Saturday, August 19, 2017

This Impossible Light by Lily Myers

This Impossible Light by slam poetry sensation Lily Myers tackles a slew of issues centered on body image, divorce and loneliness.

Fifteen-year-old Ivy Lewis's world is torn apart when her father leaves her mother. She doesn't know if her father left or her mother made him leave. All she knows is that one Sunday in June they decided things were not working. The novel begins three months after Ivy's father has left and Ivy and her mother are like "planets in constant orbit", never really connecting on any level. Her father moved to a modern condo downtown which Ivy has visited twice, the second time finding a photo of his new girlfriend. Since then, Ivy has not returned, instead meeting him for pizza or seeing a movie together with her brother Sky.

Ivy's mother is unable to cope with the divorce. After her father left, Ivy's mother has pulled away, often drinking or staying in her bedroom. Meanwhile Sky has left home to attend cooking school, leaving Ivy alone with her mother and their empty, silent home. Ivy hopes the beginning of the school year will be her salvation. She's going into grade 10 and loves school because it organizes her day, she can reconnect with her best friend Anna and she starts calculus.Ivy loves math with its unchanging numbers and equations with a solution.
"Numbers never decide one day
they are
         just not working...

Numbers keep their promises."

It's at this time that Ivy notices changes in her body; she's bigger, has breasts, her hips are fuller and she's taller. In contrast, Ivy's mother is bony and fragile. Ivy notes that she's grown two inches over the summer. Ivy doesn't want to be six feet tall like her brother and father. She wants to be small and compact so she can be "curled up, safe."

Ivy's plan is to go to a top school to study organic chemistry and advanced calculus and become an engineer. She refers to herself as Smart Girl who makes responsible choices. At school Ivy meets her best friend Anna who's been away all summer in France, living with her mother and taking French. Ivy and Anna's reunion does not go as Ivy anticipated. Instead she finds Anna has a new friend, Raquel whom she met in France. While Anna and Raquel share stories about their time in France, Ivy feels left out. In calculus class, Ivy, the only sophomore in the junior class meets their new teacher, Ms. Fulton.

As the school days pass, Ivy finds herself reminiscing about how her mother and father were before they split up and how good her family life was. Ignored by her mother who is struggling to cope with the breakup of her marriage and her friend Anna, Ivy turns inward focusing on her body. A sleepover with Anna reinforces how much they've grown apart. While Ivy still loves Wicked, Anna has moved on to boys, smoking and drinking. After the sleepover Anna goes home to an empty house and ends up biking so she can't think about what's happened to her family and to her and Anna. When she returns, Ivy orders a pizza and eats all of it. Disgusted with herself, she goes into the bathroom and makes herself vomit it up.

School continues to go well for Ivy as she does the extra math problems Ms. Fulton assigns. Ms. Fulton recognizing Ivy's ability, offers her a chance to apply to the statewide mathematics competition. Ivy is ecstatic because she feels this is the first step in her plan to get away from home. She researches top engineering programs and begins planning how "Smart Girl" can get out like her brother Sky did.

But when her friendship with Anna falls apart and her mother slips deeper into depression, Ivy feels her life slipping out of control. Critical of her changing body she begins exercising and restricting her food intake. At first Ivy finds she can keep up her school work, but soon restricting, purging and counting calories consumes her life. It isn't until a serious accident forces Ivy to face her problems that Ivy begins to accept herself and her life.


This Impossible Light tells the story of a young girl whose world falls apart after her parents break-up and her journey towards healing and learning to live again. Myers has used free verse to tell Ivy's story, breaking her poetry into five sections titled Unknown Variables, Compression, Limits, Discontinuous Function and Exponential Growth. Each title is a math term, reflective of Ivy's love of mathematics but is also representative of Ivy's life. For example in Unknown Variables her life is changing rapidly; her parents' marriage breaks up and her friend Anna returns from France a very different person. In Limits, Ivy's body finally reaches its limit when she passes out on her bike and crashes.

The first set of poems in This Impossible Light are truly heartbreaking as they chronicle the break-up of Ivy's family when her father leaves and the effect her parents divorce has on her. The loss of her father affects Ivy deeply. She describes her
"Dad making soup on Sunday afternoons
in a huge pot on the stove
belting jazz standards as he stirred."

Her parents separating destroys the family life Ivy loved so much and in several poems Ivy reminisces.
"All of us driving every summer
to the Oregon Coast...

All of us around the coffee table
playing charades.
Me, seven or eight,
running excitedly around the living room."

Post-breakup, Ivy has to deal with her father having a new girlfriend who is described as "redheaded, round-faced, smiling." In the poem "A Few Weeks", Ivy confronts her father, refusing to accept his attempted "explanation" of why he had to leave.

After setting the back story to Ivy's life as it is now, Myers chronicles her spiral into a serious eating disorder and the beginnings of her recovery. When her relationship with her parents breaks down and her friendship with Anna collapses, Ivy turns inward in an attempt to control her life.  At first Ivy identifies herself as a "Smart Girl", someone with goals and high expectations who plans to be an engineer. As a "Smart Girl" she doesn't smoke, flunk a test on purpose, or "stay up all night eating cereal and ice cream." She makes responsible choices like going to bed early, getting A's and exercising. But Ivy wishes that sometimes she could do some of those things. In the poem, "It's Not", Ivy states that this is how she "understands" she's supposed to be because she's always been told she's smart.
"When you're told enough times
the way that you are
it doesn't seem like
you're allowed to be

But soon she becomes critical of herself, noticing that her body has changed; she is getting taller and bigger. Ivy doesn't want to do this, instead she wants to be small and compact - "able to curl up into small shapes like I used to." Myer draws in several of the typical social influences that girls like Ivy are exposed to today; teen girls focused on their bodies (Anna hates how her legs are muscular from soccer), the emphasis on looking beautiful, and the effect of ads for diet pills. Girls who wear perfectly fitting jeans and no frizz hair are seen to be in control. In the poem "When I Pass", Ivy states,
"The skinny bodies say: Keep going, you're almost there.
The round bodies say: This is what happens when you lose control."
It's no wonder Ivy comes to believe she is not good, responsible, careful, strong or healthy."

When Ivy is confronted by the doctor after her accident about her eating habits she struggles to understand that what she's been doing is wrong because she was trying to be good. Wasn't she merely doing what everyone else seems to be doing? Fortunately for Ivy, she is able to tell her mother, who suddenly becomes attentive to her needs, about what has been going on inside her. Ivy's openness about her eating disorder is unusual as most teens with eating disorders take some time to admit they have a problem and to actually own their illness. Ivy is helped by her mother's admission about her own struggle with anorexia and how these thoughts might always be with her. Her mother encourages Ivy to seek help, because "this isn't something you can control on your own."

Although Ivy's swift recovery is a bit misleading, Myers does a good job of showcasing some of the characteristics of eating disorders and how adults can help. In the poems involving Ivy's therapist, Dr. Clarke, "Mom's Words" and "You Know" identify control as a major component of eating disorders.  Dr. Clarke gives Ivy permission to grieve over the loss of her parents, validating her pain. With the support of her mother and her specialists, Ivy begins her path to recovery. Acknowledging her pain over the divorce also leads her to talk to Anna and restart their friendship.

This Impossible Light is a brutally honest portrayal of the effects of divorce on children (and those left behind), and how one girl took her pain out on her own body. Myers, who is a self-described writer, feminist and witch, has given voice to two very important issues many teens have to confront in our post-modern world.

Book Details:

This Impossible Light by Lily Myers
New York: Philomel Books        2017
339 pp.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Restart by Gordon Korman

Chase Ambrose, star of the football team was the most feared kid at Hiawasse Middle School. Chase along with his buddies Aaron Haikiman and Bear Bratsky terrorized just about everyone in the school and in their town. Their prime target was Joel Weber, a gifted pianist.

 But Chase's life changes drastically when he falls off the roof of his house. The fall results in a separated shoulder,  a severe concussion and acute-retrograde amnesia.  He doesn't remember his mother or father or his older brother Johnny who's a college student home for the summer.  and even can't quite remember his name. The only memory he has is of a little girl.

Chase who's also star of the Hiawasse football team is told by Dr. Cooperman that he is out for the year. When Chase returns home, he meets his father's new wife Corinne and his four-year-old half sister Helene, both of whom seem wary of him. "They look at me like I'm a time bomb about to go off in their faces. What did I ever do to them?" This is Chase's first hint that he's not been a very nice person.

Chase's mother doesn't fill him in on his life before his accident. At school Chase is accosted by Aaron and Bear who are eager for him to return to the football team. Chase also meets with the school principal, Dr. Fitzwallace who urges him to see this as a "chance to rebuild yourself from the ground up, to make a completely fresh start." Chase wonders "What was so wrong about the old me that now I have to be somebody else?" At lunch Brendan Espinoza is terrified when Chase sits down at his table. He is immediately bullied by Chase's friends who force Chase to sit with them.

