Monday, July 27, 2015

The Trials by Stacey Kade

The conclusion to Kade's Project Paper Dolls series is an exciting novel that leaves readers engaged.

The Trials opens with Ariane Tucker back at GTX preparing for the trials starting in two days somewhere in the Chicago area. The trials are between three companies, Dr. Jacob's GenTex, Dr. David Laughlin's Laughlin Integrated and Dr. Emerson St. John's Emerson Technology to determine which of the human/alien hybrids created by these companies is the best. The winner will secure a lucrative government contract to create a line of supersoldiers, while the losers will either die in the competition or be destroyed afterwards. Ariane will represent GTX, while Laughlin Integrated will have the communal hybrids, Ford and Carter. Who Emerson Technology will send remains a mystery.

Ariane's friend, Zane Bradshaw is dead, left bleeding out in the parking lot where Ariane was caught between Dr. Jacobs and Dr. Laughlin. Devastated at his loss, Ariane is determined to kill to end the program, destroying all of the hybrids including herself and the scientists who created them. Ariane considers that her true opponent is Ford, who looks like her and is possibly her clone. She feels sadness at the fact that she must kill Ford, who like her, is innocent. "I couldn't let it be Ford. This had to end. Jacobs and Laughlin, they couldn't be allowed to keep using us, taking from us."

While waiting for the trials to begin, Ariane has been honing some of her alien abilities such as controlling various objects at a time and having to deal with Rachel Jacob's constant presence by her glass cell. Rachel reveals to Ariane that Zane's body has never been found and that it never showed up at the hospital. Ariane assumes that either Jacobs or Laughlin covered up his death.

The next day, Ariane discovers that a meeting between all of the competitors has been set up prior to the trials. Dr. Jacobs dresses Ariane in a shirt and jeans from her home where she lived with Mark Tucker, her "father". Ariane is taken to the Manderlay Hotel where Jacobs dresses her in a red, oversized UW-Madison sweatshirt. The trial will consist of tracking and identifying an assigned target. They are to find the target, whose photograph they will be given, confirm the identity and transmit a photo and then await further instructions. They are told the target will be within the city limits for the next forty-eight hours and has no idea that they are being hunted. This revelation surprises Ariane who assumed that they would simply fight one another.

The meeting reveals that Ford and Carter will be part of McLaughlin's team. But the bigger surprise is that Emerson St. John has two entries, a former soldier, Adam, and a special model,  Zane Bradshaw. St. John states that his method does not involve growing alien/human hybrids from scratch but enhancing humans with alien genetic material. Ariane is horrified to see that Zane has telekenetic abilities and is able to contact her telepathically to arrange a meeting the following morning.

Unknown the Ariane is that Zane was saved by Dr. St. Emerson, who injected him with a virus  designed to deliver and insert alien DNA into his human DNA, thus enhancing him.The DNA-altering virus, RSTS47 healed Zane's bullet wound and internal injuries in a few days and also gave Zane some of the abilities characteristic of the alien DNA. However, unlike Adam, who has been turned into a supersoldier, Zane's body has not been coping well with the virus-altered DNA.

Dr. Emerson, working with Justine from the Department of Homeland Security, hoped to use Zane to be able to get one of the alien/human hybrids that have been created. The Project Paper Dolls had been funded by the Department of Defense but the DHS wanted to use Ariane not as a test subject, but as an expert resource. However, Emerson and Justine do not want Adam to be the prime candidate; instead they believe Zane with his previous relationship with Ariane has the best chance of convincing her to join them. This enrages Adam who only reveals that Zane's "target" is a guy.

Meanwhile, Ariane cannot understand why Zane is involved in the trials and she wonders if Zane is still the boy she knew back at Wingate. She and Jacobs believe that Emerson hopes to distract Ariane by the presence of Zane, allowing Ford to take the lead. Ariane's envelope leads her to believe that the target is a college age girl. Jacobs tells her that her position will be monitored at all times using the GPS in her phone as well as a black triangle that monitors vitals. He also shows Ariane a picture of her mother, who carried her for six months and tells her that if she does not cooperate there might be problems for her.

Ariane meets Zane in the hotel hallway as he requested, allowing him to explain how Emerson saved him with his DNA-carrier virus which he calls NuStasis and to reassure her that he is still the same Zane. He also tells her that They also encounter Ford who wants tells them that Carter has been removed from the trials and will remain safe if Ford wins and she warns Ariane to stay away from the target. Unable to tell her about Justine's offer, Zane arranges an second meeting at an eatery. He arrives to find Justine and Ariane have already met and not in a friendly way.

Justine reveals that she has been working with Dr. St. John for the last seven years and that she's part of the Department of Homeland Security. She tells Ariane that they are interested not in using her as a  weapon but as a technical advisor and reveals that the remnants of the Roswell spacecraft are somehow connected to the alien DNA. Justine tells her that in exchange, they are willing to offer Ariane a chance to live a mostly normal life, attending school but having a security team. Ariane refuses Justine's offer believing that instead of freedom she will always be in a cage of her own making.  Ariane also knows she has to end the experiments by Laughlin and Jacobs especially when Justine reinterates that this in not her primary concern. In an attempt to convince Ariane, Justine reveals that there are have been further sightings of UFO's clustered near the locations of the alien/human hybrids. The UFO's appear to be similar to the type of craft recovered at Roswell and Justine tells Ariane that they believe they are searching for the source of the living alien tissue. Justine indicates the the DHS believes the Roswell technology has a genetic component - that it is functional if it interacts with the living alien tissue, tissue that makes up part of Ariane.

Once Ariane understands what Justine's group wants she begins to seriously consider her offer, but she is disturbed that the trials will continue for Ford and Carter and the target. However Zane and Ariane discover that everyone has been given different targets. Ariane's target is Adam's sister, while Adam's target is a male. With everyone having different targets this means that this is only the first part of the trial with direct confrontation between each of the surviving candidates likely the second stage. Worried that his mom and Quinn might be part of this, Zane contacts his mother to tell her he is alive and to check if they are fine. His mother is relieved but then threatens that if he doesn't come home she will be forced to act.

When Ariane doesn't fully commit to Justine she becomes aware that Justine intends to force her to come with her. Ariane and Zane manage to escape Justine and her agents in order to discover the real truth about the trials and to stop for once and all, Dr.Jacob and Dr. Laughlin. What they will uncover is far worse than they could have imagined, convincing Ariane that she must take down Jacobs and Laughlin.

Discussion

The Trials does a great job of wrapping up the Project Paper Dolls series with a believable, satisfying conclusion. Kade maintains suspense through the early part of the story by not revealing the true nature of the trials. Ariane expects that she will have to physically fight the other alien/hybrids however, this is not the case.Instead she learns of a more sinister reality when Zane's mother goes public with the truth about GTX and its role in human experimentation on children. Kade chose a more realistic storyline to conclude her series, adding an air of believability to the ending.

The major revelation near the end of the novel by Laughlin is shocking. Laughlin reveals the exact procedure that created Ariane -  a fertilized human egg and the alien genetic material. The revelation reveals the connection between Rachel and Ariane as well as what really happened to Ariane's biological mother. These revelations only serve to reinforce Ariane's belief that Laughlin and Ford must be stopped. However, this sets up a conflict between Ford and Ariane. Ford wants to kill Laughlin, something Zane tries to talk Ariane out of participating in. Zane knows that Ariane has fought constantly against using her abilities to harm others. When she stopped Joseph Zadowski's heart she performed CPR on him to save him. But he also recognizes that Ariane wants to listen to Ford. "If she did, it would destroy her. I understood the urge to kill Jacobs, more so now than ever. But the kind of person Ariane was, it would break something in her. She was a defender of the weak, the innocent...Murdering someone in cold blood, even a person she hated, would end her. She woudn't be able to live without punishing herself. Ariane, the girl I loved, would disappear beneath waves of misery and self-loathing." Ariane tries to negotiate with Ford for the lives of Zane, Rachel and Emerson St. John. However Zane tells her if she participates in Jacobs and Laughlin's deaths she will never be free of them and she will become what they have always believed she is - a weapon. In the end, Ariane's decision is taken away from her by Ford's actions. It's a tidy finish that sees the true villains get their just desserts, while Ariane and Zane eventually are able to restart their lives.

One of the main themes of this novel is Ariane's struggle to be accepted by humans as a person rather than as a lab specimen or a product, in this case, a weapon to be sold. Ariane must deal with how everyone views her as somehow less than human despite the fact that she has abilities that humans do not. Zane's mother, Mara Bradshaw and Ariane's schoolmate, Rachel Jacobs consider Ariane and the other alien/human hybrids to not be "real" people. This is also Dr. Jacob's opinion too, as he refers to Ariane by her serial number, 107 which is the shortened form of GTX-F-107, effectively dehumanizing her. He doesn't view her as a person who has feelings but more as a robot. This is demonstrated by his having Rachel spend time with Ariane in an attempt to "humanize" her so that she will be more appealing to the government agency seeking his technology. In fact, the alien/hybrids are portrayed as more ethical and empathetic than many of the humans who are seen as grasping for power and money.

