Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Blood Will Tell by April Henry

Nick Walker is part of the Portland County Sheriff's Office Search And Rescue team. His team leader Mitchell Wiggins calls him out along with fellow SAR members, Ruby McClure and Alexis Frost. Nick has been part of SAR for two months, something that he loves because it reminds him of his dad, a soldier who died in Iraq. For Nick, SAR is a stepping stone to enlisting in the army.

They are driven to the site by adult adviser Jon Partridge to search for a missing seven year old girl named Mariana Chavez.  Nick is assigned to search with Dimitri and Ruby McClure and they eventually find the little girl hiding by the side of the road. But when Mariana rushes out of her hiding place she is struck by a pickup truck and seriously injured. Her bloodied broken leg causes Nick to vomit by the side of the road but he manages to comfort Mariana. Eventually EMS arrives and the little girl and the driver are taken to hospital. This event will become very important later on in the story.

Back at the sheriff's office they discuss some of the problems that occurred at the accident site. Nick feels jealous when he sees Alexis leave with Bran and he broods over this on the drive home. When he arrives at home, Nick finds his older brother Kyle is not home nor is his mother. In the morning Nick sees numerous police cars race down his street. He receives a second call out to a crime scene just six blocks from his home. In this case a young woman has been found near death in a vacant field. Nick, Alexis and Ruby are once again called upon along with other SAR members to locate any possible evidence at the crime scene.When Nick meets Detective Paul Harriman he tells him that he drove by the lot late last night after the callout. Harriman asks Nick if he saw anything unusual but Nick tells him he cannot remember anything out of the ordinary.

During the search, Ruby asks Harriman how he decides on the perimeter of a crime scene. Her blunt, no nonsense approach is unsettling to Harriman. Ruby tells him that she wants to be a homicide detective and that she's working on her people skills. During the search the SAR team find a mitten and other items. When Nick unexpectedly has to crawl through an area soaked with the victim's blood, he starts to become woozy. Ruby helps him regain control but not before he has placed his glove down on a partial footprint, smearing it. This makes Nick distraught, but Alexis tries to comfort him, while Ruby explains why he gets sick at the sight of blood. Harriman is not pleased at what happened because this turns out to be the only print they find.

The police are able to identify the woman as Lucy Hale and they learn that she was involved in an altercation with her boyfriend, Cooper Myers at a bar. When Paul Harriman and his partner, Rich Meeker interview Myers however, they finds no discrepancies in his story, meaning they have no suspects. But when the DNA results come back from the crime lab, they point to Nick Walker. It turns out that male DNA was found on the swabs and clippings of Lucy Hale's right hand. Unable to find a complete DNA profile, the crime lab uses a new test called Y-STR typing which looks at areas on the Y-chromosome that remain unchanged from generation to generation through the male line.  All the men in a family will have the same Y-STR profile, sons, fathers, grandfathers etc. This means that there is a specific probability that a male in a family whose Y-STR was captured was responsible for the crime. In Oregon, familial DNA searches are allowed and a search in the state database locates a match to Eldon Walker, Nick's father.

Armed with this information, Detective Harriman decides to call Nick Walker out of school on the pretense that he needs to give a witness statement. However, Harriman motives are much more than just that. Nick is considered a suspect not only because of the Y-STR match but also because he was near the crime scene at the time Lucy was attacked and because he ruined the only print found at the sight.  He begins to ask Nick questions about how he would have killed the girl and what a specific knife could be used for. Eventually Nick's enthusiasm gives way to horror as he realizes he is being accused by Harriman of killing Lucy Hale. Confronted by three interrogators, Nick becomes increasingly agitated and then learns in a most brutal way, the truth about his family. Scared Nick has no one to turn to. However one of his friends from SAR figures out what is happening and knowing he's innocent, is determined to help Nick.

Discussion

Blood Will Tell is the second novel in Henry's "A Point Last Seen Mystery" series written by award winning author, April Henry. One of the stand-out scenes in this novel is the bullied interrogation of Nick by police detectives, Paul Harriman and Rick Meeker. The interrogation is initiated when Nick is pulled from school under false premises, believing he is helping Detective Harriman on the case of the murdered young woman. The police, it turns out, mislead Nick's mother by leading her to believe that he will just be asked a few questions regarding the murder investigation of Lucy Hale. Instead what follows is a sophisticated interrogation where they try to manipulate Nick into confessing to a crime he did not commit. In addition, they present him with DNA evidence that suggests a link to the victim and they reveal a family secret to Nick that as not theirs to expose. They also do a full search of his room and his locker at school. Nick is never read his rights nor is he given a chance to contact his mother or a lawyer.

This all highlights the many issues surrounding the questioning of adolescents who are considered suspects in a crime. At issue is their capacity to fully understand their rights which they may view as something that can be taken away from them rather then something they can assert or are entitled to. They may not realize the consequences of statement they make, for example how statements they make can be used as evidence against them. The may not understand why having an adult present is important. Young people are especially vulnerable to suggestion because their brains are not fully mature. They may make statements that incriminate themselves simply to stop the questioning.

Also at issue is the reliability of DNA evidence which is considered virtually infallible as a forensics tool. In her blog on her website, April Henry discusses what led her to write Blood Will Tell. Her story is based on two true events one in 1987 in Colorado and a second in San Francisco. It is possible that an innocent person's DNA can and does end up on a person or at the scene of a crime. Considering that many children are tried as adults and that the United States has many jurisdictions which have the death penalty, due diligence is important.

Henry does a great job of populating her stories with interesting characters. Nick is a boy who intensely misses his father whom he believes died serving in Iraq. His entire world is upended when he learns the truth about his father and his trust is further damaged when he learns that his mother and older brother Kyle were not honest with him. Alexis is another good character - a young woman coping with a mother who has a serious mental health issues but who is trying to manage her situation so she won't be put into foster care.She's caring and intelligent. When she is kidnapped she tries controls her fear and tries to reason with her captor to buy herself time. Then there is Nick's mother who is trying to do her best while her husband serves time but who never told Nick the truth about his father, leaving him open to learning the truth under stressful circumstances. Nevertheless, Nick's mother never seeks legal counsel for her son, despite him telling her the police believe he is Lucy Hale's killer and that he was interrogated at length by police.

Blood Will Tell has numerous narrators including the murderer who is revealed about half way through the novel. Teens looking for a murder mystery will enjoy this novel despite knowing the identity of the killer. Henry does a good job building the story to a climax and providing a satisfying conclusion while inviting readers to consider some of the issues surrounding investigating teen suspects.

Book Details:

Blood Will Tell by April Henry
New York: Henry Holt and Company    2015
258 pp.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

5 to 1 by Holly Bodger

5 to 1 is a dystopian novel set in future India. The story is set in the country of Koyanagar which was created fifty-four years ago. At that time India was overpopulated, its land polluted and its people starving and impoverished.  When a new prime minister was elected he set in place restrictions on family size with accompanying fines to those who did not limit the size of their families to one child. However Indian culture is such that if couples could have only one child, that child would have to be male since males were the ones to inherit land, carry the family name and initiate at funeral rites. Using ultrasounds, parents determined the sex of their unborn baby and aborted the child if it was a girl. Others simply abandoned baby girls in parks or killed them in buckets of water. Thirty years later the country's boy to girl ratio was skewed 6 to 1. Unable to find wives, girls were sold, stolen or raped. This in turn led to more violence.

The women of Koyanagar, tired of the violence, met with the prime minister who remained unaffected by their concerns. They decided to isolate Koyanagar from the rest of the country. The men of Koyanagar built a wall around the city, abolished the one-child laws, protected the lives of girls and got banned the technology that made it possible to determine the sex of unborn babies. On December 31, 2041, the gates of Koyanagar were sealed shut and boys were set upon the walls to guard them.

To prevent bidding wars for marriage, the new government started the Tests which would allow every girl to get the best possible husband while giving every boy a chance at marriage. The Tests run over three days and encompass many different aspects. The public is able to attend the Tests but for those who cannot, they are broadcast over radio. The winner gets a wife and future that is secure, especially if he gives his wife a daughter. The losers are sent to an assignment center where their families can bribe officials to "find" a good job for them. They will never marry or know what it is like to be a husband or a father. Poor boys can expect much worse -they are assigned to guard the walls enclosing Koyanagar.

The novel opens with Sudasa about to partake in the Tests. There are over three thousand boys eligible for the Tests and for a chance to marry one of the two hundred girls who are seventeen. She is one of eight girls who are undergoing the Test over the next three days. There are twenty five Tests in all over the year. Each girl will be married at seventeen to a boy who is but a number until his marriage. At her Test in the theatre, Sudasa, seated in a gold trimmed box between her Mummy and Nani, must choose between five young men. Behind her sits her older sister, Surina, who was married two years ago and her friend, Asha, who underwent the Test two weeks ago.