More incidents reveal to Chase that he was just not well liked, but in fact most people were terrified of him. When he first meets his half sister Helene, she is completely terrified of Chase. At school when Chase tries to help a girl, she flees in terror. Students act odd, conversations end when he walks by and people turn away from him as he walks down the hall. From Aaron and Bear, Chase learns they are assigned community service at the Graybeard Motel on Portland Street, helping the elderly residents. They were arrested and assigned community service for planting several cherry bombs in the piano at open house. Aaron and Bear dismiss what happened, telling Chase they do what they want and the adults can't do much. Their conversation leaves Chase doubting his removal from the football team for the season. This leads Chase to confront his mother about not telling him he was assigned community service. When he tries to downplay what happened his mother's account of what happened at the school open house makes Chase feel ashamed.

Meanwhile Brendan Espinoza can't get anyone from the video club to help him make his video. Brendan is a nerd, honor roll student, president of the video club, and Academic Decathlon champ. With Joel Weber gone, Brendan is certain Chase and his friends will target him now. But Chase seems friendly and different. So when he sees Chase in the hallway, Brendan invites Chase to help him shoot his video. Brendan's video of him riding a tricycle through the Shiny Bumper car wash almost gets Chase in trouble again. But Brendan diffuses the situation and Chase acknowledges that it was Brendan's good reputation and not his bad one that saves him. Because they had so much fun together, Brendan invites Chase to join the video club. Shoshanna Weber and the other members of the club are horrified when they hear this. Shoshanna's brother Joel was the victim of Chase and his friends cherry bomb prank. It was the reason he has left Hiawassee to attend another school. But Brendan insists Chase is not the same person as he tells the group, "...He was helpful. He had good ideas. He was even nice. He's different."

Ms. DeLeo tells they club they must accept Chase. At the meeting, they discuss working on entries for the National Video Journalism Contest which will feature profiling a senior citizen. They are also working on producing a video yearbook which includes student interviews and information on school clubs and teams. Chase is assigned to cover the football team. Shoshanna refuses to believe that Chase is a different person. "No. Amnesia can wipe out the details of your past, but it can't change the kind of person you are. "

Chase decides to accompany Aaron and Bear to the Portland Street Assisted Living Residence where they  are assigned to take snacks to the residents. Chase watches as his two buddies eat most of the cookies  on the cart and refer to the residents in disrespectful ways. Chase is upset by how his friends behave and starts to really help, adjusting beds and helping find TV remotes.At the home Chase meets Julius Solway who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his service during the Korean War. Chase finds Julius to be a "cool" guy and begins to develop a relationship with him. His interest in  Julius's medal leads the elderly man to admit he can't find his medal. At a meeting of the video club, Chase suggests to Shoshanna that she video Mr. Solway for her entry in to the video contest.

Chase joins Shoshanna as she interviews Mr. Solway. As time passes, Chase finds himself struggling against being pulled back into his old bullying ways by Aaron and Bear. The choice to be a new person means gaining new friends and losing old ones. And it offers Chase the unexpected opportunity to confront and right a wrong that the old Chase did.


Restart is a thoroughly enjoyable account of a thirteen-year-old boy who gets a chance to change his life as a result of an accident. Korman deftly weaves his story using multiple narrators; Chase Ambrose, Shoshanna Weber. Brendan Espinoza, Kimberly Tooley, Aaron Hakimian, and Joel Weber.  Chase's memory is wiped clean, offering him a second chance. The old Chase was a bully who terrorized Joel Weber so much that his family was forced to send him to another school after a terrible prank. That prank resulted in Chase and his friends Aaron and Bear being arrested and assigned community service. But even there Chase and his friends continued their bad behaviour, treating the residents disrespectfully with Chase stealing Mr. Solway's medal. Besides Chase's story, Korman also includes a subplot involving Brendan Espinoza who attempts to attract the interest of Kimberly Tooley who only has eyes for Chase.

following his accident, everything the new Chase uncovers about the old Chase is unsettling. He remembers how he gleefully ripped the head off of his half-sister Helene's teddy bear and when his brother Johnny left for college, Chase remembers the scorn he felt for his brother who's terrified and his mother who is sad. He learns that he seriously hurt Brendan by pushing his head into a drinking fountain, causing him to need three stitches. His friends Aaron and Bear tell Chase that he was the one who chose Joel to bully.

The new Chase is completely different, friendly, kind and helpful. He enjoys his visits to the assisted living center. "But I find the residents kind of interesting. They remember stuff in real life that you can only read about in history books." He is horrified when Bear takes twenty dollars from Mrs. Swanson who "isn't all there" and when Bear refuses to return the money, Chase uses his own money. He helps Shoshanna complete her video project for the competition partly out of interest and partly to repay what he did to her family and he apologizes to both the Weber family and to Brendan.

Chase's transformation from bully to good guy isn't without mistakes. Korman presents his journey as a process that Chase undertakes and that involves conflict and some mistakes. Chase experiences conflict over who he was then and who he is now. He wants to believe there was some good in him. Chase has flashbacks of what he describes as his "wonderful toughness -- punching and shoving kids, kicking their heels out from under them in the halls," Chase also remembers "feeling important and confident and powerful. Maybe some of that came from what a jerk I was, but surely not all of it...I was a somebody in this town." Chase makes mistakes as when he accidentally hurts Joel while trying to stop Aaron and Bear as they vandalize the music room,  and he lies to the principal about what happened, backing up his friends' lie. But he also looks outside of himself to see how what has happened affects those around him, his friends, the teachers and the principal.

Eventually Chase has to choose what he's going to be - the bully or the nice guy, and who he wants as his friends. After the incident with Joel, Chase realizes that he'd rather have the new Chase's life rather than his old one back. This is shown when Aaron and Bear reveal to Chase that he was the one who stole Mr. Solway's medal.  "As I run, hot tears of shame are streaming down my face. Since my accident, I've heard a lot about the person I used to be. Never did I imagine this." His shame and desire to do the right thing overcome the threats of his friends and Chase tries to return the medal. When his attempt results in a brawl, he comes clean, accepting sole responsibility for the theft. Although the consequences maybe be severe, Chase doesn't want to go back to being the person he was before the accident. His father recognizes his attempts to be a better person. "...It takes strength to eat the blame and not rat out Aaron and Bear, especially when they more than deserve it. Or to try to make things right with Solway or even the Weber kid, whether they appreciate it or not. You're strong, all right. And stupid. But everybody has stupid moments. The trick is not to let a few bad moments cost you the game."

Chase recognizes how angry and self-absorbed he was prior to his accident, in contrast to the shame and disgust he now feels. "Back then I had such a high opinion of the great Chase Ambrose that I considered myself untouchable. Now it's the opposite. I hate myself so much that there's no way any judge could hate me more." But Chase is in for a surprise from the very people he spent years tormenting, demonstrating the importance of forgiveness and the need to recognize that people can change.

Mr. Solway, the crotchety resident of the nursing home is a mirror character to Chase. He is disliked by almost everyone there; he's rude and mean. He has his own table in the dining room and his nickname is Mr. Happy Face. He is like Chase before his head injury.  Chase thinks Mr. Solway is the coolest person he's ever met. They are "memory-loss buddies" and this leads Chase to wonder "if I blocked out what a jerk I used to be because I can't face it." As the two become good friends, Mr. Solway undergoes a remarkable transformation, moving about again and showing an interest in life and even making the difficult journey in to the court to speak up for Chase. Like Chase, he's become less self-absorbed and focuses on doing what's right.

Restart is classic Gordon Korman, with a likeable main character and a great cast of supporting characters, particularly the witty Shoshanna Weber and the nerdy Brendan Espinoza. The novel has a strong plot that's well executed with a dash of Korman humour. The novel is chock full of themes; forgiveness, redemption, the meaning of friendship, identity and how change is possible. This reader would have preferred that the story be set in high school and the characters a bit older. Overall, Restart is a spectacular novel and highly recommended. It's nice to see good, solid fiction for younger readers and one that will especially appeal to boys.

Book Details:

Restart by Gordon Korman
New York: Scholastic Press    2017
243 pp.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Flame In the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

"Words are foolish. Promises are useless. Anyone can say anything to get what it is they desire. Believe in actions and actions alone."

Seventeen-year-old Mariko is on her way to the imperial city of Inako. She is travelling to Heian Castle to meet the emperor and his second son, Raiden, her future husband.Mariko is being traded like property to "elevate her father's standing amongst the ruling daimyo class." Mariko has been raised for one purpose - the marry an important man.

As her convoy approaches the Jukai forest, it stops and Mariko is told by Nobutada, her father's most trusted samurai, that the soldiers are reluctant to travel through the forest. Nobutada, not wishing to anger the emperor, decides they will pass through the forest despite the worry that the Black Clan has been seen nearby recently.

However Mariko's convoy is attacked and all the samurai are massacred. Trapped in her litter, her dead maidservant Chiyo on top of her, Mariko overhears the members of the Black Clan arguing about whether she is dead or not. To ensure her death, the Black Clan set fire to the wreckage of the litter. Terrified, Mariko decides to face the enemy and escape from the burning litter. But the Black Clan flee in the face of an attack by the wild beasts of the forest unaware that Mariko has survived.  Mariko escapes being burned alive only to find herself captive of a dirty man who plans to take her to them. However Mariko outwits the man and kills him in self-defense. She steals his filthy clothing, shears off her hair so she can pass herself off as a boy.