Ariane is a strong, ethical character in The Trials, determined to end the research of Dr. Jacobs and Dr. Laughlin even if it means her death while at the same time saving Carter and Ford. Even when she is finally taken away by Justine, Ariane manages to negotiate a deal that works in her favour. Ford redeems herself in this novel, sacrificing her life to make sure that Laughlin's research will never more forward, while Zane too is willing to sacrifice his life to help Ariane - he takes a dangerous experimental virus so as to be able to enter the trials and convince Ariane to take Justine's offer.

Project Paper Dolls is a really good series that will appeal to those who like sci fi and adventure. While The Trials was a good finish to this series, the best book was the middle novel, The Hunt.


Book Details:

The Trials by Stacey Kade
New York: Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group     2015
328 pp.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Movie: The Woman In Gold

The Woman In Gold tells the story of Maria Altmann, an Austrian Jew who fled her homeland shortly after the Anschluss, and her quest to restore to her family, the art stolen by the Nazi regime some sixty years earlier. 

Maria Victoria Bloch-Bauer who was born February 18, 1916 was the daughter of Gustav and Theresa Block-Bauer. She was the niece of Adele Bloch Bauer, a patron of the arts and culture of Vienna in the early 20th century. The Bloch-Bauer family moved within the artistic and cultural circles of what would later be known as Vienna's Golden Age. This meant they also knew the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, whose grandson, a half a century later, would help restore the stolen paintings to their family. Salons were often hosted by Adele Bloch-Bauer and Maria frequently visited the home of the Bloch-Bauer's and remembered it filled with paintings, tapestries and beautiful furniture. Adele's husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer was a wealthy businessman who commissioned two paintings of his wife, Adele, when she was twenty-five years old. Klimt painted the first one, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, a magnificent painting done in oil and gold foil, in 190. The painting soon came to represent Vienna's Golden Age.

Adele passed away in 1925 at the age of 44 from meningitis. In 1937, Maria married Frederick "Fritz" Altmann, an opera singer. With the forced annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938, known as the Anschluss, the Bloch-Bauers, like most Jews in Europe, were soon to see their lives destroyed. The Nazis immediately began plundering the art and jewelry collections of wealthy Jewish citizens and the Bloch-Bauers were not spared. The Nazis used the Bloch-Bauer's castle as their base of operations and looted Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's art and jewelry; among the haul, six Klimt paintings and jewelry including an elaborate choker given to Maria on her wedding day. Ferdinand had already fled first to Prague then to Switzerland. Although Adele had indicated her wish that the paintings be displayed in the Galerie Belvedere in Vienna, this did not happen directly as the paintings were stolen by the Nazi's. Ferdinand passed away in 1945, after unsuccessfully attempting to get his property back from the Austrian government. He willed his estate to Maria Altmann and several other nieces and nephews.

Maria's parents also had their possessions looted. Her father lost his beloved Stradivarius cello, a loss that broke his heart and probably contributed to his death just weeks later. Realizing the threat the Nazi's presented to Jews, Maria's brother-in-law, Bernhard Altmann and his family had already fled to London, England.When the Nazis overran Austria, in order to force him to sign over his very productive textile factory, Bernhard's brother Fredrick was imprisoned in Dachau but was released when Bernhard complied. With the family under house arrest, their possessions looted and hatred against the Jewish population mounting, Maria and Fredrick knew they had to escape. With the help of a friend they were able to fly to Cologne and then cross into the Netherlands, eventually emigrating to America. They left behind her parents, her extended family and a life of wealth and culture in Vienna.

As the years passed Maria and Fritz lived their life in Los Angeles, raising a family but never forgetting what was taken from them, but also held little hope that they would live long enough to see restitution, despite many countries signing agreements to restore stolen property.

In 1998, Austrian investigative journalist, Hubertus Czernin published a piece about the Klimt paintings belonging to Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. His research showed that Adele did not bequeath the paintings to the Galerie Belvedere, something Maria had always been led to believe. Czernin's research resulted in Austria enacting the Art Restitution Law allowing families to file claims for the restitution of art stolen by the Nazi regime in Austria.  Maria learned about the new law and the situation involving her family's painting from a friend in Austria. Determined to recover her family's paintings, Maria engaged E. Randol Schoenberg, grandson of the Austrian composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Ziesl. It is Maria Altmann and Randol Schoenberg's struggle to get the Austrian government to return Altmann's family's property - in this case, five Klimt paintings that is portrayed in the historical drama, The Woman In Gold.

The Woman In Gold was directed by Simon Curtis. tells the remarkable story of a beautiful painting stolen from a family and almost lost to them forever. The events surrounding the restitution of the Klimt painting to the closest living relatives of the Bloch-Bauers are fairly accurately portrayed in with some minor differences. Maria Altmann is portrayed by Oscar, Tony and Emmy Award winner, Helen Mirren. Mirren's performance in The Woman in God is quite endearing, a mixture of German forwardness and Old World charm. Randol Schoenberg is played by Ryan Reynolds. In the movie, Schoenberg is shown to have little knowledge of the Holocaust, but in real life, Schoenberg grew up listening to Maria's stories about life under Nazi rule and her flight to freedom. He first saw the Klimt painting when he visited Vienna as a boy and his mother told him the shimmering lady in gold belonged to Maria Altmann's family. When Schoenberg represented Maria, he was unapologetic in talking about what Austrians did to his grandmother's generation. After winning the right to sue the Austrian government, Schoenberg decided to trust an arbitration panel in Austria. He learned of the Austrian Arbitration Court's order to return the Klimt paintings to Maria Altmann on January 16, 2006 via a text message on his Blackberry. Journalist Hubertus Czernin, who died only months after Maria's victory was well portrayed by Daniel Bruhl who captured Czernin's quiet intensity and determination to force his fellow Austrians to confront their collaboration with the Nazis.

To connect the present efforts of Maria Altmann to recover the stolen Klimts with her tragic past, Curtis uses flashbacks to fill in the back story of Maria's life in Austria when the Nazis came to power. The scenes involving the Nazi plunder of works of art and jewelry are extremely well done, evoke a sense of outrage and leave viewers thirsty for the justice that Maria seeks. They also allow viewers to understand how life changed so suddenly in Vienna, a city the rival of Paris in art and culture. There are scenes of Jews being forced to scrub the sidewalks, forced into trucks and of Orthodox Jews having their beards cut and their heads shaved. The fear and confusion of the Jewish citizens is effectively captured in these scenes and Maria and Fritz's harrowing escape is intense.

The Woman In Gold is highly recommended for those interested in period pieces and historical films.



For those interested in learning more about the Holocaust restitution, they are referred to the Jewish Virtual Library website which has the following pages: Holocaust Restitution: Recovering Stolen Art

Of interest is a talk Randol Schoenberg gave on the Klimt restitution:





Monday, July 20, 2015

The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig

Before the blast, they say there'd been sermons about fire, about the end of the world. The fire itself gave the last sermon; after that there were no more.

The Fire Sermon is a dystopian novel about a world completely destroyed by a cataclysmic event and the survivors divided against one another. The blast four hundred years ago had destroyed everything, scorching the earth, filling the rivers with ash. Time was divided into Before and After.

From the bards, Cassandra and the people of her time learned that "other nations, across the sea, sending flame down from the sky" had caused a fire that consumed everything and exposed everyone to radiation. Afterwards came the Long Winter. Her father told her that "If there'd once been other lands, across the sea, there were no longer, as far as any sailor had lived to tell." There were rumours of Elsewhere, countries across the sea as well as an island where Omegas lived free of Alpha oppression.  Cass's father warns her not to ask questions about the Before, Elsewhere or the island. The people from the Before had delved too deeply into things and brought destruction upon themselves. Anything from the Before was taboo, the Electric and any other technology, most of which was destroyed in the blast.

Those who survived  the blast were deafened and blinded. Three generations after the blast and after the Long Winter during which there were almost no births, twin births began happening. The twins were always one boy and one girl, with one being robustly perfect and called the Alpha while the other twin, the Omega having some kind of imperfection. The twins were forever linked; "twins came in pairs and they died in pairs." Extreme pain, serious illness, accidents and loss of consciousness in one twin would lead to the other experiencing the same. The Omega twins were always infertile; only Alphas could produce children but they continued to produced twins. Once one of the twins was identified with a defect they were sent away to special settlements where they lived a subsistence lifestyle. The settlements were located on the least fertile land. Some Omega's who could not survive in the settlements were allowed to live in refuges near the large Alpha towns where they were fed and housed by the local Councils. They could not be allowed to die since that would mean their Alpha would die too.

While most of the defects in Omegas were physical, some Omegas had an unseen defect; the ability to have visions of both future and past events. On the outside both Zach and Cassandra appear to be physically perfect. But while her twin, Zach slept through the night, Cassandra would have dreams of large cities, of storms that would arrive the next evening and of the blast. Cass knew that her difference needed to remain hidden, otherwise she would be identified as a seer and they would be "split". And so her parents waited for their defect to become apparent so they could identify one as Omega and one as Alpha and send the defective one, the Omega twin away. Zach becomes increasingly impatient as the years pass as their status as unsplit twins prevents him from becoming part of the Alpha society. As unsplit twins, Zach and Cass are marginalized in their village, Zach being unable to attend school and the two of them taunted.

