Thursday, April 21, 2016

Hold Tight. Don't Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner

Hold Tight Don't Let Go is a story about life in Haiti after the January 12, 2010 earthquake that devastated the impoverished island.

Fifteen year old Magdalie Jean-Baptiste lives with her manman and her cousin Nadine in the basement of Madame Faustin's home in the city of Port-au-Prince. Magdalie's manman is really her aunt who took her in at age three, when Magdalie's mother (manman's younger sister) died. Manman is a servant in Madame Faustin's home where she does the cooking, cleaning and shopping. Before the earthquake, manman took good care of Magdalie and Nadine. They were poor but they went to the Catholic school and were cleanly dressed.

When the earthquake begins, Magdalie is shelling pigeon peas under the tree in Madame Faustin's garden.Madame Faustin's house collapses killing Magdalie's manman who was working on the second floor. Magdalie, Nadine and Magdalie's uncle Tonton Elie survive the quake and are forced to live in a camp on the soccer field. Magdalie's life is now very difficult but even more so when Nadine's father who is a lawyer in Miami obtains a visa for her to travel to America.

Nadine leaves in November of 2010 for America. She promises Magdalie, "Mwen pap janm lage w. I'll never let you go." Nadine promises Magdalie she will bring her to Miami too. While anxiously waiting for Nadine to contact her, Magdalie lives in a tent camp with her uncle Tonton Elie who struggles to find work to support them. The cash-for-work programs have ended and the country now is in the midst of the cholera epidemic. Magdalie spends her time cleaning and sleeping and doesn't bother to find work because she believes she will soon be leaving for the United States.But as time passes will she ever make it to Miami and leave the horror and devastation of Haiti behind?

Discussion

Hold Tight Don't Let Go is a stark, honest telling of life in Haiti after the earthquake of 2010. Magdalie's life undergoes a major transformation after surviving the terrible earthquake that kills her manman. The changes in her life cause deep turmoil within her. In 2009 - year before the earthquake, Magdalie's diary entry reveals she's a girl who goes to school, follows the Brazil soccer team, and buys pink Tampicos with Nadou. She's good at history and writing. Her life is focused on everyday things such as watching her mother get up early to prepare meals for Mme. Faustin and helping her manman even though Mme. Faustin doesn't like her to do so. But now, a year after the earthquake, Magdalie's life is unrecognizable.  "I don't recognize myself. And I hate this; I hate it all. I want my life back. I want to worry about ordinary things like algebra and French dictees again. I want everyone back and whole and alive."

For Magdalie, "ordinary life is now like a bad parody of ordinary life before the earthquake." She has little motivation to do much of anything. She can't attend school as her Tonton Elie has no money and she is alone. Wagner vividly portrays Magdalie's precarious situation and how much her life had changes. "I am alone, I am alone, I am alone. If I fall, there will be no one to catch me. I am responsible for myself. I have to be an adult now. No more birthdays...My old life feels like a film I saw while half asleep."

Magdalie finds herself growing angrier and angrier at her situation which she is helpless to change.
Magdalie decides to try to make extra money by selling water so she can leave the camp, leave Port-au-Prince and leave Haiti to go to Miami. But borrowing money from Nadou's friend, Jimmy ends in disaster when she is robbed on the taptap (bus). Her inability to accept the reality of her situation leads to Magdalie becoming increasingly angry at the injustice of her situation, the poverty in the capital and how it changes people. "We are all turning against one another in this country, where the hungry steal from the hungry, the poor persecute the poor. We, the poor, on the streets, visible and exposed, with no walls or windshields to keep us safe. Everyone devours us, including and most of all ourselves."

Magdalie's inability to help herself, the realization that Nadine is not going to send for her to come to Miami and a white photographer's insensitivity of the true situation in Haiti cause Magdalie to lash out. Concerned her tonton takes her to a manbo, Manman Niniz, a vodou priestess who performs a ceremony to release the anger Magdalie has. Magdalie wonders "if God has forgotten us."  "The anger boils inside of me. The earthquake broke open all the sadness in my heart, and I could only patch it up again with hardness. I took my fear  and my sadness and turned them into hate, because it made me feel strong instead of weak."  The ritual Magdalie goes through with Manman Niniz provides Magdalie the opportunity to grieve over the loss of her manman, the loss of her life and Nadine's departure.

Magdalie's trip to Jeremie further helps her to begin to come to terms with her life as it is now and the loss of her manman. After nine days of ritual mourning and the promise of a blossoming romance with a boy her age, Magdalie begins to recover from her sadness and her anger. She leaves the mountain village with a fresh determination to return to school. "I am filled with hope and fear, because I want so much for my furture, and I don't know how I will do it, but I know I must." Magdalie represents all those young women living in impoverished countries who dream of a better life but who have little opportunity to fulfill their dreams. In Magdalie's case, fate intervenes in an encounter with Mme. Faustin whom Magdalie admonishes.

Wagner has crafted a realistic character in Magdalie whose reactions to her experiences feel authentic. Mackenson is the calm gentle foil to Magdalie's intense emotional character. Readers will find many interesting descriptions of Haitian culture and ritual surrounding death and the spiritual life. The sense of family where relatives care for those less fortunate is well portrayed.

Although the beautifully colourful cover of Hold Tight Don't Let Go suggests that this novel might be for younger teens, the realistic portrayal of life in Port-au-Prince with many references to sexual acts, prostitution and male genitalia make this a novel for older teens. Wagner provides a brief history of Haiti at the back of the novel as well as a glossary on Haitian Creole, the language spoken in Haiti.

Book Details:

Hold Tight Don't Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner
New York: Amulet Books   2015
263 pp.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

Bracken's latest novel, Passenger is historical fantasy that focuses on time travel. What if you belonged to a family with the ability to travel through time? What if you never knew this and ...

Seventeen-year-old Henrietta (Etta) Spencer is an aspiring violinist. Etta will be performing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto at Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic this evening. Etta's debut had been delayed for years by her instructor, ninety-four year old Alice because of crippling stage fright. But in the past three years, Etta's stage fright diminished and she is anxious to start her solo career. Etta dropped everything else including her boyfriend Pierce to focus on her debut.

Etta's mom Rose is a mysterious woman who hasn't told her daughter much about her life. Etta knows her mother has travelled to Cambodia when she was eighteen and studied at the Sorbonne. She doesn't know her father.

At the concert hall while Etta prepares, Alice tells her she has an errand to do and quickly leaves. Etta will be performing on the Antonius, one of several Stradivarius violins in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts collection. When Alice doesn't return, Etta becomes anxious and sets out to find her.Unable to locate her  Etta decides to check the conservation wing where her mother has her office. Outside the office Etta hears Alice and her mother arguing, seemingly about whether Etta is ready to perform. Alice states that Etta is not ready for this but her mother believes she can handle it. Furious at what she's hearing,  Etta barges in and insists she will perform tonight. However, when she steps onto the stage  in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium to perform minutes later, Etta hears a terrible feedback noise and must be led offstage. One of the other prospective performers, a dark-haired girl named Sophia helps her out of the backstage area and into the Egyptian wing of the museum. Sophia leads her closer and closer to the source of the feedback. The two discover Alice shot and dying from a chest wound as they are approached by three men in tuxedos.  The next thing Etta knows, Sophia shoves her towards the high pitched sound and she finds herself waking up on board a ship being attacked by another.

Etta discovers that she is a prisoner on a ship, the Ardent, a British merchant ship which has just been disabled and boarded by the crew of a privateer, the Challenger, captained by Nathaniel Hall. The Challenger was authorized to act as a privateer and to legally hunt British ships. Nicholas Carter, a black man who is Hall's second-in-command, has been working the past three years for Lowe & Lowe Shipping traveling from the West Indies to the American colonies when he was approached by Cyrus Ironwood to intercept the Ardent and take the two women on board to New York City by September 21. Etta knows nothing of this at this time and when she awakes on the ship, she rushes on deck just as the battle for the Ardent has ended, terrified and confused. Nicholas and Captain Hall explain to Etta about the capture of the Ardent just as Sophia comes on deck. Sophia tells Captain Hall (who knows nothing of Nicholas's mission) that she and Etta are the Spencer sisters. Her familiar and rude way with Nicholas make Etta realize that the two know each other. With Nicholas now in command of the Ardent and Captain Hall returned to his own ship, Nicholas explains his mission to Sophia and Etta.

Alone in their quarters, Etta demands to know who Sophia is and an explanation of how she came to be on the ship. Sophia tells Etta that she has "traveled" to the eighteenth century and that Etta belongs to one of several families who have the ability to travel through time. This ability has been inherited from one of her parents, likely her mother Rose. Etta realizes that the argument she overheard at the Met was not about her musical debut but about whether or not she was ready to time travel. Sophia tells Etta that her mother's name is Rose Linden, that she had the ability to time travel and simply disappeared one day.

Sophia explains that their ancestors were able to take advantage of "tears in the fabric of time, pass through holes to emerge in a different era...They're like the natural crevices - fissures - you find around the world. The passages have always existed, and our families have always been able to find and use them." The passages could lead from Egypt in the time of the pharaohs to medieval Paris. Considering this, Etta believes her mother wanted her to know about her unique abilities and for her to travel.