Mariko wants to know who wants her dead and why. She also worries her reputation will be sullied if it is discovered she has been lost in the forest with murderers and thieves. After five days of creeping through the forest, Mariko learns the location of the favourite watering hole of the Black Clan. But her encounter with them goes a much different way than expected. When the Black Clan arrives, they are confronted by a giant who agrees to fight the clan's best fighter. Mariko learns that their leader is Takeda Ranmaru, who she remembers is the son of a dishonoured samurai. The clan's best fighter is a tall, lean boy with a scar across his mouth whose name is Okami. When the giant and his men cheat, Mariko warns the Black Clan, saving their leader. After the fight Mariko is taken captive by the clan and taken to their camp deep in the forest. The members of the Black Clan do not know her identity or that she is a seventeen year old girl. But Mariko is determined to learn as much about them as possible and why they wanted to kill her. Then she plans to exact her revenge.

Meanwhile Mariko's brother, Kenshin, known as the Dragon of Kai, leads a group of samurai in the hunt for his sister. They come upon the burned norimono and the bodies of fifteen samurai in the forest. But Kenshin's keen eyes discover that his sister survived the attack and fled into the forest. He also discovers that she killed a man and is now passing herself off as a boy. With this knowledge he returns home and decides to journey to the imperial city of Inako to discover what the emperor's family knows about Mariko's disappearance. But Kenshin, the famed Dragon of Kai makes an astonishing discovery that changes everything.

In the city of Inako, His Imperial Majesty Minamoto Masaru, sovereign of the Empire of Wa, walks through the gardens reminiscing on his childhood friends whom he had to execute in order to consolidate his reign. The death of two friends, Asano Naganori who loved justice and Takeda Shingen who favoured honor weigh on his mind.  His second son, the crown prince of Wa, Minamoto Roku will rule after him; his first son Raiden will not. His mistress, Kanako, the mother of Raiden arrives to tell Masaru that Hattori Mariko, daughter of Hattori Kano is two days overdue and there are rumours that her convoy was ambushed in the Jukai forest. She does not believe the girl has survived the attack.

As Mariko spends time with Black Clan she learns about herself and discovers all is not as it seems in her world. Little does she know that she will be forced to decide what she believes and where her loyalties lie.


Flame in the Mist is an engaging historical adventure/fantasy set in feudal Japan which takes its inspiration from the Chinese folktale of Mulan, a famous woman warrior. The story weaves together two main threads and a lesser thread; Mariko with the Black Clan, Kenshin the Dragon of Kai in his search for his sister and events that occur in the Imperial Palace in Inako.

In Flame in the Mist, Hattori Mariko ends up in the Jukai forest with the Black Clan whom she believes has attempted to murder her. Her time with the Black Clan reveals that all is not as it seems and that Mariko's view of the world is naive. Flame in the Mist traces Mariko's evolution in her understanding of the world in which she lives.

When Mariko is first in the camp of the Black Clan she is determined "to know why the Black Clan had taken her to their camp. Who they were exactly. But most of all, she needed to discover why they'd been sent to kill her. And by whom." To accomplish this, Mariko decides to stop being difficult, to follow orders and to earn their trust. Once she has their trust she plans to exact her revenge. But this creates a conflict for Mariko who feels deceit is dishonorable. She wants to follow the way of bushido - code of samurai warriors. "A true warrior would face her enemies without flinching. Not slither about in the shade."

However as she spends time in the Black Clan camp, Mariko learns about the tragedy that has touched Ranmaru and Okami; that both were sons of honorable samurai who were betrayed by the emperor and then murdered to consolidate his reign. A series of experiences force Mariko's to face what is really happening in the world around her. The first of these occurs in the tea house in Hanami, where the maiko, an apprentice geiko, forces Mariko to consider how fortunate her situation has been.

The second event that really changes Mariko's thinking is the attack on her father's estate. After witnessing Okami give money to an elderly woman in Inako for poor children, Mariko suspects that the Black Clan take money from the wealthy to give to the poor. This is confirmed when the Black Clan decide to attack Mariko's family estate in retaliation for her brother's actions.

Just before the attack on Hattori Kano's granary, as Mariko and the Black Clan are riding through the fields, Mariko begins to really look at the people at work. She realizes she has no memories of the workers ever smiling in her father's fields. She watches a family share a meal even though there is not enough food for everyone. Mariko realizes she has seen only what she wants to see, despite priding herself "on being the girl who saw things no one else saw. Who noticed the world not as it was, but as it should be." Mariko remembers the smiles of her father's workers as "wan" and "aged" and that her father saw them as being ungrateful. She understands the Black Clan want to redistribute her family's wealth "back into the hands of those who worked the fields. Tilled the soil. Reaped the harvest." This new understanding creates immense conflict within Mariko; she loves Okami and the ideals of the Black Clan appeal to her, but the Black Clan is attacking the very people she loves - her family.

By the time she sets out to find the Black Clan to warn them of Kenshin's impending attack Mariko has no doubts about her life. "Mariko had lived a life of wealth and privilege. A life spent blissfully unaware of the suffering around her. A life she herself had never fully appreciated. Her mother did not give without expecting something in return. Her father only ever took." Even Kenshin was without honor - he had massacred an old man and his grandchildren in the forest and tortured Ren. She realizes "how small her world had been. What it meant to be truly challenged."

Renee Ahdieh has crafted another strong female character in Mariko. Determined to learn who tried to murder her, Mariko finds she must confront her fears of being discovered to be a girl, of the jubokko tree and of the Black Clan.She must also confront the reality of her family's injustice towards the poor and the workers and that her father is concerned more with power.

Author Renee Ahdieh wanted the character Mariko to embrace her femininity, to see it as a source of strength.This comes out near the end of the novel when Mariko is recovering from the raid at the tea house. Okami's sister, Yumi questions Mariko as to whether she has ever fought back. When Mariko denies ever having fought back, Yumi calls her out: "Because, Hattori Mariko, you are not one to conform to any man's expectations. Is that not --in a way-- a manner of fighting back?" Yumi encourages her to embrace her power as a woman in their world. "There is such strength in being a woman. But it is strength you must choose for yourself. No one can choose it for you. We can bend the wind to our ear if we would only try." At great risk Mariko travel to the Jukai forest to warn the Black Clan about her brother's impending attack. Later on she gives herself up in the hopes of saving Takeda Ranmaru and when he is taken captive she again sacrifices herself by asking to be taken to the imperial palace rather than home with her brother.

Flame in the Mist explores many other themes including those of friendship, revenge, forgiveness and the meaning of honor. Like her other duology, The Wrath and the Dawn, Ahdieh incorporates the enemies-to-lovers trope and it works reasonably well as the tension between Okami and Mariko is maintained well into the novel. Ironically neither character knows the true identity of the other. And although when they first meet their values are much different, by the end of the novel, Mariko, her eyes open to the reality of life, begins to share the ideals that Okami holds. Ahdieh also sets the stage for the next novel which will likely be set at least partly in the Imperial palace at Inako. There is a subplot involving intrigue at the palace as the Empress Genmei and the Imperial consort Kanako appear to be working against one another.

Flame in the Mist is another excellent piece of fiction by Renee Ahdieh and is highly recommended. Readers who enjoy historical fiction with a touch of both fantasy and romance will be aptly rewarded.

**spoiler alert**

This is a summary of the backstory for the second novel that is due out next year.

The end of the novel ties together many lose ends but leaves new questions. Takeda Shingen, Asano Naganori and the Emperor grew up together as boys. Takeda Shingen valued honor, Asano Naganori valued justice and the boy who was to be emperor valued ambition. Takeda Shingen who was the last shogun, was executed for treason by his friend Asano Naganori. The novel begins ten years in the past when Shingen's son, Takeda Ranmaru witnesses the death of his father by seppuku. Mariko was the little girl who saw the distraught Takeda Ranmaru after his father's execution. Realizing his mistake, Asano tried to enact justice but himself was executed by being hung upside down in Yedo Bay.  The story is now set ten years later when Mariko is being sent to the Imperial palace to marry the son of the Emperor. The Black Clan is made up of its leader Takeda Ranmaru and Okami who Mariko comes to believe is Asano Tsuneoki. However Takeda Ranmaru and Asano Tsuneoki have switched places. In fact, Okami whom she loves is actually Takeda Ranmaru. Asano Tsuneoki switched places to save Takeda Ranmaru's life as a way to pay off the debt of his father murdering Ranmaru's father years ago. This is revealed when the false Takeda Ranmaur has no idea of the weapon, the Furinkazan which is a special sword, Raiden offers him.
Mariko offers herself up in exchange for the freedom of the Black Clan, but Takeda Ranmaru also insists on being taken. Mariko insists on being taken to Inako to begin her life in the Imperial court. The novel ends with Her Imperial Majesty Yamoto Genmei, Empress of Wa murdering the Emperor by poisoning him and drowning him in a pond.
Also Amaya, the woman who loves Kenshin is alive and is in the care of Kanako, the emperor's consort and the mother of Raiden who was betrothed to Mariko. Kanako sends her Raiden to find Hattori Kenshin.