For Sudasa's Test there are five boys; one in a blue kurta, contestants two and three who are in orange and yellow, contestant four who is in a green kurta and finally contestant five in a red kurta who has raven hair. Her Nani points out the boy in the blue kurta as the one who will give her girls but Sudasa quickly recognizes him as her cousin.
"That's when I know;
             when I'm sure.
He's not like
               my cousin.
He is
               my cousin."
Sudasa knows that this is not coincidence as there are too many boys for the small number of girls for her cousin to have been placed randomly in her Test. Sudasa wants to run away but she knows that this is impossible, that she will never be able to escape over the wall. Sudasa now realizes this is why her Nani tried to include her cousin in all the activities she undertook; sitar lessons, riding, pottery, poetry and painting. She believes that her marriage to her cousin would settle a long standing debt between her Nani and Mota Masi who helped get her Nani and her mother off the street when her grandfather died from alcohol. Mota Masi introduced Mummy to her father, a wealthy man. So Nani is trying to work around the Tests and rig them so that Mota Masi's grandson will marry Sudasa.

For Contestant Five, the other main character in the novel, we learn that he has no intention of winning the Test and marrying Sudasa. Five must follow Appa's plan so he can Amma who left when he was five and just before the gates of Koyanagar were closed. Five knows that the President of Koyanagar is not being completely honest with the people because not everyone got rid of their baby girls. Appa's family hid their girls when the officials came to check on the family size and the rich merely paid the fines for extra children. The President tells these lies because she wants the people to believe they have no choice but to obey.

The first Test consists of twenty questions which the contestants must press a buzzer to answer.  In the middle of the questions, Sudasa's cousin accuses Five of helping Contestant Four who is very young. But Five insists there is no rule against this which is confirmed. Her cousin continues to answer the questions correctly much to Sudasa's horror. To prove he cannot win all the answers, she lies on the last question so his answer is wrong. Sudasa gives one rock representing third place to Five, two rocks representing second place to the fourth boy and five rocks to her cousin for first place.

Sudasa begins to realize that she is not in charge in the Test and that the Tests are not fair. She tells her Nani that she knows what she is trying to do, however Nani threatens her by reminding her about what happened to Surina. Like Sudasa, Five also recognizes that the Test is not fair, despite the fact that they are supposed to prevent the rich from having an advantage and to provide an equal playing field for all. Five believes that the girl gave him the rock because she had to and that she is makes like she is following the rules because she's made her decision about who she will marry. Five has not followed his Appa's plan which was to stay silent during the first round.But he couldn't stand the arrogant First Contestant and he acknowledges to himself that the girl seemed uncomfortable with the Test.

The second Test is a physical one involving a game of football or soccer. Sudasa's cousin shows up with cleats, shin pads and striped socks indicating he knew what the game was going to be. However the game is not a friendly one as Sudasa's cousin scores numerous goals and injures another contestant. Five steps in and easily outplays Sudasa's cousin, causing him to show his true character in a display of poor sportsmanship. He also flattens Sudasa's cousin leading him to accuse Five of tripping him. This causes a great commotion between Sudasa and her Nani when Sudasa jumps up to encourage Five. At the end of the second Test Sudasa gives the Third Contestant a single rock, two rocks to Contestant Four who broke his leg in the game. But when Sudasa tries to give Five her five rocks, he tells her to play the game according to plan and she awards the five first place rocks to her cousin.

As the Testing comes down to the final event, Sudasa learns the truth about Koyanagar from her sister, Surina. She also comes to realize that although her Test is rigged she may have other options than choosing her cousin. Is she brave enough to consider a different future for herself or must she live up to her name of Sudasa meaning "to obey"?

Discussion

5 to 1 is a story as unique as its beautiful cover of a bridal Mehndi design showing the bride and groom on a pair of hands. 5 to 1 is set in future India in the year 2054. Indian society has been so distorted by skewed boy:girl ratios, that the resulting unrest has caused a part of the country to secede and form its own nation called Koyanagar. In Koyanagar, women rule and girls are the preferred sex. They implement a series of Tests that a group of men must undergo for each marriageable girl. On the surface the Tests seem fair but as the two major characters of the novel, seventeen year olds, Sudasa and Kiran Pillai soon discover they are not. In the process of undergoing these tests, the two characters learn the truth about their new nation and in particular Sudasa uncovers a few family secrets.

The story revolves around the issue of gendercide - the deliberate killing of girls in India, leading to an imbalance in the number of boys to girls. Of course the skewed sex ratio of boys to girls is very much the reality in present-day India. The most recent information from the 2011 Indian census shows that the sex ratios are worsening in the vast majority of the thirty-five states that make up India. The ratios are worst in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. According to 2015 data, there are 114 boys to every 100 girls in the state of Haryana. The normal ratio is 105 boys to every 100 girls. The proliferation of cheap and easy to access ultrasound clinics, despite the procedure for determining the sex of the unborn baby being illegal, is a major problem. Analysis of the worsening sex ratio trend shows that there are two factors at play; a strong cultural bias and a weaker economic one. Interestingly enough, the most skewed sex ratios are among wealthy Indians where sexist attitudes towards daughters and a preference for sons are strong. Already the skewed sex ratios are having an impact on society in India. The "missing girls" of this generation have now become the "missing brides" leading many young men unable find wives, a phenomena known as "marriage squeeze". Women are kidnapped, bought or traded from other areas of India and other countries. As the number of unmarried men rises and the queue of men looking for brides swells, so has crime and violence. The scenario that forms the backstory in 5 to 1 is not unrealistic by any means. Bodger has merely inflated the sex ratio but the social conditions she describes are already occurring not only in India but also in China and to a lesser degree in Pakistan as well.

Bodger tells her story through the narratives of Sudasa and Kiran. Sudasa's narrative is written in free verse, while Kiran's is in prose. As the narratives switch back and forth, they are identified not only by a difference in form but also by the Mehndi henna drawings at the side of the page. Both characters come from completely different parts of society. Sudasa is rich and privileged, her Nani a leader in the new country, while Kiran is a poor boy with dark skin from a fishing village. They both make assumptions about one another that are gradually broken down over the course of the testing. When Sudasa first sees Five she writes him off as one of the many poor boys in the Hun Market. But she begins to secretly cheer for Five as he helps another contestant and then flattens her arrogant cousin whose poor sportsmanship shows his true character. Sudasa realizes that Kiran feels exactly like she does - that he is trapped in a life

Kiran views Sudasa as the "honorable girl" who he believes is "up there with her family, examining us boys as if we're mangoes laid out on a brass platter." "These girls don't care how we look. They're here to choose the best slave. Might as well get a dog. Something that knows how to heel and obey." He even refers to her as a "spoiled girl in a velvet box". After the first Test, Kiran acknowledges that the girl is different from what he expected. "...her hair was in a plain braid down her back and she didn't prance like she was a queen of the place....She just didn't seem comfortable." When Kiran tackles Sudasa's cousin, he is puzzled by her angry reaction. He doesn't know if she is angry at him or at her cousin but she does not seem to be agreeing with her grandmother. Although Kiran believes that Sudasa "has accepted that this life in Koyanagar is the only option." when he talks to her after the cooking test he begins to

A strong theme in the novel is that involving choice, the freedom to choose who to marry and how to live one's life. Both Sudasa and Kiran feel trapped. For Sudasa, marriage is being forced on her at seventeen and although the Test is supposed to give her a choice, it is an illusion because her Tests have been rigged by her grandmother to force her to choose her cousin who is obviously not a good prospect. We see this feeling of being trapped at the very beginning of her narrative.
"Today,
before any of this can happen,
I have to put on my sari.
Have to open my door.
Have to accept Nani's advice.
Have to pretend Mummy gives some, too.
Have to get in the our carriage.
Have to ride through the crowds.
Have to sit in the theatre.
Have to wait for my turn.
Have to follow the rules.
Have to smile like I agree.
Have to
Have to
Have to
Have to
            Choose him."

Bodger uses plenty of repetition to reinforce the theme of being trapped and forced towards a certain choice. Sudasa
"must wear a gold sari. 
must march down the aisle. 
must marry at seventeen....
must wed a stranger."

When Sudasa comes to the realization that Nani has rigged her tests she balks.
"No.
No.
No.
I won't allow it."

And insists she's in control.
I
       give the rocks.
I  
       pick the winners.
I
       am in charge."
Kiran too feels trapped. At the Test he states, "For now, my only choice is to change into the red kurta the guards tossed at my fee and then sit in the chair they left for me." He knows that if he fails, he has no choice but to be sent to guard the wall around Koyanagar. "In these tests, they lose as well. Lose freedom. Lose choice. Lose life." However, unlike Sudasa, Kiran has a plan to escape. He tells her,
"Well, I don't want death.
I want life.
I want a job.
                    I choose.
A home
                    I choose.
A wife
                    I choose.
And not in Koyanagar."
A major twist in the novel is the discovery of what is really happening in Koyanagar. Sudasa and the people of Koyanagar are told that the old country of India is populated with savages.
"They see Koyanagar
as the land of peace and plenty. The land
that found the secret to happiness
and then locked it within its own safe.
Their leader wasn't smart like Nani
and her friends. He didn't
change their laws.
learn to value their girls.
And now?
They have none left."

