Monday, October 5, 2015

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella

Finding Audrey is exactly as described on the inside flap of the jacket cover, a blend of "comedy, romance and psychological insight".  Finding Audrey is about a young girl recovering from a terrible situation that has left her with social anxiety disorder, general anxiety disorder and depression.

Fourteen year old Audrey Turner lives with her mother and father, her brother Frank and her four year old brother, Felix on Rosewood Close. Frank is a gamer and he is obsessed with playing Land of Conquerors. So much so that their mother is holding his computer out of her bedroom window, threatening to throw it to the ground. Frank tries to convince his mother that he intends to enter the LOC competition and may win the six million dollar prize.

The story then backtracks one month earlier when Audrey is at home because of something that happened at school. She left Stokeland Girls School in February. It's now May.

Her mom reads an article in the Daily Mail about kids being addicted to computer games and is convinced Frank fits the profile. When her mother asks her about LOC, Audrey explains the game and that it often has gamers who are watched by others. One day Frank has his friend, Linus, who also attends the same school over to play LOC with him. Audrey remembers Linus as the boy who played Atticus Finch in the school play of To Kill A Mockingbird. Audrey's mom switches off Frank's computer, suggesting they play something else such as badminton, croquet or Rummikub. But when she discovers Frank and Linus playing online Rummikub she pulls them off that too. As the confrontation between Frank and his mother continues, Linus walks into the den where Audrey is sitting. Immediately Audrey has a panic attack when Linus says hello to her and asks her if she always wears dark glasses. Apologizing, Audrey quickly flees to her bedroom.

When Audrey meets with her therapist, Dr. Sarah McVeigh, she tells Dr. Sarah that she feels "stuck" and that she's not getting any better. Dr. Sarah tells Audrey that she will be well enough to return to school in September. Hoping to push Audrey to begin making eye contact with other people, Dr. Sarah assigns her to make a film about her family and eventually to move on to interviewing people. Dr. Sarah believes it might be easier for Audrey to make eye contact through the camera.

Audrey begins filming her family. Meanwhile, her mother in an attempt to divert Frank from computer games, insists he begin running with her. It turns out Frank can not only do press-ups but is on the cross-country team too. Since Linus will be spending a lot of time at their house as he's on Frank's LOC team, Frank wants Audrey not to freak out. Linus, upset at what happened the other day, sends Audrey a note. They correspond back and forth, with little Felix as their messenger carrying the "pocket paper" to Linus in the playroom. This correspondence leaves Audrey feeling "...kind of exhilarated. And kind of emptied out."

Still attempting to thwart Frank's gaming obsession, his mother takes the computer power cable with her when she goes out for her birthday. However, Frank has a spare but is quickly caught by his mom who suspects him of trying to bypass her efforts to wean him from the computer. They ban him from computer games for ten days. Frank tells Audrey she needs to get over her anxiety about Linus because after ten days Linus will be around a great deal to practice for the LOC tournament. The next night Frank brings Linus in to visit with Audrey. Immediately she turns away from him and sits at the end of the sofa. Linus however, is calm and understanding, accepting that Audrey finds eye contact difficult but that she can write notes. Linus encourages Audrey, "It won't be forever. You'll be in the dark for as long as it takes and then you'll come out."

The next appointment with Dr. Sarah sees her push Audrey to consider interviewing her family and perhaps outsiders too and to begin leaving the house.This causes Audrey enormous stress and she is resistant. However,help comes in the unexpected form of Linus. While her family is in crisis over the discovery that Frank has been playing online games for hours at night, Audrey finally voices her desire to get well again. Dr. Sarah suggests that Audrey take the next step by inviting Linus to come over to visit her. Determined to take that step, Audrey manages to convince her parents to give her a phone. While she can't bring herself to phone Linus, she does text him and they arrange to meet at Starbucks. Her time with Linus at Starbucks goes well until she suddenly has a meltdown. Will Audrey ever overcome her social anxiety and reclaim her life?


Finding Audrey explores a young girl's recovery from a serious bullying incident that leads her to develop a social anxiety disorder. Kinsella, the best selling author of the Shopaholic series, grabs her readers attention with the hilarious antics and funny dialogue between Audrey's mother and her brother, Frank. Audrey has been home for several months, in therapy and working on her social anxiety. Her mother believes Frank is a gaming addict and attempts to break him of his habit of playing computer games for hours at a time. The first hundred pages of the novel focus almost exclusively on this subplot, while setting the stage for Audrey's meeting of Linus and their developing relationship. It is this relationship and how Linus helps Audrey recover, that is the real story.

Kinsella never fully reveals the details of the incident that led to Audrey's predicament, but she does focus on her treatment and her recovery. Audrey's lost herself after a serious bullying incident, hence the title of the novel, Finding Audrey. Now she has to work to reclaim her life and her place. Like most people in therapy, Audrey finds each step of recovery challenging. For example when Dr. Sarah suggests Audrey begin leaving the house and she is met with resistance, Dr. Sarah tells her, "We've talked about exposure therapy. You can start with a tiny visit. A minute or two. But you need to gradually expose yourself to the world, Audrey. Or the danger is, you really will become trapped." Dr. Sara explains to Audrey that recovery isn't a linear process, but one with ups and downs, with progress and setbacks.

One of the most beautiful aspects of this novel is how Audrey has the courage to open up to Linus about even her most private thoughts and feelings and how Linus, in his own way helps Audrey to take those first steps. He's there even when those steps are not one hundred percent successful.  For example, after racing home from their first meeting at Starbucks , Audrey is stunned to learn Linus is outside pushing notes through the letter slot. When she writes, "I was thinking, 'I'm a total failure, I shouldn't exist, what's the point of me?' " LInus has no difficulty coming up with a list of why Audrey matters and he seals it with a kiss. In this way, Linus is a remarkable character, the kind of guy every girl dreams of having as a first love. But Kinsella doesn't make him perfect; he too wants Audrey to get better - fast.

Once she's started on the path to healing, Audrey begins to gradually loosen the focus on herself and begins to notice for the first time how what has happened to her has affected others in her family, particularly her mother. "Mum is a freelance brand consultant, which means that she does projects all over the country...she's cool. Her job is cool. Only now I"m looking at this photo I'm wondering: When did she actually last work?" "I feel like I'm slowly coming out of a fog and noticing things I didn't before. What Dr. Sarah said is true: you get self-obsessed when you're ill. You can't see anything around you. But now I'm starting to see stuff." Audrey realizes that her mother has given up a job she's really good at, and that she's waiting for Audrey to get better. Audrey decides that "It's up to me to get better." With this, Audrey begins to go out more and even reconnects with her once-best friend, Natalie Dexter.

But while Audrey believes she's "cooked" or cured, Dr. Sarah points out that she's still on medication, she still wears her dark glasses and she hasn't yet returned to school. Audrey is determined to have a straight-line graph, with no valleys, no peaks. "...I'm in charge of my graph. Me. And if I want a straight graph, I'll have a straight graph." Convinced she's better, Audrey lies at her next meeting with Dr. Sarah, suddenly stops taking her medication and even tries to meet with Izzy Lawton, the girl who was the cause of Audrey's troubles. However when things do not go as planned, Audrey is forced to face the reality of her situation and recovery.
"But, I"m sick of this bloody jagged graph," I said in frustration. "You know, two steps up, one step down. It's so painful. It's so slow. It's like this endless game of snakes and ladders."
And Mum just looked at me as if she wanted to laugh or maybe cray, and she said, "But, Audrey, that's what life is. We're all on a jagged graph. I know I am. Up a bit, down a bit. That's life."

Kinsella charts Audrey's journey not only her prose, but also through the film transcript of Audrey's home movie, My Serene and Loving Family. At first Audrey hides safely behind the camera filming kitchen cabinets, bedrooms and her parents. She records family arguments, even Frank explaining the benefits of gaming, and eventually Linus and Felix playing chess. Finally she moves onto actively speaking in the home movies and is eventually filmed by her father playing LOC with Linus and Frank.

Kinsella's witty dialogue and humorous scenes never allow the heavy subject matter of Finding Audrey, bog the novel down. Audrey's mother is the main origin of the humorous dialogue as she struggles to come to terms with her son, Frank's computer addiction. Playing off her is Audrey's father, with his deadpan remarks. This is what makes Finding Audrey so enjoyable, while also sending the message that life has its ups and downs for most everyone. We just have to learn how to deal with them.

Book Details:

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella
Toronto: Doubleday Canada 2015
286 pp.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel

Charlie, Presumed Dead is a psychological thriller with a twist that leads to a shocking ending.

Nineteen year old Lena Whitney and seventeen year old Aubrey Burroughs discover each other at the funeral, in Paris, France, of their mutual boyfriend/lover, Charlie Price. Charlie died when the Cessna he was piloting crashed into the North Sea off the coast of Durham. Charlie did not have a license to fly and no one knows why he took the plane out. No body was recovered and only Charlie's bloodstained jacket was found.

With her parents currently in Marseille, Lena has no problem attending Charlie's funeral but for Aubrey who is from the United States, she had to get permission from her parents to fly over for the funeral. Aubrey doesn't know anyone at the funeral and has never met Charlie's parents either. The only person she's met from his life is Adam, his roommate from his senior year in Mumbai. Aubrey's been dating Charlie for a little over a year. In contrast, Lena is the girlfriend Charlie's family knows as they've been dating for three years.

After the service, Lena confronts Aubrey about being the other woman and they go to a cafe to talk about what's just happened in their lives. The two women soon discover that they man they supposedly know is very different. Lena reveals that Charlie told her Aubrey was the "good family friend" while Aubrey did not know about Lena. Lena knows Charlie as a jazz musician while Aubrey found him "hopeless with music". Comparing notes leads Aubrey to wonder if there is more going on than they know. Lena decides to return to London to track down Charlie's past as she believes there's a possibility he faked his death. At first Aubrey declines Lena's invitation to join her but eventually changes her mind. Aubrey wants to recover something of hers that Charlie took, but she doesn't tell Lena.