Book Details:

Flame In The Mist by Renee Ahdieh
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons     2017
392 pp.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

DVD: The Promise

The Promise is a fictional account of the systematic extermination of the Armenian Christian population undertaken by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. This event has become known as the Armenian Genocide. The movie, directed by George Kelly was made partly to bring attention to this war crime which has never been acknowledged by many Western countries nor by Turkey.

The story begins on the eve of World War I in 1914, in the vast Ottoman Turk Empire. The story is narrated by Michael Boghosian whose family have been apothecaries in the village of Siroun, Southern Turkey for two hundred years. They have served both Christians and Muslims.

Micheal wanted to study medicine at the Imperial School of Medicine in Constantinople but could not afford the fees. He became engaged to Maral and it was decided that he would use the money from her dowry to go to medical school and then return to Siroun to marry her.

At the engagement party, Maral's father Harut gives Michael four hundred gold coins and tells him to make them proud. Michael's father, Vartan gives him a letter for his Uncle Mesrob who lives in Constantinople. Michael tells Maral that he will do the three years of medical studies in two years.

Michael travels to Constantinople where he meets Mesrob, his wife Lena and their two daughters, Yeva and Tamar. He also meets Ana Khesarian, daughter of a famous violinist who is tutor to the Boghosian children. At medical school, Michael meets a Turk, Emre Ogan who is not really interested in medicine but had to choose between it and the military. That Emre is not suited for the medical profession is shown when he faints during a dissection.

Ana and Chris Myers
After class one day Michael meets Ana while she is teaching Yeva and Tamar. He finds her delightful. At a club, Ana introduces Michael and Emre to her friend and lover, Christopher Myers, who immediately recognizes Emre as a playboy who frequents opium dens.Emre tells Michael and Ana that he and Chris know one another from Paris when his father was Deputy Consul and that Chris is a renowned reporter for Associated Press. Chris warns that war is coming to Turkey. At the end of the evening Emre begs them to come to his birthday party that Sunday at Ciragan Palace.

At the party, German warships fire a salute, scaring many who are in attendance. Chris confronts the Germans in attendance, resulting in Emre's father stating that Turkey has every right to have a strong navy to protect its borders. Chris counters that the Turks want to expand their borders and declare war on the infidels - the British, French and Russians. When the German's break out in singing the national anthem, Chris reminds Michael, that  the Armenians are the resident "infidels" and will be the first to be attacked.

Michael attempts to register for a medical school exemption.
On October 29, 1914, Turkey enters World War I on the side of Germany. Immediately all men are enlisted. At the medical school, Michael learns he will not be given a medical school exemption and he is assigned to the third military division while Emre, a Turk is given one. Emre saves Michael by bribing the official to produce the exemption. But this bribe has not gone unnoticed. At the same time Chris sets out to investigate what is happening in Konya. Before he leaves, Chris tells Ana he will get obtain an American visa for her but she refuses his help.

Meanwhile Emre is confronted by his father who questions him about the exemption given to Michael Boghosian. Dr. Nazim does not accept Emre's explanation that Michael is a friend, telling him the Armenians are a tumour on the nation that must be removed.  Michael returns to Mesrob's home where he is made an offer by his uncle to buy him out of his betrothal to Ana. Michael refuses stating he has made a promise that he intends to honour.

Chris's investigations reveal that Armenian villages are being burned to the ground and men are being hanged. He also discovers hundreds of people being marched into the desert and witnesses a woman being shot in front of a small child. Meanwhile in Constantinople, things begin deteriorating. After returning from a concert at the cathedral Ana and Michael barely escape from raging Turks who destroy Armenian shops and beat Armenian citizens in the streets. At this time, Mesrob is arrested, leaving Lena alone with their daughters.

During this night, Michael and Ana become intimately involved. The next day they visit Lena and learn that Mesrob has been taken to Sikedji Prison where he is being investigated for treason. Michael takes the remaining gold from his dowry and he and Emre attempt to bribe the Turks at the prison to release Mesrob. Instead, they take his gold and Michael is arrested while Emre is forced by his father to enlist in the military.

What Chris has feared has come to pass - the Armenians are being slaughtered by the Turks, who are determined to rid themselves of infidels. Determined to reveal to the world what is happening Chris contacts American Ambassador Morgenthau. Chris becomes determined to save the woman he loves and as many of the Armenians as possible. He will barely escape with his own life while most of those he has come to love will not be so fortunate.


The Promise is a moving tribute to the 1.5 million Armenian Christians who were systematically murdered during World War I by the Turk government. Although there had been previous massacres, for example the Hamidian massacres in the late 1800's by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, international pressure had been brought to bear to stop these massacres. This was not the case in 1915. Instead, western governments dallied when confronted by what was happening, at the expense of millions of lives.

Wonderful performances are given by Oscar Isaac who plays Michael Boghosian, as well as Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale who portray Ana Khesarian and Chris Myers respectively. A strong cast of secondary characters,  Marta (Shohreh Aghdashloo), Emre Ogan ( Marwan Kenzari ) and Faruk Pasha (Tamer Hassan) round out the cast.

French helping Armenians onto French warship at Musa Dagh.
Breathtaking cinematography provides a film of stark contrasts. There is the incredible beauty of the Turkish countryside juxtaposed with the horrors of the genocide. Scenes of Armenian Christians being marched into the desert, of whole villages of Armenian Christians shot and bayoneted, of the rounding up and brutalization of Armenian men, of the work camps, and of rail cars packed with Armenian women and children are in sharp contrast to the picturesque villages and the peaceful forests. The happy lives of the Armenians as they live peacefully with their Muslim neighbours and the beautiful Christian service with Father Komitas is in contrast to the Muslim crowd rampaging through the Constantinople destroying businesses, beating and arresting Armenians. 

The movie's final scenes portray the attack on over four thousand Armenians at Musa Dagh and their rescue by the French. Chris, Michael, Yeva and Ana  are among those making their way to the shore along with other survivors. In fact, on September 12, 1915, the French Navy rescued more than four thousand trapped and unarmed Armenians from Musa Dagh mountain.

The obfuscation of Turkish officials when questioned is very effectively portrayed, particularly in the scene where Ambassador Morgenthau confronts Turkish officials. Not all Turks are portrayed badly; Emre Ogan loses his life for helping save the life of his friend Chris Myers and the Deputy Consul warns Pastor Merrill at the American mission that Faruk Pasha will spare no one and they should leave at once.

Unfortunately, the development of a love triangle involving Michael, Chris and Ana detracts from the main focus of the film. The Armenian Genocide is such a significant human story it doesn't require a plot device like a love triangle to engage viewers. Where the film succeeds is in portraying the humanity of the Armenians who love, marry and have children while the world around them goes to hell. Overall though, The Promise mostly succeeds in portraying a significant event of the 20th century and one in which the term "genocide" was first used to describe the systematic killing of a race of people. It is hoped that more films will be made to educate people on a genocide the much of the world still refuse to acknowledge.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Margaret and the Moon by Dean Robbins

Margaret And The Moon tells the story of Margaret Hamilton, computer scientist and the first software engineer. Margaret earned a B.A. in mathematics with a minor in philosophy from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana in 1958. During her time at Earlham she met James Cox Hamilton and they married after she received her B.A. She postponed work on a PH.D when she was offered the opportunity to work on the Apollo missions. At this time there were no such disciplines as computer science and software engineering, the latter a term Margaret coined while working on the Apollo program. She was responsible for the on board flight software for the Apollo and Skylab missions.

Before working on Apollo Margaret worked at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) developing software to aid in predicting weather and she also worked on the SAGE Project at Lincoln Lab where she first developed software for predicting weather systems and track their movements. This latter ability was refined for use in tracking hostile aircraft, as the Cold War was in progress. Margaret joined Charles Stark Draper Laboratory at MIT which was involved in the Apollo program, responsible for developing software for the Apollo command module and the lunar lander.

Margaret And The Moon tells the story of how Margaret's curiosity about the world around her and her love of math led her to her career in mathematics and ultimately into coding. And that's a good thing because unknown to those of us who were watching the first lunar landing in July of 1969, Margaret was the person who saved the mission.When astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were attempting to land the lunar module Eagle on the surface of the moon, the on board computers sent out an alarm. The alarms indicated the computers were overloaded with too many tasks and the landing would be aborted. But the code that Margaret Hamilton had written had foreseen this very thing and it ordered the computer to ignore those tasks and give priority to the lunar landing tasks.

Robbins picture book takes young readers through the story in a simply way and then at the back provides an Author's Note about Margaret Hamilton as well as a Bibliography and offers Additional Reading resources. Lucy Knisley's illustrations were done using ink and paper and coloured in Adobe Photoshop.
The wonderful photographs of Margaret throughout her life can be found
on the inside of the back cover of the book. A better option would have been to include these on the pages at the end.

For more background information on Margaret Hamilton, read Wired Magazine's great article, "Her Code Got Humans On The Moon -- And Invented Software Itself".

Book Details:

Margaret And The Moon by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Lucy Knisley
New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2017

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Names They Call Us by Emery Lord

Lucy Esther Hansson saves the day for her friend Brianna at prom but can she save her mother from cancer?