However, Sudasa soon understands that creating the state of Koyanagar hasn't changed anything except that now the babies being aborted are boys. In a shocking exchange with her older sister, Surina, Sudasa learns the truth about Koyanagar. Surina tells her that her Test too was rigged but Mummy asked her not to cheat. Surina complied but this meant that instead of getting the boy she loved, she married a poor boy who makes boy babies. Now pregnant Surina tells Sudasa that she WILL not have a boy. At first not quite understanding her meaning, Sudasa realizes what Surina is telling her - that she will go for an ultrasound to determine the sex of her baby. Sudasa tells her that this is illegal and impossible in Koyanagar, but her sister states that nothing is impossible if you have money and Nani has money. And she intimates to Sudasa that this is not the first time this has happened neither for herself or in Koyanagar.

"This is the real reason
the ratio will soon
be down to
three to one."

"It's still happening
to the unwanted.
The only difference is
they're no longer girls."

"Instead of fixing things,
               of making changes,
               of making improvements,
all they've done
has been to break them
in reverse."

This discovery has a profound effect on Sudasa, turning her against Nani and leading her to begin making her own choices in spite of Nani's threats. Koyanagar is not what she thought it was and it is not solving the problems from the past. Sudasa would be sacrificing her happiness for a cause that is wrong. This also leads her to consider the another possibility her friend Asha has chosen. Asha also reveals to Sudasa the truth about the walls of Koyanagar and the boys who are sent there, thus opening her to the choice Kiran offers her after the third Test.

Bodger has created two exceptional characters who grow throughout the story and whose courage in making their own lives is something all young people eventually face.

5 to 1 is a beautifully written novel by Canadian author Holly Bodger, who is a long time resident of Ottawa, Ontario. 5 to 1 is her debut novel and a wonderful start for a promising Canadian writer. Readers are highly encouraged to check out her amazing website, hollybodger.com which has many links that will provide much detailed background information for this novel including The Laws of Koyanagar, information on the Girl Problem of India and China, as well as a teachers guide which discusses themes and offers readers the chance to explore the novel in a much deeper way.

For those readers who are interested in exploring the issue of gendercide in more depth, there are excellent online articles including Implications of India's Skewed Sex Ratio by R. Deonandan and The Marriage Squeeze in India and China: Bare branches, redundant males from The Economist.

Other websites of interest include:

The Invisible Girl Project

Gendercide Awareness Project

The Fifty Million Missing Campaign


Book Details:

5 to 1 Holly Bodger
New York: Knopf, Borzoi Books    2015
244 pp.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Remembrance by Theresa Breslin


Remembrance is a thoughtful and deeply touching novel that brings home the realities of war and the tragedy of the First World War, considered the war to end all wars.

It is 1915 and war has been raging now for over a year. Fifteen year old Charlotte Armstrong-Barnes lives at Stratharden House just outside the village of Stratharden in Scotland. Against her mother's wishes, Caroline has been volunteering at the Cottage Hospital. Her mother wants her to organize charity functions but Charlotte wants to train as a nurse, an occupation her mother thinks is not respectable.  Charlotte's brother, twenty-two year old Francis, has just returned home from college and unlike most Englishmen, is not eager to enlist. In fact, he is deeply troubled by the war. He tells Charlotte that the "patriotic drumbeating" is wrong. "Who in their right mind would want to go to war?" said Francis. "Not the ordinary Prussian or Frenchman, I'll wager. What makes a human being want to kill another who has done him no personal harm? Patriotism. The one thing that can unite people. It takes priority over religious differences, or class, or money, or social position." But his mother considers such views disloyal and admonishes him.

The war has meant many changes at Stratharden; most of the servants are now involved in the war effort. Charlotte's governess has joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and their maid, Annie has seen her two boys, Rory and Ewan enlist.

One day Francis and Charlotte decide to walk into the village to get a newspaper. For Charlotte it's a chance to flirt with the son of the shop proprietor, John Malcolm Dundas. John Malcolm's twin sister Maggie doesn't like either Francis or Charlotte. She considers that Charlotte, "Miss High-and-Mighty"  is just "playing" at being a nurse. Charlotte's interest in John Malcolm annoys Maggie, while Francis is "...the dreamy brother, freshly returned from university and full of new ideas, ...to tell others what to do," Francis tells Mr. Dundas that he hopes to take up his sketching seriously. John Malcolm offers to take the milk order up to the farm, allowing him a chance to talk to Charlotte. Deeply attracted to each other, Charlotte suggests they have a picnic on the Bank Holiday and asks John Malcolm to invite his sister. As he suspects, Maggie is not keen to go but does agree. At Stratharden, Charlotte's mother worries about her keeping company with the right kind of people and is unsure the Dundas family meet that criteria. But Francis tells her they are honest and "known for being upright and generous to the less fortunate." On the picnic, Charlotte and John Malcolm realize they have a strong affection for one another.

Soon the war overtakes everyday life; Charlotte spends long hours working in the hospital, and Francis becomes increasingly preoccupied with news about the war. The chauvinistic patriotism of the newspaper headlines contrast starkly with the growing number of dead and the need for more recruits. Francis laments the growing war machine and the determination of his countrymen to be part of the war. To that end, the King's Own Scottish Borderers Regiment sets up camp in the field behind the school in Stratharden, organizing a recruitment drive for more soldiers. John Malcolm and Maggie's younger brother, fourteen year old Alex, becomes enamoured with the soldiers, hanging around the reserve battalion, determined to learn all he can about soldiering. Eventually the Scottish regiment leaves with both John Malcolm and his younger brother Alex expressing the intense desire to enlist when they come of age.

As the war continues on Charlotte considers volunteering at one of the city hospitals considering there are so many wounded. Charlotte and the other nurses know the war is not going well given the large number of casualties, the lack of munitions and the disorganized offensives. Francis tells Maggie and her father that he has read that the Allies are short of munitions and it is this news that leads Maggie to decide to work at the Springbank munitions factory. At first her parents, especially her father, are against the idea but Maggie tells them she wants to contribute to the war effort in a meaningful way.

In January 1916, Charlotte leaves Stratharden for Edinburgh to work in the Springbank military hospital. John Malcolm Dundas turned eighteen in November 2015 and enlisted along with his friend Eddie Kane. As for Francis, he continues to be deeply troubled by the war and is strongly against it. People in their village have assumed that his commission has been delayed which is not the case. Francis has not enlisted and Charlotte worries about how this will be perceived. As Charlotte continues to work in the hospital and is now dealing directly with wounded soldiers she begins to wonder if her brother is not correct in his view that this war is particularly wrong.

As Francis frequents the shop, Maggie begins to read the newspapers both from their shop and at work for more information about the war. She is annoyed that her father leaves her out of discussions about politics and the war instead talking to Alex. With Francis, Maggie is able to discuss pacifism, socialism and he doesn't mind if she disagrees with him. John Malcolm goes off to war and shortly after, on February, 1916, the Military Service Act is passed meaning that Francis is called up to serve. However Francis has no intention of serving if he can possibly do so. He goes before the military tribunal but on the advice of his father's cousin, Major Grant, says nothing and gets a temporary exemption. Francis tells Grant that he is not a conscientious objector because he does believe that some wars are just. On his way home, Francis is confronted by two women who hand him a white feather as a sign that he is a coward for not signing up. Maggie is furious, leaving Francis touched that she would defend him.

Meanwhile life goes on in Stratharden. Maggie marvels at the changes taking place in society and both Maggie and Charlotte receive letters from John Malcolm about life on the front lines. Both young women feel a sense of dread and both soon learn that the war is beginning to change their lives forever.

Discussion

Theresa Breslin is an award winning author who writes books for children and young adults. Breslin undertook significant research for her novel, Remembrance, visiting Belgium and France, the Imperial War Museums in London and Edinburgh, and reading regimental histories and biographies as well as consulting newspapers and journals from the First World War era.

As such Remembrance is an extraordinary piece of historical fiction that vividly portrays the Scottish experience during World War I. It is an experience sadly mirrored in Britain, Canada, France and Germany. The novel portrays how people in the United Kingdom viewed World War I, how the conflict impacted life for civilians of all classes in Scotland, France and Belgium and how it changed society in ways that could never have been imagined.

One of the major strengths of this novel is how Breslin uses her characters to effectively inform readers about the attitudes and politics of this era, about how the people were lied to in order that the war would continue on in spite of poor military decisions, a false sense of patriotism and a sickening loss of life. 

Breslin portrays the attitudes toward women in the early 1900's prior to the First World War, through the characters of Charlotte, Maggie, Mrs. Armstrong-Barnes and Maggie's father, Mr. Dundas. Some of these attitudes and beliefs were that women shouldn't be nurses or ride bicycles, that a woman pursuing a career was thought to be selfish, that women needed to take care about who they kept company with in order to make a good marriage, that women were not to be involved in politics or the business of war. Both Charlotte and Maggie have to overcome negative attitudes at home to go out and work in society. Maggie has told her mother that she ought to be able to choose what she wants to do but her mother tells her only the rich can choose what they do and that "the rest of us occupy our set station in life, and you should be grateful to have one that feeds and clothes you."   Charlotte's mother was not comfortable with her daughter going outside the home either and Charlotte had to tell remind her that nursing was now considered a "respectable" profession. Because Francis is not part of the war effort, Charlotte is seen as helping the family's image in that regard.

