Tuesday, February 24, 2015

All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

"What if life could be this way? Only the happy parts, none of the terrible, not even the mildly unpleasant. What if we could just cut out the bad and keep the good?"

All The Bright Places is a story of two teens struggling to make sense of life through the lens of depression and suicide. It is a tragic tale with lessons for us all.

Two seventeen year olds, Theodore Finch and Violet Markey unexpectedly meet at the top of the bell tower at their school. They are not there for the view, but to commit suicide. Finch, a loner with few friends, is struggling with depression and the break up of his parents. It's the first week of the second semester of senior year and he's planning on ending his life.

When a student on the ground points, not at him, but at the girl standing on the ledge on the other side of the tower, Finch realizes he's not alone. On the other side of the tower is "Violet Something" who is "cheerleader popular" and not someone you would think would consider suicide.

Violet is trying to come to terms with the death of her older sister, Eleanor, in a car accident last year. She recognizes Theodore Finch and because she's beginning to panic,  allows him to move closer to her and help her off the ledge. She in turn helps Finch off the ledge. While other students such Gabe Romero (Roamer) taunt him to jump, Finch's best and only friend, Charlie Donahue, comes to the top of the tower to help him. Because Finch yelled his thanks to Violet for saving him, their classmates believe that it was Violet who saved Finch. In the aftermath of the tower incident, both are sent to the student counselors for help.

Mr. Embry, whom Finch refers to as Embryo, warns that if he tries something like this again he will be suspended and wants him to come in to talk twice per week. Finch missed five weeks of school near the end of last semester during what he refers to as the Asleep. His mother never knew, instead his sister Kate phoned the school and was the person Mr. Embry unknowingly spoke with. Violet meanwhile meets with Mrs. Marion Kresney who is concerned about the nightmares Violet has been having since the car accident. Mrs. Kresney is concerned because Violet has applied to a crazy assortment of colleges, except the one she most wanted to go to, NYU, where she was hoping to study creative writing. Although Violet filled out the application and wrote her essay she never submitted either.

Violet and her sister had a website, EleanorandViolet.com, that they started when they moved from California to Indiana. This website posted their views on different areas of life. With Eleanor's death, that website and Violet's desire to write have ended. Violet reveals to her counsellor that she has not driven again nor has she gotten into her parent's car. And she hasn't returned to cheerleading or student council. It's obvious she's not been coping well with her sister's death.

In their U.S. Geography, Finch impulsively (and to Violet's embarrassment) asks Mr. Black if he can partner with Violet for a class project to see three wonders of the state of Indiana. At first Violet doesn't want to be involved with Finch on this project. Finch however is very persistent. He comes over to her house one night and during a walk Violet tells him that she was considering suicide because of what happened to her sister and that she felt nothing mattered anymore. Finch tells her that living life to the fullest is important. Finch sends her his rules for "wandering" to see the wonders of Indiana. Violet agrees to do the project with him but insists that they walk or ride bikes and that they do not go far from Bartlett. Finch accepts this and their first "wandering" is to Hoosier Hill, eleven miles away.

Violet and Finch's friendship begins to grow slowly as they message one another on Facebook quoting passages from Virginia Woolf and Narnia. This blossoming friendship has the effect of causing Finch to want to stay in the Awake (a term he uses for staying alive) and he draws up a list of how to do this. And although her friends are shocked to see her spending time with Theodore Finch, resident "Freak" of Bartlett High School, Violet finds herself falling for him.

Even more importantly Finch helps Violet learn to live again. When he meets her parents one morning, he learns what she was like before the accident. So when Violet tries to bike to their next destination Finch confronts her about her fear of getting into a car again.
"The other Violet sounds fun and kind of badass...Now all I see is someone who's too afraid to get back out there. Everyone around you is going to give you a gentle push now and then, but never hard enough because they don't want to upset Poor Violet. You need shoving, not pushing....Otherwise you're going to stay up on the ledge you've made for yourself."
This pushes Violet into Finch's car (nicknamed the Little Bastard) and they drive to their next destination, the Bookmobile Park outside of Bartlett.

Although Finch tries to stay in the Awake his behaviour continues to be erratic. He misses his appointment with Embryo, fantasizes about hanging or poisoning himself and meets Violet to walk her to all her classes getting both of them detentions. One day he discovers his sister Decca cutting out all the "mean parts and bad words" from the books she has found around their home. Finch tries to cheer her up but wonders why she's doing this. Decca tells him that the bad words "trick you". Finch understands this because of the nasty article written about him in the school gossip magazine, Bartlett Dirt. "Better to keep the unhappy, mad, bad, unpleasant words separate, where you can watch them and make sure they don't surprise you when you're not expecting them." This seems to unsettle Finch further. He retreats to his bedroom where he begins taking down all his creative sticky notes and decides to repaint his bedroom from deep red and black to blue.

It is at this point that Finch and Violet start to take different paths. After several wanderings, which Violet has recorded in the notebook Finch gave her, she begins to rediscover the urge to write. Violet writes out possible story ideas and the beginnings of a new website. She takes a picture of the bulletin board in her room which is covered with the ideas and sends it to Finch but gets no response from him.

Finch however, begins to unravel. He misses a week of school unbeknownst to his mother, who never checks the answering machine and thus never learns about his absence. When he finally reappears at school, Finch leads Violet into trouble. Pulling a fire alarm to get her out of class, Finch takes her down to the river where he shows her a hooded crane, impulsively strips and goes swimming in the icy water and ends up in a fight with Roamer.

When Violet's parents learn of her skipping school and the fight at the river, they confront her. This leads Violet to tell them how she's feeling, that she has lost everything, her cheerleading, her student council, her boyfriend and her friends. "I wasn't acting out. That wasn't what it was...I don't have any friends or a boyfriend, because it's not like the rest of the world stops, you know?...Everyone goes on with their lives, and maybe I can't keep up. Maybe I don't want to." Her parents acknowledge her struggles and affirm what she is feeling. Her mother comes to her room, spending time with Violet to help her focus on setting up her new website. The result is that Violet has some concrete ideas, purchases her new website domain, www.germmagazine.com and decides that she will have contributors to her website. She also realizes that this is the first day she hasn't crossed out a day on her calendar. She throws out the calendar and puts Eleanor's glasses back in her sister's room - signalling that she is beginning to move on.

In contrast, Finch's family is clueless about what is going on with him. After the fight with Roamer at the river, Violet races to Finch's home to check on him but finds his sister Kate strangely ambivalent, "You never can tell what that boy's going to do." After Violet leaves, Finch who was in his room, knows he could go downstairs and tell his mother how he's feeling but her typical response will be to suggest Advil and to calm down. "...because in this house there's no such thing as being sick unless you can measure it with a thermometer under the tongue.Things fall into categories of black and white -- bad mood, bad temper, loses control, feels sad, feels blue." He tries to convince himself to live, "I will stay awake. I will not sleep." He even considers calling his school counselor but then doesn't. It turns out to be a fateful decision.

The next day Violet is stunned to see Finch at breakfast with her parents. Her father states that he has now set some rules for their geography project and asks for Finch's parent's contact information. Violet is upset at hearing Finch lie to her father about not having seen his dad for years and notices that even his handwriting is not the same as usual - a lie in her eyes. Finch also tells Violet's father that he's not sure what his plans are for the future because he doesn't know how long his life will be and he prefers to live as though he only has two day left. When Violet confronts Finch about his lies he tells her "Because it's not a lie if its how you feel." but this only angers Violet who wonders if he has been lying to her too.

Finch and Violet continue their wanderings through Indiana and as they do their relationship deepens and changes. At one stop at the Blue Hole, a round pool of water ringed by trees, Finch and Violet go swimming. The Blue Hole is reputed to be bottomless and capable of sucking a person down to their death. Finch stays underwater for so long that he terrifies Violet, who thinks he may have drowned. This intensely emotional incident leads them to become intimate, with Violet staying out all night and not telling her parents. When she returns in the morning with Finch, they are furious and tell her they cannot see Finch. Because Violet's parents were so worried they contacted Finch's mother, who in turn called his dad.

The repercussions from this situation set in motion a series of events that deepen Finch's depression and alienation. His behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre and impulsive. He assaults Roamer, gets expelled from school, overdoses on sleeping pills, begins giving away his possessions and moves into his bedroom closet. All without his family noticing. He also begins withdrawing from his relationship with Violet. When Amanda Monk tells Violet about Finch's attempt to kill himself, Violet begins to understand that Finch, the boy who has helped her recover her own will to live, is in more danger than she could ever have imagined. But is there enough time to save him from himself?


All The Bright Places was a very difficult read for me. For one thing reading about someone spiraling down into depression and suicide without anyone really noticing is intensely disturbing. Niven's story does a good job of portraying mental illness, of showing how getting the right support is so important and how mental illness is still very much stigmatized. All The Bright Places paints an accurate picture of how those suffering from mental illness can be passed over by family and even the closest of friends.

The novel is narrated by both Finch and Violet, so the reader gets to see what is going on in the minds of each. Both teens are dealing with difficult life situations; Finch's parents have split up and Violet has lost her older sister in a car crash. It gradually becomes apparent that Finch and Violet come from very different homes. Violet's parents are married and her mother is a college professor and writer who did her graduate work at NYU. Her father is an intelligent, caring man who engages Finch in an intelligent and meaningful way. They are concerned about Violet but allow her space to deal with her sister's death. In fact, they may even be over zealous in their attempts to help their daughter. When Violet returns home early from a party at Amanda Monk's home, her mother says, "Do you want to talk about anything? I know that must have been hard, and surprising. Why don't you hang out with us for a while?" Violet defines her parents as being perfect. "They are strong and brave and caring, and even though I know they must cry and get angry and maybe even throw things when they're alone, they rarely show it to me. Instead they encourage me to get out..."