Sophia tells Etta that she was born in 1910 Philadelphia, She explains to Etta that they traveled through a passage but when they arrived in this time Etta became unconscious. The only ship Sophia could gain passage on was bound for England so Cyrus Ironwood hired Nicholas and Captain Hall to capture the Ardent and take it to New York where they will meet him. Sophia reveals that Ironwood has used travelers to manipulate time to secure the Ironwood fortune and bring the other traveler families under his control. Grandfather has chosen 1776 as the year where he is based and where all travelers must travel from. There are less than one hundred travelers now. When they travel they observe the norms of each era, something Etta finds difficult when she attends dinner that night and experiences the racism towards blacks typical of the late eighteenth century.

Etta realizes that Sophia knows Nicholas Carter because he is also a traveler. As the illegitimate son of Cyrus's son Augustus, he has inherited the ability to travel. In conversation with Nicholas, Etta learns that Rose Linden was "the only traveler to successfully outwit Ironwood", stealing something of his and disappearing. Nicholas tells her that Rose broke the heart of Augustus Ironwood, Cyrus Ironwood's heir. Nicholas promises to help Etta if in fact she is being used in some way to harm Rose. Etta and Sophia are escorted to New York City after they come ashore near Oyster Bay, off Long Island Sound.They are taken to the Dove Tavern opposite the Royal Artillery Park where they meet Cyrus Ironwood, Sophia's grandfather.

Cyrus tells Etta that he met her mother while they were sightseeing in Renaissance Italy. He arranged for her to marry his son Augustus but she disappeared suddenly seventeen years ago. Cyrus shows Etta her mother's travel journal which travelers keep to avoid crossing paths with themselves in another time. He also shows her a letter written by Virgil Ironwood to his brother Augustus about a new passage in Nassau, Bahamas that put him in Manhattan 2015 as they hunt for the item Cyrus is after. In Manhattan 2015 Virgil discovers Henrietta Spencer who looks just like her mother (the missing) Rose Linden. Virgil is happy to see them well settled. Both Virgil and Augustus were dead within the year. Cyrus tells Etta that he needs her to steal back what her mother stole from him.

Cyrus reveals that through the influence of his agents, Etta was asked to perform at the museum as a way to trick her into traveling back to his time. Sophia was sent to determine if Etta was able to sense the time passage and was therefore a traveler. Cyrus believes that Etta's mother Rose Linden stole an astrolabe which belonged to his ancestors. His search through various eras has proved fruitless and cost him his direct heirs.Rose claimed it belonged to the Linden family but Cyrus insists it does not. The astrolabe is special because "it can examine a passage and inform the bearer of the destination and time period on the other side..." Cyrus tells her he wants it to protect travelers who are fewer now and who risk their lives using uncharted passages. He tells Etta he has been searching for some time and has lost two sons, Augustus and Wilbur and a grandson, Julian in his attempt to track it down. He also gives Etta a letter an agent found in their home that was written by Rose to Etta in a special code. He wants her to decipher the letter because he believes it holds clues to the location of the astrolabe. Cyrus gives Etta until Sept 30 to locate the astrolobe.

Although Etta recognizes the code, she hides this from Cyrus who tells her she will decipher it before beginning her search. She agrees to help Cyrus believing if she can find the astrolabe she will be able to find her mother and save Alice. To ensure that Etta does not trick him, Cyrus pressures Nicholas into accompanying Etta on her search in exchange for revoking the ban on his traveling and giving Nicholas all of his plantation holdings in 1776. But will Etta be able to outwit Cyrus at his own game long enough to save her life and all that she holds dear?

Discussion

Alexandra Bracken's novels are characterized by complicated storylines and Passenger is no different. The main storyline is gradually revealed against the backdrop of 1776 Manhattan and Etta Spencer's abrupt encounter with Nicholas who is of mixed white/black race.

Bracken reveals much of the backstory in bits and pieces throughout the novel. And that backstory is complicated, so much so that it is unlikely readers will remember all the details when the next novel is published. So here is a basic summary that will contain spoilers.

There were four families, the Ironwood, Jacaranda, Linden and Hemlock families who were time travelers. Although at first these families worked together much like clans with each having its role. as record keepers, financiers and shifters who checked the stability of the time passages. Eventually there was a falling out. Cyrus Ironwood's first wife, Minerva was murdered by Roman Jacaranda after Cyrus was implicated in a conspiracy to gain control of the travelers. This started a war between the four families. Cyrus eliminated almost all of the other families and became the Grand Master. Rose and her grandfather were the last Lindens and they preferred to stay out of the fray. Rose became part of a group call refugees - people without a home when their timeline was changed. While the remnants of the Jacaranda and Hemlock families joined with the Ironwoods, some became "Thorns" people who are trying to restore their futures.

Initially each of the four families had an astrolabe. Three were lost or destroyed. When Rose disappeared so did the remaining astrolobe. Although Cyrus tells Etta that it is his, Alice in the 1940 era tells Etta and Nicholas it belongs to the Linden family. She also tells them that the astrolabe can create new passages and is therefore much more powerful than Cyrus has led them to believe. It could give whoever possesses it, the ability to control time. The Thorns want it so they can create passages to the past in an attempt to return to the original timeline.

Cyrus married Minerva but hid her in the past for her own safety. Her location was discovered by the other families who waited for a year when there was no direct passage and then murdered her. This meant that Cyrus had no way of preventing her murder. Cyrus's second wife produced two sons, Wilbur and Augustus. Augustus was intending to marry  Rose when she suddenly disappeared.  Augustus spent years searching for her and became increasingly troubled. He raped the Ironwood family slave and fathered Nicholas in 1757. Captain Hall and his wife, now part of the Ironwood family, purchased Nicholas and his life improved greatly from that point on.

With the hunt on for the last astrolabe, Cyrus having lost Wilbur and Augustus, sent his grandson Julian along with Nicholas to search. When Cyrus almost located the astrolobe, Rose moved it and hid it. She and Professor Linden did not destroy it.Rose believed that one day Cyrus would likely come close again to finding the astrolobe and she wrote a coded letter to Etta. From her childhood, Etta was taught the coding system used in the letter so when Cyrus shows her the letter Etta is able to decipher it. She believes that the first clue is a passage near the Elgin Marbles.

Terrace of the Elephants Angkor Thom

As Etta and Nicholas search for the astrolobe they travel from 1940 London and the Blitz where they encounter a young Alice to the lush Cambodian jungle and the ruins of Angkor Wat. From 1880 Paris and the gorgeous Medici Fountain to the blowing sands of Damascus, Etta and Nicholas struggle to follow the clues Rose has laid out to find the hidden astrolabe.But they soon discover that they are being pursued by two men whose identities are not known.

Set against Etta and Nicholas's hunt for the missing astrolobe is their blossoming romance. In Nicholas's natural time of 1776, such a romance is forbidden by law but as they travel through various eras their relationship deepens quickly. This sets up an intense conflict for Nicholas. He has signed a contract with Cyrus to bring back the astrolobe in exchange for his freedom. But gradually he feels the temptation to leave his natural time and be with Etta who treats him as a partner rather than as a servant.
"Could he kiss her, knowing that he was on the verge of betraying her and ensuring that the astrolabe got back to Ironwood?
Could he kiss her, knowing that she must return to her time and he must remain in his? The vilification they would face if she were to come with him back to his time, and they were unable to deal with the cruel laws of the colonies..."
Etta begins to have what Nicholas believes is a "dangerous" effect on him leading him to think about things he's buried for some time: to leave his era and to keep the astrolabe and travel with Etta to different centuries until they were safe. Gradually his thinking changes.  "...he felt the touch of a changing wind blowing through him, pushing him toward a different path. All of these things he desired, he could have; if not on a ship, then by seeking out the passages that could carry him where he wanted to go. And he would her: the lady with whom he wished to travel."

Etta too becomes conflicted over their blossoming relationship. She believes part of the attraction is that their relationship seems impossible because they are from two different eras. Etta also struggles with the morality of time travel. When they arrive at her mother's room in Damascus she and Nicholas discover  a huge collection of relics from different eras. Etta asks, "...Is there a point to it, other than to amuse themselves?..." Etta questions why the passages were made and believes their original function has been corrupted.

Medici Fountain  built by Marie de Medici
Passenger is an intriguing read but it sometimes gets bogged down in its own story. There's simply so much detail about the time travelers it's hard to keep track of all the information. However on the positive side, the story itself is very interesting and engages the reader from the beginning. Etta, finding herself in a very different world from her natural time, never seems to blink. She's determined to return to her time, continue on with her performance career and to save her beloved Alice. Bracken could have left out the sometimes lengthy descriptive romance passages which divert from the storyline.

Passenger is huge novel, just short of 500 pages but fans of fantasy and adventure who love a large dose of romance will enjoy this latest offering by Bracken.

Book Details:

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken
Los Angeles: Hyperion    2016
486 pp.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

"I have depression, I say to myself. Saying 'I am depressed' makes it sound like that's all that I am. But that's not all that I am. I have depression, but I am not just depressed. Maybe the night I tried to kill myself, that's all I was. Depression took over and became my all. But I'm a good worker at the right job. I like to write. I'm a friend. I have memories and ...hopes?"

The Memory of Light is an intensely honest and touching novel about a young girl's journey towards healing after a suicide attempt. The novel is all the more profound because author Francisco Stork writes that when he was a young man he too attempted suicide.

Sixteen year old Victoria (Vicky) Cruz wakes up in a room in Lakeview Hospital. She vaguely remembers being in the emergency room having her stomach pumped after overdosing on sleeping pills. Dr. Lina Desai tells Vicky that Juanita Alvarez found her and called 911. Vicky tells her that Juanita has been her nanny since she her birth but that she is being sent back to Mexico because of her arthritis. At the suggestion of Dr. Desai, Vicky calls Juanita who is overjoyed to hear from her. She tells Vicky her cat, Galileo's frantic meows are what alerted her that something was wrong. Juanita in trying to understand asks Vicky many questions to which she has no answers. Juanita tenderly tells Vicky she will not return to Mexico until she comes home.