Breslin effectively uses specific characters to portray opposing viewpoints on the war. For example, John Malcolm and Alexander Dundas portray those who whole-heartedly supported the war effort. When John Malcolm and his younger brother, Alexander watch the parade of the Scottish regiment as they leave Stratharden, John Malcolm says to Charlotte, "Isn't it glorious?" he said, eyes shining."  "I wish I were going now, with the rest of the lads," said John Malcolm. "It's so frustrating to be left at home and not be a part of it all."

Their view is in complete contrast with that of Francis who believes the war to not only be unjust but simply the work of madmen. Francis is a conscientious objector or a "conchie" as Major Grant, a cousin of his father, calls him. In an exchange between Grant and Francis, the latter's opposition is made quite clear.

"This cause is not just," said Francis passionately. "The war should be stopped at once. The vast amounts of money maintaining the army would be better spent at home feeding the poor. It is the same situation in Germany, and the condition of the ordinary Russian people does not bear thinking about. Thousands of young men's lives are being squandered for little gain."
"The conduct of the war is criticized in many places," replied the major, "mostly by those who know nothing of warfare. It is true that mistakes have been made, but we have learned from them."
"Other men pay with their lives for your mistakes," Francis said bitterly, "The carnage sickens me."
"Things are improving," said Major Grant.
"How can a war improve?" said Francis in despair.

It is a view that in 1916 Scotland would have been considered wholly unpatriotic and even treasonous. Francis is a prophetic and tragic character, warning that the war will go on for years and cost millions of lives and inflict terrible suffering. He is all the more tragic because he is forced to enlist simply because he cannot bear the weight of the deaths of so many around him and because of what the war ultimately does to him.His experience is exactly the reality he knew back in Scotland.

Breslin uses Francis's letters to Maggie to illustrate what life was like for soldiers in the trenches. Francis's letters tell what troops experienced in the trenches and the effect the new type of warfare would have on millions of surviving soldiers, many suffering "shell shock" or what would decades later become known as post traumatic stress syndrome. In a letter to Maggie he writes that the men are "half out of their wits with noise or driven  down by fear and cold, poor rations, and no hope of leave this winter...the fact that we have gained little advances this year with a colossal casualty list had caused many to complain.
But some of the punishments seem barbaric -- where a man is tied for hours to the wheel of a wagon, or deprived of food and kept in solitary confinement."

The madness of the entire war becomes more and more evident to Francis and is demonstrated in his letters to Maggie. For example he relates that in an effort to help the men under his command, Francis went to his commanding officer and requested blankets for the men. He was turned down. The men could not be made comfortable in order that they understand they would soon be moving forward. Francis attempts to counter this by reasoning with his CO, "But sir, we have occupied these very same trenches for the last two years. The men cannot have failed to notice this." To which he replied: "Nevertheless." I found myself unable to respond. In the face of such monumental madness, my chin began to shake and I could not articulate a reply."

Breslin also shows that as the war drags on, even supporters begin to turn against it. Maggie joined the war effort making munitions in a factory but as she learns more about the fighting conditions from Francis, as she hears about the wounded, and watches the suffering of families who have lost all their sons or an only son, she begins to change her mind. When she learns the effects the munitions have on the bodies of soldiers from a book Charlotte lends her, Maggie knows she cannot continue to make bombs.She writes to Francis that if people on both sides of the conflict stopped making the bombs, maybe the war would stop. This is in direct opposition to what she's been told - that more bombs will end the war sooner. "My thought is that if the manufacturing of arms for the War ceased, then there would be no more war. I am sure the mothers and sisters of German soldiers would agree. If this happened and production everywhere stopped, then so would the War, and the leaders would be forced to conduct a peace." Francis warns her that such thoughts would be considered treasonous and that he plans to "lose" her letter.

Perhaps the character Alex best illustrates how the romance of war clashes with the reality of battle. When Alex experiences his first attack it is completely different from what he thought. He thought it would be orderly and exciting but was confronted with something totally different.
"Alex had always imagined that being in a battle would be a definite thing. Commanders would lead at the front, and everyone else would know exactly what was happening. He had thought almost that he would be able to watch the action as well as take part. He had not envisaged the mess, the chaos, the running and shouting, the unbearable noise, and the overwhelming awfulness of it. He ...had no awareness of what was actually happening. It was his first experience of an attack, and he hated everything about it. There was no excitement, no joy of marching forward together to defeat the enemy, only a dull tense pain of dreadful anticipation in his gut and then an explosion of gunfire and confusion."

Alex also changes his view of Germans whom he understood committed terrible atrocities on prisoners of war. His primary reason for enlisting is to avenge the death of his brother, John Malcolm. When Alex kills a German soldier in revenge for his brother's death, at first he feels elation. However, he can't kill the second soldier who is boy like himself. As he spends several weeks with the injured German soldier whose name is Kurt, Alex begins to see the humanity in his enemy and realizes that killing won't help him remember John Malcolm. He makes the decision to risk his own life to save Kurt's.

If Francis represents the millions of soldiers who returned from war damaged, Charlotte represents the millions of British and Scottish women from that generation who lost future husbands and who would marry simply because there were not young in the years following the war. Charlotte, Maggie and Annie demonstrate how the war impacted friends, sisters and mothers as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of future husbands, brothers and sons. They are told their men are dying to keep a country free from oppression but at what cost?

There are many, many themes to explore in this novel; the use of child soldiers in World War I, the concept of just war, the effect of patriotism on war and soldiers, the use of media in warfare especially in producing propaganda, and the role of women in war to name a few.

It's a shame this novel is no longer in print and I do hope that it will be offered once again for publication. Remembrance is an amazing novel, well worth having your local library order through inter library loan. Remembrance is one of the best historical fiction novels written for young people about the Great War.

Book Details:

Remembrance by Theresa Breslin
New York: Dell Laurel-Leaf       2002
296 pp.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Remember by Eileen Cook

Harper Byrne lives in Seattle, Washington, with her parents in a wealthy partially-gated community. She and her best friend Winifred (Win) attend St. Francis private school. At their mandatory assembly one Friday, Harper's father comes to the school to give his "science" talk and promote his company, Neurotech. He tells the students that the FDA has now approved the Memtex treatment for teens and children. This treatment removes or "softens" bad memories and Harper's father encourages the students at her school to consider this procedure if painful memories are preventing them from enjoying life. After his presentation Harper's father also announces a part-time internship opportunity, one that Harper's boyfriend, Josh who has received an acceptance from Stanford, in intensely interested in.

As Harper is leaving school she has a run in with protesters who believe the Memtex procedure is harmful. They call Harper's father a Neuro-Nazi. At this time Harper is accosted by a reporter, Lisa Gambel who tries to interview her. In the scuffle with the reporter, Harper begins to fall but is caught by one of the protesters - a handsome boy who tells the protesters to back off. Josh and Win quickly step in to rescue her pushing her into the SUV and driving off.

Almost a month later, on her horse, Harry, Harper wins first prize in a jumping competition. Harry, formally known as Hermes of Caelum, was a gift from her father on her sixth birthday. Harper has aspirations to be an Olympic level rider, so winning the competition was important. Josh has good news of his own- he got the internship at Neurotech. Harper is excited for Josh whom she has been dating for two years. But she's also not sure about their future together as a couple leading her to consider breaking up with him.

The next day tragedy strikes when Harry dies suddenly from colic. For two weeks Harper unsuccessfully struggles to come to terms with his death. She has trouble eating and sleeping and focusing. When her parents suggest trying something different to pull her out of her funk, Harper tells them she'd like to get the Memtex procedure. Shocked, her father adamantly refuses her request, forbidding her to have the procedure. He tells her that her having the procedure would negatively impact Neurotech and look like he is using his daughter. Frustrated, Harper tells Josh who believes that her father is not really against the procedure but that he wants to avoid the media exposure. As an intern in the company Josh devises a plan to get Harper in for the treatment without her father knowing.

A few days later when a teen does not show up for her appointment, Harper walks into Neurotech and pretending to be the absent Emily Ludka, undergoes the procedure without her parents knowledge. Although initially Harper feels better she begins having flashbacks of a woman falling down, causing her to collapse at the mall during a community event. Harper also encounters Neil once again when he comes to her home and tells her he wants to talk with her. Neil tells Harper that he knows she had the Memtex procedure and when he saw her collapse at the mall he had to talk with her.  Harper agrees to meet Neil at Cafe Rica where he explains the root of his opposition to Memtex. He tells her that his brother, Marcus, had the Memtex procedure to help him recover from the memory of his best friend's death in a car accident. Memtex initially seemed to help Marcus but he began to experience memory problems and trouble sleeping. He became depressed and then confused and eventually committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. Neil tells Harper that some people believe that the Memtex procedure can cause early version of Alzheimer's. When Harper tries to explain away Marcus's experience as a rare event, Neil tells her that he was not the only one to have this happen to him. Neil asks Harper to read the papers he's brought which she takes but she refuses to acknowledge the possibility that the procedure is dangerous.