In contrast Finch lives in a family shattered by divorce and has two parents who are self absorbed. Finch lives at home with his mother, Linda, his eighteen year old sister, Kate, and his eight year old sister Decca. His father, Ted Finch,who is a retired professional hockey player, has left Finch's mom and now lives in a new home with his younger wife and her son. Finch's father is a man with a powerful physical presence. He has an anger problem and is physically and emotionally abusive towards Finch and his mother. When Finch was eleven, his father broke his mother's chin and put her in hospital. A year later, Finch was assaulted. Finch was often told he was worthless and stupid. His mother holds down two jobs and according to Finch, has been "trying hard to be the cool parent." But she is also deeply suffering, telling Finch that she "never expected to be single at forty." Her way of coping is to drink wine at night and to routinely ask her kids what they learned each day.She tries to understand Finch's sadness and blames it on the divorce and his dad. With his father gone, Finch feels that everyone in the family is "running off in three different directions." His mother expects that Finch to be the "man of the house" not realizing that Finch is in crisis. He has only one friend at school and is often called "Freak", a name he was given after he asked a classmate to jump with him in front of a car to see if it would make the headaches he was having disappear.

The drastic differences in their family life, the level of involvement in their child's life make a significant difference in the outcomes for Finch and Violet. Unlike Violet, Finch has a history of mental illness which began when a cardinal died after repeatedly flying into his family's living room window. It was after this event that the dark moods began. All the warning signs and strange behaviours are simply written off by Finch's family as "That's just his thing. It's what he does."

Niven also explores the wide reaching effect suicide has on those left behind. At school, Finch had few friends, was frequently bullied and called Freak. Violet is upset to see how her school responds to his death. "...the entire school body seems to be in mourning. There is a lot of black being worn, and you can hear sniffling in every classroom." A shrine to Finch has been placed in the main hallway complete with notes stating how he is missed. This makes Violet angry. "I want to tear them all down and shred them up and put them in the pile with the rest of the bad, false words, because that's exactly where they belong."

Finch's counsellor, Mr. Embry tells Violet he feels responsible - to some extent but that he doesn't know what else he could have done. Embry tells Violet she is a survivor and that how well she does depends upon how copes emotional with what has happened. He gives her a resource to read to help her.

Violet, who was closest to Finch suffers intensely from his suicide. She feels anger at Finch leaving: "You can't do this to me. You were the one who lectured me about living. You were the one who said I had to get out and see what was right in front of me and make the most of it and not wish my time away...." Violet even hates Finch for dying. She also experiences guilt at her last words being to him being angry ones: "What would I have said to him if I'd known I would never see him again?" From the book Mr. Embry gives her Violet comes to understand that because of Finch's suicide she is "forever changed", something she must accept if life is to go on. Eventually in her letter to Finch, post suicide, Violet is able to express how he helped her and what she is feeling. Violet comes to some semblance of acceptance over what has happened when she completes the wanderings Finch undertook before his death and she finds a poignant letter he left for her.

As in life, Finch and Violet's families behave very differently after his death. While Violet's family believe that Finch's death was a suicide and that his family are partly to blame , Finch's mother and father are willingly to believe that his death was an accidental drowning. They are so disconnected from their own son they don't appear to comprehend the reality of what has happened.

Niven tackles some of the stigma surrounding mental illness and in particular suicide through the support group that both Finch and Amanda attend. Finch knows that people who have a mental illness are stigmatized in a way that people with other illnesses are not and he feels overwhelmed by it. "I want to get away from the stigma they all clearly feel just because they have an illness of the mind as opposed to, say, an illness of the lungs or blood." A girl in the group vocalizes how suicide survivors are treated due to this stigma. "My sister died of leukemia, and you should have seen the flowers and the sympathy.' She holds up her wrists,and even across the table I can see the scars. 'But when I nearly died, no flowers were sent, no casseroles were baked. I was selfish and crazy for wasting my life when my sister had hers taken away.' "  Later on when Violet tells Finch she wants to help him, Finch tells her "But I'm not a compilation of symptoms. Not a casualty of shitty parents and an even shittier chemical makeup. Not a problem. Not a diagnosis. Not an illness. Not something to be rescued. I'm a person."

Finch is the tragic character in this novel, suffering from mental illness and a dysfunctional family. Throughout the story he tells Violet numerous times why she should go on living, yet is unable to take his own advice. Instead he seems to consider himself to be irreparably broken. Although Finch could not save himself, in the end he does save Violet, at the bell tower and later on when she decides to continue to live even after his death. Violet is a complete contrast to Finch. She has a supportive family and no long last mental health issues. And while Violet could not save her sister nor Finch, she is able to save herself.

All The Bright Places is a haunting novel, filled with tragedy and loss but also hope.Niven writes at the back of her novel that she lost a boy she loved to suicide. Like Violet in her novel, she was the one who found him. Unable to speak much about her experience, Jennifer Niven decided to write about the experience in the form of this novel.

Suicide has touched my own life in an indirect but tangible way. My ex-husband's paternal grandmother (his father's mother) committed suicide supposedly over gambling debts. When I met and married my husband, the family reaction to her death was still one of derision and blame. There was still much shame, very little compassion and even hatred for her as she left behind a husband with debts to clear up. Sadly this poor woman is buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery in Toronto, not worthy of a marker for her resting place. The repercussions of her suicide have spread down through the generations, negatively affecting her son, her grandson (my ex husband) and even to some extent my son and daughters as well as their extended family.

My eldest daughter had a direct experience with suicide in her senior year of high school. In a group of friends, one who showed none of the signs of being depressed or suicidal, decided to end her life two weeks before graduation. She drove to Niagara Falls, climbed over the railing on the Canadian side and went over the Falls. I cannot fathom a more horrible way to die. Those left behind were devastated. My daughter and her friends spent weeks trying to understand what had happened. They have no explanation. They have no answers.

All The Bright Places is slated to be made into a movie, starring Elle Channing. You can check out GermMagazine at www.germmagazine.com

Book Details:
All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
New York: Alfred A. Knopf     2015
378 pp.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Winnie: the true story of the bear who inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker

Winnie tells the true story of the bear who became the basis for the famous children's books, Winnie the Pooh written by A. A. Milne.

After studying at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, Ontario, in 1911 Harry Colebourn was  appointed a veterinary surgeon for Canada's Department of Agriculture in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In joined the 18th Mounted Rifles and eventually became one of the original officers of the 34th Fort Garry Horse. When World War I broke Harry volunteered and was granted a leave of absence.

Harry was sent from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Valcartier, Quebec by train. He was transferred from the 34th Fort Garry Horse to the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps where he held the rank of lieutenant. When the train stopped in White River, Ontario, Harry met a hunter who had a bear cub on a leash at the train station. The hunter did not realize that the bear he had shot had a cub and he was now trying to sell the cub. Harry purchased the cub for about $20. He decided to name the cub, Winnipeg, after the city he lived in. Eventually that name was shortened to Winnie.
The real Winnie with Harry Colebourn in 1914

Harry  was attached to the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade under the command of Lt. Colonel Arthur W. Currie. The Second left Gaspe Bay for England on October 3, 1914 with Harry and Winnie. During his time in England, Winnie became a pet and mascot to the soldiers. However, when the time came for Harry and his fellow soldiers to travel to the battlefields in France, Winnie was placed in the London Zoo.

Harry Colebourn wrote six diaries during the war and he revealed that he fully intended to return to the Zoo to take Winnie back to Canada. However, by the end of the war, Winnie was an important attraction at the zoo and she delighted thousands of children who came to the zoo. As a result, Colebourn decided that she should stay there and he returned to Canada leaving her behind in London.

One of the children who delighted in Winnie at the London Zoo, was the son of A.A. Milne, Christopher Robin. Milne who also served in World War I with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, was a novelist and poet. His books Winnie the Pooh and The House At Pooh Corner were based on Winnie, Harry's black bear at the London Zoo. The other characters in the books were based on his son's stuffed toys.

In Winnie, Sally Walker tells the story of Winnie, how she met and was purchased by Colebourn and her life with the soldiers and then at the London Zoo.

Walker's story is illustrated by the delightful artwork of Jonathan D. Voss who used watercolour with pen and ink on Arches Hot Press Watercolor Board. Voss's illustrations have a whimsical character to them that seem to capture Winnie's easy going nature for which she was famous.

The author has included many photographs on the inside covers of Harry Colebourn as well as several photographs of A.A. Milne and Christopher Robin. There is a detailed Author's Note, a list of Sources and also information for further research.

Winnie lived to the age of twenty, dying in 1934. Her death was reported in many newspapers throughout Canada, England and the United States.

You can read more about Major Harry Colebourn at the Canadian Great War Project.

Book Details:
Winnie: the true story of the bear who inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker
New York: Henry Holt and Company 2015

Monday, February 16, 2015

Walking Home by Eric Walters

Thirteen year old Muchoki lived in the town of Eldoret with his parents and his seven year old sister, Jata. His family had a house on a small piece of land, livestock and a store in the market. He had many friends and relatives. Muchoki's father is Kikuyu, his mother Kamba, so he is Kikukamba. Everyone knew who was Kikuyu and who was Luo or Kamba. It didn't matter because they lived and worked side by side. Then one day, Muchoki and his family learned that it did matter.

Muchoki and his family, along with relatives, neighbours and people they didn't know found themselves being attacked. They sought refuge in a church from the mob armed with machetes, clubs and torches hoping that they would be safe on sacred ground. Instead, the church was set afire. Only Muchoki, his sister and his mother survived the mob. They now live in a tent in a refugee camp that holds over twelve thousand people, surrounded by barb wire and guarded by soldiers.

Muchoki's mother is suffering from malaria and very weak. This leaves Muchoki to care for his sister who attends the refugee camp school while he goes outside the camp to gather firewood. One day he meets a boy, Jomo, who with his sisters has come to collect firewood. Jomo tells Muchoki that he is Meru and that his family is waiting for their father to come from Isiolo to take them home.

One night Muchoki's mother tells them a story about the origin of her people, the Kamba, which means 'people of the string." She tells them that the Kamba began when a boy and a girl ran away to be together when their families forbade them from marrying. To be able to find their way back to their homes some day, the girl tied a string to the door of her home and let it out as they fled into the night. They married and had a child and wishing to return home to show the child to their parents they followed the string home, only to find that it had broken. They could not longer find their way home.