Although some parents did not want to send away their Omega child, most were happy to get rid of the Omega which they considered poison and freaks. When they were thirteen, their father fell sick with a fever and his twin, Alice was sent for. Alice lived in abject poverty in the Omega settlement she was confined to. Eventually both Alice and Cass and Zach's father die, leaving Zach in charge. The first thing Zach does is to have a Councilman come to their home and brand Cass with the Omega symbol on her forehead. Four days later Cass is sent away to live in Alice's cottage in the settlement. Cass lives there for six years before she is taken away to the town of Wyndham. In those six years Zach's life changes drastically. After an apprenticeship at the council in Wyndham, he became a Councilor. Also during this time conditions for the Omega's began to deteriorate; Omega's were forced out of long-held settlements, Alpha raiders stole cattle and destroyed crops, leading more and more Omega's to seek out the settlements. Cass's mother comes to visit her and tells her that Zach is becoming a powerful Councilor known as the Reformer. Because there are strong rivalries between the Councilors, her mother warns her that people will try to get to Zach through her. She tells Cass that many Councilors keep their Omega twins in the Keeping Rooms beneath the Council chambers at Wyndham. And this is exactly what Zach does to Cass.

Six years after arriving at the settlement, Cass is kidnapped and taken to Wyndham where she is placed in one of the Keeping Rooms. At first she is occasionally allowed out onto the ramparts of the mountainside fort. The only person who visits is an Omega woman called the Confessor who attempts to get Cass to reveal her visions to her in order to help Zach. The Confessor is able to penetrate Cass's mind and learn that she knows about the island but Cass refuses to tell her anything about her visions. Even when she shows up with a map and tries to enter more deeply into Cass's mind, and even when Zach threatens her, telling her that there are worse things being done to Omega's at the fort, Cass does not relent.

Soon Cass begins experiencing new more frightening visions of glass tanks with tubes and wiring, and eventually bodies, suspended in a viscous liquid that seemed to slow everything until even the waving of their hair was lethargic. From each drooping mouth, a tube...Most had their eyes closed, but even those few with open eyes wore entirely blank expressions,..." The dreams of the tanks continue for three years but then change when Cass begins seeing an empty tank and then herself in one of the tanks. Desperate to get out of her cell she sends Zach a message begging him to allow her outside for ten minutes in exchange for information about an important dream. When Zach takes her outside however, Cass manages to trick him, locking him inside and finding her way into the mysterious tank room. There she finds hundreds of tanks with human beings in them who seem to be half alive. However one of the tanks contains a young man who seems alert. Cass after a great deal of effort manages to break the tank and extract the man from the tank. Together the two of them escape the compound and flee into the wilderness. The boy who is Cass's age has no memory of his life before being in the tank. The fact that he is missing an arm means he is an Omega. Cass names him Kip and together they decide to try to find their way to the island the Council is so determined to locate. It is a journey that will lead to both uncovering Zach's sinister plan for the Omegas and one of them making the ultimate sacrifice.

Discussion

The Fire Sermon is yet another dystopian novel in a genre that has dominated young adult fiction for the past five years and continues to do so. Its plot is typical - a post apocalyptic world so devastated that the survivors must make impossible decision to survive. In Fire Sermon the survivors of "the blast" are born in pairs, one perfect (Alpha) twin and one (Omega) twin with a defect. The Omega twins, who are considered the carriers of the "poison" from the blast that ruined their society, are isolated from the Alphas. The Omega twins are all but starved and abandoned, and the only thing keeping them alive is that their death will kill their Alpha twin. Like most societies in a dystopia, information is strictly controlled. The people are told that any contact with technology from the Before is taboo and this is strictly enforced by punishments. However most of the Omegas and the Alphas do not know that the Alpha leaders are using whatever Before technology they can to implement a "final solution" of sorts - where all the Omegas are placed in tanks in a sort of stasis so that the Alphas can live a life unencumbered by their weaker twin. It is a society that is turned on itself. Alphas against Omegas and the pursuit of perfection.

Into this story, inject the themes of family, loyalty and acceptance.  One of the dominant themes is that of acceptance and looking for what we have in common instead of focusing on our differences. Cass begins to understand this when her Aunt Alice, her father's Omega twin is brought to their home, very sick. While nursing her, Zach asks her what is wrong with her because her defect is not readily apparent. Alice explains her minor physical defect but she also astutely points out to Zach "If we were all so drastically different from Alphas, darling, why would they need to brand us?"

When Zach visits Cass in the Keeping Rooms he tells her that they have only one life between them, that this is the way the world works. Cass challenges him to change the world. "...You said you want to be a big, important person and change the world. It didn't occur to you that we were changing the world, every day day we weren't split?"

Unlike the Council, the Assembly, Zach or Owen, Cass doesn't want to take sides. She wants all people, the Omega's and the Alpha's to live in harmony. When a vision reveals to Cass that the Alpha's are planning to attack the Omega island, Cass is determined to convince the Omega leader, Piper, not to fight them. She tells him that it's a fight they cannot win because for every Alpha they kill, an Omega will die. When he responds that this is the same for the Alphas once again she reiterates that he is "only ever looking at half the story."

When the attack comes Cass states, "For me, each was a two-fold dying. With each Alpha soldier killed, I felt, and sometimes saw, an Omega on the mainland fall...Each of the deaths had its echo, and I saw them all..." 

This also leads Cass to attempt to get Piper and Zach to view their twins in a different way. When Cass meets Piper's Alpha twin, Zoe, she begins to understand that because he and his twin have been working together, "he must know what it was to see your twin as something other than an opposite." Cass knows that Piper and Zoe's experience of living together along with her and Zach's thirteen years unsplit are proof that life could be different if enough people want to change it. When Zoe defends the idea of the island, Cass tells her that no matter how many islands they find, the problem remains: the Alpha's view of the Omegas.

Despite the harshness of Cass's post nuclear world, there is still plenty of care and love. The Omega's build a society based on love in contrast to the Alpha's utilitarian approach.But Cass is a determined heroine, fighting to try to unite her broken society and believing that the twins, sharing that bond of family can somehow unite and work together to make a better world.

Readers will find Fire Sermon and engaging read, despite its predictability and lack of a cliffhanger ending. Fire Sermon is part of a trilogy, with the next book due out in 2016, so readers will want to check out the second book to see where Cass's travels take her next.



Francesca Haig taught creative writing at the University of Chester before her debut novel, The Fire Sermon garnered her a good deal with HarperVoyager of the U.K. Haig says her novel originated with the idea of twins who shared a fatal bond and from that concept she developed the rest of her story. Haig was keen to include many characters with disabilities as a way of reflecting the diverse society we live in.

Book Details:

The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig
Toronto: Gallery Books     2015
370 pp.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Documentary: Population Boom

Population Boom explores the myth of overpopulation in this 91 min documentary filmed at various  locations throughout the world. Released in 2013, Population Boom explores the controversial population control methods pursued by the United States in the 1970's to control population growth almost exclusively in the developing world. Werner Boote seeks answers as to how this came about and who is driving the efforts to drastically reduce population in poorer countries.

By way of introduction to his topic, Werner Boote looks at how the United Nations announced the Earth's population has reached 7 Billion - a number supposedly portending disaster. The announcement is made on Halloween, October 31, 2011. Rather than marking this milestone in a joyous manner, the 7 billion number is linked by UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon to war and famine on the planet. Werner Boote asks Babatunde Osotimehin of the United Nations Population Fund if it would be better if there were fewer people on the planet. Osotimehin tells Werner that no one knows the capacity of the Earth and what it can sustain. As an example, he states that a 1960's cover of Time magazine referred to the Earth's population of 3.5 billion as over population. Osotimehin states that how he deals with population control varies by country.

This leads Werner Boote to state his thesis: for decades the UN has been stating that the world is overpopulated. The belief that the world is overpopulated seems to be a view of the rich and influential such as David Rockefeller and Ted Turner. Ted Turner, founder of CNN and a major land owner continues to promote the view that the world is over populated and that this will bring about the extinction of the human race. The reasoning is that too many people will lead to global warming which will lead to drought and famine and ultimately to starvation and cannibalism. Surprisingly Boote never mentions Warren Buffet nor Bill and Melinda Gates, the latter who have donated millions of dollars to develop various types of contraceptives with the intent of marketing them to the developing world.

Boote then explores the origin of the idea that the Earth has a limited capacity of people that it is capable of sustaining. The concept that the Earth can only support a limited population originated in 1789 with Thomas Robert Malthus, an Anglican theologian and economist. Malthus believed that man is the ultimate danger" to the planet, that the world even in the 1700's was overpopulated and would eventually be unable to feed itself. He predicted total collapse by 1860. Despite this not happening, many continue to believe his theory as evidenced by the bizarre monument in Georgia.

The Georgia Stones
In Elbert County, Georgia, six granite slabs were erected as a monument with ten "laws" inscribed on them in eight different languages. The person or persons who paid for the monument remain a secret but the intention is not. Two of the laws refer to population; 1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature. and 2. Guide reproduction wisely -- improving fitness and diversity.Number 10 says "Be not a cancer on the earth - leave room for nature - leave room for nature."