Prom night turns into the most difficult night of Lucy Esther Hansson's life. After rescuing friend Brianna who is dumped by her date at prom, Lucy and boyfriend Lukas stay to help clean up. Principal Cortez tips Lucy off when he tells her they are thinking of her mother. This immediately upsets Lucy because it reminds her of freshman year when her mother had breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy but did not require chemo or a mastectomy. Suspecting her mother might be ill again Lucy calls home and her mother confirms her worst fears. Lukas drives a devastated Lucy home. At home her mother tells Lucy that a lump was found during a check-up two weeks prior and the biopsy confirmed cancer. She is scheduled for surgery on Monday morning and that her father will be telling his congregation in the morning.

During the service, Lucy who is angry at God, decides to leave before her father informs his congregation. Lukas is shocked at Lucy's anger and her lack of faith in God. Her mother tries to reassure her. The next day, May 1st, Lucy's mom has both breasts removed and spends two days in hospital. The month of May is filled with graduation parties, exams and her mother's recovery from surgery as well as many doctors appointments and tests. The tests reveal that Lucy's mother's cancer is in her lymph nodes and she requires six cycles of chemotherapy.

In June, before Lucy and her parents set out for their summer camp at Holyoke, Lucy's mother approaches her about the possibility of spending the summer Daybreak, the camp across the lake. Lucy's mother's friend Rhea Mills runs Daybreak, which just had a counselor quit. Her mother suggests that the camp which is for young people who have experienced trauma in their lives, would give Lucy a chance to make new friends and better help her cope with her mother's situation. Lucy refuses but her mother tells her that she needs her to go so that she will know she will be okay without her.

Lucy is thrown another curve when she meets Lukas and he tells her he wants to put their relationship "on pause". Upset that Lukas has talked with everyone but her, Lucy agrees. Lukas wants to "reassess" their relationship when he comes to visit her at Holyoke in July.

Lucy arrives at Holyoke and meets Rhea who shows her to Cabin 3A where she will be staying with nine campers and two other counsellors. Anna Miroslaw, one of the counsellors gives Lucy a tour of the camp and introduces her to counsellors, Henry Jones, Mohan Tambe, Keely Simmons and Garcia. When a fight breaks out between two campers, Lucy feels overwhelmed and has an asthma attack, but Anna reassures her that feeling overwhelmed is common.

From the beginning Lucy finds herself attracted to Jones, a tall, dark-skinned counsellor with a big smile. They find an immediate connection because like Lucy, Jones is a musician, he plays trumpet. Jones draws Lucy into the his group and also helps her fit in by having her accompany the kids choir for the talent show. Lucy gradually begins to become part of the group, accompanying Anna, Simmons, Tambe and Jones on their Friday night parties, saving Neveah who has an allergic reaction to a bee sting. Lucy discovers that these counsellors have been at Daybreak for several years.

But as the weeks pass, Lucy begins to form friendships that help her understand life and resilience of the human spirit. Daybreak is full of secrets and secret wisdom that help Lucy cope with this stressful time in her life.


The Names They Call Us is about a young girl's journey to come to terms with her mother's illness in the midst of growing into adulthood. Lord who breaks her story into four parts, spanning from April to August, has populated her story with a cast of very diverse characters; transgender Anna Miroslaw, dark-skinned Jones and Rhea, Rose Min who is Asian, pregnant fourteen-year-old Tara and a host of characters from various backgrounds.

Lucy, daughter of a pastor, staunch Christian and an accomplished pianist and captain of the swim team, experiences two stressful events just before the beginning of summer; her mother's cancer has returned and her long-time boyfriend Lukas decides to take a break from their relationship. The return of her mother's cancer creates a severe crisis of faith for Lucy.  She begins struggling with her faith because she believed that if she prayed to God he would heal her mother. Instead her mother is ill again and she sees God has having broken his end of the bargain. "I prayed while scrubbing dishes after dinner. I prayed with every stroke, back and forth, back and forth, down my swim lane. I prayed while walking between classes...I should have begged." In the bathroom she questions, "...I think up at God: We had a deal. How could you? How could you?"

Lucy feels completely betrayed by God. She has been praying in thanksgiving all the time, for her parents, for Lukas and her Aunt Rachel. At church the Sunday after she finds out, Lucy finds she doubts Psalm 46: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. "Really, God? Where? I mean, seriously. Give me a dove with white flapping wings. A rainbow stretched over our house. Give me literally anything -- a feeling, a holy light, a burning bush..." Lucy looks at the statue of Jesus Christ above the altar and feels betrayed and alone. "He stands on the altar, stone arms wide and ivory palms up--a pose that used to look welcoming. Now He looks halfway to a shrug. Your mom has cancer again and there's nothing you can do about it. He's right. I feel helpless, hapless, planless."

This results in Lucy running out of church and when confronted by Lukas, she tells him, "I trusted God would heal my mom, and He did. Except He didn't." She finds Lukas's attitude patronizing because he doesn't have a sick mother. Lucy finds herself questioning everything about God. When Lucy's mother asks her to attend Daybreak, Lucy tells her mother that she needs to be around Christian kids, but her mother tells Lucy that faith isn't caught from other people. Lucy finds herself "hurt and confused by a God that has never hurt or confused me before."

when she visits Holyoke after her first week at the Daybreak camp, Lucy marvels at the faith of the young people there. "...I'm jealous --disgustingly, hotly jealous. My heart aches like the sore muscle it is. I covet their innocence, their easy belief. They trust the world; they trust God. They see him everywhere. Like I did, my whole life, and I didn't even know to appreciate how good I had it." Lucy puzzles over her mother's choice to read the book of Psalms, about praising and glorifying God when her mother is so sick. She also attempts to have her mother allow her to return to Holyoke for the rest of the summer. Lucy mentions the pregnant fourteen-year-old and is shocked when her mother expresses her concern that Lucy make her feel loved and supported. Lucy's parents have always taught her to wait until marriage for sex, and she can't understand her mother's disappointment with Lucy being shocked. However Lucy's visit ends with her trying to see traces of God in everything, just as her father mentioned in his sermon.

At camp Lucy finds herself still talking to God. She asks Him to help her be the good friend to Anna who it turns out is transgender. As she begins to learn the stories of the campers and the counsellors Lucy begins to feel gratitude for what she has - two parents who love her. "I've been so angry-- at God and the universe and cancer--that I think it's been hard to touch gratitude. That my mom can get treatment, that we have a support system, that I was born into such love."

From Henry though, Lucy learns the most. Henry lost his sister who committed suicide when he was ten years old. Despite being angry at God, Henry decided to chose to believe in Him. Lucy wonders if she too can choose to have faith. Over the next few days Lucy finds some measure of peace, "When I try to pray, I don't feel like a crazy person talking to a man in the sky. It feels like me choosing to ask the God I've always known for guidance. Even if one of my prayers is Please help me stop being so mad at You."

From her friends, Lucy learns how to cope with her mother's cancer and rediscovers her own faith. From Henry Lucy learns that real life is not an escape from trouble and that one cannot live in a bubble. Daybreak shows Lucy people go on living in spite of terrible things that happen. "Hasn't Daybreak shown me, day after day, that people can outlast unbelievable pain? That human hearts are like noble little ants, able to carry so much more weight than you'd expect. Hasn't my mom shown me that, every day of my life?" Keely tells Lucy, "You can be okay again. Just a different kind of okay than before." The Daybreak counsellors and campers are proof that people can survive terrible things and still have a good life.

By the end of the novel Lucy chooses to believe in a God that forgives people in a moment of despair and anger. "If I'm going to believe, it has to be in a God who would forgive my father for this word. I have to believe in a God who knows how much my father loves my mother. I have to believe in a God who would sit beside my father in that car, place His hand on my father's back. And maybe it took me until now--until this terrible moment-- to realize, but I do."

The Names They Call Us is a novel that explores a whole host of themes besides faith; that of friendship, family, dealing with loss and forgiveness. In some ways the novel takes on too much. There are several subplots; Lucy and Lukas, Lucy and her new relationship with Henry, and the secret past of her mother that Lucy uncovers at Daybreak in the midst of a medical crisis. The novel takes its title from the names people give others when they sometimes speak without thinking. For example, when Lucy's mom asks her to consider going to Daybreak Lucy refers to the camp as "the hippie camp".As Anna gives Lucy a tour around Daybreak, she refers to the Christian camp Holyoke as "It's some crazy church camp..." Lucy says nothing to counter Anna's remark because "It's just that...telling people you're religious can make them assume a whole list of things about you."

Overall a very modern take on faith in the contemporary genre of young adult fiction.

Book Details:

The Names They Call Us by Emery Lord
New York: Bloomsbury                       2017
388 pp.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

DVD: The Zookeeper's Wife

The movie, The Zookeeper's Wife tells the remarkable story of the courageous actions of Dr. Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina who were the zookeepers at the Warsaw Zoo in Warsaw, Poland in the 1930's. For their actions in aiding the Jewish citizens of Warsaw during the Nazi occupation of Poland, the Zabinski's were honoured by Yad V'shem as Righteous Among Nations.