Harper's secret Memtex procedure is soon uncovered by her father who is furious and concerned about the side effects that are not supposed to exist. Deciding to trust Josh, Harper tells him about the visions she's been having and that she met Neil. The next day when Harper and Win are shovelling out the stalls, they decide to search the office of Harry's trainer to see if they can find Harry's insurance policy. Harper is shocked to discover the ownership documents show that Harry was purchased the year before she was born, yet she supposedly got the horse for her sixth birthday. Harper wonders why her parents would have kept Harry a secret until her sixth birthday. To try to find out more about this mystery, Harper decides to drive to the small town were she was born. Harper finds that as she drives around the town she cannot remember anything in detail about when she was a child. She decides to try the large stable in the town, Rolling Meadows, in the hopes that maybe this is where they boarded Harry. One of the stable hands, Juan does remember Harry and Harper. He tells Harper that her mother was one of the best horsewomen he ever met and that she rode when she was a small child. This completely shocks Harper because her mother not only doesn't ride but she seems afraid of horses.

This leads Harper to contact Neil about the potential side effects of the Memtex treatment. Neil tells her that he is not on social media sites, doesn't use a cell phone and uses cash so he can't be tracked. He tells her that even if the number of people experiencing side effects is small, they should know the risks involved. Harper also meets with Win to discuss what's she's uncovered. Harper feels that either her memory is completely false or she's been lied to. Win tells her that this would mean that her parents are involved in some way and questions whether she really wants to know.  This leads Harper to question whether this is the only thing her parents have lied to her about. Win asks her to consider the implications of finding out something even worse about her parents. "Think about it before you dig further. If you go digging around, you might just find out something you wished you never knew."

Harper's father's insistence that she see a doctor and the discovery of a photograph of the mystery woman from her dreams only furthers her suspicions. Harper  becomes determined to learn who the mystery woman is and why her memory has been so badly altered.

Discussion

Remember is a novel that starts out with an interesting premise that really doesn't quite live up to expectations. Harper is a girl whose memories of her childhood don't add up and only come to light after she's had a controversial treatment. This leads her to search for the truth. The mystery Harper uncovers about her parents lacks punch and leaves the reader disappointed. Even the way Harper learns about certain events feels contrived and unoriginal. A major break in the mystery occurs when she learns from Neil the identity of the mysterious woman in the photograph. The reader never really knows how Neil learned uncovers this information and why Harper was unable to delve deeper on her own. If her father was as well known as indicated at the beginning of the novel, surely Harper would have been aware of her father's past or have been exposed to it through the media. Her discovery of the USB drive hidden in her saddle, although a twist in the story, seems implausible.

The most disappointing aspect of this novel was Harper's reason for getting the Memtex procedure: the death of her horse, Harry. Granted Harper is an elite show jumper and Harry was her favourite horse and likely very valuable as well. However, most readers will not be able to relate to Harper's loss mainly because Cook doesn't succeed in conveying to her readers Harper's inability to cope. She tells rather than demonstrates what Harper experiences and it doesn't engage the reader. The plot would have been more believable if more time would have occurred after the death of her horse, or if Harper had suffered a more traumatic loss, perhaps a close friend at school. A longer period of struggle and inability to cope also would have made her father's refusal of the procedure more suspicious. If the procedure would obviously help her, why would he refuse it - it would have been great promotion for his company. In the novel however, it appeared that Harper was being refused the procedure because her parents considered her loss not serious enough to warrant it, thus not really setting up a serious conflict.

Another disappointment with this novel is Harper's relationships with both Josh and Neil which lack depth to them. Harper is ambivalent towards Josh and although she begins to fall for Neil, even that too seems to lack a sense of connection.

Cook does ties together most of the loose ends in a decent manner. Readers will enjoy the fact that Harper begins to assert herself and eventually is able to bring to light the problems with the Memtex procedure. Remember is a light read for those who like a touch of science fiction, romance and mystery all blended together.

Book Details:
Remember by  Eileen Cook
New York: Simon Pulse
312 pp.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Movie: San Andreas

San Andreas is a disaster movie of epic proportions that delivers in just about every way except for being grounded in scientific fact. This won't matter to most movie goers who aren't expecting realism in disaster movies; they go to be entertained and San Andreas does that very well. It follows the formula of many disaster movies; a main character (the hero) who has some sort of personal (ongoing) tragedy, superseded by a terrible disaster that proves the hero's true worth and helps resolve the crisis in his/her life. Add in today's remarkable special effects and you have the making of an entertaining blockbuster.

The movie begins by establishing helicopter-rescue pilot, Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), as an exceptional member of the Los Angeles Fire Department when he and his team go to rescue a young woman who has driven off a highway.On board the group have a reporter and her cameraman who are shadowing the rescue. As expected, the rescue does not going according to plan, when a member of the team becomes pinned by the car and the helicopter begins running out of fuel. Cue Ray to save the day, rescuing both the girl and his fellow team member.

Back at home we learn that Ray is in the middle of a divorce from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) who is involved with weathly real estate developer, Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffud). Ray contacts his daughter, Blake, about their trip up to San Francisco and drives to pick her up at Riddick's home. There he learns that Emma has decided to move in with Daniel, crushing any hopes Ray had of reuniting with his estranged wife. Ray is called into work and this results in Daniel driving Blake to San Francisco while Emma meets Daniel's sister, Susan for lunch.

Meanwhile at Caltech, seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) is informed by his colleague, Dr. Kim Park that they may have had a breakthrough in being able to predict earthquakes using electromagnetic pulses. They notice that there have been some pulses near the Hoover Dam in Arizona and decide to travel there. It turns out they are correct and a major 7.1 magnitude earthquake hits the area, destroying the dam and killing Dr. Park.

When they return to Caltech, Hayes discovers that the earthquakes in Arizona have triggered instability along the San Andreas fault. Soon earthquakes begin occurring all along the San Andreas fault beginning in Los Angeles. The earthquake in Los Angeles destroys the tower Emma is in. In desperation, she calls Ray who asks her where she is and he tells her to get to the roof where he can see her. While others are racing down to the street Emma races to the rooftop only to be thrown back several floors as the tremors continue. Eventually she makes it to the top of a crumbling, burning building and is barely rescued by Ray in time. In his damaged helicopter they race to San Francisco to find Blake.

Meanwhile Blake arrived in San Francisco with Daniel and waits for him in the lobby at his office tower. During this time she meets two visitors, Ben who is getting ready for an interview and his kid brother, Ollie. Ben leaves and Daniel returns to take Blake to her destination. However, as they are driving out of the parking garage, an earthquake strikes, sending the car crashing into the lower levels, killing the driver and trapping Blake. Unable to free her, Daniel tells her he is going for help and races up to the lobby. Blake is able to talk to her father and tells him she is trapped in the garage of Daniels building. He tells her he is coming to get her.

However, a second shock hits and Daniel sees a man crushed to death by falling concrete. This terrifies him so much, he abandons Blake to her fate. Fortunately for Blake, Ben has overheard Daniel screaming for someone to help him free a girl in the underground parkade and he and Ollie race to find Blake. Through some ingenuity, they manage to free Blake and the three decide they need to get to a land line and call her father to let him know she is safe. Ray tells Blake to go to the highest point, the Coit Tower where they will meet. More quakes continue and Blake realizes that going to Coit Tower will not work. Instead she tells Ben and Ollie they need to find the highest safe place where her dad in his helicopter can see them. However unknown to Blake, Ray and Emma have had to abandon the helicopter and must now find another way to reach San Francisco. Seismologist Lawrence Hayes warns the public that a more deadly earthquake is about to happen in San Francisco - the largest ever, can Ray and Emma rescue Blake, Ben and Ollie in time?

The massive, unbelievable San Andreas fault.
Directed by Brad Peyton, San Andreas is crammed with special effects and almost continuous heartstopping action. Performances by Johnson and Gugino are sufficient to keep viewers invested in their story, even though it's predictable. The disaster brings  the couple together and forces them to confront the unspoken issue between them - the death of their daughter. They are finally able to discuss how the her death by drowning affected both of them, breaking down their marriage and leading Emma to leave.

The special effects are what make the movie; crumbling skyscrapers, buckling swaths of cities, bursting dams, collapsing bridges, falling debris, and a massive tsunami that makes the Japan tsunami look small by comparison. Dwayne Johnson, with his wrestler physique has undeniable screen presence and an easy going, protector kind of image that is appealing. He's a capable hero, easily moving from crack helicopter pilot to hot-wiring stolen vehicles, to navigating a speedboat to the top of a massive tsunami while dodging containers falling from a ship and its whirling propellers. Interestingly he steals ALL the vehicles he uses in the movie! Movie goers might wonder why Ray has not been contacted by his unit as to his location and asked to report back to Los Angeles.

