Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Latitude Zero by Diana Renn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Boy On The Wooden Box by Leon Leyson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Brave Soldier by Nicolas Bebon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

One More Border: The True Story of One Family's Escape From War-Torn Europe by William Kaplan

One More Border tells the story of a Jewish family who undertake a journey across three-quarters of the world to escape to freedom and safety.

Igor and Nomi Kaplan had to flee Memel which was part of East Prussia with their parents, Bernard and Nadja in the spring of 1939.  They had to leave because the Nazi's had taken over this area and being Jewish meant their lives were in danger. They left everything behind, their favourite books and toys and their wonderful turreted home. The Kaplans first traveled to Kaunas, the capital of Lithuania where Igor and Nomi attended school. However, things began to worsen when Germany invaded Poland and Lithuania was occupied by Russian troops who also did not like Jews. The Kaplans decided to undertake the long journey through Lithuania and across Russia to Japan where they would sail for Canada to live with their grandparents.

The Kaplans required visas that would allow them to leave Lithuania to travel through Russian and then to leave Russia and enter Japan. The Japanese consul, Sugihara had been giving exit visas to Jews so they could leave Russia and enter Japan. However, when the Kaplans arrived at the Japanese consulate they found many people waiting, but in a stroke of luck, they also unexpectedly met with Sugihara who was leaving with his family in their car. Sugihara stamped the Kaplan's visa for Nomi, Igor and Bernard. However, Nadja was Russian which meant that she required a separate visa to leave Lithuania. Nadja was unsuccessful in her attempts to get a visa until the last moment when the Kaplan family was on the train!

This was only the beginning of a complicated journey that took them through the desolate Siberian countryside and onto Kobe, Japan. Unlike many Jewish refugees who tried to escape through Europe, the Kaplan's traveled through Europe's back door, across Asia to get to Canada. William Kaplan, whose father is Igor Kaplan tells in detail his father's journey to eventual freedom and safety in Canada. It's a fascinating story of a family whose escape from Hitler's "final solution" was a combination of luck and good timing. They likely owe their lives to Mr. Sugihara, who was eventually named a Righteous Gentile in 1985. Despite being allies of Germany in the Second World War, Japan did not share the Nazi's anti-Jewish views.  Until the middle of 1941, the Japanese were willing to accept refugees on their way to America, Australia and Canada. According to Kaplan, Chiune "Sugihara wrote out as many as three hundred visas a day." Based on his Samurai upbringing, Sugihara believed that he should help people in need. If not for their encounter with Sugihara outside the consulate, the Kaplan's may not have been able to leave Lithuania. Unlike many Jews who were refused entry to Canada and other countries, despite the escalating violence against Jews in Germany it's occupied countries, the Kaplans had relatives in Canada which facilitated their immigration.

One More Border is part picture book, with lovely illustrations by artist Stephen Taylor and part history book with plenty of photographs of the various cities and countries the Kaplan's passed through in 1940, their home and their visas. One More Border contains maps showing the extent of the Kaplan's journey three-quarters of the way around the world. The Epilogue tells what happened to the Kaplans once they arrived in Canada.

Overall this is an well written book that will appeal visually to young readers and provides lots of information to older readers about this historical period.

Book Details:
One More Border: the true story of one family's escape from war-torn Europe by William Kaplan
Toronto: Groundwood Books    1998
61 pp.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Magician of Auschwitz by Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland

The Magician of Auschwitz tells the story of  young Werner Reich who met a remarkable man while imprisoned by the Nazi's at Auschwitz. Werner was taken to a concentration camp called Terezin and then onto Auschwitz were he met  Herr Levin. Werner shared a bunk with Levin and struggled to survive the exhausting work on little food and sleep. One night the barracks was roused by the guards shouting at Levin to wake up. Once awake, they demanded he perform magic tricks for them. Levin spent hours that first night performing card tricks for the camp guards. Werner thought these tricks were wonderful and told Herr Levin that perhaps this would mean he would receive extra food. But Levin told Werner that the magic was likely the only thing preventing him from being shipped out to be killed. He would spend hours many nights entertaining the guards. 

One night weeks later, Werner, who was always hungry, hid a piece bread while he slept only to awake the next morning to discover it had been stolen from him. He was very very upset and was on the verge of giving up. But Herr Levin told him that he should not be too hard on the person who stole the break, telling him that this person was just trying to survive like everyone else.To ease his mind Herr Levin showed him one of his tricks and then taught Werner that trick. Herr Levin showed Werner that someone cared about him and that gave him hope. After surviving the concentration camp, Werner never lost his love of magic and did perform tricks.

After telling the magician's story through Werner Reich's eyes, there is a section titled How It Happened that tells who Herr Levin was and what happened to both him and Werner after the war. Herbert Levin was a famous magician who performed in Berlin. His stage name was Nivelli. Nivelli along with his wife and son were sent to Auschwitz where they eventually perished. Nivelli survived the camp and rebuilt his life as a magician, moving to the United States and eventually remarrying. There are plenty of photographs of Nivelli and also Werner Reich both as a young boy, with his sister Renate who also survived and as an older man. 

Where It Happened tells about Hitler coming to power in 1933 and how this led to the Jewish Holocaust and World War II.

The picture book portion is beautifully illustrated with Gillian Newland's watercolour paintings. Based in Toronto, Newland's artwork effectively captures some of the darkness of Auschwitz with the dark pallette of greys, whites, browns and blacks. At the same time she shows the humanity of the people in the camp.