The movie opens in Warsaw, Poland, in the summer of 1939 with Antonina opening the zoo in the morning, welcoming people. On her bike, Antonina rides through the zoo greeting the different animals, giving viewers a quick tour of the zoo and the many animals; the elephants, zebras, monkeys, lions, cheetahs and giraffes. That night at a dinner party at the zoo, with many Germans in attendance people make fun of Antonina for her care of the animals. Dr. Lutz Heck, director of the Berlin Zoo is in attendance and while he ridicules Jan he seems more But their view of Antonina changes when Jerzyk, the zookeeper requests her help for Kasia, an elephant in distress. Antonina saves Kasia's baby. She is applauded for her successful efforts.

The next day the Zabinski's discuss leaving Warsaw after they see how the Jews in the city are being treated. Jan wants Antonina and their son Rys to go to Zaliesie, but Antonina refuses because she believes people should not simply run away from what they fear. On September 1, 1939, Warsaw along with the rest of Poland is bombed. Jan is in so Antonina grabs Rys and after quickly packing a suitcase they head for the train station. There they learn there are no trains running but meet up with Jan who takes the back to the zoo. Their beloved zoo has been bombed and many of the animals killed. Some of the animals were shot by the Polish soldiers, others including lions, tigers and camels run free. Many of the escaped animals are brought back to the zoo by the people of Warsaw.

The Germans arrive in Warsaw after Poland capitulates with Rommel warning the Polish to accept the Germans peacefully. Herr Heck arrives with the information that the zoo is to be liquidated for use as meat, firewood and soap. He makes Antonina an offer to take the prize animals to Germany and return them after the war. Antonina agrees but Jan who was not present at the time of the discussion is furious.

In October of 1940, the Germans begin rounding up the Jewish citizens of Warsaw and placed into an areas of the city called the Warsaw ghetto. There is little food and fuel for the coming winter. Several of their Jewish friends Szymon Tenebaum and Magda Gross meet with the Zabinskis. Magda tells them that Maurycy Fraenkel a gentle man has been incarcerated in the ghetto. Szymon knows there is nothing the Jews can do and so he requests that the Zabinski's keep his insect collection which represents his life's work. They agree to do this and place it in their basement. Later that night Antonina suggests that perhaps they can save one life and hide Magda in their home. Jan is initially against this because they know the penalty will be death. However, Antonina believes they must help. "So we just close our eyes and let her go? Our dearest friend in all the world."

Magda is taken in and Antonina and Jan tell her she must stay quiet until cook leaves for the day but that at night she can come out and walk around. They learn that the Jewish people are suffering terribly, that there is little food and no wood. Their friend Maurycy is practicing law from a storefront in the ghetto and that it is impossible to get into the ghetto without a pass. Jan informs Antonina that there are people who want to help by hiding Jews in the zoo until safe houses can be found for them. Now it is Antonina's turn to object but when Jan tells her the Jews are trapped and starving she says "A human zoo." The two come up with a plan.

The Zabinkis travel to Berlin and tell Herr Heck they want to save their zoo because they have spent many years building it. They suggest creating a pig farm to feed the German soldiers, feeding the pigs with garbage from the ghetto. Heck tells the Zabinkis that Hermann Goering has given him permission to attempt to breed aurochsen from bison. Jan is incredulous because aurochsen have been extinct for three hundred years. He agrees to the pig farm because unknown to the Zabinkis he can use the zoo to breed his aurochsen.

The pigs arrive and Jan goes to make his first pick-up of garbage from the Warsaw ghetto. On his first trip he witnesses a young girl being forced into an alleyway by two German soldiers to be raped. Jan manages to spirit her out of the ghetto along with several boys who hide under the garbage. Each trip to the ghetto brings more women and children to the basement of the Zabinski's home in the zoo, where they stay hidden during the day.

One night the Zabinski's receive an unexpected visit from Dr. Ziegler of the Ghetto Labor Bureau and a friend of Symon. He tells them that Symon has died and asks to see his insect collection.During his visit, Ziegler tells Jan he knows what they are doing and he informs Jan that the Bureau has two doors, one of which opens into the ghetto. He tells the Zabinskis they can use the Bureau to smuggle people out of the ghetto. In August of 1942 the Warsaw ghetto is cleared. Jan begs Dr. Korczak to escape but he tells him that this is a time for calmness and asks Jan to help the children climb into the train.

Gradually Urszula with the help of the animals and her ability to paint, begins to recover from the rape, coming out of her shell. Many of the children begin painting on the walls of their hiding place.  On April 19, 1943 the final extermination of the Warsaw ghetto is undertaken and the ghetto is burned to the ground. As the Nazis work to find every Jew in Warsaw, the stress begins to wear on Jan and Antonina's marriage. Herr Heck is infatuated with Antonina who must force herself to show interest in his attentions. Antonina and Jan have a second child, Teresa.

As Germany begins to lose the war, Jan and Antonina must persevere. Jan participates in the Polish Army uprising in 1944 but is captured and sent to a prison camp. Although the Polish army is defeated, the Russians advance into Poland and the Germans are forced to evacuate the city. Hoping to learn of Jan's whereabouts, Antonina visits Herr Heck. He attempts to rape her but stops when he realizes that she was only pretending to like him. He then draws the conclusion that Antonina has been faking other things as well - hiding Jews in the zoo. Antonina must try to save those in her care at the zoo.


Directed by Niki Caro, The Zookeeper's Wife is a moving portrayal of the plight of Jews in Warsaw and the heroic efforts of Jan and Antonina Zabinski to save as many Jews as possible from certain death. Antonina and Jan Zabinski, beautifully portrayed by Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh, managed to hide three hundred "guests" in the Warsaw zoo on the pretense of running a pig farm. With the exception of Rosa Anzelowna and her mother who had their hair dyed and moved to a boarding house in Warsaw, all those hidden survived the war. The Zabinskis and their family survived the war; Jan returned home from the prison camp. They rebuilt their zoo and the Warsaw Zoo is still open to this day.

The Zookeeper's Wife is based on the nonfiction book of the same title by Diane Ackerman. It is a dramatization of the events that happened and as such is not accurate. For example, it was much too difficult to simply drive a truck filled with food scraps out of the Warsaw ghetto as portrayed in the movie. The Nazis thoroughly searched every vehicle entering and leaving the ghetto. The character of Urszula is likely fictional as the Zabinski's never kept any sort of record of who passed through the zoo on their way to safety. They were cautious and everything was meticulously planned.

Although the movie is essentially about Jan and Antonina's work with the Resistance to save Jews from the Warsaw ghetto and ultimately death, there is a subplot that revolves around the (fictional) relationship between Antonina and Herr Lutz Heck, newly appointed director of the Berlin Zoo and the zookeeper's wife, Antonina. This relationship did not exist in real life. Heck was a friend of the Zabinski's before the invasion of Poland and he was always kind to Antonina, but once the zoo was turned into a farm, Herr Heck left for Berlin and therefore there never was any opportunity for the romance portrayed in the movie. However it is this relationship that adds considerable drama to the film.

Some might not care for movie's understated approach to portraying the brutality of the Holocaust. Much of the violence is implied and rarely shown; Urszula's rape is off screen as are the murders of several Jews, and even the burning of the ghetto, Caro relies on the images of burning buildings to convey the horror. The film misses portraying the Warsaw ghetto uprising of August 1944 which happened after the liquidation of the ghetto. Instead the threat of danger is more subtle, the cost of discovery means certain death not only for the Jews in hiding but also for Jan and Antonina. Knowing this and being very organized, the Zabinskis took great care. The Jews at the zoo were moved well before the Warsaw ghetto uprising because Jan was involved and this would have made the Zabinskis and the zoo suspect. In this regard, the climax of the film, where Herr Heck realizes that the Zabinskis have been hiding Jews in the zoo and sets out to search the grounds is completely fictional and serves as dramatic license.  

Chastain who was envisioned by director Niki Caro as the actress of choice to play Antonina gives a believable portrayal of this remarkably courageous woman. The Yad Vashem World Holocaust Memorial Center has a good section on Jan and Antonina Kabinski.

This short documentary, Hiding Like Animals tells the story of survivor Stefanie Sitbon whose parents were helped by the Zabinskis.

And finally the trailer for the Zookeeper's Wife. Although not an accurate account, the movie may encourage viewers to read the book about the Zabinskis and to dig a bit deeper into their remarkable story.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Max by Sarah Cohen-Scali

Max is born on April 20, 1936, the same day as Adolf Hitler. He chooses that day as it will bring him the blessings of the Germanic gods.Max sees himself as the firstborn of the master Aryan race; he wants to be supple, lean, swift, hard and tough. He wants to hate rather than love. His mother, Frau Inge who is tall, blond and blue-eyed applied to be a Schwester (Sister) and underwent a series of detailed physical examinations. She had to prove she had no Jewish blood in her ancestry. His father was an SS officer who was paired with her.

Max is born in Steinhoring Home, on the outskirts of Munich. His birth, like those of the other babies in the Lebensborn program, is kept secret. Steinhoring was an asylum for mentally ill people but they were "relocated" - exterminated and the home was renovated. At birth Max too undergoes a detailed physical examination by SS-Oberfuhrer Gregor Ebner who, after taking numerous measurements, classifies him as being of the Nordic Aryan race. Max's mother is not allowed to hold him until he has passed the examination.