Equally adept in this movie, is Blake Gaines who keeps a cool head and uses her knowledge she's picked up from her rescue-worker father. She knows cell phones won't work and looks for a land line and she understands that safety during a tsunami means getting to higher ground fast - in this case going to higher floors in a building. She's a strong character in the movie who earns praise from Ben and Ollie.

The deadly (but unlikely) tsunami on it's way toward San Francisco.
San Andreas from a earth sciences point of view is not accurate in any way. First of all seismologists have no way of predicting with any certainty the timing or magnitude of an earthquake anywhere on the planet. They can make general predictions but they are general. Although earthquakes do occur in Nevada, it's unlikely they would trigger quakes along the San Andreas fault. In the movie, having ditched their helicopter and stolen an Ford truck, Ray and Emma travel north to San Francisco but are stopped by an enormous crevasse which is supposed to be the San Andreas fault. It's quite unlikely that such a huge and extensive fissure would form at the surface, even after a quake of magnitude 9.6. The tsunami also would not have happened as most of the San Andreas fault runs through land. Earthquakes generate tsunamis from the sudden dropping and uplifting of ocean crust, displacing water and creating an enormous wave. The San Andreas fault is a transform fault that shifts sideways not vertically, again meaning no tsunami!

Overall this is a fun, entertaining movie that everyone can enjoy provided you just take the story at face value. Stay to watch the credits and listen to Sia's version of California dreamin.



Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Deep Sea by Annika Thor

Deep Sea is the third book in Annika Thor's quartet of novels about the Steiner sisters who have been sent to Sweden to escape the Nazi sweep of Jews in Vienna, Austria. Stephie Steiner is now sixteen years old and attending grammar school on the mainland  in Goteborg, Sweden. Meanwhile, her younger sister, eleven year old Nellie, remains on with her foster parents, Auntie Alma and Uncle Sigurd. Stephie visits Nellie once per month and during school vacations, something that pricks her conscience because she promised to take care of Nellie. In Goteborg, Stephie lives with May, her parents, Aunt Tyra and Uncle Britten and their large family in Standarna. Unlike most of her older siblings and other children in the area, May has been able to continue on through to grammar school due to scholarships.

Stephie had been receiving postcards from her parents who are living in Theresienstadt, a camp in Czechoslovakia. The postcards do not have pictures and have exactly thirty words, often asking for food parcels to be sent. The last card she received was in the autumn of 1942 but a new card, dated March 13, 1943 tells Stephie that her mother will be singing "Queen of the Night" in The Magic Flute opera put on by the camp. This was a song her mother, an opera star always wanted to perform.

Every Wednesday Stephie meets her friend, Vera, who is also from the island. Vera works as a housemaid for a family that lives in the center of Goteborg, near the house where Stephie lived in her first year of grammar school with Sven and his parents. Vera loves to dance and has been trying to get Stephie to come with her to the Rotunda or Rota, a restaurant at the Liseberg Amusement Park. Although she's only four months older than Stephie, Vera acts much older than her sixteen years, going to dances and using plenty of make up. She tells Stephie that she has an appointment with a photographer who has promised to take pictures of her for magazines. Stephie doesn't feel good about this but she knows Vera wants to be famous some day.

At school Stephie is doing well, in large part to her homeroom teacher, Miss Hedvig Bjork who has been a teacher for only five years. Miss Bjork tells Stephie that she will likely receive a scholarship to continue on to high school and that she's certain the relief committee will provide a cost-of-living allowance.

Stephie's trip home to the island to see Aunt Marta and Uncle Evert and especially Nellie finds her younger sister rebellious and troubled. Nellie wishes she looked like the Swedish children around her. She tells Stephie that she continues to write their mama and papa every week, although she sounds upset. Before leaving the island, Stephie asks Aunt Marta to contact the relief committee about paying for her room and board for the next school year. She later learns that the relief committee will not sponsor her for another year because she is expected to "earn her keep". This news is especially discouraging to Stephie, who wants to study to become a doctor. Miss Bjork suggests that with her good marks they might be able to get the relief committee to accept a compromise - to fund her for two years of high school. This will mean that Stephie will have to complete her first year of high school during the summer. Miss Bjork is successful in getting the relief committee to fund Stephie for two more years and she arranges to tutor Stephie over the summer on the island.

Two letters from Stephie's parents reveal several things; first that her mother was not able to sing at the concert and secondly that Nellie has not been writing to their parents. This leads Stephie to return to the island and confront Nellie. Nellie is convinced that Mama and Papa gave them up and did not want them, infuriating Stephie.

Meanwhile Stephie decides to accompany Vera to a dance at the Rota. With the help of Vera she is made up to seem older and spends the night dancing. But when things get out of hand, Stephie decides to leave Vera behind and go home. This night will have repercussions for both girls but especially for Ver.

When summer arrives, Stephie returns to the island to prepare for the arrival of Miss Bjork and her friend Janice. The summer means working on completing her first year of high school and trying to reconnect with Nellie. But this summer will bring with it both surprises and a terrible loss that leaves Stephie reconsidering what it means to be Jewish.

Discussion

Like the other novels in this series, Deep Sea is slow paced but gradually draws the reader into the story. Told from Stephie's point of view, we watch her as she struggles to find her own identity as a dark haired person of Jewish ancestry in a predominantly Christian society populated by fair haired, blue eyed people. Readers also see Stephie coming of age as she watches her friend Vera make poor decisions that negatively impact her future.

The novel demonstrates how the Holocaust broke apart families and how it impacted those children who were separated from their parents. The price of safety was high; lost years, disrupted relationships between parents and their children, loss of Jewish culture.

For example, Stephie thinks about what was and what might have been. "After four years in Sweden, Stephie has nearly forgotten that she once lived in a big, beautiful apartment with soft carpets and antique furniture. That she and Nellie had a large, bright nursery, and Papa had a study full of books. If they had still been living there, she would never have known anyone like May. Or anyone like Vera."

When Stephie discovers that Nellie has not been writing to their parents she wonders about how the war has changed things. She assumed that after the war they would be able to resume their lives and go back to their homes. But her friend Judith tells her they don't have homes anymore. "Until now she had always imagined that when the war was over, things would be like before. That Momma, Papa, Nellie, and she would return to their big apartment near Prater Park and that they would be a family again."
"Is it possible to be reunited just like that, after four, five, or six years, and live together as if nothing had happened? If the war goes on for a couple more years, Stephie will be an adult when it ends. Nellie, her little sister, will be an obstinate teenager who feels more at home in Sweden than in Vienna."

The novel also touches on one aspect of life for Jewish children who were hidden or sent to live in other countries, often with Christians, and that is the forced or encouraged conversion from Judaism to Christianity. In our era, where different cultures are respected the idea that Jewish children would have been forced to become Christians might seem incredible. It's easy to look back at this time period through the lens of our era that is more accepting of differences and criticize the actions of previous generations. There was a history of discrimination against the Jewish people that extended through the centuries before. This attitude allowed for pogroms in Eastern Europe and for inaction on the part of many countries, including Canada and the United States, when Nazi Germany began to restrict the rights of Jews in Germany and eventually began to force them into ghettos. Fearing the worst, an effort was made to save Jewish children by either hiding them with Christian families in Europe or sending them off the continent to England and Sweden. For those hidden in Christian families, it was imperative that these children pass as Christians. This meant they had to learn Catholic prayers, go to Mass or Christian services and eat pork. For those children sent to Sweden, Jewish children were sometimes expected to participate in Christian worship and even to convert.

In Deep Sea, one scene in particular stands out. Stephie goes to the church to ask for money to send a care package to her parents at Theresienstadt. However, before they are even willing to consider donating, the Christian parishioners question Stephie, asking what seem like the most ridiculous questions.
"Remind me," the woman says. "Your parents aren't Christian, are they?"
"No," says Stephie. "They're Jewish."
"Would it be possible for them to be baptized at the camp?"
Stephie can't believe her ears. Here she is talking about cold winters, hunger, and illness, and the lady suggests that her parents change their religion!:
"If they were Christian," the woman goes on, "I'm sure it would be easier for us to help them..."

In the end, the people refuse to send a package but offer to pray. Faith without good works brings God to no one. Aunt Marta partially understands Stephie's pain when she tells her of the congregation's decision. "I heard them, and I grieve the fact that there is so much hardness of heart among people who ought to know what love of one's fellow man implies."

When Judith comes to visit Stephie at Aunt Marta's and sees her eating pork and later on sees the picture of Jesus in her room she admonishes Stephie and accuses her of betraying her heritage. "What have they done to you?" she asks. "Did they force you to convert to Christianity?" This leads to a great deal of conflict for Stephie, who recognizes the sacrifices Aunt Marta and Uncle Evert have made on her behalf. Under the wonderful encouragement of Uncle Evert, Stephie manages to stay strong in light of so many disappointments.

One can't help but feel the similarities between this novel and Anne of Green Gables. Aunt Marta and Uncle Evert are like Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert while May resembles Anne's best friend, Diana and Miss Hedvig Bjork is Miss Stacey, Anne's optimistic mentor and teacher.

Overall, Deep Sea is a good read for young teens, exploring family separation and the effect of war on families, loneliness and adjusting to life in a very different culture. This novel's third person narration make Stephie's experiences seem real. I am looking forward to the publication of Annika Thor's fourth book.

Book Details:

Deep Sea by Annika Thor (Translated from the Swedish by Linda Schenck)
New York: Delacorte Press     2015
228 pp.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

Invincible by Amy Reed

Seventeen year old Evie Whinsett was diagnosed with cancer a year ago - a small tumour in her left hip. Evie has Ewing's sarcoma, a type of cancer almost entirely restricted to teenagers. She had surgery to remove the tumour but then it became aggressive while she was in outpatient treatment, recieving rounds of chem every other three weeks. The soreness in her hip that existed after surgery felt different and two months ago doctors discovered the cancer had spread from her hip into her femur. Following radiation treatments, Evie suffered an accident while walking around Lake Merritt with her boyfriend, Will. Walking with a cane and in terrible pain, Evie collapsed as her left leg broke into five pieces.  Now she's back in Oakland Children's Hospital hospital struggling to cope with whatever the doctors find.

After going outside to catch some fresh air with her parents and sister Jenica they meet with Dr. Jacobs who tells her that the prognosis is not good. Dr. Jacobs tells her that the cancer has metastasized and is now in her bone marrow which is why her leg broke. He recommends that after her broken leg heals, she go on an even more aggressive round of chemo and radiation and that she have a bone marrow transplant. All this is too much for Evie who decides, to the shock of her parents, that she will stop treatment. Over her parent's objections, Evie tells them with only a four percent chance of remission, she's done. For Evie, "...it is time to die. It's time to let everyone off the hook, let Mom and Dad get on with their lives and stop wasting all their energy on the wrong daughter."

Evie tells her two best friends in the hospital, Stella who has leukemia and Caleb who has brain cancer, that she will be going home in a few days because her cancer is terminal.  Evie first met Stella eight months ago when she was returning for her third round of chemo. Stella with her black felt hat is her best friend in their cancer world. Outside of hospital that honour belongs to Kasey Wexler-Beene whom Evie has known since kindergarten.  Telling Kasey was the hardest because she had to deal with Kasey's emotional response. The person Evie does not know how to tell is her boyfriend, Will Johnson, who is on their high school football team and who has been by her side through everything.

Evie's discharge is delayed after Will, drops his laptop on her injured leg. One day Stella, with the help of Caleb, spirits Evie out of the hospital and into her boyfriend, Cole's van. With Evie strapped down in a wheelchair in the back of the van, the three of them drive into the hills where they can see the lights of Oakland, the Bay Bridge and the San Francisco skyline. Stella gives Evie a CD of music which she tells Evie has music that is about questioning authority and "not believing blindly just because someone with power tells you something's true." She also introduces Evie to smoking pot. When Cole drops Evie and Stella off near the hospital which is in lock-down mode because they have gone missing. Nurse Moskowitz meets them and admonishes Evie for leaving and for taking the risk to Stella's health. "I don't understand how this became my fault, but I say sorry anyway. I look to Stella for some clue, but her eyes are glazed over and dim, like she used up every last ounce of strength she had in her for the trip..." Nurse Moskowitz realizes that Stella is running a high fever and tells Evie that with Stella being neutropenic (that is she has few white blood cells to fight off infection), she has no immune system.

The next day Stella visits Evie in a wheelchair and Evie realizes that despite Stella's strong personality, she appears very frail. Meanwhile Evie finds she feels stronger after her outing. "It's like last night changed something even deeper, like everything inside me has been turned upside down, or like the balance of the universe is off somehow..." However, Stella's visit ends with a terrible coughing fit and when Evie visits her the next day, she finds Stella hooked up to many machines and tubes. Stella tells Evie that her roommate has been moved down the hall which is an unspoken indication that Stella is probably dying.

Dr. Jacobs tells Evie's parents that she will be able to go home once her pain has stabilized but he wants to keep her a few more days to run tests. Inexplicably, Evie seems to be getting stronger and improving. For Evie this is shocking. "For so long, my life was on hold. Now my death is on hold, and it's just as irritating. " But while Evie is improving, Stella dies, leaving Evie unmoored and angry. Dr. Jacobs reveals that Evie's tests reveal that she is completely healthy - a miracle. Evie is discharged from hospital and sent home. But Evie's return to the land of the living is marred with anger and guilt. Cancer has changed her and she's no longer the person she was a year ago.

Discussion

Invincible is a very melodramatic novel that tackles terminal cancer, drug addiction and the emotional fallout of being a cancer survivor.  From the day she is pronounced healthy, Evie is not happy as she struggles to discover her new identity. "I should feel something. Happy. Grateful. But I keep thinking about how the last thing Stella probably saw was a ceiling identical to this one, an empty expanse of flat, lifeless white..."

When she returns home from the hospital, Evie feels she is no longer "Cancer Girl" but she doesn't know who she is. Evie's pain over Stella is so overwhelming that she no longer loves the things she did before she got sick. "Maybe Will can make me feel better. Maybe he'll take me into his arms and squeeze some joy into me. But what I really want to do is get into bed and sleep for as long as it takes for me to feel like doing all the things I used to love doing. I want to sleep until I can forget that Stella's gone."  As her family and friends try to pick up their lives and relationships with Evie once again, she resists. "I want to agree with them, but something inside me says not so fast. I'm not the girl they remember. I'm not anyone they know." In a letter she writes to Stella, Evie wonders who she now is. "If I'm not Cancer Girl, who am I exactly?" Crutches Girl? Gimpy-Leg Girl?...Everyone thinks I'm still so fragile. Don't they realize I survived? Don't they realize how tough that makes me?"

Evie struggles because she feels she has changed and that her family and friends do not recognize this. She feels people only know how to deal with her as a sick person, especially her mother, whom she describes as a helicopter parent with "her propellers buzzing." Kasey and Will are her two closest friends but she does not know how to talk with them - "...no one know what to do with me, and I don't know what to do with them."

She begins abusing Norco a drug prescribed to her for pain in her hip. When Dr. Jacob tells her he wants her weaned off the Norco, Evie decides she needs to find out where her mother is hiding the pills. Soon she is taking large quantities of pills to deaden the emotional pain she feels. During this time Evie meets a complete stranger, Marcus Lyon, who is from a wealthy family. Evie likes Marcus because he doesn't know her past and therefore doesn't view her as fragile. Her relationship with Marcus is based on shared pain and smoking pot together. But Marcus has his own demons; he's a stoner, and he cuts himself to cope with the pain of his older brother's suicide.  However, not even her relationship with Marcus is able to stop Evie's self destructive behaviour. She alienates her parents, her boyfriend Will whom she dumps, and her best friend Kasey. Evie fails all her classes and she shows up at her prom stoned and drunk. Soon even Marcus begins to recognize that Evie is not well.

Reed does a good job of portraying Evie's decline into opiate addiction and binge drinking to numb the pain she is feeling. She becomes a truly despicable character that readers have a hard time sympathizing with. In contrast to Evie, are her parents, especially her mother, who seem at a loss as to how to deal with her. Only her father seems to understand what is going on, yet he leaves her to make her own choices, believing that she needs to want to be helped. By the time Evie's parents have clued in to what's happening, it's almost too late. It is this part of the story that is troubling because most parents would likely have intervened well before this point. The fact that Evie begins to fail school and cannot seem to relate to any of her friends and appears to have undergone a serious personality change would indicate that all is not well.

Reed has populated her story with many interesting characters. Stella Hsu, an Asian girl with "beautiful black hair,,,long and straight and perfect." is sassy and quite witty. Cole who is a girl, who dresses as a boy and is Stella's devoted boyfriend, is caring. Will Johnson and Kasey are the foils to Evie, representing what she once was, a good student, a faithful friend and a positive,caring person. Marcus, despite being the person who likes to get stoned with Evie and who introduces her to magic mushrooms, is someone who has suffered but seems to be surviving. He begins to recognize that Evie is in trouble and tries to change her perspective on what is happening. "You keep acting like your invincible, but life is falling apart. I can't stand watching you self-destruct. I love you too much. Nobody's invincible, not even you."  What we don't know is, is he too late? Although the advance descriptions of the novel suggest that Evie's problem will be dating a bad boy, Marcus is not the completely bad character he's made out to be. Marcus's problems simply exacerbate the ones Evie already has.

One of the reason's Reed is able to create realistic situations involving Evie and portray her self-destruction is that Reed herself did two stints in rehabilitation for drugs. She writes in an interview that "I didn't get high for fun like everyone else. I did it because I had to. It was the only way to keep myself from feeling all the horrible feelings that kept piling on the more I went in the wrong direction and the more I kept hurting myself. " Reed was both an alcoholic and a drug addict. After her second stint in rehab, Reed has remained clean. She's now a successful author who knows much about how life can sometimes spiral out of control.

Amy Reed is planning a second book, Unforgivable, which will be published in 2016.