Boote asks the question "Who is one too many?" and sets out to discover who is driving this catastrophic view of the future. In the process he explores how the overpopulation movement gradually gathered strength in the late 20th century and the consequences to the developing countries and to families. He also explores how the developing world views population control, the discriminatory nature of population control, attitudes towards consumption and how the global economic system makes it increasingly difficult to have children at all.

He begins in the United States. In 1974, a large scale population plan was drawn up by the then U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger with his Memorandum 200. The top priority of U.S. foreign policy was population reduction in twelve countries including Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, Turkey, Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Columbia, Brazil and Mexico. One hundred thirty-seven countries agreed to reduce their population. Enrique Mendoza Morales, a lawyer who represented Mexico at the 1974 Population conference, claims the Americans were concerned at the time with a population explosion and the believe that this would be accompanied by the growth of communism. They also recognized that the more people a country had, the stronger it would be and that this would affect the balance of power and the United States' ability to exert control. Their plan was adopted by the UN and in Mexico was heavily promoted by the media. Instead of population "control" the term "family planning" was adopted to avoid seeming aggressive and draconian. The measures succeeded and Mexico brought its birthrate of 6.1 children per woman in the mid 1970's down to 2.1 children per woman - the rate needed to just maintain the population.

The fear of overpopulation spread around the globe leading governments to use different means to achieve their goals. In 1979, China introduced its one child per woman policy. This policy was strictly enforced for decades by forced sterilizations and abortions, leading China to be criticized for its human rights violations. In the last few years, in specific rural areas, China has allowed couples whose first child is a girl to have a second child but the one child policy continues to be the norm. Boote is told by Hu Hontao of China's National Population and Family Planning Commission that people who do not have babies can work and increase economic growth. This view affirms Boote's belief that "worldwide greed for economic growth doesn't leave any room for personal desires and feelings."

The Chinese policy has resulted in 400 million fewer Chinese. In the short term, China's economy has profited with increased income and economic growth. However, in the long term, China's population will suffer. The government has created a society of only children, usually "exalted sons". Professor Xie Zhenming is an opponent of China's family planning policies which he wants to change. Professor Xie in the presence of China's Family Planning officials, met with Boote to discuss how he believes China's policies have damaged Chinese society. Professor Xie states that the one child families are not strong families and usually require some kind of assistance. He also points out that because of the one child policy China will soon have too many elderly people and not enough young people to support them. He also refers to China's thirty million "missing girls" as a result of the Chinese cultural preference for sons.

From Beijing, Boote moves on to Mumbai, India to explore family planning there. A main feature of the population reduction mantra is that poverty could be eliminated if people in poorer regions would stop having children. In India, which will overtake China as the most populous country, women are given many incentives to be sterilized. The official position of the government is two children per family. Boote visits the Khatoon family who live in one of Mumbai's slums, without water, electricity, sewers and have little food or money. Two million children under the age of five die in India's slums each year. These slum dwellers will never become major consumers. In contrast to the Khatoon family, India's wealthiest man, Mukesh Ambani lives in a 37,000sq ft. home overlooking Mumbai's slums. In Mumbai, families with two children or less receive special incentives and have access to government services. It becomes apparent from talking to various India officials how population control in the country works. The people who have money are able to have as many children as they want but the poor must "control" the number of children they have IF they want their children to have access to state facilities and services. It is a discriminatory policy that seeks to eliminate the poor not by helping them out of their lower economic status but by population control.

From the Indian subcontinent, Boote travels to Africa where most of the international aid is contraceptives. A case in point, a 1997 malaria epidemic in Kenya saw the country run out of malaria medicine but have shelves stocked with toxic contraceptives like pills and IUDS. Ndirangu Mwaura believes that America promotes population control in Africa because it is fearful it will be swamped by the poor. Mwara believes the problem is not one of overpopulation but of congestion - the poor live on top of one another in crowded cities because they cannot afford land.

An interview with Obadias Ndaba of World Youth Alliance Africa is one of the more interesting in the documentary. He states that Africa is not overpopulated but in fact has one of the lowest population densities in the world. Its 40 people per sq. km is much lower than Europe's 170 people per sq. km. Illiterate villagers are taught that population control is the path to development but Ndaba points out that this is not the process that occurred in the West. People became educated and wealthy and then had smaller families but in Africa the reverse is happening. Ndaba says people drive economic growth and that governments need to see people as an investment.Poverty in Africa "is not a result of too many people. It's rather a result of too few people who mismanage and misuse our resources."

Although Boote does not detail the effects of population control in Western countries he does take a look at Japan, a G7 country with an advanced economy. With a birth rate of 1.3 children per woman,Japan now produces more adult diapers than baby diapers. Boote does not mention that this is far below the replacement level for a population and that no country with such a low birthrate has ever recovered its population. Tokyo's overcrowding suggests a vibrant country but a short trip into the countryside reveals the truth about the Japanese situation. One mile away in Akiruno, Suzuki Tadashi shows Werner an abandoned school and laments the loss of so many children.

So who is to blame for this situation? Are there any who disagree? For that Werner Boote interviews several notable persons.

Probably the most interesting interview in the entire documentary is that of journalist and conspiracy theorist, Benjamin Fulford who only agreed to be interviewed in a boat in the middle of a pond in the western part of Tokyo. Fulford pulls no punches in stating that the Western elite who run the planet believed the only way for humanity to live in balance with nature was to eliminate 5 billion people. The real reason behind all this disaster according to Fulford has been greed, especially on the part of the banks, petroleum companies and the chemical pharmaceutical companies. He blames the "aristocratic and banking families of North America and Europe" - the Rothschilds, Rockefellers, Warburgs and Morgans who believe in eugenics and eliminating inferior people (that is, the poor who breed). It is Fulford's opinion that the eugenics of the early 20th century brought to bear by Adolf Hitler and Nazism, never really died out but simply went underground. It reappeared later in the 20th century marketed under the guise of Planned Parenthood (whom he specifically and surprisingly mentions) and lately, global warming. (Note to readers, the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger was a noted eugenics supporter particularly interested in reducing the population of black Americans.) But as Fulford notes, the law of evolution dictates that those who have kids will control the future.

Betsy Hartmann, a demographer from Hampshire College, Massachusetts also suggests that bankers and petroleum companies are partly to blame. She believes that "it's the systems under which we live that determine the kind of consumption and production." Hartmann cites the US military as a prime example, it being the largest consumer of oil in the world.

Boote turns to fellow Austria, Wolfgang Lutz, a demographer whom he interviewed at his beautiful summer home on the island of Vaha-Vehanen in Finland. Lutz believes there is no optimum population size and that population control is inherently discriminatory because it believes that there are too many people of one group. Sudan could easily feed a billion people with modern agriculture but its problem is not too many people but "too many people without enough education."

Farida Akhter and Werner Boote discuss UN aid.
Finally Boote is seen in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a country often used as an example of being overpopulated. Boote says that Western media will often post pictures of overcrowded trains out of context leaving westerners to believe that this is the normal state of affairs. Farida Akhter, a scientist and activist states that even saying there are too many people is a way of looking at the poor. It carries with it specific connotations that are both derogatory and biased. She cites that much of the aid from the Western world is like Boote's UN umbrella. An umbrella is useless without the spines. Each of the spines of the UN umbrella of aid represents a condition that must be met first. Countries not accepting those conditions do not get the aid.

Boote's documentary is likely not to be popular in many circles, especially those who promote foreign aid and contraceptives and abortion to the developing world. But his documentary raises many important questions about our view of the poor, our view of the developing world, the right of couples everywhere to choose the number of children for their family, and the global economic systems that make having a family more and more difficult around the globe. Of particular interest to me was the belief that economic growth can only be achieved by reducing population. Yet the Canada and the United States with its baby boom population and unprecedented economic growth during the last century seemingly disproves this theory.

The influence of the global economic system (which encourages people to work and consumer rather than to create the next generation), in the declining global birthrate is an experience that is not just restricted to the developing world although the consequences are more serious.  We now have a global economic system that favours a select few while impoverishing many and causing great harm to the planet.

Boote made his documentary after the success of Plastic Planet in which people asked him the question, "Isn't the planet in danger of being destroyed because there are too many people?" The answer, as Boote has learned, depends upon who you ask.

Some interesting reading may be found at the following links:

The Intellectual Roots of Paul Erlich's Population Bomb (and the prehistory of climate alarmism) by Pierre Desrochers

Population Growth: Disaster or Blessing by (Lord) Peter T. Bauer who is emeritus professor of economics at the London School of Economics (scroll past the first page which is an ad for the Independent)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Galgorithm by Aaron Karo

"The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost."

Galgorithm is a romantic comedy about a high school student who spends his senior year as a dating coach only to see it backfire in a way he never expected.