Max's mother, Frau Inge struggles after his birth as she encouraged not to use endearing terms and he is often taken away from her. Max notes that there is a sort of "magic cord" between him and his mother that allows him to sense what she is feeling. A week after his birth, Max is christened by Adolf Hitler in a ceremony attended by Reichsfuhrer-SS Himmler, Max Sollman (director of the Lebensborn program), the Fuhrer's personal doctor, Dr. Karl Brandt and his wife Anni Rehborn, Dr. Ebner, along with the mothers from Steinhoring and other Lebensborn homes. Max's mother receives an autographed photograph of them with Hitler and Max is given the new name of Konrad von Kebnersol, a mix of Dr. Ebner's and Herr Sollmann's names.

Life at Steinhoring is unsettling. Max becomes upset when he witnesses babies being removed from the home by Josefa during the nights. One night after being tenderly hugged by his mother, Max hears his mother being escorted from the home, screaming and crying. This event results in Max becoming sickly as the "magic cord" that existed between him and his mother is no longer there. He also discovers that some of the babies in the nursery have been taken to Ward 15 in the Steinhof Institute in Vienna where they undergo experimentation and are ultimately euthanized. These children, who suffer from minor defects such as harelip (cleft palate), asthma and deafness are called "rabbits". This terrifies Max to the point that he decides to banish all memories of his mother and to force himself to accept the wet nurse.

The process of adopting the babies begins, and while other babies from the nursery are adopted, Max is repeatedly not chosen. One night he is kidnapped from the nursery by a woman who has escaped from a prison camp. This woman, Magda, saw her newborn baby, Maciej shot. Max remains with her for five days as she slowly starves to death. He is rescued in terrible condition. In an attempt to rehabilitate him emotionally as part of an experiment, Max is left alone and not comforted. "Even when I yelled my head off -- my arms outstretched so they'd open the door, so they'd come and hold me, cuddle me, comfort me -- no one ever came. "

As Max grows into early childhood, Germany goes to war. Max becomes "the perfect sample product" of the Lebensborn program. The mothers who come to Steinhoring looking to adopt want to cuddle him but are not allowed to do so. When he is four years old, Max is taken to  Poznan Poland where he is used as a lure to help the Nazis steal Polish children. Working with the "Brown Sisters", Max entices other children his age to tell him about their families and where they live. During the nights the SS soldiers visit the children's homes and kidnap them. Eventually Max is sent out with a Polish concentration inmate, Bibiana. The two are very successful and Max begins to bond with her as she holds his hand, hugs him and plays games with him. But when Max tells her that his mother is Germany and his father is the Fuhrer, Bibiana revolts and she is killed. This deeply upsets Max who struggles to eat and begins rocking himself. But things only go from bad to worse for Max as he is exposed to more and more depraved situations.

Max Sollmann
Max watches the SS soldiers have sex with the German prostitutes and rape the Polish women. He hides in the back of a truck and watches the SS soldiers kidnap Polish children from their homes. Soon he is recruited to take part in the hunt for blond, blue-eyed Polish children whom the SS can kidnap. After leading a group of children safely back to their mothers, Max cruelly reports them to the soldiers. At a party in his honour the German prostitutes expose themselves to him and Max gets dangerously drunk on the left over liquor. At age six he is sent to Kalish, the SS Gaukinder Home which is the central district home of the Polish Lebensborn. There he sneaks out during the night to view both the boys and girls as they undergo the Nazi selection process by the doctors at the school. He also witnesses the murder of a boy he befriends. But when a Polish Jewish boy, Lucjan who is renamed Lukas by Dr. Ebner, arrives at the Lebensborn school, Max is about to discover everything he's been taught about people, life and the Third Reich is very different from reality.


Max is a disturbingly explicit account of the Nazi's successful program to breed racially pure "Aryan" children for the Third Reich.  All  the horrific details of the Lebensborn program are revealed in this novel through the use of omniscient first person narration of a child. The narration begins when Max is an unborn baby about to be born in 1936 through the war until the fall of Berlin in 1945. Max comes into the world, a die-hard Nazi, determined to fulfill his mission in life as a model Aryan. He's even willing to offer his life at birth should he not meet the Aryan standards. Fortunately for him, he passes and is allowed to be reunited with his mother. Soon Max experiences repeated traumas along with intense Nazi indoctrination that begin to shape him into a cold, calculating child. Can there be any kernel of love and compassion inside such a child? This is the question Cohen-Scali sets out to explore in her novel.

Baptism of Lebensborn child
Max's trauma begins immediately after birth and continues throughout his life. He is measured and examined for defects and soon his mother is removed from his life. This is "scary" for Max who simply wants to lie next to his mother and nurse. When babies with defects are removed from the nursery for experimentation, Max has nightmares and fears he will also be taken away and experimented on. When he is kidnapped from the Steinhoring nursery just before his first birthday in 1937 and is rescued five days later in serious condition, Max receives no comfort and is placed in quarantine - "I had to stay alone all day, locked in a room at the back of the building, so my crying wasn't heard." When Bibiana, is executed for rebelling against the kidnapping of Polish children, Max gets a "tummy ache" that won't go away. He stays alone and begins rocking himself. He experiences anger over Bibiana's rebellion and even dresses in the rags he used when with Bibiana because they retain some of her smell. After helping a few Polish children escape, Max experiences anger that these children have mothers who love them. Instead of helping them, Max decides that one of the boys "must become German" and turns them in. When Max's friend Wolfgang is murdered in cold blood in front of him for not saluting a German officer, he is unable to sleep, has nightmares and begins wetting the bed. Max is six years old at this time. Without comfort, he uses the distraction of watching young girls being stripped and examined for the program at Kalish. In Berlin he witnessed more shootings, rapes and the murder of his friend.

All of these events, each shocking in its own right, show Max as a victim who struggles to protect himself by denying what's happening and by attempting to take some kind of control over his life. Despite his fear, and believing he is the vanguard of an Aryan nation destined to take over the world, Max views himself as a leader for his peers whom he refers to as his "buddies". He wants to be seen as "made of Krupp's steel." As a result, he views any action that enhances the Aryan nation as acceptable in spite of his fear or even natural revulsion. When babies are removed from the nursery for experimentation, Max comes to believe this is acceptable for the success of the Third Reich. "I understand now that my buddies' sacrifice was essential in guaranteeing that the Reich's medical science is the finest in the world. Markus, Edith, Klaus, and all the "rabbits" from the other Homes can be proud because they will be contributing to great discoveries: vaccines against tuberculosis and typhus (diseases spread by Jews and Gypsies), medications to heal the wounds of our soldiers at the front...I know now that we make up a chain, every link of which, even the smallest is vital. The weak die so the strong can become invincible." When the bond between Max and is mother is broken, at first Max is upset but he comes to view this as making him stronger. " more magic cord! It no longer exists. I've cut the umbilical cord once and for all. My memory of Mother is fading...I can't remember her smell anymore, or the feeling of pressing against the soft pillow of her breasts. Soon I'll have forgotten she existed. Besides, I'm going to erase the word mother from my vocabulary." When Max becomes the linchpin in the kidnapping of elite Polish children in order to Germanize them for the Third Reich, he believes this is necessary, "Such a brilliant idea! A bit like a blood transfusion. New blood for Germany, while weakening the enemy."

However, Max's view of the world is changed by his interactions with Lukas, a Polish Jew who physically is the Aryan ideal. This is a complete puzzle to Max who has been indoctrinated into the belief that all Jews look a certain way. Lukas tells Max that his mother was a beautiful, intelligent Polish woman who was educated and spoke French and German fluently. He was saved from the Jewish ghetto when his parents sent him away to be hidden by a non-Jewish Polish woman. Lukas's life was saved, his father and brother perished in the Jewish ghetto and his mother was sent to Treblinka. Lukas's story confuses Max, who begins to question what he's been told. "Perhaps Lukas's family didn't deserve it? Perhaps an exception should have been made for them? Perhaps there are good Jews? How do you know? At this point in my thinking, I admit that I'm lost..."

Max 's doubt is increased during biology class which is devoted to learning how to identify Jews based on physical characteristics. Lukas who is Jewish has none of the "identifying" characteristics. "But on the other hand, something wasn't quite right. If you wrote Lukas's statistics into the chart the teacher had given us at the beginning of the class, his would be identical to the Aryan measurements. Moreover, Lukas had the green racial fitness certificate. I wanted to tell the teacher everything, that Lukas was Jewish and Aryan -- so he could explain the contradiction to me, once and for all." "I'm surprised how, Polish or German, Aryan or not, we aren't that different. For the most part, my buddies here are just like the ones I had in Kalish. They have the same faults, especially the six-year-olds. It's hard for them to get up at 6:00 on the dot to go running...Hard to get dressed in a rush...Hard not to fall asleep in class."   At the Napola Max is forced to another realization; "I'm surprised how, Polish or German, Aryan or not, we aren't that different. For the most part, my buddies here are just like the ones I had in Kalish. They have the same faults, especially the six-year-olds. It's hard for them to get up at 6:00 on the dot to go running...Hard to get dressed in a rush...Hard not to fall asleep in class."