After the telephone call, Dr. Desai tells Vicky she is going to recommend to her father and stepmother that she stay at Lakeview for a few more weeks to attend daily group therapy,  to meet with her and to allow the thoughts of killing herself to quiet down.

At Lakeview, Vicky's roommate is Domonique (Mona) Salas. Mona is welcoming towards Vicky and tells her briefly about the other two people, E.M who is in for beating up people including his father and Gabriel, who are part of the Group Therapy Healing sessions. Vicky meets them at lunch with Mona and finds their discussion of suicide to be honest and real. E.M., muscular and tattooed, states that he believes suicide is an act of cowardice. Gabriel insists that "a person who kills himself can be ill. When you're ill, you can't deal with problems the way healthy people can. No being able to have courage and hope is the illness." Vicky realizes that with these three fragile people she doesn't have to pretend.

The next morning Vicky's father and stepmother arrive to take her home. They plan to have her return to school immediately while she goes to see Dr. Sanez, reputedly the "best young people's psychiatrist in Austin." However, Vicky tells her father she does not want to return home that "If I go back now, it will be like before." Dr. Desai explains to Vicky's parents that a new environment for a few weeks will help her to consider the type of thinking that led to her suicide attempt. Despite his anger and disappointment, Vicky's father agrees to her stay.

As her stay at Lakeview continues, Vicky finds her thoughts of suicide become less prominent as she has daily sessions with Dr. Desai and the GTH group. During one session Dr. Desai asks them to talk about their fathers. Gabriel who doesn't know his father talks about his grandfather who is seventy-four and works as a gardener. His grandmother has an unknown mental illness. When his mother died it affected his grandfather deeply and he had a heart attack. He quit school to help his grandfather so they can take care of his grandmother. E.M. won't talk about his father so Mona tells the group about her family. She also doesn't know her father but must cope with her stepfather and her mother both of whom are addicts. The only good thing in her life is her little stepsister Lucy who was taken away by social workers and placed in a foster home. Mona is desperate to find Lucy.

Unlike the others, Vicky comes from a well to do family. Her father inherited his father's brick making factory and grew his own business from there. Vicky's father invests in rundown buildings which he restores and sells for profit. Six months after her mother died, Vicky's father married his office assistant, Barbara. Vicky talks about her mother at the request of Dr. Desai and tells them that her mother was beautiful, loved Spanish and Latin poetry and loved to play Scrabble. But when Vicky was eight she got breast cancer and died two years later. She spent the last three months of her illness in bed. Vicky's nanny, Juanita brought her meals while Vicky spent time reading to her beloved mother.

After hearing about Vicky, Mona tells the group that she believes Vicky is still sad over her mother's death. In response to Mona's statement about feeling sad over her mother's death, Vicky tells them she feels numb. As the group discusses the sadness Vicky and Gabriel felt after their mothers' death, Mona suggests that Vicky is suffering from depression. It is something Vicky has not considered and it is the first step that she takes towards healing. As the group continues to meet, they grow closer and begin to help one another towards self-acceptance and healing. E.M, Mona and Gabriel each give Vicky a tool to help her cope with life and in return Vicky saves each of their lives.

Discussion

The Memory of Light is simply an amazing book, so well written because it's obvious the subject matter, depression and suicide, are close to the author's heart. And because it is a very honest and forthright treatment of depression and suicide. The novel traces Vicky's fragile journey towards healing from depression and suicide and towards learning to find the strength and joy to live again. This journey is portrayed in a realistic and very informative way to young readers so they can have some understanding about depression and see how Vicky journeys towards healing.

At the beginning of the novel, in hospital after her suicide attempt and during her meeting with Dr. Desai, Vicky lacks hope, believing that another suicide attempt is inevitable. "I want to tell her that she's right, that I'm going to try again. Sooner or later, the days, hours, minutes, and seconds of my life will slowly choke me until I feel like the only way to breathe is to die. All the group therapy meetings or private session full of talking or comfortable silences are not going to stop me."

Vicki begins to gain insight into what happened to her when the Therapy Group Healing talks about their families in-depth and Vicky talks about her mama's death from breast cancer. Mona tells Vicky that she believes she is still grieving over her mother's death. "What you were trying to say is that it's normal to feel sad for a while after your mom dies, but it's not normal to feel numb and empty like you did six months after your mom died or like Vicky feels now, which is not normal sadness but clinical depression..." This comes as surprise to Vicky because up until this time depression was only a word. But now it's "a heavy, thick fog, yellow and pale purple, the color of a bruise, that fills up a room with no windows, no air, no light."

This leads Vicky to research depression and to develop an interesting analogy of minerelves who live and work in the tunnels of her brain. Both her sessions with Dr. Desai and her daily contact with the other group members help Vicky to process what happened to her. With deft skill Dr. Desai begins to explore the time leading up to her suicide and what led her to finally move on to killing herself. They explore her father's expectations for her and how these expectations have affected how she feels about herself and her family. Dr. Desai uses the story of the monkey who refuses to let go of the mango and is captured, to tell Vicky that we all have mangoes we are holding onto. "The mango is a view of reality that is not true, a story about ourselves or about our world that causes us pain and keeps us from being open to life as it is." Vicky believes her mango is that she pretends.

The interactions between Mona, Gabriel, E.M. and Vicky demonstrate how the group begins to help one another but the focus is on the main character, Vicky who learns ways to understand herself and her mental illness. Each of the characters in the story impart some wisdom from their young lives that help Vicky move towards healing. For example, Mona tells her to be honest with herself and to make an inventory of her "uglies". "Don't lie to yourself about how you really feel about things or people or yourself." Gabriel helps Vicky to see that the things that make life good and worth living are the "green things" like roses and writing. E.M. encourages her to be brave and work around the "rocks" or obstacles that might be people such as her controlling father.

When the two weeks are up, Vicky finds the strength to confront her parents about going to Dr. Desai's ranch in spite of her father's derogatory attitude towards her fellow patients and his insistence that she try to salvage her academic year so she can attend college. He seems unable to process that his daughter tried to kill herself only two weeks earlier. But part of Vicky's journey is that she now has identified her problem and knows what she needs in order to get well.  "This dark thing, I now know, is my depression. It is something I need to get to know, understand, tame if possible, but I don't quite have the strength or knowledge to handle it yet. It has gone into hiding these past few days because I had help --- it's been five against one."

Ultimately Vicky begins to have hope for the future. It is this hope that allows her to act "as if life were worth living" when a rafting trip on the Natchez River on Dr. Desai's ranch proves disastrous. This hope also leads to Vicky beginning to want things in her life again - a sign that living is taking precedence over suicidal thoughts. And she moves from thinking to acting on those wants, helping Gabriel when he goes into a mental health crisis, finding a home for her beloved Juanita and rescuing Mona from a deadly situation. More comfortable with reaching out when she needs to, when Vicky faces her own crisis, a return to home and school, she finds support in her sister Becca and her voice to place her own care and what she believes best for herself, first. She even has to courage to confront her father when he refuses to take her to Lakeview to see Gabriel.

We also see a gradual shift in how Vicky views herself. When she enters treatment Vicky tells Dr. Desai that she's lazy an doesn't care about anything. She doesn't realize she's viewing herself through the lens of depression. By the end of the novel Vicky has a more positive view of herself as for example when she thinks "I'm a good worker at the right job."

One of the strongest metaphors in the novel is that of light which is part of the title. Dr Desai helps Vicky put her depressive thoughts into perspective by encouraging her to view herself as the sun. "Thoughts are clouds, Vicky. They are not you. The cloud of wanting to die disappears, and if you don't grab it, it will eventually float away. The cloud that says 'I'm lazy and a coward and a phony to boot' floats before you, and you can calmly watch it come and go. You are not the clouds or even the blue sky where clouds live. You are the sun behind them, giving light to all, and the sun is made up of goodness and kindness and life."

E.M furthers this imagery when he talks to Vicky about how he uses Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, to help him be brave in his difficult life.
"...Huichi is about being brave. About not being defeated by anybody or anything. Rising up every day and doing what you gotta do. Shining your light so that people and things around you can live."

Eventually Vicky finds her own Huichi, and that is her mama. In a poem about her mother Vicky writes,
"You hardly see me in the sun
My sparkle's in the stars
When all is dark around you,
I'm the memory of light."

One of the strengths of Stork's novel is the presentation of some of the realities and issues surrounding mental health issues. Stork tackles the image of mental illness head on and Vicky's father is the prime mouthpiece for these views. He doesn't want her to remain at Lakeview and is quite blunt about how he views the people at the hospital's fifth floor. "This is a public hospital. They take all kinds of deranged people. You don't belong here." and later on when Vicky advocates for living at Dr. Desai's ranch, "I don't like you being surrounded by sick people, by...patients in a psychiatric ward." These are statements that would never be made to a loved one if the ailment were physical. The novel also realistically portrays some of the realities people confront when dealing with mental health issues. For example, Mona who has been diagnosed as bipolar stops taking her medication, believing it is working against her.

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Stork never overwhelms his readers. Although the novel often contains detailed information about mental illness, Stork lightens the mood frequently with humorous dialogue and situations. This is especially seen in the intereactions between Mona and E.M. and also when E.M and Vicky's father meet in the parking lot of RC Cruz.