Kacer was introduced to the story of Nivelli the Magician by Jon Freund who also helped her contact Werner Reich.

Below is an interview with Werner Reich who recalls his time in Auschwitz and discusses Nivelli the Magician.

Book Details:
The Magician of Auschwitz by Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland
Toronto: Second Story Press 2014

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Secret Sky. A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan by Atia Abawi

The Secret Sky is a story about forbidden love in an country where a family's honour is based on the sexual purity of its women. To break that code even in the most minor of ways,  is to bring unending shame upon the family who can only restore its honour through blood - the blood of the woman who caused the dishonour. The author, Atia Abawi was an unborn baby when she left Afghanistan as her parents and older sibling fled the Soviet occupation. Although her parents often spoke of returning to their beloved homeland, the rise of the Taliban and the subsequent war with America made such a return impossible. Atia however did travel to Afghanistan in 2008 where she lived for five years as a foreign correspondent. Abawi writes "In the more than four years I lived in Afghanistan, I experienced life in the most spectacular ways -- and death in the most horrific. I learned quickly that Afghanistan is a land of contradictions. It hold unimaginable beauty and inconceivable ugliness." Abawi states that she has tried to illustrate real-life experiences as accurately as possible in the hopes that her readers "will get a small glimpse into a beautiful and tragic world unseen by many." Her novel, although fiction, is influenced by real events and real people. Which makes it all the more tragic and touching.

The title of this tragic novel is a reference to a line from one of the great Persian poet, Jalal ad-Din Rumi's poems which Abawi features opposite her Introduction. This is love: To fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.

The novel is divided into three parts. Part One is narrated by Fatima who lives with her father, Mohammad, her mother Mossuma, her three year old sister, Afifa and her younger brothers in a small village. Her older brother, Ali, was sent to work in Iran but was killed on the journey there. Fatima is on the cusp of womanhood, still a child but her body is changing into that of a young woman. As a result there are certain cultural restrictions on where she goes and who she is seen with. The girls her age are no longer allowed to leave their homes. Fatima remembers a time when all the children, both Pashtun and Hazara, played together.  Zohra tells Fatima that she's learned that Fatima's close childhood friend, Samiullah, who is a Pashtun, has returned home from the madrassa. No sooner than they have finished pulling water from the well, the two girls meet Samiullah on their way home. His piercing green eyes seem warm  and comforting to Fatima who cannot help but notice how tall and handsome he has grown in the past three years.

Fatima often goes to see her best friend, Zohra, whose grandmother is teaching her how to write and read. Her grandmother and her mother before her were educated in a time when Afghanistan was becoming a modern state. The following morning on her way to Zohra's home, Fatima encounters Samiullah in the woods. Although she knows she shouldn't be alone with him, Fatima agrees to meet him the next day. At Zohra's the two girls talk about marriage and Fatima mentions to her friend that she wants something more than marriage, telling her about the university in Kabul where women attend. Zohra tells a shocked Fatima that her parents are considering marrying her to a wealthy boy in another village.

The next day Fatima lies to her mother and meets Samiullah in the woods. They play hide and seek and sit near the stream talking. When Samiullah hears motorcycles the couple hide quietly behind a rock. At home Fatima overhears her madar begin to push her father to consider arranging a marriage for their eldest daughter, a prospect that upsets Fatima. Fatima and Samiullah meet again but the lies and the risk she is taking begin to worry Fatima. "...what worries me more is that it will ruin my family's name and honor to have their eldest daughter running around the village unsupervised. Not just unsupervised -- alone with a boy....I can't do this. It's far too risky." However, she does meet Samiullah and they spend some time together talking about Sami's time at the madrassa. Their meeting abruptly ends when their hear branches crackling.

Part Two is narrated by Rashid who is filled with anger and hate, yet who believes he is doing the work of God. Rashid is Samiullah's cousin - his father's younger sister Gul Bibi is Sami and his younger sister Nur's mother. Rashid's father along with the rest of his family was murdered and Gul Bibi took him into their family. Both Rashid and Sami were sent to the madrassa, like their father's before them to learn more about Islam and the Holy Quran. But while Samiullah hated it, Rashid seemed to have found his calling.

It is Rashid who has seen Samiullah and Fatima together in the woods, an act he considers sinful and blasphemous. He is determined to punish both but decides to wait. It is obvious that Rashid is poisoned by a hatred of his cousin. "...I see my uncle and my cousin the infidel lagging behind him. Sinner! He's so smug, trying to act sweet as he picks up the little kids, who are giggling like goats.....He lies to everyone and acts as though he is a man of virtue...."

Rashid has been sent by the instructors from the madrassa to help Mullah Latif and his men, who are considered thugs by the local villagers. They are known to extort food from the nearby villagers in return for protection. His time at the madrassa has taught him to look down on the people of his village who he considers as lacking in "any concept of good and bad, God and the devil." Rashid knows his uncle, Samiullah's father hates Mullah Latif, considering  him a thief.