On the outside seventeen year old Shane Chambliss is a typical senior at Kingsview High School in Los Angeles. But on the inside he's much more; he's a guy who knows how girls think and act. He's spent the last few years carefully studying interactions between the guys and girls in his high school and has come up with a system to help guys succeed in the dating game. He calls his formula, which outlines the laws of attraction as the Galgorithm because Shane's father refers to women as "gals". The Galgorithm is top secret.

Shane's best friend is a black girl, Jennifer Annabelle Kalkland, better known as Jak whom he's known her since they were young enough to share a bath. Their moms are best friends.  Jak knows that Shane helps a few guys get dates with girls but she does not know about the Galgorithm because Shane is scared she will judge him. They have both been accepted for college in the fall but will be a thousand miles away from each other, something that causes Shane to be anxious about. "I probably won't miss all her antics when we go away to school, but I'll definitely miss her Jakness - her quick draw with a joke, her oddly endearing anxieties, her energy."

One of Shane's clients is Reed Wannamaker, a skinny junior whose desperate to date Marisol Cuellar. Shane encourages Reed to follow through on his initial contact with Marisol. Reed decided that in order to follow the first of Shane's rules which is to be different, he would hit Marisol with a tennis ball during gym class, providing him with the chance to go up and talk to her. This worked better than he anticipated because Harrison Fisk, a senior who is the starting pitcher for the baseball team punched Reed in the face. Marisol accepted Reed's friend request.

One of Shane's success stories is Anthony McGuinness and Brooke Nast, also known as Hedgehog and Balloon. They've been dating for six months after Shane helped Anthony who had been crushing on Brooke since fifth grade to finally get together with her. Now they want to set up Shane with Tristan Kellog, the It girl from the junior class. But Shane is still recovering from his break-up with a girl two years older than himself whom he calls Voldemort.

However Shane finds himself advising Mr. Kimbrough, the grade ten math teacher. In his early thirties, Kimbrough tells Shane he's heard that he is an expert in dating and romance and that he's noticed Shane advising Adam Foster. Shane in fact did help Adam start to date Olivia Reyes. He also tells Shane he's heard about an algorithm. While Shane tells Mr. Kimbrough he's not a dating expert he does agree to help him.Kimbrough indicates that he is crushing on Deb Solomon, a history teacher, whom he considers to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Shane advised Mr. Kimbrough to trick Miss Solomon into believing he is asking numerous teachers if they want to attend a Civil War exhibit.

Shane tells Jak about Hedgehog and Balloon setting him up with Tristen Kellog and she agrees that he should date Tristen. His initial impression of Tristen who's very pretty is that she might not have much substance to her. But he quickly discovers that she's leading a Habitat for Humanity trip to the Midwest to build homes for those who lost them due to tornadoes.

While Shane continues to advise Mr. Kimbrough and Reed and help Adam deal with being dumped by Olivia, he also struggles to cope with dating Tristen. In order to  help Adam out of his funk, Shane tells Adam to "find that girl you have a crush on, go right up to her, and do your thing."  However, one day when Shane and Jak are at lunch, Shane is stunned to see Adam making a move on Jak. He realizes that Adam is using the galgorithm on his best friend. Although he tries to seem noncommittal, Shane tries "to push any uneasiness...deep, deep down, as far as it will go."

The next day Shane runs into Adam at Perkin's Beanery waiting for Jak to show up. It turns out both guys are waiting to meet Jak and Shane realizes that Jak asked him to show up later in case she needed to bail from her date with Adam. Shane is peeved that Adam didn't tell him about crushing on Jak but he behaves diplomatically and leaves the two of them However, he does recognize Jak's disappointment while he realizes that Adam is a lucky guy dating Jak. Even though Shane and Tristen are now an "item" Shane can't quite get used to his best friend seeing another guy. It isn't until Shane rescues a very drunk Jak from her first keg party that he begins to realize that he has "feelings" for her.

Discussion

Galgorithm is a fun summer read about the hazards of friendship, dating and falling in love. The focus is on the main character, Shane Chambliss who fancies himself as a sort of expert in interactions between guys and gals,"the Robin Hood of romance" who evens "the playing field between the jocks and the have-nots." In order to give teen guys a dose of confidence he tells them he has worked out an algorithm that predicts the behaviour of girls. In fact, the "galgorithm" as he calls it, is fictitious, as he reveals later on in the novel. His system seems to be working until Mr. Kimbrough publishes his own "galgorithm" on his blog and it is discovered by one of the students. The resulting chaos sees relationships crash as the female half of all the couples believe they have been manipulated. Eventually though some of the couples like Hedgehog and Balloon come to realize that it's not so much about how they got together but that they are together. It's the message Shane's parents were trying to impart to him when they finally told him the truth about how they met. They met in an unromantic way and felt they had to create a different story for how they fell in love. It's a lesson Shane himself will soon experience with Jak.

Set against Shane's sometimes hilarious narration is his gradual realization that he has fallen for his best friend. This realization brings both terror and dismay because of Jak's response after his break up with Faith years ago made Jak insist they would never get involved romantically. "In the wake of Voldemort, Jak told me explicitly that this was a line she would not cross. We will never be more than friends. She's been consistent about that point ever since."

This leaves Shane deeply conflicted especially after his feelings for Jak persist even when she's at her worst, vomiting on him in the bathtub after the keg party. "I thought that maybe I just had a moment of weakness in the bathtub. Maybe I was just a little buzzed. But when I woke up the next morning, my feelings for Jak, whatever they are, were still there. I don't really know what they mean and I don't even know if they're real." Compounding his confusion is his relationship with Tristen, who is very understanding and finds Shane to be "sweet" and "loyal". Shane knows after his break-up with Faith that he's been guarding his heart but now he wonders, "But what if, in the course of protecting myself, in the course of finding other people their soul mates, I miss the real thing?"

It takes other people to confirm to Shane what he feels - his ex-girlfriend, Faith who tells him he was so obviously in love with Jak, Adam who recognized that Shane loved Jak and backed off, and Reed who tells him "I've never seen two 'friends' who more obviously want to hook up." Shane is only certain of his feelings after he is in danger of losing Jak for good. Reed who decides to take over Shane's role as dating coach, gives Shane a dose of his own advice, be different, notice her, tell her.

Galgorithm is appealing because it's a story about a group of high school students trying to navigate the treacherously fickle world of teenage dating. Karo describes the high school scene with a certain flair, making it realistic in some ways yet over the top in others. (How many teachers come to a senior guy for dating advice?)  There is a whole cast of very different characters in the novel from Shane the sensitive, caring guy, Jak the irreverant witty best friend,  Harrison the jock struggling to cope with the bullying his two moms have experienced, Tristen the gorgeous, sexy junior who actually does have a personality, timid Mr. Kimbrough the bumbling math teacher who has the hots for Miss Solomon and Reed the skinny Dungeons and Dragons geek.The typical teenage boy humour will have readers laughing out loud while leaving them groaning at Mr. Kimbrough's math jokes.

Galgorithm is Karo's second young adult novel. Besides being an author and screenwriter, it comes as no surprise that Karo is also a comedian.


Book Details:

Galgorithm by Aaron Karo
New York: Simon Pulse 2015
310 pp.


Saturday, July 11, 2015

Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide which saw the systematic murder of 1.5 million Armenian Christians in Turkey. At the beginning of World War I there were approximately two million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish population never fully accepted the Armenian Christians in their country. There had been repeated attacks against them in previous years and the Ottoman government considered them a security threat. As a result the government which was controlled by three members of the Committee of Union and Progress called the Young Turks made a decision to eliminate the entire Armenian Christian population. The plan was to eliminate the leaders of the Armenian community first and then to systematically murder all the men. This plan began in 1915 and continued until 1923. The western nations of America, Britain and France protested against the massacres but in reality the international community did little to stop it. Despite the fact that there were many witnesses to the genocide as well as much documented evidence, Turkey has never admitted to committing genocide. Forgotten Fire tells the story of one young boy who witnesses the extermination of almost all his family.

In 1915, twelve year old Vahan Kenderian was the youngest child of a wealthy Armenian lawyer living in Bitlis, a province in Turkey. Vahan had three older brothers, Diran, Tavel and Sisak and two older sisters, Armenouhi and Oskina. His father was well respected by Armenians and Turks alike, who often came to Vahan's home to consult with his father. Bitlis did not have many Turks in 1915 but Vahan had heard about the massacre of Armenians by Turks years before in Adana. Vahan was really not concerned about this. He was a typical twelve year old from a well to do family, full of confidence that he would one day be a man of influence like his father.His father however thought Vahan to be lacking in character and discipline.

One day in the early spring of 1915, two gendarmes came to the house informing Vahan's father that he was wanted at the government buildings. Although his mother tried not to appear alarmed, the police summoning Sarkis Kenderian seemed ominous. He does not return and the in the days following his disappearance, strange things began to happen. Vahan saw bloodied and bruised men led away by the gendarmes. The shops began closing, Oskina and Armenouhi heard screams coming from the prison, Diran heard gunshots from the center of town and Tavel had heard that the homes of several Armenians had been burned to the ground. Armenian homes were searched for guns, churches were ransacked and priests accused of being traitors. Vahan and his family began to realize that the Armenian community was being attacked by the Turks.