When Jomo decides he is going to go outside the gates to kill a gazelle for his family, Muchoki accompanies him. However the two boys do not kill a gazelle but instead encounter a Masai warrior who has brought down a gazelle. Because Muchoki scared the gazelle into the path of the Masai he gives Muchoki a share of the kill. On their way back into the camp, Jomo raises the ire of one of the camp guards but Muchoki smooths the situation over by inviting the guard to share their meal of the gazelle with his family. It is an act that will have significant repercussions for Muchoki and his family in the not to distant future.

The guard comes to dinner that day and Muchoki and his mother learn that he is from the Kalenjin tribe which massacred Muchoki's father and the other Kikuyu people. However the guard tells them that what happened was terrible and that he is a Kenyan first and a Kalenjin second.

When Muchoki's mother dies of malaria the man in charge of the camp tells him that he and his sister will be taken to different orphanages to live. Muchoki is deeply upset by this and determined not to be separated from his sister, he makes plans to leave. The Kamba soldier who had dinner with them helps Muchoki by telling him to leave that night, before the matron arrives in the morning to collect his sister. With the soldier's help and the money he gives Muchoki, they leave the camp that night and head to the road leading to Nairobi. Like his ancestors who tried to follow the string back to their homeland, Muchoki is determined to find his mother's family in Kikima.


In 2011, Eric Walters along with his friend Henry Kyatha, four children from the Rolling Hills  Orphanage and four young Canadians, made the same journey Muchoki and Jata undertook in Walking Home. They walked "from an internal displacement camp on the Mara, up the Rift Valley, down to Nairobi, through Kibera, along the Mombassa highway, to the mountains of Kikima." Along the way they interviewed, videotaped and wrote about their experiences and this adventure became the basis for the novel. It is this personal journey that gives a tone of authenticity to both Muchoki and Jata's characters as well as the to the large cast of supporting characters in the novel.

One of the strongest themes in the novel is that of the personal journey. Each of us experiences our life as a journey, both a physical and an inner spiritual one. Not only does Muchoki undertake a strenuous physical journey of almost 200 km but he also experiences a personal inner journey that forces him to change the way he thinks about those who have grievously harmed him and his family.

Muchoki's family who are Kikuyu, were attacked by Luo and Kalenjin. Muchoki is now fearful of these people and does not trust them. When he forms a polite friendship with one of the guards at the gate and invites him to dinner he learns that the man in a Kalenjin. Muchoki's response is one of anger.
"I tasted bitterness in my mouth. If I had known he was Kalenjin, I would never have invited him to our tent, never offered the invitation to dine at our side."
However, the guard does not respond in the way that Muchoki expects. Instead he tells him that he defends all Kenyans and that the violence "is nothing more than an excuse for people of violent natures to act violently." He blames the Kenyan politicians who have divided the people as tribes instead of uniting them. The soldier tells them that "An eye for an eye will leave everybody blind." He also tells Muchoki's mother that if "...I can repay her kindness, I am at your service."

Despite what has happened to him in Eldoret, Muchoki finds himself forced to trust in the Kalenjin soldier. This soldier not only helps him and his sister leave the camp, he also gives him directions and money to take the matatu (bus) part of the way to Nairobi. After the soldier hears Muchoki's story of the massacre in the church at Eldoret he tells  Muchoki, "It is important that Kalenjin show friendship to Kikuyu and that Kikuyu do the same to Kalenjin...You must try to do this."

This causes Muchoki to wonder if he could show kindness to the people who have caused great harm to his family, wondering if this is being disrespectful towards his murdered father's memory. But the soldier warns him that "You cannot fight evil by becoming evil...The only cure for darkness is light."  The soldier warns Muchoki to not let the evil deeds erase the good that remains in him. Still at this point Muchoki states that while he will remember the Kalenjin's act of kindness, it in no way makes up for the murder of his father and his family.

While they are walking towards the road that will take them to Nairobi, Muchoki and Jata come across a church. The minister asks his congregation if they are not justified in killing out of revenge for the murders of Kikuyu by the Kalenjin and Luo. When the congregation gives its approval of such, he tells them that the commandment given by God to Moses, Thou Shalt Not Kill was written in stones so that people might know it was eternal and firm. The minister tells them they may defend themselves, but they will not attack and they should spread peace. This causes Muchoki to reconsider his determination to seek revenge for the killing of his father.
"It is easy to say those words, sitting here inside this church where there was so much, where it seemed as if nobody had lost anything. Would he still be saying the same things if his father had been murdered? Would I kill the men who killed my father if I had the chance? Yes. It would be my duty. Would I kill those who were innocent, even if they were Kalenjin or Luo? I knew  what I would have answered in the weeks that had passed before we were helped by the two Wilsons, before I'd heard his words."
Further along in their journey, Muchoki and Jata are helped by Omolo, a farmer who sells oranges in Nairobi. Muchoki agrees to help Omolo push his cart up the hills of the city in exchange for a few oranges. However when Omolo is threatened by thugs who want to steal his donkey and cart of oranges, Muchoki scares off the attackers. When Omolo hears that Muchoki's father was Kikuyu, he apologizes as he is Luo and the Luo have killed many Kikuyu in the riots. Omolo offers Muchoki and Jata a place to spend the night but Muchoki is frightened when he learns that he will be staying inside a compound with Luo. Instead Muchoki is given a safe place to stay and Omolo walks with them through Nairobi so they can safely begin the next part of their journey.

Finally when Muchoki and Jata are in Nairobi, and Jata begins to question him on why God allowed their family to be murdered, Muchoki reveals how his encounters with the soldier, the minister and Omolo have changed him.
"I had once felt that it was my duty to avenge my father. But now, when I thought of the sergeant and the minister and Omolo -- when I thought of all the people who had helped us along the way -- I knew that I had already chosen a different path."

Muchoki and Jata also meet Masai warriors twice in the novel. According to Muchoki, the Masai have a reputation of being short of temper and fearless. While he is afraid of them, in both his encounters with the Masai they treat him kindly and return his respect. Through all these encounters, Muchoki learns the important lesson of treating others with respect and of forgiving others, even when a great wrong has been done.

Walking Home is a gentle treatment of tribal violence in East Africa. Written for children, Walters covers the brutal violence in a way that is not graphic yet conveys both the magnitude and the far-reaching effects of the terror that children like Muchoki and Jata experience. A country is seriously affected when entire families are destroyed. The displacement of families from homes and livelihood affects the health and education of children and severs their connection to the communities they have lived in. All of this is effectively portrayed in Walking Home. Muchoki was a good student, third out of forty-seven students and hoping to attend at least a provincial school, if not a national school. His father owned a prosperous business and the family was doing well enough that Muchoki had never known hunger. All this changes with the murder of his father and the loss of their home.

A map of Muchoki and Jata's journey would have been a wonderful addition to the novel. Walters has provided readers with an array of multimedia resources at www.ericwalterswalkinghome.com as they read the novel.  For example in the first chapter, readers can listen to Eric read the opening two paragraphs, they can view pictures of the tents in a displaced person's camp 100 km from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. Readers are very much encouraged to check out the multitude of photographs, videos and log entries for each of the books chapters.

Walking Home is a well written, engaging novel that will help North American young people understand life in Kenya and may encourage them to reach out and become involved in helping their brothers and sisters in Kenya, a country rich in resources and blessed with its greatest wealth of all, its diverse and unique people.

Book Details:
Walking Home by Eric Walters
Canada: Doubleday
290 pp.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Fire Girl by Tony Abbott

Firegirl is a coming of age novel about a boy struggling to find the courage to do the right thing when a severely burned girl spends a short time in his school.

Tom Bender is in seventh grade at St. Catherine's Catholic school. Tom has a crush on stunning Courtney Zisky who sits in the last seat of the last row in Mrs. Tracy's class. Tom who wasn't a strong reader, managed to move up into the same group as Courtney in sixth grade and that's when his crush really took off. Courtney is so pretty she could be in fashion magazines and sitting close to her made him realize how nice her hair smells. He often fantasized about how he could save Courtney's life but Courtney has never actually noticed Tom nor has she ever included him. He is after all, "a sweaty, fat kid with baggy pants..." But that was soon to change in seventh grade, with the arrival of  Jessica Feeney.

Since he can't get Courtney to notice him as a result of his superpowers, Tom decides that he will nominate her as a candidate for class president. However Tom's attention is drawn away from Courtney when Mrs. Tracy announces that a new girl will be arriving in their class that day. Mrs. Tracy tells that class that Jessica was badly burned in a fire and that she will be attending St. Catherine's while she has treatments for her burns at a nearby hospital. Mrs. Tracy warns that class about how Jessica looks but this does little to prepare Tom and his classmates for the reality of how Jessica looks.

When Jessica arrives Tom and his classmates are shocked and repulsed by Jessica's appearance. Tom is concerned that she is in pain and feels that "being in that skin would make you want to scream and scream until you died." Tom's friend, Jeff Hicks, is grossed out by Jessica's appearance. Tom gradually learns more about Jessica, that her family is from Boston and that she has had many skin grafts. Jessica has been to many hospitals and likely won't be at St. Catherine's very long.

Tom's mother suggests that it might help if he talked to Jessica. This suggestion causes Tom to reconsider Jessica and to begin to think about the reality of her situation. He begins to sneak glances at her during class and to realize that behind the melted and scarred skin is a person. He finds it hard to think that Jessica is like him and the other kids in the class. But for his classmates, Jessica becomes an object for speculation. Jeff and Rich seem more interested in how Jessica was burned and begin to make up stories about what happened. Tom wants to stop these conversations but doesn't really know how. He doesn't have the courage to speak up at first. In an attempt to divert the conversation away from gossip, he ends up revealing his crush on Courtney. Things become even worse when her classmates discover a photograph that Jessica is carrying around. She tells them that the photo is of her dead sister, Anne. This revelation only serves to fuel the outrageous rumours and gossip Tom's classmates spread throughout the school regarding what happened to Jessica.

While all this is going on Tom's friendship with Jeff begins to deteriorate. Jeff's parents broke up two years ago and he now lives with his mother who works long hours as a nurse. His father isn't really interested in spending time with him now that he has a new girlfriend. All this has made Jeff an angry boy who acts out. Tom loves the Cobra, a classic sports car which Jeff's uncle Chuck supposedly owns. Jeff invites Tom to see the car when his uncle comes down and to go for a ride in it. But when the uncle doesn't show, Tom begins to wonder if either really exist.

When Tom is asked by Mrs. Tracy to take her school work to her house, he is invited in by Jessica's father. Tom spends some time talking with Jessica and before he leaves her house, Jessica's father tells him what really happened to her. This meeting completely changes how Tom thinks about Jessica but can he help his classmates change too?

Fire Girl is a story about how outward appearances often do not accurately reflect who a person is. Abbott demonstrates this best through the interactions between Jessica and Tom Bender. Jessica is terribly disfigured by her burns and everyone in the class is overwhelmed by her appearance. Tom's description is graphic.
"Jessica Feeney's face, the first thing everyone looked at, was like a mask. I looked at her, then away, and then back at her. I couldn't believe I was looking at the face of someone alive....Her lips were swollen. The nearly filled the space between her nose and chin. Her eyes peeked out from behind skin that looked melted....Her fingers were bent as if she were trying to grab something."

Yet days later, after searching about burn victims on the internet, Tom finds his perspective changing and sees her as more than just a burn victim. "I found that I started, in little bits, raising my head to look at her, but always when I knew she was turned the other way or couldn't see me. I discovered that if you didn't see the edge or her face or her hand or arm lying on the desk, she looked almost like any girl with dirty hair. It was sort of crushed and matted in the back. It almost began to feel as if there was a person in there."

By the end of the novel Tom has a very different view of Jessica. Tom sees past Jessica's outer disfigurement and recognizes that "Jessica was smart and nice and she'd been to lots of schools, so she knew how things worked." When Jeff beats him in nominating Courtney, Tom attempts to nominate Jessica but Mrs. Tracy doesn't hear him and he feels like he has failed. By the end of the novel, Tom, who initially found it difficult to hold Jessica's hand in class finds himself hugging her and crying when they say good bye. He even knows her eye colour.

Unlike Jessica, whom everyone can't help but notice, Tom is not noticed. He describes himself as a fat and sweaty kid and he's not popular. He's shy and doesn't speak up much. During the class campaign for president, Tom's mother "kept at me to get out there and get involved"  It is as a result of Jessica that Tom gradually begins to take steps to put himself out there. That first attempt is to do something kind for Jessica; first in trying to stop the wild gossip about her and then later on in an attempt to muster the courage to nominate her for class president. Although he doesn't completely succeed, these first steps are important. Jessica encourages him. "You really have to speak louder," she tells Tom.

Throughout the novel, Tom comes to a better understanding of what is important in life. At the beginning of the novel he is only interested in comics and the Cobra sports car. He wants to be popular like the beautiful Courtney Zisky and he wants to be noticed by her - hence the fantasizes about being a superhero who rescues her.  He is ashamed of how he has behaved towards Jessica and how his classmates have treated her. But Jessica tells him "Every time I go in the hospital, I find out all over again about what really matters. This doesn't." Like Jessica, Tom starts to understand there are more important things in life.

Fire Girl is an excellent novel to explore the above themes in greater detail along with many more including those of  identity and the nature of relationships. Told in Tom Bender's voice, Fire Girl is a sensitive, emotional story. Tom's character is very authentic; he's immature, sometimes caring, sometimes insensitive. Abbott has written that Fire Girl came out of a real personal experience in grade seven that included "a girl like Jessica, a friend like Jeff, a class election, a Cobra..."

Book Details:
Fire Girl by Tony Abbott
New York: Little, Brown and Company     2006
145 pp.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Dare The Wind by Tracey Fern

This beautifully illustrated picture book tells the story of an unusual woman, Eleanor Prentiss, who (along with her husband as captain) set a record for the fastest journey from New York City, around the tip of Cape Horn and up to San Francisco. Generations ahead of her time, Eleanor Prentiss's determination to forge her own path in the world make her a role model for young women today.

Eleanor or Ellen as she was often called,  was born in 1814 in Marblehead, Massachusetts to John Prentiss, who was a captain of a coastal trading schooner. Prentiss taught his daughter how to navigate a schooner, perhaps because he did not have a son. Ellen spent many years navigating her father's merchant ships on voyages to China.

Josiah  and Ellen sailed together which was not unusual for husband and wife at in early 1800s. However, what was unusual was while Josiah was the captain, Ellen served as navigator on his ships. Perkins sailed The Oneida, a ship belonging to the firm, Grinnell and Minturn, in the China Trade.

The early 1800's were an exciting time with much progress in faster modes of travel. In 1849, transatlantic steamships like the SS Pacific with the American Collins Line were making the passage from New York to Liverpool in ten days. And just a day after the Perkins arrived in San Francisco, the first train travelled from New York City to Albany in five hours.

In 1849, the California Gold Rush began and thousands of American's traveled to the state to seek their fortune. Gold hunters could travel over the continental United States by wagon or horse or they could sail around Cape Horn at the tip of South America and up to California in the fast clipper ships. Many chose the latter because it was often a shorter trip, often only taking half the time. The shorter time meant more profits.

The owners of the Flying Cloud hired Josiah Perkins and his navigator wife Ellen. They made the journey from New York City to San Francisco in a remarkable 89 days and 21 hours. It was a journey that normally took at least four months or more. This record was due not only to the excellent design of the Flying Cloud, but also to the sharp navigation skills of Eleanor who had spent years studying ocean currents and meteorological data. Eleanor was a student of Mathew Fontaine Maury who had compiled the recorded ocean currents and weather conditions from the old log books of sailors. He then developed trade wind and storm and rain charts to aid navigators such as Eleanor Prentiss. Eleanor used this information to aid in the navigation around the tip of Cape Horn and up to San Francisco.

Tracey Fern recounts Eleanor's remarkable story in Dare The Wind and specifically her record setting voyage to San Francisco in 1851. Fern's account captures Ellen's daring spirit and determination to succeed in what was then solely a man's domain - the sea. The intensity of Eleanor's desire to live her life at sea, doing what she loved, navigating a ship is captured from the very beginning of the book.
"Ellen Prentiss had always felt the sea tug at her heart, strong as a full-moon tide. Her papa said that was because she was born with saltwater in her veins."
Fern's vivid prose is further enhanced by Emily Arnold McCully's gorgeous watercolour illustrations that convey both the movement and beauty of the sea and the sleek clipper ship. The back of this picture book contains a detailed Author's Note on Eleanor Prentiss as well as a short glossary of nautical terms.

Dare The Wind has recently been named an ALSC American Library Association 2015 Notable Children's Book.

Tracey Fern attended Harvard College where she studied history and biology and then studied law at Boston College Law School. She spent several years working as a real estate lawyer but it wasn't until she had her own children that she decided to try writing books.

Book Details:
Dare The Wind by Tracey Fern
New York: Margaret Ferguson Books Farrar Straus Giroux 2015

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

All The Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian

Ten days before the German army marched down the rue de Belleville in Paris, fourteen year old Maral Pegorian's family begins stockpiling food. Her parents know only too well the suffering during war, having survived the Armenian Massacres as children, during the first World War.

Maral and her sixteen year old brother Missak, live with their parents, Arniz and Garabed and her mother's sister, Auntie Shakeh in an apartment in Belleville, a suburb of Paris. People begin fleeing Belleville but Maral's parents, understand that marches supposedly to safety can lead to unexpected horrors. Maral's father states, "We're staying put. The last exodus we saw led straight to hell." Instead they decide to stay in their home to wait out the German occupation.  Their neighbourhood in Belleville is diverse, consisting of French from the Auvergne, Armenians, Greeks and Eastern European Jews.

When the Nazi tanks, armored trucks and black uniformed soldiers arrive, the Pegorians and their neighbours, Mr. and Mrs. Kacherian and their sons, Zaven and Barkev and their daughter, Virginie, watch the ominous procession from the Kacherian's apartment.

In November, Missak, Maral, Zaven, Barkev and other young people including Henri and Jacqueline Sahadian, go to a rally at the Arc de Triomphe. The rally attended by thousands of lycee and university students is in remembrance of Armistice Day, November 11th, which the Germans are not keen to celebrate. When the Germans move to end the rally and their are shots fired, Jacqueline and Maral run to safety at the Armenian cathedral on Jean-Goujon.

Life continues on in Belleville despite the Occupation. Maral begins to find herself attracted to Zaven. She continues to attend the Lycee Victor Hugo with her friend Denise Rozenbaum who is Jewish. However, the school is not unaffected by the Nazis as Mademoiselle Levy, their Latin and Greek teacher is dismissed because she is Jewish. Missak begins working for the Resistance, chalking the walls in the neighbourhood with victory messages. He also decides to take a job as an apprentice in the printing shop. His passion is for drawing and not for school. Food grows scarce but the Pegorians are able to procure a laying hen from Maral's mother's cousins, the Nazarians who live in Alfortville.

Soon the Germans come to the rue de Belleville rounding up the Jewish families in the neighbourhood.  Maral suggests that the Lipski's leave their daughter, Claire with them, even though children are to go too. Maral goes to the Lipski's apartment  and they quickly agree to send Claire with the Pegorians. The Lipski's are taken, even though Sara Lipski is heavily pregnant, and Maral's friend, Denise Rozenbaum and her family are also rounded up.

Missak is shocked at what his family has done, telling them the Nazi's are filling buses on the rue de Belleville with the Jewish families to be taken to the  Velodrome d'Hiver. The Pegorians care for Claire but realize they will not be able to hide Claire for long. Maral brings food and clothing to the Lipskis at the Velodrome and they ask Maral to contact Sara's sister, Myriam in Nice. Missak arranges, through the resistance to get Clair out of Paris to her aunt in Nice. The Pegorians begin to realize they many have saved Claire's life when Missak tells his family the Jews are to be shipped to work camps in the east.

During the winter, Auntie Shakeh becomes terminally ill with tuberculosis. Dr. Odabashian tells Maral's mother that it is only a matter of time before she dies. Auntie Shakeh's death affects Maral's mother deeply and even after the forty days of mourning, her mother continues to be distraught and withdrawn.

Maral begins seeing Zaven that winter, after Shakeh's death, for a few hours every Sunday afternoon. Sometimes she has dinner at Zaven's home and one day his father, who is a shoemaker, offers to make Maral a pair of shoes. It is Barkev who traces her feet on a piece of cardboard and measures her for the shoes. Maral tells Zaven that she has always wanted to marry him and this leads Zaven to suggest they do so after she has finished her schooling. After exams are over in the spring, Zaven reveals that Barkev has been called up to report to the German's new mandatory work program, the service du travail obligatoire or STO. Zaven and Missak are too young to be called up but Barkev is twenty. Zaven tells Maral that Barkev is not going and that they are both going into hiding. By the following Sunday Missak informs Maral that both brothers are gone into hiding. It is a decision that will have dire consequences for both brothers and Maral, bringing devastation to both the Pegorian and the Kacherian families.


All The Light There Was is a tale of war, love,suffering and irreplaceable loss in a community too familiar with the horrors of war. The focus is on the experience of one family in the close knit Armenian community in Paris, through the eyes of a young girl who comes of age during the Nazi Occupation of Paris. Yet the novel demonstrates the wide ranging effect of the war on virtually everyone, making Maral's narration feel authentic.

The stress of the occupation weakens and eventually kills Auntie Shakeh as it rekindles horrific memories of what she endured as a child in Mosul. The Kacherians lose both of their beloved sons, Zaven to typhus in the concentration camp, Buchenwald, Barkev as a result of the great psychological trauma endured at the same camp.Maral loses her dearly beloved Zaven, her future husband, as well as  her best friend, Denise Rozenbaum and her family. Claire Lipski never sees her mother and father and sibling again. If anything, the novel demonstrates the vast changes, the holes in the lives of those left behind. And as Maral writes, "The war was a great factory of suffering, all of it fashioned by human hands."  In the midst of all the tragedy is the forbearance of Maral's parents, especially her father who believes that having survived the tragedy of the Armenian genocide, they will survive this calamity too.

The first person narrator, Maral Pegorian is a bright, ambitious young girl who considers many possibilities for her life. She has known since she was a child that she wants to marry Zaven Kacherian, but as she tells him when he asks her about marriage, she also wants to complete her education and perhaps "go to the ecole normale and become a teacher."

 Maral is also faithful to her promise to wait for Zaven. She does struggle with her attraction to another Armenian man, Andon Shirvanian, but when she faces the reality of her increasing attraction, she ends the relationship, telling him "...The war will be over any day now. I'll be expecting Zaven back. And it's not right that I should let myself have these feelings about you. It's not fair to Zaven, or to you."

Kricorian has indicated that the genesis for this novel came about during her research into various resistance groups, among them the French Resistance, for her second novel. She discovered a group of French Resistance headed by the Armenian poet, Missak Manouchian who is mentioned in All The Light There Was. Maral's father considers Manouchian to be "a hero and a patriot." when he learns that he has been shot at Mont-Valerian.

To learn more about the Armenian experience in France, Kricorian read the memoir of the famous French Armenian actor, Charles Aznavour whose real name is Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian and she also interviewed numerous Armenians who had been in the resistance under Manouchian. Soviet Armenians who were captured by the Germans were forced to serve in the Wehrmacht and sent to France to build fortifications along the Atlantic coast. These Armenians, represented by the character Andon Shirvanian in the novel, often met the French Armenians at social functions hosted by the Aznavourians, who attempted to convince them to desert the German army. Shirvanian, like many Soviet Armenians faced a no-win situation. When he was captured by the Germans, he accepted an offer to enter into the German army. This is when Maral first meets him. However, when he was shipped back to Germany after the Allies land in France,  the train he was on was bombed. He fled to the resistance in Belgium but they could not take him in as the Allies had made a deal with Stalin to return all Soviet POWs.  As a soldier for the Soviet Union he was expected to die on the battlefield defending the motherland, and doing anything less than that, such as being taken prisoner" would mean being shipped to a camp in Siberia. He decided to escape and find his way to France.

Andon creates a great deal of conflict for Maral in the novel. First she finds herself falling for him in the absence of Zaven whom she promised to be faithful. Then they meet again after they both know that Zaven will not be returning, but Maral now considers marriage to be not just about love but also about duty. After Barkev's death, Andon is still waiting but first Maral must come to terms with what he did during the war. This she does, as she explains to Jacqueline, "He was an Armenian prisoner of war who had a choice between dying and putting on a German uniform."  She now must face the disapproval of her brother, Missak and his wife, Jacqueline and possibly her father. Her sense of obligation to her son and her family are overwhelming. However, it is her father who helps her decide when he tells her that the responsibility for the decision is hers. He also tells her that in light of what he has experienced in his life, "you give people more room to do what is human." Maral's ability to do just that, allows her the chance to rebuild her life, while still honouring the memory of both Zaven and Barkev.

All The Light There Was could easily be a young adult novel, since the story is that of a young woman coming of age during World War II. The time period in the novel runs from 1940 when Maral Pergorian is fourteen years old turning fifteen to 1946 when she is twenty-one. The unappealing cover however is likely to miss this age group but will drawn in adult readers in search of a well written story with a satisfying ending.

Book Details:
All The Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt        2013
279 pp.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

"Each mind unique, each thought created for an instant and then broken apart to form new ones. You don't understand the unbearable beauty of being you."

This Shattered World is the second in the original Starbound series by this outstanding duo. The novel features two new characters but also ties into the first novel, These Broken Stars. which saw the wealthy Lilac LaRoux and soldier Tarver Merendsen thrown together after they crash land on a mysterious planet.

Readers will remember in These Broken Stars, Lilac LaRoux, heiress to the LaRoux fortune and soldier, Tarver Merendsen crash landed after the spaceship, Icarus,  was destroyed by an encounter with a dimensional rift. They are directed by mysterious "whispers" to an abandoned station on the planet but not before Lilac dies and is brought back to life. At the abandoned base they are able to communicate with the "whispers" who confirm they are responsible for Lilac's recovery and they have been the source of the visions. In their search for the station's power source, they see the upside-down letter V of the lambda - the insignia of LaRoux Industries which once operated the station.

Lilac senses that there is something unusual in the station. This is confirmed by their discovery in the basement of the station, of a circular door made to dilate like the iris of an eye as they both experience strange shivers and a coppery taste. Documents at the station mention a dimensional rift and attempts to recreate the rift using the super-orbital reflectors around the planet as well as on another planet, Avon, which Tarver was stationed on a few months earlier. They also mention the "extraction of test subjects" from the dimensional rift which are described as having telepathic abilities and are "phased life-forms, energy based, noncorporeal". Lilac realizes that "these beings, experimental test subjects to my father's teams, have led us across the wilderness to this spot...I wish we knew what they want."

Lilac also understands that the "whispers" are able to temporarily convert energy which is what they did to make her come alive again and that she needs to get behind the door to help them and save herself.  Using her name as the password, she opens the door and gets the power to the base running to send out a weak distress signal. In the power control room they discover the rift but also realize that the "whispers" or creatures are the power source for the station and are trapped in the power grid. With Lilac beginning to fade, Tarver destroys the dampening field, allowing the "whispers" to speak to him using his dead brother, Alec's form. They tell him that they came to Tarver's world out of curiosity but were imprisoned, unable to enter this world or return to their own and then became unwilling test subjects. They are all interconnected but somehow, LaRoux was able to separate them, making them weak.  Tarver is told that Lilac's distress signal is weakening them so he shuts it down. To save Lilac, Tarver jumps into the dimensional rift thereby closing it, creating a large energy surge. This ends the rift for the "whispers" and saves Lilac.

Lilac and Tarver are rescued by one of her father's ships where they learn that fifty thousand souls died in the Icarus accident. They are separated, inspected, monitored and interrogated. But during interrogation, Lilac and Tarver each play their part, Lilac "a spoiled heiress, too traumatized to remember anything" and Tarver, "a big, dumb soldier." in order to protect what they found on the planet. 

In This Shattered World, the story moves to the terraformed planet of Avon. Eighteen year old Captain Jubilee (Lee) Chase is in Molly Malone's a bar when she is kidnapped by a handsome, Irish rebel, Flynn Cormac, and taken into the swamps. At first Lee suspects this boy whom she nicknames "Romeo" is a spy for one of TerraDyn's competitors. Flynn takes her to his currach, forcing her to inhale petrol fumes which knock her unconscious and travels deep into the swamps, where the Irish rebels, known as the "Fianna" are hiding.

Flynn has abducted Captain Chase because she's the one soldier who's been on Avon the longest and she is the only soldier unaffected by what has become known as Avon's Fury - a condition that causes soldiers to "blank out" and murder civilians. Flynn also believes Jubilee Chase has vital information regarding a secret base that he has just discovered in the east. But when Flynn mentions the secret base, Jubilee has no idea what he's referring to. She knows of no base in the east and tells him so. Flynn wants to know why Avon is "generations behind" its terraforming schedule and since the planetary review is imminent, he wants to know who is behind the delay and how they are doing it. Flynn tells Lee that if Avon doesn't develop as it should, it will be unable to support a growing population and will never be represented on the Galactic Council.

When Flynn takes Jubilee to the location of the base, it is no longer there. As Flynn drags her to search for the missing base, Jubilee begins to experience strange sensations; she has a strong metallic taste in her mouth, she hears whispers and sees a pale green light in front of her. Suddenly she sees the facility surrounded by a high wire fence and a guard dressed in black looking at her. As she collapses, thinking Flynn has drugged her, Lee finds a mysterious object which she manages to hide in one of her boots.

Flynn doesn't know that Jubilee has seen the base and after she collapses he takes her to the rebel's caves deep in the swamp where he hides her in a small cave. Flynn knows rebels like his opponent McBride will murder the "trodairi" in retaliation for the execution of Flynn's older sister, Orla, who led an insurrection ten years ago. Flynn has another rebel, Martha, get word to the base that they have Captain Chase and want to trade her for supplies.

Despite his efforts to hide Jubilee, McBride is told of her presence and violently assaults her before Flynn can intervene. As she is recovering from her injuries, Jubilee learns the true identity of "Romeo", Flynn recognizes that Jubilee is in grave danger and decides to take her back to the base, However,  once they arrive at the rebel dock, Lee knocks out Flynn and using a currah escapes back to the TerraDyn base.

Jubilee is debriefed by Commander Antje Towers but she does not reveal the identity of the boy who kidnapped her nor the location of the rebel base. In an attempt to see what Towers might know Jubilee tells her that the boy was looking for information on a base in the east. This seems to trigger Commander Towers ending the debriefing, raising Jubilee's suspicions that Towers is knows more than she is letting on.

Meanwhile Flynn returns to the base to see Jubilee who tells him that one of her soldiers, Mori, killed a civilian as a result of the Fury and has been shipped out to Paradisa. Jubilee tells Flynn that she believes she is not susceptible to the Fury because she does not dream and that doctors do not know why this is. Flynn warns Jubilee that McBride is planning on waging war against the base but refuses to give her the names of the leaders of the rebellion.

Almost immediately after Flynn leaves her quarters, Bravo Barracks is blown up by a man, Davin Quinn killing thirty soldiers and injuring many others including Flynn. Flynn is taken to a makeshift sick bay filled with wounded soldiers, making the discovery of his identity almost certain. He tells Jubilee that it is very unlikely that Quinn willingly bombed the barracks as he preferred to remain uninvolved with the conflict. At this time Jubilee reveals that she saw the mysterious base in the east and that she found an ident chip on the island. They discover that the chip has the lambda symbol of LaRoux Industries on it.

When Flynn's face is posted on the base as the man who kidnapped Jubilee he escapes back to the rebel caves only to find that Jubilee has apparently murdered some of the rebels after experiencing the Fury. When McBride orders Flynn to kill Jubilee, he finds he cannot and they manage to escape. Both Jubilee and Flynn do not understand how she could have experienced the Fury. Jubilee tells Flynn that when she experienced the Fury she had a metallic taste in her mouth and that she felt dizzy and disoriented - the same as she felt when she found the LaRoux chip suggesting that somehow the Fury is connected to the chip, LaRoux Industries and the base. Jubilee wants to report the massacre at the base, but Flynn convinces her not to. The two escape back to the base, with Flynn hiding out at Sophia Quinn's home. As the two struggle to understand the connection between LaRoux Industries and the Fury and how this might be something that is being done to Avon, Jubilee makes the decision to contact her former captain, Tarver Merendsen, who served on Avon almost a year ago.Tarver agrees to come to Avon.

Jubilee is stunned to see that Tarver Merendsen is the expert TerraDyn is sending to evaluate the base's security in light of the recent rebel attacks. Jubilee and Flynn tell Merendsen that the Fury has been getting worse, affecting people who were previously immune and also attacking civilians, and that there is some kind of hidden facility in the east that is connected with LaRoux Industries.

When Tarver contacts his fiance, Lilac LaRoux asking for her help, Jubilee tries to convince her and Tarver that they need to bring what's happening on Avon to the attention of the military command. However Lilac reveals to Jubilee that she and Tarver discovered her father was involved in a major conspiracy which he covered up by destroying the planet they had crash landed on. She tells Jubilee that he had taken the "whispers" from the dimensional rift and they thought that they were destroyed along with the planet. Only a few months ago they realized that this was not the case. Tarver tells Jubilee they need to find proof of what is happening on Avon and they need to go public with it, while Lilac warns her to trust what she feels and not what she sees since the whispers can manipulate their minds.

Merendsen explains more about what happened to them on the planet when the Icarus crashed. He tells them that "LaRoux Industries opened a rift on that planet, a gateway between this dimension and another...this one permanently jammed open, and there were sentient creatures living there. LaRoux's scientists pulled these being through and trapped them." He also explains that the "whispers" as they call these beings, can change the planet they are on. On the planet he and Lilac crashed on, the planet's growth was sped up and the animals altered. This leads Flynn and Jubilee to consider that the whispers on Avon have done exactly the opposite - slowing down  the terraforming process and preventing any life from developing. 

As the conflict between the rebels and the military grows, Jubilee and Flynn set out to try to find the base and learn what is going on. Can Jubilee and Flynn discover the truth about the secret base and Avon amidst the growing violence between the military and the Fianna rebels on Avon?


Once again Kaufman and Spooner have crafted a well written story that builds upon the events from the first novel. The authors seamlessly connect the two novels, although readers won't see the connection until they are almost halfway through the second book. Nevertheless this connection is done very well and is one of the strengths of the novels, creating a cohesive storyline that is both interesting and engaging. 

In this novel, Kaufman and Spooner tell their story using two narratives, that of Jubilee Chase, a well trained soldier from Verona and Flynn Cormac, a member of the Irish "Fianna" rebel group. In keeping with the structure of the first novel, interspersed is a narrative of Jubilee's story from when she was orphaned at age eight on the planet of Verona. This third narrative is important because it helps the reader understand events that happen at during the climax of the novel, filling in some of the back story.

The recipe in This Shattered World is much the same as in the first novel; two very different people who initially despise one another, are thrown together repeatedly, only to discover they both have redeemable qualities. Jubilee is a strong, motivated female character, determined to forge her own path, a "lifer" as she describes her career in the military. She has a daunting reputation as a steely trodairi, a soldier with a reputation for dealing harshly with the rebels. She has worked hard to put down the rebels, in part because it was rebellion in her city of November on Verona that killed her parents when she was eight. When she meets Cormac she finds him surprisingly thoughtful, more concerned about his people and his planet than making war. She'd "expected him to snap something stupid and noble, like most idealistic young rebels." She also expected him to murder her.

Likewise supporting character, Flynn Cormac, whose Irish ancestors settled Avon  discovers that Captain Jubilee is much different from what he expected.
"I don't know what I expected her to be like, but it wasn't this. The stories about her say she's made of steel -- she volunteered to come to Avon, the planet that drives men mad. She never runs, never hides, never loses. Stone-faced Chase, inhuman and deadly." But Flynn begins to realize that Jubilee is not inhuman and that she does feel fear.
Neither act as they are expected to. Jubilee does not provide her base commander with Flynn Cormac's identity and  when he returns to the base she doesn't turn him in. Flynn doesn't kill her or allow McBride to murder her, even after it seems Jubilee has killed his cousin, Sean Ahearn's nephew and other children. Eventually Jubilee and Flynn come to love one another, despite their very different backgrounds, mirroring the romance between Tarver and Lilac in the first novel.

Besides the story of Avon and the blossoming love between Jubilee and Flynn, Kaufman and Spooner continue to develop the storyline involving the sentient life form discovered in the dimensional rift on the planet in the first novel. Those beings are also on Avon where LaRoux attempted to recreate the dimensional rift. Jubilee manages to speak with one of the whispers who tells her that they have been with her for some time now, since she was a child on Verona. The whisper is what Jubilee thought was a ghost when she was a child. The whisper reveals that they were moved from Verona to Avon  and that they were forced to make the people on Verona kill her parents. They did not understand what they were doing because death does not exist for them and were told that if they did this they would be sent home. Instead they were sent to Avon by Laroux where they were tortured.  The pain they suffer has driven most of the whispers to become different, "to fall into violence and despair, into pain" causing harm to the people on Avon. This whisper however, understands humans better because of its relationship with Jubilee. It recognizes that humans are different -- they can be individuals but for the whispers, to be alone is agony as they are made to be connected to each other.Concerned that the other whispers will harm humans, the whisper convinces Jubilee that she must destroy the base which is being powered by their own energy. This will destroy them but force them to keep their knowledge of the human world secret.

This Shattered World is another fine novel by this amazing duo. Fans of science fiction will find a compelling mixture of romance, suspense and action. I can't wait for the next novel!

Book Details:
This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
Los Angeles: Hyperion     2015
390 pp.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian is the riveting story of one man's struggle to survive on Mars after he is mistakenly left behind when his crew mates are ordered to abort their mission. Filled with technical details that are presented in a easy to read style, we follow astronaut Mark Watney as he develops plans to survive against all odds for the next four years on the red planet.

A mission to Mars takes about three years. This includes the fourteen unmanned missions which land advance supplies on the planet including the  MAV or Mars ascent vehicle which is soft-landed and ensured to be in working condition. The MAV is used to leave the surface of Mars and rendezvous with Hermes, the spaceship that takes the astronauts back to Earth.

On day six of the Ares 3 mission on the surface of Mars, the crew led by Commander Lewis is hunkered down inside their living quarters called the Hab. A brutal sandstorm with winds of 175 kph has been blasting the Mav, which is not designed to withstand this kind of abuse. NASA orders Ares 3 to abort the mission and the crew to take to the Mav and leave the surface. As the crew made their way to the Mav, the communications dish and the reception antenna array crash into astronaut Mark Watney, piercing his suit and slamming him onto the surface. Watney awakens some time later on to find himself impaled with the antenna and facedown in the sand. The Mav is gone. He is alone on Mars.

Once Watney deals with his injury - a puncture wound in his side, he quickly takes stock of his situation; the Hab is intact and the Mav is gone. He has enough food for 300 days, six EVA suits, two rovers, two hundred square meters of solar cells. The Hab seems to be fully intact with both a functioning oxygenator and water reclaimer. Since he has no way to communicate with Earth Watney decides to try to fix the radio first.When that doesn't work he decides that he needs to figure out a way to supply himself with food for the next four years - the time when the next Ares mission arrives on Mars.

Watney who is a botanist and has a second specialty of mechanical engineering, was the mission's fix-it specialist. In order to grow food, Watney begins filling the floor of the Hab with Martian dirt and fertilizing it with his fecal waste. In the food supplies he has found peas, beans and potatoes that he can plant. In order to provide enough food for 1412 Martian days, Watney decides that his best bet is to grow potatoes using the floor, bunks and tables of the Hab as well as the two pop-up tents from the rovers. But he needs to figure out how to make water.  He does that by scavenging the hydrazine tanks from the abandoned MDV. However, his plan goes slightly awry when he discovers that during the process the air in the Hab becomes filled with hydrogen which is highly flammable. He manages to get the hydrogen content down but not before creating a small explosion. Luckily that does not damage the Hab nor injure Watney.