The Memory of Light is populated by a varied cast of characters ranging from the infuriating Miguel Cruz (Vicky's father) to the tough softie E.M., sensitive Gabriel, and the gentle caring Dr. Desai. Even the secondary characters stand out.

Stork on his website writes, "I have faith in the goodness and value of my books. In the case of The Memory of Light, I have faith in the ability of the book to give hope to those suffering from depression and to re-affirm the joy of hope in those who are well. The story of Vicky’s recovery from depression and suicide attempt is a story of hope and of how hope comes to a person’s anguished soul."

The Memory of Light is a brilliant novel that accomplishes what Francisco Stork intended. There are plenty of themes to explore besides the ones mentioned in this post. Well worth reading and highly recommended to teens who want a young adult novel with substance.

Book Details:

The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork
New York: Arthur A. Levine Books 2016
325 pp.



Saturday, April 2, 2016

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

It's September 16, 1890  and seventeen year old Josephine (Jo) Montford, a senior at Miss Sparkwell's School for Young Ladies is worried about the piece she's written for the school newspaper,  the Jonquil.  At teatime, she asks her friend Gertrude (Trudy) Van Eyck to look over the story which is an expose on the abuse of girl laborers at Fenton's Textile Mill. Trudy warns her not to hand in the story to Miss Sparkwell as she will be given detention for a week. When Jo compares herself to reporter Nellie Bly, Trudy reminds Jo that she is a Montfort and therefore expected to marry young and well and that her intended Mr. Abraham Aldrich will not want his future wife to know the real world.

Now editor of the Jonquil, Jo tells Trudy that she wants to inform readers and "draw back the veil that hides the injustices that surround us". Jo believes that the girls in the mill are very unfortunate because no one knows about their plight but Trudy believes they are worse off because they are not yet engaged yet and therefore must preserve their reputations. Trudy tells Jo that her way around this is to marry Mr. Gilbert Grosvenor early and then to do as she pleases even if it means having to give away her body to a man she doesn't love.

Jo is called to Miss Sparkwell's office. Expecting to be admonished about her news article instead Jo is told by Mr. Abraham (Bram) Aldrich and his sister Adelaide (Addie) that her father has been killed in an accident. He was cleaning his revolver when it went off. Jo is devastated but manages to gather her personal belongings from her dormitory room and accompany Bram and Addie back home. At Charles Montfort's funeral luncheon, Mrs. Cornelius  G. Aldrich, Bram's grandmother complains about the delay in Bram's engagement to Jo due to the death of her father. Jo and Bram's families have long expected them to marry, however, an engagement must now be delayed.

Jo cannot believe her father was killed cleaning his gun, given that he was always cautious and an experienced sportsman. In his study, Jo finds a bullet behind the long draperies at the bay window. She notes the bullet has the letters W.R.A. Co. .38 Long on the bottom. Jo remembers her father standing at the window of his study as if he was waiting for someone, his face often having a haunted look.

Jo is tasked with taking a bequest to Arnold Stoatman, editor of the city newspaper, the Standard. Jo's father owned several lumber mills, a rope company and was a partner in Van Houten shipping along with six other men. The Montforts also own the Standard which used to be a shipping newspaper. However, while waiting to meet Stoatman, Jo overhears reporters talking about various stories including her father's death. One of the reporters, a handsome man by the name of Eddie Gallagher states that he knows Charles Montfort killed himself and that the police were paid to state it was an accident. After seeing Mr. Stoatman, Jo is taken home by Eddie whom she confronts about what he said regarding her father's death. Eddie tells Jo that her father's bullet wound is consistent with suicide and that his gun was found in his right hand. He reveals that the police captain and the coroner were bribed to record the death as accidental so as to avoid scandal. That night Jo returns to her father's study but when their butler Theakston unexpectedly enters the room, she must hide under her father's desk. This leads to Jo inadvertently discovering her father's agenda in a hidden compartment in the floorboards under the desk. The agenda is filled with one thousand dollars in cash and mysterious entries about meeting someone named Kinch at the Van Houten's Wharf as well as an unknown Eleanor Owens b. 1874. Jo wonders if Eleanor Owens might be her father's mistress, although she is sure he is a good, upstanding man. Before leaving her father's study Jo notices a man who seems to have a dirty face watching the window of the study.

Having many questions and no answers, Jo decides to talk to her father's brother and a partner in Van Houten, her Uncle Phillip. Phillip is angry at Jo for visiting the Standard but he confirms that her father did kill himself. When she shows Phillip her father's agenda he states that the names and dates mean nothing to him, although he attempts to have Jo give up the agenda to him. Phillip refuses to answer most of Jo's questions and warns her that he has worked hard to protect her reputation by keeping the truth of her father's death out of the newspapers so that she can marry well. Jo is not put off however and decides to pay Eddie a visit at his lodging at 23 Reade Street. Eddie is on his way to the morgue so Jo decides to accompany him. At the morgue Eddie introduces Jo as Josie Jones a new reporter to Oscar Rubin a medical student who works nights at the morgue. Oscar who is interested in forensic medicine tells Jo that her father, Charles Montfort was murdered. Oscar was there with his boss, Dr. Koehler who immediately ruled the death a suicide. However Oscar's examination of the death scene suggested that Charles was shot in the head. Oscar told Koehler later on but he did not agree with Oscar's theories.

Jo wants to go to the police but  Eddie convinces her she needs solid evidence because the police in New York are often paid off. Eddie offers to help Jo get the proof she needs in exchange for a good story he needs to establish himself as a crack reporter. Eddie warns Jo that the truth about her father and her family may not be what she wants to know. He indicates that what they really need to answer is who did Charles Montfort anger enough that he was killed. As Jo and Eddie follow one lead after another, the deaths mount and the danger increases. As the shocking truth is revealed, Jo must choose between her family and the truth.


Discussion

These Shallow Graves is a murder mystery set in the City of New York during the years 1890 to 1891. In the late 19th century, young women, whether they were rich or poor, were rarely able to escape the social class they were born into. The main character, Jo Montfort belongs to a family with "old wealth". She lives in a beautiful mansion at Gramercy Square with servants, attends lavish balls and has beautiful gowns made to order. Her family has an Adirondack estate and she spends her summers in Newport. However, like most wealthy young women of this era, Jo is expected to marry well and have a family to ensure the family wealth is passed on to the next generation. It was only when married that young women finally have some freedom to indulge in their passions. Jo is rebelling against these expectations. Her friend Trudy warns her "You know the rules: get yourself hitched, then do what you like. But for heaven's sake, until you get the man, smile like a dolt and talk about tulips, not mill girls!" Her family expects her to accept Bram Aldrich's marriage proposal expected any day. And to give up her dreams. "Well-bred girls from old families came out, got engaged, and then went back -- back to drawing rooms, dinner parties, and dances. They did not venture into the dangerous, dirty world to become reporters, or anything else." Jo questions why "boys get to do things and be things and girls only get to watch?" Gradually Jo finds a way to "do things" that only men can do.

In order to investigate her father's murder, Jo must secretly slip out of her proper world so as to avoid scandal. She breaks almost every rule of decorum in almost every way; she is out of her house late at night both alone and in the company of a man, she goes to the morgue, to a brothel, to a den of thieves, to the docks and to Eddie's room. She even breaks the law by digging up a corpse. However, despite longing for the freedoms men have, Jo experiences fear and conflict because if discovered, she will ruin her reputation and her future. She tells Fay, a young pickpocket who is trapped in a life of poverty and crime, "I wish I'd never gone to the Standard and never overheard him talking. That's how I found out about my father, you know. Ever since that day, I've been doing things I never thought I'd do. And most of them aren't good. I keep stepping out of my world, going farther away from everything and everyone I know. I'm scared, Fay. Scared I'll go too far one day and I won't be able to find my way back."

When Jo brings her concerns to Uncle Phillip he makes her feel ashamed. "Her uncle's words, she knew, were intended to make her feel ashamed of herself. That was what people did when they wanted to stop a girl from doing something -- they shamed her.
Don't fill your plate; it's greedy. Don't wear bright colors; you'll look fast. Don't ask so many questions; people will think you bold."

Later on Trudy and Jo discuss marrying a man they do not love. Trudy considers marriage a business transaction: she is willing to trade her beauty and freedom for money and a comfortable life. Jo wonders what their lives would be like if they had their own money. "What if we were the the ones with jobs and bank accounts and investments? Can you imagine how different things would be?"

Despite being in mourning, Jo is to attend the Young Patron's Ball. Before her father's death and her meeting Eddie, Jo was looking forward to the ball. However now Jo wants to avoid the ball because it will be the lead up to Bram's marriage proposal which she does not want to accept. The ball symbolizes Jo's privileged but scripted life. "Everything was lovely and perfect as long as each person knew the steps and executed them. The women must only ever watch and wait. The men were the ones who would decide. They would choose. They would lead. And the women would follow. Tonight and forever more."

Jo experiences deep conflict over her feelings for Eddie and her desire to escape the expectations of her family and her upper class society. While Bram represents a life she does not want, Jo recognizes he's a good man. "He was a solid, honorable man who would always take care of her and make sure she lacked nothing." But Jo know Bram will never allow her to pursue a writing career nor give her the freedoms she wants. She also believes he will never love her with the same passion as Eddie has shown.

Jo accepts Bram's marriage proposal because she mistakenly believes Eddie isn't interested. However, when Madam Esther tells Jo she is no different than the prostitutes who work for her, Jo realizes that her marriage proposal is more like a business transaction. "And suddenly Jo saw her engagement to Bram for what it was: a business deal, and she was the commodity that had been traded. She didn't love Bram. And he didn't love her. He cared for her in his way, as she did for him. But it wasn't love. It wasn't what she felt for Eddie." Jo decides she will tell her mother she cannot go through with the marriage. She backs down when her mother learns that Charles Montfort was murdered.