Vahan's father's younger brother, Uncle Mumpreh is also taken away, being considered a revolutionary. Soon women and children, survivors of a massacre in Van where the men were murdered and their homes burned by the Turkish army begin arriving in Bitlis. Vahan and his family heard stories about Selim Bey, the governor VAn who had murdered thousands of Armenians. Karnigh their horseman committed suicide when he learned that his entire family had been murdered.  Soon hundreds of people, men women and children, the very young and the very old are seen streaming out of the city. Uncle Mumpreh is returned home a completely changed man. He filled three bags with poison and gave them to Vahan's mother and his two sisters telling them that if anything happens they are to take the poison in the bags. The next day soldiers arrive at the house and after terrorizing the family, murdering Divan and Tavel. Their murders forever change Vahan's family; his mother stares outside the window at the garden where her two sons lie buried, Oskina begins wearing their father's shirts, his grandmother reads the Bible and Sisak sits by his brother's graves, while Armenouhi rarely leaves her bedroom. A week later the soldiers returned, questioned Vahan's family and then take them to Goryan's Inn where they are locked in a room.

On the walk to Goryan's Inn, Vahan notices that everyone is gone, the houses are empty, the shops closed, the streets dirty.Vahan, his brother Sisak, his mother Meera, his grandmother and his two sisters Oskina and Armenouhi are kept locked in a room with other Armenian captives. At night the soldiers come to take the girls to rape them and when Armenouhi sees that this will be her fate she takes the poison and dies. Eventually all the remaining captives from the inn are marched towards Diarbekir, where Vahan and his family see hundreds of corpses along the road.  Eventually they arrive at the River Tigris which is filled with floating corpses. When the soldiers kill fifty of the Armenians, including his grandmother, on the banks of the Tigris, and later begin killing the boys, Vahan's mother insists that he and his brother escape during the night. Both Vahan and Sisak manage to do and so begins Vahan's long struggle to survive.

Discussion

Forgotten Fire is based on the true story of Adam Bagdasarian's great-uncle during the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Bagdasarian's uncle, Vahridj Kenderian made a tape of his experiences during the genocide shortly before his death in America. Kenderian was able to emigrate to America, married and lived in New Jersey where he had his own business as a photoengraver. His life, according to the author was a happy one. Bagdasarian spent ten years writing Forgotten Fire as he found information at that time on the Armenian Genocide was somewhat limited. However, in the years leading up to the 100th anniversary of the genocide, much information is now available online. In addition, the murder of 1.5 million Armenian Christians was recently referred to as "genocide" by Pope Francis.

Bagdasarian chose the title, Forgotten Fire, as a reference to the tenacity and strength that adversity can develop within a person. In an interview from Random House he states,
"The Hitler quote at the beginning of the book is meant to convey that the Armenian genocide was a forgotten chapter in world history, and also show the connection between the genocide of the Armenians and the later genocide of the Jews. In other words, if we forget the past, we imperil our future. The “fire” part of the title refers to the part where Vahan’s father tells his children that steel is made strong by fire. The experiences in the book represent Vahan’s fire, the fire for all Armenians–the fire of adversity that either consumes us or makes us stronger. So “Forgotten Fire” stands for this fire of adversity for the Armenian people that was forgotten by the world." And in fact, loss and the ability to cope with adversity are strong themes in the novel.

Vahan is a remarkably resilient young boy who changes drastically from the boy he was before the genocide. Before the genocide, Vahan believed that "character and discipline were consolation prizes given to the meek, the unadventurous, and the unlucky." Vahan believed that time and destiny would bring him the blessings of a good life. "I knew that time and destiny were my allies, the twin magicians of my fate: Time would transform me into the tallest, strongest man in Bitlis, and destiny would transform me into one of the wealthiest, most admired men in Turkey." Ironically, Vahan is taken into Ara Sarkisian's home, an Armenian who at one time had been "a strongman in his village, performing feats of strength on the street for money." At seventy-four years of age however, time has taken this strength and he wisely tells Vahan to work for things that are more permanent than beauty and strength. " 'Time takes everything, Vahan. But your heart, your character, your faith, do not belong to time. So build your home here,' he said, touching his chest. 'And make that home strong, make that home beautiful. Then you will always be safe, and you will never be along.' "

By the end of his journey out of Armenia and to Constantinople, Vahan sees the importance of discipline and character. He is determined to learn as much as he can so he can become more for his family and for himself. The adversity has forged a steel inside him "that made it possible for me to get out of that bed and pretend I was myself; it was the steel that helped me study when all the other boys had gone to sleep." He comes to know "that character and discipline are the steel that fortify" life and that they will ultimately bring blessings that counter the "pain and disillusionment" of life.

Forgotten Fire spares young readers none of the atrocities committed during the Armenian genocide; the cold blooded murder of innocent people, the disappearance of Armenian leaders and intelligentsia, the burning alive of Armenians in their homes, the rape of young girls,mothers and the elderly, the death marches and the annihilation of entire families. The details are not graphic but simply stated in a way that is realistic. As a twelve year old boy, Vahan often had no idea at the time what was really happening. For example, when Uncle Mumpreh gives bags of poison to the women in the family, Vahan doesn't understand what the "trouble" might be.

Vahan Kenderian was an immature twelve year old boy who took for granted his family and the security of his home. At the beginning of the book he stated, "I walked with the confidence of a boy who has grown up in luxury and knows that he will always be comfortable, always well fed, always warm in winter and cool in summer." By the time Vahan has survived several years on the run and ends up in a girls orphanage in Sivas with nothing but the tattered clothes on his back, he "wanted a home and a family more than anything in the world." He knows "that there was probably no such place and no such people" as his home is gone and his family murdered.

Forgotten Fire is highly recommended to those who enjoy historical fiction. Vahan's strong narrative and the compelling story of a boy trying to survive under horrific conditions will engage readers completely. Bagdasarian has included a map detailing Vahan's journey and provides both a Foreword to set the historical background and an Epilogue that states what became of Vahan. Sadly one hundred years later, little seems to have changes with regard to genocide in this part of the world. The massacres of Yazidis and Christians in Syria and Iraq by militant Islamists seems to demonstrate we have not learned yet from history. This only makes Forgotten Fire all the more relevant in educating young readers in the lessons history can teach.

For more information on the Armenian Genocide please check out the Armenian National Institute's website.

Book Details:

Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian
New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc.     2000
272 pp.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

Accomplished author Sarah Dessen has written an outstanding novel about a young girl who must deal with the aftermath of a tragedy while trying to assert her own identity.

The story opens with sixteen year old Sydney Stanford attending the trial of her older brother, Peyton, who has just been sentenced to seventeen months in jail for impaired driving. Driving drunk, Peyton hit fifteen year old David Ibarra who was riding his bike home at one in the morning. The accident left Ibarra with the use of his arms but unable to walk.

It seems that Sydney's family has always revolved around Peyton, the oldest child and only son, who is three years older than Sydney. Sydney always idolized her older brother who seemed fearless and bold. But when Peyton moved to the upper campus of Perkins Day, a private school they both attended, things began to go wrong. Peyton began skipping school and by tenth grade was arrested for smoking pot. After doing his community service, three months later her was arrested for breaking and entering. This soon became a pattern; he would get arrested for drugs, shoplifting or reckless driving, do his punishment and simply revert back to his old ways. After his first shoplifting offense during which he was found in possession of pot, Peyton was sent to rehab. But the problems continued until finally he was forced to withdraw from Perkins Day. A break-in at the largest home in their wealthy neighbourhood, the Arbors, resulted in Peyton being sentenced to three months. It was during this time that Ames, a guy Peyton had met in Narcotics Anonymous, became a fixture around their home. Even while Peyton served seven weeks at the county jail. For Sydney, Ames made her uncomfortable mainly because of his constant watchfulness and the way he was always finding a way to touch her.

When Sydney entered grade ten at Perkins Day, she and her best friend Jenn, made friends with Meredith who was a petite competitive gymnast. Things seemed to have settled down. Peyton had graduated the previous June and was taking hospitality classes with Ames at Lakeview Tech while working as a valet at a nearby hotel. The day after Valentine's Day, Peyton left work and after spending time with a friend drinking, he drove home drunk, hitting David Ibarra and seriously injuring him.

After the trial and the start of the new school year, Sydney is now attending Jackson High School while Peyton is serving his time at the Lincoln Correctional Facility. On her way home from school after the first day, Sydney decides to pull into Seaside Pizza. At Seaside, Sydney orders a slice of pizza and meets a girl, Layla, whose family runs the business. Sydney doesn't return to Seaside right away, but she does encounter Layla at Jackson along with Layla's former boyfriend, Eric, who is determined to break into the music industry. Layla invites Sydney to join her at a club on Friday evening where Eric and her brother Mac's band are performing. At Bendo she meets Layla`s mother, Tricia Chatham who has MS and is in a wheelchair as well as older sister, Rosie and is introduced to Mac. She learns that Rosie was a former figure skater who has been busted for drugs. As Sydney leaves so she can be home in time for her curfew, Layla invites her to drop by their house anytime.