The next morning Rashid accompanies Sami into town to open the family store. Many of the stores are now closed and Sami tells Rashid that this is because of the Taliban. This angers Rashid who begins to question Samiullah about Fatima's family suggesting that because they are Hazara they are cheats. Samiullah outright rejects Rashid's assertions saying they must not judge people based on the actions of their ancestors. Learning that Rashid is teaching the Quran to younger students. Sami encourages Rashid to teach the true Quran to the children. This enrages Rashid who openly accuses Samiullah of running "around with that peasant whore in the woods" - a reference to Fatima. Horrified at what Rashid has said and his hateful attitude towards Fatima and her family, Samiullah prays to God asking him to protect Fatima, guide him and protect Rashid from his own hatred.

Desperately in need of guidance, Samiullah decides to visit Mullah Sarwar in a nearby village to seek advice. Mullah Sarwar helped Sami make the decision to return home from the madrassa.  Sarwar tells Samiullah that God has bestowed a great gift, that of love, upon him but that marrying Fatima will mean overcoming many obstacles.

When Samiullah returns to his home he finds Fatima's father, Mohammad, Zohra's father, Karim, and Rashid with his father, Ismail. Rashid accuses him in front of the other men of "disrespecting" Mohammad's family, Mohammad's daughter and his own family. After Rashid leaves, Sami attempts unsuccessfully to explain to Karim and his father about his relationship with Fatima. Sami asks Mohammad for permission to marry his daughter, but both men refuse. Ismail tells Samiullah that he will not sanction such a marriage as Fatima is a farmer and as such beneath marrying him.

Part Three picks up Fatima's narrative but also now includes narratives by both Rashid and Samiullah as the crisis within their families reaches a climax. It begins with Fatima being sent home from Zohra's home by Karim who then angrily confronts Zohra asking her if she knew what was going on between Sami and Fatima.

After two days of being ignored, Fatima's father tells her that Samiullah has requested her in marriage. He tells Fatima that she cannot marry him and her mother tells her she is whore, slapping her and reminding Fatima that she is lucky they are not going to kill her. He announces that she will marry her friend Zorha's father, Karim and be his second wife. Fatima is horrified and distraught begging her father to reconsider Samiullah's proposal. The next day Fatima is attacked by her mother who drags her to the kitchen by her hair, kicks her in the stomach and then pours boiling water over her arms. She tells Fatima she is a whore who has disgraced their family and warns her that if she tells her father she will burn her face.

Fatima receives Sami's letter and does go to the well to get water, although she is in agony. Sami meets her and discovers her terrible injuries. He tells her that this is further proof that they must flee to Kabul because the people who support this sort of thing will not stop until they are both dead.
"There are people more dangerous than your mother who will want to punish us. Those are the ones I am afraid of. You are in the most danger."

That night Fatima comes to the decision that she must leave her home and her village. She knows her father will never look at her again, her mother will not forgive her and will likely turn all her siblings against her. Feeling responsible for what has happened she decides to meet Samiullah and together they flee to Mullah Sarwar's masjid. Can they possibly escape the terror that now hunts them, seeking their death to restore honour to their families and their village.

The Secret Sky is not a novel for the faint at heart; there is murder, beatings and torture as well as references to the sexual abuse of young boys. It's not overly graphic but, if as Abawi states that she has based her novel on real people and real events, it makes the story all the more tragic. It is a brilliant effort that paints a realistic picture of a culture caught in the throes of a radical shift in thinking complicated by cultural practices around honour and old prejudices between two ethnic groups Hazara and Pashtun. The Hazara are considered the

The Secret Sky outlines in a general way how the Taliban came to gradually overrun Afghanistan. Young people were sent into Pakistan to the madrassas to learn about Islam but in fact were indoctrinated into a radical form of the religion which encouraged people to fight against foreigners and to help create an Islamic state based on strict Islamic laws. According to such laws, men and women who are unrelated cannot be together. Such contact, even though not physical is considered to sully a woman's reputation. These young people returned to their villages bringing with them this radical form of Islam which was then gradually forced onto the local rural villages. It was compounded by cultural practices surrounded a distorted view of family honour which holds that women can be tainted by even the slightest contact with an unrelated male. Whereas before families may have handled these problems and perhaps married off the couple, the radical Islamic teaching now insisted that they were to be punished with death. Also many of these young men returning from the madrassa's in Pakistan set up a sort of Afghan mafia and went around demanding protection money from farmers, villagers and store keepers.

It is difficult to comprehend Mossuma's attitude towards her daughter when she finds out she has been seen with Samiullah because the concept of family honour is so alien to Western culture. Neither family questions either Fatima nor Samiullah as to what exactly happened in the woods and it is assumed that the couple met to have sex. Mossuma has a very mercenary view of her children, seeing them as a means to gain either wealth or status. She sent Ali to Iran to earn money for her against the wishes of her husband. She then tries to marry off Fatima when she hears of Zohra's impending engagement, in the hopes of making a match with a wealthy family, but Mohammad will have none of it. So when Mossuma learns of Fatima's "indiscretion" she knows she has lost another opportunity to gain status. Fatima recognizes this. "Her children aren't people to her. We are her accessories, like a new payron or bangle. She wanted me to marry the boy in the other village because it would have made her look good, not because she was looking out for my welfare. She sent Ali to Iran to make money for her, not so he could build a better life for himself."

Not only does Abawi have a powerful storyline, she creates strong, realistic characters. Fatima is a sweet innocent girl who is not ready yet to leave the carefree ways of childhood behind. She dislikes the changes in her body because they signal her transformation to womanhood and a different code of behaviour that will see her leave behind her best friend and playmate, Samiullah, forever. Despite knowing this code and the repercussions if she disobeys it, Fatima decides to take a risk for the sake of friendship. It is a risk that will cost her and her family dearly.