In London, Lena and Aubrey are taken by Xander, a former friend and "weed hookup" of Charlie's to a club called Fabric where Charlie partied. Aubrey knew Charlie as a gamer who tried weed but hated it, whereas Lena states that he "probably never played a video game in his life". Xander reveals that Charlie lost a brown leather journal he was obsessed about a few months ago in Mumbai. Xander shows the two women a picture of the journal, which Aubrey recognizes as hers. The journal was lost at the Taj Hotel in Colaba, a neighbourhood in South Mumbai. Aubrey tells Lena the journal is hers and she needs to retrieve it even if that means traveling to Bombay. Lena agrees, offering to pay for their trip. At this time it becomes apparent that both girls are keeping secrets from one another. Both girls acknowledge that it now seems odd that Charlie told neither of them that he had returned to Mumbai a few months ago. Lena fills Aubrey in on his backstory, telling her that Charlie spent middle school in Paris, but then was moved to Mumbai for his freshman year of high school. When that did not work out well, he was moved to London for his sophomore and junior year and then returned to Mumbai for his senior year. He traveled to New York for the summer which is when he met Aubrey. That fall Charlie started at Oxford. Both Lena and Aubrey admit they found Charlie beginning to act strange this past year, which they attributed to exam stress.

At the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel the front desk has no journal. While Lena's asleep, Aubrey decides to hook-up with Adam, Charlie's old roommate from Bombay who still works for an NGO. The next day Lena, Aubrey and Adam meet up to discuss Charlie. Adam admits to not knowing Charlie had two girlfriends. He tells them that Charlie had a friend, Anand, in Kerala who owns a tourist boat and who would supply Charlie with weed and booze. From Aubrey and Adam's behaviour, Lena realizes that they are lovers. When confronted later on by Lena, Aubrey tells her that she only cheated on Charlie once and that she told him three months ago when he visited her at her parents home in Illinois on May 19th.

Lena and Aubrey locate Anand and arrange to go out on his boat at night. On the trip Lena divulges that Charlie wrote a suicide note to his mother dated May 20 which she found in his drawer. Anand tells the two women that Charlie owes him money. He also reveals that Charlie has a half brother, Dane. Both Lena and Aubrey grow increasingly suspicious of Anand and it turns out their fears are very real when he drugs them, steals Lena's credit cards and rips their passports. Lena's parents are furious with her and insist she return home to Boston immediately. However, Lena is now determined to travel to Bangkok and she convinces her father's secretary, Cara, to book them a flight. Little do Lena and Aubrey know that this decision has sealed their fate as they have fallen for the trap Charlie has set for them.


Charlie, Presumed Dead is a psychological thriller told by the three main characters; Lena, Aubrey and Charlie. Lena and Aubrey's narratives alternate, while Charlie's occur at specific points in the story.

The premise behind Charlie, Presumed Dead involves two young women who discover they have been dating the same man. Suspecting he may have faked his own death, they set out to learn the truth. Clues lead them from Paris, to London, to Bombay and ultimately to Bangkok. Each woman is hiding a secret motivation behind wanting to find Charlie. However, in a terrible twist, not realizing Charlie's true character, the two women fall into the deadly trap he has set for them. This twist takes the unsuspecting reader completely by surprise, although Heltzel does begin to lay the pieces out for her readers, especially with the second person narratives of Charlie.

The premise would have been more believable as a young adult novel, if the women were older, perhaps in their mid-twenties. Heltzel partly gets around this by having Lena as the rich girl who is able to jet-set to the multiple locations in the story. This allows Aubrey, who is from a middle class, small mid-west town to play her part. Nevertheless, two young girls with an unlimited supply of money, who simply disappear from their families, to follow Charlie's trail through four countries, just doesn't seem plausible.

Despite this, Heltzel does a wonderful job of drawing her readers into the story, dropping hints here and there that suggest hidden motivations for each girl wanting to find Charlie. Initially the reader doesn't really know the full motivations for each girl's desire to track down Charlie. Lena admits "Grief isn't what's driving me to London, though. It's anger. If Charlie's alive, he needs to pay for what he's done to me." Aubrey is more interested in recovering her journal, which we learn later on, Charlie stole from her. In that journal, lies Aubrey's terrible secret which is revealed during a drugged-induced dream in Kerala. It is a secret she begged Charlie to keep.

These narratives reveal Charlie to be a very disturbed man, struggling to juggle his life with two women. As his life begins to unravel, Charlie plots revenge which he doesn't reveal until the later narratives. His sick enjoyment of each step of the revenge which involves the murder of one girl and the false imprisonment of the other are graphically portrayed. "You'll lead them right to it. Lambs to the slaughter; one lamb, anyway...Sometimes you don't care which one suffers, knowing one of them will. You go back and forth about which one it should be and it gives you a thrill...It's not the destruction itself that thrills you the most --though you're looking forward to it -- it's the exhilaration of watching them as they learn that you're alive and in control. It's their inevitable terror. It's perfect." The extent of Charlie's revenge is revealed in one of his last narratives. Charlie is revealed to be completely enraged over Aubrey's betrayal and her subsequent break-up with him. "You've made simple plans for Lena. She was a burden to be discarded. But Aubrey is going to suffer. For Aubrey, you've planned a fate far worse than death."

The novel's open ending leaves readers wondering if there will be a sequel. Is Lena really dead especially given the last narrative? If not, where is she? Will Aubrey be left to rot in the Thai prison? Thai authorities have her passport so they know she's American. Will they inform the US consulate of her imprisonment and the charges against her?

Book Details:

Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt       2015
263 pp.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose

The little known story of the beginning of the Danish resistance as told in The Boys Who Challenged Hitler almost never got told. As Hoose relates in his introduction, while on tour in Denmark in 2000, he visited the Museum of Danish Resistance in Copenhagen and came across a special exhibit called the "Churchill Club". This group was started by a group of Danish teens during World War II to resist the Nazi occupation of their country. Unlike neighbouring Norway, the Danish settled quickly into an uneasy relationship with their German occupiers and these teenage boys were shocked and ashamed that their countrymen would be so willing to work with the Germans.

Hoose was encouraged to contact one of the original members, Knud Pedersen, now an elderly man, by the museum's curator. However, when Hoose reached out to Pedersen, he indicated to Hoose that he was unable to work with him due to prior obligations with another American writer. In September 2012, Hoose reconnected with Pedersen after discovering his old file on the Churchill Club. This time Pedersen was interested, as the previously planned book was never written. So in October 2012, Hoose and his wife flew to Denmark where they stayed with the Pedersens. Hoose spent a week interviewing Peterson and the two sent hundreds of emails to one another in the following months as Hoose wrote. However, at Christmas 2013, Knud Pedersen became seriously ill with pneumonia and almost died. In December, 2014, just prior to the publication of The Boys Who Challenged Hitler, Knud Pedersen passed away. The Boys Who Challenged Hitler tells the remarkable story of a group of Danish teens determined to undermine the Nazis in Denmark and awaken their countrymen's courage to stand up to Hitler.

The story begins with the lightning occupation of Denmark on April 9, 1940 by Nazi Germany under the guise of placing Denmark as a "protectorate" of Germany. Fourteen year old Knud Pedersen's family was living in Odense, Denmark's third largest city. The Pedersen family consisted of Reverend Edvard Pedersen, his mother Margrethe, his older brother Jens and his younger siblings, Gertrud, Jorgen and Holger. Denmark was not the only country invaded in early April. The Nazi's also invaded Norway with one significant difference; the Norwegians valiantly fought back, while Denmark quietly and quickly conceded to the German army. Hitler needed all of Scandinavia; Denmark provided a route to transport the iron ore needed in the manufacture of weapons from Sweden (which was neutral) and Norway.

The Churchill Club in front of Holy Ghost Monastery.
Interested in drawing and painting, Knud never paid much attention to politics or the war going on in Europe. From the newspapers Knud and his brother Jens learned of the resistance put up by the Norwegians and the high price they paid for that resistance. Furious and ashamed of his countrymen, Knud and Jens decided that "if the adults would not act, we would."

While Jens wanted to wait until they recruited more people, Knud wanted to act. They formed their group which they decided to call the RAF Club with their cousin Hans Joergen Andersen and their friends harald Holm and Knud Hedelund. Having no weapons or training in the use of them, the boys were limited to disrupting the Germans by cutting telephone lines, destroying signs. The Germans were furious and told the Danish police to find the culprits or they would take over the police force in Odense.

In 1941, Knud's father, Edvard Pedersen moved to Aalborg, Denmark's fourth largest city to accept the pastorship of a new parish. Aalborg was highly prized by the Germans because of its airport which was used by German planes to refuel before traveling on to Norway. The German war machine required the iron-ore from Sweden and controlling Norway allowed them to transport this valuable resource to Germany.  The Pedersen family lived in a very small part of Holy Ghost Monastery. Knud and Jens lived on the second floor and were enrolled in the college prep school, Cathedral School. The school had many pro-Nazi students and faculty so they had to learn who to trust.

Eventually Knud was able to recruit Helge Mil and Eigil Astrup-Frederiksen. Before Christmas, Knud, Jens, Eigil, Helge and two more potential recruits, Mogens Thomsen and Mogens Fjellerup along with two of Jen's classmates, Sigurd and Preben Ollendorf had an intense discussion about the occupation of their country. They decided to act. "We will act. We will behave as Norwegians. We will clean the mud off the Danish flag." Sigurd and Preben decided against getting involved but the others remained committed and named their group,the Churchill Club after Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

They divided themselves into three groups that would look after propaganda, technical and sabotage. The propaganda department painted blue versions of the Nazi swastika with "arrows shooting out of the top of each arm, like thunderbolts" on German cars, barracks and headquarters as well as those stores, homes and offices which were owned by Danish Nazi sympathizers. The technical group was to produce bombs and was headed by Mogens Fjellerup who was nicknamed "the Professor" because he was a brilliant physics student who had been given the keys to the physics lab. The sabotage department was to focus on destroying German property and steal weapons. Knud, being a man of action, was most interested in sabotage.  A fourth group, which was unable or unwilling to actively participate in the club, provided other kinds of assistance such as providing money or materials. All members "had to commit a serious act of sabotage such as stealing a German weapon." and no adults were to be told about the group.

The Churchill Club would meet in Jen's room and then ride around Aalborg to scout out potential targets. Those targets were hit during the daytime since security was less stringent and they all had curfews. Many Germans enjoyed their life in Denmark, partaking of the culture while many Danish collaborated with them producing weapons and parts for the war. However, many Danish began to show patriotism by singing Danish folk songs and wearing special pins called "Kings Badges".

The Churchill Club began by vandalizing directional signs in Aalborg and painting their blue altered swastikas all over the city. They attempted to set an office in the Fuchs Construction Company, a major collaborator with the Nazis, on fire. The next focus of the club was to set German vehicles on fire and to steal German weapons. They managed to steal a pistol from a German car and rifle from the bedroom of a German soldier. The acquiring of these weapons now forced the Churchill Club to decide what they would do with the weapons; would they continue to destroy German assets or would their focus be on armed resistance? If the latter, that meant they would have to train themselves.

The Germans by now were well aware that someone was actively determined to destroy their assets in Aalborg and they were determined to stop whoever was responsible. Eigil's sister worked as a secretary for the Aalborg police and she informed the Churchill Club members that the German's had brought in two investigators to determine who was involved. She pleaded with them to lie low but Knud was not interested in doing so. Their next hit, on the Aalborg railroads would be so successful that Knud and the Churchill Club would be in the sights of the Nazi investigators. The teenagers would be no match for the brutal Nazis determined to end the beginnings of Danish resistance. Little did they know that the Churchill Club was just the impetus the Danish people needed.


The Boys Who Challenged Hitler tells the story of the Churchill Club primarily through the narration of Knud Pedersen, while writer Phillip Hoose sets the stage for the narratives by providing some of the background details. The story, little known outside of Denmark and certainly not well known to younger generations of Canadians, is an important part of the history of World War II and the global resistance to Nazism. Hoose not only focuses on the events during the war but also provides readers with information on what became of the members of the Churchill Club. What is apparent is that the members of the Churchill Club were forever changed by what happened to them during the war. Knud found Denmark had changed drastically in the two years he had been locked up in jail. The resistance was now intense, resulting in Germany identifying Denmark as "enemy territory." "Aalborg had become a hotbed of resistance. Residential gardens bulged with buried guns, smuggled from abroad, tooled at home, or stolen from the Germans. Underground newspapers, at last telling the truth about the war, flew from small, mobile, concealed presses. Massive labor strikes challenged German authority." Knud's family had changed too; his father haboured resisters and raged against the Nazi's from the pulpit. Knud found himself lonely and struggling to reintegrate into what was left of Danish society. He managed to become involved in the organized resistance and did so until the end of the war in 1945.

Despite their hatred of the Germans, Knud and his fellow resisters had a code that they operated according to. While planning to damage the German cars that sat every day outside Knud's bedroom window, one of the members suggested that if the German guard realized what was happening, they would hit him from behind with a pipe. However, other members objected to hitting a man, even a German soldier, from behind considering to do so was an act of cowardice. This was the first time the Churchill Club were forced to confront some hard questions. It was easy for Knud and his brother and the other boys to decide that they would form some kind of resistance group. According to Knud when they formed the group they had "all vowed that we could, and would, kill." But actually acting on this proved to much more difficult. As Knud points out in his narrative, they were middle-class boys who came from regular families and had no military training that would have prepared them to behave as soldiers who are trained to kill.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler is filled with photographs of the Churchill Club, the occupying Germans in Denmark, Holy Ghost Monastery, and many other relevant people and places. Hoose has included maps, and epilogue, a bibliography, notes on supplemental information used in the book and an index.

Well written in a style that is readable and engaging, readers will feel that they have come to know Knud Pedersen personally. The sadness and confusion he felt when his beloved country was occupied and his determination to resist the Nazis comes through in his narrative, more than seventy years later.

Book Details:

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux        2015
198 pp.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Part II: The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

Part Three: The Storm Breaks

Part Three focuses on the events leading up to the collapse of the Romanov dynasty in 1917 and beginnings of the Russian Revolution. The period from 1914 until March 1917 was characterized by the gradual economic collapse of Russia, the inability of Nicholas to govern Russia and to understand the effect war would have on his country, the increasing influence of Rasputin on Alexandra and therefore on Nicholas, and the disintegration of loyalty to Nicholas II by the Russian people.

In 1914, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were murdered by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. Forty million non-German and Hungarian ethnic groups made up a significant part of the empire and each wanted their own state including Serbia. The murder destabilized all of Europe because of a complex set of defense agreements. Austria-Hungary was determined to punish Serbia by declaring war on the region. War on Serbia meant Russia entered the war on Serbia's side, and this also brought in France which had a treaty with Russia, as well as England which had a treaty with France. On Austria-Hungary's side was Germany which declared war on Russia. This led Tsar Nicholas II of Russia to reluctantly declare war on Germany (which was ruled by his cousin!)Like other nations, the people of Russia believed the war would last no more than six months. With the crops ready to harvest, thousands of peasants answered their tsar's call to war.

Despite Russia suffering heavy losses to the Germans, the war stalled with neither Russia nor the German or Austrian armies gaining new ground. Nicholas had no idea how ill prepared Russia was for war. Believing the war would be over quickly, no plans were made to manufacture guns or ammunition. Not only that but troops lacked such basic supplies like winter clothing and boots.

By May1915, the war was a colossal disaster for Russia; they not only lost the ground gained early in the war, but also all of Russian Poland. Soldiers who weren't killed deserted. The people turned against anything and anyone German, including the German empress, Alexandra.

Lacking any military experience and against the advice of his ministers, Nicholas decided to take command of the Russian army. He left the day to day governing of Russia to Alexandra - and Rasputin. As expected, nothing changed for Russia: men continued to die at the front, troops were poorly outfitted and there were food shortages and strikes at home. From 1915 to 1916, Rasputin controlled the government through Alexandra. Those government ministers who stood in Rasputin's way of leading a debauched lifestyle, were replaced at the suggest of the starets. The result was a weak and ineffective government made up of incompetent, indecisive men. One man, Prince Felix Yusupov decided to take matters into his own hands. Yusupov along with Vladimir Purishkevich, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and Dr. Stanislaw Lazovert, formulated a plan that resulted in the murder of Rasputin. The Russian people rejoiced when they learned of his death, but Alexandra and the grand duchesses were horrified.

By January 1917, food shortages were common, prices soared and thousands were unemployed. Nicholas was incapable of acting, instead continuing to allow Alexandra to run the country. The tsar's cousin, Sandro (Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich) attempted unsuccessfully to advise both Nicholas and Alexandra to replace the ministers appointed on the advice of Rasputin and to allow Nicholas to rule without Alexandra's interference. Both were rejected outright and Nicholas ordered his own troops to quell the revolt. At first they obeyed but then took the side of the people. On March 12 the citizens and soldiers seized the Fortress, freed prisoners, looted shops and burned police stations and government buildings. Duma president, Rodzianko telegramed Nicholas begging him to save Russia. Nicholas did not bother to read it. The government ministers unable to make Nicholas understand what was happened walked away. Alexander Kerensky convinced the Duma to become the head of government and set up a Provisional Government. Their goal was to set up a democratic government. At the same time, the workers and soldiers set up a Petrograd Soviet which also included railway workers and bankers. The two organizations decided to work together. Nicholas was unaware that he was no longer the leader of Russia.

Alexandra was warned to leave Tsarskoe Selo with the children by Rodzianko, but three of them, Olga, Tatiana and Alexei were too sick with measles to be moved. At first the empress and her family were protected by a battalion but by March 15 these soldiers deserted them, along with many of the palace's staff.

Nicholas meanwhile was delayed in returning to Tsarskoe Selo because his train was repeatedly diverted as the revolutionaries continued to block the tracks. When Nicholas learned of the desertion of the palace soldiers he decided to give the people what they wanted. However, Rodzianko informed the tsar his offer was no too little too late. He then decided to abdicate, first in favour of his son Alexei and then in favour of his brother Grand Duke Michael. However, the people were furious when they learned of this development forcing Michael to abdicate when his safety could not be guaranteed. Three hundred years of Romanov rule had come to an end.

Part Four: Final Days

This section details the revolution's spiral into anarchy and communism and focuses on the fate of Tsar Nicholas II and his family.

Nicholas finally returned to Tsarskoe Selo. Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia on April 16, 1917. Lenin immediately set to work to try to overthrow the Provisional Government. The Petrograd Soviet were not yet onside. He was not in favour of a republic nor a democracy. The Provisional Government was ineffective and it refused to withdraw from the war with Germany after promising the people, Russia would act only to defend itself. This deceit angered the people.

Meanwhile the Provisional Government had to decide what to do with the Romanovs. King George V refused to take the family because of pressure from Britons who saw Empress Alexandra as a German and therefore an enemy. Kerensky decided to move the family, in a train disguised as a Japanese Red Cross train, to Tobolsk, Siberia. There they stayed in the mansion of the governor and were still treated with respect by the citizens of Tobolsk.

By October, 1917, a second revolution took place - the Provisional Government surrendered quietly and the soviets came to power. Lenin brought huge changes to Russia - private ownership of land became illegal, estates were confiscated and the land divided up and given to peasants, private homes were seized and the contents taken, banks nationalized, private industries and manufacturing was nationalized,  and all property of the Russian Orthodox Church was seized. Not everyone liked Lenin and former soldiers, nobles, and tsarist officers formed the White Movement. The army formed by these men was joined by those who had lost their property and members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Their intent was to take back Russia, make it a democracy and rescue the tsar.

With formation of the White Army, Lenin and the other soviets feared the possibility that Nicholas would reclaim his throne. This could not be allowed to happen so Lenin sent Vasily Yakovlev to move Nicholas and his family. Because Alexei was ill, Nicholas, accompanied by Alexandra and Marie were taken to Ekaterinburg to a house which the soviets named, "the House of Special Purpose". Three weeks later the three grand duchesses and Alexei arrived to find their parents living in five rooms with white washed walls. Their imprisonment was overseen by Commandant Alexander Avdeev, a staunch Bolshevik. The many young and inexperienced soldiers guarding the royal family developed a sort of friendly relationship with the grand duchesses. But when the Bolshevik authorities discovered this they called in Yakov Yurovsky, who hated the royal family. Yurovsky replaced the young soldiers with battle-hardened ones who were fully committed to the revolution.

With the approach of the White Army, the Bolsheviks knew that Ekaterinburg would likely fall and the Romanovs would be rescued. The only solution was to execute the entire family. Lenin opposed this; he believed the tsar should be put on trial for his crimes and would likely be executed but he was not willing to murder Alexandra and the children. However, officials in Ekaterinburg felt very differently. Yurovsky began to plan for the execution of the Romanovs.

Church of All Saints
built on the site where
the Romanovs were executed.
Whether or not Lenin finally authorized the execution is not known. In the early morning hours of July 17, 1918, the entire Romanov family was executed in the basement of Ipatiev House - the house with a special purpose. When the White Army captured Ekaterinburg, they did not find the royal family. Instead they found an empty house and in the basement, a room with many bullet holes and traces of blood. The Bolshevik officials in Ekaterinburg publicly admitted to executing Nicholas but not the rest of the royal family.

Fleming details the immediate events after the execution of the Romanovs and briefly describes the end of Lenin's rule and the seizing of power by the brutal Joseph Stalin in the decades afterwards. Also detailed is the forensic investigation into the deaths of the family, the recovery of their remains and the bestowing of sainthood on the family. Fleming also discusses the Orthodox Russian church's investigation as to whether the murder of the Romanov family could be considered martyrdom.


The Family Romanov is incredibly interesting and a must-read for those interested in history and in Russia. Fleming wanted "to discover the true story of what happened to Russia's last imperial family...I needed to find the answers to the question that kept nagging me: How did this happen? How did this rich, splendidly privileged, and, yes, beautiful family related by blood or marriage to almost every royal house in Europe end up in that Siberian cellar? Something had gone terribly wrong. But what? What forces were at work? What personalities? And was there really nothing Nicholas or Alexandra could have done to change their fate?"

As Fleming notes, The Family Romanov is book that tells three stories: "The first is an intimate look at the Romanovs...The second follows the sweep of revolution from the workers' strikes of 1905 to Lenin's rise to power in November 1917. And the the personal stories of the men and women whose struggle for a better life directly affected the course of the Romanov's lives."

That Fleming has done an enormous amount of detailed research is abundantly apparent. Even more apparent is that she has distilled that information down to a readable, engaging book for young adults and adults alike, while providing a sense of life in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Fleming succeeds in realistically portraying the Romanov family, presenting their good qualities as well as their weaknesses, separating myth from fact. This is especially apparent with Tsar Nicholas II, a man who probably should never have succeeded his father to the throne. The story is a terrible tragedy especially brought home by the photograph of the skeletal remains of the family.

The Family Romanov includes an extensive bibliography, notes and suggestions for online resources that are worth noting. Worth looking into is the Alexander Palace Time Machine website.

Book Details:

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming
New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children's Books     2014
292 pp.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Adrift by Paul Griffin

Adrift is an intense psychological thriller about a group of five teens adrift in the Atlantic Ocean for fifteen days. Griffin's portrayal of their attempts to survive is both gritty and realistic and doesn't have a happily-ever-after ending.

Seventeen year old Matthew Holloway and his best friend, John Costello, had jobs at Heron Hills state park at Montauk, Long Island.  Matthew's dream was to attend Yale studying forestry and become a ranger in Utah or Alaska while his friend wanted to be an electrician. While Matthew fixed boardwalks and lifeguard chairs, John worked as a mechanic in the park's maintenance shop.

Matt and John grew up in Woodhull a working class suburb but attended different high schools. On Sundays, the two make extra money by purchasing soda and ice cream treats and selling them to tourists on the beach. Matt let his parents know everything is going well as they head out on the beach. Pushed out of their usual territory the two head over to Sully's Inn and it's private beach. There they meet three wealthy sunbathers, Driana Gonzaga from New York and Estefania (Stef) and Joao (Jojo) Martins from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Driana invites Matt to a party at her house on Tuesday evening.

On Tuesday evening despite John's reluctance, Matt and John both attend Driana's party at her parents beautiful villa. During a walk on the beach Driana tells Matt that she is taking a year off after having graduated from the very expensive Blessed Heart High School and will be working at animal control. Driana loves animals and wants to be a vet. Matt finds himself attracted to her; "She was the rarest of kids my age: comfortable in her own skin. At ease with her money but not afraid to make fun of herself for it. Being around that balance of confidence and humility lit me up. She was plain cool. She was perfect."

As John and Matt are leaving, Driana asks if anyone has seen Stef. They find her phone and jeans on the stairs leading to the beach and realize that she's gone wind surfing. It is night and the moon is out when they barely spot Stef, riding the wind out to sea. Against the objections of John, Jojo decides to take out a fiberglass boat to retrieve her. Dri and Jojo get into the boat but John attempts to convince Matt that this is a terrible idea. There's no light on the boat and no radio and it's not made for the strong windy conditions they are experiencing. Matt is determined to go because of Dri and John reluctantly follows him into the boat.

They reach Stef just as her sail goes down and see that she is being circled by a large dolphin. Just before getting into the boat, Stef attempts to hug the dolphin who bucks its tail into the Windsurfer, breaking her arm. Dri and Matt dive into the water and get her into the boat. Stef is unconscious and bleeding from the head and her arm has suffered a compound fracture below the elbow. Matt manages to revive her but the artery in her arm is bleeding out fast. He ties a tourniquet made from an old towel around her arm, staunching the blood, but Matt knows she will lose the arm if they don't get back to land soon.

Now out of cell phone range and unable to contact parents or the coast guard, they try to use the engine to get back to shore but it is out of gas. Matt retrieves the surfboard and they lash Stef to the board to prevent her from moving when she awakens. Matt knows she will be in tremendous pain from her broken arm and she also has a concussion. Meanwhile John sets to taking apart the engine in the hopes of repairing it.  He succeeds but tells them they do not have enough gas to get back to shore and that they need to save it. All four teens realize that it might be at least a day or more before anyone determine that they are missing and they won't know where they have gone.

The two remaining Brazilian teens are horrified at John's seemingly cold view of Stef prospects of surviving if they do not get to shore soon. John blames Stef for her stupid choice to go windsurfing at night, while Dri tries to defend her cousin whom she says has had a hard life. As Stef's condition continues to deteriorate, the other four teens keep a look-out with binoculars for passing ships.

The next day is brilliantly sunny and hot, so hot that everyone suffers from sunburn. Dri successfully rigs up a makeshift distiller to extract drinking water from the sea water. They see a sailboat and a speed boat but are unable to make contact. Stef's arm continues to worsen, although she becomes lucid for a time. During the first day Dri presses Matt about the bullet scars on his left shoulder. Jojo thanks Matt for saving Stef's life and notes how steady John is in a crisis.

It is at this point that the police begin to look into the disappearance of Matt and John because Matt's friend car which he borrowed, has not been returned. When the group wakes up on the second day they find that Stef has died. While Dri is dazed, Jojo is deeply upset at his girlfriend's death. Matt cannot seem to feel anything while John appears unaffected. After collecting water from a heavy downpour and also drinking as much as they can, Matt and Dri slip into the water beside the boat to cool off in the afternoon heat. Matt tells Dri how he came to have the bullet wounds in his back.

Having traced the car to the home of Rafael Gonzaga, police continue to look into both Matt and John. They now consider this a missing person case that includes Driana and Estefania as well as Jojo and begin searching the beach. On the boat the four remaining teens have wrapped Stef's body in the windsurfing sail. However, now they are plagued by flies which swarm around the body and bite the survivors. Jojo is covered in bites because he refuses to leave Stef's body or to place it into the sea. Eventually Dri convinces him to let her go and they place Stef on the windsurfer board and push her out onto the ocean.

By day five, John is working on creating a primitive harpoon in the hopes they can spear fish. Jojo's fly bites are not healing mainly because he can't stop picking at them. Jojo eventually reveals to Matt that he not only takes medication for his dermatitis but also mood stabilizers. By day seven Matt senses that a bad feeling has come into the boat. "It wasn't exactly anger. A menace, maybe. I didn't think Jojo was causing it, but he was picking up on it." John tells Matt that things will change in the boat if they do not find food soon. When Matt questions him, John tells him that the desire to survive can make a person do terrible things. "No food and the drive to survive can make a person do things he never thought he'd be able to do, especially when he's losing his mind. I'm telling you Matt, watch your back. Dri's too." John is warning Matt that Jojo is becoming increasingly unstable and may become dangerous. Just how much longer the four can hold out without food and almost no water is questionable. Even worse is the possibility of dangers they may face in the coming days; sharks, severe storms, dehydration and that one of them may become so dangerous that the unthinkable might need to be considered? Can they hold out until help arrives?


Adrift uses the lifeboat trope in which a group of people, in this case, five teens, adrift in a boat with little hope of immediate rescue, find their situation so dire that they begin to consider killing one of them to save the others. In this novel, Jojo is becoming increasingly angry and erratic. Trapped in a boat adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, Jojo finds himself suddenly off his medications and having to cope not only with the life threatening physical conditions but also with the loss of his beloved girlfriend. As Jojo becomes unstable, John, Matt and Dri begin to argue over what to do with him. While Dri tries to support Jojo emotionally, John, who is practical, considers the possibility that they may have to kill him before he attacks one of them. When the realize that the land they drove the boat towards is merely an island of plastic, Matt states that this is when Jojo begins to act mean. John tries to be cautious about whether or not they should eat the rotted fish they find, but Jojo will not have John telling him what to do. Jojo tells him, "Watch yourself, John. You're making me angry." Later on as the sore on his leg is worsening, Jojo begins to lose hope. "Hope is so very draining. It's a bore, actually." He becomes morbid when Matt asks him about his medications telling him that he doesn't believe him being happy is the natural way things should be. "I think this, here, right now, the way I'm feeling: This is the true me. And I am so very angry. I don't even have the courage to kill myself. Who would build such a world? Tell me. A world where tests like this are commonplace?"

When John suggests that they be "proactive" rather than wait for Jojo to hit one of them with the hammer, Matt argues that his wounds will eventually kill him. But John counters, "Then if he's dead anyway, why not put him out of his misery?" Dri argues that Jojo is not himself and she challenges John about how he is viewing Jojo and their situation.
"I know where I am," she said. "I know exactly. And I'm not so lost that I don't know what I am too."
"And what's that?"
"Still human."
When Dri sticks up for Jojo, John maintains that their difficult situation now has stripped away the veneer to reveal the real people they are. "Why did those dudes shoot into my father's van? He's built that way. At heart, that's who he is. Sure, he's everybody's pal when things are easy, but turn up the heat a little, and now you're seeing the real Jojo." John tells Dri she doesn't know the real Jojo, only the medicated version of him.
Dri tells John that if they do murder Jojo it is something they will live with for the rest of their lives if they survive. "I'm scared of what I become if I murder somebody,"

John is correct in that the experience does reveal the strengths and weakness of each of the characters; John is a quiet effective leader ready to do whatever is necessary to survive, Matt with his knowledge of first aid is a protector and caring person, while Dri is motivated by doing what is right no matter what the circumstances.

Underlying the main story is a second story involving John, Matt and the murder of John's father.. Bit by bit, during the time in the boat, the horrific story is revealed. This event is the main motive for John following Matt into the boat - John believes he owes Matt for saving his life.

Not unexpectedly, being adrift in the Atlantic for fifteen days changes the survivors forever. They are unable to continue their friendships because their mere presence reminds each other of what they experienced. It's an interesting question to consider what makes some people so resilient in the face of catastrophe while others are completely undone. While John continues with his life plan to become an electrician, both Matt and Dri find themselves deeply changed. Instead of becoming a forest ranger, Matt works as an EMT.

Griffin spares his readers none of the gory details and some passages are especially graphic and therefore entirely realistic. His reason for placing the teenagers out in the ocean is entirely plausible (fact: teenagers at a party do stupid things). My only question is that it is unlikely Matt, John and Dri would have been able to eat much of anything once they were rescued. Nor would they be allowed to do so. Adrift is a good read, with an appealing cover, that should definitely be followed up with something light.

Book Details:

Adrift by Paul Griffin
New York: Scholastic Press     2015
228 pp.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Part I: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming Part I

The Family Romanov is historical nonfiction written for younger readers, although many adults will find this book of interest.

Fleming sets the stage for this fascinating account of the Russian Royal family by describing a grand costume ball held on the night of February 12, 1903 in honour of the two-hundredth anniversary of St. Petersburg's founding as the Russian capital. In attendance were members of what was known as the belaya kost - the 870 families who made up Russia's wealthiest citizens. They "represented only 1.5 percent of the population, but owned 90 percent of all Russia's wealth." These people were well educated and could trace their roots "back to the ancient princes who had ruled the country centuries earlier." Their homes were filled with priceless works of art, antiques and many luxuries. They wore designer gowns and vacationed on the French Riviera. French or English was the language of choice as Russian was considered coarse. The ball, hosted by Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Empress Alexandra saw their guests dressed in costumes of rich fabrics and decorated with jewels. This wealthy segment of Russian society was insular and uninformed about the rest of the Russian people. They had no idea how the vast majority of their fellow Russians, in a country that stretched from Poland in the west to Japan in the east, lived.

The main disconnect between the nobility and the peasants was ignorance about what life was like for eighty-four percent of Russians at the beginning of the twentieth century. The wealthy including the tsar believed that the peasants' lives were comfortable and pastoral. As Fleming indicates it was a very romanticized view of life that came about because the nobility had virtually no contact with the poorer classes. The reality was that most peasants lived in small huts with little furniture or bedding and had little eat. Peasants struggled to support themselves because they did not have enough land to grow sufficient food. As the population grew, this situation only worsened and the peasants saw acquiring land from the nobility as the only solution. Because of the poverty, people began to move to the cities to find work in the new factories. However, life in the city was much worse, characterized by long hours, poor wages, dangerous working conditions, crowded homes, disease and pollution.  Into this world, Nicholas  was born.

Part One: Before the Storm
This section explores the early life of Nicholas II and his marriage to Princess Alix of Hesse. By the time Nicholas came to the throne, the Romanovs had ruled Russia for almost 300 years in a form of government known as autocracy, where one person rules exclusively. The Romanovs claimed their right to rule was God-given. Thus Russia had no constitution, congress, court of appeal or supreme court. The tsar was required to follow the laws of succession (only a male relative could rule) and to follow the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church. The tsar was head of the Imperial Cabinet consisting of thirteen ministers who were noblemen appointed by him. The country was divided into thirty-four provinces, each with its own governor, imperial army and police force. A large imperial bureaucracy existed to enforce laws, impose fines and fees, and keep records." Poorly paid bureaucrats meant they were easily corrupted and therefore despised by the people. The tsar maintained his hold on power by strict control over his people; the imperial army and the police silenced all political dissent.

Nicholas's father, Tsar Alexander III was a harsh ruler who was not eager for his son to succeed him. He neglected to prepare Nicholas to rule Russia and to develop as a statesman. And Nicholas himself did not look forward to ruling Russia either. He was shy, gentle and enjoyed reading. Nicholas originally met the girl who was to be his wife in 1884 when he was sixteen and she was twelve. Born Princess Alix Victoria Helena Louise Beatrice of Hesse Darmstadt, she was a happy, smiling child nicknamed Sunny until the death of her mother at age six. Afterwards her personality changed. Nicholas and Alix met again five years later and this time both were completely smitten. Five more years passed in which Nicholas traveled the world. In April 1894 Nicholas proposed and after a brief hesitation over changing her faith from Lutheran to Russian Orthodox, Alix agreed. The couple married November 26, 1894 a month after the death of Tsar Alexander III died.

Nicholas was terrified of becoming tsar of Russia. "What is going to happen to all of Russia? I am not prepared to be tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea of how to even talk to the ministers."  From the beginning both Nicholas and Alexandra (her new Russian name) struggled. Alexandra appeared aloof and unapproachable and she was shocked by Russian society leading her to disinvite many of Nicholas's friends and cousins. The couple moved to the Imperial Park at Tsarskoe Selo, living in the less grand Alexander Palace. With Nicholas unable to comprehend his duties as tsar and Alexandra revolted by the excesses and bad behaviour of the Russian court, the two withdrew to the enchanted estate of Tsarskoe Selo. From 1895 to 1901, Tsarina Alexandra gave birth to four daughters. Although Nicholas was at first happy with the births of the daughters, the need for a son soon became their most pressing concern. Each pregnancy was becoming more difficult for Alexandra and so they began to seek the help of holy men, prayers and mystics, some of whom were of questionable character. With the birth of Alexei in 1904, Nicholas and Alexandra were thrilled. But soon it became apparent that the little boy had hemophilia, a genetic disorder with no treatment in 1904 and which could be life threatening. It was a disease passed down through Alexandra's side of the family. They withdrew even further from society and kept his condition a secret.

Part Two: Dark Clouds Gathering
This section covers the period from 1905 until 1913 of Nicholas II's reign. In 1905  the increased literacy of the workers led to increased recognition of and demand for a government that responded to their needs. No longer content to be slaves to the monarchy, the people wanted a say in how their vast country was ruled. The event that would turn out to be of greatest significance came to be known as Bloody Sunday. A peaceful march to St. Petersburg's Winter Palace was organized by a young priest known as Father George Gapon to present a petition by the workers directly to the tsar. The petition asked Nicholas II to address the problems workers in Russia faced. Like most workers in Russia, Fr. Gapon still believed that the tsar was the father of Russia and cared for his people. The tsar was not blamed for the greed, despotism and cruelty of the factory managers and landowners towards the workers and peasants. It was Nichola's response to Fr. Gapon's march on January 22, 1905 that would ultimately be his undoing.

Informed of the march and the request that he receive the worker's petition, Nicholas II instead sent soldiers to greet the marchers and did not attend. Approximately 120,000 men, women and children, peacefully marching were confronted by soldiers who eventually opened fire on them, killing up to 200 people. This unwarranted attack which came to be known as Bloody Sunday changed the Russian people's minds about their tsar. Nicholas, hearing of the tragedy did not accept blame and would not consider the advice of his advisers and even Count Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian author who advised his tsar, "...what great evil you will bring to yourself and to millions if you continue on your present course."

The unrest spread to other areas of Russia with rotating strikes which led by October 3, to massive strikes that shutdown cities. Printers and railroad workers were followed by "factory workers, schoolteachers, postal workers, telegraph operators,,,, doctors, lawyers, bankers, even the ballerinas of St. Petersburg's Imperial Mariinsky Theatre." Prime Minister Count Sergei Witte gave Nicholas II an ultimatum; either crush the rebellion in a bloody show of force or give the people the right to freedom of the press and speech and the Duma, an elected legislature they were demanding. Threatened by his cousin, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich's suicide if he did not concede Nicholas finally agreed. He signed into law the right to "freedom of conscience, speech, assembly and association" and the formation of a Duma,  in what was known as the October Manifesto. But Nicholas believed that the problem was not the autocracy but the fact that the people of Russia were being punished for their sins against his rule.

The supporters of the tsar believed the Jewish population were responsible for the unrest and repression. It was this belief that led to numerous pogroms. "In the two weeks after the signing of the October Manifesto, there were 694 separate pogroms across the country." Both Nicholas II  and Alexandra also believed the Jewish citizens were responsible. Jews living in Russia were already restricted by numerous laws including one that limited the number of Jews who could attend school.

Around this time a man who would become a famous revolutionary began to come into his own. Vladimir Ulyanov, whose father was a bureaucrat, became a professional revolutionary following in the steps of his brother Alexander who was hanged for plotting to kill Tsar Alexander III. In 1895 Ulyanov was sent to prison and then to three years exile in Siberia for his part in organizing workers' strikes. After his exile, he traveled throughout Europe gaining a reputation as a leader of the communist movement. He wrote and edited and newspaper called Spark under the pen name of Lenin. A student of Karl Marx's theories, Lenin believed that the only way Russia could become communist was through the strong leadership of a few revolutionaries. The Social Democrats who followed Lenin were known as Bolsheviks, those who believed in a more gradual change and who opposed Lenin where known as Mensheviks. Lenin returned to Russia hoping to start a full scale revolution but he was eventually forced to leave after the second uprising in December and retreated to Finland.

After the October Manifesto the attempted arrest of the soviets resulted a mass revolt in Moscow against the autocracy that included all the Social Democrats. Nicholas ordered his troops to put down the rebellion by any means possible, including the use of artillery and the shooting of any one found in the vicinity of the rebellion. He did not stop there. Revolutionaries were hunted down and imprisoned or exiled or executed. Workers against the tsar were fired. Groups of soldiers undertook actions known as Punitive Expeditions into the countryside, killing villagers and burning villages. But Nicholas II could not accept the reality of sharing power with the Duma. Between April 1906 and November 1907 the Duma closed twice resulting in three Dumas. The first Duma consisted of a decent representation from all of Russia's classes including the nobility, the land-owners, the workers and the peasants.By the Third Duma, the nobility, landowners and businessmen dominated this legislative body. It was this Duma, supportive of the Romanov autocracy that would sit for the next five years.

In 1905, the Romanov family became acquainted with Father Gregory Rasputin, a starets or holy man. Desperate to obtain help for Alexei and his hemophilia, the tsar and tsarina had tried doctors, priests and various mystics from all over Europe. In Rasputin's presence, Alexei seemed to recover and this was enough to convince the Alexandra. Because of this, the tsar and tsarina were blind to Rasputin's true nature and his reputation. Rasputin had a reputation with the ladies and he was distrusted by Prime Minister Peter Stolypin who ordered an investigation into his activities. Even when the report confirmed Stolypin's suspicions, Nicholas II refused to act resulting in the Prime Minister banishing Rasputin from St. Petersburg. Stolypin was murdered at the Kiev Opera House. It was only when letters between the royal family and Rasputin began circulating that Nicholas and Alexandra refused to see Rasputin. But that would change when Alexei had a serious bleed that almost cost him his life that Alexandra contacted the starets.

At the 300th anniversary of Romanov rule, Nicholas II and Alexandra believed that they were deeply loved by the Russian people. "But while the people acted curious or reverent, on only one occasion was the family greeted with spontaneous good feelings."


The first part of this detailed work on the Romanov family focuses on their life before the revolution, with emphasis on the conditions in Russia that led to the collapse of the Romanov autocracy. The focus is on Nicholas's belief that his rule was divinely given and how this belief led him to vehemently resist any attempt to change how Russia was ruled. He was warned repeatedly by his ministers that he threatened to undo a thousand years of history by his obstinance. Both Nicholas and Alexandra retreated from the people following their marriage. It was this distance that made him appear uncaring. This situation alone suggests that Nicholas, who was ill prepared to assume the throne, was not fit to rule. He refused to accept that the conditions for the ordinary workers and the peasants were unjust and fell back on blaming the Jewish population for the social unrest. Especially interesting is the portrayal of the four grand duchesses and the crown prince and their relationship with their parents and their tutors.

Fleming's writing style is appealing and she quickly engages the reader's interest in a country with such a fascinating history. After setting the stage in the first two parts, the next two will focus the Russian revolution. Fleming has included a detailed family tree of the Romanovs, a map of the Russian empire, a detailed Bibliography, Notes and and index.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord

The Start of Me and You is a story about a young girl struggling to come to terms with the death of a friend while learning to live again. At it's heart is a tender story, well told of a friendship blossoming unexpectedly into a first love.

Paige Hancock lives in Oakhurst, Indiana with her mother and her younger sister, Cameron. A year earlier, Paige's first ever boyfriend, Aaron Rosenthal, whom she dated for a grand total of two months, died in a swimming accident. Paige has spent the last year attempting to come to terms with his death. In her school where everyone is defined by something, she is known as "the Girl Whose Boyfriend Died".

Paige encounters Ryan Chase, a boy she has had a crush on since forever, in Alcott's Books and Beans. She realizes that he understands what she's been going through, the sympathy from complete strangers since his sister was sick with cancer. They discover they share a class in Honors English.

Paige has just finished her therapy and she now has to cope on her own. With summer holidays coming to an end, she decides to plan out a great year, hoping that she can fake her way "through every step until things were truly good again." Her best friend Tessa McMahon suggests that Paige try to rejoin some of the groups she was a part of in freshman year. After talking with her Grammy who is suffering from short term memory loss, Paige is inspired to draw up a list that includes 1. Parties/social events, 2.New group, 3.Date, 4. Travel and 5. Swim. The last item on the list, Paige is certain she never wants to do again.

Paige's junior year starts with her learning from her friend Morgan Sullivan that Ryan broke up with girlfriend Leanne Woods over the summer. In Honors English, Ryan is there with his cousin, Max Watson who had been attending a private school, Coventry School. The new teacher, Ms. Pepper seats Ryan just behind Paige, making her very happy to be so near her crush. However, the seating arrangement doesn't last long, before Ms. Pepper has Max switch seats with Ryan who has spent too much time talking with his buddy, Tyler. Ms. Pepper informs the class that they need one more person for the Oakhurst Quizbowl team. Paige decides to join the team, believing it will help her move forward and is surprised to learn that Max is the team captain.

Meanwhile Paige is stunned to learn from both her parents that they are dating - each other. This makes her very uncomfortable but her sister Cameron is more accepting. Her parents have been divorced for over five years and Paige is shocked that they have been dating for the past four months. It was Aaron's death that brought them together again. At Maggie Brennan's party Paige learns that Tessa now has lunch with Ryan, making her just a bit jealous. But Tessa isn't interested at all in Ryan. Paige encounters Max sitting in a room at the party by himself reading and later by Ryan's car as she is leaving. Paige decides to stay and talk with Max, in the hopes of meeting Ryan. The night ends with Paige altering her list of things to do, scratching out attending parties and amending number three to specifically dating Ryan Chase.

In English class, Paige and Max are paired together for an exercise, leading them to learn a few details about each other. When Paige tells Max that she has the middle name of Elizabeth for the character in Pride and Prejudice, Max tells her that he thinks she's more a Jane Bennet who doesn't judge people, who is under-appreciated and quiet and kind. He nicknames her "Janie".

Max invites Paige to his house to meet the QuizBowl team and prepare for their first match. Paige meets his mom who is a pediatrician and also meets QuizBowl team members,  Malcolm and Lauren.When Max drives her home, Paige tells him about her family and her parents dating. Max listens patiently and then encourages Paige to look at what is happening from a different perspective.

At this point, Paige continues to be focused on Ryan and how she can spend time with him. When Max tells her about Ryan's break-up with Leanne and how he disliked her, Paige feels validated because she obviously doesn't like Leanne either. She feels that being friends with Max gives her a better chance of getting to know her crush, Ryan.

The first Quizbowl match is terrifying for Paige but she makes her way through it with Max's calm reassurances. Paige's life continues to intertwine with Max's. She and Max walk together on their way to lunch and to math class. At the movie theatre, when Tessa and the group decide to stay for a showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Paige must leave to meet her mother's curfew, Max offers to drive her home. When Paige learns that her Grammy has suffered a stroke, Max drives her to the hospital and then tells Tessa what happened so she can be there for her.

Things become complicated when Ryan drives Paige to a get together at Alcott's and they kiss in his jeep, leaving Paige wondering just what the kiss means. During the winter he asks her to hang with him, while Max and Tessa go to see a band. During their time together, Paige helps Ryan plan a surprise party for Max and reveals that he's still not really over Leanne.

It takes a silly game at Max's birthday party, where Max and Paige spend seven minutes locked in a closet, for Paige to realize that she has feelings for Max. And those feelings have seriously thrown her plan for recovering her life into chaos.


The Start of Me and You is one the best young adult novels of 2015, with its positive portrayal of teen friendships, caring teen characters who grow through the story, and light romance. At the center is a strong female character, and excellent cast of supporting characters

Paige Hancock is a strong female character, demonstrating courage and fortitude. Having spent a year grieving over the loss of her friend Aaron, she decides to take control of her life,doing things that will challenge her. This leads her to join the Quizbowl club, where she comes to know Max Watson. But Paige isn`t focused on Max, she`s focused on attracting Ryan Chase who is her longtime crush. Paige uses his cousin Max in the hopes of gaining opportunities to be with Ryan and maybe become his girlfriend. However, Paige realizes several things; that Ryan is not quite over Leanne and that he is interested in her best friend Tessa. And while she`s been focusing on Ryan, she hasn`t recognized the reality of her relationship with Max. "Ryan was more an idea in my mind, and Max was a person -- my person. Sure, I daydreamed about Ryan,imagined being his girlfriend and what that would be like. But it was Max who remembered everything I ever told him, Max who looked perpetually delighted when I made him laugh...When had I learned him so completely?...It all played like a montage in my mind; Max by my side all these months...How had not seen him?"

Paige begins to realize that she's changed and that has affected her relationships. "Maybe my feelings for Max had been there the whole time, obscured by the rubble of the Ryan Chase crush I'd somehow outgrown. I'd been focusing on rebuilding the debris of my former life when instead I should have been clearing myself a path out. And that path led straight to Max." All this leads Paige to edit her list once again, crossing out Ryan and simply set the goal of dating. She'd liked Ryan in very superficial way that an eighth grader would, but Paige is no longer in eighth grade. Max is real and present in a way Ryan is not.

Max is a brilliant character, kind, intuitive and resilient. He also challenges Paige, recognizing that she's always preparing for something that is most likely to happen instead of working towards something she wants to happen. Max tries to get Paige to confront her fear of swimming but she's resistant and angry at him for trying to fix her. When Paige learns that Max has probably seen her list which has the intention to date Ryan Chase, she finally accepts that at first she used Max as a way to try to be with Ryan. While Max is initially deeply hurt by what Paige has done, his love for her allows him to forgive her. 
One of the more delightful characters in The Start of Me and You is Paige's grandmother whom she affectionately calls Grammy. Paige frequently visits her Grammy and is patient and kind towards her. often telling her about her life. Likewise Grammy is sensitive and able to recognize when her granddaughter is troubled. Despite having Alzheimer's and even after having a serious stroke, Grammy is able to impart her wisdom that comes from a long life. For example, when Paige tells her about her parents dating, Grammy tells her that her parents were very happy when they were first married, something Paige would not necessarily know. Grammy tells her "Things change. There are so many outside forces coming at marriage; finances and jobs and houses and children. You can lose each other if you're not careful. It doesn't mean it was all a wash." Just before her death, Grammy advises Paige to "love extra, even if it means you hurt extra, too." Grammy wisely tells her to "Just live your life."

One of the strongest themes in The Start of Me and You is that of positive female friendships. Paige, Tessa, Morgan and Kayleigh all help each other when they experience tough moments. When Tessa's parents miss their dinner date for her seventeenth birthday because they are stuck in China, Paige organizes a dessert buffet at Tessa's home.  When Morgan and Kayleigh have a falling out over Kayleigh's focus on her boyfriend Eric, Paige is able to smooth over the disagreement.  When Paige's grandmother has a stroke, Tessa leaves the Rocky Horror Show and comes to the hospital to provide emotional support for Paige and drives her home. Paige rescues Kayleigh when she is stranded after a party is raided by the cops. Reflecting on friendship, Paige believes that friends do favours without expecting anything in return. "In friendship, we are all debtors. We all owe each other for a thousand small kindnesses, for little moments of grace in the chaos...Because with true friends, no one is keeping score. But it still feels good to repay them --even in the tiniest increments." It is this portrayal of strong female friendships that is so refreshing and so unusual in young adult literature. There are no mean girls in this novel.

The Start of Me and You
also portrays parents in a positive and realistic way. Paige's parents have been divorced for five years but are now attempting to reconcile. Paige's father admits that the divorce was mostly his fault and that he's been going to therapy so that he won't make the same mistakes. He doesn't know if they will remarry, but "Nothing is more important to me than doing right by you and your mom." He's forthright and responsible. Both parents are portrayed as caring and involved in their children's lives. When Paige and Max's relationship collapses after the pool incident, Paige's mother takes the time to talk the her about what happened and to counsel her. Paige recognizes her mother's efforts. "...I felt grateful for my mom in a way that I never had before. She made an honest effort to hear me and to understand where I was coming from. " 

Lord uses foreshadowing in an interesting way. The Start of Me and You uses a familiar trope of a girl out to capture the cute high school athlete but who falls in love with the sensitive, nerdy geek. In a way it's fairly predictable but the author has a message for her readers and she uses Max to deliver it.  Paige tells Max she's upset about her parents dating because she knows how it will end. When Max is helping Paige to reconsider her parents dating, he uses the example of people rereading books in which they know the ending.  "In books, sometimes the foreshadowing is so obvious that you know what's going to happen. But knowing what happens isn't the same as know how it happens. Getting there is the best part."  And that is exactly the case with The Start of Me and You. All the characters in the book realize that Paige loves Max. Even Max knows she loves him. The reader too, begins to suspect early on that Paige is going to fall for Max. However Paige does not realize she loves Max until the very end. It's how she gets to that point that makes this novel so enjoyable. And along the way she too comes to realize that "Knowing what happens is different from knowing how it happens."

The Start of Me and You is a great summer read, but also a wonderful story about the power of friendship and the determination to move forward in life. The positive portrayals of female friendship, two parents attempting to recover their marriage, and relationships between the sexes make this an excellent novel. I can't wait to read more from this promising young adult author.

Book Details:

The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord
New York: Bloomsbury Children's Books    2015
373 pp.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

All We Have Is Now by Lisa Schroeder

All We Have Now is about two homeless teens who struggle to come to terms with their lives in the face of an impending catastrophe that will wipe out the United States.

The novel opens approximately 28 hours, 25 minutes before an asteroid is expected to impact in the state of Idaho. The government has revealed that an asteroid coming from the direction of the sun is due to impact the Earth causing annihilation for millions and widespread destruction. People have fled the state and surrounding areas and many people have even fled the continental United States.

 Vince Mason and Emerson Steele are two homeless teens who have been living on the street for the last year and a half. In light of the impending disaster, they are considering ending their lives. With no money, no car and having left their families they have no way to escape the impact zone. Their lives have not be great up until this point. "Before, they slept in parks, in alleyways, in backyard sheds. They scrounged for food in restaurant dumpsters, or begged for money on the street. Every day, it was about survival. It was a dirty, ugly life, but they became pros at living that way. " Now with people having left Portland in an attempt to escape the asteroid, Vince and Emerson have been able to find a room in a shelter. They been able to clean themselves and not be ashamed of how they look. They decide rather than wait for the asteroid to hit they will jump off Vista Bridge also known as Suicide Bridge, which has nothing but "cold, hard pavement" beneath it.

However when they reach the bridge, they find a man waiting, presumably intending on jumping. The man introduces himself to Vince and Emerson as Carl and asks them to let him help them. After someone helped him realize his dream of being a fireman, he has helped four other people with their own wishes. But he needs one more and Vince and Emerson are that last wish. Vince tells Carl that every day since he's been on the streets he's wanted money for food, clothes and a place to stay. Carl gives Vince his wallet filled with cash and tells him "Feel rich in these final hours."

After doing this Carl stands on the bridge watching the beautiful sunset before he answers a call from his wife, Trinity. She has returned from saying good-bye to her parents and is waiting for Carl at their home. Carl tells her he gave away both his car and his wallet and Trinity tells him that her car is out of gas. He promises to try to find a way home and asks Trinity to see if she can find a car. Carl tries phoning friends but is unable to contact anyone who can help him and eventually cell service fails.

Meanwhile Emerson and Vince learn that the man who gave them the money is Carl Ragsdale, who is fifty-one years old and lives in Lake Oshwego. They wonder why he isn't with his family at this terrible time. Vince decides that he'd like to do what Carl was doing - help people, give them one last wish. The first person they encounter is a sixteen year old boy named Hayden who can sing and play guitar and who has always wanted to be in a band. After finding food at an abandoned tavern, they travel to a karaoke bar which has remained open. Hayden gets his wish to sing in front of the crowd in the bar. Having accomplished what he wanted, Hayden decides to return home.

Carl has taken to walking since he is unable to find a ride in the direction of his home. He meets Jerry, an elderly man and together they break into a bakery that Jerry's wife used to work at.  After eating pastries and drinking coffee, Jerry falls asleep and Carl is unable to awaken him. Believing he has died, he decides to take Jerry's car and drive home to Trinity. However, before he can get to the car, Carl is knocked unconscious.

The next person Emerson and Vince meet is Jackie, an unmarried career woman who was supposed to travel to Paris in October. At first Jackie can't find her car but when she does, Vince offers to drive her to a special place as a surprise. That place turns out to be a French cafe whose owner, a "good-looking twentysomething guy" named Phillipe, lets them in. While dancing and eating french pastries he and Jackie end up falling for each other. Having accomplished their mission to help yet another person, Emerson and Vince leave taking Jackie's BMW with her blessing. Their next stop is the Multnomah County Library where they read picture books and encounter a woman, Rima and her daughter, Inika who believe that everything will be back to normal in a few days.  This leads Emerson to ask Vince if he believes that there really is an asteroid.

As the deadline for the impact looms closer and closer, Carl struggles to recover from a serious concussion. Helped by a woman and her daughter who coincidentally are Emerson's mother and sister, Carl tries to return the favour and help them locate Emerson. In return he hopes to make it home to his wife.  Vince and Emerson struggle to deal not only with their personal relationship but also with the possibility that things may not be as they seem. Vince also tries to push Emerson to set things right with her mother before it's too late. But are some things just not so easily repaired.


