of the Schutzpolizei headquarters, indicating that the German police are the puppets of the Soviets.

Otto tells Wilm that the SED are furious and have increased the number of patrols. The next action is accomplished also with the help of Karl. He places a huge wasp nest inside one of the troop transport trucks. The following Saturday, Karl, Georg and Ruth tell Wilm that the rumour is that the Soviets have seized yet another shipment of butter. Furious at discovering this is true, Wilm with the help of his friends seized some of the butter back from the Soviets in a late night raid that almost sees him get caught.

Although Otto warns him about the dangers of his actions,Wilm becomes more determined than ever. He and Karl leave drawings of Wilm's "stickman puppet and and capital M on the doors of government buildings, including the Schutzpolzei headquarters." When a situation occurs at the theatre during a Soviet propaganda film, and Georg is arrested, Wilm decides to go to the police station to see if he can free Georg. Both Wilm and Karl are terrified that Georg will reveal their actions if he is interrogated by the police. This results in Wilm making a deal with Ernst that he will become a Schupo in exchange for Georg's freedom.

However a series of events are about to be set in motion when Karl shows Wilm his discovery of the rumoured secret cache of weapons at his mother's beer hall, the Stag's Horn. Wilm manages to sneak out a long grenade without Karl's knowledge. And he soon forms a plan to send a "message" to the Soviets during the visit of a Soviet general. Unfortunately, the action goes terribly wrong and as Otto once warned, Wilm's actions have implications that ripple out to many innocent people including his family and friends.


Bass paints a detailed picture of life in Leipzig; mounds of rubble from bombed out buildings, pharmacies lacking in medicine, food shortages in the city, (Wilm's family eat thin potato soup and rarely have meat.), brutal Soviet soldiers who beat men and rape the local women, and German police who instead of protecting their countrymen play a part in their subjugation. Bass uses various characters in the novel to present different aspects of life under Soviet rule. The characters of Anneliese, Wilm's mother, Herr Bader portray the fear experienced by the German people now occupied by the Soviets. Ruth and Georg are used to demonstrate the fierce hunger that many faced as the Soviets confiscate their food. Otto represents how some German's tried to work within the system yet not be a part of it. And Ernst demonstrates what happens when one actively participates in an evil regime and himself becomes corrupted.

Bass sets up the character of Ernst Weber as the antagonist early in the novel. When it is revealed what happened to Anneliese, it becomes apparent that Ernst is not an honourable man. Not only does he ditch his girlfriend after she's been raped but he lies to her brother implying that she was unfaithful to him, when in reality she was raped. Throughout the novel, the brutality and cruelness of Ernst becomes more and more apparent. When Wilm does a good deed in walking Ernst's girlfriend, Johanna home, he is threatened repeatedly by him. He believes Wilm will behave as other men have and try to take Johanna away from him. Later on, he forces Wilm to promise to join the Schupos in exchange for his friend, Georg's freedom. Ernst becomes so determined to hunt down Wilm that even when Wilm has crossed the Czech border into West Germany, he continues shooting. If it were not for the Americans Ernst would have crossed into West Germany and killed Wilm. The character of Ernst proves that Otto was right to warn Wilm about honouring his promise to Ernst to join the Schupos. Ernst fulfils Otto's predictions that those who side with evil eventually do evil and find themselves doing things things they never imagined they could do.

In contrast to Ernst is Wilm Tauber. When Wilm learns about his sister's rapes he is devastated and wants revenge. Feeling powerless he begins to strike out in small ways to embarrass the Soviets and the Schupos. But his mentor, Otto Steinhauer, a structural engineer is concerned for Wilm. During the war Otto passed secrets to the British, so although employed by the SED, he understands Wilms feelings. After hearing about the events at the train station, Otto tells Wilm he fears for him. "You think you are untouchable, yet experience is a cruel teacher." With Otto, Wilm can talk about what has happened to his family; the rape of his sister, his troubles with Ernst and his father. Otto tries to talk Wilm out of his plans, encouraging him to study engineering at the university in Munich where his friend works. He could learn to build bridges, he tells Wilm. "Building is much more satisfying than destroying." but at this point Wilm is bent on retaliation.

Otto also attempts to convey to Wilm the effects his actions are having on innocent people. When Wilm stole the butter from the Soviets, Otto tells him "Do you fancy yourself a folk hero? I hope not. Those railyard guards spent half the day in unpleasant interrogations because of you. Collusion. Do you know that word. It means they thought the guards were working with you." Otto explains that the result of the house search led the Soviets to discover a guard who has been selling boots on the black market. "But sometimes we don't see the ripples that flow out from our actions." Otto warns Wilm that his increasingly daring actions are scaring him. Wilm knows that this is because Otto sees him becoming like the Soviets and the Schupos. The trouble is Wilm is not sure he's afraid of becoming like them.

When Wilm tells Otto about his deal with Ernst it is because his conscience is troubling him.He tries to justify his choice by telling Otto he could learn about the police and use that knowledge against them. However Otto tells Wilm he is fooling himself, that some of the people he would be hunting down, would not be criminals. "Some of them would be young men like you, young men whose sisters were raped and who need to find some kind of justice, young men who want some freedom." Otto tells Wilm that his choice will turn him into an oppressor. "You will end up doing things you never dreamed possible. You should have trusted your friend more, and trusted that he would not betray you when they questioned him."

When Wilm's attempts to burn the Soviet barracks turn deadly he is horrified that he may have killed men - even Soviets. But Wilm proves he is different from Ernst when they meet outside Bad Elster. Ernst mistakes Wilm's reluctance to shoot him as cowardice, but Wilm tells him, "No," I whispered. "I have the guts. But pulling that trigger, killing and unarmed man, would make me...just like you. And I refuse to become that."

Graffiti Knight is replete with the themes of redemption, honour and forgiveness. Wilm's father feels that his life after the war, with a missing leg is without honor. "Why didn't they let me die on the battlefield?" Father rapped his empty glass on the shelf beside his chair. "I was their enemy. They should have let me die...There's honor in dying on the battlefield...With tears clinging to his lashes, he whispered, "What honor is in this, Wilhelm?" He slapped the thigh of his amputated leg. "What hope for any honor at all?" In the end his father recovers his honour by attacking Ernst Weber during his interrogation. Instead of the reaction he is expecting, Ernst is thanked by Wilm for giving his father the opportunity to die honourably on the battlefield.

One of the subjects Bass tackles in her book is the widespread rape of German women by Soviet soldiers. It was recently revealed that around 400,000 children were conceived as a result of rape and love affairs by occupying troops.

Karen Bass's novel also drives home the realities war brings to mankind; destruction, famine, and great suffering on many levels. People do things in war that they might never conceive of in times of peace.

Graffiti Knight has a map of the setting for the story and the Historical Note at the back provides some background information for the time period of the novel. Well written, engaging, with realistic characters and a believable plot, Graffiti Knight is another fine novel from Canadian author Karen Bass.

Book Details:

Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass
Toronto: Pajama Press    2013
288 pp.