Sydney`s mother is planning for them to go see Peyton on Family Day at Lincoln Correctional Facility. This is not something Sydney wants to do especially since Peyton doesn`t want her to come either. Deeply distressed when her mother forces her to agree to attend, Sydney is questioned at school by Layla and tells her what Peyton did. Layla admits that she never forgets a face and saw Sydney that day in the courthouse when Peyton was being sentenced. She also shares with Sydney what happened to Rosie. Worried that Layla's knowledge about Peyton will change their friendship she is happy to see that this is not the case. "I was the sister of the neighborhood delinquent, drug addict, and now drunk driver. It didn't matter that I'd done none of these things. With shame, like horseshoes, proximity counts."

Gradually Sydney finds herself part of Layla's group at school which includes Eric, her brother Mac and Irving Fearrington a big black fellow who loves to eat. At home her father manages to convince her mother to go away with him for the weekend to the St. Ivy Islands. Not trusting Sydney to be alone, they arrange. against Sydney's objections, for Ames and his girlfriend, Marla, to stay the weekend. But Sydney knows she cannot be left alone with Ames, whom she finds extremely creepy. Her concerns are validated when she arrives home after school to find Ames alone and candles on the dining room table. Freaked out, Sydney calls Seaside Pizza where she eventually speaks to Layla and asks her if she can stay the night. Relieved that Layla is coming over, Sydney has to deal with Ames who sees that she has thwarted whatever plans he had for them. When Layla shows up with Mac, Ames is his creepy self, and clearly irritated he tries to intimidate Sydney by telling her he will be letting her parents know about Layla visiting. When her mother calls, Layla manages to get herself invited over for the night, thus breaking Ames attempt to bully Sydney.

Sydney becomes more and more involved in the Chathams life, spending almost every afternoon at Seaside. She helps take Rosie to a skating session and learns that Mac was once very heavy but has lost a great deal of weight. At home the Family Day at Lincoln never happens because Peyton loses his visiting privileges, leaving Sydney's mother distraught and overly involved in Peyton's situation,  against the advice of their lawyer. In an attempt to convince her mother that Layla's family is suitable and that she is a good friend, she brings her mother to Seaside Pizza. This works and Sydney is allowed to spend a Saturday night with Layla and her family. The evening is a wonderful mixture of family and friends, music and camaraderie. A walk into the woods with Mac, Layla, Irv and Eric leads to Sydney learning about the abandoned carousel. The night ends happily for Sydney with Mac sharing his room with Sydney and Layla.

Meanwhile Layla gets the idea that she and Sydney could starting delivering pizza's together. At first Mac dismisses the idea but Layla's father allows them to give it a try. On one of the deliveries, Layla meets a rich guy, Mason Albert Spencer who ends up becoming her boyfriend and a bad choice. When Layla eventually ditches Sydney for time with Spence, Sydney starts helping Mac with the deliveries. This time allows the two of them to begin to form a strong friendship and eventually love begins to blossom.

But on the home front trouble is brewing. When Peyton finishes his first "course" at Lincoln, Sydney's mother announces that they will all be going down for his "graduation". However this is not what Peyton wants and when the visit is nixed by Peyton, a family crisis ensues that turns Sydney's world upside down.


Discussion

Anyone who hasn't read a Sarah Dessen novel should definitely consider doing so. Dessen writes in an realistic way about the struggles that young people encounter in life. Saint Anything is engaging because of the believable characters that populate this story with its themes of forgiveness, acceptance and the struggle to develop one's own identity.

One of the more interesting characters is Dessen`s novel is Sydney`s mother, Julie. Julie Stanford appears to be a mother who believes she is a good parent by continuing to rescue her son instead of letting him face the consequences of his actions. Dessen shows the reader immediately that the Stanford family revolves around Peyton with Sydney's description of how his portrait hangs "directly across from the huge glass door, right about the wood credenza and the Chinese vase..." Julie has what might be considered a typical upper middle class mother's reaction to her son`s run-ins with the police; she can`t believe he`s guilty. Unable to confront the reality of Peyton`s situation she deflects, focusing on things that don`t matter. When he was caught running away from police after being caught with pot and gets scraped up, Julie tries to convince Sydney`s dad that they have a police brutality case. `The more Peyton got into trouble, the more my mom seemed desperate to blame anyone and everyone else. the school was out to get him. The cops were too rough. But my brother was no innocent: all you had to do was look at the facts." After hearing her mother blame David Ibarra for being out riding his bike at two in the morning, Sydney realizes that her "mom would never be able to really hold Peyton responsible for what he'd done. Their bond was too tight, too tangled, for her to see reason. "

Julie continues to be enmeshed with Peyton despite his being in prison. Their lawyer, Sawyer is surprised when Julie takes the unusual step of contacting the warden and tells Julie that the best thing for Peyton is to leave him to serve his sentence "with as little interference as possible" However, Julie, supported by both Michelle and Ames, insists that it's important for Peyton to know his family cares and to be involved.

Sydney's mother's inability to face the reality of Peyton's situation causes Sydney to feel as though she has to carry the guilt for her family. "For the first time, I wondered if this was the reason I was so obsessed with David Ibarra and his aftermath and story. Someone had to carry the guilt. If my parents couldn't -- or wouldn't -- it was left to me."

As the main character in the novel, Sydney struggles to find her place in a family totally consumed with her brother Peyton. Sydney struggles on two fronts with her parents. First she wants to be truly seen by them as a person in her own right. "I was used to being invisible. People rarely saw me, and if they did, they never looked close. I wasn't shiny and charming like my brother, stunning and graceful like my mother, or smart and dynamic like my friends. That's the thing though. You always think you want to be noticed. Until you are."

When Sydney is with Mac on a delivery she tells him that her brother's big personality and troubles have made her "invisible" to her parents. She tells Mac, that when her brother's "around, he fills the view. You can't look anywhere else..." It is gentle Mac, who is very protective of Sydney who gradually makes her feel noticed as they begin texting one another about the deliveries Mac makes. Mac is the first person who truly "sees" Sydney.

Secondly, Sydney wants to be trusted by them and for them to realize Peyton's mistakes are not hers.
They also believe that she will behave just as Peyton has. When Sydney attempts to convince her parents to leave her home unsupervised, her mother states "I think we all know well what a lack of supervision can lead to." This deeply hurts Sydney. "The last thing I deserved was to have the same old assumptions applied, but clearly, this wasn't about me." Sydney wants to tell her mother that she finds Ames creepy and hopes that her mother will see that she's distressed about Ames by actually seeing her for once but she has no luck.

When her mother catches Sydney in a compromising situation, she never allows Sydney the chance to really explain herself and never actually listens to her. Instead, her response is to tie Sydney down so tight that she has nothing except school and studying. It takes the crisis with Ames and Mac's mother to force Sydney's mother to finally "see" her. Her mother admits that she drove to the hospital with every attempt to drag her home, but then she admits,
" 'I saw you,' she said simply.
Me, surrounded by people I cared about. Me, being a good person, a good friend, all the things she prided herself on having taught me. After so many months of looking at me only in the context of my brother, finally, in that bright institutional light, my mother had glimpsed me simply as Sydney, with no precedent or comparison."
Without Peyton to colour her view, Sydney's mother was able to see her and recognize that she is a different person from Peyton.

One aspect of this novel that was especially appealing was how Dessen used Mac and Sydney's pizza deliveries as a window to the lives of ordinary people. Sydney tells Mac that she likes doing deliveries because "It's something about seeing all these people in their separate places. Like little snapshots of the whole world as it's happening simultaneously..." Sydney becomes very adept at predicting the kind of people who order based on what's on their pizza's. For Sydney she later realizes that helping Mac has helped her see the reality of life. "Working with Mac like this, I'd caught brief glimpses of so many lives, tiny bits of a million stories..."

Saint Anything is a beautifully crafted, honest novel about how becoming an adult is never an easy task. Each one of the young characters in Saint Anything has their problems whether it be Mac who doesn't want to take over his father's pizza business, or Eric struggling to become a musician, or Layla who keeps picking the bad boy, or Peyton who needs to grow up and accept responsibility for his mistakes. Despite all these difficulties, Dessen's message at the end is one of hope as her characters gradually work through their problems and move on to happier times. There's a dose of realism too as Dessen reminds her young readers that life can't always be happy.

Saint Anything is simply a wonderful summer read for teens and those who love young adult literature!!

Book Details:

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen
New York: Viking       2015
417 pp.


Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Queen of Bright And Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre

Sage Czinski describes herself as the "Queen of Bright and Shiny Things", a girl who goes around putting sticky notes on the lockers of kids who are having a bad day. The goths call her Princess Post-it but this doesn't bother Sage. All she hopes is that a bit of kindness balances out the bad in high school. Sage lives with her dad's half sister, her Aunt Gabby who she says has taught her "how to stop being angry about things I can't control." and attends JFK high school. She, who describes herself as someone who fits in with the "crunchy granola do-gooders" crowd belongs to the eco-awareness club.