Samiullah is an honourable young man who unthinkingly puts Fatima at risk of being stoned. His love for her sees him take every risk to protect her and get her to safety.

Fatima's father, Mohammad is a kind, hard-working man who protects his children but still places importance in the distorted idea of honour to some degree. When Mossuma wants to marry off Fatima, Mohammad outright rejects her suggestion saying, " I said enough! No more! I'm not marrying my daughter off to strangers. How do we know how these people will treat her?...I can't trade her to someone in another village for a little bit of money; just because it is in our culture doesn't make it okay...She isn't a sack of wheat. I can't just sell her for a few Afghanis and breathe easily for the rest of my life..."  Mossuma's argument that the boy is from a wealthy Hazara family does nothing to appease Mohammad who tells her there are no innocent groups in Afghanistan, that many including himself have been involved in the killing of innocent women and children. Mohammad defends Fatima even when he learns of her "indiscretion", telling Mossuma he will not beat his daughter. However, bound by his culture, he does agree to marry her off as a second wife.

Mullah Sarwar and Rashid represent two different versions of Islam that are competing for the minds and hearts of people in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Mullah Sarwar, is a gentle, intelligent and courageous mullah who is careful to not to judge and seeks to discern. He tells Sami and Fatima,  "Don't listen to what people may have told you growing up...Our culture and tradition is not our religion. As a Muslim woman, you have the right not to be forced into marriage...." He helps Sami and Fatima, first marrying them and then hiding them.

Rashid is the strongest character in the novel and this is reflected in his narratives which reflect his pride and anger. When Rashid returns to his village from the madrassa he looks down on the people as being ignorant in many ways. Filled with pride, he describes himself as "I was the best; I still am." He is insulted that his uncle's family, who took him in after the murder of his family, hasn't  slaughtered a goat upon his return.  After he sees Samiullah with Fatima he views himself as the person to ensure that he is punished. He refers to Sami repeatedly throughout the story in derogatory terms such as "my cousin the infidel", "He's a pathetic fool and a dropout. A failure!"  and a "little ant".  His bitterness and anger at the murder of his family continue to haunt him and it is Mullah Sarwar who recognizes this telling Rashid that his family has given him enough love to survive but that if he takes that love out of his heart, he may "fall into a dangerous insanity that you may not be able to come out of."  Rashid is driven by the need to show his family that he is the "good one" but Mullah Sarwar tells him that he will only succeed in creating yet another tragic story. He tells Rashid that his rage is not because of Sami and Fatima but something he is holding inside himself and that he must fix before he causes even more harm. Eventually, Rashid overwhelmed by the deaths he has already causes, comes to realize the truth of what the Mullah has told him and by the end of the novel he redeems himself by an act of sacrificial love.

Overall, The Secret Sky is a remarkable novel which touches on cultural expectations regarding women in Islamic countries, honour killings, forgiveness, sacrifice and love. The Secret Sky is a love story set amid the turbulent struggle against radical Islam in Afghanistan. It is tragic, unsettling but hopeful.

Book Details:
The Secret Sky by Atia Abawi
New York: Philomel Books      2014
290 pp.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

If You're Reading This by Trent Reedy

Trent Reedy was an English teacher in Riverside, Iowa before his Iowa National Guard unit was sent to Afghanistan in 2004. He had joined the National Guard like many other Americans, to help pay for his college education. The call to war was both unexpected and frightening. While on deployment, his wife, Amanda, sent him a copy of Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabitha. This book helped Trent Reedy recover some of the hope that he would survive his term of active duty. Reedy corresponded with Paterson who encouraged him to follow his dream of becoming a writer and who helped him gain entrance to Vermont College of Fine Arts' writing program. 

 If You're Reading This is Reedy's fourth novel, which focuses on a young teen who begins receiving his dead father's letters written to him seven years earlier while he served in Afghanistan. His father, worried he might not survive his time in Afghanistan wrote letters so his son would have something to remember him. These letters motivate the young man to change his life and help him come to terms with his father's death years earlier and in doing so to help his family heal.

For fifteen-year-old Mike Wilson grade ten is starting out similar to the past seven years - without his father. His father Mark, died seven years ago on August 28, 2005 in Afghanistan, leaving behind Mike, his younger sister, Mary and his mom, Allison, who has never recovered from the loss of her husband. Mike is a good student who has left behind his football playing days to focus on academics. But now that he's in his sophomore year he's been thinking of returning to playing. At lunch one day, Coach Carter, also Mike's history teacher, tells him time is running out, that he's missed the first set of practices and that he needs to join before the first game on Friday.

Mike works on Derek Harris's farm, helping him with various chores. Mike tells Derek that he really wants to play football but that his mother won't allow him to. Ever since his father's death, him mother has been overly protective. She works constantly, struggling to provide for Mike and Mary, and has given up on her dream of becoming a nurse.

Mike arrives home to thirteen year old  Mary telling him that a letter has arrived in mail for him. When Mike opens the letter he is astonished to discover that it is a letter from his father written when he first arrived in Afghanistan and to be sent to Michael only if he was killed in action and prior to his sixteenth birthday. The letter dated May 29, 2004 tells Mike about what his father did in the Army National Guard where he is a combat engineer, trained in battle tactics with the M16 and other weapons.  He writes that his buddy, Marcelo Ortiz has promised to deliver the letters to Mike. The first letter tells Mike a little about his father's teen years, partying at Nature Spot and giving him advice on high school. He gives Mike his first mission, to go for whatever it is he's been wanting to do. Mike sees this as his father telling him to go for the spot on the football team, so he fakes his mother's signature and hands in the form to Coach. Although his father's first letter mentions that his buddy Ortiz would send the letters, Mike discovers that Ortiz died the same day as his father meaning that someone else has taken on this task.

What follows is a series of five more letters dated from June 12, 2004 until Mike's birthday on September 22, 2004. Each letter reveals to Mike more about his father, who he was, how he met his mother and what he believes in. In each letter Mike's father sets out a mission for him to accomplish including doing something nice for his mother or sister, taking a chance on a girl he might like and working on getting a good mark in a school assignment.  His father also introduces him to the "cowboy way"  telling Mike,  "Out her in the middle of nowhere, we've had to figure out how to handle things on our own, like cowboys on the range. We might not always be completely sure how to solve a problem or carry out a mission, but we do it anyway. It's the Cowboy Way." 

Besides joining the football team, his father's letters lead Mike to gradually figure out how to handle a bullying teammate, Nick Rhodes, who continues to confront Mike because he is chosen to replace him on the team. The letters also encourage hime to take a chance on a relationship even though it might mean getting hurt. In Mike's case it is Isma Rafee, whose parents are from Iran and whose father teaches mathematics at the University of Iowa. He also tries to be patient with his overwhelmed mother who works at a nursing home and seems to be coping poorly with what happened seven years ago.

His father's letters create a sense of conflict in Mike and open more questions about his father. He feels he never really knew his father and it bothers him that he never knew how he died. Because the letters have revealed new things about his father, Mike is determined to find the mystery sender hoping this person will be able to fill in more of the gaps.Repeated online searches of those whom his father mentions in his letters turn up little information. Even a call to his father's old engineer company armory reveals few leads except that the mysterious sender of the letters wants to remain anonymous and is simply following the wishes of Mike's father. Sergeant Andrews who speaks with Mike tells him, "Everyone who knows what you want to know promised your father that we'd let you get through all his messages first, and we promised to let the man sending the letters do this his own way. In the Army, we keep promises..."

The last letter arrives as part of a huge package that contains four video clips. These video clips reveal some startling revelations including the final minutes on the base before his last mission and the identity of the mystery mailer. By the time Mike has watched all the videos his life is in chaos; he's been forced to quit the football team, his relationship with Isma has collapsed and he's being bullied by Nick Rhodes. When he talks to the mystery mailer, someone close to him, Mike learns how his father died. This leads Mike to the realization that he needs to confront his mother  and get her to talk about what happened to his father. He decides to use the Cowboy Way to help his family towards healing and forgiveness.

If You're Reading This definitely showcases the strengths of Trent Reedy- his understanding of the life of a soldier, the struggles families of soldiers deployed overseas encounter and the sense of loss and the difficulty in coming to terms with the death of a soldier. Authors successfully write about those things they know well and this comes across in Reedy's novel with respect to army life.

Reedy uses the vehicle of the letters from Mark Wilson to his son Mike, to portray life for the American soldiers in Afghanistan during the "war on terror" and as the means to establish a relationship between father and son. With regard to the latter, occasionally, Mark's letters lacked authenticity and bordered on mundane. In one letter he writes, "Anyway that brings me to the first thing I guess I wanted to tell you. Always have a book going. Always take it with you. That way, if you get stuck someplace...." In another he tells his son about a first date with too much description that makes it seem awkward. The letters also seemed coincidentally to synchronize almost perfectly with what was going on in Mike's life when he read them. Yet for the most part the letters felt very realistic for example when his father tells him about fighting honourably, about respecting women,  taking care of his mother and sister or when he encourages Mike to work hard in school.

Reedy has created in Mike a character with depth and honesty that feels genuine. He's already a fairly responsible teenager in contrast to his younger sister, Mary. While Mike cleans the house and has a part time job, Mary is more concerned with clothing, being with her friends and trying to blackmail her brother for money. Yet for all his good qualities, Mike undergoes considerable growth throughout the novel as he learns about his father, deals with new situations at school and a girlfriend.

At first Mike is struggling under the smothering blanket of his mother's over-protectiveness - which resulted in Mike leaving the one sport he really loves and is good at, football.  Desperate to be a part of school and to focus on something other than academics, Mike lies to his mom about what he's doing and to forge her signature on the permission form. But by the end of the novel he begins to recognize that in doing so he lacks the very integrity his father has encouraged him to have and one of the values Coach Carter has been working on with the team. He mans up, telling his mother who is furious at his lies. Nevertheless he maturely faces the consequences which involve more than just his mother's wrath, but also rejection from his teammates who don't know his reason for quitting. Overall Mike matures remarkably through the novel, helping his family work towards healing and also gradually learning that he has to defend the girl he likes, Isma, if he wants to continue his relationship with her.

Young male readers will love the exciting descriptions of the football practices and the games.Reedy manages to capture the tension during the games as well as the rivalry and camaraderie of the young players as they work towards creating a cohesive team. The dialogue between the teenage boys feels realistic, although maybe a bit sanitized, which is quite acceptable! Some readers may find that  novels moves a bit slowly in parts, but the author weaves the letters from Mike's father in often enough to keep interest high. Well written with an appealing cover.