In the end, circumstances free Jo from marrying Bram and the collapse of her family's social status allow her the possibility to make her own choices in life and love. It should be noted that not all wealthy young women felt the constraints Jo Montfort did. Many used their wealth and position in society to help others. However, breaking free from their families expectations often meant losing everything as the character Sarah Stein demonstrates. Sarah, who is a friend of Oscar Rubin was disowned by her father when she decided to attend medical school.

In Jo Montfort, Donnelly has created a strong, intelligent female character who demonstrates persistence and courage to discover the truth and to live her own life. Donnelly portrays the restrictive lives of women, both poor and wealthy in the era known as the Guilded Age. These Shallow Graves is populated with many interesting secondary characters.

Readers will likely guess who is responsible for the murder of Charles Montfort early on, but this won't affect their enjoyment of seeing how the story line progresses. Some of the twists feel a bit contrived but they do allow the author to tie up all the lose ends. Overall, These Shallow Graves is another outstanding novel from Jennifer Donnelly but is recommended for older teens.



Book Details:

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly
New York: Delacorte Press    2015
482 pp.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Listen To The Moon by Michael Morpurgo

Fourteen year old Alfie Wheatcroft and his family live in Veronica Farm on the island of Bryher one of the Isles of Scilly of the coast of Cornwall. Although Alfie's mother, Mary warned him to go to school when his father Jim arrives at his boat on Green Bay, intending to go out for the day, Alfie is there waiting. The two spend time fishing for mackerel but when they catch little, Alfie suggests they go in closer to St. Helen's an isolated island where an old quarantine house, Pest House, sits abandoned. Alfie's father is not keen to do this but allows Alfie to row them in near the sandy beach to try their luck. Both Alfie and his father hear what seems to be a child crying. Scared they beach their boat and soon discover that they are hearing a child, crying and coughing and it is coming from the Pest House.

Alfie discovers a pale, sick child hiding in the fireplace of the ruined Pest House, shivering and wrapped in a blanket. Terrified the young girl tries to run away but collapses. Alfie and his father put the girl in the boat and take her back to Green Bay. They are met by Mary and many others who live on the island. Mary orders someone to send for Dr. Crow on St. Mary's. The girl momentarily awakens and whispers "Lucy" leaving those around her to believe that she is named Lucy. Lucy is taken to the Wheatcroft home at Veronica Farm. Dr. Crow encourages Lucy to eat and drink as she is feverish and dehydrated.  Alfie's cousin, Dave Bishop visits after the doctor leaves and tells Jim and Mary Wheatcroft that he went over to St. Helen's and found a grey sodden blanket and a bedraggled teddy bear. The blanket has the name Wilhelm on it and immediately Cousin Dave jumps to the conclusion that Lucy is German and a "lousy Hun". Alfie's mother threatens Cousin Dave, telling him he is to tell no one about the name on the blanket. He promises reluctantly.

At first the Wheatcrofts believe that Lucy doesn't speak because she might be German and therefore not understand English. However Alfie believes that Lucy does understand but for some reason cannot speak.
June 1915 and with no end to the war in sight, the islanders are growing more apprehensive especially as the papers are filled with "daily reports of ever mounting casualties, those dreadful long lists in the papers of the killed, the wounded and the missing in action." The Isles of Scilly had had the bodies of four drowned Royal Navy sailors washed ashore in recent months. Lucy Lost as she is now referred to, continues to live with Alfie's family while people  speculate on who she was and how she came to be on St. Helen's.

All of the Wheatcrofts must deal with harassment from the islanders. Jim is teased about finding mermaids while Mary must fend off constant questions about Lucy when she visits her brother Billy. Mary goes every day to visit her brother, called Uncle Billy by her family. She rescued him from the County Asylum in Bodmin where he was located after going missing following the death of his wife and baby. Billy who doesn't speak or interact much with the islanders, lives in the boat house on Green Bay. Most of his time is spent restoring an old ship, the Hispaniola which he intends to sail some day. Alfie too is quizzed by the teachers at school and is taunted by Zebediah Bishop,  Cousin Dave's son. Eventually Alfie has enough and the two ending fighting and receiving detention from the mean-spirited headmaster, Mr. Beagley. During detention Alfie learns that Cousin Dave has broken his promise not to tell about the blanket with the German writing on it.

Despite Lucy's silence, Alfie likes being with her. He spends time talking to her in the hopes that she will gradually begin to talk again. Lucy however seems unable to respond. Dr. Crow is concerned that Lucy has been deeply traumatized leaving her unable to speak. He believes that if she does not recover they will have to send her to the mental hospital, something  He insists that the Wheatcrofts attempt to get Lucy out of bed and to that end he brings his gramophone. The gramophone seems to draw Lucy's attention, so much so that she begins to play Dr. Crow's records constantly and is especially fond of Mozart's Andante Grazioso. Unfortunately this does not help her to talk. Lucy however gradually becomes more involved in life at the Wheatcrofts; she waits for Alfie to return from school and begins to accompany him in the morning when he opens up the henhouse. She even begins to ride Peg, the island's temperamental horse. But Lucy still refuses to speak, even when the Headmaster Beagley orders the Wheatcrofts to send her to school. It takes a second tragedy and Uncle Billy and the Hispaniola that finally solve the mystery of Lucy Lost.

Discussion

Listen To The Moon is a novel set in the summer of 1915 on the Isles of Scilly off the Cornwall coast. What will someday be known as The Great War is only ten months along. Like most people, the islanders believed the war would be over by Christmas but by May 1915, the number of dead is quickly mounting. The Isles have casualties among their own and hatred of the Germans or anything German is high. Germany, attempting to blockade the British Isles threatens to sink any ships flying the British flag. The Lusitania was one of the largest ocean liners traveling the Atlantic in 1915. The ship was traveling from New York to Liverpool when she was sunk by a German submarine on May 7th. Over a thousand people died in the sinking. The ship sank off the Old Head of Kinsale and many locals set out in boats to rescue people. It is claimed that a grand piano was found floating in the sea with a little girl on it as is described in Listen To The Moon.

Listen To The Moon tells the fictional story of Merry MacIntyre who along with her mother, was on her way to England to visit her soldier-father. Merry's father was originally from Toronto but like many of his generation decided to fight for his ancestral homeland, Britain, in the First World War. By the time the war began, Merry's father and mother lived in New York. With her father wounded and stationed at a hospital in England, Merry and her mother decide to travel there to visit him.  However readers do not know this part of the story until part way through. Morpurgo begins with Alfie and his family and then switches narratives throughout the story. Alfie's story is told in third person narrative while Dr. Crow, Mr. Beagley and Merry tell their stories in first person.

Listen To The Moon is far too long for a juvenile novel and the pacing is inconsistent at best. Better editing would have eliminated long pages of repetitive passages about Lucy not speaking in the early chapters and considerably shortened the novel. The story itself is interesting but becomes bogged down in details that will make younger reader's interest wane. While Dr. Crow and Mr. Beagley's narratives are interesting, they could have been shorter and in the case of Mr. Beagley's, probably eliminated entirely.

Morpurgo does his usual excellent job of creating the setting for the novel which is the Isles of Scilly. A map of the isles would have been helpful in orienting young readers.

The simple life of the people is well portrayed as are the attitudes common in the early twentieth century. The anti-German sentiment of the islanders is a main focus of the storyline and is directed towards the little "Lucy Lost" who comes to the island community and the family who generously takes her in. At times the bad treatment of the Wheatcrofts seems overdone, perhaps to demonstrate that such emotions are often not rational.

The novel moves quickly towards a resolution after an unexpected twist in the story. And Morpurgo provides young readers with a bit of information regarding the S.S. Lusitania, the German U-boat campaign, the Isles of Scilly and the S.S. Schiller.

Book Details:

Listen To The Moon by Michael Morpurgo
London: HarperCollins Children's Books     2014
433 pp.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys tells the story of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 through the voices of four young people, haunted by the terror of the war, each carrying their own secret.

In a forest, deserter Florian Beck, badly wounded by shrapnel, decides to hide in an old potato cellar. But he is not alone. He finds a young Polish girl, Emilia about to be raped by a Russian soldier. Florian kills the Russian and reminded of his sister Anni, reluctantly allows Emilia to accompany him. Emilia knows Florian is German and that he wants nothing to do with her, partly because she is Polish. Hitler considers the Polish to be subhuman and brutally executed Polish intellectuals. She considers Florian to be her knight - the one who saved her.

Meanwhile twenty-one year old Joana Vilkas is fleeing East Prussia in advance of the Russians. She fled her native Lithuania in 1941 with her family. Because her mother had German heritage, they were allowed to repatriate to Germany but Joana only made it to Insterberg in East Prussia. For four years she worked with the surgeon at the hospital in Insterberg, first stocking shelves, then assisting him in surgery. As she walks along the road Joana encounters a six year old boy who was traveling with his grandmother. She has died and now he is alone, so Joana takes him into her charge. Joana is with fifteen other refugees including a blind girl, Ingrid, an old shoemaker who is nicknamed the shoe poet and a very large woman named Eva.

Florian, Emilia, Joana, the boy and the shoemaker, along with Ingrid, Eva and others find shelter in an old barn. Joana cleans and stitches Florian's wound which has become infected but Emilia does not allow Joana to examine her. Joana suspects that Florian is hiding something and Ingrid who can sense things about people believes he is a thief. Joana asks Eva to talk to Emilia, who speaks only Polish. She learns that she is fifteen years old and from Lwow in southeastern Poland. Emilia's father had sent her to a farm near Nemmersdorf in East Prussia, hoping she would be safe. Both Joana and Eva are horrified because they have heard about the atrocities committed when Nemmersdorf was overrun by the Red Army.

Emilia learned after fleeing through Nemmersdorf that the Nazis had killed thousands of Polish Jews in Lwow including her friends Rachel and Helen Weigel. She doesn't know that most of the Polish intellectuals like her father, a mathematics professor were also rounded up and shot by the Nazis.

Florian Beck was hired as a restoration apprentice by Dr. Lange, director of the museum in Konigsberg. Mentored by Dr. Lange, Florian was sent to the best school so he could assist in establishing the Furhers dream of a national art museum in his hometown of Linz. Through Dr. Lange, Florian met Gauleiter Erich Koch, leader of the regional branch of the Nazi Party. Crates of art began arriving at the museum. Florian worked on restoring pieces of art that arrived. However, Florian eventually comes to understand what the Dr. Lange, Koch and the Nazi's are doing with the art. And he devises a plan for revenge.

In Gotenhafen, young Alfred Frick a sailor in the Kreigsmarine, believes he is serving Germany well. Although he believes he has made many sacrifices and that his exceptional abilities place him above everyone else. In fact he shirks his duties and hides in the closet. Alfred imagines the letters he would write to the girl he loves, Hannelore, telling her how well he is doing and that he will prove to be a hero. Eventually Alfred is assigned to help outfit the Wilhelm Gustloff for the evacuation of German troops and refugees from East Prussia, Poland and Germany.Alfred carries within him a horrible secret of something he has done.

Florian and Emilia leave the group at the barn separately, intent on traveling to the port of Gotenhafen. Florian does not want to travel with Emilia and gives her a gun for protection, but still she follows him. When a German soldier steps out of the woods behind Florian to kill him, Emilia fires bringing him down and saving Florian. Meanwhile the shoe poet, the boy, Joana, Eva, Ingrid and others begin their trek to Gotenhafen too. The poet tells them they will find an old Prussian estate to shelter in for part of the journey but Joana is doubtful. Both groups meet a second time at the abandoned Prussian estate. They warm themselves and rest, helping Emilia who is in shock after shooting the German.

Joana and Florian begin to form a bond as she cares for him, checking on his stitches. They even dance together when the boy finds a gramophone and sets it up.  Eva learns from Emilia that she is planning to meet her lover August. In fact, she was raped by Russian soldiers on the farm of her father's friends, the Kleists. It is her secret she cannot tell.

After making a grisly discovery at the mansion, the group quickly leave heading for Gotenhafen where they hope to gain passage on the ships evacuating people from the advancing Red Army. Emilia is placed in a cart while the rest of the group walks. Their journey is filled with many dangers including attacks by the Red Army and the dangerous crossing at the Vistula lagoon which is frozen over but repeatedly attacked by the Soviet planes. After surviving all of these, little do they realize their greatest challenge will be to survive the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.


Discussion

Ruta Sepetys has crafted a riveting and deeply moving account of the Wilhelm Gustloff tragedy. The Gustloff, transporting close to 10,000 souls from the Polish port of Gotenhafen was sunk by three torpedoes from a Soviet U-boat on January 30, 1945. It sank in an hour. Over nine hundred people survived, leaving 9,000 to perish in the icy Baltic Sea. This marine disaster, the worst in history, soon disappeared from collective memory possibly for many reasons; German shame over the Holocaust and an reluctance to grieve publicly for their own war losses as well as overshadowing by the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania which had many famous passengers.

In an attempt to portray the various experiences of Polish/Lithuanian/Russian/Germans near the close of the Second World War Sepetys chose four narrators: a Lithuanian nurse named Joana, Emilia a young Polish girl, a Prussian artist named Florian and Alfred, a young German sailor. Sepetys states that she deliberately chose "the child and young adult narrative" for this novel so that the reader could experience "seeing the war through the eyes of youths from different nations, forced to leave everything they loved behind."

Although the main characters are fictional, they convey the struggles, the desires and the hopes people experienced as they fled to safety. One of the greatest strengths of this novel is that Sepetys doesn't spare her readers any of the horror of war, demonstrating that no one is spared not even the young German sailor. The account is not graphic yet through the eyes of each we learn of the brutality experienced and of lives irrevocably changed. In spite of this inhumanity, Sepetys shows that acts of kindness, courage and sacrifice abound; Florian and Emilia saving each other, Joana's concern for others, the shoe poet's kindness and his care for the young orphaned boy.

As in any good fiction, several of the characters experience a significant transformation. The most interesting was that of Florian Beck. Florian realizes he has been duped by the Nazi's into helping with their theft of rare art. Bent on revenge he steals a priceless piece of art from a prized collection plus the keys to where some of that art has been hidden. To safeguard himself, Florian doesn't want to be involved with anyone, least of all Emilia or Joana. He tries to abandon Emilia several times. Emilia however believes there is much goodness in Florian and refers to him as her knight. Eventually Florian lives up to Emilia's belief in him. When Emilia believes she is unlikely to survive the disaster she begs Florian to take her daughter knowing he will protect and save her. "The knight. He had the baby. I knew he'd be a savior." But Emilia is also responsible for saving Florian - possibly twice, something Florian acknowledges at the end of the novel. Emilia saved Florian by drawing out his goodness.

The only German in the novel, Alfred Frick is portrayed as delusional young man hopelessly indoctrinated in Nazi propaganda. He is perhaps the most tragic character in the novel because he demonstrates how the young people of Germany came to believe Hitler's ideas about races and groups of people. His indoctrination is demonstrated by the little ditty he's made up to remind him of the Reich's racial, social and political enemies. Unable to face the terrible thing he's done, Alfred spends all his time fantasizing about how superb a sailor he is and composing fictional letters to a girl he loved, Hannelore Jager. In one such imaginary letter he states, "Imagine, my darling, your Alfred is saving two thousand lives." In reality he's been asked to clean the toilets. When the sailors explain to him that soldiers who are dying will be left behind, Alfred coldly states, "Quite wise...Leave the browned cabbage in the basket. It makes no sense to save a head with only a few good leaves."  Alfred's blind loyalty to Adolf Hitler and his Aryan dreams led him to commit an unspeakable act.  His death,  which occurs while he is screaming Nazi rhetoric is symbolic and foreshadows the death of the Nazi regime.

That Sepetys did an enormous amount of research is evident by her ability to capture the terror and desperation people in Eastern Europe - specifically East Prussia, Poland and Lithuania experienced, first from the German Nazis and then from the advancing Russians. Her extensive research is confirmed in her Research and Notes section at the back of the novel. This section details the people Ruta Sepetys contacted while doing her research.

To help her readers, Sepetys includes a map Eastern Europe in 1945 in the front of the novel and a map of the same area of Europe today can be found in the back. In her Author's Note Sepetys explains her family's connection to the events which occurred in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. Readers will learn not only about the sinking of the Gustloff but also about the famous missing Amber Room which was dismantled by the Nazis from the Catherine palace in 1941. The amber panels were packed into 27 crates and sent to Eric Koch, gauleiter of East Prussia. The amber panels were never recovered and have been the object of many searches over the years.

In her authors note at the back, Ruta Sepetys writes"When the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them." It is for this reason historical fiction remains so important; so that events forgotten may be restored to the memory of the next generation. As Sepetys suggests, often the seed of interest is sown by historical fiction and she encourages her readers to explore further. To that end the following websites may be useful as well as the detailed list of resources Sepetys used in her research which can be found at the back of her novel.

The Sinking of the M.S. Wilhelm Gustloff

National Geographic video on the Amber Room

Amber Room website

For fans of historical fiction, Salt To The Sea is a must-read. It is a beautifully written and deeply moving account of a forgotten tragedy.

Book Details:

Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys
New York: Philomel Books     2016
391 pp.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Will To Survive by Eric Walters

Will To Survive is the final installment in Canadian author, Eric Walters' Rule of Three trilogy about survival in a post-apocalyptic world.

It has been months since the power blackout and the community at Eden Mills has further solidified itself, growing its own food and developing it's own security. But it is now plagued by one of its own members, rookie cop Brett who has turned against the Eden Mills group.

The novel opens exactly where the second book left off - Adam Daley has just killed two men intent on making him fly his Cessna to a group of armed ex-military men who have been preying on smaller communities.

Adam's group, led by Herb Campbell had captured Brett and his group which had gone rogue. Brett who was being kept prisoner, escaped, freed the other prisoners and ordered them to kill their guards. He kidnapped Adam and had instructed two of the prisoners, Tim and Owen to force him to fly his Cessna to the Division compound while he and the remaining prisoners traveled on foot to the Division. Before leaving, Brett told Adam that he had killed Herb. Determined not to fly the Cessna, Adam had no choice but to kill Tim and Owen. Will To Survive opens with Adam's mother who in charge of security and her lieutenant, Howie, trying to understand what has just happened.

Adam races to Herb's home to discover him very much alive. Suspecting Brett might try to kill him, Herb has been sleeping in his "safe" room - a concrete bunker in his basement. Adam tells his mother, Howie and Herb that Brett forced the rebels to kill the guards. Based on what Adam tells him, Herb states that Brett is trying to instill fear into their community. Adam also tells Herb that Brett has formed an alliance with the colonel and the remains of the Division who have since returned to the compound.

Herb tells them they must act quickly because Brett knows how they operate, their strengths and weaknesses. They decide to change the guard stations and their schedules as well as where supplies are stored. Meanwhile, Herb and Adam take the Cessna up and fly directly to the Division compound because they know that is what Brett is expecting. However Adam and Herb also take along a home made bomb, set to detonate thirty-five seconds after its armed. They touch down only long enough for Herb to set down the armed bomb. The explosion destroys one of the barracks and lays a huge hole in the runway.

Herb, Adam and Quinn who is an ex-Division member do reconnaissance from the Cessna to see what communities exist around them. They discover the refinery near the lake which likely still contains fuel and decide that they will reach out to them in the future. Their flight also takes them over the Division compound which is found to be deserted. An away team is sent to the compound to tear it down and destroy it so the Division cannot return.

Days later the Eden Mills neighborhood is attacked from the burned out condominium tower. Two guards are injured. In the morning Adam goes up in the ultra light while Adam's father and others lead an assault time to the tower. They find that the sniper has abandoned the tower but killed four people so he could use their unit. Adam and Herb believe that Brett is behind the attacks which result in the deaths of three guards.

While the rest of the group wants to take down the tower, Adam suggests that they extend their wall so that it includes the condo tower. His plan while increasing the number of people they have to feed will allow them to grow more food and provide better protection for the Cessna taking off on the Erin Mills highway.

As this is undertaken, flights over the area reveal several things to Adam and Herb. They discover that there is a group of armed people with motorized buggies and carts who are traveling on the nearby roads. They appear to be well organized and are all wearing similar clothing. They also located a field of ready to harvest potatoes and discover another farmer and his family, taking them into the community.However a second attack on the Eden Mills community with a rocket propelled grenade makes Herb realize that they must connect with the communities around them, including the people living at the hospital

Adam, his girlfriend Lori and best friend Todd discover another isolated community on an island in the lake. They are forced to land at the island airport where they meet Robert Wayne a colonel in charge of three thousand people living there. After returning to Eden Mill's Adam brings Herb back to the island to meet Colonel Wayne. However, they are contacted by Brett and he tells them he will be attacking the Eden Mills neighborhood again. Adam begins to realize that the only way to protect their people may be to kill Brett. It is an action he does not want to take, but when Brett harms more innocent people, Adam becomes convinced they will only be safe when Brett is dead.

Discussion

Will To Survive is a thrilling conclusion to Walter's Rule of Three series. In the first two novels, Walters laid the groundwork for the events in the final novel by developing the sociopathic character of Brett who was a cop working under Adam's mother in the local police force. At first it seems Herb is able to restrain Brett's bad behaviour, but as the crisis continues and social order breaks down, Brett's true character begins to show. He becomes increasingly violent, killing for pleasure and then becomes determined to seek revenge on Herb and Adam. Brett takes over the Division and turns them into a mobile Mad Max-like force. His attacks on the Eden Mills community evolve into attacks against innocent families in an attempt to breed fear and gain control over the community. Believing he has killed Herb, he is now determined to kill Adam, who he sees as the leader of the Eden Mills community.

In contrast Adam Daley continues to grow into a responsible, intelligent leader under the tutelage of Herb. Adam is the true hero of the situation; he thinks outside the box and tries to live by his moral code, an important part of which is not to kill people. As he confronts the evil threat Brett poses, Adam questions whether he will become like Brett, killing for pleasure. Adam knows that likely the only way to stop Brett is to kill him. "And he was a monster -- a monster I had to kill. And I had to do it without hesitation, without that split second of doubt, without thinking of him as a person. Then I realized that was the way Brett killed. No doubt, no remorse, no second thoughts. In order to kill him, to kill the monster, I'd have to be a monster, too. I'd have to join him. Not just for my own sake, but for the people of this neighborhood and beyond."

When the neighborhood group votes on whether or not to give into Brett's demands, Adam has the deciding vote and he demonstrates courage by voting not to give in. But this is still a struggle for him as he admits after a fight with his girlfriend Lori. "Here I was, stuck between two options; either I was becoming too much like Brett...or I wasn't enough like him and I wouldn't be able to stay alive."

Eventually though Adam does have to kill Brett when Herb is shot in cold blood. The loss of Herb leaves Adam second-guessing his decision to follow his conscience. But Dr. Morgan tells him "That's not who you are. That's not who we are, what we stand for, and you know that." Adam knows he couldn't have killed Brett in cold blood, which is why he never shot before Brett shot Herb. Instead he waited until he had no choice.

Adam's hope in humanity and his struggle to see the humanity of those he's fighting against - especially Brett, results in Herb changing how he views others. Herb freely admits that Adam helped remind him of the humanity of others in his final letter.

The only significant plot weakness in Will To Survive is the lack of any hint about what happened to cause the blackout. Despite the Eden Mills community coming into contact with military and other communities almost a hundred miles away no mention is ever made about what happened on a broader scale. For example, the island community which has planes capable of traveling far distances apparently has no idea what is going on. Neither Adam nor Herb seem interested in finding out either. The question is never broached even six months after the blackout when there might have been some news of what happened.

Walters skillfully leads his readers to the exciting showdown between Brett's group and the Eden Mills community. Despite the shocking twist at the end of the novel, the story concludes on a hopeful note with the brief restoration of the highway lights suggesting that whatever cause the blackout for months was soon to be overcome.

The Rule of Three series is highly recommended for fans of survival fiction and reluctant readers who prefer a male protagonist. As usual, the great covers are a draw to crack the spine and become immersed in a well thought out story by an accomplished Canadian author.


Book Details:

Will To Survive by Eric Walters
Toronto: Razorbill    2016
310 pp.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Spotlight

Spotlight is the dramatization of the investigation by group of Boston Globe reporters in 2001 that led to the expose of the cover-up by the Catholic Church in Boston of the abuse of minors.

The movie sets the stage by opening with a scene in a Boston police station in 1976. The bishop is overheard telling a young mother with her children, that the priest will be taken out of the parish. Two police officers in station talk about what is happening and it is mentioned that the priest, Father Geoghan will never face an arraignment. When the lawyer arrives, he tells them to keep the press away from the station.

Fast forward to July 2001. Marty Baron has just become editor of the Boston Globe and decides he wants to shift the paper towards investigative journalism that focuses on local stories. Spotlight is a four person investigative reporter team which reports to Ben Bradlee Jr. When Marty arrives, Spotlight is in the process of trolling for its next story.

Around this time Globe columnist Eileen McNamara had just published another column on the Father John J. Geoghan case which she has been following since it broke in 1996. Geoghan was eventually defrocked and  by 2001 he was facing criminal charges as well as 84 civil suits. McNamara questioned how the Catholic Church, specifically Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston could repeatedly place Geoghan in new parishes after he reportedly went on "sick leave" and not have known he was re-offending. While Baron wants the investigative team to pursue this and to apply to the sealed documents released the rest of the Spotlight team remains skeptical until they begin researching.

Walter Robinson, the lead editor on the team advises that they start with the Father Porter case in which dozens of kids were molested in Fall River ten years earlier. Eric Macleish represented the victims in this case and when they talk to him he warns them to be discreet so that Cardinal Law does not learn of the investigation. Walter and Sacha Pfieffer also a Spotlight reporter meet with Macleish and he informs them that the cases are difficult to represent because the statue of limitations on abuse is three years and is complicated by the fact that many victims do not come forward until they are adults. Most of the victims were kids from tough neighbourhoods. Macleish tells Walter and Sacha that he believes Mitch Garabedian who is representing the victims in the Geoghan case has nothing on Cardinal Law and that he is bluffing in order to obtain a bigger settlement.

Mike Rezendes reaches out to Mitch Garabedian, the eccentric lawyer for the Geoghan victims, in the hopes of speaking with some of the victims. Garabedian is reluctant at first but later agrees.

After having clips and other material pulled from the Globe's archives, they come across Phil Saviano who is a victims advocate who has formed a group called SNAP - Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Sacha is requested to track him down. The Globe archives also reveal that another priest,  Liam Barrett molested kids in Philadelphia, was transferred to Boston, reoffended and was moved again. His case was settled in 1977. This leads Robinson and the team to believe that there might be a pattern involved in the abuse.

When the reporters talk to Saviano he tells them the abuse is not about being gay that it's about priests raping boys and girls. Saviano reveals that he was preyed upon by Father David Holley of Worcester and that most of the victims were poor kids who feel special when a priest shows them attention. Saviano shocks the team by telling them that he believes the extent of the abuse is widespread, encompassing all of America and the world right up to the Vatican. He knows of thirteen priests in Boston alone who are abusing children. Saviano also directs them to talk to Richard Sipe, an ex-priest who worked in the one of the church's treatment centers and who has studied priest-abusers.

Both Mike Rezendes and Sacha Pfieffer interview victims who explain how they were targeted and what kind of abuse they suffered. They also learn that Eric Macleish represented a number of these victims and obtained settlements for them. After learning this Walter now wants to expand the investigation and goes to Ben for permission to do so.

Meanwhile Mike interviews Sipe extensively. He tells him the church wants people to believe these are isolated cases but they are part of a larger recognizable phenomena which he believes relates to the church's requirement of priestly celibacy. As the team goes deeper into the investigation they make startling discoveries about how the church is dealing with the priest-abusers, the families of the victims and run headlong into the enormous influence the Catholic church has in Boston. Undeterred, Spotlight eventually publishes its expose in early 2002. It is a bombshell that rocks Boston.