Meanwhile as the crew of the Ares 3 is on their journey home, on Earth, Mindy Park, a mechancial engineer who is monitoring the system of twelve satellites in orbit around Mars makes an astonishing discovery. Images appear to show activity on Mars; the two rover pop tents have been deployed within twenty feet of each other, the solar cells on the Hab have been cleaned and there is no evidence of Watney's body. Mindy reports her findings  to Dr. Venkat Kapoor, Director of Mars Operations. Shocked at the possibility that Watney is alive, Kapoor meets with Annie Montrose, Director of Media Relations and Teddy Sanders, Administrator of NASA. Venkat reveals that in addition to the above, the MDV has been taken apart and the fuel plant on the MAV has been removed.

Teddy decides that they will not inform the Ares 3 crew who still have a ten month journey ahead of them, that their crew member, Watney is alive on Mars. They will however, have to let the public know since they will have access to the satellite images after 24 hours. Like Mark Watney, NASA knows that he does not have enough food to survive on Mars for the next four years when Ares 4 arrives and he has no way to communicate with Earth.

While NASA considers its options to help him, Watney has plans. He knows that not only does he have to grow enough food to last him four years but if he wants to be rescued he has to travel to the Schiaparelli crater, where Ares 4 will land in 4 years time. Schiaparelli crater is 3200 km away and if Watney's going to travel there he will need to modify the rovers to help him. Determined to survive, Watney begins planning and improvising. Little does he know how much Mars will test his ingenuity and his will to survive!

The Martian is very much in the same genre as the movie, Gravity; a lone astronaut struggling to survive in cold, dark space, this time on a barren planet tens of millions of miles away. At the center of this thriller is Mars astronaut, Mark Watney whose indomitable spirit and can-do attitude saves him time and time again. Watney's time on Mars is rife with problems, some more serious and deadly than others, but all requiring a level of innovation that would put MacGyver to shame. He figures out how to make water, fertilize soil, grow crops, repair various systems, take a hot bath and mend a space suit. Although the solutions to all the problems Watney encounters are interesting reading, because there are so many problems and they come hard and fast, it's hard to maintain focus on the detailed descriptions. So sometimes, I found myself skimming details to get to the next part of the story. The relief is supplied by chapters detailing the efforts of many at NASA to rescue Watney and the eventual collaboration with Chinese space officials.

Andy Weir based his story on the actual plans for a Mars mission called Mars Direct which can be accessed at the Mars Direct website . The mission as described in The Martian is essentially the same as outlined on the website, with NASA sending a ship to Mars years earlier to make fuel for the crew's return journey to Earth, a habitat building and rovers. Weir states that he calculated all of the orbital paths mentioned in his story and that the science is accurate.

One complaint I do have with this novel is the fact that it is so NASA-centric, a tome to American  know how and ingenuity. By the time manned missions to Mars are to be a regular occurrence and based on the global nature of space exploration at this time (the International Space Station for example), it's likely that both a mission to Mars and should it ever be required, the rescue of a marooned astronaut on Mars, would be a global effort, not limited to the expertise at NASA but drawing on the wealth of ideas and resources from other agencies like the European Space Agency, and the Russian and Chinese. The Chinese do eventually supply a rocket to help out, but only after NASA has exhausted all other options.

Readers will enjoy the character of Mark Watney who seems to fit the hero image of astronauts; he's courageous, highly intelligent and remarkably adaptive under enormous stress. Watney's narrative is witty but realistic. He's working hard to stay alive and the reader knows this through the easy to understand explanations of science involved. His narrative is believable because of the range of emotions Watney experiences during his time on Mars, his happiness at securing Pathfinder and talking to NASA, his devastation at the loss of the Hab, the boredom he experiences waiting for the solar panels to recharge and his dislike of disco music.

How this will make as a movie remains to be seen. The novel is quite suspenseful and I think seeing all the tricks Watney works through, plus the tremendous obstacles he must overcome to survive will make it an exciting movie. The movie adaptation of the novel is scheduled for release in November, 2015 and will star Matt Damon as Mark Watney.

Overall The Martian is an enjoyable novel for science fiction fans; a great storyline, wonderful characters and chock full of science. These elements all combine to make this a satisfying read.

Book Details:
The Martian by Andy Weir
New York: Crown Publishers     2011, 2014
369 pp.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Killer Instinct by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Killer Instinct is the sequel to The Naturals, a sort of teen Criminal Minds. This time The Naturals must confront a killer who seems to be a copycat killer following the MO of Dean's father. Can they catch the killer before he strikes again?

After surviving an attempt on her life, seventeen year old Cassandra (Cassie) Hobbes is back at the house in Quantico, VA that serves as headquarters for the rest of The Naturals that include Dean Redding, Lia Zhang, Michael Townsend and Sloane. Special Agent Veronica Sterling, daughter of Director Sterling, arrives at the house to replace Agent Lacey Locke, the rogue agent and UNSUB (unknown subject) the group never recognized and who wreaked havoc only six weeks earlier. Agent Sterling is now responsible for ensuring this group of special teens obeys the directives of the program. She has also been sent by the Director to evaluate the top secret Naturals program.  Also present is Judd Hawkins, an ex-military man who is caretaker to both the Naturals and the house and who appears to know Agent Sterling very well.

Agent Tanner Briggs who is Sterling's ex-husband,  tells her that The Naturals program has solved two cold cases in the past month, however Sterling remains dubious.

Briggs and Sterling are called away to investigate a new case, but do not provide any details to the Naturals. Instead Cassie and her fellow Naturals learn from a television news broadcast about the murder of a girl from nearby Colonial University in northern Virginia. The young female student was bound and tortured before being strangled and then secured to the hood of her car which was placed on the lawn of the University President. A professor at the school, George Fogle, who teaches a class on serial murder is considered a suspect. After a video of the body is leaked online, The Naturals watch it, using their innate profiling skills to learn as much as they can about the killer.
"Bodies were like messages, full of symbolic meanings that only a person who understood the needs and desires and rage that went into snuffing out another life could fully decode."

The Naturals are puzzled as to why the FBI has been called in, but Dean tells them one of the serial killers that Fogle lectures about is his father,  Daniel Redding whose modus operandi (MO) is "Bind them. Brand them. Cut them. Hang them." Redding murdered at least a dozen women after his wife left him. Briggs and Sterling were the original agents on his father's case and are familiar with his MO. Dean is certain that the murderer of the Colonial University student is a copycat of serial killer Daniel Redding. This makes Cassie disturbed and she feels it is strangely coincidental that "six weeks ago, Locke was re-enacting my mother's murder, and now someone's out there playing copycat to Dean's dad?"

Dean begins to reveal to Cassie about what his life was like with his serial killer father. His father made Dean watch him torturing and murdering his victims, after Dean discovered what his father was doing. He tells her about how his father gradually attempted to involved Dean in the murders.

In an attempt to learn more about the Colonial U. murder, Sloane recreates the crime scene in the basement of the Naturals home. However, this is quickly discovered by Agent Sterling who tells them she will shut down The Naturals program if she finds them working on active cases. The Naturals was developed to solve cold cases, but Briggs has been using Dean on active cases, resulting in him almost losing his job. However, Cassie wonders if The Naturals can make a difference in active cases such as the one Agents Briggs and Sterling are now working.

After overhearing an argument between Agent Sterling and Dean who insists she tell him the name of the murdered girl, Cassie learns the girl's name is Emerson Cole. In an attempt to uncover information about Emerson's murder, Michael, Lia and Cassie attend a frat party at Colonial U. There they meet four people with connections to Emerson, none of whom really appear to be suspects.

Meanwhile, Sterling assigns Dean and Cassie to read a book on criminal psychology which outlines the characteristics of organized and disorganized killers. The former  are charming, articulate, confident and socially adept people who have little empathy for others. They stalk their victims and are difficult to catch. Disorganized killers are impulsive and tend to attack from behind.  This leads Cassie to realize that Dean's father is an organized killer.

Briggs and Sterling tell Dean that based on the similar modus operandi, it is likely that Emerson's killer has written to Dean's father in prison. They want to interview his father, but Daniel Redding has agreed to cooperate on one condition - that he talk to his son only. Dean agrees and accompanied by Briggs they visit Daniel Redding in jail. They learn that Professor Fogle interviewed him a few times and that he did most of his writing at a cabin in the mountains. He also tells Dean that "the only  truly remarkable letters he'd received were from a student in that class."

Unknown to Dean, Sterling and Cassie watch the interview from an observation room. Later Sterling confronts Cassie about sneaking out of hte house the previous night she tells her that she's worried about Cassie becoming too involved in the current case, especially since she has feelings for Dean. Sterling also reveals her connection with Dean.

Based on the information from the interview with Daniel Redding, Briggs follows up on locating Professor Fogle, but they learn that the professor has been found dead. This results in Director Sterling becoming personally involved in the case and he orders The Naturals to scour social media to learn whatever they can about the three hundred and seven students enrolled in Fogle's class and who are now suspects.

As events continue to unfold, the Agents and The Naturals begin to realize that Daniel Redding has more than a casual connection to the case. In a race against time, they must unravel how he is connected to the murders and what the next move will be. Can they discover the identity of the serial killer in time to prevent the next murder?

Killer Instinct has all the ingredients of a great story - an interesting plot with many twists, conflict between the major characters and a disturbingly creepy villain. There is a gentle love triangle that never overwhelms the overall storyline of the novel which is a group of teens helping their FBI mentors solve a series of murders. The gentle drama of the love story contrasts with the intensity of the hunt for the copycat killer.

Barnes further develops her main characters in this sequel, particularly Dean Redding, as we learn more about his disturbing relationship with his psychopathic father, Daniel, and come to discover that Dean keeps a tight rein on his emotions out of fear of losing it and becoming like his father. Each of the characters is involved in some kind of conflict, some more than others. There is the romantic tension between Dean, Michael and Cassie, conflict between Lia and Cassie who struggle to get along, and between Cassie and Sloane who wants to be included in the group. Cassie also struggles to get along with Veronica Sterling, who threatens to have a ankle monitor placed on her for disobeying orders.