Max believes his contact with Lukas is "de-Aryanizing" him. And yet when Lukas is sent to a munitions factory Max experiences distress both over his absence and the fact that Germany is losing the war, leading him to begin cutting himself. When Lukas returns he is depressed, chain smokes and won't eat. Max cares for Lukas and learns the source of Lukas's turmoil when he tells him about the "Final Solution". "The events of the past few months have shown me that they don't tell us everything at the Napola. Information is filtered, altered. The things Lukas told me before he left for his training, things I refused to believe, have been proven to be true." All of this only deepens the conflict within Max and he begins to understand that he has been a part of something terrible.He decides to keep his bargain with Lukas and to tell his story in the orphanage in Bavaria.

Max is a very different historical novel, written from a unique perspective. Well worth the time if the reader is not familiar with the Lebensborn program. The character Max is fictional, however Lukas is based on Salomon Perel, who was able to pass himself off as Aryan and who survived the war. Max Sollmann, Gregor Ebner, and Johanna Sander were all real life people. The Author's Note at the back details more about these people and the Lebensborn program, as well as providing readers with follow-up material.
Prospective readers should know that this book contains explicit sexual content. Because of the graphic violence and sexual content this novel it is recommended only for older teens and adults.

The Jewish Virtual Library and information on the Lebensborn Program.

Book Details:

Max by Sarah Cohen-Scali (translation from the French by Penny Hueston)
New York: Roaring Book Press 2017
421 pp. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Orphan Train Girl by Christina Baker Kline

This edition of the Orphan Train Girl is based on Kline's New York Times bestseller, Orphan Train and is for younger readers. Orphan Train Girl weaves together two stories, that of Irish immigrant Niamh who is orphaned in a fire in 1929 and that of Native America Molly Ayer who is living in a foster home. Both girls are connected by a common thread that includes the loss of family and identity.

Molly Ayer lives with her foster parents, Dina and Ralph  in Spruce Harbor, Maine. One day while at the Spruce Harbor Public Library Molly tried to steal a paperback copy of The Secret Garden. She was caught by the librarian, Mrs. LeBlanc and her social worker, Lori was called. Lori arranged for Molly to do twenty hours of community service and Dina and Ralph agreed she could continue to stay with them. Molly's best and only friend, Jack came up with the idea that Molly could help clean Mrs. Daly's attic. Jack's mother cleans Mrs. Daly's home and had mentioned that the elderly woman needed help with this task.

Molly meets Mrs. Daly - Vivian who is to the point but kind and who asks Molly about her life. Molly tells her that she is a Penobscot Indian and that when she was younger she lived on a reservation near Old Town. She doesn't tell Vivian that her father died in a car crash and her mother was unable to cope and eventually she was placed into care. After being shuffled around to various families she ended up with Dina and Ralph. When Vivian reveals that she too is an orphan, she tells Molly vaguely that there was a fire.

Vivian's backstory is revealed in the chapters about Niamh (pronounced Neeve) Power. Niamh arrives in America with her family, month on the Agnes Pauline when she is seven years old. Her family is from County Galway in Ireland and they arrive at Ellis Island having left their country because of the potato famine. Niamh's family thought they would find a better life in America but instead they found "the grimy streets of lower Manhattan, a dishwashing job for Da at a pub, and a small apartment on Elizabeth Street for ten dollars a month."

Nine-year-old Niamh's life is changed forever when a fire sweeps through their apartment. Mam wakes Niamh and takes eighteen-month-old Maisie, while Da tries to waken the twins, James and Dominick. But Niamh finds herself alone on the sidewalk. The doctor tells Niamh that her mother has died and that there is no hope for Maisie. With no family to take her in, Niamh is taken to the Children's Aid Society by her neighbor Mr. Schatzman. Weeks later Niamh finds herself boarding a train along with twenty other orphans, chaperoned by Mrs. Scatcherd and Mr. Curran. Niamh is given charge of a little boy named Carmine. Mrs. Scatcherd tells the children that they are on an orphan train which will take them (hopefully) to new homes in the countryside. One of the older boys, Dutchy doesn't want to be on the train as he'd rather be out on the street working shining shoes.  After a transfer in Chicago's Union Station that did not go well, Niamh finds herself and the rest of the orphans in Minneapolis at the Milwaukee Road Depot. Here people will come with the intention of choosing a child to take home with them. Both Carmine and Dutchy are chosen although Dutchy is not happy. He gives Niamh his lucky penny. Niamh then travels to Alban where she is picked by Mrs. Byrne who renames her Dorothy and sets her to work making clothing. It is the first of several terrible homes Niamh will be sent to before things get better.

As Vivian reveals her story it becomes apparent that she and Molly have much in common and what starts out as a boring attempt to help an elderly woman might actually come to mean much more to both of them.


Orphan Train Girl juxtaposes two narratives, one in the present and one set in 1929-1930. The stories appear to be very separate- in the present day, Molly who has been caught stealing is sent to help the elderly Vivian clean out her attic while the story set in 1929 is about a poor Irish immigrant girl who is sent on an orphan train to find a new family.
However it soon becomes apparent that Niamh's story is really about Vivian when she was young.

Although Vivian and Molly seem very different, their lives are very similar. Vivian loses her family and thus loses connection with her Irish heritage while Molly who is half Penobscot, also doesn't have a family to care for her. Both Vivian and Molly experienced being sent to several homes where they were not treated well. Like Vivian, who ended up with the caring Nielsens, Molly too comes to find that Dina and Ralph also care for her and despite several misunderstandings, they affirm that they want her to stay with them.

Both Molly and Vivian are able to help each other because of their similar life experiences. Vivian, now elderly has come to terms with her experiences as an orphan and is able to help Molly. Likewise, Molly is the first person Vivian has ever told her story to. '"I've never told anyone else about my early life," Vivian continues.'I didn't even tell the Nielsens. We didn't discuss things much in those days. Nowadays people talk about everything.'"

Of the two narratives, Vivian's story about her experiences as an orphan train child was the more interesting one. Little has been written about the orphan trains and the ordeals orphan children experienced. Kline's novel certainly highlights how poorly these children were treated both by the social system in place at the time and by their "adoptive" families. Little regard was given to the health and education of these children, many of whom suffered traumatic loss and who were dearly in need of some love and care. Instead they were paraded in front of complete strangers who then chose them (if they were lucky). Most ended up on farms doing labor, others were sent into homes But Kline also shows that orphans today also face many of the same challenges. Molly struggles to fit in at school. However once her home situation improves, like Vivian she begins to reach out more and to make friends. Vivian shows Molly that there is hope for her life to get better.

Orphan Train Girl is an interesting read about the little known practice of the orphan trains in the United States. It should appeal to a limited younger audience interested in historical fiction.

Book Details:

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
HarperCollins Children's Books      2017
228 pp.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Lost and Found Cat by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes

Lost and Found Cat is a picture book about a family escaping the war in Iraq who lose their beloved cat Kunkush. and their cat's incredible journey from Mosul, Iraq to Norway. On an August night in 2015 a family from Mosul begin their journey to escape the war in Iraq. First by car, then by foot across the mountains, and finally by bus to Istanbul, Turkey the family and their cat make their way to the island of Lesbos. All this time Kunkush has been safely hidden. Kunkush even manages to survive the crowded boat journey to Lesbos where he wanders off. Distraught, the family must continue on their journey. Meanwhile, people aiding refugees in Greece begin the search for Kunkush, starting a remarkable effort to return the cat to his family.

Lost and Found Cat is based on a true story of how many caring people came together to bring a lost cat back to his family. When Sura, an Iraqi refugee and her five children arrived on Lesbos, their white cat, Kunkush escaped from his basket. Although volunteers searched for hours, Kunkush was not found. The family moved on but the volunteers did not forget about the missing cat. Several days later, volunteer Amy Shrodes along with others noticed the bedraggled, filthy cat who seemed not to be a part of the cats who frequented the local cafes near the shore. Amy took the cat to a veterinarian who tended to the cat and gave him the name Dias. Now the search began for the refugee family who Kunkush belonged to. Using social media, including a facebook profile featuring Dias, Kunkush's family was tracked to Norway where they had settled.

Sura and Kunkush are finally reunited.
Illustrator Sue Cornelison's vivid paintings help to tell Kunkush's story. The back of the picture book features A Note From Doug and Amy about why they worked so hard to find Kunkush's family.

"We are living in an unique time in history, a time when the Internet allows us to meet people from other cultures and hear their perspectives about what is going on in our world. We all have something valuable to share and the ability to reach out and help. This story is about making that choice. It is only because of all the people who got involved that Kunkush found his family. His story helps us remember that we all need each other." 

The book also contains a map showing Kunkush's journey back to his family and many photographs taken by Doug Kuntz, Amy Shroder and Kunkush's family of Kunkush. Lost and Found Cat is a heartwarming story about how people working together can help one another in the most trying of times and how even the smallest of actions, such as finding a lost pet can mean so much.

Book Details:

Lost and Found Cat by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes
New York:  Crown Books for Young Readers       2017

Photo credit: