Wednesday, December 17, 2014

With Fearful Bravery by Lynne Kositsky

Kositsky's well written novel tells the story of a young Jewish girl's struggle to survive in Shanghai, China after her family flees from the Nazi terror in Germany and she takes responsibility for herself and her younger sister after they are abandoned by their mother.


Kositsky is one of several Canadian women authors who have penned quality historical fiction for young readers. It is 1939 and Freda Isen, her younger sister Lotty, their Mameh and friendly elderly lady, Frau Gold, are at the port of Genoa, Italy trying to obtain passage on the ship, the Conte Biancamano, bound for Shanghai, China. They have tickets for the ship, Julio Cesare which will arrive in a month, but Freda's Mameh is desperate to leave Genoa as soon as possible since the port of Shanghai may not be open to Jewish refugees fleeing Europe much longer.

Freda's mother paints her face, puts on her high heels and silk stockings and manages to charm her way onto the Biancamano. On the ship Freda becomes very ill, developing a bad cough.  She dreams about her Tateh who was a clockmaker in Berlin until the Nazi's forced him to close his shop and eventually forced their way into their home and took him away.

In the port of Shanghai, the nurse is furious that Freda is so sick and she is taken off the ship to the hospital while Mameh, Lotty and New Oma are sent to the heim, a large building into which the Jewish refugees are crammed. In the hospital, Freda receives shots of sulfa (antibiotics) to fight her pneumonia and visits from Mameh who is well dressed and looking for work so that they can move out of the filthy heim. Mameh treats Freda harshly and accuses her of deliberately getting sick. While in the hospital, Freda meets Yoshi a young Jewish boy who was sent by his family to a yeshiva but whose entire family is now missing. They also learn that Hitler has invaded Poland and that now Britain is at war with Germany.

When Freda recovers she goes to live in the heim with her family and discovers it is cramped and smelly, overrun with bedbugs and spiders. Freda shares a cot with Mameh who has found a job working at night and although Freda has no idea what her mother's job entails she begins to suspect it is something immoral. Freda begins to attend a school for the Jewish children in the heim. It is there that she meets Gertrude, who hates her name and decides to call herself, Izo for Isobelle. Freda loves school and soon is the top student.  Freda finds that the shortage of good food and being able to take a hot bath only once a month makes life challenging in the heim. Although Mameh saves money she wants Freda to quit school and to come to work at the Green Lily Cafe where she is paid to dance with men. Freda is horrified and tells Mameh what she does sounds like prostitution and even worse since she is a married woman. Shortly after this the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and then take over Shanghai. Soon American is drawn into the war with both Japan and Germany.

One day in 1943, Freda awakens to find that her Mameh has not returned. After seven days it becomes apparent that Mameh has left and will not be returning. Stunned that her mother would abandon them and realizing that she planned this, Freda knows she now must quit school and find work. Freda must find the strength to put aside her plans to work towards her international baccalaureate and work to support her family, while hanging onto the hope that Tateh will someday join them.


Kositsky has created a irrepressible heroine in Freda Isen, a young girl forced into adulthood early due to her mother's self-centered behaviour while capturing the trials of life as a Jewish refugee in China. Freda transforms from an innocent eleven year old at the beginning of the novel into a mature, responsible seventeen year old who eventually has the opportunity to emigrate to Canada. When her mother disappears Freda finds herself "so stupefied by her behaviour  that I can't sleep and can hardly get out of bed." Unable to find work, she ends up working at the same cafe as her mother, serving tables, greeting customers and dancing with men who have paid for a ticket to do so. Freda, who was critical and unforgiving towards her mother when she worked the the Green Lily Cafe, now finds herself in the same predicament. Gradually, she begins to understand what her Mameh endured. "I see now that the nasty odours she brought home likely originated with her sweaty customers." And as she comes to understand the weight of the responsibility Mameh bore, Freda states, "I'm beginning, despite the ever present tangle of anger in my gut, to feel a dark, disturbing sympathy for her." Later on when Freda begins accepting gifts from a childhood friend, her behaviour brings back memories of how much she is like Mameh. "The truth is that the costly and opulent gifts have begun to excite me, just as they did Mameh...I remember swearing I'd never be like her, but when I murmur the words costly, fabulous, and opulent to myself, they roll over my tongue like sweet wine..."

Freda's past also catches up with her in Shanghai with the appearance of her childhood friend, Hans, now a handsome man and a Nazi soldier. Freda and Hans were best friends until she was eight years old and his father forbade him from talking to her because she was Jewish. Freda encounters Hans as a customer at the Green Lily Cafe and soon they develop a deepening friendship. However, Freda feels intensely conflicted over this relationship; she craves the attention and loves the money and gifts he lavishes on her but she also realizes that he represents an terrible evil. Leila, another Jewish refugee who works at the cafe warns Freda about Hans. But Hans tells Freda that he will come every day as a sort of protector to her and a benefactor, even though outwardly she doesn't want him to. However, inside Freda "desperately want(s) him to be my best friend again. If he were interested in a closer relationship, he could mean even more to me." Hans begins to win out against Freda's better judgement. "He's extremely generous, and that pits me against my better self...I continue to participate even though the swastikas on the backs of the coins disgust me, convincing myself that I'm acting charitably...Although I demurred at first, wouldn't accept what he offered, after a while I couldn't help but be charmed." Eventually though, Freda comes to see what Hans is really after and when he does not get what he wants, he disappears, leaving her feeling ashamed and depressed.

Told from Freda's point of view, Kositsky  has structured her novel into seven parts, for each of the years of the war from 1939 to 1945, given each the title of the Chinese Zodiac. Not many young readers will be aware that many European Jews fled east to China and Japan and then overseas to the United States or Canada. Although Japan was Germany's ally during the Second World War, the Japanese did not share the German's desire to build gas chambers for them.

Kositsky manages to vividly portray life Shanghai for the Jewish refugees with great attention to detail in the heim as well as in Shanghai itself.

Overall, With Fearful Bravery is a touching and riveting story that brings to life a little known aspect of World War II and the Jewish experience outside of Europe during this time.

Book Details:
With Fearful Bravery by Lynne Kositsky
Dancing Cat Books    2014
184 pp.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Defector by Susanne Winnacker

Defector is the second novel in the Variants Series by Susanne Winnacker. It picks up immediately after the mission completed in the first novel, Impostor.

Alec and Tessa are returning to their FEA (Forces With Extraordinary Abilities) base after Tessa's first mission which was almost a disaster. Alec has told Tessa that he has ended his relationship with Kate and is interested in being with her. On their first date night in response to Tessa's questions about his relationship with Kate, Alec tells her that he and Kate became a couple due to their involvement in a mission together.

The group of agents are called to a meeting by Major who is in charge of the FEA because another agent has disappeared. The meeting includes Alec and Tessa, Tanner, Kate, along with newcomers Devon whose variation is healing and Phil whose variation is producing a killing toxin. Agent Stevens has disappeared, likely due to Abel's Army, the rogue Variant organization. Major believes that Abel's Army needs reinforcements, "Variants with useful talents" and that they were likely targeting Devon and Phil who were being guarded by Agent Stevens.

Abel's Army broke away from FEA years ago and are involved with illegal activities associated with the Russian, Italian and Chinese mafia. Alec states that he has heard that AA has a Variant in their group who is able to alter memories, thus keeping the Variants existence a secret.

Kate approaches Tessa to reveal to her about Alec's secret second Variation - his ability to manipulate other's emotions. Kate tells Tessa he is a Dual Variant and that he has used his second variant to manipulate her. Tessa confronts Alec and learns that what Kate told her is true and then questions Alec as to whether he has manipulated her emotions. She learns that he has done this "Only for your own good. I wanted to help you."

Before Tessa has time to digest these new revelations, Major informs Tessa, Alec and Tessa's roommate and best friend, Holly that they have been assigned to a new mission - Tessa is to impersonate a politician, Senator Jack Pollard who has been receiving death threats, while Alec and Holly will provide security backup. Tessa agrees to this and meets Pollard so she can grab his DNA enabling her to impersonate him. She also learns that someone has stolen the files on the FEA prison where rogue variants are being housed. The event does not go according to plan however as they are attacked by Abel's Army and Holly is kidnapped.

Despite the recapture of the missing Agent Stevens, Tessa is furious. Stevens refuses to divulge any information about Abel's Army except to tell Tessa that they want her and not Holly. Stevens also stuns Tessa with the claim that she has Abel's unique turquoise blue eyes. This revelation, which is confirmed by Major, unravels Tessa's commitment and loyalty to the FEA. Major tells her that by not telling her Abel is her father, he was trying to protect her because he would have recruited her if he knew about her Variation. Abel learned about Tessa from the Livingston mission and discovered she too was a Variant.

This revelation leads Tessa to long for the father she cannot remember and to question why he left her and her mother and what has become of her brother who must also be a Variant. Suspecting Tessa's interest in her father, Major paints a picture of Abel as a ruthless man, telling her that her father only keeps those Variants he can use and that Abel abandoned her when he no longer needed her. Major tells Tessa that Holly will be used as bait to trap her and he refuses her request to help location Holly.

Tessa suspects that Major has not told her all of the truth about herself or her family. So she decides to assume Major's body and to break into the restricted area which houses top secret files. Tessa finds files on her father, Abel Crane, her mother Heather Crane and herself. Her mother is identified as a "volatile" Variant, meaning she is either prone to mental illness or has lost control of her Variation which is regeneration. In her father's files she finds pictures of him when she was much younger and information that he might be with his group in the American Southwest. Tessa also learns that her mother has been in contact with her father multiple times during the past year. Tessa's file indicates that she is considered possibly Volatile and that Kate and Alec have been assigned to watch her.

Tessa is discovered by Major who takes her back to his office. He considers her behaviour over the past few days to be erratic and informs Tessa that he will be sending her to their facility to be treated for her emotional instability. Major walks her to her room where he forces her to take sleeping pills and injects her with a tracker device. When he leaves Tessa decides that she needs to get to Devon so he can help neutralize the sedative with his healing Variation. With Devon's help Tessa manages to escape the FEA compound intent upon finding her father and the truth about her past. It is a journey that will see her change alliances and begin to unravel the past of her mother and father.

Continuing the X-Men theme, in Defector we meet more Variants with unusual powers; Alec who can manipulate the emotions of those around him, Stanley whose spittle drugs people (seriously?), Jago who can transport people over short distances, Will who shatters glass and her brother Zach who can store memories and replay them for others as well as change those memories . Winnacker keeps her readers interested with strange twists in the storyline, yet this doesn't stop the plot from falling into a predictable ending. Defector is mostly about Tessa's journey to learn more about her missing father, whom she discovers is the leader of the rebel Variants. In Defector, she's overwrought and rebellious, struggling with her identity and feeling betrayed by FEA and the boy she loves, Alec.

Winnacker paints the FEA as a typical government agency, not to be trusted, ruthless, with a spin on every story, including the ones they tell their own agents. For every story or "truth" that Major tells Tessa, there is a corresponding explanation given by Tessa's father, mother and brother. In this respect, Defector shines, because like Tessa, the reader simply doesn't know who to believe. Although at the end of the novel, Tessa feels she has come home, the reader wonders if the memories Zach has provided about her life before her mother left Abel are real or have been altered.

It's likely the third novel in this series will see Tessa learning the truth about Abel and her mother Heather and having to decide which version she can live with and how she chooses to live her own life. This paranormal romance really has nothing new to offer. The writing is adequate, the storyline an old one, and the character not in any way captivating.

Book Details:
Defector by Susanne Winnacker
New York: Razorbill, An imprint of Penguin Group (USA)     2014
272 pp.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Emergent by Rachel Cohn

Emergent is the second book in the Annex series and picks up where Beta left off. It brings in Eysia's First, Zhara, the human she was cloned from and chronicles the attempt of the Defect clones, who now call themselves Emergent, to rise up and free themselves from slavery and take over the island of Demesne.

The story is told in the alternate voices of Zhara and Elysia.  The novel opens with a prologue which sets the stage for what happens in the novel. Zhara and her friends, Reggie and Holly are on a sailboat headed to the forbidden island of Demesne, where only the richest people in the world live. Zhara and her friends are from Cerulea but as juvenile delinquents had been sent to a special wilderness rehabilitation camp; Holly for vandalizing a desalinization plant, Reggie for stealing a dune rider and Zhara for ataraxia "raxia" addiction.  A day after arriving at the camp, Zhara steals a sailboat and they are now on their way to Demesne. However, a sudden violent storm strikes, the result of the special bioengineering that protects Demesne from bad weather. The storm throws the three teens into the water, but Zhara's training as an Olympic-level diver enables her to save herself. Their boat is found by pirates who deal in selling the bodies of twentysomethings to be cloned as slaves on Demesne. The pirates believe Zhara is dead because of the effect of the raxia on slowing her heartbeat. They take her because she is "tasty" or pretty enough but leave behind Holly and Reggie. Zhara awakens on Demesne to meet the Mortician, a tall Demesne clone.

From this point on the novel is narrated alternately by Zhara and Elysia. Zhara is now on an island the Defect clones call Heathen. She arrived several months ago after being taken to Demesne where she was brought back to life by the clone Mortician on the island, Aidan. The clones on Demesne tried raxia, the drug that Zhara was addicted to, and discovered that this "awakened" them - that is made them have feelings by unblocking the brain inhibitors they were designed with to make them slaves. These feeling clones were labelled Defects by the humans and were returned to the lab where Aidan worked, to be "expired" or killed. However, instead of destroying the Defects, Aidan was quietly sending the "Emergents" to Heathen. When Zhara arrived, Aidan tried reviving her using his newly developed electrical abilities. Unable to hide this new ability Aidan was forced to leave Demesne with Zhara.

On Heathen, Aidan has become the leader of the Emergents and Zhara is his platonic consort. He now plans to lead the clones to Insurrection, where they will retake Demesne as their island since it was built from the slave labour of the clones. Heathen is protected by the Emergents who controlled the beautiful weather on Demesne, now using their abilities to create a weather force field that prevents planes or boats from reaching the island.

Aidan had reassured Zhara that she was not cloned. However, Zhara learns that this is not true when they goes to meet the Uni-Mil soldier who is helping the Emergents. That soldier turns out to be her long lost lover, Alexander Blackburn, known as Xander. But Xander is not alone - he has with him the beautiful clone of Zhara, named Elysia.

Both Zhara and Elysia are shocked at the other's existence. Zhara is stunned to see Alexander's devotion to Elysia, assuming that they are lovers. However Alexander tells Zhara that Elysia's baby is not his. Elysia, while appreciating Alexander's devotion and protection of her, is in love with Tahir, another Beta, who has been taken away from Demesne. Elysia want the chance to be with Tahir again before the Awfuls, the crazy behaviour that precedes their programmed death at age eighteen or nineteen, occurs. Elysia hates the unborn baby she's carrying as a result of her rape by Ivan Fortesquieu, but the fact that she has become pregnant gives hope to the other Emergents that they may also be able to procreate. She is considered their hero and their new de facto leader, although she desires neither.
"I don't want to be the Emergents' hope. I want to be free of their struggles. I just want to be a regular girl, allowed to live in peace with the boy she loves. Tahir. Not Alexander Blackburn."
Alexander reveals to Elysia that the notion that the Demesne clones do not have souls is a myth and that the new clones have their own souls but don't know it because Dr. Lusardi "developed brain inhibitors to block the clone's feelings." She insisted that this remain a secret so as to be able to sell them to buyers on Demesne.

Due to the stress of meeting her clone, Zhara relapses into her raxia addiction causing Aidan to order all the cuvee fields on the island destroyed. Aidan tells her she must focus on Insurrection which must go ahead as soon as possible. Zhara reveals through a flashback how devastated she is that Alexander is now focused on Elysia. Zhara seduced Alexander on Cerulea because she knew that as an Aquine, if he mated with her it would be for life and this would make her his mate. However, Alexander refused her request to join him when he left for Uni-Mil training, resulting in their break up.

Tawny, who was the Demesne Governor's luxissant arrives on Heathen informing the Emergents that ReplicaPharma who make adult clones have been brought in to oversee the problems on Demesne. Aidan believes that ReplicaPharma will likely replace the Demesne clones with their own clones. Meanwhile the rich families on Demesne are exporting their clones to show them off and or selling them to collectors. Because of a global financial crisis, the Governor expects most of the families on Demesne will leave the island and vote to sell it to ReplicaPharma. In light of this information, Aidan wants to start the Insurrection immediately but on the advice of Alexander, Elysia chooses to wait.

Over the next few days, while the Emergents continue to develop their abilities to control the weather and to initiate earthquakes that will be used to retake Demesne, Zhara and Elysia come to know and understand each other a bit better.

Before the Emergents can launch the Insurrection, Heathen is invaded by the ReplicaPharma soldiers who are androids. Dimitri Kelos a vice president of ReplicaPharma informs them that because Demesne has been sold, the clones, including the Emergent ones, are now the property of the company. The Demesne clones will be allowed to live out their remaining time on the island, confined to labour camps. Those clones who did not participate in the uprising will be reprogrammed to stop feeling and will serve the ReplicaPharma personnel who now live on the island. Dr. Lusardi, a clone herself has been expired and Aidan is to be taken and experimented on to learn about his unusual abilities. Unable to fight back Alexander, Zhara and Elysia are taken back to Demesne, while Aidan with his special powers is taken prisoner. Can Elysia and Alexander still launch the Insurrection and save the remaining clones on Demesne?

Emergent is not as captivating a story as its predecessor, Beta which had an intriguing storyline. It focuses mainly on the relationships between Zhara, Elysia and Alexander and later on Tahir.  Cohn does an excellent job of capturing the horror Zhara feels when she discovers she has been cloned against her will and in portraying the emotional conflict between Zhara and Elysia. The emotional conflict seems mostly one sided, at least it is more readily apparent from Zhara's narrative. Zhara is shocked to discover that she has been lied to and that she was cloned without her permission, against her will or knowledge, while Elysia is trying to cope with her anger over her violation and her loss of Tahir.

Zhara is "Exhausted. Confused. Horrified." But this is only the beginning as she soon discovers other disquieting things about her clone. Zhara is disturbed to learn that Elysia has memories of Xander and feels this is "an off-the-charts intrusion into my mind, body, and soul."  She resents Elysia being able to perform difficult dives that Zhara took years to learn and perfect. To Zhara, "Elysia will never be my forever, no matter how much she looks and acts like me. I reject her. I refuse her. I may have to live in proximity to her for the time being, but I will never, ever accept her. She stole me."

When Zhara learns that Elysia was raped by the son of the Governor of Demesne she feels that "...Elysia is that sister I used to long for. I want to touch her hand, hold her close to me, to comfort her, to promise her vengeance. I don't. But I want to." Yet Zhara is disturbed that her clone was treated as property. "She was his property. Fact. Another version of my face, my body -- given no rights or choice, created to serve and have no wants or desires of her own -- there for him to take, just because he wanted to."

Yet despite this, Zhara begins to understand that  her "clone has suffered more in the few months she lived on Demesne than I have in my entire seventeen years. I grieve for her as much as I resent her."

The biggest weakness of this novel is motivation behind ReplicaPharma keeping two other surviving Beta clones, Tasmin and Tarquin prisoners. Their presence serves as a plot device to tidily wind up this installment of the series. The story evolves such that when Zhara and Elysia are taken to Demesne, they learn from Tahir who has returned with his parents to the island,  about two Betas who are kept in a lab as they expire or go "Awful". When the three of them go to see the two Betas they learn from Tarquin that they are part of a medical experiment to use their raging hormones to create a vaccine to be given to teens around the world to prevent them from experiencing irresponsible behaviours and being awful. It's the silliest plot development imaginable and  the impetus that finally unites Zhara and Elysia against the adults to overthrow Demesne and destroy the samples. Tahir and Elysia leave the island while Zhara stays with the clone she loves, Aidan, promising to care for Elysia's daughter, Xanthe.

The cover of the first novel, Beta, has been redone to match that of the second novel. These new covers are unappealing with the photoshopped figures looking tacky and out of place.

Goodreads indicates that there are two more novels in the Annex series but there's scant information on Cohn's website. I will be interested to see where Cohn takes her story; the likely focus now seems on saving Tahir and Elysia from the Awfuls and perhaps developing the storyline involving Elysia's daughter, Xanthe.

Cohn is a well known young adult author whose books, Very LeFreak, Pop Princess and You Know Where to Find Me are popular. She has also co-authored three novels with David Levithan.

Book Details:
Emergent by Rachel Cohn
New York: Hyperion, an imprint of the Disney Book Group    2014
281 pp.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Tabula Rasa by Kristen Lippert-Martin

Tabula Rasa is a action-suspense novel about a girl trapped in a mental hospital who is trying to learn why paid mercenaries are attempting to assassinate her.


Sarah Ramos is in a special medical center being treated by doctors to have her long-term memories erased. "Getting better means forgetting the past."The facility she's at is surrounded by mountains. Dr. Buckley who looks like Santa Claus is the surgeon who will be doing Sarah's surgery. She's only met him once. Larry Ladner is Buckley's research partner who reads the CAT scans and the MRI's and decides were to drill. While surgery is being done, Sarah who's awake notices that she's being watched from the observation window by Ms. Hodges, someone who inexplicably causes Sarah to feel intense hatred. Suddenly during her procedure, all the lights go out. The power returns and then fails again. It is during this second failure that someone enters the operating room and places a plastic bag into her hand. After being taken out of surgery, Sarah is wheeled back to her room in the South Wing by her orderlie, Steve, but she notices that everyone is gone. Steve tells her that there is to be a big blizzard that night and that people are being flown out. They encounter another patient, Jori, who tells Sarah that she overheard Ms. Hodges talking on her cell phone with Dr. Buckley about Sarah and that they need to deal with her. She warns Sarah that something bad is going to happen. When Sarah gets back to her room she discovers that she's been given three pills in a plastic bag with a note instructing her to take the a pill every 24 hours and not to move around after taking them. Sarah takes the first pill.

Sarah takes the first pill and almost immediately begins to have a flashback of climbing a crane in New York City to place a banner. In her hospital room Sarah notices street clothing stashed under her bed so she gets dressed. She discovers a magnetic card similar to the one that allows staff to access doors. She hears a series of pops and decides to leave her room and move into the ward. Sarah hears the sound of helicopter rotors and then watches in horror as it launches a small rocket into the building - where her room is. In her attempt to get to Jori and rescue her, Sarah encounters men dressed in military camos who shoot at her. When she reaches the lobby of the hospital, the military men announce that they are here for Sarah Ramos and ask for help locating her. Sarah is betrayed by Steve who announces that she is hiding behind the security guard's desk.

Steve is murdered by the men but Sarah is protected by the strafing gunfire by a filing cabinet. Arriving in the lobby is a woman with a southern accent who tells a soldier to check on Sarah to confirm she is dead. Sarah who covers herself in the blood of another person waits until the soldier comes close and then manages to escape through a broken window and falls fifteen feet into the basement. Unfortunately, her fall destroys one of the two remaining capsules. She uses the passcard to slip into a garage. Realizing she is trapped Sarah finds a nail gun to use as a weapon and a way out into the cold, blizzard.

Outside she sees a figure dressed in a puffy ski jacket and the fact that he has hair means he's not one of the hospital patients. Sarah follows this person to a work site on the other side of the building where she sees a huge excavation site. The young person heads to a small building attached to the main facility by a glass walkway. Sarah manages to get into the building after he uses his passcard. They meet after Sarah punches him in the face.

The young man, handsome with dark hair, tells her that this building houses the mainframe for the hospital where he retrieves some data and then destroys the hospital's mainframe. He tells Sarah that he is a hacker and his boss, 8-Bit is also a pre-eminent hacker but that they are not connected to the people who are trying to kill Sarah. They hide out in the boy's yurt in the forest and Sarah discovers several things about herself with his help.First she tells him that all she knows is that her parents are dead and she is in the hospital because she has PSTD. However when she remembers that she calls herself "Angel" and the boy, who calls himself Pierce tells her she has a large tattoo of wings on her back, he believes he knows who she is.

Pierce things that she may be the girl known as Angel who "exposed a vast government scandal and then vanished into thin air." As Angel, she stopped the development of a housing project along the Hudson River leading to people being sent to prison for lying to Congress about the government's involvement. People believed she had been assassinated. Pierce wonders why she was put in the hospital and why 8-Bit who is his father, was involved. He tells Angel that his father gave him a flash drive that has information on it in case he doesn't return.

Pierce and Angel also come to a startling conclusion - that she needs to replace the pill which was destroyed in her fall. Pierce tells her that the doctor who has been working on her is not Dr. Buckley but really someone named Joseph Purcell Wilson who is the mastermind behind the Tabula Rasa project. Pierce tells Angel that Buckley was likely never physically in the hospital operating on her but actually did the operations remotely. He also states that based on what he's read, the procedures are not permanent. Pierce explains that a plasticizer that migrates to certain nerve endings has been injected into her head and that another chemical is injected to harden the plasticizer, killing the neurons. The plasticizers can be flushed out of her brain via special pills. Pierce tells her that once she starts to take the pills she has to take all three or it won't work - instead the plasticizer will remain in her brain and could cause permanent damage. Angel tells him she's taken one of the pills but that one has been destroyed and she has a remaining pill.

Based on this information, Pierce and Angel decide that she needs to get back into the hospital to find the third pill. This leads Angel and Pierce who now tells her his real name is Thomas, into a race against time and a deadly battle against trained mercenaries to recover the medication she needs and to discover why she is being hunted.


Tabula Rasa is an engaging, suspenseful novel told from the perspective of Sarah Ramos, a character who has no idea who she is and why she is in a high security hospital. The appeal of this novel is her struggle to recover her identity while being hunted down by special mercenaries hired by a crazy woman named Evangeline Hodges. With the help of Thomas and his hacking abilities, as well as the pills which restore some of her memories, Sarah comes to the decision that that she needs to kill Hodge and she needs to get the one pill she needs to neutralize the procedure done to her.

Lippert-Martin has created an exciting premise for a novel - girl who has no memory of her past and therefore no idea as to why she's in a hospital. However, the ending falls short of expectations, despite the heart-pounding action scenes that feel like they have been written for a movie. As the storyline develops and it becomes apparent that Angel is caught up in some kind of top secret research, suspense builds. Readers will be disappointed however, when the truth is finally revealed at the end of the novel because the storyline feels so unnecessarily convoluted and overly complex. Thomas's father, 8-Bit asks the question the reader is left wondering, why go to all this effort to hire mercenaries to kill a 16 year old girl who is a patient in hospital?  One wonders why Hodges simply didn't hire an assassin to take out Angel (who had no parents and whose real father, Virgil Claymore did not even know about her existence) instead of placing her in a research facility and then having to hire expensive mercenaries to kill her. 

The manner in which Angel eventually learns the truth about her identity and her past is disappointing. Although she does learn about some of her past the loose ends are tied together by Thomas's father, 8-Bit, who has been captured by Evangeline Hodges. Believing Angel to be dead, Hodges has her taken to the Director's office and left on the carpet to hear 8-Bit questioning Evangeline killing Angel. Through this conversation Angel and the reader learn about how Evangeline wormed her way into the Claymore family and fought for control of the Velocius project - research that has the potential to create super-soldiers who can think and act quickly. Angel was the project's first success, something Hodges did know about. Instead, she wanted Angel to be murdered by Wilson during brain surgery in revenge for causing problems with Claymore Industries, the company hoping to benefit from the secret research. How Lippert-Martin sets up Angel recovering her missing pill seems implausible and the way in which Evangeline Hodges is arrested  seems contrived.

The story misses the mark by diverging into smaller subplots that often are distracting, leaving the reader hanging. For example, when Thomas is badly injured, Angel encounters three men, Sam, Jerry and Sylvester, who are former Special Forces soldiers who believe they are prisoners of war surrounded by miles of desert. They were the first set of experiments undertaken by Wilson but they backfired and are now experiencing what is called paradoxical treatment effect. Barefoot and kept in a room having no contact with the outside world, with one man strangely in possession of an axe, these men become the substitute security detail for Thomas, helping Angel on a secondary mission to repower a battery. (Her brain is at stake and yet her focus is Thomas's computer?)

Just before this event,  Thomas and Angel are about to re-enter the hospital to try to reach the sixth floor where the medical supplies are kept. However, Thomas is terribly injured when one of the escaped patients, Oscar Noriega who is completely crazy,  takes a backhoe to the trailer they are in. This removes one of the main characters in the story, stunting what was the beginning of an interesting, developing relationship between Angel and Thomas. Thomas is conveniently brought back into the story by the medic, Jerry and a shot of morphine.  For the type of injury Thomas has sustained,  "His lower leg looks like the muscle has been filleted off the bone." the shot of morphine makes him able to function as though nothing has happened to him. He's right back on his laptop hacking mainframes and locating soldiers. Morphine has a significant effect on pain but also on the cognitive abilities of a person. It's unlikely given Thomas's injury that he would be much use to Angel or anyone else at this time.

A rather incongruous piece of dialogue in this novel is one that happens between Thomas and Angel near the beginning of the story. Angel and Thomas are in the trailer and Angel is looking for something to eat. Thomas instructs Angel to make him something to eat but not the enchiladas because "They taste like Mexicans." This gets even stranger when Thomas insists that enchiladas taste like "...actual Mexicans. Unwashed ones."  There is simply no way to make any sense of this strange, out of place dialogue that is derogatory towards Mexican people.

I think Lippert-Martin could have created a more interesting novel by simply having a straightforward story that focused on the secretive research aspect, somehow tying in Angel's relationship as a whistleblower who needs to be silenced. A better developed villain would also be an asset instead of a poor girl from Georgia who is determined to make it in New York City and ends up walking around the hospital in a long coat.

Overall, those who like action thriller novels with mass destruction and mayhem will probably enjoy Tabula Rasa.

Book Details:
Tabula Rasa by Kristen Lippert-Martin
New York: Egmont     2014
335 pp.


Sunday, November 30, 2014

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister by Amelie Sarn

Set in France, I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister is the story of a young Muslim woman's struggle to come to terms with her feelings over the gruesome honor killing of her younger sister. At its heart is the right of women to choose their a life of their own making.


The novel opens with a women's march in memory of Sohane Chebli's younger sister, Djelila who was murdered. Now trying to cope with her guilt in the aftermath of her sister's death, Sohane reflects on how life has changed while telling the story of what led to this horrific murder of her sister through a series of flashbacks.

Djelila is the beautiful sister, the one with the gazelle eyes, the long legs and the clear skin. She loves basketball and is on the team at Racine High School where she and her sister Sohane attend school. Sohane and Djelila live with their parents and younger brothers, Taieb and Idriss, in the Lilac Projects, a large housing project that is predominantly Muslim. Their high school is equally large, containing five buildings with over two thousand students in grades eleven and twelve.  The two sisters are caught between two worlds, French and Muslim, which Sohane states is like having multiple personalities -- "one for our parents, a second for the projects, and a third for high school."

Djelila and Sohane are very different. Sohane is disgusted by the sexy, revealing ads on the bus shelter. Unlike Djelila, Sohane dresses more conservatively forgoing the tight jeans and close fitting sweater that her sister favours, choosing instead to wear loose fitting longer sweaters and baggy cotton pants. Djelila smokes and also goes out with boys while her older sister has experience none of this.

Then one day when she is leaving school, Sohane notices a gang of Muslim boys - Majid, Youssef, Brahim, Mohad and Said, from the projects, watching and following Djelila. To Sohane, these boys represent "their Taliban", their judges. But the two sisters along with many others in the projects pay little attention to them because all of them are now dropouts. At Djelila's basketball practice, they sit in the bleachers and wait silently, watching Djelila. After practice they follow Djelila home, with Sohane trailing behind them. When they get to the projects, Majid begins to insult Djelila calling her a slut. The boys confront her, spit on the ground and tell Djelila that she shames her religion, family and the projects. When Djelila tells Majid to remember who he is and not to judge her, he slaps her across the face. Djelila is shocked and scared and Sohane has done nothing but watch. The two girls say nothing to their parents.

When their father's brother, their Uncle Ahmed comes to visit, Djelila confronts Ahmed over his views of women and whether they are French or Arab. This is considered disrespectful in their culture and Djelila is forced to apologize and quickly retires to her room. Despite Sohane staying at the table with Uncle Ahmed and Aunt Algia, she finds her uncle to be arrogant and interfering. When Sohane goes to their room, she finds Djelila awake. Djelila tells her that she doesn't respect their aunt and uncle and that the feminist in her wants to respond to his outdated views of women and identity. For Djelila, feminism is the right to dress how she wants but Sohane sees this as following "the cliches men impose on us."

Djelila tells Sohane that if wearing the head scarf is important to her then she should do it, but she warns her it will not be without consequences. Sohane follows through and wears the hijab to school and gets expelled. When the school calls her parents, she is surprised to discover that her father is more than supportive, willing to pay for her to take the rest of her high school by correspondence. Sohane decides that she will continue to wear the head scarf and despite a petition by Djelila's friends that she be allowed to return, Sohane does not return to school.

Some time later Djelila helps her team win their basketball game against a very good team. Afterwards, Djelila and another team member, Alice go out together and get drunk to celebrate. Sohane attended the game and tried to convince Djelila to return home with her. Unsuccessful and worried about her sister, she waits outside the projects for her to return. When Djelila does return it's evident she's very drunk. So drunk in fact, that she goes up to Majid and his friends who hand out near Tower 38 and slaps him in the face in repayment for what he did to her. Fearing for her sister Sohane manages to get Djelila safely home. But it is this event that sets in motions the  events that lead to her sisters horrific murder in the basement of their building.

For Sohane, time has not stopped after her sister's murder. Her Aunt Algia had her baby and final exams are approaching. Sohane plans to ace her exams and leave. But a year later she has still to write her final exams and is unable to cope with her feelings of guilt and loss. Nine months after her sister's murder her friends come and tell her they want to commemorate the anniversary of her death, that they don't want it to pass by unnoticed. At that time Sohane could not face them but on the day of the memorial, Sohane does attend but she is asked to leave because she is wearing a head scarf.


Athough Sarn's novel touches on two very controversial problems, the wearing of head scarves and honor killings, it is more about the freedom of women to live their lives as they choose. Sarn's novel is based on true events that occurred in France. In 2002,  Sohane Benziane was cremated alive when she was doused with gasoline and set afire in the basement of a building. Twenty-two year old Jamal Derrar, the man convicted of her murder, had an argument with Benziane's boyfriend, so her murder was more of an act revenge than an honor killing. Benziane was a Muslim of Algerian descent.

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister  explores the right of women to decide how to live their lives through Sohane Chebli's stark narrative which reveals her deeply conflicted emotions over her sister's behaviour. It covers events that happened during the course of a year and reveals how events unfolded and how her own views towards her sister's actions changed.

Both Djelila and Sohane are rebelling; Djelila against her Muslim religion which she has shed and its expectations of how to dress and act, and Sohane against French culture and its secular values that state she cannot wear the hajib because it is a religious symbol.They are caught between two cultures with two very different expectations for women. In France, women can dress how they please, smoke, drink and date. However, in Djelila and Sohane's Algerian Muslim culture none of these behaviours are acceptable. Women marry young and are expected to be married off as Uncle Ahmed states when he visits their family.

Throughout the novel Sohane continues to state how she wished Majid and his gang would teach Djelila a lesson. She loves her sister but her growing up has left Sohane with a new and changing version of her sister, not the one she wants. After the first attack on her sister she states "At the time, I thought, Djelila will get what she deserves. It's not as if she had no warning....Deep down, I wished they would teach you a lesson. That you would be knocked down a peg. That you wouldn't be so sure of yourself. That you would need me again, just like when we were little girls." Sohane is jealous of her younger sister's confidence and the fact that she seems to know who she is and what she wants. She is jealous because Djelila, bit by bit, no longer needs her older sister. Sohane admits to herself that after Majid slapped Djelila she rejoiced to see her sister humiliated and she did not intervene.

Sohane decides to wear the head scarf or hijab because she wants the world to know her as she really is, "I wish the whole world could know what I am. Who I am." Yet, she is unwilling to grant that same chance to Djelila, who when they are arguing about wearing the head scarf states that "I want to be respected to...Without having to disappear or hide my face."

Sohane refuses to acknowledge Djelila's view writing "I would love to make her see things my way. If she were to follow my example, I'm certain she would be happier. And in less danger." Because their views diverge, Sohane often refers to Djelila as her "enemy sister".

After confronting and slapping Majid,  Djelila tells Sohane, 'I don't want to be afraid of Majid or anyone else. I don't want to live in fear. I don't want my choices to be dictated by fear. I don't want to be what others have decided I should be. I want to be myself. Do you understand, Sohane?"  But at this time Sohane does not understand because she still wants Djelila to be like her - to not drink and to follow other Muslim customs. Eventually however, Sohane comes to realize that she was wrong about how she treated her sister and this happens when she is turned out of the meeting discussing Djelila's murder because she is wearing a head scarf. The women in that meeting saw her head scarf as a symbol of women's oppression and did not respect her right to wear it. Similarly Sohane begins to realize that she did the same thing to her sister, something she doesn't acknowledge until Djelila's friends organize a memorial.
 "You're jeans are not too tight, and your jacket not too short. You had the right to be yourself. But others decided otherwise. I forgot the principles of the Koran. I should not have judged you, Djelila. I should have been more understanding. In any case, I should have defended you. I did not relate to your rebellion, but it was a mistake, Djelila. You were right. Freedom is everything."

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister is a difficult novel to read. We know by page 46 exactly what happened to Djelila and that doesn't make the book any easier to read. Whether women wear head scarves or not, whether they wear tight jeans or not, the choice should be theirs. No one judges men on what they wear or how their hair is styled. A man's virtue is not questioned because of what he wears. Somehow with women it is different. Women should have the right to choose how they live. We are worthy of that freedom.

Book Details:
I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister by Amelie Sarn
New York: Delacorte Press       2014
(originally published in France in 2005 as Un Foulard Pour Djelila)
152 pp.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Mockingjay Part 1

Mockingjay Part 1 is the first of two movies that cover the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy. This movie is set almost entirely within District 13 and opens with Katniss recovering after being rescued from the arena in the Quarter Quell. Peeta, Annie and Johanna are now prisoners in the Capitol. The movie climaxes with Peeta's rescue from the Capitol and the discovery that he has been programmed as a weapon to kill Katniss.

This movie's strength is it's faithfulness to the novel, telling a good story without slipping into Hollywood's usual embellishments and tropes, likely because author Suzanne Collins was part of the process in adapting the novel to the big screen. The only difference between the first part of the novel and the movie adaptation is that it portrays Gale, Boggs and his team going into the Capitol to free Peeta and the other victors. The basic storyline of the struggle of the rebels to take down the inhumane regime of the Capitol never becomes bogged down or side-tracked.

Mockingjay Part 1 is a dark movie; the world is grey and smoking, we don't see much of the Capitol excesses and vibrant colours in this movie. Instead we see the massive destruction in District 12 and District 8. The only vibrant colour is the blood of the casualties. Within the confines of District 13, the people live underground in grey concrete bunkers and wear grey or blue coveralls. Even Effie Trinket, fugitive from the Capitol,  is tampered down, her outrageous makeup gone, her clothing muted and dark. Tthe rebels are struggling to overcome the Capitol and Katniss is dealing with the psychological and emotional effects of participating in two Hunger Games and the capture of Peeta.

Jennifer Lawrence gives an outstanding performance that continues to remain true to the character of Katniss Everdeen. Lawrence brilliantly conveys the emotional fragility Katniss has, the result of the trauma she has endured in the Games. We also witness her inner struggle over Peeta and her attempt to understand how her relationship with Gale has changed. Enhancing her Lawrence's performance is an outstanding by a cadre of supporting actors

Gale, well played by Liam Hemsworth, continues to support her but begins to realize that he has likely lost her love and that she seems to only notice him when he is in pain. The Katniss he once knew no longer exists. Woody Harrelson returns as the now sober (and dull) Haymitch Abernathy who is still on the ball when it comes to outguessing the Capitol, Donald Sutherland continues as the cold calculating President Snow, Katniss's archenemy who loves to leave her white roses with their sickening scent, and Philip Seymour  Hoffman as Plutarch Hensbee, President Coin's advisor. The movie is dedicated to Hoffman who committed suicide this year. Jeffrey Wright plays Beetee the technical wizard whose abilities help to turn the war in the rebel's favour.

There are many new characters in this movie among them, Cressida played by Natalie Dormer who is the director in charge of the propos, Messalla played by Evan Ross who is Cressida's assistant and friend, Castor and Pollux (Wes Chatham and Elden Henson) that later who is a Avox,  and Julianne Moore as President Alma Coin. Both Dormer and Moore's performances stand out.

The depiction of Peeta's "hijacking" and madness is especially well done; it's the last scene in the film and very intense as Katniss witnesses the havoc President Snow has wreaked upon the man she is only just coming to realize she loves.

There are several differences in the movie compared to the novel. One is that Katniss does not demand from President Coin that she be allowed to assassinate President Snow, leading one to wonder how the ending of the second movie will play out.

Overall a very good movie adaptation of a popular young adult novel that will leave fans truly pining for the final installment next year.

Below is the trailer for Mockingjay:

Friday, November 28, 2014

Bunny the Brave War Horse by Elizabeth MacLeod and Marie LaFrance

Bunny the Brave War Horse is an exquisitely illustrated picture book about a very sombre topic, The Great War, which began one hundred years ago in 1914. The focus of this book for children in Grades 1 to 3 is the true story of a war horse named Bunny.

Bunny is a strong, well trained police horse so named because of his long ears. However,despite his strange ears, Bunny has a reputation for being very brave. Bunny along with all of the police horses  are shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe for the soldiers fighting in the Great War.

When Bunny was a police horse he was ridden by Officer Thomas Dundas. Thomas now follows Bunny overseas with his brother, "Bud" who is given Bunny to ride.

Bunny, Bud and Thomas arrive in France and then travel to Belgium where they experience their first battle. This battle sees poison gas used on the soldiers and their horses with many wounded. War horses like Bunny performed many tasks, pulling ambulances,  supply carts and cannons and artillery.  When Bud is killed in a battle, Thomas is given Bunny to ride. During this difficult time, Bunny is a comfort to Thomas. Eventually the war comes to an end on November 11, 1918. Thomas has earned many medals, partly because of his excellent war horse, Bunny. However, Bunny like many war horses, is unable to return to Canada, instead like the other war horses, he is sold to a farmer in Belgium.

Bunny encountering mustard gas on the front lines.
Bunny the Brave War Horse tells the true story of Bunny who was part of the mounted police force of Toronto, Ontario. Bunny was one of eighteen horses sent by the force to fight in the 9th Battery Canadian Field Artillery. Thomas Dundas was a real constable in the Toronto Police force and his brother also served. Bunny and the Dundas brothers along with many other soldiers were on the battlefield at Ypres, Belgium when the Germans launched the war's first poison gas attack. Many soldiers died and most of the horses that were shipped from Toronto did as well.

What the illustrations in the picture book do not show, is that World War I was fought using trench warfare - something different from previous conflicts. In the past horses were an integral part of battles which consisted of cavalry charges. Horses however were still very important to troops performing many different duties.

Bunny the Brave War Horse does touch on some of the realities of war though. For example, during one battle, conditions are described as "the sky was midnight black. Drenching rain and thick smoke from the guns made it almost impossible to see. Bombs exploded all around. The noise was terrifying." When the supply wagons cannot reach the troops in the field because of the rain and mud, the horses and men go hungry. "Tom visited Bunny in the stable one nigh. He noticed that the horse beside Bunny was shivering. The horse had been so hungry it had eaten its blanket."

This is an excellent picture book that accurately portrays a little bit of Canadiana in a readable, interesting manner.

Marie LaFrance's beautiful illustrations are rendered in mixed media and Photoshop. LaFrance is an award winning illustrator whose art appears in many different publications. You can learn more about Marie at Kids Can Press.

Book Details:
Bunny The Brave War Horse by Elizabeth MacLeod and Marie LaFrance
Toronto: Kids Can Press               2014

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The End of the Line by Sharon E. McKay

This touching short novel by Canadian author Sharon McKay tells the story of two elderly brothers who risk their lives to save a little Jewish girl from certain death after the Nazis overrun Holland.

The story begins in the fall of 1942 in Amsterdam where a young mother and her five-year-old daughter are on the run from the Nazis. The little girl is warned by her mother to never tell anyone that she is Jewish. Fleeing from the home of Mrs. Dahl, whose husband had brought them to hide,  the mother is on her way to meet a stranger, a woman who will take her daughter to a safe place. To get there they must take the tram.

Two brothers, sixty-five year old Hans and sixty-three year old Lars Gorter live alone together in the house they once shared with their mamma and papa. Hans and Lars, like many older Dutch had lived through the Great War and also endured years of economic depression. In 1940, the Germans swiftly overran Holland but the Dutch people were determined to resist the Nazis and  had remained loyal to their queen who was in exile in England. When the Germans invaded, Mrs. Vos, an elderly neighbour of the Gorters fled to their home.

Hans and Lars both worked on one of Amsterdam's many trams, with Hans operating it and Lars collecting tickets from the passengers. In occupied Amsterdam, they like other tram workers, were told to report suspicious passengers to the authorities - which meant the Nazis. Both brothers decided they would do no such thing. They knew all their regular passengers on their tram; the nun with her winged hat, the elderly man and students. When the young mother and her daughter boarded the tram Hans did not recognize them.

Their tram is stopped by a Nazi soldier who boards and begins asking the passengers for their identity papers. The young mother's papers identify her as a Jew and therefore not allowed to ride the trams. As she is taken off, the German soldier begins tellign the child that she must come with them. Lars who has seen the woman's identity papers knows that she is Jewish knows that if the child goes with the Nazis she will not survive. And so he speaks up and tells the soldier that the little girl is his niece. No one believes him but to distract the soldier, Hans releases the tram brake and it lurches forward throwing the German off his feet and into the lap of the nun. He leaves the tram angry but the little girl is forgotten. The little girl's mother along with others from the tram are loaded onto an army truck and the little girl sits there alone.

At the end of the day Hans and Lars take the little girl home intending to take her to Mrs. Vos. But before they can leave the station the little girl needs to use the bathroom. The brothers are helped in this tricky situation by a well dressed woman who when she leaves wishes Beatrix a good evening. and walks off with a man dressed in the uniform of an SS officer.

When they arrived at Mrs. Vos's home, she tells them to take Beatrix to their house where she will meet them. When she comes to Hans and Lars home she begins to question Beatrix about where she is from and where she was going. Lars explains what happened on the train and how the Nazi's took Beatrix's mother away. Based on what she has seen over the past weeks, Mrs. Vos believes that Beatrix was being taken someplace safe to be hidden and after hearing more of their story, she helps the brothers brush her hair and has them feed her. Based on her appearance, Mrs. Vos is certain Beatrix is loved because despite evidence that the child is starving she is clean and her clothes well mended. Considering that the neighbours have seen Beatrix enter Hans and Lars home, Mrs. Vos visits each of them assuring their inhabitants that their personal secrets are safe with her and encouraging them to welcome Hans and Lars long lost niece. The one neighbour she feels she can trust is Mrs. Lieve van der Meer. Mrs. Vos's visit with Lieve reveals that she has lost her entire family in the bombing of Rotterdam by the Nazi's and that her husband is away doing "war work".  Mrs. Vos is right about Lieve van der Meer who offers to teach Beatrix the Catholic faith on Saturdays and for her to attend mass with them on Sundays. Beatrix must appear to be Catholic if she is to survive the war. And so begins the story of how two shy, kindly brothers who as the result of a brave act,  save the life of a little girl.

The End of the Line is about strangers and how the most unlikely of people can make a difference. McKay tackles the subject of the Holocaust and the occupation of Holland in a gentle but authentic way for younger readers, while still portraying the terror and difficulties the Jewish population faced and the suffering the Dutch people experienced. McKay portrays life in Amsterdam through the latter part of the war. At first Hans and Lars find the Nazi's annoying until they begin to see what happens to the people on who ride on their tram. By the spring of 1943, Mrs. Vos and the Gorter brothers fully comprehend the ruthlessness of the Nazis who had no qualms murdering even children. Hans and Lars decide the best way to protect Beatrix is to hide her in plain sight - on their tram. It is a bold move but one that works. Lars becomes an expert in studying the people who ride the tram and begins to know those who may need help such as the young woman disguised as an old lady. He does what he can to help those who need a chance. The winter of 1944 sees everyone starving as the Nazi's seek to punish the Dutch for refusing to run the trains. McKay describes the hunger and privation Lars and Hans, Beatrix and Mrs. Vos experienced. McKay relates all these experiences in a thoughtful manner that manages to capture the fear and uncertainty without being overly graphic.

The End of the Line is written in third person omniscient which means the readers have the opportunity to understand the story from the perspectives of all the characters. Hans and Lars who are bachelors have no idea how to care for a little girl but their fear of little girls is easily surpassed by their fear of what will happen to Beatrix should the Nazi's find her. The reader experiences Beatrix's terror when she reaches the end of the tram line and is alone with two complete strangers in the cement tram depot with it hanging lights. "She gazed up to bald, dim lights hanging from a vaulted ceiling. Her eyes widened, her lips quivered, she crossed her legs. This was a scary place." When Mrs. Vos is combing Beatrix's hair she notices how thin she is and realizes that she might be starving. She also realizes that despite being on the run, Beatrix's mother has managed to keep her child clean and her clothes neat.  "The child was clean, her hair soft. Even from this distance she could see that the child's clothes were well mended and clean too. Keeping clean on the run, surrounded by war, without a home, must have been very, very hard. 'This child is loved,' she whispered." We are as moved as Mrs. Vos is, fully understanding the tragedy that is unfolding.

This is an excellent short novel for those who are interested in the Holocaust and the experience of Dutch Jews and the Dutch people during the Second World War.  After liberation by the Canadians, McKay reveals what happened to Beatrix, her mother Judith, Lars, Hans, Mrs. Vos, Lieve van de Meer and her husband in the years following the war.  The Afterword explains Hitler's plans for Holland and its people whom he considered to be one hundred percent Aryan (with the exception of the Dutch Jews of course), the different sides in the war and also how total strangers worked together to save many children from the war.

Author Sharon E. McKay was born in Montreal, Quebec and now currently resides in Prince Edward Island. Her novels, Charlie Wilcox and Thunder Over Kandahar are two of her more popular novels. She continues the tradition of excellence in Canadian fiction for young adults and children with this latest novel.

Book Details:
The End of the Line by Sharon E. McKay
Toronto: Annick Press     2014
120 pp.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Latitude Zero by Diana Renn

In Latitude Zero, cycling enthusiast-author, Diana Renn combines the competitive world of team cycling with an exciting murder mystery.

Seventeen year old Tessa Taylor and her boyfriend, disgraced cycling star, Jake Collier, are bandit riding (that is riding without registering and raising money) in the charity race Chain Reaction: Fighting Cancer by the Mile. Ten professional cycling teams from all over the United States are entered in the hundred mile race. The professional teams will leave the starting line first, followed by the recreational riders who are raising money for cancer by riding either the one hundred miles or one of the shorter race routes. Jake and Tessa will be doing the thirty mile route. Among the professional teams racing is Ecuador's Team EcuaBar with its rising star, eighteen year old Juan Carlos Macias-Leon, nicknamed el Condor because of the way he attacks hills during races.

Tessa is not really comfortable being a bandit rider in the cancer ride because some of the riders are cancer survivors and to her it somehow seems wrong. However, Jake does not feel this way. His plan is to join the ride after they make their way through conservation land. Tessa had first met Jake while interviewing him for her show KidVision on the GBCN network. Jake and Juan had been rivals on the EcuaBar juniour development team but Juan Carlos had made the pro cycling team. However, Jake had been kicked off Team Cadence-EcuaBar for distributing drugs. With Jake having lost his racing license and his cycling scholarship at Colorado Mesa University, his plan was participate in rides like this to keep his skills sharp so he could reapply for his license and maybe get into another university.

The Team Ecuabar owner is Preston Lane and one of Tessa's school, Shady Pines' alumni. Coached by Tony Mancuso the team has a new sponsor, Cadence Bikes which is owned by Chris Fitch. During the pre-race photograph, Carlos is strangely absent from the starting area. So while Jake has gone to retrieve his racing drinks which he forgot and which Tessa finds strange, she sets out in search of Carlos. She finds Carlos at the edge of the conservation land praying. Carlos asks Tessa to meet with him after the race to talk. He enters his cell number into her phone and they arrange to call at 2pm. Juan Carlos also gives Tessa his gold crucifix which she tries to refuse but eventually accepts and then leaves to join the race. Unfortunately, Jake sees the two of them together and since Carlos is his old rival, he is furious with Tessa and ditches her during the race.

At this point Tessa wants to return to the starting line and sign on as a volunteer because she feels she is doing the wrong thing. But at this point, Tessa isn't ready to drop Jake. On her way through the forest Tessa sees a white and green bike with a J. Macias decal. She assumes this must be Juan Carlos spare bike and that it's been stolen. She texts Juan Carlos telling him his bike is in the woods. No sooner has she done this than Tess has a frightening encounter with a man whom she first thinks is a race official. However he seems intent on finding the bike and asks Tessa where she saw it and not to mention him or the bike to anyone. He forces her to hand over her phone and wipes Juan Carlos's number and the video she took of him walking through the woods from the device.

Tessa meets up with Jake at the point where they will cut into the race and tells him what happened. Jake believes it was probably a bike theft and that she ran into the fence - the man who is going to resell the bike. Tessa wants to call the police but Jake wants none of that. The race starts and instead of waiting for the medium speed recreational riders to pass by, Jake enters the race with the faster riders. This forces Tessa to join and try to keep up with him. Tessa is stunned to see Juan Carlos riding far back of his team with the recreational riders and soon passes him. When Tessa sees a rider in front of her who is riding in memory of a cancer survivor she recalls her friend Kylie's mom who has breast cancer and she decides she needs to leave the race. But when she tries to leave on a sharp turn she crashes and brings down many riders too.

Tessa is taken back to the medical tent and confronted by Gage Weston, former mechanic from Team Ecuabar and one of the race marshals. Tessa is ashamed for being called out on bandit riding but is devastated when she learns that Juan Carlos has been badly injured in the pileup she caused.

There's a great deal of fallout after the race; her parents are furious with her, and Tessa is suffering from extreme guilt because she's certain that Juan Carlos crashed as a result of her actions. News coverage suggests that maybe something was wrong with Carlos bike, but Chris Fitch insists that all Cadence bikes are thoroughly tested.

Tessa ignores the frequent texts Jake keeps sending her but more worrisome are the strange, threatening messages she's now received on her phone from an unknown person - presumably the man she met in the woods. He calls her a liar and warns her against going to the police. This scary situation is compounded by Juan Carlos unexpected death from his injuries, the discovery that their garage has been broken into and Tessa's producer dumping her show. A second set of threatening texts from this person who is called Darwin, admits to breaking into her garage and demands that she meet him with Carlos's bike on Thursday.

A search of the area where the race took place and where Carlos's bike was hidden by Tessa and her friends Kylie and Sarita reveal no clues. Jake comes to Tessa's home late at night to try to make amends. Despite Jake's attempts to reconcile, Tessa wants none of it and breaks up with him. She notices poison ivy blisters on his ankle when he climbs out her window  leading her to wonder if Jake saw Carlos's bike hidden in the forest. When she questions Jake, he denies being involved in stealing Carlos's bike and hiding it but Tessa now considers him a possible suspect. She considers he may have been using her as a cover to steal the bike.

Tessa decides to go to Compass Bikes to speak with Marisol (Mari) Vargas, the woman medic on the Chain Reaction ride to see if she knows anything about Carlos's missing bike. Although she initially goes to the shop on the premise of getting her bike fixed, Tessa learns about the bike drive underway to bring bikes to Quito, Ecuador in honour of Juan Carlos. Mari tells Tessa that she is flying to Ecuador to volunteer with Vuelta to teach bike mechanics to girls and women in Quito. Returning to Compass the next day to help with the bike drive, Tessa discovers from the pictures Gage shows her that Jake never did the race. Further conversations with Mari reveal people believe Carlos's bike was tampered with. Mari tells her that Carlos bike is being stored at Dylan Holcomb's bike school. Mari and Tessa go to the school and while Tessa distracts Dylan by pretending to be a biking student, Mari sneaks into his shop and takes pictures of Carlos's bike. They learn not only is Carlos's missing bike in the shop but also the bike Carlos was riding during race was tampered with. They decide to send this information to a friend of Tessa's who is an investigative reporter.

After the story about Carlos's bike breaks, Jake shows up at Tessa's home. Since his missing glove was found near the EcuaBar bike trailer, he is now a prime suspect in the tampering of the dead racer's bike. Jake confesses to Tessa that he tried to frame Carlos for doping but was caught. He wanted to get rid of Carlos who would have been deported and his career ruined because there wasn't room for two stars on the team. Now Jake wants Tessa to provide him with an alibi that they were never apart during the ride. However, there are too many unknowns about Jake, including why he never made it to mile twenty like he told Tessa. Tessa refuses his request telling him he should just tell everything he's told her to the police.

When her parents catch Jake at their home, they decide that maybe time away from Boston and troublemaker, Jake is in order. They decide to send Tessa to Quito, Ecuador to stay for three weeks with the Ruiz family while volunteering at Vuelta, an advocacy group in Quito that Juan Carlos was involved with. Vuelta works to make the streets safe for bikes and teaches kids how to ride and repair bikes. Before leaving for Ecuador, Tessa tells her parents that Jake is a possible suspect in Juan Carlos's homicide investigation. This leads her father who is an environmental law lawyer to take her to the Cabot Police detachment to tell Detective Lauren Grant what had happened on the morning of the Chain Reaction ride. However,  Tessa doesn't tell them about the threatening text messages from Darwin, about being threatened by Pizarro nor about Juan Carlos's stolen bike or its possible mysterious secret contents. Instead she's hoping that a trip down to Quito will help her trace Carlos bike and learn why it is so important to Darwin. However, Tessa doesn't realize that her investigative efforts will uncover a much bigger operation, one that is illegal and has global repercussions for professional cycling.

Renn has crafted an exciting murder mystery using the world of competitive team cycling as a backdrop for story. Renn who identifies herself as an avid cyclist knows the sport and it comes across in her descriptions of races, bikes and team cycling. That is where this novel shines - she's writing about something she truly loves. There are many twists and turns in the plot but one of the main ones, the location of the missing USB drive, readers will quickly pick up on.

Her protagonist, Tessa Taylor is the host of a children's show, TeenVision. Since she became involved with Jake Collier she's let her friendship with her two best friends, Sarita and Kylie slip away and she now finds herself doing something unethical - bandit riding in a charity race. It is this action that results in Tessa being determined to discover why Juan Carlos crashed and to honour his memory by finding out what has happened to his spare bike and why Darwin and his gang are so keen to get the bike to Ecuador. The main problem with Tessa is believing a seventeen year old girl would have the nerve to confront serious, hard-core criminals, not in her hometown of Boston, but in the drug-ridden, corrupt locales of Ecuador where she would be entirely unfamiliar with her surroundings. Time and again, Tessa doesn't seem to understand the danger she's in or she doesn't care. Despite having the nerve to go into a strange club that's she's been warned about, she doesn't have the courage to get back on a bike after her terrible crash. It's these kinds of inconsistencies that mar this novel. Tessa does have some feminist pluck however, dumping bad boy Jake Collier and refusing to take him back even at the end of the novel when she's inadvertently vindicated him.  Perhaps Jake's potential replacement, Santiago Jarmillo is more than enough incentive.

Even the criminals themselves, Darwin for example, seem unrealistic characters, rather pasty and overly benevolent towards a girl who's attempting to ruin their illegal gambling business. Balboa, one of Darwin's agents, whose real name is Bridget Peterson, requires little persuasion to turn against Darwin and help Tessa at the last minute.

Latitude Zero is divided into two parts;latitude forty-two which takes place in Boston, Massachusetts and latitude zero in Ecuador. The first part of the novel is reminiscent of Nancy Drew novels with Tessa taking on the part of Nancy and Kylie and Sarita her Beth and George while the second part sees Tessa as a bold sleuth bent on getting to the truth and finding a missing USB that holds the key to Carlos's bike and his deadly accident.

Readers may find this novel lengthy at 435 pages and that it lags at times as Renn weaves in numerous false leads that Tessa encounters in the second half. Overall though Latitude Zero is an interesting mystery with a satisfying ending that ties up all the loose ends. Tessa Taylor comes through with flying colours with a bit of help from a handsome Latin boy and an agent who turns informer.

Book Details:
Latitude Zero by Diana Renn
New York: Viking      2014
435 pp.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Boy On The Wooden Box by Leon Leyson

"During the next week, some workers, my brother David among them, had to exhume hundreds of bodies from the mass graves where they had been thrown and burn them.
When he returned to the barracks, David was in a state of shock. He struggled to find the words to describe what he had been. He wept as he told us that he literally had to reach down into the graves, lift out and carry the decomposing bodies to the burning pyres. We tried our best to comfort him, but we couldn't make the memory of what he had seen or the stench of death he carried on his clothes and skin go away. David was barely seventeen."

These poignant heartbreaking passages remind us that evil flourished during the Second World War.  But The Boy On The Wooden Box also reminds us that during dark times, goodness can also be present when people decide to confront evil. This short biography tells the story of a young boy's family who was saved by the courage and street smarts of Oskar Schindler.

Leon Leyson, born Leib Lejson in Narewka, a rural village in northeastern Poland enjoyed a good life during the 1930's. He was the youngest of five children, born to his mother Chanah and father, Moshe. His father was determined to provide a good life for his family and so he worked as an apprentice machinist in a bottle factory, eventually moving to Krakow when the owner expanded the business. His father decided he would relocate Leib's family when he had enough money saved. This meant Leib's mother was left to raise four boys, Hershel, Tsalig, David and Lieb and their sister Pesza. His father would often visit and the family would be reunited over dinners. Eventually Lieb's father saved enough money to move the family to Krakow in the spring of 1938. Lieb and his sister and brothers loved the city exploring the historic Old Town, Wawel Castle, St. Mary's Basilica and the parks and department stores.

Leyson writes that Krakow contained 60,000 Jews - a quarter of the city's population in 1938. Like most of his fellow Jews, Leib and his family felt that they were integrated into the city's life, but in retrospect, he now realizes that this was not really true. In October 1938, the situation in Germany is worsening under Hitler. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria  and then occupied the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia in October.  By this time Jews in Germany were becoming more and more marginalized with Hitler now ordering thousands of Polish Jews out of Germany and into Poland. This was followed by Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass on November 9-10 in Germany and Austria. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and life for Leib and his family was forever changed.

First like many other Jews and also non-Jews, Leib's father and his older brother, Hershel fled the Nazi's into the east to avoid conscription. However, Leib's father returned after reconsidering abandoning his family, while Hershel was sent on to their home village of Narewka. In Krakow and throughout Poland, more and more restrictions were placed on Jews, while German soldiers looted Jewish businesses and evicted Jewish families from their apartments. Jewish workers were fired from their jobs, although Leib's father retained his job in the glass factory because he could speak German. One night Leib's father was beaten and taken away to prison. Although he was eventually released he had lost his job at the glass factory.

Eventually he was hired off the books, to work for another glass company. One day Leib's father was asked to crack open a safe in an adjacent enamelware factory by the Nazi owner. That Nazi businessman was Oskar Schindler and he offered Leyson's father a job. Working for Schindler meant no wages earned but a permit that afforded him special protection from being picked up and sent away by to labour camps.

From this point on, Leyson describes his family's attempts to survive the next five years including the "cleansing" of Krakow of its Jewish population in May, 1940, the formation of the Jewish ghetto in Podgorze, the southern area of Krakow which was crammed with over 15,000 Jewish souls, and the transport of Jews from the ghetto to the death camps in the east. During this time, working in Schindler's factory saved all the Leyson family except Tsalig. He was on a transport train with his girlfriend, Miriam, who did not work for Schindler and who therefore could not be saved. Tsalig refused Schindler's offer to get off.

In 1943, the Podgorze ghetto was liquidated and the remaining Jews sent to the Plaszow labour camp. Leib almost never made it as he was repeatedly pulled from the line by soldiers. He eventually slipped onto the transport with his parents, sister Pesza and brother David. The hellish conditions in the labour camp caused Leib to believe he would never leave Plaszow alive. However Leib, his father and mother and brother, David, were moved to a subcamp Schindler had built next to his factory in Krakow while Pesza was moved to another subcamp. Although Leib's name was taken off the list of Jewish transfers, he managed to get the German officer in charge of the transfer to let him rejoin those going to Krakow. It was at this factory that Leib, who was so small, "had to stand on an overturned wooden box to reach the controls of the machine".

With the defeat by the Soviet troops of the German Sixth Army in February, 1943, Leib and his family knew Germany would probably lose the war. It was only a matter of when. Leib and his family just needed to hold on.

Leyson's story is told in a simple, honest way that not only portrays the reality of what life was like for Jews in Europe during the war but also attempts to explain how he was particularly baffled at how his fellow Polish citizens simply accepted the Nazi propaganda spread throughout Poland.
"As the Nazis tightened their grip on Krakow, Jews were barraged with all kinds of insulting caricatures. Demeaning posters appeared in both Polish and German, depicting us as grotesque, filthy creatures, with large crooked noses. Nothing about these pictures made any sense to me....I found myself studying all our noses. None was particularly big. I couldn't understand why the Germans would want to make us look like something we were not."

In fact as Leyson points out later on in his memoir, the Polish Jews often looked just like the much touted Aryans.
"To Nazi eyes, we Jews were a single, detested group, the exact opposite of the blond, blue-eyed, pure 'Aryans'. In reality we were not their opposites at all. Plenty of Jews had blue eyes and blond hair, and many Germans and Austrians, including Adolf Hitler, had dark eyes and hair....It made no sense to me, and I even wondered how Nazis could believe such contradictions themselves. Had they taken the time to really look at us....They would have seen families just like their own: sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, craftsmen, and tailors, individuals from all walks of life."
Leyson also states that most gentiles in Krakow had to have known what was going on in the ghetto but chose to simply ignore the situation. They did nothing.
"As I walked out of the ghetto with its tombstone-crowned walls and along the streets of Krakow, I was dumbfounded to see that life seemed just as it had been before I entered the ghetto...I stared at the clean, well-dressed people, busily moving from place to place...Had they not known what we had been suffering just a few blocks away? How could they not have known? How could they not have done something to help us?...They showed absolutely no interest in who we were, where we were going, or why."
As for Oskar Schindler, Leyson has great respect. He was initially frightened of this man who was a Nazi and who had the power of life and death over him and his family. Yet Leib noticed that Schindler seemed to genuinely care about his Jewish workers, taking the time to learn their names and to help them through small acts of kindness. Years later, Schindler still remembered Leib's name, when the two met in the United States.

Leyson also tackles what life was like after the war. In the displaced persons camp in Wetzlar, Germany Leyson was tutored by a German engineer so he could catch up on his schooling.  Unlike many German's, Dr. Neu listened to Leyson when he told him what happened to him during the war. He did not accept the stock answer most gave that "they did not know."
"After my experiences with Oskar Schindler, I felt I could tell the difference between those Germans who had been true Nazis and those who had retained some humanity, even if they had joined the Nazi Party. I found that the true believers would look down at their shoes or wind their watches when someone mentioned the war. When someone spoke of what the Jews had gone through, their stock response was "We didn't know."

It's hard to accept that the German people and other non-Jews in other countries did not know what was happening; those living near the concentration camps could smell the smoke and knew they were crematoriums, they saw the Jews beaten and arrested, their property confiscated, their children removed from school, their neighbours who disappeared never to return, and many actively participated in the crimes against them. They stole property often after promising to hold it for safekeeping. In a way though, much of the Western world is responsible for what happened in World War II. Antisemitism was rife throughout Western countries for centuries with frequent pogroms against the Jews well into the early 1900s. Leyson himself states that although the Jewish population in Poland thought they were a part of the society, in reality they were not. Hidden beneath the surface of civility was a burning racism that as Leyson relates often showed itself  every Easter, when Jews were pelted with stones or yelled at by Catholics and other Christians. The Nazi's simply capitalized on that racism to secure power and retain it.

Immigrants from Europe brought their antisemitism to Canada and the United States, countries that stood by and did nothing to help the Jewish people when the Germans turned against them. Canada and America were reluctant to issue the visas that would have saved thousands of lives, worse, they did nothing as Hitler and his Nazi government enacted restrictions that gradually subjugated the Jewish population and stripped them of their most basic human rights. The US even turned a boat, the SS. St. Louis filled with Jewish refugees away as did Canada.

Leyson rounds out his memoir with an album of pictures of his family, notably absent are Hershel and Tsalig both of whom did not survive the war. As Leon Leyson passed away in January 2013, before the memoir was printed, there are afterwords written by his daughter and son. Leyson had put his war experiences behind him and lived a full life. But eventually he came to realize the importance of sharing with people, what happened to him and his family. It was the release of the movie, Schindler's List which caused Leyson to rethink his reluctance.

The openness and honesty of this memoir is strengthened by the magnanimous tone of Leyson's writing. He demonstrates a noble and generous attitude of forgiveness throughout the book towards those who did his family great harm. Besides the story of fortitude, perservance and the struggle against evil, it is greatest feature of The Boy On The Wooden Box.

Book Details:
The Boy On The Wooden Box by Leon Leyson with Maryily J. Harran and Elisabeth B. Leyson
Toronto: Atheneum Books for Young Readers      2013
231 pp.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Brave Soldier by Nicolas Bebon

Brave Soldier tells the story of a young Canadian man, Frank, who when he hears that Canada has declared war on Germany, is pushed into enlisting in the army by his older friend, Michael. Michael tells Frank it will be easy and the war will be over by Christmas. Frank enlists because he doesn't want anyone to think he's a coward.

Sent overseas to Britain by October, Frank feels afraid despite the jokes that Michael makes about the German leader, Kaiser Wilhelm. During the winter and spring, Frank and his fellow soldiers are sent to training camp.

Eventually they are sent over to France where they march to the front. At the front Frank finds deep trenches filled with mud that face the German's across a broad stretch of barren land known as No Man's Land. Eventually Frank and Michael are told they will be attacking the German's the following morning. Frank wonders about the German soldiers whose trenches are so close he can hear them talking. Don't they have families and homes waiting for them in Germany? After shelling the German lines, Frank and his fellow soldier's climb out of their trenches to attack. But for Frank the war is soon over.

Nicolas Bebon's Brave Soldier is an honest portrayal of the expectations young men in 1914 faced about going to war and the fear many experienced. Bebon writes, "Frank didn't know anything about the war, or about Germans. He enlisted in the army because he didn't want anyone to think he was a coward."  Frank's reaction was typical of many young men confronted with war; they don't want to fight and often they have no idea why they are at war. When the soldiers are on their transport across the Atlantic, his friend Michael jokes about the Kaiser. "Frank had to laugh, but inside he felt a little afraid."

Society's treatment of those who enlist has thankfully changed somewhat since the beginning of the 20th century when men were pressured to enlist and those who did not were ostracized. In Britain, men were given white feathers as a symbol of cowardice if they did not sign up and deserters, many of whom were suffering from post-traumatic stress where executed. Bebon doesn't get into all this detail but he does honestly show that Frank was afraid and not convinced about why he was fighting. He also shows Frank wondering about the men he's fighting against, realizing that they are just like him.