Book Details:
If You're Reading This by Trent Reedy
New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of SCholasticInc.    2014
296 pp.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Man With The Violin by Kathy Stinson, illustrated by Dusan Petricic

"If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that -- then what else are we missing?"

At 7:51am on Friday, January 12, 2007, one of the world's most renowned violinists, Joshua Bell began performing at the L'Enfant Plaza Station in the Washington Metro. Dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a baseball cap, Bell began performing classical music on his priceless violin, a 1713 Huberman Stradivarius.

Bell opened his performance with what is considered one of the most difficult violin pieces to master,  Johann Sebastian Bach's Partitia No. 2 in D minor. His impromptu concert lasted a total of 43 minutes during which over a thousand people passed by him on their way to the trains. Few stopped to listen for any length of time and no one applauded when a piece was finished. Only one person recognized him and one little boy, three year old Evan, wanted to stop and listen but was prevented from doing so by his mother, in a rush to get him to his teacher and then to work.

It is this story that the picture book, The Man With The Violin tells. Little Dylan I(who is based on the real Evan) is someone who notices things. One Friday morning, while rushing with his mother into the subway station, Dylan notices something very unusual. He first hears the music, "...high notes soar to the ceiling....low notes swoop to the floor..."  Dylan asks his mother to wait so he can watch the man with violin, who sways to the music. But instead, he is hurried onto the escalator and down into the subway where the roar of the trains blurrrrrrs out the music. The music stays with Dylan all day and on the way home he asks his mother about the musician in the station. She does not remember. Later that night, the truth about the musician playing in the subway is revealed on the radio.

At the back of the picture book is the information about Joshua Bell, a short piece on the concert in the Washington Metro and a postscript by Bell. Bell writes, "Music require imagination and curiousity -- two things that children have aplenty -- and I believe the world would be a better place if every child's innate appreciation for music were fostered.... Plato is often credited as saying 'Music gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.'"

Dusan Petricic's illustrations convey the effect music has on the world around us. the sense of movement, the vibrant colours and the rich tones, all characteristics of music. While the world around Dylan is a mixture of greys and blues, the notes of music bring brilliant splashes of colour, and wide, sweeping movement to the world around him.

If you can get past the constant ads, the Washington post article, Pearls Before Breakfast: Can One of the nation's greatest musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour?  tells the story of Bell's adventure in the Washington Metro and more tellingly, of how little attention was given to him while he made music. This exercise paints a picture of an urban society so preoccupied it has lost touch with the small treasures of everyday life, a child's wonder, a musical masterpiece, a moment to linger and appreciate. Those passing by were stopped by a reporter outside the station and asked for a phone number so they could be contacted later in the day. Only one person mentioned the violinist when questioned about whether they had encountered anything unusual that morning. Below is a video of Joshua Bell playing the final movement of Bach's Chaconne. Enjoy!

Book Details:
The Man With The Violin by Kathy Stinson
Toronto: Annick Press 2013

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Like No Other by Una LaMarche

Like No Other tells the story of two star-crossed lovers, a black boy from Brooklyn and a Hasidic Jewish girl who are thrown together due to unforeseen circumstances.

Sixteen year old Devorah Frayda Blum is a Hasidic Jew who lives in New York. She has six siblings, three sisters; Rose who is eighteen and married to Jacob, fifteen year old Hanna and eleven year old Miriam as well as three brothers, Isaac, Niv and Amos.  It is late August and the city is preparing for a hurricane. The mayor has issued evacuation orders for those areas near the rivers and power at the hospital is flickering on and off.  Devorah is at the hospital with Rose who has gone into labour, seven weeks before her due date in October.  Not only is this bad for the baby but a category three hurricane is bearing down on the city and her parents are upstate in Monsey with her aunt Varda who has had foot surgery.

Rose's husband, Jacob comes from a very strict Hasidic family who feels he's morally superior to everyone. Rose was matched to Jacob Kleinman last year by the shadchan and since her wedding she's changed, subduing her desire for fun and for pushing against the rules. In their religion, because Rose has started bleeding, Jacob cannot be with her due to the laws of yoledet. This means Devorah will have to be with her sister during the baby's birth. Devorah is present for her niece's birth and is completely overwhelmed by the beauty and wonder of Liya Sara birth. With Rose is now resting, Liya in the NCIU and Jacob missing, Devorah decides to take the elevator down to the cafeteria in the basement.

Meanwhile sixteen year old Jaxon Hunte finds himself at the hospital after his best friend, Ryan Hendrick dislocated his shoulder`trying to jump his skateboard over a downed tree. Jaxon's been trying to catch the interest of Polly Jadhav whom he's been crushing on for a whole year.  Ryan and Jaxon had just gone to school to get their schedules and new ID photos but Ryan decided to impress Polly and now they are at the emergency room. Jaxon decides to take the elevator to the basement to get something to eat in the cafeteria when the power cuts out.

Devorah and Jaxon find themselves trapped together in the hospital elevator. At first Devorah is horrified because she is violating the laws of yichud which means that she is not allowed to be alone with a strange man.  Jaxon introduces himself but is met with silence at first by Devorah who has backed into a corner. Jaxon tries to see if there is a way to get out of the elevator through the ceiling but soon decides it's too risky. Devorah at first thinks Jaxon is showing off but when she sees how hard he is trying to make her feel safe, she begins to relax. They learn that they are in fact neighbours geographically with Jaxon, on one side of the street and Devorah on the other. Soon the two are talking about their families. Devorah reveals that to Jaxon that she belongs to a Hasidic sect, known as Chabad-Lubavitch while Jaxon tells her that he is Roman Catholic. Although he tells Devorah that he feels more like agnostic, she admits at least inwardly about feeling the same about her religion too. Devorah feels guilty about continuing to talk with Jaxon because it is forbidden for her to talk to him or to even be alone with him, according to the laws of yichud. However, Devorah is impressed by Jaxon's honesty and attempts to understand her way of life.

Jaxon's ability to choose his own life makes Devorah feel dissatisfied and a bit jealous.
"Jaxon will graduate high school, just like me, but he'll get to decide where he wants to go and what he wants to do with his life, while my parents will go to a shadchan to find me a husband, whether I'm ready or not. Forget that my grades are better than either of my older brothers' ever were...It is simply expected that my education will end when I am married.....I will be someone's prize...."
When the elevator starts moving upward, Jaxon attempts to give Devorah his number but she warns him to act like he doesn't know her.When the doors open Jaxon's friend, Ryan, is waiting for him and Devorah's brother-in-law, Jacob is there too and not very pleased.

They both go their separate ways but neither can really forget the other. Hanna brings up the Elevator Incident" one day at dinner questioning their father about violating yichud in an unintended way. At school her best friend, Shoshana questions her about the stranger revealing to Devorah that many of the girls secretly watch movies, text boys and sneak gossip magazines into their rooms. But when Devorah mentions going to visit Jaxon at his place of work, Shoshana tells her that she can never do this. Shoshana mentions Ruchy Silverman, the pretty girl a year older than Devorah who suddenly took a trip to Israel and who Shoshana reveals had a boyfriend from NYU and who became pregnant.

Then one day while working at her parent's store, Devorah asks her father if she can accompany her younger sister Hanna on an errand. Devorah realizes that the errand will take her across the street from Wonder Wings, the fast food restaurant where Jaxon works. While Hanna is inside the pharmacy, Devorah walks into Wonder Wings, surprising Jaxon but arranging to meet him the next day in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. When Jaxon is unable to meet Devorah, he shows up at the hospital several days later during a visit by Devorah and her family to see Rose and the new baby who is still in the NCIU. Jaxon and Devorah meet in the stairwell giving Jaxon the opportunity to explain why he missed meeting her. Devorah tells him how impossible it will be for them to see one another, that it is forbidden. When Jaxon kisses her she tells him that somehow she will contact him to arrange another meeting.

Afterwards, Devorah wonders about life outside her community. "...all my life I've been told that there is nothing for me outside the Chabad community, no opportunity for any happiness in the greater world. I only wish I knew if this were true."
Determined to find out what really happened to Ruchy Silverman, Devorah surreptitiously uses her father's laptop to search for both Ruchy and Jaxon. She learns the truth behind Ruchy and finds Jaxon's profile on Facebook. Devorah creates fake profile to contact Jaxon so they can arrange to meet.

Jaxon and Devorah's blossoming relationship begins to run into trouble when Jacob confronts Devorah, telling her he saw her with Jaxon. He threatens to expose the situation to her father unless she stops seeing Jaxon. Determined to get around Jacob, Jaxon gives Devorah a cell phone loaded with minutes so she can contact him. Meeting one another becomes almost impossible so Jaxon takes her to his home one Sunday so they can have some privacy. Although Jaxon is wanting to become more intimate with Devorah, she is starting to recognize the implications their relationship will have for them given their different cultures.

Catastrophe strikes when Devorah's cell phone rings while the family is gathered in the living room. Hoping to help her sister, Hanna suggests that it must be the radio in a passing car, but Jacob will not be deterred. Although Jacob is unable to locate the cell phone, Devorah realizes that she has to return the phone to Jaxon and arranges to meet him at the Brooklyn Public Library. She tries to tell Jaxon that they need to take a break, because for her the consequences will be serious. However, this only leads Jaxon to suggest they find some time to be alone, to leave Brooklyn for one night so they can  figure out how to make things work. Jaxon arranges for him and Devorah to go to Ryan's parent's house in the Hamptons the following evening, but when Jaxon arrives to pick her up, they are discovered by the Shomrim - in this case Jacob.  Devorah is taken back to her parents, while Jaxon is badly beaten by an man who was with Jacob. With any chance of their seeing one another now lost, both Jaxon and Devorah must come to terms with the consequences of their forbidden love and what it will mean for them and their families.

Una LaMarche has written a wonderful novel that cleverly captures the bitter-sweetness of a first love that's also a forbidden love when two young people whose lives normally would never have intersected are thrown together. Caught within the bonds of culture, family expectations and religious rules, Jaxon and Devorah struggle to make their relationship work against enormous odds. Ultimately the are unable to do so, but both learn important lessons along the way.  LaMarche tells their story from both Jaxon and Devorah's perspectives and their narratives are distinct and realistic. While Jaxon is witty and self-deprecating, Devorah's is more serious and filled with the cares of a strict upbringing. Virtually all the major characters in the story undergo some kind of journey and are changed as a result of Devorah and Jaxon's relationship.