Discussion

Spotlight accurately portrays the Boston Globe investigation into the child abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic church in Boston. The expose when finally published eventually led to the resignation of Cardinal Law and a Pulitzer Prize for the group of reporters. More than that it caused thousands of people to come forward acknowledging their abuse. The revelations were far-reaching and dramatic eventually revealing the abuse of children by Catholic clergy to be a worldwide phenomena. In Boston alone, 249 priests were discovered to have been abusing children over a period of several decades. It also revealed that the Catholic church attempted to cover up the abuse scandal by paying out small settlements and making victims sign confidentiality agreements, promising to remove the abusers from parish work. In fact, as we now know and as many Catholics in America and Canada can attest to, priest-abusers were merely moved from one parish to another, sometimes after "treatment" only to re-offend and abuse more victims.

The film leaves off listing the number of priests found to have abused children in Boston and lists the areas in the world which were directly impacted significantly by the abuse of children by Catholic priest. Seeing two screens listing all the cities is disheartening to be sure. In fact there are places in Canada not even listed in the movie in which significant problems existed.

Unfortunately, Spotlight neglects to mention at the end of the film,  the significant efforts undertaken by the Catholic church following 2002 to deal with the problem of priest abusers. This leaves viewers to believe that this situation continues to exist in the Catholic church. It does not.  The Catholic Church now has in place some of the strictest requirements for the reporting of abuse and for action against priests who abuse children. The same cannot be said of other institutions such as the public school system in the United States where abuse by teachers continues to be a significant and unacknowledged problem. The church also has endeavored to better screen applicants to the priesthood, requiring intensive psychological testing.

Spotlight while highlighting the obvious poor handling of the abuse by the Catholic church also hints at, but never fully explores, the responsibility of the Boston Globe and the Boston catholic community at large in not acting. Eric Macleish, when confronted by Walter Robinson, mentions twice in the movie that he sent the Globe significant information concerning twenty cases many years ago, but it was buried.  Likewise Phil Saviano also tells Walter Robinson that he sent all of his information to the Globe five years earlier but apparently they weren't interested. In Spotlight, Robinson and Marty Baron are quick to excuse themselves for not acting (Robinson says he has no recollection of receiving Macleish's information). The same consideration is not given to the Catholic church in how it acted.In some ways, Spotlight depicts a simplistic view of how the Catholic church responded, ignoring the fact that initially the church relied on the current professional psychological opinion that these abusers could be rehabilitated. Of course when this obviously was not successful, they never changed how the priests were dealt with, allowing more children to be harmed.

Given the scope of the abuse, both Robinson and his team are astounded that so many people who were abused and their families remained silent. Given that there were 249 priests involved in the scandal in Boston alone, it would seem that someone in the community might have acted. However, the stigma of abuse, the fact that it involved priests who were supposed to be good men led many victims to desire confidentiality. Jeffrey Mirus in his article, Three Great Lessons of the Abuse Scandal provides some of the background as to how the Church has functioned and how certain weaknesses led to the scandal.

Spotlight, which was directed by Tom McCarthy, endeavours to be as realistic as possible; the choice of actors who look like the real life persons involved is quite remarkable. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams all turn in exception performances. A fan favourite, Stanley Tucci portrays the eccentric Michael Garabedian.

While the focus is on the investigative team, the victims are not ignored either and their portrayal is also realistic and deeply moving. We get a sense of how deeply harmed these people were by what happened to them and by the fact that this harm was never acknowledged by both the Catholic church and their community.

The following resources may be of use for further exploration of this issue:

The Story Behind the Spotlight Movie

The first part of the original series, Church allowed abuse by priest for years published by the Spotlight team can be read online. The remaining articles are listed at the end of this article and are well worth reading.

Reporting An Explosive Truth: the Boston Globe and Sexual Abuse in the Catholic church - this website is a case study for investigative journalism for Columbia University's Journalism School.

Father Geoghan case.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Say You Will by Eric Walters

Say You Will is a funny novel about a genius teen who struggles to fit in with his peers in high school. To that end, he undertakes a promposal despite believing he has little chance of succeeding.

Samuel Davies is a brilliant junior and that makes him different. But Sam doesn't want to be brilliant. All he wants is to fit in with his peers. To achieve this, Sam has started dressing differently, learned popular vernacular and stopped acing tests. However one of his teachers, Mrs. Tanner, astutely catches Sam at his game and challenges him about not doing his best. He tells her about wanting to fit in and to be "normal". Mrs. Tanner tells him that will never be the case and that normal is just a social construct.

Sam's two friends are Ian and Brooke. Brooke is very smart, a committed vegetarian and is into many social causes. "Brooke had spearheaded a drive to ban throw-away plastic water bottles on campus and replace them with reusuable ones."

Ian has a problem filtering the information he shares with others. He sees a psychologist, Dr. Young  who has been helping Ian learn to "re-channel his comments so that they wouldn't get him in so much trouble." Sam also sees Dr. Young although he has recently stopped. To help him, Ian taps out his inappropriate comments in Morse code rather than speaking them aloud.

Both Ian and Sam are smitten with three of Brooke's friends, Taylor who is the most beautiful girl in the class and her friends Ashley and Brittney. While Sam is attracted to Taylor who is both beautiful and intelligent and kind, Ian prefers Ashley.

While at lunch, Sam, Ian and Brooke along with much of the school witness a spectacular promposal undertaken by Kevin, captain of the football team. Using a dozen team members who line up alongside a limo, they spell out BRITT PROM? as he asks Brittney to the prom. She accepts and drives off with Kevin in his limo.

Ian wants to ask Ashley but with having lost his job at Clown Town where Brooke and Sam also work, money is a problem. Brooke doesn't believe in either proms or promposals, both of which she considers "meaningless, wasteful decadence driven by mindless capitalism..." However Sam is impressed by what Kevin did because he "put himself out there, in front of everybody, and risked Brittney saying no to him," Brooke is disgusted by Sam's desire to go to prom and the possibility that he is considering a promposal. He tells Brooke that in order to continue his quest of fitting in, he needs to consider doing a promposal. "If promposals are the new social norm, then I'd have to follow that norm. Besides, I figure I'd have to do something pretty special to convince this particular girl to go with me."

At home, Sam watches the video of Kevin's promposal with his parents. He admits to his mother that he is considering a promposal. When Sam's father spills that he is considering doing the promposal, Brooke offers to help Sam so it won't be a total failure.Ian agrees to help Sam as long as Sam helps him with his promposal. When Ian questions Sam as to who he is going to ask, Sam is vague. However both Ian and Brooke believe that Sam is intending to ask Taylor to the prom despite Sam's insistence that he is not.

Has Sam set himself up for a huge failure just to prove he fits in? Who is he really going to ask and how can he possibly top Kevin's promposal?

Discussion

Say You Will is a funny, enjoyable novel about one boy's journey to fit in as he navigates the precarious world of high school. Sam is a brilliant student who decides that in order to fit in he needs to dumb himself down and dress and act like his "cooler" peers.
"Added to that was a calculated combination of longer hair, new clothes, the sprinkling of new words into my vocabulary -- smaller words, combined with popular vernacular -- and what would have appeared to be a much more relaxed attitude toward school. These were all factors that I had identified as being associated with students who occupied the "cooler" end of the social spectrum."

Sam considers himself to be evolving, something he explains to his teacher, Mrs. Tanner when she confronts him about his lower marks. She encourages Sam to embrace his "difference" which is of course, his high intelligence. Mrs. Tanner hopes to change his thinking by explaining some of the future consequences such as losing scholarships to universities. However, Sam remains undeterred in his plan.

He believes that because he has always had friends who were not part of the clique, he and his friends never worked harder to try to fit in. 
"The three of us just sort of fit together. Because of them, Id' never really been alone. We'd all been different -- looking back, we were definitely outsiders even then -- but we were outsiders together. That made it so much less lonely. Maybe that was part of the problem. Because we had each other, we didn't work as hard as we might have to break through and become more like everybody else."

In response to Sam's expressed desire to be normal, Mrs. Tanner tells him the idea of "normal" is a social construct. She warns Sam "it's important not to lose sight of who you are, the real, authentic, genuine you, as you make your climb to the top..."

Then Kevin's promposal happens and Sam considers that this is yet another way for him to fit in. When his friends warn him that doing a promposal could be disastrous, Sam reasons, "If prom was part of the high school experience and fitting in, and I wanted to be part of that experience, shouldn't I go to prom?"

Sam is forced to reconsider his strategy of deliberately getting lower marks on tests when he asks Mrs. Tanner for her help with his promposal. She points out to Sam that he really does want the higher marks but he's cheating himself and not being true to who he is by deliberately scoring lower. He acknowledges this and agrees to do his best if his marks are kept secret. Although this doesn't really represent much growth on Sam's part he is beginning to acknowledge that being smart is an authentic part of who he is.

The choice of Sam's promposal is not revealed until the very last pages but readers will easily determine who Sam wants to take to prom. His promposal is true to who he is and who the girl he asks is, done with his characteristic humour.

Say You Will is a light, quick read that has capitalized on the promposal craze in existence for the past couple of years. Walter's witty dialogue between the three friends is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Ian's lack of a "filter" provides plenty of opportunities for the creative, funny exchanges that characterize this novel. Brooke is the eco-friendly, no-nonsense, practical girl who seems to fit with Sam's methodical manner and dry humour. Say You Will touches only lightly on the themes of self-acceptance and growing up. Recommended for those new to high school!

Book Details:

Say You Will by Eric Walters
Canada: Doubleday Canada 2015
184 pp.