One of the more fascinating conflicts in the story is that between Dean and his father. Dean is determined to prove he's not his father's son, but Daniel Redding is hoping to demonstrate otherwise and he tries very hard to provoke Dean. Their series of meetings gives Barnes the chance to demonstrate the character of an organized serial killer; Daniel is articulate, smooth and manipulating, but like many killers his ego gets in the way. Readers will particularly enjoy the psychological sparing between Agent Sterling who was a victim of Daniel Redding but who managed to escape and  and her revelation to Redding about what really happened and Dean's role in her escape.

Barnes ties in the plot in her previous novel, The Naturals to that in Killer Instincts, wrapping up the novel with a suspenseful ending that effectively ties together all the loose ends. Overall, Killer Instinct is an exciting, fast paced novel that fans of crime thrillers will enjoy.

Jennifer Lynn Barnes is a professor of psychology who has advanced degrees in psychology, psychiatry and cognitive science. 

Book Details:
Killer Instincts by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Los Angeles: Hyperion            2014
375 pp.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas

Tallgrass is a historical thriller set against the backdrop of World War II and the incarceration of Japanese Americans in internment camps during the war.


In the late summer of 1942, the Japanese came to the town of Ellis, Colorado, to the old Tallgrass Ranch, a mile and a half from town. Thirteen year old Rennie Stroud, like many of the locals, went to the Ellis train depot to see the arrival of the first Japanese to be detained at Tallgrass, now a detention camp. People of Japanese ancestry from all over California were being rounded up and incarcerated in camps like Tallgrass  and the townsfolk were not very happy about this. While some like Lum Smith "don't see nothing wrong with them", others like Mr. Rubey were convinced they are dangerous. But Rennie "expected them to look like the cartoons of Hirohito in the newspaper...was disappointed that they didn't appear to be a 'yellow peril' at all. They were so ordinary."

Rennie's father, Loyal Stroud arrived at the depot, disappointed that she had come to see "the Japs". He reminded her and the other townsfolk there to gawk,  that these people are "unlucky Americans". When's Rennie's father was approached by a reporter to comment on the "Japs" coming to Tallgrass, he declined, even though his friend Redhead Joe Lee who runs one of the drugstores in Ellis told him he should speak out so people will know some don't hate the Japanese.

Rennie and her parents live with her mother's mother, Granny on a sugar beet farm less than a mile from Ellis. Her older brother Buddy had been attending Colorado A and M in Fort Collins before he enlisted while her older sister Marthalice recently moved to Denver to work in an arms plant after graduating high school.Rennie's best friend is Betty Joyce Snow, whose parents run the hardware store.

When the government bought the old Tallgrass Ranch, the people of Ellis didn't think much about whether or not it was right or wrong to detain those of Japanese ancestry, many born in America and therefore citizens. Tallgrass was going to help the town of Ellis by providing jobs and customers to local businesses. But as the construction workers were drafted into the war, the partially constructed camp was left for the evacuees to finish building the barracks and the feelings about Tallgrass changed. Rennie's father was sad and troubled by what he saw when he visited Tallgrass; he finds the barracks are crowded, dusty and hot, the camp surrounded by bobwire and watchtowers manned by US troops. There is no hospital, no library and not much of a school.

But people in Ellis were not happy; Mr. Elliot who ran the other drugstore in town, put a sign in his store window mocking the Japanese saying "No Japs Served." Shortly afterwards the Elliot drugstore was robbed and later on the train trestle was set afire. Many townsfolk blamed the Japanese at Tallgrass.

To quell dissent and rumours, the government decided to hold a meeting about the camp. Mr. Halleck who ran the camp explained to the town about the security guards with rifles, but people complained about everything including the fact that the Tallgrass school has a science lab and that the food is better. With Buddy at army camp, Rennie and her family struggled to harvest their sugar beet crop. This leads Loyal Stroud to ask if he can hire the Japanese from Tallgrass to harvest his sugar beets. Mr. Gardner, another farmer, also wants to hire Japanese men for the harvest. But their efforts were thwarted by the prejudice of the Ellis townsfolk who considered Stroud's request "un-American".  Mr. Spano, whose son Danny had been released by the US Army after injuring his foot, wanted to know who will protect the women if the Japanese men go to work on the farms. In the end, the sugar beet harvest in 1942 was taken in by Mexican workers.

By the fall of 1942, the war in Europe and the Pacific was going poorly. This led to shortages of gasoline, farm equipment, clothing and food, although Rennie's family was luckier than most because they could grow their own food.  Rennie's mom went to visit Marthalice in Denver for two weeks because she wasn't feeling well and when she was better Marthalice moved out of Cousin Hazel's home and into her own room in an old mansion.

Over Christmas, Buddy arrived home on leave. During his time home, Buddy and Rennie experienced first hand the prejudice towards the Japanese by the people of Ellis. At the Lee Drugstore they met three young Japanese boys who sneaked out of Tallgrass. Buddy was kind towards the boys, but in doing so was mocked by Jack Beaner and his friend Pete.  They learn later from Sheriff Watrous,  that the Japanese boys were attacked by three men on their way back to the camp without the youngest being injured by a rock which was thrown by three men. Rennie is certain it was Beaner, Danny and Pete. Dad tells them that there have been many rock-throwing incidents. Dad and Buddy disagree on the whether the Japanese are truly American or still loyal to Japan. When Dad questions his son about whether or not he's concerned that the Japanese Americans have had their rights taken away, Buddy says "No, sire. They're not the only ones. Besides, their rights are only being suspended. Our boys who've been killed, now their rights are gone for good."

Then one night a huge snowstorm hits Ellis, the wind howling and pushing the snow through the slats in the house.The next morning, Sheriff Watrous stopped at the Stroud farm with devastating news: young Susan Reddick who had been slightly crippled after contracting polio was raped and murdered and left dead in a haystack outside the barn. Horrified at the brutal crime, Rennie's parents and the Sheriff consider possible suspects including local troublemaker, Beaner Jack and possibly the Japanese from Tallgrass. After a visit to Tallgrass Loyal and the Sheriff feel that the Japanese are not involved in the murder of little Susan.

When Rennie and her parents visited the Reddick's to comfort them, Rennie noticed details about Susan's bedroom. She questions Sheriff Watrous as to why Susan would have left the house during a blizzard instead of using her chamber pot.  This convinced Sheriff Watrous that someone entered the Reddick farmhouse and then killed Susan.

After the funeral and into February of 1943, Loyal Stroud hired three Japanese boys, Carl Tanaka, Emory Kuruma and Harry Hirano to help with the sugar beet planting. The boys are polite and hard workers and became like family to the Strouds. Soon after, Mr. Gardner also hired a Japanese crew.  But all of this merely made some in Ellis downright mean. The Strouds were ostracized; one of the quilters refused to meet at the Strouds, manure was put into the bed of their truck, a dead cat was hung on their farm gate and Rennie was bullied at school.

With the murder of Susan Reddick unsolved, the hatred towards the Japanese grows leading to more trouble and culminating in a deadly confrontation at the Stroud farm that uncovers a terrible family secret.

Discussion (some spoilers)

Tallgrass is a murder mystery set in the American Midwest during the Second World War. It touches on many themes including the nature of prejudice, identity, betrayal, forgiveness and family secrets, of which there are plenty in this novel. Although I enjoyed the beginning chapters of Tallgrass, the story of a community struggling to cope with the location of a Japanese internment camp on its doorstep is lost in the overwhelming drama that follows. This drama culminates in the terrible murder at the Stroud's farm and the shocking revelations that come to light. Up until and including the murder of Susan Reddick, the story was realistic and believable. After this point,  Dallas simply heaps on the drama, the rape of Daisy which is not revealed until the end of the novel but which readers will quickly surmise, the drama surrounding Betty Joyce and her morphine addicted father, Buddy missing in action in Europe, the death of Harry Hirano, and the health problems of Rennie Stroud's mother. Tallgrass is a novel that tries to do too much. The murder of Susan Reddick and how this affected the small community of Ellis in relation to the internment camp would have provided more than enough themes to explore. Instead the Sheriff seems completely lost when investigating the murder of Susan and is helped more than once by thirteen year old Rennie Stroud who seems to have more sense than the entire town of Ellis combined.

Despite this, Dallas has crafted several outstanding characters in Loyal Stroud and his daughter Rennie as well as Mary Stroud. Reminiscent of Atticus Finch and his daughter Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, Loyal is the honorable, tolerant man who stands up to the bigots in the town of Ellis, providing a fine example of charity towards others to his younger daughter whom he affectionately calls "Squirt".

Tallgrass is a coming of age story, in which Rennie starts the story as an innocent young girl who quickly comes to learn that life can be complicated. She learns first hand about hatred and prejudice just by watching how the people from Ellis react towards the Japanese who are so different from them.  From the beginning Rennie is able to put herself in the place of the evacuees at Tallgrass, wondering how she would feel if she were forced to move to a camp.
"...I suddenly felt sorry for the Japanese. What if the government had taken over our farm and sent us far away on the train, and nobody would tell us our destination"
Despite this, Rennie realizes that "...the people at Tallgrass were different from us, and they still scared me."

By the end of the novel Rennie is a fourteen year old girl who has witnessed a murder, had two of her best friends raped, learned of young men who were killed in the war and is trying to cope with a sick mother and a brother in a German POW camp. She learns that life is filled with betrayal, lies and the keeping of secrets. Her mother tells her about her sister's baby but Rennie is not allowed to speak about it.

Dallas excels at creating detailed settings, providing her readers with a true sense of prairie life during the war and the attitudes that prevailed at the time about who was a true, loyal American. Small town America's attitudes towards outsiders of any kind and those who didn't agree with them are also accurately portrayed.

Overall this was an exciting novel with plenty of drama and rich in detail about the rural town life in America. Readers won't learn much about World War II nor even about the Japanese internment, but they will learn how American's felt about their fellow Japanese citizens and how they were viewed as a security risk during the war.

Book Details:
Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas
New York: St. Martin's Press     2007
305 pp.