This picture book is for older children who may want to learn about World War I and have an interest in soldiers but who don't want a lot of text. There is a short note titled The First World War at the beginning of the book which explains briefly how the war began, who fought who, and that it effected much of the later events in the 20th century.

Nicolas Debon is an author-illustrator who was born in France and who as a child wandered through forests that were once the battlefields of World War I. Debon's illustrations were done in acrylics on cold-pressed watercolor paper.

Book Details:
A Brave Soldier by Nicolas Debon
Toronto: Groundwood Books    2002
The illustrations were do

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay is the dark and tragic conclusion to The Hunger Games series. The final novel in Suzanne Collins' dystopian trilogy opens with Katniss visiting her home district, District 12, which was fire-bombed into oblivion. 12 was bombed almost immediately after Katniss was airlifted out of the Quarter Quell arena providing the people in the district almost no time to flee.  Gale managed to save about eight hundred people from 12 by herding them towards the Meadow where there were no wooden structures covered in coal dust to catch fire. Three days later the survivors were evacuated to District 13 where they were assigned clothing and living compartments. Connor a survivor from another district has told Katniss that District 13 needs the survivors after a pox epidemic killed many and left others infertile.

The District 13 authorities, including Plutarch Heveansbee and his assistant, Fulvia Cardew,  were against her returning to 12 but Katniss made it a condition of her cooperation with the authorities in 13. She needed to see for herself the devastation. Only the Victor's Village was left intact and Katniss finds President Snow has left one white rose for her in a vase in her bedroom - a promise of revenge.

The president of 13 is Alma Coin who wants Katniss to be the symbol of the revolution- the Mockingjay. Most of the districts with the exception of District 2 are now in open revolt against the Capitol. Besides Katniss, Johanna Mason, Beetee an older inventor from 3, Finnick Odair from the fishing district were also rescued from the arena, although Finnick is in rough shape due to the high voltage shock he received.  Katniss wonders if becoming the Mockingjay will actually do any good and if she might do more harm by getting more people killed. Her mother and her sister, Prim, and Gale's family are all safe now.

The people in District 13 live entirely below ground in a huge complex that was originally designed to be some kind of refugee for government leaders during wartime. 13 survived because the rebels were able to gain control of the nuclear arsenal stored there and to use it as a bargaining chip to have the Capitol retreat and leave them alone.

Shortly her visit to 12, Katniss and Gale are called to Command and watch a broadcast from the Capitol featuring Peeta being interviewed by Caesar Flickerman. Peeta looks unharmed and indicates that he had no knowledge of the plan to rescue Katniss and that Katniss herself had no prior knowledge of the rebels plans. Shockingly, Peeta calls for a cease-fire.  Not understanding why Peeta would call for a cease-fire, Katniss makes the decision that she will be Coin's Mockingjay, but with conditions.

Those conditions include amnesty for Peeta, Johanna Mason and Enobaria, that she and Gale be allowed to hunt outside the complex and that she be allowed to kill President Snow. Once she decides to be the Mockingjay, Plutarch shows Katniss the special uniform Cinna designed for her and she is assigned to making propaganda films (referred to as propos in the novel).  Beetee also designs special arrows for Katniss.

Katniss films a few propos but Haymitch suddenly appears and tells them that this will never work. With Coin, Plutarch, Fulvia, Finnick, Gale, Beetee and others gathered around Haymitch asks them when Katniss has genuinely moved them. He suggests that Katniss be put out in the field, into combat zones. Coin arranges for Katniss to travel to District 8 to a makeshift hospital with a camera crew. On the way to 8 Plutarch tells Katniss more about the rebellion and that the rebels plan to organize a republic where "the people of each district and the Capitol can elect their own representatives to be their voice in a centralized government." He also tells her that rebels plans are to take over the districts one by one, with District 2 being the last to be secured. This will deprive the Capitol of supplies and weaken it enough that it can be invaded.

When Katniss arrives in District 8 she is taken to a makeshift hospital where she is appalled to see all the wounded. However, the people are buoyed by her presence. Her visit turns deadly however, when the district is bombed and the hospital is completely destroyed. While under attack, Katniss and Gale break free of their security and help shoot down several of the Capitol's bombers although both suffer wounds. The footage of Katniss is sent through all the districts but not the Capitol.

While recovering, Katniss and Finnick see another Capitol broadcast of Peeta being interviewed by Caesar Flickerman. This time it's obvious Peeta has been tortured; he's lost weight, is in obvious pain and his hands are shaking. Again he beseeches Katniss not to allow herself to be turned into a weapon by District 13 and asks her " you really trust the people you're working with? Do you really know what's going on? And if you don't...find out."  Finnick warns Katniss not to let on that they saw Peeta. When Gale doesn't mention Peeta's appearance, Katniss begins to wonder how Peeta could know anything more than what the Capitol tells him.

Beetee finally manages to break into the Capitol's broadcasts and they interrupt President Snow's broadcast which also shows a more distraught Peeta. Despite his condition, Peeta tells District 13 they will be dead by morning - an indirect warning that they are about to be bombed. Haymitch understands and along with Katniss they inform Coin who orders everyone evacuated to the lowest levels of the bunkers. Katniss begins to realize that Snow is using Peeta not to extract information he doesn't have but to weaken Katniss and break her emotionally.

After the bombing, they learn that the first ten levels have been totally destroyed but Coin wants them to produce some propos to show that the district is fine and the Mockingjay has survived. Katniss finds it difficult to make the film because she knows everything she says will be taken out on Peeta. After she breaks down and awakes, Haymitch tells her that a team of seven people are going into the Capitol to retrieve Peeta. That team includes Gale who successfully bring back Johanna Mason, Annie who is Finnick's love and Peeta. But when Katniss attempts to embrace him, Peeta brutally attacks her, attempting to strangle her.

When she awakes, Katniss learns that Peeta has been subjected to a torture called "hijacking" which is a kind of fear conditioning that uses tracker jacker venom. Peeta's memories of Katniss have been altered and saved so that he sees her as life-threatening. Katniss is sickened by the fact that someone could make Peeta forget that he loves her.

Meanwhile Gale and Beetee are working on adapting Gale's traps so they can be used against humans in the assault on the Capitol. They try working on Peeta but all attempts to help him seem to not work - he is angry and hateful towards any mention of Katniss. Katniss believes her sister is wrong, that Peeta is irretrievable and she decides she wants to go to the Capitol with one mission - to kill Snow and end the war. However, Plutarch tells Katniss that they must secure all the districts and District 2 is the only one remaining. He agrees to send her to 2 with a team to help the rebels crack the Capitol's military base in a mountain nicknamed "the Nut". Katniss leaves believing Peeta is lost to her and her only remaining choice is to die killing Snow.

Mockingjay starts out slowly, in fact, almost tedious in its opening 80 pages or so, until the first serious action when Katniss and her team are on the ground in District 8. However, although the reader might know generally how this is all going to end, it's the twists Collins incorporated into her story that make it exciting.

Mockingjay is first and foremost a tragedy; there is no true happily ever after because after all this is a dystopia and Collins stays true to the genre. Katniss volunteered to be a tribute for the Hunger Games to save her sister Prim. But after all she's endured and despite her best efforts, in the end, she does not save Prim.

What Collins manages to portray so poignantly is the effects war has on individuals and societies.  Katniss is broken after the Quarter Quell, but the loss of Peeta is compounded again and again by repeated exposure to war, physical injuries and emotional trauma. The hijacking of Peeta and the death of Prim devastates Katniss to the point where she can no longer speak. When the Capitol is crushed and she is called to a meeting, Katniss wonders "I can't believe how normal they've made me look on the outside when inwardly I'm such a wasteland." 

War leaves Gale filled with anger and so changed that he and Katniss have no future together. Haymitch has always been a symbol of the effects of war throughout all three novels; he's an alcoholic who has been forced to mentor tributes for the past twenty-three years, resulting in him reliving the Hunger Games over and over.

Collins also explores the theme of ethics in war when the rebels are debating how best to crack "the Nut", the impenetrable military mountain fortress in District 2.  Gale suggests there are two ways to disable the Nut; to trap people inside or flush them out. Gale wants to set off rock avalanches to block the entrances, trapping the soldiers inside along with most of the Capitol's airforce. Boggs indicates that this risks killing everyone in the mountain but Gale makes it clear he has no intention of saving anyone. He wants to seal not only the entrances but the train tunnel to the square in District 2. The planning group argues about the morality of killing everyone. Some want to offer the workers a chance to surrender, others like Gale suggest that they will never be able to trust them again. Katniss however, frames the situation in terms that Gale can relate to - a coal mining accident. Katniss realizes that while Gale used to talk like this back in 12 he is now in a position to act on his words. She argues that the people in the Nut may not have had a choice to be there and that their own people, who are spies are also in the mountain. It may very well be that this exchange is what ultimately breaks Gale and Katniss apart. The war has hardened Gale, but in Katniss she learned to find mercy and to make peace. This is seen later on when she confronts the man from the Nut in the square and tries to talk him and the rebels out of killing one another.

The biggest twist in the novel comes during Katniss's unexpected meeting with President Snow in the palace. He expresses sorrow over the death of Prim and indicates that he did not order the parachutes, but that Coin did so. He also reveals that Coin's plan from the beginning was to "...let the Capitol and districts destroy one another, and then step in to take power with Thirteen barely scratched. Make no mistake, she was intending to take my place right from the beginning...After all, it was Thirteen that started the rebellion that led to the Dark Days, and then abandoned the rest of the districts when the tide turned against it. But I wasn't watching Coin. I was watching you...." When Katniss doubts him, Snow responds, "Oh, my dear Miss Everdeen. I thought we had agreed not to lie to each other."   This leads Katniss to consider who is the real enemy of the people.

Despite this, Collins ends her trilogy on a somewhat hopeful note. Katniss and Peeta have made a life together. Peeta has given her "The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again."

It is likely that the Hunger Games trilogy will become a classic in young adult literature and rightly so. Although filled with violence and controversy especially since it involves children who are forced to kill one another, these novels have much to say about the ethics of war, the effect of war on individuals and society and the theme of betrayal.

Book Details:
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
New York: Scholastic Press     2010
398 pp.