Devorah is the good girl, who is beautiful and virtuous, who will make a grand match for her family. She is "unfailingly obedient", a straight A student who dresses properly and never breaks curfew. Her parents are thrilled with her but for Devorah, "the life of a good girl, of a doting wife and mother, is a cloudless blue sky stretching across a flat horizon. " She wants to be in "the eye of the storm." a somewhat incorrect analogy because the eye of a hurricane is actually calm. Meeting Jaxon changes her, broadens her view of life and gets her to wondering what is outside the insular world of the Hasidic community.  She tells Jaxon this when she's at his home:
"That night changed everything. In the span of an hour my whole world cracked open, and I saw life. Literally, I saw life being born, and then I met you, and I saw life that was so different from the one I'd been living. I saw a future that could be so different. And that's what I want to do. I want to bring more life into the world, ...I want to be there when other people experience that moment."
At first Devorah sees Jacob as representing that freedom to experience life more fully, but gradually she comes to recognize that their relationship won't work and could be endangering the very freedom - to determine her own path that she is seeking.

Eventually when she is forcibly taken to the Chabad Residential Treatment Center, Hasidic center for rebellious teens, Devorah must confront the reality that her parents will force her to marry an eighteen year old to preserve their standing in the Hasidic community. Instead of acquiescing to their demands, she recognizes that she has to take control of her situation. Inspired by Ruchy and how she was able to get what she wanted, Devorah refuses to submit to an arranged sham marriage to David, the man the matchmaker has selected. She manages to get him to acknowledge that he too doesn't want to get married and then she apologizes to his parents. In the treatment center she confronts her own parents and the rabbi. While her parents see her refusal of David as "burning her bridges" that will lead to loneliness, Devorah sees it differently.
"I fear that if I continue on the path that's been set for me, I'll look back later with resentment."
"It's not that I reject our entire culture. I just want to see what else is out there. I just want to feel more free."
Although she cannot define "freedom" to the rabbi or her parents, Devorah knows enough that the Hasidic way of life is not what she wants at this time and it's not something she totally understands yet.
"Before the night of the Shomrim incident, ... I can barely remember a time when I saw my mother truly unhappy. She seems to love the life she leads, which may be why I feel so guilty for not wanting to emulate her path. After all, how can something that brings my mother -- and my idolized big sister -- such joy and fulfillment feel to me like such a desolate prison? Doesn't one of us have to be wrong?
Jaxon too undergoes a journey. At the end of the novel we learn that Jaxon's mission in life is not that far from what Devorah wants when he tells his teacher, he wants "to spend the rest of my life...helping people find their way in life, whether it's my sisters, my tutees, or other people I love who shall go unnamed." While Devorah recognizes the gift that Jaxon gave her - to see the world differently and to find her own path, Jaxon also recognizes that he helped Devorah. In the end Jaxon discovers that you can't force a relationship to work; sometimes the timing is wrong and sometimes cultural restrictions and family expectations are impossible to circumvent. Jaxon tried to force a relationship with Polly at the beginning of the novel by forcing meetings with her in the hallways and outside her classes. She wasn't ready at that time but while he was seeing Devorah, Polly began to notice him and it is she who seeks him out at the end of the novel.

Devorah's mother is changed by the Shomrim incident and what happens at the treatment center. She realizes what is happening to Devorah is similar to what happened to her mother - that she is feeling trapped by their way of life and she does not want her to be hurt in the way that her grandmother was. This leads her to tell Devorah the shocking truth behind the family myth about her grandmother being lifted up and flying during a storm and to give Devorah the chance to express what she wants in life and to make her own decisions within the context of their family.

In the novel, The World Outside by Eva Wiseman, the Lubavitch sect seemed merely like a different type of Judaism but in Like No Other, the Chabad-Lubavitch sect is portrayed more like a religious cult. Girls receive no higher education, men also receive no higher education but are expected to undertake religious studies, women are married off young through arranged marriages that they often have no say in and live in a very insular community where contact with outsiders is strictly forbidden, in fact, considered sinful. As a result, as one character states, there are no Hasidic doctors, lawyers or other professionals.

The character who represents the strictest form of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect is Rose's husband, Jacob, who seems to recognize Devorah's disdain for him and her rebellious streak against some of the rules. Devorah sees how Rose's marriage to Jacob has changed her, taken her spirit away describing her as "a wifely watercolor of her former self." Later in the novel, when Rose accompanies Devorah to the Chabad treatment center, Devorah pushes Rose about her marriage to Jacob and how it has changed her."You used to speak up for yourself. Now he just pushes you around. You're like a zombie." Rose defends herself but to Devorah she seems in denial. She also tells Rose that Jaxon changed how she looked at life, "...it was like I had been looking down at the ground my whole life, and he was the first person to point my chin up to the sky." and that she doesn't know for sure if she ever wants to be a wife and mother, but that she knows that she does not at this time. Later on Devorah does come to understand that Rose being happily married is Rose's path but not hers.

Like No Other is a well written novel, with a great storyline, a sweet innocent romance between two young people trying to determine their path in life while coping with the differences they bring to their relationship as a result of their cultures. In the end, Devorah and Jaxon, despite their cultural and religious differences have very similar goals in life. It's a powerful coming of age story with themes of identity, self discovery, and the struggle of a young woman determined to forge her own path in life.

Book Details:
Like No Other
New York: Razorbill      2014
347 pp.