Sage's best friend is Ryan McKenna, a six foot tall dork who befriended her three years ago when she first arrived at JFK. They've been best friends since then. Most people assume that she and Ryan are dating especially since he walks around with his arm on Sage's shoulder. But Ryan has never asked Sage out In Sage's math class, a new kid, Shane Cavendish, arrives. Almost immediately Shane draws negative attention from the jocks like Dylan Smith who shove him into lockers. After school, Sage runs into Shane in the conference room at the local public library where her eco group, Green World meets. She invites Shane to stay.

The next day Ryan tries to figure out Sage's relationship with Shane. She is shocked to hear Ryan make many assumptions about Shane based on his appearance. Sage learns that there are rumours going around about Shane from Dylan's mother. This leads her to question Ryan as to whether he's jealous. Shane continues to be bullied throughout the day by the jock squad. Sage knows she can't really leave a sticky note on his locker to support him but when she hears him making beautiful music in the music room this gives her a reason for a sticky note of support. The sticky note however makes her late for math class and gives her detention where she meets up with Shane. His black eye is proof that he's been sent there for fighting. He tells her that she knows nothing about living through bad times when Sage tells him that before her life with Aunt Gaby, life was not good.  Sage realizes that both of them have the same need; to be acknowledged and to have someone who cares.

When Sage and Ryan get together one evening for a movie, Ryan admits to Sage that he has been hooking up with a much older girl who is college age. Shocked and attempting to keep her anger in check, Sage questions Ryan as to why he did this and why he lets people believe they are a couple when he's been secretly with someone else. She tells Ryan that they are finished for now, although she doesn't rule out the possibility of being friends again some day. The next day at school, people are shocked at their "break-up".

With Ryan out of her life for the time being, Sage decides to pursue loner, Shane. At the same time, Lila Tremaine, the goth-like girl who has a locker near her, wants to be her friend. Lila used to be Dylan Smith's girlfriend but she broke up with him when he began to spread rumours about her.  Meanwhile Dylan begins spreading rumours that Sage is a lesbian. When Shane doesn't show up for classes, Sage decides to get his schedule so she can take his assignments to his house. After sneakily discovering where he lives, Sage rides out to his house which turns out to be a run down trailer bringing him his assignments and some food. Shane tells Sage that his mother became sick with cancer when he was twelve and that his father left when he was fourteen, unable to cope with her illness. After his mother's death Shane lived with a friend of his mother's but got into lots of trouble, enough that he risked being sent into juvie. Shane avoided going into foster care by having his father purchase the trailer home for him in exchange for Shane taking care of himself. Sage leaves feeling disappointed because Shane tells her he needs a friend and she want to be more than just a friend to him.

Shane joins Sage at her lunch table with her new friends since her break-up with Ryan. He also becomes involved in the eco group, helping to clean up an abandoned lot. In school Sage begins working harder, participating more in chemistry rather than letting Ryan do all the work and her marks begin to improve in geometry because of Shane's tutoring. She also begins inviting Lila over to her Aunt Gabby's which makes her aunt happy to see that she is beginning to socialize more. Aunt Gabby encourages Sage to forgive Ryan after she learns what happened between the two of them.

Shane and Sage's relationship continues to develop. On a tip from Sage's Aunt Gabby, Shane gets a job at P&K, he moves his stuff into her locker, and they go out on their first date which ends with them spending the night at Sage's house. On a date at the Coffee House, Shane fills in for an injured musician and his set is so good that he is offered an ongoing gig once per week. However when Sage tries to micro-manage Shane's life, he gets mad and this leads Sage to reconsider how she treats him. He shows up at the Curly Q, where Sage works part time and apologizes, telling her she is "the only person in the world who gives a shit about me,"

At a party at "the Barn", Dylan confronts Lila, leading Sage to intercede on her friend's behalf. She tells him and his jock friends to stay away from Lila, threatening to expose his mother's affair with Principal Warick. Lila warns Sage that Dylan has a reputation for not letting anything go unchallenged. Lila proves to be right when a few days later Dylan runs Sage off the road with his pickup truck and threatens her. Sage discovers that Dylan has been dealing with his mother's hook-up behaviour since he was thirteen. This makes her realize that he's trying to protect his mother. Dylan tells her that if she backs off he won't harrass her. He tells her that he has to be a scary bully at school so that kids won't mess with his mother. When Sage refuses his offer, Dylan tells her he will start digging to uncover her secrets. Little does Sage know she has set in motion events that will change all their lives irrevocably.


Discussion

The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things will appeal to those who love novels about high school life and particularly ones filled with plenty of drama and romance. The novel can be divided into three sections; the first part sets the stage and presents the reader with the main characters while foreshadowing the future conflict between Sage and Dylan, the second part develops Sage and Shane's relationship as Sage begins to blossom after cutting ties with Ryan while the third section features the inevitable showdown between Sage and Dylan and the changes that brings about.

Readers are drawn into the story by the hints Sage drops about her past. She frequently mentions that she keeps a tight rein on her alter-ego, "Shadow Sage" who is the angry version of the eco-warrior, queen of positive-thinking Sage. As her story unfolds, it parallels that of Shane's. Both lost parents they were close to, both ended up in group homes after the remaining parent neglected to act responsibly and both have anger problems. But both characters are also trying to rehabilitate their lives and change for the better. It is this journey that appeals to readers.

Sage undergoes two transformations. In the beginning of the novel Sage has a very limited life; she's Ryan's "friend" and really has no other friends. When she moved to her aunt's home three years ago and began attending JFK, she was frightened and lonely. Ryan immediately came to her rescue for reasons Sage is not sure of. Although everyone assumes they are a couple, Ryan has never asked Sage out. In chemistry class Ryan is her partner and Sage coasts, taking notes but not really participating in the experiments. Although she participates in the eco club which Ryan too is a part of, it is her unhealthy reliance on him that prevents Sage from developing her own life. Once they break up however, Sage begins to reach out and it is Shane's situation and her concern for him that helps her do so. Without Ryan hovering around her constantly she makes a new friend in Lila Tremaine, who is the very opposite type of girl Sage would normally hang out with. She begins participating in chemistry class,taking the initiative in the labs, something noticed by her teacher. She begins bringing friends home much to her aunt's delight.

The second transformation involves Sage dealing with her past and the anger she has carried around with her for years. The basis for Sage's deep-rooted anger is eventually revealed bit by bit throughout the novel. Sage is afraid people will learn about her past and that their opinion of her will change. Afraid she will be defined by her anger she repeatedly tells herself to keep "Shadow Sage" under control. To achieve this, Sage makes a point of putting a sticky note on at least one person's locker during the day. Initially she brought sticky notes to school to help her get through the day but when she offered encouragement to a girl one day through a sticky note, Sage loved the good feeling this gave her. Her Aunt Gabby has told her "if you put positivity out into the world, it will come back to you tenfold." Sage doesn't know if this is true but in the end the support she gets from friends and all the people she cheered up through her sticky notes does come back to ease her pain when Dylan wreaks havoc on her and Shane's lives.

Sage also struggles to keep her anger, personified by Shadow Sage in check and this struggle is featured throughout her narrative. When Ryan puts down Shane during lunch with Sage, making sweeping assumptions about him. "I almost get mad at Ryan then, but that -- no. For a few seconds, I'm woozy and scared; this can't happen. So I take four deep breaths..." Sage who has been taken in by her father's half sister, feels she must constantly put on a positive front and control her anger for fear of being sent back to the group home. "...she doesn't realize how tough it is not to backslide after a bad day. I keep my temper under lock and key and, mostly, I'm okay. I treat rage like an alien that hides in a corner of my brain...If I lose it, even once, I'll have to go back, which is why I take such care never to lose my temper."

When Dylan Smith begins harassing her friend, Sage begins to allow her anger to rise. "Shadow Sage surges to the front of my brain, all darkness and destruction. She knows exactly how to break this little shit, and for the first time in three years, I'm going to let her." At this point Sage believes that she is still the person she was years ago when she was responsible for her mother's death. Readers don't learn about what really happened to Sage until later in the novel but at this point she states, "...I'm only playing the role of nice girl; I've spent a portion of my life as something else entirely."

But when the harassment continues, Sage with the help of Lila decides to retaliate in a way that does not hurt Dylan's mom but shows Dylan they are not going to let him get away with his bad behaviour.This demonstrates that Sage is not the out of control angry person she believed herself to be. And in fact after the actions of Sage, Shane and Dylan have played out, Sage is able to forgive Dylan enough to allow him to help with the garden planning. And she even leaves a post-it note on his locker telling him things will get better. "Since he offered an olive branch at Green World's garden day, I can, too. Maybe if the rest of the school see that I can forgive him, they'll move on."

This novel is filled with many themes; forgiveness, identity, and acceptance. It's wonderful to see Sage and Shane care for one another. Sage and Shane recognize their brokenness but love one another anyways. Shane's unconditional love for Sage gives her the strength to continue on in the wake of Dylan's revelations and Shane's arrest.

The Queen of Bright and Shiny is a great summer read complete with a heady romance, two characters with interesting back stories and a villain who ends up redeemed at the end. Readers will love Shane, the cute boyfriend who plays guitar and has that brooding inner strength that makes him appealing.

Book Details:

The Queen of Bright and Shiny by Ann Aguirre
New York: A Fiewel and Friends Book         2015
328 pp.