In All We Have Is Now, Schroeder weaves two storylines together, that of Emerson and her friend Vince and that of Carl Ragsdale. Although they all meet early on in the story and then experience separate journeys, Schroeder cleverly reunites them at the novel's conclusion, showing how we are all interconnected in one way or another. Emerson's narrative is the primary one told in both prose and short poems which are quite lovely.

All We Have Is Now is story about living life to the fullest in the time we have been given. We are reminded to appreciate what we have in life and not to focus on what is missing. When Hayden meets Vince and Emerson he tells them he left home because "I-I couldn't stay there. With them. I just...I couldn't, you know? I snuck out the bathroom window." However after singing in the karaoke bar Hayden realizes that he has a family, that his parents have been good to him and that his slipping out the bathroom window was not justified. He decides to return home. and it is also about forgiveness and redemption.

Also dominant in the novel is the idea about making the most of each day we have. When Vince and Emerson meet the twelve year old twins, Kailee and Kendall who have been abandoned, they drive them home and take them to an amusement park to distract them from what is happening in their lives and on a bigger scale. Kendall tells them that she wishes things would end happily and that she's afraid about what the future holds. Vince tells them, "No, see, you guys are looking at it all wrong...The amount of time isn't important. A hundred minutes or a hundred years. Whatever, it doesn't matter. Just make it count." When Kailee responds that it's difficult to not be angry about losing out, Vince advises her " ask yourself if that's how you want to spend the rest of your life." 

Like Kailee, Carl too is struggling to deal with the possibility that everything will end. As he's eating an apple at Emerson's mother's home, he finds "all he can taste is regret." The regret is that he's found something he loves but instead of savouring it in the moment, he is focused on how he will never taste another apple again after that night.

When Emerson takes Vince to a carousel so he can experience a memory he had of his mom so long ago, she asks him if he's mad that he didn't get more time with his mother. But Vince tells her, "Maybe sometimes I am, but I really try not to be. I mean, it's wasted energy, wishing for more. I'd rather spend my time making wishes that might come true."

Throughout the novel, Vince is determined that Emerson needs to contact her mom whom she is estranged from.  One of the ways Emerson has been coping with her mother's rejection has been to ask Vince what her mother and her older sister Frankie are doing. This leads him to describe an imaginary scenario that is positive and happy. However Emerson's fear that her mother hates her is overwhelming. If she doesn't call she can pretend otherwise. "What if her mom hung up on her? What if her mom hated her so much, she didn't even want to know where she was or if she was okay? As long as she stayed out of touch, Emerson could pretend her mother missed her a tiny bit."

As the time of impact creeps closer, Vince convinces Emerson that she needs to go see her family, no matter what she believes their response will be. He doesn't want her to experience regret. "Look, I just know that once you see them, once they see you, nothing else will matter. The past is the past. It's gone, you know? It doesn't matter anymore...All we have is now. Right now."

Like Carl eating the apple, Emerson realizes that she doesn't want to die because she's come to the conclusion that she has something to live for. She has come to realize that she loves Vince and he loves her. Emerson feels "ever-increasing terror about what comes next, and anger at having to go way too soon."

Similarly, Emerson's mother, Rhonda, is also experiencing deep regret over her actions towards her daughter. Her regret is so thick that "Carl wishes he could just cut it away for her."

At a conspiracy theory meeting about the asteroid, Emerson's view begins to change with small things at first. When she is given a piece of pumpkin pie with whipped cream she focuses on how delicious it tastes.When Emerson confronts the hurt she has caused her older sister, Frankie when she ran away, she is filled with regret. Vince tells her she cannot change the past and that there has been good that has come out of her choices too such as their meeting and the good they have done others in the time remaining. Emerson states, "I just can't let myself think about the stuff I wish I could change...You were right. Regret hurts."

One of the many poems which are part of Emerson's narrative, A Way of Life, expresses what Emerson has come to understand, that we must live life not looking back, nor looking ahead. Instead, "Each minute, each hour, spent doing, spent living." In contrast to this are Rhonda and Frankie, who are fighting over what has happened in the past to Emerson. As it turns out, Vince was right; Emerson's reunion with her family helps both her and them forgive and heal. Regrets are in the past.

Schroeder has written an appealing short novel with a timely message about what's important in life. It's probably impossible to live a life without some regrets. There are always difficult choices to be made each with their own path.

Book Details:
All We Have Is Now by Lisa Schroeder
Point, an imprint of Scholastic       2015
266 pp.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Avis Dolphin by Frieda Wishinsky

Avis Dolphin is based on a real person of the same name who sailed on the steamship, The Lusitania, in 1915. The real Avis Dolphin was accompanied by Hilda Ellis and Sarah Smith on her journey. While on the ill-fated liner, she was befriended by Professor Ian Holbourn, also a real person. Avis Dolphin is an imaginative retelling of their voyage across the Atlantic in diary form beginning on Day One Saturday, May 1, 1915 and continuing until the last entry on Day Seven, Friday May 7, 1915 when tragedy struck.

The story opens with twelve year old Avis Dolphin arriving at Pier 54 in New York City, preparing to board the Lusitania. Accompanying her are two nurses, Hilda Ellis and Sarah Smith from her mother's nursing home in St. Thomas, Ontario. Avis doesn't want to leave her home to travel to England where she will see her grandparents in Worcester and study at a school there. She feels even worse when she overhears a conversation between two photographers attempting to photograph the famous millionaire, Mr. Vanderbilt who has arrived to board the ship. They are discussing the possibility that the Lusitania might be in danger of being attacked by the Germans who have sent a warning out that the sea around the British Isles is a war zone. However Hilda reassures her that Mr. Sumner of the Cunard Lines has indicated that the Lusitania is too fast for the German U-boats. They try to comfort her by pointing out all the wealthy travellers who are boarding the Lusitania, indicating that they believe the voyage will be a safe one.

At 12:20pm the Lusitania pulls away from the dock and sets out for Liverpool, England. The next morning finds Avis feeling unwell and seasick. Unable to eat breakfast she walks to the deck in the hopes the fresh air will help her. There she meets a kindly Scottish gentleman named Ian Holbourn who notices that Avis feels unwell and encourages her to join him for a walk. Hilda recognizes him as Professor Ian Holbourn, the Laird of Foula, a small rocky island in the western Scottish Shetlands. To distract Avis from her sea sickness Professor Holbourn begins by telling her some facts about the Lusitania and also about his wife Marion and his three boys. He invites her to visit his family at Foula. They decide to explore the first class section of the ship, and are amazed at its opulence.

Professor Holbourn has told Avis that legend holds that his island of Foula was once inhabited by a giant and a bogeyman. Avis is enthralled by this and asks the Professor to tell her more about the giant and the bogeyman which he does in bits and pieces as they journey across the Atlantic. Professor Holbourn is concerned about safety on the Lusitania, and when his witnesses a poorly devised life-boat drill he questions the sailors. This brings him into conflict with Captain Turner who feels that lifeboat drills would only upset the passengers.

Meanwhile Hilda and Sarah spend their time flirting with the eligible men in second class. Sarah has snared a boy named Peter whom she meets every day in the dining room while Hilda makes friends with Richard and Jane who are twins. As the voyage continues, Avis finds herself enjoying the sea, Professor Holbourn prepares to give his talk on his trip to Iceland, and Hilda and Sarah have a falling out. But everyone becomes anxious once the coast of Ireland is spotted and the warning from Germany is remembered.

Avis Dolphin is a well written account of a terrible marine disaster that occurred during World War I and not long after the sinking of the Titanic. In fact, the collective memory of the Titanic disaster was still very fresh in the minds of most people in North America and Britain when the Lusitania sank. Wishinsky tells her story without fanfare, simply and in an engaging manner through the eyes of a twelve year old girl who is struggling to make sense of the world around her. Avis enjoys herself most of the time on the Lusitania but is old enough to be concerned about the possibility of an attack by a German U-boat. She enjoys the companionship of the professor, manages to explore all three classes of the Lusitania and meet some of the passengers, and tries to understand the complicated relationship between Sarah and Hilda. Avis also notices the worry of the passengers as they approach the coast of Ireland. Her narrative during the sinking manages to convey the confusion and terror around her and that she herself experiences.

"We climb over broken tables, chairs, lights, dishes, ripped jackets, skirts, underwear and tablecloths. We stumble over a pair of boots and a headless doll.
The injured are everywhere -- sobbing, moaning -- but we can't help them. We can't stop. I shudder as we step over a woman. I know her! She's Harold's wife, Mildred. Harold, who I met on the deck just two days ago. Harold, who can't swim. And here's his wife. Is she unconscious -- or dead? We can't even stop to help her."
All of this makes her narrative both realistic and believable.

Wishinsky uses the artwork of Willow Dawson to tell Professor Holbourn's story of a girl shipwrecked on Foula and who encounters a giant and a bogeyman. These graphic novel panels appear throughout the novel and seem somewhat incongruous. Dawson's unique black and white illustrations do not capture the professor's story in a way that makes the tale appealing.  It is the weakest part of this novel. A more substantial folk story illustrated with colour panels might have been more effective.  Both the Professor and Avis seem like individuals with a vibrant imagination and the panels could have reflected that.

Nevertheless, Avis Dolphin is a fascinating, well told story of an important historical event that should appeal to younger readers. The book is in a larger format with larger type that lends itself to easy reading. Frieda Wishinsky provides an informative Author's Note at the back which details some facts about World War I, Avis Dolphin and Professor Ian Holbourn and about Foula.

For more information on Avis Dolphin please check out the following:

The Lusitania Resource: Miss Avis Gertrude Dolphin

For those interested in the Island of Foula, check out Foula Heritage and also Shetland Foula

Book Details:

Avis Dolphin by Frieda Wishinsky, illustrated by Willow Dawson
Toronto: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press 2015
164 pp.