Book Details:
Invincible by Amy Reed
New York: Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers      2015
325 pp.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Deception's Pawn by Esther Friesner

Deception's Pawn is the sequel to Deception's Princess, a novel about life in Ireland during the Iron Age. In this novel we learn what becomes of Lady Maeve, after she insists she be allowed to determine her own destiny.

Maeve, princess of Connacht, daughter of the High King, Lord Eochu Feidlech, is now living in the house of Dun Beithe as a fosterling, under the watchful eye of Lady Lassaire. Maeve has come to Dun Beithe to start a new life and to find her missing kestrel. Lady Maeve's first taste of self-reliance had come when she had saved her father's bard, Devnet from Lord Morann's schemes.

The novel opens the morning after the welcoming feast hosted by Lord Artegal and Lady Lassaire. Maeve is sharing a chamber with three other girls, blonde Gormlaith who has lived at Dun Beithe for the past eleven years, red head Ula and Dairine. Also at Dun Beithe is Kian, the young man who holds Maeve's beloved kestrel, Ea.

On this morning, Devnet is returning to the High King along with Fechin, her father's charioteer. Lady Maeve says her goodbyes but does not weep, something Gormlaith notices. At Dun Beithe Maeve feels included in contrast to her own home at Cruachan where people befriended her in order to obtain favours. When her embroidery lesson goes badly, Lady Lassaire assigns her eldest attendant, Lady Moriath, to give Maeve lessons privately. In an attempt to improve Maeve's embroidery, Lady Moriath questions Maeve about what she would like to embroider. Maeve tells her that she especially loves birds of prey and this leads Lady Moriath to show her the beautiful kestrel in a shed, not knowing that this is Ea, Maeve's kestrel. When Lord Kian happens upon the two women he becomes concerned for the kestrel and has his mother rescind her request that Lady Moriath give Maeve private lessons. However Maeve artfully is able get Lord Artegal to order her lessons restored.

When Kian and Maeve meet again in the shed, Maeve insists she knows how to handle a sword. In exchange for proving this, she wins the right to have him help her improve her skill.Her first sword lesson is her last due to the difficulty of training in a long dress. Kian instead offers to teach her how to use a sling. The two meet frequently to take Ea out to hunt and to practice with the sling leading her fellow fosterlings and Lady Lassaire to suspect that she is romantically involved with Kian.

However, Maeve's life is about to change with the arrival of Lord Conchobar, king of the Ulaidh. Conchobar tells Maeve he has a message from her sister, Derbriu, that she is well and expecting her fifth child. Maeve asks him to be a messenger between them but learns that Derbriu has been in touch with the High King on many occasions. The High King felt he would lose Maeve if he told her about Derbriu and so ordered that no one was to speak of her.

During winter, Maeve intercedes for the slave girls at Dun Beithe by approaching Lord Artegal and asking that the warriors leave them alone. A second visitor to Dun Beithe, a former fosterling, Bryg, returns from Avallach, where she was taken to be healed.  It is Bryg who will set Maeve on the path to her destiny of independence and queenship.


Discussion

The Deception duology would have been better left as a single novel rather than continuing the story of Lady Maeve's struggle to be the mistress of her own destiny. It's a book where the middle section gets bogged down which is a shame because Friesner's Deception novels are an attempt to bring to life the fascinating story of Queen Maeve better known as Medh when she was a very young women. Medh was the warrior queen of Connacht who is thought to have had five husbands and numerous children. She followed her father as ruler of Connacht and ruled for sixty years. Like the women of her time, Queen Maeve was considered equal to any man. Women in Celtic Ireland were considered equal to men before the law; they could own property and shared in decisions concerning family and children. They could raise their own armies and they could actively participate in the court system that existed at this time. Women could not be forced to marry and marriages could be ended as they were contracts. Women could also become druids, warriors, priestesses and bards.

Unfortunately, the first one hundred and fifty pages tell of Lady Maeve's life at Dun Beithe as a fosterling and her relationship with Kian, Lord Artegal's son. The story then focuses on Lady Maeve's bullying, instigated by the return of Bryg, a fosterling who was sent away to be healed at Avallach, a druid healing center. When the bullying becomes fierce, Maeve decides to leave to search out her long lost Odran who she learns is recuperating from a serious illness. However, when she arrives at Avallach, her relationship with Odran does not go as planned. Living secretly with him does not bring the two closer together and when her presence is discovered, Maeve decides to return to her father's home. But the discovery that her father has called all the Lord's to Tara in order to question them regarding his missing daughter leads Maeve to travel there. Underneath all this is the beginnings of a plot to unseat her father, Lord Eochu by Lord Cairill and possibly the young king, Lord Conchobar, whose father Eochu killed. There is also a reluctant love triangle that never quite gets developed between Lord Kian and Lord Conchobar for Lady Maeve.

Friesner does give her readers a good sense of life in Iron Age Ireland. Families lived in fortified structures called ringforts which had circular ramparts that could be defended. Young highborn children were often sent to live with another lord's family who became that person's foster parents. Fostering was taken seriously and it would have been considered a serious matter for a high born child such as Lady Maeve to go missing. In fosterage women learned how to cook, sew weave and embroider just as Maeve did. The sons of kings were also sent to live with farmers so they could learn the conditions that poorer families lived under and what their needs were. Fosterlings often had a great love for the families who hosted them, as Maeve demonstrates in Deception's Pawn. Despite being bullied to the point where she felt she had to leave, Lady Maeve saves her father in a way that preserves Lord Artegal's reputation and does not lay blame. She has a genuine affection for this man and his family and even returns to set things right between her the other fosterlings.

The novel's climax takes place at Tara, which was considered by many to be the seat of the High King of Ireland. It was considered a sacred place and the entrance to the Otherworld. There are many monuments and earthen structures on the Hill of Tara including the Stone of Destiny and the Mound of the Hostages which dates to 2500BC and was used by kings to keep other lords until they submitted to the king's will. There are many other passages at Tara and it seems that Lady Maeve used one of these to convince her father and her fellow Celts that she had returned from the Otherworld after being taken by the Fair Folk. Unfortunately, Friesner doesn't really provide readers with enough background about Tara and the passageways for them to fully understand how Lady Maeve's plan would be convincing.

Like most of Friesner's novels, Deception's Pawn has a beautiful cover, one that would probably make the real Medh somewhat pleased; she looks bold and strong, but perhaps a bit too clean.A slingshot and a falcon would have been a good addition to the cover.

If you'd like to read more about Queen Maeve check out queenmaeve.org

Book Details:
Deception's Pawn by Esther Friesner
New York: Random House 2015
314 pp.



Friday, June 5, 2015

Documentary: Unravel

"You tend to get dressed for other people.
But at the end of the day you'll be as beautiful as God made you.
All people have a natural beauty."

Unravel is a short documentary produced and directed by Meghna Gupta about the garment recyclers in Northern India. The unwanted and discarded clothing from Western countries is shipped to Panipat, the only city in the world that takes this clothing and is recycled. But more interesting than that are the people of Panipat whose only knowledge about Westerners comes from watching The Discovery Channel.


The documentary is approximately fourteen minutes long and follows the clothes as they arrive in large shipping containers in the Kutch District, Western India. From there the containers are taken through Customs and then to a warehouse where all the clothes are slashed so they are not resold. The clothing is then driven 719 miles to the northern city of Panipat where the garments are further broken down, put through various machinery to be made into thread and then into blankets.

What stands out though in the film is how little the garment workers, who are mostly women, in Kutch and Panipat know about Western culture and the inferences they make about Westerners based on the clothing they see come through their warehouses. Some of the clothes are extremely large, others very new or very scant. One woman holds up a one piece bathing suit and is amazed that this is the entire outfit. Some of the clothing, like a white wedding dress is just too intriguing not to be tried on. Other garments are beautiful but too immodest to be considered wearable.

Based on the clothing they see, the garment slashers in Kutch assume that Westerners are very wealthy, cannot wash their clothes because water must be very costly or simply don't like to wash their clothing. One woman states that they believe there is a water shortage in the West. In Panipat, Reshma and the other garment workers muse about the clothing they find in the bundles. Here the women remove the buttons and zippers from all the clothing and further break down the pieces where they are sent to the Rag Machine and then to the Teaser Machine. From there everything goes to the Card Machine and then to the Spinning Frame which turns the fibre into rolls of yarn.


Sorting through mounds of Western clothing. Image Soul Rebel Films.
Several things stand out from this short. First and foremost was the beautiful clothing the garment recyclers themselves wore; sari's of deep reds and oranges, pale yellows and rich blues and greens, often embellished with decorations and embroidery. Secondly their happy dispositions and industriousness remarkably contrast the hard work and dusty warehouses. Thirdly, the sheer volume of clothing that passes through the factories - a nod to the extreme consumerism of the Western world and its obsession with clothing. The quote at the top of the page is from Reshma's husband. If only westerners would take his wisdom to heart.

Unravel has won numerous awards from many film festivals. It's a window into a world most Westerners do not know exists. And if you've ever wondered where all that terrible clothing from Walmart goes, well now you know.



To watch the entire short documentary check out Aeon Video